14573 threw himself into his sleeping cubicle. Today's normalization procedure had been especially difficult on the young soldier. All he wanted was to close his eyes and get some sleep. Sleep was where he was able to forget the rigorous training procedures, and escape Kamino for a while.
It wasn't that he really wanted to leave Kamino, or the training for that matter. It was that, unlike all the others, 14573 was not completely consumed with the training. There were other thoughts and feelings that resonated within him. When he separated himself from his surroundings, he felt as if he was somewhere else, a place where he belonged. And it was this, above all his other "imperfections," that made 14573 special.
14573 was a Stage 7 clone, part of the fifth class of clones produced by the Kaminoans. The Kaminoans designated each group of clones by a stage, signifying the number of years since their initial conception. During the initial phase of the program, clones were enlisted in the Republic's army upon reaching Stage 10. Yet more and more, with the devastation being wrought by the Separatists in the Great War, the Republic had begun activating the more advanced soldiers in the Stage 9 or, in very special circumstances, the Stage 8 groups.
Were it not for his imperfections, 14573 would have been considered the one of the finest cadets in his stage. Over the years of training, the Kaminoans would look for subtle differences that would indicate a clone with the potential to perform above and beyond his peers. 14573 was unusual in that there were significant differences between himself and almost every other clone. He was more independent, extremely intelligent, and to those who were familiar with both, nearly a perfect replica of the "alpha soldier" from which all clones originated. But the same traits that made him stand out had made him more difficult to control. He often disobeyed his Kaminoan instructors. He did not follow standard procedures. And, more than once, he had illegally accessed the Kaminoan data banks, learning much about the clones and the training process.
But lately, to those familiar with 14573, it appeared that he was more in control of his actions. He was aware of what behavior would result in his being assigned to normalization, and knew what to do to have himself reassigned back to the standard training.
"Are you awake, '73?" whispered a voice from the sleeping cubicle above him.
14573 stuck his head over the edge of his compartment and looked up. 14592 was looking down at him. '92 was another Stage 8 clone that had been through several normalizations with 14573. One thing 14573 had learned was that during the initial clone training, a Kaminoan named Ko Sai had theorized that by pairing aberrant clones together, perhaps they would assist each other in the normalization process and return quicker to the standard training, improving Kamino's already high success rate. 14592 and 14573 were examples of how these pairings were beneficial - '92 was assisted by 14573's guidance, and 14573 had seemed to respond favorably to the responsibilities of helping '92 through the difficult normalization procedures. Upon learning this, 14573 realized that his pairing to '92 had provided the focus he had previously lacked - focus that would ultimately make him a soldier. So, whenever '92 required normalization, 14573 took it upon himself to join '92 and help him through.
"What is it, '92? We have to be up early tomorrow."
"Tell me again about the place - you know, where we belong...."
It was the images in his mind that had caused 14573 to initially hack into the databases. And the more information he came across, the more he craved. He had to learn what it all meant - where he came from, what a clone was, what was his and the others purpose. Once he had learned how and why he was created, he understood the Kaminoans concerns. For most clones, such feelings were suppressed and ignored, and this was how the Kaminoans wanted it to be. The standard clone would likely not be able to understand what these feelings represented. They were to be soldiers, nothing more. All they needed to know was how to serve, to fight, and to survive. 14573 knew it was best not to discuss any of this with the others.
The only reason he talked with '92 about it was once, following a rather intense normalization session, 14573 had told '92 a story about a "fictional" home to calm him. Since then, '92 would ask to hear similar stories as an escape from the training. 14573 was always careful to make sure this remained a secret between himself and '92. Speaking of such topics was serious enough to have someone "removed."
And that was what was troubling '92. One of the fellow soldiers being normalized had finally reached the point of no return, and was removed. Each clone represented a significant investment, and every effort was made to normalize an aberrant clone. However, if a clone were to make a one fatal mistake, or too many smaller mistakes, he would be determined a lost cause unable to be corrected, and be removed. Mistakes could be anything from a violent outburst directed at a fellow student to something as simple as continually refusing directions given by one of the Kaminoan instructors. Yet no one ever saw what happened to those removed.
Even 14573 feared being removed. He had made many mistakes during his training, before he had been able to control himself. Now, he had to be careful not to make any mistake serious enough to put him in such a position. He wanted to be a soldier, to serve the Republics, but he also owed '92. For, if he were removed, '92 would be close behind.
"Can't you just go to sleep, '92?"
"Just tell me about sunrise...."
