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Chapter 04

Come on, you can do this.

She jumped, stomach knotted thinking that her feet would miss the ledge and her weight would make her slide down the muddy ravine. Maybe the adrenaline helped, as she didn’t even notice the tight grip of a gloved hand catching her arm. Bardan pulled her to her feet and they started walking, or running again.

It was cold, dark, and humid because she was sweating. But mostly it was dark and Runa relied on vague shadows to avoid bumping comically into a tree. She felt so unprepared for this kind of night hike. Luckily her clothes and boots were holding together, credits well spent. Thinking of her gear took her mind off her pain and the will to just stop, admitting defeat. It made her realize that in a twisted way she was like her female coworkers that loved shopping.

Her brother seemed to be doing fine, even though he was breathing heavily as well. Not seeing people complain made her feel very lonely.

Their Mandalorian guide slowed down at last, and then she saw in the starlight that his chest plates were heaving. When he spoke, she heard his panting. There was a living, mortal man in there.

“They have patrols going around but we’re just out of range. You’ll be able to see the lights from here soon.”

Runa sipped water from the tube of her camelback pouch, happy that they were walking again. Walking was easy, on bumpy or flat terrain she could walk all day. But then she would need a protective suit with more belt pockets. Yes, she would fancy some armor, too.

The woods they were crossing became less thick as they progressed towards the edges. Bardan came to a halt and got down on one knee. Devik and Runa crouched at his level to stare out in the horizon. She saw the buildings and towers, circled by high walls of permacrete. Blinking air-signaling lights and artillery canons yelled “military complex”. It was too far away to spot any units on foot. And so her gaze lifted up in the sky because it was fully sprinkled with bright stars. There were so many that it made her head spin.

“I say that’s a real military base, with Imps,” Devik said with an ironical tone. “Let us call an air strike.”

“Sadly these are mostly clone personnel.” Bardan held up his rifle, a modified Verpine precision rifle with its mounted scope and sturdy build, and aligned the sights with his T-visor for a magnified view of the base. “You haven’t seen them in the capital because Shysa, our Mandalore aka. ambassador, has agreed on certain terms with their general.”

Runa didn’t see him hand out his rifle because, while listening to him her eyes had gone up in the sky again.

“Come on, take a look.”

She felt him watch her as she held the weapon against her shoulder, careful not to put her finger on the trigger even if the safety was on, and closed an eye to see through the scope. With a thirty times magnification she spotted white-armored troopers walking two by two along the walls of the complex.

“Do you know any of them?” she asked.

“Not their batch. These clones were issued in the last days of the war, with different training programs.”

Having seen enough, she handed the Verpine to Devik. “It’s a sweet rifle, very light.”

And it was hard to talk about ordnance, and to pretend she had any tactical insight. All she wanted to do at that moment was to stare at the star fields and drink warm caf, wrapped up in a cozy blanket.

“So what’s the plan?” Devik asked, fiddling with the scope, taking in as much as he could.

“With these numbers and our chances our only option is infiltration. But we’re going to need access codes. So the only way to do that is to get invited. That’s where fresh new faces should come into play.”

“Oh I see where this is going… We’re the convenient tourists ready to play dumb.”

He handed back the rifle that Bardan briefly checked before slinging it to his side.

“And to gather some intel. But don’t worry, it’s still a work in progress.”

They walked back into the woods, surrounded by darkness again.

“But you have clone friends, right?” Runa dared asking. “Why not send one of them in an imperial uniform?”

“To trick non-clones, it’s been done before.”

There was a sharp bleep sound coming from her right pocket that made everyone stop and turn around. Runa pulled out her data pad to see an incoming call.

“Don’t answer that,” Bardan hissed.

The transmitter bleeped again. It was her mother. With a pinch at the heart Runa turned it off. She strode again in a hurry, not wanting to show her worried state.

“Who was that?” Devik said with a clenched jaw.

“Mom.”

“Have you told her anything?”

So he hadn’t called her either about their trip. Runa sighed and tried to focus on where she was stepping.

“I assumed dad did.” She stopped to catch her breath but her throat was hurting now. “She must be upset.”

