And on we go. Miraculously, no apologies required to anyone today! Oh, wait. To Timothy Drake – borrowed his nickname.
The Red Robin was a very oddly-laid-out ship, with the bridge on the same level as the mess, and, so Sterling said, the dormitories and weapons store together a level below. But it did make for a short trip to the bridge in this case.
“Taking off and then briefing?” Nasriel asked. “Why?”
“Saves time.” Sterling punched in the door code on the keypad. “We all know where we’re going, and that it’s a long way, so the boss people discuss the what and how side of things on route. Major? Behold, one small Jedi.”
“Oh, fine. General? Your kid’s here. All well, Sterling?”
“All sereno,” confirmed that Captain, “except for a little case of near-strangling, and a magic trick involving little girls flinging huge clones across the room.”
“Nasriel…” Obi-Wan turned from Zuqof to his Padawan, eyeing her narrowly. “First, are you all right?”
“Second, what did you do?”
“I… like I meant it, Master. The way you said. And Orde’s not hurt near as bad as Sinsin was.”
“Good. I’m glad to hear it. Now, you are here to listen, and to learn exactly what this mission involves. Do you understand?”
“Also good. Now, Major. You know the current situation, am I right?”
“Quite right, General Kenobi.” Summoned by a snap of the major’s fingers, a holomap of Halm suddenly shimmered in the dim bridge. Major Zuqof continued, “The Separatists have landed forces in five different areas of the world, and apparently dug in underground, because our imagery shows a hell of a lot – sorry, sir, an awful lot – fewer clankers and Seppies than we know for sure are there. What we don’t know is what we’re actually defending. I’ll be damned if I can see anything in the intel mapping but crystal caves in the mountains: pretty rocks, glittery, tourist-gaping stuff, you know.”
“And that is where I come in. Those pretty rocks -” Obi-Wan smiled slightly, remembering a very different pretty rock, a river-smoothed black stone that just happened to be a strong Force-channeler. A life-day gift from Qui-Gon. Impatiently, he banished the thought to the far recesses of his mind. A Jedi focused on the moment, sparing some thought for the future, and mostly leaving the frozen past to those who made it their special study. “Those rocks, Major, are Adegan crystals. They have always been precious to the Jedi Order for their unique properties. Nasriel, do you have…?”
“Of course, Master.” Pulling at a braided cord just visible above her tunic collar, Nasriel extracted a small drawstring pouch, tipped a small chip of rough crystal into her palm, and handed it silently to Obi-Wan. In his hands, the blue glitter grew to a blinding, fiery light. While Zuqof and Sterling stared, torn between skepticism and astonishment, Nasriel watched the stone spin into the air and cast into shadow every other light, from the illuminated holomap to the stars outside the wide windows of the bridge, and let herself drift into the Force, hearing the humming spirit of the crystal. Abruptly it stopped, the magic faded, and the blue stone lay quiet once more.
“What,” asked Zuqof at length, “was that?”
“That was the Force acting on one very small crystal of the type found at Halm, gentlemen. Improperly handled,” Obi-Wan added, with an effort toward casualness, “they explode. The consequences are far-reaching, to say the least.”
“Do you mean, hit it funny and that kind of light-bomb goes off all over the place? That’s not good in the wrong hands. Nobody could see a thing,” Sterling said anxiously.
“No. I mean they explode. Like a very large detonator. This chip… where did you get it, Nasriel? A training ‘saber? Captain, this is a smaller crystal than that used in a standard lightsaber, and this would explode with a blast radius of over a kilometer. Probably, it would also start a Force-storm – a whirlwind. As you can imagine, most Jedi are fairly careful with their lightsabers.”
Zuqof held out one hand for the crystal. “Let me see that.” Weighing it in his palm, he mused, “That’s one big bang in one little package. I see. If the Seppies get Halm, they’ve got themselves a bomb factory. Why didn’t they try this months ago, when they took… what was it… Ilum?”
“We have reason to suppose they only discovered this property of the crystals recently. The caves at Ilum were destroyed, so that world is equally useless to everybody now. But there have been too many reports of lightsabers stolen from Jedi killed in battle, immediately before unexplained explosions, for the Council to still see them as just so many coincidences. We must assume that the Separatists are close to developing the crystals into a viable weapon.”
“Right. Not just your routine let’s-hang-onto-one-more-planet op, then. As if any of those were routine. Now we know where we stand, we’ve four days to work out what to do about it.”
“Long enough,” muttered Sterling from the doorway, “when most of the troopers are bored already.” Slightly louder, he added, “That’s a while to keep two people apart on one little cruiser, sir. Especially when both of them are ranking officers.”
“Who? Oh, the girl and Orde. Set her a tight bounds and see it’s areas he hasn’t often to be.”
Major,” interposed Obi-Wan, laying his hands protectively on Nasriel’s shoulders, “As this is my Padawan you are discussing, and as I am technically your superior here, I don’t believe you are in any position to issue that order. Set bounds for your officer.”
“No!” Zuqof snapped. “This is my ship. I am in command here. Your authority extends only to the mission itself, not to the Red Robin. And I’m damned if I’m putting my best man on a leash just because some Jedi pizzmah’s babying his girl. I need him out because he’s a genius. Comes up with stuff there’s no way the others would ever notice – and his ‘hunches’ are almost always right. Your kid’s no use at all that I can see. Put that in your baccy-pipe and smoke it.”
“Thank you, I don’t smoke. I will agree to a compromise. If you give Padawan Threeb full freedom, I will undertake on her behalf that she will avoid Captain Orde as far as is possible.”
Zuqof considered. “Fine. Look, General Kenobi, it’s nothing to me if the kid gets hurt – it’s just that I’d have to report it for the look of the thing, and then I’d lose Orde. We both want the same thing here: I want her kept safe because that protects my unit. You want her kept safe… for reasons I suspect I can probably guess, but had best not mention.”
Looking up, Nasriel noticed the sinews of her Master’s jaw tighten, and felt his grip dig into her shoulder. She sighed, wishing Zuqof wouldn’t be so blatantly provocative. Of all the times to start an argument with an ally – dear Force, and here was Orde coming onto the bridge, the terrible scar ghastlier for being both clearly seen and crumpled in vague confusion.
“Major, there something buzzing in here couple minutes ago?”
“Not anything that doesn’t usually buzz,” replied Zuqof nonchalantly, and, “Must have been the crystal,” Nasriel suggested, in the same instant.
“No.” Obi-Wan was still tense, watching Orde. Only through their Force bond, tenuous though it still was, could Nasriel discern how uneasy he truly felt about the situation. “No, Padawan, we heard it, but a clone could not. It’s the energy of a lightsaber, not the crystal, that causes the physical sound.”
“Oh. Really? I mean, yes, Master.”
“Now go and be a nuisance elsewhere. It’s getting late. Come find me tomorrow.”
“Yes, Master.” Nasriel managed not to be disappointed at this abrupt dismissal, by considering that Obi-Wan was trying to keep his promise to Major Zuqof, as Orde would certainly be involved in the strategy-planning. And… if all the senior officers were otherwhere engaged, she might be able to learn more about how this peculiar unit operated.