Author's note: This one inspired by a tantalizing mention of firebeetles in Karen Miller's novel Wild Space. In her highly entertaining story, Obi Wan refused flat out to share any details about the experience. So I decided to do it for him. -r.b.
The Field Trip
They landed on the Ba-Tanaab peninsula, a barren wilderness stretching into the lonely planet's dark salt seas from the rocky main continent like some misshapen limb. They watched the landscape grow closer from behind the viewport, huddled together in excitement..and perhaps a little trepidation. Closer, and closer it came, until finally their mysterious destination swept up to meet them in a flashing parade of grasses, and monstrous boulders, and barren plains cut by sharp jagged hills thrusting knife-like from the dry earth. The Force tautened with their combined expectation.
"You Padawans will stay aboard the ship until we send you the signal," Master Pertha said. "You all understand the objective and the rules of this exercise?"
A chorus of "Yes, master" and "I understand, master" followed this solemn inquiry. Obi Wan Kenobi merely nodded, his gaze trained on Qui Gon, standing a pace or two behind the speaker, with the other masters. He understood the rules and the object very well, but he had no idea what lay ahead in the famous wild lands of Tanaab 4. He had never seen the world before; nor would he have much of a chance to do so now. The exercise was to be conducted blindfolded.
The young Padawan glanced left and right, at the group of other Jedi students flanking him. They were all older than he was, more experienced. Their thin braids hung low, weighted with beads and colored bindings. Every one of them was considered highly skilled by his or her respective master. Otherwise, they would not be here on this field trip. This exercise was intended to be challenging. They had been warned of obstacles. He knew that he must find one of seven small training probes released into the environment fifteen minutes ahead of the seekers. He was aware that it would require great Force mastery to locate such a small and non-living quarry in the unfamiliar and wide open terrain. But he was also aware that Qui Gon Jinn had requested that he be included, had recommended him to Master Pertha as one worthy and capable of the task. Whether or not Obi Wan believed this himself, Qui Gon's confidence made it true.
"Keep your focus in the present moment, young one," Qui Gon told him as he fastened the blindfold in place.
Qui Gon tugged gently on his short braid. "Do not underestimate the difficulty of this task, Obi Wan."
But this would be easy. He might be the youngest of the group, but he and Qui Gon had already seen more wonders and escaped more perils than he could easily count. In their single year together, he had already made grievous mistakes and regretted them; confronted more than one traitor and lived to tell the tale; been captured and then escaped; flown into battles and away from catastrophe; racked his wits, honed his swordsmanship, and discovered more about the Living Force than he could ever have imagined. Life as Qui Gon's apprentice far outdid any field trip for sheer intensity and challenge, and scarcely left any room to breathe. So what could this expedition possibly contain that would even come close to measuring up? He was fearless and confident.
The masters departed, fanning out over the designated area, some to establish a camp at the appointed place some ten or fifteen klicks distant; some to take up posts as referees and observers, others to release the hovering droids. Inside the ship, eight young bodies tensed and shifted, tension ratcheting up steadily as the long minutes dragged by. Blindfolded already, they could see nothing but what the Force showed them. A few murmured a greeting or encouragement to a comrade.
"May the Force be with you."
"And you. I only hope I won't be the last one back to camp tonight."
"Do you remember Dragoon two years ago? "
"Shh. You'll scare…others."
ObiWan scowled. He knew to whom they referred. He didn't require coddling, especially from other Padawans. For that matter, he could probably relate a few tales to make certain individuals' lekku stick out straight from their heads….But that was an unbecoming thought. Focus.
At last they received the pre-arranged signal. Down the boarding ramp they leapt, blindfolded and eager, onto the hard gritty surface of Tanaab 4 and into the unknown. Each of them hesitated only a moment before streaking off on eight different vectors in pursuit of their various targets.
Obi Wan ran easily across the dry plain - the wind in his face, the pale sun warm on his skin, dry grasses and crumbling dirt crunching solidly beneath his boots. He was connected to everything on the plain through the Force; though the distant probe droid had no life energy of its own, it left a ripple of disturbance as it passed flora and fauna, even here in the sparse wilderness. Life stirred and eddied in its wake, and he followed without hesitation. In some ways, he realized, this hunt was made easier by the empty, abandoned environs. There was nothing here to interfere with his concentration, nothing to disrupt that delicate trail in the Force. He grinned. Qui Gon would not be disappointed today. The rumors that he had saved his new apprentice from the Agricultural Corps out of misplaced pity would come to an abrupt and resounding halt.
