First of all, I am deeply sorry it took me so long to update. I've been really busy with University, and finding enough free time to write is getting more and more difficult. However, even if it takes me months I'll update this story –I am very fond of it, not just because it has enabled me to practice my language skills as well as enrich my vocabulary, but also because I've the most adorable readers in the world and I don't want to let you guys down :) So, please, enjoy this chapter as I apologise over and over again for the delay.
"This is Red Leader, move to zone 3-4-6-7."
The silence surrounding the pilots vanished abruptly when their superior's voice sounded through the comms. They shifted the controls to turn their ships towards the indicated zone, located only a few meters to the right. Though not everything was as simple as it that. They had to face the strong ice-cold wind draughts that threatened to divert them.
The six ships held the formation, flying over the place slowly and with the infrared scan equipment activated so they wouldn't miss any detail of the terrain. There weren't a lot of interesting things, one of the soldiers thought. No matter the direction of his stare, there were just rock formations of curious shapes here and there, covered with a bright white cloth of snow and ice.
"Relax, Lwet," a voice uttered through the com-link, "It's fine that the Captain ordered you to lead the mission, but this is just a reconnaissance mission, man. We're not about to attack a Separatist fleet."
Everyone could hear the growl vibrating through the com-link, a little distorted by the static.
"It's my duty, soldier," was the typical answer to his joking partner. "You ought to do the same. Any mission, no matter how small or silly it may seem, is important and we have to fulfil it with the diligence and professionalism that's expected of us as soldiers of the Grand Army of the Republic."
Trip, the one who had made that innocent comment earlier, had to hold back laughter. Lwet had always been a bit rigid about military etiquette. He'd hardly been seen relaxed or without that veil of military rectitude that characterised most of the clones. On the other hand, Trip didn't get to understand the mission. The soldier didn't need special Jedi powers to figure out that the Separatist presence in the Hoth System was improbable. Therefore, it made no sense that they couldn't chat at least a bit about meaningless things, just to break down the monotony of the reconnaissance mission and not feel as if the boredom was suffocating them –Lwet, however, didn't seem to share that point of view.
"Don't be so rigid, Lwet," he dared his superior again, "or you may not be able to take the armour off once we get back to the base."
All of the crew had to hold back the laughter that threatened to overtake them when the leader gave the pilot a lecture - who limited to follow the course, smiling widely. Lwet just hoped that Captain Rex had forgotten the password to the link of the communicators; it'd be embarrassing for them if he was listening to such an example of indiscipline.
Not only was he on the verge of becoming an ice cube, but he also had to deal with a bunch of insolent soldiers. Fortunately, the disobedience of some of his direct orders would only mean the loss of some topography data and not the death of an entire battalion.
Even through the harshness of the cold, the sky was clear and there seemed to be no sign of an upcoming blizzard. The stars were blinking intensely, as if each one of them was a bright, faraway sun. All that could be heard was the whisper of the wind as it went through the walls of the mountains, following their natural labyrinth. Everything was at ease, and the clones felt comforted –because even though they were surrounded by cold and darkness, they would have to worry about nothing more but the exploration of the zone.
The six starfighters followed their course, directed by the authoritative voice of Lieutenant Lwet and relaxed by the jokes of Trip. The quicker they ended the mission, the sooner they'd be able to return to the base—which would mean a great amount of sleep. Even though they were dedicated soldiers they couldn't ignore their own need for rest.
They had been exploring the zone in total darkness for about three hours when one of the pilots slowed his vehicle abruptly. Klamp felt as if his heart had climbed all the way up to his throat. He adjusted the electro-binoculars and focused them on one spot in the rocky formations. There wasn't anything out of the ordinary where he thought he had seen something.
A few meters to his left, Jyx and Howp seemed to have caught the same anomaly and forgot they were supposed to keep going. As soon as Lwet make a fuss about it, the three pilots cut him off to say that they'd seen something unusual, or at least they thought they had seen something moving in the snow.
