"We got blasted by something. You hit your head on a bulkhead. We sustained some damage.
We're slower, but still mobile. About ten klicks away from the new camp, out of range, apparently. You've been uncon-scious for almost an hour."
Jos tried to sit up, but a wave of stomach-churning nausea and vertigo overwhelmed him.
"You have a concussion," Tolk said. "Lie still."
"Yeah, I hear that. Everybody else okay?"
Tolk's mouth set in a firm line. She shook her head. Tears welled then, and she blinked them away.
But he knew.
Despite the vertigo and nausea that tore at his brain and gut, despite the fiery pain in his skull, Jos rolled over and struggled to his hands and knees.
"Jos, you can't help him. He's gone."
Jos heard the words, but they didn't register. He crawled. Zan was only a couple of body-lengths away, lying on his back, seeming to recede and then advance in Jos's vision.
It wasn't until he could touch his friend's face that he knew he'd reached him. Zan looked as if he were sleeping-there wasn't a mark on him.
"Zan," Jos croaked. "Don't do this, Zan. Don't you do this. This is not right, you hear me?"
He put out a hand to touch Zan's face again, and the effort spun the carrier around him.
He collapsed, his fingers touching the Zabrak. Still warm, a dispa.s.sionate part of his mind noted clinically. Still warm.
But Zan wasn't there anymore.
"Zan! This isn't funny! You always go too far, you know that? Now get up! "
Jos abruptly vomited, emptying his stomach mostly of bile and water. He managed to turn away enough so as not to splatter his friend.
His head felt slightly clearer now. "Tolk," he man-aged.
She crouched down in front of him. "We tried every-thing, Jos. He took a piece of shrapnel in the brain stem. All his autonomic functions went out at once. He-" She swallowed, and bright tears overflowed her eyes again. "He just shut down-it was instantaneous. The last thought he must have had was that his que-tarra had been saved. He was..." She swallowed again. "He was smiling."
"Let me help you, Jos," a soft voice said. Jos looked up, saw the Jedi standing beside him. Behind her, leaning in the canted vehicle, watching soberly, were I-Five, Klo Merit, and a few others. Barriss put out a hand toward him. "I can't bring him back. But I can help you deal with-"
"No," he said between clenched teeth. "No. I don't want to feel better. My friend is dead.
Nothing can change that. Nothing is going to make that right, or bet-ter, or easier." He looked up at her. "Do you under-stand? I won't be anesthetized. I owe him that much."
Tolk's tears flowed freely now, and she reached out to touch Jos on the shoulder, but that wasn't going to help, either. Blast this war! Blast the governments and the corporations and the military!
This could not go on. Something had to be done. He had to make sure that something was done.
Zan. Ah, Zan! How could you leave?
Column stared through the viewport in the transport, watching the militantly verdant swamp pa.s.s beneath them. The air scrubbers were strained to capacity, and still the stink of pollen and stagnant water seeped into the fetid atmosphere. Zan Yant was dead, and Jos Von-dar was injured. A shame. Yant had been an excellent artist, and a most likable fellow as well.
A shame. A real shame.
The message the spy had not gotten around to trans-lating earlier had been, of course, a warning of impend-ing attack. Column sighed. Would it have made any difference if the attack had been known of in advance? Maybe. Maybe not. It would have been nice to have been prepared mentally, even if there was nothing phys-ically that could have been done.
There was, and probably never would be, an answer to that. Column, Lens, the spy-use whichever name you liked-they all lived in a subtle, shirting world, a world in which black was far too often white, a world where loyalty could change on an almost quotidian basis, where friendships were both luxuries and liabilities - risks too great to be considered, much less taken.
Column frowned. Still objective enough, hopefully, to realize when procedural mistakes were being made. Was this one of those times? Was paranoia encroaching, gaining a foothold in that heretofore magnificently ob-jective brain? If so, it had to be resisted, fought against, and, ultimately, triumphed over.
Perhaps it was time to step up the plan. After all, it would do neither Dooku nor Black Sun any good to have their behind-the-scenes endeavors exposed.
Column nodded. It was a narrow strand of web to be walked, over a chasm deeper than time itself. But fail-ure, now more than ever, was not an option.
Barriss could not recall ever feeling more helpless - more useless-since she was a child.
She had saved Ji, had felt virtuous for that, only to have him wade back into the thick of battle as a berserker and be claimed by death anyway. True, it had been his choice, but still, the question would not leave her: could she have saved him? Would she have worked harder if he had been somebody she had liked, instead of somebody she de-tested? Personal involvement wasn't supposed to matter to a Jedi. A Jedi was supposed to be able to control her feelings and do the right thing for the right reasons.
