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Live To Fight Another Day

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            “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!”

            Skywalker 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, and now that Rex could see it clearly, he noticed a much smaller snakelike being clinging to the older one’s robes and peering curiously at them. Even Thisspiasian younglings had long beards, he realized, although their eyebrows were not quite so bushy, leaving their large eyes more visible. “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 Skywalker, 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. “As a matter of tradition, Jedi are welcome in our city.”

            “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, keeping a hand on the head of the young one, who kept edging further and further away, staring at Rex and the others. “It is an honor to meet you, General Skywalker. And your… friends, as well. Normally, we do not extend a Jedi’s welcome to soldiers and other mercenary types—” the adult’s eyes flicked over Rex and the other troopers, head tilting curiously. Rex couldn’t be sure, but he thought the current shape of the mustache conveyed friendliness. “However, your conduct thus far has been acceptable, and we trust a Jedi’s judgment.”

            “Pardon my asking, sir,” Rex replied, reasoning that if he called Commander Tano sir he could use it for this alien of indeterminate gender. “I’m curious what exact restrictions your laws place on the presence of mercenaries. Perhaps if you would explain, we can know better how to put you at ease.”

            “Oh, well, it’s nothing personal on my account,” the Thisspiasian began, twisting almost shyly at their beard with long pointed fingers, but they were diverted by a noise from behind Rex.

            “Mercenaries?” one of the men muttered. “We’re clones, everybody knows th—ow!”

            Rex glanced behind him to see Bandana stepping away from Study, who was giving him a warning look.

            The little Thisspiasian hissed something up at Shigir, whose head shook uneasily. “Clones? Oh, I see, I see. You… you do not look the way either of us expected.”

            “What exactly did you expect a clone to look like?” Skywalker asked wryly. “The matching faces didn’t tip you off?”

            The Thisspiasian’s mustache bristled, and a strange choked noise came from its throat, echoed by the youngling as the adult squirmed slightly in place. “O-other species’ faces can be difficult to distinguish!” Shigir Sab protested. “Please excuse me, I must go and await orders to bring you to the monarch.”

            With hasty bows, Shigir and the little one quickly slithered out of sight. Rex stared after them, wondering if they were embarrassed, and if perhaps he’d been out of line to speak up.

            Skywalker cleared his throat. The other men were also waiting attentively. 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. “Gripe, go ahead and see what they’ve left us in the cabinets.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            “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… or mercenaries either, apparently.”

            “I dunno, that one seemed pretty curious to me,” Skywalker chuckled. “The locals probably don’t get much in the way of excitement very often.”

            “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. “So… Rex… secret dreams of becoming a mercenary, huh?”

            “Sir?” Rex asked.

            “Well, you didn’t exactly jump to correct Shigir Sab’s mistake,” Skywalker said. “You played along with it. Maybe you liked being mistaken for someone like that.” Skywalker paced closer, 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. Perhaps my actions were out of line. I was just curious about the policy.”

            “So you’ve never thought about what it might be like to have another job?” Skywalker pried, a skeptical look on his face. “I mean, I think you’d make a pretty good bounty hunter, personally.”

            “Uh,” Rex said haltingly, thrown off by this line of questioning. “No sir… I’m not sure I ever have. And… 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 implying you’ve—”

            “No,” Rex cut in. “I’m not saying anything.”

            “Rex, Rex, come on.” The general punched him lightly, affectionately on the chest. Rex took a step back. “You don’t need to be so uptight. We all know you’re as loyal as they come, just relax and use your imagination for once. If you could do anything else with your life, what would it be? What would another you do?”

            “Another me?” Rex sighed and grimaced. “There’s about two million out there doing exactly the same thing, General.”

            “You know what I’m talking about.” Skywalker’s grin faltered for a moment. “And I know you don’t think of yourselves as being the same person. You’re just being difficult. Look, I can make up careers for all of you! Headline would be a holovid star, obviously—”

            “Er… yeah… obviously,” Headline laughed in sheepish delight.

            “—And Study, he’d… he’d be a scholar of something, maybe a scientist, or… a teacher, something like that.”

            “Actually I would be a museum curator,” Study said without missing a beat. “And security guard.”

            “I suppose that is the obvious conclusion, sir,” Rex admitted uneasily. “But…”

            “Yeah,” Skywalker said. “So just out of curiosity… would you go for bounty hunting, if you weren’t in the army?”

            “That life would be impossible, sir,” Rex laughed nervously. “Almost as impossible as being a holovid star.”

            “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. “Yeah, I’m sure civvies want to watch a holovid starring 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. “Someone like Captain Rex is more of a holovid star, 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 should have expected you’d take this too seriously. You were just acting a little unusual. Maybe I got it all wrong. Maybe you were staring because you were imagining what it’s like to be a parent.”

            “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 in a confidential tone. “Do you even like kids?”

            “General—” Rex began dryly, but Skywalker waved a hand dismissively.

            “Ahh, never mind, you’ve probably never really known any younglings, of any species. Although I know Ahso—… a someone who thinks even baby Hutts are cute.” Skywalker fumbled and frowned.

            Rex had opened his mouth to say that, actually, he had spent an evening with a couple of younglings once, but not only was that a story he never intended to tell the general… now the mood might have changed.

            “I think I’ll just stick to what I know, sir,” Rex said with eyebrows askew, and thankfully, Skywalker laughed quietly. Rex continued, “Maybe I should leave the talking to you, too… at least for the rest of the mission.”

            “Alright. But I’m telling you… a little imagination can be fun once in a while.” 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.”

            “Yes sir.”

            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.

            “Yes, sir.”

            “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.

            “Ge..General….”

            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?”

            “Three, 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. Issu 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… then 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.”

            “Thisspiasian?”

            “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 sitting 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.

 

Chapter Text

            “Threepio, come on, it’s me,” Anakin protested, standing in the doorway to Padme’s place. “You can let me in.”

            “I’m sorry master Anakin, but Senator Amidala gave me very strong instructions that she not be disturbed by anyone for the rest of the night.” The droid twitched his arms in apology.

            “Why? What’s she doing?”

            “I… well, I believe she’s working on a very important proposal,” C-3PO said, sounding flustered. “She didn’t tell me any details, of course.”

            “Oh, she’s just working? I won’t distract her then.”

            “Very considerate of you. I’ll tell her you stopped by. Goodnight master Ana—wait!” Threepio’s voice went from pleased to scandalized in the space of a syllable. “Wait a minute, what are you doing? I said I’m sorry, sir, but you can’t come in!”

            Anakin pushed past the droid with a soft laugh. “Have a little gratitude, Threepio! I’m the one who built you!”

            “Yes,” C-3PO said, hurrying after him, arms nearly flailing in their brisk up and down motion. “And you are also the one who asked that I serve Mistress Padme to the full extent of my capabilities! I hope you’ll forgive my saying so, but I don’t see how I can do that when you—”

            Anakin put a hand up with an overly serious look. “Stop,” he hissed in a stage whisper. “You’ll distract Padme.”

            The droid jutted his head in the silent equivalent of a huff, then walked away jerkily, muttering under his breath about being given conflicting imperatives and “it’s a wonder my circuits haven’t been tied in knots from all the contradictory information I’m asked to work with!”

             Anakin grinned fondly at Threepio’s crotchety fussing, and went to the door of Padme’s study. As it swooshed open, he caught half a second’s glance of her bent over her work table before she looked up in annoyance which quickly turned to surprise.

            “Anakin! What are you doing here?”

            “I’m tired of being around other Jedi and clone troopers,” Anakin said simply. “But I didn’t want to sit alone in my room at the Temple, either. I promise I won’t bother you if you’re really busy.”

            “It’s alright,” Padme said, coming to hug him hello. He held her tight, always treasuring the warmth of human contact. He got so little of it from anyone but her. “I could use a break for a few minutes. It’s good to see you, Ani. Obi-Wan told me that your mission to Thisspias didn’t go as well as it could have.”

            “Politically, it went great,” Anakin said dryly as she released him. “The monarch made us lots of promises that he would root out whoever had a grudge against us. But I don’t really feel like talking about that right now. What are you working on?”

            “Oh.” Padme’s brow furrowed and she rubbed at the skin that creased between her eyes. . “It’s a proposal… related to the Republic’s involvement with Mandalore. It’s such an important system, and things have been so chaotic there lately. The Republic needs to be extremely careful in how it relates to Mandalore from this point on, otherwise we could be paving the way for total Separatist control in the Outer Rim.” She laughed faintly. “But I don’t really want to talk about that right now either. Have you seen Obi-Wan since you’ve been back?”

            “Not yet,” Anakin shrugged. “I had to get the surviving clones on my team to the hospital, and then there was a debriefing and… you know how it goes.”

            “I was just wondering. I haven’t seen him or heard anything from him since… well, since Satine was killed.” Padme sat down, looking exhausted.

            Anakin instantly sobered. He knew Padme had also considered Satine a friend. “Yeah. He hasn’t said much to me, but I can tell he’s trying his best to put it behind him. Are you alright?”

            Padme nodded, staring off. “Mostly I’m just tired. I’m tired of this war.”

            Anakin sat next to her. “Me too.”

            “Really?” Padme said, leaning against him. “Sometimes I think you’re too well suited to times like this. Would you really know what to do with yourself if we were at peace?”

            “There’s always something that needs a Jedi’s hand,” Anakin said. “But this war goes beyond the kind of problems we were meant to solve. I don’t like being caught up in all the political plots and maneuvering that goes on behind the scenes. So often it feels like… we do what we think is the right choice, and it has the wrong outcome, because there’s too much wrong built into the systems in conflict with each other. We have to tiptoe when we should be shouting.” He leaned back and looked down at Padme doubtfully. “Does that make any sense?”

            “Yes,” Padme sighed. “I know what you mean. Sometimes it seems like you have to do the opposite of what feels best, in order to get the right outcome.”

            They sat in silence for a little while, and Anakin’s thoughts strayed to the last words he’d shared with his padawan. How little he’d expected to be taught anything by an impetuous little Togruta girl. In the beginning, he’d thought he was the only Jedi who could be both passionate and self-possessed, but there had been times, like that last conversation, when he had truly seen Ahsoka as a source of strength. At others, her clear and honest approach to life had been like a warning beacon in the haze of his own private conflict.

            He wondered where she was now, what she was doing. At times like this, he still envied her a little for having the choice to walk away from it all. But maybe she hadn’t really. Knowing her, she’d already gotten caught up in some wrong that needed setting right. As protective as ever, he didn’t want her to put herself in danger, but it still made him feel a little better to imagine her passion for justice finding an outlet somewhere.

            Soon, Padme returned to her work desk, and after about an hour of lying quietly, soaking up her presence, Anakin was bored and tired of his own thoughts. He squeezed Padme’s shoulder.

            “Don’t stay up all night,” he said, and she smiled goodbye at him as he left. He thought maybe he’d hit up the lightsaber training grounds before he went to bed. He needed to lose himself in action without thinking about the past or the future.

…       

            Rex sat in civilian clothing, cross-legged in a traditional meditative stance. Eyes closed, muscle by muscle he relaxed.

            A soft voice—identical to his own, as if coming from his own mind—guided him.

            “Good! Good… now, you feel the helmet?”

            “I think so,” Rex murmured. A trooper helmet sat on the ground about three feet in front of Rex.

            “No, no, it doesn’t work like that… don’t just think so. Do you feel it or not?”

            “I feel it,” Rex said.

            “If you feel it, then you can lift it. It’s simple, actually….”

            The helmet wobbled and Rex’s breath hitched, but he kept his eyes closed, and slowly, slowly the helmet began to rise in the air….

            Anakin rolled over and opened his eyes, confused for a moment to find himself in his room at the Jedi temple, and not one of the many cramped ship cabins he so often woke in these days. A dream clung to the edges of his memory, but only the bare bones of the end. Rex, using the Force? He rubbed his eyes against the dim light filtered through the blinds in his room. His subconscious sure had a weird way of expressing concern for the captain’s injuries. And it had been a long time since he’d last been recruited for teaching younglings such rudimentary exercises. Weird, how he could fall asleep thinking about Ahsoka and have a random dream like that.

            “Anakin, are you there?” Obi-Wan’s voice came from the communicator on the gauntlet lying by his cot. He grabbed at it.

            “Yeah. I’m here.”

            “Oh, good. The Council is requesting another tactical meeting in half an hour.”

            “Great,” Anakin said sarcastically. “I’ll meet up with you on the way there.”

            Anakin washed up and changed into fresh clothes, hoping that the meeting didn’t last too long. He was hungry and wondered if, once the meeting was over, he should treat himself to a restaurant meal after so much time eating field rations. Then again, the food in the Temple refectory would probably satisfy him just as well. These days, it all tasted much better than he remembered from back when that was all he’d been eating day in and day out.

            When he finally emerged from his room, Obi-Wan was waiting for him near the entrance to the southwestern quarter, as usual.

            “Ah, you’re almost early.” Obi-Wan smiled when Anakin was close enough. Together they began walking down the tranquil, high-ceilinged hallway toward the many rooms they used for strategizing and discussion of war. “Sleep well?”

            “Why? Do I look tired?”

            “Just a feeling,” Obi-Wan said pleasantly. “I hear your last mission didn’t exactly go as planned.”

            “No,” Anakin sighed roughly from the back of his throat. “I lost half the troopers I had with me. And we still don’t know who set the bomb.”

            “Mm. How is our unfortunate Captain? I assume he’s in stable condition now?”

            “Yeah.”

            “Well, at least there’s one bit of good news to start our morning. I’m afraid this meeting might tax everyone’s patience.”

            “Just what I wanted to hear,” said Anakin.

            They passed under the open door and into the conference room. Master Yoda was already present, along with Masters Plo, Stass Allie, and Windu via hologram. The war had become so demanding that Anakin couldn’t even remember the last time they’d had a meeting where everyone attending had been physically present. Right now, the only bodies in the room besides his and Obi-Wan’s belonged to Yoda, Rancisis, and Luminara. After they had all nodded greeting to one another, Kit Fisto also entered the room, bringing with him his signature, uniquely relaxed aura. Several other Jedi generals followed after him.

            At last, Yoda looked around at them all. “All here now, are we? Then let us begin. Master Windu.”

            Mace Windu nodded and addressed the group. “As I’m sure everyone has noticed, our forces are spread thin right now. Despite that fact, we’re at a tipping point. Now is the time for us to strike hard at the Separatist bases in the Outer Rim. Our intelligence has gathered a list of targets, and the High Council has narrowed down which of these are of greatest strategic importance. From this point going forward, the majority of our troops and generals are going to be deployed on the offensive, starting with the territories you see on the map. Master Luminara, if you would.”

            Luminara pulled up the holographic map of the Outer Rim. It was speckled with bright flags indicating where they were to strike. Windu went on.

            “Those in this meeting will focus their forces in this region. I propose that Ryloth, Ossus, Ord Radama, and New Bornalex be our first major targets, followed closely by Xagobah, Siskeen, Clak’dor VII, and Sluis Van. There will be minor targets we have to clear out of the way first, however—smaller outposts where the Separatists will try to prevent our advancement. Ringo Vinda and two other stations in the Siskeen system will need to be taken before we can mount a full scale assault.”

            “I see,” said one of the other generals, Stass Allie, while studying the map. “The Separatist forces are amassing here.” She indicated the last four planets Windu had mentioned. “If it's possible for us to wipe them out before they are ready, it could be a deciding factor in our victory. But it won't be easy. We'll have to pull troops and generals from maintaining the Republic presence on other worlds.”

            “And we will have to act quickly,” Luminara said, looking troubled. “The longer we wait, the closer their armies come to overwhelming us simply through the concentrated strength of numbers.”

            “How will we minimize civilian casualties on planets like Ryloth?” Obi-Wan asked. “The people there have been struck hard enough by this war as it is. Is there any way we could draw the enemy troops out of those systems and toward the less populous targets? Perhaps if we attacked those first, they would divert their troops to supplement their defense?”

            “The Separatists care little for the lives of civilians,” Master Plo said. “I have seen it before. If they are pushed out of their outlying bases, they will fall back into civilian areas, knowing we will be disadvantaged by our unwillingness to put civilians at risk. We would save more lives if we make re-taking and defending the cities our first priority.”

            Obi-Wan looked as if he might protest, but then he hid his mouth behind his hand, stroking his mustache in troubled thought. Anakin understood both points of view. There was no ideal way to wage war against a ruthless opponent.

            “In the hands of each leading general, the civilian lives will be,” Yoda said seriously. “Trust your judgment, the High Council does.”

            “I share Master Obi-Wan’s concern,” said Master Luminara, eyes downcast. “Unfortunately, I am forced to admit that at this point in the war, it seems we will be forced to make a choice between giving too much ground to the Separatists, or else putting innocent lives at risk in order to prevent their armies from spreading to even more populated systems.”

            “All the more reason to make sure these assaults succeed, then,” Rancisis said, folding his arms. “We cannot afford to fail.”

            “Now is the time to propose modifications to the assault plan in general,” said Windu. “Once we have determined that we are in agreement, we will divide up the assignments to each general, and meet again in a few hours to give each of us the chance to propose a more specific plan.”

            Anakin took a deep breath. Lunch at a restaurant was out of the question now. But beyond that, if they failed at this point, they would almost certainly lose the entire war. Looking around the room, it was clear that very few of the other Jedi were wholeheartedly excited about this plan. Most of what he saw in their faces was grim determination.

            But if they won, the war could be over that much quickly. And he always worked best under pressure. Once they got past all this talk, this would be the most challenging campaign yet. Then, he was sure he’d feel the thrill, and not just the dull resignation that hung over them all now. Success was the only acceptable outcome after all their hard work and sacrifice…. There was no way they could lose unless they lost sight of their objective.

            The Temple refectory was loud with chatter as Anakin and Obi-Wan entered, but the line was thankfully short.

            “You should call Masters Tiplar and Tiplee as soon as possible,” Obi-Wan advised him as they loaded their trays. “And I need to contact Master Tsui Choi after this as well.”

            “Why weren’t any of them at the meeting?” Anakin asked.

            “I heard the sisters were in the middle of a battle when it was called. As for Master Choi, he was discussing an important strategy with his captains and asked to be filled in afterward.”

            Anakin sighed, looking around for an open table. “Do you ever feel like the entire war effort is one big mess, like we’re barely keeping things together?”

            “Since the very beginning,” Obi-Wan admitted. “But thinking that way isn’t going to do us any good. As long as we all focus on our individual duty, the strategy will work.”

            Anakin took a seat and glanced up as his old master sat opposite. “Is that where you get your confidence in the council’s decisions? Because you trust the individual Jedi carrying out those orders to do the right thing?”

            “Well, yes. The Jedi Order is, for the most part, made of capable, thinking individuals. Like you.”

            “Master Obi-Wan,” Anakin exclaimed wryly. “You should be careful throwing praise around like that. It might give me a big head.”

            “I’m only telling the truth as I see it,” Obi-Wan smiled. “And it’s not like you to be modest, Anakin. Are you still feeling sour about your mission to Thisspias?”

            “No,” Anakin said bitterly. Truthfully, he had half succeeded in putting it out of his mind until now.

            “Master Rancisis tells me he was quite impressed with how quickly you managed to locate the bomb site.”

            Anakin took a few bites of food without tasting them. “What do you mean? Two other Thisspiasians showed up only a few minutes after I did.”

            “Yes, but they were native to that city. Even most Jedi find navigating Ramatesh to be difficult. Besides, they have an internal sensor network built into the walls which made it easy for them to pinpoint where the explosion came from. I imagine that comes in handy when living underground, to minimize losses in the event of a cave-in.”

            “Oh. Of course.” Anakin rolled his eyes. “Why didn’t I know that? Right… because Master Rancisis didn’t see fit to tell me anything about his home planet before we left! Including that our communicators wouldn’t work underground, which is the entire reason those troopers died in the first place!”

            “Anakin,” Obi-Wan said, in that particular placating way he always said it. “He gave you a compliment. He trusted your capability as a Jedi Knight and as a general, enough to leave it up to you to decide the best precautions to take with your men, and to ask for any information you might need. Would you have preferred it if he had treated you like a padawan, telling you everything just in case you needed to know?”

             “My pride isn’t more important than the lives of my men,” said Anakin dully. “And I doubt he cares so much about either one.” He shoveled food into his mouth as an excuse not to say more.

            For a moment, Obi-Wan’s furrowed brow smoothed in a sad smile. “Always taking things so personally. Unfortunately, even the best of intentions can go wrong. For now, let’s just be grateful that your skill with the Force helped you to save a life.”

            “It wasn’t my skill that saved them,” Anakin muttered. “It wasn’t even skill that helped me get to them faster. I wasn’t doing anything consciously, I just… followed my instincts.”

            “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised; you don’t see that that’s precisely why you impress people.” Obi-Wan glanced at him with mild exasperation, and shook his head. “But of course your talent with the Force is such a natural part of you…it’s in the way you can pilot ships in ways that would be suicidal for anyone else… it’s in your blood. But the difficulty, always, is in distinguishing between our own impulsiveness and allowing the Force to fully guide our actions.”

            Anakin barely heard the last sentence. It’s in your blood.

            The image from his dream came crashing back to the forefront of his mind and he felt a tingle of anxiety. He knew he had a higher than normal midichlorian count. And he had given his blood to Rex. Rex’s body had accepted it, and now… What if it was a vision of the future, and he’d somehow made Rex capable of using the Force? That had to be against the rules of the Jedi Order, or at least against the many rules set in place for members of the clone army, and who knew what sort of trouble he’d be in with the High Council if it turned out to be true? And what would happen to Rex?

            “And that is why I think we must always be conscious of the actions we take, even if they seem involuntary,” Obi-Wan was saying, but Anakin could only fill in what had come before with guesswork based on years of such impromptu lessons.

            “Mm,” Anakin said noncommittally, wondering how he could discreetly find out whether or not he’d just made a huge mistake… perhaps huge enough to cost him his place as a Jedi Knight. And Rancisis had stood by without warning and let him do it, perhaps secretly delighting in that very thought.

            “Anakin… you didn’t hear a word I just said, did you? Are you alright?”

            “Hmm? Sorry, Master, I was… just thinking.”

            He couldn’t worry about this right now. Agonizing wouldn’t do any good, and he had to be focused on creating a strategy for taking Ringo Vinda. He resolved that when he visited Rex this afternoon, he would find answers. And once he confirmed it had all just been a strange and meaningless dream, he could let the matter rest.

            Obi-Wan frowned at him thoughtfully, then glanced at the clock. “We’d better hurry. We’re running out of time to meet with the other generals before reporting back to the Council.”

            “Less talking, more eating,” Anakin agreed. He was going to need his full concentration to deal with the rest of the day… and the less he let on to Obi-Wan about his concerns at this point, the better.

            Anakin walked down the sleek gold and silver halls of Coruscant’s military hospital, led by a medical droid. The past several hours had been packed full of strategizing and debate, but despite how quickly they had passed, it felt like his conversation with Obi-Wan had happened days ago.

            The medical droid opened the door; Rex was sitting up on the austere hospital bed, arm in a sling, dressed in a thin white robe. When he saw Anakin enter, he swung his legs over the side, and the droid rushed to stop him.

            “You are in no condition to leave your bed,” it scolded dully. “I thought clones were supposed to be more obedient than other humans….”

            “At ease, Captain,” Anakin said gently, glad to see Rex feeling well enough to try. “I ordered you to rest, didn’t I?”

            Rex grimaced and lay back against his pillow—drawing his injured leg back up on the bed took more effort than putting it down. “I have been resting, General.”

            Anakin could tell Rex was uncomfortable being seen like this, and so he forced himself to stay chipper, despite his personal worries and the stress of the day. There was no point in worrying Rex by acting as if anything was out of the ordinary. Anakin glanced around the rest of the hospital room.

            “These walls are a little boring to look at, though. Get any good channels here?”

            “I wouldn’t know, sir,” Rex said. “Was there something you wanted to see me about?”

            “I just wanted to see for myself that you’re making a full recovery. You look a lot better than you did… well… before.”

            That brought a small smile. “I’m in your debt.”

            “No, no debts, Rex,” Anakin waved a hand, keeping his tone light. “I just did what I had to do. It was no big deal.”

            “All the same, sir,” Rex said. “I won’t forget it. And I’ll be back on duty as soon as possible. You can count on that.”

            “Your duty is to be at one hundred percent when you get out of here.”

            “Yes sir.”

            Anakin pulled up a chair; Rex seemed startled that he intended to stay.

            “So… this is at least your second time being heavily injured on the battlefield. Does it feel any different from the first time?”

            “Well, this bed is a lot softer than the table Kix and Jesse put me on back on Saleucami,” Rex huffed a laugh under his breath. “And my legs were fine then, it was just my arm. This is taking a lot longer to heal.”

            “Well,” Anakin said, “I actually meant, in here… does it feel any different?” He tapped his own temple with two fingers.

            “Not really,” Rex said evenly. “I lose men all the time, sir. It’s expected.”

            “Right.” Anakin was starting to relax. Rex was either totally unaware of any change in himself, or he was very good at hiding it, which didn’t seem likely to Anakin. He’d push a little further, just to be sure. There was some reading material on Rex’s bedside. Anakin pulled it over to him through the Force, smiling at Rex’s momentary questioning look.

            “Reading anything interesting?”

            “Just reg manuals, sir,” Rex said.

            “Reg manuals? Can’t you request anything more interesting?”

            Rex half-grinned. “I don’t plan on being stuck here that long.”

            “Glad to hear it.” Anakin bounced the reading pad slowly from palm to palm, never letting it actually touch his skin. He kept half an eye on Rex’s face, but the captain’s expression was openly attentive and expectant.

            “There’s no need to be concerned for me, sir,” Rex finally prompted. “If you have some bad news, I’d prefer to know it straight off.”

            “Bad news?” Anakin blinked and let the console fall into his lap. “Are you expecting some bad news?”

            “Have I been declared unfit to return to duty?” Rex said, his face serious.

            “Not unless the doctors are keeping secrets.”

            Rex shook his head. “Last I heard, I was promised a full recovery.”

            The reading pad twirled lazily in place.

            “Am I…” Rex began, “being demoted, sir?”

            “What?” Anakin blurted. “Why would you be demoted?”

            “We were ordered to stay where you left us. I should have trusted that you had everything under control. I understand if you see fit to have me transferred to another battalion.”

            “That’s never going to happen, Rex. In fact, I’m depending on you to be with me on my next major mission. The council met today to discuss a new wave of assaults in the Outer Rim. We’re going to take Ringo Vinda first.”

            Rex looked relieved. “I’ll be ready, General. When do we leave?”

            “Not for several days at least. We’re still working out the details of how the assaults will fit together. That should give you plenty of time to get back on your feet.”

            “I could be ready tomorrow, sir, if necessary,” Rex said.

            “I don’t doubt it,” Anakin grinned, then sobered a bit. “But like I said, it’s better you have time to recover fully.”

            He couldn’t keep sitting around waiting for Rex to react to his subtle prodding, or the captain would wonder what was up. Anakin looked Rex in the eyes and reached out with the Force, searching the captain for any hint of change. He felt subtle ripples of Rex’s confusion and concern underneath his ever-present resolve to do whatever was required. But there was nothing at all like what he felt when connecting with other Jedi or even younglings.

            “General?”

            Anakin stood up and put the reading pad back on the bedside table. “Take care of yourself, Rex. I’ll see you when we’re ready to ship out.”

            “Yes, sir!”

            The tramp of boots on a metal floor. Troopers marching down an unfamiliar hallway. In a dim and fuzzy light, another clone held a rifle trained on Rex, whose hands were up.

            It was Cody. “I never thought I would be the one to take you down. But you’re not the man I knew.”

            “You don’t want to do this, Commander,” Rex was saying. “You’ve got to stop acting like a mindless droid. You can’t just keep accepting their orders!”

            “I don’t listen to traitors.”

            Blaster fire rang out, but Rex pulled the gun out of his attacker’s hands without ever touching it; an invisible force threw Cody against the wall and Anakin woke up sweating.

            The silence of the dark room made his breath loud and startling. He looked over to make sure Padme was still asleep. She was curled up loosely with her back to him. Anakin settled back and took a deep breath, in and out, laying a hand over his rapid heartbeat as if he could force it down that way. But a deep unease still gripped him, before his mind had even formed the words to describe what he’d seen.

            He had checked! He had felt no Force sensitivity in Rex, nothing that fit with the prophetic tone of this dream. But it had only been a day since the first one, and now this? He must have missed something during his visit with Rex. Even if the captain didn’t have control of the Force now, he would…and if the vision was to be believed, he would not be on the side of the Republic. The Sith were looking for a way to destroy the Jedi from the inside out—corrupting a trusted clone captain would be the last thing anyone would expect. And if they discovered that Rex had the potential to wield the Force, they would not rest until they had him. The situation on Thisspias must have been set up for precisely this purpose. They had known Anakin’s weakness and exploited it as the council had always warned. And Master Rancisis had made no effort to curb Anakin’s thoughtless response to Rex’s injuries—he had to be in on the plot, a pawn of the Sith. It was no wonder he had objected to Anakin’s appointment to the Order; he knew of the prophecy. He knew Anakin was destined to destroy the Sith.

            Anakin rolled carefully out of bed, feeling smothered by his own shortsightedness. He crept from the bedroom and stood before one of many large windows looking out onto the elegant skyline of the Senate district. How had he become so fond of a clone? As much as he hated to admit it, there were other clones just as capable as Rex. He could have been replaced. Instead, he gave a mere clone a power that was not meant for his kind. He clenched his fists at that. A wiser Jedi would have understood the risks, and weighed Rex’s life against the greater interests of the Republic. They wouldn’t have given in to attachment so quickly.

            He had to tell someone immediately about what he’d done, and about Master Rancisis. A Jedi wiser and more experienced than himself, who would know what to do with Rex and the mistake Anakin had made. Master Yoda would have the authority to make the best decision for the Republic, even if it meant eliminating whatever danger Rex presented now at the source. Anakin swallowed. He wouldn’t let attachment get the better of him this time.

            “CT-7567, are you listening?” the obnoxious medical droid whined.

            “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Load up the shot once a day and stick it in my leg, drink lots of fluids, and send a daily report for seven rotations. I won’t leave anything out.” Droids. Rex was so tired of droids. It was much more fun to blast them than take orders from them.

            “I hope that’s not sarcasm I detect.”

            “You wouldn’t even know sarcasm if it blasted you in the face.”

            “Well!” the droid huffed. “This is the thanks I get for waiting on you hand and foot for days on end.”

            “You’re just doing your duty. And I can’t wait to leave this box and get back to mine.”

            On cue, the door opened, and General Skywalker walked in.

            “General!” Rex stood up.

            “Captain,” Skywalker said, staring at the medical droid.

            “I’m being released. I’ll be in uniform as soon as possible, sir.”

            The medical droid shook its head as it stalked away.

            “Good. Get dressed, then. We’re going to the Jedi Temple.” The general still wasn’t looking at him.

            “Yes, sir. Excuse me, sir. I’ll join you outside as soon as I’m ready.”

            The general left without saying anything. Rex retrieved his service uniform from the storage cabinet. It felt good to be out of hospital clothes, and judging by General Skywalker’s mood, they had quite the battle ahead of them.

            The door opened onto the brightly lit hallway, and Rex stepped out.

            “Ready when you are, sir.”

            Skywalker led the way out into Coruscant’s morning sunlight, and Rex climbed into the passenger side of the general’s speeder. They merged abruptly but seamlessly into the flow of traffic, and the Jedi Temple came into view within minutes. Meeting with the Jedi to discuss military operations was a matter of course for Rex, but those meetings were usually held on the battlefield, not here. Something big must be in the works. General Skywalker appeared to be deep in thought as he set the speeder down on the Temple landing pad.

            Together they made their way into the building, but instead of heading toward the conference rooms, General Skywalker turned in the opposite direction.

            “This is a private meeting,” Skywalker said quietly. “With Master Yoda. We need to discuss some of the events on our last mission.”

            “Do you have a suspect for who planted the bomb, sir?”

            “You might say that.”

            Rex took the following silence to mean that more information would have to wait until they were in a secure location. The general led him down fairly featureless hallways lined with nearly identical doors, until arriving at one which seemed no different from the others.

            It opened before Skywalker touched the button.

            “Come in. Come in!” Master Yoda’s voice came from the dim interior. “Many questions in your mind, I feel. Heaviness, you bring with you.”

            Rex stepped in behind General Skywalker, and the door slid shut, leaving the room even dimmer than before. Light came in through slats in the window blinds, and Yoda was seated on a round cushion. The old Jedi Master looked straight at him, and Rex wasn’t sure if he should look away or not.

            “Unexpected, your presence is, Captain Rex.”

            “General?” Rex glanced at Skywalker.

            “Sit, sit, and let us speak freely.” Yoda swept two cushions to rest in front of them with a wave of his hand, and Rex and Skywalker sat.

            Skywalker took a deep breath. “Master Yoda… I think I’ve made a terrible mistake.”

            “A mistake, you say? Something involving your captain, it is?”

            “Yes.”

            A sick feeling crept into Rex’s stomach. The general had reassured him that he had done nothing wrong, but apparently he had changed his mind.

            “I’ve been having… visions. I thought it was just a dream the first time, but now I’m certain I’m seeing the future.”

            “Very careful you must be, young Skywalker,” Yoda warned. “Tell me of this dream, and then decide its meaning, we may.”

            “Alright,” Skywalker sighed, hesitating. “Captain Rex was in both of them. And… he was… using the Force.”

            “What?” Rex gasped. “Sir, that’s—” He cut himself off, not wanting to speak out of turn. He was in the presence of two Jedi, after all.

            “Agree with the captain, I do. What you saw, impossible it is.”

            “No, I’m sure of what I saw! The first time it was just practice—with the Force. But in the second vision… he… Master Yoda, I’m afraid the Sith will find a way to strike us from within, and they’re going to use Captain Rex to do it.”

            Yoda looked serious, but not yet alarmed. “Describe this knowledge, can you, in more detail?”

            “Yes. I saw….” Skywalker closed his eyes, concentrating. “Commander Cody…. He was pointing a blaster at Rex, talking about… he was telling him he was a traitor. And Rex was trying to convince Cody to stop obeying Republic command. He said he was acting like a mindless droid. And then… Cody tried to shoot Rex, but Rex used the Force to push Cody against the wall. That’s when I woke up.”

            Rex stared at the general, horrified. “This can’t be a vision, sir. I would never betray the Republic! And I would never fight against the rest of my brothers!”

            “I can’t deny what I saw,” the general said quietly. “Master Yoda… I need to know how we can prevent this from happening.”

            “Before we can prevent it, how it will happen, we must first know.” Yoda looked contemplative.

            Rex spoke up. “If clones could ever use the Force, it would have happened by now. There are millions of us!” He turned toward General Skywalker. “You’ve worked with me long enough, and in all that time, have I ever shown any kind of… sensitivity?”

            “No,” Skywalker said to the ground. “But I….”

            “Afraid you are, that in giving your blood to this clone, the Force also, you have given?”

            “I’m sure of it,” Anakin muttered.

            Yoda smiled, and laughed a little. Rex and General Skywalker both jerked upright to stare at him.

            “Although mysterious, the ways of the Force may be, this much we know to be impossible. Give the Force to others, no one can. Born with it, you must be.”

            “But,” Skywalker said, still troubled. “My visions. How else can they be true? I was sure that we were set up on Thisspias! It would have been the perfect plan to use me… my weakness….” He glanced at Rex.

            Rex could only stare back, astounded that of all people, he could have been considered General Skywalker’s weakness. Wasn’t there someone else who would have been a better target?

            “Yes,” Yoda said. “Your attachment to others, your greatness weakness it is. Very careful, you must be. But in the matter of this clone, no harm has been done. Saved a life, you have.”

            “I’m still not convinced that my vision was just a dream,” Skywalker protested. “And that’s the only explanation I could think of.”

            “Many and terrible are the ways of the Dark Side. If a vision indeed this is, another way they will find.”

            “Permission to speak freely, sir,” Rex asked tightly.

            “Already granted, it was.” Yoda smiled.

            “This is absurd!” Rex said, punctuating it with a jerk of his arm. “Even if I could use the Force, I wouldn’t, and certainly not to betray the Republic! I would rather die! The enemy can do whatever it wants to me, but I would never do anything like what you saw in your dream!”

            “So certain, are you? Very persuasive, the Dark Side can be.”

            “He’s right, Rex,” General Skywalker said, finally looking at him. “I don’t like to think about it either. But I can’t just ignore what I saw. Especially not if there’s a chance to prevent it. Ignoring it isn’t going to help anything!”

            “I can’t believe it,” Rex said simply.

            “Think on this matter, I will,” Yoda said. “But not worry. Until some evidence of this plot we see, act, we cannot.”

            “So I should still take Rex with me on missions like nothing’s going to happen?” Skywalker asked.

            “A reliable captain, he is. Need him on the battlefield, we will, if in this new wave of attacks, we are to succeed.”

            “If General Skywalker doesn’t trust me, sir, wouldn’t it be better for me to serve under someone else?”

            “No,” Skywalker said. “Master Yoda’s right. Until something happens… you’re still the best captain in the army.”

            Rex wasn’t sure if he should protest or not. He didn’t like the idea of working under someone who didn’t trust him. But on the other hand, if something was going to happen…it would be better to have someone watching him who knew. Rex didn’t like the thought of that at all.

            “Now… see you both at the meeting tonight, I will. Much to discuss have we, about the assault on Ringo Vinda.”

            Skywalker stood and Rex hurried to follow.

            “Thank you, Master Yoda,” Skywalker said, and they left.

            As the door slid shut behind them in the hallway, Rex could barely contain himself any longer.

            “With all due respect, sir, what in the name of the Republic was that?! How could I—how could any clone—become a Sith? It’s insane!”

            “Rex,” Skywalker sighed in exasperation. “I wish it were that simple. I don’t want to believe it either, like I said! But you don’t know how powerful my vision was! Do you think I go around thinking all my crazy dreams are going to happen in the future? This was different!”

            “But, sir! Commander Cody? How can you even imagine that I would fight against him?”

            “I wasn’t imagining it!” The general gestured in agitation. “It was a vision! You don’t understand.”

            “That’s right, sir. I don’t understand, because I’m not a Jedi. And I never will be! Not in any way, shape, or form!”

            “Hey, no need to be insulting,” Skywalker said, and for a minute Rex couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. The events of the day had put him too off-balance.

            “I meant no offense, sir. I just… I just don’t see how this could be possible.”

            “Me either,” Skywalker sighed. “But it is… somehow. Hey… as Master Yoda says, the future is always in flux. Maybe we’ve already changed it by knowing about it.”

            “Somehow it always seemed pretty clear cut to me,” Rex said. “We do our duty… we live, or we die. For the good of the Republic.”

            “I hope that kind of thinking isn’t what makes you an easy target.”

            Rex frowned. “Me and every other clone, then. General, you know I can think for myself. But you also know that I am loyal to the Republic. And I always will be.”

            Skywalker said, “What if the Republic was wrong? What if you found out that everything you’d been fighting for was a lie?”

            “I still wouldn’t turn against my friends, sir.”

            The general smiled sadly. “Your friends, huh? Do the Jedi fall into that category?”

            “A friend is a friend whether they’re a Jedi or one of my brothers,” Rex said. “You know I consider you a friend.”

            “I hope that doesn’t change.”

Chapter Text

           The shattered bits of target spheres hit the floor and were swept away by a droid arm, to be reshaped into new targets. Rex hit two more of them at once as they whizzed free of their hidden launchers in the floor. The sound of the pieces hitting the smooth walls in a high-pitched shower was so satisfying.

           He jabbed the console in front of him with his sore knee, and locked on to the five new spheres hurtling through the air, calculating subconsciously how to hit them all before they struck the ground. One! Two close together—he spread his hands two feet apart, exploding two more spheres near opposite ends of the ceiling. His left hand jerked down to catch the last one, but his blaster bolt grazed the top of it only a fraction of a second before it hit the floor.

           With an annoyed huff, Rex hit the button for another try.

           “Rex! I knew you’d be here!”

           Rex didn’t turn to see who it was. It was only when he’d hit the fifth sphere with a triumphant “ha!” that the footsteps came up behind him and a clone caught Rex roughly by the shoulders and laughed.

           “Worried you’ll lose your unofficial title as the best marksman in the army?”

           “Commander Cody.” Rex broke into a grin and turned, holstering his pistols. “You’re back from Rendili!”

           “Just landed. And you’re back on your feet.” Cody pushed back to look him up and down. Rex was in his service uniform, and Cody was in his armor, making the contrast between them more striking than it should have been.

           “Course I’m back on my feet,” Rex said with a smirk. “They couldn’t keep me locked up in the hospital another day.”

           “No permanent damage, then?” Cody circled around him once and Rex laughed. He shifted weight onto his right leg and patted his left knee.

           “My leg still looks awful, but the med droids say it won’t scar. Even if it does, no one’s gonna see it.”

           “General Kenobi told me about what happened.” Cody’s usual serious look slid back into place. “I heard it was a close one.”

           “We lost some good men,” Rex sighed. “It was a trap and we walked right into it. I was nearly dead when General Skywalker found me.”

           Cody frowned so hard his scar wrinkled. “Well…did they catch whoever did it?”

           “No. Some kind of local anti-Republic group, I guess. That’s what the monarch said.”

           “Cowards,” Cody said bitterly, hands on hips. “Blowing up clones just to prove a point, is that it?”

           “Something like that. Anyway… ‘sgood to see you. I wasn’t sure you’d be back in time.”

           “In time for what?” Cody’s eyebrows went up a bit.

           “General Skywalker’s taking us to Ringo Vinda. One of the first strikes in the Republic’s new assault plan. We leave tomorrow morning.”

           “Oh.” Cody looked disappointed for a moment, but then it vanished into one of his even smiles. “Well then, we’d better get to Seventy-Nines before it’s too late.”

           “Isn’t it a little early for a drink?” Rex asked, in a voice he knew full well some troopers called “judgmental”.

           “Hey. The sooner we go, the longer we’ll have to catch up.”

           Rex gave in without too much hesitation. “Alright. Seventy-Nines it is.” He was glad to see Cody. They all knew that each mission could be their last, and lately he appreciated times like this all the more for their infrequency.

           Twenty minutes later, they were at a table, and Cody was clinking ice cubes around in a glass of kri’gee.

           Rex flicked Cody’s glass with his finger. “I thought you said we weren’t getting drunk.”

           “We’re not drunk,” Cody said loudly over the frenetic music in the background. “Anyway… you’d think they would have kept us out there longer. Everyone knows those cities are under Separatist control now, but General Plo Koon says we can’t strike until they come out in the open. And then there’s this new assault plan, so we can’t keep all our men just waiting when there are other battles to fight. So I got sent back to General Kenobi.”

           “You were working with the Wolf Pack, right?” Rex asked, his own glass of ne’tra gal barely touched. “How’d you get along with them?”

           “Wolf Pack,” Cody laughed under his breath. “Yeah… Wolffe’s as capable as people say. He planned more of the strategies we used than the general did. I used to think he was just full of himself.” Cody took a quick sip. “But he is smart. Really smart. And focused.” Cody made a sharp hand motion from his eyes toward Rex’s face, almost a salute. “General Plo’s lucky to have him.” He paused with a rueful smile. “Heh. I can see why some troopers think he’s some sort of super-commander. It’s a good thing I left when I did, or it might have rubbed off on some of my men. Well… more than it did already, I mean.”

           “Like who?”

           “Wooley.” Cody rolled his eyes a little.

           “Wooley?” Rex raised his eyebrows. “Last time we talked, you were saying he worships you.”

           “Yeah, well… apparently my scar’s not as impressive as Wolffe’s.” Cody smiled around another sip of kri’gee. “Yap and Pacer practically volunteered to stay behind. Viper was trying so hard to look cool in front of Wolffe, he nearly got himself killed showing off. That rookie tried to take on a whole group of sentry droids on his own… he could have lost both his legs!”

           “He could have lost a lot more than that,” Rex added.

           “We had to carry that kid all the way back to base, and he was no use to us after that.”

           “So,” Rex said. “You’re glad to be done with this assignment. It doesn’t sound like you enjoyed working with Commander Wolffe.”

           “Ah, he wasn’t so bad. To be honest… I feel sorry for him.” Cody grimaced sadly. “The guy doesn’t really have a sense of humor. If General Kenobi had been there cracking jokes like he does sometimes, they would have gone right over his head.”

           “Was he like that before the Triumphant was destroyed?” Rex wondered.

           “I think so. Just how he is. Anyway, for being mostly a reconnaissance mission, it was pretty rough out there. Planet’s full of clankers already, even if they’re not officially under Separatist control. And even when we found their base, they’d set these traps, right, almost worse than buzz droids.” Cody sighed and held his glass up, perhaps startled to see nearly half of it gone. “We lost a lot of men just trying to break in. If they get control of all those ships, we’re gonna be in a world of trouble.”

           “Let’s hope that doesn’t put a wrench in the new assault plans,” said Rex, finally taking a long sip of his drink. It had been a while since he’d visited Seventy-Nines, and the ale was better than he remembered.

           “Yeah.” Cody fell silent, just looking at Rex thoughtfully over his glass.

           “What?” Rex asked.

           “Ah, nothing. Just wondering how long this big plan will take.”

           They both went quiet with unspoken thoughts. The music blared on, but in that moment, it and the energetic patrons around them seemed distant.

           Eventually, Rex said, “Do you ever wonder if the Jedi are right, and there’s no such thing as luck?”

           Cody glanced at him. “Heh. Officially, the Jedi are always right. But if you’re asking whether I believe everything happens for some important, mysterious reason… no, I don’t really believe that. Why?”

           “I was just thinking… how would a Jedi explain why some of us are dead after one hit by a brainless battle droid, and then there’s some people like you and me, still alive against all the odds. If I hadn’t been exactly where I was when that bomb went off, I wouldn’t be here.” Rex jabbed a finger at the table they were sitting at. “If….”

           Rex stopped short of telling Cody about what General Skywalker had done to save him. And then he wondered why. What was he afraid of?

           “Cut it out, Rex.” Cody pretended to be annoyed. “Everyone knows if you talk about how many lucky breaks you’ve had before a big battle, you’re gonna jinx yourself.”

           “I’m sure the Jedi would have a thing or two to say about a superstition like that,” Rex said wryly.

           “Still, best not to take chances,” Cody said more seriously. “Mostly we’re alive because we’re not careless.”

           “There are a lot of dead men who weren’t any more careless than us,” Rex pointed out.

           “I know,” said Cody. “I know. Maybe… the Jedi would say we were meant to survive so we could play some important part in future battles. But I wouldn’t think about it too hard.”

           “Yeah,” Rex agreed, still debating whether to tell Cody about the blood transfusion. Perhaps the moment had already passed. It wasn’t really important for anyone to know, especially now that Master Yoda had confirmed there would be no unusual effects.

           “Listen,” Cody said, quietly because the music had gone softer as well. “You’re not feeling guilty, are you?”

           “What? You mean because of my men?” Rex looked up; Cody looked a little worried. “No. There’s no point in what-ifs. We all did what we thought we had to.”

           “Okay. Any other reason you’re thinking so hard about this all of a sudden?”

           “Not really. Just hoping our luck holds out.”

           “It has so far. So, starting tomorrow, here we go again.” Cody smiled and lifted his half-empty glass. “To the future.”

           Rex clinked his own glass against it gently. “The future,” he echoed, wondering again what lay in store for them on the other side of this war. He knew what he hoped would be there—or who, anyway. Some people, it was hard to imagine being absent in whatever future they created, and one of them was sitting right across from Rex, taking a long swig of kri’gee.

           Cody laughed when he put his glass down. “Wow, that is strong.”

           “Maybe we oughtta switch to lum.” Rex grinned. “We’ve still got the rest of the day.”

           “You know I never drink that stuff.”

           “Yeah? You also never get drunk enough to have a hangover,” Rex deadpanned.

           “Oh, come on. That was one time!”

           Rex laughed under his breath. “I’m just givin’ you a hard time.”

           “I should be the one teasing you,” Cody complained, but he was smiling. “I’m the commander.”

           “Well, Commander,” Rex said, “What say we have a little trade?”

           He pushed his drink across the table and pulled Cody’s toward him.

           “To the Republic,” he said, lifting the kri’gee. Cody raised his eyebrows at the sight of his ale in Rex’s hand before he lifted Rex’s glass with a grin.

           “And a swift victory on Ringo Vinda.”

           The kri’gee burned Rex’s throat, but he didn’t mind. Cody was right. They weren’t careless, and they knew their limits; they could afford to leave some things to tomorrow.

            Ringo Vinda.

           The battle had been days long already. Every time they cleared one section of the station, the droids somehow managed to fill in the spaces they left behind. It was like trying to dig a hole in loose sand. Sleep was a luxury snatched in minutes rather than hours; Rex had stopped keeping track of how many he’d need to make up if they ever got away from this place.

           When General Skywalker proposed a new formational strategy to burn a path through the station to Admiral Trench, the feeling was nearly unanimous: everyone wanted to get this over with. Generals Tiplee and Tiplar split off from behind them to clear a parallel hallway, while General Skywalker forged ahead of Rex and his men, deflecting blaster fire with his lightsaber.

           Rex advanced steadily half a step behind him, blasting droids right and left in a hyperaware daze. They were almost there, the smaller groups spread out to eliminate any fresh waves of droids from the many surrounding intersections. The rocking of the pistols in his hands and the whirl of Skywalker’s saber was a steady rhythm, occasionally punctuated by the grunts or cries of men who got hit behind him. He couldn’t turn aside until the path was cleared. This was his job—the others behind him would take care of each other.

           Ten steps, ten more, and they were at the door, surging through it while General Skywalker turned to deflect fire until they were all inside.

           The hum and whine of the other generals slashing down the last remaining droids dissipated, and then it was quiet. Rex took a deep breath inside his helmet, ears ringing as if the blaster fire was still going.

           “Don’t get too comfortable,” General Skywalker announced. “This battle hasn’t been won yet.”

           As Rex knelt to call up the map of the station, Fives and Tup came up close next to him.

           “General Skywalker,” said one of the sisters. “We must get to the command post. Admiral Trench has sent for reinforcements. We must take this post before they arrive.”

           All three generals knelt to survey Rex’s map.

           “It’s time for phase two,” Skywalker said. Rex could hear the stress in his voice, subtle under the clear authoritative tone. “We’re at this position.” The general pointed at an oval convergence of several corridors on the map. “Tiplar, you’ll take your men down this passageway. Tiplee, you’ll move along here.” Skywalker’s hand was steady as he pointed out the two parallel passages. “They’ll have to divide their forces to counter us, and when they do, Rex and I will press through the middle. If we time it right, we’ll all converge on this spot at the same time. The droids won’t know what hit ‘em.”

           Commander Doom shifted from where he stood behind Tiplar. His voice was low and rough. “If we’re making a run, we’ll need back up. My men are severely depleted.”

           Rex looked over at the handful of green-painted troopers behind Doom. “Severely depleted” was an understatement. Barely any of Doom’s men had made it this far, even despite the shields they’d been using. Bodies littered the hallways they’d just come through, but Rex hadn’t realized until now just how lucky his own men had been in comparison.

           “Fives,” Skywalker said immediately. “You and Tup take ten of your best men and support Master Tiplar.”

           “We’re on it, sir!” said Fives.

           Skywalker stood. Rex turned off the hologram and followed him toward the doors, signaling those who weren’t supporting Tiplar to fall in behind. Not even five minutes’ rest. But they had to strike while the passage was relatively clear, otherwise they’d get hemmed in again and lose the ground they’d gained.

           As the door opened, the general leaped out in a whirl of blue light, mowing droids down like metal weeds. The end of the passage wasn’t as far as it had seemed on the map.

           Within minutes of steady blasting and slashing, all three groups had reached their goal; the blast doors opened to a criss-cross of blaster and cannon fire, red blurs coming toward them in a deafening high-pitched chorus as droids swarmed onto the floor from the opposite doors, like ants from a hill.

           “Cover me!” Skywalker yelled, hurtling toward the nearest DSD1 dwarf spider droid. General Tiplar was already on top of another one.

           “Push forward!” Rex yelled, and heard Fives calling the same to his left. “Cover the generals!”

           He rolled through a crowd of clankers to get a better angle on the ones who had their rifles aimed at Skywalker. Three of those fell before the ones he’d landed by turned their guns on him; a moment later he had them tripped, thrown, and smoking from holes in the head. Diving behind a storage cube, he hit two more as Skywalker finished off the spider droid and jumped back into the fray.

           “On your right!” General Tiplee cried, and Rex whirled to press both pistols into a pair of droids that had snuck up on him in the chaos. He wasn’t sure if the warning had been for him or for Skywalker; the general had just used the Force to topple a wall of droids that had been moments away from filling him with holes.

           “Tup, NO!

           Rex turned with a sinking feeling, prepared to see that Tup had just been shot down. Instead he saw General Tiplar crumple to the ground, Tup standing over her with the rifle in his hands.

           “Sister!

           For a moment, Rex felt nothing. He wrestled and shot his way through a dozen more battle droids before he could jerk his eyes back to the scene which had been a blur among the chaos of the battle. Just another death in a long string of deaths—the shot that killed General Tiplar had not been distinguishable from the rest of the gunfire raging around them. It could happen that quietly.

           Fives was on Tup now. They were both on the ground and Rex still couldn’t believe it.

           “Hold your position!” Skywalker called.

           Tiplee ignored him and ran to her sister’s still form. Fives hauled Tup to his feet and dragged him backwards, an arm around his throat.

           “Destroyers!” Commander Doom yelled, and Rex pulled himself back into the battle, jumping out of the way just in time to avoid the new onslaught of droideka blaster fire. He grabbed some droid poppers and set about trying to clear a path so they could be accurately rolled inside the destroyers’ shields.

           He was just about ready when Skywalker called again.

           “We’ve lost our momentum! Fall back!”

           Rex rolled two of the grenades before whipping his pistols back out and hurrying backward to fall in place beside his general. Tiplee was carrying her sister’s body, and Fives had fallen to a crouch just behind Skywalker; it looked like he was saying something to Tup. His hands were full holding him down. In two quick lunges, Rex shifted position so he could cover Fives from the other side.

           In those few seconds, the destroyers formed an unbroken line of ray shielding from one wall to the other—their guns pummeled at the metal shields Doom’s men huddled behind. Rex caught himself breathing hard even though he’d been keeping a steady pace for the last few hours. Adrenaline vibrated through him with every squeeze of the trigger.

           “Fives!” Skywalker yelled as soon as he’d come close enough to be heard. “I don’t know what’s going on; you were responsible for Tup, now get him back to base! I want answers!”

           Rex stuck by Fives as they fell back, clearing a path for them to the room they’d taken before. Whenever he came close enough to the two of them, he heard Tup muttering something under his breath, but couldn’t make it out. The trooper’s helmet was nowhere to be seen.

           “Tup, what is going on?!” Fives yowled as Tup suddenly lunged forward in his arms. “What is wrong with you?”

           Over the sound of the blast door shutting behind them, Rex could only make out something that sounded like “follow orders”.

           “What orders?!” Fives ducked as a blaster bolt nearly fried his face.

           “Just hold tight ‘til we get back to base!” Rex yelled, heart racing as he struggled to keep up with the battle droids converging on where Fives and Tup were walking. “You can talk to him then!”

           “Right!” Fives ran with Tup in a staggered sideways gait, yelling wordlessly at the handful of droids that were blocking his way. Rex ran behind and blew them away with multiple shots to the chest and head, kicking one straggler down as he passed.

           They rushed into the room.

           “Guard the doors until the generals arrive!” Rex told his men.

           Fives was already pulling Tup into a small alcove. Rex brought out a pair of binders and yanked Tup’s arms behind him to snap them on. Tup didn’t resist. He didn’t look at Rex or Fives—he just stared off when Rex stepped back to take a better look at him.

           Fives pushed Tup down to sit on the bench. He crouched in front of him, mouth open in dismay. “Tup, what happened back there? Talk to me!” He shook his friend by the shoulders.

           “What’s going on?” Kix ran in. “Someone said Tup shot General Tiplar!”

           “He did,” Fives said in a low voice, straightening. He stared at Tup helplessly. “I…I saw him do it.”

           “Did he say why?” Rex asked. His heartbeat was slowing now, the adrenaline rush leaving a subtle shakiness behind. Tup’s eyes never focused on any of them, and his head rolled forward now, his body slouching over.

           “No!” Fives barely took his eyes off his friend, fear written deeply on his face. “He—a few minutes before he… he was acting… weird. He said he didn’t feel like himself, and he kept freezing up. I tried to snap him out of it, but….”

           Rex looked over his shoulder. The noises of battle had stopped, and General Skywalker had just exchanged words with General Tiplee as she cradled her sister’s body on the floor.

           “How’s he doin’, Rex?” Skywalker approached with a grim look on his face.

           “I’m… not sure, General,” Rex sighed tightly. “It seems like he just… snapped.” Rex crouched and shook Tup by the shoulder sharply. “Tup! Can you hear me?”

           “Y… yes, Captain,” Tup started as if he’d been asleep. He kept eye contact. That was good.

           “What happened?”

           “W-what do you mean?” Tup stammered. He looked disoriented. And scared.

           A dark heat spread in Rex’s gut. He shook Tup again, harder “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” he half-growled, pointing toward General Tiplar’s body.

           Tup’s head jerked, his eyes widening, and for a moment Rex expected the man to break down and confess, or spit out some wild accusation, like traitors always did. But Tup wasn’t even looking at him. His eyes roved from left to right to left, his head lolling slightly.

           “Good soldiers follow orders,” Tup said in a dark, breathy monotone. “Good soldiers follow orders… good soldiers follow orders….”

           Rex stared, the tips of his fingers going cold. This wasn’t Tup. He had the distinct feeling that the soldier he and Fives knew was far away, buried—eaten by something completely unfamiliar. He’d heard Cody tell stories about mind controlling worms on Geonosis, zombie soldiers animated by an insect hive mind, and for one wild moment Rex wondered if Tup was dead, had been dead this whole time.

           “Good soldiers follow orders… good soldiers follow orders… good soldiers follow orders… good soldiers follow orders….”

           There was no change in the tone of Tup’s voice. He breathed out each repetition half under his breath, like a rookie trying to memorize the reg manual. Rex folded his arms. He had to get a hold of himself, keep a straight face even behind the mask of his helmet.

           “What is he talking about?” Kix fretted, kneeling to get a better look at Tup’s downturned face.

           “I have no idea,” said Rex.

           Kix laid a hand on Tup’s face, pulling his eyelid up to check the dilation of his pupils. Tup showed no response to the touch apart from a slight twitch in his eyelid.

           “Good soldiers follow orders, good soldiers follow orders…”

           Was it Rex’s imagination, or was the chanting coming faster now? Tup’s monotonous voice seemed shaded with desperation.

           “Good soldiers follow orders, good soldiers follow orders, good soldiers follow orders—”

           Kix waved a hand in front of Tup’s face, frowning when Tup stared right past his fingers.

           “Good soldiers follow orders… kill… the Jedi….”

           Rex jerked forward, but Tup had already bowled Kix over with a feral scream, lunging for General Tiplee. She raised her hand

           A strangled cry was wrenched from Tup’s throat as she threw him back against the wall and held him there with the Force.

           Rex stood helplessly and watched. He braced himself to act—to restrain Fives, to ask the general to stop, he wasn’t sure yet which. Tup writhed against the wall, armor clattering.

           Skywalker laid a hand firmly on Tiplee’s arm. “We have to get him back to the medical bay before he hurts anyone else.”

           Tiplee’s face was pinched with anger, but she nodded. With a horrible gasp, Tup slid down the wall and panted, his breath ragged. Kix and Fives fell to their knees beside him.

           “Do whatever you have to, to get him under control,” Skywalker said to Rex in an undertone. “It’s going to be hard enough fighting our way back to the medical bay.”

           “Understood, sir,” Rex said.

           “Tup… Tup, come on.” Fives pulled Tup’s chin up, tried to make him focus. “Say something.”

           “Good… soldiers….” Tup rattled.

           “I think we better sedate him.” Kix pulled out a hypospray with an apologetic look to Fives. “Then one or two of us can carry him back.”

           Fives nodded, jaw clenched, and angled Tup’s head so Kix could get the shot in easier.

           “Orders….” Tup slumped against Fives. Fives hefted him up over his shoulders, rising to his feet with a little effort, and Rex reached out to steady him.

           “Thanks,” Fives said. “Kix, hand me my helmet, will you?”

           Kix fetched it off the ground. A moment later they all looked at each other from behind their visors. It was easier sometimes, Rex thought, to face things without their faces visible.

           “Let’s go, men,” he commanded. “We’ve got a lot of ground to cover.”

           “Here you go, buddy,” Kix said sadly, sliding a spare helmet onto Tup’s head. “Don’t want those clankers taking any cheap shots.”

           “They’re not getting any while I’m around,” Fives growled, shifting his posture so he could hold Tup and his blaster at the same time. “Let’s go.”

           The ache and worry was still with Rex when he woke suddenly to the silent walls of the medical frigate. Fives was sitting by Tup, his chin propped up on the backs of his hands, resting on the end of his rifle. The sight reminded him immediately of how upside-down things had turned within the space of a day and the immense effort it had taken to finally get Tup safely on his way to Kamino. And although the days of fighting had been hard, the circumstances of Tup’s betrayal weighed heaviest. They were all shaken by seeing one of their own turn so silently and completely, never mind the inexplicable chanting, but Fives was undeniably the most rattled of all. Rex stood and walked over to put a hand on the trooper’s shoulder.

           “You go on and get some rest, Fives,” he offered. “I’ll stay with Tup.”

           A complicated expression moved over Fives’ face as he looked up at the captain. “I’m… not sure if I can sleep right now. It’s alright. I don’t mind staying up.”

           “That was an order,” Rex said sternly. “You’ve hardly slept at all since the battle started. We’ll probably have to return to the front lines as soon as we hand Tup over to the doctors on Kamino. There’s no room for slip-ups on this campaign. We can’t risk fighting with soldiers who aren’t healthy.”

           Fives looked away and sighed heavily. The longer Rex stared at Tup's inert form, the more tension he felt rising in his gut. Something about this whole situation meant change on the horizon for all of them. Rumors of a Sith virus designed to make clones turn senselessly violent was unsettling to say the least. If something like that spread, how could they possibly keep up the fight?

           Rex told himself that it was useless to worry until they had some answers about Tup’s condition. For the moment, he only hoped that the doctors on Kamino found the truth.

           “I just don’t get it,” Fives grumbled. “How could a virus do something like this? Tup doesn’t have any memory of what he did. It’s like he’s not even himself! And what’s all this ‘good soldiers follow orders’ thing about?”

           “I dunno,” Rex sighed. “But I don’t like it.”

           Fives stared hard at Tup. “Maybe the enemy got to him while he was missing? How many rotations was that?”

           “Four or five.”

           “He seemed normal when we found him. I just thought he was tired.”

           “I don’t think the enemy could have brainwashed him while he was stuck in that cave in,” Rex said, remembering the explosion that had cut Tup off from the rest of them. “He spent all that time trying to dig free of all that debris… he and Comma were both worn out when we got to them. If there was a way for the enemy to get to them while they were in there, there would have been a way for them both to get out before we found them.”

           “Yeah… you’re right.” Fives sighed.

           “If we hadn't got pushed back that way, we never would have realized those two were still alive.”

           “If Comma hadn't been killed by that destroyer, we would know if it happened while they were trapped together.” Fives' hands moved in restless gestures. “All I know is, before we got to that room where General Tiplar died, Tup was not acting crazy. We talked to each other whenever there was a break in the fighting, just like we always do. He was fine! How could he be fine one second, and… and kill a Jedi the next? And if it's a virus, how can it just turn off and on like that? It’s like something triggered it… but… the conditions of the battle hadn’t changed that much.” A frustrated noise came from the back of his throat. “I just can’t figure it out. Doesn’t it worry you? What if this could happen to the rest of us?”

           “Of course it worries me,” Rex said. It worried him more than he cared to admit. “But like Kix said, we just don’t have the ability to figure out what’s wrong with him on our own. Our duty is to get Tup safely to Kamino. They’ll know what’s wrong with him….”

           So he hoped. But if this was the handiwork of the Sith, they would have tried to develop something that was incurable or too fast-spreading for the Kaminoan doctors to prevent. Rex could see Fives turning things over and over in his mind. The trooper was going to keep going around in circles until he wore himself down.

           “Hey.” He shoved Fives to nudge him off the stool by Tup’s bed. “Didn’t I just order you to go get some rest?”

           “Alright, alright,” Fives grinned, but it was short-lived. “You’ll wake me up if anything changes, won’t you, sir? I… I want to be there for him if he dies.”

           Rex nodded. “I will. Now go!”

           Fives gave a weak smile in thanks before laying a hand on Tup’s arm. “Hang in there, buddy,” he said, so quietly Rex barely heard it.

           As Fives’ footsteps retreated to the cot in the back of the ship, Rex took his place on the seat by Tup’s bed and stared at the sedated trooper. He did not look good. Tup was pale, the teardrop tattoo under his right eye standing out more starkly than normal. His breaths came rhythmically, audibly against the breathing mask he wore, and every so often his arms and legs seized as if even in his sleep he was tormented by a mindless urge to kill. He had looked so scared when Fives had told him what he’d done. Rex had seen men panic before, but not like this… not panic in the face of one’s self, strapped down and surrounded by allies.

           If this was some plan of the enemy’s, to make the Grand Army of the Republic turn against the Republic itself, why was it killing Tup? Rex glanced over his shoulder at where Fives was lying, trying to sleep. The thought that he and the rest of the men could snap like this at any moment couldn’t be ignored. They were all the same. What affected one would logically affect all of them the same way. Perhaps that was the enemy’s plan—make the clone armies turn against each other and then die off like insects once their use had been fulfilled. It reminded him all too much of how General Krell had lied to them and sent them out into the mists of Umbara to wipe each other out. The sick anger and betrayal they’d all felt that day was still lodged in Rex’s throat whenever he thought about it.

           He couldn’t let that happen. No way would he stand by this time and let himself and his men be turned against their brothers. As soon as they got back, he was going to have a talk with General Skywalker… before something even worse happened.

           “Welcome back, Captain!” Jesse clapped Rex on the arm, grinning wide.

           The trip to Kamino had mercifully concluded without incident, and Rex was pleased to find the battle had been going well upon his return to Ringo Vinda. They had managed to slip past the enemy ships in the midst of a quickly-won firefight, and now all that was left was to clean up the last of the droid stragglers inside the station.

           “Where’s Fives?” Kix asked.

           “He had to stay behind,” said Rex, and left it at that when he saw General Skywalker approaching. “Excuse me.” He moved past his men and hurried to meet the general. Skywalker stopped and let him approach.

           “Hey, Rex! I’m guessing the rest of your flight to Kamino went off without a hitch?”

           “Yes, sir. Could I have a word with you in private?”

           Skywalker’s relieved smile faded quickly. He nodded and turned aside into one of the many empty shuttles in the hangar. They found the cockpit empty, but Rex didn’t sit, and the general turned to face him squarely.

           “Alright. What’s on your mind?”

           “Sir. Nala Se—the doctor on Kamino who’s taking care of Tup—she asked that Fives be kept behind in case he’d been infected by the virus or… whatever it is that’s making Tup act this way. But if Fives has been infected, then so have I. And so have all the rest of the men who were near him. I didn’t want to disobey your orders to return to the battlefield, sir, but I respectfully ask that I be allowed to return to Kamino as soon as possible.”

           The general’s expression was thoughtful, but unconcerned. “Did the doctor actually say Fives was infected?”

           “No, sir, she just said he might be. But even if he isn’t, I probably am, and at least he’s under Kaminoan supervision now. I may not seem infected yet, but it could be waiting for the right trigger. Tup seemed perfectly fine before he snapped too.”

           “What makes you think you’re infected?” Anakin peered at him suspiciously. “Are you saying you feel something?”

           “No, sir. I feel just the same as always.” Rex glanced away a moment, reconsidering what to say. “But you heard what general Tiplee said about an anti-clone virus. Fives and I are the most likely to have had it passed on to us; we’ve been with Tup the most since he snapped.”

           “But I need you here,” Skywalker said stubbornly. “It’s bad enough Fives didn’t come back! I need all my best men in case the Separatists regroup to try and take back the station.”

           “Do you really think that’s going to happen, sir? Isn’t it better to send us away instead of losing us to this virus first, and maybe—”

           “Rex, come on,” Skywalker laughed nervously, reaching toward his shoulder. “That’s not going to happen. I know this situation’s got all of us a little scared, but—”

           “I’m not scared of what will happen to me, General!” Rex said, shrugging away from the general’s hand and pointing out toward the troopers in the rest of the hangar. “I’m scared of what might happen to everyone else! To you, and all the rest of the Jedi, and my brothers!”

           “You’re going to be fighting right next to me for the rest of this battle,” Skywalker said. “Don’t you think I could stop you from anything you might try to do? Unless… there’s something you’re not telling me?”

           “No, sir,” Rex repeated. “But I have a bad feeling about this.”

           Skywalker’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean? Are you saying you sense something?”

           “Of course not, General.” Rex had almost forgotten about the general’s vision. “Nothing like that. But with all due respect, I think it would be wise to take the situation a little more seriously.”

           “I am taking it seriously. What do you want me to do?” Skywalker asked, spreading his hands. “Send the entire squad back to Kamino and clean up the rest of the droids myself?”

           “That wasn’t what I suggested. I’m only requesting that I be sent back to Kamino for now. You managed without me while we were taking Tup home. Whether I show signs of infection first or they find a cure, I’d rather be there instead of here when it happens.”

           “Hmm.” Skywalker did not look happy about that. “I think there is something you’re not telling me. You seem awfully sure you’re going to end up like Tup.”

           Rex hesitated. The images that lived in the back of his mind were not something he had ever shared with anyone. They were things never meant to be consciously recalled, and he couldn’t put them into words now. So he chose a half truth instead.

           “Maybe I’m starting to wonder if your vision was on to something after all.”

           “Oh.” The general clenched his fists and half-folded his arms. “Well, you might have a point, then.” He fell silent and Rex waited, letting him work it out on his own. Rex still couldn’t really believe he would ever use the Force, or ever try to talk his friends into a betrayal of all they had fought and died for. This vision couldn’t really be true… he couldn’t believe that. But he had to use whatever he could to get the general’s permission.

           “I’m sticking with what Master Yoda said,” Skywalker said at last. “Until something happens, your place is here.” He pointed at the ground right next to him. “That’s my final decision.”

           And that was that. “Yes, sir,” Rex said, and was glad to be dismissed.

           He found Kix and Jesse checking their equipment in a supply room off the main hangar. They wasted no time in asking after Tup and Fives.

           “They’re just running some tests on Fives,” Rex said. “To make sure he’s not also infected.”

           “Did they say they could save Tup or not?” Jesse asked.

           “No. Nothing for sure. But they’ve got their best doctor working on him.”

           “Poor Tup. I wish I could have done more to help him,” Kix sighed. “But I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

           Rex took a deep breath, glancing around to make sure none of the other troopers were close enough to hear. “Listen... I need to ask both of you a favor.”

           Jesse and Kix kept their eyes on him, waiting.

           “What is it, Captain?” Kix asked.

           “If I show any sign of aggression toward Jedi,” Rex said, forcing himself to stare back at them. “Anything like what you saw Tup doing, I want you to shoot me down. Immediately.”

           “What?” Kix blurted. Jesse just blinked as if he’d been smacked.

           “You can’t hesitate,” Rex continued firmly. “I talked to Fives. He said Tup only started acting strange a few minutes before shooting General Tiplar. There can not be another incident like that.”

           “But Captain,” Kix struggled, almost laughing in his dismay. “Rex, you can’t—you’re not asking us to kill you? I’d stun you, sure, and take you to Kamino just like you and Fives did for Tup. But I am not killing one of my own brothers—especially you!”

           “That is exactly what I’m asking you to do,” Rex said in a low voice. “We can’t let this virus spread to the rest of the army. Think of what could happen if every clone ended up like Tup!”

           “But,” Kix went on desperately, “Let’s be rational about this. What’s the point in targeting you specifically? I mean… how do we know all of us aren’t already infected?”

           “We don’t,” Rex said. “But since we can’t tell yet who is, the only thing we can do is eliminate the source of contagion whenever it shows itself. I expect you to take down anyone you notice behaving strangely—but since Fives and I spent the most time in direct contact with Tup, I’m the most likely to be infected right now.”

           Kix opened his mouth to argue.

           Rex lifted a hand to cut him off. “I’ll make it an order if I have to.”

           “I’ll do it, Captain,” Jesse sighed.

           “Thanks Jesse. Kix? I need you to promise me you’ll do this. For the Republic. And for all the rest of your brothers. I’d rather die quickly by a blaster bolt to the head than watch some virus destroy everything I’ve fought for from the inside out. And I know you feel the same way. We all do.”

           Kix took a deep breath and nodded once, looking miserable. “Yes sir,” he said quietly. “I promise.”

Chapter Text

            In a brownish blur the padawan fell. Another shot pierced her back, then her head, just to be sure. He could only see a corner of her face.

            “What’s the matter? Rex?”

            The hushed but sharp voice cut into his mind, out of place amongst the blaster fire and familiar, pained voices. Someone grabbed his arm and he thrashed to get away.

            “Wake up, Rex!” The hand shook him; his eyes opened to a dark ceiling and a familiar face.

            “Wha—Cody?” Rex gasped.

            “Yeah.”

            All at once the dream fell away, swallowed into the recesses of his mind, and he remembered: He was back on Coruscant. The battle was over.

            “What’s the matter with you?” Cody whispered roughly from where he stood by Rex’s bunk, but he didn’t look angry. “All this tossing around’s not helping me get any sleep, you know.”

            Rex looked around the command barracks; everyone lay quiet.

            “Sorry,” Rex said, and sat up, rubbing his aching head. He was still breathing a little faster than he should have. “What… what time is it?”

            “About oh-four-hundred hours,” Cody shrugged. “Are you okay now?”

            Rex nodded, although really, he felt sick. He felt flooded with an intense darkness, one continuing to surround him despite his wakefulness like a pack of menacing shadows in the night.

            Cody looked at him skeptically, arms folded. “Do I need to take you to a medic?”

            “I’m fine.” Rex sighed and lay back down. “Go back to sleep. Aren’t you shipping out tomorrow?”

            “Yeah. Ord Radama.” He heard Cody sit down on the lower bunk. “And you?”

            Rex breathed, trying to focus on reality and not on the images of Jedi dying—of feeling in himself an overwhelming imperative he couldn’t consciously accept, but was helpless to disobey. Tup’s voice ricocheted around in his skull. Good soldiers follow orders.

            Rex shuddered, but spoke calmly. “I think we’re being held in reserve for the attack on Xagobah… as soon as you and the other fleets break through. I’ll be meeting with General Skywalker to discuss everything.”

            He hadn’t been summoned to any such meeting, but he knew one would be necessary. He couldn’t go to Xagobah with this hanging over him, not without at least trying to talk to the general again. And hopefully there would be some news of the conditions of Tup and Fives.

            “Well then. I’ll see you at the victory celebration afterward,” said Cody confidently.

            “Yeah.”

            “Hmm. What’s with that tone of voice?” Cody said. “You don’t think we’ll win? Have a little confidence in the Jedi’s plan.”

            “I’m sure they all know what they’re doing,” Rex said to the ceiling. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

            “You’re worried about the men, then,” Cody guessed, voice low.

            Rex knew he didn’t have to say anything more. Cody had read him as well as he could have, under the circumstances.

            He jumped when Cody's face appeared next to his again. Cody jerked his head toward the door.

            “Hey. Let’s go for a walk.”

            “At oh-four-hundred hours?” Rex came up on one elbow. “I thought you wanted to sleep.”

            “Just a short one. We can talk without waking anyone else.”

            Cody stood back to let him get down off the top bunk, and together they crept toward the hallway. The door’s opening and closing was all too loud, but once they were on the other side, Rex already felt a little better.

            “I’d be pretty shook up too if one of my men tried to kill a Jedi,” Cody said immediately. “Heard anything more about this virus?”

            “Not yet.” Rex headed left. “I didn’t realize you knew about it.”

            Cody fell into step beside him. “I’m pretty sure the news was passed to all the commanding officers. Why wouldn’t it be?”

            Rex shrugged. “I guess I hoped there wouldn’t be any need to warn everybody else. But I am glad that the Jedi are taking this seriously.”

            “They don’t really have a choice, do they? After all, it was a Jedi Tup killed.”

            “Yeah.” Rex swallowed.

            The corridor was so quiet and empty. It felt a bit surreal, just him and Cody in a dim hallway with only their footsteps and voices. But safe.

            “I asked General Skywalker to send me back to Kamino,” Rex said, before he could hesitate. “Fives stayed behind because the doctors said Tup might have infected him. I figured… if he’s at risk, then so am I.”

            “And… General Skywalker said no?” Cody asked.

            “He said we wait for a sign that something’s wrong.” Rex glanced at Cody’s concerned look and sighed. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this. It’s not like….” It’s not like they didn’t go out to battle every day, knowing either one of them might not survive.

            “This isn’t like anything we’ve ever faced before,” said Cody. His tone said he understood.

            Rex glanced over again. Cody looked back at him simply; no avoidance, no questioning.

            “I prefer my enemies where I can see them.” Rex raised a hand as if aiming his pistol between the eyes of some invisible battle droid. But then he just stared at his palm. “We’re always supposed to be prepared for anything they can throw at us.”

            “Sounds like you’ve already decided what you have to do,” said Cody. “Can’t be much more prepared than that.”

            “Right.” The thought of his conversation with Jesse and Kix was chilling and comforting at the same time. And if the worst happened, and they were all infected… at least they would know their termination in that case would be just and necessary, not an execution at the whim of a madman.

            He heard Cody take a deep breath next to him and wondered if they shared a similar train of thought. They walked in silence for a few more minutes, and Rex tried to find something else to think about.

            “So. Ord Radama,” Rex finally said. “Isn’t that a swamp planet? I know how you hate swamps.”

            “Yeah,” Cody shrugged. “It’s all been paved over by cities now though, so… unless the separatists decide to hide in the muck, it won’t be so bad. Then again, knowing General Kenobi… we’ll end up enlisting some giant swamp snake in a sneak attack.”

            “Wouldn’t surprise me,” Rex agreed.

            “That’s the thing about General Kenobi,” said Cody, smirking. “He’s just as creative as General Skywalker, but without all the mess.”

            “Heh. What mess? You didn’t see General Skywalker back on Ringo Vinda. That was one of the most well-coordinated attacks I have seen this entire war. Even after fighting for days straight, our casualties were much less than the other generals had. I mean… that is, until….”

            “Does General Skywalker usually listen to you?” Cody broke in, saving Rex from having to finish the thought.

            “What? Yeah… why?”

            “Just wondering.”

            Rex stared at Cody, curious about what spurred this train of thought. “Does General Kenobi usually listen to you?

            “More often than not.” Cody’s tone was satisfied. “He respects my opinion. We’re… good friends, you might say.”

            “We got lucky,” Rex said gravely, thinking back on how leniently Skywalker had reacted to his outburst outside Master Yoda’s quarters. Some other captain might not have been given such free rein by his Jedi general. Most other Jedi might not hate clones like General Krell had, but Rex had his doubts that all Jedi respected clones as well as Skywalker and Kenobi did.

            “Yes… we got lucky,” Cody agreed. “I’m sure General Skywalker is doing what he thinks is best, keeping you on the front lines, but I’ll admit… I wonder what General Kenobi would say if you asked him what to do.”

            “Who knows?” Rex said evenly. “I’m not his responsibility. And I could never go behind my general’s back like that.”

            “Oh, I wasn’t suggesting anything,” said Cody. “I just think I got the better Jedi.”

            “Well,” said Rex. “I’m just glad General Skywalker and General Kenobi work together so often.”

            “I’m with you there,” Cody agreed, briefly gripping his shoulder. “Wish you were coming to Ord Radama. I’ve got a feeling we’re gonna need all the help we can get.”

            They reached a fork in the hall and paused. The silence swallowed them again, and Rex’s dreams throbbed in the back of his head.

            “Guess we should head back,” Rex sighed.

            “You sure?” Cody looked unconvinced by Rex’s tone. “That wasn’t much of a walk. I could go around the whole way.” The left hallway would eventually lead them back to the command barracks

            Rex smiled a little despite himself. “Well… why not?”

            “We do need to sleep eventually, but, you know,” Cody waved a hand. “Just sometime. It won’t take us ten minutes to lap this.”

            “We’re just adding some extra security,” Rex agreed.

            “Exactly. Who needs armor?”

            “Or weapons.” As Rex laughed gratefully under his breath, he thought suddenly of Cut Lawquane, the deserter who had a wife and children and a farm somewhere on Saleucami. He thought of what he’d said to him as they’d parted to their separate lives. Rex really knew very little of family in the traditional sense, but as he and Cody walked close together down these quiet hallways, Rex just couldn’t find it in himself to believe that anyone felt more strongly about their family than he did for his.

            He would gladly give his life to protect them. And not just Cody, although they were especially close… there were so many of his brothers who would do—and had already done—the same. He could name them in strings of dozens if he wanted to. Hundreds, by now. And for those who were still fighting, who supported each other not only on the physical battlefield, but like this, on the battlefield of an unspoken nightmare, he would never let those nightmares come true. He would never stand by again, closing his eyes as his family was turned against itself by some twisted force, fooling himself into believing he was helpless.

            The wind was rarely too strong on Coruscant, or too cold. More often, it was tepid and restless, rippling out from the lanes of rushing air traffic. Rex squinted against the glint of Skywalker’s speeder as he landed. The general beckoned him over without getting out of the craft.

            Rex jogged across to him.

            “Morning, Captain Rex,” Skywalker said, twisting in the driver’s seat to face him. “I thought since you requested a private meeting, we could take a drive. We’re not likely to be overheard that way.”

            “Very good, General,” Rex said, and jumped neatly into the passenger seat. Skywalker had left the engine running, and pulled the shuttle up and away before Rex could say anything more.

            Once they had settled into the flow of traffic, Skywalker left one hand on the steering and looked over at Rex. “Alright, so what’s this all about?”

            “Before I explain, sir, I was wondering if you’ve heard any news about Tup’s condition.”

            “Right,” Skywalker grimaced. “I have been trying to get through to Kamino, but they just keep telling me not to worry. All I know is that Fives and Tup are being kept under strict quarantine until a cure can be found.”

            “That’s good news, sir,” Rex said, although a more substantial update would have been nice. “I’d like to repeat my request that I be sent back to Kamino as soon as possible.”

            “Oh yeah? Has something changed that I should know about?” Skywalker didn’t look pleased.

            “Not… exactly, General. It just seems like the smart thing to do.”

            Skywalker narrowed his eyes, his hair whipping as he swerved the speeder into another lane. “You’re pretty insistent about this. It’s not like you to fight against my orders.”

            “I mean no disrespect, sir. But I do have a responsibility to my men.”

            “Yes you do: a responsibility to lead them. Are you saying your ability to do that has been compromised?”

            “No, sir. Not yet.” Rex frowned. “But… have you given any more thought to whether this is related to your vision?”

            “I have.” Skywalker narrowly avoided a traffic jam by detouring down a narrow alley. “I hate to say it, but the way Tup was acting isn’t anything like what I saw in my dream. You seemed fully aware of your actions. I’m not saying it isn’t related… it very well could be. But Master Yoda says that sometimes if we try too hard to prevent the future we see, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

            “I would request to be sent to Kamino even if you hadn’t had your vision, sir. This is a serious threat regardless of how it might relate to me specifically. Do you really want to risk being shot down by one of your own men?”

