(AU from the end of Jedi Apprentice #8)
Blaster fire splattered on the rock wall beside them as several gravsleds joined the fight. Momentarily distracted, Obi-Wan's parry slipped, the force of the blow from the red blade throwing his body off balance, knocking his own blue 'saber from his hand to clatter, deactivated, across the stones. He curled to absorb his fall backward in a roll.
"No!" Qui-Gon cried.
Before Obi-Wan could react, Xanatos grabbed his hand, pulling him from his fall, spinning him and locking his arm behind his back. The ruby energy blade came to rest across his neck, so close it seared his skin. His body was pinned against Xanatos' front by the man's arm holding the blade reversed across him. With his free hand he gripped Xanatos' arm, but struggling with him would only bring the blade closer to his throat. He could not move except to lean his head back against Xanatos' chest to avoid the red lightsaber, conscious as never before of the dark energy that pulsed through Xanatos, strong with the beat of his heart, swirling with his every breath. Obi-Wan breathed deep and tried to center his awareness, to move his focus away from the blade, away from the darkness compelling his fear.
Qui-Gon stood a scant two meters before them, his blade pointed to the side, his free hand upraised where he had failed to reach Obi-Wan before Xanatos snatched him from his fall. His eyes were wide, fixed on Xanatos' face.
"Let him go, Xanatos. It's me you want."
Xanatos laughed, satisfaction edging his voice. He stepped back, dragging Obi-Wan with him.
Qui-Gon lowered both hands a fraction. "I will not fight you, only let him go!"
"Oh, no, Qui-Gon. This situation suits me well. Now you will know how I felt to watch you take my father's life."
Qui-Gon lurched forward, then froze as Xanatos took another step back, pushing his blade ever-so-slightly closer to Obi-Wan's exposed throat. Obi-Wan gasped at the searing pain and shrank back against Xanatos.
Xanatos laughed once more, quietly. "Much as I am enjoying this game, I have other business to attend to. Come no closer. If you do, I promise you I will kill the boy."
"Let him go, and I give you my word, I will not pursue you."
"And give up my advantage? No! Obi-Wan is coming with me. If you follow us before I reach hyperspace, I will kill him. After that... I look forward to your joining us. When you can find us."
Xanatos continued stepping back as he spoke, grinning wickedly. Qui-Gon dared not follow: instead he looked to the boy held tight in the man's arms. This is not the time I would have chosen, he thought, but -- "Obi-Wan --" He paused and locked eyes with the boy. "Padawan."
Obi-Wan's eyes widened at the promise implicit in Qui-Gon's words. He looked into the older Jedi's face, his features twisted with anguish, but also firm with determination.
Truly? You will take me back?
A wave of confirmation swept through Obi-Wan, a wordless reply that nevertheless told him: With all my heart. Deep in the core of his being a spring welled up. A faint, sad smile touched his lips.
"I will wait for you, my Master."
A gravsled swung around behind Xanatos as they spoke; it hovered over the acid pool. Without turning, Xanatos leaped backwards into it, using the Force to carry Obi-Wan with him. As soon as they touched the bottom of the gravsled, it took off, heading up toward Tech Dome D. Obi-Wan heard the sound of blaster fire break out where they had been standing on the ground. He craned his head to look, but Xanatos' body blocked his view.
A hard rod poked into his side, searing him with pain, and his body went limp below the neck: he'd been hit with an electrojabber. It would be at least an hour before he could move again. Xanatos deactivated his lightsaber and dropped Obi-Wan onto his stomach on a gravsled bench. The boy looked around at the miners in their unisuits, busy packing up equipment. One approached Xanatos and handed him a coil of insulated wire.
"We've been able to get all the major equipment out already, Boss. Nearly all of the smaller stuff and the processed minerals are already gone, or loaded and ready to go. There's been no organized resistance as of yet. We're among the last to move out."
Xanatos pulled Obi-Wan's wrists together behind his back, binding them with the wire. "Good. Have the starfighters remain to guide the last convoys on their way out." Xanatos gave a last sharp twist to the wire, tightening the bindings painfully. Then Xanatos and the miner moved away from Obi-Wan toward the front of the gravsled.
Obi-Wan closed his eyes, opening himself to the Force. He breathed deeply, focusing his senses and moving beyond his fear. If he could not move to help himself, at least he could think. Perhaps there was some way he could use the Force to create a disturbance on the small craft, to somehow delay their progress? He knew without needing to see that Qui-Gon was watching them, looking for some opening that would give him an advantage. Obi-Wan opened his eyes and reached out with the Force to a box of detonating equipment, sliding back the loose lid.
Crack! Xanatos backhanded him across the face, slamming his head against the bench. Obi-Wan's vision splintered; when he was able to focus once more he saw Xanatos crouched in front of him, staring into his face with fury in his cold blue eyes. "Don't try that again," he said softly, menacingly. Obi-Wan stared back at him, determined to hide his pain and dismay. When Xanatos finally left him, he closed his eyes and rested his aching head on the bench.
Qui-Gon's thoughts came strongly, filled with worry.
I'm all right. Obi-Wan gathered his courage, sent reassurance winging through their bond. In return he felt a query -- was there anything he could do? Obi-Wan struggled against his paralysis -- if only he could move even a finger! He tried to control his distress, mindful of Qui-Gon, not wanting to worry him further. I'm not getting out of this easily, he thought back, emphasizing the negative. He smiled sadly, feeling Qui-Gon's answering rush of frustration.
The gravsled slowed; came to a halt. Xanatos pulled him up by the collar of his tunic, then slung him over his shoulder. He stepped off the gravsled, Obi-Wan's head hanging at his back, one arm around the boy's legs.
"Be honored, my young Jedi friend. You will be the first to travel with me in my private starship."
Obi-Wan stretched his neck to see where they were headed, but only got a face full of Xanatos' black cloak for his efforts. In a minute they had crossed the tech dome and ascended the ramp of a small black ship. Xanatos dropped Obi-Wan to the floor and closed the hatch, then used an end of the coated wire binding Obi-Wan's wrists to fasten them to a grab-bar about a half meter up the wall, so his arms twisted painfully away from his back. Obi-Wan watched Xanatos disappear into the cockpit. He was in a small central room. Seats and a table with an embedded data station occupied one end. Three doors -- the one to his right leading to the pilot station -- led out of the room. The ship's hatch was behind him to his left.
Obi-Wan reached out to Qui-Gon, a solid presence in his mind. Desperate as the situation was, he felt strangely calm, with his master close in the Force. My master -- he thought, half wondering, an edge of doubt creeping in. Will he regret a decision made now, in the heat of the moment?
Qui-Gon must have caught the gist of his thoughts: a sharp mental negative reached him. Then he felt an outpouring of care, of respect, even of sorrow: an apology. He let Qui-Gon's presence fill him, twining closer in his mental embrace. I'm sorry, too -- he replied, that I left you at Melida/Daan, that I failed to trust you.
In their intimacy, feelings crystallized into words, each one clear in its conception, then melting into overtones of emotion, echoed in their renewed bond. Have courage, Padawan. Don't let Xanatos muddle you with his lies and half-truths. He will always see weakness where I see strength: such is the nature of the Dark Side. Trust yourself, and trust in me. I promise you, I will come for you.
I know. I will wait for you.
Obi-Wan felt the repulsorlift engines come to life, felt a shiver as the ship lifted off, the sudden acceleration when the sublight drive engaged and they left the planet's gravitational field. He felt his connection with Qui-Gon grow weaker, the intensity fading with distance; felt his fear and loss growing in his throat. He felt utterly alone, trapped with Xanatos in the tiny ship.
Come quickly, Master. I need you.
Qui-Gon watched the small black speck that was Xanatos' ship with his microbinoculars as it sped away to open space. Dread filled him. Even as he admired Obi-Wan's courage, he knew the boy was frightened. And with good reason. Xanatos had struck him, callously, and would not hesitate to hurt him again, if it suited his purpose. Xanatos was enraged at the failure of his schemes on Telos, and their part in it, and Obi-Wan was there to take the brunt of his anger.
He cursed his impatience, his single-mindedness that had led him to chase Xanatos into the middle of an Offworld mining camp without thought of the danger. Fool. Twice fool. It was exactly what Master Yoda had warned him against, if he had only chosen to hear: "Seek you out, Xanatos will. Pursue him, you must not." And yet Qui-Gon had twice fallen prey to Xanatos' traps by chasing him down, and it was Obi-Wan who would pay the price of his stubborn impatience this time. No, he told himself: I will find him first. I must.
There was one thing he must do: swallow his pride and request help from the Council. They would not be pleased: he was already here against their wishes. But he must do everything in his power to get Obi-Wan back. And to stop Xanatos once and for all.
Obi-Wan rested against the curve of the wall where his wrists were bound behind him. He had finally been able to get his legs under himself by the time he felt the quiet swelling of the powerful hyperdrive and saw starlines through the transparisteel viewport overhead. Now he knelt with his eyes shut and let his mind slip into a state of quiet meditation.
Xanatos entered from the pilot's station; the door slid quietly shut behind him. Obi-Wan heard him stop and stand, felt him watching from the other end of the room, and was careful not to react. Perhaps his captor would leave him alone. He listened as Xanatos crossed the room, entering the door across from him; heard the door shut. He sighed in relief. But then the door opened once more, and he heard Xanatos stepping toward him, crouching before him. A hand cupped his face. He opened his eyes.
Xanatos smiled slyly at him. "I hope you find your accommodations satisfactory."
"I must admit I've had better."
"Such a brave front. The Jedi mask of honor and bravado wins out." He lowered his voice and moved his face closer to Obi-Wan's: so close the boy could feel his breathing. "I feel your fear, Obi-Wan. Your spirit trembles like a dead leaf in an autumn breeze. I wonder: what would it take to get past that Jedi calm, to expose you for the coward you are?"
Obi-Wan felt his fear growing, and struggled to control it, and to control his body's reactions so Xanatos would not see. What would Qui-Gon do? "Breathe," he would say. Obi-Wan focused on breathing, and was surprised to find he had been holding his breath. Xanatos laughed quietly and released him, sitting back on his heels.
"Now what shall I do with my young guest?" he mused.
"You could free my hands before they go completely numb."
Xanatos' smile was eerie. "Perhaps later." He studied Obi-Wan for a minute longer. "Perhaps..." his voice trailed off. Then he stood, turning, and exited to the pilot's station. The door slid closed behind him. Obi-Wan sighed, closed his eyes, and returned to his meditation. There was nothing else he could think to do.
Back and forth in the small guest room of Den's apartment, Qui-Gon paced, scouring his memory for any clue to where Xanatos may have taken his Padawan. Andra and Den had helped him to clear the charges against himself and Obi-Wan. After contacting the Temple, Telos' transition government -- those officials remaining in power after the flurry of resignations and indictments in the wake of OffWorld's departure from the Sacred Pools -- had formally apologized for detaining the two of them on Xanatos' word alone.
Now Qui-Gon awaited word from the Temple regarding his requests. Master Yoda had been grim upon hearing the news of Obi-Wan's kidnapping; though he had not said a word of recrimination, Qui-Gon had felt keenly his disapproval. But the wizened old Jedi had promised help: at the least, a transport. And he had said he would ask Tahl to compile a list of all known and suspected OffWorld bases and holdings. But he had also issued a warning and a directive: "Set out to find Obi-Wan before the Council approves you must not! Patient, be! Prepared you must be, or end in failure your efforts will." And so Qui-Gon waited, chafing at the delay, though he could have found transport and headed out by now.
At last his transponder signaled an incoming connection. He knelt by the low table where he had placed it with his holographic disk and datapad jacked in, and pressed the button that completed the connection. A small image of Yoda and Tahl appeared before him. Tahl spoke first.
"I've compiled a list of Offworld front companies and their holdings, Qui-Gon. Are you ready for the transmission?"
Tahl reached out and clicked a connection out of the viewing range of the holographic recorder.
"Found help for you we have, Qui-Gon. Arriving in the city port in six hours will be Tomas Ellmore and his Padawan. A fast ship they have."
"I will be waiting for them, Master Yoda."
"I will continue to search for Offworld holdings and clues to Xanatos' activities," said Tahl. "Check in with me as often as you can."
"I will do that, Tahl. Thank you."
"Our thoughts are with you, Qui-Gon. You will find Obi-Wan."
"Find him you will, Qui-Gon, and Xanatos with him. But heed me in this you must! Careful you must be, and patient, or make the situation worse you will. Treacherous Xanatos is, and wily. Try to trap you he will."
"I am aware of that, Master Yoda."
"With you always, the Force is, Qui-Gon."
They bowed, and Tahl closed the connection.
Perhaps an hour after he had left, Xanatos once more entered the ship's main chamber from the cockpit. The dark Force swirled around him, strong with hatred. In his meditation Obi-Wan had felt the slow gathering of the dark, had felt the shift from anger to hate and greed. Now, wary of Xanatos' mood, Obi-Wan watched him approach.
"Good news, Obi-Wan. I have found a use for you. But you will need some preparation. You hardly look the part yet."
Xanatos' high spirits filled Obi-Wan with anxiety. He knelt quietly while Xanatos reached behind him to untie one of his hands.
"Not even curious?" Xanatos pulled Obi-Wan's arm around in front of him and tied it to the wall once more, so that Obi-Wan now knelt facing the wall.
"What are you planning?"
"Curious after all! But no, I think I will keep this my secret for a while longer." Finished, Xanatos stood and exited the room to the chamber at the back of the ship. A few minutes later he returned with a small carton of the sort used for interplanetary shipments. He placed it on the floor near Obi-Wan, and drew from it a meter length of flexsteel cable with a length of synthplas shaped like a handle affixed to one end.
"What is it?" Obi-Wan asked in a subdued voice. His throat had gone dry.
Xanatos looked at him, his eyes glittering. "Primitive construction, but effective. On the planet we're going to, the locals make these out of salvaged materials, cannibalized from old junk." He ran his hand lightly along the cable. "It's quite sharp, with these twisted filaments. Haven't you guessed yet what it is?"
Obi-Wan felt sick with foreboding. He leaned his head against the wall and closed his eyes. He felt the cable cold and hard against his skin as Xanatos rubbed it lightly down his neck. His skin prickled.
"Stop your games, Xanatos." Obi-Wan spoke quickly, his voice hoarse with the effort of keeping it steady. "Carry out your plans. I don't expect there's anything I can say that will prevent you."
"Oh, I don't know, I can think of a few things. If you were to beg me to take you as my apprentice, now, that would please me enough to change my mind."
"Hutts will dance the Juta first."
Xanatos chuckled. "That I wouldn't mind seeing, either." He looped the cable around Obi-Wan's neck, then used it to gently pull his chin up and back. "You amuse me, boy."
"Why don't you untie my hands, and see how well I amuse you?"
"Why do you cling to the Code? It chains you to a stone, when you could be free, you could have true power. You're stronger, you're smarter than that fool you call Master. Why do you limit yourself?"
"Why do you serve a power that's eating your soul?"
Xanatos snapped the cable away from Obi-Wan, slicing his skin with the sharp edge. "You know nothing of power," he snapped.
"I know very little, I'm sure. But I know enough to understand your offer. And to reject it."
Obi-Wan felt the Dark Side building around him, strong with Xanatos' anger.
"You are a fool, Obi-Wan."
Qui-Gon used the time before Tomas arrived to study the files Tahl had compiled for him. There were several Offworld bases located within a day's travel of Telos; he marked them in his datapad. He had not yet decided which site to visit first. Tahl had included basic information on each base and the planet where it was located, as well as details on operations, materials -- anything she could gather. Qui-Gon's frustration grew as he paged through the data. There were nearly eighty sites listed, in more than fifty systems. Would Xanatos go to the redit-mining operation on the asteroids of Beloris? Qui-Gon thought not; it seemed out-of-character for Xanatos to await him at such an uncomfortable site. What if he left Obi-Wan a slave in some mining camp? Xanatos had hidden him so before. But Xanatos had said that Obi-Wan would stay with him, and Qui-Gon was inclined to believe that he would keep the boy close. So: somewhere that Xanatos could wait in style, directing his operations from a distance. Probably somewhere that he would be able to raise funds. Qui-Gon cursed inwardly. Such a place wouldn't have to be an Offworld base at all!
The door opened, admitting Den and Andra.
"Have you found any leads, Qui-Gon?" Andra asked with concern.
Qui-Gon sighed. "I don't know where to start. There are so many places he could be!" Quickly he explained the problem.
"You say that Xanatos would be concerned with raising funds," said Den. "Well if that were me, I might have feelers out -- contacts, someplace where I could rake the money in, big time--"
"You would be thinking of money!" Andra snorted.
"Hey!" Den looked injured.
"It's an excellent idea," said Qui-Gon firmly. "Xanatos told me he had somewhere to go -- he said he had business to attend to."
"So maybe your friend on Coruscant could focus on ferreting out what contacts Xanatos was making--" said Andra hopefully.
"What deals he has in progress," added Den, nodding.
"It's worth looking into." Qui-Gon checked his chrono -- it was time to head to the starport to meet Tomas. "I'll have just enough time to contact Tahl on the starship before we jump to hyperspace."
"I hope it pans out." Andra shook her head. "Qui-Gon, if there's anything we can do to help..."
"You've been a great help already."
"You've done more than we could ever repay," said Andra. "Both of you."
"I hate to think of that poor kid in trouble," added Den.
"If there's anything we can do -- please, contact us," finished Andra.
Qui-Gon studied their worried faces. He reached out to touch Andra's shoulder. "I will, thank you." He turned to pick up his travel pack and data pad, then headed for the door. Den walked with him; he would be transporting him to the spaceport. "Thank you, both of you." Qui-Gon said.
Andra nodded. "You'll find him, Qui-Gon."
Tomas was just docking when Qui-Gon arrived at the spaceport. Qui-Gon watched the sleek craft settle to the docking bay floor with apprehension. He and Tomas had grown up together in the Temple. Tomas was only a year or so older than he. They had been good friends then, but they had grown slowly apart as they served their separate apprenticeships. Qui-Gon had hardly seen Tomas in twenty years; Tomas had been away on a leave of absence from the Order while Qui-Gon was teaching Xanatos, and they had not had much contact in the fourteen years since he had returned. Qui-Gon intended to do everything in his power to get Obi-Wan back and to bring Xanatos to justice; he worried that the Council had sent Tomas to monitor him. And more than this, he had to admit to himself, he was worried what Tomas thought of him, that he needed help to rescue his third Padawan from the clutches of his second.
Qui-Gon watched the hatch open and lower to the floor of the docking bay. How old would Tomas' Padawan be now? In his early twenties?
He was surprised to see a girl about Obi-Wan's age come bounding down the ramp. Had it really been so long, that Tomas had already taken his third Padawan? He watched the girl turn to the hatch, to wait for Tomas to descend. She was pretty and exuberant, with bright red hair and a still-boyish figure. He wondered if she knew Obi-Wan well.
Tomas and the girl were looking around for him. He stepped away from the doorway to join them.
"Qui-Gon." Tomas' dark eyes and his voice were filled with concern.
"You look older than I remember, Tomas." Tomas' thick black braids were streaked with gray, his dark brown skin creased with lines of care.
"It's been too long, Qui-Gon. We should have stayed in better contact." He turned to introduce the girl beside him. "This is my Padawan, Ki-Erin Mundorin; she's been with me nearly three years now."
The girl's bright green eyes were worried, looking up at him. "Is Obi-Wan -- do you have any way to know -- is he alright?"
"You were friends in Temple?"
Ki-Erin smiled sadly. "We were in the same care group. He's a year younger than I am."
"I don't believe Xanatos will harm him. I hope not."
Ki-Erin closed her eyes and nodded once, firmly. Qui-Gon had the sense that she was accepting the unpleasant counterpart to what he had said: that Xanatos may well harm Obi-Wan. Her calm and resolute stance impressed him.
"Let's talk more inside," Tomas said, "once we've left the system. Have you decided where to look first, Qui-Gon?"
"I thought we'd start with the nearest Offworld base. Xanatos may have stopped for supplies, or left me a clue. I have the coordinates."
"Then we'll leave immediately," Tomas declared, turning. Ki-Erin nodded and scampered up the ramp before him, her long Padawan braid dancing behind her. Qui-Gon followed them both.
Qui-Gon made contact with Tahl while Tomas and Ki-Erin piloted the small craft past the atmosphere of Telos and out of the system. Tahl transmitted more data she had gathered on Off-World bases, and agreed that looking for Xanatos' contacts might prove more profitable. "I already have a few ideas where to look," she told him. Then she added, "Make sure you get some rest while you're traveling, Qui-Gon. You can't afford to exhaust yourself. Let Tomas and Ki-Erin help you sift through the records I sent you. There's no need for you to do everything yourself." She paused, her head tilted to one side. When he didn't immediately respond, she added, "Tomas cares about you, Qui-Gon. He won't think less of you for the mistakes you think you've made."
Startled, Qui-Gon struggled to muster his composure. "Tahl, how do you always manage to get to the heart of my thoughts?"
Tahl smiled gently. "Someone has to keep you on your toes, dear friend."
He answered gruffly, "I am... glad.... that person is you, Tahl."
"Take care of yourself, Qui-Gon."
His heart was heavy as he closed the communication. He rested against the seat back, deep in thought, as the ship's hyperdrive powered up. Starlines stretched past the viewport, melting into the gyrating display of light that was the hallmark of hyperspace. Standing, he shook off his brooding thoughts, though not his mood. It was all too easy to get lost in self-recrimination. There were things he needed to do. He headed for the pilot's station, in search of Tomas.
Obi-Wan shivered with cold and pain, his feet and upper body bare, his legs drawn up where he sat huddled against the wall. He could barely feel his hands, from the combination of cold and the tight bindings cutting off his circulation. He had to keep moving his fingers, shifting his wrists as best he could. He focused on flexing and shifting each muscle in his body in turn, returning frequently to his hands. It was difficult to concentrate. His back ached and stung where Xanatos had beaten him. And he worried about Qui-Gon.
Xanatos had packed Obi-Wan's boots and belt, his braid cut from his hair, and his tunic cut from his body, into a shipping container. Obi-Wan had been glad of the double-thickness of tunic protecting his back while Xanatos was striking him with the metal whip, but now he knew that Xanatos had left it on him for an ominous reason. The cloth was shredded wherever the whip had hit his back, and stained with his blood where the whip had cut through to his skin. And Xanatos was sending it to Qui-Gon. Obi-Wan shivered at Xanatos' ruthlessness. He meant to keep Qui-Gon off-balance, to fill him with anger and urgency. Obi-Wan well knew that Qui-Gon made his worst mistakes when he acted from strong emotion. He was a passionate man, and though he had a master's skill at controlling his anger and impatience, Xanatos was expert at unbalancing him, at playing on his weaknesses.
Be careful, Master. Please be careful. Xanatos means to have us both. Don't walk into his traps.
With an effort of will Obi-Wan turned his attention for the hundredth time to his hands. Flex the tips of the fingers first, he told himself. Begin with the right hand, index finger... His stomach growled, but worse was the growing dryness of his throat and lips. Nearly a full day it was, now, since he had eaten or drunk or slept. Stars, he was tired! He sagged against the wall, eyes half closed. Again he turned his attention to his hands, uncurling them from fists. It was growing more difficult to keep going, to keep moving. Right hand, index finger: he recited the steps in his mind. Second finger, third...
Obi-Wan was startled to waking by a series of quick slaps to his cheeks. Xanatos held him by the arm, crouched in front of him. Obi-Wan stared into his cold blue eyes. He's insane, he thought. He's mad with hatred and greed. Not for the first time, he wondered that Xanatos could ever have been Jedi. How could Qui-Gon have loved him, ever? Could the Dark Side destroy a person so utterly?
Xanatos lifted a cup from the floor beside him and held it between them with his free hand. "Drink this."
Obi-Wan looked down to see his hands resting, unbound, in his lap. Slow with exhaustion, he reached up to take the cup, but it was difficult for him to grip it properly at first, his hands were so stiff and painful. Xanatos closed his hand around Obi-Wan's, pushing the cup to his lips. The liquid tasted bitter and metallic. Ignoring the thirst that burned his throat, he pushed the cup away, turning his head.
"Drink," Xanatos commanded. "You'll get nothing else, and we have nearly four days of travel ahead of us."
"What is it?"
Xanatos sneered at him. "Does it matter? Dying of thirst would be much more unpleasant than drinking it, I assure you." He pressed the cup into Obi-Wan's hand once more, closing the boy's fingers around it, and pushed it to his lips. Obi-Wan paused, indecisive, smelling the metallic tang from the cup. He was willing to bet the smell and bitter taste signified more than simple unpleasantness. But Xanatos could always force him to take it if he refused. He really didn't have a choice. He drank.
Xanatos smiled as he took back the cup, replacing it on the floor. He took a pair of binders from a small box behind the cup, and locked one ring around Obi-Wan's left wrist. Obi-Wan watched him, blankly wondering where they had come from. Suddenly he realized he could no longer hear the hum of the engines. They were docked! With a burst of adrenaline, he leaped to his feet past Xanatos, toward the hatch. Xanatos caught him by his pants leg, tripping him up. Obi-Wan pulled himself into a ball before he hit the floor, rolled, and kicked, at the same time scanning the wall for the hatch controls. He came around onto one knee, shifted his weight to the balls of his feet, and sprang for the control panel.
Xanatos thudded into him, crushing Obi-Wan's smaller body painfully against the wall, then twisted to throw them both to the floor, with the young Jedi pinned face-down under his greater weight and strength. Obi-Wan struggled but could not prevent Xanatos from pulling his arms behind him and locking the second binder ring around his right wrist. Obi-Wan breathed raggedly, heart hammering, his throat tight and his teeth bared in his frustration. His eyes were wet. I will not cry! He commanded himself.
"Do you know what's out there, Obi-Wan?" Xanatos paused to roll Obi-Wan onto his back, then straddled him again, leaning down with both hands on his shoulders, bringing his eyes with their dancing madness close to the boy's face. "My minions. There is nowhere here for you to run!" Xanatos sat up once more, then swiftly backhanded Obi-Wan across the face, leaving his cheek stinging and his jaw sore. Tears ran from his eyes, despite his intentions. "That's for trying to escape. Next time will be worse. How much worse, I'll leave to your imagination."
Rising, Xanatos pulled Obi-Wan up with him, and used another locking ring to fasten the binders to the wall where he had been bound before.
"We're heading out. You might want to pray that your Master will find you soon. Not that there's much chance of that." He laughed as he walked away. "No, you and I are going to be companions for a long while yet." He turned back to Obi-Wan as he passed through the door to the pilot's station. "Enjoy your dreams!" He said viciously. The door slid closed behind him. Shaking in reaction, Obi-Wan gave up trying to control his tears.
Hours later, far beyond the pull of the planet they'd left behind, Obi-Wan was still shaking uncontrollably. He pulled his knees up to his chest and rested his head against them, trying to settle into a state of calm. He could not find focus. His thoughts jumped and scattered, from memories of past battles to fears about what was to come. Again and again he saw Xanatos: deceiving him at the agricorps station, taunting him in the dungeon at Telos, in the mining shaft on Bandomeer where he had first tried to get his revenge on Qui-Gon. Gloating as he caused pain. Obi-Wan shifted, uncomfortable with his arms behind his back. He needed rest. But even the simplest meditations were beyond him. He could not measure his breathing, nor settle his mind, nor join with the Force. He wanted to sob, or to scream. But he wasn't that far gone. Not yet.
What's wrong with me? He wondered. An image drifted through his mind: Xanatos handing him a cup of bitter drink. Obi-Wan groaned. He was going to have a long night of evil thoughts.
Tricort 5 was a barren place rather closer to its sun than most beings would find comfortable. It did not rotate on its axis, but always showed the same face to its star. Most of the few dozen permanent installations were located at the boundary between light and dark sides of the planet. Only clear domes showed above the planet's surface to indicate where the settlements were located under the ground. Ki-Erin piloted their small craft smoothly toward the largest of the settlements, approaching from the dark side of the small planet. The three Jedi had agreed to land at a free settlement rather than one owned by Offworld.
Tomas had the copilot's seat, monitoring their shielding and communications. The settlement, called Permanent Sunset, was on the surface a cluster of several thousand multicolored domes in sizes ranging from a few meters to a few kilometers. As they came closer to the cluster of domes marked as the spaceport, they were greeted by a deep, accented voice.
"Welcome to Sunset Station. Please transmit identification codes and state your business."
"Transmitting." Tomas set the flagging sequence running. "We are here looking for someone who may have arrived at this planet about eight to ten hours ago. Request permission to land and investigate."
"Landing permitted. Investigation must comply with the laws of the colonies of Permanent Sunset. Public information, including arrival and departure records, can be accessed from the security station at the spaceport. Transmitting landing protocol. Do not stray from the proscribed path."
"Thank you for the information. Landing protocol recorded; initiating landing sequence... now."
They sailed in a slow arc toward the spaceport domes, glowing silver-blue in the light of the sun. A small circular portal opened in the side of the smallest dome to admit them. Inside, a portal in the floor slowly cycled open to reveal a wide tunnel curving gently under the crust of the planet. Ki-Erin had little to do but monitor their progress and make small corrections; the ship was guided in its descent by the landing protocol they'd recorded. Finally they reached a long, low landing bay. They swung slowly around the end of a long line of similarly-sized craft and settled to the floor. Ki-Erin powered down the engines and ran a quick systems check. Tomas turned to Qui-Gon.
"How circumspect do you want to be? We're in a tight spot here. This is Xanatos' territory, even if the Offworld mine is only one of three on the planet."
"I think we have to risk identifying ourselves -- or at least, identifying me." said Qui-Gon. "You and Ki-Erin, I think, should not risk giving your names. I'd rather he didn't know who is with me, and he's undoubtedly monitoring my progress..."
"What if you get into trouble?" asked Ki-Erin.
"I'll contact you. The security station will require identification; why don't you check the public terminals and the local meeting places?"
"All right," said Tomas. "We need to arrange for refueling anyway. I just hope we don't have to leave in a hurry."
Ki-Erin and Tomas left Qui-Gon immediately after they exited and secured their ship. The hangar was a busy and crowded place; Qui-Gon reflected that it could easily conceal paid observers and walked warily, covertly studying his surroundings. Beings of all descriptions swarmed over the ships, repairing damage, installing extra shielding. Qui-Gon soon found the security station with directions from a public terminal; as he had expected, access to the records required identification. He registered with the guard at the entrance.
"Package here for you here, from Offworld headquarters, across planet." the guard told him, looking at his data screen. "Get it at the shipments desk."
Qui-Gon hid his surprise. He asked for a search of the docking records for Xanatos' ship, and for directions to the shipments desk. The record search was positive: Xanatos had departed from the largest Offworld base just five hours before. The shipments desk was two levels down. Thanking the guard, Qui-Gon left in search of it, wondering uneasily what Xanatos would have left for him.
The shipments desk worker was a scaly, long-armed being. She grumbled about the lack of help as she ran back and forth from desk to storage room to data screen to communicator. The package she handed to Qui-Gon was a small, lightweight shipping crate. Qui-Gon departed immediately. He couldn't shake a feeling of anxiety as he brought the package back to the ship to analyze and open it. Long experience had taught him to take such feelings seriously. Still, he decided against contacting Tomas about the package; this was something he could take care of himself.
The ship's analysis instruments could find nothing dangerous or out of the ordinary about the package. A scan for listening devices also turned up negative. Xanatos would not do something so obvious, anyway, he thought. He decided to risk opening the carton. Sitting in the center of the largest chamber, he unsealed the fastenings and lifted the lid.
The first thing he saw was Obi-Wan's long thin braid of brown hair, coiled atop a sheet of flimsiplast that hid the rest of the contents. He ducked his head and gripped the edge of the crate, suddenly thankful he had decided against contacting Tomas. No simple calming ritual would free him of this sudden anger, this feeling of impotence. With trembling fingers, he lifted braid and flimsiplast together. The sheet had a note scrawled on the reverse.
Young Obi-Wan won't be needing these at our destination.
Beneath the flimsiplast were packed Obi-Wan's boots, and his belt. Qui-Gon lifted them out, then looked at what was left. His froze. Packed at the bottom of the crate was a shredded, bloody stretch of fabric, folded neatly. He lifted it, feeling his gorge rise with a sudden flood of growing anger and disgust. It was Obi-Wan's tunic, both layers.
A small stone fell from an inner pocket of the bundle of cloth. A smooth, colorful stone -- the river stone he had given to his Padawan for his thirteenth birthday. Qui-Gon drew breath, suddenly sad and certain. It was pointless to allow anger to cloud his judgment. That was, after all, what Xanatos intended with this "present" to him. Obi-Wan depended upon him. Xanatos was an obstacle to be outwitted, outmaneuvered, and hopefully brought to judgment. But Obi-Wan must come first. He dropped the stained tunic back in the crate, then tucked the stone into his own inner pocket.
He looked up, hearing the door to the chamber slide open. Tomas stood there, Ki-Erin beside him. Tomas' quick dark eyes took in carton and contents cluttering the table. His face was solemn.
"Xanatos did come here."
Qui-Gon nodded. He closed the lid on the crate, leaving his hand atop it, not wanting Ki-Erin, especially, to see what lay inside. What was out was bad enough.
"What kind of a monster is he?" she cried out, then bit her lip. Tomas put an arm around her shoulders.
"Why did he leave us Obi-Wan's things, Master Qui-Gon? To mock us?" she asked bitterly.
Qui-Gon sighed. "In part, yes. But also... he's always liked to show off his cleverness. He's left a clue," he said, holding out the flimsiplast.
Ki-Erin took the sheet from Qui-Gon's hand. She shook her head. "I don't get it. Where wouldn't he need his boots?" She looked at the table, and her eyes flashed. "And his braid?"
"It may not be a where," Tomas murmured. "It might be a role." Qui-Gon nodded.
Ki-Erin looked up at her Master. "But..."
Tomas put a hand on her arm, then turned to Qui-Gon. "We learned nothing about Xanatos in the public places, though we heard plenty about Offworld. It isn't well-regarded here, and the locals stay away from it -- they say that those who go there, whatever they're promised for pay, rarely come out again."
"Sad, but not unexpected given Offworld's common use of slave labor," said Qui-Gon. "I learned at the security station that Xanatos left the Offworld base nearly six hours ago."
"If we can figure out where he went, we can be after him before he's much farther ahead of us." Tomas turned to his Padawan. "Go find out how much longer it will be before we're fully refueled," he told her.
Ki-Erin nodded slowly, then left the chamber.
"What is it, Qui-Gon, that you don't want her to see?" Tomas asked when the door had slid closed behind her, indicating the crate that Qui-Gon still held closed.
"Xanatos left most of Obi-Wan's clothing as well," Qui-Gon told him, removing his hand from the box. Tomas frowned, then looked inside. He winced.
"It looks like he beat the boy pretty viciously," he said quietly. "To hurt you?"
"I'm sure that was part of his intent," said Qui-Gon, "But also I'm certain it's part of the clue."
"A boy wearing only trousers, striped and bruised, with his head near shorn. What kind of boy looks like that?"
"A slave of some sort."
"Qui-Gon, are you certain Xanatos isn't trying to throw you off with this 'clue'?"
"It's always possible, Tomas. But I don't think so." He lowered his face into one hand, suddenly exhausted. Tomas looked at him sympathetically.
"I'm sorry, Qui-Gon. It must be nearly as difficult seeing the monstrosities of a former Padawan who turned as it is worrying about Obi-Wan's plight."
Qui-Gon nodded, standing silently for a moment, then shook his head and started collecting Obi-Wan's things and putting them back into the crate. "We need to decide where to go next. I should contact Tahl again."
The hiss of the door signaled Ki-Erin's return. Qui-Gon had just finished re-sealing the box.
"We can leave in about an hour," she told them. "But where are we going to go?"
"Our next challenge," said Qui-Gon.
"We think Xanatos may have disguised Obi-Wan as a slave," Tomas explained to her. He turned back to Qui-Gon. "Put together with what you've already told us, this should narrow our search considerably. I'd look for a resort planet of some sort, one where the use of personal slaves is common. Ki-Erin and I can check through the database Tahl sent." He took out his datapad, on which he had loaded a copy of the annotated database that Tahl had given Qui-Gon.
