Jendiria was supposed to be a fast, simple mission: evacuate the GAR hospital base on the surface before the Seppies could stage their attack. But less than halfway through loading the injured, an inorganic scream lit up the ground with deep shadows—the shuttles were exploding in the sky. As Bly squinted toward the sun, helmet under his arm, another shock rumbled through his feet and he saw the far side of the base burning, smoke blocking out the marshy lands beyond.
“They broke through early!” Bly yelled over the noise—voices of other troopers and crashing metal. “Orders, General Secura!”
“Take the rest of the patients into the underground shelter!” She immediately turned and ran, away from the landing pad and back inside the complex in seconds. Bly put on his helmet and rushed to help Captain Liam unload the nearest shuttle, shouting orders to his other Captains and Lieutenants through his comm.
“But we’ve already loaded nearly eleven more shuttles, sir!” Liam insisted.
“They’ll get shot down! There’s no time, they’ll be targeting the—”
Another ball of fire rose deafeningly from the landing pad beside them.
Bly grabbed the captain and yanked him over the upper edge of the platform, down onto the network of service ladders and walkways just as the next missile hit. They tumbled and bashed against each other, colliding with metal rails and steps, armored elbows and knees. For a moment Bly lay, rattled and dizzy as he waited for his ears to stop ringing. As soon as he remembered where he was he thought maybe Liam had died anyway, but then the Captain was up with a groan and helping him to his feet a moment later.
“Come on,” Bly said breathlessly, trying to shake it off. He tried not to think about casualty numbers. “We’ve got to get the others out.”
The battalion managed to get six or seven hundred moved below the surface before the droids started showing up. Bly was directing troopers steering repulsor-lift stretchers down the ramp into the hollow, durasteel tunnel when the familiar sound of droideka gunfire pierced through the smolder and smoke of the base. Soon the bolts of light were coming for him. The ground was too broken up to roll any droid poppers under their shields.
“Inside! Hurry!” Bly commanded.
“This is gonna turn into a death trap!” said Flash, taking shots between careful steps backwards.
Bly ducked forward behind a fallen bit of duracrete as the last stragglers rushed down the ramp. They were wasting ammo, but there was no way back out of the tunnels and the droids were coming on fast. There was only one option.
“Sir!” someone yelled.
“Just go!” Bly said. “I’m gonna block the entrance!”
“Where’s General Secura?” The question came faintly from far back in the tunnel and wasn’t directed at him—the men were already on the move. Good. He unloaded his belt of charges, dodging blaster bolts to place them around the entrance before backing down the stairs and throwing the last of his grenades upward. He ran down the ramp and toward the stairs.
Light flashed ahead of him and plunged him into rumbling darkness. Dust and shrapnel railed against the back of his armor like a hurricane. A sickening lurch threw him as if he weighed nothing—his helmet cracked against the ceiling and he spun end over end too quickly down the last set of stairs. At last he lay still on his aching face, helmet askew, waiting for the dust to settle.
He got to his feet, noticing a twinge in his ankle and wrist, and turned on his helmet lamp. No broken bones.
The tunnel was quiet and empty. The floor seemed to ripple for a moment and Bly tried to blink it away. “Liam? Zander? Do you copy?”
“We hear you, Commander,” Zander said.
“Liam here, sir.”
“Any structural problems?”
“Not so far,” said Liam.
“General Secura? Do you copy?”
“I’m here, Bly.” Her reassuring voice came through clear. “Are we in any immediate danger of pursuit?”
“No.” Bly looked back up the tunnel at the masses of metal and duracrete that had fallen across the top. He could only just hear the pinging of blaster fire beyond it. Could even be a mental echo. “They might try to blow the entrance back open. I’m not sure how long it’ll hold out. I hope there’s another way out of here.”
“Come to the main chamber and we’ll regroup.”
The main chamber of the shelter was alight with the headlamps of his comrades. Many of them had set their helmets on the ground to help delineate where it was safe to walk between the wounded. He looked for the glow of General Secura’s saber, but he didn’t spot her until his own headlamps passed over her back. She was crouched by one of the many wounded troopers that covered the floor of the chamber.
“I’m here, General Secura,” Bly said. “Are all the squads accounted for?”
“No word from Beck or Ollie,” someone sighed—Stormy, Bly confirmed with a quick sweep of his lamp. “I’m sure the droids have finished ‘em off by now.”
