Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery.
None but ourselves can free our minds.
Have no fear for atomic energy,
'Cause none of them can stop the time.
How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and look?
Some say it's just a part of it:
We've got to fulfill the book.
Won't you help to sing
This song of freedom,
'Cause all I ever have:
Redemption Songs.—Bob Marley, "Redemption Song"
Walon Vau tensed when he heard an unexpected knock at the door, feeling Mird, coiled as ever near his feet, prepare to defend against a threat as well. They might have been stationed in Arca Barracks because they were training clone troopers, but, even in a military camp, they couldn't afford to lower their guard. The report Vau had just finished reading about the attack on the mess hall on Haurgab made that clear.
His body already preparing him for flight or fight, Vau put down the pot of caf he had been about to pour, placed his hand on the hilt of his knife, and crossed his room to open the door, Mird, sharp teeth on display, racing at his heels.
When he saw General Etain Tur-Mukan standing at the threshold, he removed his hand from his dagger, and, nodding a greeting, said, "Come in, General, and please have a seat."
"Thank you." Etain strode past him and Mird to take a seat in the chair opposite his wooden desk. "I wanted to talk to you for a moment, if I could."
"Hence the knocking on my door, I suppose." Sliding into the chair behind his desk, Vau picked up the pot of caf, poured himself a mug, and asked, "Caf, General?"
"No, thanks." Etain shook her head. Then, her hands twisting in her lap as she watched him add sugar and cream to his drink, she went on, "I don't wish to intrude, but I was wondering if you had read the report on the operation on Haurgab?"
"I have." Vau nodded. He liked to keep up with the progress of all the commandos he had trained—all but three of whom were still alive and fighting—but he made a special point of following Delta Squad's work. Their unbroken success rate always boosted him when he felt like a failure. If he could train warriors and survivors, he wasn't worthless. Arching an eyebrow and taking a sip of his sweetened, steaming caf, he added, "I trust you found Delta's work satisfactory."
"As far as official paperwork is concerned—and this isn't a lie—they were as blisteringly efficient and effective as ever." Etain sighed. "Unofficially, I feel the need to tell you that I'm worried about Scorch."
"Too many of his jokes cross the line?" Vau asked, wanting this to be a matter of discipline, although the expression on Etain's face told him that this was an issue of sanity. He could deal with—quite easily—his boys misbehaving, but handling the fact that even they, as strong as they were, would have to crack under the strain of constant battle was a problem he didn't know how to resolve. "Sometimes he takes wisecrack too far, especially when he is feeding off Sev."
"I can take a joke, but what Scorch did wasn't funny at all." Etain bit her lip. "He shot three of the men responsible for the attack on the mess hall, and then he shot the corpses again and again before spitting on the bodies."
"You sure it was Scorch?" Vau demanded, remembering how it was always Scorch who asked Sev pointed questions about offending corpses when the squad sniper became too trigger-happy. "Are you positive it wasn't Sev?"
"I can tell the difference between clones, and I certainly can distinguish between yellow-streaked and red-painted armor." Etain continued to chomp on her lip. "I wouldn't be worried if it was Sev, because that would be typical with him, but I'm concerned because it's not normal for Scorch."
"Too right." Vau took another sip of his caf. "Sev is psychotic. Scorch isn't."
As the Kaminoans said, Scorch was the heart and soul of Delta squad. If you wanted an update on Delta's mental and emotional health, you turned to Scorch in the same way you looked to Boss for a balanced report on the squad's mission progress, Fixer for a technological analysis, and Sev for a kill count. Scorch expressed the emotions his pod brothers couldn't acknowledge. He found something funny in the middle of the wreckage of every battlefield. He relieved tension at the most stressful moments. As long as he could joke and laugh, Delta was whole, but when he couldn't joke or laugh, that meant Delta was broken.
"I used the Force to take away the worst of his pain," Etain said quietly, "but that's a temporary solution to a permanent problem. He needs you to talk to him and make things all right for him again."
"I can't make things all right for him or any of his brothers," Vau answered harshly. He wasn't Skirata. He didn't believe that he could save his boys from the terrible suffering they had been destined from decanting to endure. "I'm not Skirata, Etain. I don't believe that anything I do will ever make it right that my boys will age and die twice as fast as me. Even if we find a cure for their rapid aging, nothing will give them back the childhood they never had."
