Field of Dreams
The agile air speeder came to a halt outside the Colfico headquarters, repulsors scattering gravel and dust as Qui Gon swung it alongside the broad front entrance portico. The two Jedi leapt up the building's shallow steps only to find the doors securely locked.
Obi Wan's saber thrummed low in the cool air, and he raised it high, ready and willing to carve straight through the heavy panels.
"Wait," Qui Gon commanded, raising a hand. Behind the massive stone edifice, distinct in the quiet morning, the thrum of engines from the planations' private transport yard.
"They are fleeing," the tall Jedi master barked. "Quickly."
A moment later they were back in the small Antarian government speeder, setting off in pursuit of a sleek private cloud cruiser which jetted away across the fields of colfillini. Raxis and Nolid could be glimpsed through the canopy, their faces set in expressions of contempt and determination.
"They will head for the nearest shipping yards, on the western coast," Qui Gon said. "I will contact the planetary security- they can meet us there."
Obi Wan nodded, pushed the speeder to greater velocity, held tight to the yoke as the lightweight craft strained to keep pace with the Antarians' much more powerful machine. They flew a streaking path directly behind the escaping brothers, drives whining in protest.
"The engines are overheating," Qui Gon observed dispassionately as the chase progressed. Warning lights had appeared on the console, and the speeder was indeed shuddering violently beneath them.
"We'll make it," his Padawan said tightly, not letting up speed at all.
The master considered his student with mild alarm; for a self-professed hater of flying, Obi Wan's present piloting style bespoke an uncharacteristic recklessness. Beneath his determination, a hot and molten outrage simmered- not yet dangerous, but darkly present.
The speeder bucked slightly as the young Jedi pushed it yet harder, taking it almost past its capacity.
In a moment, the Antarians began a steep descent, heading for a complex of wide buildings resembling hangar bays. Piles of shipping crates formed labyrinthine aisles outside some of the structures; among these towers, palette driods rolled about on the ground like insects sorting food into a hive. One or two heavy freighters of Trade Federation design stood waiting on the landing strips, continual parades of cargo trickling up their open ramps.
Obi Wan gripped the controls fiercely and followed the Antarians down, ignoring the streams of smoke issuing from their failing thruster arrays. The entire frame of the speeder spasmed and groaned as he made for the ground directly behind the fugitives. The Antarians whipped around a large building, skimming over the duracrete; the Jedi summoned the Force and leapt clear of their dying vehicle, springing away just before the speeder ploughed into a towering stack of open crates, throwing the plastoid boxes over the hard ground in a rending impact. The containers exploded and colfillini grains showered down in every direction, a gentle rainfall of seeds.
The Jedi landed on their feet, running, and dashed around the building's corner. The Padawan had activated his saber and was pelting through the warehouse doors after Raxis and Nolid before Qui Gon could restrain him.
"Obi Wan!" the Jedi master shouted, shocked at this headstrong and imprudent charge into unknown danger. His Padawan was not centered, not mindful. The Force was incandescent with danger. Qui Gon pounded after him, saber hilt in his hand.
Inside the warehouse it was dark; banks of heavy lifting machinery hung from the bare ceiling: cranes and pulleys, hydraulic slings and grasping mechanisms, lifts and counterweight blocks. Another labyrinth of stacked colfillini boxes filled the entire cavernous space, forming walls many meters high. The echo of footsteps rang off the high roof and hard metallic sides of the structure.
"Raxis! Nolid!" Obi Wan called out, his voice taut with authority, with a barely contained anger. "In the name of the Galactic Republic, you are under arrest!"
Qui Gon reached his apprentice's side, gripped his arm hard. "Be mindful of your emotions," he warned. He could feel the conflict churning beneath the brash tones.
"Go to the nine hells, Jedi!" a deep Antarian voice mocked them from somewhere within the rows of crates, as they prowled along one side of the maze, peering down each successive alleyway, sabers at the ready.
"You can say hello to that pathetic spy Mandirly while you are there," the same voice added, with an evil chuckle.
