Ship of Fools
The datapad obligingly whirred into audio-cue mode and waited for the dictation to begin, its bland display screen flickering gently as its tiny power cell thrummed away within, an invisible electric pulse which made the handheld device feel like some small bird or animal trembling in his palm, its life as fragile as an ice crystal or a dew-decked cobweb.
Life was so fragile.
The datapad bleeped an impatient query. Was there to be a transcription or not? The tiny computer brain nestled inside the compact object had more respect for the pressures of the immediate moment than did its owner, apparently. It was aware, perhaps, that the Council was waiting upon this report, that it would be easier to submit a full written version for the Archives records than to attempt a live transmission by holo, with all the awkward and potentially infuriating questions that might entail. Yes, the thing had a point there.
Jedi master Qui Gon Jinn cleared his throat and drew in a deep calming breath. "Addendum to mission report," he said.
The words appeared immediately on the text display. They looked small and inconsequential, the stiff figures of the standard aurebesh a dull black against the textureless backdrop. Perhaps the whole thing would fade to inconsequence, in type. He could hope. Writing was a form of detachment, a kind of meditation. To inscribe words into symbolic code like this was to distance meaning from reality. Fact could stand outside experience thus; deed could be divorced from thought and feeling.
The pad bleeped again, prompting him to further eloquence. He sighed. This must be done. And he had little else to do.
"During return transit, no more than one parsec outside Trandosha, my Padawan intercepted a broad band distress signal on an open emergency channel…"
"Master. There is a ship sending out a general distress signal – within sublight distance. I don't think it's a Republic vessel, though."
Qui Gon leaned over his apprentice's brown-robed shoulder, to have a look at the comm. display. There was indeed an emergency pulse beacon, but no known transponder code to correspond. The point of origin was in the next star system, a short run from their present position, though certainly not a planned detour.
"Have you responded?' he inquired.
"They aren't acknowledging the return signal," Obi Wan frowned.
The Jedi master straightened, sought for guidance in the Force. Without a response, their only way of investigating was in person. He sensed nothing at such a vast distance. The call for assistance was simply that – a tiny blip of energy echoing in the void. It was a mere serendipity that he and his Padawan were here to intercept it. But then, he did not believe in chance.
"What is their trajectory?"
Obi Wan carefully made the calculations, more slowly than Qui Gon might have, but quite accurately. There were so many, many things to learn in the course of a Jedi's education, and Padawans with very active masters – like Qui Gon – might be on assignment more than half the months in a standard year. It made academic studies a double challenge: the content was extensive, and the time to master it all limited. Obi Wan somehow kept abreast of both demands. Qui Gon was willing to be patient with the small delay.
The fifteen year old Padawan tilted his head to one side. "I've checked – twice – but they appear to be headed straight into the star, master."
It was tempting to check the boy's calculations, prompt the nav computer himself just to be sure – but that would be a vote of no confidence. Qui Gon suppressed the urge. "Then they have good cause to send a distress signal," he said.
Obi Wan seemed disturbed by the discovery of the distant ship's fatal trajectory. "There's something not right about this," he muttered, his back and shoulders tensing.
Qui Gon noticed, but did not respond. His apprentice's sensitivity to the Force was powerful, and promised even greater depth in the future, but his understanding and control of it were still nascent. He was plagued by what the tall master privately nicknamed vague certainties- an endearing but impractical gift.
"I should think not," he said lightly. "We shall investigate. Alter our course."
Oh, how he later regretted that choice.
Qui Gon flicked the datapad into standby.
"Excuse me, Master Jedi." The Polis-Massan med droid was a genteel thing. It hovered before him, spindly arm folded before its gleaming white body. Huge optic plates regarded him with an artificially soft expression, calculated to soothe frayed organic nerves.
He regarded it wearily. Blank in the Force, it had no aura to alert him whether its news was good or ill; it simply…hovered. "Yes?"
"Please make use of our visitor's lounge on the next level," it said. "My sensors indicate that your energy supplies are depleted. There is no function for you to fulfill at present. The patient is stable and there have been no indications of change in his condition."
The tall Jedi nodded his thanks. "I prefer to remain here," he explained. The droid whirred away, accepting his statement without objection. It was provided with highly agreeable programming, he would have admitted – on any other occasion. He might even have made a humorous comparison with the various obstreperous and imperious Temple service droids, particularly the ones employed by the healers….but there was no room in his heart for even this small jest.
The droid was right. He needed rest. Scrubbing a hand over his blurring eyes, he stared once again at the datapad's blank screen and stuffed the device back in its pouch. Meditation first; then onerous duty. He closed his eyes, breathed out anxiety, breathed in the Force.
