"Single I was born / And single I will die / I'll marry myself to the whole wide world / And never make her cry."
"The Devil's Paintbrush Road"
The Wailin' Jennys
"Lieutenant Commander P'ietan?" a crisply-uniformed Republic officer was forced to lift his hand in order to peer past the blinding Jomark sunset.
The man who was being so addressed didn't even bother to look up from where he was sitting cross-legged in the bottom of his boat, mending a broken fishing net. Shoulders shrugged in casual indifference; the left arm was a dull metallic gray from the shoulder down and flashed a rusty red in the fading sunlight. Such blatant display of obvious cybernetics seemed to catch the Republic officer by surprise, but he cleared his throat and only shifted slightly in his well-polished boots.
"There's no one here by that name," was the abrupt response; the man kept his attention firmly on the net spread across his lap and the only being in the boat that paid the strangers any mind was a scruffy, blue-eyed hunting hound of indiscriminate variety that was nearly as large as the boat itself.
"Valinar, I truly don't have time for this," a second officer stepped out from behind the first; older than the other, this officer had the bearing to go with the commander's piping on his sleeves.
The man below them simply turned his head and glanced up at them from over his cybernetic shoulder. A single green eye calmly processed the pair peering down at him; where there should have been another eye was a black patch, a grim place marker for where he could have once opted for a cybernetic implant.
"The folks around here just call me 'Val'," his head turned back to consider his net and his voice remained completely even, almost emotionless in tone. "I'd prefer to stay that way, if you don't mind."
"I'm afraid –" the commander began, but Val briskly cut him off.
"I'm afraid I'll have to ask you gentlemen to leave," he remained seated, but the muscles in his back tensed in silent threat. "You're not going to find what you're looking for, here."
"You may consider it worth your while to hear us out," the commander insisted, completely unperturbed by the subtle warning.
"There's only one reason you'd be here – in uniform, no less," the fisherman tossed his net down and stood up; the small boat underneath his feet rocked slightly in rhythm with his motions, but neither Val nor his canine companion seemed alarmed. "If this wasn't such a backwater planet, I'd say you two have just done a fine job of blowing my cover."
Val put his hands on his hips and stared up defiantly at his unwelcome guests. The hound at his feet pulled her ears back and growled slightly, sensing her owner's own obvious displeasure and reacting appropriately. The bare cybernetic arm flashed in the scarlet light of the dying sun; the rest of him was tanned and fairly fit, a silent testimony to how much time Val spent in the newly discovered water world's temperate elements.
The Korun commander held in a sigh of exasperation. Once, he and Val had fought together; once, Val had even been his commanding officer. Almost ten years had lapsed since then and tracking down the former special forces operative had been nearly next to impossible. The commander was in no mood to return to the scattered Fleet unsuccessful, but he knew enough about Val to be cautious. Things could end badly for all concerned, if the animosity started to escalate.
"We need information -"
"Not my job," Val countered curtly.
"And we may need an important asset extracted from a potentially hostile situation -"
"You've got plenty of other resources for that."
"No, we don't."
"Sure you do. I remember training most of them at some point."
"All of them are dead, sir."
There was a half-minute pause and something flickered briefly through Val's one good eye. It was quick, a ghost of emotion, but the commander was observant enough to catch it. He quirked an eyebrow upward in silent response, but remained carefully impassive otherwise.
"You're almost all we have left," the commander continued quietly, his deep voice appropriately somber. "And you're still the best."
"I'm also retired, Geptun," Val turned his attention toward his mooring line; it was an evasive movement, however, as the line was already soundly secured.
Commander Geptun decided it was time to be blunt. He glanced briefly around, but the dock was deserted; the nearest sentient being was on the opposite side of the narrow inlet and too far away to make out features, much less words. The Korun crouched down, so he was almost level with Val's face; the two officers calmly sized each other up for a moment, before Geptun laid his metaphorical pazaak cards on the table.
"You're the only Mandalorian we have on our side, Valinar. Retired or not, we'd need you to go to Anobis."
"That's a death sentence and you know it," there was no mistaking the anger that flashed through Val's one good eye; Geptun had the good graces to pause a moment. "Why the haran would you need me?"
"Because you have a particular skill set that we need now more than ever."
"And what's that?" the edges of Val's lip curled up in something like a snarl.
"We need you to start a rebellion."
"You know I'm dar'manda, Geptun. What you're asking for is impossible."