Obi Wan let out a strangled cry and leapt forward, into the row from which the voice had sounded, saber blazing as he swept it around in an aggressive arc of blue fire. Qui Gon spun and pursued him – almost too late. The Padawan's bold attack had landed him in a hail of blasterfire, which he deflected in furious motion, blade spinning and slashing as he batted plasma bolts back at the Antarians, precision abandoned in favor of power; the bright blade howled continuously as it swept in wide defensive circles. One of the bolts deflected into the top layer of boxes; a cargo crate smashed open and erupted, toppling its neighbors and starting an avalanche. The wicked brothers fled in one direction; the Jedi pushed the tumbling boxes aside with the Force.
Qui Gon felt his Padawan's desire to reach the two murderers flare up like a spout of fire. The young Jedi flung a box aside with a harsh yell and sprang after the brothers, leaping from container to container, across the stacked piles, over obstacles, in mad pursuit.
Raxis and Nolid made it to the double doors at the far end of the warehouse. Obi Wan sprinted after them, heedless of anything else, his Force presence shimmering with outrage and revulsion, teetering precariously on the edge of vengeance.
"Obi Wan!" Qui Gon called again, infusing the name with every ounce of authority and command he had, slamming against his Padawans' mind with the strength of the Force.
The boy skidded, half-spun; glared at the pair of retreating Antarians, scowled at Qui Gon, breath heaving in his chest, face set in rigid lines.
Raxis and Nolid reached the double doors, scrabbled at the control panel. Obi Wan seized a fragment of shattered plastoid box with the Force and hurled it into the door control. Circuits sparked and shorted; a long gash disfigured the panel. The doors remained closed.
Snarling, Raxis turned and fired again; Qui Gon raised his weapon and deflected bolts. Obi Wan jumped, straight up, saber thrumming as it slashed through one of the support cables for a gargantuan counterweight overhead. The solid block of metal plummeted downward, its remaining tether unraveling and pulling apart under the strain.
The Anatrians screamed, cringed, crouched in horror as death hurtled downward upon them, then froze as the looming slab stopped its murderous descent a half-meter from their heads.
Qui Gon's breath came out in a sharp hiss: Obi Wan stood, both hands extended, holding the ponderous weight wobbling in mid-air, the Force itself seeming to tremble with his exertion.
"Mercy!" Nolid cried out, dropping his blaster. "Don't kill us!"
"Please, I beg you," his brother pleaded.
"Did Mandirly beg?" Obi Wan hollered back, straining to keep the terrible weight aloft. His voice cracked. "Did he beg for mercy when you cut out his tongue? When you broke his bones? When you set him on fire alive? Did he?"
The block slipped fractionally. The brothers cowered, screamed in terror.
"Step forward and surrender," the Padawan growled, lip curling in contempt, limbs shaking with effort or difficult emotion.
Raxis and Nolid scuttled from beneath the block, dropping to their knees, hands high above their heads. The slab dropped behind them with a deafening boom, cracking the duracrete foundation and raising a cloud of choking dust. They screamed again. ObI Wan staggered backward, spent.
The shouts and pounding footsteps of the security forces sounded outside. Qui Gon stepped aside as they rushed in, eager and noisily victorious. He seized his apprentice by both shoulders and spun him full around, gaze boring into him, question and accusation carried on the Force, across their bond.
But the eyes that turned up to look at him held no stain of darkness – only boundless sorrow and exhaustion. The Jedi master exhaled. "We're done here," he said soflty.
They had reached their utter limits.
The Jedi retired that evening to the guest quarters provided by the Antarian government. Raxis and Nolid having been taken into custody by the Antarian security forces, a planetary judicial committee assigned to initiate the prosecution, the proper authorities dispatched to recover Tayvor Mandirly's corpse and to exhume the remains of the workers slaughtered in the fields, and a commission established to liberate and relocate the other Colfico volunteers recruited under coercive conditions, there was no task left for them to accomplish. They had fulfilled their mandate and left the aftermath to the oversight of the local government. Pollis Masa-Tu had thanked them profusely for their swift and effective intervention, and promised a transport at their first convenience. Indeed, he seemed quite eager to be rid of them, despite his florid public praise of their actions, particularly the "selfless dedication" of the Padawan – an encomium the recipient accepted with a stoicism worthy of his Order.
