Where on earth have the last six-odd months gone? Huge, heartfelt apologies for keeping everyone waiting! I had no intention of taking this long, but the break has done me good. Thanks for everyone's continued support, it's made all my hard work worthwhile!
Author's notes: There's a lot of explanation and build-up in this chapter that I just couldn't get around – I had to lay the groundwork for the next chapter. There was a good deal of material I had to cover, which is why this chapter chops and changes quite a lot. Hopefully, I've managed to tie almost everything together now, so expect to see the end of this fic quite soon. (Never thought I'd get round to saying that!)
Gone From Danger - Part 11/?
In the enormous hangar of the Lamari installation, Obi-Wan sat cross-legged on the floor beside the Dawning, picking uninterestedly at a tray of food. He couldn't deny the fact that he was hungry, but the thought of actually eating anything made him queasy, and eventually he pushed the tray away from him and turned instead to the other object resting on the floor in front of him: the Dawning's headset. Absently, he reached out and ran a finger across one of the strips of the metal lattice, pausing to rub lightly at the tiny sensors, then craned his neck back to look at the Dawning, which appeared upside-down from that angle.
By tomorrow morning, all the ships in the hangar and their respective passengers would be gone – the huge Lamarin transport was due to leave for Coruscant tonight, escorted by the Dinisian ship Mercy Bound, which would return to Dinis afterwards; the bounty hunters' craft was to depart at dawn to take the Jedi to Mek'Lee's promised safe location. Something inside Obi-Wan protested fiercely against this migration to yet another so-called haven, and even more against the fact that he only had Mek'Lee's words of assurance on which to base his trust. Had it not been for his faith in Qui-Gon and his respect for his Master's judgement, he would have refused to believe that the bounty hunter could hold good intentions.
He should have been happy, or at the very least relieved, that things were finally getting better, yet during the last three days all he had been capable of was despair. What good did it do him, now that Sashri and the other Lamari had been apprehended? The implant was still inside his body, branding him an outcast indefinitely. Things were supposed to be getting better, but with regard to his immediate situation it hadn't changed at all. In some respects, it was actually deteriorating. It was only the fourth day since he had woken in the tank, but in even that short time he had been overtaken by depression and his mood was still worsening, to the point now where he was irritable with everyone around him, including his Master. Qui-Gon and the other Jedi had done everything they could to be patient, to show that they understood…and he resented them for it, ashamed as he was to admit it to himself.
He had managed to regain a fair portion of his memories, but his access to them was sporadic and he was prone to frequent lapses; for example, the recent episode when he had come close to destroying the whole installation was now strangely unreachable. He remembered waking in the bacta tank in a wild panic and the unbridled Force-push he had used to escape the medical bay…after that, he could recall little, although he sensed that something had passed between himself and Qui-Gon. Not knowing what had been said or done disappointed him, and all he could do was hope that the memory would return with time. Until then, he could only wonder at the emotion in his Master's eyes when the older Jedi looked at him.
Obi-Wan sighed and stared at the Dawning's headset. Despite appearances to the contrary, he was slowly beginning to accept the reality of the life that lay ahead of him. He knew it was highly unlikely that a way would be found to safely remove the implant, and though he'd been unable to banish that hope completely, he had quickly discarded it to the back of his mind. In a way, the knowledge made it simpler, though not any easier, to begin to plan ahead, to design a future that would allow him to remain a Jedi by utilising the neural web instead of recoiling from it. Every day, he was growing more adept at using the web to manipulate the Force, and he was gradually losing his fear of the implant, coming to see it as a tool rather than a weapon forced upon him.
With a slow, measured exhalation, Obi-Wan closed his eyes and centred himself, adjusting to the eddies of the Force around him and regulating his breathing and pulse. Once he was certain that he had achieved an adequate level of peace, he activated the neural web inside him and reached out with the Force to lift the headset. Unlike before, there was no dramatic rush of power into his body - the Force levels around him fluctuated only slightly and his emotions remained calm.
A smile pulled at the corners of his mouth as he opened his eyes and looked at the floating headset, revelling in his ability to touch the Force again without the worry that he might cause another disaster. He knew he could quite easily lift any object in the hangar, even the Lamarin transport, but it was much more satisfying to accomplish this small task.
While it hadn't fully registered amidst the emotional and physical suffering he had undergone, part of his misery had stemmed from believing that, although it continued to surround him, he had lost the Force. At those times when it had shrunk away from him, he had felt like a child denied the approval of a parent. Now that he had regained his confidence in his abilities, it no longer mattered to him that this was a potentially dangerous artificial bond with the Force, or that others might view it as such. Through the web, he had never known such an intimate insight into the Living Force, at times so intense it was overwhelming, reminiscent of that first wondrous union he had experienced on Dareela.