            “General Tiplar didn’t have any warning. I do. That’ll be enough to prevent it from happening again.”

            Rex fell silent. He didn’t know what more he could do to convince the general; stating the obvious never worked once Skywalker had made up his mind on something.

            They drove for several minutes before the general glanced over at him again.

            “Was there anything else you wanted to tell me, Rex?” Skywalker’s tone was almost parental. “Or will I have to keep wondering what’s making you take this so personally?”

            If he said no, he would be agreeing not to bring this up again. Rex hesitated.

            “You’re not the worrying type. There has to be something else on your mind. If you know something more, you need to tell me.”

            “It’s nothing, sir,” Rex sighed, staring out at the city. “I’ve just been having some bad dreams of my own, that’s all.”

            “What do you mean?” Skywalker’s voice slowed with seriousness. “What kind of dreams?”

            “Just combat dreams.” Rex kept his tone casual. “You know… but they’ve been a lot worse ever since Ringo Vinda. A lot more… specific….”

            “Describe them to me,” Anakin demanded.

            Rex looked over. “Is… that an order, General?”

            “Yes, it is.”

            “I’d rather not, sir.”

            Skywalker looked alarmed. “Rex, I never have to repeat orders to you. These dreams can’t possibly be worse than anything we’ve already lived through in this war.”

            Rex looked down at his hands. “You’d be surprised, sir.”

            “Look. You can tell me about these nightmares, or we can head to the Jedi Temple right now and have one of the Jedi Masters ask you about them.”

            Of all the things Skywalker could have threatened, he just had to pick the very worst.

            “That won’t be necessary, General,” Rex said uncomfortably.

            The general waited for him to gather his thoughts. Rex didn’t even know how to begin.

            “They’re usually… pretty vague, anyway,” he fumbled. “Screams, people dying… but there aren’t any droids. It’s all people.”

            “Just random people? Or people you know?”

            “People I know.”

            Rex’s elbow was resting on the side of the speeder. He lifted his hand and rubbed his forehead, closing his eyes.

            “Like who?”

            Rex took a deep breath.

            “Jedi.”

            There, it was out. Just saying those two syllables set a hot current of nausea through his body like an electrical shock.

            “And you’re not able to hold back the enemy?” Skywalker’s voice was low, barely audible over the wind of their speed. “You’re trapped watching them die.”

            “No, sir,” Rex said shakily. “You don’t understand. It’s worse than that. I’m not the one defending the Jedi. I’m the one killing them.”

            A few seconds of chilled silence passed before Rex, feeling physically ill, forced himself to look at the general.

            Skywalker glanced back at him with an unreadable look before pulling the speeder suddenly into an open parking space.

            “Do you think you’re seeing the future?” Skywalker spoke with hushed intensity as soon as they’d come to a complete stop.

            “If I am,” Rex said, “I’d rather not live to see it.”

            “But does it feel like the dream means anything?”

            “No, sir.” Rex swallowed, ashamed. “I’m sure it has to do with what happened to Tup. Seeing him kill General Tiplar like that… it… it must have triggered something.”

            “You said you have these dreams a lot?”

            “Yes, sir. But not this clearly.”

            “But it’s always Jedi?”

            Rex squeezed his eyes shut. “Yes.”

            “Was it anyone specific this time?”

            “Yes.”

            “Who was it?” Skywalker stared at him so intently it was almost a glare, and after a few awful seconds, Rex couldn’t keep eye contact. “Rex.”

            “I’m sorry, sir,” he said tightly. “I’m not trying to disobey orders—”

            “Just answer the question. A name. Any name.”

            Rex glanced desperately around to make sure there was no one near. The platform they were idling next to was empty.

            “Spit it out!”

            “General Kenobi. It was General Kenobi.” Rex stole a painful glimpse of Skywalker’s disturbed expression before he continued in a defeated whisper. “And… you as well, General. Both of you. And Commander Tano.”

            “Ahsoka too?” Skywalker stared at Rex, shock and disgust plain on his face.

            Rex nodded mutely and swallowed the nausea in his throat.

            “What kind of weapon were you using?”

            “Sir?” Rex hardly thought that was important.

            “What kind?” Skywalker repeated.

            “My DC-17s, I think.” Rex shut his eyes, miserably trying to remember details even though that was the last thing he wanted to do. “Yeah. Some kind of blaster, anyway. Why?”

            “Not a lightsaber,” Skywalker murmured. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean anything.”

            “General… I don’t think my dreams have anything to do with seeing the future. How could they? I’m not a Jedi. I don’t think clones can have prophetic visions.”

            “The Force is a part of every living thing,” Skywalker said half to himself, staring at his hands gripping the steering wheel. “It influences everything, whether we realize it or not… the only difference is that a Jedi is aware of the flow of the Force, and can make use of it. The will of the Force is the will of the universe for everything in it. That definitely includes clones.”

            “Unfortunately,” Rex muttered, “I don’t find that thought very reassuring right now.”

            “No one is immune from the lure of the Dark Side, Rex. Every Jedi can feel it, but we’re not the only ones who can fall.” For a moment the general looked uncomfortable in a different way, but then he focused back on Rex. “You did the right thing, telling me about this. But I’m not going to send you to Kamino. At least, not yet.”

            “But, sir—!”

            Anakin held up a hand to silence him. “I….” he looked conflicted. “I will talk to the Council about this.”

            Rex grimaced and looked away. The last thing he wanted was for the details of his… deficiency… to be advertised in front of the entire Jedi Council.

            “The Kaminoans are doing their own research on Tup and Fives already. Sending you there isn't going to help find a cure for this virus faster, and anyway,” Anakin glanced at Rex, “we both know something more sinister might be at work here. I think the Jedi will want to do their own tests.”

            Rex took a deep breath.

            Anakin continued. “If there’s any chance my vision and your dream are related… we’ve got to get to the bottom of this.” The general lifted the speeder up to swing back toward the barracks.

            Rex stayed silent and focused on the way the wind pressed into his skin, struggling to dispel the awful suffocating feeling that gripped him in the chest. He had never paid much attention to his dreams, knowing they were too awful to ever come true—dreams were illogical and people and places were often very different from their counterparts in reality. But the mere suggestion that such nightmares could mean something was enough to change the feeling surrounding the images into something much more incriminating.

            If Tup could kill a Jedi, maybe anything was possible.

            By the time Skywalker pulled onto the barracks’ landing pad, Rex had managed to calm down a bit simply by reminding himself over and over that worrying never won any battles.

            “I will contact you once the Council has made a decision,” Skywalker said. “In the meantime, try to limit your contact with others.”

            “I will continue to, sir,” Rex said, feeling slightly guilty about his impromptu walk with Cody. Rex climbed out onto the platform and turned to salute goodbye. “And I know you and the Council will do what’s best for the Republic.”

            Skywalker’s face, which had been set in a grim mask the whole drive back, relaxed slightly. “The fact that you’re so concerned about these dreams makes me feel pretty confident that you would never betray the Republic on your own. So let’s just hope we can figure out the enemy’s plan in time to stop them.”

            “Believe me, sir,” Rex said gruffly. “If the enemy plans to use me against you, they won’t succeed.”

            The general said nothing to that. He just stared searchingly at Rex for a long moment, before he pulled the speeder up and away into the air.

            “Rex! Come in, Captain.” Skywalker’s voice came urgently through Rex’s communicator just as he was about to clean up for the night.

            Rex snapped up the communicator. “What is it, General?”

            “There’s been a report that Fives tried to assassinate Chancellor Palpatine. I want you to order the Five-Oh-First to—”

            Around the zinging chill down his spine, Rex forced himself to focus on the rest of the order.

            “—the search. He was last seen running in the general direction of the barracks. If we find him first, we can make sure he’s brought in alive for questioning!”

            “Yes, sir.” Rex said, thinking fast. “I’ll meet up with you at the transit terminal on the southwest corner of sector H. He’ll probably have to pass through there if he’s trying to get away on foot.”

            “I’ll see you there. Get your men moving!”

            Ten minutes later, Rex was in armor and dividing his troops via comm to systematically comb as much of the area surrounding the Senate district as they could. As his speeder bike tore through the night, his dread hardened into resolve. He gripped the controls tightly. This was it. Fives was already lost to this virus or whatever it was. Rex knew he was next. He probably only had a matter of hours left.

            When he and the half-dozen men who accompanied him landed on the terminal, the crowds were thick. The night was young and the city residents had a few hours to go before things really died down.

            “Spread out,” Rex ordered them, splitting them off to right and left with quick hand signals. “Check the ID of every clone you see!” He put his hands on his pistols but didn’t draw them as he watched his men disperse. The low whine of another speeder came up behind him, and he turned to see Skywalker hopping out.

            “Any sign of him?” the general asked.

            “No, sir. When did Fives arrive on Coruscant?”

            “Less than an hour ago.”

            “And Tup?” Rex asked, although he thought he knew.

            “He’s dead. Master Shaak Ti and the Kaminoan doctor brought Fives here so he could be examined at the hospital.” Skywalker led Rex behind a glass platform partition and sighed roughly. “Fives seems to be having delusions that the Jedi created some kind of conspiracy, and that that’s why Tup died. The chancellor wanted to talk to him about it and find out if there was any truth to his claims… and that’s when Fives snapped and tried to kill him.”

            “I see,” Rex said calmly. “Have you mentioned my case to the Council yet?”

            “No,” Anakin said. “I haven't had the opportunity.”

            Rex said nothing, a cold, sick certainty settling into his nerves. He pressed his hands down on the handles of his pistols, feeling their reassuring weight on his belt.

            “I know what you’re thinking, Rex,” Skywalker said warningly. “But there’s still a chance to find a cure if we can catch Fives and figure out what’s going on!”

            “No, General,” Rex said firmly. “We are out of time. If Fives has snapped, I could go the same way any minute. I’m turning myself in for termination. Once you catch Fives… hopefully, between the two of us, the doctors will find enough information to prevent anyone else from ending up this way.”

            “What?” Skywalker gasped out a shocked breath, almost a laugh. “You can’t do that, Rex! You don’t even know yet that Fives is infected!” His voice started to rise. “He could be acting of his own free will!”

            “No!” Rex repeated. “I know Fives. He would never do this, sir, not without this virus affecting him. He would never try to harm the chancellor! He was a good soldier—a good man!

            “You’re talking like he’s dead already,” Skywalker said, his voice straining with forced patience. “We might still be able to save him, but in order to do that I need you to help me find him! You can’t just run off and ask the Kaminoans to kill you! How is that supposed to help anything?!”

            “The longer I wait, the greater the chance of spreading this to the rest of the men!” Rex took in the crowd with a swift jerk of his arm.

            “But we don’t know anything yet! What if you were never even infected? Fives could have gotten sick after you left him on Kamino!”

            “Sterilization procedures would never have allowed that, sir. They would have been separately quarantined.” Rex shook his head and turned his back to the general, drawing his pistols although his men reported no threat. “No, General. I’ve accepted the truth of the situation, and I will do what is necessary. You’ve got to accept it, too. You’re a Jedi, sir. I know you understand situations like this.”

            “Jedi act from an understanding of principles, not from fear and supposition!” Skywalker growled. “And I am not going to let you do something this drastic on a guess!

            “We can’t hesitate, sir.” Rex couldn’t keep the pointed weight out of his voice. “Hesitation gets people killed. We’ve seen that proven over and over on the battlefield. We have been trained to sacrifice our lives if necessary, for the good of the team, and the Republic. Why is this any different?”

            “Because this is suicide you’re talking about!” The general shoved him lightly on the chest. Rex caught himself and stood firmly, unintimidated. “Don’t you value your own life? At least enough to ask for a diagnosis instead of a lethal injection?!”

            “I do value my life, General,” Rex said quietly. “As much as you value yours. As much as every one of these men values his own life—and that is why I have to do this. Because I’m no different from them, and my life is definitely not worth more than the lives of ten, of a hundred or a thousand or a million of theirs!”

            Skywalker pulled himself up to his full height, his face contorting in a quick series of conflicted emotion. For a moment Rex thought he was going to see sense. But then the general shook his head.

            “Look. I understand what you’re trying to say, but you’re a valuable captain, Rex, and you’re avoiding your duty! You are not just another clone—men like you don’t come along every day. I wasn’t kidding when I said I need you with me. No one else can do your job like you can.”

            The general’s voice had gone low, pulling at him with sincerity instead of outrage. It was just another tactic, a desperate one.

            “I’m sorry, sir, but that is simply not true.” Rex looked past the general, scanning the crowd and keeping a mental note on his men’s locations. “I’ve worked with many fine officers, and any one of them could serve you just as well. As for tonight, I’ve assigned Singer to lead the Five-Hundred-First in the search for Fives once I’m gone.”

            “Once you’re gone,” Skywalker muttered disgustedly under his breath. “I can’t believe you’re willing to throw your life away so lightly. I expect better from you, Rex. But it doesn’t matter… you’re still under my command, and I order you to forget about this death-wish of yours and stick with the search until we’ve located Fives!”

            Rex opened his mouth and had to clench his jaw against the “yes, sir,” that instinctively waited at the back of his throat. He looked around at the crowd—his men had moved on—and thought of Fives out there, this madness killing him slowly, driving him on a desperate run through the underbelly of Coruscant. When his eyes settled again on Skywalker’s smugly commanding face, he felt the sickness from his dream, and the hurt and anger rose in his throat and came tumbling out in a quick, tight growl before he could stop them.

            “I don’t have a death-wish! No clone wants to throw his life away! Maybe you forget that, sir. Maybe everyone does—because we are all the same, we’re expendable, and generals like Krell only see us as cannon fodder! The casualties—the number of dead clones—in this war keeps climbing by the hundreds, by the thousands some days! If every general allowed their clone commanders to seek the most strategic route instead of using them as a human shield like we were battle droids, those numbers would be much fewer. It’s not us who are reckless with our lives, General! It’s not us who throw them away lightly!”

            Rex took a sharp breath to stop himself from saying any more. Skywalker’s stern, commanding expression had crumbled into dismay. His arms were limp at his sides.

            “Rex… do you really believe I think of you like that?”

            Rex took a few steps away and steeled himself to apologize for his outburst, but Skywalker went on in a saddened tone.

            “Haven’t I proven that I care about my men as individuals? You’re not just weapons to me… none of you are.”

            Rex lifted his head and looked at him steadily, remembering what Master Yoda had said about the general’s weaknesses. “I'm sorry, General. I have always admired you. Every time we entered the battlefield, I knew I could trust you with the lives of my company. No war is without its casualties, but you were always looking for ways to limit them. And I thank you for that. I know the Five-Hundred-First will continue to be in good hands when I'm gone.”

            Skywalker clenched his fists. “Rex… do not do this.” He said it like an order, but Rex heard it as a plea.

            “Sorry, sir. If you try to stop me, I'll do it myself.”

            Rex raised his right hand; his grip on the pistol was firm, and he felt oddly calm. Skywalker’s face took on a wild look.

            “Rex!” The general shouted, and reached out a hand to pull the pistol away, but at that moment, a beep sounded loudly in Rex’s ear. It was coming from his wrist communicator.

            “Captain Rex?” A clone’s voice came from the other end.

            Rex lowered the gun so he could speak into the communicator, but he kept his left hand raised.

            “This is Rex.”

            “This is Kix. I have a message for you. Are you alone? Is anyone else listening?”

            “It’s just me and General Skywalker. What is it?” Rex kept his voice low.

            “It’s Fives,” Kix’s voice sounded uneasy even over the communicator. “I ran into him a few seconds ago. He wants to meet with you and General Skywalker immediately. You can’t bring any other troops with you… said he had something important to tell you, sir.”

            “Where is he now?” Skywalker came close so he could speak to Kix as well. “Were you able to capture him?”

            “No, General.” There was a moment of silence on the link. “I… I let him go. I understand there will be consequences for that, sir. I accept full responsibility for my actions.”

            “Why didn’t you stop him?” Skywalker demanded. “We have to find him so the Jedi Council can question him before anyone else interferes!”

            “I’m sorry, sir. Fives said he’s being framed! He was talking about some kind of conspiracy against the Jedi. But he left before I could get him to explain anything else….”

            Rex looked at the general, alarmed. “Conspiracy against the Jedi?” he breathed.

            “I told him to turn himself in, but he said he wanted to talk to you first, General. You and Captain Rex. He was pretty well convinced that this was the only way he’d have a chance to explain everything to you.”

            “I’ve got the coordinates, Kix,” Rex said. “Well done. General Skywalker and I were hoping to find him before anyone else. This just makes our job that much easier. Rex out.”

            “Where are we headed?” Skywalker asked as they both ran for his speeder.

            “Sector I-9.”

            It was silent in the transport as they hurried across the city, Rex seated above General Skywalker in the cockpit. His mind was racing. Kix seemed to believe Fives, despite what the medic had seen on Ringo Vinda. That must mean Fives was still fairly coherent. Perhaps the virus was acting on him more slowly. Rex wondered if he’d even recognize his friend.

            “If this virus is part of some plot against the Jedi,” Skywalker suddenly said, his voice grave, “Fives might be on to something after all. But that still doesn’t explain why he would try to assassinate the chancellor. He’s going to have a lot to answer for if he survives this.”

            “Maybe he couldn’t help it, sir,” Rex said uneasily. “You saw what happened to Tup. He didn’t have any control over killing General Tiplar. Or someone could be framing Fives, like he said. What if Fives figured out who gave him the virus, and they decided that framing him would be the best way to make sure we never found out the truth?”

            “Hmm. Well… we’ll let him talk, but we’re going to have to take him into custody afterward either way.”

            “Understood.”

            They started their descent, deep into the shaft that allowed access to the lower levels. The collective light of the city faded and they were surrounded by the dimmer illumination of doorways and their own vehicle’s headlights. The two-man shuttle swerved gracefully down onto a small landing platform.

            Skywalker climbed out, and Rex hopped down from the top to follow, trying to shake himself free of a sense of impending disaster. There was hope of preventing the worst. Maybe even of saving Fives… despite all his attempts to be pragmatic, Rex could feel that hope swelling painfully in him.

            “Well,” Skywalker said over his shoulder as they walked toward the slim black opening between the warehouse doors. “These are the coordinates Kix gave us. Let’s hope Fives is inside.”

            “Eh,” Rex sighed unhappily. “I hope he knows what he’s doing.”

            For a moment, gazing into the dark interior of the warehouse, Rex wished he hadn’t left his helmet in the shuttle. But then Skywalker ignited his lightsaber. The blue glow cast stark shadows from the half-organized stacks of crates in front of them. Pistols held at the ready, Rex followed the general, knowing that Skywalker would be reaching out with the Force to anticipate any attack.

            “Fives?” Skywalker called. “Fives, we’re here.”

            Rex scanned the shadows, hating the queasy knot in his stomach that had kept coming back every night since he’d left Kamino. It was easy to imagine movement as the light from the lightsaber shifted along the walls. There was a ripple in the air, perhaps from the circulation system.

            “Come on out,” the general tried again. “We just wanna talk to you.”

            So Fives was here; Skywalker must sense it. They kept walking, Rex’s eyes roving methodically over the half-invisible shapes looming out of the darkness. Their steps seemed loud in the silence.

            “General Skywalker.” A rough, low voice. Fives’ voice, but it sounded wrong, husky, like Fives was short of breath or injured. Rex moved close behind the general and looked up. It sounded like the voice had come from above; it diffused, echoing through the building so that it was impossible to tell which direction it came from.

            “Thank you,” said Fives. “Thank you for trusting me. Now have you come without troops?

            “We have,” Skywalker said warily, shifting so that he and Rex could cover each other’s backs. Rex kept his pistols up by his eyes, hoping he wouldn’t have to use them.

            “Put down your weapons, then!

            “I don’t think so, Fives,” said Skywalker.

            “Please, sir!” Fives’ desperate tone shifted to one of forced control. “Please… I’m unarmed.”

            For a moment, Rex was sure the general would refuse. From an objective standpoint, this looked an awful lot like a trap. But Skywalker turned off the saber, and Rex blinked against the darkness, waiting for his eyes to adjust. Of course, in a battle between an unarmed clone and an unarmed Jedi, there was no contest.

            He felt Skywalker shift behind him. He could see the room more clearly now, and walked toward the nearest storage cube.

            “Alright,” Rex called. “I’m putting my pistols down.”

            He laid them on the cube and stepped back, raising his hands so that if Fives was watching, he would see that they were empty.

            “What are we here for, Fives?” Skywalker asked the ceiling.

            “I need your help.”

            “I know you do,” Skywalker said, like a parent reminding a frantic child that he was listening. “We know you’re not well. It’s been rough for you these past couple days.”

            “I’m not crazy!” Fives cried, and Rex clenched his teeth against what he heard in his friend’s voice. “Please… please, just… just hear… what I have to say!

            The voice shifted until it was coming from behind them. Rex and Skywalker turned and started toward the sound.

            “We’re here to help you, Fives; just come with us!” Skywalker coaxed. “Let us take you back to the Temple.”

            A blinding light flashed; a ray shield surrounded them.

            “No!” The general rushed forward to slam his fist against it. Rex frowned up at the emitter; the shield must have been set up to contain volatile goods in the warehouse as needed. He wondered if Fives had planned this as the meeting place for precisely that reason. Fives was just that smart.

            Something moved behind the crates, and Fives pulled himself around the corner, into view. His head was shaved bald; he was wearing armor, but not his own. Rex could only just make out his desperate expression from the light of the shield.

            “I just… need you to listen to me. Please!

            “I’m not really sure we have any other choice!” Skywalker spat back, folding his arms.

            Fives stepped closer, throwing his arms wide, fists clenched as his voice cracked and shook with emotion between his shallow panting. “I was framed!” It was nearly a sob. “Because I know the truth! The truth about a plot…” One hand clutched at his head. “A massive deception!”

            Rex had already heard all this from Skywalker. They needed real details, and they needed them now. He stepped up next to Skywalker so Fives could see him. “By whom?

            “Well there’s a sinister plot,” Fives fumbled, “in the works, against the Jedi!” His voice didn’t steady; if anything it was getting more erratic, and his hands jerked and grasped as he edged closer to them, barely seeming aware of his own movements. “I have proof of it!” he yelled, gasping. “I can prove that everything I know is true beyond a shadow of a doubt!

            “Show me the evidence,” Skywalker demanded.

            “The… evidence is….” Fives held his head with one hand, his voice faint with confusion. Rex didn’t want to see this, this struggle to hang on to whatever scrap of sanity Fives had left while the virus turned his intelligence into the babblings of a lunatic. There was no point in watching him suffer like this, all for some scrap of information which was probably heavily twisted by Fives’ mental state.

            “In here,” Fives blurted, pointing at his own head repeatedly. “It’s, i-it’s in here, it’s in all of us! Every clone!”

            Rex’s breath caught. “What is it?”

            “Organic chips, built into our genetic code,” Fives sighed in one low, exhausted breath. He knelt, resting his head against his arm, propped up on one of the crates. “To make us do whatever someone wants…” His voice quaked. “Even kill the Jedi.”

            Rex’s stomach lurched.

            Fives stood and stepped toward the ray shield with a look of naked fear on his face. “It’s… all in here!” he insisted, pointing at his own temple, pleading.

            Skywalker glanced at Rex, his face still dark with anger. Rex rubbed the back of his neck, his skin prickling all over with horrified chills. Chips that could be used to control clones, like droids. It sounded crazy, especially when Fives choked it out like this. Rex was sure the technology existed, but that it could have been implanted at some point into hundreds of thousands of clones by the enemy was impossible to believe. Unless—

            “Let’s just get you some help first,” the general said, reverting to his parental tone, but somehow it sounded less genuine. “Then we can review everything. It’ll be okay, Fives, we’ll sort this out.”

            Fives’ face worked with uncertainty, then devastation. A strangled yell burst from him. “YOU DON’T BELIEVE ME!”

            Rex reached out a hand toward the ray shield, keeping his voice level and calm. If he could just get Fives to stop panicking….

            “Fives,” he tried, “We are… listening to you. We only want to help.”

            “How do I know you’re not tricking me?” Fives kept rubbing the back of his neck, acting dizzy or pained. He looked at Rex and Skywalker as if they had personally betrayed him. “How do I know… it won’t be a trap?!” Fives was just on the other side of the ray shield now, staring Rex in the eyes with a tormented expression. “The chancellor would try to kill me!” he snarled. “Now I promise you that!”

            “The chancellor?” Skywalker leaned forward.

            “He’s in on it!” Fives started pacing, covering his eyes and then clenching his fists, hunched over. “I don’t know to what extent, but I know he orchestrated much of this!” He whirled back to face them. “He told me in the medical bay!”

            “He told you?” Skywalker asked, voice going hard. “When you tried to assassinate him?! You have gone too far, Fives! The chancellor isn’t capable of what you claim!”

            “He IS!” Fives threw up his hands. “I swear to you, General, you have no idea—!”

            “Stand down, soldier! Stand down!

            All at once, at least half a dozen red-painted troopers rushed at them from the shadows, all their blasters pointed straight at Fives. Rex’s blood went cold as Fives whirled to face them.

            “Get on your knees!” Commander Fox roared.

            “No!” Fives cried desperately, hands outstretched. “No no, stay back!” His head jerked to the left and Rex followed his gaze to where his pistols lay on the crate nearby.

            “Don’t do it!” Fox cried. “Don’t do it, soldier!

            “GET AWAY FROM ME!” Fives screamed.

            “Fives! NO!” Rex cried as Fives snatched up the pistol.

            One blaster shot. Fives’ breath left him roughly in one burst, but he kept gasping for it, choking on it. The pistol clattered to the ground at his feet.

            “Fives!” Rex pressed close to the shield and saw Fives’ knees buckle, saw him fall onto his side, the hole in his chest still smoldering. “FIVES!”

            Rex pounded at the shield, not breathing either.

            “Fives….”

            “Get this ray shield off!” Skywalker commanded.

            Another shot, and the shield was gone. Rex fell to his knees by Fives and rolled him onto his back—he was still breathing, shaking—Rex could feel it.

            “Fives.”

            “Brother,” Fives gasped between tearing breaths, eyes unfocused.

            “Call for help!” Rex cried at Fox’s team. “We need a medic!”

            Fives’ whole body heaved, struggling as he coughed and gulped at the air. “Rex….”

            Rex stared at his face, twisted in pain. “Fives,” he answered heavily, his whole body feeling weighed down and trapped as if by quicksand.

            “This…” Fives struggled to keep his eyes on Rex. “It’s… bigger than any of us… anything… I could have imagined….” Fives’ head shook wildly with the effort of his breathing. He grabbed blindly at Rex’s shoulder, his voice weak, full of grief. “I-I never meant… to…”

            Rex reached for him, feeling as if his armor were crushing his chest. He put one hand behind Fives’ head, the other under his arm, and pulled him up close so that their cheeks were nearly touching.

            “I only wanted to do my duty,” Fives breathed into his ear.

            A shudder went through Rex starting from the knot in his gut, and he fought against the burning in his eyes, the icy burning that was sweeping over him like the bomb on Thisspias. For a split second, he thought in some detached corner of his mind about how just moments ago—this same night, he had stood up to his general and resolved to do his duty, even knowing what it would cost, even despite Skywalker’s disapproval and even anger. He knew. He knew so well what Fives meant by those words.

            Fives groaned and gasped in his ear, and Rex pulled back to watch him struggling against the pain, unable to breathe. “Brother,” Rex pleaded. “Fives—” Fives’ eyes were closing. “Stay with me, Fives!” He jerked Fives up gently. “Fives?”

            “The mission…” Fives whispered, face quivering as the rest of his body was shaking in Rex’s arms—Rex wondered if he was still shaking, too. “The nightmares… they’re… finally…” Fives’ face relaxed and his shaking began to subside. “Over….”

            His head fell back and Rex thought for a moment he had just passed out. “Fives,” he called quietly, shaking him. “No… Fives….” He shook him harder, the truth sinking in. “Come on Fives, stay with me, stay with me!” He couldn’t control the way his mouth was shaking, curling, could barely speak around the pressure that was building in his throat. “Fives!” He cradled the man’s head in both hands. “Fives! Don’t go!

            Fives was motionless, not a sign of life in his face, no pulse on his neck. He was gone.

            “No,” Rex breathed, his own voice strange and dull to his ears as he laid Fives’ body down on the metal floor. “Oh no….”

            He felt a hand on his shoulder. It took him a moment to summon the will to look up, away from Fives’ face, and the hole in his armor. General Skywalker looked down at him sadly. Rex could find nothing to say. Silence thundered in his ears. After a moment, he let his eyes fall to Fives again.

            It was over. Walking into this warehouse, Rex had told himself he was prepared to kill if by some chance it came to that, trusting that the Kaminoans would find the answer in both their bodies after death… he had half convinced himself that Fives was already gone.

            But Fives hadn’t been killed by the virus. He hadn’t been scared because of what he didn’t know. He was panicking because of something he already knew.

            Fives’ words clanged in his head. The chancellor. How could the chancellor be involved? Nothing about this made sense. His body, lying there, shot by one of his own brothers—everything was all wrong. Rex stared at Fives’ face and put his hands over his eyes to block it out, gripping his own head against the realization that Fives would never be able to tell him anything more.

            “A shame it had to turn out this way,” one of Fox’s men said.

            Rex pushed himself to his feet, his eyes drawn back again, against his will. He looked for the pistol Fives had grabbed, and found it back in place with its twin on the crate. Skywalker must have put it there. He slid them into their holsters, imagining Fives’ shaking hands gripping the handle.

            “We’d better take his body to the hospital,” Skywalker said solemnly, “so the doctors can do an autopsy. I don’t want to lose any more of my men to this virus.”

            “We’ll take care of that, sir,” Commander Fox said. “I’ll call for appropriate transport.”

            “Alright.” Skywalker gripped Rex’s shoulder tightly and turned him to face away from the body on the floor. “Let’s go, Rex.” His voice was soft but firm.

            “Yes, sir,” Rex said automatically.

            He was no stranger to walking away from the bodies of men he knew. But all his steps felt heavy now, his mind ground to a futile halt, spinning in place and never going anywhere. Fives had been calling to him specifically, and it was as if his presence was still there, pulling at him. Never leave a brother behind. He shook himself, lengthened his stride so he kept pace with Skywalker, the sick despair subsiding into a mild dizziness.

            He had done all he could to help Fives, he told himself. He had done his duty. There was nothing for it now but to accept the truth, whatever that truth might turn out to be.

Chapter Text

            Anakin reached out with the Force, unable to see Rex’s face from where he was sitting in the cockpit. He felt little ripples of nausea and anxious confusion amid the bleak aura of loss that hung around them both. It worried him. It felt too much like what he’d sensed from Fives.

            “Everything alright up there, Rex?”

            “Yes, sir,” Rex said.

            As he drove toward the hospital, he thought carefully about what to do next, just waiting for Rex to ask where they were going next, or what he thought of all that had just happened. But Rex was silent, and he remained silent all the way to the hospital. Anakin clenched the controls. He couldn't handle the thought of watching Rex lose his sanity to this virus like Fives and Tup, but for the first time since this all began, he felt a stab of fear. Rex was right—they were running out of time.

            It didn't take long for them to reach their destination. As they got out and headed inside, Anakin noted how tired the captain looked, but when Rex caught him in mid-glance, his eyes seemed as focused as ever.

            Nala Se was waiting for them on the other side of the doors, her white oval face mildly surprised. “Master Skywalker. Were you unable to locate the defective clone?”

            “We did locate Fives,” Anakin said, nodding once to Shaak Ti as she entered the room from an adjacent hall. “Commander Fox and his men should be arriving with his body soon. I’m here to ask that Captain Rex be kept under quarantine until a cure is found.”

            “Sir?” Rex started slightly as Anakin gripped his shoulder tight.

            “Don’t worry, Rex. I’m going to talk to the Jedi Council about everything right away. This way, if you are infected, you don’t have to worry about spreading it to anyone else. We should have you out of here in no time.”

            “Weapons, please,” a droid warbled, and Anakin watched, tense, half expecting Rex to outright refuse. But the captain set his DC-17s into the shallow tray the droid held without hesitation.

            “Thank you, Master Skywalker,” Nala Se said. “We have already run tests on the body of the first infected clone, and are waiting for the results now. If, as I predict, the tests do come back positive for a viral infection, we may have a vaccine ready in a matter of hours.”

            “That’s good to hear. Thank you for all your hard work.”

            “I will personally escort this clone to a secure room, immediately,” Nala Se said, and put a hand between Rex’s shoulder blades, but Rex stepped out of her reach and back toward Anakin.

            “General,” his voice was nearly a whisper. “You'll tell the Jedi Council everything Fives said, won’t you?”

            Rex lifted his hand and brushed it against his own temple in a subtle gesture. The chips. Anakin glanced at Shaak Ti and Nala Se, wishing he could just tell Rex the truth—that they all knew about the inhibitor chips already—without fearing that Rex would react to the news as badly as Fives had.

            Instead he just nodded. “I’m going to tell them everything we saw and heard here tonight.”

            Rex nodded back. “Good luck, sir.” 

            Anakin waited until Rex and Nala Se had withdrawn, then turned to Shaak Ti and lowered his voice. “Master Shaak Ti. I need you to ask the hospital staff to keep a close eye on Captain Rex. While he might be infected, he also might not, and I don’t want him getting any ideas. He was talking earlier about eliminating himself as a source of contagion.”

            “I shall pass on the message,” Shaak Ti promised. “And meet you at the Temple to discuss these strange and mysterious events.”

            Rex felt he had barely slept at all by the time morning officially arrived. The room he was quarantined in did not have any windows; he only assumed it was morning because of how unbearably long the dark hours had dragged on in that confusing space between sleep and wakefulness… and because Shaak Ti said “Good morning, Captain,” when she showed up in the doorway and turned on the light.

            Nala Se was with her, holding a hypospray. Rex sat up, glad to be brought out of his own thoughts.

            “Good morning, General.” He got to his feet.

            Once the two had entered the room, General Skywalker entered behind them.

            “General Skywalker.” Rex glanced at the hypospray. “Have the doctors figured out what was wrong with Tup?”

            “They have.” Skywalker looked relieved.

            “There was an unfortunate oversight on my part,” Nala Se murmured slowly. “However, working in cooperation with the other doctors here, and comparing the data from both bodies, we were able to isolate the cause. It was a rare parasite, native to Ringo Vinda.”

            “Then… everyone who was on that mission, and everyone they’ve been in contact with is still at risk,” Rex realized.

            “Not for much longer.” Shaak Ti smiled. “Doctor Nala Se has prepared an inoculation which will be administered to every single trooper in the army, beginning with you.”

            “None of us will have to worry about this ever happening again,” Skywalker said, grinning faintly.

            “That’s… very good news, sir,” Rex said. He felt less relieved than he’d expected. Fives’ last words had worn deep tracks in his mind for the last several hours, and now to think that Fives had been completely wrong about everything….

            He tilted his head when Nala Se wordlessly approached him, allowing her to inject the cure. He tried to tell himself that it was over now; the chance that his dreams or Skywalker’s dreams would become reality was being swept away as immunity to the parasite established itself in his body.

            “Thank you, Doctor.” Rex rubbed the mild stinging on his neck.

            Skywalker shared a glance with Shaak Ti, and Shaak Ti gave him a tiny smile.

            “You are free to return to the barracks now, Rex,” she said, motioning to Nala Se. “The doctors and I must organize the effort to spread the cure to the rest of the troops.”

            “Of course, General.” Rex bowed his head slightly in gratitude as she and Nala Se left.

            Skywalker didn’t follow them. Instead, he folded his arms and looked at Rex with concern. “It’s been a long night. But at least now we can put this whole mess behind us and get back to ending this war.”

            “Yes, sir,” Rex said, and when Skywalker continued to stare at him he went on. “I apologize for my actions earlier. What I said to you on the platform was out of line.”

            “There was a lot at stake,” Skywalker said dismissively. “I’m just glad everyone’s safe from this parasite now.”

            Rex said nothing to that.

            “You’re not still worried about what you saw in your dreams, are you?” Skywalker asked. “If we were both having visions of the same future… I have a feeling we just averted it by finding a cure. There’s not going to be any more clones turning against each other or against the Jedi… not unless they choose to on their own… and you’re not going to do that, right?”

            “Of course not. It’s… not just that, sir,” Rex said. “I keep thinking… about what Fives said… about there being chips in all of us, every clone, that someone could use to control us. If we were all implanted with chips capable of controlling our behavior, that would be a terrible weakness for the enemy to exploit. The consequences for overlooking something like that are barely imaginable.”

            Skywalker looked uncomfortable and Rex wondered for a moment if he’d made a mistake in bringing up his concerns. But the general sighed. “Rex… the truth is, every clone does have a chip, but it’s not for the reason Fives thought. They’re inhibitor chips, designed to prevent hostile behavior toward allies, and Tup’s was broken. Fives’ too… the parasite managed to break it down somehow.”

            “Inhibitor chips?” Rex paused, considering. “General… why didn’t any of us know about this before?”

            Skywalker frowned self-consciously. “Look, I would have told you, but with everything happening so quickly, there didn't seem to be a good time.”

            “Sir.” Rex chose his words carefully. “If Fives had this parasite the whole time, isn’t it possible his chip was degrading gradually, until it reached a certain point where the damage made him act the way he did? Mine could be going the same way. Even though we’ve gotten rid of the parasite, there could still be some damage to the chip.”

            Skywalker shook his head. “I already asked Nala Se about that. Because of the clean tests they got from Fives before he left Kamino, she’s pretty confident that the parasite works quickly once it develops to a certain stage. It destroyed Fives’ chip in a matter of minutes. She assured me that if you haven’t shown any signs of hostility yet, we don’t have anything to worry about.”

            “Yes, sir,” he said, because no other response was neutral enough. Something still felt off, but Rex couldn’t be certain it wasn’t his own exhaustion talking.

            “Maybe now that the crisis is over,” Skywalker was saying, as they left the room, “you should go get a few hours of real sleep in the barracks. Come on, I’ll give you a ride.”

            “I appreciate that, sir,” Rex said, but made no immediate move to follow the general. “Did… you talk to the Council about what happened? What Fives said?” He knew he was out of line to ask, but he wanted to make sure they had the complete report of the incident.

            “I did,” Skywalker said. He glanced at Rex.  “…And then I was dismissed. They didn't discuss it in front of me.”

            Rex took a deep breath. “And my dreams?”

            The general looked away. “I didn't mention them. Like I said, now that the parasite is gone, so is the threat. You were having them because you were infected. That's what you said, isn't it?”

            “Yes, sir,” Rex said again, feeling less relieved now that this could be put behind them than he expected. Skywalker turned back toward the exit, and as soon as Rex fell into step behind him, he knew he would find it difficult to rest even in the barracks. It was true the nightmares had been more vivid since Ringo Vinda, but he had been having them in some form or another long before that mission.

            He shook himself mentally as they stepped out of the hospital into the morning sun. He really wasn’t going to get any sleep if he kept dwelling on this. Once they’d settled into the speeder, he turned to Skywalker.

            “When’s our next mission, General?”

            “Actually, we’re going to the edge of the Outer Rim, so if any of the major assault teams need reinforcements, we’ll be close. We leave in a few days.”

            “I’ll have my men ready. It’ll be good to get back in the fight.”

            Anakin turned away from the fluidic movement of hyperspace and back toward the too-quiet bridge of his latest flagship, the Tenacity. The battle currently underway on Ryloth played in his mind as Rex came through the door, helmet tucked under one arm.

            Without preamble, Anakin pulled up the holographic link to General Aayla Secura’s ship.

            “We’re all here now, Master Secura,” Anakin said. “Please proceed with the briefing.”

            “The situation on Ryloth is getting out of hand,” Secura’s hologram said. “We have managed to drive the Separatists out of three major cities, but there are many wounded: both our own troops and civilians. No supply ships have managed to get through the battle above—all our ships are busy preventing the Separatists from making any attacks on the surface, and cannot provide additional cover for the medical frigates. We need a way to take the worst casualties to the only secure and well-equipped hospital under our control. I’m asking you to transport the wounded from these outlying cities to the capitol.”

            “I’ll need a detailed map of the area before we can start making a strategy.”

            Secura nodded and tapped on an invisible console. “I’m sending it to you now. It would be safest for the casualties if you could commandeer one of the Separatist carriers, but if that is not possible, I can think of a few alternatives. There are many tunnels which run underneath the capital, and at least one which lets out at the point I have marked, just behind the battle zone.”

            Anakin leaned back from the holographic map, turning it and taking in all the angles and points noted.

            “This way, you would only be required to break through one line of enemy defenses, and would be clear of heavy fire from the ground for the greater part of your flight. But the Separatists might catch on to this plan, and find a way to trap you in the tunnels. There is also the risk of cave-in simply from the bombardment of the tanks, especially at this point just outside the city walls.”

            “So it could be just as dangerous as flying over their heavy artillery,” Anakin said wryly. “And the third option?”

            “Send a decoy first. Let the Separatists deal with it while the prisoners are transported in another ship.”

            “Or,” Anakin said confidently, “we join the fight directly, help you win, and the risk to the wounded in transport disappears. I could join the battle up here, and send carriers to drop ground troops where they can come up behind the enemy and surprise them.”

            Secura frowned. “I don’t think you understand the severity of this engagement, General Skywalker. The only reason I believe you will make it past the Separatist fleet is because of your reputation as a pilot. If you sent ground troops in separate ships, they would never reach the surface.”

            Anakin was tempted to make a jab at Secura for doubting his pilots, but he knew better; the situation called for serious consideration.

            “Alright, then we make a compromise.” Anakin studied the highlighted routes on the map. “The Tenacity will focus on taking out the cannons while I pilot our Nu-class shuttle through and drop some ground troops off in Joreikna. Then I'll take a few pilots and head toward this staging area and see what I can do about commandeering a couple of those droid carriers. Should be simple enough.”

            Secura did not seem impressed by his confidence. “Remember, once you are on the ground, your communications will be monitored until we can take out the array at their base. Be careful. Contact me again once you’ve landed. You may be feeling a little differently once you've seen the situation first-hand.”

            “Don't worry, Rex and I have dealt with missions like this plenty of times, right, Captain?”

            Rex’s eyes jerked up from the map. “Y… yes sir.”

            “Your captain doesn’t seem as confident as you are.”

            Anakin gave Rex a significant look. “Of course he is, Master Secura. I bet he already has a strategy or two of his own in mind. Tell her, Rex.”

            Rex straightened; his eyes went over the map a bit too quickly. “We have a few options,” he said haltingly, his brow furrowed. “But… it might be easier to tell which is the most effective once we’re on the ground.”

            Anakin stared at Rex. The captain didn’t seem to realize he was redundantly stating the same thing Secura had suggested.

            “Just get past those ships,” said Secura. “I must return to the fight. May the Force be with you.”

            The hologram blinked out. Anakin looked over the table at Rex, who stared back at him with an almost guilty expression.

            “Are you ready for this mission, Rex?” Anakin asked seriously.

            “Of course, General,” Rex said. “I have confidence that you will choose the best method for delivering the casualties.”

            “You just seem a little… distracted.” Anakin came around the table toward him. “You’re not sick or something, are you?”

            “My health is fine, sir,” Rex said. “I apologize for not giving the briefing my full attention. It won’t happen again.”

            “It better not,” Anakin said sternly. “This can’t become a trend. I know things in the Five-Oh-First haven't been easy lately, but we're in the middle of a war, and I need to be able to count on you and your men. If there’s something on your mind, or if there’s a reason you’re not focusing, maybe you better tell me now. Otherwise, I expect you to forget it and get your head back in the mission.”

            “Understood!” Rex kept steady eye contact. “It’s nothing, sir. A personal matter.”

            Anakin let his voice and face soften a bit. “It’s Fives, isn’t it?”

            Rex gave a short, almost frustrated sigh. “No, sir.”

            Anakin raised an eyebrow skeptically. “If you say so. Did you hear everything Master Secura said?”

            “Our mission is to break through to the surface, and transport casualties from the two outlying cities to the capital.”

            “And how did each of us propose to do that?”

            “General Secura… mentioned enemy carriers, and tunnels.” Rex’s face was rigid. “And you proposed to use a shuttle… the Blue Harpy?”

            “And that’s all you remember?”

            Rex averted his eyes. “That’s… about the extent of it, sir. I have no excuse, but as I promised, it won’t happen again.”

            Anakin folded his arms, mentally debating whether to push the issue or trust Rex’s word. He’d always been able to trust it before, but then… Rex had never made this kind of mistake before in the first place.

            “Alright. Let’s get back to the mission, then. I’ll fill you in during our final approach to the Ryloth System.”

            “Thank you, sir.”

            After a wild ride through the thick firefight just outside Ryloth’s atmosphere and a tense hour waiting for Skywalker to return with the droid carriers, Rex and his men stood inside the city, everything appearing to be going according to plan. Joreikna was tucked between two small cliffs, and troops from the 327th had created a barricade on its open side using felled droid carriers, tanks, and even the pieces of destroyed buildings on the city’s edge. Night was falling, obscuring much of the damage the city had already maintained.

            It got quieter the further toward the center they walked. The Twi’lek citizens kept indoors mostly, sometimes peering out from behind scorched curtains or cracked shutters. Here and there, faceless suits of armor lay dead on the edges of the streets at the edges of their light beams. Rex kept his eyes on Skywalker’s back, determined not to let his focus slip again.

            “There it is.” Skywalker pointed at a long, low rectangular structure of the same sandy color as all the rest. One corner of the roof and a wall had caved in and was covered with a tarp that snapped in the wind.

            Inside, it was dim and much cooler than outside, but the particular smell of wounded bodies in close quarters was still strong. Most of the troopers had been relieved of their armor.

            “Kix.” Rex gestured toward the yellow-painted medic moving among the casualties.

            Kix nodded and and waved the other present 501st medics over to offer their help to the 327th medic, while General Skywalker led Rex toward a Twi’lek who was winding bandages around a civilian’s lekku. Rex picked his way carefully, and as a gust of warm air came from the open doorway, it kicked up a whorl of sand and ruffled the edge of the rough brown blanket covering one patient by his feet.

            Something about the movement of that corner of cloth, the way the bodies lay thick on the ground beneath him in the dimness—Rex took a deep breath and tried not to think about the nightmares. They had not quit after the parasite had been neutralized; in fact, they had not let up at all.

            His hands rested against the grips of his DC-17s and he again remembered Fives mentioning nightmares on his dying breath. He had assumed Fives had been having them as a result of the             parasite, just as Rex thought his had been strengthened… but his dreams' current persistence despite being cured made him wonder. What if Fives had been having nightmares for years, just as he had been?

            “Are you the doctor in charge here?” Skywalker’s voice jarred Rex free of his thoughts, and he saw the general kneel beside the Twi’lek who tended the others.

            “Yes,” she said, only glancing up once from her work—her patient was grunting in pain as she tightened the bandages. “And you are here to take my patients to the capitol. We were told you were coming. I moved the most severely injured patients onto stretchers near the door. Please make sure your men are careful while moving them. Bit and I have done what we can, but their condition is barely stable.”

            Skywalker nodded gravely and turned around, voice raised. “You heard the doctor! The patients by the door are our first priority. At least two men to a stretcher; I want to give these people as smooth a ride as possible, starting with the trip to the carriers.”

            “Yes, sir!” the men called out.

            As Rex moved back to the door and crouched by one of many unconscious clones, Jesse crouched on the other end of the stretcher.

            “Count of three,” Rex said. “Nice and easy. One… two….”

            They lifted smoothly together. Rex backed out into the street and waited for Jesse to swing gradually around so they could go sideways. The general came out after half a dozen more pairs and kept a close watch on their surroundings as they shuffled slowly toward the ships.

            As Rex kept his eyes down, watching for imperfections in the road, his mind wandered again. Fox should have stunned Fives. Killing him meant never learning what more he meant to say… and some terrible, traitorous part of Rex’s mind wondered if that was the point. Fives had known something, and been silenced accordingly.

            “Think we’ll all make it past the remaining cannons?” Jesse asked.

            Rex looked up, but of course no expression was visible on Jesse’s helmet. “With the general drawing their fire in the Harpy? Yeah. Besides, General Secura and Commander Bly will be using this opportunity to disable the ones outside the airstrike zone.”

            Jesse laughed under his breath. “Just another great last-minute plan by General Skywalker.”

            “Sorry, boys,” Skywalker laughed, walking easily beside them. “I get all the fun parts in this plan. Looks like you’re just here for the heavy lifting.”

            “That’s fine with me, General,” Jesse said, looking down at the heavily bruised trooper they were carrying. “Looks like these guys had it pretty rough out there.”

            “We might still join the fight once the wounded are safe,” Skywalker smirked. “I have a feeling this battle will have to tip one way or the other before we’re done.”

            They went carefully up the ramp into the carrier’s hangar, their footsteps echoing on the metal floor. For a moment, the relative dimness of the interior and the blazing light of Skywalker’s saber brought Rex back to the warehouse. Fives' last words again played in his mind. The mission. The nightmares. And what he’d said to Tup during their retreat at Ringo Vinda. What mission?

            The stretcher jerked in his hands and the clone lying on it grunted.

            “Captain?” said Jesse quietly.

            Rex glanced over at Skywalker, hoping he hadn’t noticed, but the general was looking right at him.

            “Did you see something?” asked Jesse, turning his head to sweep the carrier’s interior.

            “Just shadows,” said Rex, and stepped toward the nearest empty space on the floor. “Come on.”

            He was glad no one could look him in the eye. And more than any other time he could remember, he hoped they wouldn’t be doing much fighting today. Slip-ups like this were a death sentence on the battlefield, not only to him, but to his men as well. And judging by how they’d only made a dent in the casualties this first run, none of them could afford to let their attention slide for even a second.

            Night was falling on Ryloth as Rex stepped out of the hospital in Lessu. He found General Skywalker a stone’s throw from where General Secura was speaking with Commander Bly.

            “Looks like that’s the last of them, sir,” Rex said. “We did lose one or two in transit this time, but their injuries were pretty severe.”

            “We’ve done good work today, Rex,” Skywalker said, not lacking an ounce of his usual energy. “Ready for phase two?”

            “What’s the plan, General?”

            “We’re going to split up our men into nine teams. Pick out eight other team leaders and meet me back in the Blue Harpy as soon as everyone’s ready.”

            “Right away, sir!”

            It didn’t take long for Rex to choose. Soon, all eight of them stood with him, facing General Skywalker across the hologram projector on the bridge of the shuttle.

            “Jesse will lead team two,” Rex said, indicating each clone as he named them. “The seven other teams will be led by Singer, Index, Rabbit, Dash Dot, Appo, Bow, and Brick.”

            Skywalker looked over them all, noting the little variations that set them apart as Rex pointed. Singer, wearing his usual contemplative expression, had never abandoned the basic style each clone cadet started with, but he did have his name tattooed in small letters beneath his left eye.  Index was easy to spot by his alert posture and thin lines shaved into his hair, while Rabbit was bald with a swirl pattern tattooed on his head. Dash Dot’s helmet had a series of dashes and dots around the back. Appo, Brick, and Bow were also wearing their helmets, Appo with his characteristic white arrow, and Brick with the solid rectangle of blue on one side of his helmet which paralleled the block of text tattooed underneath.

            “Alright. Captain Rex believes you’re the best men available to lead these teams. So here’s the plan.” Skywalker pulled up a section of the map General Secura had given them. “This base is General Secura’s next target. It has extensive defensive missile systems, designed to shoot down any ship that tries to get too close. It’s also shielded. If ground troops can get close enough, the shield isn’t a problem, but we know there are tanks and plenty of battle droids stationed around the perimeter to prevent that. We’re going to draw out the ground forces so General Secura’s troops can take over the base.”

            Skywalker pulled the view out a bit. The base sat inside a wider section of a gorge which split into narrow, criss-crossing ravines before finally ending in a wash of dunes.

            “I’m going to fly the Blue Harpy over the base, let them think they’ve damaged it so that I’m forced to land just outside the range of their missiles. But the Harpy has a wider firing range than they do. The ship will continue attacking the base from that position, trying to wear down their shields, while the rest of you take your positions in the gorge. Timing is everything, here. Each team will attack in a stage to push the enemy forces where we want them, or draw them out in pursuit. We have to funnel them down this ravine.”

            “General, sir,” Index said, “if we herd them into that place, they might hold some troops in reserve, come up behind. Then we'll be caught in our own trap.”

            Skywalker smirked. “What did I just say, Index? Timing. We’re going to hold off on fully engaging the enemy until we’ve split off a good number of their battle droids. The tanks don’t have much of a choice of where to go; they can’t cut us off because the back entrance to this passage is too narrow.” He traced the ravine he’d marked before with one finger. “Our attacks will be coordinated so that we thin their numbers, and don’t reveal our own until we have them where we want. I’ve already worked out exactly how this should go, alright? As long as each team is at their assigned spot at the right time, and everyone attacks in the right sequence, we’ll have ourselves a quick and easy path to victory.”

            “I don’t doubt it, sir,” Appo said. “But with comm channels being monitored, it will be impossible to collaborate further once we're out on the field.”

            “I was just about to say the same thing,” Skywalker said. “You’ll all have to remember every other team’s position so that you can attack at the right time. So here are your individual assignments. Singer, you’ll be stationed closest to the base on the north side of the gorge. You’ll be the first to attack. Hide most of your men in these pockets, and take a few to the entrance of this section to fire on the droids and lure them in. Try to pull as much of their attention as you can.”

            Singer nodded once, slowly, with a smile and half-shut eyes. “We’ll give them a worthy fight, sir. On our honor.”

            “Dash Dot, you’ll be waiting deeper in the ravine, to the east of Singer’s position. You have to guard the parallel passage and keep any of the droids lured by Singer from getting away. Be prepared for a fight on both sides, but don’t attack until you’re approached, or until Singer’s troops need a diversion.”

            “Understood.”

            “Rabbit, you’ll be just ahead of Singer on the south side, right at this junction here. The terrain is pretty rough there, but I hear that’s no problem for you.”

            “No problem at all, sir,” Rabbit drawled.

            “Heh,” said Brick. “We don’t call him Rabbit for nothing, General.”

            “Just as long as you keep an eye out for your men too,” Skywalker said. “You’ll attack next. The enemy could easily loop around behind you against the cliff, so I’ll have Jesse stationed here at the southernmost passage to prevent that and to help pen the droids in once you’ve led them there.”

            “It’ll take a while for those clankers to get over the rocks,” Rabbit observed. “But eh… we’ll keep ‘em interested.”

            Skywalker nodded. “Rex, you’ll be here, just northeast of Rabbit and Jesse’s ambush, and across the central passage of the gorge from Index.” Skywalker pointed at another opening into the interconnecting passages where Jesse and Rabbit would be luring droids. Rex’s position was behind one of many large rock formations scattered throughout the gorge. The rock angled toward Index’s position, making a bottleneck in the central passage. “This is the choke point—we don’t want to let the main part of their forces through if we can help it. Index’s passage is the only other one wide enough for tanks. From your position, you’ll push their forces to pursue Index and his men into the trap we’ve set here.”

            “Yes sir.”

            “Do not let them past that point if you can help it.” The general said. “Index will be occupied drawing them back, so I’m counting on you to keep them from advancing in the wrong direction. Appo and Bow will be stationed here—” Skywalker pointed at two parallel points even further east on the main passage, “and they’ll be the last line of defense against any tanks that make it through, but they need to be able to join the fight in the northern passage when the time comes for all our forces to converge on that point. Brick, you’re here.” Skywalker indicated a narrow exit to the northeast of Index’s position. “You just keep any droids from getting out that way.”

            “They won’t get past us, sir. You can count on that.” Brick smirked, patting the rifle resting against his shoulder.

            “Any questions so far?”

            Rex took a steady breath and stared at the map, memorizing the attack positions, while Index asked about back up plans and Appo got clarification on which route to take to join the final stage of the battle. The plan seemed straight-forward enough. Push the enemy in one direction, and don’t let them break through to the ship.

            “Alright,” Skywalker said at last. “Get some rest. We move out in six hours.”

            It was quiet in the gorge, and hot even in the shade. The long, stealthy walk to their various positions was followed by hours of waiting as the sun rose higher. All this time gave Rex’s mind too much freedom to wander as he sat against the rock wall. It was a relief when the first sounds of battle drifted to them on the dry desert wind.

            A trooper with three hollow dots on both sides of his helmet came loping quietly into the shade where they waited. Rex stood up.

            “How close are they, AT?”

            Afterthought came to attention. “Sir. Rabbit and his men are falling back into the gulch. I count at least two hundred droids in pursuit. The front lines are continuing to advance and should cross into visual range in the next ten or fifteen minutes.”

            “Good.” Rex turned and motioned to those he could see to get to their feet. “Alert the rest of the team. It’s about to get a lot hotter down here.”

            “Yes, sir!”

            AT jogged ahead while Rex followed behind to pick up any stragglers who might have missed the command from where they were holed up in crannies in the wall. Staying out of sight made good sense the closer they were to Jesse’s position—their orders were clear, to stay out of Jesse and Rabbits’ fight unless things went desperately wrong.

            Soon they were all huddled densely under the eastern tip of the long, thin rock wall that shielded them from the main part of the gorge.

            Rex peered carefully around the edge. The sun glinted blindingly off the first lines of marching battle droids. Above the clankers, the barrel of a tank’s gun swiveled slightly.

            “Here they come,” he said quietly to the men closest, holding up a hand. “Now we wait until Index fires. Twist, Steel, got those charges ready?”

            A trooper lifted both hands to show the grenades he held. “Ready, Captain.”

            “Can’t wait to take out some tactical droids,” Steel added, waving one of his own charges. “Those things give me the creeps.”

            “Steady,” said Rex.

            The droid army came close enough that above the distant blaster fire and the rumble of the cannons, Rex could hear the telltale clank echoing against the walls of the gorge. But Index didn’t fire. Rex peeked around the corner again, just enough to catch sight of the butte the other team’s attack should have come from.

            “Why aren’t they firing?” Afterthought hissed.

            Rex had no answer. “Come on, Index,” he breathed.

            The front line of droids inched closer.

            It passed the opening in the opposite cliff face.

            “Something must have gone wrong,” Rex said, thinking fast. “But the general gave us orders not to let the enemy past this point. Get ready to charge the front lines!”

            Afterthought ran to pass the message to those in the back, and everyone rushed forward so they were within sight of Rex.

            Rex stepped up on a rock and raised an arm. “Ready, men?”

            Helmets lifted toward him

            “LET’S GO! GO, GO, GO!”

            As one they rushed out into the open gorge, charged headlong into the mass of droids, and knocked half their targets down by bodily impact alone. Someone went down to Rex’s left and he hoped it wasn’t Twist—the nearest tank was too close to hit them but the one behind it was turning their way.

            In between knocking rifles from droid hands, blasting droid heads and stomping droid chests, Rex saw Steel climbing the tank. He took a quick shot at the tactical droid to distract it—a metal arm swung at him and he ducked.

            The second tank fired and the blast knocked Rex off his feet. As he scrambled up and backward, he saw Index’s men pouring from the opposite side of the gorge, yelling at the top of their lungs. The tank was getting ready to fire again, aiming straight for the thickest part of Rex’s team. The droids were crammed together, blaster fire coming so thick Rex had to crawl behind a rock.

            “Get out of range!” He yelled, and the men nearest took up the cry, echoing it through the chaos of the battle.

            Another rumbling blast and Rex feared the worst, but then he saw his men moving for cover further east. He jumped up and ran sideways to join them, all his attention bent on mowing down as many clankers as he could hit.

            Nearly a dozen went down before Rex dived and rolled behind a spur of rock on the north. He turned around and reassessed the battlefield. Steel had disabled the nearest tank, but the second one was coming in steadily.

            “Keep those droid poppers coming!” he commanded. The troopers he’d fallen in with lobbed their grenades into the advancing horde of droids, and Rex led another charge back out into the open. “CLOSE RANKS! DRIVE THEM BACK!”

            This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. The tanks would have been easy pickings if the droids were diverted by fighting Index’s team. Now everything was a mess, and as hard as Rex and his men tried to press forward, the clankers just kept marching on.

            They fell back again, heading for the nearest opening in the north side of the gorge. The second tank had stopped now but a third was closing in. A blur of blue light flew down from the top of the gorge and General Skywalker was on the tank, slicing its weapons, cutting its treads.

            “FORWARD!” Skywalker’s voice boomed out, and Rex and his men surged out to obey.

            As Skywalker jumped through the battlefield, picking off tactical droids and disabling the heavy weaponry, Rex and his men advanced with new confidence. The enemy forces were splitting off to the north, following Index as they were meant to. Rex stepped over Steel’s body as he and his men moved past the second disabled tank.

            Suddenly, Skywalker was in front of Rex, deflecting blaster fire and yelling above the noise.

            “What happened?! Why did you attack early?”

            “Index must not have been in position, sir!” Rex called back, shooting nonstop from his spot just behind the general. “I couldn’t let the enemy pass!”

            “No, you weren’t in position! You were too far west! Take a look around, Rex! You were supposed to be stationed at the narrowest part of this section!”

            Rex shifted so his back was to Skywalker’s, and looked to the east. The rock formation they’d been stationed behind had seemed right, but now, looking straight down the gorge, he saw how the passage narrowed further in, a second, larger wall running parallel to and behind the nearer one, diagonally jutting into the path.

            “Sir, I….” Rex stared down the gorge, his breath catching as an icy feeling crept into his stomach. “I should have sent a scout to double check our position.”

            “That’s right!” Skywalker yelled. “You should have! We’ll talk later. For now, just focus on the fight!”

            “Yes sir!” Rex pivoted with a numb sense of determination, and turned his full attention back to the battle.           

            Three days later, Rex sat on his bunk in the Tenacity's officer's quarters, wondering whether avoiding sleep might actually help his concentration. He wished he were back on Coruscant already, clearing his mind at the shooting range. They would be back soon enough, but at the moment they were currently docked at a space station, giving the ship a refuel and some much-needed repair after the ordeal Skywalker had put it through. After they destroyed the army in the gorge, General Secura had managed to drive the rest of the Separatist forces off with the help of General Mundi and the Galactic Marines. It had been a swift victory once the ships above had been destroyed, cutting the droid army off from receiving any fresh troops.

            Rex thought about looking for Kix. He could probably give him something to help him sleep more deeply. Maybe that would help.

            The door opened and Rex jumped to his feet a moment later to stand at silent attention.

            General Skywalker came in sat at the edge of a bunk. “At ease, Rex,” he said, motioning him down.

            Rex hesitated, then sank back down onto his bunk, sighing slowly.

            “I know the last month or so… well, I know it hasn't been easy for you,” Skywalker said, looking past his own lap and to some spot on the floor. “We've lost some… some good people. And then that thing on Thisspias, and then the parasite….”

            The pause dragged. Rex tried to swallow down the uncertainty rising from his already restless mind. “Just tell it to me straight, General.”

            Skywalker leaned toward him, nearly whispering. “I know Fives wasn’t just any soldier to you. He was your friend. A good friend. It’s natural to be affected by his death; I understand that, Rex.”

            Rex blew out a breath and looked away. “Sir, I….”

            “Don't deny it, Rex.” Skywalker commanded. “I know that despite everything people say, some clones form attachments just like some Jedi do. It’s only human. And sometimes the only way to move on is to acknowledge your feelings. Once you’ve acknowledged them, sometimes… they’re easier to control.”

            The same heavy feeling from the warehouse fell on him, that exhaustion he had first felt on Umbara. If a simple death was all it was, it would be easier… but somewhere, feelings he didn't want to name were growing: futility, and doubt. Cracks in the foundations of his beliefs that were defying every effort to trust that all was as it should be.

            “That may be true, sir,” Rex said wearily. “And… I appreciate you recognizing that. But the fact remains that I don't have the option of letting it affect me.” Rex closed his eyes briefly. “No… it’s better just to move on, and accept the fact that we all die, eventually. It’s what we’re made to do. Fives was no different. And neither am I. It would be wrong to act otherwise.”

            The general gave a frustrated huff. “Well, I’m not ready to have you get killed just yet. You’re not made to die. You’re made to fight. But Rex, you're becoming a liability on the battlefield. I’m ordering you to take some time off when we get back to Coruscant. Take some time to sort out your feelings.”

            “What? General!” Rex protested. “I realize I haven’t been performing to the usual standard, but—!”

            Skywalker held up a hand to cut him off. “This isn’t up for discussion. You obviously need time to recover from what happened with Fives.”

            “Nothing happened to me.” Rex argued. “I’m not sick, General. I’m not injured.”

            “Maybe,” Skywalker said doubtfully. “But you’re not going to be any good as captain until you figure this out. So you’re taking some time off. Just a few days, alright?”

            Rex gripped his knees, angry and ashamed of himself. “Yes, sir.”

            Skywalker frowned. “Don't take it personally, Rex. One man can only do so much.”

            With that, he turned and walked away. Rex watched him go before sighing deeply and laying down on his bunk. Surrounded by the quiet air conditioning of the ship, he stared at the underside of the bunk above, Fives’ shaky voice repeating in his mind. I only wanted to do my duty.

            Dwelling on questions of conspiracy and betrayal had gotten Fives killed. It could very well do the same to him. But he had a duty, didn’t he, to find out the truth, and follow it out to its conclusion. Rex didn’t see signs of his own exhaustion and nightmares in any of the other men, but then, he wasn’t at his most observant lately. They all tossed and turned or woke suddenly at times; they all had bad dreams, but they were combat dreams, hardly worth commenting on.

            That was exactly what he’d always called his nightmares. Combat dreams. Maybe he wasn’t the only one using such euphemisms. The nightmares, the mission… kill Jedi. He didn't want it to be true. He didn't want Fives to be right. As much as it felt wrong to prefer believing Fives had simply been going crazy, the alternative was so much worse.

            Leave wasn’t going to do Rex any good. Somehow, he knew, only the truth would stop the nightmares and let his memory of Fives rest in peace.

Chapter Text

            Kix and Jesse came into Seventy-Nines much later than Rex expected. He sat up a little straighter to watch them from his table in the corner.

            Jesse went up to the counter first, making friendly gestures to the bartender; Rex couldn’t hear what he was saying over the music. Kix leaned on the counter with a faraway expression. They shifted to one of their favorite spots near the end; the bartender brought their drinks in tall white mugs followed by two small shot glasses. Jesse downed both shots in quick succession, then cupped his hand around the tall mug. Kix half-closed his eyes as if he already had a hangover. Jesse put a hand on Kix’s shoulder and the medic shrugged it off.

            Rex watched them until they emptied their mugs, Kix more slowly than Jesse but no less persistent. Rex stood and slipped around the edge of a very loud and enthusiastic game of sabacc. He came up behind Jesse and Kix and announced his presence half a moment before putting one arm around each man’s shoulders.

            “Kix. Jesse. Just the men I wanted to see. You two have some explaining to do.”

            “Captain?” Kix only managed not to spill his ale because it was mostly gone. He gave a short, nervous laugh. “About what?”

            “Sorry we didn’t invite you to come to the bar with us, sir,” Jesse said, grinning a little as the bartender handed him another drink. “We didn’t think to stop at the barracks first.”

            “Get this man another ale,” Rex said to the bartender, indicating Kix. “Netra’gal for me.” He turned back toward the other two and put on a more serious face. It wasn’t hard. “The general wants me to look into exactly what was going on with you two the night Fives was killed.”

            Kix and Jesse dropped their smiles and exchanged a quick, nervous glance.

            “Well, sir… you see,” Jesse began awkwardly. “We were already drunk when—”

            “No, no, come on,” Kix said softly, patting Jesse on the shoulder to stop him. “It’s alright, Jesse… we may as well confess. They both already know I let Fives go.”

            Jesse grimaced sheepishly. “Right.”

            “Confess what?” Rex demanded. “Where exactly were you when you last saw Fives?”

            “Right here, actually,” Kix sighed. “Well, the 'fresher. He came in there after me.”

            “So you both came here to look for him, and decided that could wait while you had a few drinks?” Rex gave them a pointed look.

            “We…” Kix grimaced. “Uh… we sort of… planned to get drunk, sir.”

            “Already drunk when the call came in,” Jesse said in an undertone, brow furrowed guiltily. “That was going to be our excuse.”

            “Funny, how that worked out,” Kix said faintly. “If we hadn’t been here, maybe he wouldn’t have found a way to contact you and the general. And then the doctors might not have figured out the cure for that parasite.”

            “I see.” Rex paused, studying their guilty faces. Jesse seemed particularly uncomfortable, while Kix stared back at him steadily, then picked up his drink

            “Why don’t you just tell us what our punishment’s gonna be, Rex?” Kix asked after he’d drained the last of it. “We made our choice, and now we’ll suffer the consequences.”

            “You mind explaining what possessed you to disobey orders like this?” Rex leaned closer to them, speaking low. “Kix, you saw what happened to Tup. You saw what he did, and you must have known that failing to capture Fives could mean more unnecessary deaths. Even Jedi.”

            “Yes sir. Of course I knew that,” Kix nearly whispered. “But I’m the chief medic, and all I can say is… Fives may not have been acting exactly like himself when he met me here, but he seemed lucid. He had a plan! That’s not like what we saw with Tup. I….” Kix sighed and looked at the bar counter. “I really thought he might know something we didn’t. Until we heard about that parasite, anyway.”

            Rex accepted his drink from the bartender and took a few sips to excuse himself from replying for a minute. Jesse was watching him uneasily, so Rex turned to him next.

            “And you, Jesse?” Rex growled softly. “What was your motive for planning to lie about where you were?”

            Jesse hid behind his mug for a second, took a gulp, then a deep breath and straightened a bit. “I am sorry, Captain. I guess… I just didn’t want to see a good soldier like Fives in a condition like that. I couldn’t stand the thought of hunting him down. Maybe… maybe that makes me a coward.” Jesse hunched his shoulders a little.

              Rex didn’t say anything immediately, hoping Jesse would say more. For a moment he was reminded of the awful truth that if one of them had stunned Fives first, maybe Fox wouldn’t have killed him.

            “Somebody had to be the one to capture him.” Rex prompted with a sigh. “I don’t think any of us wanted to do it, but we had our orders. You know that.”

             “Yeah. I know,” Jesse said quietly with an edge in his voice. “I’ve had my share of difficult orders. I was there on Umbara. I was there standing right next to Fives waiting for my own brothers to shoot me because Krell gave an order! I know all about how important it is to follow orders no matter what.”

            Rex hadn’t heard Jesse use such a tone since the actual events of Umbara. It didn’t soothe his anxious conscience to be reminded of where he’d stood during that firing squad.

            “That was different, Jesse.” Kix frowned at his friend. “Krell was a traitor. We were ordered to find Fives because he tried to kill the chancellor.”

            “I-I know! I know,” Jesse fumbled, shifting to hold his drink with both hands. “I just….” He blew out a slow breath. “Fighting against my own brothers… I never thought I’d have to face that again. I know he tried to kill the chancellor, but… it wasn’t his fault!” Jesse slammed a fist on the counter suddenly, teeth clenched. “He shouldn’t have died like that! He deserved better!”

            Kix put a hand on Jesse’s fist sadly, and Jesse unclenched it to put his head in his hands.

            “He was a good soldier,” Jesse groaned. “He shouldn’t have died like that. If I ever find out who did this to him, I swear I’ll—”

            “Jesse,” Rex said warningly. “No one did this to Fives. It was a parasite, remember?”

            “Who gave the order to kill him?” Jesse continued obliviously. “I mean… why? Isn’t he at least worth more than that? He was one of the best! And they could have saved him! They knew he was sick, they knew it wasn’t his fault! But they just don’t care, do they? It’s just easier to—”

            “Jesse!” Kix hissed, glancing around to make sure his outburst had gone mostly unheard. “What are you saying? They shot him for the same reason Captain Rex ordered us to shoot him. Tup killed a Jedi! For all any of us knew, Fives was about to spread the same insanity to the rest of the army and even more Jedi could have been killed!”

            “No, wait, I’m not saying ‘snot important to protect the Jedi,” Jesse said, his words slightly slurred despite his alarmed expression. “But…I’m just saying, if it was a Jedi who was sick… would they have killed him just like that? Would they?” Jesse’s anger had faded back into grief now. “I know we’re just soldiers… that’s all we are… our lives can’t be… they’re… we’re not the same as a Jedi… but Fives… Fives should’ve… they should’ve….”

            “We’re all loyal to the Republic,” Rex said reassuringly. “I know neither of you would ever dream of betraying it willingly. Just like Fives. It’s alright, Jesse.”

            “Yeah,” Jesse said, staring at Rex with a conflicted look. “I mean, sure… I get upset sometimes. I… I wish sometimes that we weren’t so… so….” Jesse gestured uselessly.

            “Expendable?” Kix sighed, and reached for his drink.

            “Yeah. Expendable.” Jesse blinked hard at his own fist, frowning. “Sometimes I think about all of us who don’t even make it past the first battle. All that training and it’s all gone, and then there’s more shinies to replace ‘em. And then you live through so many battles just to die from a bug you can’t even see! Or you sacrifice yourself so your brothers can live to fight another day, and they’re nearly executed an hour later! What happened after all that trouble with Krell? We got sent right off to another battle! After all that. We weren’t even allowed to go back to look for survivors!”

            “There wouldn’t have been any by then,” Kix said, looking defeated. “Anyway… sometimes I think the ones who died early on were lucky… they didn’t get forced into killing their own.”

            “I’m sick of all this,” Jesse muttered, kneading his forehead with his knuckles. “I’m sick of all the death.”

            Rex just stood there, feeling strongly the taboo of how they were speaking now. But these experiences had changed them all irreversibly. And, he realized… it wasn’t just the horror of Umbara, or the events on Ringo Vinda. It was the accumulation of all of it, the fear that all their blood and sacrifice might turn out to be meaningless.

            “I’m… sick of it too,” he said heavily. “Can’t get a break from it, even in my sleep.”

            Kix’s eyes were fixed on him and Rex couldn’t tell if it was Kix’s duty as a medic kicking in or something more.

            “I know!” Jesse blurted. “The dreams, they’ve been getting worse all the time!”

            Rex felt a sick rush of adrenaline. “The nightmares?” he prompted.

            “Yeah,” Jesse grunted, rubbing his eyes. “Ugh. Y’know, I was kinda worried about it, but I asked Kix and he said it’s normal, he has ‘em too….”

            Kix opened his mouth as if to argue, but then just sighed and scratched his neck. “Well, I… I assumed. I’ve actually only had one or two other troopers report having these… particular dreams.”

            “And what dream is that?” Rex asked.

            Kix looked around as if searching for an escape route, and Rex wondered if this was how he’d looked when General Skywalker had forced him to talk.

            “I know you believe we’re designed to withstand any kind of stress in combat,” Kix said at last. “But I wonder sometimes… if that’s true…because I have a theory that sometimes all this killing goes to our heads. Maybe consciously we can’t be corrupted by it… but in our dreams… everyone becomes a target.”

            “A target? Kix, what do you mean?” Rex leaned closer.

            “I mean… maybe deep down we’re all afraid that killing is all we’re good for, and it doesn’t matter who we kill… someday maybe we won’t care anymore who we’re killing, even if it’s our own friends… we’ll stop caring because that’s what a good soldier… does.” Kix’s  voice was low and he stared at Rex as if waiting for a reprimand.

            “You’re not making any sense, Kix,” Rex said calmly, although a chill was washing through his stomach. “A good soldier wouldn’t kill his own allies.”

            “Not unless he was ordered to, sir,” Kix said nervously. “And that’s the problem, isn’t it?”

            “You’re saying that you have dreams where you’re ordered to kill allies?”

            “Kill the Jedi!” Jesse blurted, all too loudly. Kix bristled and shushed him with a slap on the arm.

            “Yeah, keep it down, Jesse,” Rex said. He glanced around, thankful for the loud music for once. Still, the bartender was staring at them. “He’s drunk.”

            “Very drunk,” Kix laughed nervously.

            “Sorry,” Jesse mumbled. “But that’s right, isn’t it? We have to kill the Jedi. All of ‘em. In the dream, I mean. Always the same mission. Can’t do anything else. It’s like I’m… trapped in my own body, and someone else is controlling it.”

            “That’s funny,” Rex muttered. “I’ve been having dreams just like that for a long time. And they’ve only gotten worse since Ringo Vinda. What about you, Kix?”

            Kix nodded miserably. “Yeah. Me too. Before Ringo Vinda. What do you think it means?”

            Rex thought carefully of how to respond. He didn’t want his men getting involved in this for their own safety.

            “Maybe you’re on to something, Kix,” he finally said. “Maybe it is stress related. Because of how often we have to follow orders, and watch our friends die as a result.”

            “When Tup first snapped,” Kix confessed, “I thought it might have been this nightmare, somehow, if he had it too… maybe it just became reality. Maybe… he was just sick of it all. In a way… I’m glad it was this parasite that got him, because if I was right about it being combat-related, well….”

            “It would mean a flaw in our design,” Rex finished for him. “It would mean these dreams are because we all secretly hate the Jedi, is that what you’re getting at?”

            “No… we don’t hate the Jedi, just this war,” Kix said. “Like Jesse said, we don’t always like the orders we’re given… but at least they usually make some kind of sense. Maybe these dreams are a result of wondering what would happen if we were forced to turn against our own. Maybe the Jedi in our dreams are just a, a symbol or something.”

            Rex took a deep breath. “It’s not easy to know when it’s better to disobey orders. All of us who survived Umbara know that it might be necessary again someday. But we’ve been trained our entire lives that following orders comes before everything else, even the lives of our comrades.”

            “Y… yes, Captain,” Kix said contritely.

            Rex shook his head. “That wasn’t a reprimand, Kix. I understand you’re not saying any of this to criticize our leaders. Right now… I’m not speaking as your captain. Just another clone who went through the same thing you did. Back on Umbara, and in countless other battles.” He motioned to the bartender for another drink. “I always thought… it was pretty clear, what our duty is. But sometimes it’s not, and at times like that, we have to trust our own judgment.” Rex frowned at his glass. “There are some choices I’ve made that I look back on now and wish I could have done differently.”

            “I know,” Kix said, glancing at Jesse regretfully.

            “Ahh, I can’t be too hard on my brothers,” Jesse mumbled, slumped against the counter with his chin in his hand. “’Sall Krell’s fault anyway.” He shoved Kix affectionately and Kix laughed and caught himself against the counter.

            Rex took a long sip of his refilled drink. Now that he had his answer, it was a relief to get Kix and Jesse off the subject of the dreams and onto something a bit less dangerous, if no less treasonous. The knowledge that they all suffered from these same nightmares and fears, whether conspiracy or not, was unsettling, but also comforting in a way. He wasn’t the only one who had struggled with these questions or wondered if there was something deep inside his mind that was terribly, terribly wrong.

            It was early afternoon when Rex arrived at the library. Information was what he needed, and the library seemed like the obvious first step. In truth, he had been up since before dawn, woken by yet another nightmare, but had restlessly wiled away the hours, telling himself that there was nothing suspicious about a clone visiting the library. He had never directly heard any of his men mention using the library system, but that didn't necessarily mean it wasn't a common thing. Eventually, he decided he would wait until the afternoon, hoping that going later would mean more people in the library and less attention drawn to himself. Still, Rex felt like a trespasser from the moment he set foot on the front stairs.

            Study must have done it, Rex reminded himself. Not all the information he gathered was available from the army databanks in the barracks.

            His posture carefully composed to show that he did not feel out of place, he strode purposefully past the front desk. But the librarian—a Cerean whose face was near level with Rex’s despite her tall head—emitted a scandalized gasp that halted him in his tracks.

            “Hello, soldier. Is there a problem?”

            “It’s Captain, actually,” Rex said, then instantly hoped the librarian didn’t take offense at such a response. “Uh. Hello,” he tried, with a more friendly tone.

            The Cerean looked like she was raising her eyebrows at him, but Rex wasn’t sure if that was just the way her tall forehead normally looked.

            “Captain, then. Is there a problem, Captain?”

            “No. No problem, ma’am. I’m just here to do some research.”

            “We don’t allow weapons here,” she said, peering accusingly at the belt of his service uniform despite the fact that Rex had left his DC-17s at the barracks. “Or violence of any kind. If you’re here to arrest or question one of our patrons, you’ll have to wait until they leave the premises.”

            “I’m not here to arrest anyone.” Rex gave her a steady look. “I’m part of the Five-Hundred-First, not a member of the city guard.”

            “Not part of the city guard?” She looked perplexed. “Then… what are you doing here?”

            “As I said, I’m here to do some research,” Rex repeated, more slowly this time, consciously aware that this conversation was much too loud for his comfort. “This… is a public library, isn’t it? Anyone can use it?”

            “Yes. Yes, of course,” said the Cerean, looking slightly flustered as she picked up a damaged holobook she had been repairing, then set it down again. “I, uh… I simply didn’t expect a clone to have any interests—ah, interest. In coming here.” She set her fingers above the computer console in front of her, but glanced back up at him two seconds later as if startled that he was still there.

            “I don’t have any weapons on me,” Rex assured her, spreading his arms slightly so she could see. “And I don’t intend to cause any trouble.”

            “Of course,” she said. “Although, I’m afraid our selection of holobooks related to military training is sure to be unsatisfactory compared to the army’s reference computers… much less the databases on Kamino, I’m sure.”

            “Sorry, ma’am,” Rex said awkwardly, “but I’m not looking for anything like that. Maybe you can point me toward the history section.”

            “Oh! Oh.” Somehow the puzzlement on her face kept getting stronger. “We don’t have a section specifically on the history of cloning, but—”

            “Just the, uh, general area will be fine, ma’am. As long as the years are clearly marked, I’m sure I can find what I’m looking for on my own after that.”

            “Alright.” She stared at him in such a way that Rex briefly imagined her calling to one of her colleagues to come look at this oddity, exclaiming over him as one might over a fascinating bit of unidentified organic matter. But she just lifted a hand and pointed down the main walkway. “It’s on the northwest corner of the bottom floor. There’s a lift down that way.”

            “Thank you,” Rex said, bowing his head slightly before turning and striding quickly away. He checked his pace after a few steps, realizing that to hurry in this place might be inappropriate, considering the peaceful atmosphere. But civilians had been stopping to stare at him by the librarian’s desk, and if his mere presence made her so uncomfortable, perhaps the less time he spent here, the better.

            Down below him and to the left, rows of shelves glowed dimly with the light of holobooks, mostly washed out by the much brighter light of the sun pouring in through the ceiling. Once Rex had descended to the bottom floor, he felt less watched. Everyone down here was absorbed in what they were reading, and only a few glanced up as he passed.

            Rex took a few steps into the history section and found himself surrounded by hundreds of holobooks, their sides sporting thinly lettered titles on the Expansionist Era and the early formation of the Republic. Three aisles later things got a little more current… meaning, less than a dozen millennia ago. Rex walked to the end of the shelves and crossed in front of them, noting the centuries as they passed. He caught glimpses of subsections devoted to the various sectors of the galaxy and the early histories of individual planets or cultures. For a moment, the sheer volume of information overwhelmed him.

            Four thousand years ago, and then three thousand, the markers said. There were Sith wars and Mandalorian wars, and Rex even did a double-take when he saw the name Fett out of the corner of his eye. Cassus Fett, perhaps some ancestor of his own. But he hadn’t come here to look up Mandalorian history.