"Could you see it clearly, soldier?" Lwet asked Howp, who had been the first one to cut his scolding short.
"No, Sir. I can't say 100 percent what it was exactly, but I can assure you, Sir, that something was moving on that crag." He stated.
Maybe it was a simple optic illusion caused by the lack of light and sleep, Roij thought, trying to calm himself down. Lwet, on the other hand, knew that they couldn't look the other way around and his heart filled up with pride as the thought of finally being able to lead his men on the field. The lieutenant had always thought about being something more than a clone dedicated to reduce droids to spare parts.
He ordered the soldiers to land and the six starfighters, Delta-7 Aethersprite, reduced their height, slowly, until they were on the treacherous snowed ground. All of the clones turned on the torches of their helmets to have better view and started to inspect the area carefully. The snow crunched under their feet. They felt the cold getting through the joints of their armour, heard the continuous whisper of the icy wind. The soldiers were surrounded by the loneliness and desolation of that white, indomitable landscape.
"Is everything okay over there, shiny?" Trip teased Roij through the communication channel.
Roij didn't answer. It had been said some experienced soldiers liked to tease and mock the new ones, but he didn't care about it that much. As Lieutenant Lwet had said, they were there to protect the Republic against the Separatist's threat. It was their duty to make sure that Hoth didn't hold something that could endanger what they were safeguarding.
When Roij was about to turn around to inform his companions that he hadn't found anything out of the ordinary, he caught a glimpse of movement in the corner of his eye. He threw himself behind a big rock and set all his senses to maximum alert. The howl of the wind was the only thing he could hear. The soldier turned off the lights of his helmet to maintain his position away from the enemy.
Guarded, he abandoned his hideout to move forward as quietly as he could. The nerves had transformed into a tight knot in his stomach. They relaxed a little bit as he wasn't finding anything. Whatever it was it could have been gone by now. Using his training, he slid slowly to inspect the place. There was no doubt that the mess of the snow, scattered, meant that someone –or something- had gone pass by that place sometime in the recent past. He tried to identify the prints in the snow. It had been a very big animal, or else two creatures were there.
That conclusion didn't make him feel better.
His teeth chattered.
But neither the cold nor the darkness was to blame. There was something that gave him the creeps, something that he could not completely define, but he knew for sure that they weren't alone in these mountains. Roij took his gun and removed the safety catch.
The bad feeling was beating in his veins, sending adrenaline through his whole system. It'd be better if he had told his companions about his discoveries. But the instant he pressed the button of his communicator, the cold that surrounded him suddenly disappeared and all he could feel was a scorching heat burning his insides.
His skin and armour sizzled. Roij could only exhale a scream that was silenced by the whisper of the wind. Roij collapsed to the ground. The others followed until there was no sound to disturb the song of the wind, which had brought an angel of death, silent and merciless, with light-blue eyes.
Nothing more but the snow was left as a witness and accomplice to the killing. It would take care of covering the tracks of the murderer and covering the bodies. The assassin stalked away at a solemn pace as he waited for his next victims.
A little Togruta put on her wool lined coat before going outside to meet the morning cold. Her blue eyes observed the snowed landscape. She'd never seen anything so beautiful and devastating at the same time. No matter how far her sight wandered, there was nothing to see but pure whiteness, slightly interrupted by rocks and the pallid colour of the sky.
"Aren't you freezing out here, Snips?"
The voice of her Master interrupted her thoughts.
"A little," the Padawan said, "but I guess I've found the bright side of this mission. Have you ever seen something like this, Master?" her voice filled with fascination, while her glare was lost in the horizon again.
"Not really," the Jedi knight recognized, "but I understand your point."
Something else could be breathed in that place, some sort of peace. Ahsoka didn't know if it was related to the wildness of the planet, since Hoth was one of the few systems that hadn't been affected by the war so far. Most likely it was because of the hard weather conditions and the fact that living somewhere like this was nearly impossible.