Stronger yet was his amplified receptivity to the Unifying Force, which surpassed any other effect of the neural web. Consequently, his visions had now extended to his waking hours where before they had been limited to dreams, and they were coming much more frequently – in the space of the last three days he had had at least twenty distinct visions, some lasting up to two or three hours but more commonly taking only minutes to run their course. Most of these were minor predictions and had so far proven accurate; however, there was a recurring subject in several of the lengthier visions, a repetition of the dream in which he had had to choose between Sashri and Qui-Gon. He still wasn't sure whether they were to be taken at face value, that sometime in the future he would have to make such a decision, or if there was a deeper meaning – for example, having to decide between the Jedi Order, represented by Qui-Gon in the dreams, and another party, represented by Sashri.
Grimacing, he pushed the dark thoughts away and released his hold on the headset, letting it fall into his lap, then shifted around to study the small, glinting bulk of the Dawning. The decision had been made to bring the ship with them to wherever Mek'Lee had in mind – that was to say, Obi-Wan had made the decision, and the others had reluctantly consented. He was determined to learn to pilot the Dawning properly, and flying it would be a definitive test of his restraint over the neural web. If they were going to prove to the Senate that he wasn't a threat then they would need all the evidence they could gather.
Obi-Wan reached an arm up to stroke the ship's round, transparent belly, feeling the material warm rapidly to his touch. There was so much potential for the Dawning to be used peacefully, rather than as the weapon it had been designed for, if Obi-Wan could learn to utilise the web appropriately. Getting the Senate to see it as anything more than a so-called "Force blaster", with himself as the trigger, would be another matter entirely. It was more than likely that they would want the craft destroyed.
The ring of boots on metal pulled his attention upward to the catwalk overhead, and a frown drew his brows together when he saw Mek'Lee and a tall, dark-haired human male striding across it, deep in conversation. The man, the same one who had stolen Tiperis' lightsaber, had introduced himself earlier as Bal Avalera. Obi-Wan had encountered the bounty hunters once or twice, which was to be expected considering that half of the installation was now off-limits because of the damage he himself had caused to the lower floors, but for the most part they did their best to avoid him.
Watching them, it didn't take him long to notice that Avalera had an arm about Mek'Lee's waist, or that she was holding the hand that rested on her hip, and his eyebrows lifted in surprise. He had known his share of bounty hunters in the five-and-some years of his apprenticeship, yet this group seemed to defy what he had come to expect. First, there was the fact that they did indeed work together, with Mek'Lee leading them – the stereotypical bounty hunter preferred to work alone, a generalisation that had been accurate in his past experiences. Second was the abrupt change of motive, from attacking the Jedi to aiding his rescue party, which made little sense when there was no real financial reward involved. And now there was the implied relationship between Mek'Lee and Avalera, however casual, to further disconcert him.
The young Jedi stared at the two crossing the catwalk, unaware of his scrutiny, until Mek'Lee glanced down and caught sight of him. She stiffened, and even with the distance between them Obi-Wan could see the wariness that tightened her face…he thought there was something more, possibly a hint of remorse, but it passed too rapidly to be certain. Her hand lifted in a hesitant salutation, surprising him, then she pulled on Avalera's arm and hurried the two of them along. Obi-Wan kept his gaze on them, unaware of the dark anger building inside him that her gesture had provoked until he found his hands clenched into shaking fists on his lap, fingernails biting into his palms. Shocked by the depth of his sudden rage, the apprentice drew and held a quick breath, focusing on the threatening emotion and trying to let it dissipate out of his mind. However, his attention only seemed to feed the anger, and it mushroomed into a blinding fury that eclipsed his vision with rapid, violent pulses.
"Force, no," he hissed through gritted teeth, lurching to his feet, the only calm thought in his head fixed on returning to the vacant personnel room that had been designated as his temporary quarters, and sealing himself inside. He stopped only to snatch the Dawning's headset up from the floor, then rushed blindly toward the hangar's exit, shouldering his way out through the doors when they didn't open fast enough for him and blundering down the corridor.
Why now? he wondered distractedly, the anger a suffocating, writhing mass in his chest that was probably bleeding into the Force and transmitting to every Jedi in the complex. Why am I feeling like this now? He was clueless, utterly bewildered. On the prior occasions he had seen Mek'Lee, the strongest emotion he had felt had been resentment…nothing like the ire he was currently experiencing. Fortunately, the control that he had managed to establish over the neural web meant that he could stop it from reacting, even though he could sense the Dark Side swirl around him, drawn by his fiery and seemingly uncontrollable rage.
