Kamino was won. Not as easily as it should have been considering they knew the attack would happen in advance. But the CIS forces were slinking away, beaten, and the GAR was stumbling back to its feet. Bloodied, dazed, and wounded but… picking itself back up.
By chance, Cody met Bly’s gaze over the war table in a brief lull. His batchmate was slumped, weight braced on his hands, head ducked, glancing askance at him with eyes aching from the same soul-weary grief that Cody felt in his own breast. They both knew how high the casualties were, though neither would know who exactly died until the full casualty list was compiled. For now they had the estimated body count which was wrenchingly high, only clumsily ordered by class but already indicating a devastating loss of STs and a heartbreaking number of CTs. Then there was the tiny yet astonishingly high number of Jedi confirmed slain, each a massive blow to the war effort despite the fact that Cody could count the number lost on one hand.
The day was won. He had to tell himself that was enough.
Cody frowned minutely at Bly, letting their gaze hold in silent acknowledgement for a beat before inhaling and looking down at the holographic pips, each representing the GAR’s ships dragging themselves back into order.
He had been waiting for the next ping for his attention. Follow-ups with his captains, orders from the Admiral or a General, something new that required his attention. So he answered the new blip of an incoming alert immediately.
A hologram flickered to life in front of Cody. Cody stared at the fully armored trooper for a beat too long, thrown off by how familiar the trooper was without being instantly recognizable.
As a rule, one of the first things the Vode learned outside of flash training was how to pick out individuals from a sea of identical faces and homogeneous armor. To the majority of outsiders the Vode pretended to not be able to recognize each other, pretended there was no need to pick out an individual because there were, of course, no individuals among clones. Cody often went out of his way to list out full serial codes for specific troopers to further that same illusion. But the truth was, Cody could clock one of his batchmates in full kit from fifty paces at a glance.
But it did take effort. They were clones. Cody and his brothers had to categorize rank, paint, scratches, speech patterns, and body language to identify and know each other. Without paint, Cody could recognize Bly by the way he moved, his posture, the odd weight he carried his upper body with. But Bly was similar in that way to Bacara--it was Bacara’s accent that gave him away. He knew Fox by the absolute silence of his steps and Wolffe by his odd stomping gait. They were better than anyone but Jedi at identifying their own by leagues, though, and typically far outstripped their Jedi at IDing a vod when they couldn’t use the Force to cheat.
Cody didn’t instantly recognize this vod, so his eyes snagged on the shape of the vod’s rank pauldron, the pattern of paint in a simple stripe down the fin of the helmet, over their brow, tracing around the eyes to join at the nose and continue straight down the chin, his brain picking up speed as those details registered in his mind because there was only one thing those details could mean-
“Marshall Commander,” the vod greeted. Bly’s head whipped up, his eyes wide.
A deep bass voice, deep enough to make the vocoder buzz and shake but not as strongly as it could have. There was warmth and approval in the vod’s tone. Recognition clicked fully into place and Cody snapped to full attention, shock thrilling through his entire body.
“Captain Fordo!” Cody blurted.
“Sir,” Fordo replied, tipping his head. Then he continued, graciously ignoring Cody’s informal fumble with a dash of amusement in his voice, a gentle reminder of who outranked who, “Tipoca City is secure. Awaiting further instructions.”
“Acknowledged,” Cody managed, voice unsteady, “How many ARC units were deployed?”
“All units, sir.”
The longnecks must have been fucking terrified.
“Take control of squadrons as you see fit and remain on standby for allocation,” Cody instructed.
Fordo tipped his head with a curt, “Visk,” before the connection cut.
A moment of silence passed. Then Bly whistled, long and low. “I never thought the Kaminoans would do it.”
“Does that mean they finally caught a clue,” Cody mused, “or that they’re stupider than we ever conceived?”
Bly smirked meanly, indulging in a brief cackle. Surrounding vode here and there in the dim light of the bridge picked the laugh up, the lot of them chuckling like a pack of strills on the hunt.
“I’m pleased you are unharmed,” Lama Su stated smoothly, gesturing elegantly to the space across from him. As his long hand moved, a spoon shaped seat descended soundlessly from the ceiling to provide her customary seat whenever they met.
