Chapter 44

Vader slogged through the gray Jabiimi mud on autopilot. It was high noon, but with the thick, black rain clouds, it was as gray and hazy as dawn. And the endless drizzle of rain that kept the mud at perfect, liquid stickiness, didn't help anything either.

The weather was the problem on Jabiim. The constant rain and atmospheric storms cut off most of the support of the Republic fleet. It made the surface of the planet a sticky soup of mud that mired down all the heavy equipment. It even interrupted com-link communications at times, when the lightning was at its worst. And it was so hard to remember what it felt like to be dry.

Alto Stratus was still out there, having his sick fun. The Republican forces had smashed base after base of his, but he kept on moving so they couldn't catch him. Recently, he'd caught Master Norcuna and killed him. Reports from loyal Jabiimi claimed that he carried around the Twi'lek's blue head by one lekku as a trophy for days.

They were getting closer to taking him out. They had to be. With each new assault, Vader was certain that Stratus was closer and closer to being caught. He couldn't wait.

But Obi-Wan was worried. During the quiet times, Vader would catch him pouring over maps, studying reports, and thinking. His Master worried that their response to the guerilla strikes was spreading them too thin, weakening their defenses. Sometimes, if he let himself think enough about it, Vader worried about it too.

Now was not the time for worrying. Now he had to focus on the task at hand. Now he had to hunt down the Separatist-aligned Jabiimi and make sure that he didn't lose his boots in the process.

Stratus's forces had hover-boots. Nice things, hover-boots. The specialized Jabiimi footwear allowed the wearer to skate over the mires of mud as if they were made of ice. Vader wished that he had a pair. His Jedi boots, as nice as they were, tended to get stuck in the muck, and walking out of them was not fun.

With Master Norcuna dead, command for the campaign had devolved upon Master Obi-Wan. Now he stayed back near Shelter Base to manage the sprawling clumps of Republic units. Vader wished that his Master wasn't so far away, but there wasn't anything that either of them could do about it. Obi-Wan was probably safer back there than he would be if he were out here, in the wilds.

A snarl of thunder heralded the deluge of even more rain and Vader cursed. It was bad enough that he had to manage a slow-moving supply convoy to a distant Republican outpost. Now the stupid armored vehicles would get stuck even faster and more frequently.

Swearing, Vader attached himself to a passing wheeled transport and hopped from rain-slicked vehicle to rain-slicked vehicle until he reached the head of the column. If something was going to go wrong, it would go wrong about now. He had to be ready.

He hated being right.

There was a bloom of fire on the right flank of the line. He shouted orders to have it dealt with and the clones obeyed. The line shifted away from the attack and kept on clawing towards Cobalt Station, albeit on a slightly different path.

A few more strikes came, from varying directions. All were small, easily dealt with. But they shifted the line, every time. Vader caught on too late that it was like being herded.

The rain slackened a bit, but didn't dissipate. The damned rain never stopped here. And a wide field opened up from the bent and tilted trees. It was the only path left, and Vader knew it was a trap.

I hate this so much…

They proceeded out onto the flats, and at first everything went well. Too well. Then one of the transports lumbered over a patch of mud that exploded up and out, turning the vehicle on its back like a flipped beetle.

And it happened again. And again. And again.

Fire in the rain and the mud. Burning, torn metal and charred bodies—clone and Jabiimi and even a few Jedi. The very ground was their killer.

Blast it all to hell, mines!

Obi-Wan fought back yet another yawn as he slumped in his chair aboard the Republican AT-AT walker he was currently commanding. He was regretting his habit of taking time to think early in the day (or would that be late?). The night (or early morning?) hadn't lasted long enough.

I'm getting to old to run on three hours of sleep, he very reluctantly admitted to himself. Too old…at thirty-six… Obi-Wan sighed and then fought back another yawn. Blast…

"You look like you could use some caf General Kenobi." One of the clones, an ARC trooper commando, teased quietly.

"Yes, I think I do Alpha." Obi-Wan sighed ruefully.

