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Dark street. Wet cobbles. The rain stings where it hits my face – there’s a touch of ice in it – so I keep my hat pulled low and my face angled towards the street. Even with my eyes turned down I can see Father’s feet trudging ahead of me, splashing through the puddles. I wonder if his feet ache as much as mine. You wouldn’t think it from his swinging step. I’m so tired and cold I can barely manage to trudge, but he swings his arms and whistles softly to himself, an incongruous tune that sounds like springtime.

“Nearly there, Nipper,” says Father, and he looks back at me and smiles. I’m glad he’s smiling because it means he’s pleased with the work we’ve done tonight. Pleased with the coins jangling in his pocket, and pleased with me for climbing in that high narrow shop window and letting him in the back. I don’t smile back, because I’m wet and miserable. The scraps I stuffed in my worn-out shoes are no proof against the water washing in through the holes. My arms ache from climbing and my hands are scraped and icy. The rags they’re wrapped in don’t seem to make much difference.

The other reason I don’t smile is because I don’t like him very much. Not anymore.

His name is Neddie Binks. I know he’s not my father, although he has me call him that for the sake of what he calls pathos. In one way he really is my parent, because he’s the only one who looks out for me. He’s all I’ve got, even if he’s sometimes a surly cur, too ready to fly into a temper. I still remember the day I first saw him. I was trying to steal bread off a baker’s cart, thinking the baker was looking the other way, when a big hand came out and grabbed my arm. The baker swung me up and shook me until my eyes rattled. “Thief!” he yelled, looking around for a constable, “Dirty thief!” and he kept shouting, shaking me in between for good measure.

I thought I was a goner, but then Ned was there. He strode up saying: “Tommy, you wicked little bleeder,” looking as angry as a rich man with well-fed morals. I looked around, bewildered, thinking he’d mistaken me for someone – thinking crazily that maybe there really was some other kid there – and while I was looking away he belted me around the side of the head, hard enough to send everything blurry and reeling. I was crying and trying not to cry, trying to stand up straight, while he apologised to the baker and gave him some money, cuffing me every now and then for effect. And, the strange thing was, even though I thought I’d given up caring about stealing, when Neddie Binks started talking to me like that the guilt stabbed through me, a sharp pain in my chest, and I saw a sad lady’s face in my mind, a pretty lady with golden curls and dimples. “How could you, Darian?” she said, and then Neddie took my arm and hauled me off and she was gone.

It took me a while to realise I had exchanged one captor for another.

“If you’re going to steal something, scrapper,” he hissed as he hauled me off, “you have to learn to do it right. I was watching you, and you were hopeless. Your eyes were on the damned bread nearly the whole time. A whole cavalcade of angels could have pranced by in the altogether, blowing on their curly horns, an’ you wouldn’t have noticed.”

So he offered to teach me, not that I had a choice, because, as he was ready to point out, I owed him big.

When Neddie Binks is cheerful, the world is a wonderful place. Everything is painted in luxuriant colours, like a fair or a parade or a bonfire. It’s embroidered with fantastical figures, like rich people’s clothes or the furniture you can see through their windows. Doesn’t matter if it’s snowing or sleeting, his crooked smile is as good as a roaring fireplace when he turns it on you, and you’d do anything, nearly anything at all, for a word of his praise. But when Neddie Binks is miserable, when things don’t go his way, everything is bleached and grey like swollen dead rats frozen in the gutter. The same wit that makes him say things about angels and ancient gods and long dead heroes becomes his dark and twisted master, and if you say the wrong thing, or worse still, are the cause of his displeasure, you’re liable to find yourself stripped naked, tied to a statue and flogged, left out on a snowy window ledge with no way to get back in, or forced to dress in girl’s clothes and used to bait wicked old gentleman into dark alleys. Neddie Binks likes humiliating people when the gloom takes him.

Lately, he’s been in shadow more than sunshine and I’m beginning to think of running away.

But not today – today we’ve scored big, and Neddie Binks is high as a hawk, despite the wind and the icy rain. I follow him to the place where we’ve been squatting – a half ruined house, partly burned down. It’s leaky and draughty, but after outside it feels like paradise. There’s a fireplace we can use, if we have money for coals. Tonight there’s money, and there will not just be a fire, Neddie promises, but sausages and cheese, toasted bread and beer.   I try to smile, but I can’t manage. I’m too cold, too tired, too exhausted with living on the knife-edge of Neddie Binks’ moods.

“What’s up with you, Darian?” asks Neddie Binks, looking up from where he’s lit the fire, and I blink at him. He never calls me Darian. It’s always scrapper or nipper, Jimmy ,Tommy, Johnny or spinner. He’s regarding me with seriousness, something that’s foreign to both his usual kinds of mood. “You’re not getting sick, are you?” He face crinkles with concern, making me feel guilty for thinking of running away.

