Part 10: Renewal
Jedi Master Qui Gon Jinn came to the end of his considerable patience.
One large hand splayed against the wall, he sent a tendril of Force energy through the plaster and lath, the durasteel support beams, the insulating material, until he discovered the veining of wires and pipes, the circulatory system embedded in the building's walls. Carefully, delicately, he located the hot water supply pipe, and clamped the valve shut, holding it in place against the pressure of scalding liquid that cascaded down the narrow tunnel. Of course, the cold water line he left untouched.
A moment later his skill was rewarded with a most undignified yelp from inside the 'fresher.
A few minutes later his apprentice appeared, neatly groomed, and only slightly damp around the edges. Qui Gon tugged the boy's tabards into straighter lines. "The Council is expecting us; your preening will have to wait."
"Yes, master," the Padawan responded churlishly, following him out the door. "I would hardly describe cleanliness as preening."
They made for the nearest swift tube. "You must have been cleaning some very obscure and interesting places," the tall master observed dryly.
He caught the echo of a sullen riposte across their bond. "Mind your thoughts or we shall set you to cleaning other things," he warned.
Disgruntled exhalation. They stepped out at the base of the south spire. "I'm sorry, master. But I didn't even have time to shave."
What? Qui Gon peered at his young charge closely. After a moment's critical inspection , he finally saw the first pathetic hints of red-gold down on upper lip and chin. "Ah," he assured the sulking boy, with a gentle shake of the head. "Nobody will notice."
Obi Wan swept his wounded dignity under a façade of cold indifference and stalked into the lift ahead of him. Qui Gon chuckled quietly to himself all the way up to the Council chamber.
Mace was in one of his moods. Or perhaps that was just his Council-member face. Qui Gon couldn't be sure; the Korun Jedi was famously inscrutable, even to those who had grown up with him since infancy.
"I recall informing you that your presence was required here on Coruscant before you left for Phindar," he growled, fingers steepled into mirrored ramparts. "If you recall, Master Jinn."
Qui Gon noted the formality. He made sure to infuse a little extra cool civility in his short bow. "Indeed," he concurred. "I recall that the Council wished me to cooperate with the Sentinels' investigation of the Syndicat mind-wipe droid."
Adi Gallia was watching his back with an amused anticipation. He felt Obi Wan stir beside him, doubtlessly interpreting Adi's regard as predatory. He subtly brushed one arm against the Padawan's cloak sleeve, reining his attention back to the central issue.
"You recall correctly," Mace replied, icy. "Would you care to explain your subsequent actions?'
Yoda's eyes were hooded, neutrally observing. The ancient Jedi knew better than to stand between two clashing krayt dragons during a territorial dispute. That, or he secretly enjoyed the spectacle. One never knew, with Yoda.
"Yes." Qui Gon swept his glaze around the entire chamber, including the whole circle of masters in his reply. "My Padawan and I proceeded to Phindar, to cooperate in the Sentinels' investigation."
"Explain," Ki Adi Mundi prompted him, conical head tilting back slightly, watery blue eyes meeting those of Yarael Poof, behind Qui Gon's back.
"My masters," Qui Gon blithely addressed the entire room, "The Sentinels wished to investigate the possibility of a wider network behind the Phindian Syndicat's mind-wipe technology. They also wished to determine the precise nature of that technology's effects upon my Padawan. While on Phindar, Obi Wan and I were able to make significant progress in both these inquiries."
"Indeed?" Mace said, voice deepening to a dubious baritone. "Padawan Kenobi."
Obi Wan started but looked up expectantly. Seldom was an apprentice called upon to speak in a Council report such as this. "Yes, Master."
"Enlighten the Council about these researches you completed."
Qui Gon's eyes narrowed. So Mace thought to imbalance him by shifting the pressure of justification to Obi Wan? Not likely. He rocked back on his heels and lifted his chin.
ObI Wan took a tentative step forward, lifted his own chin in unconscious synchrony. No doubt the gesture was not lost on the Council. Qui Gon gazed blandly at Mace, who stared expressionlessly back at him, dark eyes limpid with intelligence.
