Rachel was just contemplating putting aside the reports she'd been reading by lamp-light and getting a few hours of sleep in - a valuable commodity with the long, irregular hours she was working - when she was disturbed.
"Hey, Dawn," she heard Casey shout. "You're on TV again with those pandas. You know, I think you might have overdone it with that voodoo of yours."
The reply was, quite frankly, unprintable, and a testament to just how much Dawn had picked up from living on a military base. Also, a testament to how much Rachel was going to have to take cover when Mrs Summers realised exactly what Dawn had picked up. Again. Still, it amused Rachel to no end. TV footage of an extremely frazzled looking Dawn with half-a-dozen red pandas hanging off her and a couple dozen giant pandas following her around like love-sick puppies made for some very good mockery material, especially considering the state of her hair at the time. Summers girls just don't like being caught on film with messed-up hair.
But leaving aside the humour value, it had been a successful mission and a useful way to gauge Dawn's level of skill. She had the tricks down but she lacked subtlety in the application. Not bad at all given her abbreviated, disrupted training really. Rachel'd had the finest masters of the Order and a vast library to work with when she went through training; Dawn had, well, her, a first-time master who was far from an ideal Jedi by any standard. It was hard to not be happy with her progress even if she had yet to make a move towards constructing her own blade.
Rachel tried to go back to reading the report but the words just seemed to swim around on the page in front of her eyes. She was bone-weary tired and the scientist reporting on the fusion power project was very much a scientist and not a writer. She'd read hyperspatial physics textbooks that were less dense than this woman's progress reports and she just didn't have the energy to decode something that was harder going than the physics of how to construct a miniature black hole and use it as a power source. Time to get some sleep.
Rachel was roused from her slumber several hours later by a sharp knock at her bedroom door. "Brigadier Giles, General Miller wishes to speak with you," said Peter through the door. "It sounds somewhat urgent."
For a moment, Rachel didn't move, didn't think, didn't do a damned thing. She was warm and comfortable and did not want to get out of bed. And then reality asserted itself upon her. "Right, right," she said. "I'll be ready in a moment."
It wasn't, strictly speaking, a proper use of her abilities as a Jedi, but Rachel didn't think anyone would begrudge her using her mind to flick the power switch for her bedroom's lighting on. She pulled her uniform on as quickly as she could manage given that she was hardly on top form, and then headed out of her room.
"Any idea what's going on then?" she asked Peter.
"I think it has something to do with the alien you brought back from that mission," he said by way of reply. "I certainly can't think of anything else that would warrant this sort of summons."
"Well, nothing's blown up," said Rachel. "So it's probably nothing to do with any of my projects, not unless one of the scientists has gone too long without sleep and done something amusingly stupid again."
"There's been a distinct lack of green foam."
"So probably not that then," said Rachel. "Suppose I'd best get moving. No rest for the wicked."
"General," said Rachel by way of greeting as she entered Miller's office.
"Giles, sit down," said Miller, not looking up from the report he was reading till she did so. "I think you'll want to see this."
He then pushed the report over to the side of the desk Rachel was on. Reading it proved to be an enlightening experience. "Now this I did not expect," said Rachel.
"I don't think anyone expected it," said Miller. "We did wonder how the aliens were able to keep on fighting after we took Venezuela's government out and here it is: they have another base."
"How the hell they managed to set up a base in Colombia without anyone noticing is beyond me," said Rachel. "And that goes double for us not picking it up sooner."
"Yeah," said Miller. "Someone got stupid or the aliens have something new up their sleeve."
"You're too young to be so cynical," said Miller. "Far too young. You're probably right, but you're still too young."
"It keeps me alive," said Rachel. "So, when do we attack? Or are we going to play a longer game?"
"Out of my hands," said Miller. "They barely trust me enough to keep a bunch of egg-heads in line these days. The lack of nukes makes me think they're going for the long game though."
"It makes sense. Cut off their supplies, wear them down, and then attack. More patience than I expected all told."
"Well, we're not so desperate for a good win these days. We're getting our digs in elsewhere," said Miller. " The aliens aren't doing much more than pissing the locals off anyway. Now we can strangle their supply lines effectively, they won't be able to do shit."
"You know, I can only think of one way they could have done this," said Rachel after a moment's thought. "They've stolen stealth field technology from us."
"I was really hoping you wouldn't say that."
"It makes sense, though," said Rachel. "If they had access to the X-COM networks through France, they'd have access to that technology. Blasters too."
"We are aware of that."
"No point getting snippy with me," said Rachel. "We're just lucky they're not sharing with China and don't seem all that inclined to switch out what they're using now."