Would she ever be able to function at that level?
She had not been able to deflect the attack that had killed Zan-she hadn't even felt it coming. And after the metal splinter had lodged in the base of his skull, she had still not been able to save him, though she had used every bit of the power supposedly under her control.
She could not even soothe Jos's grief over the death of his friend. Even if he would allow it, did she have the ability? A few hours ago, she would not have doubted it. But now...
Now, suddenly, everything was in doubt. The immen-sity of the war seemed far beyond the capabilities of the few remaining Jedi; certainly, even this small part of it was more than she could control.
Jos had managed to sit, leaning back against the wall of the transport as it limped along.
Tolk, who loved him, knelt beside him and ministered to his physical in-jury, which was nothing compared to the damage to his psyche. Doctors dealt in such things, they were trained for it, but they were not immune to personal feelings. Zan Yant had been a good person, a dedicated surgeon, a wonderful musician, and now all that had been cut short.
And for what? Barriss asked herself. Because two opposing factions wanted more power and control over the citizens of the galaxy. Was there ever an uglier activ-ity than war?
Organized slaughter of vast numbers for reasons that never seemed justified, or even sane?
She looked at the medics in the transport. Sometimes the price that had to be paid was dear, and she had sworn to pay it herself, if ever the need arose. But she was also a healer, one who could use the Force to repair those who were sick or hurt. Right now, however, she felt like a sin-gle grain of sand against the force of a ma.s.sive, moon-driven tide. It was all so... senseless. So overwhelming. And there was nothing she could do to stop it. Nothing.
How could she ever become a Jedi Knight, feeling as she did?
I-Five said, "I understand the motivations of biologi-cals to a degree, but I cannot understand how they can shrug off the consequences of some of their actions."
"Welcome to the mystery," Barriss said.
"It does not appear as if I will be the one to solve it anytime soon. That last impact seemed to have scram-bled my recovering circuitry somewhat. My heuristic memory process has ceased functioning."
Barriss reached out with the Force, but the droid's mind, as others like it, was untouchable. She could not help him, either.
Jedi Knighthood seemed no closer at that moment than far Coruscant, and the carefree days of her child-hood.
Den made a lot of notes, speaking into his recorder, capturing images. Once they finally came to a halt, the droids began to set the Rims...o...b..ck up, even though it was the middle of the night. Under the harsh glare of artificial light being swarmed by clouds of mindless in-sectoids, the noises and sights of the construction en-croached on the warm and wet darkness.
The shock of Zan's death had washed over him like an ocean breaker, a hard, sudden, and overpowering surf. Den retreated to the sh.e.l.l of his work, the same tactic used by soldiers and doctors and reporters galaxywide: keep moving, and don't think about things better left alone for now.
People and droids did their work, and he did his job. He moved around, getting reactions, taking it all in and saving it.
He came across I-Five, who was directing orderly droids in the placement of patients inside a just-finished ward.
"Too bad about Zan," Den said.
"A great loss," the droid said. "If it is any consola-tion, his final sentient moment was a happy one. He saw you save his musical instrument. His expression of grat-itude seemed both genuine and deeply felt."
Den shrugged. "Small comfort, friend droid."
"Perhaps. But is that not better than no comfort? My emotional circuitry is not on the same order of depth and complexity as yours, but the sadness I feel is miti-gated by the knowledge that Zan Yant's demise was both quick and essentially painless-plus his mental state was, for lack of a better term, one of grace. You had just saved his most precious possession. It seemed a peak moment of joy for him. I should think that, given a choice, most sentient beings would choose to leave life in that state than in one of fear or suffering."
Den could not repress the sigh. "Yeah. I suppose. Not much of a choice, the kind of death.
A being like Zan shouldn't have had to make it."
A pair of droids went by, carrying a section of build-ing that Den recognized as belonging to the cantina. Good. Sooner that place was rea.s.sembled, the better.
"No being should have to make that choice," I-Five replied. "Yet this is the galaxy in which we exist, and until the powers-that-be come to the realization that war is inefficient and costly in terms of life and prop-erty, such choices will always be with us."
Den shook his head. "I still haven't gotten used to a droid as a philosopher. You are something quite special, I-Five."
"Get used to it. I don't expect I will be the last such droid ever created. I can say this: if droids ran things, war would not be an approved activity."
