by Karen Winter
Lt. K4983/y-VI (Raan) stood stiffly in his unfamiliar parade armor with his dress helm clutched at his hip in both hands to prevent them from fidgeting. He smiled again, mechanically, hoping that the muscles of his jaw would hold out until the ceremony started and he could escape. The court lady who had backed him into a corner might have been attractive, but Raan couldn't tell. He realized that her face stencils and elaborate pile of green-dyed hair reminded him more than anything of the carved figures of native gods he had seen during his tour of duty on Girim. His glance slid over the lady to the dark figure of his commander who stood, boredom obvious in every movement of his powerful body, talking to the Imperial Minister of the Navy. Raan answered, for what seemed like the hundredth time tonight:
"No, my lady, I was not with Lord Vader during his escape. I was acting as his liaison with Governor Thorti's staff at the time." Spy, his inner self amended silently. And I was so sure there wouldn't be any of that in Lord Vader's Guard. Well... he has to protect himself like everybody else.
"Yes, my lady. I did hear what happened. At the destruction of the Death Star Lord Vader's fighter was blown clear. It was captured by a rebel ship. But he managed to overcome the control room crew and bring it into an Imperial base at Pathnar." The lady seemed to accept this without question. I'll bet that was quite a trick, Raan's inner voice went on as he tried to envision the tactics required. I'd love to know how he did that. But I've seen him do a lot of things I couldn't explain - nobody could explain....
"Oh, yes; I heard about that. I think." The lady frowned as if trying hard to remember. "It was all over the tri-D for days: all about Governor Tarkin trying to sell the new Imperial battle station plans to the rebels, and how Lord Vader found out and blew up the station all by himself so they couldn't get hold of it, and then found the rebel base, and...."
"WHAT?" Raan stared at the lady in total astonishment. That was the most amazing story he'd ever heard, like something out of a trashy adventure tape. What kind of nonsense had MinProp been putting out for civilian consumption?
"Lord Vader is such a hero, and," she simpered. "SO gallant. When I was presented, he said, 'My Lady Has' and kissed my hand; or he would have, except for-" she lowered her voice a little "-you know, the mask. But he bowed so elegantly, and," she sighed, "he's so mysterious and romantic. The ladies at court are all mad over him."
Raan hoped the revulsion he felt was not visible on his face. This conversation was becoming more bizarre by the moment. The idea of his dignified and aloof commander being pursued by this feather-brained socialite and her friends, like some popular tri-D star-
Speaking of trl-D.... Raan noticed a small crew carrying holovision recorders and tapers making their way noisily across the room. Raan recognized the leader as an anchorman on a local newsprogram.
He bustled up to Vader, a bright smile pasted on his face, every hair in place. Silence fell as the room's occupants turned to watch, and Raan could hear the newsman's smoothly modulated professional tones from where he stood.
"Gentlebeings, we are here at the reception honoring that hero of the Imperial Navy, Lord Vader of the Sith. Lord Vader was the commander during the recent glorious victory in the Hoth system, which totally destroyed the traitorous rebel forces."
'Totally destroyed the rebel forces'? thought Raan. Then those transports I saw must have been a mirage.
"Lord Vader, would you be so kind as to answer a few questions for our viewers?" the bright young man pattered on. He stepped up and raised his recorder uncertainly in the general direction of Vader's grille.
For a full cycle of his respirator, Vader loomed silently over the newsman, impaling him on an icy metal look of disdain. The anchorman swallowed and rallied once again. "My Lord, you are about to receive the highest award the Empire can bestow on one of her loyal subjects. Could you describe your feelings for us at this moment, Sir?"
"I think not." said Vader. "If you will excuse me, I'm rather busy."
The newsman shut off his recorder. "Lord Vader, MinProp would appreciate your cooperation very much. Please, Sir-"
"No doubt," said Vader coldly. "However, I am not accountable to MinProp." He turned. "Admiral-" He swept off 1n a majestic swirl of dark cape, like a deepwater ship under full sail, and the Imperial minister he had been talking to trotted off in his wake.
The newsman lowered his recorder with a scowl. It was not difficult for Raan to guess what he was muttering under his breath. One of the cameramen caught sight of Raan and whispered in the anchorman's ear, pointing in his direction, and the group headed toward Raan. He felt a moment of panic and looked around for a way to escape, but Lady Has grabbed his elbow and said excitedly, "We're going to be on tri-D!"
Terrific. The anchorman went into his speech again. "Lieutenant? You're the Commander of Lord Vader's Guard, aren't you?"
"Yes," said Raan, "how did you know that?" The moment the words were out of his mouth, he felt like an idiot.
The newsman answered with a we're-all-buddies-here laugh, "Frankly, Lieutenant, you're the only trooper here. It wasn't too difficult to identify you."
Raan responded with a sickly smile.
"Your boss doesn't seem to want to talk. Maybe we can get something out of you for the audience.”
"Why don't you talk to General Veers. I didn't see much of the battle. I'm just a pilot, really, and-"
"We got General Veers and the other commanders. What we need 1s somebody more - uh - somebody our viewers can identify with, to give us an eyewitness view." The reporter gave Raan a sympathetic half-smile. "See - I'm being honest with you. Why don't you give us a little cooperation?" He turned to his cameraman and said softly, "O.K. - tight shot, Fint; they'll know he's a cl- trooper, but we don't want to shove it in their faces."
The familiar dull resentment stirred in Raan. "All right."
The newsman nodded to the cameraman. "You were present during the final ground assault on Hoth, in command of Lord Vader's Guard, weren't you, Lieutenant?"
"You must be very proud to have taken part in a glorious victory which annihilated the enemy forces. Would you tell our viewers how you felt at that triumphant moment?"
"Well, it wasn't quite like that. We destroyed their base and a lot of their troops and material, but most of their top brass got away. It was pretty much of a stand-off, actually."
With a sigh, the newsman turned off his recorder again. "Listen, Lieutenant, what do you think this whole damn ceremony is about, anyway? The word from MinProp is that they want some death-or-glory stuff for public consumption, to make the government look good. Give me a break, will you?"
Raan found himself disliking the newsman more with every passing minute. He had wondered why they had an been ordered to attend this ceremony and why the Imperium was stressing this minor victory on Hoth. A propaganda campaign. No wonder Lord Vader had refused to speak to the media. To make the deaths of his men a sideshow for the sixth-hour newstapes - Raan felt sick.
"I'd rather not talk about it," he said.
The reporter swore. "All right. But you wait until you need us!" He rounded up his crew and walked off. The last thing Raan noticed was the crew approaching a confused-looking officer from Veers' walker.
Raan's last words had apparently distracted Lady Has from her disappointment at missing out on a tri-D appearance. "You don't want to talk about it? Oh, you poor man! It must have been terrible. You know, Lieutenant, all of us here at Court admire you troopers so much. You're so heroic, and…."." One finger reached out and traced a kittenishly flirtatious line down Raan's armored forearm as the lady's eyes traveled down him. "...Fit…."."
Raan shied backward and ran into the wall behind him. Lady Has swayed toward him. "You know, I've never met a regular trooper before. Only Lord Vader-" She coughed and stopped, dimly aware, perhaps, of an impending faux pas, as Raan's relentless inner voice finished for her: -Only Lord Vader has clones for his personal Guard. Only Lord Vader sees us as human beings. He clenched his teeth on his rising Irritation and shifted his helm to the other hip to move his arm as far away from the lady as possible.
She chattered on, oblivious. "But surely you don't spend all your time fighting? After all, I've heard-" A faintly predatory look spread over her face, as she made another grab for his arm. "I'm sure you could teach me something new...."
COSMOS, another one. Raan had discovered that the court ladles all seemed to think sex with a clone was a new and exciting perversion. He eluded her by a halrsbreadth. "I'm sure I don't know what you mean, my lady."
"You don't?" she said archly.
"No, my lady." Raan's face was totally expressionless.
The lady sighed disgustedly and backed away. "No, you probably don't, you moronic clone. By the Maker, it's true: droids do have more brains. And probably better equipment," she finished spitefully over her shoulder as she walked away.
Raan's fingers tightened convulsively on his helm and he restrained a childish urge to throw it at the retreating figure. He looked at the wall chrono. It's almost time. I might as well bring the Guard up for the ceremony.
He turned toward the door and almost ran into a young woman who was standing behind him. She was dressed in the same fashionable garb as the other female guests: a high-waisted, low-cut court gown that flickered from opaque to translucent as she moved. But her face was bare of stencils, and the hair piled on her head was a soft red-brown. She was pretty, too, Raan noticed; but he was in no mood for further feminine conversation.
"Your pardon, my lady-"
"Please-" She held out both hands helplessly to him. "Don't pay any attention to her. She thinks nobody can have any feelings if they're not-" She stopped.
