Ord Mantell, Trader’s Quarter
“Biran, I met someone.”
He stared blankly at Ullia, his former wife and mother of his children, unable to react accordingly to her announcement.
“If it’s money you need that’s no problem anymore, cyar’ika.”
She lifted a hand up to stop him. “Don’t call me that. I made my own choices in this life and it’s not the right time to turn around.”
“Then when is?”
At his great disappointment she sighed and turned her back to him, tending to her shrubs at the window. The night was falling with a sweet shade of purple and red in the sky. Ullia hadn’t changed much since he first met her; of course her body wasn’t all that slender anymore but she kept her hair black and held down. He knew that she still kept him in her heart and it showed each time he’d pop by to see his kids, she just never admitted it. So now it was hard to believe her.
“I never wanted things to end up like this, Ullia. Now I’m trying all I can to make my children happy and I need you around for that. Will you forgive me?”
“The last time I tried coping with you I felt useless, denied and weak. How do you think I can help when I feel that way?”
Biran squeezed the bridge of his nose with gloved fingers when he heard the bleep of his comms inside his helmet. Now wasn’t the time. He fought to come up with another argument to convince her.
“Aren’t you gonna take that call?”
When they used to live together Ullia would help him clean his armor and fix certain parts when needed. To realize they had been that close and now come that far apart was always a sting.
“Listen, there is this shady boy that Runa is getting messed up with and she might need your help about it…”
“Good for you, Biran. You deserve some slack from parenting.”
“Again with the sarcasm!”
He finally put his helmet on and recognized Jusik’s hasty but firm voice.
“You need to get back here asap. Devik just got drafted and Runa’s MIA.”
“What the shabla hell are you talking about?”
“Biran, we didn’t wait for you to start the mission--”
“Are you saying that you have no idea whether my children are alive or dead?”
He grabbed Ullia’s arm and forcefully pulled her out of the house. She protested but he didn’t have time for explanations.
“I’m on my way now,” he told Jusik, promising himself he’d show the kid how to mess with his family and in the mean time he had to reason their mother. “Ullia, call this a coincidence or fate, but Runa and Devik are in danger. Don’t tell me you have something keeping you here now.”
She sharply pulled herself out of his grip and he stopped to wait for her to make a final tantrum.
“I trusted you to watch over them,” she hissed, all rage contained but ready to burst. “What is going on?”
“Now we get to talk. They have gone to investigate an imperial outpost but at latest reports they got caught. I’ll fill you in with the details once we’re on the move.”
Once last fierce glance later she went to pack her things and he got to go home with what he’d wanted from the beginning: a reunited family, mando or not. He only needed to save his children’s lives now.
The flight to Mandalore took hours, the longest he had lived in his life. Of course in a combat situation time seemed stretched but actions made each second count. While sitting on a chair however, it was hours subtracted from the odds of seeing his kids alive again. His only consolation was to have Ullia by his side while they shared their worries even if she silently accused him. She didn’t even seem all that outraged at the bombshell he dropped when revealing his past as a military instructor for the Grand Army.
For as far as he remembered she was mandokarla. He had even ordered a set of armor made for her but she never got around to wear it and he never saw it again. Perhaps she sold it to some merc on Ord Mantell or had it destroyed. His only explanation was that Ullia never wanted to be part of anything, some form of rebellion that he either loved or hated in her.
He got tempted to land directly on the imperial outpost, trash everything with a few missiles and storm the buildings in search of Runa and Devik. It could work if the Empire was a gang of spice smuggling thugs and if he was that stupid. Ullia could shoot guns and knew the basics of combat in case he needed her help but that was out of the question; he wouldn’t live with himself if he put even her in danger.
As they landed at Jusik’s homestead Biran gave a warm coat to his former wife before opening the hatch, and braced himself for more bad news.