Ahsoka sighed. The war had changed everything. It hadn't just affected the freedom that was once common in the galaxy, but also the lives of every single inhabitant regardless of race or origin. What had started as a mere discussion in the Galactic Senate for political and economic reasons had quickly developed into a heated dispute. Soon the battlefield moved from an institution of the Republic to the entire landscape. Even the Jedi Order had been affected, being forced to take part in the conflict as the principal republic tool to command its army.
But that wasn't the end of it. There was a part even darker and more terrifying than war. Complots, agreements, betrayals in benefit of a few that ended up damaging thousands of people. The war was of benefit to several systems and entities, among them the Trade Federation and the Banking Clan, and even weapon manufacturers.
Politics weren't Ahsoka's thing. They were treacherous and the majority of the politicians weren't interested in the common good but in their own enrichment. She preferred to solve the problems more directly. Aggressive negotiations were more interesting and productive than diplomacy. As Master Kenobi said, wise words could prevent the unnecessary loss of life.
Sometimes she had her doubts. Ahoska wondered if the Jedis were doing the right thing in taking part in the conflict. Although they swore loyalty to democracy, freedom and the Republic, wasn't it contradictory to accomplish peace through fighting? What were they going to do when the war ended?
She moved her head uncomfortably, trying to brush those kinds of thoughts aside. Maybe so many visits to the Senate had paid off. It seemed that chatting with senators like Bail Organa and Padme Amidala had planted a diplomatic seed in her. However, it was the same dilemma that had tormented the Padawan in Maridum. She had come to the same conclusion as Master Secura: freedom was worth fighting for.
At the front Ahsoka had learned a lot about values like honour, friendship, loyalty and courage. Her Master and the clone troops had been the ones who instructed her. She wouldn't have learned those things from studying at the Temple.
Maybe that was why she didn't like politicians either, since nearly all of them tended to see the clones as mere tools to win the war, considering them as being equal to droids. It was a terrible misconception because clones were human beings. Even if they kept their emotions at ease, they did feel the brutality of the war. Maybe more than anyone else did. Every time a soldier died, a brother was killed. And thousands of them died each day.
Those were two things that she had in common with her Master. Both of them didn't like politicians and trusted few people.
"Do you copy me, Snips?" her Master asked. He looked as if he were about to laugh.
"I apologize for my lack of attention, Master." Ahsoka said, rearranging the hood of her coat.
"I'll accept your apology if we get in right now," he smiled.
Ahoska nodded. They both entered one of the caves. Ships and various vehicles had been stored there. A group of soldiers were sitting on some supply boxes. They seemed a little bit worried, judging by their expressions.
Surprised, Ahsoka and her Master approached. The soldiers tensed when they acknowledged their presence and started to get up to greet their superior as it was requested of them, but Anakin stopped them with a gesture of his right hand. The clone troopers sat down again and looked at him.
"How's everything going, soldiers?" he inquired.
"Okay for us, sir," one of them answered. "But maybe the explorers can't say the same."
"What do you mean?"
"They haven't reported in yet, sir, and their round wasn't that long. They should have arrived at the base five hours ago, sir," another one cut in.
Anakin's brows furrowed. It was odd that six men had disappeared like that. He had to talk with Captain Rex immediately. Maybe he had more information. Anakin tried to reassure the soldiers and then headed to the Command Centre, followed closely by his apprentice.
Ahsoka started to feel uneasy again. Did her bad feeling have something to do with the disappearance of those soldiers? Even if she tried her best she couldn't keep those thoughts away from her mind. She knew somehow that the events were connected.
What could have happened? Certainly, Hoth seemed to be the most inoffensive planet they had been to thus far. There was no threat of dangerous animals or tribes. Aside from the weather conditions, there seemed to be nothing detrimental to the survival of the troops. They could have miscalculated, however.
Maybe she was overreacting. Maybe they had an accident at the top of the mountain, or the communications didn't work and they couldn't come back. It was better than the alternative. It scared Ahsoka to relate both things to the vision she had abroad the Jedi Cruiser.
