Lifeboat

Lifeboat

 

by Karen Winter

 

"Then the Sergeant called the Numbers,
And he said, 'For what we are,
For the honor of our brothers, and the
name we earned in war,
Here we stand as we are ordered, for
defeat or victory:
Gift of Passing to the wounded, and
the dying pays us free.'"
Stormtrooper ballad

 

 

 

"K4983, Commander, Girim Base, out." Raan's voice was crisply professional, but there was more force than strictly necessary in the gesture as he punched off the com. Orders received and logged. Disaster by the numbers. If StarCenter could manage it, Raan thought, Command would demand a request-through-channels in triplicate before authorizing the heat-death of the universe. He contemplated his reflection in the dark screen of the com in front of him. A compact figure in Imperial Marines grays, with the close-cropped auburn hair and hazel eyes of a VI-Series clone, looked back.

Something close to the end of the universe IS happening out there, and if StarCenter doesn't see it, they're the only ones. We're losing this one. Raan felt a chill along his spine. His options were rapidly being closed off, and the tactician in him disapproved of the situation intensely. His glance swept across fieldgray office walls, uncluttered by the usual mementoes of a commander's climb through the ranks, to settle on the room's one decorative object: a scale model of the EXECUTOR and, behind it, an official holo of Lord Darth Vader as Fleet Supreme Commander. He studied the uncommunicative metal breathmask for a moment before keying on the interoffice comchannel. "Is Cjarin here yet?"

"Yes, Commander."

"Good. Send her in."

The Panothan entered, flowing over charcoal-plush carpet with her tip-toe predator's walk. She appeared to have anticipated him. In addition to the standard Auxiliaries uniform and regulation blaster she wore, Cjarin had added the wristguards and elaborately patterned gorget indicating imminent battle in her culture. Raan found himself wondering again how the golden-furred hominid continually came up with correct conclusions, based on top-secret information she evidently extracted from thin air. It was a professional talent he envied. Cjarin's ears twitched once in greeting, jingling the series of rings down the outside edge, as she came to a halt in front of Raan's polished-metal desk. She did not salute. Cjarin was technically a civilian, like all Auxiliaries in the Imperial service, her rank a useful fiction for the purposes of chain-of-command.

"Well, Commander?" Cjarin's eyes glittered in her dark mask of fur.

Raan indicated the chair across from him: "Sit." Cjarin complied. "We're not getting any reinforcements."

"I can hardly say I am surprised."

"Hmm...no. I'd be surprised if you couldn't read the signs better than that." The Panothan dipped her narrow muzzle in acknowledgement, and Raan continued, "Fleet Admiral Eallen is pleased to inform us that he is 'withdrawing for strategic reasons to a more defensible position.'"

"Fleet Admiral Eallen is well-known for his...discretion." Cjarin's whiskers quivered. "Well. And?"

"Our orders stand. Garrison is to hold this planet and harass the enemy from behind his lines 'by any effective means to the best of our ability.'"

"I don't suppose our valiant admiral gave you a cutoff point for unacceptable losses?"

"Eallen knows my command's all clonetroops."

"Ah," said Cjarin, "Of course. Expendable." Her muzzle wrinkled in the hint of a snarl. "As are all of us not centerworlds, no doubt, to Admiral Eallen." Her ears canted forward. "All this is most interesting, but perhaps you could come directly to the point?"

"I thought you Intelligence types were supposed to be crafty and devious," Raan said, smiling. Cjarin hissed softly in amusement. "I'll do my best to limit it to a strictly military operation, but you know the rebels. If it comes to a full-scale invasion, civilians will be involved. There may be extensive irregular activity on the ground, small groups acting independently on their own initiative."

"Partisans, Commander?"

"Imperial Irregulars. I want one of my people in there and in charge." ...not some amateur with no experience, no matter how loyal and eager, Raan added to himself. And Cjarin's the best. "Congratulations," he cocked an ironic eyebrow at the Panothan. "You are now head of irregular counter-insurgency ops on Girim – if and when."

Cjarin gave a little half-bow, whiskers quivering delicately. "My thanks, Commander. So good of you."

"First," Raan continued briskly, "I want a complete inventory of what's available down in the settlement: every power pack, every concentrate cube, every handblaster and sportlaser and fusioncutter – everything, down to the last damned gardening trowel and kitchen knife. But keep it subtle. We don't want a panic. Then –" He broke off as Cjarin stirred and held up a paw.

"You do not get by me that easily." The Panothan rose to her feet and paced across the floor, flexing her claws. Raan saw fur rise along her backbone. "This does not smell like any of my lord Vader's doing. He has never abandoned a position held by his own troops without an attempt at support, and he has never asked civilians to fight his battles. What aren't you telling me?"

Lead settled in Raan's belly. Voicing the news aloud gave it an awful reality. If it got out, he thought, there would be panic. He looked into Cjarin's chrysolite gaze as she paused in her relentless pacing; this was a being Lord Vader had trusted to carry his secrets. "His Lordship is no longer in command of this sector. He was MIA during the action over Endor, and is presumed dead. That's all I got from Central." Cjarin was suddenly very still. Only the tip of her tail flicked slightly from side to side. Raan's hands closed with bruising force over the gray metal surface under them. "His Lordship never could learn to fight from behind a desk. Unfortunately."

"Well," said Cjarin, tail flicking. A pause. "Well."

There was a dull constriction growing in Raan's chest. Only the dying pays us free, he thought: a wisp of memory from lessons in 'cantling-barracks. The commander to whom his death was owed had died in battle without his sworn man at his back. A thought rose in spite of all Raan's efforts to ignore it: perhaps if he had been at Lord Vader's back.... No; to accept that would destroy him. Raan swallowed hard, regaining surface calm.

Cjarin was watching him, head cocked to one side. "You and I are here under orders, Commander," she said. Obedience is all that matters, Raan heard unspoken in Cjarin's words. Obedience released her from all responsibility. He knew she did not understand his fear of the death, unreleased by his commander, that would send him into final dissolution, severed from his Series's clonesoul, without hope of return in the next decanting.

"Be at peace, bladebonded," Cjarin said. Her purring accent deepened, shifting into formal cadence. "I will send my Lord Vader many rebel souls to feed him beyond the Dark, before he takes my own death. It will be good to hunt rebel game again. Truly, I feared I was doomed to die in my bed, and that is no death for a hunter, even by my Lord Vader's order. I await your word." She laid the tips of her fingers on her dagger's hilt.

Raan was aware of the comforting bulk of a Panothan honor-dagger in its sheath in his high uniform boot, the knife given to him by Cjarin to hold her pledge. Raan dropped into his heavily-accented Panothan with what he hoped was the correct response. The words felt awkward on his tongue, and Cjarin stirred as they fell ungracefully between the two. She shook herself in a rippling movement from head to foot, settling her fur into smoothness, as the rings in her ears jangled with a soft, discordant sound.

"I await your word, Commander," she said in Galactic, and turned to leave.

When she had gone, Raan pushed back his desk chair and walked over to the wide window of his office. The forcefield was down, and the sweet, dusty smell of early summer drifted in on a warm wind. Windows like a docking-bay, thought the base commandant; a perimeter-field that's a joke; not even a trench for a ground assault. Never thought we'd have to defend ourselves against anything worse than a few Girimir with spears. "Girim base" – it's an administration building for a damned civilian research station. Why did you send your Guard here, my Lord?

Raan fell automatically into parade-rest as he looked out over yellow tallgrass flowing on, unbroken, toward the violet smudge of distant mountains on the other side of the wide valley. At this season, the vast herds of flathorns and the Girimir who hunted them were far away. The Imperial settlement, built of dun adobe and local stone, below on the slope of the foothills, was all but invisible, earthcolor except where docking pads gaped at the sky and a few acres of cultivated land showed the alien offworld green of new crops. Distant sounds of a cultivator reached him, and a damp smell of freshly-turned earth. A thrill of fear rose in him out of deepconditioned agoraphobia, out of a lifetime in clonebarracks' crowded warrens and Fleet's narrow gray corridors, out of the pervasive memory of recycled air full of clonevoices and the rattle of armor, the tang of metal and massed humanity. With a familiar twisting rush, fear became exhilaration as he fought it down, savoring his conquest like a battlefield victory.

Vader's absence leapt at Raan out of the open space like a predator. With it came a ghostly afterimage in his forcesense of what had been his lord's force-signature, like the dark after a bright flash of light. Raan closed his eyes as nausea swept over him. He opened them again, and his vision caught on the white of trooperarmor in sunshine. On the parade ground just downslope from headquarters, a squad of his infantry clonetroopers were going through drill, silent and precise as automatons under the scrutiny of their massive VIII-clone sergeant. From where Raan stood, they did look like droids: faceless killing machines, programmed on automatic.