He had barely made it halfway to his destination when an alarmed voice called his name, and a pair of strong hands grabbed at his arms, halting him roughly. Gasping raggedly, Obi-Wan shook his head and looked up into the dark, surprised eyes of Noreif Leksalis.
"Obi-Wan, what's wrong?" the Knight asked anxiously, tightening his grip when the younger Jedi tried to pull away. "Why are you so upset?"
"Nothing," Obi-Wan ground out, forcibly extricating himself from Noreif's grasp.
"I don't think you would be this angry about 'nothing'," Noreif remarked, but refrained from touching the apprentice again.
Obi-Wan didn't respond, pushing past Noreif and quickening his pace to a run. No doubt Noreif would inform Qui-Gon of the encounter, which made it all the more important to reach his quarters as soon as possible. He couldn't face his Master like this, especially when he didn't know what had set off his temper. Dashing through the corridors, it didn't take him long to reach the personnel section and he quickly located his room, slapping his hand on the controls and locking the door once he was inside. Harsh, snorting gasps huffed out of him as he slumped against the nearest wall, then he rocked forward and let out a howling scream, hoping to purge his rage verbally.
Get out of me, he growled silently. Get out, get out!To his surprise, the internal demand seemed to be working, his emotions quieting gradually and leaving him even more confused than before. His cry tailed off and he straightened, unsure of what to make of the abrupt change. "Not right…it's not right," he mumbled breathlessly, walking to the sleep couch and sitting heavily on its edge. Trembling, he sagged backward into a sprawl, one forearm pressing across his eyes while he released a wavering sigh. His other arm flopped against the pillow…and he froze when his hand came into contact with a small, cool object.
He uncovered his eyes and grasped the item, bringing it to his face and peering at it while he turned it in his fingers. A holo-chip.
"Kerrov, relax." From where she sat on one of the cabin's two sleep couches, Sashri followed her companion's movements as he paced the deck. Her face showed the strain of long days spent waiting, with little else to occupy the time apart from reassuring the nervous scientist.
"I can't," Kerrov snapped, frustration in his voice. "There is less than a day left and nothing has happened yet."
"It will, just be patient," the woman tried to reassure.
"How can you be so sure?" His previous respect a few days ago had melted into doubt and irritation during their confinement. "I've watched you toy with that crystal for hours on end, and there has still been no result. To be honest, I don't think this strategy is going to work."
Sashri gave him a hard glare, then shook off her anger. "We can't do anything else," she reminded him bluntly. "I can always give up, if you're that eager to face Republic justice."
"No!" Kerrov blurted, holding up a placating hand. "Don't stop." He dropped onto the sleep couch opposite her and folded his arms. "If you believe that this is the best way to proceed, then I'll trust you."
"Good." Sashri studied his apprehensive face…it was fascinating, really, that two men could wear the same features so differently. Since his surgery, Kerrov had displayed a number of expressions that the more stoic Qui-Gon Jinn would rarely show openly. That said, the Jedi Master had certainly made little effort in hiding his disgust when he had questioned her almost a week ago now. She looked away from Kerrov, reminded once again of her betrayal and feeling guilt bubble reluctantly inside her; no matter how fervently she wished that she could distance herself from Obi-Wan, there was no denying the fondness that she had developed toward him during his stay on Lamari. That affection had been lost from the moment she had carried out the implantation of the neural web, buried beneath the importance of her task and the euphoria that had enveloped her upon its completion. She had been intoxicated with the power she had gained over Obi-Wan, but now that the roles were reversed she had sobered quickly, and it startled her to find that her previous amity with the young Jedi had mutated into shame and regret over her actions.
Shuddering, Sashri laced her fingers together on her lap and squeezed tightly, as though trying to quash her emotions between her palms. I still care for him, she realised with a pang. Compared to the fate of my people it shouldn't make a difference, but it does. I've destroyed him and damned myself in doing so. She blinked as her vision clouded with tears, and she ducked her head to conceal them from Kerrov. The last thing she needed was to panic the scientist again with any indication of her own doubt. Not that she had misgivings about her plan – she knew that it would succeed, even though their time was growing short; it was whether or not she could put aside her feelings in order to save herself that troubled her.
