A/N: This story is a quite a bit darker than my other fics, so consider this a caveat. Also, please keep in mind that this is the first installment of a three part series, so not every question that arises will be resolved at the end of the last chapter. But take heart, it will be worth the ride!
As always, I appreciate any and all feedback, even just a word or two. Additionally, I'm not George Lucas and my wallet is not affected (positively) by this venture, though my sanity could probably be called into question.
Thanks for reading!
FYI: Wild Card takes place five months after the events of my fic, Untouchable, and 28 months after the start of the Clone Wars.
Eye of the Storm
Part One: Wild Card
"The storms are raging on the rolling sea,
And on the highway of regret.
The winds of change are blowing wild and free.
You ain't seen nothing like me yet..."
Chapter One: Modifications
Most beings in the galaxy did not concern themselves with perfection, certainly not with the same exacting specifications that Kaminoans went about the matter. The concept was vague at best and fanatical at worst; ultimately it was easier not to bother about it. After all, one could get by with fine or adequate, though they might find themselves wondering what if at a later point in the future.
The denizens of Kamino were not dreamers. They saw little point in idle speculation unless it lead to one result: perfection. But this was not a perspective borne without hardship, as their planet was proof enough that nothing worth having comes without a price; when the seas rose and slathered the tips of their mountains with salty water the Kaminoans had little choice but to adapt and grow. To cull the weak and revere the strong.
It was the way of their world.
Most Kaminoans realized that they were judged harshly by the rest of the galaxy, a matter that they took in long, slender strides as the inevitable result of lesser beings looking up to their superiors without a true comprehension of what made one "better" than the other. It wasn't their fault, the Kaminoans realized. They cannot help their ineptitude.
But still, it was wiser to isolate themselves in their flattened, disk-like cities, beneath shining white lights and surrounded by the quiet hum of generators than attempt to convince the lesser beings whose way was best. Adapt and cull, after all. It was a mantra that had carried the graceful species throughout eons of turmoil and change and it had served them well.
Creon Dai sat at his workstation in one of the labs of Tipoca City, staring at a blank screen. Normally he enjoyed the sight; it represented pure possibility unfettered by the mundane question of why. The word itself would have made him laugh if he weren't so tired of it and the limitations on his work and thereby his life that it had set.
Lama Su had said that very word to him earlier today.
"Why do you continue to make these...alterations to the Republic's clones?" The Prime Minister's voice was calm and monotone, as it always was, but Creon thought that he'd detected a note of irritation where one should not have been. Lama Su was as self-contained as Tipoca City and no amount of raging wind or water would ever break his veneer of controlled composure.
In that moment, Creon wanted very much to snap his neck. "They are Human," he'd said, his eyes narrowing in frustration even as he spread his own arms wide to indicate what he felt that he could not truly express with clumsy words. "Humans are, by their nature, imperfect and weak. I could change all of that, particularly with the nanogene droids. Just think of the possibilities: enhanced vision with ocular replacements; superior strength and resilience with skeletal and musculature reinforcements; even an elevated capacity for memory recall as well as computer interface with augmented neural implants..." He stopped speaking, his head tilting in frustration as Lama Su continued to regard him with maddening calm.
There was silence in the room while the Prime Minister blinked at him. Finally, as Creon was about to say something else, Lama Su sighed and shook his head. "Creon, my old friend," he'd said, rising from his seat. "I fear I have granted you too much leeway in your...experiments. I cannot continue to show you the favor that I have in the past."
"But I know that with just a few more tests-"
Lama Su straightened his spine. "Your failures outnumber your successes. The fatality rate is far too high." He directed his gray gaze onto Creon, who felt something small and hard snap within his mind. "I cannot allow you to continue your 'special projects.' You must rejoin the other geneticists and make use of your considerable skills in a more lucrative area."
"So it is about the pursuit of credits?" Creon's voice was hard. "I thought we strove for perfection."
"We do not strive for what we have already achieved," Lama Su replied as he'd turned away, his hand lifted in a dismissive gesture. "It was good to talk again, my friend."
Creon made a motion to leave, then paused, his head tilting to one side even as anger coursed through his veins. "You do not appreciate me, my friend," he said, mimicking the Prime Minister's tone. "Perhaps I should find another who will."
Lama Su spared him a glance. "And I suppose this time, you mean it?" He had nodded once as Creon's expression flickered to further ire, then turned away without another word.
At first Creon had returned to his office and began to tidy up his journals and his research documents; the schematics and hypotheses that made up his days and nights. He read through the most recent reports of his endeavors and his eyes narrowed. Lama Su, in all his arrogance, was correct about one thing: the fatality rate of the clones was too high. Not that it mattered if some of them perished, but it was an inconvenience to have to start over with a new batch and try to discern how his modifications could improve them without killing the creatures. Death ruled out every potential.
