As promised...here's a sneak preview of Eye of the Storm: Bastion. Enjoy!
1078 days ABG (after the first Battle of Geonosis): Orea, Inner-Rim
The planet of Orea was too dry for a Nautolan to be comfortable – even one with a little bit of Twi'lek blood – as they were a water-loving people and this place was mostly rust-colored dust and flat vistas. Padawan Zara Karell watched her new master, Honi Tallis, zoom away on a speeder bike and tried to quell the nervousness that arose from the absence of the red-haired woman whom she'd grown to respect and admire over the last few months of her fledgling apprenticeship. Throughout most of her thirteen years, Zara had longed to be assigned as a Padawan to a Jedi – any Jedi – but Master Tallis was not quite what she'd had in mind.
She's leaving, again. It feels like she only just got back from helping those villagers. Why doesn't she trust me enough to go with her? Am I that bad at healing? She's known for her abilities in that area, which is why I thought she picked me...maybe not. Zara sighed and shook her head. Maybe I don't deserve to be a Jedi, after all, if my own master won't even trust me with a simple mercy-mission.
"Don't worry, Commander," Captain Dodge said, his eyes on the retreating speeder. "We'll have things sorted out here." His tone was kind and a little protective. Zara looked up at the clone captain, noting the calm assurance that he seemed to radiate. Her thick, multiple lekku, evidence of her mixed heritage, twitched with agitation.
"I know, Captain." She hesitated. Something wasn't right, but she hadn't had a chance to mention it to Master Tallis, who'd rushed off the moment she received word that the nearby village had found more injured civilians from the last battle. I wish she was back already. A Padawan's place is with her Master, isn't it?
Zara shivered and looked around the almost empty camp; Master Tallis' group of soldiers had arrived on Orea only a week ago to aid in the relief efforts brought about by a recent skirmish on the world. As a gifted healer, Honi Tallis' skills were much-needed, and Zara knew that she was fortunate to have been selected for her apprenticeship by such a talented Jedi Knight, despite the fact that she felt wholly unprepared for the task that had been set before her. She was, after all, still quite young, though she'd heard of other Padawans – only a little older than she – who were on the front lines. That thought was enough to make her shudder.
But it feels like I only just left the Temple and now I'm in the middle of the wars. Everything's different than I imagined it'd be. Master Tallis had said that the war made everything move faster, including the career of each Jedi, which Zara supposed was her way of telling her new Padawan that it was time to grow up. I'm a Jedi – almost. I shouldn't be afraid. But she was.
The clone captain looked down at her. "I was going to have the boys look over the transport; that landing was a little rough for my liking and we haven't had a chance to do any maintenance to it." She could almost taste the question in his words.
Weird...I'm technically his commanding officer, but he's...well, an adult. Though, I guess we're about the same age, when it comes down to it. She nodded. "Okay." Captain Dodge gave her a smart salute and turned to the rest of his men, shouting orders and generally seeming more at ease, from what she could tell. Zara continued to watch the receding dust cloud that Master Tallis' speeder had kicked up, trying to push away the agitation that had crept into her thoughts.
Master Yoda would tell me to relax, to still my mind and not give in to fear. Maybe meditating will help. After a brief glance around, Zara moved to a spot several yards away from the camp where she figured she could meditate in peace. Orea was pretty, at least, if far too dry for her taste. There were no tall trees here, but there was much vegetation; in particular, she liked the spikey plants that drew their moisture from the air, collecting dewdrops in the morning that the local fauna drank. She had woken up early this morning just to observe this phenomenon, taking delight in the way that the fuzz-birds had delicately made their way over the spines of the tall plants to collect what water they could, their pale blue feathers nearly matching her own skin.
Captain Dodge's voice made her pause and turn. "Commander..."
His words were distorted by the familiar helmet; she looked into his visor and imagined his face, like all the others. Can they tell each other apart? Without the Force, I don't think I could. "Yes, Captain?"
"Sir, General Tallis gave me strict instructions not to let you wander off." His feet shifted in the dirt; beyond them she could see his men milling around in their various tasks.
Zara frowned. "I just want to meditate for a while. I won't go too far." She turned to leave, but the captain cleared his throat. When she turned again, he was digging something out of his belt. He tossed a small object that she caught with ease; examining it, she realized that it was an extra tracking chip from his kit; all clone soldiers had one embedded into their helmets, but careful officers sometimes carried spares, just in case. Captain Dodge was very careful. "For my own peace of mind, sir. But please stay nearby, just the same."
