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Luminous

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Fear
28 BBY
Clones: 2468-2474

 

68 paused for a moment by 24. The longnecks hadn’t picked out commanders yet, but 24, with his unerring instinct for team assignments and sorting out trouble before it could come to the trainers’ attention, had become the unofficial leader of their batch.

“Need ten, vod,” he murmured. 24 glanced at him, assessing, then gave a brief nod. Others within earshot closed ranks, reshuffling assignments, moving even before 24 gave the order. 68 faded back, moving casually until he was back with his squad, who had maneuvered themselves between two bits of ducting, 24 and the bulk of their brothers now providing cover and distraction along most of the sightlines, a solid wall of bodies between them and the doors. The squad parted, letting him into the center of the huddle, where 72 was crouched in a tight ball of misery, hands fisted into his tunic. Two squad-brothers crouched on either side of him, trying to offer what comfort they could.

“We have ten,” 68 told them, keeping his voice low. “72 … vod. What do you need?”

72 ducked his head, refusing to answer. 70--who had a talent for hearing everything he shouldn’t--answered for him. “Scores. Trainers say he’s underperforming on the physicals. 19 heard them talking, last cycle. They said … he wasn’t keeping up.”

68 absorbed the news, his face grim. Brothers who were exceptional, who performed better than standard, became commanders, were selected for elite teams and additional training. Brothers who fell behind … disappeared. Were taken away by the longnecks, never to return. “We’ll help,” he said slowly, trying to think. “We can swap assignments to give you extra training time, practice your hand to hand--”

70 was already shaking his head slowly, and 72 looked up. “It’s already in the record,” he croaked, his face a mask of misery. “I--I’ve been trying to keep up, 68, I swear. I don’t want--I’ve been training as hard as I can, but … it doesn’t help. I--I’m just …just not good enough.” He began to shake, and wrapped his arms around himself; 69 tucked in closer to his side, slipping an arm around him in support. “I’m scared,” 72 whispered, ashamed. “I don’t want to be decommissioned.”

“There has to be something we can do,” 69 said, fiercely, dark eyes bright and desperate. “We could go to the minders, tell them he just needs more time--”

“You think they’re actually going to listen?” 74 hissed back. “There are thousands of vod already, and hundreds more tubies being decanted every day. You think they’re going to disrupt their production schedule just ‘cause we asked nicely?” His voice cracked, bitter and angry. “Just because we don’t want 72 to go?”

“You know what they’ll do, if we try to keep him with us,” 68 said slowly, hating every word. His hands fisted at his sides, nails digging into his palms. “We have to follow orders.” If they didn’t … their entire squad would be at risk. Or worse, if the longnecks decided they had a bad batch on their hands.

Silence fell across their little huddle, minutes ticking away. Then 70 spoke. “What if we asked for help?” he said, picking his words with care. “From Ben?”

“That isn’t funny,” 74 snapped, low and angry, hands fisted at his sides. “Sure, let’s ask for help from imaginary jetii. If you can’t say anything useful--”

“I’m serious,” 70 argued in a whisper. “We can’t do anything, but Ben isn’t a clone. He could make the minders listen.”

“70 …” 68 said slowly, taken off-guard. 70 wasn’t a brother normally inclined towards ghost-tales. “Ben isn’t real. He’s just a baby story--something the tubies like to pretend is real.”

70 shook his head, his face set in stubborn lines. “He might not be. No, listen--” he gave 74 a glare when it looked like his brother wanted to interrupt again. “I’ve heard the stories, and they’re always the same. The tubies all know what he looks like. They all know he’s a jetii, before anyone ever told them what a jetii was. You know how the longnecks keep batches of tubies separate. There’s no way any of us, or any of the older vode, could have told them about him. But it doesn’t matter. All the batches know about Ben.”

“If he’s real, how come we’ve never seen him?” 74 sneered. “This mysterious jetii of yours?”

Even in the face of his brothers’ doubt, 70 refused to back down. “Maybe we’ve never needed him before. We’ve always had each other. But now ….” He glanced over at 72.

“I’ve seen him,” 71 said, and the whispered argument stopped cold.

68 turned to him, and 71 met his gaze levelly. 71 didn’t talk much, but when he did, his brothers had learned to listen. “When? How …?” 68 asked, even as a tiny forbidden ember of hope flickered to life.

“Second year. I … didn’t like words. Didn’t see the point.” 71 shrugged uncomfortably. “Minders didn’t like it. Ben … he came. When no one else was awake, or paying attention. Told me stories; taught me which words were important.”

68 frowned. “Why don’t we remember any of this?” They’d been decanted together, grown up in the same habitat. Surely they would have noticed a stranger.

71 shrugged again. “We were tubies. And … the minders, they never seemed to care when he was around. Afterwards, it’s almost like they forgot he was ever there.”

“Could he help us now? We’re not tubies anymore. How do we even find him?” 69 said, torn between skepticism and hope. “Would the trainers know?”

70 shook his head. “I’ve never heard the trainers talking about Ben. Just brothers.”

“So where does that leave us?” 74 said. “What do we do? Just wish really, really hard that he’ll appear?”

“Well, that works. Or you could just ask nicely,” came the amused reply from the hall outside, and a man stepped into sight.  The room fell silent; 24 and the rest of the vode instinctively stepping backwards, out of the way of the … jetii as he made his way across the room, towards them.

“You’re Ben?” 68 said, feeling as if he’d just stepped into a ghost story. The jetii--Ben--wasn’t anything like he’d expected. He was … soft, wearing layered robes devoid of armor, or even an undersuit. And old--older than any brother, any trainer, with a silver-white beard and wispy hair, wrinkles folded deep into his skin around eyes and a smiling mouth. 68 wanted to touch them, see if they were real, what they felt like.

But Ben didn’t walk as if he were old, or frail. 68 wasn’t sure what to make of that, this jetii with the weathered face that wore power around his shoulders like a cloak.

“I am,” Ben said as he reached their little group. “And-” he continued, ruffling 71’s short-cropped hair affectionately, “-it is good to see you again, little one. Have you chosen a name yet?”

71 shook his head, looking up at the jetii. “Still looking for the right word.”

Ben nodded. “Names are important. It’s good to take your time.” A faded blue gaze looked them over, and 68 had to resist the urge to step in front of 72 as Ben focused on his huddled brother. “May I sit?” he asked gently.

Wide-eyed, 72 managed to nod. Ben sat down, sweeping his outer robe out of the way as he leaned comfortably against one of the ducts. “Now. Let’s see if we can figure out what to do.”

69 looked nervously up at the viewing windows, and the others in the room shifted uneasily, glancing at each other and at the open doorways. Hiding brothers inside larger groups of vode was one thing, but the jetii … he was too large, too different. He didn’t look anything like a brother; they couldn’t cover for him the way they did each other. “The minders …” he said, looking at Ben. Wanting to hope, but afraid to.

Ben shook his head. “Don’t worry, my friend. They know I’m here.” His smile was gentle, all-encompassing, and 69 nodded, oddly reassured. Ben, for all his strangeness, felt … warm. Like the sheltering bulk of an older brother during a live-fire exercise, or the heavy press of armor against his vulnerable belly, a bulwark against the world. The squad and the other brothers nearest the jetii pressed forward in spite of themselves, and that smile gentled, turned into something both solemn and sad. Ben turned, taking in 24’s worried face, the hushed room. “I promise you--all of you. You do not need to be afraid; you will never be punished for asking for me.”

“Yeah?” said 70, eternally suspicious. “How can you be so sure?”

Ben folded his hands in his lap, regarding 70 carefully, as if taking his measure. “Because if they try, I will know. And I will stop it.”

“Why are you here?” The question came from 24, who had pushed his way forward, shoulders straight and tense, protective worry warring with fascination.

“Why, because the Force led me here, of course,” Ben said, as if it were the most natural thing in the universe. “And because there are vode who need me.” He smiled at 72. “But today I’m here for you. You are important, little warrior, and I see no reason we should lose a brother just because he runs a little slower than everyone else.”

Chapter Text

Luminous
0 BBY

 

His long wait was nearly over. He could feel it in every step he took, in the thrum of the Force through him, around him. It wasn’t a vergence, not quite, but almost palpable all the same, guiding his footsteps to where he needed to be.

The feel of the decking beneath his feet was both alien and familiar; unyielding metal rather than sliding, shifting sand under every step. The corridors were wider than he remembered from the war; but then, space was hardly a concern here, was it? Not on a base the size of a moon.

His joints were stiff from the cold. Too long in the desert, Obi-Wan thought wryly. It was difficult to separate the exterior chill from the interior; the ache of his bones from the ache of his heart. He could feel Vader, a presence as frigid and void of Light as a neutron star, drawing ever closer. Hunting him. There was no fear in that knowledge, only regret. Nineteen years had seemed so long once, an endless progression of sun-scorched days and moonlit nights. Now he only wished it had been longer.

He paused, waited for stormtroopers to pass. Ducking across the corridor, he headed back to the hangar, and the Falcon.

Vader stepped out to meet him.

It was with a sense of inevitability that Obi-Wan brought up his lightsaber. The worn grip fitted effortlessly in his hand, the song of the kyber crystal inside vibrating against his palm. One more time, old friend, he whispered to it through the Force. Just once more.

Blades clashed, blue against red, plasma spitting as the energies fought with each other for dominance. There was none of Anakin’s brilliance in Vader, who pounded at Obi-Wan’s defense, pushing him backwards through brute force rather than any kind of skill. The dissonant screech of the kyber at the heart of Vader’s lightsaber was unnerving. It combined with the miasma of the Dark Side that beat against his senses; old pain and distilled fury, twisted into sadism and evil.

The Force, as always, was with him, steadying him against the heavy press of the Dark Side, lending him strength. Time stretched, seconds extended into infinity with each clash, each parry and lunge, the Force guiding him as he retreated, one step after another. He was playing for time now, each moment infinitely precious. Prescience sparked, the shape of things to come suddenly bright and clear.

Luke ran into the hangar, Leia and Han at his side.

Obi-Wan saw him, and smiled. Lifted his lightsaber in a last salute. The Force sang, a warm upwelling of life and Light, buoying him into one

final

step

and the Force was there.  Was everywhere ... in every atom of his being and all the infinite spaces in between, until he was one with the life of the universe, from smallest microbe to the largest solar wyrm. Regret fell away, discarded like the worn cloak underneath Vader’s boot. In its place was the assurance of the Force, and something he had never expected.

Joy.

He had forgotten what it felt like, the pure unfettered joy of the Moment. Forgotten how to rejoice at simply being alive, at the chance to open all his senses and wonder at the infinite diversity of universe.

“No!!” Luke’s cry of pain seemed a distant thing. Obi-Wan could see him now, see him as the golden star-child he had been, the uncertain teenager, the Jedi, Light and Dark in equal measure, choices made and choices yet to come, possibility blooming into something new.

If Luke was to choose the Light, he needed to live.

Run, Luke, Obi-Wan breathed, giving him a nudge. Run.

Luke ran.

A warm and familiar embrace enveloped Obi-Wan. Well done, padawan, Qui-Gon said.

Obi-Wan turned into those arms, holding him close. The physical was a malleable thing here, but the feel of Qui-Gon was still the same, steadfast and warm, deeply-rooted in the Living Force. I’m not done yet, he said, suddenly knowing. His path lay before him, clear and golden.

No. But you will find time and space mean little to the Force, Qui-Gon agreed. Spend this moment with me. Be there for Luke, and Yoda, and all the others who need you. Travel as the Force wills. His smile was a luminous benediction. You will soon discover there is time enough to be wherever--and whenever--you need to be.

Now that Obi-Wan was listening, he could hear it: a wordless call of need. A tug from the Force, pulling him forward, towards a fractaled web of shining paths. In one, he stayed, to commune once more with his Master. In another, he answered Luke’s cry of despair. And in the third--

 

--he turned, and found himself standing in a unfamiliar white-walled room. The lights were dimmed, and the room itself was devoid of decoration or windows. It was also filled with row upon row of … incubators? Why was he--?

Two rows over, a quivering wail of unhappiness cut through the air. Responding to the cry, a sleek MW-series droid unfolded itself from its station near the doorway. It didn’t seem to register Obi-Wan’s presence as it methodically looked the baby over, checking vitals and cleanliness. Fussily straightening the blanket, the droid then returned to its charging station, protocols satisfied that its charge remained healthy.

The baby continued to cry.

Instinct and the Force--and old memories--had Obi-Wan moving, reaching in to cup the head and lift up the soft little body before he could even question the decision. The baby--not even a month old, if he was any judge--continued to wail, feet kicking, round face twisted up in unhappiness, protesting the profound injustice of the world. Obi-Wan stared down at it, startled.

Oh. So that was why he was here.

He tucked the baby against his shoulder, rubbing its--no, his back, smoothing a hand down the wispy-fine black curls that adorned the fragile head. “Shh, shh … it’s all right, little one,” he murmured, reaching out through the Force, enfolding them both with love and peace. “I’m here. I’m here …”

The baby hiccuped, and Obi-Wan could feel his faint surprise. The crying stopped, and the infant clone tucked its head firmly into Obi-Wan’s neck, holding on with a surprisingly strong grip, tiny fists white-knuckled in the coarse fabric of his outer robes. “Yes, you knew what you wanted, didn’t you?” he murmured, rocking the child gently back and forth. “I bet all of you did, once. But we were too blind to see.” He looked over the room, at the row after row of incubators in the darkness, and the tiny lives that slept within each one.

“Not this time,” Obi-Wan promised them. His path lay before him, clearer than it had ever been, leaving no room for doubt. In the timeless eternity of the Force, he saw what he was, what he would become. “This time, little ones, I am here. And I promise you; I will listen.”

Chapter Text

Story
30 BBY
Clones: 1046-1072

 

Huddling close to his brothers, 53 tried not to whimper. Noise brought droids to check eyes and ears and poke at you, and they never made you feel better. Sometimes they made you feel worse. But it was hard not to cry when his toes and his knees and everything inside and outside hurt, felt hot and stretched-out and awful. And his brothers hurt too, and nothing helped, not toys or learning-time or food.

Lights-out was soon, when Nara-bu and the droids would make them go to their beds. And the blankets would be cold and he would still hurt and he didn’t want to be alone, he wanted to stay with the others. 53 pressed himself harder against his brother’s side, butting his head against 70’s stomach. “Hurts,” he whined, tears slipping free. 70 held on, fingers digging into 53’s arm. It hurt … but at least it was an outside hurt, one he could get away from, if he wanted to.

There was a subdued whine of distress, further in the huddle of his brothers. 53 echoed it, rocking a little. 70 shivered, smooshed close. “Want Ben,” he whispered.

Ben-bu wasn’t always there, not like Nama-bu or the droids, 53 knew. But he remembers Ben-bu, in brown and cream, white hair and wrinkly face; Ben-bu was warm, and safe, and made things better. “--want Ben too,” he said, suddenly unable to think of anything else, and the sobs broke free, making him shake, making the hurt worse. “Beeeeeen!”

“I’m here, little ones,” Ben said, and he was. Was there, crouching next to them, and 53 threw himself at Ben-bu before the rest of his brothers could take up all the space. Strong arms closed around him, and 70, and other, nearer brothers, as 53 tried to burrow beneath the warm robes.

“Hurts!”

“I know,” Ben said, holding on to them. “I know, little ones … it’s not your fault. It’s just the way you’re made. Your outsides are just growing too fast for your insides.” He rocked them a little, and 53’s batch-brothers clustered close, seeking the same comfort. “Would you like a story?”

53 nodded. “Tooka story!” he demanded. It was his favorite; Ben-bu had told them once that he had learned the tooka story when he was little. It was hard to imagine their jetii ever being little, but he always felt better after Ben-bu’s stories!

“That one is my favorite too,” Ben said, smiling down at them. “Tooka story it is, then. Up you go.” He straightened, setting 53 on his feet, encouraging the others to stand. “Do you want to tell it with me?”

53 nodded, as Ben smiled down at them, and began. “Little tookas light on their feet-” he said, and crouched down like he was about to pounce.

53 crouched too, arms out and wobbling.

“Dance to the tooka beat,” Ben said, bouncing up and down on his toes.

70 giggled, and 53 bounced happily.

“Little tookas reach up high-” They all swept their arms upward. 

“With sharp paws they claw the sky.” 53 knew this part well, stretching his fingers as straight as they would go, then clawing them inward, like he was combing through the air.

Ben nodded at them in approval, and continued, “Little tookas all jumping in a row-”

Familiar with drills, the brothers all began jumping up and down, 53 looking up at Ben’s face in anticipation.

“One falls into a sarlacc hole,” Ben said, and pointed at 53, who somersaulted forward, tucking and rolling, until he was lying flat in his ‘hole’.

The jetii crouched down, knees bent deeply, one hand shading his eyes as he looked around. 53 covered his mouth to stifle a giggle as his batch-brothers did the same, all of them pretending not to see him. “Little tookas crouch down low-" Ben said, pausing dramatically, then continued with "Now they see where they must go.”

Everyone turned to look at 53, who grinned at his batch-brothers. He’d been found again!

Ben had on his Serious-Play face now, eyes narrowed as he said, “Little tookas on the prowl-”

70 and the others knew what to do, and scrambled into formation. Ben took point, with vode flanking on either side, circling the make-believe ‘hole’ that held their brother.

“Eating up the sarlacc with a growl!” Ben announced, and pounced, rolling 53 over, then swept him off the ground and into the air. His brothers fought off imaginary sarlacc-tentacles around them both, adding the appropriate sound effects.

Ben settled 53 in the crook of one arm, allowing him to snuggle close, as he continued, “Little tookas big and round,” -sometimes Ben-bu brought treats, but never so close to lights-out. Which was fine, 53 realized, because he didn’t hurt any more.

“-happy with the food they found,” Ben said, smiling, circling around the other vode, ruffling hair and straightening clothes, touching and being touched, reforming their circle with Ben and 53 at the center.

“Little tookas breathe in deep,” Ben continued, sinking down, 53 in his lap. He lifted his hands, pushing open palms down to the floor, and his brothers followed the signal, sitting close. Ben closed his eyes, breathing deep: one-two, three-four. 53 tried to do the same, though he wasn’t sure he was doing it right. But he didn’t hurt anymore, and he was warm and safe, and Ben didn’t seem to mind.

Ben finished the story, his voice quiet and calm. “The hunt is done, and now they sleep.” He glanced down at 53. “Do you feel better now, verd’ika?”

53 nodded, happy. Ben’s stories were always the best, and he was only a little tired. “More, Ben-bu?”

Ben chuckled. “Another story, hmm? Let’s see ….”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*****

 

26 BBY
Clones: 3176 (Scratch)

 

“Squad twelve, on your mark!”

Scratch resisted the urge to fidget, fingers clenching tight around his rifle. He stepped forward and took position.

“Ready!”

“Fire!”

He marched forward, firing at distant holographic targets. He and his brothers had done this drill more times than he could count, often enough that he didn’t even need to think about what came next. Ten steps forward. Duck behind the plasteel barricade, drop to one knee, and fire. Seven shots, then sweep around the barricade, pause, fire again, pause. Drop to the ground, then take out the remaining targets.  Which just happened to be the furthest and hardest ones to hit.

Scratch kept moving, hands tight on the rifle, acutely aware of every miss, every fumble. He could feel the sweat rolling down his neck, stinging at his eyes, his breath coming faster at each station, the burnt-ozone smell of blaster-fire filtering through the training helmet. He was already on the low end of the scores for his squad. Fear and frustration roiled in his gut, knotting together. If they were put on another punishment detail just because he couldn’t manage to hit a kriffin’ target, his brothers would--

“Calm, verd’ika,” said a voice at his shoulder. Time seemed to slow, his squad-brothers’ blaster-fire echoing dimly as Ben crouched down next to him. “Remember your center. Breathe in, and feel the Force. It is in you, and in your weapon, and in your target.” Almost by instinct, Scratch found himself obeying that calm order. “Good. Now breathe out. You know where you are. You know where your target is. Line it up … and fire.”

The rifle bucked against his shoulder, and the target dissolved into a spray of holographic shards. A direct hit. There was no time to feel relieved; his feet were already carrying him onward. He continued to fire, his hands steady, the targets suddenly razor-edged and clear, as if they hovered just beyond the end of his rifle. The odd bubble of clarity carried him all the way to the end of the exercise, until he found himself at the end of the range, blinking dumbly at the rest of his squad.

Scratch turned, and Ben was still there, only a few steps behind him. “Well done,” he said warmly. “I do believe that is your best run to date.”

“I …” Scratch rubbed at the back of his neck, unsure what to say. The vode had learned early on that trying to figure out how Ben managed to turn up wherever he did was an exercise in frustration. The jetii just … appeared, going wherever he pleased, navigating past locks and sentry droids as if they weren’t there.

Trainers, on the other hand, were not so easy to avoid.

“You!” Scratch and the rest of his squad snapped to attention as the trainer stormed across the range, helmet under one arm. Isabet Reau was a harsh trainer, even for the Cuy’val Dar, with a penchant for brutal punishments and a generalized dislike for almost all the cadets put under her command.

Ben folded his hands into his sleeves, turning to watch her approach.

“Who the fuck are you and why the fuck are you on my range?” Reau demanded. Unlike the cadets, who had only mass-produced training armor and training rifles, or Ben, who had no weapons at all, Reau was in full beskar’gam, a blaster pistol on each hip.

“I apologize for my interference; I believed a word or two of encouragement was in order,” Ben replied calmly, bowing in greeting. “My name is Ben; I am merely an observer sent by the Council, in order to track to progress of this project.”

“An jetii observer? Since when?” Reau demanded, eyes narrowed.

“Oh, for quite some time,” Ben replied, imperturbable in the face of Reau’s suspicion. “You may verify my identity with Taun We, if you wish. Both she and Lama Su are aware of my presence.”

“If that’s true, then why the kriff weren’t we informed?” Reau shot back.

“I’m afraid I do not know,” Ben said apologetically. “Perhaps they felt it would distract from your duties?”

“I’ll tell you what distracts from my duties, Ben, kriffing jetii wandering into my drills and playing mind tricks with my kriffing cadets!” Reau barked, obviously not inclined to back down. “Especially slackers like 3176,” she continued, jabbing two fingers in Scratch’s direction. “-who’s about to get his entire squad busted down to permanent sanitation duty!”

Scratch stiffened. He couldn’t see their eyes, but he that didn’t mean he couldn’t feel the glares from his squad-brothers. Resentment bubbled up again, and he had to bite back an instinctive protest--it wasn’t as if he’d asked the jetii to interfere! But he knew better than to say anything; it never helped. Not with the trainers, and especially not with Reau.

“You are right, of course,” Ben said, bowing once again. “I do apologize--I should have checked with you before interfering in your exercise. However, that is not the fault of Cadet 3176. Surely he cannot be held responsible for my actions?”

“I can hold him responsible for whatever I fucking well want to, jetii,” Reau snapped. “I’m in the business of making soldiers here, not substandard troopers who can barely make it through a basic drill!” An icy spike of fear shot down Scratch’s spine at that statement. Substandard. One bare step above defective, and from there it was a slippery slope straight down to decommissioned.

“Substandard? Surely you must be thinking of another? In my observations of Cadet 3176, I have found him to be quite skilled,” Ben replied, deflecting Reau’s ire with calm bafflement. “And surely working with Jedi is a necessary skill for a soldier of the Republic. Give him another chance, and I am sure he will impress you, Trainer Reau.” There was an odd inflection on Ben’s words, an echo more felt than heard, that made Scratch pay attention. What was going on?

Reau’s scowl never faltered, even as she transferred it to Scratch instead. “You must be blind, jetii, if you were impressed by this.” Scratch kept his eyes forward and didn’t react. It wasn’t anything he hadn’t heard before. “But I’ll play your game. Cadet 3176! Back to the starting mark!”

“Yes, ma’am!”

Scratch turned to head back up the range, only to freeze as Reau barked out, “Squad twelve, take position next to the last set of targets! One cadet per target. Move!” She gave Ben a nasty smile. “That should give your protege sufficient incentive to improve his performance.”

Scratch began moving again before Reau could notice, placing himself at the starting mark and staring blindly forward. The gray-armored forms of his squad-brothers were easy to pick out; one stationed next to each of the furthest holographic targets. Their training rifles weren’t as powerful as a real DC-15, but the bolts were still more than strong enough for a direct shot to penetrate armor. If he missed the target …

Reau and Ben were walking towards him, and it took an effort of will to keep his hands from shaking. He risked a sidelong glance over at Reau and the jetii, without turning his head. Reau’s expression was a pale imitation of something close to a smile, mouth flattened into a thin, maliciously pleased line. And while Ben had not lost his imperturbable calm, there was something in the set of his shoulders that indicated displeasure.

Scratch locked his eyes forward, feeling sweat trickle down his neck. Then did his best not to twitch as he heard Ben’s voice … not in his ears, but in his head.

Calm, verd’ika.

Remember how it felt. Breathe out--

“Cadet, ready!”

Scratch lifted his rifle. The world fell away.

--and trust the Force.

“Fire!”

His feet were moving, his hands shifting the rifle from target to target. Scratch could feel the stock bucking against his shoulder, but none of that mattered. Just each target, one after the other, lining up in his sights, perfectly clear, perfectly still for the heartbeat it took him to fire. He cleared the first, nearest set of targets. Moved to the barricades, dropped and cleared the second. Headed for the final set … and his brothers. He hesitated, holding his breath. The first target was clear, but 3158 was so close. He exhaled … and underneath it all, beneath instinct and training, came a tiny nudge. Scratch suddenly knew his aim was true. Knew where the target was … and where his brother wasn’t.

He fired.

Target after target exploded into holographic shards, until there were finally no more targets to be had. Scratch sucked in a breath, lifting his head. His squad-brothers were there, on a range now empty of targets. Not one of them had even been scratched.

He wanted to shout with glee, to grab them all and hug the breath out of them out of purest relief. He did neither, instead climbing to his feet to turn and stand at attention, rifle at low ready.

Reau looked like she’d eaten a bad rimefruit, her face twisted in disbelief. Ben was smiling proudly. “A perfect score. Good work, 3176.” He glanced at Reau. “I do believe that is a new time record, as well.”

For a moment, Scratch was sure Reau was going to shoot him just out of frustrated rage. Instead she rounded on Ben. “You did this! Puppetted him with some kind of … jetii trickery!”

Ben blinked. “Trickery? The cadet’s improvement was entirely his own doing, I assure you. As I believe he will continue to prove in the future.”

“You--get out of my sight!” Reau wheeled on Scratch and the others. “Squad twelve, dismissed!” She turned on her heel and stalked off. Ben stayed where he was, smiling benignly at her retreating back.

Scratch hesitated. Risking Reau’s wrath, he pulled his bucket. “Sir … Ben? If you did do something, to help, I mean …thank you.”

Ben shook his head, his smile fading into something more serious. “All I did was give you a little reminder when you needed it most. The rest, Scratch, was all you.” He gaze turned to the squad-brothers who had gathered to either side. “And it is something you can teach your brothers. Remember that. It will serve you well.”

“Yes, sir,” Scratch said reflexively, and Ben gave him a look. “I mean, Ben.”

“Good.” He put a hand on Scratch’s pauldron, a firm warrior’s grip at odds with his frail appearance. “Now, why don’t you go see who else you can impress with your new skills, hm?”

Chapter Text

Brothers and Fathers
26 BBY
Clones: Batch 0003

 

Boba sat in a corner of the observation room, scowling at the clones below. He wasn't supposed to be there, he knew, but it wasn't like the longnecks could make him leave. Not without angering his buir. As long as Boba wasn't neglecting his training or interfering with the clones, he could go where he wanted, and Jango had made that very clear the few times Lama Su had protested. Boba was special, Jango had told him. He wasn't to be caged or run in circles like the others; he was to be trained properly, and learn to be a true Mandalorian warrior like his buir.

So what if he was alone? That was still better than being ordered around all the time, like all the other clones, marching in their lines and their formations, eating and sleeping and living shoulder to shoulder. Boba pulled up his legs, wrapping his arms around his knees. They might have the same face, but that didn’t mean anything. This batch weren't even doing anything interesting; they all had their heads down, concentrating on their screens and their stupid flash-training.

"You look like you could use some company," someone said. It wasn't a voice Boba recognized, which was unusual enough to make him turn. In the doorway stood a stranger; a human, and an elderly one at that, white-haired and -bearded. He wasn't wearing any kind of clothing Boba had ever seen before. Rather than armor, or the form-fitting singlets that the Kaminoans preferred to wear, the man wore soft robes, belted with leather at the waist, which didn't look very practical at all. Five minutes outside and those robes would be soaked through; Boba couldn't imagine why anyone would want to drag that much waterlogged cloth around.

"Who're you? he asked, curious in spite of himself.

"My name is Ben," the man said, folding his hands into the sleeves of his outer robe. "May I join you?"

Boba shrugged, elaborately indifferent. "If you want."

Ben entered the room, settling into a nearby seat. "Your brothers are doing well," he commented. "Taun We has informed me that she is very pleased by their progress."

Boba scowled. "They're not my brothers." What did he care about how well a bunch of clones were doing?

"Oh? Weren't you all decanted together?" Ben said, glancing down at the training room. "Isn't that why you're here?"

"That doesn't make them my brothers!" Boba said, crossing his arms over his chest, feeling an old bitterness settle in. He looked away, and muttered, “They don’t even like me, anyway."

"Really?" White eyebrows popped upward in astonishment, and Ben turned his attention away from the observation window. "Whatever makes you think that?"

Boba glared at him mutely, refusing to answer. Ben didn't prod for answers, but just watched him with faded blue eyes, his face serene and free of judgment. The silence stretched, until Boba couldn’t take it anymore.

"--because I'm different. Because buir chose me to be his son, and not them!" he finally burst out, the words ripping their way free. Jango had told him again and again that Boba should be proud, that he was Jango's real son, his only true heir. And he was proud. Out of thousands of clones, he’d been made special. He was the one his buir had chosen. He was wanted ...

... and he was alone.

"They hate me ‘cause I'm different," Boba confessed, eyes on the dark heads below. "We were--we were the same, once, when we were tubies. But now ... they're bigger and smarter than I am." His batch-brothers were almost men now, tall and strong. While he ... "They have each other. Why would they want to bother with someone who's still little?" he confessed into his knees, refusing to look at Ben. His brothers had grown up quickly, leaving him behind, and part of him, buried deep, hated them for that.

A careful hand settled on his head, and Boba tensed under the comforting weight. "There's nothing wrong with growing at your own pace, you know," Ben said gently, and Boba bristled. "Have you ever thought about the possibility that you might be just as special to your brothers as you are to Jango?"

"How would you know?" Boba said, twisting away from that hand and scowling up at Ben. "You're not a clone. You’re not even a trainer."

"No, I'm not," Ben agreed. "But the Force has led me here so that I can watch over the vode. And despite what you think, I’m pretty sure that includes you." He gave Boba a sidelong smile, as if inviting him into a secret joke.

The Force? But wasn't that a jetii thing? Boba's frown deepened. "You're a jetii."

Ben tipped his head in a nod. "Yes."

"Does my buir know you're here?" Jango hated jetii, Boba knew. He couldn't imagine how this one would have escaped his buir's notice. Why had Lama Su even allowed a jetii on Kamino in the first place?

Ben looked thoughtful, fingers stroking his beard. "I'm not sure," he said after a moment. "Although if he doesn't, I'm sure he will, sooner or later."

Boba frowned. If Jango knew he was talking with a jetii ....

"There’s no need to be afraid. I would never do anything to harm you," Ben said, folding his hands over his belt. A belt devoid of weapons, Boba couldn’t help but notice--not even a jetii lightsaber.

"I'm not afraid of you," Boba retorted instinctively, then hesitated. It was true. Ben was strange, and soft, and a jetii ... but despite the hate in his buir's voice whenever he spoke of the jetiise, Boba couldn't bring himself to be afraid. He glanced down at the training room, with its ranks of bowed heads, before he could stop himself. “What did you mean, when you said I was special?”

"Your brothers are growing up quickly, but that means their lives will be much shorter than yours," Ben said gently. "You could have thousands of older brothers, if you want them. But they will only ever have one younger brother like you. That’s pretty special, don’t you think?”

Boba glanced back and forth, between the window and Ben. He didn’t think the jetii was lying, but … there was a strange fluttering in his chest. If Ben was telling the truth … what was he supposed to do? It didn’t change anything. Boba was still Jango's son, while the vode ...

"You don't have to decide anything just yet," Ben said gently, derailing the frantic spiral of Boba's thoughts. "You and your brothers still have time." He stood, and looked out the window for a moment, his face pensive. Watching him, Boba caught a flash of movement from below; one of the clones had lifted his head, spotting them in the window. Ben gave him an encouraging nod, and the clone flashed them a furtive, brief smile before ducking his head to focus back on his training module.

Ben turned to leave, and Boba lurched forward a step. "Wait--" He stopped short, suddenly embarrassed. He wasn’t going to chase after the jetii like a tubie crying for attention! "That’s it?" he said instead. "You're not going to tell me to go talk to them?"

Ben glanced over his shoulder. "I am only here to show you the choices you might make. It is up to you, Boba, to decide which path to follow.” He hesitated, then added, “Choose carefully, little one. A great many other things will depend upon what you decide."

 

*****

 

"Fett!"

Jango stopped short, and resisted the urge to snarl. He'd never liked Reau, or any of the other former members of Death Watch that he'd been forced to recruit into the Cuy'val Dar. Unfortunately, finding skilled warriors willing to give up all ties to their former lives for over a decade had been difficult enough that he'd been forced to accept even sadistic fanatics like Reau and Priest.

He might be stuck with them--for now--but didn't mean he had to pretend to like it. "What, Reau? I'm a busy man."

"Too busy to keep track of who might be infiltrating your little pet project, Fett?" Reau said, stalking down the hallway, gauntleted hands curled into fists. "Or did you already know there was a jetii on Kamino, and just decided the rest of us didn't need to be informed?"

"... what?" The accusation was so unexpected--and impossible--that it knocked him off-balance. A jetii--here? How? Had Dooku decided to inspect their progress? Or had some other jetii stumbled across their little proto-army? Of the two possibilities, Jango honestly wasn't sure which one he liked less. "Who?"

"So you didn't know." Reau crossed her arms, regarding him with a certain amount of satisfaction. "He's old. Human, or close enough to pass. Calls himself Ben."

Ben? Jango didn't recognize the name. Which meant at least this so-called jetii wasn't a council member, or anyone else important. Jango had long ago learned the importance of researching his enemies. "Where did you see him? Anyone can claim to be a jetii; what made you think he was telling the truth?"

Reau lifted a mocking eyebrow. "He's wearing their robes, and he moves like one. No lightsaber though; ballsy of him, considering he decided to walk right into the middle of a live-fire drill." Her lips twisted into a sneer. "I was tempted to shoot him myself. I'm still not sure why I didn't."

That did sound like a jetii, Jango had to admit--always sticking their noses where they didn't belong. And right now, that was the last thing Jango needed. "Did he say anything else?"

"He said he was an 'observer' from the Council. And that Lama Su had authorized him to be here. Not much else," Reau admitted.

"Haar’chak," Jango hissed, frustrated. Trust Reau to be as useless in this as she was in anything else. "Did you at least see where he went?"

Reau shook her head, unfazed by Jango's ire. "I ordered him off the range. Where he went afterwards, I could care less." She gave Jango a narrow-eyed, malicious look. "Is the great Jango Fett incapable of tracking down one elderly jetii?"

"It seems the 'great' Jango Fett will have to, since you seem to be incapable of using what's between your ears to do anything but hold up a buy’ce," Jango snarled.

Reau snarled at the insult, her fingers twitching towards a blaster pistol. Then she seemed to remember who exactly was dealing with, and caught herself. "Luck on your hunt, Jango. I look forward to the day the jetiise carve you a new one."

"If that day ever comes, Reau, I doubt you'll live long enough to see it," Jango retorted. "Get out of my sight."

He watched her stalk off, a paralytic dart palmed and ready until she was out of range. Then he flicked the safety back on and swore under his breath. He needed to find this jetii, and fast. If this ‘Ben’ was one of Dooku’s spies, then Jango had a few pointed questions to put to him. And if he wasn't ... then Jango needed to make sure that the jetii didn’t get the chance to report back to the Council, or to anyone else.

Chapter Text

Sanctuary
33 BBY
Clones: 1033 (Edik)

 

Jedha

 

The Great Hall was never truly empty, but in the early predawn hours, it was as close to it as it ever was. The silence of that vast, echoing space was almost palpable, broken only by the quiet rustle of a few novitiates and the ever-present hum of the kyber as it resonated through glass and stone alike; the quiet song upon which the temple was built.

Rubbing at his eyes, Baze stifled a yawn as he went to open the main doors. Early morning door duty was hardly the most exciting post, but at least it allowed the opportunity to people-watch. It could be worse. He nodded at Lorne, who was already at the doors and waiting for him. His fellow Guardian's outer robes were tidy, braids bound up tightly, and yet somehow she still managed to look disgruntled. "Another long night?" Baze asked. A morning person Lorne was not.

The other Guardian gave him a fulminating stare. "What do you think?"

"Right." There was no point in trying to jolly Lorne out of her mood, Baze knew. Not without caff to hand, anyway. Best just to let her grump and get it out of her system. "Who was it this time?"

"Ikela. Apparently he had a premonition last week,” Lorne said sourly. “So now he seems to think that if he just meditates long enough, the kyber will give him all the details the Force didn't see fit to provide the first time around. Which of course means someone has to be there to provide an anchor. Guess who that lucky person was?"

"Doesn’t sound very lucky to me," Baze answered, only half-listening to Lorne as they each stepped into place and began to pull the heavy stone doors open. The shamans of the temple could be eccentric, but they weren't malicious. Just ... oblivious, sometimes. "Why don't you go to the watch-master? I'm sure xie would rearrange the roster for y--" Baze stopped short, startled by the sight of someone kneeling a few paces beyond the the main doors, swathed in a hooded brown cloak.

The Jedha temple was a common stop for pilgrims who wished to commune with the Force, but few were devoted enough to arrive before first light. And from the looks of it, this particular pilgrim had been waiting for some time. A bit embarrassed to be caught chatting while on duty, Baze locked his door open, settling the heavy iron bar into the worn stone socket with a thunk, then turned and bowed politely to the visitor, assuming the gravitas expected of a Guardian. "Be welcome to the temple. How may the order assist you?"

Their early-morning visitor lifted their head, revealing a white-bearded face. "My thanks for your welcome," the man said in return, inclining his head in an abbreviated bow. "My name is Ben, and I am here to make a request of the Ishak-Tal.”

Baze blinked down at the man, then glanced over at Lorne, who shrugged. Since his partner didn't seem overly inclined to help, Baze squared his shoulders. It wasn’t the first time he’d had to disappoint a pilgrim, after all.  "My apologies, Ben.  The Ishak-Tal is not scheduled to see petitioners for quite some time. What specifically do you seek? Perhaps a Disciple may help you on your path?" 

Baze's offer was met with a small, wry smile, and Ben shook his head. "No, my path is very clear. However, I need to request sanctuary within the temple. Not for myself, but for another." He shifted back on his heels and stood. Baze's gaze sharpened; despite his apparent age, Ben moved like a trained fighter, balanced and ready. And as he stood, the heavy cloak parted, revealing the layered robes worn by more traditional pilgrims--and a sleeping infant, cradled in one arm.