Some anxiety remained, clouding his vision. He shooed it away, but it clung still, crowding the edges of awareness, clotting his mind, veiling the Living Force. Not just anxiety, but guilt.
He should have listened.
They reverted just outside the orbit of the nearest satellite – not too near the star, not near enough their goal. Qui Gon studied the nav readout. It would be tricky, but their engines could handle it. They had enough power to serve as a tug should it be required. It would make a good learning experience for Obi Wan –
"Obi Wan." The boy was white as a sheet, one hand clutching at his chest. A non-Jedi would think he was in cardiac arrest.
The Padawan managed to exhale. "I have a bad feeling," he choked out.
Qui Gon felt it too. Long years had taught him to minimize the initial impact. He braced the younger Jedi with one hand. "You must shield yourself better."
A nod. His apprentice turned his focus inward, shying away from the miasma of death in the Force. That wasn't what Qui Gon had meant, but it would suffice. There were undoubtedly many dead on the listing ship ahead. Else why a non-responsive distress signal? Their duty was to the survivors – if any. There was no room for hesitation, or fear.
He reverted the helm to his sole control and eased them further in, keeping the reverse thrusters engaged. They would have to establish a sufficient inertial pull to escape once they had investigated. He sidled up to the drunken, crippled freighter, found the starboard docking hatch, clamped on.
"Quickly, Obi Wan. We haven't much time." They needed to be on and off the larger vessel in fifteen standard minutes. He didn't dare risk drifting further inward toward the star's gravitational center.
He had never seen his Padawan so affected. He looked like an asthmatic, gulping futilely for air. The boy shook his head, grabbed Qui Gon's arm. "Master. We can't go inside that ship. It's…wrong."
The Force was churning with death and desperation. Yes, he felt it. They were Jedi. They had a duty to help. What was wrong with the boy?
"Compassion," he said. It sounded like a reprimand; he had not intended to be so sharp.
Obi Wan looked up at him, as though slapped. Color tinged his pale cheeks. Anger. "Why won't you listen to me? It's…wrong. I feel it in the Force!"
No fifteen year old should tell a Master that he has a superior connection to the Force. "I'll go alone," Qui Gon frowned. There was no time for delay. He would help if he was able. Then they would leave. Discipline would come later.
That had Obi Wan on his feet. "No."
For a moment he thought the young Jedi would try to stop him physically, but the Padawan merely trotted at his heels as he headed for the aft docking hatch and released the pressure seal. They slipped through the double layer of durasteel, from the warm interior of their own ship into the cold bowels of the dead one. Obi Wan hissed audibly as they entered.
Suppressing his annoyance, Qui Gon reached through the Force. It was turgid, full of rotting death. Horror oozed from the walls of the cramped corridors, suffused the too-stale air. The taste of blood tinged his mouth, though he knew this to be a mere psychic echo. The ship was huge – A Trandoshan cargo freigter.
"Check the holds," he ordered. "I'll go forward to the bridge."
"Yes, master." Obi Wan's expression was rigid, resentful but determined. It ill-befitted a Jedi, Qui Gon thought, to be so unwillingly helpful. The boy had much, much to learn.
There was no time to correct his attitude. Qui Gon turned his back and raced for the forward decks.
He was roused from unpleasant memory by a vibrant flash of distress, a sickening lurch of panic not his own. He was down the short passageway and through the sliding doors to the sterile room ahead of the urgent medical droid.
"Padawan." It was he, not the efficient and bloodless droid, who prevented the young Jedi from thrashing his way off the padded medical couch as he gasped for breath, sucking in rasping lungfuls that did not seem to satisfy.
The droid burbled some meaningless string of low-pitched sounds, a cooing like Nubian mourning doves, its four arms elegantly disentangling the IV line, resetting the biomonitor, vainly trying to extricate the Jedi master from its patient. It attempted to place an oxygen mask over the younger Jedi's face, only to have its thin arm viciously batted away as Obi Wan reacted instinctively, breath rattling hollow in his heaving chest.
"Please restrain him," the droid requested, its pale optic plates frozen wide open, as though in perpetual shock and affront.
"Obi Wan, you must cooperate." Another stern command, not words of comfort. His apprentice tensed combatively beneath his hands as he pushed the boy down, held him against his will. Qui Gon looked ruefully at the ashen skin, the ribs protruding a little in the aftermath of a recent growth spurt.
Fragile. Life was fragile.
The busy droid had the crisis well in hand. It was confident, the marshal of ingenious technology and pharmaceutical miracles. It did not and could not feel the Living Force, the upswell of fragile existence warring against impossible odds, beset from within. It merely performed its function. It did not care that the rhythm of the forced breathing, the artifical rasp and wheeze of the respirator, was a harsh mockery to Jedi ears. How far, how very far from the serene ebb and flow of meditative breath that sound was.
