A blue blade ignited in Dawn's hand and she grinned like a lunatic. Rachel nodded her acquiescence. "It seems functional," she said. "Though I recommend testing it against a duelling droid before letting it see any real action."
Dawn nodded and gave Rachel a bright grin before bouncing off to do so. Rachel sighed. They did grow up so far. Her own lightsabre and her eighteenth birthday so close as well to boot. Little Dawnie was almost a woman. Judging by the looks some of the soldiers were giving her, more than almost. Ah, how time flew. It didn't seem like that long to Rachel since Dawn hadn't been able to eat ice-cream or yoghurt without smearing it all over her face. Then again, maybe she was just a messy eater.
"Query: Master, the insolent, young meatbag apprentice appears to be far too happy. May I puncture her joy?"
"Not today, HK," said Rachel. "Let her enjoy it. She has hard enough times coming up, let her have this."
"That sounds ominous," said Peter. "Have you been seeing the future again or have you just decided to make her life difficult?"
"Little of A, little of B," said Rachel with a wave of her hand. "Jedi rarely get an easy life but I have to test her soon and I have to make that difficult as I can manage or it's all a bit pointless."
"Oh dear," said Peter. "The cave?"
"A Star Wars fan, Peter?" asked Rachel. "I'd never have taken you for a sci-fi geek type before. But yes. Something along those lines. She must face her own darkness even if I don't have a convenient cave saturated with darkness around to use on her. Maybe I can get Harry to lend me a dementor . . . "
Peter looked positively scandalised by the idea. Obviously he'd been doing his research on magic and such. "I don't think that would be a good idea," he said. "They tend to do nasty things. Like steal someone's soul. Bad idea all round, I think. Barbaric creatures."
Rachel couldn't help but smirk. "Ah, well," she said. "Maybe a boggart then. No, she'd see through it. Boo. That gives me an idea though."
Peter sighed. "Just so long as I don't have to clean up after it," he said. "I'd be forced to lodge a complaint about that, I suspect."
"Where's your sense of fun?" asked Rachel. "It's not like anyone's going to be killed or anything. Just a little tormented."
"Statement: if I may, master, I think a little death would spice any test up quite nicely. No test is complete without a little bloodshed. How would you know the meatbag will deal with the battlefield without it?"
"Your robot is repulsive," enunciated Peter clearly. "I have no idea why you tolerate such a creature."
"Statement: and you are both boring and decrepit," said HK. "Why you have not been scrapped I do not understand. I can only speculate that you have friends in high places."
If looks could kill, HK'd have been deader than the time he tried to take on Glory and got blew to bits for his troubles.
"Now, now, boys," said Rachel. "You'd think between a robot and a grandfather there wouldn't be that much testosterone to start a fight with."
"I'll have you know that I have plenty of testosterone left," said Peter with a sniff.
Ah, she'd almost forgotten how much fun it could be to drive someone to distraction. She'd lost that somewhere along the way as the war set in and made her get all serious about things. Well, no more. The war was nearly done with and she'd made pretty much all the contributions she was likely to already. Her brain was tapped out. And so she could relax a bit. Peter wasn't as much fun as Giles had been back in the day but he wasn't too bad.
"Still got lead in the old pencil, eh?" asked Rachel. "You know . . . I really didn't need to know that. Seriously."
Peter just gaped.
"What?" asked Rachel. "Not used to me having a sense of humour? I thought it was funny even if no-one else did."
"If this is your sense of humour then I find myself glad that you've had little cause to make use of it in recent times," said Peter, though she suspected he wasn't quite as put out as he made himself out to be. He just wasn't that stuffy. "It is incredibly juvenile, especially for one as otherwise intelligent as yourself."
Rachel let silence take hold for a few moments before speaking again. "So what do you think, Peter?" she asked. "Of Dawn, that is. A progress report, if you will."
