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Star Wars

Aronoke ran down the hallways of the Jedi temple, drawing irate glances from Jedi masters and curious comments from the younger initiates he passed. All that running practice had paid off, and Draken had fallen considerably behind by the time Aronoke reached the elevator bank that led up to the Jedi Temple’s higher towers.

“Aronoke! Wait!” came Draken’s breathless voice. It would have been plaintive enough to be a wail, except he was far too out of breath. The younger initiate doubled over wheezing as Aronoke punched the elevator call button impatiently.

“Where – are – we – going?” wheezed Draken as the elevator made a noise to show that it was on its way down to them.

“Ashquash,” said Aronoke grimly. “She’s trapped up there somewhere, on a ledge. I have to help her.”

“I hate to say this, Aronoke,” said Draken, “because this is much more interesting than going to morning lessons, but you have a test, and wouldn’t it be better to tell someone else instead of going up there ourselves?”

Aronoke hesitated. He had thought of calling for help, but then he had remembered how sad Ashquash had sounded when he had spoken with her about him leaving. And then there was the rising impatience Aronoke felt with the Jedi Council, recently fuelled by Master Bel’dor’ruch’s words about their incompetence; he was tired of waiting for other people to rescue his friends, tired of long worrisome inactivity. He wanted to go and find Ashquash himself.

“I think she might be out there because of me,” he said at last.

“Because of you?”

“Because she’s upset about me leaving.”

“Even so, how are you going to get her down from in there?” asked Draken nodding up at the ceiling towards the tower that lay somewhere high above them.

“I don’t know – there must be a window or something,” said Aronoke.

“The windows don’t open,” said Draken, “and I don’t know about you, but I seem to have left my lightsaber in my other set of robes.”

“The windows don’t open?” asked Aronoke incredulously. “Are you sure?”

Draken nodded. “I looked at the schematics back when I had that idea about climbing… oh, never mind that, but I’m certain they don’t.”

“How can we get out there then?”

“Son,” said Draken seriously, “I have spent years of intensive investigation attempting to discover a convenient way out of the Jedi Temple, but as yet, I have found nothing. Apart from the front door.”

Aronoke’s face fell. “The speeder pool?” he said at last. “We could borrow a speeder and fly down from the outside. Or perhaps you’re right – I should tell someone I know where she is… Master Skeirim…” Aronoke had promised Master Skeirim that he would help look after Ashquash. He pulled out his holocommunicator and keyed Master Skeirim’s connection, but was greeted by a holographic recording asking him to leave a message. Aronoke remembered belatedly that Master Skeirim hadn’t returned to the Jedi temple yet, but was still away, investigating Master Altus’s disappearance.

“I said I hadn’t found a convenient way,” said Draken impishly. “I know of plenty of inconvenient ones. There’s this shaft for the droids that do maintenance on the outside of the building that opens somewhere up there. It has an emergency ladder, but it’s a long climb.”

“How do we get to it?” asked Aronoke, putting his holocommunicator away.

 

The maintenance shaft was long and narrow – it was an impossibly long way down, even at the point they entered it, and after the first unguarded glimpse, Aronoke kept his eyes firmly focussed on the rungs of the ladder above him. The shaft was almost narrow enough for him to touch both sides at once. It seemed an impossible distance to climb, although Draken assured him that it was no great haul up to the hatchway compared to the overall height of the shaft. Aronoke’s shoulders and legs ached from the effort of pulling himself up the rungs.

“Aronoke?” Draken’s voice echoed up from some distance below. “I don’t know that this was such a good idea. I don’t know how much further I can go.”

Aronoke paused. “Use your control, Draken, like they taught us. Use the Force to control the pain and the tiredness.”

“I don’t know,” said Draken, dubiously. “I’ve tried that already and I’m not sure it’s helping. What if we get too tired before we get there? What if we can’t make it any further?”

“Then I call for help on my holocommunicator, and we sit on the ladder until someone comes and gets us down,” said Aronoke reasonably. “It surely can’t be much further, Draken. Stop worrying about what might happen and concentrate. I’m sure you can do it if you try.”

There was silence for a few moments, presumably while Draken tried to calm his thoughts, and then Aronoke could hear the steady progress of Draken’s feet on the rungs below him.

 

Finally they reached the hatchway, and Aronoke was relieved to see that there was a small balcony where they could rest and not merely a hatch opening onto the outside of the Temple. Draken sat down wearily, while Aronoke examined the inside of the hatch.

“I can’t see how this opens,” he told Draken after a moment. “There aren’t any of the usual controls.”

“That’s because it’s usually only opened by droids,” said Draken knowledgeably. “There should be an emergency control panel. Let me look.”

Aronoke obligingly moved aside, while Draken climbed to his feet and spent a few minutes prodding and poking at the door panel. He brought out a peculiar gadget from his pocket, which made a slight zapping noise, and then suddenly the hatch was sliding open. Aronoke and Draken both hastily grabbed at the balcony railing as cold wind blasted in from outside, pushing them physically backwards.

“This is why the windows don’t open up here,” yelled Draken in Aronoke’s ear.

Outside there was no railing but merely a ledge that led out around the curved edge of the building. It seemed very similar to the ledge that Aronoke had sensed Ashquash clinging to, although it was wider, about as wide as a maintenance hallway, and sloped slightly down towards its outer edge. It would have been easy enough to traverse, were it not for the gale-force winds that were blasting across it.

“Perhaps you’d better wait here,” Aronoke yelled to Draken, and the younger boy nodded. The wind caught in Aronoke’s outer robes in an unpleasant way, so he stripped them off and passed them to Draken. His tunic and trousers flapped wildly, but didn’t balloon in the wind the way the robes did.

“Be careful,” yelled Draken clutching the balcony r

ailing in one hand and Aronoke’s robes in the other. “I don’t want to have to explain to that scary Master Bel’dor’ruch how I let the only other chiss Jedi get blown off the Temple.”

Aronoke nodded and made a brief gesture of farewell, and then he was moving out on to the ledge, the wind rushing by him with unrelenting fury.

Aronoke was grateful now that it had always been windy on Kasthir. His body remembered the way the wind played tricks with his balance and intuitively adjusted itself to the unpredictable gusts. He had never had much to do with heights there, but they didn’t bother him much, certainly not the way water did. At least the wind here was not full of sand. Aronoke’s hair whipped about his face, stinging his eyes, and he remembered anew why he had always kept his hair shorter before he came to the temple.

Slowly, one foot after another, he edged his way along the ledge, grateful that the surface was less slippery than it looked. On one side the bulk of the tower stretched above him, the slope of the wall not vertical, but so steeply angled there was no practical difference. On the other side was a yawning void, echoing down, down, down, to the bulky mass of the main part of the temple. In the distance beyond, lines of traffic streamed inexorably across the sky, far enough away for Aronoke to be indistinguishable to the vehicles’ occupants, masked as he was against the tower. If he fell from here, Aronoke thought, perhaps the wind would snatch him away from the building and he would tumble all the way down to the real surface of Coruscant, a mile or more beneath him. He wondered how long it would take to fall that far. It was unlikely that would happen though; he would have to be blown a vast distance. No, he would probably fall straight down, to impact on top of the temple with enough force to render him unrecognisable.  A fully-trained Jedi might survive, but Aronoke doubted he had the necessary skills to slow his fall.  His training in alteration techniques had been minimal.

There was no use thinking of that. It was far better to focus on finding poor Ashquash, who had presumably been out here for hours, since the middle of the night. Aronoke could sense she was nearby, around the curve of the tower a short distance away and slightly below him.

A sudden fierce gust snatched at Aronoke, so fiercely that he lost his balance and staggered forward several steps. He plastered himself to the wall for a moment, while the wind blew furiously, seemingly trying to pry him off and fling him out into the void. As soon as the gust abated, he hurriedly continued forward, hoping to get further into the lee of the tower before the next one commenced.

Much to Aronoke’s relief, the wind grew less fierce as he neared the side of the tower where Ashquash was. From here he could see down to another ledge, several body lengths beneath him. It looked narrower than the one Aronoke was on – about half the width – and in the middle he could see a bundle. It was Ashquash, her body pressed against the side of the building, her legs dangling over the edge, like she had fallen over sideways while sitting on a bench.

“Ashquash!” screamed Aronoke, hoping she would hear him over the wind. He called again and again, and on his third try he was relieved to see the bundle stir and come to life. Ashquash’s pale face peered up at him, the tattoos on her face distinctive even at this distance.

“Aronoke!” Ashquash’s voice sounded weak and croaky and was snatched aside by the wind. “I don’t know if I can sit here much longer! I’m so cold. I’m going to fall off.”

“Just wait there, Ashquash!” called Aronoke. “Just sit still. I’ll be there in a moment.”

He travelled along the ledge a little further, so as to be more out of the unpredictable wind gusting around the tower, and then looked down at the ledge beneath him. It was a difficult jump, although not so far below. Aronoke knew he could handle the distance easily enough, but it was treacherously narrow. If he bounced when he landed, or overbalanced, he might easily topple over the edge.

There would be only one try at this. It was something Aronoke knew Master Altus could do easily, but for him it was a different matter. He thought hard again about calling for help. It would be the sensible thing to do.

“Be careful, Aronoke!” came Ashquash’ voice, sounding weak and trembly.

It was Ashquash’s pinched face and desperate tone that decided him. What if she fell while he waited for help to arrive? Aronoke would never forgive himself. He would call for help once he was down there and she was safer from falling.

“I’m coming down,” he called. He closed his eyes and steadied himself for a moment. When he felt as calm as he felt he could manage, he drew upon the Force to find that perfect balanced place inside him, just as Master Squegwash had taught him to do during lightsaber training. He put aside his fear regarding the outcome, concentrating solely on the moment of action. The drop, his body, the ledge. The way his knees would have to bend to take the impact of his landing. The way his arms would spread to help keep his balance. Exactly where his feet would land. It all became connected in Aronoke’s mind, forming a simple series of motions – a small jump to the side, a brief fall angling slightly inwards, and a perfect landing.

It seemed to last forever, that moment in the air, and yet Aronoke felt no terror, only an exhilaration as his body perfectly expressed the pattern in his mind, like a musician feels as he plays a familiar and well-loved piece of music. A few steps along the narrow ledge, and there was Ashquash, looking sick, tired, and even paler than usual.

“Aronoke, I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened -”

“Shh, it’s alright,” said Aronoke, sitting carefully down beside her. “Don’t worry about that until later. Are you okay? I’ll call for help in a moment, when I’ve got my breath.”

“What about your test?”

“It’s not that important,” said Aronoke. “Don’t worry about it. It’s more important that you’re safe.” He put one arm around her and pulled her snugly against him, holding her tightly to make sure she wouldn’t slip. She clutched at him almost as desperately as he had grabbed her when he thought he was drowning.

“Shh, sit still,” said Aronoke calmly. “You won’t fall, I’ve got you. You’ll feel warmer soon. Just try to stay calm and relax.”

“I’m so glad you came,” murmured Ashquash, burying her face in his shoulder. He could feel her body trembling with cold and fatigue. The icy chill of her face bit through the fabric of his shirt. Once he was sure she was settled, he went to get the holocommunicator out, and then he suddenly remembered it was in the pocket of his robes which he had left behind with Draken.

Aronoke’s heart sank. How could he have been so stupid? It might be ages before Draken noticed the holocommunicator and decided to call for help. The wind was far too fierce for Draken to hear him, even if Aronoke yelled as loudly as he could. Perhaps if Aronoke climbed around the ledge to the other side of the building – but the wind was too fierce on that side of the tower. Aronoke didn’t know if he could keep his balance on a ledge as narrow as this one.

No, it was best to sit and wait. Draken knew where they were. As time passed, Draken would grow alarmed and fetch help. Aronoke doubted he would wait very long to do so. Perhaps Draken could set off some sort of alarm from the panel near the hatchway and have them rescued that way.

He said nothing of this aloud to Ashquash and was debating how to tell her what had happened, when he suddenly felt her straighten beside him.

“Aronoke! Look! A speeder!”

Sure enough, a bright yellow speeder was flying cautiously around the tower towards them. Draken must have called for help already, Aronoke thought gratefully. The speeder held two occupants – one was a droid, who was flying it, and the other was a tall dark-skinned Jedi.

“Are you injured?” called the Jedi.

“No, we’re unharmed, Master,” Aronoke called back.

“I’ll have you down in a moment – just sit still.”

It was impressive how easily he managed it, Aronoke thought. He did not pause to collect himself or find his balance, but merely stood in the speeder while the droid manoeuvred it close to the building.  As it drew close, he leapt with casual grace, akin to Master Altus’s effortless strength and agility, over to the narrow ledge.

“Take Ashquash first,” said Aronoke, edging over to give him space. “She’s very cold, and stiff and tired. I haven’t been here very long.”

“Just close your eyes and stay calm, Initiate,” the Jedi master boomed to Ashquash, his deep voice familiar to Aronoke now he was closer. “It will be over in a moment, and then you will be safe.”

He gathered her easily in his arms, and Aronoke felt an odd pang of jealousy. Jealous of his easy heroism? Jealous of him rescuing Ashquash, when all Aronoke had done was get himself in trouble alongside her? Aronoke didn’t have time to decide. The Jedi leapt across to the speeder, now positioned a short distance away and slightly below them, where he lowered Ashquash carefully into the back seat.

“Your turn now,” the Jedi called to Aronoke. “Do you think you can jump across, Initiate?”

“I think so,” replied Aronoke. The jump was nowhere near as difficult as the one down to the ledge had been. He climbed cautiously to his feet, no easy task on the narrow ledge.

“Take it steady,” warned the Jedi Master. “I’ll catch you if you misjudge.”

Aronoke took his time and jumped across. The speeder bobbed alarmingly as he landed, but the droid pilot steadied it skilfully. He gratefully sank into the front seat and fastened the straps.

Now Aronoke had a chance to look at their rescuer more calmly, he recognised him from his last meeting with the Jedi Council. Master Rosfantar. Aronoke’s heart sank. Being rescued by a member of the Jedi Council limited the chances of this all being quietly set aside.

“You initiates have some explaining to do,” said Master Rosfantar sternly, as if he could hear Aronoke’s thoughts, settling down into the back seat beside Ashquash. His gaze settled primarily on Aronoke, perhaps because he was the biggest, perhaps because they had met before. “Aronoke, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Master.”

“You’re lucky I happened by when I did,” Master Rosfantar scolded him sternly. “Fooling around on the outside of the tower spires goes beyond a prank. You could have both been killed.”

“That’s not what happened,” Ashquash protested weakly. “It’s not Aronoke’s fault. He just came to rescue me.”

“Draken didn’t call for help, Master?” asked Aronoke.

“There’s another one of you?” Master Rosfantar asked, sounding exasperated.

Aronoke gave directions, and T-3QV, Master Rosfantar’s protocol droid, piloted the speeder around the corner to where Draken was waiting, worried, wind-blown and very firmly clutching onto the balcony railing.

It was not long before Draken was also squeezed into the back of the speeder and they were all travelling back to the Jedi Temple.

“What about your test, Aronoke?” asked Ashquash. Her voice was little more than a whisper washing out from the back seat.

“It’s not important,” said Aronoke firmly. “Don’t worry about it. I can do it again some other time.”

“There’s still time,” said Draken. “You can make it if we hurry. That is, if you think he should still go, Master?”

“Test? Yes, you’re sitting for your trials, aren’t you?” said Master Rosfantar, eyeing Aronoke with some interest. He looked thoughtful for a long moment and then seemed to come to a decision. “I see no reason why I should detain you,” he said. “Initiate Ashquash obviously needs to visit the medical bay, but I don’t see why either of you others need be involved, if you can assure me that you won’t do anything as foolish as this again. Taking action is laudable, but best left in the hands of fully qualified Jedi. Next time, ask for help.”

Aronoke felt very uncertain. What was Master Rosfantar suggesting? He felt confused, having expected to have to justify his actions, if not to the Jedi Council, than at least to Master Insa-tolsa and Razzak Mintula.

“I don’t know,” said Aronoke uncertainly. “Shouldn’t we come along and explain things?”

“If you wish to come along and explain things, then of course you may do so,” said Master Rosfantar smoothly, as the speeder angled in to make a landing in the bay atop the Jedi Temple. “However, in that case you will almost certainly miss your scheduled test, and the Council is very intolerant of absenteeism or any lack of punctuality. I am sitting on the Jedi Council, and such an incident will almost certainly result in extra paperwork and quite possibly a meeting to discuss if you were at fault or not. Thus, in the interests of all concerned, I suggest the following scenario. I will escort Initiate Ashquash to the medical bay while you two initiates get back to whatever it is you are supposed to be doing. She can explain how she came to be on the outside of the Jedi Temple, and how I happened to fly by and spotted her clinging to a ledge. It is, after all, completely true.”

His expression was stern, but Aronoke could see an undeniably mischievous gleam in his eye.

“Yes, Master Rosfantar. It’s very decent of you to help us out like this,” said Draken meekly. He took Aronoke’s arm and practically pulled him out of the speeder as it completed its landing.

“But -” said Aronoke stupidly, looking at Ashquash.

“Go on, Aronoke!” Ashquash hissed. “You can make it if you run!”

 

Here I am, Aronoke thought, as he drew to a ragged stop in the corridor outside the examination room. He bent, hands on knees, trying to catch his breath and compose his mind. It was not how he had planned to arrive at his examination. Dishevelled, tired, and only just in time. He spent a moment steadying himself before he walked through the door.

“Ah, Initiate Aronoke,” said a human Jedi Master waiting in the room. “I was beginning to wonder if you were going to make it. I am glad to see that you are – barely – on time. I am Examiner Nethlemor, and I will be overseeing your trials. Today you will be undertaking a written examination upon Jedi history and philosophy. Please proceed into the next room where the examination droid is waiting with your test.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke and he passed through the door into the next room. The door slid shut behind him.

The droid was waiting for him as expected. The examination room had a single chair, a desk with a datapad in the middle of it, and nothing more.

“Initiate Aronoke,” said the droid. “I am examination supervisor RT-39A. Please be seated. Your task today is to complete the written examination which is contained upon the datapad in front of you. You have four hours.”

Aronoke sat down, and activated the datapad, his mind spinning at the enormity of the task ahead of him. Three years ago he could not read. Now he had to write four essays on topics full of people and places he had never heard of then. On the sorts of things he had overheard Master Altus and Hespenara talking about. All those conversations that meant nothing.

When he saw the four chosen topics, he felt sick. They were none of the questions he had hoped would be chosen; none of the things he felt happily confident of answering well. On initial inspection they were all things he knew nothing about. He couldn’t even remember seeing these topics on the list provided. Was that part of the test?

Be calm. Focus. There was plenty of time to do this in. Aronoke closed his eyes for a long moment, and performed his favourite meditative exercise for a few minutes and then began again, feeling less panicky. He read all four questions through again, carefully and slowly, and picked the one which seemed least impossible to start with.

Consider the Eye of Zakarthrun from the perspective of Master Kendroh’lahn’s thesis on the Morality of Force Persuasion Techniques.

He had read a little about the Eye of Zakarthrun. It was some sort of evil sith mind-control artefact that had caused the Jedi Order an immense amount of trouble half a century ago. Force persuasion was also a kind of mind control – mind tricks like Hespenara had tried to use on him – although he didn’t know what Master Ken-whatsit’s perspective on it was. He guessed that Initiates would probably not be taught much about Master Ken-whatsit’s thesis if it didn’t somehow agree with the modern view on such things. He forced himself to begin writing an essay that followed the theme of “Mind Control: Bad but Sometimes Preferable to Violence”.

He had not got very far when suddenly the ventilation duct in the corner of the room began making a peculiar clanking noise. Aronoke glanced at it and saw nothing amiss other than the annoying sound and brought his attention back on his writing. A few minutes later, he noticed that the room was becoming very cold, enough to make him shiver through his robes.

As if he hadn’t been cold enough already this morning!

Doubtlessly this was part of the test, Aronoke thought. It was not simply a written examination after all. He had been taught how to regulate his body temperature to cope with extreme heat and cold, and now he used the Force to maintain his temperature at a comfortable level while he continued writing.

The second topic was more difficult than the first.

Consider the rise of the intraorder collective known as the Jedi Covenant and discuss the events that culminated in the Padawan Massacre of Taris.

Aronoke did his best to write an essay that attempted to demonstrate his sparse knowledge of the history of that period. He was close to the end of the time he had set aside for it when a maintenance droid came into the room and began tinkering with the ventilation ducting, making loud mechanical noises and operating a welding torch. Aronoke eyed it suspiciously, hoping it was not some strange attempt by his harasser to manipulate him, but the droid seemed quite intent upon performing its maintenance duties.

Now is not the time to worry about it, Aronoke told himself firmly. Even if it is unusual, you should attempt to complete the test. A droid doing maintenance is no threat, only a distraction. He forced himself to concentrate on the datapad and ignore the droid working around him. It was more difficult to ignore the changes in temperature. First the room became even colder, then unbearably hot and stuffy, and then there was a horrible oily smell that made him want to cough.

It’s part of the test, Aronoke told himself, and did his best to use the Force to counteract the unpleasant temperature swings and to help him breathe shallowly.

The third essay went badly.

Rate the importance of the major works of Master Aiiohn Jahr, Master Bashiboru and Master Kligh, and discuss how they affected Jedi doctrine within their respective eras.

He really did not know anything about those Masters or their works at all. He had heard of the writings of Kligh Botu, but was that even the same Master Kligh? Aronoke felt very despondent, but forced himself to write a detailed speculation to show he was concentrating. It was better, surely, to write something than to write nothing at all.

Part of his mind was thinking of how he would write the fourth essay, which he had deemed the hardest and had saved for last.

Relate the most historically significant action taken by Padawan Reloo Sey and discuss its importance and value within Jedi teachings.

Suddenly, while he was still trying to think of things to write for the third essay, a memory popped into Aronoke’s head. It was back when he and Ashquash had been studying together, when Aronoke had first realised how much they both had changed.

“Do you understand what they mean us to learn by this?” Aronoke had asked. “Why does he just walk off into the desert, instead of helping the villagers or killing the Sith? I don’t understand how he can just do nothing.”

“It’s because neither is a good decision,” Ashquash had said. “He chooses consciously to make no decision, rather than to make a bad one.”

They had been talking about Padawan Reloo Sey. It was a trick question in a way – Reloo Sey’s most significant action, as recorded by history, had been to choose to do nothing.

When he started the fourth essay, Aronoke found it much easier to compose than he had dared hope.

By the time he had finished, the temperature in the room had returned to normal and the droid had finished its work and removed itself as if nothing had ever happened.

“Your time is up,” said the examination droid, presenting itself. “You may leave now.”

Aronoke’s mouth was dry, his head was aching from the aftereffects of the dreadful smell, and he felt a little dizzy, but all in all, he decided he had not done badly. He had written four essays and had known something relevant about three of them. It would have been unimaginable to his eleven-year-old self when he had arrived at the Jedi Temple.

In the outer room, Examiner Nethlemor was waiting for him.

“Very good,” Master Nethlemor said. “You will be informed of the results of this first test after you have completed all your examinations. Your next examination will be held in one week’s time. You will be informed formally by message regarding the details. It is expected that you will not discuss these tests with other initiates. You may tell them if you thought you did well or poorly, but nothing regarding the nature of the test itself. There are harsh punishments for doing so.”

“Of course, Master,” said Aronoke. He hesitated.

“Is there anything else?” asked Master Nethlemor.

“Just… the maintenance droid, and all the distractions. They were intentional, weren’t they?” asked Aronoke.

“Yes,” said Master Nethlemor. “The test is designed to test your control skill, to see if you can ignore the distractions while writing your essays. The written examination is not the solitary focus of the exercise.”

“Yes, of course,” said Aronoke, reassured. “I thought as much. I wanted to be certain.”

He went back to his room wondered what the next test would be like. If it would be just as tricky.

He was called into Instructor Mintula’s office shortly after his return.

Instructor Mintula looked very tired. “I have some bad news for you Aronoke,” she said. “It’s about Ashquash.”

Aronoke’s mind fled back to the events of that morning, which, dramatic as they were, had been set aside in his determination to focus on the examination.

“I’m afraid she was drugged again,” said Razzak Mintula wearily. “She was walking through the temple last night, unable to sleep, when she was overcome by dizziness and fell unconscious. We suspect she was subjected to some sort of tranquilliser. She awoke in a dangerous place high up on the outside the Jedi Temple, but was fortunately found by Master Rosfantar before she could come to any harm. She is in the medical facility recovering. She was in quite a bad way. I must ask, although I am sure you would have told someone, if you noticed anything last night.”

“I’m afraid I didn’t even wake up,” said Aronoke truthfully. “It’s terrible that something like that could happen to her again.”

“It’s unforgivable that something like this could happen to a student under my care,” said Razzak Mintula. Her composure was slipping, Aronoke noticed. He could tell that this new attack on Ashquash had made her angry, and it was showing despite her efforts to control her temper.

“I’m sorry, Mentor,” said Aronoke. “These things would not happen if I was not here.”

“It’s not your fault,” said Razzak Mintula shortly.

“I know that,” said Aronoke. “But it doesn’t change the fact that it’s true. That is why I agreed to do my tests early when I would really prefer to stay longer. I don’t want anyone else to suffer because of me.”

“I swore to myself that I would not let it happen again,” Razzak Mintula said. “It makes me feel very ineffective.”

“You might try meditation, Instructor,” said Aronoke. “I find it very helpful.”

“Yes,” said Razzak Mintula a little wryly. “Perhaps I should. Thank you, Aronoke, that is all.”

“You are looking very tired, Instructor,” said Aronoke. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“No, there really isn’t,” said Razzak Mintula.

Aronoke bowed respectfully and left.

 

 

The details regarding the next examination arrived the next day. There was not much information regarding what sort of test it would be. Aronoke suspected that it would be a physical trial rather than a written examination like the last test. It stood to reason that if there were only three trials in total, at least one of them would evaluate physical training. Perhaps, he thought, there would also be a test specifically of his Force abilities, or maybe that would be incorporated into the other tests like it had in the first.

He made himself take things easy that week, taking up a relaxed schedule of running, lightsaber practice and meditation. He continued with his reading, although not so intensely. He tried not to worry about Ashquash.

But the attack on her had made him angry and it was difficult to forget. There was only one good way he knew to deal with his anger and that was to release it. He knew better than to use it to power an attack against his enemies – that was the Dark side and how Vark had tried to corrupt him. He must instead let it dissipate and step back into a place of calmness, from which he could strike with balance and foresight when his enemies presented themselves.

It was most frustrating that there was nothing he could do now. His enemies were mysterious and ephemeral, remaining as stubbornly hidden as ever.  Their intentions were incomprehensible.  Had the attack on Ashquash been intended to ruin Aronoke’s chances to pass his trials?  Or was there some other hidden purpose?

They had done these things to hurt him through Ashquash. He would do something demonstrating his control over his anger and fear, something to strengthen himself.  Something that Ashquash had wanted him to do.

He would go swimming.

He asked permission first. “May I go down to the pool this afternoon to practice swimming, Instructor Mintula?” Aronoke asked. He was gratified to notice the expression of surprise that crossed her face, although she recovered quickly. “I will be careful not to interfere with the other classes.”

“Uh… yes, I expect that will be fine, Aronoke. I will just send a request to the pool staff to let them know that you are coming. But perhaps it is better that you do not go alone.”

“Can I take Draken with me, Instructor? I’m sure he would like that.”

“Yes, that seems like a good idea,” said Razzak Mintula.

“Swimming? Really? Just us?” Draken was very cheerful and surprised when Aronoke told him. “Let me get my things!” he said, rushing away tumultuously.

Together they rode the elevator down to the pool and traversed the long hallway where Aronoke had encountered the exploding droid, and Ashquash had run away.

“You’re really going swimming?” asked Draken as they walked. He looked sideways at Aronoke with some wariness as they walked down to the pool. “No one’s forcing you to? Or is it something that you’re going to have to do on your test?”

“I don’t know what will be on the test,” said Aronoke. “It’s just something I want to do. I can’t go on being scared of it forever. I won’t let myself.”

Draken looked a little awed. He knew how much Aronoke had always hated water. How he didn’t like dressing in a swimsuit either.

Aronoke had anticipated a struggle when it came to the moment, expected his courage to fail, but his control was gratifyingly firm. It was like the day when he had visited the water purification plant. Swimming was not the point. It was incidental. This exercise had another point. Distraction was a powerful tool.

He could feel the fear was still there, but he accepted it and that robbed it of its power. He did not like the feeling of the cold water kissing his skin, but he thought of Ashquash spending all those hours cold and alone on the side of the tower.

It was easier than it had ever been before. Aronoke focused on maintaining his inner balance. He made the physical act of swimming a form of meditation in motion, like his running often was. Like his lightsaber fighting had become. A way of using his mind and body in unison, while the Force served to direct both.

He swam across the pool and back, several times. He wasn’t a good swimmer – his movements were awkward and splashy – but grace would only come with practice.

“Wow,” said Draken, when he finally climbed out. “Congratulations. You really did it.”

“Yes,” said Aronoke, smiling. “I don’t expect I will ever be as good as you are, but at least I have learned a little.”

A recorded message came from Ashquash that evening, a stilted, awkward message.

“I wanted you to know I’m alright,” Ashquash said, although she looked terrible, Aronoke thought. “I wanted you to know that I hope you do well in your tests. You should try your hardest, Aronoke, and not let anything interfere.”

Aronoke felt proud of her. Maybe she was really going to make it after all.

“Master Skeirim is returning to the Jedi Temple and they’re keeping me in rooms near his chambers for the time being, until your trials are over,” said recorded-Ashquash.

Until he was safely off-planet and the persecutions might stop, Aronoke thought.

“I hope we meet again before you leave, but that might not be possible,” said Ashquash. “I’m sure you’ll pass. Sure you’ll get snapped up by a Master too.”

“I’m sure we’ll meet again,” muttered Aronoke to himself aloud, feeling sad that Ashquash wasn’t coming back to Clan Herf, and that they mightn’t study together ever again.

He sent a return message, trying to sound upbeat and encouraging. He told her that he thought his first test had gone passably well, and that he had gone swimming today. He knew she would understand what that meant and why he was telling her.

 

The time of the second test came all too quickly, and Aronoke was careful to present himself to the examination room in a timely fashion this time. He was greeted by Master Nethlemor as before, and this time when he walked in, he was presented with an array of practice sabres.

“You may choose a weapon,” said the examination droid, presenting a number of blades for his inspection. Aronoke took his time, weighting several of the weapons in his hands before choosing one as close to his own practice blade as possible.

“Please proceed through this door,” said the droid, and Aronoke walked through. On the other side was a medical chamber. He was surprised to recognise the same medical droid who handled all his medical treatment.

“Hello, D2,” said Aronoke. “What are you doing here?”

“Greetings Initiate Aronoke. It is a pleasure to serve you as always,” said the droid. “This examination requires that you wear special lenses in your eyes and I am here to administer them. If you would please sit here?”

Aronoke submitted to the lenses being placed under his eyelids. They were momentarily uncomfortable and blurred his vision slightly, but he soon adjusted to the feel of them.

“You may proceed through this door to undertake your examination,” said the droid. “Good luck.”

Aronoke walked through the next door. He found himself standing in a corridor as the door slid shut behind him. A distance ahead stood what looked to be a four armed Trandoshan wielding a vibroblade in each hand. It seemed to be waiting for him.

Well, here goes, thought Aronoke, stepping forward without thinking.

His foot passed straight through the floor.

He found himself falling through the air. His body automatically moved to minimise his impact, but the drop was not sheer. Large padded blocks swung across the well, and Aronoke had to twist to avoid being smacked by them. He managed to avoid the worst of it, but was slapped firmly across the side of his head by one. He landed at the bottom a little disoriented and dizzy, but mostly unharmed.

That was stupid, he thought as he picked himself up. You knew they put lenses in your eyes for a reason! So you can’t trust your eyes! He took a deep, steadying breath and slowly released his grip on his sense abilities. His Force senses would not lie to him.

“Some Jedi you’ll make, running blind,” he snorted at himself derisively. He was so accustomed to shielding himself, it had not immediately occurred to him to actually make use of his hyperacute senses.

He firmly set the matter aside. If falling meant he had failed already, that was too bad. Time to concentrate on getting out of here and finishing the test.

The corridor at the bottom was relatively short, punctuated with several traps that were glaringly easy to spot with his Force senses, although invisible to his doctored eyes. It led to a small chamber from which there was no exit save for a shaft stretching upwards. Aronoke could see that it was a climbing test, a complicated tangle of handholds and angled surfaces. There were other traps up there too – fake handholds, sliding panels and other tricks to upset the unwary.

With some effort he began making his way up the wall, concentrating on making it from one position to another, avoiding the traps easily enough now he knew what to expect. He was careful to look ahead to plan his route. Didn’t want to manoeuvre himself into an untenable position.

He was halfway up, in the middle of swinging from one handhold to another, when suddenly everything winked into darkness.

Cunning, he thought, steadying himself for a moment, but he trusted his Force senses to see him past this new difficulty. He pushed them out a little further to more clearly sense the next section as he reached for the next hold…

…They snapped out. Out, out, out. Far further than he had ever reached before. The enormity of the distance his mind stretched made him feel microbially small, because it was so mind-bogglingly huge. He had never been able to reach through the shielding of the Jedi Temple before, but now it was simply not there. He was simultaneously aware of four different scenes, instantly and intimately familiar with the details of each with dazzling clarity. Knew with absolute certainty that they were real things.

In one place bone-sucking worms coiled and writhed, buried deep below the ground on Kasthir. Aronoke knew it was Kasthir, even without the bone-sucking worms, from the heat and the familiar smell of fumes. The floor was loose red sand. A statue stood there, a simple monolith that seethed with barely restrained Dark Force energy.

