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6

You want to know how clones tell each other apart? Who cares? They’re here to fight, not to socialize.

–Sergeant Kal Skirata


Get out,” Birhan yelled. “Get out and don’t come back! You’ve brought all this on us. Go on, clear off.”

The farmer shied a clod of dirt at Etain, and she side­stepped it. It broke into dust behind her. The old woman—who wasn’t Birhan’s wife, she’d discovered—came up from behind and grabbed his arm.

“Don’t be a fool,” she said. “If we take care of the Jedi, then they’ll take care of us when the Republic comes.”

Birhan was still staring at Etain as if he was debating whether to go and grab his pitchfork. “Republic my rump,” he said. “Them’s no different to Neimies when it comes to it. We’ll still be bottom of the pile whoever runs the show.”

Etain stood with her arms folded, wondering how the old woman, Jinart, had managed to attach herself to Birhan’s sprawling family. She was an appalling cook and couldn’t have been much help with heavy farm labor. Etain imagined she earned her keep spinning merlie wool like the rest of the elderly Qiilurans she’d met.

But right now, Etain doubted even Jinart’s powers of per­suasion. She decided to try her own again.

“Birhan, you want me to stay,” she said carefully, concentrating as Master Fulier had taught her. “You want to cooperate with me.”

“I rotten well don’t want to cooperate with you, missy,” he said. “And say please.”

She’d never quite mastered Jedi persuasion when under stress. Unfortunately, that was always the time when she needed it.

Jinart nudged Birhan roughly, no mean feat for such a short woman. “If them Jedi have landed, fool, then she’ll bring them around here to sort you out,” she said. “This is no time to make new enemies. And if they haven’t—well, it’ll all blow over and then you’ll have someone who can make things grow. That’s right, innit, girl? Jedi can make crops grow?”

Etain watched the display of rustic logic with growing re­spect. “We can harness the Force to nurture plants, yes.”

That was all too true: she had heard the stories of Padawans joining the agri corps when they didn’t perform well during training. That was all she needed—life on a backwater planet, talking to fields of grain. It wasn’t just the intelligence data she had hidden in her cloak that made her want to get off the planet as fast as she could. Agriculture spelled failure. She didn’t need further reminding of her in­adequacy.

“Yah,” Birhan spat, and trudged off, muttering profanities.

“We all get nervous when Hokan’s thugs start burning down farms,” Jinart said. She took Etain’s arm and steered her back to the barn that had become her home. No, it wasn’t home. There could never be home for her. No loves, no at­tachments, no commitments except the Force. Well, at least it wouldn’t be hard to tear herself away from here. “And killing farmers, of course.”

“So why aren’t you nervous?” Etain asked.

“You’re a cautious child.”

“I have a dead Master. It encourages you somewhat.”

“I have a broader view of life,” Jinart said, not at all like a wool-spinning old woman. “Now you keep yourself safe and don’t go wandering about.”

Etain was developing a Neimoidian level of paranoia and wondered if even her own instincts were deceiving her. She had at least always been able to sense another’s emotions and condition. “So they know where to find me?” she said qui­etly, testing.

Jinart stiffened visibly. “Depends on who they might be,” she said, wafting the pungent scent of merlie as she walked. “I don’t care for urrqal much, and at my time of life there’s little left to covet.”

“You said they were coming.”

“I did indeed.”

“I have no patience for riddles.”

“Then you should have, and you should also be reassured, because they’re here and they’ll help you. But you also need to help them.”

Etain’s mind raced ahead. Her stomach knotted. No, she was falling for carnival fortune-teller’s tricks. She was adding her own knowledge and senses to vague generalities and seeing meaning where there was none. Of course Jinart knew strangers had arrived. The whole of Imbraani had known about Master Fulier, and it was very hard not to know some­thing had happened when vessels crash-landed on your farm, and when every hiding hole in the area was being searched by Hokan’s militia. For some reason or another, Jinart was playing a guessing game.

“When you specify something, I’ll take you seriously,” Etain said.

“You should be less suspicious,” Jinart said slowly, “and you should look at what you think you see much more care­fully.”

Etain opened the barn door and the scent of straw and barq tumbled out, almost solid. She felt suddenly calmer, and even hopeful. She had no idea why. Perhaps Jinart was natu­rally reassuring, as comforting as a grandmother, despite all her odd talk.

