Thursday, September 26, 2013

Clone Wars Campaign: "A Brief Stint in the Great Beyond"

Once or twice a year, The Wife tries to talk me into writing her a short story featuring the characters from the Clone Wars Campaign.  Once or twice a year, I tell her I am finished and she needs to move on.  Once or twice a year, I give in and, after much waffling and delays, produce a belated birthday or Mother's Day gift.  Every family has its own traditions, and this is ours.

The story below, "A Brief Stint in the Great Beyond", is one of my favourites.  The flashback material is set not long after the end of the campaign and features the Cassadines' new home after their decision to leave Republic/Imperial space after the events of Order 66.  Because in-game the characters were unable to secure passage to the Hapes Consortium, their chosen alternative was the Centrality.  I wasn't able to find a lot of canon material on the Centrality, so I imagined the planet Rafa III as very much a galactic backwater.  Basically, a Firefly-type place hidden away in a Star Wars universe.  This allowed me to tell a fun "fish out of water" story; how would the urbane Stefan Cassadine, not to mention his princess wife, fare in such a rustic place, far from their usual comforts?

One of the not uncommmon situations I was trying to reflect with this story is how someone can become very anxious about the potential for disappointment of high hopes; not their own, but that of someone they love.  Thus, the drama in the story is about Arresta, Xam, and the others hoping against hope that Stefan won't be too disheartened by the inevitable debacle that will be made of the theatrical production he's been looking forward to for weeks.  A second theme I was trying to draw out is the family bonding that comes from shared experiences under adversity, such as moving to a new place away from the familiar faces of home.  I don't remember when this story was written, but I'm pretty sure it was well before The Wife, Boomer, and I moved to Australia and underwent a similar experience ourselves.

Finally, one of the things I really like about this story is that it's very different than most of the ones I've written.  There's no danger, combat, heartbreak, or tragedy.  But at the same time, I don't think it's boring: because we can identify with the characters and what they are going through, we're invested in their happiness and even seemingly mundane events can be really interesting to see.  Sometimes I feel the same about t.v. shows with characters I love; I would be perfectly content to watch an episode of Buffy, Willow, and Xander hanging out and talking--who needs vampires?  Well, maybe once in a while . . .
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A Brief Stint in the Great Beyond

            Arresta sat down with a tired sigh on a plastisteel box labelled “Bespoke Greatcoats--Handle With Care” and stretched.  Moving was always exhausting, no matter how many droids and laborers had been hired to help out.  Even merely supervising could be stressful, but you could never let your guard down: twice she’d found packer-droids trying to cram her delicate Oreon crystal goblets in a box with common dinnerware, and just an hour ago a mover too greedy for his own good found out that Diethyl Plonium (an exotic variant of glitterspice nicknamed “Plon”) was not the same thing as Triethyl Plonium (a potent and lethal poison).  Still, her husband had been rather patient with the entire moving process.  When the would-be spicehead fell to the ground convulsing, Stefan calmly observed that the incident would serve as a valuable object lesson to others of a pilfering bent.  He was now off overseeing disposal of the body, leaving her and Xam to continue supervising.

            Arresta pushed herself off the box and got to her feet.  Allegra was safely ensconced in her room with the nanny droid.  It wouldn’t be long before Allegra was running circles around that droid, and Arresta knew she should go check.  But she was tired.  Had her first pregnancy been like this so early on?  She stretched her back muscles and turned for the staircase, taking each step one-by-one, clutching onto the banister carefully.  She reached the second floor landing and had started down the hallway when she heard a strange creaking sound coming from above.  The attic?  Or the roof?  The creaking sound grew louder, and then, right before her astonished eyes, a two-meter wide section of the hallway’s ceiling collapsed.  Arresta managed to leap back in time to avoid injury.  After the choking cloud of dust had settled, she couldn’t help but laugh.  This was the Centrality, and nothing ever seemed to go smoothly.

            Shards of broken duraplast and rotten synthwood beams lay on the floor of the hallway, partially concealing two mover droids who still grasped what must have been a heavy crate.  Their combined weight had simply been too much for the attic floor to hold them.     The droids were now on their sides and seemed incapable of processing what had occurred or the fact that they needed to let go of the crate if they were ever going to right themselves.  The crate itself had broken open in the fall, spilling out a mismatched assortment of objects.  Arresta kneeled down in front of the crate and picked up a datapad:  “Property of the Rafa III Cultural Improvement Council” was permanently etched on the back.  Arresta giggled, thinking back, and then she began to tear up.  She knew sudden onsets of emotion were common during pregnancy, but she couldn’t help but feel a little sad they were leaving.  As ridiculous as their time in the Centrality had been, she was taking with her memories she wouldn’t trade for all the worlds in the galaxy.

