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Chapter 02

Imperial Outpost, Mandalore. Day 2, 0558.

He woke up two minutes sooner than the morning alarm, as he did the day before, and grabbed the datapad beside his cot. There were no messages received as he expected but he still got all worked up each time he checked. The comlink shut down with a soft bleep.

"Again with that thing, Ori. It's the third day, she won't send you anything."

He let his face crash in his pillow and wanted to pretend he hadn't heard his friend complaining.

"Leave-me-alone," he mumbled sleepily.

"She-doesn't-like-you!" Tanas yelled back, which woke up the rest of them in the dormitory.

"Do you know what two minutes of sleep deprivation transfers into?"It was Ven, their squad leader. He sat up on his bunk with a grumpy face.

"Let me guess," Ori replied. "You, all confused and kissing someone's rifle on the muzzle."

"And you talking like a Separatist," continued Tanas, "getting a crush on a merc that wears a helmet."

Ori jumped to the floor with a loud thud and the wake up call started. "Better that than staring at the three of you all day, and getting ideas."

He headed on to the showers before it got crowded. It was all makeshift, cheap and inclined to collapse at the first ballistic nudge which had almost happened. The Imperial outpost had been attacked by a bunch of local thugs and now it was repression time.

Once he got into his grey fatigues he joined his squad in the mess hall for a quick breakfast. It was a cramped place that Navy, Army, Command, and Storm had to share at the same time. It was a wonder how the cooking droids always had enough supplies to feed a number of two hundred or so personnel - although, if he heard correctly a fraction of that got slotted the other day. Thankfully he was patrolling the southern hemisphere that day, in the tropical Mandalore climate. Here it snowed and it was windy, and it got to people's morale somehow. On his way to the mess he walked by rubble and damaged durasteel next to a contained zone that troopers in grey battle uniforms were cleaning up. Now they all had to use a single elevator, the only one not blown up after the attack.

"I can't wait to transfer out of here," Tanas grumbled as they went up the stairs.

The table they managed to get was right next to the officer's and a lieutenant in his green fatigues glared at him. Ori tried to pay no mind to it but caught himself looking back, thinking he'd known. Tanas was a blabbermouth so possibly half the station knew about him giving out a private link to a local, something reserved for family alone.

"Maybe they were part of the assault team," he said. "How could they have gotten on site that quickly otherwise?"

"You think too much," said Ven biting his breakfast biscuit. "That's what Command does, we only squeeze the trigger."

"I don't think it was them," Ori muttered between his teeth. "Why didn't they kill us off then?"

They all fell silent at the question and Ori counted the seconds, then minutes. It was all wrong and he knew he'd stepped into a deep puddle of poodoo. If that private link got opened, it would be his duty to report it and let the chain of command deal with the suspect.

A suspect he'd want to "interrogate" himself first, he thought. Granted he never got to see her face or know her name but he had wrapped his mind around the idea of seeing her again. Even if she had to die soon after. Then a spoon scooped the remains of the protein pudding from his food tray and his grim thoughts kept him from protesting against Gil.

"I don't know about you lot but the sooner we're off this scum planet the better." Tanas sank his cup of water down and pointed at Ori with his knife. "But I'll gladly leave you in the middle of kriffing Keldabe to search for your warrior princess."

"I'm forever grateful."

"She seemed nice," said Gil after a silence. "She thought I was funny."

Ori repressed a smile and cleaned his tray. They needed to be in the Storm mission briefing room in ten and he needed to get kitted up fast before his squad mates or they'd be sharing armor parts from getting messed up. He hated that small room, this ruined outpost, and this barren planet. Big buildings and infinities skylanes were part of his native environment and each day spent in the countryside made him more restless and bored.

While looking at the holo-briefing and listening to their commander he got an answer to his prayers: he saw an approximate map of Keldabe with patrol positions.

"This week's disaster proved that the indigenous population hold us in no form of respect whatsoever. Our role here is to enforce Imperial domination over the locals and the attack against us voids the understanding with Fenn Shysa. You will be dispatched around the capital city to interrogate and/or arrest any individuals that fit the dissident profile."

They all looked at each other across the room, all squads together. All of them sharing the same gut feeling of no-way-I'm-not-doing-that. Ori felt like clearing his throat and raising a hand to suggest a better plan but it wasn't his place to question orders. He'd know better.

The ride to Keldabe in the transporter was deadly silent and he sighed loudly to break the tension.

"We should roll ourselves in the mud before showing up."

