Until then it had been a hot and lazy afternoon in the barracks. Quiet. Downtime. RC-1140 was in recline, an arm behind his head, taking in an article on his datapad. In the top bunk, 07 polished his boots and the raspy susurrus accompanied his leisurely read.
In the open common area toward the southerly side of the bay, two clones dueled one another before the sleepy, scattered attention of their brothers. They were sunk low in the hard standard-issue chairs, shoulders sagged, with the same slack-jawed expression on their identical faces.
Four bunks down, the Lambda-squad weapons expert hugged his pillow and snored a soft huffy sound through a half-opened mouth. His blunt, familiar features had lapsed into an innocent expression. His designation was 1031, but he had earned the unfortunate nickname of Snuggles.
Three bunks down, RC-1029 stared with jedi-like concentration at a revealing picture of Tweena Twai, the twi'lek singer. The rest of Lambda called him Spanky, which to RC-1140 remained a mystery.
1140 had just reached a table of fascinating structure diagrams when someone strolled up to his bunk and slapped his foot.
"What you got there, a letter from some girl?" The clone grinned at him, latching onto the top bunk and leaning in. "Hey, Sev." He reached out a big paw to grab at the datapad.
40 snatched it back. He came up on his elbow, his arm taken back from round his head. "Watch it," he said, annoyed, confused- he was going to lose his place and the article was almost a hundred pages!
On the top bunk, Sev murmured just one word, "Don't," and the other clone backed off and spread his hands. "Hey, Sev. Just having some fun. Unless.. " He grinned. "Ha ha, it is, isn't it? You gonna make us all uncles?"
"No," said 40 defensively- he didn't even know any girls. And who was this?
The other clone cupped a hand to his mouth and announced, "We got a letter from a girl over here" to a mixed response from their brothers. Some whistles, a jeer, and someone else- 1058 or 57 probably- calling out lazily, "What's this girl thing you speak of?" and someone else- 1062, Strut, calling back, "Who needs em?"
Flopped out on his bunk, Snuggles mumbled and nuzzled his pillow.
"It's not that," 40 replied, "it's an article from Alderaan University Department of Biotechnology on the evolution of bacta as a medical applicant and its precursor, the elusive substance kolto."
The other clone raised his black eyebrows. His chin notched up as he looked to 07, mouthed "oh", and then looked back down. His smirk faded away and he was like a new man. "Sorry," he said, in a milder tone now. "Fixer, right?"
The other clone nodded slowly. "Right. Sorry, I thought you were Scorch.. I saw you over here with Sev so I thought.. "
"You ever see Scorch read anything?" 07 grunted. A good point. Even 07 read more than the demo expert, who could be found with his nose in Holotube stupidity. 'You guys, look at this clip,' he'd say. 'It's a guy eating a death mantis on a dare!'
"Yeah, that's why I thought it had to be.. huh." The other clone smiled. "Sorry, Fixer. You know where he went, Sev?"
"He didn't say?"
"It surprises me too sometimes," Seven said, "but Scorch can live without me."
"Huh well. We need another guy for scramball. You play, Fix?"
"No. But I thought 07 knew the game.. "
The other clone rubbed the back of his neck. "Yeah, uh, well about that.. Sorry, Sev, if it was up to me I'd let you play, no doubt about it, but you've been uh.. banned.. from that thing last time." He spread his hands. "Again, not my ruling, but-"
40 could only see 07's legs from here, hanging over the bunk, but in the awkward pause that followed, he could imagine 07 was giving off that creepy silent stare of his. He was still polishing his boots with that methodical attention.
The other clone extricated himself from the situation with a "Well hey, anyway, never mind," and went back where he came from.
"Who was that?" 40 asked when it was just them again.
"1094, Hotrod. The sniper from Iota. Allegedly. His aim pulls too much to the left.. I've told him so. Inaccurate."
"You have to be diligent in calibrating your rifle," 07 went on. "Diligent in everything." His deep voice purred over the sound of his work.