Etain couldn’t actually remember a grandmother, or any of her biological family, of course. Family wasn’t familiar or soothing because she had grown up in a commune of Jedi novices, educated and raised and cared for by her own kind, and by that she never meant human.

But family, even from what she had seen briefly of squab­bling farmers’ clans, suddenly seemed desirable. It was diffi­cult to be alone right then.

“I wish I had time to educate you in survival,” Jinart said. “That task will have to fall to someone else. Be ready to come with me when it gets dark.”

Jinart was becoming much more articulate. She was more than she appeared to be. Etain decided to trust the old woman because she was the nearest she had to an ally.

She still had her lightsaber, after all.


Darman came to the edge of the wood and found himself facing an open field the size of Kamino’s oceans.

It seemed like it, anyway. He couldn’t see the boundary on either side of him, just straight across where the trees began again. The rows of grain—steel gray, shining, sighing in the wind—were only waist-high. He was thirty klicks east of RV Gamma, desperate to reach it and get some sleep while waiting for the rest of the squad.

Following the cover of the hedge—wherever that might take him—would cost him a lot of time. He opted to take the direct route. He removed one of the three micro-remotes from his belt pack and activated it. The tiny viewing device was about the size of a pygmy hummer, small enough to grasp in his palm, and he set it to scout the area for five kilo­meters around him. He didn’t like using them unless he ab­solutely had to. On a planet like this, their shiny metallic coating was hardly geared toward stealth. They also had a tendency to go missing. And because they recorded as well as transmitted, they were one of the last things he wanted to let fall into the enemy’s hands.

But he wasn’t exactly invisible, either. He glanced down at his filthy armor, streaked with dried mud, wet green moss, and far, far worse, and knew he was still a big plastoid-alloy industrial object in a gentle organic environment.

He lowered himself onto all fours, adjusting his balance carefully so the packs sat squarely down the length of his back. His knee still hurt. Crawling through a field wasn’t going to help it. The sooner you get there, the sooner you rest.

The remote soared vertically into the air, playing back a rapidly shrinking view of the field, then the wider landscape of farmland and woods, all within Darman’s visor display. There were no buildings as far as he could see. That didn’t necessarily mean the area was deserted.

Crawling with his packs generated a lot of heat, but the bodysuit regulated it obediently. The armor system had more pluses than disadvantages. He didn’t have to worry about wildlife waiting to bite, sting, poison, infect, or otherwise ruin his entire day.

But it was slow going. He had to loop wide if he was going to avoid the little town, Imbraani. In fact, the whole day had been one of slow progress, although the only timetable he could latch on to now was that of his comrades, and how long it would take them to make RV Gamma. Then they’d move on if he didn’t show by the appointed time. After that—well, after that they were off the chart, so to speak. It would be a matter of regrouping and gathering enough intel to take the target.

Darman suspected it would take longer than a few days. A lot longer. He had started making notes of what local flora and fauna might be edible, and the positions of springs and watercourses that hadn’t shown up on the high-altitude recce. He wondered if the gdans made decent eating. He reckoned it might not be worth trying.

Every so often he paused to kneel and sip some water from his bottle. His stomach’s fantasies were no longer of sizzling nerf strips but of sweet, filling, sticky, amber uj cake. It was a rare treat. His training sergeant had allowed his squad—his original squad—to try it, breaking the Kaminoan rules on feeding clones carefully balanced nutritional mixes. “You’re still just boys,” he’d told them. “Fill yer boots.” And they had. Good old Kal.

The flavor was still achingly vivid in Darman’s mind. He wondered what other normal civilian indulgences he might enjoy if he had access to them.

He slapped the thought down hard. His discipline was his self-esteem. He was a professional.

He still thought about that uj cake, though.

“Come on, get moving,” he said, very tired of the absence of comrades’ voices and seeking comfort in his own. He would be his commanding officer, just to stay sharp. “Shift it.”

The remote continued to relay predictable images of bu­colic peace, neat patchworks of fields punctuated by the wild tangled woods, reminders of an unsettled and untamed world. There were no giant harvester droids out yet. At one point, he thought he saw a dark form moving through the field some way to his left, but when he focused on it there was simply a gap opened by the wind.

