I don’t know who the good guys are anymore. But I do know what the enemy is. It’s the compromise of principles. You lose the war when you lose your principles. And the first principle is to look out for your comrades.
The gunship was the most beautiful craft Darman had ever seen.
It came into view as he staggered through the line of bushes and into the newly plowed field. Its cockpit bubbles gleamed like a holo of Cloud City, and its cannon turrets had the symmetry of the finest Naboo architecture. He even loved its rust and the dents in its wings.
“Look at that, Atin,” he said. “Sheer art… Atin?”
White trooper armor came running toward him with a Gran in a medic’s uniform just behind them. Atin’s weight lifted from his back, and he struggled to pull his arms free of the webbing. He followed the stretcher, trying to talk to the medic.
“Verpine projectile, right side of his chest,” he said. “Painkiller, five ccs of—”
“I can see,” the Gran said. “Neat job, Private. Now get in that ship.”
When he looked around, troopers had taken Uthan from Etain and she was walking toward the gunship, stopping to look over her shoulder every few steps. General Arligan Zey stepped down from the troop cabin and bowed his head very slightly in her direction. She slowed down and stopped to return it.
It struck Darman as a remarkably formal greeting under the circumstances. Behind this tableau of Jedi etiquette was a scene from a nightmare, with medics working on both Atin and Uthan, removing armor, cutting garments, hooking up transfusion lines, calling for more dressings. It was like watching two parallel worlds, each wholly oblivious to the other.
Zey didn’t look at Darman at all, but the ARC trooper who jumped down beside the general took off his helmet and simply stared at him in silence. Something black moved in the shadows of the ship and then emerged slowly to sniff the air with a long glossy snout.
It was Valaqil. He had come home. Darman could hardly say that he recognized the Gurlanin, because this one looked indistinguishable from Jinart. But he could guess.
“Private Atin is still collecting scars, I see,” Valaqil said. “And my consort is impatient and waiting for me. I have to go.”
“Jinart?” Darman shrugged, embarrassed. “She’s been an extraordinary help to us, sir. A fifth—a sixth member of the squad, in fact.”
“I’m sure she will tell me all the details of what has made her so very excited for the past few days.”
And then he was gone, loping across the field and into the bushes. Darman hoped the Republic wouldn’t disappoint the Gurlanins. They’d served as well as any soldier.
“You’ve done remarkably well, Padawan,” Zey said. “Especially without the guidance of a Master. Quite exceptional, in fact. I think that this may hasten your progress toward your trials as far as the Council is concerned. With the supervision of a Master, of course.”
Darman expected delight or embarrassment or something equally positive to soften Etain’s expression. He knew she believed she was unfit to be a Jedi Knight, or even a Padawan at times. He knew it was the one thing she lived for.
But the elevation didn’t appear to move her at all. She didn’t even appear to hear what Zey had said.
“Master, where are Niner and Fi?” Etain asked.
Zey looked bemused. “Who?”
“Sorry, Master. The two other men from Omega Squad.”
Darman felt the scrutiny of the ARC even more keenly now. He’d only seen ARCs a couple of times before, and they came as close to scaring him as anyone supposedly on his side ever could. Zey shook his head. “You’re the first to make it here.”
“They’ll be here, sir,” Darman said. He flicked open his helmet-to-helmet comlink. If the ARC was listening in, it was too bad. “Sarge? Fi? Time to get a move on.”
There was no sound at all in his ear, not even static. He switched to the alternative frequency, and still there was nothing. “Niner, Fi, are you receiving?” He checked the diagnostics mode of his HUD: his helmet was fully functional. He could see the crevasse on Geonosis again, standing behind the cooling, ticking E-Web, trying to raise Taler, Vin, and Jay. He couldn’t see the biometric data from their suits on his HUD.
No, not again. Not again, please…
“Ma’am, I’m not getting any response.”
“What does that mean?”
He could hardly bear to say it. “Their helmets are offline. I don’t think they made it.”
“They’re dead?” Zey asked.
“They’re not dead,” Etain said firmly.