In another place Hespenara stood in carbonite, frozen in place, her face captured in a moment of intense concentration. It was a garden filled with red trumpet-shaped flowers, and around her alien sentients played frivolous idle games. The aliens were small, furry and quick moving, and they paid Hespenara no attention while they cavorted.

In a third place, it was dark and smelt of fear, but the familiar shape of Master Altus was there, in both body and mind, reciting platitudes to hold back pain. Above lay a great immensity of water in which an unfamiliar sentient species swam. Nearby there were machines, great robotic platforms that floated in the water. Aronoke could sense a woman wearing a uniform, a cruel expression twisting her pretty face.

In the last place, there was a narakite who looked a lot like Ashquash, although Aronoke knew that it was not her. It was an artificial place, a ship or a station deep in the reaches of space. The person was wearing manacles and she was being pushed out an airlock.

The lights came on again.

He hit the ground very hard and screamed involuntarily as he felt his collar bone snap along with something else in his chest. He lay still for a long moment, stunned. So much time seemed to have passed, yet he had experienced all that in the tiny sliver it had taken to fall down the shaft and hit the ground.

Great, it had to happen in the middle of a test. He had failed for certain. All he wanted to do was to lie there and wait until someone came to pick him up, but he knew that would be giving up. He refused to give up without a struggle.

Pain is nothing, Aronoke told himself. Is this as bad as what Careful Kras did? As bad as all those things that happened on Kasthir? No. Pain was something he was well acquainted with, an enemy so old it almost felt like a friend. It couldn’t beat him.

He began to slowly get up. Agony sliced through his chest.

I don’t need to do this the hard way, he thought dully. I’m a Jedi. Jedi can deal with things like this. Like Master Altus in that vision. He sat still, willing himself to be calm, and gathered the Force to control his pain to a bearable level. It was a lot better, but he still didn’t know if he could climb with a broken collar bone.

There was a click and a sliding noise near the floor, and something tumbled out from a panel in the wall. A medpac. Aronoke had seen those before and knew how they worked, although he had never had to use one on himself. It was relatively simple – there were even instructions. The pain receded further as the drugs kicked in.

He could climb now, he thought. He hoped that wouldn’t cause further damage.

In some ways, it was easier the second time. He knew how to move from handhold to handhold and was expecting the darkness to wink in, although it didn’t happen at precisely the same time. He had his Force senses ready for it now. Nevertheless he was very glad to reach the top and swing up over the edge. He wanted nothing but to lie there and recover, but he had not forgotten the Trandoshan waiting there. He tried to get up quickly, but his injuries made him slow, and a practice blade slammed into his arm while he stumbled to his feet, hard enough to bruise thoroughly.

He did his best to parry and block the incoming blows with his own saber. To make his own attacks using nothing but his Force senses to guide him. He didn’t know that he did Master Squegwash’s training any justice at all. The wrongness of the grinding bones in his chest made his movements clumsy, even if he could ignore the pain.

Then the bout seemed to be over. The world blinked back into light, and he could see the Trandoshan making a formal bow to him, which he returned.

A door opened at the other end of the corridor.

“Initiate Aronoke,” said Master Nethlemor. “You gave us quite a scare there. You are going to require some medical attention. Please come through and see the medical droid immediately.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke automatically, his mind racing. He had to tell them about the visions but now the trial was over and he had stopped concentrating so fiercely on finishing, his injuries were distracting in a way that had nothing to do with pain. He could tell he was seriously hurt, even though he mostly felt numb. Blood leaked internally from the damaged tissues surrounding his broken bones. The rush of cells hurrying to attempt to alleviate the damage was deafening. Without really noticing, Aronoke allowed himself to be ushered into the medical bay and helped to lie down.

D-2 removed the lenses from his eyes and began scanning him. Aronoke was happy to lie there, hyperaware of his body and replaying the visions he had seen in his mind. He remembered them with absolute precision, unlike if he had seen them with his eyes.

“You are going to require treatment in a kolto tank,” said the droid. “Your collar bone is broken, and you have one broken rib and several fractures. Some of the surrounding tissues have also suffered damage. If these injuries are treated promptly, they will be repaired very quickly, but any delay will cause an exponential extension in the healing time required.”

“Okay,” said Aronoke, “but I need to talk to Master Insa-tolsa first, before I go into the tank. It’s important.”

“Any further delay is inadvisable,” objected D-2, but Aronoke was adamant. “Can you speak to Master Insa-tolsa by holocommunicator? That would be faster.”

“No,” said Aronoke. “It has to be in person.” He had to tell Master Insa-tolsa what he had seen before he went in tank. It might be important. Might help Master Altus and Hespenara.

His request was relayed to Master Nethlemor.

“Master Nethlemor has agreed that you should be allowed to speak with Master Insa-tolsa before I continue your medical treatment,” said the droid reluctantly. “On the condition that you allow yourself to be prepared for the tank in the interim.”

“Yes, that’s fine,” said Aronoke wearily. Submitting himself to the indignity of being helped to undress was unpleasant, but he could not bring himself to care. Having various injections applied to him was a strange distraction, because Aronoke could sense exactly what the drugs were doing inside his body. It seemed hardly any time at all before Master Insa-tolsa appeared. At one time Aronoke would have felt terribly threatened by having the ithorian master see him in his underwear, but now that was secondary amongst his concerns.

“Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa, “I’m sorry you have been hurt. You should really be in a kolto tank already, so I will be brief. You wished to tell me something?”

“I had some strange visions during the test, Master,” said Aronoke.

“It is common for students to have strange visions during this examination,” said Master Insa-tolsa, but Aronoke shook his head. “Maybe, Master, but this is important. I was trying to extend my senses during the test and perhaps I pushed a little hard. They suddenly snapped out and I saw these things without meaning to. That’s why I fell off the wall.” He went on to describe the four scenes, in as much detail as he could, while Master Insa-tolsa listened attentively.

“I will be sure to record and consider these visions,” said Master Insa-tolsa reassuringly, “and to report them to those seeking Hespenara and Master Altus, but now you must go into the kolto tank, Aronoke. We can speak again when you come out.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke, suddenly feeling profoundly tired. He let himself relax back against the bench as the droid pressed another injector against his arm.

He didn’t remember Master Insa-tolsa leaving the room or anything else. He must have passed out. The next thing he knew, he was waking up in the green strangeness of the kolto tank, feeling confused about where he was. He felt mildly fretful about being submerged, but was too lethargic and momentarily weak to do anything about it. Then he was raised out of the tank, helped to clean himself off and get dressed.

He felt fine. A little weak and tired still, but nothing to cause him concern. His chest ached mildly, but he had been told this would pass. That he should take things easy for a few days.

“You are free to go, Initiate Aronoke,” said the medical droid, after running a final scan. “Please return if you suffer any further symptoms from your injuries.”

“Thank you, D-2,” said Aronoke, glad to be returning to his clan.

“Aronoke’s back!” yelled Giscardia, as he came in. It was late afternoon, he realised belatedly, and the whole clan was enjoying its free time.

“Aronoke!” said Draken. “How was your test? We heard you were hurt. What happened?” He hesitated a moment. “Oh, I suppose you can’t really tell us, because the tests are all secret.”

“I had an accident,” said Aronoke. “Broke a couple of bones, but it’s all better now. They put me in a kolto tank and I’m fine.”

“What about the test? Did you still pass?”

“I don’t know yet,” said Aronoke. “Mostly it went well.”

“Well, I hope you passed,” said Draken. “Not like I’m looking forward to getting rid of you or anything.”

“One more to go,” mused Aronoke. “I can’t say I’ll be sorry to have it out of the way.”

Draken nodded gloomily. He seemed to have little doubt that Aronoke would pass and be spirited away as a Padawan. His faith was heartening and made Aronoke feel guilty that Draken was doomed to be left behind.

He told himself again that Draken would doubtlessly be a better Jedi for getting to spend so many peaceful years in the Jedi temple, even if it wasn’t what Draken himself wanted.

After Master Bel’dor’ruch’s arrival, everything moved quickly. It was not long before Master Insa-tolsa sent Aronoke a message telling him that he was to be accepted as a candidate for the Padawan trials, which would proceed as soon as he had reached the sixth level of training in the way of the lightsaber. Aronoke was currently learning the third level, and to hasten his progress he was to be provided with extra tutelage by Weapon Master Squegwash.

“I would have you realise what an honour it is for Master Squegwash to agree to instruct you personally in this way,” said Mentor Snesgrul when he saw Aronoke during his usual training sessions with Clan Ryllak. “He takes very few students, only the best, and has very exacting standards of formality. You must be on your best behavior, Aronoke.”

“I will, Mentor Snesgrul,” said Aronoke and armed with this sage advice, he determined to be exactingly polite to Master Squegwash at all times.

Master Squegwash was perhaps human, perhaps not. Mostly he looked human, but Aronoke could not tell if he was even actually male. Mentor Snesgrul had seemed to think so, but Mentor Snesgrul was a bothan and perhaps did not know either. Like Ashquash, Master Squegwash was bald and androgynous, although they were otherwise not similar. Aronoke put his curiosity about the Weapon Master firmly aside. After Mentor Snesgrul’s warning, he was hardly going to ask Master Squegwash prying personal questions.

“I am not certain why your education is being hurried along in this way, Initiate,” Master Squegwash told Aronoke stiffly when they first met, “but Master An-ku insists that it is necessary.  Now, please demonstrate your understanding of the first six standard forms.”

“As you wish, Master Squegwash,” said Aronoke, bowing formally before complying.

It was obvious Master Squegwash felt that Aronoke’s tutelage was something that could have been handled by other, lesser beings.

“You have a good understanding of the concepts of level three,” Master Squegwash said patiently, when Aronoke had finished.  “That is unusual in a student who has come to his training so late.”

“Thank you, Master Squegwash,” said Aronoke, bowing again.

“In order to learn the higher forms of lightsaber combat, you must push beyond your reliance upon your physical senses,” said Master Swegwash. “When we train with a practice sabre, we teach the body and the mind to work together, to produce automated responses to stimuli. When our opponent moves a certain way, we respond with the correct opposing move. That is why students are trained from a very young age, because these responses become as natural as language to them. Just as you do not have to think about saying simple words, the correct form should automatically be there when needed in combat, with no thought involved. You have done well to learn as much as you have in a short time. I expect it is because you had some training in combat from a young age yourself, even if it is not in these specific forms.”

“Yes, Master Squegwash,” said Aronoke. “That is true.”

“However, when a fully trained Jedi enters combat, he does not merely use his physical senses to fight,” said Master Squegwash. “He uses the Force. Before you are ready to wield a true lightsaber, you must make the transition to using the Force to direct your movements, instead of merely your eyes and ears. This is something a Jedi trained from a youngling would also learn to automatically perform.  He has never fought without the Force – both are developed together.  Many older students can never learn this lesson, and thus are ultimately doomed to failure when attempting to learn the highest tiers of lightsaber combat. This is one reason why older students are so seldom accepted as candidates.  Nevertheless, I believe your great acuity in sensing the Force will allow you to make this transition, Aronoke, despite your late start, but it will not be easy.”

“I will work hard, Master Squegwash,” Aronoke promised.

Certainly it seemed that Master Squegwash expected nothing less.  By the end of the first lesson, Aronoke was exhausted, but was also pleased that Master Squegwash seemed to have warmed to him. If he was to face his Padawan trials so soon, Aronoke knew he needed Master Squegwash on side, and that he had to make every effort to be as focused as he could possibly be.

 

In between lightsaber practice sessions Aronoke went running every morning. He added weights training to his routine to help build his strength. Then there were all the usual lessons. He was doing a lot of extra reading as well.  There was hardly a moment to spare in his day.  He felt stretched to his limits.  Some days, usually when he had made some discernible progress, it was a good feeling. At other times Aronoke despaired of ever being able to pass the trials. The academic side of his training still lagged years behind that of the human students his age, let alone those of his maturity level.  It was difficult to feel confident about passing, and Aronoke had no idea what would happen if he failed.

Failing to be a Jedi, leaving the temple, disappointing Master Altus’s confidence in him – Aronoke spent long hours meditating instead of sleeping, trying to rid himself of these fears, whenever he found himself lying awake thinking them over and over.

 

Aronoke was told to report to the medical bay, ostensibly for a routine check-up.  D-2J399 was there as always, he was relieved to see.  Although he had been for many check-ups by now, and was accustomed to undressing in front of the droid, Aronoke never felt complacent about it. There were too many uncertainties involved – what if the person who sought to influence him did something to D-2?  What if some sort of device was hidden in the medical bay, to spy on Aronoke’s back?  It was paranoid to think these things, Aronoke told himself firmly as he removed his shirt and robes as instructed. Whoever had taken such an interest in him must have other endeavours to take up their time.  Other plans and schemes to watch over.

But no matter how he tried to convince himself, despite the fact that he was better able to control it now, the feeling of dread was always there. It wasn’t just the slight chill of the medical bay that made Aronoke shiver.

“Today I have instructions to take a number of scans of your dorsal dermis, Initiate,” said D-2.  “These will be made using several different spectra of light, and thus will take slightly longer than regular imaging.”

Aronoke nodded.  Master Bel’dor’ruch had said that the image on his back was to be recorded and investigated more thoroughly.  Even so, it was an uncomfortable idea. Aronoke did not like the thought of extra images of his back existing, even within the Jedi temple. It was bad enough that Master Altus had disappeared with one in his possession. If it wasn’t for the fact that his back might reveal some clue regarding Master Altus’s disappearance, Aronoke would have protested.

“The additional spectra do not seem to reveal any extra information,” D-2 informed Aronoke, when the scans were finished and he was dressed again.  “However, I may be mistaken.  They will be sent off for further analysis and forwarded to Master Bel’dor’ruch and Master An-ku.  If anything is discovered regarding them, or if additional images need to be made, you will be informed, Initiate Aronoke.”

“Thanks, D-2,” said Aronoke, grateful that his part in the procedure seemed to be over.

 

“You’ve got to go and see that Master Bel’dor’ruch again,” said Draken one morning at breakfast.  “It was up on the schedule board.  I thought you mightn’t have seen, since you were in such a hurry.”

“Oh,” said Aronoke.  “Thanks.”

Aronoke had been late that morning, and hadn’t bothered to look at the board.  He had slept far later than usual, right through the time when he usually went running and did his weights training, and through the time when he would typically shower, thanks to a particularly exhausting session with Master Squegwash the evening before.

“All sorts of strange Masters seem to be interested in you,” continued Draken, teasing a lump of red fribj fruit apart into strands on his plate.  “You are twice as busy as the rest of us, and Wyla Gorgeous knows, we’re busy enough.”

Wyla Gorgeous was a Twi’lek superstar, a wildly popular actress starring in many holovids that Aronoke knew were considered completely unsuitable for consumption by Jedi initiates. Draken’s latest gimmick was to mention her name at every possible opportunity.

“It seems every week Razzak Mintula thinks of a new thing I should be doing in my lack of free time,” Draken continued morosely.

Aronoke smiled to himself, thinking that Razzak Mintula knew Draken was best kept busy.  His inventive mind and undeniable curiosity would soon lead him into trouble if it were not so.

“So why have you got so much to do, suddenly?” asked Draken.

“They want me to take my Padawan trials soon,” Aronoke admitted quietly.

“What!?” squawked Draken, in loud surprise.  Razzak Mintula frowned at him from the end of the table and all the little kids stopped talking to stare at him too.  Aronoke took refuge in spooning more chornut porridge into his mouth and chewing thoroughly.

Ashquash stared at Aronoke from across the table, her expression blank, but her composure ruined by her open mouth and the way her spoon hovered in mid air.  Bits of porridge dripped off it unnoticed.

“When were you going to tell us?” she asked, coldly.

“I’m sorry, I only found out a little while ago,” said Aronoke.  “It was Master Bel’dor’ruch’s idea, and I was hoping that the Jedi Council wouldn’t go along with it.  I don’t want to have to leave the temple any time soon.”

Ashquash glowered at him and lowered her head to stare at her plate sullenly.

“I don’t want you to leave soon either,” admitted Draken, “but we’re clan mates, right, and that means we should consider what’s best for each other, not just our own preferences.  If there’s any way I can help, you should let me know.”

“I’ll help you too, Aronoke,” said Bithron, and then it became a chorus amongst all the little kids sitting closest to him.  Aronoke noticed that Razzak Mintula was watching and listening, yet saying nothing.  Waiting to see how he would respond.

“Thank you all very much,” said Aronoke, feeling awkward at being the centre of attention.  “But the trials are something each of us ultimately has to face on our own.”

The younglings’ faces fell, and Aronoke hastily added: “There’s certainly some things you can help me with in my training, though.”

It was strange how much they had become like family to him, Aronoke thought as he hurried off after breakfast to look at the schedule board.  Despite the diversity of age and race, Clan Herf had become a central part of his life.  They might mostly be a lot younger, but the younglings, alongside Ashquash and Draken, were wise for their years, changed already from self-absorbed little kids into something quite different. Something more Jedi-like. Just like Aronoke himself.

 

Master Bel’dor’ruch sent her padawan, a yellow-green twi’lek girl, to escort Aronoke to her chambers after the evening meal.

“Initiate Aronoke,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch when Aronoke arrived, fixing him with her gleaming red stare. Aronoke had spent all day psyching himself up to talk with the chiss master, telling himself that he would be brave and stand up to her.  After his friends’ reaction at breakfast, he had determined to tell her that he didn’t want to sit for his trials, that he wasn’t ready, but now his resolve weakened. She was scarier than he had remembered.

“Yes, Master,” he said.

“I would like to talk more about the problems you have faced here at the temple,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch, pacing back and forth as Aronoke stood in front of her.  She was the most restless Jedi that Aronoke had ever met.  The initiates were always being schooled in being still as a lesson in calmness and patience, but Master Bel’dor’ruch made constant movement into her own unique art form.

Even Masters, Aronoke thought, had some failings.

“I can’t understand how the Jedi Council can fail to clear up these harassments that you have faced,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch.  “I have spoken to Master Insa-tolsa and Master An-ku, amongst others, and they assure me that every appropriate action has been taken, but I find that difficult to believe, considering their utter lack of results.  It seems a hopeless incompetence on their behalf.”

“It is frustrating, Master,” said Aronoke evenly, “although I’m sure everything possible is being done.”

“Are you?” said Master Bel’dor’ruch. “I am not. Someone high up in the Jedi order obviously wishes to manipulate you, or these things would not continue.”

“Yes, that’s what Master Altus thought,” said Aronoke. “He said he could not discover who had sent me to train with Clan Sandrek, but that the order had come through the Jedi Council from very high up indeed.”

“I see,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch. “I have read all the reports, but I wish to hear about these harassments from you. Perhaps there is something that was missed.”

She led Aronoke chronologically through all the events that had taken place according to Council records – the missives from the droids, the drugging of Ashquash, Clan Sandrek’s strange behavior, the droid in the shower – encouraging him to elaborate and add anything else that might have been missed.

“What about this time when you were discovered in an off-limits maintenance area?” asked Master Bel’dor’ruch. “Was that anything unusual?”

“No, Master,” said Aronoke, blushing. “That was just us fooling around. Being silly.”

“The time you fell in the swimming pool and nearly drowned?”

Aronoke hadn’t known that had been reported to the Council.

“No, that was an argument with one of my clan mates.”

“I see,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch. She looked thoughtful. “Is there anything else about your early history on Kasthir that you did not tell Master Altus that might be relevant?”

Aronoke thought carefully.

“There is one thing, Master. I don’t know how relevant it is. It is only a minor detail, and I did not think to tell Master Altus at the time. He never asked me for all the details of my childhood.”

“Well, then?” she said, gesturing impatiently.

“When I was about five years old, in galactic standard years, my Uncle Remo died, and another Twi’lek took care of me, named Boamba. At first everything was fine, but then she became addicted to spice. A few years later, there came a day when she didn’t come back. I assumed she was dead. Some bigger people forced me out of our home, so I had to live on the streets and scavenge for myself. I wasn’t very good at it, was starting to starve, but then the Fumers came and took me to Bunkertown, out in the desert. I believe they were looking specifically for me, because when I was in the speeder going to Bunkertown, some of the things from Boamba’s house were there too.  Some of my old things. It was like I was collected along with all of Boamba’s other possessions. Then, when I arrived in Bunkertown, I was sent to be a menial in the kitchens, and no one seemed very interested in me, but a few days later, I was dragged up in front of Careful Kras. He cut my shirt off my back, like he knew something was there.”

Aronoke faltered at the thought of what had happened next, but swallowed hard and forced himself to continue as unemotionally as he could.

“He didn’t like what he saw. He cut it and burned it to hide it. I’ve never understood why he did that instead of just killing me. Why he wanted to hide it, but keep me alive.”

“Perhaps he wanted to keep you for the right buyer,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch. “He might not have wanted to reveal the information on your back, but might have been tempted by the high prices on offer for strong force-sensitives. And then you are bioengineered, a complicated and expensive business. Others would pay a lot of money for you just because of that. But you’re right, this could be an important bit of information. I think that Careful Kras is long overdue a visit from the Jedi Order.”

Aronoke felt a most un-Jedi-like pang of malicious glee at the thought of Jedi wrath raining down on Careful Kras’s head.

Master Bel’dor’ruch paced a minute or two in thoughtful silence, and Aronoke was glad of the opportunity to regain his composure. Along with thoughts of rightful vengeance, his mind was seething with all the emotions that always erupted when he spoke about his past, despite his best efforts.  It was not the right way for a Jedi to feel.

“You have not been raised as a chiss, as I was,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch at last. “But anything you might have learned from exposure to chiss culture is irrelevant. There is nothing in being a chiss that would benefit you in being a Jedi. Quite the contrary. It is only your chiss biology that affects your training. You should not feel that this is unusual. There are a plethora of different species who train to become Jedi. Did you think all of them grew at the same rate and were made padawans at the same age?”

“No, Master,” said Aronoke. “I just did not know I was different from humans in this way until recently. Most near-human species are not.”

“Your tests should be scheduled soon now,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch. “Do you feel ready for them?”

“Not very, Master,” said Aronoke reluctantly. “I am supposed to reach lightsaber level six to do my tests, but I am only level four. I train hard and my new lessons are very helpful, but I make slow progress.”

“Let me see,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch, and before Aronoke could say anything, she flung her lightsaber, thankfully unactivated, across the room at him.

Aronoke was startled and nearly failed to catch it.  He fumbled and nearly dropped it on the floor. Could feel himself flushing. He had never held a real lightsaber before.

“Show me the standard forms,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch, making a little hurry-up gesture. “Start with form one.”

Aronoke swallowed firmly and tried to relax. It took him a moment to work out how to activate the lightsaber and then he was startled by the feel of it when it did. The balance was completely different from that of his practice-sabre; it felt awkward and unfamiliar in his hands. He found himself hyperaware of the glowing blade that could slice through flesh so easily, and made a couple of passes in the air, trying to get the feel of the weapon. The sound it made triggered memories of hot Kasthir sand and the smell of sweat and fumes.

But Master Bel’dor’ruch was waiting. Aronoke forced himself to drop into form one, but his movements were jerky and off-balance. He went through the forms once. He should have known them perfectly after so much practice and training, but he found himself struggling to make the transitions smoothly.

Master Squegwash was right; the lightsaber changed everything.  It was a dangerous weapon, a threat to the wielder as well as to his enemies. Only someone practiced in the Force would be able to wield such a blade effectively.

He was glad to deactivate the lightsaber. Glad to pass it back to Master Bel’dor’ruch when he had finished. He felt he had not done well at all.

“You will manage,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch. “You will have time to learn when you are assigned to your new master as a padawan. Remember that to be an initiate here in the temple is an artificial role, designed to keep young force-sensitives out of trouble while they are children and not yet physically grown. You are very close to fully grown. Almost a mature adult. You are fourteen years old, which is an age humans were once considered too old to send out as padawans. They would be shipped off to serve in the Jedi Corps if they had not found a Master by that age. That we now keep initiates so late is a sign of the order’s increasing decadence and over-burgeoning influence. You are not human. It is ridiculous to keep you here in the temple when you have reached full growth.”

“But there are so many things I haven’t learnt yet, Master,” protested Aronoke. “There are lots of topics my clan has not even touched upon yet, and although I read widely, I haven’t had time to cover everything. I have only been here somewhat over two years. Even if I’m fully grown I can’t absorb ten years of lessons in two years.”

“Yet you were acting as an adult before you ever came here,” pointed out Master Bel’dor’ruch. “You learn differently as a child than you do as an adult. You learn in a different way.”

“Yes, that’s true, Master,” said Aronoke, remembering Master Squegwash’s lesson. “When do you think my tests will be held?”

“I do not know exactly,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch. “You will be given some weeks notice. I expect it will be a good deal sooner than you would like, and a good deal later than I would.”

“I will do my best, Master,” said Aronoke, making a respectful little bow, and she nodded in return and made an abrupt gesture to indicate that he was dismissed. He left her rooms feeling overwhelmed and uncertain.

“Don’t worry, everyone feels that way after talking to Master Bel’dor’ruch,” said the Twi’lek padawan breezily, meeting him at the door. She seemed pleased to have a Master that everyone thought was scary, Aronoke thought. “Though I thought perhaps it would be different for you because you are a chiss too. I thought perhaps all chiss were like her.”

“Master Bel’dor’ruch is the only other chiss I’ve ever met,” Aronoke admitted.

“Really?” said the Twi’lek padawan. “That’s very weird.”

Very weird, that’s me, thought Aronoke sadly.

 

“You’re so busy all the time,” said Draken mournfully a few days later. “I expect they can’t wait whisk you off somewhere. You’ll be the youngest Padawan ever, and we’ll still be stuck here doing lessons for years and years.”

“I wouldn’t mind being stuck here for years and years,” said Aronoke carefully. “I’m not in any hurry to leave. I would much rather stay here with you and take my time. But you’re right. Master Bel’dor’ruch wants me to be sent out in the field as soon as possible, partly because of all the strange things that have happened to me, but also because I’m a chiss and I’ve grown up so much faster.”

“But it will still take a long time for you to know everything you need to complete the tests, won’t it?” said Draken. “Months and months? At least a year?”

“The Council has decided I should sit for my tests as soon as I reach level six in lightsaber training,” said Aronoke. “Master Squegwash says I am level four now. Master Bel’dor’ruch says that I will probably sit for my tests a good deal sooner than I would like, and a good deal later than she would.”

“Oh,” said Draken, crestfallen.

Aronoke shrugged. “I can see Master Bel’dor’ruch’s logic in hurrying me through. Even if I do have to leave, we are still clan mates you know. Like you said. Nothing is going to change that. One day you and Ashquash and all the younglings will finish your training and will probably be better Jedi because of your time in the temple.”

“Yeah, but you get to have your own lightsaber and see new places now,” said Draken enviously.  “I wish we could swap places – then we would both be happy.  I’m tired of training.”

“I’ll still be training,” Aronoke reminded him.  ”It will just be with a Jedi Master instead of here.  Padawans train to be proper Jedi, remember?  And even Jedi Masters train in new things sometimes.”

“Yeah, but that’s different,” grumbled Draken, and Aronoke was left thinking that Draken and Master Bel’dor’ruch had certain things in common.

 

“Why didn’t you tell me about you leaving?” asked Ashquash one night.  She was lying in bed, one arm flung over her eyes, while Aronoke was sitting up studying.  It was late, and he had thought she had been asleep for ages already.

“I didn’t want to upset you,” Aronoke said gently.  “I knew you wouldn’t like the idea, and there didn’t seem any point telling you if it wasn’t going to happen after all.”

“But it is going to happen,” said Ashquash crossly.  “You’re going to go away, and leave us all behind.  Well, maybe when that happens, I’ll go away too.”

“You shouldn’t do that,” said Aronoke, but Ashquash turned away towards the wall, pretending not to hear him.

“It’s not like I want to go away,” he added.  “I’d rather stay and train with you and Draken. It’s something that Master Bel’dor’ruch decided.  If Master Altus were here, it probably wouldn’t have happened.”

“Can’t you tell them you don’t want to?”

“I have,” said Aronoke.  “But there are good reasons for me to go away too.  Reasons that you already know about.  Maybe there won’t be any more hassles, and you’ll be able to finish your training in peace.”

“Hrm.”

“I know it seems like a long time,” said Aronoke, “but it’s not as long as it seems. One day you’ll be a Jedi in your own right, but not if you leave. Don’t you want to be a Jedi?”

“Sometimes I don’t know,” said Ashquash, her voice muffled.  Her back was still to Aronoke, so he couldn’t see her expression.  “I’m not like you, Aronoke.  Not so powerful in the Force.  I’m Force-sensitive, but I struggle with most of the lessons we do – even things most of the little kids find easy.”

“It takes time and patience,” said Aronoke.  “And we’re all different. We find different things difficult. Master Skeirim brought you here, even though you were just as old as I was.  He must have thought you were worth training, enough to convince the Jedi Council too, or you wouldn’t be here at all.  They would have sent you somewhere else, to be trained as a pilot or a mechanic or something like that.  They wouldn’t bring you to be trained as a Jedi just because they wanted to help you. If they think you can become a Jedi, than it must be possible.”

“Do you really think so?”

“Of course I do.”

“But what if I fail?”

“Then you’ll probably be sent to join the Jedi Corps, and there’s no shame in that either.”

“Hrm.”

There was a long silence, long enough that Aronoke decided that Ashquash had finally fallen asleep.  He picked up his datapad again, and started reading from where he had left off.

“I still don’t want you to leave,” said Ashquash, in a sad sleepy voice.

 

The weeks passed quickly. There was still no progress in locating Master Altus, and Aronoke felt depressed. He had always imagined that Master Altus would be there when he performed his tests. He was still finding it difficult to progress in his lightsaber training. He practiced the standard forms during free time every afternoon now, over and over again, determined to make progress, but he seemed to have reached a plateau in his abilities.

Then when Aronoke came back from training one afternoon, there was an official looking message waiting for him.

 

“It says I have to sit for my trials in one month!  But I’m not level six in lightsaber training yet!” protested Aronoke to Master Insa-tolsa. “I’m still only level four!”

“That is what the council has decided,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “It does seem very soon. I suspect Master Altus would not have agreed with how your training is being handled.”

Aronoke knew the green man would have preferred him to take his time, to linger in the temple in peace instead of being hurried back out into the field. He remembered a conversation they had once.

 

“Sometimes I don’t feel very much like I can really become a Jedi,” Aronoke had confided. “We learn all these moral lessons, and I can see the idea of them, but I can not truly believe in them. All the things the Jedi do in the histories and the fables seem separate from real life to me, because that is so unlike how anyone would behave on Kasthir.”

“You need to give yourself time,” Master Altus said. “These lessons will take time to become part of yourself. The longer you spend here in the temple, the more deeply you will be able to accept them.”

“That is all very well while I am in the temple, Master. There is little to confront me here. But I am worried that when I step outside into the real world, all these lessons will fall away, and I will be who I was once again.”

“You will never be who you once were, Aronoke,” said Master Altus, smiling. “You have already learned too much. You can only be the product of what you were and what you have learned since. You should not fear your past.”

“Well, I suppose I have learned a lot,” said Aronoke, who did fear it. “But I might still act in a similar way.”

“By the time you go out into the real world you will be better prepared to deal with it,” said Master Altus. “You will be able to remain in the temple for a long time, if the Force is with us. That is one of the reasons the Temple is so isolated from the outside world. You can learn in peace, with few outside influences to disturb you. You can learn about yourself before you have to confront everything else. Once you are ready, you will move beyond these walls to learn different, more challenging lessons.”

Aronoke nodded reluctantly, unconvinced, and made a non-committal noise.

Master Altus smiled patiently.  “You can trust yourself, Aronoke.”

 

Aronoke could not help but wish that Master Altus was here now, but that was pointless, because if Master Altus were here, everything would be different. He knew that Master Altus would not have supported his hasty advancement to Padawan status. It was not just a matter of being fully grown, of knowing how to physically wield a lightsaber or argue the minor points of Jedi philosophy.

No, it was a matter of inner confidence and stability. Aronoke tried hard to stay under control, to be a real Jedi, but he was still plagued by those same roiling emotions. There were deep insecurities, residual damage from Careful Kras’ tortures, from his too-hasty childhood. From being small and vulnerable in a world of harsh realities. From being the only one of his kind. From being bioengineered.

He knew the words to describe what his problems were and also the techniques he should use to deal with them.  He thought with time and effort these troubles would fade, but he did not know how successful he would be at coping in a stressful situation in the real world. What if his fear rose to panic and his control over the Force crumbled?

But as long as he remained here in the Jedi Temple, the persecutions would continue, and those did not just affect him, but also the others around him. Look at what had happened to Ashquash. Master Altus had disappeared, and it seemed likely that was because of Aronoke too.

It might be safer for everyone else to have him gone from here. But if Aronoke could not be completely protected from such things here in the Jedi Temple on Coruscant, than where else could he possibly be safe?

He must be strong and calm, trust in the Force. No matter what happened. That was what Master Altus would say now.

“You know yourself the reasons for this decision,” Master Insa-tolsa was saying.

“I know, Master, but it seems so soon,” said Aronoke. “How can I possibly learn everything I need to know in just one month?”

“It does seem like a lot, but Master Bel’dor’ruch is correct in that most of a Jedi’s training comes from the years spent as a Padawan,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “I believe myself that your abilities are adequate and that you will pass the test.”

“You really think so?” asked Aronoke.

“Yes, I do, but you must not be complacent either,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “You must use the time available to you to best advantage.”