It had been easier in armor.

A peacetime garrison to hold this planet against the rebels – behind their lines, with Fleet in a rout and no hope of reinforcements...(Eallen, you fool)...and with his Lordship missing-and-presumed – A despairing thought of surrender half-formed at the back of his mind and slammed against a barrier at the deepest level of his conditioning. He recoiled from it, shaken. For all the years he had worn Imperial grays on Lord Vader's sufferance, he had been decanted into the rigid mold of that white armor, and some things were literally unthinkable. You know what the rebels do to any clones who don't manage to suicide after capture. Mindwipe. His skin crawled at the thought. "We'll hold it," Raan murmured. Or die trying. He turned away from the window, strode over to the desk, and keyed on the interoffice comchannel. "Have my driver bring my speeder around."

 

 

####

 

 

"Do you see anything yet, Sir?"

Raan lowered his binoculars and promptly regretted it. Glare off his military speeder's hood and his driver's helm was blinding. Sweat was beginning to trickle down his back under his dress grays as the sun climbed toward meridian, dust thrown up by the antigrav clogged his nose, and he found himself nostalgic for the comforts of armor. He raised the binoculars again. "No, I.... Wait. Delwas: northeast about .347; must be them." Sith riding-beasts, on Girim, meant Imperial allies favored by Vader. The speeder floated over a rise and a scattering of tents became visible along a river-bend. He had found the delwas' owners.

As they approached, there was a stirring in the Girimir camp. Puffs of dust rose as warriors mounted and galloped in Raan's direction, shaking their spears fiercely and shouting in a show of ritual belligerence. At Raan's signal, his driver slowed the speeder to a crawl. Each Girimir circled it at a gallop and tapped the speeder's hull with his spear-point. As the speeder arrived at the first tent, a warrior stepped forward and lowered his spear to block the way. Raan halted.

"Who comes?"

"The captain of my lord Vader's starmen, friend to Gnirri-the-king. I will pass."

"Dismount your starbeast and walk humbly in the camp of Gnirri-the-king, by the king's command."

"I am of the king's blood, by the king's gift. I ride in the king's camp."

"Surrender your weapons, by the king's command."

"I am of the king's blood, by the king's gift. I bear weapons in the king's camp."

The Girimir warrior grounded his spear. "So be it. Pass, by the king's good will."

Ritual challenge satisfied, Raan drove slowly through the camp. The warriors who had ridden out to meet him trotted alongside on their delwas. Raan studied them with a professional eye. Their mounts were sleek and spirited, the warriors well-fleshed, the long gray-furred "feathers" on their forearms and back full and shining with good health. Fangs gleamed as Raan's escort opened mouths to pant in the summer sun. Gnirri's camp was full of signs of prosperity. Fat cubs played naked in front of freshly-painted skin tents, the smell of meat rose from bubbling cooking-pots, sounds of loud, careless voices and laughter, new clothes, and weapons were everywhere. It had been a good year for the Girimir.

Raan noticed a figure sitting cross-legged in front of one of the tents, and signalled his driver to stop. The figure uncrossed his legs and rose to his feet in one smooth motion, to stand running the strands of the bridle he had been plaiting through his fingers and eyeing Raan. Despite the knotted and embroidered clanbelt of a Girimir warrior, and the waist-length hair, it was definitely a young human male, another of the humans gone native on Girim.

"Who are you?" Raan asked.

The boy shook back his hair and draped the bridle over one shoulder to free his hands. "I am called..." He signed a gesture meaning something like "bird/mountain/warrior." Humans could not reproduce the growling click-and-whistle of Girimir language, and were reduced to the intertribal sign language.

"You have another name," Raan continued in Galactic. "What did your birth-parents call you?"

The boy's face shut like a trap. "It is forgotten."

"What is it, Yan? Who's there?" a female voice called from inside the tent. A girl ducked awkwardly through the tent-flap and straightened to stand upright. She was perhaps a year or two younger than the boy, no more than sixteen or seventeen standards. Dark eyes in a narrow face were framed by long brown hair. She was dressed in the knee-length wrap-tunic of a Girimir female, and Raan averted his eyes with a clone's queasiness at the sight of natural childbearing as he noticed that she was heavily pregnant. A human child just old enough to walk pushed through the tent-flap after her, and the girl swung him up onto her hip as Raan forced himself to look back at her, and then the young man, again.

Yan? Could this be the missing Martel child? "Don't worry, Yan; I'm not here to take you back to the settlement if you don't want to go. I'm surprised, though. I thought your father said you were going offworld to get your degree."

"Yeah. That's what he told everybody I –" Yan fell silent as he realized he had been tricked, scowling at Raan.

"Yan!" the girl said reproachfully. She put down her child and moved to stand next to him.

"Then you are Fil Martel's son. And you must be...." Raan turned to the girl.

"You don't have to tell him anything," the boy said.

"It's a little late for that, isn't it, Yan?" she said. "I'm Deanne Lacossin. Did you mean it when you said you weren't going to take us back to the settlement?"

"I don't have the authority to force you, if you don't want to go..."

"When did that ever stop you cursed whiteshells from doing anything?" Yan spat out.

"...and if those bracelets mean what I think they do," Raan continued, "Gnirri would object strongly if I kidnapped one of his warriors."

Yan's mouth tightened. "That's right. You're not taking either of us back." He drew the girl to him with a protective gesture and stood glaring at Raan.

Gnirri would probably let me have both of you if I pressed the point, as a diplomatic gesture, Raan thought, but why bother? The prompting of duty forced him to make a half-hearted effort: "Let me take the child back to his grandparents. He ought to have the chance to grow up with his own people."

"He's Girimir," Yan said.

"He's human, and you know it," Raan said, more than a little surprised to hear the bitterness in his own voice. "You have no right to deny him that, even if you don't want it."

"You don't have anything we want," Yan said. His contemptuous gesture took in the Imperial officer, his driver, and the speeder. Raan wasn't sure if he heard the subtext (you clone) in the words, or if he imagined it. He was paralyzed by a murky resentment, and could not tell if it was directed at the boy in front of him or at the Imperial Command whose uniform he wore, who would never consider him human. He turned back to his driver, and saw that the child had toddled up to the speeder. One small hand closed over the armored gauntlet the clone extended to him. With his other hand, the baby signed clumsily, "Rock? Rock?"

"J8!" Raan said around clenched teeth.

His driver dislodged the baby's hand so abruptly the child fell. His mother picked him up as he began to wail, and backed away. Raan waved his driver onward. "'Rock'" Raan muttered to himself.

"Sir?" J8782 sounded subdued, and Raan realized the driver assumed his commanding officer was annoyed with him. Just as well; it would do no good to allow his troopers to get involved with Others, even small ones.

"Nothing, J8. Carry on."

Raan followed the arc as one of his escort's delwas tossed his head upward against the molten-copper of dusty midday sky. Somewhere out there was Fleet, and the rebels, and whatever was left of Lord Vader's command. And his clonebrothers. The delwa's head swung down again, snorting into the yellow dust, as Raan's escort drew rein in front of Gnirri-the-king's tent. Raan climbed out of his speeder and went inside, leaving his driver to wait.

After the brightness outside, Gnirri's tent was amber gloom, stifling with heat and the furry smell of an alien species. A pile of embroidered skin pillows near the hearth, where Gnirri sat, was a splotch of color in the semi-darkness – vermilion, purple, emerald, cobalt. Raan stepped forward, bowed, and spread his hands to show he carried no hidden weapons. Gnirri's housecarl, standing beside the chief, shifted his spear from one hand to the other, acknowledging Raan.

"Welcome, old friend. Many kills to you," Gnirri signed. "Come and sit with me. What news of the war among the star-worlds?"

"My thanks, lord king. Many kills to you, and victory always." Raan lowered himself to the pillows and folded his legs under him. "Evil news," he signed. "Those-who-fight-against-their-rightful-lord have killed my war chief and scattered his Household."

"Alas!" Gnirri sprinkled a pinch of dust from the firepit on the back of his hand and rubbed it across his flat nose. "I mourn with you. And you?" As his vision adjusted to the light level, Raan read Gnirri's tension in the set of his ears and the widening of his pupils.

"We fight."

