The worst thing about meditating during a war is that it brings the death and destruction right up to your mental doors. There's just no way to avoid it when you connect as closely to the Force as you do when you meditate. The Force is, after all, a reflection of life, generated by all living things, and the sheer misery being inflicted upon the people of Earth by the Third World War was great enough to make it inescapable for any who were sensitive to such things.
For Dawn, it was bad, Rachel knew, but it wasn't specific. She wasn't good enough yet to distinguish the specifics of disturbances without lowering her shields to the point where her mind was completely overwhelmed. It wasn't so for Rachel. She could very easily distinguish between the terror of the Africans being hunted through the burned out husks that remained of their cities by marauding aliens and the grim determination of Russian ground forces fighting in the sieges.
And there was nothing she could do about any of it.
The events were horrifying, but it was the helplessness that truly maddened Rachel. She was used to being able to change things. As Supreme Commander of the Republic Navy her command had been virtually law and as Dark Lord of the Sith her word had been law, backed by the threat of gruesome death for the disobedient. Here, she was commander of nothing and hadn't even been the ruler of her own life since that fracas in Oxnard had brought her to X-COM's attention. There was little to nothing she could do to turn the tide and deal with the problems she identified.
Of course, there would be little she could even if she did have armies under her control. There were so many terrible things happening at any one moment that every armed force on the side of the Allies combined wouldn't be able to stop them all, and attempting to do so would weaken their position terribly. It was a recipe for frustration for all involved. Terrible frustration. The sort of frustration that led to people taking unpleasant shortcuts and ending up in bad places.
Rachel opened her eyes and blew out a frustrated breath. She wasn't getting anywhere quickly like that. What she needed to do was to do something, to land a good blow against the enemy. It wouldn't be enough, nothing would be enough while the war still raged, but there was only so long that she could sit by and watch passively from the comfort of a lab as other people did all of the work. She hadn't been able to do it when the Mandalorians set about looting the Outer Rim and she wasn't going to be able to do it while the aliens tried to subjugate humanity.
But she couldn't leave her work either. Not yet anyway, not while she was still needed to give the scientists guidance, at least not permanently. And chances were she would be needed in that capacity for a good while yet.
"And here you go, making the same mistake as before," said Vrook in a tone of voice that was brusque even by his usual standards. "Can't control yourself can you, Revan?"
Rachel closed her eyes and counted to ten. Then to twenty. And then she felt able to reply without obscenity. "Master Vrook," she grated out finally. "I see you are as appreciative of social niceties in death as you were in life."
"You never learn," continued Vrook, ignoring Rachel entirely. "Always looking at the big picture but lacking the wisdom to truly appreciate it. It's a miracle you haven't gotten yourself killed yet."
Rachel couldn't help but contemplate just how easy it would be to disperse Vrook for good and end his ability to pester her. So very easy. But she couldn't do it. That was Darth Revan's thinking and not something she could allow herself to carry through. "You know, it's generally regarded as bad manners to go rooting through someone's head without their permission," said Rachel. Not that she had even the faintest idea how he could do that. Death obviously came with its perks.
"Manners don't apply when dealing with Sith," said Vrook.
Rachel was on her feet before she had time to think. "I don't have to sit here and take abuse from you of all people," she said in a venomous whisper. "You're not my master, Vrook. Not here."
"I am a Jedi Master and you are not," said Vrook, maintaining his calm. "You. Will. Listen."
"Still as arrogant as you were when you helped lead the Jedi to the brink of destruction, I see," said Rachel. "It seems that I'm not the only one who doesn't learn from their mistakes."
If he could have, Vrook would have went red in the face at that. As it was he facial expression took a distinctly unpleasant turn before he calmed himself so quickly that anyone who wasn't looking for it would never have seen it. "And you still go for the throat," he said. "You haven't changed at all."
"I'm not the only one aiming to draw blood here, Vrook," said Rachel. "People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, but you always were a hypocrite."
