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One Of A Million

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           Cody jumped over the finish line and nearly tripped himself as he turned to look over his shoulder while running. He threw his hands in the air in triumph. “I WIN!”

            Someone shoved him and he stumbled. He just managed to stay upright and turn to see who it was.

           “Whoa, whoa, whoa, Snapper, he won fair and square!” said 4569, shoving 241 slightly in turn.

           4339, 2088 and Fort were straggling a short distance behind.

           “I know!” Snapper said exasperatedly. “I was just having a little fun. Besides, he can take it, can’t you Twenty-Two Twenty-Four?”

            “It’s Cody,” Cody said, rolling his shoulders back and tossing his head up as he came to a standstill. “And yeah. I can take it.”

            “I almost beat you!” Snapper yelled, stomping one foot dramatically, but he was grinning. “Just wait until we get to spar in hand to hand, then I’ll really beat you.”

            “Not literally, right?” 4339 said uneasily. “We’re not supposed to injure each other seriously, you know.”

            “Ah come on, you guys are no fun. The guys I was training with before always knew when I was joking.”

            Cody shrugged. “I could tell.”

            “Me too,” 2088 piped up from behind 4339.

            “Really?” Fort said. “You can’t even remember all of your numbers.”

            “I’ve only been training with you since this morning!” 2088 said. “Not like you and Snapper and Forty… Forty-Six-Ninety-One.”

            “It’s Forty-Five-Sixty-Nine.” 4569 smacked his forehead. “There’s not even a one in it. The first three numbers are right next to each other!”

            “Alright, alright!” 2088 said. “I’ll pay more attention.”

            “Master Chief!” 4569 said abruptly, and they all turned and came to attention as Os Tala entered the room, replacing the other Kaminoan who had been supervising their fitness regimen.

            “Come,” she said immediately. “You will have your meal on the way. We will be joining another group for your next exercise.”

            As they walked in single file down the hall, Cody dug into the compartment on the belt of his training armor and pulled out a ration cube. This was nearly his third week of getting his body used to them, and his stomach had finally stopped demanding real food. Still, they didn’t taste any more exciting than they had the first time he’d tried them.

            Silently, Master Chief led them into the huge mess hall, and stopped. A cadet was approaching, six or seven years old, just like most of the other clones in the room. He was followed by five other unknown cadets.

            “Ready for orders, Master-Chief!” said the cadet. He stared straight ahead, helmet under his arm, completely focused.

            “Come,” she replied, turning immediately to lead them back out. “Today your squad will be combined with the best of your age group and divided into two new teams. We will see who can work their way through the courses we have prepared with greater speed and accuracy.”

            Cody smiled a little at the praise: the best in their age group. He looked around the massive mess hall full of six and seven year olds. There were hundreds… thousands.

           In two lines, they followed her silently out and toward the antechamber for their training course, passing groups of other cadets on the way. It was impossible to guess their abilities just from looking, but he still doubted there were any racing to lead the pack as quickly as them.

            “Group one, assemble on my left.” Os Tala began listing off numbers for group one as soon as they had entered the training room and spread into a single line. Cody waited for his number to be called. 2088 and 4569 stepped away. As usual, Snapper was unable to stand perfectly still—his fingers tapped lightly against his thighs. It was the first thing that Cody had managed to link to his number, to set him apart after he’d responded to Master Chief calling him that morning. It was always a bit tricky for the first few minutes, meeting a new brother.

            “Cadets Four-Three-Three-Nine, Seven-Five-Six-Seven, Two-Two-Two-Four, Two-Four-One, Six-Zero-Zero-One, and Five-Five-Three-Six are in group two.”

            7567—the intense one, Cody thought—stepped with 6001 to join Cody and the other three on the Master Chief’s right side.

            “Take a moment to select your weapons. As soon as you are ready, the training doors to your separate chambers will open when both groups input the command. Cadet Four-Five-Six-Nine and Four-Three-Three-Nine will be team leaders for the first round. I will be observing your progress.”

            “Yes, Master Chief!” everyone called.

            As soon as she left, the groups broke ranks and hurried toward the opposite wall to pick out their weapons. 7567 put on his helmet immediately and reached for the dual pistols. Fancy, Cody thought. Ambitious. Not what he expected from such a stoic face. He hurried over and grabbed a belt of grenades and the common training rifle, meant to simulate a DC-15 blaster.

            “You’re Seventy-Five Sixty-Seven, right?” he said confidently. “I’m Twenty-Two Twenty-Four. You can call me Cody. Are you good with those?”

            7567 held the pistols at shoulder height and looked at him for a few seconds, his expression behind the visor just as guarded as before. Cody blinked calmly back at him, smiling just a little in what he hoped was an encouraging way.

           “Yeah, I will be,” 7567 finally said, and turned away abruptly.

            2224 grinned and hefted his rifle, stepping persistently into his path. “I’m working my way up to the big guns. Master Chief says she’ll let me try a Z-6 as soon as I grow another couple of centimeters.”

            “If you can lift it,” the other new guy—6001—laughed, taking grenades and one pistol. “Those things are huge! They’re as big as we are!”

            “Alright!” 4339 cried in a cracking voice, and shook his fist high above his head with a gangly arm. “Alright, men, come on, hurry up and get focused! Line up! Everybody say your number and what you’re best at. We don’t know what’s behind those doors. A good leader uses every man’s strengths! Right?”

            7567 stepped up to Snapper’s left; Cody shifted to stand between 7567 and 6001 with Fort bringing up the end.

            “Yes, sir!” Cody jumped in brightly. “Cody here. I’m a pretty good shot.”

            “We’re all good shots, Cody,” 5536 groaned.

            “Yeah, but I’m the best,” Cody joked.

            “Hey! Cut the chatter,” 4339 barked. “Twenty-Two Twenty-Four, I need a more specific answer.”

            “Come on, Forty-Three Thirty-Nine, you already know what I’m good at.”

            “No one else does.”

            Muffled laughter rose from the rest of the cadets. When Cody looked over at the two new guys, 6001 was stifling a smile, but 7567 was still strictly at attention.

            “I’m creative, I guess.” Cody said. “If we get stuck I’ll have some ideas how to get us un-stuck.”

            “Okay. Next.”

            “Quick, sound judgment,” 7567 said choppily before anyone else could speak. Maybe he was nervous. “I always pay attention to what’s happening on the battlefield. Seventy-Five Sixty-Seven, sir.

            “Good. Next?”

            “No nickname?” Cody whispered to 7567 as 6001 said something about speed.

            7567 glared at Cody—he could see it even through the helmet!—but stayed silent. Okay… maybe this one was touchy about nicknames. Maybe he was one of those cadets trying to leave an embarrassing childhood nickname behind.

            “Two-Four-One. I go by Snapper,” Snapper said, raising his gloved fists. “And I’m best at hand to hand combat.”

            “I go by Snapper, sir,” said 4339.

            “Yes, sir,” Snapper said begrudgingly.

            “Fifty-Five Thirty-Six,” 4339 prompted with a quick jab of the finger.

            “Yes sir,” Fort said slowly. “I’m… well, I’m pretty good at predicting what the enemy will do. That’s why they call me Fort.”

            “I don’t… get it,” said 6001.

            4339 sighed impatiently. “It’s short for—”

            “You guys done over there?” 4569 called from group one’s position by their door. “Let’s get a move on, Slowpoke Squad! Don’t worry, brothers, beating these guys is gonna be easy!”

            “We’re ready,” 4339 said, placing his hand on the activator.

            The doors opened and 4339 led the way into a bright corridor. The end was crowded with B-1s, which immediately began firing.

            “Attention cadets: your ship is under attack.” Os Tala’s voice came from inside their helmets. “You must make it past the droids to reach the gun-wells and fight off the opposing ships before your ship is destroyed.”

            “There’s cover up ahead!” Snapper yelled, as they all flattened against the walls or ducked to get under the line of fire.

            “Everyone head for the left opening! Stick together!” 4339 commanded. He led the charge. Cody pulled his attention back to the droids and almost immediately took down two. He loved how familiar the blaster felt to him by now. He barely had to think about it. 7567 was trying to aim both his pistols, but—

            6001 gave a frustrated yell when a bolt zapped his armor. “I’m out!”

            Cody refocused and hurried into the left opening, which was really more of a shallow indentation. 4339 and Snapper had already almost filled it.

            As soon as 7567 reached the left opening, he dropped to one knee and kept firing. “It’s too narrow! We won’t all fit!”

            “I’m sure this isn’t all they’re throwing at us,” Fort yelled, just before a bolt hit him square in the chest. “Arg!”

            4339 motioned sharply with his elbow between shots. “Seventy-Five Sixty-Seven, take point across from us!”

            “Copy that!” 7567 rolled across the corridor and came up in the indent on the other side. Between shots of his own, Cody saw him peer around the corner and take another clanker down. “Now what?”

            And another one! 7567 could aim.

            4339 was silent for a moment, trying to shoot the B-1s without getting his helmet singed. Cody tried to study the hall with every glance he stole around the corner to fire. There seemed to be two doorways about halfway between them and the B-1s. A glowing blue sign hung from the ceiling at the end. He took one more shot and scrapped his fourth B-1.

           “They’re pretty thick,” 4339 said. “Our checkpoint is behind them. We’ll have to break through with grenades.”

            “On a ship?” 7567 yelled. “That’s not a good idea. We can’t risk breaching the hull!”

            “I meant droid poppers, obviously!” said 4339.

            “Yes, sir!” 7567 yelled back.

            “I’ve got this,” Cody said, pulling a grenade from his belt. “With your permission, sir.”

            “Do it!” 4339 ordered.

            Grinning, Cody hurled the grenade down the hall. It landed right on its mark in the middle of the B-1s, and seven of them went dead just as three huge metal balls rolled out of those newly-opened doors on both sides of the corridor. They unfolded into turrets, activated an encasing globe of shimmering light, and began to fire.

            “What are those things?!” 6001 cried.

            Snapper made a growling noise as he threw a grenade at them. The grenade bounced off and came right back at them. “Fort said things were going to get worse! Look, they’re ray-shielded! How do we get past that?

            “Somebody’s going to have to draw their fire,” 4339 said.

            “Where?” Cody protested. “This corridor’s too narrow.”

            “I bet they can’t shoot at us if they’re rolling… we have to figure out a way to get them to move.” 4339 grabbed Snapper’s hand as it moved toward the rest of the poppers on his belt. “Don’t! You’re wasting them!”

            7567 stopped shooting, and Cody glanced at him, but he couldn't see an expression from this angle.

            “Well, what else are we supposed to do?” asked Snapper.

            “If we can throw the droid poppers over those things,” said Cody, “clear the way behind them, maybe one of us can break through.”

            “One of us,” said Snapper. “But what about the rest of us?”

            “There’s no way just one of us will break through those things,” 7567 said firmly. “You’d have to be crazy to try it. Forty-Three Thirty-Nine, you’re the leader. Just tell us what your plan is.”

            “Listen,” 4339 said. “They’ve stopped shooting.”

           7567 peeked around the corner again. Cody kept his position, grenade in hand, trying to mentally prepare himself for the throw.

           “They’re coming this way,” 7567 said. “Their shields are still working.”

           “When they get a little closer, then we make a break for it,” said 4339. He looked around at them all. “Snapper, Cody, throw on my mark. Ready…. ”

            Cody pictured the grenade sailing up and through that narrow window between ray shield and ceiling. If they were going to rush the enemy, he couldn’t decide which angle would be best. It was a risky plan… even if the grenades got through, it was no good getting rid of the B-1s if the big droids still stood in their way. Their shields obviously repelled both lasers and solid objects, but did it extend only to the deck plating they stood on?

            The cadets waited in the quiet, hearing the clanking of droid feet on metal plating. Suddenly, there was a rumbling noise; the giant balls of metal appeared and unfolded right between them—

            “RUN!” 4339 hollered.

            Cody fumbled to stick the grenade back on his belt and surged out with the others, nearly tripping over Snapper. He saw 7567 squeeze past the droid’s shields on the other side.

            None of them got five steps down the corridor before they were shot from both sides. Cody let a disappointed groan out at the shock from his armor, and 7567 grunted, lurched to a halt, and let his pistols fall to his thighs.

            Os Tala’s voice came over the speakers. “Four-Three-Three-Nine, your time has run out, and your ship has been destroyed. Group Two, return to the antechamber. You will repeat the challenge, but this time, Two-Two-Two-Four will lead. You have one minute to consider your strategy.”

            “Excuse me, Master Chief,” Cody said to the ceiling. 4339 stared at his feet, Snapper stopped, and 7567 looked over his shoulder at him on the way to the exit. “I have a suggestion on how to improve our training programs.”

            “Go on, cadet,” she said after a pause. 7567 slowed even further.

            “If this were a real ship,” Cody said, injecting confidence into his voice, “we would have a lot more options for how to solve this problem. We would be able to try alternate routes through maintenance hatches, or… create a hull breach with a bomb to suck the enemy out into space!” Cody motioned emphatically with his rifle. “We could even run back the way we came. Maybe you could reset the parameters to simulate something like that.”

            7567 stopped near the doorway, where 6001 and Fort were already waiting. Fort sighed and moved his head in a way that suggested he was rolling his eyes. Cody walked slowly to join the rest of them, face turned hopefully toward the ceiling.

            “Your input has been noted,” said the voice from above. Master Chief almost sounded amused, but Cody still felt disappointed. “This program is designed to test a very specific set of decision-making skills in a situation where your options are severely restricted.”

            “Understood, Master Chief. I just thought that—”

            “You will have plenty of opportunities to show off your strengths later, cadet. For now, I suggest you focus on the task at hand. In battle, one must accept the reality of each situation as it comes.”

            “Yes, sir,” Cody sighed, the last one out the door. I just thought that the more realistic our training is, the better prepared we will be.

            The antechamber was split in two now; a divider had been raised down the middle so that they couldn’t hear or see whether Group One had succeeded or failed.

            “Nice try sucking up to the master chief, sir,” Snapper said, nudging Cody.

            “Hey. He has a point,” 4339 said.

            Cody folded his arms and let Snapper’s accusation bounce off of him. Sucking up… yeah right. If he won, it would be because of good thinking and good shooting, same as any soldier.

            “You heard what she said,” 7567 said firmly, and his face was turned toward Cody. “The course was designed this way for a reason. You really think a cadet knows better than our trainers?”

            Cody turned to him and opened his mouth.

            “You have thirty seconds,” Os Tala reminded them.

            “Okay, okay.” Cody dropped his objections and focused, facing them all and unfolding his arms. “When those doors open, we split into two groups of three, one on each side. Head for cover as fast as you can. No matter what, keep throwing droid poppers over the rollies. Seventy-Five Sixty-Seven, Fort, I want you two to try rolling some just far enough to get under their shields. Remember what we learned about different types of shielding? Some shields are designed to allow slow-moving objects to pass through.”

            “I was… going to point that out,” 7567 said.

            Cody grinned, not sure if 7567’s halting tone was because he was lying or because he had honestly thought of the same thing. He guessed the latter—the cadet didn’t seem to like him, so no sense “sucking up” as Snapper called it.

            “Why didn’t I think of that!” 6001 smacked his own helmet.

            “Everyone clear on the plan?” Cody asked. “Uh, once the rollies are down, we might be able to use their bodies as shields, or get them to go back to—”

            “Begin program.”

            The doors opened and they all charged forward without another word.

            They were halfway to the indents before the B-1s started firing in earnest. Cody ran to the indent, and continued running headlong down the hall, firing madly with his rifle.

            “Where’s he going?!” someone yelled

            A grenade bounced past Cody and into the B-1s “Are you CRAZY?” someone hollered.

            Cody skidded to a halt right between the doors where the rollies came out. As they came and unfolded, he jumped on the nearest one’s back just as soon as it rose on its spider-like legs. In a moment the harsh staccato pinging of blaster bolts became muffled against the shield as it enveloped them.

            “YEAH CODY!” Someone outside the shield was cheering. Cody couldn’t tell which one, and the droid swiveled suddenly, nearly knocking him over.

            “Whoa!” Cody clung on and tried to wrestle the droid’s deceptively spindly-looking frame to face the B-1s. “Keep those grenades flying!” he yelled. He wasn’t sure if the others could hear him clearly. “Don’t worry about tagging me out! I’m gonna ride it through!”

            “Copy that,” someone called, and Cody saw, just for a split second, the warped figure of a cadet holding a pistol in one hand and a grenade in the other. The dark smudge of the grenade came closer as his arms strained and his feet scrabbled to find leverage on the ground. The droid to the right of Cody’s went down, shields disappearing.

            “One rolly down!” 6001 shouted a few seconds later from the other side, just as Cody hopped off the back of the droid and grabbed its gun arms instead, throwing his whole weight into trying to aim them toward the floor. Desperation had his heart hammering already. This was harder than he’d expected. “Keep moving! KEEP MOVING! We’re running out of time!”

            7567 ran forward to just behind the first dead rolly, then disappeared.

            Cody strained and yanked. The gun arms wouldn’t move! He planted his foot against the base of one of its legs, where it joined the ball, and pushed backward to straighten his legs with all his might, his arms wrapped around the gun arm. The droid’s top lurched toward him, clamping down as the guns retracted and Cody lost his grip. He fell backward for a moment, twisting. The ground rushed up at him even as his right shin stayed pinned in place, tighter, tighter as he twisted to break his fall, the bone and muscle mashed together. He heard himself cry out in pain and felt, for a moment, more confused than afraid.

            He heard the jumbled yelling of several of the other boys. He saw the droid trying to roll up into a ball around his leg, but worse, he felt the whirring pressure, letting up a little every few seconds only to come back. Seeing it, Cody wondered distantly if the bone had already broken. Was this what a broken bone felt like? It wasn’t so bad, he thought dizzily.

            “Get it off him!” 6001 cried, wedging his rifle in between the metal jaws and pushing down to try and lever it open.

            “Careful, you’ll blow the cartridge!” 4339 yelled.

            “He’s fine!” said Snapper.

            “I’m okay, finish the—get moving!” Cody tried to say it like a commander, but his voice came out higher and more strained than he wanted.

            The rolly suddenly unfolded; hot stabbing pain went up Cody’s leg as he pulled it free and rolled over onto his back, scrambling to sit up straight. He saw 7567 run toward him, only to change direction abruptly and sprint for the gun-well; a bolt hit him in the back and he stopped.

            “Level reset. Your leader is the only one who was not tagged out. You need more than one soldier to save this ship.”

            4339 pulled Cody’s arm around his shoulders on the right; Fort did the same on the left

            “I think Twenty-Two Twenty-Four’s injured!” Fort said to the ceiling as they pulled him to his feet. Cody’s leg didn’t buckle when he put a small bit of weight on it. It just burned like nothing else to move the muscle at all.

            “N-no, I’m fine,” Cody stammered, pulling away from them and hissing as he took a few paces. What had he been thinking? He could have shot the droid instead of wrestling with it. It would have worked better. “See? I can walk. I’m fine! I-it’s just bruised, I think. Let’s run through the program again.”

            “You will repeat the course, but this time Seven-Five-Six-Seven will lead. He was the only one on your team who properly prioritized his actions.”

            7567’s head jerked up at the praise.

            “But we can’t just… leave our leader behind without helping him!” 4339 argued.

            “No,” Cody panted, taking his helmet off to wipe his forehead; his face was burning. “If this were a real ship, the… the lives of everyone on board would be more important. There was nothing stopping the rest of you from going to the gun-wells. There were only four or five battle droids left! Maybe I would have lost a leg, but it’s better than all of us dying!”

            “But in a training—” 6001 began weakly.

            “Two-Two-Two-Four is correct. Proceed to the antechamber. I will send a medic to check him for serious injury, and you will proceed without him.”

            “I’m fine, Master Chief!” Cody paced stubbornly to show that his leg was functional. The slightest chance of being kicked out of officer training so soon was unbearable. He put his helmet back on and picked his rifle up off the ground. “I can still fight! As long as no one else lets me slow down the rest of the team. If I’m slowing you down, you have to leave me behind!” He gestured with his rifle toward 4339, then at 6001. “Got it?”

            “Understood,” 7567 said firmly, stepping forward to where the others were gathered around Cody. He held his head high. “Come on, men. We have our orders.”

            Silently, they shuffled out. Cody took a deep breath and told himself his leg was already in less pain with every step. It was nothing. It wasn’t even broken.

            “Two-Two-Two-Four, you will be allowed to continue. I have postponed your medical check up.”

            “Thank you, Master Chief,” Cody sighed.

            “You keep trying to act so tough, you’re gonna end up dying fast out there,” Snapper said.

            “I wasn’t just showing off,” Cody muttered, glancing at 7567, who acted as if he hadn’t heard.

             “Alright. What now, Commander?” 6001 said in a weary tone when they were back in the antechamber.

            “Line up!” 7567 commanded loudly. Cody positioned himself to face 7567 squarely.

            “One minute.”

            “Twenty-Two Twenty-Four’s plan worked,” 7567 continued. “Mostly.”

            “It’s Cody,” Cody said by impulse, then shifted in place when 7567 raised an eyebrow at him. “But… uh, thanks. Sir.”

            “If one or two of us gets inside the droids’ shields,” 7567 said, unmoved, “we could use that protection to keep firing or rolling droid poppers at the clankers on the other side. Then we step through and leave one or two grenades behind to disable them.”

            “Those droids seem pretty smart,” said Fort. “What if they just roll toward the rest of us as soon as you’re inside their shields?”

            7567 paused for a moment, his posture finally indicating some uncertainty. “They might do that….”

           “Thirty seconds.”

           “Especially if two of us try it,” he said quickly. “But I think… having one of us there when they roll out might distract them for long enough to give the rest of us a better chance at disabling them, the same way we did this time.”

            “Well, you’re the boss,” 4339 said simply.

            “Since I’m the leader this time, I’ll be the one to get inside the shields,” 7567 said, raising his pistols. “But I’ll need a couple of grenades.”

            “Here,” Snapper offered.

            “Thanks, trooper.” 7567 attached them to his belt. Cody wanted to laugh for some reason, but it was easy enough to hold it in when just standing at attention felt so strange. He hoped the muscles in his leg weren’t seriously damaged. “Any questions? Take the rollies out and then use them as cover.”

            “Got it,” 6001 nodded.

            “Yes, sir.” Cody saluted.

            “Let’s move out.”

            The doors opened, and they rushed forward.

            7567 careened down the center, just as Cody had, and Cody watched him between lurching steps and rifle shots. 7567 even managed to hit a clanker before skidding to a halt, flailing just slightly for balance when the rollies appeared. Then he was gone, a cadet-shaped blur behind the shields, and Cody peered out to judge the distance.

           Quickly, he adjusted his grip on the grenade, took a deep breath, and rolled it toward the droid. 6001’s grenade joined his on the floor and Cody stepped back to let 4339 take a shot with his as well. Before he had even glanced around the corner again, Fort whooped and yelled, “SHIELDS ARE DOWN!”

            Cody jumped around the corner and immediately saw that the middle droid’s shields were still up, but its guns were pointed away from them, toward the B-1s. He ran right up to the nearest rolly and pressed himself against it. 4339 crashed against him in turn, panting, and took shots on the left as Cody turned to face the rolly next to him, just in time to see 7567 fall back, out of the glow of its shielding.

            Cody stuck his gun through the bubble of light, but he heard the droid’s shots fire just seconds before his own finger pulled the trigger. The shield was down, but 7567 was already tagged out.

            Yells rose over the noise of blaster fire and Cody lobbed the rest of his droid poppers until the floor was cleared. He ducked out and ran toward the gun wells. 7567 was just getting to his feet when Cody smacked him on the back in passing. He didn’t look back, just ran, ignoring the pain, and hopped into the seat, the targets already bright and moving on the screen. In five seconds he’d already taken out two ships. Between the five of them, they turned the simulated battlefield into a scrap yard.

            Os Tala met them in the antechamber.

            “Your success was due to your cooperation,” she said sternly. “Not any one trooper’s heroics. Seven-Five-Six-Seven… I’m afraid I must reduce your individual score. Your attempt to divert the destroyer droid was completely ineffectual, and your grenade did not disable enough battle droids to warrant such a risk.”

            “What?” Cody cried.

            7567 bowed his head. “Yes, Master Chief.”

            “But he’s the one who led us to victory!” Cody said. “And… he was just doing what I did! Do I get a bad mark for that?”

            “Your score is up for further debate, given that you were injured. Although, if you would like to get a bad mark, that can certainly be arranged.”

            Cody came closer to attention. “No, thank you, Master Chief,” he said quietly.

            “Your risk gave the group more information about how the destroyer droids worked. Whereas Seven-Five-Six-Seven already knew that targeting them from his previous position would be effective enough, and approaching them directly was foolhardy.”

            Cody looked at 7567, uneasy. Didn’t Master Chief see how her comments might make 7567 resent him? She had a point, but it still didn’t seem fair.

            “Let us proceed to the next training course,” she said. “The medic will meet us there.”

            As they turned to walk down the hall, Cody fell in beside 7567, keeping his eyes forward just as the other cadet did.

            “Just so you know, I wasn’t trying to get you in trouble,” Cody said in an undertone.

            “I heard you were one of the best,” 7567 said stiffly. “I guess that’s why you’re allowed to take so many risks.”

            “Oh… you are annoyed.” Cody sighed, heart sinking. “Honestly, I think you should have gotten all the points just for being willing to risk yourself for the rest of the team. That’s what a good leader does, isn’t it?”

            “It’s not the way I do things,” 7567 muttered. “I try to take our exercises more seriously. Master Chief was right to penalize me for acting like that. I should have… learned from what you did, not copied it.”

            “Well… I’m sorry,” Cody said softly. “I still think it was brave of you.”

            “It doesn’t matter what you think,” 7567 whispered. “You’re not the one deciding the score. Anyway, I’m not going to keep talking to you. We’re supposed to be quiet.”

            “Okay,” Cody sighed. “Fine. But… there’s obviously a reason you were chosen for this. And I’m not just saying that because you used my plan. Thinking about what you would do in a real battle is more important than score. You take things pretty seriously, right?”

            7567 stared straight ahead and didn’t say any more. Cody hoped that meant he was mulling his words over, feeling better… not resenting him. He didn’t want that quiet intensity turned against him.

            “I…” 7567 said at last, head slightly bowed. “I would probably do things differently on a real battlefield.”

            “Probably,” Cody agreed hastily. “We all probably would. Don’t be too hard on yourself.”

            7567 didn’t look at him for several minutes, and Cody watched him closely, focusing past the pain in his leg. The other cadet eventually glanced over, and Cody met his eyes through the visor, smiling. 7567 quickly turned away again.

            As they entered the other training room and met the waiting med droid and medic-in-training, Cody wondered if he and 7567 would ever train together again. If there was a next time, he’d find a way to make up for this. But if not, at least he tried.

            “Question, Master Chief,” Cody said as he obediently stepped away from the rest of the group. “Will all of us be training together in the future?”

            “I do intend to focus on the twelve of you intensively for a time, yes,” she said. “Now, go with the medics.”

            “Yes, sir.” Cody took off his helmet and grinned at 7567. The other cadet didn’t move, but he didn’t turn away either, and that alone gave Cody a little hope.

Chapter Text

            It was dark when they arrived on Kesh, and it was dark when they set up camp. And now, as 7567 rearranged damp tinder under a flashlight beam, he heard a brother screaming and nearly jumped out of his skin.

            “What?!” one of the others gasped. “Who was that?” The beam left the tinder pile and swept uselessly around the walls of their snow cave.

            “Rocky, stop waving that thing around!” hissed 588. He’d been double-checking the ventilation hole in the roof. “Here, let me!”

            “Had to be either Cody or Quickdraw,” 7567 said, feeling his way toward the dim bluish smudge of the exit. He picked up his rifle and switched on the attached light, heart hammering. “Come on!”

            “Wait! One at a time!”

            7567 was the first one to poke his head out from the cave and sweep the edge of the snow pit with his flashlight. No movement. He crawled up the side and peered over the edge, his breath fogging the air.

            “I don’t see him,” he whispered.

            “QUICKDRAW?” 588 yelled.

            Another scream that quickly choked off.

            “Over there!” Rocky scrambled up and led the charge across the tundra to their left. Their flashlights cast a bright yellow reflection from two, then three, then four eyes, as a dark and furry, fanged face turned toward them, the cadet’s arms and legs dangling from its jaws.

            “Oh no,” 7567 breathed. “NO YOU DON’T!” he yelled, opening fire on the beast.

            The beast turned and began to lope away on four long, shaggy legs.

            “LET HIM GO!!” 588 shrieked, running after it. “LET HIM GO!”

            Rocky followed but didn’t lift his gun. “Careful! Don’t hit Quickdraw! Rex, try to hit its legs!”

            “I got him!” 7567 said as the beast wobbled and fell. Another muffled wail rose over the snow. Some distant part of his mind noticed: the name Cody had picked for him was starting to stick.

            They fired on the thing until it stopped trying to get up, and then some. 588 reached it first.

            “Quickdraw? Quickdraw! Say something! You still alive?!”

            “Nng!” Quickdraw groaned, and 7567 shuddered as 588 pulled at the fangs clamped around his friend.

            “Guys, help me!” 588 grunted, pushing and pulling at the creature’s mouth.

            “I-it came out of no—where, I di-didn’t see it,” Quickdraw gulped, face down, voice shaking wildly. “I think… I think I’m okay. I think my arm’s broken… my chest hurts.”

            7567 and Rocky moved to 588’s side.

            “One of us should watch to make sure there aren’t any more,” 7567 said, trying to keep his voice steady as he turned his back to his fellow cadets.

            “Yeah. Yeah, good idea, keep watch, Rex,” Rocky said. “Just hang on, Quickdraw, we’ll get you out of here.”

            “Cody’s still out there,” 7567 said, half to himself. Fear buzzed along his spine.

            “Okay, we both have to lift at the same time.”

            “Maybe step closer—get your hand lower—yeah that’s it. Okay, on three.”

            7567 tapped his comm. “Cody! Cody, come in!”

            “Three!” The cry was followed by straining grunts and a wheezing noise. “Rex! Rex, hurry, pull him out!”

            Rex set his rifle down within reach and grabbed Quickdraw under the arms to tug him free. It wasn’t easy—the cadet’s armor had cracked and kept catching on the creature’s bottom fangs. He gave a muffled scream through clenched teeth as Rex shifted position, locked hands around his chest, heaved up and backward, and both of them fell over in the snow.

            Quickdraw was half-sobbing, half-laughing hysterically. “I’m alive… I’m sti—still alive! I can’t believe it. Ow…agh.”

            “Can you get up?” Rex panted as he sat up and crawled forward to grab his rifle.

            “I thought I was—I thought I was gonna die,” Quickdraw coughed, first a breathless and then a wet racking cough. He sniffed, his voice dazed. “I thought I was dead.”

            “Get a hold of yourself,” Rocky laughed shakily. “You’re gonna be fine. Does your back hurt?”

            “YEAH!” Quickdraw blurted in a shaky laugh that turned into a groan.

            “Well, is it broken?”

            “I don’t think so… I don’t know.”

            “Okay, okay,” 588 said, running his hands all over the battered torso of Quickdraw’s armor. “I don’t see—wait! Yeah, there it is, you’re bleeding. Oh no….”

            “Let’s get him back to the cave,” Rex interjected, nerves jumping whenever his rifle’s light crossed a large drift of snow and tricked him into thinking it had moved. “Then we can take his armor off and check. I don’t want to be out here if another one of those things comes back.”

            “Yeah,” Rocky agreed.

            “Right!” 588 said, a bit too loudly. “Come on, I got you.”

            While 588 and Rocky helped Quickdraw onto his feet and braced him on either side, Rex kept his eyes on the tundra and distractedly tapped his comm again

            “Cody, are you there? Cody? Cody, come in! Cadet Twenty-Two Twenty-Four!”

            “He’s not responding?” 588 puffed as they started back toward the cave.

            “No,” Rex said with a sinking feeling. “Cody! Come in, Cody!”

            “Well, on the bright side, if that thing’s edible, he doesn’t need to scout for any other food sources for a while,” Rocky laughed nervously. “Let’s just hope he didn’t become a food source.”

            “That’s not funny,” Rex muttered.

            “Yeah, not really,” 588 said shakily.

            “Sorry,” Rocky sighed and tapped his own comm. “Cody? Cody, are you there?”

            They kept calling for him until they were back at the cave entrance. It took Quickdraw an excruciatingly long time to crawl inside, and he collapsed on the floor of the cave, shaking.

            “I feel sick,” he said.

            “Let’s check out the damage,” 588 sighed.

            Rex held the light while 588 and Rocky helped Quickdraw out of his armor and tucked an emergency blanket underneath him.

            588 exhaled loudly once he’d finished dabbing blood away from Quickdraw’s belly. “The cuts are pretty deep.”

            “I think his arm is broken,” Rocky said solemnly, feeling the bone. “Maybe a rib or two.”

            “Keep him warm.” Rex grabbed his helmet and put it on. “Stay inside and try to get the fire going. I’m gonna go find Cody.”

            “Rex,” Rocky said uneasily. “He’s probably….”

            “We told him not to wander too far without checking in,” Rex insisted. “So it won’t take too long to find him.”

            “If you go out there alone, you’ll probably just get eaten too!” Rocky argued. “I’ll go with you.”

            “I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me.” Rex ducked to crawl out of the cave. “Stay here and get help for Quickdraw.”

            “Rex! Wait!

            “Try to contact the Master Chief while I’m gone!” Rex called back from the other side. “If I don’t find him within two klicks, I’ll come back.”

            “It’s easy to get lost out there!” Rocky warned. “Remember?”

            “So one of you come out every five minutes and signal with your flashlight. I’ll follow it back.” Rex scrambled up the side of the pit and onto the tundra. He scanned the area for reflecting eyes, and saw only scrubby plant life and the glint of water between the mounds of melted and refrozen snow. The sky was clear above, full of stars and—a strange hot shock flushed through him at the sight of faint streaks of colored light that appeared and then vanished. Then they appeared again, more brightly, like the reflection of a hidden pool of water rippling on the ceiling. Green… a very pale green.

            He pulled his eyes away at the rustle of snow to his right, but it was just the wind slapping a bush’s branch against its neighbor. Rex trudged forward, wondering whether he should call out for Cody. His voice might scare the predators away… or it might lure them closer. It was hard to tell.

            A hundred paces out, Rex began to wonder if this was a good idea after all. He looked back, fingers cramping around his rifle, and could barely make out the massive boulder their snow cave was piled against. But Cody was out here somewhere… and if they got pulled out because of Quickdraw’s injury, Rex couldn’t just leave him behind.

            With a deep breath, he headed to the right, circling their camp. The snow thinned out here and Rex found himself breathless, face-down on the ground after slipping on a patch of wet ice. Five paces after that he tried to cross a frozen stream and ended up knee-deep in ice water, grateful that his suit was waterproof.

            Nothing moved on the tundra except the water and the strange lights above. They were just haunting distractions—Rex felt his nerves buzzing as he constantly jerked his head back and forth with every murmur of the wind.

            “Cody,” he muttered into his comm. The snow crunching under his foot seemed to double and he jerked to look behind him. Nothing. His light stretched out and faded into the hollow emptiness. “Cody, if you’re ignoring me, I swear… I’m going to make you wish you got eaten by an ice monster.” He raised his voice a hitch, tentatively at first, then more strongly. “Cody? Cody…! Cody, this is Seventy-Five Sixty-Seven! Cody, this is Rex! Say something!”

            He tried to brace himself for what he’d find. Cody could be nothing more than a smear of blood on the snow, or he could be strewn around in bits, just the organs and bones the beast didn’t want to eat. It would probably spit out his armor. Rex imagined bloodied bits of gear and shuddered, feeling sick. “Cody!”

            He could be alive. He could have escaped; maybe his comm was broken or lost somehow. Maybe he was playing a prank. Rex quickened his pace to match his heartbeat, half convinced of both extremes at the same time. A prickling at his back made him glance over his shoulder and run wildly for several meters before he got a hold of himself and faced the unmoving patch of vegetation that his mind had turned into a monster. Every shadow was starting to look like a body. Every bit of reddish moss made his stomach squirm, and there was a lot of it.

            The lights came flashing from the base. He stared at them, fighting the impulse to go running back.

            He took deep breaths. Panic was unacceptable. “I’m a soldier,” Rex whispered to himself. “I’m a soldier. I’m a soldier.” He kept walking. “Soldiers don’t panic. Cody, come in! Cody….”

            Another outline against the deep blue horizon caught his eye, almost like a human sitting on a rock, but it wasn’t moving. Just another trick of the eyes, Rex told himself, but he couldn’t take more than two steps before turning back. Hesitantly, he edged closer to it—it wasn’t within range of his rifle’s light. It was definitely a human. He lurched forward. No. He stopped. It was too still—a rock, or a predator watching him. No… its arm moved. That was an arm. He switched off his flashlight—the lights from the sky were getting so bright now, the beam was more of a hindrance than a help in making out things that were far away.

            He walked just a bit faster, picking his way on the rocks or tundra moss instead of the snow to muffle his footsteps. The outline became clearer, the clean blocky lines of cadet armor obvious now. That little lump beside the figure was a helmet—Cody’s face was turned up toward the sky, and as Rex slowed and his eyes adjusted, he could even see his breath misting in the air.

            Cody jumped suddenly and turned, grabbing for his rifle.

            “Cody!” Rex lowered his rifle and lifted a hand. “It’s me!”

            Cody turned on his light and Rex flinched as it hit him full in the face. “Wh—Rex? Is that you? Or… do you still prefer to be called Seventy-Five Sixty-Seven?”

            “I’ve been looking all over for you!” Rex said, shoving Cody’s rifle out of the way. “Why are you ignoring your comm link?! You were supposed to check in a long time ago!”

            “Sorry…I, uh….” Cody shut off his light sheepishly. “I guess I lost track of time. I haven’t seen any game anywhere… but would you look at that storm?”

            “That’s what distracted you?” Rex cried. “Quickdraw almost got eaten while he was on watch and you’re just sitting here watching the fancy lights in the sky! I thought you were dead! Why didn’t you comm in? Are you… are you hiding something?

            “Hang on, wait a minute.” Cody waved a hand quickly. “I never heard anything on my comm!”

            “Nothing at all?”

            “Nothing! I promise. Must be malfunctioning.” Cody tapped it. “Rocky, come in. This is Cody.”

            They waited in silence. Rex tried next. “Five-Eighty-Eight, come in, this is Seventy—th—this is Rex.”

            Cody smiled and Rex turned his back to him to keep an eye on the way he’d come.

            “Rocky, come in, this is Rex.”

            Nothing.

            “Looks like yours is broken too,” Cody said. “So… wait, what happened to Quickdraw?”

            “Something nasty tried to eat him,” Rex muttered tensely. “He’s injured. Might need an evac.”

            “And you came to get me on your own?”

            “Somebody had to do it,” Rex huffed. He took a deep breath, trying to let go of his anger now that he knew Cody hadn’t done all this just to freak him out. “Rocky and Five-Eighty-Eight are taking care of Quickdraw and trying to get a message to Master Chief.”

            “I wonder why our communicators aren’t working.” Cody tapped his repeatedly—it sparked and he recoiled. “Whoa!”

            “Maybe it’s….” Rex finally took a good look up at the sky, his anger giving way for a moment to awe and a different kind of fear. “Maybe it’s the magnetic storm. Can it do that?”

            “I dunno,” Cody said in a soft, wondering voice.

            They stood there for a moment, the bands of color thickening above them, green fading abruptly into violet further up in the sky, growing longer and curling like luminous smoke. It was so quiet, suddenly, just his breathing and Cody’s, and the soft hiss of the wind.

            “It doesn’t seem real,” Rex whispered, feeling weak suddenly. It was relief, he realized. He was relieved that Cody was alive, relieved that he wasn’t alone in the dark.

            “You don’t see something like that every day,” Cody agreed, face flushed behind his steamy breath. “Maybe some people don’t even see it at all… their whole lives.”

            Rex shook himself and turned his eyes away from the sky with effort. “W… we better get back to camp. Quickdraw’s in pretty bad shape.”

            “Right.” Cody put his helmet back on. “Guess the other guys are probably… worried too.”

            “And watch out for a big hairy quadruped with fangs,” Rex warned as he picked his way down the hillside.

            Cody laughed nervously under his breath. “Is everybody else okay?”

            “Yeah. At least they’re taking the dangers of the environment more seriously now.”

            “What, you mean like you? Coming out on your own to rescue me? Did somebody order you to do that?”

            “No,” Rex said stiffly. “They told me it was a bad idea. But I know what I’m doing… unlike you.”

            “Well,” Cody said, suddenly quiet. “Thanks.”  

            Together they picked their way quietly toward the flashing lights.

            “How big was it?” Cody asked when they were halfway there.

            “Pretty big,” Rex said. “I’d say it was… maybe as tall as us at the shoulders. Four eyes. Lots of dark shaggy fur….”

            “Nice.” Cody jumped onto a rock halfway across the stream, slipped and fell through the ice with a splash. “Oh… that’s just great!”

            “Careful!” Rex scolded, grabbing his hand to help him up. “It’s slippery.”

            “Yeah, I knew that,” Cody puffed, shaking out an arm and a leg.

            “Any water get in?”

            “I don’t think so.”

            “Next time, just wade across… I don’t think any of the ice here is thick enough to hold us up.”

            “It worked while I was coming this way,” Cody sighed.

            “You also managed to not get eaten while coming this way, but Quickdraw didn’t even leave camp. You can’t trust luck. That’s why it’s better to do things the smart way.”

            “Hmm.”

            Rex turned his flashlight on periodically to check their surroundings as they came closer to camp, getting nervous again. The light signal hadn’t come for a while now. He would have heard the screams if another one of those creatures managed to burrow into the cave, right?

            “Are we going the right way?” Cody asked.

            “Yeah. Camp’s straight ahead.” Rex gestured with his rifle. He glanced suspiciously at Cody. “So you were lost.”

            “I didn’t say that. I was uhh… just asking. Making conversation.”

            “Right,” Rex said skeptically.“You know, we told you not to wander off.”

            “I had to ‘wander off’ to find food!” Cody protested.

            “Yeah, and obviously the best place to look for food isn’t on the actual planet’s surface, it’s up in the sky! Good job.”

            Cody sighed tightly but said nothing.

            Rex quickened his pace. “We should hurry.”

            “I’m right behind you.”

            They jogged the rest of the way, quiet except for their footsteps and breathing. Rex hoped these creatures weren’t the type who only chased you if you moved quickly. Quickdraw wouldn’t have had any reason to run.

            The creeping fear kept him going faster, and then faster, and Cody kept pace with him until they both slid down the slope to the entrance of their shelter.

           “We’re back! I found him!” Rex called before he crawled inside into the blinding beam of Rocky’s flashlight. A fire smoked on the highest shelf of the shelter, and Quickdraw had been moved to the middle sleeping shelf to keep him warm.

            “See?” Rocky cried in relief. “I told you it was them!”

            “Quickdraw’s getting worse,” 588 said quietly.

            Rocky turned his flashlight back on Quickdraw’s face. The cadet looked clammy; his hair was plastered to his head, and his eyes were unfocused when they fluttered and squinted against the light. He breathed shallowly.

            “That’s not good,” Cody murmured.

            “Any luck getting a message out?” Rex asked.

            Rocky and 588 shook their heads, looking crestfallen.

            “The transmitter is completely fried,” said Rocky. “It looks like the battery overloaded somehow.”

             “Is it internal damage?” Cody asked, feeling Quickdraw’s pulse. “What are his injuries?”

            “I think that thing’s fangs were venomous, or the saliva or something,” 588 said in a hushed tone, as if he didn’t want Quickdraw to hear. He looked terrified.

            “Great! Venom… that’s not something a bacta patch can fix….” Cody took off his helmet and scratched furiously at his head, thinking. “Where did it get him?”

            “Right on the stomach.” Rocky pulled back the blanket covering Quickdraw and showed Cody the bandage. “If it was on his leg or something, we could have made a tourniquet I guess, but we didn’t even realize it was a toxin until… well, until he started acting sick….”

            “What medicines do we have?”

            “Um… same as you. Not much….”

            As the other three got out their personal medkits, Rex turned back toward the exit.

            “Where are you going?” Cody asked immediately.

            “I’m gonna check out the transmitter, see if I can fix it.”

            “I’m telling you, it’s fried!” 588 cried hopelessly. “We’re stuck here until they come back for us.”

            Cody and Rocky looked at 588 uncomfortably.

            “Quickdraw might not live that long,” Rex said, not flinching when 588’s mouth twisted and Cody sent him a sharp look. It was what they were all thinking, after all. “There has to be some way to fix it. Anyway, it’s worth a look, and it’s better than doing nothing. You three keep thinking of other ways to help him… I’ll be outside.”