"I'll ask Tahl now," said Qui-Gon, leaving for his cabin. He took the crate with him.
"You're disturbed, Qui-Gon. What is it?" Tahl asked immediately, once they had established a connection and she had started the data dump of her latest research to Qui-Gon's datapad.
"Are you alone?"
"I sent Bant and Garen to the afternoon meditations, and Miro is searching from his own quarters."
Qui-Gon explained about the package Xanatos had left for him. Tahl was silent while he spoke. "Unless he means that he's taken Obi-Wan somewhere exceptionally warm, I think he intends to use him as a slave. Tomas agrees with me," Qui-Gon finished
"That seems the most fitting explanation. You said Obi-Wan's tunic was shredded in the back, and bloodstained?"
Qui-Gon winced, and nodded.
"Where in the galaxy do slave drivers still use physical whips, instead of electrowhips? They can't be too common any longer."
Qui-Gon looked at Tahl in grateful admiration. She had hit on something important, he was certain. "Can you figure that out?"
"It will take a more complicated search than just for slavery... Our records on the Rim Worlds are far from complete," she told him, as she keyed in some instructions on her touchpad. "But I'll get some inquiries out to my contacts right away."
"What can you give me now? I can help you search. I don't want Xanatos to get too far ahead, and we'll be refueled any time now. I want to make a decision about where to go next."
"If you go in the wrong direction," Tahl told him, "you'll lose more time than if you sit tight and make an informed choice."
"I realize that, but I was hoping if we could narrow it down significantly..."
"Unfortunately, the galaxy is a big place, and not so much of it is civilized. I just ran a check for all worlds where slavery is still practiced. Four thousand, two hundred and ninety-one known planets, satellites, and installations." Qui-Gon groaned. "Cross-reference that with the Offworld sites -- doesn't help very much, Offworld uses slave labor as a matter of course. No, I'm afraid we need more information, and more detailed information. I'll check this against the list of contacts and business deals I've been compiling, Qui-Gon, but I'm afraid it's going to take a while, even with help."
"No one is better at this than you, Tahl."
"Qui-Gon... we will catch up with Xanatos."
"I know it. I'm just worried..."
"Obi-Wan is brave and strong and clever. Trust him."
"That won't protect him from Xanatos' cruelty. It won't protect him from death."
"In the end, it's not the pain and fear that will matter, but how he copes with it."
"Right now that's not much comfort," Qui-Gon said sharply.
"It's not your fault." He sighed. "Your caring is a great comfort, Tahl."
Qui-Gon signed off, unhappy that he was no closer to choosing their next destination.
"We need more information," Tomas said when Qui-Gon reported his conversation with Tahl in the main cabin. "I'm thinking our time here would be better spent getting new leads from local Offworld people than paging through piles of data. Let's leave the data mining to Tahl, she's best at it."
"So we go to the Offworld base?" Ki-Erin asked.
"I doubt that will be necessary," said Qui-Gon. "Offworld's guards and higher-ups must come here, to the main settlement, at least sometimes. Most likely they have a local place they visit regularly. If we can find out where that is..."
"Let's do it," said Tomas. He turned to Ki-Erin. "I want you to stay here, access the local news feed, filter through it for clues."
"I expect we'll be going to some rough places. A fourteen-year-old girl is going to be conspicuous."
"All right," she grumbled.
Tomas smiled fondly at her. "I'd take you if it made any sense to do so," he told her. She managed a lopsided smile for him.
"Let's go," said Tomas, turning to Qui-Gon, who nodded. The two left together through the hatch, locking it behind them.
Though it was officially nighttime in the settlement, the hangar bay was busy. Spaceports usually were: traders and carriers rarely timed their arrivals to come during local waking hours. Space travel was their life; they did not waste their time with such luxuries as sleep-cycle adjustment. Tomas and Qui-Gon sought out a uniformed security guard, and soon found one patrolling the area near the lifts, looking bored.
"Excuse me," Tomas called out. The guard, a furry Ritanian female with brightly painted claws, looked them over with relaxed interest. "I was hoping you could help us."
"What's up?"" she asked.
"We're conducting an investigation into the criminal activities of a being with known connections to Offworld. We would like to speak with some Offworld people. Could you tell me where we could find some at this settlement?"
The female laughed. "Oh, they're all criminals at Offworld." Then she turned serious. "I can tell you where they go for drinks and talk here. They all congregate at one bar: pilots, guards, managers. But you gotta understand: these people are dangerous, and we have to live with them. Go stirring things up, and you might find yourselves in hot water, more than the security corps could get involved with, if you understand my meaning."
"Thank you for the warning," said Tomas. "I can promise you we will be discreet."
The guard nodded, tilting her head in a friendly fashion. "You'll find them at Levko's Bar and Grill. It's in the fifteenth district, C Level. You can reach it by taking the blue repulsor train north to the orange west; exit at the second orange stop."
"Thank you," said Qui-Gon.
"Be careful, all right? You two are rather good-looking for humans, be a pity to lose you." She bared her teeth in what the two men took to be a smile.
Tomas grinned good-naturedly and gave a mocking bow. Qui-Gon only raised his eyebrows and snorted, amused, making the guard laugh. Together they headed for the lifts down to transport level.
It was a clean and orderly settlement, though bare and sparse, built for efficiency not aesthetics. There was little to see, in any case, in the transport tunnels. But Qui-Gon admired the sense he got of these hard-working people. They did the best they could with what little they had.
Fifteenth district, however, was an exception to the rule. Where people in the other districts they passed through talked and smiled and went about their business, the people here were brash and loud. Drunken yells pierced the air in the dim sleep-cycle lit domespace outside the station. Trash and refuse littered the walkways.
They found Levko's easily enough. A brightly lit sign extended over the walkway. The doorway was crowded with chatting spacers, all carrying weapons. The two men pushed through, Tomas watching his friend's back, alert and at ease, as Qui-Gon threaded his way across the room, apparently heading for a table at the rear of the establishment. About halfway there, he stopped as if changing his mind, and gestured to a table whose occupants were just leaving. Tomas nodded. He, too, had seen the Offworld insignia on the unisuit of the freighter crewman beside them. He backed up, letting another being pass, and "accidentally" bumped the crewman's mug so his alcohol spilled on the floor.
The male's crest lifted stiff on his head; he snarled and leaped to his feet. Tomas spun around, looking apologetic. "So sorry! Let me buy you another, friend!" He passed his hand unobtrusively before his chest, sending an eddy in the Force to influence the crewman's mind.
"All right, all right, no harm done I suppose." The crewman banged his now-empty mug on the table and waved for service.
"You don't mind if we join you?" asked Qui-Gon, also with the Force behind his question.
"Sure, sure," snarled the largest of the three, also with an Offworlder badge, they saw now. The third, a tall female of the same species unknown to Qui-Gon, moved her chair to make room for them to sit down between her and the first crewman.
"My name is Qui-Gon, and my clumsy friend here is Tomas," Qui-Gon told them as they sat down.
"Chervis," said the first crewman, who had lost his drink to Tomas' maneuver. "Gretna --" he pointed to the female -- "and Derzig." Derzig was the larger male.
"And what brings you to this lonely outpost?" asked Tomas.
"Iron ore and bodrite, what else?" laughed Chervil, seeming to think this funny.
"We transport the raw ore to processing plants on Esmerine," explained Gretna. "And you?"
"Looking for a good source of processed bodrite." Tomas gave the explanation he and Qui-Gon had settled on during their train ride. He and Ki-Erin had read some about the bodrite trade in the local media. "But the prices we've been given are high."
"Kerden plant always charges high. They have to, do their processing here, on this light-forsaken rock." Derzig's voice was low and growling. He watched as Chervis took a deep swig of his newly arrived swill. At least, it was that pungent and foul-smelling, Qui-Gon thought.
"Prices seem to be going up everywhere," Tomas shook his head. "Our employer will not be pleased."
"Nephrolite," said Gretna. "It's needed to process the bodrite. As long as the Melians have a corner on the market, they can up the prices if they want."
"I heard we're getting a new source, soon," said Chervis conspiratorially. He turned to Tomas. "Offworld's got smarts in management," he said. "You can bet they'll get the stuff that's needed."
"Bodrite just piling up in the warehouses," growled Derzig. "Better get their arses in gear, or we won't have nowhere to put this next load."
"Where they getting it, Chervis?" asked Gretna. "I hadn't heard."
"Don't know. Overheard the higher-ups in the lift at the plant."
Derzig snorted. Qui-Gon lifted the mug he had ordered as he listened; but he immediately changed his mind about drinking. The stuff smelt truly foul.
"Maybe we can get what we need at Esmerine, then," said Tomas hopefully to Qui-Gon. Qui-Gon shrugged as if doubtful.
Gretna was eyeing her chrono. "Loading set to finish in twenty minutes. We gotta go or miss our timetable."
Derzig set down his mug with a grimace. "Blasted loaders gonna be late anyway," he muttered. Still, all three stood from the table.
"I'll clear your tab for the lum," Tomas reassured Chervis. "My fault, after all."
"Thanks," waved Chervis. "Good hunting." Tomas grinned back, and Qui-Gon nodded. They sat for a while longer, listening to the talk around them. They saw no other obvious Offworlders. Finally, hearing nothing more of interest, they paid and left.
"Well, there's a lead at least," said Tomas when they were alone in a repulsor car heading back to the spaceport.
"Nephrolite," Qui-Gon agreed. "Xanatos needs it."
"Not easy to find, either, if I remember," mused Tomas. "I bet Tahl could get us a pretty short list of the viable sources."
Qui-Gon nodded, leaning back in his seat, his head resting against the transport wall. He felt weary -- not bodily, but mentally, spiritually.
"Qui-Gon," said Tomas quietly. "You've got to stop punishing yourself. I know you feel responsible for what's happened --"
"I keep thinking of Obi-Wan," said Qui-Gon in a low voice. "When Xanatos took him... I keep seeing him fall, and I'm too far to stop Xanatos from taking him... the red blade across Obi-Wan's neck... my heart nearly stopped, Tomas." He looked out the windows at the darkness of the tunnel. "Obi-Wan trusts me. He said, 'I will wait for you to come for me'. Like there was no doubt in the world that I would, that I could."
"And you will," said Tomas, his voice low with intensity. "And we'll help you."
"What will he suffer in the meantime, Tomas? How much pain to pay for my foolishness? For indulging my anger? How could I have been so blind to the danger!" His voice had lowered to a harsh whisper.
Tomas sat down on the bench next to Qui-Gon, put a hand on his arm. "We are not saints but seekers," he said. "You were always proud, Qui-Gon." Qui-Gon made an angry noise, and Tomas understood. "Anger at yourself will poison you as surely as anger at Xanatos. Will you cripple yourself, and fail the boy?"
Qui-Gon sat forward, anger still tight in him; but he knew Tomas was right.
"You have the strength to accept the pain of your own failures. What is important is what you learn from your mistakes, what you do in the future."
"Obi-Wan is suffering for my mistakes. What kind of justice is that?"
"No, Qui-Gon, that kind of thinking will only lead you to darkness. It is Xanatos who is hurting the boy, Xanatos who is responsible for those crimes. We will stop him, and we will bring him to justice. But you must stop blaming yourself for what he does!"
Qui-Gon sat in silence.
"You know I'm right."
"He's such an eager, caring boy. I've never told him so."
Qui-Gon drew a long, shuddering breath, then sat up straight. The repulsor train was pulling into the spaceport station. "Time to contact Tahl," he said. They stood together, in silence, and stepped to the platform, their robes close around them. Behind them the doors closed and the train glided away. Qui-Gon put a hand on Tomas' shoulder.
"Thank you, Tomas."
"I've always been glad to call you friend, Qui-Gon. That's never changed."
Qui-Gon looked to his friend's eyes. "I'm glad you're here."
Qui-Gon made the connection with Tahl in the common room, this time, and all three Jedi waited to hear what Tahl would find.
"Nephrolite... Twenty-four known sources with viable quantities for mining. The Melian system is the largest known source. Eight with particularly difficult access conditions... Nine held in government trust. Six more held privately, like Melian. Hold on..." Her voice rose in interest. "Mines on Vandos3A, a satellite of Vandos3. Held privately by one family, the Jakubeks, very wealthy with several estates in the system. Vandos3A however, is largely poor -- it was emptied of most salable minerals a hundred years ago, the environment destroyed. Here's the kicker: the Jakubeks run their mines almost exclusively with the labor of "indentured servants" -- individuals sell two-year contracts for their labor. There was a complaint against them in the Senate only a few years ago, a petition for trade embargo, by the Sentient Rights Commission, 'for use of physical punishment as inducement to labor resulting in scarring and permanent impairment, and common use of child labor, particularly boys as young as ten'." Tahl lifted her face, her eyes intense for all she could not see them. "Let me check for Offworld connections ... Yes, Offworld has approached the Jakubeks at least twice in the past two years. However they hold no contracts for Jakubek nephrolite."
"This could be it," said Tomas, looking to Qui-Gon.
He nodded. "It's the best lead we've gotten yet." He looked thoughtful.
"I can keep looking," said Tahl. "I'm still getting information from my contacts on Xanatos' recent business dealings. If I can just get a step ahead of him..."
"How far is Vandos3?" asked Qui-Gon.
Ki-Erin consulted the Navicomputer.
"Not close. Three and a half days."
"This may be it," Tomas argued. "I think we should follow it up."
"Yes," said Qui-Gon decisively. "Let's go."
"Check in when you get there," said Tahl.
"We will. Thank you, Tahl." Qui-Gon closed the connection.
Tomas and Ki-Erin had a set routine for preparing the ship for takeoff. Qui-Gon helped by taking care of communications with the spaceport, and within fifteen minutes they were ready to leave. They sat together in the cockpit as the exit protocol guided their ship up and out through the dome. Behind them the sun shone through the bubbles on the rocky surface, as it had when they arrived.
"Like scattered dewdrops," Ki-Erin murmured. She had the pilot's station once more, and Tomas again was navigating.
When the planet had faded to a white crescent behind them, Ki-Erin turned to the two men. "I don't understand why you think Xanatos would have brought Obi-Wan to Vandos3."
Qui-Gon and Tomas looked at each other.
"It's a tenuous link, it's true," Tomas said.
"Xanatos never does anything for just one reason, not if he can help it. We have two links from Xanatos to Vandos3: nephrolite, and slavery," said Qui-Gon.
"Why do you think he's made Obi-Wan a slave?" Ki-Erin asked.
"Or disguised him as one..." put in Qui-Gon.
Tomas sighed. "The clues he left."
"There's more you haven't told me," she said flatly.
"Padawan--" Tomas sighed. "Xanatos... left evidence that he'd beaten the boy."
Ki-Erin face drained of color, leaving her freckles and bright green eyes standing out in her pale, shocked face. Tomas glanced at Qui-Gon, who nodded, then turned back to Ki-Erin, speaking softly. "You can see for yourself if you wish. But I warn you, it's not an easy sight."
"The petition against Vandos3... 'physical punishment as inducement to labor...'"
"That particular kind of... institutionalized abuse, it's fairly rare now, thankfully."
"I see." Ki-Erin swallowed. "Still, they have no contracts with Offworld."
Qui-Gon spoke up. "Offworld has been known in the past to take over mines and other assets by force or trickery."
"Poor Obi-Wan... to be caught in the middle of such a mess..." Ki-Erin turned back to the viewport ahead, staring out almost sightlessly.
"I'm sorry, Ki-Erin," said Qui-Gon in a sad, quiet voice. "It hurt me so to see it... I just wanted to spare you that burden. I didn't mean--"
"I understand," she interrupted tightly. "And you were right: I don't want to see."
Tomas put a hand on her shoulder, then turned to Qui-Gon, who looked pale and haggard himself.
"You're exhausted, Qui-Gon. Go rest. I'll work on analyzing the database Tahl sent us while you sleep."
Qui-Gon rubbed his tired eyes, then started to shake his head.
"You've been awake at least twelve hours longer than we have, unless I miss my guess: we rested on our trip to Telos. If you abuse yourself you'll be no good to anyone when we need you."
"All right," Qui-Gon agreed. "But come get me if I'm not awake in four hours."
Tomas grimaced at Qui-Gon's retreating back. "As single-minded as ever," he said, shaking his head.
The first thing Obi-Wan noticed on waking was that he was sore in every muscle. The second was that he was lying on a bed. He lifted his head to look around: he was in a tiny cabin with a table and chair by the closed door. On the table was a bowl of food, stew by the look of it. His stomach ached, reminding him that Xanatos had starved him for something like two or three days so far. Quickly he sat up. This proved to be a mistake. He felt dizzy, his bare skin cold and dry and cracking. He slid back to the bed, noting that his wrists were still bound together, though in front of him now. He willed himself to patience, calling on the Force to lend him strength. Then he slowly, carefully pushed himself upright, to the side of the bed and then to his feet, holding on to the wall to steady himself as he waited for his legs get accustomed to bearing his weight again. Finally he was able to manage two steps to collapse into the chair.
He forced himself to eat slowly, though the scent of food was driving him mad. After only a few bites he already felt stronger. The thought crossed his mind that Xanatos may have added drugs to the meal, but he decided not to worry about that. Yet.
Obi-Wan scraped the bowl clean, getting the last with his fingers; then he pulled the lone blanket from the bed to wrap around his bare shoulders, then turned to explore his surroundings. The door, of course, was locked: the operating panel had even been covered over and sealed. On one side wall were several empty cabinets; one door hid a small 'fresher, to his relief, with a tiny sink. After washing his face and hands and neck, taking frequent drinks from his cupped hands, he filled his empty bowl with water and drank deeply.
There were no other cupboards or corners he could see, so he wrapped the blanket more tightly around himself and sat on the bed to think. He had no way of knowing how long he had been asleep. His restlessness of the night before had turned to hallucinations before his body finally succumbed to exhaustion. He had a dim memory of Xanatos crouching over him, injecting some drug into his lower back, before sleep took him; but whether it was a true memory he had no idea. He tried to look at the spot where he thought the injection had been but he couldn't twist so far, nor reach it with his bound hands. Probably chose that spot for just that reason, he thought bitterly.
At least the cold wasn't affecting him so much any longer. He pulled the blanket more tightly around himself. Space was cold, and travelers relied on warm garments to keep their body heat in. He had nothing but his trousers and a blanket. And the Force is with me, he reminded himself. How much longer until they arrived at their destination? Four days from the time they left that last planet, whenever that was. He wondered whether Qui-Gon had reached it yet. He felt certain his master hadn't been far behind, at least at first. Xanatos must have thought so too, to have left a package for him.
Obi-Wan turned his attention to the binders on his wrists, exploring the locking mechanism with his sight and the Force. The catch seemed simple enough. He pushed at it with a tendril of power, to no effect. Several minutes of fiddling yielded no better results. The Force seemed almost to slide away from the material of the catch. I must be too tired for this, he told himself. Exhaustion crept up on him once more. He lay back on the bed, curled up in the blanket, and fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
He was feeling much stronger when Xanatos woke him again. By the time the door slid shut behind his captor he was sitting straight in the bed, awake and alert. Xanatos was holding another bowl of food, which he placed on the table; also a small silver cup, which he kept in his hand as he turned the chair to face the bed and sprawled into it with the relaxed ease of a cat, his eyes and smile predatory, watching. Obi-Wan eyed him warily in turn. Finally Xanatos held out the cup. Obi-Wan shook his head slowly.
"I don't want it."
"You'll drink it regardless." Xanatos leaned forward, taking Obi-Wan's hands and closing them around the silver cup. Obi-Wan lifted it slowly to lips: it was the same bitter, metallic drink Xanatos had given him before. He started to push it away but Xanatos caught his hands, staring at him with a dangerous look.
"Why?" Obi-Wan asked him.
"Because I said to. That's all you need to know."
Obi-Wan stared at him, silent.
"I'll remind you this once that you're not in a position to bargain. Don't get me angry, not if you want to continue sleeping in a bed. Not if you want to survive with your skin intact."
Obi-Wan felt resentment growing in him. He looked down at the hated cup, at the bitter drink he was certain was psychoactive. He resisted the urge to throw it in Xanatos' face, knowing it would be pointless to do so. Finally he threw back his head and drank it down. He felt sick. He watched, his sullen anger barely in check, as Xanatos took the empty cup and leaned back in the chair with a satisfied smirk.
"So you can be reasonable," said Xanatos.
Obi-Wan pressed his lips together, staring, determined to not let Xanatos bait him. He sat still, waiting, wishing for Xanatos to leave.
"I'm not ready to go yet, my young friend, I'm afraid you'll have to put up with me a bit longer. You see, there's more that I require of you. If you have any sense, you'll do exactly as I say." Xanatos paused. When the boy didn't respond, he continued, "and the first thing I require is that you hide your defiance. Ought to be an easy task for a Jedi." He smirked, then his eyes grew harder. "Drop your eyes, boy, and keep them that way. You're to keep a submissive posture, to me and to everyone else. Either hide your anger or I'll beat it out of you."
Hating Xanatos heartily, Obi-Wan struggled with himself. Let it flow past, he told himself. Bend like a tree in the wind, like a reed in the stream, and let it flow past and be gone. Gritting his teeth, balling his fists, he dropped his eyes to the floor. He barely heard Xanatos continuing with his instructions.
"The rest of you, too. You look like you're about to explode. Hands loose or folded in front of you. Face blank. What happened to that Jedi mask?"
The boy breathed deeply, focusing on calm. Xanatos, mercifully, was silent waiting for him. After several minutes he was finally able to relax his body.
"Much better," he was told. "My second requirement is your silence. You will speak only when spoken to, only when you are expected to. No questions, no objections. Is that clear?"
"Yes," Obi-Wan told him, his voice strained. He could feel his muscles starting to tremble, and knew the drug was starting to affect him.
"Yes sir, or yes Master when you speak to me."
Rebellion surged in him again. I'll die before I call you Master, he thought angrily. With an effort he controlled himself. "Yes, sir," he grated out.
Xanatos gave a short, scornful laugh. "I suppose that will do for now." He stood. "Eat, before the drug takes you."
A great shudder took Obi-Wan's body, leaving him wrung-out and despairing. He closed his eyes.
"Too late," he muttered quietly to himself.
A surge of warning in the Force came too late to save him: the butt of Xanatos' lightsaber struck his temple. He collapsed on the bed; barely heard Xanatos through the ringing in his ears.
"Your silence," he heard, then watched blearily as Xanatos left him.
Qui-Gon's sleep was filled with troubling dreams of Xanatos and Obi-Wan; he got little rest. After several hours he gave up. Sitting cross-legged in the center of his sleep-couch, he took Obi-Wan's Force-sensitive stone from his tunic pocket and held it in his hands, cupped in his lap. Then he settled his breathing, letting his mind relax into an open state, and joined his consciousness with the Force.
He had more in mind than simple meditation. He was seeking a state which would allow him visions: the future, the present: with some control he might get some idea about where Obi-Wan was, and how to find him. He was not ordinarily inclined to rely on dreams and visions for guidance; his strength had always been with the living Force, what was present and immediate, not the unifying Force. But his dreams were tugging at him now, even waking, and he felt more in them than simple anxiety. Let them come, then; he would face the visions without anxiety to trouble him, and he would learn from them what he could.
Two hours later and more he let himself rise to the present, and found Tomas sitting in the chair by his bed, his eyes serious.
"Ki-Erin is sleeping," Tomas said. "We're in hyperspace. What did you see?"
Qui-Gon closed his fingers around the stone in his palm. "Most of it was difficult -- or impossible, at least for me -- to interpret: set far in the future, some set of possibilities. I think at least part of what I was seeing was Obi-Wan's own nightmares, or visions -- he seems to be caught in them. I'm fairly certain Xanatos has been giving him some sort of drug -- I saw Obi-Wan trying to refuse it, and being made to drink -- and Obi-Wan thinks it is giving him hallucinations. But I think it's doing more, that it's throwing him wide open to the Force, and without his consciousness to guide it, his mind has no way to interpret what he's seeing and it feels like evil dreams."
"Can you tell where he is?"
"In hyperspace, that's all I know."
Tomas looked more than a little amazed. "Do you think he's close, then?"
"I hope that's what it means. But I think there's more to it than that." He studied Tomas' kind face, patiently listening, and was uncertain how to explain. "I couldn't sleep, Tomas, though I tried. Obi-Wan's dreams kept troubling me. They're more than simple nightmares. They're Force-induced, and magnified beyond his strength or control. I think that's why they're resonating with me."
Tomas nodded. "The boy is strong in the Force, and so are you. And you have a powerful bond between you." He paused, thinking. "If you're right, then we need to know what Xanatos is up to. What is this drug he's giving Obi-Wan, and why?"
"I don't know, and again I don't know. But my instincts tell me we've got to learn the answers to both questions."
"So we decant from hyperspace long enough to pass this news to Tahl?"
"I think we'd better," agreed Qui-Gon.
"Qui-Gon," Tahl answered the connection in surprise. "Surely you haven't arrived yet?"
"No, Tahl, but I have new questions for you." Quickly he summarized what he had seen in the Force.
"I've heard there are drugs that are supposed to induce visions; also there's a long list of known psychoactives," she said thoughtfully when he finished, "but I've never heard of any drug affecting Force-sensitivity. I'll ask the Council as soon as we sign off. But as we're in contact now, I'll tell you: Mace contacted Vandos3A when he heard you were going there, and arranged for you to meet with the head of Jakubek Mining's facilities and operations. I've also compiled all the information I could find on them, and on nephrolite, and can send it to you now if you're ready."
"I'm set on this end, Tahl."
"Transmitting now," she told him, keying an instruction to her datapad. "Something else I've discovered that's interesting. Offworld isn't short of nephrolite. If anything, they seem to be stockpiling it. And they've made quite a few inquiries in the past months -- often Xanatos personally, mind you -- into purchasing more."
Qui-Gon leaned back. He didn't know what to make of this news. "Then he knows something about nephrolite that we don't," he said.
"I've read everything I can find on nephrolite, and I just can't see why he's so eager to acquire it. As far as I can tell, its only use is in droid and computer manufacture -- making memory units and motivators."
"Something to look into on Vandos3A."
"You haven't slept yet, have you, Qui-Gon? You sound worn out."
"Not for lack of trying. But I think I'll be able to sleep now."
"Do that. You have plenty of time in the next three days to review what I've given you."
"Yes, Master," said Qui-Gon wryly.
Tahl sighed. "Please, Qui-Gon," she asked gently.
"I will, Tahl. Take care of yourself."
She smiled, and closed the connection.
Xanatos left Obi-Wan mostly alone for the next three days, which suited the boy fine. He was not able to free the lock on the wrist binders, though he tried once more. After that he gave up, knowing that even if he opened the locks there was no way he could escape, and that Xanatos would surely take such a display of power as just another excuse to hurt him.
He was given plenty to eat, all bland reconstituted ship's food, but nutritious and filling. Mostly he slept, when he wasn't caught up in freakish nightmares, his body shaking uncontrollably from the bitter drug. Xanatos brought the silver cup three times more. Obi-Wan grimaced, but drank it immediately each time: even drugged nightmares that left him numb and exhausted were better than Xanatos's cruelty.
Whenever he felt strong enough, usually just after he had slept and before he ate, he would sit on the floor of his small prison and exercise his body and his mind, stretch his limbs, and relax into an active meditative state. It was during one of these sessions that he heard the whine of the hyperdrive deepen, slowing in its spin down, and knew they had returned to realspace. He felt a twinge of anxiety, and called on the Force to strengthen and guide him in his coming trials. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, he let himself join deeper with the Force and waited for Xanatos to come for him.
An hour later he felt the turbulence of atmosphere buffeting the ship, and not long after that they slowed, the sublight drive thrumming deeper, repulsor engines kicking in at full power, to lower them into a landing. Obi-Wan felt a richness in the living Force of multitudes of life forms: a texture that he associated with a living planet. Overlaying this he sensed the swirling, sucking pull of anger, fear and hatred. This was a planet shadowed by the Dark Side: he'd felt it before on war-torn Melida/Daan. He shuddered. Xanatos would be strong here.
He had grown familiar with the insidious feel of Xanatos in the Force, and knew when he was approaching before the door to his tiny cabin opened.
"Up, little Jedi. Come with me."
Obi-Wan rose smoothly to his feet and exited the cabin at Xanatos' beckoning. Xanatos took him by the shoulder and guided him to the main room where he had first been chained, and then the hatchway. He took hold of the binder chain still joining Obi-Wan's hands before opening the hatch. Heat blasted the boy's skin, dry as from an oven. Xanatos led him down the ramp.
Obi-Wan kept his face blank, but his eyes and mind were busy absorbing the character of this new planet. They had landed in the middle of a rocky, dusty plain. Great red boulders dotted the landscape: some small, some large; in the distance he could see pillars of rock that must be hundreds of meters high. Pale grasses and lichens grew thinly around the rocks. He saw no sign of sentient habitation. The sky glowed golden orange around the horizon, pale above, and free of clouds.
They walked thirty meters with the bright sun to their left and behind them, still low in the sky but rising, to a rectangular rock formation eight meters high and perhaps twelve meters across. Just past the great block of stone, in its shade, they stopped, in front of a rough shelter built of canvas against its wall. The low hum of a generator could be heard from the tent's interior. Beside the shelter, standing before a pair of camp chairs and a small folding table on which rested two tall glasses beaded with condensation, stood a man with grizzled beard and loose white tunic and trousers, a white hat covering his head and neck. In his sun-browned hands he held what looked to be a ring of some golden-hued metal, covered with molded decorations of some sort.
"Master Xanatos. I've just prepared us some drinks, when I heard you arrive. Please, have a seat." With one hand he indicated the seats behind him. His voice was dry and flat.
"Thank you, Sitaris, but it were best we took care of this first." With a tilt of his head he indicated Obi-Wan.
"Of course." He walked up to Obi-Wan, looking him over coolly, with a detached air, for all the world like a mechanic examining some machine. Obi-Wan, aware of Xanatos watching him, avoided looking the man in the eye, but held his head high nonetheless. The man stood before him, close to him, with his free hand lifting his chin and turning it to either side, then squeezing his arm as though to judge the tone of his muscles. Obi-Wan smothered his resentment at this unfeeling treatment and stood quietly. The man walked behind him, touching his shoulders, his neck. Then he heard a snick as a cool ring circled his neck and snapped closed. He tried to reach up to touch it, but Xanatos still had his hands, so he desisted. It was the metal ring the man had been carrying, Obi-Wan was certain. He imagined it was like the collar that had been fastened on him at the Offworld deep-sea mining platform where Xanatos had once imprisoned him: made to be detonated if he tried to escape.
Sitaris walked around to Obi-Wan's front once more, his hand in a pouch at his belt. From it he pulled a length of chain, bronzed like the collar. This he fastened to the collar, Obi-Wan couldn't see how. Then, holding the other end carelessly in one hand, he turned to Xanatos, a question in his face. Xanatos nodded and released Obi-Wan's bound hands.
Before Obi-Wan could decide what this meant, Sitaris snapped him around at the end of the chain, pulling it with both hands, and walked quickly away from the great block of stone, though still in the direct line of sight of the small camp. Obi-Wan was forced to follow or fall. Small stones pricked his feet; he focused on avoiding them. Sitaris led him to a smaller boulder -- only about a meter on a side, nearly a rough cube -- which stood just beyond the shadow of the large rock formation. Several metal rings studded the side facing the camp. Sitaris clipped the free end of the bronze leash to the highest of these, forcing Obi-Wan to bend over. Then he stepped back, out of Obi-Wan's reach. Obi-Wan backed up against the stone so he could stand upright. Sitaris fished a flat synthplas container from his belt pouch and tossed it at his feet.
"Coat your skin with that, or you'll burn," Sitaris told him. "I'll help you with your back when I've finished speaking to Master Xanatos." He turned, walking back to the camp, but called back over his shoulder, "Don't forget your scalp!"
Obi-Wan watched the man take the camp chair opposite Xanatos, who was now sitting relaxed, sipping the drink Sitaris had prepared for him. He could not hear them speak -- they were about twelve meters away -- but he watched them as he sat on the dusty ground at the foot of his boulder. He was already sticky with evaporating sweat, sitting as he was in the direct sunlight; his hair and trousers were soaked with it. The rough stone against his back was painfully hot. He opened the tin. It was filled with a yellow creamy substance, exuding a slightly rancid scent. Wrinkling his nose, he dipped his fingers in and spread the stuff on his chest. It mixed with his sweat and sank into his skin, leaving his skin feeling oily, but almost immediately cooler. Quickly he worked more into the rest of his exposed skin -- at least, all he could reach with his wrists bound together -- not forgetting his scalp, easy enough to coat under his short hair, or even his eyelids. When he was satisfied he hadn't missed any spots, he leaned back against the stone -- now cooler -- and looked across at the camp with his eyes half-lidded against the sun.
The two men were deep in conversation. Obi-Wan put his hands to the collar at his neck, feeling all the way around for a catch or seam. He found none. The collar was decorated with a raised pattern on the outside, but he could find no break in it. Running his finger along the inside -- where he could reach -- yielded nothing in the way of clues, either.
Opening himself to the Force, watching Xanatos warily, Obi-Wan explored the collar with his other sense. A trickle of power told him only that the ring around his neck was not sealed with a simple mechanical catch. Nor was there an active power source inside it. He tried to will it open, with no success. He could sense no join or break in the collar's internal structure. Fear brushed his mind; a feeling of powerlessness. With the surety of Jedi discipline he returned to his center, resting in his strength, and turned a critical eye to his feelings. Fear could be a teacher, an indicator of danger. From where did this feeling come?
Sounds from the camp caught his attention. Both men were rising from their chairs, nodding and shaking hands. Then Xanatos left, heading back to the ship. Sitaris disappeared into the tent for a moment, then came out with a synthplas jug in each hand. Obi-Wan left off his exploration of the collar and watched him approach, untrusting, but Sitaris only handed him one of the jugs, placing the other on the shady side of the rock, just barely within Obi-Wan's reach.
"Drink," he ordered. "You'll dehydrate quickly in this sun."
Obi-Wan undid the top of the jug, sniffed the liquid inside. He smelled nothing but the synthplas of the container. He sipped: it was water.
The man waited, expressionless and unmoving, as Obi-Wan drank his fill. Then he took the half-empty jug, sealed it, and placed it with the other. He picked up the ointment and indicated that Obi-Wan should turn around. Warily, watching over his shoulder at first, Obi-Wan turned to show his back, allowed Sitaris to rub the cream into his skin, though it hurt him to have his half-healed wounds there touched. He wondered at the man's coolness, wondered why Xanatos was leaving him in his custody. Wondered why he was chained in the sun, needing an ointment to protect his skin, when they could have kept him in the shade. Wondered why this rock was covered in heavy rings like the one he was chained to.
He was startled out of his reverie by the sound of Xanatos' ship taking off. He craned his neck to watch it rise. Then he was startled again by Sitaris yanking off the rest of his clothes, pulling him flat on his back in the process and tossing the trousers behind him, then taking up Obi-Wan's bound hands. He pulled a key from his pocket and unlocked the binders, then pointed back to the ointment on the ground by the rock.
"Coat the rest of you. I'll bring more water and ointment tomorrow." Sitaris left him then, returning to the camp, taking both trousers and binders with him. Obi-Wan watched him leave, feeling befuddled and more than a little anxious, despite being pleased that Xanatos was gone, at least for a time.
Once he was done rubbing the cream into his skin, there was little for him to do but watch the landscape and think. It was difficult to keep his thoughts focused in this heat, though -- it made him slow and lethargic. Not that he had much he wanted to think about. Escape from this desolate place seemed unlikely at best; rescue something to hope for not dwell upon. When his eyes grew tired from facing the sun, he turned his back to it and rested across the top of the boulder. After lying very still for about a half an hour he glimpsed a lizard scurry across the ground in front of him; by turning his head he could see the shady sides of the stones around him, and noticed that the lichens and dry grasses grew almost exclusively in the shade. Behind one rock a small reddish snake was coiled, well camouflaged; it took him nearly an hour to notice it despite his training in observation. Soon his back felt too hot to be comfortable, even with the cream; he pushed away from the rock and lay face up on the ground with his arm over his face. He felt drowsy with the heat, and soon fell asleep.