"A 'real person'?" Raan finished savagely.
"Oh, no; I didn't mean that. It's just - what do you call us?"
A spirit of mischief stirred in Raan and the anger drained out of him. "We call non-clones a lot of things, my lady."
For a moment the girl looked as if she wanted to smile, but wasn't quite sure whether the joke was private or not. "Anyway," she continued, "Please don't judge all of us by Lady Has. She's managed to offend everyone at court at least once - I think it's a record - and the only reason she's still here is that her son is married to one of his Imperial Majesty's relatives. The ladies-in-waiting have been betting on who is going to get angry enough to hit her first." She looked thoughtful. "My money is on his Grace of Eckenroth. He has a low tolerance level. Of course, he's never been known to be unchivalrous toward a lady, but in this case, that restriction may not apply…."."
"May I be so bold as to inquire your name, my lady?" Raan responded to the spark of conspiratorial humor in her expression.
"Oh - my name's Yoris; Yoris Maclarone. My father's Senator Maclarone - or at least he used to be."
Raan felt as if he had just swallowed a large lump of cold firstmeal gruel. He was standing here, actually having a conversation with the daughter of one of the oldest pre-Imperial noble families. His guard went up again, and he eyed her suspiciously. "Why should you be interested in what happens to me? I'm nobody important."
"You're a human being!" Yoris burst out. "And see what they've done to you? They've even convinced you that-" She stopped abruptly. Several heads had turned in their direction, apparently attracted by her tone. She smiled brightly. "...Tell me, Lieutenant, is this your first trip to the capitol? We so seldom see Lord Vader here at Court."
Raan, too, had noticed. Without missing a beat, he replied, "No, my lady; I don't think Lord Vader is much interested in life at Court, if you will pardon me. He's always in a hurry to get back to the fighting. If he hadn't been commanded to attend the ceremony. I doubt that any of us would ever have seen the capitol." Here at last was a safe topic. Ignoring the glazed look of polite boredom which crept over Yoris' face, Raan launched into an enthusiastic account of his commander's heroic exploits. At last he could be completely honest. Raan's admiration for Darth Vader was genuine and close to fanatical.
A mellow chime sounded and a mechanical voice Intoned. "The ceremony will begin in twenty minutes. His Imperial Majesty commands that you take your places at once." Raan started guiltily. Before he could move, Yoris unsnapped the personacom from the side of her evening bag and quickly punched in a series of digits, then pushed it into his hand. "Here. You can find me at this address-I'm at the University. Use a public cab."
"It'll have to be there. With my father's position so uncertain. I can't risk anywhere else. But-" She reached out and took his hand for a brief moment and gave him a pleading look. "Please come. Please." The chime sounded again, and Yoris quickly let go of his hand. "Now go - you'll be late."
Raan hesitated, confused, and Yoris gave him a little shove. "Go! Hurry!"
Raan turned and almost ran for the door, pushing the personacom into his belt pouch and securing his helm as he went. Yoris stood looking after him. and her face was as confused as the whirling thoughts in Raan's mind.
* * *
A few quick orders moved the Dark Lord's honor guard into position at the far end of the Emperor's vast audience hall. Brightly dressed courtiers crowded the floor along the wood-paneled walls. High above, the huge formal banners of a hundred subject worlds hung from the vast roofbeams, their devices half-obscured in the gloom, a dim glitter of bright embroidery and stiff gold thread. At the other end of the hall, three wide stone steps led up to a dais and the Emperor's vast carved throne. There his Imperial Majesty waited, a hooded figure radiating cold force, cloaked in dark sorcerer's power and a sense of menace. Vader's Guard advanced toward the throne. First came two troopers, one bearing the black banner of the Sith Worlds with its silver fret, and one a gonfanon with the Dark Lord's arms as heir of his House: sable, a luthra-hawk stooping, argent. His Guard followed in a hollow square of shining white which contrasted dramatically with the towering black figure in the center. Perfectly in step, they paced off the length of the hall. When they reached the foot of the dais steps, Raan barked a single command. The banner-bearers dipped their flags in salute, stepped to the side and then back, as the white ranks in front wheeled, turned, countermarched to the rear, and closed again without breaking step into two precisely dressed lines behind the Dark Lord. As the Emperor rose, Vader bowed his knee in a deep reverence. Then, flanked a pace to the rear by arms which had been proud and ancient when the Republic itself was new, the Lord of the Sith stepped forward to receive the Imperial award.
* * *
The next morning, when his Guard had formally escorted Lord Vader to his guest quarters and been dismissed, Raan shepherded his men to the visitors' barracks in the sprawling unitary complex that acted as headquarters, barracks, officers' quarters, and dispatching center for the capitol. Raan called the troopers together for final instructions.
"All right, men: Lord Vader will be here for at least a tenday, maybe two. ALL of you except those assigned on rotation as bodyguard (check the schedule) will be on liberty except during the ceremonial functions. There's a list of those posted into the 'puter; be sure to check it. Don't be late for any of them. And 1f you go out of barracks, I want your armor to shine - and I don't mean a quick wipe-down, I mean spit-and-polish. Remember that you're Lord Vader's Guardsmen!"
Raan watched with satisfaction the half-unconscious intake of breath and straightening of shoulders that ran through his men at these words, the preening gesture of an outfit proud of Its rep and ready to defend It against all comers. There was no morale problem with his troops, not with a commander like the Dark Lord and the1r recent victories.
"If you're going to get drunk or smoked up, or screw around, do it in one of the clone places - not where the Others can see you," Raan continued. Then he grinned. "Otherwise, it's green board. Enjoy the big city; it may be a long time before you get back again." The troopers laughed, well aware of their commander's distaste for desk soldiering.
"Dismissed." The men scattered In small, cheerful groups, and Raan found himself alone. He checked the 'puter readout out again: no, nothing until the formation two days from now. The first thing I'm going to do, he thought, is get out of this darned dress armor. It was new issue, and everywhere it didn't pinch, it itched. He picked up his kit and headed for the transients' BOQ, wondering if any of the year-brothers from his decanting run would also be on assignment at headquarters during his stay. The featureless corridor walls in their familiar official shade of grey reminded him of the clonebarrack of his childhood and the passageways of every ship he had served on. Here he was content, complete, and secure. By the time he reached the desk at the BOQ section, he was whistling softly to himself.
He was brought up short by the clerk in a civilian service uniform behind the desk. Then it occurred to him that downport on a whole planet full of a civilians, a human clerk would be a more efficient use of resources than a rating or a droid. More efficient, but- Raan's eyes narrowed slightly with instinctive resentment as the man went through the process of crossmatching his identifying voice-print.
"Ah, yes; the commander of Lord Vader's Guard." They faced each other with muted mutual hostility. "We're kinda crowded here, Lieutenant, there's been a lot of traffic lately," the clerk continued. His expression said as plainly as words: You may have officer's rank, but you're still nothing but a clone. "Yeah, I heard," Raan said.
The clerk gave him a poisonous look. "We only have one room open, and I'm afraid it's in the non-Coms' barracks, Sir. You'll have to share a double.”
"Who is it?"
“His number's R1538. Yin-series. Sergeant.”
Raan thought for a moment. "Sounds familiar, but I can't place him."
“It's either bunk with him or set up in the hall, Sir," the clerk said. "Take your choice."
Raan was bone-tired and his dress armor was now itching furiously in a variety of annoying places. The thought of arguing with this bureaucrat was humiliating, and the prospect of appealing to his commander for an override was even worse. He decided it wasn't worth the fight; he'd spent enough time in troopers' quarters. "Fine with me. I'll take it."
The clerk keyed the room to Raan's pattern and turned back to talk to his board. Raan walked down to the NCO section and palmed his lock. The door slid open on a tiny grey cubicle down the hall. It was molded of a single piece of pre-fab plassteel, and with the room controls off, nothing broke the sweep of wall except a change of texture where the floor began and the lines of furniture folded up into the wall. He identified two bunks, a tabledesk and chairs, storage, a 'cor, a door that led to this room's half of a shared 'fresher unit, a monitor. There were signs of occupation: a kitbag against one wall and a shell hung neatly in the armor storage unit. But there was no clue to his roommate's identity. Spacers travel light and there was not much room for personal belongings on board a warship.
With a sigh of content, Raan got out of his dress armor, hung it up, 'freshed, and put on body-suit fatigues. Then he unpacked his well-worn battle armor and checked 1t over carefully. He was concerned about one osmotic component in the atmospheric filtration system which seemed to be cutting in a little slowly. A few minutes' tinkering satisfied him that it was back in synch with his breathing cycle. He set the helm on the top shelf above the rest of the shell and dialed the storage unit shut.
