Sunday, August 30, 2015


Chapter 2
As the four vehicles arrived, Ridge was struck again at the antiquated tech he was seeing.  These vehicles clearly had no repulsors and instead rolled along on soft black rollers that appeared to be filled with a gas of some sort.  Ridge had heard of such things, but had only rarely seen anything close on any of the worlds he had visited. 
One vehicle took the lead and pulled up within a few yards of the cockpit view-port.  A burly man with short cropped graying hair stood up and stepped down out of the passenger seat.  His face was weathered and tanned as well as scarred.  Ridge knew a seasoned soldier when he saw one, though he had rarely encountered a soldier that had obviously lived through numerous campaigns.  Most clone soldiers did not live long enough to ever get gray hair let alone see their first year out of the academy.
Ridge was fortunate indeed, since he had far outlasted many of his cadre brothers.  He had shown an even greater aptitude than many of his clan mates for learning and doing it quickly.  This ability had saved his shebs more times than he could count, but had also loaded his heart with guilt.  At times he felt an overwhelming sense of loss and heartache for those many brothers that he was unable to save.  He knew it was unreasonable for him to think such things, but he also knew that his Kaminoan creators had not managed to breed the humanity out of him.  So he sometimes mulled over his thoughts regarding the brevity of a soldier’s life and the lack of value the Republic had placed on he and his brothers.
Unknown to virtually every one of Ridge’s buddies though was that his life was truly unnatural in comparison to theirs.  For Ridge had a secret.  He held a secret that only an elite few were aware of.  One of his old Mandalorian sergeants had approached him less than six months prior to his current predicament.  This sergeant, Kal Skirata, had offered him a chance at a real life, a life measured in decades, not just a few short years.
For you see, the Mandalorian clones that had mostly been birthed on Kamino had been predestined with a fatal flaw.  In order to create an army of the vast size that the Republic required and even then on a fast time line, the clones had to be forced to mature quickly.  Oh yes, the clones were bred for war and oh yes they were compliant, but they could not live long with the accelerated growth built into them.  For those clones that outlived the fighting that so often ended their struggle for life, they were doomed for the most part to less than a decade or two of living.  And, inside they were just young boys craving to know what life was really all about beyond the battlefields that they knew so well.
Kal Skirata, or Kal Buir, or Papa Kal was a hard fighting, razor edged man that had a soft heart when it came to “his boys.”  Kal made no bones about how much he despised and hated the Kaminoans for using the clones so harshly and so often unceremoniously “disposing” of the flawed ones.  He had made it his business to look out for their needs and rights even after he had walked away from the Republic in disgust over their treatment of “his” boys. 
Kal had set up a special retreat on the Mandalorian home planet of Mandalore.  From that base he had begun waging a private war on those who would profit from his boys suffering.  He had made it his life’s work to search for a cure that would reverse the accelerated aging process that the clones were subject to.  He eventually succeeded, but it was a bittersweet victory since Kal was really only able to save a very few of these men. 
Kal had encountered Ridge on numerous occasions since he had moved quickly through the ranks to become a special ops fighter with numerous specializations.  Kal was called back to the GAR headquarters many times to either consult with the GAR leaders regarding tactics or how to deal with the difficult Mandalorian leadership.  Kal was always impressed by Ridge’s neutral attitude towards the GAR and towards the Jedi.  But more than that, Kal was impressed… no, touched deeply by Ridge’s apparent love for the rest of his clone brothers.  Ridge often spent time in the infirmary or the rehab centers in his down time, apparently just playing sabac or swapping war stories with various clones who were out of action.  Kal could see more than your average clone in Ridge and he wanted to give him a gift.  A gift worthy of one who had sacrificed much and deserved to live something a little closer to a normal life.
 A standard week before Ridge had shipped out on is current mission he had received a care package from Kal.  Spicy nerf jerky, a container of candied wara nuts, and a hypo of something that Ridge was sure could not be what he thought it was.
There was also a neatly folded bundle of flimsy with his name written in Mandalorian on the outside.  Ridge had the time later that night when they were going to be in hyperspace transit to the latest hot zone.  He was brutally tired of all the killing, especially all of these newly cropping up civilian uprisings.  Apparently much of the galaxy’s hard working under-classes were not as confident and happy that the Jedi had all but been wiped out.  With so many under-armed people willing to throw themselves in front of his Deece, he was thinking maybe he had misjudged the Jedi.  He still believed that they were misguided and that often many of them had been arrogant, but he knew now that they would have sided with the very people he was being ordered to kill.
