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Chapter 04

His team of rookies were standing around in a hangar, talking quietly to each other until one of them spotted Ori and they all snapped at attention.

"At ease."

He stood in front of them and checked his datapad. All four of them were fresh out of Carida, recruited from diverse locations in the former Republic systems. His spreadsheet told him that they all passed with top grades and that one of them was allergic to warra nuts. No uj cake for that guy.

"I'm Captain Dohagh and I'll be your tour guide for the week. By the end of this training you will be familiar with the local businesses, the language and behavior codes..." He interrupted himself, looking at them one by one."You will not interfere with civilian activities. Under my supervision your job is limited to observing. If something is brought up to you in any way, report it to me. By no means should you deal with Mandalorians yourselves."

It felt pointless. These young men only wanted to get out in the field and see the outside of a training camp, for a change. In a few weeks, they would move on to a different system and his teachings would be canceled by another tutor. Ori bit the inside of his cheeks and just went on with his duty.

Before taking a transport out of base he made sure he had his alternate HUD operating in background. Even if he wasn't available to respond he still needed to be open to messages from his unofficial friends to be able to help - within the limits of his authorized movements on patrol.

Of course none of that double-agent work was possible with a flock of subalterns in his back. Midday was approaching eventually and they got to witness a rush of locals going to a diner in one of the busier streets of the capital. It was time for them to get a taste of the local grub. Standing several paces away from a long line of armored customers, the four privates chatted amongst each other in voices drowned in static. One of them looked intently towards a group of Mandalorians coming their way.

Ori emerged from the diner, holding a bag of warm meals with one arm, and tried to get his squad walking again before the distance from the mob was a little too short to avoid them.

"Well well, well." A dark voice from one of the Mando's. He wore green armor. "Look who broke out the shiny whiteys today."

"Freshmen," added another, chuckling. "You guys look lost."

A share of the group went to join the queue at the diner while a handful stayed to haze the Imperials. Ori recognized one of them; dark suit with grey and gold armor plates, customized helmet shape with decorative sigils on it.

"Gentlemen. Is there something I can do for you?" Ori snapped, glancing at the one lad carrying a concussion rifle in his back.

The man in green armor tilted his helmet to the side signifying scorn towards him.

"You could send these kids back to where they came."

Ori faced him directly, keeping a respectful yet trusting distance.

"No one else wants to look after them." He motioned at his bag of food. "This will keep them in line for a while."

They chuckled, mockingly perhaps, but they were more civilized than the group of thugs from Enceri. Ori smiled. Mandalorian food was known to be particularly dense.

"Welcome to Mandalore," said the man in green to the cadets. "Keep your shebs out of our way, and you might make it alive."

Carefully watching the rookies, Ori noticed one of them furtively holding the butt of his E-11 carbine. The Mando with the conc rifle seemed to notice as well. He shifted his stance and folded his arms across his red chest plate. With a wave of the hand Ori had his troopers revise their postures. The discomfort of his bacta padding reminded him of his recent lessons in diplomacy.

"They will learn soon enough," he told the Mandalorians.

"Too bad you won't be there when these newbies start acting on their own," said the one with the ornate armor. "Consider yourself lucky we're even talking."

Technically, people weren't allowed to file a complaint about the Imperial troops because there was no authority established to take care of that matter. As a civilian it was impossible to tell one Stormtrooper from another with the lack of insignia or name tag. No identification meant no tracking. As bad as it could get, Ori was to stand by his fellow soldiers.

"You're right," he replied. "We're not supposed to have it easy since this planet requires... special treatment. Of course, we have orders but that doesn't mean we can't open up to a different look on things."

He was aware of his squad staring at him now which took pressure off from the on-going confrontation.

The green-clad Mandalorian shook his head skeptically.

"You're naive if you truly believe that. Whoever instructed you to lead these squads has done a great job, gotta hand it to him. But you're not fooling me. The Republic failed to dominate us when it was nice to us."

"Also," added the one with the concussion rifle, "if you were looking for insurgents then shaking your carbine around will get you to find just that."

They spoke in the manner of a father would to his son while teaching him to behave in school.

"I think we've got a clear picture of where we stand on that subject," Ori said with a nod.