“Thank you, Prime Minister,” Shaak replied, taking the offered chair.
There were already refreshments laid out. For the first time Shaak decided to partake, nodding when Taun We wordlessly offered to pour her a glass.
“I imagine,” Lama Su murmured as Taun We slowly poured him a drink as well, “you have many questions.”
“About the ARC troopers, yes,” Shaak nodded with a diplomatic smile. The water offered tasted good, though it carried a faint metallic crispness to it. She drank deeply of it-- it was the first refreshment she’d had since the assault.
The Prime Minister nodded gravely. “I will answer your questions to the best of my ability.”
All of their conversations started this way. She took care to keep the draw of her lungs soundless and her face unmoving from its polite position before asking, “Why were they kept in stasis?”
Lama Su blinked. “As per our previous conversation,” Shaak twanged with annoyance, “they exhibit greater inclination toward their donor’s personality and independence. That makes them willful and less amenable to control.”
Finishing her glass and setting it down on the tray, Shaak took a deep breath. Taun We nearly teleported across the room to refill Shaak’s glass. “I was hoping you would elaborate on that. What traits specifically?”
His head cocked minutely. “Well… Have you ever met Jango Fett, Master Ti?”
“No, I never had the pleasure,” Shaak replied, lips twitching before she could school them.
“Hmm… Yes. I hear his reputation precedes him, particularly in Jedi circles.”
“Indeed. The Jedi Killer,” She murmured, taking another drought of water, “Have you found anything regarding why Fett was chosen to be the template yet?”
Lama Su shook his head, sipping delicately at his own beverage less fastidiously than he normally did. Certainly worn out from the day as well. Honestly, Shaak was surprised that the Prime Minister had been willing to meet with her so immediately after the battle.
“No, we have not. I remain doubtful that there is anything to uncover. Has the Senate approved an inquest to further investigate the commission for the army?”
Shaak tongued one of her fangs. As always, Lama Su was very good at polite dismissals.
“No, they have not yet.”
“Then we shall have to wait,” he murmured, setting his glass down carefully before turning to face her fully, “Now. I believe you were inquiring after the template. Jango Fett was… Shall we say, a volatile, intense man. On a personal level, I found him to be gruff and exceedingly practical. Quiet. Private. He also seemed... inclined toward paranoia. But I found many of the Cuy Val Dar hired by Fett and the specialists hired by the Republic to be much the same. I cannot say whether that is a noteworthy trait for someone of his profession.”
“Then the ARCs are much the same,” Shaak concluded.
“Very much so. They also have a tendency to be even more paranoid than their Prime.”
Hm. That could mean any number of things coming from the scientists. Lama Su’s head bowed to watch his own fingers stroke along the bowl of his chair, his spade shaped upper lip tucking in minutely. It wasn’t often he telegraphed thoughtfulness, and she suspected it was a quirk he picked up intentionally. Lama Su was nothing if not deliberately cultivated. So Shaak allowed him a moment to mull over whatever thought that tempted him, busying herself by quietly feeling the currents in the force and her own place in it. She’d had a feeling that something was… important... about these gigantic beings. The anticipation in the air could be her imagination, but… She was very motivated to hear him speak frankly for once.
“I am compelled to elaborate further on the topic,” Lama Su began hesitantly, “given that the Alpha class troopers were taken out of stasis under duress at my suggestion. We were not able to discuss the ramifications of their deployment fully at the time.”
Oh? Shaak’s senses blanketed throughout the room contracted with anticipation. “Please, speak your mind.”
“When I say that they are volatile, do keep in mind that I am quoting observations that were noted in their files by the engineers who oversaw their development. I also had occasion to observe them myself, moreso than I was able to interact with later generations. The ARC troopers that made it through the rigorous training process are the best of their batch. We filtered out the ARCs that were too independent. Those who would not serve their purpose were disposed of.”
“I have no doubt your vetting process was rigorous,” Shaak replied. She had to be careful to keep the majority of the scorn out of her voice.
“Just so,” Lama Su agreed, missing her sarcasm, “Therefore, I can say with certainty that the product you are receiving is still top quality, as promised. They are fit to fight in your war, they are obedient enough to have passed through their training, and as you can see from this confrontation, they can be trusted to rise to their purpose.”
