Pinning down Death Watch agent Joral Tirron in his beskar refinery was one thing, but getting an operation running to arrest him was a whole other. Ori stood in the factory's staff break room with basically no solid guarantee to even get close to Tirron since he had no warrant from the local governor – in this case, Demako – and no back-up.
The tall man fully dressed in mercenary armor entered after a good half hour during which Ori couldn't have sat down without asking for someone to pull him up again. Tirron sported the T-visored helmet worn by all members of the Mandalorians, but also by the majority of the Death Watch. The black and silver paint of his kit made him look strangely elegant for his profession. Arms and slave dealer.
“Hah, I see you're liking your new uniform,” he shot at Ori, removing his helmet to reveal the rugged face of a battle-worn fifty year-old. “You're the new sheriff in town I keep hearing about, right? About time you showed up.”
Ori, caught off guard, removed his own helmet and tried to keep a calm expression on his face.
“You're not exactly the easiest man to track down.”
He followed Tirron into his office, a room like the first one with more clutter and a desk that didn't leave much space to actually work at it.
“You Imps think you have it all figured out,” he sighed. There was a chair with a box of flimsi files on it, Tirron used it to prop his left foot while he sat on the table. “What do you want?”
Ori went for his datapad. He noted Tirron's eyes following his hand as it brushed too close to his SE-14r blaster. He'd left the E-11 at the barracks but showing up unarmed was out of the question.
“We Imps want our allies where we can find them... Just in case.” He showed him the small touch-screen that displayed a series of faces from the missing persons list in Keldabe. “I believe some of these look familiar to you.”
Skeptically, Tirron grabbed the pad, extracted a pair of spectacles from a belt pouch and mounted them on his nose. He looked more friendly in a strange way all of the sudden.
“Some clan names ring a bell, but what do you want me to say, Captain? Half of the people on this planet are related to each other.”
“So you won't mind if I take a tour of your facilities?”
The man handed back his datapad and opened a drawer across his desk. He found a set of keys, the old kind and stood up, glaring him down defiantly.
Ori tried his best to ignore the despising tone of voice, the overly contempt attitude and the fact that none of the other Death Watch guards in the factory were showing their faces. In fact, the only people who didn't wear armor were the factory workers. Foraging mechanics, smelters, blacksmiths, and finally the armorers. All of them from various places in the galaxy, of different humanoid species – there was even a Rodian in there – men, women in plain clothes that did very little to hide their weak underfed bodies. Ori wanted to look away when they stared warily at him, some talked amongst each other. Others were too tired to pay attention.
“Like what you see?” Tirron climbed up a flight of metallic stairs. A masked mercenary guard let them walk passed him on the catwalk, carelessly holding a shotgun slugthrower across his shoulder. “Half of these were probably insurgents when we recruited them. Now they could all be insurgents for all I care. They're here doing some good and that's where we want them. Don't we, Captain?”
Ori abstained from commenting as he monitored the mapping software that recorded his every step, looking for every turn and any exit point he might need to find on short notice. He was way under-equipped to handle any sort of hostilities here, even with his new armor there was no point in acting like a hero.
As Tirron led him towards an enclosed room he caught sight of the armor manufacturing line. Shiny silver plates of beskar pressed and shaped by machines he'd never seen before. Ori recognized the Stormtrooper breastplate, even without the white coat of paint. It almost looked too easy but he assumed that was part of the secret mando'a technique for smelting alloy.
"I suppose you wouldn't mind that I have a chat with your armorers?" he casually asked, then stepped in before Tirron into another office.
"Too much chafing?" the mercenary retorted mockingly.
He removed his helmet and looked through the wide window pane, they had a partial view of the factory lines.
"Exactly. We're not all clones, some of us will want to be able to sit down."
Tirron mulled the thought over. There wasn't much room for improvisation, more Death Watch men were coming in the small room, battered outfits and weapons dangling from holsters and slings. Ori looked at his handheld again, zeroing on the Mandalorian worker he needed to find.
"Ah, our customer," A Death Watch merc took his helmet off to reveal a dark-skinned face with markings tattooed on his temples. "What's this? More orders?"