It was interesting. In the beginning of the war, the clones went by their serial numbers. They had no individual names or nicknames. And they were incredibly disciplined, never expressing any individuality while on duty.

But over time, they began loosening up. Some soldiers began gossiping or cracking jokes while waiting in the trenches or out on patrol. A few even had the guts to try and chat with their Jedi superiors. And they began calling each other names instead of numbers. Like Alpha.

Alpha, however, was something of a special case. The ARC troopers were first unleashed in the Battle of Kamino and "Alpha" was one of the first. Alpha was technically "Alpha-17", but Vader had been annoyed with that and just dropped the number. And that "name" had spread, and the number was only used when another ARC trooper from the Alpha batch was around.

"Fifteen minutes and then we turn back," Alpha observed, intently studying some sensor display through the ridiculously restricting helmet that all clones had to wear.

Thank the Force for small favors. I think I can stay awake just long enough to make it back. Obi-Wan muffled yet another yawn and rubbed wearily at his eyes. Stars, how did I even manage to get up this morning?

How had he made it awake this particular morning? He hadn't, Vader had to intervene. When he failed to be roused by the blaring alarm that Vader had so kindly set for him before he'd passed out the night before, the young man dumped a glass of ice cold water over his head. That had done the trick.

At least it was just water this time, Obi-Wan reminded himself. The last time he'd had trouble getting up on time while they'd been on Cartao, Vader had thought it would be fun to sit on his back and slowly crush him to wake him up. Obi-Wan swore he'd been ten seconds away from needing to visit a chiropractor.

Sometimes I really worry about that boy. He—

A warning blared at him through the Force and he snapped up straight in an instant. Obi-Wan opened his mouth to order the walker to come to a full stop—

There was a deafening roar. A blinding flash of light. A searing rush of heat. The floor trembled and bucked beneath him. Some of the clones yelled or screamed. The walker lurched sideways, twisting, bucking.

Obi-Wan tumbled out of his seat, smacked the side of his head against a console—

Vader smiled grimly as Cobalt Station finally came into view. It was little more than a place to land some ships, a few small buildings, and a set of water-filled trenches, but after a march through hell, it looked very nice. Almost inviting. At the very least, it was a place to take a break.

The minefield had been a little slice of hell. The mud showed no signs of being disturbed, so it was impossible to tell where the explosives were just by sight. And with the pressure from behind, herding them into the teeth of the buried bombs, there wasn't any time to waste trying to probe the sludge for trouble before driving over it.

Fed up with the problem, Vader had marshaled the other Jedi with him – a pair of older Knights who had been initially annoyed that he, the Padawan, was in charge – and set them to detonating the mines with the Force. At first, they hadn't seemed to understand what he'd wanted them to do. But with a few demonstrations on a few mines, they got the idea.

So they'd blasted their way through the deadly field and moved on. The Jabiimi rebels' strikes had decreased after the minefield. Since their master plan for carnage had failed, there wasn't much point in keeping up with the attack. And now that they were back in friendly territory, things were looking up—

An icy chill of foreboding shot up his spine. He sat up very straight on the back bumper of the transport, now very alert. And then he'd felt inexplicably restless, like there was somewhere he really, really, really, needed to be right now!

And then there was silence. Not actual silence. The roaring growl of the transport he rode on – and the many transports around him – was still quite loud he supposed. He just ceased to hear it. All he was aware of was a perfect, profound silence.

Some Jedi – he didn't notice which of the two – grasped his shoulder and gave it a few good shakes. Vader almost didn't react. But eventually, he did turn to face the person touching him. And when that Jedi saw his face, that Jedi's expression shifted from confusion to horror…

When he looked back upon things later, he would probably describe what he was feeling as a mixture of deep shock and utter loss. It was similar to what he vaguely remembered feeling when Dooku had hacked his arm off. Some part of him was suddenly gone.

The only other thing he remembered about that day was standing outside in the pouring rain, staring into a crater in the muddy ground littered with melted shards of metal. He never was able to remember how he got out there. He was never able to remember how long he stayed there. And he was never able to remember how he left…