Obi Wan was limp, unconscious again, no doubt due to a new infusion of drugs. Qui Gon stood, let the droid shepherd him out again.
Force, he needed rest.
But did he really deserve any?
Seven minutes to the bridge. Another to carve through the malfunctioning doors with his saber. The decks within – strewn with bodies. Trandoshan crewmen, in the sturdy unisuits of their people – but not many. A skeleton crew, just a pilot and two navigators or petty officers. Not nearly enough to man a vessel this size on any lengthy journey. The distress beacon still blipped away on the comm. console. Death hung heavy in the air, laced with despair.
He crouched over the nearest, extended a hand to nudge at the stiffening, scaled hide. The Trandoshan's reptilian jaws were pulled back in a grimace of pain, perhaps of suffocation. Its purple tongues lolled over sharp teeth. The glassy eyes stared back at him, uncommunicative.
It took another two minutes to assess the ship's controls. Most the major systems were down; the air he now breathed was only the stale remnants of the last life support cycle. The computer readout was unfamiliar, the characters of the Trandoshan writing system not easily deciphered. He had no time to wonder why the ship had failed, why it seemed doomed to this fatal course toward the star, why its crew had perished.
Another minute. He was back in the main corridor now, hurrying toward the docking hatch. The lights failed and plunged him in to blackness. He jogged along the passage. Another minute.
In the dark, he reached for Obi Wan's shoulder. The Padawan was stiff with tension beneath the soft drape of his robe. "Did you find any survivors?"
"No, master. They're all dead. All of them."
There was a story behind those words, ground out in a hoarse whisper. The Force ached with it, and with death. Another minute. "We must go. There is nothing more we can do."
And they were away, escaping gratefully back into the lovely warmth of their own ship, into rich, sweet air and the busy thrum of its mechanical vitals. Qui Gon dropped into the pilot's chair, released the docking clamps, swiveled and powered away, The drives groaned as they fought the star's pull. They clawed their way free, accelerated, sped into clear space and away from the floating graveyard and its horrible cargo.
Or so he thought.
His comlink chimed.
Propping elbows on knees, his back stiff from sitting too long in the hard plastoid chairs provided by the medcenter, Qui Gon thumbed it to life. To his surprise, it was Tahl whose voice spoke to him across the countless lightyears.
"How is he?" she asked, without preamble.
He hesitated. "I don't know."
He could not see her, and she could not see him. Not now, not ever again. Blindness had sharpened her other senses, some of which had needed no further honing. "You're worried.," she observed, cutting through his pretense at calm.
"Anti-virals have done nothing," he sighed. "I'm too exhausted to be much help. Even Force healing techniques only seemed to stave off the inevitable. It does not seem…hopeful."
"And they still haven't settled on a diagnosis?" He could hear the contemptuous disbelief in her tones. Tahl was devoted to knowledge, to clear answers. She despised uncertainty, mystery. They quarreled about it constantly.
He didn't feel like quarreling. "No. A synth-virus, that's all. Engineered."
Silence. Tahl was thinking. "I'll find your answer," she promised, suddenly. "You rest."
Her word was a command more weighty than any Council edict. His mouth twisted into a smile she could not see. "Yes, master."
But when they had cut the link, he was again alone. Pressing hands against the clear observation wall, he peered into the small room where his Padawan lay dying, the medical machines crouched about him like scavengers only waiting for the corpse to surrender the last flicker of life before they feasted. Some of them seemed to pry and suck at his flesh already, battening on here and there, too impatient to wait for death, eager to siphon off blood and vitality before they were yet spent.
Qui Gon turned away, breathed the Dark out. Fear was a weaver of illusion.
He needed rest.
In hyperspace, he noticed that the cockpit was unusually quiet.
He turned, waited for the apology. Obi Wan looked troubled. His eyes strayed over the console and out the viewport, anywhere but Qui Gon's face.
"I am sorry. My words to you were disrespectful. I thought…I felt terrible danger ahead, on that ship. It blinded me."
Qui Gon released a breath. That was all true. He would not diminish the apology by brushing it aside. He nodded. "Compassion and the Living Force must be our guide, Padawan. Premonition is a fickle and unreliable councilor. Though there were no survivors to aid, we did right in making the attempt."
"They were diseased," the Padawan said.
"Yes." Necessary haste had prevented them from finding out more, but that much was clear. "Speaking of which, we need to decontaminate. As a precaution, though I felt no peril in the air or in touching the bodies."
He led the way to the small rear compartment, sorted through the med supplies. They swallowed the standard detox pills, and used the scanner to check for radiation and microbes on hair or skin. The device registered clear.