***

            Their first few weeks on Rafa III in the Centrality had not been . . . ideal.  Tension over Tarn and their quick departure from Republic space still lingered.  The manor house they had bought, the former home of the settlement’s founder, had been in a state of well-hidden disrepair.  Laborers hired from the settlement to remedy the problem showed up inebriated as often as sober, if they showed up at all.  And the constant, unrelenting dry heat (more information cleverly excised from official tourist information) made daytime excursions impractical.  Arresta could tell that Stefan was agitated, and once or twice they had even talked about pulling up stakes and returning to the Republic--but the turmoil of Order 66, Allegra’s connection to Tarn, and the possibility that they were still sought on those ridiculous “war crimes” charges made it seem too dangerous.  Still, Arresta knew that Stefan considered being hunted by the new Empire as only a marginally worse fate than raising Allegra in this “uncultured backwater of a planet”, a phrase that came to his lips more and more often as the days went on.

            So it was with a great deal of excitement that she stumbled upon the advert.  She had taken Allegra (and a heavily armed retinue) on a walk down the long path to the settlement to see if the local produce was any better than the dwindling supplies they had brought with them on the Knife’s Edge.  Officially the place was named “Rafa III Tertiary Inhabited Zone # 7” but the locals simply called it “here” or, when feeling expansive, “The Seven”.  The settlement was a loose collection of hastily-assembled buildings, most unchanged and all unimproved since the original colonists arrived on Rafa III decades before.  Dirt roads, limping speeders, two cantinas, and no garbage collection was the first impression tourists would take away from the place.  The only good thing is that anyone who knows us would never look for us here, Arresta thought ruefully.

            She had stopped to pick through the wretched contents of a “fresh fruit” stand when the small black and white notice caught her eye.  It was nailed (with old-fashioned metal nails!) to a wooden post that the locals sometimes tied beasts of burdens to:

THE RAFA III CULTURAL IMPROVEMENT COUNCIL IS PROUD TO PRESENT

“TYRUS REX” OR, “THE TYRANT KING”

PRESENTED BY THE RAFA III CULTURAL IMPROVEMENT COUNCIL TRAVELING PLAYERS

TO BE PERFORMED AT T.I.Z. # 7       ON the third evening after the half moon

DONATIONS WELCOME

NO BLASTERS, SPITTING, OR BRAWLING    

            Arresta grinned broadly.  “Allie, I just found something that is going to make your Papa very happy!” she said to the infant in the stroller at her side.  Allegra smiled and wriggled  at the mention of her father, and Arresta knew already that she was going to be “Papa’s Little Girl.” 

            “What’d you find, Mrs. C?” Xam asked eagerly.  Everyone knew when Stefan was unhappy, and his employees would do whatever it took to bring him out of a foul mood.

            “A production of his favorite play,” she responded, committing the sparse details on the poster to memory before continuing.  “‘Tyrus Rex’ is the story of the so-called ‘Tyrant King’ of Brezni-Gari.  He was a legendary despot, who, along with his concubine-queen Ezrelea,  had already achieved near mythical status when Eluysius-Memnon wrote his famous fictionalized account of Tyrus’ life.”

            “Elu . . . who?” Xam asked.

            Only the most famous playwright in the known worlds, Arresta thought.  Xam was good with dealing with problems right in front of his eyes, but nobody could claim he was much of a theater-goer.  “A writer, Xam.  A very good one, in fact.  Anyway, what matters is that Stefan will be thrilled.”

            Allegra laughed at nothing in particular, Arresta laughed with her, and the whole company made their way back up the path in higher spirits than when they had come down.