            He turned and crawled back out the opening. It seemed colder outside than before, maybe because the inside of the shelter was actually warm now. The transmitter waited, tucked in another dug-out on the other side of the boulder. Rex knelt next to it, placed his rifle down and examined the battery, disconnected it and then slotted it back into the nodes. No sign of life. The wind was picking up. The lights were all over the sky now, blooming into bright oranges and whites, and Rex wasn’t sure if they made him feel calmer or more unnerved. It was such a quiet storm, and yet it had them completely trapped. He wondered how it might affect a rescue ship, if he ever managed to get the message through.

            There wasn’t anything visibly wrong with the battery. He took it out again and examined the nodes where it had connected to the machine. Maybe some ice particles were disrupting the flow of energy? It seemed unlikely, but Rex didn’t know too many details about how these transmitters worked, so he ran his fingers along the inside of the conductors anyway. A mild shock ran up his arm.

            “Ow!” He recoiled, shaking his hand.

            A crunch on the snow behind him made his head whip around.

            “Seventy-Five Sixty-Seven? It’s me, Cody.” He came into view, rifle balanced against his shoulder. His voice sounded solemn, subdued.

            “Oh.” Rex hastily picked the battery up out of the snow where he’d dropped it. He brushed it off, checking it for damage. “It’s fine, by the way,” he said grudgingly. “You can call me Rex. Everyone else is doing it now….”

            “Oh. Alright, then. I, uh… Rocky and I are thinking we should see if we can find something to make a poultice, just on the chance it’ll draw out some of the poison. We have a toxicity sensor. It… could buy Quickdraw a little time, maybe.”

            Rex was silent for a moment, thinking. “And what if one of you gets attacked as well? Or both of you? Then we’ll be two or three men down, and still no hope of getting out of here in time.”

            “We can’t just hide here forever, and we have to find some food anyway or we’ll starve!”

            “Just test that thing that was eating Quickdraw and see if it’s edible! I say we should all stick close to camp. There’s no point in wandering off again.” Rex scowled up at Cody. “You don’t even know what you’re doing! You obviously don’t know anything about surviving in this kind of environment.”

            “That’s what the toxicity sensor’s for! Anyway, maybe alone it’s too dangerous, but there’s safety in numbers.” Cody hesitated. “Will you come with us?”

            “We have to contact Master Chief,” Rex said, placing the battery on top of the transmitter. “It’s our only real hope to save Quickdraw. Everything else is too much of a long shot.”

            “And trying to send a message with a dead transmitter isn’t a long shot?” Cody gestured dismissively at the machine. “Come on, Rex. This isn’t like the tests back on Kamino. You’re not getting any points by sticking to protocol. We’re on our own!”

            “I know that!” Rex protested. “I’m not doing this to get any points! I’m just trying to keep him alive! As far as I’m concerned, we already failed this mission thanks to you and Quickdraw.”

            “You’re blaming me?” Cody cried. “I didn’t do anything!”

            “Exactly!” Rex yelled. “You didn’t find any food—you weren’t even looking! And you didn’t even come back when Quickdraw was screaming—”

            “That’s not my fault! I didn’t hear it!”

            “Yeah, that’s right. Because you were too busy messing around! You’re completely unprofessional and childish!”

            “You’re the one who’s unprofessional!” Cody’s voice was finally losing its usual warm, easy tone. He took a heavy step toward Rex. “I think you’re just so scared to finally be in a real life or death situation, you can’t give up on contacting Master Chief to come rescue us. You just… you just can’t accept that we have to figure this out on our own, because our trainers aren’t here to tell you what to do! That’s not how it’s going to be when we get on the battlefield, and you know it!”

            “I’m not. scared,” Rex growled.

            “I don’t believe you,” Cody murmured seriously… taunting him. Rex glared up at him, fingers digging into the snow next to him.

            “You’re the one,” Rex hissed, “who’s still trying to prove you know something by looking for some magic plant that’ll cure the poison. It’s not going to work. You just don’t want to look bad because we have to get pulled out… because we failed!” Rex threw a handful of snow at Cody’s face. It missed and splattered on his chestplate.

            “Ha!” Cody brushed it off, kicking some snow in Rex’s face. “Who’s being childish now?”

            Rex only just managed to fling an arm up in time to block it. “Shut up! Just stop bothering me and let me get back to work!”

            “Look, until the storm is over, whatever you do trying to repair it will probably just fry the circuits even more!” Cody insisted. “We have to give up on contacting anyone. We have to accept that it’s impossible right now.”

            “No!” Rex said stubbornly. “I can fix it!”

            “You’re an expert on machinery now?” Cody scoffed, pulling his rifle down off his shoulder into both hands. He shook his head and sighed. “You’re so full of yourself.”

            Rex took a deep, angry breath, staggering to his feet. He was tired of looking up at Cody, tired of letting him look down on him. “Go get yourself killed then, if you think it’ll help! If you think it’ll help Quickdraw! Go!”

            “Fine…! Rocky and I will be fine on our own,” Cody said proudly. He took three stiff steps away, then hesitated. “I just… would have liked to have you with us. So we could all watch each other’s backs. Six eyes are better than two, three guns are better than one. That’s what keeps real soldiers alive, you know. Sticking together. That’s the only thing. Selfish troopers don’t last very long.”

            Rex glared down into the open battery compartment, and turned his ear toward it, his face away from Cody. Was he imagining a soft humming sound?

            Cody sighed heavily and turned to go. Rex’s stomach cramped with guilt and an even stronger rush of annoyance.

            “Hey!” Rex called after him, and he stopped. Rex took a deep breath, determined to be the mature one. “Be careful out there.”

            Cody took another stiff step away and put his helmet on. “Don’t worry,” he muttered. “We will.”

            “I’m not worried,” Rex whispered under his breath.

            Then Cody was gone, and Rex tried to turn his attention back to the humming. One moment, he was convinced he could hear nothing and was imagining it all; the next, he swore it was there. Thoughts of what else he should have said to Cody ran through his mind, interrupting his concentration. You weren’t here! You weren’t the one who took down that huge monster! At least I did something to save Quickdraw! What did you do? Nothing! And you think I’m the coward? You would have fainted before you even fired a shot! The only reason you weren’t scared out there is because you were too dense to even realize you were lost! You’re not prepared for this! You just think it’s some kind of game!

            He jerked out of his angry daze, realizing he’d been staring blankly at the transmitter for far too long. Rex took a deep breath and tried to shake it off. His stomach felt all shaky—from anger! Anger! And it was all Cody’s fault!

            He reached down and, hesitantly, tapped the conductor again. Nothing. He placed his hand on it. Was he just imagining that it felt warm through his glove? He took his glove off and felt it with his bare hand. It wasn’t freezing as a lifeless bit of metal would be in this weather… more neutral in temperature. In the corner of his eye, the sky flared a bright pink and green; he jerked and pulled back as a shock made his heart skip a beat. It started pounding again.

            How could the transmitter be conducting electricity without a power source? Breathless, Rex turned his eyes in wonder toward the rippling sky.

            As if in a daze, he put his glove back on and reached, his hand hovering over the dial for a moment before he switched it over to a regular distress code, and opened all channels. He held down the button.

            “This is Seven-Five-Six-Seven requesting immediate evac for Cadet Sixty-Zero-One. Come in Master Chief. Repeat, this is Cadet Seven-Five-Six-Seven requesting an immediate evacuation for Cadet Six-Zero-Zero-One, critically injured.”

            He made sure the volume was turned up, and waited. Static came through erratically, interspersed with dead silence, fluctuating.

            He tried again. “This is Seven-Five-Six-Seven, requesting immediate evacuation….”

            Over and over. He tried to time it with the pulses of color, but even when he managed by chance to make them coincide, there was no response. Maybe it didn’t make a difference at all. At last he lapsed into a simple regiment of repeating the message, waiting ten seconds for a response, then doing it again.

            He was slumped in defeat against the transmitter, half hugging it with his chin on his folded hands, droning on (“Come in Master Chief. Repeat, this is Cadet….”) when at last there was a voice. A cool, measured voice, interrupted by static but growing clearer as a long powdery ribbon of bright red unfurled and split into threads across the sky.

            “—receive—essage, repeat, medical evacuation team has been deployed. Cadet, we are receiving your message. I assume your transmission is being interrupted.”

            “Yes!” Rex cried, little thrills racing up his skull. “Yes, our transmitter’s batteries were—”

            “Repeat, medical ev—b—deployed. Cadet, we are receiving your—”

            Rex rocked back for a moment, fighting down the immediate urge to go tell 588. There might be further orders to hear. He pressed the button again and said, “Master Chief! Awaiting further orders, fur—further instruction! Repeat, awaiting further instruction! This is Cadet Seven-Five-Six-Seven, we—we are—we have received your reply!”

            He waited, but there was once again nothing. He tried a few more times, trying to keep his excitement under control and speak professionally. A buzz of indecipherable words came back… and then nothing once again.

            It was alright. It was going to be alright. Rex snatched up his rifle, jumped to his feet and scrambled back down to the shelter’s entrance.

            “Five-Eighty-Eight!” He yelled as he crawled inside. “Five-Eighty-Eight, I got a message through! Medical evac’s on its way!”

            588 looked up with wide eyes. He had pulled Quickdraw’s head and shoulders into his lap “What? How?!”

            “I don’t know!” Rex cried breathlessly. “Somehow the energy from the storm—it got through, just for a second! Master Chief said, she said an evacuation team’s been deployed! I don’t know when they’ll get here, but they… they heard me!”

            “I can’t believe it,” 588 breathed out in a weak laugh. “Quickdraw, hear that?” He tapped the cadet’s face lightly. “You’re gonna be fine, buddy.” Quickdraw’s brow furrowed and he took a ragged breath. “Just hang on!”

            “I’m gonna signal the others to come back, I’ll be right back!”

            Rex hurried back up to the top of the pit and flashed his rifle’s light five times, forward, left, then right. Then he took his helmet off and cupped his hands around his mouth. “CODY!”

            His voice seemed to run off into the night, and in a moment he heard a faint reply.

            “Coming!”

            Rex waited, half-lying against the side of the snow bank. He stared out across the tundra, finally picking out a few signs of movement. He let his eyes drift back up to the sky, where the storm’s currents carried their charged particles in constant motion. The waves of color seemed less silently malicious now.

            Soon he could see Cody and Rocky running toward him, and could hear their crunching footsteps in the dark.

            “What is it?” Cody asked when he was within earshot. “Is he… did he—”

            “I got a message through!” Rex jumped to his feet.

            “You what?” Rocky choked.

            “I contacted Master Chief!” Rex said triumphantly, as Cody came right up to him and pulled his helmet off, panting. “She’s sending a medical evacuation team!”

            “But—but that transmitter was dead, how could you—” Cody stammered.

            “I think the battery fried because the transmitter was already picking up currents from the storm,” Rex said. “They just overloaded! I shocked myself on the conductor when the battery was removed, so I decided to try opening the channels without the battery in there.”

            Rocky just shook his head. “You have got to be making that up.”

            “No, I’m not!” Rex insisted, pointing. “Go see for yourself!”

            Rocky hurried off and Cody just stood still, staring at Rex.

            “What?” Rex asked, suddenly self-conscious.

            “Unbelievable,” Cody said simply. He waved the bunch of plants in his free hand carelessly. “Alright… you can tell me ‘I told you so’. I’ll never doubt you again. But, you know…” Cody smirked. “You shouldn’t count on luck.”

            Rex felt the last shadow of his annoyance drown in the thrill of success. “So you found something to help Quickdraw?” He grabbed at the fist Cody was waving around and looked at the plants. “What is it?”

            “I dunno, but the toxicity sensor says it’ll help, so… I figure it’s worth a try.” The smirk was gone as quickly as it came, and Cody’s voice was almost hesitant.

            “Great. Uh, good job.”

            Cody’s face lit up in a grin. No resentment, no hard feelings.

            Another wave of relief hit Rex, and an undercurrent of shame. He had been scared. Cody wasn’t such a bad soldier. He’d been thinking ahead. And Rex didn’t want to think about what would have happened if the message had never gotten through… or if Cody and Rocky had gotten themselves killed.

            Uneasily, Rex turned away and called over toward the transmitter’s dugout. “Rocky! We’re going inside.”

            Rocky came out of the dugout, shaking his head. “That is the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. I swear it wasn’t doing that when I checked. It’s like you brought it back from the dead.”

            Cody laughed. “Come on Rocky. Let’s get inside before the transmitter starts talking like a protocol droid.”

            “Don’t even joke about that!” Rocky huffed, shuddering visibly. “Droids….”

            Cody laughed again and slapped Rex on the back as Rocky passed them, then squeezed Rex’s shoulders tight with one arm. “Either you’re really lucky, or really smart.”

            Rex staggered slightly, startled by the affectionate gesture. A stiff, involuntary laugh escaped him, just a huff of air.

            “Or both,” Cody said. “Either way, it’s a good thing you were here.”

            Rex just walked a few paces forward, not sure what to say, and Cody let go of him so that they could both crawl inside, back into that snowy globe of warm air and light.       

           

Chapter Text

            Rex frowned. He watched Cody’s throat bob as he downed another shot. This one was kri’gee. Six other little empty glasses sat on the bar in front of Cody, but only one almost-empty regular glass in front of Rex.

            “Oh, I like that one!” Cody exclaimed loudly. “Hey bartender! Make me a drink with that one!”

            “One Mandalorian Revenge, coming up.” The droid bartender began mixing the drink with a flourish of its metal arms.

            Cody rocked the empty shot glass’s bottom in circles around the counter, grinning at the way the neon lights along the ceiling refracted out of the clear sides and onto the flat surface below. “I can’t believe you’re only trying one drink tonight, Rex! Come on, I waited five whole minutes after that first drink; it didn’t do anything. The other guys were obviously exaggerating.” He let go of the glass, which began to roll toward the edge. Rex reached for it with his free hand just as Cody smacked Rex on the back so hard—and shook him lazily by the shoulder—that a little of Rex’s drink spilled on the counter.

            The shot glass hit the floor with a clink that was only just audible over the pulsing music.

            “Whoops!” Cody laughed and threw his hands up, stretched them behind his head… nearly fell off his stool. Rex reached out to steady him too, nearly spilling his drink again.

            “Guess I was just lucky enough to find something that tastes good on the first try,” Rex said wryly. “Cody… I think you better let me drink that one you just ordered. You look like you’ve had enough.”

            “What?” Cody scoffed playfully. “Oh come on… you promised you’d take me out for drinks our first leave on Coruscant. We can’t leave now; I’ve only tried half the drinks on the menu!”

            Rex half-grinned and shook his head. “We can save the other half for another time, Cody. You’ve got to give it some time to kick in first, right? Five minutes wasn’t long enough.”

            “Oh like you’d know! This is your first time too… and I’ve only done seven! Some guys said they can do ten before they get wasted.”

            “Are you trying to get drunk?” Rex rolled his eyes.

            “I’m telling you I’ve barely felt any of ‘em! Hey, hey, hey, Rex, come on, you wanted some,” Cody said eagerly. Lunging, belly to the countertop with both arms outstretched, he grabbed the Mandalorian Revenge from the startled droid before it had even finished turning around from preparing it. “Open up.” Cody slid and pushed himself back into his seat with his elbows. He opened his mouth wide to demonstrate.

            Rex shoved his glass under Cody’s nose. “I’m not a fish. Pour it in.”

            Cody hooked his arm with Rex’s instead. “There, now you can sip from mine and I can—wait, that’s not how this… I didn’t think this through.”

            “Pff. You think?” Rex took an awkward last sip of his netra’gal before unhooking his arm from Cody’s before Cody could slosh any more alcohol onto him.

            “Wai-wai-wait! Rex, here, take it, pour it in my—”

            Rex took the drink before Cody could spill any more on himself and tipped back a huge gulp of it—his eyes watered and he snorted from the effort of not spitting it out. He slammed it a little too hard on the counter as a result, and shuddered as it burned its way down his throat. Spicy… bitter….

            “You like this?” Rex coughed when it was all down.

            Gil leaned around Cody to grin at Rex. “Wish I had a holo of that face.”

            “What’s the point of drinking something that tastes like that?” Rex was still grimacing from the experience as he waved the droid over to order a small serving of something sweeter.

            “Well now I’m curious,” Zenk said from Rex’s other side. “What’s it taste like, Captain?”

            “Like….” Rex struggled for words. “Like melted armor smells.”

            “No it doesn’t!” Cody laughingly insisted, and guzzled most of the glass before Rex could stop him.

            Zenk’s eyebrows went askew. “Ew….”

            “Maybe it only tastes good after you’ve had the first half of the drink menu,” Gil laughed, rubbing the condensation on his own glass of Dorian Quill.

            “Okay, here, my treat. You’ve just got a promotion, Zenk.” Cody slid the last of his ale cocktail past Rex to the other trooper, then hopped off his stool, bouncing on his toes in time with the music’s pulse.

            “I did? Sergeant of spirits, or what?” Zenk laughed, and took a swig. He spluttered and sprayed—Rex flinched away.

            “Ugh! Come on, Zenk, at least I kept it in my mouth.”

            “Sorry Captain. You know, the aftertaste is k-kinda good actually,” Zenk cough-laughed, and drank the rest without wincing.

            “Sergeant of spirits!” Cody proclaimed, moving in an erratic way that Rex wasn’t sure could be called dancing even by diverse Galactic standards. “Rex, you’re my second-in-command.”

            “Always,” Rex deadpanned, bracing himself for more foolery.

            “Second-in-commander of kri’gee and Cody,” Cody said, as if that was supposed to make any sense. He pointed. “Gil, you’re captain of the gargling gallons!”

            “That’s… not what my drink was called, sir,” Gil said, a crooked grin lighting up his scruff.

            Rex exhaled in amusement and slid off his stool as well. “My drink wasn’t called ‘Kri’gee and Cody’ either. He’s drunk. Come on, Commander.” He took Cody’s arm with a parental tone. “Let’s get you back to the barracks.”

            “The barracks? Ha!” Cody pulled away but Rex hung on, stumbling after him; Cody grabbed Rex’s free arm and moved it back and forth, up and down in a ridiculous jerking dance. “We just got here!”

            “Oh brother,” Rex sighed, trying not to grin at how ridiculous Cody was being. He managed to keep his face straight and jerked his arm away.

            Cody suddenly sobered. “Ah, you’re right. Time’s wasting. You three are my special ops team!” He straightened and saluted them—by habit, Rex began to salute back before he checked himself, but it felt even sillier to leave his arm halfway lifted, so he finished the salute with a skeptical expression.

            “Second-in-command is right,” Gil chuckled, coming over and nudging Rex before he too saluted Cody. “So what’s the mission, Commander?”

            “Follow me!” Cody forged a determined and unsteady path through the weaving denizens of Seventy-Nines.

            Rex looked at Gil—“Now this I gotta see”—and Zenk, still seated at the bar, who raised his eyebrows high and said, “Orders, Captain?”

            “We better follow him,” Rex said, motioning Zenk to come before he plunged through the crowd after Cody.

            Outside, Cody was just throwing himself astride a speeder bike and revving it up.

            “Ohhhh no.” Rex rushed to grab the handlebars. “No, no, no, we are not doing this.”

            “Captain!” Cody gasped, scandalized. “Is this mutiny?”

            Rex grabbed Cody’s wrists and backed himself against Cody to wrestle him off the bike. “You are way too intoxicated to drive.”

            “Rex!” Cody complained, sliding sideways off the seat—Rex let go just in time to watch him desperately grasp for and catch the side, one leg and one hand not quite enough to keep his shoulder from slamming into the ground.

            “Your second is right, Cody,” Gil said playfully. “If you want to proceed with this mission, we need a pilot. I recommend Oddball—saw him playing dejarik in there a few minutes ago, never touched a drink.”

            “Oddball it is!” Cody lurched upright, let go of the bike and made a show of dusting his uniform off.  “Captain Gallons, go fetch us a pilot! Oddball… Oddball. Hmm.” Cody took a few steps and Rex prepared to keep him from walking right over the rails but he just paced in a circle, rubbing his chin as if he were General Kenobi.

            “You seriously don’t think you’re drunk at all?” Rex asked in disbelief.

            “Hey, why do you think they call him Oddball?” Cody asked, as if he hadn’t heard. “Why isn’t he just… Odd?”

            “Commander,” Rex sighed. “What exactly is this ‘mission’, anyway?”

            “Oh, you’ll see, Rex, you’ll see.” Cody put his hands on his hips.

            “I got him, Commander!”

            Rex broke away from giving Cody a “really?” look, and saw Gil running toward them with their pilot in tow.

            “Heard there’s a mission? Urgent mission?” Oddball asked, once he was jogging close enough to hear. “More urgent than that game of dejarik I was winning, I hope.”

            “Oh yes, very urgent,” Cody said seriously. “We need you to pilot us to another sector of Coruscant… in that.” He dramatically pointed at a four-seater speeder that was parked amidst all the usual bikes. It was still marked as a military transport, although it was not exactly standard issue. “Come on, men!”

            Cody led the way at a lurching run, and Rex stuck close to him, wishing he and Cody were the same rank—he couldn’t order Cody to do anything, he couldn’t force him to go back to the barracks, but he could stay close enough to make sure nothing really bad happened.

            “Uh, problem, sir,” Zenk said when they’d all piled into the car—Oddball and Cody in front, Gil and Rex in back. “Legally this vehicle can’t accommodate a fifth person.”

            “Grab a bike, you’re our rear guard!” said Cody, flipping a few random switches which Oddball immediately switched back to their original positions—but not before the speeder emitted a loud bleat of some kind of siren that Rex was pretty sure was not supposed to be used for this sort of “mission”. Zenk ran and drove a bike up close behind them as Oddball lifted off the platform smoothly.

            “Where to, sir?” Oddball asked, by all appearances taking this “mission” completely seriously.

            “Coordinates are that-that-a-way by this-this-a-way,” Cody said, pointing in a random direction. “Ah, let me see, I think that’s… the entertainment district.”

            “Very precise, sir.” Oddball nodded and immediately fell into an approved lane to get there.

            “Yes!” Cody slapped Oddball’s shoulder. “You hear that? That’s the sound of a trooper who knows how to support his commanding officer! I promote you too—you’re now Major Oddball. A MAJOR ODDBALL! Hahahahaha!”

            “Hilarious,” Gil said quietly, leaning close to Rex in a conspiratorial way.

            “Mm,” Rex agreed. He’d always known Cody was a little full of himself, but he hadn’t seen the commander laugh at his own jokes this hard in two years.

            “I’m honored, sir,” Oddball said. “We can update my file when we get back to the barracks.”

            “Yes!”

            “Does that mean Oddball outranks me now?” Gil asked, as the speeder hummed alongside another that was pulsing peppy music.

            “I vote that Cody change his name to Oddball and give the new Cody his rank,” Rex muttered half to himself. Gil snorted and smacked a hand over his own mouth.

            “Down there!” Cody pointed down at a large communal square between shops, featuring benches and plants and a large assortment of people milling around under the lamplight. “Land down there!”

            “Yes, sir.” Oddball carefully swung the speeder down to one of the parking spots beside the square. Cody leapt out before it had even fully shut down, and Rex immediately vaulted over the edge to follow him. Cody was purposefully zig-zagging through the crowd, which…didn’t part for him as quickly as Rex expected, considering they were all in uniform.

            “Cody! Wait up!” Rex called, trying his best not to bump the civvies he squeezed between. He was sure Cody had no idea exactly where he was going, and he didn’t want to lose his drunk commander. Who knew what would happen if Cody couldn’t find his way back on his own?

            “Huh?” Cody glanced over his shoulder and stopped, looking bewildered, then relieved when Rex caught up to him. “Ah, Rex, there you are. Would you look at them all! Just… look at them!” He slung an arm around Rex’s shoulders and used the other to encompass the crowd, nearly whacking an elderly Chagrian in the eye.

            “Look at what?” Rex asked, guiding Cody with a hand on his back to a less dense section of the crowd. He looked around—oh, good, backup. Oddball, Gil, and Zenk were approaching together, heads turning to look at the various outfits the civilians wore. So many different kinds of clothing… it was dizzying.

            “Them! All of them! Why’s that one so short?” Cody pointed at a blonde, bristly human that came up to about their chest; the guy looked offended and Rex hurriedly pushed Cody’s arm down, but he took his other one from around Rex’s shoulders and pointed at another. “Look at their NOSES!”

            “Cody, shh!” Rex hissed. Heads were turning their way. Most of the crowd was human, and all of them who had heard Cody’s ever-rising voice were at the very least surprised… some looked uncomfortable and hurried away as soon as Rex met their eyes. “You can’t just yell about civilians like that!”

            “Orders, Commander?” Oddball came to attention and saluted as soon as he and the other two had arrived.

            “Oddball, look.”

            “Stop pointing!” Rex pushed his arm down again.

            “Stop pointing, sir,” Cody corrected.

            “Sir,” Rex gritted out, wishing they were alone.

            “Hmm?” Oddball glanced where Cody had been pointing. A small knot of well-dressed humans was watching them, all three with curious expressions. At their feet, a massiff on a leash was scratching an itch with its back leg, mouth open to display its sharp, crooked teeth and lolling tongue.

            “I’m gonna go talk to them!” Cody did a surprisingly agile-side step around Rex’s grasping hand.

            “Wait, Cody!” Rex cried in a harsh, pleading undertone. “Don’t go over there! What are you doing?” He was going to get his leg chewed off!

            Cody just kept sauntering.

            Rex stood, torn. If he followed Cody and tried to drag him away, it might make more of a scene than if he hung back and let it unfold. Maybe the humans would politely excuse themselves and move on… Rex hardly dared hope.

            “This should be interesting.” Gil folded his arms.

            Zenk laughed under his breath. “You’re not gonna stop him?”

            “I’m just Captain Gallons, I can’t order him around,” Gil joked.

            Rex kept his eyes fixed on the trio of civvies as Cody approached them in a wavering gait. He watched his friend and commander draw himself up straight, put his hands on his hips and say, “Hey! Nice nose you got there.”

            The nose in question was like the inverse of theirs, narrow and upturned on the end, and it belonged to a very old-looking man in a frilly collar, so many wrinkles covering him that Rex couldn’t help but stare. Such a fragile and elderly civilian would surely not take kindly to the brash approach of a drunken clone. The man’s face turned upward, his eyes caught the neon lights around them with surprising brightness, and the black-lined lips split into a terrifying… grin. Rex was no expert but he was pretty sure there was no way most people were supposed to have that many teeth.

            “Thanks, I grew it myself!” the man said in a spry, higher-than-expected voice, and flicked his own nose with a knobby finger.

            “Hahahaha!” Cody started laughing, and didn’t stop. Much to Rex’s dismay, it got louder, and wilder until he was doubling over, clutching his stomach. The massiff shook itself and flumped onto its stomach with a snuffling grunt. Its long tongue came out and licked Cody’s boot.

            The two other civvies by the man—a tall woman with even taller hair, and a shorter person in many layers and a brimmed hat—looked at each other with incredulous and crooked grins.

            “What is… is this clone drunk?” Rex heard the woman say.

            “They let them have alcohol, eh?” said the one in the hat.

            Alarmed, Rex hurried forward, but before he quite got to Cody’s side, Cody straightened and managed to compose himself a bit, wiping his eyes. Rex came to a stop just behind him.

            “Ah, you’re funny!” Cody chuckled, one hand still on his stomach. “What’s your name?”

            “Dupius Parak, at your service!” The man made a bowing motion like he was sweeping off a hat, but he wore nothing on his head but a tight black covering which concealed any hair he might have had as well as his ears. “Ooh, there goes my twelfth thoracic vertebra.” He winced and put a hand on his hip.

            “But where did your nose come from?” Cody said, waving a hand in erratic gestures that were coming way too close to the aforementioned nose, even though the man was at least half a head taller than they were. “I mean, what did your parents look like? Which one do you look like more?”

            Dupius laughed. “Oh, well, what do you think, dears?”

            “I’ve never seen your parents!” said the woman with an are-you-kidding-me sort of face.

            “Maybe I was talking to the clones. Ah, I hear I have my father’s—”

            “Wait… what’s it like to have parents?” Cody asked in an amazed tone, as if the thought had only just now occurred to him for the first time.

            Cody, please shut up, Rex thought, and nearly let his lips form the words. Instead, he pressed them together between his teeth, trying to think of a diplomatic solution.

            “Now that one you two could answer,” said Dupius to his companions.

            The one in the hat stood with folded arms. “They’re going to think you’re our father now, you know.”

            “You do have parents, right?” Cody asked. “I mean, no, but did you grow up with parents? You were a child with parents? When you were a child? How OLD are you? Gotta be at least… I dunno… forty-five?”

            “Cody.” Rex grabbed his elbow, trying to break in, but Cody didn’t seem to notice.

            “Oh let’s see, mother and father,” Dupius mused, tapping a finger against his chin with a wrinkly, uneven smile on his black lips. “I don’t have a holo on me, but you see, they were very baffled at having such a wrinkly baby. Both of them were much smoother after all! Popped out wearing a big collar, though, of course, so at least there was something there to catch the mush when they started feeding me my cereals! I’m told it was very convenient.”

            “Ohh,” Cody said, nodding seriously as if any of that made sense. “What kind of things do you eat, do you… what’s your food schedule for the week, do you eat… I dunno, TEN different kinds of food in a week? Rex, can you imagine? I’m sure it isn’t that many….”

            Don’t bring me into this, Rex mentally pleaded, shuffling uneasily in place while the massiff left long strings of mucus-y saliva on his pants. “Cody, I really think—”

“Oh! I wouldn’t eat the same thing twice in a row, and neither would my little baby, would you Biscuit? Being the son of chefs, as I am! And the guardian of a connoisseur.” Dupius made a grand gesture with both his arms toward his massiff, which was now trying unsuccessfully to gnaw its own spiny behind. “I can never get away with preparing less than twenty different meals a week.”

            “WHAT? Twenty?!” Cody burst, jaw dropping. More civvies were staring now, startled by Cody’s outburst. Rex wanted to kick him. He looked around—where had Gil, Zenk, and Oddball gone? There they were, over by a table, talking to another group of civvies. Some help. “Twenty different… kinds of food… how do you….”

            “Gotta eat well to be well, that’s what they always say, isn’t it?” said Dupius. “Variety! It makes for a healthy system.” He crouched on wobbling knees to scratch under Biscuit’s chin—the massiff’s leather foot slapped the floor with a sound like a whip crack.

            “Yep,” said the woman, checking the time on her wrist. “Uncle Dupe, it’s getting close. We’ll go save some seats.”

            “Oh yes yes yes! I’ll be in right after you, I’m… having an educational moment.”

            “Where are you going?” Cody asked. “How long did you spend in your growth chamber? Why’s that woman so much taller than everyone else? Was she in there longer?”

            “Growth chamber?” Dupius squeaked in amusement and flapped one long, black-nailed hand. “Growth chamber? Oh, you mean that growth chamber! A uterus! A magnificent organ.”

            “What’s a uterus?”

            “Cody,” Rex groaned. “Why don’t we stop bothering the civilian and let him get to where he needs to be?”

            “Oh, no, it’s no bother! This growth chamber is inside the mother, all full of fluid, and it’s where you grow until you’re ready to pop out into the great big galaxy out here. Humans spend about a hundred and eighty days inside, so I hear.  How long were you in yours?”

            “Uhhh.” Cody looked at Rex expectantly.

            Rex stared back. Cody couldn’t possibly expect him to know the answer to that question.

            “Oh, I’m sure it says in a file somewhere, right?” Dupius waved a hand as if imitating a dance. “Most humans don’t know the exact number of days they’re in their fleshy one either! But I’d imagine it’s a bit more comfortable than a tube or whatever it is you have. Then again, less roomy perhaps… I do hope they at least give you some room to grow.”

            Cody was nodding with a serious, fascinated look. “Well, I’m not short, but I’m not as tall as that woman was. I guess fleshy growth chambers aren’t as easy to control. But what was it like in there?”

            “Excuse me,” Rex interjected, finally—the phrase fleshy growth chambers coming out of Cody’s mouth was surely a sign that this conversation was going places Rex didn’t want to go. “Please don’t mind him, he’s… he’s had a little too much to drink, I’m sure you have somewhere to be and we don’t want to keep you. Come on, Cody!” Rex turned and drove his shoulder into Cody’s chest to push him backwards.

            “Rex! We were having a conversation!” Cody staggered back and tried to veer around Rex, but Rex jumped to intercept.

            “Come on, Cody, we learned about this,” Rex said in an undertone. “Stop bothering the civilians with personal questions.”

            “Oh, it’s not personal! After all, I don’t have a womb!” Dupius was cracking up, clapping his wrinkly hands slowly in delight, neck frill bobbing ridiculously with his laughter. Rex was not sure what could possibly be so great. Maybe this guy was drunk too. Or just too old to be sensible. Suddenly Dupius clasped both hands together and rested his cheek on them with a smiling sigh. “Oh, I wish my sister were here, she would love to talk to you….”

            “You have a sister?” Cody’s face lit up. “How many? Only a few, probably, like seven? Civvies don’t have that many brothers.”

             “Just the one,” Dupius said, tugging Biscuit’s leash when the massiff began to chew experimentally on the toe of Rex’s boot. “I would ask how many you have … but if you think seven is ‘a few’…. “ He reeled Biscuit further in and looked up at the sky with a thoughtful look. “Let me see, I don’t pay attention to these sorts of things, but I suppose the army is pretty gargantuan isn’t it?”

            “I think there’s at least two hundred thousand my age… but this one’s my favorite.”

            Grinning, Cody lunged to grab Rex and Rex stepped back, muttering in an undertone. “Oh no. Cody, no. Come on… we really have to get back to base. I’m seri—Cody!” Cody had him by the shoulders and was trying to shove him toward Dupius and Biscuit, who hopped and snuffled excitedly in place. Seeing no other option, he gave in and stumbled forward at Cody’s urging, came to attention just in front of the amused civilian and gave a respectful dip of his head. “I really… truly apologize for this unprofessional conduct. As long as he’s not bothering you, I’ll step away, but if you’d rather be left alone, please say so.”

            “Ah, well, I guess I should probably move along, but the show doesn’t start for another five minutes, and Biscuit still hasn’t gone wee-wee. Where’s a good spot for little Biscuit…! What I wouldn’t give for a nice patch of dirt!”

            “You heard him, Cody,” Rex said.

            “Heard what? Oh… right. We’ll help you find some dirt right away, sir!”

            “Not that! This is improper!” Rex protested, trying to pull Cody aside so he could talk without Dupius watching.       

            “It’s alright, Biscuit’s making do,” Dupius said pleasantly. “Good girl, Biscuit!!”

            Oh no. Rex glanced down, half expecting to see a puddle of massiff-urine soaking into his boots, but Biscuit was crouching over one of the ornamental plants, blinking up at Dupius with what almost looked like a smile.

            Cody rolled his eyes as Rex yanked him around to face away from the man’s beaming face. “Does he look upset to you? Come on, we have a mission here.”

            “What mission? It doesn’t matter!” Rex seethed desperately. “Do you have any idea how you look right now?”

            “I look like someone who actually knows how to have fun once in a while, that’s how I look!” Cody said. “Come on, Rex, you’re making a big deal out of nothing.”

            “I wouldn’t have to make a big deal out of it if you would just come back to the barracks where we belong!”

            “Dupius, are you still talking to that clone?” The one in the hat was back.

            “Oh, well, not really… they’re arguing now.”

            “Arguing? Doesn’t give me much faith in the army….”

            “You hear that?” Rex tapped Cody’s ear repeatedly.

            “Ow. Hey.” Cody winced and swatted at Rex’s hand.

            “Why not?” Dupius asked in an overly innocent tone.

            “Ah, don’t worry,” said the tall-haired woman, who had also returned. “They’re probably just low ranking grunts trying to have a good time.”

            “Did you hear what that civvie just said?” Rex growled.

            “Actually,” Cody began, holding up one finger, “I’m Marshal Commander for the Third System—”

            Rex nearly smacked a hand over Cody’s mouth to get him to stop, but someone else interrupted him first.

            “Excuse me,” said a familiar well-well-what-have-we-here tone of voice. “Is there a problem?”

            Rex turned around and immediately regretted getting in Cody’s face where anyone could see. Civilians were one thing… with no other high ranking troopers around, nothing would probably be reported. But now Commander Fox stood there in his red and white armor with two other members of the City Guard behind him. Rex let go of Cody’s uniform and took a step away.

            “No,” Cody said casually, swinging his arms. “No problem, Fox. How are you?”

            Fox cleared his throat loudly and stepped forward with his hands on his hips. “I think you’d better come with me. We can take care of disciplinary action at headquarters.”

            “Disciplinary action?” Dupius said, as if he’d never heard such a word before. “Disciplinary… action… for speaking to me? Oh dear.”

            “You can’t do that!” Rex huffed at Fox. “There’s nothing in the regs specifically about this!”

            “Actually, if you bothered to read the regs, you would know otherwise. He’s bothering civilians,” Fox said. “That much is obvious. Unruly conduct.”

            Dupius wiggled the leash on Biscuit, and her snout snapped up from where it had been buried in the now-squashed plant. She snuffled her way toward Fox, who looked down at her and patted his leg with one hand while he grabbed Cody’s arm with the other. She looked up at him like he was crazy, snorted, and turned back toward her master.

            “You can’t haul me in, Fox,” Cody laughed, shaking his head. “I outrank you! Honestly….” Cody brushed Fox’s hand off his arm and continued chuckling. “Take me in for disciplinary action… that’s a good one.”

            Fox bristled, shoulders rising, and glanced at Dupius, who whistled to Biscuit and quickly retreated with a grin and a spindly wave of his fingers… probably intimidated by the full suit of armor and its skull-like helmet turned his way. Other nearby civilians also backed away a bit, staring.

            “Cody,” Rex tried again, nudging his friend toward the nearby table where Zenk, Gil, and Oddball were sitting, pretending to be engrossed in a pile of flimsi. “C’mon, let’s get back to base before you cause any more trouble.”

            “I’m going to call General Kenobi,” Fox announced, raising his wrist comm.

            “Fine,” Cody grinned, and jerked his chin daringly at Fox. “Do it.”

            Fox hesitated. Despite his frustration with Cody, Rex felt a bit of vindictive pleasure at the sight.

            “Do it!” Cody taunted. “If you think you have something important to say to my Jedi. Go on.”

            “Fine,” Fox huffed. “I’ll call Commander Skywalker.”

            “Ha!” It burst out of Rex, and then devolved into an actual laugh. “Hahahahaha…!” Trust Fox to be even more annoying and oblivious sober than Cody was drunk.

            Fox was silent, even after Rex stopped laughing.

            “Last I heard, Commander Skywalker takes orders from me,” Cody said smugly. “Not the other way around. And that’s not gonna change until he’s knighted.”

            A startled murmur rose up from the few civvies still standing round.

            “—clone outranks a Jedi?” Rex thought he heard someone say.

            “That can’t be right,” Fox muttered.

            “Don’t believe me? Just look at the army roster. You do know how to use the computers at headquarters, right?” Cody kept swinging his arms, that smug grin still on his face. “I was just having a polite, educational conversation with that civvie before you interrupted! Besides, we’re on a very important mission right now, isn’t that right, boys?”

            To avoid having to answer seriously, Rex turned to look at the other three 212thers who had come. Gil and Zenk were standing and said “yes sir!” but Oddball, who was bent over a sheet of flimsi that was lying on a nearby table, only paused long enough to look up and nod.

            Fox gasped. “Where did you get that flimsi!”

            “It’s free newsprint,” Oddball said simply. “Civvie gave it to me.”

            “What’s the big deal, Fox?” Cody teased. “You jealous?”

            Without looking up, Oddball added, “Maybe you should try reading more often.”

            Rex took a step toward Oddball, wanting to tell him to stop before he got ahead of himself—Fox’s hands were in fists and Rex wouldn’t put it past him to find a way to haul Oddball off, if not Cody. Oddball didn’t have the protection of a higher rank.

            “We aren’t allowed to take resources or gifts from civilians except under special circumstances!” Fox said. “Maybe all of you should try reading your regs more often!”

            Oddball looked up at Fox with raised eyebrows in an otherwise long face. “Maybe I found it in a trash can. You don’t know. Guess there’s so little action here in the core you gotta arrest your own over a piece of flimsi, huh?”

            Fox stomped toward the table and Rex braced himself for the worst, but Fox just ripped the newspaper out from under Oddball’s elbow—“Hey…!”—and snapped it straight with both hands to read what was on the spread. A long jagged line made from Oddball’s pen ran to the edge of the page from a strange drawing made of square boxes stuck in rows going up and down. Where did Oddball even get a pen?

            “‘Seductive Jedi Blackmails Confederate Leaders’? What is this?! What…” Fox sputtered. “Oh, The Independent. I could have you arrested just for touching seppie propaganda, let alone reading it! Where did you get this?”

            “That’s part of the mission, sir,” Oddball said with the most convincing straight face Rex had ever seen. Rex wasn’t much of a card player but he made a mental note to never bet against Oddball in a game of sabacc. “We’re gathering intel on an enemy informant.” He tapped his pen seriously against the table.

            “Find anything good?” Cody came over and grabbed the paper from Fox—a third of it tore off and was left fluttering in Fox’s hand, but Cody was already laughing at another headline. “Rex, come get a look at this!”

            Rex reluctantly came closer to peer over Cody’s shoulder at the text. ‘Republic Slaveholders: How The Jedi Brainwashed Two Million Souls.’ Section titles within the article included ‘Jedi Mind Tricks’, ‘Wind-Up Toys’, ‘Short Lives Cut Shorter’, and ‘Branded’.

            “What the….” Rex pulled the paper closer so he could skim each section, growing more infuriated and incredulous with every word. Oddball quietly tore a page out of the back and sat back down at the table, ignoring Fox’s warning noise. “They’re saying we might be stuck in some kind of hive mind and that we can be cured if we get captured and isolated from the rest of the army? That we’re all on some kind of addictive muscle-growing drugs? And that the Jedi use their mind tricks to make us loyal…! This is disgusting.”

            Cody grinned incredulously and cleared his throat, squinting at the paper. “Wow. People actually believe this? Listen….” He began reading slowly, almost painfully so. “‘Already some clones have been spotted wearing tattoos of various designs. Is this a desperate attempt at individuality, the sign of a morbid rite of passage, or a mark of ownership and identification forced upon them by their masters?’ Oh boy. ‘It seems unlikely that a group of enslaved and brainwashed children—’ oh come on! We’re full grown, kids would be no good on the battlefield, are they crazy?” Cody smacked the papers against his face and kept reading. “‘—children, who are regularly tortured into submission, and allowed no physical possessions, free play, or natural affections, would be allowed to choose such markings for themselves without severe punishment. But even if it were a choice, it would undoubtedly be held out as an incentive for perfect obedience.’ Torture! What torture? They act like we’re some groveling babies! Can you imagine me, Rex?” Cody threw his hands in the air in a dramatic, supplicating gesture and fell to his knees. “Oh, General Kenobi!! Let me kiss your feet, please let me put some paint on my armor and I’ll load myself right up into a cannon and shoot myself at an enemy tank because I’m just so thankful you’re not torturing me! What a load of—”

            “Give me those pages,” Fox growled, snatching them out of Cody’s upraised hand. “I’ll put them in the garbage where they belong. And stop shouting what it says, you don’t know who might be listening and getting the wrong idea! You don’t have any business being out here in the first place.”

             “Look,” said Cody, wobbling to his feet—it took about three tries before Zenk took pity and grabbed his arm to keep him from overbalancing. “I’m disproving the propaganda by being out here talking to civvies like I was! You’re giving them the wrong idea about us by trying to make me leave. Now they’re all gonna think that the seppies are right and there are armed guards keeping us locked in our barracks all day and night, zapping us whenever we crack a smile. Honestly, it’s because of people like you throwing public fits about flimsi that stuff like this makes sense to anybody!”

            “It’s regulation,” Fox repeated stubbornly. “Besides, if all of us took flimsi, the civilians would suffer. If all of us can’t do it, none of us should do it. That’s the only way it’s fair.”

            “Actually, it’s okay!”

            Rex’s head snapped around at the unfamiliar voice, and everyone else’s did too. A middle-aged civilian with braided black hair had her hands cupped around her mouth.

            “Hi! Um. Sorry for eavesdropping. Just wanted to say… if it’s just a few pages, it’s really fine. Plus no one reads that thing anyway.”

            Rex looked from the nervously grinning civilian to Fox’s helmeted head, to Cody’s satisfied look. Nobody spoke or moved. The civilian eventually waved a hand and hurried away.

            “Thank you!” Cody yelled after her.

            “What’s a three letter word for way too uptight?” Oddball said casually, tapping his flimsi. “Starts with F.”

