Taken At The Flood

by Karen Winter

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
Shakespeare, Julius Caesar  IV, iii, 217

Trooper K4983/Y-clone VI shifted surreptitiously from one foot to the other.  A chilly wind whistled past his audio-pickup.  He looked to where Lord Darth Vader was deep in conversation with the Girimir chief.  The alien was man-tan, heavily muscled, with a coarse grey pelt covering his shoulders, back, and legs, thinning to a pale down on his belly.  Under a high-domed forehead were fierce yellow eyes and a long muzzle full of a seemingly impossible number of sharp teeth.  Even in the cold, his only garment was richly embroidered belt hung with a sword, a pouch, and various anonymous objects.  His fingers flickered in an elaborate sign language, echoed more slowly by Vader's massive gloves.

Trooper K4983, also known as Raan, tongued the private frequency, trooper to trooper. "What do you suppose old fuzzy-face is babbling about?  He sure is taking a long time."

"Who knows - who cares?" responded his year-clone, Petya. "We'll find out what Vader wants to tell us soon enough.  Don't forget: 'curiosity wins no promotions'."

Raan nodded slightly at Petya's words. Promotion:  that was the reason he had angled for this duty, although most troopers tried to avoid serving under the Dark Lord.  Darth Vader wasn't one of those bureaucrats sitting on his fat ass back at Headquarters, when his guard went into a fight, he went with them.  Wherever he went, there was plenty of action - and Raan knew action led to promotion.

The Dark Lord finished his conversation with the alien and moved off with his long, arrogant strides.  The troopers followed at a smart trot, and the transport crawled along behind at slow speed.  Keeping time the while, Raan glanced curiously from side to side.  This was only his second assignment, and the alien world fascinated him.  Raan caught glimpses of brightly painted skin tents, naked cublings with wide eyes and pricked ears playing in the dust, a craftsman carefully fitting onto a spear shaft a precious metal point, traded, Raan knew, as was all forged metal on this planet, from the Empire.  Older cubs practiced casting spears at a target and trading sword-strokes with training weapons, or squatted in a circle around a white-muzzled old warrior who was recounting some tale of past hunts or forays with wide gestures.  And everywhere were the Aala, four-foot tall humanoids with soft brown fur and stubby-fingered paws, whom the Girimir held as slaves and bred for food in times of game shortages.

Vader stopped at one of the larger tents and ducked inside.  His voice floated out, "Squad Leader, bring the men in."  The officer waved two men aside to guard the transport.  The rest crowded into the tent, tracking dust over the thick rugs of Aala hide which covered the floor.  Vader placed his hands on his belt in a characteristic gesture, and began.

"Four days ago we intercepted a transmission from this planet's surface in the Rebel code.  Eight days from today, a Rebel ship will land with a cargo of modem weapons to arm the Aala for an uprising against the Girimir - and the Empire.  We are fairly sure the Rebels do not know that we have broken their code, but unfortunately the transmission ended before we could get more than an approximate fix on the Rebel beacon.  It is somewhere to the northwest of here, probably in the mountain chain just north of here.

"We must find that beacon and destroy it before the Rebel ship can home in on it."  The metal breath screen dipped toward them and Raan flinched, felt his involuntary movement echoed by his brothers.  "While we keep this planet primitive, we keep it ours.  I will personally break any man who allows Imperial equipment or arms to fall into unauthorized hands."  Raan suspected that the Dark Lord meant that literally.  He had once seen him snap the back of a Rebel spy with nothing more than his hands.  "Dismissed!"  Raan followed his unit in thoughtful silence.

* * *

After the usual dismal field meal of ration concentrates, Raan and his fellow clones pre- pared for sleep in the tent assigned to them. They had removed their armor for comfort's sake and were now engaged in the soldier's perennial occupation of grousing.

"What a planet!  Colder than a Sochi whore's welcome the week after payday.  Cosmos, this job's going to be a bitch.  Why'd they send us out with a mucking platoon - we could have used a battalion!"  Raan recognized the complaining whine of Seida, decanted six months earlier than he'd been.

"I think it's something hush-hush; that's why there's just the Personal Guard," Raan said.

"Well, I've got the feeling that something out there don't like me," Seida replied.

"Nah - that's just being unarmored out of barracks.  Forget it. There are six guys out there, two on the transport and four on the tent. Nothing's going to get in here unannounced," Petya said.

"I don't know.  Remember what happened on Caradinae?"  A brief uneasy silence fell, and Seida turned hurriedly to a more general topic. "Why bother babysitting a bunch of fuzzies anyway?  Let the Rebels haw this ice-ball!"

"I don't know, but I'd guess minerals, that's all these dinky little worlds usually have," said Sarsi, another of Raan's year-brothers.

"But why the hush-hush, then?  Why not come in in force?" asked Petya.

"Search me.  Do you know, Sir?" Sarsi appealed to the Squad Leader.  

The leader sighed.  "When will you learn that Policy is none of your business?  Your job is to shut up and do what you're told!"  He looked around, shook his head.  "Just to keep you quiet, this system is a protectorate of Aldaraan, and Lord Vader says they're trying to set up a base here under the cover of the cultural embargo on primitives.  You know what that means, right?  We aren't supposed to be here 'officially' until the natives are developed enough to have a centralized government."

