Let the Cannons Roar
"I'll sell my rod, I'll sell my reel,
Likewise I'll sell my spinning wheel,
And buy my love a sword of steel,
Johnny has gone for a soldier."
- "Johnny has gone for a soldier" British & Irish folksong
Kamino, Tipoca City, 31 BBY
"So what do you think it will be like?"
In response to the query, Alpha-20 shrugged his thin shoulders, feeling the fabric of his fatigue's shirt slide over the skin. He was still trying to get used to the feel of the heavier fabric of a cadet's uniform.
"I'm not sure. Makes sense it will be just like in the vids."
He cast a look at the cadet next to him, Alpha-19 and saw the other clone's thoughtful expression.
"I was just thinking," Alpha-19 said carefully, as if trying to voice an unfinished thought. "If it is just like in the vids, or how it was described to us in flash training, then why would we need a live demonstration?"
Alpha-20 blinked at the question. He hadn't really thought about that. He had just assumed that the information he had received in the crèche would automatically correlate with what he would be experiencing during his training. Because, that was what flash training was for, wasn't it? To give the Alphas and other clones an edge over their enemies, by having them pre-educated in the vats and the crèche. But if the information they had received did not in actuality resemble what they would experience on the battlefield, then what was the point? And wouldn't flash training them with faulty information impair them on the battlefield; even endanger their lives?
This train of thought and the questions it inspired were giving him a headache, and for a brief moment, Alpha-20 closed his eyes against the glaring lights of the hallway. He didn't need to see where he was going anyway. The blueprints of Tipoca City were edged into his memory and the cadence of the cadets' footfalls so even, he only had to listen to the rhythm to keep from treading on the heels of the clone before him.
When he was sure that he had banished all the upsetting questions from his mind, Alpha-20 opened his eyes again and fixed them on the clone walking beside him.
"You think too much."
In response, Alpha-19 gave him a wry smile. "I suppose so. But aren't you at least a little curious."
"Sure I am," he said and meant it. And why wouldn't he be. He was about to see for himself what it was he had been bred for, to undertake the first steps to fulfilling his destiny. He was about to tell Alpha-19 some of this, when the orderly column of Alpha clones came to an abrupt stop.
Halting, Alpha-20 automatically assumed the at-ease stance he had been taught; feet slightly apart, chin high and hands behind his back. The other Alphas, including Alpha-19, did the same in almost near perfect synchronicity.
Looking straight ahead, Alpha-20 mostly only saw the back of the head of the clone before him, but if he shifted his eyes just slightly to the left, he could catch a glimpse of Fett at the head of their column. The bounty hunter was talking to someone, another man in armor, though his was a shade of sandy gold.
Being closer to the head of the column, Alpha-20 had no problem hearing the altercation taking place between the two men. It wasn't like they were trying to be quiet anyway.
"I thought I told you to keep those boys in line, Kal." Alpha-20 didn't even have to look to know that was Fett speaking. His voice, he would recognize anywhere.
"And I thought I told you to mind your own shabla business. I'm handling it." The other man – Kal? – had a lower voice, gruff and sharp that went perfectly with the man's appearance. Scrutinizing his face and the rather short, stocky body, an image of a small burrowing animal surfaced in his mind. A gdan. A non-sentient animal native to the planet Quiilura, measuring about eleven inches. Small, but vicious. Alpha-20 discreetly tilted his head ever so slightly to the side, to catch a better view of the man. Taking in his pinched expression and the aggressive stance he was taking towards the taller and more muscular Fett, Alpha-20 thought that his flash training had provided him with the right description. The man really did resemble a gdan.
"I don't care Kal." Fett was saying and Alpha-20 turned his attention back to the argument. "I am sick and tired of having Lama Su come to me every other day because the Nulls sabotaged the pluming on level twenty-seven or because they caught another of the janitorial staff in a net or whatever else your little deviants come up with."
"Names, Fett. They have names."
Alpha-20 caught movement from the corner of his eye and whipped his head to the right. Strolling down the corridor and past the two neat rows of Alphas were two other clones. Alpha-20 blinked, then cocked his head to the side quizzically. These clones were definitely not Alphas. He knew every Alpha and besides, these two looked older. Not much, maybe a few months or up to a year. Of course, in the age-accelerated world of a clone, even that short of an age gap meant quite a few differences in appearance.
But there were other differences as well. These clones looked to be heavier set, their shoulders and chests broader than his. That could have come from being older and having had more physical training, but Alpha-20 didn't think so. And there was something different about the way they walked as well. Not side-by-side like the Alphas tended to do whenever there were two or more of them; not even one behind the other. One was walking ahead, while the other was behind and slightly to the right, though it didn't look like a flanking maneuver to him. It was…Alpha-20 groped for the word for a moment, then had it. Casual. There was something casual about their walk.
Next to him, Alpha-19 caught his breath. "Null-ARCs," he whispered.
Hearing the whispered words, or perhaps feeling the two Alpha ARCs staring at him, the first of the two Nulls came to an abrupt stop in front of them.