***

            Stefan had, indeed, reacted as Arresta expected.  Not that he showed it openly--her husband was not a man prone to public displays of emotion.  But even the staff noticed an extra spring in his step, a jocular tone that almost approached bantering, and a little extra in their paychecks in the days leading up to the opening night of the play.  He had Xam search through their crates for evening wear that Arresta knew would have been suitable to attend a Coruscanti opera, much less a traveling production in a remote settlement on Rafa III.  She even once or twice heard Stefan telling baby Allegra about the plot of the play--she was too young to understand, but only Stefan’s long-held belief that children should not attend theatrical productions until they were old enough to sit patiently and quietly kept him from bringing her along.  In other words, his enthusiasm, to Arresta’s trained eye, was such that she felt it necessary to subtly remind him that this particular production of “Tyrus Rex” might not be up to his usual standards.

            “A spirited amateur production,” he replied, “although perhaps neither polished nor perfected, carries with it a certain zest and charm that can be found absent in the over-rehearsed, disciplined execution of professional companies.”  It was a point to which Arresta could not disagree, even if she felt a kernel of anxiety that Stefan would be disappointed and the remainder of their time in the Centrality would seem even more oppressive.

            On the evening of the opening, Stefan and Arresta enjoyed an elegant meal in the private dining room of the Knife’s Edge.  Xam catered, and although the meal was the last they could expect from the gourmet selection in the ship’s stores, it was as if all the tensions of the past months--over Tarn, the move to the Centrality, the debacle of a house--faded away under the warm glow of muted lighting and the mild effects of the last bottle of Necr’ygor Omic wine.  It was a chance to reconnect, a chance to remember just how much they loved each other.  Staring into Stefan’s eyes, Arresta knew her decisions in the past, however difficult, had been right--because they led her to this place, with this man.  They could make a home anywhere they were together, even on Rafa III.  Allegra would miss her biological father from time to time, but she was lucky to have Stefan in her life--a man who could be a parent, who would always put her  first.

            “What are you smiling about, Pet?”

            “I was just thinking we should have a toast,” she replied.  “To family.”

            “To family,” Stefan agreed, and their glasses clinked.

***

            Xam drove them in an armored groundcar to the edge of the settlement, where a large duracrete landing pad had been turned into a makeshift outdoor theatre.  Floodlights  normally used to guide in ships had been slightly dimmed and pointed at a stage constructed out of overturned storage units lined up tightly together.  Dozens of smaller boxes and a few rows of seats scavenged from wrecked starships had been placed in front of the stage for the audience to sit on.  A long, rugged-looking plains-crawler was parked near the stage with the letters “R. III C.I.C.” stenciled on the side.

            Stefan and Arresta arrived the customary twenty-five minutes early, and the place seemed deserted.  Even the uncultured Xam was surprised as he dropped them off, but Stefan was determined to make the best of it as he led Arresta to a pair of comfortable-looking front row seats clearly ripped out of the cockpit of a lunar shuttle.  “We should anticipate a certain degree of unconventionality this far from the Core Worlds,” he said, as if she were the one who might need placating if things didn’t go well.  Arresta could only nod and bite her lip.  They made small talk as the minutes passed, and she noticed Stefan surreptitiously looking as his chronometer several times.  They shifted in their seats, feeling alone and uncomfortably exposed.  Finally, five minutes after the show was supposed to begin, as if by some secret signal, villagers began streaming out of their homes and the cantinas and headed for the landing pad.  They laughed and talked loudly as they took their seats, many having carried their half-full ales with them. 

            Several minutes later, the floodlights pointed at the stage turned off.  An expectant hush fell over the crowd, and although it was dark, the distinctive sound of the  lowering of the plains-crawler’s entry ramp made it clear that the actors were taking their positions.  Suddenly one of the floodlights activated, spotlighting a middle-aged man wearing a historically inaccurate but rough approximation of the distinctive togas of the Brezni-Gari Middle Period.  The actor raised his hands into the air, focussing everyone’s attention on him, and then he began the play’s crucial opening monologue.

            He was, in a word, terrible.

            Not only was the actor portraying Tyrus Rex obviously “in his cups” as the artistic crowd put it, slurring his words and swaying back and forth to an invisible tune, but he so mangled the words of the soliloquy as to make it incomprehensible.  The crowd, even this far out in the fringe, felt insulted and began to stir.  A low murmuring could be heard as the audience traded disbelieving looks with each other, and then brave hecklers from the back began mocking the performer.  The man dropped more and more lines, and began looking around confused.  Almost without thinking, Stefan whispered the missed lines from his front row seat loud enough for the actor to hear.  It helped, but not enough, and when the first rotten core struck him in the torso, the actor grew surly and obstinate.  He began shouting back at the crowd and making obscene gestures. 