There were more people inside, and as he expected, all had their armor and weapons equipped, ready for a hunt. He recognized a clone, one of the Null ARCs that Skirata used as his private militia under the GAR. They had a stronger build and stood taller than the regular clones. The man was fourteen, Biran calculated, but in terms of normal lifespan years that made him twenty-eight if not thirty. This meant that the aging acceleration was still in effect and that Skirata’s boys hadn’t found a remedy yet.
Jusik was sitting deep in concentration over a holo-projection of a map while another clone was pointing out escape routes with a stylus. When he saw him and Ullia entering the room he rose and politely introduced himself, eyes weary from stress. She nodded and told her name in return. Then it dawned on Biran that he completely forgot to tell her about the young man. It would have to wait.
“Tell me the last events before you lost contact,” Biran asked.
“They lost the bugs, Runa went to look for them and got sidetracked. Devik got rushed in the recruitment process and decided to see it through. I told him not to but he’d made up his mind... An imperial shuttle took him to Carida three hours ago.”
Devik had always been an overachiever. As a father it was something to be proud of but right now he just wanted this nightmare to end.
“What about Runa?”
“Her signal is moving between the detention center and another location,” Jusik said on an even tone. That was Jedi General Jusik speaking. He then looked over Biran’s shoulder to see Ullia then lost a bit of his composure. “We think it’s an interrogation room.”
She gasped loudly and looked at everyone in the room. “You have to get her out of there!”
“We’re working on it,” said the Null in red armor. He had a couple of blaster pistols at his sides and a repeating assault rifle slung on his back. “But without the bugs active we’re lacking a lot of precious intel so we could be heading into an enormous trap right now.”
Biran was struggling to keep his cool and hearing more excuses for not rescuing his daughter in time just made it harder.
“And so, the rules of engagements are…? This is not the Republic anymore, vod. We have to show them what we’re made of. You don‘t mess with mando‘ade.”
“I beg to differ.” It was the other clone, he looked a little younger than the Null, and wore gray and red armor. “We started messing with them so now they have the upper ground. We don‘t have the ethical advantage.”
Biran cussed between his teeth and refrained from banging his head against the nearest wall though it might have helped. “So what’s the plan, if you even have one?”
“Set another trap,” the Null replied, then nodded in direction of Jusik. “We got leverage and a free entry access with that.”
The blond young man standing next to him, arms crossed looked to the floor. “You’re going to turn me in; that’ll get you through the first security lines.”
“Turn you in?” Ullia repeated, appalled. “Why? What have you done?”
Biran thought it was as good a moment as any to drop the philosophical bomb into the mess.
“Our friend Bardan here forgot to tell us that he’s not just a war veteran, but a Jedi Knight. A traitor to the Empire, that’s why he’s valuable to us now.” He inspected the effects to see her in an even more upset mood. “Of course regardless of how tempting it is to turn him in, I’m afraid it would attract unwanted attention onto us.”
He could almost feel the gaze of everyone directed on him and waited for the first disapproval to express itself.
“No, you can’t do that.” Ullia stepped forward to place herself between him and Jusik. “I may not be a warrior but I’ve heard things, people talk about this new empire. I heard the Jedi were being purged and that troopers were ordered to kill on sight, am I right? What if they don’t capture you. What if they just execute you as soon as they get you?”
“Oh,” Biran added. “That sounds about right. Except that we aren‘t left with many other options.”
Jusik leaned closer to Ullia and used some of his charisma to reason her.
“We need to take a risk otherwise we won’t get a chance to save Runa.” He paused because he couldn’t lift his eyes up anymore due to what Biran saw as overwhelming emotion. “I can take care of myself, she‘s the priority now.”
“As both her and Devik should have been since the beginning of this shabla plan.”
“Biran,” Ullia turned to him with her face full of tears. “Let them do their job.”
“I’m taking over the operations from now, sorry.” He went over to the holo-projector and downloaded the data to his helmet’s system.
He felt the weight of a hand on his shoulder but didn’t bother turning around.
“Ullia, please just calm down and let me do this.”