Gnirri relaxed and twitched his nose in the Girimir equivalent of a smile. He signaled to his wife, who brought a tray with cups of sour berry wine and little fried cakes, then moved away on silent bare feet. Raan and the Girimir king drank, exchanged cups, and drank again, then sat nibbling on the cakes for a time in silence. After a polite interval, Gnirri's hands spoke again: "You have many armored men and machines of great power. Doubtless you will win against your enemies."

"Doubtless," Raan signed. Gnirri's ears canted forward in courteous inquiry, and Raan was reminded of the similar gesture Cjarin often used. It must be the result of a similar predator evolution, Raan thought, but it was dangerously sloppy thinking to let similar body language lure him into expecting identical psychology from two different species. "but our enemies have many more men, and machines also."

"Then there will be much honor for your lord's warriors in the fighting."

"It is so." Raan knew better than to hurry the conversation, or to suggest he was asking for Gnirri's aid. They sipped wine again for a while, as the Girimir eyed Raan over his cup. At last, he put down his drink and moved his hands with deliberate casualness. "My young men have also gained much honor."

"All men know it," Raan agreed.

"So well have they fought that our enemies now fear to come against us. Many of my young men have not even blooded their spears, and so cannot take a wife to bear cubs for our people. It is a great sorrow for them. Perhaps you would be willing to share this war of yours, so that my young men may fight beside yours and gain g'hirr enough to put their mates in whelp." G'hirr was an untranslatable term, part biological, part social: below a certain level of social dominance, Girimir males and females simply were not fertile.

"It is a hard thing to ask, lord king. My men are eager to gain honor in this war also."

"Ah!" Gnirri said.

"But for the sake of the long friendship that is between my lord Vader and the people of Gnirri-the-king, and between us, I will agree." The two settled back more comfortably, now that the touchy situation had been resolved without loss of face on either side. Raan could now come openly to the point. "Will any of the tribes fight against us with those-who-fight-against-their-rightful-lord?"

"The Cahnah, and perhaps the Sorlibi. They will join with any who are enemies of Gnirri-the-king. They are small, poor tribes, without delwas or forged metal. There are no others – now. If those wicked ones come here, that may change." Gnirri twitched his nose again. "Your news is no great news, my friend. We have known of the victories of those-who-fight-against-their-rightful-lord since the season of the great fire. The kings have held council about it in the Year-meet."

"Why did you not tell me of this, lord king?"

"When the calf is suckling, let him stay by his dam. You can hunt him when his horns are grown," Gnirri quoted an old Girimir proverb. "You were not then of my pack. A certain one came to the Cahnah with news of the oathbreakers, and asked to bring one to speak before the kings in secret, saying that the oathbreakers' king was no true one, and those-who-fight-against-their-rightful-lord fought for the true king against a usurper. So it was decided that the kings would hear him, and he was put under protection of the Year-meet. I said it was ill done, but they did not hear me."

Raan nodded. He was familiar with the rule of personal immunity under protection of the Year-meet which allowed warring tribes to meet together for talk and trade once a year.

"That one sent by the oathbreakers was not well received," Gnirri continued. "She stood before our very faces and asked for help, as if we were no more than children or slaves. Many were angry, and said we should hear her no more, but some said that since the oathbreakers were only alien barbarians, no insult was meant – even that they should send a female to ask our aid. Then she promised many gifts, saying she would give our kings the machines that run on the earth, and blasters, and many other wonders such as you outworlders have. She said we would be free if we fought against the Empire of my-lord-Vader. She called us slaves." Gnirri growled softly. "A few of the young kings with no honor heard her, and wanted the machines."

"And the others?" Raan asked.

"They did not hear her. See: my-lord-Vader's Empire asks only our friendship and a place to set up a camp, and in return gives us good gifts of delwas and forged metal. I do not want the machines. They eat power we must trade for instead of our grass, and when they die, they do not return to enrich the earth. They bear no colts." Gnirri paused. "I foresee many things if those-who-fight-against-their-rightful-lord come here."

Raan waited, but Gnirri said nothing more. At last the clone prompted, "Will you tell me your fear?"

"No. To name a fear before its time is to give it teeth. I will speak of it again, perhaps, but go now."

Raan completed the polite formulas of leave-taking and ducked out through the flap of Gnirri's tent. As he emerged into the bright sunlight, he almost fell over an aala tethered to a stake by the door-pole. The naked hominid squeaked an apologetic-sounding phrase in the Girimir language as Raan passed, and scuttled back as far as its tether would allow, as one of Raan's native escort kicked it halfheartedly out of the way. It occurred to Raan that this was the first aala he had seen in Gnirri's camp on this visit. They seemed to be growing fewer every time he visited. During his first tour of duty on Girim, the miserable semi-human slave-creatures had been everywhere. Maybe some plague had wiped them out. He studied the creature as it crouched in a huddle, eyes blinking, teeth half-bared, twisting its metal chain between its hands. This specimen appeared healthy enough.

"Where are the rest of the aala? Have they all died?"

The Girimir warrior gave a shuddering movement Raan interpreted as a shrug. "Who knows? Perhaps they have gone back to the mountains to hide in the trees, or perhaps the hill-cats have eaten them all. What matter?"

"They do not serve the people of Gnirri-the-king as before?"

"No longer. Since the delwas came, we follow the game. We do not need the aala, to eat them in the cold season, or to carry the tents from one camp to another – and the delwas are easier to catch." Raan suspected this last was a joke. "Only a few of the great kings keep aala now," the Girimir went on, "for show. See how fat it is, and what a fine metal chain Gnirri-the-king has to keep it on!"

Raan's eyes went from the Girimir to the captive aala, and then came to rest on his own patient white-armored driver. He bade the Girimir warrior farewell, and stepped into his speeder.

 

 

####

 

 

It was long past dark when Raan climbed stiffly out of his speeder and headed down the corridor toward his quarters. Gnirri's analysis had been accurate. Few of the tribes he had visited seemed willing to support the rebels, but all the major kings except Gnirri had been cautious about offering fighting men to the Empire either. Native support would obviously depend on which way the wind blew if the rebels decided to land ground forces. Raan palmed open the door to his sleeproom, and sat down heavily in his chair. He accepted a cup of hot caf from his orderly, and sipped it gratefully as the trooper bent down to pull off Raan's dusty boots. Raan sensed, rather than heard, the orderly's sigh as he contemplated the ruined polish; it would take half a timepart to get a decent shine back on them. Raan gave his orderly's lowered head a fragment of a sympathetic smile. Sometimes, Raan felt, he had spent most of his career as an officer in a running battle with his recalcitrant footwear. At least he had someone else to worry about it for him now. All he had to worry about were minor things like the defense of Girim. The real, the eternal, business of Fleet from generation to generation was, as always, in the hands of the clonetroops who did the fighting...and polished the officers' boots. Raan's wry mood was broken by the sound of his roomcom. He leaned over to key it on. "Yes?"

"It's Hutsyn from the Station, Sir. He insists on seeing you at once."

"Can't it wait until morning?"

"I'm sorry, Sir. He says it's urgent."

Raan uttered a short but heartfelt expletive. "All right. Send him in." He waved his orderly away. The hell with it; Hutsyn would have to see him in his stocking feet. "That'll be all, '51."

"Sir." The orderly exited, carrying Raan's boots.

Hutsyn hurried in through the closing door. Fine-boned and pale, Chief of Research, Girim Division, had the dark hair and nervous intensity of a typical Centerworlder. Raan was reminded of the Alderaani Fleet Admiral Piett, who had commanded his Lordship's flagship Executor. "I don't believe this!" Hutsyn opened without any polite preliminaries. "You are ordering me to transfer my data to the military computer and erase my installation's records?"

"That is correct, Chief Hutsyn."

"StarCenter will hear about this, I assure you. My station is under strictly civilian jurisdiction. You can't–"

Raan interrupted him, holding on carefully to his temper, "You were advised that, as of this morning, a state of war exists on Girim. The settlement, and your research station, are under martial law. I suggest you cooperate voluntarily with the military authority."

Hutsyn went on as if he hadn't heard. "There's almost ten years worth of information in my system: preliminary survey reports, geology, biology, ethology, cultural studies of the indigenous intelligent species – everything we know about this planet. Some of the research can never be repeated. The native cultures have already changed too much. Perhaps as a – ahem – military, er, person, you can't appreciate the importance of scientific information, but that data is literally invaluable, and quite irreplaceable."

Raan swallowed a rude comment. At least the Centerworld theory that clones were mindless cannonfodder had kept his brothers, so far, from becoming somebody's research grant, and their secrets were still their own. "It'll have to go into the base comps. They're shielded and destruct-rigged against unauthorized access."

