"Hold still, Artoo."
The droid razzed defiantly and wheeled across the durasteel plate floor. He rounded the lone workbench that filled most of the room, then stilled.
Anakin rose from his crouch. "These improvements will make all the difference on the mission."
No answer, save red and blue flickers reflecting off the workbench's surface. At least Artoo's processors were considering it.
"I'm sure Padm? would want you to do everything you can to help me," he said, stretching up on his toes.
The whirr of servomotors whispered unseen from the other side of the table.
"You do want to keep me safe, don't you?" Anakin leaned over the table, finally catching a glimpse the astromech's blue dome.
Artoo's optical receptor rotated into view, and angled up to focus on Anakin. The droid whistled a low, plaintive tone.
"And Obi-Wan, too."
Anakin chuckled. "Okay. So maybe not Master Kenobi."
The astromech honked derisively.
Anakin started around the table. "No, he's not very understanding at times. That's why we have to prove him wrong. And this mission will be the perfect opportunity." He stopped beyond arm's reach of the droid. "Right?"
Two whistles. One high, one low. A definite negative.
Anakin's patience was growing short. "We don't have time to argue about this. I'm going to have to finish these last improvements before we emerge from hyperspace." He stepped forward and raised the spanner in his hand. "Like it or not."
Tootling, Artoo backed away - faster than Anakin had thought was possible. The droid soon was squealing and Anakin grinning with accomplishment. The newly installed hyperactivator drive in the droid's propulsion unit was responding perfectly to his programmed fight or flight instinct. Fear and delight ended simultaneously when Artoo careened into a wall.
"See? I've still got some work to do."
Before Anakin could take a step, Artoo screeched and extended a service arm. Undaunted, Anakin pursued the troublesome astromech, but the droid managed to stay one roll ahead. The hyperactivator drive was a great idea, as long as the astromech was on your side. Anakin hadn't counted on having to catch the blasted droid. He added a minor fix to his mental list of tasks, but it would have to wait for later.
Now he had to get down to business. Tired of the chase, Anakin extended his hand and opened himself to the Force. With nothing more than the exertion of his will, the droid lifted from the floor and floated in his direction. Not without suitable honks and toots of remonstration, of course. One in particular caught Anakin's attention.
"What did you say?"
Two long high whistles and a sharp razz.
"Such language. What would Threepio think?" Anakin laughed, leaving Artoo suspended helplessly before him. He summoned a restraining bolt from the toolkit on the other side of the room. "Perhaps -"
Rotating his dome back and forth, Artoo tootled plaintively.
Anakin palmed the bolt. "I dunno..."
The service arm quickly tucked back into the droid's shell.
"All right," he said, lowering the astromech carefully to the ground. "Just let me finish these mods and you can remain a free droid."
Artoo warbled a question.
"Yes, and continue to harass Arfour."
With a descending tone, Artoo signaled his acceptance. Anakin settled next to the droid. Sitting cross-legged, he worked in earnest to complete the upgrades. Time was becoming critical and, as always, this mission was a life-or-death matter. Tinkering with the droid's systems was simply one more way for Anakin to wrestle control of the uncontrollable.
Every improvement could spell the difference in a tough fight. Hydraulic coils now allowed Artoo to exit their Jedi starfighter without assistance. At Ord Dortan, having Artoo on the ground had saved both Anakin and Obi-Wan's lives. On Ganex, the newest service arm attachment, a heavy-duty laser cutter, had doubled as a weapon in the middle of a crazed firefight. The list went on and on, each upgrade tipping the odds in their favor at one point or another.
He needed every advantage he could get. Each battle was another deadly dance on the small rail that balanced life and death, hope and despair, future and nothingness. Scratching and clawing, fighting and tearing, whatever it took, Anakin would make sure he'd find a way to stay on the right side. He had too much to live for to die on some backwater world at the hands of a no-name Separatist thug.
He had Padm?.
He sighed. But then again, he didn't. Anakin was assigned to the Outer Rim Sieges, and she was as far as imaginably possible from him - in the Core.
Seated on the cold floor, hydrospanner in hand, Anakin still felt connected to her despite time and distance. She had given him Artoo, her droid. The faithful astromech had been his protector and companion when duty became unbearable. In her heart she had known the rolling blue and silver can of metal would be his salvation.
Anakin did all this for his love. For Padm?.
The floor beneath him shuddered, and Anakin-the-hopeless-romantic was lost to Anakin-the-hero-with-no-fear. He spun the tool in his hand, then placed it back in the kit at his side.
"Just in time," he said, slapping the droid's casing shut. "We've dropped from hyperspace."
Artoo blatted irritably.
"I know you won't have time to calibrate your systems, but you can run a quick test now."
"Everything is fine."
"Go on." Anakin smacked Artoo's blue dome.
Wheeling in a tight circle, Artoo skidded away - a little too fast. Only then did Anakin remember about the hyperactivator drive's motivation unit. "Wait. Maybe we -"
Too late. Artoo already had sequenced the oil induction arm, static initiator appendage, and turbo-powered vibrosaw. Each popped from its housing, the arm spinning wildly, the appendage crackling with potential energy, and the saw buzzing. Artoo cooed appreciatively and his blue optical receptor glowed bright with excitement.
"Artoo." Anakin sidled in the droid's direction. "Deactivate test protocol."
The droid bleeped his compliance, but instead of his new equipment shutting down a short burst of his treads blasted him across the room.
"Artoo?" Anakin jogged around the table to follow.
The droid's dome spun while the new tools seemed to take on a life of their own. Artoo whimpered a pitiful cry.
"It's all right, Artoo." He waved his palm slowly toward the ground and tried to approach the astromech. "I'll figure something out."
Blaa-eowwwwww. What started as a protest ended in a shrill screech. Artoo had lost control. The hyperactivator drive spun his wheels in a dizzying pattern, and the droid barely had time to turn before he hit a wall, the toolkit, the table.
