Chapter 68: Defusion
I can't believe I'm doing this, Dustil thought as he followed Revan through the shipyard's corridors. Why couldn't he have stayed in Ops, drooling - ah - admiring the way Versenne was handling the crisis? Crises. If he were the type to write poems and sonnets, he'd write about the way the new Head of House Vosaryk was dealing with all the problems with grace, aplomb, determination, calm - he couldn't find enough of the appropriate adjectives in Basic. Just as well, really; he suspected anything he could actually produce would be classified as doggerel.
Still, why the hell was he hanging out with Father's girlfriend when he could be hanging out with his?
Admit it, you just want to look like a hero in front of her. Dustil could feel his cheeks redden at the errant thought, and it wasn't just from the fast pace Revan was setting.
The helplessness made it worse. Being caught on a shipyard under fire, he'd somehow envisioned fighting off enemy troops with one hand and having Versenne protectively curled in the other. But not so protectively that she couldn't see how he defeated the enemy with cutting remarks, devastating banter, and well-aimed blaster shots.
His feet left the floor, but it wasn't because he'd been thinking about Versenne. Dustil grabbed at a suspiciously convenient handhold, only one of many lining the walls, his stomach giving off a twinge as he suddenly became weightless.
"What's going on?" he yelled as his grabbing motion swung his body forward.
"I don't know," Revan said. With an ease Dustil envied, she gently pushed her hand against the wall, using the spin to propel her forward.
The blast doors in front of them opened, and a bunch of spacesuited sentients nearly collided with the Jedi; only quick grabs for the handholds stopped them from piling into each other. He and Revan had their hands on their weapons and were about to draw them when the colors of the crew's livery registered.
A bit of Father's paranoia had rubbed off on Dustil; he didn't quite unholster his blaster, but the stillness in the crew told him they saw the danger. The Twi'lek in the back, identified by her bulky helmet, had even raised her hands; she lowered them, her sheepish expression visible through the clear full-face visor. Dustil caught Revan's headshake. Well, they might've been the enemy, trying to board the station - she had seemed just as jumpy and trigger-happy as he was.
"Are... are you two part of the bomb disposal squad?" A faceplate that consisted mostly of worried eyes and a mustache shot them both nervous glances. Dustil hadn't learned how to decipher the intricacies of House ranks quite yet, but his suit markings seemed a little more fancy than the others; a foreman, maybe.
"Yes, we are. What happened to the gravity?" Revan said.
"Come on, I'll explain it as we go." The man gave Revan's bandaged hands a skeptical look, as if he were wondering how she could handle the delicate task of disarming a bomb. Shrugging, he beckoned to them, and they followed him back the way he and the other workers had come. "Dorsan, Molgan, Sweelah, go ahead and get started on the repairs to the grav generators while I lead these two to the trains." The other suited figures made vague salutes and bounced onwards in different directions.
The foreman looked Revan and Dustil up and down. "Well, we'd better get you two into proper uniforms - the Lady will have my hide if I get you two a bad case of dead from decompression."
"Have we got time for -" Dustil said, acutely aware of just how much time had already passed.
"Safety first," the foreman said, interrupting him. "Besides, the power is fluctuating so badly, the forcefields could go at any moment." He reached into an equipment locker set into the wall. "For emergencies, you know," he said as he examined the suits. "Let's see, these should fit you well enough, and you'll need to put on these boots, too, so that you can at least magnetize your feet to the floor."
"Look, if you're going to be so intimate as to help us with our suits, we should know your name," Revan said as the foreman helped stretch the baggy elastic suit over her clothes. As these things usually went, Dustil's suit was too small and hers was too big.
Their weapons had to be taken off and placed into equipment pouches; Dustil wondered how the hell they would be able to maneuver sharp implements in bulky spacesuits. In free fall, no less.
"Uh, I'm Jamchek," the foreman said as he placed the helmet on her head.
"She's Nami, I'm Stiller," Dustil said, plunking his own helmet over his head; his suit puffed out a little as it sealed.
Jamchek had some trouble fitting the gloves over Revan's bandaged hands. He gave up and cannibalized a pair from a much larger suit, shaking his head and muttering under his breath as he sealed them. After he finished wrapping insulating tape around her arms, Revan looked like she was wearing a giant pair of mittens. If the situation weren't so dire, it would have looked comical.
"Now can we get on with it?" Dustil said. "We've got a bomb that could go off at any moment, remember?"
His store of patience, never very large, was shrinking in the face of the numbers ticking down in his head, and the fussy little man wasn't helping. He tried not to take his frustrations out on the foreman - Jamchek was only doing his job, he reminded himself, making sure they had all the proper equipment to work safely in vacuum. Careless and hasty could be fatal.
"Yes, of course," Jamchek said. "Follow me."
They bounded after him. It was the first time Dustil had experienced free fall outside of games; it was so easy to pile drive himself into the low ceiling if he used too much force to propel himself, and the 'stickiness' of the magnetized soles of his boots felt unnatural, unpleasant, like he had glue stuck to the bottoms of both shoes. It all combined to make what should've been a short trip turn into one that felt like it lasted for an eternity, while the seconds crept past, swift, heedless, and inexorable.
They entered a vast chamber, empty of workers and droids, illuminated only by dim emergency lights. The silence was unnerving; the place should've been busy and bright, loud with shouts and working machinery, but now it more resembled a tomb. Tools and equipment lay in haphazard, magnetized piles, others left floating where they had been placed, as if their handlers had just gone off duty for lunch. The bulk of the train loomed against the far wall, looking ominous in the shadows.