"She's still so young," he said with a sigh. "Oh, she could take any of your usual high school tests now and outdo all but the greatest students this country has to offer, for the part I am responsible for, and she's more than capable of holding her own in any sparring match to boot, for the parts that yourself and Casey are responsible for, but she still seems so young. Maybe I'm just getting old but I don't remember eighteen seeming so young when I took the Queen's shilling."
"Hmm," said Rachel. "No, you're right. She's still young, despite it all. For better or worse she's not had to stand on a battlefield as of yet and what she's picked up with her senses seems to have not affected her too badly."
"But you're still going to put her through these tests."
"Of course," said Rachel. "She can't move on much further without the trials. She has to face her own darkness and understand it before she can advance. That's just the way it is."
"I suppose you have to be cautious when dealing with youngsters who have access to these powers but it seems . . . harsh. I expect that Casey won't like it. He's grown to be rather fond of the girl."
"Casey should understand as well as anyone on this world can," said Rachel. "You don't get to be as high a level in a martial art as he is at without facing some hard trials. Nothing comes for free in this world. Nothing. And being a Jedi requires much more discipline and comes with much more in the way of risks than martial arts."
"Are you quite this is a good idea, Giles?" asked Vrook when he showed up later on that night. "All things considered, it may not be the best idea to push this apprentice too hard on this front."
"Now, Vrook, since when did you believe in going easy on apprentices?" asked Rachel. "I can't remember it. Ever."
"Dawn Summers has the potential to be one of the greatest Jedi ever," said Vrook. "But she also has the potential to be one of the greatest scourges the Jedi Order has ever seen in any reality. For that reason, I am quite understandably cautious about her. Remember how Anakin ended."
"It's hardly an unfamiliar tale," drawled Rachel. "I seem to remember it being about the most popular series of films ever made. But I thought you'd want me to go hard on her, make sure any dark impulses are driven out. You know, your usual approach to pretty much any apprentice that falls into your orbit. I seem to remember some times like that for myself."
Vrook frowned. Deeply. It made him look even older than he already did, which took some doing. "And, as has been pointed out to me in great detail and at great length, look how that ended," he said. "You still fell. Malak still fell. Half the damn Order still fell. And that mess nearly broke the Republic entirely in the end. This world is not half as durable as the Republic was, either."
"Oh, I think this world will surprise you," said Rachel. "It's not as weak as it may seem at first glance."
"We shall see," said Vrook. "But that's hardly the point."
"No," said Rachel, looking up from the enchantment and conjuration work she was doing for Dawn's trial. "But this is: there is such a thing as going too far in the opposite direction when you realise a mistake. You'd make a poor touchy-feely master, Vrook. Leave that to Zhar or Vandar."
"She can handle it," said Rachel. "She has to. The time has come. No Jedi can avoid facing their own inner darkness forever, or even for very long. She must face this. She simply must. There's no other option."
"You might be right," he said. "But I do not wish to risk the world facing another Darth Vader."
"If it comes to that, I will do what is necessary. You can rest assured of that."
"Will you?" he asked. "As attached as you are to the girl? I'm not so sure, Giles. It's not easy to do that to your own apprentice, to cut them down when they've gone rotten. You took advantage of that yourself enough times as Darth Revan."
Rachel gave him an icy glare. "Remember who you are talking to," she said, enunciating each word with great precision. "I do not flinch from my duty."
"No, I suppose you don't," said Vrook. "Let's hope that we never need to find out if you could do it."
Rachel went back to her work and said nothing in reply.
"Well, this isn't really what I came here for," said Vrook finally. "We have training to work through. You have taken relatively well to the healing techniques I have shown you so far, but today we shall be working on something somewhat more advanced. I advise that you pay close attention, Giles."
Rachel did so.
Word came in that next morning that Operation Judgement Day was virtually ready to begin. The forces of man were on the brink of launching their final assault against what was still left in the hands of the aliens and their pawns. Rachel couldn't help but be pleased. A good victory would do the world a power of good; if nothing else, it would provide a feel-good wave that would help wipe away the resentment engendered by the still-forming world government. The protests had been distinctly muted by the circumstances of the time and the various war powers acts that had been passed by the nations of the world, but they still existed. Commencing the final act of the war would help there.
