No World For Heroes
Bao-Dur ran down the hallway as best he could. The ship tilted to one side, metal groaning and creaking with protest. His hand reflexively held itself up against the wall of the ship, steadying the body it was attached to. The Zabrak glanced up to see a squad of Republic soldiers cross an intersecting hallway, boots clunking on metal, guns at the ready but with fear on their faces.
Guns'll do no good here, though Bao-Dur. What you need is a damned Star-Class fighter. He doubted that laser fire from a regular hand-held blaster would even graze the heavily armoured hull of a Mandalorian craft. A wave of dizziness swept him and he closed his eyes momentarily. Blasters at the ready? Oh lord, had he been blind. The squad wasn't going to shoot at fighters outside the ship. They had been boarded.
That's why the ship had angled itself – tractor beams. He broke out into a flat run to his cabin on the third deck.
On reaching it, he threw himself in and hit his hand on the door panel, slamming the door shut. Wouldn't keep him hidden from the enemy for long, but gave him just enough time to do what he needed to do.
He scrambled under his bunk, hands groping fervently for something. Pulling what he wanted out, he happened to catch a glimpse of himself in a mirror. Unrecognizable to himself, he had to pull his gaze away quickly to stop his thoughts from following yet another dark path. Blood that had poured from one of his ears and his nose had now caked and crusted onto his face. His left arm was almost mangled – he had been oblivious to the pain until now.
The sonic charges from the Mandalorian war-crafts had lived up to their nasty reputations, alright. Fortunately for the Republic ship, the charges had only managed to damage the anti-freezer compartment sector on the ship. A relatively minor assault considering. Unfortunately for Bao-Dur, he was the tech assigned to handle repairs in that area when the charges went off.
But there was no logic in admitting defeat just yet. Trying heroically to tune out the steady throb of pain in his arm, Bao-Dur turned on the vid-comm he had fished out from under his bunk and punched in some numbers.
The screen flashed to life with a sharp crackle of static, and a Republic commander, no, lieutenant, materialized.
"I have – who the hell are you?" ejaculated the lieutenant incredulously.
"I need to speak with the General." spoke Bao-Dur. He was surprised. His voice sounded more fearful than he had imagined he felt.
"This is a private emergency line, and we are waiting to hear back from – "
Bao-Dur cut him off. "No time. The Discovery is taking some heavy fire. We're near Dantooine, I can't give you my exact coordinates," he paused, out of breath, before continuing, "so you'd better trace 'em from this comm."
A beat. It looked as if the Republic Leiutenant was contemplating the possibility of a hoax versus the legitimacy of this message. He seemed to favor the latter after a careful study of Bao-Dur's blood-stained visage.
"I'm on the trace." He punched in something on his console and shook his head in protest at Bao-Dur. "Sector J-14, area 6538-82? We patrolled the region with a large radius! And the war is over! Mandalore himself has given us his word and has acknowledged defeat!"
Bao-Dur's face scrunched up, and he growled angrily at the screen. "All I know is that these are damned Mandalorian crafts. Either he's pulled a fast one over you and is stalling for time, or a lunatic group of his own have seceded and are now trying to single-handedly bring down Republic ships. Starting with this one."
"But it's just not possible..." insisted the lieutenant, now trying to convince himself more than the frustrated Bao-Dur.
"How's this for "possible", lieutenant? In less than an hour, the Mandalorians will have control of the Discovery, and with it, its weapons and thermo-bombs. Then I think it's possible that they can make short work of Coruscant, and quite easily, turn the tide of this war. So if it's possible for you, send for immediate reinforcements before we begin this futile debate on the limits of damned logic!"
The lieutenant's eyes contained comprehension of the situation and the barest flicker of guilt. "With control of the Discovery, they could easily slip through our security blockades...oh, heavens..." The implications hit him hard.
"I need to speak with General Mataki. I know you have the immediate means to contact her. Please. We're being boarded – I don't have much time."