Jamchek led them to the head of the train, where the mechanism that powered the repulsorlift and the computer was housed. It was little more than a square plasteel cover, with a small seat and a large window in front - more for an operator to watch the tracks than as protection against weather or bugs. Dustil doubted there was a sentient running it all that often; the automated system was simple and reliable enough. The foreman made them clip attachments to the rail inside the tiny engine room; it looked more like a decoration than anything someone would use.
"In case the forcefield comes down and the place decompresses," Jamchek said. "If that happens, everything in the place not nailed down or magnetized will go flying out, and it'll be a helluva job fetching you back." He didn't elaborate, but the worry in his eyes said the rest for him; with the casualties, the stretched and overwhelmed work force, and the diminishing supply of droids lost to enemy action, Dustil could guess that rescue would be slow in coming, if it came at all.
It was clear Revan was listening with only half an ear as she turned on her helmet light and bent to peer under the console. "Yes, yes, thank you, Jamchek. You'd better go help your crew with repairs now." She looked up. "We can't have anything or anyone here distracting us."
And besides, if we press the wrong button, you won't be here to get laminated against the wall along with us, Dustil translated. The foreman didn't stay to argue; Dustil could hear the soft thumps on the floor as the man bounded out, but most of his attention was focused on the device Revan was examining.
Revan's voice was muffled, since she hadn't turned on her suit's outgoing comm. "Only attached with a magnet? Simpler than I thought... though I suppose there was no time to be fancy or it would look suspicious."
She inhaled, then reached under the dashboard and slowly lifted out the lethal arrangement attached to the engine. "I hate to admit it, but this is pretty ingenious," she said on the exhale. Dustil held his breath, but it seemed her hands were steady enough, even in bandages. The bomb was little more than a tiny box about as large as his palm, with a display counting down the time. "Small, compact, negligible power signature..."
"Do you think it uses the same, uh, principles as the device that brought down that bulkhead? Didn't Morin say something about that? Acid doesn't leave a power signature."
"You might be right. Tibanna gas is more than volatile enough for the job." Revan took another deep breath. "All right. Let's do this."
Dustil took a deep breath himself, tasting the metallic air cycling in his spacesuit as he did his best to calm his nerves. The breathing exercises helped; to his surprise, he saw that Revan was doing the same, deliberately synchronizing her inhalations and exhalations with his. He was not sure whether it was a closeness he welcomed or not.
Without speaking, Dustil turned on his helmet light, squeezed himself into the tiny space and sat down, being careful not to jostle the device. Sleek and gray, the device hung in the air over his lap, malignant and black; whatever it was made of, the material seemed to absorb all ambient illumination. If this thing blows, my choobies will be the first things to fry.
"Tell me how," he said, uncomfortably aware of just how close they were together. Revan fumbled out a bundle from her suit pocket with her giant mittens and unrolled it, revealing delicate tools nestled in their little niches, and attached the loop to the rail to anchor it in place.
Then he forgot all about Revan, the faint fogging on her faceplate as she gave him terse instructions, the sweat dripping down into his eyes, the slight whir of the tiny fan in his helmet that blew against his forehead, the pressure of her thigh against his. The world consisted of just him, the bomb, Revan's voice, and the tools she placed in his hands.
Cut a wire here. Attach a clip there. Connect the tiny ends together. It was difficult to manipulate the tools in gloves, but it was also hard to use a lightsaber at first - the same precise, steady movements necessary to wield a lightsaber without cutting your own ear off was apparently an asset in disarming a bomb. The pieces he had discarded floated around his head like a Jedi levitation exercise left unfinished; he only noticed because sometimes they drifted against his faceplate with tiny clicks.
Damn spacesuits... how the hell are you supposed to wipe the sweat from your face if the visor is in the way?
And then, all of a sudden... he was done. And he still had all his bits on, including unexploded choobies. Dustil resisted the urge to giggle madly from relief - his father wouldn't thank him for losing those! Or any other parts. When he saw just how little time was left on the cunning little device - Force, twelve seconds! - the impulse inverted and turned upside down, his hysterical laughter almost turning into sobs. He took hold of himself; bursting into tears at this point would ruin the image he was trying to project of a manly hero, returning in triumph to a grateful Versenne - even if it would make him feel better.
"Good work, Dustil," Revan said, her voice sounding hollow as she pressed her faceplate against his. Sweat gleamed on her face, too, and her mittened hands shook a little as she pushed the tools away back into the roll, more than her healing wounds could account for.
Dustil straightened as he removed the attachment clip, stiff muscles protesting as he tried to fumble his way out of the engine room. His back seemed to be bent into a permanent bow. He unconsciously tried to wipe the sweat still trickling down his face, only to smack himself in the visor. Damn it, it itches! He scowled at Revan who, being smaller, was already waiting for him, but she kept a straight face on.
The innocuous thought was knocked out of his head by an explosion that rocked the shipyard. The force of the shockwave overwhelmed the grip his magnetized soles had on the floor, and he was thrown against Revan, their momentum in the free fall not stopping until they'd both hit the wall and bounced off. If it weren't for the foam cushioning inside his helmet, Dustil was sure his head would have cracked open from the impact. As it was, he was seeing stars, and the docking bay was revolving in a way that wasn't all due to the lack of gravity. The world tilted crazily, what he could see of it through the constricting visor, but even in their rough, tumbling flight he noticed the ubiquitous blue glow of the forcefield was flickering.