"I hope you know what you're doing, kid," said Jolee. "I know you think this is the right thing to do, and I see where you're coming, but you're pushing the girl awfully hard, awfully fast."
"Of course I am," said Rachel. "She's a a natural. Slowing down her training to an artificially slow rate of progress would just frustrate her and end up being entirely counter-productive.
"Well, I seem to remember another prodigy or two," said Jolee. "Real bright kid, real powerful, swallowed up knowledge like nothing anyone'd ever seen before. Exhausted what they could get from one master so they moved from master to master, even, for a while. Must have read through half the archives too. Everyone thought they was going to be about the greatest Jedi ever the way she picked things up. Didn't end too well, though."
"I do remember my own history, old man. I'm not the senile one here."
"Could have fooled me," said Jolee. "Seems like history's repeating itself kinda obviously to me."
"Dawn isn't Revan," said Rachel. "She's her own person. And guess what? She's a better person, too. Mrs. Summers did a pretty damn good raising her. I don't think Dawn's got a genuinely malicious bone in her body. Sure, she whines a lot and she can be irritating as all hell, but there's no deep-lying darkness in there. There's no Darth lurking in the back of her mind. There're no twisted teachings. She's just a good kid who's advancing quick."
Jolee nodded. "Just wanted to be sure you know what you were doing," he said. "For what it's worth, I mostly agree. Not sure about better but different? Sure."
"She's not going to slaughter trillions. That's better."
"She's not going to get left with the devil's choice time and time again, either," pointed out Jolee. "Deciding which planet gets saved and which dies . . . that's going to leave marks on anyone, nevermind an empath."
"Haven't you played devil's advocate enough for one day, Jolee?" asked Rachel. "I think that I, of all people, understand what I did and why. I'm not going to debate it with you or with anyone."
"Dag nabbit, nobody has any respect for the whims of their elders these days. Why I remember the days . . . "
"Yeah, yeah. When you walked twenty miles uphill in the snow with no shoes and a fifty kilo pack on your back every day to get to the enclave for training," said Rachel. "Or something like that, I assume."
"Well, I was going to say 'when Revan actually listened to me' but that'll do too," said Jolee. "Anyway have fun with that . . . whatever the hell it is. I'm sure it'll be greatly entertaining."
"Sod off, Jolee."
"What the hell have you done, Giles?" asked Casey, looking honestly quite scared. "Have you gone completely out of your mind?"
"What?" asked Rachel. "Oh, that. It's not actually alive, Casey. It's a golem. A simulacrum, if you will. Dawn's test. It has no mind or will of its own. No power other than that which I provide. It's a meat-puppet."
"If it's not real, then why does it make me want to run for my fucking life," he asked, still looking creeped. "And what the hell made you make something like that?"
"Oh, that would be the spells woven into its being," said Rachel. "It would be rather useless if wasn't convincing and Dawn, being caught by surprise, should be very well convinced, I think. It's quite a good piece of work actually, if I do so say so myself."
"That doesn't answer the question of why I shouldn't be phoning the men in white coats about now," replied Casey. "Because this is madness distilled."
"You exaggerate. Trust me, Casey. This is the best way to test Dawn's resolve against her own darkness."
"By having a vision out of her nightmares show up? Great idea. Let's see if we can drive super-kid mad. Brilliant."
"Casey, Casey, Casey, you really have gone soft on her, haven't you?" said Rachel. "This is the only way. I'd prefer something a little less, hmm, likely to end in mortal combat but it's all I have right now."
"Mortal combat. Gee, that sounds like a great idea."
Rachel shrugged. "It's only a golem," she said. "It doesn't really matter if it gets killed anymore than it matters when you die in a computer game."
"More worried about Dawn than that . . . thing."
"Yeah. Well, I'll be in full control. It can only operate according to my will. If I withdraw, it goes dormant."
"Great. And how exactly does that work then?"
