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Find Skirata. He’s the only one who can talk these men down. And no, I’m not going to obliterate a whole barracks block just to neutralize six ARCs. So get me Skirata: he can’t have traveled very far. —General Iri Camas, Director of Special Forces, to Coruscant Security Force, from Siege Incident Control, Special Operations Brigade HQ Barracks, Coruscant, five days after the Battle of Geonosis Tipoca City, Kamino, eight years before Geonosis Kal Skirata had committed the biggest mistake of his life, and he’d made some pretty big ones in his time.
Kamino was damp. And damp didn’t help his shattered ankle one little bit. No, it was more than damp: it was nothing but storm-whipped sea from pole to pole, and he wished that he’d worked that out before he responded to Jango Fett’s offer of a lucrative long-term deployment in a location that his old comrade hadn’t exactly specified.
But that was the least of his worries now.
The air smelled more like a hospital than a military base. The place didn’t look like barracks, either. Skirata leaned on the polished rail that was all that separated him from a forty-meter fall into a chamber large enough to swallow a battle cruiser and lose it.
Above him, the vaulted illuminated ceiling stretched as far as the abyss did below. The prospect of the fall didn’t worry him half as much as not understanding what he was now seeing.
The cavern—surgically clean, polished durasteel and permaglass—was filled with structures that seemed almost like fractals. At first glance they looked like giant toroids stacked on pillars; then, as he stared, the toroids resolved into smaller rings of permaglass containers, with containers within them, and inside those—
No, this wasn’t happening.
Inside the transparent tubes there was fluid, and within it there was movement.
It took him several minutes of staring and refocusing on one of the tubes to realize there was a body in there, and it was alive. In fact, there was a body in every tube: row upon row of tiny bodies, children’s bodies. Babies.
“Fierfek,” he said aloud.
He thought he’d come to this Force-forsaken hole to train commandos. Now he knew he’d stepped into a nightmare. He heard boots behind him on the walkway of the gantry and turned sharply to see Jango coming slowly toward him, chin lowered as if in reproach.
“If you’re thinking of leaving, Kal, you knew the deal,” said Jango, and leaned on the rail beside him.
“I said you’d be training special forces troops, and you will be. They just happen to be growing them.”
“How the fierfek did you ever get involved with that?”
“A straight five million and a few extras for donating my genes. And don’t look shocked. You’d have done the same.”
The pieces fell into place for Skirata and he let himself be shocked anyway. War was one thing. Weird science was another issue entirely.
“Well, I’m keeping my end of the deal.” Skirata adjusted the fifteen-centimeter, three-sided blade that he always kept sheathed in his jacket sleeve. Two Kaminoan technicians walked serenely across the floor of the facility beneath him. Nobody had searched him and he felt better for having a few weapons located for easy use, including the small hold-out blaster tucked in the cuff of his boot.
And all those little kids in tanks . . .
The Kaminoans disappeared from sight. “What do those things want with an army anyway?”
“They don’t. And you don’t need to know all this right now.” Jango beckoned him to follow. “Besides, you’re already dead, remember?”
“Feels like it,” said Skirata. He was the Cuy’val Dar— literally, “those who no longer exist,” a hundred expert soldiers with a dozen specialties who’d answered Jango’s secret summons in exchange for a lot of credits . . . as long as they were prepared to disappear from the galaxy completely.
He trailed Jango down corridors of unbroken white duraplast, passing the occasional Kaminoan with its long gray neck and snake-like head. He’d been here for four standard days now, staring out the window of his quarters onto the endless ocean and catching an occasional glimpse of the aiwhas soaring up out of the waves and flapping into the air. The thunder was totally silenced by the soundproofing, but the lightning had become an annoyingly irregular pulse in the corner of his eye.
Skirata knew from day one that he wouldn’t like Kaminoans.
Their cold yellow eyes troubled him, and he didn’t care for their arrogance, either. They stared at his limping gait and asked if he minded being defective.
The window-lined corridor seemed to run the length of the city. Outside, it was hard to see where the horizon ended and the rain clouds began.
Jango looked back to see if he was keeping up. “Don’t worry, Kal. I’m told it’s clear weather in the summer—for a few days.”
Right. The dreariest planet in the galaxy, and he was stuck on it. And his ankle was playing up. He really should have invested in getting it fixed surgically. When—if—he got out of here, he’d have the assets to get the best surgeon that credits could buy.
Jango slowed down tactfully. “So, Ilippi threw you out?”