“I dunno,” I say. “I’m just tired. Tired and cold.” I huddle close to the tiny scrap of flickering fire, watching it struggle against the damp of the desolate fireplace. My hands are shaking and they look very blue in the unsteady light.

Something he sees in my face seems to make him worried. “Don’t worry, Darian,” he says. “You’ll feel better once you’re warm and dry with a bit of hot stodge in you.   Tell you what,” he continues, “you did a good job tonight – the lion’s share of the work, even – so why don’t you wait here and look after the fire, and I’ll go get us some things and bring ‘em back.”

Neddie Binks might be a sadistic bastard with a twisted sense of humour, and he might be a thief and a scoundrel, but he always, always keeps his word. Unlike some blokes I know he would never say a thing like that and then wander off down the pub for a few drinks and not come back.

“Alright, then,” I say.

“Sit tight,” he says cheerfully, and he hangs his blanket over my shoulders and goes back out into the rain, leaving me wondering how I could possibly think of leaving.

But he’s not gone long before the trouble starts.

It begins with a shout and then the sound of running footsteps. I freeze motionless by the fire, suddenly icy both inside and out. More shouting. “Stop! Hold it!” More footsteps, slipping and slapping on the slick cobbles.

I know what to do. Neddie Binks has taught me well. “Don’t wait around for them to catch you,” I hear his voice echo in my mind, like he was right next to me. “If there’s trouble, go and hide. Pick one of our holes and burrow into it, like you were a snake or a rat or a rabbit, and don’t you move until the next day, no matter how quiet it seems.”

So I leave the fire, and I’m halfway out the back door into the lashing night when an anguished cry rings out, followed a long age later by something softer, a fading inhuman gurgle. The pursuing voices reach a crescendo and then fall into a concerned lull through which one carries clearly, snatched through the wind and rain. “…stolen goods…he had a confederate…search the house…”

Out in the yard it’s tangled and sodden. The ruin of a more badly burnt house looms next door. When it’s daylight you can see how the fire nearly took out the whole row. Someone’s been clearing the collapsed cellar, and tonight it’s become a great sucking hole in the mud, surrounded by steep piles of earth and ash with brown water pooling at the bottom.

The searchers seem close behind me and I scramble down behind the pile of earth.   They’re fast and lively, and I’m weary and slow as lingering death. My legs aren’t working. My feet slide haphazardly. I’m too cold to climb the leaning fence, too tired to dart off like a sparrow into the streets, so I look for a place to hide, but there’s nowhere that will do. Then, struck by desperate inspiration and Neddie Binks’ words, I kneel down and dig a burrow in the side of the largest earth pile. The outside is caked into a hardening shell, but inside the mingled ash and dirt is dry and loose, easy to shift. I throw myself into the tunnel I’ve made for myself, drawing Neddie Binks’ blanket in with me. I reach up and claw at the ash and mud above the entrance, pulling it down to gently cover me, hoping that it will be soaked quickly by the rain to blend with the rest. I pull down one armful, then another, and then suddenly it all comes down heavily in great thumping clumps, and I come down with it, slammed hard into my blanket by an unforgiving hand.

The sounds of the world recede. The rain is gone. The cries of my pursuers are left behind, abandoned in the world far above, lost and meaningless. I struggle, but there is no struggle. My limbs are pinned where they were thrown, held fast in the earth’s grip. The blanket thankfully covers my face, but there is no air, none at all. There is no chance. As I fight my impossible battle, a rhyme runs cruelly through my head, a song Neddie Binks sang when his mood was blackest.

Sally, gonna buy you a brand new bow,
      (Today O, today O)
Ribbon so red for your hair of snow,
      (Coming down today, O)
Sin’s long arm will drag me down,
      (Today O, today O)
Lawmen circling all around.
      (I’m coming down today, O)

My feet are slow but my mind is clear,
      (Away O, away O)
There’s just one road away from here,
      (Going far away, O)
Sally don’t know so she won’t cry,
      (Away O, away O)
And I’ve got no wings to help me fly.
      (Going far away, O)

Lay me down on an earthen bed,
      (Below O, below O)
Cold wet clod beneath my head,
      (Way down far below, O)
In close-drawn darkness I shall lie,
      (Below O, below O)
Sod and stone shall make my sky.
      (Way down far below, O)

Poor man’s clothes shall be my shroud,
      (Below O, below O)
No fine-spun shirt to keep me proud,
      (Way down far below, O)
No copper coin to cap my eye,
      (Below O, below O)
No holding hand to help me die.
      (Way down far below, O)

No preacher man to tell sweet lies,
      (Below O, below O)
No hypocrites extemporise,
      (Way down far below, O)
No steady shoulders bear my bier,
     (Below O, below O)
No mourning maiden sheds a tear.
      (Way down far below, O)

Take my burden, take my woe,
      (Away O, away O)
Sally, dream of me while I go,
      (Going far away, O)
Bones of silver cleanse my crime,
      (Away O, away O)
Sally, don’t wake me ‘fore my time.
      (I’m going so far away, O)


It’s not raining any more.