"Right. I'm transferring you to her private comm." He looked hard into Bao-Dur's eyes, as if trying to take in as much information as he could in as short a time as possible. "Thank you, soldier. Take care." The screen flickered into a stream of static.
I'm no damned soldier, thought Bao-Dur. I'm just a tech. I should be in my work-shop at home right now, improving some of the new droid models. If I had a home, he thought bitterly. It's because of the Mandalorians that I'm here. It's because of them that I hate.
A voice emerged from the vid-comm. "Yes?"
Bao-Dur stared at the screen, momentarily mute. Here she was, Revan's own appointed General. It was her fleet that had defeated Mandalore's. Hers that had amassed the largest Mandalorian body count amongst Revan's army.
"General Mataki, you don't remember me...but we served on the Discovery together several months ago – near Onderon." You commanded, he thought. I just fixed things.
She remembered his name! He nodded. "We're being boarded, General. I...we may not last much longer. They take no prisoners in this game we play."
"Lieutenant Jemmel informed me. He assures me that he is sending a military fleet your way. However," she paused, avoiding eye contact. "I fear that they may not arrive in time."
Bao-Dur was puzzled. The Republic reinforcements would no doubt be able to overpower a small mass of Mandalorians. If worse came to the worst, they could blow up the Discovery before it had a chance to cause serious damage to any planetary systems. Realization soon dawned on him. She wasn't talking about the threat the Discovery posed under new leadership, she was addressing the almost certain fact that he – including many others – may not survive this surprise onslaught.
He may die. Here, now.
"Why did you contact me?" she asked, without any sign of authority in her voice. She sounded like a child who had just been picked for an important round of box-ball in a tournament event by far-superior peers.
He was slightly taken aback. This was not the General he knew. "I...I don't quite know," he admitted. "Maybe it's because you give credibility to this entire mess. You add humanity to it. It's not something that you enjoy doing General, I know that, despite all the tales to the contrary."
General Mataki smiled sadly. "You're getting philosophical on me, Bao-Dur."
"And why shouldn't I? This is likely the most sane conversation I have had in my entire life. And it's even more fitting that we converse in this way before I die."
She did not contradict him, but continued talking. "People die in war. The rules are that whoever has the lowest body count wins. So I have to be prepared to deal out death to my adversaries. There can be no allowances for weakness in this war we fight, because it is this same weakness that the Mandalorians have chosen to exploit. It's simple."
"Except it isn't!" Bao-Dur almost shouted. "I've seen other Jedi. They grow stronger, more powerful with each life they take. And they bask in this power. You feel this power, too. I know this. But instead of fueling you, it consumes you. And this is what gives you your humanity. Your weakness is your strength."
For a moment, it looked as if a wave of pain washed over General Mataki, and she rubbed her forehead with her hand. "Then you are the only one who believes this is so. Bao-Dur, I can only –"
She was abruptly cut off by a sharp fizz and loud bang coming from Bao-Dur's end of the vid comm. Smoke filled the room, and for a second Bao-Dur's outline looked ghostly – a mere silhouette of a conjured being.
"Bao-Dur!" she shouted into the comm. "Are you..." her words faltered, her diminished will failing along with her words.
Another life gone. Another weakness to her heart.
"Who was that?" said the man from the back of the ship.
General Elori Mataki turned around in the jump seat of the ship and looked at the man, her eyes somewhat glazed.
"General?" the pilot asked again.
"The Discovery's being boarded." Her voice sounded flat, dull.
"Disbanded Mandalorians. Mandalore himself informed Revan about this. That some of his clan did not believe in surrender. He said...he said he could not be held accountable for the acts of those outside his clan. Beyond his jurisdiction, he said." She still clasped the vid-comm tightly, unaware that she was doing so.
"Do you believe this is true? Do you sense it?" he asked, eyebrows raised.
"Believe, yes. Sense, no."
"What difference does that make?"
General Mataki remained silent. It made all the difference in the world, she thought to herself as she put down the vid-comm.