"Captain Rex, do you know something about the exploration patrol that we sent yesterday night?"
Ahsoka had been so lost in her own thoughts that she couldn't tell when they arrived to the Command Centre.
"Nothing, sir." Rex answered. "Judging by the track signals of the starfighters, they were somewhere in the 3-4-6-7 zone of the 7 sector when they got interrupted." The clone paused and his expression turned thoughtful. "I'd hate to jump to any conclusions, sir, but it'd be possible that their equipment was damaged by the cold and the security guard had a technical problem with their speeders."
"I guess we'd have to go and get them. I don't know how long they could resist this cold without any support." Anakin decided.
Rex would've expected less from the General. To be honest, he wanted to believe that the inconvenience had to do with a failure, but like Ahsoka, the planet gave him the creeps. It was too calm for his taste. The stillness was suspicious. There could have always been something hiding somewhere on the planet, waiting for the right moment to attack. He hoped that his men were safe, that it was just a technical problem and nothing else. They couldn't deal with a hostile tribe and the Separatists at the same time.
"If they've spent the night there, it's possible some of the crew may have caught hypothermia." said Anakin, while he inspected one of the nearest data-pads. "Ahsoka, come with me to the ship. While I'm checking that all systems are functioning with Rex, you'll have to make sure that the med-droid is fully operational."
Ahoska nodded and followed her Master and the Captain who were heading quickly to the hangar, a bit overwhelmed that the lives of the soldiers were practically depending on her this time.
Master and Padawan could both feel in the Force that something was going to happen, but neither of them expressed this out loud. Anakin feared that the situation affected his Padawan somehow. She was already too thoughtful.
Before they took off, he made sure that the communicators were functioning correctly in case they had to ask for reinforcements, something he wasn't looking forward to. In his mind he started to develop different hypotheses for what happened. Even when the idea of a technical failure was tempting, he knew there was something more to it. The whole situation was strange, since the starfighters were prepared to deal with the conditions of outer space, which made the possibility of being overwhelmed by the weather very hard to believe, even if it was as extreme as it was in Hoth.
Something definitely wasn't okay.
"Everything okay over there, Snips?" Anakin asked through his comm-link.
"Everything's in order, Master." Ahsoka answered. "We're approaching to the coordinates that Rex gave us."
The closer they got, the more palpable the unease became. She dreaded that the vision above the Jedi Cruiser was related with that mission. That sensation of devastating loss had nearly killed her inside... She had heard about Jedis that could see the future, who could see the death of people. Did the vision mean that she was going to lose someone close to her?
Jedis didn't fear death; quite the opposite. They revered those who abandoned the earthly world to be one with the Force. Since she was a child, Ahsoka had heard it thousands of times. She had even thought that she understood. But now that she reflected on it, she wasn't so sure that she would feel happy to lose someone she cared for.
Since she had got out of the Temple so many years ago to become a Padawan, she had learned a lot. Especially about that troubling and forbidden topic for Jedis: bonding. A lot of times she'd found herself wondering if she should have had a more distant attitude toward her Master, the clones, or her superiors. But such a thing had been impossible. Ahsoka couldn't help but let affection make a nest in her chest. For example, what would have she done in those long space trips if Barris hadn't been there to chat? Or what about Master Plo, who had guided and given her advice since she was a child, being the father she never had? There were also Master Kenobi and, of course, her Master.
To be honest, with the last one she had started off on the wrong foot. But it soon became obvious that, no matter what, they made quite a good team. He was a good teacher, maybe very overprotective –although Anakin would never admit that. Ahsoka had realised that Anakin Skywalker was extremely loyal to people, he'd never leave a man behind, and that was something that the young Togruta respected and admired him for. He'd never leave someone in danger if he could prevent it.
