Battle of Iridonia, 3963 BBY

Aftermath

I was never much of a tactician, and never bothered trying to be. I mean what's the point when you've got officers? They're the brains and you're the brawn, except usually they're brawn too because you have to be a trooper before you can be an officer, unless you crap credits every time you take a squat. Offers with money are officers to keep an eye on, because chances are their entire experience of actual warfare is dancing around, poking at some other rich guy with a blunted vibro-sword while yelling "nyah!" and wearing useless padding. But I'll give it to them, those guys often have a head for plotting. Stick 'em in a boardroom with a map and they'll find the enemy's weaknesses and exploit them mercilessly, all the while thinking it's a jolly good lark. Just don't ask them to kill a man at point blank range with the blunt end of a spent blaster.

And then there are some officers who are just foot soldiers who were so good at killing people brass decided they should be paid extra for doing it. At first I thought he would turn out to be one of them, but I was wrong. He was as common as me, his family completely without credits or connections, his accent lower caste Telosian, his bearing unrefined and blatantly don't-fuck-with-me (as opposed to my own please-don't-fuck-with-me). That was my first impression, and then I got to serve under him. Always under him.

Captain Onasi had something of a one-track mind in those days, but I suppose if he didn't we'd be dead. He was one of the Republic's best men; brave, strong, determined to see this thing through. We were lucky to have him, because Captain Onasi did not take kindly to his men getting killed, and he protected us fiercely, keeping casualties to a bare minimum. Compared to other squads our losses before the Jedi joined the fray were insubstantial, and afterwards they were nonexistent. We loved him in return – some of us more than others, but we'll get to that in good time.

Iridonia – we won that one. After Cathar we never thought we'd see victory, although none of us counted on the Jedi showing up when they did. Cathar was a nightmare, pure and simple. I still wake up sweating, the images of an entire race laid to waste still pasted across my vision. That's where we lost a quarter of our troops, and Onasi received a medal for "a remarkable survival rate". That's war for you. Forget the glory Holonet feeds to you every day. War's nasty, and it stinks, and there's blood and puke and shit everywhere, and it doesn't make the slightest bit of sense. Only Mandalorians found a trace of glory in dying in battle, and we were only too happy to help them along with it. Even after everything I've done, I can't understand the Mandalorian mentality. Carth Onasi said he understood it the day I met him, and after I ranted at him in disbelief he calmly pointed out that he didn't agree with it, and he tried to explain it to me, but it's nonsense. They kill other people because they think they can gain honour from it. I've killed because I was told to, and because I was angry, and because I wanted to, and I think those are the only reasons for doing anything. Honour doesn't exist, it isn't real or tangible and if you take an honourable Mandalorian warlord and strip him and stand him next to a Serrocoan civilian whose house has just vanished in a plume of fire from a Mandalorian basilisk… well, you try and tell them apart. You tell me who has the most honour.

Carth said honour was what you had to have when you'd got nothing else in your favour, but he said it in a bombed out cantina after the battle of Vanquo, while we sat around drinking whatever booze had survived and awaiting orders. I glanced at the guy next to me, a youth barely eighteen years old with a head wound, and wondered exactly what we had in our favour.

"We're on the right side," said Carth. "They're the aggressors. We're the good guys. That's what we've got." He convinced me for a while, and I think he almost convinced himself.

You didn't ask about the war. I know. But truth is you weren't there. Understand that this story doesn't make any sense without that background of chaos and insanity. If we'd met in other circumstances – if, say, I'd visited Telos, or he'd dropped into the Corellian system for whatever reason, we wouldn't look twice at each other. Well that's not true. I for one would have watched him walk on by just for a glimpse of that ass, but he wouldn't have spared me a moment's thought. In a war zone you look at stuff you wouldn't normally, and pay attention to things happening in the background because if you don't you're dead. When you're in danger your brain sits up and takes notice and you perceive a whole bunch of stuff that'd normally slip your notice. I suppose what it's really looking for is a way out, a bridge to safety or maybe just something to batter the other guy with.

I was assigned to his squad after we finally abandoned Suurja, but I don't remember when I first really took notice of him. I noticed all his men loved him, and at first I thought he must be soft on them, but he didn't look that sort of officer. Between Suurja and Vanquo we had a few deep-space scuffles, and I learned he was a damn good fighter, and then… I dunno. It's not as if there wasn't time to nurture an… admiration, because of all the travelling and waiting around for high command to get its butt in gear and give us our orders, but spirits weren't high and I suppose that's why it wasn't until Iridonia that anything happened.

That was a crappy battle, even after the Jedi dropped in. Oh, technically we won. I realise that. But in war, you've won as long as you aren't dead. Mandalorians don't take prisoners, so there's nothing in between winning and dying. After Vanquo I found myself lying face-down in what I hoped was soft mud, surrounded by corpses and covered in blood. There was no one nearby that I recognised, which was a blessing because everyone nearby was dead. I didn't know where the captain was, I'd lost my squad, and the planet was Mandalorian territory now. On top of that, I had broken a couple of ribs and gained some new potential scars. But I'd won, because I could still breathe, and see, and even walk. That's winning a war.