They all went their separate ways after nothing was left to be said. He brought the rookies to the starport where a security detachment had a mess hall to share with them. In friendly territory, the Stormtroopers were then free to remove their helmets in order to eat and get some fresh air. The meals Ori had gotten for them was a mix of stew and other protein-filled cakes.

He bit down on a spicy meat roll. The consistency was tough to handle but it beat the tasteless Empire-issued rations. His squad had been silent since their "meet and greet" with the locals but their resentment was palpable. They might want to send in a report about his methods or even criticize his loyalty towards the Empire - if they had the guts.

"Do you submit yourself to everything people tell you?" asked a young, fair-haired one.

"I gave you an example to follow if you don't want this happening to you everyday." Ori pointed a finger to his own face, mentioning the red marks on his forehead and cheekbones. He was ready to ignore the insubordination for now. "You think you're pretty smart, don't you, Private? Then you'll need to use that brain of yours. Keep your mind open or you could get your skullcracked open."

He wasn't going to lecture them any further. The best way to learn was with trial-and-error, but at least he'd showed them the guidelines. Other captains would have just started a firefight to assert their power, resulting in something catastrophic and probably losing the entire squad. Bringing them back to base without a scratch was one of his skills that kept him on active duty despite the shady activities.

The troops enjoyed a recess in the starport area, chatting and relaxing as much as they could with their uniforms on. With his unmodified armor Ori found it hard to sit for a long time, so he decided to take a stroll near the entrance, playing door guard while speeders flew by at slow speed, and T-visors glared at him condescendingly. He regretted not mounting a chip-reader into his new helmet to save precious time and analyse the content of Mereel's data. There was no way he'd be using his Empire-issued datapad to do that kind of work.

He observed a nearby Mandalorian in black and yellow. She stood on the opposite side of the entrance - it was obviously a female, judging by her hips - as if waiting for something. He noticed that she was avoiding to look in his direction which either meant that she didn't care about the Empire, or that she had something to be worried about.

"Excuse me, ma'am," he said and approached her. "May I see your identification, please?"

Lifting a black visor up to him he counted five long seconds before she complied. Now looking at her close he recognized part of a cryptic sigil on her breast plate.

"As you wish," she replied.

The ID card showed a twenty-seven year-old human female with black hair and green eyes. Onara Jeban. Nothing was stated as her profession and she was qualified to pilot a starfighter class ship.

"Thank you." He handed her the card back. "What is your business here?"

"What's yours?" she retorted. "I see so much of you Imps around, what am I supposed to expect?"

"Guaranteed safety against malevolent acts." Somehow Ori couldn't repress a smile while saying that.

"Well I don't see me trying to bomb a starport on my homeworld, soldier."

"You'd be surprised at what we've found so far, ma'am."

"Right," she said, all sarcasm. "Shouldn't you be worried about your own security around here? After all, you're the ones stepping on-"

She went silent, obviously realizing how suspicious she was sounding. Ori lifted an eyebrow and tilted his helmet to mime his curiosity.

"Your concern is much appreciated," he told her in a reassuring tone.

"And you're a weird Stormtrooper," she said, folding her arms in front of her.

Ori pointed at her clan marks and asked. "I've seen these symbols before. Jeban clan?"

"You saw my ID," she shrugged. "Yes. Dietra Jeban is my father and I'll expect you to leave my family alone. We've no business with the Death Watch or the others."

"Are you saying that the Jebans are independent?"

The woman directed her visor to him sideways.

"Many clans refuse to meddle with politics."

"But everyone has to pick a side eventually."

He was consciously baiting her, which was part of his job for Imperial Intelligence. Most of the groups that claimed to be independent were usually hiding something. And those that were genuinely neutral had little control over the ties occurring on a personal level.

"I don't believe that's true," she said, carefully picking her words. "There's always a third option."

Ori began wondering how his life would be like if he decided to quit it all to work on a farm, maybe get a wife somewhere in the countryside, raise a kid or two... His thoughts drifted back to the young boy from the market in Enceri. I don't do business with Imperials, he had told him. No, that third option was a selfish one, completely removed from the greater reality of the world.