Shaak was almost disappointed. Was that all he was going for? Another sales pitch? She pursed her lips, stroking a hand over her left lek as she adjusted it to a more comfortable position on her shoulder.
“But..?” She questioned slowly, playing along.
“But,” he agreed, “They are… more likely than any other type of trooper to disobey orders.”
Shaak’s brows knit. “I gathered as much per our earlier discussion.”
“Mm… But that isn’t what I am getting at, Master Ti,” he intoned, his upper lip poking out as he chose his next words with a fascinating amount of care, “… should your ARC troopers decide to disobey, they will be very, very hard to reign in if they don’t want to be.”
“Is that so?” she murmured, bringing a knuckle to her lips in her own display of thoughtfulness.
“Yes. The entirety of the Alpha class batch was put into stasis because they were proving… difficult to control. For the most part, like I said, they follow direction well enough. But before the army was claimed, there was an incident that led us to realize how formidable our creations are.”
“Ah. I was going to ask about what led to their containment.”
Lama Su nodded and took another elegant sip of his drink. He only continued once he had fully set down the glass and returned his arms to their resting position.
“One of the units, Alpha-30, murdered one of the trainers hired by Fett.”
Shaak’s eyebrows flew up. “Do you know why?”
Predictably, the Prime Minister cocked his head and blinked. It was a mannerism she recognized from familiarity; he did that whenever he was caught off guard by a question, whenever he couldn’t understand why Shaak cared about something.
“I do not,” he said simply, “The unit slew a trainer and was subsequently decommissioned.”
“....” Shaak chewed her lip for a moment, “Was the trainer disliked?”
“Near universally,” Lama Su replied earnestly. She had to restrain a startled laugh.
“I see. So you’re concerned they may turn on us?”
“No, not necessarily. As per-” dank farrik, this again- “my earlier assertion, they are loyal and motivated to perform their function. But… there is a possibility, yes. Moreover, should a unit disobey it… could cause massive amounts of destruction. You’ve seen how imposing they are--the Alphas are our finest soldiers. Decommissioning Alpha-30 was... an ordeal. The unit was unbothered by sedatives and nearly tore Tipoca City apart before it was put down by one of the Cuy Val Dar. Most of the Alpha class clones that were previously decommissioned were not fully developed at the time of decommissioning. That was the first and only occasion that a fully matured ARC was ever removed from service, and it was an eye opening experience for everyone.”
“I see…” Shaak murmured, her stomach roiling. Oversized children put down in their sleep. A man fighting for his life before being put down like a strill without trial or compassion. “How did you get the rest into stasis?”
“They went willingly,” Lama Su provided immediately, surprising her, “Once they were in stasis, we debated decommissioning the entire batch, but… We held onto them in case the Jedi wanted to risk using them for their impressive capabilities. It would have been a waste of resources and a shame to completely destroy such achievements.”
Having met one of them, she already sympathized with the Alphas. It was easy to infer their perspective to each grain of information given by Lama Su. She couldn’t imagine feeling anything but sympathy for the disenfranchised men. It was no question whether or not she would vouch for them. The Order would offer these eldest sons what little protection they could offer. A chance to find themselves. If they chose to slip the leash, chose to disobey… then Shaak couldn’t find it in herself to blame them.
“Well,” Shaak Ti said, leaning back and clapping her hands, “Regardless, the tooka is out of the sack. There isn’t any putting them back into stasis, now. I appreciate the information, Lama Su.”
Lama Su inclined his head, “Indeed. We shall see what comes of their release.”
Cody outranked every man inside the barracks he stood outside of, but even still he almost hesitated to step in. He wanted to tap the frame to ask for permission to enter. He dared not, though, because he was Marshall Commander and the denizens of this space would look unkindly on such cowardice. Instead he strode in and stopped a few feet inside, just far enough that the doors closed behind him.