Sighing quietly, she deliberately loosened her fingers and calmed herself. She was tired of maintaining her cool façade for Kerrov's sake, but it was what he expected from her…how she had always been since they had started working together a few years ago. Strange, that in those years they had never grown closer than being colleagues, regarding each other with respect and nothing more. Unlike many others of his generation, Kerrov seemed in awe of her Force-abilities, meagre as they were compared to those of a Jedi. However, his admiration was waning in captivity, consumed by the very real threat of punishment for his part in the Madellin-ki project.
"Can I ask you something?"
The unexpected enquiry startled her a little, and she looked up at Kerrov who was leaning toward her. She acceded with a tired nod, and he shifted forward until he was sitting on the very edge of his sleep couch.
"I know you've already said that we have no choice than to use your crystal," he began, his gaze drifting toward her pocket and the meditation stone hidden inside it. "But I get the impression that you would be doing this even if there were other options. I was just wondering why you're so certain about what you're doing. How do you know he's going to come?"
Sashri paused, considering the question, and examined his face again. Not even his eyes are really his anymore, she thought, contrasting the mental image of Kerrov's naturally brown irises to the artificially altered blue ones she could see now. "Because I promised him an end," she replied eventually, not really expecting the scientist to understand. Judging by the faint wrinkling of a frown that appeared between his eyebrows, he did not. "All I'm doing is ensuring that he will want it, and that he will come to me for it."
Obi-Wan stared at the holo-chip in his hand, rubbing his thumb across its surface while he contemplated it. Where had it come from? It couldn't have been his Master or any of the other Jedi – he would have found some residual evidence of their presence in the Force – and he could think of no reason for one of the bounty hunters to leave a holo-chip in his temporary quarters. Sitting up and pushing himself from the sleep couch, Obi-Wan crossed the room and retrieved the small holo-projector from his belt, which had been draped across a chair by the wall. His hand moved to linger briefly on the hilt of his lightsaber, then he pulled away and slotted the chip into the projector. A hologram coalesced into focus above the projection platform, taking the shape of a tall, thin human with keen, indigo eyes and a tangle of long red hair tied in an untidy ponytail behind him.
"Progress update," the man stated, his voice deep and commanding, almost in contradiction to his flighty appearance. "The initial preparations for the Madellin-ki subject have been completed. I have been informed that the Senate has allocated two Jedi Knights – a Master and Padawan team – to oversee the loading and departure of the thrana shipment."
During a brief pause, Obi-Wan nodded to himself in comprehension: the human was talking about the mission that he and Qui-Gon had undertaken on Lamari. Somehow, the reports made by the stranger in the recording had made their way into his possession. His mouth tightened determinedly. Perhaps he could finally find some answers that would explain these last nightmarish months.
"So far there have been no reports of suspicion in the Senate or the Jedi Council. Sashri is now in possession of the modified meditation stone, and has been made aware of the consequences of failure, although I have no doubt that she will carry out her instructions. In fact, she appears quite eager."
Obi-Wan's eyebrows lifted in shock. Because of what she had done to him, he had held something of a grudge against Sashri, assuming that it was she who had been in charge of the project. It was evident now that she had been under another's command…the man who had made this holographic recording, whom he was certain he had no knowledge of despite his faulty memory. The image flickered and changed slightly, with the man wearing his hair in a thick braid that trailed over his left shoulder.
"Progress update: the Jedi arrived this morning, and to my delight we discovered that the Padawan's abilities are quite advanced. As soon as it is prudent, arrangements will be made to have him separated from his Master and assigned to Sashri, who should be able to effect the implantation in a few days' time."
The hologram shimmered again, cycling forward to a later point on the chip, but the man's appearance didn't seem to alter this time, the same sloppy braid hanging over his shoulder. Unconsciously, the apprentice fingered his own braid as he watched the stranger's lips curve into a pleased smile.
"Progress update: the attempt on Qui-Gon Jinn's life proved successful in inducing the neural web to a greater rate of growth. The Project has now regained the time lost due to Kenobi's unintentional hindrance, which Kerrov believes was caused by the substantial mental training that the Jedi are required to undertake. Fortunately, Kenobi appears to remain unaware of the implant's presence."
Obi-Wan physically staggered at the information that the hologram was revealing to him, and he stumbled backward to sink unsteadily onto the sleep couch. What? What? he thought disbelievingly, his eyes wide. The event the man was referring to could only be the savage attack on Dareela that had nearly killed Qui-Gon. "No," he whispered. I was responsible…it was my fault.