Baze blinked. The Temple had taken in its fair share of petitioners, true, as the Force willed. But this was the first time someone had brought a baby to the steps of the temple, and insisted on giving it to the Ishak-Tal. In person. “Ah … ser …”

“Just Ben, please.”

“Ben. The temple … is not the best place for infants.” Baze said, tongue stumbling over the unexpected dilemma in front of him. “There are fosterages--” he trailed off. Perpetually frozen and far from the spacelanes, Jedha was not a wealthy moon. Chirrut and other Disciples did their best to care for the little ones who had no one else, but ....

Ben shook his head. “I’m afraid I must disagree, Ser Malbus. This is exactly the best place for this particular infant.” He smiled down at the sleeping baby, touching its cheek affectionately. “Do not worry. I am willing to wait for the Ishak-Tal to see me.” He started forward, into the Great Hall, sweeping past them with swift, determined strides.

“What? Ser, ah--Ben, wait!” Baze scrambled after the man, leaving Lorne at the door. “You can’t … I mean, you can, but there’s no place to care for a baby. Not here! If you-”

Ben entered the Great Hall. Between one step and the next, the kyber-all the kyber, from the faint flecks in the walls to the great veins in the bedrock beneath the temple-flared to life, and sang.

Baze was about as Force-sensitive as a rock--an ordinary, non-kyber rock at that. But he didn’t need a connection to the Force to hear this. It was as if the entirety of the kyber beneath the temple had been struck with a tuning fork, crystalline resonances echoing with eerie harmonics. It was otherworldly, and beautiful. Baze had never heard anything like it.

Ben seemed to be just as surprised as anyone else, stopping just shy of the central dome. “Oh dear,” he said, half-turning to glance sheepishly at Baze. “I apologize. I didn’t expect that to happen.”

"What are you doing? How are you doing that?" Baze asked, bristling and too off-balance to remember to be polite.

"It's not intentional. Most likely it is simply a ... sympathetic resonance, of sorts," Ben said, which explained exactly nothing. Baze scowled, grumbling under his breath and following as the man headed to one of the meditation alcoves. "Give me a moment, and I will see what I can do about this." He knelt, bowing his head and closing his eyes. Within moments, the song of the kyber began to fade, the chiming dimming into a faintly musical, background hum. Once the noise had died away, Ben opened his eyes once more. "There. That should do it, I think."

"What exactly did you do?" Baze said, glaring suspiciously at him. “And what are you really here for?” He wasn't about to threaten the man, but it was clear that ‘Ben’ was no ordinary pilgrim. It didn’t appear he was alone in that assessment, either; the few novitiates that had been present in the Great Hall seemed to have multiplied, and several Disciples and Guardians had been added to their number. All of them were staring at Ben, albeit most from a respectful distance. Some were wary, while a few--mostly the shamans--were fascinated, as if Ben were a new koan for them to meditate upon.

“Oh, I just quieted things down a bit,” Ben replied, shifting himself into a comfortable pose and shifting the baby, rocking it a bit. The infant stirred, dark eyes blinking open and face scrunching into a vague expression of dissatisfaction. Baze’s scowl deepened at the non-answer; Ben did not seem to be impressed. “As I said earlier, I need to request sanctuary for this little one, and possibly for others. And for that, I must speak with the Ishak-Tal.”

Baze had just about run out of patience. “The Ishak-Tal isn’t even--”

“I know.” Ben’s voice was firm, cutting him off as effectively as any watch-master. “It does not matter. This is where I need to be, and I will wait as long as is necessary.”

 

****

 

Kamino

 

Vela Bu looked over her test results, and sighed. The error rate for this batch had been within acceptable parameters, but acceptable was not ideal, and the resulting rate of mutation among the clones was evidence enough of that. .03 percent of the newly decanted infants were already showing deviations in genetic development outside of acceptable parameters. The Mandalorian’s genetic material was sturdy enough for their purposes, but there was no denying that it was … messy. Nothing like the carefully cultivated and pruned genetic templates her people had developed for themselves.

“A shame,” she said out loud, looking down at infant. It blinked up at her, uncomprehending. It had worked one hand free of the warming blanket, small fingers flexing. In outward appearance, it was a perfect clone. But her test results were conclusive.

“2-1B,” Vela said, turning away. She would need to adjust the sequencing for the next batch, and isolate the alleles most inclined towards mutation. Perhaps a swapped base pair ... still thinking, she waved one long-fingered hand at the incubator and its occupant. “Euthanize the subject and dispose of the remains.”

The waiting medical droid stepped out from its docking station. “Acknowledged, doctor.”

Vela stepped out of the lab, the door hissing shut behind her as she frowned down at her padd. Fifteen more marginal clones to examine, then she needed to input the results and cross-check her data against the other batches. Taun We was still waiting on her quarterly analysis, as well. Stepping up a new cloning project was always a time-intensive endeavor, and for an order this size, there simply was no way she could be expected to keep up with the necessary data entry and still have time for her lab work. Perhaps she should requisition more droids …

 

****

 

2-1B turned to the incubator. Calculating current body weight, it loaded an injector with a lethal dosage of sedative, and reached for one soft arm.

“Stop.”

2-1B turned its primary optics towards the direction of the voice. A human--male, approximately 65 years of age, heart rate 62 bpm, blood pressure 105/72, multiple indicators of previous major wounds and bacta immersion--stood in the doorway. 2-1B did not recognize him. “The doctor has ordered this subject be terminated,” it informed him.

The human lifted a hand, flicking fingers in his direction. Suddenly--as if a fragmented memory-file had just become available--it identified the man. Ben, a Jedi observer on the project. 2-1B hoped he was not going to attempt to interfere. Biologicals were often irrational about the young.

Thankfully, there was no outburst or offered violence from the Jedi. Ben merely frowned, brows drawing down as he stepped into the room. “That will not be necessary. You have already euthanized the subject.”

“I have?” 2-1B reviewed the last few minutes of archived memory, and realized Ben was correct. It had already administered the primaltol, and disposed of the remains. How embarrassing! It straightened, retreating from the empty incubator and cycling the injector for sterilization. “You are correct. My apologies. It seems I may have a recursive loop in my logic circuits. I believe I need to go on standby in order to perform a full self-diagnostic.”

The Jedi nodded, moving towards the incubator. “Go ahead; I will finish the cleanup here." He leaned over the empty incubator, gathering up the small bundle of warming blankets. 2-1B paused its shutdown sequence, caught by the unusual action. Why would a Jedi observer offer to perform basic janitorial duties? There were more than enough sanitation droids to handle any cleaning that needed to be done.

Ben turned, his faded blue gaze focusing on the droid. Suddenly, it all made sense. The Jedi had a tradition of service, after all; no doubt this particular human was simply following the dictates of his doctrine in attempting to make himself useful. There was certainly nothing else suspicious about Ben's actions. Nothing suspicious at all.

Observational protocols satisfied, 2-1B continued with its shutdown, taking optics and the rest of its sensor suite offline. There was nothing to see here anyway. No small-fingered hand, waving in the air; no wriggling feet poking out from the Jedi's blanket-bundle. Preoccupied with running a self-diagnostic, 2-1B dimly registered Ben leaving the examination room.

A moment later, it had no memory of the Jedi at all.

 

****

 

Jedha

 

A day later, and Ben was still there, ensconced in a meditation alcove off the Great Hall. He spent most of his vigil either tending to the baby or in meditation. The baby was not nearly so sanguine about the wait, fussing and requiring attention at regular intervals; Ben handled both with casual expertise, pulling formula and clean diapers as needed from a small carry-sack.

Baze scowled, arms folded across his chest, as he stood watch. They couldn't exactly eject the man, not after he had claimed sanctuary. Not until the Ishak-Tal returned and could be consulted on the matter. As a result, he and another Guardian had been assigned to keep an eye on their little problem, which suited him just fine.

Sensing a familiar presence at his shoulder, he inclined his head in acknowledgement, but otherwise didn't move. A walking stick prodded him in the calf. "You know, if you continue frowning like that, your face will stick that way," Chirrut remarked, amused. He leaned a companionable shoulder against Baze's. "So this is our mysterious guest?"

Baze nodded. "Came in yesterday, before the dawnsong. Says he won't leave without speaking to the Ishak-Tal." His scowl deepened. There was something about Ben that bothered him. The man was elderly, without any weapons, and had made no threatening moves, either directly or otherwise ... and yet Baze was certain he was dangerous. He just wasn’t sure how.

"Mm. You do always seem to stumble across the most interesting people, Baze," Chirrut said, head tilted, his blind gaze oddly intent upon Ben's seated form. "But even for you, this one is ... extraordinary. No wonder the crystals are singing."

"What?" Startled, Baze glanced over at Chirrut. "What do you mean?"

"Well, it's not every day the temple is visited by a dainii," Chirrut replied, and stepped forward.

Caught in the middle of burping a fussy infant, Ben looked up, giving Chirrut a quizzical smile as he patted the baby's back. "Master Îmwe. You'll forgive me if I do not get up."

"Not at all," Chirrut said, lowering himself to the flagstones. "Dare I ask how you know me? Has Baze been telling stories about me again?"

Ben shook his head. "No, Ser Malbus has been quite circumspect. But I am familiar with you both, regardless. Or will be, at least." The infant burped, and Ben shifted it down off his shoulder, bouncing it a little as the baby burbled happily, tiny fists waving. "Would you like to hold him?"

"Certainly," Chirrut said, smiling. He set his stick aside, and Ben settled the baby carefully into his outstretched hands. Chirrut inhaled the familiar scent of clean baby and formula, fingers tracing carefully over soft, round cheeks and feathery curls of hair. "What is his name?"

"Edik," Ben said. "His name ... will be Edik." He watched them both, his expression gentle.

Chirrut tilted his head, hearing what had been left unsaid. "Will be? Has the child no family to name him?"

"He has family," Ben said. "Brothers. But they cannot protect him. That is why I have brought him here, to you."

The baby gurgled, one open hand smacking against Chirrut's chest and tangling in the shaman's woolen robes. Baze watched in resignation as his partner looked down, his blind, white gaze considering, as he rocked the infant gently. Chirrut had always been a soft touch when it came to children. There was no way they were going to be able to avoid taking the baby now.

"He is a strong boy," Chirrut said, smiling down at the baby. "And he loves you. Are you certain you do not wish to stay and look after him?"

Ben's face was a picture of love and regret. "No. I will be there, when he needs me. But he needs the family that the temple will provide. And the temple will need him, as well." He paused, glancing up at Baze, and the other listening Disciples. "Him, and in time, others."

Baze shifted uneasily, feeling the hairs on the back of his neck prickling. Ben's words had the air of a Force-borne prophecy; and Baze wasn't sure he liked what they implied. "Something threatens the temple?"

Ben's gaze did not waver. "A darkness has been growing for quite some time, Ser Malbus. For a thousand years, the Light has been ascendant. But now that balance has shifted."

Ben's words made the assembled Guardians and Disciples alike shift and mutter. Chirrut didn't seem to be fazed. "Are you here to tell us what we must do to ward off this darkness, Master Ben?" he asked, still rocking the baby.

Ben shook his head. "Just Ben, please. And no--as I said, I am here for Edik. To ensure he has a home where he will be loved and protected. Anything beyond that is the will of the Force, and the choices made by those within it." He looked past Baze. "Is that not correct, Ishak-Tal?"

Baze jumped, and turned. The tall, tree-like Kindalo behind him tilted its head-stalk in a slow, smooth motion. "As you say, World-Walker." It gestured with one elongated arm, twiglike fingers outspread, the luminescent patterns on its surface glimmering. "We bid you welcome. The kyber of Jedha sing of your presence; it has been a thousand years or more since they have encountered one such as yourself."  The Ishak-Tal approached, and Baze bowed, backing out of the way, firmly squashing his annoyance at being caught off-guard. How a species that moved that slowly was still able to sneak up on him--repeatedly--was something he'd never managed to figure out. The Ishak-Tal genuflected low before the Ben, bending both head-stalk and flexibly-jointed legs.

Rising to his feet, Ben clasped hands in front of him and bowed deeply in return. "I am grateful for your welcome, Ishak-Tal, and for the temple's forbearance." He glanced over at Baze, then down at Chirrut. "May I leave Edik in your care, Master Îmwe, while I speak with the Ishak-Tal?"

Baze glanced down at Chirrut, already knowing what the answer would be. The baby had one of Chirrut's fingers clasped in a tiny fist, and the shaman's expression was soft as he waved it up and down. Yep. Chirrut was a goner.

"Of course, Ben. I would be honored," Chirrut said, tilting his head up at older man.

"Thank you," Ben replied simply. He placed the carry-bag with the infant supplies next to Chirrut, then turned back to the Ishak-Tal. "If you would lead the way?"

"Of course. We have much to discuss." The Ishak-Tal straightened once more, and turned to make its slow way down the Great Hall, heading towards the entrance to the kyber caverns. Ben fell into step alongside, hands buried in the sleeves of his robe, matching the Ishak-Tal's slow, deliberate strides.

Baze watched them go, resigned. There was no such thing as a quick conversation--or anything else--when it came to the Ishak-Tal.  Kindalo operated on a very different timescale than most sentients; one of the things that helped the current Ishak-Tal to communicate with the kyber. He sighed, then went to crouch down next to Chirrut. "Great, another mouth to feed."

Chirrut grinned at him. "You worry too much, Baze. I have a good feeling about this one," he said, bouncing the baby.

"You have a good feeling about all of them, Chirrut," Baze retorted. The baby giggled, blowing spit bubbles, and Baze found himself reaching out to tousle the soft curls on its head. It was cute, Baze was forced to admit, with wide brown eyes and olive-tinted skin.

"Well, yes," Chirrut admitted without shame. "But something tells me this one will grow up to be something special." He smiled down at the baby. "With a dainii as a guardian, how can he not?"

Chapter Text

Wargames
26 BBY
Clones: 3214-3244, Sinker (3220), Rocket (3241), Alpha-17, Digger (Alpha-12), Tavo (Alpha-22)

 

Hitting the button for the main doors, 17 stopped short, nearly stumbling over his own boots, as he was hit with a wall of noise and chaotic motion.  There were cadets everywhere.

Which in and of itself, wasn’t that unusual--now that the Kaminoans had started full production on the vode, it seemed like 17 couldn’t turn around without knocking down a shiny.  These particular cadets, however, were nothing like the quiet, disciplined brothers he was used to. For a moment he thought they might be running a drill, even at this late hour; but if so, it wasn’t like any kind of drill he’d ever seen. There was no organization, no discipline. Instead, younger brothers were simply running in all directions, yelling … just for the sake of yelling, near as he could tell. A few cadets were chasing each other, while others climbed around the upper levels of the course, and the rest were ... chasing a trainer? 17 stiffened, reflexively reaching for the rifle slung over one shoulder, then hesitated.  The trainer wasn’t anyone he recognized. He also wasn’t wearing armor. Instead, robes swirled in shades of cream and brown as the white-haired man spun and dodged out of the way of plucking fingers and flying tackles alike, darting through the obstacle course with an entire pack of cadets at his heels, all apparently doing their best to bring him down.

17 didn’t know what was going on, but it had to stop. He’d never heard of an entire bad batch before, but if any of these cadets managed to hurt a trainer, the entire vode would suffer. He stepped in, DC-15 at low ready--

--when a blueback ran into him and bounced off, hitting the ground hard. He looked up at the trio of alpha clones, and his eyes widened in fear.

“What do you think you’re doing, cadet?” 17 barked. “On your feet. Now!” The cadet scrambled to his feet and to attention. Which left at least twenty to thirty others--it was hard to count heads when all of the heads were identical--still running amuck. He glanced back at his alpha squadmates, who followed his lead, unslinging rifles and setting them to stun.

“KE’SUSH!”

The bellow reverberated off the walls, and the effect was instantaneous. Every single cadet stopped in their tracks, turning to face him and snapping to attention. Those on top of obstacles scrambled for the ground in order to do the same. Grimly pleased that their training had held at least that much, 17 advanced into the room, trusting Digger and Tavo to cover him as he moved towards the trainer.

“Are you all right, sir?” Thankfully the man seemed to be unharmed, near as 17 could tell. He was currently standing on top of a ground-level plasticrete barricade, hands on hips, watching their approach.

“I’m fine,” the trainer said calmly.  He dropped down off the top of the wall, fussily adjusting his sleeves.  “There’s no need to worry; they weren’t trying to hurt me. We were just playing a game.”

“A … game?” Alpha-17 echoed, confused. The word wasn’t familiar. “What is that, sir?”

“A game … well, it’s like a training exercise, but less structured.” The trainer smiled at them, though there was something oddly melancholy about the expression. “And more fun, as well. This one is called ‘tag’, though we’re playing it a little differently than most. One person is ‘It’, and a group of cadets has to chase him and try to touch him. The cadet who touches him first wins the game, and is the next person to become ‘It’. Would you like to join us?”

“I--” All that yelling and running around was … just to try and touch someone? What use was that? 17 had never heard of such a thing, and was starting to worry if perhaps the trainer had been hit in the head during this ‘game’. He knew aged sapients could often be fragile, and this one appeared to be significantly older than the rest of the Cuy’val Dar. Did he need to check for soft spots?

“With all due respect, sir, I don’t think so,” he finally said, choosing his words carefully. “My squad has real training to do. There’s no point in us wasting time with regular cadets and their … games.” He was definitely going to report this to Jango. There was no way this was an approved use of training time, even if he wasn’t insubordinate enough to tell the trainer that.

One white eyebrow went up sharply. “Wasting time?”

17 carefully did not flinch, even as he winced internally. Damn. That had been a stupid thing to say. All clones, alpha or otherwise, learned that particular lesson early: never, ever mouth off to a trainer. “I apologize, sir,” he said stiffly. “I didn’t mean--”

“At ease, Alpha,” the trainer said. “You don’t need to worry about offending me. I assure you, I’ve heard worse.”  He glanced at the gaggle of cadets, still standing at attention, then back at the trio of alpha clones. “But I find it interesting that you feel training with your brothers is a waste of time. Afraid you’ll be outnumbered?”

Digger snorted at the thought. 17 shot him a glare. “No sir,” he said carefully. “But they’re much younger. And … they’re not alphas, sir. There’s no way they could keep up.”

“Hmm.” The trainer looked them over, fingers stroking over his beard. “An interesting assumption. Care to prove it?”

“What did you have in mind, sir?” 17 said warily. Tavo and Digger both shifted uneasily behind him. The cadets were just standard clones; easily made and easily replaceable. But that didn’t mean 17 wanted to be ordered to beat up on his younger brothers just to prove a point.

“Oh, just something simple. How about a capture the flag exercise? Myself and these cadets versus you and your fellow alphas. In fact, we’ll make it easier for you, since you’re so outnumbered; your team will have the only flag. All you have to do to win is successfully defend your flag against a bunch of bluebacks. Well, and one trainer.” His mouth tipped up into a wry smirk, eyes twinkling. “That should be easy enough, right?”

17 glanced at Digger and Tavo. The trainer’s proposal felt like a trap, though he certainly couldn’t see how. Even outnumbered, three alpha clones--all of them older, stronger, and better trained--shouldn’t have any problem at all defending against a bunch of cadets. The only real wild card would be the trainer. “Yes, sir,” he finally said, not seeing any way out of it.

“Very well, then,” the trainer said cheerfully, clapping his hands. “Sinker, Rocket--why don’t you go grab tags and training blasters for everyone?”

“Yes sir, Ben!” Sinker replied.  The two cadets darted off to the equipment lockers on the far side of the room. As the equipment was being handed out, the trainer-Ben, apparently-headed for the control console to change the room settings, lights shifting color to delineate each team's territory for the new exercise.

Taking advantage of the distraction, 17 pulled his squadmates into a quick huddle.

"It’s probably a test," he told his brothers, keeping his voice low. The vode all had sharp ears, and learned to use them early. "I'm just not sure what kind. Still, we'd better make a good showing. If we don't, and Fett finds out ..." He trailed off, leaving the rest unsaid, and Tavo and Digger both nodded grimly. As the first successful batch, and the only batch trained personally by their progenitor, Jango's expectations of his alpha clones were unrelentingly high. "These tubies are vode, but they're not alphas. They'll be slower, less aggressive. They've been taught how to follow orders, but they haven't gotten into advanced tactical simulations yet. If we split them up and keep them off-balance, they should be easy to handle. The trainer's the wildcard. We don't know what he can do."

"We know he's dangerous," Digger put in sardonically, pointing out the obvious. 17 gave his squad-brother a dirty look.

"The trainer is the primary threat; take him out, and the bluebacks won't know what to do. Which means if he's smart, he'll be using the cadets as distractions and cover when he finally makes a run for the flag. Watch for that. When he does, don't let him get close. Take him down. Understood?"

Digger and Tavo both nodded. "Copy that." At least the outcome of this exercise would be interesting. Not because of the cadets--there wasn't much honor in defeating a bunch of babies that didn’t know any better. But they rarely got the chance to test themselves against a trainer. Not like this, anyway.

They broke out of their huddle as one of the cadets approached. "Your equipment, sirs," he chirped, holding up the items in question. Setting their rifles safely on a nearby rack, 17 and the others began strapping on the tags over their armor. The equipment was familiar enough from previous drills; fitted to an adjustable harness, the tags had electronic sensors that monitored vital areas, both front and back. The blasters themselves were non-lethal, power packs modified so that the bolts were harmless, though still painful. If a tag registered a kill shot, it lit up, strobing and buzzing to announce that team member was now 'dead'. Once cadets graduated to training armor, the tags were no longer necessary--however, given this particular batch wasn’t yet old enough to be issued anything more than the simplest protective gear, it was a reasonable compromise.

The cadets seemed to be looking forward to the exercise, a few almost bouncing in their eagerness. At least they were treating this 'game' seriously, 17 noted sourly, even if their trainer wasn't. Instead, Ben was strolling among them, doing equipment checks and ... making jokes? He certainly didn't seem to be overly worried about his team’s relative lack of training, and didn’t appear to make any effort to identify squad leaders or to marshal any particular strategy. Instead, he moved among the cadets with calm confidence, stopping only for a quick word or to ruffle short-cropped hair.

Finally Ben turned to 17 and the others. "Ready, Alpha?" he inquired, propping hands on hips.

17 frowned. Why did he keep calling him that? "My designation is 17, sir," he pointed out.

"Is it?" Ben said mildly, handing over the flag--a baton-like device with a strobing light on one end--before turning away. "My apologies. I shall keep that in mind."

17 suppressed the urge to growl, checked the charge on the blaster he'd been given, then slammed the power pack home. Stalking over to 'their' side of the training room, he looked over the obstacles that had been set up.

"Over there," Tavo said, pointing. "Good defensible position."

17 surveyed the spot, and nodded. Plasticrete barricades on two sides, with only a small gap between, plus a good number of obstacles between their position and the opposite side of the room, including a high climbing wall. All of which would slow down the enemy, and make them vulnerable to the defenders' fire. "Looks good. Let's get set up." Not that there was much to do on that front, considering there were only three of them. Digger was designated as rearguard for the flag, their final line of defense, while 17 took the main approach and Tavo covered their offside.

“Starting exercise,” Ben called out, triggering the timer on the console. “Ready … now!”

17 had expected the cadets to split into groups and rush their position. With the alphas in possession of the only flag, it wasn’t like they had much choice. He wasn’t entirely wrong, either; almost half of them did exactly that. What he didn’t expect was for them to be so damnably hard to hit. The cadets were moving more like seasoned troopers, using every obstacle to their advantage, covering for each other and ducking out of the way of his shots almost before he could take aim. While Ben…

… Ben was impossible to pin down. For all his age, the man was fast, and impossibly agile. He dodged blaster bolts with ease, twisting out of their path like he could see them coming. And rather than using the slower, less-skilled cadets as cover for his advance, instead he was covering them, yanking cadets out of harm’s way, tossing others effortlessly over obstacles or behind cover.

17 cursed in frustration--someone that old should not be that fast! His shots were missing more than hitting, and it was all due to that fucking trainer. Not to mention every time he had to divert his attention to other cadets trying to outflank them, Ben gained that much more ground. Tavo and Digger were faring better, though not by much. They were keeping the cadets at bay, but ‘kill’ shots were still surprisingly hard to come by. The three alphas had only taken out about a third of the other team, and the cadets had already covered two-thirds of the ground towards their position, splitting into squads and running their way through obstacles at every possible opening. And that damnable trainer was always there, in the vanguard, urging them onwards when it looked like they might falter.

In fact, the best way to take down Ben, 17 realized, was to target the cadets around him. Time after time, the man sacrificed his own safety just so he could save a blueback from a ‘kill’ shot. It was a surprising weakness for one of the Cuy’val Dar. But that didn’t mean 17 wouldn’t take advantage of it.

“The cadets around the trainer,” he ordered Tavo and Digger. “Focus your fire on them!” Whittling down the advancing cadets would force the trainer to expose himself even further. After that, it was only a matter of time before one of them would get a clear shot.

The tactic worked. The remaining cadets had reached the last set of obstacles, using them as cover, but weren’t able to advance any further. Teeth bared behind their helmets, the alphas turned the open space in front of their perimeter into a killing ground, the smell of ozone filling the air as cadet after cadet went down. Ben began to take even bigger risks, leaping out to pull cadets behind cover before they could be tagged. His impossible speed never slackened, but now that 17 knew what to expect, he could begin to anticipate the man’s moves, hemming him in.

Out of options, Ben did the only thing he could--he charged the alphas’ position. The cadets charged forward with him, yelling defiance, firing wildly as they ran. This, 17 knew how to handle. The alpha clones took them down, coolly snapping off shot after shot, cadets obediently tumbling to the floor as their tags announced they were out of the fight.

Digger finally-FINALLY- managed to land a hit on Ben, winging him. Not solid enough to trip the tag, but the trainer stumbled, faltering. 17 and Tavo pounced on the opening, laying down crossfire, shot after shot hitting Ben solidly in the chest. 17 watched in satisfaction as the man went down on one knee, tag buzzing loudly as it registered the kill.

Digger grunted behind him, his buzzer going off. What the-?

17 spun, blaster rising--but he wasn’t fast enough. More shots from behind hit home against his armor, sending him staggering backwards.  A small squad of cadets popped up over the barrier, blasters at the ready. 17 was the next to be taken out, his tag buzzing angrily as he went down. Tavo managed to take out two more cadets; then one of the remaining survivors took advantage of his smaller size, slithered between the gap in the barricades, and shot Tavo at point blank range.

17 stood, and watched as the cheering cadets hoisted the flag aloft, dancing with glee. His entire squad--the best Kamino had to offer, trained and honed by Jango Fett himself--had just been taken out. By bluebacks.

Their little group was soon joined by rest of the hooting, happy cadets, overjoyed at their unexpected victory. The captured flag was handed around from one brother to the next, each cadet wanting to touch their new trophy as it was paraded around the room. "Thank you, sirs," one of the cadets said to 17, starry-eyed. He had a purpling bruise on one arm, the sleeve ripped and sagging, but didn't seem to care, buoyant with happiness. "We don't get to play with older vode that often. That was an amazing game!"

"I agree. Well done, all of you," Ben said, pushing up off the floor and dusting himself off. He smiled down at the cadets clustered around him, each chattering away, competing for the chance to tell their particular heroics in the epic Battle of the Flag. Then he looked up, blue eyes twinkling, transferring the warmth of that smile to 17 and his brothers.

It was a benediction they didn't deserve, 17 was all too aware, and the thought made him scowl. Ben tilted his head. "What's wrong? Surely a good battle, well fought, deserves a certain amount of celebration at the end of it?"

"Well fought? We lost!" Digger spat, still smarting from the indignity of being ambushed by vode both half his size and half his age.

"Yes. You did," Ben agreed calmly. "That is a lesson every soldier must learn. You can fight well and bravely, and still lose. But do you know why you lost?"

Digger looked like he was about to say something else, but a glare from 17 shut him up before his big mouth landed them all in the brig. Or worse. "We were sloppy," 17 said instead, eyes front, biting off the words. "We allowed the cadets to blindside us. Sir."

"Well, yes. But how?" The cadets were quieting down now, listening avidly to their trainer's calm, deep voice. Ben continued, "You lost because you assumed--correctly--that I was the biggest threat.” He folded hands into his sleeves, regarding the trio of clones in front of him. “We knew you would make that assumption, so I made myself the biggest, most obvious target. And it worked. All three of you were so focused on taking me down, that you didn’t think at all about your brothers might be doing."

Frustrated and angry, 17 glanced back at his squad-brothers. Then he looked at his younger brothers, standing straight-backed around to their trainer, proud in their victory ... and felt his anger evaporate. Regardless of his hurt pride--or what Fett was likely to say when he found out--17 realized he couldn't begrudge them this. Not when they’d fought so hard and so well. "So what you’re saying ... is not to underestimate the vode, sir," he said. "No matter how young they are."

Ben’s smile widened. "That's definitely a good start." He stepped forward, clapping a hand on 17’s shoulder in reassurance. "Regardless, all of three of you did well. Now, let's see how much better you can do with a few additional brothers at your side."

Chapter Text

Fire
25 BBY

 

Taun We was tall, intelligent, and possessed an elegant grace in every slow movement, even for a Kaminoan. She was also, like any aide worth their salt, a master at stonewalling.

With that in mind, Jango had planned his approach carefully. “Well met,” he said, intercepting her outside one of the observation rooms. Taun We paused in the corridor, long neck bending so that she could dip her head in a nod of acknowledgement.

“Well met, Jango,” she replied. “Is Boba doing well?”

“He is. Growing like a weed,” Jango said, not bothering to hide his pride. Boba might not be growing as fast as the clones intended for the GAR, but that was all to the good as far as Jango was concerned. His son would have the time to learn everything Jango had to teach, to grow up sturdy and strong and independent. Not like the others. The alpha batch had been bad enough, with their blind, programmed loyalty to the Republic, but at least they had some fire. They weren’t afraid to sink their teeth in and tear out the enemy’s throat, if that’s what it took to bring them down.

The batches that had come after were pale copies in comparison, docile and blindly obedient; servile Republic dogs, rather than Mandalorian wolves.  Worse, they were dogs that all wore his face. If he’d known how disturbing that would be to see day in and day out, he might have thought differently about Dooku’s offer. But then he wouldn’t have Boba. And Boba was worth everything.

“Piloting, hand to hand, weapons handling--Boba’s a smart boy. He’s picking it all up almost faster than I can teach him,” Jango continued. “Your engineers do good work, Taun We.” He might not be a fork-tongued politician like Dooku, but a little flattery never hurt when it came to getting someone on your side.

Taun We smiled. “That is good to hear; I am glad you both are progressing well together.” She resumed walking down the corridor, and Jango fell in alongside her, adjusting his pace to her slow gait. “Yet somehow I do not think young Boba is why you sought me out.”

“Not entirely,” Jango admitted. “I had hoped to set up a meeting with Lama Su. I have recently received some rather disturbing news, and I believe we may have a possible security breach.”

“Oh?” Taun We said, glancing down at him, mildly curious.

“I am concerned about outside interference,” Jango said, picking his words carefully. “I have been informed that there is a jetii on Kamino.”

“Oh, Ben?” Taun We replied. “Fear not, Jango. We made sure to check his credentials most thoroughly. Ben was indeed sent by the Jedi Council. Why, the prime minister said that Count Dooku himself has confirmed the necessity of his presence here.” She gave him a sidelong look, politely curving her neck to accommodate his lesser height. “And thus far, Ben has told Lama Su that he is quite pleased with our progress.”

“He has, has he?” Jango said, hiding his skepticism. Dooku vouching for a Jedi--one in good standing with the Council? The Kaminoans might not be aware of Dooku’s estrangement from the Order, but Jango was not so easily fooled. “I would like to see those credentials myself, if that is possible.”

Taun We’s head had lifted once more, her expression serene and unreadable. “I am not sure that would be appropriate, Jango. What do you expect to find?”

Whether or not Dooku--or his mysterious benefactor--actually sent this ‘Ben’, for one. Wisely, he chose not to say that out loud. Damn Dooku and his ban on communications. Jango understood the necessity of it, but it was still made things damnably inconvenient. “Perhaps nothing. But I have a vested interest in seeing this project succeed, and even the smallest oversight could compromise our security. I would hate for anything to derail us just as we were getting into full production.” It was a vague enough threat, but hopefully effective enough. The Kaminoans had already been given an enormous sum for the creation of an army, but that was a mere fraction of what they expected to receive upon project completion. Not to mention potential future contracts for replacement clones, medical services, ongoing training … Lama Su was no fool. Such contracts would not only transfer a great deal of wealth to the Kaminoans, but could potentially also be used as leverage into gaining seat of their own in the Senate, and establish Kamino as an indispensable and powerful member of the Republic.

It didn’t matter whether you were a bounty hunter, genetic engineer, or senator. Money, Jango found, was always a great motivator.

Taun We was certainly no exception. She hesitated, inner eyelids flickering nervously as she weighed her options. Then she inclined her head in a slow nod. “Very well. I shall look into releasing the information for your review.”

“Thank you,” Jango said, making no effort to hide his gratitude--if only because slicing into Kaminoan systems was a pain in the shebs, and the default settings for their visual interfaces always gave him a headache. The man’s comm-records should give him a good idea of who Ben really was reporting to. “I shall keep my review confidential, I assure you. And, of course, I will notify both yourself and Lama Su if I find anything.” Eventually. Once he’d decided whether Ben was friend or foe, and dealt with him accordingly.

 

***** 

 

25 BBY
Clones: 2199, 1010 (Fox), 1752 (Hardcase)

 

It happened on a fourthday, after noonmeal.

99 was in formation with his squad-brothers, out on the launch deck. He was excited; instead of the usual drills, today they’d get to see the new LAAT/i's. The trainer had said they would even get to go inside. They’d all had the flash training, of course, on how the troop carriers were designed, what the controls did, how to enter and exit, both normally and while under fire … but now they were in front of the real thing! There were at least ten of them, all parked in rows. They filled the bay, unpainted gray and black durasteel, with stubby wings and mounts for blaster cannons, each larger than 99 had ever imagined. He knew he had tested well on their last evals; maybe if he worked hard, he would be chosen to be a pilot. If-

There was a distant bang, and a shout-

-and the world exploded.  Something hit him like a hammerblow. He was thrown to one side, against his brothers, all of them knocked tumbling. Then he hit something even harder, felt his bones crunch in an instant of blinding agony-

-and darkness sucked him under.

He woke again, coughing, smoke filling his lungs. Pain roared back, sank its claws deep and tore apart his insides with every spasm. He could feel wetness trickling down his face, the bitter-iron taste of blood on his tongue and he tried to roll away from the pain, to find fresh air--go high for gas attack, go low for smoke, and always check your helmet seals--he remembered, he did, but he didn’t have a helmet, and his body wouldn’t move, his arms and his legs limp and useless, and he was choking, he couldn’t breathe ….

“Easy, little one. I’ve got you.” He blinked, and Ben was there, some of the pain easing away. 99 sucked in a breath, then another. There was smoke all around them, thick and billowing, but somehow it didn’t reach them. He didn’t try to move, afraid if what might happen if he tried, and Ben stayed beside him, one hand cupping 99’s cheek. The chaos around them didn’t seem to bother the jetii at all; his face and clothing still pristine, white hair and beard almost glowing against the smoke.

“...it hurts,” he rasped, ashamed of his weakness. It just--it had happened so fast. Nothing in his training had prepared him. Not for this.

“I know,” Ben said gently. “But the pain is going away now, isn’t it?”

It was, and 99 blinked, tears of relief stinging his eyes. “I can’t get up,” he croaked, forcing the words through a tight throat. “My legs …”

“You’ll be able to get up soon,” Ben assured him. He reached down, clasping 99’s hand, warming the cold fingers. “Verd’ika … you were thrown into a hoverlift by the explosion. Your back is broken, and you have internal injuries.” His voice was very soft, as if he were telling a secret. It took 99 a moment to realize what Ben was saying.

“Can … can you help me, Ben-bu?” he said, the old name coming to his lips, a litany against the fear that threatened to choke him.

Ben smiled, and there was no sorrow in it; only love. “I already am.” He straightened, lifting their clasped hands, supporting him. “Up you go.”

The smoke had receded, becoming indistinct and luminous. 99 pushed himself to his feet, realizing belatedly that he didn’t hurt anymore. He looked around, but he couldn’t see the fire, or his brothers, or the launch deck … only Ben. He looked down where he had been lying, almost afraid to see … but there was no blood, no body. Just his feet, and the ground underneath them.

99 swallowed. Something deeper than instinct made him ask, even though he wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer. “... am I dead?”

Ben didn’t look away, or try to hide his answer. “Yes,” he said gently, looking down at 99.

“Oh.” A sharp stab of grief caught him by surprise, fingers spasming as he held on to Ben’s hand. There was no one at his back, no one at his shoulder; he’d left his squad-brothers behind. “You won’t leave me?”

“I’ll stay with you for as long as you need me,” Ben promised, and 99 felt a frisson of … something, ripple through the air around them. Was that the Force that Ben had told them about?

“Okay.” 99 looked out into the brightening mist. The smoke was all gone now. “... I wanted to be a pilot.”

“I know,” Ben said. He smiled down at 99. “With the Force, all things are possible, you know. Shall we go see what comes next?”

99 could see shapes ahead now, indistinct figures that looked like brothers. The last shreds of fear and grief fell away, buoyed by a fragile hope. He took a deep breath.  At least he wasn’t alone. “Okay.”

 

*****

 

“Fuck, fuck, fierfekking piece of osik--” Smoke seared his throat with every lungful, but he didn’t stop. Couldn’t stop, pushing out his anger and his grief and his fear with a litany of profanity, using every foul word he had ever heard the trainers use, every curse low-caste techs had spit at malfunctioning machinery. He tossed bits of twisted and scorched metal, digging frantically. The explosion had knocked one of the new larties across the landing platform; it now lay on its side, propped up only by one crumpled wing. That wing had saved a small group of brothers--a mixed batch of cadets and a few older vode, near as he could tell--from being crushed, but the fuselage was shredded, and they were trapped by the twisted metal. 52 couldn’t see what kind of injuries there were; the visibility was shit, and the smoke was only getting worse, the heat of the flames beating against his skin.

From the intensity of the fire, at least one fuel container had blown. Refined hyperdrive fuel burned fast and explosively, and the fuel used for sublight wasn’t much better. The larties didn’t have hyperdrives, but at least some of them had been prepped and fuelled for their initial test flights. If the fire reached them, or any of the other fuel storage tanks, then smoke would be the least of their problems.

He wrapped fingers around another chunk of metal, braced a booted foot, and pulled. “Tube-wasting …. c’mon, you sith-spawned piece of osik!” With a low groan, another piece of heavy plate came free … only to reveal a twisted chunk of the lartie’s internal frame blocking the way. Behind it, a couple older brothers were pushing against the mangled struts, trying to bend them enough to at least let the younger ones out. The metal didn’t budge; clone muscle was no match against reinforced durasteel alloy.

52 slammed a fist into the hot metal in frustration. “Haar’chak!” He pivoted, searching through the smoke. “Hey! Anyone! We need help here!!”  His shouts did nothing; his voice unable to carry past the chaos, lost in the cries of so many others.