"Yes, Master," the Padawan began. "While on Phindar, Master Jinn was able to infiltrate the abandoned Syndicate headquarters – before it was demolished. When we compared the records regarding their use fo mind-wipe technology on Phindian citizenry with Telosian governmental research grants –"
"Wait a moment," Mace intervened. "How did you obtain the latter?"
Obi Wan glanced over his shoulder at Qui Gon.
"I have cultivated well-placed contacts over the years," he informed the Council with a short bow of the head.
"Continue," Mace commanded.
"We found a connection between the Syndicat's researches into behavioral conditioning techniques, and a laboratory foundation called Arbor Biogenetics, located beyond Republic jurisdiction. This company appears to be devoted exclusively to neurological and chromosomal manipulation, and received massive grants from Telos over the last three years."
A stunned silence.
"Impressive," Yoda grunted. "Out of confusion, clarity. A new path for our investigation to follow. If present on Phindar you had not been, lost this connection would have been."
"Yes, master." Obi Wan waited, now eager to melt back into the anonymity provided by Qui Gon's shadow. But Mace was not finished with him.
"And what of yourself? You feel you have discovered some lingering effect of the Phindian technology on your own mind?"
The Padawan inhaled deeply. His gaze shifted away from Mace Windu, to that of Yoda. The ancient one propped his chin atop his hands, folded over his gnarled stick. Two green ears dipped in subtle encouragement.
A wave of shame eddied in the Force, and rolled onward into infinity. Obi Wan released his pent-up breath. "Yes. Though I retained all my memories after the… procedure, it became clear on Phindar that the machine had implanted a …a conditioning impulse, master. Whenever I heard a ceratin trigger phrase, I felt a compulsion to act in a manner that would destroy the new Phindian peace. It was difficult to resist."
Mace leaned forward. "You think this conditioning is no longer active?"
The Padawan hesitated, but his bearing remained confident. "No, master," he answered, quietly. "There was a moment, when I was overcome. I nearly … I almost blew up an entire building, and hundreds of Phindians… because of the compulsion. " He stopped, as his voice quavered.
The Council waited patiently.
"I would have slain innocents, masters," the boy continued, when he had reasserted control. "I came very close to doing so. But in the end, I didn't. And after that, I have not experienced any effects at all. Master Jinn and I tried to trigger the impulse several times during the return transit. We … I think it has been eradicated."
"By the Force?" Mace inquired.
The Padawan nodded, unable to speak, and the assembly overlooked the slight breach of protocol.
There was a heavy silence as the Council weighed these matters. Obi Wan discreetly stepped back, retiring to his customary position slightly behind Qui Gon. He deftly passed one wide cloak sleeve over his face, and subsided into a stony reserve.
"As usual, Qui Gon, you've managed to turn defiance into a positive outcome," Mace rumbled. He might have been amused; or he might have been genuinely vexed. "You will make a full and detailed report on all your findings to Master Dooku. In person."
Qui Gon chafed at the last unnecessary qualification, but accepted that this was a lenient sentence. He bowed curtly. "Naturally."
"Padawan Kenobi. We cannot send you out in the field again until we are certain you are indeed whole and sound, mentally. I'm sure you understand this. We need to verify that you are no longer harboring any hidden damage."
Obi Wan's pang of distress stained the Force with a murky cloud. Qui Gon turned his head sharply, to meet the boy's gaze evenly. Courage.
"With respect, " Qui Gon insisted. "That needs to be done with my oversight and permission."
Mace skewered him with a burning look, but he ignored it.
"Your permission do you grant me?" Yoda demanded, annoyance girding his age-roughened voice. "Make certain I will." His luminous eyes slid sideways to the younger Jedi's face. "Gently, young one. Master Yoda will not harm you."
Obi Wan bowed his gratitude. Qui Gon released his building tension into the Force. They had not escaped wholly without censure or burden; yet they had nothing to complain of.
Standing, Qui Gon Jinn had the advantage of height. He delayed sitting another minute. "The Council has requested that I make a full report to you, concerning my mission to Phindar."
