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Look, all I know is this. The Seps can’t have as many droids as Intel says—we’ve seen that when we’ve sabotaged their factories. And if they have gazillions of them somewhere, why not overrun the whole Republic now and get it over with? Come to that, why won’t the Chancellor listen to the generals and just smash the key Sep targets instead of dragging this war out, spreading us thin from Core to Rim? Add that garbage to the message Lama Su sent him griping about the clone contract expiring in a couple of years—it all stinks. And when it stinks that bad, we get ready to run, because it’s our shebse on the line here. Understand?
—Sergeant Kal Skirata to the Null ARCs, discussing the future in light of new intelligence gathered during their unauthorized infiltration of Tipoca City, 462 days after Geonosis
Republic fleet auxilliary Core Conveyor, en route for Mirial, 2nd Airborne (212th Battalion) and Omega Squad embarked, 470 days after Geonosis
“Nice of you to join us, Omega,” said Sergeant Barlex, one hand wrapped around the grab rail in the ship’s hangar. “And may I be the first to say that you look like a bunch of complete prats?”
Darman waited for Niner to tell Barlex where to shove his opinion, but he didn’t take the bait and carried on adjusting the unfamiliar winged jet pack. It was just the usual bravado that went with being scared and hyped up for a mission. Okay, so the sky troopers’ standard pack didn’t fit comfortably on Republic commando Katarn armor, but for accuracy of insertion it still beat paragliding. Darman had vivid and painful memories of a low-opening emergency jump on Qiilura that hadn’t been on target, unless you counted trees. So he was fine with a pair of white wings—even if they were the worst bolt-on goody in the history of procurement in the Grand Army of the Republic.
Fi activated his wing mechanism, and the two blades swung into horizontal position with a hiss of hydraulics, nearly smacking Barlex in the face. Fi smiled and flapped his arms. “Want to see my impression of a Geonosian?”
“What, plummeting to the ground in a spray of bug- splatter after I put a round through you?” said Barlex.
“You’re so masterful.”
“I’m so a sergeant, Private—”
“Couldn’t you at least get us matte-black ones?” Fi asked. “I don’t want to plunge to my doom with uncoordinated accessories. People will talk.”
“You’ll have white, and like it.” Barlex was the senior NCO of Parjai Squad, airborne troops with a reputation for high-risk missions that Captain Ordo called “assertive outreach.” The novelty of supporting special forces had clearly worn off. Barlex pushed Fi’s flight blades back into the closed position and maintained a scowl. “Anyway, I thought you bunch were born-again Mandalorians. Jet packs should make you feel right at home.”
“Off for caf and cakes afterward?”
Barlex was still unsmiling granite. “Orders are to drop extra matériel and other useless ballast, meaning you, and then shorten our survival odds again by popping in for a chat with the Seps on Mirial.”
Fi did his wounded concern act, hands clasped under his chin. “Is it the Mando thing that’s coming between us, dear?”
“Just my appreciation of the irony that we’re fighting Mando mercenaries in some places.”
“I’d better keep you away from Sergeant Kal, then . . .”
“Yeah, you do that,” said Barlex. “I lost ten brothers thanks to them.”
Clone troopers might have been able to sing “Vode An,” but it was clear that the proud Mandalorian heritage hadn’t quite percolated through all the ranks. Darman decided not to tell Skirata. He’d be mortified. He wanted all Jango Fett’s clones to have their souls saved for the manda by some awareness of the only fragile roots they had. Barlex’s hostility would break his heart.
The compartment went quiet. Darman flexed his shoulders, wondering how Geonosians coped with wings: did they sleep on their backs, or hang like hawk-bats, or what? He’d only ever seen the bugs moving or dead, so it remained another unanswered question. He had a lot of those. Niner, ever alert to the mood of his squad, walked around each of them and checked the makeshift securing straps, yanking hard on the harness that looped between Fi’s legs. Fi yelped.
Niner gave Fi that three-beat silent stare, just like Skirata. “Don’t want anything falling off, do we, son?”
“No, Sarge. Not before I’ve had a chance to try it out, anyway.”
Niner continued the stare for a little longer. “Sitrep briefing in ten, then.” He indicated the hatch and inspected the interior of his helmet. “Let’s not keep General Zey waiting.”
Barlex stood silent as if he was working up to telling them something, then shrugged and took Niner’s indication that what was to follow wasn’t for his ears. Darman did what he always did before an insertion: he settled in a corner to recheck his suit calibration. Atin inspected Fi’s jet pack clips with a critical frown.
“I could knit better attachments than these,” he muttered.
“Do you think you could try cheery and upbeat sometime, At’ika?” Fi asked.
Niner joined in the inspection ritual. It was all displacement activity, but nobody could ever accuse Omega Squad of leaving things to chance. “All it has to do is stay attached to Fi until he lands,” he said.
Fi nodded. “That would be nice.”
Atin set the encrypted holoreceiver he had been holding on a bulkhead ledge and locked the compartment hatches. Darman couldn’t imagine any clone trooper being a security risk, and wondered if they were offended by being shut out of Spec Ops briefings as if they were civilians. But they seemed to take it as routine, apparently uncurious and uncomplaining, because that was the way they’d been trained since birth: they had their role, and the Republic commandos had theirs. That was what the Kaminoans had told them, anyway.