The walls of the ruin soar above me, rising crisp and clear in the cold night air, a silhouetted stairway of broken brick. The sky beyond is dark and gleaming, pierced by a million pitiless stars. A tree hunches by the jagged wall, skeletal winter branches reaching down in a gesture of summoning.

An impossible figure, a tiny gentleman death, skeletal face shining beneath its top hat, mounts the wall. It is absurd and yet completely solemn. It pauses to beckon to me, its macabre figure mirroring the outline of the tree.

It waits with inexorable patience.

I know I must climb, I must climb out of here, up the jagged wall. I must swim away into the pool of the sky’s reflection and then I will be free.

Aronoke strode along the hallways of the Jedi Temple, his bag slung over one shoulder and his new lightsaber clipped at his side. He had taken care to choose a weapon similar to the one he had lost, but it was more slender and a paler shade of yellow. Aronoke wondered what colour the blade of his own lightsaber would be, if he ever finally travelled to Ilum to craft it. Blue like Master Altus’s he hoped, but he knew that the choice was not merely aesthetic, nor entirely left to chance. The colour bore a relation to a Jedi’s skills and his role within the order. Jedi like Master Altus and Master Caaldor, who were active agents in the field, wielded blue blades. Jedi whose roles were scholarly or diplomatic, like Master An-ku and Master Insa-tolsa, had green lightsabers. Yellow lightsabers, like the one he carried now, were typically the weapons of Jedi who were highly trained in combat and tactics. These were only guidelines, Aronoke knew. Any Jedi might be called upon to act in any capacity.

The quartermaster who had assigned the weapon had also told Aronoke its history. It had belonged to a hapless padawan who had fallen to his death in an elevator shaft.

“Tochar would be pleased that you chose his weapon, Padawan,” Master Gondramon had said. “He would not have wanted it to remain unused and forgotten in the vaults of the Temple. Be certain that you take time to meditate on the crystal before you use it – it is important to establish a strong connection through the Force. Tochar would not wish you to suffer a mishap due to your unfamiliarity with his lightsaber.”

Aronoke nodded and assured the quartermaster that he would take due care. Within himself he was confident – this was the second lightsaber he would wield that was not of his own creation. Master Caaldor had overseen his attunement to the previous weapon, and he was certain he would have no difficulties with this one.

Aronoke reached the elevator banks that led up to the landing bays maintained especially for the Jedi Temple’s use and thumbed the controls. Only the most important vessels, ships on missions of extreme importance to and from the Temple, docked up there. The Triphonese Griffon was awaiting the departure of the expedition to Zynaboon, and Aronoke was on his way to board it. Master Caaldor would be along later, having been detained by last minute discussions with the Jedi Council. Aronoke had to smile, thinking of the sour expression on his Master’s face as he told Aronoke to go ahead without him. Poor Master Caaldor had gone through a great deal of both danger and bureaucracy on his difficult padawan’s behalf, but it was the bureaucracy that seemed to irk him most.

“I assume I would be correct in addressing Padawan Aronoke,” said a voice, interrupting Aronoke’s stream of thought and making him jump. These days Aronoke was usually well aware of everyone in the immediate vicinity, a result of his sensitive Force senses, but he hadn’t noticed the stranger’s approach, distracted by the peaceful lull of the Jedi Temple and his own thoughts.

The person who addressed him was a Jedi Master of a race Aronoke had seen infrequently. He was very tall and slender with long arms and legs, although much of his unusual height could be accounted for by his extremely long and fragile neck. The pale hairless face seemed to be fixed in a permanent and somewhat inane smile.

“Excuse me, Master, I did not notice you there,” Aronoke said. “Yes, I am Padawan Aronoke.”

“Excellent, excellent indeed,” said the Jedi Master. “I have wished the opportunity to meet with you for quite some time, and my greatest desire has been to involve you in my research program – but unfortunately my requests were overlooked by the Jedi Council due to more important demands upon your time.”

Aronoke could not help but feel uneasy at the strange Master’s manner. He was not at all familiar with quermians – he thought that’s what the long-necked alien was – but this alien’s mood was unusually transparent. It was obvious he was annoyed with the Jedi Council. Aronoke was not sure what he should say, but was saved from deciding by the elevator’s arrival.

“I’m sorry, Master,” said Aronoke, “but I don’t have time for discussion right now. I’m about to leave on a mission, and expected on board ship immediately.”

“There is no need for delay or apprehension,” said the quermian comfortably, as they both stepped into the elevator. He had to duck his long neck to fit through the doorway. “I am also departing for Zynaboon. My name is Master Quor.”

Aronoke smiled frozenly.