Bly knelt down by Secura and removed his battered helmet so he could look at her without blinding her. For a moment, her face and everything else blanked out and he flung out a hand to steady himself against the ground.
“What’s this?” The general’s eyes seemed enormous, reflecting the light of all those headlamps. “You’re bleeding. Your eyes are bruised.”
“I am?” Bly put a hand to his forehead and felt only a slight dampness. “Oh. I’m sure it’s just a scratch.”
Secura grabbed his helmet and turned it toward a beam of light so he could see. “There’s shrapnel coming all the way through on the left side.”
Bly suddenly could feel the blood trickling down his head and into his ear… down his neck. He shifted his hand to touch his ear and stopped when Secura grabbed his chin.
“That looks a lot worse than just a scratch, Commander.”
Bly laughed, feeling lightheaded—giddy, almost. “I guess it is.” A nearly lethal injury and he’d not even known it. In the midst of falling down the stairs he hadn’t noticed anything special about the pain in his head. It had already been aching from his jump off the landing platform. He felt another rush of relief when the general’s face relaxed. Her warm grip left his chin.
“Get one of the medics to look at it.” She wiped her bloodied hand on her hip. “Then bandage it up. It doesn’t seem to have cut too deeply.”
“Yes, General Secura,” Bly said quietly, the giddiness draining faster than the blood that was stinging his eye now. He lowered his voice even further. “Do you have a plan for getting out of here?”
She stared at him for a moment in determination and he wished he knew what she was thinking. “Patch yourself up, Bly. Head wounds bleed fast. Set the most able to guard the entrance, and then find out how many of these men can fight… if it comes to that. I’ll try to call for help.”
No escape plan yet, then. Bly steadied himself to rise.
“I can still use a gun, sir,” grunted the trooper on the ground. He had come up on his elbows. “It’s just my legs that are a drag.” He laughed under his breath and someone else in the darkness coughed a louder laugh.
“A drag! Your jokes are a drag, Shakes.”
“You’re a drag.” It was affectionate. All of them—especially the ones they’d evacuated from the hospital—they all knew they were lucky to have survived the bombing, and it would be a miracle to live much longer. Bly wished he’d thought of a better end for them than this.
Bly pulled out one of his DC-17s and held it out to Shakes, who sat up more fully and took it with a nod of thanks. Secura watched it pass between them.
“I’m not gonna take death lying down.” The trooper’s voice was mostly steady.
The chamber was full of quiet murmurs with sporadic rises in pitch and chatter. The medics were hard at work. Bly found Swift giving painkillers to Cameron and Rush. The medic took one look at the blood soaked bandage Bly was holding to his head and jumped to his feet.
“Got hit by some shrapnel. I don’t think it’s deep but I’m a little dizzy.”
“If you were close enough to the blast, a little cut might be the least of your worries,” Swift muttered as he scanned and felt carefully along Bly’s skull. His eyebrows eased up a bit after a moment. “No, looks like your helmet managed to shield you from most internal damage… you might have a concussion, though. Take it easy, Commander.”
Bly didn’t say anything to that. He could take it easy when they got out of there. He could take it easy when they all suffocated together. But saying so would only decrease morale. Best to focus on something more productive.
“Thanks, Swift.” He half-smiled at the medic. “I’ll let you get back to work.”
In less than ten minutes, Bly managed to get his troops divided into sections. All extra arms had been distributed to the wounded troopers who could still sit up and aim steady.
“Mags, you and the rest of your platoon help move the remaining casualties behind the inner barrier.” Zander’s squad was using deactivated stretchers to form low shielding walls. It would be some kind of cover at least.
“Got it, sir!” Mags said immediately. “Come on men, hustle!”
“Sir!” A trooper was running in from the tunnel. “General Secura! The enemy’s attempting to dig through! They’ve already started moving debris! I estimate less than fifteen minutes ‘til contact!”
Silence fell on the men. Fog crowded Bly’s mind. He’d trapped them down here without thinking. Why couldn’t he think?
Secura stood from talking with another wounded clone and moved toward a more densely lit patch. The low helmet beams caught her in crossing, making her a patchwork of black and blue-green. “We’ll stand together,” she said simply. “If we can hold them off long enough, General Frayus will arrive with reinforcements. I’ve been in contact—they’re attempting to break through to the surface.”
