Day Forty-Seven of the Malkhani Insurrections
Thirteen Years After the Clone Wars
His name was Donin, and though that wasn’t the name he’d been born with, he had the ink-rubbed brands to prove it. The black whorls and waves, freshly applied by the clan masters in honor of his induction, ran across his dusky shoulder blades under his coarse cloth jacket. They were one of four gifts he’d received upon joining the army of the Warlord Malkhan: a new name, the brands, a serrated knife, and an offworlder’s particle blaster.
The masters had assured him that of the four gifts, the blaster was the most precious. Its grip was wrapped in fraying leather and its barrel was scored and crusted with ash. It had enough power left to fire a dozen searing bolts, and Donin had been warned not to waste a single shot or drop it if it began to burn his palms. Those were the acts of a child—not a full member of the clan.
He knelt among his new brothers and sisters—he’d yet to learn their names—behind a low stone wall that stretched across the hilltop. His slight frame, thin from youth and hunger, allowed him to conceal himself fully behind the barricade; for this reason he had been assigned to the front. Like his brands and weapons, that assignment was a privilege. He reminded himself as much when he began to sweat and tremble.
He glanced sidelong at his companions and looked for signs that they, too, were afraid of the coming battle. They were nearly all larger and older, carrying offworld weapons that appeared as scored and rusted as his own. They cleaned their knives and murmured to one another. Donin told himself he would die for them as they would die for him, in the name of the clan and its warlord. And if they won the day—
If I survive the battle, Donin corrected himself. Victory was inevitable for the Warlord Malkhan. Only Donin’s own fate was in question.
—then they would celebrate. He’d heard stories of feasts, of troughs of clear water and skewers of bantha meat, of salts and sauces from other continents, other planets. He would gorge himself, he thought, and sleep in safety in the warlord’s camp. He’d heard the clan’s celebrations before, while hiding shivering in his father’s home, and those joyful cries were what had finally lured him to the masters.
His father had said the Malkhanis were no different from any other faction on Crucival, but his father was wrong. No one else had such food or took so much joy in victory. No one else was as strong as Malkhan, or had the wisdom to procure such a trove of offworld technology. Donin’s new clan would build a better planet.
Something far away howled in the dusty air, starting soft and rising rapidly. Donin squared his shoulders, half stood from his crouch, and thrust his blaster over the wall in one movement, as he’d been taught. He saw no target. A man’s voice laughed behind him, and a broad palm cupped his dark hair and tilted his head back.
“Battle ain’t started yet, boy. Just a ship headed to the tower. Get us all killed if you shoot.”
His gaze redirected, Donin saw the sphere and crossbars of an offworld flier silhouetted against the clouds. It roared in the direction of the steel spire and faded from view.
Donin lowered himself to his knees again, and the hand on his head disappeared. He’d made a fool of himself. He silently pledged not to do it again. “We didn’t see them much in the Gulches,” he murmured— an explanation, not an excuse.
The man behind him grunted. “You’ll see them a lot here. I’m serious about not shooting. Don’t go within a stone’s throw of the tower, either, no matter what happens. The offworlders in white may not come out much, but you bother them even a little . . .”
“I know,” Donin snapped. He swiveled and looked up at the man, who could have been four times Donin’s age, with milky eyes and pitted skin. Older than the warlord himself. But that didn’t mean he’d been part of the clan any longer than Donin. “I know all about them. Their soldiers are clones. They make them in batches.”
The man grunted again, showing cracked yellow teeth in something that might have been a smile. “You don’t say? Who told you that?”
“My father,” Donin said. “He used to fight them.” He gestured with his head toward the sky, toward the stars hidden behind yellow-gray clouds. “There was a war.”
“Well, you’re not fighting clones,” the man said. “You’re fighting the lowlifes who took the quarry last week and want our territory. That exciting enough for you?”
Donin scowled and stared. “I’m here to serve the clan,” he said, and pivoted back to face the wall. One hand still clasping his blaster, he reached with the other to jerk down the collar of his jacket, displaying his brands to the man behind him.
Donin heard the man laugh, felt a slap on his spine that rocked him forward.
“I guess you are,” the man said. “Just don’t get your hopes up. Take it one fight at a time.”
Donin nodded, shrugged his jacket higher on his back, and gripped his blaster tighter. He wasn’t sure what the man meant. The clan was hope for them all.