"You have some nerve, Revan. I lived and died a Jedi unlike some."
"And you have some nerve barging into my home and throwing accusations and insinuations around. If there's a purpose to your visit, then state it. I have no time for this nonsense."
"Such arrogance! Even now, you still refuse to accept the authority of the Jedi Council. What will it take to make you see sense?"
"A Jedi Council that talks it would be a good start," said Rachel. "And perhaps you should take note of the fact that you're dead. Any authority you had over me is long since expired. I don't answer to you anymore."
"More's the shame. You'd do well to heed my instruction, Revan. I learned my lesson; it doesn't seem that you have. Stay away from the war. Leave it to the soldiers. They don't need you and you don't need the risk."
"You're a cold fish, Vrook, you really are. The death toll is already in the hundreds of millions at least and you're telling me to stand by and watch."
"We've had this argument before. You know how it ends. For once in your life, listen."
"Even if I went to war tomorrow, it wouldn't end the same way," said Rachel. "They're keeping a close eye on me here. They'd be careful to manage me and if I show any sign of going Sith there'll be an intervention."
"They're children flailing around in the dark when it comes to that and you know it," said Vrook. "They have no idea what they're doing. They probably never will. The Republic never managed it and they had tens of thousands of years of history with people like us."
"They know enough to know when someone's approaching the edge even if their science is primitive. And I know my own limits better. It would be difficult to forget the mistakes I made."
"You don't understand. If it wasn't for the boy you merged with, you'd be living up to your title, Darth. Testing the restraints is idiotic. You've already been right up to the verge once and ran too close for comfort more often. Enough. Until you've discharged your responsibility to pass on your knowledge, you must follow this instruction: stay away from the war, stay away from any fighting as best you can."
"I'll be sure to keep that in mind. Now enough. Go. Leave me."
Vrook frowned, again, and then he disappeared. Rachel was tempted to go bully her way to the front lines out of sheer spite. She could not stand that man.
Rachel awoke the next morning to the sound of the phone she had in her bedroom ringing loudly. She was, for more than a passing moment, tempted to simply knock the phone off the hook and go back to sleep, but in the end duty won out over the desire to sleep.
"Rachel Giles," said Rachel blearily when she picked up the phone.
"Ah, Rachel," said the voice on the other end of the line. "It's your uncle. I'm just phoning to tell that, ah, some of Coven's seers have noticed some rather, ah, ominous portents."
That woke her up. "What are we talking here?" she asked. "Rivers running red? Sun rising from the wrong direction? Animals fleeing en masse?"
"Nothing so dramatic," said Giles. "I think even the most wilfully blind of people would have a hard time missing those and you're hardly that sort. No, this is more along the lines of noticing mystical energies flowing in ways they normally wouldn't and so on. Easily missed if you're not looking for that sort of thing."
Or if your meditations were interrupted by a cranky old man trying to order you around. "I don't suppose you have any specifics? We're not in apocalypse season."
"They tell me that it's associated with the Lightbringer," said Giles. "Why him moving on Earth would generate such modest portents is beyond me, however."
Rachel swore. Loudly. And in multiple languages. "That's what the aliens call me these days," she said. "I'll have to warn Miller. If something's coming after me, it'll come through his men first."
"They call you . . . well, that's . . . interesting," said Giles. "I don't suppose they, ah, gave a reason for that name?"
"Not so much," said Rachel. "It said the name was appropriate. I suppose from their perspective it might be, but that's not so important. I'm more interested in what's coming."
"Well, there were some theories," said Giles. "But they're quite irrelevant now. You are not the Lightbringer and what we had amassed is now useless because of that. I can't say I'm sorry. Facing the Devil is not a great ambition of mine."
"Not one of mine, either," said Rachel. "So you don't have anything, huh?"
"Not a thing," admitted Giles. "Your own meditations may reveal more. If I remember correctly, you said that you were not without ability when it came to using your abilities for divination."