Ridge did not want any more innocent blood on his hands.  He knew he wanted out, but after what had happened to several of his defecting brothers recently, he was for one of the first times in his life fearful that he would not live to experience a “normal” life.  During his travel to the new combat zone, he made up his mind to contact Kal.  A small luxury he had been afforded as he rose in rank from Sergeant to Captain, was that he was assigned his own quarters on most of the Republic’s larger vessels.  This now gave him the chance that he needed to have privacy to work out his escape plan with little chance for its discovery.  Ridge donned his helmet and immediately winked out the activation code sequence that would initiate the secured comm. line to Mandalore. 
The line crackled and popped for a moment and then a clear line came up.  Ridge was further shocked at the audacity of Kal and his boys when he realized that Kal had set this line up with a holo feed as well.  A small picture appeared in his left eyepiece.  Initially, he could only see what looked like a blank wall of what did not appear to be a plasti-form field building like the GAR would use.  Instead, it appeared to be a wall paneled in of all things, wood.
A moment later, a face appeared.  A face he knew all too well.  It was his own, but with a few scars he did not recognize and a mouth that was twisted in a mischievous half-grin.  He was pretty sure who this fellow brother was and he was amazed since at one time, reports had said that Fi was mortally wounded and left for dead after one of the battles following the execution of Order 66. 
Fi’s voice came over loud and clearer than Ridge would ever have imagined considering the distance that he knew was between them.  Fi said, “Ahh.. Kal had us all wondering if we’d ever hear from you.  Koyiche Rijika!”
Ridge was caught off guard at the use of his Mando name.  Only Kal had dared use it since a day long ago that he would rather forget.  Ridge had beat other men to within an inch of their lives since that day for daring to use it again, but now it felt different.  This time it came with hope attached.  “Koyiche Fi!  I have little time for this communication Fi.  Is Kal there?  Can I speak to him?  It’s urgent.”
Fi hesitated, his face showing that he had news that was not what Ridge wanted to hear.  “Ah.. I’m sorry Rij.  Kal is offworld on one of his little missions.  He left orders for no one to contact him unless there was urgent reason to do so.  I’m afraid you’re going to have to hang on there brother.”
   “Gone to ground has he?  Well, I’ve been waiting this long, so I guess another campaign or two isn’t any more likely to be the death of me than any of the previous ones.  You barvs seen any action lately Fi?”
Fi chuckled for a moment.  “Come on Rij, you know I can’t share our secrets with you until you’ve blown all your bridges behind you.  It’d be way too risky for all of us.  But, I can tell you that if you were here with your liberated brothers, you would never be bored.  That is unless you want to be.  Kal Buir would never keep you from your dreams.  Whatever your heart desires is all Kal wants for any of us.  If you hope to find a mate and settle somewhere to be a dirt farmer, then he’ll gladly leave you to yourself.” 
Ridge was startled out of his thoughts on Fi’s words by a warning klaxon now blaring over the com system in the corridor outside his quarters.  “Sorry to bang out on you Fi, but seems we’ve just reverted and the locals don’t want us here in the worst way.  Let Kal know I came calling as soon as you can…” Ridge nearly choked on his next words.  “Fi… I want out brother.  My heart is not in this anymore.”
Fi was quiet for a moment.  Normally very funny and blessed with a dry wit, he was temporarily lost for words.  He knew just how hard it was to leave the only things you knew.  To leave your brothers and the bond they all shared.  But he knew the other side of that decision was the freedom he now lived in.  There was no turning back.
“Rijika, you hold strong and watch your back.  Don’t lower your guard and lose focus.  We need and want you here.  Even if all you want is to be left alone.  We’ll get your attention again soon enough and we’ll get you out of there clean. We’ll keep the nerf steaks hot and leave plenty of warra nuts for you.  Koyiche Rijika!  Fi out.”
“Koyiche Fi.”
That conversation seemed so long ago already.  The battle that ensued right after that conversation had been a fateful one.  A battle that landed him here, wherever in the universe here was.
Ridge was startled out of his thoughts at a loud clanging on the exit hatch.  “Nine-Eight, prepare for a boarding party.  Let’s not aggravate these barvs if we can help it.  I have a feeling they are already just a bit angry about one of their fighters being nothing but scrap.  Go meet them at the hatch and bring them to meet me in the mess.”
“Certainly Sir.”
Ridge heard the hatch air lock hiss open in the distance and then voices raised momentarily in surprise.  Or was it alarm?  He could hear Nine-Eight raise his voice as well, but then all of the voices trailed briefly off.