1140 put down his datapad and stared at the underside of the bunk. "You know," he remarked, "I can understand the difficulty in mistaking each other's identity.. but I'd like to think people could tell me apart from Six Two."
"I always know it's you."
40 smiled. "You do? How can you tell?"
"From the stick up your ass."
"Look, we've got a lot of strong personalities on this squad," 40 said. "Three Eight has a certain.. leadership style.. And someone has to make sure we're all in line. That we do what we're bred to do. The Republic is counting on us."
The bare feet hanging over the bunk began to clench and unclench toes. A deeply-voiced chuckle filtered down from above. "Ahhh, the Re-pub-lic," Seven said.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"So tell me what you found out."
"What about it? Its chemical structure? Its interaction with blood cells? Its typical range of concentration in standard units? I don't really think it would interest you, Seven."
"You'd be surprised what interests me," Seven whispered. "What do you know about Manaan?"
"The habitable ocean world and unique source of kolto in known space. Why?"
The ragging sound ended. The boots were set aside. "You see?"
In the background, 40 could see the duel winding down. Another clone had stepped up to the combatants and was demonstrating something with the padded weapons. "You're going to have to explain what you mean."
"You're smart, aren't you, Fix?"
"Technically, no more or less than you or any of our other brothers, but- " 40 liked to think it was discipline and interest that set him apart. If any of the others just applied themselves..
Seven said, slowly, "Do you think kolto works better than bacta?"
"Well, I can't say from personal experience, but studies indicate-"
"Are you convinced?"
"I've just looked at some diagrams, actually, and.. "
"They can make it say whatever they want it to say."
"What are you trying to tell me, Seven?" 40 rubbed his forehead. Boy, it was hot in here. "Honestly. I want to know. I didn't know you were interested in this kind of thing."
"If you can only get kolto from Manaan, that puts the Manaan in an interesting spot, doesn't it?"
"The selkath." That was what they were called.
"The fish people. Whatever."
"I don't follow," 40 said.
"Keep your eyes open," Seven replied, and that was all 40 knew he was going to get from him.
He picked up the datapad again and sank back into his reading. He had to scroll back a few paragraphs and re-read, but the only thing he could think about was 07. How was it that he could be so surprising, even after all this time. How well did 40 really know him? How well did anyone? Could they? Are we all the same?
40 had just returned to one of the diagrams when someone burst into the barracks. Heavy boots knocked out a heart-stopping cadence on the floors- the whole bay took notice. The combat demonstration went on pause. Three bunks down, RC-1029 minimized the photo display of the twi'lek singer Tweena Twai.
"Fixxxxerrrr," came the distinctive husky growl.
Four bunks down, Snuggles jolted awake and hit his head on the bunk frame.
40 didn't have time to wonder what he'd done to piss off Three Eight. By instinct he popped out of bed and stood straight.
In no time at all, Boss was in his face, eye to eye, so close that 40 could smell his breath, see every individual scar, pore, and eyebrow hair.
"What," husked Boss," do you think you're doing, Fixer?"
"Reading an article, sir," 40 said. His heart hammered.
"Reading an article, Fixer?" said Boss, and each word puffed out on a hot breath.
"Yessir," said 40.
"I hope it's about bacta, Fixer," Boss growled.
Standing there in the crosshairs, close enough to see himself reflected in his leader's eyes, 40 said- foolishly- "I uh, yessir, it actually is.. "
Boss stared at him. There was a slight twitch in his face, there and gone. An eternity came and went. 40 could see the sweat on the clone's face, so like his own, yet contorted with restraint. "It's almost like you knew," Boss said. Oh. Oh hells.
"Sir, what, what do you wa.. ?"
"What do I want? I want a lot of things, Fix,things I can't have- looseleaf Havao tabac, a Czerka slugger with rosewood grips, a zeltron ladyboy- but what I want right now is the air conditioning unit to work in this barracks and a good excuse why it hasn't been! Well then Fixer? What do you suppose?"
