Times change and the days when she was choked by the desperation of the hopeless whenever she tried to meditate were beginning to pass. There was hope now. It was a weak thing, a candle's light in an ocean of darkness, but it was there and it was slowly growing as the Allies penetrated further and further into alien-occupied Africa. Truly, it was a magnificent thing to behold. There's nothing quite like seeing the light at the end of the tunnel after things have been bad for so very long.
The invasion of Africa, Operation Reconquista, appeared to be proceeding very well indeed. It had been ambitious enough that Rachel had doubted it somewhat, but it seemed to have worked out quite well. The amphibious invasion had been expensive in terms of both life and wealth but it had bought the needed foothold and now the armies of humanity were pushing the aliens further and further back as they attacked both from their expensively bought foothold and from the stronghold that had been South Africa. It was a mess, but it was becoming a human mess once more.
South America was still a mess, unfortunately. They'd quickly puzzled out the source of the plague, a poisoned water supply, but it was proving hard to remove the contamination: if there was one thing the aliens were good at, it was producing something that would kill vast numbers of people effectively. And with the water supply contaminated, they were reliant on imports from North America and Europe or on what they could eke out of hastily constructed desalination plants. Clumsy and inadequate as those substitutes were, it was the best that could be managed. Their fear was manifest but there was nothing she could do about it.
On the upside of that, the plague being in the water meant they needed a lot less troops to maintain order. With the vector of infection determined they didn't need to maintain such a generalised quarantine and that had freed up men for the war. It was pretty low as upsides go, but it was something.
And then she felt Vrook enter the room.
"It's about time you showed up," said Rachel. "I was beginning to think you've given up on me."
"I gave up on you a long time ago, Revan," said Vrook. "But fate has conspired to force me to give you a second chance."
Rachel rolled her eyes before unfolding herself from her meditative posture and turning to face the ornery old Jedi. "You can't help yourself, can you?" she said. "Always with the insults. It's like a reflex or something."
Vrook grimaced. "If I had my way, you'd have been stripped of your connection to the Force and never allowed within a light-year of any Jedi enclave ever again," he said. "But we don't always get what we want. You have to be insulated from the Dark Side or the cost . . . the cost would be hideous."
Rachel folded her arms over her chest. "If you're trying to persuade me that working with you would be worth the trouble, you're not doing a great job," she said with a glare.
"Neither of us likes this situation, Revan, but we can't change it," he said by way of reply. "You can't stop being what you are and I don't see anyone else stepping up to take my place either."
"Well, you know, I'm getting along quite happily without your insights," said Rachel. "Have been for a while. So if you don't want to be here? Fine by me. Leave."
"If it were that simple, I would," said Vrook with a deep frown. "But someone has to be your voice of moderation."
"I've been through my trial by Dark Side," snapped Rachel. "Remember Malak? Well I had to stop him when he was drawing on the power of the hellmouth. And I did it without one iota of dark power. What else can anyone throw at me that could be worse than that? I'm not going to fall again."
"I'm not worried about you being able to deal with big, one-off threats, Revan. It's the little things that will get you. The slow slip down the slope with each step fully justified and entirely logical, right up to the point when you wake up one day and look in the mirror to see yellow eyes and pale skin."
"I think I'd recognise the signs, Vrook. I've been there, I've done that, and I've taken a hell of a lot of people down with me, people that I'd cared about once upon a time. Oh, I know the signs all right."
"But it's not so easy to recognise the signs of your own corruption," said Vrook. "And Revan, they're there. Your casual use of the Force to directly inflict injuries or even kill, your willingness to use the most vile sort of mind attacks, your ruthlessness in battle, even the harshness of the training exercises you use with your apprentice; it all adds up, Revan; it all takes its toll on the soul."
Rachel shook her head. "You're exaggerating," she said. "The most vile sort of mind attacks? No. Not at all. I can do much worse than pull information out of someone's mind."
"That really isn't the point. You start using those powers out of necessity and eventually you'll start using them because it's convenient, because it's quicker than other methods. It's a slippery slope."
"You are aware that the slippery slope is a logical fallacy, correct? Taking the first step does not necessarily imply the second will be taken never mind the third and fourth."