He passed the entire day this way, lazily moving from watching to napping to quiet meditation and stationary exercise of his muscles, frequently sipping from the water bottles. He was slick with sweat, despite its quick evaporation in the dry heat, and was glad of the water to replace what he was constantly losing. When the sun passed the meridian he shifted the two jugs to the other side of the rock, now the shady side. He changed position about once every hour. His skin was slowly darkening into a soft brown, so that the fine pale-brown hairs on his arms and legs began to stand out.
The sun went down in a blaze of color that dazzled Obi-Wan with its splendor. Almost he felt he was beginning to like this place, with its desolate beauty, rich in gold and red and brown and all the colors between. He was feeling more alert now that the air was cooling. A slight, warm breeze kissed his face.
Sitaris exited the tent walking purposefully toward him. He no longer wore hat or trousers; his tunic hung loose to his knees and sandal straps wrapped his lower legs. He carried a small crate, which he placed on the ground near Obi-Wan. Then he unhooked the chain from the collar around the boy's neck. Obi-Wan was so surprised for a moment that he only stared at the chain, still hanging from the rock. Then he leaped to his feet, his only thought to overpower Sitaris before the man could draw a weapon on him. But even as he jumped up, a stinging pain rippled through his body, a paralyzing shock originating in the collar, taking his breath. He fell to his knees.
"I trust you understand the implications," said Sitaris dryly. Obi-Wan nodded numbly. "Good. Use the privy hole behind that rock --" he pointed beyond the camp, towards the setting sun -- "and come back to me. Quickly, now."
Obi-Wan went, unsteadily at first, but pushing himself until he was running, slowly but smoothly. He came back more quickly than he had gone, glad to be up and running once more after days of confinement, even in these conditions.
Sitaris was standing in a clear, flat space beyond the rock with its metal rings, manipulating a tiny generator sitting on the ground. As Obi-Wan ran up he saw a wide blue circle, three meters across, snap into existence between them. Sitaris stood, looking over Obi-Wan as if measuring him in some way. He drew a length of stiff brown fabric from over his shoulder, about four meters long and ten centimeters wide, folded in half along its length, and held it by its center point.
"This is a kazaba," Sitaris told him, walking near, and handed it to Obi-Wan. Then he pulled off his long tunic, over his head, with one motion. Beneath he wore nothing but a kazaba wrapped around his waist and groin. His body was thick and powerfully built, and covered with scars. Swiftly he unwrapped the long strip of cloth. "Now watch what I do, and do the same. Remember."
Obi-Wan nodded, watching and imitating, wrapping the kazaba twice around his waist, twisting it behind himself, opening the fold and passing it between his legs, knotting it in front. It was not so different from tying his sash before physical practice at the Temple; he was confident he could remember.
Sitaris inspected him. "Good," he said simply, then directed him, "stay inside the circle. Dodge my strikes as best you can, but don't let any part of your body cross the boundary." He indicated that Obi-Wan should step within the blue ring. Then he walked to the crate sitting about six meters away, carrying his tunic with him to drop it in the box, not watching to see if the boy would obey.
Obi-Wan's feet felt immediately that the inside of the circle was clean of small rocks and pebbles. He walked the width of the circle, then returned to the center, wondering what kind of training or game Sitaris had in mind for him, and for what purpose. He wondered if he should ask. Did Xanatos' prohibitions extend here?
Sitaris was carrying a long coil of metal cable from the crate to a point about four meters away from him. As he shook it out a thrill of fear, quickly released, shook Obi-Wan: it was a whip, very like to the one Xanatos had used. Dodge it, Sitaris had said. Well, he would dodge it. He supposed he should be glad to have at least some freedom of movement this time. Better than nothing. He shook out his arms, trying to shake out his anxiety, to join with the Force. He was going to need it.
The first strike came direct to the center of the circle. Obi-Wan dodged it easily, as he did the next three. He began to relax, to trust his instincts. Sitaris started to speed up, striking more quickly and more frequently. The Force trickled through Obi-Wan, then flowed in an easy current, guiding him. He stepped, jumped, and dodged. Then the nature of the strikes changed. Instead of coming straight and even, the cable twisted and snapped; it coiled and circled, filling the little circle until there was barely room to step. A slash across snapped toward his neck then swept across the circle, scooping down then up again. He couldn't avoid it within the circle: so he stepped outside.
Instantly a shock of intense pain rippled from the collar through his muscles, making him collapse. He lay on the ground, quivering, his body uncontrollable. He felt a lash across his shoulders, and cried out. The current from the collar stopped. He lay quivering, gasping for breath.
"Up," Sitaris said impassively. "Into the circle." Obi-Wan struggled to his feet, arms wrapped around his chest. His back hurt ferociously; he was certain it was cut deeply. He staggered over the blue line to stand in the center of the circle, turned to face Sitaris, struggled to master himself.
"Do not leave the circle," Sitaris repeated. Then flicked the whip toward him once more, and again, slowly at first, but soon speeding up to challenge him as he dodged it. He received a few small cuts from the sharp edge this time, but managed to continue dodging for the next fifteen minutes. Still, he was tiring. His breath came more quickly. When Sitaris had hit him three times in a row -- long, deep slices on his legs and arm -- he suddenly stopped. Obi-Wan stood still, dazed and shaking.
"Sit in the center."
Obi-Wan took two quick steps and nearly fell sitting down.
After a minute Sitaris was beside him, holding a medkit. He put salve on Obi-Wan's cuts, working quickly, and sealed them with fleshbinding tape. His touch was not tender, and had Obi-Wan gasping, though the boy tried to control his reactions.
When he was done, Sitaris fetched him water and a bar of some sweet stuff. "Do not leave the circle," he warned again, and then left, striding across the dark plain to the camp, dimly lit some distance away. Obi-Wan nibbled at the bar, sipped the water; soon he was feeling stronger and calmer. He sat with his legs crossed and back straight and breathed in the fragrant night air. Above him wheeled the stars; the systems of the Core arcing brightly overhead, lighting the dusty plain, softening its sharpness. Somewhere in that brilliance was Coruscant, and the Temple, and all that was civilized...
With Sitaris gone, Obi-Wan could hear the night life of this desert: tiny creatures, lizards and mice and insects, sang their mating songs, their territorial warnings. They rustled through rocks and grasses, hunting for food, living their lives. The living Force runs strong and sure in this place, however desolate it may seem, he told himself.
He turned his thoughts to his situation. Somewhere in the vastness of the galaxy, his Master was looking for him. Would he find him here, in this lonely place? He closed his eyes to the world around him, becoming less I, less self, more a part of everything around him. This had always been a slow and difficult exercise for him, but tonight it came more easily: perhaps because he had nothing here of his own life but his memories and his self, his knowledge and strength and character: will and willfulness were submerged, for a time. He was a leaf on the breeze, parted from its tree, carried on the wind to who knows where.
Qui-Gon! I am here, Master! His thoughts echoed in the immensity of space.
Slowly he became aware of the dark Force shadowing this planet, as he had felt it in Xanatos' ship as they landed. Somewhere on this planet were people filled with hatred, and anger, and a feeling he recognized from the Katharsis domes on Telos: greed. He hoped fervently that Xanatos did not intend to take him to those people, but knew there was little chance of escaping it. Whatever Xanatos intended would involve the greed and hate endemic on this planet, he felt certain -- and trusted his Force-sensitive instincts. But what of him, what of his own purpose? He would not allow Xanatos to use him for evil, not if he could in any way prevent it. What must I do? He thought, letting the Force take his question, letting the answer come to him: I must wait, and watch, and be ready, and when the time comes to act, I will know it. No more than he had known already, of course, but he felt new certainty and confidence flooding him, and was glad he had taken this time for reflection.
He heard Sitaris approaching from the camp: he opened his eyes. The glow of the blue ring around him turned the red rock and soil to strangeness. Still he was at peace, and raised his face to drink in the starlight before his trials should begin again.
"Up," said Sitaris. Obi-Wan stood and put the empty food and drink containers into the big man's outstretched hands. Then he watched as Sitaris bent and twiddled with the generator: the blue circle shrank by half a meter in its diameter. In silence he waited as Sitaris returned to the crate to take up the whip once more.
Obi-Wan was quicker this time, and easily avoided the whip, even with the smaller circle enclosing him, even when Sitaris flicked the cable so it seemed to have a life of its own, chasing him. He ducked and flipped and twisted, and it did not touch him. After forty minutes he was granted another, briefer rest; then Sitaris shrank the circle again, down to two meters now, and they continued. Even so he did well, earning only a half-dozen small cuts, and after another forty minutes Sitaris again stopped and told him to rest, this time giving him a more substantial meal of bread and cheese and some kind of sweet dried fruit.
"Eat and sleep," he was told. "Do not leave the circle." And again, Sitaris left him alone.
Obi-Wan fiddled with the notion, as he ate, of trying to leave the circle. He did not, after all, know what would happen if he did. But he had a strong feeling that his guess was correct: the collar would activate, probably remotely sensing he had moved beyond the proscribed distance as set by Sitaris, leaving him helpless to move and in pain. He was not eager to repeat that experience. Still, how would he know the collar's constraints except by trying? And the idea of submitting himself to Sitaris on the basis of an uncertain threat chafed him. He ached to know his boundaries.
And so, when he had finished eating all that he'd been given, he stood to examine his surroundings more closely. Reaching out with the Force, he confirmed what he suspected: that Sitaris was occupied. If he did manage to break free of his invisible prison, he would have to deal with that threat first: he could not have Sitaris following him. If. He toyed with the idea of trying to influence the man with a compulsion, but he had sensed already that Sitaris had a strong will and focus. Bending that would take a great deal of subtlety and skill, and while his master might be able to manage it, he was fairly certain he could not.
The circle was a simple circuit of light: his fingers passed into the beam easily. It seemed to be rising out of the ground, and he guessed the source lay close beneath the dirt. But the dirt was packed hard as rock beneath his questing fingers. The synthplas water bottle was not strong enough to do more than scratch the surface. He called a loose rock to his hand with the Force, and soon made an interesting discovery: what appeared to be dirt beneath his feet was some sort of device, camouflaged. Its outer surface was thick and strong, and the rock could not penetrate it. Obi-Wan covered the evidence of his tampering and threw the rock away. Chances were Xanatos had let Sitaris know of his ability with the Force, but better he did not remind the man of it, or reveal it if Sitaris did not know, without some sure and pressing reason.
The generator was too far to reach, and fastened securely to the ground. The crate, when he floated it near on a current of the force, was empty of all but what he had seen already: food, medicine, water, the whip. He left everything untouched and returned the crate carefully to its former position.
There was nothing left but to try leaving the circle. He breathed deeply to calm his anxiety. He worried that if the shock from the collar paralyzed him again, that he would have a long wait -- until Sitaris returned -- to endure the pain. On the other hand, if he succeeded in escaping the collar's control, he would want to do so while he had the best advantage of time and alertness over Sitaris. Well, he told himself, relaxing into calm, if it comes to that, it is only pain, after all. Still, he began his experiment carefully.
First he held a finger over the boundary, then a hand. When nothing happened he grew bolder, extending his entire arm, both his legs; finally sliding his entire body but his head over the line, keeping the collar safely within the circle. I suppose that was worth knowing, he thought dubiously. He gathered himself and stood within the circle once more. Then he took a deep breath, and stepped across.
As soon as the collar crossed that invisible line, it activated. A part of Obi-Wan's mind observed, detached, feeling the current ripple across his muscles, playing havoc with the nerve endings. He tried to shield his body from the collar with his will, and for a few seconds felt the effect might just be lessening. But it continued, on and on, and it was far too much for him to control. He collapsed on the ground, just outside the circle, twitching uncontrollably, and struggled to be at peace with the pain.
It seemed years later that it stopped. Sitaris stood over him silently, and Obi-Wan in his relief did not look to see whether he was angry or still cold, nor could he hear above the ringing in his ears: he trembled with his body's relief, and gathered his strength. After a few long moments his senses returned to him; fog cleared from his sight, and the ringing receded until he could hear the breeze in his ears once more. Slowly he moved his arms and legs under him, to lift himself.
"You had to test the limits. I hope your curiosity is satisfied, now, or it may yet be the death of you."
Still feeling giddy and detached from his thoughts, Obi-Wan blurted out: "Why am I here?"
"I believe Xanatos informed you of the prohibitions before bringing you here: you are not to speak unless directed to, nor seek nor hold the gaze of free people." Sitaris' voice held a warning, but Obi-Wan was stung by the reference to free people, and pushed himself to his knees, boldly looking up into Sitaris face, searching for some clue to his meaning, anger flushing his skin.
Sitaris looked down at him impassively, but Obi-Wan had only a fraction of a second to glimpse his stony expression before he was convulsed again in pain, mercifully brief this time. His breathing came quick and heavy, and he shut his eyes. Patience, he heard his Master's voice, patience. With the memory of Qui-Gon's gentleness his anger left him. He told himself: remember your meditations. You are a leaf on the breeze. You will know when the time comes to act, and that time is not now.
Sitaris gave him a minute to recover himself before directing him again. "Up, now," he told him. "You have five minutes to run to the privy and back."
Obi-Wan struggled to his feet, still shaking, and fell twice before gaining his balance. He hobbled over the rocky dirt and silently cursed Sitaris. But soon enough his muscles regained their strength; he realized that the forced movement was easing the aftereffects of the shocks from the collar. He breathed more steadily and pushed himself to a run. He was back to Sitaris well within the five minute time limit and stood straight before him, pride in his strength born of Jedi training, and held his eyes to the middle distance. Sitaris grunted and directed him back to the circle.
The circle was again smaller, but that no longer surprised Obi-Wan. He settled himself grimly to continue. Sitaris pressed him through the night, with only brief rests, until he was stumbling with exhaustion and the air had grown cold; until he was covered in blood and stinging cuts and the circle was a bare meter wide. Finally Sitaris stopped and coiled the whip, and stood in the slow growing pre-dawn light, stretching his powerful muscles. Obi-Wan stood dumbly where he was, too tired to move. When Sitaris came to him and pushed him to the ground to tend his wounds, he barely noticed the stinging. Half-drowsing, he let Sitaris lead him back to the rock with its metal rings and chain him there; did not resist when Sitaris stripped the kazaba from him and rubbed the oily cream into every surface of his naked body. He lay silent on the ground, and when Sitaris left him at last, he fell deeply into sleep under the rising sun.
"You are approaching Vandos3A. Please state your business so we can better direct you." The voice hailing them on the comm was that of an older female, brisk and matter-of-fact.
Tomas spoke as they had agreed. "We have come to speak with the head of Jakubek Mining. Our business is urgent and private."
"Then I will transfer this communication directly to Jakubek headquarters."
"Jakubek Mining Corporation Interplanetary. Please transmit your authorization codes."
The male voice on the comm took on a note of surprised interest. "Jakubek Mining welcomes the Jedi. My instructions are to direct you to the administration landing platform, where you will be greeted in person. Are you ready to receive the coordinates?"
"Yes, thank you."
The first impression they had of Vandos3A was that it was a cold, dry place. Its surface was gray, covered with gray buildings, as were its seas; even the sky looked gray. The great blue bulk of the gas giant that held its orbit dominated the sky. The buildings surrounding the small, open landing platform were long and low, with narrow windows. Settling to the ground on their repulsors, they saw a small party of two humans and a droid waiting for them at the end nearest the largest building, the humans warmly dressed in quilted coats and thick pants.
The air, when they opened the ramp, was chill and brisk. Together they walked quickly across the platform to their greeting party, their long robes billowing in the wind.
"Welcome," called the woman standing in front, loudly over the whine of the wind. "Please come inside, out in the cold is no place for a proper greeting."
They followed her gladly through an airlock into a quiet hall. The walls were smooth and white with colored trim, decorated with small framed canvases of what looked to be abstract art, all wavy lines and shapes and color. They entered a wide door on the left and found themselves in a large office, similarly furnished. The two humans pushed back their hoods and removed their gloves, revealing a tall, graying woman with a friendly smile and authoritative manner, and a nervous young man in his late teens with dark hair and eyes. The silver humanoid droid entered behind them.
The woman extended her hand to Qui-Gon, who stood closest. "I'm Jemma Jakubek, recently elected head of operations for Jakubek Mining. Call me Jemma. This is my assistant," she indicated the youth, "also my nephew, Zino."
"Hi," said the young man shyly. Ki-Erin, standing next to him, favored him with a gentle smile, which seemed to reassure him.
"Thank you for agreeing to see us on such short notice," said Qui-Gon. He introduced himself and Tomas and Ki-Erin.
"Will you join us in the conference room? We'll be more comfortable there, I think. VeeNineteen, bring a fresh carafe of haklaf please, and also one of water." The droid left them, its servomotors whirring quietly.
At the back of the office they entered a smaller room with an oval table and padded chairs, overlooking the landing pad. As everyone was taking a seat, and the droid returned to serve them drinks, Jemma Jakubek told them, "It was a great honor to be contacted by Master Windu. We've never hosted Jedi here before. Master Windu told me you're conducting an investigation and that we might be able to help you. What would you like to know?"
Qui-Gon sat straight in his chair, his hands folded on the table in front of him. "Thank you again for your kind welcome. We're looking for the head of the Offworld Mining Corporation, in connection with several outstanding warrants against him. We've come here because we have recently learned that Offworld is urgently seeking a source of nephrolite. Have you had any contact with Offworld in the past few years?"
"Oh, yes, one of their agents contacted me only a few weeks ago, just after I took over as head of operations here. I believe he contacted my predecessor only a few months before that. But we have never had a contract with Offworld: mainly because we have an exclusive long-term contract with Duros Innovation -- they take all the nephrolite we provide, for a premium."
"Could you tell us more about that contact, please?" asked Qui-Gon.
"He was a young man, rather charming, name of Xanatos. He offered quite a good rate, actually: better than what Melian is getting by a small percentage. He said the Melians had been giving them trouble, that they are unreliable. But... please consider this a private speculation..." Qui-Gon nodded. "I'm not inclined to trust Offworld -- I have heard that they're tight financially, and it seemed strange to me that they'd offer such a high price. Besides, as I said, we have a long-term contract already, quite a profitable one actually, and have no reason to drop it."
"Recently we've become even more profitable, because of Aunt Jemma," said the young man brightly. His aunt turned pink.
"How is that?" asked Ki-Erin.
"She's a talented engineer; she's devised ways to replace our human miners with human directed mining droids. She's also developed new methods of getting more usable nephrolite from our ore. It's tripled our production, and just in time, because Duros was just asking for a greater supply."
"Is that the reason behind your recent promotion?" Tomas asked Jemma.
"Yes," she told them. "Though it took the longest time to convince the older generation to let me test my ideas. They finally let me start a small-scale experiment two years ago now. As of a year ago it was stepped up to include more of the mines, and last month we finished our conversion to the new methods."
"How has that affected the local population?" asked Qui-Gon. "I understand the nephrolite mines are a major source of employment here."
"A major source of trouble for Vandos3A in the past, I'm sorry to say," said Jemma, "though please don't tell anyone I said so," she added quickly, her face reddening.
"This conversation will remain private," Qui-Gon assured her. "But would you mind explaining?"
"My forebears have been... exploitative... of the planet's inhabitants in the past. They had an early advantage, owning this property. Vandos3A was for a long time a major source of other ores, and had a large mining population. But when those sources ran out, the remaining population was too poor to leave and too many to work the mines. When the market for nephrolite opened up, Jakubek Mining, it shames me to admit, took advantage of those conditions, and abused the local people. Too many have lost their lives in Mining. That's the reason I became an engineer. I couldn't see my old uncles changing their ways for any reason but better profit. Once my methods were proven, there was no reason to continue treating people like cheap slaves." Her voice sounded bitter on the last words.
"Jemma's mother, my grandmother, was one of the poor residents," added Zino. "Until Jered Jakubek married her. Now the people of Vandos have more jobs than ever, and better jobs, because we still need workers, only now it's to supervise the droids and run the machines, not to do the mining itself." He smiled happily.
"Is there anything else we can help you with?" asked Jemma. "I know you didn't come to hear my family history, I'm sorry."
"Would it be possible to see some of the mines, and hear about the uses of nephrolite? We're trying to understand why Offworld seems to be so desperate to acquire it."
Jemma looked genuinely pleased. "Of course! I'd be happy to give you a tour. There's a mine not far from here that just finished conversion to the new methods -- the last, actually, because of some complications with access -- would you like to visit that one? We could be there in ten minutes by speeder."
"If it's not too much trouble --"
"Oh no, not at all! I needed to go there today anyway, I try to visit each of the sites every week."
"We're in your debt, thank you," said Tomas. He looked to Qui-Gon as their host called for a speeder to be prepared for them, put a hand up beside his mouth and spoke in a low undertone. "She's sincere. They've ended slavery here."
Qui-Gon nodded. "I'm glad for the people," he returned softly. "But now what will we do?"
"Learn what we can."
Qui-Gon nodded once more.
A few minutes later they were headed to the end of the building to the transport garage. The people they passed on the way were friendly and curious. The speeder itself was an older model but well maintained; under the clear dome as they traveled Qui-Gon asked about security.
"We have ground emplacements and a small fleet of fighters. Mostly we worry about pirates stealing our shipments in transit. But because of our long-term relationship with Duros, we can rely on them to help protect us, and they have far more resources than we do."
"How do you protect yourselves from infiltration on the surface?" asked Ki-Erin.
"Our surface security is actually our best -- because of the historical situation I explained to you. My predecessors had to protect the mines from uprisings of workers and unemployed locals. The system they used -- a network of sensors, droids, and guard stations -- is still in place, and still functioning. I saw no reason to shut it down, now nephrolite is more valuable than ever."
The mine entrance was clean and uncluttered. Workers wore brightly colored unisuits and headgear. Jemma passed headgear from a bin near the wide main doors to Zino and the three Jedi, then put one of the helmets on herself.
"Safety rules," she told them. "Everyone must wear them."
A man and two women wearing bright green hailed them from behind a desk opposite the bin. Two more men in green stood one on each side of the main doors, standing at attention. They checked the I.D. of every worker that passed in or out; people passed, chatting, with an air of cheerful industry. Jemma led them to the desk.
"Hello, Triva, Devon. You're new?" She asked the second female, a golden-skinned woman with blue eyes.
"Yes, ma'am," she answered shyly. "Zeda Vincent."
"Welcome, Zeda" said Jemma. "Call me Jemma, or Master Jemma. I have three guests today, will you please give them temporary badges?"
The formalities were quickly completed. Inside the doors was a wide ramp spiraling downward; after about thirty meters it opened on one side to a large chamber. It continued to hug the wall, bordered on its open side by a steel mesh rail. At the bottom of the chamber they saw crates being stacked and loaded onto flat transports. Jemma drew frequent greetings and smiles from the people they passed; it was abundantly clear that she was popular here.
"This is our shipping clearinghouse," explained Jemma. As you'll see when we go to look at processing, nephrolite is a fragile mineral, growing in long strands. The longer the strands, the more valuable it is."
"Which is how you were able to increase your profit? By improving the process to harvest longer strands?" guessed Ki-Erin.
"Exactly," said Jemma happily. Zino smiled at the girl, and Qui-Gon saw that he was quite taken with the young Padawan. He looked at Tomas, standing beside him several steps back from the others, one brow cocked.
Tomas grinned, and said in a low voice not meant to carry, "She's pretty and vivacious, and he's only human. What did you expect?"
Qui-Gon shook his head, amused.
From the shipping floor they entered one of several doors, behind which was a bank of repulsorlift tubes.
The lift tube they entered descended swiftly into the earth, marking the distance they dropped on a display above the door. When they were several kilometers below the surface, they exited to a brightly lit tunnel. A repulsorlift track hugged the side of the tunnel, beside a narrow walkway. Jemma led them into a small open repulsorlift car, and the five of them squeezed in and took seats on the two benches. Behind them a car rolled in, carrying six workers, who climbed out as the car rolled to a stop, chatting amiably.
"This is our new access line, for transporting workers. We use the old line to transport the minerals," Jemma explained. "This will take us most of the way into the deepest mines, where the best ore is found. I thought you might appreciate seeing the process beginning to end." The car began rolling down the track, smoothly and quickly, descending rapidly.
"What are the industrial uses of nephrolite, Jemma?" asked Tomas.
"It's necessary for processing Bodrite into a key element in the structure of droid motivators and memory units. Also Duros is investigating new uses for it, and I think they've made some progress, but so far their work is still a trade secret."
Qui-Gon was about to ask more, but just then the character of the stone around them changed, and he grew aware of a strange resonance in the Force. He saw Ki-Erin staring at Tomas across from her and knew they both felt it as well.
"When do we enter the levels where nephrolite is found?" Qui-Gon asked, guessing at the answer already.
"We just did, about half a minute ago. Of course, there's not much left in these upper levels, not in quantities worth harvesting."
Qui-Gon nodded, his suspicions confirmed.
The effect is growing. What will it be like when we reach the end? Qui-Gon looked sharply at Tomas in surprise that his friend's mental sending, tinged with worry, had come through so clearly. Qui-Gon silently agreed with Tomas's sentiment: he felt like he was standing in a swift river, full of rapids tugging him in all directions, with the current and depth increasing all the time, threatening to sweep him off his feet.
Ki-Erin turned to Jemma. "Could we walk for a while?" she asked.
Jemma looked surprised. "Well, it's a long walk -- of course we could. We can always call another car when we're ready to continue." She looked for confirmation to Qui-Gon, who nodded; then she popped open a panel on the side of the car and keyed in a command. The car slowed to a halt. Qui-Gon looked gratefully at Ki-Erin. Standing still in the tunnel, the effect was not so overwhelming.
They gathered on the path by the side of the track. Jemma watched, seeming to sense that something had changed for them, as they looked around at the rough walls, trying to come to equilibrium with their sense of the Force.
"Could you show us some nephrolite?" asked Tomas.
"It's easiest to see down one of the newer side shafts, the areas around the transport tunnel have been pretty well cleared out already. There's a shaft about ten minutes ahead of us." She looked at Ki-Erin, who was brushing the wall with her fingers, her eyes distant. "Is something wrong?"
Ki-Erin glanced at Tomas, who answered for her. "The sense we're getting from the Force here is... different than we've felt before. We'll be able to focus on it better if we walk."
Jemma's eyes grew wide. "Of course."
As they walked, Qui-Gon opened his awareness, drawing gently on the Force. It came rich and strong to him, more powerful than he had ever felt it.
Like power cells. Or... an amplifier. No, neither of those really, but elements of them both. It holds the Force... in vast quantities. By her quick glance at her Master, Qui-Gon saw that Tomas' thought had been directed to them both, and he included her in his reply. He was surprised by how easy it was to link with her thoughts: almost effortless.
This is why Xanatos wants nephrolite, he told them.
Ki-Erin shuddered as she silently answered, the prospect frightens me!
Qui-Gon agreed wholeheartedly.
They turned the corner into a side tunnel. A few meters from the entrance a room had been hollowed from the earth; it was filled with equipment and busy technicians. Two men in yellow with red sleeves left their stations to intercept them when they entered. "Master Jemma," smiled the elder, a small gray-haired man. "it's an honor to have you join us."
"Icek, Hyam. I see your crew is hard at work."
"The droids just found a new vein," the second man explained. "They're working close to it now."
"Don't let me distract you, then," said Jemma. "My guests and I will try to keep out of your way." She turned back to the Jedi as the two men gave slight bows and went back to work. "Watch the screens, and you'll see the diggers working." Sure enough, in the screens they saw long metal limbs with various digging attachments being wielded against walls of rock. In one screen they saw a digger blowing air at a wall with long horizontal stripes; that, Jemma explained, was exposed nephrolite. "There are cleared passages to the raw nephrolite all around here," she explained. "The work goes more efficiently when the digger droids clear a path to the mineral first, and then we send in the gathering crew afterwards." She led them back to the tunnel where it led away from the control room and handed everyone a glow rod from a box by the wall. "We don't waste power on lights where there isn't regular human traffic," she explained. "Our hats light up, but we always bring glow rods for looking at details." She made some notes at a datascreen, and Zino explained, "Everyone must check in and out when traveling the side tunnels past the control rooms. For safety reasons."
Past the control room the tunnel quickly grew dark, and they switched on their lights. The swinging lights, bright as they were, made the shadows dance eerily. Jemma pulled a datapad from her pocket, showing a map of their surroundings. Qui-Gon counted one side passage on their left and two on their right before Jemma indicated a left-hand passage. "This is one of the longer passages," she told them, "with a rich strike at the end. If you look at the walls, you'll soon see the strands of nephrolite: they're a silver-gray color here, like long thick threads, a bit fuzzy. With the digger droids, we're able to follow the strands much better than when we mined by hand. That's why the tunnel is such an odd shape." And indeed the tunnel bent and twisted oddly so that they had to duck around and step over projections: it was never so narrow that it was uncomfortable to pass through, but they could only walk single-file. Most of the way cut through solid rock, but occasionally they passed through areas that were predominantly tunneled through dirt, held up by plasteel beams and small glowing force fields that gave the tunnels an otherworldly cast.
"Where does the material that you remove go, Master Jemma?" asked Ki-Erin.
"The diggers take it out through another tunnel, not meant for human passage. That is, they take it to other droids, the remover droids, whose function is to, well, remove the unused material. The best of the rock is taken to the surface and sold -- we do a brisk side business in gravel and fill -- and the rest is taken to the empty tunnels, the ones we don't plan to use any longer, and packed in tightly. It's quite a challenge to coordinate, so that no crew disturbs the work of any other."
She continued explaining to the girl, who walked just ahead of her, following Zino. As Jemma spoke Qui-Gon began to see long strands along the walls. He didn't need his light to find them: they shone with the Force. The passage of living beings so near to them set the Force swirling in a powerful current. Soon the strands ran around them on nearly every side, and Qui-Gon wondered that their guides could not feel the current of the Force moving through their bodies. He himself was staggered with the immensity of it. Jemma's gracious nature lit this place like a lantern; Zino's youthful joy and quiet pride less forceful in his immaturity but promising strength to come. Ki-Erin burned before him: Force-sensitives were always more apparent to his senses than others, attracting the Force like bees to a flower, but with the Force so strong here he felt the fierce power of her nature, the quick intensity of her temperament, like a sun scorching him. Tomas just in front of him was cooler, gentler, but he sensed in his friend the immensity of his strength, all the more awesome for the control and balance with which he carried it. It occurred to Qui-Gon that Obi-Wan was much like Tomas in his nature, though immature as yet, and wondered what he would see in the boy if he were here with them, now. The thought filled him with sorrow: he missed his young Padawan.
And then he heard the boy's voice.
Qui-Gon! I am here, Master!
Frozen with shock he cast through the Force, seeking the boy, calling to him. Where are you? Where, Obi-Wan? He had allowed his awareness to spread over the whole of the planet before he realized what was happening.
"What is it, Qui-Gon?" Tomas was standing before him, concern lining his face. The others were some ways ahead, stopped, looking back at them. Qui-Gon had stopped without realizing. He drew breath to calm and center himself.
"I heard him, Tomas. I heard Obi-Wan calling me."
"He's near?" Tomas' voice was sharp with surprise.
"Nowhere on the planet -- I already checked. But I think I can find him --"
"Be careful, Qui-Gon. There's danger here for us -- we can get lost in so much power, I think."
Qui-Gon nodded slowly. "Will you anchor me?"
"I will keep watch." Without turning Tomas sent an explanation to his Padawan, who began speaking softly to their two guides. That worry eased, Qui-Gon settled to the floor, legs crossed and hands on his knees, and sank his awareness into the immensity of the Force.
Instead of searching now, he let his bond with Obi-Wan draw his awareness to the boy. Some indefinable time later -- time felt stretched and distorted in a way he had never experienced -- he grew aware of warmth, and a spicy scent, and the clear light of stars through the atmosphere of a planet -- and there was his Padawan.
He was dancing, all but naked, inside a circle of blue light -- or so it seemed to him at first. The boy's attention was fully taken by -- what? A silvery cable snapped inside the circle, barely touching him, and leaving a short bloody cut in the skin of his arm. Obi-Wan stepped back, then flipped neatly over as the whip came at him again. Qui-Gon watched for a time, slowly growing aware of the tall figure not far off who was wielding the whip -- not Xanatos, but a being who was cold and dangerous nonetheless. He dared not distract his Padawan, for fear he would be badly hurt. The man was trying to hurt him, trying with considerable skill, though he did not move closer, and he seemed pleased at Obi-Wan's skill at avoiding him. Qui-Gon, too, admired the boy's calm grace under pressure. It reminded him of a certainty he had felt several times before, a certainty that he had suppressed, in anger, when Obi-Wan had deserted him on Melida/Daan: that his young Padawan was extraordinary even for a Jedi, that he was destined for greatness.
The vision receded; he was returned to awareness of his own body, cold, sitting on the floor of the dark tunnel. Tomas crouched before him; he could not see the others. He stretched his legs and stood. Tomas stood with him.
"I didn't dare leave you longer. You were gone for an hour. The others will be back soon: they went ahead to see the end of the tunnel and some of the equipment being set up there." In his eyes was the unasked question: Did you find him?
"He's on another planet, far from here: somewhere hot, a desert of red rock and hard soil. I don't know what the place is called, but I could point to it." He had that much awareness still: like a thread linking their souls.
"Could you use your transponder and positioner to get a Temple- relative location?" Tomas asked him. Qui-Gon blinked. It was an excellent idea. His transponder was specially made to find and link with the Temple; if he connected it with his positioner, meant to show relative position with respect to a planet's magnetic poles, he would be able to use it to get a fix on Obi-Wan's position with respect to the Temple. He pulled the instruments from his belt, and with Tomas' help, soon had the positioner gutted and reset to work with the transponder. Then he linked to the Temple.
Tahl answered, sleepy; he had asked that all his communications be routed to her.
"I'm using the transponder to set my positioner, Tahl. I'm sorry to disturb you."
Her voice became instantly alert and interested. "I don't mind at all, as long as you promise to explain what you're doing."
"I will. Could you take a reading on my position right now?"
She fell silent; he let his consciousness expand with the Force, and sensed, sharp and strong, Obi-Wan's strong young self. He faced in that direction and pointed the positioner, taking a reading from it when he was certain he had gotten as close to the right direction as he could.
"That's it. I don't know how far it is, but I'm sure he's in that direction."
"You know where Obi-Wan is?" Tahl's voice sounded incredulous. Qui-Gon couldn't blame her.
"I can't explain now, Tahl." He could see the light from Jemma and the others returning to them, and sensed Ki-Erin's bright presence in the Force. "I can contact you again in a few hours."
"Send me the reading," Tahl told him. "I can use the computers here to do the calculations. Can you get another reading somewhere else? If so, I can do a rough triangulation."
"I doubt it," said Tomas. "Not easily."
"This is probably enough. I'll talk to you soon."
"Thank you, Tahl," Qui-Gon told her. He returned his transponder to his belt and gathered up the pieces of his positioner. By the time he had finished, their guides and Ki-Erin had caught up with them.
"Were you able to reach your missing apprentice, Master Jinn?" Jemma asked with concern and obvious fascination. Ki-Erin had explained some of the situation on their walk.
"In a sense, yes," Qui-Gon told her. "And we believe we can find him from what we learned." Ki-Erin's eyes lit up, but she kept her questions to herself, letting their guide speak.
"Incredible. I never knew that nephrolite had such properties."
"Neither did we," said Tomas. "And I hope you don't take it amiss -- you and Zino both -- if we ask you to be very discreet with this discovery. In the wrong hands it could be disastrous. We would appreciate if you would confer with the Temple before exploring it further, or disclosing it to anyone."
"Forgive me, but I don't understand -- how --"
"Not everyone who is Force-sensitive is Jedi," Tomas continued. "The head of Offworld is Force-sensitive, and it worries me that he made this discovery before us. We don't think he would have told anyone else at this point, but --"
Jemma had grown pale. "He wants nephrolite. And it somehow amplifies a Jedi's powers?"
"In a way. And it would do so for anyone who is Force-sensitive," said Qui-Gon.
"This is why you were asking me about security earlier."