He reached out toward the probe across the wide expanse. There was no distance; distance was an illusion. He found the tiny fleeing object, wrapped the Force about it, pulled it backward toward himself, slowing its flight, reeling it in gently, gently, inexorably into his grasp as he ran full tilt to catch it. He could feel its flight path waver, slow, begin to curve round back in his direction, making an enormous arc as its programming conflicted with his Force command. He altered course slightly to intercept it at the zenith of this curve. Perhaps a quarter klick ahead, and he would have it. He jumped over a fallen log which loomed up beneath him, dodged a boulder or two jutting suddenly out of the ground, his concentration unwavering. Why chase after something when you could make it come to you? He felt as though the droid were in his grasp already; after capturing it, he would return to the rendezvous point, the location of their first night's camp here on the peninsula. He would present the probe to the referee, well ahead of the expected time allotment. He could imagine Qui Gon's praise and admiration. The tall Jedi master would be proud of his apprentice, whom he had been at first so reluctant to accept.
Without warning, the ground gave way beneath hsi feet.
He fell headfirst and heavily into a natural pit, soft dust and rocks cascading down on him as he somersaulted gracelessly to the bottom. Blindfold askew, knocked flat on his back, he lay stunned for a moment. A hot flash of embarrassment, at not having used the Force to save himself or at least to break the precipitous fall.
Then the beetles attacked. It was a firebeetle pit, of course, and its denizens rushed to the feast with a ready appetite. Each one almost ten centimeters long with a ridged armor-like carapace, a deep velvety black with fiery sparks inlaid in its grooves, armed with a pair of razor sharp mandibles and six gripping legs, they vied to be the first to rip into whatever fleshed thing had plummeted into their trap.
He could feel their mindless, gnawing frenzy in the Force- a single hive mind, multiplied into the thousands as through a lens, surging toward him from every direction, onto him, over him, devouring and annihilating, thirsty for his blood, a black army of boundless hunger. They scuttled and bit into his legs, arms, back, neck, chest, face, heedless of the layers of cloth which provided little protection. He screamed in horror and clawed them off, writhing backward into yet more of them issuing in a gush from their hidden underground tunnels. They poured over his body without mercy, every one that could reach his flesh leaving a kiss of pure fire as they ate. Pure, undiluted fear washed over him in a poisonous wave, at once crippling and frenzying. The Force began to slip from his grasp, elusive, as panic flayed at his mind.. He fought, but despair claimed him, tearing at his heart as the beetles tore at his flesh, seeking to consume him alive.
"Help! Qui Gon! Help me!" He never knew whether he uttered the words aloud or not. There was a sudden wave of power; the beetles abated for a moment in confusion and made a momentary retreat back toward the tunnels, answering some mysterious primal command issued into their dim collective mind. A voice overhead was shouting at him.
"Jump, you young fool! Now!"
…and he leapt clear, propelled by adrenaline and the Force, and landed on the edge of the pit. Qui Gon grabbed an arm to steady him, but his knees gave way nonetheless. He was trembling uncontrollably and sobbing for breath. Qui Gon crouched and waited, holding onto his arm firmly but saying nothing. It took a long few minutes for Obi Wan to regain mastery of himself.
"I'm sorry, master," he gasped out when he was able. "That was stupid."
"Yes, it was," Qui Gon agreed soberly.
"I am glad you were nearby," he offered, by way of gratitude.
"I had a feeling something like this might happen," Qui Gon explained.
If possible, that stung worse than the innumerable burning, painful places where the beetles had torn into him. He felt warm blood trickle and ooze from a hundred tiny wounds all over his body. He gritted his teeth against the pain, and against the disappointment and shame. His master had expected him to fail all along; probably the whole point of this exercise was to show him his own weakness and folly. Well, it had certainly worked.
"The exercise isn't over yet," Qui Gon said, answering his thoughts, and refastening the blindfold securely, perhaps even a bit roughly. "Now get going."
What? He stood and turned his back on the tall Jedi. Defeat and humiliation crashed down on him with blunt force. He ran, without a word of parting, far and fast, to escape Qui Gon's disappointment, the firebeetles, his own stupidity. He drove himself harder and harder, until his pulse drummed wildly in his own ears and the rough ground rolled away beneath his feet, a continuous blur of speed. Of course there was no escape. He carried his own mistakes within, and the firebeetles he now carried without, in every burning, stabbing point of fire on his body. He ran , a long long time, until he was out of breath and exhausted, cursing the training which gave him such stamina. Finally he dragged to a halt. It seemed he could hear the beetles' screeching voices, laughing at him in their hungry assault. He saw himself fall endlessly, repeatedly, into a pit that now had no bottom- a pit of pride and arrogance and stupidity. He collapsed wearily onto the ground, immobilized by an emotion he did not really have a name for. He should not even be a Padawan at all.
Silence. The Force surrounded him, pervaded him. It flowed through even the lowliest of its servants, the simplest of its manifestations.
It was quiet out here on the barren plain, in the desolation of nature and his heart.
The Force whispered to him. Duty, without thought of success or failure. Duty, without thought of past or future. Duty, without thought of self. He had learned the words to the mantra as a small child. Never before had they conveyed such stark, cruel meaning, such command.
On a long breath he heaved his protesting body upward, drank deeply from the water canteen he carried, and began to search for the blasted, star-forsaken, son-of-a-Sith probe droid. The sun was well past meridian.
