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Clone personnel have free will, even if they do follow orders. If they couldn’t think for themselves, we’d be better off with droidsand they’re a lot cheaper, too. They have to be able to respond to situations we can’t imagine. Will that change them in ways we can’t predict? Perhaps. But they have to be mentally equipped to win wars. Now thaw those men out. They have a job to do.

–Jedi Master Arligan Zey, intelligence officer

Secure briefing room, Fleet Support, Ord Mantell, three standard months after Geonosis

Fleet Support Base hadn’t been built to accommodate tens of thousands of troops, and it showed. The briefing room was a cold store, and it still smelled of food and spices. Darman could see the loading rails that spanned the ceiling, but he kept his focus on the holoscreen in front of him.

It didn’t feel so bad to be revived after stasis. He was still a commando. They hadn’t reconditioned him. That meant—that meant he’d performed to expected standards at Geono­sis. He’d done well. He felt positive.

But his helmet felt different. There was a lot more data on the HUD, the heads-up display. He flicked between modes for a while, controlling each command with rapid blinks, noting the extra systems and hardware that had been in­stalled since Geonosis.

Sitting to his left was his new sergeant, who preferred to be called Niner when superior officers weren’t around, and RC-8015, nicknamed Fi. They, too, were the sole survivors of their squads. At least they knew what he was going through.

There was a fourth makeshift seat in the row—a blue alloy packing crate—and it was unoccupied. Jedi Master Arligan Zey, hands clasped behind his back, paced up and down in front of the screen, cloak flapping, breaking the holoprojec­tion each time. Another Jedi, who had not been identified, was splitting his attention between Zey and the three hel­meted commandos sitting absolutely still on the row of crates.

The reflective surfaces of the spray-clean alloy walls en­abled Darman to discreetly observe an unusual alien—one he had never seen before. He had been trained to take in every detail of his surroundings, although it was very diffi­cult not to notice the creature.

The alien was about a meter and a half long, and it was slinking around the walls, sniffing. Black-furred and glossy, it prowled on long delicate legs, thrusting a narrow muzzle into crevices and exhaling sharply each time it did. Earlier, Darman had heard Zey address it as Valaqil: he also said it was a Gurlanin, a shapeshifter.

Darman had heard about shapeshifters in training, but this wasn’t a Clawdite. He was watching its reflection in his right-field peripheral vision when the door swung open and another commando entered, helmet tucked rigidly under his right arm, and saluted smartly.

“RC-three-two-two-two, sir,” he said. “Apologies for keeping you, sir. The medics didn’t want to discharge me.”

No wonder: there was a stripe of raw flesh across his face that started just under his right eye, ran clean across his mouth, and finally ended at the left side of his jaw. He cer­tainly didn’t look like any of the other clones now. Darman wondered what level of persuasion it had taken to get the medical staff to skip a course of bacta.

“Are you fit, soldier?” Zey said.

“Fit to fight, sir.” He sat down next to Darman and as­sumed the same ramrod posture, glancing at him briefly in acknowledgment. So this was their fourth man. They were a squad again—numerically, anyway. Omega Squad.

The other Jedi was staring at the newcomer with an ex­pression of barely concealed astonishment. Zey seemed to notice and nudged his colleague. “Padawan Jusik is new to clone armies, as are we all.” That was understandable: Dar­man had never seen Jedi before the Battle of Geonosis, and he was equally fascinated. “You’ll excuse his curiosity.”

Zey gestured at the holoscreen.

“This is your objective, gentlemen—Qiilura.” He glanced at his datapad, reading intently. “This data has been obtained from high-altitude reconnaissance, so it has its limitations.”

Zey went on, “Qiilura is technically neutral. Unfortu­nately, its neutral status is likely due to end very soon.”

He had referred to them as gentlemen. Maybe Zey didn’t know what to call commandos. It was still early days for all of them.

The image on the screen began as a blue-and-white disc, zooming in to views of chains of islands, deep river inlets, and rolling plains peppered with patches of woodland and gameboard fields. It looked pleasant and peaceful, and hence utterly alien to Darman, whose entire life beyond Tipoca City had been spent on battlefields, real or virtual.

“You’re looking at farming communities, almost all of them located here in this region because it’s the most fertile land,” Zey said. “They produce barq, kushayan, and fifty per­cent of the luxury foodstuffs and beverages in the galaxy. There’s also gem mining. The population is nevertheless living at subsistence level, and there is no government other than the law of commerce and profit—Neimoidian traders effectively own the planet, or at least the productive areas that are of use to them. They enforce their stewardship through a militia controlled by Ghez Hokan—a Mandalorian so unpleasantly violent that he was actually asked to leave the Death Squad for enjoying his work too much.”

Jusik looked up from his datapad. He appeared to be fol­lowing the presentation. “Scum,” he said. “One of our sources calls them scum, indicating … a very disagreeable group of people.”