“We shall have plenty of time for discussion during the voyage,” continued Master Quor cheerfully. “I was hoping there may even be time for me to undertake a little research along the way. Most of my experimental equipment is too bulky to bring on a journey of this nature, but I have brought several of the more portable pieces, certainly enough to make a studied preliminary examination of you.”

“Ah,” said Aronoke, feeling acutely uncomfortable. During his early days in the Temple, he had found the speed of the elevators disconcerting. Now he found himself wishing that this one would hurry up. “What sort of research?”

“You are a unique and valuable bioengineered specimen,” said Master Quor enthusiastically. “Really it is almost criminal of the Jedi Council, and certainly most repressive of my genetic studies, to withhold you in this way. I am an expert in the study of the biocron and suspected your relationship to it ever since the scans of your interesting tattoos were placed in my hands. Unfortunately the Jedi Council considered your removal from the Jedi Temple to be of greater importance than the uninterrupted continuation of my research.”

“I’m sorry, Master Quor,” said Aronoke. “There were more reasons than just my training that led to me being sent into the field early.”

“Yes, yes,” said Master Quor. “The attempts to manipulate you and so forth, but had you been made my Padawan, as I requested, you would have been kept safely free from harm in the scientific annexe where the majority of my work takes place. It is on Coruscant, but removed from the Temple and quite autonomous.”

“I see,” said Aronoke, swallowing firmly. He found himself very glad that the Jedi Council had not chosen Master Quor as his master.

“Do you?” said Master Quor. “I think you underestimate your own importance, Padawan Aronoke. As a bioengineered force-sensitive – a being created for a very specific purpose – your genetics doubtlessly hold major insight into the nature of the biocron. You may well be capable of manipulating that artefact in ways that no one else could. Dissecting these mysteries is the centrepiece of my research, and you are key to its success!”

Aronoke stood staring at him. His mouth had dropped open slightly. “Dissecting?” he asked.

“Oh, I don’t believe a dissection of yourself to be necessary, though doubtlessly it would prove very interesting,” said Master Quor lightly. “The Jedi Council would certainly not condone it, and besides, you have far more potential as a living specimen. No, the most profitable approach would be an evaluation of your abilities and physical nature through sampling and experimentation.”

The skin on Aronoke’s back crawled.

“I don’t know if I can help you, Master Quor,” he said hastily. “My time is not my own. Master Caaldor has his own duties, and as his padawan it is my place to assist him.”

“Of course,” said Master Quor. “But a contribution need not take up much of your time.”

Just then the elevator reached its destination and the door slid open. Aronoke took refuge in exiting and strode off quickly towards the Griffon’s dock, but Master Quor matched his pace, keeping up easily with his long legs, continuing speaking without pausing to draw breath.

“A reproductive program, for example, would be very valuable indeed, and need not remove you from other duties! I’m certain that if you stated your willingness, that the Jedi Council would agree to an exception to the ridiculous exemption on reproduction insisted upon within the Order. You are physically a fine Chiss specimen, young, certainly, but mature enough to be capable of sexual reproduction – a virile and healthy adult.”

“I don’t think the exemption is ridiculous,” stammered Aronoke, stopping to stare at him, shocked. “It follows the precepts laid down by the Jedi Code.”

“Oh, it certainly can be recommended in regard to the vast majority of individuals,” said Master Quor heartily, his voice booming loudly along the hallway. “But in special cases such as yours, the scientific benefit of obtaining multiple genetic offshoots in the form of your offspring, preferably with a varied assortment of suitable force-sensitive partners, far outweighs the personal benefits of celibacy.”

Aronoke’s face burned. Despite his efforts to control his embarrassment, he was quite sure it had turned deep purple. He started again along the hallway, head down, attempting to hide his confusion.

“I believe there is even a force-sensitive Chiss female within the Order,” said Master Quor brightly. “Perhaps her assistance might be obtained.”

That could only be Master Bel’dor’ruch, Aronoke realised, nearly choking at the thought.

“What do you know about the biocron?” he asked hurriedly, hoping to distract Master Quor away from the topic of reproduction.

“I am willing to share what little technical data I have obtained,” said Master Quor eagerly, “although I imagine one of your limited education would have difficulty understanding it, due to its necessarily complex nature. In truth, although I have gathered what information I can, both through research and the reports of Masters such as Master Altus and Master Skeirim, the biocron inherently remains a mystery. What is obvious is that it is no ordinary artefact. It is immense! Powerful! Ancient! So ancient we have no idea who created it. Galaxy-spanning! Properly I should say “they”, since the biocron is plural – there are potentially dozens of biocrons spread across the galaxy, separate, but connected in a complex network that holds invaluable insight into the nature of all living things and their connection to the Force!”

Aronoke nodded. The boarding hatch of the ship was not far ahead of them, and with it, he hoped, there would come release from Master Quor’s solitary company and this extremely uncomfortable conversation.