“But there is no more time to fit anything else in, Master!” Aronoke objected. “I get up earlier than anyone else in my clan to start training and I stay up late in the evenings reading and studying. I have sparring practice with Clan Ryllak, extra lightsaber training with Master Squegwash…”

“Let me see your schedule,” said Master Insa-tolsa, and Aronoke obligingly passed over his datapad. “There is little benefit to you in continuing these few remaining physical training exercises with your clan, so we will cross those off. Also, you will probably do better individually studying those areas where your knowledge is lacking, rather than continuing in morning lessons.”

Suddenly Aronoke’s schedule looked a good deal emptier. He was relieved. Everything seemed a little less impossible.

“Thank you, Master Insa-tolsa,” he said. “I will study hard.”

“That is all you can do, Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “If you do your best and fail, then so be it.”

“What happens if I do fail, Master?” asked Aronoke. “What happens to me then?”

“You will continue with your training here at the temple,” said Master Insa-tolsa steadily. “You may retake the tests at a later date. That would not be the case if you had already spent your complete allotment of years at the temple, but you have not.”

“Oh,” said Aronke, relieved. That did not seem so bad.  Desirable even, although he would not consider failing the tests on purpose. Better to refuse to attempt them at all. “That is not so terrible. Thank you, Master, I feel my path is much clearer now.”

“May the Force be with you, Aronoke,” said Master-Insa-tolsa.

 

Despite the extra time, there was only so much physical training Aronoke could productively do in one day, and his lightsaber skills did not make much headway during the first two weeks of the remaining month.

“I believe you are not yet comfortable in your own body,” said Master Squegwash one morning. “You are at an age where you have been growing very quickly, and your mind is not perfectly aware of your limits or the way your limbs move. To rectify this, I will teach you some meditative techniques that will assist you in becoming better aware of yourself.”

“Yes, Master Squegwash,” said Aronoke. “I will do my best.”

The meditative techniques were not dissimilar to some of the Force exercises Clan Herf had been learning, although they required a good deal more focus.  They demanded control of the body while performing acts of balance and other physical activities, and demanded an awareness of physical self that Aronoke had never attempted before. Aronoke had to focus hard to perform to Master Squegwash’s exacting standards.  He found it difficult to maintain the control necessary to contain his motions, but once he did, he found the rest of the process came easily.

“Good,” said Master Squegwash.

Afterwards, they ran through some basic exercises, and then Master Squegwash had Aronoke duel with one of his other students, a talented rodian by the name of Kwidor.  Kwidor’s abilities far outclassed Aronoke’s own, and it was obvious from the start that Aronoke was going to lose. He struggled again and again to block Kwidor’s effortless blows to no avail.  It was like being humiliated by Clan Sandrek all over again.

“Clear your mind,” said Master Squegwash from the sidelines.  “Forget about the outcome, and seek to isolate every moment of the fight.  “Seek the connection between your movements and the Force, just like we practiced this morning.”

It seemed impossible amidst the confusing whirl of action.  Even though Kwidor was obviously not putting in full effort, he seemed to everywhere at once.  Aronoke struggled to control his movements, struggled for awareness of every muscle, every bone, every tendon of his body, and suddenly, everything swung into balance and the world seemed to snap into ultra-clear perspective. Aronoke’s mind and body no longer felt like two different things. His connection to the Force welded them together inexorably and connected him to everything outside in an undeniable bond.  It was just one moment of clarity, but Aronoke seized the feeling in his mind and tried to remember what it felt like.

“You’re doing very well for level four,” said Kwidor, bowing graciously as Aronoke admitted defeat.

“You felt it, didn’t you?” asked Master Squegwash, coming over and looking pleased.  “Go away, practice the exercises I showed you, and try to find that place again.  Once you have achieved that balance, you will have passed the greatest hurdle in lightsaber combat – the difference that lies between the even the greatest of mundane fighters, and those who wield the Force.”

After that lesson, Aronoke felt invigorated instead of exhausted. Lightsaber training had become a trial in itself, a nightmare he refused to allow himself to wake from, but now he felt his perseverence and Master Squegwash’s lessons had paid off.

He practiced all that week with new enthusiasm, feeling like he had been fighting blind through all his previous lessons. Now when he managed to maintain this new and as yet tenuous balance, it was like he existed in a nexus of calm while his mind and body acted in unison in response to the stimuli his Force senses fed him. He worked towards achieving this new state consistantly and was rewarded accordingly.

“I believe you have made the step you needed to make, Aronoke,” said Master Squegwash appreciatively during the next lesson. “There is nothing to prevent you from proceeding to the higher levels of training, given time and practice.”

“Thank you, Master Squegwash,” said Aronoke. He was pleased to be told he had reached the standard of level five by the end of that week.

The summons for Aronoke’s first test arrived then. There were to be three tests in total, but this summons only dictated the nature of this first test – that and a stern reminder that candidates would be considered to have failed their trials if they revealed the nature of the tests to anyone who had not already passed them.

The first was to be a written examination upon Jedi lore. Four topics would be randomly selected from amongst a list of a hundred possible questions, and he would be expected to write an essay upon each of them.

An essay? How did you do that? Aronoke had never done anything of the kind. Presumably this was a skill his clan had not yet studied. There was plenty of information on that sort of thing available on the holonet, however, and he relaxed when he saw it was a relatively simple standard form of writing.

Aronoke’s heart quailed when he saw the list of subject matter. One hundred possible topics! At first glimpse the questions looked terrible. Discuss Master Amn’s hypothesis of galactic spontaneity of cultural forms.  He didn’t know anything about Master Amn, let alone what spontaneity meant. Or this one: reflect upon the moral quandaries presented by the Hypercaspelian Conflict and suggest three ways in which the Jedi Order might have mitigated its intervention for a more beneficial outcome.  Urgh.  But upon closer examination, when he looked beyond the long words and the formal style of the questions, he realised that he actually knew a reasonable amount about more than half of them. Certainly he didn’t know as much as he would have if he had remained at the Jedi temple for the usual duration, but enough, perhaps, to get by. He spent most of his study time covering those things which his studies had not touched upon, and by the time of the examination he was feeling moderately confident.

The morning of Aronoke’s test finally arrived. He awoke trying to feel ready for anything, but could only sense that something was wrong. He looked about the room in confusion and realised that Ashquash was not in her bed. That was unusual. Ashquash did not like to get up early in the morning. She got up as late as possible, when the chime for breakfast went.

“Do you know where Ashquash is?” he asked Draken who was outside in the common room.

“No,” Draken said. “But Razzak Mintula went away somewhere in the middle of the night because of it.”

That, of course, didn’t help at all.  Aronoke felt sick, thinking about something having happened to Ashquash.  Something terrible, and he hadn’t noticed at all.  Could she have been drugged again?

What should he do?

“Razzak Mintula said you weren’t to worry, on account of you having to do your test,” said Draken, as if he knew exactly what Aronoke was thinking.

“How can I possibly do that?” said Aronoke, his voice sounding higher pitched than usual, even to himself.

Before he could convince himself that it was not a good idea, Aronoke let his habitual control over his senses drop away, opening himself up to the Force and sending his mind out looking for Ashquash. Out to the extents of the Jedi Temple, out to test the limits of the great shield that both protected the Temple from outside influences and prevented him from seeing beyond. No, Ashquash was not inside the temple – he was immediately sure of that.  But wait…no, she was there, not inside exactly, but clinging to the very edge, her tiny Force-presence blurred by the influence of the great shield.  Aronoke had a sudden impression of Ashquash perched up somewhere very high indeed, clinging tenaciously to a narrow ledge.  She was frightened and dizzy, and something was blurring her perception in a horrible nauseating way.

Aronoke was dimly aware of Draken saying something, of Draken clutching at his sleeve and shaking his arm.

“Aronoke?  What are you doing?”

“I have to help Ashquash!” said Aronoke, ignoring Draken’s increasingly frenzied questions.  He snatched himself free of Draken’s grasp. He ran off through the door of Clan Herf’s rooms into the hall outside.

“Aronoke!” cried Draken, and ran after him.

The next day, a message was waiting for Aronoke on the group viewscreen telling him to report to the Jedi Council immediately after breakfast.

“Why do you have to report, Aronoke, and not the rest of us?” asked Yeldra, crinkling up her little face thoughtfully.

“I don’t know,” said Aronoke.

“It’s probably because Ashquash is Aronoke’s room-mate,” said Razzak Mintula, coming into the clan room just then.  “The Council probably wants to ask Aronoke a few more questions about what happened to her. Do you know how to get to the meeting room, Aronoke?”

“Yes, Instructor.”

“Good.  Make sure you are not late.  You should probably leave as soon as you have tidied yourself.”  Razzak Mintula’s gaze lingered on Aronoke’s crumpled robe and unbrushed hair.

“Yes, Instructor,” said Aronoke, relieved that she hadn’t ordered him to shower.  He hurried off to put on fresh robes and make himself presentable.

It was not difficult to find his way across the Jedi temple.  Now he could read, the signs were much more helpful. The meeting room was in the most formal section of the Jedi temple where initiates did not usually go.  The hallways were grander, the decorations more looming and impressive.  People spoke in hushed tones unless they were very important people indeed.

Aronoke was relieved to find that the meeting room was not an immense council chamber like the one he had entered with Master Altus upon his arrival at the Jedi temple.  It was relatively small in comparison, although still much larger and grander than anything in the primary training centre.

“Ah, Initiate Aronoke,” said Master An-ku when Aronoke peered around the edge of the open door, debating whether or not he should go directly inside or wait to be fetched.  “Come inside and close the door.”

Aronoke obediently did so, and went to stand in front of the three Jedi Masters, who were seated on curved single-legged chairs on one side of the chamber.  Apart from Master An-ku, the togrutan master he remembered from his arrival, there was a green-skinned duros and a broad-shouldered, dark-skinned human man accompanied by a protocol droid.  “These are Masters Kordu-molh and Rosfantar,” Master An-ku said, and Aronoke bowed politely to all of them, like he had been taught.

“The council wishes to know more about the unusal events that have occurred to you since you entered the Jedi Temple, Initiate,” said Master An-ku smoothly after Aronoke had made his bow. She looked very tall, serene and somewhat fiercer than Aronoke had remembered.

“I told Master Altus and Master Insa-tolsa everything there was to tell, Master An-ku,” said Aronoke uncertainly.  “I don’t know if I can add anything to what I said then.”

“Nevertheless, I would like you to repeat your story,” said Master An-ku.  “Master Insa-tolsa has reported that these events are upsetting to the initiates in your clan and have proved disruptive to your training.”

Aronoke nodded, and obediently began outlining all the events that Master Altus would have labelled unusual.

“Most preposterous!” huffed Master Kordu-molh indignantly, when Aronoke had finished. “It is ridiculous that our training centre can be plagued by such interruptions!  The education of our younglings is a serious matter and any interruption to their routine can only be viewed to be of extreme detriment!  How can they learn proper meditative techniques and to perfect their control under such conditions?”

Aronoke suspected that Draken would put Master Kordu-molh into his category of people who never had any fun at all.

“It is true that these incidents should be given serious consideration,” said Master Rosfantar.  His voice was deep and melodious and echoed around the chamber.  “It is important that no one should influence our initiates so early in their training. But we must remember, Master Kordu-molh, that we are educating Jedi who will one day be mostly sent out into the field, where interruptions and incidents are something they will have to learn to cope with.”

“Coping with such things is beyond the scope of primary students -” said Master Kordu-molh, but subsided as Master An-ku held up her slender hand.

“We can debate this matter later,” said Master An-ku. “There are a few other questions I would like to pose to Initiate Aronoke first, before he returns to his studies.”

“Of course,” said Master Rosfantar. “Please, continue.”

“Initiate Aronoke, Master Altus has reported upon the conditions under which he encountered you on the planet Kasthir, and has detailed his reasons for bringing you to the Jedi Temple as a candidate.  Your candidature has been accepted and is beyond reproach.  Is there anything in your past to suggest why you in particular should be made the target of these attacks?”

“I don’t think so,” said Aronoke uncomfortably. There was, of course, the map on his back. Had Master Altus told the Jedi Council about that?  Aronoke assumed that he had, back when Aronoke had been too scared to be examined by the medical droid, but on the other hand, Master Altus had suggested it was safer to keep the map secret.  Before Aronoke could decide whether he should tell the Council about the map or not, Master An-ku was prompting him with more questions.

“It says in Master Altus’s report that you are an orphan with no known relatives.  Do you know anything about who your family were?” asked Master An-ku.

“No,” said Aronoke.

“You were born on Kasthir?”

“I don’t think so,” said Aronoke again.  “I was brought there when I was very young, by a Twi’lek whom I called Uncle Remo.  I don’t remember anything about where we came from.”

“And on Kasthir?  You worked in the service of a crimelord called Careful Kras, who controlled a sizeable amount of territory out in the wilderness?”

“He didn’t like me,” said Aronoke softly, remembering Careful Kras.  “He… had me taken from the Grinder and brought back to Bunkertown.  He punished me…sometimes… for… for being… different.”

“Different?” asked Master An-ku.

“There is no reason to suspect that this Careful Kras would have any influence here on Coruscant,” interjected Master Rosfantar.  “A crimelord from the desolate reaches of a backwater planet like Kasthir would certainly not have the contacts or resources to operate here.”

“Besides which,” added Master Kordu-molh, “some of these events suggest that whoever wishes to manipulate Initiate Aronoke has power in the Force, suggesting that it is a Jedi Master who is responsible.”

“Yes, those are both valid points,” said Master An-ku.  “I think we have taken up enough of your time, Aronoke.  You may return to your studies.”

“Yes, Master An-ku,” said Aronoke, bowing politely.  He was relieved that he hadn’t had to tell them about the thing on his back, although at the same time he felt guilty.  Like he was hiding the truth from people who needed it to help him. Still, he had told Master Altus about the markings on his back.  Surely that was enough.

 

Ashquash returned the very same day, and when she arrived, she looked at Aronoke sitting on his bed in their shared room for a long moment, saying nothing. To Aronoke it was obvious that she was pleased, although she did not smile.

“I’m sorry for nearly drowning you, Aronoke,” she said gruffly.

“That’s alright,” said Aronoke. “Perhaps you were right, that merely looking at the water was not enough, but I had to try something. Didn’t want to give up.”

Instead of Ashquash going and sitting on her own bed, she came over and sat next to him, something she had not done before. Aronoke was not certain how he felt about it.

“I’m sorry I went away,” he said awkwardly. “I didn’t mean for you to feel that we weren’t friends any more. I just didn’t want you or the others to be hurt.”

He was suddenly aware that Ashquash was a girl, despite all his previous self-conditioning to not think of her that way. There was something in how Ashquash held herself that made him think she would not resist at all if he put his arms about her and gave her a reassuring, but most un-Jedi-like, hug. It was not something he had ever done to anyone before. Knew it was not allowed.

“It’s all right now,” she said shyly.

He could see a look in her eyes that was not at all appropriate.

Oh, Aronoke thought stupidly. She likes me. In that sort of a way. No wonder she pushed me in the water.

Argh.

“Shall we go and see if Draken wants to come and spar?” he said too quickly, standing up.

“Yes, lets,” agreed Ashquash, and the moment was broken.

 

Months rolled by, incident free, and Aronoke began to think that whoever had been trying to influence him had been scared off by the Jedi Council’s investigation.  There was plenty to keep him occupied; more and more he was being encouraged to read ahead and around the material in the lessons that Clan Herf studied. He seemed to make great advances in all things. It was like he was blossoming into himself.

“You’re growing up so fast, Aronoke,” Razzak Mintula said one day and he found himself feeling miffed instead of fearful and reluctant about the future. Surely he was quite grown up already!  His rapid escalation towards maturity meant that he had grown taller and had filled out substantially.  When he looked in the mirror in the clan bathroom he no longer saw an uncertain boy, but a shyly smiling young man.  He looked taller. Rangier. New robes had arrived for him at regular intervals, but still the clothing struggled to keep up with the changes in the proportions of his limbs. He had perhaps not reached his full growth yet, but he already looked down on most fully grown humans. His chest had broadened too and he felt stronger and more capable.

Ever since Ashquash had returned, Aronoke had to struggle with temptation more regularly. The current between them was often palpable, and although Ashquash never said anything, never referred to it, never did anything inappropriate, Aronoke knew that any move he made would be completely reciprocated. It was lucky that he had never been especially attracted to Ashquash, or resisting might have been completely impossible.  Aronoke always made sure that he kept a careful distance.  After all, he had once promised that he was Ashquash’s friend, that he would never think of her as a girl.  When he began to feel that current working between them, he was careful to make himself absent. It was easier to go off to the meditation rooms, or to suggest a group activity that included Draken or the little kids.

Luckily, with each passing month, Ashquash also seemed to grow smaller and more childish. Soon Aronoke could think of her as something like a kid-sister. Someone with a hopeless crush on him, who was too young to take seriously.  Someone who it was easier to treat like a friend.

Master Insa-tolsa’s excursions started during this time, and they were more fun than Aronoke had hoped. Aronoke, Draken and Ashquash were the ones who went, and they were accompanied by the ithorian master, and his colleague, Master Parothis. The excursions visited a variety of locations about Coruscant. The first one was to a meditation garden. Draken had been disappointed when he found out where they were going, thinking that it would be very dull, but when they got there, Master Insa-tolsa suggested that he and Master Parothis take a leisurely stroll together while the initiates explored together. It was nice to be out in the sunshine, even if Aronoke could see the faint curve of the dome high above them. It was nice to be left to their own devices, out from under the watchful eye of the Masters. He was well aware that were still being supervised from afar, and also that the Jedi were shielding him from the full impact of the Force so that he should not be overwhelmed.

The garden had an odd effect on him. Despite the familiar reluctance to take off his robes, he had the sudden urge to strip buff naked and lay on the grass in the sun. He did not do any such thing, of course, but the urge was there and it was most peculiar.

The other excursions visited different locales.  They explored a great emporium in the Bezdrilian sector. It was a huge market, a three dimensional maze of little clothing stores, and the initiates were accompanied to one of the booths which Master Insa-tolsa claimed made very good quality robes to measure. They were all measured for new robes by the spindly arconens that worked inside.

The third expedition was to a biological gardens. Draken was very excited by that trip. Aronoke had to admit that looking at all the different kinds of creatures was exciting. It was even more interesting to see the habitat-spheres that the creatures were presented in. It was like looking at tiny samples of many different planets.

The fourth expedition was to the spaceport. Aronoke was less interested in this because he had seen it before on his arrival with Master Altus.

He was fourteen in standard galactic years now, and had been at the Jedi temple a little more than two years.  He knew now that it was more his home than Kasthir had ever been. Felt a completely different person from the boy who had arrived there.

It was during this time too that he was called in one day to speak to Master Insa-tolsa, down in the main courtyard.

“Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa gravely. “I have some bad news. Please, sit down.”

“Yes, Master?” said Aronoke, seating himself on a bench. He knew at once that it had to be something to do with Master Altus and Hespenara. They had been away for so long now, without any news.

He hoped the investigation of the map on his back had not led Master Altus into trouble.

“We have received news that a Jedi frozen in carbonite has been advertised to be auctioned by a crime lord on Kath’lor,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “The Jedi in question matches Hespenara’s description.”

“Oh no,” said Aronoke, shocked. “That’s terrible.”

“Obviously something must have prevented Master Altus from interfering, as he would not easily allow something of this nature to befall his Padawan,” said Master Insa-tolsa gravely.

Aronoked nodded, feeling sick. What could possibly be powerful enough to strike down someone as strong as Master Altus? And poor Hespenara…

“The Jedi Order will of course do all it can to retrieve the Jedi in carbonite before she can be auctioned, and to try and find out what has become of Master Altus,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “We must trust in the Force that these things can and will be achieved.”

“Yes, Master Insa-tolsa,” said Aronoke mechanically. His mind felt numb and confused and he went through his lessons distractedly the next few days. He hoped that news of Master Altus and Hespenara would arrive soon, but it was weeks coming, and when it came, none of it was good. The Jedi Order’s efforts to prevent the auction had failed and Hespenara had been sold, it was thought, to someone in the Primtara sector. Master Skeirim, amongst others, had been sent to investigate. None of the attempts to locate Master Altus had been successful.

Aronoke did his best to maintain a jedi-like attitude about Master Altus’s disappeareance, but he found it difficult. He burned with the need to do something, although there did not seem there was anything that he could do. Surely a fully trained Jedi like Master Skeirim was far more likely to achieve results than an initiate only in the third year of his training.  The matter was already in capable hands and Aronoke knew exactly what Master Altus himself would say he should do.  He must continue his training as if nothing had happened and not worry pointlessly about his missing mentor.

That was something Aronoke was not capable of doing.  Even though he threw himself into his lessons with dogged vigour, he found himself worrying about Master Altus and Hespenara all the time.  Thoughts of them crept in to disturb his meditation and sometimes prevented him from sleeping.  Something had gone wrong and Aronoke suspected that it had something to do with him.  He often felt if he could just reach out through the Force, unobstructed by the great shields that protected the Jedi Temple, he would be able to find the missing Jedi Master and his padawan.

It was no use to discuss these thoughts with Master Insa-tolsa.  Aronoke was well acquainted enough with Jedi ways to know that the Master would only repeat what he knew himself.  That he should continue his lessons and leave rescue attempts in more competent hands.

Meanwhile, the excursions to interesting places on Coruscant continued, although Aronoke found it difficult to relax and enjoy them.  They visited the senate plaza to see the great building where the galactic senate sat. It was a popular destination for tourist groups visiting Coruscant from across the galaxy, and Aronoke and his colleagues were stared at a good deal by the other tour-groups who had come to see the sights.  It was like the Jedi were part of the attraction instead of visitors themselves.

The sixth excursion was back to the Bezdrilian sector for more new robes. This time the initiates were directed to locate the tailor shop and order new robes by themselves. Aronoke was glad – his arms were already outgrowing his current sleeves by a few inches.  Afterwards, they were allowed to explore the shopping complex further.

While Aronoke was waiting for Draken and Ashquash to come out of a shop, he noticed a droid was watching him.  As soon as it saw he had noticed, it began trying to get his attention. Its limbs waved exaggeratedly, making what it obviously thought were covert gestures. Aronoke studiously ignored it. Chances were this was another unusual incident, and he didn’t want any strange messages from his supposed friend. The droid was insistent however. When Aronoke did not move, it reached inside one of its compartments and produced a cylindrical device. Waiting until there was a space in the crowd, it rolled the device across the floor so that it fetched up against Aronoke’s foot.

Why do these things always happen to me, Aronoke thought.  Now what am I going to do?

He didn’t want to kick the cylinder away across the floor in case it hurt someone. Remembering how the previous message-droid had exploded, he wouldn’t put it past his mysterious assailant to do such a thing. Instead, sighing, he picked it up and looked at it. The droid seemed satisfied with this and scuttled off into the crowd. The cylinder seemed to be a message device. Aronoke did not want to activate it in such a public place – again, it might be dangerous. Instead he dropped it into the pocket of his robes.

As soon as they had returned to the Jedi temple, he brought it over to Master Insa-tolsa.  They had just dismounted from the speeder, and the other Jedi in their party were standing a short distance away.

“Master Insa-tolsa,” he said, “There was a droid watching me while we were off by ourselves.”

“A droid?” said Master Insa-tolsa. “As happened to you before? Did it give you a message?”

“Well, perhaps,” said Aronoke. “It gave me this.” He took the cylinder out of his pocket and passed it to Master Insa-tolsa. “I didn’t look at it,” he began to say, but as he did so, the cylinder began flashing with a red light.

It was a good thing, Aronoke thought later, that Master Insa-tolsa had the foresight to act so quickly. Aronoke was still thinking stupidly that the flashing light didn’t bode anything good, when the cylinder was suddenly whisked some distance away, where it exploded violently. It raged brutally for a moment, a great ball of surging energy spectacularly contained by an invisible spherical shield, and then slowly died away. Aronoke could hear the astounded gasps of Draken and Ashquash from where they waited for him to finish speaking to Master Insa-tolsa, a short distance away.

“I wondered if something like that might happen,” said Aronoke, stunned.

Master Insa-tolsa also looked shaken. “If I did not know you so well, Aronoke,” he said wryly, “I might suspect you of playing pranks.”

It was a gentle admonishment. He had just saved all their lives, Aronoke thought belatedly. He had suspected the cylinder might blow up, although he had not imagined it happening so violently. He had trusted that Master Insa-tolsa would deal with it without thinking about the possible consequences – his faith in the big ithorian had solidified that much during their association.

“I’m sorry, Master,” said Aronoke contritely, making an apologetic bow of respect. “I did not think. I would not do something like that as a joke.”

“It is insufferable that these attacks continue unabated,” said Master Insa-tolsa, and then to Master Parothis and the other acolytes who were coming over: “There is no need for concern. Everything is fine. Initiates, you may go back to your clan quarters now.”

“What was that?” asked Draken, wide-eyed and excited as they made their way down the lift.

“It was a message cylinder a droid gave to me while we were in the bazaar,” said Aronoke.

“A droid? What droid?”

“You were in the shops.”

“What did the message say?” asked Ashquash. It was good perhaps, thought Aronoke, that she had seen what had happened. Proof that what he had told her was true.

“I don’t know. I didn’t look at it. Thought it was best to give it to Master Insa-tolsa without looking, and then it blew up.”

“That was sure something though,” said Draken. “The way it all raged and seethed, and how Master Insa-tolsa held it back like that! I’m glad that I saw that. It was amazing!”

“It’s probably best not to talk about it too much,” said Aronoke gently. Draken was still so young in his ways, it was difficult to remember that they were about the same chronological age. He wistfully thought that it would be more fun to be like Draken, without the weight of mysterious problems. If Aronoke had not been growing up so rapidly all the time, he would have spent a great deal more time getting into trouble with Draken, he suspected. “It’s better that the little kids don’t know.”

“Oh of course,” said Draken. “I won’t go blabbing the whole story in front of the little kids. Why would I go and do a thing like that?”

This from Draken who was the primary source of gossip, not only within their clan, but probably amongst many of the surrounding clans as well.

Aronoke and Ashquash both looked at him and Aronoke laughed.

“What?” asked Draken looking bewildered and holding his hands up questioningly.

 

The weeks fled by, and there was still no good news about Master Altus and Hespenara. Being frozen in carbonite was dangerous if it was not done properly, Aronoke knew, but Hespenara would not be aware of the passing of time. She would be in no pain or torment as long as she had not been released. Aronoke did not know why someone might want a live Jedi to experiment on, but he was certain such projects existed, and he hoped that Hespenara had not fallen into the hands of one of them.

Perhaps an experiment like that was what he himself had been created for.

As time went on, with no good news forthcoming, Aronoke grew more and more impatient. It seemed that the Jedi Council was useless, despite all their amazing powers. Were they too couched in caution to achieve anything? He felt strongly that Master Altus was still alive and was even more certain that he would know at once if the green man were dead.

 

“Master Insa-tolsa?” asked Aronoke one day.  “It seems I have been learning a great deal about the Force, and yet every time we go out on our excursions, you and Master Parothis still shield me from it.  Do you think I might go unshielded?”

“Are you sure you are ready?” asked Master Insa-tolsa thoughtfully. “It is for your own protection that you are shielded. Full exposure to the Force can be risky for one with your unusual balance of powers. From your lessons, I know that your control is progressing well, but your sense abilities continue to advance apace.”

“I can’t be certain, of course, Master,” said Aronoke. “But I feel I will be alright. I want to learn. I want to know what it is like. I will not learn to control myself if I do not try.”

“Hm, well, you have practiced hard, it is true,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “On our next expedition you may attempt to go unshielded.”

Their next expedition was to the water purification subsystems on the lower levels of Coruscant. At one time Aronoke would have been worried about all that water. He was still disturbed by it, seeing it lying in great sweltering pools and thundering by in torrential cataracts, but being exposed to the full strength of the Force was a new experience for him. It demanded a lot of his attention. Coming out of the temple had not been as shocking as that first time. He had been expecting the sudden great cacophony of the Force thundering through the great city. His attempts to dull its impact resulted in the construction of his own personal shield to counteract it.

It was not so difficult, but it did require a certain degree of concentration, and so, for the first part of the excursion, Aronoke was happy to wander along with his group mates. To stare in fascinated horror at the vast pools of water and listen to the explanations the tour droids gave of the processes involved in filtering it. Here at last was how Coruscant maintained its water supply to provide for all its billions of people, but Aronoke found it hard to pay attention. He felt curiously divorced from what was happening around him, partly absorbed in the new task of shielding himself, while another part of his mind was thinking about how he was going to achieve his secret goal, to look for Master Altus. Great columns of water thundered down around them, although never so close that they got wet by the spray, yet Aronoke found himself hardly thinking about them at all. He would once have been terrified by such a thing.

Distraction was a powerful tool.

Aronke waited until Master Insa-tolsa and Master Parothis fell deep into conversation together, as they were often wont to do. They stood debating some distance away. Draken and Ashquash were over by the railing, looking down at a great suction pool that lay below. Aronoke took advantage of the moment and went to sit upon a handy bench against one wall

He calmed his mind by means of a simple meditative exercise and carefully let his shields fall away.

He had tried once before to reach out through the Force to find something. It had been a minor thing, a missing datapad left behind on one of their excursions, but he had been unable to reach past the great protective barrier that encircled the Jedi Temple.

Now there was no barrier. The Force was like a great living network that reached everywhere, even between the worlds of the galaxy. Everything was interconnected. Distance was nothing. Aronoke reached out towards Master Altus, knowing that he was out there somewhere, knowing he was not dead and seeking some confirmation of it. Wanting to know where he was.

What came was no more than a fleeting glimpse. Master Altus was in a dark place, alone and in pain, but still very much himself. He shielded himself against the forces that beset him. He was obviously a prisoner, but he was still alive.

Aronoke had no time to tell anything of where Master Altus was. Like a piece of stretchy rubber he had reached his limits of expansion and was suddenly snapped back into himself in a painful oscillating way.  He felt too loosely anchored afterwards, like his mind had been overstretched and was unable to contract fully. He sat a few minutes, feeling dizzy but relieved. Master Altus was alive, although he was being held prisoner somewhere.

Everything felt strange and disjointed.  The world was too bright and strangely too wide and not high enough.  It reverberated around him, and Aronoke forced himself to sit still and focus on a meditative exercise.  It did not seem as effective as usual and he felt if he moved too quickly he would lose control of his body and start to shake like a leaf.

“Are you okay, Aronoke?” asked Draken, coming over. “You look a bit sick. Is it all the water?”

“I’m okay,” said Aronoke, climbing to his feet and following the others back over to the masters, hoping he didn’t look too peculiar. Merely thinking that was too much. His hands began to tremble uncontrollably as they made their way over to rejoin the tour.

Master Insa-tolsa must have noticed Aronoke looking strained. Suddenly the Master’s shield snapped around Aronoke, blocking out the vast bulk of the Force. Aronoke felt more secure. He was happy to remain quietly near Master Insa-tolsa for the rest of the trip, although his mind was anything but still.  He was so very grateful that Master Altus was not dead or horribly changed.

He knew that keeping this information to himself was the smart thing to do. He might get in trouble for having attempted to see Master Altus.  Master Insa-tolsa would certainly not be pleased.

But he didn’t care if he got in trouble. That was of no importance whatsoever.  If what he had seen was even of the smallest assistance in locating Master Altus, it would be worth it.

“Master Insa-tolsa, can I speak with you a moment, before we go back?” asked Aronoke when their speeder arrived at the temple.

“Yes, of course,” said the ithorian. “Although I hope it is not a surprise like last time. Draken and Ashquash, you can go ahead back to your clan rooms. There is no need for you to wait.”

Draken and Ashquash were curious, Aronoke could see, but made no protest, making their bows, and thanking Master Insa-tolsa for taking them out.

“I saw Master Altus,” said Aronoke, once the others had gone. “I could sense him through the Force. I could not see where he was, but I could tell that he was alive. He seemed to be a prisoner, and was in some pain, but he was still alive and still himself.”

Master Insa-tolsa paused a moment, an unreadably alien expression crossing his face. “That is good news,” he said at last. “I am relieved to hear that Master Altus is alive, but you have been very foolish Aronoke. To attempt to seek him out in this way is a task that experienced Masters would hesitate attempting. Your training is very far from complete and you risk yourself greatly by attempting such a thing.”

“I’m sorry, Master,” said Aronoke, but he was not. He was entirely unrepentant. “But I would not be here at all if it were not for Master Altus. I might be something else entirely, or probably dead. If I can do anything to help him, then any risk to myself is unimportant.”

“If you risk yourself heedlessly now, untrained and impatient, Initiate,” said Master Insa-tolsa sternly, “then you may well not be here later, when your skills really are needed. You might rob us of a resource that might help many people. Or even worse, corrupt that potential good into something that could do us harm. Master Altus himself would advise you to refrain from taking such risks on his behalf. Although I am relieved that he is still alive and will see that this information is passed on to those investigating his whereabouts, I am disappointed that you would do a thing like this during one of our excursions. I trust you to behave in a proper manner while in public and to be a good example for Ashquash and Draken. I took your request to go unshielded in good faith, yet you have purposefully manufactured this opportunity for your own purposes.”

“I am sorry for that, Master,” said Aronoke, more contritely. “It was not my intention to deceive you or to be disobedient. You are right. I did not consider that aspect of my actions. I have always felt that Master Altus was still alive. I felt I could contact him if only I tried, and it is difficult not to try when no one has made any great progress towards finding him and Hespenara.”

“You must be patient and trust in the Force,” said the ithorian. “All things happen in their own time.” And he went on to recite several platitudes that emphasized this point and required Aronoke to contemplate them at length, as a penance.