At least, that's how it appeared to the various dignitaries assembled to hear the Prime Minister's official speech of thanks. Qui Gon Jinn knew better. He had politely declined the invitation to a banquet in their honor and firmly denied all requests for interviews or media correspondence. A short comm. to the Temple on Coruscant had secured a Republic diplomatic shuttle for their use; it would arrive within a standard day. He intended to eschew the Antarians as far as possible during that time; he, and especially Obi Wan, needed time to rest and meditate. As joyful as Pollis Masa-Tu appeared to be, he knew that the ending of this mission had been far from satisfactory, despite their best effort.
Now, as he knelt in meditation posture on the carpeted floor of the sumptuous room, watching moonlight slide over a ceiling and walls embossed with colfillini-shaped friezes, he wondered what would transpire after they left. Raxis and Nolid, and their criminal allies, owned the planet in more than economic terms. Their high level contacts and bribe recipients, and illegal profit-sharing partners, controlled the courts, the legislature, the tariff and tax offices, the transportation guild, and many other aspects of public life. In some respects, their power was equivalent to that attained by the most ruthless of Hutt overlords on far-flung worlds in the Outer Rim.
Nearby, Obi Wan turned over restlessly in his sleep – the first he had enjoyed in three days, by the Jedi master's reckoning. He had moved through the day's work – the reports and meetings - in a daze, saying almost nothing, hovering close beside Qui Gon at all times, unusually and markedly subdued. He did not even object when Qui Gon had called in a medical droid to tend his injuries and then sent him to bed like a youngling, well before sunset.
The Jedi master closed his eyes. He believed in keeping one's focus in the present moment..but here, for once, he was tempted to pry into the future. What would happen, once he and his Padawan departed? Their mandate had been limited: they were to confrm rumors of labor violations, and help the government apprehend those responsible. This having been accomplished, they could do nothing more without taking justice into their own hands, a tempting and dangerous practice. Tempting because he foresaw many difficulties ahead, many pitfalls in the Antarian justice system. He knew all too well the frustration and grief that could afflict his inexperienced apprentice if Raxis and Nolid managed , ultimately, to wriggle free from punishment. It would seem as though all their work here had been in vain.
Behind him, his Padawan stirred again, tossed onto his side, groaned something incomprehensible, and fell into uneasy silence.
Qui Gon sighed, and released his worry into the Force. This mission had left scars. Even he had not escaped unscathed. Had his words to the Trade Federation lawyer yesterday unwittingly hurried Mandirly to his awful fate? He had intended to provoke unrest, to trick the Nemoidian into revealing the prisoner's location. But it was possible that he had underestimated the evil of the Antarian plantation owners. Yes, even he had been naïve, too trusting. They had been taken by surprise in so many ways. Even Jedi could be caught off balance….
Suddenly, the young Jedi woke up screaming. He bolted upright, chest heaving, and then leaned forward, dropping his forehead down upon his raised knees.
"Mandirly?" Qui Gon asked, gently.
Obi Wan nodded and drew in a deep centering breath, eyes closed.
"It will take time for the dreams to pass," the Jedi master advised. "Do not fight them, or fear them."
His apprentice shot him a wry look and then rested his head against his knees again. "Those hell-spawned bastards won't be convicted or punished, will they?" he muttered, disgust and resignation heavy in his rasping voice.
Qui Gon sighed. "The future is uncertain," he said. "But I fear that is a distinct possibility. I sense much fear in the Prime Minister and his aides. And the brothers are very powerful here on Antar."
"I do not trust the Prime Minister," Obi Wan frowned. I sense cowardice and dissimulation in him."
"As do I."
"Then why did we come at all?" Obi Wan demanded. "And what about Mandirly? Those sons of a Sith deserve to …to die- at the very least – for what they did to him."
"A Jedi does not desire vengeance or to exact equal suffering for wrongdoing," Qui Gon frowned. "And your language is far past the bounds of propriety," he added, sternly.
"Kriff propriety," ObI Wan grunted, still curled in his ball.
Qui Gon stiffened. "Discipline yourself, or I will call that medical droid back in here and have you sedated," he threatened, an undercurrent of humor softening his commanding tone. "I likely should, anyhow."
His apprentice managed to uncurl. He rose from the bed and folded himself onto the floor across from his teacher. "Forgive me, master," he said, after a while. " It is difficult to accept that we must leave, and can do nothing more."
