Sorry about the wait – again. Had a few… “family” issues to sort out in the mind palace.
I know, I know, you think you’ve seen 12 before. I needed an extra chapter leeway, so I put 12 into 11 to save space in 13. Relax, you’ve missed nothing; sometimes even I don’t understand what I’m doing.
The way twisted on interminably, up and down a few degrees at a time, but mostly downwards. After nearly an hour, an hour of ever more tunnel and ever fewer and more lethargic droids, the bright clear blue of Obi-Wan’s lightsaber wavered uncertainly and faded for a second before returning to almost its former brilliance. He stopped dead.
“Nasriel, turn your ‘saber on.”
Ten meters away, Nasriel complied, and there was a hint of undisguised fear in her voice as she reported back.
“Master, I’ve got almost a full charge, easily a day’s constant use, but it’s barely alight at all!”
“Ionite somewhere about,” Sterling surmised from a little way ahead. “My night-vision’s failing as well.” He sighed. “General, what do you say we forget trying not to be seen – because we won’t be unless they’ve invented a droid that can cope with ionite – and go low-tech?” They had no real choice, for ionite was a curious substance, and scrambled any electrical equipment brought within its not insignificant effective range.
When Obi-Wan agreed, the clone halted to dip into his pack and extract a slender plastic cylinder twenty centimeters long. “Crack ’em, guys.” The glow-rods worked by a luminescent chemical reaction Nasriel and Elimyo had once replicated and painted onto various walls about the Temple. Despite the scolding that had resulted from this stunt, Nasriel still loved the cold, pale-yellow glow that now filled the cave all around her.
One of the troopers hammered a comm relay into the stone of the wall at the edge of the ionite vein, and they pressed on.
Nasriel’s chrono stopped, but that didn’t matter. Even a youngling could accurately gauge passing time for hours on end. And hours on end it was before anything happened more interesting than somebody having their glow-rod wear down and replacing it with a fresh one.
Nasriel calculated the rods to last nearly half an hour, and the ionite vein they were traveling along showed no signs of lessening by the time Sterling activated his eighth, muttering nervously that it was his last.
Half an hour later they walked in pitch darkness again, Nasriel and Obi-Wan the only ones still perfectly comfortable. Nasriel had gradually worked her way to the front of the column to join her Master, and trotted along over the rough ground, contented enough just at being with him and not having to fight yet.
She slipped a little ahead, feeling quietly gloating at being able to see her way about. Obi-Wan caught her roughly by the tunic-collar and dragged her back, half-strangling her.
“I thought you were supposed to have some sense!” he snapped, tired and pale, short-tempered from so long under stress and under ground. “Don’t touch that, you young fool, you were barely millimeters away. Couldn’t you feel it?”
“Go deeper. Right in front of your silly face, across the tunnel.”
Stretching her mind to its limits, Nasriel faintly detected a web of impossibly fine cords, interwoven across the way.
“I can still only barely feel it. What is this, anyway?”
“Booby-traps are more in your line than in mine. I was hoping you could work out how to disarm it.”
“I suppose so,” Nasriel said doubtfully. Stepping again to within centimeters of the cords, she studied the setup closely and frowned. “I need a light, Master. This thing’s barely here. Ruling out electricity, it must be one of four configurations, but I won’t know which one until I can see it with my eyes.”
“And where do you propose to get a light down here? Oh, the crystal. Yes, I’ll do that. Give it here.”
Handing over the chip of Adegan crystal, Nasriel turned back to the net, and conducted a rapid examination of it by the eerie blue light Obi-Wan coaxed from the crystal in his hand. Finally she nodded.
“It’s very professional, Master. Parsecs beyond anything I’ve ever had a hand in. If I could work to this degree of precision I’d die happy.” Apparently noticing that this was not really the time for admiration of the enemy’s handiwork, she continued quickly, “It’s detonators set in the cave walls – the pinned sort. For the moment they’re perfectly safe, but if you altered the tension on any one cord so much as a tenth-Newton, at least two would go off. Possibly all, I haven’t checked the exact wiring yet.”