Aronoke did this, but he was still unable to regret trying to find Master Altus. The fact that the green man was still alive was a comfort to him during all the days that followed.

 

One evening, Aronoke was called to the library by Master Insa-tolsa. They had not met there before, but Aronoke thought little of it, because they often met in different places. When he arrived, it turned out to be a meeting room, set out with chairs and tables, with a reference library of datacrystals stored along the walls.

“Initiate Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa, more formal than usual. “There is someone here whom I would like you to meet.” He gestured across the room, and Aronoke’s gaze followed the motion to settle upon the woman who stood there.

She was a chiss. A tall, stern looking chiss with silver hair, almost as tall as he was. He found it strange to look into her glowing red eyes, so much like his own in the mirror.

“This is Master Bel’dor’ruch,” said Master Insa-tolsa.

Aronoke had been told once about Master Bel’dor’ruch, the chiss Jedi who had come through the Jedi Temple a quarter of a century before he had started his training. He had been told he might consider her a good example of what he might achieve. He had expected that one day he might meet her, due to their shared race, but had not expected it to be as soon as this. Speechless for a moment, he realised he was staring at her, and attempted to hide his confusion by making an awkward polite bow under her flashing red gaze.

“Initiate Aronoke,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch. “You have nearly reached your full growth.”

Aronoke wondered how she could tell how fully grown he was, just by looking at him.

“Yes, Master,” he forced himself to say. He felt returned to his old monosyllabic insecurity, she was so very stern and frightening. Her direct manner seemed impossible to avoid, while her voice was hard and demanding, indicating that she would brook no nonsense.

“How long have you been here at the Jedi temple, Aronoke?”

“Something over two years, Master,” said Aronoke.

“I have heard about these incidents that have plagued you,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch. “I find it an affront to our shared species that the only other chiss to train to be a Jedi in my lifetime should have his training botched in this way. It is hard to believe that such a matter has not been effectively dealt with by the Jedi Masters after all this time.” She gave Master Insa-tolsa a scathing look, as if he were personally responsible for these failings, but did not give him time to reply.

“The question that I find myself asking,” she continued, pacing back and forth, “is why you have attracted this unwanted attention. It seems unlikely that it is due to your race alone, although I suppose it is possible. Your records show that you are a dedicated student, but certainly no more talented than many others. Many students are different in one regard or another – merely being unusual does not seem enough reason for you to warrant such unusual attention.”

She regarded Aronoke with her piercing red eyes.

“Your Master Altus recorded in his report that you were being provoked. His words indicate that he recognised that there was a reason for this happening and did not question that it was valid, but he did not see fit to record exactly what it might be.”

Aronoke could feel the heat rising in his face, a side-effect of the old shame and fear that were rising unbidden inside him, when he realised where this conversation was leading.

“Now Master Altus has disappeared as well,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch pointedly. “He has obviously met with a disaster great enough to overwhelm even one of his power and experience. I can’t help but think that these things are potentially related.”

She stopped still, fixing Aronoke with her stare and let him stand there a moment, sweating and trapped by his own ancient terror. He forced himself to focus, to bring his fear under control.  He swallowed uncomfortably.

“Is there any reason you know of, Initiate, which you revealed to Master Altus, which might explain why you might be singled out in this way?”

“There is one thing, Master,” said Aronoke reluctantly. “There is not really any explaining it. I can only show you.”

“Then show us,” demanded Master Bel’dor’ruch. She waited expectantly, willing to accept no delays.

Aronoke made a small bow of acquiescence. His heart thudded in his chest despite his effort to maintain control and he felt hot, heavy and sick, like he had been struck down with a sudden fever.  With fumbling hands that felt swollen and slow, he took off his outer robe and hung it on a chair. Nausea washed over him in waves as he unfastened his shirt with fingers that shook slightly.  He felt helpless as a child again, naked, tied face-down on a rack, bound to his fate, as he took the shirt off.

You are not there, he told himself firmly, hanging the shirt over the robe. This is not Crazy Kras. That will not happen here.

And then he turned around.

They came forward to peer at him, turning up the lights to see better.

“And Master Altus knew about this?” asked Bel’dor’ruch.

“He took a picture of it,” said Aronoke unsteadily. “Recorded it on his datapad. He was investigating it here at the temple, but found little. Said there was a lead he might investigate while he was away.”

“And now he has disappeared,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch thoughtfully. “You can get dressed, Initiate.”

Aronoke hastened to put his shirt and robe back on while she continued speaking.

“A detailed record should be made of those markings. We must try to replicate Master Altus’s research, so we might find out what this lead was. It might give us some insight into where he went.”

Without further deliberation she turned to Master Insa-tolsa.

“Why is he still an initiate here in the temple?” she said, speaking as if Aronoke was not there. “He is obviously almost fully grown. Both you and I know, Master Insa-tolsa, that the role of Initiate is an artificial one, brought into existence to keep young Force-sensitives out of trouble until they are fully grown and a Master can be found to mentor them. It is only in recent decades that they are kept here as late as they are, shipped in batches like livestock to Ilum because there are so many it is the only way to deal effectively with them all. They used to be sent out much sooner, and certainly have been sent out with less training in times of war. He is young by today’s standards, it is true, but we chiss are not like humans, are nothing like humans in this regard. There is also his unusual background to consider. He was already performing in an adult’s role before he was inducted, according to Master Altus’s reports. He would never have been allowed to train at all, if not for Master Altus’s sponsorship. He is far too old. He should be given his trials and made a Padawan, placed out in the field where these harassments will be more easily avoided. It is the obvious solution.”

“But he is not ready for such pressures,” objected Master Insa-tolsa. “Aronoke has only been with us for a short time and although it is true that he has learned very quickly, there is still much that he does not know. Surely his unusual background means there is more reason, rather than less, that he requires time to complete his training.”

“Much that a Master can easily teach him out in the field, as it is meant to be. Don’t you agree, Master Insa-tolsa, that it was from your Master that you learned all the most important aspects of your training? Not as an initiate wasting time in the temple?”

Aronoke thought Master Insa-tolsa did not like the temple labelled as a waste of time, but the ithorian said nothing of this.

“You do make some valid points, Master Bel’dor’ruch,” he said stiffly. “In regard to the harassments.”

“What about you?” said Master Bel’dor’ruch suddenly, turning back to Aronoke. “Do you feel ready to go out to train with a Master in the field?”

“I…I don’t know, Master,” said Aronoke uncertainly. Part of him leapt at such an idea – to be out doing instead of practicing, to be able to make some difference in the world. To learn new things through experience rather than carefully considered repetition. But part of him did not want that responsibility. He liked having a safe place here in the temple, with people who could help him. The incidents were difficult and annoying, it was true, but they were nothing compared to the difficulties he had faced before he had come here. Those were the only two types of existence that he had known.

“I feel there is still much I have to learn here,” he said. “But I also feel it would be safer for my clan mates if I was not here, because then they could not be targeted by these attempts to get at me.”

Master Bel’dor’ruch was not satisfied with this hovering.

“Let me put it another way,” she said. “If you were given the opportunity to attempt the test to become a Padawan, would you be willing to do so?”

She made it sound like a challenge.

“Of course, Master,” said Aronoke immediately.

“Well then,” she said, turning back to Master Insa-tolsa and shrugging. “Let it be so. I don’t believe there is anything else we need to discuss that requires your presence, Initiate. I will contact you later as I would speak with you further about these incidents and those things that we have in common. You are dismissed.”

“You look rather shaken,” said Draken, when Aronoke got back to the clan rooms. “Did something strange happen to you again? More exploding messages?”

“No,” said Aronoke. “I had to go and see Master Bel’dor’ruch and she is scary.”

“Oh,” said Draken, a little sympathetically. Aronoke refrained from telling him more about the meeting. He didn’t tell Draken that he had met another chiss. He felt like Master Bel’dor’ruch had taken his world, firmly shaken it and then set it back in place upside-down. He had finally met someone of his own race and she was not at all like anything he had expected. She had ruthlessly extracted his secret in just a few minutes. Then she had abruptly decided that he should be taken from the temple and sent out into the galaxy. He did not know how to explain these things to Draken and thought perhaps it was best not to.

Everything would be revealed in time, regardless.

Aronoke was left by himself with a deluge of disturbing thoughts to contend with. How could Ashquash be drugged? How could anyone do such a thing to her, here in the middle of the Jedi temple? Why would anyone want to?

And then the truth hit him. It was a punishment. Not a punishment for Ashquash, most likely, but a punishment for him. He had reported the strange message, reported all the odd things on his datapad. Ashquash was his friend and had been attacked in order to convince him that this was not a good idea.

He slept little for the rest of the night; would have liked to go running, but knew that was not wise. That Razzak Mintula would not have liked him to go alone, not just then. So he meditated instead. After a long time he was able to calm his thoughts enough to fall asleep.

He awoke quite late the next morning, but Ashquash was still not there. Razzak Mintula was not there either. Mintaka, the instructor who sometimes stood in for her was there instead.

“Razzak Mintula will not be here today,” Mintaka announced at the start of their first lesson. “She was up very late tending to Ashquash, who is sick. Ashquash has been taken to the medical bay, and she is fine, but she will not be back for a few days.”

Aronoke could feel the weight of Draken’s eyes and knew that Draken wanted to ask him all sorts of questions, but he refused to meet the other boy’s eye and firmly concentrated on his lessons.

“What happened to Ashquash?” Draken asked as soon as they went off to the refectory for the midday meal. “She seemed fine yesterday.”

“I don’t know,” said Aronoke. “She woke me up in the middle of the night, and Razzak Mintula took her to the sick bay. That’s all.”

“Oh.”

Aronoke did not want to tell Draken about Ashquash being drugged.  Draken was his friend, but inclined to gossip with people from other clans.  Aronoke thought that if he were Ashquash, he would feel ashamed and wouldn’t want the real story spread about.

But a few days later it became apparent to everyone that there was more to the story than merely Ashquash falling ill.  Razzak Mintula was back by then and had reassured Aronoke that Ashquash was fine and was being decontaminated. Aronoke sensed that she was angry that something like this could happen to a student in her care.  He felt the same sort of powerlessness himself.

“Today our schedule will be a little different from usual,” said Razzak Mintula as they gathered in the clan room after breakfast. “We will be having our first session in here today, so it will almost be like a kind of holiday. An investigator will be coming to ask some questions about Ashquash. He will want to know if you noticed anything the day before she was sick, because there is some concern that it might have been done on purpose.”

“On purpose?” asked Draken, his voice rising in his surprise. “Ashquash was poisoned?”

“That’s bad,” said Andraia, one of the smaller humans. “I don’t want to be poisoned!”

“It is bad,” said Razzak Mintula. “But you don’t need to worry. There is no reason to think that any of you will be poisoned, but you must be sure to answer the investigator’s questions carefully.”

“Yes, Instructor Mintula.”

When the investigator arrived, he was a man who looked largely human except for his skin, which was marked like that of a spotted cathar.  He was accompanied by four droids and Aronoke wondered why he needed so many of them.

“This is Investigator Rythis,” said Razzak Mintula to Clan Herf, who sat cross-legged on the floor.  “He has set up his office in our usual classroom, and will want to ask you all some questions, as we have previously discussed.”  Even while she spoke, three of the droids began cruising about Clan Herf’s rooms, scanning everything.

The investigator was a dour looking man for a Jedi, Aronoke thought.  Either he was of a naturally sombre disposition, or he was not pleased at having to interview a bunch of initiates.  Perhaps though, to be fair, thought Aronoke, the Investigator judged the situation was serious enough to warrant such an attitude.

“This is a serious matter,” said the Investigator sternly. “I intend to determine how your clan-mate Ashquash was drugged, so we can find out who is ultimately responsible. I will take you one at a time to ask you questions. I want to know if you noticed anything unusual about Ashquash or anything else, so you should think about that while you are waiting for your turn.”

The way he spoke was very intimidating, and Aronoke noticed several of the smaller clan members edging closer to their fellows.

“Which one of you is Initiate Aronoke?” asked the Investigator.  “I would like to speak to him first.”

He pronounced Aronoke’s name wrong, which hadn’t happened in some time.

“I’m Aronoke,” said Aronoke, by means of correction as he climbed to his feet.  He met the man’s intense gaze steadily. This was just a Jedi investigator, here to help Ashquash, and Aronoke hadn’t done anything wrong.  Besides, he wasn’t anywhere near as frightening as Careful Kras, and Aronoke was determined to show the smaller ones that they need not be afraid.

“Come this way,” said the Investigator, gesturing towards the door that led outside.

“Yes, Investigator,” Aronoke said.

He followed the man across the hall into the classroom on the other side of the hallway.

“You are Ashquash’s room mate?” asked the Investigator, and Aronoke agreed that this was so.  “This whole situation seems somewhat irregular,” grumbled the investigator disapprovingly, and Aronoke wondered what he meant.  Because Ashquash was a girl?  Because they were different species?  Because both he and Ashquash had unusual backgrounds and had come late to the Jedi Temple?

The Investigator did not explain himself, but lots of questions followed, concerning what had happened the night Ashquash was drugged. Aronoke did his best to answer all of them. How had Ashquash woken him up? Had she ever done so before? Did she usually touch him like she had when she had shaken him? How did she usually behave around him? What sort of sparring did they do? Did they ever go sparring together alone? Did they go out in the middle of the night?

Aronoke began wondering if initiates did all these strange sorts of things more often than he realised. He also found himself questioning exactly what it was the investigator was investigating.

“Do you have any idea why someone would want to drug Ashquash?” the investigator asked.

“I thought it might be part of the unusual things that sometimes happen to me,” said Aronoke hesitantly. “I thought it might be a punishment, because I did not do what the message in one of them told me to do, because I knew it was wrong.”

“Unusual things?” asked the investigator. “What message?”

Aronoke was surprised, thinking that the investigator would have known about all that.

“I reported all of them, either to Master Insa-tolsa, or Master Altus, or Razzak Mintula,” he said. “Unusual things happen to me sometimes. Someone is trying to manipulate me. I thought what happened to Ashquash might be a punishment because I refused to do as I was directed.”

“These incidents will have to be recovered from any reports that were made by your superiors,” said Investigator Rythis primly, his fingers flickering over his datapad. He seemed annoyed with Aronoke, like this information was not helpful at all.

Aronoke shrugged. He tried to explain everything in detail, but by the end of it he still felt that the investigator was not pleased with him. Whether the investigator had expected to find a connection between Aronoke and the drugging, or thought Aronoke was purposefully concealing things was not obvious.

“What was it like?” Draken asked, he face alight with anticipatory relish, when Aronoke returned. “Was he scary?”

“No, not really,” said Aronoke calmly. “He just asked me lots of questions.”

“What about the droids? They didn’t torture you did they?”

“No, of course not!” said Aronoke. “There was one taking notes. The others seemed to be off scanning things.”

Draken was caught between relief and disappointment.

“He can’t be much of an Investigator then,” he muttered, “if he’s not as scary as he seems.  Really it’s an affront to Ashquash to send somebody so tame.  How can he be a proper investigator?”

“You can’t have it both ways you know,” pointed out Aronoke. “It’s either scary and then you’ll be scared because he’ll probably want to talk to you next, or it’s not scary and it’s boring.”

“Hm, I guess,” said Draken, unconvinced.

 

The investigation did not result in any great revelation that Aronoke ever learned of. No culprit was brought to justice, although eventually it was revealed that Ashquash’s toiletries had been tampered with, and that this was how the drug had been administered. Aronoke looked at his own toiletries with new distaste. He had never been fond of them – the water was bad enough by itself – and now he was even less inclined to use them.

It was difficult to relax and be calm after that. He felt angry and unsettled. More and more it seemed that what had happened to Ashquash was his fault, if only indirectly. If he had not been here, than would this have happened to Ashquash? He didn’t think so. It wasn’t fair. She only had this one chance to succeed at being Jedi, like he had, and because she was Aronoke’s friend it was being taken away from her.

It would be better, Aronoke reasoned, if he had no friends. He knew this was not right. After all, clan-mates were supposed to work together to solve problems. But most of Clan Herf was so small. What good would it do to involve the little kids in his problems? What if one of them was hurt next? That thought was unbearable. He wished Master Altus was here to talk to. That in itself was pointless, because it seemed likely that none of this would have happened if Master Altus was here. Aronoke knew he should try to be brave and independent, even if he felt out of his depth.

Ashquash came back a week later, quiet, withdrawn and grumpy, in many ways reverted to the angry uncommunicative person whom Aronoke had first met. Aronoke took care to behave like he had done then.  He sat quietly and did his lessons nearby, not ignoring Ashquash, not paying undue attention to her, but focusing on his reading.

Ashquash sat on her bed and did nothing for a long time.

“I don’t think I’m going to make it,” she said finally. Sadly.

“Don’t say that,” said Aronoke, shocked. “I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t make it.  You’re smart and strong as anyone else.”

“Someone doesn’t want me to,” said Ashquash. “It’s obvious. They don’t want me to succeed, so they did this to me. And right now, it’s only the stubborn, angry bit of me that wants to stick it through, just so that they don’t get what they want.”

Aronoke was overcome with remorse.

“That’s not necessarily true,” he said. “It is possible that some Jedi masters think that you shouldn’t be an initiate, but that doesn’t mean they would go so far as to sabotage your efforts. And for every one that thinks you shouldn’t be given the opportunity, there must be even more who think you should, otherwise you wouldn’t be here at all.”

“Hrm,” said Ashquash, unconvinced.

“And it might not be because of you at all,” said Aronoke, ploughing on despite his better judgement. “Strange things have been happening to me practically since I got here. Especially since Master Altus left. Weird things keep appearing on my datapad. A strange holotransmission was delivered by a droid, trying to manipulate me. I reported them all, and it seems to me that this attack on you might have been a sort of punishment. I mean, you are my room-mate, we are friends, right? Maybe you got hurt so that next time I listen to what it says.”

Ashquash looked up at that, warily.

“I reported those things to Master Insa-tolsa,” said Aronoke. “He said they are trying their best to fix them. I really hope it won’t happen again.”

“Why would they want to manipulate you so badly?” asked Ashquash critically. “To do what? Because you’re so special?”

“Because I’m different,” said Aronoke. “I…there are some different things about me.” He thought for one wavering moment that perhaps he should tell her about his back, but it was too frightening, too strange. Too much to burden Ashquash with.

“I am different too,” said Ashquash.

“Yes, that’s true,” said Aronoke. “I don’t know why they would want to manipulate me specifically,” he continued, semi-truthfully, for although he knew it was almost certainly something to do with his back, he didn’t know why his back was so important. “But it’s obvious that they do, because of the message and the other things that have happened.”

“Huh,” said Ashquash.

“I was thinking,” Aronoke said, “that if it’s true that you were hurt because of me, than perhaps it might be better if you were not my room-mate anymore.”

Ashquash looked up at him. Her complexion darkened like a sandstorm was rolling across it.  Her eyes darkened and her young face settled into hard, tense lines that made her look much older.  Her anger was a tangible, frightening thing.

“I just don’t want you to be hurt because of me,” he explained hurriedly.

“Maybe it would be better,” said Ashquash tightly.

“We could pretend that we had argued,” said Aronoke. “That’s not true of course. We would know we hadn’t argued. We haven’t argued, have we? But it might be enough to keep you safe.”

“How will we decide which of us should change rooms?” said Ashquash flatly, suddenly looking drained and tired instead of angry. Aronoke felt sick, because he didn’t want to travel this path. Wouldn’t the voice have won a victory if he did? But the alternate path seemed impossible. He wanted to protect his clan-mates from this mess, not get them further involved. They were too small to have to deal with such a big problem, he reasoned.  Or had too many problems of their own, like Ashquash.

“It’s okay, I don’t mind changing,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to do anything – it’s because of me that this happened, so I should be the one who changes.”

Ashquash said nothing for a long moment.

“Alright, go then,” she said, bitterly.

Aronoke nodded, got to his feet, and went to Razzak Mintula’s room.

“Yes, Aronoke, what is it?” asked Razzak Mintula wearily.

“Razzak Mintula, can I change rooms?” asked Aronoke.

She looked at him for a long moment, studying his expression. “Perhaps that mightn’t be such a bad idea,” she said, finally. “I am reluctant however, to swap you with anyone else at this time. There is an empty room across the hall, not within the clan rooms, that you can use. Although it doesn’t have the same facilities that your current room has.”

“That doesn’t matter. It will be fine,” said Aronoke.

It was a small matter to move his stuff across to the new room. The isolation of the chamber made it easier to think of himself as being separate. It was the perfect opportunity to divorce himself from his clan-mates, at least in appearance. He must be strong, must not let himself be made miserable or angry by this self-imposed distance, because then the voice would have won. He had to be calm and resilient.  He had to be a Jedi.

There is no emotion, there is peace.

It was difficult. There was an undercurrent of sadness that Aronoke found impossible to erase entirely. He could control it while he was meditating, but every time that Draken asked him to play a game, or any of the little kids were particularly forthcoming, he forced himself to be friendly but stand-offish and it came back. Draken seemed puzzled and hurt, and the little kids looked at him oddly like he had been replaced by someone who was not really him.

Just when he had felt he could really belong, Aronoke thought, something happened to force him apart again.  Was that what it was always going to be like?  Eternal isolation?

Nevertheless, Aronoke persevered in his self-imposed solitude for a couple of weeks. Buried himself in his lessons. Increased the amount of time he spent running and meditating and did a great deal of extra reading to pass the time. Walked down to the pool regularly to look at the water. It was difficult to occupy his mind with enough things to keep himself from feeling depressed, although all the meditation helped a lot. He felt he was getting on top of it most days.

One day he was down at the edge of the pool looking down into the deep water introspectively when suddenly Ashquash was there with him.

“Why do you always look at it like that?” she asked. She seemed tense, irritable.

“Because I don’t like it,” said Aronoke immediately. “It makes me feel uncomfortable, so I look at it to help me get used to it.”

He was going to say something else, but all at once, Ashquash gave him a sharp push. For an instant he thought there was a chance he could regain his balance, but in actuality it was hopeless. Windmilling wildly, he toppled into the deep pool.

The water closed over Aronoke’s head, green and smothering. The world of air was abruptly cut off and he could hear nothing except the rising bubbles around him. Even then, he did not immediately panic, but restrained his fear with barely tethered threads of will. He held his breath and repressed the urge to scream.

But he was sinking. Running out of air with every passing second.  His terror was rising uncontrollably.

Kick off your shoes, countered the trying-to-be-calm voice in his head. Undo your belt, slide out of your robe. You can’t swim in all these clothes.

He tried, but his gestures were too jerky, too hurried. The robe came half off and rose over his head so he could not see. One arm was twisted somewhere behind him, caught in his sleeve. He was stuck.

Sinking further, faster. Couldn’t move, couldn’t swim in all these clothes.

What if Ashquash was standing up there, angry and cold, dispassionately watching him sink? What if Ashquash had planned this all along?

His fear exploded, unrestrained. Aronoke panicked completely, thrashing and struggling. He only succeeded in tangling himself more thoroughly and disorienting himself so he no longer knew which way was up. He gasped in half a mouthful of water. Coughed it out. Couldn’t breathe.  Reflexively he gasped again and burning water flooded his lungs.

He was drowning, a tiny detached part of him realised.  This was how it would ignominiously end.  This death seemed a lot worse than being decapitated by a lightsaber.

Something grabbed his shoulders none too gently, tugging at him, dragging him through the water. Irrationally he fought, but the hands were strong and insistent. Then his head broke the surface, and he gasped for air, spluttering and coughing. Thrashing uncontrollably.

“Be still!” said Ashquash crossly, but Aronoke was still caught in the blind throes of panic and struggled wildly. She slapped him hard across the face. He subsided a little in shock and found himself pushed towards the edge. He clawed at it and clung to it, wheezing and gasping.

“What are you doing?” came an irate voice from far across the pool. “Stop that immediately!”

Aronoke struggled to climb out, but floundered ineffectively, unable to find the strength. Then Ashquash was there at the top, holding out her hand, and with her assistance he rolled up over the side and knelt there for long moments, coughing and gasping, retching up great gouts of water.

“You initiates are not supposed to be in the pool,” said someone closer now, an Aqualish instructor, coming over in the company of a warden droid. “It has been reserved for Clan Vequish’s use for the entire afternoon.”

“Yes, we know,” said Ashquash petulantly.

Aronoke could not speak, was too busy coughing still.

“You had better leave and return to your quarters at once,” said the instructor.

Can’t he see that I’m half drowned, thought Aronoke. His fear had been replaced by anger. Anger at Ashquash, anger that she had done this to him, anger that the instructor was berating him when none of this was his fault. Was this Ashquash’s repayment for what had happened to her? She thought it was his fault?

“Yes, yes, we’re going,” said Ashquash insubordinately. Aronoke made a brief sign of acquiescence, but still did not want to speak. He was too angry. It was only when they were moving off down the hallway that lead to the elevator banks that he felt he could talk.

“What did you want to go and do that for?” he snarled.

“It seemed to me it wasn’t helping,” said Ashquash defensively.

“Wasn’t helping?” Aronoke had lost it, he realised. Heard the anger in his own voice.

“All the looking,” said Ashquash.

“Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean you should push me in.” Aronoke could feel his hands were shaking badly. But he was alright, he thought. He wasn’t dead. He had fallen in and panicked, and he wasn’t dead. That counted for something. Maybe Ashquash was right. And as angry as he might be, he was also relieved that she had pulled him out, was not part of the conspiracy, but had acted, it seemed, through a misguided impulse of her own.

He took calming breaths, interrupted by more coughing. Recited a platitude in his head. Slowly felt like he was coming back under control.

“Just don’t do it again,” he said firmly.

Ashquash stopped, looking wild and a little fey. “I should never have said for you to do it,” she said.

“What?” asked Aronoke, confused.

“For us to argue,” said Ashquash. “I shouldn’t have said it.”

And she turned and ran away.

Aronoke stood there dripping a long moment, confused. Was that was this was all about? She was angry with him for leaving? But he had explained beforehand that it wasn’t real…

Feeling more confused and upset than angry now, he made his way back to his room and changed into some dry robes. He had not yet put the wet ones in the laundry chute when Draken rang the door. When Aronoke opened it, Draken’s eyes immediately travelled to Aronoke’s hair and the puddle of wet clothes on the floor.

“Your hair’s wet,” he noted. “And, um, your robe. But I guess you know that. Do you know where Ashquash is? I can’t find her.”

“She ran off,” said Aronoke wearily. “I expect she just needs a bit of breathing space, and she’ll be back.”

“What?” said Draken. “What do you mean she ran off?”

“I was down by the pool, looking at the water, and she pushed me in,” said Aronoke. “Then I was angry, and told her not to do it again, and she ran off.”

“She pushed you in?” asked Draken. He looked at Aronoke stupidly and stared again at the wet robes. “I hope she comes back soon,” he said finally.

“I expect she will,” said Aronoke.

But Ashquash had not returned by the evening meal and when Aronoke went to ask Razzak Mintula about it, he found Mintaka was in the office instead.

“Razzak Mintula’s been called away,” she said, and Aronoke immediately assumed it was something to do with Ashquash’s disappearance. He hoped Ashquash had not done something too crazy, or gotten herself hurt.  He spent the rest of the evening sitting in the common room, studying his reading tasks, but Razzak Mintula and Ashquash did not return. Finally he composed his thoughts and went to bed, hoping everything would be cleared up by morning.

But in the morning he was woken up very early by Instructor Mintaka. “Do you know anything about where Ashquash might be, Aronoke?” she asked. “She is not in her room this morning, and it does not look like her bed has been slept in.”

“Oh,” said Aronoke stupidly. “But Instructor Mintula… I assumed…” he stopped to organise his thoughts and began again.

“I argued with Ashquash yesterday,” Aronoke said, “when I was coming back from the swimming pool. I was angry because she pushed me in. I am… scared of the water. And I didn’t say much, only that she must not do it again. But she was upset and ran off. I assumed that Razzak Mintula had gone off because of her, but… I am stupid,” he finished awkwardly, beset with self-loathing.

“You are not stupid, Aronoke,” said Instructor Mintaka. “Do you have any idea where she might have gone?”

“No, I have no idea,” said Aronoke wretchedly. Ashquash missing, wandering around the streets of Coruscant by herself? Surely she couldn’t get far with all the security. “I’m sorry, Instructor Mintaka. I should have said something yesterday.”

“I’m sure everything will be fine,” said Instructor Mintaka. “I must go and report her disappearance. You should go back to your regular schedule.”

“Yes, Instructor.”

After that, Aronoke decided that he should talk to Master Insa-tolsa about the whole affair and called him by holocommunicator to make an appointment.

“I have just been talking about you, Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa enthusiastically when he answered. “I am here with Master Parothis and we were discussing the possibility of taking you and several older members of your clan on some excursions to various parts of Coruscant, rather like Master Altus did with you. We think such excursions might be of considerable benefit to your education.”

“I’m sure that my clanmates would be very excited to undertake such a thing, Master,” said Aronoke, “but…”

“Excellent. It will be several weeks before the arrangements can be properly made, of course. Master Parothis has several interesting ideas for locations we can visit. Well, thank you for your call, Aronoke. I will be in touch with you as soon as everything is organized, to let you know the details.”

“Yes, Master, but…” said Aronoke, but the ithorian had already closed the connection.

He could have called back, but Master Insa-tolsa was probably still speaking to Master Parothis and he did not want to be a nuisance. Instead he left a recorded message asking for an appointment, and later the confirmation came back that he could visit Master Insa-tolsa the next morning in the Master’s chambers.

The next morning, however, there was a new item on Aronoke’s schedule, a request from a Jedi Master Skeirim.

“Initiate Aronoke,” said the message. “I request that you come and speak with me after the conclusion of your evening meal today. I will arrange for you to be collected from your clan rooms. Please be aware that your Instructor has been properly informed regarding this meeting.”

Though that would be easy to say and not do, thought Aronoke. He sent back a message saying that he would, of course, be available to attend. A mere initiate did not deny the request of a Jedi Master. Then he went to check that whoever was currently in charge was aware of the meeting.

“Yes, I received the proper request,” said Razzak Mintula, who had arrived back.  “By all means, go and speak to Master Skeirim.  I assume he wants to ask you some questions about Ashquash.”

“Ashquash?” asked Aronoke, confused.

“Yes, Master Skeirim is the Jedi who brought her here,” said Razzak Mintula, “much like Master Altus brought you.  He is not always stationed here at the temple. He is a colleague of Master Altus’s, involved in researching and retrieving artifacts from distant parts of the galaxy.”

“Oh,” said Aronoke. “Thank you, Instructor.”

The next morning, Aronoke went to see Master Insa-tolsa.  He had not visited the ithorian master’s chambers before.  They were dim and green, a tribute to the forest world that he came from.

“Your chambers are very peaceful, Master,” said Aronoke, looking around.

“I find them so,” said the ithorian. “These chambers are supposed to be transient, not personalised. But the Jedi Council has not seen fit to station me anywhere else for many years, so I feel that I may take some liberties.”

“That seems quite reasonable to me,” said Aronoke.

“Master Parothis and I have decided that the first of your excursions will take place in a few weeks time,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “We are considering a number of different venues and I will tell you where we are going closer to the actual day.”

“I am sure it will be very educational, Master,” said Aronoke. “But I would like to talk to you about something else.”

“Of course,” said Master Insa-tolsa.

“You remember I told you about the droid with the holotransmission, Master?” said Aronoke. “And then there was another strange article on my datapad, which Razzak Mintula reported to you?”

“Yes, I remember,” said Master Insa-tolsa gravely.  “Has something else happened?”

Aronoke related the events surrounding Ashquash’s drugging, surprised that Master Insa-tolsa didn’t already know about them.

“It is unfortunate I was not made aware of this,” said Master Insa-tolsa gravely. “I should have been informed.”

“I’m sorry, Master,” said Aronoke contritely.  He had assumed Master Insa-tolsa would have been told by someone else.

“It is not your fault, Aronoke.  It is obvious that there has been some breakdown in communication within the temple, either accidental or intentional.  In light of the other incidents you have reported, this one could be seen in a different light.”

“Yes, I thought at once that it might be a sort of punishment. Ashquash is my room-mate and my friend. She is not very social, but we do a lot of things together, like studying and sparring. I thought she was getting better recently, much better than when she arrived. But then that happened…”

Aronoke could hear the emotion creeping into his voice. He found Ashquash’s drugging affected him more than any of the fights or deaths had back on Kasthir.  Now, those scenes were distant and disjointed like dreams, as muted as if he kept those memories sealed in an air-tight box. He swallowed and tried to speak more calmly.

“I decided it might be better if I changed rooms. So whoever is trying to manipulate me might think Ashquash and I were not friends any more. So she would be safe. I know, Master, that I should be able to share my problems with my clan-mates, because that is part of being a clan, but most of them are so little, Master. I don’t want them to get hurt. So I thought that maybe separating myself was a better way. Then yesterday, I was at the swimming pool looking at the water, and Ashquash came and pushed me in.”

“You don’t like the water,” said Master Insa-tolsa, “if I remember correctly.”

“Yes, Master.  Ashquash pushed me in. I got tangled up and thought I was drowning. Then Ashquash pulled me out again. I was angry with her. I did not say much, only that she should not do that again, but she was upset and ran away. I thought she would come back, but now she has gone missing…”

“Oh dear,” said Master Insa-tolsa with some concern. “That is worrying, although I am sure that efforts are being made to find her and that she will be recovered soon.”

“Yes, Master, but I don’t know what to do. I separated myself to keep people safe, and now Ashquash is, if anything, less safe. I think she was unhappy that I left. I did explain the reasons to her beforehand. But maybe because of the drugs, she was not able to cope very well just then.”

“Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa, “You have only been here a very short time, and as you know, your unusual biology has put you into an awkward position amongst your clan mates. You should not have concerns like these at this stage of your training. It is too much.”

“But these things keep happening.  How can I not be involved?” asked Aronoke.

“You should do as you have been doing.  You must continue to report these things when they happen. You should not attempt to deal with such difficult issues yourself,” remonstrated Master Insa-tolsa gently. “You should not have the burden of such a great responsibility.  These things are not your fault, and you must trust us to deal with them on your behalf.”

“But nothing seems to work!  They just keep happening!  What if next time something even more terrible happens?” asked Aronoke fretfully.

“You must not think that the Jedi Council is doing nothing to attempt to alleviate these problems,” said Master Insa-tolsa calmly. “A great deal has been done, that you, as an initiate, do not see from your protected place in the training halls.  Neither is it appropriate that you are burdened with all the details, as you should be free to concentrate upon your studies.  Unfortunately everything that has been done thus far has been of little avail.  The perpetrator of these deeds must be someone of considerable power, cunning and influence, or they would not have been able to remain at large for so long.”

“Oh,” said Aronoke, humbled by the thought that his problems had stirred up so much trouble.

“Now I suggest that you go back to your clan and attempt to continue with your training as if none of these things had happened,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “I will make new efforts to see that the person who is manipulating you is discovered and an end put to these provocations.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke. “Thank you.”

Nevertheless, he did not feel very comforted when he returned to his clan rooms. Either the Jedi Council was incompetent, or his enemy was as powerful as Master Insa-tolsa suggested. Neither option was at all reassuring.

Master Skeirim’s padawan was a sleek human girl who arrived to collect Aronoke very promptly after the evening meal. Aronoke had only just got back to his room.

“Initiate Aronoke?” said the padawan. “I am Padawan Telarfani. I am supposed to show you to Master Skeirim’s chambers.”

“Yes, Padawan,” said Aronoke, and followed her out along the hall.

“I was not expecting you to be so tall,” said Padawan Telarfani smiling and looking up at Aronoke. He was taller than she was, he realised belatedly, and he was still growing. He would be taller still some day. It seemed strange. “I have some good news for you,” continued the Padawan. “They have found your clan-mate, Ashquash. She will be brought back to the Jedi temple soon.”

“Oh, that is good news,” said Aronoke, relieved. “Is she alright?”

“She is unharmed,” said Padawan Telarfani. “I thought you would like to know before your meeting with Master Skeirim, since I am certain you and your clan-mates must be worried about her.”

“Yes, we have been very worried,” said Aronoke. “Thank you, Padawan.”

She smiled, making a minor gesture of respect, which Aronoke returned.

Padawn Telarfani led Aronoke to a door which opened, not into a chamber, as he had expected, but into an elevator. She gestured him inside but did not get in herself. It was a long ride up to the top, and Aronoke wondered where it was going.

When he got out, it was immediately apparent that he was in one of the Jedi Temple’s towers. The walls of the chamber were lined with banks of data crystals, although one was given over to a large curved window showing the dark cityscape beyond. Ablaze with lights, streams of traffic seethed constantly past.

Jedi Master Skeirim was outlined against the window, a tall and imposing dark-skinned human man.

“Initiate Aronoke,” he said. “Come in. I am Master Skeirim. You will probably understand better why you are here if I tell you that I am the one who sponsored Ashquash’s initiation at the Jedi temple.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke.  “Instructor Mintula told me.”

Master Skeirim nodded and continued.

“As I am sure you have realised,” he said, “you and Ashquash have certain similarities which led to your being placed together. You are both unusual students. You have had atypical backgrounds and you are older than the majority of initiates who are accepted into the temple. You suffer unique problems and difficulties that other students do not encounter.”

“Placing you together was something of a risk that I hoped would pay off. There are obviously many ways in which this could have gone awry, but, to be honest, there was no one else who was deemed suitable to share a room with Ashquash because of her problems. I was hoping that here in the Jedi Temple she would be able to adapt to her new situation, that she would come around to the teachings and philosophy and learn a new path which might lead her through life. It has always been uncertain, perhaps unlikely, that she would succeed, and yet thus far the experiment has continued.”

“Now, however, she has run away. She has been recovered and will be returned to your clan rooms shortly. I am hoping that you, as her room-mate, might have some insight to offer as to why she left. I am worried that we are losing her, and should that be the case, her future is dark and bleak. I do not wish that to happen if there is any way in which it might be prevented.”

Aronoke listened to this speech with some relief, glad that someone had such a positive interest in Ashquash’s affairs.

“I think Ashquash was doing a lot better,” he said, when Master Skeirim looked at him expectantly and gestured that he should speak. “When she first arrived, when we first became clan-mates, she was very angry. I know about spice addicts, because I was brought up by one when I was quite small. So that didn’t worry me much, because I knew it was just the drugs. At first, Ashquash was very quiet. We didn’t talk much, just a bit, but before long she began to do things with me. To sit and study, to come and practice sparring during our free time. Later we did a lot more things together. We would go over our lessons, discuss some of the moral stories that we had trouble understanding. Things like that.”

“That is what I hoped would happen,” said Master Skeirim. “Do you know anything about what happened to upset that?”

Aronoke nodded. “I don’t know if this is all true,” he said, a little shyly, “but it’s what I immediately suspected when Ashquash woke me up and wanted to go sparring in the middle of the night. I thought she was drugged right away, because I’ve seen people behave like that before. I thought it might be to do with the strange things that have happened to me here in the Jedi Temple, practically since I arrived. Master Altus knows about them, and so do Master Insa-tolsa and Instructor Mintula. I reported everything to them. Strange articles appear on my datapad. I got a holotransmission message from a droid trying to feed me information. Someone is trying to manipulate me. I reported the holotransmission message shortly before Ashquash was drugged. I thought she might have been targeted as a way of punishing me. Because she’s my friend. It seems an obvious way to get at me. To hurt my room-mate.”

“I see,” said Master Skeirim. “I will have to talk to Master Insa-tolsa and Instructor Mintula and see if they can share their knowledge of these incidents. Aronoke, do you know why Ashquash ran away?”

“Yes,” said Aronoke. He related in some detail all the events that had led up to Ashquash’s disappearance, up to the incident at the pool.  “I did not say anything much,” he concluded, “only that she should not push me in again, but she was upset and ran away. I think she was angry that I had left her alone.”

Master Skeirim was nodding. “Thank you, Aronoke. I can see it is not easy for you to talk about these things, but they will be of great assistance to me in helping Ashquash. I would ask a favour of you. I would ask you to help Ashquash as much as you can, like you were doing before things began to go wrong. It would be best, I think, to put these incidents behind us and to try to make things just as they were previously.”

“Of course, Master,” said Aronoke warmly. He would have done whatever he could to help Ashquash anyway. It was also reassuring that Master Skeirim’s words meshed so well with what Master Insa-tolsa had said. “I think you are right, that she will be alright if we make things just as they were, and pretend that nothing has happened without making a fuss.”

“Yes, that is it exactly,” said Master Skeirim. “Thank you, Aronoke. I expect we will speak again at some time in the future.”

“You’re welcome, Master,” said Aronoke, making a small respectful bow in return. He felt a good deal happier and more purposeful as he returned to his rooms. It was good to have something to work towards, a way by which things might be made right. As soon as he arrived, he went in to find Razzak Mintula.

“Can I change back to my old room, Instructor?” he asked. “The new one is too draughty.”

Razzak Mintula stared at him for a long moment. “That would probably be more convenient,” she admitted. “There are some difficulties in having you in a different place from everyone else.”

“Yes, Instructor,” said Aronoke, relieved that no further explanation or persuasion was necessary. He felt his spirit was lightened when he moved back into his old rooms, like he was arriving back in his proper place again. It was a relief to not have to distance himself from Draken and the little kids any more.

Master Altus’s revelation made Aronoke more wary of everything. It was all very well for Master Altus to say that the Jedi temple was safe compared to Kasthir. That meant nothing, because on Kasthir, nothing was ever safe, no matter how carefully it was defended.  There was always someone stronger and nastier waiting for you to be off your guard.  Beyond that there was the planet itself – the weather, the wildlife.

In the Jedi Temple it was different.  The chances of being stabbed physically in the back were minimal, but despite logically knowing that he was safer than he had ever been, Aronoke never felt completely at ease, except when he was meditating.  There was always that haunting feeling that he was being watched. Typically, everywhere he went, that was true.  There was no one else like him, so people tended to look at him.  He wished again that he was not different – wished he was a boring standard human like any of billions of others that no one paid especial attention to, instead of a Chiss, a species allied to the Sith Empire, the uneasy almost-enemies of the Republic.  He wished too that he didn’t have a strange picture tattooed on his back that he had to keep hidden.

It was difficult for Aronoke to know what was unusual and what was normal. He found himself scrutinizing all his daily activities more closely.  He knew he had not told Master Altus about every strange thing that had happened.  He had wanted to think more carefully about things first – about what had happened with the droid in the shower.  Was it just a stupid thing, or was it one of the unusual things that Master Altus had said he should look out for? Aronoke had a very strong desire to not appear stupid in front of Master Altus, even though he knew the mirialan master would never embarrass him over it even if he was.

He decided the only way was to investigate more closely first.  To attempt to take care of things himself.  He wasn’t a little kid – he had been a fully fledged skimmer.  How hard could it be?

“Do you remember how that droid drilled those holes in our shower cubicle?” Aronoke asked Draken.

“Do we need to put more stuff in the holes?” Draken queried.

“No, they’re still blocked,” said Aronoke, “but I still think it’s strange that the holes were drilled at all.  I wonder if they were drilled in all the bathrooms, or just ours?”

“I could sneak in and look,” said Draken at once, just as Aronoke had hoped he might.

“You’re much better at sneaking than me,” Aronoke admitted, and Draken looked pleased.

“Years of practice, son,” he said sagely, clapping Aronoke on the shoulder and grinning, and went off at once.

Draken found it an easy enough matter to investigate all the nearby bathrooms. People went in and out of each other’s Clan rooms all the time.  Before long he was back with his report.

The walls in Clan Zegrith’s showers were smoothly pristine. So were those in the showers belonging to Clan Drexl, Clan Miim and all the other surrounding clans.  Draken had checked all those walls for small holes and found none.

“If the maintenance was only performed in our showers, and nothing was broken, then it must be something unusual,” he told Draken seriously.  “I think I should report it.”

“If you want to,” said Draken, shrugging.  “It’s probably the only way we’ll find out anything else about it.”

Aronoke did not want to bother Master Altus about every little thing – not when he had seemed so tired. Thought it best to go and see Razzak Mintula.

“Yes, Aronoke?” she asked, when he knocked on the open door of the room that served as her office.

“I was just wondering, Instructor Mintula. There was a droid in our showers, doing some maintenance. Weeks ago now. Was there supposed to be?”

“It’s quite normal for droids to go about doing maintenance, Aronoke,” said Razzak Mintula calmly but firmly.

“Yes, I know,” said Aronoke. “But this was strange. It was very early in the morning. It drilled lots of tiny holes in all the walls and said something about hypercapacitors. I don’t think showers even have hypercapacitors. And none of the other clans’ showers have had that done.”

“Well, it may just be a mistake. I remember when a whole lift was sealed off for years because of an error in a droid’s programming. Everyone walked across to use another lift bank, assuming it was intended.”

Well, it would be better if they had questioned it, wouldn’t it, thought Aronoke.  Fuelled by this thought, he ploughed on doggedly.

“It still seems strange that it’s just our shower,” he said firmly.  “I don’t like the idea of strange droids wandering around in there, Instructor.  It’s unsettling. And what if Ashquash finds out?”

Razzak Mintula eyed him speculatively at the mention of Ashquash, and Aronoke stood there quietly, giving her time to envision that scenario.  He could imagine it quite clearly himself.

“I will send a query to the maintenance department,” said Razzak Mintula. “I’m sure it is nothing serious, but there is no harm in asking.  If it is a mistake then it will be fixed.”

“Yes, Instructor,” said Aronoke. He would feel a good deal more comfortable if it were fixed.

Aronoke’s discussion with Master Altus had also made him more suspicious of his lessons with Clan Sandrek.  Whereas before he had considered the older students to be merely resentful of his presence, he had thought that they would have gotten used to him in time, once the novelty had worn off.  In the Fumers, new recruits had always felt the need to put Aronoke into his place when they first encountered him.  He had to fight most of them in ‘friendly’ matches at least once, and then, after they had inevitably beaten him, they mostly left him alone.

With Clan Sandrek he still felt like they disliked him, even though they had all beaten him in duels by now.

In the Fumers, he had been pushed around, beaten up, been the target of numerous jokes and nasty pranks, but he had still felt like one of them.  He had always known that if anyone from any other compound tried to hurt him, the Fumers would be sure to kick in their teeth or other mouthparts.

With Clan Sandrek, he still felt completely like an outsider.

He had told himself numerous times that on Kasthir, Clan Sandrek would be considered green pushovers, that they weren’t as good as they thought they were, but it had taken Master Altus to point out that their greatest failure was that they weren’t behaving like Jedi. Aronoke had felt it was his place to struggle to catch up and fit in with the others, like he always had. To endure any punishment that process required.  From what Master Altus said, it should have been Clan Sandrek’s place to welcome him and help him.

Well, they had helped him. At least Vark had, but Aronoke couldn’t help but pay closer attention and realised anew that many of the things Vark said were subtly wrong.

“You have to learn to strike harder and faster, or you will never be good enough to be a Jedi,” Vark said, the very next day on the training field.

Mentor Tolto and the rest of Clan Sandrek were some distance away, practicing advanced moves that Aronoke was too inept to even attempt. The sounds of their voices created a masking background murmur, doubtlessly making Vark inaudible to anyone but Aronoke. Vark was missing out on the advanced lesson, but he didn’t seem bothered by it.  He had patiently smiled and taken Aronoke aside to help him practice.

“You must learn to strike with everything you have,” Vark continued. “To use every weapon in your arsenal, every advantage at your disposal. You’re already quite good at doing that defensively, dodging and rolling, like when you fought Zujana.  You must learn to do the same thing offensively. To facilitate that, let’s try something different – we’ll act out a scenario.”

“A scenario?”  Aronoke was not familiar with that term, but Vark did not bother to explain.

“Imagine I’m your enemy,” the green duros said, bringing his blade up into a threatening position. “Imagine I will kill you without compunction.  Imagine that I’ve just killed a member of your clan, and spat on his body as it lays twitching at my feet.”

Vark’s eyes dropped to look at the ground as he gestured at it with his blade, and immediately Aronoke could imagine Draken lying there.

Aronoke had seen dead bodies before.  Had been made to clean up afterwards, when he was a menial.  He could imagine Draken’s dead body all too clearly. Draken’s face contorted with pain, the life fading from his eyes as his blood soaked into the ground.  The smell of spilled intestines.  Imagined the spit running down Draken’s pale cheek as Vark spat on the grass and laughed.

“Behind you are the other members of your clan,” Vark continued, prowling slowly from side to side, grinning nastily at Aronoke as he switched his brandished practice-sabre rapidly from one hand to another.  “Helpless prisoners.  If you don’t strike me down, I’m going to do the same thing to them.  I’m going to make you watch, while I torture them and kill them slowly.”

Aronoke could imagine them there too – the frightened silence of the little kids, struggling to stay calm, because they were brave and going to be Jedi. Ashquash defiant and glowering, wrestling with her bonds.

“Don’t listen to him, Aronoke,” imaginary-Ashquash hissed.  “He hasn’t got the balls to go through with it.”

It seemed so real, Aronoke almost turned to look.

Vark was coming closer, closer.  He was going to do horrible things and kill them all. A terrible memory flashed in Aronoke’s mind, of being tied naked to a bench awash in his own blood, while Careful Kras set aside his knife to pick up the syringe of liquid fumes.  The pain, the humility and helplessness that swallowed the world.

“Can’t you feel how much you hate me?” came Vark’s soft insistent voice.  “How much you want to kill me, so I can’t hurt your friends?  That strength is the only thing that can help you stop me now.”

That was right.  Aronoke was not tied down now and he had a weapon in his hands. He could feel his anger begin to build.  When he was angry enough, there would be no room to be afraid.

But acting without thinking got you killed, Aronoke suddenly remembered.  Being angry made you slow and stupid. It was a lesson he had learned many times on Kasthir, where learning it the hard way meant you didn’t survive to be tested again.  He had learned it again here on Coruscant, fighting Rancolos.

Besides, fear was wrong, anger was wrong, wasn’t it?  He should strike out of a position of calm contemplation, having considered all his options.  That was what the Jedi teachings said.  Even the younglings in Clan Herf had been taught that.

Why was Vark goading him to act in this way?

Aronoke froze, captured by indecision as Vark came darting closer, his practice-blade dangling uselessly in his hand.

Vark’s blade thwacked into Aronoke’s shoulder, hard enough to leave a bruise.

“And you’re dead,” said Vark, rolling his eyes in weary frustration.  “And all your clan with you.  You’re not supposed to just stand there like gundark bait, you hopeless moron.”

Vark’s tone was puzzled and irate, and his comment instantly released the tension. It also released the catch on Aronoke’s temper.  Hopeless moron, was he?  He wasn’t the one doing everything wrong…

Later, when Aronoke remembered that moment, he thought to himself that if he had come from a world where talking could solve problems, he would have questioned Vark then.  If he had been a more experienced Jedi, he might have said: “Why are you doing this?  Don’t you know that what you’re trying to teach me is wrong?” He might have at least followed the scenario through properly, in the role of a Jedi, calmly defending the imaginary prisoners to the best of his ability. But at the time, Aronoke didn’t think of doing any of those things any more than he would have considered having Twi’lek head-tails grafted on his head and taking up pole-dancing.

For a moment he considered striking out at Vark, but instantly realised that would make Vark the victor. Instead he threw his practice blade down on the grass and stalked off across the field without saying a word.

“What was all that about?” came Mentor Tolto’s voice, drifting over the grass, as Aronoke walked away simmering, taking deep breaths and trying to recover his calm.  Vark’s voice was too low for Aronoke to hear his reply.

He had to be careful, Aronoke decided. Had to watch his temper, not let them make him angry and push him over the edge. Attacking Rancolos had been a mistake.

It was not at all easy to do. He continued avoiding the issue, although the strategy was not one he enjoyed employing. Whenever he grew dangerously close to losing his temper, he would throw his practice blade to the ground, as if in disgust, and walk off across the field, ignoring any jibes along the way. He would say nothing.

Of course Mentor Tolto did not like this at all. Probably thought Aronoke was throwing a childish temper tantrum. Aronoke was careful to be polite to him. Would acknowledge him with a little bow to show he meant respect. But he would not say anything until he felt calm again.

It was not long after he began practicing this strategy that Razzak Mintula asked him to come and speak with her.

“An opportunity has arisen, Aronoke, for you to join a different clan for physical training sessions, instead of Clan Sandrek. This group is not as far advanced in their training as Clan Sandrek is, but they are still substantially ahead of Clan Herf. They might suit you well.”

Aronoke was in multiple minds about accepting. To back down now seemed like giving up. Sparring with Clan Sandrek was difficult but he had steeled himself to do it. He had accepted that to get better and catch up he would have to endure being beaten over and over again and that to lose against such odds was no shame. But it was painful. He had an interesting collection of bruises from the older students’ training sticks. It was confusing. He was still learning what was supposed to be right and wrong according to the Jedi.  The things Vark said made sense according to how things had been on Kasthir, but he knew that was not the way things were supposed to be here.

Master Altus’s disapproval regarding Clan Sandrek’s behaviour suggested that another group might be more welcoming to newcomers, but what if the next group was equally difficult?  Then it would be obvious that he, Aronoke, was the problem.  That he had somehow gotten things wrong.  Maybe they would kick him out, and what would he do then?

Could Razzak Mintula’s invitation be considered an unusual event? Was this part of an even more convoluted conspiracy? Or was he being given a way to back away from an unpleasant situation gracefully?

But he had taken too long thinking.

“You don’t have to decide immediately,” Razzak Mintula said. “You can tell me any time within the next few weeks if you would like to take up this opportunity.”

“Thank you, Instructor,” said Aronoke. “I will think about it.”

Aronoke did try thinking about it, but that did no good – it was all too hard.  Whether it was stupid or not, he should talk to someone about it. But still, he put it off a little longer, hoping he would come to a decision on his own.

Then a few days later, Aronoke was just coming into the clan room when Draken came up to him, bubbling over with excitement.  A trail of younglings followed after him, just as enthusiastic.

“Guess what?” Draken said. “We’re going to be learning to swim as part of our physical training program. It’s up on the extended schedule. I know how to already, of course, but it’s going to be a lot of fun!”

The little kids jumped around everywhere like pop-lice. Sometimes Aronoke despaired of them ever learning to be calm. “Learn to swim! Swim! In the water!”

“It’s going to be such fun,” laughed Golmo, obviously copying Draken.

Aronoke did not like the sound of it at all.

“What? When?”

Ashquash stood up and came over.  She did not look very happy either.

“Next week,” said Draken. “There’s a big pool on one of the lower levels of the Temple. I looked it up on the holonet to see what it’s like, and it’s huge! That’s where we’ll be learning. It’s going to be great! I used to go swimming on the lower levels, in the filtration ponds, but this should be better, because we always had to dodge the droids down there and watch out for security.”

He suddenly seemed to realize that Aronoke was not as enthusiastic as he was.

“Oh! I forgot. You don’t like to take off your robes, do you? Or to shower, even.” Draken seemed almost gleeful and did not lose any of his own enthusiasm. “Well, you’ll have to now I guess. You’ll get used to it,” he said blithely.

Aronoke was not so sure. It depended what they had to wear while they swam, he thought. Surely they would wear something. Doubted it would be robes. That would be too hard. He would sink. Drown. If it was something very revealing, he didn’t know if he could do it. He did not want to make a fuss like he had in the medical bay. That had only drawn more attention. It would be good to know what to expect in advance.

Aronoke did not want to ask Razzak Mintula. Would be too hard to explain. She did not know about the thing on his back and he did not want to be forced into an explanation about it. Combined with the other matter, about Clan Sandrek, he decided it warranted going to to talk to Master Altus.  Certainly before the swimming started.

He put through a call on his communicator and reached what seemed to be a holo-simulacrum of Master Altus which wanted to take a message.

“Hello Master Altus,” said Aronoke, feeling strange talking to the simulacrum. “I was hoping I could come and talk to you soon.”

“Aronoke,” said Master Altus’s real voice. “Yes, by all means, come by this evening, if that is convenient.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke. “That will be fine.”

“Hespenara is not here at the moment. She is busy preparing for some tests, so she will not be able to collect you as usual.”

“That is no problem. I can find my way myself, Master.”

Aronoke closed the communications channel flooded with a great sense of relief. Surely Master Altus would be able to sort these things out if anyone could.

There was a droid in Master Altus’s chambers when Aronoke arrived. Aronoke eyed it with some suspicion.  It was a busy droid, churning out convoluted holodisplays of numbers and other data that cluttered up the usually dim and calm environment of Master Altus’s chambers. To Aronoke’s eye, Master Altus himself seemed more rested than he had on his previous visit, although not quite back to normal.

“This is LT-37,” said Master Altus. “He is helping me with some of the calculations and data evaluation resulting from my last expedition. It is looking to be a more time-consuming business than I had anticipated, but that is all to good advantage, since I had hoped to spend some time here on this visit.”

“It sounds more like a good reason to stay away, Master,” joked Aronoke.

“Yes, it is perhaps one reason why I am usually eager to depart the temple as soon as I am able. And yet there are some Jedi for whom a permanent assignment to the temple seems to be the greatest pleasure imaginable.”

“Like most of the librarians,” said Aronoke.

“Yes, like many of them,” said Master Altus. “No dinner today, I’m afraid, since I don’t have Hespenara to run out and get it, but I have collected a store of confectionary just for such occasions.”

Aronoke would have been happy to fetch dinner for both of them, but Master Altus seemed so pleased with his confectionaries he felt it would be churlish to suggest it. Besides, people worried too much about food here. They sat down, and Aronoke tried the confectionaries and found them pleasant, if a little oversweet for his tastes. They were coated balls of a chalky sugary substance with a distinctive but not unpleasant aftertaste.  Master Altus spoke of inconsequential things while they ate, obviously expecting that Aronoke would come to the point of his visit in his own good time.

It took Aronoke a little while to begin properly. It felt awkward talking about what must seem like trivial difficulties to someone as powerful as Master Altus.  And yet Aronoke could not imagine saying those things to anyone else.  Perhaps one day he might trust Master Insa-tolsa enough, he thought, because he had already grown more accustomed to the big gentle Ithorian, but he still wasn’t the same as Master Altus.

He swallowed firmly.

“There’s several things I would like to talk to you about, Master, if you don’t mind,” Aronoke said at last.

“Of course,” said Master Altus, calmly.  “You can always come to me with any problem you may have, Aronoke.”

“Firstly, Instructor Mintula told me that an opportunity had come up for me to transfer to a different Physical Training group, one that is not quite as advanced as Clan Sandrek, although it is still more advanced than Clan Herf.”

“Well, that is good news,” said Master Altus  immediately. “That sounds like a good idea.”

Aronoke had been going to weigh out the pros and cons as he saw them, but Master Altus’s warm approval washed Aronoke’s misgivings completely aside. Obviously Razzak Mintula’s offer was not an unusual thing, he thought to himself.  Perhaps backing away from his struggle with Clan Sandrek was an acceptable withdrawal from a difficult situation, and not a demonstration of weakness.

“Yes, I thought so too, but I wanted to be sure,” Aronoke said instead.

“You know, Aronoke,” Master Altus continued, “that I never approved of you undertaking such advanced combat training so soon.  I was willing for you to continue as long as you were happy with the situation, but I must admit I am relieved that another option has presented itself.”

“I don’t like to give up easily,” admitted Aronoke.  “It usually makes things worse.”

“It is good to be determined,” said Master Altus tolerantly, “but unwise to throw yourself against an obstacle which can be avoided. On my homeworld they say ‘the river always flows around a stone’.”

“On Kasthir they say ‘sand eats rock’,” countered Aronoke.

“Persistence is certainly a quality that may lead to success,” said Master Altus comfortably, “but we must learn to choose which obstacles must be worn down, and which are better side-stepped.”

Aronoke turned this over in his mind .  It was like bone-sucking worms, he realised.  You didn’t go looking for them, unless you had to.  You simply tried to avoid them.  Sandrek clan’s strange attitude was like a poisonous creature, best avoided entirely rather than weathered.

“Then I will tell Instructor Mintula that I am happy to change over,” Aronoke said.  The thought of not having to spar against Clan Sandrek any more took a greater burden off his mind than he had anticipated.  “I don’t mind losing or getting bruised so much,” he said confidingly, “but some of the things they said made me feel confused.”

“Confused?” asked Master Altus, a little more sharply.  “What sort of things?”

Aronoke had not meant to tell him about Vark’s strange lessons, had never been the sort of Fumer who ran to the higher-ups with titbits of information about his peers, hoping to be rewarded.  Had stayed away from the higher-ups as much as possible, on account of avoiding Careful Kras’s attention.

“I didn’t notice at first,” said Aronoke reluctantly, “because I was thinking too much like a Fumer, but Clan Sandrek don’t act like the other Jedi I know in the temple. One of them, the one instructed to act as my mentor, seems to be trying to teach me things in a way that seems different to the other things we are taught.”

“Oh, and how is it different?” asked Master Altus.

“I might be wrong, Master, because I am still very new at all these things,” said Aronoke apologetically, “but he seems to be trying to make me use my anger to fuel my fighting, like we are not supposed to do. At first I thought he was merely trying to trip me up into making a mistake, but now I am not so certain.”

“You don’t mean he is merely trying to make you angry?” said Master Altus.

“No, Master. They do that too and I mostly have the trick of it now, although I do get angry sometimes. This is different. He is the one who is most friendly and helpful to me in my training. He encourages me to do things in a particular way, but I don’t think they are the right way. He encourages me to use my anger, my fear, and my desire to win to help me fight more successfully.”

“That is a serious matter, which will have to be investigated,” said Master Altus. “I will have to report it.”

Aronoke fidgeted uncomfortably.

“I don’t like the idea of getting him in trouble,” he said. “It seems almost treacherous.”

“Oh? So I shouldn’t report it?” Master Altus was calm as always, watching Aronoke with warm interest.

Aronoke felt put on the spot.  He stared at the floor. Sighed. Looked up to see those blue eyes still regarding him patiently. Master Altus would always act in this way, he realised, in a way that would make Aronoke think about the situation and come up with his own solution. Well then. He forced himself to try to think objectively.

“If I had been here longer, then I think it would be better if I talked about it to him myself first,” said Aronoke slowly.  “That I should tell him that I think he’s doing the wrong thing, to give him the chance to change his mind.  But I haven’t been here very long and I don’t know the right things to say.  I think he would talk circles around me and I would be even more confused.  Besides which, he’s nearly ready to become a Padawan.  He must know that it’s wrong already.”

Master Altus waited patiently, saying nothing.

“I am changing groups, so he will not hurt me,” Aronoke continued slowly, “but he might still hurt someone else. And then why did he try and teach me that way at all?  Perhaps Clan Sandrek might be being manipulated by someone else too.”

Aronoke looked at the floor again.  “I suppose you really do have to report them,” he admitted.

“Very well then,” said Master Altus.  “Now, there was something else?”

“The next matter is something that happened quite some time ago. I was going to take a shower.”

Feeling silly and self-conscious, Aronoke repeated to Master Altus the story about the droid, and everything it had said and done during its two visits.

“When you said I should try to notice unusual things, I thought of the shower at once, but I was not sure that it was one of those things,” said Aronoke. “So I thought I would investigate a little more first. Draken went to look into some of the other clans’ bathrooms, but none of them had the holes in them. So I told Instructor Mintula about the maintenance. She said she would report it, and now the wall has suddenly been fixed again.”

That had happened only this morning, and Aronoke had taken it as evidence that whatever maintenance had been originally performed was highly suspicious.

“There will be records in the maintenance department,” said Master Altus. “I can have them checked to see why the walls were tampered with and what was done to them.”

“Yes, Master. It just seemed odd to me.”

“You can bring anything that seems odd to my attention, Aronoke.”

“Yes, Master, I will. Although some of them might be stupid things.”

“That doesn’t matter.”

“The last thing is a personal thing,” said Aronoke, feeling himself starting to get even more nervous. He found it hard to speak smoothly. Words seemed to desert him. He tried to focus, and ploughed resolutely on.

“It was on the schedule. Earlier… in the week. We are supposed to learn… to swim.”

“And that makes you uncomfortable,” said Master Altus.

“Yes, Master.”

“I assume it is because of your peculiar markings?” he asked calmly. “You don’t like to take off your outer garments?”

“Yes, Master. Mostly.”

“Hm,” mused Master Altus. “When I was in training we wore swimsuits. They were certainly a lot more revealing than the robes you wear, but they still covered quite a lot of our bodies. They would almost certainly cover most of the scars and markings, although not all of the ones on your arms and legs.”

“Those don’t matter, Master,” said Aronoke. “It is the other ones that worry me.”

“Then I think it should be alright. You should try to conquer your fear, of course, Aronoke, but I think you are right to be cautious.”

“I am?” said Aronoke, surprised. He had thought his fear about his back was a failing. Something to be ashamed of.

“Yes. I believe you should trust your instincts to keep those markings hidden. I think it might prove important.”

“I am not sure I always felt this way about them though, Master,” said Aronoke reluctantly. “When I was small…the first time…I did not even know they were there.”

“Nevertheless, your instincts are trying to protect you,” said Master Altus. “And while you should try not to be afraid, there is no harm in taking note of the warning they present to you.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke, feeling more cheerful.

“So you will be able to attend your swimming class, do you think?”

“I am not sure what will happen,” Aronoke admitted. “I don’t like the water – it is a strange thing to me – but I will try.”

“Good,” said Master Altus. “You are doing very well, Aronoke. You need not worry.”

The swimming suit appeared in Aronoke’s cupboard the next day. It was black, tight and stretchy and looked very small amongst his other things. He took it out and looked at it in some distaste. He determined to try it on before the swimming lesson so as to avoid any unpleasant surprises on the day. Took it to the shower cubicles very early in the morning.

He felt very naked in it. It was made of some thick almost foamy material that did not show every ridge and scar on his body, but it still seemed very revealing. He steeled himself to exit his cubicle so he could see how his back looked in it in the mirror outside.

It was not so bad. Almost the entirety of the scars on his back were covered. You could only see one small matted patch up near the back of his neck and none of the mysterious markings at all. He was filling out more, Aronoke noticed as well, with more flesh covering his ribs. His shoulders were getting wider, his legs more muscular, longer yet still lean. He stood surveying himself with some interest, until a noise from the corridor outside sent him fleeing back into the shower cubicle.  He had barely shut himself inside before a great gaggle of his clan-mates swarmed in to get ready for the day.

On the day of the first swimming lesson Aronoke felt sick with nerves. He hadn’t felt so unhappy about anything, he realised, since he had been told to undress during that first proper medical examination. Since he had shown his back to Master Altus.

He had decided that it would be a good idea to dress in the swimsuit beforehand. To wear it all day under his other clothes to prevent any worrisome mishaps. This worked well. No one seemed to notice. He felt very exposed when it came time to get changed and actually go out of the changing rooms and down to the water.

That was the first time he had seen the pool where they were going to swim and he baulked instantly. It was immense. He had never seen so much water all in one place before. It stretched across the chamber in a huge sheet, great and shiny like the eye of some gargantuan creature.

