"Major, the electrical storms have subsided enough for comms with HQ to be reestablished... yet, we still aren't receiving any comm signals from any of the units in this highlighted area here, on Grid 3. Local intel says there's an ancient mining complex somewhere in this mountainous region, shown here. I want you and your Search & Rescue teams, to go in right behind our troopers, do you copy? I have a very, very bad feeling about what those boys in the 33rd Infantry have gotten themselves into down there!"

-GAR Clone Commander CC-3014, aka: 'Corky'; addressing his subordinate, about a missing mission into a supposedly uncharted mining system, on the outer-rim planet of Ord Pardron-

Chap23_

The orbital space around Corrisant today, was an absolute mess.

Within the thin grid of normally well-organized flight zones that were, usually, a dependable grouping of orderly, easily navigable streams of interstellar traffic... all, flowing seamlessly-seeming to-and-fro between the planetary defensive shield below, out into the open hyperspace lanes; now, hummed (and occasionally, even buzzed one another) like a variable hive of poorly coordinated, metallic husked, insects.

Only these insects, were the randomly-hued hulls of space ships... of all shapes, sizes, and origins. All, currently being crammed into the same relatively small area together... forming, in effect (Thain, disinterestedly noted) a secondary shield, of sorts.

All of them... a wild myriad of colors and origins... brimming full with beings urgently attempting to either enter, or exit, the galactic center of government, now that war had come.

It'd taken Thain hours since the time of his departure, even with the benefit of having an elite military ranking, just for his tiny ship to get out far enough to be clear of the massive worlds gravity well, so he could safely make the jump to lightspeed.

To Thain, every second of those long hours passed with a growing sense of distress.

By this time, what had begun as a gnawing unease, had become within him, a desperate need... for him to put as many light years between himself, and the Jedi Order, as possible.

In the interval, his mind had passed the hours entertaining thoughts of him not dutifully reporting to Ord Pardron. But instead, of him going rogue... and jumping out into lawless, Hutt-controlled space, somewhere.

"Somewhere far from any trade routes... somewhere the war wasn't likely to have any real effect." He reasoned, aloud. "After all, who wants to fight over a dung-heap?"

As the crono-tic's ticked on, his mind ran on a little further.

"A dung-pile...hmmm" he slowly rolled his fingers across the dash of the cockpit while he mused. "Like... Tatooine, perhaps." His fingers stopped. "Hmmm. Neither the Republic, nor the Jedi, hold much sway out there." He looked at the crono, again. With very second that passed, that desert dung-pile... sounded better and better.

From there, he could certainly ditch this too-easily recognized Republic shuttle for a few credits... no questions asked. Then, simply move on to some backwater planet, where he could quietly disappear. As long as he stayed out of sight, and didn't start using his force powers for his own ends, the Jedi Order wouldn't come looking him. Although it had never been said aloud during his meeting with the Council, Thain could fell the other Masters concern over his utter failure to properly handle his base emotions. Silently, they sniffed him over for any scent of darkness lurking within.

He assumed they found none, since they had let him leave. He wasn't surprised. His sadness was still too ripe to have yet spoiled him. In truth, he doubted it would ever fade in his heart enough for even a hint of bitterness to take root. Also, he was the one responsible for his own pain... so revenge was even denied him as an option. Unless, he took his own life. But then, he wouldn't be turning to the dark side afterwards. So in his mind, it was a really mute point.

Of course, some members of the Republic could be worried he would join up with the Separatists. But, even if Thain did agree that the systems who wanted to peaceably leave the Republic should be allowed to do so, if they truly wished to... he had no more desire to use his skills to help them in their fight for independence, than he did to use them to aid the Republic in keeping itself from splintering to pieces. Besides, the Jedi... along with their newly acquired army of clone soldiers... could surely handle a few renegade systems without his assistance.

"No." he said to himself, speaking to himself aloud, as he oft did when he was all alone. "No matter my destiny, it does not involve running off to go fight for the enemy."

Thain was not a traitor. Nor, was he worried about being seen as a coward by his former pupils and peers.

The life-long trained warrior just didn't want to fight anyone, anymore. He had already lost his will to fight, to his own personal opponent. The one lurking in his memories. Specifically, his memories of her. In war Thain wanted to escape, she stood at the head of the armies opposing him. She, would personally lead the assault.

Reflexively, he physically recoiled from the suddenly recalled mental image of her violently marred, violet face. Since her death, his efforts to reach out to the Force felt to him, like he were reaching out to take her blood-stained hand. Sensing it's once warming energy flow through him, was now like feeling her cold, dead touch.

Sethra... once, his chosen apprentice... had become for him now, a cruel tormentor. Like some form of force-phantom, she stalked his every thought, eagerly waiting for the opportunity to strike at him. His guilt-ridden conscience had transformed her into some kind of malicious gatekeeper, barring him from his connection to the Force. To again regain access to it's limitless power, Thain knew he would have to confront her. And in doing so, his own responsibility for her death.