            Rex wondered how many times Cody could possibly dissolve into laughter in one night. Fox made a noise under his breath and took a few steps away. For a moment, Rex began to relax—Fox had given up, so now all that was left to tackle was getting Cody home. “Gil, help me get—”

            “Master Yoda,” Fox said calmly into his comm. “Come in please.”

            A bluff. It had to be. But Cody stopped laughing too. “Wait… you’re not seriously calling Master Yoda?”

            “Commander Fox,” came Yoda’s gravelly voice from the wrist comm. “Rare it is I hear from you. Serious, this must be."

            Rex could actually feel his mind go blank just before the thoughts started rolling in double-time. Great, just great, good job Cody, now we’re going to get court-martialed and sent back to Kamino and reconditioned and put on maintenance duty, so much for your fancy title, so much for being Marshal Commander, why did I ever tell him I would take him out drinking

            “I… it is, General,” Fox said haltingly. “I’ve run into some trouble with an officer who apparently outranks me, but is leading his men into dangerous situations.”

            One of Fox’s men, a captain, stepped toward Oddball, tilting his head to look down at the crossword the pilot was looking at. “Five across is ‘senate’.”

            “Senate?” Oddball said. “A six letter word. Collective noun for a group of two-faced beings? Look, uh, here, you’re obviously better at this than me. Here you go.”

            “Thanks for the evidence,” said the city guard. Rex watched him calmly carry the page over to where Fox was speaking into his comm.

            “Yes, sir, it’s Commander Cody. I believe he’s assigned to General Kenobi?”

            “Hey,” Oddball said, and Rex blinked and realized the pilot was standing next to him with Gil and Zenk. “We could go. We aren’t the sloshed ones. Get in the speeder and go before we get dragged into this.”

            For half a moment, Rex almost agreed. If Cody wanted to risk his good standing in the army, well, he’d always had good luck with getting away with the most ridiculous things, and probably wouldn’t suffer worse than a demotion to regular battalion commander. But Rex wasn’t about to trust himself to the same luck.

            “Ha, Rex would never leave me,” Cody said confidently.

            Rex’s conscience twanged so hard he clenched his teeth.

            “Let’s just get him back to base,” he gritted out to Oddball. “The four of us can carry him if we have to.”

            He grabbed Cody around the middle from behind. Gil and Zenk yanked his feet up off the ground and Cody relaxed and let them carry him, chuckling softly to himself while Fox watched their little procession, distracted from Yoda’s voice on the other end of his comm—Rex wondered if it was too late.

            “Hey if you see that Dupius guy tell him my name’s Cody, Commander Cody!” Cody yelled toward Fox, who broke off mid-sentence to look their way.

            “Quiet,” Rex growled, and stepped into the speeder car before dumping Cody unceremoniously in the passenger seat. He slid into the driver’s seat and revved the engine. “Everybody get in, we’re going back to base now!

            “Wish I wasn’t the only rear guard,” Zenk joked, glancing over his shoulder. “Something tells me that’s gonna come back and bite us in the—”

            “Ask me what I think of your actions, Cody,” Rex said stiffly. He lifted off and merged quickly into an approved lane. “Go on.”

            Cody chuckled with his arms behind his head, reclining against Oddball who was squished against the door on his side of the speeder. One of his legs rested on Rex’s lap, the other drawn up with knee pointing skyward. “Eh… I’ll just guess.”

            “Fine, I’ll tell you anyway. We all know Fox was looking for an excuse to report you, and you just had to go and provoke him. What’s your excuse for putting your own men at risk?”

            “Hmm,” Cody said, relaxed, watching the cars in the lane above them zipping by. “But did you see the look on his face?”

            “No, we didn’t, sir,” Gil said from the back seat. “He was wearing his helmet the whole time.”

            “He was?” Cody paused. “Huh. Guess I just imagined it pretty good.”

            “Your behavior is embarrassing! I don’t care if you’re drunk,” Rex grumbled, “You’re drunk because you didn’t listen to any of our warnings, and now you’ve dragged us into your feud with Fox, and he even saw us looking at seppie propaganda!”

            “Hey, I had nothing to do with that. All I did was talk to Uncle Dupe,” Cody waved both hands, sat up and flopped over against Rex’s shoulder this time—the speeder veered as Rex’s steering jerked off course. They nearly sideswiped a taxi.

            “Cody!” Rex snapped. “Get off, I’m trying to drive!”

            “Alright, alright, I’ll go in the back.” Cody stood up on the front seat—the gust of wind from a passing bus made him wobble—

            “Cody, NO!” In a moment of panic Rex let go of the steering to grab his legs—Oddball yelled and reached around Cody’s legs to correct their course, and Cody folded over the back of the seat with an awkward wail.

            “Why are you driving, Rex?” Oddball’s voice cracked as he took over holding Cody’s legs, and Rex grabbed the steering again. “I’m the one who didn’t have any drinks. Why don’t I drive—you can take care of Cody, he actually listens to you.”

            “Oh, Cody listens to me? Since when?” Rex huffed, but he pulled over at the first opportunity he saw. Oddball took the driver’s side while Rex shoved Cody into the back and climbed back there with him after Gil took the front passenger seat.

            “This is great,” Cody sighed happily two minutes later, curled loosely on the bench with his head on Rex’s leg. “We should do this again.”

            “Absolutely not,” Rex muttered, squirming a little inside every time he thought about Fox calling Yoda. The last of the civilian buildings streaked by in a blur of lights. What was he telling the old green Jedi right now?

            “Well, I had fun,” Cody mumbled, closing his eyes.

            “Mission accomplished,” Oddball said.

            Rex made a soft warning noise under his breath. “You’re not off the hook either, Major.”

            The minute Rex and Gil walked through the door to the command barracks, Cody’s arms over their shoulders, the chatter of the other officers went silent.

            “Hey-ey, what’s up?” Gil tried, overly cheerful.

            “Cody… what are you doing here?” Captain Quickdraw asked. He had a look on his face as if he’d seen a ghost. “I wouldn’t have come back to base so soon if I were you. Not until I’d made a decent alibi.”

            Cody blinked and looked down at himself as if expecting to see the answer on his uniform somewhere, but luckily on the way back, he’d heaved over the side of the speeder and not on himself.

            “Master Yoda was just here,” said Commander Doom seriously. “I’ve never seen someone so small and green be so… angry.”

            “Oh no,” Rex said under his breath. “Cody… this is it.” If the de facto head of the Jedi Order was angry with them, surely there was nothing left but to accept their fate.

            “Nice knowing you, Rex,” Gil sighed.

            “No, what… Yoda… Yoda actually came? Here? Here?” Cody babbled, pulling away from Rex and Gil to stumble to the nearest bunk and sit down. “What… what did he say?”

            “Oh…” said Commander Neyo ominously, pointing at the ceiling. “Well. He said… he would be back.”

            A green blur dropped from the ceiling, lightsaber aglow, into the circle of troopers—Cody yelped and scrambled backward so fast he fell off the other side of the bed.

            Rex stood rooted to the spot for a moment before taking a tentative step sideways, toward where Cody was literally jumping to attention.

            “Sir! General! Yes sir!” Cody’s voice was a little high.

            Yoda straightened and deactivated his saber, looking around at the gathered clones. He did indeed look more serious than Rex had ever personally witnessed.

            “Commander Cody,” Yoda growled as he hitched his saber back to his belt. “A report on your special mission, I require.”

            “Special…Mi… yes, yes, sir, of course, General,” Cody fumbled. “The special mission. It… ah… it was… well… we, uh, we did—the results are—”

            Rex bolted around the bed to stand slightly in front of Cody, and saluted Yoda. “Sir. It was my fault. I was the one who took Cody off base. It was my idea.”

            “Hmm,” mused Yoda, hairy ears tilted questioningly.

            Rex waited, fingers icy, half of him wondering why he didn’t just let Cody take the fall. But they rose and fell together. And it had been his idea to go out drinking.

            “So… complete this mission, you did not, hm?” Yoda asked. “Make contact with our civilian informants, you did not?”

            Rex looked between them. There had been a mission? And Cody tried to complete it while drunk?

            “Ahh,” Cody said, looking around the room as if someone could help him, then stopped, staring. “Fox?”

            Rex turned to see Commander Fox and his captain from before swaggering through the doorway. Oh great. As if things needed to get any worse.

            “Right, General,” Cody said, snapping back to attention. “We, uh, we did make contact with… multiple… civilians. And we… certainly did get some information from them, sir.”

            Gil stifled a cough at Rex’s side, and Rex wondered if he too was hoping Yoda didn’t ask what kind of information. There was no way a separatist crossword puzzle and a lecture on civilian reproduction was what Yoda was looking for.

            Yoda glanced at Fox, and his wrinkled mouth twitched. “Well done, Commander. With the people you defend… a connection, yes. If this connection you make, much stronger your conviction will be. And stronger, the faith of the people will be, in the clones.”

            Fox spluttered. “But sir! Commander Cody was being inappropriately informal with the civilians in question! AND… he was reading aloud from known separatist propaganda, in a crowded public area!”

            “To be perfectly fair, Commander,” Rex snapped. “You also read aloud from that same publication. Neither of you read from it with the intention of supporting what it said. Right?”

            “You stay out of this,” Fox snarled.

            “Hey!” Cody barked. “You stay out of it. This mission had nothing to do with you.”

            “Know of this separatist propaganda, I do,” Yoda said. “A report I require from you, Commander Cody, of the information you recovered.”

            “Yes, sir!” Cody snapped ramrod straight again. “I’ll get to work on it right away!”

            “General, if I may,” Fox interrupted. “I—Commander Cody doesn’t seem to be aware of proper protocol when dealing with civilians. He was clearly intoxicated and was being extremely disruptive in a public area, engaging in inappropriate conversations, undermining public faith in the army’s efficiency by bickering with his captain and—”

            “Experience, he needs,” Yoda interrupted, head bobbing. “Yes. Commander Fox, open Commander Cody’s mind, you will. Educate him, you will… yes.”

            “Educate… educate him how, sir?” Fox fumbled. “On what?”

            “Hmhmhmhm!” Yoda laughed with his lips pressed together, and strolled out of the room. Short as his legs were, it took a long and awkward moment for him to reach the door, during which Fox tried to speak only once.

            “Sir? Um… sir….”

            The door shut. Rex looked over at Cody, who was still standing stiffly—no longer at attention, just shocked.

            “Uh… Cody…” Rex began, intending to ask him about the special mission, but Fox interrupted.

            “Well, guess I get to tell you all about why what you were doing was wrong,” he said.

            “I was just talking,” Cody muttered, sending a resentful look toward Fox.

            “You were being informal and inappropriate, and showing a complete lack of discipline!”

            “Oh?” Cody asked, folding his arms. “What part of what I said to that civilian was inappropriate? You weren’t even there for most of the conversation!”

            “Cody, maybe you should… stop talking,” Rex suggested nervously. He put a hand on Cody’s shoulder.

            “What?” Cody shrugged his hand off. “I’m being educated.”

            “It’s against regulation to invite any sort of familiarity with civilians!” Fox said. “And from what I did hear you were asking personal questions about his family and even about his anatomy.”

            “What?” Cody looked confused. “No I wasn’t.”

            Fox gave a frustrated growl. Quietly, Rex walked over to the nearest computer to check the regs and make sure Fox wasn’t making things up. But most likely he was right.

            “But Fox,” said the captain by Fox’s side, “even you have a few civvie friends.”

            “Radar,” Fox said sharply. “I do not.”

            “Oh?” Cody asked with a smirk. “What kind of friends?”

            “They’re not friends. They’re just people who help me keep tabs on criminal behavior.” Fox jutted his chin toward Cody.

            “Why are you even in this barracks?” Rex heard Cody scoff. “Don’t you usually sleep in the main HQ building with all the other reds? As Marshal Commander, I order you to leave us.”

            When Rex glanced over, Fox was bristling.

            “You can’t do that,” he spat out in an insulted tone of voice. “Master Yoda ordered me to educate you!”

            “You told me the rules. I’m educated.” Cody waved a hand smugly. “Bye.”

            For a moment, Fox didn’t move. Then he turned on his heel and stomped toward the door. “Come on!” he snarled at his captain. “Don’t blame me if you end up in trouble one of these days, Cody.”

            “Oh,” Cody said, in an oh-so-impressed tone of voice just as Fox stepped out the door. “Who knew civilians were so dangerous!”

            Fox grabbed the doorframe and whipped around. “You have no idea,” he hissed. “Civilians don’t have the same conditioning as us. Most of them have no loyalty or morals or honor.”

            “Huh,” Cody said. “Guess that explains why they chose you.”

            “Cody,” Rex warned, just as Fox’s captain grabbed Fox by the arm to keep him from coming back into the room.

            “Shake it off,” the captain said quietly.

            Fox visibly shook himself, but his voice was still venomous when he said, “They chose me because they knew I wouldn’t be corrupted like some commanders!”

            This time Cody lunged toward Fox and Rex jumped from his station by the computer to intercept. “Alright, EVERYBODY CALM DOWN,” he yelled.

            Cody stopped. Fox gave in to the insistent tug of his captain and left. The door shut. Cody let out a breath through his teeth, glaring at the door for a second before he relaxed.

            “Phew,” he sighed, and went to flop on the nearest bunk. “I thought he’d never leave.”

            “Was that really necessary,” Rex muttered as he sat down by him.

            Cody laughed at the ceiling. “He’s so touchy.”

            So are you, Rex thought. The other commanding officers around the barracks were laughing and whispering to each other about what had just happened. Gil cleared his throat and excused himself to use a ‘fresher.

            “Why do you have to provoke him,” Rex sighed.

            “He wants to be provoked!” Cody said. “He could have left us alone. Instead he came strolling in here because he didn’t want to miss it if I got in trouble. Don’t tell me he had any other reason for being here.”

             “That doesn’t matter,” Rex said in a low voice, still in disbelief that they had gotten off without more than a warning. “You could have gotten us thrown out of the army.”

            “What…” Cody chuckled and folded his hands on his chest. “You don’t think any other commanders have gotten tipsy before? Why’d they give us a bar if we’re not s’posed to use it?”

            “You’re not tipsy. You’re drunk.”

            “This is nothing.” Cody waved a hand and closed his eyes. “I’m fine.”

            “Oh yeah? Try walking in a straight line.”

            Cody didn’t answer. A second later, Rex prodded him and realized he was asleep.

            “Unbelievable,” he muttered. “Why am I even friends with you.”

            Something was crashing. Crashing together, rhythmically, like a holovid of a vehicle crash stuck repeating the second of impact. It drove nails into Cody’s head and he tried to open his eyes, tried to remember where he’d been when he lost consciousness. Then other sounds joined the crashing drumbeat, a horn, a warbling flute, a voice—wait—

            “WHO TURNED ON THAT MUSIC,” Cody cried, covering his ears. When he opened his eyes the lights were on their highest setting, stabbing him. His head throbbed and the music stopped.

            “Whoops,” said a brother’s voice, and a moment later there was a rustle of fabric by Cody’s face. He cracked his eyes open to see Rex wearing a satisfied smile. “My mistake. Better get up, though, you’re late.”

            “Late?!” Cody jerked upright, and the room tilted and whirled. Hot and cold sweat broke out on his scalp and he felt himself starting to gag—only just managed to hold it back. He closed his eyes and groaned. “Late for what?”

            “For the training course you promised to run the other officers through, remember? Come on, we better get to the gym right away.”

            “R... right,” Cody said, and didn’t move, afraid he’d throw up if he did. What training course? He didn’t remember promising anything like that. He realized Rex was in his training uniform.

            “Come on!” Rex insisted, tugging at his arms.

            Cody lurched to his feet—he was still wearing his entire service uniform and boots from last night—and nearly fell over again with a whimper, stumbling to the side and barely catching himself on the bed. “Rex, I think I—”

            “That’s it, soldier,” Rex coaxed. “Come on, this way.” Cody felt his hands on his shoulders, steering him forward.

            “I th…think I’m… sick,” Cody gulped, trying to fight back the invisible hands that were squeezing and wringing his stomach like a child playing with putty.

            “Sick? We hardly ever get sick, Cody,” Rex chuckled. “No one’s going to buy that excuse.”

            “No, I mean… I think I’m gonna be sick.” Cody hesitated before each uneven step, the floor in front of him wobbling and warping. He tried to keep breathing, but even inhaling felt like a gag reflex trigger.

            “What, like a hangover?” Rex asked in an incredulous voice. “Impossible.”

            “It is?” Cody asked, blinking at the pitying smiles of the other officers they passed on the way to the door. He didn’t remember ever hearing that.

            “Oh, yeah. Can’t be hungover if you’re not drunk,” Rex said, and shoved Cody out the door into the blazing sunlit landing strip.

            Cody took one squinting, agonized look at the morning sky and felt his stomach turn inside out. A moment later he was panting and staring at the puddle he’d coughed out onto the duracrete.

            Rex patted his back. “Good job. Minimal splash on your uniform. Hm. Now let’s go.”

            Cody gagged again as Rex yanked him forward by the arm, but managed to keep it down.

            “Pick up the pace!” Rex ordered, dragging him into a jog, and Cody tried to follow his lead, but kept stumbling, breath catching in the battle against nausea.

            “Rex, I can’t,” Cody gasped out a pained, pleading laugh, clutching at his head. “Cut it out. I don’t—remember any training course I was—”

            “Oh come on, you whiner!” Rex taunted. “You’re the commander of the entire Third System’s Army! Surely you can handle a little workout.”

            “But—”

            “After all, nothing happened last night that would at all affect your abilities. Right?”

            “Rex,” Cody said through clenched teeth, but Rex shoved him hard from behind and Cody felt a flash of anger so strong that he broke into a run, breathing through the pain even though his eyes were stinging and he wanted to crawl into a dark hole and die. He would either get through this training routine or injure himself trying, and then what would Rex have to say for himself.

            For the next five minutes, running to the doors of headquarters, Cody fought his body, sweating, shaking from the pulsing pain in his head, eyes watering to the point that the wind even blew some of it from his aching eyes. His mouth was dry and tasted like acid.

            When he hit the doors he kept going—no way was he going to let the city guard see him slack after what Fox might have told them. At one trooper’s slack-jawed look, he grinned and called, “Hey, nice day for a run!”

            And he heard Rex puff out a laugh behind him.

            In the gym, Rex yelled “Stop! One hundred push ups! Now!”

            He dropped to the floor, arms shaking, all of him shaking and already sweaty before he’d even started to run. He’d never realized just how stifling their service uniforms were. As he gulped for air, his stomach clenched again. He growled and kept going, head pounding with his pulse. Rex kept pace right next to him.

            “Ninety-eight,” Cody gasped, a minute later, as if pleading with the universe. “Ninety –nine. O-one hundred.” He collapsed onto his face, whole body heaving, and curled up around his aching stomach.

            “Alright!” Rex commanded, “Bear crawl to the bars, two hundred pull ups!”

            “RRGH,” Cody growled, pushing himself onto hands and knees, then hands and feet and starting a lurching, slow bear crawl—his elbows quivered and buckled more than once. “Really?!”

            “Just the set course we used to do back on Kamino,” Rex panted beside him.

            Cody couldn’t find enough breath for a retort. His vision was swimming. He kept his focus on Rex, until Rex stood up and Cody struggled to get to his feet too.

            “Wh—where are the bars?” Cody asked, squinting blearily around. He rubbed at his throbbing eyes and saw the shine of water next to them just before Rex pushed him over.

            “NO!” Cody yelled, and grabbed wildly at Rex, digging his fingers into the fabric of his shirt as he fell. He hit the water and it closed around him, a cold hard slap, then a relief, then panic as water filled his nose and he accidentally breathed some in. He let go of Rex and reached for the surface, breaking into the air with a coughing, spluttering, hoarse gasp.

            “You weren’t supposed to pull me in!” Rex yelled.

            “Why?!” Cody yowled, splashing viciously at the water between them before he realized he was losing strength fast and needed to get to the edge. He lurched for it and clung, coughing and trying to catch his breath. His soaked uniform pulled heavily on him.

            Rex swam up beside him and got out before kneeling and offering him a hand up.

            Cody glared through the water in his eyes, hair plastered to his forehead. “I should just pull you right back in!”

            “Yeah, but you won’t,” Rex said confidently.

            Cody growled out a sigh before grabbing the offered hand and allowing Rex to pull him out of the pool. He sat for a second on hands and knees, trying to gather himself.

            “You looked like you were about to puke again,” Rex said. “Figured a little cold water might help.”

            “Yeah, thanks,” Cody said shakily. “Real helpful.” The nausea was actually a little better, but he wasn’t about to tell Rex that.

            Rex said nothing, just sat by him for a moment, waiting.

            Cody took a deep breath and sat back at last, pushing his wet hair back off his forehead “You’re right. I was drunk. Is that what you wanted to hear?”

            “Yeah,” Rex said. “It is.”

            Cody sighed, exhausted. He rubbed at his face with one hand. “I get it. You don’t want Fox or any of the other officers to see me compromised. Right? That’s what this is about. You’re just looking out for me.”

            “Oh, is that what I’m doing?”

            “Well… you’re also a little angry I’d imagine.” Cody looked sheepishly down at the knees of his soaked uniform, started taking off his boots so he wouldn’t have to look at Rex’s face.

            “Hm. More than a little.”

            Cody forced a weak laugh at that, but stopped almost immediately—his stomach didn’t agree with that action at all. He swallowed the bile in his mouth instead.

            “Your troops will never respect you,” Rex said quietly, “if they see you like that even once. Besides… then they’ll take that as permission to act that way as well.”

            Cody sighed. “You’re right.” Why was he sitting here being taught the basics of command by his captain? Not for the first time, he wondered why Rex was the captain instead of the marshal commander.

            “You have to conduct yourself in a way deserving of your rank,” Rex continued in that low, insistent tone. “If you wanna make Fox eat his words… become the best, even despite this mistake.”

            “Okay, General Rex,” Cody said, throwing a grin his way. But Rex just raised an eyebrow, water still dripping off his chin.

            “Why not Commander Rex? I’m not a Jedi. Are you still not thinking straight?”

            “Well, when you start spouting off inspirational wisdom like that,” Cody offered.

            Rex finally smiled a little, and Cody relaxed and smiled back, hoping he didn’t look as sick as he felt.

            “Come on, Commander,” Rex said, and got to his feet, offering a hand again. “Let’s get you into the showers and hydrated.”

            “Sounds like a plan,” Cody sighed gratefully as he stood and picked up his boots. “Next time maybe just push me out of bed to wake me up. I woke up thinking we’d just been in a shuttle crash.”

            “If there ever is a next time, I’ll put you in an actual shuttle crash myself.” Rex nudged him with his elbow and headed for the door with a smirk.

            Cody laughed and winced. “Thanks.”

Chapter Text

            “Go! Hurry!”

            Blaster fire rained past Bly and his team, scouring the rocky hill they were running up.  General Secura fell back to deflect it. Bly clutched the crystal oscillator, glad his gloves had a good grip on the smooth transparisteel, and occasionally returned shots at the weequay and rusty-colored nikto. The pirates were undeterred, yelling unintelligibly, scrambling over the rocks and between geysers. The General seemed to have it well in hand, but a little cover fire never hurt.

            The civilian ship they’d borrowed was waiting for them at the top of the steep ridge, hidden out of view under an overhang on the other side. Bly lengthened his strides as the incline grew steeper. A cry of pain from behind him brought him to a sudden halt.

            Secura was limping, staggering backward as she deflected blaster bolts with quick, precise movements.

            “Liam! Take this!” Bly tossed the oscillator to Captain Liam and turned back to shoot at the oncoming rush of pirates. “Keep moving! Get back to the ship!

            Bly rushed forward, back down the hill, aiming straight for the chest of every pirate in sight. Four went down before he reached Secura’s side and continued firing.

            “No!” Secura yelled. “Set your blaster to stun!”

            “But General Secura—!”

            “Now, Bly!”

            Bly pulled her behind him as a geyser went off between them and the approaching pirates. He took that moment to switch his rifle’s setting, and Secura shoved him back toward the ridge.

            “The sooner we leave, the less we will have to fight! Hurry!”

            He reached toward her free arm. “General Secura, you’re—”

            “I can manage!” She laughed tightly and went back to deflecting fire. “I would be back at the ship already if I knew all my men were safe. Shall I carry you to the top?”

            “Ah, understood,” Bly said. “That won’t be necessary.” He fired a few stun bolts over her shoulder—two pirates went down—before running up to the steepest part of the hill and scrambling hand over hand the rest of the craggy way. In a blur of blue she was there beside him, just below to cover him with her lightsaber, slight panting the only sign that she felt the wound on her leg. He paused to send a few more shots before he heaved himself up the rest of the way. The hum and sizzle of energy hitting her lightsaber followed him the last stretch to the ship’s ramp, where Liam beckoned them both inside.

            No sooner had he made it in than the ramp began to close. He turned his head and saw the flash of bright blue light disappear. Secura slid down the wall to sit on the floor.

            “Our missing component is here?” she asked.

            “Oh, yes, sir,” Liam said, holding up the oscillator for her to see. The blue glow was dim under the ship’s bright interior lighting.

            “Good. Is everyone accounted for?”

            “Yes, sir.”

            “Then let’s put the ship back together and get out of here.”

            “Liam,” Bly said, “you and Stormy can handle that, right? I want the rest of you in the gunwells!”

            “We’re on it, sir!” Liam saluted briskly and ran off to open the life support system’s access port.

            “Wait!” Secura barked, before the rest of them had a chance to leave. “Don’t fire on them unless you have no other choice. It would be better for us to lift off and stay out of their weapon’s range. We can stay low within the planet’s atmosphere long enough for the life support systems to be repaired.”

            “Yes, General. I’ll tell the pilots,” said one of the men.

            Bly took off his helmet and knelt to look at the blackened streak on Secura’s leg. “I’ll fetch the med droid.”

            “It’s just a scratch,” Secura laughed under her breath. “A little bacta patch and it will be as good as new.”

            “Alright. I’ll go get some from the medkit, then.” Bly stood and went to the little supply room on their ship, taking wide, careful steps; the ship was pitching a bit as it took off. Bit had stayed with the majority of the 327th, so they didn’t have a formally trained medic on board, but the droid would work if anyone needed serious medical attention.

            When he returned with the bacta, the rest of the men were gone. He knelt and moved to apply the patch to her leg, but she took it from him and did it herself. He leaned back to give her some space.

            “What’s wrong, Commander?” She glanced up at him between her adjustments of the patch.

            He looked up, startled. “Oh… nothing, General Secura. It looks like we’re going to get out of here after all.”

            “I sense you’re troubled by something.” She looked at him curiously. “We didn’t lose any men. Will you tell me what you’re thinking?”

            He opened his mouth, but faltered under her unwavering gaze. “I’m just….” He sighed nervously. “A little confused about your orders. But there’s no need for you to explain them to me. As long as I can follow your command, then I will.”

            She smiled and stood, leaning against the wall. “What exactly was confusing about my orders?”

            Bly wished she hadn’t asked that, wished he hadn’t said anything at all. He stood as well, feeling flustered under her scrutiny. “Sorry, General Secura. It wasn’t really confusing. Clearly, you didn’t want to kill any of the pirates, so you ordered me to change my blaster setting. That’s all there is to it.”

            “And this troubles you?” She raised an eyebrow.

            Bly moved to put his helmet back on and she stopped him with a hand on his arm.

            “Did you want to kill them, Bly?” she asked, in a quiet, focused undertone.

            “No,” Bly said, but then grimaced. “Actually… yes. They were shooting at us, and they didn’t have their blasters set to stun. We had every right to shoot to kill. And first of all, they stole that oscillator from us, and they wouldn’t give it back even when you helped them!”

            “You think they didn’t deserve the small favors we gave them,” Secura guessed.

            “Seemed like more than small favors to me, General Secura,” Bly sighed, looking at the floor.

            “General Secura,” Captain Liam’s voice came over the comm.. “Primary life support systems are back online. It should be safe to clear the atmosphere now.”

            “Very good, Captain,” Secura said. “Tell the pilots to proceed. Keep me informed.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            She looked up from her comm expectantly. “You were saying, Commander?”

            “Right….” Bly took a deep breath. “Er… I don’t know how it is with nikto and weequay, but if somebody saved my life, especially if I’d stolen from them, I’d want to do whatever I could to get out of their debt. And not only did we defend them from that rival pirate gang, but you—we—gave them some of our food and medical supplies! I thought it was a good strategy at the time, defending them, so that they would trust us and give it over without a fight, but… then it didn’t work. I think that might have been their plan all along… they wanted to use the oscillator to bargain with us!”

            “They have their freedom to choose,” Secura mused. “It’s not our place to assume we can take that from them.”

            “Well, they made the wrong choice,” Bly said.

            She smiled and shook her head. “That depends on your point of view.”

            “We have cleared Florrum’s atmosphere,” came the announcement from the cockpit. “No vessels in pursuit.”

            “Acknowledged,” Secura replied over the comm..

            Bly frowned self-consciously, eyes drifting down to the bacta patch. He tried to find a way to respectfully disagree. “Maybe… maybe your understanding of their culture…informs your decisions. I trust your judgment and experience, of course.”

            “But you are still confused.” She walked over to one of the small benches which flanked the entrance to the next section of the ship. She sat on one and motioned to the other. “Come. We have a few hours of travel ahead of us. Let’s talk. I am a general… you are my commander. The better we understand one another, the better we will work together in battle.”

            Uncertainly, Bly took a seat across from her, setting his helmet down behind him. He let his hands rest on his knees and met her expectant look. “What… would you like to talk about?”

            “Tell me more of your experience. How things seemed to you on Florrum.”

            “What do you want to know?” Bly asked, not sure where to begin.

            “Let’s start with the mission itself. What do you think of it?”

            “I’m… not sure what you mean.” Bly said, and then went on hurriedly when she said nothing. “We came to Florrum to make an exchange with a contact from behind enemy lines… this planet was chosen because it’s in a neutral system, and a civilian craft wouldn’t be noticed. That all makes perfect sense. Every mission is important, but… the information we traded for could affect the outcome of the war… so this mission might be more important in some ways than the usual straightforward battle. Is… that right, General Secura?”

            “There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, Bly,” Secura said. Her posture was relaxed, but alert as always. “I’m not testing your loyalty or your ability to follow orders. That much has already been well established. I only want to understand.”

            “I see.” Bly studied her expression, and he thought it seemed sincere. Something about the steady gaze of her dark brown eyes made it easier to believe her. “Right… every mission is important. And you are the general, so direction as to how to accomplish the mission objectives… falls to you, first and foremost, especially when things go wrong, like….” He sighed in exasperation. “Like when pirates steal an important part of your ship’s life support systems.”

            Secura laughed a little under her breath.

            Bly went on. “I don’t have experience with negotiating, especially with weequay or nikto. I don’t trust them, anyway… they seem… well, they don’t seem like they have much of a sense of honor about anything. But you seemed confident they could be reasoned with.”

            Secura nodded slightly. “Do you think it’s better to negotiate, or to fight?”

            Bly stared back, trying to put his thoughts into words quickly. “If… if negotiating is successful, there are bound to be fewer casualties. That’s better than losing men. But if it doesn’t work… it could just delay the mission.”

            “So how did you feel about my decision to try negotiating first?”

            “It was the right decision at the time.” He could at least say that confidently. “And once I understood your strategy, I thought helping them was a good idea too. I thought it was worth a shot, anyway. You handled them well, even when they were being….” Bly struggled against his own disgust, rubbing one hand over his opposite fist. “Disrespectful.”

            “Thank you.” Secura smirked. “I think I did manage to command their respect eventually.”

            “And you still didn’t seriously injure any of them when they attacked us.” Bly shook his head in amazement. “You just let them make fools of themselves.”

            “It’s an easy enough throw. I’ll teach it to you sometime. Maybe you have some combat techniques you can show me in return.”

            Bly was suddenly aware he was smiling. “I don’t think there’s anything useful I could teach a Jedi….”

            “You’re teaching me right now.” She smiled back briefly. “So… you were prepared to kill the pirates once it became clear they would not cooperate with us?”

            Bly felt his smile fade. “Of course. They were hostile.”

            “They were protecting their property.”

            “It wasn’t their property. They stole it from a Republic ship!”

            Secura lifted a hand in a questioning gesture. “They aren’t citizens of the Republic. And this ship isn’t exactly standard issue for the navy. They didn’t know they were stealing from the Republic until we confronted them.”

            “But even after we did, they wouldn’t give it back. And we need it far more than they do.”

            “Do you know that for certain?” Secura asked earnestly.

            “I….”

            “Prepped for the jump to lightspeed,” said the voice over the comm.

            “Our objectives are much more critical than whatever selfish purposes they might have wanted it for,” Bly rushed on. “And anyway… they’re just pirates. Outlaws. They’re criminals.”

            Secura sighed, gently, but Bly felt he had disappointed her somehow nevertheless. She had said there were no wrong answers, but all the same….

            “How much do you know about the nikto?” she asked.

            “Not much,” Bly admitted. “Are they important?”

            “What a question. It’s good for you ask that,” Secura said, and shifted to face him more fully. “The nikto have been enslaved to the hutts for much of their history. People often mistake them for unintelligent beings because their faces are mostly incapable of expression. But there have been several great Jedi knights who were also nikto. Perhaps these pirates have chosen this life because they never had such a chance at freedom and respect, and this is the only option they know. In any case, it’s quite possible they have their own reasons for not cooperating with us, and for remaining outside Republic protection.”

            Bly nodded silently, studying her face and trying to understand what she wanted him to say. To be the subject of her undivided attention like this was unsettling, even though she had shown no sign of displeasure yet. Did she expect him to agree with her on everything, even as she continued to sense his deepest questions? He ran his fingers nervously along the edge of his leg-armor, where it met the knees.

            “So? What do you think?” Secura asked, putting a hand on her hip with a challenging smile. “If I’m right, does that change how we must treat them?”

            “Maybe,” Bly said reluctantly, and at her encouraging look, he sighed, feeling a sense of dread. “Alright… I’m not sure I agree. Sorry, General Secura. I don’t know what you want me to say.”

            “I only want you to speak the truth,” Secura reassured him, smiling again. “Always.”

            “Uh….” Bly tried to think of how to say what he meant, but questions kept intruding. “All of this is so we’ll work better as a team?”

            “Yes. And as a Jedi, it’s important for me to understand other points of view. Otherwise, I may become narrow-minded.”

            “Narrow-minded… like single-minded? That’s a good thing, isn’t it?”

            “It can be.” She tilted her head thoughtfully, the weight of her lekku shifting across her back. “So… back to the question of these pirates. They are not members of the Republic… they are not cooperative with Republic interests. But they might have a good reason for that.”

            “Maybe they do… or they think they do, anyway,” Bly said, frowning at the floor. “But… I imagine the Separatists think they have a good reason, too. They’re still wrong. The pirates are still not our allies, and in a situation like this—in every situation where they break the law, or oppose the authority of the Republic army, they’re standing in the way of everything the Republic stands for.”

            “And what does the Republic stand for?” Secura asked.

            Bly’s mouth twisted uncertainly. She sounded like she didn’t actually know, but of course she knew. She was testing him, then.

            “The Republic… stands for freedom,” he recited slowly. “Cooperation, prosperity, peace… and the fair treatment and representation of all intelligent species.”

            An odd expression fell over Secura’s face, as if she had just realized something. He’d seen it once before, when she had sensed some crucial turn in the battle through the Force. But her eyes refocused intently on his face, and then she blinked a few times and her brow furrowed.

            “Yes,” she said quietly, half to herself. “Those are the ideals it is meant to stand for. But some believe it is straying from those ideals. Others feel they are better off creating their own freedom, independent of the Republic. Are they unworthy of life simply because they won’t accept Republic authority? We’re not here to kill everyone who disagrees with us.”

            Bly bowed his head a little, stomach clenching a little more with each word she said. “I’m not trained to make such decisions, General Secura. That’s why you’re the general.”

            “You may not be trained for it, but you can still have an opinion. And I know you do. Is there a point to forcing someone to be free?”

            Bly looked up at her, feeling trapped. He hadn’t been prepared for the conversation to go this far. “I… I don’t know. I don’t know what you want me to say. I’m sorry. I’m loyal to the Republic, I can promise you that, and I don’t understand the point of this—of trying to make me lose focus and question what I’m fighting for—I know that can’t be what you’re trying to do, General Secura, but….”

            “I’m not trying to make you lose focus.” Secura rubbed her thumb over the covered wound on her leg, unruffled by his discomfort. “I wanted to bring out your true feelings. You and your fellow clones… are devoted, selflessly, to the cause of the Republic, much as I try to be. But I have learned that a true Jedi values life regardless of political allegiances. And in its purest form, the Republic is meant to do the same.”

            “I… I just… don’t understand, General Secura,” Bly said apologetically, still feeling oddly shaken. “What are we supposed to do? If you weren’t here with us, and we always worried about saving the lives of enemies, we’d all die. None of our enemies will be worrying about saving us. And what about bringing justice to the galaxy? We’re fighting right now because… well, because we can’t stand by and let the Separatists have their way. They’re wrong. You have to believe it, or you wouldn’t be here, fighting with us. You… do believe we’re right, don’t you?”

            He looked desperately at her for confirmation. She smiled after a moment of thought, but it seemed sad this time.

            “Yes. But there are always more than two paths, I think. What we are doing is for the greater good… I do believe that. But we cannot deny… it has many negative effects. The best path may not always be possible to take. It is good to fight for justice, but it’s better to teach it through compassion when we can.” Her face shifted from sadness to conviction, her voice becoming somehow softer and clearer at the same time. “To model the way we believe everyone should be, even if no one else follows. I knew before I helped the pirates that they could still choose not to cooperate. But the Jedi way tells me to help those in need even when it gives me no advantage over others. I acknowledge that others are free to follow their own code, and I must stick to my own beliefs as closely as possible… even when it is difficult. Otherwise, what are they worth?”

            The engines rumbled softly around them and Bly couldn’t look away from her face. When she spoke of being a Jedi, she was confident, but also honest… she spoke from a place that he wasn’t sure he had ever experienced.

            “I think you and your brothers, more than most, understand this.” She gestured toward him and his heart jumped. “You must have your own code, your own reasons for everything you do. An instinct within you which tells you what is best. I don’t believe the devotion I see in the ranks is merely programmed in, as some people claim. It’s still something you must choose to maintain every day.”

            “I… I’m not really… so sure about that, General Secura,” he fumbled, inexplicable shame creeping warmly through his veins. He rubbed the fuzz of hair on the back of his head. “I mean, I don’t know that I… that I’ve really thought about it much. I was created to serve the Republic… to serve the Jedi. So that’s what I am. That’s all there is to it.”

            “Perhaps the simplicity of the answer is where its wisdom lies,” Secura said softly. “For me, I believe every person has a purpose they must choose or discover for themselves. The reason I exist, the reason I was born with a connection to the Force… through the Force I know that there is a purpose to the galaxy, and my actions matter in ways I cannot begin to understand. I was raised in the Jedi way from the time I was a child… but there came a time when I had to choose it again for myself, after much questioning, and only then did it become truly personal for me. Now… I can draw strength from that decision. My code is not only what I am obligated to believe… but what I’ve chosen because I am devoted to it with all of my heart. And every member of the army who fights with sincerity draws it from a similar place.”

            She stood up, barely even favoring her leg, and Bly looked up at her, the unease in his chest dissolving slowly. He took a deep breath and felt a sort of calm intrigue.

            Secura grinned suddenly. “I didn’t mean to unsettle you so much, Commander. I hope, now that I’ve explained myself, this conversation was as enlightening to you as it was to me.”

            Bly stood quickly and picked up his helmet. “Oh… yes, General Secura. It… thank you. I’m sorry I was conflicted about your orders.”

            “There’s no need to apologize. We understand one another better now, I think.”

            Bly realized he was smiling again. “Yes… General Secura.” The urge to bow overtook him, and he settled for a respectful dip of his head.

            She looked pleased, he realized, and his body felt lighter, warm and light from the inside out as he straightened to his full height. He wondered if she was doing something to him, some Jedi trick to ease his confusion. If so, he didn’t mind.

            As she headed for the cockpit, Bly watched her walk away, her gait fluid and sturdy as ever. His mind turned her words over and over. Of course the Jedi had their reasons for leading the war, but he had never truly asked himself… who ordered them to fight? Who were they loyal to? Bly felt the same sensation which had struck him the first time he’d ever left Kamino for offworld training—stunned by the obvious fact that the galaxy was bigger than Tipoca City. There was something beyond even the Republic to fight for. If a Jedi said it, it wasn’t treasonous.

            Secura disappeared into the cockpit, and Bly went to check supplies, still feeling strange. She had admitted doubts so easily, and yet after speaking with her he felt more conviction than he’d ever felt before. In time, he hoped, perhaps he could see things as clearly and deeply as she did. No, that was most likely impossible… Jedi were wise beyond any other beings in the galaxy. But maybe, just maybe, he could find some fraction of her strength, and come to deserve her respect.

Chapter Text

            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.”

            “Copy that.”

            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.”

            “Yeah!”

            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.

            “Commander.”

            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.

            “What?”

            “General Secura!”

            “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.    

             

 

Chapter Text

            When Bly woke up again, he wasn’t on the gunship anymore. A gold circle of light glowed on the unfamiliar sepia wall across from him. He saw small yellow flowers and a few corkscrew twigs in a vase on an inset shelf. For a minute, listening to the sound of running water in a sink, he wondered if he was dreaming, but he’d never had a dream like this before. A heavy fiber blanket covered him, light red. He looked for his armor and saw it properly arranged in a pile in the corner. Behind it was a narrow mirror that showed him a sliver of his face.

            When he tried to sit up, he felt a little dizzy again. He found a new, half healed blaster burn on his right side that he didn’t remember getting, and his right elbow was in a brace, but it didn’t hurt much.

            Bly got up quietly, crossed the mottled beam of sunlight and crouched by his armor, careful to keep his balance. He picked up the arm piece to detach the comm. “General Secura, are you there?”

            A clatter came from the unseen sink. Bly heard the water shut off and he straightened, half clothed with his blaster in hand. A balding man with a dark curly beard leaned over to peer in the doorway before raising a hand.

            “It’s alright,” he said. He had a mild voice. “Your General Secura is just outside. She hoped you’d be up and about soon once you had somewhere quiet to rest. How are you feeling?”

            “I’m fine,” Bly said, more abruptly than he’d meant to. “Thank you,” he added more gratefully. “I’m a little dizzy, and… confused. Why did the General separate me from the rest of the men?”

            “She didn’t bring that many here. She didn’t want to draw attention to this town, so most of your battalion is setting up camp elsewhere, but she came to meet directly with some of the local leaders about what to do. She decided to bring you with her.”

            “Where can I find her?” Bly picked up the top half of his undersuit and sat down on the bed to begin pulling it on.

            “I’ll take you there as soon as you’re ready. I’m Deneb, by the way.”

            “Bly.”

            Deneb left the room and after a few minutes Bly had his armor on and felt the beginnings of another headache coming. He folded up the blanket as precisely as he could. When he took his first few steps down the creaky hallway, Deneb came and led him outside.

            “It was kind of you to let me rest here,” Bly said as they stepped out into the grassy shadow of an enormous black boulder. The town was small from what he could see, less than five hundred buildings and most of them homes. “Normally I would have just stayed on our ship or in one of the medic’s tents. What can I do to thank you?”

            “Ah, don’t worry about it. It’s only fair.” Deneb shrugged, not smiling, but he seemed relaxed as he shaded his eyes to look across the road. “You’re the one who has to fight the war day in and day out. She’s in that building over there, the white one built into the hillside.”

            There were many hillsides. The land was irregular and brushy. The yellow flowers he’d seen in the vase were all over the short, sprawling bushes that could be seen in any unkempt corner of a yard or patch of unpaved soil. Deneb walked with him down the sloping road and Bly caught sight of taller buildings as a space between two rises opened up. It was a suburb of a city, then.

            “If she’s not answering her comm, she must not want to be disturbed,” Bly said when they stopped by the steps of the white building. “I’ll wait out here.” He sat down with relief on the steps and the dizziness eased.

            “Alright. If you need anything else, I’ll be back at my place.”

            “Thank you,” Bly said.

            He watched Deneb walk back the way he’d come. He didn’t see anyone he knew. The air was crisp and he wondered what their elevation was. Maybe beyond the trees, if he walked far enough, he might come to a mountainside view of things. He thought about it for a moment, watching children trying to catch small birds that were eating seeds a neighbor threw onto the ground. They kept flying just beyond the kids’ fingers.

            With the door at his back, he tried to relax, rifle resting in his lap. Bly examined his nervousness and realized he felt guilty.

            “Commander,” a brother called. Bly turned his head and saw Swift approaching with a teasing grin, his helmet under his arm. “How’s your head? I told you to take it easy.”

            “It’s alright. Just dizzy.”

            “How much do you remember? Do you remember any of the battle?”