However, she had also developed an overprotective behaviour towards him. What had started like a joke soon became an implicit duty, to the point of arguing and trying by all means to be assigned to the majority –if not all- the mission in which his life could be at risk. Who was going to watch his back? Obi-Wan would have done so, she was sure of that, but the Padawan knew that they were assigned to different missions from time to time.
Although the mere thought was stupid, Ahsoka was afraid for his life. Because Anakin was reckless and impulsive, just like her, and sometimes she was tormented by the thought of what could happen if one of his plans didn't come out the way they were supposed to...
Yes, it was indeed stupid. But she couldn't help it.
"Prepare to land, Ahsoka." The voice of her Master interrupted her line of thoughts.
She realised they were flying above a mountain zone, of sides considerably sheer. The sun light pulled out a light brightness from the ice, between a white and blue tone, which only succeeded in underline that feeling of icy cold.
The astromech droids emitted a loud beeping sound before they started with the landing manoeuvres. Ahsoka had the same opinion about R5. That place gave her the creeps.
The snow crunched under their feet. Ahsoka tried to identify something among all the snow, the wind humming in her ears. The blizzard wasn't good for her sight.
"Your eyes can deceive you. Don't trust them."
After ordering the droids to look for life forms on their scanners, Anakin and Ahsoka started to explore the terrain in their search for the men. They both knew that those soldiers were counting on their help, because they knew that in their eyes they weren't just clones, they were their men, their crew.
Ahsoka focused as hard as she could, trying to detect any flow in the Force that could give her a sign in the right direction: hope, desperation, anything that could indicate that Trip, Roij, Lwet, Jynx, Howp and Klamp were there.
Ahsoka kept her eyes closed, focused, when suddenly she felt her feet collide with something. She didn't feel any flow in the Force, unluckily. Ahsoka opened her eyes. She had run into a simple rock. However, after a quick look, she realised it was big enough to shield someone from the cold.
Without thinking twice, she enclosed it. There was nothing there but snow, but her stomach tightened suddenly. Ahsoka started to dig, the weather chilling her fingers. With each handful of snow she got out, the feeling of unease intensified.
She never wanted to consider that possibility.
Her fingers touched something more solid than snow, although it was equally white. With her heart in her mouth, Ahsoka kept digging, only to unearth the helmet of a clone trooper.
"Master, I've found something." She shouted over the wind.
Anakin was already beside her.
"He's dead," Anakin started. "That's why neither R2 nor R5 registered anything on their scanners... We've to find the rest of the men, Ahsoka."
Ahsoka felt her heart compressing from the guilt. Should she have seen it coming? Were those deaths related to her vision? She should have done something to prevent it. She had the silly hope that maybe the others had stumbled upon a different conclusion, but it shattered to pieces a few minutes later.
Each one of them was dead.
"You watch my back, and I watch yours."
Rex's words resounded inside her mind. The guilt built stronger, a knot in her stomach appeared. She warn about something like that, and even then she did nothing. She'd decided to look the other way, hiding her vision from her Master. And six clones had paid for her stupidity.
The eyes of the silent predator caught sight of the new beings that arrived to its hunting ground. Its approach was stealthy, its advance guarded by the blizzard. The weaker of them was identified-a little Togruta that seemed too lost in her own thoughts.
Its lips curved into a smile. It was ready to jump.
So, yeah, I know I've told you in the last chapter that the importance of this mission and its relevance to the story was going to be revealed in this chapter. However, my muses have thought otherwise, since they decided to over-inspire me and I ended up writing an extra-long chapter that I actually had to split in two parts. However, I do hope you have enjoyed it :) Oh, and I'll be posting the next chapter by Wednesdays/Thursday next week -I know, it's a miracle xD.
I'd want to thank my beta, Saint Sentiment, once again for all the patience and the help. Also, I want to thank you all, my dearest readers -you can't imagine how hard it was to read your lovely reviews and not be able to work on the chapter due to lack of time. I just want you to know that it is your constant feedback and support what encourages me to keep translating this story, so thanks for everything! :)