"Oh. Well. I guess he figures that the fewer of us there are, the less chance of dropping a rifle in some fuzzy's hot little paw," one of the troopers said.

"Speaking of hot little paws," Petya, bored with the subject of politics, began, "I remember my last leave on Sochi; there was this girl...." A chorus of groans greeted this opening.  "Oh no, not that one again!"  Raan settled back as similar tales, of equally dubious authenticity, went around the tent.

At last Seida leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially, "I wonder what he does for fun - Vader?  Do they prop him up against the wall at night and turn down the power?"  Several obscene suggestions followed.

Raan said thoughtfully, "They say he got pretty thoroughly fried years ago in some radiation accident.  I guess...."

"Knock it off over there," the Squad Leader said.  "It's a long walk tomorrow, so can it and get some sleep!"

"Yes, Sir!" the troopers responded and retreated into their sleeping bags.  The tent grew silent.

Raan, feeling naked and vulnerable being outside the barracks without his armor, had barely fallen into a doze when the sound of running bare feet and snouts in the guttural Girimir language woke him with a start.  Flickers of light danced across the tent walls as torches were carried by at a lope outside.  Raan snatched for his rifle and sollerets and was halfway into his impervium shell by the time a white helmet poked its way into the tent flap.    

"Hang on - it's green."

"What's on the board?" the Squad Leader asked.

"A bunch of monkeys made a break, but the fuzzies got most of them back."

"Most of them?"

"A couple got away, I think.  I don't know - who understands this fuzzy jabber?" the outside guard said.

"Vader.  Anybody want to go wake him up for an explanation?

"Not me!  I'll wait to find out in the morning."

Through the open tent flap, Raan could see the Dark Lord striding through the camp at a pace that sent his black cape fluttering out behind him.  He reached the tent.  "Report, Trooper!"

The trooper's head disappeared outside of the tent with a jerk.  He repeated his explanation in somewhat more professional terms. “I'm  sorry. Lord Vader; I don't understand the language, so I didn't get a complete report."

"If any of the Aala escaped, the whole Rebel underground on this planet will know we're here!  Next time stay alert!"  Raan shuddered at the coldness in that deep voice, glad he was not the guard.

"Yes, Sir," the trooper muttered, but Darth Vader had already vanished in the direction of the chief's tent.  Raan reholstored his weapon with a shrug.  Whatever had happened, there was nothing he could do about it right now.  The Squad Leader ordered the men to sleep again.  Raan once more divested himself of his armor and composed himself for sleep with the fatalism of the professional soldier throughout the ages.

The next morning, by the time he downed a quick breakfast of concentrates and put on his armor, Raan was considerably more cheerful.  But this lasted only until the platoon fell into formation in front of the transport.  Raan recoiled slightly as he noticed that there was a rack of flayed and gutted bodies hung up like carcasses in a slaughterhouse in the space between two tents which had been empty the night before.  Raan realized these were the bodies of the Aala who had failed to escape, hung up to age before being eaten.  He swallowed, and reminded himself firmly that the Aala were the property of the Girimir - and rebels against them and against the Empire.

"Ten-hut!"  Raan snapped to attention as Darth Vader swept down on the platoon.  The icy wind whipped his dark robes about his figure, but he appeared not to notice.  Anger showed in every line of his body, and Raan felt a coldness in his stomach.  An angry Lord of the Sith was not something he wanted to face.

But Vader's anger was not directed at the trooper. "Two Aala were allowed to escape last night," the deep voice rumbled.  "We do not know if they've made contact with the Rebels yet, but it's possible, so be on your guard for an attack. Move out."

The Squad Leader saluted and bawled orders. Troopers sprinted for the transport and settled themselves as comfortably as possible, rifles at hand, as it moved out toward the mountains. Darth Vader brought up the rear in his personal vehicle, an enclosed, armored, heavily-armed landspeeder painted a glossy black.  Raan thought it projected something of the threatening air of its occupant.  He found it a thoroughly nasty-looking machine.

Raan stared out at the passing landscape.  He had been raised in crowded barracks and spaceship corridors, and so much open space was vaguely disturbing.  Behind them sloped a vast treeless tundra, rippling with tall, grassy vegetation in the gold, russet, brown, and dull green colors of fall, dusted here and there with white patches of early snow.  Above then was a blank arc of pale blue.  The air in Raan's intake filter was cold and had a clean smell free of familiar pollutants.  Aside from the little group of tents they had just left, there was no sign of habitation.  Ahead there rose a jumble of foothills and beyond there, past another fjord of tundra thrusting into the chain, stood the true mountains, gigantic peaks crowned with snow.

"Why don't we just use flitters?" Raan wondered.

"Because, stupid," Petya, in the seat next to him, answered, "we'd never be able to pilot them at slow speed through those mountains.  Air currents must be incredible up there."

Raan nodded his understanding.  The transport trundled onward at its steady pace.  Nothing broke the stillness but the sounds of their own passage and small noises vaguely like insect chirps or birdsong rising from the knee-high grass.  Now and again they caught sight of small bands of large, hairy herdbeasts of some kind, grazing in the distance.