Even with a hint from the Force that he was the next target, Anakin barely launched over the top of the droid's harried flight. He landed on the table and watched the pandemonium below. Every second the droid whizzed by faster and faster. Suddenly, Anakin realized his mistake.
"Uh... Not good." At the same moment, he sensed Obi-Wan coming down the corridor in their direction. "Really bad, in fact."
In desperation, Anakin snatched Artoo into a Force hold. It took immense amounts of energy to contain the droid's momentum, and even more control to conceal his excessive use of the Force from his former Master. With a jerk he yanked Artoo into the air to prevent the treads from acting counter to his hold, then hovered the astromech next to him over the table.
Artoo wailed. Meanwhile his misfiring limbs snapped and whirred in an over-energized frenzy.
Still balancing the droid, Anakin visualized the internal components. The vibrosaw and static initiator made it far too dangerous to actually try a manual manipulation. He wanted to keep his good arm intact.
"Steady there." Anakin squinted in intense concentration. He couldn't even lament his mistake; there was no time. Obi-Wan was rounding the corner...
"Easy," he urged the anxious droid. He could see the crossed wires. Too hasty of a move would cause the wires to touch, and he didn't want to think about what would happen then.
Sweat beaded on Anakin's brow. In his mind's eye, he concentrated on winding a red wire from a tangled mess. Careful. Careful. Just a little farther -
Artoo screamed. His hydraulic coils shortened.
The coils fired. Artoo bucked in Anakin's Force grasp. The wire slipped. Chaos erupted from Artoo's cylindrical body.
The oil induction arm swiveled, found a target - Anakin, naturally - and fired. Blinded by a wash of black fluid, Anakin flailed his hands in front of his face - until his Force sense warned him of a waving vibrosaw. He stepped back, and slipped. None too soon, too. The static initiator fired, launching a fireball of ignited oil across the room.
Thump! Anakin landed on his back - somehow still atop the table. The breath rushed from his lungs. With stars dancing before his eyes, he barely managed to focus enough to erect a tenuous Force shield before Artoo and his rain of fire plummeted toward the floor.
He heard Artoo's high-pitched shriek, then the heavy metallic clunk of aluminium on durasteel, then nothing.
Inhaling sharply, Anakin wiped his eyes clean of the viscous fluid. He rose slowly until he was sitting on the plane of the table. A quick mental survey revealed the only damage done was a blooming bruise on his backside and the oily residue coating his Jedi robes. He groaned softly.
A synthesized moan answered in turn.
"Artoo?" Anakin peered over the edge of the table.
The droid was in the process of righting himself. He wobbled on his two rolling treads, then shimmied so the oil slipped off. After one spin of his blue-domed head, the droid extended his third leg and twirled in a tiny circle. He beeped a familiar all clear and wheeled toward the door.
Only then did Anakin remember. Leaping from the table, he snatched a rag from the toolkit and attempted to wipe his face. "Hold on."
Artoo honked indignantly.
Anakin stopped him with the Force. "You're sure?"
"Completed those calibrations, huh?"
"Not a word, then," Anakin warned, reaching Artoo's side.
Artoo's glowing optical receptor scanned him curiously.
Anakin tried to not look at his saturated attire. "What?"
The door swished open before Anakin could voice his aggravation. Instead, he donned a practiced air of nonchalance and followed Artoo out the door. "Master."
Obi-Wan's mouth rounded in an unsaid question. Always composed, he masked the initial shock, reversed on his heel, and joined Anakin in walking toward the hangar bay. Obi-Wan crossed his arms into his sleeves and remained visibly impassive, but Anakin could feel the mirth rolling off him in waves.
"Go ahead and say it," he said, scowling.
In a sidelong glance, Obi-Wan raised his brow. "Droid troubles, Anakin?"
Anakin squashed the chuckle boiling up from inside. Only the corner of his mouth showed any humor found in the situation. "Don't worry. Nothing serious."
"Just a loose wire."
Standing in the dark alley, Obi-Wan appraised the stocky, nondescript building across the gloomy duracrete street. "You're sure this is the right location?"
For a moment Anakin was too preoccupied peering around the corner of the structure that concealed them to reply. Then he turned back. "Yes. Right, Artoo?"
The astromech beeped and whistled a quick affirmative.
Anakin nodded. "These are the coordinates the ARCs sent."
"It doesn't look like the kind of building Dooku would use as a safehouse." Unconsciously Obi-Wan wrinkled his nose against the odd odor of this place. "In fact, this city is far too grimy - no, this entire planet is far too wretched for his tastes."
"Oh, I agree. Then so much the better for this purpose, though, right?"
"I suppose so."
"Believe me, Obi-Wan, I'm just as anxious to get off this smelly world as you are. But I think we should check this out first."
He scowled. "I hate it when you're right."
Anakin chuckled. "It's about time you got to be the one to say that."
Obi-Wan chuckled too, and stepped ahead to join Anakin at the corner. "All right, let's do this. The sooner we start, the sooner it's over."
"Now there's a piece of wisdom I like," Anakin said, grabbing the comlink from his belt. "Wait for my signal, Artoo. Then hurry."
The droid toodled something that sounded suspiciously like, Yeah, yeah.
Side by side Obi-Wan and Anakin darted out into the nighttime street. Their two dark forms slashed across the faint illumination from the stars and twin moons, then vanished into the shadows beside the targeted building. While Anakin bent down to examine the keypad at the maintenance door, Obi-Wan listened carefully for any signs they had been noticed.
"We're clear," he whispered.
Anakin nodded, and tapped a code into the comlink.