Qui Gon nodded. He studied his Padawan carefully. The boy had been injured, abused, overworked, deprived, and subjected to harrowing visions in the course of their few days on Antar 4. It was only natural for him to desire all his effort to bear some real and lasting fruit, not to be rendered meaningless by the corruption of the planetary crime syndicates. He knew a half-truth would be unacceptable; he must hold out the small gleam of hope. "All those working on the plantation now will be given the option to leave and resettle," he pointed out. "Many lives will be spared, or vastly improved. The governor has promised that much, and I believe his plan will be swiftly implemented."
"That can never balance the weight of evil already commited," Obi Wan said forlornly.
"Sometimes all we can do is provide for a better future. This is a truth we must all at one time come to accept. Some evils cannot be adequately punished, in the sense of retribution. To think otherwise, to seek balance through equal atonement…that is a dark path, Padawan."
Obi Wan folded his hands in his lap and studied them for a long time. "I understand," he said, at last. "But I wish we could have saved Mandirly."
"So do I." It was true; there was no point in denying it. A part of him whispered that he had the Alderaanian's blood on his hands. He banished the seductive whisper, the voice of the dark side beckoning.
"Was I not…..skilled enough? I might have saved him, had I been faster, or wiser."
"We did what we could. It wasn't enough," Qui Gon repeated, steering the conversation away from that morass. Self-recrimination would avail them nothing. "If there was a failure, it was on my part."
The Padawan looked at him somberly. Heaviness settled in the Force between them, aching. "Why?"
"I have told you before. Sometimes there is not an answer- not the kind you are seeking. Nothing happens by accident, or without purpose; but you will not be able always to see what that purpose may be. You must accept that Mandirly's death, and our failure to stop it, are the will of the Force."
"Then why did the Force allow it?" Obi Wan insisted, stricken. "Mandirly was a good man. Nobody deserves that. I …I can't think about it." he turned his face away, combating turbulent emotion.
"You should not brood," The Jedi master sighed. "But you can meditate on it, if the question disturbs you."
"I don't want to meditate," Obi Wan confessed, in a near whisper. "I don't…the Force showed me that. I don't want to see…things, ever again."
Ah. Here was the heart of the matter. "You feel betrayed by the Force," Qui Gon observed. "Every Jedi faces that trial at some point. You are not the only one. Take heart."
"I…master, I'm…I don't wish to meditate. I don't want to touch the Force."
Qui Gon saw the single tear sliding out of captivity. He pretended not to notice. "You are a Jedi," he replied, lightly, but firmly. "You have sworn your life to the Force. You will, I know, keep that promise unto your very death. You cannot turn away form the Force, Padawan, even should it show you such things. That is part of your path. And I am sworn to lead you on that path, and see that you do not stray from it."
Obi Wan looked up at him again, shocked and a trifle confused. A glimmer of dread lurked in his gaze, too.
"We will meditate often over the coming days. I am not giving you a choice in the matter."
But it was all his choice, ultimately. Every step on this hard, grueling, uphill path was his own choice. Qui Gon did not compel him; he merely refused to offer any deceptive, shortcut, any easier and less noble road. All he could do was to stand as a signpost pointing unremittingly, mercilessly, to the hardest route, that which led toward wisdom.
Obi Wan let out his breath in a long sigh of mingled sorrow and weariness, making the same choice he had so many other times in the past, so many times yet to come. "Yes, master," he said.
The next morning they visited the immigration center, where the vast majority of Colfico's present employees – its slaves in all but name – were in process of being relocated or reassigned to other jobs on Antar 4. Clerks and officials bustled among the unruly crowd; bodies pressed together, stood in lines here and there, sorted their way into separate buildings and the bowels of a large passenger transport waiting on the adjacent landing platform. The noise was deafening.
Obi Wan trailed behind Qui Gon, speaking little, eyes taking in the happy disorder. They wove their way through the chaos toward the ship where those leaving the system straggled their way up the long boarding ramp.
"You see," Qui Gon pointed out. "Here are those who were helped. Whatever else does or does not happen, these lives will be better. You must hold to that knowledge," he advised his Padawan.
