Read an Excerpt
Ba’jur bal beskar’gam,
Mando’a bal Mand’alor–
An vencuyan mhi.
Education and armor,
Self-defense, our tribe,
Our language and our leader–
All help us survive.
–Rhyme taught to Mandalorian children to help them learn the Resol’nare–the six tenets of Mando culture
Arca Barracks, Special Operations Brigade HQ, Coruscant,
736 days after the Battle of Geonosis–
second anniversary of the outbreak of war
Scorch raised his riﬂe and sighted up on the two sergeants on the parade ground below the window.
The DC-17’s upgraded optics were a deﬁnite improvement on the last version. The reticule settled on Kal Skirata within a narrow imaginary band level with his eyes and the indentation at the base of his skull; a perfect cranial vault shot, the ideal for instant incapacitation. Scorch could see the Mandalorian’s mouth moving as he spoke to Walon Vau.
Yeah, it’s getting like downtown Keldabe around here. It’s not as if I don’t like the guy. But . . .
Sergeant Vau–and he would always be Sergeant Vau, civilian or not–was the nearest Scorch had to a father. Vau and Skirata seemed to be deep in conversation, both talking at once while they stared down at the ferrocrete surface of the parade ground, no eye contact at all. It was a weird thing to be doing at daybreak.
“I thought you said you could lip-read,” Sev said, munching on a handful of spiced warra nuts.
“I can, but he’s not making sense.”
“Maybe they’re talking Mando’a.”
“I can lip-read Mando’a just ﬁne, mir’sheb . . .”
“You’d think they’d have the sense to wear their buckets and use the internal comlink.”
“Maybe it’s nothing conﬁdential.” Scorch could smell the pungent spice on the nuts from across the room. “Look, you know what happens when you stuff your face with those things. You get indigestion and wind. And I’m not going to put you over my shoulder and burp you.”
Sev belched. “You’ll miss me when I’m gone.”
“Make yourself useful and take a look, will you?”
Sev made a long, low rumbling noise at the back of his throat, ﬁnished the handful of nuts, and sighted up with his own Deece. He was a sniper. He spent even more time staring through optics than Scorch did.
“They’re reciting something,” he said at last, and leaned his Deece against the wall again to sit on his bunk and resume munching. “They’re both saying the same words.”
“Don’t know. Can’t make it out.”
For as long as Scorch could remember, Skirata and Vau had been at loggerheads about everything from tactics and how to motivate troops to the color of the mess walls, sometimes to the point of ﬁstﬁghts. But the war seemed to have softened their outlook. There was no affection between them–not as far as Scorch could see–but something kept them together as brother warriors, tight and secret.
Neither of them needed to be here. Vau’s bank raid–and they didn’t talk about that, no sir–had probably netted millions. They were men with a mission, driven by something Scorch didn’t quite understand.
He cranked up the magniﬁcation. But it didn’t help. “Maybe they’re having a really boring conversation.”
“It’s names,” said Sev at last. “They’re reciting names.”
Scorch sighted up again, transﬁxed. “How old is Skirata?”
“Sixty, sixty-one, something like that.”
“What’s that in clone years?”
It was a sobering thought, and Scorch wondered why it hadn’t struck him that way before. He’d never worried about getting old. He never thought he’d survive, for all Delta Squad’s general bluster that the Separatist hadn’t been born who could kill them.
“You think the crazy old barve is going to ﬁnd his magic cure?” he asked.
Sev tossed a nut in the air and caught it in his mouth. “For what?”
“Our premature exit from this life. He is always talking about it.”
Sev rumbled again. “I still reckon he killed Ko Sai. And I still reckon he got her research, and that’s why he killed her, to shut her up. So yeah, I’d bet on him ﬁnding a way to stop us aging so fast.”
Scorch suspected that Vau was as deeply involved in the death of Kamino’s renegade cloner as Skirata; he was still ﬁercely loyal to Vau, because the man was the reason Delta were all still alive today, one of a handful of squads that had survived intact since the Kamino days. Vau raised survivors. “You’re not going to mention that to Zey, are you, Sev?”
“Nah. I hate giving him sleepless nights.”
“But if Sergeant Kal’s got Ko Sai’s research, why hasn’t he started dishing out the cure? It’s been nearly six months since he gave you her head.”