“How long will that take, sir?” someone asked. “They’ll have to fight through the droids too before they can get to us.”
“I know. Escape seems unlikely.” Secura looked up at the ceiling of the chamber, and as Bly refocused his eyes her silhouette seemed almost too clear, like a cartoon outlined in thick strokes. “For now, we only have each other to depend on. We’ll hold out as long as we can. If, after our best effort, it is time for us to die after all… then we will accept it.”
She walked forward to the edge of the stretcher barrier, motioning for the outermost lights to be turned toward the tunnel. A good strategy—the enemy would be lit up in plain sight, but she and the men would be in the dimmer part of the chamber and harder to see. Bly stepped up behind her and to the right. Liam brought his men into formation on her left. It was quiet, apart from the murmuring of the medics still moving through the ranks. Bly could hear air whistling softly through his bruised nose.
“General Secura,” he said quietly. “We should discuss priority in the event that we do manage to escape.”
“What do you suggest, Commander?”
He braced himself, knowing she would disagree. “In a situation like this, regulation calls for the most able soldiers to take priority. A quick escape will be essential. In the interests of preventing a significant hit to the Republic’s strength, the sooner you get out of here, the better.”
“You want me to leave the weakest men behind?” Secura said, and Bly frowned at the sharp edge to it.
“It’s not a matter of what I want, General, it’s a matter of what’s best for the army. The Separatists obviously were better prepared for this attack than we thought. I think they let us find out that they knew our wounded men were taking shelter here, so that they could take any rescuing battalions by surprise. Their fleet is much larger and better armed than we expected. If the extraction takes too long, General Frayus’s forces will be compromised as well, which is why you should be one of the first to escape. Then she and her men can pull out at any time.”
“Bly,” she sighed, and his head swam. “If I know General Frayus, she won’t agree to leave so many men behind, and neither will I.”
“The more valuable part of the fighting force should take precedence,” Bly repeated reluctantly. “More of us are going to die today one way or another… if there’s going to be any sort of rescue operation we have to make it count.”
“Would you be saying this if this room were full of civilians?”
“I—” Bly shut his mouth as she looked at him sadly. He pressed on. “No, of course not... but we… aren’t civilians. We’re soldiers. We’ve all pledged our lives to the Republic.”
“The Commander’s right, General,” said a weak voice, and both Bly and Secura turned to find the speaker—but he was one of the injured lying behind the barrier, out of sight. “You’ve already lost enough of your battalion trying to evacuate us.”
Another voice spoke up tightly. “I’d rather die than get more of my brothers killed because they were trying to drag me out of here.”
“If we can’t fight then we can at least die knowing you had a better chance of making it to safety without us.”
A grinding noise simultaneously deep and high vibrated through the floor. All eyes swept back toward the dark entrance.
“They’re digging through,” Bly whispered, raising his rifle.
The general took a slow breath and pulled her saber from her belt but didn’t ignite it. “I can feel your resolve,” she said clearly, her voice echoing slightly around the room. “I know you want to live, but you’re afraid.”
No one said anything. Bly heard a faint ringing in his ears, and his head felt stretched out unpleasantly from the inside. Dull, deep thuds and the faintest tic of blaster fire drifted toward them. He could hear some of the other men breathing a little fast.
Bly jumped when she touched his shoulder. She was still looking straight ahead.
“You did your best to carry out the mission. Your life is meaningful even if it doesn’t end in some heroic sacrifice. I know you take your responsibilities to the Republic seriously… and to me, and to your men. You wouldn’t be suggesting this without thinking it through.”
Bly stared at her.
“I will honor your request if I think it is right.” She looked troubled. Her voice shifted a bit, speaking to everyone again. “But… when I reach to the Force for clarity, your lives aren’t any less important than mine.”
Another deep screech and scrape of duracrete shifting. Something was definitely coming through.
“That’s nice for you to say, General,” said Liam, his voice gone uncharacteristically low. His feet scratched treads against the ground as he nervously shifted stance. “But… we’re not even a part of the Force. We’re manufactured. We’re… we’re meant to die in service to the Republic. Not like you, you’re….”
“Are you alive, Liam?” Secura asked softly.
“Yes… yes, sir.”
“Cord, are you alive?”
“Last time I checked.” Bly heard a weak laugh.