They might've just kept bouncing, their trajectories growing ever more erratic - if the forcefield hadn't taken that moment to go down completely. He could feel the air pressure fluctuating, creating a wind that began to sweep him towards open space. The emergency lights flickered, or that might've been the new stars in Dustil's visor when his head hit the wall again. Or maybe it was the floor - with all the rolling around, he was getting his up and down mixed up. Instinctively he scrabbled for a hold on something, trying to stifle his growing panic as he was pulled closer and closer to the opening.
A hand gripped his wrist, hard enough to nearly stop circulation, stopping him from flying into a bulkhead. Dustil's vision cleared, and he saw that Revan had clamped her legs around a support pillar, and was hanging onto him with both hands.
Revan toggled her suit comm. "Are you all right?" She sounded calm, but terror shone in her eyes when he looked up at her.
Dustil nodded, though he was shaking, his heart was pounding, and his mouth was dry with fear. He'd almost flown out into space - there was no way they could've found him again before his air ran out, not with all the junk already out there, especially with a war going on right outside.
As the pressure equalized, the turbulence began to subside. The pull, which Dustil had felt as some sort of elemental monster, determined to drag him into its empty maw, eased its merciless grip on him. He was able to find purchase on the wall, clinging there with his magnetized boots, but he still had to tap Revan's vambrace to get her to let go of his wrist, which she did with an apologetic grimace. The old resentment warred with the reluctant gratitude he felt, leaving a bad taste in his mouth. It was only due to her quick thinking and quick action that he wasn't flying around in the debris field outside right now, and his conscience was prodding him to thank her. He was saved from doing so only because they both became aware of the urgent beeping of the comms in their ears.
"Can you hear me?" Father's voice rang out when Dustil turned it on. "Du - Stiller! Nami! Answer me!" His voice was becoming increasingly frantic.
"We're fine," Dustil answered after toggling on outgoing audio, and heard the grunt of relief. "What happened?"
There was a pause in which Dustil began to panic; had Versenne been hurt? Then Father spoke.
"We think Morin got to the third bomb too late; he tried to throw it out the nearest airlock, but it detonated when it left his hand, or maybe a few seconds afterwards." Father paused. "He's probably dead," he added in a much quieter voice. "There's too much damage to the sensors in that sector and to his suit for me to tell for sure from here."
The loss of yet another loyal retainer in such a short time had to be devastating to Versenne. Dustil swallowed, his throat still dry from his near escape. "How... how is Versenne taking it?"
Already low, his father's voice dropped to a whisper; Dustil had to boost the volume on the comm to hear him. "I gotta tell you, she's... not taking it well. She's putting on a brave face for the troops, but it's cracking. If she weren't so busy keeping it together and putting out fires, she'd probably be crying her eyes out somewhere quiet." There was quiet admiration in his tone when he said, "She's a real trooper." The words and the mental image they conjured made Dustil's heart ache.
"Ca - Nasi..." Revan said. "That explosion... it felt pretty near - where did it happen?"
"I'll check." Dustil heard the sound of tapping keys. "He was right above you, a few corridors over. Why?" he said, suspicion edging out the relief in his voice.
"I think he's still alive," was Revan's unexpected answer. "I can feel... something. I think."
"Really?" Father sounded astonished. "What a tough old bastard - but I don't think you should get your hopes up, and I know for damn sure we shouldn't get Versenne's hopes up."
"We can go find him!" Dustil said, a vision of him bringing Morin back to Versenne dazzling him. He tried to shake off some sense of the perverse that insisted it would look like a kath hound dragging in a kill for its master.
"What're you - you'd better not be telling me you're going to try to find him! It's too dangerous!" Father's voice broke into his thoughts.
"Now, Nasi..." Revan began in a placating voice.
Father growled. "Don't you start -!"
"You told me once that you've never abandoned anyone on a mission before," Revan said, interrupting him. "Are you sure you want to start now?"
"That's different!" Father said. "I didn't - I didn't swear any oaths to these people. And neither have either of you."
"But don't you think it'd be a good idea to keep Versenne from falling apart on us?" Dustil put in, not about to relinquish his vision of a heroic rescue. "It would really improve her morale."
"Leave it for her own people to do it - there's no need for you to go personally."
"They're nowhere nearby, and besides, they're stretched thin enough as it is," Revan said.
Dustil could almost hear Father's teeth grinding together. "We're the closest ones, Father."
"All right. All right!" It was clear that Father's frayed temper was close to snapping. "All right." There was a heavy sigh. "I'll give you two directions to get to Morin as fast as possible. Like I said, don't hold out too much hope." There was a mutter of, "If I were there, I'd have you two in restraints faster than you can say 'psychiatric ward'."
"Yeah, right," Dustil said.
He bounced out through the slip after Revan. The forcefield was still down and the lights were off, but there was enough ambient light from the landing strip outside to show the way clearly. Their helmets had lights, but the beams only made the darkness seem more solid and inscrutable. According to Father's terse directions, it was easier and faster to go outside into vacuum and enter the slip on the deck above. The magnetic soles of their boots allowed them to walk right up the wall, changing their perspective as the vertical side became the new horizontal'ground'.