40's brain was still processing that list. Wait, wha-
"WELL, FOUR OH?"
Air conditioning unit. Well that would make sense- awfully hot- but it wasn't his-
"Ruhruh.. right on it, sir," 40 said about an octave higher than was normal. "I'll, I'll fix it right away!"
"Well would you look at that." The Concord Dawn voice shook the barracks. "YET AGAIN a Delta fixes all our problems! What would you do without us. I'm talking to you, Spanky! Yes, you'd better run to the fresher! And don't forget to wash your damn hands!"
40 scrambled out of the bay in great haste. Never mind it wasn't his responsibility- and he'd been so engaged he didn't even think to wonder if the unit malfunctioned. Anything to escape that terrible wrath, that terrible voice.
"As for you," Boss whispered in a deadly undertone, turning his head to piece Seven with dark eyes. "What do you have to say for yourself?"
Sev looked him straight in the eye and said, "Kiss my ass."
For a moment 07's fate hung in the balance.
Then "Boss" laughed. "Roooight, how's abowt a brutherly peck an the cheek!" he said, his accent exaggerated, his voice quiet so no one else would hear.
The sniper snorted. "I was wondering when someone would fix the unit. Good call."
His voice the usual playful tenor that came over the squad link, Scorch whispered, "Yeah well, if I asked him to do it, he'd say it wasn't his responsibility or we'd have to mando up and deal with it. Heh, can't believe he fell for it.. Whatta di'kut."
"Only Fixer is smart enough to be that dumb," Sev muttered.
Scorch kept his face straight, but a hidden grin danced in his eyes. "How'd you know it was me?"
"I always know it's you."
In Scorch's estimate, what Sev said next was 110 percent dead serious. "I can smell you," the sniper whispered, not crazy at all, no.
"And I always know it's you," Scorch replied. "The creeper expression gives you away. Wow, man. You been in here all damn day?" Yeeeeeesh.
"Maintaining my equipment."
"Is that a codeword, Spanky II?"
"We got to always be ready." Sev leaned in. "You know Manaan?"
"What squad's he in?"
Scorch gave a cheerful "Nope!"
"The selkath world. Gonna be big. Mark my words. You just wait."
Scorch's eyebrows went up. "Oh.. Oh, not that.. Shark thing, again?" They had a talk about that.
Seven looked into his eyes and said firmly, "The ruins." They had a talk about that too. Oh boy.
"Aw come on. You know what you need. You need some liberty, man."
Seven stared in silence.
"Come play scramball," Scorch offered with a grin.
Seven continued that creepy stare. The one that went on and on. Then the black eyes lowered, looked away, and Sev relented. "I've been banned," he grumbled in his deep voice. "Bunch of babies can't stand the sight of blood. Not real mandalorians. Didn't come out right. They oughta been liquidated in the vat."
"Whoa-ho, that's some crazy creeper talk, but well, hey, I'm with ya- Nine Three always bitched he couldn't tell us all apart. Now I can pick him out in a hundred man formation. So long as he smiles. Not like he's got a lot to smile about these days though.. "
"He can still function with the remaining teeth. Protein slurry doesn't gotta be chewed." It didn't.
Scorch squeezed one of the feet hanging off the bunk. "That's the Sev we know and love. Always the optimist. C'mon vod. You love scramball- we'll play just the two of us. The locals carved out a clear patch on the south side of this craphole island."
The sniper's brow furrowed. He looked around. "All right," he grunted.
"And by the time we get back," Scorch said, "we'll have a frosty cold barracks, comfy bunks, and Fixer crying himself to sleep. Or maybe he'll learn to take a joke. Or maybe a bantha will fly outta my ass. Anything could happen!"
Slowly, the sniper's face contorted in an unusual expression, one that was difficult for his face- even though he looked like all of the others. It was a smile. "Boss will kill you if he finds out."
Scorch smiled back. "He hasn't yet, has he," he said.