There was nothing more to occupy him 1n his room and he had most of the day yet to fill. With a shrug, Raan stepped out again Into the corridor and paused to consider his options. He was restless. None of the activities which had occupied him on former leaves seemed worth the effort now that he had no clone-brothers to share them. It was too early to get drunk, and anyway, he decided he didn't really want to. I'm an officer now, he thought with some relief; I don't have to prove anything. He considered visiting one of the houses along the Strip, but the idea was vaguely depressing. Maybe later. He decided to settle for caf and headed for the wardroom.
Raan drew a cup of the hot drink from the dispenser and drifted across the room to join a group of fatigue-clad junior officers in an animated technical discussion on the merits of a new model of laserrifle now being field-tested. The argument continued until one of them put down his mug and said firmly, "I don't care if the M-48 does have more range and firepower. Accuracy's more important. Half the time with the charming glitches that little bitch comes up with. You'd score better throwing rocks at the rebels. I'll take the P-12." He turned to Raan. "You're pretty good at war-gaming. Join me for a couple of campaigns?"
Raan tried to remember where he had seen the other lieutenant before, and finally recalled him as a regular spectator at the trooper wargaming tourneys on board the old Anadarko, the fleet's training ship. A valiant mental effort recovered the man's name: Sheret? Yes, that was it. He had never gamed with the man before; officer cadets might attend trooper tourneys, but they did not participate in them. Raan felt a pleased surprise that the young officer wanted to campaign with him.
The two adjourned to the wargaming room and took seats at the outlet terminals overlooking a six-foot square of simulated terrain. The game 'puter assigned them equivalent armies and threw in a series of random factors to make the imitation more interesting. Under the generalship of the players, hundreds of little holographic figures marched over the board. Tiny aliens and troopers maneuvered miniature TIEs and ships, charged each other, fired minuscule blastrifles, and bled and died in realistic fashion as Raan's fingers moved over the bank of controls.
Ordinarily, the mock warfare would have fascinated Raan. His opponent turned out to be a skillful and imaginative player, and for the first few campaigns Raan found himself absorbed in countering Sheret's unorthodox tactics. Gradually, he found his attention wandering, and the restlessness he had felt earlier returned. He tried to force his mind back to the game. but at last, after his advance guard had been decoyed into an ambush that should have been obvious to a first-year cadet, Sheret clicked off his terminal and raised quizzical eyebrows at Raan. "You've got a wire crossed somewhere, Raan. You aren't tracking today. Want to concede?"
"Yeah, I guess," Raan muttered.
Sheret checked the chrono. "It's just about time for the Strip to start getting lively. I'm going to hit a couple of bars and the Maalie's. I heard she's got a new girl who's good at tris - want to join me?"
"I don't think so, thanks," Raan answered.
"What's the matter? Not feeling good?"
Raan seized on this excuse to avoid trying to define the disquiet he felt. "Yeah. Guess I've still got a bit of hyperlag. I'm going to go sleep for a while, and maybe it'll straighten itself out. I'll check out the Strip later."
"Take care of yourself, then," Sheret said. He wandered away.
A nagging sense of duty prompted Raan to look in on his men before heading back to his quarters. As usual, the enlisted men's rec area was thick with euphoric fog and heavy with smells from drinks, smokes, and less common recreational drugs from half the galaxy's inhabited worlds. Some of the Guard had already headed for the Strip, but most of them were taking the opportunity to swap stories and souvenirs with men from other units. His Guardsmen clustered around Raan with friendly greetings, offering to buy him the ritual drink, but he refused, smiling, and left as soon as he was sure everything was in order and the bodyguard rotation was going smoothly. Although he had complete confidence in his sergeant, Raan knew that his men appreciated his concern. He also knew that they felt inhibited by an officer, and he didn't want to put a crimp in their liberty time.
Once again, Raan felt his quiet satisfaction 1n his commander's unique policy of promoting done officers. In so many units, the officers understood nothing of their troopers' background and hardly regarded them as human. At least, thought Raan, Lord Vader's officers can remember what it was like to be a regular trooper. He thought of the clerk who had assigned him quarters, and his mouth twisted sourly. The civil service might not be willing to accept clone officers, but the military knew better than to show disrespect to one of Lord Vader's officers, no matter what they might think privately.
The old antagonism stirred in him. Civilians. Non-clones and civilians. There were alien, unknown, probably dangerous. He had gone directly from the clonebarracks of childhood to training aboard the Anadarko. His life had been planned for him before he was decanted, and it included nothing as disorderly and uncertain as civilians. They were a mystery, and as Raan's mind drifted back to the concept of 'civilian' and then to the pretty young girl he had met at the award ceremony, he felt the tug of curiosity, the half-ashamed, disturbing curiosity of a forbidden subject, a subject he was not supposed to wonder about. What might a civilian - a civilian girl - be like?
She had asked him to come see her. What could that mean? He had no idea what a girl could want, could mean, except for the woman at the clone Houses on the Strip, the Strip here and on a hundred other downports across the galaxy where his ships had touched port. They were the only women he had ever known, and they were clones, too; his own people, though alien in their own way as any non-humanoid. When he had gone there with his fellow troopers, he had picked out anyone who looked as if she wouldn't laugh at him. He didn't have to talk to them; they knew what he wanted. But they never talked to him either. He understood nothing of them.
How much less he understood of this strange non-clone girl, this woman, who had asked him to come to her. Why did she want him? Was he, perhaps, a person to her, rather than a function? No, surely not, and yet... She had the whole mysterious world of civilians to choose from; what could a clone, a trooper, mean to her? A vagrant thought, uncertain, embarrassing, sensual and exciting: what would it be like to have a woman who wanted him? A woman, and a non-clone....
While this had been passing through his mind, Raan had been walking toward his quarters, and with a start, he looked up to see that he had almost walked right past his room. He palmed the lock and stepped in. His anonymous roommate, owner of the kitbag and armor, was standing on one foot with his back to the door, pulling on a fatigue suit. He was a typical VIII-clone, several inches taller than Raan and much stockier. Heavy muscles rippled across his back as he pulled on the pantsleg, and his freshly washed black hair curled damply against the nape of his thick neck. His broad, good-natured face broke into a wide grin as he turned around. No wonder his number sounded familiar, Raan thought, it's-
"Khet! I didn't know you were here. I thought your troop was still stationed on the Invincible."
"Nope. Been transferred to the Avenger. Hey - what are you doing down here in NCO territory? I heard you'd gone up in the world." He looked concerned. "It's not trouble. Is it? You're still with the Droid, ain't you?"
"I'm still with Lord Vader. It's a long story," Raan said hurriedly. He glanced at the monitor. "Khet, he doesn't like-"
Khet laughed. "Relax. Vader ain't going to burn a humble sergeant, especially-" he faked polishing his fingers on his sleeve "-especially one who taught his Guard commander said sergeant's best hand-to-hand moves on his first tour out. He's got more important people to get pissed at, like captains and admirals. Speaking of which," his eyes sparkled wickedly. "I heard Tarkin bought it when the new battle station blew. (I thought you'd gone with it. too. little brother. Sure was glad to hear otherwise.) He was the commanding officer on Caradinae when - when it happened. Man, it's almost worth losing one to the rebels to get rid of that little-" The glum look on Raan's face evidently penetrated his burble. "Hey - what's the matter? You must a' been hanging around those dumb IIIs on the gun crew again. You used to have a sense of humor."
"So, what is it? You lonely up there in officer territory?"
"No, it's not that." Raan thought of Sheret. "The officers are pretty decent."
"Well-" Raan gave an indefinite shrug in the direction of the monitor.
"Oh." Khet turned his broad back to the spyeye, walked in front of Raan and made shooing motions toward him and the door. "Let's go down to the Strip and talk about it." Wait, he mouthed.
The two went out. Khet made a 'wait here' gesture with one hand bellied down, and started to slide across the floor under the level visible to the monitor. The door slid shut. Five minutes later, the door opened again and Khet said. "Come on in. It's green."
"What did you do?"
"Just patched in my continuous loop of an empty room. Comes in handy sometimes." He splayed his hands. "They don't call me 'nimble fingers' for nothing, y'know."
Raan started to laugh helplessly. He pushed the control for one of the chairs and half-fell into it. Grinning, Khet took the other chair. "Now, little brother," he said, "what's the problem?"
Hesitantly, Raan began to tell him about the girl he had met at the ceremony. Encouraged by Khet's sympathetic nods, he found himself pouring out his earnest, half-formed longings. Khet's nods gradually slowed, and a look of unease tending toward alarm spread across his face. Raan dribbled to an embarrassed, apologetic halt.
"I don't like it," Khet said. "I don't like it at all. The last thing you need is to get involved with one of the damned Others - and a civilian, too. Come on down to the Strip with me and I'll find you a girl."
"But this girl isn't like that."