            Arresta slid her comlink out of her belt punch, ready to summon Xam the moment a full-on riot looked likely.  She was startled when the woman sitting next to her leapt out of her seat and pointed at Stefan with a knobby forefinger.  “Let him do it!”  the woman shouted.  “The new gentry, knows it he does!”  An audience member sitting just behind Stefan stood up and shouted “It’s true, I heard him, I did--every word straight from E.M.’s stylus!”  The drunken actor, still on stage, looked aghast.  He pulled out a wine-stained datapad that had been tucked in his belt and almost threw it at Stefan.  “Fine!”, the man shouted.  “You’ll get what you deserve, you uncultured louts!”  The man had to flee the stage under a chorus of boos and thrown rocks.

            Stefan picked up the thrown datapad and handed it to Arresta with a raised eyebrow.  She nodded, and he stepped up on the stage to furious applause.

            “Enemies, Brezni-Garians, men-at-arms, lend me your ears!” he shouted, beginning the famous soliloquy from the beginning.  The crowd quieted.  “For I am Tyrus Rex, he who stands amongst you warrior-born, battle-hardened, and now--victorious!  The blood of your pretender-kings washes against my feet.  Who now stands to oppose me?  Who now would bar my rightful place?  For I am Tyrus Rex, submit or perish!”  Caught up in the moment, the audience began to chant “Tyrus Rex! Tyrus Rex!” and Stefan had to pause before continuing with his lines.  He drew the soliloquy to a perfect close, and another spotlight appeared stage left, where Queen Ezrelea was to appear.

            Nothing happened.

            Stefan repeated the last line of the soliloquy again, and still . . . nothing happened.  A few seconds later a massive rumbling could be heard as the plains-crawler’s engine turned over.  The cast was fleeing the settlement before the first act was even completed.  A disheartened moan emanated from the crowd--many had waited months for this night, and everyone knew that once the Cultural Improvement Council heard whatever lies the performers told about the settlement, it might strike The Seven from the visiting list altogether.  Shoulders shrugged resignedly, eyes fell to the ground downcast, feet began to shuffle.

            But then a voice called out.

            “Tyrus Rex in name, you do be.  But Tyrant King falls from my lips just as quickly.  Think us easy prey?  Test my mettle, would-be despot.  Test Queen Ezrelea, and see if names give rise to truth.”

            On cue, Stefan turned to face stage left.  Arresta was standing there in the second spotlight, a firm glower on her face for the audience and a mischievous twinkle in her eye for Stefan alone.

            The crowd roared its approval.

***

            Things were different after that.  Not entirely--the house was still something of a pitfall, gourmet food was still hard to come by, and The Seven would never be more than a fringe settlement.  But suddenly Stefan and Arresta had become heroes, and more, some kind of feudal lords.  Every morning villagers arrived with a basket of their best produce, selectmen eagerly sought Stefan’s advice on municipal projects, and conversations were soon littered with phrases like “My personal friend Lord Cassadine thinks . . .” or “I just have to have what Lady Cassadine wore last week.”  Villagers even brought their problems to the manor to be resolved, heeding Stefan’s judgment on which one of them was responsible for damaged crops, a boundary dispute, or the like.  The Rafa III Cultural Improvement Council never did send another performance troupe, but it didn’t matter: with Lord and Lady Cassadine as honorary judges, the villagers threw their own arts festival as soon as the weather improved.

***

            Arresta sat on the floor of the hallway with a broken crate at her side, as laborers finally arrived to investigate the crash.   Arresta handed one of them the wine-stained datapad and smiled.  “Pack this someplace we can find it again,” she said.


            It was time to move on, time to raise Allegra and her imminent sibling in a sophisticated, urbane place.  But this time on Rafa III had certainly not been wasted--it had given them safety, a place for their marriage to heal and strengthen, and, perhaps most of all, proof that they could go anywhere in the galaxy together and still be a family.

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2 comments:

The Wife said...

I like this one too. After all the drama at the end of the campaign, this was a nice, sweet break. I also enjoyed that you invented your own play and playwright.

Arresta was highly educated (Stefan or course having literally been her Professor when they met) and I liked them having things like that play in common.

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