            “I remember right up until the grenades went off, over by where Stormy was stationed.” Bly stared down at a tiny blue flower that was growing between cracks in the gravelly pavement. “He’s dead, isn’t he?”

            “Yeah. You want the casualty report now? It’s still being put together. But we managed to save about eighty percent of the guys we got underground, so… that’s something.”

            “Yeah.” It was more than he’d expected.

             “You seemed to be in pretty bad shape, sir,” Swift said quietly. “General Secura was worried about you.”

            Bly breathed the cold air and it cleared his head a little. “Do you think—”

            The door cracked open behind him and he stood up to see General Secura and several humans coming down the steps. One of them was General Frayus.

            “Thanks for meeting with us,” Frayus was saying to an older local woman. “I’m glad we were able to sort this out.”

            “We’ll stay in contact,” the woman said in a low voice. “Plans may change. But until then….”

            Frayus nodded and she and Secura exchanged encouraging looks as they reached the bottom of the stairs.

            “I’ve got to go check in with Blaze,” said the other general. “See you soon, Master Secura.”

            “Please, call me Aayla,”

            She smiled and nodded again before walking away. Secura turned her attention to where Bly and Swift stood at attention.

            “Swift, is the Commander well enough to walk with me?”

            “I was uh… just about to try and determine that, sir.”

            “I’m fine, General Secura,” Bly said. “I can walk a short distance at least.”

            “I want to check in with the men around the perimeter. Let’s go.”

            She motioned him forward with a hand on his shoulder, and Swift fell in on the General’s other side.

            “The majority of this planet’s leaders seem to support our presence, and now that they know the Separatists attacked with the intent of wiping out injured troopers who were defenseless, that is swaying some public opinion. They may not like the war coming to this place, but they also agree that the Separatists must be driven off this planet before they can get a steady hold. We will continue to avoid populated areas and they will send supplies and medical help whenever possible.”

            “Understood,” Bly said, although he was a little confused why troopers being injured made their deaths any more unacceptable. “I’d rather not put these people in danger either.”

            “Eh… agreed,” said Swift.

            They wandered down the path, Bly focusing on walking steady. The cold air helped his dizziness a little, or at least took the edge off the nausea. He tried to focus on the beauty around him. It was peaceful, houses giving way to tall narrow trees. General Secura was a solid presence at his side.

            “General,” said Swift. “I recommend we transfer the injured to a medical frigate as soon as possible. How soon do you think it will be safe to take them off-world?”

            “For now, we are trapped within the atmosphere. Any ship that has attempted to leave has been shot down by Separatist vessels, but the Republic fleet is sending reinforcements.”

            The road narrowed and turned out of the trees and onto a steep hillside trail where one of Bly’s men and one of Blaze’s were standing and talking.

            “Swift, can you pass along what we’ve discussed? Bly and I will move on to the next post.”

            “Uh, yes sir.”

            Swift swerved right to talk to the two soldiers, while Secura motioned Bly to the left. The path curled between more boulders and wild shrubs.

            “How is your head?” she asked, walking slightly ahead of him when the trail narrowed. “Does it still hurt?”

            “Not… unbearably,” Bly said with a nervous laugh. “I’m upright. It’s much better than it was.”

             “You should probably be resting,” she said. “But I wanted to speak with you alone.”

            A nervous flutter made Bly’s limbs feel insubstantial. “Oh.” Guilt weighted his chest like water.

            “You seem conflicted about something again.” Secura stepped over a rock and brushed tall grasses out of the way. “Normally, I would pay no mind to what you said, but… if it’s going to cause friction between us, maybe it is better for us to talk about it now.”

            “I’m sorry, General Secura. I know you disagreed with my suggestion.” Bly focused on his footing. “You should know that I… I thought about it. What you said was….” He didn’t know the right word for how deeply it had struck him.  “Significant. I’m just not sure—”

            “This isn’t about that.” Secura stopped and looked back at him curiously.

            “It isn’t?” Bly steadied himself against a tree.

            Secura was silent for a moment, and Bly took the opportunity to sit down on the nearest rock.

            “Are you alright?”

            “Yes. Just trying to take it easy. Following orders.”

            “Good.” Secura smiled and went to perch on another rock opposite. Once she had settled, she blinked calmly at him. “I enjoy serving with you, Bly. If you have any romantic or… physical feelings toward me, I hope it won’t be too uncomfortable for you, fighting at my side. That’s all I wanted to know.”

            Bly stared at her. It took a moment for him to realize what she meant. “Oh. No, no—General Secura, I….” Bly laughed weakly and held his head with one hand. “I don’t… have anything like that.”

            “That’s not what you are nervous about?” She tilted her head, eyebrow raised. “That’s not what you meant on the gunship?”

            “On the gunship? I don’t… remember….” Bly squinted at the treetops. “What did I say?”

            “You said you loved me,” Secura said simply.

            He tried to remember. He let his eyes wander, and Secura watched him with concern. At last, when he looked down at his hands, his armored legs, it started to come back. The warm hand on his shoulder—the words that slipped out of his mouth.

            “Right. I did say that,” Bly said under his breath. “I remember now. But….”

            “You didn’t mean you were in love with me?”

            “No!” Bly waved a hand. “I just meant… exactly what I said.” The emotion of the moment clarified in his memory. “Sorry, General Secura… I thought you were asking me about how I was trying to prioritize the lives of the men. That’s the only reason I was nervous.”

            “Oh.” She gave a soft laugh. “Maybe I’ve learned to expect that most attention toward me from men outside the Jedi order has a similar motive. And you were worrying about something much more important. Forgive me.”

            “You’re not angry?” Bly asked hesitantly. “Or… disappointed?”

            “About what?”

            “I thought you wanted me—us—to hold out, and try to save everyone instead of cutting our losses… even though… the other guys agreed with me. We’re trained to be ready for that sacrifice at any moment. You didn’t seem to approve of that, though.” Bly plucked off a piece of grass and rolled it between his fingers, wondering if he’d said too much.

            “I don’t disagree with your selflessness.” Secura looked down and brushed the patch of grass with her fingers. “I admire that in you. And your courage. But… I wonder sometimes if you value yourselves enough.”

            Bly thought about that, remembering how her words had made him feel. He could hear a bird of some kind, giving long, sliding two-note whistles in the distance. It sounded like it was lost, calling for others of its kind. Chill air combed through the bushes. It smelled like water.

            He opened his mouth and closed it again. Everything he thought to say was insufficient or confusing.

            At last he said, slowly, “Somebody has to be the one who decides… I mean… isn’t anybody who gives up his life saying that someone else’s life is more important? If we made a habit of choosing ourselves over others… we’d never get anywhere in this war. But I still….” He gently tore the blade of grass in half down its center. “I appreciate what you said, General Secura. I think I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.”

            “Why does it make you nervous, then?”

            “Because,” Bly said. “I don’t know if it’s right for me to believe it.”

            “Even if it’s true?” Secura looked bemused.

            “I guess only time will tell if thinking that way will help us win the war,” Bly sighed, twisting the two halves of the grass blade together. “I can’t let myself hesitate in making decisions. As a commander I have to make hard decisions like that, and… I’m not sure if I should let myself think of anything except what will benefit the Republic as a whole. Individually… we… one piece or even a hundred pieces among a million and more….”

            “You already have a large view of the universe. Normally, that’s the most difficult perspective for a person to learn. Jedi spend years learning to let go of attachment to whatever or whoever is in front of them so that they can see all others equally. But maybe for you… it is the opposite.” Secura gave him a fascinated look. “Perhaps for you it is seeing the universe in the small things that is difficult. Seeing it in yourself.”

            Bly half-smiled because he didn’t know what else to do, and looked away, down the hillside into the smoky blue-grey of the trees on the opposite ridge. “Should we move on to the next post, General Secura?” He moved to stand and stopped halfway up, groping for the tree—his head spun again.

            “Can you make it back to Deneb on your own?” Secura stood up. “I want you to rest, at least for a few more hours.”

            “Alright.” Bly straightened. “I’ll take it slow on the way back, I promise. And I have my comm if anything happens.”

            Secura nodded. She continued to look at him searchingly for some seconds before turning away. Bly stood still and watched her blues and greens bleed together with the trees around her, wondering if maybe she was wrong. He felt like he could see the whole universe in her just fine.

            When he got back to Deneb’s house, the sun was going down and the man was eating dinner. The inside of the house felt completely different with the artificial lights on.

            “Ah, look who’s back! You hungry?”

            “No, thank you,” Bly said. “I think I’m just going to lie down for a while if that’s alright.”

            “Course.” Deneb blinked and craned his neck. “Who are the flowers for? Ahh, your beautiful general?” He grinned for the first time Bly had seen.

            Bly looked down at the tight little bundle of flowers and grasses he’d gathered absentmindedly on the way back. “I dunno. Maybe.” He hadn’t actually thought about giving them to anyone. He wondered if it would make her smile.

            “I didn’t know that was allowed.”

            “There’s nothing in the reg manual about flowers,” Bly said simply. “We’re not supposed to take certain items from a battlefield, but we are allowed to forage local flora and fauna as needed. This isn’t really… needed… but I thought it was alright since you have some in the room. If I shouldn’t have taken them, I’ll do what I can to make up for—”

            “No, no, no, it’s fine,” Deneb laughed. “You can put them in with the others if you want.”

            “Thank you.”

            In the sparse bedroom, Bly turned on the light and set the plants in as well as he could. He couldn’t help thinking that even after rearranging it three times, the vase had looked better before his flowers invaded.

            It was mostly the abundant yellow bush flowers. Now that he looked at them all together, he wondered why he’d picked so many. They were all more or less the same, but some slight difference had kept catching his eye. Maybe the sunlight had played tricks on him. In the middle of the bunch was a velvety blue flower he had found growing on a scraggly vine.

            What purpose did picking flowers serve anyway? He had snapped the first one off a bush without thinking and then got to studying it. It had given him something to look at whenever he stopped to rest and wait for his head to clear. He wondered if he should take them back outside and scatter them in the road. But he didn’t want to.

            Bly sat down on the bed and took his armor off piece by piece. At last he turned off the light and laid down, wondering how it felt for Aayla to be surrounded by so many yellow flowers. There was no real value to the ones he’d gathered, especially in a place like this.  But he thought about giving them to her anyway.

            The next day, Bly and the rest of the troopers who had been staying in town gathered to rejoin the battalion.

            “I’ll speak with you tomorrow if all goes well.” Secura shook hands with the leaders who had come to see them off. “Thank you again for your kindness.”

            “Take care of that bump on your head,” Deneb said to Bly as he handed over a load of medical supplies. He glanced over Bly’s shoulder and smiled, dropping to a whisper. “Good luck. That’s a high bar.”

            Bly shook his head, glad that the dizziness was mostly gone.

            When they reached the ridge below town, Secura jumped up top and helped them pull the camouflage net off the larty they’d flown in. Theo checked it over once for damage or sabotage. Then they crowded inside, every bit of empty space crammed with med packs, and away they went, keeping low over the land to avoid drawing attention from the warships in orbit.

            “When we get to camp,” said Secura, lit by the slatted openings in the larty’s sides, “our first priority is to distribute the medical supplies. Then check in with your commanding officers. We’re sharing space with the Four Hundred Twelfth and their general and commander have been keeping things organized for me.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            “I’m sorry to leave that place,” said Flags, practically sitting on a pile of the packs. “But I wouldn’t want to draw fire on them either.”

            “Yeah,” Bly agreed. “They’ve already done more than enough for us.”

            Secura stared out one of the slots at the blurry treetops rolling underneath them. Bly watched her balance shifting unconsciously and he began to doubt himself. General Secura was a Jedi, and she had thought romantic feelings were possible in him. She certainly had more experience observing people. He wondered if the other troopers loved the sound of her voice as much as he did, the specific lilt to her syllables, the way she pronounced “Commander”. Did her presence change the patterns of their thoughts as much as it did for him?

            The camp was hidden on a wooded plateau wedged between two mountainsides, the tents nearly invisible from more than a klick away. Cord guided them in slow between the trees and the doors slid open to the familiar sound of hundreds of clone voices spread out in random conversation.

            “Good to have you back, General! Commander!” Captain Liam ran up and saluted with gusto. “Come on boys, let’s get this stuff offloaded!”

            Bly hoisted a bundle of packs into his arms and fell in beside Liam. “How are things here?”

            “Just fine, sir. How was your stay with the locals?”

            “Also fine,” Bly said. “I’ll miss the bed.”

            Liam laughed. “Not many of those to be found around here, but we’re making do. You still recovering from that head wound?”

            “I feel about ninety percent.”

            “Commander Blaze has been chatting up strategy with me all morning. He’s something else. You know him?”

            “Not well. Not yet. Does he have any good ideas for how to get past the warships?”

            “Heh, why don’t we let General Secura and General Frayus decide that?”

            Bly followed Liam underneath the lines of tarps strung up and mud-daubed or covered in brush. At last they arrived at the enormous medical tent. Nearly every inch of the floor was covered in troopers—some were lying quiet or with faces screwed up in pain, but others were chatting easily with each other, making the most of a bad situation. Bit motioned them over with an exhausted look and pointed where to set their loads down.

            “Well,” Liam said as he relieved his arms. “That should help. Think we need another trip?”

            “May as well check.” Bly took the lead on the way back, but slackened his pace after a while so that Liam pulled up even with him. He glanced around and lowered his voice. “This is probably a strange question, but… how do you feel about General Secura?”

            “Uhh… well, I respect her.” Liam raised an eyebrow at Bly. “Obviously. She seems to respect us, too.”

            “You like her?” Bly tried to keep his voice casual.

            “Yeah, sure. I like her. I’m proud to fight by her. Why?”

            “Don’t you think she’s kind of…I don’t know...inspiring?”

            “Well, all Jedi are pretty inspiring, Commander. I wish I could fight half as well as them.” Liam shrugged. “There’s no problem with having a favorite though, I guess.” His face skewed. “What’s this all about?”

            “You know how civvies… they get married, or they just… I dunno, pair up. Fall in love. What do you think that feels like?”

            “Uh. Are you saying you’re—?”

            “I don’t know,” Bly hushed him. “I don’t think so, but… General Secura asked me, and I’ve just been thinking about it, and I realized… I don’t actually know what that means. How would I even know if I did feel that way? I mean, I’ve never felt this way about anyone else before….”

            “She asked you…? What did she ask you?” Liam whispered.

            “If I had… ahh, how did she put it? Romantic or… physical feelings for her.”

            “Well… do you?”

            “I don’t know,” Bly said slowly, “that’s why I’m asking you. I thought maybe if you feel… I dunno… does being around her make you feel… different? When she talks to you?”

            “I guess? I don’t know!” Liam shrugged dramatically. “She’s a Jedi, of course it’s a little different than when I’m talking to you or the other guys.”

            “Do you get kind of excited to see her?”

            “No more than anyone else?” Liam was giving him an odd look. “Why did she ask you that, anyway?”

            “When I woke up after I hit my head, and we were in the larty, I told her I loved her.... It… just sort of came out.” Bly felt the bruise on his head tenderly. “I just keep thinking about what she was saying down there when we were waiting for the droids to break in….”

            “Oh. I thought you didn’t agree with what she was saying.”

            “No. I mean, I’m not sure if I agree or not. That’s why I keep thinking about it, I guess.”

            Liam clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Do yourself a favor, brother. Leave Jedi things to Jedi.”

            Bly sighed. “I’m just curious if this is anything like what civvies mean when they talk about being in love. There must have been some reason General Secura asked me that. Maybe she could sense something.”

            “Well… ask a civvy, then. They’d know, right?” Liam gave him a crooked grin and shook his head. “Sorry, that’s the best advice I’ve got.”

            “Alright,” Bly laughed quietly. “Maybe I will.”

            He got his chance a few days later when they made a run for more supplies. The Four-Twelfth had some working speeders that would draw less attention than larger forms of transport. Bly volunteered to go with the group. Wearing his patched-up helmet, he led the way into town while Secura stayed behind to talk strategy with Frayus and Blaze.

            Deneb and a few others were waiting near the south side, beside the trains of crates.

            “Bly!” Deneb called. “I almost didn’t recognize you with that bucket on your head. Come here and meet my sister. Come on, I insist.”

            Bly took off his helmet to greet and thank them. He shook hands with a dark peppery-haired woman.

            “You can call me Tanis, and this is my husband, Ardel.” She gave the large bearded man at her side a friendly nudge with her elbow and he also extended a hand in silent greeting.

          “It’s good to meet you,” Bly said politely. “How long have you been married? If you don’t mind my asking.”

            “Oh, I don’t know. How long has it been, Ardel? We were about twenty three when I first saw you in my advanced welding class.”

            “She asked me to dinner with her family a week later,” Ardel said with a shy smile. “But we didn’t get married for another three years.”

            “When did you know you were in love?” Bly saw Deneb’s eyebrows rise but he kept his attention on the other two.

            “Uhh… well,” Tanis laughed. “Hmm.”

            “I don’t mean to be intrusive,” Bly said. “I’m just curious.”

            “Well, for me, I couldn’t sleep the night before I was going to meet her parents,” Ardel said simply. “I was so nervous.”

            “And I knew before then because I argued with him for about five hours straight about whether or not Coruscant should host a boloball tournament and I still wasn’t sick of him by the end.”

            Bly looked between them as they both laughed, and wondered if their laughter meant they were joking.

            “So you didn’t have any friends or family you could talk about things for five hours with?” he asked.

            “Well of course I did, but you know how it is. It’s different when it’s with someone you have feelings for.”

            “I wouldn’t really know,” Bly said with half a smile.

            “What, a man your age?” Ardel chuckled kindly. “Don’t be modest, I’m sure there’s someone somewhere out there you’ve wanted to hold.”

            Bly felt uncomfortable, suddenly. These people seemed to see him differently than he was. He wondered how they would react if he told them he was only eleven. Not that it mattered—physically, he was the equivalent age to when they’d met.

            “I’m not sure if there is,” Bly said quietly. “I’m trying to figure out what it would feel like to be in love.” He suddenly worried they might laugh at him.

            They didn’t. Instead they just looked uncomfortable.

            “Well, I guess soldiers don’t get much of a chance to fall in love,” Tanis said awkwardly, after a moment. “Always moving around from one place to the next, right? It must be a hard life. I can’t imagine.”

            “All it takes is a day, sometimes,” Ardel shrugged. “I might not have kissed you the first day we met, but I sure knew I wanted to.” He pecked her cheek. She rolled her eyes and smiled.

            “I’ve never thought about kissing someone,” Bly said. “But… is that the same thing? People who are in love usually want to stay together, right? Does wanting to kiss someone mean you’re in love with them?”

            “Oh, space, no,” Tanis laughed nervously. “If I fell in love with every person I ever thought about kissing I’d be a nervous wreck.”

            “What do you mean? Is it that stressful?” Bly looked at Tanis, who continued to smile awkwardly.

            “You really don’t know?”

            “I suppose you might not know if you’re a clone,” Ardel mumbled, shifting in place.

            “Don’t be rude, Ardel,” Tanis muttered, and cleared her throat. “Ah. Well… People just… have a biological drive to kiss and have sex and all that, just like any creature, you know. But I don’t think it’s just about that when you fall in love.”

            “Oh, definitely not,” said Ardel, not looking at Bly at all now.

            “I know about reproduction,” Bly said, scratching his neck. “Yeah. Clones aren’t exactly… and can't even be... a part of that chain. I just wanted to know if falling in love means… having strong feelings about someone, regardless of anything else. Is it different than what you feel about your family?”

            “Definitely,” Tanis said. “Well… sort of. Parts of it are the same… but the part that makes it romantic is different.”

            “But what part makes it romantic?”

            Ardel muttered something about needing to talk to someone and excused himself. Tanis opened her mouth to speak, eyes shifting, mouth curling in a self-conscious grin.

            “Do you always ask strangers these types of questions?”

            “No,” Bly said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

            “No. It’s fine,” Tanis said. “This just isn’t exactly what I was expecting when Deneb told me he was hosting a republic soldier.” She folded her arms, thinking. “I guess… when you’re in love with someone, you can’t stop thinking about them. They become your whole life, at least for a little while, before things settle down. It’s very intense. When they’re happy with you, it’s the best thing in the world, and if they’re annoyed it’s really difficult to just shrug it off and move on. You want to be close to them all the time, holding their hand, things like that. Does that help?”

            “I think so,” Bly sighed. “Could you be in love with someone even if you don’t want to kiss them?”

            “I don’t think….” Tanis stopped herself. “Well, who knows, actually. It might be different for clones. Not every species kisses or courts the same anyway. It’s a big galaxy, I guess.”

            “Right.”

            “I’m not an expert,” Tanis laughed. “But I think the main thing is just wanting that person to come close to you and let you see more of them, and hoping they want to see more of you. Feeling like your life will be incomplete without them. Like you belong together, as partners.”

            “I see,” Bly said. “Thank you.” He glanced over to where his brothers had set to work without him. “I’d better help get these crates loaded up. It was nice to meet you.”

            “Uh… you too,” Tanis laughed faintly and waved.

            It was a bit of a relief to step away, put his helmet on, and slip back into the easy rhythm of work as he joined his brothers in hitching up the cargo to the speeder bikes and checking the seals. Deneb came up just as they were climbing on.

            “Everything look good?”

            “Yes,” Bly said. “Tell the others thank you for me. These supplies are going to save a lot of lives. You can count on that.”

            “Feel free to take some flowers back to your general, if you want. They grow like weeds now, but they won’t be around much longer.”

            Bly hadn’t thought about seasons, assuming that his picture of this town was how it would always be. But probably everywhere he had ever been would be different if he went back, at least in some way.

            He wasn’t going to bother with the flowers, but as he started up the speeder’s engine and slowly swung it around back down the path, he reached out and snapped off a twig with closed buds. Maybe the wind wouldn’t knock all the petals off then.

            Rain turned the dust of the camp into mud, and an already cold night became miserable. Men who had been sleeping more or less in the open packed themselves tightly under the tarps to try and keep warm. Bly and Blaze worked with groups of six digging shallow trenches to divert the runoff and keep the worst of it from invading the camp.

            About twenty minutes after they’d started, Bly heard the hiss of a laser and turned his head to see Secura digging her saber through the earth. The light crackled and steamed as the raindrops vaporized. An emergency blanket was tied around her shoulders and head to keep off the worst of the water.

            “General Secura,” he said, startled. “It’s alright, we can handle this.”

            “I thought this might help. The cut is too narrow. But it might make digging a little easier.”

            “Good idea,” Bly agreed. He set to work shoveling again, and the ground did give way more easily when the shovel blade could slide through the gouges the general left. The rain pounded on his helmet but he settled into the rhythm until it felt comfortable… comforting, almost. Between dumping shovels of gravelly mud on the camp side of the trench, Bly pondered Secura’s presence beside him and the way Deneb’s family had talked.

            Soon enough, his group and Blaze’s met up on the north east corner. They called loudly to each other, competition driving them. General Frayus was out in similarly improvised rain gear, and soon it was a race to the corner. “Cut further ahead, General!” Blaze called. “To the end, we’ll catch up!”

            Blaze and his men reached the corner first, with Bly less than a meter short. They slapped each other’s hands and shoulders for a job well done, and Secura and Frayus laughed in tired relief and retreated under the tarps.

            Twenty minutes later found them huddled around a heat lamp so the generals could dry out. Bly was sitting halfway out of his armor, sipping water from a pack.

            “The fleet will engage at o-nine-hundred tomorrow,” said Blaze. “We’ll need to be up at least four hours before then if we’re going to break camp and make the rendezvous point.”

            “Then it’s time to sleep,” Secura sighed, wrapping her newly dry blanket back around herself. “I’ll see you all in—” she checked her chrono. “Six hours.”

            She stood up to leave and Bly sat still for a moment before jumping to his feet to follow her.

            “General Secura,” he said, after she was a stone’s throw from the lamp. “I’ve been thinking about what you said.”

            “I’ve said a lot of things today,” Secura teased. “Which thing are you referring to?”

            “Everything, actually,” Bly admitted. “But… I meant what you asked me, about what I said to you after we escaped from the droids.”

            “Oh.”

            “I was wondering if you could explain to me what the difference is.”

            “Between what you said and what I thought you meant? About love?”

            “Yes.”

            He couldn’t see her face very well. They were too far from the lamp by now, facing away from it and toward the sheets of rain dribbling off the edges of the tarps.

            “Hmm. Love isn’t easy to define. It’s a powerful force, certainly… a creative one. It is in a way the ultimate goal of any Jedi to lead a life defined by it. But many Jedi wouldn’t use those words, because so many people confuse love with attachment. They would use other words like compassion, justice, freedom. But compassion is motivated by love for others. Justice comes from our hope to create a safer and fairer world, out of love for others. Freedom is what any person desires for the people they truly love. Love inspires and energizes us to act in service to something other than ourselves.”

            Bly swallowed and thought perhaps he had said the right thing after all.

            “But the feelings so many people call love, when they speak of being in love… can be entirely different. It can be a desire for physical closeness… for touching, sharing, possessing. The desire to be an indispensible part of someone else’s life. That’s nothing to be ashamed of… as long as those involved respect each other’s freedom, but it is a narrower kind of love, I think. It can inspire great selflessness. It can just as easily turn into jealousy and fear.” Secura turned more fully toward him. “I asked you because that kind of love often makes people anxious, and I felt some uneasiness in you.”

            “Thinking about you doesn’t make me anxious, General Secura,” Bly said sincerely. “Mostly it makes me feel at ease.”

            “I’m glad to hear that, Bly.” He could hear the smile in her voice and he hoped it wouldn’t change when she knew all he was thinking.

            “I’m not sure if being in love is different for us,” he said before he could hesitate. “Clones, I mean. What I feel seems different than what I feel for my brothers, but it’s also… a little different from what civilians seem to feel about their partners. I wouldn’t know but… I think I could be in love, even if… I-I don’t want to kiss you. But... just being around you is enough, I don’t expect anything else, of course not, I just….” Bly was nervous now, and hoped she wouldn’t misunderstand. “I don’t know. I can’t seem to figure it out. All I know is… I….” He struggled. He couldn’t find the right words. “You… inspire me. I think the way I feel about you makes me better, somehow. It makes me more alive. I know you don’t feel the same way, but… I’m just glad to be your commander. And I know I can’t hide my feelings from you… that’s why I thought… I should tell you, regardless of the consequences.” That gladness to be with her glowed through his uncertainty, as steady as the heat lamp. It felt like courage.

            Secura was quiet for a moment. “Thank you for explaining this to me,” she finally said, and Bly was relieved that she still sounded at ease. “You’re honest. I appreciate that. It takes a lot of courage to talk about such personal things. And I care about you, Bly. That’s why I asked. I don’t want anything to cause strain between us.”

            An uncontrollable smile took over his face. He could feel it deep into his eyes and his chest. She didn’t need him any more than she needed the rest of his brothers, and what she had said in the shelter had been for all of them, not just for him. But he knew that even if she never spoke a word directly to him again, he would spend the rest of his life trying to understand what she had taught him, and he would treasure every moment he could stand in her light.

            “I may not be in love with you,” Secura said carefully. “But I do love the person I see in front of me. Does that make sense?”

            “Yes, General Secura,” Bly said, joy spreading quietly through him. “I understand.”

            “I enjoy our conversations. I hope we can continue them for a long time.” She touched his arm lightly. The last of his uncertainty dissolved into gratitude.

              “Do you like flowers?” he asked, reaching into the ration compartment on his belt. The little twig with its buds was still there. “The people in town said these won’t be around for much longer.”

            She held out her hand and let him drop it into her palm before turning to hold it up toward the light. “Thank you,” she said uncertainly.

            “If you don’t want to keep it, I won’t mind,” Bly said, feeling silly. “It’s going to die soon anyway. But for now… I just wanted to give it to you.”

            Secura smiled. He could see it now that she was turned toward the light.

            “Just because something is short lived doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable,” she said half to herself, as if reciting a well-worn lesson. “Everything is temporary.”

            “That will go back into the Force too, right?” Bly thought aloud. “Maybe I should have let it stay on its bush.”

            Secura laughed quietly. “A twig that’s part of a bush isn’t quite the same as a soldier who’s part of an army, Bly. But yes, it will always be part of the living Force in one way or another.” She stepped away further into the darkness. “We have an early start tomorrow. Goodnight, Commander.”

            “Goodnight, General.”

            Bly took a deep breath and listened to the rain.

Chapter Text

            Bly jerked awake, heart pounding. For a moment he lay there in his armor, rapid breath echoing in his helmet, the last images of the dream holding him down: the rifle heavy in his hands, aimed at her back; her body facedown, smoking.

            A bright pool of stars through his visor reminded him of where he was. When he sat up and took his helmet off, the night air was chilly and clear. All around him, his brothers lay quiet on the sparse grass, amongst the packs of relief supplies they’d been carrying all day. He seemed to be the only one awake besides those on watch. 

            Usually his bad dreams faded quickly, leaving a vague uneasiness but no memory of what he had seen. The images of this one stuck in his head, confirming who it was he’d killed. Aayla. A physical ache rose in his chest. His left hand rested on the ground by the rifle he’d done it with and he pulled away, tucking that hand under his right arm as he tried to hold himself still and calm down.

            There was a sense that the dream before that moment had been normal, happy even. Perhaps they had been walking single-file as they had for most of the previous day, she always a few steps in front of him, making conversation. He had shot her in the back, without warning.

            Bly swallowed and got to his feet, heading for the edge of camp. It was only a few steps away; the general had asked him to choose twenty of his most respectful men for this relief mission. They were, apparently, in a valley sacred to her people, where no powered vehicles were allowed.

            Around him, the dark silhouette of the hills they were winding between loomed, and the knobby, twisting shape of the trees—the only trees he’d ever seen on Ryloth. They shed leaves with every tiny wind. He could hear a few of the dry little shell-shaped leaves clacking against the stones they fell onto. It was the only thing he could hear, he realized when he stood still and held his breath. The silence felt unreal.

            He set his helmet down on a large white rock outside the last ring of sleeping men. Running it off had been his first idea, but he realized what he truly needed to ease his mind was to see the general alive, as irrational as it seemed. So he looked back the way he’d come, struggling to pick her out in the dark valley lit only by starlight. Her skin and clothing was impossible to pick out among the bright white of his brothers’ armor.

            “Bly. What’s wrong?”

            He jumped and turned to see her approaching from outside the camp. Her steps were so quiet.

            “Your watch isn’t for another two hours,” she added, hushed. “You should rest.”

            “I was just,” Bly started, but didn’t even know what he was going to say. “I couldn’t sleep.”

            “You’re shaken.”

            “Shaking?” Bly said, and huffed a nervous laugh. “I’m not shaking. I’m fine.” He looked at his hand. He wasn’t shaking, not outwardly anyway, no matter what his chest felt like.

            “No… something has shaken you. I felt it when you woke up suddenly. Was it a dream?”

            “Yeah,” Bly sighed. “I’d rather not talk about it if that’s alright with you, General Secura.” He couldn’t bear the thought of describing what he had done even in the simplest of words. It was just a dream, but how could his mind even think of such a thing in the first place?

            “That is your choice,” she reassured him, and put a hand on his pauldron. Before he could think about it, he had reached up to lay his gloved hand over it. The brief feeling of her hand warm and alive under his brought a rush of warm gratitude at her simple existence, but he quickly pulled away.

            “Sorry,” he mumbled.

            “Is there something I can say to ease your mind?” Secura offered, slowly lowering her hand to her side.  

            Just hearing your voice is helping, Bly thought, but couldn’t say. He didn’t want her to think he was asking anything of her. He wasn’t. Just knowing she was alive and nearby was all. If she had been asleep he would have sat and listened to her breathing, like he did with his injured brothers sometimes. To make sure they still were breathing.

            “It’s kind of you to offer,” Bly said quietly. “I was just going to try and run it off.”

            “Is that normally what you do to calm your mind?”

            “Yes, General Secura. When I can.”

            “Then I will stop delaying you.” He could only really see the outline of her. “But be careful, if you decide to run alone. There are predators in this valley, and the sound of your steps will carry far in the silence. Some might think because it’s only a single set of steps, you will be easy to kill. Stay close to the men on watch.”

            “I will. Thank you.”

            She moved back into the midst of the sleeping troops, and Bly watched her for a moment before pulling himself away into a jog. He hoped he hadn’t seemed either too secretive or too honest.

            The stars were bright in the openings between the clouds, and more numerous than could be seen from most planets’ surfaces. Like shining upside-down pools, openings in the dark well Bly ran circles through the bottom of. The men on watch didn’t question his decision to lap the camp when he ran past them, his feet like dull drums in the desert night. They just nodded, said “sir”, or in the case of Liam, held out his hand for a slap in passing. Bly counted his breaths and wondered what they had nightmares about, and if their silence meant they felt guilty too.

            The next day the clouds had mostly gone, and the trees became fewer and further between. Bly walked at the head of the line after they broke camp, the smooth jade bullet-like seeds of the trees mixing with their static, dappled shadows on the ground. A tender green blush of grass covered the bare patches between the twisting white of fallen, wind-weathered limbs and glimpses of puddles in a tiny wash to the right.

            Nothing moved but them. Bly couldn’t tell if it was peaceful or eerie. The day warmed quickly as they marched, the sunlight pressing against their armor with silent persistence.

            “General Secura,” he said quietly at last, when they came out from the shadow of the last tree in sight. The trail wound uphill between boulders—grey and bright white—that contrasted with the dark red earth and grey-green brush. “I hope you won’t mind me asking… but… why is this area sacred to twi’leks? Is it because there are more plants here than anywhere else on Ryloth? Are the trees very old?”

            “That is one reason,” Aayla said, picking her way up a steep portion of the trail, her arms held out slightly away from her sides. She was wearing a heavy pack too, her lekku pulled forward in front of her shoulders to keep out from under it. “Although there are some places on Ryloth with more plant life than here. Many spiritual leaders have come to these hills for guidance and training. The silence encourages self-awareness, and an increased awareness of other life forms that are not so easily heard.”

            “I’ve just heard those leaves falling,” Bly admitted. “Nothing else.”

            Nothing else but their gritty footsteps on damp earth and sandstone. And the soft panting, rustling movement of the twenty men behind him. But they’d seen tracks near their campsite … whatever animals lived in this area must be pretty good at moving without being heard. The trail was getting steeper, and Bly leaned further forward against the weight of the supply pack.

            “So we’re taking these supplies,” he panted, after twenty minutes of up, up, up, “to some of your people… who are here for…spiritual reasons?”

            “Yes.” Aayla lunged her way steadily up the hill, finally showing some strain in her breathing. “There are rumors that Syndulla’s rebels have contacts in this place, and the Republic has been seeking an alliance with him for a long time. Hopefully, his people will allow me an audience before the Separatist presence on Ryloth becomes any worse.”

            “It’s lucky we even made it to the surface with that blockade,” Bly murmured. They’d had to borrow a specially cloaked ship for the job. “Do you think we might run into trouble with the civilian leaders too?”

            “I doubt the people here will try to harm me, or any of you, when they see that I’m leading you here. However… they are likely to be armed.” She sighed and stopped at a fork at the top of the trail, shading her eyes. “I wish it weren’t so, but the holiness of this place has been sealed with the blood of many people over the years, intruders and spirituals alike. Some even say that’s how the sand became so dark.”

            “I see.”

            Bly followed her gaze across the view that had opened up. So many hills and valleys: some of them gentle, evenly spaced mounds, others closer together with one side cut jagged by flooding. All covered their reddish soil with a velvety wash of grass and white brush. Off to the right, there was a smudge of darker green, a distant copse of trees snaking between the hills.

            “This way,” Secura said, heading for the middle trail.

            It led up first, curving around the side of the nearest crest, circling a stand of boulders that seemed intentionally laid. Bly wondered where the rocks came from. Had they been in the hills all along, uncovered gradually as the soil eroded away? There was no high white mountain in sight for them to have fallen from.

            Then the trail plunged down, steeply following the cut of storm runoff into a tiny valley—more of an impression—cupped between the nearest hills. The valley’s bottom was flat, covered by a taller, even meadow of grass broken only by a small ravine.  Coming down into it, Bly felt the land curling around him like a giant’s hand. He was tiny, like an ant scooped up in that hand with its palm full of soil beneath him. Instead of being threatening, there was something comforting in the thought, even as they began to cross the meadow and there wasn’t a speck of cover.

            It was alright, he told himself. His DC-17s were in easy reach in their holsters, and there was the rifle on top of his pack as well. But right now he found he still didn’t want to touch either of them.

            Aayla slid and loped the last few meters of steep, damp, crumbly soil and slowed to a walk, just ahead of him. All at once as he followed her example, Bly recognized the feeling. It was becoming more common since their mission on Jendiria. It had been there on Maridun, walking through the savannah at dawn, even despite the men they’d lost. And while looking out over the Lurmen village at sunset, pausing on a run to clear his head, wondering about beings that would rather die than fight. Just as he was struggling to put it into words, the general glanced over her shoulder and smiled.

            “You seem to be feeling better.”

            Bly grinned back, even though he knew she couldn’t see it through his helmet. It relieved some of the pressure in his throat. “I’m just… happy to be here, Genera Secura.”

            “It is beautiful, isn’t it,” she said in a wistful murmur.

            “Yes, general,” said Liam in a hush, coming up just behind Bly with scopes in hand. “No sign of anyone so far. How much farther do you think their base is?”

            “It is not a base, Captain,” Aayla said patiently. “It is a sanctuary.”

            “Right. Sorry, General.” Liam put a hand to his helmet and cleared his throat. “I meant no disrespect. It was, uh… just the first word that came to mind.”

            “Don’t worry. At this pace we should reach the sanctuary by tomorrow night.”

            “Very good,” Liam said, and fell back a ways.

            Bly could hear him talking to the others quietly, although he couldn’t hear any words. He watched the grass on either side of the narrow trail brushing the dinged-up white of his leg armor with each step. The weight of the pack on his back felt right and familiar somehow.

            For a moment, the image of his dream the night before came back as he watched the grass brush Aayla’s legs too. He imagined he could feel the presence of the rifle on top of his pack, even though he couldn’t see it. But he let it fade, thinking instead about how at home she seemed, despite that trace of sadness in her voice. What would it be like to know you had an ancestral history somewhere? He listened to the sound of the little green blades being struck aside by dozens of feet and wished he could sit down in the middle of the valley and listen to her tell stories about this place. Surely she knew some. But they had to keep marching.

            By the end of the day, they had found their way to another sparse grove of the knotted trees, and a few filmy clouds appeared just in time to turn orange.

            “We can rest here for the night,” Aayla said quietly, and Bly turned to call to the others.

            “Packs off! Time to rest.”

            A collective groan of relief came from the other twenty men, and Bly sat down on a nearby rock to ease his own pack off. With the weight resting against his back now rather than on his shoulders, he took off his helmet and wiped his face. There was the slightest breeze. It felt good.

            After a moment’s rest watching the other men, Bly turned around to check the pack’s balance against the rock and came face to face with the rifle that was strapped atop it. His hand was already on it, and he went still, trying to shrug off the image that was rising again.

            There was nothing special about this rifle. It was identical to all the other DC-15As that were in use throughout the GAR. It wasn’t even his. Nothing was his. It was just one he happened to be carrying.

            For a moment he struggled against the irrational urge to take his hand off the rifle, but the feeling wasn’t going away.

            He picked it up and glanced around, knowing he should be divvying up assignments for the night. “Liam,” he called, and the captain came over immediately. “I’ll take first watch with Swift, Zander and Driver. Send Raf and Worthy to scout for water and build up our supply. I’m sure we’ll need it for tomorrow.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            Bly looked for his general after Liam walked off. It took him a minute to spot her, coming around the side of a split white boulder the size of an AT-TE. It was catching a few broken rays of the setting sun from between the surrounding trees and slopes of earth.

            Carefully, amid the gentle clack-ca-clack of falling leaves, Bly picked his way over the stones and bonelike branches toward her. She walked slowly, touching the trees occasionally as she passed them. Like she was looking for something, Bly thought. Or listening.

            When he was a few meters away, she stopped and faced him. He stopped too, waiting for her to speak, but after a few moments he got the feeling she was waiting for him.

            “General Secura,” he finally said. “Have you ever been to this sanctuary before?”

            “No.” She stepped up onto the sloping trunk of the nearest tree. It grew crooked out of the sloped ground, nearly horizontal at first. “I wish I had. I haven’t spent much time on Ryloth.” She looked up at the rest of the tree. Bly wondered if she was going to climb it.

            “Oh. But it’s your homeworld, isn’t it?”

            “I was born on Ryloth,” Aayla said simply, seeming distracted by the tree. “But I have no memory of anything before my training began at the Jedi Temple. Still… I have always tried to be aware of the struggles my people face, and…. some, at least some, of their history.”

            She laid her hand on the nearest branch. The bark was rough with deep furrows. Bly came closer and stepped up onto the tree with her. What he wanted to do seemed ridiculous now that he had to say it. It was ridiculous… but….

            Aayla turned her head to look at him, still holding onto the branch like it was the arm of a friend. “I wonder if being a twi’lek will make any difference at all in whether or not these people will speak with us. I have more in common with the Jedi than with them. I know so little of what it really means to struggle and live on this planet for generations.”

            “Is that why the Jedi Council sent us here instead of some other team?” Bly asked. “Because a twi’lek might trust a twi’lek?”

            “Possibly.” Aayla shrugged and sat down on the trunk, one knee up to rest her arm on. “I hope I will be allowed to help them, somehow.”

            Bly sat down near her, but not too near. There was no way to bring this up without sounding at least a little awkward. May as well get to the point.

            “General Secura,” he began again, looking down at the weapon resting on his knees. “Have you ever handled a blaster rifle?”

            “Not one like that,” she said. “Why do you ask?”

            “I’d like to show you how, if you’ll let me.” Bly slid off the trunk to face her and held the heavy blaster out toward her with both hands. “This belongs to you as much as it belongs to me, and… I think you should know how to use it.”

            Aayla’s eyebrows pinched and she looked between him and the DC-15A. “I don’t think that’s necessary, Bly… I have my saber, and the Force.”

            “I-I know, of course you don’t need it. I just…” Bly sighed, embarrassed. But he didn’t lower his hands. “Please, General Secura. It would mean a lot to me if I could show you. There isn’t much a clone can give a Jedi, but….”

            “Alright.” Her face slowly fell into a smile. “I think I understand. Show me.”

            She slid off her perch on the tree and took the blaster from him. There, he told himself, as he watched her balance the weight of it. It was in her hands now.

            But Aayla’s hold on the thing was uncertain. She hefted it level with her chin, resting the stock on top of her shoulder. The front end dipped when she tried to keep it steady.

            “I am already seeing that this is more complicated than I thought,” she laughed softly.

            “It’s alright,” Bly reassured her. “If you brace the stock against your shoulder, it’s a lot easier to keep it steady.”

            “It is on my shoulder,” Aayla said. She let go of the front of the gun with her left hand and clumsily switched her grip by the trigger. “You mean the other shoulder?”

            “No.” Bly supported the rifle with his right hand, and guided her right hand back to the handle with his left. “No, you had it right the first time. Right hand firing, right shoulder. Your left hand braces it, here.” He lifted a few fingers from where he held the shaft, tapping the side of the rifle.

            “I don’t hold on to this?” Aayla touched the sniper scope that was in resting position.

            “You can, if it’s a more comfortable grip. It’s the sniper scope. Some guys use it as a handhold when it’s in resting position, but since it can unlock and move back up top if you knock it hard enough, I don’t trust it while I’m aiming.”

            The stock was still resting on top of her shoulder. Aayla shifted her grip and struggled to keep the rifle level and steady. Bly, his hands over hers, carefully pulled it forward enough that the end of the stock could rest curved against the front of her shoulder rather than the top.

            “Better?” he asked quietly.

            “Oh. I see,” Aayla said seriously. “That is better.”

            “Your elbows are in, that’s good. Now, to aim,” Bly said, shifting so he was standing behind her and could see more of what she saw. “You want to try and put your target right in the middle of these two points.” He reached over her shoulder and touched the sights on top of the rifle. “Your mark will be a little above the imaginary dot in the center of the square. If you have the right form, it should be as easy as looking straight ahead and letting your body follow.”

            “How is it? My form?” Aayla asked.

            “Are you pressing it back into your shoulder to keep it steady?” Bly asked.

            “Yes.”

           “Alright. Relax your neck.” Bly suddenly became very aware of his own hand on Aayla’s warm left shoulder, his right hand still resting on her right elbow from checking its position. One moment, he felt a deep warmth from the memory of waking up concussed with her hand pressed against his collarbone, so relieved to be alive. The next, he remembered how nervous he’d been, trying to explain his feelings about that moment to her. He quickly let go and took a step back. “Sorry, General Secura. I didn’t think—I should have asked before I corrected you.” He had been manhandled in his own training so many times he had almost forgotten he was dealing with a Jedi Master.