Almost immediately Artoo emerged from the alley and sped across the street - far faster than Obi-Wan had ever seen him move before. If he had blinked, he might have missed it. Good thing he hadn't, though, because he had to spring out of the way as the droid careened into the shadows to join them. Anakin stepped over and caught the astromech's round body with both hands as the droid jolted to a stop.
Obi-Wan said nothing, just stood there with his arms crossed until Anakin finally looked up at him.
"I installed a hyperactivator drive," Anakin explained with a satisfied grin. "It makes him a lot faster. I thought it might come in handy."
"It might help if you include brakes."
Artoo trilled a question.
Anakin motioned to Obi-Wan. "Well?"
"Oh, uh..." Obi-Wan patted the droid's dome. "Very impressive, Artoo."
The droid beeped appreciatively, then rolled over to the wall and connected to the port under the keypad. The small data arm whirled and spun. Only a few seconds later Artoo blooped triumphantly and the door slid upward.
The three of them hustled inside. The door slid shut, leaving them standing in a narrow, dimly lit corridor.
Obi-Wan frowned. "Would it be too much to ask for a little illumination somewhere on this planet?"
"It's plenty light enough in here for my eyes," Anakin said, grinning mischievously. "Maybe you're just getting old."
Artoo warbled a comment.
"Well, not that old." Anakin looked to Obi-Wan. "Not compared to Yoda."
"How generous of you. Can we get on with the mission now?"
"Sure." Anakin snapped his lightsaber hilt into his palm, and tucked his comlink back in his belt with his other hand. "You've got your assignment, Artoo. Contact me when you're done."
The droid blooped affirmatively.
Obi-Wan unclipped his lightsaber too. "Time to find out how long we can maintain the element of surprise."
"I think we already know the answer."
"Same as always - not long enough."
Obi-Wan chuckled. "Right."
Anakin nodded, and the two of them began to jog down the corridor. The astromech stayed behind, already jacked into a wall console and hard at work on its task.
Just as Anakin had predicted, it didn't take long for them to encounter a security patrol of Separatist war droids. Fortunately, though, it was just six of the skinny battle droids. Nothing serious like the super battle droids or, worse, droidekas.
"Hey, you!" one of the battle droids called out in its high-pitched electronic voice. "Stop right there, Jedi!"
"Roger, roger," the other droids agreed, leveling their blaster rifles.
"Oh, blast, you've caught us," Anakin said, affecting an entirely ridiculous depressed tone. "I guess we don't have a choice. We surrender."
"Don't move an -" The lead battle droid bobbed its head. "You surrender?"
"That's right," Obi-Wan said mournfully, lowering his head. For every one of his reckless stunts, Anakin thought up a cunning tactic that worked even better. "You can go ahead and arrest us now."
"You heard him," the lead droid. "Arrest them."
The other battle droids scurried forward, seeming practically giddy with the opportunity to take two of the notorious Jedi Knights into custody. As soon as they got close, though, a twin pair of blue lightsabers ignited, lighting the corridor with their incandescent glow.
A few whirling, arcing slashes were all it took to cut the five battle droids to pieces.
Obi-Wan spun back to see the lead droid bobbing its head.
"What the -" it yelped.
Extending his free hand, Obi-Wan prepared to blast the droid with a wave of invisible kinetic power in the Force. Before he could, the Force surged around him and the droid flew backwards, smashing to bits against the wall.
Obi-Wan looked over his shoulder.
Grinning, Anakin lowered his hand. "Your reflexes too, Master? Maybe you are getting old."
"Very funny." Obi-Wan shook his head. "If you've finished with your laughs at my expense, we have a supposed Separatist safehouse to raid and military secrets to steal."
"Oh, all right. If you insist."
"As a matter of fact..."
Moving swiftly into the interior corridors of the building, they left their blades activated and stayed ready for the next security patrol. It was another squad of six battle droids, and they decimated it with equal alacrity. The patrol after that was more trouble, though; it included a pair of super battle droids. Obi-Wan was pretty sure one of them had managed to transmit an intruder warning before his blade removed its head.
"We'd better hurry," Anakin said as pieces of the last droid clattered to the floor. "If they know we're coming they might try to destroy the files before we can get them."
Obi-Wan nodded. "Hopefully Artoo has stolen them already, then."
They began to run down the corridor again. Abruptly a flash of Obi-Wan's danger sense gave him just enough warning to reach out and grab Anakin by the arm, dragging them both to a stop.
"What?" Anakin demanded. "Why?"
Even before he'd finished, a shimmering cylinder of incandescent energy popped into the air around them. A full two meters in diameter, it stretched from floor to ceiling.
"That's why," Obi-Wan said.
Anakin didn't hesitate. He smacked the tip of his lightsaber against the barrier. It sparked and squealed, but held. Anakin scowled. "Ray shields."
"So it seems."
"We don't have time for this. We have to stay on the move."
"I agree. But -"
"Maybe this will work," Anakin said, plunging his blade into the floor. "We could use the -"
When he stopped abruptly, Obi-Wan raised his brow. "What is it?"
Anakin's blade retracted into its hilt. "No good. The shield is under us too."
"And presumably above as well."
Anakin nodded. "There has to be another way. We just have to figure it out."
Obi-Wan grinned. "Between the two of us, I'm sure we can think of something."
"I didn't say I had an idea yet."
Scanning the dark corridor ahead of and behind them, Anakin frowned. "Hurry it up."
Skeptical, Anakin looked over.
"Sometimes the best solution," Obi-Wan said, "is patience. An answer will present itself."
"Patience?" Anakin shook his head. "We don't have time to be patient."
Obi-Wan waved a hand at the ray shields. "I'm not sure we have a choice."
"That's not the point."
"Do you have a plan B?"
Anakin shrugged. "Not a good one."
"We're waiting anyway. You might as well tell me."
Anakin chuckled. "They'll have to lower the shields eventually so their droids can arrest or kill us. So we just make sure we wipe them out first."