"There were…young ones," Obi Wan said.
Qui Gon nodded. "I am sorry to hear it." He relented a little, sensing the boy's buried feelings. "Had there been time, I would have accompanied you."
The Padawan glanced up at him, offered a tiny smile. He needed rest.
"Go lie down. I'll take piloting duty."
He made sure his apprentice was settled on the one inset bunk before he returned to the cockpit. In his mind's eye he saw the doomed freighter expire in a fiery instant as it drew too close to the star. He had gone to the rescue too late; heard the pleas for help too late. The Force sighed and was still; Qui Gon released his sorrow into its boundless embrace.
Too late was better than never. He would discuss it more thoroughly with his Padawan, as soon as they had a chance. He had been right.
He had been a rash fool.
He woke, though he did not remember falling asleep.
It took a moment to reorient himself. The medcenter on Pollis Masa. Obi Wan. The Force shuddered, and he realized that he was awake because his Padawan was awake. He pushed past a vociferously objecting janitorial droid and back into the gleaming white treatment area.
He winced at the use of his proper name, the vulnerable undercurrent.
"You're breathing on your own again," he observed, cheerfully. "That's an improvement."
Obi Wan looked straight through his façade. "I'm returning to the Force, aren't I?" he asked.
Qui Gon opened his mouth, paused. Exhaled. He would not lie to this man, this child. He settled for a compromise. "The future is not clear."
Obi Wan frowned at him philosophically. "Why don't you like the future?" he asked. "It becomes the present, you know."
The young Jedi gazed round at the equipment in the room, the flat, dull lighting panels overhead, the bland whiteness of the walls. His fingers clenched weakly in the thin sheet covering him. His lip curled in what might have been an expression of wry disgust.
Qui Gon touched his cheek, noting the chill beneath his fingers. "You're disappointed…?" he murmured, sensing the boy's mood in the Force. There was no fear there, no dread of personal extinction – but there was a certain wistfulness, or shame. It took him a moment to understand. "Ah. You would prefer a warrior's death." His heart melted.
Obi Wan's answering smile was brief, rueful. He swallowed. "Can't you take me back home? To the Temple?" A plaintive note crept into his voice. "I hate it here."
"Then you must recover," Qui Gon told him, spreading his hand along the side of the boy's face. "I see no other alternative."
But his brave, stubborn Padawan just looked at him quizzically. "….Tired," he said, pressing into the touch and closing his eyes.
Qui Gon lingered for a few more minutes.
This was his punishment for neglecting the future. He bowed his head and bled inwardly, where only the Force could see.
They stopped to refuel outside Dressel. The spaceport was a nowhere layover between minor hyperlanes, a place where beings were stranded by the currents of life and left to drift aimlessly. The locals were uninterested in the Jedi, or quite possibly didn't recognize them as they waited for the ship to be tended and the Council's next communication to be transmitted.
"Will we be on standby long?" Obi Wan complained, as they strolled along the spaceport's solitary concourse.
Qui Gon lifted an eyebrow. "Patience," he counseled, automatically. "You are a restless spirit, Padawan."
Though the boy's slightly dragging pace and slumped shoulders did not suggest any such thing.
"We haven't eaten in nearly a day," Qui Gon remembered. "Why don't we sample the local fare?" There were any number of murderously greasy food establishments inviting their custom. Surely his ever-ravenous apprentice would be pleased to have an excuse to try one of them.
"I'm not hungry, master."
They ate anyway. Qui Gon ordered for them both. As they waited for the food to be served, he studied Obi Wan carefully. "You are disturbed by that ship," he said.
The boy nodded. "Yes. In the cargo hold…." He trailed off as the thin Dresselian waitress slammed their order down on the table and poured sweet silpa tea into cups.
The food was passable. Obi Wan picked at his serving, but drank thirstily. His hand was bandaged. Qui Gon felt the first flutter of apprehension. "What happened?" he inquired, pointing one finger at the bit of bacta-infused gauze.
The Padawan shook his long sleeve back over his wrist. "A mishap. It's nothing."
"You must be more mindful," he admonished, out of habit. "Especially if we are sent on to oversee the negotiations on Praxus."
"Praxus?" the boy repeated blankly.
"Obi Wan." It was difficult to keep the irritation out of his voice. "Did you not pay attention to a single word of the Council's transmission?"
To his surprise, the Padawan blushed deeply. "I am truly sorry, master…my mind was wandering. It won't happen again."
He believed it. It had never happened before, either, which was worrisome. He had never seen his apprentice so distracted. They finished the meal in silence. When they returned to the ship, and had some privacy, it was going to be time for a long talk about keeping one's focus.
In retrospect, he realized, it had been he who had not paid sufficient attention.