"They're all like that, Raan," the sergeant said grimly. "The only difference is what they cost. An' I don't think you're going to be able to afford this one."
"Listen, buddy, you're one of ten - twelve clone officers in the whole Service. You're in with maybe the most powerful commander in the Fleet. Don't blow it." He turned his head away and said roughly. "Half the Numbers in the Fleet'd give their right arm to be where you are."
Raan shifted in his chair. "I didn't have anything to do with It. Khet. You know that Lord Vader just likes VI-serles."
Bitterly: "Yeah. I know."
"Besides, it's not like I'm going to get involved with her permanently. Lord Vader's only going to be here a tenday or so. What can happen?"
"You'd be surprised, little brother. You'd be surprised."
Raan simply sat, stubbornly silent.
"Don't sit there staring at me like a bantha cow with a bellyache," Khet snarled. Then he sighed. "All right. You really want this girl?"
Raan nodded, nervously studying the toes of his indoor half-boots.
"So what are you going to do about it?"
"...I thought I'd go down there; say I want to return her 'com, and...."
"In armor?" Khet looked disgusted. "Here, let me see that address. Hmm; that's down by the university. You'd stick out like a tauntaun in the Jundland. It isn't safe for anything less than a squad, in armor, down there. One of my patrols was jumped by a bunch of Silver Front goons last tenday. Lost two of my men, and three of the others are still in MedSec." He cursed imaginatively and with feeling. "Those Silver Front types are worse than the rebels - they'll kill anything that moves in an Imperial uniform, just for the fun of it. Turns them on or something, the perverted bastards. 'Students,' hah!" He looked sharply at Raan. "Are you sure the girl's not in with them or the rebels?"
"The rebels? Oh, no; her father's in the government and she's real worried about him. She's a student. I think. She's all right. Besides, why would a rebel want to make it with a trooper?"
"Don't ask me. They're all crazy."
A thought occurred to Raan, intruding on his own concerns. Puzzled, he asked, "What the hell were you doing with a patrol down near the University? I thought you were assigned to Avenger."
"I'm posted, but I haven't reported yet - I've still got another tenday between tours. Officially unattached. Things have been pretty hot around here lately," he continued absently. "Need every warm body with a rifle they've got a rotate patrols." He chewed on a knuckle and eyed Raan consideringly. "If you're actually going through with this dumb idea, you'11 need some civvies."
"Civvies?" Raan was thinking that it was just like Khet to volunteer for an extra chance to get shot at and then pass it off casualty with an off-hand remark. And how many times had Khet told him: the baste rule for survival in this system is 'Never volunteer.' The fraud.
"Civvies. To wear. Idiot. I supposed, being the straight-arrow type you are, all you've got is regulation issue, right?"
"I think I know where I can scrounge up some clothes to fit a VI. Wait here. I'll be back in a little white." Khet paused at the door. "You're sure you want to do this?"
Raan faced him squarely and took a breath. "I'm sure." I think.
Khet was back in about an hour, carrying some nondescript civilian clothing: a beige tunic, brown pants, brown vest, and a pair of short boots. They fit surprisingly well. When Raan had dressed, Khet handed him a small civilian-type hand blaster. "There's a holster inside the vest. You don't want to go out of barracks without some kind of weapon." He grimaced. "It's kinda pitiful, but it's better than nothing."
"Thanks, Khet." Raan paused as if he were going to say something more, then decided against it.
"Go take 'em off again," Khet said. "You don't want anybody to catch you with that stuff on in barracks, do you?"
Raan retrieved his fatigues from the floor and started to strip again. Khet frowned at his bare back. "I'm not letting him go out there on his own," he muttered. "I don't trust any of 'em."
Raan looked up from pressuring shut the opening on his fatigues.
"If you run into anything-"
Raan smiled. "I'll be all right."
"Good luck, little brother," Khet said as the door slid shut behind Raan, and added somberly, his face uncharacteristically serious. "I think you're going to need it before this is over."
* * *
Yoris was sitting on the edge of a rumpled bed talking to a lanky young man who looked as if he had never smiled in his life. "You should have seen it, Pallon. The expression on his face when Lady Has backed him into a corner was absolutely priceless! I couldn't resist going over to talk to him - and then I got this wonderful idea."
Pallon ran a hand through his unruly brown hair. "It's dangerous, Yoris. A trooper that close to Vader is nothing to fool around with."
"Aren't you the one who's always telling me we have to show the Alliance we mean business, that we can handle things by ourselves, that the Silver Front 1s a serious part of the Movement? If we can pull this off, it'll prove it." Yoris' mouth curved up in a teasing half-smite. "Besides, he's kind of cute. This could be sort of fun."
He rose to the bait. "He's a clone and a trooper - an enemy of the people. I don't like to think of him... touching you."
"Why, Pallon, you're jealous."
"I am not jealous. A revolutionary has no time for such useless private emotions."
"Oh, don't be so stuffy. It was only a joke."
"This is serious, Yoris. There's no room for levity. We have to focus all our energy on the goal." He began to pace back and forth, hands clasped behind his back. "The Silver Front is the true movement, the only group that really understands the forces of history, the only one that truly speaks for the people. The Alliance - pah! Halfway measures, reactionary nonsense about 'restoring the Old Republic….'.' The Organas are no better than the Vaders. Blood-sucking aristocratic parasites, alt of them! We have to work with the Alliance for now, but when we've gotten rid of the Emperor, then you'll see a real revolution, a meaningful revolution. True justice, for all the people, and-"
"Pallon, I am not in a cell meeting! You don't have to give me a speech."
He stopped pacing, deflated, and turned to took at her. "Just what makes you think this is going to work, anyway?"
Yoris got up, walked to the window and stood looking out over the city. The university was on the edge of the Old Quarter, and from where she was standing, she could see over the rooftops of the student housing to its twisting streets and narrow buildings. Deep in the Old Quarter she noted in passing the burned open space among the crowded houses that had been Ruwenjorin, last dojo of the Jedi order, before the Purge. Vader's old school.
"I don't know for sure it'll work." she said at last, serious now. "But this trooper is closer to Vader than anybody except his personal droid. That bodyguard goes everywhere and sees everything he does. Short of getting a spy into the Guard itself, we can find out more about how he thinks, what he does, how we can get to him, from this trooper than from anyone we've ever had a chance at. And you know there's no way we can disguise one of our people as a done well enough to pass. We can't miss this opportunity."
"If we could take out Vader, it would be a major blow to the Empire. The Alliance has been trying to do it for years," Pallon reluctantly agreed. "All right. But why do you have to get friendly with this trooper? Let's grab him and mind-probe him. That'll tell us everything he knows, and you won't have to get involved. I don't want-" He swallowed the rest of the sentence.
Yoris understood the mute appeal in his face, and reached up to touch his cheek gently. "No, Pallon." she said. "You haven't taken Professor Natero's course yet, have you? The subconscious can be blocked by resistance to the mind-probe; without his cooperation, it will only tell us what he knows consciously. But this guy's only a trooper. Most of what we need to get to Vader, he doesn't know consciously. It's all observation, things he's seen but not thought about. We have to bring up those little bits of information to the surface of his mind and integrate them into a pattern of behavior for Vader."
"You think you can get a trooper under fealty-oath to betray his commander? I didn't think they could do that."
"As far as I know, they can't. The books say that loyalty is basic to their primary post-decanting conditioning." She made a face. "What a horrible system! Treating human beings like druids, making them into some kind of machines...."
"That's part of what we're trying to change, Yoris."
"I know, I know." She shrugged. "Anyway, once we get him cooperative, we'll tell him we're looking for something else in his memories. I'll think of something."
"This still sounds awfully complicated. I hope it turns out the way you're planning."
"So do I. Believe me." She gave him a kiss. “And I promise not to get any friendlier with him than I absolutely have to."
Pallon took her into his arms, and the rest of their conversation had nothing whatever to do with politics.
* * *
Raan caught a robocab outside the headquarters complex and punched in the address on Yoris' 'com. He sat down gingerly in the passenger seat, acutely aware of his lack of armor. He could feet a breeze on his shins, like something small and nasty nibbling on them, from the ventilation opening near the cab's floor. The vu1nerab1e area between his shoulderblades itched, and the civilian blaster felt very inadequate in its hidden holster.