"Oh, it's pretty simple. I take possession of the form, possess in the sense of forced total control, and then I take it to perform the test. If it gets too hot, I'll withdraw to my own body to deal with things. Won't happen. Dawn's not going to fail."
"So you're going to have to leave your body behind?"
"That's why HK's here. No-one'll go near my body while he still functions. Adequate protection, I think."
"How do I play into this?"
"I'd appreciate it if you kept an eye on my body," said Rachel. "I'm not worried about anyone interfering with it - HK will prevent that - but if something starts to go wrong I might need a human at hand to kept it from choking on its own tongue or something similar while I'm not at home."
"Sounds like you should have a doctor watching."
"I don't know any of the doctors. I know you."
Casey nodded. "OK, I'll do it," he said. "But I still think you're pretty damned close to insane to come up with the idea of conjuring up Darth Vader to test Dawn with. Just damn weird."
Taking possession of the body was easy. Rachel had designed it to be so. The golem had no will of its own, no spirit, and she just slid into it. Sure, it wouldn't live for very long - if it could be called living to start with - but it'd last long enough for the test and that was what mattered. It was strange though. The Vader body was designed to closely match the condition of the original and that meant it was a cripple augmented heavily with cybernetics so that it could function at something close to a normal human level. It took a few moments to get used to.
She didn't even have normal human eyesight. In the Vader body, she saw through a mask of sensors that provided a red-tinted image of the world around her using heat signatures and the like to form an image. It was how droids saw the world, HK included, and it was something that took more than a little getting used to for a human. Fortunately, she didn't have to rely upon it. Supernatural senses and all that. Eyes were unreliable anyway.
Just getting up off her back and onto her feet took a couple of attempts to pull off in the Vader body. It was just so much more massive that she was used to. It had been years since she had even been able to spend time in her male form nevermind anything as massive as Vader.
"Not going to be much of a test if you can't even walk properly," said Casey.
"Yes," said Rachel, in Vader's deep, mechanised voice. "I'll need to take a moment to adapt to this. It's . . . interesting."
"Statement: I do like your new body, master. It's much more . . . functional than a mere meatbag."
Rachel was beginning to get an idea of why Vader was so damned cranky as HK said his piece. Not even being able to control your own breathing . . . it was irritating. Very irritating. And the sheer amount of unnatural material, machinery, in the body was interfering with her connection to the Force. It was driving her insane and she'd only been in it a minute. It felt like there was a layer of static between her and the power that normally came to her at will, and she hated it. It wouldn't be enough to ruin the test but it'd be a killer to live with.
"You okay there?"
Rachel clenched her fists and held them up for her to see. They were huge. "I'll live," she said. "It isn't every day you change bodies."
Well, the quicker she got it over with the quicker she could return to her own body. She cast an eye over her own form, hunched over in a chair and looking barely alive, before sweeping out of the room, cape billowing behind her in an irritatingly dramatic fashion.
Rachel had issued orders for the corridors between her preparation room and the base's gym to be cleared prior to the test and mercifully they had been obeyed. God only knew what would have happened if she'd ran into a bunch of soldiers patrolling the corridors when she was occupying Vader's flesh. Nothing good, most likely. Of course, there was always someone who didn't listen. Inevitable really.
And it just had to be Sarah. It just had to be really. Typical of her not to pay attention or, more likely, to simply forget. The look on her face when she looked up from the clipboard she was reading from as she walked and saw Darth Vader stalking down the corridor towards her was almost amusing though. In fact, it would have been amusing if Rachel didn't like Sarah.
She made a sound, something between an eep and a meep, and her mouth opened and closed several times without any coherent words passing her lips, the only noise in the corridor being that of Vader's respirator, before she managed to speak. "I'll . . . I'll just be leaving now, yeah," she said. "Yeah. I'll just go hide under my boss's desk. See you around, Mr., uh, Vader? Yeah, Mr. Vader. Bye."
And then she was off. Rachel'd never seen her move so fast before. She shook her head and moved on.