Den nodded. "Wouldn't that be nice."
"You would be out of a job as a war correspondent."
"I could find other work. Believe me, it would be worth it."
I-Five went back to his patient coordination, and Den drifted off. Walking across the compound, he pa.s.sed several troopers who were obviously newly arrived - though they did all look the same, there was a sort of naivete to the ones newly arriving that set them apart from the more experienced troops. They were chatter-ing to each other, no doubt finding all this tremen-dously exciting. Had he ever been that innocent? If so, it had been flensed from him a long time and many worlds ago.
He'd miss Zan Yant-the man's music, his wit, his card playing. But I-Five was right: this was how things were. Not likely to change anytime soon.
In the meantime, he had work to do.
"Excuse me, friend tech, can you tell me how you felt about the recent attack on this Rimsoo...?"
Eighty kilometers southeast of the old encampment, Rimsoo Seven was now set up. Outside, it looked much the same. The trees were in different places, the small hillocks had slightly different shades and shapes of fungi, and there was even another bota patch close by. They were still a Rimsoo on a forsaken planet, only now Zan was gone and the war was still out there, crouched to spring like a monster from some dark and dank cave.
Jos sat on his new bunk, in the same quarters he had shared with Zan, staring through the solid wall into in-finity.
Everything was the same, but everything had changed.
Droids had the capability to be more than he had thought, and clones were not as simple as he had com-fortably believed. The world had turned upside down, but somehow things were still dropping out of the sky onto his head.
He still couldn't get his mind around Zan's death. Just couldn't get a grip on it.
Intellectually he knew that his friend was gone, gone to that place from which none return. But emotionally Jos still expected the door to open any minute, expected to see Zan enter, lugging his quetarra case, griping about the rain, or laughing at some bit of business in the OT, before unpacking the in-strument and wandering off into some cla.s.sical fugue.
That was never going to happen again.
People died almost every day in the OT, some of them under his hands as he frantically tried to save them, but this-this was not the same.
Zan had been his friend.
He looked up.
Tolk stood in the doorway. She was in her surgical whites, and his heart leapt to see her-then fell and shattered. His tradition, the centuries-old customs of his clan, denied her to him-his family and history and social constructs all told him that he and Tolk could never be together. And he had believed, up until this moment, all this to be true, had accepted that it was anathema to even think of defying canon.
But Zan was dead. And that simple, searing fact now brought home to Jos, in a way that nothing ever had be-fore, the truth of the old saying that he had heard bandied about all of his life, had even said himself on occasion, but had never really understood: Life is too short.
Too short to waste on things that aren't important. Too short to waste on anything that doesn't, in some way, enrich you or your loved ones. Too short by far to let mindless rules and traditions tell you what you could do, where you could live-And whom you could love.
Here stood Tolk, before him. Jos looked at her, felt tears start to gather. He stood and opened his arms. "Tolk-" he began.
That was all he needed to say. She ran to him. They hugged, then kissed, tenderness flowering into pa.s.sion as they discovered the ages-old tonic for the horrors of war. The truth that was always known but always hid-den: that the past was frozen, the future unformed, and that, for everyone, eternity was in each heartbeat.
In war-as in peace-it was the only way to truly live.
The moment was short. The drone of incoming medlifters broke it. For a moment, Jos stared at her.
"Time to go to work," she said softly.
He nodded. "Yeah."
They started from the cube toward the OT.
MICHAEL REAVES is a renowned screenwriter who has written, story-edited, and/or produced hundreds of teleplays for various television series, including Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Twilight Zone, Sliders, and Monsters. He was also a story editor and editor on Batman: The Animated Series, for which he won an Emmy Award for writing in 1993.
He has worked for Spielberg's DreamWorks, among other studios, and is the author of several fantasy novels and supernatural thrillers. He is also the author of h.e.l.l on Earth and, along with John Pelan, edited the Shadows Over Baker Street anthology. Michael Reaves lives in Los Angeles.
STEVE PERRY was born and raised in the Deep South and has lived in Louisana, California, Washington, and Oregon. He is currently the science fiction, fantasy, and horror book reviewer for The Oregonian. Perry has sold dozens of stories to magazines and anthologies, as well as a considerable number of novels, animated teleplays, nonfiction articles, reviews, and essays. He wrote for Batman: The Animated Series during its first Emmy Award-winning season, auth.o.r.ed the New York Times bestseller Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire, and also did the bestselling novelization for the summer blockbuster movie Men in Black.