Dustil shivered, and was glad he was moving again; the heat-producing underlay of his suit did little to combat the cold of vacuum. Dustil tried to go faster to try to warm up, but maneuvering in free fall when he didn't have much experience meant he had to go back to being slower, more careful - the least little mistake and he'd find himself in an uncontrolled spin or becalmed. Then he and Revan were swimming through a cloud of slowly expanding debris; it was probably the result of the explosion they had heard earlier. Fortunately, nothing could burn in a vacuum, so they didn't have to contend with molten plasteel or fires as well, just exposed power conduits, chemical spills, and severed but still live cables: hazards Father had warned them about.
Revan was the first to spot Morin; Father had suggested they might find him against the wall somewhere, thrown back by the force of the exploding bomb. The gold lines on Morin's midnight blue suit showed up well against the darkness; like Dustil and Revan, Morin had also donned a pressure suit, a customized affair that was fancier and more complex than their own one-size-fits-none getups. Dustil suspected that only its additional armor had saved the captain's life.
She bent over the figure floating in the air; it was disconcerting to see an unconscious man upright, almost as if he were standing. Morin's right arm ended in a blasted stump just above the elbow; the bone was shattered, the flesh blackened. Precious air hissed out, even with the arm joint puffed up to prevent the leakage. The inside of his faceplate was red with blood, obscuring Morin's face, and it was not until Dustil saw the vital signs on Morin's helmet that he saw the man was alive... for now. There were no green lights, just amber ones, and more than a few were red.
"We'll attach our clips to him - with two of us, neither of us will be too overbalanced," Revan said as she tied a tourniquet around Morin's damaged arm with a few wires scavenged from the debris to stop the rest of his air from escaping. "Nasi, where to now? Back the way we came?"
Dustil could tell from Father's voice that he was much relieved that they hadn't been hurt getting to Morin, and at the discovery that they hadn't gone to all that trouble just to retrieve a corpse, although he never said that in so many words. At least Father sounded much happier giving them new directions.
His eye was caught by a glint of brightness in the far back of the docking bay; it looked like a helmet light. Dustil toggled his comm. "Hey, Nasi, is there someone else in here?"
"Huh?" Father was interrupted in his litany of instructions. "Stand by." There was the faint sound of keys and whispered commands. "There isn't supposed to be, but it looks like one of the workers was attempting to re-route power from the docked ships to the shields." There was a mutter of, "Huh, pretty clever, actually, illegal as all get out. Wish I'd thought of it myself..."
"Who is it?" Revan said.
"Dunno... whoever it is, he's such a new hire his name isn't listed on his tracker," Father said. His voice was full of chagrin. "I was too busy to notice he was in trouble..."
"It's not your fault, you had a thousand fires to put out." Revan's helmet turned towards Dustil. "Think we can handle both Morin and that worker?"
"As long as we're in free fall, I guess we could." Weight was not a consideration without gravity, even if they'd be pretty clumsy maneuvering two unconscious masses back down.
After detaching her strap from Morin, Revan bounced along the floor towards the light. Dustil tried not to think about the emptiness of the docking bay after she left, alone with a man who just might turn out to be a corpse after all their troubles. The vast space reminded him of the stark, barren valleys on Korriban, and the ghostly voices full of ancient malice that whispered among the tombs. He shivered, and turned the suit's temperature regulator to the maximum setting.
Dustil took a deep breath of the metallic recycled air in his helmet to clear his head of the memories, and thought he saw a gleam of light in the direction Revan had gone. The distant stars and nearer explosions shone on her pressure suit as she bounced back, slower this time because she was dragging - towing - another burden along.
The light on the worker's helmet did little to illuminate the dark space, but it was enough for Dustil to see that the worker was short and stocky.
"Hey... isn't that..." Dustil pointed a gloved finger at the Sullustan's face, visible behind the faceplate. His eyes fell on the name tag on the worker's suit.
"Silam, I think was his name. Yes, I recognize him, too." Revan looked down, a speculative gleam in her eye as she contemplated the unconscious Sullustan's face. "He must've been knocked out by the same explosion that nearly killed Morin."
The comm at Dustil's ear crackled. "Did you just say you have Silam?" Father demanded. There was a murmur of voices in the background, Father's deeper one mixed with Versenne's. "Bring him with you, we've got a lotta questions we'd like answers to. Whatever he was doing, it didn't look like sabotage from this end here in Ops, but I'm not taking any chances."
"It didn't look like he was doing anything wrong, but I'm not exactly the best judge of that sort of thing," Revan said.
"All right... we'll just have to send someone else along to take a look, if I can scrounge anyone up. For now, get yourselves back here with all safe speed."
"Roger that." Revan nodded at Dustil, and they attached their clips to the Sullustan as well as to the captain.
It was a jarring shock to encounter gravity again after the slow ballet he had to perform in free fall. Dustil's feet clumped to the floor and he stumbled as gravity returned, weighing him down. Revan caught Morin's unconscious body before he got knocked into the wall. Another squad of medical droids awaited them at the next corridor; they could've been the same ones who'd escorted the chief to the sickbay earlier.
When he and Revan returned to Ops, Dustil could tell Father barely managed to restrain himself from embracing them both. He settled for clasping Dustil's shoulder and squeezing hard. "You did a good job. Both of you," Father said, clapping Revan on the back.