On Iridonia we were entrenched on the outskirts of a huge rainforest, waiting for those Mandalorian bastards for hours. The Zabraks gave us a little confidence because they're all so damn huge, muscular, and, most importantly, well-armed, but we were, to coin a phrase, shitting ourselves. We'd given up too much ground, been battered once too often, lost a few too many men… And Iridonia isn't exactly paradise anyway. It was pissing down, huge drops of slightly acidic rain that started to irritate human flesh after a while, mud up to our knees, and yet another new batch of parasites to contend with. There were these fucking awful biting winged things that got in your clothes and burrowed into your skin. Zabraks have tough flesh compared to humans, and they drove us damn near crazy. War's a breeding ground for parasites, which should be obvious enough… corpses, blood, filth. I think that was the worst part of the entire thing, speaking personally. Death and decay and loss and hardship I can deal with. But things trying to eat me while I'm still alive? Urgh.

Anyway. I reckon even Carth was close to breaking point, because it was his idea to get out the flask and steady our nerves before the onslaught. Strictly forbidden, but so's getting killed by a bunch of arrogant nerf herders, in my book. We got talking in those long hours. I told him about home, and he told me all about Telos and how beautiful the damn planet is. I guess he was married, although he never actually said, but you can tell. He was fighting to protect something he held dear, and it wasn't just the Republic. We all wanted to cling onto that. It was big, old, and omnipresent, and most of all it represented everyday life. Republic credits lined pockets, Republic transport allowed free movement between planets and systems, Republic trade routes and holonet stations, and politicians and celebrities were everywhere. Life without it, whether better or worse, would be different. And only the desperate want different. Some of us had something more personal to fight for, and Carth was one of them. I wasn't. That's why I could tell.

I found whatever it was he was saying thoroughly boring, but I found him very interesting. My body kept hinting at my brain that I could die at any time, and if I fancied this guy, now was the time to snare him and shag him. Stuck behind a stack of giant logs in a festering forest with a hundred other men, my reason told me that wasn't the best of plans, so I stuck with listening and nodding and enjoying the way his eyes brightened when he smiled. Yeah, sappy, I know. Hey, you asked for this story, so clam up and pay attention.

That was, I suppose, when I realised I had a thing for my commanding officer. I'd been there before, but the last time she was… well, a she. The gender of, well, anyone never bothered me before. I don't often care who I'm fucking, as long as they're human, or humanoid, or might have seen a human once… but in the army, guys tend towards the macho. Make advances on a male officer and the best your sorry ass can hope for is a good kicking, and so if it were left up to me I'd have backed away from that one eventually. Resigned myself to sneaky glances, eventually forgot about him. End of story.

Except it isn't. It never is. There's always more to any story, endings only come in when the teller gets too bored or dead to continue. Don't worry, I won't get bored before I tell you more about Carth – I can't guarantee I won't get dead, though, so I'll keep it as brief as I can.

Some people get a buzz from fighting, some live from it, some can only get their end up if they're on the battlefield. I'm not one of those guys; I'm worse. For me, battle is functional. You're in there to stop the other guy killing you by, if necessary, killing him first, to secure the area and hold it against any further onslaughts. It's not something fun. I get a perverse kick from hurting others who can't hurt me back, or won't, although it's best if they're unwilling… but I didn't really know that back then. I was a bit soft, I suppose. I hate warfare, is the point. The only thing that would have improved my mood was getting my hands on Carth and doing unspeakable things to him, but like I've just said, it was way too risky. So come nightfall I'd managed to push him to the back of my mind, and as the Mandalorians poured over the mountains and dropped from the sky, and battered our ships in orbit, I focused solely on that tedious business of defending myself and being alive.

My theory is this: it should be impossible, or at least very difficult, to die in battle if you have the right frame of mind, and add in some maths. All you have to do is break space-time down into tiny moments, taking one at a time. In any given moment it's extremely unlikely that the next one will be the one you die in. Cling to that. I've found that if you believe anything enough, it becomes real, or as close as makes no difference. The only flaw is that if you go into battle concentrating on nothing but that theory until you believe it, the chances of you dying in any given moment increase drastically because you aren't paying the damnedest bit of attention to what you're doing. Unfortunately, since I hit on that theory I can't get it out of my head whenever I find myself faced with a fight, and that's probably why I got shot in the arm.

Once you're down, it's a good idea to stay down because if a soldier sees a wounded enemy try to move, they'll take the opportunity to shoot him. The wounded can still be a threat, but it doesn't take much effort to finish them off. I've never been one to play by the rules of common sense, and that's why I got shot in the leg.

