Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Center Cannot Hold

Darrus lost count somewhere around a thousand. He had never really appreciated how large a ship the Maelstrom was. The cruiser was gigantic, especially when one was crawling through it. His arms had passed hurting a long time ago. Now they simply ached with the dull fire of limbs pushed far beyond their limits. If they ever worked again, he'd consider it a miracle of the Force.

Regarding the Force, he was still completely drained. He knew why; that power only came in times of relaxation or anger. Since he refused to accept the latter and had no time for the former, he was doing this all on his own. He desperately wanted to take a few minutes to calm his mind and let the Force flow through his exhausted body but every second counted now.

He wasn't sure why but he had the distinct feeling the Maelstrom, and consequently he, was fast running out of time.

That feeling was reinforced by a sudden lurch through the deck. The whole ship seemed to shudder for a moment as if struck by a mighty fist. It was the third such impact since he'd started climbing down to the hanger level. He knew what the sound was but that knowledge brought no comfort.

Asteroids.

Without power, the ship could neither raise shields nor use point-defense guns to clear the debris outside. The Maelstrom had apparently drifted close to the far edge of the asteroid field during its time in the rift, but close wasn't good enough. There were still tumbling rocks out there big enough to crush the battleship like a Dantooine bloodworm under a pirate's boot. Another thought with no comfort in it...

Sheer fortune, something Darrus was not used to benefitting from, had carried the vessel this far without being destroyed. The weary Jedi knew quite well his luck would not hold much longer. On the off chance he did drift out of the field intact, the ship would be an instant target for the first band of raiders to come along. Like he was now, unable to stand and unarmed, he'd be easy prey as well.

Feeling helpless made his fury bubble to the surface, causing the deck plates nearby to shake as the Force surged once more through the air. He closed his eyes and forced those emotions back into check. He was angry, that could not be denied, but he did not dare let it take him again. Still, he was crippled and if he didn't make it out, what would it matter?

Surely he could use the Dark Side long enough to get to the hanger. What harm could there be in that?

He clenched one fist and slammed it into the deck, letting the pain shock him back into clear thought. That was the trap! It was thinking like that, rationalizing the Dark away, that he had to keep out of his head. It would be so easy to let rage carry him the rest of this long, long way. So... damned... easy...

And focusing on that, focusing on willing himself into control, Darrus took each lurching crawl-step closer to the hanger and, he prayed, escape from this floating deathtrap.

---------

By the time he levered open the last door and fell to the cold steel floorplates of the Maelstrom's main hanger, the ship had been struck six more times. The last impact had been the worst and Darrus suspected the bridge no longer existed. The sheering scream of torn steel had echoed through the ship, a sound he felt in his very soul. This ship had been an important part of his life, carrying him through four campaigns in the name of the Republic. She deserved a better death than this.

Unfortunately, he had nothing else to offer. In fact, if he didn't keep moving, there'd be two deaths soon. Leaning up on arms that felt raw, he looked over the flight deck, hoping against hope that a ship, any ship, had been left behind.

The Legacy was gone, its droid pilot having followed his last command to it. He'd half-expected R-0 to refuse and still be here, a fried husk of an astromech defiant to the last. He felt a moment's joy that the quirky little droid had made it out. That made him smile, a rare expression on his face these days.

Unfortunatey, the same energy backlash that fried his ship was exactly why he doubted this deck would hold him any hope. Sure enough, the few fighters he could see hanging in docking clamps above him were covered in carbon scoring and obviously ruined. Two had melted cockpit glass and the third was intact aside from its engine housing... which was lying on the deck nearby in a pile of blackened char. None of these would save him.

He crawled along the back wall of the flight deck, looking with fading expectations at one useless ship after another. He passed the docking bay where the Legacy had been, silently wishing R-0 and Millinae luck, wherever they were. He hoped the crafty astromech had found her and was keeping her out of trouble. Checking himself with a soft laugh, he amended that to hoping it was helping her in whatever trouble she was currently in. He knew better than to think Trill's sister would ever live quietly.

Trill... The thought of her drained his strength and sent him face-first to the deck. He'd tried so hard to keep her safe, keep her out of this war. And for what? So his best friend and second-in-command could betray him and kill her? Why? Why did Marr-ek do it? Darrus hadn't been blind; he'd always seen the attraction between his ARC trooper commander and Trillinae. Frankly, he'd been grateful Trill had someone to lean on when he couldn't be there.

That's why none of this made any sense. Why would Marr-ek betray him? Why would he hurt Trill? He could understand why the other clone troopers might turn on him. He'd been worried that someone might eventually find a way to turn the clones against the Republic, though a loyalty shift of this magnitude was nearly inconceivable. In his heart, he knew the answer. His mentor, Palpatine...

Had he been played for a fool this whole time? Had the kindly old man who'd visited him every day during his recovery from Geonosis truly been plotting to turn the Republic against the Jedi? What of their conversations, their debates about might making right and the role of the Force in keeping order throughout the galaxy?

His inner debate was ended suddenly; the ship lurched violently and listed to one side as another impact thundered above him. The largest one yet, the Maelstrom couldn't take much more. If he didn't find something spaceworthy soon, he'd be no better off than Trill soon.

