They were clones. But they were also men...something I realized every day as I watched them fight and die to protect our dismal little planet from the forces of the Separatist army. The people of Nylos knew that if not for the presence of much needed iridium ore on our backwater world, we most certainly would have been left to the mercy of General Grievous and his droids.
I had a closer relationship with the garrison stationed in my town than most, I suppose. My father owned several warehouses near the spaceport, and one of them had been commandeered as a makeshift barracks. Since I had been working as my father's de facto right-hand woman for several years, it fell to me to assist the garrison commander and the Twi'lek Jedi Master who oversaw the operation. My time became filled with mundane duties such as routing supplies or assigning new troopers to bunks that had been left empty by the deaths of their comrades.
When we'd first heard that a garrison was to be stationed near us, my younger sister had been thrilled. The local boys had long since lost their charms for her, and she looked forward to a new batch of men on whom to practice her wiles. Privately, I believed striking up a flirtation would be the last thing on any of the soldiers' minds. They soon proved me right.
They had marched in to our shabby settlement, rank after rank of anonymous soldiers in shining white armor, and I had to admit that they made quite a display even in the sullen light of a late Nylos autumn. But my sister's excitement soon turned to irritation once she watched them take their places in the rough barracks my parents and I had worked overtime to prepare for their arrival.
"They all look exactly the same," she complained, after she turned from the yellowed plastic window that separated my office from the main warehouse.
"They're clones, Lilla," I pointed out, wondering if I'd been that empty-headed at sixteen. Somehow I didn't think so. Even at that age I'd known my parents expected me to take over the family mining business when they were gone. I'd been serious about applying myself at school and in our offices in the afternoons and evenings after class was done for the day. Besides, while I'd always been passably pretty, I certainly wasn't the sort to turn heads...unlike Lilla.
She gave an exasperated sigh. "Well, Tessa, you'd think if they were going to clone somebody they could have picked someone a little better-looking!"
"An army doesn't win because of its looks," I retorted, and since she apparently couldn't think of a suitable reply to throw back at me, Lilla departed in a huff. Just as well - after that day she found all sorts of excuses to stay away from the clones' temporary barracks. Since Lilla usually got her way in everything, my parents didn't force her to return even though we could have used an extra set of hands around the place.
In the meantime, the war dragged on, and every day I saw bodies brought back and burned, their ashes buried in neat containers in the muddy fields out behind our warehouses. No one had time to mourn them, and I couldn't think of any meaningful way to acknowledge their sacrifice.
On the days when I had time, I would choose several random graves and lay a few wildflowers on them - a feeble attempt at assuaging the guilt I felt over the lives these men had lost defending our settlement. Truth be told, they lost their lives defending our mines, not the settlement. Some days I could hear the concussive boom of heavy shelling off in the distance, but the mines were too precious to allow the Separatist forces to come any closer than ten kilometers or so. The Republic soldiers had chosen a line in the rocky soil, and the defense of that line brought the never-ending stream of wounded and dying men back to the barracks.
Dekk, the garrison commander, had caught me at my makeshift mourning one afternoon, just as I was returning from the burial fields. I'd wondered why they called him Dekk; most of the clones seemed to go by shortened serial numbers, although several appeared to have rough nicknames: Scout, Striker, Max. Then I overheard several of his men discussing their commander, and my curiosity was finally satisfied. Apparently he had been the only survivor of a previous unit hit with a concussion grenade. He had dropped to the ground, ahead of his fellow troopers. Thus, he had "hit the deck," so to speak, and picked up his nickname. He had also received a field promotion and subsequent reassignment to Nylos.
I suppose he had been standing off at the edge of the fields, watching as I dropped a few wilted daystar blooms on the rough earth. Unfortunately, the bleak autumn of Nylos didn't allow much choice in the way of flowers. Since Dekk was back at home base and in relative safety, he wasn't wearing a helmet - not that that would have made much of a difference. He regarded me with the same impassive courtesy he'd always had, and gestured toward the data pad he held.