Dustil was pleased to hear his father's praise, but his eyes were caught by a pair of bright silver ones. He barely noticed his father smirking as he returned to his station, and was too distracted to growl at Revan's look of amusement. Dustil pulled the helmet off his head and yanked the pressure suit's gloves off as Versenne approached. He took a deep breath of the station's recycled air - there was really no difference between it and the canned stuff in his pressure suit's breather, but it still seemed fresher.
Versenne took Dustil's hands in hers, her bright smile dazzling him, obliterating the tight furrows of worry around her eyes and mouth. At times, the crises had aged her until she looked like a woman double or triple her true age, but now she looked like the radiant sixteen-year-old she was.
"Stiller," Versenne said; the way she said his name - well, half his name - made Dustil's heart beat faster. "There are not enough words in Basic for me to thank you, not only for risking your life to save my shipyard, but then also saving Captain Morin."
"Then don't," Dustil replied, his chest swelling with pride. "You don't have to."
"The medics tell me he will recover from his terrible injuries," Versenne said, smiling. "He will require a prosthesis to replace his arm, and he will need to spend a great deal of time in recovery and rehabilitation, but he is a strong man - he will endure. It's a chance he never would have had, without your help."
Dustil smiled, even as a part of him wondered why he felt so good about saving someone he hardly knew. He had done it to impress Versenne, true, and yet, somewhere in the doing of it and the success, he was, in the end, glad he had been part of the rescue. Such selflessness was supposed to be a weakness, one that others could exploit, and it went against all that he had been taught on Korriban. But maybe he hadn't learned as much as he thought he had, or maybe it was contagious - you couldn't hang around people like his father and Revan without having some of their morals rub off on you.
The silence between them grew awkward yet again, and even if he found something to say, Ops was nowhere near as quiet and cosy as he would have liked. Dammit, dammit, think of something to say!
"I, uh... I think you've been doing a great job of, of keeping things together here," Dustil finally said when she began to turn away, cursing his nervous stutter. But his words were all true, even though he wished she had more attention to spare for him.
"Thank you for your kind words, though I wish I could do more," Versenne said quietly as she looked at all the sentients busy at their computers in the huge room. "They pledged their loyalty to me, but in turn I also pledged them my loyalty - and my protection. I have lost too many today. And Bospho... Hersig. Da. I almost lost Captain Morin. I ordered the death of a man buried under a bulkhead." Her eyes were bright with unshed tears as her voice dropped to a whisper. "I think I have failed them all."
"You haven't yet," Dustil said, giving her hands an encouraging squeeze. "As long as you're still alive and fighting, you haven't." Even as he said the words he wondered if it was an empty platitude. Could they really stand against the whole of the Sith fleet if they defeated the SVN?
Despite everything he could do, Father couldn't save Telos.
No! Not again! Never again! Dustil closed his eyes, trying to push away images of the ruins of his home, his mother...
Dustil opened his eyes and saw the concern in Versenne's silver ones. "I swear that as long as I breathe, I will do everything I can." What the hell? Where'd that come from? Some dopey romance novel? He felt his cheeks redden.
"Thank you. That means much to me." Versenne turned at an urgent beep sounding from her console. "Stiller, I am sorry, but..."
"It's all right." Dustil let go of her reluctantly and watched as her expression shifted from joyful to professional. He'd hoped for more... but then what more could she do in a crowded room with a battle raging over their heads? He sighed and sat down again, not looking at Revan, unable to bear either her sympathy or teasing.
Back to being a disregarded outsider, he thought as he stared down at his magnetized boots; neither he nor Revan had removed the rest of their suits beyond the gloves and helmet. Father paid no attention to them, all of his focus on the preparations. Like that's anything new. To Dustil it all looked... feeble. Desperate. They were like someone on the losing end of a fist fight throwing sand in his opponent's eyes. It might distract the enemy, but sooner or later the final blow would come.
Dustil's vision wavered as he watched his father work, and he tried to dispel it by rubbing his eyes. If anything, the blurriness grew worse. Before he could work himself into a panic, something strange happened.
Father had lost his disguise somehow, and he was back in his Republic officer's uniform. But that was wrong, too. Instead of captain's tabs, Father wore the rank of a commander; there was one less gold ring on his sleeve.
Dustil tried blinking. Was he so tired that he was hallucinating? Father was gesticulating urgently, and he looked... younger. Father's mouth was opening and closing; it looked like he was shouting at invisible people. Then his eyes widened and he threw his arms up in an instinctive block, but whatever he was afraid of was powerful and destructive.
Am I looking at the past? Dustil wondered, his arms reaching out to his father, who was wounded and bleeding, blindly trying to comfort him. Wait, what am I doing?
And then the bloody image of his father was gone before Dustil could make up his mind whether or not to help. I remember now. Father had returned unexpectedly from the wars, the first time Dustil had ever seen him wounded. It had been frightening to know that his strong father could be hurt. Always before he had been tall and confident, if more somber and quiet. The world had never looked the same since...
Father reappeared before Dustil could speculate any further. This time he was no longer injured, but standing like Dustil remembered, in a commanding and calm stance. The uniform was different, too; now Father's tabs were those of an admiral - and he looked older... more worn. Am I seeing the future now? Behind the ghostly figure, Dustil could see a planet, a planet in a... cage? That made no sense at all.
And as abruptly as it came, it was gone. A Force vision. I just saw a Force vision! So that's what it's like!
"Are you all right, Dustil?" he heard Revan whisper.