His narrow chest rose and fell in a deep sigh of long-withheld agitation as he flicked his comm channel to the secure frequency that had been sent to him some weeks ago. A faint smile played on the slit of his mouth as he entered the transmission code that would change everything. Once it had been done, he leaned back in his chair and swept his eyes across the clutter of his desk, the bits and pieces of machinery and wires that had – until now – been his main focus.
When he spoke, it was only to himself. "Indeed, my friend. This time, I do mean it."
Captain Stonewall was nothing if not determined, though often he felt that it was a small thing in the wake of tenacity of the Jedi Knight who stood before him, arms crossed in front of her chest as they faced each other in the common area of the small Republic transport, the Wayfarer.
Kalinda Halcyon shook her head. "Stone, no. I'm not doing it."
The clone captain sighed and ran a hand through the fine fuzz of his hair. "Kali, you know how much I've been looking forward to this. It's not so much to ask." He gave her a knowing look.
"It's just..." The Jedi frowned at the object in his hands before looking back up to him. "I like your hair the way it is. Why do you want to dye it?"
"It's the bolo-ball finals," he replied. "I want to show my support for Eltair-"
From his place at the helm, the bald clone Crest gave a snort of derision. "You mean the team that's going to lose? Captain, why are you even bothering? We all know it's going to be Dremm all the way...right Trax?" He grinned beside him at a clone with a jagged scar that ran across his face.
"As much as I hate to agree with him, Crest is right," Traxis replied, his eyes on the swirl of hyperspace before them. "Eltair's going down. Hard. Dremm's got this one pegged."
"I'm with Captain Stonewall," Milo – the youngest of the group – said. He was seated at the small table in the ship's midsection that served as the squad's dining room and conference area, a small set of drums in his lap. "Eltair has such a great line-up this year...they can't lose."
Stonewall looked back at the dark-haired Jedi and raised his brow. Again, she shook her head and he gave a sigh of frustration; suddenly, his eyes lit up and he grinned at her. "You owe me one, remember? After that little incident on Dantooine?" At this, she frowned, though her expression turned thoughtful. Sensing he had an advantage, Stone pressed on. "Besides, it's only temporary...and you like purple."
"Not on your head," she replied, though she held out her hand and grimaced as he placed the box of dye in her palm. "Fine. I do owe you." She gave him a wry look. "Now we're even, okay? Think you guys can keep it together for a few minutes?" This last part was spoken to the other clones, who each looked up and met her eyes. It heartened Stonewall to see how she regarded the others with such fondness even through her gentle teasing.
"Sure thing, boss," Crest replied with a grin. He glanced at Milo, who'd been working out a new rhythm on the instrument. "You going to follow the Cap's lead?"
"Er..." The younger clone's eyes flicked to Stone, then to the small box in Kali's hand.
The Jedi shook her head. "Stick with your practicing. If you want your hair dyed, Milo, you'll do it yourself or get one of the others to help you." She gave Stone a mock glare, which he returned with a smile. "I don't do this for just anyone." The affection in her tone still made his heart skip a beat, even though they'd been working together for well over a year. I don't know what I did right to get so lucky, he thought as he watched a grin creep over her face, despite her efforts. But I'm pretty damn thankful for it...whatever it was.
He looked at Traxis. "How much longer until we reach Semele?"
The scarred clone glanced at the navacomputer and shook his head. "Provided the dampers hold, not for another few hours, at least. Plenty of time to make yourself look ridiculous."
"Always good to hear," Stone replied, arching an eyebrow at Kalinda, who cast her eyes to the ceiling. "Shall we?" He indicated the small 'fresher and she shook her head.
"Not if you want to pass out from the fumes. Let's just use the sink in the galley." He followed her to the area, a towel slung over his shoulders. Several minutes later he was seated in front of the small sink, wrinkling his nose at the sharp scent of the dye as she opened the bottle. Seeing his expression she leaned next to him. "It's not too late to change your mind, Stone. I won't think less of you for it."
"It's not that bad."
Her breath was warm against his ear. "Then you should shut your eyes." There was a crinkling sound as she slipped on the plastic gloves that had been included with the dye and then the smell increased exponentially as he felt a cold, wet substance being slathered onto his head.
Crest made a gagging sound. "Ugh, will someone please open a window? That's the most disgusting smelling stuff I've ever come across, and I've bunked with Trax after a week of no showers...ow!"
Traxis' tone was mild. "You deserved that."