"General Ri'las just informed me that a new detachment will be arriving this evening," he said, once I'd acknowledged his presence with a brief wave and hastened to join him. "But we don't have the latest casualty figures, so I don't know how many bunks will be available for them."
"We can set up an overflow area in the ore-sorting room," I replied, already mentally reviewing our options, "as long as it's temporary. The next batch of ore won't be ready to be sorted for another twenty-four hours."
"That should work," Dekk said, then gave me an odd look. He hesitated a second before asking, "Why do you do it?"
I didn't bother to ask him what he was talking about. I knew - I'd seen the faintly puzzled look he'd cast over my shoulder, toward the burial grounds. "It just seems wrong to me," I said finally. "Wrong for so many men to die, with no one to care. So I put flowers on their graves." Defensive, I added, "I suppose you think it's silly."
He still looked nonplused. "It's our duty. The order was to protect Nylos. So that's what we're doing."
Yes, I thought, and at what cost? Did it really matter so much whether this one smallish network of mines fell into the hands of the Separatists? But then I realized that if they weren't here fighting and dying they'd be doing it someplace else, a world where perhaps there would be no one to grieve for them.
"I suppose I feel as if it's my duty," I said slowly. "I help watch over them...make sure they're fed and have a place to sleep...I guess I just thought it was my responsibility to keep looking after them once they're gone. No one else has the time."
Dekk watched me carefully for a moment, then nodded. I could always distinguish him from the others because he had a long red scar marring his left cheek - probably a relic of the concussion grenade that had given him his nickname. Of course, no one would waste cosmetic reconstructive surgery on a clone warrior.
His dark eyes were expressionless of course, but for just the barest second I thought I saw a flicker of understanding in them. Then he clapped me on the shoulder with a gloved hand and said briskly, "Enough of the dead. We need to take care of the living."
And so I had followed him back to the warehouse, the two of us soon absorbed in the minutiae of survival. For a while I dismissed the formless anger I felt at the Separatists and the universe in general for such a useless waste of life.
I returned home late that night, and Lilla pounced on me almost the second I walked in the door.
"I saw you," she announced. "Fraternizing!"
For a second I could only stare at her dumbly, wondering where she could have learned such a complex word. Then its meaning sunk in, and I gave her a sharp look. "I was doing my job," I said, draping my bulky coat over the rack that hung in our entryway.
"Out in a field? I saw him touch your shoulder, Tessa!"
I wanted to grab her by the arms and try to shake some sense into her, but I knew it would be a pointless exercise. Lilla saw the world in terms of men and women and the relationships between them. She probably couldn't comprehend the fact that two members of the opposite sex could have a merely work related relationship with nothing more personal involved.
"You don't know what you're talking about," I replied, after taking a deep breath. I tried to remind myself that she was, after all, only sixteen. Never before had my own twenty-five standard years felt so old.
"Just wait until I tell Ma and Pa! Running around with that Commander Dekk instead of working like you're supposed to!"
I found myself wishing - not for the first time - that I could have just had a destructive little brother instead of Lilla. When she'd been born, at first I'd felt happy to have a little sister. However, after years spent watching her wrap everyone in the settlement around her little finger, I'd long since decided that a grubby little boy would have been infinitely preferable to the blonde demon I had for a younger sister. Still, sixteen years of dealing with her nonsense had at least given me the guerrilla training I needed in managing her.
"And what were you doing out there, anyway?" I demanded. "Shouldn't you have been in school?"
She opened her mouth to protest, but I could tell from her sidelong glance that I had hit a nerve. Pushing my advantage, I continued, "Keep your mouth shut, or I'll tell Mother and Father exactly what you were up to this afternoon as well. Understood?"