The barracks were like any other rest block. It was dominated by a broad wall of sleeping tubes, most tucked away flush to the wall, some extended out. Lockers to store gear. Benches for dressing. However, the entire room was scaled up threefold. Each sleeping pod was roomier than most escape pods, and they were all square, arranged to rest on the ground so the floor could aid in supporting the occupants' massive weight. The lockers towered over Cody’s head, and he had memories of needing a running jump to sit on the benches as a cadet. There were fewer beds in this bunkroom, tucked away from the rest of the facility.
Around the room, the grand majority of the surviving ARC batch lounged as any vode would on their off time. Cody recognized many of them-- Muzzle sat on the floor so he could use one of the benches as a work table to clean his weapons on. Fordo and Colt lounged like lazy cats on an open sleep pod. Bly was already tucked into the cuddle pile with them beaming happily. Nate was doing slow stretches on the ground nearby. Alpha-17 was sprawled out on another bed, hands behind his head, eyes cracking open when the door opened to admit Cody. Blitz and Valiant were sitting together pouring over a datapad with Havoc resting against their legs. Spar was digging through a locker, frowning.
There were far more that he didn't recognize immediately, all lounging like gigantic felinids here and there. The rest were likely sleeping tucked away in the walls or roaming Kamino reuniting with their brothers.
All of them as one turned to look at the door, the room utterly quiet. Cody flicked a simple hand sign to them immediately, a terse ‘All clear.’
The ARCs relaxed immediately. Smiles were offered.
Cody strode up to Alpha-17, hooking his bucket to his belt. The ARC was already swinging out of his bed to stand to his nearly ten foot height, towering over Cody.
He’d heard enough complaints to know to be careful climbing an ARC while wearing boots and being as heavy as CCs were. Alpha also knew what he wanted-- he bent a knee for Cody to plant his boot on his thigh, hooked a hand behind Cody’s leg, helped boost Cody up so he could grab the back of Alpha’s thick neck and tentatively press their brows together in a nervous tap of a keldabe kiss.
Several deep voices chuckled. Someone cooed, “Awww…”
Alpha’s cheek bent in a crooked smile. Then the gigantic man pressed back in return, accepting the intimate gesture. Cody exhaled shakily, then breathed in, lungs filling with the strong, musky, almost metallic scent of his favorite training officer. Alpha reciprocated, letting Cody brush their noses together ticklishly, nuzzling back with his paw of a hand holding Cody close by the back of his neck.
Then Cody tipped his head and kissed Alpha ardently.
“Oooh, get it Kot’ika,” Someone wolf whistled as the chuckles erupted again, louder this time, interspersed with jeers.
Alpha grinned, wet teeth against Cody’s lips, ruining the kiss. Cody would have bitten him if Alpha hadn’t schooled his amusement away quickly enough to kiss back just as deeply. As they kissed, Alpha hooked his hands under Cody’s thighs. Cody wrapped arms around his shoulders to help support his own weight as their tongues caressed.
“You’re fuckin’ heavy, Kot’ika,” Alpha growled into his mouth.
Kote scoffed, “Heavy to you, vod? Stasis made you soft.”
He fully expected to be dropped for his sass. He let himself drop, bouncing back with a huff and a smirk. Alpha leaned his shoulder on the wall, eyeing him with a faint smile.
“You filled out nice, Kot’ika,” Spar commented, slinking over to prop up the wall beside Alpha-17.
“Thanks, sir. But I am here on business. We need to catch you all up,” Cody asserted, “And to get you placed into the GAR. I’m not gonna let your assignments get pulled out of a hat like ours were.”
That sobered the room quickly, and within seconds the barracks were dead silent with their rapt attention.
Cody took a breath.
“First thing; I got confirmation this morning that A-99 is still alive.”
Alpha-17 said goodbye to his brothers that morning. Many of them were gone before him-- Valiant and Tavo to Coruscanta to join the Guard, Muzzle and Havi to join the Fourth Outer Rim Army, Acklay to join the 104th and Valk to the Third Mid Rim Army. After them, Nate, Spar, Havoc, and Maze were joining Bly to integrate into the 2nd Sector Army. Then Alpha, Fordo, Bruce, Bee, and Lovey boarded the Negotiator for the Third Systems Army.
Alpha-17 wasn’t amused when Kote gave Alpha his own direct assignment. Because the little bastard put him into the 212th under him and his own Jetii General. Because of course he did.