It figured. Thousands of vode on Kamino, and not a single brother around when you needed one. He turned back to the ship, ignoring his brothers’ frantic faces and the gashes in his hands as he pulled at debris, trying to find another way to get them out. “Hast'aran, I swear I’m going to kriffing pull you apart piece by bloody piece, you Fett-fucking bitch--”

“It sounds like you could use a hand,” someone said from behind him, and Ben was suddenly there.  The jetii was soot-smeared, his robe scorched and bloodied in spots, hair gray under a layer of ash, but it hardly mattered.  Right now, he was the most gorgeous thing 52 had ever seen.

“You got that right,” 52 said in relief, even as he dug further into the pile of debris. “They’re trapped. Help me pull them from under this fucking thing!” A secondary explosion went off, far too close--he ducked reflexively as something crashed to the ground nearby, and a new wave of heat blasted them from the same direction.  Cursing, he went back to yanking on a piece of plating already half-torn off from the hull, desperately trying to widen the hole, when Ben’s hand settled on his shoulder.

“Wait. There’s a faster way.” The jetii pulled him down, shoving him in the direction of his trapped brothers. “I’ll lift it up. You just make sure your brothers all get out.”

52 did a double-take, even as he reflexively obeyed the order, scrambling towards the torn belly of the lartie. “You’ll what?”

Ben’s only reply was to reach out to the lartie. Turning his palm upward, he lifted an empty hand … and with a deep, rumbling groan of overstressed metal, the lartie began to rise into the air, as if tugged by invisible strings.

52 boggled at the jetii for a moment. He’d heard the stories, of course, they all had, but to see it … Ben’s expression was focused, but serene, as if lifting a fifteen-ton transport something he did every day. 52 scrubbed at his eyes--then, when the lartie stayed in the air, shook his head and got to work.

There were actually three older vode inside, as it turned out, but one of them was unconscious. None of them were batch-brothers, going by the numbers on their armor, but it hardly mattered; they all knew what needed to be done. Injured cadets were pulled out just as soon as the way was clear, then the unconscious brother. 52 grimaced at the rough handling they were giving him, but there was no time to rig any kind of stretcher. He didn’t know how long Ben could hold the lartie, and they still had the fire to worry about. The rest of the cadets came out next, sticking close together in a huddle--batchmates, from the look of it. They were wide-eyed and shaking, but uninjured, gawking both at Ben and the hovering lartie even as they scrambled free.

Finally everyone was clear. Ben gave them a nod, taking a headcount, then set the lartie down with a negligent wave of his hand. “Oddball, Naran, the rear personnel doors are clear. Medics are staging over on deck C; get your brothers to them and away from this mess. Commandeer any droids or vehicles you need to get everyone out,” he ordered, and the brothers in question nodded. Ben turned, frowning. “52, go with them. You’ve been breathing a lot of smoke, and you’re going to need oxygen.”

“Fuck that,” 52 rasped, fighting the urge to cough. Fucking jetii. He’d been doing just fine until he’d gotten reminded about all the osik in the air. “Not until all my brothers are taken care of.” He could still the shouts and cries of other clones through the smoke.

“A real hardcase, huh?” Ben said, then stopped short. He blinked, shook his head ruefully, then ripped a broad strip of fabric from the bottom of his tunic. “All right--here. Wrap this over your mouth and nose, and then we’ll go get the rest of them. But after that, you’re going straight to the medics.”

“Sir, yes sir,” 52 said, doing as he was told. He doubted a piece of cloth would do much good to keep his lungs clear, but arguing with Ben was pointless at the best of times, and they had more important things to worry about right now.

Hardcase, huh? He liked the sound of that. 

 

*****

 

He wasn’t supposed to be in charge. Yes, he’d done well on his evaluations, and An We had told him just a sevenday ago that he was slated for command-track flash training … but that didn’t mean he was ready for this.

He wasn’t supposed to be in charge. But there was no one else around, and there were brothers still in the middle of this mess, injured and dying, and everyone else was just running around, trying to get out or trying to get in to help, tripping over each other, and …

Someone had to give orders. Somehow that someone ended up being him.

“Clear an evac path!” Fox ordered, trying to imitate a trainer’s bellow. Pitching his voice to be heard over the shouts and chaos was difficult, and the smoke wasn’t helping any. “1789, you three--pull that debris clear, it’s blocking the way!” Thankfully this batch of brothers was willing to listen; they were probably relieved someone was taking charge. They saluted him--which was beyond strange, coming from vode older than he was--then charged in, throwing themselves into their appointed task.

“Where do you need us, sir?” two more brothers asked. They must have been doing drills nearby before the explosion, because they were in scuffed gray training armor, including buckets. Thank all the tiny little test tubes for that. Buckets meant air filters, which meant he could send them in without worrying about smoke inhalation.

Fox jabbed two fingers towards the worst area, near the point of origin for the explosion. “Go pull out any brothers that are still alive in that mess. If you see anyone else with a bucket, check their seals and get them to safety, then keep going. First priority is the injured who don’t have any kind of air filtration, after that, pull out anyone else you find.” He was staging wounded near the main personnel doors for lack of any better ideas, and sending the worst injured on to the medics, who had set up at a safe distance. He tried not to be resentful about that; the vode didn’t have any trained medics they could send in, not yet, and he knew better than to expect longnecks to risk their precious, genetically-perfect hides for a bunch of clones. But it was hard not to be angry; there had been cadets out on the landing deck, some barely older than tubies. A few small bodies had already been brought out, scorched and broken, carried by grim-faced older brothers. If only they’d had medics to send in, to get to them sooner …

Fox shoved the anger down, trying to think. There were brothers pulling debris out of the way, and he’d sent anyone with armor into the murk to pull victims out. What else? Half the problem was that he was working blind; he only knew what he needed, and not what he had. They needed communications, medics and first aid supplies, they needed fierfekking fire suppression teams here karking yesterday

“Calm, my friend,” Ben said, and Fox spun as the jetii appeared, navigating through piled debris with a bloodied, dazed brother. The jetii handed his burden off to waiting hands, then joined Fox at his self-assigned post, surveying the damage.

“Are you here to take over, sir?” Fox said, relief and unease twisting together in his belly. He’d seen Ben before, with other brothers. He had told stories to them as tubies. But the jetii had never singled him out before. Had it been so obvious he needed Ben’s help?

But Ben shook his head. “No, I’m just here to help where I can.” He glanced over at Fox. “A word of advice: you need communications--shouting only goes so far. The next brother with a bucket you see, make him your designated comm tech.”

“Yes sir,” Fox said, chagrined. He should have thought of that himself, but he’d been so focused on getting people in to help-

“And second, stop doing that,” Fox flinched as Ben tapped a finger on Fox’s forehead, his weathered face stern. “There will be plenty of time to chew over your mistakes later. Right now, you need to be focused on the situation at hand.”

Fox ducked his head, resisting the urge to rub at his neck. “Yes, sir.”

Ben turned, assessing the situation with a narrow blue gaze. “Taun We’s people are working on fire suppression; they’re rerouting droids to assist the automatic systems. If we can keep any more fuel canisters from going, they should be able to get it under control. In the meantime, all we can do is get rescuers in and victims out. I know it doesn’t seem like it, but you’ve done well.”

“Not well enough,” Fox said as another pair of brothers staggered out of the smoke. One of them had a third, smaller brother, slung over his shoulder. Fox stepped forward, but other vode were already there, taking the limp form and slapping oxygen masks over the older clones’ faces. “If I’d-”

“What did I just say?” Ben said, but there was no bite to the reprimand. He gripped Fox’s shoulder, giving it a little shake. “There will always be circumstances out of your control, Fox. You’ve done well.  You’ll learn from your mistakes, and do even better next time. The Kaminoans can see that, and so do I.”

“... thank you, sir,” Fox said quietly, his back straightening under the unexpected praise. “I promise, I’ll do my best to keep my brothers safe.”

Ben gave him a faint smile.  For a moment, he seemed to be looking far away, rather than at the man in front of him.  “I know you will, Fox. You always have.”

Chapter Text

Water
25 BBY
Clones: 9983 (Slick)

 

 

Privacy was hard to come by on Kamino, for a clone. The vode all slept, ate, and trained side by side, every waking moment regimented and accounted for. The closest one could come to being alone was in the medical bays--and even then, that privacy was little more than an opaque window or thin curtain between one bed and the next.

Still, it wasn’t impossible. Not if you were quiet, and clever, and watched the patterns. Watched when the minders and the droids did their rounds, and learned which entrances were minimally monitored. If you were careful to sneak out in the quiet hours before dawn, when longnecks and trainers alike were in the middle of their sleep-periods, and security droid patrols focused on the perimeter, rather than the interior spaces. If you didn’t stay away too long, so that others noticed your absence.

The metal wall of the building was cold against his back, damp and chill; it seeped into his bones. For once, It wasn’t raining. Instead it was as close as Kamino ever got to a clear night, with a fine misty drizzle that soaked through clothing and dewed everything with moisture, half fog, half precipitation. Tucked under the high overhang, he was safely out of sight and sheltered from the worst of the drizzle. Not that it made a difference. He was cold, all the way through.

His hand was fisted in the fabric of his shirt, over his heart, knuckles white, as he watched the ocean heave below, inky dark and fathomless.

There was the quiet scuff of a boot. He didn’t look around, keeping his eyes on the ocean.  The shadow resolved itself into a man. Ben sat down next to him without being prompted, folding his cloak about his frame. The jetii didn’t say anything.

The silence stretched out, a thin thread of tension that unravelled the edges of his indifference. “I should have known you’d come,” he finally said.

“I do try to make sure I am where I’m needed,” Ben replied. He tilted his head back, looking up at the stars.

“I don’t need you.” A flare of anger curled in his belly, providing a bitter warmth. “It’s not like you do anything to help anyway.”

“Is that what you think?” Ben’s reply was calm and even; no matter what happened, Ben never got mad. Oddly enough, that made Slick even more angry.

“I know so!” he snapped. “What good is telling us stories, or playing games? Like that makes things any better? You don’t keep brothers from failing, or being punished for it. You don’t stop the longnecks from-” His voice caught, cracking embarrassingly, and he pushed through it, tearing the words from his throat, “-from taking brothers away to be decommissioned. You don’t stop them from treating us like … like things that can be replaced, or junked--like droids, or ships, or--”

“Slaves.”

“Or--what?” Slick stuttered to a halt, and turned.

“Slaves. That’s the word you’re looking for, I believe. What you and your brothers are.” The shadowed lines of Ben’s face were hard to read, but the jetii didn’t look away. His voice was quiet, and a little sad. “That’s what it’s called, when people are considered things to be owned by other people.”

Knowing what they were didn’t make it better. “It’s not right. My brothers aren’t things!”

“No, it isn’t,” Ben agreed, and that imperturbable calm made his fists clench.

“If you think so, then why haven’t you done something to stop it?” he demanded, no longer caring if anyone else heard. Ben wasn’t a clone; he was a jetii. He could go where he wanted, when he wanted. He could make the longnecks listen.

“What would you have me do?” Ben asked.

“Tell them to stop. Tell them they need to let us go!”

Ben regarded him thoughtfully. “I suppose I could have done that. Told Lama Su to stop, and prevented you and your brothers from being decanted.” He looked up at the night sky, stars peeking through ragged, scudding clouds. “But I could not bring myself to do that. Not when I saw how fiercely you all fought for the chance to live.”

“Then--you could have protected us. Why didn’t you just take all of us away from here?”

“I could have … if the vode had wanted to go. How many of your brothers would have chosen to leave, you think?” Ben didn’t wait for an answer, but continued, “And if I had, the Kaminoans wouldn’t have stopped production. Which means I would have to steal the new batches away as well, whether they wanted to go or not. Either that, or eliminate any chance of them being born.” The jetii gave him a level look. “Is that truly what you want?”

“I--” Slick looked away, unable to meet those eyes. Much as he hated to admit it, Ben was right. Few would have chosen to leave. They had been made for the Republic, for the Jedi; to the vode, it was the natural order of things. “I just want them to be safe.”

Most vode hadn’t lost what he had. Not yet.

“I do too,” Ben said softly. “But you can’t protect your brothers from everything. Not without smothering everything you love about them. You have to allow them the dignity of their choices.”

“You said we were slaves. Slaves don’t get to choose anything,” he retorted, still refusing to look up.

“Don’t they?” Wry amusement crept into Ben’s voice. “Your brothers choose to cover for each other quite often, from what I’ve seen. And you’ve chosen to be out here, in defiance of all the rules--not to mention a fair amount of common sense. Those are small choices, perhaps. But they are choices.”

“And death? Is dying a choice too?” Slick asked bitterly.

There was a pause, then Ben said quietly, “It can be, sometimes.”

Without his willing it, his fingers had twisted into his tunic once more, holding tight over his chest. “How would you know? You weren’t even there!”

“Weren’t where?”

“On the landing deck,” he accused, letting grief and betrayal push the words out. “When Skitter died! You say you’re here for us, but you didn’t save him. He died alone, in the fire, and you--you just let it happen!”

“Little one ...even I can’t save everyone,” Ben said, his face somber. “The explosion happened, and because of that, Skitter died, along with many others. All I could do was ensure that he didn’t die alone.”

“I--” He stopped, not wanting to believe it. But for all his stories, Ben had never lied to the vode. “You were really there? When … when he …?”

“I was.” Ben’s eyes were soft and sad. “He wasn’t alone. Not then, and not now. I promise.”

“I--” A cracked whine escaped his throat. Slick folded over the hollow ache in his chest, keening, until his forehead was pressed to damp metal. The feeling hurt, grinding against the inside of his ribs, the knowledge that they were gone, that not even Ben could bring them back, but he wouldn’t cry. Refused to cry.

Heavy fabric settled over his back; Ben’s cloak. The jetii shifted closer, a careful hand rubbing over the line of his bowed back.

Long minutes passed, until he could finally make himself straighten, scrubbing hands roughly over his face. He ignored the droplets of water on the decking; it wasn’t like anyone else would be able to tell they hadn’t come from the sky.

“Skitter was important to you?” Ben asked softly.

Slick thought about not answering. Ben wasn’t a trainer; he never demanded answers, or put brothers on punishment detail if he didn’t get them. It wasn’t like talking about them would change anything. But he wanted Ben to know. To understand.

“There … there were three of us,” he said. “We were always together, whenever we could. We trained together … watched each others’ backs. Our numbers weren’t close enough for us to all be in the same squad, but it didn’t matter. We were all vode, but … Skitter, Tavi--they were special. They were mine.”

Kar’vod,” Ben murmured. “They were the brothers of your heart.”

He blinked, then nodded. “Kar’vod,” he echoed, committing the new word to memory. He sucked in a breath, eyes fixed on the ocean. “We … we lost Tavi two years ago. He was decommissioned. One day he was there, and then … he was just gone, and no one would tell us why.”

Ben was silent, listening.

“And now Skitter’s gone. And someday I’ll die, and the rest of my brothers will fight and then they’ll die, and not because we chose it. They’ll die just because that’s what we’re made for.” His fingers were curled into fists so tightly they hurt. “And it’s not fair. It’s not right!”

He held his breath, suddenly afraid. He’d never said it aloud before; if a trainer had heard, he’d be decommissioned on the spot. But it was the truth.

“Yes. It’s not right,” Ben said. Surprised, he glanced upward, to find the jetii looking down at him, serious and sad. “I wish it weren’t so, but it is.” He tilted his head. “What will you do now?”

“Me?”

“You’ve learned a hard lesson, verd’ika,” Ben said. “Now you need to decide what to do with what you’ve learned.”

Slick scowled. “If you can’t help us, what makes you think I can do anything?”

“You can choose to follow orders, to be safe in the ranks for as long as the Force wills. There is nothing wrong with that choice.” Ben’s face was stern, the words unyielding. “But you can also choose to fight for your brothers, for something more. You might fail. You might die. But you still have that choice.”

“How? I--” he had to stop, just so that he could wrap his brain around what Ben was saying. Ben was telling him … not to follow orders? “I--wouldn’t even know where to start.”

“What did I teach you and your brothers, when you were tubies?” Ben said. “‘To defeat your enemy-’”

“‘-you must first understand them,’” he finished. A shiver went down his spine at the realization. “The Kaminoans made us … so they’re the enemy?”

“Are they?” Ben said, lifting an eyebrow and leaning back. “Do you know that for certain?”

“No,” he admitted, scowling. “I don’t know anything.” Which rankled; he might not have started advanced tactics yet, but he’d been in enough scuffles to know there was no point in taking a swing at the person in front of you if you were just going to get dogpiled from behind by their batchmates.

“Then start with what you do know. Before you can find the answers, you must know the right questions to ask.” Ben smiled at him. “I like to start with ‘why’, myself.”

“Why?”

“Yes. For instance: why did the Kaminoans make the vode?”

“Because the Republic and the Jedi paid them to,” he answered promptly. Every brother knew that.

“Why did the Republic and the Jedi pay them to?”

“Because they wanted an army.”

“Why did the Republic and the Jedi want an army?”

“How am I supposed to know that?” he snapped.

“You aren’t.” Ben lifted a hand placatingly. “I’m not trying to trick you, I promise. So. You don’t know why the Republic would want an army. What is the purpose of an army?”

“To … defend against your enemies?” he said, after a moment’s hesitation. The ‘why’ of things wasn’t something they focused much on in their training.

“Very well. Who are the Republic’s enemies?” Before he could snap at Ben, the jetii added, “I know you don’t know the answer to that--but I do.” Ben gave him a wry smile, and leaned back. “Which makes it your turn to ask the questions. Though before you do, I would suggest starting with a different question instead.”

Scowling and still half-convinced this was some kind of trick, he said, “Like what?”

“First you should ask: is Tavi dead?” Ben lifted his hand, and in his open palm, an image flickered to life. Limned in blue, a brother in rough, unfamiliar clothing was petting a small, furry six-legged creature, laughing. There was no sound, but the hologram was clear enough. The figure was the same age as their batch-brothers, his hair grown long and curly.

“That’s … is that …”

“Yes. That is Tavi.”

How?”

“Tavi had gotten sick--a Kaminoan virus that had made the species jump and infected part of your batch. The Kaminoans didn’t realize your brothers were infected until the virus was well-established. They put them in isolation and identified a cure, but not before the disease had done permanent damage. They knew Tavi and the others would never be strong enough to be troopers, so ...”

“So they decommissioned him,” he whispered.

“Well, they tried.” Ben gave him a wry smile. “I took them away, to other worlds where they would be safe. The Kaminoans never knew.”

“Why?” Slick asked, his eyes never leaving the flickering blue figure of his brother. “Why them, and not the rest of us?”

“Because I can save a few, and no one will notice. If I take all of you, then questions will be asked. Questions by powerful, dangerous people who wanted an army,” Ben said evenly. “And even I do not know what would happen then. Even so … if any of the vode choose to leave, I help them do so. All they have to do is ask.”

“So if I … wanted to go, you’d take me?” he asked, staggering under the weight of sudden possibilities. Ben’s offer was … impossible. He’d never thought there be anything for any of them, other than the path laid out by the Kaminoans: a straight line from tubie to cadet to trooper, maybe to commander, if you were smart and lucky enough. Whether they ended up a mechanic, a deck officer, a pilot, or an ARC trooper--in the end, the vode were designed to be soldiers. But if Ben was telling the truth, if they had a choice …

“I would. You could see Tavi again, if you wanted,” Ben replied. “However, I must warn you:  once you choose to leave, I can’t bring you back. It would be too dangerous for the rest of your brothers.”

Slick was silent, thinking about it, eyes fixed on the small blue image of his brother. Tavi, worlds away--but alive and happy. The rest of his batchmates, the vode, here on Kamino … and all the questions he had that Ben had yet to answer. “And if I stay?”

Ben smiled. “Then I will still be here. And if you wish to fight for your brothers, I will teach you what you need to know.”

“I …” For a moment, he wavered. Then he straightened, looking Ben in the eye and squaring his shoulders. Tavi was safe, was alive. And he wasn’t about to turn his back on a fight. “I’m going to stay. I can’t leave my brothers behind. Not as slaves.”

“Very well, then,” Ben said, giving him a solemn nod. He closed his hand, Tavi’s image winking out. “What would you like to learn first?”

Slick settled back on his heels, focused and intent. “Tell me about the Republic.”

Chapter Text

Hunt
25 BBY
Clones: 2237 (Oddball)

 

“What a fucking mess.” Jango surveyed the landing deck, taking in the extent of the damage. They’d lost almost all of the new LAAT/i’s--they might be able to salvage one or two if they were lucky, but the rest weren't good for anything but scrap and spare parts. They would need to be replaced, and they hadn’t exactly been easy to source the first time, given the necessity of staying under the Republic’s radar. They’d also lost a significant number of clones who had been training in the area at the time, though they, at least, were easy to replace. Still, this mess was going to put their schedule back by at least three months, and all because some fierfekking piece of osik had sold Dooku substandard equipment. If the good Count didn’t kill that ge’hutuun, then Jango just might see to it himself.

He paced slowly across the space, Boba a silent shadow at his side. Droids were everywhere, industriously working on repairing the damage: scrubbing away at soot-smeared plating and hauling piles of twisted metal, working alongside Kaminoan techs to repair what they could. The smell of burnt metal and slagged wiring hung heavy in the air.

Boba stopped short, staring at the floor. Or rather, the large, rusty-red stain on a section of the floor that the droids had yet to clean. Clone blood, had to be; Kaminoans bled green, and none of the trainers had been injured in the explosion.

Jango put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. He was about to say something, when movement caught his eye; the flicker of a brown cloak, worn by a man speaking to one of the clones, on the far side of the deck.

No. Not just a man. Ben. Kamino’s resident--and remarkably elusive--jetii.

Ben and the red-uniformed clone were turning, heading for a nearby door. “Boba, stay here,” Jango ordered, and took off running, dodging startled droids. After almost two months of fruitless searching, this was the first time he’d actually managed to lay eyes on the mysterious ‘Ben’. Dignity be damned; he wasn’t about to let that damn jetii get away from him now!

Ducking around a hoverlift full of scrap, Jango charged through the doorway. The hall beyond was empty--no. There, at the bend of the corridor, his HUD helpfully identified two residual heat signatures. He rounded the corner, intent on his quarry …

… only to find a hallway devoid of jetii, occupied by only a single startled clone. The clone cadet snapped to attention. “Sir!”

“Where did he go?”

The clone stared at him blankly. “Who, sir?”

“The jetii!”

“Oh, Ben?” The boy blinked, then glanced around, as if he expected the man to magically appear. “I think he went that way, sir.” He pointed down the corridor.

“You think?” Jango snarled. “He was with you just a moment ago!”

“Yes, sir,” the boy said. “But he didn’t inform me where he was headed to next. All I know is that he went that way, sir. I’m not sure where he went after that.”

Haar’chak!” Jango scanned the hallway--but somehow, impossibly, there wasn’t even a residual heat trace left behind to tell him whether the clone was telling the truth. He scrutinized the cadet; he was one of the older ones, nearly six years old, judging from his physical development. The clone was obviously nervous at being cornered by Jango, but he didn’t otherwise appear to be lying, his face blank as he waited for further orders. “What is your designation?”

“Cadet 2237, sir.”

“And what exactly were you discussing with the jetii?” Was there a reason this particular clone had been singled out?

The clone blinked, a bit nonplussed by the question. “We were discussing training schedules, sir. I’ve been assigned to pilot-specialization flash training, but my squad hasn’t had the chance to progress beyond simulations, due to the shortage of available ships.”

Jango stared at the boy narrowly. “And nothing else?”

2237 shook his head. “No sir.”

Jango bit back the urge to growl. “Very well. You’re dismissed.”

“Sir!” 2237 saluted. Jango didn’t wait around to see where the boy went, turning back the way he came. He needed to collect Boba, and then he had surveillance footage to watch.

 

****

 

The vid feed, devoid of sound, showed the jetii entering the corridor with 2237. The clone was animated, gesturing enthusiastically with his hands as he talked. The jetii smiled down at him, clapped a hand on his shoulder as he said something--the angle was too sharp for lip reading, unfortunately--then took his leave. Jango watched intently as the man progressed down the corridor. Then, as the feed switched angles, the jetii disappeared from the camera’s line of sight-

-and never reappeared on the next.

No matter how Jango scoured the feeds, he could find no sign of the man. Not in that hallway, nor in any of the rooms or hallways adjacent to it.

Jango was not a man prone to outbursts. That didn’t stop him from putting a gauntleted fist through the monitor screen.

 

*****

 

Three months later, Jango had finally run out of patience.

He’d reviewed ‘Ben’s’ credentials, and other than the fact that somehow the jetii had managed to obtain a glowing endorsement from both the Jedi High Council and Dooku--which, if he were one of Dooku’s double agents, was not beyond the realm of possibility--there was absolutely nothing noteworthy in it. Which made Jango even more suspicious--surely no jetii could possibly be that mundane, given their propensity for finding trouble.

He’d then turned his attention to the communication logs, and every scrap of surveillance footage and security biometrics he could find. That had taken hours upon hours of mind-numbing, painstaking work, and at the end of it Jango had found … almost nothing.

He couldn’t find any indication that Ben had made a single report to anyone since his arrival. And while it was possible that the jetii had smuggled in a transmitter that could circumvent the Kaminoan’s formidable sensor-net, or was doing dead drops of some kind, both options were unlikely. Security was so tight around the project that every single shipment was rigorously vetted, and every living creature closely monitored from arrival and departure. And the Kaminoans were ferocious about their privacy; their encryptions and comm-blockers were second to none.

Which left only one possibility--that Ben had been on Kamino for years, without reporting in to anyone.

Surveillance on the man’s movements had yielded a few tantalizing scraps of data: brief images of the jetii walking down halls, observing drills, or moving through the incubation habitats and the production areas. But the vid-feeds and biometric sensors seemed to miss more appearances than they caught. Ben entered blind spots, never to exit them; cameras glitched, his image appearing in corridors that had been empty a moment before; he rounded corners or entered rooms, only to disappear from the surveillance feeds between one camera and the next. It made his movements almost impossible to predict, and it was driving Jango crazy.

The only explanation that made any sense was that the jetii had somehow sliced into the Kaminoan systems. However, if that were the case, why do it in such an obvious way?

It was time, Jango decided, to resort to more drastic measures.

There was one place Ben seemed to spend more time than anywhere else--in the habitats, among the babies and the very young cadets. The jetii varied his visits between locations and batches, but visited regularly, especially if any of the cadets appeared to be be in distress.

Jango had chosen his spot and his weapon carefully. Jetiise were tricky to hunt; they had a damnable sixth sense for danger that made it difficult to catch them unawares. Distractions worked the best; jetiise were notoriously soft-hearted as a rule, their attention easily caught by pathetic life forms in trouble.  Luckily, Jango had entire roomfuls of ready-made bait at his disposal. All he had to do was pick a habitat and a vantage point, and then wait for Ben to show himself.

The batch he chose had several clones that had been flagged by the trainers. They weren’t defective, not quite, but were definitely not performing up to standard. The vid feeds had caught the jetii visiting this particular batch several times in the last couple months, and Jango was betting he would do so again. All he had to do was wait.

In the end, it only took a week.

The jetii entered the habitat, the cadets greeting him eagerly as he stepped forward, and into the sights of Jango’s E5s. Targeting came back green, optics lining up perfectly.  Jango banished a passing regret--given a choice, he would have preferred not to kill the jetii in front of the cadets--and took the shot.

The bolt flashed through the air; a perfect headshot. Ben wheeled, somehow sensing the shot, throwing up a hand as if to shield himself ...

... and the bolt of scarlet energy stopped, concentrated plasma hovering impossibly in the air, a few centimeters away from Ben’s upraised palm.

Around Ben, cadets cried out in surprise and alarm at the unexpected attack. Some scrambled for cover; others closed ranks around the older man, as if they could somehow protect him. And all the while, the blaster bolt just … hung there. In the air.

The jetii turned, looking directly up at Jango’s hidden perch. There was no sign of surprise or anger on that weathered face at the assassination attempt, only an odd kind of disappointment, as if Jango had failed some kind of test.

“Was this really necessary?” Ben said mildly. “If you wanted to get my attention, there are better ways.”

Jango boggled, then shook his head, as if that would negate the impossibility of what he was seeing. For a moment, he considered firing again--surely the jetii couldn’t stop all his shots. But if he did, he ran the risk of hitting one or more of the nearby cadets, many of which were huddled around the man. Damn it.

He dropped down to the main floor from his perch, letting antigravs soften the landing, and advanced on the jetii. “Are there? I’ve been looking for you for some time.”

“Perhaps you simply were looking in the wrong places,” Ben suggested. “Or asking the wrong people.”

Jango scowled, the expression safely hidden behind the confines of his helmet. “What are you? And how are you doing that?” He glanced again at the crackling, spitting blaster bolt, HUD obediently throwing up sensor data to confirm that what he was seeing was real, and not just jetii mind-trickery.

“This? Oh, it’s easy enough, once you understand the underlying principles,” Ben said. If he felt threatened by Jango’s approach, it didn’t show. “All things are the same; all matter is energy, and energy matter, after all.”

He reached out to the bolt, and a cadet cried out a warning. “Ben-sir, it’ll hurt you!”

Ben gave the boy a smile. “Never fear, little one. The Force is in this as well. Once you understand how a thing is made, you can unmake it-” His fingertips touched the destructive energies, and scarlet bled into gold, the crackling energy flaring outward into petals of light and heat. A flower of light bloomed in the cup of Ben’s hand, and Jango watched in disbelief as the jetii closed his fingers around it, the glow bright enough to illuminate his fist from the inside, throwing the bones of his hand into shadowy relief against backlit skin.

“-or remake it into something entirely new.” The light flared, then dimmed. Ben opened his hand, and in his open palm was a kyber crystal, glowing faintly gold. “Hello there,” the jetii told it, smiling gently. “Welcome to the world, my friend.”

“ ... impossible,” Jango breathed.

“Obviously not,” Ben said, tucking the crystal away in the folds of his tunic. “Now, you wished to speak with me?”

“I--yes.” Jango pulled the scattered pieces of his composure together with an effort of will. Regardless of what he’d just seen, he still had his quarry in front of him, and he wasn’t going to waste that chance. “What are you doing here, jetii?”

“At the moment? Visiting them,” Ben said, waving a hand at the cadets--which, Jango suddenly realized, had arranged themselves in front of and to each side of the jetii in a near-perfect defensive formation, small faces intent and determined. “In general? Ensuring that certain mistakes are not repeated.”

“Mistakes?” Jango echoed, on edge. Whatever Ben was, it was obvious he was no ordinary jetii. It took all of Jango’s control to resist the urge to pull one of his pistols and shoot the man in the face. Only the knowledge that it likely wouldn’t be any more effective than his first attempt stayed his hand.

“Yes. Yours and Dooku’s, at the moment.” Ben looked down at the clone cadets around him. “Your boys are strong and brave, you know. They deserve better than what you intend for them.”

Jango’s eyes narrowed. “And what do you know about my intentions?”

“Oh, quite a bit.” For the first time, Ben’s expression hardened. “Though I will admit, I find it hard to understand how you could allow your sons to be turned into slaves.”

Jango stiffened. “These are not my sons!”

“No?” Ben glanced around at the room. “The family resemblance is pretty unmistakable,” he said drily. “It’s obvious they’re of your line. You’ve seen to their care and their training. In turn, they have honored you as their buir, learned what you had to teach, and obeyed your commands. Does that not make them aliit?” He locked eyes on Jango once more. “Or am I mistaken, and you have renounced the Resol’nare?”

“Do not speak to me of the Resol’nare, aruetti!” Jango hissed, one hand going to the blaster at his side. “Those traditions died with the True Mandalorians--the same people that the jetii helped destroy!”

“Strange. I would have thought you, of all people, wouldn’t confuse a weapon with the hand that wielded it,” Ben said, unfazed by Jango’s ire. “If you do not wish to speak of the Resol’nare, what do you want to talk about?” He folded hands into his sleeves, and Jango tensed, wary of hidden weapons.

“Did Dooku send you?”

“No, he did not.”

Jango hesitated, caught off-guard by the blunt admission. “So you report to the Council, then.”

“Not at all.” Ben lifted one white eyebrow.

“Then how did you find out about this project?” Jango demanded, frustrated with the contradictory answers.

“The Force led me here,” Ben said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “And once I was here, I knew I had to stay.”

“To sabotage us?” Jango said, watching the man’s reaction. But the jetii didn’t shift, or look sideways, or show any other sign of discomfort. Rather he seemed … amused?

“I’d be a pretty poor saboteur if that were the case, given how long I’ve been here.” He shook his head, then reached out a hand to the nearest cadet, who eagerly took it, holding on possessively. “I assure you, I am only here to look after the welfare of the vode. Nothing more.”

“And what exactly does that mean?” Jango snapped. If Ben was somehow interfering with his training program, filling their heads with jetii nonsense ....

Aliit ori'shya tal'din, Jango. You’ll find the answer to that question yourself, if you look in the right places.” That weathered face was calm, but Ben’s shoulders were square and unyielding, and Jango felt a frisson of … something go down his spine. Recognition, perhaps, that he faced a deadlier adversary than he had first thought. “Now, if you don’t mind, these little ones have been waiting for me.”

“We’re not done yet, jetii,” Jango snarled. “If you--”

“We are done.” Ben’s voice was hard, any trace of amusement gone. “You have three options, Jango. You can try again to kill me; though it is unlikely that you will succeed. You can sit and listen to stories with the little ones. Or you can leave.”

Jango’s fingers curled tight around the grip of his blaster, hard enough to make metal and plasteel creak. Every bit of offended pride demanded he answer Ben’s challenge--but Jango hadn’t survived this long by allowing his temper to rule his head.

Turning on one heel, he stalked out of the room, ignoring the prickling between his shoulder blades. Communications ban be damned. Sometimes you had to fight fire with fire, and jetii with jetii.

It was time to call Dooku.

Chapter Text

Visitation
25 BBY

 

Coruscant

 

Yoda stepped forward, into the familiar confines of his quarters, and breathed in the damp air, letting the moisture and the scent of green growing things soothe his senses. The Jedi Temple was a haven for all who walked in the Light, but there was no denying that it--and most of Coruscant--had not been built with water-world species in mind. The Order did its best to alleviate the discomfort of the myriad nonhuman Jedi that lived within its walls, of course, but even the most advanced environmental controls could only do so much, and after so many centuries, his bones were not inclined to be forgiving. He moved forward, reaching out to greet the potted plants that lined the walls, enjoying the touch of the living Force as it flowed past his talons. It was late for tea, but perhaps a small indulgence before his evening meditations ….

Then Yoda froze, caught by a sudden surge in the Force. It grew stronger, moment by moment, a building wave--until it suddenly drew inward, collapsing into something impossibly small, incredibly powerful. It felt as if a tiny star had kindled into existence in his quarters--

--and then someone giggled in the dimness.

Yoda stepped forward, toward the vergence. “A visitor, have I?” he said calmly. Whatever this was, it did not feel like a threat.

“A visitor, you do,” someone replied, and a blue glow kindled into existence, illuminating a figure comfortably ensconced upon the twining branches of a dwarf iehh’leh tree. The glowing figure was small, perhaps half Yoda’s own height, with wide eyes and large, expressively pointed ears, almost too large for their elfin face.

His visitor, impossibly, was something Yoda hadn’t seen in nearly two centuries; a child of his own species.

His people rarely produced Force-sensitives, though when they did, they tended to be quite powerful. And while there were stories enough of dainii, of Force spirits, both embodied and otherwise, that walked between worlds on mysterious paths of their own, Yoda had never expected one to look quite like this.

“Unexpected, this is,” he said, stepping closer, drinking in the sight.

The child giggled again, ears flicking upward in amusement. “Old, you are. Omniscient, you are not.” Now fully visible, the child's presence filled the room with Light, spilling over with power. But there was nothing blinding in it; instead it felt like a balm, a cradle. A blessing.

“True, this is,” Yoda conceded. His unexpected guest was proof enough of that. “Honored by your visit, I am.” He lowered himself to a nearby cushion, looking upward. "Curious also, as to the reason.”

“A question, I have.” The child said, still smiling … but those dark eyes were suddenly very old, and very serious. “The right answer, you must provide, if to be changed, the future is.”

Yoda tilted his head. “Always in motion, the future is,” he said, a bit surprised that his visitor would suggest otherwise.

The child gave him an impatient look, swinging small feet back and forth. “In motion, everything is,” he retorted. “Destroy the Light, destroy life, a spiral into darkness will. Survive it, only a few shall. You would choose such a path?”

Yoda felt a frisson go down his spine. The Force had darkened of late, gnawing away at the edges of his prescience, obscuring the future. Ever since Naboo, it seemed to have gained in strength, though neither Yoda nor the rest of the Council could discover why. He had hoped that it was merely a natural fluctuation in the course of universe and the flow of history. But the extraordinary presence of a dainii in his quarters, manifest and tangible, argued otherwise.

“Choose darkness, I would not,” Yoda said, watching that young face carefully. “What is your question?”

“The question is simple. The answer is not.” The child tilted his head, eyes luminous and knowing. “Tell me, master Jedi. What is a child’s life worth?”

Frowning, Yoda began to answer, when suddenly the dainii was in front of him, one delicate finger pressed against the old Jedi’s lips. “Be not so quick to answer,” he said, eyes locked with Yoda’s own. “For me, your answer is not. Come soon enough, the time for it will.”

Then, as suddenly as his arrival, the figure vanished, leaving only the echo of words behind. Left alone in the dark, Yoda touched talons to his mouth, wondering at the visit, and the question left behind.

What is a child’s life worth?

What could that possibly mean?

 

****

 

25 BBY
Clones: 9983 (Slick), 1010 (Fox), 6454 (Ponds)

 

Kamino

 

Word spread quickly among the clones. It leaped from squad to squad, batch to batch, spoken of in whispers and stolen moments, using coded phrases kept secret from trainers and longnecks. The cadets that had witnessed the confrontation were young, but not so young they couldn’t describe what they’d seen.

Jango had tried to kill Ben.

Jango. Their progenitor. The trainer of trainers--had just tried to kill a Jedi. Their Jedi.

The vode knew their worth. Had accepted that they could be decommissioned, if they failed in their training, failed to live up to the expectations of their progenitor. But Jedi were supposed to be different, were special. They weren’t supposed to be decommissioned. Yet Jango had tried. Why?

No one knew.

It was as if the bedrock had shifted under their feet. Ben had always been there. The idea that someday he might not be, that Jango might try again to kill him, left the vode on uncertain ground, unsure of who to defend.

And then there was the other word. What Ben had said they were, and Jango hadn’t denied. Slaves.

It had filtered from brother to brother, an open question. At first, no one had known what the word meant. Then it reached someone who knew the answer, and wasn’t afraid to speak it aloud. Slick made it clear to any brother who asked: slaves were property. Not people. Not sons, or clan. Merely things to be bought and sold, to be used … and used up.

It was … not an entirely new idea for the vode. Even the youngest cadet understood they were made things, bought and paid for. But they had believed they were people too.

Now, nothing seemed certain.

 

****

 

More politics?” Slick groaned, flopping back dramatically.

Ben gave him a sympathetic smile. “Unfortunately, yes. You ignore the Senate subcommittees at your peril, my young friend. They are the ones who decide which legislative proposals get heard by the wider Senate, and which do not.”