"Good thing the brass didn't let the Chinese didn't have it all back then, you mean," said Miller. "We'd be well and truly shafted if we'd trusted them."
"If we'd trusted them, they might not have took up with the aliens."
Miller waved her off. "Yeah, yeah," he said. "They might have played nice if we'd shared all our best toys with them. Or they might just have stabbed us in the back just the same and fucked us over even worse than they actually did. And here's me thinking you were cynical."
"I'm a Jedi. I'm supposed to play nicely."
"That'll be the day."
Rachel had barely had time to sit down behind her office's desk after returning to her rooms and having a quick shower when Sarah wandered in.
"Have you read Smith's report?" she asked.
"Haven't had time," said Rachel. "I was planning on having a look today."
"Oh it's a good one," said Sarah, beaming a smile at her. "I don't really get the physics stuff but I could still tell that. I suggest you read it now."
"You'd probably get the physics if it was someone else writing the reports," commented Rachel. "Now . . . where is it. Ah, there it is. Just give me a minute."
Sarah just stayed where she was, bouncing from foot to foot.
"Hmm," said Rachel. "That's . . . looks like they've cracked it."
"Yup," said Sarah with a nod. "Great, isn't it? They're ready to work up a proper prototype. There's a form in your in-tray to requisition the supplies they need but I've already let them have them. You don't mind, do you?"
"No, of course not," said Rachel. "We need fusion power. One step closer to energy independence. Still, their design is dependant on heavy metals, so they've got some work to do. Theoretically, they should be able to fuel the reaction from pretty much anything. We used to toss all sorts of garbage into our speeder's tank back in the day."
Sarah gave Rachel a very strange look at that.
"Ah, ignore me," said Rachel. "It's not important. Point is: excellent work, but still not perfect. I have an idea or two, though . . . hmm, well, I'll have to talk to Dr. Smith. She deserves a pat on the back at least."
Sarah nodded. "She'll want to show you the experiment they've been running anyway, I think," she said. "She's kinda proud of it."
"And so she should be," said Rachel. "That's Nobel Prize material. An excellent piece of work, to be sure."
"She's a smart woman."
"That she is." Rachel sighed, "I wish John was here. He'd love to see this. It's just up his alley."
"Yeah," said Sarah, her eyes looking distinctly wet for just a moment. "Well, this is best we can do to get some revenge on the bastards who killed him."
Well, Rachel thought a lightsabre to the throat had done a pretty good job of that, but she wasn't going to argue and simply nodded an affirmative by way of reply.
The experiment was something Rachel already had a vague familiarity with having signed off requisition forms and signed a form to permit construction of a new wing in the underground level of the base to house the experiment, but she she'd never actually seen it in person before. Doctor Smith simply hadn't needed much in the way of supervision compared to the other teams. She'd just gotten on with the job assigned to her and now she was presenting the results. Quiet competence was the best term Rachel could think of to describe it, and it was something she very much appreciated.
The experiment was a cylindrical prototype reactor that was approximately five metres tall and fifteen around. Not exactly small but not exactly awe-inspiringly large either. It was housed in a room of its own in the underground level of the base that had been constructed specially for the experiment with Rachel's permission - something she'd had to clear with Miller before it could go ahead - that was reinforced with the strongest alloys humanity could produce in case of anything going boom. It had never been a very likely possibility but safety first and all that.
It was quite an impressive sight, stood there humming away as it was, as Rachel observed it from behind the six inch thick reinforced observation window. It wasn't anything near the monstrous reactors Rachel had seen at the core of capital warships, but it was a start. They'd get there eventually. There were still a few levels of technology to move through before that was a concern anyway.
"Magnificent, isn't it?" asked Smith from her position stood beside Rachel. "I never thought I'd live to see the day when we had viable fusion, but there is is stood right in front of us. Incredible. It's not quite what I expected but it works."
"It's something alright," said Rachel. "I didn't expect you to get this far this soon, to be honest, but I'm damn happy all the same."
"It's only the first step. We still need to go through another round of prototypes before it's really viable."
"I know," said Rachel. "And you'll get that time, believe me. This is well worth the investment."
"Good. I'd hate to see this get ruined with premature release."
"No danger of that. We're not desperate for energy now that we have Venezuelan oil under our control, not in the short-term."
"Glad to hear it."
"There's a Nobel Prize in this, you know," said Rachel. "Fusion power will change the world. If nothing else, it'll make the power bill a lot more manageable for poor people. You're going to be famous."
"Ah," said Smith looking somewhat discomforted by the notion. "Couldn't we, umm, just skip that part?"