"There isn't nearly room for all my data."

"Then you'll have to decide which data you want to save."

Deadlock. Hutsyn took a breath and began again with an air of elaborate patience. "There is nothing of military value in my files, nothing but pure scientific research, and it simply will not fit in your storage capacity."

"I'm no judge of whether you know your business, Chief Hutsyn, but I do know mine. In wartime, every piece of information is of military value to the enemy. You'll wipe your damn comp, or I'll send a squad of troopers to wipe it for you."

"Send them then! There are some issues I will not compromise on." Hutsyn wore the expression of a defiant seed-eater defending his cold-season hoard of grain. "Academic freedom and scientific research–"

Raan swore. "I'm talking about survival, Hutsyn – ours and yours. You remember when the rebels captured Oolor: the sixteen people at the University they executed for 'counter-revolutionary activities?' Lord Vader ordered this project, and the Empire's been funding it ever since. Try convincing the rebels that it's pure research. How long do you think you'll stay alive?"

Hutsyn opened his mouth and closed it again several times, his similarity to an embattled seed-eater giving way to a strong resemblance to a beached fish. Raan fought against laughing, and almost won. He leaned over, keyed the roomcom, and ordered a guard. When the trooper arrived, Raan nodded toward his visitor. "Take Chief Hutsyn back to the station. Let him transfer as much as there's room for – his choice – from his records to Base and dump the rest. I want it clean by tomorrow morning. If anybody over there gives you any trouble, call for a squad."

"Yes, Sir." The trooper herded Hutsyn toward the door. When they reached it, the Chief of Research turned back to Raan. "Ah...Commander...ah, how long?"

"Seventy-two timeparts, standard. If we're lucky." The clone ran an appraising glance over Hutsyn. "I doubt you're important enough to be on the rebels' master search/scans. I suggest you disappear."

"Disappear?"

"It's a big galaxy out there." Raan jerked his head toward the open door, dismissing him. The guard shoved Hutsyn through, saluted, and closed the door on his commander's answering salute.

He had to know how close that estimate was.

Raan leaned back, marshalling his remaining strength from familiar blank walls, comfortingly close. Raan was aware his non-clone staff wondered why their commander had disconnected the wallholos designed to give his windowless quarters an illusion of fresh air and a view, and why he had ordered the walls recolored in regulation Fleet fieldgray. That had helped somewhat, that and replacing the civilian furniture with standard-issue powered foldups: sleepshelf, tabledesk, chair. But even in gravity, Raan's nightmares had not stopped until he added a sensechip with the metal smell and the deep thrum, more felt than heard, that convinced his subconscious he was safe inboard a warship under drive. A cabinet in one corner of the room held his armor. He had not worn impervium since he exchanged it for an Imperial officer's grays, but the suit was powered and battle-ready. When he needed something to occupy his hands and calm his mind, like a Sithwoman at her embroidery, a clone cleaned and customized his armor. It was a work of art, and an identity.

Raan blanked his mind and reached out with the Force, as he had been taught by Lord Vader.

His consciousness floated in the swirl of the overworld along a plane his mind created, which bulged and swooped like a computer graphic. He searched outward until he became aware of the rebel fleet's massed lifeforce shockwave, flickering below his Force horizon in a nameless color his mind identified as warning red. The entire fleet was Shielded. He tested it for an opening with quick, glancing probes, and the Forcebarrier thickened in defense, flaming across his mental plane like an impenetrable curtain of northern-lights. All Raan could tell was that the rebels were massed for an attack and closing fast in his direction.

He caught the edge of an exchange: //Imperial!// //(Where?)// //In pursuit//, disengaged and fled, barricading himself tightly. He twisted, slid, leaped, across his mental graph-image in a desperate rush, until he lost the following presence, then he slowed, collected himself, and drifted, questing for the way home along the wake of his passage through the overworld, following the tug of his body's link with him. He flowed homeward along it, hoping that the rebel fleet had no force-sensitive skilled enough to track him. Intelligence believed there was none since the death of the rebel forcemaster Kenobi, but Intelligence had been wrong more than once.

Reembodied, Raan made it to the 'fresher before he was overcome by the racking vomiting that travel in the overworld always produced in him. There were skilled adepts who could outbody easily, without even a twinge of reaction, like his own lord Vader. Raan was not one of them. He debated calling his orderly, and decided against it. He ran his uniform and himself through a clean-cycle, crawled wearily into sleepshelf, and doused the lights. Tomorrow there was the civilian evacuation to organize, staff conference, scouts to send out, check the best terrain for the gunnery emplacements, brief the Numbers...Raan took three deep breaths and called on field discipline. "If you can't fight it, forget it." Raan remembered Khet's brash, cynical voice: "Numbers don't worry; Others worry – Gives 'em something to do." Raan smiled into the darkness, wondering what Khet would have said about a Number as planetary C-in-C. Something cheerfully obscene, most likely. Too bad Khet hadn't made it back from Endor. Not that Vanda – R5868 – wasn't a good trooper, a good Number; Raan had every confidence in Vanda. But he could have used his old Sergeant-major on Girim; yes, he really could have.

Another three breaths, and Raan was asleep.

 

 

####

 

 

Seventy-two timeparts was cutting it fine. The rebel assault force broke hyper at the edge of the Girim system by midafternoon of the second day, and the first Imperial sortie went up to meet them. Raan watched the casualties coming in from his office window, taking pilots' reports, monitoring the chatter on the ground crew's communications band. Wounded fighters coughed to a stop on the docking-pads, often more a controlled crash than a landing. Cursing mechs sweated to patch them back together as the pilots climbed – or were lifted, or were pried – out, were hurried to Medsec, or left to stumble to mess or quarters for a brief respite before going up again. Here, on the periphery of the insurrection, there were no sleek state-of-the-art TIEs or battlewagons. Raan's command made do with antiquated surface-to-space ships held together with hope and recycled components. The commander swore he recognized bits of a battered T-16, new perhaps during the Clone Wars, being hastily wired into one fighter on the pad.

The fighter's pilot leaned against a hanger wall, watching the mechs work on his ship and taking a breather. Raan could read his weariness in every line of his white-clad shape. A servidroid wheeled by, stopped at the pilot's gesture, and handed him a plasticup with a flexible conduit for fluid intake in armor. It'd be a lot easier to take off his helmet, Raan thought. But the idea would never occur to him, of course. Raan could still remember the fear he had felt when he first put on the uniform that left his hands and face naked out of barracks. It seemed like such a petty thing, now, for all the torment it had caused him until he got used to it. "Ready," crackled over the open channel. The repairman slammed an access panel shut and locked it. By the time the mech had backed out of drivewash range, the pilot had vaulted into the cockpit and was punching controls. One quick motion waved acknowledgement to the ground crew, dogged down the canopy, and started the snubship into takeoff. The whole process had taken no more than a tenth of a timepart.

They were good troops, good Numbers, all of them, Raan thought. They were veterans of Vader's Squadron, blooded in the Dark Lord's campaigns, and Raan had chosen many of them himself. But...Raan found his hand hovering over the butt of his blaster, the little toy pistol officers wore in uniform, and did not remember how it got there. So few – there are so few of them, and every casualty is one we can't afford, and can't replace. If my lord Vader were here – Raan cut off the thought. He could not afford that either. He turned away from the window, to his deskcom. "HQ here. What's the situation, Vanda?"

"On schedule, Commander," came his sergeant's slow, deep voice. Why is it VIII's always sound so calm? Raan wondered; They're just too big to hurry. Old joke. "We're just about dug in down here, in case they try a ground assault. The building is secured. Comps are sealed on voice self-destruct, your print. Anybody else tries to mess with 'em and they'll blow high enough to hit escape velocity."

"Good. Regular reports, Vanda."

"Yes, Sir. Regular reports."

"HQ out." Raan touched another key. "Cjarin?"

He had to call twice more before he got an answer, nearly drowned in background noise: rumble of groundvehicles, pack delwas' protesting squeals, children crying, a babble of shouting. "Cjarin here," the Panothan answered. She sounded distracted and annoyed. Raan heard hooves, feet, a rattle of harness, and a muffled curse, followed by Cjarin's, "I'll give you 'mind your tail,' you clumsy–"

"What's going on? Cjarin?"

"Humans– psssst!" It was an exasperated hiss. "I should put in for hazardous duty pay! Switching to encoding, Commander."

"Very good." Raan keyed the secured scramble-coded channel. With an effort he kept his tone crisply professional. It would never do to offend Cjarin's touchy dignity.