"Our shiny white friend needs to investigate our employees," Tirron replied, not without a smile of contempt. "Seemingly there's a very real threat to overthrow the regime."
They all stared at Ori. He suddenly felt very young and defenseless, facing these grizzled space gangsters. His training however, and force of habit made him carry on like he'd be dealing with petty thieves instead. He had to get down there and find his target.
"I'll be brief," he stated. "The sooner I find my suspect the quicker you'll be going about your business."
They agreed to have him wander on the floors of the workshops without an escort. Guards watched him from the catwalks and from above in the surveillance room. The people doing detail jobs on the armor plates were all male, middle-aged and Human. Silence settled between the sound of hydraulic tools and hammers as Ori walked by. He checked the picture on the datapad, thinking he had the name and file wrong, then surprisingly he saw a young face across a workbench. The individual couldn't have been older than thirty, though with stains of dirt and grease it was hard to tell. He slid a wide plate of iron over a high-density metal cutter, sending sparks all over, paying attention to nothing but his work.
Ori approached with caution, observing the precise trim following the straightest line he'd seen a man produce into such a resistant piece of armor. There wasn't even a template on the thing.
There was no mistake, it was him, but Ori needed him and others to notice that he wasn't there as a tourist. The young man lifted steel blue eyes up from his bench and stopped the machine.
"Yes," he said. Fierfek, he really was young. Ori wondered if he'd been making beskar his entire life.
"I'm Lieutenant Ori Dohagh." He showed the boy his handheld. "Someone is looking for you."
The screen showed the single picture of a woman with a military buzz cut, about fifty years of age, red and gold Mandalorian garb for outfit. Ithan reached for it but too late. Ori needed to conceal the image quickly before a guard could see it, too. He expected to see hope, even sadness on the young man's face but there was nothing. Not even anger.
"What happened to her?" he asked.
Ori raised an eyebrow at his very neutral tone. Did Tenja forget to mention a mental condition of his? He decided to ignore it and get the job done.
"I'm meeting her in an hour in Enceri," he replied. "You're coming with me."
Again, no display of emotion at the idea of walking out of that hell hole. Ithan simply let his tools and materials on the table, wiped his hands on his apron and obediently preceded him on their way out. Ori placed his helmet back on his head, and sighed with disbelief. So, what if Tenja had omitted details about her adopted son's behavior, it was still someone from the inside and he could help with the covert operation against the Death Watch plan to corrupt Mandalore. He only hoped that whatever trauma he'd endured wouldn't affect his memory.
Aboard the two-seat landspeeder he had brought for the occasion, Ori risked a glance at his passenger.
"Am I free now?" asked the young man. He was suspicious but also seemed eager to return home.
"Not sure about that yet," replied Ori. "Depends on what your clan decides to do about the Death Watch, and I need to earn their trust, for now. Be prepared to see that place again very soon."
The ride out to Enceri was a silent one, despite Ori's attempts to make conversation. After all, a slave couldn't open up so easily to someone wearing the enemy's uniform. Who was he kidding? Ori was the enemy. He practically occupied the planet and his function helped send more people into those work camps. He drove faster towards the small city in order to catch some daylight. The pale lad probably needed it, too.
Parking the speeder in the lot outside the market street drew a lot of T-visored glances his way. Ori wasted no time; a Stormtrooper officer leading what looked like an obvious prisoner was calling for a bigger throw down than the troubles he'd had a week ago at the same location. He hoped with all his guts that Ithan would follow his steps without the need of restraints or being held by the hand. Jaw clenched and eyes forward, it was exactly what Ithan did.
Tenja resided at the inn where she also did most of her day-to-day business with her clan. Being the matriarchal figure in that part of town helped, and he found no trouble on his way in, this time. She met them in a private lounge area, all doors locked before the small family reunion could happen. Two of her other children were there as well.
"You made it," said one of them, though Ori couldn't tell who was who.
The mother went to embrace Ithan as soon as she saw him, and maybe it was the ease with which Ori had managed to extract the kid, but not a lot was said and their reactions were discrete at best.