Zey paused for breath as if to ensure that the last snippet of information had made its point. “Given how thinly stretched our resources are, we are unfortunately unable to justify in­tervening to deal with any injustice on Qiilura at this time. But we have excellent intelligence that indicates a significant military asset located there.”

Darman was listening, and still watching the Gurlanin pe­ripherally. It had moved around the room to sit upright beside Jusik, with its front paws neatly clasped before its chest. He was also observing Jusik. The Padawan still appeared riveted by the commandos. Darman was careful not to stare—even though any eye movement was disguised by his helmet—because Jedi knew things without having to see. His instruc­tors had told him so. Jedi were omniscient, omnipotent, and to be obeyed at all times.

Darman hung on Zey’s every word.

“Qiilura isn’t on the main lane, so to speak,” Zey said. “Ideal for hiding, if that’s your intention. And there are things hidden there. We need you to apprehend one, and de­stroy the other—a Separatist scientist, Ovolot Qail Uthan, and her most recent project, a nanovirus. We have reason to believe both are at a research facility on Qiilura.”

Zey paused, and Jusik filled the space. “We have a Jedi there, Master Kast Fulier, but we haven’t heard from him or his Padawan in some weeks.”

Zey picked up again. “And let me assure you that we’ve been searching diligently for them. We have a location for our targets, but no plans of the buildings. The lack of plans will make your retrieval and sabotage task more challenging, as will the communications situation. Questions?”

Niner raised a gloved hand from his lap. “Sir, what is the comm situation, exactly?”


“Not quite with you, sir.”

Zey looked blank for a moment, and then his face lit up with revelation. “The Neimoidians own and control all the infrastructure—the native population scarcely have pits for refreshers, but their overlords enjoy the finest comlink net and air traffic control that credits can buy. They like to ensure that nobody does business without their knowledge. So they monitor everything, and very little intelligence comes out—you’ll have to avoid using the long-range comlink. Do you understand me, soldier?”

“Sir, yes sir, General Zey.”

There was a pause, a long pause, and Zey looked along the row of three helmets and a damaged face as if waiting for something. The Jedi had said he hadn’t worked with clones before; maybe he was expecting a dialogue. He stopped at Darman. The potential embarrassment to the Master prompted Darman to fill the silent void.

It was an obvious question to ask, really.

“What’s the nature of the nanovirus, sir?”

Zey’s head moved back just a fraction. “An intelligent and significant question,” he said.

“Thank you, sir.”

“The answer, then, should be of great interest to you per­sonally. It appears to be specifically aimed at clone person­nel.”

The sleek black Gurlanin drew itself up to a greater height. “They fear you, and with good reason,” it said in a deep, liq­uid voice. “So they wish to kill, as all ignorant beings do when they encounter something they fear and misunder­stand.”

It continued elongating and now appeared to be standing. It had changed shape.

“Yes,” Zey said slowly, dragging the word into two syllables, and he looked away from the spectacle of molecular re­arrangement. “At this time you still have an advantage—the Separatists almost certainly aren’t aware of your potential as clone commandos. They have no idea what you can achieve, and perhaps we have no idea, either. But you have been cre­ated for excellence, and trained to realize that potential by the most experienced instructors in the galaxy. We have very high expectations.” Zey slipped his hands into his cloak, head lowered slightly. “If you happen to find Master Fulier safe, we would be relieved, but Uthan and the facility are your main priorities. Do you understand everything I have said?”

“Yes sir.” Darman nodded once and so did the others, but it wasn’t quite a synchronized movement. We’ll get it right, he thought. A couple of days’ training, that’ll sort it. Train hard, fight easy.

“I’ll leave you to my Padawan, then,” Zey said, and swept out, pausing briefly at the door to look back at the comman­dos, tilting his head as if he was either amazed or amused.

Jusik swallowed hard. The Gurlanin flowed from a column back into a four-limbed thing, and moved to sit beside RC-3222, gazing up at him. The commando didn’t react.

“Ahhh,” it sighed. It had a voice like running water. “My, that’s indeed Fett’s face. Fascinating.”

Jusik gestured to the exit. “I’m your armorer,” he said. “Weapons and data. Follow me and I’ll show you what you’ll have at your disposal.”

The commandos rose as one—more or less—and followed him through the door and down a passage still strewn with victualing containers. The place smelled of stewed nerf even through Darman’s filtration mask. The Gurlanin flowed be­fore them, now a sinuous predator, now a trotting quadruped, shifting shape as it went.

Jusik stopped at a door at the end of the passage and turned to them. “I wonder if I could ask the rest of you to re­move your helmets.”

Nobody asked why, and they all obeyed, even though it wasn’t phrased as the unequivocal order they were expecting. The helmet seals made faint ssss sounds as they opened.

