The Jedi Purge

Chapter Six

Keeping Your Back to the Sun

It surprised Mos when the ship went into free fall, even though he was the one who had shut down the engines. The artificial gravity should have kept them at one gee whether they were drifting aimlessly through deep space or in a full throttle crash dive towards a planet. Instead, Moss felt his feet leave the back of his droid and his heart rise into his mouth.

The coolant from the hyperdrive's heat exchanger was still screaming into the room. Moss spared the leak a glance and noticed that the actual conduit to the drive itself seemed to be intact- he could see the pipe quite clearly, even through a heat haze that made the straight lines of the ducting seem as twisted as a child's drawing.

About a metre from the pipe a plume of incandescent light blasted across the engineering bay. It was shaped like the flame of a welding torch up to the point where it hit the far wall with a banshee scream. Mos saw that the deck plates were bubbling under the intense heat and found time to be amazed that he had survived this long before looking away.

He had done all he could.

The floor was white hot and it was four metres to the door. Kicking his legs against the top of his droid, Mos aimed for the door hoping to clear it while the ship was still in zero gravity. In a heartbeat or two the back up system would cut in and plaster him to the floor as if he was a meat patty on a cooking griddle.

Mos had no gods to prey to. He remembered his home. The cool darkness of the underground cave systems. The burning heat of the rocky deserts. The council of his peers standing silently around him. The shame in his father's yellow eye lights.

The back up for the artificial gravity cut in. To Mos it was if nothing had happened for an instant. He was still weightless. The floor bucked towards him like a beast throwing a rider. The side of his right hand hit the floor first and Mos felt the crack of his wrist breaking under the impact before the searing pain of the floor branding the palm of his hand reached his mind.

The Jawa's scream was almost loud enough to be audible over the sound of the hyperdrive coolant destroying the engine room.

As he screamed, Mos put his head back as far as it would go and saw the blast shutter coming down from overhead. He was on the wrong side of it. He tried to scramble towards it and realised that his hands were stuck to the floor. He tore them free and, rather than put the bare skin to metal again, rolled head over heels under the lowering shutter.

Laying on the ice cold metal grating outside the engine room, Moss looked through the narrowing gap between floor and blast shutter. The last thing he saw before the shutter closed was his repulsor lift droid silhouetted in the light from the leaking plasma as it carried out it's final instructions. Then the room was sealed and Mos was left panting and shivering in what his battered senses told him was a pitch black, silent and ice-cold corridor.

*

Kelly felt like he had just woken up for the first time. If the ship died then he would die with it and the darkness that had threatened, momentarily, to overwhelm him would also be destroyed. It was a simple thought, yet it had a transforming quality. If the good was destroyed, the bad would be also. And the bad was selfish. It didn't want to be destroyed. So this time, at least, the bad would work with the good.

In his Jedi trance, Kelly saw the blue and white cloud of light he had used to represent the light side of the force ripple as it merged with the dark side. It was like watching oil burn on troubled waters. And as he had done once before, Kelly watched as images took shape in the turmoil of the light and darkness. Ghosts from the past and phantoms from the future stalked across his mind's eye, some shrieking, some calm, others seemingly aware of Kelly's unblinking, frozen mental gaze.

Amongst the many scenes that were being played out in front of Kelly was one he recognised. He watched like a spectator as his old mentor, now dead, guided the younger version of himself through a far-seeing exercise.

"The future is always moving, like some great rolling ocean stretching out in front of us. Which makes it difficult to see because one vision is constantly cutting off our view of the next, as though we were only kept afloat by a life jacket in a mighty storm and one wave were blocking our view of the next. To see any part of it clearly, we must move with it."

The memory, if that was what the vision was, sank back into the melee of past, future and present. From the crowd of figures in the middle distance, a face rose up from the past until it was so close that filled Kelly's vision. It was Dan Avilard, the friend and mentor Kelly had not yet even begun to mourn. His eyes were glassy, which they had never been in life, and he was wrapped in a misty halo formed from his dying breath. Gently his old master admonished him to look to what could be changed, not what was done and set forever.

Yes. That was good advice. He turned his mind's eye away from his old teacher looking for the future. Preferably a future in which he and the others played an active roll...

There was the present.