14573 realized that he wanted to hear about sunrise as well. Sunrise was not something that occurred on Kamino. He had learned about this during training, but in his mind he could see and feel the warmth of a great star rising over the horizon. A star rising over his home, "The land is still, a light mist covers the surrounding vegetation. The guards who have been protecting the camp that night look out, as the sky turns red with the dawn of a new day...."
"14592, advance with your unit, we have you covered."
Since returning from the latest round of normalization, 14573's performance had been among the most impressive of the clones in his stage. More and more often, he found himself leading units in training exercises, instructing his fellow cadets, and providing a role model in the barracks. It was common that as the cadets reached higher stages, the Kaminoans would allow the top clones to begin asserting themselves as leaders.
Today, 14573 was leading several squads in a training exercise in Dome 2956. Given Kamino's uniform climate, several training domes had been constructed to simulate the various environments soldiers could expect to face. In this exercise, 14573's units were being called upon to take out an entrenched enemy position on a heavily forested hillside.
14573 had placed '92 at the lead of a scout squad looking to flank the enemy's forward position. '92 was similar to 14573 in that those "defects" that caused his problems could be funneled into attributes that made one an ideal officer candidate. 14573 had learned, from information in the Kamino database, that he was highly regarded, and hoped that one day '92 would be regarded in much the same way.
"14573, we have engaged the forward enemy position. We are holding awaiting further orders."
Just as 14573 had hoped. '92's scout team, along with two squads under his direct command, had the enemy's frontline occupied. Artillery would draw the attention of positions further up the hillside. The units that remained under his direct command would advance, take the main position, then fall back to support the scouts, as well as mop up remaining pockets of resistance.
14573 watched as the positions atop the hillside crumbled under artillery fire. 14573 allowed himself to smile. "All units advance." Another training mission, another success.
He was truly becoming the solider he was created to be.
One evening, several months after returning to the standard training program, 14573 and '92 were dining in the commissary with several of the fellow squad leaders. Today's training had again went as planned, and the instructors were impressed. On the way back to the barracks, several hushed whispers among the instructors mentioned the potential of moving certain squad leaders into the "advanced groups." 14573 had also noticed that lately the Kaminoan instructors were seen less and less, replaced by officers from the Republic. 14573 even had the privilege on several occasions of meeting with these individuals. If he could just continue to perform, he could be one of privileged few to join the Army early, even before completing Stage 8.
14592 was another story, and he was being to worry 14573. 14573 knew it wasn't just the training, even with the growing intensity of the exercises. Something else was bothering '92. He began to regress into behaviors that had got him placed back in normalization the last time. He behavior was highly irrational, something very undesirable in a cadet at this stage. 14573 did not understand what was bothering his friend, but tried all he could to reach him. Nothing was working - and 14573 knew something had to be done soon.
The evening's mealtime had been silent, as was the standard. Suddenly, '92 spoke out. "Your artillery should have concentrated more fire on the main bunker. We lost too many scouts trying to take the position today." '92 had directed his comment at 16888, a Stage 8 cadet in charge of the artillery squads in the day's exercise.
14573 looked up from his meal. If it was very rare for anyone to speak in the Mess Hall, it was totally unacceptable for one to criticize another, especially a fellow officer. 16888 shot a fierce glance back at '92, "The artillery performed as desired. The objective was taken. The casualties hardly exceeded what was to be expected in taking such a fortification."
14573 noticed the discussion was beginning to draw attention. Almost the entire mess hall had stopped eating and turned to view the commotion. Even worse, several of the Republic instructors were making their way towards the table. But '92 was oblivious to it all. "Still, I expect more out of an 'experienced' cadet. Perhaps that is why you have not been called up."
'92 had crossed the line, 16888 and several of the other officers stood. No one insulted a fellow clone in such a manner. Whatever had gotten into '92 had put him in a dangerous position. 14573 realized the need to act quickly, not only for '92, but for himself. Other cadets were about to converge on their table, instructors were racing towards them, and discipline was breaking down. If ever he needed to prove himself, it was now.
"Cadet 16888 - stand down! Cadet 14592 - apologize at once and report to your quarters for disciplinary action!"
16888 quickly snapped to attention, along with the surrounding cadets. '92 did likewise, although 14573 could sense his unease. Although cadet leaders were expected to lead by example, they were hardly looked upon as superiors. Although he had way surpassed his authority, he had to take the risk. '92's life depended upon it.
The first instructor to the table was Major Hedish, a ruthless man in charge of the final stages of clone training. Major Hedish was an imposing man, extremely strong, and one who was not to be disobeyed. His short temper was notorious, and even more disturbing were rumors of underperforming cadets being removed under his orders. Yet, although he feared the Major, 14573 had a great deal of respect for a man he felt represented an ideal officer of the Republic.
