With a little luck – of the type that usually deserts me just when I need it – this will be the chapter wherein things start happening.
Apologies to Obi-Wan and Nasriel, but it’s not like I really had an option here. And to Dr. Nancy L. Caroline for the ruthless mangling of her superb tuition on the topic of trauma, responsiveness, etc.
Back at the Temple weeks later, Obi-Wan finally had time to sort out his rather confused memories of the last hours in the caverns of Halm. Hindsight was a terrible thing: now, of course, he could see only too clearly that allowing Nasriel to take his place as scout was worse than foolish, to the point of deadly, in fact.
“Master, come on. I’m sixteen already, experienced. Hardly a youngling. I’ll be careful. You can trust me.” Of course he could trust her – the very fact of his having brought her along proved that. It was the next words that finally decided him, though, words softly spoken out of the clones’ earshot, scarcely even meant, yet unintentionally painful because true. “You’d let Ben.”
“Go on, then. Watch out for more traps. If you feel anything unusual at all, stop and wait for me.”
“Yes, Master! I know the drill.” And she glided away along the tunnel, self-assuredly making her way through the darkness, with the sublime confidence of the very young.
A minute later she reported bright, “Ionite’s finished – my chrono’s come back. Set another comm relay?” The tunnel kinked abruptly, and flung itself into a bewildering network of small interconnecting chambers.
As Nasriel, and the trooper Obi-Wan had quietly assigned to stay close to her, entered the third such room, a sheet of flame erupted from just beyond them.
For a moment, those behind could see nothing for the smoke and falling stones and the unique disorientation caused by being tumbled very suddenly backwards by a powerful blast wave. Running forward as soon as the shock passed, Zuqof was concerned first for his trooper. After removing the man’s helmet and laying one hand to the throat to search for a pulse, the Major silently shook his head.
Nasriel lay on the bare rock of the floor, sprawled oddly like a broken doll. Her long black lashes were closed onto her cheeks with a frightening finality, and she did not move. Zuqof stepped away from the fragile-looking body, staring hard at anything else, leaving Obi-Wan alone to see to his Padawan.
Under the anxious pressure of his fingertips, no welcome throb of life beat in the slim wrist. She cannot be dead. I’d know. Breathing away worry, he changed tactic. Surely all humanoids had their heart in the same place?
It felt slightly indecent, but… in cases of necessity, some rules became flexible and the right motive excused gray-area actions more often than many would suspect. Obi-Wan was eventually rewarded with a faint heartbeat fluttering weakly under his palm. Alive, then.
In the strong white glare of a clone’s flashlight, he could see a trickle of vivid violet fluid leaching across the stones, running from a gash at the back of Nasriel’s head, where the thick black hair was already saturated and matted with blood.
One of the clones – the young medic-trained shiny, CT-1313 – dropped to his knees beside him. The boy had some manners, it seemed, for he didn’t push Obi-Wan out of the way with the usual clone efficiency that was one step shy of outright rudeness.
“Any pulse, Master Kenobi?”
“Yes – weak, fast.”
“Thanks.” The medic went quietly to work, taking murmured notes on a voice-recorder. “I wouldn’t recognize a bruise on this kid if I saw one… with that blast it’s safe to assume she’s pretty banged up on the outside, possible internal injury…” The gloved fingers moved with a curious skillful gentleness, probing to examine the most visible damage – “deep horizontal gash, five centimeter, over lower cranium,” raising an eyelid to shine a light into the pupil – “dilated, unresponsive to light,” pinching her hard on the back of the hand – “no response to painful stimulus.”
Almost apologetic, he explained, “She’s out cold. I don’t know about any Jedi stuff going on in the back of her mind or anything like that; from my perspective, that right there is a comatose kid, which is pretty serious. I don’t like that head-wound at all. If I had my way, General, I’d send her straight back to the medbay aboard the Robin.
“The girl can be carried safely enough?” Zuqof demanded? “Fine. Sterling, 1313, get her out of here.” His tone softened, and he laid one hand briefly on Obi-Wan’s shoulder. “My men know what they’re doing, General. She’ll be fine. We have to keep going.”
“Just a minute.” As Captain Sterling picked up Nasriel’s limp form, cradling her on his left hip to leave his right hand free, Obi-Wan shrugged off the clone Major’s touch and went to talk to the medic.
“Thank you. Look after her, won’t you?” He reached over to brush a lock of hair from Nasriel’s face. “May the Force be with you, Padawan.”
“She can’t hear you, sir,” 1313 ventured respectfully.
“Well, just in case.” Obi-Wan turned back to Zuqof. “Let’s go. I’ll lead.”
As matters transpired, it was just as well Nasriel didn’t have to see the horrific hours of cave-clearing. For a Padawan of five years’ experience to be accustomed to death almost to the point of blasé, yet come close to retching in the face of killing was a mystery to Obi-Wan – one he didn’t have time to solve.
There were almost no droids in this tight web of caverns. The Separatist leaders in their wisdom had concealed only their sentient troops in these far reaches of Halm’s underworld. In the brutal, bloody work that followed, Obi-Wan repeatedly had to banish vague wonderings: What would Nasriel say if she were here? Ben? Master Kenobi, o yes, very heroic to kill the enemy on their own ground… when they’re unarmed… This wasn’t war. This was butchery. But in this war, the lines were blurred to the point of erasure.
They found a tunnel where the air seemed to blow fresher and where the Force was brighter, and set one of the troopers injured in the melee to watch the entrance, more to mark its location than anything else. The maze doubled back on itself at least twice before finally rejoining the original tunnel – an untidy dead end. Standing in the room where the pool of blood still glistened on the ground, the room with the smoke-blackened walls where the clone lay dead, Zuqof yanked off his helmet and grinned.
“Well, what do you know. We’re done. Just that last passage to go now.”
The blackness of the tunnel dissipated swiftly, and with each step the rock walls grew drier, sandier, until abruptly they came out on the surface of Halm again, blinking in the daylight that warped the entire landscape with its brilliance until eyes long underground grew used to ordinary illumination again.
Zuqof snatched up his comm to call the transport, and to check distance. According to the signal returned, they had traveled forty kilometers in the full day since setting out into the caves. The other four units had already cleared the caves set them, and were returning to the Robin. But they would have to send word to the Temple, and to the Chancellor, to obtain special clearance to cave-in such a huge area of the Adegan mines, so for as long as that took, there would be no going anywhere.
Master Windu called promptly from the Temple, before the troop transporter even arrived to pick them up. Although the call came through on Obi-Wan’s personal comlink, he handed it over to Zuqof, too tired to try explaining his cares to Mace, who would be sure to notice. Palpatine’s office was less obliging, and a full hour was wasted aboard the transport, patching cuts and bruises and blaster-bolt grazes, and chattering desultorily about nothing in particular.
A comlink rang, but when the clone holding it checked the callsign and found it was not a Core sign at all, he tossed the comm into a corner, leaving the caller to record a message if they felt so inclined. It didn’t really matter.
When the order was finally given, and the charges in all five cave networks blown at once by remote control, at last it was possible to return to the Red Robin. Or would have been if the astromech droid had not apologetically reported that the sandstorm had had a detrimental effect on the craft’s engines, and they would be forced to delay until the damage could be mended.