Chapter 17

Obi Wan dashed through the upper access corridors, the remnants of the original bunker system that he and Anakin had traversed earlier, the mainly disused hive of old residence and storage areas lying between the deeper communal living chambers and the long-forgotten door to the outside world. He nearly skidded into the decontam-field, coming to an abrupt halt at its shimmering edge. To hurl oneself through a polarized ion extraction field would be… uncomfortable. He thrust one bare shoulder into the resistant energy barrier and slowly slid through, shuddering as it pulsed over skin, raked hair into wild upright spikes. On the far side, it was chill, and dark, as though he had crossed the ethereal barrier from life into death.

Danger lurked beyond the last hatch. He faced it squarely, saber thrumming to sudden blazing life. He looped the blade in a wide, sweeping flourish – the double arcs of warning carved through the air before him, Soresu's opening salvo: do not tread on me. Danger peaked, focused, roared behind the thin metal shell. His 'saber came up high, forward-facing, his left hand extended outward in the posture of deadly defense, the second warning issued to the foe. The Force stilled to a contracted center of power; his blade sang high and thirsty, weightless in his grip; danger exploded into rampant destruction, disregarding all warnings.

The inner hatch was blown off its moorings in a fiery shout of rage; the hurtling projectile met the lightsaber's merciless edge, sheared into two molten-edged halves, flew past to smash into the decontam field with a dreadful jolt of spattering energy. Lances of heat and light erupted from the field, flickered about walls and ceiling, ringing the scene in wrathful fire.

The droid came next, squeezing through the aperture like a crustacean molting its cramped skin. First serrated forelegs, then disk shaped body, and finally a writhing swarm of other appendages, double and triple jointed, spears of cold durasteel. Clusters of leering eyes gazed redly at their prey. Behind the first monstrosity was another, and another. The 'saber growled low in the chill air, prophesying doom.

The hunter-killer lunged forward, firing as it came.

And was repelled by the motionless fluidity of light, a sapphire defensive sphere carving thin air into strange, luminous solidity, a wall of sweeping fire. Laser bolts pinged and ricocheted off the 'saber's blinding edge, ploughed into walls, burned through the droid's curving head, chewed off limbs and gouged out eyes. The legs thrust into the invisible armor next, and shattered, their molten remnants falling like wind-whipped rain, spinning into the ceiling, sizzling as they whizzed into the ion field beyond. The second and third droids pushed forward, vying to reach their target, a forest of murderous claws seeking purchase in exposed flesh.

The sphere moved; the defensive circle widened, shifted, danced; the blade screamed high and sweet, sonorous cries of warning, of fulfilled promise; destruction closed round the Jedi, a black fist grasping at smoke; malice peaked to a frenzy and was impaled on its own fury. The blue blade sang out, clarion-pure, as it sheared through the bulbous head of one opponent, as it cleaved legs from moorings, as it burned optic sensors out, hammered into hard-forged carapaces, dismembered the freakish assemblage of parts into their cold and leaden components.

The assailants dropped, in mangled pieces, to the hard floor.

The saber growled low again, content with its work. Obi Wan looked about himself, at the mess littering the makeshift foyer, the glowing edges of the metal faintly echoing the crimson energy field behind. He deactivated his weapon and clipped it back at his side, poked at a long burn on his left forearm. One shot had grazed past his guard, a bit close for comfort, but the damage was negligible and wouldn't show beneath his tunic's sleeve. Good thing Anakin wasn't here to see it, however; such evidence of Soresu's fallibility might have fueled further inane debate about protective measures.

He listened, with his ears and the Force, and then moved forward, stepping over the jagged aperture where the hatch had been blown apart, and into the radiation lock. The protocol droid lay in charred pieces, distributed idly among the four corners of the small chamber. The outer hatch was gaping open, the ray shield beyond already destroyed by Anakin. The only remaining barrier between the hostile world above and the fragile sanctuary below was the decontam field itself, flimsy armor against inevitable assault. He let out a breath between his teeth, a nearly inaudible hiss. Time was running out.

A crackle from the hallway behind had him turning sharply, hand brushing his saber's pommel; but the disturbance was merely Sen Sen Xerxes passing slowly through the decontam field. The Thisspiasian appeared on the near side of the shimmering wall, a saber of antique design in one of his broad hands. He slithered carefully through the maze of broken droid parts, his powerful tail flicking one or two aside with an audible snap of disdain.

"I see you are well accustomed to warfare," he observed, veiled eyes taking in the carnage. "I have never seen droids of this kind."

"Oh, they're all the fashion now." Obi Wan waved a hand at the clutter. "Everyone who's anyone has some. Personally, I'm inclined to think it a passing fad."

The ancient Jedi moved forward solemnly, taking note of the scrapped guard, the ruined hatches of the radiation lock. "I fear our defenses are grievously compromised," he murmured. "You and I should retreat. There are exposure risks even here."

ObI Wan nodded, grim-faced. "Yes," he agreed, allowing the Thisspiasian to lead the way back through the useless chamber and into the narrow hall. "But there are certain to be more droids soon. Have you no other means of sealing off this entrance?"

They pushed through the energy field together, enduring its prickling resistance stoically. On the far side, the air was soft and warm, welcoming them back into the realm of life and safety. Obi Wan ran a hand through his crackling hair, vainly attempting to smooth it down.