Smiling sharply, the Null said something to them, though Alpha-20 couldn't understand the words. He thought they must be Mando'a, it certainly sounded like the same language as Dha Werda, but the words were unfamiliar to him. The other Null came to stand beside the first and upon seeing the two Alphas perplexed expressions, he elbowed his brother in the side, grinning widely. The first grinned back, then turned once more to Alpha-20 and 19.
"What are you staring at, di'kut?"
Alpha-20 frowned. He might not know what di'kut meant, but he didn't have to, to work out that he had just been insulted.
"Not much." He answered back. "Mostly Fett bringing that other guy down to forty percent."
Now it was the Nulls turn to frown in confusion. Apparently, they no more understood the slang common among the young Alphas, then Alpha-20 understood their Mando'a. But like him, they didn't need to understand to know that something insulting just had been said.
Alpha-20 watched, fascinated, as the faces of the Nulls became hard and closed, the sharp, arrogant smiles from before vanishing. The first Null took a menacing step towards him, one hand clenched to a fist by his side. The other Null stepped to the back and side of his brother, and this time, Alpha-20 recognized the move as a definite flanking maneuver.
"No one talks like that about Kal'buir." The first Null slipped into a fighting stance, while the other Null's expression turned to grim satisfaction. He had apparently no doubt how this fight would end.
Alpha-20 felt something flare inside of him; something hot and searing and he realized with a start that he was angry. How dare these Nulls think he would be a soft target.
Alpha-20 broke rank, taking up his own fighting stance, though he noted that his was not as sure-footed as that of the older clone. Judging from the calculating gleam in the other clone's eyes, the Null had some practical experience in hand-to-hand combat, whereas Alpha-20 only had flash training to fall back on.
He felt a hand try to grasp the edge of his shirt, heard a hissed warning. "Alpha-20, no. You're not up to Code."
He ignored Alpha-19's warning, that hot buzzing in his head still loud and searing. He could practically feel the uncomfortable shifting in the ranks of Alphas standing closest to the scene, but none of them dared to move out of their pre-assigned positions and Alpha-20 payed them no heed. He was listening to that dull, angry buzz in his head and found he liked the sound and feel of it. It made his mouth flood with a taste like cold metal, as if he had just run his tongue along the knife with which he cut up his food. It made him feel better about his chances in facing the Null.
As if he could hear the confidant tone of his thoughts, the Null pulled his lips back to expose his teeth and began to close the distance between them. The Null cocked one fist for a ready punch and Alpha-20 brought up his arms in a defensive gesture when a loud, sharp voice rang through the corridor.
"Check!" Both clones froze immediately.
"Alpha-20, back in line!"
"Ord'ika, come here. You too, Mer'ika."
Both Nulls fell into a quick trot, hurrying back to the side of the other Mandalorian. Alpha-20 too did his best to fall quickly back to his position, once more taking up the at-ease stance next to Alpha-19. The buzz was gone as suddenly as it had come, leaving behind it an oddly empty echo in his head.
He watched the two Nulls disappear down the corridor with the Mandalorian Kal, then waited, hairs at the back of his neck tingling, for Fett. Fett stepped closer to the column, surveying the once more neat rows of clones, before his eyes landed squarely on Alpha-20.
"Discipline is essential for a soldiers survival, Alpha-20," he said, his voice curt. "You might want to think about that, before you break rank and act without waiting for orders."
Without another word, Fett turned away and gestured towards the column. "Enough playing around. It's time to get your feet wet. Alphas fall in." They fell into step behind Fett and Alpha-20 traded a relieved look with Alpha-19. That could have gone worse.
In the end, it turned out that Alpha-19's concern had some validity. The real thing was far more intimidating then anything Alpha-20 had experienced in flash training. And this is not even the real, real thing.
His breath caught in his throat, as a percussion grenade detonate not seven feet in front of the small group of Alphas. The ground was ripped open, leaving behind a gaping wound surrounded by shredded bits of flora and the remains of the soldiers that been standing close to the impact site.
Alpha-20's ears rang with screams of pain, the gasps of the dying and the shrill whine of blaster fire. He took a deep breath and smelled burned ozone, wet earth and a charred, meaty smell he thought must be coming from what remained of the group of soldiers that had been trying to storm the hill.
His mouth went dry and he reminded himself that it was only a simulation; a holographic replay of a battle won or lost long before he had been decanted. Still, he had to repress the urge to reach out a hand and touch one of the armored figures running past him, screaming orders into the battle-torn air. It just seemed so real.
"In a battle, you always want to take the high ground first." Fett's voice cut across the roaring of the heavy cannons and more dying screams. "The high ground not only lets you overlook the battlefield, it is the best position for your heavy artillery. Maximum range for best effect."
As if to underscore the bounty hunter's point, another massive roar tore through the air, making Alpha-20 wince in pain. The missile appeared to be coming at them directly and the circle the Alphas had formed at the start of the simulation drew together a bit more tightly in response. Not that a closer proximity to your fellow ARC would have saved any of them from the explosive capacity of the missile, had the thing been real.