            The sections got larger as they drew closer to the present. At last, he reached the last one, which encompassed the last fifteen years and thus, the year his own life had begun. It was an odd feeling, realizing how short a time he had lived, standing on the edge of the unknown with so much history behind him. A few moments later, his wandering eyes stopped and he reached for it: The Life of Chancellor Palpatine.

            He called up the holographic preview. The title image was of a beautiful city surrounded by water and lush plant life. Rex looked at the table of contents, tracing his finger down the chapter titles and the years. Invasion of Naboo, said the chapter which was marked with the very same year Rex had been an embryo.

            Rex grabbed a stack of other holobooks at random and went to find a free table, passing several open ones that were too close to other people, and finally settling on one tucked behind a subsection on creation legends. Half an hour later, he had read the entire chapter, checked the index for any mention of Kamino or clones, and started skimming the text from the beginning.

            Organic chips, built into our genetic code. If every clone truly had been implanted with these chips at birth, the best time for Palpatine to interfere would have been the very beginning. But so far, there was not even the slightest hint of how the chancellor might have been involved. Contrary to Rex’s expectations, the chancellor had not even been in a position of much power until that year. He was only a senator from Naboo, who had neither the means nor the motive to create a conspiracy of such magnitude.

            Rex’s brow furrowed as he stared down at the page. There had been no indication of coming war with the Separatists in that year. He scrolled through the surrounding pages to double check. Yes: the Confederacy of Independent Systems hadn’t even existed until after the clone army was commissioned.

            Rex had always assumed that the clone army was created in response to a pre-existing threat, but if this book was at all accurate, then they were created in a time of relative peace. If Chancellor Palpatine hadn’t commissioned the clone army, who had?

            He paged forward to the first mention of clones: the First Battle of Geonosis. The word was buried deep in a long paragraph. In response to this sudden discovery of a Separatist conspiracy, the Senate granted Chancellor Palpatine emergency powers. The desperate situation which led to such a dramatic change in policy became apparent when the first battle of what would become known as the Clone Wars broke out that same day, and a force of over two hundred thousand clone infantrymen was led by Jedi Master Yoda to vanquish the droid armies of the CIS. This clone army was later renamed the Grand Army of the Republic….

            That was all. No further mention of clones in that chapter, and the next only briefly touched on how the chancellor helped to organize the army under Jedi generals. There had to be some information somewhere about who commissioned the army to begin with.

            Rex looked up to check whether any of the other books he’d grabbed might be useful, and froze. A clone trooper was approaching his table—a commander by the insignia on his tunic.

             “Reading anything interesting, Captain?” The commander leaned across the table and lifted the biography so he could see the title on the side.

            The commander could have been nearly anyone. He had the typical clone hairstyle, and no tattoos or other markings on his face to set him apart.

            “Just… catching up on a little history,” Rex said casually, trying to watch the other’s face without being too obvious. He reminded himself that, as uneasy as he felt, he was doing nothing wrong. It wasn’t all that strange for a clone to be reading about the First Battle of Geonosis.

             “Life of the Chancellor,” the commander said with eyebrows raised, and pulled out a chair across from Rex. “Could be enlightening. What else are you… investigating there?” He tilted his head to look at the stack of books Rex hadn’t yet touched.

            Rex pushed them to an angle where the commander could read the titles more easily. Most of them were biographies of other key figures in the war. There was even one about Senator Amidala.

            “Looks like you have an interest in politics.” The commander leaned back in his seat, but left his palms resting on the table between them. His expression seemed pleasant enough.

            “I just like to stay informed,” Rex said, and closed Palpatine’s biography. “Is there something you wanted to speak with me about, Commander?”

            The commander stared straight at him for three or four long seconds before his eyes narrowed a little. He glanced around and leaned forward again. “Well? Did you find anything?”

            “Sir?” Rex gave him a questioning look.

            “About what he said. You know… in the warehouse.” The commander’s voice dropped to a whisper, his eyes boring into Rex.

            Rex stared back, skin prickling. “Commander Fox.” He was relieved that his voice sounded merely surprised. “I…didn’t recognize you out of your armor.”

            Fox shook his head slightly, glancing around again. “Sometimes, brother, it’s a good thing not to be recognized.”

            Rex stayed silent, trying to work out if that sentence was a warning, a taunt, or a confession.

            “I can’t say I blame you for being cautious,” Fox went on. “I’ve been pretty spooked myself since that whole thing with Fives happened.”

            Rex squinted at Fox. “I don’t follow you.”

            Fox’s brow furrowed. “Let’s just say for a second that he was right. About everything. It would be a pretty big risk to even ask questions about it, right? You wouldn’t want anyone to think you were being… disloyal.”

            “I’m on leave, sir,” Rex said bluntly. “I decided that learning a little history would be a good use of my time. I don’t think anyone can accuse me of disloyalty just for looking at books that are available to every citizen of the Republic. But if you’re saying someone does have doubts, I’d be more than happy to address them.”

             “Oh, I wasn’t talking about you,” Fox said grimly, lacing his hands on the table. “I was explaining why I’m here. And why it’s a relief that you didn’t recognize me, actually.”

            Rex studied Fox’s face. His instinct was to continue playing dumb, but Fox was as close to the chancellor as any clone had ever been or probably ever would be. If he was telling the truth and wanted to help investigate… his resources and internal intelligence would be invaluable to any effort Rex made to uncover the truth.

           Maybe the knot in his stomach was just a result of seeing it again in his mind’s eye: the smoking hole in Fives’ chest, and the gun in Fox’s hand. But maybe it wasn’t.

            “Could I offer you some advice, Commander?” Rex said quietly, mind racing.

            Fox blinked. “By all means.”

            “I assume that you were following orders, the night Fives died. Maybe you weren’t given explicit orders to shoot to kill, but all you knew was that Fives had tried to assassinate the chancellor, and maybe you knew that he might be infected with something that had already made another trooper go insane and kill a Jedi general. You did… what you felt you had to.” Rex inhaled slowly. “Maybe now you’ve thought twice about what happened. But even if the chancellor were in on some conspiracy, like Fives claimed, what good would it do for you to try and investigate? Or me? What could we do that Fives couldn’t? General Skywalker heard everything Fives said, and he took it to the Jedi Council. I think this is a matter better left to them.”

            Fox’s eyes narrowed more and more as Rex went on. He looked worried.

            “How much did you hear, anyway?” Rex asked.

            “I’m not sure how long you were already talking to him when my men and I arrived.” Fox shrugged. “I heard him accuse the chancellor, and he mentioned this thing about the chips before, when we were escorting him off the ship. But anyway… then I saw that he’d trapped you and General Skywalker in that ray shield. My next move seemed like the obvious response.”

            Rex sighed under his breath. “What did Fives say about the chips?”

            “He said they were being used in a conspiracy to control the army.”

            “That’s all?” For a moment Rex had dared to hope that another clue would present itself.

            “Yeah. Why? Did he say something more about it to you?”

            “No, sir.”

            Fox frowned at him. “So you really aren’t worried about what he said.”

            “I can’t think of any reason why the chancellor would be part of such a conspiracy,” Rex said honestly. “I don’t know how Fives came to that conclusion. I wish I did. But he’s dead now, and can’t tell us any more about it. And nothing we do from this point on is going to change that fact. So unless you know something more about why Fives believed he was being framed by the chancellor, there’s nothing we can do but accept that Fives… really had lost his mind to that parasite.”

            “I guess you’re right,” sighed Fox tensely, drumming his fingers on the tabletop. “It’s just been… bothering me, this whole… conspiracy thing. I really hoped you would know something more about it.”

            “Sorry, Commander. I wish I did. I would think,” Rex mused, “being the leader of the Coruscant Guard, you’d know the character of the chancellor better than any of us.”

            “Well,” Fox laughed lightly. “I’m not a senator. He doesn’t tell me everything. But you’re right… from all I know of him, the chancellor’s no traitor. He has the Republic’s best interests at heart.”

            “Well, then,” Rex said evenly. “I guess we’ve got nothing to worry about.”

            Fox looked at him sideways. “I wouldn’t say that, Captain. There are still plenty of other possibilities. If the Separatists are involved, I would worry plenty. If they can get at the chips in our heads, that suggests a very high level of infiltration among Republic forces. It could mean the war’s outcome was decided before it even began.”

            “Hmm.” Rex shut off the biography and set it back on top of the stack. “We’re supposed to be immune to that parasite now. If one of us goes crazy again, then we’ll know there’s a conspiracy still ongoing. But the mastermind behind it had better target someone else’s men, because they’re not gonna get any more members of the Five-Hundred-First. Not on my watch.”

            “On that note… I’d be vigilant, if I were you, Captain.” Fox stood and leaned across the table a bit, speaking in a much sharper and more unsettling tone than he’d yet used. “Fives may not have been solely responsible for his behavior, but I’ve noticed you and your men are a little unorthodox to begin with. You don’t want to attract any more unwanted attention to yourself. If a conspirator is responsible for this, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were targeting the Five-Hundred-First. You've made it easy.”

            “Thanks for the warning.” Rex said quietly. He stood too, and Fox took a step back. “I think it’s time for me to visit the mess. Excuse me, Commander.”

            “See you around… Captain.”

            Rex deposited his books with a shelving droid and headed for the exit, careful not to seem too particular in where his eyes wandered on the way out. Fox didn’t seem to be following him.

            The librarian was gone from the front desk when he passed it, and Rex wondered if Fox had encountered any trouble coming in, like he had. The commander had waltzed up to him as if two clones meeting in the public library was the most natural thing in the galaxy, but the librarian’s attitude suggested differently. Fox’s presence could not have been an accident.

            Once he was out in the open, surrounded by the familiar noise of traffic and voices, he realized just how tense he had been during that conversation. For a moment, as the anxiety faded like a dream, he wondered again if he was overreacting, made paranoid by all this talk of plots and deceptions. Perhaps Fox’s normally dramatic manner made everything he said seem much more sinister than it was. Maybe he was honestly worried about this incident and had gone to such lengths out of hope that Rex could help put his mind at ease.

            With a sinking feeling, Rex realized that it was too big a risk either way. Even in the unlikely event that Fox wasn’t involved at all, getting him further involved would be too dangerous—he couldn’t trust the commander’s discretion in sharing such treasonous thoughts. This plot—if it existed—involved the use of clones, and any clone who knew about it ran the risk of being marked as a threat… to be eliminated as soon as possible.

            Rex barely tasted any of what he was chewing as he sat in the noisy mess hall. His investigation had only just begun, but he was already running out of ideas for where he could look further. He had hoped his visit to the library would lead him in a new direction, but although Fox had cut his research short, Rex had a feeling he would have found little in the other books in his stack. He should probably have felt relieved to have found no evidence of a conspiracy, but if it was really a plot so deep and dark, any evidence that might have existed would have been destroyed long ago. Rex felt the first flicker of fear that he would never be able to move past this, because no lack of evidence could ever prove that a conspiracy didn't exist; it could just as easily mean the mastermind was in a position of considerable power and knew how to manipulate information. Rex put down his fork. The foodboard sitting on his tray had never looked so unappetizing, and that was saying something.

            “They’re back!”

            “Victory on Ord Radama!”

            An uproar of cheers by the doors brought his head around. The 212th was streaming in, a mass of white and goldenrod, and the men around the room were lifting their glasses in toasts. Cody was there at the front, laughing at the loud congratulations as his brothers crowded around slapping each other on the back and shaking each other by the shoulders. Rex hadn’t seen him look so genuinely thrilled since their graduation into the army.

            Cody caught his eye across the room. Rex stood and went toward him, but the crowd was too thick to reach him right away. For a moment Rex lost sight of him until suddenly Cody was there right next to him, gripping his arms

            “Rex!” Cody yelled happily. “We’re halfway there! Ossus and Ryloth are already ours, and the Seppies are pulling out of New Bornalex! We’re going to win this war!”

            “Course we are.” Rex forced a smirk. He felt less of Cody’s contagious excitement than he wanted to.

            “I heard you were there on Ryloth!” Cody threw an arm around Rex’s shoulders and tried to extricate himself from the crowd. “Too bad Commander Bacara and General Mundi had to take all the credit, right?”

            “Oh, I don’t think General Skywalker will let them take all the credit,” Rex said dryly. “Or General Secura, for that matter.” Cody was pulling him forward aimlessly, occasionally stopping to grip hands, arms, or shoulders of comrades, so Rex headed for the table he’d just vacated. Cody followed, still not letting go.

            “It was all worth it.” Cody said it in one big exhale. “Let me tell you, that was a long, exhausting battle, but we won!” He grabbed at the air with his free hand, clenching a victorious fist. “It was all worth it. Guess this means you’ll be shipping out to Xagobah soon.”

            “Maybe,” Rex said, wondering if General Skywalker would allow him to return to service in time.

            “Eh, I wouldn’t worry.” Cody let go of Rex so they could both sit down. “You’ll be back here before you know it! Those clankers can’t take the terrain like we can. Once we start this second wave of assaults, we’ll only keep building momentum. I predict total surrender from the Separatists in less than a year!”

            And then what? Rex thought. He kept a small smile at the corner of his mouth, to encourage Cody to go on.

            “I don’t know where General Kenobi will be taking us next,” Cody said. “If he’s not sick of swamps yet, maybe we’ll join the fight on Xagobah.”

            “Yeah. Maybe.”

            Cody’s grin faded quickly. “Rex, what’s wrong? Something’s bothering you.” He froze for a second. “That’s right—the parasite. I heard… it killed two of your men.”

            So that was the official story. No mention of the manhunt for Fives, although surely word would get around through everyone who had been involved. Rex clenched his hands under the table.

            “Yeah. Tup… and Fives.”

            “Fives?” Cody’s face fell and he shook his head. “He deserved a better end than that.”

            “At least we have a cure now,” Rex said, not wanting to puncture the jubilant spirit in the room. “Anyway… it happened before we even went to Ryloth. I’ve already spent more than enough time thinking about it. Now it’s time to celebrate your victory.”

            Cody hesitated a moment, then gave in and smiled. “Right. Our victories. Here we are, back together again! And I’m starving, actually.”

            “Better get in line before all the ‘boards are gone,” Rex said.

            “Yeah.” Cody walked off, and Rex was glad to see the spring already returning to his step. And now that General Kenobi was back, he had an idea of where to take his own next step.

            Cody returned a few minutes later with a stack of sliced foodboard and something that looked suspiciously like dressed up energy pudding.

            “Welcome back, Commander,” Rex tried joking.

            “Good to be back,” Cody said as he sat down. “Did anything else happen while I was gone?”

            “Not really,” Rex said. “Listen, Cody… I need to ask you a favor.”

            “Alright.” Cody took a bite.

            “I need to speak with General Kenobi… alone.”

            Cody swallowed hard and winced. “Okay,” he coughed. “Sure. But… is something wrong?”

            “I’m not sure yet.” Rex looked at Cody earnestly. “And I don’t want rumors spreading around if I’m mistaken. I just need to ask him some questions, that’s all.”

            “You’re being awfully mysterious.” Cody raised his eyebrows. “But alright. I’m sure you’ll tell me what’s going on sooner or later.”

            “If there’s anything to tell.” Rex tried not to feel guilty about lying; his secrecy was for Cody’s own protection.

            “I’ll tell him you would like to meet as soon as possible, then.”

            “Thanks,” Rex breathed in relief. “So… looks like you didn’t lose too many this time.”

            “Less than I expected, for such a large operation,” Cody nodded. “At one point, though, things looked like they might take a turn for the worst. Over half our forces lost communications, but we all just stuck to the plan, and apart from a few diversions… things worked out exactly like the general predicted. Longest textbook battle I’ve ever fought, but there were a lot of clankers. By the time we were finished, the roads were practically paved with them.” He huffed a laugh. “The cities looked like massive scrap piles!”

            “That’ll teach the Separatists. A few more battles like that, maybe they’ll finally start running out of droids. It can’t be cheap to keep building new ones.”

            “Cheaper than we are,” Cody said. “But you can’t beat quality with quantity, right?”

            Rex laughed under his breath, aware that he still wasn’t measuring up to Cody’s high spirits. But Cody seemed willing to overlook that, and Rex was grateful when a few sergeants and commanders of the other divisions came up to distract him. It was good to see that life went on as usual, as much as Rex had felt isolated lately. And that made the thought of this conspiracy all the more frightening. Just like on Ringo Vinda, someday this might all come crashing down at a moment’s notice, with no warning, and leave a trail of unanswerable questions in its wake.

            Obi-Wan stared at the map of Ord Radama, and then back at the grid from the sensor logs with its little blips of light that represented ships. As well as the battle had gone on the ground, the battle above the planet had been very different.

            “Found any new information about their tactics?” Master Choi asked over hologram.

            “No. But I don’t think their ships were equipped with anything particularly unusual.” Obi-Wan sighed and pulled at his mustache nervously. “From the readings I see here, it seems the first two of our ships to be decimated were flying without operable shields, just like the others who fell back. I’ve thoroughly debriefed the command crews of each surviving ship that was forced to retreat, and I believe the key is in the order of events. As soon as those ships began firing, something happened so that their weapons system overloaded, and the shields failed.”

            Master Choi pulled his head back so that his scaly chin rested on his collar. “Hm. Unlucky coincidence?”

            “I don’t think so. I’ll request a report on where those ships last stopped for repairs or modifications. Someone must have done a bad job on them. It may have even been the same person for all five ships.”

            “Don’t worry, Master Kenobi,” General Choi said brightly. “I’ll look into it for you. You shouldn’t worry so much. These things do happen sometimes, you know, and technology isn’t always reliable.”

            “Mm yes, I suppose you’re right… but I have a bad feeling about this.”

            “Perhaps some meditation is in order,” Choi suggested kindly. “In the meantime, I’ll get the results of my investigation to you as soon as I can. May the Force be with you.”

            Obi-Wan bowed slightly and Choi’s hologram disappeared. He turned back to the grids he was studying and wondered if perhaps it was time to take a break after all.

            His communicator beeped, and Cody’s voice came through. “General Kenobi.”

            “Yes, Cody?”

            “Captain Rex asked me to relay a message to you, sir. He would like to meet with you privately as soon as you are available.”

            Obi-Wan frowned at his wrist. “Curious. Did he say why?”

            “No, sir. He only said that he wanted to avoid any rumors if he was mistaken.”

            “Mistaken about what, I wonder,” Obi-Wan said half to himself.

            “Your guess is as good as mine, General. Will you meet with him?”

            “Yes,” Obi-Wan said, after only a moment’s hesitation. “Tell the captain I’ll meet him at the command barracks at eighteen hundred hours. Was anyone else told of this?”

            “I doubt anyone was listening in, sir. We’re all too busy celebrating.”

            “Let’s keep it that way for now. I appreciate your discretion.”

            “Any time, sir. Cody out.”

            Obi-Wan lowered his arm with a sense of creeping dread. Rex’s concerns should have been brought to Anakin. There could only be one reason the captain was coming to him instead—Anakin had done something that Rex wanted to report to the Jedi Council.

            Eighteen hundred hours was nearly an hour and a half away. Obi-Wan tried turning his attention back to the holograms, but after a few minutes of staring blankly at them, he knew it was futile. His mind was no longer on the details of his own mission, but on Anakin’s. He called up the report, wondering what his former Padawan might have done.

            There was no hint of questionable behavior in the report—by all accounts, Anakin had assisted the transfer of casualties without any problem, and then provided a diversion for Secura and her troops. No unnecessary bravado, no suspicious blanks where he might have slipped off to some secret rendezvous. Obi-Wan sighed at himself, saddened by his own fears.

            Did he really believe Anakin was capable of something truly terrible? He thought of all the times Anakin had killed in front of him, all too nonchalantly. But so had every Jedi, by now. There wasn’t time to offer grief at each life taken. It was a truth Obi-Wan had never quite managed to make peace with.

            As the minutes ticked by, he retreated to the gardens, trying to meditate as Master Choi suggested. Seated on the ground by the bank of a pond, he heard the trees rustling above and around him, and the water flowing gently, almost soundlessly. Obi-Wan’s worry flowed through him but never fully left, bringing with it wild speculation. Had Anakin harmed civilians? Disregarded the lives of some of the casualties, or of his own men? Become inappropriately involved with someone? Killed someone he should have taken prisoner, or tortured someone for information? It wouldn’t be the first time.

            Despite his increasing professionalism on the battlefield, Anakin felt disturbingly distant and unpredictable at times, and Obi-Wan couldn’t help but worry. He didn’t like what this war was doing to the Jedi Order—and if it was even affecting him so much, Obi-Wan barely dared imagine how this endless violence and suspicion might seep into Anakin’s fierce, unguarded heart.

            He tried not to let these thoughts discourage him. He had done his best to train Anakin well, to give him the tools he needed to control himself. But sometimes it was difficult to believe the fault was not his own. Perhaps his own attachment to Anakin had inadvertently caused this deficiency in his training. All too often, a Padawan inherited its master’s weaknesses, and Obi-Wan knew that for all his preaching, he was not a perfect model of detachment… not at all.

            At long last, the time came to leave. Minutes later, his speeder was parked outside the barracks, and the rushing air still hadn’t completely cleared his mind. Obi-Wan walked through the doors to find Rex waiting at attention just on the other side.

            “Captain,” Obi-Wan said in blunt greeting. “Have you decided where we should talk?”

            “Yes, sir,” Rex said briskly. “Right this way.”

            A few minutes later they entered one of the storage rooms where tools and spare parts for the army’s many vehicles were kept.

            “No one should interrupt us here, sir.”

            “Very good.” Obi-Wan said, and faced Rex squarely. “Now… let’s not waste any time, shall we?”

            Rex's posture was still rigid with formality. “Yes, General. Thank you for agreeing to meet with me. I… realize this is unusual.”

            “Indeed it is. Very unusual. I can only assume the situation is serious.” Obi-Wan did not bother to keep a placid expression. “Is it Anakin?” he asked sharply. “What has he done?”

            “Sir?” The captain's eyebrows furrowed.

            “You must be fairly certain of whatever you saw or heard.” Obi-Wan took a step closer to Rex, his voice rising slightly. “You would never speak ill of him otherwise.”

            “Speak ill of General Skywalker?” Rex looked taken aback at the thought. “General Kenobi, I’m—I’m sorry, sir, but you misunderstand. That is not why I’ve asked to speak with you.”

            “Isn’t it? I was wondering what you might want to ask me that you couldn’t just as easily ask your own General,” Obi-Wan explained. “The most obvious explanation is that you needed to report something to the Jedi Council without him knowing about it.”

            “I have no complaints about General Skywalker’s command, sir!” Rex almost sounded offended.

            “Really?” Obi-Wan asked skeptically. “Then why are you so tense? So defensive? I know this must be difficult for you, considering how much personal loyalty you have to Anakin. But if he has done something seriously wrong, the Council needs to know about it.”

            Rex stared at him with for a long moment. “Excuse me, General. I meant no disrespect, I was… I didn’t realize the Jedi Council had any doubts about General Skywalker’s loyalty. It surprised me, that’s all.”

            “Oh. Well then,” Obi-Wan sighed, deflated by the realization of how indiscreet he was being. Sharing his own doubts about a fellow Jedi with a clone officer was improper at best. “We don’t… doubt his loyalty, exactly. I doubt his judgment and self-discipline, at times, but….”

            He cleared his throat, embarrassed at his rash behavior.

            “Moving on then, to the real reason you asked me here.”

            “Thank you, sir.” Rex hesitated. “If I seem uneasy, General, it’s only because… some questions have been weighing pretty heavily on my mind since Ringo Vinda. I have mentioned my concerns to General Skywalker, but I’d rather not bother him again until I have more information.”

            “And what exactly have you been bothering him with?” Obi-Wan gave a weak smile, hoping Rex would relax and get to the point. “You have my permission to speak freely, of course.”

            A tight breath escaped Rex as he nodded. Obi-Wan noted the captain’s fists clenching at his sides, his eyes a little restless.

            “Starting from the beginning,” Rex finally said. “Two of my best men, Tup and Fives, were killed because, for whatever reason, their inhibitor chips began to break down. Now, I didn’t even know about these chips until Fives mentioned them. He believed that they were part of a conspiracy—that they could be used to control our actions and turn us against the Jedi.”

            “So I’ve heard,” Obi-Wan said. “But there have been no more breakdowns since the army was inoculated. I’m inclined to believe that the parasite the doctors found was indeed the cause.”

             “Sir, I’ve done some research since the incident with Fives, and I realized that the army was commissioned long before the Separatists became a threat. Naturally, I’ve been wondering who decided the Republic needed an army this large in a time of peace.”

            “What are you getting at, Captain?” Obi-Wan asked. “You’re saying you’ve been investigating the possibility of a conspiracy on your own?” Perhaps Anakin was rubbing off a little too much on his first-in-command.

            “Yes, sir.” Rex kept his chin up. “It’s my duty to defend the Republic, and the lives of my men.”

            “Yes….” Obi-Wan frowned at Rex, unsettled by the almost accusatory tone he heard in the captain’s voice. “And… you believe whoever commissioned the army is also responsible for what happened to your men?”

            “I haven’t come to any conclusions yet, General,” Rex sighed. “But if there were a way for these chips to make us turn on our allies, the best time to set that up would have been at the very beginning of our creation.”

            “You seem to be suggesting that the enemy simply dropped a time bomb on our doorstep and hoped we’d take it inside.” Obi-wan smiled wanly. “That seems like a rather foolish plan if you ask me.”

            Actually, Obi-Wan felt a zing of nerves at the thought, but dismissed it. It was true, there was still so much mystery surrounding Syfo-Dias and his decision to keep the army a secret even from the Council itself. But Rex couldn’t possibly know any of that.

            The captain frowned at the floor. “I’m just trying to explore every possibility, sir. To be honest, I’d like nothing more than to put this matter to rest. But I can’t seem to get that question out of my head.” His brow was furrowed as he looked back up at Obi-Wan, his voice soft. “General… if you could tell me who was involved in commissioning the army, maybe it would help put my mind at ease.”

            “Unfortunately, I’m not at liberty to share such information with just anyone,” Obi-Wan said lightly. “Not without the Council’s approval.”

            “But, sir—”

            “Rest assured.” Obi-Wan raised a hand to cut Rex off. “The Council is not blind to the possibility of a traitor or a spy among our forces.  But judging from our information, you and all the other clones should be safe from any further breakdowns.”

            A pained look crossed Rex’s face before he nodded once. “Yes, sir. I’m relieved to hear it. I assume, then, that whoever commissioned the army was someone the Jedi trusted?”

            “What you can assume is that the Jedi Council would not have missed any lead you might think you have, Captain.” Obi-Wan stared at Rex, amazed at the captain’s relentlessness. “It is not your responsibility to investigate this. You trust Anakin and I, don’t you?”

            “Yes, sir! Absolutely.”

            “Then I fail to see why you feel any need to question me on this.” Obi-Wan folded his arms. “Or go behind Anakin’s back for a second opinion in the first place.”

            “As I said, General,” Rex said uncomfortably. “The only reason I’m asking you instead of General Skywalker is because you are a member of the Jedi Council and, as I thought, you have access to more information. It has nothing to do with whether or not I trust and respect him. I do. I’ve trusted him with my life and the lives of my men every time we go into battle.”

            “Good. Then there’s nothing more to discuss, is there?”

            “Sir, with all due respect, I was there when Fives—”

            “Captain Rex!” Obi-Wan burst, his shock at Rex making his stern tone a bit louder than he’d intended.

            Rex winced and snapped to attention. “Sir.”

            Obi-Wan took a moment to breathe and center himself. “Perhaps you should explain to me in more detail why you’re so fixated on this.”

            “I’m sorry, sir,” Rex said very quietly, head bowed. “You’re right… it isn’t my place.”

            Something about the captain’s contrition, the sudden reversion to an even more submissive clone than Obi-Wan had ever known Rex to be, reminded him that it was not, in fact, his own padawan he was dealing with. Guilt began to seep in as he realized Rex would never be so willful for its own sake. He was not Anakin, after all.

            Obi-Wan reached out with the Force, calming as he submitted to its flow. The captain was exhausted, that much came through clearly… and afraid. There was a sense of rawness, a wound that had not quite closed, but no ill-will, none of the resentment or pride that came off Anakin in waves when he was being contrary.

            “You meant no harm by it,” Obi-Wan decided aloud. “I should have realized that these events have had a profound impact on you… especially considering you were closely involved in both incidents.” He stroked his beard slowly. “Naturally, it must be hard to reconcile the men you knew with what they became in their last moments.”

            Rex said nothing, but Obi-Wan saw him take a slow breath.

            “The most terrifying enemy of all is the darkness in our own minds,” Obi-Wan went on, softening his voice a bit more. “They fell to it through no fault of their own. You can at least take comfort in that.” He frowned sympathetically. “It’s not strange that you should dwell on this, but remember… fear will destroy your mind in much the same way if you allow it to take too much of a hold. I’ve never thought of you as the type to become paralyzed by uncertainty.”

            “No, sir,” Rex agreed in an undertone. “I prefer to take action whenever I can.”

            “Sometimes, when something like this occurs, the greatest action we can take is simply to not act,” Obi-Wan murmured, putting a hand on Rex’s shoulder. “Your duty is to the living, Captain. Trying to change the past will only make it harder to heal.”

            “Yes, General,” Rex breathed, meeting his eyes steadily despite the weariness in his voice. “I understand.”

            “Get some rest, if you can,” Obi-Wan said. “Until this war is over, the integrity of the army is one of the Jedi Council’s greatest concerns. If anything threatens that again, you can be sure we will take it seriously.”

            “I appreciate the reassurance, sir,” Rex saluted briefly. “Thank you for coming to see me.”

            Obi-Wan gave a half-salute in return. “You’re a fine soldier, Captain. Take care, and keep an eye on Anakin for me.”

            “I’ve got his back, sir,” Rex gave a half-smile, and with a short nod, Obi-Wan turned to go, resolving to try and follow his own advice.

            It seemed even the clones feared being turned from their true purpose, twisted by this war into something they had never intended to be. Maybe when this violence was over, all its participants—clones, Jedi, politicians, and all—would finally have time to recover the clarity that was slipping from their fingers day by day.

           Standing at the guard rail on the platform outside Seventy-Nines was like standing on the edge of a cliff face. Beyond was one of the industrial sectors, where the roofs leveled out far, far below Rex’s vantage point. In the dim collective light of the city, it almost resembled a rocky wasteland or a vast lake reflecting the upper levels of the metropolis. Behind him, a few drunk officers laughed obnoxiously over nothing, but on the whole, it was quieter out here, and certainly much less crowded.

            He wanted to celebrate with Cody, but after five minutes of standing in the overstuffed bar, Rex knew he wasn’t going to enjoy this no matter how hard he tried. He would just bring down the mood if he stayed, so here he was, leaning on the rail and wondering where to look next.

            There had been a second trip to the library, and just as he suspected, it yielded little information of interest. All he’d really learned was that despite recent scientific interest in Kamino’s ecosystems and ocean life, general knowledge of Kaminoan society and history was extremely limited. By all appearances, their cloning had been a small but lucrative endeavor before Jango Fett had come along, and the Grand Army of the Republic was probably the single largest order of clones the planet’s facilities had ever received. Most likely, he wouldn’t learn anything he didn’t already know about being a clone unless a Kaminoan chose to tell him.

            Rex heaved a huge sigh and rubbed hard between his eyes. So many dead ends. And all the lost sleep was catching up to him. The world felt surreal and dangerous even in perfectly safe environments like the barracks, the dark feeling from his dream clinging on to the edges of his waking hours.

            Footsteps came up behind him and Rex turned, grabbing for pistols that weren’t there.

            “Cody.” He relaxed.

            “Rex.” Cody smiled, smacking his arm lightly. “What are you doing out here?”

            “Sorry. Guess I’m just not in the mood.” Rex shrugged with an apologetic look.

            “You missed a great story from Bly,” Cody laughed under his breath. “I’ll tell it to you some other time though. You sure you’re alright? You don’t look so good.” He leaned on the rail next to Rex.

            “I think I’m just tired,” Rex said. “Still not sleeping very well.”

            “Bad dreams?”

            “Yeah.” Rex glanced at Cody, but Cody's face was peaceful, his eyes briefly closed against an updraft. “Really bad.”

            Cody studied the patterns of lights below, waiting for a surge of raucous voices behind them to subside. “How was your talk with General Kenobi?”

            “Eh,” Rex breathed, not sure what to say. “It wasn’t exactly what I expected. But it looks like there was nothing to worry about after all.”

            “Of course there was nothing to worry about.” Cody grinned. “Come on, Rex. I told you, we’re winning this!”

            “The tide of a battle can turn in less than a second,” Rex said, half to himself. “But you’re right… maybe I’m just being paranoid.”

            “Everything alright with General Skywalker, then?”

            “What do you mean?”

            “Well? I dunno,” Cody waved a hand in a jokingly exasperated gesture.  “Can you blame me for trying to guess what’s going on with you? You’ve been acting kind of odd. I thought maybe it had something to do with Fives and….”

            “Tup,” Rex finished for him.

            “Yeah.” Cody tilted his head. “Wanna talk about it?”

            Rex stared back. Gratitude clashed with the creeping chill in his chest and he tried to think of a truth he could tell without having to explain everything.

            “If you don’t, I understand.” Cody turned so his back was against the rail. “Or if sensitive information is involved. Your choice.”

            “I know.” Rex looked away. “You’re right. Something about the situation with Tup and Fives hit me pretty hard. I haven’t been at my best since then. I’ve been distracted. And now people are starting to notice.”

            “Ahh. Gotcha.” Cody smirked. “General Skywalker’s not the best Jedi to go to for advice about staying level-headed. General Kenobi, on the other hand….”

            “You’d better stop criticizing my general, Commander.” Rex punched Cody’s arm lightly.

            Cody laughed. “It’s true, isn’t it? You went to General Kenobi for answers. You must have thought he’d have better ones that General Skywalker.” Cody raised an eyebrow. “Did he?”

            “Yeah. I guess he did,” Rex said softly.

            “Let me guess.” Cody folded his arms and squinted up at the invisible stars. “He told you that it’s natural to be disturbed by what happened. I mean, you watched one of your own men fire on a Jedi general. A soldier you knew to be loyal! And then it nearly happened all over again with Fives, right?” Cody gave the sky a deep frown. “I know if I’d seen that happening right in front of me… it would be like my worst nightmares coming true.”

            “Yeah.” Rex swallowed. “Exactly.”

            “Were you worried something was wrong with you, too?” Cody’s voice softened.

            Rex nodded. “For a while there, I was convinced I was infected. Then, after we all got the inoculation, I still didn’t feel right.” He sighed and gripped the rail tight. “So I wanted to make sure there wasn’t any chance I would go the same way as Tup and Fives.”

            “And General Kenobi told you something that eased your mind?” Cody guessed.

            “A little. He’s pretty sure I’m just… still shocked about what happened,” Rex shrugged. “He’s probably right,” he added grudgingly.

            “Probably?” Cody raised an eyebrow. “The alternative is that you’re not shocked at all, and in that case, I’d say something is wrong with you. We may be designed to deal with more than most soldiers can take, but that doesn’t mean we’re emotionless droids. Fives was one of your best men, right?”

            “Yeah. And a good friend.”

            “So? How many times have we talked after a hard battle about all the good men we lost? We both know how to focus and keep appearances on the battlefield, but like this?” Cody pointed at the space between them. “Just between us, it’s different, isn’t it? We both know there have been battles that hit us too hard. I still can’t believe what happened on Umbara. But your men have been pushed hard from the beginning, I mean… Teth was especially bad for the Five-Oh-First.” Cody shook his head slowly. “I’m telling you Rex, I don’t envy you sometimes. You’ve been through a lot. You don’t always have to pretend it doesn’t matter.”

            Chest tight, Rex blew out a breath and surprised himself by turning it into a laugh halfway through. “You know, what you just said… it reminds me of some things I’ve heard General Skywalker say before, to Commander Tano.”

            “Does that mean you’ll listen to me because my advice is almost as wise as a Jedi’s?” Cody teased, nudging him with his elbow.

            “As long as you take being compared to Skywalker as a compliment,” Rex shot back.

            Cody laughed, the loud laugh he got when he was a little buzzed. The sound of it, and the sight of Cody’s face split with a grin after offering such serious, comforting words, hit Rex right in the gut so that he started laughing too. And for a few seconds, the platform of Seventy-Nines transformed into a place where their nightmares were impossible.

            “But Rex,” Cody coughed, still a little breathless from laughing. “I mean it. It’ll all turn out fine, you’ll see. I know we’re supposed to be the perfect soldiers, but sometimes I think you take that a little too literally.”

            “Well,” Rex said wryly. “I am still waiting on that promotion.”

            Cody laughed again, and Rex grinned, relieved that, just for these moments, he could forget about everything that had been weighing on him. Maybe what he’d told Fox earlier had more truth to it than he’d intended. What could he do that the Jedi Council could not? He had no leads after investigating Palpatine’s life. And the dreams might simply be a shared phenomenon due to the fact that, as clones, they all started out with the same brain, the same nervous system… theoretically, the same basic way of making sense of all the violence they took part in every day.

            “What?” Cody interrupted his thoughts. “What are you worrying about now?”

            “I’m not worrying,” Rex sighed. “It’s just… hard to believe Fives could act like he did just because of some parasite.”

            Cody was silent for a moment before answering. “That must have been pretty terrible to watch.”

            “He wasn’t himself,” Rex said, and he found he halfway believed it.

            His mind began to replay the scene in the warehouse, Fives shaking and gasping in his arms, but he forced himself to focus on Cody’s concerned face instead, and the horror faded enough that he could speak again.

             “Hey,” Rex said. “Thanks for coming out here. I’ll be alright—you shouldn’t miss out on the fun just because of this.”

            “Nah… it’s probably a good thing I left when I did. Some of the boys are getting pretty wasted.” Cody grinned self-consciously. “Why give you one more story to embarrass me with?”

            “And why would I ever want to embarrass you?”

            “I dunno, but if you ever did….” Cody chuckled.

            “I can think of a lot worse than when you were drunk,” Rex smirked. “Let’s see… how about our first year training together….”

            “Oh no,” Cody protested. “No, no, no, that’s different. See, I wasn’t a commander back then. I didn’t have a reputation to uphold.”

            “You’re going to get a reputation as the commander who skipped out on his own victory party if you don’t get back in there.” Rex shoved Cody back toward the door. “I think I’m gonna turn in for the night. See you in the morning?”

            “Bright and early,” Cody joked. “Honestly, I’ll probably be back before you fall asleep.”

            “Right,” Rex said skeptically. As Cody said goodbye and walked away smiling, Rex took a deep breath of cool night air and thought that maybe tonight he would finally sleep peacefully.

Chapter Text

            The hyperdrive engines hummed around Rex as he and Lieutenant Appo walked quickly down the hall. The ship was small, a modified Consular-class cruiser, probably worked on by the general himself. The moment Skywalker had told him to select a team of ten, Rex had known that this wasn’t a front-lines sort of mission, but the small size of the ship piqued his curiosity even more. Whatever they were about to dive into, it felt good to be in his armor again.

            They entered the rear salon pod, a room designed to be useful for mission planning and comfortable enough for long diplomatic discussions. General Skywalker was waiting for them in the front row of seats facing the hologram pad. He stood up and turned toward them when the door slid shut.

            “We’re on schedule for our rendezvous with the Hurricane,” the general said immediately. “As I’m sure you gathered from our rushed departure, the situation is urgent. Rex, how much have you heard about the navy’s little problem?”

            “Not much, sir. I heard some fleets were forced to retreat due to malfunctions.”

            “Pretty serious malfunctions,” Skywalker said, beckoning them both over to the hologram pad. “The kind that gets battle cruisers destroyed within seconds. And the problem is spreading fast. We’ve sent out a call for every ship in the navy to try powering up its weapons systems, and nearly twenty percent have already reported that when they tried, the system overloaded and their shields completely shut down.”

            Rex watched the tiny holographic destroyers break up and explode under enemy fire, and thought of the hundreds of clones and other officers, perhaps even Jedi who met their end in the cold emptiness of space. The thought of dying in a vacuum had always felt particularly awful to him.

            “That’s number’s way too high to be a coincidence,” Appo said, also frowning at the naval battles Skywalker was replaying.

            Skywalker nodded and continued. “A special ops squad has been dispatched to the Hurricane to isolate the problem and has already reported that a sophisticated computer virus is responsible for the malfunctions, probably planted at the main naval base on Anaxes. Who planted it, and how to get rid of it… that’s what we’re here to find out.”

            Skywalker straightened from his hunched position over the holographic display, and looked between them. “Now. Appo, you’re going to be my second in command. The Anaxsi military has a lead on a possible culprit; we'll be on an extraction mission.”

            “Yes, sir!” the lieutenant said.

            Rex glanced between Appo and Skywalker, wondering what his role was supposed to be, and trying to ignore the fear that Skywalker was relegating him to a minor role out of distrust in his abilities. After his forced leave, things had gotten as close to normal as they could be. He’d managed to stop dwelling on Fives’ dying words, and it was getting easier to sleep as time went on. But maybe the general still saw something lacking in his performance. Appo wasn’t one of the ten Rex had personally chosen for the mission, but it was the general’s right to add any extra forces he thought necessary.

             “As for you, Rex,” Skywalker said, turning to him with a tiny smirk. “You’ll be commanding the commando unit on Anaxes.”

            “Commandos, sir?” Relieved but confused, Rex raised his eyebrows at the general. “I’ve never heard of a captain taking charge of a commando unit.”

            “It is a little unusual, isn’t it?” Skywalker looked pleased. “But you were specifically requested for this mission. Looks like you’ve got a reputation. Your job will be to lead Diode Squad in the removal of the virus.”

            “Yes, sir.” Rex felt like he was missing an important piece of information. This was a strange job to give him, and an even stranger one to hand to a squad of commandos. Trained squads were so few by now that those left were only sent on missions no other soldier or specialist could do.

            “I was under the impression that Anaxes is a loyal member of the Republic,” Appo said.

            “It is. Most of our best naval officers are from Anaxes, including Admiral Yularen.” Skywalker turned off the holographic display.

            “Sir, did they say why a commando squad was assigned to this mission?” Rex said. “A computer technician be more suited for this. And I don't know the first thing about removing a computer virus.”

            The general leaned back against the table. “They’re special, experimental commandos. They’ve been supplemented with some new hardware that makes it easier for them to communicate with computer systems.” Skywalker slowly clenched and uncurled his hand, watching it thoughtfully. “That’s all I know.”

            “You mean they’re part machine?” Appo asked uneasily. “That just doesn’t seem right.”

            Skywalker laughed. “Hey, you got a problem with my replacement parts, Lieutenant? This hand isn’t flesh and blood, you know.” He waved his right hand carelessly.

            “No problem, sir,” Appo said immediately.

            “Commander Wolffe has a cybernetic eye, too, doesn’t he? I don’t see how this is much different.”

            “Sorry, General,” said Appo with a nervous smile. “I reacted without thinking. Guess I just hate to think of any clone being part clanker.”

            “I understand your reservations,” Skywalker said in good humor. “But these enhancements are obviously effective if these clones are the ones being asked to track down the virus. I’ll be curious to see how you get along with them, Rex.”

            “If they get the job done, I’ll have no complaints,” Rex said, although he didn’t like the idea of experimental cyborgs either. Getting replacements for limbs lost in battle was one thing, but purposely adding on mechanical bits and pieces to otherwise healthy clones felt like spitting on the whole idea that clones were at least superior to droids.

            “Good. I’ll have more details on your separate missions once we’ve met up with the squad. Dismissed.”

            Out in the hall, Rex saw Appo’s face relax.

            “This will be your first time working this closely with General Skywalker, won’t it?” Rex asked.

            “Heh. Wonder who we’re up against. Which do you think it is—a traitor, or a spy?”

            “I know which one I’d prefer,” Rex said simply. “But we have to be ready for anything. This can’t be allowed to slow down the other fleets, or all the other battles we’ve won in the Outer Rim will be meaningless.”

            “I’m not worried,” said Appo. “With you and Diode Squad, getting rid of that virus should be no problem, sir. And as for our suspect… well. General Skywalker and I will be sure to clean up that mess.”

            Rex gave a wry smile at Appo’s confidence, but he knew the lieutenant had been through enough battles that it was more than just posturing. The general hadn’t made a bad choice for team leader.

            “With any luck,” Rex said, “I’ll finish up my end of the mission and join the rest of you in a few days.”

            Appo nodded. “And get there just in time to help us escort this criminal back to Coruscant.”

            The Hurricane loomed monstrously before them, considerably larger than the planet Anaxes, glimmering a cool spectrum in the distance. Rex stood by General Skywalker in the cockpit and watched as they slowly came to a halt just outside its shuttle bay, like a fly hovering behind the ear of a great beast. Appo entered the cockpit and stopped just behind Rex.

            A squarish, ponytailed man materialized via hologram. “General Skywalker. Good of you to come.”

            “Admiral Seize,” Skywalker greeted him. “Sorry for being so cautious in my approach. I’m sure you understand.”

            “Of course. With nearly a quarter of our ships crippled, it would be foolish not to. I’ve been reassured that landing in our shuttle bay won’t pass the virus to your ship, but if you wish, we can arrange to send a small, unarmed transport to bring your captain here.”

            “I think that’s a good idea,” Skywalker agreed. “As for me, I need to know where I'm supposed to find the one who planted this virus.”

            “I’ll let… one of our guests brief you on that,” said Admiral Seize, glancing away, presumably at whoever he was speaking of. “He no doubt has a better grasp of the details than I do.”

            Seize stepped out of the way, and an ARC trooper stepped in to take his place. He was bald, and his ears were covered with a large, prominent device which appeared to wrap around the back of his head. Rex couldn’t get a very clear look at it through the hologram, but his first thought was that it reminded him a little of the headsets young clones wore as they studied.

            “General Skywalker,” said the cyborg, expressionless in both face and voice. “You brought Captain Rex?”

            “I did.” Skywalker gave Rex a quick get-a-load-of-this-guy look as he came closer to the general, so that his image could be transmitted to the Hurricane. “And to whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?”

            “My designation is ARC trooper Zero-Four-Zero-Eight. Diode Squad is comprised of RC-Seven-Seven-Two-One, RC-Seven-Seven-Two-Two—”

            “Wait a minute,” Rex said, staring hard at the hologram. “I know that number.”

            Skywalker held up a hand. “Why don’t you two do introductions later? You’ll have plenty of time to catch up once the lieutenant and I are underway. But right now, time’s wasting. Just tell me where I’m going, trooper.”

            “Yes, sir,” said the ARC trooper.

            Rex had opened his mouth to say the same, but couldn’t take his eyes off the hologram in front of him, trying to do the impossible and work out if he knew this clone who looked so different than last he’d seen the one that number belonged to. Echo was dead—they’d all seen him fall to that explosion, they’d all left him lying there on that landing pad in the Citadel, amid live fire from turrets and the clearing smoke of an exploded shuttle. There was no way this was Echo. But the number was the same.

            “Your destination is Skako Minor,” said ARC-0408, as if reading off a list. His voice was soft but rough, like he had a cough or sore throat. “Your objective is to locate one Erol Jaskes, a Verpine engineer. Although Skako Minor was colonized relatively recently, it has already become fairly populous for its size, and your presence as humans will be remarkable and possibly provoke hostility toward you. I have a great deal of information on the world and on Jaskes which I have already transmitted on a secure channel to your ship’s databanks. Please review it as soon as possible.”

            “Now just hold on a minute!” Skywalker frowned. “I didn’t give you permission to transmit anything to my ship. How do I know you haven’t just infected my systems with this virus?”

           “Impossible. I ran a thorough self-diagnostic before sending the data. I also condensed and revised it for you. For the sake of time, I left out the data which explains how I identified Verpine characteristics in the virus’s effects, but I will gladly send that as well if you need it.”

            Rex thought this ARC trooper didn’t look like he ever did anything “gladly”… or resentfully, or hesitantly, or with any feeling at all for that matter.

            “Jaskes quit his job as a diagnostician at the Anaxes naval base only a few days ago,” ARC-0408 continued, seeming oblivious to Skywalker’s exasperated look. “Evidence suggests he returned to Skako Minor, where his family lives. There are rumors he has ties to weapons smugglers and is probably armed and dangerous.”

            “Okay,” Skywalker said slowly, in a tone of forced politeness. “I’ll take a look at what you sent me.”

            “Very good, General. If you need any clarification or additional information, I’m sure Captain Rex will pass along the message. There should be no risk of transmitting the virus between private communicators.”

            Rex and Skywalker exchanged another quick look. Definitely not Echo, Rex thought uneasily. Running right over the general during a briefing was not part of his memories of the kid.

            “We will be sending a shuttle to pick him up right away. Any questions?”

            “I can think of a few,” Skywalker said half to himself. “But I’ll wait until after I’ve read the file. Does Admiral Seize have anything more to say?”

            “No,” said the ARC trooper, without so much as glancing away.

            “Guess I’ll take your word for it,” Skywalker said, and ended the transmission. “Think you can handle that guy’s attitude? Let’s hope the commandos take orders well.”

            “I’ll be fine, sir,” Rex said.

            “He wouldn’t be trusted with a mission of this magnitude if he couldn’t respect the chain of command,” said Appo.

            “Yeah. And there must be some reason he requested Rex specifically,” Skywalker said.

            “General,” Rex said. “That ARC trooper has the same designation as Echo did. I’ve never known the army to repeat designations before.”

            “Echo?” Skywalker looked at him blankly.

            “Yes, sir. He was killed on that landing pad during the Citadel mission.”

            “Right. I remember now.” The general’s brow furrowed. “That is pretty unusual. You’re sure it’s the same one?”

            “Yes, sir. Positive.” Rex wondered if, to non-clones, memorizing the numbers troopers were assigned was difficult. For him it seemed as natural as remembering names, regulations, coordinates, and any of the other information relevant to missions. “I never forget a man I’ve served with.”

            “Well, I’ll look into it if I have time, but for now, let’s just focus on the task at hand. You’d better get down to the airlock.”

            “Yes sir. Good luck on your mission. You too, Lieutenant.”

            “Thank you, sir,” said Appo with a nod.  “And to you as well.”

            Minutes later, the tiny shuttle had docked. The airlock doors slid open and ARC-0408 stood on the other side.

            “Welcome aboard, Captain.” The scratchy sound of the trooper’s voice was even more noticeable in person.

            Rex said nothing as he walked inside. It was halfway between a larty and an escape pod, with a small open area behind the cockpit. Four commandos in black stealth armor stood silently in a line against the wall, helmeted and anonymous.

            “We’ll be taking a freighter to Anaxes immediately,” ARC-0408 said as soon as the shuttle was disengaged from the airlock. There was no one physically at the helm. “Diode Squad and I will then communicate with the primary computer system at the naval base and remove the virus.”

            “I have a few questions for you, ARC-Zero-Four-Zero-Eight,” Rex said, arms folded. “First of all, why did you request me to lead this mission? If it’s so simple for you five to remove this virus, why do you need someone like me with you?”

            “We are specially designed to handle the technical aspect of this mission,” the ARC trooper agreed. “But most people have difficulty working with Diode Squad. Their cybernetic enhancements make them fairly unresponsive to outside stimuli other than direct orders. I was sent to lead the group because I think more creatively than they do. But I recognize that my own modifications have made it more difficult for me to communicate with beings who aren’t computers.”

            “So… you need a normal clone to help you deal with normal people,” Rex said, glancing uneasily at the unresponsive commandos. “But you could have chosen any CO.”

            “I chose you because I’ve worked under you before, and personally witnessed your ability to handle any situation.”

            Rex’s skin crawled under his armor. “Right. You wouldn’t happen to have a name, would you?”

            “People used to call me Echo.” ARC-0408 said it in the same impassive tone. “But we are only referred to by number.”

            Rex stared at ARC-0408—Echo—disturbed in a deep, fundamental way. This was impossible.

            “You died,” was all he managed to say.

            “I would have,” said Echo, “if I wasn’t chosen for this.” The shuttle settled down inside the Hurricane’s hangar and the ramp extended. Rex watched the commandos file out in step with one another, and Echo turned to follow them.

            Rex walked behind, staring at the device on Echo’s head. One of the lights blinked intermittently. How could this be the same clone who was best friends with Fives, so earnest and devoted? The old Echo would have been excited to see a familiar face after an entire year. But this Echo was cold and distant in a way Rex had rarely seen among his comrades. Perhaps he was putting on airs in front of the squad… maybe the device suppressed his emotions, or maybe—Rex’s gut clenched at the thought—he blamed Rex and the rest of his comrades for leaving him to die.

            Admiral Seize was waiting for them outside. “Captain Rex. A pleasure to finally meet you. I’ve had a light freighter prepared for your transport to Anaxes. Please feel free to inspect it yourself.”

            “Thank you, Admiral.” Rex saluted. “With any luck, we’ll have you and the rest of the navy up and running in no time.”

            “Carry on, then,” said the admiral, glancing at Echo, and Rex got the distinct impression that the admiral was glad to be rid of the ARC trooper. Echo and Diode Squad filed into the freighter, and Rex was about to follow when Seize put a hand on his shoulder.

            “Careful,” Seize said in a low voice, his eyes following the cybernetic-enhanced troopers as they entered the ship. “I hear that squad was a bad batch, and that's why they became experimental. I'm not sure what they mean by that. Watch your back.”

            Rex glanced away from Seize. “You think they're dangerous?”

            “I don't know. Keep an eye on them is all I'm saying. I know you're a good soldier, Captain. Your reputation precedes you.”

            “Thank you, sir,” Rex said. “I will keep that in mind. By your leave, sir.”

            The admiral swept his arm toward the freighter and the two parted. Rex walked up the ramp and found the commandos had returned to their silent, statuesque positions. Rex stared at them for a few moments, then proceeded through the cabin and found Echo in the cockpit.

            “Quiet bunch, aren't they,” Rex said, trying to sound casual. “What were their names?”

            “They have no names. They never have. Numbers are all we need.” Echo said over the hum of the shuttle coming to life. “They’re not even separate people, really. The cybernetics merge their thoughts together.”

            “No,” Rex said under his breath, a trace of disgust coming into his voice. “We are all individuals.”

            “Not all of us,” said Echo.

            “Then why do they even have individual numbers?”

            “The components of any mechanism have names so that they can be identified for repair or individual use,” Echo explained. “I’m aware of their numbers, and where each part of the unit is at all times.”

            “Does this thing keep you alive?” Rex gestured to the machine around Echo's head.

            “My brain was damaged as a result of the blast,” Echo said. His eyes unfocused as the ship departed from the shuttle bay. “Without it, my ability to process sensory input would be limited, and my movements would be severely uncoordinated. It also regulates my nervous system, circulation, and digestion.”

            “So in other words, it does most of what your brain used to do on its own.”

            “It helps.”

            Rex felt the disgust turn to anger, then stopped himself as he realized where that anger was directed. If the choice was between letting Echo die, and bringing him back as this shadow of his former self, he couldn’t really say which was better. But to do the same to undamaged clones….

            “What about the rest of them? Do they need this to survive?”

            “Removing the implants is not advised. They were physically altered during pre-adolescence to allow for optimal cooperation between the technology and their bodies.”

            “Why? What did they hope to achieve? And… who authorized this?”

            “The Kaminoans,” Echo said, “hoped that the implants would give this squad of commandos a greater advantage over the droid armies. They didn’t predict that there would be such a loss of independent thought. But with the right leadership, they can be utilized effectively against the enemy.”

            “Hmm.” Rex turned away from Echo and looked out the view screen, trying to stop dwelling on how much their very existence unnerved him. “What’s our ETA?”

            “Three minutes.”

            Rex watched the planet swallow the view screen and told himself that it was useless to try and reconcile this Echo with the one he’d known before. That one died on the operating table, and this one… this one probably wouldn’t even bat an eye if Rex told him that Fives was gone.

            For a moment, he almost blurted it out. But he didn’t want to see Echo’s blank-faced response. There had to be some other way to see just how much of him was left under that headset.

            “So,” Rex tried, “where have you been this past year?”

            “On Kamino,” Echo said, still with that unfocused look in his eyes. “It took a few months for my injuries to heal, and for me to get used to the implant.”

            “You don’t look too badly injured,” Rex noted, but suddenly realized Echo could be more droid parts than human ones underneath his modified ARC trooper armor.

            “It was mostly internal.” Echo didn’t elaborate.

            “And now they send you on special ops missions with these commandos?”

            “Sometimes.”

            “Sometimes?” Rex raised an eyebrow. “What about the rest of the time?”

            There was a two second pause as they hit the atmosphere, Echo staring off intently. “I work alone, or go in for tests on the equipment.”

            “Sounds… exciting,” Rex muttered.

            The freighter shook slightly against the atmosphere’s resistance. Clouds rushed up at them and flew away, revealing endless greens and blues intricately crisscrossed with the tan and silver of civilization. A few mountains shot off in sharp spears of white to the left. The freighter banked gently and circled down toward a particularly dense patch of the web, which grew in detail until Rex could make out nested levels of tall, interconnected buildings rising up the face of a hill. Then, just on the other side of the hill, the grey condensed even more into an enormous airfield, radiating out in strips from the main hub like colorless sun rays stretching over the land.

            It was so silent in the freighter while they circled the base that Rex jumped a little when Echo finally spoke again.

            “We are cleared for landing,” was all he said.

            “Do they know why we’re coming?” Rex asked.

            “Some of them.”

            The glimmering, sun-dappled city dropped out of sight as the freighter glided through one of the hatches in the hillside, and into the main terminal. Artificial lighting took the place of rays from Solis Axum. Rex saw officers and a few knots of troopers hurrying to and fro, the familiar harried order of a military establishment.

            “There’s our welcoming party,” he noted, as a group of naval officers approached the freighter across the enormous hangar’s floor.

            The door opened, but Echo didn’t move. The briefing was over, and it was time for Rex to take command.

            “Let’s go, boys.” Rex led the way out, and Echo and the Diode Squad followed without hesitation.

            “Captain Rex, I presume?” said the admiral in front of the group. She was shorter than she looked—her confident gait, one hand on her hip as she halted, made her seem taller than she was, and her dark hair was pulled back in several braids.

            “Yes, Admiral.”

            “My name is Tanza Bet. Admiral Konneck and I are in charge of this base. Right this way.” Admiral Bet held her hand out as she began leading them toward a secure briefing room off the hanger. After both parties had finished funneling in, she stood at the holo console, though it remained dark. “I assume you’ve been briefed about our problem?” The admiral leaned on the console with both hands, almost as if the gravity of the continuous fleet losses were threatening to take her down as well.

            “Yes, sir. My team is specially equipped to remove the virus, if you don’t mind giving us access to the central computer system for the base.”

            “If it was possible to remove the virus from here, I would be happy to grant you security clearance, but—”

            “Yes, those pass codes would be helpful,” Echo interrupted, staring off. “Either this virus built its own special firewall, or your station’s security system’s not bad. I can’t talk it into letting me through to the infected area.”

            Admiral Bet looked alarmed. Rex cleared his throat.

            “We wouldn’t want to try bypassing it without your authorization anyway, Admiral,” Rex said. Echo glanced at him and for the first time, Rex thought he saw something there: puzzlement followed by realization. But Echo said nothing; maybe Rex imagined it.

            “No… you wouldn’t,” Bet said severely, glancing at Echo with a mistrustful glint in her eye.

           “He’s….” Rex began, but didn’t want to excuse Echo’s behavior too much. “He’s responsive to direct orders, Admiral. He won’t touch those systems again until you give the word.”

            Bet's eyes flicked back to Rex and she nodded slightly. “It would be useless anyway. We’ve already determined that the virus is being hacked into the base’s system from an external source, elsewhere on the planet. You’ll probably have to manually remove or destroy whatever device is enabling it before it can be eliminated from the system. Captain, I must impress upon you the severity of this mission. For multiple reasons, it must be undertaken with the epitome of both skill and tact.”

            Bet illuminated the console and a webbed display of structures and connections bloomed to light. “This entire planet is monitored by a highly sophisticated computer network. It is part of the reason we are able to maintain a balance between our city structures and the natural environment and ecosystems in every part of Anaxes. Military facilities have tight security which keep them separate from the rest of the world’s network, as a safety measure. It is alarming, to say the least, that our hacker has managed to bypass the best measures our technicians could implement. But as you know, the virus exists in a nigh undetectable state of dormancy until triggered by the appropriate conditions.”

            “The virus is activated by the raw energy build up which occurs while a ship’s weapons system is preparing to fire,” Echo recited.

            “Correct,” Bet continued, “and there are many places around the planet that depend on ray shields such as those used by our ships,” Bet said, and the emitter began to display images and information on various high security operations. “Those same systems are connected to other environmental controls which use high-energy tools, similar to a ship’s weapons array. Perhaps you are beginning to see the larger danger present here. If those shields fail, soldiers will no longer be the only victims of this virus. There could be flooding, toxic waste contamination, or any number of other disasters right here on Anaxes. So far, there have been no accidents, and I would like to keep it that way.”

            “Understood, Admiral. We will proceed with all due care,” Rex said.

            “I'm glad to hear it, Captain. Is your squad prepared for this task?”

            “We are the best men in the Republic for such a mission,” Echo said. “You stated that the virus is coming from an outside source. I recommend we begin tracing it immediately.”

            “We have already traced it within a few klicks. I shall pass this briefing to my associate, Admiral Konneck.” Bet stepped aside, and a man took her place at the console controls. He was a spindly older type, balding with salt and pepper sideburns. His face was neutral at the moment; Rex could imagine it being kindly just as well as coldly humorless, but Konneck gave no indication yet which he leaned toward more.

            “On behalf of the Republic Navy,” Konneck began, with his hands behind his back, “and the Anaxsi government, in addition to the skill and tact underscored by Admiral Bet, I must ask that this case be handled… discreetly. We would do well not to draw too much attention to certain details… in order to keep our political stability during these troubled times.”

            “Yes sir,” Rex said immediately, at a loss as to what he could mean.

            “The area where the virus is originating is unpopulated, according to public records… a former disaster area from many years ago.” Konneck drew up a display of what appeared to be a city. “But that’s not technically correct. There are no human inhabitants, but the city is still populated by sentient creatures.”

            “City?” Rex skimmed the data, taking in bits of information: environmental trauma; high radiation levels; unrecoverable; off limits to all civilians; high fines for trespassing within five klicks of the outermost containment fencing. “This disaster destroyed an entire city?”

            “Well, the infrastructure was mostly undamaged at the time, although I imagine it’s fallen into some disrepair since. It’s been like this for decades. For the most part, we’ve left it alone… you see, the surviving inhabitants are descended from the Mrlssi, who had joined us on this planet centuries ago due to a scientific partnership. To put it in extremely simplistic terms, most of them left the planet by choice when the naval families continued to rise in power, but a few elected to stay, and most of them never did much agree with our way of doing things. The ones still in Drann have resisted all our attempts to give them aid and refuge since the disaster, and are antagonistic toward the government.”

            Rex stared at the image of the birdlike creature that had appeared in place of the layout of Drann. This one appeared well dressed and manicured, with a fiery frill of feathers emitting from the back of its beaked head.

            “This doesn't match the data I have so far isolated about the structure of the virus,” Echo interjected. “This virus is Verpine in origin; there is no doubt in my mind. General Skywalker and Lieutenant Appo have been deployed to capture the suspect: a Verpine, as would be expected.”

            “Indeed, it is possible our Verpine set up the virus and framed the Drann Mrlssi for his deed,” Bet said, “but we are not so sure of that. You must not underestimate the Mrlssi. They may look like animals, but they are cunning scientists. They have a motive for planting this virus and undermining the leadership our planet operates under. It could easily be they who have framed the Verpine. Nevertheless, we don’t want to accuse them while we lack proof. The public may take it the wrong way. It’s essential that you complete this mission without creating an incident.”

            “Are they hostile?” Rex asked.

            “These ones have been in the past,” said Konneck. “But this will be a mission of stealth. Stay out of sight, and do not harm them. While Drann is officially unoccupied, the Mrlssi do have connections to powerful political sympathizers.” Rex noticed Bet glance uneasily at Konneck. The politics of Anaxes were apparently more complicated than outsiders knew.

            “They’ll never even know we were there,” Rex said.

            “Very good,” said Bet. “We don’t know where in Drann the virus is being uploaded from; you’ll have to examine the signals coming from within the city once you are inside. We will give you a city map, but it may be out of date.”

            “Yes, sir. What about the radiation?”

            “Drann is still awash in radioactive particles. Seal your suits. That and your helmet's filters will protect you from exposure. If you remove your helmets, you will likely be contaminated. It may not be such a concern to you, given your position and lifespan, but still, best to avoid unnecessarily drama. Given that you are in fact still human, you will want to eat and use the facilities before entering the city, just in case this takes longer than expected.” 

            “Understood,” Rex said solemnly. He glanced at Echo and caught the ARC trooper staring at him. “We’ll move as quickly as the situation allows.”

            “Any further questions?”

            “No sir, nothing of special importance.”

            “Very good,” Bet said. “It’s just a short flight to the edge of the city. You can prepare and review the maps en route.”

            As they filed out of the office, Rex kept close step with Echo. “Got something to say?” he asked in an undertone.

            “I was going to point out that there’s no reason to suppose this mission will take very long. But then you said it, in fewer words.”

            Echo continued forward, but Rex noticed that his eyes weren’t as unfocused as before, and seemed to wander over things rather than staying fixed on a single point in space. Maybe in the absence of a link with the station, he had a little less to look at inside his own head.

            They were dropped off just on the inside of a tall electric fence. The fence marked the perimeter of the most intensely poisoned zone of the fallout area, and was guarded by a big yellow sign, large enough to be seen from two klicks away, labeled with the headers DANGER, RADIOACTIVE CONTAMINATION, KEEP OUT and subtitled with catastrophe dates, a recently updated radioactivity survey report, and the mounting fines for trespassing. They were about three klicks northeast of the city. As they jumped down off the hovering transport, their boots met soft earth and a mat of lush plant life. It was going to be a bit of a hike in.

            “Not exactly what I was picturing,” Rex said            .

            Steadily they marched toward the setting sun, under a purple tangle of sirpar trees, and between gentle mounds of earth covered in speckled succulents and vines. As the sharp edge of Solis Axum slipped out of sight, everything became a washed out sea green under the light of the planet's single moon. The commandos scouted ahead at Rex’s orders, and from his place behind them, the dull black bulk of their stealth armor slipped in and out of view like a hallucination.

            The land was totally still apart from the occasional flit or chirp of an insect.

            “City limits half a klick ahead,” Echo said after half an hour of marching had passed.

            Rex could see the tops of a few buildings over the crest of a little hill, like blackened teeth. He signaled for everyone to stay low, and together they crawled to the top of the rise and looked down into the shallow valley with their binoculars.

            It was a city, alright. The buildings, averaging about ten stories, were close together, and Rex couldn't make out much detail past the outer layer. The layout would be good for staying hidden, but the limited vision would go both ways. About halfway around the western edge, the ill-fated reactor loomed, a giant corroding red and grey monument to disaster. The buildings were similarly weather-beaten and aged, many with broken windows, plants pulling their way up the walls. It was hard to imagine anyone lived here, and even harder to imagine they did so willingly.

            “I’m not seeing any movement,” Rex murmured. “Anyone else?”

            “Negative,” said Echo. “But I’m picking up several computer signals. The city is more technologically active than I expected. This will slow us down.”

            “Great. Any clue which one it might be?”

            “No. We’ll start with the nearest one.” Echo pointed slightly to the left. “With your permission, Captain.”

            “Stay low. Diode Squad, scout ahead. We'll follow.”

            The commandos half-crawled down the hill, and Rex was struck with how normal this felt, even though he knew the men he was working with were far from normal. During a mission like this, there was never a lot of chatter anyway. He’d almost caught himself admiring the way the commandos moved in tandem before he remembered that they had little choice in the matter. When the squad had made a significant lead, Rex motioned to Echo that they were to proceed, and they began their own crouched descent.

            Echo flung out an arm and Rex nearly collided with it. Everyone dropped to the ground.

            “What is it?” Rex breathed after a moment.

            “Seven-Seven-Two-Four saw something.”

            Rex waited with only the sound of his own breathing in his ear.

            “Keffi,” Echo finally said. “False alarm. Seems wild.”

            “Careful,” Rex said quietly. “Could be part of a domesticated herd. Nobody said the locals don’t have pets.”

            “Copy that.” Echo said. “Holding position. Seven-Seven-Two-Four scouting further ahead.”

            Rex watched as one of the shadows moved toward an abandoned speeder propped against a crumbling wall. After a moment, a thick-maned Keffi came into view, turning its horned head and staring straight at them before it ducked to snuffle in the thinning foliage.

            “There aren’t any others within visual range,” Echo confirmed.

            7724 moved from the speeder, and the Keffi loped away, startled by his sudden movement but seeming unconcerned.

            They waited once more as the commandos proceeded again toward the edge of the first buildings. Rex watched a small flock of flying creatures erupt from the path of the commandos and swoop some distance beyond his vision.

            “How does anything live out here?” Rex breathed. “The animals and the Mrlssi… they should all be dead.”

            “Perhaps the contamination levels have been exaggerated. Or they've adapted.”

            “If the city was recoverable, the Anaxsi would have reclaimed it,” Rex said.

            “Maybe,” Echo shrugged. “Maybe they don't want to.”

            “Do you think the Mrlssi really stay here by choice?”

            “They’ve reached the city’s edge,” Echo said. “The route is secure.”

            A few minutes later, Rex and Echo joined two of the commandos in an alley. Public lights were on throughout the city, though it did little to lighten the atmosphere. The working ones created only a dim patchwork of illumination, continuously punctured in spots by flickering or a resonant quiver.

            Rex waited for Echo to give some indication of their next move, acutely aware of how his and Echo's white armor stood out.

            Echo signaled down the alley and they began a swift approach from one door alcove to the next, one commando in front, another behind. They held weapons aloft in a defensive position. Rex tapped Echo on the shoulder and motioned for the commandos to put away their weapons. They immediately holstered their weapons without even the faintest of external commands from Echo. Rex was starting to understand how he and Diode Squad worked as a single unit, each soldier a limb for the ARC trooper to direct with merely a thought of action.

            Rex took a step forward and Echo grabbed his arm. Enemy, he signed, and pointed toward a staircase and upward.

            “Where's the signal?” Rex whispered.

            Echo pointed above the staircase. So someone was inside where they needed to go. That would make things difficult, but it was not altogether surprising.

            Echo led the way toward a metal ladder on a neighboring facade. There were archways spanning between the buildings. One of their two commandos started climbing the ladder, and Echo kept his hand on Rex's shoulder to keep him from following. The trooper slipped out of sight and soon, Rex was being gently pushed to follow.

            They climbed two levels before stopping on a platform. A catwalk over a small alley connected their building to the one where the computer signal was emanating from. As they crossed the bridge, Rex saw light coming from behind heavy curtains in a third story window across the street. Rex could just make out the feathery semi-humanoid form of a Mrlssi as it passed the gap between the curtains. A light from inside flashed and changed irregularly—Rex wondered if they got holonet channels here.

            “Something behind this wall is jacked into a larger network,” Echo whispered. “But I can’t tell yet if it’s our virus.”

            “Is anyone on this floor?”

            “Can't say for certain. Squad's got the perimeter.”

            Rex realized only one commando was still with them. The second had broken off and was nowhere to be seen. The street below them appeared completely devoid of life.

            Moving in, Echo signaled, and the three of them moved forward toward a dark window facing out toward the street. The commando was melting the seal on the window within seconds, then he and Echo pulled the window out and leaned it lightly against the railing of the platform. The commando stepped onto the sill and disappeared completely into the blackness while Rex and Echo knelt beneath it outside in a patch of shadow.

            The Mrlssi opposite passed the window again. Rex wondered how populated the city was. Did the creatures live alone or congregate together? Perhaps this single occupant was an outlier, and the rest were concentrated near the center of the city. Rex could barely think of a worse fate than languishing in a solitary existence, with no sentient interaction beyond the news of distant stars coming in through the holonet. He nearly shuddered.

            “It's not it,” Echo whispered.

            “What is it?”

            Echo shook his head. “Small comm. Someone's private window to the outside world. More than that is,” he said, nodding his head toward the Mrlssi inhabitant across the street. “We should destroy it.”

            “Destroy it?” Rex turned toward the window their commando had disappeared into.

            “Of course. They are communicating with someone. Could be dangerous. There is supposed to be no outbound access due to the political situation.”

            Rex sighed. “What if they're just talking to family, friends? Seems wrong to cut them off. They're already cut off.”

            “What are your orders, Captain?” Echo asked.

            Rex looked up to the sky; the moon was gone and clouds had moved in. Echo was right, of course. “Destroy it,” he sighed.

            Echo nodded, and after a minute, the commando returned from the inside and joined them on the platform.

            “We're not here to hunt down all outbound communication. Once we find the source of the virus and eliminate it, the mission is complete and we're turning back, whether there are other signals around or not.”

            “You are correct, Captain, that is the mission objective.”

            “Let's continue,” Rex said. “Are you reading another signal?”

            “Yes. Several toward the center. Two klicks.”

            “Let’s regroup one block south.”

            They met up with the rest of the commandos at the mouth of another alley, just beside what had once been a museum. There were some token signs of repair on the front of the edifice: holes patched over with bolted-on sheets of scrap metal, the sagging awning braced by mismatched poles. Someone had scrubbed half the rust off the plaque that had first given Rex an idea of what the building was, and some of the vines on the east side of the building had been clipped. But these efforts only served to make the building look even more pathetic, as if only one person had cared to save it and had disappeared before that care ever made a difference.

            “We’ve been in the fallout zone a little over an hour,” Echo said.

            “We're making good time,” said Rex. “Two klicks. That will take at least twenty minutes. Are you reading any others beyond this one?”

            “I tried to spread my search radius through the comm unit, and I detected a few other areas getting data out of the city. But I didn’t see any evidence of the virus there. It doesn’t seem designed to travel on those channels.”

            “So we at least eliminate those from the possibilities—” Rex turned his head at a soft rushing sound, glimpsed the odd texture rippling across the street’s surface, and half a moment later rain began pinging hard against his armor and spattering his visor. “—that's what you're saying?”

            “With reasonable certainty, yes. The ones two klicks away are the clearest choice for our hacker.” Echo called up the map on his holo device and tapped the spot in question. “The signals are congregated together, about there, I think.”

            “We’d better get moving. Stay on your toes—we’ve got lower visibility, and it’ll be harder to hear anyone sneaking up on us now.”

            Their two scouts parted from the group once more, and after a few moments, they had completely disappeared.

            The rest of them jogged in fits and starts, making quick dashes across cracked pavement to the beat of intermittent gestures of all clear from Echo as recon came back. Rex never saw the scouting commandos—they were too good at staying hidden.

            At one intersection, Echo pressed Rex against the wall with him as a Mrlssi strutted slowly through the rainy streets, ruffling its feathers and half saying, half singing something in the whistling, warbling tones of its native tongue. It swung a cane from one clawed hand, the fringe of feathers on the back of its scaly head quite large and colorful, but diminished in appearance by its overall patchiness. The old Mrlssi never even glanced in their direction before passing on down the street toward a corner where two others emerged and sang brief greetings. The view of it was warped slightly by all the water on Rex’s visor, every drop that struck momentarily smudging the image this way or that. Somehow, Rex couldn't help but feel a sense of relief at the sight.

            Echo’s chest rose and fell in the corner of his eye, and that sigh looked so human, waiting for the Mrlssi to clear out, that Rex again felt the dissonance of the present and the past and wondered if Echo was just pretending… if this was his version of growing up, becoming a better soldier. He’d taken what was handed to him, as they all did, but he didn’t seem to feel happy, or angry, or tense, or any of the myriad small emotions that made Rex feel alive. He simply existed now, and Rex wondered if that was the end of Echo's story, if every moment for the rest of his life would be the monotony of mere existence. And of course, even if it was, Echo wouldn't have the sensibility to view that as a loss.

Chapter Text

            The rain was falling hard on the streets, and visibility had become extremely limited. Rex, Echo, and their two commandos had ducked into what had clearly once been a restaurant, but was now little more than a heap of chairs and tables in disarray. Their wet boots made shining prints in the layer of dust on the floor. The dust was coating everything—the area had not been used or even entered for a very long time.

            They stood in the shadows near the entryway, dripping, waiting for some recon from their two scouts.

            “The signals are coming from within a large complex,” Echo said, breaking the silence. “Parts of the complex appear to be heavily populated.”

            “Is there a back door?” Rex asked.

            “There are several former entrances, but it would be necessary to force entry on most of them. They have been permanently sealed. The main entryway is large. There are a number of Mrlssi within sight.”

            “You said we would have to force entry on most, but not all. Is there any other entrance?”

            “On the east side,” Echo said. “A single door. The entry itself seems unused, but the street is a small thoroughfare.”

            “What's the purpose of the complex?”

            “It does not seem to be housing. They appear to be socializing. Some Mrlssi are carrying goods in and others are leaving in small groups. Recommend holding position until they have cleared out.”

            Rex swallowed. The hour was growing late. He hoped the Mrlssi had a habit of retiring early, or else they were going to be waiting in this dim room well into the night.

            “Noted. We'll hold position here. Keep your men on watch. If we're lucky, the rain will also let up by the time we move out. At ease, everyone.”

            Neither Echo nor the two commandos appeared to relax at all, but Rex pulled up a chair against the wall by the door and sat.

            “Sit,” Rex said, and the three immediately sat themselves down in nearby chairs. Rex breathed a sigh and tried to relax. The mission was all going according to plan. This was only a minor delay. He didn't understand why he was so tense; he had had blaster bolts flying at him for all of his adult life. This was a simple, even safe, mission in comparison, despite mandatory success being a constant pressure. He closed his eyes and leaned his head against the wall.

            Minutes passed with no sound but the shh of the pouring rain and his increasingly calm breathing. He glanced at Echo and the commandos, sitting still and silent like dead men propped up in chairs, and his stomach tightened. It was Echo. It was the so-called Bad Batch. It was this place. They were all part of the grand design of the leaders of the Republic, but it all still made Rex feel uneasy. Perhaps that was why it made Rex uneasy.

            “Echo,” Rex said.

            Echo turned his head. “Captain.”

            “Do you…. How much do you remember? From before?”

            “Before the modifications?”

            “Yes.”

            “I don't remember the blast. I awoke in the med lab on Kamino. I was on life support and in a great deal of pain.” Echo's voice, ever low and hoarse, betrayed no emotion at recalling this memory. “I felt trapped in my body, as I couldn't talk in a way that could be understood, and I couldn't hear what was being said to me. I couldn't think clearly, possibly due to pain-relieving drugs in my system. It wasn't until later that I was informed about what had happened. The only thing I knew at the time was that I was dying.”

            “They did save your life, then,” Rex said.

            “I'm certain of it.”

            Rex sighed. “But what about before the blast? Your life before? You do remember. You remembered who I was.”

            “You're correct,” Echo said. “I can't remember the mission. But yes, I do remember my life before.”

            “And you remember your friends? Your brothers?”

            “Of course, Captain.”

            Rex frowned to himself, wondering if he should really ask. “Do you… ever miss them?”

            “No,” Echo said, and Rex was suddenly revisited by the pain of Fives dying in his arms, afraid and betrayed.

            Echo really wouldn't care. Rex clenched his fist and was almost relieved that Fives would never know the mockery that had been made of his friend.

            “Do you think of them? At all? Don't you care about them?”

            “Captain, understand that it has nothing to do with me anymore. We are soldiers. The mission is the only thing that matters.”

            “And what is the mission?” Rex growled.

            “The mission is to do whatever is commanded of us.”

            “Good soldiers follow orders.”

            “Yes, Captain. As soldiers, we don't need friends. Only allies. Command tells us who our allies are, and together, we complete the mission.”

            “What if they were wrong? What if they told you to fire on your allies? On your brothers, on the Jedi?”

            “If they were wrong, how would we know?” Echo seemed completely unconcerned by this conversation, which was just as well: He was unlikely to ever repeat it. Rex, on the other hand, felt hot and on the edge of shaking from some combination of anger and fear, feelings he had tried so hard to put behind him for the sake of returning to duty.

            “You would know it in your heart,” Rex said, his voice low and rough from trying to suppress his emotions. “You still have one, don't you? A human heart? That's what separates us from them. Sometimes, you have to make your own choices.”

            “That's treason,” he said simply.

            “That's experience.”

            They sat stiffly in their chairs, no longer facing each other. Rex stared hard out the doorway into the sheet of rain. His heart was racing—he had to calm down. This wasn't the time or place to lose his focus. He had promised the general that he was fit to return to command and now he had to prove it. He might not get another chance. The war was running down to the wire, and they couldn't afford to have incapable soldiers in command positions. Right now, at this moment, brothers across the Republic were counting on him to lead this mission, to kill this virus so they could safely dispatch to the front, or at least, have a better chance of safely returning from it. This conversation was not important right now. Rex took a deep breath.

            Echo was right about one thing: Sometimes you had to leave feelings behind.

            Eventually, Rex's tenseness wore off as the better part of an hour crawled by without interaction. Head against the wall, Rex continued to stare listlessly into the rain, which against his wishes had made no effort to let up. It was almost nostalgic.

            “Entry clear. Recommend cautious approach to east entrance,” Echo said, jerking Rex out of his daze.

            He stood, stretched slightly, and said, “Let's finish this.”

            One of their commandos slipped out of the entryway, and within a minute, Echo was gently pressing Rex forward.

            Rex could hear the musical voices of the Mrlssi echoing in the streets, but Echo was guiding them down alleyways that were barely wide enough to pass through in their armor. Many were heaped with debris that made progress slick, cumbersome, and slow. But the important thing was that the alleys were empty of residents, and so their approach continued unnoticed.

            They stopped just inside the intersection of their alley and the larger street between them and the complex.

            “All clear,” Echo whispered, and pointed toward an alcove on the side of the large building, presumably where the back door was. They dashed across the street, then sidled along the rough walls of the building. Rex ducked into the alcove and was soon joined in the tight space by Echo and their two members of Diode Squad.

            “Where are the others?” Rex asked.

            Echo lifted one finger and looked upward. Rex followed his line of sight, three stories up on the opposite side of the street. He couldn't see anything but the dripping rails and grating of another metal catwalk.

            Rex nodded to Echo. The commando would keep watch on their exit route.

            “The other is inside.”

            “What's on the other side of this door?” Rex said.

            “A store room,” Echo replied. “Unused.”

            Rex slowly pushed the heavy door, glad that their scout had already done the business of getting it to open. The room was small and dark, with only the dim light of a lamp across the street falling behind them. Their shadows fell long onto a worktable cluttered with machinery parts, all coated with the same sheen of dust seen in the restaurant. More debris was strewn on counters lining the wall and jammed in stacked bins on the floor. Rex noticed the wet footprints where their scout had first disturbed the dusty layer, and the prints disappeared beyond another door opposite. Rex shut the door and the hammering splash of the rain faded instantly to a dull static. He turned on his headlamps.

            “Nothing we can do about that,” Rex said, gesturing to the prints.

            “It doesn't seem like anyone will look. No one has been in here for years.”

            Rex picked up a bin of rags and reached under the top layer for the cleaner ones underneath. “Wipe down. Feet too. We don't want to leave even more of a trail.”

            It was a bit of a struggle to clear the bulk of the water off their armor, and the dirty rags left large streaks. Rex tossed his unceremoniously aside after they were no longer dripping and the soles of their shoes were essentially dry.

            “How's the way look like? Do we know where we're going?” Rex asked. He was finally starting to feel the focus of his best self. They were nearing their target.