"I don't think so," said Rachel. "There's no escaping it. Believe me, I know. I've tried."
"Indeed. Look on the bright side: when the war's over, you can live a life of leisure. The rewards will be great for this discovery."
"I don't know what I'd do with myself without my work."
"Well, the choice will be yours."
Rachel was already working out a timeline for deployment in her head as she left. They'd be ready for large-scale power generation within the year, she reckoned, if they pushed it, but for small-scale stuff like powering vehicles it would probably take longer. Still, that was where fuel cell technology came into things. It wasn't like gasoline supply trains were any better than fuel cell supply trains. Well, except for the vast existing infrastructure which would have to be replaced. Oh dear. Well, someone else's problem.
"In breaking news, the siege of Omsk may be breaking as fighters launched from the USS Carl Vinson join with local forces to force Chinese forces moving to reinforce the attackers to retreat from the area."
"And yet the siege goes on," said Rachel, not looking up from the report she was reading to look at the television.
"It's a start," said Peter. "Wars aren't won overnight."
"They're not won by symbolic gestures, either," said Rachel. "It's not like the Chinese are going to run short of cannon fodder any time soon."
"It is believed that the Chinese forces included multiple units of alien origin," continued the newscaster. "Initial reports indicate that the large humanoid robots first seen in Turkey may have been present at the scene of the battle."
"They're still using those things?" asked Casey. "How can we be having trouble with an enemy stupid enough to use those things?"
"In other war news, Indian insurgents clashed with Pakistani forces in the region of Punjab earlier today leaving several buildings destroyed and many more ablaze," said the newscaster. "It is not known at this time exactly how many were killed in the fighting but camera footage leaked from the region would indicate that several dozen were caught in the crossfire."
"That's the best way to bleed them right now," said Rachel. "They've took a lot of ground and haven't really secured it. It's ripe for guerilla warfare."
"Hard on the civilians though.
Rachel shrugged. "I doubt being occupied by foreign forces is much easier on them. You know what'll happen when they aliens get around to those areas."
"Several more UFO sightings have been reported in South America," said the newscaster. "Interceptors were launched but the UFOs fled before they could be engaged."
"In other words, too slow," said Casey. "Useless flyboys."
Rachel flicked her wrist and jabbed the TV's power button with a tendril of Force energy. "That's enough of that," she said. "These reports give me better information. Where's Dawn?"
"Gym. Probably eyeing up some of the soldier boys again," said Casey, sounding distinctly displeased.
"As long as she keeps to just eyeing," said Rachel. "I think I might go down there and see about running her through a sparring session."
Rachel found Dawn pedalling away on one of the extremely battered exercise bikes in the base's gym, basically doing as little as she could get away with while still having an excuse to hang around and eye the local population of soldiers as they went through their own exercise routines. Typical teenage girl behaviour, really. Well, teenager behaviour. It wasn't like boys were any better; she could testify to that from personal experience before everything had gone very deeply weird on her. Worse if anything, in all honesty. Certainly more blatant.
Now she just had to decide how she was going to run this little spar. It was tempting to just pull her sabre out and start chopping away; a nice little test of Dawn's danger-sense, that would be. Problem was that people tending to get a little pissy when you turned their nice, organised base into a warzone for a sparring session. The soldiers wouldn't mind - chances were they'd start a betting pool and cheer them on - but the administrator types would get aggravated and Rachel didn't fancy dying the death of a thousand multi-page forms that just had to be filled in ever so urgently. Truly, the historical Chinese had nothing on modern-day paper-pushers.
Well, testing her danger-sense wouldn't really prove all that much anyway. You either had it or you didn't, and Rachel was sure that Dawn had it by that point. It was just amusing to see the brief look of panic on her face. Possibly not the most Jedi-like thing she'd ever do, but it wasn't like she had a Council to answer to. There was no higher authority than her on Jedi matters, something which made life oh so much simpler. When she wanted to do something, she did it. No debates, no moralising. Force only knew how long it would have taken to mobilise the Jedi Council she was used to dealing with for this war if it had been brought into existence with her.
Rachel sidled up to a position just behind and to the left of Dawn. "Dawn," she said.
Dawn's jerk of shock was quite worthwhile. "Do you have to sneak up on me like that?" she whined.
"Till you start catching me at it, yes," said Rachel. "Now, if you're quite finished wasting time here, I think it's time for a sparring session."
"You won't learn anything from an exercise bike, apprentice," said Rachel. "Come along. I wish to test your skills."