"Uh... yeah. I'm fine." Should he tell her about it? It didn't make any sense to him, but maybe she would know, she was the more experienced Jedi, after all... No! It was... there had been a very personal feeling to it. And... he wanted something of his father that she didn't have. Petty, his conscience whispered. You didn't even want to have anything to do with your father. Why are you so protective now?
For what possible purpose could he have received this vision? To tell him that Father would survive this battle? Dustil tried his best to puzzle out the enigma, but he was not having much luck. Why now? Why did the Force send him this now? The Force never said anything that made sense. Kind of like Jolee. For a second he wished the grumpy old Jedi was there, or even the fierce Cathar.
Later, he might tell Revan. Father wouldn't understand if Dustil told him of his vision, he wasn't Force Sensitive, he just wouldn't get it - and he probably never would. And he sure as hell couldn't tell Versenne without her asking a lot of pressing questions. It narrowed down the pool of sympathetic listeners a lot.
Dammit, I don't want to ask Revan for anything! The old protest from his soul churned sullenly in his stomach. Dustil compromised; later, after all this was over, maybe he'd tell her. So why did he feel like a guilty little boy?
"I was afraid of this..." Dustil heard Father mutter. For one crazed second Dustil thought he meant the Force vision, but common sense told him that was ridiculous. Father's broad shoulders stiffened.
"They saw the explosions, Lady," Father was saying to Versenne. "The bad news is, there's a light cruiser on the way, escorting a troop carrier - but it looks like they didn't bring a fighter screen along with them. That's the good news." From the grim expression on his face, he didn't find the information to be all that optimistic.
"They mean to board us, then," Versenne said, relief warring with worry on her face. "At least they do not mean to destroy us outright." She looked at her readouts. "They have not been able to repair that deck fully yet... it is terribly vulnerable." The worry in her voice made Dustil tense.
"Don't you have enough guards to hold them off?" Father said.
Versenne shook her head as her fingers flew over her console, her face hidden behind shifting and changing holos. "No, I seconded them to the police, and most of them are trying to help re-establish order in the domes. I would suggest collapsing it, but the structural integrity is beginning to fail in that section."
"What about having one of the big cargo ships block it?" Father said. "We've gotta plug up that hole with something." Dustil had seen those ships; it would be like trying to dock a bantha to a toy palace.
"Could they not simply enter the freighter and go through her docking bays?" Versenne said, looking uncertain.
"Yeah, but they won't know the layout - depending on how much time we have, we could set up lots of booby traps, mine fields, traps, the works, not to mention that's a pretty damn big ship to get through," Father said. "It might give you enough time to complete the repairs. The only other alternative is to send inexperienced and untrained civilians and droids to fight off trained soldiers, when we could use them more profitably elsewhere."
Versenne winced at that, but then she gave Father a decisive nod. "Very well, Nasi, I will tell Captain Beshuguar to dock at the slip - but he will not relish the chaos this will cause to his pristine freighter."
"He's the Aqualish, right?" Father winced when she nodded. "I can imagine."
Dustil sighed, wishing he could do more than just observe. Now he didn't even have the opportunity to fight Sith boarders, which would surely have impressed Versenne. Assuming his father would let him, and assuming he could shake the inevitable Jedi chaperone.
In the holo, the massive bulk of the cargo freighter settled next to the damaged dock; it was so huge the bow blocked out that entire section. The sleek shape of a light cruiser darted like a supple fish, cannons blazing at the ungainly freighter. The freighter shook under the withering fire, the skin caving and melting under the impact points where the shields became overloaded, but there was just so much surface area, it looked like sand being thrown at a bantha. Beshuguar returned fire, but the agile cruiser dodged most of it and shook off the few hits with its much stronger shields.
"Striding Cloud is taking heavy damage," Father said, glancing at the red circles appearing like a rash all over the holo representation of the freighter. "Shields are down all along the starboard side - her engineers have been able to reroute power to the generators from all non-critical systems, but the ship is taking hits faster than they can repair them."
"Whispering Wind, fire at the troop carrier," Versenne commanded. "Tell the fighters in your sensor shadow to wait until the last possible moment before revealing themselves."
Dustil watched as the ponderous bulk of another freighter hove to behind the cruiser. The warship swung around in a lazy arc to deal with the more mobile threat, the confidence of its commander and pilot evident in the smooth maneuver. There was no way a merchant ship could handle a warship, even one as small as a light cruiser - if it weren't for the two squadrons of fighters hiding in the freighter's capacious sensor shadow.
Light gleamed on their wings as the fighters swarmed out and shot at the cruiser, strafing it all along its length. Now under fire, reeling from both the surprise and torpedoes, the cruiser couldn't protect the carrier, and the slow, bulky troop carrier began to sustain damage from the cannons on both freighters. Much less maneuverable than the cruiser, it couldn't escape quickly enough before it exploded. Dustil could hear the cheers on the comm and the echoes from the controllers in the vast room as they watched the cruiser turn tail now that its charge was destroyed, harried along by the fighters.
"They'll be back with reinforcements - and now they know about our fighters," Father said. Dustil rolled his eyes. That was Father, always ready to look on the bad side.
"But they will not be able to sneak too large of a force through the SVN," Versenne said with satisfaction. "Damage report?"