“It’s alright, Bly,” Aayla said seriously, not moving to look at him. “Continue.” When he hesitated, she turned her head over her shoulder to smile at him and repeated, “It’s alright.”

            Bly took a deep breath and nodded. “Let your cheek fall against the stock. Then your eye should be lined up correctly with the sights. Keep your left hip pointed at the target.” He put his hands on her shoulders again, barely pulled at them, rotating with her as he stood behind, and reached around to adjust her elbows again.

            “Like this?”

            “Yeah. Good!”

            “What am I aiming at?” Aayla asked.

            Bly’s first inclination was to choose a large knot on one of the old trees, but it probably wasn’t respectful to damage an organism that old just for target practice. “That tall rock. I mean…if it’s alright to even fire a shot in this place.”

            “I think one or two will be fine,” she said. “Is my stance still good?”

            Bly breathed out a soft huff as he stood back to look. “It’s just about perfect.”

            “I suppose the principles of proper lightsaber form apply here too.” The general stood very still, breathing evenly. Bly didn’t even have to tell her to go to the zone his own trainer had coached him toward, where one’s body was relaxed but firm.

            “When you’re ready,” he said softly, “squeeze the trigger, like you’re just pulling your finger back into your fist.”

            The DC-15A erupted into a loud spray of about seven shots—Bly and Aayla both yelled in shock and could hear more shouts coming from the men around the other side of the boulder.

            “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! If you hold it down, it’s repeating—I forgot to tell you—”

            “I knew that,” Aayla said, laughing, shaken. “I knew that; I forgot.”

            “I should have warned you.”

            The rock was blackened with blaster marks. A handful of whoops and cheers came from the direction of the camp and Bly looked over to see a dozen of his troops with blasters in hand, some still relaxing out of firing pose.

            “Great shot, General!” Liam called.

            “That rock never stood a chance!” another laughed.

            “I did hit it, didn’t I?” Aayla smirked. “All seven blasts. You must be a good teacher.”

            “Thanks,” Bly laughed self-consciously, rubbing a hand over his own short fuzz of hair. He took the rifle back when she offered it, and it felt a little easier in his hands. As he slung it over his back, he heard Liam calling to the others.

            “Alright, alright, come on. Back to your stations.”

            “Thank you,” Bly murmured as the crowd dispersed. “For letting me do that.”

            “Thank you for trusting me with your weapon,” Aayla said simply. She reached for his hand and without thinking he lifted it to meet hers halfway, startled when she actually took it. But after she grabbed it, she turned it palm up and set her lightsaber in the curve of his palm. “Now you try.”

            Every word Bly had ever learned fled from his mind for a few seconds. The lightsaber was heavy—it had a real weapon’s weight. When the shock wore off enough that he could move again he nearly dropped it in his haste to give it back.

            “No! I can’t—I can’t, General Secura. Please.” He held it out to her. “I can’t take it.”

            “But this is only fair,” Aayla said, raising an eyebrow at him. “You trusted me with your weapon, and now… I am returning the gesture.”

            “It’s not the same! My rifle belongs to you as much as it belongs to me or any other clone, and I wanted it to be—for its use to belong to….” Bly stopped himself, not sure what she would think if he finished that thought. “But—this—you’re a Jedi, you made this yourself, it’s—it’s like a part of you. Isn’t it?” Realizing she wasn’t taking it back, Bly held it carefully with both hands, even though he knew if he dropped it, it wouldn’t break. The idea of dropping such a symbol was still too much to bear.

            “In the end it is only a weapon, like yours.” Aayla said. But after she studied his face for a moment, she held out her hand and allowed him to hand the saber back to her.

            Bly let out a long breath when it was back on her belt. “I’m honored that you would even think of trusting me with that, General Secura, but… it’s a Jedi thing. I couldn’t.”

            “I hope someday you will believe me when I say that I trust you.” Aayla looked a little sad. “And that you are as worthy as any Jedi.”

            Bly couldn’t find anything to say. Overwhelmed, he stared at his general, this person he’d been adjusting like a cadet just moments ago, this person who had saved his life so many times, who had accepted his confusion, who with single phrases calmly defied everything everyone else he’d ever met believed. When she said things like this, he stood on the edge of a cliff overlooking space itself—impossible, awesome, terrifying.

            Even as he thought this, part of him wondered again if he was the only one who reacted this way to her. And part of him wondered why she would say something that was, according to most of the galaxy, so obviously untrue. But what if it was true? Do I want it to be true?

            “I…” I believe you, Bly wanted to say, but he knew it was a lie.

            Aayla put a hand on his shoulder briefly before she turned back toward the camp.

            They were lighting lanterns when Bly, his general, and his men arrived at the sanctuary, sore and tired. The sun had just slipped over the rim of the opposite hill, and the trail took them to a deep overhang of rock, its floor slippery with loose grit over hard-packed sandstone. Large bluish succulents guarded the last bit of trail, and Bly’s pauldron freed two of the spider-like seedheads, their furred umbrellas catching the wind of their passing and the orange light of the first lantern a violet twi’lek youth lit.

            When the lantern-lighter saw them, she didn’t scurry away, but said something in twi’leki. Aayla responded in kind, her voice slow and careful, and Bly remembered that perhaps she had had to re-learn this language as an adult. More twi’leks melted into sight from the unseen back of the overhang, and spoke with her urgently. One even embraced her.

            Bly and his men watched the exchange in silence, standing a little ways apart. Some creature made a faint, high-pitched rattling sound nearby, spaced apart by a few seconds each. Soon the overhang was lit from within by dozens of lanterns, and Bly could see to the back, where three small doorways had been carved from the rock and were framed by some thickly growing plant with tiny, round, dense leaves. The twi’leks and their lanterns trickled back inside until the doorways glowed.

            Smiling, Aayla pulled away from the last of the crowd for a moment to turn toward Bly. “They saw us coming. They welcome all of us, and thank us for the supplies, but I think they would prefer for you and your men to keep watch out here for the night.”

            “We’d be happy to.”

            She translated, and a large green twi’lek pushed forward and clapped his hand against the side of Bly’s pack, motioning enthusiastically toward the central doorway as he spoke.

            “You all can follow him,” Aayla said, and together they passed into the light. “But with your helmets off.”

            They took off their helmets. Inside the doorway it was much more spacious than Bly had expected, the stairs carved directly from the sandstone, the ceiling high and the walls shaped into impressions of clouds, hills, and sheets of rain. The stone was a mix of cream, yellow, and red streaks. The stairs went up first, to a wide landing with branching corridors, lanterns hung from the ceiling of each passage by chains anchored to the wall. On the other side of the landing there was a wider set of stairs going down, the ceiling etched with an impression of knobby branches.

            As they reached the bottom of that larger set of stairs, each of the four passages curved in such a way that all Bly could see was a tantalizing flicker of shadows crossing lantern light, an impression of warmth and space. They turned down the leftmost one, and came to a long room with white stone counters along the wall and in the middle of the floor. Fires burned in three large clay ovens. Bly and his men took off their packs and set them in one open corner.

            “I must go speak with their leaders,” Aayla said. “Set up guard by the entrance, get some rest. This may take more than a few hours.”

            Bly nodded and led his men back the way they’d come, wondering just how large the network of caves was.

            Out in the night, only a few lanterns remained. Bly took first watch again, sitting on the low wall made of chipped stone and clay that ringed the bottom edge of the overhang. Below it, the land fell away steeply where the flooding rains had cut into it year after year. A faint drumming came from behind him.

            Bly’s watch was over, but he sat with his back to a lantern, trying to shake off the nightmare that had come again not an hour from when he’d closed his eyes. His shadow was in front of him, blurred with the darkness the lamp couldn’t reach. He didn’t want to go back to sleep.

            Footsteps made his hands twitch toward his hips from where they were tucked under his arms, but it was just a twi’lek. He knew Liam and a few other men were in earshot, too.

            “General Secura,” he said tiredly, when he realized who it was. “Were you able to get into contact with Syndulla?”

            She shook her head and sat down beside him. “They have had no contact from him or his people in months. Or at least they aren’t telling if they have. But they thank us for the supplies.”

            “So we came all this way to leave without a single lead,” Bly sighed.

            “Why are you awake?” Aayla asked gently. “You’re exhausted. Could you not sleep again?”

            Bly nodded. For few minutes he hesitated, but he couldn’t hold it in any more.

            “I have these dreams sometimes… I just… shoot my allies. People I know. And sometimes… I don’t even care, in the dream… it’s not until I wake up that I realize….” He tried to keep staring at the dirt floor, the edge of the light, but instead looked at her face, waiting to see fear or disappointment there.

            She smiled sadly. “That’s not so surprising.”

            “It isn’t?” He stared.

            “If part of you is becoming uncomfortable with the reality of the war.”

            Bly almost asked what she meant, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. His own mind seemed in that moment like an utterly untrustworthy place.

            She shifted position beside him, straightening her back. “Will you let me teach you how to meditate? It should help you sleep more soundly, and sort your thoughts so they aren’t so confusing.”

            “Isn’t that just for Jedi?” Bly asked.

            “Meditation? It’s a tool that everyone should have access to if they need it. It is simply a way of knowing yourself and the universe with more intention.”

            “I thought that when Jedi meditate, they’re connecting to the Force.”

            “Well… yes,” Aayla said slowly.

            “I don’t think I can do that,” Bly sighed, studying the way the lantern threw a grain of sand’s shadow so far. He flicked it with its finger—it flew into the darkness and disappeared.

            “You already are connected to it,” she said. “But you aren’t aware of that connection. That’s all meditation is: becoming aware of present truths and letting them be what they are.”

            Bly took a deep breath and let it out, nervous. “So it is a Jedi thing.”

            Aayla laughed softly through her nose, and when she spoke her voice was a gentle murmur. “Close your eyes, Bly.”

            He closed them, saw the blurred neon afterimage of the light inside his eyelids, and listened.

            “Start with your toes. Focus on how they feel.”

            Sore. His toes were tired and bunched together inside his boots, but his legs ached more. It wasn’t a bad ache—he hadn’t even noticed it until she’d spoken. He moved them, spreading them the tiny bit he could, feeling the slight padding of his under-suit’s soles.

            “Become aware of your body, piece by piece, moving up through your legs, into your back and your stomach… that’s how the masters at the temple taught me to begin. Breathe in and out slowly as you move from one part of your body to the next.”

            His ankles were a little stiff, his right leg folded up close to him with his knee at a right angle from his hip, his left leg bent in front and halfway toward his chest. He could feel the weight of his left arm resting on his left knee, the way his armor encased his calves, his thighs, the resistance from where the pieces collided and restricted any further movement. Should he have removed it before beginning? General Secura surely would have said something if it was that important.

            Still, he wondered if he was doing it wrong. And a moment later, had to bring his mind back to his knees, and up through his thighs. The feeling of the hard ground he sat on. He pictured the dark overhang, holding him inside it like a slightly opened shell, and the decline beyond, remembered the feeling he’d had while walking in that grassy stretch between the two hills. Focus.

            His stomach. The familiar empty feeling of over a week on field rations. His back, every muscle below the surface tight, a slight, even burn of discomfort. He heard Aayla breathing beside him and forgot to breathe himself for a moment, then tried to sync his breathing to hers.

            “If there is a thought or feeling you want to let go of,” Aayla murmured, “imagine it moving in and out of you with each breath, gradually more out than in. Be patient. If you push against it too hard, it will come back stronger.”

            “Like a wave,” Bly mumbled to himself, throat closing against the image of Aayla’s smoking back. How could he let that picture back into his mind? He breathed in shakily, let himself remember the feeling of the trigger under his finger. The fingers of his left hand hung in the air loosely, relaxed from where his arm rested on his knee; his right hand rested on its side, on the sandstone floor. Harmless. A tiny ache between two knuckles, an itch on his left palm. A coldness in the tips of all his fingers. He breathed out and the image of the white rock, scored with blasterfire, rose in his mind instead. Bly swallowed, aware of his lungs expanding again.

            That high rattle came again distantly, two overlapping, then three. Bly thought there were soft voices, just on the edge of his hearing, and somewhere in the night, sand shifted, the barely audible sound of multiple feet or hooves impacting softly on the earth in rapid succession. Aayla kept breathing, steady, calm. He realized his shoulders were drawn up, head bowed, closing in.

            Breathe in. Bly nearly choked on the image of her hand limp on the red earth beneath her face. How could she say he was as worthy as a Jedi, even disregarding what his subconscious came up with?

            “Whatever you think or feel… think it. Feel it. And then come back to your body. However many times you need to. Watch it pass through you.”

            Breathe out. Her back, moving away from him on the mountainside in Jendiria. Her body turned to leaves and grass, rustling around him, hiding beaked monsters, a blade torn in half between his fingers, its comb edge catching on the material of his gloves.

            Breathe in. The restriction of his armor, the weight of the pack, the rifle in his hands, the weight of his head when he wanted to sleep. The cool desert air on his hot cheeks. Breathe out. His own breath on his upper lip. Are you alive? An exploding ship, the taste of a fruit he’d never learned the name for, the sight of Ryloth, Coruscant, Kamino from space. His own mouth watering at the mere thought of gentle, juicy sweetness. A building warmth behind his eyelids.

            Breathe in. His body, identical to so many others, but his. His. Breathing. Breathe out. The only thing in the galaxy that really belonged to him. His aches, his muscles, his bad dreams as the result of his own neurons shuffling images and fears around, clenching his own stomach. Breathe in. His own lungs, his own tightened chest. Breathe out. That speck of sand he’d flicked out of the circle of light, waiting in the darkness, no less real.

            He lost himself in the rhythm. It was comforting. He could hear Aayla breathing too, their rhythm slightly mismatched. It was good. He existed on his own, cradled in this body, this armor, this overhang, this quiet night, this pocket of breathable air and gravity, this galaxy where someone had decided to create an army of clones. In. Out. In. His back relaxed little by little, his body swaying slightly as he breathed. The pressure in his chest and throat didn’t go away, ebbing and flowing.

            Breathing uncounted ins and outs, time became a measure only of how long each breath lasted. It was a familiar enough feeling from a march, a battle, a run to clear his head. His mind wandered through images and feelings, finding no answers. His body was getting sore in a different way, from holding position for so long.

            Finally, Aayla stirred next to him, breaking the quiet. “How do you feel?”

            Bly could almost feel the command from his brain traveling to his eyelids, telling them to open. The orange light of the lamp was beautiful on the sand, and the rough paint and grit of his leg plates, and the backs of his hands. He shifted into a roughly cross-legged position, flexing his fingers slowly. Moving felt like waking up.

            “Thank you.” Bly looked to his left, where Aayla sat, half her face lit, the other half dark. She smiled and that pressure welled in his throat again. “I feel… grateful, mostly.” For a moment, he had the urge to throw his arms around her shoulders like she was a brother who’d just survived a deadly mission. Instead he stared at her, wondering if she really saw him the way she said she did.

            Yes, he realized. She did. He put a hand over his face.

            “What?” she said softly. “Bly? What did you feel?”

            “I… I don’t think I felt the Force or anything like that,” he said, rubbing his forehead self-consciously. “But… I just… felt more real, I guess. Or… significant, maybe. I don’t know… I think it helped. Thank you.”

            Aayla looked pleased when he finally raised the courage to look up at her again. He smiled tentatively back, and she held out her lightsaber again.

            “I am not trying to make you anything you don’t want to be,” she reassured him. “Whatever tools you use to make your way through life… they are only tools. They can be powerful symbols. But you are free to choose what they mean for you. Or whether they mean anything at all.”

            Bly hesitated, overwhelmed. And then, to his horror, he heard himself laugh.

            “I’m sorry, General Secura,” he apologized instantly, nearly putting a hand over his own mouth. “I… it’s not funny, I just… I don’t know what I’m feeling right now.”

            He realized he was grinning when Aayla grinned back.

            “Take it,” she said.

            “Are you sure?” Bly asked reverently. But he knew her. She had never said anything to him she didn’t mean. His hand closed around the offered hilt, fingers curling against the warm skin of her palm before he lifted it away. The rest of his body was still awash in that peculiar, comforting awareness of itself as he got to his feet and turned the saber over in his hand, settling into the grip.

            “Turn it on,” she said, smiling. It was a full smile, a sunny smile he’d only seen rarely, her eyes creased up, the lantern catching the whites of her eyes and turning them gold.

            He didn’t ask this time, but looked in amazement between her face and the hilt in his hands. “This is enough,” he said. “More than enough.” He took a deep breath. “You put your trust in me… as a person, not just a clone,” he said, holding it fully with both hands. “I think that’s what this means to me.”

            Her blue-green hand reached into his line of sight and closed around his own gloved hand.

            “Don’t be afraid,” she said simply, before she pressed his thumb to the button and the blue light flared out from just above his hands, a soft vibration running through the heavy cylinder and up into his arm, sending warm thrills up to his scalp.

            Bly stared at it, nearly vibrating himself. He had never seen it so close before. And Aayla’s hand on his, strong, with careful, deliberate pressure. He could see the dirt under her nails in the light of the saber’s blade.

            “Would you mind if I ran with you, next time?”

            Bly tore his eyes away from the brightness and switched it off, exhilarated. “I’d be honored, General Secura. I’m honored. This is…thank you, for—” He swallowed and breathed a soft laugh of gratitude and amazement. “Thank you.”

            “Now we are a little more equal,” she said, her smile fading quickly as she took the saber back. “That is what this means to me.”

Chapter Text

            “Attention troopers,” recited the pilot’s voice as the docking bay doors shut. “We are making our final approach to the Rishi outpost. Squads housed in cabins twelve and thirteen will be offloaded upon arrival.”

            “That’s us!” Echo said, sitting up a little straighter on the edge of his seat.

            “Yeah,” Hevy said, staring intently out the viewport. “We heard.”

            “Rishi, eh?” Cut-Up mused, checking his new facial hair in the reflective blank screen of his data pad. He turned his chin this way and that, rubbing at it a little. It was finally starting to fill out and look like more than just a few days of neglect. “Never heard of it.”

            “You mean you didn’t read our briefing?” Echo looked concerned.

            “I wouldn’t really call it a briefing.” Fives glanced at Echo, smiling. “I’m sure our C.O. will tell us more as soon as we arrive.”

            “’Ey Hevy,” laughed Cut-Up, “How’d you like to bet our new boss will peg you as the one with the positive attitude right away?”

            Hevy raised an eyebrow, sensing some catch. “And why is that?”

            “Because you’re so happy to be here your cheeks are just glowing.”

            Hevy narrowed his eyes and shook his head, but a hand crept self-consciously toward the wide tattoos along his jaw that were still a little red.

            “Very funny.”

            “Good one, Cut-Up,” Droidbait laughed. It was nice to see Hevy getting teased for once, instead of him.

            “Shoulda gone with something smaller, Hevy,” Fives said, grinning. “Like me.” He glanced up and to the right, as if he could see the 5 on his own forehead. “Still can’t raise my eyebrows without feeling it, though….”

            “Ooh, so there’s the reason Hevy’s bein’ so quiet,” Cut-Up said in mock epiphany, his rogue accent slipping in again. “It still hurts to talk, doesn’t it?”

            Hevy shrugged, smirking. “I don’t feel a thing.”

            “It does feel odd,” said Droidbait. He knew Hevy was lying. They’d gotten their tattoos on the same day, and while it wasn’t exactly painful anymore, that was a far cry from not feeling anything. His own tattoo was also on his cheeks, smaller than Hevy’s markings—a design like a pinwheel on each side of his jaw.

            “Don’t you think we should be lining up for departure?” Echo stood abruptly, jittery and bright-eyed.

            “Yeah. Come on boys,” Hevy jumped to his feet to join him. “Can’t wait to finally get off this transport. Maybe see some action!”

            “Yes, but what kind of action?” Cut-Up chuckled. “That’s what I’m wondering. We’re still rookies, you know. They’ll probably have us running errands or something at first.”

            Droidbait stood to join Hevy and Echo, and Fives and Cut-Up followed. They stood facing one another, hanging onto the overhead grips as the ship descended through the atmosphere. Fives was smiling a little, seeming quietly thrilled; Echo was too, and Cut-Up pursed his lips in a funny way he’d been doing more often since starting to grow a beard. Hevy… well, Hevy looked ready to move, his knees and elbows slightly bent, head up and one fist loosely clenched.

           “Regulation states that we offload our gear before meeting our commanding officer,” Echo recited to himself. “Right. So we’ll just grab our crates on the way out.”

            “Yeah,” Hevy teased. “Wouldn’t want the pilot to fly off with all your gear still inside.”

            “How embarrassing,” said Cut-Up.

            “Stop worrying, Echo,” Fives said cheerfully. “We’ve got it all under control.”

            “I’m not worried.” Echo’s voice was light. “I know exactly what to do. I read the briefing.”

            Droidbait smiled at their conversation. He didn’t care so much where they were going—the important thing was that they hadn’t been split up.

            The shuttle settled down onto solid ground. “Troopers, you are clear to disembark.”

            They grabbed their crates and left cabin twelve, joining the troops of cabin thirteen on the way out. At the bottom of the ramp was a single trooper in an unmarked set of armor. The eerily silent landing platform was attached to a cliff-side base, and all around was nothing but bare rock, a dark pocked landscape of shadows and caverns, and on the dark horizon the edge of the nearest planet was large and bright. As they set their crates down in a neat row, the trooper facing them took off his helmet.

            “Listen up, rookies. I’m Sergeant O’Niner, and I’ll be responsible for you while you’re here.”

            Droidbait snapped to attention along with everyone else. The hair at the Sergeant’s temples looked white in the bright lights from the ship he was squinting toward.

            “The volunteers who have been staffing this base will be handing over management to us today,” he said. “We’ll need to inspect everything and make sure the armory is fully stocked and run tests on all the sensors and communication systems. We can get to know each other while we’re working. Once we get inside, we’ll split into three teams. You will all be sure to give detailed reports on anything that seems to be in bad repair or out of place. Understood?”

            “Sir, yes sir!”

            Together they marched with their crates to the blast doors at the end of the walkway, where a Sullustan in an unfamiliar uniform was standing at ease.

            “Here you go, Sarge,” he said, handing over a datapad. “The keys to the castle.”

            The Sergeant just nodded and input the codes to open the blast door. “We’ll take it from here, sir.”

            “Have fun, boys!” The Sullustan grinned, turned and walked past them.

            It was odd, going into the empty base. They pulled their gear up the stairs and onto the central ops deck, stark and dark grey apart from the glowing primary colors and occasional green of the monitors. O’Niner turned to face them. Droidbait could see his hair was merely peppered with light grey now that they were in diffuse lighting. O’Niner raised his pale eyebrows and with a few quick hand motions the line split. Droidbait stepped aside with Echo and two troopers he didn’t know.

            “Alright… I want you all to stow your crates and download the specs of the base if you need help finding anything. You,” O’Niner pointed at the first group where Fives and Cut-Up were standing, “get on the computers and do a full systems check. You four check the armory and the barracks.” He pointed at Droidbait’s group, then Hevy’s. “And you three, you’re with me. We’ll go over the long range communication system and talk protocol.”

            “Yes, sir!” Hevy said a bit loudly, saluting with the rest of them.

            “Alright, let’s get to it. Barracks are down that way. We’ll all meet back here when you’re finished, or in one hour, whichever comes first. Move out!”

           Droidbait fell in line and followed the others out into the hall. As soon as the door closed, someone spoke up.

            “Did you see his hair?”

            “Heh. What about his eyebrows?” Cut-Up asked. “How old do you think he is?”

            “Can’t be more than a year or two older than us. Maybe three. Were they making us that long ago?”

            “Maybe we’ll look like that in a year,” the clone right next to Droidbait said.

          “I don’t think so… maybe he’s just a mutant,” Droidbait said uneasily. “Or he made his hair grey on purpose.”

            “Guys,” Echo interrupted. “Should we really be talking like that about our Sergeant? Following orders is more important than—”

            “What?” Hevy asked innocently. “If he did turn it that color on purpose, that means he won’t mind if we talk about it. Nothing wrong with being different, anyway.” His voice softened a little, and Droidbait wondered if he was thinking of Ninety-Nine.

            Cut-Up grinned. “Besides, he can’t hear us.”

            “Mutations happen.” Droidbait shrugged. “If he is a mutant, it’s obviously just a superficial mutation, otherwise he wouldn’t be here. Nothing to be awkward about.”

            “Well if you ask me, it looks great,” said one of the clones in Droidbait’s group. A few of the others shook their heads. “What? It’s a nice color.”

            They entered the barracks.

            “Home sweet home!” Fives said, immediately claiming a bunk. Echo dragged his crate over to join him. “See you in an hour, brothers!” Fives waved and marched out with his group. Droidbait went to claim the bunk next to where Echo stood, and one of the new guys in his group got there at the same time.

            “You mind?” the trooper asked.

            “Go ahead,” Droidbait said, taking off his helmet. “My number’s Zero-Zero-Twenty-Ten by the way. That’s Echo.” He gestured casually over his shoulder to where Echo was watching them.

            “CT Three-Thirty-Zero-Two,” said Droidbait’s new bunkmate. He had an unmarked face and standard haircut.

            “This is your first assignment too, right?”

            “Yeah,” said 33002, looking away with a faint grin. “Just barely graduated.”

            Something about the way he said barely made Droidbait wonder.

            “So… you got a nickname?”

            “Hey, Nub,” called one of the others, and 33002’s head whipped around. “Come take a look at this! And bring your friends! We’re all supposed to be inspecting the barracks, not hanging around.”

            “That’s CT-Three-Two-Seven,” Nub muttered as he motioned Echo and Droidbait to follow him over to where 327 was lifting an irregular sheaf of flimsi off one of the bunks. “He doesn’t have a nickname either.”

            “What do you think?” 327 said, holding up the topmost sheet of flimsi, which had a note scribbled on it. “It was just lying there when we walked in.”

            Echo took it with a puzzled look, and read it aloud in an uncertain voice. “To the new boys on the block… here’s a little something to keep you entertained. Just passing it on, from one brotherhood to another. It’s our gift to the army for taking the base off our hands. Take good care of our girls. They may not be flesh and blood, but it’s better than nothing, right?” He looked up from the note at the three other troopers standing there and then blinked at the other sheets in 327’s hand.

            “Ah—!” 327 said as one of the larger pieces began to slide free of the stack.

            “I got it!” Droidbait carefully caught it by the corners and tugged it free.

            “Uh, what are you doing?” Echo asked, waving the note. “Our orders were to report anything out of the ordinary. We should tell Sarge about this before we do anything else.”

            “I just wanna see what it is,” Droidbait said, holding it out at arm’s length.

            “Yeah, I doubt there’s a bomb hiding on these pages,” 327 chuckled.

            “But it’s not ours,” said Echo crisply.

            “I’m not going to damage it,” Droidbait said, staring. “Look, I’m being careful.”

            “That a… twi’lek?” Nub shifted to see the poster better, and tilted his head. “What’s with the angle? Supposed to be funny, I guess.”

            “Maybe.” The reddish twi’lek, wearing a backless black dress, was propping herself up on a large chain gun, glancing over her shoulder, with the focus of the picture on her backside. “Is that a Z-6? She’s leaning on the end of the barrels.”

            “That’s not safe,” 327 snorted. “Good way to get yourself shot to pieces if the safety’s off.”

            “Yeah, yeah, we all went through the same training, Three-Two-Seven,” Nub said. “We know.”

            “I was just making an observation.”

            “Alright,” Echo broke in.”These obviously belong to the guys who lived here before. We should turn them in to Sergeant O’Niner. Maybe he can contact the owner and give them back.”

            “Didn’t you read the note, Echo?” Droidbait said, exchanging pictures with 327. “They left them behind for us on purpose.”

            “Maybe, but the reg manual says—” Droidbait sighed but Echo continued undaunted “—that we’re forbidden from accepting any gifts from civilians except for necessary supplies, or, in some rare exceptions, with approval of an army general. We have to turn these in.”

            Droidbait glanced around, but nobody else seemed to be listening to Echo. The new picture in Droidbait’s hands was much smaller than the first one, about standard page size, and was of a grinning red-haired human woman standing on one foot in an odd posture, holding one rifle in each hand.

            “Got it upside down, brother,” Nub said, carefully taking it and turning it around so the woman’s head was at the bottom. “See, her hair’s spread out like that ‘cause it’s on the ground. Legs are s’posed to be propped up above her against a wall I think.”

            “But that doesn’t make any sense,” Droidbait said, frowning down at the strange picture. “How’s she supposed to shoot anything like that?”

            “Well,” Nub laughed. “Doesn’t really look like she’s trying to shoot anything.”

            “Then… what’s the point of drawing her holding a gun?”

            “I dunno; do I look like an artist?” Nub shrugged. He almost sounded wistful. He grabbed another small picture off the stack, this one of a sitting green twi’lek lit with a sunny yellow backdrop, dressed in a very skin-tight orange suit. “This one’s kinda nice. Like the colors, anyway.”

            “Guys, this is our very first real assignment,” Echo said, “and our chance to make a good first impression with our C.O. I’m going to go take stock of the armory like we were ordered to. Is anybody coming with me? Droidbait?”

            “Yeah.” Droidbait quickly handed a picture of a nearly-naked rodian back to 327. “Let’s go.”

            “I’m coming. Echo, right?” 327 said as he put the pictures back down on the bunk. “I’ll tell Sarge about the pictures when we report back. Don’t worry about it.”

            Echo nodded and smiled a little. “We should make a more thorough sweep of the barracks.”

            “Yeah,” 327 agreed. “Make sure there’s nothing else out of the ordinary.”

            “Droidbait and I’ll take this side,” Nub volunteered, gesturing toward the far end of the barracks. “We can meet in the middle.”

            They split up and headed in opposite directions. Droidbait shook down the bunks to check for any instability and began looking carefully around, under, and behind each bed for any additional items. Nub checked the computer in the corner, taking the opportunity to download the base’s schematics onto his pad. Then he set about opening the ventilation ducts.

            “So… your friends call you Droidbait?” he asked casually as he pulled a grate free of the wall.

            “My batchers,” Droidbait sighed, pulling a dusty stylus out from behind one of the bunks. “I haven’t thought of anything that suits me better yet.”

            “Well,” Nub laughed softly under his breath—it echoed slightly as he had his head partially inside the shaft. “I don’t exactly have the most flattering nickname eith—either….” Nub sneezed. “Eugh. Those guys obviously never sent a cleaning droid in here.”

            “Nub’s not so bad,” Droidbait said, tucking the runaway stylus into his belt. “It almost sounds like a real name. Does it mean anything?”

            “Yeah….” Nub’s voice went dry. “Non-Useful Body.”

            Droidbait grimaced. “Oh.” He glanced over to the opposite side of the barracks and lowered his voice. “Was that Three-Two-Seven’s idea?”

            “Don’t remember actually,” Nub said, leaning inside the shaft up to his hips. He sounded like he was reaching for something “One of our instructors introduced the term during a lesson, I think. Just sort of caught on.” He extracted himself and brushed the dust from his hair. “What you think this is?” He held up something fist-sized, translucent and grey. When Droidbait took it from Nub, it cracked in several places just from the pressure of his fingers.

            “Looks like… something just shed its skin.” Droidbait made a face, simultaneously repulsed and fascinated. The facilities on Kamino were always so completely clean and sterile that he had never seen any insects in person before, or any animals except during the occasional training session in the ocean.

            “Yeah. I wonder if there’s some sort of infestation. Better tell Sarge. I didn’t see anything else in there… I’ll check the other vents, though.”

            Droidbait went and dropped the husk on his crate before he went back to inspecting the room, including the attached refreshers.

            The troopers worked in relative silence. After fifteen minutes, the four of them had a small collection of abandoned odds and ends and were ready to move on to the armory.

            “Just a lot of dust, that’s all,” Echo said brightly as they walked. “It shouldn’t take us too long to get this place into shape.”

            The door opened to what was supposed to be the armory, but all Droidbait saw was a room crowded with small barrels and a single rack of DC-15 rifles.

            “This is the armory?” 327 said. “Looks more like a closet.”

            “Well, according to the schematics I downloaded,” Echo said eagerly, looking at his datapad. “This base isn’t designed to accommodate an army, just a few small squads at most.” He moved to look at the barrels. “They’re empty. It looks like they were storing some of the LT in here. Or maybe just the empty tanks when they were finished. There’s got to be a better place for them. I’ll ask the Sergeant when we get back to ops!”

            “You’d think people would take a little pride in keeping an important base like this in order,” 327 scoffed. “It’s a good thing they handed it over to some real soldiers.”

            “Let’s check the weapons,” Droidbait suggested.

            All the rifles were fully charged and seemed like new. Nub found a cache of grenades hidden behind the empty barrels, along with two rocket launchers.

            “I’ve got it all counted,” Echo said, tapping it into his pad. “Fourteen DC-15s, eleven sets of—”

            “Why don’t you save it for the Sarge, Echo?” Droidbait broke in.

            “Ah, right,” said Echo. “It’s been almost seventy minutes since we left the op center. We’d better get back there.”

            When they returned to ops, Fives and Cut-Up stood at one of the stations around the edge of the room, listening intently as O’Niner ran Hevy’s team through the long range communications.

            “Alright, send a test message to the fleet.”

            “Now, sir?” Hevy asked, and Droidbait could hear the suppressed thrill in his voice.

            O’Niner nodded. “Go ahead, kid. Key in the frequency for General Kenobi’s ship. But put it on low priority. If someone’s free, they’ll answer and we won’t have to interrupt the generals.”

            “Yes, sir.” Hevy pushed a series of buttons. “Cut-Up, run it through the standard encryption sequence.”

            “Got it!”

            In a few minutes, a hologram appeared of a clone with a scar around his left eye. “Rishi outpost, this is Commander Cody. All quiet out there?”

           Hevy looked to Sergeant O’Niner to speak, but the Sarge just nodded at him to go ahead and Hevy stiffened, throwing his voice low and gruff as he always did when he was nervous. “Ah, yes sir, everything’s fine here. Just testing the long range communications, sir.” Droidbait saw Cody smile a little and Hevy awkwardly added, “How are things with the fleet, Commander?”

            “We’re still hunting General Grievous. That monster’s evaded our sensors so far, but we’ll get him.” The commander smirked and nodded once. “Stay vigilant. He could be anywhere, and our intelligence suggests he usually lies low like this just before a large-scale attack.”

            “Yes sir!” Hevy said. “The fleet can depend on us.”

            “Glad to hear it. I’d better get back to the command post. Good luck with the new batch, O’Niner.”

            “Thank you, sir,” said Sergeant O’Niner solemnly. “Good luck to you as well.”

            When the hologram cut out, Droidbait wasn’t the only one suppressing a grin of excitement.

            “That was Commander Cody,” O’Niner said. “He oversees the entire Third Systems Army, and works directly with Jedi General Obi-Wan Kenobi on the front lines… probably one of the most respected leaders in the entire war effort. It’s lucky he wasn’t too busy to receive our message.”

            Everyone was silent, until Echo piped up, “thank you for letting us speak with him, Sergeant. It’s an honor.”

            O’Niner took a step back away from Hevy, turning his head to look at every one of them. “I want you all to remember: it may be quiet out here, but we are still part of the same army as soldiers like him. The Republic is depending on us to stay alert to any threat on our borders.”

            “Yes, sir!”

            “Now… you four, report.”

            “We inventoried the armory, sir.” Echo stepped forward and handed over his datapad. “There were some empty LT barrels in there. We’ll move them as soon as we know where you’d like them to go.”

            “Not too bad,” the Sergeant nodded, reading. “Are the barracks in shape?”

            “Yes, sir,” 327 said. “We found a few items they seem to have left behind. Should we attempt to return them to their owners, sir?”

            O’Niner shook his head. “Unless it’s something we can use, or something obviously personal, junk it. Those men were warned to clear the barracks of anything they wanted to keep.”

            327 looked at Echo, then at Droidbait. “Yes, sir.”

            “Anything else?”

            Nub spoke up. “Droidbait and I found some kind of large… insect skin, I think. In the vents.”

            “And a lot of dust,” Echo added.

            “Perhaps you could identify it, sir?” asked Droidbait.

            “You can ID it yourselves,” O’Niner said. “Between your datapads and the computers here, you should be able to dig up any information on dangerous native creatures that you need. There isn’t much here on this moon.” The corner of his mouth twitched, the closest thing to a smile Droidbait had seen him give. “And only the giant eels are really dangerous.”

            “Giant eels, sir?” Echo asked, his voice a little high.

            Everyone was quiet. Droidbait tried to guess if the Sarge was serious or was pulling a prank. Cut-Up was stifling a grin, but that was nothing new.

            “You bet, son. Giant eels,” O’Niner said gravely. “Big enough to swallow you whole. So don’t get any ideas about fooling around outside the base. Now who’s going to help me check up on the cleaning droids?”

            “I will, sir!” 327 practically leapt forward. “I’m pretty good with machinery.”

            “Good. The rest of you can familiarize yourselves with the computer systems. Hevy, Four-Seventy, and Sprout will fill you in.”

            “Question, sir,” Fives said.

            “Go ahead, Fives.”

            “There aren’t enough duties for all of us to stay busy in ops once we’re briefed on the systems. What are our duties once we’re finished with that?”

           “As long as the necessary posts are manned at all times, the rest of you can relax or find something else to do. Check out the mess hall… explore the base, catch up on the regs, hit the gym, listen to music. Move those empty LT barrels. Whatever keeps you out of trouble. Just don’t distract the troopers who are keeping watch. We’ll work out formal shifts as soon as you’re all familiar with your duties. Clue, you’re with me and Three-Two-Seven.”

            O’Niner left the room with 327 and Clue. Everyone else turned to stare at each other.

            “Do you think he was serious?” Echo asked. “Or… is this some kind of test?”

            “He’s serious. He already showed us how to pull up the approved music station,” Hevy said.

            “That he did!” Cut-Up agreed. “Check it out, brothers!”

            He pulled up a hologram of a dancing droid that Droidbait could only guess was supposed to look like a woman. A tinny melody with deep bass came over the speakers. It was like nothing he’d ever heard before. He couldn’t tell if he liked it or not.

            “Hey, not bad.” Fives was grinning and immediately began nodding slightly to the beat.

            “Are you sure we’re allowed to listen while on duty?” Echo asked.

            Hevy shut it off. “I dunno. Sarge didn’t say, exactly.”

            “What do you guys make of him, anyway?” asked another trooper. “I can’t tell if he’s just more lax that I expected or… maybe now that we’ve graduated, we do get more privileges.”

            “I dunno, Sprout. Maybe he’s trusting us to take initiative,” Fives said. “Show we’re capable and dedicated even when we’re given a little more freedom. Show that we can be part of a team.”

            “That’s what I think,” Echo added. “We have to prove we’re responsible. Real soldiers, not just rookies.”

            “Yeah,” sighed Hevy. “Let’s hope that’s all it is, and it’s not because he knows nothing will ever happen on this rock. Come on guys, I’ll show you how to run this thing.”

….

            By the time Droidbait walked back into the barracks that night, his head was so full of new music, orders, and information on the quadrant and the base that he’d completely forgotten about the pictures on 327’s bunk. He guessed the same was true for Echo, because the minute he and Droidbait walked in and saw Fives, Hevy and Cut-Up passing them around, Echo made a loud noise of dismay.

            “Where’s CT Three-Two-Seven? He said he was going to junk those!”

            327 emerged from behind the crowd. “We junked all the stuff we couldn’t use. We can use these, so I didn’t junk them.”

            “And how exactly are these useful?” Echo asked. “What are we supposed to do with them? I don’t think Sarge would approve.”

            “Well,” Droidbait reluctantly spoke up. “Actually, he might not care. He doesn’t seem to be very strict so far.”

            “Seems a shame to throw them out,” Cut-Up laughed, looking at the one with the redhead woman. “They’re so funny.”

            “Maybe he’ll understand that we didn’t want to offend the guys who left them for us,” Fives said, “and he can ask them if they want them back.”

            “Personally, I don’t see what the problem is,” Hevy said, making a mildly disgusted face at the rodian one. “They wouldn’t have left them here if they were valuable, and it’s not that interesting to look at anyway. I don’t even like it. Something about it just rubs me the wrong way. And I don’t know what you’re laughing about, Cut-Up. It’s probably just some sort of prank.”

            “Well, it’s sort of interesting,” 327 said grudgingly. “Even though it’s… weird. I didn’t know Felucians were shaped like that. Or that they dressed like that.”

            “They’re not really like that,” Cut-Up laughed. “There’s no way. That’s why it’s funny!”

            “But Nub’s the one who really doesn’t want them thrown out.” 327 teased.

            “What? I didn’t say that.” Nub had just walked into the barracks.

            “Yes you did. When we were discussing it in the mess, remember? You said you wondered how long it took to learn to make a picture like this.” 327 flicked a finger against the big twi’lek poster.

            “Oh… right.” Nub grimaced. “I just like the colors. And the lines.”

            “All a picture is, is colors and lines, Nub,” Sprout said.

            “No, I mean… not what the lines make. Just… see how it curves right there?” He pointed at the messy curls of the redhead’s hair. “It gets thicker and thinner in different places. It’s… it’s like calligraphy.”

            “Calligraphy?” Fives looked curious.

            “I-it’s a style of writing,” Nub said awkwardly, “some people use. I asked about it… Master Chief gave me some information. Thought it would be useful to be able to read all different kinds of writing. Never know where you might end up stationed, right?”

            “Hopefully nowhere Aurebesh or High Galactic isn’t being used,” Droidbait said, grinning.

            “No… look at the artist’s signature. That’s sort of like calligraphy. Not a different writing system, it’s just a special way of writing Aurebesh or High Galactic,” Nub clarified, scratching his head self-consciously.

            327 shook his head. “Oh yeah. It’s special, alright. Why don’t you ever spend your time learning something useful?” he sighed. “Maybe you’re right, Hevy. We should get rid of these. Nub doesn’t need any more distractions from being a soldier.”

            “Let’s just ask the sergeant what to do.” Echo said. “I volunteer.”

            “Good idea. Nub and I will go with you.” Droidbait nudged Nub and dragged him forward before he could protest. “Come on, hand over the flimsi.”

            “You know, I think I’m starting to see the humor,” Fives said, making faces at the one he was holding before handing it over to Echo. “Maybe. Nope, still more confused than amused.”

            “The best jokes don’t make any sense,” Cut-Up insisted sagely.

            When they’d gathered up all of the posters, they gave them to Echo and followed him out of the room.

            Droidbait fell in step close beside Nub. “So… does Three-Two-Seven have a problem with you?”

            “No,” Nub said quietly. “Just trying to keep me alive. And he’s right… it would be more useful if I were interested in weapons or strategy or….” He sighed. “Anything useful.”

            They walked in silence. Droidbait didn’t know what to say. Just outside the sergeant’s quarters, Echo stopped and looked at Nub. “Paying attention to detail is a useful skill on the battlefield. At least, that’s what I think.”

            He pushed the door’s comm button before either of them could answer.

             “Requesting permission to enter, Sergeant.”

            “Come.”

            The door opened and Echo led them inside. O’Niner put down whatever he had been reading and faced them with his hands behind his back.

            “Sir,” Echo said briskly. “While we were inspecting the barracks earlier today, we found these with this note attached saying they were gifts for us. I reminded the others that we are prohibited from accepting gifts from civilians without proper approval, but most of us can’t agree on whether we should try to return them or throw them out. Is there any way we could contact the men who left them here?”

            O’Niner took the pile from Echo and rifled through it after scanning the note, one eyebrow slowly rising a little higher with each picture he saw. “And none of you want to keep them?”

            “No, sir,” Echo said, after a shocked, two-second silence. Nub opened his mouth and shut it again.

            “We know it’s against regulation, sir,” Droidbait jumped in. “And most of us don’t really see the point. But a few of us think they’re funny.”

            “Is that right?” O’Niner set the pile on the desk.

            “Mostly Cut-Up,” said Droidbait. “He has a weird sense of humor. But Nub and I like the colors on some of them, sir.”

            O’Niner looked hard at Droidbait and Nub for a long moment. His eyes were always slightly narrowed, and Droidbait wondered why that was. It made him uneasy.

            “We’ll get rid of them as soon as you give the order, sir,” said Nub. “But you did list an exception in your orders for anything obviously personal. We weren’t sure if this qualified.”

            “Do you find this… artwork distracting?” O’Niner gestured toward it with one hand as he moved around behind the projector and pushed a few buttons.

            “No, sir,” Nub said nervously.

            “No, sir,” Droidbait and Echo said.

            “Hmm. Would your fellow troopers agree with you on that?”

            Nub stood stiffly at attention. “They might not, sir. I did express an interest in the color and the quality of the lines.”

            “You’re not really going to let us keep them, are you sir?” asked Echo. “Wouldn’t that be against regulation?”

            “Hmm.” O’Niner stepped back from the buttons he’d been pressing. A hologram of the uniformed Sullustan they’d passed on the way in appeared on the projector.