It wasn’t long before someone yelled that the enemy was approaching. The front line pressed against the wall and peered over. Donin saw specks against the brittle yellow grass in the valley below the hill, and soon those specks resolved into the shapes of dozens of men and women. Most held spears above their heads like pennants. Only a few carried offworld weapons—but those weapons were the size of tree branches, cradled by their owners in both arms.
The first of those weapons ignited with reverberating screams. Streaks of green fire spewed over the wall. The warlord’s army became a mass of shouts Donin didn’t understand. He steadied his blaster, reminded himself not to waste shots.
“All praise to the warlord!” someone called, and the shouting became a cheer. A rush of warmth filled the boy as he grinned and added his voice to the hurrah.
His name was Donin now. He was defending his new home. These were his brothers and sisters, their path was righteous, and he’d be part of their clan forever.
Planet Haidoral Prime
Day Eighty-Four of the Mid Rim Retreat
Nine Years Later
The rain on Haidoral Prime dropped in warm sheets from a shining sky. It smelled like vinegar, clung to the molded curves of modular industrial buildings and to litter-strewn streets, and coated skin like a sheen of acrid sweat.
After thirty standard hours, it was losing its novelty for the soldiers of Twilight Company.
Three figures crept along a deserted avenue under a torn and dripping canopy. The lean, compact man in the lead was dressed in faded gray fatigues and a hodgepodge of armor pads crudely stenciled with the starbird symbol of the Rebel Alliance. Matted dark hair dripped beneath his visored helmet, sending crawling trails of rainwater down his bronze face.
His name was Hazram Namir, though he’d gone by others. He silently cursed urban warfare and Haidoral Prime and whichever laws of atmospheric science made it rain. The thought of sleep flashed into his mind and broke against a wall of stubbornness. He gestured with a rifle thicker than his arm toward the nearest intersection, then quickened his pace.
Somewhere in the distance a swift series of blaster shots resounded, followed by shouts and silence.
The figure closest behind Namir—a tall man with graying hair and a face puckered with scar tissue—bounded across the street to take up a position opposite. The third figure, a massive form huddled in a tarp like a hooded cloak, remained behind.
The scarred man flashed a hand signal. Namir turned the corner onto the intersecting street. A dozen meters away, the sodden lumps of human bodies lay in the road. They wore tattered rain gear—sleek, lightweight wraps and sandals—and carried no weapons. Noncombatants.
It’s a shame, Namir thought, but not a bad sign. The Empire didn’t shoot civilians when everything was under control.
“Charmer—take a look?” Namir indicated the bodies. The scarred man strode over as Namir tapped his comlink. “Sector secure,” he said. “What’s on tap next?”
The response came in a hiss of static through Namir’s earpiece—something about mop-up operations. Namir missed having a communications specialist on staff. Twilight Company’s last comm tech had been a drunk and a misanthrope, but she’d been magic with a transmitter and she’d written obscene poetry with Namir on late, dull nights. She and her idiot droid had died in the bombardment on Asyrphus.
“Say again,” Namir tried. “Are we ready to load?”
This time the answer came through clearly. “Support teams are crating up food and equipment,” the voice said. “If you’ve got a lead on medical supplies, we’d love more for the Thunderstrike. Otherwise, get to the rendezvous—we only have a few hours before reinforcements show.”
“Tell support to grab hygiene items this time,” Namir said. “Anyone who says they’re luxuries needs to smell the barracks.”
There was another burst of static, and maybe a laugh. “I’ll let them know. Stay safe.”
Charmer was finishing his study of the bodies, checking each for a heartbeat and identification. He shook his head, silent, as he straightened.
“Atrocity.” The hulking figure wrapped in the tarp had finally approached. His voice was deep and resonant. Two meaty, four-fingered hands kept the tarp clasped at his shoulders, while a second pair of hands loosely carried a massive blaster cannon at waist level. “How can anyone born of flesh do this?”
Charmer bit his lip. Namir shrugged. “Could’ve been combat droids, for all we know.”
“Unlikely,” the hulking figure said. “But if so, responsibility belongs to the governor.” He knelt beside one of the corpses and reached out to lid its eyes. Each of his hands was as large as the dead man’s head.
Copyright © 2016 by Alexander Freed. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.