"Be thankful that I sprang for the kind that doesn't have you bleach the hair first," Stonewall replied.
"I'm touched, really," Crest muttered. "Didn't know you cared about us so much, Cap."
Beside him, Stone heard Kali's voice. "It will be good to get off this ship, even for a few hours. I think everyone's going a little stir-crazy after the last few months, don't you?" The squad, normally given missions relating to intelligence-gathering, had lately been relegated to a position of observation of certain Separatist bases, which meant that they had spent more time aboard the small ship than anywhere else.
"It hasn't been as exciting as we're used to," he agreed. Gradually, he'd become adjusted to the cool dye, though his shoulders tensed as a drop of liquid made its way down the side of his face; moments later he felt the towel brush it away. "At least we've all gotten more proficient with our instruments. But I'm looking forward to Semele. Thank you," he added, peeking at her through his lids.
Her voice held a smile. "For what? Letting you guys go watch the finals while I meet with our contact? It's not like I have a deep-seated interest in bolo-ball. Besides, you've more than earned a break, and I know that you guys rarely have a chance to relax like civilians." There was silence for a few minutes before she spoke again. "I still can't believe you wanted to do this. You never cease to surprise me."
"Solidarity," he replied in a serious tone. "Means a lot to us clones."
"Maybe next year you can get a tattoo."
"I'll keep that in mind."
Kali laughed; moments later there was an abrupt cool sensation as the brush was lifted from his skull and he felt the movement of the towel as she used it to wipe the edges of his hairline. "Now it has to set. You're going to look ridiculous, you know." His eyes opened as he watched her dispose of the remainder of the dye along with the gloves, which were coated with a sticky, purple liquid.
"Thanks for indulging me, anyway."
"Anytime." Her hand crept to his; he gave it a squeeze as their eyes met and he heard her voice quite clearly in his head as though she were speaking in his ear. I don't always understand you, Stone, but I love you anyway.
The knowledge filled him with delight, as it always did. He replied in kind, savoring the thrum of Force-energy that pulsed between them at the press of their he had first begun working with the dark-haired Jedi – was it really more than a year ago? – the very last thing that Stonewall would have expected was that she would ever feel the same attraction to him that he had felt for her from the start, but somehow, by some miracle of fate or the universe, she had. She loves me, as I love her. The thought was still strange and wonderful enough to made him grin like a fool.
A gentle brush of air against his head made him look up to see Kali's other hand lifted, a look of mild concentration on her face as she stared at the space above him. "What are you doing?"
She didn't glance down. "Trying to get rid of that lovely smell. Why don't you give me a hand?"
"I'm not sure I can..." He frowned.
"Of course you can," she replied, her voice pitched so that only he could hear. "You're one of the most focused people I've ever met and you're able to do other things, too. Just do as we've been practicing."
Nodding, he focused on the noxious air and took a deep breath as he lifted the tips of the fingers on his right hand and reached within his mind to touch the Force. It was unmistakable and again he felt nothing so much as wonder at the realization. I still don't quite understand how it happened, though she seems to think it has something to do with how the Force 'works.' The idea that a clone could develop a sensitivity to the Force was unheard of until now. It had begun in earnest about five months ago with a mission to the planet of Aruna, when Kali had discovered that her ability to use the Force was linked with love; when she finally realized just how deeply she had come to care for the clone captain the Force had nearly consumed her, though she was able to lend him some of the energy. Apparently it had stuck.
Love changed everything for us. He took a deep breath and ignored the biting scent of the dye as he concentrated on the task at hand. I suppose I shouldn't be so surprised. After all, I helped her over a year ago on Basrah, as well as Japarran...and we've been able to 'talk' through the Force for a long time as well. Perhaps it's just the natural progression of things. Perhaps it's just what happens when a Jedi falls in love with you.
Gradually, the scent began to dissipate. From the helm, he heard Crest's voice. "Jedi are pretty handy to have around, aren't they?"
Kalinda smiled. "Sometimes." She glanced down at Stone, a question in her thoughts, but he shook his head.
It's too much. I'm too different as it is without...this. As much as he disliked keeping things from his brothers, Stone knew that the fact that he was able to access the mysterious Force would be too strange for the others to take in at the moment.
Kali's dark eyes met his and she frowned. "It wouldn't be the worst thing in the galaxy, you know." Her voice was so quiet, he knew that only he could hear.
No. I'm still getting used to it myself. I don't want them to know right now. Maybe one day, but not now. It was one of their few points of contention. He shook his head again as he shared the thought with the Jedi.
"You're getting better at using it, Stone. You know that you can't keep this from them forever."