            “We've got a bug picking up visuals for us. The computer signals are coming from deep within the complex. We'll have to take it slow and steady. Recommend us four stay together. There are still Mrlssi in the building, though their numbers have diminished. The complex is dimly lit past this door.”

            “Proceed,” Rex said, turning off his headlamps.

            One of the commandos opened the inside door and a pale electric light fell into the room. He peered cautiously around the doorway, then side-stepped out. The three followed and they all stalked single-file down a narrow hallway with a sagging ceiling, and up a cracked flight of stairs. The door here was open. Another pause, and then they slipped one by one past another door jammed in a half-closed position, getting a glimpse of one battered Mrlssi roosting in a corner, slumped against the wall. Rex again wondered how the radiation affected the birds.

            They found themselves in a dark room with a heavy metal door on the opposite end. They stepped cautiously around a pile of rags and feathers that seemed to be the desiccated remains of one of the inhabitants. Rex caught a movement to the left of his vision and snapped up his pistol. The commando stopped and put one hand up. It was their scout.

            “Once we're on the other side,” Echo said, “we'll send the bug out again. It will stay ahead of us.” The commando opened his other hand and Rex saw he was holding a small droid, two inches in length and flat, with small lenses protruding from its front and rear.

            “Let's go,” Rex said, holstering his pistol. Echo turned toward the door, and after a few seconds of communicating with the door controls, it hissed and opened with a deep mechanical groan.

            The Mrlssi remains stirred, and a whining whistle came from it like a yawn. Rex jumped to a defensive position and watched a commando throw a dirty blanket over the pile. Then they rushed into a small brightly lit compartment on the other side of the door. It clamped shut with a muffled bang the moment Echo pressed the keypad.

            “Think it’ll follow us?” Rex asked.

            “The door won’t open right away even if they do know the entry code,” Echo said, not bothering to whisper. “This is a decontamination unit.”

            There was a drawer to the right side of a glass door, some kind of clothing receptacle. Evidently they were in the changing area. Echo opened the door into the main chamber, roughly the size of a gunship passenger compartment, and attempted to continue through the next glass door. It wouldn't budge.

            They waited uncertainly for a few moments. The lights were harsh after the dimness of the outside. Suddenly an opaque white liquid shot from four square shower heads fixed into the ceiling, drenching them once more. It also doused the changing areas on either side. Suddenly the liquid turned clear. Seemed like a rinse.

            “Great,” Rex said. But then the liquid ceased and after a few final drips, air pumps in the walls blasted them with gale force winds, accompanied by a high pitched resonant ringing just on the edge of Rex's hearing. When the air stopped, Rex found he was reasonably dry.

            “Squeaky clean,” Rex said. “But why? What is it decontaminating us from?”

            “I don't know,” Echo said. “There must be a lab here.”

            “Or at least, there was a lab,” Rex added. “Still, seems a bit lively suddenly. Wonder how long that fluid's been sitting in the system.”

            They filed out through the glass door into the next changing area.

            “Don't suppose we can count on the radiation levels being safe in here, after something like that?”

            “It would effectively remove radioactive particulates,” Echo said, “but there could very well be a breach elsewhere in the lab. Besides, we don't know whether the unit is meant to keep things from coming in, or something else from getting out.”

            “Are you still picking up the signals?”

            “Yes. They must be coming from the facility's old computer system.”

            The scout cautiously opened the chamber door and stuck their droid to the wall in the hallway beyond. It scuttled to the dark ceiling and onward.

            After a few moments, Echo said, “Clear for the next fifty meters.”

            The filth of the outside was absent from this side of the unit. It was spotlessly clean. “I wonder if the Mrlssi come here at all,” Rex said.

            “We must assume the inner facility is occupied. We don't know how many other entry points there are.”

            They started down the hall. Rex couldn't help but notice the posters along the wall, fresh, almost new looking. They listed biosafety procedures, emergency contact lines, evacuation plans.  

            “Echo—” Rex swallowed his comment as Echo's hand shot up.

            “Twenty-five meters ahead, we will be on a mezzanine. We'll be standing above a command center.”

            “Command center? This doesn't seem like a scientific facility. Looks military to me,” Rex said, glancing at a notice on the wall undersigned by Chancellor Kalpana and some former head of the Anaxsi Government.

            “Often one and the same, Captain. It doesn't matter to us.”

            The notice was a firm reminder to the employees that all research remain confidential for the safety of the Republic. Rex wondered who the enemy was back then. Was there one? He suddenly realized that he had never considered the nature of the armed forces of the Republic before they had clone troopers. It was hard to imagine a large functional army made up merely of trained civilians.

            “Mrlssi sighted,” Echo said, his voice a husky whisper. “When we reach the mezzanine, stay low and away from the railing. Looks like we've got some camping out.”

            “Isn't the computer terminal down there?” Rex whispered back.

            Echo shook his head, and beckoned that they move more quickly.

            They reached the mezzanine. The area was surprisingly dark, and although Rex could not look over the edge of the railing, it wasn't hard to imagine the scene below. He could hear the gentle trilling of the birds in soft conversation. A glow emanated from where the Mrlssi were, and he wondered at its source.

            They crept low against the curved wall until they reached the door on their left and slipped inside. They found themselves inside a small presentation room, mercifully empty. There were familiarly labeled boxes stacked against one wall. Dry rations.

            “We’re getting closer.” Echo glanced around at the empty amphitheater-style seating.

            “How close?”

            “There’s one transmitting from….” Echo lifted a hand to touch his helmet on the right side, over his ear. “Alright. I’ve got it. And I've tapped into the local security system. The doors in that sector have been activated five times in the last hour. It’ll be difficult not to run into anyone.” He paused.

            “We have to draw them away somehow.” Rex stared around the dark room, thinking. “Otherwise we’ll have to wait until they’re all asleep.”

            “I’ve found access to an airborne toxin alarm. I could trigger it from a lab near the computer terminal.”

            “I wonder if they'll buy it.”

            “They only need to believe it long enough for us to do our job.”

            “Let’s do it,” Rex said.

            An earsplitting keening came from the hallway outside, followed by an automated voice saying, “WARNING. YG32 DETECTED IN HALL A9. EVACUATE IMMEDIATELY VIA DECON UNIT 8. REPEAT—” Between the words and the shrill Mrlssi translation, there was a faint scrabble of noise that Rex hoped was the sound of many clawed feet following instructions.

            “They've left the immediate area,” Echo said.

            “We better do this quickly,” Rex said. “Lead the way.”

            Echo rushed forward and down the stairs onto the command floor, Rex and the Squad on his heels. The Mrlssi didn't appear to have been camping out at all; there was no evidence of bedding or other personal artifacts. The glowing he had seen had been holo units, though blank images were now floating nondescriptly above the consoles.

            Echo led them through another door off the command floor which entered into yet another hallway. This time, the doors on either side very clearly opened into high security laboratories. The doors each had labels listing project names and security levels required for entrance. Echo stopped suddenly just before a corner, then backed up. Dashing to the nearest door, he quickly overrode the keypad and herded the rest inside just before two Mrlssi rounded the corner. Through the small window in the door, Rex could see that one was dragging the other, and they seemed to be arguing. They both appeared well-groomed.

            “Captain,” Echo said quietly. Rex turned and realized they were standing in the antechamber of a living lab. Through another glass door, the darkened lab glowed with life and intent. There was a collection of computer terminals on standby, their blue lights gently illuminating tools and materials that had recently been in the hands of a chemist.

            “This isn't right,” Rex breathed.

            “There are no more Mrlssi between here and the first terminal that may be transmitting the virus,” Echo said. “We should proceed.”

            Rex swallowed, distinctly aware that although their mission had not changed, the circumstances certainly had. They weren't in a disaster zone.

            He followed Echo out of the lab and caught other signs of life through the windows into the other chambers. His insides felt awash with the first tendrils of anxiety born from witnessing yet another deception. The question was, who among the possibilities was responsible, and who was being deceived?

            “It’s coming from here, alright,” Echo murmured as they entered a surprisingly cluttered storage room. He stared down at the large console jammed in between recording equipment and other visual displays. The console appeared dead. “I can see it transmitting. It made its way through an old industrial sensor grid. But the actual program that’s reproducing it is heavily encrypted and only accessible through this terminal’s local network. Let me just see if we can bypass the encryption.”

            One of their commandos crouched just in front of the console and removed a small device from the box at his waist. It was roughly an inch long and blinked slowly with a small red light. The commando slotted it into an unmarked compartment near the base of the console.

            “Beginning decryption.”

            Echo and the one commando stood still. The other two stood near the doorway, though Rex was certain that their little bug was feeding them plenty information about what was going on outside. Rex himself felt a bit useless standing there. He still wasn't quite sure why Echo had requested his presence on this mission; it wasn't out of sentimentality, that was for sure. So far he had done little more than been pushed forward and directed by Echo, and really, on a stealth mission of this kind, how could he compete with a five member unit of telepaths?

            He sighed quietly to himself, wishing that he at least had some idea of how long this might take.

            “He’s cut off.” The commando who was standing at the console turned toward Rex, and he realized this was the first time he had heard one of them speak. He sounded young.

            “What? What do you mean?”

            The commando turned his head toward Echo. “I'm not in communication with him anymore.”

            “Echo,” Rex said, putting his hand on the trooper's shoulder.

            Echo didn’t move or give any indication that he’d heard Rex speak at all.

            Rex shook him slightly, but he could immediately sense the futility of it. He glanced over his shoulder at the commando who had spoken. “Did the security system kick him out?”

            “I'm not sure,” he said. “I can only access the most rudimentary processes of his implant now. Awaiting orders, sir.”

            “Echo!” Rex waved a hand in front of his visor. No response. He reached up and pulled Echo’s helmet off, hearing the hiss of the broken seal. Echo’s eyes were wide, his face blank, like a mannequin.

            “Sir!” the commando cried, with a surprising amount of feeling. “We were instructed not to unseal our suits or else face radiation poisoning!”

            “It's alright, kid,” Rex said. “I don't think there is any radiation. At least not in here.” Rex felt strangely calm. He smacked Echo's cheek lightly. Echo’s head jerked the tiniest fraction, but his eyes never moved. “Look at me, Echo. That’s an order.”

            Echo's pupils dilated to a feral wideness, but there was no other indication that his words had made it through to him. Rex knew what this looked like. But it couldn't be. It wasn't the same. Rex's calm was threatened to be punctured by the memories of Ringo Vinda, and the effort it took to keep himself from chasing those memories vibrated through his body, pulsed in his head. But he knew this had to be different—Echo was different, he was a cyborg, and something must have gone wrong with the wiring in his second brain.

            He put his hands on Echo’s chest and shoved, but the ARC trooper just stepped backward mechanically, unthinkingly correcting his balance.

            “What's your name?” Rex asked the commando.

            “RC-Seven-Seven-Two-Two,” he replied.

            “I'm going to call you Twenty-Two. Sure you'll catch on. What’s the last thing you remember sensing? Did you get through the encryption?” The more Rex tried to take charge of the situation, the better he would be able to ignore the images flashing in his mind.

            “Yes, sir. The connection was broken in the same moment.”

            “Is he infected? Rex murmured, feeling again a pang of fear deep in his gut.

            “I don’t know, sir. It’s possible. Maybe he shut down the connection on his own, to prevent it from spreading.”

            “What about you? Did it kick you out? You're fine, aren't you?”

            “I am fine,” he said. “I disconnected when ARC-Zero-Four-Zero-Eight unexpectedly vanished.”

            “Get back into that system,” Rex commanded. He still didn't know whether it was safe, but dismantling this virus took precedence over Echo's… malfunction.

            “Yes, sir,” Twenty-Two said, and he knelt once more before the console. There were a few agonizing minutes of silence where there was no sound but that of Rex's own breathing in his ears, heavier than it should have been. He could feel it: the situation was slipping out of his control. They didn't have the right intel for the mission. He closed his eyes. Adapting to new situations was a quality necessary for leadership, and after years with Skywalker, it had become easier.

            But Rex was having a hard time thinking. He couldn't clear his head. They were in the middle of what appeared to be a massive biochemical engineering project, one that was most certainly off the books. Rex didn't want to think about the implications of the decontamination units attached to the lab, but it was impossible not to.

            Biochemical weapons.

            What possible use could bio-weaponry be against an army of droids?

            And as he thought, images of the war, everything he had been fighting for, everyone he had lost, everyone he was afraid of losing, it all fell into his vision like the vivid nightmares he was all too acquainted with. So much death on both sides, real living breathing people. They weren't always killing clankers, and the deaths were not always quick.

            Rex didn't want to doubt the Republic. He couldn't. If he did, he would lose everything. His time on leave was enough to show him that if he continued down the path of skepticism, his life would fall to pieces, and he didn't know that there would be anything left of him after everything he had grown up believing in had been stripped away.

            “Sir,” someone said, and Rex's eyes flew open. It was Twenty-Two, and his hand was on Rex's arm. “This isn't it,” he said.

            “What?” Rex said, his voice suddenly filled with uncertainty. “Isn't what?”

            “This isn't the terminal.”

            “What do you mean? It has to be.” Rex shook his head. “What about Echo?”

            “This terminal is a decoy,” he said. “There are other signals just as ARC-Zero-Four-Zero-Eight said, but there is no way of being certain which is the real point of transmission, if any of them are.”

            “Can you continue on with this mission without Echo?” Rex put a hand on his own chest and sat down on a crate.

            “We could attempt it, but ARC—”

            “Echo,” Rex said. “His name is Echo.”

            Twenty-Two hesitated. “…Echo… has functioned as the head of our unit since our deployment.”

            “You're trained, aren't you? What use are you if you can't operate solo? What exactly were you created for?

            Twenty-Two seemed to slump slightly. Rex suddenly felt stifled in his armor and had a nearly uncontrollable need to rip it off. He felt like it was crushing his chest, suffocating him. He wondered if his air filters had stopped functioning.

            “We were created to operate as one intelligent field unit but—”

            “I can't breathe,” Rex said, interrupting Twenty-Two's meager attempt to answer Rex's rhetorical question. He pulled off his helmet and was shocked by the chill in the air.

            “Sir!” Twenty-Two said. “You don't look well.”

            “How would you know?” Rex gasped out. “Are you a medic? Let me get a look at you.”

            “Sir…?”

            “You are human, aren't you? Not a clanker? Show me your face!”

            Twenty-Two stood for a moment without moving, but then unsealed the commando helmet from his black suit and took it off.

            Rex glanced at him, then exhaled and looked away, putting his hand against his forehead. “You're just a kid,” he mumbled. He realized he had already known. As soon as he heard that voice, unsteady with the strain of having recently changed to the one he and all his adult brothers shared, he had known. “How old are you, seven?!

            “Yes, sir….” Twenty-Two's face was soft and unlined. He was the standard height of an adult clone, but his face had not entirely leaned out. He wore a similar, though smaller, headset to the one Echo had, but unlike Echo, still had a standard military haircut. Rex suspected that the kid barely filled out that armor. He looked to the other commandos and knew they were just the same, sent off from Kamino hidden inside suits that appeared much stronger and more mature than they were.

            The truth was that Rex could hardly muster surprise. He knew this day was coming. No one talked about it, but everyone noticed; The rookie clones landing in his company, in battalions across the Grand Army, were getting progressively younger as the war went on. Even Fives had been younger than the standard age when he had been deployed, and that was years ago.

            Still, Rex had hoped he would never see this. Bringing kids into the forces might work individually, but on a mass scale, the strength of the Army was certainly going to start cracking. He thought of Cody triumphantly exclaiming that the war was nearing its end, that they had almost won, and now more than ever desperately hoped his friend was right. But all of that depended on the success of this rapidly deteriorating mission Rex had found himself in charge of.

            He pressed his face into his gloved hands. What could he do? He was stuck in an unfriendly biochemical weapons lab in the middle of a radioactive wasteland, and his chief mission operations specialist was out of commission. He was left with nothing but a squad of faulty half-droid adolescents and his own wits to eliminate the computer virus that was killing his brothers by the hundreds—thousands!—out on the front.

            He had to get Echo back. He didn't want to admit it, but Rex did not trust himself to be able finish this alone. He needed him.

            “Can you still access the building’s general network?” Rex asked Twenty-Two, who had lapsed into a deferential silence.

            “Yes, sir. Accessing now.”

            “Monitor those hallway doors. Make sure no one comes back this way.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            “And see if you can find somewhere nearby with medical scanning equipment!” Rex stood and faced Echo, looking at the implant. He forced himself to focus. It seemed like all the same lights were on or blinking as before, but how was he supposed to know? Even being able to diagnose Echo with medical scanners seemed like a long shot, but he had to do something.

            “Yes, sir. Should we attempt to locate the real virus terminal?”

            “No. I need you to assist me with Echo. You can make diagnostics I can't. You said you doubted your ability to go on with this on your own anyway. I would rather have you all safe where I can keep an eye on you so we can get right back on track once Echo comes back to himself.” Rex put Echo’s helmet back on, made sure it was secure, and took a slow breath to clear his head. “Are we clear to move out? Do we have a destination?”

            “There is a small lab with medical equipment, one level down,” he said. “The doors to that section were activated during the evacuation, which suggests the Mrlssi vacated it.”

            “Lock the doors until we’re down there,” Rex said, returning his own helmet. He pulled experimentally on one of Echo’s arms. He could lift it away from Echo’s side without much resistance, so he pulled it over his shoulders and placed his other hand squarely on Echo’s back. “Which number are you?” he asked one of the commandos by the door.

            “RC-Seven-Seven-Two-Three, Captain.”

            “Grab his arm, we'll walk him to the med bay. You,” he said, gesturing to the third commando, “keep watch on our path with that bug.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            RC-7723 took Echo’s other arm. Rex pulled him forward experimentally and Echo took a small, jerky step to correct his balance. It was going to be too slow. They would have to carry him.

            “Okay. Let’s go. Twenty-Two, take the rear guard.”

            Rex and RC-7723 lifted Echo into a seated carry and headed for the exit, Twenty-Two falling instep behind them, helmet replaced and back to a silent seriousness.

            The hallway was clear when they filed out and fell back into formation. They went back the way they had come, shuffling as quickly as Rex and his commando could manage.

            They made good time on the way to the stairwell to the lower level, the scout only giving each intersection a quick glance before beckoning them down the next hall. But Echo’s dead weight slowed them down as they carefully went down the stairs, one step at a time. A full grown man in a heavy suit of armor—it wasn't easy, and Rex could tell the commando wasn't managing to carry a full half of the weight. At the bottom, Rex and his partner caught their breaths, and Rex nodded to their leading commando to check the door.

            The hatch slid apart to reveal a hallway much more dimly lit than the one above. Only a third of the small square ceiling lights appeared to be working. Their bug whirred forward, and soon they were in pursuit.

            Their steps echoed hollowly around them. Rex found it eerie, how compared to the upper level, this one seemed desolate. There were numerous doors on the walls with pitch-black windows that they could only hope were empty. Passing them felt like walking in front of gigantic eyes.

            They had no choice but to keep going. Rex’s scalp tingled, warning him of all the imaginary enemies that gathered in the shadows with each hollow scuffling of their boots.

            A sharp clink sounded to their right. Everyone froze and spun. The scout switched on his headlamps, blaster raised; water dripped to the floor from an old cooling unit in the wall and rattled a piece of glass against the floor, loomed over by a vending machine. Clink.

            “It’s nothing,” Rex breathed. “Everyone relax. Are we almost there?”

            The commando turned back toward him and hugged his blaster into an aiming position. Rex reached for one of his pistols, not giving himself time to think.

            A moment later a shot rang out, but the light of it came from behind Rex.

            “What?!” He dropped Echo’s arm and shoved him against the wall, simultaneously whirling about with a DC-17 aimed down the hall in the direction of the fire. The scout's headlamps fell on a juvenile Mrlssi, limp on the floor. One of the other commandos was standing over it.

            “Sorry, Captain.” Twenty-Two said. “We were being followed—”

            The commando yelped as an arc of light burst from the wall and struck his foot. He lurched forward and broke his fall with his arms at the last second, rolling onto his back and returning fire at the shadows.

            “They’ve got blasters!” Rex yelled. He scattered fire and the others followed his lead. “Grab the wounded and let’s go! Go GO GO! You! Pick him up, pick him up!

            He grabbed Echo’s arm again and dragged him forward on his own, sending shots behind him as best he could. There didn’t seem to be any more coming from behind, but it was hard to tell in the dark, the headlamp flicking back and forth. RC-7723 was helping Twenty-Two and providing cover.

            “Where are we going?” Rex yelled.

            “Follow me!” their scout commando yelled, but skidded to a halt suddenly. “They’re heading us off!”

            “Keep moving!” Rex urged, shooting stun beams just past him to the quivering crowd of birds emerging from the dimly backlit opening at the other end of the hall. “If we can get to the medical lab, we can keep them out! Move it!”

            The first wave of Mrlssi went down, and for a few seconds Rex thought they might be done. But one, two, then six more blaster bolts lit up the hall in eerie shadows and sent a red flash across feathered, scaly faces from below. Rex and the commandos shot down and then staggered their way through the pile of Mrlssi, struggling not to tread on the creatures’ fragile bones. The stun effect might not last long—it always depended on the creature being shot.

            On the other side, more Mrlssi scattered and shot wildly at them. Their scout rolled right past two of them and took them down with a swing of his heavily armored arms before disappearing through a door that slid open just in time. Rex half-threw Echo through the door and turned back to give covering fire to RC-7723 and Twenty-Two. A moment later, they were all inside; the door slid shut, and there was near silence but for Rex's panting.

            “The door is locked,” said RC-7723. The ceiling lights flickered on. “They shouldn’t be able to override it. We’re safe for the moment.”

            “Lucky they’re not great shots,” Rex said, exhaling, and he crouched to examine where the blaster had pierced Twenty-Two's armor. “Kind of like droids that way. You okay, kid?”

            “He’s fine,” said RC-7723. “The damage is reparable.”

            Rex frowned at him. “That’s gotta hurt, though.” He stood back up, struck with a thought. “Can you all feel it when one of you is wounded?”

            “We are aware, yes,” said RC-7723.

            “That’s… not what I meant.” Rex dropped it; there were more important things to focus on. Echo had managed to stay upright despite his violent entrance into the room, and was back to standing at attention.

            The room was some kind of medical lab, to be sure, but it was small, and Rex felt his confidence wavering as his eyes wandered over the rudimentary equipment. He didn’t have the first clue what they could use to fix or even diagnose Echo’s problem. And now they’d blown one of the mission directives: don’t draw the attention of the locals. It would be that much harder to get rid of the virus now. Feeling that things couldn't really go much worse at this point, Rex decided all they could really do is make do with what had happened. As long as they managed to stop that virus, nothing else really mattered. And they would, because they must.

            “Search the room. Look for anything we can use to see what’s going on with Echo’s implant,” Rex commanded. “You.” He pointed at the one who was helping Twenty-Two into a chair. “Patch up your friend.”

            Rex walked over to a large device against the wall that seemed familiar. He’d seen the doctors on Coruscant use something like this to evaluate the damage in his leg after the explosion on Thisspias. But would that do Echo any good?

            A heavy pounding came from the other side of the door. Angry screeches followed. Rex moved on to look at another piece of equipment.

            “This will do.” RC-7723 straightened from rummaging in a drawer of supplies, and pulled out a small electrical hub. “This is used for diagnosing flaws in cybernetic limbs.”

            The device was no bigger than Rex's thumb. “Do you know how to operate it?”

            “It should connect directly to the implant. Then it transmits the results to the medical computer.”

            “Let's give it a shot,” Rex said. They had nothing to lose. “Hook him up.”

            They managed to get Echo to sit on one of the beds. Rex took Echo’s helmet off once more, and RC-7723 carefully aligned the device with some of the wires embedded in Echo’s temple, then pressed the tiny switch on the back. The hub latched on and pierced Echo’s skin with a superfine filament. Rex winced a little and turned on the medical computer.

            “Alright, let’s do this the old fashioned way, and hopefully the virus, or whatever is causing this, won’t spread to you.”

            “We've regained access to ARC-Zero-Four-Zero-Eight’s implant,” said RC-7723. “But we have no command over any of his functions.”

            “Is he infected? Are there any traces of the virus?”

            “No, sir.”

            Rex groaned in tense exasperation. “Then why is he acting like this?”

            “When the virus at the terminal made contact with the implant, the program that acts as a firewall was activated, as were ours, just as they are meant to be. But his aggressively attacked something else, some other device.”

            “Is he still in contact with the building’s computer network? Shut down the connection!”

            “No, Captain. He is no longer in active contact with any network. He is locked in standby.”

            “What is that supposed to mean?” Rex asked, staring at Echo’s face. “How can you put a human being in 'standby' mode like he was some computer? He's still human! What other device could his implant be in conflict with?”

            There was a brief pause, and in that space punctuated by the ruckus from outside, Rex felt the answer before it was even said.

            “There is a chip,” said RC-7723. “We ran a self-diagnostic, just now, and this chip doesn't exist in any of us but ARC-Zero-Four-Zero-Eight. It seems to have been activated and is overriding all but ARC-Zero-Four-Zero-Eight's life support systems.”

            Rex felt cold, his blood icy. The pounding on the door hadn’t stopped. His stomach twisted itself into a knot so fast that it felt like someone had punched him there and left a bruise. He stared at one of his fists and tried to decide what to do. Perhaps this was what he had been waiting for.

            “Can you tell what this chip is for?” he breathed.

            “It appears to hook directly into the limbic system and frontal lobe, capable of suppressing or stimulating either one as necessary. At the moment, ARC-Zero-Four-Zero-Eight’s brain waves resemble those of a patient under hypnosis.”

            “Hypnosis?” Rex murmured to himself. The pounding on the door abruptly stopped, and he turned to face it.

            “You haffve a wounded comrrrade?” one of the shrill voices unexpectedly switched to Basic. The consonants came out in grating squeaks and trills, the F sound turning into a whistle. “We will hhhelp you.”

            It would be an unforgivable diversion from the mission, but maybe this was his chance to get answers. The Mrlssi were scientists, and they were somewhere far from the ever watchful eye of GAR Command and Kaminoan doctors—even the Jedi council. If ever there was a place to study something in secret and not be hampered by bureaucracy or taboo, this could be it. But could the Mrlssi be trusted, especially after their fire fight? Their briefing about the situation with the aliens had not been accurate or complete, and Rex didn't know what to believe was true. The Mrlssi had shot at them, but they were trespassing in a sensitive area. It was a reasonable reaction. Rex and the commandos had only used stun bolts.

            Rex paused, trying to lay out their options. Now that the Mrlssi were outside their door, secretly completing the mission was impossible. It seemed they had no choice but to negotiate, as fighting their way through the rest of it, surrounded by potentially lethal biochemicals and radiation, seemed completely impossible, even for him.

            And the possibility of finally learning more about the nature of the chips, whether he and every other clone were a danger to the Jedi and the Republic, was too grave to ignore. If it was really all true, it would make this computer virus merely a bother in comparison.

            “Why arrre you hhhere? Why do you sn-n-neakkk arrround?” The clicking of a beak came through clearly, almost like a laugh. “Itsss fverrrry dan-gerousss!”

            “We came,” Rex tried, “to seek assistance.”

            The Mrlssi really did laugh now, a squawking laugh. “You come to spy-y on us. You haffve been sent by-y the ennnemy!”

            Rex was afraid of saying the wrong thing. He didn't know who the Mrlssi considered the enemy to be. Before he made a political disaster of what scanty relations the Anaxsi and Mrlssi had, he needed more information. He was loathe to do it given the state of the mission, but maybe he wouldn't have to say too much. It was time to check in with General Skywalker, and—Rex glanced at Echo—maybe a quick call would give them some other answers too.

            He leaned against the other hospital bed, across from Echo, and pulled out his holoprojector, ignoring the intermittent speech from the other side of the door as the Mrlssi squawked amongst themselves and tried to elicit further conversation from Rex. It would probably take a few minutes at least for Skywalker to answer the call, if he was able to at all. Who knew what kind of battle or stealth operation he might be in the middle of?

            To Rex's relief, the general’s hologram materialized within seconds. He stood straight and composed; that was good. “Rex. Good of you to call back. I tried to get through to you a few minutes ago, but I guess you were busy.”

            Rex glanced at Echo, but there was no sign on his face that he was even aware of the hologram in Rex’s hand, let alone a violent reaction at the sight of a Jedi. And right now, there was no way to tell if it would be different in person.

            “Things haven’t gone exactly as planned, General,” Rex admitted in a low voice, hoping the Mrlssi wouldn't be able to make out his conversation. “One of my men is injured, Echo’s been incapacitated, and there’s been some resistance from the locals.”

            “The locals?” Skywalker held up his hands. “Hold on. Start from the beginning.”

            “Yes, sir. We’ve traced the source of the virus to a facility in a locked down city on Anaxes. The city was supposedly poisoned by radiation years ago, but there’s a group of Mrlssi here that managed to survive, and they don’t seem to agree with the Anaxsi government. That's the story we were given. We made it into the city undetected, we found the source of the virus, but Echo’s cybernetics malfunctioned and we were detected. We’re currently holding our position in a small medical lab.”

            “That’s not good news,” Skywalker said bitterly. “I was just contacted by the chancellor. Losing so many ships means we’re losing ground in the Outer Rim, and fast. He’s concerned about how your mission is going. Are you saying you need a hand? Lieutenant Appo and I are just finishing up here with that Verpine engineer. But it’ll take some time to get back to Anaxes.”

            “We’re not in any immediate danger, General,” Rex said. “But… the truth is, our intel about this mission was extremely poor. I don't know whether it was by design, or if the Anaxsi government is unaware of what's going on here.”

            “What is it, Rex?” Skywalker's brow was furrowed.

            “We were told the Mrlssi were mere leftovers of an old scientific partnership, that their occupation of this city was by choice… and we were given the distinct impression that their existence here was of little importance, civilian….”

            “But?”

            “Well,” Rex felt uncomfortable divulging this information. He didn't want to put the general in danger by knowing something he shouldn't. “There's… a thriving science facility here. A lab. I'm not sure what they are doing, but it looks serious, and it seemed to me that they may be constructing some kind of bio-weapon, although on whose authority, and for the use against whom, is a mystery to me, given the shoddy briefing we were given.”

            “What?” Skywalker almost laughed. “You're kidding. A bio-weapon? A biochemical weapon? For all of our sakes, I hope you're wrong, Rex. I'll… discreetly see if I can find out whether the Anaxsi are aware of this. If not, I will go to the chancellor himself. In the meantime, Rex, you must figure out a way to take down that computer virus. We still don't know where our Verpine fits into all of this, so don't count on your feathered associates being friends or foes just yet. They might not even be aware of the virus, though I admit it seems unlikely.”

            “But sir,” Rex hesitated. “…I'm… not sure how to proceed.”

            “I’ll have to leave that up to your judgment, Rex. I would say completing this mission is more important than upsetting political alliances on Anaxes, but given what you've said…. Well, be careful. And don't provoke them, not until we know what is really going on. You're a smart man, Rex. I know you will figure out a way to complete this mission. The navy is counting on you.”

            “Understood,” Rex said, wishing he felt Skywalker's confidence. “One more thing, General, before you go… could you try giving Echo a direct order? Maybe it’ll snap him out of this trance.”

            “So you’re sure he’s Echo, now?” Skywalker raised his eyebrows. “I guess I’ll have to ask for the full story when you get back. Okay. Let’s give it a try.”

            Rex turned the holoprojector and lifted it so it was in range of Echo’s face.

            “Echo? Can you hear me?” Skywalker called. Echo blinked, but his eyes continued to stare stubbornly past the hologram. “Echo, I order you to tell me your number.”

            Nothing.

            Rex sighed. “It was worth a shot. Thanks, General.”

            “Good luck,” said Skywalker, looking a bit mystified. “Hang in there, Captain.”

            As soon as the hologram disappeared, Rex put in a call to Admiral Bet.

            “Yes, Captain?” she said, with that same gravity he had felt in the briefing room. “Have you made any progress?”

            “We’ve determined that the virus is coming from a communications terminal in the center of this city,” Rex said carefully.

            “Good. Were you able to remove it?”

            “No, sir. Unfortunately, we were detected, and the Mrlssi became hostile. We’ve locked ourselves into a building, but a number of the Mrlssi are aware of us now.”

            “I’m disappointed, Captain,” said Bet tiredly. “But what’s done is done. How do you plan to proceed?”

            “I suggest we tell them that we know about the virus, and offer them leniency as a reward if they allow us within range to remove it.”

            “You put too much faith in them. Normally Mrlssi are a cultured and rational species. But this group has proven to be the opposite. I doubt they will agree to negotiate.”

            “All the same… do I have your permission to make an attempt at negotiations, sir?” Rex tried.

            Admiral Bet sighed roughly. “I suppose it can’t do any more harm than has been done already. You may proceed.”

            “Thank you, Admiral.”

            The hologram vanished without a parting word from Bet.

            Rex put the projector away and took a moment to consider his options, studying his blasters to keep his eyes from straying back to Echo’s face. The Mrlssi on the other side of the door had gone silent, no doubt having been attempting to eavesdrop on his conversations. Rex went back to the door.

            “Hello?” he called.

            “You haffve called reinffforcements!” one of them crowed.

            “No!” Rex cried. “No, I was—listen, we need your help, it's true. One of our members is incapacitated and we don't understand what has happened to him. We hoped you might know something since you're familiar with biology.”

            “But, why arrre you here? No one comes to this-s place!”

            “There's… a computer virus. It's….” Rex sighed. “It's killing my family,” he said, feeling the words awkwardly in his mouth, hoping they would illicit some sympathy. “Their ships are dead in space, and they're dying.”

            “Whattt does this haffve to do with us?!”

            “I don't know! All I know is that we found that the virus was transmitting from somewhere here and the only way to save them is to kill the virus at the source. Do you know where it is?”

            “We haffve no knowleddge of this!”

            “It's true!” Rex said. “You can check yourself! That's why we're here. But now my brother is ill. Maybe you can help him. Maybe we can make an exchange. Is there anything you want?”

            Rex felt guilty, knowing he had no way of keeping his side of any bargain they made. But this was no time to feel regret. Too much was at stake to worry about a few disappointed Mrlssi.

            The Mrlssi warbled at each other in their native tongue before one of them spoke again.

            “We need trrade partners-s! Always lacking in bas-sic suppliess! We hhhave no sup-port!”

            Rex wasn't sure this was entirely true. Whoever was responsible for this lab's operations must be supplying them with the rations they saw before. But it didn't matter. “I have an associate, a close friend,” Rex started, “he's a very skilled smuggler. I can put a word in for you. He could at least bring you something—a lot of something! That would last you a while.”

            “This-s is not ideal for usss… but perhhhaps it is a st-art. Let us in, we will look at your bro-ther!”

            Rex motioned for RC-7723 to stand aside with pistols ready in case they turned aggressive. Rex was certain that if it came down to it, they would outlast the birds in a fight, but he would rather not make it to that point. Cautiously, Rex opened the door.

            Immediately the front Mrlssi squawked and recoiled.

            “Youu! You are a soldier!”

            “Yes!” Rex said, throwing his hands up, “But I need your help! Everything I said was true!” The pang of guilt stirred in him again but he ignored it.

            “The Ann-naxsi sent Rrrepublic arrrmy clones. They marrrked us as en-nemies long ago.”

            “I don’t know anything about that,” Rex tried. “We’re just here to stop the computer virus. We were ordered not to harm you. We only returned stun bolts before in self defense, and your friends should be fine. We're at your mercy now.”

            The Mrlssi didn't seem particularly ready to fire shots, but they were a rather loud and reactive group. They tittered anxiously.

            “This, your bro-ther?” One went over next to Echo and peered into his face.

            “Yes,” Rex said. “He's….”

            “Cy-borg!” The Mrlssi seemed delighted rather than disgusted, but Rex couldn't be certain.

            “Yes….”

            The birds once again erupted in warbling commentary and Rex wondered what they were saying.

            “There's a chip,” he said cautiously. “In his head. It's… malfunctioning. We're not sure what it's even for. Do you have any way of diagnosing its purpose?”

            “Perr-haps,” the interested Mrlssi near Echo said. Its feathers were green and downy, its lab scrubs clean. It pulled a silver device from a drawer that looked like a large leggy spider with tiny needles at the feet. Rex felt helpless at the trust he had to put in these potential enemies, but he had to know if they could find something. The Mrlssi applied the device around Echo's skull, and it hugged his head tightly.

            “I'll keep monitoring ARC-Zero-Four-Zero-Eight's brain activity,” RC-7723 said quietly to Rex, and he wondered if that was his way of trying to comfort him.

            The Mrlssi turned on another holo display and the entire flock of scientists crowded around it.

            “This maaay take some hhhtime!” the green Mrlssi said.

            Rex desperately hoped it would not take too much. He was not sure how long Admiral Bet would allow them to loiter in Drann, especially once General Skywalker started poking around. It all depended on the true benefactor of the Mrlssi's labwork. But right now, those concerns seemed distant. All Rex really cared about in the moment was finally uncovering the truth of the chips, and putting at least some of his uncertainty to rest. Perhaps they would discover it really was nothing more than an inhibitor chip, and although it pained Rex to think Fives really had just gone mad, Rex dared not hope Fives' beliefs had been right. Because if they were, Rex already knew he would have no idea how to stop it.

Chapter Text

            Rex shifted in his chair. It was taking the Mrlssi what felt like ages to come up with… well… anything, and the tension Rex felt in his chest was impossible to will away. Twenty-Two was resting against one wall of the room, which relieved Rex to some degree. It was nice to see him be a little human. He had sent the other two commandos out to search for the real virus terminal some time ago. The four Mrlssi themselves were still crowded around Echo and the holo terminal, chirping softly to themselves. It was strange to watch. They were much more animated than the Kaminoan doctors had ever been.

            “Any progress?” Rex said, rubbing his head. They were coming up on the fifth hour in Drann.

            “Verry interes-ting! This cyber-netic enhhancement!” the green Mrlssi stated.

            “Yes, but what about the chip?” Rex said, desperately hoping they hadn't just been cawing about the headset the whole time. But at that moment, the two commandos shuffled through the door.

            “Captain, I must speak with you,” RC-7723 said.

            Rex glanced at the Mrlssi, then at Twenty-Two, and followed RC-7723 out into the hallway.

            “What is it?” Rex said, desperately hoping for some good news.

            “We examined three terminals that appeared to be transmitting the virus. Others, we were unable to take a look at due to their positions behind secured areas. We decided not to force entry without your order, especially without knowing the biosafety status of any given area.”

            “More decoys?”

            “Perhaps. We didn't attempt to decrypt the programs without your presence in case one of us were to malfunction, as unlikely as that seems to be.”

            “You don't think they are all transmitting the virus?”

            “That could also be. We'll need to destroy or disable each terminal, including those in the secured areas.”

            “And Echo?”

            RC-7723 hesitated a moment. “He's the most proficient at decrypting and analyzing computer programs. We're all capable, but ARC-Zero-Four-Zero-Eight has outperformed us on every test. Given the aggressive nature of this virus, it would be best to have him lead us on disabling it.”

            “You might not have a choice.”

            “We understand, Captain. Would you like us to continue with the mission?”

            “No,” Rex said. “Not yet. We'll need the Mrlssi to help us with the terminals in the secure areas. We don't want to release… whatever it is that they're working on here.”

            “If you say so, Captain, but it shouldn't matter. Our armor is effective against biochemical agents, and if this weapon, if that's what it is, were to be released, it couldn't spread farther than Drann.”

            Rex sighed and shook his head. “I'm not going to disregard the safety of the civilians. Not if I can help it. Maybe we'll have to force our way in, but maybe not.”

            “The Mrlssi may be helping us now, but they are not our allies.”

            “I know. We don't know anything about them or who they're working for. But right now, they are being helpful enough, and it would be much easier to finish this mission with their assistance. I'd rather not cross them at this point.” Rex glanced at the door to the lab. He didn't dare risk upsetting them, not now that they were investigating the chip. Rex wasn't sure how long he could keep them interested.

            “Captain, it's possible that these Mrlssi are meant to distract us while others in the facility sabotage our efforts to destroy the virus.”

            “Right now, we have to trust them. Please return to the medical lab and follow my orders.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            Rex turned back into the lab, and RC-7723 followed. Rex sighed quietly, telling himself he was doing right by listening to his instincts to trust the Mrlssi. He walked to Echo's side, the strange leggy device still grasping his head and implant in a threatening way.

            “Have you found out anything about the chip?” Rex asked.

            A Mrlssi shook its head. “Weee can't de-tect any chip.”

            “Oh, it's there,” Rex said, internally groaning at the lack of progress.

            “It's designed to be undetectable,” Twenty-Two said, getting up. “That much is clear.”

            The commando took his helmet off and went to Echo's side. He looked at the screen that controlled the scanning device. “It's here in this area,” he said, pointing to a spot on Echo's head. “The frequency and pace you're scanning with isn't invasive enough to detect it. Concentrate your scan in this area. These settings should be sufficient.”

            “This hhmay dis-rupt brain activity.”

            “It's already been disrupted,” Rex said. “It won't cause any long term damage, will it?”

            “We re-servve this for post-mortem hhhexaminat-tions of the brain.”

            “He'll be fine,” Twenty-Two said. “Many of his mental processes have long been transferred to his cybernetic implant.”

            Rex sighed. “Continue, then.” He hoped the young commando knew what he was talking about.  He wasn't keen on sacrificing Echo's life for this when he didn't seem to be in any particular danger as he was, even if it was a sort of coma. But the truth was worth the risk, he told himself. Echo would agree.

            The Mrlssi's chirping turned low and uncertain but they continued anyway.

            Rex folded his arms and prepared to wait once more. It was so uncomfortable. His conscience was prodding him to get on with the mission, but in a way that's what he was doing. They needed Echo to tackle the virus. He was doing what was necessary. It just happened to have the benefit of learning more about the chips.

           He wondered how General Skywalker was faring learning more about the functions and goals of the lab here. Rex could ask the Mrlssi, but again, he didn't want to risk upsetting them now that they had an uneasy alliance. They probably could get away with destroying the computer virus openly now without much backlash, especially if the Mrlssi really didn't know it was there, but poking into their scientific work could be a very different story.

            One of the Mrlssi, a large crested male, cawed shrilly. “We hhhave found it, this chip! It is not, a, a small thing!”

            “Not small?” Rex stood up, uncrossing his arms. “Why's it so hard to detect?”

            Twenty-Two was not looking at the readout. He probably had it all in his head already. “It's completely organic… if it wasn't currently activated, I doubt we could have sensed it at all.”

            “Wait,” Rex said. “If you only found it because it's been activated, how do you know you don't also have it? You and the rest of Diode Squad?”

            “It's possible we have been designed to be unable to sense it,” he said. “But we are meant to be self monitoring. It would be a serious flaw in our design as a collective unit if we couldn't monitor every function of our brains. Echo's chip has been activated through contact with the virus and the conflict with his cybernetic enhancement, while I remained unaffected by the same process.”

            Rex sighed. It didn't matter one way or the other.

            “You can't tell what the chip is for? What it does? I was told it was meant to inhibit the aggressive independent nature of our genetic template. Make us… domesticated.” Rex put his head into his hand and laughed humorlessly. He must have been a fool to ever have believed for even a moment that this made sense. Jango Fett was selected because he was already the perfect template, psychologically, physically, for an army. They would never have chosen someone whose basic genetic psychology made an inhibitor chip necessary. Not to mention that aggression was a necessary trait for any soldier to have—he had seen great men cut down on the battlefield for not having enough.

            The Mrlssi were analyzing the read out, but it was RC-7723 who spoke. “It's not an inhibitor chip.”

            Rex and the Mrlssi turned to him.

            “If it were something that was constantly active, adjusting Echo's basic thought patterns, we would have certainly detected it long ago. This chip has never been active in the time we have been connected to Echo.”

            “Well,” Rex said darkly, “that's one part of the mystery answered.”

            Twenty-Two continued with his analysis. “As far as its purpose, we can't determine it for certain. As I said before, his brain waves resemble a form of hypnosis. He is alert to his surroundings, but not consciously responsive to them. He may be waiting for something, but what is impossible to say. It's a strange piece of hardware to install into a soldier. If these should be triggered in this way in the middle of a battle, the army would be laid to waste.”

            “I only know of the chip because this has happened to at least one of my men before, but he didn't respond to it like this. He… he became overtaken by a need to kill… the Jedi. Any Jedi.” He swallowed, remembering how Tup seemed barely aware of what he had done in his moment of madness; how he seized back into that state at the sight of General Tiplee. Rex could feel the grim reality of the function of the chips encroaching into his heart. It really had been just as Fives had said. The chips were meant to control them, and the behavior of Tup indicated Jedi were the intended target. The only piece of the conspiracy that remained was who was responsible, who hoped to trigger it, and whether they were still in a position to do so. Rex still didn't know who had commissioned the army, especially given that it was done at a time of peace. Obi-Wan's evasive answers implied that it was someone the Jedi trusted enough to feel safe using the army, so it had to have been an ally to the Jedi who was once in a position of enough power to order the army's creation. It made no sense for it to be the chancellor as Fives had believed, as he was no one of significant importance back then. But given that Fives was right about the nature of the chips, why would he accuse someone as unlikely as the chancellor unless it were true?

            The fear in Rex's heart tightened his chest. No… it just couldn't be true. There had to be some other explanation! Something they had missed!

            The commandos were quiet, and the Mrlssi were talking low to each other. RC-7723 was watching him. He had no perceptible expression, and it made Rex even more anxious. He knew nothing about these commandos. How could he trust them with such sensitive information?

            “This is highly confidential,” Rex murmured, putting a hand to his own chest. “Do not speak of any of this to anyone, even under direct orders to talk. There is a traitor in the Republic. Someone… with the power to demand you speak. But whatever you do, you can't let them know you know anything about these chips. We… we have to stop this, somehow. This conspiracy. And the only way we can do that is if the enemy remains unaware that we know what's really going on here.”

            The commandos stared at him, the tiniest furrow of the brow visible of RC-7723's face.

            “Well? That's an order!”

            “Yes, sir,” the three said in unison.

            “You understand, don't you? You understand what's at stake here.”

            “We don't,” RC-7723 said, and Rex sighed shakily. “But we always function according to the orders of our commanding officer. If you would prefer it, we can erase our memories of this knowledge.”

            Rex's kneejerk reaction was of disgust, that erasing a man's memory was a gross violation of his basic personhood… but Rex suspected that if there was any chance of stopping this nightmare from coming true, transgressions such as these were only the beginning of what he would have to allow.

            “I will keep that in mind,” he said, and turned to the Mrlssi. “Is there any way to remove the chip? Can you stop it?”

            “Ehh!” the green Mrlssi said. “I do not thhhink so. Thhis would re-quire a surgery for which we are cer-tainly unprepared.”

            “There is a hhhway,” the crested one said. “Something dif-ferent.”

            “What is it?” Rex asked, feeling helpless. “Anything… anything you could suggest.”

            “We can perhhhaps inter-rupt this, ffvia elec-trrric-k-k pulse to the source.”

            “Is that safe?” Rex asked.

            “I don't recommend it, Captain,” Twenty-Two said. “Not unless one of us administers the shock. We may have the necessary precision, but I would not trust these Mrlssi.”

            The crested one squawked in offense. “If you know hhhow to do it, then do it yourself!”

            “I would not have thought of it,” Twenty-Two said pointedly. “But it's possible that it could work.”

            “But that doesn't solve anything,” Rex said. “That stops it this time, but it just leaves it there to act up again later. This shock won't destroy it, will it?”

            “Errr, no.” The Mrlssi's crest slackened a bit.

            “What we need is a method to completely neutralize it, make sure it can't be activated again. Something fast that can be administered to millions of soldiers, ‘cause it's not just Echo who has this. Every clone does. Every clone is a threat to the very system we are fighting to protect!” Rex felt a wave of revulsion for himself, knowing that he too carried this manufactured flaw in his brain. The idea that someone could simply say the word or whatever it was and make him shoot General Skywalker in the back was enough to make him want to shoot himself… but he couldn't, he realized. Now, he was too important to die, because he knew. He could only hope his luck of staying alive on the battlefield would stay with him long enough to figure out how to stop this.

            “A fffvirus,” one of the Mrlssi suddenly said, its voice high-pitched but quiet. This one hadn't spoken to them yet. Its feathers were a sunny yellow.

            “What?” Rex said.

            “You could ma-nu-fffacture a con-tagion to target and neu-trah-lize thhis.”

            “I… you could maybe but… I don't know how I would begin to…. I'm no scientist.”

            “Perhhaps, an agreement?” the crested one said. “A fur-ther exchhange?”

            Rex took a deep breath. “I don't have anything. I'm just a soldier, I… I don't have any property or money or influence. Look, I don't know whose side you're on, if you're on the side of the Republic or the Separatists or something else… but there are millions of clones out there, thinking people with a mind and a conscience, and this chip turns them into…” he swallowed, “into something less than human. Machines. Machines designed to kill whatever somebody wants without concern or remorse, and unless you know who's responsible and what their ultimate goal is, no one is safe. Not even you, out here in the middle of nowhere. Because whoever's powerful enough to create a conspiracy of this magnitude, and actually manage to execute it, is both patient and powerful enough to do anything they want. And that would be the end of democracy and everything the Republic stands for. You live on a planet that would surely be targeted given its long history as allies to the Republic cause, regardless of what you yourselves believe.”

            The Mrlssi stirred and fluffed their feathers, seeming unmoved. Rex exhaled. There was nothing he could do to convince them they should help when he didn't know anything about them or who the enemy even was.

            “Please,” he breathed. “I don't have anything to give you. I'm just trying to protect my brothers. All my brothers. And my friends. We know no life but service to the Republic… and I have watched many good men die to protect it. I don't want to see that all be in vain… to have all those sacrifices invalidated by turning us into something mindless and evil. Please….” Rex put his hands on the bed Echo sat on and bowed his head. What could he do now but beg? He had no one else to go to, no other hope he could think of.

            “I will hhhelp you,” the yellow one chirped. The others murmured in agitation and started  what Rex could only understand to be arguing. The yellow one remained at Echo's side as the other three backed away slightly, and all the while the four of them made a cacophony of noises that barely seemed like words. But all of the sudden the three dissenters went quiet and stood in an aggravated and tense silence on the edge of the room, watching the yellow Mrlssi with beady eyes.

            The yellow one turned back to Rex and began. “Thhis hhvirus, it must be spe-cially de-signed to target-t thhis chip! It will take time, perhhhaps weeks or months.”

            “I understand,” Rex said quickly. “I don't have any other option.”

            “I must hhhave a chip for an-alysssis, we must-t re-move it from thhis one.” The Mrlssi began digging through a drawer of instruments.

            “You said you couldn't safely remove it,” Rex said in a low voice.

            The Mrlssi straightened and stared into his eyes. “Thhis one must-t be sa-cri-ficed. I must hhhave a chip to hhelp you.”

            Rex stared at the floor, then looked at Echo. His face was still blank. Then Rex looked at the commandos.

            “Sir,” RC-7723 said. “We must not forget our original mission. We must destroy the computer virus. This is secondary.”

            “This isn't secondary. Not anymore. I don't think there is any way Echo can help you… even if they revive him now, he'll just fall into this again when you reach the terminal. You can do this. I know you can… especially if the Mrlssi are willing to help.”

            “Captain, you were sent on this mission to lead us. You are abandoning your responsibilities by focusing on this instead of assisting us with the removal of the virus, especially now that ARC-Zero-Four-Zero-Eight is unable to lead. We still don't know which terminal the virus is transmitting from.”

            The tension in Rex's muscles was making it hard to remain calm. “I don't know how to help you. I don't! This mission is beyond my training. I'm not sure why Echo even asked me to be on it.” Rex shook his head. “I know you don't understand and you're just following orders, but there is no mission more important than destroying these chips. Now I order you to get on with the mission without me!”

            “You will not allow Echo to be revived at all?” Twenty-Two sounded almost hurt, but Rex was not sure if he was only imagining it. It wasn't hard, given how Rex was feeling.

            “That… would only make this harder.” Rex gritted his teeth. He didn't want to think about what he had to do. The yellow Mrlssi was waiting for him to give the go ahead to euthanize Echo, a hypo lifted in its strange clawed hand.

            RC-7723 looked at him reproachfully. “Respectfully, Captain, our function as a special ops commando unit, the only one of its kind, is made possible by ARC-Zero-Four-Zero-Eight as our commanding officer, and is of greater value to the Republic than your life. If a chip must be donated, it is you who—”

            “That's enough, soldier!” Rex growled. “Do you think this is an easy choice for me? It's never easy to send men to their deaths. Not just that, but friends. I have put my own life on the line for my men time and again. I have not suddenly become selfish about the preservation of my own life over another's. Since you don't understand the seriousness of the situation we are in, I can only insist that you trust me as your captain to be making the best tactical decision.”

            A quick blip from the communicator let Rex know a call was coming in on the holoprojector. Rex pulled it out and turned it on.

            “General.”

            “Rex, are you alright?” Skywalker asked.

            Rex struggled to unclench his jaw. “Everything is fine.”

            “I've contacted the Anaxsi Navy and they claim to have no knowledge of this—”

            “General,” Rex interrupted. “Perhaps… discretion…” he flicked his eyes toward the listening Mrlssi, “would be best at the moment.”

            Anakin looked taken aback. “Captaiiin,” he said, a warning tone in his voice. “What's going on?”

            “Just trust me, sir. We're doing everything we can on our end.”

            Anakin frowned then sighed. “Well… I haven't been able to learn anything about… what we talked about before. The Navy claims to know nothing about it, and the government itself hasn't responded to my request for an audience.”

            “And… the chancellor?”

            Anakin shook his head. “I tried to ask him about it but he immediately turned things back to this mission. He's extremely concerned about its success, and I can't say I blame him. Every time we check in with the fronts, there's a longer list of casualties. Our navy has backed off but we're sitting targets and the enemy knows it.”

            “We're about to move onto the target. With any luck, we'll—”

            “Luck isn't good enough. You have to destroy that virus, and you have to do it now. The chancellor himself recorded a message for you. He's worried. Please don't fail me, Rex. I'm counting on you. We all are.” Skywalker vanished, his hologram replaced with one of Chancellor Palpatine.

            “Captain Rex.” The chancellor looked very worried, his voice grave. Rex straightened to attention by reflex. “I’m sending this message to impress upon you the urgency of our situation. I understand you’ve become entangled in a bit of a political mess on Anaxes. But whatever problems the local government may be having will soon be irrelevant if this virus is not stopped! Nearly half of our navy is disabled or damaged and forbidden from docking for repairs. We have had to call off the majority of our current assault plans. This is a direct order to give the destruction of this virus the highest priority. These Mrlssi must not be allowed to stand in your way. You must clear them from the area and destroy the virus by any possible means.”

            “It will be done.” said a voice behind him.

            Rex turned, startled to see Echo hefting his rifle, eyes fixed on the projection of Palpatine until it disappeared. A shot exploded loudly and a flurry of yellow feathers scattered next to Rex as the Mrlssi crumpled to the floor.

            “No!” Rex cried, as the other three Mrlssi erupted into a chorus of terrified squawks that turned into piercing inhuman cries as Echo shot them down in quick succession. Rex's hands shook on his pistols as he ripped them from the holsters, but Echo had already torn the device from his head and charged from the room, RC-7723's stun bolt hitting the closing door.

            “Echo, NO!” Rex chased after him, with RC-7723 and their scout commando on his heels. Rex couldn't see Echo, but the scout was leading the way, presumably able to keep tabs on his position through their mental link.

            “Can you stop him?!” Rex cried.

            “No,” RC-7723 said. “He's heading for a section of the facility that has returned to activity.”

            “We have to reach him before he kills anyone else! That's an order!”

            They increased their pace, practically sliding on the tiled floor as they turned corners. Rex was barely aware of where they were going, simply following the commandos as they led him forward.

            “There he is!” RC-7723 said as they hooked around another corner only to catch a glimpse of Echo as he disappeared through a doorway to the right. Blaster fire erupted and Rex and the commandos charged into the scene, spraying stun beams as rapidly as they could into a cluttered work room filled with Mrlssi. Echo was still standing, and now as the Mrlssi in front of him wobbled and fell, he shot two of them right between the eyes at close range. Like an execution.

            “NO, ECHO!” Rex slammed into his side, his horrified momentum from charging in carrying him too far, too fast when he’d meant to fire. Echo thrust the length of the rifle against Rex’s chest to throw him off. As Rex staggered backward, he caught half a second’s look at the end of Echo’s rifle before the light flashed in his eyes and lanced through his chest, the heat and pain blasting out his vision for a moment, all his sense of direction and balance lost. All he knew was that he was falling and he couldn’t breathe.

            He thought of Fives and the hole in his chest, and a second deafening blast of pain pushed a scream from him that choked off in a strangled gurgle as a convulsion radiated from his right side. He panted shallowly between the sounds of pain and choked on his own breath, a heaving cough wrenching at the wound inside his chest as if someone were raking hooks through his ribs.

            “Captain!” A commando helmet hovered over him and Rex realized he was on his back. “ARC-Zero-Four-Zero-Eight has been neutralized. The Mrlssi within firing range are all unconscious or dead.”

            “D—” Rex heaved a ragged breath and another wave of pain choked him and made his jaw seize up. He struggled to wrench it apart. “Don—t kill. Don’t kill him!” The world was shaking, still spinning. Nothing stayed still—the lights were too bright, and everything was blurry except the spear of light glinting off the commando’s helmet.

            “He’s stunned, sir. What are your orders?”

            Rex panted in agony, feeling the weight of their loss and the identity of the enemy grip his heart in terror. Their one hope to stopping this madness was gone as soon as it arrived, extinguished unwittingly by none other than the master behind this entire conspiracy. In his pain, everything suddenly felt pointless; his entire life, this entire war, was a lie.

            “C…carry—” Rex wheezed, shuddering, “back… to the medical lab. Echo too.”

            He tried to lift his arm as RC-7723 reached for him and stabbed a hypo into his neck, but his body seized again at the explosion of pain in his shoulder, a firework of needles radiating back into his chest, down his arm, and up into his head. A gasp of air burst from his throat and through his teeth, turning into a sharp groan.

            “Hurry,” he cried, struggling to control the gulping breaths he was taking—each cough felt like a knife. “Bef—fore they wake u-AGH!

            It was all Rex could manage to keep the scream quiet this time as the commando pulled him up in a fireman carry. Dazed, he tried to catch his breath and take stock once RC-7723 was back on his feet, but lifting his head even a fraction felt impossible—his neck and head shook wildly with the attempt, and the shaking spread to his whole body as the commando hurried down the hall.

            He was going to die, Rex realized. Just like Fives. This must have been what it felt like. He was going to die knowing that he was the only one who knew the truth, knowing his brothers would continue to fight and spill blood in a war that was nothing but a game… that his general, and all the other Jedi he had been honored to serve with, were surely going to be shot in the back by their allies, and in their last moments feel nothing but betrayal from those they had counted as friends. And beyond, the future of the Republic felt like a black smear. There was nothing anyone could do. With truth would die with him.

            The trip back to the lab was uninterrupted, but it passed in interminable increments, measured by each of the commando’s steps jarring through Rex’s body like an electric shock. He struggled to think ahead, hazy from the drug, but his mind could only focus on the same thoughts over and over. I have to stop the chip. I have to live. I have to tell someone.

            The darkness of the last hallway gave way to piercing brightness again, and with one last nauseating movement, Rex was on a bed, staring up at the ceiling again, and he suddenly couldn’t catch even a tiny breath.

            “I—” he wheezed faintly, struggling to prop an elbow behind him. “I can’t—br—”

            RC-7723 adjusted the bed’s tilt and set about removing his armor. Rex struggled back from the edge of unconsciousness with short, violent gasps and realized he probably had seconds left.

            “Echo?” Black specks were swarming his vision. Each breath caught on the way in, and he gulped against a wave of nausea.

            “He's here, sir. Should we keep him sedated?”

            “Listen to me!” Rex struggled to stay focused on the commando as he cut Rex’s top open and sealed the hole in his chest with a bacta patch from his supplies. “No matter what… you have to tell Echo! You have to tell him everything and—you have to stop this.”

            “Echo may not return to himself after he awakes,” said the commando, pulling him forward to get at the exit wound.

            “You have—to make him!” Rex coughed and tried to speak quickly between breaths. “After that—you must tell him. Everything. He'll know—what to do!”

            Rex struggled to keep his eyes open, his voice weakening. “That chip is a threat. To the Republic. The Jedi. Everyone. Chancellor Palpatine… he's the one behind this… he's going to kill the Jedi….”

            He still didn't know if the squad understood how important this was, or if they believed the facts at all despite witnessing everything they had. Maybe seeing Echo go ballistic like that changed their mind. He had no choice but to hope they would take this as seriously as him. Echo… would know… he'd know.

            “He’s the one who controls us,” Rex choked out, fighting off the blackness. “With the chip. He's a traitor. Don’t let anyone else hear about this. Especially not anyone connected to the chancellor!”

            “Yes, sir.”

            Rex shut his eyes, unable to say more, his conscience dimming. The last thing he felt was the icy fear of the inevitable as the quiet darkness seeped into him with a strength that was impossible to fight.

Chapter Text

            Echo was aware of himself, but only just. He could barely form cohesive thoughts. Images were flooding through his mind with crisp clarity, but disappearing as quickly as they came before he could make sense of them. And then the images stopped, and he felt like he had gone into an unconscious blackness…. but he wasn't unconscious! Was he in a coma? He remembered things… actions, words, things he thought he had done, but the memories felt distant and impersonal, like he had merely witnessed them, and he wasn't sure when. And how heavy his body felt.

            Suddenly Echo realized he was awake, and opened his eyes. White light flooded into them and his first thought was that he must be on Kamino. Everything was blurred.

            A shadow fell over him and instinctually he recoiled, attempting to get into a defensive position, but his body was sluggish and his limbs seemed to barely obey.

            “Sir!” A voice said. A clone voice. At least he knew that much. “Don't move.”

            Echo swallowed but his throat still felt dry. “What's going on—where am I?” His own voice sounded foreign in his ears, low, parched. The sound of it triggered a collection of memories that he was certain must go together: a commando unit, a kind of digital telepathy, endless tests administered by Kaminoans… a rainy city, feathered aliens, and… Rex. Captain Rex. Echo jerked, someone's hand coming to rest on his shoulder. Rex… Rex was dead. Echo weakened as he saw it in his mind's eye, the hole in his captain's chest, him falling and getting shot again, crying in agony in a way Echo had heard too many times in his life coming out of the mouths of dead men. Then Echo realized that the hand on the trigger was his own.

            Echo's chest heaved and he felt he couldn't get oxygen. He panted, and his lungs felt like they were collapsing. The sensation was painfully familiar.

            “Sir,” the clone said again, putting a hand on his chest. “Are you alright?”

            Echo looked at him, looked through the hazy blur, and realized the man had been talking. “W….”

            “We're in Drann. How do you feel?”

            “D…. I killed… I killed Rex…” Echo gulped. “When?

            “The captain isn't dead,” the clone said. “Are your motor systems functioning?”

            “My… my what?” Echo swallowed again and tried to move his hand. The muscles in his arm contracted beneath the skin but nothing happened. “I don't understand what's going on. I can't….”

            Suddenly all of his muscles seized up, but as soon as the feeling came, it was gone, and he realized he could move again. He lifted his hand and brought it in front of his face. The light of the room was still so bright.

            “Sorry, sir. We're attempting to restore your systems incrementally without triggering the chip.”

            “When did I…. Where's Rex?”

            “He's here.”

            “Where?!” Echo spun around and his surroundings meshed together in a nauseating way. “Rex?”

            “He's not conscious. Are you experiencing any other physical malfunctions?”

            “What are you—why are you talking like that?” Echo turned back to the voice. “No, I… I can't see right, everything's—oh, wait, I can now.”

            “Very good,” the clone said, and Echo finally saw that he looked very young but was wearing black commando armor.

            “You… I remember you.” He realized there were two others just like him in the room. “Diode Squad. But something's different.”

            “Sorry, sir. We limited our link to a one-way network, and of the most restricted kind. We judged it to be the safest, given the circumstances. Your side is receiving only.”

            Echo put a hand to his head and felt the implant. Memories fell into place. “I'm….” He glanced at Rex, finally getting a clear look at him and his throat tightened. “I don't understand….” He pushed himself off the bed and stepped unsteadily to Rex's side.

            He didn't look good. The blaster wounds were patched up but his skin was a lifeless shade of gray, his lips faintly blue. Echo put his fingertips on Rex's neck and was almost surprised to feel a pulse. He leaned down and could hear a faint wheeze underneath his shallow breathing.

            Echo closed his eyes. “Is he going to live?”

            “If he gets professional medical attention soon enough, he should live,” the clone said. “But sir, there was something really important—”

            “We must call General Skywalker.”

            “Sir, we haven't finished the mission.”

            Echo clenched his fists. “The mission? We need to regroup, clearly. Are there any others but us in this room?”

            “There is one member of Diode Squad outside of the facility. The mission is to destroy the computer virus that's disabling the Republic Navy.”

            Yes, now Echo remembered. “We did, didn't we? We found the terminal.”

            “No, you—Sir, Captain Rex was very insistent that we tell you about the chip installed by the chancellor to kill the Jedi.”

            Echo did a double take at the commando. “W-what?!

            “You shot the captain because of the chip.”

            “What chip? The chancellor would never turn on the Jedi. They're the ones leading his army!” Echo would have laughed if the idea wasn't so horrific.

            “I don't understand it either, sir, but the captain insisted that I tell you this. He said you would know what to do.”

            Echo blinked hard and shook his head. “No… I'm afraid I don't… understand what you're talking about.”

            The young clone looked away for a moment, then said, “I will transfer our memories of the events since your chip was triggered.”

            Echo looked from the commando to Rex, and realized he now remembered things, could see himself, mostly doing nothing but sitting and staring off blankly. He saw the hologram of the chancellor and heard his own rasping voice affirming the chancellor's vague orders, and saw himself going on to execute them with brutal efficiency. He shot the Mrlssi scientists, and saw his body fall to a stun bolt after taking down Rex. None of it made sense… it didn't! He tried to focus but the memories swarmed around each other in a dizzying array. Echo wasn't even sure which ones came first but for the embedded time stamp.

            “I need to talk to Rex,” he said, desperate for some voice of reason to cut through this stifling confusion. “I need to know what happened to me.”

            The commando half shrugged. “He'll be out for another hour at least on that hypo. He seemed to be in a lot of pain. Sir, we must complete the mission.”

            “The mission,” Echo breathed. “The computer virus… but the Mrlssi….”

            “We must complete this no matter the opposition.”

            Echo swallowed again and looked at the commando's face. It was set in a determined frown. He caught from the memories that had been transferred to him a sense that the commandos were intimidated by completing the mission without him. They didn't think they could do it. But right now Echo didn't think he could do it. He barely understood their memories of him. He had been so detached and unemotional. Why? He felt the answer was somewhere right in front of him, and that all of this made sense and was clear and obvious, but every time he tried to focus, the words and images he was sure were there slipped further away.

            Then Echo heard a beep. And there it was again. He looked around and realized it was coming from a holoprojector in a box on Rex's belt. He pulled it out and immediately General Skywalker's form appeared.

            “General,” Echo said weakly.

            “Echo? You are Echo, aren't you? Where's Rex?” The general's voice was stern and impatient.

            “Yes, sir. Rex is….” he faltered.

            “What…? Echo, what?”

            Echo wasn't sure how to say it.

            “… Is he… dead?” Skywalker's face was impossible to make out, but his voice weakened. “Echo—”

            “No! He's not dead! Not yet. I… he… he was shot, sir, shot twice. He's sedated but he needs medical attention.”

            Skywalker's voice hardened again. “Did you destroy the virus?”

            “No, sir, but—”

            “Rrghh! This isn't good enough!

            “General, I'm not sure we can.” He glanced at the commando next to him, whose eyes bored into his in disapproval. “The truth is… something went wrong, really wrong, with me… a… malfunction… and I'm unable to complete this mission. I'm… I'm sorry. I don't think Diode Squad can do it without me. I recommend a new approach to taking this virus out. The Mrlssi are going to be hostile now.”

            The general's stance was rigid, his face downcast, his fists clenched.

            “Can you extract yourselves or do you need an assist,” he said in a bitter monotone.

            Echo looked at Rex propped up like a dead man on the bed, the patches on his chest, his ill complexion, and sighed. “We'll need a pick up and a medic. I'll transmit the coordinates, sir.”

            Skywalker was shaking his head as the hologram disappeared. Echo stared at the holoprojector, aware of a ringing in his ears. Sometimes missions failed. Sometimes you couldn't do anything about it. The general would understand.

            Rex came abruptly out of sleep, unable to remember falling into it. He was on a ship.

            “Rex,” someone said. It was Skywalker. He came into Rex's line of vision. “Good, you're awake.” He relaxed and almost laughed. “I was afraid you actually might not come back this time.”

            “General,” Rex said, a thick drugged daze interfering with his attempt to become alert. He felt pain in his chest but it seemed far away. Suddenly his latest memories came back to him and his blood turned to ice. Echo… the gunshots… the chip.

            He was still alive to stop this.

            Skywalker was waiting for him to go on, but Rex wasn't sure what to say. “The mission…?”

            Rex could read everything in Skywalker's face. They had failed. Every aspect of this mission had failed.

            “We'll talk about that,” the general said solemnly. “I'm glad you're still with us, Rex.” He stood up and stepped a few paces to the door. “Admiral Bet is asking for an immediate debriefing, but… I can tell her the medical droid wouldn’t let me wake you.”

            Rex took a deep breath, the fog in his head already beginning to clear. “I… I'm ready sir.”

            He tried to sit up, putting an elbow beneath him, and grunted as, despite the painkillers, a heavy spreading pain moved through his chest like being crushed by heavy spikes. His arm shook and he fell back against the bed, panting, a chilly sweat prickling on his neck and head.

            Skywalker’s forehead creased. “Easy, Rex… I’m sure we can hold the debriefing in here. I’ll have the room secured.”

            The med droid tittered and helped him sit up as Echo and all four members of Diode Squad entered the room. Rex wondered if he imagined that Echo was avoiding eye contact. Skywalker shut and locked the door behind them before pulling out his holoprojector, then he set it down on a cart by Rex’s bed. After a few moments, Admiral Bet and Admiral Konneck appeared.

            “Is the channel secure?” asked Admiral Bet.

            “Yes, Admiral,” said the general.

            “Very good,” said Bet calmly. “Well, let's begin the debriefing.” She sighed. “First of all, let me just say that I am extremely disappointed in the outcome of this mission, although I understand there were unforeseen circumstances involved. Captain Rex, you came to this mission highly recommended for your years of courage, adaptability, and experience with situations where discretion was necessary. I would have expected better of such a renowned officer.”

            Rex felt a heaviness overtake the chill in his stomach. He knew she could say nothing less. From the outside, this situation looked like it had been completely awash in ineptitude, and he wasn't sure how he could explain the events to the admiral without mentioning the chip or getting Echo sent straight back to Kamino for termination or further experimentation.

            “Captain, I request your account of the events leading up to your first encounter with the Mrlssi scientists.”

            “Yes sir,” said Rex, concentrating on the early events of the mission. They felt weeks old. “We were dropped off just inside the fence and hiked into the city, about three klicks. We didn’t encounter anyone on the way in. Once we reached the edge of the city, Echo led us to the nearest computer terminal he was aware of. It was located on an upper floor of a residential building. We inspected the terminal but it didn't contain the virus. Diode Squad then disabled it and we continued on to where other signals were transmitting. From the outside, it was impossible to tell what the building was, but there were many Mrssli around it, entering and exiting. We decided to wait until the hour grew later. Once one of our scouts reported that the numbers had diminished, we entered by a side door into an unused work room. We followed the signal until it took us into a decontamination unit. On the other side of the unit, the building was clean and sterile. It was immediately clear that Mrssli were still in the building in the areas we needed to go, but we still weren't aware that this was an active lab.”

            “Any further observations… Echo?” asked the admiral.

            “Sir. We will transfer our digitized observations of the facility at your request.”

            “Please do,” said Bet darkly.

            “Yes, Admiral.”

            “Alright, Captain,” she said. “Please continue.”

            “Sir. We decided the best way to clear the Mrssli from the area where the virus seemed to be transmitting was to trigger a local biocontamination alarm already installed in the facility's system.”

            “Seems like a rather loud way to stay undetected,” Bet sighed.

            “It seemed to be the most effective option at the time, sir,” Rex said simply. “We needed to ensure that they would stay out of the area long enough for us to do our job.”

            “And did they?” Bet folded her arms.

            Rex glanced at General Skywalker. The general’s eyebrow twitched and Rex couldn’t tell if it was aimed at him or at the admiral’s accusatory tone of voice. He took a deep breath.

            “Yes, Admiral. Once we were in that area, I was certain that the facility had the capability to be manufacturing a biological weapon, and the evidence was plenty suggestive. We located what we thought was the source of the virus without being detected, but when Echo connected with the local network it was transmitting from, his implant malfunctioned, and a member of Diode Squad informed me that the terminal was a decoy.”

            “Malfunctioned?” Konneck frowned. “In what way?”

            “He became completely unresponsive, sir. He wouldn’t focus on any of us, or respond to commands.”

            “Curious. Were the Mrlssi alerted to your presence through the computer network?”

            “It's… possible, sir. I wasn't sure what to do with Echo, so when the commandos located a small medical lab on the ground floor, we took Echo there. But on the way, we were ambushed by Mrlssi in a hallway we thought was deserted. They had blasters, and one of our men was shot in the foot, but we managed to make it to the lab without any further injury. We used stun beams on the Mrlssi, but the effects didn’t last very long. They surrounded the door a few minutes later and tried to talk us into surrendering.”

            Rex took a deep breath.

            “After our brief communication, sir, I tried to reason with the Mrlssi and gain their support in helping us to remove the virus, which they claimed they had no knowledge of. I felt a show of trust was needed and let them into the room once they seemed willing to listen. I told them of our problem and… and they went to talk with the rest of their kind in the facility. It took a very long time to get a reply, time that I understand could have been put to use destroying the virus ourselves, but I decided that completing the mission peacefully was the best option now that we had been detected, even if it did take longer.”

            Bet raised an eyebrow with a frown, though not at Rex or anyone else, seeming to consider his story. Rex was glad at this moment that Diode Squad never had any expression. “Go on,” Bet said.

            “When the Mrssli came back, they appeared friendly, but then unexpectedly they drew weapons on us. I was shot but Diode Squad managed to subdue them after a brief altercation. Then, as you know, General Skywalker and his troops extracted us after a brief firefight. That is essentially what happened. I understand that Diode Squad repaired Echo's malfunction while I was unconscious, sir.”

            There was an awkward silence wherein Bet just shook her head. Rex was all too aware of Skywalker's eyes on him, and he desperately hoped he would keep silent until the briefing was completed.

            “This situation is not good, to say the least,” Bet sighed. “As I said, it is disappointing that you were not more successful with this, given the state of the Navy but at the same time… your actions are understandable to a point. It's unfortunate that Diode Squad is not all that was promised.”

            “Diode Squad is still experimental, Admiral,” Echo said softly, surprising Rex. He seemed… different.

            Bet shook her head again and crossed her arms. “We shall have to take things into our own hands. We are out of time to find a diplomatic way of stopping the virus. Now that we know exactly where it's transmitting from, I expect short work of it.”

            “What?” Skywalker said. “What do you mean?”

            “We haven't found any further information on who is responsible for this facility. If the captain's report is accurate, and I have no reason to doubt it is, we cannot have such a project happening on Anaxes, especially if it's intended to be used against us. It might be that the Mrlssi have organized and decided to strike back at us for years of what they see as oppression, but… I sense a larger hand behind this.”

            The general sighed. “The chancellor did recently tell me explicitly that he had no knowledge of any lab, and that he wasn't worried about what the Mrlssi thought they were accomplishing. All he cares about is seeing that computer virus gone.”

            “As do we all,” Bet said. “And that is exactly why we are done dancing around this issue. Politically, the presence of this facility will condemn the Mrlssi in the eyes of the Anaxsi people, and Diode Squad's visual reports will be evidence enough for them. And on that note, we must finish this, so I will bid you and your troopers goodbye, General Skywalker.” Bet lifted one hand. “I won't say 'good job' but at least you brought these actions to our knowledge.”

            “The Anaxsi government thanks you,” added Konneck. “May you heal quickly, Captain.”

            Skywalker bowed his head to the admiral and the holoprojector went out. The sudden relief of knowing the admirals accepted his report hit Rex and he exhaled slowly. But then he caught the general's eye and knew things weren't over yet.

            “I’m sorry, again, General,” Echo said, and Rex realized he sounded aggrieved. “I never expected to malfunction and compromise the mission.”

            “I know you didn’t,” Skywalker said, putting a hand on Echo’s shoulder. But his eyes were on Rex, and the doubtful look on his face was hard to ignore.

            Anakin pocketed the holoprojector and gave Echo a forced smile.

            “Why don’t you and your squad go get some rest,” he said, in a voice that obviously meant clear out, troopers.

            “Yes, sir,” Echo said, with an uneasy glance at Rex. It was the first time he had looked at him.

            Skywalker watched them go. The moment they were out the door, his face relaxed out of its affected pleasantry. He turned back toward the hospital bed.

            “Rex,” he said seriously, “Admiral Bet may have bought your tale, and I only pray you had a good reason for lying to an admiral of the Republic Navy, but I will not have you lying to me.”

            Rex cast his eyes down and sighed. He tried to remind himself that no matter what the general said, everything he had done and would do was for the good of the Republic.

            “What really happened, Rex? And why are you keeping it to yourself? …It's Echo, isn't it?”

            “I….”

            “You're protecting him. There's more to this malfunction than you're saying—he… Rex, was he the one who shot you?” Skywalker's voice took on notes of both outrage and shock.

            “Yes, sir,” Rex said miserably.

            Skywalker didn't say anything immediately. He merely paced a few feet then turned back toward Rex, aggressively grasping the bar at the end of his bed.

            “Is there more you're not telling me?”

            “Yes, sir” Rex looked up at Skywalker on the end of his bed and their eyes met.

            “I don’t want a ‘yes, sir,’” he breathed. “I want answers! What’s going on with you, suddenly? You’re better than this. You were made to be better than this! And I’ve seen you deal with harder missions than this one, and you never lose your head. You’re dependable. You know the mission priorities. You told me you were ready to lead this mission.”

            Rex had never seen such disappointment in his general’s face before. To see it coupled with such confusion, such surprise, knowing that the general had such trust in him, was so much worse than he imagined. He didn’t know what to say.

            “I hope you didn't compromise the entire mission just because of Echo. Unfortunately, I don't know what parts of your story are true,” he said, punctuating his severe words with a pointed look. “Is it because he came back from the dead?” Skywalker waved a hand questioningly. “Is that enough to distract you? You have other brothers on the battlefield, on those ships that were being disabled by this virus.” Skywalker flung an arm up to point off in a random direction. “I know you care about them. Did you risk all their lives by getting distracted by Echo's problem? You were ready to shoot yourself to protect the army from the parasite from Ringo Vinda, weren’t you?”

            “General,” Rex broke in, raising a hand for a moment before his exhaustion brought it back down onto his lap. “I can explain. But I would appreciate it, sir, if you would hear me out to the end.”

            Skywalker’s face was contracted, fists at his sides. Whether he was angry or just intensely worried, it was hard to say.  “Alright. I’m listening.”

            Rex gathered himself. “The commandos didn’t find the virus in Echo’s implant. The implant was in conflict with another device. It was his inhibitor chip, sir.”

            Skywalker began shaking his head slowly, his jaw clenched.

            Rex pressed on steadily. “I asked them to analyze what it was designed to do. They said it was putting him into some sort of hypnosis… something about the exposure to the virus, or the transmitter, made his chip activate. They said it was like he was on standby. We couldn’t get him to respond to anything. I thought, when I called you, that maybe it was nothing to worry about after all. His behavior didn’t change when he saw a Jedi, not like Tup did. And we did negotiate with the Mrlssi, and they said they would help us investigate the chip—”

            “You what?!” Skywalker blurted, aghast. “Rex, the Mrlssi are our enemies! They can't be trusted! How could you risk the security of the Republic like this? If they found a way to create a biogenic weapon that would work against clone troopers—”

            “It was the only way!” Rex cut him off. “I had to know the truth! I can't get what Fives said out of my head. I've tried, General, I have! This was a chance to learn more and I had to take it.” Rex panted, reeling from the experience of arguing with Skywalker about such a terrible thing. Skywalker was looking at him as if he barely knew him. Rex swallowed and pushed on. “After some time, they said…well… one of them said they could manufacture a contagion that would disable the chips—”

            “Rex, you didn't,” Skywalker warned darkly. 

            “It doesn't matter now…. After you sent us that message from the chancellor—” Skywalker’s eyes locked onto him with intense disbelief and Rex hurried to finish “—that was when Echo went crazy. He responded to it like it was a direct order to go and kill the Mrlssi. And he did shoot me, General, when I tried to stop him—”

            “No.” Skywalker’s voice had the same hard-edged quality it had taken on in the face of Fives’ accusations. “You listen to me. You keep trying to find evidence against the chancellor, and I won’t be able to protect you anymore! I know you’re not a traitor, Rex. You’re just….” He blew out a breath. “You’re just confused.” The general paused, agitated, not looking at him. He pinched the bridge of his nose in a very General-Kenobi-like movement, and his voice softened. “Look, I know it’s not easy, what you went through with Fives. And maybe Echo coming back… just brings up more of the same kinds of memories. I know it’s been hard! But I need you to be honest with me, and I need you to listen to me. There is no—conspiracy—!”

            Rex was sure that if he hadn’t been injured, the general’s violent jabs at the air with his finger would have landed right on his chest.

            “General,” he said softly. “I’m just… reporting what I learned during the mission….”

            “I know you trusted Fives,” Skywalker went on. “But you’ve got to accept that he was sick! He was out of his mind.”

            “I would, sir, if there weren’t evidence like this! How can you ignore this possibility? General… you know I wouldn’t keep pursuing this if I didn’t think it was a real and imminent threat.”

            “I know. I know you think you’re doing the right thing,” Skywalker said dully, teeth gritted. “Normally, that would be enough. But I don’t know if I can trust your judgment any more. It’s too clouded by your emotions.”

            Rex stared back at him, shocked and with part of him crying out that it was the general whose judgment was clouded. But the rest of him flinched for a moment, wondering again if what Skywalker said was true. Skywalker was a Jedi. He had the Force to guide his instincts, to warn him of danger, to clarify his thoughts. And he was a good Jedi, a friend, an inspiring and protective leader. How could such a great Jedi’s sense of the truth be so wrong?

            But he couldn’t dismiss what he had seen. Skywalker’s discomfort only fueled his own.

            “Don’t let this swallow you,” Skywalker said, the same pleading note in his voice as he’d had on the transit platform the night Fives had died. “You’re stronger than this, Rex. And you promised me you would never turn against me.”

            “That’s what I’m trying to prevent, General,” Rex half-whispered hoarsely, finding it a struggle to breathe again, as if the sheer awful weight of his own questionable loyalty in Skywalker’s eyes was blocking his throat. “If there is someone out there who wants to control the army… to turn them against the Jedi… I can’t let that happen! I can’t let them turn me against you. Sir, please,” he struggled, unable to keep his weakened voice from shaking. “I’m only doing this… to keep the nightmares from coming true!”