“Ma’am, I can’t raise them at all.”
“No, I don’t care, they’re alive. I know they are.”
“You have to go,” Zey said. “If you don’t go now, you could be flying straight into a battle with Trade Federation vessels. We’ve attracted a lot of attention.” The general turned back to the two medics working on Uthan. “Is she going to survive?”
“She’s in a very bad way, sir. We need to move her.”
“Keep her alive any way you can. Prepare to lift off. Etain—”
“Master, there are two men still out there.”
“No, I can feel them. I know them, sir, I know where they are. They’re not even hurt. We must wait for them.”
“We must also save Uthan and get you two out of here.”
“They’ve destroyed the virus. Isn’t that what matters? You can’t abandon them now.”
Darman could see she was at that point where she would either collapse or do something extreme. Her face was drawn tight, and her pupils were dilated. It was an expression that scared him. He’d seen it a few times in the last few days.
The gunship’s drives were throbbing now. Etain still had one boot on the platform and the other firmly on Qiiluran soil.
Etain swallowed hard. Oh, Darman thought. Just bite your tongue, ma’am. Don’t react. But he felt what she was feeling. All that sweat and terror and pain for nothing. All that, when they could have bombed the facility and gone home. All that—and Atin fighting for his life, and Niner and Fi either dead or marooned here.
“I will not leave without them,” Etain said. “I regret disobeying you, Master, but I must.”
Zey registered visible annoyance. “You will do as I order,” he said quietly. “You’re compromising the mission.”
“We need these men. They are not expendable.”
“We are all expendable.”
“Then, sir, I’m expendable, too.” She lowered her head slightly, looking up at Zey, more challenging than coy. “An officer’s duty is the welfare of her men.”
“I see that Master Fulier taught you little about obedience but a great deal about sentimentality—”
Darman dared to interrupt. He couldn’t stand seeing Jedi Masters arguing. It was painfully embarrassing. “Look, I’ll stay, ma’am,” he said. “Go with Atin. See he’s okay.”
Despite Skirata’s frequent assurances that their lives had meaning, Darman had accepted the hierarchy of expendability: it was not only natural in the Grand Army, but also necessary and inevitable. His life was a more valuable defense asset than a clone trooper’s; the ARC’s life was more valuable than his. But the mirror that Etain’s loyalty and care held up in front of him had made him see himself as a man. Yes, Niner and Fi deserved better. They all did.
Zey ignored Darman. “You must go. More Separatist vessels are heading this way, and I know how this pains you, but—”
Etain bounced off her back heel into the troop cabin in one move. For a moment Darman thought she had changed her mind, but that wasn’t Etain at all. She took out her lightsaber and held the glowing shaft a handspan away from the power conduit running along the spine of the airframe. She could ground them with one move. Zey’s jaw was set. Nobody else moved except for the Gran medic working on Atin, who seemed oblivious to the drama, a quality Darman suspected was honed by working under fire.
“Master,” Etain said, “either all of Omega Squad leaves Qiilura or nobody does.”
“This is a foolish act, Etain.” His tone was very calm. “You must see the necessity of this.”
“No, Master. I don’t.”
He’s going to do some of that Jedi stuff on her, Darman thought. No, no, please … He couldn’t see the ARC’s expression but he could guess it was one of astonishment.
“Etain, this is precisely why you must resist attachment.”
Oh, he doesn’t know her at all, Darman thought. If only he’d—
Her lightsaber was still ready to slice through the conduit. “As Jedi we say we revere all life. Are we prepared to live that belief? Are these soldiers’ lives worth any less than ours because we had them created? Because we can buy more of them if these are destroyed?”
“They are soldiers, Etain. Soldiers die.”
“No, Master, they’re men. And they’ve fought well, and they’re my responsibility, and I would rather die than live with the knowledge that I abandoned them.”
It was so silent that time seemed to have frozen. Zey and Etain were locked in a wordless argument. Then Zey shut his eyes.
“I feel your certainty has its roots in the Force,” he said. There was a sigh in his voice. “What’s your name—Darman? So you have names, do you? Darman, go where she directs you. She values your lives more than she values becoming a Jedi Knight.”