“Then check it, damn you,” growled Zuqof.
“The detonators are almost a meter behind the barrier,” Obi-Wan said hastily, to prevent Nasriel explaining in more colorful terms. “The cords are run forward through rings in the walls. Nasriel, what will it take to undo this?”
“I’ll have to get in behind it just to start,” Nasriel replied, her matter-of-fact tone belying the near-impossibility of the task. “Captain Sterling, can you come over here? Hold the cords in… these two rings, dead still, so they can’t possibly slip about. But don’t put any extra tension on them.”
Even for Nasriel, with her slim, childish body, the tiny gap between the solid rock floor and the lowest cord was a breathtakingly narrow fit. For a clone, or even for Obi-Wan, it would have been utterly impassable. Safely on the far side, Nasriel spent no more than ten seconds studying the detonators before reaching a decision.
“Light a little closer, Master. Sterling, hold the cords on this ring.” With a fingertip she traced the line she needed. “And this one. Don’t let go.” Nasriel’s transparisteel dagger sliced through the cord, and she tied the ends firmly back around the rings in the walls, to hold them. “Okay, that’s one. And again. We’ll have to clear about half-a dozen of these for you grownups to get through.”
Sterling laughed good-naturedly. “At your service, Sir Nasriel. Which one next?”
“This one, down by the ground. No pressure in the middle of the tunnel if you can avoid it. I think that’s a push-button mine.” And so the tedious, painstaking work went on.
It was after the fifth cord was tied away that it happened. The soft blue light of the crystal dimmed, and Nasriel looked up in alarm.
“Master Obi-Wan, are you all right?”
“Yes. Sorry about that.”
“I’m sorry. I underestimated how long this would take. You’re tired,” she noted worriedly. “I’ve never lit a crystal, I didn’t know how hard it is. Do you want to take a break?”
“No time,” snapped Zuqof. “Can you Jedi get this done or can’t you?”
“I can manage,” Obi-Wan and Nasriel both said at once, and then Nasriel grinned. “Jinx. I’ll work fast, Master.” Standing on tiptoe to trace the last line, she added, apparently off-hand, “Draw on me if it helps.”
“It would,” Obi-Wan admitted, “but I won’t risk it. You’re tired as well.”
“More than likely. Sterling, that ring by your hand, please. That’s all right, Master, I don’t notice. Go ahead.”
She noticed it then, of course. Hard not to notice when someone else is drawing on one’s energy reserves, even with permission. For almost a second the sensation staggered her – a long time in that tense atmosphere – but she blinked her eyes and adjusted rapidly, and went on.
“Last one, Sterling. No, other ring! Shoulder height, other side. Shine the light upwards a little, please, Master.”
When the final cord was tied away, and the clones were filing carefully through, avoiding touching anything, by Zuqof’s strict orders, Nasriel allowed herself a brief respite, leaning against the wall and trying to clear the horrible giddy feeling in her head.
“You aren’t all right, are you?” Obi-Wan had crept up on her – or maybe she just hadn’t been aware of him – and was now looking at her halfway between amusement and serious worry.
“Oh, yeah, fine. Just a headache. Don’t worry about me.” Suddenly Nasriel whirled about to stare wildly farther along the tunnel, but recovered herself rapidly. “Sorry, Master. For a moment I was horribly afraid. I don’t even know what of. Something like fear of being… caught. Am I being very silly?”
“No. There is fear here. It’s probably an old echo that doesn’t mean anything. The chances of there being somebody down here who is that scared, and that able to project their feelings, are slim to none. But I thought by now you’d be a little beyond mistaking other people’s fears for your own.”
“I know now, Master, it just surprised me. I’m fine. Hadn’t we better keep going, though?”