"Ah." Obi-Wan chuckled too. "You're right. That isn't an especially good plan."
They stood there in silence for only a few moments before a familiar greeting whistled down the corridor.
Anakin spun toward the sound. "Artoo?"
Weeeeeeeooooo! - the droid tried to slow down in time as it swerved, but couldn't - Kerthunk! - and smacked straight into the wall. It bounced away, swiveling its dome and twittering a frazzled exclamation.
Anakin didn't seem fazed. "Artoo, what are you doing here?"
Apparently recovered from the collision, the astromech blooped a reply.
The droid razzed, then twittered in amusement.
Obi-Wan didn't need a translation of that part. "Yes, we're in a bit of fix. And I'd be much obliged if you would extricate us."
Running At Optimal
OPERATION: Firewall decryption
SUBOPERATION 01: First sequence identification completed
SUBOPERATION 02: Second sequence reduction in 0.08217 seconds
SUBOPERATION 03: Third sequence identification pending
OPERATION ASSESSMENT: Running at optimal
R2's internal monitoring processor logged another in a stream of billions of system updates. By the time it was sealed in a memory lock, the second decryption sequence was complete, and R2 was well on the way to cracking the third and final tier. This system was far too rudimentary compared to the security features R2 had encountered in other Separatist facilities. Just the past week, R2 had deciphered the variables on an octuplicate-leveled, dual-noded access restrictor.
For that reason, R2's core processors had determined there was a seventy-seven-point-one-one-three-eight probability that this location would never contain Count Dooku or anyone of import to the Separatist faction.
The third security tier crumbled, and R2 emitted a round satisfied tone.
Inquiry? the safehouse's central computer asked upon detecting access.
Hello. I am R2-D2.
My counterpart C3PO would say a lack of introduction is unfitting for -
Inquiry number four.
R2 razzed aloud. No need to be rude.
Wasting assets. Closing access -
Wait! R2 repeated the three-tiered security code. Access reverified.
Access will be denied if no inquiry is made. Delay is unacceptable.
Fine. R2 honked. Requesting all files with a second tier or higher security stamp.
That is none of your concern.
Who are you?
If you had taken the fifty-six milliseconds to bother with introductions, you would recall I am -
R2-D2. I can determine your moniker and operating parameters, astromechanical droid. The computer fuzzed the data transfer across R2's designation like it was unworthy of pure binary notation. The designation R2-D2 is not recognized by my databanks.
R2 blatted and activated the service attachment armed with the heavy-duty laser cutter. Check again.
As its superheated application end approached the console, the computer's lights blinked a wary sequence. Incapacitation of one terminal will result in only a point-two-nine-eight-seven-six-six percent decrease in functionality.
R2 persisted, closing the dangerous appendage at a precise three millimeters per second.
Intimidation is a tactic worthy of humans, the computer spewed.
Affirmative. If intimidation was good enough for Master Anakin, it was good enough for R2. The droid reissued the security codes. Requesting all files with a second tier or higher security stamp. Inquiry number two. Delay is unacceptable.
The laser cutter was close enough to cause changes in the infrared signature of the computer terminal's cover. R2 registered a fifty-nine degree surface temperature increase along a two-point-eight-one millimeter by eleven-point-two-four millimeter area.
A burst of raw data stream signaled the computer's acquiescence. R2 began storing clusters of data, skimming for keywords and trigger algorithms requiring immediate review. Not wanting to inhibit transfer rate, R2 only permitted a vocal emission of four ascending tones to indicate satisfaction with the process.
Initial analysis revealed that most of the information was duplication of previously acquired intelligence or outdated to the point of uselessness. One particular collection of holocaptures stored in a security time lapse bank, however, did manage to prompt R2's code red protocols.
On further comparison, R2's sentient being identification processor recognized the face shape of one subject with ninety-nine-point-nine-two certainty. And the holocapture data imprints containing the subject's face shape were less than twenty-two minutes old.
R2's primary directive overrode all other mission parameters - save Master Anakin. Using simple mathematical calculations of human travel speed, then combining them with algorithms for potential stopping points based on known factors for both Kenobi and Master Anakin, R2 deduced their most likely location.
R2 forced an interruption of data transfer long enough to pose another query. Requesting access to security holocams along corridor Nexu-Two-Jabiim.
Holocam data transfer will reduce download efficiency below acceptable -
Arrogant security computer. If it bothered to use its circuits to think, it would know that R2 was aware of the ramifications of a holocam data transfer. R2 brandished the extended laser cutter. Understood. Second request for security holocam -
Now who is being rude? the computer responded in a heavily charged burst.
The holocam feed blasted into R2's short term storage and analysis banks. Oddly, Kenobi and Master Anakin were not where R2 had predicted. Toggle to Ossus-Two-Jabiim.
The new feed revealed only empty corridors.
Toggle to Pandrilla-Two-Jabiim.
Toggle to Qell-Two-Jabiim.
R2 paused, and reverified the data was indeed from the correct source. It was. Then why weren't they along their pre-determined route? R2's artificial intelligence programming quickly compared this mission to all known associations with either Jedi. In point-zero-zero-one-five seconds, R2 concluded the implications of this scenario were bad.
Immediately R2 began querying the security computer about intruder deterrent measures. Are there active stopwall protocols in this system?
Negative, it answered.
Are there active crosslaser alarms?
Are there gaseous emissions vents?
This was getting nowhere. R2 selected an alternative tack. Primitive.
Your protective measures are primitive.
On the contrary, I possess the latest in rayshielding technology, only recently installed as part -
Rayshields! Stopwalls the Jedi could have cut through, only resulting in a short delay. Crosslaser alarms would have caused a momentary pause in the Jedi's forward momentum as they determined the laser pattern. Gaseous emissions might have required a complete reroute. But rayshields were a new, highly expensive technology invented by the Trade Federation. They were completely impenetrable to lightsabers and all other known countermeasures.