"We didn't know until we came down here why Xanatos was so desperate to acquire nephrolite. But I guessed -- because he has done so before -- that he might try to acquire a mine by force, if he couldn't simply buy what he wanted."
"Xanatos. The gracious young man who called me -- but he seemed so likable!"
"Yet he is the head of Offworld, though he rarely admits it, and not many people know it."
Jemma nodded slowly. "We will do as you ask," she said, and turned to Zino, who nodded briskly and solemnly. "And increase our security as well. I am fascinated to explore this aspect of nephrolite further, but of course I can't on my own in any case, as I'm not Force-sensitive myself."
"I am certain there are Jedi engineers who would be just as interested, and happy to work with you," said Tomas.
Her eyes lit up. "Now that would be an adventure," she said.
"We will be pleased to be of service, after all the help you've given us today," said Tomas with a smile.
"Would you like to have the rest of the tour, now?" asked Zino.
"Please," said Qui-Gon.
Zino flashed his light directly on one wall as he moved to squeeze past Qui-Gon, and stopped, suddenly astonished.
"Aunt Jemma, look!"
The youth played his light along the surface of a web of strands that ran like a skein of wool in the rock. The strands were a bright silver, glimmering iridescent blue and red and gold in the glowrod's beam: much brighter and more colorful than Qui-Gon remembered.
"This is the brightest I've ever seen it," murmured Jemma.
"Because of what Master Qui-Gon did here, I'm sure of it," said Ki-Erin. She turned to the two elder Jedi. "Jemma was explaining to me that the grade of nephrolite doesn't just depend on the length of the strands. It also depends on its color and luster. It is found in shades of black to light gray, and lustres from dull and earthy to shiny metallic. Strands with a metallic lustre are rare and valuable." Ki-Erin turned back to Jemma. "I bet activity in the Force affects its lustre. Look." And she backed up several meters down the tunnel, finding a duller gray patch of the mineral. The others followed her, watching as she put her hand to it and closed her eyes. Only a minute later the patch had brightened considerably: they watched the effect spread along the length of strands much more quickly than it did across strands.
"Incredible," Jemma said, touching one of the strands. She laughed. "Well, with what you've done here you've well paid me for the pleasure of guiding you today! This grade of nephrolite will fetch a high price! But forgive me, please, I'm giddy with discovery right now. Here." And with two deft twists of her wrist she snapped the bright threads from the wall, then coiled them and wrapped them in a sheet of soft synthplas that she took from her belt pouch. She handed the package to Ki-Erin. "Perhaps you can use them somehow in your search. You're welcome to more if you think it would help," she added, turning to Tomas.
"Thank you again," said Tomas, and Qui-Gon felt himself warm to her for her generosity, and wholeheartedly agreed.
Together they returned to the main corridor by the repulsorlift transport, leaving their glowrods and signing out at the control room as they passed. A repulsorlift car filled with workers sped past them as they stepped out into the path.
"I know you asked to walk, but it is quite a ways to the next area I'd like to show you, where they're currently harvesting."
"Unfortunately, the rapid movement through the caverns was affecting us quite strongly..." said Tomas.
"We could have the car travel more slowly," put in Zino
"Wouldn't that affect your traffic?" Ki-Erin asked.
Jemma checked her chrono. "Another five minutes, the shift change will be over -- there will be less traffic then."
Tomas and Qui-Gon glanced at each other. "All right, then," Qui-Gon said.
They walked slowly along, Zino explaining more about the workers they saw, the colors on their unisuits, and how they were organized into work crews. Qui-Gon enjoyed his animated way of speaking -- he seemed to have lost much of his shyness in the time he spent with Ki-Erin and Jemma alone, and frequently glanced at the girl, obviously encouraged by her interest. Soon an empty car rolled up to them and stopped a short way ahead near another side tunnel entrance; Jemma explained that she had called it to that station. They climbed in and watched as Jemma slowly increased the speed, looking to Tomas for confirmation; when they were going about half of the regular speed he let her know that was enough for them.
Ten minutes later they were traveling mostly up again instead of mostly down; they had curved around in a long loop and were heading roughly back in the direction from which they had come. Five minutes after that they pulled to a stop and climbed out. "The tunnel we want is still ahead of us," Jemma explained, "but another car was coming up behind, and I thought you wouldn't mind walking again." Indeed, only minutes after their car took off empty, another sped by, full of workers in bright orange.
Qui-Gon looked around, curious. The rock tunnel ahead of them was rougher overhead and around the path. Even stranger, Qui-Gon was feeling a definite shift in the Force. He felt the oiliness of the Dark Side underlying the power that still shimmered all around them; the feeling of it was insidious and oppressive to his senses.
"Something is different about this area," he said to Jemma, not asking.
Jemma explained, "We just entered the limits of the old mine, the area that was the mine before it was converted from human to droid exploration and mining."
"Is the nephrolite here dark?" asked Qui-Gon on a guess.
"Why, yes, actually," said Jemma. "I suppose I should stop being surprised at your questions. It has always been a mystery to us, how our mines had always produced black nephrolite, until we discovered the first gray veins when we started using droids. We wondered if it had something to do with the digger droids. That was part of the reason the new droids were such a success: lighter veins are somewhat more valuable than the darker ones. How did you guess?"
Tomas tried to explain. "The Force living in the nephrolite here is... negative. Dark, we call it. It happens when a place has been filled with negative feeling: hurt, fear, anger..."
"This area is strong in the Dark Side," said Ki-Erin, her expression subdued.
"Ah," said Jemma finally, at a loss.
"I would guess it has to do with the mine's history, before you switched to using droids," said Tomas. "The workers were not so satisfied with their work then, were they? I remember you telling us so in the administration building."
"No," said Jemma. "No, they were not." They were silent a while, walking. "The crews still don't like to work in the old mines. They say it's creepy, haunted. I let the crews rotate, sometimes in the new area, sometimes in the old one. I had thought it was psychological -- I'm sure everyone has family with bad memories of the way our company used to... run its business."
"I'm sure that's part of it," said Qui-Gon neutrally.
They turned down a side tunnel as before, taking glow lamps and signing in at the newly hollowed control room. The workers they saw this time wore orange, which Zino had explained was the uniform of the gathering crew. They heard the whine of droid servomotors ahead of them as they walked. Jemma explained that the droids gathered from the back of the tunnels first.
They turned off at the second tunnel on their right. Unlike the tunnel in the newly mined area, this tunnel had been opened by hand. It was wider and straighter, frequently cutting into the veins of nephrolite on either side. The strands here were black. Qui-Gon touched one, then drew back, repulsed.
"I think we've seen enough," said Tomas quietly. "But could we take a small sample of this, as well, to show the Jedi Council?" he asked Jemma.
She nodded, then pulled three strands from the wall and coiled and wrapped them as before, this time handing the package to Tomas. He tucked it into one of his belt pouches.
The rest of their tour was interesting but uneventful. They saw some packing and processing rooms, and looked at some of the droids and processing machines up close. Qui-Gon was finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate; he was growing anxious to continue with their journey, and his thoughts turned frequently to Obi-Wan and what he had seen. Several hours later they returned to the surface. Qui-Gon was grateful for the stir of air in the garage where they returned to the speeder, even if it was cold. Though well ventilated for a mine, the air below had still been dry and stale. On the ride back to the administration center and landing pad, Jemma asked them what they planned next. "You're welcome to stay, of course, if you like. You've given me more to think about in one day than I've had in a long time."
"Thank you, but we need to continue with our search," said Qui-Gon.
"Surely you'll stay for dinner at least? I have about an hour of work to do beforehand, but perhaps you'd like to talk alone for that time? I can have my people refuel your ship, you needn't go to the public spaceport."
This time they accepted gratefully: Jemma's offer of fuel would save them several hours. They were left to wait in a small private dining room, like the conference room they had talked in first. It had windows onto the landing pad, and they could see their ship being fueled by droids and workers in warm quilted coats. Ki-Erin turned to Qui-Gon, bursting with questions. She still had not heard about his experience in the gray nephrolite tunnel. He put up a hand to forestall her.
"I'd like to try to reach Obi-Wan again, try to contact him this time. Will you watch for me, again, Tomas?"
Tomas looked for a long moment like he might not agree. Then he sighed. "All right, Qui-Gon."
Qui-Gon settled himself on the floor in meditation position. Ki-Erin handed him the bundle of silver nephrolite. "Perhaps it will help," she said. He nodded and held it loosely in cupped hands on his lap. Through it he could feel the power of masses of nephrolite in the ground below him; he let the Force flow through him and extended his awareness into the world around him.
Following the thread to Obi-Wan was easier this time. He soon sensed the desert landscape once more. But something was different this time: his Padawan was lying on the hard dirt, unable to move, in obvious pain. Qui-Gon tried to reach him, but the boy was struggling to cope, and had no attention to spare. Instead Qui-Gon tried to find the source of the pain: a current of power, similar to that discharged by an electro-jabber, he saw. He found its origin in a metal collar securely fastened around Obi-Wan's neck.
Feeling like a ghost, Qui-Gon tried to sense the fastenings in the collar, to will it open or shut it down. He had no success, whether because he was not truly present or because it was too complex, he did not know. His efforts to lessen the current were unsuccessful as well. Finally he sensed that the man he had seen earlier wielding a whip was approaching.
The man wore nothing but a length of cloth wrapped around his groin and waist: the same as what Obi-Wan was wearing. His skin was dark, but his short hair was fair. He stood over Obi-Wan for a silent moment, then made a quick movement with one hand, and the current from the collar stopped. A long minute later Obi-Wan stirred.
"You had to test the limits," said the tall man, in his tone mingled exasperation and admiration. "I hope your curiosity is satisfied, now, or it may yet be the death of you."
"Why am I here?" asked Obi-Wan in a soft, tired voice.
"I believe Xanatos informed you of the prohibitions before bringing you here: you are not to speak unless directed to, nor seek nor hold the gaze of free people." The man's voice was full of warning. But Obi-Wan was angry, Qui-Gon saw; he pushed himself to his knees and pinned the man with a challenging glare. Not for long. A burst of current from the collar and he collapsed on the ground once more. Qui-Gon reached out to the boy in anguish. Patience, he told him, patience, willing him to calm. Obi-Wan grew quiet and subdued, whether because he had heard him, Qui-Gon could not have said.
"Up, now," the man told him. "You have five minutes to run to the privy and back."
Qui-Gon watched in pained admiration as Obi-Wan struggled to his feet, pushed himself to a run. His Padawan was subject to beatings and humiliation, but still he held himself with pride and strength. Qui-Gon's heart ached for the boy. Soon, he called to him. I'm coming for you, Obi-Wan. He watched for a while, watched as Obi-Wan stepped into the shrunken blue circle and began again his dance to avoid the snapping whip. Then, feeling Tomas calling him, he felt his way back to his own present.
Tomas was again kneeling before him, watching his face carefully, looking concerned. "I can't seem to reach him, Tomas," Qui-Gon said wearily. "I don't think he could hear me. But I could see him. And help, a little, I hope," he ended quietly.
"What did you see?" asked Ki-Erin. She was sitting to one side.
"The first time as well as the second," added Tomas.
Qui-Gon handed the packet of nephrolite to Ki-Erin, then stood and stretched and sat at the table. The others joined him.
"He's alive and in good health. Xanatos isn't with him now; he's in the custody of some sort of trainer --" he explained the circle and the whip, and the collar, and the trainer's words.
"You were right about him being enslaved," said Ki-Erin sadly.
"That collar is going to complicate things," mused Tomas.
The door opened at that point, and their hosts returned. The three Jedi silently agreed to continue their talk after they left Vandos3A; conversation at dinner was of places they had been and things they had seen. Qui-Gon reflected that like any good engineer Jemma Jakubek was fascinated with exploration and new ideas. He was glad to have had the chance to meet the woman and her young nephew. Still Qui-Gon let their hosts and Tomas and Ki-Erin do most of the talking; his mind was on his Padawan: on what he had seen of him, on what he must be enduring now.
Three hours later, they left the atmosphere of Vandos3A. Qui-Gon was content to sit behind the other two as they piloted the ship up and away from the satellite planet. Their plan was to contact Tahl as soon as they were beyond the gravitational field of giant Vandos3.
A strange feeling was growing in Qui-Gon as they left, however. He felt it first as a tugging at his consciousness, as of something he'd forgotten. But it quickly grew stronger, the farther they went from the planet: he felt stretched -- as if part of him were left behind, tied there to the planet's surface.
He saw Tomas turn toward him, then call his name, but a rushing sound was growing in his ears, and his sight was dimming. He saw Tomas jump to his feet, concern in every line of his face. At the same time, he saw Obi-Wan lying half-unconscious on the red ground of the desert. The two scenes hovered before him, strangely overlaid. Then everything went black.
As if from a long distance, he heard Tomas and Ki-Erin talking.
"...was afraid something like this would happen. I tried to warn him..."
"What's wrong?" the girl asked.
"He extended too far -- farther than he could ever have gone on his own strength. If only he had been content for knowledge of him -- but no. He sent a part of himself to Obi-Wan, to be with him, and never fully returned. You saw how he was distracted after..."
"Especially after the second time," affirmed Ki-Erin. "So now that we've left the nephrolite, past his strength to keep contact with it..."
"His soul is split in two."
There was silence for a moment. It occurred to Qui-Gon that it was him they were speaking of. He was finding it difficult to think.
"Will he ever be whole again?" Ki-Erin asked, horrified.
"I hope it's not too late -- that if he can come to himself while we're still here --"
"Should we go back to the surface, then?"
No! We need to go on!
"Hold on... did you see him stirring?"
"I didn't see, Master, I wasn't looking."
"Qui-Gon, wake up. Answer me."
"Qui-Gon, we can't go on. We need you to come back to us."
"Is he --"
"He's conscious, at least partially. He hears what we're saying, and he's trying to answer."
"Why won't he wake up?"
"He won't until he decides to be fully present, here. Do you understand that, you great foolish boonta? You're as stubborn as you were when we were children! You've got to leave the boy and come back to your body where you can do some good! Come on, man!"
Hearing Tomas so angry and anxious was something of a shock to Qui-Gon, even half-gone as he was. He struggled to wake, to gather and center himself. He was horrified to find that no matter how he tried, he could not make himself whole.
Tomas, I can't. I don't know how.
"You've got to."
"Can he still feel the part of him that's with Obi-Wan?"
"Good thinking, Padawan! Can you still sense him, Qui-Gon?"
Remembering how earlier he had followed their connection in the Force, Qui-Gon relaxed, easily finding the thread and following it back to his Padawan. The boy lay on his stomach, unclothed and sweating, asleep in the hot sun. He was chained to the boulder beside him by the collar around his neck. His skin was badly lacerated, the cuts sealed with fleshbinding tape. Qui-Gon wanted nothing more than to free him, to have him safe beside him.
But that, of course, was the basis of his problem. Tomas was right. He had let his anxiety for Obi-Wan lead him to be careless with the power that had let him find the boy. Now he had to leave him, completely put him from his mind, in order to be whole again himself.
I'm coming for you. Hold on, Padawan.
Qui-Gon focused all of his being on his purpose: to find and rescue Obi-Wan, and to bring Xanatos to justice. Slowly he became aware of his body, slumped uncomfortably in the starship seat. He stirred, waking fully, and heard his friend sigh deeply.
"I am sorry, Tomas. I was a careless fool. I should have listened to you."
"I should have spoken up when I began to see what was happening."
Qui-Gon put a hand on Tomas' arm. "Thank you for bringing me back."
"Are you all right now?"
Qui-Gon breathed deeply, straightening in his seat, bringing himself to balance and focus. He felt whole once more. He nodded. "I believe so."
Ki-Erin's eyes were wide watching him. "We'll go slowly from the system until you're certain," she said.
"Thank you Ki-Erin," said Qui-Gon, smiling gently. The girl shook her head, with a lopsided grin, almost inciting him to laughter with her chiding look.
Master Yoda was with Tahl when they made the connection.
"I have some good news and some bad news," said Tahl immediately. "The good news is that there is a star system along the line of the coordinates you sent me earlier. The fourth planet in that system is inhabited: it's called Lansar. It has little surface water, and most of the land is desert, with little economic value. Once it was colonized by humans, but several generations ago the climate changed there, enough to make farming much more difficult. Now the humans live in a few small enclaves, a few of them in the remaining cities. Mostly the planet is controlled by the original inhabitants -- the Mozelle, a nomadic people who live in tribes. When the colonists were more numerous, the nomads were driven to the worst land. When the climate turned hotter and dryer, they waged war on the remaining colonists, and for the most part defeated them. Most human inhabitants of Lansar are now slaves of the Mozelle."
Tomas nodded thoughtfully. Qui-Gon spoke up: "You said that Lansar is mostly desert. Is any of it red and rocky desert?"
Tahl raised one eyebrow. "Yes. Large sections of Lansar's soil have a high iron content. There's more that I learned though, Qui-Gon. About five years ago, a small company called Starways took over Lansar's largest city. They are tolerated because they employ many of the local Mozelle, and because they pump water from the ground that they allow the locals to take freely. Starways demolished what was left of the city, and set up a resort and gambling center. All the practices that the Republic forbids or controls are rumored to take place there -- slavery, smuggling, gambling, prostitution, the sale of black-market weapons and drugs... One of the biggest draws is the Palace: an enormous combined hotel and arena where sentient slaves are set against each other in dangerous contests -- with gambling on who will win, of course. I was able to trace the ownership of Starways. I'm certain that it's a front company for Offworld."
After a short silence, as the three Jedi absorbed this information, Ki-Erin spoke up.
"And was that your bad news?"
"No, Ki-Erin." Tahl shook her head, sadly. "My bad news is that Lansar is clear on the other side of the Rim from you. It will take you seven days in hyperspace to get there from where you are now."
Tomas looked up. "This ship doesn't carry seven days of fuel."
Master Yoda spoke for the first time. "Come back to the Temple, you must." Qui-Gon looked sharply at him as if in protest, but Yoda ignored him. "Not far from your path it is, and refuel here, you may. Also, much to speak of, we have. Of nephrolite, the Council must learn more."
Tomas nodded. "We'll be on our way as soon as we sign off, then."
"I can transmit this information on Lansar to you now," said Tahl.
"Go ahead," Qui-Gon confirmed, keying his datapad to receive the transmission.
"Expect you we will, in four days," said Master Yoda, looking at Qui-Gon. "Do not delay."
"We will be there, Master," said Qui-Gon.
The tiny Jedi Master nodded, and as the data transmission was finished, they closed the communication.
"Seven days," said Tomas, shaking his head.
"So far," said Qui-Gon.
Tomas snorted. "So far that you extended yourself, through the nephrolite!"
Obi-Wan woke at midday, stiff and sore, his throat parched and swollen. He reached around to the shady side of the boulder, and, finding two freshly filled water bottles, opened one and drank. It was difficult to maintain the discipline to sip slowly, he was so thirsty.
When he had drunk his fill he sat up against the boulder and stretched his tired muscles. The skin of his back felt tight and dry from lying in one position in the sun. He lay down again, on his back this time, and sank back into sleep.
Night fell with its play of breezes. Obi-Wan finally felt alert and rested once more. He sat by his rock, back straight, waiting for Sitaris to come. He hadn't long to wait.
This time, when he had unfastened the chain, Sitaris set him to make a circuit of the camp. Obi-Wan ran the extra distance gladly, happy for the freedom of movement. When he returned to Sitaris he was surprised to see that there were two circles, one blue and one red; and where last night the ring around him had simply marked a space in the dirt, tonight the circles floated above the dirt by twenty centimeters; and they were disks -- probably force fields -- not simple rings. Both were three meters across, and subdivided into wedges and sub-circles.
In silence Sitaris handed him a kazaba and watched him put it on. At Sitaris' direction, he stepped onto the blue force-field.
Sitaris took a whip from the crate. This whip was different than the one he had used the night before, Obi-Wan noticed. It had controls on the handle, and instead of being constructed from cannibalized steel cable, it seemed to be made of thousands of tiny overlapping rings.
"This whip is made to interface with the force field on which you are standing," explained Sitaris. He pushed a small switch on the handle, and red light illumined the entire length of it. "If the tip -- only the very tip -- of this whip touches a section of the force field, that section will disappear. Do not step off the force field, or fall through it." Sitaris turned, and stepped onto the red disk. "The whip will also give you a shock if it touches you," he added.
The game began again: but Obi-Wan was prepared. It was good that he knew what to expect, because Sitaris did not start slowly with the whip this time. He began immediately with quick snaps, twisting the cable expertly so that Obi-Wan must use all his skill to avoid it.
But there was more. With nearly every flick, Sitaris was able to cancel out one of the sections of the blue force field. Obi-Wan was quickly losing safe places to put his feet. He began to see that he would have to do something to prevent the disk from disappearing altogether. When the end of the whip snapped toward a large ring around the center, he deliberately tripped across the tip to prevent it touching.
The pain of the metal end whacking his shin was nothing to the sting of its charge. Obi-Wan breathed in sharply, hopping across the disk, barely avoiding falling through one of the gaps. The next flick of the whip caught him square on the chest, however, and threw him over the edge to the ground.
The collar activated. He collapsed, his muscles twitching, immobilized until Sitaris stopped the current. He struggled to his feet. Sitaris had stepped off his circle and was standing before him.
"Tell me what you must do to stay on the circle."
It took a moment for Obi-Wan to catch his breath and calm his body. He used the time to gather his thoughts, and when he was able to stand straight again, he spoke as Sitaris had told him: the first time he had been permitted to speak in five days.
"The sting of the whip is painful but does not affect movement or strength. Deflect the tip when I can on parts of me that won't be damaged easily by the metal of the whip, like my hips and thighs."
"Good. Up again."
They returned to their positions. The blue circle on which Obi-Wan stood had been restored to full solidity. When the whip came at him again, Obi-Wan turned his body into where he predicted the tip would be to deflect it. It was difficult to focus over the constant pain; difficult to track the movement of the whip and determine where it was aimed. Only ten minutes later Sitaris was succeeding in making holes in the blue force field on every other strike. Ten minutes after that, Obi-Wan fell through.
Sitaris had him up again, once more on a whole disk, as soon as he could scramble to his feet. But the pain was wearing him down, and though he was learning quickly, he was also tiring, and soon fell through yet again. This time Sitaris left him alone to rest and eat, sitting on the restored blue disk above the ground.
He felt weary and morose. He was tired of the constant pain, tired of being constrained and made to play in others' games. He was sick with having to hold himself in, for no reason he could discern. For a brief moment he considered giving up, refusing to cooperate; how much worse could they punish him, than this? It could be a great deal worse, thought Obi-Wan grimly, remembering Xanatos' cruel smile. Sitaris was hard and cold, but at least he was not cruel.
Which left him wondering how to do better at the game, to satisfy Sitaris. In his Temple training, they used lightsabers at low power, so they stung when coming into contact with a body. He was not unused to physical pain during training. The whips, however: their sting was far more intense than he was accustomed to, and on his bare skin instead of on tunics and trousers. More than that, the only way to succeed at this game was to deliberately take the pain, rather than avoid it.
Still: it was only a matter of intensity. He barely noticed the sting of being hit in lightsaber practice, because he was so focused on what he was doing. If he could learn to hold his focus better, he would be better able to shut out the pain. And the better I can focus, he told himself, the more the Force is with me: it will help me to know what to do, to stop the whip.
Sitaris was pleased with Obi-Wan when he chained him to the rock again at dawn. The boy could tell, though Sitaris said nothing. He wondered whether he should be glad at the big man's pleasure, or anxious. Still: he was happy himself at his own success. He had learned to focus and live with the pain. After his midnight rest, Sitaris had not been able to dislodge him from the disk at all, though the man had eventually riddled it with holes.
That night, when Obi-Wan stepped on to the blue disk, Sitaris surprised him by handing him a whip. This one had blue markings and a blue tip, unlike the one Sitaris had used. It did not, however, glow blue, and would not conduct a shock.
"Strike each section of the red disk with the tip," Sitaris told him. "Make it disappear."
It took the boy a while to get the hang of snapping the whip. It was not an easy weapon to maneuver. And once he had started to learn the feel of snapping it, he had to learn to aim it. It wasn't until just before the midnight break that he was able to strike the red sections of force-field with any regularity: about once every ten tries. Still, he was improving steadily. By dawn he was able to strike even the smallest sections after only one or two tries.
For another day he rested and meditated, keeping his mind and body limber in captivity. That night he was given the whip again. The difference this time was that there was a droid hanging above the red disk. It wasn't much of a droid: like the training droids at the Temple, it had sensors all over its surface, and little else besides repulsors to hold it above the ground. Unlike the Temple training droids, it was long and slender: a rod hanging perpendicular to the ground. The Temple droids were tiny spheres.
His task, again, was to strike the sections of the red disk away with the whip. The challenge, tonight, was that the rod-shaped droid would move to prevent him. For the first hour, he was completely unsuccessful. But, with a few hints from Sitaris, he was soon striking more quickly and accurately than ever. With practice, he began to see how Sitaris had made the whip twist and dance, and he experimented, trying out new moves, spinning the whip over and around the droid, confusing its sensors and knocking it about. Sitaris sat cross-legged on the ground and watched him, and gave occasional advice. When night ended, he was surprised at how much he had enjoyed the training, and all through the next day he dreamed of it: the weight in his hands, the constantly shifting balance of the whip as he spun the end, the ease with which he was learning to shift its momentum.
More than anything else, Obi-Wan was surprised at how quickly he was adapting to living in the present. He no longer tried to think ahead: he had accepted that he was trapped, at least for the time being, and felt no further desire to test the limits set upon him. Memories made him almost unbearably homesick, so he avoided dwelling on the past, on thoughts of the people he cared about. Instead he focused on where he was: the feel of the evening breeze on his skin; the lazy warmth of the red rocks in the sunshine; starlight on the desert; the sounds and sense of life around him. The pleasure of running, his feet bare on the hard-baked soil, after a day of resting in the sun. Pride in his strength and grace. And even this, he must admit: pride at surprising and pleasing Sitaris with his quickness in the training.
He thinks of me as no more than a particularly clever pet, he reminded himself. He is training me. I am an apt learner. There is nothing more to his pleasure than this.
Still, he felt at peace with Sitaris. At least, he wished him no ill.
He woke as the light fell, as was becoming his habit. Sitaris was just approaching. He stood, leaning against the rock, eager to run again.
"Tonight we play for real," Sitaris told him as he unchained him. He sounded almost eager himself, though his expression was as blank as ever. "Stay within fifty meters of this point, and in my line of sight. Do not enter the tent. You must come back to me by fifteen minutes from now."
Obi-Wan set off running immediately. Fifteen minutes of freedom seemed a luxury. He ran in a wide circle, jumping rocks and grasses; stopped to investigate a lizard's hole he had noticed from his daytime boulder. All too soon his time was up; he ran to stand before Sitaris, cutting as close to the deadline as he could guess it without going over the limit. Sitaris was just finishing the night's preparations, and handed the kazaba to him without a word, pulling off his tunic and sandals while Obi-Wan wrapped himself.
The red disk was empty tonight. Obi-Wan took his place on the blue force-field when Sitaris indicated he should do so. The tall man handed him the blue whip, then took the red one in hand and stepped up on the red disk himself.
"Tonight we fight as they fight at the Palace. The rules are simple: do not leave the circle. The first to leave his circle, or to fall from it, loses the contest. Use the switch at the bottom of your whip's handle to activate it. Are you ready?"
Obi-Wan reached down to push the switch. His whip hummed to life, blue along its entire length. Looking up, he saw Sitaris' whip now glowing brightly red. He nodded once.
Sitaris' first strike came quick and direct, to the front of the blue circle. Obi-Wan knocked it aside with his hip, at the same time using the twist of his body to impart a deft spin to his own strike, twisting back at the last moment to flick the tip in a new direction. Sitaris had seen it coming, however, and blocked it; at the same time sweeping his whip up and over Obi-Wan to strike on the far side of the circle. Obi-Wan blocked it with the handle of his whip as he swept the end in and over: a simple move, that Sitaris easily blocked, but it set him up for a quick snap to the side as he stepped to block Sitaris' next strike. He scored the first successful strike, and a small wedge of the red circle disappeared. Sitaris usually blank expression was curving into a wide grin.
And so it went. Sitaris gave no quarter, and expected none. He scored the next two strikes; Obi-Wan sacrificed yet another small wedge in order to gain a sure strike against one of Sitaris' larger rings. He was no stranger to the use of feints and reversals, and he knew how to keep his cool in a fight, to strategize and watch his opponent for clues of his intent. And the Force was with him: he trusted his instincts and let them guide him. Against this, Sitaris clearly had far more experience, both with the weapons they were using, and with strategies particular to this contest.
It was a long fight. An hour after they had begun, they were still at it, still striking steadily, dancing across the wide gaps in their force fields. Then Sitaris feinted to the back of the blue disk, snapping the whip around at the last moment to catch Obi-Wan around one ankle, the end wrapping quickly around his leg twice before Sitaris yanked and he fell to the ground.
He was surprised when the collar did not activate, as it had always done before. Sitaris was stepping down from his disk, clearly exhilarated. "That was well done!" he said. "At the Palace, be aware that you will experience intense pain when you fall, like that generated by your collar. But I saw no need for that tonight." He was chuckling as he walked to the generator to reset the fields. Obi-Wan stepped out of the center of his circle to wait, letting his heart slow and his muscles recover, wondering at the change in Sitaris' manner. "You have challenged me as I have not been challenged in years! And you a stripling, barely more than a child! But you're not ready yet, no -- not until you can defeat me." He fiddled with the equipment, and the disks were whole once more. "Sit in the center," he ordered him brusquely, though still grinning.
As Obi-Wan settled himself cross-legged on the blue force-field, Sitaris fetched him water and two of the sweet bars, taking the blue whip. "Rest in the circle," he told him. "You know the routine. I'll be back in half an hour." He walked back to the tent, leaving Obi-Wan alone.
Obi-Wan thought about Sitaris as he ate. Obi-Wan had thought him cold and pitiless when he first arrived, but now he saw him differently: disciplined and professional. He was a trainer, and like the trainers at the Temple, he was strict and demanding. But where the Jedi insisted on inner discipline, and fostered it with high expectations and gentle guidance, Sitaris imposed discipline with punishment and threats. Still, Sitaris did not seem to want to punish him: he was pleased when Obi-Wan obeyed him and did his best. Could Obi-Wan use that to his advantage? He felt certain that Sitaris liked him. The man had already made one exception for him tonight, turning off the collar for when he fell. Would he make another?
Sitaris was returning, striding across the hard earth with purposeful strides. Obi-Wan stood. He would do his best to please the man, and take what opportunities were afforded him.
Once more they began their dance. Obi-Wan remembered how Sitaris had used the whip to catch his ankle, and took every opportunity to practice that technique. It cost him several lost force-field segments while his opponent lost none, but after a dozen tries he was able to hook Sitaris' wrist, pulling him off balance and out of his rhythm, and make two unhindered strikes against the largest rings. Satisfied, he let Sitaris occupy him for a time with strikes and counterstrikes, taking two small wedges against two lost. Then, seeing Sitaris leaning away from one foot, he caught the man exactly as he himself had been caught: wrapping his ankle and pulling him into a fall. The red disk was still mostly whole, and Sitaris was able to catch himself and roll to his feet, but not before Obi-Wan had taken the center of his circle and a large wedge. Sitaris laughed aloud and came after him twice as quickly as before. Obi-Wan was equal to this and fended him off. For a time neither scored any strikes. Then, with a twist that sent the red whip spinning in a tight spiral, Sitaris entangled the blue whip and pulled it from Obi-Wan's grasp.
"We'll end this game here," he told Obi-Wan, "though at the Palace you would be required to stay on the disk until you fell through, on the chance that your opponent would misstep first. I'd rather we spent our time with proper fights, than cat-and-mouse games." He went to reset the disks, having gestured to Obi-Wan to step down, while the boy considered the irony: that he could have retrieved the whip with the Force if he wanted. But this was not the time or place to play that trump.
"It was clever of you to use my trick against me. Usually I only try that when my opponent's disk is nearly gone, because it's a difficult maneuver, and you can lose a lot of ground when you try it and fail. You managed it well, for only a bit of practice." He indicated that Obi-Wan should take his place again, and returned to the red disk. "Entanglement, now, that's a risky maneuver. If your timing is off, you can find yourself losing your own whip, instead of taking the opponent's. Try it now: I've set the force field so you won't lose any segments. Turn off the charge." So saying, he flicked the switch at the base of his whip, so the red light winked out. Obi-Wan did the same.
Sitaris swung his whip toward Obi-Wan, aiming for the force-field as usual, though no segments disappeared. On Obi-Wan's first few dozen tries, his whip missed the red one entirely: his spiral was not tight enough. Then, once he had mastered how to flick his wrist properly, he kept losing his whip when Sitaris snapped it away from him before he could take the red one. But Sitaris only returned the blue whip to him. After an hour of such practice, Obi-Wan was able to take the red whip successfully about once every three times, while he lost it about as often, and both kept their whips the rest of the attempts.
"Good enough," said Sitaris. "It's a technique of last resort. Most of your opponents won't be able to defend against it as well as I can, but enough have practiced it that you shouldn't risk trying unless you're losing badly." He allowed Obi-Wan to rest on the circle, giving him water to drink, while he reset the circles once more, and had a drink himself. Then they began again.
Obi-Wan was improving rapidly. Each match, he held Sitaris off for longer; was quicker to take the red force field apart. But as Obi-Wan improved, Sitaris matched him: Obi-Wan realized that the man had been holding back in his own skill to keep the matches more even. He wondered: how good is Sitaris really? But it was not until the sky lightened in the hour before dawn that he found out. It was that final match, when Obi-Wan was striking faster, with more control than ever, that he realized he had pushed past the point that Sitaris could best him: that his strikes were pushing Sitaris' abilities to the limit: that he was now the better fighter. With that realization he tasted success. Almost lazily, he distracted Sitaris with a series of blindingly quick feints and strikes, taking several segments of the disk. Then he enticed Sitaris into the most whole area of the red disk -- where he had left one large segment purposefully -- with a feint to the front of that segment; and, with a flick and twist of his hand, he curved the tip of the whip behind Sitaris and took the segment from under him as he was about to land on it. The man could not stop his fall, then, to the earth. He stood on the bare ground beneath the near-empty disk, and shook his head, grinning.
"I have never seen anyone learn so quickly, so thoroughly," he said. He stepped away from the remainder of the red force field and walked to the generator to shut it down, then took the whips and put them away, taking up the crate and indicating that Obi-Wan should follow him to the boulder where he spent his days. Obi-Wan wrestled with himself as he returned the kazaba and allowed Sitaris to chain him: should he try to speak? What should he say?
Sitaris pulled a flat disk of sun blocking cream from the crate; as he had every morning since he arrived, Obi-Wan turned and knelt so Sitaris could rub it into his back. Watching with his peripheral vision, he saw an openness to Sitaris' face that he had never seen before.
"When you fight at the Palace, you must not show all your skill at once. Play to your opponent. Keep him guessing, keep him overconfident. They will pit you against the least skilled players first; if you are to last through to the end, you must keep the other players off balance. Their trainers will be watching you, to determine your style, your weaknesses: don't give them anything more to see than you have to."
Sitaris had never spoken to him like this in the daytime before. Obi-Wan opened his mouth to ask about the Palace, but was forestalled.
"Soon your owner will return for you. I never believed him when he said five days would be sufficient to train you, but he paid well enough for me to overlook it. Now I know better. I wish I had the money to buy you myself!"
The words exploded from Obi-Wan in his shock and anger: "Xanatos is not -- not --" He grabbed at the collar in anguish and sprawled to the ground. Still he held on to his voice: "No! He's not!"
"Calm down, boy, and be quiet!"
Obi-Wan stopped yelling, and the pain immediately subsided. He burst into angry sobs and tried to ignore Sitaris, who was rubbing his back and legs and speaking in a soothing voice: Like I'm some half-broken equus he's trying to tame! He thought angrily. The indignity of it only infuriated him more. He covered his ears, but was not able to stop his hearing.