“It’s time we had a talk.” It was Jusik. How could he be that confused and distracted? “Outside, now.”
There wasn’t much room left for choice. Biran complied if only to get it over with and perhaps get to an understanding with the boy that he wasn’t in charge anymore. Or he’d have his chance to express what he really felt about his kind. Jusik nodded at the Null on his way out, he was about to follow them.
Once outside they were greeted with an icy wind and the glare of the setting sun blinded Biran. Jusik stood with fists on his hips and stared at the ground for a moment.
“I believe we can find a common ground, but we have to work together.”
“My apologies if I have a hard time believing what I’m seeing.” Biran looked him up and down. “You jetiise believe in nothing other than your own powers. People like us - anybody who don’t adhere to your ethics mean nothing. This is what I think, Jusik: you get your kicks at this game of deception. Being the only Jedi wearing beskar, that must feel pretty awesome.”
He expected him to look smug and unbothered by the attack, instead he just stood there staring at the horizon, like a sad and tired man.
“It does,” he eventually said. “But once you know it’s a reality, that most people in the galaxy pose no threat to you, it changes everything. Now tell me…” He reached behind his back and revealed a metallic cylinder that looked all too familiar to Biran. The emerald-colored beam of light ignited in a piercing shriek, and Jusik lifted it in the air menacingly. “Why do you think I still have this?”
“Oh, I know this one.” He tried to ignore the humming of the deadly laser blade. “This is where you prove to me that you’ll kill anything on your path to get what you want. Or you’ll slice my head off but that would be stupid, Runa would kill you then.”
“No.” He turned it off. “This keeps me in line. I built it because I vowed to protect the innocent, that was no choice of mine, it’s a responsibility. Carrying it is the only way to live with myself.”
“So this is why you won’t back down. You think it’s your duty to save my daughter and… in extension to that, earn my trust. Well that worked on my ex-wife, but if we’re going any further together I’m going to expect nothing but outstanding work and transparency.”
He heard engines that started running, a speeder moved out of the bunker-like hangar with the clones onboard. Jusik walked in their direction while talking.
“I know you blame me for what’s gone wrong so far, and you’d be right. So you have to let me fix it.”
They got in the back seats of the vehicle and it went off towards what Biran guessed was the outpost.
“What did you leave Ullia to?”
“She insisted on staying home,” replied the younger clone. “We gave her a link and a remote tracking monitor. Curiously she didn’t want to be in the way.”
“No that’s sounds like her. What’s your name by the way, son?”
“I’m Fi and that’s Ordo.”
The Null nodded in a silent greeting. “So it looks like we’re all going to get along, aren’t we?”
Biran felt bad about judging Jusik right then. The boy really fought for himself out there while they all had bigger concerns. Defending his morals at the cost of looking stupid, it was so much what Jedi did.
“We’re good,” Biran replied. “Putting our differences aside for a higher purpose.”
“That’s what I like to hear,” Ordo cheered in his helmet.
Jusik equipped his own buy’ce, adjusted the straps on his leg plates and loading his Verpine rifle, as methodically as a soldier prepping for battle. Biran did the same and took the quiet opportunity to memorize the blue prints of the outpost. It was an exercise he had a little more trouble doing as each year that passed but as a team or squad he couldn’t let his age fail his comrades.
The red faintly blinking dot told where Runa was located at that moment.
“Do we have her vitals?” he asked.
“That tracker doesn’t provide them,” said Jusik. He paused a moment, head tilted down. “But I sense she’s alive.”
“Good to know,” interjected Fi.
Something pinched at Biran’s heart, although not because he felt embarrassed at bashing Jusik earlier for being a mystic. From his readings he learned that Jedi could detect life forms and have spiritual connections with sentient beings, especially the ones related to them personally. So, Jusik had that link with his daughter which meant that he cared. But did he care enough to break his code and risk falling to the dark side? Would he really sacrifice his own life for her?
Biran would, and he found himself hoping Jusik would make the wiser decision.