"It is the very nature of the best. You of all people should understand the nature of the Dark Side, the way it takes hold of your soul. Logic doesn't defeat evidence."
Rachel took a deep breath before replying. "Fine," she said. "I can see where you're coming from; I just think you're being overly paranoid. I barely do anything. I'm not out there fighting for my life or commanding armies on a regular basis. I don't have the opportunity, the cause, to fall."
"Even librarians can fall to the Dark Side, Revan," said Vrook. "Do you remember Master Atris? She fell and I can't remember her ever participating in a battle."
"Atris? Well, there's some irony there. She was always so prim and proper and so very, very uptight. Even worse than you."
"Yes, well, you running off with her apprentice to fight in the wars didn't have a good effect on her, and it was all downhill from there. She did some very, very foolish things before she came to her senses and the Jedi Order is still paying the price today."
"I should have known it would come back to me."
Vrook frowned at her, somehow deepening the wrinkles on his face even further. "No," he said, his voice vaguely reproachful. "We are all responsible for our own mistakes in the end. It will be she that answers for what she did, not you. And this is not what I came here for."
"What do you come here for, Vrook? You've yet to offer anything more than lectures and scoldings."
"You are indeed a skilled and knowledgeable wielder of the Force," he said. "A prodigy even. But you don't know everything despite your skill and your power. There are things you must know if you are to rebuild the Jedi Order in this dimension. Many things."
"I know," admitted Rachel. "I know only the basics of several forms and have very little aptitude and even less knowledge when it comes to healing. These are things I was going to look into when I had the time, when the war was over. Earth has several schools that could be co-opted to form the basis for new forms, but I've had no time for it."
Vrook snorted. "Recreating the forms will be a slow job. Better to have them passed on to you," he said. "I can teach you much of what you need. It may not be suited to you, but you can pass it on to those who do."
"I would appreciate that. My apprentice could make great use of a more complete shien if nothing else."
"Indeed. But those are not the primary reasons. You learned too many of your advanced techniques from Sith holocrons, Revan. Far too many for comfort. What they taught you was twisted. It always is. It won't be quick but eventually that will lead to your destruction. You must learn the pure Jedi methods. And I can teach you that, if you stay true to the light."
"Bribing me with knowledge?" asked Rachel with a smirk. "Why, that's the smartest thing you've done since you started showing up here."
"Bindo may not have lived up to the Jedi ideal, but he has great insight into your character," said Vrook. "I simply chose to listen to him."
"Smart choice," said Rachel. "Now all you have to do is start calling me by my name and not the by Revan. I'm Rachel. And if I ever get my male form back, I'll be Xander. Not Revan."
Vrook blinked. "Ah," he said. "Of course, if that is what you wish, Giles."
Well, it was a start. Rome wasn't built in a day and all that.
Dawn bore a look of eager anticipation as Rachel cleared the gym area out. She didn't normally bother to do so, but she wanted to see the totality of what Dawn could achieve against her that day and that meant she needed plenty of space. Jedi battles could get pretty acrobatic and if Dawn wanted to go that way then Rachel wanted to give her as fair an opportunity as possible to show what she could do. Gawkers would just get in the way of that.
Once the room was clear, Rachel shrugged off her lab coat, leaving herself in the tunic and trousers of her traditional robes. "Well, Dawn," she said, unclipping her lightsabre. "Let's see what you can do."
Dawn pulled her lightsabre loose of her belt and ignited it in one smooth motion, bathing the room around her in a bright white light. As she set herself into a solid-looking ready stance she flourished her sabre in an elaborate movement. Ah, youth. She'd get that knocked out of her soon enough when she started used it for real. Rachel ignited her own sabre, newly constructed after losing her old, in reply, bathing the room around her in green light.
Predictably, Dawn was the first to attack. Patience was not a strong point of the Summers family as a rule and Dawn was far from being an exception to that. She quickly advanced and started out with a darting slash at Rachel's mid-section that was easily intercepted before smoothly shifting into another attack aimed at the opposite side which Rachel parried aside before smashing her elbow into Dawn's jaw to force her back.