"However," the human went on, folding his arms and frowning faintly, "the emotional episode that led to this increased development has uncovered an unexpected weakness in the web's design. It seems that during his connection to the meditation stone, Kenobi became vulnerable to what the Jedi refer to as the 'dark side' of the Force, something that I failed to take into account. As a result, the meditation stone was rendered useless. We will have to take great care in the future to avoid a similar occurrence with the neural web itself."
The hologram paused of its own accord, leaving the dumbfounded Padawan to stare at the frozen image, his mouth open in an expression of incredulity. "That's it," he breathed, the hand on which the little holo-projector rested trembling visibly with the importance of his insight. "That's it!" His gaze refocused on a point beyond the hologram as he summoned a memory that he had all but forgotten in the last few weeks: that night in the hospital gardens on Dareela. He should have realised long ago…if his thoughts had been clearer, he would have realised that the Force had already shown him the solution to his problems.
The Dark Side. In order to free himself of the web's effects, he would have to channel the Dark Side, with its terrible power focused on his body rather than on a natural receptor like the meditation crystal. But what would such a course of action do to him? The thought of turning, of becoming a fallen Jedi like Xanatos, was one that had used to haunt him after his first battle with the ruthless former Padawan of Qui-Gon's. At the time, he had sensed Xanatos' bitterness and felt it to be a dark mirror of his own feelings at not becoming a Padawan, and had often wondered what he might have become if Qui-Gon had not accepted him as an apprentice. Would he have been content with a life in Agricorps? Or would he, because of his unwavering belief that his destiny lay elsewhere, have grown embittered and resentful until he was drawn into a life serving the Dark Side, much like Xanatos?
He shook his head, forcing himself out of his musings. There was no point in dwelling on the past and old fears…now, against all odds, he might have a future more akin to the one he had always envisioned, one that didn't include the neural web. His previous acceptance of the implant was dwindling rapidly, reverting back to the abhorrence that he had felt toward it before, and to his surprise he found that he welcomed the switch.
Careful, he cautioned himself. There's no guarantee that this will work. It would be dangerous to take the new information for granted, especially since he still had no idea where the holo-chip had come from. He lowered his gaze to the holoprojector, intending to remove the chip and inspect it again in the hope of finding a clue, then blinked when he saw the hologram reactivate and change once more – the strange human sported different clothes this time, and his lean face looked haggard and angry.
"Now you know as much as my logs can tell you, Obi-Wan Kenobi." The young Jedi started, astonished to hear the man addressing him. "What they do not inform you is that my loyalties have changed. I will no longer agree to the terms that the Lamari have set me, and since the project has in effect been terminated, I have decided to aid you instead. There is more information that you ought to know, but I would rather disclose it in a real-time conversation. If you can reach a comm. station, this chip will automatically establish a link to me." The human dipped his head in a gesture that could have been respect. "I will await your decision, although I cannot emphasise enough the importance of contact between us."
With that, the hologram dissolved and the projector became dormant in the palm of Obi-Wan's hand, leaving him to stare blankly at empty air. So the unknown man in the recording had had something to do with the Padawan finding the chip. Did that mean that he was still here in the Lamarin installation? Or had another party acted on his behalf and planted the chip in this room, where more likely than not Obi-Wan would be the first to find it? In either case, it led him to wonder if he should tell Qui-Gon and the other Jedi of his discovery.
He set the projector aside carefully and leaned forward, cupping his chin in his palms. What do I do? he asked silently. Part of him wanted to put the question to his Master and allow the older Jedi to make the decision for him, but the doubt in his mind instructed him otherwise. He could find no obvious harm in a simple communication, and he would always have the opportunity to discuss what he had learned from the chip with Qui-Gon later.
His choice made, Obi-Wan straightened and began to reach for the projector, intending to remove the holo-chip. The rap of knuckles on metal stayed his hand and he looked round toward the door, flinching as he heard a familiar voice call his name from the corridor outside.
"Obi-Wan?" A staccato of urgent taps followed the enquiry, reminding him that he had locked the door. "Padawan, are you all right?"
At the escalating concern in Qui-Gon's voice, Obi-Wan gained his feet and snatched the projector from the sleep couch, ejecting the holo-chip and pocketing it while he hurriedly returned the projector to its pouch on his belt. A locked door wouldn't hold his Master for long, and he had no intention of causing Qui-Gon any more anxiety than he already had. Hesitating only a moment to compose himself and straighten his tunics, Obi-Wan disengaged the lock and took a step or two back as the door slid open and a harried-looking Qui-Gon entered, his eyes examining the apprentice briefly before the tension faded from his face.