A moment later her voice returned on the new channel. "Your pardon, Commander. You said?"

"I said 'What's going on?' Report. How's the evacuation going?"

"About as expected. Most of those who wanted offworld have left already, at least as many as could find any sort of ship. A few of those relics, I wouldn't have certified for suborbital mail shuttle. There isn't anything left down here that will even hold air."

"What's left in the settlement?"

"Not much. Hutsyn and his staff left. About thirty families and singles are planning to hide out with the natives. That's the delwas you're hearing– some of them were trying to use speeders, until I stopped them. By my dagger, I don't know where they thought to get power, out in the grass."

"Never expect a human to think, Cjarin," Raan said. Their shared chuckle made them one for a moment against those who were alien to them both.

"Call it foolish optimism. I had hoped." There was a familiar jangle of earrings, and Raan visualized Cjarin's head-to-foot shrug. "Well and well. That leaves some five hundred civilians– noncombatants – in the settlement. All loyal Imperials, as far as I can tell."

"Any chance the rebels might have infiltrated agents?"

"Possible, of course, but unlikely. I've checked clearances on the doubtful ones. They might have been able to slip somebody by us, but a'd have to have a very good cover, and the gods alone know why the rebels would bother with the level of sophistication that would require here."

"Girim base was Lord Vader's project. The rebels might wonder why we're here."

"They're not the only ones." Cjarin lowered her voice in spite of the scramble shield. "In fact, it has been a matter of considerable interest to me for some time. Can you tell me, now that my lord Vader is no longer – with us? Why are we here?"

"If I knew–" Raan began. He was interrupted by an urgent chime. "Yes?"

"Orbital screen reports enemy contact, Commander. Looks like they're coming in for surface attack."

"Thank you, Paz." Raan keyed Cjarin: "You heard that?"

"Yes, Commander."

"It's all yours, Cjarin. I'll get back to you if and when I can."

"Very good, Comm–"

Raan cut Cjarin off in midword and keyed the Marines' com. "Vanda? This is the Commander. Rebel ground assault's coming in."

"We're ready for them, Commander," the VIII-clone sergeant answered.

"Orbital will give you the details direct, as soon as they're confirmed. And Vanda–"

"Commander?"

"Try not to start without me. I wouldn't want to miss anything."

"You'll be commanding from here, Sir?" Vanda's tone managed to convey his horror at this by going completely flat. Raan could imagine the VIII-clone's scandalized thought: What kind of a proper C-in-C goes out on the front lines to get himself shot at? Now I have to hold this position and waste my time making sure he doesn't get his damnfool officer's ass blasted....

"Don't worry, Vanda," Raan said. "I think I still remember which end of a blastrifle is which. I shouldn't give you too much trouble."

He could almost hear the VIII-clone blushing as Vanda answered, "Of course. No disrespect, Sir. I...we'd be honored, Commander."

"I'm on my way. Out." Raan shut down the com and rose, stood contemplating it for a moment, then, with a sense of satisfaction, drew his pistol and slagged the console. Scorched earth. "No more damned orders from Eallen at least," he muttered. He reflected guiltily that this might be considered a rather petty reason for destroying a perfectly good piece of government property – expensive government property, too –; at least, he added to himself, by anyone who had not had the opportunity of serving under Fleet Admiral Eallen. But the thought of escaping his office desk was too delightful to allow him room for anything else just then. A grin spread over Raan's face as he holstered his pistol and stepped out the door.

He was halfway down the corridor before he realized he was heading toward his quarters instead of Vanda's post. It seemed obvious he should go this way. Something was missing, something he needed. He hurried a little faster, slapped open his quarters door, and stopped. His orderly was making the final adjustments on Raan's armor monitor; the red warning light on its open back blinking insistently battle-ready. Raan saw that '51 was armored except for his helm. He eyed Raan over the white impervium as he locked down the monitor panel with sharp clicks as the catches snapped home. "I thought you might be wanting this, Sir," he said. "I took the liberty...."

"Yes, thank you, '51. Good of you to think of it." Raan shrugged out of gray fabric– let them wonder where the base commander went; that should confuse them for a while– and into his black environment-control bodysuit. Armor followed, the familiar routine steadying him: sabatons, greaves, poleyns, cuisses.... Raan was humming under his breath, an ironically cheerful tune rising unbidden out of long memory:

"Oh, come jine Vader's Squadon, where you'll never have a care –

We're never short of anything but armor, fuel, and air ––"

...tasset, breastplate.... He skipped a few verses.

"I met up with a rebel snub and we went for a spin...."

...rerebrace, coulter, vambrace.... '51 was smiling at him. Or maybe at the tune; Raan couldn't tell. A quarter of a timepart after he had entered his quarters, Raan secured his helm with a decisive snap and picked up his combat blastrifle. The stock was smooth and solid under his hand, reassuring. He slid the action open and shut to check it, noted that the charge was on "full", then shifted it into carry. He was still humming:

"Floating gently through TIE wreckage, lookin' for a rescue line,

Says, 'the air out here's a little thin, but, man, the view is fine!'"

He slapped his door open on the last beat and moved out, left foot forward like the first step of a long march, toward the place where Vanda and his Numbers waited for their commander. '51 snugged down his own helmet and followed.

 

 

####

 

 

 

 

Outnumbered, outgunned, the Imperial snubships fell to rebel fire. Enemy cruisers brushed aside crumbling air cover to destroy Girim's defensive lasercannon, and set down ground troops to take the planet's surface. Ground fighting, for the Imperials, was a stubborn house-to-house retreat uphill from the settlement landing field, where the rebels set down, toward Imperial headquarters, through a landscape of rubble and broken buildings. Even in armor, Raan imagined he smelled the all-pervasive reek of burned duraplast. The world was full of the shriek and thunder of artillery, blastrifle hiss, splattered metal, thick smoke that swirled aside to reveal fragments of white impervium and charred meat, the bright flash of enemy fire. Raan followed his troops' slow withdrawal over the wreckage, and the dead, for nothing living, rebel or Imperial, was left behind where Raan's cloneforces had retreated. Raan himself gave the Gift to his own wounded, blank-faced and emotionless under his armored helm.

He ducked as a rebel fighter-speeder roared overhead, laying down a trail of laserfire that missed him by inches, and straightened to see a bright opalescence ripple over the sky. ...rebel planet shield.... Raan cursed in a weary monotone and signalled his troopers to fall back again. He had hoped the rebels wouldn't think Girim important enough to Shield, when the Empire hadn't. Evidently, he had underestimated their paranoia over Lord Vader's projects. The Imperials reached the foothills and their last line of artillery. Most of the cannon were abandoned, but here and there a determined gunner kept up intermittent return fire. Raan sacrificed the last of his battered gun crews to cover his Marines' retreat, and then faded, behind Vanda's Numbers, into mountain forest where no rebel ground vehicles could follow.

Why here? Why here, my Lord? went through Raan's mind as he struggled through a tangle of trees and underbrush. The phrase became a cadence-count pulling him forward against his terrible fatigue. why-here-my-lord– duck under hanging branches, push leaves aside – why here– climb over downed tree, crash through latticed deadfall –– my lord– squelch ankle-deep in matted leafmold, splash across shallow stream, slipping on mossy rocks. Why – stop to clear clogged respirator intake, breathing humid summer air thick with tiny insects, half-maddened by their piercing whine in his ears –– here-my-lord– inhaling the vegetable stink of alien life, feeling the trickle of sweat running down his face, down his back, until the respirator filter kicked in again, and he breathed cool, metal-scented air. Why did you order us to stand here, Lord Vader? Raan stumbled, breaking through a deceptive cover of dead leaves to slither down a slippery incline. This is no place for your Guardsmen. He picked himself out of a bushful of spikes and slogged onward to the beat of his interior question.

Battlearmor, like those who wore it, was designed for the clean, high-tech war of TIE cockpits, starship corridors, and vacuum, not for guerrilla fighting on a primitive planet, but the Girimir were experts at killing on their own ground. Raan's surviving Numbers took refuge with Gnirri-the-king, and Raan became used to the sight of Imperial stormtroopers, white impervium smeared with earth and ashes for camouflage, sweeping down with howling Girimir warriors on delwa-back to harass rebel patrols and smash-and-burn rebel outposts, then vanish into the grass. Little information reached Raan from the settlement, but an occasional messenger got through. A few times, Cjarin herself slipped into and out of Gnirri's camp on a hurried visit, bringing news of her steady campaign of sabotage, harassment, and non-cooperation, her underground war between the occupying rebels and the sullen Imperial population of Girim.