Captain Vath, lying on his back on the floor of the flight deck, blood running down his jaw from where his teeth had bitten and still were biting through his lower lip. Kelly thought it would be a good idea if Vath stopped doing that, but with both legs now sending screams of pain through the man's body, it seemed unlikely. Kelly mentally suggested that Vath let consciousness slip away and then, as an after thought, gave the muscles on one side of Vath's neck a nudge so that the injured man's head lolled to one side and he couldn't swallow his tongue.

There was Chainy, blood bubbling with adrenaline, heart pounding fit to seize up and kill him ahead of everyone else on board. Typical of the man; always trying to get somewhere ahead of schedule. His hands were locked around the controls in a death grip, his mind hypnotised by it's greatest fear: being at the helm of a dead ship.

 It's going to be all right, Kelly's thoughts whispered to the back of the pilot's mind before turning to the bounty hunter.

Still, resolute and unbreakable. Petri's silent, shape seemed to have a reassuring weight. It was like a great rock in a storm tossed ocean. He lay on his back in the main corridor, the soles of his boots charred from intense heat and the paint on his armour cracked and flaked.

Kelly remembered that the bounty hunter had been in the ventricle gunnery bay when the ship went through hyperspace, the most exposed place possible. True, his armour provided more protection than anyone else on board had, but Kelly realised with a sudden sadness that even if they survived this disaster the radiation they had already absorbed might still kill them weeks, months or years from now. Kelly felt cheated and, sensing tears run down Petri's face under the helmet, knew that the bounty hunter did too.

Kelly left Petri lying next to the gunnery bay hatch and moved on.

Moss was face down by the door to the engine room, thin curls of smoke rising from his robes. Kelly could feel the pain from vicious wounds to the Jawa's face, hands and feet. No wonder Mos had wrapped himself in a blanket of unconsciousness. Still, the Jedi had to know how bad things were and he didn't know enough about engines to find out for himself. Gently, he probed the Jawa's mind.

Mos had hidden himself in a dream of his past, a memory so painful that the distant agony of his real body could be mistaken for the shame and anger that belonged to this place and time. He stood before the glowing eyes of seven of his peers, who had been brought to this place by their elders without knowing why. Each Jawa stood at the edge of a small, perfectly circular pond formed by the dripping of water from a huge stalactite that hung above the dead centre of the pond.

Kelly found himself standing in the Jawa's place and, for a moment, almost forgot who he was. The sight of seven Jawas standing as tall as him shocked Kelly back into his own perspective and he was standing behind Mos, looking down into the still black waters just as the engineer was.

Uncertain how to tell the Jawa he was there, Kelly hesitated. Before he could make a decision the dreamer let out a long sigh.

"Have they brought you to judge me, too?"

The Jawa's voice was slow and slurred, but for once Kelly could understand it as though he were speaking himself. "No," Kelly told him and stopped, surprised by the silence of his own voice. Apparently the act of wanting to tell Mos something and the act of telling him was one and the same here, just as it was in a Jedi thought link. "No," Kelly repeated, choosing his signals more carefully. "I came here for other reasons."

"Yet you are here. You are here and my disgrace is complete." Mos's voice was sleepy and tired, not unlike someone in the real world might be if they were on the verge of falling asleep. As he spoke, the Jawa rocked his head back and forth and hugged himself, wrapping his arms around his chest.

"I will never speak of it." Kelly promised after a moment's thought. It wasn't much of a promise, he reflected bitterly. He had understood almost nothing he had seen here and cared about even less; had he wished to scream the Jawa's secrets at the top of his lungs the only people who could have heard him would likely be dead in a few moments.

"Why do you come here?" Mos asked.

"To save us all."

"To see and be seen. To judge and be just. To pass sentence."

Kelly found himself swaying to the sound of the ritual responses. As one Jawa began the second phrase of the ritual response, the second began the began the first phrase, until the whole chamber rang with voices that, in Moss's mind, did not sound in the least high or raspy. Kelly's head rang. He couldn't tell if the heat that was searing him was from Moss's memory of Tatooine or the sun that was burning him alive.

"Mos, I have to know what we're facing."

The vision of the dark cave and burning eyes was replaced by a bright but featureless desert that seemed to stretch out forever. Mos was standing beside him, shoulder to shoulder. "This is what I face. Alone. To be dried to dust and scattered on the desert winds."

"You are not alone."

"But that is what I am. My name was taken from me."