As she readied herself to step outside the small craft, Mataki could not help but ponder Bao-Dur's words. She understood them alright, but could not subscribe to them. What strength lies in being fallible? In being weak? Nothing. That's what the war had taught her. She sighed, frustrated at the fact that it was this war that she now customarily turned to for pontifications and guidance. Not her Jedi knowledge.
Trying to justify her reasoning, she theorized that the war had given her many experiences that the Jedi teachings could not. Like the experience of the dark side? said a small but nagging voice. Shoving the disturbing thought to one side, she tried to focus on other immediate feelings.
The war had undeniably given her a much more prominent opportunity to test out her command of the Force. In killing an increasing number of Mandalorian troops, in cutting her lightsaber through their armour and flesh, she honed her gift, sharpened it. Where once she could take on only five Mandalorians on her own, she could now bring down about fifteen.
And she had become quite the strategist. She now knew how to effectively manipulate a poor situation, reversing the tables in favor of her side. And such a reversal almost always meant more Mandalorian lives. More bodies, more faces that wore death masks...
No more fragility. No more shortcomings. But wasn't it weakness that stayed you on this path? Wasn't it frailty that influenced your decision to fight the Mandalorians? You couldn't stand by and serve those innocents who died with inaction. Their pain caused you pain. You felt it because of your vulnerabilities. You felt it because you were weak.
The killing – the needless slaughter of all these people! Who had done nothing to destroy the Mandalorian world! Why did they deserve such violence? Not just the men either. The women, and the children. Not only the fortunate, but the downtrodden as well. Their murderers had to be stopped. Then the death would stop too, followed by an end to this pain.
Only now that the war had come to a close, she still felt pain. And it stung a thousand-fold more than it had before.
Emerging from the exit of the craft, Mataki looked grimly at her surroundings.
Malachor V was a death world. Dark storms more attune to evil than to meteorological phenomena plastered the sky. Its jagged rocks lit up like sharp fangs every time lightning flashed across the sky. Phosphorescent fungi grew in moist niches of these rocks, casting an unnerving green glow in the limited light.
Mataki shook her head slowly in disbelief. I must be mad, coming back here, she thought. Completely insane.
Just over two months ago, she had fought the Mandalorians here on Malachor. The last battle – the decisive one that had ended the war. It was like no other war zone she had ever seen. The terrain had made it so easy for the Mandalorians to hide, ambush their enemies and set mines in.
She and her unit had spent many a sleepless night keeping watch for the slightest form, shadow, or even smell of the enemy. It stretched their nerves close to breaking point, when they could only be relieved and released by the death of their adversaries. Other units would occasionally call in, but more often for help than for regulation updates of the current situation. She had heard many soldiers scream for help with their voices – no words – their voices sometimes tinny and unreal on the comm-links.
One commander, she recalled his name only now, Commander Loe, had managed to reach her while in mid-battle. His unit had stepped into some godforsaken catacombs strewn with booby-traps. When six of his ten men had fallen, Mandalorians, wearing stealth units, had seized this opportunity to take three more of his men down, leaving him huddled tightly in a nook, hiding, praying for life.
She had repeatedly asked him for his position, but he couldn't respond. Mataki believed that the receiving end of his comm-link was malfunctioning. She couldn't, therefore, conduct a reliable trace and could only hear the man's heavy breathing and frightened whispers as she frantically search for his whereabouts. Wandering around with two other soldiers from her unit looking for this man was illogical; it could prove to be a huge waste of manpower if they all died for someone who had fewer odds of surviving regardless.
And die he did. While pleading for his life. She heard him beg over the comm-link, his emotion sounding surreal. And what made it worse is that there was no scream, no yell, from his mouth before he was killed. Just a muffled whump and then silence. She thought the last word he said was "don't".
She felt a hand on her shoulder suddenly, and was startled out of her reverie.
"We should get going. Get this over with."
Her mind unclouded. "Hix. No. Take the craft and leave the fighter." She turned to face the pilot, staring him fixedly in the eyes. "You're done here. Your service to the Republic is over – this is personal business."