“Your help could make all the difference to our understanding,” said Master Quor earnestly. “You, Padawan, have the power to change everything – to forge knowledge from ignorance – merely through your willingness to assist.”

“I don’t know,” said Aronoke. “I don’t like the idea of experiments.”

“Very few of them need be painful,” Master Quor hurried to assure him.

“I doubt there will be time on board the ship,” said Aronoke evasively. “I have a new lightsaber and it’s important that I spend spend considerable time attuning to it.”

“It need not take up much of your time.” Master Quor’s tone was almost wheedling. “For a beginning, I merely wish to speak with you, to ask you a few questions.”

Aronoke took a deep breath. He desperately wanted to say no. Master Quor made him acutely uncomfortable, with his open discussion of experiments, bioengineering and reproduction, but he knew that if he did so, he would be allowing his fear to control him.

“I suppose a few questions would be alright,” he forced himself to say.

“Excellent! Excellent!” chortled Master Quor. “I shall prepare my interrogation immediately!”

They had reached the hatch, and Aronoke and Master Quor were greeted by a member of the Jedi Corps who welcomed them both aboard. Aronoke was worried that Master Quor would follow him about the ship, in order to continue their conversation, but fortunately another Jedi, a tall wiry zabrak with a mottled face and stumpy horns, arrived just then.

“Master Quor and Padawan Aronoke,” he said smoothly. “I am Padawan Tolos, Master Temon’s padawan. Master Temon would like to speak with you on the bridge, Master Quor, at your earliest convenience.”

“Then I shall attend him at once,” said Master Quor, and he glided off, much to Aronoke’s relief.

“We haven’t met before,” said Tolos to Aronoke. “I hear you’ve had a rather interesting time of it. Shall I show you to your cabin?”

“Yes, thank you,” said Aronoke. At least he could hide from Master Quor in there.

“Let me take your bag,” said Tolos, picking it up from where Aronoke had set it down.

The Triphonese Griffon was a larger ship than any Aronoke had previously travelled on. It was easily ten times the size of the XL-327 and looked very new. It was crewed by Jedi Corps members, who seemed cheerful and competent in the execution of their duties. Tolos pointed out some of the features as they passed, and Aronoke was pleased to see that there was both a meditation chamber and a training room for practicing lightsaber combat.

“I’ve heard Master Quor takes some getting used to,” said Tolos sympathetically, as they walked along. “He’s not a typical Jedi, but supposedly very brilliant in his own way. Master Temon says the Jedi Council tolerates his eccentricities in light of his impressive research results.”

“He’s certainly rather direct,” said Aronoke. “He wants me to be part of his research program, and I really would rather not.”

“I can see that would be unsettling,” said Tolos, “but Master Quor is not your master, is he? You have no requirement to agree to his requests, unless your master says you should. I would not consider complying with the requests of another master without first consulting Master Temon.”

“That’s true,” said Aronoke, relaxing a little. “It’s just that his research does sound important.”

Tolos shrugged, unconvinced. “If it was that important, surely the Jedi Council would have sent you to him already,” he said easily. “But you should ask your Master’s opinion. If he thinks Master Quor’s work has merit, than perhaps going along with some of his suggestions will cause you no harm. Master Temon told me that although Master Quor’s manner is abrasive and peculiar, he’s still a Jedi. He said Master Quor’s actions are dictated by the path of the Jedi Code, even if his opinions are somewhat extreme.”

“I suppose so,” said Aronoke. He wondered what Master Altus thought of Master Quor – surely they knew each other, since they were both interested in the biocron. He had already noted Master Caaldor’s opinion of him.

“You seem to think a lot of Master Temon,” he ventured.

“Oh yes,” said Tolos rapturously. “He’s such a marvellous Jedi. He’s so in tune with the Force and he has an exemplary mission record, so we always get sent to interesting places, like Zynaboon. And then there’s this ship.”

“This is Master Temon’s ship?” asked Aronoke, impressed.

“Well it belongs to the Jedi Order of course,” said Tolos primly. “Jedi don’t have personal possessions – but it’s assigned to Master Temon, yes.”

Aronoke could not help but compare the Griffon to the XL-327. Master Caaldor’s ship had been small, old and dingy compared to this one. It did have its advantages though, Aronoke thought. It was more comfortable and private somehow, than this pristine new one, and would attract a good deal less attention. Also, the Jedi Council would keep very careful track of an asset like the Griffon, with its considerable crew.

“Where’s your master?” asked Tolos when they reached the door of Aronoke’s cabin.

“He’ll be arriving soon,” said Aronoke. “He was called away at the last minute by the Jedi Council.”

“Ouch,” said Tolos. “That will make his embarkation somewhat hurried, if we’re to keep to our departure window. I’ve never met Master Caaldor – he’s rather old isn’t he?” he asked.