"Now, lad, you must not struggle so in your heart. The gods have put you in this place: whether to punish or test you I do not know, but fighting them will bring you nothing but ill luck. Perhaps it was your pride as brought you to this: by the sun, you are as proud and fierce as a wildcat!" Sitaris' voice was filled with admiration. "As was I, when I was bonded: nine, ten years old? Probably the same as you were. And I struggled, as you do now, for years, with the collar. My owner was strict, and he taught me much, and trained me to my full strength himself. By the time I was twelve I saw his care for me, and obeyed him gladly, and he did not need to be so fierce to control me." Here Obi-Wan found his anger lessening, horror replacing it. What kind of world had Xanatos brought him to?
Sitaris continued: "You must learn to accept your owner, as I did: then you will learn from him as you did from me: a humble heart accepts the wisdom of the gods and grows to its full strength. The Mozelle taught me so, and left me strong, and with some small wisdom, I hope! When the period of your bondage is done, you too will go free, with the respect of your clan. Come now, boy, how many years do you have left?"
"I don't know," Obi-Wan whispered, breath catching in his throat. "I don't know what you mean."
"The proscribed period of bondage is thirty years for males, twenty for females. Your owner must have told you this at the rituals -- when were you taken?"
Obi-Wan clenched his fists at the memory. "Eleven days ago, Xanatos took me hostage, and kidnapped me from my master."
Sitaris was silent for a long moment. Locked in his own grief, Obi-Wan paid him no mind. When the man spoke again, his voice was once more cold, and hard, and distant: the man was standing now, looking down at him.
"I see. I should have better minded your owner: he told me you would lie if given the chance, and not to let you speak if I could help it. I thought from your behavior that he must have been mistaken, or that perhaps he handled you poorly: it is often true that owners not of the Mozelle are either lax or heavy handed with their bonders. In my pride and pleasure at your skill I have allowed your discipline to slip." Obi-Wan lay frozen in shock, and did not comprehend at first Sitaris' next words: "Get in position for your punishment." He lay still, not knowing what to do, though it was evident something was expected of him. Sitaris sighed. "Three strokes for lying, bonder, and two more for not obeying me immediately. Now kneel and bend your head!"
This time Obi-Wan understood. He rose slowly to his knees. But I'm not lying! He wanted to protest. How could he make Sitaris understand? But he could not: that was the problem. Whatever he tried to say would only make the situation worse. He put his face to his knees; covered his head with his hands; hatred for Xanatos grew in his heart.
It was the hand-made whip of twisted cable that Sitaris had pulled from the crate, and was using against him. The muscles of his back screamed protest.
Obi-Wan gasped. Let it pass, he told himself. Let it flow past and beyond. Hatred and anger: they will flow over and through and past and I will be cleansed of them. The words brought little comfort. With every strike his anger grew. He hid his face and hid his anger, and it grew white hot and his muscles tensed with it, and the strikes hurt ever more, and still his anger grew.
Five strikes: Sitaris did not hold back his strength for any of them. When he was done, he left in silence. Alone, Obi-wan struggled with his anger, his blood hot where it ran along his back, to pool on the bare earth around him. Master, where are you? By the stars, Qui-Gon, I need you now!
Half an hour after Sitaris left him, the man returned. With the medkit he had brought, he cleaned and taped the wounds he had made in the boy's back. Obi-Wan had not moved: he still huddled over his knees: his anger had burned itself out, leaving him with a feeling of hopelessness. Seeing he had not yet used the sun-blocking cream, Sitaris pushed him over and finished coating him. He did not speak, and Obi-Wan lay limp and unresisting. He could not bring himself to care.
Ki-Erin wove their way expertly through crowded space lanes to the surface of Coruscant. As they were on urgent Jedi business, they had been permitted to bypass most of the traffic; Ki-Erin pulled their tiny borrowed craft neatly to a landing in the Jedi hangar bay.
During the four days of their journey home they had spoken much: of what Qui-Gon had seen of Obi-Wan, of nephrolite, of what Xanatos might be planning for both. But now they were anxious to continue with their mission: they walked in silence together to the repulsorlift tube that would bring them to the Council chambers. Tahl and Master Yoda were sitting by the doors, talking quietly, when they arrived. Tahl stood and looked to Qui-Gon: it was difficult to believe she was sightless the way her eyes found his so quickly. Master Yoda nodded and lowered his chair to the floor. He led them inside.
The Council was already gathered: they had had several hours warning of the travelers' arrival time. As the three Jedi they had been awaiting entered, they settled quickly into watchful silence. Master Yoda took his place in the circle; Tahl stood with Qui-Gon and Tomas and Ki-Erin in the center. Master Windu spoke first.
"We would like you first to explain everything that happened from the time you left hyperspace in the vicinity of Vandos3, to the time you left to come here."
Qui-Gon delivered most of the narrative, with comments and clarifications from Tomas and Ki-Erin. He described the planet, the two Jakubeks who hosted them, and the workers they had seen and met. He described the mine, and their descent into it, and their shared experience of the nephrolite. He was interrupted frequently by questions from the Council.
"Why, think you, did the nephrolite effect you much more strongly when you were moving quickly than when you were walking?" asked Yaddle.
Ki-Erin answered: "It was like it was pulling at us, pulling at our living Force. It was like running through a thick forest of pines, pushing through branches: go quickly, and they snap against you. Go slowly, and you can deflect them." Tomas nodded agreement.
Qui-Gon told how Obi-Wan's voice had caught him as they walked through the tunnel of unharvested nephrolite, how he had searched for the source and not found it; his astonishment at how quickly he had scanned an entire planet. How he had followed his bond with Obi-Wan, and felt almost present with him, in spirit.
"And you did not sense the danger in letting your soul roam so far?"
"No, Master, though Tomas did warn me. I was anxious to find my Padawan."
A moment of silence greeted this statement.
"Decided, have you then, to take Obi-Wan back as your Padawan?" asked Yoda.
"I decided that before Xanatos took him," Qui-Gon answered, his voice tight.
"Know this, does he?"
"I told him so."
"What were his words when you heard him calling you?" asked Mace.
Qui-Gon closed his eyes briefly, remembering. "He said, 'Qui-Gon! I am here, Master!'" Qui-Gon opened his eyes in time to see Yoda and Mace Windu exchanging a significant look.
"Please, continue," said Mace.
Tomas took over the narrative to tell about their experience in the old mines. The questions came quickly.
"How did it feel to you in the Force, walking into that area?"
"How long before you asked did you begin to feel the difference?"
"How did you guess the nephrolite in that area was dark in color?" This question from Master Billaba was directed to Qui-Gon.
"Jemma had told us that two qualities besides length affected the value of raw nephrolite: its color, and its lustre. The nephrolite we had seen before had already been gray-white in color. Our use of the Force only changed its lustre from dull to shiny. I guessed that the nature of the Force in an area would affect its color, where the level of activity in the Force was apparently affecting its lustre."
At this point, Tomas pulled the packet with its strands of dark nephrolite from his belt pouch and handed it to Master Windu. Ki-Erin also handed over her packet of silver-gray nephrolite. Mace passed strands in each direction around the circle, so all of the Council members could examine the strange mineral; he kept one strand of each color in reserve, in their packets.
The questioning continued through their description of Qui-Gon's second foray to Obi-Wan, their talk before dinner, and Qui-Gon's experience of losing himself as they traveled away from the planet. Finally the questions were finished.
"Now Qui-Gon," directed Mace Windu, "tell us about the experience you had on the trip from Tricort5 to Vandos3A: your disturbed dreams, and how you saw Obi-Wan in the Force."
Qui-Gon described all he could remember of the incident, though much of what he had seen had been vague and difficult to follow.
"And you thought that Obi-Wan had been drugged somehow? Have you considered that the substance used on him might have been dark nephrolite?"
Tomas and Qui-Gon glanced at each other. "We had thought of that possibility," Tomas answered for them. "It seems reasonable."
"Not just reasonable," said Qui-Gon. "Likely, given what we know now of Xanatos' collection of the substance." Tomas nodded.
Mace Windu folded his hands in front of him. "Thank you all for your report. We will speak to you again in a few hours, when we have discussed the implications of what you have told us."
The four Jedi, Tahl included, bowed and left the room.
"Incredible," said Tahl when they reached the quiet halls of the west wing, where the adult Jedi and Padawans had their quarters. "You've learned a great deal in a short time."
"I want to know why Yoda and Mace were so interested in the status of my relationship with Obi-Wan."
Tomas looked uneasy. "I thought they were most concerned about what Xanatos is doing with nephrolite, myself."
"You know, don't you Tomas? Stop trying to evade the question."
They had reached the door to Tahl's quarters. Tahl led the way inside. From their position on the floor, huddled around a data station, Bant and Garen leapt to their feet.
"We thought you'd never get back!" cried Garen, a tall human boy only a year younger than his friend Obi-Wan.
"How is he, Qui-Gon?" This from Bant, in her soft gentle voice. Qui-Gon lowered himself to one knee before the tiny Calamari girl, his Padawan's special friend, so his face was level with hers.
"He's holding on, Bant."
"He's so brave," said Bant. "But I'm afraid for him."
"So am I. But he'll be all right. We know where he is now, and we're going to get him."
Bant nodded, and put her arms around his neck; and he held her, briefly, before she pulled away. He had grown fond of the girl when she had helped him and Obi-Wan and Tahl to foil Xanatos' scheme against the Temple only a month before.
"Thank you Qui-Gon. I know you'll find him. But it's hard not to worry."
They hadn't much time to talk. There were supplies to order for their journey. Tomas and Ki-Erin went to the engineering center to see what they could find, while Bant and Garen went to their afternoon classes; Tahl helped Qui-Gon to collect other items they would need, including fresh clothing and medicines for Obi-Wan.
"I don't think we'll need quite this much food for traveling, Tahl. You've ordered enough for five people!"
"But there will be five of us, Qui-Gon, once we collect Obi-Wan."
Qui-Gon looked sharply at her face, but she went on packing a small sack, looking oblivious. Qui-Gon knew better.
"Tahl. You can't come. We need you here."
"I've found all I could in the databases. I've found nothing new since learning about Lansar. Miro can take over analyzing the databases for us. You're going to need me to help you infiltrate Starways security. Unless you or Tomas or Ki-Erin has developed a talent I don't know about?"
Qui-Gon opened his mouth, then shut it again. Tahl's golden brown skin and honey hair glowed in the soft overhead light. In that moment, she seemed very precious to him, and very fragile.
"I'm not made of porcelain, Qui-Gon. I'm a Jedi Knight, and though I've lost my sight, I'm still Force-sensitive."
"Qui-Gon, please. Stop being so protective. I won't put myself at risk by insisting on casing the Palace with you. Most of my work, I can do from the ship, or a temporary base. Besides," she grinned up at him, "if I don't get out of the Temple soon, I might become dangerously unstable."
Qui-Gon couldn't help but smile. Tahl had always chafed at inactivity. He felt a soft pleasure at the thought of having her company on the journey.
"Does the Council know yet that you're coming with us?"
"I've already discussed it with Master Yoda. They approve. Yoda said that he had been wondering when I would decide to try my wings again."
They worked in silence for a while. Tahl carefully packed the data station that was calibrated to her fingers and hearing.
"Tahl, why is the Council concerned with Obi-Wan's status with me?"
Tahl sighed, obviously uncomfortable.
"Tahl." Qui-Gon firmed his resolve, determined to have an answer.
"They're worried about the state of trust between you, Qui-Gon."
"Qui-Gon... they're worried the boy will turn to the Dark Side under Xanatos' influence."
Qui-Gon stopped what he was doing, sank into the chair beside him. He felt numb.
"Why, Tahl? What reason has he ever given for them to suspect it?"
"None. None at all. It's only that Xanatos is so strong -- Qui-Gon --"
He was shaking his head, disbelieving. "They're wrong."
"Master Yoda said he thought that Obi-Wan was stronger than Xanatos," she said. "He and Mace agreed that it would be best if your relationship was stable once more. I think that's why they asked. Truly, my friend, I don't think it's Obi-Wan's goodness they question."
"No -- just my stubbornness in holding him at a distance for so long."
"Qui-Gon, stop." Tahl's voice was sharp. "For how long have you been ... indulging!... in this self-blame?"
He grimaced. "It's only truth."
"Not only truth. Not with your voice so bitter."
Qui-Gon closed his eyes. She was right, as Tomas had been right on the repulsorlift train at Permanent Sunset.
"I'm sorry, Tahl."
She reached out and took his hand. He looked up at her, sadly.
"Come on," she told him. "We have more to do before the Council calls us. I want to be ready."
As the sun rose Obi-Wan fell into a deep sleep. He was exhausted, physically and emotionally, and he'd lost a fair amount of blood. When he woke again the sun was past the meridian. He felt dizzy and weak; his throat burned. He needed water.
He pulled himself slowly upright until he was sitting, leaning back against the stone, and took one of the water bottles from the side of the rock where they would have been in shade that morning when Sitaris left them. He forced himself to take one mouthful at a time, and felt strength returning to his body. Desire for life grew strong in him once more. Where the Force is there is hope, he thought. And Qui-Gon is coming for me. He refused to think farther ahead than this. When he had finished an entire bottle of water, he crossed his legs and straightened his back, bowing his head and finding peace in the Force.
An hour later Sitaris came to him, though the sun had not yet set. He was dressed in tunic, trousers, and hat, as he had been the day Xanatos left.
"Have you sought the gods' forgiveness, then?"
Obi-Wan reflected that in a way he had, though not for what Sitaris thought: for his rush of anger. Silently, gracefully he rose to his feet. Sitaris is not an enemy, he is an obstacle, he thought. I must not blame him for his narrow-mindedness, when he knows no other way to think. Still he could not help feeling disgust for the man and his ways of thinking. He took the kazaba Sitaris handed him, grateful for once for the prohibition against looking him in the eye. I thought he was fair, and I was disappointed, he thought. But he is fair, within his own world-view. Where I am a bonder, to his mind, and so never to be judged by the same standards as a free man. Obi-Wan's thoughts turned bitter, and he paused in wrapping the kazaba, seeking equanimity in the Force once more.
When he was done to Sitaris' satisfaction, the man left him, taking the water bottles with him. Obi-Wan looked up; far above him he saw Xanatos' ship approaching. He watched the ship descend on its repulsors, settling to the ground not far from the tent, in the same clearing where it had landed six days before. Sitaris was again setting out camp chairs, table, and drinks. Obi-Wan sat, his legs crossed, returning to his meditation: the feeling of Xanatos in the Force stirred up his anger once more, and he wanted to be strong in his center. Besides, he did not want to give Xanatos the satisfaction of seeing him watching.
Perhaps twenty minutes after he closed his eyes, Obi-Wan felt Xanatos approaching him. A wave of fear shook him. It's only reasonable to be afraid, he told himself, the man is dangerous. He focused on relaxing his body, on breathing, accepting the fear and allowing it to drain away.
A hand cupped his chin. "Such a barbarian you've become," came the silky voice. "Covered in dust and sweat and --" here he stopped to sniff at the boy's neck -- "something foul. Your skin dark and dry; your hair bleached almost pale. I wonder if Qui-Gon would recognize you. "
Here Obi-Wan opened his eyes to find Xanatos looking straight at him, calculating. He shifted his gaze to one side with what he hoped was a disdainful look.
Xanatos sneered and released him, reaching up to unfasten the chain from where it was attached to the stone. Obi-Wan had realized, watching Sitaris, that it was sealed with a thumb-lock, set to recognize the man's prints; he must have programmed the codes for Xanatos already. The boy stood quickly so Xanatos would not yank him up to his feet, and when Xanatos started walking, he followed with long strides, his hands at his sides, wishing he dared to strike at Xanatos.
The man paused before the tiny camp where Sitaris was still sitting, watching them approach. Obi-Wan had been studiously avoiding looking at the trainer, and so was surprised to hear approval in the man's voice as he spoke. The words sounded like part of a ritual: "I thank you, bonder, for allowing me to train you, and for learning quickly and well."
"Thank your trainer, boy," said Xanatos in a soft, dangerous voice.
Rebellion filled him at this mockery. His voice heavy with disgust, he said, "Xanatos wishes you thanked for the tending and training of his supposed property."
He was not surprised when Xanatos swiftly backhanded him across the face. He took the slap, seeing stars; quickly straightened and turned his other cheek to Xanatos, inviting him to strike again.
"Shall I fetch my whip, Master Xanatos, for his punishment?" came Sitaris' cold voice.
"For what, lying?" Rage burned at the back of Obi-Wan's mind, but his thoughts were clear and focused. He watched Xanatos make a small gesture with his left hand, and then he was falling, the collar searing his nerves. So it hurts, he thought. I'm not going to participate in my own humiliation. Dimly he heard the voices of the two men standing over him, but he could not comprehend them.
He felt himself being carried aboard the ship, carried to the small cabin where he had spent most of the trip to this place, dropped on the bed. Xanatos left him briefly, then returning gripped his head and chin, forced the bitter drink he now knew so well down his throat. When the last of the drug was in him, the collar turned off. He lay on the bed trembling with the aftereffects, and watched the door slide shut behind Xanatos.
Obi-Wan came to himself to find Xanatos standing across from him in a narrow room, watching him. He shuddered at the half-remembered shreds of nightmares that still tugged at his consciousness. Aching in all his muscles, he pushed himself to sit up on the narrow cot that held him. The chain still hanging from the collar at his neck dragged at his spirit.
"This is your cell at the Palace," said Xanatos. "From your behavior when we left Sitaris, I can see I'm going to have to make a few things clear to you. First, I have decided that from now on you will be mute. I've had a cybernetic implant installed in your neural pathways that should prevent you from using your voice without my permitting it."
Obi-Wan reached up to touch the collar with one hand.
"Go ahead, try it," challenged Xanatos.
Obi-Wan opened his mouth, but no sound came out. Even thinking in words was difficult. He put both hands to the collar, trying to think around the blockage.
"You see? Ah, yes, and by the way," said Xanatos, "I've changed the collar to a higher shock setting." He waited a moment until Obi-Wan lowered his hands, resigned. "Now about the contests in which you will be participating. I want it absolutely clear that you are going to win every one of them. If you do not --" Here he paused, watching Obi-Wan's face carefully -- "If you do not, I will ensure that your winning opponent comes to an unfortunate end. Perhaps not immediately. But it will be so, and I'll be certain to let you know when and how."
Obi-Wan closed his eyes tightly, horrified.
"Remember that I can always make your situation worse. Remember the price of making me angry. You are fortunate: I was impressed by your little show of temper. I thought you were too much the perfect little Jedi to have it in you. But I will not tolerate any further disobedience. Do you understand me?"
Slowly, sadly Obi-Wan nodded. He was stung by the reference to his temper: he had let his anger get the best of his judgement, he knew. Hadn't he decided only a few days before to watch and wait, and bide his time? And now Xanatos had hemmed him in worse than ever.
The man crouched beside him.
"I hold the key to this collar." He brushed the collar with his fingertips. "Your prints and retinal scan are registered here in my name. Any denizen of this planet would return you as a runaway or stolen property at my word. It would not matter what you told them; a bonder's word has no value, his history is meaningless. Slavery is an institution here." Xanatos ran his fingers up and along Obi-Wan's jaw; the boy shifted and turned his head. Xanatos laughed quietly; with both hands he turned Obi-Wan to face him. Obi-Wan crossed his arms over his chest, bowing his head and his back.
"You hate me, don't you. Young Jedi. I can feel it in you. You're straining to hold it in. Sitaris would say you should learn to love me, since the gods have clearly decreed that I am your guide to strength and wisdom. After all, I hold your lead." Here he slid one hand around the chain hanging from Obi-Wan's neck, close to the collar. "Perhaps they are right. Perhaps I will be the one to free you from the constraints of a Temple upbringing. Perhaps you will learn from me how to use your hatred. It can give you great power." Obi-Wan shook his head in determined denial.
"Still clinging to the code. Yet I am your master: and you my slave. Do you understand what this means? This body is mine. I will feed and clothe you as I wish. Your time is mine. You will sleep when I say, and fight when I say, and you will serve me as I will. And if you refuse, I will punish you, and no one here will deny my right to do so: indeed, they will expect it."
For a moment longer Xanatos watched him in silence. Then he stood, tall over the boy bent and heartsick on the narrow cot; menacing. "Sleep tonight," he told him. "You will need all your strength tomorrow at the Palace." The door whirred shut behind him as he left. Obi-Wan sank back to the bunk, hoping sleep would come to him.
Only six hours after they arrived on Coruscant, Qui-Gon, Tomas and Ki-Erin, together with Tahl, were summoned before the Jedi Council.
"It is the opinion of this Council," said Master Windu, "That Xanatos must be stopped: by his capture if possible; if not, by his death. His experiments with nephrolite have made him a potential danger to the safety of the people of the Republic and the Rim worlds. Your mission to rescue young Obi-Wan continues. You must do everything in your power to ensure his safety. However, we also charge you with this second mission: to learn what Xanatos is doing with nephrolite, and to stop him. The resources of the Temple are at your disposal. Tahl will go with you, to help with data gathering and analysis and any other computer or systems work you need done.
"Remember that Lansar is a world in transition. They have never shown an interest in joining the Republic; however, I enjoin you to respect their autonomy and what forms of self-government they use. Walk softly.
"Do you have any questions or requests before you leave?"
No one spoke. The four Jedi were eager to be gone.
"We have kept most of the nephrolite to examine here, but you may have need of some with you," said Master Billaba. "Here are two of the strands." She stood and handed the two packets to Tomas, who tucked them in one of his belt pouches.
"If that is all?" called Master Windu to the Circle. He folded his hands and looked to Qui-Gon and his companions. "May the Force be with you."
The four Jedi left immediately for their waiting ship, fully refueled and checked in the Jedi hangar bay. Bant and Garen and Miro bade them farewell at the door to the lift. Soon they were in open space headed away from Coruscant, with Tomas at the pilot's station this time, and Ki-Erin navigating.
Qui-Gon helped Tahl to set her things in the cabin next to his own. While she set up her equipment on the desk, he sat on the sleep couch by her and let himself drift slowly into a meditative state. He was sensing the unifying Force more clearly than he did usually. Like a landscape viewed from a mountaintop he saw present and future stretched around him in its infinity of possibilities. He sank deeper into trance and let the vision fill him.
"What is it, Qui-Gon?" Tahl was sitting beside him, her face concerned, one hand on his. He looked down to see his fists clenched in his lap.
"Tahl." With an effort he released his tension; turned his hand to cup her fingers. The vision had left him with such restless anxiety as he had never felt before. He stood and paced the floor of the tiny cabin, feeling like a caged predator.
"I've never been one for visions and dreams, Tahl."
"You live firmly in the present." She tilted her head as though listening for some faint sound. "But you're troubled by them now?"
Qui-Gon nodded before remembering she could not see him. But it did not matter: she sensed his answer.
"You're anxious about Obi-Wan, and looking to the future: to our journey's ending."
"If Xanatos succeeds in his schemes to use nephrolite, he will be more powerful than ever. He will cause a great deal of destruction before we can stop him. Many lives will be lost."
Tahl waited for him to continue, and when he didn't, she ventured uncertainly: "You fear that the mission to stop Xanatos will have to take precedence over the mission to rescue Obi-Wan?"
Qui-Gon sat again beside her on the sleep-couch, shaking his head. "No, Tahl. No -- what I saw --" he paused, uncertain how to explain. "Obi-Wan is the key." So saying, he was struck with fear: fear that turned his gut, that made him sick at heart.
"You're afraid for him, Qui-Gon," Tahl said quietly, taking hold of his arm, her voice low and intense. "What have you seen?"
"Tahl -- he stands at the nexus. It will be his choices, his decisions that will mean success or failure for Xanatos."
Obi-Wan. He could feel his young Padawan's pain, his struggle with rage.
"A choice between Light and Dark?"
"I don't know." He drew a long shuddering breath, and looked down at his hands, clenched once more into fists. "Either way, his actions will put his life and soul at risk." He looked up to find Tahl's eyes on his face, brows pinched with shared anxiety. "Xanatos is tormenting him. Obi-Wan's anger is threatening to overwhelm him."
"We'll reach him as quickly as we can. He'll hold on. He's too stubborn to let Xanatos goad him."
"I know." Qui-Gon gave a despairing little laugh. "I can't think of anything else we can do. Light, Tahl, I want to reach him!"
The day after they left Coruscant, Tomas, Tahl, Ki-Erin, and Qui-Gon gathered in the ship's common area behind the pilot's station. Tahl had her data station open at the table.
"The Mozelle are basically human stock," Tahl told the others, "they can still interbreed with humans. Their skin and eye color are unusual: their eyes have a particularly large iris, and their skin has a silvery sheen, and is resistant to damage from solar radiation. They are believed to have settled Lansar about twelve to fifteen thousand years ago, during a wave of outward migrations from the core."
"They currently have a tribal social system?" asked Ki-Erin.
"They are organized into mostly independent tribes. The tribes are organized into thirteen major clans. Major decision-making within each clan is done once per year at a gathering of the tribes at the end of their rainy season. Clan heads meet every three years, or if a gathering is called for."
"They use some technology for communication and travel, and for pumping groundwater and growing crops during their rainy season. However, little of the technology they brought with them from the original period of colonization remains. The world is iron-rich, but poor in other metals. I'm assuming that much of the technology they now use was either brought by the most recent wave of colonists -- the Lansarites -- or acquired from offworlders at the Starways resort city."
"And they use slaves," Qui-Gon said. "Was that practice also introduced by Starways?"
"I don't know. I have no information on that subject -- what I have, I've pieced together from questionable sources as it is, and from a fifty-year-old senatorial report."
"What about the nephrolite?" asked Tomas, after the group had sat in thoughtful silence for several minutes. He took the packets from his belt pouch and laid them on the table. "What if the Council is right? Why would Xanatos be feeding it to Obi-Wan?"
Qui-Gon reached for the package with the dark strand. "There is only one way to know for certain," he said.
Tahl pinned Qui-Gon's reaching hand with her own. "Don't be a fool. You don't need to take that kind of risk."
"How else do you propose to find out?"
"You don't know what he might have mixed with it. You don't even know if that's what he was using."
"No, but I know at least some of the effects."
"Maybe that's all Xanatos meant to do," put in Ki-Erin. "Give him nightmares and hallucinations."
"If that's all, then why is he stockpiling it?" said Tomas.
"Why would he need so much of it?" Tahl mused.
Tomas answered, "the quantity in the mines created an incredible reservoir of power -- the kind of power that could move worlds."
"But if it can't be used without losing control, without losing the self --"
"Perhaps he's found a way around that danger," Qui-Gon suggested.
"But that doesn't make any sense," said Ki-Erin. "How could you use power without using power?"
"I don't know," said Qui-Gon, "but I think it might help to experiment."
"Without ingesting any," Tahl demanded.
"For now," he conceded.
Tahl nodded and withdrew her hand, satisfied for the moment.
"I wonder if it's possible to change the color of dark nephrolite to light," Ki-Erin wondered.
"Good question," said Tomas, unwrapping the dark strand and stretching it on the table.
Ki-Erin took a small knife from her belt. "Best work with a segment at a time -- we don't have much of this."
Tomas nodded, and they all watched as Ki-Erin cut a finger-length segment from the end of the strand. Tomas coiled the remainder and placed it back on its wrapping. Ki-Erin looked to her master for permission, and when he nodded, took the small piece in her hand and closed her eyes. She shuddered.
"It feels -- it repels me." She dropped the segment back to the table.
"Let me try," said Qui-Gon. Instead of picking it up, he placed his hands palm down on the table, encircling it with his fingers and thumb. He focused his mind on knowing it, letting his sight unfocus, reaching out with the Force to touch it.
Through a haze like a dream he saw a cave: a mining tunnel. It was wide and straight like the ones they had seen in the old mines of Vandos3A; dimly lit and crowded with people in rough dark clothes, torn and worn. The people wielded tools, and they were constantly moving: gathering strands of nephrolite that they piled into baskets and slung on their shoulders to carry away. Chipping at the stone walls, filling carts with the debris. Their hands were raw, elbows and knees and shoulders protruding from rips in their clothing, scarred and sometimes bleeding. Their eyes were dull and despairing. Over the noise of the digging and gathering he could hear the roar of a man not far off: shouting abuse, calling on them to move, to hurry. He heard the sizzle of an electrowhip, heard a scream.
Qui-Gon let his focus return to the present. The segment of nephrolite lay between his hands, unchanged. "It remembers," he told the others. "It holds its past."
He focused once more on the segment, this time holding in mind an image of it light in color, a light gray. Change, he willed it, drawing on the Force, pushing it toward the strand of mineral. He felt the Force bend away from the segment between his hands, repelled, as Ki-Erin had said. The nephrolite seemed almost to have a life of its own, to be feeding darkness into everything around it. Obi-Wan has this stuff in his body, he thought. Fear touched him. How is it affecting his connection with the Force? His thoughts, his dreams?
"It's not working," said Ki-Erin, disappointed.
Qui-Gon stopped pushing, looked around at the others. Tomas looked sad, thoughtful. Ki-Erin had covered her eyes with one hand. Tahl had her face turned toward him.
"It occurs to me," she said, "that when Qui-Gon began trying to affect the nephrolite, we all became quite... morose. Do you feel the dark Force? Its strength has grown."
Qui-Gon opened his senses more generally. Tahl was correct: the small chamber was filled with feelings of dread, despair, suffering.
"What will happen to Obi-Wan if he joins with the Force with dark nephrolite in his body?" he asked. Ki-Erin looked up at him, horrified. Tomas shook his head, mouth set in a grim line.
"Qui-Gon," said Tahl, "It's a serious question, and an important one. But I think we need to go beyond it. We need to know: can we stop this effect? Can we change the nephrolite?" She put her hand on his, still resting on the table by the nephrolite, and he felt care and reassurance like a current passing from her and through him, refreshing him. "Focus on hope, not anxiety."
He turned his hand to hold her fingers. Tahl, I am glad that you're here.
"It's changing," said Ki-Erin, wonder in her voice. The nephrolite had lightened to a dark gray; to their Force-sensitivity it seemed to be smoldering, pulling in the light Force that passed between Tahl and Qui-Gon, releasing the dark Force like a stream of smoke.
Tahl reached for Ki-Erin's hand on her left, and Tomas completed the circle, joining hands with Qui-Gon and his Padawan.
"It won't respond to our will," said Qui-Gon, "but it draws on the current we pass between us." Letting go his doubt, his anxiety for his Padawan, he extended himself through the Force, sensing the vibrant presences of the others, giving them his care and trust, accepting theirs in return: Tomas, as steady and dependable as a mountain; the warm and generous flame that was young Ki-Erin; and Tahl, dear Tahl, his soul's mirror. At the center of their circle the small strand of nephrolite drank from the whirlpool they created, to their sight growing steadily lighter in color.
Lansar grew quickly in their viewports from a bright point of light to a red-gold sphere. Tiny clusters of lights on the dark side of the planet marked the few cities. No central authority hailed them in their approach. Using the data stored in their on-board computer, they determined the position of the Starways resort and headed in, locating a docking pad at the edge of the small city from the plethora of beacons in the landing frequency. As they settled to the ground on the ship's repulsors, kicking up red dust -- the 'pad' was little more than a space in the desert cordoned off by perimeter barriers -- a greeting message finally kicked in over the comm, at hailing frequency, in a bright female voice.
"Welcome to Starways resort, bright star in the desert! Whether you are here on business or for pleasure, Starways is the place for you. Walk our beautiful grounds, enjoy our recreational facilities! We offer everything from swimming to smashball. Enjoy the excitement of the arena, bet on your favorites in daring and death-defying contests! Our gambling facilities are without peer, and our markets feature exotic and hard-to-find commodities at fantastic prices! For full information on our offerings, and for important guidance on local rules and customs regarding slaves and droids, please pick up a Starways passcard from your local merchant or host. We hope you enjoy your stay!"
"Somehow I don't think so," said Ki-Erin with a shudder, as she finished the landing routine and system checks with Tomas. "This place already gives me the creeps."
"The Dark Side is strong in the city," agreed Tomas, "but there's more here than that..."
Qui-Gon silently agreed.
In silence, the four Jedi left the ship, hoods raised and travel kits in hand, Tahl with her data station slung from one shoulder. Their plan was to find a place to stay somewhere in the city that had grown up around the resort; with that as their base of operations they could look for Obi-Wan, and look for a way to get him out. They stopped at the gatehouse to the docking pad to pay the attendant, a human elder, female, with dull gray eyes and patchy skin.
"Could you tell us where we might purchase a Starways passcard?" Ki-Erin asked her, letting her hood fall to her back.
The woman's eyes narrowed and focused in on the girl. "Pretty girl like you, not safe for you around here. Not safe at all. What you doing bringing a pretty girl out this way?" She snapped at Qui-Gon accusingly. "Here to sell her?"
"No," said Qui-Gon calmly. "Why isn't it safe for her here?"
"Keep her close," the woman muttered. "Keep her close. Those here would steal her, sell her, pretty girl like that. Fetch a high price at the market." And she continued muttering as she took their currency, registered the ship, and counted the change. Ki-Erin looked to her master, disturbed, then pulled her hood to shadow her face and wrapped her robe around her, hands hidden in the long sleeves. Tomas put a hand on her shoulder.
"Starways passcard." The woman put a bright red datacard, lettered in gold, onto the counter. "Admits one to the arenas and resorts. Thumb-keyed, can't pass it around. Need to pay extra for the special shows. Like tonight, Sha-Zayet, that boy been winning -- I bet on him," she cackled.
"We'll take four," said Tomas, and counted out the units to pay her. He tucked the passcards in an inner pocket and led Ki-Erin from the gatehouse to the busy street beyond, the others close behind.
"Now I really don't like this place," said Ki-Erin. "Let's find Obi-Wan, finish our mission, and get out of here."
Qui-Gon felt the light touch of commiseration from Tahl's thoughts. He took Tahl's hand; helped her to navigate the cracked and broken road that meandered between garishly painted and often derelict constructions. Beasts of burden were more common here than vehicles of any sort; the people walking wore either the unisuits or nondescript tunics and cloaks of traders and spacers, or else long flowing tunics and lightweight wraps like the woman at the docking pad: apparently the native garb. The traders represented a range of species, but the natives were all human.
"One of the human enclaves?" Tomas asked in a low voice.
"Why are they all elders?" asked Ki-Erin.
Qui-Gon drew breath, and looked again more carefully. "They aren't all elders -- many are middle-aged people. But they haven't aged well."
"They look worn out," agreed Tomas.
"What is the crowd gathered for?" asked Tahl.
"Crowd?" asked Ki-Erin, confused.
"We can't see it yet, but I'm guessing from the sound that it's just around this corner," answered Qui-Gon. And indeed, as they turned the corner, they saw before them a wide space, clear of buildings, and filled with the press of colorful tents and people and wares: an open-air market. Nearby a man was calling out prices to the people who pressed forward to sample his fruits and vegetables; his hands were constantly busy with wrapping and bagging and taking money and giving change. A woman tended a collection of bowls and pots and cups; still other beings farther in sold cloth or mechanical parts or smoked meats or medicinals... a mind-bending variety of life and commerce, all open to the senses.
"Oh!" said Ki-Erin in a pained voice. A hundred meters away, near one corner of the square, was a tent and awning: and under the awning, about a dozen humans chained by the neck to a rail. A man was turning a girl of about Ki-Erin's age, looking at her: she wore a simple wrap of bright gold cloth around her middle, and was staring at the ground. As they watched, one of the merchants led her and the man inside the tent.
"Those slaves are very young," Qui-Gon noted. "I don't believe any one of them is older than twenty-five."
Ki-Erin shuddered. "It's awful. How can they bear to be looked at that way?"
"That's what slavery is: sentient beings turned into objects." Tahl spoke gently. "That is why we oppose it."
Ki-Erin nodded slowly, but she couldn't seem to tear her gaze from the slaver's tent. "I knew slavery exists still, amongst the rim worlds, outside the Republic," she said, "but to see it like this..."
Tomas squeezed her shoulder, a comforting gesture. "Time to find lodging, I think," he said, turning to the others, his hand on his Padawan's back. "Near here, but not too near."
"This will be a good place to get information, but we'll need a less congested entrance," Tahl agreed.