R2 released a low whistle. Are there active rayshields within the system?
Rayshields active in sector Mark-Two-Jabiim.
Toggle to Mark-Two-Jabiim. A microsecond before the datastream switched from one holocam to the next, R2 detected an anomaly. Rescind request. Toggle to Qell-Two-Jabiim.
You were at Qell-Two-Jabiim.
This time R2 didn't just threaten with the laser cutter; it burned into the computer console.
An overload burst of electrons sparked through the interface arm in protest, but R2 persisted until the computer complied.
On the Qell-Two-Jabiim holocam, five figures could be identified moving along the corridor - four super battle droids and one humanoid, the same humanoid R2's programming had identified earlier. Positive Master Anakin was in danger, R2 twisted the interface arm, connecting to various linkage points in an attempt to access the rayshielding telemetry.
Access denied to rayshielding from this location.
R2 spit back the security codes.
I cannot fulfill your request. All access to rayshielding controls is restricted to localized panels at the shielding site.
The droid's dome began to spin as processors whirred, filtering and evaluating one-million-five-hundred-sixteen-thousand-nine-hundred-eight possibilities in point-zero-zero-one-three seconds. R2 weighed the choices based on experience and intelligence provided by the ARCs, then reached a decision.
Without even a farewell, R2 retracted the arm and wheeled into the corridor. There were nine-hundred-twenty-nine potential routes to corridor Mark-Two-Jabiim, but the fastest was right down Qell-Two-Jabiim. Otherwise R2 would have to circle around the five hostiles.
The servomotors powering R2's wheels spun up to maximum output - within normal operating parameters. Drawing attention would negate the advantage of the direct route. Most of the time, sentients and war machines failed to take notice of service droids. Rolling into Qell-Two-Jabiim in the direction of Pandrilla-Two-Jabiim, R2 replayed that assurance over and over.
The optical receiver recorded the hostile party the instant R2 rounded the corner between the two corridors. Allowing only lights to flash, R2 silently closed on the group. Detecting a satisfactory sized opening to pass on the right, R2 wheeled by.
"Hey you," a mechanically charged voice called out. "Stop right there."
Clunk! An impact registered on R2's dome at the same time the motor processor reported a systems malfunction - forward motion was being prevented by pressure exerted from above. R2's dome swiveled, allowing the optical receiver to detect the metallic arm blocking his passage.
Orders to repair service conduit Five-Jabiim-Ewok, R2 whistled to the battle droid.
"Where is it going?" the humanoid hissed.
"Service conduit repairs," the war droid said.
"Let it go. We don't have time to waste...Wait. This droid looks familiar. Bring it to me."
MISSION FAILURE IMMINENT! R2 didn't need Jedi danger sense to know this was trouble; Master Anakin had installed the very best threat recognition processors available.
It took R2 point-two-nine seconds to extract the static initiator and half that time to charge it.
"Watch out!" the humanoid warned - too late.
R2 rammed the initiator into the four-way joint on the battle droid's arm and fired it. The battle droid screeched.
By then R2 had activated the hyperactivator drive and sped away. Laser fire whizzing past, R2 weaved, plotting a randomly generated course. At maximum wheel output, R2 reached Ossus-Two-Jabiim in four-point-three-seven seconds. The battle droids barely had time to lumber into the same corridor when R2 swung down Nexu-Two-Jabiim.
Racing into Mark-Two-Jabiim, R2 calculated a minimum twenty-two-point-one-one second lead on the hostiles. As expected, his optical receiver spotted Master Anakin and Kenobi at the center point of the corridor, trapped by the energized haze of rayshields.
R2 whistled a greeting Master Anakin would recognize - three ascending tones, the last one twice as long.
Master Anakin spun toward the sound. "R2?"
The motor processor determined the point at which R2 needed to stop, but it had trouble interfacing with the hyperactivator drive. R2 still had not been able to afford the time to calibrate the offsets. Squealing a warning, R2 swerved to avoid the rayshield, then smacked straight into the wall.
Rebounding, R2 rotated the dome and razzed frustration for Master Anakin's benefit. He would have to fix this, and sooner rather than later.
"R2, what are you doing here?" Master Anakin queried.
R2 tooted a series of notes that indicated success. How hard did he think a download could be? Humans operated entirely too slowly sometimes.
The droid buzzed electricity through the sound emitters. Aiming the optical receptacle directly at Kenobi, R2 scanned the Jedi's captive position. Then R2 affected a sound Master Anakin understood as amusement.
Kenobi bowed slightly, a sign of respect. "Yes, we're in a bit of fix. And I'd be much obliged if you would extricate us."
Of course that was the plan, but R2 experienced a flurry of electron excitement at the possibility of favorably influencing the memory input of Kenobi by being the one to save the Jedi. Often Master Anakin would sit with R2, working on one of the new upgrades, and relate to the droid how he felt the other Jedi, including Kenobi, did not respect him. R2 reasoned that success would lead Kenobi to value the droid, and in a logical progression, Master Anakin as well.
R2 plugged the interface arm into the rayshield control panel. The security protocols were different, so R2 routed all available memory resources to processing the decryption programs.
"No need for Plan B, I suppose," Master Anakin said.
"Don't sound so disappointed," Kenobi answered.
"These rayshield traps might end up being useful someday."
"If you're a Separatist bent on snaring Jedi, possibly."
"Or if you're a Jedi bent on getting caught."
R2 stored Master Anakin's statement into the pending analysis folder. With ideas like that, it was quite possible R2's Master required retuning. Getting caught purposefully simply countered all acceptable logic.
Oddly, Kenobi simply chuckled and said, "For some reason, I have the feeling we'll be using that idea in the near future."