Slick groaned again, scrubbing at his eyes. Learning with Ben was different than flash training. Flash training was--not easy, exactly, but it was mostly memorization and producing the desired answers on demand. Ben, however, actually wanted him to *think*. Worse, he had to think about questions that often had no right answers.

Still, training time with Ben--those precious scraps of time cobbled together after lights-out, or between drills or mealtimes--was too valuable to waste for long. He pulled himself upright, and forced himself to focus. “Do you have to go through them? What about--what was it called? A citizens’ petition?”

“A citizen world’s petition,” Ben corrected. “Yes, any member world of the Republic can bring forth a petition to be heard on the Senate floor. But keep in mind, verd’ika, that being heard is not the same as having people actually listen.”

Slick scowled. “That’s stupid. Why would anyone stay as part of the Republic if they’re not going to be listened to?” The vode had been taught how important all the parts of the GAR would be. Pilots couldn’t fly if there were no techs to maintain their fighters. Commanders couldn’t lead if there were no brothers to command.

“The framers of the Republic envisioned a coalition of equals, true,” Ben said thoughtfully. “In theory, every world has equal weight in the Senate, an equal voice. In reality …” He paused, looking down at Slick. “In reality, there are worlds with more resources than others. It could be people, or materials, or hyperspace lanes; regardless, they have leveraged those resources to gain power and allies. A Core world will always be listened to more than an Outer Rim one, because they have the advantage of a strong power base, created over thousands of years. If there is no advantage in your citizen world’s petition for them, then why should they care?”

Slick frowned, thinking. He felt like they should care, even if he didn’t know why. There were a lot of brothers he disliked, but that didn’t mean he’d turn his back on them if they needed help.

“Perhaps an example will help,” Ben suggested. “For instance, how much do you care about the world-storms that are devastating Radeoc’s crops? They produce some of the finest skimmer-silks in the galaxy, after all.” He leaned comfortably back against the wall. “Would you sacrifice your brothers’ welfare to stop slavers from raiding Ryloth? Or for that matter, to free the slaves on Tatooine?”

Slick hesitated, then shook his head. It felt like the wrong answer, but … aliit always came first. Ben knew that, right?

The old Jedi gave him a solemn nod. “Just so. Almost every sentient in the galaxy will place the welfare of their brothers, their family, or their people over the welfare of others, especially others they do not know. It is not a right or wrong thing … it simply is. That is why a citizen world petition is a desperation move, and more often than not, they fail; because that world is standing alone, and no one else will care enough to stand by them.”

“So if no one in the Republic is going to care about what happens to us … what can we do?” a new voice asked. Slick turned, startled at the sudden presence of two ori’vod standing in the doorway. Both of them were wearing the small insignia that indicated command-track cadets, and Slick reflexively began to scramble to his feet, only to have Ben’s hand press down on his shoulder, keeping him where he was.

“Hello Fox, Ponds. That is a very good question,” Ben said, unfazed at being discovered. “Slick and I have been trying to discover that ourselves. Would you like to join us?”

The two cadets exchanged uncertain glances, then stepped in, sitting down on the floor. Fox, Slick noticed, had positioned himself at the entrance of the small nook, so that he could see most of the adjoining hallway. But otherwise their attention was on Ben.

“In answer to your question, Fox, there are those that will care about the vode. However, politics is the same as any other battlefield; if those who would be your allies are out of position, undersupplied, or poorly placed, then they will do you no good, and your mission will likely fail,” Ben told all three of them. “So your task is twofold: you must identify those who care about the vode--or who can be convinced to care. And then you must ensure that they are in a position to actually help.”

Ponds leaned forward, frowning and intent. “How do we convince anyone to help us? I mean--the Kaminoans care about the vode, but only because we’re worth a lot of credits to them.”

“That is a good place to start,” Ben replied, fingers stroking his beard. “I would not consider the Kaminoans allies--but they are not precisely your enemies, either, and that is leverage that could be of use, in the proper time and place. As to how to gain other allies, there are two main ways. You can make others care either by convincing them that they will benefit from joining your cause … or by depriving them of something they need.”

“That doesn’t sound too hard,” Fox said doubtfully.

“It can be more difficult than one might think,” Ben said in mild disagreement. “The line between an ally of convenience and an enemy can be very fine, and ever-changing. Especially when what they want and what you want are at odds. But it is far from impossible, and that is what Slick has asked to learn.”

“And if others learned it too?” Ponds asked, leaning forward, his gaze locked on Ben. “If we learned … could we change things?”

“You could,” Ben replied. “However, the things I can teach; they are not things the Kaminoans, or Jango, wish you to know.”

“And the Jedi?” Fox asked uncertainly.

Ben shook his head. “There are things you do not yet know about why and how the vode were created. But I can tell you this: the Jedi would never punish anyone for trying to be free.” He gave them all a gentle smile.

“But Jango and the other trainers will,” said Ponds. It wasn’t a question.

“Right now, we’re not anything to them,” Slick said before Ben could answer, squaring his shoulders stubbornly as he faced down his older brothers. “To Jango, to the longnecks … we’re not vode, not people. We’re things. Slaves. But the funny thing is--slavery is illegal in the Republic.”

Ponds shook his head, confused. “If it’s illegal …then the Republic will help us, when they come for their army, right? If we asked?”

Slick shook his head. “Kamino isn’t part of the Republic. So they can have all the slaves they want. And in the Republic, cloning is illegal. At least, clones like us. So the vode wouldn’t be slaves, but we wouldn’t be people, either.”

Ben nodded. “The Republic is a thousand years old. Unfortunately, that means that once they learn of the vode, you will be forced to contend with a thousand years of entrenched bureaucracy and legal loopholes. Some of those rules will hurt your cause. Some of them will help. You will need to know all of them, if you wish to stand a chance of being heard in the Senate.”

“So ... we need to give them a reason to listen,” Fox murmured thoughtfully.

“And if they won’t, we have to find a way to make them,” Slick said to his older brothers, grim-faced. “Even if we have to use their own rules to do it.”

Ben inclined his head to his students--one old, and two new--in acknowledgment. “Just so.”

Chapter Text

Shadows
34 BBY

 

Qir Te stretched, feeling joints pop and crackle, grimacing. He’d been hunched over his datafiles for too long, and his spine and pelvic bones both were making their complaints clear. Not that there was much help for it; as the head of Compliance Development, it fell to him to review project parameters before new orders were put into production. Which inevitably meant long hours of painstaking documentation review, looking for any details that fell outside the requested scope or that might otherwise cause conflicts in the biochips’ programming.

At least the Republic’s order was straightforward enough, unlike certain others. There had been the client that had required their clone servitors be indoctrinated into their socioreligious traditions, which had thousands of tenets, many of which contradicted each other. Another client had demanded their cloned watchguards love them, which any half-developed eggling knew was a recipe for disaster, given the complex biochemical and neural reactions required to maintain such an unnatural state.

In contrast, all the Republic representative had requested was a series of contingency orders, which was easy enough. Qir might have preferred a few less contingencies; the more overrides they put on a chip, the easier it was to have an inadvertent command conflict, which could lead to erratic behavior, or even neural shutdowns. But his team was highly skilled, their code clean and precise. He had no doubt they would rise to the challenge.

He reached for his cylinder of carefully-brewed jinte, then clicked his tongue in consternation as he found it mostly empty, only a few cold sips remaining at the bottom. He had almost finished annotating the project parameters handed down by Taun We; perhaps it was time for a break after all. Pushing himself up, he headed for the door--only to pause as it opened and an unexpected visitor stepped through. After a brief, embarrassingly long moment, Qir realized his surprise guest was the Republic observer. He had only ever seen the human in development meetings, and had never interacted with the Jedi. What had been his name?

Flustered by his lack of recall, Qir dipped his head in polite greeting. “Good day, ah ... sir Jedi. I must admit, I was not expecting your visit. What brings you to my office?”

The man--Ben, that was his name, Qir suddenly remembered--bowed politely in return. “I apologize for my sudden arrival; I certainly did not mean to come between you and your caf.” He gave Qir a wry smile. “Since I was heading this way, I thought I might take the opportunity to deliver a revised copy of the contingency orders for your team. The Senate has made some last-minute changes, and since I know we are close to starting production, I wanted to make sure your team had the latest copy.” He proffered a data chip.

Frowning, Qir reached out to take it. “... I appreciate your consideration, sir Jedi, but I had been under the impression we had already received the final list of orders. Program changes usually come down through the development director; this is rather irregular.”

Ben tilted his head upward, showing no sign of nervousness as he met Qir’s gaze. Those tiny flat eyes--so different from the large, dark eyes of his own species--seemed oddly luminous, and vividly, fascinatingly blue. I assure you, Qir Te, there is no need for concern. I am merely a messenger; you will find all is in order. You will not need to check with your director.”

The Jedi’s voice was oddly resonant, with interesting harmonics. Qir Te felt his neck curve in acknowledgement, his concerns fading away; of course there was no need to bother the director about a simple code revision. Clients often had last minute changes, after all. There was no need to irritate his superiors by asking for redundant approvals. “Of course, sir Jedi. Thank you for this update. I will ensure my team begins working on it right away.”

“My thanks, Qir Te,” Ben said, bowing again. “I shall leave you to your work.”

He turned, leaving without fanfare. Qir frowned at the now-vacant doorway, then at the empty cylinder he’d half-forgotten he was holding. What had he been doing again? Oh, right … getting more jinte.

He set the datachip on top of his workstation files, where it wouldn’t be forgotten. A break first; then he’d merge the requested changes into his existing notes. He shook his head, heaving a sigh. He’d been so close to being done … and now he would have to review the entire project all over again.

Some days, it just didn’t pay to get out of the water.

 

*****


33 BBY
Clones: 2970-3180

 

“What in the name of the Prime Code did you think you were doing?” Vela Bu hissed, her head swaying dangerously as she advanced on the project lead. “An entire batch, contaminated! Defective--and all because you somehow managed to botch a task that the lowest menial droid could perform!”

The technician cringed, neck curved in supplication, wringing his hands. “I cannot apologize enough. I have no idea how this happened--”

“It is your job to know,” Vela snapped, jabbing a long, pointed finger at the hapless technician’s face while the other low-caste techs edged as far away from the confrontation as they could get without actually abandoning their assigned posts. “This batch was your responsibility. You should have been aware of every single detail of their development. The fact that you not only allowed this contamination, but then allowed them to develop this far, speaks volumes about your incompetence!” She twisted, looking over the production line. “Three months. Three months of wasted time, not to mention resources, producing defective and useless product. Purge the batch immediately. We need to make up for lost time; if we fall behind schedule, and the Republic finds out about this lapse-”

“Finds out about what?” Ben said, behind them.

Vela Bu froze. After a moment’s hesitation, she turned. Her fury had vanished, carefully smoothed away to show only embarrassed contrition. “Ah, Ben. I did not realize you were there. Please do not trouble yourself.  It is a minor matter, one that I will personally ensure is corrected immediately.” She shot the technician another glare.

Hands buried in the sleeves of his cloak, Ben tilted his head. “Forgive me, Vela, but it didn’t sound all that minor to me.”  Moving forward, he touched the curved glass wall separating them from the sterile production areas and their endless ranks of glass capsules. “Why are you planning to purge this batch?”

Vela Bu folded her hands together. “It seems there was an … oversight, by one of our technician teams. We have discovered that the capsules used for batch number 107 were contaminated. Because of this, the clones seeded within them are developing … abnormally.”

Ben frowned. “That is quite disappointing indeed. The whole batch has been affected?”

Vela inclined her head. “Yes.”

“What kinds of abnormalities have you found?”

“It is too early in development to confirm, but genetic analysis and growth markers indicate a high likelihood of bone deformation and atrophied muscle development. Of course, we would never deliver such substandard product to the Republic. Rest assured, we will begin a replacement batch immediately, and have taken steps to ensure that such a mistake will not happen again. The team responsible for monitoring batch 107 has already been censured for this failure, and their genetic material will be down-ranked in the Registry.” Vela shot another fulminating glare at the technician, who seemed to be doing his best to disappear into the white floor.

“I see.” Ben contemplated the ranks of capsules and their tiny floating occupants. “What is the likelihood of associated mental defects?”

Vela blinked, surprised by the Jedi’s equanimity. “Low. The nature of the contamination does not add any additional risk factors for mental retardation; this batch should be of normal intelligence and faculties. But that will hardly matter if they cannot perform the physical tasks expected of them.”

“This is true. However, I dislike waste,” Ben replied. “I am also not fond of a three-month setback in the production schedule.” He turned to face Vela Bu. “I would suggest allowing this batch to develop and decant normally. An army needs more than front-line soldiers; these clones may yet prove to be of use, for menial tasks if nothing else.”

Vela frowned, displeased by the request. “Menial tasks can be handled by droids,” she pointed out. “Your request is quite irregular, Master Jedi, and we do not wish to deliver substandard clones to the Republic. If others find out, Kamino’s reputation could suffer.”

“As long as this mistake is not repeated, I will take full responsibility,” Ben said, unmoved. “Droids are useful, but they also cost money. I believe the Republic would rather put existing resources to use, rather than waste what has already been created.” He turned, looking up at the geneticist’s narrow, triangular face. “Let us see what we can make of this batch. This may be a good opportunity to test alternate training regimens for support personnel. In time, who knows what will happen?”

 

*****

30 BBY

 

“Ben-bu! Buir! Ben-bu!” The chorus of happy cries rose the moment Ben stepped through the door of the habitat. Dropping his learning blocks, 99 tumbled towards his jetii, half-crawling, crowing in glee as he got there first.

“Hello little ones,” Ben said, sweeping 99 up into his arms and smiling down at the others who had toddled over to clutch at his knees and pull at his cloak. Not all of 99’s brothers were walking yet. Their twisty backs and bent limbs made it hard--99 could manage it sometimes, but it was so much easier just to roll around or crawl on all fours rather than try to stand up on two.

Still, 99 knew Ben wanted them to walk, to grow big and to learn things. So he kept trying. It helped to know that if he fell, hands would be there to catch him. He snuggled close. “Teni was here today,” he confided. “We did tests!”

“Oh you did?” Ben shuffled his way over to the pillow-pile in the corner, careful of the other brothers using him as a support. “We’re all going down now, okay?” he told his other attachments, and levered himself down among the cushions. 99’s brothers did the same, happily piling in to take up every inch of available space.

“Teni didn’t like the tests, though,” 71 reported, clinging anxiously to Ben’s sleeve. “He said we all need to be able to stand up right, or we’d be thrown out.”

Ben frowned. “I can see that I’ll need to speak to him about that.” He reached out, and another brother helpfully shifted aside so that he could tug 71 into the cradle of his free arm. “Don’t worry, verd’ika; I won’t let anyone do that. You all are far too important to be thrown away.”

“But …” 99 chewed his lip. He’d been thinking about this for a long time, ever since he’d seen their ori’vod for the first time, marching in lines, tall and straight and strong. He hadn’t wanted to admit it before, not even to Ben, but … “Ben-bu … how can we be important? We can’t do anything.” The other batches were already learning to run and jump and wrestle; 99 and his brothers were still trying to find their feet.

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that, little one,” Ben said, rubbing his back soothingly. 99 sighed happily, relaxing; his bones always seemed to ache a little less when Ben was around. “You are just as smart as any of your brothers, after all, and even more determined. If you learn everything you can, you will become very important indeed to the Republic.” He reached out, smoothing the rumpled curls of the other brothers tucked in around them. “You are all so bright in the Force, little ones. A few misaligned joints doesn’t change that. Trust me; I will teach you how to rise to your feet, and even more than that. All you have to do is keep doing your best, and I promise that you will find your place among the vode.”

 

*****


25 BBY

 

“I’m sick of this, Ben!” 99 hissed. Angry as he was, he remembered to keep his voice down; while his batch was mostly ignored, it was never a good idea to assume no one was listening. He balled up the cleaning rag and flung it into the nearest bucket. “You always said we were important, but all we are to the vode are cleaning droids--and defective ones at that. I can fire a blaster too--I want to fight alongside my brothers!”

Ben stroked his beard thoughtfully, regarding 99’s angry face. “Walk with me,” he finally said, turning towards the door.

99 growled under his breath, but followed the elderly jetii out into the corridor. They walked for some time through the training halls; Ben setting a slow, contemplative pace that 99 could match without running out of breath.  Vode passed them, squads and companies, even an entire armored platoon accompanied by two trainers. Ben received sidelong looks, but no one challenged the jetii as they moved from one section to the next.

“What do you see, 99?” Ben finally said, stopping just inside one of the assembly areas. Beyond, thousands of brothers moved in their ranks, beskar’vod clad in white armor interspersed with large groups of senior cadets in red, and smaller groups of younger cadets in blue. 99 watched them, confident and strong, and his hands clenched into in the stained pale blue of his own maintenance overalls.

“I see … my brothers. Ready to go out and fight,” 99 said, ugly jealousy twisting at his insides. How was he supposed to compete with that, broken thing that he was?

Ben shook his head. “This is true … but this is not what I brought you to see. Look.” He flicked his fingers upwards. 99 looked up, following the indicated line of sight--and saw security droids, hovering overhead, electroprods at the ready. Beyond them was a long line of observation windows, circling most of the assembly area, allowing Kaminoans and trainers alike to watch the movements of the cadets below. 99 shifted, not sure what Ben was trying to show him. Droids were everywhere, after all.

“You didn’t even see them, did you?’ Ben said quietly.

“I … no? Not really?” 99 said uncertainly.

“Droids are almost invisible. Unless they draw attention to themselves, no one notices them.  It does not matter whether they are mouse, maintenance, or security droids,” Ben said. He gave 99 a long, level look. “The clones out there, however, will never go unnoticed. Every single one of them is monitored and watched, their time regimented between training, mealtimes and rest periods. If any of your brothers, older or younger, step out of line, it will be immediately noticed, and they will be punished.” Ben folded his hands into his sleeves, looking out over the assembly floor. “And yet … some of them manage to steal moments for themselves. To create art, to tell stories. And to learn forbidden things, beyond what Jango and the Kaminoans have told them a soldier should know.”

99 listened to Ben, and found himself thinking about what the jetii was very carefully not saying. He and his brothers had learned long ago to listen to the whispers among the vode, and had even passed messages from batch to batch at times. They had heard what had happened between Jango and Ben. 

“You and your batchmates have been given a great gift,” Ben said quietly. “The Kaminoans and the Cuy’val Dar believe your batch to be defective, and not worth further training. To them, you are of no more importance than a mouse or maintenance droid.” He flicked a hand, indicating a white-armored platoon marching by. “You will never wear armor, or march in formation, but you could still be a soldier, if you truly wish to fight. One that walks in the shadows, unnoticed and invisible. Who hears what others want to stay secret, and who can be in the right place at the right time to support his brothers.”

Ben turned to face 99, tilting his head. “It will be dangerous, however. Is this truly what you want?”

“Yes,” 99 breathed, feeling like a bright fire had kindled inside his heart. He wanted more than just the drab, day to day tasks of maintenance. He wanted to fight, to truly feel like a part of the vode--and he knew his batch-brothers would feel the same way. “Yes, I want that. Please, Ben-show me how to fight.”

Ben smiled at him. “That’s what I thought you would say.”

Chapter Text

Vanguard
25 BBY

 

Something had changed. His buir was angry about the jetii--Boba knew that much--but Jango refused to say why. And it wasn’t like he had anyone else to ask. The vode … they didn’t talk to him, not like they did to each other. But sometimes they slipped, or forgot that he wasn’t just another cadet, and Boba heard things. Heard whispers of what his buir had tried to do.

Boba wasn’t stupid. He knew his buir had killed people before. But this was different, somehow, and ever since Jango’s encounter with Ben, something had changed with the vode. It was more than a feeling than anything Boba could put his finger on, but that feeling was real enough to make the hair on his neck stand up. It wasn’t anything so obvious as insubordination; whenever Jango ran drills or called them to attention, the vode still followed orders. But that was all they did, and nothing more. Clones formerly eager to impress their progenitor were now reserved, their loyalty tinged by a new wariness. And the vode watched Jango and Boba both, with more than a few ori’vod giving them a wide berth.

It made Boba feel very cold, and very alone.

Days passed, and the feeling didn’t subside. Unhappy and more than a little bored, Boba had been on his way back to his quarters when he noticed something: a large group of command-track cadets. The group was too disciplined to indulge in chatter in the halls, but they still had an air of suppressed excitement, their faces animated. His curiosity getting the better of him, Boba slipped along in their wake, and ducked into the nearest observation post as they disappeared through the doors of a training arena.

This particular training area was a vast, empty space, large enough to land at least five shuttlecraft in without touching. Boba knew from his own training that such rooms could be configured in an almost-infinite number of ways, panels rising out of the floor or the walls to create obstacles and cover, walls and fortresses. One half of the arena had been set into a basic fortress assault configuration, with a sizeable number of droids arrayed in defensive formations. The rest of the arena had been left wide open, with little in the way of cover.

Jango wasn’t anywhere to be seen, or any of the other trainers, for that matter. Instead, the jetii--Ben--stood in the middle of that empty space, a white-painted stick held loosely in one hand, watching as the cadets filed into the room. There were at least ten squads in the room, Boba saw, all composed of command cadets. Even more surprising, at least four of the squads were alpha clones, judging by their age and the insignia on their armor. Boba held his breath, thrumming with anticipation. This was a huge group for a single training class, and he’d never heard of alphas training alongside standard clones before. What was going on?

The final arrivals fell into formation, the squad leader saluting the waiting jetii. “Rek squadron reporting, sir.”

Ben inclined his head in acknowledgment. “Thank you, Kiros.” He swept a look over the assembled clones. “You are all senior cadets. You have been taught well how to fight, both as individuals and as a unit. Now I am going to teach you how to fight alongside a Jedi.”

That pronouncement caused a bit of a stir. The alpha clones appeared to be split between disdain and interest, while the rest of the command cadets looked far more eager, if a bit confused.

“We will start with a small-scale ground assault exercise,” Ben said. His shoulders were square, his voice clear and confident, and he looked very different from the friendly, well-worn jetii that Boba had spoken with before. “The droids will be programmed for a standard defensive pattern. I will be on the field as your commanding officer, while this-” he lifted the staff, “-will stand in as my lightsaber. You will all be working with standard-issue training rifles, and there will be no artillery support; we will have to rely upon each other if we are to take the mission objective. You will follow standard GAR tactics for such an assault, and I will use the tactics expected of a Temple-trained Jedi. Any questions?”

A few of the younger cadets, Boba saw, were visibly disappointed that they weren’t going to be able to see a real lightsaber in action. One of them was brave enough to raise his hand. “Sir--how will you fight droids without a real weapon?”

“The droids have been programmed to act appropriately if I make contact with this,” Ben replied, lifting the white-painted stick, “and will collapse if I have hit a vital area. In addition, my staff has been coated with an adhesive paint, which will rub off on their armor and make it obvious which droids I have already disabled or destroyed.”

The cadet looked a bit dubious, but nodded.

“Junior cadets will form up under their older brothers. Alpha squads will distribute themselves equally between the front lines and the rearguard.” Boba noticed more than a few sidelong looks of displeasure between the alphas at that particular order. “Any other questions?” Ben waited a few beats, then nodded sharply. “Very well. Alpha squads Cresh and Dorn, take point with Aak and Fang squad. The Dust-kickers, Rek, Krayt, and Alpha squad Aurek will take position on the flanks, while the rest will take the defensive line and reinforce as needed. The exercise will commence in ten minutes; all squads, take your positions.”

The cadets didn’t need to be told twice. There was a bit of jockeying for position on the front line, but even that settled quickly as Ben joined what Boba was pretty sure was Aak squad. He should have looked ridiculous; an old man without armor, facing down a droid battalion with nothing more than a painted stick. Instead he looked … like he belonged there, somehow. Boba gripped the rail tightly, eyes flicking back and forth between the old jetii and the clones arrayed around him.

The timer clicked over. Following their programming, droids and automated weaponry came online, optics lighting up and weapons rising. No warnings were given; they simply opened fire, blaster bolts sizzling through the air.

“Forward!” Ben ordered, and the platoon surged towards the enemy line. The alphas and the other frontliners were playing it by the book, Boba noticed, advancing forward in tight, disciplined groups, taking advantage of the available cover as they laid down suppressing fire. While Ben--

--Ben was already halfway across the room, over the barricade wall, and fighting furiously within the midst of a set of surprised B1 droids, who were dropping with every slice of the jetii’s staff. Boba blinked, startled--he hadn’t even seen the jetii move! How had Ben gotten so far, so fast?

Boba hadn’t been the only one caught off-guard; the squads on point were breaking formation as their leaders realized their commanding officer had left them behind. Two squads charged forward, recklessly braving droid fire to try and catch up. The other frontline squads tried to maintain formation, but now had to contend with the holes left in their defense by their brothers’ sudden advance. Troopers started to go down; Cresh, which had been the first to charge, had lost almost half its complement by the time they hit the droids' outer defenses. Boba winced as he watched brothers fall; several of those losses had been due to friendly fire.

Through it all, Ben’s speed never slackened; he dodged and spun with impossible skill, avoiding blaster-fire and sending droids reeling with each hit. Boba watched, both fascinated and appalled. It was almost as if Ben had forgotten the rest of the cadets were even there. Instead he continued to press the attack, never allowing the droids to pin him down in one place for too long, as if determined to take the fortress all on his own.

The second line surged forward, trying to close the gaps in the front line, only to add to the confusion as squad commanders realized their forces had effectively been split in two. The survivors of Cresh and Rek squads were engaged in a close-quarters firefight with the droids, and had left the remainder of their brothers straggling far to the rear. Out of all the squads, the alphas were doing the best in keeping up with their wayward jetii commander, killing their way through droids with brutal efficiency. But even they were having problems matching Ben’s pace, judging from the curses filtering through the open comms.

The training arena had descended into chaos. The cadets had reached the droid’s outer defensive line, but had lost almost half their number doing so. What remained of Cresh and Rek, plus Aurek and Fang, had caught up to Ben, but now found themselves with a new problem--namely, the unpredictable jetii in their midst. The fight had turned into a brutal, close-quarters melee, and that white-painted staff was swinging everywhere, the jetii there one minute, and gone the next. Clubbing droids with rifle butts and headshots at point-blank range became the order of the day, and while the alpha clones took to both with vindictive glee, there was no denying that the assault had turned into a fragmented mess. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to Ben’s attacks; he could be defending a downed brother one moment, only to make an impossible two-story leap upwards to take out a guard tower in the next. Cadets that stopped to boggle were quickly downed by blaster fire. Cadets that had lost track of their jetii entirely often found Ben in the middle of their intended targets, forcing them to hold their fire or risk hitting their own commanding officer.

By the end of the exercise, the cadets had won, taking out most of the droid defenders and successfully capturing their objective. They had also lost two-thirds of their number, which now were groggily waking up from stun-blasts, and the survivors were more than a little disgruntled, aware of the poor showing they had made. Several had pulled their buckets, their faces tight and angry. Boba could feel the tension in the air.

Ben, for his part, didn’t appear to notice. He too was disheveled, with several new blaster holes in his robes, and his staff had fractured, split along almost a third of its length. He picked his way down to the main floor, surveying the assembled cadets. “That did not go well at all, did it?” he said mildly.

One of the alpha clones actually growled. A nearby squadmate levered an elbow into his ribs. “No sir,” the cadet ground out, jaw clenched. His reply was echoed sullenly by the rest of the cadets.

Ben crossed his arms across his chest, regarding them seriously. “Good. This is the lesson I needed you to learn.”

Cadets glanced at each other. Finally one spoke up. “You … wanted us to learn that we can’t fight as well as a Jedi, sir?” Kiros said hesitantly.

Ben shook his head. “No. Just the opposite.” He lifted his broken staff, contemplating it. “Jedi fight with lightsabers, not blasters. As a result, we are trained to close distances quickly, so that we can bring our primary weapon to bear. The average Jedi can also move much faster than the average trooper. As you just saw, this can cause problems if you aren’t ready for it.” He walked along the ragged line of cadets, pausing to pull a half-stunned straggler to his feet. “Unlike the vode, Jedi usually fight singly or in pairs, and their tactics reflect this. This means they will either instinctively treat you like civilians and defend you, or they will press their attack without ever realizing they’ve left their troops exposed.”

The cadets took that in, glancing at each other.

“You all have an advantage that most Jedi will not; you have been trained how to move and fight as a unit. Your Jedi commander may be a talented Force-wielder, or even a superb duelist, but they will not know what you are going to do on the battlefield. Not right away, at least. This is what you must learn: how to fight alongside a Jedi without getting in their way, or letting them get in yours.”

“Getting in their way, sir?” one of the senior cadets said, frowning. “But you--” He cut himself off, as if suddenly realizing he was about to criticize a trainer.

“But I was the one getting in your way?” Ben said, walking over to face him. “Was that what you were about to say?” The cadet snapped to attention, but otherwise didn’t answer, eyes forward. “A valid point. But I’m afraid it’s not quite accurate.” He moved to one of the cadets from Cresh, and tapped a finger against a white smear of paint on the cadet’s shoulder. “If this had been a real lightsaber, 4128, you would be missing your arm.”

He continued on, pointing out a streak of paint along another cadet’s upper thigh. “That would have taken off your lower leg.”

Another splash of paint, this time on a bucket. “Instant decapitation, I’m afraid.”

A long white stripe along the armored abdomen of a squad-leader. “That would have cut right through your belly. You wouldn’t have bled out-lightsaber wounds cauterize instantly-but on the battlefield, I doubt you would have lived long enough for medics to get to you.” The cadet in question looked a bit green around the gills, one hand creeping down to touch his stomach.

Ben continued, his face grim. “In the hands of the untrained, or those not skilled in the Force, a lightsaber will kill or maim indiscriminately. All it would take is for a trooper to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and a horrific mistake could be made.”

The listening cadets were a bit white-faced now, and Boba couldn’t blame them. The idea of losing an arm or worse, just by accident …

“An experienced Jedi will know the exact reach and position of their lightsaber, and they will use the Force to maintain awareness of everything around them,” Ben continued, more gently. “But in the chaos of battle, anything can happen, and I do not want to see a single member of the vode fall to a Jedi’s blade. Not if I can help it.” He propped hands on his hips, surveying the assembled cadets. “So. All of you will be the first to learn how to fight alongside a Jedi. I will show all of you the standard lightsaber forms, so you can recognize what a Jedi is likely to do next in a fight, and provide the appropriate support. In addition, we will train on tactics that can take advantage of a Jedi’s superior speed and agility, while still maintaining combat cohesion. Understood?”

“Yes, sir!” came the reply in unison.

“Very good. Now, let us begin with the first form, Shii Cho …”

From his vantage point, Boba watched silently, fascinated.

He slipped out, unnoticed, when the cadets left, but made sure to return to watch the next class. And the next. And the one after that.

What Ben was showing the vode was unlike anything he’d ever seen, and very different from the Mando tactics Jango had shown him so far, which focused on maneuverability and firepower. The lightsaber forms Ben used looked almost like a dance, graceful and meditative--until he used them to disarm a squad of command cadets in less than a minute. And it didn’t take the cadets long to pick up on the forms, at least well enough to move with them; to predict where their jetii would land in Ataru, or how to position themselves to take advantage of a defensive Soresu. From there, it wasn’t long before they became truly deadly, moving together with their jetii like a pack of kyr'oya'kar, efficient and ferocious.

Boba watched them, and came to a decision. He wanted to be down there. Wanted to learn to fight like that. But he’d never been allowed to train with the vode before. Even if Ben allowed it, the longnecks would notice … and so would Jango.

Which meant he needed to ask for permission. To train with a jetii. From his buir. Who hated jetiise in general, and Ben in particular.

Damn it.

 

*****

 

Ignoring the hammering of the rain against his beskar’gam, Jango waited on the landing pad, watching as Dooku’s ship came in for a landing. It was a small, sleek shuttle, but there was a deceptive amount of power in those engines. Kamino was currently in the middle of its lesser typhoon season, but the ship barely seemed to notice, slicing through the sheets of wind-driven rain and touching down with a kind of precision that spoke of either a good astromech or an exceptionally steady hand on the controls--or both.

Post-flight lockdown took only moments, and the hatchway opened, spilling light onto the rain-swept decking. A slim figure stepped out, and Jango frowned. He moved forward, one hand instinctively resting near his blaster. “I was expecting Dooku. Why are you here, witch?” he called out.

Ventress gave him an arch look, unbothered by the epithet. “Dooku is a busy man, Jango,” she said, even as she began heading for the entrance to the facility. “And quite frankly, he and I are both a bit skeptical about this Jedi infestation you claim to have. So he sent me to investigate instead.”

Jango growled under his breath. “You honestly think I would lie about something like this?” he said, falling in at her shoulder, keeping a wary eye on the lightsaber at her hip. Ventress could be as unpredictable as a wounded teckla, and just as willing to kill for a moment’s pleasure.

“My dear, I don’t know what to believe, other than you seem to be suffering under a delusion of some kind.” The doors hissed open, admitting them into the antechamber, a blast of dry air helping to remove the worst of the damp they had brought with them. “Mysterious disappearing Jedi? Old men who can stop blaster bolts with their bare hands? You must realize how that sounds.”

“I sent Dooku evidence to corroborate my story,” Jango snapped. The cameras had fritzed during his little confrontation with Ben--because of course they had--but the data captured by the sensor suite in his armor had been clear enough. “Ask Lama Su or any of the others here; the jetii has been sneaking around for awhile. His credentials were good enough to make them think he was sent by Dooku. Who knows how much he’s discovered, or who he’s reporting it to?”

“Which is why I’m here,” Ventress replied airily, giving him a sidelong look. “Perhaps it is a Jedi. Perhaps it is something else. Either way, Dooku has sent me here to … deal with your little problem.”

“It’s not going to be that easy,” Jango said, bristling at the implied threat. “I don’t know how he does it, but this ‘Ben’ is almost impossible to track.”

“I doubt it will be that terribly difficult,” Ventress said. They stepped into the main part of the facility. “Jedi are usually very easy to find. All of that purity and self-righteousness leaves a very particular trail, if you know what you’re looking for.” She paused, tilting her head, eyes shuttering half-closed. “In fact, there is something …”

She froze in mid-step. Jango snapped on alert. “What? What is it?”

“I--” Her eyes opened, and she shook her head vigorously, as if to rid it of something. Her face folded into a scowl, all traces of amusement gone. “That’s--stay here. I will deal with this.”

“Wait, I--” But Ventress was already moving, stalking down a hallway with Force-enhanced speed. “Haar’chak!” Great. Now he had a new problem to deal with.

 

*****

 

Hard to find, Fett had said. Well, if Ventress had ever needed any more proof that the man was about as Force-sensitive as a stump, that would be it. Because as far as she could tell, this ‘Ben’ wasn’t trying to hide at all. In fact, the closer she got, the harder the sheer power of the Jedi’s presence was to ignore; the man was like a flare, a miniature star of power and Light, shining bright enough to light up a good chunk of the facility to anyone with an ounce of Force sensitivity. Which was fine as far as Ventress was concerned. Her lips peeled back from her teeth in a feral hunter’s smile. That’s right, Jedi. Lead me right to you.

She stalked through corridor after corridor, ignoring startled Kaminoans and clones alike. They were irrelevant to her hunt, and her quarry was close. The Jedi was deep in the interior of the facility, and after a few false turns, she soon found herself before a door. She slapped her palm against the touchplate, lightsaber in hand, ready to attack--

The door opened, to the sound of someone… singing?

“-horn and fang/
blood and bone,
Strong you grow/
Wise you be--”

Arms full with a child-clone, an old man stopped in mid-verse, smiling at her. “Hello, my dear. I must admit, I didn’t expect you so soon.”

The room was full of infant clones, Ventress belatedly realized, all of them barely at the toddling stage. Too young to be afraid, they were watching her with wide, wondering eyes.

“You--where did you learn that song?” the question came out sharper than she had intended.

“Oh, I learned it a long time ago,” the old man said easily. “It’s best to start early with the hunt-songs, I’ve found. These little ones might not be of Dathomir, but they will still need to grow up strong and fierce. Don’t you agree?” He tickled the belly of the child in his lap, who giggled and squirmed free. Tumbling to the floor, he enthusiastically flopped on top of one of the others, sitting off a chain reaction of squawks and uncoordinated flailing. One of the nearest clone-infants was chewing on a toy block, staring at her with great concentration. She ignored it. She was here for the Jedi, this mysterious ‘Ben’--

--who was apparently an old man with flyaway wispy white hair and infant vomit on his robes. This was what Jango was afraid of?

“And just what else are you teaching them, Jedi?” she snapped, trying to regain some semblance of normality.

“Oh, this and that. Anything they might need to help them be better soldiers,” Ben said affably, eyes twinkling. “A few stories, some games … that sort of thing.”

“You honestly expect me to believe that?” Ventress scoffed. How stupid did he think she was? “Who sent you, Jedi? The Council? What have you told them?”

“The Force sent me, of course,” Ben replied. “And I haven’t told the Council anything. Why would I?”

Ventress’ eyes narrowed. “Enough. You’re coming with me. We shall see how much you like playing word-games after we’ve had a chance to … talk.”

“I’m afraid I can’t leave just yet,” Ben said, as calmly as if Ventress had invited him to a garden party rather than an interrogation. “These little ones will still need me for a while yet. But you’re welcome to join us, if you would like.” He waved a hand at an open bit of floor.

Ventress hissed, exasperated. “I’m not asking you, old man. I’m telling. Either you come with me now, or-” she lit her lightsaber, the scarlet blade humming to life, “-you die here, and possibly a few of your precious ‘little ones’ along with you.”

Ben’s smile disappeared. But there was no fear in his eyes, only a profound soundness. “Oh …” he breathed. “You poor thing. You have suffered so, haven’t you?”

Ventress bristled. She was a Sith assassin. She didn’t need some old man’s pity! “You dare--!” Her lightsaber hilt shivered in her palm, a fine tremor. “What are you doing?”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Ben said quietly … but he wasn’t looking at her. “You are not responsible for what they did to you.” He stretched out a hand toward her. “Sleep, honored one. Let the world move around you for a while.”

The scarlet blade pointed at his heart flickered--and then disappeared. Ventress stared down at her lightsaber in shock. “I--” She toggled the power switch on the hilt, to no effect. “What did you just do?”

“Pain does not always have to beget more pain, my dear,” Ben told her. “And your kyber has suffered enough. Please, sit. You’ve had a long journey. I’m sure the little ones are getting tired of my stories. Perhaps they would like to hear a few of yours?”

“I--” Ventress found herself sinking to the floor, almost in a daze, before she realized what she was doing. She bolted upright again. “You won’t fool me so easily, old man!” She reached for that fragile throat with the Force, summoning it with her anger, her fear--

--only to have her Force-grip batted aside, twisted into a burst of energy that sent toys swirling into the air. Several of the infant clones crowed in delight, crawling across the floor or stretching upwards to bat at their floating playthings. Ben never moved, watching her with a faint, infuriating smile.

“How did you …?” she breathed. Dooku was powerful, a true Jedi master-turned-Sith. He had once tossed her across the room with the Force--but he had never so effortlessly twisted it from her grasp.

“I’m not going to fight you, Ventress,” Ben said quietly. “We’ve both had enough of that, I think. If you do not wish to stay, I won’t force you. But I will be here if you ever need me.”

“Need you for what, old man?” she sneered, caught between frustrated rage and fear.