"Your name is Mos."

"No." The Jawa stretched out a wiry, coarse haired arm. "There is Mos."

Kelly saw the desert stretch like elastic. A small city with buildings that seemed to be made for giants wavered before him in the heat haze. "It's spaceport." Kelly said out loud.

"Names are for telling how someone fits with the people around them. When there is no where for you to fit, you have no need of a name."

"You mean you chose a name?"

"No. My choice was life or death. I chose life."

"You're choosing death for all of us, right now, if I don't know how bad the engines are!"

The Jawa turned and looked him straight in the face with eyes that looked unnaturally like the twin suns that were blazing relentlessly above. The desert grew dark around them. When Mos blinked the last trace of light was extinguished and Kelly fell to the ground as all the pain and terror from the engineer's ordeal flooded him, along with the Jawa's memories.

*

There was no time.

"We can't last any longer! The hull is cracking!"

The voice was harsh and faint as if someone a long way distant was shouting. Kelly saw the cockpit as another vision, dim and far away.

Chainy was shouting. His face was turned over his shoulder, towards Kelly or away from the hideous light of the sun.

There was a roaring outside the ship. The hiss and snap of burning electronics was all around.

There's no time.

Kelly knew they had a few breaths of life left. He tried to shake his head to throw off the sense of disorientation and seemed to watch from a distance as the vision of him on the flight deck lolled like a meat puppet.

Even if Kelly could speak, he wouldn't be heard. Frustration exploded from every pore of his body and suddenly the situation became very clear to him. The ship, the sun, the forces that compelled the two to meet were crystal images in his mind's eye. He didn't have to speak.

Kelly thought of Chainy, then pushed the knowledge into the pilot's mind.

There's no time...

The vision snapped into focus.

...like the present, Kelly thought.

*

The smell of burning, of grease, of hot metal and pure terror was so deep in Kelly's throat it was as if a living thing had forced it's way into his body and was trying to crawl deeper. Flashes of light too bright and quick to really exist were dancing across his vision. Kelly reeled with the knowledge that each firework was a cosmic ray tearing through his optic nerve.

The flight deck canopy was too bright to look at for more than a second at a time. Kelly blinked tears away and saw rivers of light run down the transparent alloy as the polarized silicon layer melted. Chainy's face was still turned away from the canopy, or towards Kelly. The hellish light cast shadows so dark, they left Chainy's expression as invisible as the dark side.

"The engines are coming back on line. About six seconds from now. They'll be good for three quarters throttle for about one hundred eighty seconds top. No more."

Kelly combined hiding his eyes from the glare with a nod and hoped that Chainy would understand. A moment later the ship seemed to accelerate faster than anything Kelly had ever felt before. His neck snapped back and the skin was drawn tight across his face.

The roaring outside the ship grew louder. Surely there was no way they could survive this.

Everything went black. It took Kelly a good five seconds to realise it was because their backs were to the sun. The next miracle would be keeping things that way.

*

The last crew member of the Orion stumbled through the airlock. As one of the Leopard's crewmen helped him away, Captain Bridewell surveyed the remains of his command bitterly. Alvere had destroyed him. There was no way out of this.

The Ordian Stella Guard was withering like fruit on a dying tree. No new ships had been commissioned for decade and there was open talk of imperial forces taking over the customs duties. At thirty-two he had too many ties to Ordia to transfer to any other service. He would never command another military ship.

There was nothing for him now that old fool had done this.

Bridewell slammed a fist against a wall. He wanted to grab a blaster and storm the bridge but something deep inside held him back. The knowledge that he would be shot down and that nothing would give Alvere greater pleasure. Still the fury burned him.

The Orion was a good ship. With a few hours it could be ready to move on it's own power.

Captain Bridewell was a man of action. He had to do something.

*

The gunmetal grey iris closed. There was a heavy mechanical sound of the Leopard releasing it's docking clamps and pushing away from the crippled ship.

Captain Alvere was going from one bridge station to another silently damning himself for replacing three bridge officers during a crisis. He had held them at their stations until the Orion was docked, then had their replacements relieve the injured, incompetent and hysterical officers Alvere couldn't use.