Geptun stood with his arms crossed thoughtfully over his broad chest, as he watched Val stalk angrily to and fro in front of him. The three – Geptun, his young lieutenant, and Val – had relocated to the cyborg's home. Val hadn't been especially happy about the prospect of relocating their conversation – much less continuing it – but his small, innocuous cottage was the most secure location he could promise.
Thankfully, the island he had settled on was small and fairly remote. It was primarily a fishing village, the lives of its few sentients tied to the expansive Jomark ocean and its rhythms. There were maybe fifty or so others living on the island; mainly families. Val was one of a handful of solitary individuals and while his face was known by the others around him, he was mostly left to his own devices. The sentients of Jomark were quiet by nature and mostly lacking in any sense of curiosity; Val was an outsider and didn't encourage much in the way of personal relationships. It was also rude, by Jomark customs, to pry into another's personal life without an expressed invitation to do so; it was one of the many reasons Val had chosen the backwater planet for his final place of refuge.
Geptun remembered him as being an aloof sort of individual; stoic, straight-forward, and decidedly introverted. With the exception of his cybernetic implants, Val had an unremarkable appearance, which translated into a rather eerie knack for blending quietly into the background of where ever he was. In fact, the implants were new to Geptun; they were also the reason the former operative had retired so suddenly from his position in Republic intelligence at the peak of his career.
"You were always good at blending in," Geptun countered smoothly.
"Not so much, anymore," Val paused abruptly and gestured toward his face with a decidedly wry expression.
"Well...Mandalorians aren't exactly known for taking off their helmets," Geptun persisted, undaunted.
"Got an answer for everything, don't you?" Val growled and started pacing again. "You were always good at that."
"Learned from the best, sir," Geptun simply inclined his head respectfully toward his one-time commanding officer; as far as the burly Korun was concerned, "Lieutenant Commander P'ietan" was still his superior.
"So, you got me," Val tossed him a sardonic glance as he stalked stiff-legged across the length of the one-room cottage. "What's going on with the Mandalorians that you all needed to track me down?"
"We're not really sure, sir," Geptun chewed the inside of his cheek for a moment before answering; it was a surprisingly difficult question to answer and one that had been perplexing the Republic for nearly a decade. "But, the grandson of Ung Kusp took over as Mand'alor shortly after you left and we've been keeping tabs on him ever since. His grandfather was well known for his brutality and his willingness to ally with the Sith. We think his grandson – Tor – is, quite possibly, worse.
"That doesn't really tell me why you all need me to put my neck on the line."
"Tor Kusp is militant – dangerously so. And ambitious, which is never a good combination. It's only the diseases and chaos sweeping through the galaxy recently that's kept the Mandalorians from becoming a major threat. We have reason to suspect that Kusp is striking an alliance with the Sith, though, which would spell total ruin for the Republic at this point."
Geptun stuck to the facts, his face emotionless. Inwardly, though, he was a seething stew of anxiety – as were most high level Republic officers in recent memory. The times were already being called a 'Dark Age' and the Republic forces lay nearly broken on the fringes of the galaxy. The Sith were the dominant force – well supplied, well trained, and well organized – and an alliance with the galaxy's greatest mercenary force would decimate what was left of the struggling Republic. The intelligence officer told Val as much, after a momentary silence.
"All the Mandalorians lack at this point in time is organization. They've been experiencing considerable losses in their youngling population for the last five years or so and their ranks have been ravaged with disease. An alliance with a stronger force, though, would stabilize them...and I'm pretty sure I don't need to tell you what a stable, organized force of Mandalorians could do."
"They'd wipe out everything in their way," Val finally stopped, right in front of Geptun, and crossed his arms over his chest.
He was still bare-footed and bare-chested from his time out in the fishing boat; his short hair was just long enough to stick up in random places, where he had run a wet hand through it. Several days' worth of beard covered his face and at a glance, Captain Valinar P'ietan, formerly of Clan Cadera and the infamous Cabur'e Squad, looked more like a Corellian nerf herder than a decorated Republic veteran.
Geptun knew better than to be fooled by appearances.
"We've had an undercover operative in one of the larger clans for some time now – almost fifteen years, to be exact. About ten years ago, he challenged Kusp for the title of Mand'alor, but was unsuccessful in taking it. He's been assumed dead by most since then, but he's been laying low on Anobis and keeping tabs on things for us."
"So why not ask him to start this rebellion?" Val shrugged, almost arrogantly. "I'm still trying to figure out why you need a rebellion started, in the first place."
