Chapter 7: Priorities
Just as Erithon was about to punch the call button, the portal slid open. He blinked in surprise; Aitahea stood calmly across the threshold from him, a picture of Jedi serenity with her hood shadowing her green eyes.
“Oh. Hi,” he stammered, setting Aitahea to smiling with his awkwardness. “So, can I come in?”
Aitahea nodded and moved aside to allow him entry. “Of course.” She followed him into the room but left the door conspicuously open.
Hours had passed since they’d woken in the stateroom, and Erithon had distracted himself thoroughly with mission plans and supply procurement to pass the time. Even so, the menial tasks didn’t take long, and he knew a confrontation was going to have to play out if they were to continue to work together. Their awkward morning had left Erithon feeling overwrought and guilty, not to mention embarrassed with himself. He considered himself a lot more professional than his behavior earlier, especially while on duty as they were. Not that he was deeply opposed to mixing a little business with pleasure, but he was pretty sure he’d been out of line.
The scenario wasn’t a new one to him; there was always the potential for both affection and conflict when working with others. Even in the military, where rank and order strictly defined roles, there could be disagreements and insubordination that had to be dealt with. Erithon imagined romantic entanglements among the Jedi were a lot like in the military; officially discouraged, but if you kept it to yourselves, the brass looked the other way. Assignments could be long and lonely, feelings complicated and tempers hot. But Aitahea was a different story than his own military experience; she was a Jedi, and beautiful, and her hands on his skin– blast, there he went again.
Erithon spun around and faced the Jedi, hands spread in appeal. “Look, we need to-” Erithon tried to begin, but Aitahea, composed and gentle, simply shook her head.
“Please, let me,” she broke in, moving across the room to stand with hands clasped at her waist. “I should apologize.”
Stunned, Erithon followed her with his eyes, shocked at her words. “F-for what?” he stammered.
The first shade of uncertainty showed through the Jedi’s calm façade. “For… for any confusion,” she replied, choosing her words carefully. Erithon stared at her for several solid seconds before bursting out laughing. Aitahea’s eyes went wide and a blush crept across her cheeks.
“Jedi!” he chuckled, shaking his head, and took a few steps closer to her. She watched him with a chagrined expression, but remained still and listening. “Aitahea, you don’t have anything to apologize for. I’m the dumb bantha-brain who, well, you know.” He noticed her right hand tightening over the other but didn’t comment. “I thought… Look, if you want me to keep my mitts to myself, I’ll do that.” He sighed and raked a hand through his hair, frustration bringing out the habitual gesture. “I mean, I should know better anyway; you’re a Jedi, and we’re supposed to be on a mission.”
Aitahea looked aside, delicate features bordering on melancholy. “Thank you,” she murmured, “but there is still my own confusion to contend with.”
“What do you mean?”
She laughed softly, silvery head shaking in bewilderment. “I’m not certain what I mean, to be truthful.” Aitahea raised her eyes again to Erithon’s, her expression poignant but warm. “You did nothing wrong, Erithon. I simply need… time to consider the… implications.” Erithon felt a sudden surge of hope, and Aitahea continued. “But you are correct on one point: we do have a mission, and it needs to be our priority.”
Erithon nodded, relaxing. Well, she didn’t hate him; that was a start. And she was right; professionalism needed to take precedence. If only he could manage to stop feeling like a teenager long enough to get the blasted job done.
“Are we ready to move?” Aitahea asked, once again all seriousness.
A consummate professional, Erithon mused to himself and nodded. “Any time. Command has given the all clear, and we have all the supplies we need. We can leave now if you’re ready.”
The Jedi lifted her chin, radiating a confidence that made even Erithon straighten and stand taller. “Then let’s go. We have no time to lose.”
The storm that had raged through the night could be seen racing away in the distance as Erithon and Aitahea left Aurek Base in pursuit of the Sith apprentice. They would be traveling in its wake, leaving the terrain transformed overnight and full of unseen dangers. Slick ice had been scoured clean and great drifts of snow could hide dangerous crevasses.
The Jedi took point on her speeder, reaching out ahead of them to seek out any dangers and avoid them where possible. Erithon appreciated the unusual skill; he’d seen other Jedi do similar scouting sweeps and saved lives because of it.