"What is the meaning of this, cadets!" he screamed at '92 and 16888 once he reached the table.
Knowing he had to continue the play until the end, 14573 spoke, "Sir, Cadet 14592 made an inappropriate remark towards Cadet 16888 and has been ordered to his quarters to be followed by disciplinary actions. Cadet 16888 has be ordered to return to his meal, sir."
Major Hedish quickly was in 14573's face. He could feel the officer's hot breath, but knew he couldn't show any fear. "What right do you have to issue such orders to your comrades? You're nothing more than a dirtbag cadet! And what right do you have to even address me, worm? I did not address you!"
It was too late for 14573 to back down. "Sir, these were cadets under my command in today's training, sir. Until further ordered, I am responsible for the command and conduct of those under me, sir."
It seemed a lifetime that the Major stared at 14573. Finally, Major Hedish turned to the others and said, "Cadets 14592 and 16888, you have your orders. MOVE! Cadet 14573, execute disciplinary action upon Cadet 14592 and report to my office at once. All others, return to your meal." The Major turned and walked off.
14573 could hardly move. He could feel the sweat coming out over his entire body. What had he done? Who was he to stand up to the Major? Had he only made the situation worse?
Almost instantaneously, the others returned to their meal as 14592 headed out of the mess hall to his bunk, showing no emotion. 14573 gathered himself, excused himself from his fellow officers, and headed out to find '92.
14573 found 14592 at his bunk, his hands clasped, his head hung. "What has gotten into you? I put my own life on the line to save yours today. You owe me an explanation!"
14592 did not speak. 14573 knew he was crying - definitely a bad sign. A soldier did not cry. Finally, '92 spoke. "I don't know, I don't know why anymore. I don't want to be a soldier. I don't want to train, I don't want to fight. I just want to be left alone."
14573 was at a loss. Did not want to be a soldier? That is what he was, that was what he was created for. Their very existence was predicated on fighting for the Republic. 14573 realized how dangerous this was. To reject your role as a soldier, you were nothing. '92 would have been removed immediately if anyone else had heard him say this. What could 14573 do? During the last few stages, 14573 had always been able to help '92, but how could he help this? Send him to normalization? If '92 repeated any part of what he had said, '92 would never be seen again. He had to be punished, but how? What punishment could '92 handle in his current condition?
"You need to pull yourself together, '92. This isn't like before. They won't just put you back into normalization this time. And what you're saying, you know what has happened to others who talked like that."
14592 looked up at him, "Maybe I am a mistake. Maybe I don't belong." And, without another word, '92 rolled into his bunk with his back to 14573.
There was nothing more that could be said. 14573 turned and walked back into the main hallway. He would have to deal with this later. He had a larger problem to handle now.
Major Hedish's office was in the same building, but 14573 was in no hurry to get there. He took the longest path he could, to allow himself time to figure out how '92 would be punished in order to report to the Major. 14573's mind was frantic -- the best he could think of was solitary confinement. Maybe if '92 had time to think alone, he would come to his senses. Alone, with only home to think about. Maybe that could save him. At least it would keep him from speaking his mind to others. It should buy 14573 some time to help his friend.
The attending soldier directed 14573 right into the Major's office without a word. Obviously he was expected. 14573 entered and stood at full attention before the Major's desk, trying to hide all emotions, trying to appear calm as a true soldier should. The Major made no acknowledgement, and continued to stare out a window with his back to 14573. 14573 had no idea how long he stood there, but it seemed an eternity.
Finally, the Major turned. 14573 saluted. "Sir, Cadet 14592 will be sent to solitary confinement for one week. Following this, return to normalization training, sir."
The Major made no acknowledgement. He stared at 14573 in a contemplative manner before speaking. "I find your level of dedication to this fellow cadet ... unusual ... for a clone. I have been reviewing your files while waiting for you. You have been often identified as a "unique" individual. Your behavior shows no similarity to any other either proceeding or following you. You are quite a special individual." The Major approached 14573. "You understand what I'm talking about. I read about you accessing classified files regarding the cloning procedure. You know everything about where you come from and why. You learned things that one would expect would drive a clone mad. Yet, you have been able to accept that your only purpose is to serve the Republic. Very unusual."
If Major Hedish was anything, he was direct. 14573 responded, "Sir, I am a soldier, and I accept the way things are."
To his surprise, 14573 saw a smile form on Major Hedish's face. The Major drew closer. "Your intellect makes you different, makes you dangerous. But, if you can be trained to be an officer, you will be well worth the effort, and you shall serve the Chancellor well." The Major returned to his seat and sat down. "No, I have a better idea. You, and your comrade, will be assigned to the final preparatory program. There, we will see what you are truly made of, Cadet."
