Chapter 1

Republic Bioterrorism Countermeasures Center
Naboo
Chommell sector
19 BBY

Span took the message on his internal helmet comlink. Then, for the first time in his memory, he gave the subvocal command to have it repeated. After he had confirmed beyond any possible doubt that the authorization code was indeed correct, he swallowed bitterly. Silently, remaining at attention, he shifted his head a few degrees to the left, just far enough so his peripheral vision took in Ready standing on the opposite side of the door.

It took no more than a glance to interpret the body language. The same message had passed to both men.

Face front, Span's eye moved inside the helmet field down the row of pale gray laboratory stations. One, two, three researchers in lab coats passed by without concern before his sight paused on one in armored robes. At the waist of this unusual scientist hung a forearm-length metal cylinder, sleek and chrome-coated. Starring at the lightsaber, his grip tightened on the stock of his Dee-Cee.

"Do we?" Ready's voice sputtered over the helmet line, filled with uncharacteristic hesitation.

"She's not a Jedi, right?" Span managed to muster the words, fighting a confusion and resistance he could not entirely pin down. Orders, in his experience, had always been clarifying things, providing a path of action in moments of indecision. Now everything stood shrouded in fog, broken up into a puzzle he knew no means to solve.

Something in his countenance must have betrayed this unease. Four desks down the black-haired skull turned away from a glowing terminal chirping with the dulcet rhythm of cellular analysis to stare directly back into Span's helmet sockets.

Looking down the row into those strangely mirrored dark eyes, the trooper stood frozen as Nivi addressed him. "Sergeant, is something wrong?" Heads turned across the room, providing an audience as those flashing orbs slid down his armor to rest ever-so-lightly along the barrel of his blaster before creeping back up to the face again. "Do you intend to use that on me?" She made no move towards her lightsaber, that was certain; Span's focus was clamped around the weapon.

"No ma'am, you're not a Jedi!" the words burst from Ready's frame, his emotional soup boiling over.

Nivi's gaze went flat, eyes turned a frightful matte shade. Her neck moved to slowly bring her head in line with the junior trooper. Pausing there, it soon returned to Span. He wanted to turn away, but the compulsions of duty would never allow it.

Cold laboratory light, blue-shifted and merciless, caught the hidden metallic sheen in Nivi's face as she stared down and through the Clone Trooper Phase II Armor. "Something has happened, has it not?" she pressed gently. "I should hope you would tell me, and the rest of the lab."

"Doesn't concern the rest of the lab," Procedure sheltered Span's careful response. The need to contain panic was an ancillary concern, but one he could safely act upon. "There's no need to know."

"So only I," she gave the softest hint of a smile. "Because I'm not a Jedi."

Holding his rifle as if it was his only protection, Span managed to formulate an answer without rising to the jibe. "No ma'am, but we must request confirmation of your status."

"What are your orders sergeant?" Transitioning with jarring rapidity, Nivi's body snapped whipcord straight, and her voice claimed the edge of a razor. "I will not be kept in the dark as to my fate."

Speech was compelled by this command. To fill the suddenly unbearable silence words were drawn from Span. He regretted them instantly. "Contingency Order Sixty-Six has been issued."

"And is this order a state secret?" Mirrored eyes burned. "Or will you do me the courtesy of divulging its contents?"

Span had made it a point of emphasis to memorize all one hundred and fifty contingency orders upon making sergeant. He could recite them all perfectly.

Meeting mirrored eyes the clone struggled with the unfamiliar storm of conflicting duties. Nivi was a comrade, a fellow member of the GAR, an officer even. She was skilled, honorable, and in her own way kind. He wanted to tell her; the contingency orders were not secret, at least, not officially.

But how could he reveal this particular order, in this hour, after it had been enacted?

Nivi had taken the quiet pause as a chance to move forward, and now stood at a modest conversational distance. Span knew the practical range of a lightsaber, and it was close enough to take his head. It seemed very likely.

It would certainly simplify matters. He opened his mouth. "Order Sixty-Six: In the event of Jedi Officers acting against the interests of the Republic, and after receiving specific orders verified as coming directly from the Supreme Commander (Chancellor), GAR commanders will remove those officers by lethal force, and command of the GAR will revert to the Supreme Commander (Chancellor) until a new command structure is established."