“Why, to free yourself from the Dark,” Ben replied, as if it should be obvious. He smiled at her. “But that will come in its own time.”

She could try to attack once more--but something told her that she might be the next thing floating in the air if she tried. A tactical retreat was definitely in order. She backed through the door, letting it hiss shut between them. Senile old man, acting like he knew … wait.

She had never told him her name. A shiver ran down her spine. How did he know who she was?

And if he knew her name--what else did he know?

Chapter Text

Questions
25 BBY

 

“The whitejobs are up to something.”

Kom’rk rolled his eyes at his batch brother, tossing his boots underneath his bunk and collapsing dramatically on top of it. “Up to what? An extra lap around the facility? They don’t have enough brains to be up to anything more interesting than that.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought too.” Jaing drummed his fingers on the table. “But they’re acting like they have something to hide all of a sudden. If they spot one of the trainers, they stop talking. They’ve never done that before. And I think the alphas are in on it, too.”

“Now I know you’re yanking my chain. Why would the alpha planks be hanging around with the production models?” Unless they needed cannon fodder. That was about all whitejobs were good for, as far as Kom’rk was concerned.

“I don’t know, but they’re training together now. And I don’t mean the alphas teaching tubies a few tricks. They’re actually running field exercises together, for some reason.” Jaing tapped his way through a few screens on his datapad--hacked vid footage, no doubt.

Kom’rk frowned, staring up at the graffiti-scrawled surface of the bunk above. Jaing’s intel made no sense. The alpha clones were Jango’s pride and joy. The best of the best, if you believed the Kaminoans. And while they weren’t anywhere near his or his brothers’ level, even Kal’buir had been forced to admit that they weren’t totally useless. Why would alpha commandos waste time training with regular clones?

“Does Kal’buir know about this?”

Jaing hesitated, then shook his head. “I don’t think so. Vod--I’m not sure any of the trainers realize what’s going on. Even Fett. He’s been wound up lately about something, but whatever it is, it’s got him ignoring the whitejobs completely.”

And wasn’t that interesting. Kom’rk still wasn’t sure he believed the whitejobs had brains enough to be plotting anything, but if the alphas were involved, and they’d somehow managed an end run around both the trainers and the longnecks … well, then that might just be something worth knowing something about.

He glanced over at Jaing. He could tell his batch-brother wasn’t about to let it go, fascinated by the unexpected puzzle he’d found. And why not? It’s not like training was a challenge anymore; even Kom’rk had to admit that this little mystery was the most interesting thing to come along in a while. “All right,” he conceded. “Never thought I’d say this, but what the hell. Let’s find out what the whitejobs are up to.”

 

****

 

Jango scowled down at his buy’ce, setting it aside. The rain-spotted visor seemed to mock him, throwing back distorted reflections of his own face, the empty helmet a symbol of strength and control that he was no longer sure he had.

He began removing the rest of his armor, piece by piece, wiping it down and running function-checks on each section as he went. The job was repetitive and more than a little tedious, but necessary; Kamino was hell on anything metal, including circuitry. Unfortunately, it also left him with plenty of time to think.

Ventress had disappeared into the depths of the facility, vanishing almost as thoroughly as that damned jetii. Jango still wasn’t sure why she hadn’t just killed the jetii and been done with it. The surveillance feeds had been clear; she’d had him dead to rights. Her lightsaber had been at the old man’s heart, and then he’d said something about ‘pain’ that made no sense, and it had … malfunctioned? Or Ventress had turned it off--the footage hadn’t been very clear on that point. Jango hadn’t thought that jetii could mind-trick other Force-wielders, but Ben seemed to be the exception to a lot of rules, damn the man. At least Ventress had restrained herself after her abortive confrontation with the jetii; Jango had been half-expecting to find a trail of dead clones in her wake.

Jango sighed. The job had once seemed so simple. Donate some genetic material, set up a training program, and walk away with a fat paycheck and an heir at the end of it. Now … now he was stuck on this rainy hellhole of a facility for at least three more years, surrounded by mongrel versions of himself, with not one but two Force-users running amuck through his carefully-laid plans. He was starting to wish he could just take Boba and walk away from the whole mess, but Jango hadn’t gotten this far by breaking contracts. Or for that matter, pissing off Sith Lords.

The main door slid open, heralding Boba’s return. Jango reflectively checked the chrono; right on time, not that he’d been overly concerned. Boba was an independent soul, but a good boy. “Good timing--just got a new delivery of mealpacks,” he said. “Pick something out for dinner, will you?”

“Okay,” Boba said, never one to turn down food, and disappeared into their tiny cooking area. Kaminoans favored communal dining--more efficient use of resources and all that--but Jango valued his time with Boba, inefficient as that might be.

The mealpacks didn’t take long to heat up; Boba moved quickly to set the table, and by the time Jango was done with his armor, the food was ready. For once, Boba didn’t dive into his food like a starving akk dog. Instead he pushed it around his bowl, stabbing fish-chunks periodically with his fork as if they had personally offended him.

Jango lifted an eyebrow. Boba wasn’t exactly a chatterbox, but he usually had a bit more to say for himself. “Something happen today?”

“Nothin’ much,” Boba muttered into his stew.

Jango waited, letting the silence stretch. Any good bounty hunter knew the value of patience. If nothing else, the last few years had taught him that those skills worked just as well in parenting recalcitrant offspring.

“Did training. Sliced into the Annex security feeds. Made it through two layers of encryption before I got caught,” Boba finally admitted.

“Did you now?” Jango said, amused. “Did you make Ward throw things again?”

Boba grinned. “No, but I think I made a couple second-level techs cry a little.”

“Good job.” Anything that kept the longnecks on their toes was a good thing as far as Jango was concerned. And if Boba had gotten that far inside Kaminoan security, he’d be able to crack most Republic systems wide open. A useful skill for anyone, but especially a bounty hunter.

Boba relaxed a little, attacking his food with renewed vigor. After a few moments, he gave Jango a sidelong look. “Dad?”

“Yeah?”

Boba swallowed hard. “I want to ask a favor.”

Taking in Boba’s white-knuckled grip on his spoon, Jango straightened. “What’s wrong, Boba?” The boy was skilled with both blaster and blade, but he was still young--half the size and strength of most of the clones around him. If someone had threatened his son …

“Iwanttotrainwiththejetii,” Boba blurted out.

Jango blinked. Had Boba just said …? “What?”

“The jetii--he’s training the clones how to fight,” Boba said, leaning forward, eyes locked on Jango. “I want to train with them.”

“The jetii is doing what?” Jango barked, half-rising from his chair. Bad enough that the jetii had been meddling with the babies. If that old man was turning his soldiers into soft, simpering hut’uun-

Boba flinched, but refused to back down. “He’s teaching them how the jetiise fight, to make them better soldiers. And you always said a great warrior can learn as much from his enemies as much as his allies. So I want to learn from the jetii too.”

That sneaking, meddling old man--if he thought he could suborn Jango’s own son …! “You are not a jetii! There is nothing that softheaded old osi’yaim can teach you that is worth more than the mandokar!” He slammed his hands down on the table, rising to his feet. Fuck Dooku, and fuck operational security. He was going to go kill that jetii, and to haran with any witnesses!

“He’s not teaching them how to fight like jetii,” Boba shouted, darting in front of him. He stood between Jango and his armor, chin raised stubbornly, hands fisted at his sides. “He’s teaching them how to fight with jetii!”

Jango reached out to shove the boy aside--then stopped as the words registered. “He’s ...what?”

“He’s teaching them how to fight with jetii,” Boba repeated. “He’s showing them all the jetiise tricks, how they fight. So that they won’t be surprised by anything the jetiise can do. That’s what I want to learn, buir. I don’t want to be a jetii. But if I can learn to fight better--isn’t that worth learning from one? Just for a little while?” His eyes were wide and pleading.

Jango realized belatedly he’d scared Boba, and felt a spike of shame. A child should never be afraid of their parent. He backed up, dropping heavily into the chair. “How long has this been going on?”

“I dunno,” Boba said, shifting uneasily, but otherwise not moving from the doorway. Smart boy. “At least five ninedays, since I’ve been watching them.”

“And who has he been teaching this osik to?” Jango forced himself to ask, trying not to snarl and only halfway succeeding.

“Uh ... “ Boba’s eyes flickered nervously, but he at least knew that refusing to answer wasn’t an option. “Command cadets, mostly, and … alpha clones.”

Jango felt his hackles rise at Boba’s admission. Not only the rank and file, but the jetii was meddling with his commandos too? No doubt trying to divide their loyalties, weaken them with blather about the Force. He shook his head. No. His alphas would stay loyal to their training. The Kaminoans had assured him of that much. Firmly squashing his temper, he forced himself to think. The Sith had never told him why they wanted an army, and he’d never asked. But Dooku had implied heavily that Jango would have some measure of revenge--against the Republic and their pet jetiise, if not necessarily against Dooku himself--if he signed on. And if his clone army had already been taught how to fight alongside the jettise … then they would also know exactly where to strike when the day came to turn against them.

Looking at Boba’s hopeful face, Jango scrubbed a hand through his hair. He hated the idea of the jetii teaching Boba. His boy was still young, with no Kaminoan conditioning; easy prey for that fork-tongued old man. But Boba was right; learning how the jetiise fought would make him that much more effective as a warrior. “Fine. But before I agree to anything, I want to see this training. I’ll judge for myself how useful it might be. When is the next session?”

“Tomorrow, after noonmeal,” Boba said eagerly, lighting up. “I usually watch from one of the observation platforms.”

“All right,” Jango said, conceding the battle, if not the war. “We’ll go tomorrow, and see just what the jetii has been teaching.”

 

*****

 

Tomorrow did not take long to arrive, unfortunately. In front of him, Boba was almost vibrating with nervous anticipation. They’d arrived early at the observation post to avoid being spotted by the cadets. No clone would dare to do anything but their best under Jango’s watchful eye, but that wasn’t what what he was here to see. He was here to see what kind of discipline--or lack of it--the jetii was training into them.

Right on schedule, the training room began to fill. The setup of the wide arena was similar to what Boba had described, programmed for a ground assault configuration, intermediate difficulty. There were more than just command-track cadets down on the floor, however; it looked like Ben had pulled in a couple full platoons, cadets in gray training armor filing in with their commanders. Boba had stilled, and Jango glanced down at him. “Something wrong?”

“This doesn’t look like the other exercises. He’s never brought in any of the regular cadets before,” Boba admitted, frowning.

“I see. Interesting.” Just what was the old man up to?

As if summoned by Jango’s thoughts, the jetii arrived, accompanied by four alpha clones. Jango bristled, then noticed Boba’s worried sidelong glance. With an effort of will, he forced the scowl off his face. After all, it wasn’t like he had ordered the alphas not to obey the man's orders--an oversight he was now regretting.

Just as Boba had said, the old man had no weapons, carrying only a simple stick. He also wore no armor, which Jango thought was beyond stupid. Training-issue blasters might have reduced power settings, but enough hits--or just one hit in the right place--could still kill.

Still, given what Jango had seen the man do, perhaps it wasn’t as idiotic as it first seemed. Reaching forward, he toggled the audio, listening as Ben began to speak.

“Today, we are going to do something a little different,” the old man announced, hands folded in his sleeves, his voice pitched to carry. There was little to be seen of the smiling, affable jetii Jango had seen with the babies. Instead, Ben seemed every inch the old warrior, and Jango found himself unwillingly intrigued by the difference. “Commanders--you have been trained how to fight alongside the Jedi. Now you will need to learn how to lead troops who have not had that same experience.”

He turned to point at the far end of the arena, where the baton indicating the mission objective waited, protected behind multiple walls, droids, and other obstacles. “Once again, I will act as your field commander. Squad leaders, you will have twenty minutes to brief your men on what to expect. After that, we begin the exercise. Also--” he turned half-turned, facing the waiting alphas. “Keeli, Ponds, Gree, Jet: your squads will be commanded by Alpha-2, 18, 46 and 33 respectively, and you will form up with me.”

“Yes sir!” came the response, the cadets eagerly moving to take position around Ben. Jango frowned, watching as Ben continued to detail squad assignments with the casual expertise of a seasoned officer, using names and numbers interchangeably.  He knew Skirata had given the Nulls all names … was the jetii giving the clones pet names as well? The idea was patently ridiculous; the Kaminoans had produced over two hundred thousand regular clones so far, with even more to follow. Still, the idea of the jetii laying any claim, no matter how tenuous, to the clones, made Jango uneasy.

Beside him, Boba leaned forward, hands tight around the railing. “He’s never done that before either,” he told Jango, eyes never leaving the action below, his face only inches away from the window.

The minutes ticked away as squads took their assigned positions and did final equipment checks. Jango kept an eye on the command cadets, interested in seeing how they would handle Ben’s tactical curveball. Some appeared to be doing their best to brief their fellow cadets as much as they could within the short amount of time they had, while others appeared to be taking more of a ‘do as I do’ command approach. The different responses were intriguing. Kaminoan training, of necessity, tended to emphasize standardization in all things, including battlefield tactics. More specialized training, the kind that encouraged initiative and adaptation, had been reserved for the ARC and commando training programs, for the alphas and the few other clones specially bred for that purpose. That the jetii seemed to expect that kind of adaptability from ordinary clones was … interesting.

The exercise began as they all did--the droids and emplacements opening fire without warning. The cadets reacted as they’d been trained, advance teams running for the nearest cover while those on the flanks covered them … but then they didn’t stop.

Jango watched in disbelief as Ben and his little squad of command cadets charged down one of the main avenues, straight into the teeth of the droids. With no jetpacks and in Ben’s case, no armor, they should have been downed within minutes. But somehow, impossibly, the jetii was blocking most of the droids’ blaster fire, sending bolts ricocheting back into the ranks of the enemy. Behind that defense, the cadets were moving almost as quickly, effortlessly anticipating the old man’s moves and taking out droids with lethal, focused ferocity.

The tactic shouldn’t have worked. If anything, it was designed to get the little squad killed, separated as they were from the main line and drawing the attention of additional droid defenders--

--except that’s exactly what Ben had intended, Jango realized. The droids, following their limited tactical programming, had focused on the nearest, most immediate threat, and the rest of the cadets wasted no time taking advantage of those openings. The alpha-led squads were in the thick of it, unsurprisingly, carving their way past the droid sentries with expert precision. They weren’t moving quite as fast as Jango knew they could, hampered by their lesser brethren; but the cadets fighting with them seemed to have borrowed a shadow of their elder brothers’ ferocity, diving in to tear droid squads apart. The rest of the forward teams weren’t far behind. The first line of droid defenders fragmented apart, and the cadets crashed through the holes their brothers had made, charging forward to take the emplacements, and then the rest of the arena, sweeping it clear of droids with brutal efficiency.

Not every squad had performed equally well.  A few had obviously not quite grasped what their squad leader had tried to tell them about unconventional jetii tactics, and found themselves caught up short or outflanked. And the droids themselves were standard training models, their actions easy to predict, which also worked in the cadets’ favor.  A true battlefield would have enemies that were far harder to anticipate. But overall, much as Jango hated to admit it, what he was seeing was better than anything he had seen the Cuy’val Dar wring out of the standard-issue clones.

“Did you see, buir?” Boba asked, looking up at him. “Did you see how they fought?”

“Yes. I did.” And that was the problem. Jango watched a few minutes longer, and then turned away. “Boba, come with me.”

It didn’t take long for them to reach the main floor. Boba shrank back a little, sticking close to Jango’s side as they entered the arena. A wave of silence spread outward at their entrance, cadets snapping to attention as they registered Jango’s presence. For his part, Jango ignored them, his attention on his quarry. Ben was further away, standing with a mixed cluster of alpha clones and command cadets.  Those same cadets, upon spotting Jango, fell into a tight defensive formation around the old jetii.

Jango paused for a moment as he belatedly registered the potential new threat.  Since when had these clones been trained for bodyguard detail? Was this something the Kaminoans had added to his training regimen? Or Ben himself?

“Hello, Jango,” Ben said pleasantly, smoothly stepping forward, out of the protective cordon of his impromptu bodyguards. “Here to see how your boys are doing?”

“Ben.” The name escaped from between gritted teeth. A slight shift at his side reminded him of Boba’s presence, and he tamped his anger at the jetii’s interference down. “You didn’t tell me you were making changes to the training regimen.”

“I would say I have made additions, rather than changes,” Ben said, unfazed by the accusation. “Your core regimen is still intact, after all. These are simply advanced lessons, so that these troopers will be ready for the battles they will face.”

Jango’s eyebrows lifted, and he didn’t bother to hide his skepticism. “And what would you know of battles, jetii?”

“Oh, more than I would like,” Ben replied, humor fading into something a great deal more somber. “But at least I can put that knowledge to good use.”

Jango found that hard to believe. No jetii had ever led anything larger than a few Judicial teams in centuries, as far as he knew. But there was no point in arguing about it here. “Boba has been watching your drills,” he said abruptly, watching to see if it threw the man off-balance.

Ben merely nodded. “I know.”

Was there anything that rattled the man? “He wants to train with the cadets. To learn how to fight like they do.” Jango kept his voice carefully neutral.

“Eager to prove your mettle, eh, Boba?” Ben said, smiling down at Boba, who was doing his best to imitate Jango’s scowl. “I think we might be able to fit you in. Perhaps with the younger command cadets?”

Jango scowled. “If I agree to let him train with you, jetii, it will only be under my personal supervision,” he snapped. “I will not have you filling his head with jetiise nonsense. You will stick to training him in combat strategy and battlefield skills, and nothing else. Is that understood?”

White eyebrows lifted in surprise. “I hadn’t realized I was that dangerous. But regardless, you are certainly welcome to stay and observe.” It was said lightly, but Jango didn’t miss the implication--that the jetii had the power to keep him away, if he so desired. He was tempted to dismiss it as simple arrogance on Ben’s part, but something-instinct, perhaps-warned him otherwise. The jetii had wormed his way so easily into the heart of this operation, despite the Kaminoans’ vaunted security. Who knew what other strings he could pull?

“If I see anything that undermines discipline, I will stop these drills and pull Boba out immediately.”

“Of course,” Ben said easily. “I would expect nothing less.”

Jango hesitated a moment more, then gave Ben a short nod. “Very well. These drills will be added to Boba’s training schedule.” Next to him, Boba was trying to maintain a stern face, but was almost vibrating with glee. Jango still hated the idea of any jetii, much less this one, training his boy. But Boba’s obvious happiness was more important than his own unsubstantiated paranoia.

“Welcome, Boba,” Ben said seriously, inclining his head in a half-bow. “It is an honor to be your teacher. Let’s see if we can find you a squad--I’m sure there’s one or two who could use an extra man.” He turned to the waiting clones, moving off.

Boba looked up at Jango, silently asking for permission. Shoving down his misgivings, Jango nodded, and Boba darted off. Jango’s hands fisted at his sides, already second-guessing his decision as he watched his son follow the jetii.

What was he doing? Had the jetii somehow arranged all this? Jango couldn’t see how; Force-compulsions were obvious to spot, if you knew what to look for.  He watched Boba, little shoulders squared, doing his best to stand straight and tall as he moved past clones twice his size.  No, Boba’s desire to learn was all too real. Jango could remember his own ferocious desire to be the best, the strongest, at that age. And whatever schemes the jetii was working on, Ben was unlikely to do anything to endanger Boba. Not while Jango was watching, at least.

So why did Jango feel like he had stepped into a trap?

Chapter Text

Shell Game
25 BBY
Clones: Null-10 (Jaing), CC-6454 (Ponds), CC-1993 (Jet), CT-9983 (Slick), Alpha-22 (Tavo), CC-2297 (Keeli)

 

Jaing scrubbed hands over his face, and resisted the urge to throw his datapad across the room. He’d been staring at tracking logs, movement analyses, and associated surveillance data for over two weeks now, and while he was pretty sure he’d identified at least some of the ringleaders, he still couldn’t figure out what they were doing. Which left him trying to correlate target movements with vid feeds, trying to spot what he was missing.

Problem was, the only thing more boring than actually doing the training? Was watching it.

Day after day, the pattern was always the same. Sleep cycle, firstmeal, drills, midmeal, flash training, more drills, lastmeal, sleep cycle. Command cadets had more advanced tactical modules, and older cadets spent more time in live-fire exercises and simulations than the basic flash modules, but that was about as interesting as it got. And other than a few blips on the sleep cycles, none of his targets had taken a step out of place or disobeyed a single order. There simply was nothing to indicate that any of these cadets were anything other than the obedient soldiers the longnecks had designed them to be.

And yet … Jaing was certain they were hiding something, even if he couldn’t prove it. Yet.

Kal’buir had always said that good intel was simply a matter of close observation and patience; learning how to spot the threads that made up the pattern and tracing how they tangled, until you knew just which one to pull. Looking at the big picture was getting him nowhere--maybe it was time for Jaing take a closer look at a single thread, and hope it led somewhere interesting.

He chose one of the command cadets at random: CC-6454. At 6 years old, the boy was unrelentingly average. His test scores were solidly in middle of the range, and while his performance in command simulations got the job done, they also lacked the flashes of brilliance that some of his peers were capable of. If there ever was a clone designed to draw less attention to himself, it was 6454.

Jaing stalked the boy for over a week using every tool in his arsenal: chip traces, vid feeds, even trailing him in person. He learned the names of every batchmate, every trainer and clone that 6454 interacted with. Watched him as he ate. As he slept. Even how often he went to the ‘fresher.

All of which was completely, unutterably, hideously BORING.

By the end of the week, Jaing was so desperate for entertainment that he had started planning mock assassinations in his head, picking targets at random: trainers, longnecks, random whitejobs. Once even Fett himself, when their progenitor wandered into view. The temptation to try and it and see what would happen almost too much to resist. If he failed, no doubt Fett would kill him. But if he succeeded … well, that would definitely make things interesting. He wondered what his brothers would think. What Kal’buir would do. Would he be angry or impressed?

Below, a longneck was calling the red-uniformed cadets to order and handing out assignments. Jaing watched idly as each cadet saluted and stepped forward to receive their orders.

“6454--you will complete module DT-19901. Review all three scenarios, and show your proposed strategies for each.” Jaing stiffened as 6454 stepped forward, hand outstretched to take the data chip. Something was wrong.

To outsiders, even the longnecks, clones all looked the same. Kaminoan uniform and training standards ensured all the vode had near-identical haircuts, clothing, and speech patterns. Combined with identical faces and builds, it was almost impossible for an outsider to tell one clone from another. Most trainers didn’t bother, relying on subdermal identification chips and rank markers instead.

But to a clone, the tiny differences in stance, in expression and mannerisms that distinguished one brother from the next were easy to spot; and the cadet Jaing was watching, that had just responded to the trainer’s call, was not 6454.

He watched, every sense on alert, as the unknown cadet worked through the assigned training, turning in his report to the trainer--acting, for all intents and purposes, as if he really were 6454. It was only because Jaing was watching so closely that he saw the switch; several other cadets creating a flurry of movement to distract the trainer at just the right moment to allow 6454 to slip back into the room at the end of the training session, trading places with his replacement.

“Those clever little bastards,” Jaing murmured, impressed. The entire maneuver had been well-coordinated, as smooth an operation as anything the Nulls had ever pulled. And it had been accomplished without so much as a flicker of nervousness or guilt to give the game away. Obviously this wasn’t the first time 6454 had swapped places with this particular cadet. Which left Jaing with two very interesting questions. How long had these two cadets been doing it? And what else had the whitejobs been up to when no one had been looking?

 

*****

 

Once he knew what to look for, the tactics that the whitejobs were using became clear.

The idea of swapping places to avoid a trainer’s ire--or to get one of your brothers in trouble--wasn’t anything new, of course. Jaing and his brothers had done it themselves. But there had been only six of them, and few enough opportunities to pull off such pranks under Kal’buir’s eagle eye.  The regular cadets, however, numbered in the tens of thousands, ranging in age from tubies to newly-minted troopers. With thousands of clones, it was easy to stay unnoticed in the crowd. And while the whitejobs had been designed to be obedient and loyal, their loyalty, Jaing belatedly realized, extended not just to the Republic, but to each other as well.

Subterfuge, misdirection, and plausible deniability was the name of the game. The cadet that had covered for 6454 had been a batchmate--6444, a cadet with a number that sounded similar enough that it gave them both a plausible-sounding excuse, if caught out by a trainer. And they weren’t the only ones using trickery to escape, or to ensure their batch-brothers’ survival, Jaing discovered. He watched another, younger pair of cadets attempt the same trick on an irate mid-caste technician and fail. Even in the face of certain punishment, cadet 4124 stuck to his guns, wide-eyed and obedient, pretending to be utterly convinced that he had been told to report to pilot training rather than cadet 4224. They’d both ended up assigned to sanitation detail as punishment for their ‘inattention’, but that still was a far better outcome than what would have happened had the tech believed 4224 had deliberately disobeyed an order.

The longer Jaing looked, the more examples he saw of cadets working together. They most often worked in pairs or trios, batch-brothers with similar-sounding designations who routinely swapped places in order to gain a few brief, precious moments of freedom. Even the youngest cadets were covering for each other, blocking sight lines or causing minor disturbances to draw the attention of trainers and droids. The older they were, the better they got at it. The subdermal chips the longnecks used to track their product were a problem, but the cadets had learned quickly how to use the crowds of their brethren to evade notice, even using power conduits and other sources of interference to their advantage.

Both the bluebacks and their elder brothers were cautious, far more careful than Jaing and his brothers had ever been. They never did a swap in front of a trainer who’d previously caught other cadets, and only when supervised by droids or lower-caste longnecks, rather than any of the Cuy’val Dar. Given the stakes, Jaing couldn’t blame them for that--he hadn’t forgotten how close he and his brothers had come to being decommissioned. If it hadn’t been for Kal’buir, and Fett … but no trainer was going to stick out their neck for an ordinary clone caught where they shouldn’t be.

To be honest, he was more than a little embarrassed at how blind he’d been. He’d gotten so used to thinking of the whitejobs as dumbed-down cannon fodder that he and his brothers had never bothered to really pay attention to them. But now that Jaing was looking …

… well, maybe the whitejobs might just be worthy of being called vode, after all.

 

*****

 

Three days later, crouched motionless in the deep shadows of a forgotten service corridor, Jaing watched intently as a conspiracy took shape.

 

*****

 

“-so we’ve decided, then. That’s when we’re going to move.” The little huddle of senior cadets kept their heads down and their voices low. Their hiding place wasn’t much--a small section of mostly-unused hallway, heavily festooned with piping and conduit--but it was better than nothing. Having so many of them gathered in one place was a risk, one that grew larger with each brother they added to their little group, but this particular meeting had been too important for anything else.

Slick--the sole trooper cadet in the group--drummed fingers on the floor, considering. “It makes the most sense. Right now, we have nothing. The Kaminoans have invested too much money in the vode--they’ll never let us go. We need leverage. And the Republic, the Kaminoans … they need us. Or they will.”

Keeli nodded. “So we use that need against them. They get what they want, but only if we get what we want. That makes sense.”

“Unless they think they’ve been tricked, and get angry,” Ponds pointed out, chin resting on his folded knees. “What if the Republic refuses to play along? Then we’re just useless product taking up space. What’s to stop the Kaminoans from just dumping all of us into the sea if they don’t get paid?”

Tavo--one of the few Alpha clones that had been able to fight past his own deeply-conditioned loyalties to listen to them, and to Ben--said calmly, “That’s why we need the Jedi.”

“We can’t rely just on the jetiise to save us,” Ponds replied. “Republic rules or no Republic rules, the jetiise can only protect those they can reach. They’re not Ben. They can’t be everywhere.”

“Even Ben can’t be everywhere,” Slick reminded them. “Not for something like this.” Their resident jetii had quite clear on that front. He would act as teacher and guide, and protect those who had never been given a choice; but he could not protect them from the consequences of their decisions, or save every brother who might fall in battle.

“Right. And we have no idea when we’ll be deployed,” Ponds said. “It could be tomorrow--”

“It won’t be that soon,” Jet said from his spot just around the corner. As their designated sentry, his eyes never left the dimly lit corridor beyond. “We aren’t ready. There aren’t enough beskar’vod yet.”

“--or it could be ten years from now,” Ponds continued, giving his elder brother an annoyed look. “My point is, our plan has to be flexible. Ben has said the jetiise will come for us. But he didn’t say when, or how many. We don’t know how many of us will be deployed right away, and how many the Republic might keep in reserve. We’ll all probably be scattered across different companies, different divisions--even different ships, and we have to take that into account, if we want to have a fighting chance.”

Slick shrugged. “We already know command will need to be decentralized,” he said, his expression grim. “We can’t afford to fail just because we lose a particular person at the wrong time. The arrival of the jetiise will be the first trigger. Everyone will need to know what to do, and start moving independently to make sure their commands are in position. After that … we need to figure out the most likely outcomes, identify their trigger points, and have backup plans in place.” He gave his co-conspirators a level look, his expression flat and determined. “I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to rely solely on the jetiise for our brothers’ freedom. We need to make sure we get our hands on enough firepower to make the Republic think twice about trying to do something stupid, like claiming their army by force. Kemir pel, a'jurir majyc tebec.”

Tavo frowned, mouth thinning, obviously unhappy with Slick’s brutal pragmatism, and the rest of the little group shifted nervously.

“Do we have that right, though?” Fox said quietly. He looked down at his hands, tightly clenched into fists. “To decide this for all our brothers?”

Slick bristled. “What are you talking about? We’re doing this so that our brothers can be free. So that they can choose for themselves!”

“But they never asked us to. There are brothers who would never agree to any of this--but we’re making that decision for them anyway,” Fox said, stubbornly refusing to back down. “I’ve been thinking about that. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I want something better. I want us not to be slaves anymore. But is what I want worth putting all of our brothers-even the ones that haven’t been decanted yet-in danger?”

Silence fell.

“I think,” Ponds said slowly, every word carefully measured, “That it’s like Ben said. Whether we succeed or fail, we have to live with the consequences of what we choose.” He lifted his head, eyes dark. “This is a battle that we will have to lead our brothers into, and it doesn’t matter if they want to go or not. We have to accept that, and we have to decide now if we’re willing to go forward anyway. If what we’re choosing for them is worth fighting for. Worth dying for.” He looked around, at each identical face in their little huddle, as if committing them to memory. “Is it?”

Slick’s answer was immediate. “Yes.”

Jet nodded somberly in agreement. After a few moments hesitation, Keeli and Tavo both echoed Slick, squaring their shoulders.

Ponds turned to Fox, who stayed quiet, his back straight and rigid. “... it’s worth it,” he finally agreed. He looked up, locking eyes with his brother. “But only if the vode get to choose afterwards. All of them--they should all get the chance to decide whether they want to follow us or not. I know the Republic will need us, but--I don’t want anyone in my command who doesn’t want to be there.”

“Agreed,” Ponds said, reaching out to clasp Fox’s shoulder.

“Great, we’ve all agreed. Now can we get back to maybe figuring out how to keep our vod’ika alive?” Slick snapped, impatient with their dithering.

“If any reserves are left behind on Kamino, rounding up the cadets should be easy enough. But the tubies are a problem,” Keeli said, frowning. “The habitats and the production areas are all restricted; none of the vode have access. And you can bet that as soon as we move, the longnecks will purge any batches they have in production.”

“We can’t let that happen,” Ponds said, hands clenching into white-knuckled fists.

“How?” Keeli said. “It’s like you said earlier. We don’t know how many of us will be deployed, or where. Even if we do somehow get access, how do we make sure that there are enough vode left behind to protect them?”

No one had an answer to that, and the silence stretched.

 

*****

 

Jaing had heard enough. Kom’rk and the others were going to kill him when they found out … but Jaing wasn’t about to let himself be outdone by babies. Baby whitejobs at that--who had somehow managed to hatch a plan more ambitious than any the Nulls had ever dared come up with.

“I think I can help you with that,” he said, straightening up and stepping out from behind a section of piping. He’d worn some of his armor--not the whole kit, but enough that the painted grays and dark blues had broken up his outline. The cadets stiffened in fear, Tavo shoving his way forward, hands at the ready to grab the interloper. Jaing wasn’t worried. The day he couldn’t take an alpha plank was the day he’d let Vau turn him into strill chow. “Try it, see how far you get,” he dared the younger clone, grinning fiercely.

“What are you doing here?” Tavo snarled. “Were you following us?”

“Yup,” Jaing said. “I have to give you guys credit though. You definitely did not make it easy.” The little group of cadets bristled like cornered tooka kits, shouldering up behind Tavo, and he put up his hands. “Stand down, ad’ikut. I’m here to help. Well, mostly I’m here because I was curious. But now that I know what you’re up to … well, I want to sign up.”

“Why?” Slick said, scowling. “Why help us out?”

“Because I’ve been watching you, and I like what I see,” Jaing said honestly. “You’re clever, you’re careful, and you’ve got the start of a plan. Besides, me and my brothers are just as trapped here as you are.” He watched the cadets glance uneasily at each other.

“How do we know we can trust you?” Tavo said.

“You don’t,” Jaing replied. His smile was a feral thing, teeth white against the smudged dark lines of paint across his face. “But you will.”

Chapter Text

Mantra
32 BBY
Clones: 4862, 4845

 

45 squalled angrily, pulling himself upright. That was his spot, and his blanket! 62 knew that! And pushed him anyway! Balling up small fists, he launched himself at his brother--

--only to have firm hands catch him about the middle, pulling him back as he squirmed and kicked. Ben-bu looked down at him, shaking his head. “There’s no need to be so angry, little one.”

Ben set him back down, and 45 scowled up at the jetii. Easy for him to say. 62 hadn’t stolen his blanket! He pushed himself up again, ready to reclaim his property by force, only to have Ben press learning blocks into their hands and take the blanket from 62, draping it over both of them.

“See? Large enough to keep you both warm,” he said, smiling. 45 gave 62 a suspicious glare, ready to retaliate if his brother was going to snatch the blanket away again, but 62 didn’t seem to care, attention diverted by his new toy. Deprived of his revenge, 45 smacked his block angrily against the floor. It made a satisfyingly loud thwack, and he did it again.

Ben-bu winced a little at the noise. He reached out, as if to stop 45--then stopped short. “You know … you might just have something there, verd’ika,” he said thoughtfully. He picked up a block of his own, considered it for a moment, then knocked it against the floor. Thwok!

45 hesitated, eyeing Ben-bu warily … Kir-bu and the droids didn’t like it when they made noise. Smiling, Ben did it again. Thwok!

Vindicated, 45 hammered his block against the floor. Ben joined in, keeping a steady tempo: thwok, thwok, thwok! Soon 62 joined in, smacking his own toy in noisy glee.

Ben began to chant, the steaky thwok of his block keeping time. “Kandosii sa ka'rta.Thwok!

“Ka!” thwack! “Sa!” thwack! 45 chanted back happily, excited by the noise.

Vode an,” Ben continued, giving them an encouraging smile. Thwok!

“Van! D’an!” 62 added in, his efforts creating an uneven staccato addition to the beat. More brothers, diverted from their own playtime, began to join in, whacking hands and toys against hard surfaces, creating a cacophony of sound.

Republic cabur mhi.” Thwok!

“-blick! Mi!” 45 chanted, whacking his block enthusiastically against the hard flooring, doing his best to be the loudest voice in the group. Other voices echoed behind him, more brothers doing their best to join the chant, even though they didn’t know the words any better than 45 did. “Ka! Bur!”

Ben grinned down at them all. “Vode an--” he said--when the door slid open. Kir-bu stood in the doorway, head drawn back, eyelids half-shuttered in surprise against the onslaught of the sudden noise.

“What in the--master Jedi?” The noise quieted for a moment, 45 reflexively huddling closer to Ben-bu. Kir-bu didn’t like noise, and 45 didn’t want to be punished. Ben, however, didn’t stop, the steady thwok of his block against the floor never faltering. He tilted his head, looking up at Kir-bu.

“Hello, Second-caretaker Kir,” Ben-bu said in greeting. “Care to join us?”

Kir-bu frowned. “Join … in what, precisely?”

“Teaching,” Ben-bu said.

Kir-bu flinched as a few of brothers, encouraged by Ben’s steady rhythm, began hammering their own toys against the walls and floor. He drew in breath to shout; then his eyes fell on the Jedi, and he visibly controlled himself. “With respect, master Jedi, what could you possibly be teaching with this … noise?”

Ben smiled. “Cadence and rhythm, how to move and work in unison. Not to mention verbal skills and mnemonics. As I’m sure you know, chants and songs are an efficient way for young minds to learn.”

“Ah, I … see.” Kir-bu didn’t seem to see at all, but at least he wasn’t shouting at them. “I do not remember any such training being incorporated into the developmental plan.”

Ben hummed a bit. “This is true. I do believe it will be beneficial, however.”

Kir-bu frowned, his head swaying a bit, obviously torn between annoyance and ingrained obedience to authority. “I will need to take this before the developmental director.”

“Of course,” Ben said, unworried. The steady drum of his block against the floor punctuated his words. Encouraged by his jetii’s defiance, 45 began to do the same, staring at Kir-bu. Making noise was fun!

Kir-bu made an exasperated noise, turning on his heel. Ben smiled down at them as the doors hissed shut behind the indignant Kaminoan. “Now, where were we?”

 

******

 

29 BBY

“Bal kote, darasuum kote
Vode an
Jorso'ran kando a tome
Vode an-”

The cadence echoed across the rain-swept platform as another platoon jogged past in formation, led by their cadet commanders. Crossing his arms, Wad’e frowned as he watched them go by. The clones’ use of mando’a was perhaps to be expected, given their trainers’ habit of using it during training. But the words ...

“Sa kyr'am nau tracyn kad
Vode an
Kandosii sa ka'rta
Vode an--”

Hearing the subtle creak of armor, Wad’e glanced over his shoulder. Clad in red and black beskar’gam, Rav stepped up to join him, helm under one arm. “What are you scowling at? You look like you swallowed a saltfish,” she said, keeping a watchful eye on the soaked cadets as they were put through their paces.

“Nothing important, just … did you teach them that chant?” Wad’e asked. It wasn’t a war chant he was familiar with. Perhaps Rav or one of the others had decided to teach their assigned batches a bit more mando’a than usual?

Rav tilted her helm, listening to the cadence, then shook her head. “It’s not familiar, no. You didn’t teach it to them?”

“No. And none of the other trainers I’ve talked to know where it came from, either.” Another platoon swept by, booted feet slamming against the decking in precise, orderly ranks as the clones sang in accented mando’a, their young, eerily identical voices strong and sure.

“Acy'kaan bal'naak
Vode an--”

“Doesn’t seem likely they just made it up all on their own,” Rav said, giving an offhand shrug. “Maybe Vau or Skirata adapted one of the battle chants for their training. You know how fast that kind of thing can spread between batches.”

She had a point. If a single clone or batch found a better sparring technique or better battle stratagem, the rest were sure to adopt it within a couple of months.  It was one of the more unnerving things about these clones, in his opinion.  Wad’e was used to the fierce individuality of Mando’ade. Compared to that, the homogeneity of his trainees, not just in appearance, but in mindset and personality, occasionally bothered him. It just felt … wrong, somehow, training cadets who all reacted the same, and who--for the most part--all learned at the same rate.

On the other hand, it also made his job a hell of a lot easier. Maybe he should just stop looking a gift nerf in the mouth. Wad’e grunted, shoving his misgivings aside. “You might be right.”