The rebel commander, Cjarin said, tail-tip flicking back and forth as she paced Raan's tent, was beginning to wonder just how high the cost of holding this apparently worthless planet was going to be.

"Good," said Raan. "Can we raise the price for him a bit more, do you think?"

"That might be managed, Commander." The Panothan folded herself into sitting position beside the firepit and wrapped her tail neatly around her knees. Raan reflected how oddly at home she looked there, in her golden fur and wrist-guards. But then, neither of them looked much like spit-and-polish Imperial Regulars at the moment, Raan thought, contemplating his own dusty fatigues and grimy hands. "I am reliably informed," Cjarin continued, "that there are several tons of AP-47a in the rebel ammo dump which ought to make a most satisfactory explosion, for a start. It will be expensive to replace, even if they can..."

Raan nodded, leaning forward to pick up a pebble from the firepit, stirring the ashes with his forefinger, as if moving counters on an imaginary war-room tactical board.

"...and if we angle the blast just right, I think we can take out their main barracks and most of their headquarters building with it."

There was an awkward pause. "You plan to hit it during sleepshift, then," Raan said.

"Obviously."

Raan looked down at the pebble he was tossing in one hard, then across through the smoke at Cjarin.

"I give rebels no kill-ceremony, asleep or awake, Commander." The Panothan met Raan's eyes steadily, and her whiskers quivered. "Counter-insurgency ops, I believe you called it."

"Very good, Cjarin. Carry on." Raan's hand closed around the pebble as Cjarin nodded, uncurled her tail from around her knees, and rose to her feet. With a final bow to Raan, not quite a salute, she padded to the tent-flap and out into the slanting amber light of afternoon.

 

 

####

 

 

Cjarin did not return to Gnirri's camp until the year had turned almost to winter. Tall-grass turned dry and brittle, stalks whispering in a cold wind foretelling snow, under a sky heavy and gray-blue with clouds. The delwas pawed through a thickening film of ice at the stream's edge when they went down to drink, and the air was sharp as glass in Raan's respirator intake. He paced the Girimir camp in frustration, watching Gnirri's people laying in their cold-season supplies of dried meat and preparing for the long semi-hibernation of winter, when the Girimir did not make war. Soon travel on delwa-back through the high-country snows would be all but impossible, and the Girimir's fast-moving guerrilla tactics in the lowlands hampered by ice-locked plains empty of game and good grass.

Word from Cjarin was that the rebels' campaign had shifted away from Girim's sector. The planet was considered unimportant, effectively secured. Rebel Command doled out resupply to Girim reluctantly, grudging every erg of power, every spare part, that could be used at the front. Raan listened to Cjarin's reports with a faint hope growing in him that Imperial victory on Girim might no longer be impossible, merely improbable. Now was the time to put pressure on the rebels, Raan thought; but he had only a handful of troops: his own clones, a few of Gnirri's most ambitious warriors, and a scattering of outcasts from other tribes personally pledged to him. The rebels had drawn in to the settlement, no longer sending out search-and-destroy sweeps for stray Imperials, and restricting ground travel. Perhaps they were growing warier, or perhaps they were running out of troops and material they could afford to lose. NOW said Raan's trained instincts...but the Girimir did not make war in winter, so Raan paced and practiced at patience.

His impatience was prodded by a formless unease that had little to do with the practical problems of his military campaign. There was something, something insistently present to him, somewhere in the Force, that refused to identify itself completely. He approached it with the controlled, professional terror of an ordinance tech defusing a defective power-core, this unpredictable and destructive weapon Raan's instructor, Lord Vader, had hedged around with so many warnings. He could not afford to ignore it, but he did not trust it, and the Force revenged Raan's distrust by leaving him violently ill after every encounter. Raan gritted his teeth and plodded on. There was something on the Force-plane, something half-familiar, that vanished when he tried to capture it, like a flicker of movement seen out of the corner of his eye, or a distorted reflection in curved metalplate. It might or might not be getting stronger. Stop it! Raan told himself; you've enough to worry about without inventing things.

 

 

####

 

 

On a darkening evening, Raan sat in one of the caves in the foothills that Gnirri's people used as winter living quarters, contemplating the dusk gathering into a blue-gray wall beyond the cave-mouth's firelight. He noted and ignored the familiar crunch of a sentry's armored feet on stone outside, the stamp-and-snort of a restless delwa from the corral, a trickling of water somewhere, the cry of a night-hunting animal far away; noted and dismissed, with rather more effort, the sticky dampness of a bodysuit uncleaned for far too long, and the sullen lump of undigested alien rations in his interior. The smell and prickle of half-tanned furs under him made him wish he could afford the power-drain of armor full-time.

One of Raan's own Girimir, a young Sorlibi with the first down of a mature male's ruff just beginning to darken his shoulders, stalked over and settled near Raan with his back to the rock wall, head lowered toward his bent knees, canines slightly bared in nervous defense against the strange males around him. Raan shifted position toward him, and the young male's lifted ruff flattened a little. One of Gnirri's warriors raised his head, staring at the Sorlibi from across the firepit. The young male returned his stare for a moment, then surrendered, lowering his ears and whining almost inaudibly in his throat as he backed away.

Gnirri broke into the uncomfortable exchange. "Your Panothan was here today. Is it good news, Commander?"

"Lieutenant-Commander Tannerl was killed," said Raan. He did not add that the rebel officer had been found in a number of rather messy pieces all over the floor of his quarters, in a supposedly secure area of the settlement. "Cjarin tells me Commander Laydon has tightened up on security again and increased the number of patrols. He's ordered anything moving after curfew shot on sight."

"Any reprisals, Sir?" That was Vanda, from the shadows where the clonetroops had set up their own separate barracks area.

"The rebels are treating it like a civilian murder, to prevent Cjarin's people from taking credit for it." Raan felt obligated to add, "We're getting to 'em. With any luck, this time next year, you Numbers will all be back in clonebarracks."

"I sure hope so," came an irrepressible clone voice. "I can't take this food much longer!" A second: "Now we know what the fuzzies do with their old boots: feed 'em to us!"/ "The fuzzies don't have any boots!"/ "See – what'd I tell you?" A chorus of laughter arose from the anonymous shadow as each clone tried to top the others with comically exaggerated complaints.

Raan rose and walked out into the darkness, as clonevoices became an undifferentiated chatter behind him. It's all part of the game, he thought. They wouldn't be happy if they didn't have something to gripe about. I wish I had some action for them. If they sit all winter, they'll go stale and start fighting among themselves. But it'll be all right: there won't be any serious morale problem, not with Numbers. Sharp longing filled him at the memory of clonebarracks, of the easy sharing of food and drink and gear, of laughter, anger, pleasure, talk, and the warmth of near-identity, together with one's seriesbrothers in a world without isolation or loneliness. No point in whining about it, Raan. You gave it up for what Lord Vader gave you. You can't go back.

Where do we go from here?

The settlement, I suppose, when we've won. Raan nodded to the sentry, who came to attention and presented arms as he passed. The comps are intact, Cjarin says. The rebels still can't break my voicecode without blowing the whole thing wide-open. Good job that little Centerworlds tech did. Wonder if he got transferred to work on the new Battlestation comps, like he wanted. Probably did; he's dead now, I guess. Everything's still in the computer.…

A whisper of bare feet on stone caught Raan's attention, and he turned. Gnirri's fingers moved, dark against firelit cavemouth. "You are troubled?"

"No."

"More fool you, then." Gnirri gave a deep purring rumble that might have been either laughter or annoyance. "Do you truly believe you will take your white-armor warriors back to the settlement, and be as you were? You will not."

"Well, of course there will be a lot of rebuilding to do, and the strategic situation is unclear at the moment. I have no idea how things are going out there;"– Raan gestured toward the night sky– "what kind of help we'll be able to get from the Empire. But if we can capture the Shield intact, we'll at least be secure from offplanet rebel–"

"I say you will not!" Gnirri's slashing gesture interrupted, cutting between Raan's hands. He paused, as if trying to decide how to approach the subject he wanted to bring up. Raan waited. At last, Gnirri signed, "Have you ever wondered why my people fight with you, starlord? Do you think it matters to me whether My-Lord-Vader's-Emperor or those-who-fight-against-their-rightful-lord rule at Center?" Raan's blank look must have given Gnirri all the answer he needed. Again, he gave that sound that might be a laugh. "No, of course not. You Imperials never wondered, or cared, what we did, or why, as long as we gave you a place to camp. That was our freedom. See: those-who-fight-against-their-rightful-lord speak much of 'freedom', but they do not understand it. For them, each people must be free in the same way, and every world must be a copy of their worlds. But their way is not ours."