"It is possible to collapse this entire tunnel," Sen Sen Xerxes replied. "That is an emergency feature built into the early design. But the remainder of the bunker is reinforced by triple alloy duranium, and the deeper portions are located beneath countless metric tons of rock. We do not possess tools to free ourselves again should we opt to close off this exit so emphatically; such action is a desperate last resort."

They hurried back down to the Friends' abode. "The two of us may not be able to hold off an entire legion of droids," Obi Wan reasoned. "If it comes down to it, master, is there no other way of accessing the surface?"

"There are fault lines in the cave ceiling above the gardens," the ancient master replied, slowly. "I have located them over time, and I believe that with a judicious application of the Force, I could cause a controlled collapse, opening a fissure to the surface. But this is futile, for such an action would permanently condemn our refuge to radiation exposure and destruction."

Obi Wan exhaled. They were doomed if they opened a second exit; and they were equally doomed if they did not, whether from slow starvation and asphyxiation, or at the hands of droid marauders. Their only hope of survival rested with Anakin, and the slim chance of a miraculous evacuation without interference from Dooku's hordes. "We must be patient, then, and make that decision when the time comes," he decided.

"That time comes swiftly," Sen Sen Xerxes replied. "There is little need for patience, Master Kenobi."

Anakin pried open the fused edges of the access panel and bared his teeth in a soundless snarl. "Boshuda," he grumbled, a part of him moving beyond dismay to reverent admiration for his own handiwork.

Artoo agreed emphatically.

"Yeah, yeah," the young Jedi mumbled, scooting himself further beneath the wrecked Delta's hull. "Just release the fuel router and make sure you don't – aaargh!"

The astromech whistled a forlorn "ooops" and burbled a long string of abashed excuses as Anakin wiped the sudden downpour of dark sludge off his face and chest.

"Kriff it, Artoo, I said don't open the intake valve."

Apology did not translate easily into the little droid's limited scope of expression; but a mournful bloop did follow this last remark, so Anakin let it slide. This time. He was too preoccupied counting down the minutes until his promised reinforcements arrived to pay much attention to his own discomfort or filthiness. He had hoped that fixing the Delta would prove a sufficient distraction, but even the complexities of mechanical trauma repair could not fully purge his mind of fear.

The dull thump of hard boots against the scuffed decking brought his attention back to the present moment.

"Ah, General Skywalker, sir?"

It was Oafer, the redoubtable hangar crewman. "What is it, trooper?"

The clone shifted and respectfully addressed his General's feet, protruding from beneath the Delta's ruinous starboard side.

"Commander has assigned Gripes and me to your special task force, sir. We were hoping you could brief us on the mission, sir."

"Huh." Anakin snorted to himself. His dramatic re-arrival had unnerved the rookie clones, he guessed. Badly enough for the clone to risk a breach of protocol by addressing him in such a bold manner. He wasn't about to take jittery men down into an already tense situation. "You worried about something, Oafer?" he grunted, slamming the panel shut and pushing himself out from beneath the starfighter's wing.

The clone saluted and kept his eyes straight forward. Gripes stood just behind him, in an identical posture. "We learned a few things on Kamino, sir. One of was, Jedi don't spook easy."

Anakin stood, wiped his filthy hands on his lubricant-saturated tunic, peered into the clone's faces. "We don't," he affirmed.

"So, ah, we were concerned about the situation dirtside, General.. Seeing as you just scraped by the enemy out there, sir."

The young Jedi glanced over his shoulder at the charred fighter's hull. "That," he informed his men, "Was not scraping by. That was teaching 'em who's boss."

"Ah, yessir." The clones remained determinedly interested in the far wall.

Anakin straightened his spine and threw back his shoulders. "Your concern about the upcoming engagement is misplaced, troopers," he declared, warming to the subject. "You're approaching it the wrong way in your head, as though it's a matter of matching strength and power against strength and power."

The two rookie clones risked a miniscule sideways glance at each other, confusion lurking in dark gazes.

"We don't need to outpower Dooku's forces, up here or on the surface. Agility and cunning are far more useful allies than aggression and force. We will outmaneuver him, slide in under his guard, accomplish our objective and be out of here before the Seps know what happened."

Gripes looked pained. "We're not gonna fight 'em, sir?"

"True victory doesn't always come from fighting," Anakin continued, delivering this speech with flawless inflection and emphasis – after all, he'd been captive audience to the best improvisational orator in the Temple for way too many years – "There are far better ways to achieve mastery over a situation than direct combat."

The troopers looked upon him with that expression he had always longed to see bestowed upon his own person… the look that mingled awe and the unspoken sentiment there's no figuring a Jedi master. He stared them down and didn't relax until their shoulders dropped in relief.

"It'll be an honor to fight –uh, serve- under your command, General Skywalker."

"Copy that."

Anakin nodded curtly, keeping what he hoped was an appropriately taciturn commander-on-deck reserve. The clones saluted and marched off to their other duties, leaving him standing in pleased silence.

Artoo whistled low and expressively behind him.

"Yeah? And you're full of loose wires, like Obi Wan always says," Anakin snarled back. "And those were my own words. Mostly."

What did a droid know anyway?