Hix's brows furrowed and he shook his head determinedly. "In my profession, "business" doesn't take place on a death hole like this. Personal or professional. There's some other agenda here."
Mataki sighed but refused to relent. "If any Mandalorians were here, we would have seen some kind of electrical abnormality in orbit. They can't breathe without their damned stealth generators."
"I'm not talking about the cursed Mandalorians. I'm talking about Revan. Why not Coruscant? Why couldn't he meet you there?"
"He has rejected the Jedi Order. They will not have him back." she answered, matter-of-factly.
"That's my point, General." His eyes looked pained and tired. "All my life, I've wanted to be a Jedi. I've even willed my blood to have a higher midichlorian count when I was younger. Why? Because the Jedi way is that of fairness, honor, integrity. The light side of the Force binds all living things, connects them. But here," he frowned, "here is hardly the place a Jedi would choose for two friends to reunite after a glorious victory. And even if this were a rendezvous for classified information exchange...I could think of a million better places. You can taste the death here."
"I know," she replied softly. And then more darkly, "You think I can't feel it?"
"Then why do you go?" he asked, confused.
The darkness melted, gaving way to weariness. "To look for answers, Hix. To look for answers."
Two long hours later, the pair chugged their way down some steep terrain, trying to avoid slipping down a pseudo-demure looking rock. Mataki had fervently tried to convince Hix to return to home base on Alderaan, but he was adamant that he remain at her side.
She had known Hix for six months now; he served as one of the pilots on three missions with her. He was a simple-minded fellow, but with a good heart. His thoughts usually dwelled on the immediate future, and gave little time to contemplating consequences. He trusted instinct even more than she did, she thought rather sheepishly. And not being Force-sensitive, it proved to be a downfall for him on most occasions.
She hoped this wouldn't be one of those times.
"There it is...the Core." she muttered, as they came to a ledge. They stood on its edge, looking down into a well formed small valley, the floor of which contrasted strikingly from the texture of Malachor's terrain.
She pointed with her finger and a dark gaping hole at the foot of the valley, "And there's the front door."
Hix swallowed in nervousness. "There? We have to go in there?"
She turned to him and put her hand on his shoulder. "Go back. You have come with me this far, and I am grateful for it. I told you that you no longer serve the Republic. I have the authority to release you from my command. Go home, Xavier – to your family. Be a free man. Don't let nightmares like this tie you down."
His jaw tightened. "I have no family." And then, on Mataki's shocked face he admitted, "Yes, my wife and son succumbed to their injuries weeks before the Mandalorians were defeated. There's nothing for me now. I serve the Republic. And my loyalty lies with it, and withthose who enforce its laws."
Mataki's unrest grew. "But you should not be tied to this...to this," she mumbled, the rest of her words growing incoherent. "You're a free man. I don't understand why you deny yourself freedom when it's set on a platter before you!"
"Maybe serving you – serving the Republic – maybe that's my concept of freedom." He shrugged, not allowing her to discuss the matter further.
Before they climbed down, however, Mataki spoke. "I can't force you against your own will...but I will tell you. Whatever I do, or don't do in there...I will not be held responsible for. I...I don't think I will have the strength to save us both."
Hix looked at her briefly, and then smiled. "We'll see."
The walls inside the tomb-like hallway were smooth, and intricate designs carved into them. Almost beautiful, if you subscribed to morbidity, she thought. There were other smaller corridors, poorly lit, that branched out from the main one. She followed thebigger hallway and was lead into a huge circular room, lit by hidden lamps that cast a red glow on her surroundings.
She spoke to Hix, her back turned to him. "Wait outside."
"But – "
"Do it." Her voice was different now. More commanding than it had ever been.
She felt him walk away, almost dejectedly. No time to worry about his injured pride. She couldn't dwell on others' feelings any more. No good came of it during the war, and she was certain no good would come of it now.
"Precisely my sentiments." said another male voice from the end of the room.
She hadn't heard that voice in person since the beginning of the Mandalorian wars. And even now, hearing it, she was startled. There was such formidable conviction in it! Clarity. It made everything make sense.