"This street should lead toward the Palace." Qui-Gon indicated the great steel building that loomed over the marketplace to the north. It proved a fortuitous choice, they found, as they walked it: the street was filled with inns and bars, catering to resort visitors without wealth enough to stay in the opulent Palace or other Starways hotels. They chose a guest house with a worn but serviceable sign out front and a short flight of steps leading up to the front door. It stood close to the junction with two other streets, one of which led toward the Palace; inspection suggested that it opened both on the main street and onto a small alleyway behind. They found the proprietor in a room overlooking the street, and arranged for lodgings for that night and the next.
Their apartment consisted of three rooms at ground floor, at the back and overlooking the alley. The furniture was shabby but serviceable, with a minimum of technological devices: some kitchen equipment, data access, and a holoreceiver. Ki-Erin switched this on, flipping through the local transmissions: most were entertainment feeds, or advertising and events sponsored by Starways. Tomas went to inspect the rooms, Tahl used her data station to log into the data access, and Qui-Gon inserted the Starways passcard into his datapad to review its contents: mostly schedules of upcoming events.
"I've gotten Starways' public site, now," Tahl informed them. "A first step, anyway," she added under her breath. "There's information here about availability of guest and slave quarters: for a premium guests can get quarters that include a private cell for the slave; or for a fee the slave will be quartered in the Palace's facilities... Registration for races and contests --"
"What kind of contests?" asked Qui-Gon. "Do any involve the use of a whip?" Tomas leaned on the seating unit behind him, having finished his tour of the bedrooms.
"Yes," Tahl answered after a short pause, and her fingers twitched on the tactile readout of her data station. "'Sha-Zayet. This exciting contest of skill, willpower, agility, and speed is a modern form of the traditional Mozelle fighter slave contest. There are two contestants. Each stands on a floating force-field disk that is three meters in diameter. The disks are separated by three meters, and are subdivided into wedges and circular subsections. Each contestant has an electrowhip with which to strike at their opponent and his force field platform. Strikes with the tip make sections of the platform disappear. The object is to cause the opponent to fall from his platform: the contestant who stays on longest is the winner. A contest between skilled opponents can last for an hour or more in a breathtaking display of acrobatic skill and swirling, tangling whips. Games of Sha-Zayet will be taking place from midday through midnight in arenas F2 and F3.' There's more information here on how to register slaves for the games, but I don't think it says anything of interest to us."
"That sounds like what I saw Obi-Wan doing," said Qui-Gon.
"Would this be Sha-Zayet?" asked Ki-Erin, looking at the holoreceiver. The image showed an empty arena with two glowing disks floating above the floor, red and blue.
"The transmission is giving odds," Tahl told them, who had linked in with her data station. "The defender, Red Demon, is favored to win, but there's some excitement about the challenger: Golden Boy."
Ki-Erin switched off the mute and upped the volume.
"...only four days, but he's already overthrown all the standing champions but the top tier, and against all odds! Being human and Lansarite, he's the favorite of all the local freedmen, despite not being favored to win. If he wins all three scheduled matches tonight, he will be challenging the Sha-Zayet reigning champion tomorrow.
"The doors are opening now -- and there we see them. Red Demon, the Ritanian on the left, will take the red disk. Golden Boy will take blue. The guards are escorting them out to the disks..."
"Obi-Wan... Oh, no..." said Ki-Erin, echoing Qui-Gon's thoughts.
He walked with his back straight and his stride sure, but his eyes were distant, and his face was a mask of endurance. He wore little: a leather wrap around his loins; slave harness bridging the brassy manacles on his biceps and wrists, as well as his legs, and encasing his torso in a halter of straps and buckles. His skin was tanned dark brown, and looked strange, almost glittering under the bright lights of the arena.
"The guards are giving them their whips now, and backing away... The disks are rising; the contestants play at a height of three meters. Red Demon is exuberant, eager for this match; see him bare his fangs! Golden Boy looks calm, ready..."
"He's painted gold," said Ki-Erin softly, and Qui-Gon saw she was right, as the holocams zoomed in briefly on his face: flecked with gold, as if it had been sprayed on. Even his short hair and lashes sparkled.
"Not now, my friend. We're not ready yet." Tomas spoke from behind him, both hands resting lightly on his friend's shoulders. Qui-Gon had tensed, as if to rise from his seat, without realizing he'd done so. Tomas moved around the unit to take the seat beside him.
"The whips are on -- Red Demon strikes first: lightning fast, as we've come to expect from him! Golden Boy blocks the strike however, and already has the first wedge and -- oh! He uses the tip to throw off Red Demon's second strike, we've not seen that before, and strikes immediately down -- and the outer ring is out! The crowd goes wild -- Red Demon bares his fangs and puts all his weight into this next strike -- straight for the torso, to knock the Boy off but Golden Boy rolls under! To the other side of the disk where Boy strikes again -- blocked by Red Demon --"
Moving with fluid grace, Obi-Wan danced around the disk, allowing his opponent only minor gains, steadily taking the red disk apart, never losing his calm. Qui-Gon could see what the announcer could not, or would not say: that this was no contest. Obi-Wan was drawing out the fight, making it look like a challenge. But Red Demon had no chance, no chance at all to win.
"Demon has little left to stand on now, he hops from one section to another -- the Boy's whip comes down, straight for the quarter-circle on which Demon is standing -- Red Demon entangles! Risking all -- and he's lost! Golden Boy takes the Red whip! Now the quarter circle, now the remaining outer wedge -- Red Demon howls, he knows its over -- and he falls! To the ground below, he's howling now, twelve minutes of the loser's penalty -- the higher the rank the longer the penalty -- Golden Boy's disk nearly to the ground now -- Ho!!! Red Demon has leaped for the Boy's throat! Golden Boy jumps aside, and Demon is out again -- guards all around him -- an unprecedented action! The Palace will have to reconsider the penalty for Ritanians -- a simple pain charge not enough to ensure his docility, that's certain --"
A look of pity flickered across Obi-Wan's face and was gone, as he looked at the writhing Ritanian. Then the boy turned, and, escorted by a cordon of guards, walked across the arena to the door by which he had entered, his face again rigid, expressionless; his eyes downcast. But not before Qui-Gon caught a look of pure disgust as the boy glanced to the golden force-field that separated him from the watching crowds.
"Golden Boy will play again after this next contest: Heavy Hand against Ready Dodger. His next opponent will be Mean Streak, the odds for the match being calculated now --"
"We've got to get him out of there," said Ki-Erin, lowering the volume once more.
"Why was he toying with the Ritanian, Qui-Gon?" Tomas' eyes were pained, looking at him. "That fight was easy for him, wasn't it?"
"I don't know why, Tomas. Certainly not because he was enjoying it." Qui-Gon's words were sharper than he had intended.
"The commentators don't agree with you, Tomas -- they're calling it a close match." Tahl was still following the monologue with her audio feed. "They're not giving good odds for the next fight."
"Can you get us diagrams of that area of the Palace, Tahl?" Qui-Gon's mind was racing ahead, formulating and discarding plans. "Some idea of security? There's got to be a weakness somewhere --"
"We can't very well get him out of the arena proper," put in Tomas, "but perhaps if we knew where he was being kept between contests --"
"Already onto it," Tahl told them. "Checking electronic security -- but I need to be careful, cover my tracks. We don't want Starways security busting down our door just as I get into their system."
"How long will it take you?" asked Qui-Gon.
"Go find something else to do for a while," she snapped back.
"As good a time as any to get the local perspective." Tomas raised his eyebrows and grimaced at Qui-Gon: both were familiar with Tahl's sharp tongue from their days as Temple students together.
"One of us should stay here," said Qui-Gon, "as a guard."
"I hardly think that's --" Tahl began.
Tomas looked with compassion to his apprentice, where she sat cross-legged on the floor beside the holoreceiver. He crouched beside her. "I've never known you to turn down a chance to explore," he said gently.
The girl flashed him a sad, wry look. "That market makes me feel... crawly inside. Angry. I'm sorry Master, I don't mean to shirk --"
"Guarding Tahl while she's working can hardly be considered 'shirking'," put in Qui-Gon. Tahl snorted loudly.
"Qui-Gon is right: it's an important responsibility." Tomas glanced wryly at his friend. "But I hope you're not trying to hide from your feelings, Padawan."
"No, Master. I just need some time, I think: time to come to terms with this place."
"All right, young one. But stay alert. And call us if you sense any danger, or anything out of the ordinary. We won't be far."
When the door to the lodging house had closed behind them, and they were joining the heavy flow of foot traffic in the street, Qui-Gon glanced at his friend. "I hope it wasn't a mistake to bring her here. This is a dangerous and disturbing mission for one so young."
"She's a resilient girl. But I'm just as glad to see her being cautious: it's not one of her usual traits." He scanned the street ahead of them. "I asked her to stay behind at the Temple, but she wouldn't hear of it."
"I know." Qui-Gon said sharply. If he had only denied Obi-Wan's demand to accompany him to Telos... Tomas touched his shoulder in sympathy.
The market filled their senses with its exuberance. Tents and native clothing made bright splashes of color against the reddish dirt and pale permacrete buildings all around. Dark, plain spacer garb stood out as drab here. The air was full of the scents and sounds of commerce. The living Force of a thousand sentients bargaining, betting, looking for profit pulsed in their minds with a richness at once intoxicating and nauseating.
In silent agreement the two men walked slowly through the crowd, listening. The talk they overheard was mostly of bargains and sales, but many people also discussed the contests and races they had seen or had stakes in.
A silvery-skinned native to his fellow, wearing a tunic of bright orange: "Tsaiden Mir, I had money on her --"
"So you were one of the fools that fell for her!"
"That cat lost me my speeder! Would I had a shot at her --"
A human in native tunic and sandals to his offworlder companion: "Did you see Red Demon go down? He never stood a chance!"
"That's not what the commentators were saying. They've got odds against that boy for the next fight."
"They don't know anything about Sha-Zayet," said the first man scornfully. "I competed for ten years in the desert: I know."
Tomas and Qui-Gon stopped by a bright green and gold tent, unobtrusively listening.
"He was holding back. He's trained by Sitaris, you can see it in his moves."
"Why would he be holding back?"
"For advantage against later players. Sitaris is a cagey one."
"You almost make me regret my bet for Mean Streak."
"Oh, you'll lose that one, certain!"
The offworlder snorted. "Until this evening, comrade."
The native raised one arm in farewell.
"Excuse me," said Qui-Gon diffidently, stepping into the man's path. "I couldn't help but hear you speaking about a trainer..."
"Yes. I'm looking for a trainer. Is he good? Who is he?"
"Ex-bonder: he was Sha-Zayet champion in the palace, not six years ago. Held the title a long while, until a Venderti took it from him and he was retired and freed."
"Now he's a trainer, and yes, he's said to be the best."
"Where could I find him?"
"Look him up in the directory. I hear he's in town." The man stepped around Qui-Gon, moving on.
"Thank you," Qui-Gon called after him. He turned to Tomas when the man had left them.
"Seen any directory kiosks?" he asked in a low voice.
"No, but I'm sure we can find something through the drop back at the lodging house."
Qui-Gon nodded. The sun was sinking rapidly; soon the second match with Obi-Wan would begin. His instincts warned him to step carefully here: the Force spoke to him of traps and plots and misdirection: but also he could feel time slipping away from him. He would follow his feelings, would be patient, but still the need for caution frustrated him. The path to success on this mission was narrow indeed.
Tomas stepped away from him, his attention caught by an approaching disturbance. Qui-Gon craned his neck to see two men with the skin and features of Mozelle chasing -- what? An escaped animal? Something small -- a boy of ten or twelve wearing a dull metallic collar burst out from under a table laden with crockery, spilling pots and bowls into the street. Qui-Gon stepped instinctively toward him: his bare back and legs were bright with blood. But the Mozelle owner of the clayware tent was there first, and stepped directly into the boy's path, catching him in both great arms. The boy struggled only a moment before going limp in the man's embrace. His head hung low, his breathing heavy. The stall owner seemed almost to be cradling him: though he clearly wasn't allowing the boy to get away, he was restraining him gently. The two men who had been chasing the boy pulled up short in front of the stall owner. They were dressed identically in loose tunics and trousers of dark green, and carried battered-looking blasters at their belts.
"You're the potter who owns this stall?" asked the taller of the two men, indicating the smashed pots littering the ground.
"I am. Will the owner of this runaway be compensating me for the damage to my wares, peacekeepers?"
A third being -- a burly Whiphid spacer wearing black -- pushed through the gathered crowd as the potter was speaking, trailing a long metal whip behind him, looking angrily at the boy. His look of anger was quickly replaced by one of panic as he caught the potter's words. He dropped the whip, turned, and tried to dive back through the crowd, to no avail: his tunic was caught in the steady grip of the shorter of the two peacekeepers.
"This is the third complaint against you today, offworlder: first for abusing instead of disciplining your bonder, second for losing control of him in the marketplace, and third for allowing the bonder to cause damage to local property. What have you to say for yourself?"
"Hand him over and I'll make certain he never causes no more trouble," the Whiphid growled. The boy whimpered.
"The first two offenses carry a penalty fine. The third requires a fine and remuneration for the damaged property. All three together mean confiscation of your bonder to the authority of Vot-Zeder-Shay. Therefore we will be taking you both into custody."
"What? You can't--"
"You will have a chance to plead your case before the tribe elders."
"The bonder needs attention," said the potter.
The taller of the two peacekeepers pulled a medical kit from the pouch at his side. The potter held the boy, now looking dull-eyed and faint, so that the wounds on his back could be tended.
"Bondswoman!" he called in a booming voice. "Bring water!"
A young human woman, barefoot, wearing a wrap of bright orange and a brassy collar, ran into the tent from where she had been cleaning the spilled crockery, and came out only a moment later with a waterbag. She stood before the potter, eyes downcast; when the peacekeeper was done with cleaning and dressing the cuts on the boy's back, she wordlessly put the waterbag into his hands. With the potter's help, the peacekeeper was able to get some fluids into the boy.
Meanwhile the Whiphid was still hollering protests at the short peacekeeper, who had clapped binders on the man's wrists, with the help of a tall Mozelle woman from the crowd. "Be silent! he snapped at the outraged spacer. "You disgrace the honor and duty of ownership! Be silent and try to find some wisdom! Or perhaps the gods plan to deliver your people into bondage, as they did the Lansarites?" The Whiphid sputtered but seemed unable to reply. The crowd parted to make way for the strange procession: two peacekeepers, one pushing a growling Whiphid before him, the other carrying the limp and barely conscious young boy. Some in the crowd, all natives, made strange warding signs as the Whiphid passed by. A few silent moments passed; then, with a shudder and a collective sigh, the crowd broke up, its members moving about their business and chewing over the event with their neighbors with all the gleeful intensity of Favers chewing on gumbelstick.
The barefoot woman was once more bent at cleaning the ruin of her owner's wares; another woman, this one Mozelle in a plainly cut flowered green dress and sandals, was helping the potter with the same task.
"A waste of a good week of work, and a sellday as well: you'll need to go to the elders to get remuneration."
"And I may come back with a new bond boy for my trouble," the potter rumbled placidly. "I don't believe that offworlder will have funds to cover all the damage, and the elders will need to find a new owner for the boy."
"A damaged bonder. A runaway."
"He was calm enough once I caught him."
The voices faded as the couple disappeared into their tent. The area was nearly empty of bystanders now; Qui-Gon nodded to Tomas, and the two matched their stride, aiming for the lodging house.
"I was just about to contact you: Tahl's gotten in to Starways. She's collecting files now."
"I'm done collecting files, and out already. I didn't want to stay long enough to be traced."
"What did you find?" asked Qui-Gon, crossing the room. Tomas stayed by the door with his Padawan, speaking with her in soft undertones.
"Haven't had a chance to sort through it yet. I pulled plans for the building, anything I could find on security, and a current guest list."
"Guest list?" Tomas joined them, Ki-Erin at his side.
"Xanatos isn't listed by name, but I'm hoping if I scan it... Hold on..." Tahl's scrolled back through the data with one thumb, her fingers not moving from the tactile readout. "Mazala Lidocha... now where have I heard that name before?"
"I don't recognize it." Qui-Gon looked to Tomas, who shrugged.
"I'm sure I've read or heard it recently..." She sighed. "I don't recognize any of these other names. Either Xanatos isn't listed or he's been too cunning for me. Let me give you the dump of these diagrams -- I certainly can't use them."
Qui-Gon pulled out his datapad and connected with Tahl's station. He set the visual to read out on the apartment's wall display. Scanning through the files, he saw there were drawings of the physical layout, as well as diagrams of the power grid, air system, security system...
"This is good, Tahl," said Tomas from the seating unit, where he had settled himself to study the flat display as Qui-Gon paged through it. He returned to the physical plans, deciding to begin with plans for the arena where Obi-Wan was scheduled to compete.
"The next match starts in five minutes," Tahl informed them. Ki-Erin upped the volume slightly on the holoreceiver so they could listen while they worked.
Soon, Obi-Wan, thought Qui-Gon. Hold on just a little longer.
The south public entrance to the arena glowed; its garish lights in blue and red drowning out the stars. Qui-Gon stood in the shadows, observing the guards as they checked in passholders: rowdy riff-raff for the most part, some of them staggering or dreamy-eyed with the effects of narcotics or alcohol. Around the corner, behind the landscaping, stood a less obvious entrance, at a lower level than the public entrances: one which was frequented only by natives, most of them Mozelle, all with the arrogant bearing of warriors. Trainers, perhaps? Was Sitaris among them? He had used the directory, back at the lodging house, to try to contact the man, without success: he wasn't in his quarters, or wasn't answering.
Qui-Gon had escorted Tahl to the starship as a safer point of communication than the lodging house; Tomas and Ki-Erin had come here directly. He could feel Tomas nearby: watchful, ready. He pulled his hood forward to hide his face. Time to go in. He sensed Tomas' affirmation.
The tall Jedi joined the queue behind a group of tall cloaked Qi'zar'di, shuffling along to blend in with the crowd, hands tucked discreetly within the sleeves of his robe. The guards at the door barely looked at him as they checked his passcard and took the extra currency units for admission.
Within the entrance, a wide hall formed an outer ring around the arena proper. The hall was full of vendors and milling people, guards, and arena attendants wearing flashy unisuits of bright red and gold. Each inner wall section between doors to the seating area held a large screen showing a scene of the arena floor below, currently empty: the voice of a commentator echoed above the hum of the jostling crowd. Qui-Gon made a circuit of the vendors' hall, making note of the positions of the three public entrances at three points of the compass. A fourth entrance, heavily guarded, led into the guest halls of the Palace proper: a steady stream of elegantly dressed people crossed into the arena along a carpeted path cordoned off from the rest of the vendors' hall and lined with guards at attention. The crowd from the public entrances stood watching them pass.
Sensing an undercurrent of danger in the Force, Qui-Gon moved to the outside of the hall, blending in with a large group of offworlders who stood there, talking about their wagers. Then he felt it, unmistakable: the dark presence of Xanatos, coming toward him from inside the Palace. He stilled his own presence in the Force, and stepped further into the shadows to watch him enter.
He was dressed in a flowing sable cloak over a suit of deep plum violet and black. A woman held his arm, looking up into his face as he spoke, charmed. By more than just his good looks, Qui-Gon sensed. The Dark Force churned around the couple: he held her thoughts with compulsion. The woman shook her head and laughed, setting her dark curls swinging. They passed through the inner doors to the arena. Qui-Gon expelled his breath with a soft sigh. He'd have to find out who that woman was. Later.
His chosen entrance to the Palace was behind him, mostly hidden by a vendor's stand: an air vent. Once the game began and attention was focused on the vidscreens, Tahl would cause a power interrupt in the security systems using the access codes she'd stolen. He would have only a few minutes to enter the vent here; Tomas and his Padawan would be attempting entry through a service door beneath the seating in the arena.
A short fanfare announced the start of the next game. Qui-Gon sidled behind the vendor's stall beside him, keeping to the shadows. Throughout the vendors' hall the last stragglers were making their way toward the clogged arena entrances; even the vendors had half their attention on the vids before them, watching the entry of the two contestants. Qui-Gon refused to glance at the screens himself: he was determined to keep his full attention on his mission.
In his pocket his comlink vibrated to signal incoming communication. Qui-Gon pulled it out, and, keeping the silencer engaged, activated it.
"Ten seconds from my mark... now."
Qui-Gon counted the seconds in his head as he tucked his comlink back in his tunic, observing the crowd around him, stirring up a small ripple in the Force to direct attention away from him. When ten seconds had passed, he reached for the fasteners on the vent cover. Tahl should have deactivated the locks on the vent grills when she deactivated their security sensors -- a quick flip of each of the fasteners, and he levered the cover out just enough to squeeze inside, pulling it closed behind him. Thank you, Tahl.
Air flowed around him into the vent; he could hear the hum of the intake fans somewhere beyond his position. He stretched out in the horizontal shaft, just out of sight of the vent grill and anyone who might be standing beyond it. There was just room enough in the shaft itself for him to pull himself along, not enough to actually crawl. At least I haven't far to go, he told himself. He pulled himself past a junction with a vertical shaft, and twisted sideways so he could lower himself into it, only to find his robe was caught on a loose rivet. Blast. He wriggled back up, squeezing his arm into the space under him to free the cloth. Thank the Force Tahl can't see me now, he thought sheepishly. She had argued against his taking this route, pointing out that they'd have difficulty removing his bulky body from a ventilation shaft if he got stuck. The conversation replayed in his mind as he pushed himself one slow centimeter at a time around the corner into the vertical shaft. He was acquiring some bruises on his chest for the effort.
"According to these dimensions there's room for me, Tahl."
"And are you planning to cut your clothes off when you get stuck turning those corners?"
He sighed, exasperated. Tomas didn't help his mood when he burst out laughing.
"I'll be fine."
"If you think it's going to be easy, you must have a nerf-brain to go with that nerf-sized body."
Even Ki-Erin couldn't help grinning at that one. Tahl still hated being left behind on these missions, and as usual her irritation translated into biting humor. Then again, maybe she was right, he thought as he found himself wedged halfway.
Ten minutes later he was finally chimneying down the vertical shaft -- thankfully wider than the horizontal passage. In the end he'd decided to leave his bulky robe behind in the horizontal shaft. Tahl would be amused. He passed four wall grates, pausing only briefly to listen and look at what lay outside them. The first three looked out on Palace corridors. His vision was obscured by the leaves of potted plants set to artfully disguise the vents, but he could see and hear enough to realize he'd have difficulty getting out undetected at those levels. The halls were wide, ornamented in gold and carpeted in scarlet, filled with guests and attendants and the occasional guard. The fourth vent looked more promising: it let onto a narrow hall with multiple doors; barefoot slaves passed quickly down the hall, carrying trays and cleaning buckets and sundry other items. A guard sauntered by as he watched.
Finally, the fifth vent, and the end of his climb. This grill was set into the floor of the shaft, in the ceiling of a high chamber. The intake area around the vent was wider than the shaft itself; Qui-Gon jumped lightly down to stand on the ledge around the vent grill. Below him stretched a wide, curved chamber: the "backstage" area around all four of the arena floors, the one where Obi-Wan was competing and three others encircling the Palace. Red-suited guards strolled around, looking officious. Burly humans and non-humans -- with the dress and manner of the men he had seen using the private arena entrance outside -- walked purposefully to and from lift tubes on the outer wall, some of them leading chained slaves. Trainers, definitely. Doors lined the inner walls -- entry doors for the arena? Each door had a light above it: some unlit, some glowing red. Qui-Gon watched as a human trainer led a tall furry slave to an unlit door, opened it, and when the slave stepped inside, unclipped the chain from his neck. The door slid closed, the light flashing on above it. The trainer clipped the chain to a hook beside the door and pressed his palm to the panel beside it: programming a palm lock. Then he walked away, to the far side of the room, and through a wide door with a guard on either side. He flashed a small card at them as he passed. Layers of security, even here, Qui-Gon thought. But perhaps some room to maneuver. That door was in the right place to lead to the private door he'd seen outside. From the diagrams he'd studied, he knew there was a passage beyond that would lead to upper levels of the arena as well.
Through the walls, the roar of the arena crowd was a muffled rumble, swelling from time to time like a cresting wave. Carefully Qui-Gon observed the activity below him, looking for weaknesses in the security that he might exploit. He had agreed with the others that it was best to consider this a surveillance run. Unless an obvious opportunity presented itself, of course. There was too much about this situation that they still didn't understand. So: they would go in quietly, and leave without being detected. Qui-Gon by a different route, if possible, than the one by which he had entered. The Jedi grimaced, imagining Tahl's teasing rejoinder: What, you don't want to go back through those ventilation ducts?
No, I don't.
The lift tubes in the walls between the arena backstage spaces appeared from the diagrams they'd studied to go to individual rooms in the Palace: a quick access to the arenas and practice rooms for the wealthier guests. Each had a palm-lock beside it, like the palm-lock he'd seen that trainer use at his furry slave's waiting-chamber. The waiting-chambers themselves -- holding rooms between the backstage area and the arena -- did not stretch to the ceiling, but stood instead as a freestanding unit of enclosed boxes. From his position in the ceiling, Qui-Gon could drop onto the roof of the waiting-chamber complex -- if he used the Force to adjust his trajectory. And if he could find a way to get there without being seen. If only he knew which waiting-chamber Obi-Wan had been assigned to!
A tremendous roar from the arena crowd shook the room, going on and on. A rush of excitement and anger in the Force swelled around Qui-Gon. What was going on in there? He reached out with his senses, not for the first time since arriving on Lansar, to get some sense of his Padawan's condition. As before, he found nothing. Obi-Wan held his mind tightly guarded. Not surprising, when he was so close to Xanatos.
A commotion around the outer door caught his attention. A man rushed through the doors, then palmed a waiting-chamber door and ran through. Qui-Gon looked back to the entrance. The guards were now talking with a second trainer -- a tall blond man. With a start of surprise, Qui-Gon realized that he recognized him.
It's the one I saw training Obi-Wan in the desert, Qui-Gon thought. The one with the whip.
"What happened out there, Sitaris?" one of the guards asked him.
"Yeah, I've not heard the crowd this riled since that slave killed his opponent."
"The boy had Heavy Hand dancing, nearly pulled him down. Got him angry, Heavy Hand couldn't hit him. So the big idiot jumped the disks, to get at the boy. Tried, anyway."
"Crazy offworlder," snorted the first guard.
"Wish I'd seen it," the second called to Sitaris' retreating back.
There were only a few other trainers in the room; they gathered a few meters behind Sitaris as he walked to one of the waiting-chamber doors.
"How does he do it, Sitaris?"
"He doesn't look to be that good!"
"I've never seen a human so fast," called another trainer.
So much for sneaking Obi-Wan out of there. They all knew what he looked like, apparently.
Sitaris said nothing, merely pulled the chain off the hook by the door and palmed open the lock. Qui-Gon watched intently, his heart suddenly loud in his chest.
Obi-Wan stepped from the chamber, his head bowed low, looking wan and dispirited. Sitaris clipped the chain to his collar, then put a hand on his shoulder.
"Well played again, bonder."
He waited a moment, watching the boy for some kind of reaction. When Obi-Wan gave no indication he'd heard he turned and led the boy away, past the watching trainers, to the wall of lift tubes. The trainers were quieter now, some of them muttering to each other, others observing intently. Qui-Gon marked carefully which lift-tube Sitaris palmed open and entered. He knew he could find it again; more importantly, he would be able to find it on the Palace plans so he could know where Obi-Wan was being held.
Be all right, Obi-Wan. Just a little longer. He felt no answer in the Force. Obi-Wan was closed to him still.
"I don't see how he does it. Any bonder looking that withdrawn, I'd say he wasn't fit to fight."
The trainers nodded, agreeing with the one who spoke.
Qui-Gon drew breath and stretched, then leaped lightly up to lodge himself in the ventilation shaft and chimney his way back up. He would not risk detection by exiting another way. A plan was already forming in his mind. It was time to get back to Tahl -- and time to track down Sitaris.
"Bring the red, boy!"
Exhausted from three long fights that afternoon and evening, and not at all eager to join Xanatos and his 'guest', Obi-Wan nevertheless hurried to gather glasses and wine carafe. He walked quickly from the food service station through the sliding door into the opulent dining area of Xanatos' apartment in the Palace, and placed the two glasses and carafe on the table between them, stepping back immediately, his head lowered.
"Your bonder is amazing, Xanatos," came the woman's rich voice as Xanatos poured wine for both of them. "Three more fights won today -- if he wins tomorrow, he will be the undefeated champion of Sha-Zayet!" Obi-Wan did not need to see her face to feel her eyes on him; his skin grew hot.
"I told you, Mazala, that betting on him would be well worth your while."
"I hardly believed you when you said I should put my money on a half-grown boy. The youngest ever to compete at the Palace." She stood, stepping behind the boy; raised one hand languidly to run her fingers across his bare side and back, then moved behind Xanatos' chair to rest her empty hand on the man's shoulder as she sipped her wine. He took her hand in his own and leaned his head back against her chest. Obi-Wan wished he dared leave. He stood motionless, waiting.
"You would win more if you stayed tomorrow."
"You know I would love to stay! But I am expected back in two days: I must leave tonight."
"I shall simply have to suffer here without you."
Disappointment tinged Xanatos' voice, but Obi-Wan knew better. The dark Force surged through the room, thick with the bonds of compulsion. Mazala Lidocha stood in Xanatos' shadow, her thoughts of nothing but him. Xanatos pulled her head down until their lips met.
"Will you take me to my transport?" she asked him, finally.
"I wouldn't miss the privilege for all my winnings of this week."
"A substantial sum!" she laughed; moved away from the table as Xanatos rose from his seat. "I shall miss your bonder's service. Such a sweet young male." She paused in front of Obi-Wan, raising his face in one hand. He avoided her brown eyes studying him; stared into the middle distance, trying to ignore her attention. Her face was a smooth oval, framed by thick dark curls. "He flushes so prettily," she laughed.
And then they were leaving, passing through the door to the main room, standing on the rich rug before a wall entirely of transparisteel: a view of the fountains and gardens of the Starways resort. Obi-Wan followed, standing unobtrusively in a corner, looking hungrily toward the starlit desert beyond the gardens: he had not been out of the Palace since Xanatos took him from Sitaris' desert training ground. Xanatos and Mazala were speaking once more, but their words made no impression on him. When they turned, finally, and walked to the entry hall, he followed as required.
"I already had your luggage brought to the docking bay; is there anything else you need? That you might have left behind? "
"Only you," she answered. He smiled, charmingly, in answer, then turned to thumb open the door behind Obi-Wan. The boy entered, automatically moving into the inner chamber defined by two steel walls and an energy wall, then watched as a second energy wall sprang up between him and the door before the door closed and locked. He pulled down the bare, narrow bunk that occupied one wall of the tiny room and lay down, hugging himself with both arms.
His cell was just wide enough for the bunk with room to stand beside it; the energy walls stood an arm's length from the bunk's head and foot. A door stood behind each energy wall: the door he had not entered from this time led into the utility area for the apartment. The wall across from the bunk hid a small refresher and food dispenser. He did not bother to check the dispenser: though he had eaten little in the past twelve hours, he was not feeling hungry. The energy walls filled the room with an eerie blue light and hum to which he had long since grown accustomed.
Having Mazala gone was something of a relief. He could not hate her, could not blame her for anything she had done under Xanatos' control, but coexisting with Xanatos' dark workings had drained him, and having to watch while being helpless to stop the workings had sickened him. Not for the first time he wondered what Xanatos was up to. Snatches of overheard conversation had given him the sense that Mazala was some kind of important official, but in what capacity he had no way to guess.
He felt empty. Numb. The four days he had been trapped in the Palace with Xanatos felt like a lifetime. On first arriving he had been alert, observant, certain there must be an opening somewhere for him to make an escape. As the days went by he had become resigned to his confinement. Everywhere he went he was accompanied, even chained. The slave harness and collar he wore not only made it easy for anyone to physically restrain him, they marked his status. The collar itself contained a beacon to his presence, and could be activated from anywhere in the Palace, by Xanatos or by anyone he had authorized to do so, including the Palace management itself. The entire Palace, from architecture to guards to electronic security, was designed to keep bonders under the control of their owners.
And he was a bonder. A slave: Xanatos' slave: his mind paced the confines of his bondage. How long before his facade of apathy became his true face? Or would he explode in madness first, all his repressed feelings released in an insane bid for freedom or death?
He shuddered. He knew he must be strong. He was a Jedi. And yet every day, every hour the temptation to despair grew stronger in him. He drew on the Force to win the contests in which Xanatos entered him; yet he felt no strength, no hope in the connection: darkness hemmed him in, and all his thoughts were dark. He had stopped his meditations, for they gave him no comfort; all he found within was nameless dread.
Xanatos entered, pausing for the door to slide shut behind him before he deactivated the energy wall. He carried the silver cup with its bitter drug, as always this time of night. Obi-Wan's spirit rebelled. He sat up, curling into a ball, hugging his head to his knees with both arms. Every night at the Palace, Xanatos gave him the bitter drink, and every night the effects grew worse: he woke screaming or sobbing, nightmares clawing at his consciousness. The drugs pulled him into a dark pit from which he could not find escape, darkening his waking hours until he felt he walked a dream.
"Your resistance is pointless." Xanatos' drawl held a note of cruel amusement. "Even pathetic."
Obi-Wan ignored him: even knowing what was to come, he could not submit to take the drug himself. He tensed and held himself tightly, determined to hold on even as the collar activated, as he knew it would, paralyzing his muscles and overwhelming his senses: still he kept himself clenched tight. It was no use: when the current from the collar ended, he was gagging from the bitter drug, the manacles on his wrists fastened to the wall over his head, the rest of his body sprawled on the floor. At least Xanatos was gone, the energy wall restored behind him. His body quivered with the first effects of the drug. Then darkness swallowed him.
Much later, he woke to the cool blue light of the energy walls. He was lying on the floor, sobbing softly. He had no memory of Xanatos coming to free his hands: he never did. He curled up where he was and let his exhausted mind and body sink into sleep.
When Qui-Gon and Tahl finally returned to the lodging-house, Ki-Erin and Tomas were already poring over the diagrams and data that Tahl had earlier acquired, as they finished up a late meal.
"There's more on the table, Masters," Ki-Erin told them. Her tone was polite, but from her fidgety hands and the way her eyes followed them, Qui-Gon guessed that she was itching to discuss their findings of the evening. Tomas got up to get them each a bowl of stew; Tahl made her way to the table while Qui-Gon fetched her data station for her.
"We moved the ship to a different landing pad just in case Tahl's transmissions were noted," Qui-Gon informed the others. He took the bowl from Tomas with a nod of thanks, and sat down before the wall screen to examine the Palace diagrams. Like Ki-Erin, he was eager to get down to business. "I found which lift tube is being used to transport Obi-Wan to and from the arena," he told the others, as he brought the relevant diagrams on screen.
"Then we can figure out which room he's in!" Ki-Erin said, her eyes bright.
"We learned something important as well," Tomas said. "Xanatos is collecting Force-sensitive slaves."
Tahl and Qui-Gon immediately stopped what they were doing, all their attention on Tomas.
"We saw a Force-sensitive woman being brought down the service hall," Ki-Erin explained. "We followed, hid in a room nearby. There's a room down there that's full of slaves who are Force-sensitive."
"About eight or ten of them. None of them strong enough to be considered for the Temple, but enough to notice, once we knew what to feel for," Tomas interjected.
"And we overheard two Palace workers talking, after the woman was brought in. They were talking about her midichlorian count, about how Xanatos would be pleased, but they needed more slaves with higher counts."
"He's experimenting on them, using them somehow," said Tahl.
Qui-Gon said, "Like he is with Obi-Wan. The nephrolite..."
"That's what we guessed as well." Tomas nodded at Qui-Gon. "The lab workers were discussing the drugs they were using: they're trading off between inhibitor drugs, the main drug, and a catalyst drug to delay symptoms, they didn't mention of what nature. Whatever Xanatos is up to, he must be stopped."
Qui-Gon looked up to the wall-screen, where he had found the number of the suite to which the lift-tube led. Quickly he cross-referenced it with the list of Palace guests Tahl had downloaded.