"Go upstairs and clean up," said Tenja to her son, voice tight. "Ori, you're welcome to stay for dinner."
It was an order, Ori knew better than to refuse hospitality from a Mandalorian. Also he understood that dinner in this case meant briefing.
Tenja grabbed the helmet from his hands and inspected it pensively.
"Such a sad looking bucket for a soldier of an empire. You still believe you can do good from that side of the fence?"
"I'm still alive, aren't I?" He believed on the other hand, that more people would have tried to kill him if he was of no use for anyone on Mandalore so far. "That's thanks to you."
"You freed my son from slavery when no one else would," she replied, matter-of-factly, and tossed the helmet back at him. "Just saying that you picked the wrong uniform."
She watched her two other children leave towards the entrance lobby.
"Your kids are awfully quiet," he remarked. "Is there something I should know?"
"They don't trust you," she said after a pause.
"When you were just doing a cop's job, for a moment we thought of you as somewhat useful. Now we're waiting for you to make a decision."
He could very well imagine a hidden ultimatum behind that statement and he smiled cockily at the woman. Whatever challenges lied ahead, he was ready to take them on. They could always kill him if they weren't happy with him.
About an hour later, the inn was closed and he found himself surrounded with mando'ade, armored men and women from either the Redd and the Skirata clans. In his white Stormtrooper dress outfit he couldn't stand out more if he had been the only Bantha in a herd of Dewbacks. Luckily for him, Bardan and Runa also attended the meeting, bringing Aresu with them. They all wore their trademark beskar'gam which was the norm if one wanted to look inconspicuous. They kept him company before dinner, which Ori was grateful for.
"It's kind of a party in your honor," Runa said, smiling as she nursed a glass of ale. "Everybody wants to know you now, since you can get in and out of every Death Watch building if you want to."
"Someone cut her off!" A tall red and grey armored middle-aged clone interjected, himself with an alcoholic cocktail in his hands. Ori could tell them apart now; this was Fi. "Women only speak to get us into trouble, am I right?"
"How would I know?" replied Ori. "They always confuse me with someone else."
As he said so he noticed some voices raising around one corner of the diner, shouting Oya! and giving praise to one particular mando'ad. Ori stretched his neck to see a Mandalorian bucket being lifted off a light blond-headed young man. Ithan was showered with affectionate pats and hand-to-elbow clasps. This time, he was smiling. The armor was his true outfit, not the slave's apron. And his own beskar was of a subtle mix of black, green and copper ornaments.
"I think that's the one we're celebrating," spoke Jusik, his face showing a certain amount of skepticism, shared by Aresu. "These people will never forget what you are," he continued. "In the end, it's all about the family."
Ori stared at him, perplexed, trying to guess what kind of troubles he'd had when joining the Skiratas. A former Jedi surely didn't find his place right away in a band of mercenaries. Runa looked at him, too, and she took her husband's hand, almost hiding it as if public displays of affection were forbidden in their culture. Which, he knew, was not the case.
When the conversations settled Ithan walked across the room to reach Ori's group and instantly locked eyes with him. It was a little awkward.
"I realize I didn't thank you for taking me home," he said with a pause. "Thank you."
Brow raised, Ori accepted his hand shake. "You're welcome."
They all watched him quietly for a couple of long seconds.
"If you want me to modify your armor one day all you need to do is ask."
Ori wasn't sure he could. A twenty year-old was making beskar armor and his family had let him rot in a Death Watch factory for years. There was something wrong with that picture.
"As long as it stays in the standard issued white."
"You have no intentions to leave the Empire, then?"
It was as direct a question as could be, everyone was expecting to know his plans. Ori sucked air in to think of a simple answer.
"I'll stay where I am as long as I'm useful."
He caught Aresu's brown eyes driven on Ithan, then towards him.
"What if Death Watch finds out that Ithan isn't at your base, but here instead? You'll have to go rogue eventually."
"Yeah, I'm not letting that happen."
She squinted at him. "They could be everywhere. We don't know half of the people in this room."