"Revan." she whispered.
He emerged from the shadows, his face covered by a steel mask, his head hooded and a dark cape flowing from his neck. He seemed taller now than she had last remembered him. And definitely more powerful. But it didn't frighten her.
"Elori. I know you're not afraid...and you have absolutely no reason to be. I am the same friend you knew since our Padawan days. And I come to you now, in the same way I came to you then, to ask for your help."
"Not quite the same..." ventured Mataki.
Revan shrugged. A curiously normal gesture for one so impressive. That was what had drawn her to him and his beliefs before the war. He could wield the Force so skillfully, better than most – definitely better than herself – and yet be so humble. He carried more authority on his shoulders yet he could reduce himself with ease and grace to menial tasks if the need arose.
"You think so?" he responded.
Mataki was certain he was smiling behind that mask. But as to what the nature of the smile was, she could not tell. And the first feelings of uneasiness began to stir within her.
"Doesn't matter. What matters is that we have won this war. We seized the reigns of opportunity to do what was right, and we were rewarded. How do you feel?"
"Your question...it holds a multitude of answers." she replied.
"Ah yes, rather simple-minded. I agree." he looked past her when she said this. "Let me pose it to you a different way then. Do you feel like we did the right thing? Do you feel liberated?"
No. "Should I?"
"I can't tell you how to feel. But I can tell you how I do. I'm a new man, Elori. The Jedi teachings, the ancient lore...it was like a claustrophobic cave. This – letting my heart do the thinking – it's essential for us. As sentient beings, we need this to survive. We need to act on our feelings."
"Revan. Surely you're not as foolish as to think that I am not aware of where this is going...?"
"I've always enjoyed being in your presence. You're direct and to the point. Which is why I decided to take that tactic with you."
"You're asking me to join you. To turn." The steady sound of her voice did nothing to unmask the growing feelings of worry curling its way around her heart. So fast. This was happening so fast! She was a fool not to foresee this.
"No, I'm asking you to forsake the Jedi teachings. To embrace more knowledge – not one fragment of it. Why read one paragraph of a book when the entire volume is available to you? Right at your feet?"
"I am not Sith."
Revan cocked his head to one side. "Neither am I. Would the actions of the Sith have defended the people threatened by the Mandalorians?"
Her mind jogged around in circles. "Maybe the intent of your actions have changed direction,"
"I disagree. What I feel now is an exponential growth of exactly what I felt before we began this war. I am not bound to a decomposing belief. The Republic, however, is. Why? Because the Reublic is a static body, fueled by an even more static soul – the Jedi Order. Stagnant. Dormant. Immobile. You get the gist of what I'm saying. It's inevitable that some other faction should arise on seeing the Republic's weakened state, and take advantage of this situation. We cannot allow that to happen. We must restore order."
Mataki felt the tug of his words, but strangely enough, not as strongly as before. What bridged the gap between them, she wondered? "I have served, Revan. This war – I pray that it is the last I fight,"
"That's exactly my point!" he gestured emphatically with his finger. "If we take a hold of the Republic, this will be the last war you've fought."
"And how do you propose to take a hold of the Republic?" she was tired again. Weary. The will toargue againsthis logic was slackening. She should have anticipated this, she told herself once more. Revan was undeniably a brilliant strategist. In thought, actions, and words.
"We are heroes. The light shines on those who defied the stubbornness of the Council to end bloodshed. The Republic see us as their saviours, and in truth, we are. If we lead the Republic, we will keep our word that we shall maintain peace. And they will be grateful for it."
Mataki's head grew heavy. She clutched it suddenly. "But...Revan, there's so much death. We can't buy power with all this blood. Something will give."
"That's your weakness talking. Who are you? Where's the mighty General Mataki who helped lead us to victory?"
Her head began to throb ever so slightly. She looked at him through heavy-lidded eyes. "I have lost her."
"How?" he sounded surprised for the first time in their somewhat one-sided conversation.
