Tall grass was swept like water behind the dull brown speeder bikes that shot across the meadows and slowed to a stop in the clearing. Ori Dohagh stood there and watched the Scout Troopers dismount from their vehicles, the white of their armor stained with blades of green, splashes of dust and dirt. They saluted him and he saluted back, waiting for them to step closer.
“So this is it?”
He waved at the structures behind him: the recent ruins of a concrete building, a dozen rooms with no roof, with traces of ammunition, explosion burns, shattered glass...
“You're looking at the Skirata bastion, or what it used to be. Twenty men have fought for their lives here before we cornered them and they decided to take the coward's way out.”
Walking into the scene he made sure the reconnaissance team would notice the dark, brown dried out puddles on the floor, as well as the bits and pieces of armor. A trained eye would recognize the pattern of a Mandalorian combat suit.
“We know some of them came back later on to pick up the helmets and whatever was left of their bodies. Seems that these savages take trophies from their own.”
“Doesn't surprise me,” cynically replied the one with the most dirt on his chest plate.
“For how long have you been after Skirata?” asked the other.
Ori took a breath, using the moment to muster a reply.
“It's been three years since I was deployed here, and the very first week our base was attacked. I lost many fine soldiers and friends. We found the first dissident outpost two clicks from here, but they kept moving. At some point we even suspected that the entire planet was harboring them.”
The Scout slowly shook his squared helmet.
“Nothing has changed. We're still unsure of who's plotting against who. What with the Death Watch adding more confusion. At least, this is something we're sure about.”
He pointed at the charred remains of the Mandalorian armor in a careless motion. Ori gave him an agreeing nod.
“Governor Demako will be satisfied with this,” said the first Scout. “Thank you for the tour, Captain.”
They returned outside to their speeders and gave him casual salutes before darting off toward the horizon. Ori watched them shrink into little black dots in the distance, waited until he could no longer hear the sound of the engines and walked back into the building. His work here was done, and he allowed himself to feel a little content about it all: twenty-five, promoted three times and able to use his time as he pleased - as long as it served Imperial interests. Relatively speaking.
He cautiously picked up the piece of armor and went to his own speeder bike to pack the worn suit in a duffle bag. With a blink of the eyes he switched his secure linked HUD interface within the visor of his helmet. It would lock outgoing transmissions into the Imperial networking comms. He watched the map display indicate a waypoint directing to the east, that was where he went.
It was a two-hour long ride, at the highest cruise speed of an Aratech speeder bike it amounted to at least five hundred kilometers away from the ruins of the fake Skirata bastion.
The real one was completely different. He arrived at the bottom of a valley, engulfed in a canyon, and entered a large hatch camouflaged with rocks, brambles and dirt.
There was nobody to greet him at the entrance, a wide dusty hangar with for only light source a few holes piercing through three meters of soil and stone. Ori left his speeder there and took the duffle bag, always apprehending a cave-in and hoping that this wasn't the day that a volcano would suddenly burst out in the vicinity. He made it to the second hatch door and it opened for him. They monitored him, or had planted untraceable tags on him for easy passage in their secret headquarters.
Ori was no traitor. It appeared as though he was but he was only doing what he thought was right, for the right people. He loved the Empire for the opportunity it had given him to become who he was now but he didn't love his commanders. Especially not this new Governor Demako who had assigned him on a permanent order to hunt down insurgents of all kinds. Demako was a bureaucrat, finding it more convenient to delegate responsibilities to experts on the field rather than making his own decisions based on acquired knowledge.
He kept walking until he got to the living parts of the base and it was generally just a workshop, where men and women would tinker on their weapons and vehicles. Someone finally came to him and he recognized the slender frame before his eyes met those of Aresu Kurn. Her black hair was short around her young face, but sleeked down to her jaw line to fit comfortably in a helmet.The Korunnai were a rare sight in the galaxy now that their planet was swiped clean, Ori tried to remember that every time he caught sight of the dark-skinned girl.
“Slow day today,” she said.
Ori removed his helmet and smiled.
“They all left you here, alone?”
“I can hold my own,” she replied matter-of-factly. “Did it go well?”
“I managed to leave an impression. They didn't make a fuss of the details.”