"I meant emotionally," Etain began. "I didn't mean—"
"I know what you meant." Vau's lips thinned. "I can't even promise that I can make things emotionally right for Scorch or any of his brothers. Buried inside him and his brothers are animals and monsters I helped to create so they could survive all the horrors warfare would hurl at them. Their feelings are complicated, and the animals inside them mean they won't be emotionally right. They're dangerous, deadly men, and nobody—especially not me when I trained them to be that way—can change that. Think about it this way, Boss was biologically no more than seven-years-old when he intentionally broke my wrist in combat training, and I was proud of him for not being a weakling. What does that say about me and any of my boys, Etain?"
Ignoring the question, Etain, her eyes widened earnestly, persisted, "Please just talk to Scorch about what happened on Haurgab. He doesn't need me or even Delta right now; he needs you."
"Hmm." Vau pressed his lips together. "Aren't you afraid I'll thrash him into the next star system just for the fun of it? I'll bet you decicreds to diamonds that Skirata would be."
"I don't pretend to know anything about raising a batch of commandos for war." Etain pinched the bridge of her nose. "I don't want to know what you did to your squads on Kamino, but then, I don't want to know everything Skirata did either. Just take away some of Scorch's pain and don't add to it. That's what he and all of Delta ultimately trust you to do."
Yes, Delta and all the squads he had trained looked to him to, in the end, spare them from pain. He might be the one who threw every insult in the book at them, who beat them to a bloody pulp if they performed unsatisfactorily in training, who denied them rations or made them sleep on the rainy landing platform if they lacked discipline or a warrior's edge, and who would even make them fight brothers if he believed they needed focusing on the kill or be killed nature of warfare, but they also know that it was his lessons and the strength they derived from them that would save them on the battlefield.
He had promised them on the first day he had met his commandos that whatever horrors he put them through in training were for their own good—to make them survivors. None of the squads had ever forgotten that vow. Many of his soldiers whispered it to one another like it was a comforting talisman to hold close to their chests after he had gotten very rough with them.
"You're right not to want to know every little detail of training on Kamino," Vau commented dryly, remembering the viciously real mock-interrogation he had subjected his commandos to, the smell of death in the Killing House, and the stench of nerf guts in a confined place that filled the trench known as the Sickener. "And I'll talk to Scorch."
"Thank you." Etain's face relaxed into a smile as she rose to leave. "I'm sure Scorch will appreciate it, too. Now I'll just leave you to your caf and intrude on your solitude no more."
With a final farewell nod, she left his room, shutting the door softly in her wake, but Vau found that now a terrible memory of training Delta squad back on Kamino was coming back to him…
Vau was watching Delta squad crawl through the Sickener for the fourth time in a row, because their past times through the trench hadn't been fast enough to please him.
"Come on, you lazy chakaar," he screamed at Boss as the helmet of Delta lead came into view. Giving a rapid, hard kick to Boss' chest as the commando hurried out of the Sickener and scrambled to his feet, Vau added, "I told you to race through there, Delta, not have a picnic."
"Like we wanted to have a picnic of our own vomit and nerf guts," Scorch, who had been crawling behind Boss through the Sickener, scoffed as his helmet came into view.
As swift and dangerous as lightning darting through Kamino's night sky, Vau planted his foot on the back of Scorch's helmet, grinding it into the nerf innards, so that the young commando would be compelled to inhale the stench through his helmet's filtration system. After a few seconds of what he knew to be torture, he pulled his foot away, remarking calmly, "Clearly you did."
Scorch scuttled out of the tunnel, followed by Sev and Fixer. Then he removed his helmet, spat more to remove the memory of nerf guts from his nose than to clear the actual presence of them from his mouth, and said, his eyes filled with contempt and helpless fury that begged to be channeled against any foe, "I hate you, Sarge."
"What was that, Six-Two?" demanded Vau icily., even though he was pleased that he had gotten the most placid member of Delta into a battle rage. Killers and survivors needed to know anger and hatred. They had to turn all the anger and shame they had ever suffered on their opponent rather than upon themselves. They couldn't lose control, but they had to nourish the traits that would make them ruthless warriors. They couldn't flinch from those characteristics or from anything else.
" 'Hate' is slang for love, Sarge," Boss quickly cut in, and Vau could only imagine the glare Boss was treating Scorch to through his helmet. "Scorch was just telling you how much he cares about you."