“Oh,” Jusik said, and stared for a second. Then he opened the door and they stepped into a makeshift armory.

It was a cache of treasures. There were upgrades and bolt-ons that Darman knew might fit his existing gear, and ord­nance that he didn’t recognize but looked like Republic issue, and there were… exotics. Weapons he recalled from his database as belonging to a dozen different species—and quite a few that he couldn’t place at all—were laid out neatly on trestle tables. It was inviting, almost as inviting as a meal.

“That all looks rather useful, sir,” Niner said.

“Delta Squad has been collecting a few things here and there,” Jusik said. The commandos were focused on the weaponry, but Darman was also noting Jusik’s behavior with growing interest. The Padawan stood back to let the men get a closer look at the armaments but he was watching them carefully. “You’re nothing like droids at all, are you?”

“No sir,” Fi said. “We’re flesh and blood. Bred to be the best.”

“Like Advanced Recon Commandos?”

“Not quite ARCs, sir. Not like clone troopers, either. We don’t work alone and we don’t work in formations. We just look the same.”

“This is your unit of four, then? A squad?” He seemed to be recalling a hurried lesson. “Almost like a family?”

Niner cut in. “It is now, sir.” He picked up a portable mis­sile launcher that looked slightly different from the standard-issue plex. “Light. Very light.”

“Merr-Sonn prototype,” Jusik said. “Novel alloy, heavier payloads, extra range. It has a microrepulsorlift stabilizing unit, but they haven’t resolved all the more challenging tech­nical issues yet. So consider it shoulder-launching.” He peered at 3222’s face. “Is that painful?”

“Not too bad, sir,” the commando said. But the wound had to hurt like fire. The abraded skin was still weeping. “I’ll see to it later.”

It didn’t seem to be the answer Jusik was expecting, judging by the slight uh sound he made. Maybe he thought clones didn’t feel pain, like droids. “Do you have names? I don’t mean numbers. Names.”

Now, that was a very private thing. You kept your name to yourself, your squad, and your training sergeant. Darman was embarrassed for him.

“My squad called me Atin,” the wounded commando said.

Niner glanced at Fi but said nothing. Atin was Mandalo­rian for “stubborn.”

Jusik held up two reels of line that looked like matte rib­bon, one black, one white. He took a ribbon of each color, twisted two short lengths together, and held up the braid in one hand and a bead-sized detonator in the other. “One meter is the equivalent yield of a thermal detonator, but it’s direc­tional. Ideal for making a frame charge. But be cautious with the quantity if you want to enter a building, rather than de­stroy it completely. You have some special implosion ord­nance for that purpose.”

“Any useful hand-thrown stuff?” Darman asked. “Stun grenades?”

“We have a few Geonosian sonic detonators, and a box of EMPs for anti-droid use.”

“That’ll do me fine. I’ll take the lot.”

Niner was watching Darman intently. “You’re obviously our demolitions man,” he said. Then the sergeant turned back to the Padawan. “We’ve been thoroughly trained, sir. You can have complete confidence in us.”

That was true, Darman thought. They had been very thor­oughly trained, day in, day out, for ten years, and the only time they weren’t training was when they were sleeping. Even if they were untested as a special forces unit—apart from playing infantry three months ago—Darman had no doubt that they would perform to expected standards. He was happy to have the demolition role. He was proud of his skill in what was delicately known as rapid entry.

“What do you think happened to Master Fulier, sir?” Dar­man asked. He wouldn’t normally have posed unnecessary questions, but Arligan Zey had seemed to approve of his cu­riosity, and Darman was conditioned to do whatever Jedi generals wished.

Jusik opened a case of Kamino saberdarts and held it out as if offering a tray of uj cakes. “Valaqil believes he was be­trayed by a native,” he said. “They’ve been known to do any­thing to earn food or a few credits.”

Darman wondered how a Jedi could be taken by anything less than an army. He’d seen them fight at Geonosis. His warfare was a science; theirs appeared to be an art. “Didn’t he have his lightsaber?”

“He did,” the Gurlanin said. “But Master Fulier has, or had, some discipline issues.”

Darman—a soldier able to withstand every privation in the field, and whose greatest fear was to wither from age rather than die in combat—felt inexplicably uncomfortable at the idea of a Jedi having failings.

“Master Fulier was—is a courageous Jedi,” Jusik said, al­most losing his composed manner for a moment. “He is sim­ply passionate about justice.”

Niner defused the moment. Darman felt reassured by his effortless authority. “Sir, how long have we got to plan the mission and attempt a few dry runs?” he said.

“Eight standard hours,” Jusik replied, almost apologetic. “Because that’s how long the journey to Qiilura will take. You’re embarking now.”

Etain emptied her bag on the straw mattress in the drying barn.