He wants to follow orders. But it's not like I'm going to run away. Not knowing what else to do, Zara nodded and tucked the chip in her pocket. "Thank you, Captain. I will." She tried to sound confident, but she thought that her voice was more like a squeak; to his credit, the clone captain only nodded and turned back to his men, though she could sense that he was keeping one eye on her at all times. He's nice,she thought as she made her way into the reddish, rocky landscape. They all are, I guess. Not that I know too many soldiers. And they're all the same, aren't they? Isn't that what clones are?
After a few minutes of walking she found a nice spot beside a smooth, purple-hued boulder. After taking a sip from her canteen – though she was not dependent on being near water, Zara found that it was a comfort to her – she crossed her legs and took a seat, resting her back against the rock and trying to quiet her mind.
Zara inhaled, tasting the dust, the dryness of the air, the sunlight that even now was starting to bend its way across the rolling, reddish hills. Her tentacle-like lekku allowed her to absorb even the most minuscule scents in the thick air, though if she'd been underwater, she would have been far more informed about the world around her. Upon her exhale, she tried to release her fear and doubt and uncertainty, as she had been instructed countless times. But it was easier said than done. I'm not ready. Her heart beat faster with the thought that would not leave her alone. It's too much. I'm not ready for this. I'm not ready to be a Padawan. But I know I should be...I'm old enough, after all. I know I need to grow up.
She gripped the toes of her worn, brown boots and inhaled again, forcing her mind to be still and quiet, hoping to reach that place of calm that she'd managed to find so easily in the quiet rooms of the Jedi Temple, under Master Yoda's serene gaze.
That was when she sensed it:
It was not a taste or a scent exclusively, but rather a combination of the two; it was a sudden knowledge that filled her with fear. In the next moment she felt a small prick of pain at her neck; the world grew lopsided and muzzy as she heard the shouts of Captain Dodge and his men in the distance, mingling with blaster-fire and the sudden shuddering of the ground. And then Zara was falling. She could taste the red dirt, then realized that one of her lekku had landed on a small cactus. There was another bout of pain, then the distinct grinding sound of approaching droids. She squinted up to see as the shouts of the clones faded in the distance.
She felt something cold and metallic grip her arm; she was lifted up to the fading sun.
Then her world went black.
1078 days ABG: Republic vessel, Wayfarer
For the umpteenth time, Kalinda stared at the datapad as if the act itself would bring her closer to finding the missing clone cadets.
The flightpath of the transport, T-5563/R was delineated along an established route towards Drexel, its heading taking it through the Pelgrin system. The cargo, eight adolescent units and an adult unit caretaker (listed below), made contact with the Republic vessel, Valiant at 0400 hours, on schedule, but failed to arrive at its destination. There were no other transmissions of any kind made from for the duration of the journey, save for the standard progression reports at each half-day cycle.
An extensive scan of the area revealed no evidence of T-5563/R or its passengers. The Pelgrin system, while it has been reported stable in the past decade, has a history of containing peculiar nebulae, which are thought to contribute to the missing transport. It is presumed that the vessel was destroyed with all hands.
The units in question:
Kali closed her eyes. She'd memorized all of the cadets' numbers by now. For all the good it's done them. She could hear the others playing music; she'd excused herself to come to her and Stone's cabin and go over the report – again. It bothers him that I keep reading it, but I can't stop until I find those boys. I can't give up hope even if the Council thinks there is none.
This thought made her frown as she recalled the last time that she'd gone before the august body of Jedi; despite the fact that she knew that they were making their best efforts in what seemed to be a never-ending fight, she still was unable to come to terms with the way that they were handling the war. They say that they had no choice but to use the clones for the army, but I can't seem to accept that. I know that we're in the middle of a horrible conflict and I understand that the Council's actions aim for the greater good.
But in the end, the Jedi Code teaches us to respect and honor all forms of life. Certainly that includes cloned soldiers? For as many awful things as the Separatists have done, at least they don't grow living beings to fight their wars for them.
In her mind's eye she could see Kamino and she recalled Shadow Squad's visit there many months ago which had been her first awakening to the reality of the lives of the cloned soldiers. They were created only to die in the service of the Republic, and most of them will never even think that they deserve anything else. The realization filled her with remorse.