The cab floated past classroom buildings and the park-like central campus, and came to the fringe of the university area, crowded with rundown off-campus housing, esoteric bookstores, strange little shops, and hole-in-the-wall restaurants apparently specializing in inedible ethnic or health foods of various kinds. It came to a stop in front of an old private house with the tower story converted into a coffeehouse. The late afternoon sunshine turned its chipped brown walls into soft earthcolor and highlighted the cracked patterned tiles around the front window. Several small tables listed drunkenly on the uneven cobblestones of the patio, and a vine-covered fretwork spanning the area threw dappled, moving shadows over the few people sitting there. From what Raan could tell of them, they were mainly young, with the unkempt and slightly preoccupied took of students, but he was not familiar enough with civilians to be sure. He ran the gauntlet of stares into the building, and looked around for Yoris. The interior was dark with old wood and ingrained grime, but there was a cheerful air about the place, with bright holopictures, some of them clearly amateur or experimental in nature and adorned with unobtrusive pricetags, all over the walls, and old-fashioned cloth covers on the little tables. A small blaze crackled in the fireplace built into one wall, and appetizing smells drifted through the half-doors off the kitchen. A few more customers sat here and there among hanging plants Raan recognized as native to several different worlds. He went up to the young man behind the counter.
"Is there a Yoris Maciarone here?"
The young man looked him over and called out, “Mekla!”
"Yes, Pallon?" An older man, tall and grey-haired, came out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on a towel. In spite of the apron he wore, he had an air of calm dignity. He smiled at Raan. "Welcome. I don t think I've seen you here before. Are you new at the University?"
"I'm not a student," Raan said, and conditioned reflex made him add, "Sir. I met Miss Maclarone at... at a party, and she left her 'com behind. I'm here to return it."
"'Sir,' eh," said Mekla. "Hear that. Pallon? The young man is definitely not a student. What's your name, son? I'll see if Yoris is upstairs."
Raan was caught unprepared. Raan was his clonename, and he certainty couldn't give his number here. "Uh... uh... Radin," he stammered.
The young man gave him a hostile stare which puzzled Raan, but Mekla smiled again. "Well, Radin, we'll find out for you if she's in. Go and see, would you, Pallon?"
Pallon turned silently and went up the stairs. "So you're not a student." Mekla continued conversationally. "What do you do, then?"
But Raan's meager invention had failed. "I'm just visiting the city. I'm sort of on vacation."
"If there's anything we can do for you white you're here, let us know. That's what we're here for at The Beacon," said Mekla. He shook his head. "So many of these kids don't have anybody. We try to help a little."
"That's quite all right, Sir." Raan was somewhat alarmed. All he needed was some nosy civilian busybody prying into his presence here. "I'm fine. I just want to see Miss Maclarone."
"Here she is," said Mekla. There was the sound of feet hurrying down the stairs and Yoris bounced in. beaming. "I'm so glad you did come! This is the man I told you about, that I met at the Palace." She gave Pallon a meaningful took over his shoulder.
"Yes. I thought he was," Pallon said sourly.
"Oh, Pallon!" There was an edge to her voice, and Pallon responded with an angry glare. Raan looked from one to the other, confused. "Pallon's my... brother. He tends to think he owns me." Yoris smiled again at Raan.
"I brought you back your 'com, Miss Maciarone," Raan said woodenly. He decided it wasn't worth trying to figure out what they were arguing about.
"Please - call me Yoris. Thank you for returning it. Since you're here, come have a cup of caf with me." She clipped the 'com on her belt. Raan noticed she was wearing a close-fitting tunic and pants not much different from the ones he had one. The effect, he decided, was definitely better on her. The deep garnet of the tunic picked up red highlights in her long brown hair and made her face glow. In contrast to the severe cut of the tunic, Yoris had left several top buttons open, exposing a smooth sweep of throat and a hint of breasts. Raan felt himself breathing a bit faster.
Yoris disappeared into the kitchen and returned with two steaming mugs, then led Raan into the back room. It was furnished much like the front, except for a pair of highbacked benches flanking the fireplace. Yoris shut the door and took a seat on one of the benches, patting the wood next to her in an invitation to sit down. At this hour between lunch and dinner there was no one else in the room.
Raan took a sip of caf, feeling distinctly awkward. Casting around for something to say, he asked, "Who was that older man?"
"Mekla? He owns this place."
"Why does he want to help everybody so much. I could hardly get away from him."
Yoris shrugged. "Feels guilty, I expect. He was an apprentice at Ruwenjorin, but his dad died and he had to drop out for a while to help support his mom and his family. He was going to go back, but while he was gone the imp-the government - burned the dojo and executed all the students. I suppose he wants to make it up to them or something for having survived by helping students here at the University."
Raan looked dubiously toward the closed door. "He was a Jedi rebel?"
"No. He wasn't interested in politics at all. Still isn't. He only stayed at Ruwenjorin a little while to learn the mind-healing techniques they used to teach." She moved closer to him. "Why are you so interested in Mekla?"
Raan's attempt at subterfuge seemed to be back-firing. "I'm not, really. I-"
Yoris set down her cup and smiled again. "You know, I really am glad you came. Do you have to go back right away?"
"No. I don't have a formation until day after tomorrow."
They sat silently, staring at each other. Raan was paralyzed. Did she expect more conversation, some attempt at a courtship? Did her invitation mean to her what it meant to him? How should he begin? Did she expect him to sweep her up into his arms and carry her away? Say something flowery and complimentary? He made a vague movement in her direction, then drew back uncertainty.
Yoris took matters firmly in hand. She took the mug gently away from him and set it on the floor, then slid over against him. Raan felt the feathery hair brushing softly against him and smelled her warm, dean fragrance, an enticing mixture of femaleness and a faint perfume of some sort. Raan put his hand diffidently on her shoulder. The fabric of her tunic was something soft and slightly napped; it felt like short, silky fur, it felt like - Raan's imagination turned fiercely graphic and he was overwhelmed by his hunger for her. His arms tightened around her as she turned her face up and her mouth opened under his, eager and demanding, and she pulled him down to her, melting into his body. Their kiss grew deeper, more passionate, as Yoris slid her hands inside his tunic against his bare back, her open palms tracing lines of fire down him, mingling with the growing fire within him.
As they broke apart for a breath, Yoris slid out from under him and stood up. She caught his hand. "Come on, upstairs." she said breathlessly. Raan followed her out the door and up the back flight of stairs.
* * *
The next tenday seemed to take forever or no time at all. Even while he was on duty, Yoris was constantly on Raan's mind. He moved through the dull grey sameness of headquarters corridors, imagining the bright bronze of her hair like colored leaves against an autumn sky; he touched the cold dead whiteness of armor and his hands remembered the pale-gold warmth of her body. She was always there to him, an ache of longing, and he was never quite sure afterward when his emotions moved beyond simple desire into something more complex, something almost, he felt, frightening. He begrudged every day that brought him closer to the time he had to rejoin his ship. Now and again as he lay next to her, Raan wondered with a thin thread of panic how he could bring himself to leave when he must, and strange, impossible ideas flitted through his imagination.
Surely, he thought, she must feel the same. And it seemed to him, in everything she did and said, that it was so. Raan hardly noticed anything else around him. He was only dimly aware of Khet's silent concern as Raan hurried in and out of their shared quarters, and of Mekla's fatherly satisfaction at Yoris' pleasure in Raan's presence. And the quarrels. Several times he arrived to find Yoris and Pallon arguing. The arguments ended abruptly as he appeared, and always ended the same way, with Yoris waving Pallon away with an angry, "Not yet; not yet!" She refused to tell him about them, and he at last accepted it as a necessary mystery, along with Pallon's impatient anger toward him. He could see no reason for it, but after his attempts at friendly conversation were repeatedly turned away with a cold glare, Raan shrugged and gave up.
* * *
The tenday was almost over. Raan lay next to Yoris in the upstairs room, watching the way the morning light fell across her, creating a meandering line of shadow. He idly traced the tine with the tips of his finger down the warm curve of her shoulder and the hollow of her waist to her hip. Yoris opened her eyes and smiled sleepily at him. "Raan."
He half-flinched with the tingle of guilty excitement he always felt at hearing his clonename in her voice. He wondered what would happen if his brothers ever discovered he had admitted a non-clone to the secret of the names clones gave each other, their defiant and forbidden gesture against the anonymity of the Imperial system to which they were only numbers.
"Raan. Raan, Raan," Yoris said with a little laugh, and held her hand gently over his mouth as he started to protest. "Shhh - it's only me. I won't tell. I love you. Raan-the-number. . ."
Raan's answering kiss assured her better than words of his own feelings. A moment later he drew back, his face troubled. "Yoris, it's almost time for Lord Vader to go back to the Executor. What are we going to do?"
Yoris appeared to be struggling with some inner uncertainty of her own. After a long moment, she took a deep breath and looked him in the eye. "Raan, let's go away. To one of the rim planets. We can catch a ship today and be halfway across the galaxy before they find out either of us is gone."
"Yoris, I can't," said Raan in agony. "I'm a trooper. I belong to the Empire."
"You didn't ask to be a trooper. What choice did you ever have? And what has the Empire ever done for you, that they have a right to ask for loyalty? They didn't even let you have a name of your own! Don't you want to go somewhere where you can have something that belongs to you? Where you will be treated like a real person, and - oh, Raan - where we can be together?"