“He’s not that old,” said Aronoke, defensively.

“Oh don’t get me wrong. Older Jedi Masters have a very important role to play in the Order. Who else would impart the most valuable wisdom to us? It’s just I’ve always felt glad that Master Temon is younger than most of the Jedi Masters who take new padawans,” said Tolos airily. “It’s nice to have a Master who spends a lot of time in the field and is so active in his habits.”

Aronoke was left with the impression that Tolos imagined Master Caaldor would limp in at the last moment before take off, out of breath and wheezing with the support of two walking sticks.


When Master Caaldor did arrive, it was very shortly before take-off, and he was immediately spirited away to the bridge to consult with the other Jedi Masters. Aronoke did not see him for several hours, by which time they were well on their way out of Coruscant, heading to the jump-off point that would lead them towards Zynaboon. Their course had been the subject of some debate, Aronoke found out later. Since Zynaboon was an Imperial world, approaching it in the most direct manner was best avoided. Aronoke didn’t fully understand the complexities of the spaceways yet – most probably he never would – but as far as he could tell, the Jedi had planned a sneaky back way in, which would be less likely to be detected. Once again, they were posing as Free Traders, although Aronoke had not been issued any disguise as yet, since he had been instructed to remain on board the ship.

“Do you think we’ll find him?” Hespenara asked, leaning on the table of the common room where the padawans had gathered, leaving their masters to their planning.

Aronoke nodded. “I think so,” he said confidently. In truth, he felt certain it was going to happen. He had not tried to locate Master Altus – he was awaiting their arrival on Zynaboon and Master Temon’s say so – but the connection between them felt like a blazing conduit in the Force, just waiting to be opened.

“I can understand that you’re concerned,” said Tolos. “I know how I would feel if anything happened to Master Temon. I’m glad he’s so competent at dealing with dangerous situations, so I’ve never had to worry.”

“What concerns me,” said Hespenara quietly, “is what they’ve done to him. I’m certain he’s alive. I think I’d know if he were not, but what if he’s not himself anymore? What if he’s… changed?”

“What do you mean?” asked Tolos. “Changed in what way?”

“We can expect him to have changed physically – to be held prisoner for such a long time would have ill effects on anyone,” said Hespenara. “But what worries me more is if he’s changed mentally. I mean… what if he’s not really himself any more?”

“Not Master Altus,” said Aronoke firmly. “He’s stronger than that. When I saw him in my vision, he was still himself. I was certain of that. He was in pain and battling with negative emotions, but I know he was winning.”

“You have visions?” asked Tolos, looking impressed.

Aronoke shrugged awkwardly. “That’s why I’m here – I saw where Master Altus was being held prisoner during a vision I had during my padawan exams.”

“That was quite some time ago,” said Hespenara.

“Try not to worry, Hespenara,” said Tolos kindly. “These fears can only lead to darkness of the spirit. Master Temon always says that we can not change what has already come to pass. The best we can do is to forge boldly ahead and do our best to help now. As Aronoke has said, Master Altus is powerful, both in the Force and in his faith, and he will have done his best not to fail either us or himself by succumbing to his enemies.”

“You’re right of course,” sighed Hespenara. “I know I shouldn’t let him down by letting my fears affect me. I just hate all this waiting.”

“There are things we can do to help pass the time,” suggested Aronoke. “I, for one, need to practice with my lightsaber, and so do you, Hespenara, since yours is new too. Maybe you would like to spar with me.”

“We can take turns,” said Tolos agreeably. “There’s also an advanced drone system on this ship that I’m sure you’d like to try out. Master Temon says it’s the best one he’s encountered.”

Hespenara did not seem particularly enthusiastic, but she allowed herself to be persuaded. Aronoke did his best to push aside his own fears – about Master Altus, about Master Quor, and about the biocron – and allowed himself to be distracted by the task of distracting Hespenara.


Tolos had been right about one thing – talking to the Jedi Council had worn Master Caaldor out. It had also not improved his mood. When asked about the meeting he grunted and said that Aronoke need not worry himself about it – it was only bureaucracy and more bureaucracy, layers upon layers, like frosting on a particularly unhealthy cake.

“They merely wished to be certain that their instructions will be obeyed to the letter,” he added grumpily. “If they wished me to act so inflexibly, they might as well have assigned a droid in my place.”

“I’m sorry, Master,” said Aronoke, dismayed. He remembered what Tolos had implied about older Jedi, and thought that Master Caaldor did seem particularly tired. Perhaps having a padawan as difficult as Aronoke was especially trying for someone of Master Caaldor’s advanced years. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

“If there is, I’ll do it myself,” snapped Master Caaldor, giving Aronoke a shrewd look. “Is there something you specifically wish to discuss, Padawan? If not, I’m certain you can find something to keep yourself occupied with on a ship as well-equipped as this one.”