Vau waited a solid three beats to let the squad know that he wasn't amused and that he was able to spot a lie bigger than the universe. Then he asked in a deceptively mild voice, "Three-Eight, is your designation number Six-Two?"
"Sir, no, sir!" Boss' spine went rigid, as it always did when he was questioned or reprimanded.
"Then don't answer questions put to Six-Two, and certainly not with lies as obvious as a bantha in a bedroom." After a fierce warning slap on Boss' shoulder, Vau focused his attention on Scorch, drawling, "Six-Two, would you care to repeat your comment to me?"
"I said that I hate you." Stubbornly, Scorch lifted his chin. "Hopefully, your tender feelings aren't too wounded, because you can do a lot of things, Sarge, but you can't change how I feel about you."
"Are you absolutely insane, clinically stupid, or just plain suicidal, Scorch?" growled Boss, who evidently couldn't contain himself any longer. "The whole squad really wants to know."
"No, he's feeling battle fury. He's acknowledging the anger and hatred you all feel for me for putting you through this nightmare." Vau paused for another three beats to let them know that, however much any of them tried to conceal their emotions, he would always know the truth and judge them for it. "I don't care about his feelings, though, naturally, his insolence will have to be addressed in a moment. He and all of you are welcoming to hate me, but you must learn to use that hatred to your advantage in battle. You must not lose control. You must use it to motivate you and to destroy your enemies, not yourselves. That is my most important lesson. Learn it, and you will survive long after every weakling has perished. Fail to grasp it, and you will be one of the weaklings who dies."
He glowered into each of their helmeted eyes so they would understand he was as serious as artillery fire, and then finished, "Since Scorch cannot control his impudent tongue, all four of you will repeat the Sickener exercise until you have improve your current time by sixty-five percent."
"Sixty-five percent, sir?" repeated Fixer, a trace of doubt tinging his usually matter-of-fact tone. "Is that possible?"
"It is if I say it is," snapped Vau, "and it will be an interesting experiment to see whether you hate Scorch or me more by the time you accomplish your task."
"I already know who I hate more." Sev grunted. "May I shoot Scorch now, Sarge, and save myself the trouble later?"
"No," Vau replied coldly, "but if you lot don't get your lazy shebse into that Sickener again immediately, I might shoot all of you."
Before he could make good on his threat or use any sort of force against them, Delta squad piled back into the tunnel of nerf guts.
Remembering an experience he hadn't thought about in years, Vau exhaled gustily, causing Mird to eye him anxiously. Stroking the strill to assure it there was no cause for concern, Vau thought that it was no wonder that Scorch had fired on corpses. Nerf guts and physical abuse had brought out a helpless rage and hatred buried under calm and humor that could only be channeled against an enemy.
Scorch couldn't be sane when, as a boy, he and everybody he had grown up with had been continually pushed to the brink of what they could handle. Eventually, being pushed as far as you could be had to constitute being pushed too far, and even the toughest training sergeant couldn't prepare his men for everything they would encounter in war.
Vau's mouth had gone as dry as a desert, and he reached out to take a sip of his caf only to realize that the drink looked an awful lot like nerf guts to him in his present black mood.
Deciding that it was time to train more troops in the hope that battle wouldn't completely destroy them, he dumped out his caf and left the room with Mird at his heels to go to the hand-to-hand combat class Zey had hired him to teach.
Vau was clutching a delicate part of a trooper's anatomy during the hand-to-hand combat lesson when he heard Scorch's voice call across the gymnasium, "Sarge! Sarge, General Zey sends his compliments and wants to see you right now."
"Get yourself off to the medbay and have that looked at, ad'ika," Vau told the trooper writhing in agony on the floor. Then, looking at the rest of the assembled troopers in a way that informed them in no uncertain terms not to regard his absence as an excuse for indolence, "Mird, watch them and make sure they don't slack off. You lot—by the time I come back, I want you to be able to make each other's eyes water. Got it?"
"Yes, Sarge." It was a weary chorus, and Vau never tolerated that sort of weakness in his trainees.
"Great Darakaer of Irmenu," he exclaimed, taking the name of his father's chief deity in vain just to spite the old man, "I've been struck deaf for my sins. I said, got it?"
"Yes, Sergeant," they barked, and Vau, satisfied for now with their progress, accompanied Scorch out of the gymnasium into the hallway.
"Are you on brigade strength again, Sarge?" Scorch asked as they made their way through the corridors to Zey's office.