Dawn sighed in the sort of irritatingly theatrical manner that only a teenager can manage before dismounting from the exercise bike. Yup, there was a humbling coming up, if only because Dawn was supposed to be more mature than that as a Jedi. Dawn was fairly quick about dismounting from the bike, which saved her a serious humbling, but that positive was completely overwhelmed when Rachel noticed several soldiers' eyes being drawn by Dawn's tight cycling shorts as she dismounted. That was just disturbing on so many levels. Thankfully, a few glares had those gazes pointing elsewhere in short order. She was going to have to set Casey loose. Maybe HK too. On second thoughts, no HK. Corpses came with so much paperwork.
"Go change into your robes and meet me in the usual place," said Rachel. "And don't forget your sabre."
It was always strange to see Dawn in Jedi robes. She wore them so rarely - Rachel didn't really care to enforce a dress code - that she just looked awkward in them. Honestly, she looked rather like a child dressing up in an adult's clothes; a rather distressing image with what'd happened a few scant minutes ago in the gym. Well, whatever.
"Prepare yourself," ordered Rachel, drawing her lightsabre and igniting it with a flourish.
Dawn immediately drew and ignited her white-bladed lightsabre before assuming an aggressive stance with her weight balanced on the back fight and the blade held high pointed straight forward at Rachel. Typical juyo sort of stance, really. For a few moments both combatants stood still, staring each other down, before Dawn broke the tableau and attacked.
The speed with which she went at Rachel was quite impressive - Rachel was sure that to a non-sensitive viewer she would have seemed to be little more than a blur of motion and flashing light - but Rachel was far from overwhelmed by the attacks. She barely seemed to move from her starting position as she wove her own blade through the air and applied it just so to each strike to knock them away from their target. Minutes passed like that with the only sounds being the clash of blades and the breathing of the two Jedi before Dawn twisted away from Rachel and assumed a new stance, a somewhat more neutral one, and tried to calm her heaving lungs.
"Tired already?" asked Rachel. "I expected better."
Of course she was tired. She still threw her power around like a sledgehammer, moving as quickly as she could and striking as hard as she could. All the skill and stamina in the world couldn't compensate for that. And again, she began attacking. Her speed was great, her blows were crisp and accurate, but they never once came close to breaking through Rachel's defences. With each parry and evasion, Dawn's frustration grew. As Dawn's frustration grew and her stamina waned, her moves began to lose their well-drilled crispness and grow sloppy.
After a few minutes of that, as Dawn's strikes grew wild, Rachel finally took the offensive. Her first strike was parried but the riposte was weak and poorly aimed. The second knocked Dawn's blade out and away from her body. The third landed across Dawn's backside and if the sabres weren't at training intensity would have done some serious damage. As it was, it just stung like the dickens; something Rachel could testify to from long experience courtesy of her own training.
"Ow," moaned Dawn, rubbing at the red mark left across the backside of her robes. "That stings."
"If course it does," said Rachel. "That's the motivation to stop getting hit. Now, do you know where you went wrong?"
"You kicked my ass."
"More exact than that, thank you."
"I was too slow," said Dawn. "Every attack was blocked before it even got close to connecting."
Rachel sighed. "There are none so blind as those who will not see," she said. "Your speed is more than adequate, believe me. That's not the issue here. Really, much faster and you'd be the Flash."
"Then it's skill. You're just better than I am."
"Of course," said Rachel. "I have, oh, twenty years of this on you in some form or another. You won't match me for skill for a very long time if ever. But that's not what you did wrong here. Come on, think."
"That's a factor," said Rachel. "Quite a large one at that. You don't have to be passive to be a Jedi but it is the ideal for some. I was thinking of something else."
"I don't get it," said Dawn. "I gave my all and I can't think of anything else I did wrong."
"That's the problem," said Rachel. "You gave your all."
"Every move you made, you put everything you could into it," said Rachel. "You wield your power like a sledgehammer. Against many, that will be enough with your power. Against a higher calibre of opponent, it will get you killed."
"So what do I do?" she asked. "Go easy?"
"That's a simplification," said Rachel. "It's something that will come only with time. Just keep it in mind." Dawn nodded in acknowledgement. "But, to go with that, you need to work on your stamina. For your age group, by Earth standards, you are incredibly fit. By Jedi standards, you are well behind the curve. Not a surprise given how late you started training, but the Sith will not go easy on you because you are disadvantaged."
"More running?" whined Dawn.
"More running," said Rachel with a decisive nod.
Rachel was burning the midnight oil writing up a report to be passed up the chain of command regarding the progress of her teams' research when she felt the subtle shift in the room's atmosphere that came along with Jolee showing up. She finished typing the word she was on and looked up. He looked the same as he always did, unsurprisingly. Death didn't leave much room for change, she supposed, though she'd never understand why he kept his aged appearance. Maybe he just preferred being a cantankerous old man, but she didn't really understand that.
