Incidentally, the Padawans’ joke in the second paragraph here was originally Israeli; the author heard it in a story set around the time of the Six Day War of 1967 and thought it too good to pass up. Many thanks to Domingo for the clones, and apologies: I was forced to alter Major Zuqof past all recognition, mostly because I needed a semi-villain. Domingo’s version was much more sympathetic.
Halm. The least of many worlds where the precious Adegan crystals could be found. The least – and so the last. Once, the Jedi had sent their newly-assigned Padawans to the icy world of Ilum, there to navigate the tortuous crystal caverns and face the flaws that lay within their own hearts. But now the small temple at Ilum had been destroyed, the crystals caverns ravaged, and the entrances blocked, and there could be no returning there while the war lasted to sap the resources of the Order. Halm, a bleak, uninhabited desert world, was the last. And if Halm fell…
But that was unthinkable. Halm could not be allowed to fall. We will not lose it, Padawans solemnly assured Initiates, in the safety of the Temple. We have a secret weapon that means Halm will stand. It took days to worm the secret out, and then, with determination in their eyes, the older kids would whisper fiercely, The secret weapon? It is that we have no alternative. Anxiously, the Initiates would remind them, And Kenobi. Don’t forget Kenobi. The hope of the Order. The Great Negotiator himself. Don’t forget Kenobi. Who could?
Clone Major Zuqof of the 5th Special Operations company, Chancellor Palpatine’s latest project, quite strongly wished to forget Kenobi. Forget the man had ever existed, or, failing that, forget that for the sake of The Mission, he, Zuqof, had been told to listen to someone other than Palpatine. To order the commander of the 5th, it took either the Chancellor himself, or someone with courage to the point of foolhardiness. Oh, the glorious 5th. Those clones who had been designated “misfit” or “delinquent”, but were still obviously and acknowledgeably brilliant in their chosen areas, had been collected together into one unit, under the direct command of Palpatine himself, to conduct “special” missions that would decimate ordinary battalions, but crumpled before this group, leaving them unscathed, ready to go on, and sometimes even laughing about it.
For two weeks now they had been stationed in the Outer Rim, a full days’ jump from Coruscant, waiting for the word go on the Halm Mission. The word, and the final details of the plan, would come with the Jedi team from the Temple. Until then…
Until then did not last long, and then came sooner than had been expected, with a peremptory demand for a starfighter to land aboard the 5th’s own battlecruiser, the Red Robin. Not that Zuqof heard about that until it was too late to say no: the Corellian pilot of the ship, young Captain Yrue, had already given permission. Before the starfighter landed, however, Zuqof had time to get to the hangar, miraculously arriving there before most of the officers of that unique unit.
He was aware, on the appearance of the Jedi team that had been dispatched to join them, of a feeling of awe, closely followed by confusion, and succeeded in turn by alarm. Him? Why are they sending him? If he is here, it must be serious. The only correct course of action, though, was a smart salute and a respectful greeting.
“General Kenobi. Very glad to see you, sir.”
He returned the salute, Zuqof noted. Most Jedi wouldn’t have. “The feeling is mutual. I’m sorry; I can see you’re the commanding officer, Major, but I haven’t been told your name.”
“Major Zuqof, sir. Ah -” The shadowy little figure who had been hiding behind Kenobi slowly appeared. Blue skin. Dark hair and huge doe-eyes. A little girl, Zuqof thought in disgust. Not more than twelve years old, by the look of her. What use was that? “May I ask, sir, your – ah – companion…?”
The child came forward of her own accord, and bowed gravely, but let her Master make the introductions. “My Padawan apprentice, Nasriel Threeb.”
“Oh.” This was going to be a problem. Hastily, Zuqof motioned his lieutenant over and whispered him off on a scurried errand. “If you don’t mind my saying so, General, I was under the impression that your -” He groped desperately for the polysyllabic Jedi word for fully three seconds before surrendering. “Student was a Human boy. With all due respect, sir, my life would be easier if that impression had been correct. I don’t know how this will work out.”