The thought of joining her in whatever life came after this had a certain appeal. He could just stop, lean against the wall, and wait for the end to come. Surely he'd done enough, fought hard enough; didn't he deserve to rest?

His hand slammed down again, this time almost outside his conscious control. He had to snap out of this. Despair was just another path to the Dark Side. If he was going to survive, he would have to keep his mind on the present and keep striving to find a way off this doomed vessel. There were no other options. He just needed one chance, one small break.

And he found it just past the Legacy's docking port On a small elevated ramp, an ARC-170 rested in an open cradle. It looked undamaged on the outside and a tell-tale shimmer around the fighter/bomber told him why. Its shields were active; they must have been on this whole time, protecting the craft from the power surge that destroyed everything else here.

Darrus did not waste time questioning his good fortune. He moved his way up the ramp's side gantry, painfully leaning to one side to protect his broken rib and keep it from working any closer to his lung or heart. There, on the ramp, a small datapad with a shield unit of its own was laying in a coil of wires. Darrus recognized it instantly as one of R-0's. "Clever droid," he muttered to himself. "Still watching over me." Pressing the pad's command override button, he lowered the ship's shields and initiated its boarding protocol.

Climbing the ARC-170's ladder was an extreme effort, one that made his sundered, burned chest scream in agony, but he made himself keep moving until he reached the forward canopy and wedged it open. Doing so almost caused him to pitch forward and land on his hurt ribs, something that could have been fatal. He caught the edge of the cockpit and steadied himself, slinging one nerveless leg in at a time.

Once inside, he powered up the ship, hoping the shields hadn't left the ARC-170 too drained to fly. To his relief the fuel cells were still at 60%, more than enough for a slow burn. He wouldn't be going anywhere fast but he could get off the cruiser before...

The hanger shook wildly, causing two of the fighters hanging nearby to rip free from their clamps and come smashing down into the deck. Metal and glass flew everywhere, pattering off Jeht's craft like glimmering rain. Above him, the superstructure of the Maelstrom began to wail - a swan song of anguished steel.

"Time to go."

There was no power in the hanger for opening the blast doors and no guarantee they'd be able to do so even if there was. Jeht transferred firing controls from the middle cockpit to his own, his heads-up display getting even more complicated. The ARC-170 was designed for three clone troopers - one pilot, one gunner, and a reverse seated weapons officer with backup controls. Handing the complex craft without help would be... interesting.

His hand glided over the missile toggles, arming a pair of concussion warheads. Before the ship could tear itself apart overhead any worse, he fired them both at the massive hanger doors in front of his ship and braced for the rough ride he was about to take.

The missiles did their work well. Two fire blossoms ablated the metal portals instantly, tearing open a ragged pathway outside the ship. Black loomed ahead for a moment, then all the atmosphere on the flight deck rushed through the hole at once. All the wreckage and everything not bolted down, including Jeht's craft, went with the air, shrieking out of the still-burning passageway into the cold of space.

Jeht kicked on his engines as the ARC-170 moved through the flame cloud, using the craft's thrusters just enough to avoid ripping the ship open on the cragged edges of the hanger doors. He managed to keep the fighter/bomber intact, though its paint job was ruined by the atavistic plasma roiling over the craft's hull. He saw the cockpit glass warp slightly and held his breath, hoping the ship would pass through the heat envelope before it melted.

It did, flying past the fires of the doorway and into the starry night beyond. Now Jeht brought the ARC-170's avionics up fully, taking control of the craft as best he could. The ship was a little cooked but otherwise seemed intact. Damage control was offline; he just had to trust his instincts. Right now, they were yelling at him to flee the area.

A moment later, he saw why. What he'd been fearing for the Maelstrom was coming to pass. A massive asteroid easily three times the size of the cruiser itself was spinning straight into its drifting path. Jeht turned the ARC-170 and had just enough time to bid his vessel a regretful farewell before the gargantuan stone crushed it out of existence. An silent explosion of silver debris marked its final passing.

Jeht closed his eyes for a moment, letting the grief pass. He had no time for further goodbyes. The loss of the Maelstrom, taking with it all of his crew, also marked the end of his service in the Republic. He wasn't a General any longer. He wondered if he was even a Jedi.

"What am I now?" Then, considering the effects of the Lenarian Rift, he added, "When am I?"

One thing was certain; he wouldn't be finding any answers out here. This particular ARC-170 had a hyperspace drive unit, albeit a small one. He wouldn't be getting far, though a few systems in a jump was feasible.

He considered going to Cularin; it was close and he'd had friends there. Unfortunately, that was why he couldn't go there. He'd surely drawn the Grand Chancellor's wrath by disobeying orders. Until he could determine how things had gone in the Clone Wars since his hopefully short absence, he did not dare risk their safety.

That meant a neutral system. He looked over the star map, dreading what he knew he'd find. There, on his screen, was the only system within reach that had no allegiance to either the Republic or the Separatist movement.

He cussed. In Hutt.

And then he set his navicomp for Tattooine.

1 comment:

Zay said...

Well, at least he knows the native tongue!

I know, I know, small consolation..