"No. Still civilian status," answered Vau somewhat absently. On one level, he was glad that Scorch was fine enough to make small talk, but, at the same time, that made it difficult to create the opening that they would need to discuss what Scorch had done on Haurgab. Wishing he was more skilled at casual conversations and emotional discussions, Vau went on, "That way I can tell Zey where to stick his orders without feeling I've lost my military self-respect. An army that refuses orders is a rabble."
"An army that refuses orders is a danger to its civilians." Scorch quickly supplied the second line of the litany Vau had hammered into the heads of all his commandos.
"An army that refuses orders is dead," Vau concluded, ending the ritual.
"You ever disobeyed an order, Sarge?" Scorch cocked his helmet in a manner that usually meant he was trying to see Vau as a man and not just a training sergeant.
"Only when it was unlawful," responded Vau, thinking that if he wanted Scorch to confide in him, he would have to open up a bit himself. "And that's not always an easy call, not when the bolts are shaving your nose hair. I'll leave that to the lawyers sitting on their padded shebse years after the event."
Hoping to catch Scorch off-guard, he finished with, "How are things with you?"
"Sorry, Sarge, say again?" Scorch was already coming up with a million non-answers to Vau's questions and a hundred reasons why he was fine when he wasn't—Vau could hear it in Scorch's tone.
"I hear and see all." Vau wanted to convince Scorch that lying to him was impossible, but he also didn't wish Scorch to feel that he couldn't tell the truth without receiving a thrashing. Trying to navigate the thin line separating his squads' trust and fear for him without falling off on either side, Vau said, "There's no shame in losing it from time to time, not in a fools' war like this."
"Bit tired," Scorch answered swiftly, using the traditional military excuse for any wacky or uncharacteristic behavior. As if determined to prove that he did not have any time for more private words with his former training sergeant, he babbled on, "That's all. Shipping out to Kashyyyk sometime soon. We'll be there awhile…"
"I know, but I want to see you in my quarters at eighteen-hundred, okay?"
Vau had tried to say it as mildly as he could, but he could hear Scorch's gut churning as Delta's demolitions expert replied through a nervous swallow, "Right you are, Sarge."
Part of Vau wanted to say something reassuring, but they had arrived at Zey's door now, and Scorch was accessing it, which Vau supposed was just as well, since he had never done reassuring very well. He would just have to save everything he wanted to say until eighteen-hundred when he might have the courage to express some of it.
At exactly eighteen-hundred, there was a knock on Vau's door. Knowing that it had to be Scorch, punctual to avoid his ire, Vau called, "Come in."
Garbed in crimson fatigues that made him look more vulnerable than he was, Scorch entered the room and closed the door behind him, saying breathlessly, "You wished to see me, sir."
"Yes." Vau decided that launching into an attack might get him his answers faster. "Tell me why you fired upon corpses like a maniac, Six-Two. Don't give me any jokes or excuses, because I'm not in the mood for them."
"I had a lapse in discipline, sir." Scorch's back was straight, and his eyes, deliberately blank of all emotion, stared at the wall above Vau's head.
"A lapse in discipline," Vau echoed in a hushed voice. "What provoked this lapse in discipline, Scorch?"
"I was tired, Sarge." Scorch still refused to look at Vau or drop his stiff posture.
"I hope you don't just mean physically tired," Vau observed as dispassionately as he could, tapping his fingers on his desk. "I'm not a patient man, Scorch, and stupid explanations make me want to force reasonable ones out of people."
"I meant mentally and emotionally tired, too, okay, sir?" Scorch burst out, apparently cracking under the strain of having to pretend under scrutiny that he didn't possess feelings he did. "I'm tired of fighting this war so that civilians can sit around watching the latest holovids and stuffing themselves with greasy food while we bleed and die for their sake. I'm not asking them to join us on the front lines, because most of them couldn't tell their backsides from a blaster, but I want them to see us as people, too. I'm not saying that I don't want to fight, because I was born for war, and how empty would I feel if I didn't fulfill my purpose in life? I—I just don't know what I want in life, but it isn't this, Sarge. And when the attack on the mess hall happened, I was joking around with Fixer and Sev. The clones that died were probably talking with their brothers, not expecting to be attacked in one place that should be a safe haven, and that made me so mad. Especially because if the Kaminoans had their way, those clones would have just been concentrating on nutrition, as they are supposed to do during meal times, not having any casual conversation at all. So I was going to kill anyone who thought I didn't deserve a peaceful meal with my brothers in the safety of my own base. No enemy messes with Delta squad and lives to tell the tale."