"I spoke to Noreif," he said brusquely, the strain in his voice betraying his calm. "He informed me that you were upset, and that you refused to tell him why." He paused and moved closer. When he had sensed his Padawan's turmoil through the Force, he had at first been afraid that Obi-Wan had succumbed to the neural web and suffered an emotional breakdown. However, nothing in the younger Jedi's demeanour revealed anything of the sort. "Will you tell me?"
"To be honest, Master, I'm not certain myself of what happened." Obi-Wan offered an awkward smile. "I saw Mek'Lee in the hangar and…well, I got angry," he finished lamely. "I apologise if I worried you, but I didn't want to see anyone until I had calmed down."
"I understand, although I would have felt better if you had come to me straight away," Qui-Gon remarked, his hand clasping Obi-Wan's shoulder reassuringly. "Why were you angry when you saw Mek'Lee?" he enquired, suspecting that the fault lay with the bounty hunter. To his surprise, Obi-Wan merely shrugged.
"She waved at me," the teenager answered quietly. "I don't know why I found that so offensive, but this rage just welled up inside me and I couldn't channel it away." All too aware of the holo-chip in his pocket, he made a show of placing a hand over his eyes and rubbing wearily. "Maybe I've been working with the implant too long," he suggested, and there was a ring of truth in his words. At least that wasn't an exaggeration; it felt like that was all he had been doing for days.
Qui-Gon sighed, unwittingly revealing his own fatigue. "Padawan, both Raeshin and I have warned you about over-exerting yourself, especially considering the stress that your body has been through," he reminded, even while his stern expression softened. "I don't want to be harsh, Obi-Wan, but you should know better." He waved off the younger Jedi's immediate apologies. "We'll talk more about this later. Raeshin has asked to speak to us; apparently, he has learned something important about the web."
Obi-Wan nodded obediently and allowed his Master to guide him out of the room with a hand on his back, curious as to what the Healer had discovered…perhaps he had come across the same information that the holo-chip contained. That thought brought his attention back to the object in his pocket and he felt a quick flush of irritation at the unexpected delay in contacting the stranger, then chided himself for his impatience. After all this time, surely half an hour would make little difference?
Slumped in a chair in the Lamarin installation's communications room, Obi-Wan stared at the holo-chip in his hand. There were traces of drying tears on his face, but he made no move to wipe them away, his expression one of numb shock. He had been wrong. Half an hour had made a world of difference, his relief at finding a possible solution to his problems briefly torn apart by Raeshin's latest prognosis. The Healer had revealed that, while the neural web had stopped growing, its organic components were stripping material from his body to sustain themselves, essentially eating him alive. According to Raeshin, there was no way of halting or even temporarily interrupting the process. At its current rate of consumption, Obi-Wan could support the web for perhaps only eight or nine months, certainly no more than a year, with the possibility of extending his life by a few months with bacta treatment. There was also the chance that other healers back home at the Temple might find a way to remove the implant safely before he succumbed to its appetite, but the young Jedi couldn't hold much hope for that idea.
Obi-Wan shuddered. For all his supposed maturity, he found himself barely able to cope with the new development, panic already bubbling in his thoughts. He was left now with two options: spend a large portion of his remaining time in a bacta tank, or try to destroy the neural web by channelling the Dark Side. Both were daunting and had the potential for failure, the consequences of which were dire in either case.
An insistent urge was rising inside him, pressing him to tell Qui-Gon about the holo-chip and ask for his opinion. If his Master wished him to undertake the bacta treatment, he would comply without a second thought, although it was more likely that the man would refuse to make such a decision for Obi-Wan. But no matter how much he needed the man's support, he knew that he wouldn't act on the desire to inform him. The older Jedi had been devastated by Raeshin's prognosis, utterly heartbroken, and he couldn't burden Qui-Gon with more problems, not after seeing the despair in the man's eyes.
Oh Force, Master, I'm so sorry! he cried silently, suddenly fighting fresh tears and fisting his hand around the holo-chip.It seemed that in the past weeks he had done an entire lifetime's worth of apologising, but it meant nothing. The sorrow and pain of current events weren't going to be healed with words – only action was going to resolve any of this, and that action was going to have to be on his part.
For a moment, all he could do was sit there, hunched and afraid, lost in self-pity; then he uncurled his fingers and looked at the chip with renewed determination. He couldn't face living the next year or so in this kind of limbo, waiting for the dubious possibility of another solution to be found while he and those closest to him suffered the emotional pain that he was struggling with now.