“Don’t be such a baby. At least we didn’t compromise dad back home.”

“We still should’ve called her.”

“Obviously we can’t now so get over it.”

They got along rather well as siblings, but in moments of tension Devik often was the one taking control. Runa found it annoying and resented him for that sometimes. Right then she fought hard to keep a straight face.

She saw Bardan walking between them undisturbed like they weren’t having that conversation. They followed him obediently.

After a long minute he finally spoke. “I’ll set you up a secure line as soon as we get back.”

That night had been approximately three hours of walking in complete darkness. Thankfully Bardan had a multi-passenger speeder for the long runs. He must have had night vision enabled in his helmet visor to know exactly where to go, and he didn’t say a single thing again until they arrived home.

Before she had the chance to take her coat and boots off he motioned her to his workstation: a desk and shelves with parts, devices and various accessories laid around.

“Lend me your comlink.”

Runa watched as he opened the casing and worked on the circuitry with a micro-spanner, and other tools she couldn’t identify.

“I’m sorry about earlier,” she said hesitatingly. “It was stupid to leave that open so close to the base.”

“There was no harm done.”

He closed the casing back into place and handed it to her before removing his helmet. Unlike what she expected he seemed less engaging without it, his face locked in a severe, focused expression. The Mandalorian mask made him look like ordinary folk on that planet.

“Although,” he softened his voice, “whatever is the issue with your brother, I suggest you both talk it out.”

“Yeah, I… I’ll do that.” Her smile felt crooked and uncertain.

Bardan tilted his head to one side in curiosity. It was like he could notice every change in her attitude. She was maybe a year or two older than him and usually people around the same age would make friends and share their thoughts. But he seemed a stranger at all times.

Wars made people different, she knew about that. She also knew that her father could never be like any normal adult she had known in her civilian life, because of what he had done and seen. She felt clumsy and out of place, and normal, in his world.

“Whatever my father intended to do by bringing us here,” she said quietly, “I’ll do my best not to get in your way.”

His face went from an intrigued to a sad look. She regretted immediately what she’d said then, because he leaned against his desk, arms folded across his breastplate. She braced herself for a lecture.

“Your father is a Mandalorian, and for us you are as much value as he is because you are his family. The family, or clan, comes first in mando culture.”

“But I wasn’t raised as a Mandalorian.” Her voice protested as she tried to control herself. “Our mother refused that.”

“So you brought yourself to higher standards by your own means. That still matters a great deal. It’s never too late to embrace the culture.”

There was a glint in his eyes and a certainty that calmed her down.

“Where is your family?” she asked. “You said you lived alone.”

“Kal Skirata adopted me into his clan.” He took a short breath. “I used to serve the Republic, but resigned two years ago. The Mandalorian culture and morals were strong within the ranks of troopers and Kal showed me it was possible for me to become what I truly wanted to be.”

“Why, what happened under the Republic?”

He paused, defocused for a moment. Runa was curious and didn’t like people that avoided details. She had followed many news reports during the war and this was a first-hand source of information.

“I was a Jedi general,” he said quietly. “I was sending soldiers to their death and moved to the next system.”

She found a seat next to the dining table. It wasn’t just what he said but how he did it: cold and detached. His eyes riveted on hers when she had let the story sink in.

“A Jedi?” She tried to picture him in floating brown robes and a light saber since she had never met one before. “But I thought… I saw holo-vids of Jedi fighting alongside clones…”

“I did some of that, yeah.” He ran gloved fingers through his blond hair, thoughtful. “And in the end, we were fighting for the wrong side, and the battles lead us nowhere. But my point is that it’s up to you. You decide what you want to do with your life.”

“I’m not sure,” she sighed.

“You must be.” He patted her roughly on the shoulder. “Unless you’ve come this far across the galaxy to turn down the greatest offer that could ever happen to you.”

She turned around to face him.

“If you didn’t have this, would you have stayed with the Republic?”

He looked her sideways and bit his lower lip. “Probably. But then I wouldn’t be here now.”

Seeing the raw sadness in his eyes puzzled her. She excused herself to bed and with a mind full of questions and doubts she slept her first night on Mandalore.

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