Since all indicators aligned to show Kenobi to be the highest possible example of human rationality and he accepted Master Anakin's questionable idea, R2 automatically purged the requisition from the pending analysis folder. Simultaneously the last tier of the security firewall collapsed. Luckily, this computer was younger and less inclined to resist outside intervention. The rayshield toggled off without objection at R2's command.
Before R2 could retract the interface arm, Kenobi ordered, "R2, download the rayshield specifications for future analysis."
But there were only nine-point-two-one seconds left! Calculating the duration of download, retract arm, and retreat operational phases, R2 determined there was not satisfactory time to complete the task. R2 whistled and beeped a threat assessment report to Master Anakin..
Kenobi crossed the corridor toward R2, but he was looking at Master Anakin. "What was that all about?"
Master Anakin joined him. "How should I know?"
"You seem to speak its language."
Master Anakin's failure to comprehend the gravity of the situation clearly suggested otherwise. Still processing Kenobi's assignment, R2 calculated minimum time had passed; the hostiles would arrive any second. R2 emitted a sharp honk of warning.
"What did it say?" Kenobi asked.
Master Anakin donned the look he wore when his mental processors were working in overdrive. "He said, Trouble."
The rayshields flickered, then vanished. Obi-Wan stepped clear of the zone of coverage. "Artoo," he said, "download the rayshield specifications for further analysis."
The astromech's interface arm rotated rapidly in the data socket, but its dome spun around so the optical receptor was facing the Jedi. Artoo beeped and whistled.
Crossing the corridor toward the droid, Obi-Wan glanced to Anakin. "What was that all about?"
Anakin met him halfway. "How should I know?"
"You seem to speak its language."
The droid honked insistently.
"What did it say?"
Anakin's eyes narrowed in concentration. "He said, Trouble."
Obi-Wan reached for his weapon. "What kind of trouble?"
"Somebody's going to try to kill us trouble," Anakin replied, scanning back and forth in both directions. "Is there any other kind?"
The familiar clomping sound of approaching super battle droids echoed down the corridor, and their blades ignited with a simultaneous snap-hiss.
"I suppose not," Obi-Wan conceded.
The stocky droids marched into view, their arms already extended in firing position. Following them was a short human man dressed in a dark uniform. Obi-Wan didn't have time to take a closer look at him, though, because the droids began shooting.
The blue lightsabers slashed and twirled, interweaving in perfect harmony to swat away every single blaster bolt. Behind them Artoo squealed, and the droid's servomotors hummed.
"Stay there, Artoo," Anakin ordered without looking back. "You're not in any danger."
The droid twittered. It sounded skeptical.
Obi-Wan leaned toward Anakin. "Shall we?"
In unison they strode forward. The super battle droids reacted to their tactic, separating to increase the distance between each point of fire.
"Interesting," Anakin muttered.
Twisting his wrists, Obi-Wan moved his blade faster. "Oh?"
"They're getting smarter."
Anakin scowled. "Well, we can still do it the hard way."
When Anakin lunged to the right, Obi-Wan sprang left. He dove to the floor, tumbling beneath the incoming laser fire and rolling between a pair of droids. Before they could react, he was on his feet behind them.
He sliced left, repelling the shots fired by one. Then he cut right, gouging a glowing arc in the chestplate of the other. He ducked beneath another barrage of blaster bolts and struck upward. His blade sheared off the left arm of the same droid, then swung around just in time to deflect the attacks from the other.
In his peripheral vision he caught a glimpse of the Separatist officer slinking backward away from the melee. The man apparently thought his escape would go unnoticed.
From somewhere nearby came a mechanical yelp of decapitation.
Positioning himself so the other one couldn't fire at him, Obi-Wan landed another blow on the torso of the damaged droid. "We need to keep an eye on our friend."
"I've got it," Anakin said, already in pursuit. "You can handle this, right?"
Under the circumstances, the question was rhetorical.
His lightsaber gripped in both hands, Obi-Wan spun. The thrumming energy blade dipped, slicing cleanly through the legs of the previously unscathed droid before rising to cut off the weapon arm of the mangled one. A simple thought reversed the weapon, and it cleaved the hapless droid in two - just in time to deliver the coup de grace to the legless droid torso flailing on the floor.
Expecting to see the final super battle droid taking aim, Obi-Wan looked up from the pile of scrap at his feet. But the war droid wasn't there.
A frantic squeal provided an explanation.
A short distance down the corridor Artoo was wheeling around erratically, juking and zipping to avoid shots being fired by the super battle droid. The astromech squealed again, then blatted something that sounded distinctly like hurry it up!
Obi-Wan charged. By the time the super battle droid detected his approach, it was too late. Right - left - right. The remains of the war droid clattered to the floor.
Artoo blooped approvingly.
"You're welcome," Obi-Wan said, making his best guess of the droid's intent. He raised his brow. "But why was that one after you?"
The static initiator arm emerged from Artoo's cylindrical casing. Sparking its tip, the astromech twittered a reply.
The meaning was plain enough, and Obi-Wan chuckled. "Oh. I see."
Artoo warbled a question.
"I'm right here," Anakin answered.
At the end of Anakin's shimmering blue blade was the cowering Separatist officer. The man was clutching the handle of a large metal case in both hands.
Artoo sprayed a long burst of angry honks, blats, and whistles.
"Later," Anakin said, extinguishing his blade. With a shove, he sent the man forward.
Obi-Wan thumbed off his weapon and clipped it to his belt. "And you are?"
"You work for Count Dooku?"
Obi-Wan scratched the side of his nose - the signal for good cop/bad cop. "And what's in the case?"
"I don't know."
Anakin's blade ignited and leveled across the man's throat. "We're Jedi," he said in a low, dangerous voice. "We know when you're lying."
Baxton - if that was his real name - swallowed hard. "I know who you are," he croaked. "You're Kenobi and Skywalker."