"No," Raan signed absently. He was still trying to digest the concept of Girimir independence, and not succeeding very well. Chatter from the cave behind him had died down, and, in the quiet, Raan heard the squeak-and-rustle as Gnirri's aala slave shifted position at the end of its tether outside the cavemouth. He glanced toward it, then back to Gnirri, remembering the aala rebellion the rebels had tried to create on Girim before Alderaan had been destroyed, and Lord Vader had made this planet his personal project.

"They are losing here, those-who-fight-against-their-rightful-lord," Gnirri continued. "They do not know it yet, and you are not sure of it, but I think it is so. Then look to yourself, and your people." He started to turn away.

Raan reached out a hand to stop him, remembering at the last minute not to touch him, remembering that an uninvited touch would be avenged by death, down to the last member of Raan's command. The clone drew his hand back, his talking fingers moving. "What do you mean by that? Didn't you just tell me you think we're winning?"

"I did not say you are winning, starlord. I said your enemy is, perhaps, losing, here."

"What kind of–" Raan reconsidered, and rephrased more diplomatically, "Your words are unclear to me, lord king."

"No doubt."

It was impossible for a non-Girimir to tell if Gnirri's expression held simple humor or something crueler. Raan swallowed the last of his pride and signed, "If you would tell me –"

This time Gnirri did laugh, there was no question of it. Raan ground his teeth and – remembering his men – restrained himself. "I do not mock you," Gnirri signed. Raan had his own opinion on that, but settled for eyeing the Girimir suspiciously. "Only, I find it strange that one who knows so much of war among the star-worlds should know so little of any tribe not his own. See: win or lose against you, I think those-who-fight-against-their-rightful-lord will not stay on Girim. They have gained pack-right with no great king, and none with authority to speak at year-meet will take oath to their Alliance. The aala they sought as allies to die on our spears have fled. They know they cannot hold this world, except by conquest. They have no stomach for it, to rule openly as masters over rebellious slaves – and rebellious we have shown ourselves to them already. Girimir bow to no lords but our own, and we will defend our hunting-grounds down to the last female and cub. This world has nothing worth the price of conquest to the oath-breakers." Gnirri paused, looking out over the precipice, where a steep trail led down toward the plains below. "Win or lose, the oath-breakers will not stay. But you will."

That didn't sound like an accusation, but Raan answered it anyway. "Naturally, we'll have to keep a small force on Girim until the rebellion of those-who-fight-against-their-rightful-lord is put down. My orders are...."

Gnirri gave the signed equivalent of a shrug. "You, my friend, will stay because you have nowhere else to go." He groomed the long fringe of fur on one forearm briefly with his fingers, then signed, "My-Lord-Vader's-Emperor is not winning."

"Why do you think that?" Raan signed, choking down an upsurge of alarm.

"I do not think it; I know it. At the last message from offworld, your Center was under siege, and by now it may have fallen. Your warriors, they say, are sick-hearted at the loss of My-Lord-Vader and he who was your Emperor, and the underkings fight for place among themselves, while those-who-fight-against-their-rightful-lord take it from them. It is so everywhere: the deathbirds and small scavengers come to strip the carcass while the pack without a leader fights over who will feed first at the kill. So I, too, have seen, many times."

"How can you know this?"

"We also have eyes and ears among the oathbreakers. Knowledge is a good thing." The Girimir king studied Raan for a moment, his head slightly to one side, then signed, "So. It is good, then, that you know this much of my thoughts."

"There is more?" Raan signed.

"Perhaps." Gnirri gave him another measuring look. "Do you still think we are yours, starlord?"

"You are our ally. You called me your friend," Raan signed. He had the distinct impression he had lost his grip on the conversation somewhere along the line.

"And for that, we will fight with you until the oathbreakers are killed or driven away, but, for that friendship, I tell you also that what happens thereafter is not as you see it. I warn you– as a friend– do not presume on it."

"Are you trying to warn me that your people will turn on us, the Imperials, when the rebels are gone? Is that what you mean?"

Gnirri gave a muffled snort. "You have a very simple mind, a soldier's mind, after all. No, my friend." Gnirri moved his hand in a downward sweep. "Have you not seen your own children; how many of them have become our children? How long do you think five hundred of you, from so many different tribes, can stand alone against our whole world? Now, I go. A fat kill and a warm den to you, this night."

Gnirri padded back into the cave. Raan turned to look out over the slope, his vision adjusting to darkness after the orange dazzle of firelight. Girim's two moons shone down on the twisting path, and Raan could hear a muffled rush of water from below. The quick chill of evening had raised a mist off the river, and the whole valley was filled with fog, glinting like mother-of-pearl in counterchanged patterns of moonlight. Raan's unprotected face and hands felt like ice in the cold updraft off the valley. He was filled with a sense of isolation that was close to panic. He reached out a hand to steady himself against a rockspur, reaching out as unconsciously towards the Force for some kind of an anchor, and touched that something-not-quite-familiar he had felt before on the Force-plane. Raan swallowed and took a deep breath. The commander of Lord Vader's Guard – afraid of a little fog! he thought, remembering the Dark Lord, who had gone his own way alone, armored by complete and impartial indifference to rebels and Imperial Command alike. If anything had ever frightened Lord Vader, no one – enemy, subordinate, Emperor, or problematical friend (did Lord Vader have friends, Raan wondered) – had ever heard of it.

Raan slowly released the breath and pushed his disquiet, along with the baffling Force-presence, down into inner silence, warning them both sternly to stay where they belonged. He looked out over the valley again. There was nothing there but a little riverspray, sparkling on moonlit rocks, dark in the shadows. He turned and walked back to the cave, returning the sentry's salute with a gruff, "Carry on." The fire had died back, leaving the cave in deep shadow, and he found his way back to his sleeping-furs more by sound than sight. He detoured around the alien rhythm of Girimir breathing, the rustle of fur on fur, around the dimly-visible white pile of trooperarmor and supplies piled like a barricade around his Numbers' bivouac. Inside their perimeter, he heard the usual sounds of sleepshift: breath, rasp of sleeperbag on stone, soft snores, the grunt as a man half-woke, shifted position, and returned to sleep, seriesbrothers unselfconsciously engaged in sex: clonebarracks routine, comfortable and reassuring. Raan found that envy had subsided into his normal wistful memory. There was only a commander's professional assessment of his troops' morale in his thoughts as he walked on. Raan found his own sleeping-furs, found his orderly patiently waiting for him. He dismissed '51, rolled himself in his field blanket, and settled into sleep.

 

 

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The year had turned again by the time the rebels were willing to abandon Girim. Heavy fighting around Center had diverted their forces and reduced the Girim rebel garrison to a skeleton crew. With the coming of the spring thaw, and the new grass, the Imperial/Girimir raids resumed, keeping the rebels bottled up in the settlement, where Cjarin's campaign of harassment was a steady drain on manpower and materiel. The last straw for the rebels was when their resupply ship, the first in six standard months, was captured on the docking-pad as it set down. As soon as the hatch opened, Raan and a group of his men, who had been camouflaged in the high grass around the port, rushed the ship, overpowered the crew and guards, slagged the drive and ship's guns, and carried off the supplies. For the first time in months, Raan's Numbers had full charges in their blastrifles and familiar food in their stomachs, and their morale soared. Raan led the counterattack, and once again the fighting was house-to-house through the streets of the settlement, until the remaining rebel troops ended up barricaded inside the headquarters building which housed the planetshield generator. Laydon sent an attache under a sign of truce for a parlay.

The meeting took place in what had been Raan's staff briefing-room. It looked, he noted, sadly the worse for wear. Raan, Gnirri-the-king, and Cjarin, flanked by an honor-guard of Raan's Numbers and Gnirri's warriors, faced Commander Laydon and his staff, backed by a few of his hard-faced soldiers. Laydon, a large, florid Centerworlder, was no more of a diplomat than his opposite numbers across the table. "I won't mince words with you, K4983/Y6," he began.

"Commander," Raan said coldly.

"What?"

"My rank is the same as yours, Commander Laydon. I would prefer that you address me by it."

"Oh. Sorry...Commander," Laydon amended. He cleared his throat and began again. "I won't give you a lot of fancy talk. We both know the situation. You've got us at a standstill on the ground; we've got you bottled up off-world. The Alliance has taken Center; nobody's coming to your rescue out here."