Tahl called back, in the middle of the night- by the chronometer. A drifting parade of timeless asteroids, Polis Massa had no true circadian cycle. It was a limbo, a sanctuary between life and death, a pause between time and eternity.
"Qui, you're overwrought. That's a nice change."
His wit was slow-working, after such a prolonged vigil. "From?"
"From overbearing," Tahl quipped. He accepted the insult with equanimity. "I have your answer, I think."
"Yes?" Answers could be good or bad, depending on one's point of view. Focus determined reality.
"You may not like it. I'm uploading a text from the Archives. I think you should read it and get back to me."
He released a long breath. He sought answers in the living moment; she sought them in complied wisdom, the magnificent edifice of countless generations' research and records. It was a wonder they were friends. But he was grateful.
The text appeared shortly after Tahl signed off.
In the Trandoshan calendar year 4657 – about four centuries ago now – the tyrant Reshikk ascended to power. His regime lasted almost three standard decades, an impressive feat on such a ferocious and anarchic world, and under his iron rule most the warring kingdoms and tribes were united in a tenuous empire. Besides imposing harsh laws designed to perpetuate his power, Reshikk was also famous for his eugenicist ambitions. He desired to purge the Trandoshan race of inferior strains, and to this end he contracted with offworld scientists to create a synthvirus which targeted specific genetic weaknesses in his own species. Toward the end of his reign, this bioweapon was secretly unleashed upon the capitol city and several other locales. Unfortunately, the disease intended to promote the survival only of the fittest ended up resulting in the extinction of three fourths the affected populace, and ironically of Reshikk himself. The synth virus was never completely contained or destroyed, and remains latent in Trandoshan populations, occasionally manifesting as an epidemic. The popular name for the engineered virus and its symptomatic signature is "Trandoshan Plague."
Qui Gon closed his eyes. Force help them. But that was four centuries ago, he reasoned with himself. Why don't you like the future? It becomes the present, you know. And likewise, the past could sometimes become the present. Could it be? Could it possibly be? His mind wandered back to that listing ship, the bodies sprawled on its hard deck, their reptilian faces contorted with painful death, the omnipresent stink of fear in the Force…
"Obi Wan," he muttered. "What did you do?"
"I did what you said."
Qui Gon turned, taken aback by the sudden and vehement exclamation. They were halfway along the concourse, headed back to the hangar where their ship awaited. "What do you mean?"
Obi Wan kept his gaze forward. "You said compassion. I came with you. I went to help. As you wished."
The Jedi master frowned. Seldom was his student so oblique. "What are you saying, Padawan?"
They stopped. The Padawan's blue eyes were very bright – too bright, he almost thought. There was an unwonted anger humming in the Force between them. There was something more, unsaid and difficult. "I ignored my bad feeling, like you said," Obi Wan insisted. The words held a tinge of accusation.
Qui Gon's temper stirred. Did that mean I told you so? He shifted his weight. "And we rendered what aid we were able. The danger you sensed was real, but not pertaining to us." He hesitated, watching the boy glare up at him. "You must be guided by me, Obi Wan. This is the last time I wish to speak of this disagreement."
But he could sense that he had somehow missed the mark. Obi Wan looked down, chastised, but not satisfied. Stubborn child.
"Master…." He started again, but then fell silent, his face emptying of color.
Alarmed, Qui Gon steered him toward a nearby bench and lowered him down, gently pushed his head down between his knees. They waited.
The dizzy spell passed. "Im sorry," Obi Wan muttered.
"Let us get back to the ship. You need rest."
His own encouraging tone did nothing to quell his own rising anxiety.
The medical droid looked at him as though he were a madman when he suggested it.
"That implies a severe risk to the patient's life," it intoned. "My programming parameters do not admit of such actions. My primary function is to do no harm and to promote the healing and comfort of patients. I am sorry."
Qui Gon studied his Padawan. The boy looked half-dead. There was no kind way to say it. The hiss of the oxygen line was a thin rattle, a last expiration sighing into oblivion. Machines and monitors clustered round, mourners at a funeral. Odd, how life was given over to machines as it waned, as though circuits and electric impulses could be expected to ease the passage from gross matter into luminous spirit….it made no sense to Qui Gon. It never would.
He was, however, not done negotiating.
"I must request that you comply with my wishes. I am the legal guardian."
"Yes, sir, but that does not take precedence over my fundamental principles."
The Jedi sighed impatiently. "However, you are bound to respect the cultural and religious dictates of your patients, yes?"
The droid gave an affirmative burble.
"Very well. This is a Jedi spiritual principle. I am sorry, but there is no compromise."
The droid's optic plates were as round as ever, this time signifying shock and abhorrence. But it complied.
