Time lay stagnant, pooled and motionless along the ravaged banks of awareness; space contracted to nothing more than a bland stretch of white plastoid, a meter's-length of dull decking material and the dim 'cycled air above it. The single inhabitant of this reclusive universe, a melancholic island of existence in which pain and confusion swirled murkily together, pushed up on hands and knees at the sound of footsteps approaching.
Shadows darkened the red haze of the barrier, rippling as they moved closer. Obi-Wan managed to attain his feet, and braced them in defensive opening stance, throwing back his bruised and aching shoulders and lifting his chin to face whatever came with some semblance of Jedi dignity.
The energy field snapped into nothingness, revealing Hiu Merggum and another handful of his now ubiquitous commando troops. The young Jedi's gaze swept over the Xolinth Prime and his minions with equal disdain, lighting upon the tall figure lingering just behind the Weequay.
Qui-Gon tried to touch his mind across the training bond, and he found himself reflexively withdrawing, as swiftly as he might have parried a sloppy saber strike. He watched the Jedi master's grey eyes widen infintesmally, a liquid regret damping the Force's burning currents, and then turned away, sucking in a shuddering breath. He was alone here, on his own two feet and supported by the Force – and nothing else.
Merggum flicked a hand in his general direction, and three of the guards shouldered their way into the cell's confines, one of them fingering a thin pressure hypo. The other two seized him, twisting his arms until the joints screamed in objection. The third man stepped closer –
-and the Force exploded from some hidden recess, some tiny corner of his soul not scored by the whiplash betrayal and befouled by the first round of drugs. The Xolinthi flew backward, hitting the three walls of the prison, cursing as their heads struck hard stone. Obi-Wan crouched, hands curling into fists, aware of nothing but the fire running in his veins and the presence of Qui-Gon, standing between himself and the only route of escape.
Snarling, he rolled beneath a pair of grasping arms, Force-wrenched a weapon from the next man's grip, planted his elbow in another's jaw, sprang and rolled over a fourth, sent another crashing savagely into the outside corridor wall, summoned the man's fallen blaster into his hands, shot out the cell barrier controls and the overhead lighting, hurtled the weapon at the next foe's face, and pelted down the long passageway only to find it barred by another dozen guards.
"Sith-spit." He wheeled about, ducking beneath a warning shot, and slammed directly into Qui-Gon, their bodies closing hard in a violent tussle of limbs and clashing wills, superior size and strength against sheer desperate instinct. He had never yet beaten the Jed master at a wrestling match, and the contest was brutally short. It ended with the would-be escapee neatly pinned in a headlock, squirming futilely in the tall man's painfully tight grip.
"Don't be stupid," Jinnson hissed at him. The words echoed in the Force, warning and supplication at once.
The young Jedi writhed, raw back chafing against the valet's stiff clothing, throbbing head roaring with renewed anger. He twisted wildly, heedless of the pain, shaking with vehemence as he sought the worst malediction possible. Liar! Oath-breaker! Filthy Sith-begotten forsworn pizzmah! He threw the insults against the tall man's implacable mental walls, gutted by the unthinkable reversal, still floundering in a sea of confusion.
Merggum loomed over the pair of them, grunting some foreign imprecation. A soothing wave of light washed over the struggling Padawan, a feeble attempt to restrain his uncharacteristically raging emotions. Obi-Wan! Hear me – trust me. You don't understand.
Something cold and sharp pricked against the skin of his neck; acid burned in its wake, followed by renewed dizziness and a further darkening of his senses. Sound and color and thought melded and ran together; his knees gave way, his weight sagging limply in the tall man's grip; the world's axis tilted again, inverting present and past, truth and reality, friend and foe, until the Force itself smeared into indistinguishable grey, an ocean of tainted light.
He might have sobbed aloud, flailing for purchase in a world bereft of anchor or center, but he seemed to choke on the shattered particles of his own voice, to drown in the rising tide of poison. He slid beneath the toxin's dark horizon again, unaware of the soft brush of fingers against his face, nor the merciless hands that hustled him away down the corridor toward the hangar bay and Merggum's private shuttle.
"I want the Jedi here, in the cockpit," Merggum ordered his minions. The men nodded their heads, dropping the listless prisoner into one of the passenger seats and binding his wrists to the molded armrests with energy-cuffs before retreating into the adjacent hold.
Qui-Gon counted them as they departed: four, plus the four others waiting behind. A mere detachment of eight, only a fraction of the hordes left stationed inside the asteroid stronghold itself. Including Merggum, a potential battle of nine against one, with an incapacitated Padawan as risky collateral. He exhaled, fingers running over the pommel of his saber, deftly recovered from its hiding-place on the way up the ship's ramp.
The Force gathered, tense as a strung wire. It was not over yet, and there was much at stake.