"Or yours, apparently, Rebel-Commander." That was Cjarin. "Send more soldiers and we will meet them as we met those you have sent against us already." Gnirri growled and bristled assent.

"All right." Laydon spread his hands. "The political types will make it sound good with 'strategic considerations' and 'effective control' and so on, but what it means is that this is a more-or-less useless piece of real estate, and, frankly, it's not worth it to us to commit any more resources here."

Gnirri broke in, signing: "You told us you would make us free of the Empire, Oathbreaker, but now, I think, the Girimir will be free of both of you. It is good."

Laydon ignored him. "We'll withdraw from the planet, Commander, but we control off-world access. The spaceport must be completely razed and all vacuum-ships permanently disabled before we leave, and this system will be put under quarantine."

"We keep the planetshield," Raan said. Laydon paused, then nodded reluctantly. Raan added, "What about civilian refugees?"

"Any humans who are willing to support the Alliance will be allowed to leave with us," Laydon said. "After that, we'll close the orbit."

"And my men?"

"I said 'humans', Commander."

Raan felt himself flush with anger. Since Lord Vader had opened command rank to clones, such prejudice as he had met in the Service had been, of necessity, disguised. Cjarin snarled soundlessly, and Gnirri's neck-fur bristled. Raan laid a restraining hand on the Panothan's forearm. "We'll discuss your proposal, Commander Laydon. If you'll excuse us...."

Raan, Cjarin, and Gnirri withdrew to a small conference room just off the briefing room, and the Numbers clomped out behind them, stamping their armored boots rather more heavily than necessary, to stand guard at the door while they talked. As soon as the sounddampers cut in, Cjarin burst into snarls and curses. "Discuss your proposal. Have you no shame? By my dagger, I swear not one of these rebels will leave this planet alive, if I have to tear out their throats with my teeth!"

"Cjarin!" Raan said in his officer's voice. When Cjarin fell silent, he continued, "Our orders from Lord Vader were to hold this planet. Am I correct?"

Cjarin's ears were still flattened in anger. Gradually, they returned to vertical, and the Panothan said, "Yes, Commander."

Raan turned to Gnirri, and signed, "Lord King, you have said you wish only freedom for your people, freedom from both those-who-fight-against-their-rightful-lord and My-Lord-Vader's-Emperor. Will this plan of the oathbreakers content you?"

Gnirri signed, "It will, my friend."

"Will my people still have leave to camp within your hunting grounds, as we have done?"

"For the sake of the friendship which has been between My-Lord-Vader, and you, and my people, starlord, it shall be so, if they will live in peace with us and obey our laws in our land."

"It shall be so," Raan signed. He turned back to the Panothan. "Cjarin, how many people from the settlement do you think will want to leave if the rebels seal the orbit?"

Cjarin gave her head-to-foot shrug. "I can't say, Commander, but not many. Maybe fifty or a hundred."

"Any non-humans?"

"After what we heard from that one in the briefing room, they'd be fools to go with him. I'll talk to them, Commander."

"So," Raan said, "We've carried out our orders. The garrison stays on Girim. With the planetshield, we'll be safe from a new rebel attack."

"How long will it hold?" Cjarin asked.

"With the current power-drain on the available atomics, long enough that neither of us will be here to worry about it when it goes." Smiling wryly, Raan said, "I think we've won."

 

 

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It took some time to hash out the details of the agreement and phrase them in diplomatic language, but a tenday later Raan stood looking out the shattered opening that had once been his office window, to watch the last of the rebel surface-to-space shuttles wink out past the atmosphere. A moment later, the planetshield flared opalescence across the sky once more, then faded to the light haze that was its default setting. We've done it, he thought; We held the planet. His satisfaction lasted until he looked down again toward the former settlement. The civilian houses were gutted and charred, for the last fighting in the streets of the town had been savage. Adobe and stone were already crumbling back into the ground from which they had been taken. The trading post was dark and deserted; there would be no more offworld imports for the human settlers or as trade-goods for the Girimir. Carefully tended gardens and fields were trampled into a jumble of mud and scorched earth, destroyed either by Imperials or rebels in the back-and-forth battle. Planting season was gone; there would be no harvest this year, and little seed-corn for the next. Yellow tall-grass was already invading, crowding out the feeble and pampered foreign plants. Most of the civilians who remained had fanned out across Girim, on their own, or as guests of one or another of the friendly tribes, to lay in supplies of meat for the coming cold-season soon to be upon them, following the herds like the Girimir. Cjarin had left long ago. Even as he watched, another family prepared to ride out with a train of shaggy delwas, loaded with whatever household goods would be useful in the nomadic life ahead. Would they be back next year? he wondered. He doubted it. What would there be for them to come back to? A generation or two, even if they survived, and they would be Girimir in all but body.

At least there are my own men, Raan thought. Under Vanda's watchful eye, precise squads of white-armored Numbers were rebuilding their beloved clonebarracks on its former site beside the parade-ground square, cannibalizing material from the debris to create a perfect replica of clonebarracks on every Imperial world. When it was finished, he would move into the Commandant's quarters, back with his own. There would be plenty of material. Less than a quarter of Raan's original garrison had survived. Yes, Raan thought, I have my Numbers, and the data stored in the computer. It's useless now, but everything is there, the whole Imperial civilization. They'll lose it, maybe, for a few generations, but it will be here when they are ready, the Girimir. There would be none of his own people. Even if they could overcome their deepconditioning, clones were sterilized at puberty. But they'll rebuild; they'll rebuild....

//No.//

Raan started and looked around, but he was alone. Again, the voice rang in his mind: //No.// The presence in the Force he had sensed during the months of fighting returned, far stronger, far more certain, far more focused. With a growing sense of wonder, Raan reached out to the Force-plane, opening his mind fully. The image of his commander was there, as he had seen it so many times. "Lord Vader!" Raan said. "My Lord, the report said you were dead!"

The breathmasked image wavered, becoming the fair-faced ice-giant in the robes of a Dark Lord which Raan knew as Lord Vader's own persona in the Force. "I am." The figure smiled. "Or at least my body was vaporized. I do not miss it greatly. It was already half machine."

"My Lord,–" Raan began.

The figure held up a black-gauntleted hand. "This is beyond you. You were always too much of a skeptic. You did not want to comprehend the Force, only to use it, and what you could use, I taught you. But my old master, Obi-Wan, showed me something more when I killed him, although it took me time to understand it fully." The figure wavered again, then stabilized. "I must be brief. The energy drain is considerable. Here are my orders, K4983: Wipe the computer's data, destroy it, and evacuate the settlement."

Raan thought of his Numbers. "My Lord, I don't understand."

"Listen. Now that I am not bound to that which was, I can move freely on the Force-plane, visualize lines of probability. This world is at the turning-point I saw for it, when I sent you here to hold it for me. You have done well. If the Girimir gain the data in the computer, they will create a second-rate copy of Alliance technology and go down into the anarchy now being created by the rebels."

As Gnirri feared, Raan thought.

"Just so," Vader continued. "Left to follow their own path, the Girimir will create a new empire which will bring the galaxy under their rule, in that order and justice which I have served. Not soon. They are still a young and scattered people, and they have the faults of youth, but they have an imperial spirit. They must remember the Empire. You will give them a legend, a myth, a goal – but not the means. That they must discover for themselves, if the new empire is not to be a poor copy of the old." The tall figure looked down directly at Raan. "The Empire is dead, K4983. Let it go. Your oath is to me. I have given you my orders."

Only the dying pays us free, Raan thought. He looked back at the settlement. In the heat of the day, there was no sign of habitation except for his troopers, breaking for their midwatch meal in the shade of their half-finished wall. What will they do when the power and the rations run out? Raan asked himself. He looked down at his own body, unarmored again to save on power-drain. Learn, I guess, to live naked to the sky, as I did. For those who could not, there was the Gift and return to the Clonesoul. The dying pays us free. He thought of the victorious Alliance. What became of a dead clone, when the living clones who bore his Seriessoul had been exterminated? Perhaps he would find out. His eyes moved to the plain beyond and the long grass flowing in the wind to the distant violet mountains. The family he had watched leaving were already swallowed up in it. No, Raan thought, I can't force this new world into the old pattern. It will find its own way. My commission and my commander, both of them are gone. This last order is all I have. He turned back, but Lord Vader was no longer there.

"Yes, my Lord," Raan said. He seemed to feel an answering tremor in the Force, but he could not be sure. He walked out of the ruins of his old headquarters building, and started down the slope to speak to his Numbers.

 

 

#### END ####

 

Winter's Tales