“It’s Master Quor.”

“Oh? Met him, have you? I thought he would have made himself known by now. And what did you think of him?”

Aronoke shuffled his feet. “He’s rather alarming,” he admitted, “and he seems very determined that I should be part of his experiments.”

“Do you think that’s a good idea?” asked Master Caaldor.

“I’d really rather not,” said Aronoke. “He seems completely obsessed with his research and not very Jedi-like in some ways. But he is obviously very clever, and his work does seem important, and it could possibly reveal something useful about the biocron or about me.”

“So what are you going to do?” asked Master Caaldor, regarding Aronoke astutely as he propped his feet up on his desk and leant back in his chair.

“I agreed to answer some of his questions, but nothing else as yet,” Aronoke said. “I wanted to ask your opinion of him before I decided anything else.”

“I concur with your opinion as you expressed it,” said Master Caaldor. “I think you are capable of handling Master Quor on your own, Padawan. If he harasses you beyond your capability to cope, then you may come to me again. Otherwise, proceed as you see fit. The matter is entirely in your hands.”

“Yes, Master.”

Aronoke found himself wishing that Master Caaldor would take control, rather than allow him responsibility for himself, yet he also felt glad that his Master allowed him such freedom. He knew that deciding for himself was important, that Master Altus would have asked the same sorts of questions. But sometimes being told what to do was more comfortable, because you didn’t have to take the blame if everything went wrong. Because it was easier to be convinced that you were doing the right thing.

Aronoke couldn’t help but wonder what Master Temon’s response would have been if Tolos asked him a similar question.



Master Temon’s gesture was grand, his arm flung wide to encompass the enormous viewscreen that curved seamlessly around the walls and ceiling of the bridge. The screen was filled with a clouded planet painted in myriad shades of blue. The three padawans were clumped together directly under the display, staring up at it in wonder.

“Is there any land at all?” Tolos asked, while Aronoke stood in awed silence. This world was the complete opposite of Kasthir. Knowing it was a water world, even seeing pictures, had not prepared him for the reality of seeing it splayed above him.

“No,” said Master Temon. “There are settlements built on platforms, but those only float on the surface. The planet consists almost entirely of water. Even the ocean floor is largely composed of ice, formed by immense pressure, tens of miles beneath the surface.”

Aronoke suppressed a shudder. From his vision he knew that Master Altus was being held prisoner somewhere right down on the ocean floor. The thought of travelling down there was alarming.

“You come from a desert planet, don’t you?” asked Master Temon kindly. “A place like Zynaboon must be very strange to you.”

“I didn’t even know such places existed before I came to the Jedi Temple,” Aronoke admitted, feeling beads of sweat break out upon his forehead.

“Well, there is no need to concern yourself,” said Master Temon. “We have brought equipment that can withstand the greatest pressure, including a submersible vehicle that can carry us down as far as we need to go. It will not seem very different from being in space.”

“Don’t worry, Aronoke, Master Temon is never wrong about these things,” added Tolos. “I’m sure we will be fine.”

Aronoke noticed Master Temon’s face tighten slightly, the first hint of any displeasure he had seen him display.

“Have you finished that laundry yet, Tolos?” he asked his padawan abruptly.

“Ah, no, not yet, Master.”

“Well you had best go and do that now,” said Master Tolos smartly, and Tolos made a respectful gesture and hurried from the room, looking chastened.

Master Temon turned smoothly back to Aronoke and Hespenara as if there had been no interruption. “You must excuse Tolos,” he said gently. “His confidence has always been somewhat lacking. He still has a lot to learn.”

“As we all do, Master Temon,” said Hespenara.

Aronoke could see why Tolos idolised his Master. Master Temon was difficult to fault. A dark-haired, handsome human, he was as tall as Aronoke himself. He seemed to be everything a Jedi should aspire to be: calm, competent, wise, a natural leader and strong in the Force. Aronoke had seen him practicing with his lightsaber, and knew that no matter how long he trained, he would never be as good as Master Temon.

“Did you train under Master Squegwash?” Master Temon had asked, when Aronoke took his turn in the practice chamber. “I think I recognise that technique.”

Aronoke blushed. “Not because I was an advanced student,” he said at once. “I never got past Level Five. Master Squegwash helped bring my skills up to scratch, because I was being sent out into the field early.”

“You’ve done very well to learn so much so quickly,” Master Temon said, “and at such an advanced age. I also trained under Master Squegwash and found him to be a very exacting teacher. I’m afraid I got on the wrong side of him more than once, but the training he gave me has always proven invaluable.”

Aronoke smiled. Master Temon was also likeable. Despite all his accomplishments, he was neither arrogant nor a show-off, which was just as well, since he had Tolos to do that for him. Aronoke knew Tolos’s bragging was a failing. The zabrak would need to overcome it if he were ever to become a fully fledged Jedi. Since Tolos was older than Hespenara and had been a padawan for many years already, he was running out of time. Aronoke recognised too, that Tolos’s hero-worship of his master was not so different from how he himself felt about Master Altus. Except he didn’t blab about it all the time.