Yan Dooku gestured to the unoccupied chair. Here, sequestered in a small alcove within the Archives' solemn enclave, they were ensconced in successive layers of walls, of secrecy, of quiet veiling. Footfalls fell outside, in the silent aisles of holobooks. Dooku waved the door shut.
"Tell me. Did you pre-empt the Sentinels again?'
Qui Gon sat, at last, his frame too large for the chair's contours. He felt like a youngling that had outgrown the playroom furniture, slightly out of place. "Phindar's operations were funded by Telos, via an independent research laboratory called Arbor Biogentic Foundation."
Dooku's brows furrowed. "I see you are as cavalier with mission protocol as ever," he observed trenchantly.
"The information is reliable," Qui Gon retorted. "I am sure the Sentinels can make good use of it."
"And you dragged that boy of yours into the midst of strife, against my recommendation.'
"Obi Wan handled himself well. And he overcame deeply implanted mind control, with the aid of the Force."
Dooku's grey eyes slid assessingly over his former Padawan. "That is… impressive," he admitted. "But do not forget that you risked the lives of many by taking him anywhere near Phindar. He ought to have been quarantined here at the Temple. Under the observation of healers, or one of the Shadows. Do not make that face at me, Qui Gon – I am well aware of our difference of perspective where such things are concerned. But one day your irresponsibility will lead to disaster. If indeed we are to believe that it has not already."
The younger man stiffened, old scars ripped open by the well-chosen strike, He betrayed no pain. "I submit myself to the judgment of the Force."
"And nothing else," Dooku added, caustically. "You are a brave man, my old Padawan."
Qui Gon clenched his jaw. "I hope the Sentinels will make good use of our discovery," he said. "If there is anything I can do to help, my resources are at your disposal."
The older master's mouth curved in a faintly sardonic smile. "Ah. You wish to unburden your conscience? I thought you were above judgment. Let the Sentinels clean up your mess, Qui Gon; Du Crion and his aspirations are no longer your burden to bear."
"With respect, I do not think that is true."
Dooku stood; and Qui Gon mirrored the gesture.
"Have a care, Qui Gon. You have many difficult duties to fulfill, without rushing in where angels fear to tread."
And with that most civilized of insults, Yan Dooku took his elegant leave, without once looking back.
"Come in, come in, young one. Bite you, I will not."
Master Yoda's private rooms were larger than most the residential apartments; the Grand Master had a separate antechamber in which to entertain visitors, a spacious room replete with the luxury of a high window. The slatted blinds were programmed to filter light to a comfortable, meditative dusking. They adjusted their angle with the rising sun, casting beams of gold upon the high ceiling, dusting the worn floor with a pale veneer of light. In the haze, Obi Wan could see countless scratch marks and dents banged into the once-smooth surface, scars left by Yoda's gimer stick as he paced the centuries away.
"Sit down, youngling. Afraid of Master Yoda before , you have never been. How changed have I?"
He sat, stomach flipping queasily. "I'm sorry, master. You haven't changed."
The ancient one shuffled closer to him, peered into his face. "Then changed, you have. Fear. Transform the world around us it does. Bends things to its own image."
He kept his breathing steady, centered. "Yes, master."
"Think you that painful this must be, hm."
"The Shadows –"
"Hmmph. Much to learn Dooku still has. " Yoda waved a clawed hand at him. "A child is he, in the true Force. Old Yoda knows better ways. Wiped Dooku's nose for him, I did, when small he was."
Obi Wan remembered his manners and clamped his mouth shut.
"Ready are you?"
His heart hammered, treacherously. "I- yes. But… does this need to be another mind probe? Isn't there another way?"
"Hm. Ready you are not."
"I'm sorry, master." He bowed his head, feeling heat rise in his cheeks.
But Yoda did not seem perturbed. He clambered onto the cushion opposite and settled in companionably, for a long wait. "Perhaps talk to me instead, you should. Chat, we will have, hm?"
"Yes, master." He had to admit the idea was far more appealing than the alternative.
"Show me this river stone, you will. Heard much about it, I have. Believe not, do I, that Force-sensitive it truly is."