The transport ground upward toward the first pass through the foothills.  The Dark Lord's command to halt jarred Raan out of the half-doze he'd fallen into.  Vader stepped out of his vehicle and faced the pass.  Its walls spread upward at a steep angle in a broken mass of rock and stunted grass, while the passage between was a narrow and wavering trail trampled out by  generations of hooves.

"Something is wrong. I feel it."  He turned to the Squad Leader.  "Send out the scouts and check that pass. Go over every inch of the high ground."

"Yes, Lord Vader."  The scouts spent a fruitless hour searching the top and sides of the pass.  Raan, picking up some of Vader's unease, tried to scan the pass from where he sat on the crowded transport.  His eyes passed over naked rock, depressions worn into the cliffs, matted grasses.  He shook his head.  He was too unfamiliar with this planet.  He could not see anything out of the ordinary.

"Everything seems to be in order, Sir," the Squad Leader announced at last.  "Shall we proceed?"

"Very well, but keep a sharp watch.  This is a perfect place for an ambush."

The transport rumbled on at a slow crawl. The troopers crouched with rifles at the ready. Suddenly, the walls of the pass erupted in a mass of yelling, leaping brown forms as the Aala threw off the matted vegetation which had concealed them.  They showered rocks and spears on the troopers, and let loose an avalanche of huge boulders which rolled down on the transport in a thunderous rush.  Here and there a laser-rifle sizzled as off-world Rebels hidden among the Aala joined in the attack.

"Get clear, get clear," the driver shouted as he tried to back the clumsy transport out of the fire zone.  Troopers boiled out of it, jumping over the sides to run for the cover of the jumbled rocks and trying to snap off a shot whenever a target showed itself, which was seldom, for the Aala blended into the brown earth around them.  The driver made perhaps half a dozen yards before a great chunk of rock crushed the transport.  Troopers worked their way uphill from rock to rock, ducking and twisting.  Again and again there was a cry as a small brown body tumbled down the slope.  Less frequently, a white impervium shell crumpled and lay still.

Raan was not surprised when Lord Darth Vader took an active part in the melee.  The Sith Lord kicked the black speeder into manual, shoved the antigrav down to "full" and gunned the vehicle up the tumbled wall of the pass in a maneuver most mechanics would not have believed possible in a heavy military machine.  He steered a winding course between boulders, laying down a precise covering fire for the climbing men.  Rainbow waves of energy sparked and crackled over the outer shield of the speeder as laser hits were deflected.  Vader's armored speeder topped the hill; gyros whined and engines snarled in protest as Vader whipped it into a tight turn and lay heavy fire down the hill.  Many of the Aala fled in seeming panic at this unexpected attack from the rear.  Rebel soldiers rolled and twisted helplessly, trying to reach cover and return the fire at the same time.

Raan, part of the first wave of troopers, reached the top of the hill and charged over it.  For several minutes Rebels and troopers exchanged energy bolts, then the outgunned Rebels slowly retreated, still firing.  Darth Vader ordered, "No pursuit!  Regroup!  Don't get separated!"  He then gunned his speeder and followed the retreating Rebels, bringing down one after another until they disappeared into a tangle of scrub on the slope too thick for the speeder to continue.  As Raan watched, Vader turned his speeder and headed back to the battle site.

Raan looked around at the scene of destruction.  The transport lay half-buried on its side, smoke and dark fluid seeping slowly from the ruins of its engines.  White-clad bodies lay scattered across the hillside, and several troopers stood or sat with parts of their armor removed, nursing wounds.  One trooper lay on the ground, the lower half of his body hidden by a large rock, and even as Vader pulled his speeder to a stop, a sharp crackle of energy from the Squad Leader's rifle put an end to his feeble movements.  "Too badly injured to travel, Sir," the officer reported, and the Dark Lord nodded.

Raan shook his head in wonder.  This had seemed so routine a job at first!  Now eight troopers were dead on the slope, and three others were wounded although still able to travel.  Worse yet, several of the impervium shells had been damaged, and their life-support controls were now inoperable.  Raan knew there was no hope of salvaging armor from the dead to replace these shells.  Every human culture had its irrational superstitions.  A clone had no family, no religion, no home, no name, and no value as an individual, but he clung with passionate determination to his armor.  It was his only possession, his only identity.  Over the generations, the white shell had attained the  status of an "external soul" in clone folklore, and a trooper would die rather than use another  man's armor.

The remaining troopers wasted no time on burials; the dead soldiers' impervium shells were grave and monument enough.  They bandaged their wounded, salvaged what they could from the shattered transport, and hoisted makeshift packs on their shoulders as they gathered up the remaining weapons.  The Squad Leader used a rifle to reduce the transport's guns and controls to slag so it would prove no use to the remaining Rebels if they returned.  The little group then trudged on toward the mountains, followed by Darth Vader's speeder.  As he contemplated the millions of steps yet before him, Raan sighed.  But at least he was one of the lucky ones.  His armor was still intact, and he was alive and unwounded.

Vader signaled a halt several hours later.  The sky had turned a dull grey, and a bank of ominous clouds was building up over the mountains.  The wind was bitter and Raan could sense that the soldiers whose life-support systems had failed were shivering violently with shock and cold.  The battered shells provided some protection, but without temperature control were far from adequate.

