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Chapter 08

Keldabe, Mandalore, 1,327 days ABG

Stay focused, Bard’ika, they’ll be fine. She will be fine. Let them know that.

At midday the air was damp and fog had had fallen on the city rendering it even less engaging to the casual visitor. Sitting at a diner right across the street from the Imperial Recruitment Center they were waiting and getting ready for their appointment. Jusik, wearing a hooded cloak complementing his suit, could sit without his buy’ce, drink a cup of caf and remain faceless without dragging attention. Other mando’ad would pick up the idea for themselves, Jusik hoped.

Sitting in front of him Runa and Devik were discretely practicing with their comms devices, a difficult thing when you were munching on uj cake. They wore plain outfits from local retailers and gave themselves scruffy looks. Devik had smeared stains of engine grease on himself while Runa had cut her hair short and styled it messily. Jusik remembered the day he cut his own hair to impersonate a health inspector in a psych ward and it was a liberating experience. He could be anyone to anybody and none would pick him out in a crowd. So when he saw Runa with her new hairstyle it produced the opposite effect. It was incongruous to say the least. She kept running her hands around her head like she never realized she had a skull.

They both looked incredibly out of place to Jusik. Not because they were off-worlders, they all were anyway, but their dramatically different background didn’t make for the right attitude to have prior to a mission. They were secluding themselves in their doubts and fears, asking no questions, pestering each other about equipment. Their father hadn’t showed up and that was one cause for their distress.

Jusik leaned forward on the table and put his authority face on, like the many times he’d done when he addressed his clone companies on the field, and carefully measured his tone. These were civilians after all, and subjecting them to military discipline would provoke loss of confidence or mutiny.

“You might expect it but this is your last chance if you want to walk out,” he said quietly. “If I could take your place I would.”

“Oh, now you tell us this,” Devik said, jesting. “It’s alright, I’m actually looking forward to get out there and test my acting skills.”

He looked over to Runa, waiting for her reply and as Jusik expected she searched for her words. Was it doubt? He caught himself wishing she’d drop out but she was better than that. There was no way she’d let her brother go alone.

“Two spies is better than one,” she finally said.

“No spying - get in, and get out. Leave the rest to us.”

“Really, you don’t want us to ask a couple questions out of curiosity?”

He had to blink a few times and take a moment to picture the “interview” they’d sit through with a recruiting officer. Perhaps there was no interview, just a few psychological and medical tests and they’d be judged as apt or inapt for the service. And since it was volunteering they always had the option to cancel their file but Jusik felt something was off. It was the Force paying him a visit again.

“Ask whatever you think suits the moment.”

“This shouldn’t be complicated,” commented Devik. “Unless our bugs get detected and they catch us pulling the beads out.”

“I’ll be monitoring everything with Ordo helping in case things turn sour. Remember to lay low if people become suspicious around you.”

Runa smiled to him trying to look reassuring. “We’ll be fine, Bard’ika. Though I hoped dad - buir - was here to wish us luck or something.”

“Nah, he knows it’s a minor operation.” Devik stretched his arms and got up. Runa checked her chrono and followed her brother. “Time to roll.”

“You mean role? Like in role play…”

Jusik walked with them out on the street, placing his helmet back on his head so as to perform a last comm check. Once everything was in order he wished them luck. He clasped forearms with Devik but just couldn’t do the same with Runa. He stood in front of her and held her hands.

“Want to learn to do a Keldabe kiss?”

“Um… yeah?” she hesitated, amused.

He carefully touched her forehead with his helmet which sent a round of chuckles. However that comical move tipped off the fragile balance of emotions that gave him inner peace. He had dared cross the line of attachment long ago when joining the Mandalorians, and now he was going even further. This was losing himself and it made him feel fear. This was textbook dark side.

They parted and he walked to his speeder to ride back to base and that last thought didn’t plague him as much as it would have in the past. It was a state of mind, a moment of vulnerability that made him care more; from his point of view there was no point in fighting it. The mission went on and so did the war, they would all have to make sacrifices to make it count.

While driving he heard the first words exchanged by the siblings inside the Recruitment Center. Apparently they were asked to wait in a room and they got silent for about five minutes until Devik’s voice rose.

“It’s a pity you’re enlisting in the army, that guy out there was really into you.”

Runa giggled and it was the most distracting sound. Jusik kept his focus on the waypoint floating in his HUD, telling him where to go.

“He is really nice,” Runa answered, and her voice was somewhat shaky, aware of the audio monitoring. “I might give this one a shot.”

“Well, how many times have you met a mando’ad your age, not stupid and not ugly?”

Jusik repressed a laugh under his helmet, and decided to interject in their conversation.

“Thank you very much, Devik. You aren‘t that bad yourself.” He stirred away from a bundle of rocks on the ground, keeping an eye on the vehicle tracking radar.