When Rachel slid into the gym, using her powers to conceal her presence entirely, she found Dawn sat in the centre of the room, meditating with her lightsabre in her lap. She really did look the picture. Right clothes, right posture, right expression. The proper picture of Jedi serenity. Rachel smiled beneath the mask, feeling ruined tissue stretching as she did so. Even if Dawn failed the test she was facing, she would become a knight sooner rather than later. She had the makings of it in her.
But there was time to be proud of her later. Rachel dropped the concealments. If all went to plan, and the various enchantments worked, then Dawn would be easily fooled by a simple aura-distorting trick into thinking that she was facing the real Darth Vader. Judging by the way that Dawn's posture immediately went rigid it was working.
"So you are the one who was gifted my powers," boomed Rachel. "A mere stripling of an apprentice. I am not impressed."
Dawn rocketed to her feet, lightsabre in hand in an instant, and whirled around to face Vader's voice. "This is impossible," she said, her features pale.
"Nothing is impossible in the Force," said Rachel. "Has your foolish master taught you nothing, child?"
"Rachel isn't foolish," snarled Dawn. "She's worth a thousand of you."
"And yet she still lays dead," said Rachel, her synthesised voice revealing no emotion whatsoever. "Such is the fate of all who would betray the Sith."
"Do I?" asked Rachel. "Search your feelings. You know it to be true." Dawn shook her head furiously and Rachel could see her eyes glittering with moisture. "Your master, Revan, has been defeated. Her friends have joined her in death. Such is the way of things. She was weak, I was strong. That is all that matters."
There was a wild look in Dawn's eyes, a look Rachel didn't like one bit. Obviously the various mind-weakening enchantments were working a bit too well on her apprentice.
"You now face a choice," said Rachel. "Join me. Learn the ways of the Sith. Become my apprentice. Become worthy of the powers you have been gifted. Or die. Make your decision. Join me in life or join your master in death."
"I'll kill you!"
And Dawn attacked, blade igniting and sweeping forward in a high strike aimed at Rachel's skull in the blink of an eye. Rachel blocked high with her blade held vertically before using her newly acquired physical power to throw Dawn back from the block.
"Do not be a fool," she said. "The Force is with you but you are not a Jedi yet."
Dawn didn't listen. She swept forward like a force of nature and joined battle with Rachel in a furious flurry of blows that Rachel was actually hard-pressed to counter in her new, slower body. For a moment, Rachel saw a gleam of triumph in Dawn's eyes, but then she acted to remove that. She swept Dawn's blade aside with a parry and then lashed out with a kick to the shorter girl's gut that sent her skidding backwards off her feet.
"You have power," acknowledged Rachel. "But there is more to the Force than simple power. I can make you great. Just let me teach you."
Dawn attacked again, a frantic edge to her movements, but Rachel had control of it now and countered the strikes with a series of parries and ripostes that backed Dawn across the gym and forced her against the wall.
"Don't make me destroy you like your master," said Rachel over the locked blades, looking down at Dawn's strained features. "I know you have the potential within you."
"Never!" snarled Dawn before escaping the lock with a desperately quick attack that bought her the fraction of a second she needed. "NEVER!"
And then Dawn came at Rachel with all the /tyle and subtlety of a runaway train, slamming away at Rachel's defences like an artillery piece targeting enemy trenches. Now it was Rachel forced into retreat and a clumsy retreat it was too as Vader's much longer limbs proved to be supremely awkward to move. They stopped in the centre of the room as Rachel managed to block and lock Dawn's blade down to the left of her legs.
"You have controlled your fear," said Rachel. "Good. But it is not enough."
And then Rachel opened up and attacked with everything she could manage. In a moment Dawn was disarmed.
"Your family will be next," said Rachel. "I cannot allow any opposition."
Dawn's expression turned deadly in an instant and then a massive telekinetic blast smashed into Rachel's chest before she could react in her unfamiliar body and knocked her flying across the room, her body going one way and her sabre the other. When she reacquired it she found herself facing a very armed and very lethal looking Dawn.
"I won't let you hurt my mom," snarled Dawn.