One man limped heavily, another cradled a crushed arm, and Larsi, the third wounded trooper, collapsed in the sheltered area between the wall of the pass and the dark bulk of Vader's speeder.  He clutched at his side, where a great dent marked his armor.  Raan removed Larsi's helmet.  He sighed when he saw that the froth which showed at the wounded man's lips as he breathed was faintly tinged with blood.

They made camp in the lee of the slope where the trail widened to form a shallow bay under an overhanging rock.  Protected from above, with their backs against the hill, they felt reason-ably secure.  They hurried to build a fire out of scrub wood which, ignited with a laser burst, provided a little heat for their half-frozen comrades.

Raan approached the Squad Leader.  "I don't think Larsi is going to make it, Sir, unless we can get him someplace warm.  Are there any thermal bags?"

The Squad Leader sighed.  "No, the sleeping gear got buried when we were ambushed."  He shook his head.  "And if that's not bad enough, the concentrates and the Com were lost too."  He looked across at his men, turned back to Raan. “You'll have to do what you can for him, and for Jon and Mord tonight.  Lord Vader says we should run into a tribe of fuzzies and get some furs tomorrow."

 Raan looked nervously in the direction of the Dark Lord and lowered his voice.  "Did he...."

 The Squad Leader gave a short bark of laughter.  "No, it isn't that mystical crap about some imaginary 'force'.  He says this pass is the way all those big grazing animals we saw yesterday came down from the mountains for the winter, so all the fuzzy tribes gather along here to have their big hunt."

Water from a patch of snow higher on the slope produced a thin but warming soup out of the last of the concentrates when warmed in a cuirass by a laser set on "stun".  Raan tried to feed some to Larsi, the soldier with the crushed chest, but the injured man managed only a mouthful before he sank back with a groan.  As he lowered the man's head gently to the ground, Raan noticed a damp spot on his armored hand.  He looked up.  A few snowflakes were drifting lazily down.  Within minutes this had turned into a solid wall of falling snow.  The campfire sputtered and went out.  Like the herdbeasts in the valley below, the troopers gathered around their disabled comrades and turned their backs to the wind.

By first light the snow had died and it was colder.  Mercifully, Larsi was at last dead. There were no provisions left.  Hungry, cramped from sleeping in his shell, Raan struggled to his feet.  He looked around.  The others also struggled up.  The squad gathered in a ragged column, and the Leader signaled them to start.  Vader's speeder floated easily above the snow as Raan and the troopers floundered, cursing, through the knee-high drifts.  They halted frequently as they struggled downward toward the foot of the pass. They thrashed through snowbanks over crusted hillocks.  At last the trooper with the injured leg fell.  Raan looked despairingly from the fallen soldier to the Dark Lord's machine, but his tentative hope died almost as it was born. Darth Vader's speeder was a streamlined fighting machine with a driver's seat designed like the cockpit of his TIE fighter: there was no room for a passenger.  The Squad Leader went to the crippled man and stood over him.  The man stared up at him, breathing hard.  Then Vader's voice crackled over the receiver and the Squad Leader turned reluctantly to his duty.  Leaning down, he touched the helmet gently in a ritual gesture: "Do you accept this death at my hand?"

The trooper nodded wearily.  "I accept the Gift and hold you guiltless."

"Go in peace, Brother, with the Gift."  The Leader's rifle hissed and the injured man was dead.  Raan glanced quickly in Vader's direction to see if he had noticed the exchange between the Squad Leader and the wounded man.  The Gift of Passing was for the clones alone.  To the Others their deaths were meaningless, the deaths of cattle bred in the tanks for that purpose, but they would not let one of their own go without farewell.  Raan could get no clue from Vader's mask, however.

The platoon, now reduced to eleven men - one wounded, several freezing, and all hungry and tired - fought on through the deep snow.  At last they approached the top of a small rise.  The scout gave a shout; the others hurried to the crest of the hill.  Raan closed his eyes thankfully.  Below them, where the pass began to widen but into the tundra plain, stood a tiny group of Girimir tents.  The troopers began to cheer, then stopped abruptly as Darth Vader held up a hand. They looked again.  There were only five ragged tents, their paint faded and cracked.  A few tattered streamers dangled limply from the lodge-poles, like the last feathers of a molting bird. The painted designs looked nothing like the ones on the tents they had seen in the other Girimir camp. and the pot hung over the meager fire was made of clay, not metal.  This was obviously a tribe unrelated to their allies, a tribe that had never traded with the Empire for the precious forged metal.

Even as they stood there, a half-grown cub who had been foraging part way up the hill caught sight of them.  For a moment it stood frozen, then turned and sprinted down the hill, crying hysterically for help.  Four or five shabby Girimir warriors, armed with flint-tipped spears, gathered in front of the tents.  For a space, the two small bands eyed each other warily.

Then one of the Girimir ran toward the troopers, threw his spear, and scuttled back as the point clattered uselessly on the impervium shell.  When there was no imnediate response, the warriors advanced slowly with their spears poised.

All Raan could think of was the warmth and shelter they'd been promised that was now being denied them by this band of pathetic savages. And he 'knew' with a curious certainty that came to him at such moments as this that his brothers shared his angry frustration.