Etain made as if to follow him. “You stay, ma’am. Please.”
“No,” she said. “I won’t leave you, any of you.” She was holding her lightsaber as if she were part of it now, not like something she feared would bite her. “I realize this is gross disobedience, Master Zey, but I really don’t think I’m ready to become a Jedi Knight yet.”
“You’re completely right,” Zey said calmly. “And we do need these men.”
Darman followed her, looking back for a second at the general.
He looked as if he was smiling. Darman could have sworn he seemed almost proud.
Ghez Hokan had expended almost every round he had. He was down to his vibroblade, the lightsaber, and the last two projectiles in his Verpine now. He pressed his glove hard into his thigh and checked again to see if the wound was weeping fluid.
He couldn’t feel any pain. His glove came away wet: the blaster burn had gone deep through skin, nerves, and fat, cauterizing blood vessels but exposing raw tissue that wept plasma.
He wondered what kind of injury was making the commando scream like that, a high-pitched, incoherent, sobbing scream that trailed off and then started up again.
Hokan couldn’t see the man’s comrade. He knew he had one because he had been hit from two separate positions. Maybe the other was dead. He listened a little longer. He’d heard many men die. Whatever their species, whatever their age, they almost always screamed for their mothers.
Clone soldiers didn’t have mothers as far as he knew. So this one was screaming for his sergeant. The sergeant was called Kal or something like it. It was hard to tell.
For some reason that made it unbearable. For once, Hokan could not despise weakness. Whatever he thought of the Republic and the loathsome, sanctimonious Jedi, this was a Mandalorian warrior out there, used and discarded.
He would finish him. It was the decent thing to do. A wounded man could also return fire, so he wasn’t going soft, not at all. He was simply ending the battle.
Hokan knelt and looked around. It was clear. Even so, he struggled to crawl with his head down toward the direction of the screams.
They were quieter now, a series of gulping sobs.
“Sarge … don’t leave me … Sargeant Kal! Sarge! Uhhh it hurts it hurts it hurts …”
How dare the Republic use Jango Fett to create this abomination. How had Fett let this happen? Hokan edged closer. He could see a body in the grass now. He could see light-colored, dirt-caked metallic armor very similar in design to his own, but bulkier and more complex.
And now he was close enough to see the face with the mouth wide open. The man had his arms folded tight across his chest. He was sobbing.
It was Jango Fett, many years before.
Hokan drew himself up on his knees and knelt a couple of meters from the wounded commando, absolutely astonished.
“I’m sorry, my brother,” he said. The lightsaber would have been fast, but it was a disgrace to use a Jedi weapon to kill a Mandalorian man. It was too much like reenacting Jango’s fate at Geonosis. Hokan drew his vibroblade instead. “It’s not your fault. They made you like this.”
The commando opened his eyes and focused at a point just past him, as Hokan had seen many dying men do. They all seemed to see ghosts at the final moment.
It was only then that Hokan heard the sound of a lightsaber. And it was too late.
* * *
“You cut that fine,” Niner said.
It was the only time Darman had ever seen him look shocked. He wiped his face with the palm of his glove.
“And where were you, Fi? Thanks a bunch. I could have been filleted. You were suppose to slot him.”
Fi searched through the decapitated Hokan’s jacket. “Ah, I could see Dar and Commander Etain behind him. I knew you were probably okay.” He paused, and the rifling grew more vigorous. “Here you go, ma’am. I think you ought to have this.” Fi handed a short cylinder back to Etain. It was Master Kast Fulier’s lightsaber. It was a matter of honor to return it. “They do work well against Mandalorian armor, don’t they?”
Etain didn’t seem remotely triumphant. She took the hilt and turned it over in her hand before placing it in her pocket. Darman wondered how long it would be before she sheathed her own lightsaber. She was still clutching it in one hand, its blue blade humming and shimmering as she trembled. She wasn’t focusing. Darman willed Fi not to make the obvious comment that killing someone with a lightsaber was nice and clean, no guts, no mess. For once he kept his gallows humor to himself, and simply walked a few paces away to recover the genuine Mandalorian helmet he had decided to appropriate.