"That doesn't explain why you're here by yourself, without any justification."

She got fidgety and took a step back.

"I'm familiar with profiling, and let me tell you that you're not very good at it."

"Maybe I want to give you a friendly warning," he said tentatively.

"And maybe I'll take that as a favor," she replied cockily.

"Good," he retorted.

The silence that followed was one second too long for comfort, and he grew aware of the risk of becoming too familiar with a woman so he departed after a sharp nod. It was time to check on his squad. His mind was making speculations now, sizing the benefits of befriending someone who was, like himself, caught between two currents. Or so he believed.

They neared the end of their tour of Keldabe with the review of the mercenary hotspots: bars, inns, trader shops. There were a lot of people wearing the Death Watch symbol on their outfits now, as compared to three years ago when Ori had just arrived on Mandalore. Those who were against them and the Empire, Fenn Shysa's Mandalorian Protectors, had retreated to underground status. They wore no distinctive signs, however. The sun had gone down and it was difficult to tell one Mandalorian apart for the untrained eye, and when they walked close to a noisy bar a loud bang and laughter caught their attention.

Ori asked for two of the rookies to stay at the entrance and he got into the dark lounge. Making his way between armored by-standers he saw a person lying on the floor, helmet off, and clutching his belly while someone stood over him. The red, spiked logo of the Death Watch was on either of their chest plates. Everyone noticed the Stormtroopers when they got in. Ori ignored them and kneeled over the incapacitated man. He couldn't see any apparent injury. No one was going to ask for help, it wasn't part of their tough attitude.

"Can someone tell me what happened?" Ori asked, parting the man's eyelids to check for a response.

The other man wore grayish-brown armor and reached for a hip holster. Weapons clicked, it was Ori's rookie squad ready to blast him away, and the rest of the men in the bar reacting to the Stormtroopers.

"Calm down," said the inebriated man, "I was only going to explain. He asked me to test an impulse gun on him... It was a stupid bet."

"He needs medical attention," Ori said. "Sir, can you hear me?"

The injured man tried to get up, but Ori held his shoulder down. They didn't need any complications with a case of internal bleeding.

"I can take myself to the med center," he moaned and coughed.

Ori heard one of his boys calling a medevac on the comms. The bartender arrived with a folded stretcher.

"We can take care of it," he said, as if it wasn't the first time he was doing this.

"No, sir," said another trooper, one hand up. "We got this under control."

The barkeeper smiled and shrugged, seeming rather pleased as he left. They waited at least ten minutes before the Imperial medical team arrived, time during which they were offered a soft local drink but Ori was determined to remain anonymous. So he couldn't remove his helmet to enjoy the refreshment. When it was over the crowd dispersed and he was able to collect a statement from the bartender and the shooter in case the victim filed a complaint. Procedures mattered, especially with unpredictable scum that could be found in the Death Watch.

When he exited the bar a lot of Mandalorians would stop in their stride to look at him and the privates but one didn't walk away. Ori caught himself smiling as the black and yellow armor walked up to him.

"Good job in there, Sergeant," said Onara Jeban.

"Captain," he corrected. "And thank you. I aim to please."

"Well, Captain, I hope that someday you find a place that truly needs your help."

"That sounds like an invitation."

Someone appeared behind Jeban, another woman wearing blue armor this time, and sharing the same clan markings.

"Cyar'ika."

It was the affectionate term used between loved ones in mando'a.

"Maybe in another life," Onara told him, and went inside the bar with her partner that clung to her waist.

"Saucy," a Stormtrooper said, watching the women disappear.

Ori turned to his trainee, containing a sigh of disappointment.

"They're quite liberal with their relationships," he explained. "Best not to get involved with any of the locals. The backfire is not manageable."

"With all due respect, Captain, I think they're just good friends. Or very close sisters who share lots of things..."

"Trooper, you're talking shit."

"Just keeping an open mind, sir."

Back to base - home, or whatever it represented for him - Ori was able to change his bandages and get some actual work done about Mereel's surprise package. Using a discardable datapad he got the analysis to run. Within a minute he obtained a name, and a face that represented his new target. He chuckled to himself. Tomorrow would be a good day.

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