"Ah, well, there's a problem there."
"And that is?"
"Well, the Force is a reflection of life," said Rachel. "And the world's pretty turbulent right now. Lots of darkness going around. It's more of a Sith environment than anything and it hinders my foresight."
"Oh dear," said Giles and Rachel could clearly picture him rubbing at his glasses wherever he was. "And I suspect it has effects beyond just hindering one of your abilities as well, does it not?"
"More of an issue for Dawn than me," said Rachel. "I'm experienced enough to deal with it. She really isn't. She's done well so far, but I worry at times."
"Have you noticed any signs of, well, darkness about her?"
"Not since she took Glory down. I'd be more than just mildly worried if I'd noticed any signs. And I know the signs, believe me. Been there; done that; got the t-shirt. No, she's been doing quite well."
"I'm glad to hear that," said Giles. "Good news is somewhat rare these days."
"Tell me about it. So how are you these days? Last I heard, you were still working with the US Army."
"I am, thankfully, done with that. Dealing with you children was enough for me. The proposition of tutoring an endless procession of American soldiers on how to deal with demons is enough to make me wish for a portal to a hell-dimension. I'm in England at the moment. I'd be back in Sunnydale but this Lightbringer thing came up and, well, duty calls and all that."
"Buffy's slaying without a Watcher?"
"I am but a phonecall away if she needs me," said Giles. "And barring an apocalypse, she doesn't. She's been fending for herself since she went to college for the most part."
"It just seems wrong somehow," said Rachel. "I know I haven't been there myself, but it's just . . . well, weird that the old team's drifted apart."
"Things change. People move on. Buffy's not a child any more and she doesn't need me looking over her shoulder like she used to and she most certainly wouldn't want me to take on that role now. She didn't like it over much then, if you recall."
"I suppose. They were good times, though. I miss them."
"I think you're looking back with rose-coloured glasses," said Giles. "It's a miracle that you came out of your high-school years sane, never mind anything else."
"It . . . well, okay, there were bad times, too," said Rachel. "But the good outweighed them. It's not like my life before I met Buffy was a picnic, either."
"I know. Still, I suspect that, if you went back in time and told yourself the future, the past you would avoid that costume like the plague."
Rachel shrugged. "What I would do then and what I would do now are quite different things. I've changed a lot."
"True enough," acknowledged Giles. "I can't argue that. But how are you doing? Outside of random, demonic threats that is."
"I'm well as can be expected. My work is losing its shine, but it's necessary and I'm still needed here."
The conversation continued for a while from there, talking about various aspects of her life that weren't all that interesting, before Giles had to ring off due to international call charges from his provider that would have had him selling his kidney on ebay to cover the bill if he stayed on the line much longer. Well, so much for the war-game exercise they were going to run to test the new body armour design and the extra equipment that went with it. They could hardly have half the base's troop compliment running around with blasters set to tickle now they had intelligence about a potential attack.
Miller was already in his armour when Rachel arrived in his office. He looked surprisingly at ease in it considering that she was quite sure he hadn't had any reason to spend any real amount of time in the armour before and that it was pretty much fresh out of the labs and derived from all sorts of advanced technology.
"Giles," he said. He frowned when he saw her expression. "Is there a problem?"
"Possibly," said Rachel. "I just got off the phone. It seems that something's about to make a play and it's going to involve me in some way."
Miller's frown deepened. "I don't suppose you have any details?" he asked. "And what's the source?"
"Details? I'd be so lucky. No, whatever's doing this is covering its tracks as best it can," said Rachel. "The only real clue is that the information the Devon Coven have divined mentions me by the name the aliens have given me, so it probably involves them."
"Ah, Christ," said Miller. "Mumbo-jumbo. Why couldn't it have been a spy or an informant?"
"Because God hates you, clearly."
Miller barked a laugh. "I get that impression sometimes," he said. "Okay. Fine, mumbo-jumbo. I can deal with that. Anything about dates, numbers, approach vectors? You know, useful stuff?"