Then there was a sudden patch of darkness in his visor.

Darman stopped dead. The thing had malfunctioned. But the image returned, glowing, red, and wet, and he realized he was looking into the digestive tract of a living creature.

Something had swallowed the remote.

A few moments later a large bird, slowly flapping four wings, sailed overhead and cast an alarming shadow before him. He glanced up. It was probably the same kind that had been sucked into the Narsh sprayer’s atmos engine.

“I hope it gives you gutache, you scumbag,” he said, and waited for it to dwindle to a black speck before moving on.

It took more than half an hour to reach the other side of the field, and he still had twenty-five klicks to go to the RV point. He’d decided to go north of the town, although he shouldn’t have risked moving by day at all. Get there early. Wait for them, just in case they decide I’m dead and they don’t hang about. He eased into the bushes, scattering small creatures that he could hear but not see, and considered taking off his packs just for a moment’s relief.

But he knew that would make it much harder to move when he slotted them back into place again. Exhausted, he fumbled in his belt for a ration cube and chewed, willing the nutrients to hit his bloodstream as fast as they could, before he slumped into sleep and didn’t get up again. Lights danced in front of his eyes. Fatigue was giving him a heads-up dis­play of its own.

The last of the cube dissolved in his mouth. “Come on, soldier, haul it up,” he said. Playing mind games could keep him going. The trick was to remember where the game ended and then snap back to reality. Right then he decided to let his commander-self shout him into action.

“Sir!” he said, and sprang up from a kneeling position in one move. He tottered slightly when his knees locked out, but he stayed upright and leaned against a tree. He made a mental note that he needed to keep better hydrated.

It was so dark in the wood that his night vision kicked in from time to time, superimposing ghostly green images on the trunks and branches. He’d grown used to the range of animal sounds, and the occasional whisper of leaves or snap of twigs blended into the pattern of what his brain was cata­loging as NFQ—normal for Qiilura. From time to time a slightly abnormal snap or rustle would make him drop to a squat and turn, rifle ready; but he was clear.

He followed the river on his holochart for part of the way, although it was actually more of a stream. The faint trickle of liquid over rocks was reassuring in the way that the sound of water could be, and after an hour he came upon a break in the tree canopy that allowed sunlight to filter down on the stream in slanted shafts. Brilliantly colored insects circled and danced above the surface.

Darman had never seen anything quite like it. Yes, he knew all about geological formations and what they foretold for soldiers: sources of water, treacherous scree, risk of land­slide, caverns to shelter in, high ground for defense, passes to block. Accelerated learning packaged the natural world for him and explained how he could use it to military advan­tage.

But nobody told him it looked so … nice. He had no words for it. Like the uj cake, it was a glimpse of another world that wasn’t his.

Sit down and rest. You’re too tired. You’ll start making fatal mistakes.

It was weakness talking. He shook his head rapidly to clear it. No stims, no, not yet. He had to press on. The insects kept up a constant circuit of the stream like recce aircraft, circling, seeking.

You’re hours ahead. Stop. No sleep makes you care­ less. You can’t afford to be careless.

It did sound like common sense. It wasn’t the game-voice, his imaginary commander, giving him orders: it felt deep within him, instinct. And it was right. He was making slower and slower progress and he had to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other.

He stopped and unclipped one pack, then the other. It was a good enough place to camp. He filled his water bottle and hauled a few half-decayed logs into place to build a defen­sive sanger, just as Sergeant Kal had taught them. It was only a low defensive circle of rocks—or whatever came to hand—but it made a difference on a battlefield when you couldn’t dig in. He sat in the walled hollow he had created, staring at the water.

Then he cracked the seal on his helmet and breathed unfil­tered air for the first time in many hours.

It smelled complex. It wasn’t the air-conditioning of Tipoca City and it wasn’t the dry dead air of Geonosis. It was alive. Darman released all the gription panels on his armor and stacked the plates inside the circle of the sanger, set his helmet to detect movement, and left it on the makeshift wall. Then he peeled off his bodysuit section by section and rinsed it in the flowing water.

The day was surprisingly warm; he’d had no way of telling what it felt like while he was sealed in the suit, just the am­bient environment data on his display.