Ridge made his way back to the small mess area near the center of the ship and only waited a moment to hear the voices growing louder again.  He sat down at the primary dining table and waited for the boarding party.  They arrived a moment later and He was surprised to see that the gray haired man was a bit shorter than he had expected.  Ridge barely concealed a grin at the expressions on the faces of the three boarders.  Their eyes were drinking in every detail of his ship and their mouths nearly hung open from apparent shock at the sight of the entirely unfamiliar tech.
The gray haired soldier composed himself quickly and took on a more serious air of authority and expectation that his commands would not be questioned.  He began to speak and Ridge felt an immediate gut reaction since he had just that voice quality that conveyed authority and confidence. 
He looked directly at Ridge and said, “Sir, we are confiscating this craft until further notice.”
Ridge felt a rage boiling up from deep inside. But a voice in his head was whispering to him. He couldn’t concentrate on what it was saying unless he could calm his spirit. He took a deep breath and brought up a calming thought. Unnoticed by the boarders, he used a meditation technique he had picked up from one of the young Jedi generals that he had served with briefly. Ridge at one time thought this young Jedi was crazy, but he could not argue with the successful use of this method for he and his brothers when they were in stressful situations, which was practically all of the time.
And the voice was saying that he needed to just remain calm and bide his time. He would get a chance to break free from these aruetyc soon enough. He still felt uncertain, but at least he wasn’t about to blow an actuator. Strange though, that voice brought up feelings of familiarity that he could not shake. Someone he had known and at one time respected came to mind. But... that was a while ago and had not ended well. Ridge shook off the thought and tried to focus on “gray hair.”
“Son.” Gray Hair said. “Are you well? Have you been injured? Should I have a medical officer check you out?”
“No, I’m fine.” Ridge said in his best trooper monotone.
“Do you have a name or a designation, son?” asked Gray Hair.
“My designation is CT-RDJ-8,” Ridge whispered
“Ok, son.” Gray Hair said softly.  “I think I understand.  We’ll try and take this slow.  For now.”
“No, you don’t understand,” thought Ridge.  “If you truly did, maybe you’d help me.  Maybe you would mourn for me.”
Ridge’s mind was spinning.  It was awash with thoughts and plans for escape, but it was also leading him toward the slippery slope of depression.  He was finding it increasingly difficult to see any hope for his escape, since he knew that could not happen without some help.  And, there was the tough question.  From where exactly could he get help if he had no idea where he was and no idea if anybody he knew was anywhere close enough to get to him at all.  Damned wormhole!
He had always had his brothers to fall back on.  Even if some of them were killed off in battle, others like them were sent to take their places.  They shared more than just their genetics, they shared in rituals that had been drilled into them by their trainers.  They bonded them together at some deeper level, especially the one where they recited the names of all of their fallen brothers.  This ritual was repeated after returning from every battle. 
 Some of their trainers were Mandalorian like his had been.  Kal Skirata was a great trainer and had become like a father to many of “his boys.”  Ridge would never forget papa Kal and the risks he took to make the clones feel like more than just blaster fodder. 
With these varied thoughts swirling through his head and consuming him, Ridge barely noticed the quiet footsteps that came up behind him. And the gentle hands that placed a field blanket over his weary shoulders. When he glanced around, he thought he saw the slight form of a woman ducking around the nearest bulkhead. With the warm blanket on his shoulders, he began feeling all the stress of the last day draining from him.
Then he heard a woman’s voice telling him to stand.
“Let’s make this easy OK?”
He recognized the voice. It was the female pilot that had convinced him to land and surrender. He looked her in the eye and saw sympathy, curiosity, confusion, and something else he couldn’t quite pin down. What was her name again?
“Sarah?” He said quietly.
“Yes?” She said with expectation.
“Why haven’t I been taken to a cell, or thrown in my ships brig?”
           “Well,” she paused. “To be honest, none of us knows what to make of you. I mean you come hurtling into our system from who knows where. You take out some of our defenses and nearly kill one of us, but then you contradict all that we might think of you and risk your freedom to save one of us. And you do all of that soldier,” she pauses again, “after we do our level best to vaporize you.”
           “Don’t get us wrong though. We have locked down your ship to the tarmac and we think that we have disconnected your power sources so that you would at least be slowed down if you were to try to escape. You are imprisoned here, but if you show us the same integrity that we saw in the air, you may find yourself with more freedom than you might have imagined.”
Ridge was truly puzzled. Back in the Republic, at the very least he would be locked up in solitary and for his lack of cooperation he would likely be facing torture. In fact, for his having taken out a key piece of hardware like Deej’s fighter, he would likely already be dead. The facts were that these people, despite any hard feelings he might have against them, were already showing themselves to be of a better caliber than was often found back in his part of the universe.