The ensuing search took all afternoon; it was a long time before he was even certain where the droid might be. It had wandered away far into the uneven hills while he had wasted precious time running aimlessly. Now his task became grueling, demanding prolonged concentration and a great deal of climbing and clambering over rocks trees and cliffs in the uneven foothills. The pain from the firebeetle bites spread like a slow underground lava flow until the separate points melted into one throbbing miasma. He sought refuge in action.
At last he managed to locate the droid, high in the stone-scattered contours of the hills. He ran it to ground, cornered it, captured and deactivated it, and heaved a sigh of relief. Clipping the lightweight object to his belt, and pulling the sweat-soaked blindfold off his face, he began the long, slow descent toward the rendezvous point. The setting sun cast weird shadows among the shards and walls of rock. A cold wind picked up, but its icy caress did not cool him. Dully he wondered whether the firebeetles were still eating at his flesh….Pain, poisonous fire, had moved deeper, into his blood, bringing fever and delirium.
He plodded on and on, until the sun set. Until night blanketed the land and the stars came out in the sky above. Until he was aware only of his shaking limbs, and the waves of heat washing over his skin, and the need to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
He arrived at the campsite well after nightfall, half-stumbling his way to the place where the appointed referee, Master Pertha, sat cross-legged outside the circle of firelight. The other –successful – Padawans were gathered there already, speaking in low voices and causing the flames to playfully leap or spin or gutter. They tried not to stare, out of politeness, but he could feel their curiosity, pity, censure, through the Force. The scent of food was in the air, but he had no appetite as he wordlessly handed in the droid.
"Good. We are all present and accounted for, then. I am glad to see that you made it back," Master Pertha said as Obi Wan dropped the deactivated droid into his outstretched hand.
The words seemed empty, mocking, but he was too tired to care.
"Thank you, master," he said in a flat voice, and turned, dizzily, to find the shelter which he and Qui Gon would share. Mercifully, it was removed from the main circle a short distance. Qui Gon was standing outside the small thermal tent.
"Master," Obi Wan muttered, shuffling forward and presenting himself for inspection.
Qui Gon tilted his chin up with one hand and studied him with searching grey eyes. "Here," he said at last, proferring a container of bacta and a small dark bottle of liquid. "The local remedy, for the fever and blood poisoning. Bacta to heal the cuts."
Obi Wan nodded once, accepting the medical supplies, and entered the shelter.
Inside, it was warm. The fabric of the collapsible walls fluttered gently in the cold night breeze. The light of the fire flickered dully beyond, creating shifting and diaphanous veils of light. He was so tired he merely sat and gazed at the soft spectacle for a long minute, his mind uncoiling in the aftermath of the ordeal. After a while he roused himself far enough to remove his tunics and tend to his hurts. The "local remedy," choked down with a splutter and a gasp, only seemed to redouble the pain and set his head to spinning. Biting back a moan, he laid down and endured the unpleasant sensation, suppressing even the remotest hint of a whimper. After all, he did not deserve sympathy from anyone, including himself. At least I can fail like a Jedi, he thought.
The tent flap rustled. "That's taking it a bit far, don't you think?" Qui Gon commented wryly.
Obi Wan rolled over and frowned up at him miserably. "I'm sorry, master."
Qui Gon shook his head. He found the unopened container of bacta and punctured its seal. "Let me see the damage." He set to work on the hundred or so tiny wounds, silently rubbing the miraculous substance into each cut, sometimes pausing to check for dirt or signs of infection.
Qui Gon set the supplies aside. He laid a hand on his apprentice's forehead, making an assessment through the Force. "Your success today was astonishing."
"What?" Obi Wan scowled again, shivering. "But…I fell into that pit. I wasted time on the plains. I …I ran away. I was the last one back…"
Qui Gon's eyebrows rose slightly."Yes; overconfidence is a failing. Also, not remembering the present moment. That is what landed you in the beetle pit. However, there are much worse, invisible obstacles one might encounter. Shame. Or disappointment, or despair. These are a Jedi's true enemies. Did you meet any of these today?"
"Yes...I did. " he turned his face away and closed his eyes, hiding the inexplicable swell of moisture which collected on his lashes. Gradually, the fire in his limbs began to ebb away, to be replaced by a numb heaviness. The remedy pushed and tugged at his mind, clouding his thoughts. He had indeed met shame and despair, and very nearly drowned in them. How did that count as success?
"You met them, but you conquered them," Qui Gon said softly. "To complete the task given you, even in the face of defeat and shame and the weight of your own failures…to choose duty even when you are in despair: that is true self mastery. Do you understand?"
Obi Wan turned back to him, blearily, puzzling over it. Qui Gon was not disappointed. He was pleased. The failure was somehow a success. He didn't truly understand…he was too tired to think, to feel, even,…but Qui Gon seemed certain. That would have to suffice for now.
"Yes, master," he mumbled, drifting toward irresistible sleep.
There was a breath of laughter, and a small tug on his braid. "You did well, Padawan. I am proud."