And what is the nature of place, Seeker?
Place is relative to a center, Master. To be on this world or that is to be in the thrall of its gravitational center; the planet itself is located by reference to the star it orbits; the star in relation to the galaxy's centripetal drift; the galaxy, I suppose, is itself a satellite of some universal center projected by the mathematicians.
To be here or there is to be centered, then.
It would seem so, Master.
But the Force is ubiquitous center, and so, all things are together within it – without separation or distinction of place.
Distance matters not, nor size, nor any measurement of quantity.
Very good. The question that lies before you is this: to which center does your inmost self belong – the physical or the spiritual?
Obi-Wan woke when the ship reverted to realspace, his dreams collapsing back to prim reality as the bleeding starlines outside the viewport collapsed back into unitary points. He rubbed the heels of both hands over his face, pressed them into aching eyes, and then stood, tugging his dark tunic straight beneath his slightly skewed belt and clipping both sabers in place at either hip.
They had arrived.
"Your timing is impeccable," Dooku observed as he slipped into the cockpit. "We've just received a standard warning to alter our approach vector and make a detour."
The younger man checked the commsat display. "Well. Restricted access. War zone. No trade or ambassadorial traffic permitted – apparently fences do not make good neighbors."
The Sentinel held their vessel on a steady cruising trajectory as the light-rimmed curve of Melida-Daan came into view beneath them. "The injunctions are forty years old; I daresay the automated blockade is growing a bit… rusty."
Obi-Wan braced himself. Evasive maneuvers did not rank among his primary sources of job satisfaction. He discreetly latched his crash harness in place as Dooku skimmed into firing range of this first orbital sentry. "Forward shields up, cannon ready… have I mentioned that I find this sort of thing tedious?"
"You don't say," the Jedi master drawled, grey eyes narrowing to feral slits as they drew within firing range of the droid defensive station… but a closer inspection revealed the once formidable automated weapon-cluster to be nothing but a lump of cooled slag, long ago destroyed.
"I'm surprised the thrusters didn't short out and set it plummeting into atmosphere," Obi-Wan observed as they passed the decrepit chunk of metal and circuitry. "Or that scavengers haven't stopped by to pick this place clean."
"Very few come this way at all since the trade routes were re-calibrated. And those that do have other business to attend."
The second sentry was still active however, as evidenced by the warning shot it sent glancing off their bows. A third glinted in the viewport's corner, rapidly closing the gap between them. "Ah," Dooku breathed, mouth curving into a cold smile. "This may require aggressive negotiations."
His apprentice grimly laid hands upon the targeting controls. Blowing things to oblivion was lamentably uncivilized, but in such a situation there was little other recourse. Droid defensive systems seldom accepted a challenge to more genteel forms of conflict resolution and knew nothing of the refined arts of dueling. It boiled down to a swift contest of speed and accuracy, and pitted against the Force a droid had very little chance of triumph. There was, therefore, no honor in engaging them, and quite a bit of mess left over afterward.
Dooku flew Makashi-style, a tight twisting corkscrew and whiplash reverse bringing them beneath and over the initial blasts; Obi-Wan squeezed off three shots of his own, eyes closed because it was easier to locate his targets when he wasn't watching the stars blur into nauseating sworls of color, and took out the further attacker in a blazing conflagration.
"Blast." He'd missed his intended target entirely.
"Hm," Dooku snorted, unimpressed, flipping their shuttle about in a maneuver its stabilizers really weren't designed to withstand.
Obi-Wan's next volley went wide, but that didn't count because his master's piloting emulated a drunken bantha rollicking in a hayfield.
"Focus," the Sentinel barked.
Fine. He laid into the oncoming sentry point blank, aiming straight up its own cannon. It went up in a fireball, and they hurtled directly through it, the shields wailing their distress and console alarms flaring with outrage at the abuse.
"Effective," Dooku grumbled, "But, ah… "
"Yes. Aggressive. Do try to contain yourself; we haven't even reached the surface yet."
By the time they had achieved that objective- strong-arming their way through another two automated attacks, and observing more than one more derelict remnant of the same droid regiment along the way – even Yan Dooku's carefully manicured calm was frayed about the edges. He set the shuttle down on a high plateau in the northern continent, a place barren and hard in its aspect, scoured by a pitiless climate.
"The capitol city of the northern provinces is situated just beyond the five klick marker," he murmured, powering down the ship's systems. "According to the most recently available data, the main front of the conflict was centered here, as well as the strategic headquarters of both factions. Needless to say, there are multiple other urban sites we might choose; if this proves a dead end, we shall visit some of the other ghost towns. It is possible the fighting has moved in the last ten years."
But no sooner had they set foot on the dusty expanse outside the ramp than they knew this to be unnecessary. Obi-Wan balked a little, gritting his teeth against the overpowering tide of hatred, wafting like a foul stench on the Force's currents, a palpable effluvia of malice and ingrained cruelty. Dooku stood rigid for a moment, seeming to scent the invisible winds, his aristocratic features twisting slightly in revulsion, and in satisfaction.
"Yes," he breathed, "He is here. I feel his signature clearly." A hand on his apprentice's shoulder stayed the younger man's forward movement. "We shall take our separate paths here, then. You are clear on the plan?"