That, was the fight he was truly afraid to face. Not some mob of misprogrammed driods. No, she was only enemy he was trying to run away from.

"Go away." he desperately whispered to the phantom haunting his empty cockpit.

In an effort to physically banish his ethereal demons, Thain gave his head a good, hard shake. And, forced his squinted eyes to more fully open. As her visage faded, his blurry sight slowly began to focus in on the world around him again.

Finally, he noticed the illumination of the small emerald light on his control panel, informing him that the navigational computer released it's safety protocol controlled-hold on the activation lever, and that he was free to leave. All that remained, was for him to visually check his exit vector, and then push the handles full forward. The jump coordinates, he'd long since programmed in.

With a self-stabilizing wave for relief, Thain eagerly reached over to to activate the shuttle's awaiting hyper-engines.

His hand froze mid-motion, however, as he caught sight of another light on the control that had suddenly joined the previously much welcomed, friendly green, solo blinking one. In contrast, this new light pulsed with an ominous amber. Of course, Thain... himself, a well-experienced pilot... instantly knew what it meant.

After all, it was just a simple warning light.

But upon seeing it, an overwhelming panic seized him. For a long moment, he found that he could only sit there in the seat, paralyzed... staring at the steadily oscillating, small yellow light on the comm's boards... in growing horror at what it portended.

He was receiving an incoming, personally encoded, message... on the Jedi Council's private channel. Inside, Thain felt his chances of fleeing, swiftly fleeting away. Despite their assurances, they were calling him back to train another Jedi. He knew it.

He could ignore the message, and say that he had already started to jump before receiving the summons. But, the Masters would instantly see through his deception, and fuel their fears of his falling to the Dark side. Of course, he wouldn't have to answer any questions... if he never returned at all. Starring at the awaiting message renewed his desperate desire to just vanish. To abandon all ties to the Jedi, and to the Force... and free himself from his self-imposed servitude to the wills of them both, forever.

Temptation, trembled his hand over the hyperdrive levers. Instead, he rashly dropped his finger down... to depress the 'text only' option on the message receivers selection menu, below.

Unwittingly holding his breath, he read the auto-decrypted characters, as they scrolled across the small LED screen.

The more he read on, the more he realized that he had been mostly right about his premonitions concerning the concealed contents of the most urgent communique.

Mostly.

As read followed the stream of neon letters, he realized that, while it was a recall for him to return the the Jedi Temple, at once, resume Jedi training... it wasn't from any of the Masters. And, when Thain checked the prefix code attached, he saw that it wasn't a request from the Council, at all.

This, quite to the contrary, was a being message sent to him, directly... and, privately... from one of his former pupils. The last set of decoded text, confirmed that it was indeed a private message from Jedi Knight, Anakin Skywalker. Nothing more.

Thain chest slowly began to move again. After a few calming breathes, Thain replayed the stored text message, studying its meaning more carefully.

It seemed that... now, fully physically recovered from the surgeries to replace his amputated arm... lost during his recent, ill-fated attempt to arrest Count Dooku (himself, a former Jedi, and thus Thain's former student); the Jedi Knight was eager to begin his rehabilitation. And, to no doubt, work on his lightsaber technique.

But, even as the idea of helping the lad regain his skills... and even more, his confidence, after such a terrible defeat. Thain knew, however, that he simply had nothing left to teach young Anakin. Nothing that would aid him, anyways. Even while being impaired with an unfamiliar, mechanical appendage... he wouldn't be an adequate sparring partner for the gifted young knight. Not without opening himself up to the Force... and to her.

No, all Skywalker could possibly learn from Thain now, was defeat.

"That, or worse..." he dreaded.

Master Yoda had already sensed enough fear in the boy to worry Thain from very the start of the unusual padawan's training. He didn't need now... at such a fragile time for the young man...to add the seeds of dispair, to such an already unstable, emotional mix.

That, was a quick and easy recipe for a disastrously deadly dish. One, poisoned... by the sickly-sweet flavor, of the Dark side of the Force.

No, given these chaotic times, the risk was just too great. Thain would not turn to the Dark side, and he would not let his failings as a Jedi, inadvertently lead anyone else down it's slippery path, either. Only a Jedi Master could tread such a treacherous slope.

Thain Dural, however, no longer knew the way.

Deflated by the weight of his destiny, he hollowly placed his hand on the hyperdrive handles... and pushed. The stars became angry daggers of cold, white light... stabbing him with inner shame, as they ushered him towards his own, dimly lit fate.

Closing his eyes to the gathering swirl of hyperspace, Thain didn't exactly know what he would ultimately do... once he arrived on Ord Pardron. Or, what he would do after that.

But somehow, he had the feeling that from now on, all of the Jedi... including himself, and young Skywalker... will be faced with fighting against more than just errant droid-owners junk collection, to reclaim what they have lost.

And, despite the having the brotherhood of the hordes of faithful Jedi throughout the galaxy, Thain was just as certain that each of them, would ultimately have to defeat their own demons... alone.