“Yeah.” His wife wasn’t Mandalorian. He’d hoped she would embrace the culture, but she didn’t: she always hated seeing her old man go off to someone else’s war. The fights began when he wanted to take their two sons into battle with him. They were eight years old, old enough to start learning their trade; but she refused, and soon Ilippi and the boys and his daughter were no longer waiting when he returned from the latest war. Ilippi divorced him the Mando way, same as they’d married, on a brief, solemn, private vow. A contract was a contract, written or not. “Just as well I’ve got another assignment to occupy me.”
“You should have married a Mando girl. Aruetiise don’t understand a mercenary’s life.” Jango paused as if waiting for argument, but Kal wasn’t giving him one. “Don’t your sons talk to you any longer?”
“Not often.” So I failed as a father. Don’t rub it in. “Obviously they don’t share the Mando outlook on life any more than their mother does.”
“Well, they won’t be speaking to you at all now. Not here. Ever.”
Nobody seemed to care if he had disappeared anyway. Yes, he was as good as dead. Jango said nothing more, and they walked in silence until they reached a large circular lobby with rooms leading off it like the spokes of a wheel.
“Ko Sai said something wasn’t quite right with the first test batch of clones,” said Jango, ushering Skirata ahead of him into another room. “They’ve tested them and they don’t think these are going to make the grade. I told Orun Wa that we’d give him the benefit of our military experience and take a look.”
Skirata was used to evaluating fighting men—and women, come to that. He knew what it took to make a soldier. He was good at it; soldiering was his life, as it was for all Mando’- ade, all sons and daughters of Mandalore. At least there’d be some familiarity to cling to in this ocean wilderness.
It was just a matter of staying as far from the Kaminoans as he could.
“Gentlemen,” said Orun Wa in his soothing monotone. He welcomed them into his office with a graceful tilt of the head, and Skirata noted that he had a prominent bony fin running across the top of his skull from front to back. Maybe that meant Orun Wa was older, or dominant, or something: he didn’t look like the other examples of aiwha-bait that Skirata had seen so far. “I always believe in being honest about setbacks in a program. We value the Jedi Council as a customer.”
“I have nothing to do with the Jedi,” said Jango. “I’m only a consultant on military matters.”
Oh, Skirata thought. Jedi. Great.
“I would still be happier if you confirmed that the first batch of units is below the acceptable standard.”
“Bring them in, then.”
Skirata shoved his hands in his jacket pockets and wondered what he was going to see: poor marksmanship, poor endurance, lack of aggression? Not if these were Jango’s clones. He was curious to see how the Kaminoans could have fouled up producing fighting men based on that template.
The storm raged against the transparisteel window, rain pounding in surges and then easing again. Orun Wa stood back with a graceful sweep of his arms like a dancer. And the doors opened.
Six identical little boys—four, maybe five years old—walked into the room.
Skirata was not a man who easily fell prey to sentimentality. But this did the job just fine.
They were children: not soldiers, not droids, and not units. Just little kids. They had curly black hair and were all dressed in identical dark blue tunics and pants. He was expecting grown men. And that would have been bad enough.
He heard Jango inhale sharply.
The boys huddled together, and it ripped at Skirata’s heart in a way he wasn’t expecting. Two of the kids clutched each other, looking up at him with huge, dark, unblinking eyes: another moved slowly to the front of the tight pack as if barring Orun Wa’s path and shielding the others.
Oh, he was. He was defending his brothers. Skirata was devastated.
“These units are defective, and I admit that we perhaps made an error in attempting to enhance the genetic template,” Orun Wa said, utterly unmoved by their vulnerability.
Skirata had worked out fast that Kaminoans despised everything that didn’t fit their intolerant, arrogant society’s ideal of perfection. So . . . they thought Jango’s genome wasn’t the perfect model for a soldier without a little adjustment, then. Maybe it was his solitary nature; he’d make a rotten infantry soldier. Jango wasn’t a team player.
And maybe they didn’t know that it was often imperfection that gave humans an edge.
The kids’ gaze darted between Skirata and Jango, and the doorway, and all around the room, as if they were checking for an escape or appealing for help.
“Chief Scientist Ko Sai apologizes, as do I,” said Orun Wa. “Six units did not survive incubation, but these developed normally and appeared to meet specifications, so they have undergone some flash-instruction and trials. Unfortunately, psychological testing indicates that they are simply too unreliable and fail to meet the personality profile required.”
“Which is?” said Jango.
“That they can carry out orders.” Orun Wa blinked rapidly: he seemed embarrassed by error. “I can assure you that we will address these problems in the current Alpha production run. These units will be reconditioned, of course. Is there anything you wish to ask?”
“Yeah,” said Skirata. “What do you mean by reconditioned?”
“In this case, terminated.”
There was a long silence in the bland, peaceful, white-walled room. Evil was supposed to be black, jet black; and it wasn’t supposed to be soft-spoken. Then Skirata registered terminated and his instinct reacted before his brain.