Hardly needing the command of "Forward!" from their officer, the troopers charged down the hill as one man, rifles flaming.  The Girimir threw their useless spears and advanced with flint daggers drawn.  Within five minutes the miserable defenders were crisped in front of their tents, while the females and cubs were scattered in all directions.  The troopers did not bother with pursuit, but took possession of their unimposing prize.  Raan nodded.  Warmth and shelter, of sorts, would be theirs this night. He glanced at Darth Vader.  After a few words to the Squad Leader, the Dark Lord entered the least battered tent.  Raan found himself wondering what preparations the Sith lord would be making this night.  He shrugged.  Doubtless he would never know.

* * *

In his tent, the Dark Lord mused, and something that might have been an ironic smile if it had been visible moved under his mask as he thought of the clone ritual he had watched earlier.  What if he should tell the human commanders that their assembly-line tin soldiers were developing original thoughts?  But a Dark Lord of the Sith owed loyalty to no one as insignificant as a regional governor, or even an Emperor.  Next to the power of the Force, all humanity - indeed, all the races of the galaxy, the very planets and stars - were insignificant.  And he was Master of the Force.

The ritual obviously made the clones more determined soldiers and more willing to fight and die at his will, and for his present purpose that was enough.  For whatever use he might make of it later, the knowledge would remain his alone.

Vader relaxed conscious control of the Force.  With the Com unit destroyed in the ambush, there was no way to locate the Rebel stronghold in time to prevent the weapons ship from landing - no way, that is, known to Imperial technology.  Vader searched among the non-material energy shapes which were the analogues of living beings in the physical world.  Nearby there were the low-key, flickering minds of the troopers.  Further off, a dull, out-of-focus glow in nameless colors revealed the non-human presence of Aala or Girimir.  Suddenly, at the limits of his concentration, Darth felt a different sort of identity, a sharp, clear mind like a pinpoint of white light.  Even as he became aware of it, the other mind seemed to feel him as well.  It startled and fled, winking out to leave only a faint mental afterimage.  Vader felt a fierce surge of satisfaction - a Rebel mind, and  the mind of a Force-sensitive at that!  There was no question that the mind could escape him.  The brief contact had assured him that the sensitive, while moderately powerful, was inexperienced and no match for his trained powers.  He smiled savagely and one black glove strayed to the hilt of his light-saber.  He would find it again and follow it.

* * *

 In the other tent, Raan and his fellow troopers were concerned with more mundane matters.  A cheerful fire blazed on the hearth-stone and the wounded soldiers lay comfortably under a warm pile of furs.  The men worked on repairing and cleaning their battered armor. One emerged from the back of the tent with a skin bag filled with what was obviously dried strips of meat.  He showed it to the Squad Leader.

"Can we eat this fuzzy stuff?  Will it poison us?"

The Squad Leader considered.  "It probably doesn't have everything we need to stay healthy long term, but maybe we can live on it for a while.  It is meat, from those herdbeasts; I remember the fuzzies at the other camp eating it. I won't order anybody to try it, but...."

"Well, said Petya with a shrug, "I'd rather die with a full belly than an empty one.  I'll try the stuff."  He took a chunk and began chewing vigorously.  "Hey!  This is good!"

Several of the others tried it, while Raan and the more cautious waited to see the result.  Some hours passed without any noticeable reaction on the part of the guinea pigs, and at last the rest ate also.  The wounded men seemed stronger almost immediately.  There was hardly enough for all of them, and all too soon Seida upended the container and shook it sadly.  "That's it, no more."

"I can see why the fuzzies are here to hunt," Raan remarked in annoyance.  "There isn't enough in this tent to feed a starving gnat."  Suddenly he realized, "If the fuzzies can hunt here, why can't we?  I'll bet we could get one of those animals easy.  That ought to last us a day or two at least."

"All right," the Squad Leader said. "I'll ask Lord Vader for permission to stop somewhere along the way tomorrow and shoot one.  That is, provided nobody has curled up and died of indigestion by morning."

Nobody did.  A meal, a chance to make repairs, and a good night's sleep restored the platoon to much of its original spirit.  The injured trooper's arm had been set and disinfected.  The temperature controls on the damaged impervium shields were jury-rigged to hold for at least a while.  They had won a battle on this world, no matter how small a one, and there was the prospect of real, if alien, steak for dinner.  Bright sun sparkled off the snow, which was hardly more than ankle-deep now that they were out of the pass with its high walls which trapped the drifts.  Here the fierce winds of the storm had driven the snow before them, and in places had scoured the ground almost bare.  Brown patches were beginning to appear where the thin- nest layer melted under the renewed sunlight. The crisp air sang in their heads and. although  Raan had no Idea where they were going, nor how they would fulfill their mission, nor even how they would get off this planet, his heart lifted. He broke into a cheerful marching song as they moved out, and the other troopers joined in lustily:

 Soldiers of the Empire, we answer Duty's call.
 The Emperor, our master, he is the Lord of all.
 We are his mighty sword-arm, and to him we belong:
 We bear the Empire's burdens, we keep the Empire strong.

 Soldiers of the Empire, wherever we may go.
 No enemy confounds us, we conquer every foe.
 Our name, it is the Empire's - our glory is our own:
 A fighting band of brothers, the finest ever known.