            Skywalker straightened slowly, looked down at him with a detachment that chilled Rex to the bone.

            “Haven’t we talked about self-fulfilling prophecies, Captain? Sometimes, if you try too hard to prevent the future you fear, you create it all on your own. I think it’s pretty obvious that’s what’s happening here.”

            “No… General, I….”

            Skywalker turned toward the door, but paused a moment. “You’ve been a good friend, and a good captain. It’s been an honor serving with you, and I always knew I could trust you to carry out any orders I gave. You always had my back, and I don’t want that to change. I need you at your best. Your real best. We have to trust each other, or no mission we serve on together will succeed. I just want you to keep that in mind.” He sighed. “I won't report this. This time. But the way the war is going… I can't afford to give you many more chances either. I've probably given you too many already. You have to get past this, for everyone's sake.”

            Rex swallowed, gathering what strength had not been blown out of him by the general’s disorienting words. “Yes, sir,” he breathed in an uneven crackle, and Skywalker left the room.

            Rex had been confined to hospitals and medical bays several times in his life, and medical droids were always crowing in disapproval at how quickly he pushed himself to get on with his duties. Truth was, Rex couldn't stand to lie around, not when he knew others were still out there fighting and dying. He was young and fit, and that youthful energy had always served him well and put him back on his feet. But this time was different.

            He was off the heaviest of the painkillers, but Rex could barely summon the energy to complete the physical tests required by the droid. His left arm was weak and unsteady at the best of times, completely numb at the worst. Try as he might, he couldn't keep away the feeling that everything was hopeless, that his true purpose was a mockery of his beliefs, and that this was one mission that was well beyond his capabilities. These, compounded with the ever present pain and his physical limitations, were causing his droid nurse to treat him in a way that Rex could only describe as concerned.

            Currently, it was lifting his arm from the bed and shaking its head. “Not good, CT-7567, not good at all.”

            Rex jerked his arm away and sighed.

            “Seeing as this is the second injury to your left brachial plexus, we should be realistic about the prognosis.”

            “I thought you already were,” Rex snapped.

            “I was trying to be tactful,” it said. “But I'm afraid it's appearing as though you will need complete nerve reconstruction in your shoulder if you wish to use your left arm normally again.”

            Rex clenched his right fist. “How long does that take?”

            “The procedure itself is simple, but it takes several months of therapy to completely return to normal”

            “Let me guess: you've never done this on a clone before.”

            The droid took a step back and seemed to think about it. “Well, I have, but none of my patients survived long enough to complete the therapy.”

            “Great. You're telling me this is a death sentence, then.”

            “If you return to infantry duty, yes. I recommend seeking a less action oriented position until you are ready for the front.”

            “You know that's not up to me.”

            The droid picked up a tray of medical instruments and said, “yes, I shall file a report to General Skywalker. I expect to proceed with the reconstruction within the next day.” It then walked away to treat another patient.

            That was it, then. The termination of his service under Skywalker had come whether they were ready for it or not. The general might even be relieved; it meant he didn't have to make what was clearly a difficult decision. And as for himself… Rex exhaled slowly. He could barely imagine contributing to the forces in a way that didn't include having his DC-17s firmly in hand, but maybe this was for the best. He would certainly have a better chance of surviving longer. And if he could transfer to an assignment on Coruscant, he would be in a prime position to investigate the chancellor. But he had no idea how he could procure such a position—any request he made to the general would be seen through instantly.

            And Rex still hadn't talked to Echo. Or rather, it was Echo who hadn't come to talk to him. The team Appo had led with Skywalker to find the Verpine, all of them had come to see him in twos or threes: Kix and Jesse, Singer and Index and Knees, Ice and Rabbit, Afterthought and Coe. Each little group brought tidbits of news and encouraging words, expecting to see a full recovery. But no sight or mention of Echo anywhere.

            Rex hadn't had the will to fight the droid about leaving the medical bay since he woke up those couple days ago. He knew he was in a Venator-class destroyer—the Hurricane, most likely—and that they were still orbiting Anaxes, as the droid and his visitors had told him that much, but Rex wasn't even sure Echo and Diode Squad were still on board. They knew too much—if they left before Rex got a chance to square things off with Echo, Rex would consider it a fatal weak point in his attempt to fight the chancellor's plot undetected.

            Rex called the droid back, and when he told it his plan to walk the decks, its mechanical voice lit up with positivity. It seemed to be relieved to see him take some initiative toward exercise and socialization. After it helped Rex get dressed into his service uniform and fitted his arm into a sling, Rex left the medical bay, clenching his jaw against the almost crippling soreness in his chest.

            Venator-class destroyers were big, but the area an off-duty crew member might be found was generally the lower decks only. Even if Echo and Diode Squad were gone, surely some of the crew members had noticed them at one point.

            As Rex walked along the corridors of level three, he kept an eye on the Republic Navy uniforms he passed. At last he saw one that indicated lieutenant rank.

            “Excuse me, Lieutenant,” he said, keeping his voice strong as he stepped a bit into the officer’s path. The lieutenant stopped. “I’m looking for a squad of commandos. Would you happen to know if they’re still on board?”

            “Ah, right. I’ve seen ‘em around. You can double-check with the men on the flight deck. Last I heard that squad was staying on zero level, section… B-Eight? I’d have to look at the files.”

            “That’s close enough. Thank you, sir.”

            It wasn’t a long walk, but Rex already felt breathless by the time he’d reached the lift. He kept himself standing tall by the armored or uniformed clones who came in and out on level two, one… and then it was zero. A pretty busy deck, from the number of troops in the hallway, but as Rex walked along, the groups passing him queued up for the lift—probably headed for a briefing.

            Once they’d gone, the hall was quiet. Rex leaned against the wall for a moment to catch his breath, trying not to think too hard about what the med droid had said.

            “There’s more than one stall in there you know,” said a joking voice, and Rex looked up to see a grinning ARC trooper coming out of the refresher he’d happened to stop next to. “You don’t have to wait out here.”

            Rex tried to laugh but it came out more as a short sigh. “I’m looking for someone, actually.”

            “Most of us on this deck are headed up, so unless you’re looking for the commandos—”

            “I am.”

            “Oh.” The trooper gave Rex’s sling an intrigued look. “Well then, try that door. Fourth one down.” He pointed to the left side of the corridor.

            “Thanks.”

            “Are you the captain who led them on Anaxes?”

            Rex raised an eyebrow and stepped away toward the door. “Better hurry up the lift, or you’re gonna be late.”

            The trooper shrugged and walked off. Rex went to the door he’d indicated, trying to shake off the shame that had been brought up by the relatively innocent question. He wondered how much any average soldier on this ship knew now about what had happened down there. Perhaps these men were being sent down to help clean up after him somehow.

            Rex opened the door. The room was the basic design for a five-man squad’s quarters, unadorned and with no commandos in sight. Echo was lying out of armor on one of the bunks, but he turned his head and sat up when Rex walked in.

            Rex stopped a few feet away, but Echo still didn’t speak or move anything except his eyes—a thorough sweep of his torso and sling, then away. There was the same troubled look on his face as during the briefing. Rex wondered how to begin.

            “Well,” Echo finally creaked. “I see you’re… recovering….”

            “I might be reassigned,” Rex sighed. “Which is why I need to talk to you about what happened. Is this room secure?”

            “You can lock the door.” Echo gestured hesitantly toward it with one hand.

            He turned to do just that. “Where’s your squad?”

            “They’re working out how to remove the virus from naval systems once it stops transmitting…. Turns out the Verpine really was the one responsible.”

            “And you?”

            Echo’s mouth pulled tight. He shook his head at the floor, voice low and husky. “I can’t connect with any systems until my malfunction is corrected. I’m sure I’ll be sent back to Kamino any day now for repairs….”

            “And what do you plan to tell them about this malfunction?” Rex gestured for Echo to move aside so he could sit as well. He felt like he was quaking incessantly inside even though on the surface he knew he looked more or less steady.

            Echo’s forehead wrinkled and he looked away again. “I haven’t decided yet.”

            Rex sat on the edge of the bed sideways, so he could lean a little against one of the poles. “What did the squad tell you about the chip?”

            “Rex,” Echo began uncomfortably. “I’m… I don’t think you should trust me with this.”

            “Why?” Rex frowned.

            Echo sighed. “Any information I know could be removed and analyzed when I return to Kamino. I wish I could help you, but even if I understood what’s going on… even if I had a choice, it would probably do more harm than good.” His restless gaze settled on Rex’s left hand. “You’d be better off choosing someone who has a mind of his own,” he muttered.

            “I take it they didn’t tell you about the chip, then,” Rex said intently. “Because if they did, you would understand that none of us are safe from what you were made to do.”

            Echo just shook his head. “This wouldn’t have happened if I weren’t… like this….”

            “Like what? Like a droid?”

            Echo flinched, barely.

            “That’s not the problem here,” Rex insisted. “The fact that you’re talking to me like this now proves that you’re still yourself. You do have a choice, as much as any of the rest of us. But these chips take away that choice. It wasn’t your implant. It wasn’t you. It was him.”

            Echo exhaled sharply and shook his head again. “You shouldn’t be telling me this. I don’t….” Echo clenched his fists in his lap, his voice rasping bitterly. “I don’t have any power to help you. As soon as my malfunction is repaired, it will be like none of this ever happened. I’m not going to care about any of it. You’re wasting your time with me.”

            “What do you mean you won’t care about any of it?” Rex asked, fighting down a rising desperation. “The malfunction was caused by a conflict between your implant and the chip, right? That’s what your men said.”

            “Yes.” Echo’s voice was dull. “The others have had to turn off certain functions of my implant to minimize the conflict.”

            “Like what?”

            “Well….” Echo rubbed a hand up and down one of his arms absentmindedly. “Like I said, I can’t communicate with any computer networks at the moment. When I first woke up, I couldn’t even see….”

            Rex felt sickened at remembering just how much Echo’s body was at the mercy of his implant. Echo had already suffered once through the painful process of adjusting to it, having it dictate his senses and his experience of the world. Of course he would look to it as the source of his actions on Anaxes, rather than the chip.

            “But why does any of that mean you’ll stop caring about this once your implant is functioning normally again? As I said, this did not happen because of some kind of flaw in you or your implant. We all have this chip, every clone! Everyone except Diode Squad. We all have the potential to be turned into mindless killing machines. What could possibly make that seem inconsequential?”

            Echo didn’t respond right away, and Rex tried to wait patiently, recognizing that Echo seemed extremely uncomfortable in his presence. At last Echo took a deep breath, still downcast.

            “You… may have noticed, before all this happened,” he began miserably, “I’m not much like the Echo you used to know. I don’t even recognize myself, to be honest. The implant is designed to regulate my brain functions, including emotion. It… does make me just like a droid.” Echo ran a hand over his face, grimacing. “Normally, I don’t really care about anything, you know. Or anyone. All that matters is following orders, getting the job done….” He breathed a quiet, mirthless laugh. “But I don’t have any pride in what I do! I don’t care about my men, or the missions, or the Republic. Not like when I was human. Right now is the exception! It’s just a fluke that I feel anything about this situation, and as soon as the scientist back on Kamino figures out what’s wrong, I’ll be back to how I was before, or worse. So, I wouldn’t get your hopes up. My involvement in… whatever is going on right now, well, it’s just made things worse, hasn’t it?”

            “No,” Rex said seriously. “If this hadn’t happened, I would still be trying to convince myself that….” He hesitated, but pressed on. “That there isn’t a traitor in our midst. That the chips are harmless. I’d still be thinking Fives was a traitor, just like everyone said.”

            Echo finally did look at him then, eyes wide. “Fives?” he asked faintly. “Why… why does anyone think Fives is a traitor?” Echo’s face fell before Rex could reply. “You said was. He’s… dead, then. Isn’t he?” Echo swallowed and put his head in his hands. “Fives….”

            “I’m sorry,” Rex said quietly, giving him a moment. In the silence, he thought back for a moment to when he’d first met Echo and Fives at the Rishi outpost, and that awful mission to the Citadel where they’d left Echo behind. So many good men lost in that forsaken place, and in heinous ways. But most of them were the normal sort of terrible, almost expected. Rex was glad Echo hadn’t had to see Fives’ end.

            “What happened?” Echo said after a space of silence. He straightened to look at Rex again with a defeated expression, suddenly appearing as exhausted and hopeless as Rex felt. “Why did people call him a traitor? Was he executed? Is that why he’s gone?” With each question, Echo sounded more lost.

            “Well… the story now is that he wasn’t really a traitor… just… crazy.” Rex clenched his right fist, feeling again the awful disapproval in General Skywalker’s voice. “Fives is the one who found out about the chips in the first place. His friend Tup killed one of the Jedi… General Tiplar. We were in the middle of a battle, and he just snapped and shot her.”

            Echo stared at him intently, eyebrows contracting.

            “Nobody knew what was wrong with him, so we decided to send Tup to Kamino so the doctors there could try to fix it. Fives went with him. He must have investigated while he was there. Next thing I knew, Tup was dead, and Fives was back on Coruscant. We were being ordered to hunt him down because he tried to kill the chancellor.”

            “What?” Echo’s voice cracked, and Rex thought he saw a flash of anger. “That’s… impossible. Fives would never do something like that!”

            “I know. When General Skywalker and I found him, he said he’d been framed. He said he had proof that the chips were designed to control the army, to make us kill Jedi. And that the chancellor was in on this plan. But then, before he could say anything else, Commander Fox and the city guard surrounded him, and shot him down when he tried to grab a weapon to defend himself.”

            “He was killed by one of us?” Echo shook his head. “Why would… do you think Commander Fox knew?

            “Maybe,” Rex said grimly. “He does work closely with the chancellor. But he could have just been following orders. Fives was considered dangerous, not only as a threat to the chancellor, but because we thought he was infected with a parasite. The Kaminoans wanted us to believe it was a parasite that made Tup go insane, and we thought Fives had it too.”

            “I can’t believe this,” Echo said under his breath, slumping where he sat. He reached up to grip the edge of the upper bunk. 

            “Fives mentioned nightmares, just before he died,” Rex said. “And a mission. I think it’s the same nightmare I have… a nightmare where I’m forced to kill Jedi. Even my own general. I asked some of the other men… we all have the same dreams, and I’m convinced it’s because of this chip. The chancellor’s going to turn us against the Jedi, someday, and we’ll be powerless to stop it unless we remove this chip from every soldier, or destroy them somehow. Maybe with some kind of contagion like the Mrlssi suggested. That’s the only thing that would be fast enough and affect the entire army. Either that, or we have to find a way to help the Jedi stop him before he knows that we know.”

            Echo was starting to look appropriately worried, but all he said was, “If only General Skywalker hadn’t called before you went ahead with the extraction….”

            Rex felt a chill of guilty relief at remembering how close he’d come to killing Echo, and yet his hesitation had resulted in the deaths of their best hope to stop this madness.

            “Echo,” Rex said in a low, insistent voice. “We have to focus on what we can do now that the Mrlssi can’t help us anymore. You could gather information on the chip from the computer systems on Kamino. You might even be able to use the medical equipment there to research how such a contagion could work. Then we have to find a scientist who’s willing to create it for us.”

            “I don’t think I’ll be able to do anything,” Echo protested, voice tight. He glared at the floor. “For all I know, my memory of this entire incident could end up being wiped. The best I can do is tell them the truth about why I malfunctioned, and suggest they remove the chip. I doubt they’d let me examine it. And they might find some other way to fix me, anyway, maybe even one that would integrate the two systems. I’m just an experiment. I’m sure a study like that would seem useful to the Kaminoans… if we all really do have this chip.”

            Rex felt sick at the thought. “We can’t give up yet. I’m hoping that if they reassign me, it will be somewhere I can keep investigating this, but I can’t count on that. You have to do whatever you can to stop this. Please… at least tell me you’ll try if you get a chance.”

            “I don’t want to make promises I can’t keep,” Echo muttered. “Isn’t there someone else?”

            “Who else is going to believe me? General Skywalker’s too close to the chancellor. I tried to tell him the truth about what happened but he wouldn’t listen.”

            “It’s over then, isn't it?” Echo looked at Rex. “If he knows, he’ll probably tell, and you’ll be court-martialed.”

            “He said he wouldn’t report it,” Rex sighed. “But I can’t mention it again.”

            Silence fell between them, and Rex gathered himself for one more attempt.

            “Echo… you’re still a soldier of the Republic. You’re still one of us. We all swore to protect and serve to the best of our ability. Sometimes the odds are stacked against us. Sometimes, we make mistakes, and we fail… and our failure comes at the cost of many lives, civilians, brothers….” Rex took a deep breath. “But we… our duty remains. Better to face the consequences of acting in good faith, instead of standing by and wondering if there’s something more we could have done after we’ve all been turned against each other. I don’t know what more I can do, especially in this condition, but I am not going to just duck my head while everyone I care about is destroyed, and pretend I didn’t have a chance to stop it! Even if that chance is a million to one, it’s still a chance!”

            Rex took another deep breath, shivering. Lying down was starting to seem like a good idea again.

            “Fives gave up everything to uncover the truth. Now that I’m the only one who knows what’s really going on, I have to try and finish what he started. But I don’t think I can do it alone. I don’t know who else to turn to, and now you and your squad are the only ones who can help.”

            Echo struggled visibly, squinting at the floor.

            “If,” Echo began, and stopped to clear his throat in vain. “If I can help… if I’m still myself after this… then I’ll try.” He closed his eyes for a moment. “I’m not sure it will make a difference, but….”

            “I know,” Rex agreed grimly. “It’s a long shot.”

            “I’ll be helpless to stop them if they decide to look deeper into any of this,” Echo sighed. “You realize that.”

            Rex felt an awful wave of helplessness. He was asking so much of Echo, when really Echo was the one who had been left alone with no one to defend him. And Rex still couldn’t help him, only lay a greater burden on his shoulders and let him fall back into the cold mercy of the Kaminoan scientists.

            “I do,” he said softly. “I understand the risk.”

            “I’ll need a way to get the information to you,” Echo said wearily. “I might be able to program a private long-range channel into your communicator.”

            “How long will that take?”

            “I’m not sure….” Echo looked embarrassed. “It’s not easy for me to focus right now. I’ll ask the squad for help if I have to. It shouldn’t be more than a few hours.”

            Rex took off his communicator and held it out. Echo slowly raised his head to look at Rex and lifted one hand to take it. Rex held on for a moment before letting Echo pull the comm away.

            “Thank you,” he said, relief and guilt and fear all roiling together in the pulsing pain of his chest.

            Echo stared back at him, and Rex thought—he hoped—he saw a small awakening of purpose or understanding in Echo’s face. A weak reflection of the trust Echo and Fives and the rest of Domino Squad had placed in him and Cody the moment they’d arrived at the Rishi outpost. Echo wasn’t a shiny anymore; this wasn’t blind confidence now. That was long gone, burned out of him. But this was something to work with, anyway.

            “The odds of us succeeding are pretty bad,” Echo looked at the comm in his hand. “But… this conversation was just as unlikely, I guess.”

            Rex managed a tiny smile at that.

            “I’ll stay in contact as long as I can,” Echo whispered.

            The ache in his lungs was starting to nauseate Rex. He stood slowly, bracing himself against the upper bunk. “I should head back to the medical bay.”

            “You don’t look so good,” Echo agreed. “But won’t they ask where your communicator is?”

            “You’re right.” Rex hesitated. “Someone might notice.”

            “Here.” Echo went to the end of his bed and pulled open the armor chest. “Take mine. If anyone calls, I’ll just answer for you. They won’t know the difference, even with my voice….”

            Rex took the offered comm and attached it to his useless arm. “Good thinking. Besides… I’m due for surgery in the next day. Who knows, I could be sleeping.”

            Echo nodded. “I’ll see you in a few hours.”

Chapter Text

            Anakin stood on the command deck of the Hurricane and listened as the reports rolled in over the comm lines.

            “Weapons and shield systems functional. All tests are a success. All clear here aboard the Inevitable.”

            “This is the Gatekeeper, all systems functional!”

            “Luminance, signing in, all systems go!”

            Triumph and relief rang clear in many of the voices, beneath the rote phrases they were calling in from all across the system and beyond.

            “Congratulations, men,” Anakin said to Diode Squad, who were standing as motionless and silent as ever a few feet away. “Looks like you just saved the entire navy.”

            “Yes, sir,” they said together.

            “Thank you, sir,” said one.

            Anakin tried not to make a face at how he couldn’t detect even a small note of excitement in their voices. He thought of Rex, still recovering from the reconstructive surgery on his shoulder—at least he should be glad to hear that the botched mission had been saved at last.

            And there were cheers from around the command deck, from those seated at ops, members of the crew who had flown into and out of battles never knowing if this was the moment their shields were going to fail as soon as they fired a shot.

            As the noise died down, Anakin realized Appo was calling him over the comm link.

            “General, Admiral Tarkin just docked and requested to speak with you. He’s waiting in briefing room C-Two.”

            “I’ll be right there.”

            As he sped through the corridors with long strides, he wondered what was so important that the admiral had come see him in person. Anakin had been in consistent contact with Anaxsi leadership about the virus situation. Hopefully this was merely a passing on of his next assignment.

            When he arrived at the briefing room, Tarkin was standing with typical ramrod straightness, hands behind his back.

            “Admiral,” Anakin greeted him cheerfully, before locking the door. “What can I do for you?”

            Tarkin narrowed his eyes and inclined his head as if Anakin had insulted him. “General Skywalker, are you aware of the alarming actions the Anaxsi have recently taken against the Mrlssi?”

            “Uh, you mean shut down their bioweapon research facility? The one which also happens to be the source of the virus?” Anakin raised an eyebrow. “What’s so alarming about that? The fleets are finally ready to move out again!”

            “I see,” Tarkin said coldly. “So… you did not see fit to inquire how they planned to neutralize this facility?”

            “I respect their right to handle affairs on their own planet.” Anakin folded his arms, unsettled by the accusing tone in Tarkin’s voice. “In accordance with the laws of the Republic, of course.”

            “The Mrlssi government will not agree that this… affair was handled justly, I think. The scientists were most certainly killed inside the facility when it imploded today, and were given no warning.” Tarkin’s voice began to rise, getting more agitated. “Regardless of the threat their research posed to us, how do you think this incident will reflect upon the image of the Republic to other worlds who may be wavering in their support? The Mrlssi are very influential among the Galactic scientific community and may not be so eager to remain loyal after word of this reaches them!”

            “That would be unfortunate,” Anakin said slowly, giving Tarkin a questioning stare. “Is there a reason you’re talking to me about this and not the Anaxsi military?”

            “I’m astonished you even have to ask,” Tarkin seethed. “Was it not your captain who disobeyed orders and incited the Mrlssi to defensive action in the first place? His orders were to remain undetected, correct?”

            “Yes….”

            “And if it had not been for his overwhelming incompetence, the Anaxsi government would not have been forced to take such drastic action! They could have been arrested and brought to trial; the facility could have been locked down by a more qualified special operations team rather than crushed into oblivion! But instead, the Republic is now complicit in an interplanetary incident which may cost us the technical and military support of multiple systems!”

            “I understand your concern, Admiral.” Anakin was careful to keep his voice even, trying hard to level out the rising indignation that made him want to yell. “Captain Rex will be reassigned as soon as he is fit for duty.”

            “He will be reconditioned,” Tarkin corrected. “There is obviously a flaw in his training, and as he was the weak link in this team, he will no doubt be the same in any team he works—”

            “What? Hold on! Rex has an outstanding record of service up to this point! He doesn’t need to be reconditioned! So he made a mistake. A big one. But even the Anaxsi officers in charge of the mission agreed that we have to consider the circumstances!”

            “Sentiment like this does not suit you, Skywalker.” Tarkin gave him a dissatisfied frown. “The circumstances are that your former captain was trusted with the lives of countless members of the Republic navy, as well as the lives of the Mrlssi and the men on his own team. He has proven himself undeserving of your confidence. I have already submitted my report to high command and received authorization to order his return to Kamino as soon as possible. I suggest you give some thought to his replacement. Lieutenant Appo seems to have served you well.”

            Anakin gritted his teeth, frustrated at how hard this was hitting him. He knew Rex’s prognosis, and yet somehow he had hoped there might still be a way to prevent his reassignment. “It’ll be a while. He’s still recovering from his injuries.”

            “Oh, I assure you,” Tarkin smiled coldly, “The facilities on Kamino will be able to take care of him much better than what you have here.”

            Anakin lowered his head defensively. “Admiral, you worked with Rex on the Citadel mission. You saw how competent he is. But you support this decision? We need captains like him now more than ever! Rex has never let me down before. He’s my responsibility; I should have a say in what happens to him.”

            Tarkin almost looked amused. “You and the other Jedi may be part of this army, General, but the clones under your command belong to the Republic, not to you. You cannot claim any rights of ownership. They are servants of the Republic and as such will be distributed in whatever way is most useful to the war effort. I thought you were anxious for this war to end quickly!”

            “I am.” Anakin stared stubbornly back into Tarkin’s pitiless eyes. “But I think that command is making a mistake in this case.”

            “Your concerns are noted. I will notify Tipoca City to expect your former captain within the next week. In the meantime, you and the Five-Hundred-First are to prepare to assist in the assault on Clak’dor Seven.”

            Anakin kept his mouth shut as he accepted the orders from Tarkin. He had admired the admiral’s practical views on the war when they’d first met, but after Ahsoka’s trial, and now this, his patience with the admiral’s tactless and uncompromising approach was fraying into true dislike. 

            He hated to think what Rex would say when he heard the news. But better to tell him as soon as possible. Outwardly, he reviewed the mission information calmly, his mind going through the motions of planning out each move. But deep down, beneath it all, he began bracing himself to lose another friend.

            After coming out of surgery and the post-surgery bacta soak, Rex had not felt optimistic about his arm. He was sleepy and disoriented from the anesthesia. It hurt too much to move his arm much at all those first few days, although his droid nurse periodically helped him through some very gentle exercises which were, in Rex’s opinion, barely fit to be called exercises. More like a thrice-daily ritual of “try moving it a little further this time.” It promised these movements would get more complex as he progressed to the later stages of his recovery plan.

            Then the sleepiness had worn off. His lungs had continued to heal as he slept, and he found it a little easier now to walk long distances in the halls. And a few days later, out from under the nurse’s watchful photoreceptors, Rex held a DC-17 in his shaking left hand—arm excruciatingly extended to its full length—braced it with his right, and shot the target taped on the opposite wall of Echo’s room. 

            “That’s a hit,” Echo said.

            “Only at short range,” Rex muttered. “And all this one did was squeeze the trigger.” He looked at his visibly shaking left arm and slowly coiled it back toward his chest where it seemed to think it belonged.

            “You’re only a few days post-op,” said Echo. “I shouldn’t have even let you do this.”

            “No… I need to know how far I still have to go,” Rex sighed. “A long way, I think.”

            Echo was silent, and Rex wondered if he was feeling guilty again.

            “I’m sure I’ll heal quickly enough,” he added quietly. Not as quickly as he wanted to, never. But enough to survive.

            “I’ll be leaving for Kamino soon,” Echo said, taking the DC-17 from him. “Now that the virus is taken care of.”

            “I know….” Rex looked down at the communicator Echo had modified for him. “I’ll let you know where—”

            His communicator was beeping.

            “Rex? Where are you?” It was General Skywalker.

            “Zero level, sir.”

            “Come back to the medical bay. I have some news,” he said wearily.

            “Right away, sir.” Rex closed the channel, trying not to speculate on what news this might be, and looked up at Echo, who seemed concerned. “I’ll see you again before you leave.”

            Echo just nodded.

            Rex walked out, passing identical faces without recognizing any of them. When he opened the door to the medical bay, General Skywalker had a stony look to his face that instantly made Rex’s heart drop into his stomach.

            “Did something go wrong with the anti-virus, sir?”

            “No… not exactly.”

            His eyes were on Rex’s chest and shoulder, as if still expecting to see evidence of his wounds seeping up from under his service uniform. He sighed quietly. “I’ve been contacted by high command. A decision… has been reached.”

            “Is it… about my reassignment, sir?” Rex had been expecting as much, but it still stung to think about.

            Skywalker's eyebrows pulled together and he still wouldn’t meet Rex’s eyes. “I’ve been ordered to send you back to Kamino for reconditioning. I’m sorry, Rex.”

            “Oh… I understand, sir,” Rex heard himself say, numbly wondering why he was lying, and how the general expected him to believe such a ridiculous thing. Reconditioning was for defective clones. Clones who needed to be retrained from scratch, with new memories and a new identity. Clones who weren’t right in the head, or who just weren’t up to the stress of the battlefield. His hands felt cold.

            “I tried to talk them out of it,” Skywalker said, some dismay creeping into his voice. “But they wouldn’t back down. Apparently, the fact that the Anaxsi military completely destroyed that research facility along with the Mrlssi inside, well… that might lose us some important allies. It’s going to cause problems… big problems. It was one mistake too many. You’ve been declared unfit for duty, even once your injuries heal.”

            Rex couldn’t think straight. He hadn't considered that his bad performance on Anaxes was still being analyzed, mulled over by the powers that be. Admiral Bet had understood. Konneck had wished him well. Rex wanted to ask how this was possible, but the moment the thought crossed his mind, he knew that to voice it out loud would only dig a deeper hole for him to fall into. And it was certainly no use to bring up the terrifying possibility that someone knew what he knew, and was doing this to silence him.

            “I didn’t want this,” Skywalker hissed, gripping Rex’s uninjured shoulder suddenly. “You know that. I don’t want another captain, Rex. I want you back, the way you used to be. But now it’s too late for that… and it’s my fault. I should never have let you go on that mission!”

            He didn’t want to go through a conversation like this again. “When do I leave, sir?” he asked quietly.

            Skywalker slowly let go of him, his hand dropping to his side in defeat. “Two days.”

            “Understood.” His own voice was monotonous to his ears. “It’s been an honor serving with you, General. I’m sorry I let you down.”

            Skywalker’s face pinched, conflicted, unable to deny Rex’s admission. “I… I’m sure you’ll serve the Republic well in whatever assignment they give you once you've returned to service.”

            “Thank you, sir.”

            Skywalker stared at him a moment, then nodded once, as if there was nothing left to say. Rex stood still and watched the door close behind Skywalker, heart beating hard. He sat down heavily on the bed and felt a defeated exhaustion sweep over him, pinning him down inside his restless body.  Echo’s worries sank into his blood like ice—the fear of losing his ability to care. Rex realized he now faced a similar fate in being reconditioned. And if both of them no longer had any sense of who they were, then there really was no hope to stop the conspiracy.

            An hour or so later, Rex walked slowly down the hall on zero deck, trying to take stock of what options he had left. The droid nurse had seemed to notice his sudden increase in distress, and encouraged him to go socialize with other clones, but Rex couldn’t see any point in talking to anyone other than Echo and his commandos. He saw now what a miracle it was that Fives had even managed to tell them his story. If he hadn’t been killed by Fox, would anything have changed? Rex didn’t know what to do next. Being reconditioned meant he wouldn’t have the memory or will to investigate any further. He still felt blown away—Admiral Bet had been understanding! High command insisting on this meant that they knew everything, and if they knew, it was all over.  

            Rex took a deep breath and reminded himself what was at stake, but doubt rose around him like floodwaters no matter how impossible it was to change course. He or Echo needed to tell someone else, but who would believe them? I’m not crazy! Fives’ words echoed in his mind again.

            He opened the door to Echo’s room and saw that Diode Squad was there, all of them out of armor and two of them sleeping. The others seemed to have been talking with Echo.

            “Rex.” Echo stood, and the two commandos faced him as well. “What did General Skywalker want?”

            “Well,” he said heavily, “turns out, we might be taking the same transport to Kamino.”

            “You’re going to Kamino….” Echo didn’t sound surprised. “Why?”

            “I’m being reconditioned.”

            Echo slumped a little where he stood and sighed. “I knew this was going to happen….”

            “They know I know too much,” Rex muttered. “And there’s a chance they might suspect you too, so you’re going to have to keep a low profile. You can’t give them any sign that I told you anything. You shouldn't even try to contact me again afterward since… I won't remember.”

            “I couldn’t even if I wanted to,” Echo said. “You'll be dead.”

            “Dead?” Rex stared back at Echo incredulously, the sick heat creeping into his gut despite his conscious disbelief. “What are you talking about? If they were going to execute me, they would have said so.”

            Echo shook his head. “No, Rex…. There's no such thing as reconditioning.”

            “How do you know?” Rex said.

            “I had access to the Tipoca City cloning facility’s computer network,” Echo said, his voice heavy with weariness. “All that data on every single clone in the city. I noticed that when a group of them were marked as reconditioned, there was no record afterward of an increase in clones being trained, or even in the number of beds being occupied. Instead, the incinerators ran that day for much longer than routine. They killed them.” Echo sighed, then looked at Rex, resignation lining his face. “It was the same pattern every time another batch was brought in for reconditioning. I watched for it to make sure it was consistent. They see any clone sent back as too inherently defective to be retrained.”

            Rex stood there rigidly, fingers icy. He pulled his eyes away from Echo’s tired face, across the ambiguous expressions of the commandos, crushed by the realization of his own worthlessness in the eyes of those who would throw him and his brothers away like so much organic trash.

            “I don't think General Skywalker would purposefully deceive you about this,” Echo said. “He probably doesn’t know. I don't think anyone is meant to know.”

            “Even if he doesn’t,” Rex said numbly to the wall, “he’s not going to fight against direct orders from high command, knowing what I think about the chancellor. And the chancellor would find another way to get rid of me anyway.” He gave Echo a grim look, without much hope, knowing his duty. “Echo… once I’m gone, you’ll be the only one who can do something about this. You and your squad.”

            “Yes, but….” Echo shook his head. “Even if I find the evidence and information we need, who can I go to with it? I can’t leave Kamino without orders.”

            Rex hesitated, trying to think around the sensation of his own heart beating hard but steadily in his chest. He rubbed his thumbs over his clammy fingers. He’d been in a lot of battles that seemed hopeless, but never with odds quite like this. Even their allies couldn’t be trusted with the truth, and the structure of the galaxy itself seemed designed to ensure their failure.

            “I don’t know,” he finally murmured. “You’ll have to be absolutely certain it’s someone you can trust. You’re the Republic’s last hope. You can’t get caught, or the Republic is finished… and if they do catch you and the squad, you have to find someone else you trust, to pass on what you know.”

            “I don’t know anyone else that I trust,” Echo said hopelessly.

            “What about you?” Rex turned to the commandos, knowing it was futile. “Who would you trust with this?”

            “We were ordered to tell no one,” said one, glancing at Echo.

            “Well if Echo forgets this, and I’m dead, you’re going to have to find a scientist who’s interested in doing what the Mrlssi scientists suggested. Maybe you’ll find someone on another mission… it will have to be a calculated risk.”

            “I don’t think they can do that,” Echo sat down on his bed heavily. “This is… I can’t believe they’re putting the blame on you. You’re not the one who compromised the mission! I was!”

            “That's not what this is about….” Rex grimaced. “But this does give me some hope that they don’t suspect you.”

             Echo was silent and seemed to be thinking.

            “You will keep this secret, then,” Rex said to the commandos.

            “Yes, sir,” they both replied.

            “Both you and Echo have impressed on us the importance and sensitivity of this information, Captain,” said one Rex suspected might be Twenty-Two. “We will do what we can to safeguard it, sir.”

            “Good,” Rex said, though the word felt completely meaningless. He turned back to Echo, mind anxiously casting about for an opening. “Maybe there’s someone else in the Five-Hundred-First I can give this comm to….” He looked down at his cuff. “I’ll have to think about it. I’ll let you know what I decide.”

            “Keep it for now,” Echo said, eyes narrowed at the floor. “There’s still at least one day left.”

            “I don’t think that’s going to make much of a difference, Echo,” Rex sighed. “But maybe you’re right… it’s an important decision. I’ll take some time to really think it over.”

            Echo just sighed. “I’m sorry I got you into this mess….”

            “Things happened the way they happened,” Rex protested, but his tone sounded hollow in his own ears. “Being killed in the line of duty has always been a possibility. It’s just that this time the enemy is someone we all trusted.”

            Echo stared at him, face set in cold anger. “They’re trying to do to you what they did to Fives,” he whispered. “Have you die in disgrace.”

            “It doesn’t matter to me what everyone thinks I was,” Rex said, although it wasn’t exactly true. Skywalker’s angry disappointment still rang in his head. But it was his own inability to accept Fives’ insanity that had led him to the truth, he reminded himself. “I know what I’m dying for. I just hope it makes a difference.”

            “I’ll find a way,” said Echo, and the determination in his quiet, hoarse voice filled Rex with gratitude and painful resignation.

            “I know.”

            Rex leaned over and checked the chrono on his comm. It was almost oh-four-hundred. He lay back down on the lower bunk in the quarters he’d been moved to, staring around the darkened squad room, cycling through the same questions over and over that wore him down like sandpaper. How could he stop this madness with only one day left to live?

            He hadn’t told any of his men about the decision to recondition him. What was there to say? His mind threatened to spiral down into regrets; he should have seen further ahead, he should have believed Fives sooner, should have been more careful on the Anaxes mission and not drawn attention to himself. Should have kept the general’s confidence and built on it. And then the memory, the sight and sound of Skywalker’s cold dissatisfaction was enough to make him feel sick with failure. As much as he’d tried to reassure Echo that neither of them were to blame, the truth was that he could have handled the situation better. Looking back, the effects of his own near-panic were disgustingly obvious to him.

            Rex couldn’t stand this any longer. Staying awake agonizing over this was not helping him formulate a plan—he needed to wake up fresh and start over. He left his room and headed down the quiet empty halls of the destroyer until he reached the quarters he knew the few members of the 501st on board were staying. The door opened quietly and he knelt next to Kix.

            “Kix.”

            Kix jumped and his eyes flew open, even though Rex had only whispered his name.

            “Captain?” he gasped, blinking as he sat up. “Is there an emergency?”

            Rex motioned for him to lower his voice. “No. I was wondering if you could give me something. I can’t get to sleep.”

            “Oh.” Kix ran a hand over his own face. “Right… let’s go to the supply room.”

            Rex followed him back down the hall and into a lift. Rex glanced at Kix and Kix looked back at him, smiling slightly, but with nothing but concern in his eyes. It didn't take them long to reach the field medical supply room. Kix input the security code and led him inside.

            “Is it… the dreams again, sir?” Kix asked once the door closed, not making any move to open the cabinets.

            Rex shook his head. “My mind just won’t turn off.”

            “Well… what are you thinking about?”

            “Nothing I couldn’t think about more clearly after a good night’s rest,” Rex replied.

            Kix frowned and glanced away to the cabinets, but didn't seem to really be looking at them. Rex wondered what he was thinking, but decided not to ask.

            “Well,” Rex said after another moment, “are you going to give me something or not?”

            “Yes, sir,” Kix said hesitantly. “I haven’t decided yet what would be most effective.”

            “I just need something to knock me out. Are there really that many options?”

            Kix sighed, drumming his fingers lightly on his arm. “Well, it depends on why you can’t sleep, sir. It’s my responsibility to determine if there is a larger, underlying health concern. Look… Captain, don’t take this the wrong way, but… I’ve noticed you’re not feeling your best lately.”

            “I had a hole blown through my chest and shoulder,” Rex said wryly. “Of course I’m not feeling my best.”

            “But before that,” Kix said with a nervous laugh that faded instantly. “You know, when we were talking with Jesse in Seventy-Nines… you admitted we’re susceptible to stress in combat. It’s not as uncommon as you might think. I’ve seen the signs before.”

            Rex’s heart sank. How could his inadequacy have been so apparent to everyone else, but invisible to him? Well, he’d known he was distracted, but he had never thought it was something that could diminish his decision-making abilities so disastrously, until the evidence was staring him in the face.

            “I don’t mean to assume anything,” Kix said after a minute of silence. “But… obviously, things were rough on your last mission.”

            “Sorry, Kix,” Rex sighed. “You’re right. Some things went wrong… and I keep thinking about how I could have prevented it. That’s all. I just need to get some sleep.”

            “Understood.” Kix looked slightly relieved. He opened one of the drawers filled with carefully separated vials, and selected one to load into a hypo. “This should help.”

            Rex let him discharge the hypo before he stepped back toward the door. “Thanks.” They headed out together in silence, Rex's mind suddenly racing. He realized this could be the last time they would see each other. “Keep up the good work, Kix…. It’s good to know you’re watching out for the rest of us.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            Kix was waiting for Rex to take leave before re-entering his quarters, but Rex merely stood there, fingering his modified comm. His life would now be composed of a series of lasts, and this was one he couldn't waste. Kix would be a good choice as a contact for Echo. The medic was good at keeping things confidential, keeping a cool headed exterior… most of the time. If anyone would give Echo a chance to explain what was happening before condemning him, it would be Kix.

            “Listen, Kix….”

            Kix merely stared at him, waiting patiently for whatever it was Rex was going to say.

            Rex detached his comm and put it in Kix's hand. “I need you to keep this.”

            “Captain…?” Kix looked down at it, then looked back up to him. “What…?”

            “I just need you to keep it on you. It's important. You'll know what it's for when the time comes.”

            “What—Captain, what's going on?” Kix looked sincerely worried now.

            “Sorry, I can't explain anything more right now. You have to trust me.”

            Kix's fingers closed around it. “Yes, sir. You can count on me.”

            Rex felt a rush of gratitude for the 501st. They really were the best men he could have ever hoped for. He wished he could express just what it meant to him to have served with them these past years, but there was no time. What could he possibly say? He probably wouldn't even see the rest of Torrent Company before he left for Kamino.

            He sighed slowly and turned away from the door to his men's quarters. “Goodnight,” he said.

            “Sleep well, Captain,” Kix replied.

            Rex left him and after a short walk, settled back into bed, feeling a suffocating loneliness. He closed his eyes, and he was on Umbara.

            The red glow of the trees washed the haze in front of him and made it hard to distinguish the colors of those he was marching with, all of them hunting the corrupt Jedi general. But he knew them even so: Cody, Bly, Wolffe, Havoc, Doom, Blitz, Colt. His own men: Kix, Jesse, Singer, Appo, and all the others…even Fives and Echo.

            As one they moved over the dark terrain, like Diode squad. They were one mind, unthinking; Rex felt his body moving as one piece of the group. It was a feeling he’d rejoiced in before, during battles where everything seemed to fall perfectly into place. They were going to get this general. Nothing could stop them.

            Up ahead, figures materialized in the mist, marching ahead of them. They rushed forward and saw them change from the towering image of Krell to other forms. The familiar silhouette of General Skywalker loomed directly in front of Rex and, as if running down a cliff side, unable to change momentum, his arms moved of their own will, his finger pulled the trigger.

            All around him, the same thing happened. A blinding flash of blaster fire hit the line of generals like a wave of light, and they all fell, smoking, with their faces somehow turned to show the pain and betrayal that twisted them. Skywalker gave a strangled yell, and although it was barely a word, Rex understood that the general was choking out his name.

            “Finish him,” said a voice that could have been his own. It didn’t matter. They swarmed around their general and lit up the Umbaran night with their blasters, until Skywalker wasn’t moving anymore.

            The brightness and smoke cleared, and Skywalker was nearly unrecognizable. His head had been cradled between his arms, but one of the other men shoved it away with his boot and beneath the seared and scoured flesh of his face Rex saw one of his eyes, lidless and raw, staring lifelessly up at him, blood trickling down across the bridge of his nose.

            Rex pulled his gaze away; death was everywhere he looked. General Mundi’s corpse stared up at the sky, frozen in a look of utter shock. General Kenobi was lying on his stomach, and as Rex watched, the general’s hand twitched, fingers scrabbling forward in the dirt and he lifted his head, gasping, trying to speak.

            He saw his own arm rise in tandem with Cody’s. One-two-three, the shots pierced Kenobi’s head; one from him, two from Cody. Kenobi’s face dropped back onto the ground.

            “No!” a shrill, familiar voice. “Master!

            He recognized the rhythm of her footsteps before he even saw her. Commander Tano skidded down the dusty hill and fell to her knees, half crawling in her scramble to reach Skywalker.

            “Master? Anakin?” She reached for her master’s face, stopped short and bristled as she finally saw it clearly. “No….” She recoiled, rising onto her feet and taking one shaky step backward. Suddenly, as Rex aimed his pistol, she whirled, the horror and fear on her face more extreme than he had ever seen it. There were tears in her eyes.

            “Rex!” she gasped, as if he’d punched her, and the pain turned to rage. “What did you do?” she snarled, and the tears rolled down her cheeks as she reached for her lightsabers.

            Rex ran backward, inwardly frantic, a panicking animal struggling to burst from inside him. His fingers contracted. No! Stop! Two bursts of light, and Ahsoka staggered, a gulping noise escaping her throat as drops fell from her chin. Her face quivered, flickering between anger and blankness. One of her lightsabers switched off, fell from her hand and raised a cloud of dust to join the fog.

            As if independently horror-struck by the sight of her suffering, his fingers convulsed on the triggers; they blinded him with the light of blaster fire. But not for long enough. Soon he could see her again, on the ground, face still wet and frozen in despair.

            The building pain in Rex’s chest exploded and he opened his eyes, clutched wildly at the edge of his bunk, lungs heaving as he twisted and barely kept himself from rolling off the edge. His whole body was prickling with a chill, a feverish sweat building as his head spun and each exhale was a gasp. He took a deep breath and tried to hold it for three seconds. It took several attempts before he managed it. His head swam and he put his hands over his eyes. When he breathed out and in again, chest feeling as if it were collapsing each time, he tried to think about something, anything other than the image of his general being shot in the back, riddled steadily with smoking holes as Rex and his brothers surrounded him like a mindless swarm of insects. Commander Tano’s voice echoed in his head.

            He would never live to see this dream come true. He tried to latch on to that thought, but that was no comfort. He thought of Kix and the others, sleeping soundly but unsuspectingly carrying these same nightmares with them, waiting to act them out. No one would be immune from the order once it came down.

            There was no solution. Echo would fail. It was too much for any one man to fight.

            Slowly, his breathing steadied a little, but his heart kept beating, blood pulsing audibly in his ears. He ran a hand over his skull repeatedly, wishing he could dig his fingers in and pull out that tiny bit of technology, and the nightmares along with it. The grogginess in his head made him feel irrationally disoriented. The drug was working to try and counteract the adrenaline in his system, but he couldn’t possibly sleep now. Shaking, he got up and left the quarters, feeling desperately alone in the silence.

            It was still silent out in the hall. He wasn't even sure how long he had been asleep. Rex lingered by the doors, not sure where he wanted to go, unable to stop quivering. There must be something he could do. The thought pounded in his head, but no matter how he tried to focus, there was nothing that would work. Even the most drastic ideas—even assassinating the chancellor—were hopeless. It was too late.

Chapter Text

            “Meet me in briefing room A-thirteen, eleven hundred hours. I have a mission for you.”

            The call from General Skywalker had come while Rex was listlessly trying to finish his breakfast. There was no other explanation before the link on his new comm went dead. Now, back in his battered armor, Rex found General Skywalker waiting for him out in the hallway.

            “Right on time.” The general met him halfway, looking tired, but grimly pleased.

            “Sir,” Rex said, coming to attention once the distance was closed between them.

            “I’m sure you have some questions, Rex,” Skywalker said, and dropped his voice to an urgent whisper, “but the most important thing is to act like you’re completely ready for this mission. Your arm is fine, got it? It’s fine. Now, let’s get inside and we can start this briefing.”

            “Understood, sir,” Rex said, feeling disoriented. He did not understand at all.

            Inside the briefing room, an indigo Chagrian stood waiting, dressed in earthy red-brown robes. The Chagrian had no horns, only the two lethorns draped over the chest: female then. Rex wondered if she was a Jedi or not. Otherwise, the chamber was empty. Skywalker locked the door.

            “Rex, this is Agent Soltam, from Republic Intelligence. Agent Soltam, this is Captain Rex.”

            Rex’s mouth opened and closed as he wondered whether mentioning his demotion would be wise.

            “Former Captain,” Skywalker corrected himself in a more subdued tone. “Slated for reconditioning.”

            “Ah… yes, sir, that’s right,” Rex said quietly. It made him nervous, not knowing how much he could say, or even why silence was required.

            “A clone who will no longer exist,” said Agent Soltam. Her voice was much more pleasant than her fierce-looking appearance had led Rex to expect, and her accent was surprisingly smooth. “Yes, I know what the word means. Be thankful, clone; this is why you are perfect for this mission. Let me explain.”

            She turned to the hologram console and called up an image of a ship Rex had never seen before. It resembled a Praetor-class battlecruiser, doubled up and welded together, with a huge array on the back end.

            “This is yet another Separatist super-weapon.” Soltam almost looked amused. “They have constructed something known as a superlaser array. They have attempted to dramatically boost the destructive power of the more commonly known technology which has been used in ore mining and demolition for quite some time. Lucky for us, the construction of the weapon has encountered one problem after another. Even now, our inside intelligence assures us that its fearsome appearance disguises the instability of its construction. They are pushing it before its completion. Nevertheless, it does work, and when it does, it has enough firepower to obliterate a small moon in a single shot. It can never be allowed to engage in battle with our ships or enter Republic space. And we cannot risk approaching it in detectable vessels, as the Separatists are unaware we know of its existence, and that can't be compromised without a guarantee of the weapon's destruction.”

            Agent Soltam was still wearing a grim smile at the Separatists' increasing audaciousness, but Rex didn’t see what was so amusing about any of it. All he could think about was how much the war effort was still limping along because he hadn’t completed his mission fast enough.

            “We must destroy it now before it enters their active navy. Our best option for flying deep into Separatist space and taking it down is via a one-man vessel. The vessel will emit a Vulptereen trace and be unnotable as it passes through the region. Once in the vicinity of the super-weapon, the pilot—that's you, trooper—will eject in a small iridium-lined pod capable of remaining undetectable to the ship's systems. This pod will be set on a precise trajectory to pass close by their ship, and from then on, all live pod systems will be irreversibly terminated as you approach; you will appear as nothing more than random debris. You will abandon the pod once nearest to the ship and transfer to its hull. From there, you will access an external maintenance hatch on the side of the array and plant a modified form of their own virus. They've taught us a great deal about such technology in their efforts to destroy our fleet, and this will take full advantage of their array's flaws. In fact, you can thank ARC-Zero-Four-Zero-Eight for this little piece of software. Before him and his squad joined you, they were working for us.”

            Rex stared at Soltam, then at Skywalker. Both wore carefully neutral expressions.

            “You seem to have a question, trooper,” said Soltam.

            “Yes, sir,” Rex said. “I don’t understand why this mission is being given to me specifically. You seem to be saying I’m particularly suited to it, but it seems too important for Intelligence to trust to just anyone, let alone a… clone… who has been deemed unfit for duty.”

            “This is a one-way mission,” said Soltam simply. “When conceiving of a plan to destroy this ship, the only problem we could not solve was the extraction. If we eliminate the need to extract our man, the mission is simple. A stealthy approach becomes relatively easy. In all aspects, the mission is more likely to succeed if there is no expectation of survival. This also eliminates the possibility of capture, as the result will be quite… explosive. We need someone with the experience of a veteran officer for this to succeed, but we can't afford to send anyone whose advanced skills are still required elsewhere.”

            “I see.” Rex put his hand on the console of the holoprojector. 

            “It’s an option, Rex,” Skywalker said quietly, his forehead creased. “It’s a chance to be remembered as a hero.”

            “If you do not accept,” Soltam said, “we will have no choice but to take another experienced officer away from the front lines.”

            “Understood,” Rex said. He turned to face Soltam more squarely, guilt and gratitude clashing inside him. “Given the choice between being reconditioned and dying in service to the Republic… there is no choice, sir. I accept the mission.”

            Soltam grinned. “Very good, Rex. You will have to be very precise in plotting the trajectory of the vessel we will provide you and in timing when to shut it down so that you are not detectable once in range of their sensors. The necessary calculations will be included in your mission file. The most dangerous part will be the transfer onto the ship’s hull, but you will be equipped with a jet pack, so you will be able to compensate if you overshoot your target. After that, it is a simple matter of placing the virus in the terminal we have specified in the file. You will not be in communication with anyone once you enter Separatist space. We will only know if you have succeeded when our informant reports Separatist awareness of the explosion.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            “General Skywalker assures me that you are able to focus on this mission, as there will not be any distractions.” Soltam held out a datapad for Rex to review. “True?”

            Rex nodded sharply. “I will follow your instructions to the letter, Agent Soltam.”

            “That is always so good to hear.” Again that amused look. “We have a rendezvous with the rest of the navy in sixteen hours, which is when we will pick up the vessel you will be piloting. Please bring up any questions you may have before then.”

            “I will, sir.”

            Agent Soltam left the room, and Rex looked down at the datapad, then back up at General Skywalker, who had made no move to leave the room yet.

            “General,” Rex began, unsure of what to say. “I… appreciate this.”

            “Well, it was the least I could do.” Skywalker folded his arms. “You can do this, right? Your shoulder’s healing?”

            “It won’t get in the way, sir.” Rex rolled his injured shoulder a little to disperse the perpetual aching stiffness.

            “Good. I’ll let you review that.” Skywalker indicated the datapad and turned to go.

            “Thank you, sir,” Rex said, and Skywalker paused, a cautious grimace on his face.

            “Don’t thank me yet.”

            From the observation deck, Rex had seen them arrive: the many smaller battle ships carrying the 212th Battalion. He had new armor—standard rookie, blank and white, but not exactly shiny; its previous owner must not have needed it anymore. Echo and Diode Squad had left sometime while he’d been asleep. Physically, Rex was ready to leave, and he would be leaving, soon. The one-man vessel was there in the hangar, tucked inside a slightly larger lightspeed-capable vessel he would take to the edge of Separatist space.

            Dwelling on these details was all his mind could do to make it seem real. Or perhaps that was what made it seem unreal. To a part of him, this was just like any other mission: if he was prepared, he had a better chance of success. But the rest of him, the slowly suffocating majority which felt the passing of each second as being one second less for him to live, understood that it was not. And down there, in the hangar, was the last thing that would give way to make it final, and real, and different from all the other missions he’d faced so far.

            Cody stood next to Obi-Wan, a tiny white and goldenrod figure, talking and gesturing easily as the rest of his men disembarked with their wounded. Rex pulled his eyes away and turned to make the walk down, each step taking him forward faster than he expected down a hallway which seemed endless… into the lift that pulled his heart into his throat in a way it never had before, and didn’t let it back down even after he stepped out.

            His body moved on its own, and he was a passenger, letting it carry him forward before this small window of time, this one crucial moment, was wasted.

            “—managed to patch up a good number of them on the way. Tucker does good work, General, but it’s a good thing we—” Cody cut off and turned his head, and Rex stopped, wondering distantly what sort of expression he had on his face right now. He tried to keep it neutral, but he couldn’t know for sure.

            “Captain Rex,” Kenobi said. “Something to report?”

            “No, sir. I was interested in how the assaults are going.”

            “As well as can be expected,” said the general.

            Rex nodded and walked away just enough to indicate that there was no urgency to his presence, pretending that he was just watching the 212th disembarking as something to fill the time. He couldn’t shake the feeling that everything he was seeing was a carefully scripted act. His part of it certainly was.

            Cody glanced at him between the lines of his conversation with General Kenobi, and Rex made sure his face was neutral since he couldn’t manage a smile.

            At last, General Kenobi went off to find Skywalker, and Cody walked up to join him, the default formality of his expression opening into amazement and concern.

            “Rex! I heard you were out of commission for a while.” Cody’s voice had a nervous edge. “I didn’t expect you to be back on the front lines so soon. Did they destroy your armor? Where’s your pauldron?”

            “Oh… yeah. Yeah, I got shot in the chest… and the shoulder.”

            As he turned, and Cody followed him out of the hangar, Rex felt as if he were trespassing in someone else’s dream. Like a ghost, he was invisible and unfitting, just inhabiting the body that was speaking to Cody now.

            “Everything alright?” Cody asked.

            I’m still alive, right? Rex almost said. “Yeah.”

            “It’s a good thing you’re so hard to kill,” Cody laughed, and Rex’s skin prickled coldly. “Same shoulder as on Saleucami?”

            “Yeah,” Rex said, laying a hand over his mostly-healed wound. “I guess it is.” He wondered how many of his injuries Cody remembered so specifically, and was struck by how his brother was always watching out for him, even when they weren’t serving together.

            “I got a few scrapes on New Bornalex,” Cody said, “but it really wasn’t so bad fighting down there… once I showered all the mud off from when we re-took Ord Radama.”

            “You had to take Ord Radama all over again?” Rex followed Cody out of the hangar and then took the lead down the corridor toward his quarters. A spear of guilt wedged itself in his ribs.

            “Ahh, it was easy.” Cody made a gesture like brushing away a fly. “They didn’t have enough time to really build up the same numbers and infrastructure as before, so we wiped them out in a few hours. Where you headed?”

            “Quarters.” Rex glanced at Cody, hoping he wouldn’t question it. He decided not to give him the chance. “Get bitten by any Devlikks?”

            “Uh. No.” Cody raised an eyebrow at Rex. “Why would a Devlikk attack me? They don’t want the seppies on Ord Radama any more than we do.” 

            “Well, anything that lives on a swamp planet is just waiting for the right moment to eat you.” It was a relief to Rex when his voice sounded appropriately light, despite the way his throat felt taut. “At least, that’s what you assumed when we were cadets.”

            “What?” Cody laughed sheepishly. “Come on, Rex, you can’t bring that up now. That was years ago! Besides, even if that snake was harmless, I did get caught in quick sand, remember? And my suit was leaking so my boots were full of sludge and I couldn’t pull them out… was it really that far off to say that the swamp was trying to eat me?”

            “It was the way you said it.” Rex wished this were a normal day, a normal conversation. If he could just know this wasn’t their last day together, the pure relief might be enough to make him attempt a ridiculous, exaggerated impression of how Cody panicked back then. If nothing else, it would make Cody laugh, and he wanted to hear that.

            For a moment Rex was tempted to count out how many years, how many weeks and days they’d known each other. But he didn’t remember the exact date of their first meeting.

            “You remember when we first started training together?” he asked, buying time.

            “Course I remember.” Cody smirked. “But what part? The part where you accused me of being the Master Chief’s favorite?”

            “I never actually said that.”

            “Right.” Cody put on an overly thoughtful look. “What was it you said? Oh yeah. You just said—” his voice became stilted and overly formal, his arms stiff as planks at his sides. “‘I was told that you were one of the best. I guess that’s why you’re allowed to take so many risks.’”

            The impression of his former self was so accurate that Rex laughed weakly. “What you were doing was risky.”

            “You mean when I gave my suggestions on how to improve our training exercises?”

            “I’d never even considered giving suggestions to a commanding officer before,” Rex admitted. “But… it was also the fact that you came up with a plan to jump onto the back of a destroyer droid and ride it through an explosion so its ray shield would protect you—”

            “Hey,” Cody said with a crooked grin. “I was preparing you for General Skywalker. I just didn’t know it yet.”

            “Yeah.” Rex shook his head, brought back to the present with a sick jolt at the thought of his general. “Guess you were.”

            “I never put you into any unusual hardship with my independent thinking, did I?” Cody nudged him gently with his elbow. “Even back in the day when I was more of a hotshot.”

            “You act like we weren’t the same rank during training.” Rex was amazed at how easily he could teasingly scoff at Cody’s attitude while feeling so unreal.

            “Well, I watched out for you, right? You were just so quiet and formal all the time. But then… you watched out for me, too.” Cody’s smile softened. “Got me out of trouble when I got ahead of myself. Like that time I fell into that hole in the canyon. I still can’t believe you wouldn’t listen to me.”

            “You weren’t in any position to order me around. It was your idea to take a shortcut. I said I thought it was a bad idea.”

            “Right, so why risk failing the assignment? We were under a time limit, remember? And I ordered you to take the rest of the men straight on through and leave me behind. And I was pretty well hidden, so the enemy wouldn’t find me.”

            “We were a team,” Rex said stubbornly, struck by a vague, uneasy connection. “We were supposed to complete the mission together. As I remember, I got extra points for my idea to commandeer the speeders we used to get you out of there. Didn’t we finish even faster than we would have before?”

            “Well, yes, but… you didn’t know that would work. It was a much bigger risk than taking the base before sending someone back for me.”

            “It had to work, so I made it work,” Rex said, realizing all too well that such a motto couldn’t always be followed.

            Cody laughed under his breath and put a hand lightly on Rex’s uninjured shoulder, just for a moment. “That’s the first thing I really noticed about you, you know. Even back then, you were so… indomitable. Once you’ve made up your mind about what to do, you charge right in and nothing can stop you.” Cody made a sharp forward gesture with his arm, echoing the sign to advance into battle. “At first I thought you were so over eager to follow orders to the letter that you’d get yourself killed right away. But then… you proved again and again that you’re made of tougher stuff than I expected.” Cody’s smile had softened, his eyes staring up a bit as if seeing it all in his mind’s eye. “And you had some good ideas too, once you loosened up and actually started talking to people.”

            “Oh yeah?” Rex asked, desperate to keep the subject off how invincible he supposedly was—at least until they were out of the hallway. “Like what?”

            “Is this a contest?” Cody laughed. “Well, let me think…. There was that time you got suspicious of me while we were doing all-terrain survival training on Kesh. I was scouting in the tundra for food sources and got distracted by the lights from the geomagnetic storm. You thought I was purposely ignoring my comm link.”

            “No I didn’t.”

            “You said you did!” Cody insisted.

            “I only said that because I was angry,” Rex admitted. “I was thinking you’d gotten killed, or incapacitated just like Quickdraw, and then I see you sitting on a rock staring up at the sky like you didn’t have a care in the world. What else was I supposed to think? But then we figured out that the power cells in all our equipment had been fried by the storm.”

            “And you figured out that our communicators could still send a transmission using the energy from the storm, even without their power cells. That way we could update the Master Chief about our situation, let her know that Quickdraw was in critical condition.” Cody grinned, shaking his head. “I still don’t understand how you figured that out.”

            “I was just paying attention at the right time,” Rex sighed. The door to his quarters was ahead and he wondered how he could possibly say what needed to be said, and bring this review of their lives to an end.

            “That’s half of what being a good soldier is about,” Cody shrugged. “And to think I made fun of you for trying to use a dead comm. Turns out it wasn’t so dead after all. I think about that a lot, actually, in battles, when things aren’t going so well.” Cody’s voice turned thoughtful. “Sometimes if you just hold out a little longer, instead of rushing desperately to the next opening, the solution shows up on its own. Sometimes even saves a life.”

            “Hmm.” Rex paused before opening the door. “I didn’t realize you ever thought any differently.”

            “Oh yeah,” Cody said half-jokingly. “That’s why I always had to come up with so many ideas, see—back then, I didn’t always have the stubbornness or the strength to just hold out until I could win a straightforward victory.”

            “Yeah?” Rex couldn’t quite manage a smile at Cody as he shut the door behind them. “But sometimes holding out too long gets you killed, and it’s useful to have a backup plan, even if it is a crazy one. That’s a lesson I should have learned earlier.”

            For a half second, Cody’s eyes bored into his and Rex thought Cody knew what he meant—the things he’d learned on Umbara, and which had driven him now to this end. But then Cody laughed a little.

            “Come on, Rex. You’ve loosened up a lot since the day we met.” Cody lifted a hand as if to clap him on the back, but then dropped it, remembering his wounds. “I am curious where we would be if we hadn’t gotten to know each other so well in training….”

            “Probably dead,” Rex said, without thinking.

            “What?” Cody laughed again. “What makes you say that?”

            “Oh….” Rex glanced around, considering. “Well… you know. We’ve had our share of close calls.”

            “Yeah. We watch each other’s backs. And I guess your precision and stubbornness rubbed off on me a little,” Cody admitted. “That has saved my neck a few times.”

            “And if I’d stayed so rigid,” Rex said, “who knows what situations I would have just… stayed standing in, not realizing that sometimes it’s necessary to give suggestions or… strong objection to a commanding officer. Or break from the original plan.” Rex stopped himself there, cold.

            The temptation was strong to lead from this into telling Cody everything. But he knew it wasn’t safe for him to tell Cody about the conspiracy; there was no guarantee that Cody would believe any of it without seeing it for himself, and the thought of Cody looking at him with revulsion in his eyes was something he couldn't stand to imagine. He cast about desperately for something else to say.

            “And I… get along better with everyone now,” Rex added haltingly, “than I did as a cadet.”

            “That’s General Skywalker as well,” Cody acknowledged. “But… I do remember you started having a sense of humor just a little while before we graduated….”

            “What do you mean?” It wasn’t hard to put on what Cody would certainly take as an overly serious look.

            “Don’t you remember that night we were camping out, waiting to be picked up off… where was that again? Oh yeah, Rothana.”

            “Right.” Rex remembered. “We had just finished learning all the specs of the AT-TEs and other vehicles at the factory there… took a few for a test drive up the cliff, had some drills in the snow… and then we were told to take guard duty shifts outside the refinery.”

            “Telling stories to pass the time.” Cody sighed, smiling. “Mostly about narrow escapes when things went wrong during all-terrain training. Most of our stories weren’t that exciting… hypothermia, or getting stung by a poisonous insect… but then it came around to you and you said—”

            “I made up some ridiculous story about getting eaten by a sando aqua monster.”

            Cody laughed. “But you told it with this face, and this voice, like—like it was completely true, and—!”

            “And you were so convinced I would never joke about something like that, you got angry with 2701 when he said I was lying.” Rex smiled. He could picture it so well, their faces all lit by the glow of the heat lamp they were huddled around inside the tent—the wind whipping snow up against the flaps. Sudden warmth spread through his chest and threatened to rise into his face.

            “Right! But then, once I got him to shut up, I asked you how you got out, and you started to explain something about how you climbed back up its throat with a grappling hook… and you started laughing.”

            “I felt kind of bad, actually,” Rex admitted, rubbing the back of his neck. “You were so embarrassed.”

            “Well, you sure didn’t act like it,” Cody huffed mockingly. “You laughed even harder!”

            “I tried to stop once you ran outside,” Rex said, some part of him almost wanting to laugh again at the memory. “But then you came back in and dumped snow on my head.”

            “It worked.” Cody shrugged with a smirk.

            “Yeah, because my hair was soaked and my neck was freezing.”

            “You got me back later.” Cody waved a hand. “We’re even.”

            “You were suspicious of everything I said for a while after that,” Rex mused.

            “But you were smart enough not to try it again until I least suspected it.”

            Rex shook his head. “I was just… surprised you had so much faith in me. I didn’t want to take that too lightly.”

            “You never take anything too lightly.” Cody rolled his eyes, but he was smiling. “Except when we go out drinking sometimes.”

            “I think that has more to do with the company than the drinking,” Rex shrugged. He couldn’t take his eyes off Cody’s face, trying to watch for the perfect moment, the right opportunity to make his move, aware that he was stalling, desperate to stay in this moment where the simplicity of brotherhood encompassed everything. He took a deep breath to force himself to speak, stomach lurching—

            “Well, you like to have fun with the rookies, I guess,” Cody admitted. “When we were doing all those inspections, you were teasing the men at Pastil so much. And then you pulled that stunt with the droid head at the Rishi outpost—I can’t believe that worked. You must have been really bored.”

            “Ah… it was fun, actually,” Rex sighed, “doing those inspections. A nice break from the front lines, just you and me and a bunch of shinies. There was still plenty of excitement to go around.”

            “Yeah.” Cody lifted his arm, which was blinking. “Cody here.”

            Rex’s throat constricted again. He’d wasted too much time.

            “I need you up on the bridge right away.” It was General Kenobi’s voice.

            “On my way, sir,” said Cody, and switched off the channel. “Hey. We’ll catch up some more later, okay?”

            For a desperate moment Rex tried to force it out: I’m being sent on a suicide mission. But Cody had to go—the time had passed. He’d have to find a moment later or never at all.

            Cody paused by the door. “Okay?” he repeated.

            “Yeah,” Rex said, hoping there would be time… part of him guiltily hoping there wouldn’t be.

            Cody left the room and the door slid shut behind him. Rex closed his eyes and pictured himself back in that tent, or under the colored, waving lights of the storm on Kesh, remembered how he’d felt so startled by Cody’s defensiveness on his behalf, and all the times Cody had pulled him into conversations almost against his will. The way he had at first felt insulted at Cody’s advice or attempts to share blame for Rex’s rare mishaps on the training ground… then grateful as he recognized these as gestures of friendship.

            If he looked back on his life like one continual picture from his mind’s eye, spread out in segments, there was so little richness before his training with Cody had begun. He pictured his batchers, making jokes and rough-housing, himself sitting separate and aloof, or calling them out on their childishness. But the mutual respect he’d found with Cody was something that made room for happiness, even silliness at times. Or—something he couldn’t share fully even with General Skywalker—doubt, and grief. He remembered meeting up with Cody after their first missions, sharing numbers and guilt.

            Rex knew that once he was dead, he would have no sense of losing all of that history, that strength. He wouldn’t need it anymore. But Cody… he would have to go on living a lesser life than what had been stitched together between them. Rex sat down on the bed and exhaled harshly; he put his head in his hands. Thirteen years of life, and nearly half of those so much fuller than all the rest. Cody knew how to reach out to others, Rex told himself. He would be okay.

            For a while, he couldn’t move from that spot, immobilized by the realization of all that he was losing, overwhelmed by the knowledge that all of this would be meaningless if Echo didn’t succeed. He had failed everyone. I did what I could. I did this to save them, he reminded himself firmly, and silently repeated it, again and again, to keep despair at bay.

            Rex opened the door. It was dark inside. Cody was asleep—the only one in the small commander’s quarters. He didn’t stir when the door shut behind Rex, probably exhausted from all the fighting.

            The sudden silence and containment of the room compared to the subdued but constant bustle out in the halls struck Rex hard. He had come down to the last second. There could be no more delaying. The distant feeling he’d lived with for the past few hours threatened to fade as he knelt in front of Cody’s bed and studied his sleeping face. He set his old helmet gently on the floor.

            Cody’s brow was slightly furrowed as he lay on his back. Rex wondered how often he had the nightmares. Cody’s bare left hand lay loosely at his side, half curled, palm-down, and it twitched a little when Rex laid his own gloved hand on it.

            “Cody,” Rex tried to say, but his breath caught, so he had to try again. “Cody.” It came out loud, and Cody started at the sound of Rex clearing his throat.

            “What?” Cody’s eyes fixed on him in the dark. He sat up and scanned the room with a wary alertness, which turned to alarm when Rex put his hand again on Cody hand, where it rested on his knee. “What’s wrong?”

            “Sorry.” Rex withdrew his hand, eyes steady on him. “You’re probably tired, but… I’m leaving in a few minutes. I don’t have much time.”

            “Time for what?” Cody’s eyes flicked over Rex’s blank armor, as if noticing it again for the first time; his face went a little slack. “Where are you going?”

            “I’m being… well,” Rex swallowed and tried again. “My last mission… went all wrong. I wanted to tell you earlier. But….”

            Cody stared at him, eyes widening.

            “General Skywalker was ordered to send me for reconditioning.” Rex was amazed at the calm monotone of his own voice. The few moments he’d spent mentally rehearsing that line out in the hall might have helped.

            “No… Rex,” Cody breathed, turning his head slightly. “That… that can't be right…!”

            Rex exhaled slowly and shook his head a little, never taking his eyes off him.

            Anger and fear seized Cody’s face; he lunged to his feet. Rex stood up too and caught him by the wrist, irrationally afraid that Cody would leave before he could finish.

            “You? Reconditioned? Wh—but—that’s ridiculous!” Cody clenched his other fist. “You’re General Skywalker’s right hand! You’ve survived and won more battles than—than some commanders I know… how can they…how can General Skywalker stand for this?!”

            “Cody,” Rex said heavily. “That’s… not everything. He gave me a choice. I’ve been given one last mission. So I can die in service to the Republic.” He swallowed, watching Cody’s face earnestly for understanding—seeing it crash through. Cody gripped Rex's wrist convulsively with his other hand, just inside where the armor met his glove.

            “No,” Cody hissed, his face falling. “You? You’re the one going on this suicide mission?”

            “Yeah,” Rex nearly whispered, feeling again the cold certainty of death. “It was my choice. Reconditioning… it’s just how the Kaminoans talk about terminating us. It’s a death sentence, and maybe even if it wasn’t, I’d rather go out this way. As… as a soldier in the line of duty.”

            “I don’t understand,” Cody whispered, his voice tightening as his face constricted in pain. “I don’t understand how this could happen to you! You’re a captain! You—”

            “I endangered the mission,” Rex murmured, struggling to keep his eyes from slipping down in shame. “I couldn’t focus. I nearly failed the entire navy… you, everyone on the front lines. I’m not fit for duty anymore. This… this is my last chance to make up for that.”

            Cody exhaled a breath he must have been holding, and inhaled with a sharp hiss, shaking his head. His grip on Rex’s wrist was hard, his eyes glancing away fitfully.

            “I…” Cody swallowed. “I had no idea it was so bad….”

            Rex stood, helpless to defend himself, even for Cody’s sake.

            “It was all too much I guess, after a while,” Rex sighed. “I let it all get to me… I don’t know how it happened, just that… after Fives was killed….” His voice shook alarmingly and he stopped, tried again after a second in a flatter tone. “Everything reminds me of it… I wake up almost every night feeling sick from the nightmares… sometimes, I can’t even enjoy target practice because….” He trailed off, thinking of how Fives had held his pistol just before being shot by Fox—how he had killed his own brothers with them, on Umbara, and how always, in his dreams, they were there in his hands, shooting down the Jedi.

            “Why didn’t you tell me?” Cody asked desperately, his voice and face straining with shock. “I could have helped… I could have done something!

            “I’m sorry,” Rex said weakly. “I didn’t think it would go this far…I thought I could handle it… just… force myself to focus. It always worked before.”

            “I-I should have known!” Cody stammered, suddenly angry. “I should have noticed something was wrong! You weren’t sleeping—you were on leave, you told me you weren’t feeling right—you did tell me, and you… you went to talk to Kenobi, that was about this, wasn’t it? I can’t believe I didn’t realize—”

            “Cody,” Rex broke in, more sharply than he meant to. He couldn’t stand hearing Cody blaming himself. “There’s nothing you could have done! There’s… nothing you can do now, either. I’m no good to the army anymore. I just… I just wanted to say goodbye.”

            Cody recoiled, horror crumpling his face, but he didn’t let go. Rex’s hand was tingling from the pressure of Cody’s fingers on his wrist. He looked pale, deep lines forming between his eyebrows. The scar by his eye stood out, distorted slightly by his expression.

            “I can’t.” The words squeezed out of Cody’s throat, between clenched teeth. “I can’t just….”

            “We both knew this day would come, didn’t we?” Rex managed to keep his voice steady. “Every time one of us left for a battle. We knew this would happen someday.”

            Cody shook his head as if trying to chase away a bad dream. “Not like this.” It was barely audible.

            “We’re lucky,” Rex insisted, trying to convince himself that it was true. “How many of us get to choose our end? Especially for me to have this option after I’ve failed the Republic? How many of us get to say goodbye to our brothers? How many others would want this chance?”

            “Not like this,” Cody just repeated stiffly, shoulders slumped, as if begging the universe for a miracle.

            Rex knew what he meant. It was harder this way, to be shunted out of existence as something shameful, a broken weapon that had no value otherwise. It was harder to accept that it was a necessary part of war, or blame it on the seppies, or the clankers, or even just bad luck. He didn’t know if it was bad luck that he was losing his mind, or if it was a personal defect of his. Maybe there were just some things that would make anyone sick like this, even clones bred to handle the usual horrors of the battlefield.

            And it was one thing to face your helplessness to prevent death after it had already happened. It was another to hold a dying brother in your arms and watch the life leave him. It seemed like there had to be something you could do… but there was nothing, in fact. The one you were holding was as firmly out of your reach before he’d breathed his last as after. The only difference was that in those few seconds, you could still say goodbye.

            “Listen to me, Cody,” Rex said, around the lump in his throat. “You can handle this. You’re going to be fine.” He tried to force an optimistic note into his constricted voice. “This is where you belong….” He took a deep breath. “It’s… like General Kenobi told me. Your duty is to the living. The ones who can still fight. I have to do this… and you… have to let me go….”

            “No.” It slipped out of Cody like a breath he was trying to hold again. He lurched forward, and for a moment Rex’s hand was free, and then Cody’s arms were around his shoulders, crushing him in a painful hug. He could feel Cody’s hair brushing against his ear, could hear the shaky breathing. “No, no….”

            Slowly, Rex leaned forward a bit and returned the embrace, feeling Cody’s lungs expanding through the fabric of his own gloves and Cody’s under suit. As he absorbed the unusual sensation of another person’s living, unarmored body moving with breath, encompassed in his arms, his own breathing threatened to match Cody’s, and his eyes grew hot. This would be the last time he ever heard Cody’s voice—the last time they were in the same ship, even the same part of the galaxy, let alone this close together.  After the years they’d spent together, in training, in battles, the brief, little moments of happiness in between… those little moments were everything. Rex wished he could describe exactly what that meant.

            “Cody,” he said shakily, not even sure what would come out of his mouth next.

            “I know…” Cody said weakly between breaths. “I know… I have to accept this… but….”

            Rex swallowed and tried to focus on the good memories, the fact that he had been lucky enough to have a brother he had shared this much with, for this long. But it hurt. He didn’t want to let go, either.

            Slowly, though, he did.

            Cody took longer. He rocked back and stood stiffly on his own two feet again. Rex saw the defeated look on his face. He wanted to promise that he’d find a way to survive—but he couldn’t.

            “I have to go,” Rex said quietly.

            Cody swallowed visibly, jaw clenched and quivering.

            Rex didn’t know what to say—how to break it off. They stood staring at each other for several seconds before he remembered one last thing he’d meant to do. He went to where his old helmet was resting on the floor and picked it up to bring to Cody.

            “If… you want,” he offered. “I can’t bring it with me.”

            Cody took it without hesitation. His jaw moved as if he were trying to find the breath to say something. He didn’t though, just stared at the helmet for a few moments, before turning a haunted look back on Rex.

            “I guess this is it,” Rex finally said, and turned away.

            “Yeah,” Cody managed to whisper to his back. Rex opened the door, and when it shut behind him, his whole body went cold at once, weak from what it took to leave a brother behind.

Chapter Text

            “How does she look?” Obi-Wan asked, as Broadside emerged from the little ship.

            “Prime condition, sir.” Broadside rapped his knuckle twice on the hull. “Everything checks out with the one inside too. Should be a smooth ride.”

            “Good.” Obi-Wan glanced over to where Anakin, Agent Soltam, and Rex had just entered the hangar. “I’m sure Republic Intelligence already checked but….”

            “Right. No harm in a second opinion,” Broadside said seriously.

            Obi-Wan dismissed him with a brief nod and turned his full attention to the group approaching. Rex held a data-pad in hand but was otherwise unburdened; his equipment was already on board. He looked strange in the blank white armor—diminished.

            “Do you have concerns about this mission, General Kenobi?” Soltam asked coolly when they had all come close enough.

            “It’s always wise to double check,” Obi-Wan replied. “Is it time, then?”

            “It is time,” Agent Soltam agreed. “He is ready.”

            Rex, nothing but stoic attentiveness on his face, looked to Anakin, who had been equally silent during their approach.

            “I won’t disappoint you this time, sir,” Rex said quietly.

            The corner of Anakin’s mouth pulled back, not quite a smile, not a grimace. He looked at Rex, although Obi-Wan could tell it was difficult for him.

            “I’m counting on that.”

            For a moment neither of them moved or said anything more, until Rex drew himself up to full attention and gave a slow salute.

            “For the Five-Hundred-First… for the Jedi… and the Republic.” He looked at each of them in turn as he spoke, his voice soft and low. “I wish you good luck in future battles, General Kenobi, Agent Soltam… General Skywalker. May the war end swiftly… in victory for the Republic.” Rex’s hand curled into a loose fist at his side when he was finished.

            Anakin unclasped his hands from behind his back. His face was unnaturally empty of emotion. “I’m pretty confident it will.” Almost hesitantly, he held out a hand. “Goodbye, Rex.”

            Rex stared at it for moment. Then he clasped it firmly and looked up at Anakin, his composure wavering.

            “Goodbye, sir,” he said.

            Obi-Wan stepped forward as they let go. “Our lives are in your hands. May the Force be with you.”

            “Thank you, sir.” Rex met his eyes for only a moment before he turned away abruptly and made for the ship at a steady pace.

            As he disappeared up the ramp, Anakin’s face was… somber. Compared to the turmoil that was radiating from him, the expression was positively serene.

            The ship fired up its engines and smoothly disembarked through the ray-shielded exit. Soon it was a speck in the distance, then a streak as it jumped to lightspeed, then nothing.

            “I hope he makes the flight without incident,” said Agent Soltam. Obi-Wan glanced at her. She seemed genuinely concerned, for the mission if nothing else.

            “He will,” Anakin insisted, and heaved a tense sigh. “You heard him. He repeated the instructions and coordinates back to you exactly. He’ll get the job done.”

            “It’s nice to know you have such confidence in him,” Soltam said, smiling. “I’ll take your word for it. Excuse me, generals.” She bowed slightly and walked away. Anakin’s arms were folded so tightly that Obi-wan felt stiff just looking at him. He laid a hand on Anakin’s shoulder.

            “Anakin,” he said.

            “Not a lecture, Master,” Anakin said dully, shrugging him off. “I know—I’ve already accepted this decision.”

            “Actually, I was going to say that you’re handling the situation quite well, all things considered.” Obi-Wan kept his tone gentle. “This is not exactly a happy occasion.”

            Anakin’s frustrated look opened into a brief glimpse of grief; he stared at the floor and said nothing.

            “He was a good captain,” Obi-Wan murmured. “But you’ve done all you can for him. It’s out of your hands now.” He resisted the urge to remind Anakin that Rex’s sacrifice would save thousands of other lives, that returning to the Force was the fate of every creature and not to be feared—but those words would do more harm than good right now. Besides, he knew firsthand that the pain of loss was not something he was immune from. And Anakin knew all of that too.

            “I know what my duty is,” Anakin said quietly.

            The door opened behind them and Tarkin’s voice rang sharp across the floor.

            “Ah… General Kenobi. I’m pleased to find you in health.”

            “Admiral Tarkin.” Obi-Wan turned around, but the admiral’s eyes were on Anakin as he approached, hands behind his back. Anakin didn’t seem surprised to see him.

            “Admiral,” Anakin said, a dull edge still weighing on his voice. “I suppose you’re here to assist me in reorganizing the Five-Oh-First.”

            “Precisely.” Tarkin gave a thin almost-smile. “Considering that the war effort is still in some desperation, it is imperative that we bring your men to order immediately. Their new roles and command structure must be clear and effective. You and your troops are needed on the front lines. So… if you’ll gather them, I will speak to them straight away.”

            Obi-Wan expected Anakin to protest, to insist on speaking to them himself, to at least make some comment designed to remind Tarkin that his men were his men, and he would decide what to do with them.

            “Right,” Anakin said, and turned rigidly to go. “Follow me. I’ll call them together.”

            This was not good, Obi-Wan thought, before he caught himself, puzzled. Why not? Anakin was following orders without protest, and doing a good job at restraining himself in this stressful situation. But something felt different—had felt different since about the time Anakin had told Rex they were ready to send him off.

            It was probably just his own worries talking. It wouldn’t do to hover over Anakin and wait for him to make a mistake. Obi-Wan sighed deeply and brought his mind back to his own duties. It was time to take stock so he could prepare the 212th for the next assault.