Nivi did something Span had never seen. She blinked, and stood stock still. The clone trooper counted ten full seconds before she spoke. He kept his finger over the trigger the whole time – there had been no longer ten seconds in his whole short life.

When she finally spoke it was a bare scrape of a whisper. "The Supreme Chancellor has ordered the extermination of the Jedi Order..." she paused. "No, that's wrong. Your order mentions only Jedi officers; how very specific. Even so, what madness has led to this end?"

"Ma'am, the order has been verified," it was a limited truth, but Span took comfort in it. He could not fathom why, but that was not his role. Better minds than his, men trained to think, not to fight, had decided upon this course. Surely it was necessary to preserve the Republic.

"Oh I have no doubt it has," Nivi whispered. Tears were pooling atop her eyes. "Palpatine always was ambitious, and if there were ever a moment it would be now, but this...this...it is beyond belief."

Span said nothing. He recoiled at the accusation those words contained, but there was nothing he knew that might counter it.

Nivi shook the water from her eyes. She starred up at Span, unable to match the height of the helmeted trooper. "Thank you for the information sergeant," genuine kindness was conveyed with those words, filling the soldier with surprise. "I believe I will get some air."

"Sorry ma'am, you can't leave," Ready jumped in quickly, on the edge of panic.

"Ma'am, I need to ask you to stay here until the situation is clarified," Span elaborated, eyes on the lightsaber, trying to cover his nerves.

"Ready, Span," Nivi's glance shifted quickly from one to the other. "You are good men, and in this, blameless, but I have no intention to wait at my desk, standing pointlessly until they order my execution." Her flashing eyes turned cold and steely. "Before you say anything more I remind you that I am at liberty and you have no authority to hold me. And," she added with a grim glare. "You truly do not wish to try and restrain me right now."

Ready hesitated, gripping his rifle so tightly it creaked audibly. Span simply took a single step to the right, away from the door. His weapon came up to the shoulder, guard position, not combat. Relief spread through him. She had quoted the orders correctly. Let her disappear beyond that barrier and take the dilemma she represented with her.

"Thank you sergeant," Nivi stared at him for a final second, but in her eyes he saw nothing but his helmet reflected back at him. "May the Force be with you."

He knew when she stepped past in the next moment it was goodbye. Significance dripped from each word, the Jedi phrase he'd never heard from silver lips in all the many months of close contact. An inescapable sensation, foggy and cold, stuck to him beneath his armor; he knew something profound had changed for him then, but what he could not say.

Span was only a clone trooper. The galaxy might warp and groan under metamorphic spasms, but he was confident it would alter his role little at most. Sparing an unprofessional glance back as the repulsors slid the door closed, he could not help but wonder what foundations remained for Nivi.

There were no Jedi Knights on the staff of the Bioterrorism Countermeasures Center. The pair initially assigned to the project had long since been re-routed to actual combat commands that needed their aid, but the four MediCorps Jedi brought with that mission were still in place. Healers, not warriors, two were elderly and the others mere teenagers. They were not armed. Nevertheless, Captain Irons had placed the full quartet in confinement and turned out his entire modest garrison to ensure containment.

It had been an aggressive move, but the follow-up confirmation orders had vindicated any possible over-reach. All Service Corps members were to be placed under arrest and held until special forces were available for secure pickup. Irons found he was in high spirits – making the correct call on his own initiative proved he was just as capable as any womb-born officer.

Lost in the disturbing excitement and chaos of Order Sixty-Six, however, he was about to belatedly discover he had neglected a far more troubling externality.

This particular difficulty had mirrored eyes and had just appeared at the end of a long subterranean passageway leading to his checkpoint; the final guardpost before the surface. The soldier could not help but notice the armor she wore, or the lightsaber she carried.

"Stang," he whispered silently into the void of his helmet, indulging in that brief expletive before keying his mike. "Take aim," he ordered the squad behind him. "But do not, do not, fire unless attacked or at my express order."

Composed of light plates and pads the gray and green armor faded into the low lighting of the semi-circular passageways. Light reflected back only from the eyes as a steady gait brought her forward.

In the process of their making the debilitating shackles of fear had been struck off the clones, but Irons felt a paralyzing emotion of a different sort now – command uncertainty. Trained to believe in the sanctity of correct and incorrect decision-making, his mind reeled from this moment, for it seemed to present not even the faintest possibility of a right choice.