Obi-Wan leaned forward and inserted the holo-chip into the nearest comm-unit, activating the machine and waiting for the automatic link to establish itself while he plucked self-consciously at his braid. The connection took only a few minutes, and Obi-Wan sat up straighter as the stranger from the reports appeared onscreen, his eyes bright with pleased curiosity and strands of long hair trailing around his face.
"Well, Padawan Kenobi," he remarked, a smile quirking his lips. "I'm glad you decided to speak to me."
"Who are you?" Obi-Wan demanded, his body tensing into alertness despite the fact that he was addressing a screen rather than the man himself. All thought of diplomacy was vanishing quickly.
If he was bothered by the apprentice's brevity, the stranger gave no indication. "My name is Devrye Sanpirl. You could call me the former co-ordinator of the Madellin-ki project."
Fully intending to interrogate the man, Obi-Wan was somewhat startled to hear himself ask, "Why did you do this?" in a quiet voice, feeling the same sense of absurd, surreal detachment that he had experienced when he had spoken to Mek'Lee during his brief period of freedom on her ship.
Devrye looked at him with an expression of faintly mocking pity. "What you really want to ask is: Why did you do this to me, isn't it?" At Obi-Wan's silence, he gave a short, barking laugh. "Because you were convenient, that's why. You watched my report for the day you arrived on Lamari. The bottom line is, any Padawan would have done – it was just fortunate for us that you turned up." He snorted. "Bad luck, kid. But then again, you Jedi don't believe in luck, do you?"
The Padawan remained silent a few moments longer, staring at Devrye pensively and trying to conjure some reaction to Sanpirl's abrasive attitude, but all he could manage was a mild annoyance. "I'm dying," he said at last, a little surprised by his own statement.
"I know," Devrye responded, this time with a trace of regret. "That wasn't my idea. In fact, Sashri and I argued against it, but the Lamari were adamant. They thought it was too much of a risk to allow you to live with the implant inside you, in case you turned on them. Where I saw opportunity, they saw potential disaster."
"Sashri protested?" Obi-Wan was taken-aback.
"Oh, yes. She became quite fond of you during your stay on Lamari, and she pushed her government to reconsider as soon as you had left. See, in its first stage, when the core is forming in the brain," Sanpirl went on, "the web's post-development behaviour can be programmed. That means that, if it had been decided to do so, we could have instructed the web to become inert once it had matured. However, because of the Lamarin government's decision, we had to program it to remain in an active state. It was a contingency plan of sorts, in case something prevented the Lamari here on the base from killing you themselves."
"And now?" the apprentice challenged, his eyes hard. "You said yourself that the project has ended."
"So?" Devrye asked, spreading his hands dismissively. "The programming can't be changed after the neural web's core has taken root."
"Then take it out." There was a tremor in Obi-Wan's voice. "Please."
"I can't," was the answer. "It's just not possible. The web wasn't designed to be removed from a person's body. I've already given you the only solution I know of."
Obi-Wan turned away from the screen, dejection on his face. "Do you have any idea what I risk by channelling the Dark Side?" he murmured, his fists clenching on his lap.
"Oh, honestly," Devrye snapped in exasperation. "Are you Jedi really so uncertain about yourselves that even the mention of the Dark Side sends you cowering?" At Obi-Wan's sharp glare, he smirked. "Judging by how easy you are to anger, I suppose you have a reason to be afraid. I doubt it would take much for you to turn."
"And you're such an expert," the Padawan retorted, lifting his chin and keeping his voice even. "Weren't you the one who didn't realise what effect the Dark Side would have on your precious project? Or did you just forget to include it in your designs?"
Devrye was unimpressed by Obi-Wan's gibes. "I suppose your Healer told you that you had several months to live," he commented, giving the young Jedi pause. "In truth you have no more than a few weeks." He waited a moment to let the apprentice absorb the information, watching his face cloud with shocked disbelief. "Aren't you curious to know why the web is eating away your body so quickly?" he asked, his voice slightly taunting.
Shaken, all Obi-Wan could do was nod his head dumbly. Weeks? Raeshin couldn't have made such a mistake, even with the damage that the instruments in the medical bay had sustained. Needless to say, the Healer could have deliberately misinformed him about his drastically reduced lifespan, but Raeshin had seemed sincere…and, of course, the man was a Jedi. He wouldn't lie to Obi-Wan without good cause, and the Padawan could think of no legitimate reason that would lead Raeshin to deceive him – and not only him, but Qui-Gon as well.
"Don't blame your Healer. He doesn't know," Devrye added, apparently guessing Obi-Wan's thoughts. "His prognosis was correct – if somebody wasn't tampering with the web, you would have months to live."