But the water was shockingly cold when he stepped in. He washed quickly, sat in the pool of sunlight to dry off, and then replaced the panels of bodysuit. They’d dried a lot more quickly than he had.

Before he let himself nod off he put his armor back on.

There was no sense in getting used to the pleasant sensation of not wearing it. It was drilled so thoroughly into him that he was surprised he’d thought otherwise even for a second: in enemy territory, you slept in full gear with your blaster ready. He cradled his rifle in his arms, leaned back on his pack, and watched the insects dancing on the sunlit water.

They were hypnotically beautiful. Their wings were elec­tric blues and bright vermilion and they wove a figure-eight. Then, one by one, they dropped down and floated on the sur­face, drifting with the current, still wonderfully vivid, but now apparently dead.

Darman reacted. Airborne toxin. He shut his eyes tight, puffed out the air in his lungs, and snapped his helmet back into place, drawing breath again only when the seal was se­cure and his filtration mask could take over. But there was no data on his visor to indicate a contaminant. The air was still clean.

He leaned out and scooped up a couple of the insects caught in an eddy. One kicked a leg a few times and then was still. When he looked up, there were none left flying. It seemed sad. What bothered him more was that it seemed in­explicable.

Curious, he fumbled for an empty ration cube container and dropped the insects into it to consider them later. Then he closed his eyes and tried to doze, rifle ready.

But sleep eluded him. His helmet detected movement and woke him every few minutes at the intrusion of small crea­tures no threat to him. Once or twice it picked up a gdan, and he opened his eyes to see glittering points of reflected light staring back at him.

The system picked up something larger once, but it wasn’t as large as any humanoid in his database, and kept its dis­tance before disappearing.

Get some sleep. You’re going to need it, son.

Darman wasn’t sure if it was his own voice or that of his imaginary commander. Either way, it was an order he was only too willing to obey.

* * *

Ghez Hokan never took kindly to being summoned, but Ovolot Qail Uthan had the gift of being charming about it. She invited him to meet her in the research complex. She even sent one of her staff with a speeder to collect him from his offices.

Hokan appreciated the gesture. The woman understood how to use power and influence. The Neimoidian grocer had yet to learn.

Uthan was not particularly pretty but she did have the knack of dressing well—in plain dark robes—and carrying herself like an empress. That balanced the scales. What Hokan liked most about her was that while she seemed to know that feminine charm wouldn’t override his common sense, she never dropped her seductively reasonable facade. She was a professional, and mutual respect went a long way with him. The fact that she was a scientist with subtle politi­cal skills impressed him further still. He could almost forgive the unnatural act of fighting without real weapons.

The decaying exterior of farm buildings gave way to rein­forced alloy doors and lengthy corridors with what appeared to be emergency bulkheads. Hokan carried his helmet under one arm, unwilling to leave it—or his weapons—with the servant. The wizened man looked local. The locals were all thieves.

“Expecting some grain silo fires, then?” he said, and prod­ded the recessed blast bulkheads with his forefinger.

Uthan laughed a low, tinkling laugh that he knew could just as easily switch to a commanding voice and freeze a pa­rade ground of troops. “I’m grateful you could make the time to see me, General Hokan,” she said. “Under normal circumstances, I would never bypass someone with whom I had a contract and speak directly to his… subcontractor. It’s very rude, don’t you think? But I’m a little concerned.”

Ah, Ankkit wasn’t part of this conversation. Hokan began to understand. And she was laying on the flattery with a trowel. “I’m merely Hokan, a citizen. Let me address your concerns… madam?” He felt suddenly foolish. He had no idea what to call her. “Mistress Uthan?”

“Doctor will be fine, thank you.”

“How can I reassure you, then, Doctor?”

She steered him into a side room and indicated three shim­mering beige brocade upholstered chairs, clearly imported from Coruscant. He hesitated to sit on such a conspicuously decadent seat, but he did because he would not stand before her like a servant. Uthan took the chair nearest him.

“You have some idea of the importance of the work I carry out here, I think.”

“Not in any detail. Viruses. From the building specifica­tion, anyway.” He’d policed the construction crews, who were also all thieves. “Hazardous materials.”