Qui Gon stood aside as the thing removed the tubes and the lines and the machines. The anti-virals would take time to flush from his Padawan's system, the pain killers less time. Soon enough the young Jedi lay shivering without the aid of any technological intervention.
He cracked open glazed eyes. "Master?"
Qui Gon perched on the edge of the medical couch and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Very well, young one. This is what you wished for; start fighting."
Obi Wan blinked several times, shuddered. Already his cool skin was warming again, fever crawling in to fill the void left by drugs and machines. Life itself would make the last stand, not the droid and its tools. "Warrior's…?" he asked.
Qui Gon nodded. His Padawan's groan might have also been a fierce smile. It was difficult to tell. The med droid hovered a short distance away, emanating cybernetic disapproval.
Please, please….by the Force. Let him be right about this.
They made it back to the ship. By the time they crawled up the boarding ramp, Obi Wan was leaning heavily on Qui Gon for support.
"Sit." Qui Gon held up a finger. "And stay." He checked on the comm. status. Still no word form the Council. There was no saying how long they would be here, whether or not they would indeed be sent on to Praxus. He returned to the passenger cabin, stripped off obi Wan's robe, brushed questing fingers over the boy's forehead.
"I think….I might be ill," Obi Wan supplied, detachedly. He was burning with fever.
Qui Gon pressed his lips together. Dread settled in his gut. But they had been cautious….and he seemed unaffected. It might be nothing. It should be nothing. He grasped the Padawan's wrist. "This injury," he said, gently prying off the bandage. "When and where did you obtain it?"
"On that ship," the boy said. He looked away. "In the cargo hold…."
"Yes?" He unwrapped the final layer. There, beneath the dried smear of red bacta, was a mangled arc of skin. A tiny curving bite mark, made by sharp teeth. "Obi Wan!"
The Padawan looked at him sharply, startled, possibly mistaking his alarm for anger.
Qui Gon breathed out slowly. "We need to get you to a med center. Just as a precaution. You might have been exposed to something serious." He tapped the young Jedi's wrist. "And it is your duty to tell me if you are injured."
Obi Wan's eyes hardened. "I did what you said," he insisted. "You didn't care about consequences. It doesn't matter."
Qui Gon rose from his crouch. Disobediently, his Padawan followed him onto his feet. They stood locked in mutual resentment for a long count of three breaths.
And then Obi Wan crumpled forward against his master, limp as a rag.
In the next minute, he had sent a curt transmission to the Temple, informing the Council that he had left his standby position due to an emergency, and was programming the navcomputer for the nearest medical facility in this far-flung corner of the galaxy – Pollis Masa.
He would never forgive himself if he was too late, again.
The synth-virus, and whatever abomination from which it had originally been wrought, was designed to attack Trandoshans. Reptilians, a herpetoid people. Their anatomy was different than a human's – their first immune response a hibernation-like metabolic slowing, almost a healing trance. Mammals were quite different. Life – the Force – was a wonderful thing. It was fragile. It could be destroyed so swiftly. But it was resilient. It could also defend itself.
Qui Gon gambled everything on this one contest of Life against death.
A fever was a good thing, from a certain point of view. Focus determined reality. Obi Wan was focused on fighting, regardless of the outcome. His body responded to the assault as it should have from the beginning, before the rational and kind interventions, before drugs and medicines interfered. He sank into a dangerous fever, burning like a summer bonfire.
Qui Gon stayed, shielded his nervous system from the worst damage, formed a thin barrier with the Force, a protective layer which kept the rising heat elsewhere. The droid hovered behind, outraged, concerned. Even with Qui Gon's cautious shielding, Obi Wan quickly succumbed to delirium.
"No, no, no," he muttered.
Qui Gon had to assure him many times over that this was not a pool of acid on Telos, nor a pit of firebeetles on Tanaab. Stars….if this was evidence of how well he was fulfilling his oath to protect his Padawan, then he stood starkly condemned. They shared too many horrific memories for so few years together.
The droid tried to intervene at some point, but Qui Gon waved it away, too deep in the Force, too entangled in the battle to spare it anything more. The fires burned higher and higher, and the synth-virus burned with them, shriveling and imploding in the millions and billions, destroyed by the cells it came to invade. Heat raged and triumphed, life wreaking swift death.
At some point, the battle won, he released his hold on the Force and allowed the poor medical droid to come close enough to resume its monitoring duties. Obi Wan slid into an exhausted sleep, and Qui Gon stumbled his way into the outside corridor and collapsed into one of its uncomfortable chairs, no longer able to fend off the seductive invitation of sleep himself.
He was too tired to savor the victory. Or to meditate on his mistakes.