Rachel shook her head. "Like I said, I'd be so lucky. It's your typical vague prophecy sort of thing, except we didn't even get the prophecy. Even a 'beware the ides of March' would have been nice, but it's not for us to have."
Miller pinched the bridge of his nose and leaned back in his chair. "Right," he said. "So we know that someone's going to make a move that involves you in some way. Do we even know what they're going to do? It could just as easily be assassins as an attack on the base."
"I have no idea," admitted Rachel. "My gut instinct says that it won't be assassins, though; they've tried the one-on-one approach with Ethereals and it didn't work. I don't think they're stupid enough to try it again, and getting an assassin into the base would not be easy."
"Exclamation: any assassins that attempt to harm the master shall suffer a lingering death."
"I won't have some damn assassin breaking into my base," said Miller, eyeing HK as if expecting him to go on a killing spree any moment. "I'll have the patrols doubled."
"Best step up the mystical checks too," said Rachel. "There are plenty of mercenary mages around that would be quite happy to arrange for a possession or some sort of compulsion to be placed on one of your men when they're on leave. And there are all sorts of parasitic demons that they could hire for the same sort of approach."
"I hate magic," complained Miller. "It's bad enough to have to worry about soldiers getting suborned the normal way; mumbo-jumbo just makes it a thousand times worse."
"I can't argue that. I've been there and done that. It doesn't end well."
"Yeah, I remember that from your file. Never had it happen to me, but some of my men have had to pull the trigger on their own because of those damn aliens."
"Bad times," said Rachel. "So, what about the exercise we were going to run today?"
Miller sighed. "I suppose we'll have to scrap it," he said. "It's not an acceptable risk under these circumstances."
Rachel nodded. "I agree," she said. "It's not that important anyway. There are other ways we can test the new equipment."
"But none of those would be as useful as a proper war-game," said Miller. "It's disappointing."
"You're just getting bored looking after a bunch of civilians."
Miller shrugged. "I can't argue that. I wanted to see how well the troops would work together as well. We have so many different countries represented here and I'm not sure if they'll gel."
Rachel couldn't argue that. They had almost exclusively special forces soldiers, but they were from all sorts of branches from all sorts of countries, and they tended to be either old, former cripples lured in with promises of cybernetics, or rookies. The material was there, but it needed shaping and they didn't have much opportunity to do so. She said as much to Miller.
He nodded. "Lot of politics went into the make-up of this base," he said. "No-one really expects us to have to really fight, so they didn't think in too much detail about our effectiveness. We've been caught with our britches down once already, though, and I'm not having that a second time."
"Well, there wasn't much we could do about an air attack. We didn't have any fighters!"
"if they'd only listened to me, we would have had."
"Politics again," said Rachel with a wry grin.
"Yeah. I have zero pull these days. Less than zero even. I suggest something and they're more likely to do the opposite."
Rachel almost turned around and marched straight back out when saw the size of the stack in her in-tray when she made her way to her office after her meeting with Miller. She was getting tired of reading reports and filling in forms. Seriously tired.
"Query: master, could we not find a more interesting way to spend our day than this? I fear that if I do not kill something soon my neural-processor will begin to rot."
"Don't tempt me, HK."
"Statement: But, master . . . "
"Feel free to go into standby mode, HK. There's no danger to me here."
"Resignation: as you wish, master," said HK. "If you need anything killing, I will be in the corner."
And with that, HK matched actions to words and shuffled off to sulk in the corner of the room. There were times when Rachel really did doubt her own sanity building a droid which was so utterly obsessed with bloodshed that it would actually complain about not getting sufficient killing time. It wasn't exactly her finest hour as a Jedi Knight, that much was for sure. Yet another thing that Vrook would nag her about eventually, she expected, and she had no idea how she would refute him on that point.