            “Is there a problem, Sergeant?” said hologram.

            “Captain Ertell,” said O’Niner. “My men claim your crew left them a few posters as gifts. I believe some people call these pin-ups. Was it your intention to get my men to break regulation?”

            “I wasn’t aware there was a regulation against decorating the base, Sarge,” Ertell laughed. “A little beauty is every man’s right. We just had some extras and thought at the last minute that it might be nice to pass them on. The walls get awful boring otherwise.”

            “And did it ever cross your mind that my men might not actually care for your gifts?” O’Niner’s voice took on an almost weary tone. He rubbed his left temple slightly.

            Droidbait glanced at Nub and knew they were both thinking that they did care—having something bright to look at was starting to look more and more appealing the more Droidbait thought about it. Some of them made him wonder about faraway planets where the light was golden or green rather than the washed out blue-grey or sterile white he’d seen his entire life.

            “Uhh,” Ertell said. “Well, maybe some soldiers aren’t into the ladies, but you can’t be saying that all of you—”

            “I am saying that we of the Grand Army of the Republic generally lack your appreciation for this topic of… entertainment,” O’Niner said, still in that dull tone that Droidbait suddenly realized was exasperation. “Your thoughtfulness is appreciated, but for your information and future reference, troopers are not permitted to receive gifts except from an army general. And if you were approved to give something, useful supplies or information would be more welcome. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this happen. Civilians often get the wrong idea and think they’re doing us a favor.”

            “Sorry, sir. Didn’t mean to cause any trouble, you know,” Ertell shrugged. His voice sounded genial but he was looking at the sergeant as if O’Niner had said something ridiculous “You can throw them out if you want, and no need to ship them back to us. They’re not that valuable anyway. Any other problems with the base?”

            “Nothing we can’t clean up ourselves,” O’Niner said. “O’Niner out.”

            Ertell looked slightly upset when the hologram of his face disappeared. O’Niner picked up the pile of pin-ups and marched past Nub, Droidbait, and Echo.

            “Come on, men.”

            They fell in line behind O’Niner, all too unnerved to say anything. Droidbait had never seen a clone officer talk like that to a citizen of the Republic. He wasn’t sure whether O’Niner’s behavior qualified as disrespect or if Ertell had simply overreacted.

            “Question, sir,” Droidbait finally got up the nerve to say.

            “Remind me of your name.”

            “It’s Droidbait, sir.”

            “What’s your question, Droidbait?”

            “Sir. I’m just not sure I understand the situation. Was there something malicious about them leaving these posters for us?”

            O’Niner shook his head slowly, but stopped to open the barracks door and didn’t speak again until they were all inside. Fives, Cut-Up and the rest stood up and came to attention.

            “At ease. I doubt the men who left these here meant any harm by it,” O’Niner said to them all, dropping the pile neatly on the nearest bunk. “And even if they did… most civilians can never really wrap their heads around what it means to be one of us. They think because we walk and talk like other humans, we have the same instincts. We don’t. If any of you ever end up working with other humans, or most other species in general, be aware they will make assumptions about you based on their own reproductive instinct.”

            Droidbait glanced down at the pile of posters on the bunk. He couldn’t quite figure out why a man’s reproductive instinct should have anything to do with not wanting to draw the proper posture for holding a gun.

            “I have a question, Sergeant,” Cut-Up said.

            “Go ahead,” O’Niner said.

            “When a human and a Felucian have a baby, what does it look like?”

            Someone made a noise like he’d just managed to keep himself from choking on air. Droidbait couldn’t figure out if it was Sprout or 327.

            “Humans and Felucians aren’t biologically compatible,” O’Niner said stoically. “But as you can see, that doesn’t matter to some people. Now the real question is, what do we do with these? The men who left these for you don’t want them back. There’s nothing in regulation to say that any decoration that comes with a base must be immediately destroyed. You can put up a couple small ones in central ops, but the rest will be confined to this room or the trash compactor. Understood?”

            “Yes, sir!”

            “It’s true there’s not much to look at out here in terms of color. About as much as on Kamino. But if for any reason I think these pictures are decreasing our efficiency as a unit, they come down.”

            “Yes, sir!”

            “Understood, sir!”

            “Any questions?” O’Niner asked.

            “Sir,” Echo said immediately. “There may be a loophole in the regulations but wouldn’t it be safer to dispose of them all in the first place?”

            “Safer?” O’Niner gave Echo a funny look. “Let me tell you something, boys. I’ve been all over this galaxy and had more than my share of close calls. I’ve seen things that would make anyone’s hair go grey. And I think I know what regulations are important. Trying to stick by every rule equally without remembering what they’re for will get you nothing but a headache at best.” He grimaced, and Droidbait wondered if a headache was behind his constant squinting. “At worst it’ll get you killed. The most important rule is to stay alert, focus on your job, and watch out for yourself and the rest of your team. That’s the only thing that will keep you alive, whether you’re right here tracking enemy ships or dodging clankers on the front lines. The way I figure it, that’s all the motivation any trooper needs to focus on their duties. But don’t think I won’t be watching for any weak links on the team. Can I count on you to put your duties first?”

            “Yes, sir!” everyone immediately said, and Droidbait heard the fervent tone in Echo’s voice. But when he glanced at his batcher, Echo’s brow was furrowed a little in confusion.

            “Glad to hear it,” O’Niner said. Then the Sergeant turned abruptly and left.

            For a moment, everyone was silent, and Droidbait felt a little off-balance.

            “You know,” he said half to himself. “I still can’t tell if he likes us or not.”

            “Well done, Cut-Up,” Hevy said sarcastically, clapping his hands. “You’re lucky Sarge didn’t discipline you for that comment.”

            Cut-Up just laughed. “Aww, you think he got the joke and just didn’t like it?”

            “Nah,” said 327. “He probably just decided it wasn’t actually funny.”

            “Are we really putting these up on the walls?” Fives interrupted. “I vote no on the Felucian and the Rodian.”

            “And that one twi’lek with the headtails all tied in a bow gives me the creeps,” Sprout agreed. “Let’s throw that one out.”

            “But that one’s my favorite,” Cut-Up joked, then shook his head, grin skewing even further. “Looking at these pictures couldn’t possibly make someone want to mate with a Felucian, right? I mean, they’re like little turtle people.”

            “Eh, it’s like Sarge says,” Droidbait sighed. “Some things we’ll just never understand, and civvies won’t understand why we don’t understand, and….”

            “He didn’t say that,” Echo said. “He said—”

            A smattering of “we know!” and “we heard!” stopped Echo from repeating O’Niner’s speech word for word. Soon everyone was voting on which posters to keep and which to throw away. Droidbait voted to keep the sunny green twi’lek and even the upside-down redhaired human—mostly because, as Nub put it, “she looks so cheerful.”

            When the deliberating dragged on for more than a few minutes, Droidbait drifted over to his crate and began taking his armor off. The fist-sized insect skin was still sitting where he’d dropped it earlier that day. He picked it up in one hand with a kind of slow, reverent pleasure. Now he had a chance to look it up in the database and find out what creature it came from.

            Dropping the two armplates he’d removed onto his bed, Droidbait happily carried the nearly weightless thing over to the barracks computer and started his search.

            “Hey.” Nub came over, holding the two posters they’d voted on in one hand. “You gonna try and keep that?” He motioned toward the shell in Droidbait’s hand.

            “Nah,” said Droidbait. “Too fragile, even if Sarge might say it’s okay. I just wanna know what it came from.”

            “You like bugs?” Nub guessed.

            “I dunno.” Droidbait shrugged one shoulder as he scanned through the sparse file on the moon’s native life. “I’m just curious. There’s so many things in the galaxy I’ve never seen for myself. I don’t know how long I’ll be here… might as well make the most of it and learn as much as I can, right?”

            “Yeah,” Nub said thoughtfully. Out of the corner of his eye Droidbait saw him lift the pictures in his hand to eye level again. “You think we’re really that different from everyone else, like Sergeant O’Niner says? Think other people really look at this stuff and have some kinda intense physical… emotional response?”

            “That’s what I hear. Ah!” Droidbait cringed as he accidentally crunched off a flake of the exoskeleton in his hand—the computer had finally produced a result that seemed to match. “Look, it’s probably one of these… Lan Barell Xiph. Some kind of scorpion… crab thing….”

            “Guess being able to ID foreign creatures might be useful on the battlefield. At least you’d know if something’s dangerous or not.”

            “Yeah,” Droidbait said guiltily. “Yeah, maybe it could be useful someday.” He shut off the computer. “Guess I’ll go throw this out.”

            “Wait. Trade?”

            Nub offered the posters and held his free hand palm-up. Droidbait took the posters and handed over the skin. He watched as Nub smiled slowly and looked over at the group still debating over the posters. Hevy, Fives and Echo were standing a little off to the side, Fives still putting in comments here and there.

            “No, I said the blue one can stay, the purple one’s gotta go. You’re the only one who likes that one, Cut-Up.”

            “Watch this,” Nub whispered, then crept up behind where 327 was sitting on a crate and cried “Incoming!” as he raised his arm.

            The creature’s shell dropped on top of the poster 327 was holding—confused yells and flailing hands ensued from the others while 327 scrambled backward, knocked into Fives, then lunged back over the crate and stomped hard and repeatedly until everyone had backed up at least two steps.

            “I got it! Don’t worry, I got it,” 327 panted triumphantly. “It’s dead.” He lifted his foot.

            “Pulverized,” Sprout said, sounding impressed, even though he’d seen Nub approach. Most of them had.

            “Somebody give this trooper a medal for saving our lives,” Cut-Up said.

            “Yeah, Three-Two-Seven,” Hevy added in an extremely impressed tone. “I think that was one of the really poisonous ones,”

            “Well… it’s not dangerous anymore,” 327 said, nodding resolutely toward the powdered fragments on the floor.

            Nub grinned and Droidbait had to stifle a laugh.

            “Actually,” Echo said. “It was never even alive.”

            “What?” 327 looked confused.

            “Didn’t you notice earlier when Nub and Droidbait found that shell?”

            “Oh come on. Echo, you spoiled it!” Hevy groaned.

            “Echo!”

            “What?” Now Echo looked even more put out than 327.

            Fives laughed, clapping Echo on the shoulder. “Ahh, it was funny anyway.”

            “Yeah, truth has to come out sooner or later,” Nub admitted.

            327 looked like he might be angry for a moment but then he took a deep breath and rolled it out of his shoulders. He even smiled as he pointed sharply at Nub. “I’ll get you back.”

            Droidbait edged over to stand beside his batchers, still laughing a little. “I think I’m gonna like it here.”

            He looked down at the lines of curly hair on the page Nub had handed him and tried to imagine them arranged into letters like the illegible signature below. He had a feeling he didn’t yet see exactly what Nub saw in it. But he wanted to. Maybe his curiosity wasn’t all bad even if it hadn’t won any battles. And maybe he didn’t have to look to exotic planets to learn something new and exciting… and this base and these brothers could teach him more than enough for now, until the next chapter of his life.

Chapter Text

“We have art in order not to die of the truth.” – Friedrich Nietzsche.

            Kix paused a moment just outside his tent. It was snowing lightly, none of the harsh driving winds of earlier while they’d been setting up camp. But it was still cold, and quiet. He could hear murmurs and whispers all around him carrying through the tent walls, most of them alight with blurry silhouettes cast from the lanterns inside.

            He took his helmet off and instantly felt the sting of cold air on his cheeks, nose, ears, and neck. His breath misted before he ducked inside the tent.

            “Jesse?” Kix laughed under his breath as he began shedding his cold weather gear. “What are you doing?”

            On the bedroll on the far right side of the tent, a trooper-sized lump was hunched over inside a sleeping bag. Kix glanced to his left and saw that Dogma was lying flat on his back in his own bag, eyes closed.

            There was no response from Jesse, and Kix finished stripping down to his undersuit before trying again in a loud whisper.

            “Hey! Jesse!”

            “What?” The lump rustled and Jesse’s head emerged halfway for a moment. Kix grabbed the bag at the seal and yanked it open. He wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but it wasn’t what he saw.

            Jesse held a pen and several sheets of flimsi in both hands, and his wide-eyed face was mortified as he grabbed the sleeping bag’s edge with one hand, dropped some of his sheets and fumbled to pick them up again.

            “I, uh, I-I it’s nothing! Forget it!” Jesse laughed nervously and shoved the sheets behind him with an overly innocent grin which quickly wavered into a pleading grimace.

            “Uh… now I’m really curious.” Kix sat down on his sleeping bag next to Jesse’s. “What are you writing? Letters to someone?”

            “Maybe,” Jesse mumbled, shifting so that Kix couldn’t see behind his back.

            “Okay… who is it?” Kix felt a bit baffled. Jesse had never mentioned friends outside the 501st before.

            “Nobody!” Jesse shrugged and lay down on the pages, which crinkled loudly. He re-zipped his bag. “Hey, turn off the lamp, will you? Let’s get some sleep.”

            “Jesse, come on!” Kix couldn’t keep a grin off his face . “Why won’t you tell me?”

            It was amazing how “innocent”—and thus, how guilty—Jesse could look without even saying a word. Eyebrows high, he pulled the top of the bag up to his chin and kept looking away, then back again at Kix.

            “Lights out?” Jesse prompted, rolling so his back was to Kix. “You were the last one in.”

            “Let me see!” Kix insisted, tugging the bag open again and trying to dig his hands under Jesse’s side

            “Hey!” Jesse’s body jerked; he quickly stuffed the pages down to the bottom of the bag and sat up, stubbornly guarding the top of the zipper with both hands.

            An incredulous laugh burst from Kix. He just looked so ridiculous. “Jesse, what—”

            “Try and get it now you... you nosy….” Jesse trailed off and scooted like a clumsy worm toward the tent wall with a warning look as Kix edged closer.

            Kix frowned and let his outstretched hands fall to his lap, staying where he knelt. He considered for a moment, and then sighed. “So… what, you don’t trust me?”

            “What?” Jesse’s stubborn look wavered.

            “Fine,” Kix went on softly… sadly. “I guess I just… wasn’t expecting you to ever feel like you needed to keep secrets from me, that’s all.”

            Jesse was really squirming now. Kix could see it in his face. “That’s… not what... I….”

            Kix just looked at him, expecting him to give in at any moment. He just had to be patient.

            “Well… it’s….” Jesse struggled, still curled up in that ridiculous little ball. “It’s just sort of….”

            An exasperated sigh sounded from the other side of the tent. When Kix looked over, Dogma was sitting up and giving them both dirty looks.

            “You are prohibited from owning flimsi!” Dogma hissed. “Unless you’re writing a report, but I don’t see why you would. You’re not even a sergeant! So you had better hand over those notes to a superior officer!”

            “I’m a superior officer,” Kix offered, trying not to grin again. He held out a hand. “Come on Jesse. Hand ‘em over. Don’t make me knock Dogma out to keep him from telling on you.”

            Dogma gave an offended little puff. “Stop making threats! And Jesse, you ought to be ashamed of yourself for breaking the rules in the first place!”

            Kix ignored him, trying to wrestle Jesse’s sleeping bag open.

            “No! Kix! I said cut it out!” Jesse half laughed, half whined, slapping his hands away. Kix tried again, and again, Jesse squirming and blocking each time until they were locked in a sort of arm wrestle, Kix trying to pry Jesse’s arms away from where they crossed over the zipper.

            “Honestly, you’re both acting completely unprofessionally!” Dogma’s whisper was getting shrill. “What if the general walked in and saw you right now?!

            “Ah, shut up Dogma,” Kix huffed, backing off for a second. “You’re not helping. I’m trying to get to the bottom of Jesse’s insubordination here.” He raised an eyebrow at Jesse.

            Jesse rolled his eyes from where he lay nearly face-down on the floor. From the way he was bunched up, he looked like he had a stomachache.

            “I’m going to tell the general!” Dogma stood up, crouching under the ceiling of the tent.

            “Sit down!” Kix snapped, jumping to his feet. “You just stay here; I’ll take care of this. You keep an eye on Jesse.”

            Dogma looked startled, then sat down obediently and fixed his eyes on Jesse. “Oh, I will. Fine. Very good, sir.”

            Kix tried hard not to laugh as he grabbed his helmet and walked out of the tent a few steps. He scooped up a bucket full of snow before hurrying back in, shivering.

            “Wait, what—what are you doing,” Dogma gasped and kneeled toward him, “Don’t tell me—you’re going to make it ALL COLD AND WET IN HE—!!”

            He cut off in a coughing splutter as Kix shoved a handful of snow in his mouth.

            Jesse roared with laughter until Kix stuffed his face with a chunk of snow as well. As Jesse choked and hurried to keep the snow off himself and his bedding, Kix unzipped the bag all the way to the bottom and pulled out the crumpled pages.

            “WAIT! HEY! THAT’S it!” Jesse growled, face red in patches from the cold. “NO! Give it BACK!!” He scrambled for the pages but Kix kept shuffling backward, laughing as he twisted away.

            “Evasive maneuvers!” Kix yelled, ducking under Jesse’s outstretched arm, rolling away from his attempted tackle. “Hey, watch out, you’re gonna tear them!”

            Dogma was red in the face too as he lunged between them and chucked the helmet out of the tent.

            “You two better cut it out if you don’t want to be freezing tonight!” He zipped the tent door shut with a vengeance.

            “Ah we’ll just steal your sleeping bag if ours are no good,” Kix snorted and kept both his hands tight around the bunched pages; Jesse was eyeing them desperately.

            “You wouldn’t dare!” Dogma sat on his with a wild look.

            Kix plopped back down onto his sleeping bag, still chuckling a little even though it was damp. He flopped over, curled protectively around the pages, and looked up at Jesse with a crooked smile. “Listen, Jessecakes—”

            “KIX!!” Jesse sat down and thwacked the top of his head, nearly whining. “I told you never to call me that again! Especially not in front of Dogma. Now give me those back! Please?”

            Kix tried to make some reply but he couldn’t stop laughing

            “It was one time when we were drunk!” Jesse scoffed. “Don’t look at me like that.”

            Kix took one look at Dogma’s appalled expression and had to wipe teary eyes against his shoulder. He stuffed his face into Jesse’s bedding, trying to calm down enough so that Jesse wouldn’t be able to wrestle the pages back.

            “Get over on your own nice wet bag, Kixidust,” Jesse muttered, shoving him with his foot. “It’s not that funny.”

            “KIXIDUST?” Dogma blurted, and now Jesse snorted, coughed, and started into a deep chuckling laugh.

            “I fff—” Kix could barely breathe. “I forgot about that!! Where do you c-come up with this stuff Jesse? Ahahaha…!”

            Jesse lurched forward and Kix rolled away just in time, jumping into a crouch. Jesse gave a desperate jump and both of them crashed backward into Dogma, who yelped. The entire tent rocked, the flexibility of its rods straining. Kix thought he heard one of the pegs pop free of the ice.

            “ARGHH get OFF me!” Dogma yowled, muffled on the bottom of the pile. “I’M GOING TO TELL THE CAPTAIN AND YOU ARE BOTH GONNA GET IT!!”

            Jesse was trying with all his might to pry Kix’s fingers off the papers, and Dogma meanwhile was scrambling to get out from under them like a wet cat in a bathtub.

            “LIGHTS OUT WAS TWENTY MINUTES AGO!” he added, huffing and puffing as he finally squirmed free of their wrestling match. “Break it up, break it u—” Dogma cut off in a yelp.

            A low purring growl, loud and resonant, came from just outside their tent door. Kix and Jesse went still too as Dogma grabbed his rifle and pointed it at the darkest corner of the tent, wavering between invisible targets.

            “Dogma,” Kix hissed, narrowly rescuing the pages from Jesse’s opportunistic clutches by grabbing Jesse’s hand and twisting it in a carefully practiced grip. “Point that OUT of the tent!”

            Dogma uncertainly shifted his aim to the tent door. They heard the slow compression of snow underfoot just outside, but then the zipper was moving—Dogma wavered, and in that moment Hardcase pounced inside.

            “HaHA!” He said, shoving Dogma’s rifle aside. “Scared you, didn’t I?”

            Dogma glared at him. “I could have—!”

            “Hey, hey, what’s going on, what’s this?” Hardcase grinned down at Kix and Jesse, his hands on his hips. “Sounds like quite the party over here.”

            “You’re bringing MORE snow in!” Dogma groaned. “It’s all over your feet! Get back to your own tent!”

            Kix was lying half on his stomach, guarding the papers from Jesse, who quickly rolled over onto his back and put his arms behind his head.

            “Oh,” Jesse said. “We were just… teasing Dogma. You know.”

            “More like breaking rules and causing a disturbance!

            “Oh? Is it against the rules to have a wrestling match now?” Hardcase chuckled and lay down right in between Jesse and Kix, forcing them to scoot a little further apart as he squashed and wriggled himself into the narrow space with a satisfied sigh, as if they were merely enormous pillows.

            Kix shifted onto his back, papers tucked safely beneath him. As he shifted Hardcase stretched out his arms so that Kix’s head came down on one of them. Dogma was looking down at them all as if wondering who these foreign life forms were and what they were doing in his tent.

            “Yshhh, Cold!” Jesse complained at the touch of Hardcase’s icy under suit.

            “Exactly,” Hardcase said with a happy sigh.

            “The heat lamp’s over there, you know,” Kix grumbled, smiling. Hardcase didn’t move.

            “So,” Hardcase said, after a moment. Kix glanced over at Jesse, who was staring at the ceiling of the tent as if it held the secrets of the universe. “Don’t be shy. Sounds like you were having fun. What’d I miss?”

            “We were not having fun.” Dogma sounded offended.

            “Oh, did you guys see the way General Skywalker looked at Senator Amidala?”

            “He’s a Jedi!” Dogma hissed. “That’s ridiculous! You shouldn’t talk about your superior officers behind their backs!”

            “You’re right, Dogma!” Hardcase grinned. “Next time I’ll talk about it in front of his back.”

            “Hey, Hardcase,” Jesse said suddenly.

            “Hm?”

            “Pin down Kix for me.”

            “Okay!”

            “Hey!” Kix yelled, too late. Hardcase was quick and had both his arms pinned to the ground in less than two seconds. “Hardcase! You didn’t even ask why?!”

            “Okay now help me roll him over,” Jesse said. “Don’t let him get his arms behind him!”

            Kix kicked and thrashed as Jesse pinned his legs together while Hardcase pulled him over onto his side. A moment later they released him and Jesse had the pages tucked safely inside his under suit.

            “What is that?” Hardcase asked, as Kix caught his breath on the floor, the sting of defeat softened by knowing that Hardcase was going to be just as curious and stubborn about it, too.

            “It’s nothing!” Jesse groaned, arms folded tight. “Just leave it alone!”

            “Woahohoho, Jesse, where did you get all that? I saw at least three sheets of flimsi there!” Hardcase sounded impressed.

            Dogma scowled at them all from the wet side of the tent. Kix laughed under his breath at Jesse’s face; he knew he was never going to get out of this now.

            “Look, not so loud, alright?” Jesse hissed.

            Hardcase lowered his voice but was half-laughing. “Well just let me see it, come on!”

            Jesse frowned. “It’s private.”

            “Hah!” Hardcase slapped his knee. “Privacy? Since when do any of us need privacy?”

            Jesse laughed self-consciously. “Look, it’s really not important.”

            “Ohh, well!” Hardcase said, eyebrows high. “If it’s not important, then why are you breaking protocol?”

            “Yeah!” Dogma cried.

            Hardcase laughed at that and Dogma looked confused for a moment before scowling.

            “Not that you care about protocol,” Dogma muttered.

            Hardcase flopped back down next to Kix, arms behind his head. “Come on Jesse,” he coaxed warmly. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours!”

            Jesse looked puzzled until Hardcase reached inside his own under suit and brought out a few cards of flimsi.

            Kix and Jesse both stared questioningly at the little packet—Kix could see a trooper helmet in several angles sketched out on it—while Dogma just shook his head with a severe look.

            “You’re both going to catch it from the general tomorrow. I don’t understand how you were chosen to be part of Torrent Company.”

            Hardcase beckoned to Jesse, who came and lay down on his other side so he could see.

            “That one’s old, though,” Hardcase said, and shuffled to the next one in the little pack, which was a stylized design of some kind of horned animal head. 

            “Is that a tattoo?” Kix asked, turning onto his side so he could prop his head up and see both their faces better.

            “Yeah, it’s a motmot head,” Hardcase said, sounding pleased. “See the tusks and the little swirl of fur right there on the forehead? I drew that one for Thirty-Eight-Ninety when I caught him petting one back at base camp, but he said he might just put it on his armor somewhere. Maybe I’ll draw him a better tattoo when he finally gets a nickname he likes. Hey, maybe Mott would be a good name!”

            “You drew that?” Jesse coughed. “Whoa.”

            “Ah, I’ve done better.” Hardcase smirked and rifled through the cards, many of them abstract designs, before choosing a new one. It took Kix a moment to tell what it was supposed to be, but then the deceptively simple shapes seemed to click into place; a Z-95 starfighter crashing, the smoke and flames twisting up in the shapes of birds.

            “What?” Dogma barked into their silence. He stiffly edged a foot closer. “What is it? Let me see just how badly against the rules this IS.”

            “Oh, now you’re ready to join the party?” Hardcase smirked, but didn’t give Dogma a chance to turn down the offer to plop down with them. He turned the little “deck” around and showed Dogma a few of the drawings. All three of them watched his face turn from stubborn disapproval to surprise to doubt as he leaned forward to see them better.

            “Nice, huh?” Hardcase said proudly as he set the little pile of sheets face-down on his chest.

            “That’s amazing,” Jesse said quietly. Kix silently agreed. Dogma just looked perplexed.

            “So… let me see yours.” Hardcase held out a hand toward Jesse.

            “Ehh….” Jesse grimaced.

            “Come onnn,” Hardcase coaxed, grinning. “A deal’s a deal!”

            “Alright, alright,” Jesse gave in reluctantly. “Just… let me choose which one.” He smoothed the crumpled pages face-down on his own chest.

            “Hey,” Hardcase complained. “I showed you all of mine I had on me! Kix, is that fair?” Hardcase whipped his head over to look at Kix. “Tell me that’s not fair.”

            “That’s not fair, Hardcase,” Kix said seriously, trying not to smile.

            “See Jesse? It’s not fair. Dogma? Eh?”

            Dogma just sat down after feeling for wet spots, scowling at them all as they sprawled over his sleeping bag.

            “Well….” Jesse took a deep breath and handed the pages over to Hardcase and flung an arm up over his head, shutting his eyes in feigned non-concern.

            Hardcase was grinning as he unfolded the pages as if expecting to peep at something incriminating. But his playful look vanished immediately. The sight of the sudden change sent unexpected tendrils of dread through Kix’s chest, and he wondered what was making Hardcase’s eyebrows furrow like that. What could Jesse have drawn or written….

            He tried to shift so he could see, but Hardcase turned so the back of the paper was facing Kix. “Just a second,” he said softly, and he sat up, blinking down at the words. Kix saw his eyes moving and his lips mouthing the words vaguely as he read under his breath.

            Mystified, Kix glanced over at Jesse, who gave him a guilty-looking frown before going back to staring anxiously at Hardcase.

            “What? What does it say?” Dogma finally piped up again, crawling forward to peer at the page.

            “Shh!”

            Hardcase shoved Dogma’s face away distractedly and went back to reading. Dogma folded himself up neatly by the heat lamp and went back to sulking.

            Finally, Hardcase held out one of the pages to Kix, who sat up too and took it with both hands, guarding it from Dogma’s view as Hardcase had done.

            “That one isn’t finished,” Jesse muttered, but didn’t move.

                        Our footsteps shoot holes

                        in the canyon walls

                        but if I stopped to listen

            Kix stopped, startled. This wasn’t what he had expected at all. He started over again with an odd shivering heat spreading out into his arms and face.

                        Our footsteps shoot holes

                        in the canyon walls

                        but if I stopped to listen

                        the ricochet might

                        hit me square in the chest

                        wind me, halt the march

                        we can't all stop

                        to recognize the answering

                        sounds that rattle the ice

                        beneath us

                        we can't even one of us

                        stop but to laugh and

                        think

                        what a thing

                        to be spooked over

                        the

            The last line had several disjointed words scribbled out one after the other. Kix blinked at the page and glanced at Jesse, whose eyes were wide on him.

            Hardcase handed over another page, and Kix read it, and the next and the next. When Hardcase was on the last page, he blew out a sigh.

            “Wow, Jesse.”

            “What?” Jesse sat up like the rest of them, no longer able to keep himself still on the ground. “What do you mean ‘wow’?”

            Hardcase just kept his eyes on the last page until he was finished, then handed it over to Kix without a word.

            “What?” Jesse croaked. “What’s wrong?”

            “Wrong?” Hardcase laughed, a soft little laugh. “Nothing’s wrong, unless Dogma decides to tell on us—which he won’t, right buddy?”

            “Someone has to tell the captain,” Dogma muttered.

            Kix reverently straightened the papers in his hands and held them back out for Jesse. “So, uh… how long have you been doing this?” he asked, not sure what else to say. The words he’d read made him feel oddly uncomfortable, like hearing a language that he only half understood, and he wasn’t sure why, besides the cryptic use of metaphor.

            Jesse shrugged sheepishly. “I dunno…a while?”

            “Well, what even made you think to start? I’ve never even read anything like that before.”

            “Uhh, well, you know, it just sort of… happened,” Jesse mumbled, scratching his head. “I heard something somewhere… kinda liked the way the words sounded… uh… yeah.”

            “Exactly!” Hardcase broke in, all grins again. “One day I was on guard duty and I was poking around in the mud with a stick and I just started making shapes and before I knew it....” Hardcase slapped himself on the chest and spread his hands in a self-admiring shrug. “Oh, oh, hang on.” He fished out his bundle of sketches again and shuffled them around before holding one out toward Dogma. “Look, Dogma, this one’s you.”

            Dogma jerked out of his morose ball for a moment to blink at the picture, before his face pinched back into its usual position. “That doesn’t look anything like me. I don’t think you’re very good at this. Besides, it’s a waste of time! We’re soldiers!”

            “Let me see.” Kix grabbed the paper. There, staring back at him, in great detail and shading, was a portrait… of a forked stick in what looked like the mud of a grassy swamp. Choking back a laugh, he handed it to Jesse.

            “This war isn’t gonna last forever, Dogma,” Hardcase said in a half-amused, lecturing tone.

            “Oh and then you're going to be a famous artist? Don't count on it when I can't even tell what that's supposed to be!"

            “It’s a joke, Dogma,” Jesse laughed and smacked his forehead.

            “Well it’s one more skill than you have,” Hardcase teased Dogma. “Wait. Two, actually! Art and comedy. Anyway, you see this right here?” He held out another helmet and armor design. “I designed this myself! And just look at Kix’s hair! That is some GREAT artwork right there!”

            Kix smiled and raised his eyebrows accommodatingly.

            Dogma sighed heavily. “What-ever… it’s time for bed. So if you don’t mind clearing out—this isn’t even YOUR tent!” He pointed at Hardcase, then out the door.

            “Oh.” Hardcase scooted backward and put an arm each around Jesse and Kix. “It’s not?”

            Dogma just glared sullenly.

            “We should get some sleep,” Kix admitted.

            “So let’s sleep!” Hardcase fell backward, pulling Kix and Jesse with him so that their heads banged against his a little.

            “Ow,” Jesse grunted.

            Dogma snorted derisively. “Well if you’re going to sleep like that, you could at least give me back my sleeping bag.”

            “Jesse’s didn’t get that wet,” said Kix, as Hardcase snuggled up against him in a big show of ‘going to sleep’.

            “You both were the ones who got it wet in the first place, so YOU’RE the ones who should have to SLEEP IN IT!” Dogma growled.

            Kix sat up with an impatient sigh. “Well, we can’t all fit in three sleeping bags anyway.” He dragged the other two bags over and brushed the last few drops of water from the resistant outsides before wriggling down into his.

             “Too bad,” said Hardcase, maneuvering Dogma’s so it was right between Kix and Jesse, while Jesse settled in.

             “And where am I supposed to sleep?” Dogma asked.

            “I’ve got a nice cozy bag waiting for you in tent number four,” Hardcase said. He stood up and patted Dogma on the head—or tried to. Dogma jerked away with a sour face.

            “No! I have to keep an eye on you all!”

            “And keep us from doing what, exactly?” Jesse laughed, as Hardcase shrugged, slid into Dogma’s bag and threw an arm over Jesse's chest in a cuddle.

            “I don’t know!” Dogma scoffed, bristling as Hardcase heaved a happy sigh. “I don’t have an insubordinate’s mind! But the way you’re acting is against proper behavior! I don’t know what’s wrong with you.”

            “So add it to your list to tell the captain tomorrow,” Kix said. “Do you really think he’ll care about something like this?”

            “Added to all your other rule-breaking, I’m sure he will!”

            “Right. Well, it’s up to you,” Hardcase sing-songed. “You can stand there being cold or go sleep in my tent.”

            “Just turn off the light on your way out,” Jesse said, voice muffled.

            Kix could already feel the body heat building inside his bag as the light dimmed and disappeared. He pressed his back against Hardcase, felt the reassuring rhythm of another’s breathing calming him. In the quiet he heard Dogma collecting his armor, but then there was no sudden influx of cold air or sounds of the zipper. He blinked up into the darkness.

            “Don’t just stand there, Dogma, it’s creepy,” he whispered.

            “I shouldn’t have to be forced out of my own tent,” Dogma hissed back.

            “No one’s forcing you,” Hardcase coughed. “You could always bring my bag back here and join us.” Kix could hear the grin in his voice as the sleeping bags rustled. “We’ll even let you sleep on this side of the tent. Right between me and Jesse.”

            “No thank you. I, unlike you, have a normal sense of personal space.”

            “Aww come on. We’re all brothers here, right? A good hug never hurt anybody. Well, I think I did almost crack somebody’s ribs once… but that’s just me.”

            A disgusted sigh filled the tent, and then came the dull rustle of armor and gear being collected, the fierce zipper sound, the chilly draft, and the quick crunching footsteps hurrying across the snow.

            “I feel sort of… bad, actually,” Jesse said after a moment of silence.

            “Eh, you never know, maybe he’ll get along better with the guys over there,” said Hardcase. “I did offer to let him join us.”

            “But, I mean… he knows we have forbidden items now. Maybe it would have been better not to get on his bad side.”

            “I don’t think there’s any other side you can be on with him,” Kix sighed. “At least not right now.”

            “Yup,” Hardcase said with a wistful tone. “Hopefully someday he’ll realize that some rules just aren’t as important as he thinks they are. That there’s more to life than what he can read in a reg manual.”

            Again the uncomfortable feeling rose in Kix, although he didn’t disagree exactly. He was thinking of other words he’d read on Jesse’s flimsi.

                        The ocean sand

                        storms and from where a man drowns

                        everything looks the same

                        but in the thick of that chaos

                        being one of many

                        it’s easier to notice when even

                        a single grain is washed away

            “Okay,” Jesse whispered suddenly. “So what if he does tell the General, and we do get in trouble?”

            “I doubt he’ll care,” Hardcase said. “But if he does confiscate it, I can hook you up with some more!”

            “I’ll just hide them for you,” Kix whispered back. He had room in his med pack.

            “Mine too?” Hardcase asked.

            “Sure.”

            Hardcase reached over, patting around for the right place, and rubbed the tiny bristle hairs on Kix’s head. “I owe you one, buddy.”

            Kix smiled into the edge of his sleeping bag; slowly, the uneasy feeling dispelled.

            Their breathing became a gentle, reassuring chorus. Kix closed his eyes, and softly, in a scratchy pitter-patter on the outside of the tent, a heavier snow began to fall.

Chapter Text

            “Just bring her back alive… without detection.”

            That was the last instruction Boba Fett’s employer had given him before sending him on this mission. Retrieving a crime lord’s stolen slave from another crime lord wasn’t exactly his favorite thing to do, but it promised to pay well, and that was what mattered.

            Voices and footsteps came muffled into the crate he sat crammed inside. He was getting too tall and gangly for this kind of thing. He’d still managed to fit somehow, but this was probably the last time he’d use this method to smuggle himself anywhere. Carefully, Boba popped open the hatch from the inside, slid the active tranq gas canister out onto the floor, and shut the lid again. Within a few moments, thuds vibrated through the floor, and he threw off the lid, stepping out into the kitchen of Yossuri’s undercity manor.

            The kitchen staff lay limp in a deep sleep, two humans, a sullustan and a duros. Boba breathed slowly through his helmet’s filters, checking his equipment again out of habit: two pistols, a few more gas canisters, binders, grappling gun. He had a rough map of the building he’d pieced together since that morning and the room where his mark was being kept should be just down the hall.

            Setting one of his pistols to stun, he stood with his back parallel to the door, hit the button to open it, and slid around the corner.

            The gaudy violet hallway was deserted. Places like this always made Boba feel slightly ill, and not just because of the decor. He hurried quietly toward the door just past the kitchens and reached out to the remove the panel on the lock. His skin had barely made contact with the panel before an electric shock yanked at his nervous system as if trying to bone a fish, and left him twitching on the carpet.

            He didn’t know how many seconds passed before he could see again. He only just managed to lift his arm enough to shoot the first few security droids that came around the corner. Even with unsteady aim he only missed once, but the way his muscles locked made him too slow to take out more than three. A confusion of blaster bolts crisscrossed and grazed his shoulder, glancing off the new chestplate he’d recently had fitted. He dropped his right pistol and only a split second later realized his right hand had been hit.

            Boba thought he saw the sweep of a lightsaber and tried to activate his grappling hook to drag him out of harm’s way before another jolt from the guard’s electrostaff burned through his spine and made his vision black out again.

            This isn’t right. The frustrated thought surfaced through the haze. He hadn’t even removed the panel! Why would Yossuri booby trap the door so that no one could even touch it, including himself? Boba’s head collided with the wall, and he heard a modulated voice say “You just had to get in my way. Now what am I going to do with you?”

            He raised his good hand blindly, tried to squeeze the trigger.

            “Uh-uh-uh,” the voice scolded. His vision cleared enough to see a svelte masked figure standing over him. The last thing Boba heard was the sound of a stun beam.

            “Back up, will you? Give us some room!”

            “Sorry, Batts. Just trying to get a good look at him.”

            “Right now, I’m the only one who needs to look at him.”

            “Well, excuse me for getting excited. When was the last time you saw one of us this young?”

            Boba knew that voice. It was all one voice, only different in inflection. Slowly, he opened his eyes.

            His own face stared back at him, but older. The hair was long and pulled back in a high ponytail—the clone’s jaw was rough with scruff and a wide white scar outlined his left cheekbone. Tiny tattooed spots scattered out from his hairline on one side of his forehead. His dark eyes were wrinkled up in a smile.

            “Hey, little brother,” the clone said gently. “You’re awake!”

            “I’m not your brother,” Boba growled weakly, suddenly aware of someone holding him up from behind. He tried to sit up straight. He realized he was half undressed—there were cheap patches on his side, neck and arm, and the clone with the long hair was treating the burn on his hand.

            “Course you are,” the long-haired clone said calmly, focusing on rubbing something into Boba’s fingers. “That’s how you ended up here. Ventress didn’t realize her plan to kill Yossuri would catch you in the crossfire. So… she saw you were a clone and brought you to us to take care of. I’m Battery, by the way.”

            Boba stayed silent, wanting to jerk his hand away. He hated the way Battery’s voice sounded so much like… but it wasn’t his father’s voice. And he didn’t need a father or a brother anymore. He was an adult, a respected bounty hunter.

            “That witch stole my bounty from me,” said Boba roughly. “She interfered!”

            “The way she tells it, she was there first,” another clone chuckled, crouching on Boba’s left. He wore short messy hair, a mustache, and a dark grey headband. He had even deeper lines around his eyes than Battery. “Had to be, to get all Yossuri’s slaves out before you set off her booby trap.” He held up a hand discolored by scars and some other darker stains. “Name’s Tamper, by the way. You?”

            “But… that wasn’t the mission,” Boba muttered, ignoring Tamper. “There was only a bounty on one of his slaves. He stole her from his rival, Akenja. That’s who I took the job from.”

            Tamper gave a crooked grin, almost sheepish. “Oh, let’s just say… Ventress has her own way of doing things sometimes. Kinda like us.”

            “I’m not staying here,” Boba said resentfully, and hated even as he spoke the way his gruff voice sounded so like theirs. He pulled his hand out of Battery’s loose grip and tried to get to his feet, but fell back into the clone who had been holding him up before.

            Boba pulled a pistol from his belt and pointed it at him, then Battery, who had jumped up to steady him.

            “I’m leaving, bounty or not. You’re not going to stop me!”

            “Whoa. Take it easy!” Battery said, holding up his hands. “Val, back up, give the kid some space.”

            “It’s alright now,” said another mild, identical voice from the footsteps that shifted away from Boba. “Relax, son. No one will find you here. Even if they do—”

            “Don’t call me that!” Boba snarled, turning to face the imposter. “I’m not your son!”

            The clone who stared back at him—Val—looked the most like a typical trooper of the three, clean-shaven with the sides of his head buzzed. Two small scars dotted his face, one just under the corner of his mouth, the other in the middle of the opposite cheek.

            “Alright,” said Val in a thoughtful tone. He shifted into a more military posture. Like all the rest, he wore a mish-mash of dark civilian clothes and armor. “You’re right. You may be only seven or eight, but if you’ve survived this long on your own… you’re not exactly a shiny. We’re just… looking out for you. Now… lower your weapon, and tell us where you want to go. Maybe we can help you get there.”

            Boba stood still a moment, wishing they would stop looking at him like that. Like they knew him.

            “I want to talk to Ventress,” he said at last.

            At that moment, a flap of cloth covering a doorway moved aside to admit a bald, heavily tattooed clone. A young pantoran woman lunged out after him out and grabbed onto his bare arm with both hands.

            “That’s my bounty!” Boba stared, lifting his pistol. “Hand her over. Don’t move!””

            The bald clone’s hand froze midway to the rifle on his back. “What—!”

            “Kid.” Battery commanded. “Weapon down.”

            A fifth clone emerged blaster-barrel first from the other side of the room.

            “What’s going on?” he demanded.

            Val and Tamper both pointed their own weapons at Boba. Val looked calm.

            “You’re not going to shoot Fade,” Val said steadily at Boba. “We’re going to talk this out.”

            “Sorry, Val.” Fade seemed flustered, glancing at the girl. “I told you not to follow me, Tseri.”

            “You didn’t tell me you saved the other bounty hunter!” Tseri hissed.

            “Val told you to keep them all out of sight, Fade,” Battery sighed.

            “That’s what I was trying to do!” Fade said, gesturing tentatively toward her. “She just….”

            “Look, it doesn’t matter now,” Val said. “No one’s going anywhere until we discuss this. Sit down, kid. And if you want me to stop calling you kid, you’re gonna have to tell me your name.”

            Boba didn’t want them using it, saying it in that familiar voice. When other people said it, it didn’t matter. It wasn’t the same.

            “Just call me Lucky,” he sighed impatiently, lowering his pistol. “I’m not staying long.”

            “Lucky,” said Battery softly. “It’s a good name for you. You’d have to be lucky to get off Kamino before they wiped out the rest of the kids. How’d you do it, anyway?”

            Boba stared at Tseri, who was glaring at him from Fade’s side. Fade didn’t look exactly thrilled with that arrangement. “My target’s name wasn’t Tseri. But she could be using an alias.”

            An awkward silence descended on the clones, filled only by a dull but loud hum of air somewhere beyond the walls. Boba saw them glancing at each other with what looked like concern. Pity, maybe. What did they mean about the rest of the kids? Boba imagined the thousands of clone children still in Tipoca City at the beginning of the war. Even with accelerated aging, not all of them would have graduated by the time it was over, especially not the ones who were in embryo stage at that time. And yet he’d been seeing fewer and fewer clone troops on Coruscant or anywhere else since the war’s end.

            Val, Battery, and Tamper sat down around him. He sat down too, trying not to show how exhausted he was.

            “Eh, Tseri… why don’t you go back in the other room?” Fade suggested politely.

            “I want to know what’s being decided here, about me and the others,” Tseri insisted.

            So Fade and the fifth clone, who introduced himself as Ember, sat with their rifles in their laps on either side of her, staring at Boba.

            “You wanted to talk,” Boba said to Val. “Fine. You better have some kind of deal in mind.”

            “Hear me out.” Val smiled briefly and sighed. “We know what it takes to survive in this Empire… especially as a fugitive clone. There’s a reason we ended up in the same business as you.”

            “You’re bounty hunters?” Boba looked skeptically at them. “All of you?”

            “We work best as a team,” Battery said simply.

            “Oh, I dunno about that,” Tamper teased, grinning underneath his unkempt mustache. “I think I could go it alone. I’d just be missing most of my fingers by now, that’s all.”