I know that I've grown attached to Stonewall and the others, but I think that has opened my eyes to what it is that they face. From the galley, she made out the resonant, rippling sound of the ion-steel gitar and smiled to herself despite her agitation.
Like all of his brothers, Stonewall had become incredibly proficient with his instrument, and it delighted her to hear them all play. It was a small bit of comfort to think about how far they had each come with the music lessons. They're all remarkably gifted with their instruments. Hard to believe that none of them could so much as read music when we met.
But I shouldn't be surprised; they're bred to learn fast and remember everything. This thought inevitably lead her back to her earlier musings; she sighed and scrolled through the 'pad, her gaze distant. At that moment, she heard a gentle rap at her door. "Weave?"
"Can I come in?"
A flick of her wrist opened the door and she took in the sight of the squad's medic: since his encounter with Creon Dai, he'd taken to wearing his full suit of armor almost all the time to conceal the ocular implant with which he'd been outfitted. She had done her best to make things easier for him; at first he was nearly declared unfit for duty, but Kali had used every bit of her sway as a Jedi to dissuade them from pulling him away from Shadow Squad, even getting Obi-Wan and Luminara Unduli to write recommendations that would back her up. But she'd kept most of that trouble from him, as she felt he had enough on his plate. Even now he stood in her doorway and radiated an uncertainty that was striated with grief and anger which no amount of kind words – from her or anyone else – had been able to heal. "What's up?"
He glanced behind him; in the galley, the musical sounds of the other members of Shadow Squad had turned to a new song that Milo and Stone had been collaborating on, and she could feel that their attention was engrossed with the music. "You wanted to know if I'd made any progress with your comm unit," he said, holding up a small, round device that looked as if it fitted into a Human ear. "I'm sorry it's taken so long, but I think it should work better, now." He tossed her the device and she caught it, examining it briefly before smiling at him.
He nodded once. "It's already been sliced into our helmets, so you should be able to hear us."
"Should we tell Crest, or just let him put his foot in his mouth?" The Weave she had met when they'd begun working together would have given her a quiet chuckle; the armored man who stood before her now was silent even as his thoughts seethed. He's so different from the Weave I met almost two years ago. Will he ever be able to recover from what Creon did to him?
Kali found the speculation almost unbearable and rose to stand before the clone she had come to think of as a brother. "Have you been able to figure it out?" She kept her eyes on his visor, on the place where she knew his eyes were behind the blank face of his helmet. Sometimes she thought that she could see faint lights from the implant that he tried to hide most of the time. He's ashamed of it. I can tell how much it bothers him. And who can blame him for feeling that way?
Anger rippled from Weave, not at her, but on a distant figure. Creon Dai. After a moment he shrugged. "Sort of." His tone indicated that he didn't want to talk about it, but she was reluctant to drop the matter, as she disliked knowing that any of those she'd grown to care for were under such duress.
Creon Dai captured and did what he pleased with him, with no regard for his life...and sometimes I can't help but think that the Republic is ultimately no better with the way we're using the clones. For her, the comparison was as chilling as it was unshakable.
It was also too much for her to dwell on sometimes."Weave," she said in a quiet voice. "Please take off your bucket."
His chest lifted into a sigh and for a moment she thought he would refuse. However, his hand reached up and popped the seal of his helmet; he tucked the object under his arm and kept his eyes on his feet. She wanted to reach for him, but could sense his unease, so she kept still and studied him. The implant was crescent-shaped, covering the space around his left eye and resting about midway on his cheek; it was meticulously crafted and outfitted with a multitude of sensors and lights, though he had not been able to figure out what purpose they each served.
At last her met her eyes; when he spoke his voice held a strange edge. "Zoom capabilities. Heat signatures. Any spectrum I want. Traces of certain gases and molecules. Beyond that...I'm not sure."
"But you think it does more?"
He shrugged again. "Maybe. I still can't work it all out." His grip on his bucket tightened and she realized that she was staring at the implant in her desire to understand it.
It's frustrating for him to not understand exactly how it works, in addition to the fact that he feels so different from the others, now. I wish I could do more. For now, all she could do was nod; after a moment of consideration she put a hand on his arm in a gesture of camaraderie. "We'll figure it out, Weave. I promise you, we will."
Weave sighed and replaced the helmet; as he turned from her he paused at the door. "Maybe, Kalinda. I really don't know, anymore." The words were distorted by his mic and her fingers closed around the comlink as he slipped from the room.