“Zander? Break? Lucky? Rush?” She continued to name them at random and each one gave some reply, usually a “yes, sir” or a bemused “I’m alive, General.” Some were shaky, some faint, some loud, some uneasy. Of course they were uneasy. They were canned targets down here. The growing sick feeling in Bly’s head got a little worse with each distant scrape or rumble that interrupted his General’s voice in the darkness.
“Shakes. Hummer. Cliff. All of you I only met today. You’re still alive.”
“Yes, sir,” said a broken chorus of hoarse voices. “Yes, General.” The air cracked loudly as another bit of debris was blown away in the darkness.
“You’re breathing. You’re thinking.” Secura’s voice was calm, almost as if she was musing to herself. Bly stared into the black hole of the tunnel. “When you die, when I die… our thoughts, the spark that makes us more than a random collection of matter… our selves… that miracle is interrupted. When I was created… when you were created… do you think the moment that we first became alive, that it was any less significant to you than it was to me?”
No one said anything. Bly felt a pulse in his skull. Explosions were drumming like uneven heartbeats against the cave-in.
“Do you ever lie awake at night thinking about how you are you? No matter how many clones, no matter how many humans, Twi’leks, no matter how many living things there are in the universe… you are experiencing it all, only through one set of eyes… one body, one mind. Why are you in the body you inhabit? The mind you are listening, thinking, feeling with?”
Bly took a deep breath at the same time as another clone behind him. Of course he had thought about this. Probably every single clone had. In the beginning, before tattoos and haircuts and scars and painted armor, all that set them apart was that deepest surety: I am me and you are you.
“The Force is created by all living things… and it also makes every life possible. Your life, the life only you can ever have, rises out of the Force, just as the Kaminoans did, just as your template did, just as I did. Each of us live only knowing our own life for sure, and yet the Force that makes us sentient and aware of anything is what flows through every moment of time and every atom of the universe. In all of the millennia of its existence it has never before been arranged in the form you are giving it now. The universe is being known in an entirely new way by each and every one of you….”
She turned and looked back at them, the hilt of her saber resting easy in her hand despite the harsh banging of duracrete slabs being thrown aside.
Bly was standing close to her—close enough that he imagined himself reaching out and touching her shoulder. But he could only listen wordlessly, a conviction, a feeling that he could only name as loyalty rising through the dizziness like water rising around his chest. He saw the determination on her face, and her eyes briefly met his as she passed her gaze over the hundreds of clones sitting, standing, and lying on their backs, filling the chamber. She looked sad, too, but she smiled almost self-consciously when she saw their faces turned toward her.
“You are the Force, just as I am.” She laid a hand over her heart. Her voice was gentle but it carried well. “If we die today… I only want you to understand.”
Bly imagined for the millionth time what it would feel like to die. To cease existing.
“You will rejoin the Force. And the Force will never arrange itself into who you are again. You… are rare.” Her voice rose slightly with fervor, curling her free hand into a loose fist. “Yes, we may give up our lives so that others will survive, but it is not because our lives are less valuable than theirs. Anything as rare as an individual life is never truly expend—”
An explosion lit up a cloud of dust and shrapnel, and blaster fire came bristling out of the tunnel, turning the shelter into an echo chamber of red and white light.
Crouched and aiming his rifle over the outermost barrier, Bly heard the General’s lightsaber ignite. His brothers were around him, every one of them a life. And General Secura was front and center, deflecting fire, ready to fight to the death for them. At the first glint and clank of metal entering the chamber, the blaster became an extension of his hands. If he didn’t manage to live, he would try to honor in death the way she called his life a miracle.
“Another round! Keep it coming!” Bly shouted over the chaos. Grenades sailed over him. The ping of blaster bolts pounded pain through his head and he could barely see to aim. But even in the haze of it he knew the chamber was filling up with droids too fast.
“I’m going to cut them off!” he heard Secura say, but when he looked he couldn’t even see the glow of her saber anymore. She was already gone. Bly half-crawled and rolled to close the gap between himself and Liam—the room spun. He clutched at the top of the barrier to steady himself.
“Alright, Commander?” the captain yelled, taking out two droids in a row.
“Alive!” Bly saw a bright flash of blue reappear and something like adrenaline flooded his chest. His head cleared a little and he managed to knock down three clankers. Secura had snuck behind one of the spider droids and was close to the wall, wrestling her saber through the thing’s middle. “She’s something else, huh?” He grinned against the throbbing pain in his head and managed to hit a couple more.