Alpha was even less impressed when the brat introduced them to their new Jetii.
It was the chatty redhead he met in the assault, of course.
Kote was hovering attentively at the pretty Jetii's side like a loyal, well trained strill. Alpha-17's regard was hidden under his helm but Cody knew what Alpha saw-- his vod'ika's jaw jutted out stubbornly.
Ori'buyce, kih'kovid. Mir'sheb could claim that Alpha’s assignment was only practical all he liked, but Alpha-17 knew him. When Kot’ika decided on something, he locked his jaw and bore down so hard that killing him was the only way to stop him. When Kote loved, he loved irreversibly with every ounce of his soul. There had been plenty of occasions Alpha had looked down on Kote, a hand around his skinny neck, and thought he might have to kill him this time before he fucked up the rest of his squadron with his destructive tendencies. He hadn’t grown out of those habits a single fucking bit.
Alpha-17 could already tell Kote was utterly smitten with his Jetii.
Kote loved Alpha-17 very much despite Alpha's best efforts.
Kote knew damn well that Alpha-17 and Fordo were close. Kote also knew that Lovey, Bruce, and Bee were Fordo's favorites, his protégés. So all of them had to come along too.
Kote was hoarding all of his favorite things, apparently.
On a private comm channel, Fordo sighed audibly. Bruce and Bee chuckled.
Cody stared at Alpha head on, eyes hard. Stubborn. Last Alpha-17 saw him, nearly two years ago lost in the space of a blink, Cody had been young, headstrong, and uncertain. Alpha could tell at a glance that now his best trainee had earned his rank as Marshall Commander. Kote had finished settling into his own skin. He moved with lethal confidence and his sharp eyes missed nothing. Even still, he was no different from the cadet Alpha remembered. Alpha was as proud of him as he was annoyed with him.
“Greetings gentlemen,” Kote’s Jedi said once he met them halfway, smiling pleasantly. He had to crane his head back to look at them. Then he paused, eyeing Alpha-17 thoughtfully for a moment before his gaze brightened. “Oh, you’re the ARC I met during the assault. It will be a genuine pleasure to work with you.”
That tripped him up for half a second. ARCs kept the markings of their armor standardized on purpose to throw off recognition. Alpha glanced at Kote, who was already flicking hand sign behind the Jetii's back.
‘Situation normal,’ Cody’s hands advised, ‘Jedi shit.’
Hmph. That meant they wouldn’t be able to swap places without getting caught. Annoying.
“Ready for duty, sir,” Alpha-17 replied simply.
The Jedi didn’t acknowledge the noncommittal answer beyond a flicker of a grin that spelled nothing but trouble. “Please, introduce yourselves.”
“A-77,” Fordo replied.
“A-17,” Alpha-17 murmured.
“A-31,” Bee chirped.
“A-88,” Bruce said, then gestured to Lovey, “A-89.”
At his side, Lovey hand-signed his number and nodded. The Jetii smiled and his small hands replied, ‘Acknowledged, A-89.’ Lovey brightened, his head swiveling to telegraph his pleasure. Alpha resisted the urge to throw something at him.
The Jetii beamed at him, his eyes twinkling, ‘Can you read lips?’
When Lovey nodded, the Jedi copied the nod with one of his own. Fordo tapped a ‘well done’ to Lovey in dadita. The Jedi made no move to acknowledge the taps of Fordo’s boots or Lovey’s tapped out laughter out in return. That didn’t mean he hadn’t understood, though-- they couldn’t be sure how good his poker face was yet. But Alpha-17 was betting it was very, very good. They would have to keep testing him to see if they could get a reaction in dadita, then clone didi. Cody’s willingness to sign behind him meant the redhead likely couldn’t sense the handtalk happening outside of his sightline, but Alpha wasn’t trusting that assessment just yet. It was important that they knew what they could and could not hide around their new Jetii.
The redhead continued addressing the group. Now, however, when he spoke his hands flashed to mirror his words with thoughtless confidence.
“Excellent. It’s a pleasure to meet you all. If you have other names you would like me to use, please let me know. For now, though, I am Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi. Welcome to the Third Systems Army.”