"Mazala Lidocha," he said, uneasy. "Tahl, isn't that the name..."
"Yes, it is. Though I still haven't remembered where I heard it before. Let me think..."
"I saw Xanatos entering the arena with a woman on his arm. Maybe this is her name." Qui-Gon looked over at Tomas. "He's up to something with her. She would jump a cliff if he told her to -- she's under such heavy compulsion."
Both men and the young girl looked silently to Tahl, who sat with her head tilted back, thinking.
"It was recently -- the data I've been gathering --" Suddenly taut and focused, Tahl bent over her lap desk, tapping away. For several minutes there was no sound but that of her fingers on the touchpad. Qui-Gon stirred at his stew absently.
Tahl blew out a long breath. "This is bad," she told them, turning her sightless eyes toward them. "Mazala Lidocha is the planetary governor of Midorion. And Midorion holds mining rights for an extensive asteroid field in their system -- one which is a prime source of nephrolite."
When the lights came on bright over Obi-Wan's head he considered staying where he was. Despair dragged at him. His stubborn nature won out, however, and he pushed himself to his feet. He would continue, would survive, would look for ways to pull Xanatos down until his master could come for him. He stripped off kazaba and slave harness and put them in the cleansing bin: as always, Xanatos had unlocked the fastenings on the harness some time in the night. Qui-Gon is coming, he reminded himself as he used the 'fresher, washed, and took water from the tiny sink. He ate a little of the food the dispenser had delivered for him that morning, then sat on the bunk to wait for Sitaris. His morning exercise with the trainer was the only part of the day he looked forward to: in strenuous movement he could forget his nightmares for a time, and the darkness weighed less heavily on him.
The inner door, the door to the utility area, hissed open and closed. The energy field deactivated. Sitaris entered, carrying a fresh harness and kazaba: Obi-Wan stood and folded up his bunk, then let the man fasten the harness around his torso, clipping straps to the manacles on his arms and legs. Sitaris paused when he finished clipping the last wrist strap, and turned the boy's hand, examining it. Obi-Wan looked down to see what had caught the man's attention: the skin at the base of his palm was bruised and lacerated where the manacle had dug into it in the night -- every night for the past week. Sitaris took up his other hand, looking at it where it was cut in the same way. Then he dropped both hands, and passed Obi-Wan the kazaba to put on, turning to check the food dispenser, the remains of his breakfast.
"Hungry?" he asked, turning back to look at the boy. Obi-Wan shook his head no.
"Did you eat this morning?"
The boy nodded.
He shook his head.
Sitaris stared at him a moment longer. Then he folded up the bunk and led him to the door, where he took the chain from a hook and coiled it around his hand before thumbing open the access panel.
"Stand there, and wait," Sitaris told him, indicating a spot in front of the now-closed door to his cell. Then the trainer walked across the utility room to open one of the steel wall cabinets on the far side, rummaging through the contents. Looking unsatisfied, he closed the cabinet and turned to Obi-Wan.
"Wait here," he said, "and don't move from that spot." Obi-Wan nodded, surprised, and watched Sitaris leave the room, leaving the door open behind him.
Through the open door he could hear Xanatos' voice, coming from his office.
"I have the tapes here, Jafar, on my desk. You can have them as soon as you arrive this evening, as long as I have your assurance that you'll keep your end of our bargain."
The second voice had a tinny quality, as it were coming from a holographic connection.
"The mining station is yours, and all the mining families who occupy it, as soon as Mazala is impeached from office. Which will only happen if these tapes of yours are legitimate."
"I assure you, they are more than adequate for the purpose."
"Mazala Lidocha, anti-slavery crusader, defender of mining vagrants -- fascinated by a slave boy. The hypocrisy amazes even me!"
Xanatos chuckled. "As you say. But you're certain you will not be, perhaps, 'forced' to oust me by your constituents?"
"If you can be discreet, then ninety-five percent of my constituents will be content not knowing what is happening in the asteroid field, and the other five percent will be studiously ignored. Especially with Offworld funds visibly contributing to the common good on the planet's surface. Few truly care about the fate of the asteroid field's licensed mining denizens. Who could care about a few thousand crazies who live on space stations and mine the fields? And there's already widespread discontent with the expenditures Mazala has made to secure the field against pirating. You'll have no prob--"
The door slid shut behind Sitaris, who came toward him carrying a small medkit. Obi-Wan waited calmly as the man bandaged his wrists, but inside he was anything but calm. He knew he had to destroy those tapes. The only question was, how? He would need to be alone and unmonitored for long enough to get into the office... Possible, in the evening, if Xanatos required him to help serve his guests. He would need a way to enter the office, which was always kept locked...
Abruptly, his attention returned to the present, as Sitaris attached the chain to his collar; when the trainer drew him to the lift access, a tube running directly from the utility room to the arena and practice chambers, he took his place behind and beside the man, where he wouldn't be tugged off balance.
Qui-Gon rubbed his tired eyes. Once again he'd tried to reach Obi-Wan's mind, to find him in the Force, and once again he had failed. He glanced around the common room of their rented quarters: shabby and disheveled in the morning light. Ki-Erin had been sent to bed hours before; Tahl and Tomas had also gone to get some rest just before dawn. They had worked all night, trying to hammer out a plan. It didn't look good: the Palace was built like a fortress, with Xanatos' quarters in the center, isolated from any access system like the ventilation or service corridors, virtually impregnable. Designed that way, it was certain. The main door opened from the Palace's corridors; the lift tube from the arena made a second entrance. There were the windows, exposed on the twentieth floor. Beyond that, they would be limited to cutting through walls. And pipes and cabling and who knew what else.
He still felt that the arena backstage area was the best chance for getting Obi-Wan out. The others agreed. But with all the guards and blast doors cutting it off from the outside, it was less than ideal. Not to mention that Obi-Wan would almost certainly be accompanied at all times by Sitaris...
Sitaris. Qui-Gon had tried many times in the night to reach him. Tahl had traced the man's address, and he had gone to seek him out, only to find his quarters empty. The landlord told him that Sitaris had not returned in days, thought he might have a woman friend he was staying with; but he had no idea where or who that might be. Where was the man? If he could only use Sitaris to get in and out... The trainer obviously had keys, palm access. He sighed. His best bet, it appeared, would be to watch for him at the trainer's gate at the arena. He had to show up sometime.
Qui-Gon continued thinking, checking the stolen Palace records as new ideas occurred to him, discarding them as unworkable, as the other Jedi woke and began their day. Tahl only sighed, exasperated, when she came out to the common area and found him still sitting where she and Tomas had left him the night before. Tomas said nothing, and set about getting them some breakfast. Ki-Erin joined them not long after, her hair still wet from the cleansing room. She remained thoughtfully quiet as they gathered to share their meal, Qui-Gon joining them only when Tahl demanded he do so.
"I have an idea," the girl said tentatively, looking down at her plate in discomfort. Then she raised her face, jutted out her chin, a stubborn glint in her eye.
Tomas laid down his eating utensils and studied her face. "Why do I get the feeling I am not going to like of this idea of yours?"
"You haven't even heard it yet!"
"Go ahead, Padawan. We're all listening."
"Well, one of the problems we've had is that we have no way to be certain that Xanatos is occupied away from Obi-Wan when we go in. I've thought of a way to deal with that, and maybe even gather more intelligence on his 'experiments' while we're at it."
"Yes?" Tomas prodded when she paused again, looking uncertain. She took a deep breath.
"We disguise you as Mozelle, Master. It shouldn't be hard to get some skin tint, some clothes. Most of the Mozelle are as dark as you anyway."
"And we disguise me as your slave."
"You can pretend you're going to sell me. Bring me to the Palace. They'll jump when they check my midichlorian count."
"We'll suggest they call Xanatos over. You can be stubborn about seeing him --"
"We could check out the laboratory while we wait. It would work, Master--"
"It would be far too dangerous, Ki-Erin," agreed Qui-Gon.
"It's not worth the risk," Tahl added.
Tomas' tone brooked no argument. Ki-Erin bit her lip. "All this time Obi-Wan's been surviving as a slave," she said quietly. "I could endure it for an hour to help him."
"It would be a good idea, Ki-Erin, if it weren't so chancy," her master told her. "I know you're a brave girl. I know you would sacrifice a great deal to help. But this is too much. I won't let you risk yourself --"
"They wouldn't try to kill me if they're looking for Force-sensitives --"
"Your capture, then. Don't kid yourself: getting out would be difficult, if they chose to stop us."
"You could refuse, in the end, to sell me --"
"As you said yourself, you would be a tempting prize. Tempting enough to call Xanatos' attention to you," said Qui-Gon. "And he is already a match for any fully-trained Jedi."
"There would be two of us. If it became so desperate, we could cut through the windows to escape. You're being overprotective!"
"No, Padawan. Do not speak of it again."
Ki-Erin sighed. "As you wish, Master."
Tahl looked thoughtful. "You could bring me."
"Tahl --" Qui-Gon burst out, exasperated.
"I know you've had no way to notice, Tahl," said Tomas, "but there are no female slaves here older than thirty. Lovely as you are, I don't think you'd pass for younger than forty."
"The Mozelle rule is, no female slaves past thirty, no male slaves past forty," said Ki-Erin. "Besides, the Palace normally won't even look at older slaves -- what excuse would they have to do so? The attendants were complaining about that, because it restricted their search," she added belatedly.
Tahl frowned thoughtfully. Tomas looked at her, then pointedly changed the subject.
"I contacted the Temple last night, to inform them of our status, and to warn them of Xanatos's influence over the planetary governor, Mazala Lidocha. Master Yoda asked that we try to effect her rescue when we go in after Obi-Wan. We decided last night, Ki-Erin, that our best bet is to get Obi-Wan from the waiting-chamber before his match tonight, and to smuggle him out through the service corridors. Unless you came up with a better idea after we left, Qui-Gon?"
"I still want to corner Sitaris," said Qui-Gon, ignoring Tomas' insinuating tone. "I thought I'd look for him at the arena. Maybe I can get help tracking him down from some of the other trainers."
Tahl nodded. "We might be able to use him in some way to get in and out of the Palace."
"Maybe it's time to dress up fancy and get us a room there," said Tomas.
"If you're willing to go that far," said Ki-Erin, "Why not my plan?"
"You just don't want me posing as a slave, admit it."
"All right, I admit it. I don't want you playing the slave. Now control your insolence, or be restricted to the ship."
Ki-Erin shut her mouth with a snap, but her green eyes still flashed a stubborn gleam.
Qui-Gon sighed. "I'm going to meditate. I'll be out in an hour," he told the others. Perhaps this time I can get through to Obi-Wan, he thought.
"What is wrong with you today, boy?"
Obi-Wan picked himself up off the floor; for the third time that hour, he had been knocked off the practice disk by Sitaris' strikes. He could not keep his mind on the training: all he could think of was wiping those tapes.
Center your mind on the present. The thought came to him in Qui-Gon's voice. Quickly he suppressed the wave of longing, of grief that threatened to overtake him. What would his master do? Part of him laughed bitterly at the impossibility of Qui-Gon being in such a fix. No, he was not Qui-Gon. But the tall Jedi was his master. What would Qui-Gon say he should do?
He gasped as Sitaris landed a stinging blow across his back with the glowing red whip.
"Get back on the disk. I'm resetting the system to give you a good long shock when you fall. Perhaps the threat of pain, and the reminder of what's to come if you lose the match this afternoon, will help you to keep your mind on what you're doing."
Obi-Wan took up the blue whip once more, grimacing, and stepped up on the force field. Sitaris had not left that setting on since their first training sessions in the desert.
"Maybe it's time to speak with Master Xanatos. I'm certain he will have something to say about your lack of focus."
Obi-Wan shuddered at the thought. Xanatos would have much to say, all right, and all of it pointed and nasty.
A plan was starting to form in his mind: dangerous, audacious, but it just might work...
The red whip struck his disk. Obi-Wan jumped back from the new gap just in time. The floor suddenly looked much more threatening than it had only a few minutes ago.
Tentatively, Obi-Wan reached for the Force, half-attending to the whip coming at him, shouldering it aside so he could focus on his thoughts. He had lost his confidence in his assessments through the Force, with the Dark Side always so near to him. But this felt right...
What would Qui-Gon say?
Trust in the Force: it will guide your steps. Plan if you can, but be ready for unexpected opportunity.
With a violent snap of his whip, Sitaris knocked him from his disk. Briefly he hoped Sitaris would not see through his subterfuge. And then he was curling up on himself, struggling to breathe through the agony...
His head meekly lowered, Obi-Wan followed Sitaris out of the lift tube, back to the utility room of Xanatos' quarters. For a quarter hour longer, he had allowed his distraction and depression to dominate him, allowed his movement to be slow and clumsy, his efforts half-hearted. He had watched Sitaris' frustration grow. Finally the trainer had chained him and ordered him back to the lift tube, three hours early.
Sitaris pushed the call-button, signaling that he wanted words with Xanatos. A minute or so later, he was answered.
"I'm in the living room," spoke the languorous voice. "You may come."
Sitaris led the boy through the door that opened on the main quarters.
Stay here. Obi-Wan slid the thought into Sitaris' consciousness, willing it to stick. Stay here.
Sitaris stopped and turned back to look at him before the door to the living room. "Stay here, and do not move," he told the boy. Then he strode through the door, letting it slide shut behind him.
Obi-Wan drew a deep, steadying breath. He turned and ran, grateful that Sitaris had not bothered to set the collar to keep him in place, down the hall and around the corner, to Xanatos' office. He laid his trembling hands upon the lock to the door and centered himself, opening himself to the Force, willing the door to open.
Obi-Wan's eyes flew open, his thoughts scattered, and for several heartbeats he could not find his mental voice.
In moments their deep bond was restored, as if the two had never been dragged apart on Telos. He sensed Qui-Gon's confidence: that he was on his way. Joy flooded the young Jedi, and relief. And then -- dismay. Regret. A growing determination. He felt Qui-Gon's confusion and foreboding at his tangled rush of emotions.
He couldn't leave now. Duty first.
And firmly, finally, he closed Qui-Gon out.
Tears filled his eyes. He blinked them back. Now was not the time for tears, he knew he had little time left for this mission. And Obi-Wan had no illusion what would happen if he managed to destroy the tapes. He fully expected Xanatos to kill him.
The contact with Qui-Gon had done one thing for Obi-Wan: he was certain, now, of this course of action. In moments he had the door open; he slipped inside, letting it slide shut behind him.
There. A stack of flat canisters rested on one side of the desk. He could only hope he'd gotten the right tapes as he scooped them up and ran for the door. To the incinerator in the utility room --
He turned the corner at a dead run, through the door --
"Stop!" It was Xanatos' voice.
Time seemed to slow down, almost to stop. Without breaking stride, Obi-Wan dived into the essence of the Force, drawing it in and letting go every other thought than reaching the incinerator on the other side of the room; bidding the Force to use him, to make of him its vehicle. Like the distant hum of the generators and servomotors that kept the Palace lit, its air refreshed, the young Jedi felt a buzz from the collar at his neck. It didn't matter, nothing mattered but his task, his focus... His vision washed white. He felt lighter than air. Time paused and stretched... He pushed the canisters through the hinged top. Saw them disappear into the body of the incinerator. Saw the flash of light as the field in its interior ignited.
And then he was falling, sinking to the floor really, his face pressed to the wall, his body in agony.
Had he succeeded? Anxiety filled him, even as he knew the answer, that it was done, that he'd won an important victory. But now the Force was receding from him as his fear advanced. He felt the creeping darkness of Xanatos as the fallen Jedi approached, seized him, and threw him to the floor.
"How dare you!" Xanatos growled in rage, straddling Obi-Wan's hips. He lifted the boy by both shoulders and slammed him against the floor. "You will pay for this outrage!" Xanatos took an injector from his belt and pressed it to Obi-Wan's arm. With his still-heightened sensitivity, Obi-Wan could feel a substance rushing into his bloodstream, felt dread as he sensed the danger in its spread through his system. Xanatos placed both hands on the young Jedi's chest. The boy cried out: never mind the collar: it could hurt him no more than it was already. The anger filling Xanatos was charged with Dark Side energy. It crackled through Obi-Wan's skin like a bolt of electricity, setting his nerves on fire; it burned his mind as a bright light would burn his eyes. Obi-Wan cried out again, his voice rising to a scream.
"Stop! Stop! There is no honor in this!" Obi-Wan heard Sitaris shouting. Abruptly the pain ended, though Obi-Wan still felt suffocated by the power of the Dark Side. He sobbed softly, his eyes closed tight.
"Get out!" The Dark Jedi intoned, his voice low, trembling now, enraged. "Out! Your carelessness has cost me dearly today! Out, before I take my payment in your life!" And with a flick of dark energy, an iota of the growing power at his command, he threw Sitaris across the room. Obi-Wan heard the lift tube door open and shut: knew the trainer was gone, and felt a twinge of -- what? regret?
Xanatos laughed then, his head thrown back. "Who would have thought?" he said in a tone of rising excitement. Placing his hands on Obi-Wan's shoulders once more, he sent a current of power, of pain, through the boy's body and mind.
Obi-Wan bit his lip on a scream. He was drowning in the dark Force. As though he were trapped in the field of a black hole, he felt it gathering around him as a tremendous weight, as pressure on his spirit, crushing him, collapsing his self to a point, to nothing. There was rage there, jealousy, hatred, a tremendous abhorrence of all that lived and breathed and made life.
Again Xanatos released him, breathing quickly now, exulting in the might of his will, the potent energy channeling through him. "Such power the Dark Side gives. It answers to your feelings, to your need. Can't you feel it calling you, Obi-Wan?"
Obi-Wan shuddered. He could indeed feel the Dark Side calling to him, pulling at him. He saw himself throwing Xanatos across the room, piercing his body with a sizzling bolt of dark energy, destroying him -- the fierce will of the Dark Side tempting him. He felt its thirst for pain, for power, for the power of domination and destruction. Its cruel joy in the promise of battle.
The Dark Side promised a vast power, more strength than he had ever felt in his connection with the Force. With it he could strike down Xanatos, could escape his cruelty and his cunning! He teetered on the knife point of decision.
Fear leads to anger, to hate...
Obi-Wan forced himself to remember the madness he had seen in Xanatos' eyes. Would he become such a monster? Would he too turn against his master, against everyone he loved?
The Dark would use him, if he allowed it. It would use him up, suck the life from him until he was a desiccated husk, crush him into dust. No, he would not touch the Dark Side. But fear filled him -- not for himself, not for his death, he had already accepted the imminence of his death. He was afraid of what Xanatos would do with this power he wielded. He was strong, so strong...
Light help me! He reached for the warmth of the living Force, but he could only glimpse it, a will-o-wisp in the stretching darkness.
"You can feel it!" Xanatos crowed. "But you're too much a coward to use it! And the light won't accept you either -- I can feel you reaching for it. Such delicious irony!" He snickered, his eyes narrowing. Then he leaned over the boy, staring into his frightened eyes. Obi-Wan found he could not move, could not look away.
"The plans I have, my young friend! You will see them come to fruition. I will keep you by my side, see how I favor you? For Qui-Gon will never come for you. You're already lost to the light. Little Jedi reject... Renounced by the Force, renounced by the Council...The Council forbade him to come. Why not turn your back on them? They turned their backs on you! Here, speak, I release your voice!"
At the mention of Qui-Gon's name, Obi-Wan felt his mind clear, just a little, of the darkness oppressing him. His master was near, was coming for him... He shook his head in denial: a slow, slight movement. "You lie," he whispered.
Xanatos frowned, his eyes narrowed, sensing the boy's sudden rush of hope. "Still placing your trust in that old fool? But no..." A slow, nasty grin curled the man's lips. "He's here. Isn't he? Here in the city."
Obi-Wan's eyes widened. He tried to shake his head, to deny... and then the darkness formed the point of a spear rushing toward him, tearing through his defenses, striking deep into his mind. He cried out. Get out! Get out of my head! He struggled to throw up mental shields, to push Xanatos away: with no more effect than if he were beating against a steel wall with bare fists. When did he get so strong? he wondered, panic rising.
"He thinks to come for you. Well, we shall have to make certain he is not disappointed. Your dear master is walking into a trap. He will not be able to stand against me! For I am stronger now, far stronger... You feel it, don't you? You feel, and you fear me! As you should!"
The darkness twisted within him, but Obi-Wan was helpless to deny it. He closed his eyes, feeling sick. Reached for the Force, but it slipped away from him, cool and untouchable.
"You set my plans back considerably this afternoon. A temporary setback, I assure you. But I am not well pleased with you, my dear disobedient slave. I shall have to punish you. Shall I make you cry and beg for mercy, little Jedi?"
No! Obi-Wan pleaded silently, through rising pain. No more! Then flushed with shame at his weakness.
Xanatos laughed, letting go his shoulders, releasing the pain. With one hand he traced the boy's jaw. "No. I won't hurt you, not now." He grinned, a smile that sent shivers down Obi-Wan's spine. "I believe you would prefer to see my plans for your master." And then the darkness was twisting within the boy once more, and his vision faded, until he saw Xanatos standing before him in his mind's eye, and he could not look away, there was no way to look away...
Qui-Gon burst into the common area not twenty minutes after he'd left it. The others were just clearing away the remains of their meal.
"We have to go now."
"What is it Qui-Gon?" Tahl's sightless eyes widened in alarm.
"Remember my vision?"
"It may already be too late," he told them, turning to leave. Tomas stepped into his path, caught him mid-stride.
"What are you talking about?"
A sudden wave of terror, of agony, assailed Qui-Gon. He clasped his head in both hands. "No!"
"He's hurting him!"
In moments Tahl was at his side, and then both his friends were pulling Qui-Gon into a seat.
"Tell us," said Tahl firmly, "or we won't be able to help."
With a wrenching of his will Qui-Gon centered, brought his awareness of Obi-Wan under his control, pushed it to the periphery so he could think.
"In my meditation, I was able to reach Obi-Wan. I told him we were coming for him. He was happy at first, but then -- regretful. I could feel that there was something he intended to do."
"What do you think that was?"
"I don't know. But I could feel his resolve. He's prepared himself for death."
"And this is his choice, the act you foresaw for him, on which hinges Xanatos' success or failure? Is it past? What was his choice?"
Knowing they were right, that they needed to know, Qui-Gon squelched his anxiety and turned to the Force. He could not afford, now of all times, to allow his fear to guide him. As he had told Obi-Wan, ages ago it felt now, the very worst time, is when it's most important to live by the code. He needed to walk the narrow path. He centered, reached out...
"He's caused Xanatos to suffer a major setback. But he's not defeated, and Obi-Wan's trial is not yet finished..." He reached out to his Padawan's presence in the Force, and found his mind churning, his feelings in turmoil. Dark Side energy coursed through the boy. "What is Xanatos doing to him?" he whispered. "He has something... insidious... in mind..."
"That poor dear boy," Tahl murmured.
"How much time do we have?" Tomas asked.
"I don't know." Qui-Gon shook his head. He closed his eyes, then, seeking clarity of his inner sight. "Events are coming to a head, now; like a wave cresting." He opened his eyes to look across at Tomas. "We don't have until tonight: of that much I'm certain."
"Now is the time to make our move," Tahl agreed.
"I can still go in through the arena," said Qui-Gon. "I'll get past the guards at the trainers' entrance; I don't think there's time, now, for any other route."
"But Xanatos is there, now, Qui-Gon. With him between you and the boy..."
"Master, my plan would take care of that."
The girl spoke in a rush, now, determined to be heard. "Even if we can't get Xanatos to come to us, at least we will have another route to his quarters. With three of us coming in from two directions, we have more chance of success."
Tomas shook his head at his Padawan in frustration. She stared back, her gaze unswerving.
"You don't know what you're asking, Padawan. Slaves are owed no respect on this planet, and we'll have to keep up the charade for at least a while in order to get Xanatos' attention."
"I'm not afraid, Master. You'll be with me."
The Jedi Master sighed, and placed both hands on the girl's slim shoulders. "I don't like it."
"My idea will work, Master, and you know it."
Tahl and Qui-Gon exchanged concerned glances. Neither of them liked the idea of having their young friend pose as a slave. But it was not their decision to make. And the girl was right: it was a good plan.
Tomas nodded sadly. "All right then. Qui-Gon, we'll want to time your arrival so we get Xanatos' attention before you go in."
"I'll take Tahl back to the starship, she can coordinate us from there." He looked to Tahl, who nodded. "Then I'll get into position so I can go right in when you're ready."
"Help me to get what we need from the market first. Then you and Tahl can take our things to the ship while Ki-Erin and I prepare for our part."
"All right," Qui-Gon agreed.
Half an hour later, Qui-Gon approached the Palace, having left Tahl behind in the relative safety of their borrowed starship. He had hidden himself in a crowd, walking in step with arena-goers on the path to the main doors. He stopped by the side of the path, as if to check his pockets; glanced surreptitiously toward the trainers' door. His act faltered.
Sitaris was coming toward him down the path.
The man looked disturbed, agitated. Qui-Gon turned and stepped in beside him as he passed, matching his pace. It was a mark of the man's distress that it took nearly half a minute for him to notice.
"Please keep walking, to the turnoff there. I need to talk with you."
"I can't --"
"It's urgent. Regarding the boy you've been training."
The man's interest was caught. He closed his lips on his protest, staring at Qui-Gon for a few seconds, then nodded tightly.
The narrow road they were following looped back into the tangle of the old city. A block past the first buildings, Sitaris nodded at a small dingy tavern.
"We can talk privately there, I trust the proprietor."
Qui-Gon considered for a moment. He sensed no deceit, no hidden purpose in the man. He entered.
The small crowd in the entry quickly cleared a path for the two large, grim men. Sitaris nodded to the bartender, silently indicating they would take two drinks. Then he led the way to a quiet corner table and seated himself with his back to the wall. Qui-Gon took the other wall seat.
"How is he?" Qui-Gon asked urgently.
Sitaris' brow creased in confusion. "How-"
"What is Xanatos doing to him? Is he all right?"
Sitaris' jaw worked, soundlessly. He was obviously trying to put two and two together, and coming up with twenty-five.
The bartender walked over with two mugs, setting them down in the center of the table, and left them as quietly as he had come.
"Why do you care?" Sitaris asked suddenly.
"Do you care anything for that boy?" Qui-Gon countered. He didn't wait for an answer, he could read it in the man's reaction. "Listen to me. Two weeks ago and more Xanatos kidnapped that boy from me. For revenge. He cares nothing for the boy, except as a means to hurt me, as a means to his own twisted ends. He's been treating him cruelly, hurting him for no reason, though I imagine he's tried to hide such acts from you. Am I correct?"
He watched Sitaris's face, already knowing the trainer's answer. He was surprised when the big man's face twisted in anguish.
"The boy told me this. The boy told me and I refused to believe him." He put his elbows on the table, leaning his face into hands. "I punished him for it, for the lie I thought it must be. Punished him in anger, because I felt he had betrayed me."
Qui-Gon was surprised to feel a rush of compassion for the man -- knowing what the nature of that punishment probably was... He hardened his heart. If his instincts were true in this --
"So you trusted an offworlder's honor, and you dishonored yourself."
He sensed the stab of shame and dismay; waited for Sitaris to compose himself. Finally the man dropped his hands, looked to Qui-Gon, his gaze sad but steady.
"Do you have proof of your claim to him?"
"Not on this world."
Qui-Gon held the man's eyes and waited. Finally the man sighed, lowered his eyes, his thoughts settled.
"Xanatos ordered me out this morning, threatened me, when I protested his treatment of the bonder. It was the first time I had ever seen him mistreat the boy, though there has been other... evidence... the past few days. I don't know if he's alive or dead, now. I don't know how to find out: the Mozelle have little real power within the confines of the Palace." The trainer paused, then looked up once more. "What do you want me to do?"
"Can you help me to get in to Xanatos' quarters?"
Sitaris leaned back, looking thoughtful. "Maybe. If he hasn't changed the access codes. But you must realize that we won't be able to smuggle the boy out, not while he's wearing the collar. It carries a transmitter that can be identified and activated from anywhere within the Palace grounds, and a good ways beyond."
Qui-Gon blew out a long breath in frustration. "Can you remove it?"
"No, I've never been trusted with that code. I might be able to deactivate it, at least for a time. Xanatos, however, can override any commands I make."
"We'll just have to deal with that when the time comes. Will you bring me there now?" He checked the chrono in his pocket: not much time left, now, before Tomas and Ki-Erin were in place, and it was time to do his part.
They stood. Sitaris left payment on the table for their untouched drinks. Then they left.
Qui-Gon stood with Sitaris inside the small repulsorlift, waiting for Tomas' signal that it was safe to go up. Getting past the guards at the trainers' entrance had not been difficult: they were already inclined to trust Sitaris, an old friend of theirs, and with a bit of influence from the Force, they were persuaded to let Qui-Gon past as a new trainer being shown the rounds.
The vibration of his comlink, on then quickly off, three times in succession, told the Jedi Master that Xanatos was otherwise occupied. Qui-Gon reached out to Tomas with a wish for success, quick as thought, then turned to his companion.
"It's safe now."
Sitaris only nodded, punching the code that sent their turbolift racing up the shaft to Xanatos' quarters. They entered the utility room without incident.
All was quiet in the small, bare room with its gleaming cabinets and appliances. Qui-Gon extended his feelings. The Dark Side was oppressive here, strong with Xanatos' workings, his long residence here: this was one of his major headquarters. Qui-Gon continued his search. There: behind the armored door that Sitaris was approaching. Obi-Wan lay inside, battered shields raised imperfectly against mental intrusion. My Padawan, what has he done to you?
The door slid open with a hiss, and the two men stepped inside, facing the blue energy wall, waiting for the door to close behind them. Sitaris had explained the layers of security on their return to the Palace. Qui-Gon waited while he palmed the code to deactivate the wall, his eyes drawn to Obi-Wan's limp form, lying on his side on a narrow bunk, facing the wall. At the trainer's signal that all was clear, Qui-Gon strode to the boy's side. Obi-wan did not look up.
Hesitantly, suddenly anxious about his young Padawan's state of mind, he touched the boy's shoulder.
His hesitation saved him. In a blur of motion, Obi-Wan's hand-blade cut to his throat, a killing blow. Qui-Gon caught the forearm just as the edge of Obi-Wan's palm struck his pharynx. He cut down, catching the arm and twisting it automatically into a pin, as he bent over, coughing violently. Obi-Wan's face, staring at him in horror, brought him quickly to his senses. Releasing the boy, taking him gently by the shoulders, he turned him to face him. Obi-Wan dropped his eyes and his head, silent anguish twisting his features, his gaze unfocused on his master's chest. Qui-Gon's heart twisted with pity.
"It's all right, Padawan. I'm getting you out of here. It's all right." He dropped to one knee so he could look into the boy's face, but Obi-Wan turned his head, his eyes bright with unshed tears.
"Don't turn away from me, please."
Obi-Wan squeezed his eyes tight, and tears ran down his cheeks, sparkling strangely in the blue light.
Without turning his gaze from Obi-Wan's face, Qui-Gon pulled off his dark robe, calling over his shoulder to Sitaris, "Can you deactivate the collar?"
"It's done. Best we leave quickly now."
Qui-Gon wrapped the thick robe tightly around his Padawan, pulling the boy to standing, shocked at the way he moved so listlessly, stood like he would fall over in a strong wind. He pulled Obi-Wan to him in a tight embrace; was distressed to find him as stiff and lifeless as a statue carved of ice. But slowly, almost dreamily, Obi-Wan relaxed in his arms. The boy twisted both hands into Qui-Gon's tunic, pressed his tearstained face into his chest, gasped with the effort of breathing normally.
"Can you walk?"
He nodded, letting go his master's tunic, still trembling but, Qui-Gon saw, determined now to keep control. He steered the boy toward the door, where Sitaris stood waiting for them.
And then, in a moment -- a thrill of warning from the Force -- but it was too late. Another energy wall sprang to life, in the space between the original wall and the door, flinging Sitaris back against the door. The trainer slumped to the floor, unmoving, his hand and clothing singed.
"No!" Obi-Wan cried out, his voice rasping. He stepped toward the wall, his eyes fixed on Sitaris on the other side, but Qui-Gon caught him and held him back.
"He lives. He's unconscious, but he lives." He did not tell the boy that the trainer's living Force was a slender thread, fast fading. There was nothing they could do for the man with an energy wall between them. Qui-Gon looked up and around at the walls, searching for the trigger that had sprung this trap. "I think the collar must have activated that wall. We'll have to remove it." He switched on his comlink in his pocket and sent a signal to Tahl that he was in trouble. Then he put both hands to the collar, kneeling before Obi-Wan, searching for a catch or fastener with eyes and fingers and the Force.
"Master." Obi-Wan's voice came softly, faltering; his eyes closed, hands tightened into fists. "Master, I cannot feel the Force."
"Shh. It's all right."
"Master, I can only feel the Dark Side." His voice broke into a sob. Slowly he sank to his knees.
Qui-Gon looked at him then, really looked at him, extending his feelings to assess the boy's physical and mental condition. He placed his hands on either side of Obi-Wan's head, let his eyes unfocus, and poured his self into their connection. Obi-Wan offered no resistance to his master's probe. He was exhausted, anguished, his mind in turmoil.
"You're afraid, Padawan. You're fearful of yourself. Why?" Qui-Gon kept his tone mild, questioning not judging, but still the boy flinched. He gulped back another sob.
"Because... there's nothing... nothing in me... but darkness."
Once more Qui-Gon probed the boy's body.
"And you're afraid this means you've turned? Did Xanatos suggest this to you?"
"I... yes... I..." He drew a ragged breath. "Master, I wanted... to kill him. I almost killed you!" Obi-Wan's face contorted in grief, in anguish. He bent to hide in his cupped hands.
"Obi-Wan." Qui Gon could well understand what the boy was feeling now: past time he took the counsel of Tomas and Tahl to heart. With one finger he stroked his young Padawan's arm. "You were distraught. You made a mistake. You will reflect on this experience, and you will learn from it."
Slowly Obi-Wan lifted his eyes. "I hurt you."
"No, Padawan. You did not hurt me."
"I wanted to hurt Xanatos. I wanted to kill him. I..." his voice sank to an intense whisper. "I hate him."
"I sense hatred in you, but not of Xanatos, my Padawan." He looked steadily at the grieving boy. "Release your self-anger, Obi-Wan. You will meditate on your failings, and you will forgive yourself, as you must: you are a Jedi."
"How can you say that, when the Force won't... Can't you see?"
"When you tried to kill me --"
The boy jerked as if slapped. Qui-Gon gently took hold of his wrists.
"Why did you do so physically?"
The boy shook his head, slowly.
"Have you drawn on the Dark Side willingly?"
"Would you have done so to strike down Xanatos?"
"Did it occur to you that you could have?"
"It called me. Promised me... But it would use me, I saw that, and I didn't... I wouldn't..."
"Look at me, Padawan." He hardened his voice, commanding obedience. Slowly, hesitantly, Obi-Wan raised his eyes, holding Qui-Gon's gaze for the first time since Xanatos took him captive.
"Xanatos has been drugging you."
Obi-Wan winced, and nodded.
"The drugs are affecting your Force sensitivity." A shadow of hope crossed Obi-Wan's thoughts, though still he looked hurt and fearful. Qui-Gon turned his attention back to the collar. Having identified the nephrolite within Obi-Wan's body, he could see, now, that the collar was also threaded with the substance.
"We can neutralize the drugs. To accomplish it, you will need to trust in me, and more important, to trust in yourself. To transcend the darkness."
"I trust you, Master."
"And I trust in you." He brushed Obi-Wan's face, looking into his eyes. My Padawan. And he opened his mind, filled his thoughts with all his pride and admiration of this boy who had held out so long against the dark, his love for the boy who, somehow, after a long winter of loneliness, had found a way into his heart.
Obi-Wan's eyes widened. His brow furrowed. Qui-Gon could feel his struggle with the weight of the Dark Side. I can't...
"Let it go, Obi-Wan. Trust yourself. You are a burning candle in a sea of darkness. Let go your fear. Forgive your mistakes. Release your anger. Let it go."