All I got was a sullen look, along with an extremely rude hand gesture she must have learned from one of the miners. Still, I appeared to have won this round. She sidled off, and I went to fix myself a long delayed meal. My parents sat in the main room, watching some long-running melodrama on the 'Net, so I had the kitchen to myself. I still shook with anger, furious that I had to defend something so innocent as an off-site conversation with Commander Dekk and a touch on my shoulder so brief it wasn't even worth mentioning.
"Brain in the gutter," I muttered to myself between bites of bread and cheese. Even if I had been foolish enough to think there could be something between Commander Dekk and myself - which I wasn't - one look at the clone commander would convince even the most hormone-befuddled female that he was all business.
I wondered whether the capacity to love or care for another being - beyond the rough concern troops fighting together needed to stay alive - had been intentionally left out of the clones' conditioning. It made sense, I supposed, but it bothered me that someone would manufacture millions of men to such exacting specifications and then treat them as expendable. Really, if that was how the Republic operated, exactly what made us different from the Separatists and their droid legions?
While these questions continued to nag at me as the days sped by, my growing disquiet could not keep me from my duties. Mining operations continued, although at a slower pace than usual. As always, there was the continuing flow of live bodies in, dead bodies out.
The Republic and Separatist forces seemed to reach some sort of stalemate. The Separatists refused to retreat, and the Republic clone troops had entrenched themselves so deeply that the droid army found it impossible to gain any ground. Thanks to Lilla's malicious tongue, I was now acutely aware of all my interactions with Commander Dekk, always second-guessing myself as to whether or not everything I did or said could be construed as unprofessional or questionable in any way. It didn't help that at times I fancied I saw the slightest softening in his features when we worked together, a betraying warmth in his eyes that was never shared with anyone but myself.
Even General Ri'las, the Jedi commander overseeing the operation, noticed my unease, but he had much more important things on his mind than the awkwardness of a civilian assistant. Beyond a general question as to whether I could cope well enough with the strains of supporting the garrison, he left me alone. I supposed it must have been difficult for him. He didn't seem to be all that much older than I, and I got the feeling that Nylos might be his first independent post. He kept to himself, in a small private compartment my father and I had jury-rigged in a far corner of the warehouse-cum-barracks. There he spent the hours when he wasn't managing the campaign practicing some sort of meditation.
He was the first Jedi I had ever met. I wasn't sure what I had been expecting, save that Ri'las didn't seem to be it. I had expected more of an atmosphere of wisdom, possibly, and what I had gotten instead looked more like an aura of forced calm hiding an anxious interior. Still, the Jedi Council must have had its reasons for sending him to Nylos, and so I kept my opinions of the Jedi Master to myself.
A dreary autumn bled into an even bleaker winter, as the rains swept down upon us, flooding the streets with mud. I hoped in vain that the wet winter would halt the campaign. Perhaps we could fight off the droid armies with rust, if nothing else. But every day began again with the sounds of fighting, and every day it ended with the return of the dead and dying.
On a dank, cold afternoon, the sort that seemed to leach all warmth from the sun and leave a pale white husk in its place, I stepped out of my office into the half-dried mud outside the barracks. A new shipment of replacement armor and rations was due any moment, and I lifted my hand to shield my eyes from the shrunken sun as I looked for the cargo ship. Then I noticed Commander Dekk and Master Ri'las standing off to one side, both of them apparently deep in discussion over a data pad.
Dekk caught my gaze and nodded, and I gave him an uncertain smile. I didn't want to interrupt the two, but it seemed as if there had been a natural break in the conversation. Ri'las shook his head slightly, lekkus shifting with the movement, and turned, as if to walk back into the barracks through the far entrance. Dekk began to step toward me and then paused. He stood still for a moment, and I saw the bluish gleam of a personal holo generator emanate from his left hand. I couldn't make out the figure exactly, but it looked vaguely like a Jedi to me - at least the robes seemed to be those of a Jedi.
Dekk's voice was clear in the cold air. "It will be done, my lord."