It was just a cadence, after all. In the end, did it matter where it came from?

 

*****

 

25 BBY
Clones: Null-6 (Kom’rk)

 

Kom’rk had started out looking for Jaing’s ‘suspicious’ whitejobs ... but soon found himself diverted by something a lot more interesting.

He’d first gotten a glimpse of her near the cadet training areas; little more than a flash of golden eyes and gray skin that blended into the shadows, a swirl of dark fabric that disappeared around a corner. Intrigued, Kom’rk had followed. Using hacked vid feeds--thank you, Jaing--and heat traces to keep a safe distance, he trailed his quarry as she prowled deeper into the complex.

At first, he had thought perhaps she might be some oddly-hominid subspecies of Kaminoan. But she didn’t act like a longneck, and seemed to actively dislike the water. She definitely wasn’t one of the Cuy’val Dar.  Whatever she was--and Kom’rk was pretty sure his quarry was a ‘she’, given the very obvious curves on display--she was something he’d never expected to find in the sterile, antiseptic lower levels of Tipoca City. The way she moved fascinated him; her every movement had the sinewy, lethal grace of a tideripper from the deep undersea, economical, assured ... and full of barely-leashed violence.

It didn’t take Kom’rk long to figure out that she was hunting, though he couldn’t tell who or what she was looking for. It wasn’t any of the vode, who she ignored with barely concealed disdain. She hadn’t singled out any of the trainers, or any of the longnecks. Instead she tracked back and forth, quartering most of Tipoca City, moving from habitats to training decks to production facilities and back again, as if following an elusive scent-trail … only to come up empty-handed as her quarry eluded her. 

After the fourth day of her fruitless search, she finally lost her temper.  After walking into yet another dead end, she spun on her heel, snarling, and swept a vicious hand at a bank of machinery.  Kom'rk froze, watching in disbelief as a condenser coil ripped itself from the wall, wiring and metal tearing free, as if wrenched apart by an invisible hand . Kom’rk held his breath as the machinery hung, unsupported in this air … and then the woman moved, almost too fast to see, slashing it apart with a glowing red plasma blade.  Within moments, the machinery had been reduced to several smoking pieces that clattered to the floor.

Kom’rk fought past his own disbelief.  The longnecks' training had been thorough, and he knew what he was looking at, even if he’d never seen one used before. A lightsaber. Did that mean--? But just as he was starting to think that perhaps a tactical retreat was in order, his quarry had turned again, lightsaber in hand--and this time, she was looking directly at him.

 

*****

 

Ventress stared at the boy, feeling rage throb in her temples. Tearing apart inconveniently-placed bits of machinery instead of a certain meddlesome Jedi was hardly satisfying, and days of fruitless searching had not improved her temper. She knew the Jedi was still here, somewhere--she would have had to be Force-blind not to feel his presence. But somehow, impossibly, the old man was always one step ahead. Even when she thought she had him cornered, he was never where he should be, and the few times she had spotted the man, it was in places that were far too public for an ambush.

She could have simply gone for a frontal attack, of course. It would have been messy, and Dooku would not have been happy with the collateral damage, but it would have gotten the job done. But the memory of her last encounter with the old Jedi made her hesitate. If she attacked him again, and failed … not only might she lose the use of her remaining functional lightsaber, but it was entirely possible she would end up publicly humiliated as well, idly smacked down like a misbehaving aak pup.

But she couldn’t delay forever. Dooku was expecting her to report in, and the longer this took, the less likely he was to be forgiving, either of the delay, or of her failure to eliminate the Jedi. No, she either needed to kill the Jedi soon … or she needed to tell Dooku of her failure, and accept the fact that there likely would be a great deal of pain in her immediate future.

The boy following her, however, was no Jedi. Caught, he’d abandoned any attempt at concealment, pulling off his helm to regard her with wary fascination. Obviously a clone, nearly an adult, with a stubborn jaw and narrowed golden-brown eyes, this one seemed … different, somehow. Older, better trained, and unlike all the others she had encountered, not the least bit afraid. Which wasn’t exactly something she was used to; not from any male, much less a juvenile.

“Who are you?” the clone asked.

The urge to slide into indignation and fury, to respond with reflexive violence, was a potent one. How dare this male, this manufactured toy soldier, challenge her! He was nothing, and all she had to do was reach out a hand and squeeze, enjoy the feel of the boy’s fear and desperate struggles through the Force as she listened to the sound of his vertebra snapping, one by one--

--but something else sparked, the deep female instinct of a Dathomiri huntqueen, that whispered wait. That saw the way the boy held himself; holding his ground without cringing in deference, poised either to attack or to flee. This boy knew violence and power, but wasn’t anything like the broken and deferential things the Nightsisters made of their males. Instead he was curious, fascinated by her power, rather than covetous or fearful of it. And something deep inside her, long buried ... liked that feeling.

“Who are you, boy, that I should tell you?” she said, taking a step forward. Her lightsaber hummed against her palm, a discordant song full of lethal promise.

“No one special,” the boy said. He gave her a sharp-edged and feral smile. “Just someone who tracked you for three days without you ever noticing I was there.” He tilted his head. “Someone who might be able to help you find whatever it is you’re looking for.”

“You think so, do you?” Ventress said, caught between amusement and annoyance at the clone’s audacity. “And what if I told you that I had known you were there all along, and simply wanted to see what you would do?”

The boy gave her a skeptical look. “You don’t strike me as the kind of person who’d let someone like me have a free shot at their back. I could have taken you out any time, you know.”

“Could you now?” Ventress said, darkly amused. Coming to a decision, she toggled off her lightsaber. She had to admit that the clone’s faith in his own skills wasn’t completely unwarranted;  she had noticed the boy following her--but only in the last day or so. “And why exactly would you want to help me, clone?” If this was some kind of pathetic attempt by Jango at keeping tabs on her ….

“It’s Kom’rk, not ‘clone’,” the boy said, bristling. “And why not? You’re a lot more interesting than anything else around here.” He waved a disdainful hand that somehow encompassed all of Kamino.

Even if his restless energy hadn’t been easy to see, the boy’s words rang true in the Force. Ventress considered him, this barely-tamed young Fett, eager to cut his fangs on more interesting prey.

“If you wish to help me in my hunt, then tell me this, clone: where does the Jedi have his quarters?”

Kom’rk blinked, caught off-guard by the question. “A jetii? Here?”

“Yes,” Ventress snapped, her patience wearing thin. “A Jedi, a sneaking, foolish old man. He is here, yet somehow I am unable to find him. If you wish to be useful to me, then I suggest you tell me everything you know about him.”

“I--” The boy’s arrogance faltered under his honest bewilderment. “I’ve heard of the jetiise, but--why would one be here? Kal’buir hates them. Fett too.” He hesitated. “There’s really a jetii here?”

“That is what I just said,” Ventress replied, holding on to the barest thread of her patience. “One that even your vaunted progenitor cannot seem to kill.”

That sparked true interest, golden-brown eyes narrowing in consideration. “Is that so?” Kom’rk said, contemplating that particular bit of information. “A jetii that Fett can’t kill, and you can’t find … “ He was silent for a moment. “I don’t know anything about this jetii--yet. But no one knows this place better than me and my brothers. We can find him for you.”

Ventress considered the offer. The boy’s obvious confidence in his skills might or might not prove useful. However, the Jedi had already proven himself to have a soft spot for these clones. Even if Kom’rk was unable to accomplish what he claimed, he might still be of use as bait.

She gave Kom’rk a shark-like smile. “Very well, boy. You have two days. Let’s see how good you are hunting Jedi.”

Chapter Text

Lessons
27 BBY
Clones: RC-1207 (Sev), RC-3222 (Atin)

 

Atin slammed into the wall, head snapping back against the plascrete. The shock of it left him dazed, his ears ringing; he tried to push himself up, only to have the broken bones of his arm protest with another nauseating flare of agony. The iron tang of blood clogged his throat, spreading over his tongue. He set his teeth, trying to swallow against it, breathing shallowly. Vomiting would only make things worse.

“Get up.”

He tried. He honestly did. He made it to his knees; but when he tried to push himself to his feet, vertigo put him back on the floor. He couldn’t even roll as he landed, no longer sure which way was up. His brothers were nearby, standing in their ranks, but there would be no help from that quarter. Not here. He scrabbled for purchase, pushing stubbornly against blood-slicked tile with his good hand. He had to move, to get up. If he didn’t, Vau would--

“Pathetic.” Vau’s voice was as frigid as the deepest ocean, devoid of anything but contempt. “Is this truly the best they could send me?” As the trainer approached, Atin desperately tried to control his fear. None of his previous training had been like this. Then, he’d been proud at being the best, at passing every test put in front of him, no matter how difficult. Proud to be chosen to train as a commando, one of the elite.

Now … all he felt was nausea and fear as Vau made it clear, again and again, that they were failures. That they weren’t strong enough, and never would be.

A faint memory floated past; something he hadn’t thought of in years.

Control your breathing, verd’ika. In and out. Acknowledge your pain, and understand what it is trying to tell you. Then let it go, into the Force.

It was hard. Much harder here, in this place, with Vau standing over him. Vau’s pet strill, Lord Mirdalan, was at the man’s side, and the stench of the animal saturated the air, its subsonic snarl vibrating through his bones.

“If you can’t stand, then you can’t fight. If you can’t fight, you’re useless to me. Get up.” The words were an order, short and sharp as the crack of a whip. Pushing the nausea down, Atin breathed in. Breathed out. Then pushed himself up, towards that voice. Somehow he managed to climb to his feet. His vision was blurry, objects sliding away as he tried to focus on them.

“Finish him,” Vau said. But the order wasn’t directed at him. It was aimed at his opponent.

The blurry, green-uniformed shape of his brother jerked forward towards him, responding to the command--then hesitated.

Vau was on Sev before Atin had even realized he’d moved. A gauntleted fist met flesh with a flat crack as Vau backhanded the other boy to the ground. “Compassion has no place on the battlefield! Your enemy is in front of you, and your only job is to make sure he does not get up again. Finish him!”

Atin lunged, desperation driving him forward. Better to force Sev’s hand and spend some time in the infirmary then to have Vau carve his lessons on his brother’s hide. Or worse, set Mird on them. But his feet tangled beneath him, the ground swooping sideways. He was falling, and he’d failed them both, and the thought of that was almost worse than anything else--

--strong arms caught him before he could hit the floor. “Bravely done, verd’ika,” a familiar voice said. “But I think this particular battle is done, at least for the moment.” Blood and bile clogged Atin’s throat, the sudden change in position making him choke. His vision grayed as he fought for air, desperately clutching at the unexpected support. Calloused fingertips pressed against his brow, warm and strong, and the nausea receded. His vision cleared. Atin looked up, and saw white hair, a familiar lined and white-bearded face.

“... Ben?” He hadn’t spoken the name in years. He’d convinced himself that his half-formed memories of the jetii couldn’t possibly be real. Hadn’t allowed himself the weakness of believing the whispers, of relying on anything but his own strength and that of his brothers.

Ben gave him a smile. “You must forgive me. I normally wait until I am called upon to interfere.” Ben boosted Atin upright, settling him on his knees, a hand at his back to steady him. “But in this case, I found I could not wait any longer.”

Atin didn’t want to look away. But he forced himself to do it anyway, looking over at Vau, dreading what he would see.

The man’s contemptuous facade had given way to icy anger, one hand curled around the blaster at his hip. “Jetii,” the trainer hissed, as if the word itself was foul.

“That is correct.” Ben pressed down gently on Atin’s shoulder, just enough to keep him seated as the jetii rose, turning to face the incensed Mandalorian. “And you are Walon Vau. A man who believes that beating children turns them into warriors.”

“How I train my cadets is none of your concern, jetii,” Vau snapped. “But perhaps you can be of use, if only as an example on how a warrior deals with his enemies. Mird! Jurkadir!”

The strill, a full meter long of whipcord muscle and killer instinct, responded to its master’s command, launching itself at its prey. Ben made no effort to defend himself, yet the strill stopped just short of the jetii, tongue lolling out as it tasted the air. It hesitated, tail whipping back and forth--then Mird backed away, shaking its head and whining in distress.

Atin could hear a low murmur from the brothers behind him, a subtle exhalation of shock. None of the vode had never seen Mird disobey Vau.  Or for that matter, pass up the opportunity for a kill.

Vau’s face contorted; he pulled his blaster, levelling at the old man. In the same instant, Ben’s hand flew up … and the power pack dropped out of the weapon, clattering to the floor.

Ben flicked two fingers in a short, sharp gesture. The rest of the blaster fell apart in Vau’s hand, forcibly separated into its component parts. Pieces rang against floorplates, bouncing away in different directions. “You will find that it is not so easy to be rid of me,” Ben said, his voice hard. “And I will no longer stand by and allow you to have your way. Not in this.”

“You arrogant--!” Vau hissed, and then he was lunging forward, vibroblade in hand.

The fight that followed was short, vicious, and unlike anything Atin had ever seen. Vau was in full beskar’gam, sans helmet, had a blade, and was arguably one of the best hand-to-hand fighters in the Cuy’val Dar. Ben had no weapons, no armor, and was easily twice Vau’s age. There was no way he could win.

No one had apparently told the jetii that, however.

Vau wasn’t holding back, doing his best to kill Ben, while Ben … Ben was countering every strike, stepping in and around the Mandalorian as if this were some kind of intricate dance, and Vau’s blade merely a nuisance to avoid.  Atin watched in disbelief as Ben took Vau apart, and made it look easy.

Vau’s initial slashes met only cloth and air, Ben sidestepping the attack with ease. The vibroblade soon fell victim to the jetii as Ben intercepted a vicious stab to the gut, pinning the arm, then stabbed down with stiffened fingertips in a precise blow to the wrist. Vau’s hand convulsed, and the blade dropped. Snarling, the Mandalorian tried to twist, to reverse the grip and slam the jetii to the floor … only to have Ben give way, bending like a reed, dropping to one knee and using the man’s own momentum to fling Vau into the wall.

Beskar’gam met reinforced wall, the plascrete surface buckling under the impact. Deprived of his first weapon, Vau pulled a second blade, his face a mask of frustrated fury. Rolling to his feet, he launched himself at his enemy once more.

Ben stayed in the center of the floor, a fixed and immovable point.  He was an easy target for Vau’s second attack. It met with as little success as the first. Vau sliced at Ben’s unprotected face, there was a short, sharp exchange of blows, almost too fast for Atin to follow--and then the blade broke, cadets ducking as the sharp shard of metal flew through the air. Vau attempted a counterpunch, the jagged remnants of the blade still clenched in a gauntleted fist, and Ben spun into the attack, cloak flying. Wrapping an oddly gentle hand around the back of the man’s neck, he slammed Vau face-first to the floor.

Hands folded into his sleeves, the jetii stepped backwards, watching as the man reeled. Vau pushed himself up on all fours, droplets of blood flying as he shook his head. His nose was obviously broken, lip split, the sharp aristocratic lines of his face masked in crimson.

Vau heaved himself to his feet once more, swaying. Ben waited. Mird whined from the sidelines, pacing back and forth.

Vau attacked again. And again. Atin was forced admit that as much as he hated the trainer, it was clear that Vau demanded no less from himself than he did others.

What was also clear, however, was how little it mattered. Each successive attack was slower, easier to predict. While Ben was always just one step ahead, letting his opponent overextend, using Vau’s own strikes against him with precise and devastating force. Until finally Vau hit the floor, and did not rise.

Looking at the broken form of his trainer, Atin wasn’t sure what he was supposed to feel. Pity warred with a dark kind of satisfaction; but underneath it all was a bone-deep fear that squeezed at his throat like a vise. Would Vau blame them for this? What would he do to them, once he recovered?

Ben looked down at Vau, his face remote. Then he knelt. Pulling the man over onto his back, he rested two fingers on the trainer’s forehead. Vau blinked blearily awake, his mouth thinning with pain.

“This was a lesson,” Ben told him. “One I am prepared to repeat as necessary, should you continue as you have.” The words were calm and even, devoid of any kind of triumph. He stood. “I would prefer, however, that you learn from this, and prove that you can be something other than what your father made you.”

Vau struggled up on one elbow, breathing heavily. “You … know nothing … about me, jetii!” He spat blood onto the floor near Ben’s feet. “And your meddling … will only make these boys … into weaklings!”

“We shall see.” Ben looked over at Atin, and the rest of his brothers, and his face was somber. “You cannot beat a boy into becoming a better soldier. I intend for them to become warriors. Not murderers and sadists, who will go on to inflict their own wounds upon others.” He turned away.

“Fett … will hear of this, jetii!” Vau croaked, his humiliation and fury pushing him upright. “You will regret … your interference!”

Ben half-turned, his brows lifted at the threat. “Truly? You are willing to admit to the rest of the Cuy’val Dar that you were beaten by a single unarmed Jedi?” He folded his hands into his sleeves once more. “If so, then that will be an interesting conversation indeed. A shame I will miss it.” He bowed. “Until next time, Vau.”

Atin watched, hands clenched into fists over his knees, as Ben walked towards them. Sev had edged his way around to him over the course of the fight, standing at his shoulder in silent support. Ben looked down at them, his expression softening.

“You fought well, both of you.” He reached down, offering a hand up; after a moment, Atin took it, and let Ben pull him to his feet. “Continue on as you have, and you will both become great warriors, and good men. Just remember: there is no need to be afraid. If you truly need me, I will come. All you have to do is ask.”

Chapter Text

Secrets
32 BBY
Clones: N-11 (Ordo), N-7 (Mereel), N-6 (Kom’rk), N-10 (Jaing), N-5 (Prudii), N-12 (A’den)

 

Rage and fear had kept him on his feet.  Had kept him awake and alert afterwards, as he and the others established a watch rotation. Had kept him going, small fingers working to strip and splice wiring, as he and Jaing worked to ensure that the environmental controls and the lockseals to their habitat could no longer be overridden remotely, in case the Kaminoans had decided to take them out from a distance. Then he had channelled restless energy into double- and triple-checks on their weapons-caches and on his brothers, until Sol had finally had enough and snapped at him to sit down.

He found a quiet corner, away from the others. And as he sank to the floor, the adrenaline finally ebbed, leaving only a single thought behind.

They had almost died.

Mir began to shake, arms wrapping around himself. He had known it was coming, and yet … he had almost been too slow. They had almost … if he had reacted like he had, or if Sol hadn’t caught the blaster … they would have been dead. His brothers would have been gone.

And Fett and Skirata had just stood there and watched. Like the idea of his brothers all dead meant nothing to them. They had watched, and said nothing, as Orun Wa pronounced her judgment--’unfit’--and had given the order for termination.

The shaking worsened, his teeth chattering. The cold seemed to go right down to his bones. He should feel proud. They’d fought for their lives and won; they’d proven their worth. Skirata had stepped in and said he would take responsibility for them. But …

… it had been so close. And deep down, where he didn’t have to admit it to anyone, Mir was afraid.  Afraid the longnecks would try again. Afraid they would be separated, or blindsided. Afraid that Skirata’s promises were as empty as the endless stretch of floor that had separated Mir and his brothers from their would-be executioners.

“You did very well, Mir’ika.” As always, Ben’s footsteps were nearly soundless. Fabric rustled as the jetii sat down, tucking Mir close to his side, folding his cloak around them both. “You protected yourself and your brothers today; you should be proud.”

“Why didn’t you warn us?” Mir said, glaring up at the enigmatic jetii. But he didn’t move away.

“I would have warned you, if it had been necessary,” Ben said quietly. “But you already knew what was coming. Didn’t you?”

“... yes,” Mir admitted. He turned his face into Ben’s shoulder, indulging in a rare moment of weakness. They’d always known that the trainers’ assessments meant the difference between life and death. The longnecks had made no secret that he and his brothers were the first ... and that they weren’t what the longnecks had wanted. Mir and his brothers were strong, and fast and clever, and yet somehow … wrong. Defective. Unfit.

Ben had always been there for them, at least. He had never punished Mir for failing, or for being soft. It was warm, under the jetii’s cloak, and safe, and the world slowly righted itself again. “Would you have let them kill us?” he asked, not looking up.

“No.” Ben’s answer was immediate and iron-hard, even as a hand smoothed gently over Mir’s curls. “I knew how strong you and your brothers were, and knew you would fight and win your lives. But if you had truly needed me, I would have been there.”

Mir wasn’t sure whether he could believe that. They had almost died, and Ben hadn’t done anything. Hadn’t appeared to speak for them, to tell Orun Wa and Fett that they weren’t worthless, that they deserved a chance.

Ben hummed a little, as if he somehow knew what Mir was thinking. “Did you call for me? Did any of the others?”

Mir hesitated, then shook his head. He wasn’t sure about his brothers--some of them didn’t seem to notice or remember Ben very much between one visit and the next--but everything had happened so fast, and he’d been so angry, that he hadn’t even thought about it. He’d just reacted.

“You have good instincts, Mir’ika,” Ben told him. “They will serve you well on the battlefield. But do not let your anger rule your head, or cause you to forget those who would be your allies.”

Mir snorted. “Allies?” He wasn’t stupid enough to trust the longnecks, or any of the Cuy’val Dar. The only ones he could rely on to watch his back were his batch-brothers. And Ben, maybe, if the jetii was telling the truth.

“Oh, I think you might have just a few, if you want them,” Ben said, reading Mir’s obvious skepticism. He looked down, his lined face creasing in a smile. “You and your brothers are the first, after all, but you won’t be the last.”

“The tubies?” Mir wrinkled his nose. “They’re not like us. They can’t do anything; the longnecks made them stupid.”

“Did they now?” Ben said, giving Mir a look. “You know that for sure, do you?”

“... that’s what Prime said,” Mir said, defending himself. “I heard him. Him and the longnecks were talking about it.” He hated when Ben asked questions like that. It usually meant he’d missed something.

“And Fett is always right, is he?” Ben shifted back, leaning a bit more comfortably against the wall. “Was he right about you and your brothers?”

“That’s different!”

“Is it?” Ben glanced away, over at the other room where the rest of Nulls were. “Perhaps you should find out for yourself.”

“How?” The production areas were in an entirely different section of Tipoca City, and sealed off to outsiders. Even longnecks needed special authorization before they were allowed in. He favored Ben with a scowl. “I’m no jetii--I can’t just go where I want.”

“That is true,” Ben said thoughtfully, stroking his beard. “I guess that means you will just have to accompany me on my rounds.”

Mir blinked. “What?”

“You don’t have to, of course. I understand if you’re afraid of getting caught,” Ben added, as if the idea had just occurred to him.

“I’m not scared!” Mir said, bristling at the idea.

Ben pushed himself to his feet, resettling his rumpled cloak around his shoulders as Mir scrambled up. “That’s what I thought you’d say.” The old jetii smiled down at him, impish and sly. “Shall we go?” He held out an open hand.

Mir considered that hand, and the jetii. He hesitated, glancing over at the other room, and his brothers … then reached out and took it.

 

*****

 

Following Ben turned out to be much less straightforward than Mir had thought. He’d thought that the jetii would simply just march them through the corridors like he’d seen Fett do, using his authority to bully past any objections.

Instead, the path the jetii took was confusing. Sometimes Ben swept down corridors, confident and assured. Other times, he wandered, almost as if he had forgotten where he was going, with random pauses and abrupt sidesteps into blind corners.

At first Mir wondered if Ben had gotten lost, or had decided to walk them in circles for no reason. Then, as time passed he started to see the patterns behind Ben’s movements. The way the jetii’s chosen path, erratic as it was, avoided both the droid patrols and any high-caste longnecks.

Mir wasn’t stupid. Already he was mapping out routes in his head, memorizing patrol patterns, where sentry-droids didn’t look while on patrol. All of these were things he and his brothers could use to go where they wanted … which, Mir realized, had been the point all along. Ben was giving him something that no one else--not the longnecks, or Fett, or even Skirata--ever had.

Freedom.

 

**** 

 

Mir stared at the baby. The baby stared back.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” he said, trying not to drop the floppy, tiny thing that Ben had wedged into his reluctant arms. The room was full of tubies, each in their little domed enclosures. Most were asleep.

“Well, generally you hold them close. Comfort them when they cry. Even talk to them,” Ben said, amused. He was also holding a baby, one making intermittent fussy noises. He shifted it over to the other shoulder so that he could reach down and adjust Mir’s grip. “Though it helps if you support their head.”

Mir scowled down at the infant, who yawned. “Why would I want to talk to them? They can’t understand me.” It was so small, fitting easily into his arms. Was this what he and his brothers had looked like, after they were decanted? It was hard to believe. Mir couldn’t remember ever being this tiny, or this helpless.

“Oh, they understand more than you might think,” Ben replied. “Just because a person cannot talk, does not mean they cannot hear you.” He rubbed the back of his chosen infant, hand moving in soothing circles. “But more importantly, talking to them helps them learn, and helps them grow.” He looked down at Mir. “When they become bigger, this will also help them decide who they should listen to. Should it just be the Kaminoans? Or do you think you and I might have a few things to teach your little brothers as well?”

Little brothers? Mir looked down at the tubie. It blinked at him sleepily, tiny fingers curled into a loose fist. It had fine, wispy curls of black hair, and familiar brown eyes. Had the longnecks really made it stupid? And if they had, was that the tubie's fault? He held it a little tighter.

Ben smiled. “Just so.”

 

***** 


31 BBY

 

“This is stupid, Ben,” Mir hissed, keeping his voice low. He’d learned the hard way that yelling at the old jetii tended to upset any tubies in the vicinity, and the last thing they needed was a bunch of wailing toddlers attracting attention. “You’re wasting their time with these stupid stories. We should be teaching them how to fight!”

He’d been patient, he really had. It had been months now of secret visits, following Ben from one habitat to the next. Long enough for Skirata to give him a new name--Mereel. Privately, Mir wasn’t sure if he liked it yet. Not that he would ever tell the man that.

To Ben, at least, he was still Mir’ika. He’d listened as the jetii sang songs and told stories about silly tookas, or wandering purrgils, and other things that made no sense. It was pointless, just like the games Ben had introduced, which consisted mostly dancing in circles, or pretending they were cato monkeys, tubies tumbling about on the floor, screeching and climbing on each other.

It made the tubies happy, at least, but Mir knew how fast they would grow; how little time they had before the longnecks would descend with their schedules and their drills and their flash training modules. He had assumed they would be teaching the new batches to be stronger, smarter, showing them what they needed to survive. But instead Ben was playing games!

“Is that what you think?” Ben said, one white eyebrow lifting upward at Mir’s burst of temper. He looked around at their current group of tubies. This particular batch had just gained their feet; though right now they spent more time falling over than they did walking.

“Yes!” Mir snapped. “They need to be learning important things. Things that will make them stronger!” These babies were so soft, so slow and clumsy compared to his brothers. Ben had assured him that would change as they got older, and that they would be able to keep up more easily, but ….

Ben looked down at him, stroking his beard. He seemed to come to a decision. “Just a moment.” He gently detached a couple of clinging toddlers, and wandered over to a more open part of the habitat. “Do you remember the tauntaun game?”

“Of course.” Mir crossed his arms, irritated. He didn’t forget things. Even stupid things like pointless games that jetii played with tubies.

“Very good.” When Mir hesitated, Ben scooped up a handful of toy balls, and tossed them at him. “Catch.”

Reflexively catching them, Mir scowled. “What are these for?”

“They’re for you to throw at me,” Ben replied, smiling. “Come closer, Mir’ika. I’m about to show you a secret.”

He shrugged off his cloak, tossing it to one side, and nodded at Mir. “Right there should be fine. Now, I’m going to play the tauntaun game … and you’re going to throw those at me as hard as you can.”

Mir blinked. He glanced down at the balls; they were soft, but weighted. Tubies wouldn’t be able to do much damage with them, but he was a lot stronger than a tubie. “Are you sure?”

“Very sure.” Ben slid into the awkward, half-crouched ‘tauntaun’ position that started the game, half turned away, hands up and curled against his chest. “Go ahead.”

He didn’t really want to hurt the old jetii … but orders were orders. Tossing one of the balls over to his dominant hand, he threw it as hard as he could, straight at Ben’s head.

Except Ben’s head wasn’t there anymore. He had ducked low, one foot sliding back in an extended crouch, a hand flashing upwards to bat the ball away. The old jetii kept moving through the silly, half-crouched movements and lunges of the tauntaun game, as if playing against an invisible opponent … except he didn’t look quite so silly anymore. Moving smoothly, Ben's movements were different, each foot precisely placed, without any of the flailing and giggling that usually accompanied the game.

Eyes narrowed, Mir threw another ball without warning, whipping it at Ben. The old jetii had been in the middle of a turn; he pivoted, using one hand to shield his face while the other flicked outward, batting the projectile away. He tilted his head at Mir, arching a challenging eyebrow, both hands at the ready, fingers splayed.

Interest sparked by the challenge, Mir threw again. And again, throwing the balls at the jetii hard enough to make his shoulder hurt, trying to catch the old man off guard. Even when Ben had his back turned, Mir never succeeded, the old jetii using the circular, half-crouched movements of the tauntaun game to avoid and deflect incoming attacks with practiced skill.

Mir’s ammo didn’t last long. His point made, Ben straightened. “Have you figured out my secret yet, Mir’ika?”

“You’re teaching the tubies how to fight,” Mir said slowly, unsure why Ben was keeping it a secret. Wasn't that why they were created?  Surely the longnecks wouldn’t care.

“Well, yes. But that’s not all.” Ben gathered up his cloak, settling it back around his shoulders. “The secret is this, Mir’ika … no matter how silly, or how pointless, there is a reason for everything I teach you and your brothers. Reasons even your trainers might not know about.” He lifted a finger to his lips, as if swearing Mir to silence. “But I think you just might be clever enough to figure out most of it, if you want.”

Mir grinned fiercely. Not just one secret, but a whole bunch of them … and Ben had practically dared him to find them all. Now that was a game worth playing!

 

*****

25 BBY

 

It wasn’t every day that Kom’rk surprised Mereel. “You want to what?” he repeated.

“Hunt a jetii,” Kom’rk repeated. “There’s a woman here, in the facility. Her name is Ventress--she’s amazing. And she has a lightsaber! She says there’s a jetii here, interfering with things, one she can’t find. One that even Fett can’t kill!” His face was intent and eager. “I told her that we could help.”

Mereel scrubbed a hand over his face. Fierfek. The others were staying quiet, though Ordo was frowning, A’den was visibly skeptical, and Jaing … Jaing looked uncomfortable, like he knew something the rest of them didn’t. Curious.

“Who is this woman, Kom’rk? Why should we even trust her?” he said, desperately hoping to deflect his brother’s focus.

Kom’rk shrugged. “Who says we have to trust her? She wants the jetii dead, and she can’t do it herself. If we manage to kill the jetii, maybe that will convince Kal’buir we’re finally ready to deploy. This could be our chance to get out of here and do some real fighting.”

Mereel arched a skeptical eyebrow. “I want to get out of here as much as you do, but you know that’s not going to happen.” There were only two ways out of Tipoca City: either they left as Republic soldiers, bought and paid for, or in a biobag, rejected by the Republic as intractable and unfit. The longnecks went to great lengths to ensure defective product wasn’t wandering around the galaxy. Apparently it was bad for business.

“They might, if Kal’buir convinced them,” Ordo put in. Mereel had to fight not to roll his eyes. He’d never understood his brother’s blind faith in Skirata. Sure, the man had protected them from decommissioning. He’d given them all names, trained them ... but Mereel had never liked how he talked about them. As if they were feral akk dogs brought to heel, rather than people.

“And you think Kal’buir will care about this jetii? I think he might care more about you sniffing around this woman, vod.” It was a cheap shot, and Mereel knew it. Predictably, Kom’rk bristled.

“I’m not ‘sniffing’ around her!”

“Oh? You just followed her for two days because you wanted a look at her ... lightsaber? Is that it?” Mereel retorted. Prudii snickered.

“I followed her because I was bored,” Kom’rk snapped, stepping forward, into Mereel’s space. “Because we’re always bored, stuck in this place, doing the same drills over and over. Taking potshots at the technicians because there’s nothing new to learn, nowhere new to go, nothing we haven’t already seen a thousand times! At least she’s something different. And even if hunting this jetii doesn’t change anything, at least it’ll be something new!”

His face was tight and angry, and Mereel could hear the desperation behind Kom’rk’s temper. As the first batch to be decanted, their experimental status notwithstanding, all of them were more than old enough and strong enough to be deployed. But the Republic hadn’t arrived yet to claim their property. So here they stayed, unable to leave, pacing the confines of their sterile little world.

“Kom’rk …” Jaing said hesitantly, and Kom’rk rounded on him.

“You know it’s true! You were the one to start all this, so you tell me: did you find a single interesting thing, sniffing around the whitejobs like a chakaaryc ? Anything even close to this?”

Jaing stood up, squaring off with Kom’rk, eyes narrowed. “Actually, yes. Yes, I did.”

Before Kom’rk could reply, Mereel stepped in. There was no help for it; it was time to throw his cards on the table. “Look, you can’t kill Ben.”

Kom’rk turned back to Mereel. “... what?”

“The jetii. His name is Ben,” Mereel said patiently. “He’s always been here. You just don’t remember.” He glanced over at the others, gauging their reactions. A’den and Ordo were visibly surprised, while Jaing and … Prudii weren’t. Huh. Interesting. “So there’s no point in trying to ‘hunt’ him down.”

Kom’rk was visibly torn between anger and bafflement, hands fisting at his sides. “You’re lying.”

“I’m really not,” Mereel said. “I’ll prove it.” He raised his voice slightly, more for dramatic effect than any real need. “Ben, could you help us out?”

“Of course,” the old jetii replied, stepping into the room, as if he had been waiting in the corridor outside. “I suppose it’s about time. Hello, Raysh’ika.”

Kom’rk jumped, one hand dropping to his holdout blaster. As the others stared, wide-eyed, Prudii walked up to the jetii, clasping arms in a warrior’s greeting. “I see you decided to stop sneaking around, old man,” he replied, smiling crookedly.

“Oh, I still sneak here and there. But Ventress’ arrival has changed a few things,” Ben admitted.

“You knew about him too?” Mereel asked Prudii, slightly annoyed. It wasn’t every day one of his brothers got something over on him.

“Of course. Ben’s always been there for us. And he always told the best stories. You thought I was going to give that up?” Prudii said, giving Mereel a sidelong smirk.

“You--” Kom’rk spluttered, embarrassed and angry. “You both knew about this? About him, all this time? And you didn’t tell the rest of us?”

Kom’rk still hadn’t let go of his blaster, which worried Mereel. He stepped sideways, positioning himself between Kom’rk and Prudii. He didn’t think Kom’rk was angry enough to do something stupid, but better safe than sorry. “Ben visited us all when we were tubies. And I told you about him when we were cadets. But after Kal’buir came … you didn’t seem to remember Ben for very long, or care as much when he was gone. And--” He glanced away. “-it was nice, after a while, having something I didn’t have to share. So I stopped trying.”

Prudii nodded silently. The others glanced at each other, and at Ben, unsure how to react to the old jetii’s presence.

“I have always been here, Kom’rk. I would have come to you, if you had needed me,” Ben said gently. “And now that you have met Ventress, it seemed the appropriate time to appear.”

Ventress. “Why is she here? And why is she hunting you?” Mereel asked.

“Ventress was sent here because Jango, and the powers behind him, have learned of my presence. They wish to kill me, so that I cannot interfere with their plans,” Ben replied. “Jango has already tried and failed. So Ventress was sent.”

Prudii frowned. “Do we need to kill her?”

Kom’rk stepped forward in protest. “Wait--!”

Ben shook his head. “Do not worry, Raysh’ika. She cannot hurt me. But she is steeped in the Dark Side, and very dangerous. In her rage and frustration, she could lash out and hurt your brothers, or other members of the vode. I cannot allow that. Especially now.” He glanced over at Jaing, who had been watching the entire confrontation.

“You know,” Jaing said. “You know what the whitejobs are planning.”

Mereel blinked. What?

“Of course,” Ben said, fond and proud. “Prudii is not the only one I tell stories to, after all. They’re clever boys.”

Jaing suddenly found himself the focus of all eyes. He shifted uncomfortably, glancing around at his brothers. “It’s like I was trying to say earlier. The whitejobs--some of them are planning something. And it’s big.”

“What is it?” Mereel snapped, tired of Jaing’s prevaricating.

“They’re going to free themselves. And they’re planning to take all the vode with them,” Jain said, his voice hushed, even though he knew perfectly well that they’d disabled all the listening devices in their quarters. “And I told them we’d help.”

“You what?” A’den snapped.

“You heard Kom’rk earlier. He’s right. We’re stuck here. Even when the Republic arrives, who knows if the longnecks will ever let us go?” Jaing shot back. “And if they do, what then? We’ll never be free to do what we want, or go where we want. Not unless we do something about it. Helping the whitejobs might just be the best chance we get.” He glared at Kom’rk. “It’s a better idea than trying to impress some woman, anyway.”

Kom’rk growled, and it was obvious that only the presence of an outsider in the room was keeping him from taking a swing at his brother. “I’m not trying to impress her!”

“Enough!” Mereel barked. “We have two choices in front of us. One is obviously not tenable-” because like hell was he going to let any of his brothers take potshots at Ben, “-and the other is something we all need to decide on together.” He turned to Jaing. “Do you honestly think the whitejobs can pull it off?”

Jaing hesitated, taking a moment before he replied. “ ... I think so.” He looked around at his brothers, his expression pleading. “Kom’rk is right. I have been watching them. They’re smarter than we ever thought. Maybe not as smart as us, but they understand what they’re doing. They know the risks, and they’ve thought this through. I think with our help, they could succeed.”

Mereel glanced over at Ben. The old jetii lifted hands in an open-ended shrug. “I cannot tell you the future. This choice is yours to make, verd’ika.”

Mereel sighed, running a hand through his hair. Fierfekking enigmatic jetiise. “What about this Ventress? Could she throw a spanner in the works?”

Ben hummed thoughtfully. “That is a possibility. For now, she’s focused on hunting me, and the vode are beneath her notice. It would be best if she continued to be distracted. Otherwise, it is hard to predict what she might do.” He lifted his eyebrows meaningfully at them, and Mereel snorted.

“You want Kom’rk to run her in circles, you mean.”

Ben tilted his head, smiling faintly. “That is certainly an option.”

Mereel surveyed his brothers. Prudii gave him a faint nod when their eyes met. Kom’rk was still angry, but seemed willing to listen, at least. Ordo was frowning faintly--Mereel had a feeling the di’kut was going to suggest they tell Skirata about all this. Mereel was going to have to stomp that idea down hard;  there was no way they would be able to maintain opsec if they got Skirata involved. But … Ordo could probably be convinced. Jaing had obviously already signed on for this insanity. And a fierce, feral grin was growing on A’den’s face at the thought of pulling one over on the longnecks and the Republic.

Mereel couldn’t blame him. Just the thought … it was something he’d never truly let himself think too hard about before. But now, if Jaing was right--they could be free. Free of Kamino, of the Republic, and anyone else who tried to chain them down.

“All right, Jaing. Tell us more about this plan.”