If Uthan was surprised, she gave no indication whatsoever. “Exactly,” she said. “And I confess I’m somewhat disturbed by the events of recent days. Lik Ankkit assures me my secu­rity is guaranteed, but I would really welcome your assess­ment of the situation.” Her tone hardened just a fraction: still syrup, but now with gritty, sharp crystals in it. “Is this proj­ect under any threat? And can you maintain its security?”

Hokan didn’t hesitate. “Yes, I believe your facility is vul­nerable.” He was a master of his trade. He saw no reason to lose his reputation over a restriction not of his making. “And no, I can’t guarantee anything with the level and quality of staff that I have.”

Uthan sat back with controlled slowness. “Last matter first. Do you not have the resources to employ them? Ankkit’s contract is quite generous.”

“That generosity has not filtered down to my operation.”

“Ah. Perhaps we should shorten the supply chain in the in­terests of efficiency.”

“I have no opinion on that. Ankkit’s welcome to his cut as long as I have the tools to do the job.”

“That wasn’t quite the cut I had in mind for Lik Ankkit.” She smiled. There was no warmth in it. “And you believe the recent incursions are related to this facility?”

“Circumstantial evidence. Yes.” Hokan returned the smile and suspected his was a few degrees cooler. If she’d do this to Ankkit, she’d do it to him. “It’s a big planet. Why the Im­braani region? Why send Jedi agents?”

“Have you located any forces?”

“No. I’ve identified at least two points of hard contact and one downed vessel, though.”

“Hard contact?”

“Situations when soldiers actually engage each other.” Not that his rabble of mercenaries rated the distinction of soldiers. “I can’t gauge numbers.”

“If I were to arrange for you to have command of Sepa­ratist droids and their officers from our nearby garrison, would that make your task easier?”

“I take no sides. I won’t lie to you and pretend to support your cause.”

“You have military experience, of course. There’s no dis­grace in being a mercenary.”

“I’m Mandalorian. It’s in my soul as well as part of my education. No, there’s no shame in it as long as you give of your best.”

Uthan suddenly melted into what seemed to be a thor­oughly genuine and sympathetic half smile. “I think I should share something with you. It might be distressing.” There were still hard edges in her unctuous tone. “The Republic has created an army of cloned troops. Millions. They have been bred to fight and serve Jedi generals without question, altered to be their willing servants. They have had no normal life and they age very rapidly—if they survive being wasted in foolish battles. Do you know whose genetic material was used to create these unfortunate slaves?”

“No, I don’t.” Hokan was never embarrassed to admit ig­norance. That was for small men. “Tell me.”

“Jango Fett.”

“What?”

“Yes. The finest Mandalorian warrior of his day has been used to churn out cannon fodder for the aggrandizement of the Jedi.”

If she had spat in his face, he couldn’t have been more ap­palled. He knew she was aware of what would enrage him; she used the emotional term warrior, not bounty hunter. She knew how much the revelation would offend his cultural pride. But she was right to tell him. It was a matter of honor, and more than his own. He would not see his heritage used in this travesty of honest war.

“I’d take the contract even if you didn’t pay me,” he said.

Uthan seemed to relax. “We can give you up to a hundred droids to start with. Ask if you need more. It’s a small garri­son because we didn’t want to attract attention, but now that we have that attention anyway we can reinforce if necessary. What about your existing militia?”

“I think layoff notices might be in order. Perhaps your troops might start by helping me with the administration of that.”

Uthan blinked for a second, and Hokan realized she had taken longer than usual to understand what he meant. She’d grasped the meaning: I can be as ruthless as you. She’d think twice before undermining him as she was undermining Ankkit.

“That might be a sensible start,” she said.

Hokan stood up and held his helmet in both hands. He had always been proud of that tradition, proud that it hadn’t changed in thousands of years except for a technical en­hancement here and there. What really mattered was what lay under Mandalorian armor—a warrior’s heart.

“Would you like to know what virus we’re developing here, Major Hokan?” Uthan asked.

So he had a real rank now, not the flatteringly extravagant General. “Do I need to?”

“I think so. You see, it’s specifically for the clones.”

“Let me see. To make them proper men again?”

“Nothing can do that. This is to kill them.”

Hokan replaced his helmet carefully.

“The kindest solution,” he said, and meant it.


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