About midmorning they reached a half-way point between the foothills and the mountain pass.  Raan caught sight of the main herd.  From this closer vantage point, the herdbeasts were rather intimidating.  They had broad heads with sweeping spatulate horns, heavy shoulders covered with ropes of hair and blocky bodies standing as tall as a man at the shoulders.  The herd reached almost across the horizon.

The group halted while the Squad Leader conferred with Darth Vader.  Then he returned to his men, saying. "It's a green, Jor.  You've had the most experience as a scout, so go get our steak dinner.  The rest of you, wait here."

Slowly, the trooper crept toward the wide herd; only a faint ripple in the grass betrayed his passing.  But, though Jor may have been their best scout, he was no hunter.

Raan, standing near Lord Vader's speeder, heard the Dark Lord's muttered comments.  "You fool.  Get downwind!"

The ripple moved gradually toward the animals, a few of which had lifted their heads and were regarding it with disquiet.  Nostrils expanded and horns tossed as the beasts caught the strange scent.  The lead cow lowered her head and gave a tentative scrape with one front hoof; by now the entire herd was lowing uneasily. There was a crackle of laser fire and one animal fell.  Those closest to it half-reared with startled snorts, and instantly the herd was in full stampede.  As the outer beasts wheeled on the edge of the herd, they ran over the spot where Jor lay and rushed down on the troopers in a hairy wall.  Raan looked around in desperation, but there was no cover in which to hide.  Nothing but prairie extended in every direction.  Grass rippled on to the horizon until it broke against the foothills some miles away.  Not a rock, not a tree, rose above the plain.  Several troopers turned to bolt.

Darth Vader's voice cut through the sound of the oncoming herd.  "Stand where you are!"  The habit of instant obedience won over panic.  The Dark Lord stood motionless, only his harsh breathing showing that he was still alive.  A sensation like a faint mental tickling began in the back of Raan's mind.  It grew, a pressure pushing harder and harder against some invisible barrier, until it became almost unbearable and Raan put his hands over his "ears" in an instinctive gesture, as if to shut out the silent sound. Suddenly the pressure broke through and Raan fell back as a wall of roaring flame sprang up in front of him, higher than his head.  The heat drove him back, scorching even through the armor.  He flung his hands out, stumbled backward and fell.

The leading animals of the stampede reared with screams of fear, fighting the pressure of the herd behind them.  For an endless instant there was a milling, fighting mass of animals in front of the fire-wall, with hooves striking wildly and rearing beasts bowled over, thrust down, and trampled by those behind them.  Then gradually the herd was turned and streamed away off into the limitless sea of grass, away from the mountains.  As the last animal ran past, the wall of flames abruptly died.  Raan stared in disbelief.  There was no sign of fire damage; the grass was not even brown.  A faint sound, perhaps a sigh, escaped from Vader's breath mask and his rigid figure relaxed slightly.

Five or six animals, several still twitching and kicking, lay in a mangled heap on the ground. As Raan and his comrades stumbled to their feet, Petya remarked, "Well, it looks like we have meat tonight."  Raan looked at him suspiciously, half suspecting that Petya, for the first time since the hatching tanks, had made a joke.  But the other's face as he took off his helmet to wipe the sweat from his eyes was, as usual, blankly serious.

* * *

It took a good part of the day for the inexperienced troopers to butcher the fallen herd-beasts and prepare the meal for travel.  Smoking was impossible in the stands of dry grass, there was no handy salt-lick nearby, and ordinary freezing or drying was certainly not practical. But after considerable thought and experiment, they found that a sort of quick-dried jerky could be created by standing back, opening the laser aperture of a spare rifle to the fullest, and giving the strips of meat a short burst of drying energy.  The result was something between a length of wrought-iron bar and a bit of under-tanned shoe sole, but it would sustain them for some time when softened and boiled up with hot water or diligently chewed.  It became obvious that the process was going to take a while. Straightening his cramped muscles, Raan watched with interest as Darth Vader called the Squad Leader over.  "Have the men set up camp," the Dark Lord's voice carried to the troopers.

 The Squad Leader ventured a question.  "Lord Vader, if we have only four more days to locate the Rebel spacefleet, do we have the time?  Shall I send out scouts, or..."  On the word "scout" his voice changed slightly.  Raan knew he was remembering the tiny shards of white impervium and damp grass which had been all that was left of Jor.

Vader turned his metallic stare on the Squad Leader and answered in a tone of finality.  "Attend to your men. Squad Leader; they must be ready when we attack.  As for finding the Rebels, leave that to me.  I have - my own methods."

The Squad Leader bowed obediently.  He set the troopers to re-erecting the two tents they had dismantled and carried laboriously from the last camp, an objective achieved only with a vast amount of wasted time and motion.  But at last the two skin tents stood relatively vertical and the men completed repairs and preparations for the assault on the mountains.

* * *

Meanwhile, the Dark Lord engaged in his own preparations.  Loosing his consciousness, he sent his mind out to stalk the world of the Force, damping his own presence and searching, searching for the faint Identity he remembered from his brief contact earlier, the Rebel mind.  There it was!  Again it tried clumsily to evade him, but this time Vader pursued it as it fled.