"She's turning out quite well, your apprentice," said Jolee. "Still got a lot of rough edges to knock off but she's young and stupid still."
"I was beginning to wonder if I was going to hear from you again," said Rachel. "It's been a while."
"It isn't easy to push through the barriers," said Jolee. "This dimension is a hell of a way from home."
"I wouldn't have thought it mattered to the dead."
"Do you really expect me to explain how death works to you? That'd just take all the mystery out of things. You kids need to learn patience; you'll learn about what it's like to be dead when you're dead."
"I didn't actually ask the question."
"You were about to, though," said Jolee. "I could see it forming. What's it like? How Does it work? Bah! You forget, I know what you Revan types are like. There's not a bit of knowledge out there you haven't wanted to learn. Or was that planets you haven't wanted to conquer? I forget."
"Charming," said Rachel. "Any more witty insights or have you finished annoying me for one day?"
"Oh pish. You need to watch that temper. Good things come to those who don't get snippy with their elders."
"Do their elders stop annoying them?" asked Rachel. "Or is that too much to ask for?"
"You need to find that Faith lass and work off some tension," said Jolee. "That makes people so much less snippy, or so I hear. Been a while on this end, you see. Death comes with a bit of a dry spell."
"Too much information."
"What?" asked Jolee. "You think I don't have needs because I'm old? I'm not that old, missy."
"You're dead. You don't have a body to feel or to indulge that sort of desire."
"Now you should know better than that, good as you are at twiddling people's minds about."
Rachel shook her head. "Well, I'd never thought of using my powers for that before. Somehow, I doubt the Council would approve."
"See, us old people do have our uses!" crowed Jolee. "And the Council never approved of anything that was even close to fun. They'd have probably had us practising self-flagellation like those charming Flagellant fellows you have on this world."
Rachel screwed her face up in disgust. "Your mind must be a truly disturbing place to be."
"Hey, there are people out there who really do that sort of thing," he said. "Must be something in it."
"And not so long ago people were being burnt at the stake for witchcraft," said Rachel. "You'll find some adherents for just about anything."
"Yeah," said Jolee. "If the Sith can recruit people, I suppose you can find someone to believe anything. Now, there was a reason I came here . . . now, what was it . . . "
Rachel drummed her fingers on her desk. "I don't have all day, you know."
"Hush! Kids these days, no patience."
"If you were still alive, I'd have HK shoot you."
"No, you wouldn't," said Jolee. "You're too nice for that sort of things these days. Now if you were wearing a mask and you said that, I'd worry. Now, it's just on the tip of my tongue here . . . what was it . . . " Rachel rolled here eyes and waited. "Vrook! That's it!"
"Oh, now there's a name I didn't want to hear," said Rachel with a groan. "Him showing up had to be about the worst surprise I've had this side of open war breaking out."
"I'm sure he loves you too," said Jolee. "But there is a reason he showed up. I'm surprised you haven't figured it out."
"He isn't content unless he has someone to whinge at," said Rachel. "I suppose things are going better back in your dimension now so he came here to find an excuse to start up."
"Well, there's that," said Jolee. "But he does care about the Jedi Order. You know that. He wouldn't go on so much if he didn't."
"And he's decided to express this by nagging me?" asked Rachel. "Well colour me unimpressed."
"Dammit, let me explain!" hollered Jolee. "Now, where was I? Oh, yes. Right, well, you weren't a master back in the day, were you? There are things you weren't allowed access to, techniques you were never taught. He can teach you those things. You know, round our your education and all that."
"And all I have to do is adhere to his vision of what a Jedi is supposed to be," said Rachel. "No thanks. I'd rather bathe in sulphuric acid that put up with that sort of nonsense."
"Well, that's for you to work out with him. Would it really be so bad to play nice with him? He wasn't that bad."
"You didn't have him as a master. He was every bit that bad. He was arrogant, self-righteous, and judgemental to a fault. And if that wasn't bad enough, his padawans all turned out the same as him. The man was a scourge upon the Order even before they put him on the Council."
Jolee winced. "Well . . . I suppose you're honest about your feelings if nothing else. Should be fun to see how you work together."
"You assume that I'm interested in or even have use for his teachings," said Rachel. "I was the Dark Lord of the Sith. I had no limitations upon information available to me then."
"Well, the Jedi like to think that they have some secrets from the Sith."
"They like to think a lot of things. Doesn't make them true."