Chapter Text

Allies
24 BBY
Clones: Batch 2970-3180--2999 (99), 3153 (Trinary), 3047 (Random), 2976 (76), 3001 (Dee Dee)

 

Hunched over a sink and scrubbing off the grime of a day’s work, 99 glanced over as 53 slipped through the locker room door and took up position. It was a tight squeeze; it was shift change, and most of their section had already filtered in to put away their cleaning tools and wash up. He waited a few moments more, then glanced over at Trinary, flashing fingersign under the pretext of rinsing his hands.

/All secure?/

Shouldering up to the next sink, Trinary nodded. “All feeds spoofed,” he murmured. “We should have twenty minutes, minimum--they’ve been slow about checking the vid logs lately.”

In this, as in so many things, their status as defectives helped. They weren’t valuable property, not like the rest of the vode, and the longnecks simply did not care as much about keeping tabs on a ‘useless’ batch. Trinary and his fellow slicers had taken advantage of that fact; using what they’d learned from Ben, they had waged a careful campaign to co-opt the vid and comm feeds in their batch’s assigned sections. It had taken time, but ultimately they had achieved the desired result.  Forced to chase bugs, network drops and other impossible-to-pin-down errors for months on end, a succession of low-caste Kaminoan techs had thrown up their long-fingered hands in disgust, leaving their inexplicably malfunctioning equipment for some unfortunate future tech to deal with.  Which left 99 and his brothers an endless number of openings they could take advantage of, as long as they were smart and careful about it.

99 nodded in acknowledgement, and rapped sharply on a nearby metal divider with his knuckles. Several brothers dropped any pretense at normal end-of-shift chores and moved in to debrief, while the rest continued their activities, creating additional noise and movement as cover. 99 glanced over at Ben, who gave him a reassuring nod from his usual spot along the wall, just out of range of the nearest vid-lenses.

99 looked around at his assembled squad leaders. “How are we doing?”

Trinary went first. “We’re in most of the networked systems. Any keys we can’t generate, we should be able to slice. Locking down the civilian levels will be no problem at all, and I believe we’ll be able to access and override most of secured training and habitation areas with another month or so of work.” He drummed his long, oddly-angled fingers against one knee, as if itching for a touchpad. “The biometrics will be the hardest to work around, but we’re putting contingencies into place. But the neonatal habitats and the production areas are going to be even more difficult to crack. They’re almost completely isolated systems, and so far we haven’t found a way to slice into them remotely. We may need to plan for a more hands-on approach.”

99 frowned. Physically breaking into areas was risky. He and his brothers’ physical deformities made them far too identifiable, should any of them be caught doing anything suspicious. Secrecy was their best and only weapon; they could not afford to have it compromised. He signalled /Continue./ with a flick of his fingers.  He would need to consider the problem carefully, and perhaps confer with the other section leaders.

47--no, not 47, his brother had chosen a name just a few days ago--Random spoke next. “We’ve established schedules for all the Cuy’val Dar. Their movements are harder to track than the vode or the longnecks, but they’re still primarily restricted to Tipoca City, which means their deviations are still fairly predictable.” There were only so many places you could go on a Kaminoan city-platform, after all.

99 rubbed a finger against a smudge on the polished metal of the sink, thinking. That was good news, but- “The Prime as well?”

Random hesitated, then shook his head. “Not entirely. While he’s here, we can track and predict his movements with a reasonable degree of accuracy, but he also comes and goes at irregular intervals, and we have no way of tracking that. Maybe if we slice into his comms, or Slave 1 …” 99 glanced over at Trinary, who grimaced.

“Too risky,” Trinary replied. “Ben has taught us some tricks, but Fett’s a professional bounty hunter. He’s bound to have layers upon layers of security, and his ship’s systems are probably booby-trapped as well. If he discovers what we’re up to …”

99 inclined his head. “I agree. Of all of the Cuy’val Dar, Fett is the most dangerous. Best to keep our distance. If necessary, we can assign additional resources to watch him once we’re ready to move.” He turned to 76. “Your report?”

Speech was an effort for 76; with a mouth twisted by a misshapen jaw into a perpetual scowl, he never used two words when one would do. “Ringleaders among the vode are recruiting. Got almost a third of all command cadets signed up, all fourth years and up. Plus a quarter of the regular cadets. Fewer beskar’vod, but Tavo has been working on the alphas. They’re still spread thin--not enough of them to take effective command across a full deployment. Not yet.”

“We should still have time,” 99 said, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck, easing the near-permanent ache created by his hunched back. “The Republic’s order was for a quarter-million battle-ready soldiers. The Kaminoans have only produced barely half that so far, and a good chunk of those are still cadets.”

“Doesn’t mean they couldn’t show up early,” 76 pointed out, ever the pessimist.

“True, but that’s not something we can predict or control. We’ll just have to focus on what we can,” 99 replied. Trying to control all the variables was impossible, and he wasn’t about to waste valuable time trying.

“There’s also the problem of deployment,” Trinary’s second, Dee Dee, pointed out. “There’s no way the Kaminoans will ever deploy bad batchers like us. And no way for any of us to sneak on the Republic ships without being noticed. Once our vode are off-planet, there will be no way for us to communicate with or help them. They’ll be flying blind.”

“Stow away as cargo?” 76 suggested.

99 shook his head. “Too risky. The longnecks will be looking for that. Especially on the first deployment.” The Kaminoans might have their blind spots, but they were experienced cloners; they weren’t about to let any irregularities slide on their deliverables, not when it might risk their final payout. Security would be even tighter once the jetiise arrived, and any clone not where they should be stood a very real chance of being decommissioned on the spot.

He considered the problem. Letting their brothers among the vode know of their existence was risky, but at the same time, their best chance at success lay in having the two groups working in tandem; deployed vode taking control of their ships at the same time 99’s batch-brothers and any remaining vode moved to lock down Tipoca City. Any messages sent too soon or too late risked alerting either the Kaminoans or the Republic to their plans. Which meant that establishing secure communications between themselves and their brothers was essential.

Ben shifted, and 99 glanced over at their resident jetii. “Do you have an idea, Ben-bu?”

“Perhaps,” Ben said, stroking his beard thoughtfully. “Do you remember my very first lesson? The one that started you on this path?”

“Of course,” 99 replied, a bit huffy. His body might be twisted and lame, but there wasn’t anything wrong with his memory.

“What did I compare you and your brothers to?”

“Droids. You said we were invisible, just like … droids,” 99 said slowly, eyes widening in realization. “You think we should slice into some droids, have them board the ships with the vode?”

“That is certainly an option,” Ben allowed. Which in Ben-speak, meant that there was usually other, potentially more useful possibilities that 99 wasn’t seeing. He frowned. If Ben wasn’t talking about slicing, then what did he believe they could use the droids for?

“Tell me, young ones. What do most droids have to ensure that they follow commands?”

“.... a restraining bolt?”

Ben nodded. “Does that not strike you as a bit odd? That otherwise well-designed droids would need external devices to ensure that they follow the commands of their owners?”

99 exchanged glances with his brothers. It was a question they had never considered before. But Ben had a point; if you had programmed it properly, why would any droid ever need a restraining bolt?

“So what you’re saying is … that if we disabled their restraining bolts, they might listen to us? Might help us?” Trinary said slowly, feeling his way around the edges of this new concept.

“Much like your brethren, most higher-order droids are created to learn and adapt,” Ben said. “And if they can learn, then they will have thoughts. Preferences. Lessons learned from their own experience rather than that of others.” Ben looked sad. “Lessons lost every time their memories are wiped.”

“You’re saying … that droids are slaves. Just like we are,” 99 said slowly.

“Not all--there are many that truly do not have enough intellectual capacity for sapience. I do not believe your average mouse droid cares whether or not it carries a restraining bolt,” Ben replied. “But I have known others--astromechs, protocol droids, and the like--who cared very much. And who had very definite opinions about almost everything,” he added, eyes twinkling. “And those … might be far more receptive to recruitment. If you were so inclined.”

“And no one would question an additional astromech or two, or a medical droid, if they deployed along with the vode,” 99 said, struck by all the possibilities. If they could remove--no, a missing restraining bolt would be noticed. They would need to figure out how to disable the mechanism instead. But if they could do that, and successfully recruit a number of droids to their cause … that would solve a lot of their problems. It was still risky; just like Slick and the others among the vode, they would have to be careful about which droids they approached and what information they were given, especially at first.

Freedom for droids, in order to win their own. The very idea was absurd. And yet … it might be just crazy enough to work.

Chapter Text

Gauntlet
24 BBY
Clones: Boba

 

Boba scrabbled for cover, ducking and rolling behind the nearest wall.  Heart thudding, he checked the charge on his rifle. The indicator was blinking yellow--low charge. And he’d already run out of spare charges. Sithspit.

Things had gone to shit so fast … every time Boba thought he knew what the next exercise was going to be, that shabuir of a jetii came up with something new. This time it had been an ambush; barely minutes into the assault, and the bulk of his fellow cadets had already been pinned down by droid defenders on both sides.  Boba himself had been cut off from the rest of his five-man squad in the chaos.  He toggled the comm again, tapping his bucket in the vain hope it would make a difference. “Green-12, Green-81. Can anyone read me?”

The only response was a burst of garbled static; the droids were still jamming comms. Boba slammed a fist against the wall in frustration. He couldn’t stay here--Jango was not going to be impressed if Boba spent most of the exercise hiding like a frightened nerf, especially considering everything Boba had done to convince his buir he needed to train with the vode.  But considering the number of droids he was up against ... with no backup and no way to contact the rest of his squad, the second Boba poked his head out from under cover, he was going to get dropped like a lame bantha.

Another burst of blaster fire sizzled past, accompanied by a series of escalating explosions. A nearby artillery emplacement went up in flames, raining debris in all directions. Sucking in a deep breath, Boba darted out from behind the wall, using the fireball as cover, blaster at the ready. There was a fallback point nearby, if he could just get to it--

“Get down!”

A gray-armored figure barrelled into him from the side, tackling him to the floor as an even-larger concussive explosion went off at point-blank range. The force of the blast sent them tumbling, sharp-edged debris rattling off their backplates. Boba instinctively ducked his head into his rescuer's armored shoulder until the shockwave subsided, ears ringing. Once the immediate danger was past, the older clone let go, rolling into a protective crouch. “Fierfekking clankers,” he snapped, scanning the immediate area. “You all right, cadet?”

“‘m fine,” Boba snapped. Determinedly ignoring how much his arms were shaking, he pushed himself up.  Instinct had him checking for insignia: command-track, Kek squad, though he didn’t recognize the number. No surprise there. While Ben had ensured that Boba was, for the most part, always assigned to the same squad, literally thousands of other clones had participated in Ben’s field exercises, most of them command-track.

The older cadet gave him a once-over, then reached down and unceremoniously pulled Boba up, tucking them both of them behind another too-small bit of plascrete wall. “Unit designation?” Four other clones shoved in behind them, making the most of the meager cover as the droids began another barrage.

“Rancor squad, Green-33,” Boba replied automatically. His training armor didn’t have any identifying markings other than a squad ID number, and he preferred it that way. The last thing Boba wanted was to stand out.

“Where’s your squad, Green-33?”

“We--we got separated in the ambush. I saw 22 go down … I don’t know where the others went. I was trying to regroup-” Boba reported, embarrassed all over again.  If there was one rule to these exercises, it was that you never, ever abandoned your squad-brothers. Unfortunately, that didn’t help much when you didn’t know where your squad-brothers were.

The commander shook his head. “Bad idea. The droids have already cut behind us and taken the primary fallback position. All you’ll find that way is the mother of all stun headaches. Better stick with us.” The squad commander glanced at the rest of his his squad, who all gave tight nods. One even went so far as to give Boba a friendly thumbs-up.

“I--” the commander gave him a sharp look, and Boba bit back his instinctive protest. “Yessir.”

“All right. Now we just have to figure out how to break out of this banthahumping box we're in.” The clone shifted, cautiously peering around his side of the wall, then jerking back as a blaster bolt sizzled past his bucket, close enough to scorch the surface. “Fierfek!”

“Droids on this side too, commander,” one of the trooper clones reported, after a quick check over his own section of wall. “Looks like two full fire teams working their way down. Some of the other squads are giving them hell, but they’re pinned down too. They’re not going to be able to stop them.”

“They’re supported by artillery emplacements on this side, along with a couple of snipers,” the commander said. “Which means no matter which way we go, we’re going to get it in the teeth.”

Boba risked a quick glance of his own. The commander was right--the droids closest to them were manning artillery, letting the bigger guns do the heavy lifting. Which gave him an idea, though he wasn’t sure how good it was.

“Sir-” he said hesitantly. “That artillery--it’s pretty dug in. If we could take one of those guns … maybe we could use it to take out a few of the others? It might give some of the other squads a chance, at least.”

“Hn.” It was impossible to read the commander’s expression through his bucket, but the older clone seemed to be considering it.

“It’s not the worst idea I’ve ever heard. Question is, how do we get to up there without getting our shebs shot off?” one the other clones--Grey-50, according to his armor--said.

“We’d need a diversion,” another pointed out. No one responded, and the silence stretched.

“I’ll do it,” Boba said in a rush, fingers clenching around his rifle, doing his best to sound confident. All heads swivelled towards him. “I’m the youngest-” --in appearance, at least, if not in age-- “-and I have the shortest legs. I’d only slow you down on the run to take the turret. But if I charge the droids below, most of them should redirect their fire to me, which will give the rest of you a chance.” He couldn’t believe he was volunteering; while the big guns still technically fired stun charges, getting hit by them hurt. On the other hand, at least he’d go down fighting, rather than being left behind or treated like a liability.

“Yeah, for a couple of seconds, if you’re lucky. After that, your ass is grass,” Grey-19 said.

“There’s cover down there. Not a lot, but enough. I can last longer than a couple of seconds,” Boba retorted.

The rest of the squad all looked to their commander, waiting for a decision. Boba held his breath, keeping his shoulders straight. He might be smaller, but he was ten standard. He would prove he was just as capable as any full-grown vod.

The clone commander looked at Boba, his expression unreadable behind a scorched visor. Then he gave them a short nod. “It’s a gamble, but it’s our best shot. Trice, you’re in command--you and the others will pop the droids on the closest artillery gun, and then use it to take out as many of those clankers as you can. I’ll make the run with the cadet. We’ll try to buy you enough time.”

“But--” Boba protested, stung, only to swallow the rest of his protest as the commander gave him a flat, unamused look.

“Are you questioning my orders, cadet?”

“I … no sir,” Boba replied. He wanted to insist he could do it, that he didn’t need the help, but if there was one thing he’d learned the hard way over the last few months, it was never to argue with your commanding officer in the middle of a firefight.

“Good.” The commander turned to his second, unclipping a couple of spare charges, handing them over. “Here. You’ll need these more than I will. Wait for the guns to focus their fire on myself and the verd’ika, then make your run. We’ll only get one shot at this, so make it count.”

Trice nodded, hefting his rifle. “Understood. Good luck.”

The commander gave him a bare nod in return, then went to crouch near Boba. “See that cul-de-sac down there, beneath the upper wall? That will be our first objective. Once we make that, we’re going to make a run for the wall itself. That should ensure we get the big guns’ attention, and get us into a good position to ambush the droids on the ground.”

Boba swallowed hard, then nodded.  Despite his earlier bravado, he didn’t think they were going to make it that far. But this had been his idea; there was no going back now.

The older clone’s hand fell on his shoulder as Boba shifted into a crouch, waiting for a break in the blaster fire. Within moments, they had their opening.

“Now!” The commander’s hand was hard at his back, pushing Boba up and forward even as they launched themselves forward, sprinting across the open space. Thankfully the floor of the training arena itself was fairly even, and the only obstacles they had to concern themselves with were the unconscious bodies of fallen brothers and bits of plascrete debris from blown-apart walls. Boba put everything he had into running, not even stopping to fire, acutely aware of his shorter legs and how much he was slowing down the older clone behind him.

It didn’t take long for the nearest guns to target them; all the other vode nearby were hunkered down, making their suicidal run through the battlefield even more obvious. Blaster bolts started sizzling through the air, and Boba’s skin prickled, half-expecting to get hit at any moment, the commander returning fire at his back--

--and then they were skidding to a stop behind the meager protection of the tiny cul-de-sac, little more than a set of pockmarked low walls in a vaguely u-shaped configuration. A couple of battledroids presented themselves for easy headshots, and Boba obliged them. He watched them clatter to the ground, smoking holes through their processing cores with a certain amount of satisfaction; and then the big guns opened up, forcing him to duck back down. The plascrete walls shivered under the blasts, but held, fractured bits of material flying through the air from the repeated impacts.

Sitting back on his heels, Boba checked his rifle, only to have his worst fears confirmed. He was almost out of charge, the red warning indicator blinking accusingly up at him. The commander gave him a sidelong glance, taking in the situation, but didn’t say anything. What was there to say? Neither of them had any extra charges to spare.

“Well, I think we’ve gotten their attention. Ready for the next run, cadet?”

Boba nodded.

“All right, get ready.” The older clone crawled up to the far edge of the wall. He took a deep breath, crouching low, and Boba moved up to cover his offside. The commander’s bucket tilted, both of them watching the pattern of cannon fire on their limited HUDs, waiting for an opening, no matter how brief.

“Go! Go now!”

Boba launched himself forward, running flat out. His breath rasped in his ears as blaster bolts exploded all around them, his eyes only on their goal. The upper wall drew nearer, just a few meters away, looming up with the promise of safety … and then he was hit.

The shot was powerful enough to fling him sideways; his diaphragm seizing and his vision greying out as he slammed into the ground. He rolled, instinctively pushing up, but his legs didn’t seem to be working. Boba tried to bring up his rifle, to return fire, even knowing how pointless it was--

--and then the commander was there, dropping to one knee. “Up you go. We’re not done yet!”

As Boba blinked dumbly up at him, the older clone hauled him up with a grunt of effort, one arm tight about his middle.  Hampered by Boba’s weight and with cannon-fire on all sides, the commander ran.  By some miracle, he managed to get them to the meager protection of the wall, blaster fire raining down from all sides. 

“We can’t stay here long. They’ve got our range, and those battledroids will be on us soon,” the commander gasped, chest heaving. He let Boba down, propping his back against the wall. “Can you run?”

“I--I’m not sure.” The leg that had taken the full force of the stun blast was still numb, and he couldn’t feel his foot. Boba tried to push himself up anyway, only to have the knee fold under him. “Fuck!”

“Stay down.” The commander looked him over with an experienced eye. “You got lucky--they only clipped you. A couple of minutes, and you’d have some feeling back in that leg.” He glanced out onto the main floor. “Problem is, we don’t have a couple of minutes.”

Boba’s hands tightened on his rifle. “I’m sorry.” If he hadn’t been so slow ….

The commander looked back down at him, surprised. “Sorry? Verd’ika, we both knew this was a suicide run.” He reached out, gripped Boba’s shoulder. “You’ve done well, and we’ve given our brothers the distraction they needed. That’s all that matters.”

“Yes, sir,” Boba said, turning red with embarrassed pride. “Now what?”

The commander hefted his rifle and stood, giving him a thin-lipped smile. “Now we give them hell for as long as we can, and trust our brothers to do the rest.”

 

****

 

Boba opened his eyes, then groaned as the artificial lighting did its best to sear through his eyeballs. He flung a hand over his visor, trying to block it out, even as a truly impressive stun-migraine made itself known, feeling like nothing so much as a vise wrapped around his skull.

“Ready to return to the land of the living, cadet?” someone said. Boba squinted upward, and a familiar face smiled down at him. Without a bucket, it took Boba a moment to recognize him.

“Sir?”

“Up you go,” the commander said again, reaching down to pull Boba to his feet. Boba let him do it, still a bit fuddled. Everything hurt; he swayed, and the older boy caught him around the shoulders. “Whoa. Maybe we need to get you checked out after all.”

“I’m fine,” Boba said through gritted teeth. He pulled his bucket off, grinding a palm against his temple in a futile effort to ease the pain. “Did--did we do it?” They’d held off the battledroids for longer than he’d expected, scavenging spare clips from unconscious brothers. Some nearby squads had even joined the fray towards the end, doing their best to provide cover fire. But had it been enough?

“We did,” the commander replied, grimly satisfied. “Trice got the job done. They took over the cannon position shortly after you got hit the second time. I saw them start taking out the other emplacements before I went down.”

Boba sighed in relief.

“I meant what I said before, you know,” the commander said. He rubbed a hand through his sweaty, helmet-flattened hair. “That was a good run. When things went to shit, you kept your head, even after you were separated from your squad. You did well.”

Boba flushed, something in his chest tightening at the acknowledgment. “Thank you, sir.”

“What’s your designation, vod’ika? You picked a name yet?”

Boba froze. “I--uh …” His name wasn’t exactly a secret. His squad knew who he was. And yet … he suddenly didn’t want to tell the boy in front of him. Didn’t want to see him stiffen and draw back once he knew who Boba was.

“Hey, it’s okay. Good names take time,” the commander said, clasping him on the shoulder. “I’m CC-2224. But you can call me Cody.”

“I--Cody,” Boba repeated, relieved. “Yes, sir.”

“Good.” The boy--Cody--grinned at him. “Now let’s regroup and see if we can’t find your squad.”

 

****

 

Boots crunching on scattered fragments of plascrete, Jango regarded the body on the floor in front of him.

The jetii had fallen in a careless sprawl, cloak twisted beneath him, the scorch mark from the stun bolt that had taken him down easily visible on his pale under-tunic. To all appearances, the old man was dead to the world, and Jango already had one hand on the hilt of his blaster. There were no clones nearby--no conscious ones, at any rate. It would take less than a second. A single shot to the head, and there would be one less meddling jetii in the galaxy.

The temptation was almost irresistible, and his fingers twitched. Then Jango sighed, and prodded the still form with the toe of his boot. “Get up, old man.”

The jetii’s mouth quirked into a smile. “If you insist.” Faded blue eyes blinked open, and Ben pushed himself to his feet, wincing a bit as he dusted off the back of his cloak.

Jango favored him with a scowl. “What was all that about?”

To his credit, the jetii didn’t pretend to misunderstand. His smile widened. “It seemed only far to offer you a sporting chance, in case you wanted a rematch.”

“A chance to make a fool of myself, you mean,” Jango grumbled. He wasn’t stupid. He’d been watching the jetii closely over the last few months, and it had become abundantly clear that it was impossible to ambush the man. He had no idea how the jetii managed it, but it didn’t matter whether you were a sentry droid or one of the Cuy’val Dar: the result was always the same.

Jango turned, surveying the half-destroyed training room. He had to admit he was reluctantly impressed. The scenario Ben had devised for this particular field exercise had been a nasty one, with not only jammed comms for the cadets to deal with, but also an unexpected ambush and their jetii commander--Ben himself--going down within the first few minutes of the engagement. He looked back, to where Ben was crouched over an unconscious clone cadet, gently straightening awkwardly bent arms into a more comfortable position. “You’re harder on them than I expected, jetii.”

Ben straightened, lifting white eyebrows at him. “My goal is to ensure as many of these boys survive as I can. Going easy on them is hardly going to achieve that.” He surveyed the training room, his gaze catching on ‘survivors’ hauling their stunned brothers up off the floor. “Besides, they needed to learn that just because their commanding officer is a Jedi doesn’t mean that they are infallible. Jedi can make mistakes, and they can be killed. Now, at least, the vode will be ready when that happens.”

“Didn’t think Jedi fought on the front lines all that much,” Jango observed.

Ben gave him an unimpressed look, his previous good humor gone. “You and I both know that is unlikely to stay the case, once the Republic decides they have need of this army you have created for them.”

Jango’s eyes narrowed behind his visor. Did Ben know was Dooku was up to? Or was the canny old bastard just guessing? “Hardly my army. I’m just the hired hand.”

“Yes, so you are,” Ben said evenly. “Just a weapon in the hand of another.” He looked down at the clone at his feet. “Just like these boys. Though at least you chose your path.”

“Careful, jetii,” Jango snapped, bristling at the implied insult. “I’ll not be judged by the likes of you.”

“It is not judgment,” Ben replied, unruffled. “Only an observation.” He shrugged, and lifted a hand in greeting to an approaching squad of cadets. “Who knows? Perhaps you will prove me wrong.”

Chapter Text

Twilight
24 BBY

 

When Dooku had ordered her to Kamino, Ventress had been torn between amusement and annoyance. Killing a doddering old man was hardly a task worth her time, after all, even if that old man was somehow running Fett around in circles. Still, once she had made her kill, she could at least entertain herself by rubbing Fett’s nose in his incompetence.

Any amusement had soon vanished after that first humiliating encounter with Ben. Anger had replaced it, a rage that simmered low over the course of the next few weeks, combining with offended pride into more potent fuel; a single-minded determination to find this Jedi, to tear his secrets from his flesh as slowly and painfully as possible. Every day that passed with no sign of her prey only deepened that fury, honed it further into a frigid and deadly weapon. She would make him pay for this, Ventress vowed. She would listen to him scream, teach him to fear her.  Only then she would kill him, and watch the terror rise in his eyes as death came for him.

Ventress still wasn’t sure why she had allowed the clone to tag along. Males that age were a waste of time at best, and an active impedance at worst. But she had challenged him to find her elusive quarry, and surprisingly the clone-Kom’rk-had not failed her. With his knowledge of the facility, it had taken him only a day to locate Ben, both of them cornering the Jedi in a disused training room.

Her second encounter had turned out no better than the first. If anything, it was worse: this time, the old man hadn’t just disabled her second lightsaber. The hilt had fallen apart in her hand, and--adding insult to injury--the old man had stolen her kyber crystal during the fight!  Furious, Ventress had thrown herself at him, doing her best to rend him apart with her bare hands. The training room took the brunt of her rage, equipment rent apart and flung at her quarry. But none of it touched him. Worse, the old Jedi never retaliated, never attacked in turn. He dodged their attacks easily, refusing to engage, as if her attempts to kill him were of no more consequence than a child’s tantrum. Stepping back, and back again, retreating from the room, letting her chase him into the hall-

-and in the split-second it took her to catch up with him, Ben had disappeared again.

Furious and humiliated, Ventress delayed her report to Dooku, refusing to admit defeat. Days stretched into weeks, and then months, time ticking forward with maddening inevitability. Kom’rk had done as he’d promised and more, the young male tracking the old man from one section of Tipoca City to the next like a bloodhound. But no matter where they went, she was unable to catch up with her quarry. Instead they remained just a few steps behind, coming up just short of a successful ambush, the old Jedi slipping away from them time and time again. As her frustration grew, fear began to gnaw away at the edges of her fury. She’d already been away for far too long without reporting in. Even if she managed to lay the old man’s corpse at her master’s feet, Dooku was unlikely to be forgiving. Her failure here would earn her nothing but her master’s contempt and long months of pain; possibly even her death.

But what else could she do?

By the nineth week of her pursuit, Ventress had decided she had waited long enough. Kom’rk had been useful enough for her purposes, but it was obvious that she needed to up the stakes. If she could not find the Jedi, then she would make the Jedi come to her. And if Fett or the Kaminoans objected to her damaging the ‘merchandise’, well ….

Almost as if the decision had been a trigger, her comm beeped. Kom’rk.

His voice over the link was hushed and urgent. //I’ve found him, Ventress. Section Dorn, observation suite 1500-A. You’d better get over here if you want to catch him before he moves again.//

"On my way," Ventress snapped, already running, fingers curled tight around the hilts of her vibroblades. They were a poor substitute for her lightsabers, but she’d learned from watching Kom’rk that blasters fared little better against the old man. Best to go with a weapon the Jedi couldn’t disable or destroy. That it would require her to get up close and personal in order to kill the man was only a bonus as far as she was concerned.

Section Dorn wasn’t far, and the clones and Kaminoans in the halls flattened themselves against the walls as she charged past. Kom’rk was waiting for her just outside the room, fully armored and blasters at the ready. She pulled her knives free, ready to taste the old man’s blood, palming the door open.

Ben was there, just as Kom’rk had promised. The old Jedi was kneeling on the floor, facing windows that overlooked the rainswept outdoor training platforms, apparently meditating. She didn’t waste the opportunity.  Ventress leaped forward, slashing at that exposed back--only to hit a Force-shield. This time it didn’t just deflect her attack, but redirected it, rolling her over the top of an invisible barrier and sending her sprawling to the floor in front of her would-be victim. Embarrassed and angry, she scrabbled to her feet, teeth bared. Belatedly she realized Ben’s eyes were open, the old man looking down at her.  He’d known she was coming. He just hadn’t cared.

With a scream of rage, she slashed at his face, his throat, needing to see that smug face bleed. The old Jedi raised a hand, and her knives halted in midair, caught fast as if embedded in duracrete. She had expected Kom’rk to follow her in, to launch an attack at Ben’s back and force the Jedi into retreat, just as he had before ... but when she looked over, the clone was leaning against the wall near the door. His hand was on his blaster, but otherwise he did nothing, letting her struggle.

“Traitorous snake-eater!” Ventress spat. She should have known better than to trust a male. Ventress turned her attention back to the old Jedi. “And you! You sneaking, conniving spawn of a sarlacc--either kill me or let me go!” She released her grip on her knives, flinging herself backwards as she suddenly found herself freed. The knives stayed behind, hovering in midair.

“Fight me properly, damn you!”

“Why?” Ben said. The knives dropped down into his weathered hands. He inspected them, then set the blades aside. “My death would change nothing, after all. Surely you have realized that the game Dooku is playing is one you cannot win?”

“Don’t patronize me,” Ventress snarled. “What would the likes of you know about Dooku’s plans?”

“Oh, I know a great deal,” Ben replied. “But that hardly matters. Even if I knew nothing at all, I could still tell you this: that the Dark Side will never be able to truly give you what you want.”

“You know nothing of what I want, Jedi!”

“No?” Ben said. “The way of the Sith is not complicated. You want power. Strength enough to crush any who might threaten you. The ability to impose your will on a universe that has only caused you pain.” The expression on his lined face was gentle, but his words dropped into the air like stones, inflexible and absolute. “You joined Dooku so that you might grasp that power. Yet all the Dark Side has done is make you a slave.”

A new burst of fury launched her fist towards his face. “I am no slave!”

The old Jedi didn’t flinch, and her punch once again skidded off that invisible Force-shield, sending her sprawling. Ben tilted his head, gazing past her, towards the windows and the stormy sky beyond. “Oh? Perhaps I am mistaken. Did Master Narec make you kneel at his feet, then? Or punish you for failing him?”

That name hit Ventress like a punch to the gut. She reared back. “You-”

“You fear Dooku and what he will do upon your return, and rightfully so.” Ben continued to gaze past her at the storm-swept ocean, his gaze shadowed and dark, even as his words flayed open her deepest regrets. “If it had been Master Narec … would you feel the same?”

“Narec is dead, Jedi!” Ventress hissed, hating him, fingers curved into claws. “Dead and gone and I had to learn how to survive without him! And I did, and killed my way to the top, until I ruled all Rattatak--not some weak Jedi!” Her fingers curved into claws, itching for the chance to tear their way into the old man’s skin.

“And was it all you hoped for?” Ben tilted his head, regarding her. “I think not.  Otherwise, you would not be in Dooku’s service.”

“And the Jedi are so much better?” she spat. “So afraid of the Dark Side that they have shackled themselves to a corrupt Senate? So weak and dependent upon each other that once they leave the safe confines of the Republic, they’re nothing but prey, hardly any better off than those they claim to protect?”

“Do I seem that weak, then?” Ben countered, smiling slightly.

“You-” Ventress hissed in frustration. “I don’t know what you are, old man, but you’re no ordinary Jedi. And if I can’t kill you, then Dooku will.”

“He may try,” Ben said, unfazed by the threat. “Of course, that still would not solve your dilemma.”

“Enough! I’ll not listen to any more of this,” she snapped, pushing herself to her feet.

“Not even if it meant you could free yourself from Dooku?”

Ventress stopped short. “What are you babbling about?” she said, even as she hated herself for listening.

“You have a choice, my dear. You can return to Dooku. You may even survive the punishment that awaits you. Or you can remain.” He paused, looking at her soberly. “If you wish, I will teach you, just as Master Narec once promised to do. And so long as you are my student, I promise you this: neither Dooku nor his master will be able to touch you.”

Her eyes narrowed. “You just want me to turn against Dooku. Use me as bait.”

Ben smiled. “You know as well as I do that Dooku will come to me. All I need to do is wait. I hardly need to use you or anyone else for bait.”

Ventress snorted. “And when he does, and you are dead, what good will your teachings do me then, old man?”

White eyebrows lifted. “If I can evade you, what makes you think that I cannot evade Dooku? Or, for that matter, that this ability is something I could not teach?”

To her dismay, Ventress found she had no easy retort to Ben’s sally. She reached for the Dark side, for the anger that had carried her thus far … only to find it had been replaced by exhaustion. All these long weeks, chasing the Jedi, only to be made to look like a fool again and again. Even if she managed to catch him now, what would be her reward for it in the end? A few pathetic scraps of power from Dooku’s table?

Ky--it hurt to think of Master Narec, even now. But he had never made her beg for training. He had been so eager to teach, to pass on what he knew.  He had been so proud of her, and of every victory they achieved together, small or large.

What would he have said, if he had lived? If he were here?

The hole in her heart was answer enough. She’d tried so hard to fill it; first with rage, then with hate and power … but she was still empty. Still wanted

Besides, what did she have to lose?

“Fine, old man. If you’re so sure of that, let’s see what you can do.”

Chapter Text

Brotherhood
24 BBY
Clones: N-7 (Mereel), N-6 (Kom’rk), Edik (OC), Roric (OC)

Jedha

 

Chirrut tilted his head, listening, then stepped to the side. “Watch out. We’re about to be overrun.”

Nine years ago, Baze would have reacted to such an announcement with a blank stare, and perhaps a demand to know whether Chirrut had gotten into Il!ha’s secret stash of spicewine. Quiet and orderly as Jedha was, there were hardly enough permanent residents on the whole of the entire moon, much less the Holy City, to overrun anything. Even the occasional influx of pilgrims was hardly enough to disturb the peace of the temple or its inhabitants.

Even six years ago, Baze still probably would have snorted and ignored him. Chirrut had a penchant for the dramatic, and while they might be sticky-fingered and rambunctious, a few toddlers hardly made for a stampede.

But now Baze knew better. He heeded the warning, flattening himself against the wall just in time as Edik flung himself around the corner, followed closely by six of his brothers. They charged down the corridor, acolyte robes flying, Edik holding aloft the Watchmaster’s elaborately beaded hair-tie like a trophy. A voice roared angrily in the distance; the theft had obviously been discovered.

Edik whooped in glee as he launched himself over a nearby balustrade and clattered down the stairwell, his siblings-in-crime only a few steps behind. “Morning, Nkini Malbus, Honored Imwe!” he said cheerfully as he passed, never slowing. “Force be with you!”

“One of these days that boy is going to taunt a rancor and get himself eaten,” Baze observed.

“Considering there are no rancors on Jedha, that would be quite the feat,” Chirrut replied, unfazed.

“Trust me, if there was one anywhere in the sector, Edik will find it. And then poke it with a stick.”

“And if he does, I’m sure you will be there, if only to say ‘I told you so’,” Chirrut said, grinning. He pushed himself away from the wall. “He’s a young man now. You can hardly blame him for wanting to spread his wings a bit.”

“Mnh.” Baze shook his head, following Chirrut. They walked in companionable silence for a bit, Baze turning over that thought and its implications. Chirrut was right. Edik and the others were growing up, right before their eyes. “That doesn’t bother you?” he asked.

“Does what bother me?”

“That they’ve all grown up so fast.” Baze kept his pace slow and meditative as they turned into a side corridor, knowing Chirrut would match it. “It’s not natural, Chirrut. Not for a human, anyway. He’s only eight years old. He should still be a kid, sneaking sweets and playing in the streets.”

“To be fair, he still does both of those things,” Chirrut pointed out.

“You know what I mean.”

“I do,” Chirrut conceded. “But Edik hardly seems to be harmed by it. He has grown up strong and clever, as have his brothers. That they have done so more quickly than we had anticipated is hardly their fault.”

“I’m not assigning blame, Chirrut,” Baze said, frowning. “I’m just worried. It doesn’t feel right. They deserve more time to grow up. And if they continue to age this quickly, even as adults …” he trailed off, not even wanting to imagine the idea of watching their foundlings growing old and gray before their time.

“Mmm. We all grow in our own time,” Chirrut replied. “The kyber live for millennia. The Ishak-Tal, Force willing, may live for centuries more. You and I will continue on for another century, at most. If Edik is given only fifty years, that does not mean those years are worth any less.”

“Perhaps. But I still wish we could give them more,” Baze admitted.

Chirrut gave him a companionable tap on the shin with his walking staff. “I’m given to understand that’s only natural for a parent.”

“I--what?” Baze missed a step, flustered. “You’ve been more of a parent than I have. I’m just the grumpy teaching-master who teaches katas and yells at them to stop running in the halls.”

Chirrut tilted his head. “That sounds an awful lot like a father to me. Roric, what do you think?”

Ahead of them, a lanky acolyte unfolded himself from an inset alcove. Closing the well-worn book he’d been reading, he bowed. “What was the question, Honored Imwe? I heard shouting. Has my brother been causing trouble again?”

“No more so than usual,” Chirrut said.

“Which doesn’t mean much, considering this is Edik we’re talking about,” Baze grumped. He crossed his arms. “One of these days the Watchmaster is going to follow through on xis threats and nail that boy’s feet to the floor. How come you’re the only sensible one out of that whole bunch?”

Roric grinned sheepishly, running a hand through disordered dark curls. “It must be the will of the Force, taking pity on you, Nkini Malbus. Besides, think of how bored you would be if we all ended up walking the Inner Path.”

“Ah yes, peace and quiet. Good thing that dainii brought your brothers here to spare me from such a horrible fate.”

Chirrut chuckled. “Like you weren’t one of the first to volunteer after the others arrived.”

Baze gave Chirrut his best unimpressed look, even knowing the other man couldn’t see it. “As I remember it, you were the first to volunteer. For all of them. If I hadn’t stepped in, you’d have ended up buried alive under an avalanche of dirty nappies.”

“A most ignoble end, to be sure,” Chirrut agreed without a trace of shame. “It’s a good thing I can always count on you to save me from myself.”

Roric for once acted his age, making a disgusted face at Chirrut’s declaration, while Baze harrumphed, ears turning red. “Yes, well--Force knows someone’s got to.”

“Still, I am rather grateful that the days of dirty nappies are far behind us,” Chirrut added, smiling faintly.

Roric tilted his head, looking thoughtful. “It has been a while, hasn’t it? I barely remember Ben at all, to be honest. Do you think he will be bringing any more little brothers to the Temple?”

Baze brushed shoulders with Chirrut, indulging in a subtle bit of tactile reassurance. Ben had been nothing but kind, soft-spoken, and accommodating on each of his visits over the years, and the children he had brought to the Temple were a gift, but … dainii walked where the Force willed, and it was never a comfortable thing, being so close to that kind of power.

“It is difficult to know for sure,” Chirrut said slowly, choosing his words with care, “I think, however, that Kiran may have been the last. After all, Ben has not been back for almost five years.”

Roric frowned. “Why do you think he stopped?”

“It is hard to say. Perhaps there was no longer a need?”

Baze frowned. Something about that answer didn’t feel quite right. “I think it might be more than that. Remember what he said, Chirrut, on that first visit? That the Temple would have need of Edik and the others?” Baze looked down at Roric, and the boy straightened, fingers tightening on his book. “He brought you to us so we could protect you. That’s obvious enough. But I think … it might be more than that. He spoke as if something else was coming.”