“Yeah, yeah, she’s great!” Liam said impatiently. “Focus, brother! Maybe if we live through this you can tell her!”
“Tell her what?” Bly blinked and gritted his teeth as he took a rapid line of shots, a strange excitement welling up beyond the adrenaline of the battle or the pain in his head. “Thank you?” He felt like he was floating over the battlefield and struggled to keep his focus on the targets in front of him.
She had disappeared again, and he realized her strategy. She was staying close to the entrance, hiding in the dark until the larger droids came through. Then she could catch them before they got more than a few steps into the room. Their inert shells piled up to block the entrance. He saw a B-1 trying to aim at her and sent a blaster bolt through its head.
“Stormy’s down!” someone yelled over the comm. “Getting thin at three o’clock, the droids are circling back this way!”
“I got it.” Bly tore his eyes away from searching for that blue blade of light. “Copy that, Bly heading your way.”
“I’ll hold the line!” Liam promised.
“Keep drawing fire away from the General!” Bly said. He crawled forward—two of the men on his left jerked and fell with abrupt cries as bolts pierced their helmets. He rolled as fast as he could toward the right side of their semi-circular wall. The motion made him much more nauseous than it should have.
When he got up on one knee, the world flipped over and everything went black.
But the noise kept coming.
“Commander!” Someone was kicking his knee. “They’re getting too close!” His voice was cracking with panic. The incessant blaster fire tore at Bly’s ears.
He found his gun, in his hands. He found his arms and pushed himself up with his elbows, and his vision cleared again. The droids were only meters away.
“Any grenades left?” Bly gasped, shooting wildly as every droid began to split into three. His head felt like it was going to crack open along a seam. But he couldn’t give up.
“Yes, sir!” said one of the other men nearby
“We have to blow them back from the wounded!” Bly said. “Take cover against the bottom of the wall!”
He kept shooting until the first grenade exploded—the wall flew into his side and flung him backward like a ball struck with a paddle. His back hit something solid, his head whipped back on his neck, and a bolt of fire raced through his right elbow.
“Is he conscious?” someone was asking. Bly tried to reach for his gun but his arms wouldn’t move. Did he still have arms?
“Where am I?” he tried to say, but only the vowels came out, a weak questioning noise. His head. Someone moved underneath his back. He remembered being blown through the air during a battle.
Maybe he had fallen on someone who was already wounded. But that someone was still alive, so he couldn’t let the droids find out or they would kill his brother, too.
But the droids were gone. Bly could hear a warped noise like an engine. Something warm was on his skin just by his collarbone. They’d taken his armor.
He tried to sit up straighter, look for a weapon, but strong hands pulled him back down into the slump—he was so weak. Dark red and grey pillars surrounded him and slowly narrowed into the shapes of troopers holding onto overhead grips.
“Where am I?” he tried again.
“You’re safe.” The person holding him spoke. “We’re on a gunship.”
He recognized her voice and remembered her standing there in the light of all their helmets. His eyes watered and fixed on someone’s knee bent just a little above the floor. It was his own knee, and he remembered what she said about his body and his mind.
“I’m alive,” he heard himself say. Bly’s voice. Bly felt General Aayla Secura’s hand resting lightly on his aching head and felt more real than he had known anyone could.
“Yes, Bly, you are alive,” she said softly, and he couldn’t tell if the vibration in her voice was laughter. Maybe relief. “General Frayus came. We were able to evacuate many of the wounded. You did well.”
“General,” Bly said in a daze, still staring at his own miraculous knee. “Aayla,” he said, although he’d never called her that before. “I… I think I….”
“Try and rest, Bly.” He felt her speaking quietly, right by his ear, as if her throat were humming into his head. “You have a concussion. If you don’t rest, the effects could settle in for much longer.”
Bly felt water tickling the corner of his eyelid, growing cold on the ridge of his cheek after he blinked it out. He didn’t know how to say what he was feeling. It was like stepping into the sun.
“I think I love you,” he said to his knee.
He let his eyes fall closed, felt himself sinking, and remembered how her words had lit him up. The Force in him saw itself in her—was that what it was? What a thing for a clone to believe. But he promised himself he would never let her down.