“And he’s funny. If you don’t take him Runa, I will.”

Jusik had to hand it to the young man for maintaining a level tone. Odds were they were being recorded on holosurveillance cameras for behavior analysis but that didn’t alert his senses. They were doing alright.

Imperial Base, Mandalore

Wasn’t it for the light signals of the battery towers no one could guess there was a fortified military base just outside the woods.

Hiding in the forest was the makeshift camp made out of camouflage netting Ordo had installed earlier that day. It had a complete surveillance workstation, armor, ammunitions and gunnery at disposal. He was sitting in front of a screen showing schematics of the base and audio rendering on the side. The conversation he’d been listening to was mildly entertaining yet a little too relaxed for an undercover mission. The Zanim siblings seemed to be able to handle their task however, so he had no reason to complain. Bard’ika appeared to like them, too. He lifted his red buy’ce off as he entered the tent.

“Interesting chat I’ve heard.”

“As you were, Captain.” Jusik said sharply before setting his equipment bag next to the camp armory. “Is the Dust working?”

“Yes, General. Signals are weak but I’m picking them up.”

Dust was microscopic powder-like transmitters developed by the GAR that Jusik stole at the time terrorist units of the Separatists had infiltrated Coruscant. He had sprayed Runa and Devik with them for tracking purposes.

He pulled his helm off to reveal a rather preoccupied face under scruffy blond hair. At least he had shaved his beard clean, Ordo thought.

“Once they’re taken to the base we’ll get better tracking,” he said.

“Were you serious about going there yourself if you could?”

He returned a perplexed look. “Why wouldn’t I be? They had to know it’s not an easy ride.”

“The Empire’s taking care of them now.”

Their signal was getting closer now, the two blinking dots moving across the map at a steady pace. Their comms were still online but none of them were talking. They had company in the transport; Ordo thought he heard another voice in the background.

Then Jusik reached for his bead-sized comm and inserted it in his ear, he seemed agitated which was very unlike him.

“Is there something wrong, Bard’ika?”

After five years of knowing him as a friend and brother in arms Ordo almost forgot that he was also a Jedi. When Jedi became aloof and distant, it was caused by their sixth sense called the Force that spoke to them in “bad feelings” or “something familiar”. It was easy to ignore the part that you didn’t or couldn’t understand in someone, especially when it came to family.

Jusik sniffled and rubbed the tip of his nose with his gloved hand. “I’m just a little worried, that’s all there is.”

Ordo remembered seeing the young woman with the sniffles as well the other night, his mind didn’t need a long time to do the math. If Besany had to be on a similar operation he imagined he would be troubled as well.

The audio feed transmitted sounds of doors hissing open and many footsteps crunching ice and snow, then hitting hard permacrete floors. Ambient noises and electrical humming told they were indoors now.

A mechanical voice spoke, a cyborg droid most likely.

“Please proceed to your assigned desks while your examinations are being prepared. Good luck.”

The Dust signal showed that they were now on a lower floor of the base, in a small room where Ordo assumed was the psychological test. Other sources brought him more details about it: a simple form to fill, choosing one out of multiple answers per question. It made sure the applicants knew how to read and count, and could tell the difference between obedience and insubordination. The next step consisted of basic physical ability tests and measurements. During that phase Runa and Devik had to make sure their bugs were safely stored to avoid damaging. The final step, and Ordo hoped they didn’t have to get to that, was a long speech for indoctrination purposes. It was hard to believe that any grown up person could be “brainwashed” by anything. As a clone Ordo had been fed with data since before his birth but that didn’t make him a puppet, he had been his own man for as far as he recalled. And clones had perfect recall so he knew he had made his own decisions all of his life.

The Zanims were going to take their physical exams now. While waiting in line to enter the medical ward they exchanged thoughts about their quiz test stating the amount of rubbish they saw and the level of randomness they used to answer it. Runa sneezed which caused high static on the feed, then she adjusted the bead in her ear because it must’ve moved.

“Be careful with that,” Jusik said in her channel. “They can spot the wire.”

“Okay.”

He cringed. “And don’t reply to me.”

“Okay, what?” Devik asked her.

“I’m… ready for the next tests?”

“You’re weird,” humored her brother. “They don’t recruit freaks in the Stormtrooper Corps.”

“Then I’ll be a pilot.”

Ordo resumed studying the three-dimensional map of the building while Jusik sat back, arms folded across his breastplate in some sort of rumination.

“You like her,” he stated after a minute. “Have you told her yet?”

He breathed in slowly and held his stare before answering, all seriousness. “We barely know each other, and in the current circumstances it doesn’t seem appropriate.”

Ner vod, no circumstance is ever appropriate in this line of work. Though I saw the way she looked at you yesterday. Seems like the real deal to me.”