"If the Mandalorians are fighting each other, then they can't fight us," Geptun replied calmly; he knew Val was smarter than that, but played along with the questions. "Our agent can't really do much, though, since Kusp would kill him if he knew he was alive. He's quite proficient at gathering information, though – almost better than having a Bothan, actually. But, with him being undercover the way he is, we can't really ask him to do what needs to be done."
"Start a rebellion?" Val raised a skeptical eyebrow.
"And you think I can do it?"
"We know you can do it," Geptun shook his head slightly and stifled back another sigh. "You could go in, undercover, make contact with our agent, find out what you need to know, and then do what it is you do so well."
"And what's that?" Val was not playing easy, but Geptun had expected that.
"You built one of the best military intelligence team in Republic history from the ground up, single handedly. You could organize a strong dissident faction within the Mandalorians just as easily – you know how to read sentients and you know how to get them to do what you want."
"There's something you're not telling me," that one good eye narrowed dangerously.
"You could do what our other agent couldn't – you could challenge Kusp and take his place as leader."
Geptun had almost expected anger, but all he got was a stony defiance. The intelligence officer felt like smacking his face into his palm – he had hoped, prayed actually, that it wouldn't come down to this. Lieutenant Commander P'ietan could be as stubborn as a bantha and twice as difficult.
"You have an edge that our other operative has never had. You are Mandalorian – born and raised," Geptun tried a slightly different approach, but Val cut him off.
"I was. I sort of lost that distinction when I decided to throw my lot in with the Republic."
"Dammit, Val," Geptun finally lost his cool; the Korun reached up and ran an agitated hand over the top of his perfectly shaved head. "If we had anyone else, we would have found them. But, we don't. You're literally our only hope."
"You're practically asking me to sign my own death warrant," Val growled.
There was a long, heavy pause, before the lieutenant beside Geptun spoke up for the first time since addressing Valinar at the dock.
"I guess that means you shouldn't get caught, sir."
To the young man's credit, he didn't sputter or squirm when Val turned the full force of his attention toward him. The lieutenant stood with his back perfectly straight; only his hands belied his nervousness, as they clenched tightly at his side.
Val started to laugh and the younger officer jerked roughly in surprise.
And that's when Geptun knew they had their man.
Val rarely drank, but he figured the evening's events called for a special exception. He leaned his bare back against the rough stone exterior of his home and nursed a glass tumbler of amber tihaar. The warmth from the day still lingered in the stones and seeped slowly into his skin until his muscles finally relaxed. The former Republic spy pulled one knee up toward his chest and draped his cybernetic arm across it. The moon peeked through the broad fronds of the trees that buffered the cottage and the sounds of the Jomark tide washed the night in tones of tranquility.
He had a lot to think about; thankfully, Geptun knew him well enough to leave him to it, with a secure comlink left behind to contact the Fleet once he had come to his own decision. Geptun actually knew Val rather well – or, as well as anyone could know the former Mandalorian. Val pushed a sigh out through his teeth and ran a hand through his hair as he squinted out toward the shoreline.
The appearance of Geptun – of all of the intelligence officers in the Republic Fleet – had been a calculated move. It had been a smart move, one that Val rather suspected Geptun had insisted on himself. He glanced down at his metal hand and thoughtfully flexed his fingers.
Geptun had been the one to drag him out of the burning wreck that had nearly claimed his life. Val owed the Korun a debt of gratitude – and Geptun knew it. Coming to ask the former spy to take up his old line of work after a ten year hiatus had just as much to do with settling an old debt, as it did with helping out the Republic in what was arguably one of her darkest hours.
The Korun also had to know that he was asking for a lot. This was different than anything Val had ever done before – in the past, he had always worked with a team. He had experience with going undercover, but it was for quick work – get in, claim objective, get out. What he was being asked to do was none of the above. He was being asked to assume a role, one that had to be played 24/7, without error. He was being asked to work by himself, with the exception of one other operative – a Jedi Watchman by the name of Beskar'ga. A sentient that Val had never met.
"He's got to be good, I suppose," Val glanced over and ruffled the ears of his quietly panting companion; living alone for so many years had put him in the habit of talking to his dog or to himself, if only to hear his own voice. "If he's been hiding out for nearly ten years, with Kusp's bounty on his head. Kinda' surprised I never heard of him, though. Guess that's the Jedi for ya', huh, Akiva?"
The only forthcoming response was a wagging tail and lolling tongue. Val was used to the silence, however, and continued to scratch his hound behind the ears and mull over what he'd been told.