Kenobi nodded curtly. Although he replied civilly enough, the implication was clear: not that this is any of your business, but: “Ben had to remain at the Temple due to an unforeseen complication. Nasriel will cause no trouble he would not have.”
“You are aware, are you not, that this is a unique unit? Some of my men have… little quirks, that aren’t usually a problem, but…” For another few seconds he stumbled for words, before saying bluntly, “One of my captains takes a vehement – I almost said violent – dislike to any beings other than Humans.”
“Which Nasriel certainly is not. Ah. I see your difficulty. You can’t send the man back to Kamino for reprogramming?” The question was cool, and Kenobi’s face betrayed no particular emotion, but Zuqof had a vague idea the man somehow thought the course of action he himself suggested to be repulsive.
Zuqof answered the question and dismissed the vague feeling. “No. Orde is a brilliant scout and one of the best I’ve got in the intel line. You’ll have to tell your girl to keep out of his way – I can’t afford to lose him, certainly not before I know exactly the nature of our mission.” Turning away from the Jedi, he called, “Here, Ibrim. Introduce the little girl around and see everybody knows she’s to stay away from Orde.” He felt guilty over the insolence of his gesture – but only for a moment. The vague feeling now whispered that it wasn’t Orde or even reprogramming that Kenobi objected to, but the clones themselves. And where would the Jedi be without us? Zuqof asked himself. All slaughtered at Geonosis, he would lay long odds.
Ibrim cast an anxious glance to his companion. Thus far, the tousled dark head had not unbowed, nor the tightly-pressed lips opened with either question or information. Well, if he was to introduce her to the other men, he’d best know more than her name. They were nearly at the turbolift to crew quarters now.
“Excuse me sir – ma’am – Nasriel?” What did one call a General’s apprentice? Ibrim settled on sir. “If you don’t mind my asking, how old are you, sir?”
“Sixteen. You can just call me Nasriel, you know.”
“Yes, sir!” Not that he had any intention of availing himself of the privilege.
“And you’re Ibrim, and you’re…” raising her head for an instant to check his insignia, “a lieutenant.”
“And I’m a Padawan, and that’s spelled peth-aurek-dorn-aurek-wesk-aurek-nern, and now we’re introduced. Now, who’s Orde and why am I not to speak to him?”
“He’d kill you, sir, Jedi or no Jedi,” Ibrim replied seriously. “You’ll recognize him if you see him: he’s got a great curved scar on his right cheek, like a broken circle, but if you’re alone when you first meet him, I wouldn’t give much for your chances.”
The turbolift whirred smoothly up to the living decks, and a faint smile tugged at one corner of the Padawan’s dark blue lips. Shifting her cloak a little aside, she laid one hand lightly on the silver lightsaber at her belt.
“I’ll be all right. Between Ataru and the Living Force and a friend’s blade.”
“A friend’s blade, sir? I thought you Jedi were all sort of… attached to your laser swords.” The lift door opened, but neither of them moved.
After a long heartbeat’s silence, Nasriel replied, “Except when our own is inherited and ancient and our Master insists on having it locked up for safekeeping and then leaving in the middle of the night so we haven’t time to make a new one and are reduced to begging the loan of a friend’s. Yes, apart from cases like that it is usual to have a lightsaber, at least, to call one’s own.”
“Your friend’s lightsaber is beautiful, then, sir. Now, if I may, I’d best hurry about my duty before you’re called to the bridge.”
They were in a broad, low room, shining white on every surface, and filled with clones seated at rows of metal tables. “The mess, sir,” supplied Ibrim. A clatter of many plates and murmur of many conversations filled the room, but died out only a few seconds after the lieutenant yelled for attention.