            “We were all part of the same squad in the city guard,” said Val. “The only reason we were able to desert from the army after… everything—” For the moment, Val’s eyes defocused. “—was because we already knew the undercity so well. It was only natural we make our living doing what we used to do… just under a different name.”

           “So you only collect bounties on criminals,” Boba said. “Great. But I’m not you. I take the jobs that pay well. I was never part of any army. I’ve been doing this since I was a child. And I’m not going to just give up what’s owed me because you want to keep pretending this city is your responsibility.”

            “It is our responsibility,” Ember said seriously. Boba looked at him. He had backswept collar-length hair and a tattoo in aurebesh that circled his neck. The only word Boba could make out fully from this angle was loyalty. “We swore an oath.”

            “Must have been real important to you if you deserted,” Boba said sarcastically. “But I’m not some army dog.”

            “I was a massiff handler,” Fade spoke up, and Boba realized now that he was sitting closer that the stylized tattoo that covered half his face and head was supposed to be a massiff. “And I took good care of them, until I had to leave. They were important to me. But I’ll be the first to agree that the clone armies… we were just like them. Loyal attack animals. Our relationship with high command was one of ownership and property… but some of us even loved our owners and wanted to be their friends.” His voice was soft and bitter. “If they had just seen us that way….”

            “Fade,” Ember said sharply. “Stop it. The point is that our true duty is toward the people, not the leaders of the Empire. ”

            Fade frowned, turning his face away from where Tseri had just leaned her head on his shoulder. “What I’m getting at is… why would any sane clone support the enslavement of anyone else? When we came up with the idea of being bounty hunters, going after traffickers was the only thing that made sense to me.”

            Boba snorted. “I guess it doesn’t hurt that a pretty slave has you wrapped around her finger.”

            “Uh… funny, kid,” Fade said, giving him an odd look. “Even if I were interested in that, I’m never going to see any of these people again, if they’re lucky.”

            Tseri laughed awkwardly and straightened. “Well, that’s awfully blunt. You aren’t interested at all?”

            “I’m a clone,” Fade said, as if that explained it.

            Boba stared at Tseri’s frowning face, feeling strange. He had slowly learned from other men over the past few years what constituted an attractive woman by most humanoid species’ standards. She was a guaranteed win.

            “Lucky, maybe you don’t realize it yet,” Tamper broke in, and for once his tone was low and he wasn’t smiling. “But… the only way for us to survive is to find something to fight for. What are you fighting for? Credits? Is that really enough?”

            To be my father’s son, Boba thought. To prove I can survive on my own. “What does it matter to you?”

            “We have to stick together,” Val murmured. “If we don’t watch out for our brothers… no one will. We are alone in the galaxy.”

            “If that’s how it is, why care about anyone else?” Boba looked pointedly at Tseri, who glared back at him.

            “Because that’s what we’re fighting for,” Ember said doggedly, smacking the floor with his gloved palm. “Freedom. Because people don’t care until they’ve had their own freedom taken away. So we’re some of the few who do care.”

            “It won’t change anything,” Boba scoffed, unsettled by their earnestness. “You’ll just end up without any jobs once the big criminals figure out that you’re picking them off.”

            “Oh, we’ve managed well so far,” said Tamper slyly, arms crossed over his knees. “I think we’ve worked out a pretty good system.”

            “We choose our targets carefully.” Val nodded. “We’re not asking you to join us, Lucky. But you’d be welcome, if you wanted to. Maybe it doesn’t change anything in the galaxy at large, but we just can’t let you sell these people back into slavery. If it’s credits you need, we could work together until you have enough, but that might not be necessary. Ventress is splitting some of the bounty on Yossuri’s head with us, if we take care of relocating these people. She doesn’t like to worry about details like that.”

            Boba clenched his uninjured fist. Only someone like Ventress could have taken out Yossuri on her own, but she’d been laying low for so long he’d almost forgotten she was still out there. That bounty had been advertised for ages and no one had bothered to touch it, yet here she was, one step ahead of him again, not playing entirely by the unspoken rules of the criminal world. What was she doing helping a bunch of fugitive clones? Now she would be rolling in Imperial credits.

            “I don’t need to owe someone like her.”

            Battery stood up abruptly. “I’ll be outside if you need me,” he murmured.

            “Ah-ha,” said Tamper. “Gotta recharge already?” He lifted a hand and Battery grasped it briefly in passing before heading out.

            “You won’t owe her,” Val went on as Battery left. “Once she gives us the share, she doesn’t need to know what we do with it. And you won’t owe us either. You’re our brother. It’s our job to watch out for you.”

            For a moment, staring back at Val, Boba felt an alarming sense of trust. He reared back. “You’re just saying that to get me to give up on my bounty.”

            “Kid, look at this face,” Tamper said, pointing at Val and pursing his lips so his mustache bristled. “Does this look like—”

            “Tam.” Val pushed Tamper’s hand down slowly and shook his head. Tamper laughed awkwardly under his breath but didn’t say anything else. Boba wondered if Val could see the way Tamper’s comment had made him tense up. That was the problem, wasn’t it? The face, the voice… it was all too easy to trust. But he didn’t know them.

            “I know you don’t trust us,” Fade said quietly. He looked like some kind of monk with his tattoos, his kneeling posture and his even expression. Tseri had finally let go of his arm. “But whether you do or not, we can’t take these people back to the life they just escaped. May as well stick around and see if you can profit from our decision, right? You need time to heal anyway.”

            “Who’s going to stop me?” Boba gripped the pistol at his side. “I’m capable of killing anyone who tries to get in my way. Including clones! I could turn you in to the Empire if I wanted to.”

            “I don’t think so,” Ember said. He didn’t even raise his rifle out of his lap. Tseri was starting to look a little nervous again, but Fade and Val and even Tamper seemed mostly unconcerned, although Tamper fiddled with his gun casually. “And even if you try it, we can always stun you.”

            “I would kill at least one of you before you did,” Boba said evenly in a low voice.

          “Wow, kid.” Tamper laughed hollowly, scratching a bit of grime off the side of his barrel. “That’s messed up.”

            “Shut up,” Boba growled, pointing his gun at Tamper. The clone quickly stopped laughing.

            Val narrowed his eyes, looking sad, older than he had when Boba had first laid eyes on him. “I don’t know what you’ve seen to make you feel like you could or would kill one of your own brothers. But whatever it is, it’s over now. None of us are going to hurt you. And you’re not going to hurt any of us. I know that much.”

            They wouldn’t even raise their weapons. They looked on him with such blind acceptance. Boba’s stomach quivered with anger, because he knew they were right. He couldn’t kill them in cold blood, not when they had this confidence that he would never be that kind of man.

             But he couldn’t just concede aloud. He holstered his pistol and got up, slung his shirt over his shoulder and grabbed his helmet and chestplate. He staggered toward the door he’d seen Battery disappear through. The feeling of their eyes crawled up his bare back.

            The doorway led to a deserted store room. One open crate held vacuum-sealed, ready-made meals, and there was a junked speeder bike in one corner. Boba paused to pull his sweater on. The soreness, patches, and bandages all made it difficult and slow. He sat down on a crate for a second to gather himself, noticing the slant of the walls, how they curved around him. It wasn’t uncommon for faulty ventilation tubes to be re-purposed into buildings in the undercity. That would explain the constant white noise he had heard since waking, too.

            The second doorway was more of a hatch. Boba cranked the wheel handle and it gave way easily enough from the inside. Ducking out, he saw a keypad on the other side, and that he was in an average duct trailing away into darkness. Light was coming dimly from a connecting passage, and when Boba turned the corner toward it, Battery stood silhouetted at the end by a dull artificial glow.

            Cautiously, Boba approached, drawing his pistols. Battery glanced back at him once but seemed unconcerned.

            “You leaving, then?” Battery sounded tired.

            “What’s it matter to you?” Boba came up alongside him and saw him staring out into the mess of buildings stacked on one another in connected towers.

            “I’ll watch your back on the way out to the surface.”

            “I know my way around!”

            “I figured.” Battery shrugged, still looking up, rifle in both hands. “But you’re wounded. I’m a medic. I can’t rest easy otherwise. Sorry…just the way I am.”

           Boba sighed. “You clones and your blasted conditioning. You’re all pathetic. All you think about is your jobs. What you think you were made to be.”

            “You mean you don’t?” Battery glanced at him. Compared with his earlier earnestness, he seemed subdued.

            “I was born to be exactly what I am,” Boba muttered.

           “A bounty hunter?” Battery seemed to consider that. “A fighter. Yeah. But not alone. No one’s born for that. Especially not a clone.”

            “I’m not—” Boba began, and corrected himself. He was a clone, but not…. “—one of you. I never was.”

            Battery didn’t ask what he meant by that, just took a deep and resigned breath. “Alright… if we’re leaving now, I’m grabbing something to eat first. Come on.”

            Despite himself, Boba followed the medic back to the hatch. He was hungry, actually. Who knew how long it had been since he’d last eaten or drank anything. There had been a quick bite in the bar the day before going to Yossuri’s. Barely a meal.

            Battery paused, hand hovering over the keypad. “Hey… I’m gonna give you our combination. You put it in. Then you’ll be sure to remember it.”

            “Why would I need that?”

            “In case you ever need a place to stay for a bit. Come on.”

            “Don’t you need to ask permission from your captain or whoever?” Boba mocked.

            “This squad doesn’t have a sergeant anymore,” said Battery softly. He let his hand drop and looked up at Boba. “He died making sure we got out and stayed free. Now… watch.” Battery reached out and pulled Boba closer by the shoulders so that they were both standing very close to the keypad. Battery lightly placed his fingers over the buttons in sequence, without pushing them in.

            Boba input the correct sequence on the first try, a 10 digit number.

            “Good,” Battery said, as he pulled the hatch shut behind them both. “Sorry about the secrecy… just gotta protect home base, you know?”

            And yet he’d just given the key to a total stranger.

            They moved toward the crates, and as Battery rummaged through the packets, Boba wavered.

            “Seems pretty secure,” he finally said, as casually as he could. “For an undercity hole.”

            “It is.” Battery held out one of the packs and Boba took it. “People think this is just some maintenance tube and nobody lives here.”

            “Does Ventress have the key?”

            “No. She just lets us know when she feels like dropping by.”

            “So you can contact her easily. Will she be coming in person to give you your share?”

            “Yeah.” Battery sat on a crate opposite Boba and started eating some dark green spicy-smelling goop out of the pouch he held.

            “Guess I may as well stick around until she gets here.”

            Battery looked up for a second and turned back to his meal. “It might be more than a day if she has other business she’s taking care of.”

            Boba sat silently, wrestling with himself. He could just wait it out on his own somewhere nearby and let the clones contact him when they had the credits. Then he wouldn’t have to deal with this… this constant discomfort he always felt in their presence. They were all fakes, mockeries of him and his father.

             “If it’s easier for you….” Battery said slowly, not looking at him. “We’ll let you know when we have the share, and we can meet up later. If being around us brings up too many memories.”

            “Memories? Of what?” Boba asked sharply, alarmed. It was as if Battery had read his mind.

            “Whatever happened before you escaped Kamino.” Battery did look at him then, unwavering concern. He was nearly whispering. “You don’t have to tell me. I can figure close enough what it was like… we should have all seen an extermination coming. But… it was just… hard to imagine until it happened. Like everything else.”

            “I… I wasn’t there when it happened,” Boba admitted awkwardly. “I was already gone.”

            He didn’t know why he didn’t just explain who he was. Somehow it felt wrong.

            “Ah… listen, Lucky. It’s not your fault. You couldn’t have stopped it from happening.”

            Boba tore the top off the pouch in his hand. His father had died so easily at the hands of that Jedi, Windu… silenced for his involvement in the war when it had been the Jedi who commissioned the armies in the first place. At least that’s what had made the most sense to Boba as a child, but soon enough nothing seemed to make sense anymore. He stared down into the brownish mass of food, thinking of that day on Geonosis, the dusty air in his mouth, the sight of all those troopers fighting for the Jedi, the Jedi who had killed the person who had given them life. It so easily could have been him fighting that day, but if he had been a trooper, a full grown man at age ten like all the rest, maybe he could have shot Mace Windu down first.

            “Did you have a choice?” Boba asked. He couldn’t help himself. “Did any of you have a choice about fighting for the Jedi? If you were so loyal to them, why did you kill them? Did you hate them, too?”

            Battery’s hand slowly lowered onto his lap, gripping the spoon loosely. When Boba looked up, the medic’s face was drawn, his eyes averted. “I didn’t kill any Jedi.” His voice was dull. “Not personally. But… I don’t think any of us who did had a choice. I remember what it felt like. I’ve talked to my brothers here about it many times. Tamper especially. He shot more than one of them down and took it… hard. Kept saying he never meant to, it was like something came over him. Somehow I know what he means….” Battery sighed heavily. He held his food pouch with both hands, the edges of his mouth pulling down as he swallowed. “We all thought we were better than droids. But turns out the Kaminoans or whoever planned this can program us however they want.”

            Boba was silent, wondering. In the years immediately following his father’s death, he’d pieced together the fact that Jango had been recruited for the cloning project by the Separatists, which was why he’d taken Boba with him to meet Count Dooku that day. But the extent to which Jango intended any of the maneuverings of the war was still beyond him. His father had never spoken to him of politics, only of profit and skill, weapons and strategy.

            Boba shut his eyes, remembered Jango kneeling across from him in their quarters on Kamino. Those clones aren’t like you or me, not once the Kaminoans are done tampering with them. You’re one of a kind, Boba. You’re my son.

            “They can’t touch you now,” his father’s voice said in a low, reassuring tone. “You made it out, and you’re free to live whatever life you want to. That’s what matters.”

            Battery was looking steadily at him when he opened his eyes.

            “How old are you?” Boba asked.

            “Sixteen,” said Battery. “I was deployed in the beginning of the war.”

            They were the same age, Boba thought, staring at the creases around Battery’s eyes, the way the skin of his face was uneven in places from small scars—or the large one on his cheek. His father’s face had been like that too, rough but not unkind, and Boba bitterly wished he had memorized every tiny variation.

            “You should eat that.” Battery gestured with his elbow toward Boba’s food pouch. “You’ve still got an inch or so to grow. Then I’ll let Valor know where we’re going and we can get underway.”

            “Why did he call me son?” Boba sighed abruptly. A thought struck him. “Can clones have children?”

            “It’s just an expression.” Battery shrugged.

            “But can you? Now that you’re not in the army?”

            “I don’t think so. Only way it’d happen anyway is if some kid came along who needed some brothers to protect ‘em.” The medic turned his attention to scraping out the last of the food in his pouch, and Boba grudgingly set to work on his. It wasn’t the worst fare he’d ever tasted, but it was a far cry from delicious. Plenty good enough for a clone used to field rations, apparently.

            He could have so easily been one of them, well into adulthood at sixteen. Boba shuddered. Most days he thought of himself as a normal human being, the natural-born child of Jango Fett. But eventually he’d hear that voice, or see that face, and remember.

            Battery sighed. “So where are you headed, anyway? You live here on Coruscant?”

            Now that he’d started wolfing down the food, his mouth was full. Boba worked to swallow. “I don’t live anywhere.” He didn’t look up from his spoon. “I’m not headed anywhere.”

            Battery didn’t say anything to that. Didn’t ask him to stay, didn’t wonder aloud why he wanted to leave. Boba finished the rest of his food in less than a minute and handed the empty packet back to Battery.

            “I’m in no hurry, either,” Boba finally said out loud. He felt tired, mostly.

            Battery nodded as if he’d expected that all along. “Come on… I’ll show you where you can lie down.”

            “I’m not staying long,” Boba insisted as he stood stiffly, feeling the soreness in every inch of muscle. “Just until Ventress shows up with the credits.”

            “Uh, Batts?” Ember poked his head through the doorway. “Oh… the kid’s still here. Val wanted me to check on you.”

            “Lucky needs rest,” Battery said. “Medic’s orders. We need to get a move on with relocating the refugees anyway. He can sleep while we’re gone.”

            Ember nodded, eyes narrow as he held the door open for them to pass back into the main room. “You up for that?”

            Battery grunted. “Maybe I’ll stay here. You guys can handle it, right?”

            Val and the other two were getting suited up in helmets and masks when Boba crossed the threshold. Tamper burst out a loud “Ha-HA! I knew he’d come around. Welcome to the squad, kid.”

            “Yeah, don’t get your hopes up,” said Boba.

            Val and Fade just smiled and went back to checking their equipment that had been laid out on the floor. It wasn’t a bad spread—similar to his, in fact. They must have saved for a while to afford all of it, Boba thought.

            Val pushed the button to close the mask he was wearing. “You can hold down the fort, Batt. We’ll see you when we get back.”

            Three days later, Boba lay on the floor of the room where he—and everyone else—slept. It was layered in thin blankets. Some of the actual bedrolls had been moved to the main room, where the remaining three refugees from Yossuri slept at night. The air hummed numbingly.

            He stared up at the ceiling. From a bolt in the top of the pipe, a mobile of sorts hung by a thread, shapes cut out of some metallic material. Most were simple… a star, a spiral. But there was also a Jedi crest, and a Republic (not Imperial) cog. Battery half-snored beside Boba, his breath whistling on the way out, his hair loose and messy beneath his head. It was strange waking up surrounded by familiar faces and sharing space with so many bodies. Stranger still that it no longer bothered him after that first morning of starting awake, disoriented, flung back in time for two seconds to his incarceration in the Republic Judiciary Central Detention Center. All because Ember had barked “on your feet!” at Tamper to get him up.

            “No, no,” said a voice from the other room. “That’s what I’m telling you, Val. We gotta take out credit if we try to move before she shows up. This is why I say we shouldn’t even be counting on her.”

            “I don’t see the point in borrowing money.” Boba realized he could already recognize Val’s particular tone. “Not unless we find someone trustworthy.”

            “Then we gotta wait until she comes.”

            Tamper. He wasn’t sleeping then. Three days was more than enough for Boba to realize that sleeping later than Tamper was a quick ticket to teasing. It wasn’t that Tamper slept longest, but that he was consistently up into the early hours of the morning, often drank before bed, and was always near impossible to drag from sleep once it claimed him. Boba didn’t even want to know what time it was.

            “We’re using up your supplies,” said a higher voice. One of the refugees. “We should go. Chiyel and I can find a job here on Coruscant. We’ll find some way to make it on our own.”

            “It’ll be difficult.” Boba couldn’t tell if that was Ember or Fade. “The Empire doesn’t seem to like people who aren’t human these days.”

            “I know,” said another voice. “But you’ve already given so much to get the others away. We’ve been in tough spots before. We can—”

            “I just don’t want someone else to snatch you up so soon after you’ve been free.”

            “I… don’t know if that risk will ever go away. Seems like everyone I know has a family member who’s been picked up by slavers in the last three years….”

            Boba quietly rolled onto his stomach and got up. Battery didn’t stir, and Boba wondered how late he’d been up, and what for.

          “The Republic was never like this,” a clone muttered. “Used to be they actually tried to fight against slavery.”

            “Ember, you know that’s not true. Look at us.”

            “Shut up! It wasn’t the same thing.”

            “Fade….” That was Val.

            “Guys! Guys, can we get back to our problem?” A pause. “Thank you. Okay….”

            Boba pulled back the flap and saw Val, Tamper, Ember, Fade, and the refugees—a twi’lek, a bothan, and a human—sitting in a circle surrounding two small stacks of credit chips. Tamper was tapping away at a datapad and didn’t look up immediately, but everyone else did.

            “Hey Lucky,” Fade greeted him, shifting closer to Val to make a space for him in the circle. “Sleep well?” As he moved, Boba noticed the heavy splint on his leg as it dragged across the floor.

            “What happened to you?” Boba asked.

            “Ah, just ran into a little trouble at the port while we were trying to arrange passage for the others.” Fade shrugged, lolling his head a little. He seemed relaxed—too relaxed. Probably on some painkillers. “I’ll be laid up for who knows how long, but Batts says it’ll heal.”

            “And why didn’t you tell me you’re almost out of credits?” Boba said testily. “Is that really all you have?” Already tired of the mediocre food, he’d made a run the second day to where Slave I was docked and picked up his own credits to eat out and have some time alone to think. But it rankled to know that he’d accepted any of their kindness when they could barely support themselves or pay for proper medical supplies.

            “We’re fine,” Val said, not looking at Boba. “We’ll have enough once Ventress comes through.”

            “The kid’s right, though,” Tamper insisted, tapping the screen. “If she doesn’t soon, we’re gonna be hungry until we pick up another bounty. Morning, Lucky.” He finally looked up, grinning.

            “So we pick up another bounty,” Ember said. “Big deal.”

            “Without Fade?” Tamper wrinkled his nose and curled his lip. “You know every man counts in this team.”

            “We’ll do something easy, then,” Ember sighed impatiently. “The biggest problem is that we can’t relocate anyone else until we have the credits. This isn’t enough to hire a cleaning droid, much less a ship for them!”

            “We’ll go,” said the bothan girl quietly, her black furry ears twitching back. She was small even for her kind. Boba wondered how old she was. “Find our own transport. We can make it.”

            “Wait, no, I didn’t mean—” Ember began apologetically.

            “Go where?” Boba asked, sitting down in the circle between Fade and Tamper.

            The violet twi’lek beside her frowned at the floor. “Wherever we can.”

            The human woman sat with her arms folded tightly as if she were cold. She was pale in every sense of the word, the tips of her blonde hair brushing her cheekbones. “I have family on Belderone,” she mumbled, glancing at her companions. “If we could get there, they’ll probably help you two find somewhere safe to go.”

            “I’ll take you,” Boba said abruptly. “We’ll leave today.”

            Everyone looked at him at once. Val looked more surprised than Boba had known he was capable of looking. Tamper started laughing while Ember smirked and Fade gave a sleepy smile. But of the three young women, only the human looked at all thrilled.

            “Really?” she asked.

            “It’s on the way to Florrum.” Boba affected a casual tone. “I was planning to head there next anyway.”

            The bothan growled softly.

            “I’m not sure I trust you,” the twi’lek said to Boba, her hand on the bothan’s arm. “Your brothers seem honorable, but you didn’t care much about us a few days ago. You were going to sell Tseri out.”

            “Look, a deal is a deal.” Boba folded his arms. “If I’m getting a share of the payment to relocate you, I may as well actually relocate you. It’s as simple as that. Now, do you want to get out of here or not?”

            “Valor?” The bothan looked at Val worriedly. “Do you trust him?”

            Valor looked between her and Boba, and for a moment, he looked worried. But then he nodded. “He’s one of us. He’ll live by his word. Right, Lucky?”

            Boba nodded once, stomach squirming a little even though he fully intended to honor this agreement. But Val’s confidence made him wonder what his father would think of him now.

            “That’s a yes, sir, kid.” Tamper slapped Boba on the back. Right on one of the sore patches.

            Boba grunted and clenched his jaw.

          “Tam,” Val sighed exasperatedly. “Rank doesn’t mean anything anymore and I was never an officer anyway!”

            “And I told you I’m not an army dog,” Boba said stiffly. “I don’t sir anybody.”

            “Kidding,” Tamper said, hands up.

            “I’m leaving in half an hour,” Boba said to the women, getting back up to his feet. “Be ready if you want to come.”

            “Thank you,” said the twi’lek, but a cautious note hung on the end.

            “Hey.” Valor got up. “Batt was up late fixing Fade’s leg, but… feel free to wake him up. He’ll want to say goodbye.”

            Boba stepped toward the room where he’d left most of his gear, and Val followed him.

            “You remember the key code?” Val asked.

            “Yeah, but I’m probably not coming back here,” Boba muttered.

            “You’re welcome any time,” Val said. “Hopefully this place will still be here when you do come back.”

            Boba sighed and pulled the curtain aside to step back into the bedroom.

            “I’m gonna miss that kid,” someone said, so quiet Boba barely caught it.

            “You barely know him.” That one was probably Ember, judging by the crisp tone. “He’s not exactly friendly with us.”

            “He’s just been on his own too long, that’s all.”

            “I wonder why he hates other clones so much… what did he see during the extermination? Did the Kaminoans—”

            “Don’t think about it, Fade.” That was Valor. “It won’t do any good. I don’t think he hates us… I think… he’s just afraid of something.”

            The room was darker now that he’d been in the light of the main room, with only a sliver of light coming through the curtain. Boba looked down, waiting for his eyes to adjust until he could see Battery’s careworn face, slumped to the side and slack. Shrugging off the goodbyes of everyone else would be hard enough. He wouldn’t wake him.

….

            “Ahhh, yes yes yes, my favorite bounty hunter, come back to Florrum!” Hondo came toward him with arms wide. He feinted toward Boba as if he were going to hug him, and Boba turned sideways and stepped away. Hondo chuckled and slapped him on the shoulder instead. “Just do me a favor,” he dropped his voice, “and don’t tell Aurra I said that, mm? Yes. Come, come! We must celebrate! I was, eh, already celebrating, you know, but now there is double the reason!”

            Hondo began leading the way back toward his base, his men standing around watching his antics with their usual lack of humor, but Hondo suddenly stopped and looked back at Boba. It was hard to discern his expression through his goggles.

            “What is the meaning of this, my boy?” He put his hands on his hips. “Are you trying to show me up?” He stepped closer and looked Boba up and down with a hand on his own chin, then measured the space between their heads. “Just as I feared,” he clucked. “You are almost as tall as your uncle!”

            “My uncle?” Boba asked dryly, mostly to humor him.

            “Your uncle Hondo! I hope you don’t plan on getting any bigger!”

            “I won’t be any taller than my father was,” Boba muttered.

            “Baha!” Hondo laughed. “Good. That means you will still look up to me a tiny, tiny bit even when you’re done growing, eh? Now come, I have some drinks with your name on them, or they will once I write them on the bottle. You are tall enough I think that it won’t make you pass out like last time.”

            “I’ve had alcohol without passing out before,” Boba grumbled. “I’m not a kid anymore.”

            “No? No, I suppose not.” Hondo chuckled.

            “And I didn’t pass out. I just fell asleep.”

            “Mm-haa.” Hondo slapped his back. “What is the difference? Ah, what’s this? You’re sore? Chasing down some dangerous bounties, I see. Just like your father.”

            “I’m fine,” Boba said quietly, softening at the praise. He almost felt like smiling.

            Inside the main building, the usual lively music was going strong. Hondo insisted on sitting next to Boba and ordered one of his men to bring them food and refreshment.

            “So,” said the pirate, once he’d propped his boots up on the table and gotten comfortable. “Tell me what you’ve been up to. I want to hear all about it! You uh… didn’t run into any Jedi, did you?”

            “No,” Boba sighed, sitting up straight as the roast came around. He dug into it immediately, more as an excuse not to talk about his latest hunt than because he was starving.

            “No, no, you didn’t, of course. I suppose they really are all gone, then.” Hondo sighed at the ceiling, arms behind his head. “What a shame. The galaxy just is not as interesting these days!” He gestured at nothing in particular.

            When Boba didn’t respond, Hondo cleared his throat.

            “So, are you and Aurra still working together?”

            “No,” Boba said reluctantly. “I’ve been working completely alone for almost a year.”

            “So even you couldn’t handle her.” Hondo chuckled, nudging Boba with his elbow. “No shame in that, Boba. She is ah, a bit much, even for me.” He cleared his throat again, loudly. “But sometimes it can be fun to be, how shall I say…overpowered! Maybe she is going for younger scoundrels these days. Not as young as you, I take it.”

            “No.” Boba grimaced and felt like shuddering. It had been bad enough watching her seduce all sorts of unsavory beings throughout the course of their travels together, but thinking about her treating him in such a way made his stomach squirm. He suddenly remembered an awkward night at a backwater cantina, where they were trying to get information out of the locals….

            Hondo took a few big gulps of his drink and Boba followed his example, satisfied with himself when the burning bitterness didn’t make him wrinkle his nose.

            “Awww… what is the matter, Boba? You are so quiet!” Hondo laughed, slapping the table lightly in time with the music. “Too delighted for words, perhaps. Too excited to be visiting Uncle Hondo? Ah! Maybe you will like this! I always do!” He shifted upright, kicking a plate to the floor in the process, and applauded as a gymnastic group of scantily-clad dancers vaulted out onto the tables full of drunk and drinking men and began somersaulting and cart-wheeling and sinuously tumbling over and around the heads of their audience, their legs and waists on full display right under the men’s noses. Boba kept his head down and focused on his meal as they approached.

            The table rattled as a beautifully indigo theelin half-rolled onto her knees in front of him, the long thin horns on her temples perilously sharp. He looked up into her eyes and she winked at him, caressing his face—he jerked involuntarily at her touch but tried to grin back.

            She seemed to be laughing silently at him as she moved on to Hondo, flipping effortlessly into his lap. Hondo began laughing in that half-drunken almost-giggle as she played with his braids, pulling at his goggles.

            “Ah-hah-ah-ah! You, go on, get back to dancing and tumbling around now. Go on, shoo!” Hondo protested playfully. “We can play, uh, later…heheheh.”

            “I charge double for private performances,” said the theelin with a smirk.

            “Oh… oh-hoh, well….” Hondo chuckled. “That makes two of us, my dear! But I am always up for a negotiation!”

            She smoothly backflipped off the table and continued backward until she met with her fellows in the middle of the room, where they began combining in geometric forms around ropes that had unfurled from the ceiling.

            Hondo’s chuckles faded gradually. His tone turned musing as he leaned back in his chair again. “Perhaps this is not to your liking. I should have known… even as a grown man, you are not a… well, a typical grown man.”

            Boba stood abruptly and looked for the door.

            “Hey! Where are you going so soon?” Hondo sat up. “Your party’s just getting started!”

            “I’m not going anywhere.… Just need some air.”

            Boba walked in a swift, straight line out the door, feeling overwhelmed with—what, shame? Confusion. The sun was covered by drifting clouds, leaving Hondo’s base a patchwork of shade and light. Boba saw one of the pirates walking a massiff on a leash and he thought of Fade. The feeling of restlessness and discomfort grew stronger.

            He crossed the quiet camp and headed instinctively toward where his ship was hidden in the shade of a cliff. Maybe he should have stayed inside, humored Hondo, tried to enjoy the entertainment and make conversation. Hondo was the closest thing he had to family. The pirate had actually known Jango Fett, and had treated Boba like a nephew—as far as a person like Hondo Ohnaka could be trusted with a child. Boba’s mouth pulled toward a smile at the thought, just for a moment. This camp was the closest thing he had to a home apart from his ship. And yet he still didn’t belong here.

            Boba stopped when he reached the edge of the cliff’s shadow, and sat down on a rock, staring at Slave I. He was a man, wasn’t he? An adult. At sixteen years he was almost as good a bounty hunter as his father had been. Aurra may have kept him from drinking as a child, but she had had no reservations about shielding his eyes from her own actions or the common sights of the underworld. He knew how the galaxy behaved, how he was supposed to behave at this age, what he was supposed to like and want, but….

            “Dancing bores you, I take it.” Hondo’s voice made him jump and turn around.

            “What? N… no,” Boba said automatically. “I just—”

            “Ha!” Hondo tutted, hands behind his back, and shook his head. “Don’t lie to me, my boy. I’m a pirate. I know liars. More than a hundred of them, in fact. Now.” He brushed off a rock next to Boba and sat down. “What is on your mind?”

            “I… nothing. I just….”

            “I promise I won’t be offended if you don’t like the party I am throwing for you,” Hondo laughed. “After all, I’m also throwing it for myself. More for me! As long as my favorite dancer doesn’t charge me an arm and a leg… and a braid… and my favorite hat….” His voice turned almost mournful.

            “Where did she come from, anyway?” Boba mumbled. “Is she….” He didn’t want to ask if she was a slave, but he couldn’t stop thinking about Fade’s broken leg and that pitiful pile of credits.

            “Ah, Shazema? She goes around. She has a wide range of customers,” Hondo spread his fingers wide as if mapping the distance. “Too intense for you as well, is she?”

            “No! I don’t want people to treat me like a child,” Boba growled. “I’m not. I don’t know why… I just don’t care about….”

            “About what?” Hondo prompted after a few minutes. “Sexy dancing?” He did a funny little shimmy in place with his arms and nudged Boba with his elbow. “Or perhaps it is not female dancers who interest you? Mmm. You know, I do know of a pair of very attractive and talented brothers—”

            “No,” Boba sighed. “I don’t care about that either, and… that’s the problem. I just want to be normal. Don’t normal people want to have sex? Don’t normal people like that kind of thing? Maybe… maybe everyone finds it difficult to enjoy at first, because it’s so awkward, and I’m just… not trying hard enough.”

            “Bahahaha!” Hondo laughed uproariously. “You think it takes work? Boba, for most people your age, it takes work not to want it! Oh, that’s a good one.” He cackled.

            Boba’s heart sank. “They must have done something to me.”

            Hondo stopped laughing abruptly. “Who?” His voice took on a sharp edge. “Who has done it? What have they done?”

            “The Kaminoans,” Boba muttered, feeling sick. “They must have tampered with me, too. I was always afraid maybe…they did, even though my father told them not to. Maybe they made me like all the rest of the clones.” He remembered how Fade and the others had acted, not at all fazed by even the most beautiful of the slaves they’d rescued. I’m a clone. “That’s why I’m barely even aroused by anything. It’s the only explanation.” He put his head in his hands. “They ruined me.”

            “Do you remember them doing anything to you?” Hondo asked.

            “No, but—”

            “Why do you think so, then?” Hondo patted his back, just below his neck, roughly, but his voice was soft. “You think the Kaminoans made you what you are? Let me tell you something, my boy. There is a reason your father cloned himself a child.”

            “What do you mean?” Boba looked up at Hondo’s smiling face.

            “He was never much interested in this kind of thing either, you know. Very rare, for a human, but not unheard of I think. Even some Jedi can be seduced, but not him. Hmm. Yes, you are more your father’s son every time I see you. Why else would he not simply make a baby the old fashioned way, you know, there were probably dozens of women lining up to get in bed with him! And a few beings of the male persuasion too, but that’s not the point. The point is—”

            “My father was like this?” Boba stared at Hondo, straightening. He narrowed his eyes. “You’re not lying to make me feel better?”

            “Ha! Why would I do that? Well, I can think of a few reasons. But it is the truth. The evidence is right under your nose.” Hondo pointed at Boba’s chest and flicked his nose when he looked down.

            “I fell for that on purpose.” Boba glared and Hondo leaned back with a grin.

            “Of course you did, of course!” Hondo’s voice softened again. “Listen to me, Boba. Jango would be the first to tell you that there is nothing wrong with you. It is simply who you are.” The pirate patted his shoulder and shook him gently.

            Boba sat, absorbing that. He hated to admit how much he’d felt at home among the group of clones on Coruscant. He hated to admit any connection to them. But to deny this would be to deny his connection to his father… and every bit of him wanted that connection in whatever form it could exist.

            “Besides!” Hondo said airily. “It served your father well when he was alive. Keeping a clear head can be a great advantage… but, much less fun.”

            “So… I really am different?” Boba stared down at his hands, the blaster burns on his fingers, and thought of how Battery had taken care of him. “Normal people aren’t just… pretending, because that’s what people do? I thought maybe once I got old enough….”

            “It is a matter of instinct,” said Hondo. “If you don’t have the instincts at all by now, I sincerely doubt you ever will. But, who knows? Either way, your father would be proud.”

            “I’m not so sure.” I don’t even know who he was, Boba thought. “I don’t know what kind of person he was. Some people say he was ruthless. Some people, like you, say he wasn’t.”

            “Did I say that?” Hondo mused. “I said he was an honorable man. He was also ruthless, sometimes, but aren’t we all!”

            Boba remembered Hondo urging him to release the location of Aurra’s hostages, years ago. “Would he really give up information to save the lives of clones or….”

            “Mm. Your father did not enjoy senseless killing,” Hondo said. “But he also was not afraid of killing for profit. Obviously. He was a bounty hunter! He followed his own code. And he would expect you to do the same.”

            Boba sighed heavily. He remembered cheering as his father tried to kill the Jedi who had pursued them to Geonosis. It was only fair they defend themselves—the Jedi had attacked first. But what did he know of the jobs Jango took when he was away from Kamino? There were hazy memories of stories about this fight or that, always slightly theatrical in the retelling. There was no way of knowing how much the villains were really villains, or victims.

            “Why do you think he volunteered to make the clone army?” Boba finally asked.

            “Well, that question is one I will not even try to answer,” Hondo chuckled. “It was good money, I hear. And he got you out of it.”

            “And it got him killed,” Boba muttered.

            “Ahh… enough questions for today!” Hondo got to his feet and beckoned. “Up, up, you need another drink! I’ll keep the dancers busy for you, don’t worry.”

            Boba hesitated. He didn’t really want to return to the boisterous closed quarters of the main building, but to sit out here dwelling on these questions would only make him ungrateful and morose. There would be plenty of time to ask why of the universe later.

            But as he walked back with Hondo, Boba found himself wrestling with a desire to return to that little hole in the undercity of Coruscant. There was no guarantee he would find any answers there, he told himself. Those men weren’t his father, and probably hadn’t even known him. But still, somehow, he felt convinced there was something he needed to see. Some puzzle piece within these fragments of the army his father had made.

            The music filled his head as he and Hondo ducked back inside. Boba sat down again and saw clearly his own presence in the crowd, just one of millions of lives that had come to be or not to be from a single man’s singular decision. And maybe he would never know why.

 

Chapter Text

            When Boba Fett reached the cargo hold of the stolen ship he’d boarded, it was dark. He roughly dropped the hairy human pirate he was dragging and readied his blaster as he checked the crates that loomed like grey coffins in the black space. They were full and unspoiled, just as the bounty listing had said: eight large crates of stolen spice on their way to Ukio.

            He swept the corners of the room, blaster held ready in case he’d miscounted and there was another pirate waiting to commandeer the ship. But the only thing hiding in the darkness was a group of three small figures that flinched and curled when he flashed a light on them.

            His body reacted before his mind had processed what he’d seen, sending prickles along his arms and neck, but he held the light steady, filing the information into rational boxes. Three young human boys, the two smaller ones with dark, messy hair; the oldest looked to be no older than ten with short shaved hair, and the youngest maybe four years old. Their hands were bound to their feet behind them and their mouths were sealed with adhesive strips, all three of them lying awkwardly on their sides, all three of them with the same face. The youngest one started screeching and squirming, a horrible moan through the tape.

            For several seconds Boba just stood there, horrified by the noise. Then he crouched in front of the oldest one, who had been watching him with surprisingly calm eyes. Boba didn’t remove his helmet. Instead, he reached out and ripped the strip from the boy’s mouth, leaving a bright red patch to go with the swelling bruises on his face.

            The clone flinched but just took a huge, gulping breath and said, in a cracking but otherwise confident voice, “If our parents didn’t respond, maybe something’s wrong with their communicator. I can give you other contacts to try. We have neighbors!”

            His accent was nearly identical to Boba’s. Boba didn’t say anything, just reached over to rip the tape off the next one, who stared at him mutely. Reluctantly, Boba freed the screaming one as well, and that horrible moaning cry got a few decibels louder.

            “Make him stop,” Boba ordered, shifting his accent toward what he’d begun to think of as Imperial. “Unless you want to wake the pirates. I didn’t plan on rescuing any kids, but I’ll take you back to your parents if you don’t cause any trouble.” Whoever those “parents” might be.

            “What?” The oldest one’s eyes widened, and he squirmed around to look at the little one. “Ettic, listen! It’s okay. He’s not with the pirates!”

            The little one stopped screeching with some effort, his face tear-streaked and jaw quivering with gasps. The middle one didn’t say a word, just watching Boba through his mop of disorderly shoulder-length curls.

            “Who are you?” asked the oldest one, as Boba set about removing the binders. “My name is Garo. This is Tam and Ettic, my brothers.” Garo sat up and rubbed his wrists when the binders fell away. He was wearing simple civilian clothing, a long-sleeved knit shirt and pants in dull red and grey. It reminded Boba of the fatigues cadets wore. Used to wear, Boba reminded himself, and held back from asking any questions that would give him away.

            “Can you walk?” Boba asked instead.

            Garo got to his feet and pulled Ettic up by his armpits, holding the shuddering child protectively for a few minutes as the boy’s curly hair stuck to round wet cheeks. Tam got up on his own, the definition of his knees and elbows too easy to see under the thinner, summery yellow and blue clothing he wore.

            “Get out into the corridor,” Boba ordered. “I’m going to lock the pirates in here while we’re on our way back to Roon.”

            “Yes, sir,” said Garo, and he let go of Ettic, took the boy’s hand and motioned Tam to follow him.

            The clones watched quietly—apart from Ettic’s sniffling—pressed against the wall and out of the way while Boba dragged four unconscious pirates (and one dead one) into the hold. Panting a little from the work, he wanted to remove his helmet and wipe the sweat from his forehead, but didn’t. Instead, Boba went to the cockpit to see how the freighter’s self-repair systems were dealing with the ion burst he’d used to shut off the engines. But it was difficult to focus on that with the image of his younger self filling his head. He was halfway through rereading the bounty listing details again when he heard a footstep scuff the floor, and jumped.

            “Uh, sir?”

            The kids had come up quietly behind him in the cockpit.

            “What,” Boba snapped. He hadn’t meant to snap. “What happened to your face?” he asked Garo, to cover his mistake. “The pirates didn’t kill you; they obviously kidnapped you for some kind of ransom.” He turned back to his reading. There it was, added late to the pirates’ bounty listing—the ransom demanded, the notice that law enforcement may be involved should someone try to collect. “Were they trying to threaten more credits out of your parents? Get a little extra on top of the ship and its cargo?”

            “No, that’s not it,” said Garo quietly. “The ship doesn’t belong to them.” The other two were holding on to his elbows, Ettic tightly, Tam loosely, distracted by the sight of Ukio glimmering in the viewscreen. “I… tried to fight them, sir. And actually, our… our real parents live on Ukio, not Roon. So if you could drop us off there, instead….”

            Real parents. As if any member of the clone army had even one real parent, let alone two. Boba watched the diagnostic screen fill up with the names of systems coming back online. “Then why didn’t you have the pirates contact them instead of Skarha Dincho or whatever his name is that owns this ship?”

            “Skarhei.” Garo shifted his feet, and cleared his throat. “Because… our real parents don’t have any credits.”

            “Yeah, they’re dirt poor,” Tam broke in, in a soft but steady voice, and Boba turned his head involuntarily, startled by the accent the middle child used. It wasn’t Jango’s accent at all. Maybe it was just a fluke, an accent put on for just a moment. Maybe Tam was quoting someone who used that accent.

            “Is that right?” Boba said skeptically.

            “They’re farmers,” Tam continued, still with no trace of the accent Boba had heard on every single clone he’d ever met. In fact, was that a faint trace of Ryloth he heard? “Yeah. Just like everybody else on Ukio. But—”

            “But, uh, the economy’s not great on Ukio right now,” Garo interrupted, “because… uh, the galaxy’s changed a lot, you know, and they’re still recovering from the war.”

            “Yeah, it’s true,” Tam said eagerly.

            “Right,” Boba said skeptically, thinking over what he’d seen in the bounty listing. “So what were you doing on Roon?”

            “Visiting our relatives,” said Tam.

            “Well then,” Boba said slowly, and reached for the comm system. “I’ll just give those relatives a call and ask them what they want me to do with you, since they’re the ones who’re paying the reward.”

            “No you can’t!” Ettic squealed, and Boba realized he, too, didn’t have the Fett accent.

            “Ettic,” Tam whined in exasperation, and pulled the kid’s head gently into his chest with both hands so Ettic’s flailing fists couldn’t reach more than Boba’s elbow.

            “You can’t!” Ettic yelled and thrashed his arms. Tam flinched but his expression said he was used to this. “You can’t do it! I don’t wanna go!”

            “Alright! Alright, look,” Garo growled desperately, his composure gone as soon as Ettic latched onto his shirt with clawed fingers. “We don’t have parents, we’re in a foster system and if you take us back, they’re going to split us up! We ran away; that’s why we ended up getting picked up by those pirates. Please… just drop us off on Ukio. Tell Songar and Rennet that we died or whatever you have to do so they won’t come looking for us. Or Pava, or whoever is paying the reward.”

            “And when you get to Ukio? What then?” Boba asked, finally turning away from plotting the course back to Roon. He stared through his helmet at these three kids and felt the anger he’d been trying to tamp down for the past twenty minutes rising. “You think it’s easy to exist in the galaxy as a kid with no father? Or mother? Or credits?” The last came out as a snarl and he pushed the ship into lightspeed without warning. Garo stumbled back into the other two and Ettic yelped.