He did not like it at all. Could not have gotten into it at that moment if he had been promised all of Coruscant to do so. Draken gave a loud whoop and ran into the water, making an immense splashing jump at the end and Aronoke’s stomach lurched sickly.

The water was not deep in this part, he saw. The little kids were running into it like it was great fun, splashing and cavorting around. The swimming instructor, an aqualish, began lining them up and showing them exercises.

You’re being really stupid, he told himself.  It’s not hurting them.  They like it.  It won’t hurt you either.

But it made no difference.

“Come on, Aronoke!” said Draken. “Just jump in! It’ll be over in a moment and it’s less cold that way. Or I could push you in.”

Aronoke’s legs had turned to plastisteel welded to the floor. “No,” said Aronoke hurriedly. “I don’t think I can.”

He could hardly breathe. He felt heavy and sick like he was going to faint.

Don’t be stupid, repeated the sensible little voice in his head. It won’t hurt you. Just walk in.

But he couldn’t. It was as horrible an idea as throwing himself over the edge of one of Coruscant’s impossibly high buildings.

“Are you alright, Aronoke?” asked Razzak Mintula, appearing out of the water clad in a sleek black swimsuit. Her silver ponytail was draped attractively over her chest. Despite his fear, Aronoke felt even more unsettled. He could feel his face heating. Shook his head. Said nothing. Stared at the ground.

“Come on Aronoke! It’s fun!” cried Yeldra.

“You’ll like it! Look at me, I’m an aqualish!” called one of the younger clan members.

“I can push him in,” said Draken again, helpfully.

“Or I can,” said Ashquash, uncharacteristically impish, grinning from the water, carefully concealed up to her neck.

Aronoke shook his head dizzily.

“No, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” remonstrated Razzak Mintula. “Why don’t you go and sit over there and meditate, Aronoke, and you can join us when you feel able to.”

“Yes, Instructor,” mumbled Aronoke, and went to sit with his back to the changing rooms, as far away from the pool as possible.

He was glad that she had not pressured him to enter the pool. Was grateful to sit there and find the calm centre of his mind where everything seemed safe. He was surprised at himself. He had not expected to find the challenge of entering the water greater than that of wearing the swimsuit. It was a silly thing, he knew. The little kids were doing it. So could he. He must not let it beat him.

He got to his feet.

Each step was difficult, slow and hesitant, incongruous with the absurdly fast thumping of his heart.  He felt horribly self-conscious, even though his clan-members were not paying him any attention, all being absorbed in their lesson. He hovered on the very edge for long minutes, and then waded slowly in, to stand awkwardly about waist deep. It was by sheer force of will that he held himself there, frozen in place, trying his best to keep the fear at bay. He could not bring himself to splash around. Could not have tried to do any exercises. Could not move. It took every bit of his attention just to stand there. By then the lesson was almost finished.

“Very good, Aronoke,” said Razzak Mintula when she noticed, but Aronoke felt no pleasure at her praise, only awkward and stupid, like he had failed at something that was terribly easy.

He had to overcome his fear, he told himself sternly, but when the lesson ended, he fled the water with great rapidity and hurried to put his robes back on.

Afterwards he went to talk to Razzak Mintula.

“Instructor Mintula?”

“Yes, Aronoke?”

“Can I come down to the pool in between lessons? Just to look at it? So I might get used to it?”

“I don’t see why not,” she said kindly. “I am sure you will not disturb any other groups who might be using it. It is probably a good idea.”

“Thank you, Instructor,” said Aronoke. He was not sure whether to be pleased or not. He didn’t like looking at the pool. It seemed malevolent and alien to him.

And so, in the afternoons, sometimes alone and sometimes in company, Aronoke would go down and look at the water. At first he just looked. After a while he could make himself touch it with his hands or dabble his feet in it. He kept visiting it through all the swimming lessons, in which he did not improve greatly, and kept visiting it once or twice a week after these stopped.

Aronoke began his new physical training classes with Clan Ryllak.  Their instructor was a bothan named Mentor Snesgrul.

“This is Aronoke,” Mentor Snesgrul announced to the class when Aronoke first arrived.  “He is a late starter, and belongs to Clan Herf, so he will be joining us for some of his physical training.”

“Hello, Aronoke,” chorused the class cheerfully.

“Hello,” said Aronoke, thinking that they looked very different from Clan Sandrek.  They were bigger than he was, but not by so very much.    Clan Ryllak had only recently started using practice-sabres, and most of the exercises were performed in one large group, with everyone standing in rows practicing the basic forms over and over again.

Aronoke already knew those, so it was easy, but he was glad of the repetitive training.  He had never felt completely comfortable with the moves when training with Clan Sandrek, while now they were quickly becoming so ingrained that he hardly had to think about them.

Mentor Snesgrul called a brief rest break partway through the lessons, encouraging the students to stretch and drink water.  The Clan Ryllak people crowded around Aronoke in between turns at the drinking fountain, smiling and asking questions.

“So you’re from Clan Herf, are you?”

“It must be tough, being bigger than everyone else in your clan.”

“I hope you like training with us, Aronoke.  If there’s anything you need help with, you just have to ask!”

Aronoke nearly melted in gratitude, it was all so much easier.  They did some simple sparring exercises at the very end of the lesson, and he found his human opponent, Riala, was far more nervous of injuring him than she needed to be.

“Tell me if I’m going too fast,” she said, smiling at Aronoke as they traded cautious blows. “I tend to get carried away once I get started, and I know that you’re only new.”

She was cute when she smiled, Aronoke thought. Her face dimpled in an interesting way. Cute and distracting, especially since one hank of brown hair had escaped its bindings to hang down in front of her face.

No, best not to pay too much attention to that!

“It’s fine,” said Aronoke, smiling back.  “You can go a bit faster if you like.”

It was strange, but even though the lessons were so much simpler, he thought he was learning a great deal more.

Without the constant unpleasantness of sparring with Clan Sandrek, Aronoke hardly noticed the weeks passing.  He worked hard at his lessons, spent time with his clanmates and diligently practiced his extra meditation lessons.  Whole days went by without him thinking of Kasthir at all.  Weeks trailed by in a pleasant mish-mash of predictable activity.

Then one day Master Altus arranged a meeting in one of the atria.

“This is the closest thing you can get to a forest planet here on Coruscant, or at least in the Jedi temple,” he said, when Aronoke met him and Hespenara in the large internal courtyard.

The massive trees in the garden towered high overhead and were clustered so close together that Aronoke could hardly see the ceiling for the huge, broad branches. Aronoke could scarcely believe that such big things were actually alive.  There were no trees on Kasthir.

“You’re growing so fast my mind can’t keep up,” complained Hespenara.  “I swear you’ve grown an inch in all directions since I saw you last.”

Aronoke smiled.  He knew he was growing with impossible rapidity by human standards.  His appetite was increasingly huge, and all his old robes had disappeared to be replaced with new ones  Even his boots had needed to be replaced, although they were hardly worn out yet.

They sat on a bench between the trees, but even there, in that peaceful place, the mechanical hum of Coruscant pervaded. In most of the Jedi Temple it was no louder than the whisper of a breeze in the desert, so constant that Aronoke hardly noticed it anymore except when it was very quiet. Like it was here.

“I thought this would be more convivial,” said Master Altus. “LT-37 is very useful at performing the tasks he does, but it does become a little overwhelming to have him in my chambers constantly. It is perhaps more pleasant for us to have our meeting here.”

“Oh, Master!” said Hespenara exasperatedly. “It’s not like you couldn’t request the Jedi Council to set aside a room for that purpose. For the droid to work in. It is hardly like they wouldn’t agree.”

“It is a good exercise for me,” said Master Altus stubbornly. “And it should not be very much longer.”

Aronoke wondered if Master Altus did not want his research getting out of his sight. Perhaps he was worried that something unusual would happen to it too.

“There are a couple of matters I wish to inform you about today, Aronoke,” Master Altus continued, obviously wishing to avoid discussing the droid any further. “Firstly concerning Clan Sandrek. When questioned, Initiate Vark said that he did not personally decide to try to influence your training. He said he was merely following the dictates of a document left upon his datapad.”

“Oh,” said Aronoke, frowning as he remembered the document that had appeared on his own datapad.  Were they from the same source?

“I find it hard to believe that an initiate who has nearly completed his training would not know such a document was wrong,” said Hespenara, shaking her head.

Aronoke nodded.

“He did admit that he knew he was doing something wrong,” said Master Altus. “He knew it was contrary to the teachings, although he claimed it was difficult for him to pinpoint precisely why it was so.”

“What will happen to him?” asked Aronoke.

“If that had been the only thing, his behavior would be corrected and he would be given another chance,” said Master Altus. “However, in this case, the Jedi Council has stepped in and decided that the whole of Clan Sandrek should be expelled. Something has gone sadly awry with that group. I am not aware of all the details.”

There was a brief silence as Aronoke digested this.  He felt guilty that he had been responsible for an entire Clan being expelled. Perhaps it wasn’t his fault, but it had still happened because of him. Were they really all caught up in it?  Had they all received peculiar documents on their datapads, or had Vark misled them all?  Why had none of them questioned what was happening?  What about Mentor Tolto and Clan Sandrek’s other instructors?  Hadn’t they noticed something was amiss?

How could something like that pass unnoticed in the middle of the Jedi Temple?

“How is your training with Clan Ryllak going?” asked Master Altus, breaking into Aronoke’s internal circle of unanswerable questions. “I hope you are finding them more helpful.”

“It’s going very well,” said Aronoke. “They are very different. The lessons are much better, the other students are helpful and welcoming and I feel I am learning well.”

“Good,” said Master Altus. “Your training results have been pleasing. You are progressing quickly, which is in accordance with your physical growth. There is but one thing that I think your education is lacking, and that is you have not been outside the temple. Not since we brought you here from Kasthir. Hespenara and I are intending to make a short trip to a part of Coruscant called Prelix Sector and I think it would be a good idea if you came along.”

“Yes, Master!” said Aronoke, an unusual feeling of excitement building in him. There was the old nervousness, of the endlessly busy streets, the roiling traffic, and the tangle of monstrous buildings, but they were not as frightening as they had been. He thought it would be interesting to see more of this great city planet where he now lived. “I would like that.”

“You may tell your instructor that I will be taking you on a field trip,” said Master Altus.

One morning, Aronoke noticed that his schedule had changed. The others in Clan Herf noticed it too, because it was up there on the clan viewscreen. Instead of his usual exercise session, Aronoke was to report to a different training area because he had been seconded to Clan Sandrek for physical training.

“Se-con-ded?” said Aronoke, sounding it out, unfamiliar with the word.

“You know, like you’re joining their clan?” said Draken.

“Not for good I hope.”

“No, just for that class,” said Draken.

“Aw, Aronoke,” said Bithron, one of the younglings. “But that means you won’t be able to be with us!”

Aronoke was growing more popular amongst his younger clan mates. He liked little kids, he was finding. Liked how different they were compared to the ones he had met on Kasthir. These little kids wore their minds on their faces. Didn’t have secret agendas. Aronoke felt he could trust them.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Aronoke. “This way I can learn all the new combat skills and teach them to you when I get back.”

Emeraldine’s sparring sessions had proved popular. They usually included Ashquash now, and some of the little kids who had wanted to come along. They practiced more often too, even when Emeraldine wasn’t there. The little kids spent more time chasing each other and rolling around on the grass than practicing seriously, but Aronoke didn’t mind.

“Once you’re there you can ask them if me and Ashquash can join in too,” said Draken. “Since we’re nearly as big as you are.”

“Maybe,” said Aronoke. “I’ll try.”

“You’ve got to, Aronoke! Promise?”

But Aronoke wouldn’t promise. Didn’t want to have the responsibility of doing something he might not want to do. He felt uncertain about this change – hadn’t Master Insa-tolsa said that he should continue learning slowly? And now this sudden reassignment?

“I’ll see what it’s like first,” he said. “It might be a mistake, or really boring.”

“Okay,” said Draken. “But once you see it’s okay, you’ll ask, right?”

“Maybe,” said Aronoke again.

When he arrived at Clan Sandrek’s training session he was glad he had made no promises. He felt a bit stupid being there himself. Clan Sandrek was one of the older clans of initiates, almost ready to do their tests to become padawans. Aronoke felt confused. Why had Master Insa-tolsa changed his mind so radically? Aronoke had hoped to be trained with some people closer to his own size, but these initiates looked as big as fully-grown adults.

Oh well, best to just go along with things and not reveal his confusion. It was important not to show weakness. Besides, the Jedi Masters surely knew what they were doing – it was flattering to think that they thought he was capable of learning alongside these students, even if Aronoke felt like a kid next to them. He was used to being set up against adults – had been forced to deal with that every day when he was a skimmer. In two or three years time, he reminded himself, he would be just as big as these trainees. Maybe that was why he had been sent here.

This knowledge didn’t help him now though. Feeling awkward, Aronoke walked up to the instructor who was running the class.

“Yes?” said the instructor, looking at Aronoke dubiously.

“I was told to report here,” said Aronoke.

“Oh,” said the Instructor, his expression becoming surprised. “Are you Aronoke?”

“Yes.”

“You’re a bit young to be training with this group,” said the Instructor. “I wonder if there’s been some sort of mistake? Oh well, never mind. You might as well join in for today, at least. I am Mentor Tolto, the instructor for this group. You can put your things over there and join the group.”

His surprise was not very flattering at all, Aronoke thought drily, even if it was more realistic.

Aronoke could see the members of Clan Sandrek watching him curiously. They did not seem very happy to have him join them for their lesson. He could understand that. They were almost all fully trained and he would just get in the way. Still, it was not his fault. He determined to simply do the best he could. He had been a skimmer, he thought fiercely. These were just a bunch of kids, not as old as Kresmindle, even if they were bigger than Aronoke. He schooled his face in impassivity as he walked over to join the other students.

“What are you doing here?” asked one of Clan Sandrek, a tall sandy-haired human boy.

“I was told to report here to join this class,” said Aronoke.

“What’s your name? What clan are you from?”

“Aronoke. Clan Herf.”

“Isn’t that one of the really new clans?” asked one of the girls sceptically. “A bunch of younglings?”

Aronoke shrugged.

“You must be special if they sent you here,” said the sandy-haired boy. “Either that, or it’s a mistake.”

“I don’t think I’m special,” said Aronoke.

“Then it must be a mistake. Why else would they send a kid like you to train with us?” said the sandy-haired boy. He said “kid” like it was a dirty word.

Aronoke shrugged. “I was told to report here,” he said. “I don’t know why.” Damned if he was going to explain about being chiss and being older than the rest of his clan to this lot. He kept his face passive and neutral. He reminded himself that he was a trained skimmer and these were just a bunch of kids who wouldn’t last a moment on Kasthir. Resisted the urge to pull his hood further down over his face.

“I expect it will get sorted out,” said the girl who had spoken earlier. “I am Kai-lula, that is Vark, and that’s Zujana, Rancolos, Isti-bar…”

Mentor Tolto came over to the clan then, and Kai-lula fell silent. “Very well, you can gather your practice blades and start warming up,” he told Clan Sandrek. “Aronoke, you can use this one.” He passed a practice blade to Aronoke, who weighted it in one hand, unsure of how to hold it.

“Vark, you pair off with Aronoke and show him the ropes,” said Mentor Tolto, obviously noticing how awkwardly Aronoke held the blade.

Vark was a green duros, dark-skinned for one of his race. He did not look unfriendly. “Yes, Mentor,” he said. He led Aronoke over to a space a little distance from the others, who were already going through a series of rapid warm-up exercises.

“Have you used a practice blade before?” asked Vark.

“No,” said Aronoke.

Vark sighed. “Maybe it’s your Force powers that are advanced then,” he said tolerantly. “Maybe they expect you to compensate with them. Perhaps you are some kind of Force prodigy.”

Aronoke shook his head. “I don’t think so.” He didn’t know what that word meant – prodigy – but he was fairly sure he was not one.

“Well, there must be some reason,” said Vark. “Unless it is a mistake. We might as well get started. This is position one…”

Vark went through the basic positions one at a time and Aronoke did his best to copy him. The practice blade was heavy and swung differently from the practice sticks he was used to. Vark was quick and efficient at running through the moves.

“Alright then, let’s go at it,” said Vark, dropping easily into the starting position, which Aronoke fumbled to imitate. He wanted to duel already? Aronoke would have preferred to go through the forms a few more times first.

Aronoke had never been a good fighter. His skill at knife-fighting was tolerable, stemming back to his time in the Grinder, where he had lost more often than he won. Once he had moved to Bunkertown he lost all his fights, except the one against the mouthy Duros kid, because everyone was so much bigger and more experienced than him. Scuffling and duels were common there, and although Aronoke was ultimately the loser in matches, he had earned a certain respect from the other Fumers through his sheer tenacity.

“He’s a gutsy little bleeder,” Mill had once remarked of Aronoke, watching a new recruit grinding Aronoke’s face into the floor, while Aronoke tried to hold off admitting defeat as long as possible.

Aronoke had felt pleased, despite his numerous bruises and swollen lip. From Mill, this was high praise.

He had learned to avoid fights whenever possible without appearing to avoid them. Showing fear would have been social death in Bunkertown, and could have led to actual death as well.

“Just try keep to the forms as much as you can,” Vark said now, and Aronoke nodded. Whatever happened, it couldn’t be as bad as Bunkertown. Losing was nothing to him.

The practice blade was clumsy and slow in Aronoke’s hands. He struggled to bring it into the correct positions, but he could barely remember them, let alone which of them to use when. They had exchanged no more than a few blows before Vark’s blade came down on Aronoke’s knuckles, making him drop his weapon. Aronoke automatically dropped into a scuffling position, ignoring the pain in his hands, as he would have if disarmed in a knife-fight, but Vark gestured impatiently that he should pick up the blade and try again.

The next time went better. Aronoke started to get the feel of it. It was slow and heavy work compared to knife-fighting, but the sense of dropping back into a guard position and watching your opponent’s feet to anticipate his next move was not so different.

“That was better,” said Vark approvingly, although he was doubtlessly finding Aronoke’s lack of skill frustrating. Aronoke was well aware that Vark had been holding back considerably. “Not bad, for a beginner. Now why don’t you try sparring someone else? Zujana?”

He gestured to one of the girls, a lithe, humanoid alien with strange eyes and a cat-like face. Aronoke had seen a few of them around the Jedi temple. A cathar, he remembered after a minute.

The fight with Zujana was completely unlike the fight with Vark, because Zujana, rather like Aronoke himself, was not inclined to hold back. Aronoke tried his best but was obviously outclassed. He managed a few clumsy deflects, was forced onto the back foot, missed a parry and then Zujana’s practice blade cracked blindingly hard against the side of his head.

No, she hadn’t held back at all. Aronoke must have lost a moment of time, because he found himself suddenly lying on the grass. Everything was strangely yellow and his ears were ringing, but he told himself it was nothing, he must not give up, and climbed doggedly back to his feet.

“Are you okay, Aronoke?” asked Mentor Tolto, coming over the practice arena towards him. He looked surprised that Aronoke had gotten up so quickly, Aronoke thought.

“Yes, I’m fine,” said Aronoke, even though the world was still unsteady around him. Had to concentrate not to sway. Felt nauseous.

Somewhere, someone laughed.

Master Tolto looked at him uncertainly.

“I’m not so sure,” he said. “Go and sit over there for a while. You can join in again later.”

Aronoke went and sat on the ground as directed, feeling relieved in spite of his determination. He felt like lying down and shutting his eyes to see if the world would stop spinning, but he made himself sit calmly and watch the others. He fought down the queasiness in his stomach by taking deep, slow breaths and going through some of his meditation exercises. He was determined that Clan Sandrek would not see his weakness.

It was nearly the end of the lesson, before Aronoke was summoned to try sparring against Zujana again. His head still ached from the staff blow, but the world was swinging less violently. The familiar fear of being hurt again bit into him as he moved to stand opposite Zujana, but he forced it aside.

This time I’m not going to let that happen, thought Aronoke with fierce determination. I’ve got to be faster. Smarter.

A little whack to the head was nothing. Let it be a reminder that he should make sure to get out of the way.

The fight started and after a very few moments any thought of keeping to the recommended forms fled from Aronoke’s mind. It was a wild, crazy battle with lots of moving and ducking, and even jumping in the air. Aronoke had to concentrate very hard to stay ahead of Zujana, but he was still aware that the other students had stopped sparring to watch them. That Mentor Tolto was watching too. Aronoke kept expecting Mentor Tolto to stop the fight, to step in and offer criticism or instruction, but he did not.

In the end Aronoke simply ran out of energy, couldn’t move fast enough any more. A clever twist from Zujana’s blade and there was his blade flying through the air to land on the grass.

Zujana snorted contemptuously.

“Hm, well,” said Mentor Tolto, sounding unimpressed. “I have instructed you before, Zujana, that you must follow the standard forms. Only when they are completely ingrained in your muscles, when you no longer have to think about them, are you free to improvise. That time has not yet come.”

He didn’t say anything to Aronoke. Aronoke was disappointed that he didn’t offer any suggestions for improvement. Obviously Aronoke’s performance was so inept as to not even warrant criticism.

It doesn’t matter, thought Aronoke stubbornly. I did better that time, and I will continue to do better. I just have to try harder. It will only get easier as I get bigger.

Suddenly the few uncertain years that lay between him and physical maturity seemed like a long time.

“We are done for today,” Mentor Tolto continued. “Aronoke, it seems that you are intended to join us again, so you should come and pick out a practice blade for yourself. The rest of you are dismissed.”

Aronoke followed Mentor Tolto over to the equipment locker with mixed feelings. No mistake? hadn’t he proven he couldn’t keep up with the older trainees? How had Mentor Tolto found out that his placement was intentional? He didn’t say anything, thought to himself a little grimly that Draken and Ashquash would be beaten to a paste if they came here.

But he wouldn’t give up. A rap on the head with a practice blade was nothing compared to a knife fight with real knives. Nothing compared to a blood-sucking worm’s spit. Dealing with Clan Sandrek’s sullen attitude was nothing compared to having to threaten angry miners with a blaster pistol, to convince them to hand their skim over. He could take it.

Mentor Tolto helped Aronoke pick out a suitably weighted blade. It was considerably lighter than the one he had been using that day.

“This weapon is your responsibility and you should bring it with you to class,” said Mentor Tolto, as he wrote Aronoke’s name in the appropriate assignment list. He seemed uncertain of Aronoke’s competence in even this minor matter, but Aronoke didn’t pay him any heed. It was something, Aronoke thought, to be assigned his own weapon, even if it was only a practice blade.

“You will also need to read the appropriate text,” said Mentor Tolto. “Do you have your datapad? Ah, good. I will put it on here, and you should study it carefully in your spare time.”

“Okay,” said Aronoke.

He supposed it was a good thing that he had been promoted in this way, that he would only learn quicker if his challenges were greater. Nevertheless, he felt very tired as he walked back to Clan Herf’s rooms. It felt like returning home after a raid, he thought to himself, surprised to feel so relieved to be going back there. He was unprepared for the enthusiastic greeting of his clan mates on his arrival.

“Aronoke! How was it? Did you do well?”

“He looks like he got hit in the face!”

“Are you going to teach us some moves now?”

Aronoke would have rather laid down for a rest, his head was pounding so fiercely.

“I don’t know about now,” he said. “That was hard. I’m really tired.”

“Awww, but Emeraldine will be there too!”

Their enthusiasm was difficult to deny. Aronoke found he did not like to disappoint them or Emeraldine.

“Well, okay,” said Aronoke. “I’ll try, but I don’t know how good I will be.”

Out in the practice field he was not very good, but that was okay. He showed the straggle of younglings several of the basic positions and after that they soon got bored and started playing amongst themselves.

Emeraldine was pleasantly sympathetic about the lump on the side of his head.

“I’m surprised that they would hit you as hard as that,” she said, frowning, as they sat on a section of padded mat watching Draken and Ashquash staging a mock battle against the younglings. “They should be taking more care, because you’re so much smaller and have had less training than they have.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Aronoke. He was determined that he could take it, like he had taken everything else that life had thrown at him so far. To give up would be failing –failing to become a Jedi, failing Master Altus. If they threw him out, would they send him back to Kasthir?

“It does really,” said Emeraldine mildly. “You wouldn’t hit Lubris or Yeldra as hard as you could, would you? They’re as much smaller than you as you are compared to Clan Sandrek. They should be taking care of you and teaching you, not beating you up.”

Aronoke hadn’t thought about it like that. Couldn’t help feeling that Emeraldine was probably right.

“It’s not the same. I’m more used to it than the younglings are,” he said stubbornly, looking across at them thoughtfully.  But he wouldn’t hit at them as hard as he would Draken or Emeraldine, he thought, a little surprised.  He hadn’t been like that on Kasthir – wouldn’t have thought twice about it.  When had he changed?

“Well, it’s your head,” said Emeraldine, “but I don’t think much of these Clan Sandrek people for treating you so harshly.”

Harshly. A stick-blow to the head was not so harsh, Aronoke thought to himself. He often wondered what Hespenara had originally told Emeraldine about him when she had first asked her to look out for Aronoke.

“So did you ask about me and Ashquash?” Draken asked when they had finished. Emeraldine had left for her own clan quarters, and Aronoke, Draken and Ashquash were walking back, the younglings having streamed off ahead of them.

“No,” said Aronoke flatly, feeling Ashquash’s eyes on him. “I didn’t.”

“Aw, that’s not fair,” said Draken. “Why should you get to go and train in new things, when we don’t?”

Aronoke sighed. “You don’t understand. Those Clan Sandrek people were really big, almost ready to go off and be Padawans. They were much better than me. I couldn’t keep up. I got hurt.”

“So you think it was some sort of mistake?” said Draken.

“I don’t know,” said Aronoke. “Their mentor said it wasn’t, that I should keep coming back, but I’m not so sure.” Seeing Draken’s face still stony with disappointment he tried to explain a bit better. “You read about the chiss, right?”

Draken nodded.

“Well, Master Insa-tolsa told me this. Chiss don’t grow up like humans do. They grow up faster. I’m eleven years old, only a year older than you, but because I’m a chiss, I’m really like I’m a few years older. After about three more years, I’m going to be finished growing. All grown up. As grown up as those people in Clan Sandrek will be.”

“That’s slimed,” said Draken, looking depressed.

“Yes, it is. I don’t like the idea much myself,” said Aronoke awkwardly. “I didn’t know about it until Master Insa-tolsa told me.”

Ashquash didn’t seem pleased either, Aronoke noticed. She was listening and not saying anything, like she often did. Scowling crossly at them both.

“But I think that could be a reason why they put me in a group like that,” he continued. “Because in three years I’m expected to be as grown up as they are.”

“I suppose that makes sense,” said Draken grudgingly.

“I didn’t want to ask about you and Ashquash,” Aronoke explained, “because they weren’t very friendly. Looked at me like I was some kind of freak, like they weren’t happy I was there. It wasn’t fun. I don’t think you’d like it.”

Didn’t really like it himself, thought Aronoke, but he was too stubborn to say so.

The text on his datapad was called “Tier I – the Way of the Lightsaber” and proved to be interesting but very hard to understand, by Aronoke’s standards. There were lots of words in it that he didn’t know, so next time he went for his lesson with Master Zolo he took the document to show to the Twi’lek master.

“I’m supposed to read this,” he said. “But it’s hard and got lots of words in it I don’t know. I thought maybe we could do some lessons with these words in them?”

Master Zolo looked pleased that Aronoke was taking an interest. Looked at the document on the datapad.

“So they’re got you on lightsaber training already, eh?” he said to Aronoke.

“Yes,” said Aronoke.

“I would have thought it would be a bit early for that,” said Master Zolo mildly, skipping through the text. “Yes, I don’t see why we can’t use this as study material.”

Aronoke was pleased. It was a way to combine lessons that made good sense.

The lessons continued. Aronoke was not sent to train with Clan Sandrek every exercise session. Was grateful that was so. He found it hard to keep up with them, but refused to do anything but try his hardest. He took up running in the early mornings before his shower, trying to improve his endurance, but he knew not much would change until he grew more. He never complained about being hurt or knocked down, which happened often. The bruises didn’t bother him as much as the jibes. The little signs of discontent. Aronoke soon noticed that some of the Clan Sandrek people worked together to make him look stupid, maybe to get him kicked out of the group.

Vark was ostensibly friendly, patient and diligent, acting as a mentor to Aronoke. Took him aside to show him the moves again and again.

“You should try to use your Force powers to help you fight,” Vark said one day when they were alone, training in that way.

“What do you mean?” asked Aronoke, confused. He hadn’t learned how to use the Force in fighting – Clan Herf hadn’t started that kind of lesson yet.

“All the most powerful Jedi use the Force in battle,” Vark elaborated. “That’s how they do so many things that seem impossible and are more formidable than any non-Force-using oppponent. How they react so quickly, move so agilely, and strike so forcefully. They could never do those things without the Force. You don’t do that at all, which is why you are still so slow and weak.”

“I suppose so,” said Aronoke uncertainly, “but I don’t know how to do that yet.”

“It’s not difficult,” said Vark. “You must feel the power within you and let it flow freely. You have to want to win. Use your need to get the better of your opponent to help fuel your blows. I think it would help you a lot.”

Aronoke felt hesitant. He was always on his guard now with Clan Sandrek, and he didn’t trust Vark, even though the duros had always been nice to him. He thought carefully through what Vark had suggested.

It made a certain amount of sense – Jedi obviously used the Force in combat. Fighting Master Altus and Hespenara in the canyon had given him personal evidence of that. But Master Insa-tolsa had told Aronoke that opening himself to the Force without proper control was dangerous. Also Aronoke had read in the lightsaber training manual and knew from the basic Force lessons Clan Herf was doing, that what Vark said was wrong. You were never supposed to use your emotions to fuel your power. It was the easy way. The Dark side.

But why would Vark encourage him to do that? Surely Vark knew it was wrong even better than Aronoke did.

Oh, now he got it – this was another of Clan Sandrek’s little tests. Aronoke was supposed to try this thing and then get in trouble for doing it. He scowled and did not say anything to Vark, but he thought less of Vark for trying to manipulate him. He steeled himself to endure and resist their taunts, and kept doing his training the same way he had before.

“I won’t be able to come and spar with you anymore,” said Emeraldine reluctantly one afternoon, after the conclusion of their weekly sparring session. “I have to prepare for my tests to become a Padawan, and after that, if I pass, hopefully I will be chosen by a Master for further training.”

“Aw, Emeraldine, we’ll miss you,” said Draken, and several of the little kids added their voices to his.

“Good luck on your tests, Emeraldine,” said Aronoke.

“Yeah, I’m sure you’ll do well,” said Draken.

“I’ll try my best,” said Emeraldine, but she did seem nervous, Aronoke thought.

“Good luck, Emeraldine,” added Ashquash awkwardly, and then scowled as if to make up for it.

Really Ashquash was close to becoming one of the group, Aronoke thought. He felt a glowing pleasure in her achievement and then wondered why. He hadn’t felt that way about someone else’s success since Bunkertown, when Ebraz had managed to steal some ration bars from the larder right under Geb’s non-existant nose.

Friends. It was because they were friends. How strangely different Aronoke’s life had become, that he could be friends with someone like Ashquash.

Maybe I really am starting to belong here, Aronoke thought to himself.

Despite Emeraldine’s absence, Draken, Ashquash and Aronoke continued the extra sparring sessions. It was something active to do and a good use of spare time. The sparring was not as serious as physical training classes and it was good practice for them to test their skills against each other. Aronoke was learning many new things from his sessions with Clan Sandrek, despite his difficulties, although he still felt very much the underdog there. He shared his new skills with his friends so they all benefitted.

As the weeks passed, Aronoke’s endurance and muscle tone continued to improve, while his appetite increased accordingly. Gone were the days when he couldn’t finish the food on his plate. He often found himself going back for seconds.

It was after one of his early morning running sessions that Aronoke noticed the droid in the showers. It was in there when he went to get cleaned up. Made Aronoke feel suspicious and uncomfortable. It seemed to be doing some sort of maintenance to the walls.

“What are you doing here?” Aronoke asked the droid.

“I am servicing the hypercapacitors,” said the droid, and went on to give further details. Aronoke wasn’t up on technological speech. Hadn’t thought showers needed hypercapacitors. He frowned and decided to skip his shower, to come back the next day. Razzak Mintula wouldn’t notice, just this once.

But the next day he had not been in the shower very long when the same droid came in again. Aronoke could see it over the top of his cubicle, floating up by the ceiling, doing something else, high up in the walls.

It was stupid to feel paranoid about a maintenance droid in the showers, Aronoke told himself. They had to do maintenance in there sometimes. But he couldn’t see why it should be doing things up near the ceiling while he was trying to wash. He turned around, keeping his back against the wall, and finished very quickly, keeping his back turned away from the droid as much as was physically possible.

“How long are you going to be doing maintenance here in the mornings?” asked Aronoke irritably when he was fully dressed.

“This should be the last time today,” said the droid. “I should not have to come back, unless of course, I receive further orders to do so.”

Nevertheless, Aronoke was suspicious. He had Draken come and look at the walls. There were tiny holes drilled in all of them.

“Can you tell if there are cameras or something in there?” asked Aronoke.

“I don’t know,” said Draken. “It’s impossible to tell, not without taking the whole wall out.” They both peered at the wall intently. Ashquash came in and stared at them.

“What are you doing?” she asked, and stared at the wall too.

Aronoke knew that Ashquash was paranoid enough about the Jedi temple already. Didn’t want to unsettle her.

“Oh, nothing,” he said awkwardly.

“We’re just looking at the wall together,” said Draken brightly. “It’s a meditative group bonding exercise.”

Aronoke had no idea what he meant, but Ashquash recoiled slightly.