"The Striding Cloud's been hit on several decks. They were running with a skeleton crew, so there were no casualties. Captain Beshuguar says there's no need to divert workers to his ship, she probably needs a full month of retrofit in a repair slip," Father said. He pressed a hand to his ear. "What's that, Captain?" he said in a loud voice, pulling his earbud out; Dustil could hear someone yelling something that sounded like, rawr rawr rawr!
"Sorry, Captain, but the damage to your ship must be interfering with the comm - I'll let you get back to work," Father yelled somewhat desperately over the Wookiee-like growls. After cutting the signal, he breathed a sigh of relief and muttered, "He reminds me of Canderous."
"What was that, Nasi?" Versenne said.
"Uh, nothing, Lady. Nothing important." Father cleared his throat as he put the earbud back in. "The computer at the ore processing plant says it's ready to go. The mine laying's also finished."
"Very well," Versenne said, and turned to the holo. "Captain Ges, you may proceed."
It seemed to Dustil that Father paid particular attention to Ges and the trajectory of the Serendipity, more than it should have warranted. As if he expected something to go wrong. Father had been acting strange ever since they'd fought that dark Jedi, now that Dustil thought about it.
"It'll take some time for the enemy to realize what's going on," Father said. "We should start using our homemade mass driver, or the trash we've rounded up will arrive too late to do anything but mess us up."
"As you say, Nasi. You may begin the preparations." The look on Versenne's face said I hope this works.
While Father manipulated the ore processor computer, Dustil began to hear the chatter on the Serendipity's comm. Whoever was playing the outraged authorities was doing a brilliant job. The threats and wheedling grew more and more strident between the two 'sides'. To the Sith, it must've sounded like a golden opportunity to capture not only some prominent hostages, but also seize their fabulous wealth.
"I think they've taken the bait, Lady," Father said as he stared at the tactical display. "Look, there're some cruisers and fighters heading in straight for the Serendipity." He looked at a scrolling box of text. "The junk is on its way." He ran his fingers through his hair. "I just hope I've timed it right."
"It's of no matter if you did not," Versenne assured him. "It will prove to be another obstacle in their path, and the trajectory is such that it will not impact any habitats or stations. The lanes it will cross are currently empty." She paused. "Although it will become a problem eventually - I do not relish the thought of cleaning it up later." If there is a later, she did not say.
"Lady, the left wing of the enemy has breached the SVN's center!" a crewman said.
All eyes went to the wishing well. A tide of red icons poured through a gap in the line, despite the efforts of the SVN to block them. Many of those icons pulsed and grayed out; the Sith had sacrificed many of their ships and men to penetrate the SVN's defenses. But now it was more than just a light cruiser and some fighters coming their way - there were capital ships, heavy cruisers and frigates in that battle group, still intact even under the heavy cannon fire coming from the second line of forts.
And the Serendipity was heading straight for them.
"Captain Ges, abort! Turn around!" Versenne cried.
"They're going a lot faster than I am, Lady," Ges said, sounding very calm for a man whose freighter was about to collide with a group of warships. "I've already told the crew to evacuate - hopefully they won't destroy the escape pods."
"Dar, get the hell out of there! Why haven't you gotten into an escape pod yourself?" Father said.
Ges was interrupted by the cannon fire that ripped into his ship; the huge freighter lurched like a drunken bird. The holo briefly showed static before the signal stabilized.
Father stared at his instruments. In a hollow but even voice, he said, "The Serendipity's under very heavy fire - there are hull breaches on practically all decks, and in some areas, parts of the freighter's been sheared off completely."
"Captain Ges! Captain Ges, do you hear me?" Versenne said, her eyes riveted to the holo. "Captain Ges?"
The holo flickered, and even when it stabilized it was still full of static. Dustil could see Ges in the picture, but instead of sitting upright, the captain was slumped in his chair. The camera itself had been knocked off balance, so that they received a lopsided picture. Smoke filled the background, and fountains of sparks poured from destroyed consoles. Bodies - parts of bodies - were draped over chairs and scattered everywhere; apparently not everyone had been evacuated, or they had disobeyed to stay with their captain.
"Dar?" Father said, his expression full of dread. "Dar, are you all right?"
With an obvious effort, Ges raised his head. His face was bleeding from a dozen cuts. "I... I'm still here. I've... been better, though."
"Captain, your ship is heavily damaged," Versenne said, urgency in her voice, "you must use an escape pod or you may be caught in an explosion if - when - the freighter is destroyed."
Ges roused himself enough to sit upright, but he listed to the side despite his best efforts. "I'm afraid that won't be possible, Lady."
Versenne frowned. "What do you mean, Captain? Have all the available escape pods been destroyed? That should not be possible!"
"No, I mean I can't. Literally." Ges began to pant; underneath all the blood, his face was pale and covered with a sheen of sweat. "The attack... weakened the structural supports... you can't see it, but I'm -"
Another explosion wracked the Serendipity, interrupting the captain and knocking the camera down, and then they could all see it: Ges had been impaled through the stomach with a spar of some kind, perhaps a large splinter from a sheared-off bulkhead. A normal man would've died instantly, but thanks to his cybernetics, Ges was still alive. Barely. Dustil swallowed.
"Dar... Dar, no," Father breathed.
Why isn't he bleeding? Dustil wondered with a kind of morbid fascination. Oh, that's right, his prosthetics... maybe he'll live after all. If the captain could somehow detach himself from the spar, and if he could make it to the escape pods. A tall order for a very badly injured man.
"It's damaged my diaphragm along with the battery," Ges mumbled, becoming increasingly breathless. "My... lungs are gonna... stop working in a few... minutes."