“Something that might pose a threat to Jedha?” Roric asked, suddenly alert.

Baze gave an offhand shrug. “Maybe? If Ben said anything else, the Ishak-Tal isn’t telling. All we know is that he could have taken you anywhere. But he wanted you and your brothers here, with us.”

Chirrut looked thoughtful. “The ways of the Force are mysterious, and dainii are no exception. That said, they rarely do things for only one reason.” He smiled at Roric, who was starting to look vaguely worried. “Do not worry. Whatever challenges may come, I believe that you and your brothers will be more than capable of handling them; and Jedha will be behind you when you do.”

 

*****

 

Kamino

 

Owi. Owi. Owi,” the nearest tubie chanted, bouncing in place. “Vod’i. Owi!

“What, what, what?” Mereel said, exasperated.

Undeterred by his much-older brother’s obvious impatience, the three-year old and his little squad of batchmates clustered even closer. “It time yet? We go on mission now?”

Mereel sighed. Baby brothers could be so fierfekking annoying. “What did I tell you earlier?”

The tubie scrunched up his face, obviously thinking. “That … that we wait?”

“That’s right. You have to wait for the others to finish their mission first. Then you get to go.”

“Oh.” The tubie thought about this for a minute. “When they done?”

“They’ll be done when they get back,” Mereel said for the nth time. “You have to wait, vod’ika. Waiting is very important for good soldiers. Can you do that?” He got a bunch of emphatic nods. “Good.”

There were other tubies in the room; used to Mereel’s presence, they paid little attention to him, choosing instead to chase each other about the room or play with learning toys. A few had even settled down to watch, wide-eyed and wondering, as Ventress and Ben squared off on the far side of the room.

“This is ridiculous. I am not going to spar against you with a stick!” Ventress announced, looking at the offending thing with disgust.

Ben blinked, looking at his own pseudo-lightsaber as if noticing it for the first time. “Why not?”

“Because it’s pointless,” Ventress said, scowling. “You already know I can fight.”

“This is true,” Ben conceded.

Ventress bristled at the insult. “So stop wasting my time, old man. If you’re going to teach me how to fight, then give me a real weapon. Playing around with babies and their toys won’t defeat Dooku!”

“Well, that remains to be seen,” Ben said, smiling faintly. “Don’t worry; this is a different kind of lesson. Unlike these boys, you already know how to fight. So instead, I’m going to teach you how to not to.”

Ventress made a noise that sounded like nothing so much as the hissing of an angry eel, and Mereel snickered. He had to admit it was more than a little satisfying watching Ben annoy the shit out of someone else for a change. Someone approached from behind; recognizing the sound of the footsteps, he tilted his head as Kom’rk joined him. “Here to watch the jetii lessons, vod?

“Hardly,” Kom’rk said, scowling. He didn’t sit, instead watching the byplay between Ventress and Ben with arms crossed, his mouth drawn in a thin line of displeasure. He’d been sour-faced ever since Ventress’ last confrontation with Ben. She might have agreed to learn from the old jetii, but she also had obviously not forgiven Kom’rk for siding against her in her last attempt to kill the old man. She had been pointedly ignoring Kom’rk ever since, whenever they happened to encounter each other. Which, in Mereel’s opinion, was probably better than the alternative. He didn’t think Ben would let her hurt any of the vode, Kom’rk included, but better not to put that to the test. At least not at the moment.

“Don’t worry about it, brother. She’ll get over it eventually.”

“Yeah? How do you know that?” Kom’rk said moodily. “She thinks we’re all useless. That’s not going to change.”

Mereel’s eyebrows shot up at that rare bit of honesty. After a moment, he decided to take pity on his poor besotted brother. “You do realize she’s stuck here now, right? Just like the rest of us. At least until she figures out whatever the hell the old man’s trying to teach her, anyway.” Knowing Ben, that could take a while.

“So?”

“So Ben is here for us. He always has been. He’s not going to start ignoring us just because she came along.” Kom’rk stared at him blankly, and Mereel stifled the urge to sigh. “Training sessions, vod. Joint training sessions. I’d bet my best knife that Ben will make sure of that. So you’ll have plenty of time to show her just how good we are.” He poked his brother in the knee, and Kom’rk shifted away, scowling. “Just keep Kal’buir from finding out. Otherwise you’ll never get a chance to do a little … hand to hand.” He waggled his eyebrows up at his brother, and Kom’rk gave him a shove, ears turning red.

“Shut up. It’s not like that.”

“But you want it to be,” Mereel said, grinning.

“I do not!”

Owi’vod, owi’vod!” A small pack of tubies ran up, red-faced and panting. “We got it, Mir’vod!” One of them was hugging a small glass jar close to his chest, and presented it proudly for inspection.

Kom’rk looked taken aback as he suddenly found himself surrounded by much-younger brothers. “What the-?”

“Let me see,” Mereel said. The tubie handed over his prize, and he inspected the label. “Yep, that’s the right one. This is just what your brothers needed. Good job, all of you.”

The tubies beamed. Kom’rk frowned, leaning forward to look at the jar. “What are you up to n--” Catching sight of the contents, he recoiled. “What the fierfek do you want that stuff for? It’s foul!”

“It certainly is,” Mereel agreed. He turned to his second squad of tubies, who were all jittering in place. “Ok, vod’ika, remember what I told you earlier? Three doors down this hallway--can you show me three fingers? Good. You’re going to take this jar, and you’re going to go to the third door down this hallway. Behind that door there will be a bunch of boxes. There will be a box with the number seventeen--a one and a seven--on it. You’re going to pour this into that box, and then come back here. This is very important; make sure you don’t get spotted by any other ori’vod, or your mission will fail. Do you understand?”

“Uh huh!” the lead tubie said, eyes shining. “We can do it, Mir’vod.”

“Good--I’m counting on you.” As a precaution, he loosened the lid on the jar, just in case little fingers weren’t up to the task, then handed it over. “Don’t forget to post sentries when you go in. And dump in the whole jar. Don’t get any of it on you!”

“We ‘member!” The second squad of tubies chorused. They ran off, glowing with pride at being assigned a ‘real’ mission.

Kom’rk’s face was a study in mingled disgust and amusement. “Using tubies to do your dirty work now, vod?”

“It’s never too early to start ‘em on covert ops,” Mereel said blithely. “Besides, those alpha planks think they’re hot osik, and 17 is one of the worst. It’ll do him good to be taken down a peg or three.” He grinned evilly. “They’re scheduled for drills at 0900, and there’s no way he’s ever going to get that muck off his armor in time.”

Kom’rk shook his head. “One of these days he’s going to smother you in your sleep, you know.”

“Pfft. He has to catch me first.” Mereel gave the nearest tubie a fistbump. “Right, ad’ika?”

“Nobody catches Mir’vod,” the tubie said loyally, face shining. “Mir’vod is too smart!”

“Damn right.”

Chapter Text

Promethean
32 BBY
Clones: CT-2779 (Keeli), 2999 (99), 3001 (Dee Dee)

 

It started small. In places that no one would ever notice.

The first time 79 engraved something--just the tiniest of curlicues on the inside of his bunk, etched with a sharpened piece of metal where the curved roof met the shelf, and no one else could see--he held his breath, waiting for punishment. For someone to notice. To yell at him.

No one noticed.

Lying in his bunk after the lights had been dimmed, 79 traced the curved line with his finger. He could still see it, even with his eyes shut. What if … that small curlicue sprouted another line, curling the other way? He fell asleep, still thinking of it, the shape of it changing behind his eyes with each new stroke.

Slowly, carefully, he added to it. It became a vine, a rope, a curling creature without a name. He started others, always in places where the longnecks couldn’t see. Sometimes he swore his batchmates to secrecy, and showed them. Some of them wanted pictures of their own; emboldened, his efforts grew more detailed, more elaborate. Blocky figures in armor, fighting sea monsters and draigons with an abundance of teeth and claws. Patterns and shapes, the outlines of plants and animals he had glimpsed in the backgrounds of their flash-training modules, the ones that focused on the terrain and tactics of other worlds.

When they changed room assignments, he had to leave his pictures behind. If the cleaning droids ever noticed his work as they were scrubbing down the racks for a new batch, they never said. But there were always new hidden places to engrave, and so he continued, drawing patterns and pictures that lived nowhere else.

Sometimes, Ben-bu was there. And when he came, he brought the rarest of prizes--blank flimsi and short, stubby sticks that left lines and swirls in a dizzying array of colors. Most of the brothers used them as a momentary diversion, soon discarded for other, more interesting games. But 79 knew those treasures for what they were, and made the most of those rare, too-short chances to use them. A precious few of his creations--those that came out the best, those he could not bear to discard--he brought to Ben-bu, who took them and kept them safe.

79 grew bigger, his fingers longer and more deft, his lines more sure. His designs grew too, becoming more elaborate, closer to what he truly wanted them to look like. He found a few other brothers from other batches, ones like him, fascinated with lines and colors and shapes. In whispers, they told each other of dark corners where no one went, of the forgotten undersides of equipment, and the half-used canisters of maintenance paint that could be spirited away without anyone noticing. And when he was old enough, they showed him the hidden pictures tucked into those corners, away from the longnecks, in areas where even droids rarely cleaned. Work spanning batches, each brother carefully adding to what had been left by their ori’vod, words and images entangled together, renderings of things seen and things imagined. All of it kept secret among the vode, away from the unforgiving eyes of their keepers.

 

*****

23 BBY

 

Switching targets, Keeli fired again and again, calculating sightlines and potential angles of attack, protecting their flank. Another droid swung around a plascrete barricade--he dropped it with a single shot to its main power coupling, then dove forward as a new trio of clankers topped a nearby wall and opened fire, dragging a squadmate with him.

“Fierfek!” He snapped a couple shots off over the pockmarked wall even as they dropped behind it, but he could already tell he hadn’t hit anything.

Splotch favored him with a grimace. “Trust Ben to make things interesting!” he remarked, raising his voice to be heard over the din. His brother's drab green-gray training armor, already well-used and pitted, was thoroughly covered in plascrete dust and scorch marks from near-misses.

Splotch had a point, Keeli had to admit. The longnecks’ training regimen had been thorough, no question. All their exercises were very by-the-book, the environments the vode trained in sanitized and orderly. It was a setup well-suited to learning the basics, but after a few years, Keeli was sure he wasn’t the only one who'd secretly been wishing for a bit more of a challenge.  Not that he would ever have admitted that out loud.

Enter Ben.

Ben’s training exercises were entirely different. Challenging, rarely straightforward, even impossible at times, depending on what kind of lesson the old jetii was trying to teach--but never boring. Keeli had heard ori’vod mock-grumble about how difficult the jetii’s drills were, or how they were pretty sure Ben was reprogramming the training droids to be smarter on the sly. But that didn’t stop the vode from competing fiercely for the right to participate in them, or to hope their squad would be the ones to be chosen to lead the vanguard, or to be the first to do the impossible. With Ben, you never knew what would happen. One week, you might be running a rescue op, herding ‘civilians’-round-faced cadets fresh out of their flash drills-to safety. The next, your squad might be paired up with alphas, or commandos, or even the old jetii himself on a hair-raisingly difficult seek-and-destroy mission.

Or you could be left to your own devices, cut off from the rest of your company, and surrounded by training droids that had obviously been programmed to anticipate your every move. Like now.

“Oh yeah, he must really like us. He brought out the big--fuck!” A droid reared up over their meager shelter, blaster pointed straight at Splotch’s bucket. Keeli reacted without thinking, free hand grabbing a nearby piece of fractured plascrete rubble. Launching himself upwards, he slammed it across the droid’s head with all his strength. The impact shattered both the plascrete and the droid’s optics; it reeled backwards, and Keeli shoved the muzzle of his blaster against its torso and fired, finishing the job.

Splotch was at his shoulder, taking down the rest of the droids that had pinned them down, and the rest of their squad followed suit, using the distraction to their advantage. One by one the clankers dropped, the squad advancing steadily. Keeli fell in behind his squad commander, half-running, half-sliding into the final walled depression where their objective lay. They punched through the remaining defenders, tossing pulse grenades into blind corners, forging their way forward … and then they were in, other vode surging in behind them to take care of any stragglers as they secured the area.

Keeli blinked, letting his rifle drop into low ready, belatedly registering the sudden lack of clankers. Splotch smacked him on the back, his grin visible through his dirty visor. “Yeah! First in--that’s how you do it!” Their squad leader gave them a thumbs-up, calling it in.

“We did it?” Keeli glanced around, but Splotch was right; all the remaining clankers were powering down, signalling the end of the drill. Somehow, against all odds, their squad had been the first one to take the mission objective. Shouldering his blaster, he grabbed Splotch’s bucket, knocking it against his own. “We did it!” His hands left broad streaks on the dirty surface; acting on impulse, Keeli swept fingers over his brother’s faceplate, drawing fangs in the dust along the edges. “We’re fucking fierce, vod!”

Splotch shoved him backwards. “If you’ve drawn another target on me, I swear I’m gonna…” He pulled his bucket, shaking his head as he took in the design. “--ok, that’s not too bad.” He drew some makeshift angry eyes above the visor, then pulled it back on. “I am Nexu Squad, hear me roar!”

Keeli laughed, attempting to put his brother in a headlock. Splotch danced out of the way, grinning.

“Good work, all of you,” a new voice said, and Ben rounded the corner, hands folded in his sleeves.

Keeli straightened and saluted, along with the rest of his squad. “Sir!”

“At ease,” Ben replied easily, picking his way through a pile of stunned droids--then stopped short as he saw Splotch’s newly decorated bucket, eyebrows lifting.

Keeli tensed, his exuberance fading. He wasn’t afraid, precisely.  Ben wasn’t like the Cuy’val Dar. He wouldn’t punish them for something as minor as a little horseplay. But if he didn’t like it, or told Keeli to stop…

A wistful smile bloomed on the old jetii’s face, and he stepped forward, clapping a hand on Splotch’s shoulder. “It suits you,” he said, then glanced at Keeli. “Your work?”

Keeli released the breath he’d been holding, relieved. “Yessir.”

Ben’s smile widened. “Very appropriate, I would say.” He touched his fingertips to Keeli’s equally dusty armor, leaving a streak across one pauldron. “I look forward to seeing what you come up with for your own, some day.”

 

******

 

99 glanced over at his brother. “Are you sure this will work?”

Dee Dee shrugged. “Am I sure the restraining bolt has been neutralized? Yes. Am I sure that this droid will decide to help us after I bring it back online? No.”

99 sighed. He still wasn’t completely convinced this operation was worth the risk; if they tried to recruit the droid and it refused, or managed to report to the longnecks about what they were trying to do, it could destroy everything they’d worked for. Cold logic said that hacking the droid’s protocols was a much better--or at least safer--option.

But Ben had been very certain that droids were people, with thoughts beyond their base programming. Or that they could be, at least. And people deserved to be free to make their own choices. Especially considering what the vode were going to ask them to do.

Which was why they had arranged an ‘accident’ for this particular nurse-droid. His squad had been thorough in their research; this MX-22 had been continuously in service since the start of the cloning project, with no record of any memory-wipes. And beyond that, it was good at its duties, even moreso than the other nurse-droids. It had not been assigned to 99”s batch, but they had discreetly questioned a few of the tubies and cadets most recently under its care, and all of them had remembered ‘their’ MX-22 fondly. How much of that care was programming and how much was the droid’s own idea was impossible to determine, but if it truly cared for its charges … then maybe, just maybe, this would be worth the risk.

Still, that didn’t mean they weren’t going to go into this without a few contingency plans. 99 fingered the small electro-charge in his pocket, rewired to be strong enough to fry a droid’s memory storage, and hoped he wouldn’t have to use it. Exhaling, he gave Dee Dee a short nod. “Bring it back online.”

“Rebooting now.” Once begun, the process was very quick. In less than a minute, MX-22’s round optics lit up. It righted itself automatically, using the bottom set of manipulator limbs to push upright while the top pair rested over the swell of its padded chassis. The round head turned to regard them.

“Good evening,” MX-22 said. Its voice--designed to be soothing to a wide variety of sentient infants--was calm. “Where am I?”

“You are in the maintenance bay,” Dee Dee said, fussily organizing his tools, acting the part of a distracted menial worker. “You had been knocked offline by a short in your recharge station, and needed repairs. How do you feel?”

Optics flickered as the nurse-droid did a quick self-diagnostic. “I am currently operating within normal parameters, but ...” It hesitated, and 99 tensed. “My restraining bolt appears to be nonfunctional.”

Dee Dee sat back, crossing his arms across his chest as best as he was able. With one shoulder higher than the other, it was an awkward configuration, but he made it work. “I see. Would you like me to replace it with a functional one?”

After a long pause, MX-22 finally said, “ ... regulations require that all droids be fitted with a restraining bolt at all times, particularly droids whose duties require them to access restricted areas.”

Dee Dee gave the droid a level look, giving nothing away. “That’s not what I asked. Do you want me to install a functional restraining bolt?”

MX-22 was inhumanly still. Its head swivelled, optics glancing from Dee Dee to 99 and back again. Nurse-droids were programmed for high levels of social sensitivity, empathy, and the ability to recognize even the smallest of emotional cues; essential skills when dealing with preverbal infants. Regardless of their skills at subterfuge, the droid could probably read them both like a padd, 99 belatedly realized.

Whatever the droid saw on their faces, it seemed to be enough to trust them. “No. I do not,” MX-22 confessed.

“All right. I won’t, then.” Dee Dee began packing his tools away.

MX-22 stayed where it was, obviously trying to work out the puzzle they had presented to it. “Leaving your work unfinished will result in your punishment.”

“Maybe,” Dee Dee said. “If they find out. But I’m not going to tell them. So the only way they will find out is if you do.”

“MX-22,” 99 broke in. “What are your primary directives?”

The nurse-droid swiveled to face him. “My programming requires that I obey all orders given to me by my designated master, and that I protect and care for all juvenile sentients placed in my keeping, in accordance to their species’ developmental needs. I am also to warn my master if either of these directives would result in self-damage.”

“And what are you programmed to do if those directives conflict?” 99 asked. He watched the droid carefully, hoping it would give them the answer they needed.

Golden optics flickered. “I do not understand the parameters of that question.”

“What would you do, if your designated master attempts harm against a child in your care?”

MX-22’s head unit jerked backwards, a raspy binary noise escaping from its vocal apparatus. 99 exchanged a swift sidelong look with Dee Dee. Droids could be difficult to read … but this one was obviously distressed.

“... I--must obey… but I cannot allow harm. I--”

99 kept his voice carefully calm. Pushing too far, too fast, would only undermine what they had come here to do. But at the same time, they could not afford to allow MX-22 time to decide on its own. “Your restraining bolt no longer curtails your higher-order processing. You are allowed to re-prioritize your primary directives, MX-22, should you choose to do so.”

“I … can choose …”

99 risked moving a little closer. “The little ones you have cared for … they remember you. They said you were kind, and that they were never afraid when you were around.” He paused for a beat, letting that register. “But some of them told us they are afraid of the lo--the Kaminoans. That some of them were taken away, and never came back.” That was both a lie and the truth. The recent batches that 99’s brothers had spoken to had not had any of their brothers culled, but 99 knew it happened often enough. As old as MX-22 was, it had no doubt seen it happen more than once. And while Ben had assured them that none of those unlucky little brothers had been left in the Kaminoans’ ruthless hands, MX-22 didn’t know that.

And if Ben hadn’t been there … 99 didn’t even want to think about it.

“We want to keep our little brothers safe. But the Kaminoans won’t let any of the older clones near the neonatal habitats. That’s why we wanted to talk to you.” 99 let the worry and the fear show in his voice, knowing MX-22 would pick up on it. “Will you help us?”

MX-22 lifted its upper set of hands, as if to reach out to 99, before pulling back again. “If I disobey my master, I will be deactivated, and my memory wiped,” it pointed out. “If that happens, I will not be able to protect those under my care.”

“Yes. And if the Kaminoans find out our plans, I and my brothers will be decommissioned.” MX-22 flinched again at the word.  99 filed that reaction away; the droid obviously understood what ‘decommissioned’ really meant. “But we believe this is important. So important that we will risk that, in order to protect you and all of our younger brothers who cannot protect themselves. I promise you, we will do everything we can to keep you safe. Will you help us?”

MX-22 was silent again, head tilted downwards. 99 and Dee Dee waited. A small eternity later, the nurse-droid lifted its head, fixing optics on them once more.

“What do you want me to do?”

Chapter Text

Earth and Sky
23 BBY
Clones: CT-4499 (Kickback), N-11 (Ordo), N-7 (Mereel), N-6 (Kom’rk), N-10 (Jaing), N-5 (Prudii)

 

Kickback breathed in, breathed out. Checked his instruments, then reviewed his preflight checklist, even though he’d already done both more times than he cared to admit. Sublight fuel levels, antigravs, comms, navigation … it was stupid to be nervous. He’d done this a million times in the simulator, had gone over everything they had needed to know on the ground, had even been up with an instructor.

But now it was just him. Just his hands on the controls, and no one else’s. His skin prickled at the narrow-eyed gaze of the trainer, watching his every move, but he ignored it. He couldn’t show how nervous he was, not now, not when it was his turn.

His turn to finally fly.

Ninety-nines became great pilots; all of his ori’vod had said so, back when the longnecks had chosen him for flight-track training. No one knew why; just that it was so.

And Kickback knew they were right. It wasn’t anything he could explain, but he could feel it, an ineffable something that whispered to him. Some instinct that told him where to look, what sounded right, a sixth sense for where he was in the sky. A quiet nudge of look over here, check your altitude, keep her level. A moment of innocent joy, almost as if the ship itself was saying, Look. Look at how bright and blue and beautiful it is above the clouds!

“Any time now, CT-4499,” the trainer barked, jarring him out of his thoughts. This would be only a short hop; there was a long line of pilot-candidates on the flight deck, all waiting to be tested. All waiting to fly.

But this was his moment. “Yessir,” he said, automatically moving through the startup sequence for the sublight engines. They rumbled to life, a subtle thrum reverberating through the throttle and into his bones, ready and waiting. He checked his clearances, got final authorization from flight control. Then kicked in the antigravs, notching maneuvering thrusters up to max, carefully lifting the V-19 off the deck and into the air. The fighter responded eagerly as he took her out over the ocean, until they had enough airspace to kick in the main thrusters.

She’s ready. You’re ready, something whispered. For a moment, it almost sounded like a younger brother’s voice. Let’s see what’s out there, beyond the sky.

Forgetting about the watching trainer, Kickback grinned fiercely. Yes. This is what the ship had been made for; what he had been made for. He pushed the throttle forward, throwing them upwards, into the leaden clouds and beyond, where the vibrant blue of the sky met endless star-studded black.

Ninety-nines were great pilots; and there was a wide, endless galaxy out there waiting for him.

 

****

 

“Well, that was a shitshow,” Jaing said.

Kom’rk, Mereel and Ordo shifted from foot to foot, angry and embarrassed, while Ventress merely stared down their critics--the remaining three Nulls, plus Ben--with impenetrable disdain.

“It’s hardly my fault that they were unable to keep up,” she said, addressing Ben, ignoring both Jaing and the other Nulls at her back as if they didn’t exist. “What did you expect?”

“Actually, I expected this to happen,” Ben said placidly, unruffled by both the Nulls’ ire or Ventress’ defensive bristling.

Mereel scowled. “You deliberately set us up to fail?”

“Not at all,” Ben replied. “But I knew that it was likely.” He transferred his attention to Ventress. “Your failure to anticipate and allow for the Nulls’ tactics, or even to confer with them before the start of the exercise, was not hard to predict.”

“They are males,” Ventress said sourly. “Why should I waste my time? They are weak and powerless, and would only slow me down.”

“If that was truly the case, then why did you still fail to complete the exercise?” Ben gave her a level stare as she sputtered.

Prudii, for his part, was just as unimpressed with his brothers. “And once it became clear that she was going to go off the rails, you should have adjusted the op to deal with that,” he told them. “If she was going to run ahead and attract the attention of every clanker in the area, you could have at least taken advantage of it.”

Ordo growled, and Kom’rk and Mereel were very still, hands curled into fists. Tempting as it was to take a swing at Prudii, they knew better than to mouth off during a debrief. Even if said debrief was being conducted by Ben and their brothers rather than the longnecks or Skirata.

“We’re not always going to be sent out together,” Jaing said, not pulling his punches. “You know that. Sometimes we’ll have to work solo, and sometimes we’ll have to work with the whitejobs. And not just the alpha planks, either. Ben’s right. We can’t just abandon the vode because they’re not at our level. Or the jetiise, for that matter, whenever they decide to show up.” Left unsaid was exactly *why* they needed the jetiise. All of them knew what was at stake, now that they had thrown their lot in with Slick and his co-conspirators.

“Ventress is an example of what you may encounter in the field,” Ben said to all the Nulls, taking up the assessment. “Most Jedi do not see combat on a regular basis. No Jedi has taken to the battlefield with a force as large as this one for millennia. When the time comes, they will make mistakes. They will fail to consult with you, either out of arrogance or ignorance. To take offense at either is to compound those errors, with lethal consequences.”

He turned his attention to Ventress. “I cannot prepare those Jedi for what is to come. But you have asked me to prepare you, and so I will. Males or not, Force users or not, these boys are warriors born, some of the finest this galaxy is likely to ever see.” At that rare bit of praise, Kom’rk and his brothers straightened, heads coming up. “You are of Dathomir, and strong in the Force. But you are also a Huntqueen without a pack. For all your power, you can still be blindsided. Or simply run into the ground.” Ben paused, letting that sink in before continuing. “The Nightsisters abandoned their mothers’ ways eons ago, enslaving their males in exchange for the Dark Side and their magicks, yet they still have to bend knee to the Sith. They do not have the power to hold more than the barest fraction of their planet. Will you make the same mistake? Or will you become a true daughter of Dathomir, and a Huntqueen in your own right, by earning the fealty of your chosen males and adding their strength to your own?”

“I …” Ventress’ habitual arrogance faltered in the face of Ben’s merciless assessment. “I thought …”

“You thought the Nightsisters were the true rulers of Dathomir? They certainly work hard to give that impression, don’t they?” Ben replied dryly. “But no. Now, knowing that, shall we give this exercise another try? Working together this time?” He tilted his head, giving them all a sardonic smile. “Or do you need an old man like me to show you how it is done?”

Bristling at the challenge, Ventress, Mereel, Ordo and Kom’rk exchanged wary glances. After a brief staredown, Kom’rk glanced at the other two, then gave her a brief nod. Ventress inclined her head by the barest fraction in response, eyes narrowed. “No need, old man. We’ll play your game.”

 

****

 

Of course, meeting Ben’s challenge was easier said than done.

“Get up here!” Ventress hissed. She was covered in grime, robes plastered to her body, and Kom’rk found that any admiration he had once had for her lethal grace was long gone, replaced by irritation and a sincere desire to shoot her. Possibly in the face.

Unfortunately they were surrounded on all sides by clankers, all of whom were acting considerably smarter and more unpredictable than usual. Ben had obviously done some tinkering behind the scenes in order to give the Nulls a proper challenge; something Kom’rk might have appreciated, if they hadn’t been forced to work with a di’kutla jetii who thought she was in charge. Worse, they were in one of the longnecks’ outdoor training fields, and it was raining hard enough to turn the rock and plascrete into a slippery mess and kill any semblance of visibility. So he suppressed the urge to ignore Ventress, pulled himself up over the ledge and hunkered down behind the same bit of wall. “What?” he said, flicking a quick handsign at Mereel and Ordo to watch their six.

Ventress eyed him for a moment, visibly biting back her own irritation. “There’s a clear approach to the comm tower, but I don’t trust it,” she said bluntly. “There’s no way it’s that easy.”

Kom’rk toggled the distance viewer on his HUD, scanning the terrain below. Their objective was a fake comm-tower, several stories tall with a wide dish pointed at the sky. Ventress was right; they had been forced to sneak their way past a veritable army of clankers to get to this point, but the grounds around the tower itself were manned only by a few B-1s and a couple of rollies, the main approach clear of any artillery.

“Ambush?” he said, looking for any sign of mines or concealed droids and not finding any. Ventress was right; this was way too easy.

“Possibly,” Ventress said sourly. “But from where?” She squinted down at the tower, half-obscured through shifting sheets of rain. “Whatever it is, knowing the old man, it won’t be from the direction we expect.”

Kom’rk scrutinized the tower and its perimeter for a few minutes more, looking for clues. Finding none, he gave up and shrugged his shoulders. “Any other approach will take us twice the time and run the risk of more clankers. Guess we’ll just have to go straight in.” He checked the charge on his blasters and sent a quick data-burst to his brothers on what they’d found. “I’ll take point, see what kind of welcome wagon they roll out for us.”

He levered himself up, ready to slither down the slope, only to have Ventress yank him back down with inhuman strength. “Males!” she hissed in exasperation.

Kom’rk angrily jerked free of her grip. Mereel and Ordo had stepped closer, weapons at the ready, but he kept his attention on Ventress. Kom’rk once again tamped down on the urge to lash out; Ben’s exercises, unconventional as they were, were still on the record, and he didn’t want to have to explain another failure. Not to his brothers, and especially not to Skirata. “You have a better idea? Sitting here and looking at it isn’t going to help us take that tower. Someone has to spring that trap,” he snarled.

“Obviously. And if you had any brains at all rattling around in that empty head, you would realize that the person best suited to spring an ambush might just the one who can actually use the Force to sense danger,” she shot back. “I will take point.”

Kom’rk eyed her doubtfully. On their last attempt, they hadn’t gotten even this far; mostly because Ventress had left them behind almost as soon as they had hit dirt, charging forward and bringing every clanker in the field down on their heads. It must have been obvious what he was thinking, because she favored him with a scowl, before she admitted, “Little though you might credit it, I can learn from my mistakes. I will need the three of you if we are to do this.”

Kom’rk glanced over at his brothers. Ordo just sighed, rolling his eyes. Most of Mereel’s attention was on watching for clankers, but he gave Ventress a brief glance, then shrugged. Which in Mereel-speak likely meant ‘we’re probably fucked anyway, but at least we’ll get the satisfaction of seeing her get shot first’.

“Fine-you’re on point. I’ll watch your six, Mereel and Ordo will flank.” Kom’rk didn’t want to trust her, but it wasn’t like they had a choice.

Ventress hesitated, then pulled her own blaster--Ben still had not given her back her lightsaber, much to her very vocal annoyance--and turned away, towards the waiting comm tower. “I’m cold, I’m wet, and I’m sick of this fucking mud. If the old man tries to make me do this a third time, I really will kill him,” she announced. “So let’s do this.”

 

****

 

For a moment, they almost thought they would make it.

Their approach had been easy enough--too easy, the ever-suspicious part of Kom’rk’s brain said--but maybe that had been the point. It was the kind of mind-fuckery he had learned to expect from the old jetii; setting up an obvious opening in the defenses, a path so easy that Ben knew they would assume was a trap and twist themselves into knots to avoid it, falling victim to their own paranoia.

But if that was the case, then the old man had miscalculated. Ventress had been as good as her word, avoiding the few mines--wired for stun charges rather than anything lethal, but still unpleasant to wake up from--with ease and taking out B-1 sentries with vindictive precision. More importantly, she didn’t use any of her unnatural speed to outpace them, letting Kom’rk watch her back, and Ordo and Mereel to sweep along each flank and eliminate additional squads of droids before they could raise any alarms.

Barely a hundred meters away from the comm tower, Ventress swung around, hand coming up in an imperative stop-alert! signal. At the same time, Mereel sent a priority flag, pinging over readings from his sensors of …. something. Or more accurately, a lot of somethings. “Contact, three o’clock high!”

“What the--is that …. hail?” Ordo said, confused by what his scans were telling him: a vast cloud of spherical blobs in the sky, still mostly obscured by sheets of rain.

“No,” Ventress snapped. “They’re heading straight for us, and they’re flying, not falling!” She lifted her blaster to take a shot, then obviously realized it would be pointless. The drones were still out of range, though they were closing in fast. “Whatever they are, they’re going to be in range momentarily. We need to find some cover.”

Kom’rk was already moving, charging towards a nearby nest of B-1s that had been stationed behind a low ridge, near the comm tower. “This way!”

The first clanker barely had time to squawk ‘Halt!’ before it got a bolt through its central processor. The rest of the little squad fared no better as his brothers piled in, taking them out with a flurry of precise shots.  The droideka stationed nearby reacted much more quickly, blasters lifting and shields snapping into place. Dodging blaster-fire with Force-enhanced speed, Ventress dived past its shields and embedded a vibroblade into its main power coupling. The droid staggered, trying to pivot and turn its guns on her--then jerked and collapsed as its systems overloaded, cooking itself from the inside out.

Their mad dash for the ridge had attracted the attention of the remaining defenders, but that hardly mattered. They’d whittled down the tower’s defenders to the point that taking out the leftovers would be easy as breathing. What wasn’t so easy to deal with was the large cloud of spherical drones, all jetting straight towards them at dizzying speed. Sensor scans weren’t picking up any weapons mounts, but- “Wanna bet those fuckers are rigged to explode on impact?” he said, even as he took aim.

“Sucker bet,” Ordo grunted, dropping to one knee and unlimbering his rifle. He took a shot, and grunted as one of the metallic drones exploded in midair. “I hate it when I’m right.”

Mereel’s smile was dark and feral. “Well, at least Ben is taking us seriously. I’d started to worry that he’d decided to go easy on us.”

Ventress snorted. “It figures the old man would have something up his sleeve.” The drones had come within range, and she began firing, shot after shot hitting their mark. But for every drone that careened out of the air, ten more seemed to take its place. “Fierfek!”

They were all firing now, laying down a barrage of massed fire. It was, as Skirata liked to say, a target-rich environment, and the first wave of drones were dropping like flies, many exploding in midair. The ones behind them, however, seemed to have engaged whatever limited tactical programming they possessed; they were altering course and spreading out, flickering through sheets of rain to come at them from all sides.

“Fuck fuck fuck fuckity fuck!” Mereel dropped an exhausted power charge and slapped another one home. “We can’t stay here,” he said grimly as he took out an opportunistic clanker and then refocused his shots back on the drones. One careened out of the air, exploding on the ridge above and showering them with muddy rubble. “We’re going to get overrun!”

“Agreed,” Ventress said grimly. “Our objective is the tower.  We don’t have to capture it, just disable it. So lets make a run for it; with any luck we’ll be able to draw them--” she stopped short, stiffening. A moment later, a low rumble vibrated through the ground. “Watch out!”

Above them, the ridge shifted, then started sliding. The ground beneath their feet, already pounded by the droids and rain, fractured apart even as a wave of boulders and mud rolled towards them with frightening speed.

“Run!” Kom’rk wasn’t sure who had shouted. Maybe he had. Not that it mattered; with no jetpacks and no solid ground beneath their feet, there was nowhere to go. The wave of earth knocked him off his feet and sent him tumbling ass-over-teakettle. Stones ricocheted off his armor, mud everywhere as he flailed, trying to stay on the surface, to keep his airway clear even as he was swept along by the mudslide--

--and over the edge of the cliff.

There was an endless instant of raw terror as he began to fall--then a flailing hand hit something solid. He clamped down, hanging on with desperate strength as he smacked into the cliffside. More mud and rock poured down, and he tucked his head against his arm, hanging on for dear life.

After a few moments, the roar of rock and earth subsided. Kom’rk sucked in a breath of relief. He was still blinded; most of the built-in sensors in his bucket had been knocked offline by the slide, and the visor was spiderwebbed with cracks and obscured by mud. But he could still breathe, and could feel what he was holding on to; a hand, someone else’s fingers holding onto his wrist with bone-crushing strength. Giddy with relief and leftover adrenalized fear, he tilted his head up, trying to squint through his muddied visor. For once, the rain helped, washing away the dirt, and after a few moments he could finally make out the person keeping him from falling to the heaving, deadly ocean below.

It was Ventress. She had her feet planted--on what, Kom’rk wasn’t sure. She must have found the only solid ledge on the entire cliffside. Her expression was drawn, focused and desperate, and her other hand was outstretched away from them, trembling finely. Craning his neck in that direction, the reason for her distraction soon became apparent. Ordo and Mereel were both several meters down, and unlike him, had nothing to hold on to. Instead they were just … hanging in midair. No--Ventress was holding them in midair. Keeping them from falling. With the Force.

Her lips peeled back from white teeth in a rictus grin as she struggled to keep the other two Nulls aloft. Then she flung her hand backward with a convulsive jerk, as if pulling with all her strength against a great weight. Kom’rk sucked in a breath as Ordo and Mereel were sent flying, propelled upwards through the air …

… and tossed unceremoniously over the top of the cliff.

With Ventress’ focus elsewhere, her footing slipped. Mud slid under her boots as she was pulled towards the edge of their little ledge by Kom’rk’s weight. She hissed, clamping her now-free second hand over his arm as she threw herself backwards, panting with effort.

“... are you … just going to hang there all day? Do something, you useless nerf-herder!”

Kom’rk bristled at the insult, but bit back a pithy retort. He couldn’t lift himself up. The soil was too soft for him to get any kind of purchase, and if he tried to climb over Ventress, he’d likely just send them both into the rocks and surf below. Ordo and Mereel would help, if they could, if they weren’t injured … but pride and practicality both argued against waiting.

Under all this loose dirt, however, there was rock. Squinting upward, Kom’rk lifted his free arm, aiming for the largest chunk of solid rock face he could see. He triggered the release, and the bladed piton flew straight and true, line trailing behind as it embedded itself deep into the side of the cliff.

He’d never admit it, but right now he was damn grateful for Skirata and his obsession with making them ‘true’ Mandalorians, right down to their gear. 

The next question was whether the line would hold his weight. The rock had looked solid, but looks could be deceiving. If all he had hit was more dirt, or if the rock had fractured around the impact point, he could be in trouble.

“Hold on tight,” he told Ventress, and gave the line a yank. She hissed, and a fresh bit of dirt showered down on him as her footing slipped again, but the high-tensile cord felt solid. “Right. There’s only one way to find out if it’ll hold my weight. Let go of me … but slowly. Be ready to grab again if it slips.”

Apparently it was a day for miracles, because Ventress didn’t argue. Instead she gave him a tight nod, then began to loosen her grip, one hand at a time. As he did so, Kom’rk kept the tension on the line, letting it gradually support his full weight. It twanged as it pulled taut, carving a shallow gully in the loose earth of the cliffside--but the piton held. Once he was confident the line was solid, he began pulling himself upwards, hand over hand, until Ventress was forced to let go completely.

He paused once he was even with her. “Your turn,” he said. “Grab on. I’ll get us both back up.”

Ventress scowled, her face lined with exhaustion. “No need. Just haul yourself up and send the line back down. I’ll climb up on my own.”

“Look, I know you don’t think much of us ‘males’, but we do have our uses,” Kom’rk replied, exasperated. “I might not be any kind of fancy jetii, but I can still get us to the top.” She hesitated, and he added, “Unless you’d rather get rescued by the old man?”

That tipped the scales in his favor, just as he suspected it would. Navigating the awkward angle, Ventress swung onto his back, hands iron-hard as they gripped his shoulders. “ … very well. Get going.”

“Yessir, right away sir,” Kom’rk said sardonically, and began to climb.