"I think I know now." With that, Mataki's knees buckled and she sank to the ground. The pain was growing steadily higher. She sat, almost in a kneeling position, arms hanging listlessly by her sidelooking up at him. This dark thing that was once her friend. "All those people I've killed...all those people the Mandalorians killed. Vicious, uh…"The pain was almost blinding now. She shut her eyes tight, and vivid images of the dead, the dying, the mutilated, the tortured crashed like violent waves into her head. "...Cycle."
She opened her eyes and stared at her hands. She was crying now. Tears streaming down in a seemingly endless flow. She seemed unaware of it. She heldher hands up to her face. "There's so much blood on them...too much,"
Revan walked around her in a circle slowly, like a jungle cat prowling some invisible perimeter, letting nothing out alive. "Then you see that you have no choice..."
"No. More. Death." she pleaded. "No...lives. No more. I can take no more."
"Then I will. On your behalf, old friend." With that he stretched out his hand and drew something from the shadows and into the red light.
Out of the corner of her blurred vision, she saw Hix, suspended in mid-air. By his throat.
No! cried out a voice inside of her.
"Strike me, Elori. Hate me, and I will let him go. He's innocent. If you have a quarrel, it is with me. Not him. Spare him."
Not this way, said the voice. There are so many ways to exploit your weaknesses. And there are right times to give in, and wrong times.
"If you fight to save the innocent, then prove it! Do not let one more die on account of your failings! Grasp your true destiny and rise again!" spoke Revan. His words seem to come from inside her head.
She managed to look at Hix, in the eyes, and read the fear clearly. It strengthened her resolve to hate Revan. To hate the Republic. To hate the vulnerable for being just so. But there was also something else.
"Save...us, both," croaked Hix suddenly.
Elori Mataki blinked. How? She couldn't fight Revan in the true sense of the word. It was a stalemate. There was no choice. No other option.
"Save...possible...even in death," gasped Hix valiantly.
Revan tightened his grip considerably. "Choose quickly." he growled.
A million neurons fired off in Mataki's head at once. Strength varies. To Bao-Dur humanity and empathy was strength. To Revan, it meant just the opposite. But what did it mean to her? Bao-Dur meant something to her, just as Hix did at this very moment. Her heart was with them. Choose quickly, came an echo amidst the pain.
Staring at Hix's immobilized form, she saw his thumb flick across something egg-shaped. It took a moment for her to register. His eyes darted towards the exit and towards the plasma grenade. He was telling her to run. It was possible to be saved even through his death. If it came the right way, of course.
Hix slid his thumb under the pin, and pulled. Revan let his grip slack and Hix thudded to the floor.
My heart is with you, she thought as she darted out the exit.
Elori had just stepped into the hallway when the explosion went off. The impact threw her forward violently, face down- she had a vague mental image of a large hand shoving her to safety, and she skidded across the marble floor. Soon coming to a halt, she raised her head. Was it done? Was it over? She closed her eyes and attempted to stretch out with her feelings...and felt nothing. Dead, then. But not only could she not sense the life of Hix or Revan, but she could not feel stench of Malachor, as she had felt many times before.
Before she could contemplate anymore, Mataki felt a sharp blinding pain in her right arm. Grudgingly looking at it, she saw a solid-sized rock had fallen, followed by a series of smaller ones, falling down in cascades. Wha...? The roof was caving in.
She pushed herself to rise– feeling her weight strongly now – and ran out the entrance.
She half-limped and half-ran through Malachor V's jagged pathways. Her right arm was almost certain broken and she had several cuts on her head from falling debris from the explosion. Everything ached. It was so much more difficult to find her way back to the craft. She thought she had lost a large percentage of her sight, but that was not the case as she could see clearly around her.
It didn't matter now. Hix had died to give her this freedom. She'd be damned if she threw it away for something as ridiculous as a small worry.
She staggered to the cockpit, clutching her side. Strapping herself in, she exhaled slowly and set the craft to take off automatically. Leaning her head against the seat, she closed her eyes and slept.