Before Dawn could resume the offensive, Rachel stepped in and stabbed at her mid-section, forcing Dawn to leap back to avoid being ran through. Rachel gathered the Force in her legs and leapt after her, exchanging a rapid series of cuts and parries in a blur of motion as they moved through the air. When they landed, Dawn parried aside a blow and locked the blades aside before attempting to slam a knee up into Rachel's gut that would have knocked the breath out of her if she hadn't kicked out at Dawn's ankle and knocked her off her feet before she could land the blow.
Her apprentice reacted quickly though and rolled out of the way before Rachel's blade could skewer her prone form. Rachel didn't give her any time to breath, though; she moved in straight away with a series of quick, precise cuts that darted from side to side, angle to angle, probing Dawn's defences. Dawn didn't even try to stand her ground. She'd learned how futile that was when faced with that type of attack; she backed off and kept her distance as best she could while defending against the strikes.
Eventually the tide turned, as it always does. Dawn caught one of the probing strikes on her blade in a straight-up block and then used all her power to shove Rachel back through the locked blades. And then she advanced quickly with brutal, clubbing strikes, working all the angles so that Rachel found her avenues of escape very slimmed down indeed. It wasn't subtle and it wasn't pretty, but that was shien - and by extension djem so - for you: all about overpowering the opponent with no concept of elegance or subtlety.
Rachel, of course, wasn't without her answers to that sort of assault. If she was a master of makashi and makashi alone, then she would have been in trouble; she wasn't. In one moment she switched from the elegant fencing style of makashi to the aggressive offence of juyo and returned fire with a flurry of stabbing strikes aimed at Dawn's chest that forced the young apprentice back onto the defensive.
Of course, Dawn was able to defend herself. The girl was quick on her feet and wasn't prone to letting herself panic when faced with adversity, so she managed to knock the thrusts harmlessly aside, even the awkward ones that had been aimed below her centre of gravity and where she held her blade. She was forced to give up ground with each strike, though and found herself unfortunately backed against the wall with nowhere left to retreat to.
As Rachel brought her blade around in a stroke that would end the spar, Dawn thrust her hand out and caught Rachel with a powerful telekinetic blast to the chest. Unable to entirely dissipate the energies without preparation, Rachel was blown off her feet and back across the room. She couldn't help but smile as she went. It wasn't often someone managed to break her guard like that in a duel; her apprentice was coming along very nicely. And as she landed, she returned fire: using her powers top heft an exercise bike and hurl it at Dawn's head.
What followed was a duel of telekinetic powers with objects being thrown to and fro as they matched skills. Such a duel could only have one end. For all her raw power, Dawn just couldn't harness the Force well enough to defeat Rachel in such a match of powers and eventually Rachel broke through and Dawn found herself tied up tight around the legs with a skipping rope.
And before Dawn could release herself, Rachel leapt across the room and brought her sabre down to rest a millimetre from her neck. "Match point," she said with a victorious smirk. "But you're improving quickly, Dawn. Well done."
"Thanks," said Dawn, looking quite exhausted. "Could you let me go now?"
Rachel untied the rope and banished across the room with a gesture. "It's a rare apprentice that progresses as quickly as you have, Dawn," she said. "You should be proud. Not too proud, though. That's bad."
"Yeah, yeah," said Dawn, slumping into a prone position as she fought to regain her breath. "Damn, I've never used that much power before."
"Looks like you need some endurance training to me," said Rachel. "Hmm. I wonder how many dodging exercises it would take-"
"NO!" screeched Dawn. "That's quite alright. I'll work with Buffy! And Casey! Yeah. They'll build my endurance up! Right? Yeah."
"Wrong sort of endurance, my lazy apprentice," said Rachel. "Don't worry. I'll come up with some exercises for you."
"But, leaving that aside, I think you'll be ready for some more advanced training soon," said Rachel. Then she frowned. "That'll have to wait, though."
"What? Why?" asked Dawn with a distinct pout.
"I learned some of my tricks from the Sith, Dawn. I have to make sure that stuff's safe before I teach it to anyone. Don't worry, I have plenty of other stuff I can teach you."
"Good!" said Dawn. A moment's silence. "How hard is it to build a lightsabre?"