“You want to put that away now, ma’am?” Darman said gently. “We’re done here.”
Niner got to his feet and saluted her in best formal parade fashion. “Thank you, Commander. You don’t mind me calling you that now, do you?”
She seemed to come back to the here and now. The shaft of blue light vanished.
“It’s an honor,” she said.
Darman called back on the comlink: General Zey had kept his word. The gunship was still waiting. They set off in column, picking up speed until they broke into a trot.
The gunship was surrounded by a skirt of billowing dust. Its drive had been idling so long that the heat of the down-draft had dried the top layer of soil.
Etain didn’t care if the ship had taken off. She hadn’t abandoned her squad. Nothing else mattered after that. And although she knew it had been a deliberate decoy, the sound of Niner screaming would haunt her forever. He must have heard that for real at least once in his life to have mimicked it so horribly well. She felt sick, and it was not because she had killed Ghez Hokan, and that filled her with shame.
She understood fully now why attachment was forbidden to Jedi.
The ARC trooper was pacing a slow, regular square, hands clasped behind his back, head down, and Etain would no longer make the assumption that he was lost in thought. He was probably listening to comm traffic in the private world of his helmet.
General Zey was sitting patiently on the ship’s platform. “Are you ready now?”
She held out Master Fulier’s lightsaber to him. “Omega Squad recovered it. I felt I should return it to you.”
“I know what you’re going through, Padawan.”
“But that’s no comfort, Master.”
“A concern for those under your command is essential. But it carries its own pain if you identify too much with your troops.” Yes, it did sound as if Zey had known that dilemma. “There are always casualties in war.”
“I know. But I also know them now as individuals, and I can’t change that. No clone trooper, no commando, not even an ARC trooper will ever be an anonymous unit to me now. I’ll always wonder who’s behind that visor. How can I be a true Jedi and not respect them as beings, with all that entails?”
Zey was studying his hands a little too carefully. “Every good commander in history has had to face that. And so will you.”
“If I’m a commander, then may I accompany them on their next mission?”
“I suspect that would not be for the best.”
“And what do I do now? How can I go back to everyday duties after this?”
“There are no everyday duties now we’re at war. I will not be leaving. I have come to do what work I can here.”
“What will happen to our allies—the Gurlanins—if we abandon them now, with enemy forces in the area? I’m here to operate with them, and try and make Qiilura as inhospitable to Separatists as we can.”
“I’m glad we’re honoring our commitment, Master.”
“You know this land better than anyone now. You would be a valuable asset here.”
“And when will more troops join you?”
“I’m afraid we’ll have to continue the covert work for the time being. We would need to disappear.”
We. Etain could think of nothing worse than staying on Qiilura, with its terrible memories and uncertain future. The nearest she had to friends was a squad of commandos who would be deployed on another mission within days. She would be working with a Master she didn’t know. She was alone again and scared.
“Etain, you have duties,” Zey said quietly. “We all have. We talk about duty when it’s easy, but living it is hard.” And he didn’t need to add what she knew he was thinking—that she needed to be separated from the object of her recent and desperate wartime attachment. She needed to let her squad go.
It was no different from what was asked of soldiers every day.
“I—I would like to play a useful role in the future of Qiilura, Master.” She hoped Darman wouldn’t think she was turning her back on him and that he was after all just a glorified droid to her, an asset to be used in battle and expended if necessary. “But I would still find it a comfort one day to know how Omega Squad is faring.”
“I understand,” Zey said. “The choice is yours, though. You can go with Omega Squad. Or you can stay. You might even request that one of the squad remain here.”
One of the squad. Maybe he thought she was just a girl who’d become too attached to a young man when neither of them would ever be able to take the relationship farther. He was testing her, challenging her to make the choice a proper Jedi Knight should make. Yes, she had become close to Darman: he’d been the making of her. But she cared at an inexplicably fundamental level about all of them.