Then, before I could even react, before I could do anything but draw in a horrified breath, I watched Dekk remove the blaster from the holster at his side, lift it, and shoot Master Ri'las square in the back.
The Jedi crumpled gracefully, falling into a heap of brown robes barely distinguishable from the mud in which he lay. After a few seconds, a pool of dark red blood began to seep out from under the dead Twi'lek, mingling with the puddles of water that still stood from the rains of the night before.
The world seemed spin around me. I clutched the doorjamb, willing myself not to faint. Then I lifted my gaze to see Dekk re-holster his gun and continue on his way toward me, as if the casual killing of the Jedi master had been a minor interruption in the course of his day.
"Why?" I finally gasped, even as he came to stand next to me and then gave me a look of detached solicitude.
"Why?" he echoed, apparently uncomprehending.
With a shaking hand, I gestured to the huddled body of Master Ri'las. "He was your leader! You murdered him!" Even as I said the words, I realized perhaps it wasn't wise to throw those accusations at an armed man who had just executed a cold-blooded killing. At that moment, however, I was beyond caution.
"He was a traitor. I was ordered to execute him."
A traitor? What was Dekk talking about? He continued to watch me with that impassive gaze, and I began to shake.
"You should go inside," he said, and I, too stunned to argue, allowed him to guide me back inside the building and push me down into my desk chair.
"I don't understand -" I began, but he let me go no further.
"I received word that the Jedi order attempted to assassinate Supreme Chancellor Palpatine. The orders came to eliminate all Jedi. I merely performed my duty."
"But how -"
"Do you question the word of the Supreme Chancellor?"
His inflection hadn't changed, but the words were ominous nonetheless. I shook my head mutely, staring at him, wondering how I could ever look at him the same way again. In my mind, I saw the hapless Jedi master fall once more into the mud. He had had no chance to defend himself. And Dekk had obviously given no more thought to the execution than a man would to swatting an insect.
I shivered again, both from the cold breeze that blew in through the open door and the after-effects of the scene I had just witnessed. Something had changed in the second it took the blaster bolt to cross the courtyard and burn a hole in Ril'as' back, something that made the flesh on the back of my neck crawl. I looked into Commander Dekk's dead eyes and realized there had never been anything in them. All I had ever seen was the reflection of my own hopes and dreams.
"Will you let me bury him?" I asked after a moment. My thoughts kept returning to the dead Jedi Master outside, his blood running into the mud.
Dekk gave me that same flat stare, but I faced him squarely, and after a moment he looked away. "He's dead," he replied. "Do what you like."
And with that, he turned and left me there. I heard movement in the barracks after a moment, and then everything seemed to rush together. Word soon spread of Grievous' defeat, leaving the droid army without a master and the clones without an enemy to fight.
In the tumult, everyone seemed to forget Ri'las, who still lay dead outside the barracks. I went to my father, and together we loaded the heavy body onto one of our repulsor-powered ore carts. Apparently my stricken face was enough to keep my father from asking any questions, although he must have figured out what had happened to the Jedi Master once he saw the blast marks on his robes. Later we heard that the terrible little scene which had been enacted in the courtyard outside the warehouse had been repeated over and over, with subtle variations, throughout the galaxy.
Spring came, and with it the Empire. A garrison was once again established on our world, this time to ensure that the precious iridium went straight into Imperial storehouses. Wildflowers bloomed once more in the scrubland beyond our settlement, and I walked the burial grounds at dusk, laying my meager bouquets on the graves of clone and Jedi alike. Someday perhaps they would all be forgotten, but in the meantime, I felt compelled to carry out my own duty to them, these men who had died so that others might live.
And perhaps someday, if I wait long enough, this empty space in my heart will be filled, and I'll no longer have to wonder what they all fought for....
Original cover by GrandAdmiralIV. HTML formatting copyright 2005 TheForce.Net LLC.