But it wasn’t entirely true. Trooper Corr, last surviving man of his whole company, was now on SO Brigade strength and seemed to be enjoying himself charging around the galaxy with the Null ARCs. He was becoming quite a double act with Lieutenant Mereel; they shared a taste for the finer points of booby traps. They also enjoyed exploring the social scene, as Skirata put it, of every city they happened to pass through.
Corr fits in just fine. I bet they all can, given the chance and the training.
Darman slipped on his helmet and retreated into his own world, comlinks closed except for the priority override that would let the squad break into the circuit and alert him. If he let his mind drift, the scrolling light display of his HUD blurred and became the nightscape of Coruscant, and he could immerse himself in the precious memory of those brief and illicit days in the city with Etain. Sometimes he felt as if she were standing behind him, a feeling so powerful that he’d look over his shoulder to check. Now he recognized the sensation for what it was: not his imagination or longing, but a Jedi—his Jedi—reaching out in the Force to him.
She’s General Tur-Mukan. You’re well out of line, soldier.
He felt her touch now, just the fleeting awareness of someone right next to him. He couldn’t reach back: he just hoped that however the Force worked, it let her know that he knew she was thinking of him. But why did the Force speak to so few beings, if it was universal? Darman felt a pang of mild resentment. The Force was another aspect of life that was closed to him, but at least that was true for pretty well everyone. It didn’t bother him anywhere near as much as the dawning realization that he didn’t have what most others did: a little choice.
He’d once asked Etain what would happen to the clone troops when the war was over—when they won. He couldn’t think about losing. Where would they go? How would they be rewarded? She didn’t know. The fact that he didn’t know, either, fed a growing uneasiness.
Maybe the Senate hasn’t thought that far ahead.
Fi turned to pick up his helmet and started calibrating the display, the expression on his face distracted and not at all happy. This was Fi unguarded: not funny, not wisecracking, and alone with his thoughts. Darman’s helmet let him observe his brother without provoking a response. Fi had changed, and it had happened during the operation on Coruscant. Darman felt Fi was preoccupied by something the rest of them couldn’t see, like a hallucination you’d never tell anyone about because you thought you were going crazy. Or maybe you were afraid nobody else would admit to it. Darman had a feeling he knew what it was, so he never talked about Etain, and Atin never went on about Laseema. It wasn’t fair to Fi.
The Core Conveyor’s drives had a very soothing frequency. Darman settled into that light doze where he was still conscious but his thoughts rambled free of his control.
Yes, Coruscant was the problem. It had given them all a glimpse into a parallel universe where people lived normal lives. Darman was smart enough to realize that his own life wasn’t normal—that he’d been bred to fight, nothing else—but his gut said something else entirely: that it wasn’t right or fair.
He’d have volunteered, he was sure of that. They wouldn’t have had to force him. All he wanted at the end of it was some time with Etain. He didn’t know what else life had to offer, but he knew there was a lot of it he would never live to see. He’d been alive for eleven standard years, coming up on twelve. He was twenty-three or twenty-four, the manual said. It wasn’t time enough to live.
Sergeant Kal said we’d been robbed.
Fierfek, I hope Etain can’t feel me getting angry.
“I wish I could sit there and just relax like you, Dar,” Atin said. “How’d you get to be so calm? You didn’t learn it from Kal, that’s for sure.”
There’s just Sergeant Kal and Etain and my brothers. Oh, and Jusik. General Jusik’s one of us. Nobody else really cares.
“I’ve got a clean conscience,” Darman said. It had come as a surprise to him after years of cloistered training on Kamino to discover that many cultures in the galaxy regarded him as a killer, something immoral. “Either that, or I’m too tired to worry.”
Now he was going to Gaftikar to do some more kill- ing. The Alpha ARCs might have been sent in to train the local rebels, but Omega were being inserted to topple a government. It wasn’t the first, and it probably wouldn’t be the last.
“Heads up, people, here we go.” Niner activated the receiver. The blue holoimage leapt from the projector and burly, bearded Jedi General Arligan Zey, Director of Special Forces, was suddenly sitting in the compartment with them.
“Good afternoon, Omega,” he said. It was the middle of the night as far as they were concerned. “I’ve got a little good news for you.”
Fi was back on the secure helmet comlink now. Darman’s red HUD audio icon indicated that only he could hear him. “Which means the rest of it is bad.”
“That’s good, sir,” said Niner, deadpan. “Have we located ARC Alpha-Thirty?”
Zey seemed to ignore the question. “Null Sergeant A’den’s sent secure drop zone coordinates, and you’re clear to go in.”
Fi’s comlink popped in Darman’s ear again. “Here comes the but.”
“But,” Zey went on, “ARC Trooper Alpha-Thirty now has to be treated as MIA. He hasn’t reported in for two months, and that isn’t unusual, but the local resistance told Sergeant A’den that they lost contact about the same time.”