Raan found himself wanting it very much at that moment. "But what could I do there? All I know is the Service."
"The outer worlds are crying for men with good genes and tech training. If you can pilot a fighter and fix your armor, you can pilot a freighter and fix machinery. And a lot of the isolated planets away from Imperial bases need people with military training to defend themselves. A lot of those Rim planets don't even have central ID records. They're so eager for skilled colonists they don't care who they were before or where they came from. Nobody'd ever be able to find us. We'd just disappear."
"And how are we supposed to get off planet without anyone noticing?"
"I have a friend who owns a private runabout with permanent clearance. My name's filed with Control as an alternate pilot. Nobody would have to know you were on board."
Raan sat up against the head of the bed. "You make it sound so easy."
"Other troopers have done it."
He looked at her sharply. "How did you know that?"
She shrugged. "Everybody knows it. Stuff like that gets around, no matter how the government tries to keep it quiet."
"I'm sworn to Lord Vader. I can't do anything to hurt him."
Yoris took both of his hands gently in her own and kissed them, uncurling the clenched fingers one by one, soothing him. The gesture was infinitely tender. "I know. I know." There was sorrowful understanding in her face. "Raan, you won't be doing anything to hurt Vader. You'll just be leaving. All he'll do is authorize another vat-run of VI-series. You know he doesn't care anything about one particular clone."
Raan was stung. "That's not true; Lord Vader is loyal to his men. He cares about us."
Yoris gave an angry, disbelieving snort. "Vader is loyal to Vader and no one else. He's just using you, all of you, for his own power. If he cared anything about you, would he treat you the way he does - like droids? Like, like, things?"
Raan looked away, shaken, trying not to believe her.
She pursued relentlessly. "The minute you caused him the slightest inconvenience, the first time you did something really wrong, he'd get rid of you, wouldn't he?" Raan said nothing. "Well, wouldn't he?"
Raan remembered a succession of commanders who had not survived inconveniencing his lord during the Hoth campaign. "Yes, he would. I guess. But--"
"But nothing! You're like a piece of equipment to him, that's all. As long as you're operational, you'll get proper maintenance. As soon as you malfunction, you'll get scrapped. Can't you see it? Do you want to live like that?" The soft pinging of Yoris' chronoalarm interrupted her, and she swore In frustration. "Oh, no! Damn! I don't want to go, but I'm going to be late for class if I don't. If I don't attend this class, it'll look very suspicious if we turn up missing later. There's a test today." She pulled Raan to her and gave him a desperate, feverish kiss. "I'll be back as soon as I can. Please, Raan, think about it. It's the only way. You will think about what I said?"
"Yes, I will," he promised.
* * *
After Yoris left, Raan dressed slowly and wandered downstairs into the main room. He felt that he couldn't think at all in the room he had shared with Yoris so recently, where everything spoke to him so persuasively of her and her plans. But there was nowhere that he could escape. He sat down and stared gloomily at the opposite wall. She made it sound so easy; so easy and - so reasonable - he thought. The weariness of the long campaign just ended washed over him. It had been cold, always so cold, it seemed to him as he remembered it: the icy wind of Girim, the winter battle in the snows of Hoth, where everything was white - white and cold - as the snow and the rebel emplacements that spat destruction at them, and the crumpled bodies, rebel and Imperial alike white and cold in death; and the aching cold of space that waited just outside his TIE. He remembered the dogfights with rebel fighters, his own TIE a mote in the black and hungry infinity of absolute zero, extinction a fraction of an inch away, held at bay by a thin sheet of metal, fragile against the power of the icy blackness. Black and white, Raan thought; black and white - no color at all; and even the burning is cold, there in space.
He saw his wingman die again, hit by a glancing laserbolt during the rebel evacuation of Hoth: the TIE out of control, spinning over and over helplessly, sparking and burning white against the black like some obscene parody of a child's holiday sparkler, until the fighter exploded and there was nothing left. Why? Raan thought: to die and disappear into that meaningless darkness, and leave nothing behind, not even a name. Why; who would care? The Empire would plug another clone pilot into his place, into his ship or his ship's replacement, like a mechanic exchanging a faulty transistor. And Lord Vader? Raan's fealty to that remote and terrible figure had been the center of his life. But what if Yoris was right? Lord Vader was not demonstrative with his men. How could he know for sure what lay behind the Dark Lord's expressionless mask?
He took in the cheerful room around him. Morning sunshine lay over it like gold, the friendly smell of caf and buttered toast filled the air, and even the rough wood of the old tables and the uneven stone floor seemed unassuming and comfortable. The bright red of a spray of flowers from one of the hanging plants caught and held his eye. This must be what it was to be one of the Others, Raan thought: to be in a warm and comfortable place, a place full of colors, and wait for someone whom you knew would not die, who would come back. The gentle crackle of the fire fell on his ear. Suddenly it contrasted unbearably in his mind with the brilliant, soundless white burning of his wingman's death. He covered his face with his hands, rubbing his dosed eyes as if to drive away the remembered image.
What was he to do?
"Radin?" Raan looked up at the voice. He had vaguely noticed Mekla sitting across the room with Pallon. The old man walked over to his table and put his hand on the back of a chair. "May I join you?"
Raan managed a distracted smile. "Of course, Sir.”
"What is it? You look upset. Did you and Yoris quarrel?" Raan looked at Mekla and then looked away again.
"You can tell me, son. I promise it won't go any further, and maybe I can help. Sometimes it helps just to talk to someone."
Why not? thought Raan. Who else can I talk to? Would Khet turn him in if he decided to bolt? He didn't know. For all his cheerful insolence, his lack of awe toward his superiors and his bending of minor regulations, the sergeant was, in the final analysis, a trooper first and last, loyal to the Empire. Would friendship mean more to him than duty? Raan could not be sure.
And his commander? Raan had a bizarre mental image of trying to explain his situation to Lord Vader, and shuddered.
"Yes." said Raan. It helps to talk. But how much could he say? He found himself rambling on, trying to explain the conflict within him, trying not to give away too much. "...I do love Yoris. At least, I think I do. And I'm sure she feels the same; but how can I give up everything I've ever had, everything I've ever known, to run away to the Rim worlds? There are people I owe and people I've made promises to. I can't just quit. What good will my word be to Yoris if I don't keep the promises I've already made? I don't know what to do."
"I understand. You are a good man, Radin. An honorable man." Mekla was silent for a time, staring at the tabletop. "Yoris' happiness is very important to me. I knew her father years ago, and Yoris has been like a daughter to me since she was born. I want you both to make the right choice." He looked up again. "Have you ever heard of the Force?"
"That magic thing the old Jedi were supposed to have? They told us in school that was just a superstition."
"It was real. I studied at Ruwenjorin, and I saw it."
Raan shrugged. "Anyway, it's all gone now. There aren't any more Jedi."
"No, there aren't any more Jedi." Mekla's face was distant, full of regret and past sorrows. His face hardened. "There was only one who survived - the only who destroyed them all. The renegade. The traitor. Darth Vader."
Raan was startled almost beyond caution. At the last minute he clamped his teeth on his tongue. Lord Vader a Jedi? The idea seemed ridiculous, impossible; he was tempted to dismiss it as the old man's imagination. And yet, Mekla had been at Ruwenjorin, had been, however briefly, an apprentice among the Jedi. He could hardly be mistaken about such a thing - and, yes; it was possible. Stories about the Jedi and their powers came back to Raan, horror stories whispered under the warmers at night in the clonebarracks, stories from sensational tri-D episodes and the more flamboyant popular histories he had viewed. Raan remembered the unexplained things he had seen Lord Vader do, and the other events his clonebrothers who had served with the Dark Lord had told him. They matched. Lord Vader's powers were Jedi powers.
Dawning excitement clenched a knot in Raan's belly, and even his worries about Yoris receded for the moment. Jedi powers, it was said, could be learned. How long had he wondered about Lord Vader's power and imagined using something similar himself? Why, a man with Jedi powers could go anywhere and do almost anything. Could even find a new life on the Rim worlds....
"I was only at Ruwenjorin one semester," Mekla was saying as Raan's attention returned to him. "I learned a little about the mind-healing techniques and meditation. The Masterjedi really could do all those things you hear about -read minds, influence other people's thoughts, move matter by mind, see the past and the future - lots of things. But the techniques I learned are useful for calming your mind and sorting out your emotions. I think they could help you make your decision. Would you like to try and see?"
"Yes," said Raan. "I'd like to try."