Final preparatory training was an even worse hell than 14573 had imagined it would be. Last week he and '92 had just reached Stage 8, but here they were training with the advance cadets in Stage 8 and 9. If the age difference did not cause them to be looked down upon, the instructors, especially Major Hedish, often singled the two out. Every mistake they made, the entire group would suffer. This led to nights in the barracks for 14573 and '92 filled with physical and verbal abuse by the fellow cadets. 14573 understood that this was part of the final training process, that which would finally make them soldiers.
No longer did 14573 look to be an officer, he merely looked to survive. What if he failed? Would Major Hedish send him back with the rest of the Stage 8 cadets? Back to normalization? Would this be the final mistake that would necessitate his removal? The strain continued to build in 14573, but it wasn't just the training that was affecting him. 14592 was almost completely lifeless. He never spoke, barely functioned in training, never responded to the abuse from the older cadets. He went though each day as lifeless as a droid, and 14573 could do nothing for his friend. No matter what he tried, nothing seemed to help '92. And each day only grew more painful, physically and emotionally, for 14573.
On the afternoon of the twenty-sixth day since 14573 had been promoted, the cadets were working on hand-to-hand combat, where the only weapon was a faulty blaster rifle. 14573 had to perform well today. He had made several mistakes the last few days, mistakes that were causing the instructors to berate him even more than before. His fellow cadets were growing increasingly angry. And now, at this, the worst of times, 14592 stopped fighting him. In the middle of defending himself from one of 14573's attacks, '92 dropped his weapon and fell to his knees. 14573 felt the entire class stop and turn towards the two, expecting disciplinary action from the instructors for the entire class.
14573 could no longer take it. He wasn't ready for more verbal abuse from the instructors, for more physical abuse from his fellow cadets, or for the mental abuse of trying to help his unresponsive friend.
"Back on your feet, 14592!" 14573 shouted. But '92 remained motionless, his head hung. It was what 14573 had feared, and he finally realized what the Major had intended - to see how he responded when '92 finally gave up.
"Get up soldier, and fight!" Again, nothing. '92 was motionless, hardly breathing. 14573 realized extreme measures were needed. Taking the end of his rifle, he swung for '92's head. The blow threw '92 backwards, and he lay there barely moving.
The entire class was silent. 14573 had never lashed out in such a manner.
"Soldier!" Major Hedish shouted, standing behind 14573. 14573 brought himself to attention, fighting the desire to go to his fallen friend. Hedish walked towards the prone body of '92 and kicked him. "Get up, soldier!"
'92 slowly brought himself to his feet. A slow trickle of blood came down the side of his face where 14573 had hit him. He coldly stared off into space. Major Hedish began to circle him, "Cadet, you are worthless. Your behavior is inexcusable. How do you expect to serve the Republic with such behavior?"
14573 had expected '92 to be unresponsive. But, with a clarity and purpose in his voice that 14573 had never heard, '92 replied, "I am not worthy to be a soldier, sir. I ask to be removed."
It took all his strength for 14573 to maintain his composure. How could he do this? How could '92 give up? After all he had done for him, all his sacrifices, this was all '92 could do, was quit?
Major Hedish showed no emotion. All the other cadets and instructors remained silent.
Major Hedish turned and approached 14573. "Soldier, are you still responsible for your fellow cadet?"
14573 knew he had to respond, but he could hardly speak. Eventually he managed a nearly inaudible reply. "Yes, sir."
Major Hedish bent over and picked up 14573's weapon on the ground. He removed a charged power cell from his belt and inserted it into the rifle. Removing the safety, he handed the weapon to 14573.
"Cadet, standing before you is a threat to the Republic and the Army. Remove the threat."
14573 took the rifle, and he understood. If he were to protect '92, he was only hurting himself. And by hurting himself he was not doing his part for the greater good. And that was what he was created for. He was created to be a soldier, and that is what he would be. And ignoring the pain tearing at him inside, he raised the rifle to the firing position.
14592 stared at him with a cold, unfeeling glare. "Finally, friend, I get to experience the sunrise. I am free."
14573 aimed his rifle at '92's chest, and 14573, Clone, Soldier of the Republic, fired....
14573 stood with the rest of his squad on the ramps waiting to enter the Assault Transport. He allowed himself another look at his armor, the green markings identifying him as a Sergeant in the Army of the Republic. He would soon be joining his brothers in fighting to defend the Republic. The way it should be, one part of the greater good.
This was what he was created for.
This was what a clone was intended to be.
Original cover by Morian Miner. HTML formatting copyright 2003 TheForce.Net LLC.