Aitahea was understandably silent as they traveled, her focus on the blinding white expanse before them. As much as Erithon wanted to hear her voice, he knew disturbing her would be dangerous, especially as they began to approach one of the hundreds of starship graveyards that dotted Hoth’s surface.
It was this bizarre phenomenon that made Hoth such a contentious planet. After the destruction of the Great Galactic War, Hoth’s gravity had slowly but inexorably sucked in thousands of disabled ships, including some of the most impressive vessels the galaxy had known at the time. Even the notable Star of Coruscant had found its final resting place on the icy surface.
The decades had left many of the wrecks damaged but still salvageable and filled with mysteries. Pirates who valued the harsh climate of the frozen planet had occupied the graveyards and supplemented their schemes with the easily obtained salvage. This proved to be one of the key dangers of leaving Hoth unattended: prototype weapons were still frozen in time, ripe for salvage and sale to the highest bidder. If you didn’t mind the cold.
Understanding the change in terrain, Aitahea slowed and signaled Erithon. He soared to a stop next to the Consular and opened the comm channel.
“Is there another route through here?” Aitahea asked, indicating the wreckage ahead with a nod. “I sense more than a dozen beings ahead, and they are not in the least friendly.”
“I’m afraid not,” Erithon replied, shaking his head. “This is a particularly nasty location, with the peaks on either side. We could go around, but it would take another half day to get to the location you indicated our Sith was last.”
Aitahea frowned, glancing toward the massive ship leaning askew against huge tumbles of ice. “No, we don’t have the time to spare. She’s already too far ahead of us.” She looked back to Erithon, worry clear in her voice despite the crackle of the comm. “I can somewhat hide our presence, but not for long, and not from all the pirates in that wreck. We’ll have to be exceptionally cautious.”
“Understood,” Erithon agreed, pausing to check the weapons he’d picked up at the base. He’d requisitioned several standard issue blaster rifles and even a cannon – just in case. The Jedi carried only her lightsaber, but he didn’t imagine she’d need much else than that. Even so, he was the only one of them that could field a ranged attack if necessary; Aitahea would only be able to fight in close quarters, a distinct possibility. “We’re as ready as we’re going to be.”
The Jedi nodded with grave finality and turned back to guide her speeder through the wreckage. The ship they were attempting to pass through was massive, but a vast and devastating crack in the hull offered a well-traveled path through the middle. It would be an easy ambush if Aitahea couldn’t keep them secreted away in the Force. There were no visible pirates, but even his soldier’s senses told him they were likely to be watched, threading their way right through enemy territory the way they were.
He stayed parallel to Aitahea’s speeder course, but far enough away that should they catch any fire at least one of them might be able to make it out safely. They were more than halfway through the artificial pass when all hell broke loose.
Erithon didn’t recognize the blast until he was a dozen feet in the air, realizing with a sudden furious panic that his speeder was gone from under him, along with several of the weapons he’d brought along. That was annoying. Along with being blown up, that was pretty irritating, too. The initial blast that had sent him airborne and destroyed his speeder had knocked his helmet off and left his ears ringing, the sudden sounds of battle around him disturbingly muted. He dimly hoped he didn’t have a head injury. That would really ruin his day.
Hitting the ground amidst the smoking pieces of his speeder, Erithon found the wind knocked out of him and struggled to move. Blaster fire flashed overhead from opposite directions, and his muffled hearing swirled with an unusual sound he couldn’t identify, a low humming that swam through the haze. He was pretty sure he’d heard it before – it definitely fit on the battlefield – but couldn’t quite place the source. Curious, he thought vaguely, and tried again to sit up.
“Erithon!” a voice, one he was extraordinarily happy to hear, wound its way through the aural fuzz and he turned to see Aitahea, green lightsaber ablaze and standing over him. She’d either lost or removed her helmet as well, and her hood was thrown back, robes flaring as she spun. He watched in awe as the glowing blade swept a complex pattern to the Jedi’s right, blocking and redirecting blaster fire back on the pirates, while with her left hand she was somehow drawing up large chunks of debris and sending it crashing into others. Her cheeks were flushed and eyes narrowed in concentration.