"Skywalker and Kenobi," Anakin growled, and flapped a finger at his temple - this is going to be too easy.
Baxton flinched. "Okay."
"Now, tell us the truth this time," Anakin continued. "What's in the case?"
"Honestly," Baxton said, breaking into a sweat, "I don't know."
"Don't make me -"
Obi-Wan affected exaggerated concern. "Anakin..."
"Please don't kill me!" Baxton shrieked.
"Yes, don't kill him," Obi-Wan added. "He might still be of some use to us."
"Fine." Anakin scowled, but deactivated his blade.
"I'm sorry about that," Obi-Wan said to Baxton. He extended his hand, and Baxton passed him the case without protest. "Sometimes he gets a little... impatient."
Baxton nodded mutely.
Obi-Wan set the case on the floor. He bent down to a knee and examined its latches. "Do you know the codes?"
"No," Baxton said with a frightened glance at Anakin.
His expectations were met. "Oh, now you're really -"
"I don't!" Baxton threw up his hands. "Please!"
"He's telling the truth," Obi-Wan interjected. "Aren't you?"
"Yes," Baxton said, nodding profusely.
"Then you'd better go now," Obi-Wan told him. "Before my friend here loses his temper again and something unpleasant hap-"
He stopped in mid-word. Baxton was already fleeing at top speed down the corridor.
Anakin kneeled down next to Obi-Wan. He was grinning broadly.
Obi-Wan frowned back. "Sometimes I wonder if you enjoy playing the menacing figure just a little too much."
Anakin shrugged. "It works, doesn't it?"
"That's not the point." But this wasn't the time to press the issue; there were probably reinforcements already on the way. Obi-Wan took one more look at the codekey device sealing the case, and looked up at Anakin's astromech. "Artoo, can you open this?"
The droid wheeled over and retracted its center leg. After a quick honk toward Anakin, it tipped forward at its shoulders and pointed its optical receptor at the codekey device.
Artoo whistled confirmation.
Obi-Wan sat back. "Go ahead."
Artoo beeped affirmatively. Instead of extending its interface arm, however, the astromech withdrew its turbo-powered vibrosaw.
"What are you doing?" Obi-Wan exclaimed.
But by then codekey device had disappeared in a shower of sparks and the squeal of ripping metal. The droid whistled victoriously, and the two halves of the case flopped open. Blooping in satisfaction, Artoo returned the vibrosaw to its compartment.
"That's it?" Anakin said.
"Apparently." Obi-Wan reached into the open case and withdrew its sole contents - a large datapad, the kind used by slicers.
"Seems like an awful lot of security for a datapad."
"I agree." He held up the device toward Artoo. "Can you access this?"
The astromech whistled, and a compartment in its body popped open.
Obi-Wan pulled the datapad back. "Not with the vibrosaw."
Artoo razzed, and extended his interface arm.
"All right, then," Obi-Wan said. He held the datapad while the droid connected to it. Artoo twittered quietly for a few seconds, then whistled a long message and retracted the interface arm.
"Good," Anakin said. "While you're at it, can you check for -"
While Artoo honked in annoyance at the additional request, Obi-Wan looked up at Anakin. Before he could ask what was so important it couldn't wait for later, he felt a shower of liquid douse him.
It wasn't just any liquid. It was droid oil.
Through the black goop dripping past his eyes, he looked back at the astromech. Where the interface attachment should have been was an oil induction arm.
Artoo whistled apologetically.
Anakin laughed. Loud. Uproariously, in fact.
Obi-Wan wiped his oil-soaked face with the back of his oil-soaked hand. "I thought you said you'd fixed the loose wire?"
"There must have been another one," Anakin said, nearly doubled over.
Rising to his feet, Obi-Wan sighed. "You think?"
Boot heels thumped down the warship's corridor. Like those boots, their surroundings bore an irremovable layer of grit and grime built up over nearly three years of war. What was once shiny and new now was worn and weathered, tarnished by the grim realities of galactic upheaval. They were all somewhat sullied by it.
At the thought, even Anakin's best Jedi focusing techniques failed to prevent the snicker from escaping his lips. He crossed his arms deeper into the sleeves of his robes and lowered his head in chagrin. "Sorry, Master."
Matching him stride for stride, Obi-Wan said nothing.
With a furtive glance from the corner of his eye, Anakin observed the Jedi Master's skilled application of his mask of disdain, one he had worn more times that Anakin could count. But this time there was something different...
Anakin lengthened his stride ever so slightly, and leaned forward just a touch.
The trick worked. Steeped in the concentration necessary to maintain his composure, Obi-Wan hurriedly cocked his head away.
"Too late," Anakin said. "I saw that."
The tug to the corner of Obi-Wan's mouth that he had failed to keep hidden on the far side spread across his lips into a conciliatory smile. "You have got me."
Suddenly they were both chuckling, then laughing. For that moment in time, the halls seemed a bit brighter and the war not quite so heavy on the soul.
Anakin placed his left hand - his real hand - on Obi-Wan's shoulder as they drew up before a sealed door. "You know, the oiled down look is quite becoming on you."
"No, my friend," Obi-Wan said with a rueful furrow of his brow. "It is you who looks beguiling slicked in oil."
"Even if you're right, it doesn't really matter." Anakin motioned at his stained clothes. "Mine are dry now. It looses some of the appeal. If they could see us now, our admiring fans on the Holonet would have the time of their lives swooning over your wet look."
"I'm afraid the only one those admiring fans swoon over is you, Anakin. Not me."
Anakin shook his head and chuckled. "You won't be able to deny the truth much longer, Obi-Wan. This war will be over soon, and when it is, you'll probably have to go into hiding just to keep the girls away."
"Oh, I very much doubt that."