Alpha-20 saw the artillery shell fly in a high arc, before impacting in the middle of a squad of tanks. It landed between two, the initial explosion tearing the two tanks to pieces, while the shock wave exerted enough force to flip the other two remaining tanks. Alpha-20 watched as three soldiers managed to extricate themselves from the wrecked tanks, bleeding from various wounds. They should have stayed inside. Used the tanks as cover, he thought, as a team of droidekas descended on the survivors and cut them down in a hail of blaster fire.
He felt another hand grasp his with desperate energy and Alpha-20 looked to his side to see Alpha-19, his face white, his eyes much larger than normally. The other clone was breathing in sharp little gasps. Alpha-20 looked down at their joined hands, then off to the left, at what Alpha-19 was staring at.
A soldier was crawling over the ground, trying to make his way towards the feeble protection of a few shrubs. The man had lost his helmet and blaster during the fight, as well as both of his legs. Using his fingers to properly himself forward, the man was leaving behind him a trail of thick blood in the ravaged grass. At the sight of the white bone protruding from the angry red flesh of the fresh stumps, Alpha-20 felt his own eyes widen. Even as the two clones watched, the man expired before reaching the shrubs. Feeling Alpha-19 shake, Alpha-20 gave their joined hands a slight squeeze.
"There is only one way to win a battle and that is together. Strength through unity is how an army functions best." Fett strode paced within the tight circle of young clones, his eyes fixed on them, while their eyes were transfixed by the carnage of the holographic battle.
"As Alphas," Fett continued. "You will often be working alone, preparing the battlefield for the actual invasion. But you can never forget that you are a part of the greater whole."
Alpha-20 watched as one of the soldiers picked up a fallen blaster and stormed towards the oncoming wave of droids. The man fired, yelling all the while, his shots taking down one droid after the other. Alpha-20 was fascinated as he watched the man – the hologram – stand against the droids. Slowly, others joined him, until they created a wave. The wave of armored bodies seemed to swell and crest and fell upon the droids in a roaring rush of screams, orders and more blaster fire. Metal tore and men fell, but Alpha-20 could see that the battle had been won. He felt his heart beat frantically in his chest and his whole body quivered as the artillery kept up a steady pounding rhythm. This was what he wanted to do.
"You liked that, didn't you?" Alpha-19 asked him.
They were back in their barracks, a few minutes before lights out. Some of the others had already returned to their bunks, but he and Alpha-19 were still seated on one of the benches by their lockers.
Alpha-20 felt a smile curl his lips as he thought about their demonstration that day. Liked it? He didn't think so. He liked blue milk. He liked the physical exercises that were part of their daily routine. The demonstration today had been so much more. His whole body had been quivering throughout the display and there had been an odd sensation under his skin, as if it could just barely contain him. He had felt a little bit like what he imagined lightning would feel like. Full of energy. Anticipation, he thought, comparing his feelings against the dictionary of words flash trained into his memory. Anticipation and want and…and hunger? He wasn't sure about the last one, but it seemed to fit in an odd way.
He straightened his spine before answering Alpha-19's query. "I did. It was one hundred percent. I can't wait to start training with a real blaster. And armor." He shot a challenging look at the other clone, who always seemed to be by his side, no matter where they went. A result of the order of their serial numbers.
Alpha-19 hesitated for a brief moment his face taking on a cast that looked pinched to Alpha-20.
"I guess so." He said slowly. "I think…I think I liked it best when that squad rigged one of the power cells from their repeating blaster to detonate."
Alpha-20 had seen that as well. Though in the chaos of the battle it had been difficult to know where to look first, that small group of huddled and stationary men had rather stood out among the constantly moving mass of the two clashing armies. And the explosion had been spectacular.
"That was a good move."
Alpha-19's face relaxed, as if relieved from same heavy burden. "Yeah, one hundred percent. I'd like to know how they did that."
Alpha-20 shrugged, but couldn't suppress a grin. "Stick around and you'll find out."
The other clone looked at him in puzzlement. "Where else am I supposed to go?"
Alpha-20 laughed and shook his head, felt the curls of his dark hair brush his forehead. He should go see the barber droid and have his hair cut really short this time. He didn't like having it in his face.
"No where. It's just an expression," he explained.
"Where did you hear something like that?"
Another shrug. "Somewhere. One of the other training sergeants I think." He jumped off the bench and tugged at the sleeve of Alpha-19's shirt. "Come on. Light's out in five and you don't want to be caught by a sentry droid, do you?"
The two clones scrambled up the ladder to their respective bunks, sliding into the sleeping alcoves where it was dark and secure. Falling asleep, Alpha-20 dreamed of blaster fire and downed droids, of the smell of burning ozone and a single soldier leading the charge. And in his dream, he was running with that soldier, side-by-side and it felt good. It felt right.