"Kali..." He held her gaze and tried to impart his feelings on the matter as clearly as he could. Finally she sighed – though he knew that the discussion was not over – and glanced at the chrono on his wrist.
"Time to rinse."
As Stone bent over the small sink, Kali ran her fingers through his hair, ensuring that the last of the dye was gone before he moved. It was a simple, strangely mundane act and she felt a sudden pang, a longing for something that she could not quite place a name to. As he straightened and began rubbing his hair dry, she smiled at him and felt the familiar glow when he returned the look. I never knew life could be like this, she thought even as she grimaced at the sight of his hair when he lowered the towel. I feel almost like a normal person. Whatever that means.
Milo was the first of his brothers to see the change and Kali had to hide her grin at his look of shock. "Wow."
At this, Crest and Traxis twisted in their seats to gape at the clone captain. The scarred clone said nothing as he gave a snort of laughter, though Crest merely shook his head. "You should follow my lead and just go bald," he remarked with a chuckle. "Twenty creds says he won't leave the ship looking like that."
Traxis grinned. "You're on."
Stone glanced at Kalinda. "How does it look?"
She gave him the most innocent smile she could manage, given the circumstances. "It looks exactly how I thought it would." He hurried to the mirror in the 'fresher and she felt his sigh of resignation through the Force, which made it even more difficult not to laugh openly. "I'm sure we can get some brown dye on Semele to cover it up," she called, winking at Milo who was staring at the drums in his lap with the unmistakable expression of someone biting his tongue to keep from laughing.
Stone came out of the 'fresher, his back straight and his expression solemn, looking every inch the ideal clone trooper despite the bright purple hair. "It's perfect," he said to her. "And Eltair's going to absolutely kill Dremm, Crest." He glanced around the common area before looking back to the rear of the ship, where the crew quarters were located. "Is Weave still back there?"
"You know how he gets," Kalinda replied. "He's engrossed in his latest mystery project." She met Stone's eyes and they shared a look before she nodded to the helm. "I'll check on him. Will you make sure that we arrive in one piece?"
Crest twisted in his seat again to regard the Jedi, indignation coloring his reply. "That was one time, boss! And we didn't even crash...you know, too much."
"Once was enough," Stone replied as he moved to the helm. "Just take it easy this time. I know we're all anxious to get off this ship, but there's really no rush. And I want you to keep an eye on the alluvials. Last thing we need is another issue with this transport."
The bald clone gave a dramatic sigh. "I can't believe I have to take orders from a guy with purple hair."
Kali laughed as she slipped to the rear of the ship and approached the room that Weave shared with Milo. She could sense that his concentration was considerable, so she had to ring the chime a few times to get his attention. "Weave? How's it going?"
There was the scuffling of footsteps before the door slid open just enough to reveal the squad's medic. "General? Everything okay?"
"I just wanted to make sure you were still alive back here," she replied. "We haven't seen much of you lately." She peered around him to the small room, noting how he shifted as if to block her view. "How's the mystery project going?"
"Er...not bad," he said, smoothing a hand over the twin strips of hair on his skull. "I'm a little caught up right now, but everything's okay. No need to worry." He moved to shut the door, but she stopped him by putting her hand on the door's edge, examining him as she did so.
"Are you sure?" While Kali didn't advocate using her Force-abilities to peer into the minds of others, she could tell that something was bothering Stone's brother, though she couldn't place her finger on what.
There was silence for a moment while he met her eyes before he glanced at the front of the ship. "What's that awful smell?"
It was clearly a diversion, but she saw no reason to push the matter. He's so private and quiet sometimes...maybe I'm just imagining things. "You missed the excitement," she replied with a grin. "Stone has purple hair now, to support Eltair. I know," she added at his look of bewilderment. "I didn't see it coming either. But at least it breaks up the monotony." Weave nodded, though she could see that his mind was elsewhere, so she cleared her throat. "You know, when we get to Semele, I would like to bring someone along with me to meet our contact, just in case. I'd hate to tear one of them away from the game..."
Here he looked up at her. "Really? That would be nice. I don't really care about bolli-ball or whatever it is. Thanks, General."
At this she sighed and rubbed at her forehead. "Kalinda," she replied to his perplexed expression. "I swear, I'm going to get the lot of you to drop that epithet if it's the last thing I ever do. Please...just Kalinda. Or 'boss,' if you want to be like Crest."
"I very much don't." He frowned. "I'll try...Kalinda." He said her name slowly, deliberately, and she could tell he wasn't entirely comfortable with the idea of calling a Jedi by their given name.
"I appreciate it, Weave."
Though he looked as if he wanted to say something else he nodded and shut the door without another word.