"Tampering?" Obi-Wan blurted, aware of an inexplicable tightness in his chest and an itching sensation along his spine. Who would be foolish enough to interfere with the neural implant, especially considering the near-catastrophe that had taken place three days ago? If that hadn't been demonstration enough of how deadly the web's power was… "How long has this 'tampering' been going on? Did someone initiate the last purge?" he demanded, struggling with a flare of outrage at the sheer stupidity – or sheer malice – of such an act.
"It began several days ago. And yes, you could conclude that the purge you spoke of was deliberate, although it wasn't by my instructions." He tipped his head thoughtfully. "Apart from your Jedi friends, there's only one person currently in the complex with the Force-ability to interfere with the web."
Obi-Wan's face was pale, but the expression on it was harsh. "Sashri." He turned his head to look at the door to the communications room, almost as if he expected the woman to walk through at the very mention of her name, then refocused his attention on the human. "Why is she doing it?" he asked. "What changed her mind since I was on Lamari?"
"She may have the highest midi-chlorian count on her planet, and the most advanced Force-ability to go with it, but she's no Jedi," Devrye answered. "I think that's been in the flaw in your thinking when it comes to Sashri. She is a creature driven by interest – for her planet or for herself, it makes no difference, because it's still a selfish interest. When you were with her, she wanted to keep you alive because you weren't a threat. Now that she knows that she can no longer control you, she wants you dead."
Sitting back heavily in the chair, Obi-Wan released a heavy, shaking breath, the comment affecting him harder than he would have thought possible. If there was truth in what Devrye was saying, and his own experiences led him to agree with the man, then Sashri's actions amounted to more than simple betrayal. The thought that she could disregard life so easily shocked him deeply. Didn't she have any moral compunction within her? He frowned, feeling rage begin to stir inside him once more, but this time he made no attempt to discourage it. She's killing me, he thought bitterly, no longer aware of Sanpirl studying him from the screen. Inflicting this on me wasn't enough…she has to take it one step farther and destroy me.
Devrye recalled his attention with a clap of his hands, a slight smile on his face. "You see how easy it is?" he asked wryly. "There shouldn't be any problem neutralising the implant now that you have a focus for your anger. But if I were you, I would get to Sashri and stop her from interfering further." His smile grew and he lifted a hand, startling the young Jedi. "Good luck, Padawan Kenobi."
"Wait!" Obi-Wan blurted, lunging out of the chair. "You're going now?"
"There's nothing left for me to say," Devrye replied with a shrug. "What you do with the information I've given you is your decision."
"But what if channelling the Dark Side doesn't work? How do I get in touch with you?"
"You don't." Devrye eyed him disparagingly. "In fact, I doubt you'll ever hear from me again. I'm no fool, Padawan Kenobi. I have no intention of being prosecuted for my actions, and another contact with you is too much of a risk. Besides, I've already given you all the help I can," he pointed out. "There's nothing else I can do for you."
"You haven't even told me why you're helping me," Obi-Wan protested, reluctant to allow the man to end the communication. As eager as he was for this whole ordeal to be over, the thought of what still lay ahead of him was frightening.
"That's something I'm not willing to discuss," Devrye answered uncomfortably. "It should be enough that I'm helping you at all." He turned away from the screen in a gesture that was deliberately dismissive, seemingly about to cut the link himself, then hesitated. "I will be watching for news on how you fared," he said quietly, half-tilting his face toward the Padawan. "I hope everything goes well for you, Obi-Wan."
With that, the screen went dark, leaving the young Jedi in startled silence, one hand lifted toward the comm-unit as though to summon Sanpirl back even though he knew the man would not reply. Slowly, Obi-Wan slumped back into the chair and leaned his elbows on his knees, trying to calm his thoughts enough to make sense of the recent conversation. His situation had changed rapidly, with too little time for him to fully contemplate the implications of what he had learned, but he couldn't dwell any longer on his options when there really were none. If he didn't try to destroy the web now, there would be no hope of recovery. His only choice was between the possibility of falling to the Dark Side, and the certainty of death.
It took only the thought of what Qui-Gon would face over the next few weeks if he didn't try to resolve the doubt in his mind. He had never really acknowledged it, but his Master had suffered as well these last months; to make him endure any more when the solution to their problems was within his grasp seemed cruel.
His expression hardening, Obi-Wan rose from the chair and moved toward the door without bothering to retrieve the holo-chip from the comm-unit, intent upon the one thing that could prevent his attempts to finally overcome the neural web, something which he had been avoiding almost as resolutely as he had been with the bounty hunters.