She went to a messy work table and reached for an auto-warming caf tank to pour him a cup. He accepted politely.
“I was told to tell you that there is a safe registered to you at the usual place in Enceri.”
“Who is it from?”
“Mereel, he didn't say anything else.”
Ah, Mereel. The charming man of a million colors, the one who had punched him in the face, humiliated him and eventually saved his skin a couple of times. Ori respected someone who could do so much and still have style.
“Well,” she said a little hesitant before shoving a bunch of tools and electronic parts away. “Make yourself at home.”
He sat down on a wide bench, putting the pack of old armor at his feet but she took it and stored the whole thing into a closet. Ori said a silent goodbye to his duffel bag.
“It's clean here, usually.”
“I don't care for other people's mess. Every time I try to do good they blame me for misplacing their things.”
“Totally agree. People should clean up after themselves.”
Aresu didn't smile. She'd squint her big dark eyes slightly and stare at people very still until they'd look away.
“I'd advise you not to show up in Keldabe for another week,” he said then took a sip of the heated up caf. It was too sweet for his taste. “Maybe two, that would be time enough for the rookies to process the changes.”
“Any more dark dealings with Death Watch and all of that goes to waste.”
He looked at her from over his drink, surprised at how well she grasped the situation despite being cooped up most of the time. Obviously she was bored out of her mind, stuck in a cave, making food for clansmen who were busy keeping their families safe, but it was somewhat better than being homeless or captured by the enemy. Not all Jedi were able to run from Order 66, some of them needed to change their identity completely.
“Skirata's guys are containing that situation though, aren't they? If any word of you or Kad gets to more outsiders--”
“Yes, I know. It could be anyone trying to bring us down to gain control of everything. Apparently this clan is some kind of glue that keeps most decent clans together.”
Ori didn't care to ask which ones, she wouldn't know and it wasn't his place to get involved in political Mandalorian business. It was good enough that they tolerated him near a Force-sensitive that he should have arrested or executed on sight – had he decided to obey his commanders. He was virtually a dead man himself.
He didn't finish the cup of caf, knowing what it would do to his finely tuned digestive schedule, but Aresu riveted her large eyes on it.
“Do you want food,” she said as if ridding herself of the formal obligation of serving food to guests which was a Mandalorian custom.
Trying hard not to smile again, Ori simply shook his head and hoisted himself off the metallic bench before equipping his helmet. She stood in front of him and looked through his visor as if nothing had changed about his face. Everybody had different reactions toward the Stormtrooper mask as it was designed to induce fear.
“What would you tell your superiors when they find out you went off track?” she asked.
“If they ever find out you wouldn't have much time before your next move.”
All it took was for the Imperial authorities to get a hold of his helmet, crackdown the biometric code for the alternate interface and they'd find out all about his side-project. He would then get interrogated and processed. Even for ranking officers, that meant execution without a trial.
“You should probably get going,” Aresu said with a trace of regret in her perpetually cynical voice. “You'll tell me what's in that safe, okay? Unless it's credits, but I don't think it is.”
It would have been a fun trip. Being seen in a public area with a fugitive at his side, even if she was disguised in Mandalorian armor, was a bad idea no matter how much the Empire could sympathize with the population.
“You could be right,” Ori replied with a veiled smirk. "I heard some Jedi could have that remote viewing power. The 'third eye' as they say."
Her face lightened up from hearing him take interest in the supernatural. It was nice to see her smile.
"I'll have to look into that," she answered earnestly, making that task seem like her new purpose in life.
In three years of tipping the Skiratas to help them avoid prison or worst, this was the most of any social interaction he would get with them. They were a big family of different people of many races, worlds and ages. But his shiny white armor could not fit in that picture. Aresu did not wear the beskar'gam, the full suit of laser-proof armor plates and helmet, she used simple skin-tight pants, boots and a short armored vest that revealed her arms and stomach. She didn't fit in either.
He made his way out, stretched his shoulders and adjusted the fit on the straps on the black pauldron piece around his neck. Storm armor wasn't suited for long rides at high speeds, and had he not used his rank to get customized plates he would have probably gotten into a few accidents. The hatch lifted up and the sunlight came in. He turned the engines on and gave a last look behind him as if saying goodbye to whoever was watching.