"Well, that depends," said Rachel, eyeing Dawn carefully. "Are we talking a generic sabre from pre-made parts or a ground-up custom job? I wouldn't recommend trying anything too fancy the first time out; that way lies much frustration."
Dawn took a while to reply. "I suppose I should start simple," she said. "How hard would it be?"
"I'd provide the parts," said Rachel slowly. "The crystal, the power cell, and all the rest of it. Your role would be to design the hilt you want and put it all together. There are instructions for every step provided, but it's still not easy, Dawn. Are you sure about this?"
She nodded. "It's what we're supposed to do, yeah? We all build our own eventually or we're not real Jedi?"
"Eventually," said Rachel. "No-one's pushing you to do it just yet."
"What? You think I can't do it?" screeched Dawn, looking perfectly outraged.
Rachel laughed. "Didn't say that, did I, brat? I'm not going to stop you if you really want to do it, but you'd better not be wasting my time."
"Fine," she said. "Give me a few days and I'll get the supplies together. My holocron will provide any instructions you need."
Rachel almost felt like whistling as she made her way to Davis's office. The day was coming along quite nicely indeed and a summons from upon high didn't even come close to putting a dent in it. Even her visitation by the grumpy old man known as Vrook had gone pretty damned well for a very nice change. When even Vrook didn't insult you, you knew it was going to be a decent day.
The secretary didn't even look up from the gossip magazine she was reading when Rachel strolled on through. Whether that was an advantage of notoriety or simply because the secretary was a lazy bum, Rachel wasn't sure. It wasn't something that filled her with confidence though. She made a mental note to watch out and deliver a bollocking if it happened again.
Davis was at his desk tapping away at his computer terminal when Rachel entered his office. It was a fairly odd sight. He was just so incredibly tall and lanky that his limbs seemed to stick out everywhere and it was never so pronounced as when he was working at his desk. He was certainly an awkward looking man. Quite capable though. Rachel'd seen him in the base's gym and his awkward appearance didn't seem to hinder him one bit when he was on the treadmill or what have you.
"Ah, Giles," he said, switching his holographic terminal into standby as he spoke. "Sit down."
She did so. "You called?" she asked.
"Yeah. We ready for this trial run?" he asked. "It kinda gives me the creeping horrors whenever I read the reports you sent me. This goes wrong and we are fucked ten ways from Sunday."
Rachel took a moment before replying. "There's always a risk," she said. "That can't be avoided. But it's really no worse than the fusion tests or the explosives or any one of a dozen highly dangerous trials we've ran."
"But miniature black holes?"
"Think of it this way, when they detonated the first atom bomb some of the scientists bet on it igniting the atmosphere and destroying the world," said Rachel. "Some bet on it destroying New Mexico. We're really a lot better off than that. We know exactly what will happen barring catastrophic failure."
Rachel knew she was being somewhat disingenuous but what he didn't know wouldn't have him waking up in a cold sweat at night.
"Right," he said. "And the possibility of containment failure is nothing to worry about whatsoever. No chance, right?"
The sarcasm was strong with this one. "Tiny," she said. "Infinitesimally small. Like the chances of your car exploding in your face when you put your key into the ignition. It'll only happen if someone has seriously bollocked something up or if someone's sabotaged it. And I've kept a very close eye on who gets to work on the reactor."
Davis wore a very sour expression on his face. "It's the bollocking up part that worries me," he said. "No bastard saboteur is getting on my base. Anyway, you're ready?"
Rachel replied with a firm nod of her head.
"Excellent," he said. "The powers that be are very interested in this, Giles. They want this technology bad. I'm getting phone calls every day asking about your progress. It's really starting to irritate me."
Starting? "It's the technology of victory. Of course they're interested."
"Yeah, yeah," he said. "Just don't be surprised if I start passing some of them on to you to fob off. I'm getting sick of it. Retirement's never looked so good, I tell you."
"I don't suppose they actually tell you what they're after?"
"You have to be joking. I am but a peon to these people," he said. "And I don't have superpowers or a brain the size of Jupiter to get 'em talking to me. I'm lucky if they deign to tell me to pass on the latest 'what they want' to you. Fifteen years in and I'm nothing more than a glorified office manager."
