To those readers who are not Erin: I’m sorry about the cliffhanger, but revenge is sweet. Oh, and Nasriel’s pistol? Is James Bond’s from the novel License to Kill.
Because, after all, when you are fighting a war against an entrenched enemy, you must bow to the enemy’s choice of venue, the 5th Battalion had split up into – suitably – five units of around twenty men, each to tackle one Separatist stronghold.
The group of ships the Jedi were with, consisting of three fighters and one small transport, landed on the night-side of Halm, not that that made much difference to the climate. In the thick atmosphere of the desert world, it was still hot – hot, and bitterly dry. Every step stirred up a fog of sand finer than the finest of dried silt-dust, golden brown, all-obscuring, clinging to hair and hands and clothes, choking in the mouth, abrasive as ground glass in the eyes. Miserable, Nasriel stumbled after Obi-Wan. In the slight breath of scorching breeze across the desert, the sand rose and eddied about them howsoever lightly they walked.
For “safety”, as Obi-Wan explained, only the transport had landed at the actual rendezvous: the three fighters were each two kilometers away in a different direction. Two kilometers was a long way on Halm: a long way to trudge blind and half-suffocated. After what felt like many hours of swirling night, they were halted by a clone’s shouted challenge.
“Who goes there?”
“Kenobi,” Obi-Wan called back. When he had recovered from the fit of coughing that was the penalty for opening one’s mouth on this world, he added, “and Nasriel.”
“Master, why’d you… argh. Force, this world is ghastly.” A vague question if ever there was one, and not one that any being would expect even a Jedi to be able to answer except after many – many – years’ familiarity with the asker. But Obi-Wan didn’t mind.
“Because he can see you anyway. Infrared.”
“General Kenobi!” As the clone sentry came looming out of the thick dust, he said wryly, “I guess I can see why the Seppies dug in. This’d freeze the clankers up for sure. Uh… how did Padawan Threeb…”
“Discuss it in the transport. This sand is beyond a joke.”
In the relatively breathable atmosphere of the troop transport, “Chaul’tha trmanni,” Zuqof swore. “I should report you to the War Commission at the Senate. Making rescue of murderesses… what are you Jedi coming to?”
“Nothing has been proved,” snapped Obi-Wan. “And if it comes to that, perhaps I should report you for potentially endangering the mission by trying to render a valuable…” he frowned. “I think the word a military man would use is asset… unavailable.”
“Look.” Zuqof sighed, running one hand over his shaved head. “For now you’re the boss. I don’t like it, but I don’t have to. I just have to live with it. Bear in mind that I haven’t forgotten your kid is the prime suspect in the brutal murder of my best officer.”
“I said we’ll discuss it later.” Nasriel coughed, so delicately as to be obviously deliberate and not sand-induced. “Do you have something to say, Padawan?”
“Yes, Master.” In the old days, if she’d wanted to talk, fine, she’d talk, but then, Jiron had always been pretty vague as to what the rules actually were, and, when he was sober (to be fair, that was most of the time) pretty careless about making her obey them. Master Obi-Wan was much more… well, uptight was the kindest description current among his contemporaries at the Temple. Therefore it was reasonable to assume he would enforce the rule of Padawans not speaking unless spoken to. While this could be troublesome, it wasn’t all that hard to obtain the tacit permission to make her request, namely, “Please may I have a blaster-pistol to use?”
“If you feel that you need such an uncivilized gadget, you may.”
With a bad grace, the major rummaged in one of the bulkhead lockers, and slapped a miniaturized FN-M1903 pistol, with its holster, into Nasriel’s hand. After a protracted search, he added three spare energy cells. “Those on your belt. And I’ll thank you to be careful where you point that thing: I’d rather not lose any more men than I must.”
“Thanks.” Pistol safely slung, Nasriel held out her right hand to Zuqof. “Can we forget our differences for the time being?”
Not taking it, he shrugged. “I’ll work with you. Be satisfied with that.” He snatched up his helmet from the bench beside him, but before putting it on, said grudgingly, “Innocent until proven guilty.” And with that Nasriel had to rest content.
The landing site had been chosen for its proximity to a tiny, apparently forgotten entrance to the cave system the Separatist forces were hiding in. Of course, such a narrow entry was the perfect place to launch an ambush, but, by Captain Sterling’s philosophical reasoning: “Well, the only option is by default the best.”
“You go in first, then,” Zuqof offered promptly. “Go on, move.”
The cool air of the tunnel settled comfortably about them, a welcome relief from the choking heat and dust without. There was a curious smell here, something compounded of cold soil and undisturbed years, and wet. Nasriel put out one hand to touch the wall, only inches from her as she walked beside Lieutenant Ibrim, so narrow was the way. So… Halm was only a desert above-ground; below, every surface was slicked with a film of moisture, and tiny beads of condensation were forming even on the clones’ armor.
“Sir?” Oh. That was Ibrim, and the second time he’d tried to get her attention.
“I’ve got spare night-vision gear here if you want it, sir.” Under his anonymous helmet, he looked puzzled to work out how she did not stumble.
“Oh, that’s all right. I can see well enough.” Could see each miniscule pulse of crystal, burning starlike in the roughly glossy dark walls, the sprinkled pattern growing thicker as they forged ever farther down, over jagged, uneven stony floor. Could see the clones, all quite different now she really looked. Could see Master Obi-Wan, turning back to frown at her, finger to his lips, bidding her hush. His hair and beard were scattered with droplets of cave-water that glittered like diamonds, and the Force shone about him in a radiant aura. Nasriel hushed.
Captain Sterling was the “point-man” or scout, and now he raised his hand, fist clenched, to signal a halt.
“Cave looks like widening – I’ll check it,” he told Zuqof in a forceful whisper. The words echoed back along the rough-hewn tunnel to Nasriel, right at the back of the column. Sterling slipped away into the blackness, boots crunching softly on the looser stones of the floor.
He returned a minute later, careless of noise, very rapidly. “Contact! In the next cavern – they’ve seen me – hit the decks.”