There were twenty three crew on the ship. Two shifts of six bridge officers, three engineering crew who's hours rotated so there were always two on duty, seven boarding crew who also manned the gunnery stations and kept everything well oiled and one captain. The three replacement officers would have been woken when the target ship dropped out of hyperspace and Bridewell had signalled to prepare to engage. Alvere glared into the faces of the replacement crew. When he saw no trace of sleep he turned away. Replacing officers during a crisis would get questions asked at the enquiry. And there would be an enquiry, Alvere knew.

The bridge veiwports were pitch black. An armoured screen had covered them from the outside.

"Captain, the Orion is loose within our deflector shields."

"On the word, engines to five percent, course zero mark zero. Shields down for point three seconds. No longer. Full power to the aft deflectors when they come back on."

Alvere took position, over-looking the rest of the bridge crew. He wondered how long he would shake and sweat after this was over. If it didn't work his career would be over, perhaps his life. If it did work, he would have a fighting chance to keep both intact. He set his jaw.

"Now."

*

The first thing Petri became aware of was the smell of burning. That brought back the memory of the gunnery bay. He remembered the insulation on the ladder bars melting and coming away on his hands as he scrambled for safety. Pain was the second thing Petri became aware of.

It wasn't fair, he thought to himself. He waited for the blaze of anger that usually followed the thought, ready to welcome the strength it would bring. Nothing happened. It wasn't fair and he was too far gone to care. That meant he was probably going to die. There had been other times in his life when he had felt this way and pulled through anyway but never during a job. This was where someone put a blaster to his head and turned him into a stain on the pavement.

There was a brief moment of darkness, no more than a blink of the mind's eye. When it ended, Petri was still lying on the corridor floor, which was no more stained than it had been before. His mind was clear enough to know that there would be no vicious kick to the ribs or circle of cold metal pressed behind his ear. He knew where he was.

"Oh shit."

On the flight deck Chainy had began to babble hysterically. The air reeked of urine but Kelly wasn't going to say anything until he was sure it was someone else's fault. Captain Vath, laying on the floor, moaned slightly. He had missed the nearly the whole thing. Kelly envied him.

"Did you see that? We're alive. And the ship didn't come apart. I did it. Skill like you wouldn't believe. Let's see that pretty boy, Solo, beat that! He'll never wrestle a sun for his ship and come away to boast about it!"

Perhaps he's so good that he wouldn't get into a situation like that? Kelly thought the question but said nothing. The cockpit was full of words already, all of them Chainy's, and Kelly was fighting the urge to throw up.

"We've danced with solar flares and beaten flames hotter than hell itself! There's nothing in creation we can't beat now!"

How about cancer? Or the urge to throw up, Kelly noted as he emptied his stomach contents over the legs of the still unconscious Captain.

"They're going to make holovision shows about us!"

"Where are we going?" Kelly found the self-control to ask.

"Who cares? We made it!"

"I care, damnit!" Kelly shrieked.

A brief silence followed. Kelly ran a shaking hand through his hair and tried to remember what it normally felt like to be a Jedi. Every time he blinked he thought he saw a flash of light that signalled a cosmic ray crossing his retina. He drew a long breath.

"Sorry." Chainy told him. "I guess I was a little hyper for a moment there." The pilot looked over his shoulder and gave a nervous grin.

"Just tell me where we're headed."

"At the moment I'm just keeping our backs to the sun. That's going to last until the manoeuvring thrusters give out. We were moving pretty fast when that star got in the way, even without it's gravity pulling us in. I couldn't reverse course, not with what we had left. I had put it all in to moving us sideways so we could slide past it."

"Have we got escape velocity?" Kelly asked.

"For the system? No. We'll be an artificial comet with one hell of a long orbit. A couple of centuries, at least."

There was a long pause. Kelly found himself smiling. "We won't care by then."

Chainy managed a weak laugh but didn't say anything.

Some time went by before either of the men spoke again. The breathing of the men on the flight deck was the only sound Kelly could hear on the ship. When he looked at the wheezing injured man on the floor Kelly realised that his own hands were shaking uncontrollably. He tried to control the shaking and found that made it worse. The memory of his teacher telling him to begin, build on and finish with control surfaced briefly but Kelly could not hold onto even that thought for more than two seconds.

"I'm going to check on the others." Kelly said and then left before Chainy could turn round and see how frightened Kelly was.