            “Cody?” he called through the comm link. It was silent. “Cody, are you there?” he tried again.

            “Yes, General.”

            “Meet me in the command center on B deck. I’ll need an updated report on the casualties from our last engagement.”

            “Yes, sir.” The commander sounded tired, but that was no surprise. Obi-Wan was tired, too—he’d have to take some time out before the siege on Clak’dor VII, make sure they were all as near peak efficiency as possible.

            The moment he walked in to the command center, he knew they certainly weren’t at peak efficiency now. Cody stood waiting for him, staring through maps of Clak’dor VII with half-lidded eyes. But crossing the threshold into his presence was like stepping through an electrified doorway—the burning pain and sensation of weakness swept through Obi-Wan and prickled its way down his arms.

            It was enough to root him to the spot, and make him forget for a few seconds why he had come in the first place. Cody raised his head, blinked hard and came to attention, his eyes narrowed as if he had a headache.  “Sir. I have the casualty report you requested.”

            “Right. Good,” Obi-Wan said, a little faintly. He reached out and took it when Cody offered, peering worriedly at the commander’s impassive face. “Have we lost anyone since our arrival?” he guessed.

            Cody’s eyes slipped down for just a moment. “It’s all there in the report, sir,” he said quietly.

            Obi-Wan started scanning the list of personnel, trying to puzzle out what could have happened to put Cody in such agony. He was no stranger to the commander’s emotions. Cody was usually fairly honest about his thoughts and feelings on whatever situation they found themselves in, although orders always came first, of course. It was that combination of openness and commitment that made him so easy to work with. But even battles with high casualties had never produced this particular level and tone of pain before—the sort that could make soldiers double over.

            “Something has happened.” Obi-Wan pressed in a hushed tone, lowering the pad. “Something I should know about. What is it?”

            “It’s a personal concern, sir. It won’t affect our upcoming battles.” Cody winced. “Maybe for the Five-Oh-First, but… not our men.”

            It hit him, then. “It’s Captain Rex. I didn’t realize….” He stopped himself; there was nothing he could possibly say that would comfort Cody at all.

            He couldn’t offer understanding, or any apology for how he hadn’t thrown his influence toward saving Rex’s life. There was no third option for a clone whose judgment was degrading to this extent. Cody knew that the system would never allow for such exceptions, that it wouldn’t make sense to keep Rex in the army as he was. Saying so would only add insult to injury.

            I didn’t realize you loved him so much, Obi-Wan thought, but didn’t say. Of course Cody had never made a show of having a deep friendship with Rex, beyond the same sort of general camaraderie most clone brothers had for each other. Attachment of this depth was as unacceptable for a clone as for a Jedi. Yes, he had sometimes sensed happiness in Cody when the 501st and 212th were assigned to work together, when they rendezvoused with them or returned to Coruscant after a time away… but he had never put two and two together.

            For a moment, Obi-Wan wanted to offer his own fears as consolation. He knew something of what it was to watch a dear friend waver, to worry deeply over his state of mind. But the moment passed as he acknowledged how inappropriate—and unhelpful—that would be.

            “Don’t worry, General,” Cody half-whispered. “I won’t… let it get in the way…. He wouldn’t want that.”

            “Yes,” Obi-Wan agreed sadly, impressed at Cody’s composure. “But… I would like you to get some more rest. It should help. Please, be sure to take care of yourself, so we’ll both be at our best when we reach Clak’dor Seven.”

            Cody breathed out, the first audible sign of how he was feeling, and his face relaxed enough to give a dim reflection as well. “Yes, sir. Thank you.”

            “I need time to file our report on New Bornalex, anyway,” Obi-Wan added. “And review our reconnaissance.” He pushed on Cody’s shoulder gently. “Go.”

            Cody nodded and walked off, and Obi-Wan watched him go. He looked again at the casualty report; there were deaths, yes. Names and numbers he knew. Many deaths, nearly every battle. He often told himself that war merely accelerated the pace of what would always occur in the long run—that to try to circumvent an inevitability was to fight against existence itself—but he couldn’t shake the feeling that lately there was something darker than the natural cycles of the Force at work. His training told him not to struggle… to just let things unfold until they became clear. He took a deep breath and headed for his quarters.

            The 501st Battalion, newly arrived onto the Tenacity from Xagobah, stood in quiet ranks on the wide floor of the mostly-empty hangar, by all appearances a perfectly ordered entity. General Skywalker stood on a small temporary platform with Admiral Tarkin, facing the men, and Kix stared back up at them, surrounded on all sides.

            “I know you’re all probably expecting a further briefing on our next mission,” Skywalker called out.  “But that will have to wait. There are going to be some major changes to the Five-Oh-First. Admiral Tarkin has come to assist me with the reorganization.”

            Kix took a long, hard look at the both of them as the general stepped tensely aside to let the admiral speak. Reorganization that required assistance from Admiral Tarkin didn’t seem like any of the usual shuffling of their forces.

            Tarkin stepped forward with a nod to Skywalker and turned his sharp look on the men. “Up unto this moment, the Five-Hundred-First Battalion has been under the command of General Skywalker and your fellow clone captain, CT-Seventy-Five-Sixty-Seven. You know him as Captain Rex.” Tarkin paused for just a moment, long enough for Kix to feel unsettled. “You are probably all aware of the recent catastrophic defeats our navy has suffered, as a result of a computer virus which can disable both shields and weapon systems without warning. Your former captain was deployed on a special mission to deal with this problem. However… due to negligence and an unsound mind, he nearly brought further destruction on us all.”

            Kix silenced the shocked huff of air that burst against his teeth, as if he’d run into a wall, and he fought the urge to turn his head to look at Jesse, one row back.  Some of the others, even in front of him, broke focus to exchange startled glances. They should have more sense than that, Kix thought. Instinctively, he knew that drawing attention wasn’t a good idea right now.

            “We have seen fit to grant him one last chance to serve the Republic honorably,” Tarkin said severely, “But the mission is not one which he will survive.”

            Hands aching faintly from being clenched too tight, Kix worked hard to keep his face and mind blank. Rex is dead. An unsound mind; defective.

            “As a result, this battalion is in need of a new command structure. General Skywalker will remain assigned to you. CT-Eleven-Nineteen will be promoted to commander of the Five-Hundred-First, effective immediately.”

            Tarkin lifted his chin toward Appo, signaling him to step up onto the platform. The lieutenant—now commander—took his place between Skywalker and the admiral. He, at least, gave no indication of any feeling other than alert receptivity, but Kix scrutinized him anyway, wondering how in the Republic any of this made sense.

            As the razor-cheekboned admiral finished laying out a succession of other small promotions—Bow raised to captain, Index and Brick to sergeants—Kix watched his general too. Skywalker didn’t look pleased. Well, at least there was a part of this situation that felt reasonable.

           “From what I hear, the reputation of this battalion has always been one of absolute competence,” Tarkin said, carrying on in that excessively crisp inflection of his, each syllable precise despite a drawling undertone. “It may not be entirely shocking for a group of soldiers to become slipshod at the most crucial point in war, but that does not make such weakness tolerable. It certainly will not go unnoticed. Your general is not the only one counting on you to fulfill your purpose with skill and unwavering discipline. The Republic will suffer for any defect in the performance of this army. Is that clear?”

            “Yes, sir!” the ranks around Kix thundered, and he joined in, despite how the admiral’s tone produced an all-too-familiar twist of anger.

            “Dismissed,” said Tarkin. But the men stayed more or less in ranks until the admiral had gotten off the platform and was on his way out of the hangar, Skywalker striding close behind him. As soon as they were at a reasonable distance, Kix slipped through the crowd, looking for Singer.

            “The captain’s gone?” Someone caught Kix by the shoulder. It was Jesse, eyes wide with shock. “He hadn’t even fully recovered yet! Did you know anything about this?”

            “No!” Kix huffed. “Don’t you think I would have told you if I did?”

            “Not if Rex or the general told you not to,” Jesse argued. “But—” He jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. “They’re talking about him like he’s some kind of failure! He was nearly killed on that mission!”

            “Keep it down,” Kix urged, although everyone was murmuring to their neighbors now as they dispersed. He grabbed Jesse by the arm and hauled him through the crowd. “Ugh,” he sighed hard. “I should have seen this coming….”

            Jesse’s voice instantly hushed. “What do you mean?”

            “I’ll tell you later.”

            Kix thought of the last time he’d seen Rex: the cryptic message about the comm he’d passed to him, the inability to sleep. Rex had known the end was coming. But even before that, there was the unusually strong lethargy that had fallen on him while recovering from surgery, the increasing signs of fatigue Kix had noticed in the captain ever since Ringo Vinda, the fact that he’d barely been involved in any of their missions lately….

            “I don’t like this,” Jesse muttered, and Kix shared a glance with him, agreeing.

            Singer was surrounded by a small knot of troopers near the platform.

            “Hey. Lieutenant,” Kix called. Singer turned toward them with a deliberately composed look on his face.

            “Oh. Hello, Kix. Jesse.” His composure faltered slightly. “Sad news about the captain….”

            “Sad?” Jesse scoffed. “Confusing, is what I’d call it! Or did you forget he just got out of surgery a few days ago!”

            Singer frowned at Jesse’s tone. “Well, yes, but… he was obviously at least fit for the assignment, whatever it was….”

            Jesse scowled. “Since when does the Republic knowingly send officers on suicide missions, anyway?”

            “Singer, weren’t you next in line to command?” Kix stepped out in front of Jesse, nudging him backward a bit with his elbow. “Appo has only been a lieutenant for two months. I don’t understand how they’re passing over you like this. It doesn’t make any sense.”

            “Ah… well…” Singer lifted one shoulder with a sad smile. “I’m sure the general has his reasons. More than rank experience goes into choosing a leader.”

            “If this was even the general’s choice,” Kix sighed. “He didn’t look too happy about it.”

            “Well, think about it.” Singer raised both hands slightly, one holding his helmet. “He’s worked with Rex since the beginning of the war, right? Of course he’s not happy about this. None of us are. But I’m certain Appo will make a fine commander.”      

            “I wonder what went wrong,” one of Jesse's squadmates, Mark, said softly. “Must have been pretty bad.”

            “General Skywalker didn’t say too much to us,” Kix said hurriedly, uncomfortable with where the conversation was heading. “Just that Rex’s squad wasn’t supposed to be detected by the enemy, but they were, and that’s why he was injured.”

            “Yeah, we had to extract them from Anaxes,” Jesse put in. “It was pretty bad….”

            “But the mission was ultimately a success,” Kix added, shifting so he could watch Jesse’s face. “Our ships are working again!”

            “Eh… there’s probably something else they’re not saying,” suggested another clone—Rabbit.

            “Maybe. But it’s better not to think on it too much,” said Singer, crestfallen. “There’s nothing we can do now but focus on our next mission. Although… I would like to honor him somehow.” He looked down at his helmet, the face bisected unequally by a thick, curving river of blue.

            It was silent for a long moment. Silence was often the only response that made any sense with a loss like this… but then, they had never had a loss exactly like this. What could they say that would do any good? Kix thought bitterly. Even if they all felt something wasn’t right here.

            “I’ll ask Ice if he has any ideas,” Jesse finally sighed. “Something simple we can add to our armor.”

            “Yeah….” Singer nodded. “Something subtle, perhaps.” His eyes flicked toward the door Tarkin had used to exit the hangar, then swept the last few knots of troops nearby. Kix was sure he was looking for Appo, and wondered how many of the others caught Singer’s meaning.

            “Yeah. Like what? How subtle?” Jesse asked in a harsh whisper. “I wouldn’t mind even putting his name on my helmet.” He slapped the side of it. “He deserves to have his memory taken with us into every battle! I mean, after everything he led us through, there’s no way any of us can forget him. I’m sure the general and our new commander will understand that.”

            “Right,” Singer said, a little too quickly. “Of course. I only meant in the interests of… well….”

            “We’ll come up with something,” Kix said, putting a hand on Jesse’s shoulder. “I just wish we knew more about what inspired this decision.” So I can prevent it from happening to anyone else.

            “I don’t.” Singer sighed deeply. “I’m certain he would rather we remember him as the great leader he was. Not… whatever happened to him out there.”

            Kix gripped Jesse’s shoulder a little, holding himself back as well from a bone-deep objection to the idea that Rex could have done anything so bad as to warrant this. It was just as unthinkable that Rex had been sent to his death for no good reason. As much as Kix hated to admit it, their former captain had most likely fallen prey to exactly what he’d believed impossible.

            Still, he felt sick with anger. But he knew from experience, from countless battles where each death he theoretically could have prevented piled up on him like grains of sand on a scale… he’d just have to wait for that feeling to pass. It was part of being a soldier.

            “Everything alright, men?”

            They all turned to see Appo approaching. 

            “Yes, sir,” said Singer. “Congratulations on your promotion.”

            “Thank you, Lieutenant. I only wish it came under different circumstances. Rex was a fine captain.” Appo frowned at the floor for a moment. “I’ll do my best to lead as well as he did. Let me know if there’s anything in your platoon that needs my attention.”

            “I will, Commander,” Singer promised with a brief salute.

            “And you too, Kix,” Appo said. “I’m counting on you to make sure our men stay in top condition during the last legs of the war.”

            “I intend to, sir,” Kix said slowly. “Wherever possible, I will be making more frequent health checks among the men.”

            “That’s not a bad idea.” Appo nodded. “Alright then. I’d better get up to the command center. Get some rest.”

            “Yes sir,” echoed around the little group as Appo left.

            “I think we’re in good hands,” Singer murmured when he was out of earshot. He motioned with his hand, taking in Kix, Jesse, and Rabbit. “We all worked under him on that mission to Skako Minor.”

            “Yeah,” Jesse said with only a trace of reluctance. “It was a small team.”

            “If he knows how to make use of the chain of command, the number of men he’s leading won’t matter as much.” Singer’s tone was earnest. “It’s our job to make sure everyone holds together, as much as his. We must give him all the support we can.”

            “Right,” Rabbit sighed. “We can’t make things any more difficult for the general, either.”

            “The Republic is counting on us,” said Singer, as if half to himself. “The best thing we can do to honor Rex is to win this war. And to accomplish that, we must be united.”

            “Yeah,” said Jesse. “You’re right. But I’m still gonna talk to Ice.”

            “Let me know when you have a design,” said Singer.

            “We will,” Kix promised. “C’mon Jesse.”

            They all parted with wordless nods or gestures, and as they crossed the vastness of the now mostly-empty hangar, Kix was already making a mental list of everyone who had shown the slightest signs of being at risk for a breakdown, over the past year and more recently. There were more than he liked to admit, but he knew that many moments of rage or panic in the midst of battle were temporary. But some showed themselves more frequently. Hex and Noname had been injured together on the Ryloth mission—one head wound, two broken hands and a blaster shot through the hip—and were always off in corners together, barely speaking to anyone else even after recovery. Zip was up at odd hours—did he ever sleep? Kix decided to watch more closely—and always seemed slightly jittery. Spines and Quotes kept getting into fights with each other about “nothing”, and as for Avenger, well… in the beginning his goal of killing ten enemies for every dead brother in the battalion had seemed like harmless self-competition. But now, after nearly three years…. 

            “Hey.” Jesse’s hand on his arm made him jump.

            “What?” Kix snapped, and realized he’d been clenching his jaw—the beginnings of a headache ghosted through his skull.

            “What?” Jesse echoed. “What are you thinking?”

            Kix shook his head and took a moment to force a calmer posture. “Maybe you better keep an eye on me, Jesse,” he warned, hushed. “I’m on edge.”

            “Right,” Jesse said readily. “Sure, I got your back. It’s because of Rex, right?”

            “It’s… everything,” Kix sighed and ran a hand over his head. “I need to stop thinking about it. I’m gonna see if I can sleep.”

            “Okay.” Jesse looked at him worriedly. “Yeah. Maybe I will too, but I’m gonna take a shower first.”

            “Alright. See you later.”

            They parted by the lift, and as Kix walked the rest of the way alone, he continued the list in his head, with a note to watch for how Rex’s disgrace and death might affect the men. Rex was gone—thinking about how he might have saved him was no use. But knowing that didn’t make the gut-twisting anger go away.

            Several minutes later, armor removed and properly stowed, he lay down on a lower bunk, and closed his eyes. It was deathly quiet—only two other troopers were using the bunks, and they were far enough away that Kix couldn’t really hear them breathing. He waited for his body to relax, his mind to go blank. Usually, if he counted breaths long enough, that did the trick. At two hundred breaths, his stomach was in a worse knot than before. At five hundred and fifty, there was a slight pressure in his throat like someone was choking him very gradually. He caught himself replaying the last moments he’d seen Rex, his memory zeroed in on the exhausted resignation in his captain’s face. He started the counting over. One… two… three…four….

            He’d reached nearly a thousand when the door opened, and Kix lifted his head to see who it was.

            “Hey. You’re still awake?” said a hushed voice in the dark. Jesse came into view and looked down at Kix, armor-free and smelling of soap.

            “Yes.” Kix let his head fell back against the bed, exhaled harshly, and for a second, the knot in his stomach loosened a bit. “Maybe I need to take something.”

            Jesse shoved his armor crate into place and hauled himself up onto the upper bunk. “You think General Skywalker agrees with this decision?”

            “What?” Kix evaded.

            “You know what,” Jesse hissed a strained sigh. “Kix, come on. That’s what you’re angry about, right? Well, so am I! Rex has never once in his life been negligent. And like I said…they’re sending him on an actual suicide mission! Why didn’t he tell us? I understand if the mission was confidential but… we’re his team.”

            Kix swallowed against the fire in his throat, the urge to do something and let all of this come out.

            “Something’s just not right about this. Honestly,” Jesse continued, “I’m worried about General Skywalker. What if there’s someone just like….” Kix heard Jesse roll over and his face appeared over the edge—it was too dark to make out his expression well, though. “Someone just like Krell, but higher up… using the general like Krell used Rex? Forcing him to throw away his men?”

            “You’re being paranoid,” Kix said with a humorless, quiet laugh.

            “You think so?” Jesse paused a minute. “Maybe. It’s just the way Admiral Tarkin was talking… guess it reminded me of how Krell talked to us. Like we aren’t already out there every day following every order they give us. Like we can’t even look at a Jedi sideways if we don’t want to be called a traitor!”

            “Jesse,” Kix sighed. Jesse wasn’t drunk this time, which made his doubts all the more questionable. “The fact is,” he whispered, “the captain was slipping. I saw the signs… but I didn’t do anything. Not enough, anyway.” The knot in his stomach drifted painfully up toward his chest.

            “What signs?” Jesse breathed. “Did he say something to you?”

            “Yeah. The other night… he came to me asking for a sleep aid. I could tell something was bothering him but he wouldn’t talk about it. I’d been noticing things before that, though, and I don’t just mean since he’s been injured. It’s only been getting worse with time, ever since Ringo Vinda. He was tired… and I heard from some of the wounded after the Ryloth mission that something went wrong with Rex’s group in the canyon. He wasn’t in the right place at the right time… he attacked too soon. And then he was on leave, remember? He was in his service uniform when he met us at Seventy-Nines… and then he was talking about having nightmares.”

            “I don’t… really remember that night very well,” Jesse said sheepishly.

            “Right… guess you wouldn’t. Well, Rex got us to talking about what happened the night Fives was killed.” Kix fought to keep his voice from rising above a stage whisper. “And then somehow… we ended up talking about Umbara, and Rex said he’d been having nightmares about a mission where we have to kill the Jedi.”

            There was silence but for Jesse’s breathing. Then, Jesse shifted a bit. “Maybe I do remember that part….” He sounded troubled. “A little bit.”

            “I asked him what he thought it meant that we all have these dreams. He said maybe it was stress related after all, because of how often we lose our friends because of the orders we’re given.” Kix laid a hand on his stomach, trying to deepen his breaths. “Rex wouldn’t say something like that lightly. I think he was telling me something… I think… maybe watching Fives die was just too much. I mean, that’s why we couldn’t join the manhunt. It was just too much.”

            “Yeah,” Jesse breathed in a low growl. “I’d rather die than have to fight against my own brothers again….”

            “Rex really respected Fives,” Kix sighed. “After Umbara.”

            “Who didn’t respect Fives?”

            “I think something happened when Rex and the general found him. Maybe just seeing Fives going crazy like that, getting shot down… it was too much even for the captain. He hasn’t been alright since then. And this mission was just the last straw….”

            “What are you saying? You think he got injured because he was….” Jesse trailed off again uncomfortably.

            “Yeah. I think… he’s been losing his focus, his will to fight.” It felt wrong to say it out loud. “Because of what happened to Fives. Last time I saw Rex he said he couldn’t stop thinking about what he could have done differently on this mission.”

            “Well, it was an accident,” Jesse muttered. “That means it wasn’t his fault.”

            “I should have made him talk before I gave him anything.” Kix stared into a dark corner of the room, feeling so sick with frustration that he had to sit up. “I should have trusted my instincts.”

            “What are you doing?”

            Kix was on his feet and halfway to the door before Jesse had vaulted off the bunk and caught up with him.

            “Kix, where are you going?” Jesse stepped in front of him and grabbed his shoulder.

            “To get an antiemetic.” Kix swallowed, breathing through his mouth. “So I don’t throw up on you.”

            Jesse let go and took a step back, hands raised. “Okay. Okay, fine. But… it’s not your fault.”

            Jesse followed him out into the hall, both of them squinting against the brightness at first. Kix could see Jesse’s troubled look all too clearly as they took the trip to the medical supply room.

            “Look, the way I see it,” Jesse went on bitterly, raising his voice the moment the door closed, “If what you’re saying is true… either Rex could have gotten better but someone decided he wasn’t worth it… or he couldn’t, and he probably would have gotten killed in battle one of these days. Either way, there’s nothing you could have done!”

            Kix kicked one of the packs against the wall, hard. He gave a muffled cry at the pain in his foot, wanting to tear something apart with his bare hands but knowing that wouldn’t help anything.

            “No matter how many droids we kill, it doesn’t mean anything!” he snarled. “No matter how many battles one of us fights, no matter how many times we bleed out on the battlefield and risk everything, and lose someone, it all means nothing the moment we—!” He stopped himself, chest heaving, when he saw Jesse’s frightened eyes staring at him.

            “Kix….”

            “I’m cracking too.” Kix sat down heavily on the floor and fumbled with the straps of the med pack. He stopped and held himself still for a moment, disturbed by how such a simple movement was made difficult by the roiling revulsion that had taken hold of his body. “Ah…this isn’t good, Jesse,” he said faintly, putting a hand to his clammy forehead. “I can’t let this happen to me….”

            Jesse knelt in front of him and took the med pack, opened it, and set it on the floor facing Kix.

            “Which one do you need? This one?” Jesse pointed at the antiemetic, but Kix shook his head.

            “I think I’m… I just need some kind of sedative, maybe.” Kix tried to focus around the sickening rage. His hand hovered indecisively over the vials, and he noticed it trembling slightly just before Jesse covered it with both of his hands. For some reason, that made Kix’s throat hurt even worse. “It’s been a long time since I’ve done this, huh?” he managed after a couple of slow breaths.

            “What? You mean lost your temper?” Jesse looked at him with dismay. “I think that’s a little different….”

            “It kind of feels the same,” Kix said shakily, trying and failing to laugh normally. He put his other hand over Jesse’s. “Just this time…there’s no one around for me to hit.”

            Jesse didn’t say anything to that, just kept Kix’s hand pressed between both of his, and after a moment Kix realized which vial he wanted and pulled gently away. He reached for the hypo and jammed a medium-strength sedative into it. “You think General Skywalker will be calling any other meetings within the next five hours?”

            “How am I supposed to know?”

            “This is going to knock me out pretty hard. Maybe I should pick something else….” Kix closed his eyes, frustrated and a little terrified at how hard it was to think clearly.

            “Kix, hey… it’s gonna be alright,” Jesse said firmly. “Look, just take something light and if it doesn’t work, you can up the dosage, right?”

            “Right,” Kix breathed. “Right, that makes sense. Thanks, Jesse….”

            He reloaded the hypospray and gave himself the shot while Jesse looked on in concern.

            “Better?”

            “It’ll take a minute.” Kix focused on putting everything away neatly into the pack. “I need to get an idea of how many others in the Five-Oh-First are at risk for this. But I don’t even know why this is happening to me….”

            “You don’t think… it’s that parasite again, do you?” Jesse whispered.

            “No… we were immunized. It’s psychological, I’m sure of it. Once I get some sleep, I’ll try to figure out what induced it in myself… maybe then I’ll know how to pinpoint it in the other men, keep it from happening….”

            “Well…” Jesse stood and offered a hand to help Kix up. “Rex was just literally ordered to his death. The last time you were feeling anything like this was on Umbara. And what happened there?

            “We were being ordered to march into death trap after death trap,” Kix hissed, the surge of rage confirming Jesse’s words. He took Jesse’s hand and got to his feet. “But… it’s also when I was ordered not to go back for the wounded.”

            Jesse just looked at him sadly.

            Kix shook his head, feeling cornered. “Losing good men because of our orders… having to leave them behind. That’s not going to stop happening any time soon. Not until we win the war. But we might not win the war if this starts happening to all of us.” He took a step toward the door and stopped. “I hope it’s just me. Maybe it’s just me… we’ve had men in the Five-Oh-First before who were just… a little different. Tup was like that….”

            “Kix, don’t talk like that,” Jesse said uncomfortably.

            “But I have to work on the assumption that it can happen to anyone,” Kix went on, as if he hadn’t spoken. He headed out into the hall.

            “Kix,” Jesse said again. “Maybe you should talk to….”

            “To who?” Kix turned toward him, finger hovering over the door switch. “This is what got Rex killed. It’s called being defective. You think I’m going to tell them I have it too? General Skywalker might not like what’s going on, but he wasn’t able to stop it, either. I’m not saying anything to anyone. This is something we have to handle ourselves.”

            “Right….” Jesse’s face fell. “Of course… I won’t say a word. I’ll just… keep an eye on you.”

            “Yeah. Maybe if I can identify who else is at risk, I can assign some of the men to watch them too.” Kix could feel the anger uncoiling, the fuzzy calm coming over his mind. “That should at least keep them alive a little longer….”

            He opened the door and went inside, back into the darkness, and for a moment the awful feeling spiked again, then settled. He rolled into bed with a huge sigh and watched as Jesse climbed into the bunk above him again. Something swelled in his throat, a heat blooming in his eyes that made him feel like he was about to choke. But then it passed, and he could feel sleep coming for him.

            “You’re gonna be fine, Kix,” Jesse whispered in the darkness.

Chapter Text

            Obi-Wan sliced cleanly through the last few commando droids guarding the city hall’s inner office. With his free hand he paused a moment to wipe his forehead on his sleeve, glancing back down the stone-mosaic stairs to where blaster fire was lighting up the enormous obsidian eyes and intricately carved cheek-flaps of the statues that stood guard in the entrance hall. His hair was dripping with sweat and he was drenched under his clothes, which felt much too thick and heavy on him in the jungle heat. He’d hoped that the sealed cities of Clak’dor VII would mean a more pleasant temperature than the outdoor climate would provide, but then the city’s environmental systems had been compromised when his forces breached the outer defenses rather…forcefully.

            After a few seconds of rest, he shifted stance back to readiness and forced open the old-fashioned door, lightsaber raised above his head.

            “Senator F’ass?” Obi-Wan called in surprise, locking his eyes on the Bith who was standing behind the ornate desk. The whole room—the whole building, and the whole city, really—was beautiful, a fitting testament to the ancient and highly developed culture of the species who had created it. The arc of the walls into the ceiling, all powder blue melting into an emerald green toward the floor, sunlight from the ceiling gleaming on the clean lines and surfaces of the ivory-like furniture, plants climbing pillars and hanging in strategic spots to cast pleasing shadows from the artificial lights—it was all very peaceful. Woodwind music was playing gently somewhere. It sounded far away.

            “Obi-Wan Kenobi?” The Bith could not blink or widen his eyes, lidless as they were, but his mild voice gave the impression that he was pleased. “I wish we didn’t have to meet like this… but I am glad you are the Jedi I offer our surrender to.”

           “I take it you weren’t in favor of joining the Separatists, then.” Obi-Wan glanced around the room cautiously, but he didn’t sense a trap. He shut the door, turned off his lightsaber, and came forward to greet the former Senator. “What exactly is your sphere of influence among your people?”

            “Anyone who might oppose me has gone into hiding by now. Once you remove the droid armies and establish a presence here, those who would stand with the Confederacy will be delegitimized. If there is another of our kind that the Republic would prefer to appoint as leader of this planet, I would rather step down, but… I will take up the burden of leadership if necessary.”

          “Then it is a total surrender,” Obi-Wan sighed with relief. “You support the Republic? You and your people?”

            “We would rather remain neutral, of course,” F’ass said. “But as we have seen, that does not appear to be an option at this point. We welcome Republic protection, but we have little to offer in the way of military help.”

            “I’ll let my men know. Is there anything you can do to stop the droid armies? We would like to minimize any further damage to your cities.”

            “I’m afraid not,” said F’ass sadly. “Our cities weren’t built with military strategy in mind. We were guarding against the environmental effects of our own civil war, not expecting war to come to us from outside. The armies are being led by tactical droids and a few alien generals.”

            “Alright. I’ll dispatch some men to guard these offices, and update you on our progress. Sorry about the environmental controls.” Obi-Wan grimaced.

            “I trust you will try your hardest to make the best of this terrible situation, Master Kenobi,” said F’ass. “Whatever you can do, you will do.”

            “Yes, I will,” Obi-Wan promised. “Stay here until my men have secured the building.”

            He ran back the way he had come, and shut the door behind him.

            “Cody,” he said into his comm, pausing at the top of the stairs. “Come in, Cody.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            “The Separatist leaders are in hiding, but we have the support of the only leader still left in the capitol. He can’t do anything to stop the droids, but once we’ve destroyed them, the people should follow his lead.”

            “Copy that.”

            “I’ll meet you where we split off, by the university. We’ll plan our strategy from there.”

            “I’ll be there, sir.”

             Obi-Wan switched channels to inform Anakin of his progress, repeating what he’d just told Cody as he rejoined the fray to cover a cornered squad.

            “So now all we have to do is find these generals,” Anakin replied when he’d finished yelling over the blaster fire. “Alright, I’ll meet you there as soon as I can break away. The droids are pretty thick over here!”

            “See you then.” Obi-Wan grunted as he lopped off the head of another droid. The squad behind him was able to wipe out the rest in the hall with a smattering of blaster fire. He shut off the comm and turned back toward his men. “Lieutenant, secure the building. We have an ally in the central office; make sure to position your men so that no one can harm Senator F’ass!”

            “You can count on us, sir!” said Lieutenant Meer.

             When Obi-Wan emerged into the street, things had quieted down considerably. He kept alert, but there was only a distant sound of battle drifting to him on the pungent air, and the main thoroughfare seemed to be empty. Despite the heat, he jogged in long strides toward the fountain where he and Cody had parted ways. He caught sight of the commander slipping carefully around a corner, hugging the walls, his men following one by one. His posture said he was still on high alert, and as Obi-Wan watched, Cody’s whole body jerked to a halt and he shot three times through the windows of a building across the street; shattered glass almost masked the sound of a Bith voice screaming.

            “Wait!” Obi-Wan cried as Cody rushed forward. “Don’t shoot!” With a little help from the Force, he leapt forward and landed right in Cody’s path, lightsaber held in a defensive stance. Cody stopped dead. “The Bith are our allies now, we have their leader’s official surrender!”

            “Yes sir,” Cody panted. “S…sorry, General. I don’t know if it was droids or Bith, but someone was shooting at us out of the windows back there. Six of us went down before we could blink.”

            “I see.” Obi-Wan focused on the Force to try and sense if they were in any further danger. “Did any of them survive?”

            “Push made it, but he’s in bad shape.” Cody still sounded breathless.

            “Do you still have your medic?”

            “Tucker went with Shiver’s squad,” Cody said. “But Early’s still here.”

           “I want him to see if that Bith is still alive, and help him if he can.”

           “Yes sir.” Cody motioned the younger medic forward. “Wooley, Viper, cover him.”

            “Yes, sir!”

            “How are your men dealing with the heat?” Obi-Wan asked.

            “Just fine, sir,” Cody said, with unconvincing enthusiasm.

            “Once Skywalker arrives, our primary objective will be to capture or kill the enemy generals who are in hiding. There’s likely to be an even greater concentration of droids where they are.”

            “Yes, General,” Cody’s head jerked compulsively toward some thumps and rustles coming from the building his three men had just gone into, but he snapped attention back to Obi-Wan right away.

            Obi-Wan frowned, beginning to feel a bit worried. Cody was not in ideal condition for what lay ahead. Perhaps he would have to rely on one of the lower officers to help with this operation.

            “Anakin, where are you?” he sighed loudly over the comm link.

            “Sorry, Master. I was busy following my instincts. They led me right into the Separatists’ hideaway. Three killed, one captured.” Anakin’s voice was smug. “Still want me to rendezvous in the town square or should I send you my coordinates?”

            Obi-Wan’s heart sank. Yet again, Anakin went for the easier, more violent solution.

            “Your timing is perfect, as always,” he said wearily. “I’ll come to you. Just try not to kill anyone else if you don’t have to.”

            “Actually, there’s another small hideout closer to where you are, according to this helpful Seperatist we just captured. I’ll send you the coordinates. I think me and my men are done here.”

            Obi-Wan sighed heavily and confirmed receipt of the coordinates before turning to Cody. “Change of plans. I want you to help the wounded get back to the ship. Stay there and wait for further orders.”

            “Sir?” Cody gripped his rifle close to his chest. “What about capturing the generals?”

            “We don’t know what they may try to do when they realize we have them cornered.” Obi-Wan paused and realized guiltily that he didn’t need to make up a good reason for what he wanted Cody to do. “I’ve given you your orders, now I want you out of here as soon as Early is finished with that Bith.”

            “Yes, sir!”

            Cody hurried to check on Early’s progress, and Obi-Wan ran off to find one of his captains.

            Hours later, Obi-Wan strode through the corridors of the ship, cleaned up, blessedly cooled down, but still troubled. Seeing the iconic capitol of Clak’dor VII broken and ghost-town-like was part of it, as was his continual worry over Anakin. But what he saw in Cody was what bothered him the most.

           Some of the men were sleeping now, but luckily, some were also eating. He stood by the exit of the mess hall, watching the troops come and go in groups of two or three, sometimes whole squads of five sticking close together. Some of them stopped and gave him surprised looks before he waved them along with a smile. Silently, he tried to observe and gauge their connection to one another. The variation startled him. 

             Finally, a group walked out that was perfect for his purposes. All four of them had been part of Cody’s company on Clak’Dor VII.

            “Excuse me,” Obi-Wan said, clearing his throat loudly as he approached.

            The curly-haired clone in front stopped first and came to attention.

            “General Kenobi!”

            “At ease, Wooley,” Obi-Wan said. “I’d like to have a little chat with the four of you.” He glanced over the other three, naming them in his head: Boil, with his dramatic frowning mustache; Star, with the subtle constellation tattoo across his head (some of the tiny stars even showing up across his nose like freckles); and Ghost, who was only identifiable from any other generic clone by four successively smaller dots descending his jawline from each ear.

            “Right now, sir?” Wooley glanced at the others. Star’s brow furrowed.

            “Yes. Unless you have pressing duties to attend to.”

            “No sir.”

            “Good. Follow me.”

            Obi-Wan led them to the nearest briefing room, one deck up. He could tell they were all a bit nervous as he turned to face them.

            “It’s come to my attention that the war may be taking a toll on some of the men.” He paused, trying to sense their reactions. Ghost’s discomfort came through most clearly, so Obi-Wan turned his eyes on him. “That this might affect key members of the battalion is particularly troubling. I need to know if any of you have observed unusual behavior in the men recently… especially your commander.”

            Ghost’s gaze lifted back up to him “What do you mean by unusual behavior, sir?” he asked quietly.

            “Anything. Distraction, disturbed sleep patterns… perhaps being quieter or more talkative than before. Any evidence of unusual stress during the most recent battle or at any other time.”

            Everyone was silent, not looking at each other.

            “I sense that you all have something to say,” Obi-Wan said gently. “You may as well share it. It could save someone’s life.”

            “Sorry, sir,” Wooley said uncomfortably. “We all have the utmost respect for Commander Cody… it’s difficult.”

            “Difficult to do what, exactly?”

            “To admit that he’s human,” Boil muttered, barely audible from behind Wooley and Star.

            “Well,” Star interrupted a bit too loudly, “I think we’re all just caught off guard, sir. You must have concerns about the commander if you’re questioning us about him.”

            “I do have concerns,” Obi-Wan agreed. “I’m concerned for his well-being. Now, tell me what you know.”

            Ghost sighed. “Truth is, General, lots of us have been wondering what happened. Tucker even called him in for a health check because he noticed something wasn’t right. But all he said is the commander’s tired.”

            “Then I realized,” Star joined in, “that he started acting funny right after we rendezvoused with the Five-Oh-First.”

            “Acting funny how?” Obi-Wan pressed.

            Here they all stalled again, the three in front exchanging nervous glances. Boil was quiet and still, meeting Obi-Wan’s eyes as if trying to stare him down.

            “Nothing serious, sir,” Wooley finally said. “It’s like you said. Just seems like there’s something on his mind, and he doesn’t feel like talking to anyone.”

            “Well,” Ghost grimaced. “Usually he’s pretty sharp when he’s on point. But today, his reactions were slower. Sometimes, anyway. Other times, seems like he had an itchy trigger finger.”

            “All of us were having a hard time focusing in the heat,” Wooley said defensively. “Commander Cody led us well. He always does, sir. There’s nothing to worry about on that front.”

            “Wooley.” Obi-Wan smiled sadly. “You seem to be under the impression that I’m trying to find fault with Cody.”

            “Oh… no, General,” Wooley said haltingly. “I’m just….”

            “With all due respect, General, I think I know why,” Star interrupted. “Like I said, after what happened with the Five-Oh-First recently… none of us want to think that the same thing could happen to our commander. He might not have been in top form today, but that doesn’t mean anything. He’ll be back to normal soon, I’m sure.”

            “What exactly have you heard about the Five-Oh-First?” Obi-Wan looked at Star curiously.

            “I know some of the men from that Battalion pretty well, sir,” said Star in a rush. “A couple guys told me their captain got sent away on an important mission, but he came close to ruining something important, so they replaced him. Sent him off with a one-way ticket somewhere so he could die with honor. Seems like they’re all pretty shocked about it.”

            Obi-Wan sighed, stifled with guilt he didn’t want to examine. “I see now why you’re reluctant to talk. But understand… I don’t want that to happen to our commander any more than you do. I’d rather prevent it if I can. In order to do that, I’m afraid I need to understand just how unusual Cody’s behavior is.”

            “I’m not sure what you mean, General,” said Star. “I thought we already established that it’s pretty unusual for him to be acting this way. He’s usually more focused. And more friendly with the rest of us. I agree with Tucker—he’s probably just worn out. It’s been a long haul.”

            Obi-Wan wondered how much he could say without feeling like he was violating some private part of Cody’s life. He realized how little he knew about what went on in the ranks… just as he’d been clued in while watching those groups of troopers leave the mess hall. What if Cody’s attachment wasn’t unusual? How many men had been this devastated by the loss of a friend on the battlefield, and he simply hadn’t thought to notice, because clones weren’t supposed to be hit hard by the death all around them?

            “What I need to know,” Obi-Wan said at last, “is whether it’s unusual for the circumstances as well. Have you ever seen any of your other comrades have a behavior shift like this? What caused it, and how long did it last?”

            Again: silence. Obi-Wan had the distinct feeling he was treading new ground here, asking questions about things which simply weren’t talked about. Or at least, not talked about with Jedi.

            “Perhaps after the death of a friend?” he prompted.

            “Yes, sir,” said Wooley reluctantly. “Lots of us, after every battle. But it passes.”

            “For most of us,” Star said. Boil and Ghost shifted their weight away from the other two with an affected casualness.

            “And for the rest?”

            “It depends, sir,” said Wooley.

            “On what?” Obi-Wan said patiently. This was like pulling teeth, but he was beginning to understand why.

            “Well, if they survive much longer. If they do….”

            “They’re usually not the same as before,” Star finished for him.

            Obi-Wan frowned into his hand. “The altered behavior becomes permanent?”

            “I guess you could say that, sir,” Star shrugged. “If they make it that long, that means their focus during battle is still good. But they don’t act the same around the rest of us.”

            “I see.” Obi-Wan considered for a moment. “Wooley, Star… thank you. That will be all. You two are dismissed. If you notice any new developments among the men, please let me know.”

            “Yes, sir,” they both said, outwardly willing, inwardly reluctant as they left.

            The door shut behind them and Obi-Wan turned toward the other two.

            “It seems to me,” he began, “that the two of you have thoughts which might contradict what Wooley and Star were saying.”

            “No, sir,” said Ghost in a grim undertone. “They just about summed it up. Some missions just stick with you, but it’s still do or die out there on the front lines. As for me… I don’t plan on dying without a good reason. A meaningless death is the worst fate for any soldier.”

             “Was it a meaningless death that made you familiar with these… symptoms?” Obi-Wan folded his arms.

            “Not for me, sir,” Ghost said with hollow conviction. “I saw it in one of my squad mates. We both had friends in the Five-Oh-First too, before Umbara. A lot of them died under his command, but when Krell sent us kill each other… he never could get past that. Got shot down right in front of me on the next mission before he fired on a single clanker. He just didn’t have any fight left.”

            Obi-Wan noticed how Ghost avoided even naming this squad mate.

            “I just hope the commander doesn’t end up that way,” Ghost grumbled. “Because if he does, General… I don’t know that even a Jedi like you can fix him.”

            “Hmm.” Obi-Wan turned toward Boil. “You’ve been awfully quiet, Boil. I know you have something important to add to this.”

            “Oh, nothing you would find useful, sir,” Boil muttered.

            “I beg to differ,” Obi-Wan said sternly.

            “Sir, permission to leave the room?” Ghost said suddenly.

            “Yes, go on. Thank you for your help.”

            “Thank you, sir.” Ghost opened the door and left in a hurried march. Perhaps he could feel some of Boil’s resentment as well.

            “Sorry, General,” Boil said darkly, when Ghost was gone. “I know you can probably tell exactly what I’m thinking right now.”

            “Not really,” Obi-Wan said, relieved that they were finally getting somewhere. “I can only guess at why you’re feeling this way. It seems that the more I try to understand this, the angrier you become. That’s a bit of a paradox.”

            Boil said nothing, eyes half-shut, and Obi-Wan wondered what would provoke a more informative response.

            “I want you to speak freely,” Obi-Wan said. “I’m not interested in condemning my men for speaking the truth. I only want to understand how serious Cody’s condition is.”

            “Of course, sir. We wouldn’t want to lose efficiency in the Battalion right now. These battles are too important, right?”

            “Right….” Obi-Wan frowned. He had a feeling he’d just walked into a trap.

            “You’re a Jedi, sir. You can sense our emotions. You should already know what’s normal for your commander.”

            “I know this is the first time he’s been this distressed. And I know you are angry with me, although I don’t know exactly why. Perhaps you’d care to explain.”

            “I don’t think that’s a good idea, General.”

            “I do,” Obi-Wan said. “I’d rather not make this into an interrogation. I’m trying to help you and the rest of the men.”

            “You don’t need to worry about me, sir.” Still that resentful tone. “I’ve done my job, haven’t I? No matter what, I do my job. We all do. What are you going to do with the commander if he can’t do his job?”

            “I’m not sure yet. Perhaps you could give me recommendations.”

            “You’re the Jedi, sir. We’re three years into this war. Surely by now you know how things work in the army.” Boil stared at the wall just to the right of Obi-Wan, grunted a bitter laugh. “I guess it’s not treason to say that we’re made to die at your command. It’s the truth. You can do what you want with Commander Cody, as long as he’s capable of following your orders. That’s what he’s there for. That’s what we’re all made for, right?” Boil’s voice rose and his face began to break from its stony expression into an injured snarl. “So, Ghost’s friend didn’t die a meaningless death. Waxer didn’t die a meaningless death! They died because it was their duty!

            Obi-Wan struggled to keep a calm expression—not because he was angry, but because Boil’s outburst filled him with a sluggish dread and terrible sadness.

            “Is that right, General?” Boil quieted down with some effort. “Isn’t that the entire point of us? What good is a clone who can’t fight?”

            “You’re recommending I… remove Cody from the army?” Obi-Wan asked faintly.

           Boil laughed humorlessly—it was more like he was spitting out breaths, like the air in the room disgusted him. “If he can’t fight… what else is there? His life is over whether you recondition him, or let him get shot, or send him off like the Five-Oh-First’s captain. But maybe he can still pull himself together. I’m still here.” Boil slapped himself on the chest. “If paying special attention to the men after heavy losses actually helped anyone, you’d think our leaders would have done something like that after Umbara.”

            The accusation in Boil’s voice was unmistakable. Obi-Wan wanted to sit down, overwhelmed by everything he’d managed to ignore for so long. “I think I understand, now,” he sighed, leaning against the wall instead. “You’re saying that singling Cody out will either brand him as defective, or… mean admitting that the entire army is….”

            Obi-Wan wasn’t sure how he meant to finish that sentence. Human? Of course the clones were human… a subset of human, most said. It was convenient to believe in such classifications.

            “Hmm. Maybe I’m defective too, sir,” Boil said, voice suddenly as light and matter of fact as if he were commenting on the weather. “I can’t stop being angry. I’ve tried… I can’t stop. It’s like they said—I’m just not the same now. But I haven’t let it get me killed yet. That’s the best any of us can do.”

            “I don’t suppose it would mean anything if I offered condolences now,” Obi-Wan murmured regretfully, half to himself.

            “Sir… as far as Jedi Masters go, sir, we’re lucky to be serving you,” Boil said, and Obi-Wan could tell he meant it despite his anger. “But no matter how good a clone is, or a Jedi, at the end of the day, a Jedi is a Jedi… and a clone is just a clone. That’s the way it is.”

            “And I can’t find any fault with you for saying so.” Obi-Wan stood up straight. “It’s the facts I don’t like.”

            Boil sighed.

            “You wanted the truth, General. But that’s just the way I see things. I’m still fighting for the Republic. I’ll happily die for it, too, when the time comes.” His voice softened, eyes narrowed. “I’ve kept up the fight this long on my own; there’s no sense in turning back now.”

             Obi-Wan wondered for a moment if Boil would truly be happy to die or if he was just using the figure of speech in its common meaning.

             “Thank you for being honest with me.” Obi-Wan resisted the urge to reach out and give Boil’s shoulder a reassuring grip, painfully aware that whatever he did would only seem blindly condescending in this context. “You’ve… given me much to think about.”

            Boil seemed to have reached his limit, and said nothing more.

            “I don’t know how much I can do to change things at this point,” Obi-Wan realized. “But I’d still like to be kept informed about what condition the men are in. Perhaps I can take that into account when planning these assaults, and… prevent a few more casualties, at least.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            “You may go, if there’s nothing more you’d like to say,” Obi-Wan said.

            Boil hesitated a moment, then turned to leave.

            Cody stood at the foot of his bunk, staring down at the storage crate. He didn’t want to open it. He was much more exhausted than he should have been after their last engagement, and more than anything else he wanted to sleep. But he hesitated, for the same reason he’d been reluctant to return to the ship.

            He pulled open the lid with one hand and his shadow fell on the blue and white helmet inside. The dark T-visor stared at him, and he took a deep breath, stomach aching, a sense of weakness vibrating through every muscle. Heat exhaustion, maybe. Dehydration could do that. He set his own helmet inside and began with the rest.

            “Cody.” It was Kenobi on the comm link.

            Cody straightened. “Yes, sir?”

            “Could you come to my quarters? There’s something I’d like to discuss with you.”

            “Ah, yes, sir,” Cody said, although his head was swimming a little. “I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

            It took him that long to put his armor back on and gulp down some water, but the order hadn’t sounded urgent at all. Rex’s helmet stayed in his mind’s eye as if he’d looked at a bright light and was stuck with the neon afterimage no matter where he looked. For a split second he pictured Rex’s head falling from his body and stopped dead in the hallway, his breath catching as he wrestled his mind away from such thoughts, and the tactile memory of holding Rex's armored body in his arms—his dead body, it felt like now, though he’d been alive then.

            “Forget something, Commander?” someone said in passing. Cody didn’t look up, just hurried forward into the lift, his mind repeating the faceless trooper’s question and Kenobi’s two sentences, word for word, until he’d arrived at the general’s door.

            “Ah, there you are,” Kenobi said from a low chair in the middle of the room. He didn’t stand, instead gesturing toward the chair opposite him, brow slightly furrowed. “Please, sit down.”

            Cody stared at the general, then the chair, troubled with this unusual arrangement. But Kenobi raised his eyebrows and Cody came forward to sit stiffly in the chair across from him.

            “Something wrong, General?” he asked.

            “Too much to even mention, I’m afraid,” Kenobi sighed. “I’m not sure where to begin.”

            Kenobi had that terribly sad expression that Cody had only seen on him a few times before. Something about it always struck him deep, a confirmation that here was a Jedi who didn’t scorn all emotion, was not distant and unreachable but close and affected. Even lightheaded as he was, he lifted his chin and clenched his fists with determination.

            “Anything I can do, sir?”

            Kenobi smiled a little, just for a moment. Then he leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, speaking softly. “Perhaps you’ll allow me to apologize.”

            Cody just stared, full of confusion and worry. Nothing was as it should be, and he had a feeling of being trapped in a dream with half an awareness that he was dreaming. Rex was supposed to be here. General Kenobi should not be saying things that made so little sense. They were supposed to be winning the war, celebrating together….

            He tried to snap out of it, realized he hadn’t said anything to the general, who was looking at him with concern. “Uh, sir,” he fumbled. “I don’t… General, I don’t know what you would ever need to apologize for, to anyone.” For a moment he feared he’d missed something important, just skipped over entire moments of this conversation. He became aware of a faint pulsing feeling in his ears.

            “I’ll add that to my list of problems,” Obi-Wan murmured, and straightened. “Cody… I haven’t been treating you as an equal. Truthfully, I haven’t even been thinking of you as one.”

            “Why are you saying this, sir?” Cody asked, desperate for something to make sense.

            “Because someone should be saying it,” Kenobi said with quiet fervor. “Our silence on this matter may turn out to be one of the worst crimes of this war. The more I think on it, the more incredible it is. I mistakenly thought of myself as your friend, and at the same time, I believed that any connection between clones is… only out of necessity in battle. Why would the Kaminoans engineer a product to have affection and loyalty to anyone other than its owner?”

            Cody swallowed, his throat suddenly dry. He’d never heard Kenobi speak about clones this way before—it felt like a slap in the face. And he wasn’t even sure what it signified now, except that the general was also referencing his reaction to Rex’s death. His entire torso felt like it was cramping, collapsing.

            “General Kenobi… I’ve never felt disrespected under your leadership.” It was the only safe thing he could think of to say.

            Kenobi sighed. “The fact that you’re so anxious around me right now suggests otherwise.”

            “Sir, it’s not that I’m anxious about you,” Cody protested, even though part of him was stinging a bit from what Kenobi had said, disoriented by this sudden shift in their relationship. “I’m probably just a little wired from the battle. And I don’t understand why you’re telling me all of this right now. What does any of this have to do with….” He swallowed again, his mind forced back into the moment after Rex had gone through that door, sitting alone in that dark room, his forehead resting on Rex’s helmet.

            Kenobi wouldn’t stop staring at him with that concerned look. It was only making the pulsing in his ears worse.

            “What I’m trying to say,” Kenobi said gravely, “is that I am sorry about what happened with Rex. I’m sorry that I was so content to believe that you are exactly what the Kaminoans believe you are: nothing more than a particularly well-programmed military servant. Deep down, I knew better, and I ignored it when it was convenient.  But you are as much your own person as any other human.”

            “Sir….” Cody clenched his hands together in his lap, stifled the urge to ask the general to stop, stop saying any more. Every word just added to the weight on his chest. It was easier not to speak now.

            “We all seem to feel that you are less capable of suffering, somehow, because you have nothing to lose outside the army and its goals. But we—I—failed to realize that when the army is your entire life, perhaps losing your comrades takes a much heavier toll than one might expect.”

            “You’re right about one thing, General,” Cody interrupted desperately, struggling to keep his voice stable. “I was made to fight. I hope you haven’t lost faith in that. I promised you I wouldn’t let this get in the way, and I’m going to keep that promise, I swear to you!”

            Part of him thought those words felt terribly hollow. Sometimes things just didn’t work no matter how long you held out. And that thought terrified him more than anything.

            “Would you let one of your men go into battle with a broken leg?” Obi-Wan frowned.

            “No, sir. Not unless there was no other choice. But this is different. I’m a marshal commander!”

            “Cody, you can’t fight well in this condition. And you shouldn’t have to. I’d like for you—”

            “I said I would get through this, so I will!

            It was something Rex would have said. Cody gritted his teeth against the urge to run away somewhere quiet, alone, to block out this alternate world where generals sent the leaders of their battalions to certain death, where loss could break him. That happened to those poor few who simply weren’t made properly. It didn’t happen to people like Rex, or to him.

            “You are afraid,” Kenobi fretted. “I’m not going to turn you in like a defective product, Cody. I just told you—you’re more than that. Your feelings about what happened to Rex are natural.”

            Cody sucked in a shaky breath, hunched over in the chair, assaulted by questions he wanted to shout, treasonous questions about how Rex could be thrown away so easily. There must be a good reason. He knew that, heard it all too well in Rex’s parting words that echoed in his head, his confession of inefficiency… but he couldn’t bear those memories. Rex was broken, and he had missed it. Like a child he was still grasping to understand who was responsible, but there was no sense blaming anyone. Some awful part of him kept trying, and he hated it.

            “Please understand,” Kenobi said gently, “I do want to win the war, and I’d rather you be here with me to see it happen, after everything you’ve done to make it possible. You deserve that much, at the very least. I don’t mean this as an insult, but as a concerned friend. I’d like for you to help me select a group to send back to Coruscant—anyone in particular need of leave time. We’ve barely given the battalion a break between battles lately. It would be foolish of me to ignore the effect that could be having on the men.”

            Under normal circumstances, Cody would have agreed, would have joked about how much he did deserve to be there dealing the final victorious blows to the Separatists, knowing that Kenobi would smile and indulge his bravado. But he couldn’t summon such a feeling of pride now, not in this space where he felt so exposed, his identity being dissected, the chasm between himself and the Jedi pointed out and labeled impossible to cross. He always knew it was, but that had never seemed to matter this much before.

            “And I’m to go with them, sir?” he managed to ask.

            “Yes.”

            “Am I being demoted?” Cody’s voice quivered just a little, despite his efforts to hold it still.

            “Ideally, I’ll have one of the captains take up temporary command until you’re ready to command again.”

            “Sir, this command is….” All I have left, Cody thought. “It’s a source of strength, for me. I know the other men are looking up to me, and I…well, I don’t want to disappoint them. That keeps me focused. If anything, it’s probably what I need most right now. I respectfully ask that you reconsider.”

            “Hmm.” Kenobi looked conflicted. “I don’t know….”

            “Sir, like it or not, this is what I was made to do. What else is there to give my life any meaning?”

            The general frowned deeply, “To start with, your relationships with the other men. With Captain Rex.”

            “That’s irrelevant now,” Cody said tightly, barely getting the words out as another cold wave broke on him.

            “Is it?”

            “General, please.” He couldn’t prevent a note of pleading. “I can still be useful.”

            “I don’t want you to merely be useful!” Kenobi instantly looked apologetic for raising his voice, and made a quieting motion with his hand. “I’m sorry. Don’t think of this as a punishment. If it makes you feel any better, this is strategically necessary to keep the army efficient, and that isn’t just me being sentimental or indulgent. It’s simply the truth. Even you must admit this is an army made up of human beings, not droids.”

            Cody just sat, pressed into his seat by a sense of futility. “Yes, sir,” he said dully.

            “I have to do what I think is best for the men,” Kenobi sighed. “Apparently I still don’t always know what that is.”

            “If you don’t know, then why are you so determined to take me away from the front lines?”

            Kenobi hesitated, and Cody felt overwhelmed by the realization that all this time, the two people he was closest to in the world had such significant parts of themselves that he had failed to see. Rex with his defectiveness, Kenobi with this… Cody wasn’t even sure what to call it.

            “I suppose,” said Kenobi into his hand, “it feels too much like sending you to your death. I don’t want to lose you, Cody. I especially don’t want to have your death on my conscience.”

            “You’re a general, sir. That’s your call to make.” The Jedi had the wisdom and the authority to make life and death decisions with the troops. With the captains, and commanders. With Rex. “And I’ve always trusted that you know when it’s worth the sacrifice. That’s not going to change.”

            As soon as he said it, he felt a little better, a tiny bit worse. He wasn’t a Jedi, and didn’t understand how things supposedly happened through the will of the Force, as he’d heard Kenobi say once or twice. But he had to trust that their leaders knew what they were doing, at least. As much as it hurt, as much as Rex being sent away like this felt like it should have been impossible, there would be no peace outside of acceptance. He knew that, consciously. And yet his mind kept asking why, kept wanting to reject the truth, determined to throw itself back into the painful limbo of uncertainty again and again. Rex had admitted his fault, but it felt like a betrayal to agree.

            Rex is gone, he told himself, throwing flimsy words at the monstrous, invincible knot of pain in his chest. Nothing will change that. There was only the war now, the Jedi, the Republic. He had to hold to that authority, get back to some measure of normalcy. It was all he had left.

            “I’m doing this all wrong,” Kenobi said under his breath, staring at the floor, chin resting on his fist.

            Cody decided it wasn’t worth trying to speak when he didn’t know what to say to that.

            “That’s really what you want?” Kenobi asked softly. “To stay on the front lines? If it is, then….” He straightened suddenly. “It should be your decision. What do you want to do?”

            “I want to do whatever is best for the Republic, sir,” Cody said. “I’ll return to Coruscant.”

            Kenobi didn’t look happy about that, either.

            “Sir….” Cody tried to think of what he could say to make Kenobi stop acting this way. “I know you never wanted to be part of this war. And you worry about everything. You’ve always done right by us, though. You don’t need to start worrying about that now. As far as I’m concerned, I….” He was cut off by the memory of teasing Rex about Skywalker, and had to catch his breath for a second. “I got the best general in the army.”

            “That’s kind of you to say. You’re a good man, Cody. I hope to have you back before too long.”

            “Thank you, sir.” There, that felt a little more like reality. “Is there anything else?”

            “Well… that’s up to you. Is there anything more you want to say?”

            A simple question, and Cody didn’t want to say anything. Rex’s name was blocking his throat and he didn’t know why, didn’t know what he meant to ask, or what good it would do. The words of the questions would not arrange themselves into anything meaningful in his mind, and he knew if he opened his mouth, it would just be the name, hanging there, prompting more concern, more confusion. He kept his mouth tightly shut and shook his head. His head felt like it was vibrating with every breath.

            “Alright,” Kenobi sighed. He stood, and Cody forced himself to his feet in response without even thinking, glad that the vibrating feeling didn’t turn to dizziness. “You and your group will depart at fifteen hundred tomorrow. That should give you time to get some rest first.”

            “Yes, sir. I’m headed to quarters right now.”

            “Very good.” Kenobi raised a hand and briefly touched Cody’s shoulder plate. “Thank you.”

            “For what, sir?” Cody asked, exhausted by these strange behaviors. Some small part of him wanted to laugh, to make a joke, get the general to realize how awkward this was and lighten up, but he just couldn’t summon the energy or the words.

            “For everything,” said Kenobi. “For all your hard work.”

            “Same to you, sir. I’ll see you at fifteen hundred hours.” Cody took an experimental step toward the door, and Kenobi didn’t immediately show objection, so he hurriedly turned to leave.

            The corridor outside was mostly empty, and he kept up a brisk pace so no one would stop him and force him to talk. His throat hurt as if it were injured, but he’d told Tucker about everything, the aching in his stomach, the weakness in his limbs, the lightheadedness, and the medic had said all his scans checked out. It was infuriating. Maybe he’d have to bother him for a muscle relaxant anyway.

            His pace slowed as he approached his quarters, remembering what waited for him there. He couldn’t forget about Rex, not after nearly seven years of friendship. Even if he wanted to, he couldn’t—Rex was a part of him, as deeply ingrained and natural as the feeling of a blaster in his hands. And that part being gone would keep hurting until it didn’t anymore, until it closed over like… like the wound in Rex’s shoulder and lung.

            Anger and pain blinded Cody as he turned a corner on autopilot; he nearly ran into Lieutenant Meer, their armor plates clattering in friction for a moment.

           “Ah, sorry, Commander.”

           He couldn’t manage an apology and just hurried into his quarters, breathing, just breathing, which was hard enough to keep quiet. Rex had still been injured. But what did it matter if someone was already injured when they died? The thought pounded in his head anyway as he stripped off his armor, irrationally certain that he should have been able to feel Rex's injuries under the armor, just as he should have noticed all the signs that Rex was falling far beyond his reach.

           The helmet was waiting there in the bottom of the crate, and he forced himself to look at it, even counting some of the tally marks before putting his armor in. At last, he shut the lid, and Rex’s face went into shadow, left to suffocate in the darkness of space as Cody walked away.

Chapter Text

            Rex watched as the hyperspace distortions on the viewscreen cleared, returning to the familiar star-scattered blackness of space. The closest star system was three light-years away; he was sitting in an expanse of absolute nothingness. He checked the coordinates and knew he was exactly where he needed to be. But it didn’t feel like it.

            It had been a long flight. Days of nothing to see but the dreamlike tunnel of hyperspace, nothing to hear but the hum of his small vessel. He had tried to sleep through as much of it as possible with the help of sedatives, but his waking moments had left Rex feeling like with every passing hour, his connection to anything and anyone that had ever mattered to him was slipping away into the memories of a life that belonged to someone else. His entire existence had been one of solidarity and mutual purpose; now he couldn't help but think of his battalion and know he would never see the face of a brother again. He understood it in his mind, yet every time he thought of it, his chest tightened as if he were realizing it for the first time.

            Never before had he felt such an overpowering desire to abandon his mission. Just turn the ship around and run back to the Republic, run as he had onto that battlefield in Umbara, relying only on the thin hope of enough people believing his desperate words before anyone could shoot him down. Would Cody believe him? Kix? If they did, would others turn them in to be executed?

            But he knew he couldn't do it—he couldn’t abandon the mission. No matter what it felt like in the face of the nothingness of space, he was here for a reason. The Separatist super weapon had to be destroyed, and by now, any chance he had ever had of stopping the chancellor was hundreds of light years away. If he ever returned, he would be a traitor, a deserter. This was his last chance to serve the Grand Army—to serve his family. There was no way for Rex but forward.

            Rising from the pilot’s seat, he forced his surroundings back into focus. The readings on the console glowed; he let his eyes wander over the controls, the smooth material of the seats, focused on the fact that his breath came with less and less effort as time went on—anything but on thoughts of what he was leaving behind. He had only a few hours at most to live, to perceive anything more. Rex stretched his aching shoulder and picked up the datapad Skywalker had handed him just before they’d parted: special instructions to be read before disembarking in the one-man craft. He’d already memorized and then repeated the instructions from Agent Soltam multiple times on the way here; what more could there be to instruct?

            He turned it on, aware this would be the last thing Skywalker ever said to him.

            Rex, the instructions began. None of the usual time-stamping or military structure of a mission file, and even General Skywalker observed such things most of the time.  Rex sat back down in the pilot’s chair. This was a personal message.

            Rex, the message said. Sorry I couldn't tell you this in person—things probably haven't been easy for you. But this had to be kept quiet until you were out of contact. I’m not going to just allow a good man to be sent to his death like this. That’s why I asked for you to be sent on this mission. There’s a narrow chance for survival, but it’s still a chance, and I want you to take it. In any case, I figure it’s better than what they would do to you on Kamino.

            Echo has a contact behind enemy lines who agreed to help you disappear, if you can get clear of the ship before the explosion. I don’t know who it is, but Echo trusts him. You should know that Echo's the one who brought the possibility of this mission to my attention. He seems to be looking out for you. Maybe he's trying to make up for what happened.

            At the end of this message are some instructions to put your communicator on the same frequency as his contact. Key in the distress signal after you've destroyed the ship and hopefully he’ll come and pick you up before anyone else can get to you. But Rex, remember you are supposed to have died on this mission. If the enemy gets a hold of you first, you know what to do.

            It’s too dangerous for you to try and contact me from Separatist space. Don’t even try it. I doubt we will meet again. Try and make a life for yourself out there. Whatever you do, do not come back to Republic Space. And forget about this conspiracy of Fives'—you have to promise me that. You’re resourceful, and smart enough to stay out of trouble. I know you won’t waste this chance.

            There was no stamp or signature at the bottom, just a space and then the promised set of instructions.

            Rex stared at the screen, mind racing, heart jumping a little. General Skywalker was… telling him to desert. He almost didn’t dare to give in to the hope that was painfully flooding him in a feverish rush. Skywalker told him to forget about the conspiracy, but Rex knew that was one promise he would not be able to keep. If Skywalker knew what was truly at stake, he wouldn't be telling Rex to forget about it—he would be orienting every moment, every action, toward stopping it from happening. And that's exactly what Rex would do. It would be difficult to proceed from behind enemy lines, but he knew from experience that the small space between difficult and truly impossible could make all the difference. There was still a chance to save the Republic, and everyone he’d left behind.

            Filled with new determination, he followed the instructions to reconfigure his communicator. Then he carefully punched in the commands to direct the ship toward the nearest star on autopilot and double-checked his work even though it didn’t matter so much now where the ship would go. He jumped to his feet, put on his new, unmarked helmet and passed through the doors into the small airlock at the back of the ship where the ugly little one-man vessel waited for him.

            It really did look like a bit of space debris. Unevenly formed, the outside had been purposely blackened with scorch marks and made to resemble a warped piece of a larger ship, or even a bit of rock if one didn’t look too hard. Feeling slightly giddy, Rex checked all his gear before he pushed the button to open the hatch up top: jet pack, fuel, oxygen, magnetic action on his boots, everything strapped tight, sealed and working properly. He checked his front pack for the materials to enter the maintenance hatch and transfer the virus to the ship, made sure they were all accounted for and securely stowed, then strapped the pack on. He heaved himself to his feet, shoulder and chest screaming in protest. He gave himself a moment to clear his head and catch his breath, and then it was up the ladder of hand and footholds set into the vessel’s side before sliding into the cockpit.

            This was the sort of mission commandos were usually sent to do—demolitions, assassinations, that sort of thing. But even they weren’t usually sent where there was no hope of return—the time and effort spent creating their specialized units was too high a price to be squandered lightly. Rex thought of Diode Squad, of Echo, out there doing special missions, and felt a swell of gratitude for his friend. He hoped Echo would have the time and means to keep searching for a solution.

            The cockpit was cramped, even smaller than an escape pod. There was barely room to move with his pack in there. Rex shifted it to the side before he activated the magnetic clamps so it would stay secure against the wall. The hatch closed and sealed, then Rex sent the command to the carrier vessel for environmental controls to disengage and the ramp below the vessel to open.

            Strapped into his seat, he felt weightlessness kick in. He fired up the engines, ran pre-flight checks. Everything by the books, everything looked over twice to make sure the vessel was ready to go and would operate properly. Smoothly, the little piece of rocket-powered debris flew away from the ship carrying it. The controls were a little more sensitive than what he was used to, but soon Rex had come about and was headed at a steady pace toward where the super-weapon was supposed to be.

            He kept his eyes on the long-range sensors, waiting with bated breath for the tiniest blip. Minutes passed in which he repeated again, under his breath, the calculations he’d need to input for his final approach before cutting power.

            There. He had it on sensors. The thing was massive—it could only be his target. Now there was only a narrow window of time for him to shut down power before it sensed him. With cold fingers he punched in the target coordinates and the calculations necessary for his flight trajectory. It took a few minutes, and every step of the way he ran through the order in his mind again, saying it out loud to make sure he got it right. The formulas weren’t that hard with the computer doing most of the work, but he couldn’t afford to be sloppy or overconfident. The results came back and he came to a full stop, steered the ship to the exact point recommended by the computer, and edged forward again at low speed, adjusting by tiny increments until his trajectory matched what the computer was saying.

            “Course laid in,” he whispered at last, no General Skywalker around to hear him. He gave the engines a tiny burst of power—the little craft moved at a leisurely pace, nothing there to obstruct its approach toward the invisible pinprick of darkness ahead. “Initiating shut down.”

            He synced the ETA countdown with the chrono on his wrist. The engines went dead, the lights and screens blinked off. There was a nearly inaudible buzz of circuits burning themselves out, then nothing.

            In the sudden silence and near-total darkness, Rex's breathing was loud in his ears. He checked to make sure his oxygen was flowing properly. The faint rhythmic hiss of his suit’s support systems was comforting in the overwhelming emptiness, the only light now coming from the pinpricks of the stars and the glowing numbers ticking down on his wrist.

            There was a hole in the starry globe he drifted in, dead ahead… a black smudge no bigger than his thumb, blocking out the stars. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, it grew. He kept his eyes on it, occasionally glancing at the numbers counting down even though it was still at least thirty minutes to arrival. His heart rate jumped, his breathing hitching, so loud, when a stray thought brought him back to the reality that he could very well still die. This could still be the countdown to the end of him, and, should Echo fail, the end of the Republic’s hope of survival.

            Another hiss, another breath, each one closer to his last, one way or another. And another, and another. He shut his eyes, dredging up the courage and determination he’d always been able to rely on during moments like this. This was for the Republic. Not only that, it was personal. It was his friends—his family. No way could he lose focus now. The darkness and silence and oppressive sound of breathing and blood flow pressed him further into his restless body, trapping him on all sides with the vast sense of emptiness. But he kept his eyes fixed on the ship, narrowed the universe down to tunnel vision, thinking with satisfaction of all the people the superweapon would never get to kill. It would go down in flames, and he would watch.

            The next set of information was the method of accessing the maintenance hatch. Between calm but increasingly loud-seeming exhales, he pictured the schematic he’d studied from the mission file. Getting to the array would be easy enough. Entering the hatch—also easy. Activating the virus—that was the complicated part, if only because things had to be done exactly right the first time. Still, all things considered, it was a pretty straightforward mission. But adrenaline was already in his system, building up as if the little craft were a bubble sucking in energy from surrounding space and trapping it inside.

            Ten minutes. The black smudge took up a fair amount of his view now, and he could only just start to make out any variation on its surface. He pictured each motion he’d need to make to smoothly eject. At five minutes he would unstrap, pull the pack on and get into position. At two minutes he would open the hatch, pull himself out, spot a target landing point, and adjust stance to jump. It would be easy.

            The chrono was at eight minutes. As soon as he left the vessel, he would turn, activate the magnetization on his boots, bring his feet down firmly onto the surface of the beast, and there would be no risk of drifting away. Even if he did, the jet pack would bring him back.

            Seven minutes. Segments of the ship’s hull were beginning to look distinguishable. He could still see a fair amount of starred space in the lower part of his viewscreen. He was going to pass under its belly—no, over its back. He saw the giant array and realized he was upside-down… or the ship was. There was no other point in sight to judge his position against.

            Six minutes. It never hurt to be prepared too early. Rex unstrapped himself and set about the awkward task of putting on the jet pack, moving slowly, adjusting for the fact that nothing stopped moving on its own in zero gravity. A tug here, a tug there—the pack bounced lazily between his shoulders like a balloon before he had it strapped securely. All the while, his own breath hissed in his ears.

            “Five minutes,” he whispered, crouching on the seat, and was struck with how, if he had broadcast it, the only people or droids or computers to hear his voice for… lightyears, probably, were on the very ship he was about to float under… over. He wondered how many.

            The numbers seemed to be going more quickly on his chrono. Three minutes. He braced one magnetic boot against the wall, checked his suit’s seals and oxygen readings again, and pulled hard at the lever by the door. The last bit of pressure and gas burst out of the crack opened in the hatch, and Rex disengaged the final lock. The door swung out, and he pulled himself up slowly, breathing, into the dark, eternal space between his tiny space rock and the behemoth it was passing. His eyes were drawn irresistibly to the stars all around him, almost every direction stretching away forever. He felt like a dust mote, drifting in the darkness, not even a beam of light to make him visible.

            Well, there was the light on his wrist. One minute, thirteen seconds.

            His boots held firm to the vessel’s surface, though he could lift them if he wanted to, with some effort. The feeling of being connected to something, even if it was a lifeless hunk of metal, was reassuring as he craned his neck to try and judge his distance from the ship. It was hard to be confident in his own depth perception when everything was so dark and huge. Even his white armor was dim, a dark grey on black, like snow on a clouded night.

            Fifty seconds. Hissing breath and the whirling blur of stars on his periphery as he searched the hull.

            Forty seconds. There were thin, even stripes of a lighter darkness on the hull above him. A ladder?

            Thirty seconds. It was the only variation that seemed promising. He’d have to risk it.

            Twenty seconds. His eyes jerked repeatedly between the chrono, his wrist raised to eye level, and the ladder—yes, it was a ladder. It was a bit of a steep angle, but it was a better target than the rest of the hull, smooth and featureless as far as he could tell.

            Fifteen. He crouched and straightened experimentally. His boots held tight. He shifted one foot to the side, sliding it roughly into a firmer stance.

            Ten seconds. “Nine,” he breathed, turning on his headlamps. “Eight. Seven. Six. Five.”

            He crouched slowly and grabbed one of the bars on the door, disengaged the magnetism in his boots.

            “Four. Three.” He tightened then loosened his grip. “Two.” Eyes off the chronometer—on the ladder. “One.”

            He jumped.

            There was no wind rushing in his ears, no sense of air resistance or push or drag as when falling within a planet’s atmosphere. The only indication of speed was what he saw with his own eyes. The stars were all below him, the ladder rushed forward and down at him much faster than he expected. Quickly reengaging the magnetism in his boots, he cast a hand up to catch at the rungs as he passed, but snatched at nothing—he had misjudged the distance. He grasped again at the last rung and his fingers grazed it before he passed on, sliding through space just parallel to the ship, his back still to it.

            Automatically, he hit the jet pack controls to turn, and his body whirled. His knees and helmet scraped the hull and he bounced away, twirling wildly in space.

            Stomach trying to lurch free from his body, Rex gave another short burst on the jet pack, one on each side, to stabilize. It took a couple tries, but then he was facing the ship again, drifting back toward it, heart thudding fast. He brought his boots up underneath him, felt them connect to the hull, first one, then the other in a jerky lunge.

            A relieved breath burst from him and echoed in the helmet. “Made it,” he breathed, and the unresponsive stars made him think of the last time he’d been out in space like this, with Fives and General Skywalker, trying to rescue Tup. He took another heavy step and blocked his mind from going any further. No distractions on this mission. Not until the ship was taken down.

            Slow and steady was the journey toward the array. It loomed over him, a massive concave dish affixed to a long shaft like a bullet the size of a Venator-class Destroyer, raised two hundred meters above the surface on a wide base. The hologram and the numbers hadn't prepared him for just how large this ship and its accompanying super weapon were. Rex could easily see how a single weapon of this scale would be fraught with technical issues, and he was both amazed and disgusted by the enemy's boldness. He was lucky to have landed within eight hundred meters of the base, but as he walked, the array barely seemed to be getting closer.

            The next half hour drifted by in a silent, starry hike. Rex tried to keep up a quick pace; he had enough oxygen for the rest of the mission, but who knew how long it would take for this contact to pick him up? His skin chilled at the thought. Echo had gone to Skywalker with a request to save his life; Skywalker wouldn’t have thought to ask Echo for contacts in Separatist space. That information must have been volunteered. It was a terrible risk Echo had taken on his behalf, drawing attention to himself, just as Rex had warned him not to. He hoped Echo knew what he was doing.

            Finally, Rex put his hand on the towering cylindrical base of the array. Everything was coming along. He closed his eyes and imagined the schematic, then realized he was close to the hatch. He followed the mental schematic until he was standing below a featureless rectangle bolted into the side of a wall some twenty meters above him. He stepped onto the wall, and the wall became a floor, the entire orientation of the ship shifting in a dizzying way from long to tall. He looked away from the ship toward to dish and traversed the few paces toward the door and knelt down. The bolts rimmed the entire perimeter of the door, just as expected. He took out his tools from his front pack, magnetized them, and set to work.

            As he knelt, onehandedly unsealing the bolts on the door according to his instructions, the adrenaline of the mission started to wear off from the methodicalness of the work. Still, it was impossible not to look up between bolts and take in the vast profusion of bright specks in all directions, joined by faint shadows of colorful nebulae. It was different than sitting in a ship. There, infinity was distant, an image seen safely through a window. Rex wondered where the nearest inhabitable planet was, and where he would hide if he survived this mission. What his life could have been if he didn't have to focus on destroying the chips. If he had been free to make whatever life he could, what would he have done? Would any society ever have accepted him? He was almost relieved that it didn't matter.

            When the last bolt was off, he lifted the door from where it was set in and flung it out away from the ship. Then he lowered himself in.

            The hatch was small and cramped. He entered a few paces toward a turn in the compartment which opened a little more widely into what Rex knew to be a computer terminal. He couldn't help but wonder how the Republic had come up with all this information. Must have been from someone who had worked on the ship.

            He took a deep breath and recited the passcode to himself before entering it into the sleepy blinking terminal. After he did so, more lights on the computer wall turned on and the hatch itself was illuminated with a green glow from above. He pulled the chip from his pack and inserted it into the slot next to the main screen of the terminal. He still didn't know much about computer systems, but the mission file had made the rest sound simple enough. He input the series of commands he had memorized into the keypad without even watching the screen. It wouldn't have made a difference—rote memorization was easier than navigating this foreign system. 

            “Just a few more,” Rex murmured to himself, needing to hear something other than his own breathing. The dream feeling was back. What was he doing in this moment? Everything had changed the night Fives died. Tup’s murder of General Tiplar, the general’s strange dreams about him betraying Cody, had all led up to that, but that was the moment it had all changed, when the way things were supposed to be had died. No matter how he’d tried since that moment to resurrect the reality he knew, to wake from the bad dream, the awful truth always came back.

            Suddenly, he realized he didn't remember the last button he had pressed. He felt dizzy and laid his palm on the wall, breath coming short. No, no losing focus now. That awful truth, the faces flashing in his mind—those were all the reasons why he had to finish this.

            “You can do this,” he said under his breath. “You have to do this.” Oxygen was at twenty percent. He couldn't remember the button he pressed but he knew he didn't have many more. He looked into the screen for the first time and realized it was only waiting for him to confirm that the data on the chip was to be uploaded into the array's targeting system. This was it then. “Sorry,” he murmured with a faint grin. “You’re not killing anyone from the Republic today.” The last button sank into the keypad.

            It was time to go—now. The virus was going to make quick work of the superlaser. Rex demagnetized his boots and threw himself toward the exit of the hatch, then kicked himself away from the ship with as much force as he could muster, then slammed on the jet pack controls. A few seconds of sustained propulsion got him going at high speed, the ship shrinking rapidly between his feet. Then once more, there was only his breathing, only the imagined sound of his heartbeat as he went up and back into nothing, reminding himself there was no need to even look where he was going—there was nothing to crash into, after all.

            Every bit of instinct and training he’d been given screamed against what he was doing. To drift alone in space, far away from any larger more detectable object to never be found, to suffocate alone and be swallowed meaninglessly by the void. Even against the conscious knowledge that he was no safer on that ship, it felt like a loss to watch the super-weapon vanishing toward a microscopic point.

            When it was no bigger than his thumb and still shrinking, he saw a green glow begin in the bowl of the dish. The superlaser seemed to be charging—then without warning, an eruption of light pierced through the back end of the massive bullet-shaped mount of the dish, and that was all he managed to see before the ship disappeared in a soundlessly expanding oval of brightness. It roiled outward in front of him, a silent film. Rex threw up his good hand to shield his eyes.

            Secondary explosions kept the bubble of light alive for a few more seconds, emerging and dissipating irregularly. Rex saw specks of darkness quickly growing, brought into contrast by the blast. Debris, flung out by the energy of the explosion—they grew farther apart from each other and passed him by. The pieces would keep flying away with nothing to stop their frantic journey, until something else pulled them into orbit. He wondered… if he pushed his jet pack to the limit and continued at that pace, would he also find a star or planet to circle? If he died out here, how long before his armored corpse was pulled in by the gravity of something else?

            Oxygen at fourteen percent. A few quick, careful taps of his fingers on the comm on his wrist, and the distress signal began to transmit, the blinking from it corresponding with the rhythm of the radio.

            This was it. Nothing now to do but wait.

            Rex had never been claustrophobic in his life. Considering that much of a clone’s life was spent in growth acceleration chambers or the narrow sleeping pods on Kamino, it wouldn’t make sense to allow for such a fear. Now, as he drifted endlessly, even despite the way his breathing stayed too loud and his pulse too noticeable, it wasn’t that his suit felt too confining. The universe around him was so vast, the very size of it felt as if it were shrinking him, compressing him into a glass ball where he spun, slowly, near-motionless and helpless to see anything but black… black and white, white specks in his vision that seemed like hallucinations, kind, cruel illusions of some distant life far away which he could never reach again, which had never really existed. Direction, purpose… it was all false. There was no up or down. There was just endlessness, and silence, his own breath, the sight of his own legs and arms the only evidence that he existed at all. But even those were starting to seem flimsy.

            He closed his eyes and tried to slow his breathing, conserve oxygen. His body was absolutely still—what reason could there be for his breath to come short now? But the beating of his heart resonated through his scarred chest like strikes on a drum, stubbornly reminding him of death encroaching.

            Purposely he focused on the images he always fought to ignore. Here in the star-flung darkness, the conspiracy began to feel distant and unreal, but he couldn’t succumb to that comforting delusion.

            He heard again Fives’ dying gasp in his ear, Cody breathing shakily—both of them shaking, shaking in his hands. Echo’s blank stare, Tup’s monotonous chanting, his panic, Waxer’s face twisted and tear-streaked, while Skywalker curled in fetal agony under his own men’s blaster fire, smoking and screaming until he went still. Commander Tano, lightsabers raised, her eyes wide with disbelief before she too jerked in flashes of light and fell, silently, eyes defocusing in a split second between passionate life and death.

            Rex’s breath hitched and he eased off, but closed his eyes again after a brief blink to shake himself from the nightmare. That was why he had to live. That was why he was here, waiting, risking everything on this contact of Echo’s.

            Rex swallowed the fear that rose inevitably with those images. There was hope. There was hope even if no one was coming. Even if he didn’t survive. He had to believe that.

            Suddenly he was falling, and panic pulled his eyes open, one arm flailing out from where he’d kept it tight against himself. He was moving faster now, backward, not forward as before, and he couldn’t turn around. Something irresistible was pulling him in the opposite direction he had been drifting. He reached for the jet pack controls but paused, thinking.

            His heart began to pound. He was caught in a tractor beam. The contact had found him—he was going to live.

            As the tractor beam pulled his body into the ship’s hangar—bare to his view but for a few empty cargo containers—he wished he had his DC-17s, even if this was an ally. The airlock closed, the tractor beam disengaged and the return of gravity sent him thudding to his hands and knees. Cold pain bolted through his left shoulder.