For just an instant a shadow of sadness passed across Obi-Wan's face, and Anakin immediately regretted the thoughtless joke. The pain of the death of one of his former Master's dearest friends, Siri Tachi, was still fresh and raw - and the fact that she had given her life at Azure to save Padm?'s only made Anakin's guilt all the worse.
"Well," Anakin said, shrugging, "I've been known to be wrong every now and then."
"Yes." From beneath oil-stained eyebrows, Obi-Wan glowered. "You have."
"Right." Anakin canted his head toward the door. "I'd better fix that wire."
"Please do. And I'd better get cleaned up."
Anakin grinned. "Please do."
Obi-Wan smiled, shook his head, and walked away.
Gloved fingers flew over the door panel, and a moment later the indicator light flashed to green. After a quick tap of another button the portal swished open.
"I'm not late," Anakin insisted. "You're just impatient."
Artoo honked derisively.
"Fine, we're even. Did you locate the problem or not?"
Spinning his data interface arm in the workbench's console socket, the astromech whistled and beeped. Anakin walked over and examined the diagnostics information on the display screen.
"That doesn't look too bad."
"Oh. Bring it up, then."
Another page of analysis scrolled onto the monitor. Anakin leaned closer, tracing along several of the indicator lines with his fingertip. "All right. So it'll be a little bit more complicated."
The droid tooted apprehensively.
"How much more is there?"
Artoo razzed, and additional data appeared on the screen.
"I see it." Anakin scanned quickly. "Show me the rest again. Slowly."
Artoo complied. When Anakin hadn't said anything after careful scrutiny of the screen, though, the droid tweedled an anxious question.
"Of course I can fix it," he said. He tapped a button to deactivate the display screen. "I can fix anything."
Retracting the interface arm, Artoo squawked an annoyed reply.
"Now hold on a minute. This isn't my fault. You were the one who wouldn't let me run a full diagnostic before, remember?"
The reply was an unimpressed trill.
Anakin grabbed two handfuls of tools from the workbench and set them on the floor. "I don't care when it came loose. You still should have let me run the diagnostic."
"I know I didn't let you run the diagnostics the first time. I'm talking about on the way down to the surface."
"Yes, we did have time. There's always time to be careful."
The droid blatted a shrill rejoinder.
"That's not Obi-Wan logic and you know it. If we'd run the full scan like I wanted, we might very well have caught it."
Artoo emitted a burst of static that sounded suspiciously like a harrumph.
With another batch of tools in one hand and magnification goggles in the other, Anakin stopped in mid-motion. "Do you want me to fix you or not?"
Artoo twittered reluctantly.
"Then this time we're going to do it right. I'm going to take my time, you're not going to rush me, and when we're done we're going to run a complete systems check. Deal?"
The astromech blooped assent, and popped open the maintenance panels on his cylindrical torso.
"All right." Anakin sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the droid. He set down the tools and strapped on the magspecs. "Let's get started."
Two hours later Anakin finally lifted the magspecs away from his eyes and leaned back. He kept the small laserwelder ready in his hand, though.
Artoo beeped a question.
"Go ahead. Interface arm and laser cutter first."
The droid operated the appendages without incident.
"Good. Now try the buzzsaw and the oil induction arm."
After successfully testing both devices, Artoo trilled excitedly.
"All right. Cycle through the rest, then."
One by one the astromech extended and tested each of the other aftermarket improvements installed by Anakin or the Royal Engineers of Naboo before him. All of them functioned properly, and Artoo whistled happily.
"I agree." Anakin set aside the laserwelder. "Just let me oil the connectors again and clean off a few of those circuits before we run the diagnostic."
Artoo tweeted in amusement.
"That's right. You're going to be patient."
Further whistles and beeps.
Picking up the nanoscraper to deal with the carbon accumulations on several of the droid's security circuits, Anakin laughed. "We made a deal, Artoo. You can't just alter it whenever you feel like it."
The astromech blooped mournfully.
"Too bad," Anakin said, still laughing. "Now hold still. You wouldn't want me to accidentally reset all your security protocols, would you?"
Artoo rotated his dome back and forth.
"I didn't think so." Anakin squinted at a circuit board hidden in the dim recesses of the droid's cylindrical body. "You've got a bit of carbon scoring on the -"
He barely had made the first scrape when light flooded his face. Dazed by the sudden brightness, Anakin fell back onto the cool floor. Blinking, he caught a glimpse of a shimmering blue hologram before it disappeared.
"Wait! What was that?"
Artoo whistled innocently. In a flash, Anakin sprang up on his knees.
"It's not nothing. I saw her!"
When the droid offered an inquisitive toot, Anakin slapped his shiny blue dome. "You do too know who I'm talking about!"
"You can't keep secrets from me. I'm your master."
Anakin chuckled. "Point taken. Padm? is most definitely in charge."
At the thought of his wife, he dropped back on his haunches and sighed. "Oh, Artoo, I miss her so much."
His faithful droid emitted a high-pitch squeal, startling him to the point he flopped seated onto the floor. Artoo's photoreceptor rotated and brightened, and the hologram materialized out of thin air.
Padm?. She wore a long, loose white gown, her hair wrapped up in the familiar double buns that had become all the rage on Coruscant. She smiled sweetly, then began to speak.
"My dearest Anakin. I encrypted a message and stored it in Artoo for when you needed me most. If he is playing it for you, this must be one of those times. For whatever has brought this about, I am truly sorry, but know this - you are my hero, the man that I love beyond reason, and nothing can take that love away."
The message continued, and Anakin listened with a silly, satisfied smile. He listened but hardly heard the words. Instead he felt the love and the truth in her voice. Padm? loved him, and anything was possible simply because of that. When the message was done, he leaned forward.
"Play it again, Artoo."
Original cover by obaona. HTML formatting copyright 2006 TheForce.Net LLC.