The comlink buzzed in Qui-Gon's pocket. Long... short short long...
Xanatos was returning. Tomas had failed.
Even as he wrestled with his emotions, struggled to release his fear as Qui-Gon had directed him, Obi-Wan sensed Xanatos approaching from a distance. The man's signature malevolent presence sent waves through the Force, the Dark Side swirling and rippling in anticipation, in greeting. As easily as breathing Xanatos extended himself to make contact with Obi-Wan's mind: a harsh and hateful contact, so different from Qui-Gon's tender touch: and in that moment Obi-Wan felt a rush of fear, a remembrance of the evil that Xanatos had promised should Qui-Gon be ensnared by the traps the dark Jedi had set. And here was his master, caught.
Xanatos's laughter echoed in his mind.
Obi-Wan cried out and threw himself to the floor, curled into a fetal position, all self-control lost to him. It's all my fault, he told himself. I should have seen, should have warned him...
"Padawan, I know that Xanatos is coming, but you must not lose hope. Together we can defeat him."
Here I am, worse than useless, and still, still he calls me Padawan. Master, how can you trust me?
"Padawan." Qui-Gon's voice came sharp and hard as a whip-crack. "You will get up and you will stop indulging your misery. Immediately!"
Shaking, red-faced, Obi-Wan pushed himself upright. Qui-Gon stood, pulling him up, and set Obi-Wan on his feet.
"I'm sorry, I..."
"Stop worrying about what I think." Qui-Gon's tone was harsh. Obi-Wan could feel him staring, expectant. Though it was the last thing he wanted to do, he forced himself to look up. The tall Jedi caught his face, held it, looking into his eyes, his own eyes soft with concern. "I can't get us out alone."
"Breathe deeply and center."
Closing his eyes, Obi-Wan began the opening exercises for beginning a trance or meditation: exercises he had spent his life perfecting. When he had calmed his thoughts and racing heart, he opened his eyes once more. Qui-Gon put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed, comfortingly.
"Remember who you are." He waited, expectantly.
Obi-Wan took a deep, steadying breath. He could feel Xanatos approaching the door, now.
"I am a Jedi."
Qui-Gon nodded, once, then turned to face the door.
The door slid open.
"Why, Qui-Gon Jinn. What a pleasant surprise!" Xanatos crowed. "And here I was just telling young Obi-Wan of the plans I have for your visit --" His eyes found Obi-Wan's. Obi-Wan turned away. He couldn't bear to look at the man. Qui-Gon's steadying touch only deepened his dread.
"So Sitaris crossed me at last." Xanatos sighed, mocking. "Such a waste of a good trainer. You could have warned him, slave. Or -- did you enjoy seeing him burn?"
Xanatos sniggered. "Enough, says the wise, stern Qui-Gon Jinn. The impeccable Jedi Master. Enough," he scoffed. "Mustn't twit the master's favorite. The remorseful little killer..." Obi-Wan flinched as the words cut him. He saw Heavy Hand falling, the huge bonder enraged by Obi-Wan's taunting, teasing whip. Saw Bruck, head split on a stone.
"Enough!" Qui-Gon's hand tightened on Obi-Wan's shoulder. He felt a wave of fury from his master, quickly constrained. "Get out of the boy's mind. Now," Qui-Gon hissed.
"Make me," gloated Xanatos.
For a long moment the two men stood silent, neither yielding. The challenge echoed in the tiny chamber. Obi-Wan shivered, eyes fixed on his master's belt. What could he do to help?
Cold trickled through his veins. Nothing... The cold burned his skin; his joints ached with it. The cold poured through him, from him, whirling around the cell, around the warm presence of his master. It slowed his blood, chilled his bones, numbed his thoughts. He pulled Qui-Gon's robe more tightly about himself, fingers shaking. It didn't help. He moaned softly.
Qui-Gon spun to face him then. He took hold of Obi-Wan's shoulders.
A burst of power arced from Obi-Wan's body into Qui-Gon's. Obi-Wan saw his master's face constrict in pain. He stood frozen with horror.
No one moved. Then Qui-Gon's face softened. He touched Obi-Wan's cheek.
The cell exploded in cold blue bolts of flame.
A torrent of power raged through Obi-Wan's body, pulling him to his toes. His head arched back. Half-blinded by the light, still he saw Qui-Gon pinned to the far wall by the glowing bolts of energy. Dark Side energy. Coming from him. Qui-Gon writhed in agony.
No! No! Stop! He wanted to throw himself to the floor, slam his head against the stones: anything to stop the Dark Side energy using him. But he could not move: he hung paralyzed on his toes, arms outflung. Instead he looked inward, to deny the flow, to shut down his consciousness if that should fail.
A dark maw swallowed him, dragging his mind to nightmares.
He heard Xanatos laughing.
Qui-Gon pushed unsteadily to his feet, bracing against the wall behind. For a nightmare eternity Obi-Wan's body had hung suspended from flows of dark power. Then the boy screamed and collapsed. Xanatos had stopped channeling through Obi-Wan, then, though still Qui-Gon felt the Dark Side oppressively strong here. He staggered two steps and sank to his knees at Obi-Wan's side. His young Padawan was thrashing and moaning, insensible to the world.
"They always end up like this," Xanatos drawled carelessly. He lounged against the door frame beyond the energy wall, his arms folded. "All my Force-sensitive slaves. In my experiments I've succeeded in slowing the effects with a mix of activator and inhibitor drugs, but that's all. The more power I draw through them, the faster they burn out. He'll wake in a few hours. But next time I use him he'll go more quickly and take longer to wake. And the next time the same, and the next. And finally he won't wake at all, but will remain irrevocably mad. I usually dispose of them at that point."
Qui-Gon stared at his former apprentice. It surprised him that the dominant emotion he felt was... grief. What had happened to the brilliant youth he had cherished? Had that Xanatos, in reality, ever existed? Or was he dead and gone, his soul swallowed by the dark power he had embraced?
"You could, of course, help him to retain his sanity. I would appreciate any such effort on your part." Xanatos smiled, his eyes cold. "Of course, I'll only use him again, regardless. Until he's all used up. Perhaps you'd prefer to kill him. To spare him a worse fate." His voice grew soft, silky. "Either way, I win. Master."
Xanatos left then, gliding out without a backward glance, leaving the door open behind him.
Qui-Gon returned his attention to his Padawan. Obi-Wan's skin was cool to the touch; his eyes rolled behind closed lids, and his limbs thrashed weakly. Qui-Gon gathered the boy gently into his embrace, lightly pinning his arms; with his free hand he pulled his dark robe tight around Obi-Wan's shivering body, and laid the boy's head against his chest. His cheek resting atop Obi-Wan's head, he sank slowly into a deep trance.
There is another way, Xanatos: another way. Tahl... Tahl, I need you!
Deeper he went, and still deeper, loosening the ties with his body, joining his awareness with the Force. He sensed Obi-Wan's living Force dim and streaked with darkness: a darkness that clung to the boy's aura like a host of parasites. His own living Force entwined with Obi-Wan's in places, linking them in mutual care and a shared destiny: a future he would not deny, now, for his life, though for a time he had refused to acknowledge it. Obi-Wan, though -- Obi-Wan had always known. One of many reasons the boy was so precious to him.
Soon Qui-Gon would let his consciousness flow through that bond, to ease Obi-Wan away from the awareness the Dark Side inflicted on him: visions of the will of the Dark Side, as valid in its own perspective as that of the Light it opposed. But first he had to break Xanatos' hold on the boy. Xanatos' living Force bound Obi-Wan's through the nephrolite in his cells: a bridle more compelling and invasive than the chains Sitaris had used.
He felt her, then: a relentless spirit, assiduous in her efforts to see and make sense: she accepted him, and strengthened their connection. Qui-Gon felt her sharp perception tune to him, questioning.
Tahl, I need you...
In his need he opened to her as he never had to anyone: set aside his natural reserve and invited her within the walls of his mind. Unhesitating, she joined with him.
Qui-Gon. The touch of her thoughts caressed him, comforting.
It's Obi-Wan... He directed her attention to the boy he still held, in the universe of matter and senses. Obi-Wan had gone limp in his arms, no longer struggling against the forces Xanatos had set in motion within him.
Tahl immediately set her focus on Obi-Wan, ignoring Qui-Gon's tumbling emotions -- his grief and lingering remorse, his anger and regret -- for which he was grateful. United with Tahl, he opened himself to the Force, allowing her being to fill him and giving her himself in return. This was the Force: being, knowing, but being in harmony, a part of the world and not in opposition to it. Giving, and accepting. Trusting. With Tahl as his anchor, tenderly he reached out to his Padawan.
Xanatos sat upon a tall ornate chair on a dais at one end of a wide marble hall. Thousands of beings filled the hall; flickering light from a hundred tiny floating globes of green and red and violet lit their upturned faces, made caverns of their eyes and sent devilish shadow sprites dancing among the folds of their rich cloaks and gowns and robes. Obi-Wan watched them from his place behind the throne, kneeling on the rough stone, wearing the harness and garish paint of a slave: watched them sidelong, his head bent in submission, as one by one they approached Xanatos to offer him their wealth and their fealty. Jewels and precious crystals soon spilled from the enormous stone basins to either side of Xanatos, littering the floor of the dais, and still the beings came: an unending line, for as soon as one would leave, clothed no longer in rich robes but in rags or the collars of slaves, exiting through one of the dark pointed arches that lined the hall to either side, another would enter from the rear, pulling a repulsorlift sled or leading carrier droids piled high with wealth. Aurodium ingots and vertex glittered on the floor around Obi-Wan's knees, but he dared touch nothing. He dared not move, though he had been kneeling for many hours.
Then Xanatos rose gracefully from his seat, smiling regally at the silent throng. With a gesture he bade Obi-Wan follow him from the hall. Obi-Wan stood immediately, resignedly obedient.
Silently Obi-Wan shadowed Xanatos through dim halls, the stone flags cold under his feet. They descended several stairs, past guards and locked gates, finally emerging in a damp and musty corridor in the depths of Xanatos' stronghold and palace. Tiny cells lined the hall, filled with miserable beings of every description, some standing to beg mercy as Xanatos passed, others sagging against the walls, their eyes bereft of hope. Obi-Wan knew how they felt. He walked with head bent and arms limp at his sides, not only because Xanatos had commanded him to do so.
Xanatos stopped and sneered at an elder Bith, a female who had been calling to him in a high and tremulous voice, until she shrank back against the far wall and hid her eyes.
"Kill her for me, Obi-Wan. Put her out of her misery," Xanatos commanded him, cavalier in his power.
Obi-Wan shook his head, horrified. But then -- then he found himself advancing on the poor soul, powerless in his own body, cowering and pleading in his mind but unable to speak or to look away, as from his hand a stream of dark power spouted, pouring into the condemned prisoner, taking away her breath and filling her with pain, until finally she twitched and was still and cold, the life gone from her.
"Well done," Xanatos told him, smiling and petting his shoulder, and turned and continued down the hall. Obi-Wan found himself following, his legs marching along, as he stared at his trembling hands. They came to the end of the corridor, around a corner and behind a door, to a cell that was isolated from the others.
Qui-Gon knelt there, his arms chained behind him.
"No!" Obi-Wan screamed, backing away.
"Kill him for me, there's a good boy."
And then Obi-Wan was advancing again, right arm outstretched. He threw all his will into panicked resistance, twisted head and torso away, struggling to stop moving, to stop Xanatos using him. His steps grew shorter, unsteady.
"Go on, Obi-Wan, do as I told you," came the sweet, cruel voice.
"Obi-Wan. Come. Come to me," said Qui-Gon.
"No! No, I can't, I won't!" Obi-Wan could not pull back his arm. He put all his strength into stopping his feet.
"Stop struggling, Obi-Wan," said Xanatos.
"Stop struggling, Padawan," said Qui-Gon at the same moment.
"I won't do it! No!" He jerked forward two steps, then slid once more to a stop.
"You must do as I bid you, slave," Xanatos laughed.
Obi-Wan jerked forward once more. "No!" he cried out, and stopped, halfway through a step, teetering on his back foot.
"Trust me," said Qui-Gon, a faint note of pleading edging into his voice. "Do you trust me, Obi-Wan?"
"I won't let him use me!"
"You can't prevent me, little slave."
"Trust me. Stop fighting. Come to me."
"I --" Obi-Wan clomped through two more steps.
Xanatos laughed again. "Go on, now, do as your master bids you! Give up, give in to me, for you surely cannot stop me."
"Please, Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon entreated him softly.
Obi-Wan's feet edged forward, uncertainty weakening his resolve. Two more steps...
"Come to me," Qui-Gon whispered, his eyes intense.
Obi-Wan squeezed his eyes tightly shut, but only for a moment. Jumping into a run, he threw himself toward his master.
"Stop --" Xanatos shouted.
He was cold. Cold metal ringed his neck; his biceps and thighs; chained his wrists and his ankles behind him. He shivered, and he whimpered. He was cold, and he was alone. Alone in the dark.
"Master?" His memory was hazy, as if seen through a thick fog, but he remembered -- Qui-Gon, trapped. Raising his arm -- the Dark Side rushing through him --
Or had it? Had he run to his master, beyond hope --
Padawan. Come to me.
"Where are you?" The sound of his voice fell dim, muffled in the darkness. There was no echo, no other sound.
Close. But you must come to me.
"I can't, Master. I can't move." Panic touched Obi-Wan. The darkness weighed so heavily on him, and he could not move... "Please come get me!"
I can't do that, Padawan. You must come to me. Don't be afraid.
"But I can't, I'm chained here --"
The chains aren't real.
Obi-Wan was silent. With his fingertips he felt the chill edge of the manacle around his wrist; the chain clipped to a ring on the inner edge.
"It feels real," he whispered.
Come back, Obi-Wan. Leave the fear and the chains behind. Come back to yourself.
Obi-Wan raised his head; strained his eyes for some sign of light, a hint of where he was. Was any of this real? Where was he? Where was the way out?
"How, Master? I don't know how!"
Hush, Obi-Wan. Strength over fear.
Obi-Wan flinched at the mild rebuke in Qui-Gon's tone, suddenly ashamed. Whining like a baby! You're a Padawan, not an infant, he scolded himself. He closed his eyes, slowed his breathing, calmed his racing heart. But when he centered for the next stage of the exercise for active awareness, he lost all he had gained. His eyes snapped open.
"I'm all darkness inside!"
Reach out with your feelings, Padawan.
Come find me. Reach for the light.
Obi-Wan swallowed. What if he couldn't reach the Force? What if the Dark Side had claimed him, and refused to give him up? Qui-Gon told me to reach for the light, he answered himself. Holding on to that thought, he calmed himself and extended once more, ignoring as best he could the sea of darkness that filled him, that engulfed him, though it made him queasy to extend his senses through it. Obi-Wan pushed on, searching, his thoughts muzzy and muffled, with no sign of life to focus on, nothing but the darkness. He felt as though he were deep in the ocean, not knowing which direction was up, to the surface and blessed light and air.
Master, help me!
He was lost. He was drowning in the dark.
Like a hand pulling him from the churning sea, Obi-Wan felt Qui-Gon's warm touch, pulling him from the brink of panic. He clung to Qui-Gon's firm presence in relief: clung to him, to his strength and purpose; feeling as he had not felt in far too long: that all could be right in the world, with the Force as the path under his feet and the beacon to light his way; and with his master to help and guide him. Qui-Gon's relief and happiness echoed his own, and he knew he'd found his way home. Warmth of welcome poured through him, not only from Qui-Gon. He recognized that other presence...
Obi-Wan opened his eyes. He was curled up in Qui-Gon's lap, held close against his master's chest, Qui-Gon's robe and arms snugged tight around him. He felt... content. Safe. He sighed.
Suddenly embarrassed, he stiffened and withdrew a little.
"What's wrong, Obi-Wan?"
"I'm so sorry, Master."
"For what?" Qui-Gon sounded bemused.
"I've been... For being such a baby."
Qui-Gon chuckled. "I suppose it's a good sign that your dignity is reasserting itself. We're not out of trouble yet, you realize. Still..." He put one hand on Obi-Wan's chest.
Obi-Wan felt Qui-Gon probing his body with the Force. He felt strangely light: insubstantial, transparent: glancing down at his hands he was almost surprised to see that they were whole and solid. He hugged himself. Part of him had expected to see a glow of light shining through his skin. He shook his head, confused. "What happened, Qui-Gon? I can't -- I felt so dark, before: I was drowning -- but now I'm all light and warmth: like a candle, or a banked flame..."
"It's the drug in your system, Obi-Wan: it was primed to the Dark Side, but we changed it, together. But it's still there, still affecting your Force abilities. You can reach the Force now, but you must be careful how you draw on it: careful not to extend yourself too far." With one hand he touched the collar at Obi-Wan's neck. Obi-Wan felt a surge of the Force. The metal ring sprang open.
A slight tremor in his hands, Obi-Wan unfolded his arms, and took the collar from his neck. He looked at it in wonder. Such a simple thing, to have caused him such pain...
Gently Qui-Gon shifted Obi-Wan to the floor beside him. Then he stood, and, taking the collar from Obi-Wan, he placed it on the floor, curve up; rested the heel of his boot on it, and lowered his weight. It flattened, slowly, and finally snapped in two at the hinge.
Obi-Wan heard rapid footsteps approaching. He struggled to his feet to stand beside Qui-Gon. He was surprised again to see that Sitaris was gone from the cell's entryway. He glanced quickly around.
"He's gone," Qui-Gon murmured. "I hope he got away."
Xanatos strode through the open door, his face livid. "What have you..." He stopped, his eyes taking in the two of them standing side by side, the broken collar on the floor. His eyes narrowed. "Impressive. But don't think this act will save the boy --"
The peal of an alarm siren interrupted him.
Lips tight, Xanatos stared at Qui-Gon, but only for a moment. He turned on his heel and strode out of sight. Obi-Wan heard the whoosh of the door to Xanatos' living quarters closing behind him.
Obi-Wan turned to Qui-Gon, questions in his eyes.
Qui-Gon smiled at him grimly. "Tomas, and Ki-Erin."
"The alarm --"
"They'll want to reach us before any guards arrive."
The door opened again almost before Qui-Gon finished speaking. A girl sprinted into view. She skidded to a halt in front of the open cell door when she caught sight of them. Obi-Wan frowned. She wore a collar and a flowered yellow wrap around her torso; her limbs and feet were bare. But a red Padawan's tail danced behind her. She carried a lightsaber, lit golden orange, in one hand.
"Ki'rin," he whispered.
"Wedge the door before you come in here," Qui-Gon rapped out.
Ki-Erin nodded and dived out of sight. They heard her rattling through the cabinets in the utility room. She reappeared with a long stout pole in one hand, that she wedged across the cell's open doorway. Then she jumped over it into the room, glancing around for the energy wall controls. When they weren't immediately obvious, she ran her hand over the surfaces of the wall around her, using the Force to feel for the flow of energy to trace to a convergence, which she eventually found near the door.
She didn't waste time fiddling. After a cursory inspection, Ki-Erin plunged her lightsaber into the wall and twisted. Ten long seconds later, the energy wall winked out. The door immediately strained against the blockage Ki-Erin had placed in the way. The pole slowly buckled. Ki-Erin jumped out, then Obi-Wan, who tripped as the pole suddenly bent upward nearly in half. But Qui-Gon caught him before he could fall, and lifted him out the door before squeezing through the narrow opening himself.
"I'll guard him, Master Qui-Gon." Ki-Erin took hold of Obi-Wan's arm. "You help Tomas."
Qui-Gon nodded. "See if we can use the lift," he told Ki-Erin. Then he ducked out the door.
"C'mon." Ki-Erin tugged Obi-Wan to the lift tube. He let her lead him, his feelings a tangled mess.
"How do you call this thing?" Ki-Erin asked him.
Obi-Wan shrugged, embarrassed, though he couldn't say why. "Sitaris always palmed it."
"Coded isn't good. Think we could rewire it?"
"Maybe. I don't know. I don't think the control circuits are easy to access. At least, I've never found them." He added, muttering, "not that I had any opportunity to look."
Ki-Erin glanced at him, her expression unreadable. Obi-Wan turned away. She touched his arm. "We do what we can," she told him softly.
They heard the unmistakable sound of blaster fire from beyond the door. Obi-Wan turned back to Ki-Erin. "We're running out of time. We should be helping our Masters, not wasting time here."
"We can help by finding another way out of here. Obi-Wan -- what is it?"
Obi-Wan didn't answer. In a flash of memory, he had seen Qui-Gon stepping through the door, with his lightsaber in hand -- and Obi-Wan's lightsaber still at his belt. Why hadn't Qui-Gon returned it, and let Obi-Wan take his place again at his master's side?
Ki-Erin shook his shoulder. "Obi-Wan!"
Obi-Wan dragged his focus back to the present. Both Padawans turned to stare at the lift tube door. They could hear, unmistakably, the sound of the repulsorlift car approaching from below.
"Come on," ordered Ki-Erin, suddenly decisive. She stood, dragging him up by the hand. "Where does this other door lead?"
"Bath, study, bedroom --"
"Good enough." She pulled Obi-Wan through into the wide hall, and used the door's access pad to lock it behind them.
"The main room is this way." Obi-Wan pulled Ki-Erin, now, to the door at one end of the hall. They could hear from beyond it blaster fire and the hum and sizzle of lightsabers engaging.
"We have to stay here, you're not armed!"
"So I'll stand in the door where it's safe while you help," Obi-Wan told her, unable to keep a note of bitterness from his voice. Ki-Erin gave him a sharp look, but she didn't argue. While he slapped opened the door she took up a guard position in front of him, igniting her blade.
A door yawned in the far wall, where Obi-Wan had never guessed one would exist: the access to a horizontal repulsorlift tube. Near it, Qui-Gon traded furious blows with Xanatos, backing him to the windows. Closer to the two padawans, Tomas stood with his back to a divider wall in the center of the room, fending off blaster fire from a ring of beings of assorted species, all dressed in the red of the Palace guards, encircling the main door into the apartment from the Palace halls, using furnishings and the door frame for cover. Several guards lay dead or injured on the floor, but more were pressing in from the hall.
"Promise me you'll stay safe, Obi-Wan," Ki-Erin demanded.
"I will!" Obi-Wan told her, bristling in his frustration. He watched her leap into position at Tomas' flank, to help defend her master and drive back the guards; but also she chose her ground to provide cover for Obi-Wan standing in the doorway behind her, to prevent any guards from pressing forward in that direction. At the other side of the room, Obi-Wan saw Qui-Gon slammed backwards into the wall by a Force-push from Xanatos. His master's tunic sleeve was stained red with blood. Qui-Gon needed him. Why wasn't he allowed to help? If only he could help! But maybe there was another way...
A new certainty touched him. Releasing his frustration, focusing on the present, on his need, he centered: let the Force flow through him. It filled him with light, ignited him like he was a burning brand. He had never felt such strength. He marveled at it. With the ease of flicking a finger, he threw a guard across the room to slam into the wall. The guard crumpled, stunned.
Obi-Wan frowned with unease. The Force came so easily, he felt heady with the power. He shook his head, trying to clear it, trying to calm the flood of his senses. So this was what Qui-Gon had meant, telling him to be careful.
He looked up. Qui-Gon was up once more, fighting defensively now. Xanatos pressed toward his hurt side. Qui-Gon faltered, and was driven back several steps, toward the windows. Obi-Wan bit his lip. He had to do something...
"No, Padawan!" Qui-Gon shouted, sensing his intent. How could he not? Obi-Wan was drawing vast amounts of the Force: pulling a raging torrent of power into the room. Qui-Gon staggered back against the wall, as Xanatos took advantage of his momentary distraction to strike his shoulder once more. But then, Xanatos flew -- helpless -- through the air at Obi-Wan's thought; and crashed into the wall, as Qui-Gon had done at his hands. He struggled, pinned there, gasping as the Force pressed against him, slowly crushing his chest, until his eyes bulged and he could no longer draw breath at all.
Obi-Wan flinched. What was he doing?
Again he tried to calm the flood, to withdraw, to let go the Force. Dimly he saw Xanatos drop to the floor. But he could not close off this vast torrent of the Force he had called to himself. It drew Obi-Wan's consciousness into its vastness. His senses sped outward, faster than thought, faster than light. Images flickered before him: wars, lovers, a blue-white planet exploding into a trillion fragments of glowing molten rock, almost instantly cooled in the vacuum of space. He was stretching, growing to enormous proportions: he felt his body misty like fog on the water, like clouds, like vapor; a thousand points of light: a nebula. It was too much. Light and dark danced a vortex around him: a billion souls, a trillion, all their deeds and dreams and passions. Too much. He had no eyes to close, no way to shut his mind against the flood. He screamed. With that cry of pain thought fled.
Qui-Gon watched from across the room: the Force gathered, almost tangible in the air, and Obi-Wan stood at its center, as its focus. Tossed like a rag doll, Xanatos was hurled against the wall. Obi-Wan tried, in vain, to stop the power he had set in motion. And then he cried out, a long keening wail, and crashed to his knees.
Xanatos lay stunned beside him. Now would be the time to take him into custody, before he could do more harm. But Obi-Wan needed him. Without a backward glance, Qui-Gon skirted the room and the zone of fire where Tomas and Ki-Erin held the guards at bay; he dodged and reflected blasts aimed at him, and trusted Ki-Erin to keep any stray fire from Obi-Wan as he ran.
Obi-Wan sagged against the door frame, his blue eyes sightless, vacant. Qui-Gon took his shoulders and called to him, shaking him.
The boy groaned. His eyes slid closed.
"Can you hear me, Padawan?"
"Master --" he whispered. His hand moved a little. His eyes fluttered open again, looking dull, exhausted.
"Can you move?" Qui-Gon didn't dare to help him through the Force, not after such a spectacular display of raw power. Who knew what would happen if he tried?
Obi-Wan shifted, his movements heavy, sluggish. "How could I be so stupid!" he muttered, his voice low and slurred.
"Welcome to the world of fallible beings. You're in good company."
Behind Qui-Gon, Ki-Erin cried out. He turned. A stray shot had pierced her guard and hit her shoulder. More guards pressed through the door. Several had managed to get into the room and find cover. Qui-Gon jumped up and ran to the girl's side. He would have to join the fight if they were to survive.
Then the door in the wall beside him, the one direct to the utility room, slid open. Warriors bearing blasters and vibroblades and sundry other weapons poured through -- not the Palace guard, but slave trainers, many of them Mozelle. They were surrounded.
But wait! The trainers were aiming, not at the Jedi, but at the red-clad Palace guards: a startled but very much relieved Tomas moved aside to let them take up positions firing into the guards' ranks. Qui-Gon and Ki-Erin also withdrew, getting out of the line of fire. Tomas glanced to Qui-Gon and then to Ki-Erin, making clear that he expected his friend to take care of the injured girl. Then he turned to find Xanatos.
Xanatos was up, cradling his arm, staring at Qui-Gon with raw hatred in his eyes: hatred that pierced Qui-Gon, that pushed at him. Without releasing Qui-Gon's gaze, Xanatos reached up to caress the scar on his cheek with his fingertips: a promise of vengeance yet to come. Only when he saw Tomas approaching did Xanatos move; he jumped into the open repulsorlift car beside him, setting it sliding down the shaft even before the door slid closed behind him. Tomas leaped onto the back of the car as it pulled away, clinging to the door.
Tomas disappeared from their sight. Qui-Gon pulled Ki-Erin back to where Obi-Wan lay still crumpled against the wall; there were more than enough trainers in the room, now, to hold the guards at bay, and Qui-Gon sensed they would be safe here, at least for a while. Obi-Wan had fallen into a stupor of exhaustion; thankfully he was closer to sleep now than to unconsciousness. Ki-Erin knelt beside her friend while Qui-Gon closed and sealed the door behind them to protect them from stray shots.
"What happened to him?" she asked.
"The nephrolite," he answered shortly, while he gently inspected her wound. It was ugly, and messy, but thankfully not deep.
"Like when you overextended, at Vandos3A?"
"Something like that. He's all right for now."
Ki-Erin breathed deeply and held still and quiet for Qui-Gon as he worked. At least there were no shreds of cloth to clean out of the wound, as Ki-Erin still wore only a slave shift. With bacta and a patch bandage Qui-Gon dressed the charred and bloody mess of skin and muscle. Then, on impulse, he unlatched the fake collar from her neck and dropped it to the floor.
She looked from the collar to his face, her eyes sad. "Thank you," she told him.
Qui-Gon touched her arm lightly. He had come to feel kinship and shared purpose with her and with Tomas, and gestures of polite thanks and welcome felt unnecessary. He crouched beside Obi-Wan; lifted his limp form. "Help me find a place to put Obi-Wan."
"But your arm --"
"It's nothing much. It's already stopped bleeding."
Ki-Erin gave him a dubious look before answering Qui-Gon's original request. "Obi-Wan told me there was a bedroom back here." She stood and set off down the short hall; accessed the wide door at the end. The room beyond was large and sparsely but expensively furnished; the dominant colors gray and black with splashes of deep color.
Qui-Gon laid his Padawan on the wide bed, carefully tucking his own long robe around the boy once more; then began poking through the drawers and cabinets that filled the room. "Xanatos mentioned he was using inhibitor and catalyst drugs to control the effects of the nephrolite," he explained to Ki-Erin, who had settled down beside Obi-Wan to rest. She was pale, still, from blood loss and pain. He continued, "if we can find the inhibitor --"
"Tomas and I heard about it," Ki-Erin interrupted, "from the slaves in the lab. We found some vials, and gave them to the slaves that needed it. Tomas kept a vial for Obi-Wan."
Qui-Gon looked around to the girl, feeling some relief. "There still might be some here," he said. "Would you tell me what happened at the lab while I look?"
Ki-Erin was silent a moment. She began, "it started off according to plan. We went to the slave purchasers at the Palace. They took a blood sample, inspected me. They wanted to buy me right there." Ki-Erin's voice thickened with distaste. "But Tomas played difficult. So they sent us to the lab. There they did some more tests. Tomas convinced them --" here she waved her hand in the gesture for Force-influence -- "to call in Xanatos. Who arrived shortly after, through the Palace halls." Ki-Erin lay down on her good side on the bed, her head next to Obi-Wan's shoulder, her hand on his arm. "I don't like that man," she said softly.
"I'm sorry you had to deal with him," Qui-Gon said softly, his heart going out to the girl.
"Well." Ki-Erin shuddered. "He received some sort of signal. An alert from Obi-Wan's cell here, I'm assuming. He walked out of the receiving room, and then he was, just... gone. It took us a minute to realize. How did he keep that lift tube out of the technical diagrams? He went through a lot of trouble to hide it."
"He's always kept a back door open, an escape route." Qui-Gon found a portable data station in a drawer near the bed. He tossed it down next to Obi-Wan to examine later.
"It confused us, that's certain," Ki-Erin continued. "When we realized he was gone, we signaled you. Speaking of which, we should contact Tahl now."
"Good point." Qui-Gon pulled his comlink from his pocket.
"Tahl here. Qui-Gon, what's happening?"
"We have Obi-Wan. Tomas is chasing down Xanatos, who is now running for his ship somewhere to the north of the Palace. The trainers seem to be engaging in an uprising against the Palace guards: I'm guessing because of Sitaris's interference."
"How will you get out?"
"I'm not certain; so far we're waiting for Tomas to return. I'll keep you informed."
"Do that. And if there's any way I can help..."
"We may yet call on you."
"All right, Qui-Gon." Tahl's voice was sharp, edged bitter: Qui-Gon recognized her frustration at being out of action because of her handicap, but there was nothing he could do to help.
Qui-Gon leaned over the bed to check on the two padawans. They looked so very young, lying there side by side -- and so they were: young, and no longer so innocent. It saddened Qui-Gon to think how they had both been hurt, on this mission. He leaned over to inspect the dressing on Ki-Erin's wound.
"It's all right, Qui-Gon," she told him quietly. "Nothing is forever."
And so very perceptive, Qui-Gon thought. The ghost of a smile touched his lips. Do they know the gifts they give to us? he wondered.
Obi-Wan lay still, his breathing shallow, but his mind was whole. He would recover. Qui-Gon refused to believe otherwise.
"After Tomas signaled me?" Qui-Gon prompted, returning to his search.
"We captured the guards and lab workers. Then we freed the slaves. They told us about what had been done to them. Some were in terrible condition. Tomas got a lab technician to tell us about the secret lift tube: he'd never seen it opened himself, but once we knew about where it was located, we were able to find it and cut into it. We called the repulsorlift car, and escorted the slaves to the far end: Xanatos has a small docking bay there, for his starship. We saw the slaves out, then rode the car to Xanatos's apartment. The rest you know."
Finished with the drawers, Qui-Gon pulled open the cabinets, looking into the bins and boxes stacked neatly within. There his search was finally rewarded. A set of three bins in the center cabinet proved to contain injector vials. Qui-Gon recognized their labels as indicating the chemical composition of the contents, but they held no meaning for him beyond that.
Ki-Erin climbed from the bed to join him. "That one is the inhibitor," she pointed. "I recognize the sign from the lab. The slaves told us it needs a half hour or so to take effect. It must bind to the nephrolite somehow, make it inactive."
Carefully Qui-Gon took one vial from each bin, and stowed them in a pocket of his robe. A second inhibitor he plugged into his injector; taking it to the bedside, he emptied the contents into Obi-Wan's arm.
"What I want to know is, how do we get the nephrolite out of him for good?" Ki-Erin asked.
"I wish I knew. If the Mozelle take over this compound and eject Starways, we might be permitted to examine Xanatos's experiments here in more depth." Qui-Gon looked down at Obi-Wan, brushed a hand through the brown hair with its garish patina of glittering gold. He wished he could wash every trace of captivity from the boy before he woke, but hey still faced a difficult situation, with no way to know as yet how it would be resolved. And there were too many unanswered questions. For instance, what had happened to Mazala Lidocha? He couldn't sense her anywhere in the apartment.
"We should find out what's happening, and decide on the best route out," Qui-Gon told Ki-Erin. "Will you come, or stay here?"
"Will he be safe here, you think?" she asked, lifting her chin to indicate Obi-Wan.
"I don't sense any danger," Qui-Gon answered.
"Then I'll come. I want to see Tomas come back."
The battle had moved out of the living area, but the two Jedi heard blaster fire in the distance, through the apartment's open entry. In the depths of the Palace, the battle raged on. Sadly, Qui-Gon surveyed the bodies on the floor. So many lives lost, so many hurt: he reached out to the still forms, to sense them in the Force. That one -- nothing he could do there, the lung was a ragged mess, her living Force a thread fast fading. But a trainer by the back wall -- Qui-Gon moved to the man's side, pulling out his med-kit. Ki-Erin followed, and helped him to lay the man out on the floor and bind his wounds.
As they were finishing, the horizontal repulsorlift car slid up to the open access. Qui-Gon stood. He could sense Tomas inside, alone. As soon as his friend jumped through the open door, he asked.
"Got away." Tomas was tired, and he looked grim. His tunic was singed in a long slash down the front. "I got his ship pegged with a homing beacon, though. We should take this lift car out of the Palace. Tahl is going to meet us at the end of the tunnel."
"What?" Qui-Gon and Ki-Erin asked in chorus.
"That was my response," Tomas sighed. "But she insists she's capable of flying here with the guidance of the Force. I decided it was a better bet to risk the ship than to risk her temper." He chuckled resignedly.
Qui-Gon didn't know what to say.
"Ki-Erin and I are still going to fly us out. As long as Tahl gets the ship to us in one piece." Tomas made an attempt at a grin, which came out a grimace, and pulled Ki-Erin into a quick embrace. "Are you all right?" he asked, one arm around her.
"I'll be fine, Master."
Qui-Gon left them, then, to fetch Obi-Wan. But he couldn't help overhearing Ki-Erin's low murmur to her master:
"I'll be glad to get off this Light-forsaken rock."
Much as Qui-Gon knew he should be above such petty feelings -- that there were good and caring people here as well as the greedy and corrupt, as was true on every world and man-made station he had ever seen -- still, he could not help agreeing.
Original cover design by FernWithy. HTML formatting copyright 2001 TheForce.Net LLC.