Each projected himself into the not-world as he saw himself mentally, and visualized mental energy as a weapon.  For Vader, it was the blade he wore in the mundane reality, the light-saber that was symbol of Jedi rank and training.  He strode through the not-world in the semblance of an ice giant from his home world's mythology, the robes of a Dark Lord of the Sith fluttering behind him in an imagined wind, and the fair face he had worn as a young Jedi - the face now ruined and hidden under the breath screen - grimly set. In his mental hand was a beam of white-hot fire that smoked and dripped sheets of flame like a bar of burning magnesium, forever unconsumed. Before him fled a white wisp, only half formed, for the Rebel had not travelled consciously in the other world often enough to develop a complete self-image.

Each tried to shape the formless stuff of the Force to his own pattern, the Rebel to create a landscape where he could hide and Vader to form a barrier the Rebel could not cross.  The Dark Lord flung up a high basalt cliff with a gesture, then another parallel to it.  The Rebel fled through the rapidly closing gap as the two narrowed toward a V-shape, and Vader followed.  With a palm-out "stop" he slammed a box canyon wall across the end.

The Rebel tried to take a new shape as a bird-like creature, but the Dark Lord threw a net over the top of the canyon.  The Rebel then pressed his full force against the barrier, and for a moment the canyon wall wavered and thinned.  Another gesture by the Dark Lord solidified it, and a series of quick chopping motions planed the walls and thickened the net to a smooth roof, creating a box of black polished stone dimly lit by an unidentified glow.  Reflected in the mirror-like walls, Darth Vader's light-saber wove a flickering pattern.

With escape blocked, the Rebel turned, raising a shield and a sword of dim blue energy.  Darth Vader, as a fully-trained Jedi, rejected a shield as a coward's defense, depending on his skill alone to ward off the enemy sword strokes.  Vader feinted right and low to draw the Rebel's shield, then reversed left and upward in a stroke awkwardly blocked by the Rebel's sword as he leaped back, only to have Vader's blade narrowly miss removing his head with a sidewise snap of  the wrist.  In a smooth, flowing motion, Darth brought his blade down again to block the Rebel's answering stroke.  So it went - feint, stroke, parry, stroke - as the Dark Lord sized up the Rebel's inexpert attack.  Tiring of the unequal game, the Sith Lord feinted to lead the Rebel's sword.  As the other overextended his stroke, Vader's smoking saber slashed down to cut off his sword-hand, whipped sideways to knock the shield aside, and pinioned him with the point of the beam an inch from his mental heart.  "Open your mind to me!" Vader commanded, and the helpless Rebel surrendered his will to the Sith Lord.

In a series of wordless images, Darth Vader saw the trail into the hills and the journey through the heights to the small valley where the Rebels had constructed a crude docking bay. Quickly, Vader took note of the Rebel's armament, their numbers and defenses, and the location of the vital Corn unit which would call down the Rebel weapon ship on its way with laser rifles and troops to aid the Aala in their coming uprising.  Satisfied, Vader nodded.  Then, with savage mental force, he wrenched the Rebel's soul loose from its physical moorings and crushed it. In the Rebel stronghold, the body of the Force-sensitive fell as the mind was ripped out of it. Vader knew that for a few minutes the mewling thing that had aspired to the Force would move aimlessly; then, without a mind, its body would also die.  To his fellow Rebels, the Force-sensitive would seem to have suffered a sudden heart attack.  They would have no warning that their plans and their hidden base had been discovered. Vader intended to make sure that they received none.

* * *

The next morning, Darth Vader addressed the troopers as they prepared to move out.  "The Rebels believe that without our Com unit we cannot locate their base.  They have set the Aala to watch us, however, and report our progress, and   they are reassured that we do not seen to be traveling in the right direction.  But now we must disappear. I want scouts out at all times, and I want no Aala to live to tell the Rebels where we have gone.  Fail in this and those of you who escape the Rebels will have to deal with me!" Raan shivered.  The prospect was not attractive.

The platoon turned sharply north, searching for the pass Vader had seen in the dead Rebel's mind.  They flitted through the tall grass like shadows and disappeared into the mountain range.  Vader reduced the anti-grav level on his speeder to a minimum, and slipped along the surface of the high vegetation like a fish through shallow water so that only a faint wake showed his passage.  One by one, the Aala trailing them were uncovered and removed.  Raan knew this was partly with Vader's aid, for the Dark Lord sensed their alien presence though he could not locate them exactly.  For the rest, Raan and his fellows had been trained in on-planet commando tactics, and now had a chance to make use of that training.  Raan accounted for two of the Aa1a and, demonstrated an excellent and rapidly growing ability in the field.

 It took them two days to work their way into the mountains, two days without rest, hot food, or water except for snow-melt.  They caught a few hours' sleep in armor on the second night, but otherwise it was an endless scramble up and down rocky slopes on a cautious, invisible progress inward.  Just before dawn on the third day they waited at the edge of the hidden Rebel valley, ready for the final assault.