           Rex was on his feet just in time to see the door open. A tactical droid stood less than a dozen paces from him, an E-5 rifle in one hand, an empty holster strapped awkwardly across its wide, short chest segment

            The warmth Rex had felt at the prospect of being saved evaporated into stony chill and he hurried to pull off his helmet. The tactical droid walked toward him in that steady, soulless way of a machine, gun raised. Rex threw the helmet at it and reached into the small compartment on his belt where a poison pill given to him by Agent Soltam was waiting. 

            Rex had the pill halfway to his mouth when the helmet collided with his face, thrown back at him by the tactical droid. There were two clanking footsteps; something metal struck his wrist so hard the pain shot all the way up his arm. An iron grip yanked his shoulders forward, and a split-second scream tore at his throat when the droid’s knee drove itself into his wounded chest, crushing his armor where it made contact.

            He dropped to the ground, doubled over, gasping, momentarily blind. With effort, he opened his eyes, saw the pill as a white dot, a star on the dark floor of the hangar; he reached for it, and the droid’s wedge-like foot stomped down, grinding it to powder.

            Rex had to think through the pulsing pain and resurging horror. Remaining options: eject into space without his helmet, suffocate and freeze; find a way to evade the droid and destroy the ship and himself along with it. Either way, he had to move fast.

            Panting in shuddering gasps and groans, he rolled from his side onto his stomach, pushed away from the floor, shaking. Knees up beneath him. Breathe. Left arm buckling, right arm extending—

            “Rragh!!”

            The droid pushed down on the back of his neck and Rex’s face hit the floor.

            “Your reaction is one of many possibilities I anticipated,” said the droid, holding him still with one hand and a portion of its impressive weight. Rex could see the flashing light of its “mouth” out of the corner of his eye. “You are the deserting clone I agreed to retrieve. I will not kill you. You will not be allowed to harm yourself.”

            Rex cast about desperately in his mind, fighting through the fog of pain, straining against the weight on his neck. Somehow the Separatists knew about him and his mission. Who had talked? He had no weapons. No allies nearby to distract the droid or jump it from behind, tear off its head like he so wanted to do right now. Right now, his physical strength was no match. All he had were his wits.

            He relaxed and unclenched his fists. “Alright,” he panted, practically kissing the deck as he struggled to turn his head. “You got me, droid. What do you want?”

            “Your cooperation will make this situation less painful for you.”

            “I’ll tell you anything you wanna know,” Rex said.

            “This is not an interrogation. I am not interested in Republic intelligence.”

            The droid’s flat digital voice filled Rex with hatred. He gulped a few more deep breaths. It thought it was a clever droid, trying to play mind games.

            “Then how do you think you know anything about me?” Rex rasped into the floor.

            The droid’s face disappeared out of his periphery. “I was instructed to follow your distress call, and informed that you would be without a ship. The probability of finding a single living thing stranded in space is low enough that I am certain you are the human I was meant to retrieve.”

            His rescuer was dead. This droid must have captured and then replaced whoever it was… after torturing them for information. It was the simplest explanation. Either that or Echo’s contact had betrayed them.

            “And who informed you of all this?” Rex dared to ask.

            “The intermediary.”

            Rex wanted to rage against the hand holding him down, but he had to bide his time if he wanted any chance of escaping this interrogation. He’d never heard of a droid using tactics like this, but no doubt some were capable of it.

            “Who?” he repeated.

            “Unimportant. We must leave these coordinates before we are detected.”

            The metal hand eased off his neck and settled on his arm instead, just above the elbow. When Rex turned to look, the end of that E-5 was pointed right at his face.

            “You do not trust me,” the droid said. “This is necessary. I predict you will attempt to destroy me or steal my weapon for use against yourself. For the time being, you will be confined to the quarters I have prepared, to prevent… damage.”

            If this droid trapped him in some kind of cell, any chance he had to avoid torture would likely disappear until they reached whoever this droid was going to gift him to. If he resisted, the droid would either stun him, kill him, or continue to feign harmlessness and give him a chance to strike. Two out of three options that would keep his intel out of enemy hands… those were decent odds.

            “Stand,” the droid commanded, and his grip on Rex’s arm lightened.

            Rex twisted and aimed a heavy kick at the blaster. It clattered to the floor a few feet away. He lunged for it. His chest seemed to burst as he hit the ground, grabbed the gun and rolled onto his feet in a low crouch. Icy fire ran up his shoulder and into his skull, and his left hand was shaking so wildly he wondered if he would be better off firing the rifle one-handed.

            He lost his balance as he tried to rise—winded, vision blacking out—and in that split second the droid was on him again, trying to wrench the gun from his hands. Rex’s determined grip on it yanked him to his feet—he dropped his weight to try and throw the droid. No good; the thing’s stance was sturdy as stone. Rex straightened, shaking violently, sweating, but he didn’t let go.

            “As I predicted,” the droid said, answering Rex’s glare with glowing white, indifferent eyes. “You are a hazard to me, to my ship, and to yourself. You will agree to follow me to your quarters, or I will stun you and carry you there.”

            “Alright,” Rex panted through gritted teeth. He released the gun and pinned his shuddering left arm against his side with his other hand. “I’ll go.” Better to have his eyes open for any further opportunities… even if his vision was swimming.

            “Excellent.” The droid stepped around behind him and laid a hand on his shoulder. Rex could practically feel the gun pointed at his head. “You seem unusually weak for a Republic clone. I did not expect to cause any lasting damage with my attack.”

            Rex stepped forward at pressure from the droid’s hand, wishing he had a good response to that. Like a blaster bolt to the head.

            Beyond the hangar was a dim hallway, cold, perhaps even colder than the hangar. The skin of his face tingled at the chill where it wasn’t still burning from being scraped against the floor.

            Everything in the ship was bare and sterile, wires and workings exposed in places as if a repair crew had disappeared in the middle of their work. Rex made mental notes of what he saw, matching it to what he knew of basic ship design in case he got a chance to hotwire a system-wide disaster. He would need time for that, though—not now.

            The droid stopped him at the second door they came to.

            “Open it.”

            Rex clenched his teeth and pushed the button. Before his eyes had even taken in much of the room’s minimal features, he noticed warmer air meeting his face. The droid pushed him firmly inside and then shoved him forward a few steps. When he turned around it was blocking the doorway and had both hands on the rifle.

            “Do you require anything?” it said.

            Rex glanced around. It really did look like a cell, if a bizarre one. There was a sleeping pallet on the floor right in the middle of the room, next to an empty storage container that came up to just below his knees. “What is this?” He picked up one of nearly a dozen drink packs on the floor.

            “Water.” The droid pushed a button by the door and a ray shield flashed down around Rex.

            “What—!”

            “You may use the storage container to hold your human waste. I will bring you nutrition cubes as needed.”

            “You expect me to believe that you’re not taking me prisoner for the Separatists?” Rex growled. “With all this?” He gestured at the ray shield.

            “I do not expect you to believe it.” The droid had turned to go, but twisted its top half to look at him again. “You will continue to rely on your experience, which conditions you to identify droids of my design as a threat. Until this conditioning is changed, I will deprive you of any ability to cause damage.”

            The droid left; the door shut behind it. Rex looked at the water pack and wondered if there was some sort of drug in it to make him talk. No sense risking it, even if he was thirsty. His throat felt raw.

            He strained to look beyond the glowing distortions of the ray shield. There wasn’t much in the room he could have used to “cause damage” anyway; the room was completely empty but for a small sink and shelf area over in the corner. If not for the ray shield, he could have possibly pried open one of the panels on the wall and accessed controls, or pulled up the grate in the floor beyond which was most likely a maintenance pit. But it would take a lot of time with no tools or weapons, and only one good arm.

            The pallet was stiff and thin. Rex was used to that. Once seated, he took stock of himself. He had none of the supplies he usually carried into battle, just the armor and jet pack.

            Rex swept the room one more time, searching for cameras. He didn’t find any, but that meant nothing. Up above him was the ray shield emitter, only vulnerable from outside the cone of light that trapped him. His helmet was gone. Perhaps the jet pack could lend him some force to catch the droid off guard in a second attempt to steal a real weapon.

            He looked with disgust at his arm, which was still shaking visibly as if a live current were running through it. Spasms of pain kept radiating from his shoulder, and he could barely control his fingers. No, he was no match against the droid like this. He was never going to get his hands on the gun for long enough to do anything. But maybe he wouldn’t even need to leave this room. He could rig the jets on his pack to explode—make it quick, instead of the slow burning alternative.

            Carefully, still panting from the pain, he took off his crushed armor and examined the jet pack. An explosion would require a build up inside the pack, which meant he had to find a way to block the openings for the actual jets. Perhaps if he used them to superheat some of the smaller armor plates, they would melt enough to create a seal? But then they could just as easily melt off, canceling the explosion, and he’d be wasting fuel that could be used in a more direct—albeit more painful—death by fire.

            Rex stared at the jets and wondered what would be the quickest part of his body to target. If he breathed the emissions directly, it would scorch his insides, he would black out and die from suffocation… yes, the face would be best. His torso had proven too resilient.

            He expected to feel more disturbed by this line of thought, but it was the possibility of living that worried him most. Was he missing his chance the longer he waited to try it? What if he somehow survived the burning as Echo had survived the blast in the Citadel, and was left even more helpless in Separatist hands, having done half their torture for them? What if he simply couldn’t keep applying the heat long enough to die, but let his body’s reflexes betray him into a temporary escape?

            Rex shivered and shoved the jet pack off his lap with his right hand, fuming at his own hesitation. Cowardice. He had been ordered to avoid capture at all costs, life included. But more than anything, he wanted to live to see this conspiracy defeated. His comrades were in danger. If the droid was alone, there was a chance to defeat it. So a part of his mind argued, but the rest of him scoffed. What chance? He couldn’t fight like this.

            He couldn’t take his eyes off the jet pack. A poison pill was one thing. It worked instantly. But this….

            The door opened; the droid was back, still holding the rifle.

            “No one is in pursuit. Danger of detection has passed for now.”

            “And where are we going?” Rex weakly pushed himself to a stand, wishing he hadn’t taken his armor off.

            “To the Akuria system. The second moon of Akuria One will provide an ideal hiding place for you. It is isolated, with no intelligent life forms. I understand you are trained for survival in harsh environments.”

            “I don’t plan on hiding forever, droid,” Rex growled. “Why exactly do you think I’m deserting in the first place?”

            “To enhance the probability of your long-term survival,” the droid said. “To become free from the control of other life forms.”

            “And what is the point of freedom if I’m stuck on a planet where I’m the only person who exists?”

            “It is the only place you would be free. Among intelligent organic life forms, you are merely property.” The droid tilted its head slightly.

            Rex felt his face twisting, shuddering like his shoulder, and it was just as difficult to control. “I don’t care about—!”

            He stopped himself. Better not to give any hint of his true purpose… better for the droid to think that he was deserting for selfish reasons that had nothing to do with anything truly important. If it was even telling the truth about where they were going.

            After a few deep breaths he managed to say, “Fine. But I’d still rather risk it and try to pass as a normal human being on some inhabited planet somewhere. I don’t care if I have to wear a disguise. Maybe a droid wouldn’t understand this, but most organic creatures don’t really want to live their whole lives without anyone else around.” His face was still quivering maddeningly—the pain in his shoulder must have his nervous system on the fritz.

            “Hmmmm,” the droid said in one long, single tone, circling him. “I do not think that is a good strategy.”

            “Well,” Rex huffed, bristling as it passed behind him. “Of course you would say that. You’re probably just taking me to some secret base to be interrogated. Handing me off to your master.”

             “I have no master. I am independent.”

            “Right.” Rex rolled his eyes. “An independent Separatist droid. You expect me to believe that?”

            “No. This conversation is becoming redundant.” The droid had reached the door again and switched off the ray shield, gun trained on Rex.

            “Go on!” Rex taunted, heart hammering as he stared down the barrel of the E-5. “Get it over with.”

            The droid came closer, and Rex stood tall until the gun was nearly touching his chest. Then the droid stepped on the jet pack and kicked it backwards. It skidded its way out the open door.

            “You are injured,” it said, kicking his armor away as well. “I will reconsider our destination.”

            Rex lunged forward without thinking, but the droid flung out an arm and threw him backward. He crashed down onto the mat and was left gasping helplessly as the ray shield came down again. The pain was making it hard to focus on anything, but he still heard the droid’s voice loud and clear.

            “I am not programmed to deal with medical concerns. It will be up to you to prevent any further harm to your body in the interim. I agreed to keep you alive and in fair condition. I intend to honor that agreement, but you seem determined to subvert me in this. Your resentment toward droids is truly impressive.” The droid’s flat voice made everything it said sound sarcastic.

            Rex struggled to sit up, his head not agreeing with his body about what position he was in. He managed it just in time to see the door shut again. Once again, it was just him, breathing loudly in the silence.

            Just as he feared, he’d missed his one opportunity for escape. What had he been thinking? He bowed his head and pulled his disobedient arm back against his body, breath hissing shakily through his teeth in uneven gasps. There was nothing now for him to use to avoid interrogation, nothing but his own unsteady mind and the failing strength of his body. I won’t let you down this time, sir. But he had. He had failed his last promise to his general.

Chapter Text

            Echo had taken several flights to and from Kamino since his implant’s activation. It was always in small ships like this, and he had expected that after nearly a year, he would be used to these days of silence and solitude. But it hadn’t been truly silent in his head for a long time.

            7721 and 7722 were in the pilot’s seats. Echo sat in the back with the other commandos, and there was no steady stream of information, no presence of the other four in his mind. His memories of when they had been one entity still felt vaguely foreign, and in that sense his present self felt more closely tied to the moment when he’d first awoken to a world of one-way sensory input, no voice, no vision, no way to connect or interact with anyone.

            He’d talked to the commandos several times since leaving Anaxes, but never for very long. Now, staring at them and contemplating the moment when they would all become one unfeeling mind again, he realized why.

            “Sir,” said one of the commandos. Echo thought it was 7724—it was so disconcerting not to know for sure, even though it didn’t matter that much. To speak to them felt in some ways like touching one’s own numbed hand, mistaking it for someone else’s. “We will arrive at Tipoca City in approximately thirty minutes.”

            “Ah,” Echo said. His voice was extra hoarse from not speaking for hours. He paused, dreading the end of the journey, the return to the confinement of the lab. It was so hard to focus, but he needed to be prepared. “Doctor Sa Eno will want to run tests right away… and ask for details on how the connection between us was disrupted.”

            “And we’re to volunteer that information, sir?”

            “Yes,” Echo confirmed uneasily. “But omitting anything having to do with the chancellor or Rex’s accusations. She should understand that some things are classified by Republic Intelligence. And with any luck, she’ll only be interested in the technical problems we faced.”

            “And if she isolates you for further experiments?”

            Echo took a deep breath. “If she works on integrating my chip with the implant… you should try to gather as much data on the process as you can. Maybe you’ll learn something about how to disable it.”

            “Yes, sir,” said 7724 after a pause.

            They returned to silence. Echo tried to tell himself that returning to what he had been before the malfunction would be a relief. He would be free of emotion, any sensation of loss or fear. Being able to mull over what had brought him to this point was only getting more painful the longer he was conscious of himself. But to be insensible and without will was the same as being dead.

            “Helmets off,” he commanded on impulse.

            Without hesitation, 7724 and 7723 removed their helmets and set them on their knees. They were identical, of course, no distinguishing hairstyles or tattoos or scars. But Echo was fairly confident who they each were. They looked at him expectantly, and in that moment he saw them as the children they had been not long ago: smaller, eyes wider and full of doubt as their faces tilted up at him. Their trembling had faded like a brief technical hiccup when they became extensions of his body.

            He didn’t know what to say. Would an apology mean anything?

            “Are you alright with this plan?” he asked instead.

            “Sir?” asked 7724.

            “I’m asking a lot from you,” Echo realized. “All of you. I’m asking you to lie to Sa Eno, possibly as one of your last actions before I… before I take command again.” It sounded so normal… not at all the horror that it was, to be completely at the mercy of another person, overwhelmed and erased.

            “Yes, sir,” said 7723 firmly. “Everything will be back to normal efficiency soon.”

            “Normal efficiency?” Echo whispered, feeling sick. He turned to 7724. “Do you agree with him?”

            7724 blinked twice and glanced at 7723, then back to Echo. “It is a fact, sir. Isn’t it? Unless….” His brow furrowed ever so slightly. “Doctor Sa Eno decides to separate us from you permanently.”

            “You’ve all proven that you can function without me controlling your actions.” Echo sighed, his voice turning bitter. “Maybe I can convince her to let you remain independent. But I doubt she’ll agree to it. That would defeat the purpose of her project. I’m sorry.”

            “Sir, you are our base unit,” 7723 said. “We weren’t meant to operate without your direction.”

            “But don’t you want to?” Echo got up and walked toward the pilot seats. “Wouldn’t you rather be in control of your own bodies? You’ve been monitoring me for days, making sure to keep me alive even though I—from the beginning, I’ve treated you like you’re not even real people! Why do you care? I know you’re all different. You may be linked but you’re still individuals! I’m not going to pretend I haven’t realized that. Maybe in front of the doctor, but not when we’re talking face to face.”

            7722 looked up from the controls, craning his neck to meet Echo’s eyes. “We function best with your direction, sir,” he said simply. “How can we reach our full potential as a squad without you directing us?” Echo saw nothing but absolute trust in his eyes, and it scared him.

            “You functioned just as well when I was out of commission,” Echo insisted. “Better, even! Your potential isn’t being fulfilled—it’s being wasted. In a real squad, everyone has different strengths, and that makes them greater than they would be on their own. But you—we—we’re five soldiers shrunk down into one droid!”

            “A specialized unit like ours requires only a narrow focus of strengths,” said 7724 from behind him. “We functioned well in Drann because we had Captain Rex to direct us. And he also agreed that we needed you at the head of our unit.”

            “We,” Echo sighed. What was the use in getting them to admit that they wanted freedom? Perhaps they didn’t. And they would be happier for not wanting it.

            “Diode Squad is not complete without you, sir,” said 7721 softly, staring at his own hands resting lightly on the console. “We were made to work as one.”

            “That’s not true,” Echo groaned, pressing his fist into his forehead. “It’s not me at the head of your squad. It’s someone else. It’s a machine. Not Echo.”

            “Sir,” 7723 broke in sharply. “You are our commanding officer. We are all in agreement. We look forward to having you back in command. It doesn’t seem likely that you will lose all interest in preventing the conspiracy once your implant is restored. Our purpose is to protect the Republic at all costs.”

            “Are you alright, sir?” asked 7724.

            Echo pulled his hands away from his eyes; the faces around him were bleary.

            “You’re all different,” he sighed wearily. “Seven-Seven-Two-One, you almost never volunteer to speak, but you’re always watching the rest of us when we do.” 7721 twisted suddenly in his chair to look up at him. “And you,” Echo said to 7722. “You took the initiative to ask me about Rex’s suicide mission. You asked questions about General Skywalker. No one else did that.”

            7722’s face fell into an odd, thoughtful expression.

            “Seven-Seven-Two-Three, this conversation seems to be making you uncomfortable,” Echo observed, desperate for some sign that he wasn’t just imagining all of this.

            A corner of 7723’s mouth turned down. “You forget we are still monitoring your brain waves. I am merely distressed by your distress. It will soon be corrected.”

            “You’re right.” Echo leaned against the wall of the crowded cockpit, feeling defeated. “Hopefully, once she realizes that the chip is what’s keeping us from reconnecting, she’ll remove it.”

            Raging against his fate was no good, and wouldn’t help him help Rex. These children had learned long ago that to embrace it was the only option. He would have to learn the same—for the sake of the Republic… for Rex and Fives.

            By the time the ship began to break through Kamino’s atmosphere, Echo’s stomach and throat felt even more raw and hollow than usual. Although 7723 and 7724 went back to their seats, he stayed standing behind the other two, watching the roiling mass of dark grey splattering water against the ship as they descended through layers and layers of clouds. Then the turbulent ocean beneath slowly became distinguishable from the rain falling into it, and Tipoca City was the only thing which kept its shape, growing brighter and closer until they settled down onto the landing pad.

            “A smooth landing,” Echo said.

            “Thank you, sir,” said 7722, and Echo wondered sadly whether the young commando felt any pride in the compliment, apart from the most rudimentary absence of friction between what was commanded and what had been done. That was the only thing even resembling satisfaction Echo could remember feeling while his implant was fully functional.

            He and the others donned their helmets and opened the ship’s ramp to the gale. The wind flung sheets of rain halfway up his legs before he’d even set foot on the landing platform. Silent under the roar of water on all sides, the five of them crossed to the nearest city entrance.

            Sa Eno was waiting for them just inside. Even if she hadn’t been wearing her usual green lab outfit, there was no way Echo could mistake her face after seeing it stare down at him so often. And now he was still looking up at her, even standing on his feet. Her gaze rested on his chest, and he realized she was looking at the hand print he’d recently repainted there.

            “Ahh,” she exclaimed with soft concern when the door shut. “When I heard your implant malfunctioned, I feared the worst. Are all your sensory modules operational? Can you hear me?”

            “Yes, Doctor,” Echo said, and took off his dripping helmet. “As far as I know, all my physical processes are functioning normally.”

            With long white fingers, she touched his head where it met the implant, circling behind him. “There was no damage to the hardware? I was given so very little information about this, and you’ve been gone for so long. We must return to the lab so I can run a full diagnostic.”

            “Yes, Doctor,” Echo sighed as she gently steered him forward by the shoulders. He heard the commandos fall into step behind.

            “Are you having trouble breathing again?”

            “No,” Echo said hurriedly. “No, I’m fine….”

            “You sound short of breath. Are you sure your support systems are undamaged?”

            “They are undamaged, Doctor,” said one of the commandos. “We have been keeping tabs on them ever since the incident.”

            She stopped—Echo looked up to see her blinking her wide, dark eyes at the one who had spoken. “You have been?”

            7724 continued. “We have established a one-way link up with Echo’s implant—” Sa Eno’s head tilted sharply “—in order to prevent the conflict which originally triggered the malfunction. Some of his nonessential functions are being limited as well.”

            “Incredible. The implications of what you just said…!” Her voice was startled, but she spoke in that same peculiarly methodical way all Kaminoans did. “You are saying that the four of you have, in effect, taken administrative powers of the network upon yourselves? You are now in control of… Echo’s implant?”

           It felt wrong to hear her say his name. Echo realized he had never used it in front of her. The squad hesitated. “Yes, Doctor.”

            “Who directed you to do this?” She didn’t sound upset… merely curious.

            “Anyone we could have taken orders from was out of commission. The circumstances demanded we take charge.”

            “I see!” She again began shepherding Echo down the pristine hallway, long neck curved slightly to the left in an intrigued posture. “Perhaps this crisis you faced is the key to understanding all potential uses of your programming.” Her voice was taking on a fascination Echo remembered all too well. “As I thought, it only required the proper stimulus! Or perhaps it was the prolonged exposure to a clear and accessible model of leadership to emulate….”

            When neither the commandos nor Echo replied, Sa Eno lapsed into a restless silence, rubbing one finger under her chin as she often did whenever gripped by a puzzle in his design. She did not speak again until they were just outside the lab.

            “You haven’t told me what triggered this malfunction in the first place.”

            “A computer virus—” one of the commandos began.

            “—a virus?” Sa Eno's wide eyes grew even wider.

            “Yes, Doctor, but it’s also a lot more complicated than that,” Echo said in a rush, trying not to stare at the door as she opened it.

            “How so?” She ushered him inside with the gentle, insistent pressure of her hand, and in single file he and his squad walked in. The surgical tables, the glowing hologram-equipped computer terminals, the precise dimensions of the place with its partitions between work areas—all of it was too familiar and brought an onslaught of memories, of clutching to the edge of the desk there, relearning how to walk. Echo found the exact place he’d fell on his face the first time and let his eyes rest there, although there was no mark on the floor to distinguish it. But most of all there was a kind of difference in air pressure, just on the edge of smell or hearing—perhaps it was the exact configuration of radio waves coming from the electronics around him—an impression of being here, just here with nowhere else ever existing.

            “How is it complicated?” Sa Eno repeated, stepping into his field of vision.

            Echo jerked out of his daze and tried to remember what he was going to say.

            “The virus merely triggered a defense reaction against other systems,” one of the commandos volunteered after waiting a beat.  “Control was then transferred to a separate chip in his brain, which caused him to become unresponsive… and to misinterpret orders.”

            Sa Eno was looking more and more perturbed. “In what way?”

            Echo swallowed, although it did nothing to ease the dryness in his throat. “I… took violent action against civilians I was ordered to clear from the battle zone.”

            “It was not a conscious decision,” said the commando. “Once the chip relinquished control, we detected no aggressive impulses.”

            “I see….” Sa Eno looked disturbed, glancing at each of them in turn. “Why don’t you—” she paused awkwardly. “Why don’t the five of you put your armor away? Then we can review your performance and begin the tests.” She turned toward the computer terminal by the middle table—his bed, Echo thought dully to himself. So many hours he had spent on it.

            Together they walked to their special unit quarters just down the hall. Echo stole glances at the squad as they removed their armor, and they occasionally returned his gaze impassively. He wondered what they were thinking. There was only the dull sound of friction as they stowed each piece in their cabinets and changed into their numbered fatigues. This had been Echo’s room for about a year, and for much of that time he had shared it with Diode Squad. But in most of his memories, hooked together as they were, it still felt as empty as if he slept there alone.

            They finished before him, but stood still facing him, waiting for him to leave the room first. It was habit, he suspected. As he walked past them and through the door, they fell into step behind him, single-file.

            “Unit Zero,” commanded Sa Eno, motioning to the bed. “Or… should I call you Echo, now? Who gave you that nickname?”

            Echo sat and then lay on the table at her silent urging, watching her face as she hooked his implant up to the computer. That ceiling….

            “My batchers. The cadets I trained with called me Echo.” Fives and Hevy flashed in his mind’s eye, frustrated, yelling at him. Shut up, Echo! He looked away from the ceiling; Diode Squad stood near the foot of the bed, staring at him.

            “Is there any particular reason you’ve instructed the others to call you by it now?”

            “I didn’t….” Echo felt something shift in his head, like the hum of an extra motor just below his hearing. “The captain we served under remembered me from when I went by it. They must have picked it up from him.”

            “I see.” Her tone of voice changed back to her usual directness. “It seems the program which keeps your emotional processes in balance is offline, as well as nearly all your analytical and connectivity functions. I thought as much from your behavior. I’m going to try to restore it and the rest of your systems, but before I do, I’d like you to upload your memories of the missions you were on, starting with the latest one.”

            “Echo was not conscious for much of our mission to Anaxes, and Republic Intelligence ordered us to keep our mission confidential,” said 7723, before Echo could make himself speak. “But we shall transfer our memories related to his malfunction. They are more complete than Echo's. Uploading now.”

            Sa Eno sighed and gave them a disapproving look. “Curious. Did you appoint a temporary leader of the squad in Unit Zero’s absence?” Her slight vocal stress on his lab designation felt like a weight on Echo’s chest.

            “No Doctor, not formally. We chose a spokesperson in order to communicate more effectively with our captain, once Echo—once Unit Zero was disconnected from us.”

            “And were you that spokesperson… Unit Three?” She looked at the number on his fatigues.

            “At one point. At another point it was… RC-Seven-Seven-Two-Two.”

            “Based on proximity to the captain, I suspect?”

            “I’m not sure, Doctor.” 7723 stiffened a little.

            “You don’t know the cause behind your own actions?”

            “It was largely subconscious and random, I suspect.”

            “You suspect?”

            “I speak for the unit. We made the decision of who would speak without conscious deliberation.”

            “Interesting. ” She turned back to the computer terminal by Echo’s head and called up the files.

            Echo could hear the audio from a portion of one of their earlier missions for Republic Intelligence, and for the first few minutes, he listened, pretending the emotionless voice in the recording belonged to some other clone. It wasn’t hard. He zoned out as he stared up at that ceiling, so blank and smooth but for two tiny scratches. For so many hours he had tried to focus intently on the soft shadows cast by the arching support beams, to find something in their shape that would take him away from his ruined body and the endless tests.

            It was those shadows—grey on pearly white—that he had woken up to so many times, his first reminder that he was alive and forever altered. As his vision had slowly regenerated with the help of the implant, he had finally noticed the scratches, and wondered if he imagined them. Where had they come from? There had been times when the only thing he could bear to think about was those two scratches, imagining every bizarre situation which could have brought them into existence. Perhaps one of Sa Eno’s rarely-seen assistants had gotten frustrated one day and thrown something in the air. Perhaps they had been there from the beginning, relics left by a clumsy construction crew, from one of their tools or while trying to fit one of the large machines that lined the wall behind his bed.

            For a moment Echo heard his own breath become shallow and was overcome by the sensation of oxygen tubes running down into his lungs, attached to a mask pressing tight into his face, with restraints strapped over his chest and legs. He was trapped.

            But he wasn’t. When he lifted his hand to reassure himself, Sa Eno glanced sharply at him.

            “What’s wrong? What is it?”

            “Nothing.” Echo took a deep breath and closed his eyes, putting the hand over his heart. “Nothing. I just….”

            She paused the video and checked the readings on his implant. “No notable changes….”

            “Unit Zero is disturbed by the fact that his normal processing functions were overridden by this chip,” said 7723. “We would all prefer to be re-integrated as soon as possible.”

            “Well, alright.” Sa Eno said, smiling a little. She turned back to the screen she’d been watching. “Show me the file from when this chip first took control.”

            Echo heard the dialogue, familiar at first, then moving beyond his memory after a short pause.

            “It’s coming from here, alright. I can see it transmitting. It made its way through an old industrial sensor grid. But the actual program that’s reproducing it is heavily encrypted and only accessible through this terminal’s local network. Let me just see if we can bypass the encryption…. Beginning decryption.”

            “He’s cut off.”

            “What? What do you mean?”

            “I’m not in communication with him anymore.”

            “Echo.”

            The sound of Rex calling his name crept through Echo’s veins as a numbing sense of helplessness.

            “Did the security system kick him out?”

            “I'm not sure. I can only access the most rudimentary processes of his implant now. Awaiting orders, sir.”

            “Echo!”

            “Sir! We were instructed not to unseal our suits or else face radiation poisoning!”

            “It's alright, kid. I don't think there is any radiation. At least not in here.” A slapping sound. “Look at me, Echo. That’s an order.”

            There was a pause, and then Sa Eno froze the recording. “Curious… if I re-create this situation, it could be useful in determining exactly how this happened, and how to prevent it in the future.”

            “It seems likely that if Unit Zero’s functions are restored, the conflict will occur in exactly the same way. We had to temporarily disable the chip with a localized electrical pulse before we could regain control of the network.”

            For a moment Echo’s body went cold in anticipation and his eyes opened, but she didn’t move from her seat.

            “Show me the file.”

            There was silence, followed by a quiet buzz and spark. Sa Eno frowned at the display and Echo wondered how far the squad would allow the file to play. After a few moments, the voices started again.

            “Sir! Don’t move.”

            “What’s going on—where am I?”

            Echo’s stomach twisted at the confusion in his own voice. It was an odd sensation, listening to himself.

            “Sir… are you alright?”

            “W….”

            “We’re in Drann. How do you feel?”

            “D… I killed… I killed Rex… When?”

            Sa Eno’s eyes widened and she paused the recording to look at him. “You did not tell me you killed your commanding officer.” Her voice was quiet, breathy.

            “I didn’t,” Echo half-whispered. “But I thought I did. I could have.”

            “And you have no memory of doing this?” She stood up.

            “I do remember, but I was helpless to prevent it.” Echo’s throat felt tight and he stared up at her, silently pleading but without daring to even turn his thoughts into mental words.

            “This chip… this… malfunction… is even more serious than I imagined,” she sighed. “I suppose your stress symptoms are no surprise, especially considering the fact that your mental processes are unstable right now. I’m impressed you managed to complete the mission at all.”

            Echo hesitated, eyes downcast, hoping one of the others would answer for him. They did.

            “We were severely delayed in completing the mission. Unit Zero was unable to assist after this point.”

            Sa Eno’s smooth face contracted, the taut skin bunching around her eyes and forehead. “I see.” Her voice was faint. “Well… our highest priority will be to fully restore your systems. There may yet be some way to prevent the conflict once I have an opportunity to analyze it.”

            “You’re… going to let the chip override my implant?” Echo’s skin prickled with dread.

            “Yes.”

            “But,” Echo said desperately, coming up on one elbow, “Doctor, this chip—the conflict with my implant could be dangerous, surely you realize—”

            “You are unarmed,” she said gently. “You cannot harm me. Besides, the other four will be here to protect me.”

            “Doctor,” 7723 interrupted. “We have called up the video of when Unit Zero misinterpreted orders. For your own safety, we believe you should review it before proceeding. It may help you to prevent triggering any violence once his chip is activated.”

            Echo stared at 7723, startled, and the boy blinked back at him. What are you doing? Echo thought, and wondered if 7723 could still distinguish his thoughts clearly enough to understand. It was risky to show Sa Eno the chancellor’s order to him. There was a possibility she might know of the conspiracy and believe they knew too much. Rex ordered me not to give any sign that I suspect anything!

            “Very well,” Sa Eno sighed. “I am curious.”

            7723 stared back at Echo intently, as if forgetting that Echo couldn’t receive the direct communication they had shared before.

            Sa Eno sat back down and played the video. The chancellor’s voice faded in.

            “….is a direct order to give the destruction of this virus the highest priority. These Mrlssi must not be allowed to stand in your way. You must clear them from the area and destroy the virus by any possible means.”

            “It will be done.”

            Blaster fire rang out, followed by terrified inhuman shrieks. Echo squeezed his eyes shut even though the video was not playing within his line of vision. Still, the vague images from his memories surfaced anyway, blasting bright light through the skulls of the Mrlssi before turning his rifle on Rex, not once, but twice.

            “There he is!”

            “No, ECHO!”

            Two shots, interrupted by Rex’s choked screaming, so much worse to hear in the sterile quiet of the lab rather than his own clouded memories. Echo clenched his fists, his jaw as tight as the knot in his stomach and told himself that he hadn’t killed him, he had saved him, but he didn’t know that for sure—there was a chance Rex hadn’t made it, that his plan to save him had failed.

            The voices ended abruptly. Sa Eno breathed.

            “How… disturbing,” she whispered to herself, and Echo knew she hadn’t missed the fact that his second shot at least had been deliberate. Seconds passed and he heard no further movement. At last he opened his eyes and turned them toward her. She was staring at him, her posture cautious.

            “Please, Doctor Sa Eno,” he whispered hoarsely. “I… I know you can find a way to make sure this never happens again.”

            Her eyes narrowed and for a terrifying moment he thought she was glaring at him; the solution would be to start over with another clone. But then she came closer and he realized the expression was a mixture of pity and determination.

            “I will. But in order to do that, I must analyze the malfunction while it is actively occurring.” She pushed him gently back onto his back and began strapping him to the table.

            “What do you mean?” Echo creaked. Icy shocks of fear washed through him in waves. His hands felt numb. “You’re going to try and get me to misinterpret orders again?”

            “No, of course not.” Sa Eno laughed nervously under her breath as she moved around behind him. “Hopefully, once I find a way to restore your systems without activating the chip, I will also know how to keep it from being activated by accident.”

            “Oh,” Echo breathed in relief. “Right….”

            The squad fanned out a little from where they were bunched at the foot of the bed as Sa Eno moved to strap his legs down too. 7723 and 7721 took a small step closer to him and stayed there even when the doctor had gone back to her computer.

            He looked up at them, wondering how often they had been this afraid, forced to trust him as he was forced to trust them now. All four seemed calm as ever, but as he looked between them, 7721’s face held his attention. There was a shallow line between the young commando’s eyebrows, and his eyes were half closed. To Echo, he looked sad, but he wondered if it was just the angle of his head, the shadows tricking him.

            Without warning, he felt his conscious self die.

            7724 watched as Echo’s eyes defocused, and felt his presence in their minds shrink, only accessible through the monitoring devices attached to the implant. He wondered if it would feel much different if one of the squad were to die. Would there be a greater shock to the network? When 7722 had been shot, it had been unpleasant and startling, but so was this.

            Better not to think about it, they all thought. Sa Eno tapped the computer display, dragging her fingers along the screen to sift through the diagnostic readouts that they could already see clearly in their mind.

            There was more information there than what the device in Drann had given them. Sa Eno’s instruments had more processing power and were more precise. The four of them picked the data apart quickly, like a row of tangled stitches being pulled up by many needles in exactly the right order and place to unravel.

            They could see it, hazily, the pattern of stimulation and repression, neural pathways filled or cleared sequentially to create commands in a programming code both like and unlike the one used by their own implants. They could see how it worked, the place—although it wasn’t really a place—where the conflict with the implant’s commands occurred and Echo’s higher functions were blocked, but to explain it would take ages, like trying to give verbal directions alone on how to build an astromech.

            “Doctor,” 7723 said instead. “The firewall in our implants was designed to adaptively classify specific traits of aggressive foreign programs and block any program displaying those traits that it encounters in the future. I don’t think it will be possible to make it mark the chip as safe now that it has marked it as a danger. And… now that it’s aware of the chip’s existence, internal attempts to suppress it are only encouraging the chip to activate.”

            “Yes, I am aware of that,” she sighed impatiently, half to herself, never taking her eyes off the screen. “I thought I had modified his programming enough to keep the chip undetectable. It is organic, after all, and while inactive it sends no commands the implant should be able to read. Apparently, telling the program it is a mere physical anomaly could only go so far.”

            “The chip is interpreting the very presence of the network as an incoming command. It seems it is designed to shut down the higher mental processes in such an event.”

            “Yes. Now, I’m trying to concentrate,” Sa Eno said.

            “Yes, Doctor. We—”

            “Unless you have a—” Sa Eno interrupted, but she stopped and blinked at the data analysis the squad had just sent her. “Oh. I see.”

            They waited for her to read through it, and as the quiet minutes passed, 7724 wondered why the chips had been removed from them, but not from Echo. They knew better than to ask. She was already displeased, which made little sense. When they had been deployed, she had told them—told Echo, and thus, all of them—that they should take every opportunity to use their analytical abilities for the benefit of the Republic. That’s what we’re doing now, he thought. Perhaps she was worried they knew too much. Perhaps she was simply dismayed, as they all were, that Echo was not the one speaking.

             He thought again of their conversation in the ship, when Echo had pointed out minute differences in their behavior. Echo's mental state was painful, but they didn’t think it was so important to be distinguishable. Surrendering to his thoughts usually meant greater unity, safety and clarity of mind, a kind of confidence and purpose that was difficult to duplicate without him. Still, 7724 wondered, if Echo had said something about him as he had for the others, what would he have chosen as a distinguishing characteristic?

            They looked at Echo’s hands resting loosely on the bed. You are the hand, they are the fingers, Sa Eno had said once, and then corrected herself, amused, because hands have no mind of their own. But the analogy had its uses. Fingers were different dimensions and arranged in a certain order to best suit the purpose of the hand. 7724 knew he was separate from the others and had a specific place, and Echo recognized that too. But a finger on its own was not nearly as effective as the full set working together. Agreement surrounded him, like standing in a room full of mirrors.

            They hoped Sa Eno would finish reviewing the data and make a decision soon. In the meantime, Echo’s physical read outs played in their minds. They could see his vital signs, the commands from the implant to maintain his respiratory system, low-level brain activity, nervous system and sensory modules. 

            Beyond the room the flood emergency and security system webbed through the city. In hundreds of classrooms and training labs, educational programs were running. They could feel every right and wrong answer if they wanted to, and calculate the success rate for each batch. They could analyze data on the development of dozens and dozens of embryos, or check the score charts for various training exercises.

            But somewhere in this vast network, there had to be some record of the chip’s development, instructions for its installation and removal. Standing still, they carefully probed the database on Sa Eno’s medical computer, the one that held their history. The security on it was fairly light, and they already had clearance to most everything in the cloning facility, but….

            “The implant isn’t responding to any of my overrides,” Sa Eno growled under her breath. “I will have to disable the chip again….” Sa Eno straightened and stood, deliberate but slow. “Call a medical droid.”

            “Yes, Doctor,” 7723 said, and transmitted the request immediately. “The droid is on its way.”

            While the droid was en route, they sent their data on the procedure to temporarily disable the chip. The droid requested more information, and they hesitated. It was possible the confidentiality of the chip was programmed into the medical droids on Kamino, and they would be reported if any inappropriate information was passed to them. But not likely, 7724 thought. They sent a small packet of information on the chip-implant conflict and its effects to the droid.

            Sa Eno stood by Echo’s head, her eyes narrowed in thought, her hands folded. They wondered sometimes what it would be like to know her thoughts as well. Would it make her commands less unsettling?

            The door opened and the droid hovered in. “Hello, Doctor,” it said in its chipper voice. “I have already been sent all necessary information. Is the patient ready for the procedure?”

            “Yes,” Sa Eno said hesitantly. She stood back. “Proceed.”

            The droid moved to Echo’s head and extended a small attachment from inside its chassis, which hummed slightly as it was placed on Echo’s skull.

            7724 and the others urgently sent more precise schematics of Echo’s brain and the location of the chip. His brain waves were already dangerously weak—any mistake was unacceptable. The droid adjusted accordingly, by micrometers.

            It only took a split-second pulse. Direct access to Echo flooded back, and they began checking and resetting his systems while he lay, his consciousness half-surfacing.

            “The patient is stable,” the droid said. “The device has been disabled. Doctor, may I ask if you plan to remove this chip?”

            “What?” Sa Eno looked worried. “No… not unless it proves necessary. I only needed to disable it in order to regain access to his implant’s defensive settings. I’m going to see if I can erase its knowledge of the chip.”

            7724 wanted to speak, and so did the others, but whatever they said would need to be carefully phrased. They deliberated while she keyed in her commands. The droid moved to a corner out of the way.

            “There,” Sa Eno whispered. “That should do it.”

            “Doctor…” Echo’s voice was weak and heightened to an odd pitch.  He blinked at the ceiling and fear fizzed through their connection. They considered commanding him to sleep so they wouldn’t have to feel it. “Did you….”

            “I’ve cleared your defensive programs of any knowledge of this chip. I’m about to fully restore your implant again.”

            Echo took a shuddering breath and 7724’s body tensed painfully. Then the fear was gone as suddenly as it came, and so was Echo.

            Sa Eno growled in a low frustrated exhale. “It didn’t work. You can’t force your way back into his system?”

            “No, Doctor,” 7723 said quietly.

            “We’ll have to try it again. There must be something I missed. Will the patient remain stable if we administer the shock again?”

            “He has a good chance of survival, yes,” the droid said. “I will be very precise. But repeating this cycle multiple times is not advised.”

            “Doctor,” said 7723, the tension still not fully gone from their bodies. “We are going to come into contact with aggressive programs in the future, programs like the virus which induced this conflict in the first place. It’s what we were made to do. Even if you can program his implant to ignore the chip now, there’s a good chance the conflict will be reset as soon as we encounter another virus.”

            “What other option do I have?” Sa Eno sighed, slumped over her desk. “I’ve put too much time into this unit to simply discard him.”

            No. The thought of Echo being discarded was not acceptable. For a few seconds, options for what to say were brought up rapidly in their mind, most of them thrown out just as rapidly. The droid was also running through possible solutions, and all at once they reached out to it.

            Wouldn’t removing the chip be the surest way to save the patient?

            The droid answered in the affirmative without hesitation.

            “There must be some way to remove the conflict altogether,” 7723 prompted.

            Sa Eno looked conflicted.

            “If we surgically remove the chip,” the droid finally said, “there would be no opportunity for future conflict with the implant.”

            “That’s true,” 7723 said. “It does seem to be the simplest solution.”

            She looked at them both. For a moment, 7724 wondered, they all wondered, what she would do if they tried to stop her from euthanizing Echo. Or perhaps she would keep him alive, continue trying to pull apart the puzzle until the shocks to his system became too much. Either way, if they actively stood against her, her disapproval would only prevent them from finding the answers they’d been commanded to, by both Echo and Captain Rex.

            “It is….” She frowned at the droid.

            It was so hard to predict how she would respond—whether saying something more would tip the scales in their favor or have the opposite effect. They struggled, half certain they should try while 7724 and 7721 held back, urging patience. The conflict was unpleasant.

            “I have no choice,” Sa Eno whispered to herself.

            7724 stepped closer to Echo’s head and the others did the same. It would do no good.

            “I have no choice but to remove it.”

            The droid came forward. “Then let us disable it again before proceeding.”

            Everything was going to be alright. 7724 took a step back; the squad prepared to give support to Echo’s systems the moment the network was restored.

            As Echo struggled toward consciousness again, Sa Eno injected a sedative that would keep him unconscious for the duration of the surgery. It was a relief. Then the droid went to work, first cutting a small incision, then drilling a hole in the right side of Echo’s skull.

            They watched it insert a thread-thin wire into the hole, and their stomachs hurt. A self-diagnostic confirmed that this was an anxiety response. Probably residue from Echo’s consciousness, they decided.

            At long last the droid pulled the device free from Echo’s skull, fastened a bulky corrective patch onto the open wound, and with the press of a few buttons, the chip was sucked into the attached vial, swirling in a haze of blood that slowly cleared.

            “There it is,” the droid said brightly. “His systems should be free of conflict now.”

            “Good. Dispose of that immediately,” the doctor sighed.

            “Doctor, perhaps we should preserve it for analysis, in case anything goes wrong.”

            “What do you think is going to go wrong?” she protested, but she looked worried. She took it from the droid and placed it in a small pocket on the pouch around her waist. “Alright. I’m initiating a full restoration of all systems.”

            Quickly, steadily, his presence filled their minds as he regained consciousness, and this time there was no fear, no discomfort, only a steady analysis of every new physical sensation as it happened, his eyes adjusting, his hearing restored. They felt his mind stretch out to them and beyond into the network of the city.

           Sa Eno disconnected his implant from the manual link up. He sat up and all at once the connection was complete. He looked at the rest of them, their eyes staring back, and his memory slotted disparate pieces into one coherent timeline. The first step toward saving the Republic was complete. Now they could move on to the next phase.

            “Can you stand?” Sa Eno asked. Echo stood to join the rest of him. “How are you feeling?”

            “All systems are functioning perfectly, Doctor,” he said. “Recommended command structure has been restored.”

            Sa Eno smiled. “Very good.”

Chapter Text

            Something was buzzing. There was always some noise on a spaceship, even if it was just the quiet hum of circuits or life support systems pumping air. But there was something buzzing loudly, and it seemed to be getting louder the longer Rex lay on the thin pallet, breathing the stale air through chapped lips and trying to ignore the fact that every inch of his body was aching.

            He kept his eyes closed. The light from the ray shield only made his headache worse. If he opened his eyes he would see the packs of water he had still refused to touch, the ration cubes the droid had left on the floor in front of him, close enough that Rex imagined he could smell them, even though he’d never thought of ration cubes having much of a smell before.

            They had trained him for this, on Kamino. Resisting interrogation. Choosing deprivation and death when in the hands of the enemy. The hours had passed in increments measured by how many words of the reg manual he could recite under his breath, particularly the sections on procedure in case of capture. All interspersed with confused images of being back in the hospital on Coruscant, back in the lab in Drann, lying immobilized in the dirt somewhere surrounded by the dead Jedi of his dreams.

            His mind ran over the same sentences again and again. Names: Skywalker, Anakin, Cody, Echo. “Fives….”

            The sound of the door opening made his whole body jerk, and he hissed as his cramped muscles and nerves spasmed.

            “You did not obey my orders,” the droid’s grating voice scratched its way into his skull. “You have not eaten any of the ration cubes I left for you. I do not think you have consumed any fluids in the past forty-eight hours. This is unacceptable.”

            Rex pretended to be asleep. Maybe if he was convincing enough, the droid would leave. Maybe it would think he was dead and toss him out an airlock. Not likely.

            The door closed. The buzzing stopped and the light softened. The droid’s steps vibrated through the floor under him, and still Rex stayed perfectly still. Something touched his shoulder, sparking pain and a panic response he could barely fight down. The droid shook him roughly and Rex couldn’t help grunting, a creaky noise squeezing involuntarily from his dry throat. He coughed uselessly, his whole body shuddering.

            “You are conscious. We should arrive on Elrood in approximately one hour, thirteen minutes. You will be given intravenous fluids.”

            There was no way he was going to die or escape before then. The droid would find a way to drug him and get the information either way, Rex realized. No. No excuses.

            “I know what you believe I am doing, human,” said the droid. “You believe I have drugged the water to prepare you for interrogation. But you are so weak I could easily give you the same drugs with a hypospray, and you would not provide any significant resistance. It is equally ineffectual for you to deny yourself the fluids necessary for survival.”

            Now that his body had started shaking again, he couldn’t get it to stop. Frustration burned his eyes as he opened them to the bleary sheen of the metallic world around him: metallic water packs, metallic floor, and the bent knee of the tactical droid.

            “If you wished to die, then why did you desert? Why did the intermediary ask that your life be preserved?”

            The droid’s droning vocal tone was incapable of much variation, but to Rex it sounded almost agitated. Right. A tactical droid was a tactical droid.

            “You will be required to walk when we land in Elrooden. If you are not capable, I will be required to create an intravenous hydration system for you myself. The result may not be pleasant.”

            Rex turned his head just a fraction of an inch; the room tilted and warped. His body flushed with nausea. He forgot why he had made the attempt in the first place.

            There was a ripping and popping noise, and a moment later, lukewarm water hit Rex’s face, rushing into his eyes and nose, a few stale drops making it into his mouth before he could close it. He coughed and raised a shaking, uncontrollable hand to wipe his eyes. The droid opened another pack, grabbed his wet, trembling fingers and wrapped them around it.

            “It is clear to me now why other species consider your kind to be no more than organic droids. I have a more rational approach to survival than you do. You have not adapted to the situation. You are operating on an outdated set of variables.”

            The droid rose to its feet.

            “I predict you may argue that you are serving some greater purpose by denying yourself. I do not see your point of view. You are no use to any other being or organization if you no longer exist. Certainly you are no use to me.”

            The droid left. Rex heard the door close. He licked his lips and felt a distant sense of guilt, even though his throat was so dry he couldn’t even swallow the drops he’d accidentally caught. Against the voices of his trainers on Kamino, against the angry and disappointed face of General Skywalker, he edged the nozzle of the water pouch closer to his mouth with his uncooperative hand, and after a few wet coughs, he swallowed a mouthful. Then another.

            After the fourth he managed to sit up—to stay sitting up, and wait for the room to stop spinning. His left arm had gone numb and began to tingle painfully as he wiped his scratchy face on his sleeve. It had taken too long for him to settle into a position that didn’t cause blistering needles to stab him in the shoulder and chest, and then he had lost all his will to move.

            Rex looked up. The droid had left the ray shield off. The buzzing was softer; the light was kinder, muted, coming from the edges of the room rather than directly above. But no doubt the door was still locked. Rex finished off the water pouch and drained another one before chewing slowly on a ration cube, trying to think. His head already felt a little clearer, the room a little steadier. He could taste the cube, the gritty flavor of it, and it was deliciously familiar in its blandness.

            The droid had said Elrood, not the Akuria system. Elrood was a populated planet; if they were really headed there, he would need his strength and wits for whatever was in store, especially if there was some chance of escape. He might not be able to fight the droid, but maybe he could lose it in a crowd. If there was a crowd. Best to be ready for anything.

            One more packet of water. One more ration cube between his teeth. Then, forcing deep breaths, Rex grabbed the edge of the empty storage container and hauled himself to his feet.

            It was the first time in—what—the droid had said forty eight hours had passed, at least. It was the first time he could really move around the room freely. Despite its emptiness, Rex methodically paced his way over every square foot of his cell. Yes, the door was locked. The sink in the corner didn’t seem to have been used in ages, and gave no water when Rex tried to activate it. There was no mirror on the wall.

            Rex turned away and circled the room slowly, counting each lap. After twenty, he took a break to eat and drink, to try stretching out his shaking arm. The droid nurse back on the star destroyer—that already felt like ages ago. He had memorized the exercise regimen it had given him. He sighed and went through the motions, extending and recoiling his arm. Ten times in each direction, it was supposed to be, or five if he couldn’t manage ten. After ten in only one direction, the pain had his vision swimming again and his breath coming short.

            Pacing it was, then. Just a little break. Ten rounds. Twenty. Ten in the opposite direction. Elrood. Rex didn’t remember learning anything about that planet, except that it used to be a peaceful, Republic-allied world. Perhaps there was someone among the millions of beings on the world that would help him. The trick would be finding them.

            Finally, after Rex had given up pacing and gone on to test his good arm’s strength—hours later, he was sure—Rex felt the ship rumbling with a deep, sustained vibration. It could only be atmospheric resistance. He felt himself shift through long habit into greater alertness.

            After a few minutes, it let up. A few more, and the little ship settled down. He stepped outside of the ray shield’s emission range and stared at the door, waiting for the droid to come in with whatever ally it might have on this planet. The minutes dragged on. Surely it had been nearly half an hour already.

            “Droid?” Rex said hoarsely into the silence, knowing it was probably futile. “I get it. Make me wait,” he sighed under his breath.

            The pain in his shoulder was finally receding to normal levels. Loneliness rushed in to fill its place, and Rex tried to think of something else, anything but the people he’d left behind. But who was this intermediary the droid kept talking about, and what happened to Echo’s contact? Echo, who had been so sure he could do nothing to help. It wasn’t time to give up yet.

             Rex jumped again when the door opened, startled out of memories. Instead of the E-5 rifle, the droid held a bundle of clothing. It turned its flat head immediately toward where Rex stood near the doorway, and threw the bundle at his feet. Instinctively, Rex backed up a few steps.

            “I see you have come to your senses,” said the droid. “Or your injury was simply a ruse. I will know soon enough.”

            “What’s this?” Rex nudged the wad of cloth with his foot, and the droid flung down a pair of boots as well.

            “You will draw unwanted attention wearing… that.” The droid pointed with one of its wedge-like fingers at Rex’s chest, where the Republic roundel was imprinted on his under suit. “Listen carefully, human. I still have clearance codes from the general I served under, which is why I was able to dock here, but they may not be sufficient to turn away all suspicion from citizens of Elrooden en route to our destination. You are to act as my human counterpart. In the event we are questioned, I was assigned as your escort by General Chikset.”

            “Wait. You want me… to pretend I’m some friend of this… General Chikset?”

            “Yes. I will supply any details as necessary. The probability that anyone will question us is already low. Elrood has not been involved in any recent conflict, and will not be familiar with your kind. But it is wise to have a plan for multiple contingencies.”

            Rex stared at the droid, waiting for the catch.

            “What is our destination?” he asked.

            “The nearest hospital. There are droid staff there who will cooperate with me.”

            “And… we’re just going to walk in the front door?” Rex asked skeptically.

            “Yes. They will not refuse a patient who is clearly in pain.” The droid stood still and stiff, blocking the doorway with its body, only its head turned toward Rex.

            “It’s not going to work,” Rex muttered. “The minute they try to do any scans, they’ll probably realize what I am….”

            “I already stated my confidence that they will not be personally familiar with clones of your template.”

            Rex frowned, weighing his options. “Look… droid… why are you helping me?”

           “There could be unforeseen advantages to an alliance between us,” said the droid. “Even if you prove useless, I made an agreement to take you to a place of relative safety.”

            “You’re trying to tell me you’re acting under some sort of… sense of honor?” Rex narrowed his eyes.

            “I would not waste time attempting to persuade you of such a thing,” droned the droid. “If you have no further objections to the plan, then you must put on the civilian clothes I have provided.”

            “I do have one objection,” Rex said, unsteadily lifting his left hand. “This wrist has an identification chip in it. If they scan my arm, they will know what I am. Even if you aren’t trying to interrogate me, you can’t guarantee that they won’t turn me in.”

            The droid tilted its head and took Rex’s trembling wrist in its cold metal grip, yanking it up to eye level to inspect it. Rex gritted his teeth against a shudder of revulsion—trying to pull away would only make the pain and shaking worse. The droid activated a small scanner attached to the side of its head, and a hologram of Rex’s face and basic military history appeared. It hadn’t been updated since the latest mission to Ryloth, Rex realized.

            “This chip could allow the Republic to track you.”

            “Yes,” Rex said after a tense heartbeat.

            “Unacceptable,” said the droid, its white empty eyes seeming to narrow as it dipped its head. “It will be removed. I will contact the medical droid. You will be dressed when I return.”

            It released his arm and left the room. Rex wondered if he’d made a terrible mistake. The droid could be going to confirm his identity to its superiors this very moment. But all he could do was play along with the charade until an opportunity for escape presented itself. The more he knew about the world he was escaping onto, the better.

            The clothes on the floor turned out to be a sleeveless tunic (so worn that Rex could only guess it used to be white), a dark brown hooded poncho, baggy grayish trousers and boots that were an entire size too big. Well, better too big than too small, although he had never worn clothing that fitted him so badly before. It was lucky the pants came with a belt. He was taking experimental paces in the boots, still frustrated by his own unsteadiness, when the droid came back.

            “Where did you find these?” Rex asked. “They don’t exactly smell clean.”

            “I eliminated a criminal. He was carrying a weapon within city limits. That is strictly illegal for anyone who is not under special permit from city officials.”

            Rex stared at the droid, then down at the clothes he was wearing.

            The droid tilted its head. “He was a citizen of the confederacy. Are you feeling pity for your enemies, human?”

            Rex made a disgusted noise under his breath. “You must have been carrying a weapon too.”

            “There was no need. Human bodies are fragile. You must be particularly aware of this.”

            Rex kept his left arm tucked against his stomach, hidden under the poncho, and glared at the droid as he pulled his hood up. “So… we’re going to the hospital. I pretend you’re my droid escort from General Chikset. How was I injured? Some kind of skirmish on my homeworld?”

            “Yes. Agamar. Do not divulge this unless someone important asks.” The droid raised an admonishing hand before grabbing Rex firmly by the arm, just under his right shoulder. “Do not engage civilians in unnecessary conversation.”

            The droid really didn’t have a weapon anywhere in sight, but Rex knew the moment that vice-like hand closed on his arm that the droid didn’t need one. The effortless brutal strength behind that grip did make his flesh and bones feel fragile, and there was no armor now between him and anything the droid chose to do. It could probably snap his arm in half if it tried.

            As the droid steered him down the hall, his oversized boots made him feel clumsy. They weren’t in any danger of coming off, but his clothing and armor had always been a fitted extension of his body. To feel his feet shifting around was disconcerting.

            They entered an airlock just off the hangar—bright light and sound hit Rex from the open gangplank: voices, perhaps even human voices! The rushing of wind was startlingly loud. He and the droid stepped out into the light, and Rex got only a glimpse of other ships along with distracted human and Teltior dock workers before the cool air hit his face and blew back his hood. Desperately he groped with his free, quivering hand to pull it back up.

            “Leave it,” the droid commanded. Or suggested. There was, Rex realized, some advantage to its complete lack of expression. Onlookers could take the comment however they wanted, and only guess from his reaction whether they were right.

            He let his hand drop with a shiver and gave in to the urge to simply look around, struck by the miracle that he had lived to set his feet on solid ground again.

            The port was set on an immaculate, light sand-toned platform extending toward and then over the side of a large canyon. The purplish rock formations below were only hazily visible, but above, the city spread wide and walled in places, glinting with the glass and metal of miniature turbines rotating on the rooftops.  In the opposite direction, patches of bright green blush covered the downward slope of the nearly empty land.

            As he stared, he became suddenly aware that one of the human port officials was approaching.

            “Jek Novar, is it?” said the official, consulting his small handheld. “Will you be taking full responsibility for this droid while in the city of Elrooden? I only reluctantly cleared it to make a supply run. If it is found straying from your supervision inside the city, I am obligated by law to report it.”

            “Yes, ah—yes sir,” Rex said hurriedly. The droid increased pressure on his arm.

            “Forgive the interruption,” grated the droid. “Master Novar is very ill. We must proceed to the hospital at once.”

            “Alright.” The official looked closely at Rex before he nodded briskly. “Do you require transportation? Accommodation? It would be my honor to arrange it for you, sir.”

            “No… I’m fine. Thank you.” Rex managed to keep his own sir silent. “Carry on.”

            And, miraculously, the official passed by with barely another glance. The droid waited until he was several paces away before jerking Rex forward by the arm.

            “You are not very convincing,” said the droid when they were almost to the security gate. “You hesitated in answering to your name.”

            “I didn’t hesitate,” Rex growled under his breath, heart thudding.

            “You glanced away and hesitated for approximately point-three seconds. Your expression indicated confusion. Your complexion changed.” The droid was, apparently, capable of lowering the volume of its voice significantly.

            “If I’m not convincing,” Rex hissed back, “it’s because you didn’t brief me on who I’m supposed to be. Would Jek Novar wear these clothes?”

            “You narrowly escaped a conflict with Republic forces. You are ill. No one will care what you are covered with.”

            “I’m not so sure about that,” Rex muttered, drawing back his shoulders. He tried to keep his stride confident and his face composed. This was enemy territory; he needed to process what was going on. His head felt too light and the dizziness was still clinging on a little.

            The attendant at the security gate waved them through when the droid flashed a hologram of a Koorivar—presumably, General Chikset. Then they were in a wide, busy street, full of faces—both the earthy tones of humans and the blues and grays of Teltior, long heavy ponytails swaying against the backs of the males. Shops lined both sides of the street, which led to one large plaza straight ahead.

          “This road ends in the Daya of the Elrood Bazaar,” said the droid. “The hospital is southeast of this position.”

            Rex hadn’t managed to get his bearings before entering the city, and although the sun was high in a clear, greenish sky, he couldn’t tell which direction it was coming from. He stayed silent and let the droid lead him, although he thought his arm might already be bruising under its grip. They went right, through an intersecting street which curved gradually to the left. The buildings, an unusual combination of decorative brick and elegant metal, were too tall and close together for the sun to hit the ground. No weapons in sight on anyone, even as the street became more crowded and cluttered.

            If the droid really wanted to help him, Rex had to admit, this was probably one of the best options among Separatist worlds. Its secession from the Republic seemed to have come without major damage so far, but it had only been a few years. It seemed unlikely that the Separatists would bring him here rather than some military base. But he had no idea what they might be planning.

            The droid pulled Rex around a corner, and within a few more streets he caught sight of the familiar red and white medical symbol on the central segment of a wide, three-spired building.

            “When we enter, human, I will do the talking,” said the droid.

            “Fine with me, droid,” Rex grunted.

             As they left the narrow street and came toward the fenced edge of an elevated square, Rex fought the urge to get a better visual on every other sentient in the crowd. The more confidently he presented himself as a citizen with nothing to hide, the better. Still, his neck prickled at every person who met his eyes or passed out of his line of vision. One old woman smiled at him with such sudden brightness that Rex couldn’t help but stare back in alarm, thinking she had mistaken him for someone she knew and would stop them to talk. But the droid’s pace quickly carried them out of earshot in the whipping wind, and Rex didn’t look back.

            A long curved ramp arched over the street below and up to the hospital entrance, guarded by low transparisteel walls and the occasional sculpture of some four-hoofed animal Rex was unfamiliar with.  Inside the glass doors, the droid took Rex right up to the front desk. The brisk pace had his breath coming short, and his heartbeat tripped uncomfortably as the woman there looked up at him and gave a crooked frown at the droid. She was gangly, young, and had a low, fluffy nub of a ponytail. Her matching eyebrows were drawn in a serious look that Rex hoped was habitual.

            “Excuse me,” the droid said. “Master Novar has an appointment with Doctor Hulseech. It is urgent. He is not well.”

            “Just one second,” she said as she pulled up a file on the desk’s screen. Any second now she would give some further indication that she was suspicious of him… she would call for backup….

            He glanced around to assess the room for exits. No back door immediately visible. There was the way they came in and adjacent windows but that would likely be the first they would block. If the droid really wasn’t his ally, there was no hope unless someone else took it out. In that case his best bet would be to break out the windows of an adjacent hallway—not a guaranteed possibility without a weapon or armor—or hide somewhere until an alternate exit was found. Civilians in the hospital would get caught in the fight if they went to the upper floors—

            “Right. She’s busy right now, but one of her droids will be down in a moment to lead you up. Have a seat.”

            Rex lurched slightly as the droid tugged him toward the bench. Once they reached it, the droid hesitated for a moment before sitting, pulling Rex down beside it. The large human man sitting on the other end of the bench gave the tactical droid a scandalized look and went back to watching the newscast.

            The other patients barely seemed to notice Rex. Instead, they cast furtive, bothered glances at his metal companion. Up on the wall’s screen, video played silently with subtitles, showing distant footage of a smoking city surrounded by trees.

            Republic gunships continue to swarm the skies over Calna Muun. At least five hundred civilians are currently listed as missing and not to be found on any official evacuation craft. Reporters in the field have been unable to approach the city, but they are now relaying the eyewitness reports of several evacuees.

            The video switched to a young man holding a tearful child snuggled against his chest, crowded in on all sides by fellow humans. He stroked the little one’s tangled hair as he spoke soundlessly to the reporter.

            “I remember being a Republic citizen. It wasn’t so long ago. Most of my life, you know, we were part of the Republic. I never thought they would attack like this, even though we’re part of the Confederacy now. I guess I don’t know what they want from us. We’re just farmers.”

            “How long were you given to evacuate?”

            “I never heard they—if I had heard anything, if I had heard there was going to be an attack, I wouldn’t have gone into the capitol this morning. We would have gone somewhere else to sell.”

            The screen flashed video clips of an agrarian city, streets filled with carts full of crated goods, and various tradesmen setting up shop.

            At approximately 11:25 local time, Republic gunships were spotted in the sky above Calna Muun. Ground troops cut off all exits within an hour. They were

            A spindly medical droid walked into Rex’s line of sight, breaking his focus on the screen. “The doctor is ready to see you now,” it said, in a low, soothing voice. It sounded nearly human after the tactical droid’s monotonous droning.

            “Very good,” came the grating answer from Rex’s right, and he got to his feet at the droid’s silent insistence. The man on the bench scooted slightly over and his posture noticeably relaxed.

             The movement made Rex feel feverish again, but his head cleared a little once they had moved down the hall and into a lift. The droid pushed the button for the eleventh floor, but the lift stopped on the third to let in a worried-looking Teltior. She gave a disapproving glance at the droid before leaning against the opposite corner, lost in thought. The lift stopped again on levels five, six, and eight. A human mother and her young child didn’t see the droid until they were inside the lift. The girl jumped and gasped audibly.

            “That’s a tactical droid!”

            “How do you know that?” hissed the mother, staring.

            “I am a tactical droid,” said the tactical droid. “I am escorting this unhealthy human.”

            “They’re super dangerous,” said the kid to her mother before turning a suspicious eye back on the droid. “I don’t know if this one is good.”

            “I am very dangerous in battle,” said the droid, “to my enemies. But I do not intend to engage you in battle. As you can see, I do not carry a weapon.”

            The mother picked up her daughter and took a small step away from the droid. She pressed the button for level 9.

            “Are you contagious?” asked the kid, and Rex realized she was speaking to him. He smiled weakly, noting the mother’s defensive posture and watchful eye. He wondered just how unhealthy he looked with his unshaven and bruised face, never mind the scruffy clothing.

            “No,” he said quietly. “I’m not contagious. Don’t worry.”

            She quirked her eyebrows and pulled a curl of hair over her upper lip. “Well that’s a relief.”

            The mother carried her off in a hurry. Once again the lift was empty of civilians, and Rex realized numbly just what a bizarre situation he was in. Never in his wildest dreams would he have imagined depending on a tactical droid’s social skills to help him avoid capture in enemy territory. It was like a dream where no one but the dreamer seems to notice his missing clothes.

            At long last the lift reached the eleventh floor. The medical droid led them down another colorfully tiled hallway and into a small room with a single surgical table.

            “Doctor Hulseech will not disturb us,” said the medical droid in its mild voice as it shut the door. “TL-Eighty-Nine, I never expected you to bring me a patient.”

            The tactical droid—TL-89—finally let go of Rex’s arm, shoving him away from the door. Rex managed to stay steady on his feet as it took up position in front of the exit, its blocky arms at its sides.

            “Can you remove his ID chip?” it asked.

            “Why don’t you take this off and let me have a look at your arm,” said the med droid, reaching for Rex’s left side and pulling up on the poncho. “Don’t worry, I just want to assess the damage.”

            Reluctantly, Rex took it off. The med droid’s grip on his arm was so gentle it seemed to be barely touching him. It extended his arm carefully and scanned his shoulder.

            “I want this human restored to good condition,” said TL-89. “He must be presentable if my use of him is to be effective.”

            “Your use of me?” Rex scowled. “What exactly are you going to use me for?”

            “I will need to do a more thorough scan,” said the med droid. “Please lie down on the table.”

            Glancing away from TL-89’s stubbornly mute gaze, Rex obeyed. The scanner arced up from the sides of the table, joining together over Rex’s chest. The med droid examined the data on the linked pad.

            “Who did you retrieve this clone for, TL-Eighty-Nine?”

            “For myself,” said the droid. “I will be responsible for his life… if you predict he will survive his injuries.”

            “What?” Rex scoffed. “What about the intermediary you mentioned? What about dropping me off on some deserted planet?”

            “Hmm,” said the med droid, nodding to itself. “I see. But I do not think you will make a good caretaker for this clone. You seem to have forgotten that humans require water and food to survive. He is severely dehydrated.”

            “I did not forget. He refused my offers of sustenance. I will be more forceful in the future.”

            “His shoulder and chest has a great deal of scar tissue, most likely from blaster wounds. It has been injured before, recently injured again in a similar fashion. I see signs of recent surgery.”

            “Yes,” Rex said, loudly and clearly. “I had reconstructive surgery on the nerves in my shoulder. Do you think it will heal?”

            “With physical therapy, and if you do not overtax yourself… there is a possibility, yes.”

            A possibility. That sounded worse than the first opinion he’d gotten.

            “If you intend to keep him, removing the ID chip is a wise decision,” said the med droid, moving to examine Rex’s wrist. The table’s scanner retracted and Rex sat up.  “I would recommend buying him better clothing as well, to reduce suspicion about his origins.”

            “Listen,” Rex growled, staring at his captor. “I never said I would cooperate with you. Whatever you’re planning! I’m not about to be some droid’s servant.”

            “You have no choice but to cooperate, if you are to survive.” Rex imagined an undertone of smugness in the droid’s voice. “I make your presence in Separatist space legitimate. You make my presence in human space legitimate. You have no credits, no status, and no means of transportation. Yet, as you have already seen, civilians will not dare dispute your allegiance when you are accompanied by me.”

            “I will anesthetize the area, but you may want to be unconscious for the surgery,” interrupted the med droid in the same soothing tone.

            Rex felt an overwhelming urge to kick the med droid away and dive for the door, but his body still felt so weak, he knew such a desperate attempt would never succeed. As infuriating as it was to admit it, the tactical droid was right. He couldn’t think of any better way to move freely among civilians and avoid detection, at least for now. And as risky as it was, a chance to fulfill his true mission was standing right in front of him, selecting a hypospray.

            “Wait! Wait!” Rex protested, snatching his arm out of the med droid’s grasp. “I….”

            Both droids’ eyes glowed silently at him, white and dull yellow.

            “If you really want to keep me out of the Republic’s hands,” Rex began slowly, “if… you really want me to cooperate with you, you’re going to have to do more than just remove the ID chip. That’s not the only way the Republic can get to me.”

            TL-89 just stared, its squashed-looking head tilted in a way that Rex read as skeptical, but which could have meant anything. He took a deep breath.

            “There’s another chip. In my brain. It’s probably hard to detect… but it’s capable of overriding my will so that I have to obey any order I’m given by… Republic officials. I don’t know how it’s activated, but I do know it’s been triggered before in other clones, and those clones have attacked allies and killed them. As long as it’s in my head, I’m still nothing more than their weapon.”

            The tactical droid didn’t move or speak for a few seconds.

            “Ha, ha, ha,” it finally said, and gestured to the med droid. “Scan his brain. We will see if this chip exists.”

            “Why would I ask you to cut open my head if it didn’t?” Rex grumbled. He lay back down on the table feeling cold.

            “You have a very low regard for your own life. Your motives are likely irrational.”

            Rex sighed shakily as another scanner closed over his head. An unpleasant vibration started at the base of his skull and moved up through his teeth, nose, and eye sockets. He wasn’t sure if that was an effect of the scan or just a headache from the pain in his shoulder.

            “I do not see any chip,” said the med droid.

            “It’s there!” Rex barked. “Look again.”

            “I will do a more thorough scan. What am I looking for?”

            “It’s… large, completely organic.” Rex tried to remember what the Mrlssi and the commandos had said, back in Drann. “It requires an extremely invasive scan to even detect, but… in at least one of the soldiers, it was located here, in this area.” Rex reached up to touch the right side of his head, where the Mrlssi scientists had scanned Echo.

            “Nothing is coming up. I do not recommend an atomic scan in your weakened state. It is likely to be unpleasant at best. Brain surgery is also inadvisable.”

            “Perform the scan,” commanded TL-89. “He will present an unacceptable risk if he is telling the truth.”

            “This may result in some nausea,” said the med droid. “Please try to lie still and take deep, calming breaths. I am injecting you with an antiemetic.”

            Rex closed his eyes and inhaled slowly as the hypo discharged. In less than five seconds a feverish heat washed over his skull, seeping through the bone. His closed eyes ached and his stomach squeezed. He broke into a sweat; he could feel it beading on his upper lip and forehead, the back of his neck, and the palms of his hands. Inhale, exhale.

            The scan proceeded at an achingly slow pace. The vibrations of the machine were nauseating him almost as much as the tight pulsing inside his skull, but the heat eventually dissipated and he cracked opened his eyes to see the scanner retracting. Rather than tilting, the room quivered at the edges as he lifted his head. The med droid laid a hand on his chest and said “just a moment.”

            “Was it there?” Rex gasped, grimacing as he wiped the sweat from his face.

            “Yes. I have collected enough data to attempt its removal. But I must inform you, there is a high risk of complication.”

            Rex swallowed, focusing on the point in the corner where the ceiling met the walls. “Like what?”

            “The brain is a very delicate organ. And you are not well. Brain damage is a possibility, and considering the location of this device, its removal could cause behavioral changes, sensory problems, or a severe chemical imbalance of some kind. It is difficult to predict.”

            Rex shuddered and dried his shaky palms on his tunic. The thought of waking up as essentially a different person was terrifying. That this was also the reality he faced someday if the chip was not removed was a cruel irony.

            “Alright,” he finally said, propping himself up on his good elbow. “Droid… you say you keep your word. Why don’t we make a deal?”

            “You are not in any position to bargain with me, human,” said TL-89, still at its post by the door.

            “No.” Rex contained the rush of hatred by taking another deep breath. “But if you’re really going to go through with this… would you rather I cooperate willingly, or be fighting you every step of the way? If you promise me this one small favor, then I give you my word… I won’t try to run. I just want the chip when the med droid is done with it. The one in my head.”

            “Why?” TL-89 elongated the word a bit.

            “I want to find out if there’s a way to disable it in other clones. Without surgery,” Rex said quietly.

            The droid just kept staring at him in that unreadable way, and Rex stared back, fighting his own sickening sense of humiliation. Begging for favors from a tactical droid. But if it saved even one life… it would be worth it.

            “Please.” As if asking nicely would count for anything. “It’s… the reason I left the army.”

            The droid raised a hand in a careless gesture. “I will permit you to keep it, human. We have an agreement. You will serve as my escort indefinitely. You will not try to escape.”

            “Yes.” Indefinitely. Rex reminded himself that a tactical droid was a tactical droid, and if it turned out he had to break his word later, so be it.

            “We will see if you honor your agreements. Proceed with the extractions.”

            “I hope you both know what you are doing,” said the med droid as it hooked Rex’s right arm into the IV.

            Rex wondered if General Skywalker ever felt like this when he came up with his crazy plans. Sometimes it was a matter of Jedi instinct, surely, but sometimes there was simply no sane option short of giving up. And Rex had come too far to give up now, even if it meant going against his instincts and making himself even more vulnerable in enemy space. As unlikely as his survival had been, he had to take every opportunity to keep moving forward. If nothing else, he would reach the end knowing he had tried.

            “I’m going to put you under now,” said the med droid. Rex closed his eyes.

            “Is he awake?”

            Rex’s heart pounded in his ears. Tactical droid. Tactical droid. He felt something hooked into his arm and reached for it—a metal hand blocked him, closing around his wrist.

            “Gen—Skywalker—no—” he gasped, lurching up to claw at the hand before remembering that General Skywalker wasn’t here, and never would be. His free hand was useless, half-numb. Rex’s eyes were so heavy, he thought for a moment he’d been blindfolded until a crack of light seeped through. No, not blindfolded. He’d been drugged.

            The hospital room. He remembered. The panic ebbed and left him weak. He nearly fell back onto the bed.

            “It is alright,” said the med droid. “You are safe.” It turned its head. “I told you your voice might induce this response.”

            “How long before he is returned to normal efficiency?” asked TL-89. Rex stared at its six eyes until they became only two. He blinked sluggishly, crawling further into consciousness.

            “There is very little I can predict with such limited information.” The med droid waved a small handheld scanner very slowly over the right side of Rex’s head. “It does appear that his brain activity has increased slightly in the affected area. I see no indication of internal bleeding… he does not appear to be in any physical danger.” The droid held up a thin panel in which a small fleshy mass was encased; a moment later it was in Rex’s right hand.

            Rex examined the chip, each heartbeat still pounding painfully into his skull. The thing didn’t look like a chip at all. It looked like a warped patch of skin. “This is the chip?” he half-whispered.

            “It is a fascinating piece of hardware. Kaminoan make, I assume?”

            “Yeah….” Rex turned his head left and right, squinting, fighting the overwhelming heaviness. It felt like gravity had increased, but that wasn’t it exactly. “Am I still sedated?”

            “The anesthesia has almost finished wearing off. You should feel normal soon.”

            “I don’t feel normal,” Rex mumbled heavily, rubbing the back of his fist against his forehead. Everything felt… off. It was hard to place it, exactly. Somewhat like his dehydration headache. Maybe that’s all it was, although it wasn’t quite like any headache he’d ever had before. It felt like someone was touching his head. He pocketed the chip and reached up to brush a hand over his hair only to realize he had been shaved.

            “Please describe your symptoms.”

            “I feel….” Rex couldn’t think of any good words. “It’s probably just a headache… maybe I can feel the tissues in my brain being repaired….”

            “That seems unlikely to me, although if you are feeling emotionally altered, I must remind you that I did warn you that could be an effect.”

            “Emotionally?” Rex murmured to himself. “Maybe…. Probably just … the drugs and starvation talking….” He laughed weakly under his breath and got up off the bed, before realizing his arm was still hooked into the IV.

            The droid carefully removed it and laid a tiny patch over the IV puncture.

            “Thanks,” Rex sighed. “Guess we’ll find out in a few days if any of this is permanent.”

            “Your brain seems to be adjusting quite well to the surgery,” said the droid, waving the scanner again. “It is already forming new pathways to make up for the loss of the chip. Additionally, I have destroyed the identification chip, so you needn't worry about that.”

            “You will adjust quickly, human,” said the droid, prodding his chest aggressively with a metal finger. “Or I may be forced to abandon you on an isolated planet after all.”

            “I’ll do my best, droid,” Rex growled back unsteadily.

            “If you like, I can keep you here under observation,” said the med droid. “For a few days… and guide you in physical therapy for your shoulder.”

            “Oh.” Rex straightened, rolling his injured shoulder. “It doesn’t hurt as much… must be the anesthesia.”

            “Your shoulder was severely inflamed. I brought down the swelling and gave you a muscle relaxant. It should be easier to do the necessary exercises now.”

             Rex extended and recoiled his arm several times. It burned, but it was manageable.

            “Very good,” said the droid. “I assume you were given instructions on the next stage of therapy as well?”

            “Increase reps ten per week until the third week, then go to fifty each exercise three times a day, then move on to resistance exercises. I’ve got it memorized up to full recovery.”

            “We will not stay,” said TL-89. “Our presence here should not be prolonged.” He pointed at the med droid. “You will erase all record of it.”

            “Ah. Well, then. I will give your human a small prescription to keep the swelling down. Excuse me.”

            Rex stepped aside to let the med droid leave the room.

            “I hope I will not regret ordering this procedure,” said TL-89, when the door closed.

            “I’ll be fine,” Rex said firmly, against the vague uneasiness that was seeping into his skin. “But my shoulder will need time to heal.”

            “Understood. I do not require your physical capabilities to be completely recovered. It is enough for you to appear to be a normal, respectable human.”

            “Well, if that’s what you want, you might want to think about finding me a razor,” Rex said, rubbing his jaw with the edge of his fist. The awful scratchy texture worked as a distraction from the nagging feeling of disorientation.

            “I will consider your request.”

            “I could use a shower and a fresh change of clothes,” Rex added.

            “The ship is equipped with hygienic facilities.”

            “What exactly am I being respectable for? You know I’ll never pass as a part of the Separatist military. They would know a clone when they see one.”

            “The high level commanding officers would know,” the droid agreed. “But we do not need to fool them.”

            Rex folded his arms, thinking. The most likely use for a Republic clone would be as a spy or saboteur within the GAR. He could make that work to his advantage, if a way to shut down the chip on a broad scale were manufactured by then.

            “Who exactly are we fooling?”

            “I will not give you any more information than you require at any given time. That is the most efficient and secure approach.”

            “Well… you have a point, there,” Rex admitted under his breath. “But I can’t go back to Republic space. Not as myself, anyway. And you wouldn’t be welcome there.”

            The tactical droid remained silent as Rex tried to work it all out. The droid had said nothing about Rex legitimizing its presence in Republic space. So whatever it was planning was in Separatist space.

            Rex moved away from the droid and paced around the room, needing to keep moving. He looked at the chip again, resting in his palm.

            “You plan to lead a mass revolt of your kind,” said TL-89. Rex couldn’t tell if it was a statement or a question.

            “No. I was bred to serve the Republic,” Rex said quietly. “And I don’t intend to betray it. But I do want my brothers to have a choice about what orders they follow.”

            “You contradict yourself. There is no place for you in the Republic but as slaves.”

            “We’re not slaves!” Rex protested. “Not to the Republic… or the Jedi. We fight for them because of what they are defending.”

            “You are delusional.”

            “It’s a waste of time trying to explain anything to you,” Rex said, sighing. “You’re a Separatist droid, so of course you think the Republic is corrupt.”

            The door opened and the med droid walked in with a flat palm-sized box of pills. “I hate to send you away so soon, but I don’t think TL-Eighty-Nine has ever been a very patient droid. And it will be easier for me to erase your presence here the sooner you are gone. Here you are.”

            It held out the pills to Rex, who took them and put them in his pocket, realizing again how completely he was putting his trust in a droid who worked for the enemy. But it was easier with medical droids—they were programmed to help people.

            “Thanks,” Rex sighed, and found he really meant it. He hesitated. “Listen… do you know of anyone I can contact who might engineer a virus that would disable this?” He gestured toward the droid with the chip. “Without causing any harm to the clones who have it?”

            “Hmm. That is quite the undertaking. It would probably require extensive study of both your immune system and the capabilities of the chip. Such research is not my specialty. Since the chip is organic, any such virus would likely have to be modified off an existing one which naturally targets that area of the brain, and it would be difficult to genetically reprogram it to avoid damaging the brain itself.”

            “But there has to be someone who can do it, right?” Rex insisted in a low voice. “Don’t you know anyone?”

            “Unfortunately, I do not have many contacts. And none who specialize in genetic manipulation. Perhaps TL-Eighty-Nine will take you to Raxus. I would not be surprised if he could find someone there.”