"I've been away for so long that even I have my doubts," interjected Ithan, "but it's my clan and if they're loyal to me they'll have to trust you, too."
"Pardon my callousness," Jusik asked, "but for how long have you been part of the Redd?"
"Five years. I had no life of my own until then, Tenja helped gain more humanity, so to speak."
A shade of a smirk could be seen on Ithan's face.
"Speak to her some time. Now if you'd all excuse me, I need to rest. I assume I will see you tomorrow, Captain."
When Ithan was out of earshot, Ori felt a nudge in the back of his neck. Bardan leaned in slightly.
"Weird kid." He followed him from the corner of his eyes.
"It's almost like," Aresu began, but muted herself with an index finger across her lips. "Never mind."
Runa nodded, deep in thought.
"He seems to be doing well considering what he'd just gone through."
"He's mando, after all." Fi gave a short sigh. "Maybe Tenja hit him too hard on the head for all we know."
Ori always tried to ignore third-party commentaries to favor his own judgment of the individuals he encountered, however strange or suspicious they may be. The evening went on with a dinner of spicy soup and dumplings. They all gathered around a table to eat and share drinks. Tenja was a quiet leader; her guests were given most of the attention and she'd only speak to give advice or make suggestions. Despite her thuggish appearance she was a real diplomat. She listened attentively when Ori described the structure of the factory, when someone wanted to interrupt him she would shut them up with a wave. He then briefed them on the guards and their firepower.
"Looks like they have more concerns about people getting out than coming in," said Fi.
"We have to treat this as a hostage situation," concluded Eledan, one of Tenja's taller sons. He had decorative tattoos on either side of his shaven skull. "As long as we still have people inside, we can't risk a full blown attack on the Death Watch."
"But how do we secure them all?" It was a Zabrak from another clan which name Ori couldn't recall. "Using the same mole twice would be kind of pushing it."
So he was a mole now. Ori stared the Mandalorian Zabrak down with what he hoped was disapproval on his face.
"We're not sending back Ori," Tenja replied. "First we're going to make sure they're not looking for Ithan which won't be easy. Secondly, there has got to be a flaw or defect in the plant that could be used against them. Ori, do you have enough pull with the Governor to get the operation to shut down?"
It was simply the best plan he could imagine, but impossible.
"It would have to be a huge flaw," he said, then nodded. "I'll need some time to come up with an expertise group and tangible evidence to launch an investigation."
"Ithan could sabotage the armor designs," added someone to his left. It was Daidra, the oldest of Tenja's daughters. Her long auburn hair flowed freely over her dark green beskar. "He knows how everything works in there already, and he won't get caught since he's the best armorer they could ever have."
Ori spotted movement across the table.
"You'd send your brother back in?" Jusik asked, almost accusingly.
Eledan Redd seemed to jump at his sister's rescue.
"He's aware that we'll never get peace of mind until all of the mando'ade are free from the Death Watch. Whatever happens to him from now will be for a greater purpose."
Ori would have applauded the speech, but he'd have done so if it had come out of Ithan's own mouth. Even if the kid was off-putting, he felt slightly angered by the ease with which his family was ready to sacrifice him. Was he even aware of that decision? Even Tenja was awkwardly silent. He felt relieved that Jusik was taking the matter in his hands.
"You're dismissing the off-chance that in case of a manufacturing problem the Empire would decide to terminate the whole of the armory workers, then? With their funds they could hire anyone else to take over, now that they have the templates."
"Well," Daidra crossed her arms on the table, "we're not waiting for the natural reserves of beskar to run out, are we?"
Jusik completely ignored the sarcasm. "What happened with the original plan to eliminate Joral Tirron?"
"The game has changed," said Eledan. "With Tirron dead, Demako will get his hands everywhere in our business. At least with guys like Tirron we can still live in our own homes."
Fi put his fists on the table and stared him down with contempt. "You mean the so-called neutral clans with your big farms and all your connections."