“‘Scuse me, sir,” Ibrim apologized, placing a hand either side of Nasriel’s waist and lifting her into the air, “it’s quicker so. Right, eyes here!” he shouted. “You all see this girl? This is Padawan Nasriel Threeb. She’s with the General. She is an officer – you call her sir and salute her. She is a lady – you do not cuss or tell dirty jokes when she is in the room.” A thought occurred to him, and he added, “If you tell dirty jokes about her, I will take great pleasure in personally throwing you off the ship. You are to make sure she is safe, and you never, ever, leave her alone with Captain Orde. Is that clear?”
Nasriel had never taken the time to consider exactly how many decibels of sound would be produced by roughly a hundred clones all shouting the same thing at the same time. The noise was significant.
Satisfied, Ibrim set her gently down. Almost the instant her feet touched the floor, the announcement system hummed into life. “Jumping to lightspeed, brace brace brace. Jumping in three – two – one -“
Every clone dived for a handhold, and one who had just entered the mess pinned Nasriel securely against the wall with one burly arm, anchoring himself with the other. A terrific jolt, a scrape of sliding dishes and benches, and the lights flickered out. In the darkness, with no point of reference, the rush of acceleration seemed enormous, and the roaring of the ship’s engines pulsed through Nasriel’s veins. Somebody cried cheerfully that Ibrim would have to see to that glitch with the power surge as it was his department and one of these days someone was going to get hurt.
It was going to be her, Nasriel discovered, as the blackness dragged on and on. The strong hard muscle of her protector’s arm had been pressed across her chest and shoulders, holding her back against the wall and keeping her from sliding away across the room. At the first shock of acceleration, his grip had moved upward, over her throat, and tightened.
Darkness swimming with elusive stars. Deep, throbbing, not the engines, through heart and brain. Lungs screaming for air. Can’t move can’t see can’t breathe can’t… it was like that time she had accidentally gone too deep, meditating, and drifted into one of Master Obi-Wan’s worse nightmares. But this was real. The scream in her head shrilled ever higher, ever louder, dark can’t breathe choking – she reached down into the Force, drawing on its strength… and flung the clone across the room. Hearing him connect with the opposite wall, hearing bones crunch and a deep-voiced groan of pain, she slumped to the floor and drew a grateful breath of metallic, recycled-tasting air.
The force of acceleration eased as the ship slid into hyperspace, the lights came back on, albeit dimly at first, and everybody relaxed. Of course, everybody also noticed the clone and the Jedi both in non-vertical orientations on opposite sides of the mess hall, respectively muttering curses and panting for breath.
Rapidly recovering, the fallen clone deduced the cause of his impromptu – and undignified – flight, and strode angrily toward the perpetrator. Nasriel’s eyes widened as she saw him for the first time. Under the harsh pale lights of the ship, the rounded scar showed livid white, pulling at the skin. When Ibrim had said like a broken circle, Nasriel’s mind had instantly conjured up an entirely different image, one of the scar left by a red-hot finger-ring, severed by a lightsaber. Which naturally carried terrifying connotations of its own, but this… looked as if the clone had been bitten by a rancor.
More than likely, Nasriel would have stared in horror until Orde reached her, had not Ibrim and another clone hastily intercepted him, and an officer with a rough, non-regulation beard yanked her aside. Once Nasriel was secured on the far side of a durasteel table, the officer winked at her.
“Captain Sterling, at your service. Thought Ibby warned you out of Orde’s way?”
“Yes, but I couldn’t see who he was in the dark. I’m sorry to cause trouble.”
Sterling laughed. “No trouble. Glad you’re here – means we finally get to see some action. Show you to your cabin, shall I?”
Before Nasriel had time to reply, the intercom demanded angrily, “Who has the kid? Get her up here!”
“Or not.” Gallantly holding out an arm for her to take, Sterling added, “This way, Sir Nasriel.”
On the way out of the mess, he selected three troopers and beckoned them to follow him. When they all reached the passageway outside, he said impressively, “Word all over the ship. The little girl is a Jedi and an officer, with entry rights wherever she damn well pleases. To be kept away from Orde. I’m taking her to the bridge now, and when I get back not one man on board is to be ignorant of all this. Clear?”
And Sterling and Nasriel continued to the bridge.