            Rex’s mouth twisted at the thought of asking, but he glanced at the tactical droid anyway.

            “Come, human. It is time for us to leave. We will discuss this in a more secure location.”

            The droid flapped its wedge fingers in a beckoning gesture, and Rex stood rooted to the spot with angry humiliation for a moment before turning one last look on the medical droid.

            “Thank you,” he said again, surprised at how reluctant he was to leave this one purely helpful being. “I’ll… take good care of my shoulder.”

            “That’s right.” The med droid patted him on the arm, and handed him his discarded poncho. “I hope to see you in full health if we ever meet again. Although… considering our separate functions, such a scenario is unlikely.”

            “Right….” Rex pulled the poncho on and turned to walk past the droid and out the door. Again the grip closed on his right arm. “Ugh….” The feeling came over him again, of complete disorientation, an undertone of terror, and gratitude, and devotion. Now was not the time to wrestle with all of this.

            The tactical droid shook him slightly. “Cease.”

            And just like that, the emotion left him, replaced by annoyance. He blinked and they were inside the empty lift.

            “I will procure a suitable meal for you,” the droid was saying. “You will also select whatever hygienic items and clothing you require.”

            Rex kept his left hand curled around the chip and the pill case in his pocket. It still trembled whenever he moved it. He thought of the look in Echo’s eyes the last time they’d spoken, the despair he’d seen at the thought of going back to the Kaminoan scientists. If Echo could face that alone, then Rex could kowtow to a droid for a little while.

            “And then what?” Rex finally asked.

            At that moment, the lift doors opened and some civilians walked in. The tactical droid ignored their startled glances and said simply, “We keep moving.” Rex could almost hear the silent human the droid left hanging at the end.

Chapter Text

            Voices woke him, interfering with foggy dreams. When Cody opened his eyes, the indistinct images faded immediately into the bottom of the upper bunk. Bodies moved in his periphery, and he recognized a particular cadence of laughter—that was Commander Sal, who he only ever saw on Coruscant. A look around and a moment to drag his mind further out of sleep reminded him of where he was.

            It felt like he’d been doing something last night that left him wired and exhausted, but they’d arrived in the late afternoon, early enough to settle in before dinner. Most everyone had returned to the barracks early. He checked his chrono, realizing as he did so that he had nowhere particular to be. Seven forty-seven.

            Cody bolted up and out of bed to retrieve a fresh service uniform. The voices turned on him.

            “Ah, good morning, Commander.”

            “Must’ve been a hard campaign; you slept in!”

            Cody glanced up at those who were speaking to him. Sal and Captain Dara were suiting up in their armor. He forced a smile through his sleepiness.

            “Yeah, two long battles in a row,” he said, keeping his voice light. “I better hit the showers.”

            “See you around,” someone said, and Cody didn’t look to see who it was. He was already out the door and headed down the hall.

            The showers were rather empty for this time of day. Just went to show how many were out on the front, Cody thought. The war was coming to a climax, and here he was, hiding in a quiet room offstage. It wasn’t right. The echoing spatter of water and footsteps on the shower floors sounded too distinctive—there were too few sounds to blend into the usual comforting background noise of life.

            He wondered who General Kenobi had chosen to lead in his absence. The hot water poured over his head and he closed his eyes, his body automatically going through the motions of washing his hair, his face and body, barely noticing the unevenness in his skin from the occasional scar. Tucker’s words repeated in his mind. You just need to get some rest, Commander. Nothing’s wrong with you.

            Once dried, Cody dressed and shaved quickly, mentally lining up his tasks for the day. He needed to check in with his men, make sure everything was in order. Check weapons, check supplies. That should kill some time.

            Cody walked outside. The sun glinted brightly over the roof of the GAR headquarters, turning the flag into a ripple of bright scarlet and casting long shadows over the flat thoroughfare between the buildings. It must have rained sometime in the night; he could smell the damp fuel smell that rose off the darkened ground. So different from rain on Kamino, and different again on other worlds he’d visited. He lost himself in the numbing rhythmic march to the 212th barracks, barely looking up from his shadow in front of him except to check proximity when a tank rolled by.

            As he crossed toward the door, a blur of blue and white made him stop and turn his head. The paint job on the helmet wasn’t the same and the ARC trooper was wearing two pauldrons rather than one, but just for that split second, an irrational sense of possibility had risen in him. The blue wasn’t even the right shade… too light. The ARC trooper continued until he’d run past where Cody stood. Off to join his battalion on a mission, or some general’s plotting strategy. Cody shook himself and kept walking.

            After the brightness of outside, the barracks seemed dim for a few seconds. Cody had chosen 219 men from among those recommended by Tucker and the various captains and lieutenants he commanded. He’d tried to avoid picking any of the officers, but there were still a few sergeants and one lieutenant in the mix.

            “Sir!” said Sergeant Ro, the first to notice him in the hallway. “I think Lieutenant Stern is in the mess. Shall we gather the troops?”

            “How many of them are in the barracks?”

            “Not many. Most everyone is still fueling up.”

            “Is West busy?”

            “Probably,” Ro said with half a laugh. “But I don’t think he’s dealing with anything too important. Last I saw him he was badgering Zenk about his burns.”

            “Good. Have him meet me in the armory.”

            “Very good, sir.” Ro ran off to fetch the medic, and Cody turned down the opposite hallway, making eye contact with the few he met on the way. He tried to stay alert for any signs of the exhaustion Tucker and their superiors had noted, but most everyone looked as they normally did.

            Cody had already made it halfway through checking their stock of supplies and inspecting the spare arms when West showed up, wearing his white service uniform. He walked in just as Cody sat down on a crate with a DC-15A balanced on his lap so he could check that the tibanna gas cartridge was fully stocked with charges.

            “Commander,” West said abruptly, with his usual salute. “You wanted to see me. I apologize for being late.”

            “At ease,” Cody said. “You’re technically on leave with the rest of us.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            Cody looked up. West was a gruff sort, his goatee bracketed by thin shaved lines all along his chin. Cody always thought the lines were suggestive of vibrations, especially when he jutted his chin out thoughtfully as he was doing now.

            “How are Zenk’s burns?” Cody asked.

            West rolled his eyes slightly, hands behind his back. “They’d be fine if he’d just take a day to not do anything with his hands, let the bacta do its work. But he hasn’t. I’m pretty sure they’re getting infected, and he’s still putting up a fuss.”

            “I’ll give him a direct order.” Cody hefted the heavy rifle to put it away. “Let me know if he gives you any more trouble. Anyone else?”

            “Well….” West folded his arms. “Plenty more wounded, but none of them are being much of a problem so far. We’ll see if they behave themselves and actually rest like they’re supposed to. Do you want a list, sir?”

            “I trust you to take care of it,” Cody said, pulling out another rifle to inspect. “Between reports from you and the temporary group leaders I’ve assigned, that should keep me informed of what I need to know.”

            “Yes sir,” said West. Cody heard something familiar in his tone. Something uneasy he didn’t like.

            “What is it, West?”

            “Ah, well, sir… you’re on leave too, right?”

            Cody sat back down and studied the questioning look West was giving him. “Technically, yes.” He removed the cartridge.

            “Are you planning on doing a full inspection, sir?”

            “I’m considering it. Why?”    

            “The men….” West stopped, brow furrowed. “Being personally chosen and pulled from the front lines like this, especially at this stage of the war… it has some of them worried. Some of them don’t feel trusted to do their duty, and…. You have a right to inspect their work at any time, of course, Commander. But say they saw you inspecting their weapons so closely now. On the front, they’re always trusted to keep their gear in good condition.”

            Cody stared down at the fully loaded cartridge in his hand, and slipped it back up into the stock with a satisfying series of clicks.

            “Have you been seeing any negligence in the ranks?” West murmured.

            Cody shook his head. “So far, everything is perfectly in order.” He replaced the rifle and didn’t pull out another one. “I just want to make sure we’re all ready to join the rest of the battalion when the time comes.”

            “Yes, sir.” A pause. “It’s good to know that you and the general haven’t lost confidence in us.”

            You and the general. Cody looked over the remaining rifles and took a step back. The men still saw him as an authority, the other half of the unit that commanded them, and here he was, only looking for distraction. He suppressed a sigh.

            “General Kenobi is trying to limit casualties,” he said quietly. “He’s decided that we’ll all fight more effectively if we have a chance to recover between long periods at the front.”

            “I see.” West’s face relaxed a little. “Good call, then. I agree with him. We deserve a bit of a rest.”

            Cody tried to smile at that.

            “Especially you, Commander,” West added, and Cody felt himself tense.

            He forced a soft laugh and turned toward the door. “Well, I’d better head over to the mess and get a report from the others. Keep me posted.”

            “I will, sir.” West frowned, but he frowned about most things. Cody told himself not to look too much into it.

            Still, the tension creeping up into his shoulders resisted being shaken loose. He paced his breathing as he walked toward headquarters, squinting against the sun right in front of him. It washed the damp permacrete he walked on into a blinding golden-grey brightness.

            The distant rumble of vehicles and industrial pipelines vibrated through the empty spaces between the barracks. As Cody passed into the main building’s shadow, he looked up at the huge pillar surrounded by statues of clone troopers, the lines of loudly snapping red banners on his left, and the honey-colored stone slab on his right… the monument to the troopers who died in the First Battle of Geonosis. Normally he felt an exhilarating sense of pride whenever he passed this way. Sometimes it was more subtle than others, but there nevertheless. Not today.

            A few members of the city guard flanked the scanners inside the door and Cody nodded a greeting to them as they waved him through the security gate. Red armor was in the majority here, especially with so many battalions currently off-world.

            He left the high-ceilinged but narrow, grey entrance for the hallway to the various facilities, which included the mess, the gym, the shooting range, the repair stations, and so on.  The mess itself was all one noisy room, and as Cody entered, he stared down the rows of tables, picking out the men painted in his colors.

            Kenobi had said to have them in good condition and ready for battle by the time their leave was over, and Cody intended to do just that. He paused just inside the doorway and let their voices wash over him, remembering when last he’d been on Coruscant, triumphant, Rex greeting him with that subdued smile. He’d never imagined his next visit could feel so different.

            He pressed forward into the scattered laughter and quiet hubbub. Lieutenant Stern was talking to one of the members of his platoon, but stopped as soon as he spotted Cody. The tattooed lines reaching from his hairline toward his eyes made him look older. He stood as Cody approached.

             “Commander,” Stern said easily, but he left one hand resting on the table.

            “Lieutenant,” Cody replied. The other men there were mostly members of Stern’s platoon. Cody motioned toward the wall and stepped away. Stern followed.

            “Something wrong, sir?” Stern asked quietly.

             “Not as far as I know,” Cody replied, turning his back to the wall, hands clasped behind. “Is there?”

            Stern mimicked his posture, but stood sideways, facing away from the men at his table. “Nothing of note.”

            Cody stared through Stern’s guarded face, thinking of Rex, and how reluctant he always was to say what he was really thinking, ever since they’d first met. It was a common trait among his brothers.

            “Some of the men,” Stern finally admitted, “are wondering how long before we’re returned to General Kenobi. But of course we’re all most concerned with doing our duty to him, whatever that may be. And, I assume, right now our duty is to… recover.”

            “Stern,” Cody half-sighed in exasperation, tapping a fist against Stern’s shoulder. The motion felt both natural and faked. “I asked if something was wrong. And I’m asking brother to brother. Yeah, relax a bit. It’s your duty right now, after all.”

            “Yes, sir,” Stern said sheepishly. His voice lightened a bit even as his face remained doubtful. “It’s just… disconcerting. If I was chosen to leave the front at this critical time, then that means there was something I did to draw attention to myself. And I’m the only high ranking officer who was chosen.”

            “That’s….” That’s not true, Cody nearly said, and heat rose in his face. He looked away, hoping it wasn’t visible. “Understandable. But the General stressed that I choose anyone who needed a rest. You’ve been working hard.” Cody held up his fingers and began ticking off points. “Your platoon suffered heavy losses on Clak’dor Seven. Before that, you took over leadership of Flash Company when Captain Gil was injured. I chose you because you’ve worked harder than any other officer for the past three missions. Now that Gil is back on his feet, he can take care of your platoon. It just made the most sense.”

            “Oh. Understood, sir.” Stern’s face gradually opened from its guardedness as Cody spoke. That kind of transformation was something Cody loved to tease out of people. It had been so halting with Rex, coming in sudden starts and stops. And still he hadn’t opened up completely, after all these years.

            “So,” Cody said firmly. “You can tell your men the same thing. They’re being given leave as compensation for all the sweat and blood they’ve put into these battles.”

            “Thank you, sir. I will.”

            Cody stepped away from the wall and back toward the table, where the other men sat with emptied trays and restless eyes.

            “Sharp, Push… how are your wounds healing?”

            Sharp grinned that rookie grin of his, although the chunk that had been scraped off the left side of his face was still raw and stretched looking even out from under the medical patch. His eyelid was misshapen so that it never seemed to close all the way when he blinked, or open all the way either. “Looking better every day, sir. Can’t wait for more surgery tomorrow.”

            “Oh yeah,” Push sighed, scratching the shaved patches on the back of his head. “Me too, Commander. Kidney seems to healing up.”

            “Good. Any idea where your unit leaders are?” Cody would have just called them on the comm, but the longer he took to do things today, the less time he’d have with his thoughts, which was for the best.

            “I think a few of them went to the gym.” Push stood slowly, and the others followed suit. “We were going to head there next anyway.”

            “You’re not going to the gym!” Cody said sternly, cutting the air between them with his arm. “You’re going to rest! You… you just had surgery, trooper.”

            “I was just gonna do some weights,” Push laughed, but then faltered under Cody’s stare. “Uh, yes, sir. I’ll go back to the barracks.”

            “Give it another day, at least.” Cody forcibly lowered his voice. “I’ll check with West later this week and have him clear you when you’re ready.”

            “Got it,” Push sighed.

            Cody turned to leave, and the others trailed behind him, nearly a dozen. The rest must have already finished and moved on—there were only a handful of other men from the 212th in view, and they seemed to be just starting their meal. He’d catch them eventually.

            “I’ll see you guys later,” Push muttered to those nearest him, then split off toward the entrance. A couple of the men called back and lifted hands in goodbye. Cody gritted his teeth against the illogical constriction in his chest and turned back toward the gym.

            As they walked down the hall, someone spoke up close behind him. “Uh, Commander… when we get back to the front….”

            Cody turned just in time to note Sharp whispering Lan’s name in a warning tone.

            Lan pressed on calmly. “Do you think we’ll be working closely with General Skywalker and the Five-Hundred-First again?”

            Cody slowed his pace. Some men looked between him and Lan—others looked quickly away.

            “That’s up to the generals. Why do you ask?”

            “Oh, I was just curious, sir, about whether we might be purposely assigned to work separately from them.”

            “Lan… you’re not being very direct.” Cody smiled wryly—the trooper was notorious for his roundabout approach. “Something on your mind?”

            “Sorry, sir.” Lan dipped his head in acknowledgement. “I ask because….” He took a moment to think, and Cody waited patiently. “I’m afraid we might be… not punished, exactly, sir, but… i-is this suspension from duty because the generals are questioning our loyalty, sir? At least for some of us?”

            “General Kenobi gave me full control over who to send on leave,” Cody said firmly. “And I don’t doubt any of you.” He hadn’t realized the men lived in such fear of being distrusted. “Is there someone you have suspicions about?”

            “No, sir!” Lan said earnestly, staring at him.

            Cody watched Lan cover up his dismay with a neutral expression. “Got something more to say?”

            “Nothing important, sir.”

            “Mm-hmm. Right….” Cody sighed skeptically and folded his arms. “Look, none of us were sent here as a punishment. The general made that very clear to me. He’s just trying to act strategically, keep us in top form. Got it?”

            “Yes, sir!” Lan still looked anxious, but Cody decided it would be best not to single him out any further for now. He turned back to lead them to the gym, lengthening his strides.

            “By the way,” he said over his shoulder. “If any of you see Zenk, make sure he’s not doing anything with his hands. He’s supposed to be letting them heal.”

            “Yes, sir,” they all said, and a couple of them chuckled.

            “It’s not a laughing matter,” Cody said softly, although he knew they were likely laughing in sympathy for West. “While on leave we have one job, and that’s to make sure we and our gear are all in perfect condition by the time we leave Coruscant.”

            “Yes, sir,” Stern said. He was the only one who didn’t lapse into total silence. “We’ll be sure to pass along the message.”

            Cody stood straight and still outside the 212th’s barracks, breathing night air. The dot-sized lights of traffic moved near the edges of the sky, too slow and too regular to resemble shooting stars. There was a large group of his men approaching, but it was getting late. Only one more interview, then. It was incredible how slowly the day had crawled by; he’d checked his chrono at least seven times in the last hour.

            Scattered conversation reached him: banal debates on the merits of various blasters and least favorite foods. One trooper was limping noticeably.

            “Oliver,” Cody called. “Can I have a word?”

            “Sir!” Oliver perked up to attention. “Sure thing, Commander!”

            He nodded to the trooper he’d been walking silently beside before limping his way over to where Cody stood. Oliver’s spry smile didn’t falter.

            “I was wondering when it would be my turn, sir. Word gets around.”

            Cody started to walk away from the entrance. “Good. I guess that means you’ve already checked up on your group for me.”

            Oliver followed him readily, despite his right leg’s resistance. “Oh, yeah. Should I start with the good news or the bad news?”

             “Bad news.” Cody stopped; they were a sufficient distance from the other men now.

            “Okay,” Oliver said. “Well, Cratt and Puzzler have barely said a word since we left the battalion. It’s not looking good with them, sir. Puzzler didn’t even get out of bed until nearly thirteen hundred hours. I didn’t order him up, since… like he says, we’re here to rest. But I will if you think I should.”

            “Did West have anything to say about that?” Cody sighed.

            “He said it was fine for today.”

            “Then it is fine,” Cody decided. “What about Cratt?”

            Oliver shrugged. “He came in late to breakfast and said he was going to swim laps. I didn’t see him again until dinner, and he wouldn’t say much then either, just that he was walking around.”

            “Well… keep an eye on him. Make sure he’s not wearing himself out. We are supposed to be resting.”

            “Yes, sir. But I can tell Puzzler we’re not under orders for bed rest, right?”

            “Not as a general rule,” Cody said, watching a ship coming in to dock. “Although, you probably better not dance too much on that leg of yours.”

            “I’ll try to keep it under control, sir.” Oliver chuckled and did a subdued, quick little step, ignoring Cody’s grimace when his bad knee made it into more of a lurch.

            “Don’t push it, trooper. That’s why it didn’t finish healing in the first place.”

            “Yes, sir.” Oliver grinned and ducked his head, shifting weight onto his good leg. “Sorry, sir. I’ll set a better example for the men. But it is pretty unusual, being encouraged to lie around. No disrespect, sir, but I’d guess you’re feeling restless too.”

            Cody made a noncommittal noise, not sure what to say. “Would you rather be shoved in a bacta tank for a couple of days?”

            Oliver shrugged and relaxed into a more subdued smile. After a pause he said, “Good news is, Thall, Edge, and Ven are doing well. West says give ‘em a few more days and they’ll be back to one hundred percent.”

            “Good,” Cody said quietly.

            Oliver didn’t elaborate, and Cody tried to think of more specific questions to ask.

            “No disrespect, sir,” Oliver said again. “But I’ve been trying to figure out why the General sent you with us.”

            “General Kenobi thought it was best for me to be here,” Cody said, as neutrally as he could. “I go where I’m needed.”

            Oliver made a crooked, questioning face. “I… heard from some of the city guards that you were friends with the Five-Oh-First’s captain.”

            Cody tried to ignore the searing in his chest. “I was,” he said calmly.

            “Is that why the general sent you with us, sir?” Oliver asked, after only a moment’s hesitation. “Commander Fox says the captain was reconditioned because of disloyalty.”

            A rush of heat spiked up Cody’s spine and into his neck. “I wouldn’t believe everything the city guards say, Oliver. Commander Fox likes to think he knows what the generals are thinking, but he has no idea what he’s talking about.”

            “Right… right. Good point, Commander.” Oliver’s tone shifted immediately into a more formal timbre. “So… is there anything more I should report on?”

            “If there is, and you remember it later, you know where to find me. Just keep an eye on Cratt, and go easy on the leg.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            Once dismissed, Oliver limped steadily back to the barracks entrance.

            “Fox,” Cody breathed as he crossed over toward the command barracks. Fox never knew when to shut up. He was going to keep spreading guesses like they were facts, making Cody’s own men curious until Cody asked him what he knew about Rex. Cody could just see the smug smile Fox would wear when asked what he thought he knew. It made him want to punch something.

            Sleep was a long time coming. No matter how often he tried to pull back to formulaic, normal thoughts, his mind kept drifting toward Rex’s empty bunk above him.

            The night passed in a long haze of restless thought mixed with disjointed dreams. Cody had rejoined General Kenobi, and Rex was there, limping when he walked, but every time Cody tried to point it out, Rex ran ahead effortlessly. Come on! The general gave him a warning look and spoke with Fox’s voice, words that made sense when Cody heard them, but were instantly forgotten when Kenobi drew his lightsaber and Cody shot him dead.

            Fourteen-hundred hours. Cody looked up from his chrono—Gage stared at him expectantly as they circled the inside of the compound. They were coming toward the front doors again now.

            “Time to track down the other group leaders, Commander?”

            “No,” Cody said. “You’re the last one. Looks like your men need something to keep them occupied.”

            “Permission to take them off-base, sir? Or we could have a game of sabacc in the barracks.”

            “Either one.” Cody shrugged. “But doesn’t Teyo hate playing cards?”

            Gage blinked rapidly in consternation. “Right. Yes, sir. I forgot. I’ll pay closer attention in the future, sir.”

            Cody laughed under his breath. This stint as group leader was the closest thing to a promotion Gage had ever experienced.

            “I…” Gage continued haltingly, “I admire your ability to stay mindful of the troops at a time like this, sir. I will learn to do the same.”

            At a time like this. “At a time like this?” he asked, watching Gage. “What do you mean by that?”

            “Well, sir,” Gage said, taking a breath. “I only meant that… the men seem uneasy. I’ve heard a lot of conflicting opinions about why we’re here… about why General Kenobi had you bring us here, sir. I’m not sure I believe everything they’re saying about Captain Rex, but… most of the other men seem to agree that something happened to someone in the Five-Oh-First. Someone that… you knew well, Commander.” Gage finished nervously. “I apologize if I’m out of line, sir. I would just like to clear up any misconceptions being spread in my own group.”

            Cody blew out a breath, exhaustion settling on him. Here it was again. “And what, exactly, are they saying?”

            Gage made a jerky motion with his arm, his urge to gesture being deferred by a strictly attentive stance as they walked. “They’re saying, sir… that you… were sent here because Captain Rex was court martialed for some reason I haven’t been able to discern in detail. Most people seem to agree he failed an important mission, and… it is suspected that this may have been—at least partially—intentional on his part, sir.”

            “Intentional?” Cody heard his own voice go rough.

            “No one suspects you of anything, sir,” Gage rushed, “but dealing with traitors… it’s got to be hard on morale. Everyone remembers what happened last time we had to—”

            Cody held up a hand and Gage cut himself off. They were crossing the headquarter’s main entrance, and the doors had just opened. Half a dozen members of the city guard emerged, escorting a scruffily-dressed twi’lek in binders. Fox led the way.

            “Fox,” Cody called. “I was wondering where you were. I haven’t seen you all morning.”

            Fox halted, turning his head slowly and deliberately—he probably thought it made him look formal and intimidating, Cody thought to himself.

            “Something to report?” Fox asked, as if Cody were one of his own troopers.

            “A question, actually. I’d like to clear up a few things.”

            “Oh.” Fox tilted his head just slightly. “Sorry. It’ll have to wait. I have duties to attend to.” He paused after gesturing toward the twi’lek and his dismissive tone turned earnest. “Unless, of course… it’s a desperate situation.”

            Cody raised his eyebrows to keep himself from glaring. “I can wait.”

            Fox continued his steady march toward the detention level, probably smirking under that helmet. Cody took a deep breath and turned away down another corridor.

            “I’ll continue to discourage rumors among the men, sir,” Gage said in a hushed tone.

            “Good,” Cody said tensely, trying in vain to force a relaxed posture. “I appreciate you bringing this to my attention. Tell your troops that any rumors concerning the Five-Oh-First are not our concern. All troops should leave sensitive information up to higher command to disclose.”

            “Yes, sir!” Gage said, lengthening his stride to keep up.

            “Unless you have anything more to report, you’re free to return to the barracks. Dismissed.”

            “Yes, sir,” Gage repeated, and immediately broke off to head the opposite direction. Cody continued at the same agitated pace, wondering how long it would take Fox to deal with his prisoner. A direct confrontation was what he really wanted, but Fox did have the convenient excuse of legitimate duties. And a nagging inner voice told him that he was overreacting and playing into Fox’s hands.

            There was at least one errand left for Cody to run. Forty minutes later, having walked off the worst of his bad mood, Cody walked into the GAR supply dispensary, holding his armor’s shoulder piece with its broken antenna. It had been damaged on Clak’dor VII during a dive for cover.

            It was all one enormous room, warehouse-like, mostly used to trade broken pieces of armor for new ones. Shelves were filled floor to ceiling with crates and crates of different armor pieces, bodysuits and standard issue repulsor packs and cans of paint in various battalion colors. But there were secured sections near the back which held special issue equipment, for use only with approval from higher up. Cody looked for Supervisor Telkiem, the ever-cheerful Devaronian who was usually stationed at the front desk, asking stories from any trooper who came in. But she was nowhere to be found. Instead a tall, bald human man in uniform emerged from between the shelves.

            “Can I help you?” he asked.

            “I have clearance from General Kenobi to get a replacement for this,” Cody said, holding up the shoulder plate.

            “CT number?” the man asked as he approached.

            “Twenty-Two Twenty-Four,” Cody said. “My name is Cody. And… you are, sir?”

            “The new Supervisor for this facility.” He took the offered plate and inspected the broken antenna with a distant frown. “You may call me Supervisor Allard.”

            He headed for the desk and Cody followed, feeling vaguely put off.

            “Excuse me, sir,” he said when Allard had seated himself at the computer. “But… what happened to Supervisor Telkiem?”

            “Nothing. She has moved on to another job, one she is more suited for.”

            “What do you mean?” Cody asked, confused by the comment.

            Allard acted as if he hadn’t spoken. “Twenty-Two Twenty-Four,” he mused under his breath as he pulled up the file. “Let me see your wrist.” He held up an expectant hand without looking at Cody’s face.

            Cody hesitated just a moment. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been required to submit to an ID check. Baffled, he held out his hand and allowed Allard to scan the chip embedded there.

            “Very good. Come with me.”

            Allard led the way toward the back, and Cody kept in step behind him, with a small, respectful distance between.

            “Sir,” Cody finally said, when they were halfway there. “Has something happened? Security seems tighter than the last time I was on Coruscant.”

           “The Republic is simply taking a closer interest in the efficiency of the military,” Allard said—recited, almost. Cody wondered how many other men had asked similar questions. “Given the stage of war we are now in, I’m sure you’ll agree it’s about time.”

            Cody wondered what that had to do with Supervisor Telkiem. She had always been friendly and talkative, likable, but never lax in her duties. She had taken great pride in keeping the dispensary perfectly organized, and all the files precise. Perhaps someone had fooled her and managed to get their hands on army gear without authorization.

            But speculation was a waste of time—he could leave that kind of thing up to Fox and his men. It was just as likely that she had simply found another job. She had always had the option, he realized. Her job was not necessarily her life as his was for him.

            A small maintenance droid was waiting at the section entrance. Once the door was unlocked, Allard sent the droid up to fetch a small case. Inside, set into the padding, was a brand-new antenna.

            “There you are. I assume you know how to install it.”

            “Of course.” Cody didn’t touch it. “But… that’s not the model I had.”

            “Indeed,” Allard said dryly. “It seems your general wants the highest-quality equipment for his troops. He specifically ordered this for your use.”

            “Oh.” Cody lifted it from the case, feeling a churning mixture of alarm and satisfaction. “Well, then.”

            “Is there anything else you require?” Allard looked and sounded so bored that Cody wondered why he had taken this job at all.

            “No, sir. Thank you.”

            Several minutes later, surrounded by the mind-numbing noise of the repair stations, Cody turned the shoulder plate 360 degrees at eye level, satisfied with his work. The antenna had a wider signal range and could tune in more sensitively to more frequencies than his old one, and he told himself that it just made good sense for the general to want him in closer contact during battles. The general could have ordered it for him before he’d made the decision to send him away, before he had known that he might not be keeping Cody as his commander in the future. But then… maybe not. Maybe, Cody dared to hope, it was a sign of confidence. A sign that, soon enough, everything would be back to normal again.

            Two more days passed, filled restlessly with gym time, a more leisurely inspection of the gear, long walks around the compound, and games of dejarik. At dinner, Cody forced himself to chat with Oliver and Ro. They didn’t seem to notice his low appetite, and left to hit the showers just as Fox and his men were coming in.

            “Ah, there he is,” Stern whispered, on Cody’s right.

            “Who? Commander Fox?” Cody made his voice sound indifferent.

            “What’s he coming over here for?” Zenk muttered, startled. His hands were bandaged—he’d finally completed the bacta treatments, and could only just hold a spoon.

            “You wanted to see me, Cody?” Fox said when he was close enough. Cody bristled at the overly familiar tone.

            “Maybe,” he said, standing up so Fox wouldn’t have the satisfaction of looking down at him. “I’d appreciate it,” he continued, with carefully measured calm, “if you would stop spreading rumors. Besides, it’s not very professional of you.”

            Fox put his hands on his hips. “I’m not sure what you’re referring to.”       

            “I think he means what you’ve been saying about Captain Rex, sir,” said one of the city guards behind him.

            Fox didn’t say anything to that, just glanced at the trooper.

            “That’s right,” Cody said quietly, not wanting to give Fox more of an audience. “I don’t know what you have against the Five-Oh-First, but a real commander doesn’t put others down to make himself look good.”

           Fox laughed suddenly, a deep chuckle. “Ohh, I see. You think this is personal. You’ve got it all wrong, Cody. I’m just doing my job.”

            “How is this doing your job?”

            “Hmm.” Fox looked around—the nearest eavesdroppers quickly turned their eyes away. “You really haven’t heard, then… he didn’t share his incriminating information with you, try to get you to come along on his investigation?

            “I’m not here to gossip.” Cody shook his head. “I’m sure you also have duties you need to get back to.”

            “We are on a pretty tight schedule,” the city guard trooper said in an eager tone of voice that made Cody think he must be young.

            A muffled huff came from Fox and he folded his arms, ignoring the trooper. “Guess I had you two figured wrong. I thought you were his friend.”

            Cody took a quick, involuntary breath, but stayed silent.

            “Well, sir,” the trooper said lightly, “I’m sure Commander Cody knows where to find you if he changes his mind.”

            “Right,” Fox said, but didn’t move.

            Cody wished Fox would take off his helmet once in a while. But he knew why he didn’t. It was easier to stare somebody down when they never saw your real face. It was easier to seem invulnerable.

            “I don’t need to know exactly what you think you heard,” Cody said. “I was out there on the front with him. You… weren’t. I doubt there’s anything you can tell me that I don’t already know.”

            “Hm. Well, then…what’s your explanation for what happened to him? Why would Skywalker send his captain away like that?”

            Fox asked it lightly, innocently. Cody felt as if his back had been frozen and then had hot water poured over it. For several seconds, his mind went completely, utterly blank of any structured thought. He couldn’t think of a single word to say.

            “Yeah. I thought so,” Fox said quietly, and turned and walked away.

            Cody stood still, unformed words crowding behind his clenched teeth. But anything he could have said would only fuel Fox’s derision. There were no words he could find to speak of the way Rex had fallen apart.

             He had never wanted so badly to hurt a fellow clone. Not even Slick, traitor though he had been.

            “Eh, don’t worry about it, Commander.”

            It took Cody a few seconds to realize Zenk had spoken. When he looked over, Stern was squinting at him, his tattoos shrinking into natural creases.

            “He’s just jealous, I bet,” Zenk added. “Stuck here away from the action.”

            “Doesn’t matter,” Cody managed. He sat back down, desperate to change the topic before his mind had a chance to settle.

            That night, in the barracks, the darkness and sounds of breathing pulled at him, dragged him back to that moment on the ship, the last moment. He could almost hear Rex’s voice in his ears, saying his name.

            Finally, he got to his feet and opened the crate.

            Rex’s helmet felt light in his hands, lighter than he expected for something that had such a presence. He sank back down onto the bed, staring, feeling an overpowering weight of shame on his shoulders. He bowed his head, closed his eyes to Rex’s insistent gaze, and stayed very, very still, trying not to think. But Rex’s weakened voice rose up from back of his mind. I’m sorry… I didn’t think it would go this far.

            Rex had died believing he was a failure. Cody had seen it in his eyes, heard it in his voice, more honestly than he had ever known Rex to express such fears. Anger turned Cody’s hands cold on the helmet. Under his stiff fingers, he felt the grit that had accumulated like another coat of paint in the grooves and niches of the design. The signature of countless battles Rex had survived. He opened his eyes, barely able to breathe. His ribcage and throat seemed incapable of expanding fully; no matter how much he straightened, it still hurt just to inhale.

            I won’t let him call you a traitor, Cody thought, unable to speak. Nevermind his own sense of pride; as a commander and as Rex’s friend there was no other course of action.  The decision burned its way down into his bones, a trembling starting in his gut. He would be lucky to sleep at all tonight, but—he promised himself—that would change tomorrow.

            Fox wasn’t in headquarters. Cody had spent all day wandering its halls, but it seemed Fox really was busy. As far as he could tell, the other commander never showed up in the mess either.

            At about 16:20, as Cody was lingering near the entrance to the holo lounge, catching snatches of the news, his comm beeped.

            “Commander, it’s West. I’ve cleared Push to do some weights at the gym. He’s headed there now, but you might want to have somebody watch him.”

            “Copy that,” Cody nearly sighed.

            “Keen too. If you’re there, that should be enough to keep them from overdoing it. Otherwise, I’d ask their group leaders to stick around instead.”

            “Alright. On my way to intercept.” The joke fell a little flat in his weary tone.

            “Everything alright, Commander?”

            Cody stopped himself from switching off his comm. “Yeah,” he said. “Everything’s fine.”

            “Let me know.”

            Cody cut the line, wondering. Let me know what? 

            Push and Keen were in a group of about a dozen troopers when Cody spotted them.

            “Uh, West cleared me, sir,” Push said as soon as Cody was in earshot.

            “I know,” Cody said, trying to smile. “He just told me. I think I’m going to join—”

            Someone stepped on his heels as he stopped dead in the hallway. Fox and five of his men had just merged into the corridor from an adjoining hall.

            “Excuse me,” Cody muttered. He stepped away from the group, intending to fall in beside Fox, but Fox stopped abruptly as soon as Cody broke from his men.

            “Commander Cody.” Fox lifted his chin. “Can I… help you?”

            “Fox. I think we’d better clear this up once and for all,” Cody said, surprised at the calm assurance in his voice. He felt as he usually did before a battle—alert, aware, bracing for adrenaline. “I know you think you’ve got some kind of advantage, making up lies about other battalions. Where did you hear this information you keep hinting at? Can anyone confirm it?”

            “Oh… you mean about Rex?” Fox asked.

            “Yes.”

            “You really want to talk about that here?” Fox looked around, feigning concern.

            Cody set his shoulders. “If it’s the truth, then it doesn’t matter who hears it. If it’s not, then the more people who know not to believe it, the better.”

            “Right….” Fox shrugged. “If you insist. I’m just thinking… if it were me, I wouldn’t want everyone knowing I was friends with someone like him.”

            Cody kept his gaze steady. “Where did you hear this rumor that he was investigating something?”

            “I didn’t just hear about it. And it’s not a rumor. I saw it with my own eyes.”

            Cody just waited, skeptically.

            “He was trying to find dirt on key members of the senate,” Fox said, coming a bit closer. “I caught him at it in the library, right after he’d been suspended from active duty.” He dropped his voice to near a whisper. “And then he lands this top secret mission on Anaxes, the home of the Republic navy, and manages to cause an interplanetary incident there. Don’t tell me that was an accident. I heard he was nearly killed on that mission. Now, let me ask you something. Who on Anaxes would want to kill someone who was trying to save the navy? Unless they knew he was a traitor.”

            “What?” Cody breathed, venomous anger exploding in his stomach all over again at the word.

            “When I talked to him in the library, he kept dropping hints about some kind of conspiracy. Well, I don’t know if the Separatists got him as their spy, or what. Rex probably thought he could get away with anything just because he was assigned to Skywalker, and leading the famous Five-Hundred-First. And I guess he did get a better end than a traitor like him deserves; probably his general pulled some—”

            Fox’s voice sucked away in a gasp as Cody grabbed his helmet, yanked it down and twisted to tear it off, driving the force of his spin into the side of Fox’s head with his elbow. Fox grunted and staggered back toward him, red-faced with bared teeth, fist swinging; Cody ducked and returned with an uppercut. Fox hit the ground mere moments before Cody was on him again, fists cracking into cheekbone. Blood rose shining from Fox’s nose and lip; voices were shouting, but he couldn’t hear them over the rushing in his head. The hallway around him was gone.

            “Don’t pick a fight with me, Fox,”he snarled. “You barely deserve to wear that armor—”

            A punch to his jaw jarred his teeth—he tasted blood from his cheek, but he grabbed Fox by the hair and hit him again as a warning.

            “You will stop this,” Cody growled, tightening the fist around Fox’s hair. “Don’t you have anything better to do than to slander a fellow officer?”

            “It’s not slander,” Fox choked out, gasping as he clawed at Cody’s hand, “if it’s true!

            “Rex is no traitor!” Cody spat. He yanked Fox’s head up a few centimeters and threw it back against the floor before getting to his feet. He took one step back, blood dark on his glove and the hem of his sleeve. Two steps. The adrenaline jittered through his skull, burning his eyes. “You feel invincible here, away from the front lines, but you wouldn’t last one minute out there. You don’t really know war, so you don’t know anything about the kind of man Rex was.”

            Fox lay there for a moment, breath sputtering through his wet lips before he rolled over and staggered to his feet, glaring. One eye was already swelling shut. The other city guards stepped forward almost tentatively, and Cody felt a hand on his shoulder.

            “Sir….”

            “I’m fine!” he snapped. Then, calmer: “Let’s go.”

            Cody turned to look at his men. Their shocked faces made the wild heat begin to drain away into dread. Some were even averting their eyes. They couldn’t possibly believe what Fox was saying. It was ridiculous.

            One of the other guards nudged Fox with his offered helmet. “Better not push it, sir. You uh, you don’t look so good,” he said in a clearly audible undertone. “And I think I hear one of the admirals coming this way.”

            “Don’t say I didn’t warn you, Cody,” Fox growled under his breath, jerking the helmet out of his soldier’s hand with a glare. “You’re just naïve. I see corruption every day, patrolling this city. I know a guilty conscience when I see it.” He pulled the helmet down over his scowl before he walked away, a little faster than his usual swagger.

            Cody headed down the hall without another backward glance, his knuckles pulsing painfully, fists quivering.

            “I’m gonna wash this off,” he said, diverting toward the nearest refresher. “You go on ahead.”

            “Yes sir,” said Push. He looked worried.

            As Cody approached the sink, he was stopped short by his own reflection. His face was flushed dark, his eyes seemed to burn with hatred from deep under his brow, and a part of him felt satisfied at the sight, knowing that Fox had seen it. He looked down at his shaking hands, took an uneven breath and turned on the water, washing his gloves before scrubbing futilely at the edges of his sleeves, heat gradually seeping through and into his pulsing fingers.

            Fox was a fool, an arrogant fool who was just looking for something to lord over the other commanders with, something to distract himself from his failure as a soldier. There was no reason to believe he knew anything about Rex that Cody didn’t—how could he? But as Cody watched his own face and tried to breathe, the anger kept seeping like poison, down from his head into his stomach.

            There was so much Rex hadn’t told him until the last minute, so much he hadn’t been able to see. But this just couldn’t be true. He shut off the water and tried to force his face back into its usual smooth expression until he could recognize it again. That collected presence was the total of who he was now. Cody, the commander, Kenobi’s commander, an officer suited to the Jedi’s even temperament.

            But he couldn’t do it. Disgust continued to pull at the edges of his mouth and eyes, and if he could see it, the other men could. They might take it as confirmation that more was going on than they’d been told. At the very least, his annoyance would come out in other ways and they would take it wrong, close off. It would be better if he didn’t join them tonight.

            With a deep breath, he put in a call over the comm.

            “Stern, it’s Cody.”

            “Stern here, Commander.”

            Cody turned his eyes away from his own grimace. “I need you to keep an eye on Push and Keen. They’ve been cleared to use the gym, but West wants someone there to make sure they don’t overdo it. Send someone else if you’re busy.”

            “Yes, sir.”       

            Cody took one last look at his pinched eyes and turned away from the mirror. There had to be something he could do to forget about all this.

Chapter Text

            Kix closed his eyes at 14:33 to the hushed bunk chatter of other clones. He opened them moments later when Jacky shook him by the arm.

            “What?” he muttered, and realized his eyes weren’t as heavy as when he’d laid down just moments before. He looked at his chrono; it was 20:30. Six hours had passed. The room was nearly empty.

            “Sorry, sir… you insisted.” The other medic shrugged with an exhausted smile. “I can take a longer shift if you need the rest.”

            “I’m fine.” Kix rolled out of bed and onto his feet, stretching slightly. He did feel better, though still tired, and disoriented from the deep and dreamless sleep. “It’s your turn to lie down. Anything I should know?”

            “Dash’ll fill you in. Still no medical frigate, but there were only a few left in critical when I finished up. We uh… lost Spines and Atta though.”

            “I figured,” Kix sighed and started tugging his surgery scrubs on. “I was gonna make the call before I went to sleep… but I thought maybe there was a chance they’d pull through….”

            “It was worth a shot,” Jacky agreed. “We did our best.”

            “I know.” Kix gave Jacky a smile he hoped was encouraging before pushing him away by the shoulder. “Get some rest. I’ll call if I need you.”

            As Kix hurried down the length of the ship to the medical bay, he wondered how close they were to joining the siege on Sluis Van. The battalion had sustained a lot of damage on the week's battle on Siskeen, high numbers of wounded due to the intermittent fire from droids ambushing them in narrow city streets. General Skywalker had been far ahead trying to take out the command center and the men had little cover. Over twenty-four hours later, Kix and the other medics were still cleaning up. He was almost relieved Spines and Atta were gone—they’d suffered long enough, but they’d seemed desperate to live, and it was his job to give backup to anyone trying to kick death in the teeth.

            When Kix walked in, most of the beds were still full, the men who sat on the floor moving in to fill the space as others left. Dash was giving a trooper stitches on his thigh while a med droid helped prep another for a bacta soak.

            “I’m here,” Kix announced. “Report?”

            Dash looked up from his work. “Ah—over there in the corner.” He jerked his head, seeming frazzled. His backswept hair was getting a bit loose.

            “When’s your shift over?” Kix asked, picking up the datapad. “Didn’t you come in with Jacky?”

            “I’m fine, sir. Just finishing up. Oh, it’s not that bad, soldier,” Dash scoffed gently when his charge hissed. “It didn’t even get close to piercing your femoral artery.”

            “Thanks,” the trooper grumbled as Dash finished coating the stitches with ointment and wound a thin bandage around them.

            “Now remember.” Dash tilted his head in a comically extreme I’m-watching-you look. “Don’t get any of those wet for at least twenty-four hours. Come in again first thing tomorrow so we can check on it and change the dressing. That’s an order.”

            “Uhh,” the patient half-wheezed as Dash firmly hoisted him onto his feet and passed him into the arms of a waiting squad mate. “Yes, sir.”

            The top of the list was full of the highest priority patients, but that grouping had shrunk significantly since Kix had last seen it. There was a chance he’d get through all of them this shift, Kix thought with relief. 

            “That was Yahn?” Kix asked, looking around the room. “So… next is CT-Thirty-Three-Thirty-Five. Hatch?”

            The blaster-burned trooper being prepped for the bacta soak grunted. “Droid’s got me covered. That guy’s been waiting for a while.” He pointed shakily with a hand missing a finger at one of the men sitting on the floor, his right leg bound roughly in bandages, the right side of his iced face dark and swollen with bruises from jaw to hairline.

            The man in question raised his head wearily and Kix recognized him. “Sergeant Raz.”

            “Ah!” Hatch exclaimed, teeth gritted as the droid peeled off the patch that had covered one of his wounds. “Sorry, Sarge, didn’t recognize you.”

            Raz shrugged. “Go on with whoever’s next. I’m not going anywhere.” His eyes fell to his leg.

            Kix checked his place on the list. Three down from Hatch – fracture in femur and tibia, already given first aid for concussion. Of the two before him, one had very similar injuries and the other one was also in need of deep wound cleaning and stitches.

            “We’ll get to you soon, Sergeant,” Kix promised. “Just a couple more.”

            Raz gave a halfhearted thumbs-up and Kix moved on to the other bed. The patient’s eyes were closed, his breathing shallow but carefully even in pace. The file said he’d been given painkillers and rehydrated through the IV in his arm over the last hour. The bed was set at a good angle to elevate the wound as much as was practical. Kix set the datapad down, looking at the bandages around the ARF trooper’s stomach.

            “Okay, Wings… your turn,” Kix sighed softly. He rolled up his sleeves and put on a fresh pair of surgical gloves. “Looks like your walker got hit.”

            A creaky exhale and an acceleration of breathing was his only answer.

            “Ah, it’s okay,” Kix reassured him as he peeled back the blood soaked bandages and applied a local anesthetic. “You don’t have to talk. Just keep breathing.”

            Underneath, the extent of the wound was hard to distinguish by visual alone; as a clot was broken with the movement of the bandage, a few drops of blood oozed slowly to fill the cuts left by the shrapnel. Kix could see one of the pieces still lodged in there, though. According to the log, it was left by Jacky in favor of closing the wound to prevent extensive blood loss. He hadn’t been able to work fast enough and there had been other patients who needed more immediate care.

            “I’ll take care of the next one,” Dash said behind him.

            “No,” Kix said lightly, as he made his selection from the tray of surgical tools. “You are going to tell Shadow to come take his shift.”

            “He’s….” Dash trailed off. “Yes, sir.”

            Kix glanced over his shoulder at Dash’s retreating back and made a mental note to keep an eye on Shadow as well. He’d barely had time to check up with anyone on his list of at-risk men. They’d been dropped right into the battle on Siskeen without much of a break after Clak’dor VII, and now he could only hope that the naval battles would give the infantrymen a respite.

            Quick and steady, amid Wings’ tight breaths, Kix felt his way through the bloody tissues—“easy, just keep breathing”—and extracted the last bits of metal. He let the wound bleed for just a moment before measuring out some antiseptic solution.

            “Okay. Now, this might sting a bit,” Kix warned gently. As he let it trickle into the wound, he could hear Wings grinding his teeth. “You’re gonna be just fine. All I have to do now is stitch you up.”

            “Gahh,” Wings finally gasped as if he was trying to laugh. He looked scared though. “How long will that take?”

            “I’ll have to do a couple of layers. It’s a deep wound… but you’re lucky, you know. It was a close call. That shrapnel could have hit something important.”

            “Feels like it did,” Wings said.

            “Not many AT-RT pilots make it out of an explosion like that alive,” Kix murmured. “Trust me. I’ve counted.”

            Wings fell silent. Kix took a deep breath, and a moment to sterilize his gloves and clear the last bit of blood from the wound before beginning.

            “Okay,” Wings said in a strained voice. “I did think I was gonna die….”

            Kix kept his voice soothing as he set to stitching. “Yet here you are.”

            Wings took a shaky breath and Kix kept his eyes trained solidly on his work, feeling the eerie resistance of the flesh against the needle.

            “I thought I was ready for it, you know….”  Wings whispered.

            “If you’re fighting with all you’ve got, living without regrets, you’re as ready as anyone can be,” Kix said numbly. “But you’re—”

            The lights flickered once and changed hue slightly; the ship’s comm system activated.

            “Attention crew, all hands to battle stations, all pilots assemble on the primary flight deck immediately.”

            “Great,” Kix sighed. “Looks like it might get a little bumpy in a few minutes.”

            “Sorry I’m late!” a voice said breathlessly behind him. “What can I do?”

            Kix didn’t look up. He was almost done with the first layer of stitches. “Just take a look at the report and get to the next person!”

            As other commands sounded throughout the ship and all around him, Kix carefully fused the first layer of stitches and moved on to applying the second. The ship rumbled and the floor quivered beneath his boots. He heard Shadow enlisting another man’s help in getting the patient securely onto a bed. It was difficult not to tear the fragile tissues when the floor jerked even minutely.

            Wings was perfectly still the whole time, a model patient, but Kix wondered if it was more than just compliance keeping him silent. The only noise he made were tiny hitches in his breathing when the ship shook.

            “Alright,” Kix said with finality after applying a bacta patch and layer of bandages. “Good job. It’s done. Try sitting up. You’ll have to change the dressing every ten to twelve hours.” He removed his gloves and slid a hand beneath Wings’ neck to help push him up into a sit.

            As Wings jerked upright, he gave a grunt of pain that turned abruptly into an awful noise somewhere between a sneeze and a sob. “I just want to sleep.”

            “You can sleep soon,” Kix assured him in an undertone, but a part of his mind was already reviewing patient evacuation protocol in case they had to abandon ship. Wounded men had been left behind before. Even able men had. “General Skywalker and the other pilots will finish this battle in no time. How’s it coming, Shadow?”

            “Just fitting the splint now, sir.” The med droid had returned and was assisting.

            “Come on… on your feet,” Kix commanded Wings, bracing him with an arm behind his back. Wings straightened stiffly and Kix walked him out into the hall, letting the trooper lean on him. The company quarters nearest to the medical bay had been cleared after the battle to hold the casualties overflow, and was now being used as a recovery room for those who had been treated and weren’t ready to return to duty. Kix let Wings down onto one of the lower bunks.

            “Thanks,” Wings breathed, and stared right through Kix. Kix frowned and laid a hand on his cheek, then on his hand. Both were clammy, and he was showing other signs of shock. His pulse was weak. This wasn't right--he'd been treated for this already.

            “Alright, I want you to lie down and stay there. I’m going to get you a blanket.”

            Kix saw troopers succumbing to shock after every battle, but these days, the symptoms were a constant reminder of Tup and when he had first joined the 501st. They’d picked him up off that mining station, one of the only survivors. He was showing many of the signs—low blood pressure, clammy skin, irregular pulse… and Kix always remembered how much Tup's hands had been shaking. Kix searched for a hidden injury but found only superficial wounds, and when Kix asked him how he felt, he had said “normal, sir.”

            As Kix retrieved a blanket from a supply drawer, the ship floor pitched wildly and he caught himself against the wall. Wings’ eyes fixed on him as he spread the blanket.

            “What’s going on?” Wings asked.

            “We’re breaking through enemy lines to help with the siege on Sluis Van,” Kix said quietly, propping the trooper’s feet up on a broken chest plate they’d taken off one of the casualties. “Now just try to stay as comfortable as possible. Are you feeling nauseous?”

            “A little,” Wings said faintly.

            “Bridges.” Kix pointed at a clone who seemed relatively unscathed aside from his bandaged arm. “Can you watch him?”

            The other clone nodded.

            “You’ve got Bridges watching out for you,” Kix said to Wings. “Time to sleep.”

            “I can’t sleep,” Wings whispered, eyes wide. Definitely dilated.

            “Your blood pressure’s already too low. I’d rather not give you another sedative. How long have you been awake? Since the battle?”

            “Since the battle,” he said, and Kix couldn’t tell if he was merely echoing him or answering the question.

            He sighed. “Look, I’ll be back.” The other trooper came to sit closer. “If anything else changes, comm the medical bay.”

            “I will, sir,” Bridges said.

            With a last glance at Wings, Kix exited the quarters and headed back for the medbay, but his mind drifted back to Tup. Wings would recover from his shock symptoms in time. Tup never did. He would seem okay but the cold sweat and irregular pulse would always come back with no provocation beyond their usual duties as soldiers. It had been the first time Kix was faced with such a stark example of psychologically-induced illness. Before, he had thought the Fett template precluded such a trait from occurring, but he had been naive. Tup only graduated because he had been able to hide it. Kix was certain of that; if the Kaminoans had discovered it, Tup would never have made it off that planet. For all the good that had done him in the end….

            But Kix was beginning to realize that knowing Tup had been as important as his formal medical training. He still wasn't sure of the exact nature of the defect, but he now recognized it was far more pervasive than he would have imagined, a critical error in their development. Not everyone showed signs, not yet, but he was noticing them more all the time.

            The door to the medbay opened, and it was a relief to look on the scene with fresh eyes. Things were almost peaceful now compared to the hectic and emotionally draining triage and surgery of the early morning.

            Like many of the others, Sergeant Raz had been dropped off and most likely not moved from his spot on the floor for hours. Shadow was helping him settle onto the examination table when Kix walked over.

            “Okay, what’ve we got here, let’s take a closer look,” Kix muttered half to himself, grabbing the x-ray machine. Raz’s leg was already bound in a splint, but as the scanner focused in, Kix raised his eyebrows and grimaced. “That’s… more than a fracture, Sergeant. Who put you down in the report?”

            A deep rumble shook the ship and Kix shifted his feet to try and stand more firmly on the tilting deck.

            “I don’t remember.” Raz shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. There were others who needed more immediate attention.”

            “I’ll be the judge of that,” Kix said, although the fact that Raz was still here meant that he was right. He pressed down very gently on Raz’s thigh. “Can you feel that?”

            “Feel what?” Raz asked listlessly, staring at the ceiling.

            “Now?” Kix felt along where the compound fracture was.

            Raz just narrowed his eyes as the room quivered.

            Alarmed, Kix slapped his other knee lightly. “How about that?”

            “Yeah.”

            “Well, that’s good news. It’s not your spine… although you have some nerve damage in your leg.”

            “No kidding,” Raz sighed.

            “No kidding,” Kix echoed. “The bone’s pierced through your shin, and the blaster shot through your thigh hit more than just the bone. This should have been treated hours ago. I’m guessing you fell?”

            “Flushing out the droids who were sniping us from the upper floors.”

            “I think there’s still a chance to save it,” Kix said gravely. He undid the splint and frowned at the discoloration of the sergeant’s skin.

            “Doesn’t sound like you’re too confident.”

            “Not when my patient has a negative attitude.” Kix gave Raz a look. “It’s going to need surgery. Ready to be put under?”

            “Better than being awake,” Raz laughed humorlessly. “See you when I see you. Unless we get blown up.”

            Shadow had silently moved on to helping the next patient on the list. Kix grabbed the IV the med droid offered and laid a hand on Raz’s head. The sergeant closed his eyes and took a deep, steady breath as Kix hooked him up and dialed up the general anesthesia.

            For the next thirty minutes, it was just Kix’s hands, the droid’s instruments, and the sergeant’s flesh and bone. In the background, the ship’s shaking edged its way up his joints and spine as he tried to keep his hands steady. He could hear the quiet voices of Shadow and the other troopers he was patching up. Once or twice before, Kix had wondered why there weren’t more medics in the GAR. Considering he’d been cross-trained for general infantry duty as well, as all medics were, it wasn’t as if training a medic diminished the fighting force of a battalion. But there was surely a good reason for it, as there was for anything their leaders chose. Some said it was a matter of appropriate temperament. Kix gritted his teeth and breathed in the antiseptic smell of the surgical mask.

            The damage to Raz’s nerves and ligaments was pretty bad. He could only hope a thorough bacta soak and diligent post-op care would do the trick. At the very least get mobility back into the leg, if not much sensation. But the sergeant’s morale would take a severe hit if recovery was incomplete. And that could be as dangerous as any infection.

            “Battle must be over,” said Avenger. From where he sat on the examination table, he glanced up at the ceiling which had finally stopped shaking. “Wish I was a pilot.”

            Kix frowned and grabbed Avenger’s head all covered in tattooed tally marks, pulling it down and forward. “Keep your shoulders back. Tell me when it hurts.”

            “Ghh,” Avenger groaned, waving his hands in surrender. “That’s it, that’s far enough!”

            “Your lower back?” Kix didn’t let go.

            “Yeah?!”

            “You’ve pulled a muscle. You need to stay hydrated and take it easy! Don’t lift anything heavy and try to lay flat and stretch it out whenever you can. Don’t sleep on your stomach. I’m going to give you a brace to wear. Ice your back for twenty minutes every hour. Got it?”

            “When am I gonna find time to do that?

            “Well, lucky for you, you’re not a pilot,” Kix reminded him, pulling down a tiny bit further. “So you’ve got a prime opportunity to rest for as long as we’re in space.”

            Avenger made a scoffing noise, voice tight from pain. “Does it really have to be every hour? I usually use time like this to keep up on my training!”

            Kix sighed. “You can take a break for once.”

            “No, I can’t!” he said slowly, as if explaining something to a small child. He made as if to grab at Kix’s hands and clenched his fists in mid-air instead. “I’m too far behind as it is!”

            “Look….” Kix let up on the pressure and Avenger raised his head with a stubborn frown. “Did you ever stop to think that… maybe you’re taking this goal of yours a little too seriously?”

            “No,” Avenger said with disgust, averting his eyes as he leaned back on his hands. “I think most people don’t take it seriously enough.” He glanced back at Kix with a pointed scowl.

            “You got something to say?” Kix leaned back with a raised eyebrow. “I’m listening.”

            “Nope. Nothing to say.” Avenger hopped off the examination table. “Am I excused?”

            “Hey.” Kix grabbed his arm and dropped his voice when Avenger jumped visibly.  “Injuring yourself further isn’t gonna help you kill more clankers. We all want to see the seppies pay. You know that.”

            “You know, I get this lecture every other week from somebody,” Avenger growled and pulled back against Kix’s grip with restless eyes. “People telling me I should just forget it. Forget them. Is that all we can do? Just… forget everyone and act like they never existed? Well maybe you should just forget it. I’m gonna forget this conversation like it never even happened!”

            “It’s not going to bring them back,” Kix said quietly. “No matter how many clankers you kill, it’s not going to bring them back. You have to take care of yourself.”

            Avenger breathed out through bared teeth and glared at Kix. “Let go.”

            “You think injuring yourself honors their memory?” Kix said, voice still calm. The other trooper’s face twisted. 

            “Let go of me!” Avenger jerked away violently, back toward the wall, and when Kix staggered forward with him, Avenger’s free fist collided with Kix’s right temple.

            Bright lights and blackness streaked Kix’s vision for a moment and he felt Avenger’s arm slip out of his grip. Distantly, as he staggered to stay standing and held his head, hissing… he wondered why he hadn’t just let go the first time Avenger asked.

            He looked up dizzily to see Avenger staring at him with face slack, panting, fists lifted defensively in front of him. For a moment, despite their differences, the look in his eyes strongly reminded Kix of the way Tup had stared through him the first time they’d met.

            “I-I… I didn’t… you wouldn’t….” Avenger took another step backward and hit the wall, looking frayed. “You wouldn’t let go,” he said, panting.

            “Avenger….” Kix held out one hand, wincing, the other on his head. “Take it easy. No one’s attacking you!”

            “I’m sorry,” Avenger said unevenly, letting his fists drop, his shoulders sag. “I just… I… I’m… I have no excuse, sir.”

            “I'm alright.” Kix sighed, rubbing his head. “But I'm gonna need you to let me take another quick scan and measure your pulse.” He glanced at Avenger's hands but didn't reach for one. They didn't seem to be shaking, which was a good sign, at least.

            “What—Kix—I’m fine, sir. I’m fine! I just got… angry, sir. I don’t know.” His voice went rough as he backed away another step. “I just don’t like… being cornered. I-I guess I was just annoyed, sir, because… everybody seems to have a problem with… me… lately. But I’m just trying to do my part to end the war quickly!”

            Kix frowned to himself and picked up the medical scanner on the table, turning it on and toward Avenger. He could hear the trooper’s stress already in his breath and voice, but the scan only further confirmed it; spiked adrenaline levels, still climbing a little even as Kix watched the display. He looked up into Avenger’s flushed face.

            “Come with me,” Kix said quietly, motioning Avenger toward the door.

            Together they walked toward the supply room down the hall. Avenger was silent apart from occasional deep breaths, until they reached the supply room.

            “Uh… what are we doing here?” Avenger asked haltingly, nearly whispering. “You’re not… going to report me?”

            “I don't know. Do I need to report you?” Kix glanced at Avenger as he opened the door. “You said everybody seems to have a problem with you lately. What do you mean by that?”

            “Oh! Nothing,” Avenger said quickly, and closed the door behind them. “I mean….” He grimaced, his eyes flicking to the spot where he’d hit Kix’s head. “They all just think something’s wrong with me because I won’t give up on my goal. That’s all.”

            “So they’re worried about you?” Kix asked.

            “If that’s how you want to put it,” he muttered, head bowed. He sighed. “I understand if you need to tell my sergeant about this, sir. But it won’t happen again, I swear it.”

            Kix sighed and knew nothing good would come of calling attention to Avenger’s symptoms—not until he had a better idea of how to work with it. But he was just as stumped as he had been when Tup had first arrived. Troopers feeling panicked, fighting back when they weren’t in any immediate danger… what else could he do but help them hide their flaws and hope their luck would last a bit longer?

             “As long as you take care of yourself, I don’t see any reason to report this.” Kix removed a back brace from a crate and glanced at Avenger. “Besides… whether I agree with your goal or not, following my orders will help you be able to keep at it longer. So no lifting, alright? If you’re gonna train, stretch beforehand and make it the light guns. No hard impact exercises. And….” He took a deep breath as he offered the brace to Avenger. “Do me a favor and don’t mouth off or pull a stunt like that around your commanding officers. Rex wouldn’t have stood for it and I doubt Commander Appo will either.”

            Avenger’s face twitched as Kix helped him tighten the brace around his middle. “Yes, sir. Sorry. I just….”

            Kix felt heat spreading in his stomach again, and he made himself wait, hoping that Avenger was about to talk. He cast around for an appropriate prompt.

             “You just… feel….” At the third word, Kix felt like something was sitting right at the back of his throat, a weight that kept him from thinking, much less saying, whatever he was sure they both felt.

            Avenger shook his head sharply, eyes averted. “Fine, sir. I’ll take care of my back. Am I free to go?”

            Kix nodded.

            “Tell me if it gets worse,” he murmured at the back of Avenger’s head as he walked out of the room. The trooper’s steps slowed for just a moment before he hurried away.

            When Kix went back to the medical bay, he realized the only ones left were a few crewmen who’d gotten rattled around during the fight. The droid could handle them; Shadow had already left and Kix was over his shift by almost two hours. It was time to gulp down a ration cube or two with some water and take a break before the fleet engaged again, just in case. He felt a cold tingle beneath his skin that was all too common lately.

             On the way to quarters, he stopped to check on Wings. The trooper was sleeping soundly on his back; Bridges gave Kix a tired half-smile as he approached the bunks.

            “Any problems?”

            “No, sir, we just talked a while. He finally fell asleep about fifteen minutes ago.”

            “Good job,” Kix said, and tried to inject some warmth into his voice. “You can leave him if you need to, so long as someone’s around to hear when he wakes up.”

            “Understood.”

            A familiar blue armor pattern caught his eye; Sergeant Levi was about to pass him going the opposite way. For a moment, Kix considered telling him about Avenger. Levi was a good sergeant, chosen personally by Rex. He seemed to care about his men, for whatever that was worth.

            Kix stood, still and conflicted, as Levi's back receded. After a few seconds he took a deep breath and turned away from the sergeant. The only help for Avenger would come through a better understanding of what was undermining the Grand Army, one trooper’s mind at a time. Until then, discretion would have to be enough.

            As he walked toward the lift, the heat he had been feeling dissipated into a chill. A soldier's life was fraught with uncertainties, and that made anything steady and reliable all the more precious. Lately, it felt like every one of those things was being challenged. Not only had they lost Rex, but it was starting to feel like they had lost Skywalker as well. Ever since Tarkin had stepped between them with his decrees, the entire mood of the battalion had shifted. Morale was low, and even the battalion’s membership was under consideration. He and Jesse might not be bunking together for much longer. For just a moment, Kix felt a strong sensation of helplessness, a loss of stability that made him dizzy. His head throbbed a little.

            The lift was empty. He put his hands into his pockets to warm and steady them, and felt the communicator Rex had left him. He had said Kix would know what it was for when the time came. It didn’t make sense that Rex’s death was the sign—there had to be something else. Something obvious. But Rex’s comm was always silent.

            Kix exhaled an unsteady breath. If he did get a call someday, it wouldn’t be from Rex. But maybe whoever it was would have some answers. Kix wasn’t sure he wanted to hear them.

            Torrent Company’s quarters were mostly empty when Kix walked in, and those that were there were sleeping or trying to sleep. He sat down on his bunk with his pack between his knees and rested for a few moments in the peaceful quiet. When he opened his eyes, they strayed to a dark stain on his cuff; it was just one of many. He tore the scrubs off and tossed them haphazardly at the foot of his bunk, then pressed a hand against his eyes.

            The 501st had been one of the best battalions for years, and suddenly in the last couple months, it was falling to pieces. External forces were undermining their confidence, yes, but…. 

            He reached over blindly to his pack and withdrew a datapad wedged between vacuum-sealed packages of bandages and a collection of flimsi. The pad immediately brought up a page of the reg manual. Kix shifted screens to a file named training notes. He’d added a few of his own notes to the beginning since recovering this pad from Tup’s crate just in case anyone ever decided to inspect him, but so far Tup’s writing remained a complete secret.

            He tabbed quickly through the pages, trying to find his place. It had been a while since Kix had last attempted to mine Tup’s words for answers, but Avenger’s symptoms were more than enough to prompt another try. Snippets of text passed, beginning before Tup’s graduation and moving forward through the years. The last entry he’d read was Tup anticipating their landing on Umbara. He stopped for a moment to check the next page.

            Umbara is finally over. I haven’t heard the final casualty report yet. General Krell turned out to be a traitor. There are too many things I don’t want to remember, but at least I’m still alive.

            Kix skimmed Tup’s dry, stilted report of the mission, looking for the kinds of hints he’d been trying in weeks prior to piece together about Tup’s condition. There weren’t many. Sometimes Kix found it oddly soothing to read the trooper’s mundane reports, but their time on Umbara was a memory he preferred to revisit as little as possible. He skipped forward.

            Abruptly he stopped holding down the forward key and shifted back, puzzled by the presence of Tup’s name at the top of one of the pages.

            Hey, Tup!

            Sorry it took so long. That mission was longer than I expected.

            Sounds like you’ve still got it pretty rough. I’ll let you in on a little secret. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you.

            How do I say this…? Well, let me put it this way. I know you’re not a coward, because you’re still fighting. Your problem isn’t being too scared to do anything. You do what you have to, just like any soldier, and that’s what counts. Actually, you’re one of the bravest people I know, because you put your life on the line for your brothers every day, even though you know there’s a chance you might fail. That’s the most important kind of courage any soldier can have.

            You already proved you can do anything, even when it hurts. Trust me, you’re not wrong for feeling this way. I’ve lost a lot of brothers. All of my batchers are dead. I had to leave my best friend behind on a mission not too long ago. There was nothing I could do to save him. And that is why I can never stand by when my brothers are being treated like… well, you know how it was. You were there! I’m telling you, everything you told me makes perfect sense. I don’t think you’re defective. You just let yourself see more of what’s really going on.

            We may not be able to change everything we want to. Our lives are what they are, and we’re good at what we do. You have the skill. The Republic needs us. But that doesn’t mean it’s the way things should be. That’s exactly why we have to look out for each other. We don’t always have a good chance to make sure the lives of our brothers are valued, but that doesn’t mean we should stop valuing them, or valuing our own. Our will to live, and our willingness to die for each other is the biggest advantage we have over the enemy.

            Don’t beat yourself up about it when you feel afraid, or sick about all the wrong things that have happened. There’s plenty to feel sick about. I know a lot of us hate acknowledging just how much it hurts. But it does. I’m pretty sure that’s one hundred percent normal.

            I know saying this might not make it any easier. Going day by day without being able to get away from the reality of the war is tough. If you had a choice, it might be easier if you could choose not to feel this way. But I think you’re stronger because of who you are. And I promise, I will never be ashamed to call you my brother.

            Keep talking to me. I like getting mail!

            Your friend, Fives.

            Kix stared at that last line; the under-the-skin chill deepened into the bones of his fingers even as his neck and eyes prickled. He skimmed the letter again and shut off the datapad, heart racing, stunned. Of course, Fives and Tup had been friends… it shouldn’t be a surprise to find Fives’ words hidden here. Kix put it back into the pack, threw on his service uniform, and hurried with shaky steps to find Jesse.

            As soon as he was out of the lift, heading toward the dorsal flight deck, he saw Jesse approaching. But Appo was walking right behind him.

             “Kix!” Jesse jogged toward him in full armor and took off his helmet. “I haven’t seen you for over twenty-four hours! I thought your shift was over?”

            Kix said nothing, barely daring to look at Jesse’s face, suddenly overwhelmed. Of course, that didn’t do him any good. The memories surfaced anyway.

            “Hey. What happened to you? You hit your head?” Jesse fell in close to Kix’s side and put an arm around his shoulders to lead him back toward the battalion’s quarters. “Must have been while the ship was rattling around.”

            Kix just shook his head and motioned toward the lift. When they reached it, Appo stepped in with them.

             “Is there a problem in the ranks, Kix?” Appo asked, as soon as the door had closed. “Something I should know?”

            “Sir?” Kix said, as calmly as he could.

            Appo’s face was as unreadable as his helmet, but his eyes went to Kix’s temple. “Spree was just in the medical bay. He told me Avenger was being insubordinate. Does this situation call for disciplinary action?”

            “Oh. No, sir,” Kix said immediately. “Spree misunderstood. This was just an accident.”

            Jesse was silent next to him, and Kix kept his eyes on Appo.

            “Spree didn’t seem to think so. He said Avenger attacked you because he felt cornered.”

            Kix laughed nervously. “Spree wasn’t even there, Commander. He didn’t see what was happening. It… it was a reflex. Avenger’s arm flung out to catch his balance and he hit me by accident.”

            “Is that right?” Appo frowned. “Hmm. Spree said Avenger sounded upset, and was resisting treatment.”

            “Everyone’s a little stubborn about treatment once in a while, sir.” Kix said lightly and shrugged.

            “Heh, yeah,” Jesse agreed.

            “That may be. But I hope you plan to inform me when there are problems with the men, especially disobedience. It’s my duty to be aware of weak points in the ranks.”

            Kix paused. Appo’s even tone hadn’t changed, but the words felt sharp.

            “Of course, sir,” Kix finally said. “But surely with something small like this, it isn’t strictly necessary to… distract you from your other duties, sir?”

            “Until further notice, anything which should be reported to any other officer in the battalion should also be passed on to me. I’ll be sure to check with Sergeant Levi about this.”

            “If you think it’s necessary,” Kix shrugged, trying to contain his alarm. “Avenger’s a good soldier, sir. He’s just overzealous sometimes.”

             “That’s no excuse. Enough of our troops are injured by the enemy… we don’t need them injuring themselves, or each other.” The lift stopped and Appo motioned him to follow him down the hall. Jesse trailed just behind Kix, a reassuring presence.

            As Kix stepped out, he wished that he felt more trust toward the commander, not this lingering anger. It wasn’t Appo’s fault that Rex was gone. It wasn’t General Skywalker’s. What else could Appo do but step up to the position when called? Kix couldn’t waste time on feeling this way when the unity of the battalion was already shaken up so much.

            “I’m assuming Rex didn’t often ask you to update him on the status of the troops?” Appo asked after a moment.

            Kix swallowed, slowing his nervous stride to match Appo’s deliberate pace. That question wasn’t necessarily a criticism of Rex. “Rex was concerned with it. He was… but he trusted me to tell him anything he might need to know. I assumed, sir, since I told you of my… intention to do more frequent checks among the men… that no special report was needed.”

            “Unless something comes up which I should know about,” said Appo, eyes forward. “Spree also mentioned that you seemed concerned about Avenger’s attitude. You didn’t mention his obsession with this goal of his.”

            “Commander,” Kix said quietly. “With all due respect… I only became aware it could be a problem today.”

            “All the same… if his overzealousness is causing his insubordination, it concerns me that Sergeant Levi also isn’t putting a stop to the disobedience himself or bringing it to my attention. You may not have noticed the effects of Avenger's attitude until today, but his own sergeant will be much more well-acquainted with him.”

            “He… he knows Avenger’s intentions are good,” Kix said, hoping to discourage any immediate contact between Levi and Appo before he could talk to the sergeant himself. “I think Levi can be trusted to handle discipline in his own squad, sir. He was given that trust when Rex suggested him to the general as a sergeant.”

            The commander stared at him for a moment, silently, and Kix blinked back, heart pounding, trying to keep his face as calm and open-looking as possible.

            “Understood,” Appo said at last. “Continue observing the men, and keep me informed. But Kix—” he stopped, and Kix jarred to a halt to face him. “If you do observe any slacking or disobedience… any further problems in the ranks, you will bring it to my attention immediately. Avenger is just an example of how a lack of discipline isn’t good for anyone. The old model of leadership might have worked for Rex, but at this point in the war… high command can’t afford to allow that kind of lenience, and neither can we.” Appo’s face contracted slightly—Kix couldn’t tell if he looked more worried or displeased. “The battalions should be capable of working at the same level of efficiency regardless of who is leading them. That counts for commanders, generals and anyone else. The men should be aware of that, and their responsibility to step up when duty calls, no matter what. The battalion is not unstable. In fact, the structure of it is more solid than it ever has been. It would be better for them to place their trust in the system, not in any individual. I know you understand that.”

            “Sir.” Kix clenched his fingers behind his back to keep them still. “Yes, sir….”

            Appo bowed his head and walked away.

            The voices and bodies of other troopers washed past Kix in both directions as he stood rooted to the spot, trying to swallow all the commander had said. Not only did it match what they had all been told as cadets… it made rational sense. His own breakdown the night of Rex’s death confirmed that much. The current quivering anger in his clenched teeth was even further proof.

            It was all futile and misguided, and treasonous too… lying to his commander. Appo had ordered him to continue watching the men, to point out the weak links, saying it was for their own good. But Kix knew that if high command, if Appo and anyone upwards of him knew that men like Avenger were losing their grip, those men would be pulled from the ranks… and who knew what would happen to them then.

            “Are you alright?” Jesse asked quietly.

            Kix couldn’t bring himself to reply. He felt so full of dark, trembling heat that he was surprised that Jesse didn’t cringe away from the short glance they shared. Instead, Jesse put a hand gently on Kix’s back and didn’t speak until they were in quarters, seated side by side on Kix's bunk.

            “Quiet in here,” Jesse said, when they’d settled. He kept one hand on Kix’s shoulder.

            Kix took a deep breath, trying to pull away from all the tumult in his mind. If only he had a patient in front of him, everything would be clear. That was the only time it ever was.

            “Lots of casualties?” Jesse guessed.

            “Yeah,” Kix managed, glad of the excuse as he gathered himself.

            “You… wanna punch something?”

            A jagged laugh escaped him and he punched the stiff padding he was sitting on. “I’m fine….”

            “Do you want to be alone, then?” Jesse asked.

            “No.” He tried to focus on the moment of pure exhilaration he’d felt at seeing Fives’ name. “I have to tell you something.”

            “Kix,” another voice called, and Kix looked up reluctantly. Singer leaned around the end of the bunk with his usual easy smile. “I think you patched up nearly half my platoon yesterday. Sorry about the extra work.”

            “It’s fine,” Kix said dismissively, but Singer didn’t move. When he glanced back up, the lieutenant’s smile had only deepened.

            “You’re a good man, Kix. I’m glad you’re still with us.” Singer nodded lightly and walked away.

            Kix sat still, not sure where to place that comment in the argument raging inside him. Jesse took his hand off Kix's shoulder and shifted toward him.

            “So….” Jesse said quietly, motioning subtly toward Kix’s head. “Did somebody take a swing at you?”

            “Don’t worry about it.” Kix tried to smile. “Nobody’s picking fights with me, Jesse.”

            “Alright,” Jesse said simply, and Kix was grateful that nothing more needed to be said. “Well, where’ve you been? Don’t tell me you’ve been running around treating people this whole time,” he gestured toward the pack sitting by the bed. “I checked the medical bay when I was looking for you, and the droids said all the emergencies were taken care of.

            “I was, until not too long ago,” Kix admitted. “But then I was… reading.”

            “Oh….” Jesse looked embarrassed.

            “No, nothing of yours.” Kix waved a hand. He glanced around again—no one else seemed to be listening, and Singer had left the room. He pulled out the datapad and lowered his voice to just above a whisper. “I was… reading Tup’s… well.”

            “Wait… Tup? That’s his?” Jesse pointed at the pad in Kix’s hands, and Kix was glad he kept his voice similarly hushed. “When did you—”

            “I’ve been holding on to it since they—since he and Fives died,” Kix murmured guiltily. “I thought… maybe if I read it, I would understand more about… I-I thought maybe Tup figured out a better way to deal with his… our… defect. Maybe… I could find a way to prevent it from getting worse.”

            Jesse breathed a barely audible sigh, looking worried.  “You really think it’s gonna get worse?”

            “Maybe….” Kix swallowed. “I’ve been thinking… just theories, but… maybe there’s something that goes wrong with some of our minds because of the accelerated aging. Maybe a deterioration of our minds… that goes more rapidly than our physical aging, and it just… gets out of control after a while. I don’t know… I need more time. I wish I knew how to test for something like that.”

            Jesse stared at him worriedly for a moment. “But… Tup was killed by that parasite, not… this… whatever it is.”

            “I know, but maybe it was connected somehow.” Kix shook his head. “I just have to consider all the options.”

            Jesse motioned hesitantly toward the datapad, his voice soft. “So? Did you find anything in there?”

            “Did you know Fives was writing to Tup?” Kix smiled at Jesse’s shocked face.

            “No!”

            “Yeah! I guess he knew about it… and Tup must have written about this to him even though he never really talked about it much, not even in here.”

            “Well, what did Fives say in the letters?” Jesse asked eagerly. “Can I see?”

            “I only read one of ‘em.” Kix whispered. “Here.” He passed it over.

            He watched Jesse’s face as he turned on the datapad, and a rush of warmth weakened him with fear. This wasn’t the first time he’d had to face the fact that they wouldn’t always be fighting side by side. That day on Umbara, he had been sure that one way or another, whether he shot Jesse or was executed for failing to, in the next few hours he and Jesse would never see each other again. Somehow they had survived Umbara… but Hardcase hadn’t, and even Rex’s luck hadn’t held out forever.

            “Wow,” Jesse said quietly after a few minutes. “Is there more? There is! Unbelievable…!  I never thought we’d hear anything from him again.”

            “Yeah….”

            Kix thought of Jesse’s poetry and Hardcase’s art. Now there was Tup’s journal and Fives’ letters… but what would he leave behind if he died? Medical logs. Just his records of others. Jesse would have to remember him through the possessions of others hidden in his medpack. And there was Rex’s comm he had promised to hold onto.

            He watched Jesse’s expression change slightly as he read, the tiny smile on his face growing, then fading to bitter-sweetness. A desperate resolve to carry on rose in Kix. He had to survive as long as possible. If his deficiency eventually got him killed, he could at least fight his hardest to end the war before then… make sure to see his brothers safely to the other side.

            “Attention: all troops, report to your stations. The Tenacity will land on Sluis Van in approximately one hour.”

            “Guess I’ll have to read the rest later,” Jesse sighed reluctantly. “I can’t believe you had this the whole time!”

            “Sorry.” Kix grimaced. “I thought about telling you, but….”

            “Ah, it’s alright.” Jesse smacked Kix’s knee softly.  “You did tell me, just now.”

            “Well… I had to, when I figured out Fives was… writing to him like that. I mean….”

            Jesse put the pad down, reached into the medpack and furtively pulled the hidden packet of flimsi to his chest. He half-unfolded the pages of poetry and slid out the battered photograph that was pressed between.

            A soft laugh pulled Jesse’s worried face into a grin. “I forgot about that. I’m the only one actually looking at the camera. Here, look!” He held the photo out. “I wonder how he found that old booth. That was our first leave on Coruscant, right?”

            “Yeah,” Kix sighed.

            Hardcase had an arm around each of their necks, eyes screwed shut in a huge grin as he gave a thumbs up. Jesse was smiling broadly at the camera, while Kix’s younger self pulled Hardcase’s arm away from his face, laughing through gritted teeth. He’d seen it two dozen times at least.

            “Yeah, always trust Hardcase for a laugh,” Jesse said wistfully as he slipped the whole package back into its hiding place. “I wonder what he’d say if he was still around.”

            “I dunno.” Kix swallowed and realized he really didn’t know. “Something nobody’s expecting.”

            “Heh. Yeah.”

            “Have you written anything lately?” Kix tried to change the subject.

             “Eh, nothing good. I wrote three pages of stuff and then erased all of it. Twice. Anyway, I better go get ready.”

            “Hey, Jesse,” Kix said, standing with him. “When we get back to Coruscant… let’s do something fun, okay?”

            Jesse mimicked Hardcase’s grin and thumbs-up from the photo. Kix laughed abruptly, more from gut-wrenching surprise than anything.

            “Take it easy, Kix,” Jesse said, with a sadder, more Jesse-ish smile. “I’ll see you on the surface.” He put on his helmet, gripped Kix’s shoulder, and turned to go.

            Kix sat back down on the bed, heaved a huge sigh and picked up the pad where Jesse had left it. It was still open to one of Fives’ letters.

            You’re not the only one. We are trained to know how to survive, but it’s always been my brothers who make life worth it. Master Shaak Ti told me when I was a cadet that the individual and the group are the same. To solve your own problems, you have to be looking out for your brothers, too. I didn’t always know what she meant by that, but I think I figured it out.

            If we didn’t care about each other, it wouldn’t be as hard when we lose our friends. But if we didn’t care about our friends, we wouldn’t have any will to fight. If we care about all of our brothers, we’ll stick to the mission even in the face of death, and we’ll keep fighting no matter what, because they’re counting on us. The trick is to realize that every single trooper out there is fighting just as hard as you are to stay alive. And having a friend helps me to remember that. It could be seen as a weakness, sure. But it’s also what keeps me moving forward every day.

Chapter Text

            Rex sat in the co-pilot’s chair, huddled in the poncho as they came out of hyperspace. The droid kept the ship cold everywhere but Rex’s quarters, but after days of being escorted back and forth only once a day from the showers and laundry, he was all too glad to sit shivering in the cockpit when the droid gave him permission. His new black shirt was too thin to keep him very warm by itself, but at least he had an outfit and boots that fit well, as well as a few toiletries to take off the unkempt edge.

            So far the droid seemed uninterested in harming him, and even its droning voice was better company sometimes than the blank walls of Rex’s quarters. The anxiety that followed him back aboard when they’d left Elrood had been dampened by what he could only assume was a deep exhaustion due to his brain still recovering from the surgery. He was familiar with the energy crash after the pain and adrenaline of a battle wore off. This one was just lasting longer than he expected.

            “Our next destination?” he asked, when a blinding star and crescents of planets appeared on the view screen.

            “Yes. I calculate we will arrive on the planet’s surface in forty-three mi