A quick browse through the reports on her desk that day revealed little of interest. Lots of weekly progress reports and requests for more money - she was never short of those - but nothing that required any urgent response. There were a couple of military reports, however, that were much more interesting. One of the few good things that came from her somewhat pointless military rank was the fact that she was kept in the loop regarding the progress of the war. Not totally, she wasn't highly enough ranked for a great deal, or so she assumed, but enough so that she had a good idea what was going on, especially for the regiment of the British Army that she was, technically speaking, part of.
At that moment in time, the active battalions of the Royal Green Jackets were split between fighting alongside the Indian Army around the state of Punjab and fighting alongside the coalition of forces that was fighting in the Russian Sieges. Messy work, all told, but necessary. Both operations were quite important to the war effort. Punjab was an important state for India and the Russian Sieges were absolutely crucial.
It was a shame what was happening in Punjab, to be honest. The state had been one of best developed states in India, but now it was an absolute mess that was turning into something like the no-mans land of the First World War. Beyond that, it had been a substantial food producer, producing a large proportion of India's food supply, which was now out of the question. Pakistan had been clever in selecting that state to concentrate its attacks on. By ruining its agriculture they had done serious damage to India's food supply in a much more severe way than Hitler's U-boats had ever damaged Britain's food supply.
The Russian Sieges, well, they were Stalingrad and the other horrific sieges of the Second World War redux. They'd drawn the Chinese in and now they were bleeding them just like they'd bled the Nazis. Problem was, this time, the enemy had far more warm bodies to throw into the grinder. On the other hand, the Russians were getting much more direct aid this time around. The nations of the world were fighting shoulder to shoulder against the alien invaders and their allies. Quite inspirational really in its way. Force help the civilians caught in the middles though. Russian winters were bad enough without being caught in the middle of a warzone.
There was some less than promising news in the despatches from the frontlines, it had to be said. The Carl Vinson and its escorts had been forced to retreat to the nearest friendly port for repairs after coming under fierce fire from an alien raiding force and would likely be some time there getting patched up. As useful as an aircraft carrier is, that was never going to be good news, but at least it hadn't been sunk; that would have been utterly devastating. Some of the escorts had been lost, but those were much more easily replaceable than a supercarrier.
And some of the news from the Middle-East made her reread the despatch several times to make sure she was reading it correctly. The aliens had been sighted using tanks, specifically the Chinese Type 100 which had been beefed up using alien technology to start with. It wasn't going to change the course of the war but tanks, even ones that had been banged out by a people that hadn't used tanks before, were going to be a lot harder to kill than giant mecha. If nothing else, they were a much smaller target. Still, the Type 100 was barely a match for the American tank of the same generation, the M1A3, and wouldn't be a patch on the M1A4 when it was ready to roll.
There was little news from Africa. Just more of the same. Few nations had the resources to spare on that benighted continent and its natural resources weren't crucial to anyone's war effort, so it faced a slow, lonely death at the hands of the aliens. South Africa had been fortified to a ridiculous extent and was acting as a bulwark but until economies reached full war mobilisation and the conscripts were ready to be deployed there was little anyone could do to help. They needed a miracle and those were in short supply.
Sarah's voice broke her out of her reading. "Hey, Rachel," she said. "I'm just coming from Dr. Schrader's lab. I've got a report here you might want to read."
"Another one? Oh be still my beating heart."
"Ha ha. This one's actually worth a look; it's not just a thinly-veiled request for more money."
"Just tell me what's so interesting, will you?"
"Spoilsport," said Sarah with a very put-upon pout. "Well, he's been working on vehicles, right?"
"I did assign him to that. There'd be questions if he wasn't."
"Hush. Well, he's been working on tanks for a while now. Let's see. Yes, he's been reworking the electrics, the engines, the weapons, and adding repulsors."
"Busy little bee, isn't he? I know this already."
"You are no fun. Anyway, he's got a prototype up and running. I had a quick look and it all looks to be working out quite well."