The Weequay overlord guided his personal vessel out the maglev barrier and wove a careful course through the tumbling debris field. "My lord will be most eager to hear news of this Jedi's treachery… and of your unexpected role in his capture," Merggum remarked, edging around a colossal frozen boulder and twisting beneath the next obstacle. "Comms are blocked inside this field – a useful security measure, as I am sure you will readily agree – but once in clear space, we will send a transmission. You are familiar with him…. but I wonder: is he also familiar with you?"
Jinnson shrugged. "I am of no consequence to one of his ambitions. But I flatter myself that he may know me by reputation." His heart beat a steady rhythm, a silent martial drumming. If he could but glimpse this mysterious figure whom Merggum feared, who presumably was the mastermind behind the planned secessionist movement, behind the consolidation of power in the Xolinth sector, behind the unprecedented "conditioning" camp for the Weequay's special forces… then he would have succeeded beyond his own wildest expectations.
Behind them, Obi-Wan stirred, groaning as he surfaced from the cruel drug's initial devastating effects. The tall man did not dare acknowledge his presence, or offer comfort. He heard the boy cough, the hiccupping rasp of his breath, the stifled whimper as his groggy movements jostled the energy binders and sent a shocking jolt through his already abused system.
Merggum cleared the last of the asteroids and sailed into the open expanse of space, the lovely field of glittering stars and a ribbon of pale nebulous color draped across the viewport. The distant sun glinted on transparisteel, a perpetual daybreak broken into bright spectral bands by the curved surface.
"Now, my young Jedi friend, I wonder also whether you have irksome allies lurking nearby," the Xolinth prime growled, setting the proximity scanners to full active mode. He swiveled in his seat, reaching out a calloused hand to grip his captive by the ear, twisting the large gemstone there between his fingers and then ripping it loose in one swift motion. "You don't need this anymore."
Obi-Wan yelped in pain, a spatter of fresh blood trickling down his neck and collarbone. He scowled at the leering Weequay, blinking furiously to focus his vision.
Hiu Merggum snorted in amusement and peered at his scanner display. "Nothing. Good. It would seem you are not so well loved as Mr Jinnson feared."
Qui-Gon dared a backward glance, sending a wave of reassurance to his battered apprentice – to no avail. The boy was too disoriented to feel the benign Force-borne touch in his mind; the Xolinth had exercised no moderation in the use of their nerve-scrambling poison. The Jedi master clenched his jaw, drawing in a steadying breath. He had hoped Dooku would have stayed… lingered perhaps just outside the system, in hopes of intercepting them. A doubt gnawed in the tall man's mind: had he overestimated his former master's intuition? Or underestimated his callousness? There were no hard and fast protocols for handling such a situation. Dooku may have judged the safe conduct of the Galans and the resistance leaders a more pressing priority than the immediate succor of his fellow Jedi. It was quite possible that he and Obi-Wan were on their own – and this would indeed be the last chance of escape.
But he still yearned to discover the identity of Merggum's shadowy superior. The Force urged him to wait, to be patient. Outside the shuttle's confines, four more Xolinthi fighters cruised into view, circling idly like thranctills riding a high wind in search of prey. So the Prime was not as trusting as he appeared – or else paranoia ran bone deep within him.
Merggum was busily adjusting his long-range transmitter, fine-tuning the comm relay. The holo-projector spluttered, static playing over its plate for a handful of seconds, bands of fizzing blue light wavering in thin air, not yet resolved into an image. Qui-Gon leaned closer, breath bated.
"What is it, Merggum? I did not expect another report from you so soon," a garbled voice crackled over the transmitter. The image remained veiled by striating static – or perhaps the speaker had purposefully disabled his holo-cam.
The enormous Weequay commander grinned widely. "I have discovered a spy in our midst – and a new ally, as well. He claims to know of you, my lord."
Qui-Gon leaned closer, peering intently at the wavering and spluttering mirage above the projector plate. Did he see the drape of a cowled cloak? Or was that naught but interference and random shadow? If there was a coherent form hidden in the hologram's scrambled depths, he did not recognize it.
But – horribly – the speaker did recognize him.
"Qui-Gon Jinn," the distorted voice snapped, sharpening with alarm. "Merggum, you fool!"
The transmission ended in a flash of dissipating light; Merggum spun to face his supposed ally, a fearful snarl curling his lips over sharpened teeth; Qui-Gon's saber leapt into his hand, green blade snapping into thrumming vibrancy, growling a note of low warning in the cramped space.
The Xolinth stumbled backward against the console, hands clawing for the blaster at his side; a flash of emerald fire and the weapon was cloven in two, its halves skittering across the decks. Qui-Gon pivoted, buried his blade in the locking mechanism for the cockpit doors, and burned the controls' heart out. Pinning the Xolinth Prime against the viewport with a crushing Force-grip, he released his Padawan and hauled the boy to his feet.