“You make it sound like a birthday present,” Sev said. “Maybe he can’t make some of the formula work. Or he’s just milking the Republic for all he can get before he bangs out with his stash.”
“Kal wouldn’t leave without his precious Nulls.” Scorch turned to look at Sev and met a raised eyebrow. “Would he?”
“If they deserted, would you shoot them?” Sev asked.
Scorch shrugged, trying to look disinterested, but the idea of putting a round through a brother clone didn’t sit well with him. The Nulls were Skirata’s adopted sons, too, his precious little boys even if they were grown men–big men, dangerous men–and if any barve so much as looked at them the wrong way, Skirata would have his guts for garters.
“We wouldn’t have to,” Scorch said. “You heard all about Palpatine’s death squad standing by if we step out of line.”
“Don’t avoid the question. Would you shoot them if ordered?”
“Depends,” Scorch said at last.
“Orders are orders.”
“Depends who’s giving them.”
“The longer this war goes on, the less I feel the Nulls are on the same side as us.”
Scorch knew what Sev meant, but he thought it was a harsh judgment all the same. He couldn’t imagine the Nulls siding with the Seps. They were crazy, unpredictable, even Skirata’s private army, but they weren’t traitors.
“Come on,” he said, grabbing his helmet and heading for the doors. “Let’s see what the old guys are up to. I can’t stand the suspense any longer.”
The parade ground was a platform edged with a low retaining wall and a border of manicured bushes, all trimmed to regulation height– there was such a thing, Scorch was certain–and it didn’t see many parades. More often than not these days, it stood empty except for the occasional impromptu game of bolo-ball. The two veteran sergeants stood in the center of it with heads slightly bowed, oblivious of the commandos approaching.
But Skirata was never really oblivious of anything. Nor was Vau. They had eyes in their backsides, those two. Scorch still hadn’t worked out how they’d managed to keep such a close eye on their respective training companies back in Tipoca City. To a young clone, they’d seemed like omniscient gods who could not be deceived, evaded, or outsmarted, and they still came pretty close now.
Scorch could hear the mumbling rumble of low voices. It had a sort of rhythm to it. Yes, they were reciting a list. Now that he could hear, he caught sounds he recognized.
They were reciting names.
Sev was the ﬁrst to hesitate. He caught Scorch’s elbow. “I don’t think we should interrupt them, ner vod.”
Skirata turned slowly, lips still moving, and then Vau looked up.
“You want to join in, ad’ike?” Vau said kindly, and he was not a kindly man. “Just commemorating brothers gone to the manda. You forgotten what day it is?”
Scorch had, although it should have been etched in his memory. Seven hundred and thirty-six days ago, all ten thousand Republic commandos had been deployed to Geonosis with the rest of the Grand Army at zero notice, a scramble to board ships that left no time for farewells to their training sergeants. Of the ten thousand men who shipped out, only ﬁve thousand had come back.
Scorch felt like a fool. He knew what the two sergeants were doing now, and why: they were reciting the names of fallen clone commandos. It was a Mandalorian custom to honor dead loved ones and comrades by repeating their names daily. He wondered if they went through all those thousands every single day.
“You didn’t memorize every name, did you, Sarge?” Sev asked.
“We remember every lad we trained, and we always will,” Skirata said quietly, but Scorch saw that he kept glancing down at a datapad clutched in his hand. Five thousand names–plus those killed after the Battle of Geonosis–was an impossible feat of memory even for Skirata’s devotion. “The rest ...we only need a little prompting.”
Scorch couldn’t now name half the squads in his batch at the Tipoca training center, let alone the men in them. He felt ashamed, as if he’d betrayed them. Vau gave him a nod and gestured with his own datapad, indicating he was transmitting, and when Scorch checked the ’pad clipped to his belt the list was there, highlighted at the company currently being recited. He joined in the reading obediently. So did Sev.
There were many clones with identical nicknames based on their numbers–a lot called Fi, or Niner, or Forr–and it gave Scorch a shudder to say the name Sev more than once.
It probably didn’t do much for Sev’s morale, either. Scorch glanced at him, but he looked unmoved as usual, eyes ﬁxed on his datapad.
“Baris, Red, Kef . . .”
“...Vin, Taler, Jay . ..”
“...Tam, Lio . . .”
The list went on. After a few minutes, their voices synchronized; there was a strange hypnotic feel to it, like an incantation, a rhythm and pitch that left Scorch almost in a trance. It was just the effect of simple repetition, but it still unsettled him. He wasn’t the mystic sort.