All during this conversation, Raan had half-noticed Pallon at the other table looking more and more agitated, but he had paid no attention. He had long since given up trying to understand Pallon. As Raan rose and followed Mekla out of the room and up the stairs toward a less public area, Pallon stood up abruptly and came after them. Raan and Mekla stepped into one of the smaller upstairs rooms, and as Pallon moved to follow, the older man put out a hand to forestall him. Raan pushed past him and shut the door behind the three of them. The layout of the little room impinged marginally on Raan's consciousness; it was almost an exact duplicate of the room he had shared with Yoris.
"You can't do this, Mekla." Pallon's voice was low and deadly. "You can't let Yoris go with him. He's a clone. An imperial 'shell."
Mekla and Raan recoiled with almost identical gestures of shocked surprise.
"And you, you-" Pallon gave Raan a death's-head imitation smile. Some detached part of Raan's mind admired Pallon's imaginative profanity. "Did you really think Yoris was in love with you? How could a real woman love a thing like you that isn't even human?" He laughed without humor. "She was just using you to get to Vader. We have plans for that wonderful Dark Lord of yours. Yoris isn't going anywhere with you; she belongs to me."
Suddenly there was a blaster in Pallon's hand. At the sight of the weapon, Raan's trained reflexes took over. Without thinking, he dropped to the floor and rolled behind the bed. As Pallon's blasterbolt sizzled past his ear, he pulled his own blaster from the vest holster and snapped off a 'stun' shot-among civilians he had not wanted the gun set to kill. Pallon crumpled to the floor, still wearing a look of surprise. Raan rolled over to his knees and fanned the blaster again to make sure, catching Mekla in the edge of the wide-angle stunbeam.
Raan rose cautiously to his feet. Silver Front, he thought; Pallon must be Silver Front. They specialized in terrorism and ambushes. They weren't used to victims who shot back.
A familiar patter of feet came up the stairs. "Raan, are you in here-" Yoris opened the door and stepped in before she saw the blaster in Raan's hand. She almost felt over Pallon's body, recovered herself with a startled gasp. She stared at Raan, horrified. "Are they-"
Raan reached the door in several long strides, slapped it shut and locked it in one swift movement. He thrust his blaster back into the holster. "They're only stunned. Look at them."
Yoris stumped with a sigh of relief and dosed her eyes for a brief moment. Then she straightened to face Raan uncertainly. "Now." he said coldly. "Just what did you have to do with this?"
Yoris licked her lips. "With what?"
"Pallon told me about a plot against Lord Vader." Raan took hold of Yoris in a firm grip with one hand above each elbow. "I want to know all about it and I want to know now. And it had better be the truth, Yoris."
"It was an assassination. Vader. Silver Front." Yoris' words came in hesitant spurts. She looked away from Raan. "I couldn't go through with it. Not after I... knew you, and I knew what he meant to you. I couldn't do that to you, not even for the rebellion. No matter what Vader is." She looked back at him and there was a catch in her voice. "I love you, Raan. We have to go away, both of us. Where they can't find you and the Front can't find me. Now."
Raan simply stared at her. Nothing penetrated except the threat to his lord. "Are you out of your mind? This has to be reported to Lord Vader at once."
"But they're harmless now. They can't do anything they were planning without you; they can't hurt Vader now. And he'd kill them - you know he would." Yoris sounded desperate. "I can't have that on my conscience. Pallon trusted me."
"'He'd kill them.'" Raan mimicked. "They - you - were trying to kill him. What did you think you were doing? Playing some kind of game?" He released her, but she caught his hands in her own.
"Raan, what I said this morning was the truth. Vader doesn't need you, doesn't care about you. It won't make any difference to Vader whether you go or not."
Raan was quiet for a minute, then said in a calmer tone, "Whether it makes any difference to him or not doesn't matter. I'm sworn to Lord Vader; it would make a difference to me."
Yoris dropped his hands with a defeated gesture. "What are you going to do?" she asked in a dead voice.
Raan looked at her for a long, silent time, conflicting emotions playing across his face. Then, half-ashamed: "All right. Maybe I'm an idiot. Maybe you're still playing a game. I don't know. But I can't turn you in. Go on; get out of here."
Hope flared in Yoris' expression, mixed with regret. She backed toward the door and stopped with her hand above the control. Then, reluctantly, she turned back. She swallowed. "Please, Raan. Will you let Pallon go, too? He can't do anything now."
"Don't push your luck," Raan said coldly.
Yoris swallowed hard again and said in a quavering voice, "I can't go without him."
"You don't understand. How long do you think I'd stay alive if the Front found out I'd left him behind? They'd track me down alt the way across the galaxy, no matter where I went. The Front wouldn't really care about me, or about Mekla, but Pallon-"
"But Pallon's one of the Silver Front's good little heroes. And I'm supposed to let him go."
"Please, Raan. What harm can he do now?"
"Shut up." he snarled. "The Silver Front had killed too many troopers for me to let one of them go." Abruptly, he came to a decision. "All right. If you won't go without Pallon, you'll have to go with him. It's the best I can do. Do I have to stun you?"
"No, Raan. You don't have to stun me." Yoris sat down listlessly on the bed and put her head in her hands.
Raan paced the room, trying to think. Several times his hand hovered above the room 'com outlet, then retreated. Finally, he pulled out the military personacom from inside his vest and keyed in a series of digits.
"Yo, little brother." Khet's cheerful voice responded. "What's up?"
"I've got a problem. I can't talk over this channel. Where are you and what are you doing right now?"
"I'm at," Khet hesitated briefly, "section twelve, block four. With the patrol. We're out huntin' game - worse luck."
Raan breathed an inaudible "thank you" to whatever power protected clones. "Get down here with the patrol on the double. I've got a rebel in custody and I think the locals are getting restless outside."
"Roger, Lieutenant. What's your location?"
Shortly thereafter, Raan, Khet, the squad of troopers, and the three prisoners arrived at the door of their commanding officer's office at head- quarters. As Raan and Khet herded the prisoners inside, the lieutenant took in the room. It was austere and functional, but the furnishings spoke eloquently of wealth and taste. The thick rug was animal fiber, not synthetics, and a priceless original statue sat casually on a corner table. The hand-rubbed wood paneling was left bare to show its rich grain. A heavy antique desk of dark wood, in scale with the massive figure of its occupant, dominated the center of the floor. Considering how seldom the Dark Lord was at headquarters, Raan reflected, it was proof of his rank and influence that this huge - and expensive - office was left untouched between his visits.
Vader's commanding presence filled the room. Raan's spine stiffened, and he fixed his eyes on the stooping luthra-hawk inlaid in silvery metal into the front of the Dark Lord's desk. From the soft clattering behind him, Raan could tell Khet was straightening to a more rigid 'attention.'
Raan coughed nervously. "K4983 reporting, my Lord. I have one confirmed rebel prisoner, and two-" He hesitated, searching for the proper time, and failed to find it.
Vader observed them silently. Raan felt a tingling, creeping sensation he put down to his overwrought nerves, as he hunted for some explanation which would convince the Dark Lord of Yoris' and Mekla's innocence. Before the lieutenant could formulate anything concrete, Vader made an abrupt gesture. "Yes; these three will serve admirably. Erase their memories of this episode, and release them under observation."
"You aren't going to kill us?" Yoris choked out, disbelieving.
The Dark Lord gave her an indifferent metal stare. "I do not intend to provide the rebellion with unnecessary martyrs. And eventually you will lead me to the rest of your group."
Raan felt relief and a dull regret. Yoris would be unharmed; he would not be responsible for turning her over to punishment, and for that he was heartily grateful to his lord. But a brain-wipe would destroy all her memories of this time and of him. She would be no more his after it than any other stranger. All Khet's practical reasons for avoiding entanglements with a non-clone returned, like a crowd of voices babbling and jeering at him, all talking at once, all saying mockingly. "I told you so." He bowed his head and numbly accepted the voices' chatter, trying to ignore the cold hollow pain of the part of him which refused to believe and agree. It was useless to think about it; there was nothing he could do.
The Dark Lord sent the prisoners away under guard, and Raan was left facing his commander alone. He girded himself for the ordeal. "Now, Lieutenant," Vader said, "report."
Next to the size and the power radiating from the Dark Lord, Raan shrank to a clonechild facing his barracksmaster. He was defenseless. It was impossible to lie. Even to shade the truth required an effort of will he could not muster against his lord. Without giving himself time for his nerve to fail, Raan poured out the entire story.
"...And when the old man offered to teach me about the Force, Pallon pulled a blaster on me. I realized he was a rebel and brought them all in, my Lord." He squirmed under the compulsion of Vader's relentless gaze and added reluctantly, "I would have let the girl go. She wasn't really... -she didn't actually...." There was no genuine objective evidence he could give to prove Yoris was not part of Pallon's plot in the end. He believed her; he had to believe her; but his reasons were formless and subjective, not part of a military report. He fell silent and waited, full of foreboding. Even if he lived after this, he would be demoted to... Raan's antic subconscious, even at this moment, came up with the ludicrous image of scrubbing down an endless sequence of latrines with a brush the size of a toothbrush - a comic vision of eternal torment.