He made an attempt to build another bridge. “Sarah, for whatever it’s worth.” He paused, feeling lonelier than ever. “Thank you for sticking up for me and not letting the heat of the moment get the best of you.”
“You know, I think you still have this partially wrong. I mean, don’t you figure you maybe did a little of the defending your life on your own? I did stick up for you, but you really did show some real…” She paused too, at a loss for the right word. “You know the word I would choose is quality. You did something not many of the rest of us would have ever had the courage to do in the heat of battle.”
Ridge considered this. “I understand how you might reach that conclusion miss… I mean Sarah. But, … well if I was not lost and separated from my unit, things might have gone far differently.”
“Well sir, the fact is the situation is exactly how you described it and you made the choices today that you made. And, because you did them, you have a certain amount of freedom. If I were you, I would enjoy them, but I would not take them for granted.”
“On a side note, I would sure feel better about all of this if you had a name. I mean that code of yours is fine I’m sure if you are a prisoner in hostile company, but I hope that we might be on friendlier terms than that. If not now, then maybe someday soon.
Ridge was feeling lonely and Sarah’s speech was fairly convincing, if not completely sincere. He only had to think for another moment. “OK Sarah. If nothing else, it will make the conversations easier. You can call me Ridge. Captain Ridge.”
Sarah looked at him with piercing green eyes.
“Well, Captain Ridge. We’ll see what the future holds. If you’ll be here for a while, I hope we can become friends. But, it has been a long day don’t you think? Are you hungry?”
“I would say starving Sarah, but that would be an exaggeration. I do have rations in my locker in the hold,” he said unconvincingly.
“But wouldn’t you rather have a fresh, hot, home cooked meal?” Sarah said disbelieving him. “Field rations can’t hold up against that. Right?”
“Well, no. But, except for a rare special occasion, that’s all I’ve ever known.” Ridge was feeling hungrier by the minute.
“Then that settles it!” Sarah said with enthusiasm. “Captain Ridge, you are in for a treat. Our head cook, Rudy will make you forget about those field rations for sure. For tonight you’ll need to stay on your ship, so Rudy will be bringing the meal on board.”
“What about after today?” Ridge queried.
Ridge sensed Sarah hesitating.
“We’ll cross that bridge tomorrow Captain. Let’s just see this day through and let tomorrow’s concerns be just that,” said Sarah with a slight smile.
So that settled it. And just a short time later Rudy arrived at Ridge’s ship and brought a fresh hot meal the like he could not compare to in his short life. According to Sarah, there were barbecued baby back ribs, (Which at first Ridge refused until Sarah laughingly explained they were not from human babies, but rather a creature called a pig) beef steaks, and a sweet fleshed fish called a trout. There were also fresh vegetables of several varieties including something called roasted corn on the cob which he especially liked. But the desert was the crowning jewel of the night. Sarah called it ice cream and said it was made from frozen cow’s milk, sugar and there was a fruit in this one called peaches. He could have eaten the entire crock of it, but he tried his best not to be rude.
Sarah would have spent the whole night laughing at Ridge’s almost childlike delight in the food but she didn’t want to embarrass him too much. She also felt a strange sense of sadness in Ridge. Something in her heart made her realize that there was far more to this man than just his rough soldier’s exterior and the mystery about where he had come from. There were many unanswered questions and she was becoming sure that some of the answers were going to be difficult for more than just Ridge to talk about.
Sarah was also briefly baffled about something Captain Ridge said right after Rudy left them with the food.
Ridge stared intensely at Rudy when he first entered the ship’s common area. In fact the stare was so intense that Rudy told Sarah that Ridge made him feel uncomfortable. Ridge apologized and said that Rudy reminded him of someone that he had once known. Sarah filed that in the back of her mind to ask him about later. She sincerely wanted to make Ridge at ease since she felt it would be easier for him to be interrogated later if he was less stressed.
Unknown to Ridge, Sarah had continued to battle for him behind the scenes.  She had been forced more than once to remind everyone in charge that Ridge had risked a great deal by agreeing to surrender. He could have easily taken out all of the fighter craft at their base. She knew he probably could not survive for very long without refueling or being able to replenish his stores of missiles and ballistic rounds but he seemed like he could be resourceful enough to go to ground for an unknown amount of time.

Sarah argued more and more frequently that befriending this man might provide advantages to them against their terrible and powerful enemies. If Captain Ridge had been captured by the enemy, there would be all manner of hell to pay later. And, if word got back to their enemies that they had gotten their hands on new and formidable technology like Ridge’s ship boasted, the enemy would be certain to show up sooner rather than later to rip it from their cold dead hands.