"Let's keep our options clear," Tenja finally stepped in. "Whoever keeps us from our goal will be eliminated, no exceptions. I say it's time we set our political views aside and think of what is best for our people. For now, we have friends and family being held against their will in labor camps. I think we have enough intel to actually step in and take them back ourselves."
"You know that this would only declare war on the Death Watch," retorted Daidra.
"Udesii, ad'ika." Tenja stood from her seat and looked at everyone at the table. "If a war is declared we won't be the ones fighting it. Fenn Shysa and his boys will have to deal with the consequences of their sloppy actions. Let's sleep over it, tomorrow will be a new day and Captain Dohagh will have work to do. Those who have a long road ahead are welcome to stay the night. Meeting adjourned."
They reluctantly left the table, minus some who were still finishing their bowl of soup. For his part, Ori needed to confer with his friends. He found Bardan talking in hushed tones to his wife while Aresu was sorting through a carry-all pack on the floor.
"It's his decision," Bardan was saying, "whether or not he loses his cover this operation would put you further away from Devik. The best you can do is stay out of it."
Ori, catching the gist of what was being said, cleared his throat and they both turned to face him.
"I have schematics of the factory on my tracker, if any of you are thinking of sleeping over we could work on a joint operation. Also, I could use the help of a mind-reader while I chat with Ithan."
He watched a troubled Jusik steering his eyes away from him as Runa mustered a reply.
"You know I'm counting on you to keep me in contact with my brother from time to time," she said warily. "With you out of the picture it would be difficult... We would all miss you."
"So you disapprove of the operation against the Death Watch?"
"I'm saying that you should remain safe, and be the wiser person. It's a war between Mandalorians and the Death Watch, the Empire can stay where it is."
Once again he was put in a position to question where he really belonged. He looked over at Jusik to study his reaction.
"Is that your opinion as well?"
The former Jedi propped his hands on his hips, earnest.
"Well it depends on how far you actually want to go with us. If you really want the Journeyman Protectors to rule Mandalore again, then by all means go ahead and fight the Death Watch. Wear the armor, defect from the Empire. Because there will be a day when all Imperials will have to choose between leaving or destroying us all. The longer you keep this uniform around us, the harder it will be to stay friends. You'll have to make a decision, no half measures."
"Either way, we will help you the best we can," he added after a pause, as if to let his words sink in. He turned to Runa. "I'll stay the night, you and Aresu can go home--"
"I'm staying." The young woman spoke before he could finish.
Jusik slowly blinked in a lack of surprise, silently interrogating Aresu.
"You don't have to worry about me," she sighed and said in a dull tone of voice, "I'm a grown-up, and if you don't trust me then ask Ori to play chaperon."
"Are you asking me to let you handle this yourself?" he retorted with a hint of a smile.
It had appeared to Ori that Aresu was well aware of the entanglements in the situation, and she was no stranger to him after all. He didn't doubt her abilities to see through deceptions but he cared about her impact on the Redd clan. She wasn't exactly mando yet, let alone a Skirata. Jusik had done such a great job at protecting her from potential bounty hunters that no one really knew who she was.
"You know I can take care of myself," she told her foster parents. She brushed a lock of black hair away from her lips and gave Runa a warm hug.
Jusik nodded, satisfied at the sight of Aresu's confidence.
"We're picking you up in the morning," he said, grabbing his helmet from a nearby table. "And Ori... No funny business."
Whatever Jusik had meant by that last statement, he was sure it had something to do with the fact that Aresu was a little too attractive a young female to be left alone among male strangers. He wondered if Jusik would ever let the girl live her own life someday if he kept protecting her from the outside.
When Jusik and Runa were gone, Ori went back in the lounge area with Aresu. He checked his wrist chrono.
"I need to be back to my base in the morning, this doesn't leave us much time to extract whatever I can from Ithan tonight. Somehow I'm not sure we should trust his siblings to do that."
Daidra Redd walked towards them, her eyes insisting on Aresu before setting on Ori.
"Always a pleasure to share our roof with newcomers," she said with a voice just sarcastic enough to remain polite. "The vacant rooms are on the third floor, there is clean bedding in the storage closet upstairs. Make yourselves at home."