Obi Wan pulled the tiny thing out of its hiding place. "But it is, master! Here; look for yourself. If you touch the Force, the stone will grow warm in your hand." Eagerly, he deposited the rock in Yoda's outstretched palm.
The ancient Jedi held it delicately between his blunt claws. "Beautiful it is," he pronounced. His eyes closed, and he grumbled quietly to himself for a few moments. His ears drooped. "Hummph!" he snorted. "Nothing happens. Trick, you have played on me. Nothing but a pretty rock, is this."
"No, master, I would never do such a thing! It's special."
Yoda handed the stone back to him. "Show me then, if so certain you are. Make it warm."
He did. The moment his fingers closed round it, the stone warmed to his touch, as though it were alive. And more. It did not only grow warm in his hand, but it chimed faintly in the Force, a tuning fork resonating with some distant memory, a lovely melody carried on the radiant softness flowing from the rock… from a distant Center… His eyelids drooped.
"Master… you did something…"
"I?" Yoda wheezed. "Nothing, did I . Listen to your stone, you should."
He did, and soon enough he was lost in the images which seemed to swell and glimmer within the stone, as rainbow banners and curved reflections are trapped, ephemerally, within a bubble's perfect sphere. To his astonishment, the panoply of soft echoes were all familiar, glimpses and snippets of his own memories, a kaleidoscope of voices and faces and feelings, drifting gently on the currents of a River, a burbling stream of Light. It was a familiar stream, and he floated down its scintillating length, from present to past and back again, aware only dimly that Yoda seemed to be alongside him, enjoying it as much as he did, quietly observing every moment as it passed.
Eventually, the River widened into a shallow sea and then lapped onto shore, nudging his mind back to sensory reality. He opened his eyes, and the stone still lay on his open palm, cool to the touch but just as beautiful as ever.
Master Yoda seemed to be meditating. Or perhaps he was asleep. Obi Wan carefully placed the river stone back in its pocket and wondered whether it would be rude to awaken the ancient master from his trance, or slumber – whichever it was.
He was saved the difficult decision by Yoda himself. When the green-gold eyes slowly opened, they were full of a wisdom polished smooth by time and the flowing currents of the Force, much like the rock.
"I think I'm ready now, master," Obi Wan told him.
The ancient Jedi chortled, deep in his throat. "Done it is."
He blinked. "I…what?"
Yoda wheezed and chuckled, slid off his cushion and onto the floor, grunting as he leaned his weight on the sturdy stick. "Whole and sound you are. Fret not."
That was all? But…
"Foolish to face present from perspective of past, Obi Wan. Told you already: know more than our Sentinels, I do. Now off you go. Hm. Much to do, you have. Study, Practice. Meditate. Grow strong, deep in Force."
"Yes, master." He was bowing and exiting before the reality had sunk in. And only after he was halfway down the corridor did it occur to him that he had not thanked the ancient master.
But he was fairly certain that Yoda would understand, anyway.
"As you can see." He stepped aside, gracefully.
Tahl passed between his left side and the doorframe, brushing just between, touching neither. The door slid closed.
"Where's your shadow?"
"Sparring. I have a few hours' peace."
Tahl sat at the low table, her cloak pooling about her slender frame, a waterfall of soft folds. "It's my honor to shatter the tranquility. How was the wedding?"
"I brought you a souvenir. Something of academic interest."
Tahl waited patiently, her golden eyes following his every move as he disappeared to fetch the gift from the tiny conservator in its kitchen alcove.
"I hope it handles the wear and tear of travel better than you do," she remarked archly.
Qui Gon set the delicacy before her, eyes smiling. "Ch'xlatl. It was Obi Wan's idea."
"Of course it was."
They partook of it together, making of its enjoyment a slow dance, a kata, a silent ceremony.
And when it was done, they parted ways again.
Obi Wan threw his soiled tunic into the laundry bin, wiped his face with a towel. It had been good to spar again, although many of his age-mates were not in the Temple at present. No Garen, no Reeft, not even Bruck Chun. Siri Tachi had been banned from the salles for a month , much to his disappointment. He had been forced to challenge older Padawans, and the resulting playful combat had been… satisfying.