"Of course , Master. I will proceed into the city and run to ground, with whichever of the warring parties seems most convenient or welcoming. I am to wait there until I receive signal from you, or Kar'Thon, before attempting an infiltration of Syfo-Dyas' organization."
"Very good. In the meantime I shall make my presence felt about the periphery – a nagging distraction to keep our old friend off balance."
Obi-Wan nodded, glancing once over his shoulder at the landscape beyond. "What if he senses my presence? I will shield as heavily as possible, but he is very skilled."
The senior Jedi waved this aside. "I am confident he will invest his attention in deducing my intentions; besides, it is unlikely he is aware that we are associated in any way. While he is busy fretting over the perceived greater threat, we shall strike from behind."
A grim bow, acknowledgment that this game of dejarik was played for the ultimate stakes, and admitted no room for error.
"Mat the Force be with you," Dooku said, formally releasing his student to his task.
Obi-Wan pulled the hood of his dark cloak far over his face and turned his steps toward the city, striding purposefully across Melida-Daan's voided fields, toward the pulsing center of conflict that he could as yet only see as a blurred irregularity upon the dim horizon.
It was a brisk hike, one that invited thought as a means of defense against the dark emotion roiling in the very atmosphere about the fateful city. Obi-Wan covered the five klicks at an easy loping pace, long habit unconsciously lengthening his gait to one that would match Qui-Gon Jinn's ground-eating stride.
This world was like no other he had ever set foot upon; Jedi ambassadors and peace keepers were sent to principalities where strife had recently broken out, or which teetered upon the edge of disaster. They were not assigned to places where all attempts at reconciliation had long since failed, where endless civil war had reigned for decades without intervention from without. The orbital blockade system they had bypassed on their way into Melida-Daan's gravity well was one of Republic manufacture – a seal placed upon a doomed hell-hole, a judgement passed upon a people condemned to reap the fruits of their own folly evermore. He had of course learned of – read about – such things in his education at the Temple. He had perhaps even discussed such a possibility in theoretical debate among peers or instructors… but it had never, he now realized, hit home.
The galactic Senate had chosen to abandon the project of peace here, for the sake of wider stability. The last team of Jedi sent to forestall absolute war on the strife-ridden world had been brutally murdered forty years ago – and yet even the sure knowledge of these deaths did not allow the fact of the blockade and all that it implied to sit easily with him.
Focus on the present moment, he reminded himself. His task here was specific and precluded involvement in the much wider planetary affairs. Dooku and he would get in, achieve their goal, and get out – preferably destroying whatever malfeasance Syfo-Dyas was currently undertaking. Stopping the inertial decay of this hate-besotted madhouse of a planet was far beyond their – or any Jedi's – power.
Hate in the end was always stronger.
He stopped dead in his tracks, breath catching in his throat. Fool!
He fell to his knees just where he was, closing his eyes and shutting out the pervasice whisper of despair in the plenum, focusing upon the Light, upon his 'saber crystals, any anchor in this tempest of resentment and anger. How easily he had strayed into its penumbral influence – like a small initiate, a green youngling. What ailed him, now, here, when he was so close to the consummation of a year's hard striving for justice?
"Compassion is stronger," he asserted, aloud.
The cold rocks echoed his words back at him, hollowed of conviction.
"Mercy is stronger," he shouted over the broken fragments of his own voice, the Force taking up the call, resounding with it, a discordant note in the chaos of this place, a misplaced thread of harmony trying to weave its way through a vengeful briar-tangle.
Force help me and guide me. He stood and pressed onward, carving a psychic path through the hedge of ill-will erected in memory and fact about the city's walls – massive durasteel mountains, things imposing and vast and determinedly faceless, an iron cauldron containing the raging and vindictive froth within.
What he had taken as the outline of highrises and distant edifices was nothing but the erratic silhouettes of guard towers and bastions along the topmost edge of this fortress. Holo-flags were posted in eastern and western turrets, two opposing insignia shimmering in the bright afternoon sun, men in drab uniforms posted at either extremity of the wall.
He slipped behind the last jutting lip of rock and peered at the obstacle long and hard. The Melida and the Daan controlled the wall equally, an enmity blanketing the city in physical space, half to each. The gates looked as though they had not been opened in eons, its surface oxidized to a dull green, ray shields flickering dully over their heavy panels. The sentries were facing inward, toward the city below, not focused particularly on the world outside the boundaries of their two peoples' all-consuming dispute.
He wrapped himself in the Force, in a mantle of woven greys, the men's own unimaginative obsession compacted with the Light's subtle suasion, a shifting veil over his approach. He chose a place exactly halfway between the opposing parties, near the main gate, and launched his cable high into the parapets above. The sound attracted the guards' momentary notice; he made a careful gesture with one hand, projecting indifference, inconsequence in a wide circle of influence.
The mind trick worked, his potential foes quickly losing interest. Obi-Wan grinned, pleased with his success. While most mind tricks were directed at an individual subject and suggested specific thoughts or actions, this more difficult skill used the same power to spread impressions and sensations in an invisible ripple, a net of illusion, another Shadow's honed technique. A pity that Dooku had not been here to witness his minor triumph.
One minute later he had ascended the dangling cable in three Force-aided bounds and dropped in a single liquid motion to the pavement on the other side, blending seamlessly into the shaded obscurity at the city's margins.