“I’ll come back later,” she said nervously and fled.

Once Ashquash was gone, Aronoke and Draken blocked all the holes with cleaning products, but after that Aronoke felt even less comfortable in the shower. He tried to keep his back to the wall all the time he was in there, in case there were cameras that could see him.

The history and lore lessons in the morning slowly grew more challenging. Generally Aronoke thought he understood them, although the people in the stories still mystified him with some of the choices they made. The younglings didn’t seem to have problems accepting these moral tales, but when it came to things like why the Jedi spared a diabolical Sith’s life after an immense struggle which the Jedi only won at great expense, Aronoke felt mystified. Why would you spare a hated enemy, who had hurt you and your friends, and would only go on to do more evil?

The stories thought stealing things was wrong too, whereas in Aronoke’s experience stealing was second-nature. He had often stolen things himself. Knew how to pick pockets and run a good distraction. Might have starved to death if he had never stolen anything. Leaving things unguarded and then complaining when they were stolen seemed inexplicable to Aronoke. What else would you expect?

Despite the odd ideas the stories taught, Aronoke could read and write almost all the words in Clan Herf’s lessons now, although he was still not quick at it. Meditation exercises came easily to him, and he practiced them diligently, both to keep peculiar attractions stimulated by womens’ hair, and his scary sense of the Jedi temple at bay. The basic Force exercises Clan Herf practiced were interesting, even though they had not learnt to lift pebbles yet.

If it were not for the lessons with Clan Sandrek, Aronoke would have felt completely satisfied with his progress. Rather than growing more tolerant towards him, the older initiates seemed more contemptuous of his presence than they had at the beginning, well aware by now, Aronoke thought gloomily, that he was no prodigy. It was hard not to get angry over some of the things that they did to show their displeasure.

Perhaps most notable was a day when Clan Sandrek and Aronoke had been told to rigidly practice the basic forms of lightsaber combat in a set pattern, one blow after another. Vark was almost always Aronoke’s partner. Even when he was not, he was usually somewhere nearby, keeping an eye on Aronoke’s progress. Today he had gone over to ask Mentor Tolto something while Rancolos, the sandy-haired boy, was facing off against Aronoke, one-two, three-four, five, and back to the beginning, one blow after another in a predictable pattern.

Mentor Tolto had turned away, deep in conversation with Vark, when Rancolos slipped in an extra blow, a low cunning sweep that cracked painfully into Aronoke’s shins.

“Hey!” said Aronoke indignantly, and Master Tolto glanced over momentarily, but then Vark said something else and he turned away almost at once.

“You’re too slow,” said Rancolos calmly. “Keep up, can’t you?”

Aronoke’s eyes narrowed. He tried to calm his rising anger and concentrated on the exercise.

One clean pass and then on to a second. Then a third. Aronoke began to relax again. One-two, three, and then Rancolos struck another quick blow, this time glancing off Aronoke’s hip. Aronoke glanced grimly across at Mentor Tolto, saw that he was still distracted by whatever Vark was asking him.

Rancolos saw the glance and smirked more broadly.

Aronoke lost it then, like he seldom did. Losing your temper on Kasthir when you were the smallest and weakest was akin to suicide. He swung his practice blade to strike directly at Rancolos, but the older boy parried him easily. Aronoke tried to strike again and again, but Rancolos easily evaded him, smirking all the time. Rapped Aronoke’s knuckles hard so he dropped his practice blade. Well, these sticks were stupid weapons anyway. Aronoke was much better at scuffling. Angrily, Aronoke leapt at Rancolos with his bare fists.

Then Mentor Tolto was suddenly there. Aronoke wondered later if he had noticed the fight on his own, or if someone else had alerted him.

“Aronoke, what are you doing?” asked Mentor Tolto coldly. “If you want to be in the class you can not behave like a youngling.”

A youngling? Aronoke was furious but stopped still and said nothing. He stared at the ground, barely restraining himself.

“We will pair off for duelling now,” Mentor Tolto addressed the class, ignoring Aronoke’s sullen scowl.

Aronoke went to pair off with Vark as usual, but Vark was not there. He was sitting down doing something with his shoe. Instead there was Zujana, staring at him in her intent cat-like way.

Zujana was dangerously unpredictable. And Vark’s absence, first talking to Mentor Tolto and now fiddling with his shoe, was too much of a coincidence. It was another one of their plots, Aronoke suddenly realised. He found his temper cooling abruptly to be replaced by an icy calm. He could not afford to be angry in a fight with Zujana. She would not hold back. He had to think or he could be badly hurt. The old lessons from the knife fights back in Tarbsosk and the more serious battles in Bunkertown came abruptly back to him. Being angry was no good. Being angry stopped you thinking. Got you killed. Aronoke was abruptly sober and calm.

It was a good fight. Like the time he had fought Zujana wildly on that first day, everyone stopped to watch. It was different than that fight – it kept to the standard forms, although only barely. Somehow Aronoke was at the centre of his being, able to respond and strike, parry and dodge in a calculated way. They were very evenly matched now, he realised, although Zujana was still older, still bigger, still had more endurance. The match seemed to go on forever and Aronoke grew more and more tired, the muscles burning in his arms, the sweat stinging his eyes.

As he slowed, he failed to parry a blow by a laser’s breadth, and was disarmed.

Unlike last time, Zujana looked tired too.

“Good fight,” she said, respect creeping into her strange voice.

“Thanks,” said Aronoke awkwardly.

It was some sort of victory, he thought, even though he had still lost.

Shortly after the day he lost his temper, another document about physical training appeared on Aronoke’s datapad. It was called “Alien Martial Arts of the Outer Rim,” and, like the article on lightsaber training, it contained a large number of words that Aronoke could not understand. There were pictures in it too, which mainly seemed to depict underclad aliens in various fighting positions. Aronoke did not like to look at the pictures too closely. They made him feel uncomfortable.  The aliens had dangly parts in all the wrong places.

Alien Martial Arts? Did Jedi learn about that sort of thing? Maybe it was to help them learn to fight against alien enemies. Aronoke decided it must be a lesson he was expected to read, and took it to Master Zolo for he next reading lesson.

“I am supposed to read this as well,” he said to Master Zolo, showing him the document.

Master Zolo looked at it and frowned. “Who told you to read this?” he asked sharply.

Aronoke caught his tone at once, realised that there must something wrong with it.

Someone had been playing him for a fool. Maybe someone like Rancolos. Suddenly the document seemed like a scathing jibe regarding his temper outburst the other day, when he had gone for Rancolos with his fists. Aronoke felt the heat rising in his cheeks and schooled himself to calmness. If someone had played a stupid joke on him, it was their fault, not his.

“No one actually told me to,” admitted Aronoke. “It appeared on my datapad, so I thought I was supposed to read it. I haven’t read it yet. It looked too hard.”

“Oh,” said Master Zolo. “Well I don’t think you should. Some of the things in it look entirely inappropriate.”

“Then I will delete it,” said Aronoke. “It is probably someone’s stupid idea of a joke.”

“That is a good idea,” said Master Zolo, so Aronoke deleted it immediately.

One afternoon Clan Herf had just come back from physical training, and there was Emeraldine, waiting for them in their clan common room.

“Emeraldine!” cried Bithron, who saw her first, and then all the younglings ran up to cluster around her. “Emeraldine’s back! Oh, she’s got a lightsaber!”

“Emaraldine!” said Draken. “You passed your tests?”

Emeraldine was nodding and smiling, the centre of a deluge of questions from the younglings.

“Congratulations!” said Aronoke.

“Give Emeraldine some space,” said Razzak Mintula sternly to the younglings. “Remember your manners. Jedi do not behave like a flock of young skelp. Remember you must be able to remain calm at all times. Look at Ashquash, she is not leaping about like a pop-louse.”

“Yes, Instructor Mintula.”

“Sorry Emeraldine,” said Yeldra, “But can we see your lightsaber, please?”

Emeraldine looked across at Razzak Mintula. “May I show them, Instructor?” she asked.

“Yes, I don’t see why not,” said Razzak Mintula. “Clan Herf, come and stand and give Emeraldine some space. A lightsaber is a dangerous weapon, much more so than a practice blade. It should never be wielded without due care or purpose.”

“We know that, Instuctor,” said Lubris, sighing over-dramatically. Razzak Mintula gave him a warning look, and he quickly subsided.

Emeraldine unclipped the lightsaber from her belt and activated it. The blade was a strong bright yellow. She effortlessly moved through the first three forms before deactivating it again. The buzzing sound the blade made brought Aronoke back to that first shocking moment when he had seen a lightsaber. How different things had been then.

“Congratulations on passing your initiate trials and receiving your lightsaber, Emeraldine,” said Razzak Mintula.

“Congratulations,” echoed Ashquash awkwardly.

“Thank you,” said Emeraldine, smiling broadly. “I wanted to come and see you all while I have some time. I have finished all my tests, and now all I have to do is wait to see if I am chosen by a Master.”

“I’m sure you will be,” said Aronoke confidently. “Who wouldn’t want a padawan like you?”

“I know I shouldn’t worry about it,” said Emeraldine, “and I expect that you are right, that I will be chosen, but it’s hard to feel properly settled without knowing what’s going to happen.”

“You’ll be off having adventures across the galaxy any day now,” said Draken jealously. “Nothing could be more certain.”

Emeraldine laughed kindly. “And so will you one day,” she said. “Don’t wish all your life and training away too quickly. You know the years you spend in the Jedi temple are likely the most peaceful and pleasant that you’ll ever have.”

“Peaceful?” cried Draken. “With all these lessons and rules?”

Everyone laughed.

“I had best get back to my own clan,” said Emeraldine. “I just wanted you to know that I had passed the trials. I don’t know if I will be able to come back and see you again, but I will send a message to let you know if I get chosen.”

“When you get chosen,” said Aronoke.

“When, then,” said Emeraldine, smiling. “Goodbye!”

“Good luck, Emeraldine!” said Draken. “We’ll miss you.

Word came perhaps a week later that Emeraldine had been selected as a padawan by Master Ormenel, and was leaving the Jedi temple. She had no idea when she would be back, if at all. Aronoke was pleased that she had been selected so quickly. Sent back a message of congratulations and farewell. He had not liked to think of cheerful, good-natured Emeraldine waiting a long time to be chosen, worrying more and more that she would be passed over despite all her hard work.

Would anyone want him, a weird abandoned chiss from Kasthir, when the time came?  Aronoke pushed the faint fear aside almost immediately.  There was no point worrying about things that lay so far in the future.

Then, one afternoon, Aronoke was summoned by Yeldra to answer a message on the message viewer. When he went to look, Hespenara herself was on the screen. She looked a little older, a little more confident and relaxed, he thought. More comfortable in her own skin.

“Aronoke!” said Hespenara. “It’s good to see you again! You’re looking quite different. I see you’ve had your hair cut.”

All of Clan Herf had their hair cut, except Ashquash, who had no hair, and Kergridosk, who was a rodian. It had been an interesting experience and nothing like Draken’s unappetizing stories about second-rate barber droids in the lower levels. They were allowed to choose their hair-cuts from a number of standard Jedi selections. Aronoke had chosen one of the longer styles, and the droid had cut his hair off in a straight line at the height of his jaw. He liked his new hair, liked how it looked so crisp and straight in the mirror and less like he had suffered an unfortunate accident in a vibroblade factory.  He felt it made him look older, better suited how he felt about himself since he had been growing so fast.

“Yes,” said Aronoke. “It’s good to see you too, Hespenara.”

“We had a good trip,” said Hespenara. “Master Altus is eager to see you again too, so if you’re free I thought I could come and pick you up and bring you over for dinner tonight.”

Master Altus! Aronoke had experienced a hopeful flush of warmth and well-being upon seeing Hespenara on the viewscreen, just because he had guessed that Master Altus must be back too. The feeling was linked very strongly in his mind to the moment when Master Altus had held him at lightsaber-point back on Kasthir. The smell of sweat and fumes, the heat, the buzzing of the lightsaber – at the thought of seeing Master Altus, they all came back to him instantly, filling an integral place in his world. Although it was not at all a physical attraction, it was still not a Jedi-appropriate impulse, he realised guiltily. He pushed his misgivings aside, refusing to question his feelings more deeply. It was too private.

“Okay,” Aronoke said aloud. “I will have to ask Instructor Mintula to make sure it is alright first.”

“That’s fine,” said Hespenara, smiling. “Generally in my experience, if an Intiate is asked to do anything by a Jedi Master they will always be allowed to do it, unless of course they were currently being punished for a very serious misdemeanour indeed.”

“Well, it should be alright since I escaped from my cell already,” Aronoke joked, keeping his face absolutely straight.

Hespenara looked at him uncertainly for a moment and then laughed. “You’re going to make a very interesting Jedi, Aronoke,” she said. “I will see you tonight.”

When she arrived on her little bubble speeder late that afternoon, Aronoke looked at her and thought for a moment that she had changed. She was more assured, as he had noted on the holoscreen. Whereas before she had looked to him like a green girl, secondary to Master Altus and to an extent discountable, now she looked like a proper padawan. She had grown into the role during the expedition. Also, he realised a moment later, he had changed. He knew better what being a padawan meant, could respect her more in her own right.

She also looked like a woman, attractively fit and well muscled. With some dismay he felt his body respond to that thought.

“Aronoke! You’ve grown so much!” said Hespenara, standing at arm’s length to look at him, too close for comfort. “You’re filling out,” she added, her eyes travelling over the length of him. “And you’re cleaner.”

Aronoke smiled.

“Did your expedition go well?” he asked.

“Oh, it was a lot like hard work sometimes, more for Master Altus than for me,” she said. “I’m a bit tired now, but nothing I won’t get over soon. It was nice to be on a forested planet again, after being here and on your Kasthir. Things did not go as smoothly as we would have liked, but we got them sorted out and we are back now. How is your training going?”

As she spoke, Aronoke had taken several slow steps backwards, running through a couple of meditative tricks to maintain his composure. Hespenara smiled a little more wickedly, perhaps realising the effect she was having on him, but said nothing. Did not seem to take offense.

“It’s going well,” said Aronoke. “It’s all quite easy.”

“I expect it would be after everything you went through on Kasthir,” said Hespenara sympathetically. “Here, I have a gift for you – you might as well have it now, so you don’t have to carry it about with you.”

A gift. Aronoke couldn’t remember ever being given a gift, unless you counted the blaster Fronzak gave him when he first became a skimmer. Certainly he had never been given anything like this. A pretty thing. It was an intricate wooden box, carved from a dark dense timber. The pieces slid and moved about in a complex way.

“It’s a puzzle box,” said Hespenara. “From the planet we were visiting.”

“How does it open?” asked Aronoke, pleased. He had nothing in his room that did not come from the Jedi temple.

“Well, that’s the point,” said Hespenara.

“Ah, that’s the puzzle,” said Aronoke. “Thank you, it is very pleasing.”

He put the puzzle box in his room, on the shelf next to his bed, and came back out to join Hespenara.

“Shall we go?” said Hespenara.

“Yes,” said Aronoke and climbed on the back of the speeder. It was uncomfortable to sit perched on the back very close to Hespenara, while trying hard not think of her being a girl. Much less comfortable than it had been last time, not so many months before. I really am growing older quickly, Aronoke thought, sitting as far back on the speeder as possible and thinking meditative thoughts while also concentrating on not falling off. It was not easy.

He was grateful it was easier to not think of Ashquash as a girl, because that would make it difficult to share a room with her. He knew this suited Ashquash too, that she had been eager to maintain the illusion that she was a boy. Remembered how angry she had been when Draken had found out the truth and told everyone.

“Why do you mind if people know that you are a girl?” Aronoke had asked later while they were out sparring.

Ashquash shrugged. “Being a slave and being a girl is difficult. People treat you differently and want to do horrible things to you.”

“Yes, that’s rough,” said Aronoke sympathetically, “but I don’t think it’s as different as you think. People can do horrible things to you no matter what sort of person you are.”

“My species is such that I can pass for a human boy in most places,” said Ashquash, “so there is no reason to be thought of as a girl if people think I am a boy. It’s safer like that.”

“Well, I promise not to think of you as a girl, or to treat you differently,” said Aronoke, and he bopped her over the head with his sparring stick to prove it.

Master Altus looked very tired, Aronoke thought, when they arrived at his rooms. Looked like he could use a long rest. It must have been a terribly troublesome planet if it could weary someone like Master Altus. Why, he had come off Kasthir looking fresh and unruffled. Still, Aronoke supposed, more populated planets must have more numerous unpleasant people to fight, even if they had fewer nasty creatures and more hospitable environments.

“Ah, Aronoke,” said Master Altus. “You are looking well! You have put on a substantial amount of weight and height since last time, much more like you should be.”

“Yes Master,” said Aronoke, smiling back at him. “It’s good to see you again.”

“Let us talk of inconsequential things and eat first. We will get down to more serious business later.”

“As you wish, Master,” said Aronoke, wondering what sort of business Master Altus had in mind, thinking that the green man looked too worn to be bothering with Aronoke just now. He found himself oddly torn between concern and being glad to see Master Altus – surely Aronoke had no serious problems that could not wait until later. Still, Master Altus was capable of looking after himself, while Aronoke was only an intiate and should do as Master Altus willed.

Hespenara went to fetch the dinner things while Aronoke and Master Altus sat down.

“You are looking rather tired, Master,” said Aronoke a little apologetically, and the green man sighed wearily.

“Yes, it was a difficult trip in many ways. Not so much for Hespenara, which is why she is off fetching dinner while I sit here.”

“That’s her job, Master,” Aronoke noted.

“Yes, that’s true,” said Master Altus. “Although I try to avoid burdening my padawan with too many menial tasks that I could just as easily perform myself or request from a droid. Some Masters consider that a long induction of carrying and cleaning should be the padawan’s lot in early years, ostensibly to train patience and obedience, but I feel it is just as much my duty to provide my padawan with appropriate training as it is for her to serve me.”

Aronoke hoped that when he became a padawan that his master would be someone like Master Altus. Of course, it would be best of all would be if Master Altus was his Master, but there were a lot of reasons why that might not be so. A Master only had one padawan at a time. Hespenara might not be finished before Aronoke was ready. And then, Master Altus might have reasons of his own for not wanting Aronoke as a padawan.

Like the undeniable bond Aronoke felt existed between them.

“It was a long journey back here and I am grateful it is over,” continued Master Altus. “Now that I am here, I hope to stay in residence for some time, which will allow me to oversee your studies a little more closely. I have plenty of work to keep me busy here for some time.”

Aronoke was pleased at the idea of Master Altus being at the Temple for a time, although he wondered why he took such an interest in Aronoke’s education when it was not typical for a Master to do so.

“Ah, here is Hespenara with the food,” said Master Altus, when the green girl arrived back. “Let us eat.”

The portions were not as huge as the ones Aronoke had grown accustomed to being served in the refectory and the food was of a different kind than he would have chosen, simple but spicy. He had learned to eat more gracefully, he hoped, during his time on Coruscant. After he had been teased a few times about his poor table manners by Draken, he had been more receptive to Razzak Mantula’s instructions on how to use his eating implements properly. He was glad of those things now, eating with Master Altus, even though the meal was a simple one and the occasion informal.

After dinner they sat talking for a while, the three of them, and Aronoke was pleased that he no longer failed to recognise all the names in the mysterious conversations Hespenara and Master Altus had. Now he understood a name here and a concept there. The things they said were still a peculiar dance of words that were hard to follow, but he had made some progress. He could even make a relevant comment, or ask a relevant question occaisonally.

After a while, Master Altus told Hespenara she could take the rest of the evening off.

“I expect Aronoke will be able to find his own way back to his quarters by now,” he told her, “So take some time to yourself, Padawan.”

“Yes, Master, thank you,” she said, and bidding Aronoke good night, disappeared out the door.

Master Altus sighed and stretched a little, leaned back in his chair, meshed his fingers and tapped his thumbs together.

“I have been looking at your training results Aronoke,” he said. “How have you been finding things? Are they going well?”

“Mostly well, Master,” said Aronoke.

“Why don’t you tell me about them?”

Aronoke was accustomed to this sort of question by now and knew that Master Altus was asking him to describe how his training was going, rather than asking for a reason why he did not.

“Everything is going relatively smoothly,” said Aronoke. “The lessons we have in the morning, the philosophy, history and meditation are very simple. It is a little harder for me to keep up because I am still learning to read, but that is going well too. I find it hard to understand the reasoning behind some of the moral stories. They don’t make much sense to me, because the way people behave is nothing like the way they would on Kasthir, but I expect I will learn to understand in time. The Force lessons are easy enough too. I am learning Huttese, but I don’t seem to have much of an ear for it. I expect it will get easier when my reading improves. I am doing some extra meditation lessons that Master Insa-tolsa told me I should learn, because I am supposed to be growing up quicker than if I was a human. Those are more difficult, but I am getting better at them. For Physical Training I spend several sessions a week training with one of the older clans, Clan Sandrek, which is quite hard.”

“Hard?” asked Master Altus. “In what way?”

“Well, firstly because I am a lot smaller than they are,” said Aronoke. “I can’t reach as far and I am not as strong so it is physically difficult. I get tired quicker than they do. I started doing extra running so I might be able to keep up better, and I think that has helped. Still, nothing will really change until I grow more. Quite often I get hurt because I am not as adept. I get beaten a lot, although I expect losing is just as good practice, and I am used to that from Kasthir, but there are other things…” He hesitated, uncertain whether he should tell Master Altus about the attitude of the Sandrek clan.

“Yes?”

“Well, the members of Sandrek clan don’t seem to like me being there,” said Aronoke apologetically. “They sometimes do things purposefully to make me angry. One will trip me up while someone else distracts the instructor. That sort of thing. It is hard not to get angry, even though I know I am not supposed to. They don’t like it that I am there because I am smaller and slower and haven’t been trained as much as they have.”

“That shouldn’t matter,” said Master Altus calmly. “They should be more patient.”

“That’s true, Master, and yet I can understand why they feel that way. They are not like that all the time. Most of them try to be patient.”

“They should try harder,” said Master Altus inflexibly. “They should be trying to be good examples to you, since they are nearly finished their training as Initiates.”

He sat back looking thoughtful for a long moment, and Aronoke wondered what was concerning him so deeply.

“I am not certain, Aronoke, why you have been seconded to Clan Sandrek at all. It is very unusual, and not at all the way things should be done. I can not find out who has sent the directive that you should be allocated there. It comes from the Jedi Council, that much is obvious, but exactly from where I am not certain. I would have preferred, you realise, if your training had not been so quickly advanced in this way.”

“Oh,” said Aronoke. “It just appeared on my schedule. I did not know it was unusual so I just did it.”

“Yes,” said Master Altus. “I understand that. You don’t know how things are done here, so it is difficult for you to tell if anything is out of the ordinary. Nevertheless, it would be wise if you report any suspicious things that happen to someone you trust. I don’t want you to feel insecure here within the Jedi temple, because you are safe, especially by the standards of a world like Kasthir, but I am convinced that someone is seeking to influence your training.”

“Influence my training?” queried Aronoke. “Why would they do that?”

“There could be many reasons,” said Master Altus. “By influencing your lessons and the things you encounter within them, someone could be hoping to reach a particular outcome, to steer your training in a particular direction.”

“But why would they do that to me?” asked Aronoke.

“Because you are different,” said Master Altus. “Because you are strong in the Force. Perhaps because of other unique traits that you possess – you are a chiss, you were raised in an unusual way and then there is that other aspect that you showed me.”

Because of the strange thing on my back, interpreted Aronoke, while part of him quailed at the thought of being considered different, even here in this place where so various a collection of sentient species resided with a common goal. All he wanted was to be able to blend in.

“Do you wish to continue training with Clan Sandrek, Aronoke?” said Master Altus. “I can possibly have you moved back to training with your own clan, or perhaps with another that is not quite as advanced with their training.”

Aronoke was quiet for a while. He wanted to be strong and prove himself to Clan Sandrek. He also wanted to be obedient to Master Altus, who didn’t want him doing such advanced training.

“I don’t like to give up at things, Master. I would like to keep trying.”

“By all accounts they will be sitting for their final tests soon, which will mean that you have to be reassigned anyway,” said Master Altus. “So I expect it is not so important, as long as you are happy with the situation. Are there any other unusual things in your training that you have noticed?”

“I’m not sure,” said Aronoke, but then immediately thought of something. “There was one odd thing – a document which appeared on my datapad. When I started training with the Sandrek people, Mentor Tolto gave me a document to read, about the way of the lightsaber, but it had lots of hard words in it. I couldn’t read it very well. So I took it to Master Zolo, my reading instructor, and he helped me with it. Made it part of my lessons, which was helpful. Then, a few weeks later, another document appeared on my datapad, so I thought it was something I was supposed to learn too. It was something about Alien Martial Arts from the Outer Rim. It also had hard words, so I took that to Master Zolo too, but he didn’t like it. He said it was not very appropriate. I thought someone was playing a stupid joke on me, so I deleted it.”

“Hm,” said Master Altus. “Master Zolo you say? Perhaps he would remember the exact title of the document. I shall get in contact with him.”

“Yes Master,” said Aronoke.

“You should come and see me again if anything else happens, Aronoke,” said Master Altus. “As I said, I expect to be around for a while this time. Or, of course, you can come and see me if you just wish to talk, as well.”

“Yes, Master. Thank you.”

“It is after all my responsibility that you are here,” said Master Altus. “Since I brought you.”

It would have been a much worse thing, Aronoke thought, if he had not. Master Altus need feel no guilt over that.

Aronoke was thoughtful while walking back to his clan nest through the passages. A conspiracy then. He did not like the idea that the Jedi Temple was not as safe a haven as originally presented, but it was still very much safer than Kasthir. Wherever there were people, they would have different aims, different goals. Would seek to manipulate others to achieve those things. That was just the way of the galaxy.

A few days later, when they had just come back from exercise class, Draken said to Aronoke: “Coming to have a shower?”

Aronoke fidgeted and stared at the floor.

“I had one not long ago,” he said defensively.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you have one,” said Draken accusingly.

Everyone was obsessed with showers here, Aronoke thought. Even the little kids went into the ablutions block at least once a day just to wash themselves. Once every day! The ones who were reluctant were herded in by Razzak Mintula. Aronoke had always made himself absent when she went around rounding them up.

“I mean,” Draken continued, “it’s all very well not showering back on your primitive desert planet, where there’s no one but a bunch of stinky miners and criminals, but now you’re training to be a Jedi, you have to think about appearances. You can’t just go around looking shabby. I don’t care personally if you smell like sentient slime that evolved in the sewerage treatment system, but you’ve got to remember you are representing all the Jedi order now, not just yourself anymore.”

Sentient sewerage? Aronoke sniffed himself. Perhaps he smelt a bit stale, but that was all. Guiltily he remembered Master Altus had insisted that he wash. That Hespenara had noticed immediately when he hadn’t for a few days. Maybe it was part of being a Jedi to be so unreasonably fastidious about washing. Just like wearing robes was.

But the shower on the ship had been dry…the one here used water. Aronoke had seen how it worked and was horrified. Obviously people here used water for all sorts of things that Aronoke would never have considered.

In some ways it had been easier being a skimmer. No one expected you to wash. Ever.

“I washed on the ship,” said Aronoke stubbornly. “That wasn’t long ago.”

“Suit yourself,” said Draken and he went off to the showers. Aronoke saw him come back later, clean and slightly moist looking. Urgh. He couldn’t get used to the idea of getting wet all over. The smell of the water, doubtlessly full of strange dissolved substances from the air. The way it would feel against his skin.

Razzak Mintula must have also noticed that Aronoke was not washing because a few days later she came to talk to him about it.

“Aronoke, you have to go and have a shower,” said Razzak Mintula, in a voice that broached no argument. “It is important that you maintain a basic level of hygiene. I know you come from a desert planet, but there’s plenty of water here on Coruscant. It is not going to run out.”

Aronoke shuffled his feet, feeling uncomfortable.

“I had a shower on the ship”, he protested. “It wasn’t that long ago.”

“You should shower every day,” said Razzak Mintula fixing him with her most stern expression. “Directly after you exercise. Showering every second day is acceptable, but that is the bare minimum.”

Aronoke did not know what to say. He stared stubbornly at the ground, wishing he could avoid the issue. It was not just washing. He had seen how the little kids behaved. Even Draken. Running around wildly all over the place, not respecting each other’s privacy. He was worried that someone would look in. He didn’t care about them seeing him naked. It was his back, and despite Master Altus’s reassurance, he didn’t want anyone asking questions about it. But he couldn’t tell Razzak Mintula that.

“Do you understand, Aronoke?” Razzak Mintula asked.

“Yes, Instructor Mintula,” said Aronoke, “but it’s wet!”

“The water will not hurt you,” she said severely. “You are old enough to shower yourself and when you have tried it, I am sure you will find you quickly get used to it.”

Aronoke was silent. Could feel himself start to sweat.

Razzak Mintula continued to stare at him sternly, pinning him with her eyes as thoroughly as Fronzak might have stabbed a rock-tick with his vibroblade.

“Do I have to come in there and make you?” she threatened.

Aronoke immediately envisioned Razzak Mintula dragging him into the showers by one ear, shoving him in a cubicle, watching as he got undressed. The look on her face when she saw all the scars and the thing on his back. Shock and pity, and maybe something worse. Revulsion.

“No,” said Aronoke quickly.

“Very well then,” said Razzak Mintula. “Go and have a shower now.”

It was with considerable trepidation that he collected some clean clothes and went off to wash himself. It took a long time. He did not like to get entirely under the water at once. It felt very strange, the way the dribbly trickles of water trailed across his skin like an impossible deluge of warm sweat, insidiously coursing down to wet every part of him. Aronoke started with his hands and feet, tried to put just one part of him underneath at a time. It was worst with his head.

He did not feel properly dry for several hours afterwards.

He would have to get quicker at it, Aronoke thought afterwards. It struck him that if he got up very early in the morning when everyone was still asleep the shower room would be empty, and it would be safer.

From then on the whole experience was more bearable. When no one else was around, he didn’t get the creepy feeling that someone was going to come in and surprise him.

Aronoke had been in the primary training centre for a week when Emeraldine came to visit. She came after afternoon lessons.

“I thought we might go out and do something,” said Emeraldine. “Perhaps you would like to spar.”

“Okay,” said Aronoke. So he and Draken and Emeraldine went down to the exercise facilities. Emeraldine led them over to a rack which contained a number of practice sticks for practicing sparring.

“First you learn with practice sticks, then practice blades and finally lightsabers,” said Emeraldine. “Here, take a stick.”

The stick felt hard and slightly awkward within Aronoke’s hands. Too long to be a knife. Not balanced like a vibroblade. Wasn’t sure how to hold it for a few minutes, and slid his hands up and down its length, considering.

“Well?” said Emeraldine, holding her stick naturally in two hands, relaxed and ready.

Aronoke needed no further encouragement. Deciding to wield the stick like a vibroblade, he swung and slashed at Emeraldine.

“You don’t hold anything back do you?” said Emeraldine, parrying his blows with some effort.

“Sorry,” said Aronoke. Fights were always serious on Kasthir, even the ones you fought for fun. Aronoke had seldom won any of them. Skimming had hardly ever required fighting, only when the miners were new, and then there were usually lots of Fumers to take care of things. Occasionally a miner got it into his head that he wasn’t going to hand over his skim, but that could usually be solved with a bit of brash bravado on the skimmer’s part, accompanied by some reckless blaster-waving.

“No, it’s good,” said Emeraldine, puffing a bit. “So many people hold back.”

Emeraldine won. Nevertheless Aronoke was not displeased with his efforts. Emeraldine looked like she had to work to keep up with him.

After Aronoke’s turn, Draken had a go against Emeraldine and then they sparred each other.

“That was good,” Aronoke said to Draken afterwards, feeling a sense of satisfied achievement. “We should do that more often.”

“Yeah,” said Draken, grudgingly. “It wasn’t bad.” He had lost both his sessions, although, as Emeraldine said, it wasn’t supposed to be about winning. It hadn’t been too difficult to beat Draken. Aronoke had knocked his stick decisively out of his hands. Draken had obviously never been involved in any serious fighting.

“If we have to learn to use those things anyway,” said Aronoke, “then we might as well start learning them now. That way we’ll be better at using our lightsabers quicker.”

“That’s true. We’re already behind the others because we’re older,” said Draken.

Aronoke shrugged. “We’re ahead of the others in some things, because they’re smaller than us.”

“They’ll be younger than us when they finish,” said Draken.

“Not by so much,” said Aronoke. “And why should it matter anyway? We should practice as much as we can. That way we might catch up.”

“That’s probably a good idea,” said Draken.

Aronoke found that he liked the routine of doing the same things every day in the same order. It lent a predictability to his life that he found reassuring. Knew where he stood. The things that they learned were simple compared to learning skimming. Much less dangerous. There was no chance of getting killed at all. No need to worry constantly about who was behind you.

Aronoke thought that Draken felt more constrained by their lifestyle than he did. Draken was used to going where he liked, felt that it was okay to break the rules, as long as you didn’t get caught. He had told Aronoke that on Coruscant, rules were often no more than meaningless bureaucratic sludge, brought into place because the bureaucrats needed something to do. They weren’t always there  because they were necessary, but because someone who sat in a distant office thought that was how things should be done. If you broke the rules, mostly you wouldn’t die from it, unless you carelessly fell off a railing or crashed your speeder. As Draken said, if you were that stupid a bunch of rules probably wouldn’t save you anyway.

In the desert rules were different. Weren’t written down anywhere. Rules on Kasthir were practical things that stopped you from getting killed. Things like don’t go outside without your ventilator. Don’t stay out overnight. Stay out of the shade. Don’t mess with the higher-ups. People who ignored those things did not survive.