Val knew he should refuse – he had every right to do so. He had lost an eye, an arm, and a leg to the service of the Republic. Much of him had been rebuilt, thanks to the extensiveness of his injuries; in fact, Geptun had observed that Val hadn't appeared to age a day since last they'd met. Val had bitterly replied that since he'd had several organs replaced in addition to his limbs, that he'd become more machine than man. He'd found an unfortunately lingering youth – and he hated it.
In many ways, Val felt like he'd given the Republic entirely too much of himself. He'd lost parts of his body; he'd lost the ability to age properly. He'd also lost his clan and the respect of his people. He didn't really hold out much hope any more for those things that normal men craved – hearth, home, family. It was just him, his dog, and his fishing boat.
He'd been restless, though, for the last ten years. Edgy, twitchy; he only stayed in Jomark because it was one of the best places in the galaxy to remain anonymous. The planet had only been recently discovered and its rural rhythms of nautical life didn't attract much interest from the rest of the galaxy. The water world didn't seem to possess any major export, except maybe fish, which certainly didn't set it apart from Manaan or Mon Calamari.
He had grown up on the shores of Mandalore, so it had been easy to slip into the role of a village fisherman. There had been some initial interest in his obvious cybernetics, but it was considered almost unforgivably rude to pry according to Jomark culture, so he'd been left politely to himself. Val had dedicated himself to blending into his environment and had felt completely stifled ever since.
He had loved his job with the Fleet – had loved the challenge of it all. He was Mandalorian – a warrior. Cast out, perhaps, but still a warrior. Fishing, while peaceful, was not the way he had been planning to live out the rest of his unfortunately extended life.
After recovering from his injuries, he had petitioned his commanding officers to let him return to the field – to continue leading Cabur'e Squad and hunting down the enemy. He'd been very earnestly offered a desk job, at which point, he'd put in his resignation. He'd spent the last ten years telling himself that it was better to spend his days fishing, than settling behind a Fleet desk as a "training advisor".
That old sense of pride had surged to the fore, when he'd heard his old rank and name, when he'd turned to see Geptun staring down at him. In retrospect, Val wasn't sure what had made him more angry – the fact that it was Geptun come to so obviously collect on an old debt, the fact that they'd managed to track him down after all, or the fact that they both just stood there representing everything that he missed.
But, it was the young lieutenant's words that had caught Val's pride off guard: "I guess that means you shouldn't get caught, sir."
Challenge. Danger. If there was one thing Val couldn't resist, it was being told that the odds were stacked against his favor.
He was being asked to do the impossible – pick up his childhood identity as a Mandalorian. Sniff out seeds of rebellion against the current Mand'alor, which Beskar'ga had relayed to Geptun's own team as being of imminent concern for several surprisingly major clans. Organize a force against Tor Kusp, challenge his position as Mand'alor...
"I'm not doing that, though," Val turned his head and addressed Akiva with considerable conviction. "I'll find them a Mand'alor – help them make one. But, if there's one sure way to blow my cover, it's to challenge Kusp directly."
That was really the only flaw in the plan that Geptun had laid out to Val in the quiet security of his seaside sanctuary. Val was dar'manda – a Mandalorian who had turned his back on the Resol'nare, had chosen to side with the Republic against the express wishes of his Mand'alor, and had been shunned from his clan as a result.
If he was caught...
Well, there it was. The one challenge he just couldn't resist.
"Don't get caught," he repeated into the still night air; he lifted his tihaar up to his mouth and chuckled to himself before taking another sip.
The odds were sorely stacked up against his favor – in fact, the odds were stacked up against the Republic as a whole. The challenge of it all piqued Val's interest and, as he sat against the cooling stones of his home and thought things over, it was exactly enough to turn the tides of his pride.
He wouldn't do it for the Republic – not in so many words, at least. He'd do it because an old friend had called in a favor. He would do it, because Geptun was right -
He was the Republic's only hope.
A/N: And now...the plot is officially set! I'm sort of winging this as I go along, but thankfully, I've got some great sounding boards and some awesome support. Hope you all liked this latest chapter. ;-)
Many thanks and hugs to LongLiveTheClones, laloga, Verda Buir, Brandi and Rebecca for reading and reviewing. And to Brian, who has graciously allowed me to borrow Valinar, filled me in on his back story, and let me make some tweaks of my own.
Love it? Like it? Hate it? Lemme know...!