The young Jedi nodded, watching in melancholy silence as the bedraggled workers made their way into the ship's hold. A loud, moaning growl carried over the seething chatter and noise of the crowds.
Presently the head and shoulders of an enormous Wookie appeared over the top of the moving sea of bodies, and a long shaggy arm waved out at the Jedi from across the plaza.
Obi Wan perked up a bit, the tiniest of smiles lighting his features. 'A friend," he said, raising a hand to return the Wookie's greeting.
With a cry of delight and recognition, the huge Wookie shoved his way through the protesting crowd, loping toward the Jedi in three huge strides and enveloping ObiWan in a rib-crushing embrace.
"Easy, my friend!" the Padawan choked out when he was able to breathe."Are you going home?"
The Wookie uttered something vaguely affirmative, and then leaned down to examine Ibo's fresh clothing – and the lightsaber hanging at his side. This provoked a fresh series of growls, grunts and moans, ending with an interrogative lilt.
Qui Gon chuckled.
"Well," Obi Wan shrugged, only able to guess at his acquaintance's meaning, "You know what they say: things are not always what they seem."
The Wookie roared with laughter and tousled his hair affectionately, then smothered him in another long and suffocating embrace.
"Ouch…Thank you. May the Force be with you."
The Wookie roared his last farewell, beaming with delight, and disappeared up the ramp into the passenger hold. Qui Gon stepped forward to his apprentice's side once more, laying one hand gently on the young man's shoulder. "Hold to that," he repeated.
Obi Wan shoved his hands into opposite sleeves. "Yes, master."
It was small consolation, a lonely gleam of light in a dark place. But light nonetheless.
That evening, the Antarian Prime Minister had the honor of seeing the two Jedi off personally. He bowed low to them, and beamed as they strode up the ramp of the small Republic diplomatic vessel delivered by droid courier to the main spaceport. The Jedi were …astounding. In what they were willing to do, and what they had done in so short a time. His office had been turned on its head – the arrest of Raxis and Nolid had already created a ripple of displeasure throughout the planet, a series of requests and complaints delivered with varying degrees of civility.
The Republic had sent its emissaries, and the trouble had been uprooted. Antar would retain its trade status in the Senate, a good and compliant citizen of the Galactic Republic, a small but earnest world struggling to establish and maintain the impossible ethical standards demanded by law. It was his role to preserve the common good on Antar, and the loss of preferred trading status would be ruinous. He had done what he needed to do.
The Jedi ship's ramp hissed closed, and the ship rose on repulsors. Pollis Masa-Tu thurst a hand into his voluminous pocket, There nestled a credit transfer chip coded for a staggering sum – an incentive passed to him by the Trade Federation lawyer, as an encouragement to consider the good of all Antar's citizens before pushing forward with the prosecution.
There were many to think of – many powerful people, with powerful friends. The image of Tayvor Mandirly's charred and twisted corpse hung in the air before the minister's eyes. He understood the message, even if the Jedi seemed immune to its subtle threat. They could leave, fly away to other troubled worlds. But he was stuck here.
He twisted his hands together and mopped his balding head. A public reprimand was called for. Perhaps fines. Yes, fines would be an excellent idea. The government could put the money to good use, and the brothers had plenty to spare. Raxis and Nolid could make a substantial and involuntary campaign contribution for the upcoming election….indeed, they might be able to promote his cause in more ways than one. Pollis Masa-Tu exhaled slowly. Yes, that was the only real solution. The only…safe… solution.
It was close enough to justice. At least here on Antar, where things were complicated. Mandirly's death was…tragic. There was no doubt. Antar would offer to pay for the funeral, perhaps, send condolences to the grieving relatives on Alderaan. When the Jedi found out the fate fo Raxis and Nolid, they would not be pleased….they seemed to think the brothers deserved a lifetime in prison, or worse….but that was not his concern. Besides, the Jedi would be busy elsewhere.
He went back to his office, and watched the Republic ship disappear into the darkening sky, nodding to himself in affirmation. Yes. It was a good solution.
He turned back to his private speeder; the sun shone down on the endless seas of green and red colfillini, the wind moved upon the surface of the waving fronds, and the last smoke of Tayvor Madirly's memory drifted, fading into Antar's bleak sky, into mournful oblivion, into the Force.