The trooper had seen a few Jedi Knights in battle before, even one or two Sith with their ruby lightsabers, but watching Aitahea made him forget for a moment this was a war. Jedi were always quick, efficient, and more often than not powerful, but Aitahea was more. She was exquisite. She didn’t fight; she danced, movements precise and measured, no motion wasted. She wasn’t haphazardly taking lives, either; he watched several pirates fall to returned blaster fire or hurtled starship chunks, but the strikes were nonlethal, only incapacitating.
Stars, she’s so beautiful, he thought.
“Major, I appreciate the admiration, but I would be more grateful for your help,” Aitahea called over her shoulder, moving away to square off with two pirates who approached with vibroswords. Erithon chuckled a little. Those guys would be sorry. Vibroswords against a lightsaber, psh.
Shaking his head to clear the last of the haze away, Erithon rose to one knee and pulled one of the rifles from the holster on his back. A little fall from a speeder couldn’t hurt one of these babies – or him, for that matter – and he fully intended to show the pirates that fact. As the Jedi defended him, he carefully and methodically picked off several of the more distant of their attackers; Aitahea’s debris-throwing trick seemed to have a limited range.
He’d just turned to start on the other side of the canyon when Aitahea cried out sharply, twisting to her left. Erithon cursed and shot to his feet, rifle still trained on the heights above them, striving to find and eliminate targets as quickly as possible. He caught a glimpse of the Jedi, slowed and cradling her left arm to her body, but right arm still swirling in intricate lightsaber defense.
“Aitahea!” Erithon called, and she retreated until they were back to back. “I can get the rest of these jerks, just keep their fire off me.”
“Yes,” she agreed, her voice strained, but she kept her saber moving. “Are you alright? I think you hit a mine.”
Erithon missed a shot and cursed before reloading and aiming again. This time his bolt struck true. “Fine. I take tumbles like that for fun in training.”
“I should have been looking for them.”
“Hey, you were working on other stuff, don’t worry about it,” Erithon joked, sweeping the rifle around the perimeter one last time. One last foolish pirate was roaring towards them, armed only with a vibroshiv, and Aitahea raised a trembling left arm at him, palm out. He fell in a crumpled heap at the Jedi’s feet, and aside from the hissing of Erithon’s rifle and Aitahea’s lightsaber, the rift was silent.
Erithon turned to look at Aitahea, watching as she deactivated her lightsaber and secured it at her hip. “Are you all right? Hurt?” The answer was obvious as he looked at the singed fabric of her cloak; she’d taken a blaster bolt to her left shoulder.
“Only a little. I… I’m fine,” Aitahea panted, drawing on the Force to strengthen her aching muscles and soften the pain in her shoulder. “We can’t stop now.”
Erithon grasped her uninjured arm with a gloved hand and glanced over her face before nodding reluctant agreement. “You need kolto. Come on,” Erithon said, motioning toward the undamaged speeder, having noted its location as he swept the area for any last attackers. They reached the vehicle safely, and Erithon paused to dig out a med pack and hastily applied it to Aitahea’s shoulder. She winced, and the trooper grimaced in response.
“Sorry. It’s not great, but it’ll have to do,” he apologized, hurriedly closing the supply container and mounting the speeder. Aitahea climbed on behind him. “Hang on tight, Jedi. This is going to be a little rougher than last time.”
Aitahea’s eyes widened and she wrapped her right arm around Erithon’s waist, tucking her left close to her to keep from aggravating the blaster injury any further. The clutter of feelings in her head jangled wildly as the speeder jerked into action. Aitahea did her best to sort through the pain, anxiety, and urgency she felt and designate each one an appropriate place in her mind.
Even so, the Consular again found that bright strand of emotion running between herself and Erithon. He was furious and troubled about her injury. Aitahea drew back mentally from the realization, following the thread back to herself. She was also worried for his well-being, more than she expected. The sudden explosion had terrified her, and Erithon’s frighteningly dim Force presence in the immediate aftermath had disturbed her even more. She surreptitiously assessed him for injuries and almost sobbed in relief, finding no more than a few bumps and bruises.
The feelings flowing between them as she pressed against his back were impossible to ignore, more than just the safety of a fellow teammate. Far more complex. But there was no time for that now. The apprentice wasn’t far, and their mission took priority to any personal feelings.
Aitahea tucked her head down and focused instead on keeping them both warm as they sped away from the starship’s final resting place.