"I understand, Scorch." Vau thought that Scorch's tangled web of emotions was all that made sense under the circumstances. The Kaminoans had made super commandos, and the Republic would sacrifice, and pain was the price the commandos would pay for doing their duty. Everyone would benefit but the clones, and there wouldn't be even a blip in the news on the Holonet about the injustice of that."Just hold on a little longer. Your war will be over soon."
"Really?" Scorch's dubious tone made it plain that not only was the fight for his life and his brothers all he had ever known, but, in a way, it was all he ever wished to know.
"Are you questioning me?" Vau arched an eyebrow.
"No, sir." Scorch shook his head emphatically. "Only idiots question you, Sarge."
"Glad I don't have to slap some sense into you today." Vau gazed deep into Scorch's eyes and saw there a faith that somehow Vau could end the war the way he had ended brutal training exercises with a simple declaration of endex. Marveling anew at how much trust his commandos placed in him merely because he had promised that everything he did, he did for their welfare, he made another vow that was just as sacred. "I'm going to give you and your brothers the chance to choose that was denied you at decanting."
"You don't want us to desert, do you, Sarge?" Scorch bit his lip. "You see, we aren't even sure whether we'd slot a deserter because we're big on philosophical debate in Delta, so we're hardly ready to make such a drastic change in our careers."
"I just want you to choose for yourselves whether to be soldiers or deserters," Vau explained crisply. "I want you to be nobody's fools and nobody's victims, because I raised survivors. You had better figure out what you want, Scorch, and you best tell Delta to do the same. I'll be very displeased with you lot if you can't even make decisions for yourselves at your stage in life."
"Yes, sir." Scorch's eyes were wide as black holes. "We'll make up our minds about things, I swear. The Kaminoans might have given us life, but you gave us our souls and our strength and our mind, and now you're giving us a choice we never really thought we'd have. We owe you everything."
"You owe me nothing." Vau shook his head. "I was paid enough bloody credits to train you, and you've spent your whole life in service and sacrifice. You don't owe anyone or anything—even or perhaps especially the Republic—a thing. Consider yourself free of all debts, because on Mygeeto you helped make your chance to choose possible."
"I just can't believe you'd do this for anybody, sir." Scorch sounded amazed, and Vau didn't blame him, since it was common knowledge that he reserved any displays of affection for Mird.
"You aren't just anybody, and neither are your brothers." Vau took a deep breath and bullied himself into articulating the feeling that he had tried to ignore for years. "You boys are my sons, and Mandalorians do everything to ensure that their sons not only survive but have a better life. Understand?"
"Yes, Sarge." Scorch looked more desperate for approval than any Delta ever had, and Vau wondered if that declaration of affection would be just another tool—along with the fear that if Vau decided their progress was substandard, he would make them fight each other until one of them was mincemeat—that would haunt Delta and push the squad to ever more taxing pursuits of the elusive goal of perfection. "We won't let you down."
"You'd better not," Vau said when all he really meant was that Delta had already surpassed his highest expectations of them and couldn't disappoint him. "Now, run along and finish your packing for Kashyyyk."
"Right away, Sarge." Scorch gave a cheery salute that toed the thin line between insolence and good humor. "Don't worry about us. We won't forget that any crash we can walk away from is a good one and that we should always eat our veggie capsules."
"What a relief to know that you learned all my most important lessons, cheeky di'kut." Vau snorted as Scorch left the room with a final salute.
Watching the door shut behind his former trainee, Vau thought that he couldn't pretend to be innocent—not when he had made his boys bleed and vomit in training, not when he had accepted money to teach a slave army, and not when he had helped Jango pick out other mercenaries to train the commando squads.
He was up to his ears in guilt and the very credits he had to his name condemned him as a villain, but at least he realized the evil he had done and was trying to atone for the wrong he had committed against his boys. That made him better than the civilians who ignored the crimes committed by the government for their benefit, and that made him determined to die attempting to make things right for his men. That was all an old chakaar could do to redeem himself before he snuffed it, and he was resolved to do it. His mission for what remained of his life would be simple: finding some semblance of justice for his squads and some kind of redemption for himself, because while the clones might have been slaves, it was Vau who needed redeeming.