“I don’t think caring about your troops is a weakness,” she said. “The day we stop caring is the day we turn our back on the Force.”
She dug her nails into her palms. Zey was right, though. And it was going to hurt. She sat on the platform beside Zey in silence, eyes closed, composing herself.
The ARC trooper suddenly jerked his head up. “General, sir, we absolutely must go now.”
“General Zey,” Niner said, and touched his glove to his temple. “Sorry we kept you. Are we ready to lift?”
“We don’t have time for a mission debriefing, but perhaps you’d like a moment with your commander,” Zey said, and beckoned the ARC trooper to follow him. It was a gracious gesture. Etain watched him walk to the rear of the ship to offer her some privacy, apparently supervising the offloading of equipment. She wondered if they had managed to land Zey’s starfighter somewhere.
She’d worry about that later. She beckoned the commandos to her.
“What’s going to happen to you now?” she said.
“Next mission. Have they assigned us to you?”
She wondered whether a lie might be in order. She looked at Darman. “Not exactly,” she said. “I’m staying here with General Zey.”
Darman and Niner both averted their eyes, looking at the ground, nodding as if in agreement. Fi raised his eyebrows. “I’m really going to miss you, Commander. Just when we were shaping up. Typical of the army, eh?” He rapped his knuckles on Niner’s back plate, pushing him a fraction toward the gunship. “Make a move, then, Sarge.”
“Hope to serve with you again, Commander,” Niner said, and saluted her. “And don’t ever think you didn’t earn that rank, will you?”
Etain wished they hadn’t left her alone with Darman. She wanted a quick exit with no time to think and make a stupid, emotional comment.
“I chose to stay,” she said. “I really would have liked to have stayed part of the team, but I’m not the officer you need.”
Darman said nothing. Of course: how could he ever have learned how to take his leave of a friend? All his brief life had been spent among his own kind, immersed in warfare real or virtual. This was where he became a ten-year-old child again. His embarrassment and confusion were palpable.
“You could remain here with me and General Zey,” she said. And I’d know you were safe. “You have that choice.”
He really was a child now. His eyes were fixed on the ground. He was flicking one of the switches on his rifle, back and forth, over and over.
“Just me, ma’am?”
She felt she was testing him now. “Yes.”
The gunship’s drive rose in frequency, a high whine: the pilot was more than impatient to leave.
“I’m sorry, Commander,” Darman said at last. For a moment, he really did seem to be considering it seriously. “I have a job to do.”
“I can’t pretend I won’t miss you,” she said.
Darman’s gaze didn’t flicker. “I’ve got about ten years left. But I’ll be with my brothers, doing what I do best. It’s all I’ve ever known—like going home, really.” He bent his head and snapped on his helmet, becoming one of the faceless again. “You take care, Commander.”
“And you,” she said, and watched him run to the platform and grasp Fi’s outstretched arm to be hauled inboard.
The drive roared into higher gear, and the gunship shook slightly.
Etain turned and walked away in a crouch to steady herself against the downdraft. She speeded up into a hunched run until she found a tree and sat down in the lee of it with her back to its trunk.
And she let the tears run down her face.
All that she was, and all that she would be in the future, was because a clone soldier had put such undeserved faith in her that she had become that Jedi he imagined she was. She could now harness the Force in a way she had never been able to at Fulier’s side.
She thought of that look of complete faith. She thought of his stoic acceptance of his duty and of the fact that his life would be brief and bright, whatever happened. He had never known a moment of self-pity. She had learned the most important lesson of all from him.
She wiped her eyes with the heel of her hand and hoped Zey wasn’t watching.
Etain didn’t know if she would ever see Darman or Omega Squad again. She did know, though, that in days to come, every clone trooper or commando or ARC that she might have to order into battle would be neither anonymous, nor meaningless, nor expendable. Under that grim helmet was a man, someone just like her, a human being, but one without the freedom or the life span afforded to her.
Etain Tur-Mukan stood up and walked back into the clearing at the edge of the field to watch the gunship lift into the early-morning sky.