Here the rules were less important, but it was still easier to go along with them than to break them. Aronoke did not see the point of that, not when they were already given everything they needed. More than enough food. Clothing. Lessons. Enough things to do to keep busy all the time, if you wanted.

Draken argued with Razzak Mintula and the other instructors a good deal more than Aronoke did. Ashquash often didn’t do the lessons at all. Just sat there or did angry pointless things. But that was the riksht talking. He would soon get bored doing that as the addiction lost its hold on him.

Slowly, a little more with each passing day, Ashquash did seem to grow more sociable. Slowly began to participate.

One day, when Aronoke was sitting in the common room doing his reading homework, Ashquash came over with his own datapad.

“Do you mind if I sit here?” said Ashquash.

Aronoke was surprised to be asked. The common room belonged to everyone.

“No,” he said. Ashquash sat down on the other side of the table. Began doing his own reading lesson. They sat there in silence, each doing their own work, but somehow it was more companionable than working alone.

It was the first sign that Ashquash was getting better, Aronoke thought.

After that the pale kid would often come and sit with Aronoke. Together they studied in silence, until after a while, Ashquash started asking Aronoke questions. Would ask about the meaning of a word or how to write a sentence. Aronoke was further ahead, since Ashquash had spent a lot of time being angry and avoiding lessons, so he often knew the answers.

After a while, he started asking Ashquash questions back.

“So do you like it better here now?” asked Aronoke, during one of these sessions.

“I don’t miss the riksht as much,” said Ashquash.

“Do you still think they’re lying?”

“I don’t know,” said Ashquash uncertainly. “They do teach us a lot of things.”

“That’s true,” said Aronoke.

He did not want to say too much. Knew that the spice messed your brain up. Thought that Ashquash had to decide for himself.

It was during one of the sparring sessions with Emeraldine that Aronoke found out something interesting about Ashquash.

“So how is Ashquash doing?” asked the green girl as they went to return their practice sticks to the rack. Draken, full of energy as always, had already put his stick back and run off ahead.

Aronoke had long since learned that Emeraldine, Hespenara and Master Altus were all mirialans. Mirialans had funny cultural ideas about tatooing a record of their personal achievements on their faces. It explained why Master Altus had so very many tattoos, Aronoke thought privately.

“I think he’s getting better,” said Aronoke. “Does more things.”

“She’s had a difficult time,” said Emeraldine. “Hopefully she’s getting over her addiction now.”

Aronoke stared at Emeraldine. “She?” he asked incredulously.

“Yes,” said Emeraldine, smiling at him. “A lot of races look different from standard humans you know. You should know that as well as I do. Ashquash is a narakite, and her people do not have obvious female characteristics like humans do. They’re more androgynous looking.”

Androgynous. Aronoke turned this peculiar word over in his mind and decided to look it up on his datapad later.

“I thought she was human,” he said aloud. “Just rather skinny and pale.” He thought to himself that it was strange to be sharing a room with a girl. He had never noticed before, so should he let it bother him now? Did it really make any difference?

“Are you sure?” he asked Emeraldine.

“Yes,” said Emeradine, amused.

“Are they all bald?” asked Aronoke, but Emeraldine did not know.

Next time Aronoke saw Ashquash he couldn’t help but try to see if he could tell. Couldn’t, really. She was flat-chested and straight-hipped as any of the male people he knew.

Exactly one month after his last medical examination, Aronoke had to go for the follow-up one. He was careful to see the same droid that he had seen before. He thought that way there was less chance of something going wrong about his back.

He still felt uncomfortable, although nowhere near as scared. This time it was merely an inconvenience.

“You are free of parasites,” said the droid, when he stood naked against the scanner.

“Good,” said Aronoke, but it didn’t seem to please the droid so much. Aronoke thought it probably wanted more parasites for its collection.

“I will have to examine the sites where the parasites were attached,” said the droid, “to ensure that there is no scarring.”

Aronoke stared at the droid like it was stupid. Made an amused noise.

“Scarring?” he said incredulously. “Why would that matter? Bug-bite scars would be tiny.”

“The parasites were attached in delicate biological tissues,” said the droid. “It is important to check for scarring to ensure that you do not suffer any discomfort or dysfunction later.”

Aronoke rolled his eyes.

“I do admit,” said the droid, after a long pause, “that you do suffer from a large amount of accumulated scar tissue and that further scarring may seem insignificant by comparison. Nevertheless, while your health falls under the responsibility of this facility, it is my duty to ensure that all further scarring is minimalised.”

“Okay, okay, just look,” said Aronoke, wishing it would hurry up so he could get dressed again. It seemed to take forever checking all the places he had been bitten.

The droid was finally satisfied that everything was healing well. Then it fussed about for an eternity taking various measurements.

“You have grown substantially in height and mass,” said the droid. “And you have also gained considerable physical condition. You are rapidly approaching a size and mass that falls within acceptable parameteres for your age and species.”

“Good,” said Aronoke.

“It is an honor to continue participating in your medical care,” said the droid. “It is very interesting to be able to collect data regarding a near-human species outside of my previous experience.”

When he left, Aronoke was glad to hear that he wasn’t required to return for another six months.

“It’s not fair,” said Draken the next day during free time. “Do you know that Jedi don’t get any holidays? At school you get holidays. If you have a job you get holidays. But here in the Jedi temple we don’t get holidays at all. We work all year round doing the same things, except if there’s a special ceremony or something.”

Aronoke shrugged. This was one of those concepts that escaped him.

“I mean, it’s the law that people get holidays. As Jedi we are supposed to obey the law, and yet we don’t get any holidays. That doesn’t make sense.”

“What are they?” asked Aronoke.

Draken looked at him like he was stupid. Ashquash, who was sitting nearby and listening in, made an amused noise.

“You don’t know what a holiday is?” Draken asked, incredulously.

Aronoke shrugged again, feeling stupid.

“It’s when you don’t have to do any work or any lessons. When you have a day free to do whatever you want.”

Like a whole day of free time, thought Aronoke. It sounded boring. He liked the lessons. Felt like each one was making him better and stronger, less like a victim. Draken acted like the lessons were a torture that adults and bureaucrats had invented to inflict upon the young and keep them in their place.

“So it’s when you don’t have anything you have to do,” he said aloud.

“Yes!”

“But if you don’t do anything in your job, then you wouldn’t get paid,” said Aronoke. “That could be bad.”

“That’s not how it works,” said Draken. “They have an agreement, see. You don’t have to do anything for the day, but you still get paid for it. For doing nothing. That’s the way it works. It’s fun – you get to sit around and play simulation games, or go exploring or swimming. Maybe go on an excursion to a different sector. Sometimes you have special food, or a bit of money to spend on fun things.”

“It doesn’t seem so important,” said Aronoke frowning.

“Slaves never have holidays and never get paid,” Ashquash put in.

“Doesn’t seem important?!” said Draken. “You know what I think? I think you’ve never had any fun in your whole life. Neither of you. You don’t know what fun is! So when someone tells you about something that is fun, you don’t know what it is and so you don’t want to do it!”

Perhaps, Aronoke thought, that was more than a little true.

A few days after the medical evaluation Master Insa-tolsa came to see Aronoke, took him aside into a little private room where they could talk quietly.

“How are you finding your training, Aronoke?” asked the big ithorian. His great strangely shaped head swung gently from side to side as he spoke, the interpretation device making his booming voice small and tinny.

“It’s okay,” said Aronoke. “The lessons are very easy.”

“They will grow more difficult with time,” said Master Insa-tolsa patiently.

“I don’t mind,” said Aronoke.

“Is there anything which you feel is lacking?” he asked.

“Lacking, Master?” said Aronoke, not sure what he meant.

“Missing or incomplete,” elucidated the Master. “Anything that you feel you should be being educated in that you are not.”

“I don’t think I’m the one to ask, Master,” said Aronoke. “I don’t think I know enough to be able to tell.”

Master Insa-tolsa liked this answer. “That is most likely absolutely correct,” he said approvingly. “However, if there is any part of your education which you would like to expand upon, you may let me know.”

Aronoke had thought of one thing.

“The physical training classes we have are not very challenging, Master,” said Aronoke. “Because most of my clan is so small. A few of us are much larger than the others – couldn’t we learn things that were a bit more advanced?”

Master Insa-tolsa made a deep thoughtful booming sound that the translation device interpreted as “Hmm…”

“Some of us have been practicing sparring in our spare time,” Aronoke continued. “Maybe we could learn some basic weapon training?”

“Master Altus felt that it was important that your education proceed slowly and steadily, Aronoke,” the ithorian said after a few moments. “He felt a time of calmness and an orderly routine was what would benefit you most greatly and that your education should not be hurried despite your late start here. However, it is true that most of your clan-mates are physically much smaller than you, and that your physical training classes may not be sufficiently challenging. I will see what your instructor recommends.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke, impressed that Master Altus had bothered himself with specifics about his education.

“There is another matter which I wish to talk to you about,” Master Insa-tolsa continued.

“Yes, Master?”

“It is about you being a chiss. Do you know much about the chiss yet?”

“No,” said Aronoke. He felt awkward even thinking about them – a race of strangers who looked like him. Who had somehow carelessly misplaced him. Sometimes when he had been small, especially after Uncle Remo had died, he had imagined a story in his head in which he belonged to a family of people who looked just like him. Who had been horribly distraught when he had been kidnapped and taken away, and who were still out there somewhere looking for him. But that’s all it was – a story. It had nothing to do with the real chiss, who were allied with the Empire and thus adversaries of the Republic, as Draken had pointed out to him.

“Well, you may not know this, but being a chiss is biologically very like being a human, except in a few important aspects,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “One of the primary differences, the one that is going to begin affecting you very soon now, is that chiss reach maturity much earlier than humans do.”

“Oh,” said Aronoke, not liking where this was going.

“We estimate from your medical results and from what is known of chiss biology that you are somewhere between eleven and twelve standard galactic years old,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “In chiss, this age marks the point when a child begins to rapidly grow into an adult. You can expect that you will grow a great deal over the next few years and that by the end of them you will be fully grown.”

Aronoke felt acutely uncomfortable. Had expected to have years before he was grown-up yet.

“This is something that would not happen to humans until several years later and which would take longer to complete,” said Master Insa-tolsa.

“So I’ll grow even bigger than everyone else in my clan?” Aronoke asked, dismayed.

“For now, yes,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “Of course, they will eventually catch up with you, but that will take quite a few years.”

Aronoke’s heart sank. He didn’t want to be the big one, didn’t feel secure in that role at all. At least, he consoled himself, he would be better able to kick everyone else’s butt.

“Your emotional and mental maturity will proceed apace with your physical growth,” said Master Insa-tolsa, “so you will be better equipped to deal with your growth than you feel you are now.”

Aronoke nodded, but he could not imagine it.

“This also means that you are going to have to proceed more quickly through certain of your lessons than the rest of your clan,” continued Master Insa-tolsa. “It is important to your training as a Jedi that you learn the composure necessary to deal with the hormones produced by your changing body. In order to successfully do that, you must learn new meditation techniques to help you come to terms with the onset of sexual maturity, since this will bring with it new challenges.”

It was embarrassing, despite the calm way Master Insa-tolsa put it. Just my luck, that I have to have my biology explained to me by an ithorian, thought Aronoke, although being told by someone of a similar species might have been even more embarassing. The worst part was that it was another way in which he could be singled out from all those around him. Aronoke felt deeply disturbed. Grow into a fully grown man in a few years, when he had thought he had years and years to do that in?

It was hard to accept.

“How do you feel about this?” asked Master Insa-tolsa.

“I wish it wasn’t like that,” said Aronoke resentfully. “I wish I didn’t have to change so quickly. It makes me feel uncomfortable. I don’t like being different from everyone else.”

He had given up being a kid on Kasthir. Coming here had been like being a kid all over again, in nicer ways.

“There are many places in the galaxy where chiss are quite numerous,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “Your species is not so uncommon. They all grow up in this way. It is quite normal”

“There aren’t any here.”

“That is true, but I am certain you are not the first chiss to be trained to be a Jedi. I am sure if I look in the records I can find examples of other chiss who have done so.”

“But they aren’t here now,” said Aronoke.

“That is true.”

“And even if they were, it would be strange, because I have never seen one before. It’s not like I feel like I am one of them.”

“So you would rather you were simply a strange-looking sort of Coruscanti?” asked the ithorian.

“Yes,” said Aronoke, although he would have preffered to be a normal-looking Coruscanti, someone that people would not notice.

“Unfortunately it is not so,” said the Master. “I am sorry.”

“It’s just the way it is,” said Aronoke. “I know I can’t change it. It just seems difficult.”

“Your clan-mates and your teachers will help you overcome these difficulties,” said Master Insa-tolsa calmly. “You do not have to face them alone. You can come and talk to me if you feel concerned about them.”

“Yes, Master. Thank you.”

“The new meditation exercises will be added to your schedule,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “It is important that you practice them diligently. Usually you would not encounter such procedures until much later in your training, but your late arrival combined with the biology of your species means you will have less time to learn them than other students.”

“I will do my best,” said Aronoke, making a small bow of respect.

Growing up in Tarbsosk and running around the Grinder had given Aronoke a crude knowledge of the facts of life, but now he felt hopelessly uneducated about them. Hadn’t expected to have to deal with such things already. Had never thought he might grow up differently from humans. He hadn’t wanted to know more about the chiss, but it seemed that hiding in a bunker was no longer the best strategy. Now that he could read at least a little bit, he would have to find out what was going to happen to him over the next few years.

And how it all fit in with being a Jedi… well, even the lessons they had learned thus far made it clear that Jedi did not form attachments. Were not allowed to fall in love, or take a partner. Aronoke wondered if the meditation made you immune to these temptations and how difficult they would be to avoid.

 

The new meditation exercises were difficult. Although Aronoke tried his best to practice them over the next few weeks, he felt he wasn’t making much of an improvement. They were hard to concentrate on, especially since whenever he tried to perform them, he found strange images coagulating in his mind.  It took him some times to realise that the images were a map of the Jedi Temple. A Force-map, dominated by locuses of power – whether relics, people or places, he was not sure – marking where things strong in the Force were located. He could sense large areas of blankness, places where the Force was subdued artificially. He thought that those places were where the really impressive Jedi artifacts were kept, screened so as not to overwhelm the people who lived in the temple.

Aronoke sometimes felt that if he only looked hard enough, the fuzzy blanketing screen would fall aside and he would be able to see the artifacts clearly. He thought they were probably great blazing sources of Force power that might sweep him away enitrely.

Most of the time he could tune these things out, but if he thought about them too much, it was like he flipped a switch in his brain and they were there instantly.

So far, he had always been able to turn the switch off again. The meditation exercises seemed to help with that too. But sometimes he worried that he might not be able to turn it off. That he might panic and be swallowed up by that unseen world. Worried that all that background information would stop being interesting and start being something else entirely. Something frightening. Something that, if it proceeded uncontrolled, could rise up and drive him crazy.

He asked Draken about this, if Draken ever felt that way, but Draken said he did not. Aronoke thought that Draken’s talents with the Force were probably rather different from his own. He did not ask Ashquash, because Ashquash was too paranoid already.

So when Draken asked him if he wanted to come exploring, to see if they could find a way into the Jedi archives to sneak a look at the secrets stored within, Aronoke was not very eager.

But he didn’t want to tell Draken why. He would sound like a scared kid.

“It doesn’t sound very interesting to me,” he said diffidently.

“What? Oh come on! Don’t you want to get a taste of what true Jedi power is like?”

Aronoke shrugged.  He didn’t want to at all, but he didn’t like to let Draken down. They were friends now, he thought. Clan-mates. You were supposed to help your clan-mates. He wasn’t sure what a Jedi would be expected to do in this situation. None of the moral stories they had been taught in class seemed to apply. Talk Draken out of the idea? Report him to Razzak Mintula? Neither seemed an attractive option.

And it was after all, only kid stuff.  Exciting and possibly dangerous, but little more than a game.  A small, rebellious voice somewhere inside him suggested that if he was going to grow up so quickly, then he’d better do as much kid stuff as he could right now.  Soon it would be too late.

“Oh, alright,” he said to Draken.

“Yes!” said Draken, excitedly, whirling about.  “Let’s go tomorrow after class.  I’ll tell the others.”

He rushed off.

It was breaking the rules, Aronoke thought, suddenly uncertain again.  But such powerful relics were unlikely to be unguarded. Surely in all the thousands of years that the temple had stood on Coruscant there must be many initiates who had been tempted to go and look at them. Such priceless relics would be very carefully locked away where not even Draken could reach them.

At least he hoped not.  If any initiate could sneak successfully into a place like that, it would probably be Draken.

Draken’s little expedition included three other initiates, other than himself and Aronoke. All of these were humans who had grown up in the undercity. Aronoke didn’t know them very well; they were members of another clan, about the same age as him and Draken.

“Right,” said Draken. “According to these old schematics I found, there’s an empty area here behind the Archives and if they’re accurate, we should be able to get through right here.”

His finger stabbed a place on his datapad.

Aronoke looked at the place doubtfully. It seemed likely to be an omission in the plan for security reasons, but Draken was much better at these things than he was himself.  The other three initiates were all nodding and making suggestions for how to get to the empty area.

“I’ve got it all worked out,” said Draken airily.  He detailed a long, confusing plan that Aronoke found difficult to remember.

The first part involved sneaking out of the Primary Testing Unit without being seen, a skill Draken had perfected during his many exploratory expeditions through the temple. After that, as they started moving into territory Draken had not explored in as much detail, it grew more difficult.

Aronoke had been with Draken to the corridors where the droids took their oilbaths, and reaching that point was relatively easy.  Beyond, the passages were busier, with few hiding places and more droids coming and going.

Aronoke had considered that getting caught was one way to avoid having to break into the archives, but after a few minutes it was difficult to want to. It was easy to get caught up in the game, and Aronoke felt his heart beating fast in his chest as they moved from room to room.

But despite this change of heart, Aronoke was not used to this sort of sneaking.  Bunkertown and the Grinder had lots more hiding places. He was the one the security droid spotted first.

“You,” said the security droid. “You are an intitiate. You are not supposed to be here!” It looked about more carefully and spotted the others. You, you, you and you! You are also not supposed to be here! State your identity and authorisation!”

“We’re here under the authorisation of Master Hrmmrphahrmbm,” said Draken, making the name something between a mumble and clearing his throat.

Aronoke found it hard not to laugh, but the droid was not fooled.

“Please clarify,” said the droid. “I do not recognise the name of that master.”

“Master Hrmmrphahrmbm,” said Draken, a little more loudly, but no more clearly. “He’s one of the more alien masters.”

“Please repeat the name of the master with greater clarity,” said the droid severely.

“Oh, it’s no good,” said Draken to his colleagues. “Run for it!”

And so they ran. It is hard not to run when others do and for a few fast minutes it was something like a wild game of hide and seek. The droid must have called for back-up, however, because then there were suddenly droids everywhere, down every turning, no matter which way they went. Very soon they were completely surrounded and forced to surrender. Dragged back to their clan-rooms in disgrace to be admonished.

Draken was taken in to be scolded first. He came out looking suitably chastened. Aronoke had not been punished here before. Knew the way things worked well enough to be almost certain that the punishment could be nothing terrible. Nevertheless, he still felt nervous – he remembered too clearly what punishment Careful Kras would have inflicted. He went in the room when Razzak Mintula called him in.

“Aronoke,” said Razzak Mintula sternly. “What were you doing in the maintenance corridors? I am sure you are well aware that area is off-limits to acolytes.”

For a long moment Aronoke said nothing. He did not want to blame Draken. He had made up his own mind to go along, even if the whole thing had been Draken’s idea.

The silence stretched on too long.

“Well?” Razzak Mintula snapped, making Aronoke jump.

“We were just fooling around,” Aronoke said defensively.

“I am disappointed with you, Aronoke,” said Razzak Mintula. “Very disappointed. As one of the older members of Clan Herf you are expected to act responsibly to be a good example to the smaller ones. Instead you go gallivanting about in an off-limit area causing trouble for the security staff and wasting everyone’s time.”

Something snapped in Aronoke then. Found himself suddenly angry.

“But that isn’t fair,” he said petulantly.

“Fair?” asked Razzak Mintula crossly. “What isn’t fair?”

“That I am expected to be responsible. When the younger ones are my age, they won’t be expected to be a good example for anyone. Because there won’t be anyone smaller.”

That wasn’t really what Aronoke wanted to say.

What he wanted to say was when he had been the same age as the younglings, he had been knife-fighting on the streets of Tarbsosk trying to get enough food to stay alive. Had been taken away by Careful Kras and given a job as a menial when he was one year old. About six galactic standard years, he reminded himself. Then when he was eight he had been learning to be a skimmer, and at ten he was a full skimmer sent out to go and collect skim from the miners. An adult’s work with an adult’s responsibilities.

He hadn’t had a chance to be a kid. Not really. And now he was going to finish growing up practically overnight.

He couldn’t tell Razzak Mintula all that. It was too personal. He stared at the floor and simmered.

“Alright,” admitted Razzak Mintula, perhaps sensing a mine-field that she didn’t want to wander into. “It’s not fair. But that doesn’t change anything, it’s just the way things are. I expect you to act your age.”

Whatever age that was, thought Aronoke bitterly. A kid by Coruscant standards, an adolescent in terms of chiss biology, an adult in terms of being a skimmer. Argh.

Still, what Razzak Mintula said struck a note with him. Life wasn’t fair anywhere, even here in this place with all its rules and peculiar ways.  It was just the way things were.

“Do you understand, Aronoke?” asked Razzak Mintula.

“Yes,” said Aronoke.

“You are confined to the clan room for a week, outside of lessons,” said Razzak Mintula. “That will be all.”

Confined to the clan room? Apart from missing out on practicing sparring with Emeraldine, that was hardly a punishment. Looking up at Razzak Mintula’s severe face he was suddenly struck by an odd feeling, a disturbing impulse that her long silvery ponytail was really very attractive. That it would feel nice to stroke it with his hands. No! He couldn’t feel that way about Razzak Mintula! He was horrified with himself, acutely embarrassed, felt himself turning an interesting colour.

“Yes, Instructor Mintula,” he said hurriedly and fled.

He didn’t want to grow up. To change. Not yet. But it was happening already.

For a few days after that, Draken was quiet and repentant, but his ebullient spirit could never remain repressed for long and soon he was planning a second expedition to the Jedi archives.

“We just have to find a better way to avoid the security droids next time,” he told Aronoke. “There’s certain to be a way to get past them if I look for it.”

Aronoke was even less eager to try a second time. He did not want to see the Jedi Archives. It was like a bone-sucking worm in a box to him, a dangerous thing best avoided, not something you should go and poke a vibroblade at for fun.

“Why do you want to go and see it so much?” he asked reluctantly. “We’ll only get in trouble again.”

“I don’t know. Because it’s powerful? Don’t you want to see a really powerful Jedi artifact, to know what they’re keeping secret from us?”

“Not really,” said Aronoke. “I guess we’ll get to see them later.”

“Bah, you’re getting really boring,” said Draken despairingly. “All serious about lessons and sparring and sticking to the rules and everything. Well, I like the sparring too, that’s not what I mean. But lessons, lessons, lessons all the time gets so dull.”

“It’s just all so easy,” said Aronoke apologetically.

“Yeah, well maybe, but that makes it less interesting, not more interesting,” said Draken crossly.

“That’s not really what I mean,” said Aronoke seriously. “I find some of it challenging. I don’t know how to read properly yet and I have to work hard to catch up with the rest of you. There are lots of things I find difficult to get used to. But overall, everything is so easy. I know you feel restricted by all the rules, but compared to where I come from, this is like being handed everything you need without having to pay the price for it.”

Draken made an unconvinced noise, but his eyes were on Aronoke, impressed by his seriousness. Aronoke did not usually make such personal or lengthy speeches.

“It’s like,” said Aronoke, inspired, “it’s like it’s a holiday every single day.”

Draken said nothing for a long moment.

“I do want to be a Jedi,” he said. “I want to get through my training, for my family and my level and all that to be proud of me, but I also feel that’s something everyone expects of me, because I come from a poor district. Expects me to be the local boy done good. To be a lower class hero and a good example for all the kids where I come from.”

“That’s not why you should do it,” said Aronoke. “Not for your family or your level or anything. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. It matters what you get out of it. You should do it for yourself. Then one day when you’re a full Jedi, you’ll be the Jedi that you want to be, not the one that everyone else expected.”

Draken thought about this. “I think I get it,” he said. “You’re saying that I shouldn’t become a Jedi for the honour or the glory or to please the people back home. You’re saying I should bide my time, endure the training, see it through and then, once it’s all finished, I can go on to do whatever I really want when it’s all over.”

“Well, not exactly,” said Aronoke, who had been trying to say that self-improvement was a goal within itself, but Draken was quite taken with this concept and wasn’t really listening any more.

It probably didn’t matter, Aronoke thought. By the time Draken finished his training, had spent all those years in the Jedi temple, he would have changed too.

REPUBLIC PLANETARY FACTSHEET:

Thrasybule Sector NJ21.4 “Kasthir”

(Kasthirian United High Elective Council’s Prescribed Settlement World #5)

Warnings: EXTREME SECURITY DANGER

EXTREME ENVIRONMENTAL DANGER

SEVERE HOSTILE BIOLOGICAL DANGER

Planetography: Solar Orbital Period 5.88 , Planetary Rotational Period 0.87 , Mass 1.12 , Gravity 1.08 , Metallicity 36 (%ile), Heavy Metal Toxicity 3 (%ile), Volcanism 16 (%ile), Hydrologic Capacity 97 (%ile), Atmospheric Pressure 0.59 at datum elevation. Approximately 80% of surface is dry sea-bed below datum elevation, with 20% rocky continents above datum elevation of overall fractal dimension 2.24. Highest point Republic Survey Marker NJ214-874, 24.6 N 57.8 E, +6718 m. Lowest point unnamed location 44.4 S 108.3 E, -3008 m. Most water sources are contaminated with toxic concentrations of heavy metals and there are many unmapped areas of unstable geothermal activity.

Atmosphere and Climate: Atmosphere approx. 85% N2, 15% O2, halogens present in amounts from irritating to fatal, especially at lower elevations. Approximate annual mean temperature range 300-320 K (polar), 320-330 K (equatorial datum elevation). Approximate daily mean temperature range ±10. Winds >100 kph are common in all continental zones and >150 kph in all sea-bed zones. Atmospheric halogen concentrations are in the fatal range at all elevations below approximately datum – 1000 m and may reach the fatal range at most locations on the planetary surface depending on weather conditions and localised geothermal events.

Biosphere: Infectious biota n/a (%ile). Indigenous life-forms are silicon based with a range of undescribed microbiological species present. Several deaths due to infection by unknown silicon-based organisms have been reported among travellers who recently visited THRNJ21.4. Macrobiological life is largely restricted to the dust seas. One report of destruction of a stock light freighter Forced to land in the dust sea by a hostile non-sentient biological has been received. The Kasthirian Death Annelid ‘Bone Sucking Worm’ is the most common macrobiological organism in the continental regions. It secretes hydrofluoric acid and amputation of any body part bitten by this organism is the recommended treatment. [See: Rep. Med. Ref. 21178-KJTY-M108.c] Numerous toxic and sometimes fatal reactions have been reported to other macrobiological organisms, including the Lemniscate Helminthoid ‘Brain Sucking Worm’, Azurite Helminthoid ‘Foot Eating Crystal’ and Yttrium Accumulating Xenoform ‘Toxic Bloat Bug’ [See: Rep. Med. Ref. 23424-RJKN-N022.a,b, and c]

Sentient Occupation: Estimated population 5E4.Main species: Duros, Human, Arconan. Licensed refueling depots: None. Licensed resupply depots: None. Administration: THR-NJ21.4 is nominally administered and policed from the Syndaar system, but there are no regular security patrols of the world. There is no recognised legal framework among the inhabitants of THR-NJ21.4 and criminal individuals and organisations maintaining weapons with capacity to destroy spacecraft operate on the planet. Documented settlements: (* indicates Class 7 unlicensed refueling and supply facilities reported) Northern Continental Mass 20-60 N 10-100 E Tarbsosk* 37.8 N 33.0 E, Shiny Fumarole 52.3 N 72,0 E, Granthos Valley 51.8 N 74.4 E Zygom’s Crypt 55.5 N 76.3 E, Black Knife Landing* 44.7 N 80.8 E, Krothos Landing 43.4 N 88.0 E Glory Hole 26.7 N 40.4 E (abandoned), New Cona Landing 48.7 N 81.8 E (abandoned), Xselcharvond 30.6 N 44.4 E (abandoned), Stuff This For a Joke 45.6 N 88.4 E (abandoned). There are believed to be numerous undocumented settlements on the Northern Continental Mass. Southwestern Continental Mass 0-40 S 110-170 W Xothrask 38.4 S 122.2 W, Mad Bastard(?) 23.2 S 150.5 W Breznor’s Landing* 26.1 S 150.8 W Old Gundark Mine 30.0 S 153.2 W (abandoned) New Gundark Mine 30.3 S 153.2 W (abandoned) Parallaxion 1.3 S 144.4 W(abandoned). Southeastern Continental Mass 10-50 S 20-60 E Joojantis Prime* 46.9 S 41.2 E Quagnor Landing* 49.6 S 44.8 E Phlebos Landing* 49.4 S 40.7 E Soliton Valley 49.3 S, 39.9 E Jackpot Valley 11.7 S 22.6 E, Crazyplex 33.5 S 26.7 E (abandoned), Xord 48.9 S 20.2 E. There are believed to be numerous undocumented settlements on the Southeastern Continental Mass. Equatorial Continental Mass 10 N-10 S 60-80 W No documented settlements recorded.

Economic Activity: Small deposits of exotic minerals are found in many locations on THRNJ21.4 Estimates based on sporadic interception of smugglers operating in the system suggest 2-10 GD of these materials are exported from the system annually.

Aronoke was very late to dinner that night. The cleaning droids were already bustling about, cleaning up after the diners, and only a few people were left, finishing off the remnants of their meals. He went up to get a plate and one of the droids stopped him.

“It’s very late, past the hour when dinner is traditionally served, Initiate,” said the droid. “Do you have an excuse for why you are so late?”

“I had to go and speak with Master Altus,” said Aronoke.

“Excuse accepted,” said the droid. “The refectory will be closing service very shortly, so please conclude your meal promptly.”

Aronoke was left to fill his plate, relieved that his excuse was good enough. Sat eating his food in peace. He noticed another kid came in, younger and even later than himself. The droid asked him for an excuse as well.

“I got distracted,” said the kid. “I didn’t notice what time it was.”

“Excuse denied,” said the droid. “Punctuality is an important and useful habit. Next time perhaps you will remember missing your meal and will be more punctual.”

“Aww,” whined the kid. “But I’m hungry! Look at him – he’s still eating.” He gestured at Aronoke.

“His excuse was acceptable,” said the droid. “He had a meeting with an important Jedi Master. Now please vacate the refectory.”

The kid complained a bit more, but the droid did not waver.

Sheesh, thought Aronoke. Fancy making such a fuss over missing just one meal – a meal that you hadn’t been hungry enough to attend in the first place. People on Coruscant were so obsessed with regular meals.  It was different to worry about eating if there was never enough, but here it was like worrying about holding your breath for ten seconds.  That you might miss out on some air.

The next day, he had to go for his rescheduled medical appointment. Continue reading

Aronoke was not certain what language Master Insa-tolsa spoke, but he could not understand it at all.  It was with a series of hand gestures and intonations that Aronoke was ushered over to the part of the testing facility where he was going to stay.  The big alien loomed high over Aronoke, had a long curved neck with peculiar eyes on a strangely shaped bar-like head at the end.  Later he learned that Master Insa-tolsa’s kind were called ithorians.

If Master Insa-tolsa hadn’t so obviously been trying to be kindly and welcoming, Aronoke would have been highly intimidated.  Though Master Altus had said he could trust these people.  Nevertheless, it was with some trepidation that he followed the two aliens, wondering what he had gotten himself into.

He was escorted to a human person whom the aliens spoke to in their sing-song voices. She seemed to understand them easily enough.  Turning to Aronoke she said, “I’m Mizra.  I’ll show you where your room is.”  She was abrupt, but Aronoke was relieved she spoke the same tongue he did and followed her readily enough.

“Arrow-noke,” said Mizra, reading it off her datapad, pronouncing it like ‘joke’.  She looked at Aronoke impatiently over the top.

“Aronoke,” said Aronoke.

“Oh.  Aronoke,” corrected Mizra flatly.  “You’re in number 412.”  She showed him where the door was.  Inside lay a small chamber with not much furniture, but Aronoke thought it must be like the one on the ship, with things that slid out of the walls.  Mizra didn’t explain how any of the functions worked, but seemed to assume that Aronoke would know how to do that already.  She seemed in a hurry to go away and do something else.

“The ablutions area is down at the end of this corridor,” Mizra said, waving her hand in one direction,  “and the refectory is down that way.”  She pointed the opposite way.  “You can find out the meal schedule on your viewscreen and that’s where your messages will arrive too. Tomorrow you will most likely be sent down to the testing rooms to be evaluated, but I don’t expect you will have to do anything before then.  You will probably want a bit of a rest.”

“Yes,” said Aronoke, feeling that was very true.  He was wondering what an ablutions area was.  And where the viewscreen was.  Mizra hadn’t shown him that either.

“There’s some meditation chambers down that way,” said Mizra, pointing in a third direction.  “And the exercise facilities are downstairs, but you probably don’t want to bother with all that.  You’ll be doing it all soon enough, if you get through. Just let someone know if you can’t find something.  They’ll be sure to tell you.” Continue reading