"Very good, Lieutenant. You are restricted to quarters until further notice. Dismissed."
The ghost of a sigh of relief escaped Raan before he recovered. Swallowing the unmilitary sound, he saluted with "Yes, my Lord," spun on his heel and marched out.
The full impact of the situation came home to him as he walked slowly back toward his quarters. The question repeated itself endlessly: What does Lord Vader intend to do with me? He could not believe it had ended with this and that he had escaped so easily. The resolution which had been created by the rush of events and fear for his lord drained out of him, to be replaced by clammy terror.
The room was deserted. Khet's armor and kitbag remained, but the VIII-done was gone, and Raan suspected he had been sent somewhere else for the period of Raan's unofficial arrest. Raan was half-glad to be spared having to face him. He paced back and forth, trying to bring some order into his thoughts. His career was dead. Lord Vader would never promote a trooper who had been involved, however innocently, with a rebel plot on his life, nor one who had ambitions to emulate his magical powers. Perhaps Lord Vader intended to make an example of him. Thoughts of the ghastly devices used to extract information from suspected traitors turned him cold. Courage, strength - or innocence - were useless against the diabolical things that ripped the victim's mind apart or reduced him to a helpless, gabbling huddle, confessing whatever he could think of to stop the pain. Raan's belly knotted in fear, and he paced. And paced.
Half a dozen times during the night Raan considered making a run for it. He thought longingly and hopelessly of trying to rescue Yoris before the mind-wipe. He could not believe it was possible, yet even if Yoris was lost to him, her plan was still available. It still seemed seductively possible: put on the civilian clothes, stow away, head out to lose himself on one of the rim worlds. Others had done it. He had done his duty by reporting the plot, and his oath to Lord Vader was satisfied. His honor was satisfied, and now he could save himself.
But each time he was checked by the cold voice of logic. He had no idea how to find a suitable ship. If he ran, he would be running forever - running from the Empire, running from the Silver Front, running through an alien world, boundless, unknown, and terrifying, a world outside his experience. He could think of no one who would help him, now Yoris was gone. Once the other world discovered he was a clone - he could never hide it, never pass as a non-clone among non-clones over time - it would destroy him. The conditioned fears of early childhood spoke to him, of Others, tall, huge, threatening, different and thus ultimately frightening; of the Whitecoat Man who, under the authority of the Others, culled the inferior and the disobedient among his brothers. Fear, fear, fear, each beat of his heart said, and even the known threat of torture and death seemed less dreadful than the unknown dangers of facing the outside world alone. However little future he had here, he had even less there.
At last he reached a state of dreamy nervous exhaustion. He simply did not have the strength to fear any longer. Whatever Lord Vader intended to do with him, he said to himself, he had no right to rebel. He was a trooper, a clone, and his lord's sworn man. His life was the Dark Lord's, to spend as he saw fit in battle or otherwise. It was all the same. Raan bent his head, gave a long shuddering sigh that was almost a sob, and sank down on the edge of his bunk.
As soon as he came to this decision, a new strength flowed into him. Where it came from, he had no idea, but it seemed like something outside himself. There was an immense power in it, underlaid by cold arrogance and a sense of satisfaction. For a moment. Raan was uneasy again, as if he were being invaded by an alien presence, then he surrendered to the feeling. He sighed again, closed his eyes, and sank into sleep.
* * *
Raan was prodded awake by a man in the black uniform and bowl helmet of security. "Lord Vader wants to see you," he growled.
As Raan walked down the corridor with the guard, he had the clean, empty feeling inside of one who had made his peace with fate, like an ancient pagan about to be sacrificed to his god. The sense of resignation so laboriously achieved the night before remained with him. He entered Vader's office, saluted, and stood lightheaded and breathless with a sensation past terror that was almost exaltation. He waited for the blow to fall.
"I have followed your thoughts," the Dark Lord said. "I am pleased." Raan felt as if he had been doused with icy water as he expelled the breath he had not realized he was holding. When his hearing focused again. Vader was saying. "You are loyal, K4983, and that I value." An amused, considering tone: "And you are ambitious. Most ambitious. You want to learn about the Force."
There was no way Raan could deny it. "Yes, my Lord."
"Men without ambition make poor officers. But the training in the Force is difficult and dangerous, not to be undertaken halfheartedly."
"Yes, my Lord." Vague hope solidified into concrete ambition. Raan wanted the Force, wholeheartedly, no matter what it would require of him to get it. Vader's mask was cocked slightly to one side, a considering attitude; and as he watched, the Dark Lord slowly nodded.
"Very well," Vader said, as if to himself. He put his hands on his belt. "There is some resentment that I use only VI-dones for my Guard, is there not?" he said in a tone that suggested he cared not at all who disapproved of anything he did.
"Yes, my Lord," said Raan again. The Dark Lord seemed to be waiting for something - an explanation, commentary, opinion; Raan wasn't sure. He blundered on. "The other series think we're lucky. Sometimes we can outguess the enemy, or find things; that's why we're scouts, I guess. I don't know why, Sir. It's always been that way with VIs."
"There is no such thing as luck," said Vader. "K4983, the VI-series are cloned from a Force-sensitive original, although the Imperial technicians who chose that original did not know it. The VI-series are intuitive, and they... respond."
The sensation Raan had felt the previous night returned, stronger now. It was as if his mind were being stripped naked, pulled apart, and reassembled; a painful, stomach-turning wrench like something long locked shut being forced open. Raan set his teeth against the crawling nausea. He felt a new awareness, a stirring, an expanding of his perception - a sense uncertainly liberated. There was a recognition of identity, perhaps; Raan felt something similar to the sense of completeness he had known so often as part of clonebarracks, but although the sensation was vaguely similar, the identity was different: dark and powerful, and full of assurance and absolute command. The whirling confusion sorted itself, sharpening into a direct perception, an identity, a - person. With astonishment and some fear, Raan realized he was feeling Vader's persona in the Force. It could not be anything else.
Abruptly, Vader released him, and Raan caught the edge of the desk to keep from falling. After a minute, his breathing slowed and he shakily straightened.
"Adequate." the Dark Lord said coldly. "You have some Force ability; you may prove useful. I will teach you what you are capable of learning."
"Thank you, my Lord," Raan said faintly. He gulped several times, hoping he would not disgrace himself by vomiting in front of Lord Vader. He felt dizzy, as if he had run a long way at high altitude.
"When you have recovered, we will begin." The Dark Lord returned to his desk and seated himself. "You work well with R1538, Lieutenant." There was a certain dry irony in the Dark Lord's voice. "I am placing him under your command. Dismissed."
"Yes, my Lord." Raan saluted and retreated gratefully toward the door. Just before he reached it, ader added, without looking up from the computer terminal,"K4983, our assigned quarters have been transferred. My officers, whoever they are, will receive proper respect and be quartered as befits their rank. Henceforth, I will expect you to act accordingly."
"Yes, Sir." Raan saluted and exited with relief. He stood outside the door for several minutes until his rebellious stomach was fully under control. The guard watched him with growing concern and finally asked. "Are you all right, Sir?"
"Yes, Jorund; I'm fine."
Taking a deep breath, Raan squared his shoulders and headed down the corridor toward his new quarters. As he walked, he sorted out the welter of confused emotions within him. He still felt the dull ache of Yoris' loss, and he suspected it would remain with him permanently, but it was retreating into a memory, improbable, meaningless, too incredible even for regret. Here in the reality of headquarters and barracks which had surrounded him all his life, Raan could not actually believe he had considered running away with one of the Others. With Lord Vader's presence vivid in his mind, the idea seemed as impossible as a dream.
Lord Vader. His lord, and truly his own lord now, Raan thought. He was still caught in the same uneasy position, neither fully clone nor fully officer, but in Lord Vader he had found a home and an anchor to replace the comradeship of clonebarracks, a firm support against the hostility of the Others. It was enough.
"K4983! Haven't seen you around much this tenday. How's the hyper-lag?"
Raan looked up to see Sheret smiling at him. He was almost to his new quarters in the junior officers' section, and the other lieutenant was coming out of his own door. Raan smiled back. "Just fine. I think it's gone now. I feel a lot better."
"Great, how about a rematch sometime soon, down at the 'game theater? This time, I'll show what I really can do with a little decent opposition. Haven't hardly had a partner who could find his way around the board without the manual all tenday."
Raan grinned. A weight lifted from his shoulders, and he suddenly felt irrationally cheerful. "You're on, Sheret. I'm gonna beat the pants off you!"
Maybe things weren't going to be so bad after all.