Kelly found Petri sitting with his back propped up against a wall, unconscious and with a blaster pistol in his lap. There was no way to tell whether suicide or murder had been on his mind. After carefully removing pieces of armour that were still hot to the touch Kelly checked the bounty hunter's pulse and breathing. The man would live for now, at least.

Kelly left the weapon lying where it was. There was no point in removing it without confiscating all the bounty hunter's weapons and Kelly couldn't face that right now. Petri probably had some hidden weapons Kelly didn't even know about. Instead, Kelly stumbled deeper into the ship, trying to remember where he had seen the Jawa in the vision they had shared.

Closer to the engine room the corridor lights were dead. Kelly paused. It was dangerous to wander blindly around a crippled starship; even the things it was normally safe to walk into might be red hot, or electrified. If he entered a bad section he might not be able to find his way out again. There should have been a utility locker somewhere near by, marked with luminous paint. Kelly found it but he wasn't surprised when it turned out to be empty except for a bottle of Corellian rum.

Kelly walked into the darkness. He knew when he had found Mos Isley because Kelly had smelt seared flesh before.

*

Twenty hours later, they had the shields up and running. Chainy had insisted on shutting down the manoeuvring thrusters because they weren't meant for constant use. Without down time they might burn out and leave them with no way of controlling the ship. The reactor had survived the whole thing surprisingly well. They had power but the ducting to distribute it had failed in a dozen places. One shield generator was ruined but the dorsal generator had been saved when the ducting leading to it had failed. They replaced the ducting with some that had run to the ventricle gunnery bay, which would never be used again. The life support was shaky but serviceable. The sensors had melted and were probably now a cloud of ionised gas back in the sun's corona.

Everyone had taken twice the maximum recommended dose of post-irradiation drugs. Reactive drugs to bond with ions and isotopes. Anti-cancer vaccines. Drugs to stop them becoming delusional. Drugs to stop their organs swelling from internal radiation burns. Drugs to help their DNA repair itself. Everyone took the medication together, silently, each nursing their own doubts about whether it would be enough, about whether they would be able to get to a place that could and would treat them when it wasn't enough and about whether they would be able to stay alive long enough to find out which particular cancer was going to kill them.

"If we use the thrusters until they burn out and we give them regular rests, then we can build up enough speed to get out of this solar system." Chainy told them. The tone of his voice was more ironic than anything else.

"How long would that take?" Perti asked. He didn't ask how long it would take to get anywhere.

"About three years." Chainy took a mouth-full of tinned rouh from the rations. "I could put together a light-speed transmitter out of spare parts. Send an emergency signal."

"How long would that take to reach someone?" Kelly asked.

"Only two and half years. We aren't that far from the trade route we were on." Chainy spooned another helping of the round, white beans into his mouth. "Of course, it would probably be a trade ship that picked up the signal, so they would just relay it. Then an Imperial customs ship would come out, realise who we are and probably just kill us."

"How long would it take to build a subspace radio so we can talk to someone we do want to come and rescue us?" Kelly prompted.

"I don't know. I've never tried it. I know this, without the antenna on the outside of the ship we aren't going to get a signal very far. A light-year at most."

"We'll try that first then." Petri decided.

Chainy looked at Kelly but the Jedi was staring at the floor and said nothing. Neither did anyone else.

*

Mos Isley was naked. He lay on a repulsor bed in what passed for the ship's medical bay; a two bunk sleeping quarters that the others had stuffed everything medical they could find into. There was a hand held scanner pack monitoring his vital signs and a bacta gel-pack on his back where he had rolled across the red-hot floor. Both his hands were sealed in plastic globes in which nutrients bathed them and took away the pain. He was helpless, unable to touch even the bed beneath him with any part of his body. He could barely bring himself to think. Instead, he just lay there counting the inhalations and exhalations of the respirator that was doing the work of his scorched and now fluid filled lungs. He might breath again with his own pair, if they could find the money from somewhere and a place that knew one Jawa internal organ from another.

Chainy had come in asking questions about subspace radio. Mos couldn't answer them. He knew the answers; he just couldn't speak or use the data pad Chainy offered him. Even his toes were bandaged in field dressings. After a while the pilot had offered some vague reassurance that neither of them believed, then left to begin work on his transmitter. Mos hoped he would recover enough to help before the human made a mess of it.

The respirator kept wheezing to itself. Mos fought down the urge to overhaul it, knowing he was helpless.

*

To be continued…