Behind him, he heard the faint crunch of boots, but he didn’t dare break the spell and turn to look. Other commandos were joining the ritual. There were never many men in the barracks at any one time, but it seemed like they were all turning out to pay their respects.
So many names.
Is mine going to be on that list this time next year?
Fi was on it; Fi, RC-8015, Omega Squad’s sniper. Skirata didn’t even blink when he said the name, and neither did Vau, even though word was getting around that Fi wasn’t dead. It was a strange moment, repeating the mouthy little di’kut’s name as if he were gone. Scorch, feeling suddenly guilty at escaping so much personal bereavement, saw Sev take a slow look to his left as if he’d spotted someone. Scorch didn’t want to break his concentration. He didn’t look to see what had distracted Sev.
Reciting the list of the fallen took well over an hour. Eventually, when the last name was read, Skirata and Vau stood silent for a moment with their heads bowed. Scorch felt he’d been woken abruptly, suddenly aware of sound and harsh sunlight as if he’d stepped out of a dark room, and he was almost expecting some momentous end to the ceremony; but in typical Mandalorian style, it simply ended because all that needed to be said had been said.
Skirata looked up. A couple of hundred commandos had assembled, some with helmets and some without, each man in individual painted armor that looked incongruously cheery for such a solemn event. But that was very Mando, too. Life went on and was there to be lived to the full, and constant remembrance of lost friends and family was an integral part of that. Aay’han. That was the word for it: a peculiarly Mandalorian emotion, a strange blend of contentment and sorrow when safely surrounded by loved ones and yet recalling the dead with bittersweet intensity. The dead were never shut out. Skirata’s DeepWater-class submersible was called Aay’han. That said a lot about the man.
“What are you waiting for, ad’ike?” Skirata asked. He always called them that: little sons. Scorch wondered if he’d formally adopted all his squads. That was Skirata all over. “Just make sure I don’t have to add any of your names next year, or I’ll be very annoyed.”
“You reckon there’ll be a next year, Sarge?” The commando who asked wasn’t a guy Scorch knew, but then Delta kept to themselves. His armor was decorated with navy-blue and gold chevrons. “I like to plan ahead. Who knows, I might have a social engagement . . .”
Skirata hesitated for a moment. “You know how the war’s gone so far. Maybe we’ll all be here in ten years.”
“Your grandson will be big enough for full armor by then.”
There was a ripple of laughter and Skirata smiled sadly. Scorch expected him to be happier at the mention of the baby boy that one of his kids–his biological kids–had dumped on him. He certainly seemed to dote on the child. But it looked as if something had taken the happy grandfatherly gloss off the situation.
“My dearest wish,” Skirata said, “is that you all get to see him grow up.”
Well, it wasn’t a day for hilarity anyway. They’d just stood there on a big, empty parade ground and recited the names of thousands of dead brothers, so Scorch felt it was a suitably downbeat note to end on. Nobody was singing much about darasuum kote–eternal glory–these days, although Scorch thought a verse of Vode An might have been appropriate.
But the impromptu assembly broke up in silence, and Skirata walked off with his usual limp, Vau ambling beside him. Out of curiosity, Scorch kept an eye on the two sergeants all the way to the hangars on the far side of the barracks.
“Come on,” said Sev. “Can’t hang around all day. Got a mission brieﬁng before lunch. I need to calibrate my HUD.”
“What do you think they’re up to?”
“Getting old and working out how to spend Vau’s bank haul.”
“No, they’re up to something serious. I can tell.”
“Mind-reader now, are we?”
Scorch couldn’t understand why Sev never saw what he saw. They’d grown up with those two old shabuire, and when either of them had some scam running, they had this look about them, subtle but discernible to clones who relied on subliminal detail for recognition in a sea of near-identical brothers. Skirata had his scam face on, for sure.
“He deﬁnitely knows something we don’t,” Scorch said.
“Whatever it is, then, it won’t hurt us.”
Skirata and Vau paused at the entrance to the armory. Then Scorch saw something that vindicated his paranoia. Two familiar ﬁgures that he hadn’t seen in a couple of years–ﬁgures in beskar’gam, traditional Mandalorian armor–emerged from a side door and greeted the two sergeants with that distinctive hand-to-elbow grip. Mandalorians shook hands by mutually clasping above the wrist. Vau said it was to prove you had a strong enough grip to haul a comrade to safety.