And then Dawn attacked. Not just a physical attack either. The room filled with her power, overwhelming power, and Rachel found herself in a position where she felt like she was moving through treacle while defending against furious attacks that came thick and fierce and from all angles. It was, she reflected, rather ironic given the body she inhabited how it was ending.
Eventually she slipped under an attack and Dawn hooked her sabre underneath Rachel's before slicing through a mechanical wrist. It was a most strange position to find yourself staring up at your apprentice while missing parts that said apprentice had cut off, Rachel thought.
"You are not as weak as you seem," said Rachel. "Perhaps you are worthy of my power after all."
The feeling of power in the room dissipated.
"No," said Dawn with a snarl. "My power has nothing to do with you, Vader. Nothing. I got my talent from Anakin and my training from Rachel. You are nothing."
"So kill me if I am nothing. Kill me and take my place."
Dawn's expression turned to confusion for a moment and then turned slack with shock as she comprehended the position. Her mouth moved but no sound came out.
"If you will not ascend, then you will die," snarled Rachel before blasting Dawn backwards with her own powers and summoning the sabre out of her disembodied hand. What came next happened in an absolute blur of motion. Rachel left a deliberate gap in her defences as she surged forward and Dawn, despite her shock, took instinctive advantage and cut through it and through Rachel's midsection, cutting the golem neatly in two. Rachel sharply departed from the golem's body and returned to her own. It wouldn't die as a human would but she'd rather avoid taking any risks.
Rachel found Dawn on her knees staring at Vader's body with a look of blank incomprehension when she entered the gym.
"Experience is a harsh teacher," said Rachel. "But these are lessons best learned here rather than in the field."
Dawn looked up at her. "It . . . it wasn't real?"
"Of course it was real," said Rachel. "You gave into your anger, just for a moment, and came close to doing something very foolish. That was real. But you pulled back. You didn't give into it. And for that I congratulate you."
"Vader . . . "
"A golem," said Rachel. "Loaded with enchantments to confuse you into believing. I will teach you to see through such things soon."
"Because you had to face it," said Rachel. "All Jedi must face their own darkness before they can advance. This was simply the best option I had for doing so. Next time I train someone I'll probably have something better but you got this."
"No," said Dawn. "I get that, I think. It was my cave moment. But why did you attack me again at the end?"
"You have to understand," said Rachel simply. "You have to understand the Sith. To defeat them you have to understand them. I think you do now. I think you understand them."
"I . . . suppose."
"A real Sith will not be defeated so easily, of course," said Rachel. "They will be in their own bodies and they will not be cripples. They will push you much harder than I was able to in that form. I tell you this not to dishearten you but to warn you: you are strong, very strong, but you still have far to go. I don't want you to do anything foolish."
Dawn stood up. "This was a really bitchy thing to do," she said.
"Yes, it was," said Rachel. "But it had to be done. We don't always get the choice, Dawn. Remember that."
Dawn said nothing.
"You should be proud. Remember, Luke failed. You have passed, though there's still work to be done. Wisdom, of a sort, has been added to your skills. Not too proud though. I'd have to knock it out of you then."
"It was a really low trick to make me think you were dead."
"I . . . yes, I apologise for that," said Rachel. "To an extent anyway. I suppose it was a bit much, a little too harsh, but you had to think you were alone. If you'd thought I was going to come save you, the test would have been worthless. Perhaps I should have found another way but what's done is done."
"What's next then?"
"More training, of course," said Rachel. "We will step up work on your perceptions, I think. Yes. They're good for a mere apprentice but they have to be better than that if you are to survive what is to come. You cannot be easily fooled."
Dawn nodded but then frowned. "What is to come? Huh?"
"The Sith, of course. Malak left behind a legacy and we will face that sooner or later. You will be a key player in that. You must be prepared. You simply must."
The night following the test word came that Operation Judgement Day, the four front invasion of China and the end game of the war, had begun, though Rachel did not need telling. It was a turning point, a key point in history, and the Force was alive with the possibilities of it all. Some were good, some were bad, but none were small.