Rachel drummed her long fingers against her desk. "It's rather early for this," she said finally. "We're still missing a couple of things for a final tank design."
"Shields and the fusion power, right?"
"Yes," said Rachel with a nod. "The shields are crucial. They will be the edge that wins the war."
"Well, they're still ages off. At least they were the last I heard. They still haven't found a way around the heatsink problem. But they've managed to get a fusion reactor down to the size they need."
"They have? I should pay more attention to these reports."
"It's not as efficient as it could be, but it won't need oil to run. That's what really counts."
"Indeed," said Rachel. "That's quite the coup. I wasn't expecting to see the reactors reduced to vehicle size for months yet. Dr Smith is turning out to be quite an asset."
Sarah nodded. "She's good," she said. "Damn good. My fuel cells are going to be obsolete within a year of entering production at this rate." And she finished with a joking pout.
Rachel smiled. "Well, I don't think anyone will be putting fusion reactors into civilian vehicles for a while," she said. "I'm not sure they'll even put them in most military vehicles, to be honest. People get nervous around nuclear reactions."
"Gee, I wonder why," said Sarah. "Anyway, are you going to grace Schrader with your presence?"
"It would seem appropriate," she said. "I want to see this prototype."
Rachel found Schrader and his team down in the lowest sub-level of the base inside the large empty chamber that had been carved out for testing new vehicles and similar activities with their new tank. It was a rather rough looking thing. The core structure of the tank had the desert tan camouflage pattern - she supposed it was a leftover from when they claimed it for their experiments - but the additions were all raw metal. Ugly was the best way to describe it really.
"Doctor Giles!" called Schrader from the other side of the space. "Have you come to see my new toy?"
"Something like that," replied Rachel when she reached Schrader's position. "Couldn't you have applied the camouflage to it?"
"We have not had the time," said Schrader. "And I must admit, I am somewhat eager to see it tested; too eager to wait for cosmetic issues to be addressed."
"Well, I can't fault you for that," she said. "You are sure that it is ready?"
"As sure as I can be without already having done the tests."
There was little more to be said after that. They retreated behind the safety barriers that had been placed near the chamber's entrance and the tests began. The initial phase was to simply have the tank float around the chamber on its repulsors. That test was a predictable success. Repulsors were known, reliable technology by that time. The only point of interest was whether the particular units installed in the prototype were of adequate power.
After that came the test of the new main gun. Several large pieces of metallic rubbish left over from various experiments had been deposited in the chamber for such use. The initial tests were at minimum firepower and were little more than a lightshow; they proceeded without notable event. After that, they gradually continued through the various power settings that the tank had for its new main gun until it was blasting multi-ton pieces of steel apart with each shot.
Once the static firing tests had been performed, new targets were fetched, and tests on how well firing while in movement worked began. It was at that point that Rachel noted something wasn't quite right. The tank was moving sluggishly, the weapons fire was losing some of its accuracy. It wasn't a huge thing, not at first, and easily missed, but Rachel spotted it and she saw some of the other people present were looking uneasy as well.
Eventually the straw that broke the back came. The prototype attempted to pull off a rather sharp-angled shot while moving at considerable speed and instead of firing simply dropped out of the air and crashed to the ground with a thundering crash. Rachel winced; that was a tank that wasn't going anywhere any time soon. It's tracks, retained for use in an emergency, had simply popped off and she doubted the repulsors would have survived that.
Immediately, technicians swarmed out from behind the safety barriers and over to the prototype, which was now entirely inert. Schrader swore, loudly and extensively, in his native language.
"Close," said Rachel. "Very close."
"Close doesn't win battles," said Schrader bitterly. "There are no prizes for second-place in war."
"I doubt it's a major problem," said Rachel. "Most likely something to do with the power generation. You'll have it fixed in no time."
It was a lame attempt at being supportive and Rachel knew it. Dr Schrader didn't seem to be listening anyway, thankfully. He was already focussed on his defective prototype.