He knew the numbers, but that could not keep him from tabulating the sums over and over again. The Center contained exactly seventy-three clones: two platoons and himself as the supernumerary. Every man was presently in armor and ready to plunge into action. Two squads on the MediCorps group, two up-top on the landing pad, four at checkpoints, and he'd added his own blaster to this stronghold at the main entrance. All that and he had no idea if it was enough.

Memories of Jedi in battle flashed through his head. He'd seen knights, and masters, and even the legendary Kenobi once, but those images provided no comfort against the oncoming eyes. Nivi was no Jedi, and Irons had never seen her in action. How many lives would that deficiency cost? It haunted him.

Nivi came to a halt precisely five steps in front of the squad. Her gaze encompassed them all. Irons captured no hostility in the sheen on her face, but he dared not relax in the slightest.

"Captain," she began with easy openness, almost casual. "Why the enhanced security? Are we facing a possible attack?"

Irons ignored the remark. "Doctor Avixin, I must ask you to return to your quarters immediately. This base is on high alert while command is in flux."

"So you have not received orders regarding me," she noted. All kindness and warmth vanished as if never there at all. "And the MediCorps?"

"You have no need to know," Irons stonewalled. He wondered whether he should order an attack. He wondered, but he hesitated. Without orders, it would be murder. He wasn't a murderer; he was a soldier.

"I would have thought you remembered how easy you clones are to read," Nivi noted. Irons resisted the urge to retort. "So, you have arrested them, and in due time you will give them to Palpatine's minions so that they may be disappeared."

"They are in our custody," the captain was unmoved. "Do not make any attempt to oppose or protest this."

"Had I the power, I would," pain sobbed through each word, an avalanche of regret. "But as I do not there is no reason to unleash death here."

The part of Irons' mind that had spent three years in the desperation of combat following Jedi officers had learned to trust the intuition of people with lightsabers. It warred with the newly birthed part that harbored a narrative beginning with the words 'lethal force.' He did not relax.

"I need you to return to your quarters," he wanted this to end, and swiftly. The longer the tension incubated, the closer shots fired moved to inevitable. "There is nothing to discuss. I would prefer to not have to detach an escort."

"Then it seems I must disappoint you," Nivi's voice went hard. "I have no intention of waiting to be killed, and I am therefore leaving immediately."

"I can't allow that," Irons kept his rifle up, trying to read the intent in mirrored eyes. He intended to go down fighting, at the very least.

Nivi's response defied his expectations. "Your allowance is irrelevant," she spoke sharply, but with frightful icy deliberation. Her face was frozen and clenched. "My presence here is via a cooperative agreement with the Jedi Order. I am not, independently, part of the Grand Army of the Republic. As the Jedi have seemingly been declared enemies of the state that agreement is in abeyance and my continued presence here is a violation of the Military Secrets Act."

Legalese was not a battlefield for clones. Irons knew that in such a theater he could only concede defeat or cede the field. It dawned upon him then that Nivi had taken the responsibility for violence and placed it as an anchor about his shoulders.

He was a clone, not born but designed, and the Kaminoan designers had prioritized control. In the absence of orders authorizing it he simply could not commit murder. Irons did not reason it out in this clinical fashion, he simply understood that his muscles would not obey any impulse to squeeze down the trigger.

Obligated to withhold the instigation of violence, Irons was under no such burden to provide aid. "Very well, Doctor Avixin. You are to be escorted from this facility this instant. No resources will be detached to your use whatsoever."

Nivi's face fixated on the clone's, burning the outline of her fine bone structure into his memory. She smiled, all bitterness, pain lacing over the shimmering accents. "Well played Irons, well played."

The captain did not respond to this. Instead he silently signaled out two of his men. "Take her up, now."

Keeping the rifle trained on her back until she disappeared up the service lift, Irons finally dared to breathe. "I want perimeter sensors switched to full power active scanning," he relayed to the troops.

They were in a remote and isolated section of Naboo. One woman, the Force or no, would not get far traveling on foot. He would get clarification, and soon.

If it was the will of the Republic that the Jal Shey share the fate of the Jedi, she had not yet escaped.