His squad sat motionless at the exception of Tanas who slowly shook his head.

"We're far too shiny."

"And instead you want to cover yourself in dung for a laugh, brilliant."

Ori recalled his desert patrol exercises where sand and dirt stuck to his white plasteel plates on their own rendering his armor naturally camouflaged. Now the prospects of making do with mud to look a little less conspicuous in urban terrain seemed like the logical way to go… but it would beat the purpose of making a hard impression on the inhabitants.

They got dropped off at the Imperial Recruiting Center where they reported to the captain in charge. He seemed weary from idleness until he saw all four of them in his lobby. Having familiar "faces" around must've been a rare sight for him lately and he briefed them deeper into detail.

They got dispatched in groups of two, unlike what their squad commander had instructed - to go in big numbers as a mean for protection and intimidation - but the recruiting officer decided that some humility was of the essence. Whatever, Ori thought. He wasn't ready to try and instigate fear into people who probably laughed at him behind their black T-visors.

He decided to go with Ven and apply the bounty hunter's advise about, he remembered, looking out for the lone wolf. Ori didn't exactly like the man in green armor for completely destroying what faith he had in his squad and the Imperial ways of giving out assignments. After a few nights of wondering about his dream-girl in white and purple armor he had bred a cold rivalry against the faceless man with his patronizing tone.

While walking down the dirt paths of Keldabe he scanned the various sets of Mandalorian armors to find the ones of the bounty hunters. There was some red, brown, many shades of green, black, blue… After a while he forgot what he was looking for and got distracted by something shiny at a market vendor. Thud. He almost fell back as a big mass of black armor bumped into him.

"Watch it, di'kut."

Ori was going to say "sorry" then remembered his training and by reflex brought his gun up to the man who had called him an idiot. Oh yes, he'd picked up a few words of mando'a after three months, especially the cussing and insults.

"Sorry, what did you say?" he hissed, "I didn't quite catch that, chakaar."

The man in black armor mockingly raised his hands and chuckled. Ori felt so alien in his shiny white plasteel plates, with his mere E-11 blaster rifle and his middle-class Coruscanti accent. But he wasn't ready to be stepped on.

"Woah, okay settle down, boy. I was… talking to someone else."

Ori lifted the muzzle of his gun away from the Mandalorian in a controlled motion and nodded. Ven who was standing aside bobbed his helmet in front of him to acknowledge passerby's that stopped to watch the altercation.

"Move along," Ori said as he holstered his rifle.

In other planets you could walk around carrying your weapon like in a march but here that was an open invitation to target practice. Now that his hands were free he could casually fold his arms or stick his thumbs in his belt as if he was off duty. But he'd rather be able to sit at a diner and get a fresh ale without being insulted. Maybe he should have arrested the man when he'd had the chance. He was probably going to regret it.

"You aren't very chatty, Ven."

"Do you see people chatting? I mean listen, this place is quiet as a graveyard."

Ori noticed that before, the locals were all Mandalorian: they wore helmets with soundproofing and they spoke in their private channels.

"How is that keeping you from talking?"

"Because I'm paying attention. You should try that some time."

"The guy came right at me."

"I'm not talking about that. Ori, I know you're looking out for your lady in white. Please stop."

He sighed. "Odds are that she went after the fugitives and I won't see her before a long time, or when she'll be back to collect her bounty."

"You mean them. She and that green-armored guy were obviously an item."

"Okay, don't say that word. Item."

They heard voices that weren't from their comlink but real sounds from outside; tiny, squeaky voices of little Mandalorian children that ran straight towards them. Ori recognized a young Zabrak among the three.

"Thunder soldiers!" said a little girl with freckles on her nose.

"No they're Stormtroopers you dummy," corrected a boy.

They started knocking on their leg plates. "Is this even laser proof?" giggled the Zabrak.

Ori felt like growling scary things about the reality of laser wounds so they could show some respect for his risky career choice. He got a little edgy when they tried to pick up his blaster.

"Hey! Don't touch that, it's dangerous."

"What! I shot a Trando conc rifle before," protested the little girl with her hands on her hips.

"Shab."

"Watch yourself, TK-Zero-Two-Four. You're starting to sound like them." Ven always used designations when he was nervous. "So what should we do?"

"You tell me, Squad Leader. Got any sweets to throw at them?"

"I bet you never shot a conc rifle in your life!" chuckled the little boy. He was wearing a black jumpsuit that made him look disturbingly threatening. "You're just a frontline trooper."