Obi-Wan stared, stumbling into the curved bulkhead and clinging to a bracket for support, blue eyes registering only dim comprehension, brows quirked upward in helpless question.
The Jedi master sent Merggum crashing down into the console, and tugged his Padawan's weapon out of the overlord's sash. "Here. Hold the doors."
The Xolinth struck savagely at his foe; fingers closing on a razor thin shiv hidden somewhere beneath his jacket. Qui-Gon seized the Weequay's knife-arm with his free hand and smashed the pommel of his saber into the snarling Xolinthi's jaw, sending him sprawling backward again. The 'saber's green blade spun once in a tight flourish and ended against Merggum's neck, burning tip spilling terrible radiance upon the warlord's exposed throat.
"But – but, the prisoner…" the helpless Xolinth protested, eyes wide with disbelief.
"My apprentice," Qui-Gon ground out, the horror of the past hours spilling over the edge of his control. "Call your men off."
But the Prime only chuckled. "You are a dead man, either way," he gasped, writhing as the plasma blade singed his thickly reticulated skin. "Jedi scum! There is nobody out here but ourselves, and the hyperdrive on this vessel is deactivated. My fighters will destroy this ship if it attempts to leave the system. I am no fool."
Qui-Gon glanced up, a shout of surprise and relief welling up within him, almost escaping between his rage-clenched teeth. Before his eyes, dropping into realspace at dangerous proximity to the cluster of smaller vessels, so close in fact that it was practically on top of them, appeared a Republic diplomatic cruiser, red ensign emblazoned triumphantly on the starboard hull. One of Merggum's fighters disintegrated upon the larger ship's shields; the others veered wildly off, avoiding imminent collision by a hairsbreadth.
Obi-Wan was in the pilot's chair and pulling on the manual yoke with both arms, twisting the shuttle in a sickening dive to one side, barely skimming over the cruiser's thruster array. They spun, lurching wildly out of range, alarms sounding as the ion drives disrupted their own shields and sensors.
Merggum rolled across the cockpit as they narrowly avoided destruction, trying to wrench open the aft hatches with his bare hands. Qui-Gon closed his fist, seizing the Weequay with the Force and sending him hurtling into the seat so recently occupied by his Padawan. The 'saber thrummed hot in warning. "Do not move."
Obi-Wan slumped over the shuttle's controls, clutching the edge of the console, panting.
Vibrant bolts of plasma erupted outside the viewport; outpowered, the Xolinth fighters turned tail and fled for the safety of the asteroid field.
"Padawan." Qui-Gon's hand was batted away with ferocious energy, his comforting gesture curtly rejected
Merggum's shuttle rattled and juddered beneath them, caught in the inexorable grip of a tractor beam. The hull groaned; the drives whined; warning lights flashed and blinked.
Obi-Wan doubled over and retched all over the decks.
A jolt as the larger vessel swallowed them into its docking bay, the groan of drives powering down, of magnetic clamps set into place. The bright influx of artificial light. Merggum's snarl of displeasure melded with the noise of fusion cutters working on their sealed ramp. Blasters fired; men shouted; a surge of feet tramping in the hold just beyond, and then a blast of rending metal as the cockpit doors were wrenched loose of their moorings and torn apart by a breath-taking blast of Force energy.
Merggum cowered in place as Yan Dooku swept placidly into the tiny cockpit, dark cloak skirling at his heels, one elegant hand resting casually upon his saber's hilt. Behind him, Magg Zurl and the entire Galan security force grappled with Merggum's men, an ugly congregation of weaponry and flailing limbs.
The silver-haired Jedi surveyed the scene with a cold detachment, grey eyes passing over the cringing Weequay to the Padawan hunched at the pilot's station, and then up to meet his former student's gaze. "Another pretty mess of your making, Qui-Gon. I see some things do not change with the tides of time."
Behind them, Zurl and his men managed to subdue the last of the Xolinthi troops, dragging them out the shuttle's ramp amid a torrent of cursing and scuffling.
Dooku sighed, indicating Merggum with a serene nod of his head. "I'll leave you to secure your latest stray in the brig," he told the tall man, neatly stepping between Qui-Gon and his apprentice. "We had best depart before reinforcements can arrive." He slipped his black cloak off and folded it about the Padawans' shivering frame. "Here, boy, come."
Qui-Gon watched helplessly as Obi-Wan allowed Dooku to steady him on his feet, guide his faltering steps toward the ruined and sparking doors.
The Sentinel paused on the threshold, one arm thrust protectively beneath the young Jedi's shoulders. "I am eager to hear of your mission's outcome," he told the other master. "I can see it was one of your memorable escapades." And with a dry, ironic smile, he tightened his hold on Obi-Wan and took his leave.