Maybe they’d arrived to mark the anniversary. Nobody outside the Grand Army seemed to bother about it.
“What are they doing here?” Sev muttered. “Why now?”
Wad’e Tay’haai and Mij Gilamar were two of the Cuy’val Dar, the training sergeants recruited personally by Jango Fett to train clone commandos in Kamino. Most were Mandalorians, and most had disappeared again once their contract was over, living up to their title: “those who no longer exist.” But now they were reappearing in ones and twos. It just made Scorch feel that his general suspicions were justiﬁed.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe Kal’s decided he likes the company of intellectuals.” He paused. Tay’haai still had that ancient bronzium spear slung across his back and a beskar ﬂute hanging from his belt. They were both lethal weapons. “You think he ever uses those things?”
“Sure of it,” Sev said. “I heard Zey was trying to recruit Cuy’val Dar again to cross-train ordinary troopers.”
“Smacks of desperation.”
“In case you hadn’t noticed, we are desperate.”
The four Mandalorians exchanged a few words and disappeared. Without his helmet systems, Scorch couldn’t overhear anything at that distance. “Why did Fett recruit any non-Mando sergeants at all?”
Sev shrugged. “He said it was for the skills mix, but I reckon he just couldn’t ﬁnd a hundred Mandos to front up for him.”
Scorch followed Sev back into the accommodation block. He often wondered how the commandos trained by aruetiise–non-Mandalorians, a word that could mean anything from foreigner to traitor–felt about being surrounded by others who were so steeped in Mandalorian culture. There weren’t that many left, though. Out of twenty-ﬁve hundred or so who completed training by aruetiise, fewer than a thousand remained. It said a lot for Mandalorian training.
“We could train the white jobs better ourselves,” Scorch said. “We’ve got experience to pass on to them.”
Sev picked up his helmet from the table and inverted it to begin calibration. “You fed up with ﬁghting, then? Want a nice desk job?”
“No, just saying . . .”
Scorch tried to avoid thinking too much because life was now full of questions that were beyond his power to answer or even inﬂuence. They crept up on him at unguarded moments: in the ’freshers, or while he sat in the gunship en route to an insertion, and just before he fell asleep. Where was the Grand Army going to get more troops? If they started cross-training more meat-cans as commandos, who backﬁlled their positions? Things looked more stretched every day.
And where were all those zillions of shabla droids the Separatists were supposed to have? They had plenty, but if they had as many as Intel claimed, they must have been having a party somewhere and sitting out the war. One of the Null ARCs swore blind that there was only a fraction of that number deployed.
The Nulls knew a lot that they didn’t share with the commando squads. When they didn’t know something, Scorch got worried. He kept forgetting how many zeros there were in a quadrillion, but whatever it was, it was a lot more droids than he’d encountered.
“Maybe Palpatine will have to start recruiting citizens,” he said hopefully.
Sev laughed. He didn’t do that often. “I’d rather work shorthanded than have to serve with mongrels. You’ve seen what they’re like as ﬂeet ofﬁcers. You want them as infantry?”
“At least the war would be over quicker. We’d win or lose horribly.”
“True. Brutal, but true.”
But what happens to us when it ends?
It was the kind of question that whiny bunch Omega kept asking. Scorch couldn’t plan that far ahead. All he knew was that the Grand Army would run out of troops in a year or so, if casualty rates held constant, and he wasn’t seeing anywhere near enough replacements coming in.
“Someone said that Palpatine’s started producing clones on Coruscant because he doesn’t trust the Kaminoans not to get their facilities trashed by the Seps again,” Scorch said.
Sev huffed and got on with calibrating. “Yeah, like the rumor that we were getting some super-duper new ion cannon . . .”
He was right. It was another dumb rumor like so many they’d heard before. If the Chancellor was breeding more clone troops, he’d have told everyone, just to boost morale and scare the Seps. And if he had them, he’d deploy them.
Scorch had seen evidence of neither.
But if he was breeding them . . . they wouldn’t be ready for a long time. Kamino clones took ten standard years to mature.
No, it was all buzz, the stream of tall tales, general half-heard gossip, and occasional nuggets of truth that circulated among the ranks. There were no extra reinforcements on the horizon.
From the Hardcover edition.