"That's it," sighed Ori, losing his temper. He pointed a finger at the kids and summoned his most menacing tone. "I want to see your parents, or foster family and whatnot. Now."

"Oh you're so gonna regret it!"

The boy fled back inside a shop and the other two laughed whole-heartedly at Ori and Ven, and they just waited.

"I have a bad feeling about this."

"Ven, whatever happens from now I want you to know that I forgive you."

"Forgive me?!"

Ori mentally rehearsed a speech about education, he was even ready to mention his own childhood in the lower levels of Coruscant and his parents looking out for what kind of crowd he hung out with. He felt a hand on his shoulder and spun around to meet the shape of a fist, then his face smashed into the inside of his helmet and he heard giggles. He felt himself fall down flat on his back in a loud splat because of the muddy ground. He heard a blaster shot and another splat before losing consciousness.

"No, cyar'ika, we can't keep them here. They're trouble."

"But-but-but… Okay."

Someone shook him out of his slumber and Ori opened his eyes noticing his helmet was taken off and his hands were tied in his back. He was sat on the floor in some sort of house and Ven was in front of him, laying down like he was sleeping. He looked up to see a man in grey and red Mandalorian armor, and he had the dark-skinned face of a clone trooper.

"Ah good, you're awake. Sorry about your friend there, I guess he put up too much of a fight."

Ori processed the news and nudged Ven with his boot but got no response. He knew what that meant of course but he only let his mind believe that his comrade was too deeply asleep to wake up. He'd deal with it later.

"You're making a mistake by keeping me in custody, your people will suffer consequences."

The clone in mando armor pulled a chair to sit in front of him and crossed his legs in a casual demeanor. Ori began to fidget with his cuffs which seemed to be made of durasteel wiring.

"You're free to go," said the man. "But my neighbors are concerned for their children so they asked me to make sure you won't try to kidnap them."

"What? I never--"

"Yeah, that's what I said! You shiny whiteys would never take our young for slavery… funny idea, that."

Ori searched for clues around the room that would give him an idea of the time it was. Past his report schedule his captain would dispatch a search team after him and Ven, he hoped.

"I understand this is payback for one of yours that got captured."

"Oh, you lot have paid alright. I was there. The bangs and the kabooms, that was all me."

Ah, so he was the explosives specialist. Ori took a long look at his captor.

"Good job," he said, sarcastic. "You should've destroyed the entire base to the ground, then I would be on leave, enjoying a drink back on Triple Zero."

The clone lifted an eyebrow in puzzlement. "You lived there?"

Ori thought he had spoken too much but at this point he couldn't be bothered anymore. "So you thought all Stormtroopers were grown in cloning facilities? Funny idea, that."

"That only tells me that you chose to serve the Empire. Now I'm no psych expert but that's pretty aruetyc."

Someone entered the room behind the clone and Ori saw a sandy-haired female wearing armor who folded her arms across her breastplate. He looked at her long enough to seem deranged.

"He's never seen a female before," laughed the clone.

"I have," retorted Ori. "About your size, white and purple trim armor with a KX series rifle. Do you know her?"

They both shared an alarmed look and Ori felt like his heart was going to stop. At last, someone was going to tell him her name. Now if only they'd be nice enough to ease his mind…

"Yes, we know her," answered the woman in a cold tone. "She's the one that got captured and tortured last week."

"No… That can't be." Ori processed the information with high skepticism because he didn't remember seeing an injured or weak person that day. "She was with a man in green armor, they were bounty hunters."

They both smiled holding back laughter as he stared at them in genuine amazement. They knew where she was but somehow he had it all wrong. Being ridiculed was the least of his problems though.

"Ner vod, you have a lot to learn," said the clone. "If you're willing to stick around, I'll cut you loose but don't be a di'kut or I'm gonna shoot you."

A vibroblade snapped out of his right gauntlet and Ori could stretch his arms and get up.

"Now help me burry your friend outside. And believe me I really, really don't like it. I was going to grow crops around here."

There was only a given number of choices to begin with, Ori thought, and they got fewer with each turn of event. Three days ago he could have decided to subvert the "bounty hunters", turn them in and complete his assignment - and maybe get a promotion. Instead he had gone with his guts and sabotaged his own career.

Now he was carrying the body of his squad mate of years of exercises and missions across several systems. They stripped him of his armor but he kept his tag plate. The clone mando helped him digging the hole in the frozen ground without any shots about him being a coward or a fool, because Ori certainly felt like one.


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