"Dammit, Dar!" Father slammed his fist on the console, lines of tension and frustration etching the lines deeper into his face.
"Sorry... old friend," Ges gasped. "I'm sorry for... everything. I hope you... can forgive me one day." Ges's eyes swiveled to Versenne, lacking even the energy to move his head. "I'm sorry, Lady... I won't be able to bring... her back... this time."
"Captain," Versenne said, and stopped, unable to speak further words. There seemed to be nothing left to say.
Ges mumbled something that made Father jerk to attention; Dustil opened his mouth to ask why, when Ges spoke again, more clearly," Computer... load program: The Last Word. Execute."
"What is he talking about?" Versenne scanned her console with increasing bafflement. "There is no such program..."
What the program did became apparent in a few seconds. The wounded freighter in the holo, fires raging and pouring out through the holes in her hull as breathable air escaped, leapt forward like a firaxan shark, taking the lead capital ship by surprise.
Father gaped at the sight. "He... he must've removed a helluva lot of safeties to get the ship to do that..." he muttered. "I can't believe he was able to kill all of the inertia dampeners - there're tons of backups and redundancies -"
The massive freighter dwarfed the Interdictor ship like a moon, its shadow engulfing it entirely, before it collided with an almost majestic forward leap. It put Dustil in mind of two glaciers crashing into each other, in total silence. A huge explosion overwhelmed the sensors again; when the static cleared, Dustil saw that several other ships had been damaged by the destruction of the freighter, caught as they had been in the tight formation they'd held in order to punch through the SVN's lines.
Father was the first to get over the shock. "All fighters attack now, while they're confused! Go go go!" he yelled at the fighter captains in the holo, snapping them to attention. Several saluted in sheer reflex.
Squadrons of fighters flew out of their hiding places from the other freighters' sensor shadows, swarming towards the confused battle group. A couple of the cruisers turned around, only to face vengeful SVN ships moving in to intercept; the rest tried to continue their charge. Dustil would've given a lot to eavesdrop on the fleet commander's tactics room; they were probably going frantic over there, seeing their plans go so awry. Heads are gonna roll for this spectacular failure-a lot of them. If they live that long.
By now, momentum had more or less smeared the once-compact ball of waste across the area between the outlying SVN space stations and the first of the habitats, thin in places, lumpier in others, giving the impression that someone had spilled a giant bowl of Telosian soup in the vacuum. The cruisers that had elected to continue on began to encounter the matter gathered and launched by the refinery earlier; their shields were designed to protect against high-velocity projectiles, not things that were just sitting there, and their sensors would be confused by the radioactivity emitted from the trap. Fighters in all the colors of the Houses that could spare them shot out on intercept vectors.
Dustil clenched his fists, wishing on the one hand that he was doing something as constructive as fighting warships, and on the other that he could stay with Versenne. Neither of them were in control of anything anymore that could happen to the shipyard. But it seemed she was taking it more calmly than he was; she continued to deal with crises both minor and major with her usual professional aplomb. Then again, she was supposed to sit back and let her minions deal with the really dangerous stuff.
On a scale of one to ten, you're probably minus a few trillion in the impressive heroics department. Sitting here on his ass eating snacks wasn't going to get him any further. Unfortunately, he didn't have any fighter squadrons he could take out of his pocket to offer her. Sure, he had helped disarm a bomb and bring back her lost captain, but it seemed like such a tiny thing compared to the battle raging over their heads.
How long had they been here, anyway? Versenne's rescue from the Conclave seemed to have taken place a thousand years ago, and another thousand had passed since the invasion. Small wonder he felt tired; his father looked exhausted, and even the former Dark Lord looked liked she'd rather be chewing on her nails than on her mints. Something had to break soon, and it was either going to be his patience or the shipyard... whichever came first.
Dustil's wandering eyes were suddenly drawn back to his father, who had straightened to rigid attention, his big hands held still over the console for the first time since taking up station there; it was this lack of movement that Dustil had noticed. Father whispered something, too soft to be heard; it might have been a curse, or a prayer, but it was obvious some still-functioning spy satellite out near the front had just delivered extremely bad news. Beside him, Revan had sat bolt upright.
"What is it?" Versenne had noticed it, too, but activity in the wishing well drew her attention away from Father. Her face reflected the colors of the holograms hovering around her, but Dustil still saw her grow pale.
Dustil tried to decipher the telemetry in the projector, but all it showed was a chaotic jumble of red enemy icons and green friendly ones, all moving too quickly for him to grasp the new situation. Then he saw the new swirl of amber icons that had just blinked into existence. There were many of them.
"What's going on?" Dustil said.
Father's deep voice was devoid of all emotion as he stared at the shifting graphics. "We've lost a lot of satellites and sensors, but we have enough left to tell that more ships have just arrived. Another fleet."
A/N: I want to apologize to all my readers for the delay in updates after I promised I would finish this fic; I suffered severe burn-out after the two RPs, and I only really started writing again at the beginning of September 2010 (for the Dragon Age fandom, posted here, the first chapter of which is "Only Honor Gives Duty Meaning"). It's only now that I find myself willing to beginning working on "Coming to Terms" again, which I started so years ago. I still have all my notes, and I will have to reread my own work in order to continue. Updates will probably still be very sporadic and far apart, but I would like to at least finish this story arc. Bear with me, folks!