Ori noted her smirk of contempt. Aresu stood with her shoulders up and called out to her.
"We still have a lot of work to do and sleeping is probably out of the question, so you might want to take care of the room service yourself until we actually need it."
"Woah." Ori extended an arm in front of her, failing to cut short of her speech since Daidra was coming back for a retort. He stepped forward and decided to change the subject. "Forgive the kid, she's a little awkward with people she doesn't know. Can you please get Ithan to talk with us for a moment? We need to corroborate our stories for my report."
The two females dueled with stares. If Aresu didn't back down he wasn't sure it would be a situation he could defuse.
"Very well," answered Daidra. Obviously she was better at controlling her emotions than Aresu. "Keep your pet on a tight leash."
She left the same instant. Ori faced his new side-kick and took a deep breath.
"Where did that come from? You want me to call your father so he can pick you up right now?"
Aresu raised an eyebrow. "Didn't you hear the way she spoke to us?"
"She was testing you, maybe people here aren't as coddling and friendly as the Skiratas. You need to be careful, kid."
"Do not call me that, Ori."
He backed up slightly and felt himself back in training again, giving a pep-talk to a hard-headed recruit. But he couldn't shout to her face, ordering push-ups or telling her what a worthless maggot she was without him. Aresu was no soldier, he didn't really know how he was supposed to treat her.
They were allowed to use the manager's office to sit down with Ithan. He had ridden himself of his Mandalorian attire and wore plain clothing designed for indoor activities. Ori wouldn't imagine himself wearing them out of bed. But his face was clean and hair neatly combed. Despite his long day he didn't seem sleepy or tired. He sat behind the desk with his hands crossed over the counter, waiting to be interrogated.
"I need you to review this data." Ori placed a chip with his map recordings right in front of Ithan, and remained standing. "You can add notes and modifications to what you see. But first I need you to answer some questions."
Ithan looked at the chip, then back at him. From her seat right opposite from him, Aresu didn't miss a spec of his movements. Her face was pinched in concentration.
"If information is what you need, I can tell you all I know," he said flatly.
Then his blue eyes fell onto Aresu. Ori knocked on the tabletop with his knuckles to get his attention back, which he was given but slower than expected. Was Ithan being condescending?
"How did you end up being captured by Tirron's men?"
A thought crept up Ori's mind, but he ignored it.
"I was working at the market one morning when my colleagues and I were asked to relocate. We were told it was for better profit and business wasn't very good that year. After discussing the matter amongst each other we decided it was better than leaving Mandalore to hunt for bounties."
"You're lying," blurted out Aresu, legs and arms crossed in an impatient posture. "You're not who you claim to be. Explain yourself."
Ori felt his blood travel faster up his arteries, she got up before he was ready to do or say anything else and she somehow got him backed up against the door.
"Leave me with him for five minutes," she said, almost whispering. "Something's not right about him. I think he's--"
"A Jedi?" Surprised at his own impulse, he regretted speaking the word as soon as he heard himself say it.
"No," she replied, perplexed. "Something similar. I just can't put my finger on it."
"Well, I'm certainly not leaving you alone with him now." He pushed her gently out of his way. "Let me do the talking."
Ithan's impassible behavior hadn't changed. Either he was doing a very good job at hiding who he really was, or he couldn't give a womprat's backside about their conversation. Ori was in his element now: retrieving intel from an unknown individual, making clean slate of what he knew and treating the person as a suspect.
"Are you Death Watch?"
It was a test question. He observed his face carefully for signs of deception; a flicker of an eyelid, a nervous smile or a lip bite. Ithan looked at him with calm and confidence before saying no. His forehead was devoid of any lines and his mouth as still as his eyes. Something was wrong.
Aresu fidgeted behind him but Ori silenced her with an index up. He wasn't done.
"How exactly did you come to join the Mandalorian blacksmiths?"
"I learned from observation, and practiced until I was good enough." This time he seemed eager to convince with his answer. But his eyes were always unblinking. He never blinked. "Everybody need a job. I only picked what I could do best."