            “No. Listen to me. You have no idea what you’re be taking us back to,” Garo insisted, his voice fervent, barely controlled. “They can’t separate us. We’re the only family we have. I’d rather live on the streets than go back there.” He glanced at his brothers uncertainly and stepped a little closer, voice so low that Boba could barely hear him through his helmet “They pretend to care about us. But it’s just a show so that they can collect compensation for fostering us. They wouldn’t really adopt us. They want to send my brothers offplanet, probably to some slavers or something. If someone took us away they’d be relieved and just move on to the next kid!”

            “Then why offer a reward for your return in the first place?”

            Garo hesitated. Boba could see him grasping for what to say.

            “Right. You’re throwing away the chance to have a real family with someone who can take care of you,” Boba said disgustedly. “I’m taking you back to Roon. You’re just kids. You’re better off getting split up and raised in normal families than being homeless with no one looking out for you.” Boba took a deep breath and stared at the hyperspace distortions on the viewscreen, trying to calm down. “Besides, I’m a bounty hunter. I always collect. Now strap in and shut up.”

            Garo glared at him for a good minute before he muttered, “Yes, sir. Come on, brothers….”

            Slave I set down on a dirt path between rows of grey brick apartments, crumbly yellow grass and creeping brown burrs. Piled near the edge of the road were limbs of a nearby stand of trees, all but one cut into short logs. The sun cast a sepia light through the cloud cover; the haphazardly spaced buildings and scent of dead plants made everything feel muffled as Boba stepped out of the ship. He thought he could hear the trickle of water somewhere

            Two women, one tall and one a head shorter, stood waiting with a blue twi’lek male holding a datapad. The three clones came down the ramp just behind Boba, Garo frowning and holding sleepy Ettic’s hand, Tam trailing just behind them like a ghost. Someone in a top-story window cranked the slats open and then shut them with a loud clack.

            “Garo! Garo, what happened?” The shorter of the two women rushed past Boba to inspect Garo’s bruised face. The clone barely looked at her, standing unresponsively, face turned toward the ground.

            “He tried to fight off some pirates,” Boba said.

            “I’ve told you,” the woman said in exasperation as she stroked his head. “Fighting doesn’t solve anything. And now your face is….”

            “Thank you for bringing these children back to us,” interrupted the twi’lek, in a faint Ryloth accent. He held out his hand with a small offering of credits. “I am sorry your reward could not be more. Our agency is not very well funded.”

            Boba walked forward, boots crackling on the brittle grass, but Tam ran past him and collided with the twi’lek, burying his face in his long coat. The twi’lek rested a hand gently on Tam’s head, and Boba came forward and took the offered credits without removing his helmet. It was enough to top off Slave I’s fuel, maybe. But returning the stolen ship should bring in much more.

            “You’re one of the parents?” Boba asked the taller woman, once he’d put the credits away in a sack.

            She nodded, watching Ettic clinging to Garo’s elbow. “Songar.”

            Rennet, the shorter one, said, “We’re only foster parents, but we’re thinking about adopting Garo.” She gave a brief lopsided smile, still cupping Garo’s head against her, seeming oblivious to the intense stare Garo was training on Boba. Her face was round and honest, her hair dusty-colored and short. Both she and Songar wore practical work clothes in earthy colors.

            “And what will happen to the other two?” Boba asked.

            “Ettic is still young.” Songar had a large nose and her complexion almost seemed to fit the clones’, her voice higher but more resonant than Rennet’s. “The younger kids are more likely to get adopted. And—”

            “I STOLE THE SHIP!” Garo yelled, suddenly pushing away from Rennet.  “It was me. It was all my idea!”

            Everyone fell silent for a few seconds; Ettic buried his face in Garo’s arm. For a moment Boba thought of when he’d been arrested and brought before his father’s killer on Coruscant. He wondered how his defiance had seemed to the Jedi back then, when he’d been so young. Had they only seen a delusional child having a tantrum?

            Finally, Rennet said, reaching with one hand toward his swollen face. “Garo, why would you say something like that?”

            He smacked her hand away. Lips drawn tight, Garo parted them and took a deep breath. “I did. I stole Skarhei’s ship. I planned to sell the spice and the ship on Ukio so that my brothers and I would have enough credits to start over on our own. But flying through the asteroid belt was harder than I thought and the pirates boarded us.”

            “Don’t make up stories,” Songar said sternly. “You couldn’t possibly have flown the ship that far by yourself.”

            “You don’t know what skills I have!” Garo snarled in frustration. “I started flight simulators before I was three. If I’d had a blaster I would have killed at least one of those pirates! I can do a lot more than get a simple ship off the ground!”

            “We’ve talked about this. You may not use violent language! And maybe your former guardians had a flight simulator for you to play with but there’s no way….” Songar sighed and rubbed at her smooth forehead. “Never mind. I’m sorry you’re so scared of being separated from your brothers and I wish we could take them too. But like I said, we can arrange visits.”

            “You don’t know that.” Garo staggered as Ettic nearly strangled him in an attempt to climb up onto his back. “Tam and Ettic will get taken by some offworlder and I’ll never see them again. If you question the pirates, they’ll tell you, we were there on the ship before they boarded it. If you adopt me I’m just going to try something else. And I don’t care what you think of my violent language! I’m not a civilian, I’m a soldier!

            Rennet shook her head sadly at Songar, and for a moment Boba watched them communicating silently, still standing where he was next to the nervous blue twi’lek. At last, Songar sighed explosively.

            “If you really don’t want us to adopt you, Garo, then we don’t want to force that on you.”

            The twi’lek wilted a bit at that and looked at the datapad in his hand with open dismay.

            “But maybe we will adopt Tam. That way you and Ettic have a better chance of staying together.”

            “Tam’s my brother too! And like you said, Ettic is probably going to get adopted without me anyway.”

            “He needs parents,” Songar said softly. “You’ve done a great job raising him but he is delayed in a few areas of his development.”

            Ettic scowled. “I’m smart!”

            The twi’lek broke in. His voice was gentle and earnest. “Don’t worry, Garo. Even if you aren’t adopted, once you are of age you can find a suitable partner and gain citizenship that way. You’re handsome and intelligent, I’m sure we’ll be able to find someone who would love to support you while you become established as an adult.”

          “And when will that be? When am I going to be an adult? When I look like one, or when I’m legally of age?” Garo glanced desperately at Boba. “Will I have to wait until I’m actually old and grey at twenty before you’ll take me seriously? I don’t even want to get married!”

            “There are exceptions for some cases of Estemi Syndrome… when you demonstrate sufficient physical and mental maturity, you will be granted legal status as an adult, I promise,” said the twi’lek.

            “Estemi syndrome?” Boba asked, careful to keep his accent more Imperial than Clone.

            “I-it’s a rare genetic condition in which one’s body matures at an accelerated rate,” said the twi’lek, waving his datapad in self-conscious gestures. He seemed to have just remembered Boba was there. “All three of them have it, although the pace of their growth seems to vary. Usually the psychological maturity follows as close to the physical as possible without the experience of actually living those years, but… complications can arise because the syndrome affects the body’s need for sleep and food. An…anyway, Garo, you will have citizenship, when you have a legal partner. Of course, there are a few other paths but they are much more difficult….”

            “I think I’m done here,” Boba said abruptly, turning away from the tight-lipped faces of the adults and the hopeless looks of the clones. The overwhelming need to get away pushed him a few paces back toward the ramp. “I have a ship to return.”

            “No!” Garo yelled. “Wait!”

            “O…of course, thank you again for rescuing these boys,” said the twi’lek in a strained voice.

            “Take us with you!” Garo cried, pleading.

            Boba’s boots crackled back across the dry grass and up the ramp. He was careful not to make eye contact with Garo, but he could feel the kid staring at him as he walked away. It was for their own good, he told himself. Every kid belongs with parents, even if not biologically related. It was the best they could hope for as clones.

            The inner stairwell was cool and dark when Tam ran in, and the apartment too; only the light over the dining room table was on. Their room, like the rest of the place, was small, with slat windows, and Tam felt like it had been ages since they’d crept out into the dim, warm “night” sixteen hours earlier, those hours when the sun rested on or just beneath the horizon.

            Two hammocks and two old duraplast trunks beneath them were the only pieces of furniture. Tam heard Garo and Ettic coming up the stairs behind him; he stepped through a dusty beam of light into the dark, cool closet and slid the door closed, sinking down and pulling a worn blanket over his knees. It was one Pava had given him, when he’d first been dropped off at Pava’s shelter.

            The bedroom door slid open and closed again, rattling loudly on its track.  

            “Tam? TAM?” Ettic called, his voice distorting with panic. “WHERE’S TAM?

            “I’m right here,” Tam creaked out, too quiet for Ettic to hear over his own screeching.

            “Ettic, stop. He’s in there. He’s hiding,” said Garo bitterly. “As usual.”

            “WHE—where?”

            Tam shrank back a tiny bit as the closet door slid open. Ettic’s backlit face lunged close as he threw himself over Tam’s knees.

            “I don’t want you to go!” Ettic cried, his voice breaking painfully high as he grabbed Tam by the hair. “You CAN’T!

            “Ow! I’m not going anywhere,” Tam said. It was true—Garo and Ettic were the ones who would be leaving.

            “Stay with us!” Ettic demanded, pressing Tam’s cheeks hard between both his hands, until his little arms shook with the effort of forcing Tam to look at him.

            Tam grunted, struggling to pry Ettic’s hands away. “Alright,” he said dully, trying not to look in Ettic’s eyes. He looked at the hammocks instead and realized that soon one of them would be empty.

            “We have to come up with another plan,” Garo huffed, opening the window slats a crack to peer out. The bounty hunter was already long gone. “We only have a few days left before they separate us.”

            It took Tam a minute to get the words out. “Maybe we shouldn’t try to run away. The pirates… almost killed you, Garo. And now maybe people won’t want to adopt us because we stole a ship.”

            “We stole a ship?” Garo muttered. “Are you really willing to take the blame for that with me?”

            “Of course I’m with you,” Tam said.

            “You’re doing it again,” Garo said disgustedly. “You’re being fake. You pretend you’re agreeing so people will like you, but you’ll do whatever’s easier when they’re not looking. You do it with Songar and Rennet all the time. Pretend to be what they want you to be.”

            And Garo was pretending to be a soldier, Tam thought. But they weren't soldiers.

            He sat still with Ettic in his lap.

            “I’m tired,” he finally said. His body hurt from being shoved around by the pirates. He felt a little disconnected from himself whenever he remembered being on the ship. Tam raised the edge of his blanket to his nose and breathed in, trying to relax. It smelled like them, familiar and comforting.

            “Fine. Go sleep. I’ll come up with a plan on my own, like always.” Garo paced back toward the door. “Maybe we don’t even have to leave Roon. If we can just get to the other side, we can disappear.”

            Tam felt a lump rising in his throat. “I’m sorry.”

            “For what?” Garo cried in exasperation.

           “I don’t think I want to go,” Tam said tentatively, and felt the certainty sink in a second later. “Uh… I… um, I want…parents.”

            Garo stared at him and stopped pacing.

            Tam took a deep breath. “I’m not like you, Garo, I… I don’t remember where we come from. I’m not a soldier at all….”

            “So you’re just going to abandon us like everyone else?” Garo accused.

            Tam hid his face in Ettic’s hair, arms wrapped loosely around him. His stomach hurt.

            Garo turned away and started pacing again. Tam thought of 71289, the vague but powerful memory of an older brother, so much taller and stronger, a guiding hand heavy but gentle on his back in the crowds of the shelters. He took another deep breath. Help me be brave, he prayed to the memory, softer than a whisper, momentarily clasping his hands as he’d seen his first foster family do.

            “Garo,” he said. “Maybe it’s not too late.”

            “Too late for what? To get adopted? And then what?”

            “You’ll be safe,” Tam said. “You’ll be able to eat and sleep and stay warm.”

            “And I won’t be with Ettic. Or you! And even if you get a legal guardian now, you’ll have to start all over in five or six years. Move out, get a job, get married, before you’re a real citizen. And never see us again. But it’s all fine because you’ll have a real family.” Garo’s voice was bitter. He wasn’t looking at Tam at all, pacing aimlessly. “If that’s what you want, then stay and take your chance. Maybe they will keep you after all and you’ll be normal for the rest of your life.”

            Tam swallowed, but the lump in his throat was only getting bigger.

            “Wake up, Tam,” Garo said in a low voice. Probably trying to sound like the older brothers Tam barely remembered. “What if this doesn’t work out? You know Pava can’t protect us forever. No one wants to adopt offworld orphans on Roon, especially not ones like us, who aren’t even normal. He shouldn’t have taken us in the first place; the shelter doesn’t have enough credits to keep going. And he just gave even more away to that bounty hunter.”

            “I know that,” Tam said tightly. It was why he played along with Garo’s lies on the ship—they had only told the pirates there would be a ransom to buy them time, to try and stage an escape. They had never expected Pava to actually come up with any money.

            “If things keep going this way we’ll be better off on our own. At least then we can stay together and no one will be telling us what to do!”

            “But we are only kids,” said Tam. “Like that bounty hunter said. Garo, you’re only six years old. I’m not even five!”

            “We’re clones. We’re soldiers,” Garo said stubbornly, with a pointed glare at Tam. “We’re strong enough to handle anything. Aren’t we?”

             Maybe Garo was. But not him.

            “We didn’t need parents on Kamino. We don’t need them now. All we need is our brothers, our courage, and some tools for survival. That’s all the rest of our brothers have ever needed!”

            Tam wanted to bury his head in his arms but knew that if he did, Garo would only get more frustrated. He wanted to run to Songar and feel her hand on his head, as reassuring as 71289’s hand on his back in his memories. See Rennet smile at him and untangle the ends of his hair with her fingers. The thought made him feel guilty.

            “Do you really want to live like a civilian?” asked Garo. “Don’t you want a purpose beyond finding a mate and working some boring job? You know you can’t have children, right? It’s impossible.”

            “I could adopt someone,” Tam mumbled, although he hadn’t thought that far ahead until just now. “If I wanted.”

            “But will your partner be alright with that? What about the fact that you’re a clone?”

            “Why does that matter?” Tam felt tears coming to his eyes. He didn’t understand why Garo acted like they were an entirely different species from everyone else.

            “Because you’ll grow old and die in half the time it takes whoever you’re with!” Garo said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “And we’re just different! I’ve heard people talk about clones, and it’s never good. They say we don’t even have feelings. That all we want to do is follow orders like droids. That we’d kill our own friends if we were ordered to.”

            Ettic went rigid in Tam’s arms. “No,” he whined softly. “I don’t want Tam to die!”

            Garo gave a frustrated sigh. “He’s not going to die for a long time, Ettic.”

            It was hard to get any words past the lump in Tam’s throat, but he tried anyway, struggling to hold his voice steady. “Pava doesn’t care that we’re clones.”

            “Pava can’t help us. Not unless we’re so perfect that no one will want to adopt anyone else. That means acting normal. Not sleeping as long, not eating as much, keeping secrets…. Trying to be exactly what your parents want you to be, but how are we supposed to know what that is?” Garo kicked the wall in frustration. “I’m leaving. You can stay here if you want. But I can’t. And Ettic’s coming with me. I didn’t fight this hard for so long to let go of him now.”

            Ettic whined under his breath again and reached up to climb the knotted rope that led to the top shelf of the closet, his bare feet easily clamping around the knots.

            “Ettic!” Garo barked. “What are you doing?”

            “We have to feed Scratchy!” Ettic said. “Tam, come on! For good luck.”

            Swallowing hard again, Tam stood and hauled himself up onto the shelf, using the bar and bracing his feet against the inner walls. At the top, he climbed past Ettic and slid open the slat that led into the ceiling crawlspace.

            “Come on, Garo,” Ettic called loudly. “Come on!”

            “Shh!” Tam hushed him. “You’ll scare the mineek away.”

            “Oh, right,” Ettic said solemnly. “Garo, we have to be quiet. Come on!”

            Down below, Garo frowned at them, seeming conflicted. Tam turned away toward the darkness and put a corner of a biscuit on the unfinished wood inside, and handed a small red seed pod to Ettic from his pocket. The space smelled like brick dust, bread crumbs and shriveled fruit rinds. Garo hauled himself up behind them, huddled close and added a few squashed berries to the offering.

            “I don’t know what to do,” Tam whispered, wishing 71289 were here. Imagining that maybe, he was.

            “Shh,” Ettic said, bouncing lightly on his knees.

            “Stay still so he’ll come,” Garo whispered, his voice gone gentle. “If the mineek takes all of our food… it means we’ll stay together.”

            “Oh.” Ettic stopped. “Yeah.” He ducked his head, his nose pressed against the edge of the hole.

            The superstition had started with Ettic. The first day Tam had noticed his hoarded food missing from the crawlspace, Ettic had been up there with him. A beam of light sweeping the space had shown old webs and layers of dust, and the flashing eyes of a bipedal reptile as large as a human infant.

            Nothing to see now; Ettic had long ago declared that the light made Scratchy mad. Just the darkness all around and the sound of each other’s breathing.

            Tam thought about what it would be like when Garo and Ettic were gone. He could already feel the absence of their breathing, their voices, their existence in the same room and house and world as him, and it ached. But if he went with them, what then? “I don’t want to be hungry,” Tam whispered under his breath, imagining 71289 listening patiently. “Or cold and lost outside.” He had already spent a few nights without a roof over his head, and he was always hungry.

            A good soldier would risk anything to see his brothers safe, Tam thought, and wasn’t sure if it was the voice of Garo or 71289 in his head.

            “I’m not a good soldier.”

            He sat there on his knees, staring into the dark space, trying to imagine 71289’s hand on his shoulder, aware of Garo and Ettic pressed so close around him. That hand would give him the courage to be… what? Something he didn’t know how to be, any more than he knew how to be normal?

            “At least I’ll have parents to take care of me,” Tam said under his breath. “If I stay.”

            At last, after what felt like an hour there was a skittering of small claws on the floor, and all of them straightened at once, alert, waiting for Scratchy to come claim their offerings. Its smooth face came close, its tiny scaled hands reaching for the snapper pod. Ettic squeaked faintly in excitement and Scratchy froze. They all stared at the creature, barely breathing.

            The walls shook as a door slammed, and Rennet’s voice roared from the dining room, something that was rare enough to make them all jump. Scratchy disappeared, just the tip of its long tail whipping around into the light.

            “Hey come back!” Ettic cried.

            “What did she say?” Tam asked Garo.

            Garo dropped down from the high shelf and rushed to peek out the door. Tam jumped down right after him.

            “Put that blaster away or we’ll call the authorities!” Songar’s voice was shaky but loud.

            Then Pava’s pleading voice. “Sir, please, just tell us what is wrong.”

            “I’m here to collect a bounty.”

            Tam’s heart jumped. It sounded like the bounty hunter, but his accent was different now. It matched Garo’s.

            “What bounty?” Rennet growled. “You accepted the reward for returning the children. There’s nothing else here you could possibly want!”

            “You’re harboring stolen property. They’re clones, and they belong to the Empire. I’m here to collect.”

            “Clones?” Pava said, and Tam almost didn’t recognize his voice, it was so high and frightened. A shaky laugh. “They are brothers, of course they look alike; you cannot prove—”

            “I don’t have to prove anything. Accelerated aging. The face, the accent… Garo’s military brainwashing. Everything fits. Now go get them!”

            Garo shoved Tam and dragged Ettic away from the door. “We have to go. We have to go now!”

            A yell came from the dining room, and Tam bolted for the closet, hoping there was another way out of the crawlspace, but Ettic tripped and scraped both knees against the floor. Tam stopped and looked back, but before he could even move to help, the door flew wide and there was the bounty hunter, his blaster pointed right at them.

...

            Back on Slave I, Boba’s heart still beat a little faster than he expected, even after he had the kids stunned and secured in the copilot’s chair, even after he’d made Pava, Songar, and Rennet leave at blasterpoint, even after he made the jump to hyperspace, heading for Coruscant.

            All throughout his dealings with Skarhei over the pirates, the stolen ship and its cargo, he had kept thinking of Garo’s desperate face, remembering how humiliated and angry he’d felt a few years ago, confronting the dispassionate pity of the Jedi who had put him in prison. Knowing they saw him as some lost child who was too damaged to amount to anything important. The many small moments when he’d realized that even if Aurra and the others respected his abilities, their friendship was based only on convenience and profit.

            Now in the quiet of hyperspace and soft mechanical chirps from his console, he heard the kids stir, and glanced over to see Garo looking at him blearily, his hands still in binders behind his back. Why did Garo want so badly to get away from people who seemed to care about him?

            “Why did you come back?” Garo asked, his voice catching a little with pain. “You’re… taking us to the Empire?”

             “To Coruscant,” Boba said in his own accent. “But with any luck you’ll stay free.”

            “Free?” Garo coughed. “What do you mean?”

            Boba frowned. It was time to own this rash decision. He reached up and pulled his helmet off so Garo could see his face.

            “I’m taking you somewhere safe.” He turned immediately back to the navicomputer. “Doesn’t make much sense, considering there are probably hundreds more of you out there and I can’t save you all, but… there must be a reason you lied about living on Ukio. Where I’m taking you might not be any better than where you were. But at least you’ll be with your own kind.”

            Did that matter so much? Boba imagined losing his father at age six instead of ten, falling in with people who were determined to strip him of anything familiar, telling him that if he just found the right partner one day it would make him a complete person, fill the hole left by what he’d lost, make his existence legitimate. He wouldn’t have wanted any other family than the one he’d been born with.

            “I looked up the situation on Roon,” Boba went on. “You were right—there have been orphans who ended up adopted to slavers. Maybe that twi’lek isn’t as softhearted as he looks.”

            “Yeah.” Garo squinted at Boba through the post-stun haze.

            Tam sat up straight, his face twisted with emotion so that for a moment Boba wondered if he’d gotten the two brothers mixed up. “Pava wouldn’t do that! He knows everything and he breaks all the rules to try and help us anyway! Garo lied—he lied so that you would take him away because clones don’t need parents, they just need brothers….” Tam’s voice cracked and he stared at Boba with open fear and confusion. He looked like he might cry. “What did you do to Songar and Rennet? And Pava? Did you blast them?”

            “Stop it, Tam,” Garo hissed, bashing his shoulder into his brother. “This is our only chance! Look at him, he’s one of us.”

            “YOU LIED!” Tam cried.

             Ettic jolted awake with a yell of shock, slipped off Garo’s lap, and banged his head against the weapons console.

            Boba sat there for a second, not sure who to believe—amazed at the possibility that a kid had tricked him into terrorizing what might have been a perfectly well-intentioned trio of responsible adults… for no profitable reason. Then, when Ettic caught his breath and squealed with indignant pain, Boba jumped to his feet and went to haul the youngest brother up before he could thrash around and hurt himself even more.

            As he approached, Tam shrank away, kicking wildly at the console to push himself back further into the copilot’s chair.

            “Whoa whoa whoa, stop!” Boba said, lifting his hands. “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m just going to help your brother to his feet.”

            “You shot us,” Tam hissed. “And you probably shot our parents, too!”

            “They’re not our parents,” Garo argued.

            “They’re like parents!”

            “Shut up or I’ll throw you all out the airlock!” Boba threatened, then caught himself and cursed under his breath as he pulled Ettic to his feet, feeling like an absolute idiot. “Or… no, I’ll… arg. That’s the last time I try to be a hero! Look, I’ve already got the course laid in for Coruscant and at this point, I don’t know who’s telling the truth—DON’T interrupt me.” He reached for his blaster when Garo and Tam both opened their mouths. “You can come with me and meet some other clones I know. If any of you still want to go back to Roon after that, you can tag along when I go back that way. But for now… this is where we’re going. Understood?”

            Garo nodded, and the other two reluctantly followed suit. Boba took a deep breath in relief. Never mind that he had postponed chasing a very profitable bounty to do the good deed of kidnapping children from people who were, quite possibly, doing their very best to help. And probably made a complete fool of himself in the process. Boba sighed heavily and began releasing their binders.

            “Don’t touch anything unless I tell you to,” he ordered. “It’s going to be a few days before we land.”

            “Understood, brother,” Garo said.

            Tam just glared at the floor, and Ettic blew a wet, frustrated sigh through his lips. “Oww.”

            By the time they reached Coruscant, the three kids had eaten nearly all his rations. The two younger ones slept a lot, more than Boba thought was normal, but then again, what did he know about kids? While Tam sat silent for hours, Ettic went on long tangents about Songar and Rennet’s apartment, the stream nearby, the neighbors, what it was like in the five shelters they’d been shuffled between (“Loud, smelly, and hungry all the time”) and how they all had bad luck for a week because he stepped on three cracks in a row and ate the wrong end of a snapper pod first. Garo occasionally butted in to explain Ettic’s more confusingly told stories, and sometimes when the two younger ones were asleep he talked to Boba about what it was like leaving Kamino.

            “They were sealing off parts of the city,” Garo said quietly one day while Boba was chewing some rations. “So they could kill us. But there were some Kaminoans who weren’t evacuating quickly enough. A droid told me which doorways were still unlocked and we ended up in the room where all the infants are, and there was a Kaminoan there who told me to take Ettic and go into the flood tunnels. Only a few ships made it out I think. I didn’t even know what was going on until the droid explained it. It just seemed a little quiet that day.”

            Boba put his ration stick down, his appetite gone. “Do you know why they did it?”          

            Garo shook his head.

            “I still remember everything they taught me,” he said proudly a few minutes later, breaking the silence. “I’ve tried to keep training, too, so I’ll be ready for anything. Before we were dropped off on Roon I was with some older brothers, I think they were seven or eight, and they told me everything they could remember of the regs. I didn’t manage to memorize all of it before we left. And it was hard to do any physical training before Ettic was a year old. I had to take care of him all the time. He was so little. Sometimes he wouldn’t sleep or eat unless I was right next to him the whole time so I couldn’t move. I was only three, of course, because I’m six now and that was three years ago… it helped when we ended up at Pava’s place because they stopped trying to take him away from me.” He paused and grunted. “For a little while.”

             Boba tried not to ask any more questions.

            It was a relief to finally come out of hyperspace. The viewscreen filled up with the dark side of Coruscant, and Ettic gasped when he saw the bright lights below.

            “That’s the Empire?” he asked.

            “Just one of the planets,” Boba said.

            “Tam, wake up. Hey, wake up, it’s beautiful!”

            “Don’t wake him up,” Garo muttered. “He doesn’t care.”

            Ettic was glued to the viewscreen the whole rest of the trip down to the surface, eyes huge and taking in all the traffic, gleaming buildings, and even the clothing of the pedestrians they passed.

            Even when they passed down into the dark undercity, Ettic continued laughing delightedly at the sights. Boba clamped Slave I onto the side of a cranny that was once an old turbolift shaft, and took a deep breath as the ship powered down.

            “Wake up.” He prodded Tam’s bony shoulder only to realize he was already awake.

            “We’re here?” Tam hopped to his feet instantly, his tangled hair bobbing a little around his shoulders as he oriented himself in the sideways ship.

            “Listen,” Boba said sharply. “The undercity of Coruscant is a dangerous place. You have to stay at my side until we get to the hideout. Understood? No wandering off.”

            “Yes, sir!” Garo grunted as he straightened and grabbed a handhold, Ettic clinging to his back.

            “Yes, sir,” Tam echoed distractedly

            Boba hesitated. “I can carry Ettic.”

            “No. I’m fine,” said Garo. “Thanks. Let’s go.”

            Boba sighed and led the climb, mildly dreading the moment he had to explain all this.

            Helmet on, he hauled himself up off the ship onto the nearest walkway, and turned back to help Garo across. Tam jumped the gap without looking at it for more than a second, then rushed to the corner of the railing and looked down, then another spot, and another.

            “What’s that?” Tam said quietly over and over, pointing to bars, brothels, and aliens of every kind.

            “Keep walking,” Boba said every time.

            At last they reached the old ventilation tunnel, their footsteps sounding a muffled echo beneath the hum of air.

            “Hellooo,” Tam called, and it echoed a little too.

            “Stop that.” Boba hurried to the door with its keypad, just as he’d remembered it, and put in the code. It worked. “Alright, get inside.”

            Tam and Garo scurried in, and Boba pulled the door closed after them, bracing himself for some surprised comment from Tamper, for the way Valor’s smile would make him feel guilty. But nobody came out into the dark storage room, even after he felt his way over to the light panel and turned it on.

            “Is this all food?” Garo let Ettic down so he could inspect one of the many cube crates.

            “FOOD?” Ettic yelped excitedly, and pulled himself up to dive headfirst into the pile of ready-meal packets inside the nearest crate. “This is where we live now? There’s so much!”

            “Don’t eat it all!” Boba commanded, but Ettic was already ripping one open with his teeth—a streak of dark sauce splattered against Ettic’s knees. “I didn’t even tell them you were coming yet.”

            “What’s going on?” A deeper clone voice came from behind the door to the other room and Battery came into view, looking like he’d just woken up apart from the pistol strapped to his thigh. His long hair was half-gathered in one hand, a cord in the other, and he wore a sleeveless shirt. Boba hadn’t had any occasion to see the banded medic tattoo on his left upper arm before now.

            “Uh,” Boba said, and removed his helmet.

            “Lucky?” Battery let go of his hair and looked with surprise at the three smaller clones gathered around the food crates. “Welcome back. You found your brothers!”

            “A few of them,” Boba mumbled, and cleared his throat. “Where is everybody?”

            Battery went back to trying to tie his hair out of the way. “Val and Ember went on a supply run. Fade, Tamper and I were just trying to get some rest. Are you going to introduce me?” He gave up on detangling it and just wrapped the cord around the dark mass a few times before he came closer to kneel down.

            Garo came forward immediately, leaving Ettic in the crate trying to suck the contents out of his pouch. “I’m CT-Nine-Nine-Two-One, but my name is Garo.” He saluted with a straight face but immediately broke into a huge grin when Battery smiled and saluted back.

            Boba watched with a growing discomfort he couldn’t place. Garo hadn’t grinned once the entire flight from Roon… not that he could remember.

            “CT-Fifty-Two-Zero-Six. Call me Battery. How old are you, Garo?”

            “Six years old, sir. You’re a medic, right?”

            “That’s right.” Battery stood and put his hands on his hips, still smiling. “And what about the other two?”

            “That’s Tam, and… and Ettic,” Garo said, tossing a sheepish grin toward where Ettic was starting on a second meal pack. Tam stood motionless by the door. “I don’t know their numbers.”

            “Hi!” said Ettic through a mouth full of grey mush.

            “Well, that’s just fine. Names are more important anyway,” Battery said easily.

            “But….” Garo looked doubtful. “Everybody has a name. Only soldiers of the Grand Army of the Republic have numbers too.”

            Battery raised his eyebrows and folded his arms. “Hmm. Well, that’s one way to look at it. The army’s gone now, though… at least, in my opinion.”

            Garo looked troubled and didn’t say anything to that.

            Boba finally stepped up next to Battery. “Can we talk?”

            “Course,” Battery said, and smiled at the younger clones. “Wait here. And help yourselves to the food.”

            Battery led the way into the other room. Tamper smacked into Boba before he’d even turned the corner, throwing both arms around him with a cheerful laugh and a clatter of armor pieces. Boba noticed as soon as he got his balance that Tamper’s mustache was even bushier than last time, his hair a little longer.

            “Hello,” Boba said awkwardly as he pushed Tamper away to arms length.

            “I knew you’d be back! And you brought more little brothers.” Tamper slapped excitedly at Boba’s shoulder, peeked around the edge of the door and grinned. “Val and Ember are gonna be so excited. You know you gotta stay until they get here, you can’t leave before they see you.”

            Boba sighed and hung his helmet up on a bolt sticking out of the pipe wall, adding it to a row of red-accented City Guard helmets. He should have asked to speak to Battery alone. “How’s the leg?” he asked Fade instead.

            Fade was sitting on the ground, at ease with a spread of cards in front of him. “Hey, Lucky. Just a little limp now, nothing serious.”

            Boba shoved Tamper away so he could shut the door, and Tamper laughed with that easy delight that Boba hadn’t even realized—and would never admit—that he’d missed.

            “So where’d you find these guys?” Battery asked quietly, arms folded, leaning against the doorframe.

            “In a foster system on Roon,” said Boba, his face warming. “They were going to be split up. At first, I figured that was a small price to pay for a good family. Seemed like at least one of them was going to be adopted, but… then it turns out only one of them would be, and then Garo, the oldest one, said their foster parents only pretended to care because they got compensation for fostering them, and then Tam says that’s a lie because Garo doesn’t think he needs parents, and the adults involved were actually bending the rules to try and help them find homes—but I only heard that after we were already en route to Coruscant!”

            Tamper started chuckling but Battery snapped his fingers and he immediately stopped, much to Boba’s relief.

            “Did you ever find out what was the truth?” Battery asked.

            Boba huffed quietly. “I did a little digging, but there wasn’t much information on the holonet. Roon’s pretty isolated. I did find a few cases where non-citizen younglings on Roon were adopted by slavers like Garo told me, but none of them were in the same program as him and his brothers. Could have been a mistake every time. A lot of the agencies barely even offer compensation… officially. Their adoption fees are pretty low, too.”

            “So either Garo wanted to get away so badly that he lied… or he was telling the truth, and Tam is lying because…?”

            “How old is he?” Fade asked, from where he was cleaning up the deck of cards.

            “According to Garo? He’s six, Tam’s four, and Ettic’s three.”

            “That means Ettic wasn’t a year old when they left Kamino,” Battery breathed.

            Tamper’s mouth fell open. “How did they even get—”

            “We can ask those questions later,” Battery interrupted, focusing back on Boba. “So… are you asking us to take them or are you asking for advice?”

            Boba took a deep breath, self-conscious now that it was so obvious that that was what he was doing: asking advice. “Tam wanted to stay on Roon. I didn’t know that, and I told the civilians raising him that I was taking all three of these clones as a bounty for the Empire. It… might be too late to take him back.”

            Fade was the one who chuckled this time.

            “What’s so funny?” Boba grumbled.

            “Just… clever move. At least they won’t be sending local law enforcement after you.”

            “Garo had already lied to me once,” Boba pressed on. “Tried to convince me that his real parents were on Ukio. So… he probably lied again. But the question is why.”

            “Why did you believe him the second time?” Battery asked.

            For a moment, Boba felt defensive, but then he thought about it. And he realized that somehow, nearly every clone trooper he’d ever met had seemed disinclined to deceive anyone. But it wasn’t just that.

            “It was because…” Boba said haltingly, “He seems to think a lot like me.”

            He looked down from where he’d been studying the ceiling to avoid their eyes, and all three were looking at him, waiting for him to go on. For a moment Boba considered just turning around, getting on his ship, leaving the kids here, never coming back again. This place made him feel so vulnerable.

            It took a minute before he went on. “You know,” he said casually, shrugging one shoulder. “I… when you already had a family once… nothing else is good enough. No one is… really like… us.”

            Tamper smiled a little smile that was more like Battery’s or Val’s, and Fade nodded. Battery just looked at him, still waiting.

            “The twi’lek who ran the shelter said Garo could become a full citizen if he married a citizen,” Boba said. Finally, it was out. “Garo said he didn’t want to. If that was my only chance at a normal life… on top of being separated from the only family I remembered, I’d… probably want out.”

            Agreeing murmurs came from the other three clones, and Boba just stood there, flushed and amazed at how simple and yet how obscure a thing it was to acknowledge.

            He cleared his throat again. “I remembered what you said, Fade, when Tseri….”

            “Yeah,” Fade said shortly, hauling himself to his feet with some effort. He came over and clapped his hand on Boba’s back before putting that arm around his shoulders. “And I remember the look you gave me when I said it. I’ve been thinking you spent a lot of your life around other people, who don’t understand that most of us don’t think like they do. We don’t want the same things. Most of us.”

            “Yeah, I’ve had bad luck dealing with that sort of complicated stuff,” Tamper sighed airily, leaning on the wall with one hand and wearing with a crooked grin. “Gave some people the wrong impression, nearly got laid by accident, you know… back when I was a shiny.” His casual tone devolved into chuckles and he put a hand over his face. “Ahh, Batts, remember that? You and Valor had to ask Yank to give me the talk.”

            Battery nodded with a laugh under his breath, and Fade squeezed Boba’s shoulders.

            “For most brothers, that kind of relationship isn’t something we really fit into,” Fade said quietly. “So… you’re probably right about Garo.”

            “And Tam?” Boba asked. He was a little startled at how easy it was to let Fade touch him. “Can I make that choice for him, when he wanted that life? How do you know you’re all the same?” Boba gave Fade a look when the clone snorted softly. “I mean… every clone is an individual, right? That’s what you all say.”

            Tamper laughed. “Trust me, kid, being in the Guard, we get, uh… how should I say this… a lot more frequent temptations than men on the front. And I’ve known plenty of guys who sneak off to gamble, drink, get all kinds of… contraband items… but those same troopers come home from a wild night on the town with stories about what they got asked to do by interested civilians… and didn’t want to do.”

            “The fact is, we don’t know for sure.” Battery shrugged. “But…you can always talk to him and find out.”

            Boba frowned. He’d been afraid Battery was going to say that.

            Tam stood by the door to the outside, hugging himself even though it was warm and a little stuffy in here. Somehow the space felt both crowded and overwhelmingly empty. This is it, he thought. Garo and Ettic were eating out of the pouches in the opened crate, occasionally glancing at him but not speaking. On all sides he was surrounded by an entire unfamiliar planet, layers and layers of undercity full of strange and dangerous beings. There was a small chance, if he ran now, that he could steal Lucky’s ship and fly back to Roon. But he didn’t know much about flying. If he got boarded again there would be no one left to fight for him. He would be completely alone.

            Now he would have to become a soldier. He would have to live up to what these new brothers wanted, who had actually been in the army and seen battle. They would be even more demanding than Garo. Tam had only just begun to get a sense of what was expected of him as a civilian child, of what would make him adoptable. But he had the awful feeling that he was about to start all over.

            The opposite door opened, and Lucky walked out.

            “What?” Lucky asked abruptly, immediately looking at Tam and making him jump. “What’s wrong?”

            “I miss the house,” Tam mumbled, feeling foolish. “I miss Pava. And the mineek in the ceiling won’t have anybody to feed it.”

            “I can’t take you back there right now,” Lucky sighed. “But—”

            “I know,” said Tam miserably, standing there stiffly in his light, summery civilian clothing. He had to speak now or he would never get it out. He tried not to look at Garo. “I just am not a soldier. Maybe… I don’t belong here. I only remember a little bit about before I went to Roon. It was really crowded on the ship away from Kamino and I threw up. And I chewed on my shirt because I was hungry.”

            How pathetic he must be to Lucky. The bounty hunter looked at him like the workers at the shelter did, seeming unmoved.

            “Hey,” Battery said, slipping back into sight behind Lucky. “Tam, right? Short for anything?”

            Tam shook his head, blinking hard through his messy curls.

            “Well, come meet the other Tam. Short for Tamper, but we’ll have to call him by his full name now, unless you want to be Tammy.” Battery came close, went down on one knee and offered a hand. “You can call me Batts for short.”

            When Tam finally took it, Battery’s hand was warmer and softer than he expected. For a moment, 21987 crouched in Battery’s place. The medic reached up with his other hand to gently pull back a few of the curls hiding Tam’s face.

            Tam’s lips began to tremble; he pressed them together tight.

            “I bet you’ve seen a lot of battles,” Battery said softly. “More than I did at your age.”

            “I haven’t.” Tam’s voice wobbled, his gaze slipping away from Battery’s, darting around. “I don’t even talk like I’m supposed to. My accent is all wrong.”

            “Well, you still have the same voice,” Battery said calmly. “And the same hair.” He grabbed the end of his own messy ponytail and ruffled it into Tam’s hair. Tam tried to smile. “And the same face.”

            “I haven’t seen any battles,” Tam creaked. “I was only a year and a half old when we left, I don’t remember any of my training.”

            “The most important part’s still in there.” Battery gently tapped Tam on the chest with one finger. “It’s how you’ve survived this long. Come on. You’ve got to meet the rest of your squad.”

            Tam took a deep breath and nodded, holding onto Battery’s hand as Battery straightened and led the way toward the inner room. Lucky walked briskly ahead of him.

            “Hey, Tam. Meet Tam,” Battery called.

            “Tammy!” Tamper’s voice was loud and exuberant. When Tam met him at the door to the inner room, Tamper didn’t look like the troopers Tam remembered at all, with his mustache and hair and headband. None of them did. “Tam is the best name. You pick it yourself?”

            “Mm,” Tam said.

            Tamper’s head jerked up and he stepped toward the wall suddenly. “Lucky, hey! Where do you think you’re going?”

            The bounty hunter froze in the middle of reaching for his helmet.

            “You can’t leave without saying goodbye!” Tamper grimaced dramatically. “Huh. You didn’t even say hello. Not to Val or Ember anyway.”

            “Lucky finding these guys, huh?” sad a bald, tattooed clone as he snatched Lucky’s helmet off the wall first. The rest of the walls in the rooms were full of various blasters and kit pieces on racks and pegs. “They’re so young.”

            “Fade!” Tamper gasped. “I’m the one who makes bad jokes around here.”

            Fade chuckled and a laugh came from just behind Tam too—it was Garo, running past him to explore the open room. Tam’s chest hurt when he realized he didn’t know the last time Garo had laughed like that. He seemed so relaxed, so relieved as he went to the back wall to inspect a clip of ammo for a tranq gun.

            “Well, Lucky’s smiling even though I stole his bucket. That’s one more point than you have so far,” said Fade, throwing a smirk at Tamper.

            Tam glanced at the bounty hunter just in time to see the smile vanish from his face.

            “Luckily,” said Lucky dully just before he yanked his helmet out of Fade’s hand and jammed it on, “I wasn’t really paying attention when you told that awful joke.”

            “Ohhhh!” Tamper yelled and thumped the metal drumlike wall in delight. “Fade, I think he missed us!”

            “Of course he missed me. So that’s still one for me, zero for you.”

            “Wow, Batts, have you checked your medpack lately? Ever since Fade’s leg started getting better his attitude’s been out of control!”

            “Lucky knows he’s welcome to come and go as he pleases,” Battery said, sitting on a pile of blankets and brushing his hair as if he hadn’t heard. The bounty hunter nodded once, and Battery looked at Tam. “And so are you, as long as you know how to protect yourself.”

            Tam felt his face flush and looked around for openings. There was another doorway across from the open room where the weapons and armor lined the walls. For a moment he considered bolting, but couldn’t decide which direction to go.

            “If you don’t know how,” Battery said gently, “you can ask one of us to come with you. We usually stick together anyway.”

            “That’s what happens when you’re part of a squad,” Tamper said cheerfully.

            Tam slowly forced his eyes to stop darting around, settling on Lucky, and rubbed his thumbs over the raised hairs on his arms, feeling frail, his shoulders hunched.

            For a long moment no one spoke, until Ettic piped up from where he and Garo had both been looking at a jetpack in the corner. “Are you gonna take Tam back to Songar and Rennet?”

            “It’s your call, Lucky,” added Tamper, arms folded as he leaned with one shoulder on the inside edge of the doorframe.

            The bounty hunter, who had been standing stiffly ever since he put his helmet on, came over and bent on one knee, helmet very close to Tam’s face.

            “Actually, it’s your call. You have time to decide. I’ll stay on Coruscant until Valor and Ember get back. What do you want?”

            “I don’t know,” Tam mumbled.

            “Then stay here until you do,” said Lucky abruptly. “If I’m still alive by the time you figure it out, I’ll take you where you want to go. Even if it means you end up marrying some Roonish civilian and adopting a couple kids of your own someday. If that’s what you want.”

            Tam wondered what to say. He didn’t think Lucky liked him very much, but his words sounded sincere.

            The bounty hunter turned away. “I have some credits from my last bounty. The kids probably need clothes and things. I’ll be back.”

            Tam watched him walk out the door with a sense of foreboding, trying to imagine himself living in this rumbling air duct for the rest of his life, killing for a living. It seemed so much more impossible than winning over potential parents, but he wasn’t sure anymore. He craned his neck to look up at the blasters on the wall, some of them bigger than he was, and felt something tugging softly at his hair.

            It was Battery, carefully untangling the ends, gently alternating between fingers and brush. His face was relaxed but focused.

            “Are you going to cut it all off?” Tam asked nervously. He knew most clone troopers kept their hair short.

            Battery shook his head. “Do you want it cut?”

            Tam shook his head, sank down in his older brother’s lap and heard the door to the outside slam shut behind Lucky. And he felt Battery breathe a sigh against his back, and closed his eyes.

            Tam couldn’t really imagine what it would be like to be a partner, or a parent. But he did know this feeling creeping in through the fear, right now, surrounded in an older brother’s protection. He’d found a ghost of it on Roon, with Songar and Rennet, and chased it as hard as Garo had chased the army. The blaster rifles on the wall stared down at him, and his heart beat painfully just looking at them. But for a moment, pretending it was 71289 breathing behind him, it was almost like being back on Kamino. Back home, a small part of Tam’s mind said, as if such a place existed.