It's not much fun being down-and-out in battle, especially when the fighting lasts for days. You've no idea how long you have to lie there before someone with a stretcher carries you off to the nearest RMSU for a kolto dip and a hefty cup of caffa, and I'd blacked out from blood loss long before anybody found me. I drifted in and out of consciousness for a while, and I remember a sort of distant euphoria rising within me when I realised the flickering, twirling green and blue lights weren't the afterlife beckoning me but dozens of lightsabers. I was aware of a change in the tide of battle, and then I fell asleep. And that's the glorious story of my stand on Iridonia.

It's disconcerting to open your eyes and find yourself somewhere completely different to the place you fell asleep, but you get used to it if you drink as heavily as I do. What never gets any less spooky is waking up to find someone sitting at the foot of your bed. It took me a moment to figure it out.

"Hey, doc. Will I make it?"

The figure laughed abruptly as it swam into focus. "The army aren't that desperate for doctors yet. But judging by the way you're conscious and breathing, I'd say you're not going to die any time soon."

That was Captain Onasi through and through – wounded himself and visiting his men in hospital. I grinned at him as I fully awoke, and realised I'd been put on a cocktail of medication that made me giddy and light-headed, but there was no pain at all.

"How'd you feel, Atton?"

I beamed. "Like a death stick addict. Ever tried those things? Don't. Make you feel great and then you die, like whatshername, that Twi'lek prostitute they got for killing all those guys, promised them all brain-blowing euphoria, then really blew their brains out, what a way to go! I'd quite like to die like that, except I'd rather not die at all…"

I wanted to talk and talk, forever. It wasn't just the drugs. That was what it was like after Iridonia, because we won, and the Jedi had finally got off their backsides and done what it is they're supposed to do – defend the Republic. I could tell it was affecting Carth too because he grinned at my inane blathering. He glanced around the ward, and I followed his gaze; the room was surprisingly empty considering the battering we'd taken before the Jedi appeared, although I suspected most injuries were more serious than mine and needed longer kolto submersion, and less serious ones would have been released to join the celebrations. Across the room from me were two Republic soldiers deep in sleep, and beside me was a Jedi in a meditative trance. There was a large gash across her cheek, and the way she was propped up on her pillows suggested fractured or broken ribs. So I guess even Jedi aren't invincible.

Nonetheless, Carth lowered his voice as he spoke to me. "You remember before the battle? We talked about… all sorts of stuff. I just wanted to say thanks."

"What for?"

He shrugged. "Listening. You'd be amazed how many guys just give you the cold shoulder when you try and tell them about your home."

"Oh." I hadn't the heart to tell him I'd only been listening with half an ear. To be honest I was slightly suspicious of him at that moment. There's no place in the army for over-sentimentality, and I wondered if he was after something, but he didn't leave me wondering for long. He leaned over me and kissed me on the mouth, gripping my wrists in his hands so I couldn't make a scene if I happened to object. He released my wrists when I pushed my tongue into his mouth, and I grabbed fistfuls of his hair and jacket, and tried to ignore the fact that he tasted mostly of blood and dirt.

"Wasn't expecting that," he muttered against my lips – him trying to draw back and me trying to pull him in for another go.

"There's still time for me to punch you out and call you a pervert if you like," I offered.

He shook his head and kissed me again, which is what you've waited patiently through all my rambling to hear about, I suppose. And next you'll want to hear how I pulled the curtain around my hospital bed, and how Carth straddled me as he stripped off his uniform shirt, and to be honest, I'd love to tell you all about it. There ain't nothing that keeps me warmer at night than thinking of having Carth between my legs, and I reckon it'd be funny to see you go red and get uncomfortable as I go further and further into detail. I could tell you all the terrible things we did on the transport out of Iridonia, or the time I went down on him in a turbolift, or… well, you get the idea. But you asked about my relationship with him, not our sex life, and that's what I've tried to give you. And when you say the word 'relationship' it figures that you're not just asking how it began. The concealed question is "what happened in the end?", and to give you a lot of sap about feelings and then load it up with eroticism is too misleading. Those things happened. I was enthralled by him, emotionally and physically, until I almost couldn't fight beside him because I wanted nothing more than to drag him away somewhere safe and cling to him until the war went away…

And then the war went away, and… Well, how to put it? You ever wanted something and then, just when you got it, realised there was something you wanted even more? Or that there was something pulling you away and you couldn't ignore it. Ever get a better offer, one you can't refuse even though what you've got is way beyond what you deserve? Now imagine all those rolled into one. The Sith got me, and they got me properly in the sense that they made me one of them, and that proves I wasn't worthy of him. But I knew that anyway, and I suppose I always knew figured I'd be cast aside when he returned to his home. Sometimes, late at night, I try to re-write history in my head, so that I was there with him when Telos burned, and afterwards I'd comfort him, and we'd embrace. The fantasy always ends the same way. We turn our backs on Telos, and there'd be a bed, and eventually my wrist would ache from trying to get a response out of a body more intent on crying like little kid. I hope that one day I'll learn to hate him for letting me walk away, but I doubt it; not when I've got myself to hate.

And that's where it ends. Stars and planets and heroes go out with a bang; me and Carth ended like the universe will - with scarcely more than a whimper.