“She’s an artist.” He leaned on the desk and rested his chin in his hand in a thoughtful pose. “Painting and picture art. And quite talented too.”

“So you envy her because she still has a choice,” Ordo speculated, turning away from the screen. “The choice to stay away from all this mess, or to become a warrior and risk her life for a cause.”

“I wouldn’t call it envy…”

“Because you like her.” He felt like repeating himself. Ordo could easily relate to his friend’s situation from the day he realized he was falling for the beautiful Coruscanti tax inspector that was working undercover for Kal’buir. It was all confusion between rational and emotional. Thankfully his single-minded, goal-oriented attitude made the process easier to live through. Jusik on the other hand had many ghosts and demons to confront. “You want her to be safe, that’s completely normal. But then again there is no safe here. The best you can do is to teach her to be stronger, that’s the best protection there is.”

Jusik’s eyes were lost somewhere between the display monitor and the tent drapes. It was the first time Ordo had seen him in such a helpless condition since the death of Etain Tur-Mukan.

Runa and Devik had switched their comms off during the physical tests and once they had them back on they were still panting slightly. They had run for ten minutes and progressed around obstacles.

“Did you pass?” asked Runa.

“Wasn’t so bad,” Devik said, a little less exhausted. “I guess we’ll have to wait after the Imperial Speech. Did you retrieve your belongings as they instructed?”

So they’d had to change clothing in some storage. Ordo scrolled around the map to find the locker room in the medical ward.

“Wait here I forgot my belt.”

Fierfek, Runa!”

Ordo knew that siblings could become irritated at each other as could all people stuck together for a long period of time, but he hadn’t expected the Zanims to be prone to stress-induced anxiety so quickly. He made a mental note of that in case he were to work with them again.

They saw Runa’s signal moving towards the lockers and stopping in front of one. They heard her opening a metallic casing and she breathed hard. Her belt was holding the bugs meant to spy on imperial data.

“Oh no… It’s not here anymore.”

“Runa,” Jusik said, all calm and confidence restored in his voice. “Look around you and cough if you see someone or anything.”

“There’s nobody.”

“Okay, good. Now, stay calm and walk towards your next trial. Once they work out who that belt belongs to you‘ll have to get out of there.”

Her breathing went slightly faster, proportionally to her heart rate which translated stress and fear. Jusik closed his eyes and kept speaking.

“You’ll be fine, Runa. Don’t worry.”

She progressed a little faster towards an elevator and reached the upper floor where she met Devik’s position in a large room. There they heard someone speaking about the might of the Galactic Empire and all the good things new recruits could bring once they joined, then more statements about how they were doing the right choice. The assumed recruiting officer then asked the applicants to move to their assigned interview rooms.

Devik entered his first and sat while waiting for his questioning.

“So, young man. What did you think of all of this?”

“I didn’t expect much before getting here but I’m satisfied with the process. I want to join the Stormtrooper Corps.”

“The Corps is reserved for the best of the best, but you must be aware of that.” The man paused, but not for long. “Your physical stats match the requirements, you’re cut out for the job! And this is your lucky day because a shuttle is just about to leave for your training grounds.”

“Wait, don’t I have time to think this over?”

“You can spend that time shooting things and wearing armor, can’t you?”

“Well--”

“Splendid! Here’s your certificate, sign here. You’re now a proud soldier of the Galactic Empire.”

“You guys certainly don’t waste time.”

“We do, when recruits don’t show up.”

“It must be hard around here, isn’t it?”

“Young man, the travel of your life awaits. Take this token and proceed to the docking bay at ground level.”

Ordo and Jusik sat speechless before tuning in to Devik’s channel.

“You can’t board that ship, use the refreshers or something,” Jusik said.

They waited for him to be in a secure room although it wasn’t guaranteed that the restrooms were clean of wires.

“What if they wait for me and catch me on the way out?” Devik whispered.

Ordo imagined himself in that position and thought about his liability if he went on with the enlisting and waited for a better occasion to bail. If Devik dragged attention to himself it might allow Runa to get off the radar, so to speak.

“I want to see this through,” Devik said in a dangerously determined voice. “They’re going to ship me to their training grounds, and we don’t know where that is yet, am I right?”

“It‘s Carida,” Jusik said after a silence. “But once you get there you’ll be unable to contact us at all.”

“I’ll find a way.” He flushed and they heard water running. “Take care of my sister, Bardan.”

Devik clicked his teeth and shut off his comms.

“That was bold and stupid,” Ordo snapped. He monitored Runa’s position who had moved to another lower level which was not in the recruiting area. “Where is she going?”

Her comm channel was offline and she was still moving at a regular walking speed to what looked like a sealed zone to finally stop in a much, much smaller room than any other in the building.

Jusik jumped to his feet and pulled his bead out, turned it off manually and following his lead, Ordo switched his station off and grabbed his helmet. Runa had been captured.

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