Morning came, or what amounted to it. That is to say, time passed and when he awoke, there was sense of new beginnings. Qui Gon decided to call it morning. His comlink chimed.
Wearily, feeling the stiffness of an awkwardly spent night in his joints, he straightened in the obscenely hard chair, thumbed the switch.
"Qui." It was Tahl, blessed dear Tahl. He rose and entered the small room where they were keeping his Padawan. His eyes rested on Obi Wan, curled in a fetal ball beneath a heap of white blankets. He looked like nothing more than an oversized crecheling. "Qui, are you awake?"
"I'm here." He rubbed a hand over his beard, pinched his nose. He was here in body, at least. His mind needed time to catch up.
"I'm calling to check on your status. Unofficially, of course."
He smiled. Tahl. In another life he would have loved her. "We are unofficially much improved. Obi Wan ….should be fine."
He felt her warmth across the parsecs. "I am pleased to hear it," she said, in accord with Jedi reserve and restraint. "The information I sent you was useful."
He nodded, though she could not see it. "Yes, and the fact that this synth virus was designed specifically for reptilians. What saved him, in the end, was not being cold-blooded."
"Unlike his master," Tahl snapped back. Qui Gon accepted this insult, too. He was full of joy; there was room for humility in his soul this morning.
"I don't understand what that ship was doing stranded in an uninhabited system, though," he admitted. It was the last piece of the puzzle. Or, almost the last.
"I can help with that, too," Tahl declared smugly. "The Trandoshans are a ruthless and superstitious lot, as you know. Their idea of epidemic management is to round up the victims, load them onto a booby-trapped vessel, and send them straight into the nearest star. You have to admit, it's an effective way to control contagion. Takes care of the corpses and so on."
"So it was a plague ship."
"Nice going, Qui. You hauled your Padawan on board a plague-ridden ship to rescue the dead crew. Someday, Force willing, you'll learn to look before you leap."
Those words stung. "The Force urged me to act."
"Hm." Tahl was unimpressed. "The Force is urging me to rake you over hot coals. But I suppose I can let the Council handle that. Have you composed your report yet?'
He stifled a groan. "I am needed here," he told her. "Jinn out."
Several hours later, Obi Wan finally woke and uncurled, sending blankets sliding to the polished floor as he twisted in a spine cracking stretch. "Uuungh."
Qui Gon chuckled. The med droid hurried forward, arms dancing in anticipation. It shied away again at the Jedi master's thunderous expression.
"Good morning," the tall man said lightly.
The Padawan sat up, a bit shakily, and glared at the medical droid as it hovered tentatively forward with a biomonitor. Shrugging, he let it take his vitals.
"I'm hungry," he declared.
"That is a positive indication," the droid burbled, and hovered away again.
The two Jedi looked at each other. Obi Wan spoke first. "Master…thank you. I thought…well, I –"
"I thought so too," Qui Gon admitted. "And I have never been happier to be wrong."
There was a slightly awkward silence.
"I'm sorry – about the ship, and not telling you – but –"
"What happened in that cargo hold?" he queried gently. "That is what you have not told me."
Obi Wan shook his head. "It doesn't matter."
"You need to show me." He cupped the boy's chin in his strong hand. "Because I need to learn this lesson, Padawan."
Their eyes closed at the same time. The Force flowed around them, through them, across the teaching bond.
For a moment, Qui Gon was no longer a serene and confident fifty, but an eager yet unsure fifteen. He was jogging down the cold corridor of the damaged Trandoshan freighter, headed to the aft cargo holds. He had a very, very bad feeling about this. The Force would not stop its keening wail of warning, of caution. But his master had told him this was wrong, that to center on his anxieties would be to deny compassion, that the Living Force demanded that they come to the rescue and set aside such premonitions of danger.
He reached the bay doors, found the controls malfunctioning. He cut through with his saber. It was hard work, the durasteel dragging even against the blade's searing touch. Master could do this faster, better….he would never be the Jedi that Qui Gon was. Even the Force spoke to him in the wrong way, warning him when it should be encouraging him, freezing the blood in his veins when it should quicken him to brighter life.
Inside the cargo bay it was dark. The Force still told him the wrong thing, the thing Qui Gon had told him to ignore. He felt sick, stepping into such awful and certain darkness. But he did it anyway. There were bodies all over the floor. In the dim glow of his saber's blade, he caught the glimmering of scales and stiff hides, of purple tongues lolling over bared teeth, of glassy eyes. Death rose like a tide.
A tiny voice growled or whimpered somewhere ahead, a last candle-flame of life in a sea of black death. Qui Gon said compassion. He let the voice call him. It was a baby. A little tiny baby Trandoshan, the blunt infantile features almost – well, not quite, but somewhat – cute. It was mewling piteously. He deactivated the saber and clipped it at his belt. He knelt, not thinking what grotesque thing his knee pressed against., and picked up the dying infant.