The Squad Leader gave them final Instructions over the audio-pickup, rather than the transmitter frequency which might be monitored by the Rebels.  He divided his men carefully, sending the four best woodsmen to take care of the four guards keeping watch over the camp.  He considered for a moment, then said, "Raan, I know this is only your second mission, but I have been really pleased with the way you are shaking down.  That job you pulled on the last monkey we got was one of the nicest I've seen in a while."

Raan looked down and tried not to sound pleased. "Thank you, Sir."

"Don't get smug. It's a good way to die quickly on a planet like this."

"Yes, Sir."

"But," he continued, "I'm going to give you the tough spot on this attack because I think you can handle it now. If you blow it, the whole mission goes, understand?"

"Yes, Sir!"

"Lord Vader tells me that the Rebel Com unit is in that far tent, and that the interior guard will be on the other side from us facing this way. There are probably some other Rebels asleep in the tent. We can't risk any of them getting a chance to smash up the Com, or we'll all be stuck on this rock for the rest of our lives, which won't be long. So you arc going to have to crawl under the edge of the tent and knock out that guard without waking the others. I'm sending Petya and Casi with you to take care of the rest of the Rebels when you've killed the guard.  Think you can do it?"

Several possible answers, sarcastic or heroic by turns, flitted through Raan's mind, but he contented himself with. "I'll do my best, Sir."

"You'd better," the Squad Leader answered shortly.

Three imitation Girimir tents stood in the valley. Evidently the Rebels hoped that any survey flitter which might pass over would miss the camouflaged docking bay and believe the small encampment was genuine. Darth Vader had told them that fifteen Rebels and an unknown number of Aala were in the base. In the dim light of pre-dawn, the troopers separated and began to work their way down toward the camp. Raan knew that each was intent on his own part in the plan. One by one, the guards, half-asleep after the long and uneventful night's watch, were overpowered and silently killed, garroted with a length of wire from a trooper's belt-pack or struck down with a well-placed blow. Hardly a sound escaped them, nothing loud enough to wake the camp below. Raan, Casi, and Petya moved quietly toward the farthest tent. With Petya at the ready beside the tent flap and Cast on the far side, Raan wormed his way under the edge of the tent. One of the sleeping Rebels stirred, and Raan froze, but the sound attracted the guard's attention for the time he needed. Four men lay asleep and one sat with his back to Raan, as Lord Vader had said. Raan's estimate of the Dark Lord and his mysterious sources of information went up a notch. Again the length of wire produced the desired effect, and the single interior guard went the way of the exterior ones. A quick whisper signaled Petya and Casi. At the sound, the remaining Rebels started from sleep, only to find three Imperial rifles pointed down at them.

The rifle fire from the Com tent was the signal for the remaining troops. Some turned their rifles to a thin cutting beam to slash the lines supporting the tents, while their comrades set then on fire with a wide burst. Meanwhile Darth Vader brought his speeder down the steep slope. Those Rebels who escaped the fire and the Imperial rifles were picked off by the Dark Lord's heavier guns. The only Rebel forces to escape were a few Aala. The Imperial losses were only two men, but one of those was the Squad Leader.

The troopers cleared away the bodies and waited. On the captured Com unit, Vader sent a high-speed burst of scrambled code to the Imperial cruiser hidden in orbit around the next planet inward in the system. Still they waited.

At last, the approaching Rebel ship sent a recognition code and Darth Vader tapped out the confirmation he had torn from the Force-sensitive Rebel's mind. Everything as planned; come on in.

A section of the sky above Raan brightened suddenly like a second sunrise. Moments later, a cheerful voice sounded over the Imperial channel: "Cruiser Invincible to Lord Darth Vader. The Rebel ship is destroyed. Stand by for pickup."

Raan stood with his six clone-brothers in the remains of the Rebel camp to await the shuttle which would take them back to their ship. As they waited, Vader called Raan over with a brusque gesture. He checked Raan's ID number, etched into his white helmet. For a few minutes he considered the trooper in silence. A film of sweat broke out on Raan's forehead in spite of his suit's temperature control.

"You have proven yourself a good soldier, K4983. I need a Squad Leader for my personal guard." In confusion, Raan started to salute and fall back into ranks. Vader continued. "Wait, that is not an order. The officers of my guard are volunteers. I want men who are loyal to me above all other considerations. Can you give me that kind of loyalty? If you honestly cannot, feel free to say so. This is entirely off the record and will not affect your report in any way."

Raan was silent for a time, while the Dark Lord waited with an uncharacteristic patience. No one had ever asked for his loyalty before; his   obedience had been assumed since he emerged from the tanks. The events of the last few days flashed through his mind: Vader's defense of his men at the ambush, his indifference to the death of Jor, his wizard's turning of the stampede, his knowledge of the Rebel guard's position inside the tent, his strange goals which no one understood, unlike the simple ambition of the other commanders, his tactical ability, the death of the crippled soldier in the pass.... But no one had ever asked him anything before, and clones were always expendable. The best he could hope for was a leader who was wise enough not to waste their deaths. Suddenly he grinned within his helmet. What more could a clone ask than a good fight, a good commander, and a little glory? Wherever Vader went, he would have them! Raan snapped his best parade salute. "My Lord, I am proud to serve you!"

The Dark Lord acknowledged the salute and turned away to enter the Imperial shuttle. In a minute he had forgotten Raan entirely.

 

Winter's Tales