Rachel said nothing.
"Right," he said. "Oh, I have heard some interesting rumblings. Nothing official, of course, but I do have some friends here and there, you know, and I've been hearing rumblings about a conference to decide how things are going to be handled when this mess is all over and done with. And you? Well, you're the big-time superhero and there was that thing with you being the recognised head of a religious order. You might just get called in, Giles, even if it's only to put a good, popular face on whatever crap they come up with."
"Your optimism is boundless."
"They fucked up the peace both times we've rolled out for a World War so far. I doubt that the third time'll be the charm."
Normally you'd run a potentially extremely dangerous test run somewhere nice and unpopulated, like Alaska, but it seemed pretty pointless to do that with this one. If they fucked up, there'd be nowhere safe for anyone to be. It gets to be that way when you're dealing with hypermatter. Miniature black holes are a fairly important part of the technology and there's no real way to mitigate the risk. Traditionally, that sort of work was done on an obscure moon somewhere that no-one would ever miss if you destroyed it, but that just wasn't an option for them. Turning Luna into a black hole would be no better than turning Earth into a black hole and the Ethereals would destroy any attempt to set up a lab anywhere other than Earth anyway. They were bastards like that.
So, with that in mind, they'd produced the safest testing facility they could on the base. They had forcefields, they had blast doors made of materials that could double as battleship armour, they had enough safeties on the reactor to make the average fission or fusion reactor look like a sloppily put together pile, and, to boot, enough soldiers guarding the entrances that any saboteur looking to throw a last-minute spanner in the works would have to be either quite insane to try and break through.
It was going to be a bit of an anti-climax for those watching really. The reactor was buried away behind a dozen layers of protection with a few technicians just in case - and they really hadn't been enthused with the idea of being the first to go squish if something went wrong - with nothing to actually see. Well, there'd be computer readouts, but it wasn't exactly going to be the Trinity test.
There weren't that many observers there, though. A couple of generals, an admiral or two, and that was about it. The base was a bit of an open secret but it was still a secret, so no politicians or journalists. Which broke Rachel's heart. Honest.
"We're ready to start boss," said Sarah, with a somewhat nervous smile. "Just give the word."
Rachel nodded before calling out a single word. "Begin."
"Initiating initial fusion reaction."
"Fusion reaction stable. Output holding steady at five hundred megawatts."
"Activating containment systems."
"Mass generator initialising. Outputs are stable."
"Hyperspace manipulator is online."
"Beginning mass generation."
That was where things got potentially risky. As part of a hypermatter reactor you had to generate a miniature black hole - well, more than one for most serious uses - and that brought along certain risks. Containment systems were in place, powerful containment systems at that, but you couldn't help but feel some small amount of nerves when you were playing around with forces like that with a prototype reactor.
"Stage one achieved."
"All readouts are green."
"What's going on?" asked one of the visiting generals who'd taken a place stood next to me.
"There are three stages to creating the black hole," said Rachel. "There's nothing special or different about any of them; it's just a precaution in case something goes wrong. We can pull back at any point before the third stage."
"Stage one is confirmed stable. Beginning stage two."
A minute of tense silence passed.
"Stage two achieved."
"All readouts are green."
"Stage two is confirmed stable. Awaiting order to proceed."
Rachel quickly ran over the readouts herself and saw nothing amiss. Given that her danger sense wasn't blaring, either, she saw no reason to not proceed. "Continue," she ordered.
"Beginning stage three."
"Dimensional breach detected."
"Black hole forming."
"Containment system readouts are optimal."
"Hyperspace manipulator is ready. Waiting for the word."
Again Rachel checked the readouts. Everything was green so there was no reason not to continue. She took a deep breath and then she issued the final command. "Do it."
"Hypermatter extraction initiated."
"Reaction beginning. Output climbing."
That was it. The moment of truth. They'd safely passed the generation of the black hole and now they were moving to generate power from it. Time passed and numbers were counted off as the output climbed higher and higher till they reached the target number.
"Output holding steady at five hundred gigawatts."
"Well, Doctor Giles, that's an impressive number," said the general stood next to her. "I can't wait to see what you're going to do with that sort of power."