Despite appearances, this was the guest suite. Livestock wasn’t allowed in the barn at this time of year because ani­mals had a tendency to eat the barq grain, and that was an awfully expensive way to fatten merlies for the table. The animals were allowed in the main house, and in the winter they even slept there, partly to keep the place warm and partly to protect them from prowling gdans.

The house had smelled like it, too. Nothing of the merlies—not even their body heat or their pungent odor—was ever wasted. “Keeps them bugs away,” Birhan had told her. “It’s a good stink.”

Etain knelt beside the mattress and tried to think her way out of her predicament. Master Fulier was probably dead: if he weren’t, he would have returned for her. He was—had been—brilliant, magnificently skilled when he was focused on being so. But he was also impatient, and inclined not to walk away from matters that weren’t his concern, and those were two factors that didn’t mix well with a covert mission.

He’d decided one of Hokan’s thugs needed to learn a les­son in how to respect the local population. All it took was for one of the Mandalorian’s lieutenants to offer the same locals more than the price of a bottle of urrqal to say where and when Fulier was in town.

Town. That was a joke.

Imbraani wasn’t Coruscant, not at all. The only infrastruc­ture in the rambling collection of farmsteads was devoted to what it took to grow, harvest, and export its cash crops, and to the comfort of its commercial overlords. Etain had grown up in a world where you could travel at will and send mes­sages easily, and neither of those taken-for-granted facilities was readily available here.

Etain needed one of two things right now: to get passage off Qiilura, or to get a data transmission out in her stead. She still had a mission to complete, if only to justify Master Fulier’s sacrifice. She took a small sphere from the scattering of possessions on the mattress and opened it in two halves like a shef’na fruit.

A holochart blossomed into three dimensions in her cupped hands, then another, then another. She had layouts of half a dozen Neimoidian and Separatist buildings in the sur­rounding region, because Fulier hadn’t been the only one who was careless. After a few bottles of urrqal, the local con­struction workers dropped their guard.

Etain was neither a natural warrior nor a great charmer, but she was aware of her talent for spotting opportunities. It made up for a lot.

She wasn’t sure if her Master’s fate was tied in to the holoschematics, or if he’d been seen as a direct threat to Uthan. She suspected Ghez Hokan might even have done something simply because he didn’t much care for Jedi. Play warriors, he called them. He despised anyone who didn’t fight with hard metal or their fists. Mandalorians were tough; but Hokan operated at a totally different level of brutality. Etain had realized that the moment she and Fulier had walked through what was left of a four-house village that must have displeased him in some way.

She would never erase those images from her mind. She meditated hard twice a day. It still wasn’t helping. Settling down on her knees, she tried again, slowing her breathing, calming her heart.

The gravel outside the barn crunched.

Etain picked up her lightsaber from the mattress as she stuffed the holochart sphere in her tunic. Her thumb hovered over the controls set in the hilt. She should have sensed someone coming, but she had allowed her fatigue and de­spair to get the better of her. I didn’t check for another exit, she thought. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I might have to use this…

As the plank door swung open, she flicked the button and the blue light pierced the dusty air. The merlie that wandered in didn’t appear impressed. Nor did the small elderly woman who followed it.

“You’re jumpy,” she said. She had a covered tray in her hands and something bundled under one arm. The merlie nuzzled Etain’s knees, seeking attention. They were distressingly intelligent animals, nearly a meter high at the shoulder and covered with long brown ringlets of wool; their round, green eyes were too disturbingly human for Etain’s peace of mind. “Here’s your dinner.”

“Thank you,” Etain said, watching as the woman put the tray down on the mattress and placed the bundle of brown fabric beside it.

“Quite a job getting that dung off your cloak,” the woman said, eyeing the lightsaber the way Birhan had. “Still a bit damp. But clean.”

“Thank you,” Etain repeated. She turned off the blade and peeled the cloth back from the tray. Two rough clay plates held a couple of thin-breads and a mush of stew, on top of which whole barq grains were visible. She could smell their cloying musky scent.

That quantity of barq was a week’s earnings for these peo­ple. “You shouldn’t have gone to that trouble for me,” Etain said, embarrassed.

“You’re a guest,” the woman said. “Besides, once I’d scraped the dung off, shame to waste the grains stuck to it, eh? Oh-ah.”

Etain’s stomach rolled but she kept a steady expression. Coruscant’s food hygiene regulations certainly didn’t apply here.

“Very kind of you,” she said, and forced a smile.

“They’re coming, you know,” the woman said.

“I’ll be ready,” Etain lied, and indicated the lightsaber.

“No, not them Hokan thugs. Not them at all.”

Etain wondered whether to press her, but decided against it for the time being. She had no idea who she’d be asking for answers.

The woman sighed and shooed the merlie out the door with impatient hands. “They’re coming, all right,” she said, and smiled, closing the door behind her.

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