Someone cleared his throat in the doorway beyond. He turned, startled by the intruder whom, once again, he had failed to sense in the Force.
"Master Dooku!" A bow covered his momentary lack of composure. He hastened to pull a fresh tunic into place, fingers fumbling with the ties.
"Tonight's session was a rare spectacle of carnage," Dooku observed, leaning in the doorframe, effectively blocking the exit. "Tell me, why Ataru?"
They were alone; the others had hurried on their way, and Obi Wan – out of respect for their seniority – had taken the last turn in the showers. "It was chosen for me by the swordsmasters," he replied, truthfully. As the style of any initiate his age had been.
Dooku studied him up and down. "You are a born master of Makashi," he declared. "A pity the form is out of vogue. Of course, I would be honored to teach you."
This was no ordinary offer. Dooku had taught only a handful in five decades. Even Qui Gon had been excluded from the finer points of tutelage. His skin crawled. "I am honored by your attention, master," he answered carefully. "I do not think I am worthy of such high regard. But thank you."
A black and silver brow rose, and Dooku continued to idly survey him. He shifted, pressed his lips together thoughtfully. "I wonder," he said at last. "Your performance on Phindar was extraordinary, Padawan. Have you ever considered that the Force may be calling you to walk the path of a Shadow?"
"No, I have not." the words slipped out with more emphatic denial than he intended. Breathe. Steady.
Dooku saw too much. "Ah. You still smart from our initial encounter. It was necessary, young one. Do not resent that which causes pain. Some such things are a path to greater strength."
"Yes, Master Dooku." How he longed to escape.
"Qui Gon has enthralled you with his charismatic… interpretation… of the Code, I see. Still, you are young. Should you ever lose your way, Kenobi, I hope you will not hesitate to turn to me for help. I have a vested interest in your success. After all, you are the Padawan of my own Learner."
There was no evasion possible. "I am grateful for your concern," he said, bowing again. Suddenly, he was exhausted, his exertions apparently having wrung every ounce of vitality from his limbs.
"Kneel," Dooku commanded.
Obi Wan did not want his formal blessing. But one did not refuse a master. Not Qui Gon's former master. Not Yan Dooku. He sank to one knee, flinched a little when the older man's hand settled lightly on his head.
"May the Force be with you, Obi Wan Kenobi," Dooku intoned.
When he had gone, the changing room seemed chill. Obi Wan hurried back to his own quarters, and Qui Gon.
Qui Gon grasped his chin and tilted his head back. "What's wrong?"
A Padawan owed his teacher absolute honesty. "I.. nothing. Master Dooku."
Qui Gons' eyebrow rose. "Which is it? Master Dooku or nothing?"
"Do you think I would best serve the Force by being a Shadow?"
The tall man released him, sighed. "No, I do not. Pay no heed to the suggestions of others, on that account. Your heart is a reliable guide in the matter of destiny. Do you feel drawn to that path?"
"No. I feel nothing about it." Much as he could not feel Dooku in the Force, not when the mysterious and stern master was shielding, blending into the gap between the real and the possible. "It's closed to me."
Qui Gon led the way out onto their small balcony. The evening breeze was laden with pollution; it lay in a thick mantle over the horizon, muffling the sunset in suffocating folds of vermillion and orange. "Amazing," he quipped. "A lacuna in my Padawan's omniscience."
They leaned on the railing. Air traffic buzzed on its endless way. The day bled sullenly into night. "Master?"
Qui Gon turned to his apprentice, waited.
Obi Wan shrugged, abruptly shy. The tall man's arm went round his shoulders, pulling him closer. Smog-drenched air blasted against them; they coughed a little in unison. "It's not pretty tonight, master."
"No," he agreed ruefully. "The industrial sector is scheduled for a controlled waste burn. But the Living Force is still here, even beneath the ugliness."
"Yes, master," the boy coughed. The radiance faded, leaving only hundreds of distant beacon fires on the hard-edged horizon, the flickering garbage pyres in the manufacturing district.
"Tomorrow," Qui Gon promised, "We will begin preparing for Ilum. And whatever else the future may hold for us."
"Yes, master, I am ready."
END BOOK II