From what he had heard and learned in the local culture, being able to forge and work beskar was highly complex. The knowledge was fiercely kept secret and only transmitted over generations from buir to child. A newly converted mando'ad would have very small odds of learning the trade unless he was already an armorer from past experience. By judging his frame and delicate features, Ithan had nothing of the rugged physique that all others had in the Death Watch plant. He looked more like a race pilot.
"Is there any reason for you to lie to us, right now?" Ori asked, trying to sound understanding.
Ithan leaned back in his chair and his hands slid to the edge of the table. This time he seemed pensive and made a little shrug of his shoulders.
"One could remain doubtful of your loyalties as an active officer of the Empire, yet here you are... In a room with what seems to me like an obviously non-Imperial young female wearing mando armor. After you helped me out of forced labor I can't think of a reason to lie to you." He directed his icy gaze onto Aresu. "Why did you say that I'm concealing my identity?"
She leaned on the back of the chair to look straight at him, yet keeping a safe distance.
"Because I can't read you. You're completely blank. It's like your mind is shut and I can't even sense your emotions."
His lips stretched in some sort of disappointed frown and he looked down at his own hands.
"Looks like we struck a nerve there," Ori told his side-kick.
"Well," Aresu began, this time her voice went softer and she adjusted her attitude. "Tell us what's wrong with you, Ithan. How can we work together if we can't understand the way you think?"
"I could tell you, but you wouldn't believe me."
She squinted and pursed her lips at him. "Let me try something, then."
Sitting down again, she reached for one of his hands and kept it between her own for a few seconds, taking a couple of deep breaths, then she closed her eyes. Ori came closer to see what was happening.
"As I said," Ithan slowly pulled his hand away. "This must be useless to you because I'm not a biological sentient being, but a human replica android."
At first thinking he was hearing a joke, Ori began scoffing but as he watched Aresu's expression of horror and surprise he revised his reaction. Had they been talking to a droid all along? What kind of programming would make a highly believable artificial intelligence? Who was twisted enough to create such a thing if not with the intention to spy or to harm someone?
Disgusted, Aresu got up from her seat and across the room.
"Why didn't you tell us sooner?"
"People find the news rather... upsetting. I decided to keep to myself about my nature unless I'm given no other choice. It is a matter of self-preservation."
"So," Ori scratched his scalp in thought, "in all this time, the Death Watch never found out?"
Ithan turned his gentle face to him again, this time he seemed more robotic now that Ori knew, his facial motions were a definite giveaway. He – it – could only display a certain range off emotions at one given time.
"When my creator designed me it was with the clear intent to simulate a functioning human body. I can breathe, eat, drink, evacuate waste and even bleed in small amounts. There are no others like me since I was made after the deceased son of the first people who owned me."
"What happened then?"
"When they both died of illness I ran off." Ithan frowned slightly, reminiscing what seemed to be a painful time. "I was being tracked down by people who'd have heard of my creator's work in Human Replica technologies."
"Who here knows about you?" asked Aresu who was more relaxed now.
"Tenja, of course. And the rest of my family. I serve their interests so they understand the benefit of keeping me a secret."
"Yet, they let you get captured by the Death Watch." She gave Ori a short glance. "Did the Redds make a deal with Joral Tirron? Peace in exchange for you?"
The Human Replica in front of them seemed to take a grave moment to think. Normally, a computerized intelligence would need virtually no reflexion time before coming up with a precise and accurate answer. Ori imagined that Ithan's neural links were using different mathematics, maybe was his electronic brain playing around with emotional factors and behavioral processes before speaking out.
"If that were the case," he finally answered, "we would all be in danger of retaliation. I would have to return to the factory and resume my work as if nothing had happened."
"Are you prepared for that?" Ori asked him.
"As much as I can be, though I wish it wasn't the only course of action."
Aresu was sitting down again, and crossed her legs to regain composure. She looked very much an adult to Ori right that instant.
"Was is it that you wish, Ithan?"
"Is the question about my hopes or about what I want to be given in the more practical sense?"
"It can be both."