Qui Gon said compassion. He gathered the pathetic bundle against his chest, sending comforting waves to it as best he could. He wasn't a healer, and he wasn't very experienced. The infant's pain resounded in his own body, and he gasped. But he did not let go. When the tiny form spasmed in his arms, he tightened his grip, and then let out annother gasp as the thing's sharp teeth ripped into his hand, tearing through skin.
"Ow." It writhed again, and then gasped and shuddered, and nothing he could do helped. In a moment it was still and the last guttering flame of life in this cold chamber was extinguished. The Force was choked with death. He set the tiny Trandoshan down, shaking. Wrapping his bleeding hand in a fold of his sleeve, he stumbled backward, heart hammering against his ribs. Was he a failure? Or a bad Jedi? He didn't know.
He ran, to escape the clotting sensation of death and despair. He ran down the corridor, in the dim light of the flickering emergency illuminators, and saw himself, Qui Gon , approaching from the opposite direction. Relief and shame flooded him, and then –
-he was no longer looking at himself but at his apprentice, back in the Polis Massan medcenter.
"I …I tried, master. You said compassion, and I was…trying. I'm sorry."
"Oh, Padawan," he sighed.
The datapad whirred and clicked, obedient to his command. He cast his eye over the completed report, and then tagged it for transmission. Let the Archive record show his mistake in all its mortifying glory. He had a duty to the truth. In the moment, he had a duty to the living and to the future- the future which he was not supposed to like.
But I do care about the future, he objected.
The Council had relieved him of the Praxus assignement; another team was already en route. He and Obi Wan would return to the Temple for a brief period of recovery. They would make good use of the time, he was determined. Starting with better communication.
The medical droid thrummed its way up to him, presented the various release forms and discharge instructions. He signed the documents with a thumbprint. He thought of thanking the droid for its care, but there was no real point in such a gesture. It only obeyed its programming. The diminutive and discreet Polis Massans were too intimidated by him to risk a direct encounter; he had barely spoken with any of them since their arrival. He would allow the Temple to send an official expression of gratitude to them.
And he would allow the Temple likewise to deal with the public health outrage that a Trandoshan plague ship might engender. If the reptilian people were intent upon concealing their current epidemic, it was not his role to interfere. Leave that to the beaurocrats and the space traffic regulations panel and the Republic health inspection committees, and whomever else was interested in such complex affairs. He had other business to attend to.
He tucked the datapad away and rose. It was time to depart.
It was good to see Obi Wan back in proper Jedi tunics, not the thin shapeless coverings provided by the medcenter. It was good to see his hair dry and neatly – brushed?- into a stiff bristle atop his head, not tousled and damp with sweat. It was good to see that indecipherable twinkle in his eye again, the one that fluctuated between mischief and insight.
Life was fragile. But also resilient.
They exited the main doors together and started down the hangar bay's decks toward their ship. "Are we heading on to Praxus?" the Padawan inquired.
"No. We are headed home for a week. You've managed to earn us some leave- for which I must express my gratitude. Although your method was a bit extreme."
"I overdid it?"
"As always, Padawan."
It was good to jest again, to enjoy the push and pull of banter, of familiar humor. How long since they had laughed? Obi Wan stepped ahead of him up the ramp and inserted himself into the pilot's seat before Qui Gon could object. He lifted them off the asteroid and into clear space, programmed Coruscant's coordinates into the nav computer, smoothly eased them into hyperspace.
Only when they had left the stars behind did Qui Gon break the easy silence. "You will in future, of course, tell me should you have another bad feeling about our destination."
Obi Wan looked at him, cautiously. "I –"
Qui Gon held up a warning finger. "I neglected your warning about that ship, and it proved disastrous. I have accepted the implied lesson: the Force speaks to us in different ways, but that does not make any part of its guidance less important than another. I have been self-centered."
"But what about…compassion?" Obi Wan asked, tentatively. It was even good to see the tell-tale line appear between his brows, the one that might mean deep concentration or budding displeasure.
The Jedi master held his student's gaze. "You do not lack for it," he assured the boy softly. "Follow your instincts. And next time, do not hesitate to put up more of a fight against your old, foolish master."
Now the Padawan grimaced. "I have a very bad feeling about that," he said.
"Sadly, I am ordering you to ignore it."
The Force warmed a little. They had the beginning of a fragile understanding. Fragile, but resilient. Obi Wan offered him a rare, full smile. That was good to see too. Inwardly, Qui Gon thanked the Living Force for teaching him this lesson so gently. For teaching him this lesson at all. He felt humbled, and was content.
They both still had much to learn.