“What happens next, Master Temon?” Hespenara asked now.

“We will choose a place to land,” said Master Temon. He turned to Aronoke. “Your senses may prove helpful in choosing our destination, Aronoke. Do you think you can sense anything of Master Altus’s location from here?”

“I don’t know,” said Aronoke, disconcerted. He had imagined being on the planet’s surface before making any attempt. “But I’m willing to try.”

“You must not overdo things,” said Master Temon firmly. “It is enough even if you only can tell that he is still on Zynaboon. If you are unable to locate him more precisely, or even at all, we will simply land and see what information we can find out from the Kroobnak. You will be able to try again later, so it is important that you do not overtax yourself at this early stage. I am under strict instructions from Master An-ku to bring you back safely.”

“Yes, Master Temon,” said Aronoke.

“Is there anything you require to make the attempt?”

“No,” said Aronoke. “Just a quiet place to sit. And someone to sit with me and watch over me.” He looked over at the green girl. “Will you do that, Hespenara?”

“Of course,” said Hespenara.

“Master Quor has some equipment that measures how Force-users connect to the Force, which has proven useful in assisting seers in the past,” said Master Temon. “I suggest, if it doesn’t bother you too much, that you allow him to run his scanners in the background. It will give him some data on your sensing abilities and allow us to detect if you are in danger of becoming overextended.”

“As long as Master Quor isn’t in the room,” said Aronoke. “I’m afraid I find him very distracting.” Despite his agreement to answer the quermian’s questions, Aronoke had found every excuse to avoid Master Quor thus far.

“I’m sure he can operate his equipment from the chamber next door,” assured Master Temon, smiling. “There need only be a few sensors placed upon your head.”

“Then I would be foolish to refuse,” said Aronoke, trying hard to smile back.

“You’re very young for such a responsibility,” said Master Temon understandingly. “Not in terms of your physical maturity, but in your experience as a Jedi. You need not worry, Aronoke. You are doing very well. Everything becomes easier in time, and given more practice you will find all those things that seem of such great concern now will become more bearable as you progress.”

“Even Master Quor?” asked Aronoke, smiling more convincingly.

“Master Quor makes many people feel uncomfortable, Padawan. But yes, even Master Quor.”

“Master Altus met regularly with Master Quor,” said Hespenara, smiling too. “But he always seemed glad when the meetings were over.”

Aronoke smiled properly, thinking of the green man, but sobered abruptly, remembering anew the purpose of their mission.

“I’m ready to try whenever you wish, Master Temon,” he said resolutely. “I expect the sooner I do it, the better for our mission.”

“I will have the chamber prepared,” replied Master Temon. “It should not take long.”


Aronoke felt very pretentious sitting in the centre of the chamber preparing for his attempt. He sat in a fancy reclining chair, a loose strap looped around him so there was no chance of falling out. Hespenara sat in a plainer chair, a comfortable distance away. Did all seers use special chairs, Aronoke wondered. It was strange to be acting in the official capacity of one. He suddenly felt helplessly out of his depth, unequal to the task ahead of him. I’ve never been trained, he thought nervously. What if I do it all completely wrong, and everyone can tell, because of Master Quor’s machines?

How does that matter, he chided himself in turn. No, I haven’t been trained, so it’s hardly my fault if I make mistakes.

This was for Master Altus. This was what he had wanted to do for so long, ever since he had been an initiate and first reached out to find his missing mentor. Distance means nothing, he reminded himself. Trust in the Force.

The Jedi Corps technician finished sticking the last sensor on Aronoke’s head and stepped back.

“All ready to go, Padawan,” he said cheerfully.

“Thank you, Baltus.”

“You’re comfortable with this, Aronoke?” asked Master Caaldor, stepping into view. “If you’re not, we can easily go about things another way.”

“I’m fine,” said Aronoke. “If I succeed, it will be quicker and safer than trying to find out the information by other means. If I fail, I can try again later.”

“Very well then,” said Master Caaldor. “But take your time and be careful. Remember you can stop any time you feel you need to.” He fixed Aronoke’s eyes sternly with his own for a moment, and Aronoke knew that his master was reminding him of the last time he had tried to sense a Jedi, and the near disastrous result.

“I will, Master,” said Aronoke. “I have all of you to watch over me this time. I’ll be fine.”

Master Caaldor nodded and left the room, closing the door behind him.

“Good luck,” said Hespenara.

Then everything was still and quiet. Hespenara’s eyes gently shut and her breathing slowed. Aronoke was grateful for the reassurance of her presence as he began his own meditative routine, struggling for calmness amidst all the excitement. He made himself relax, using the simple techniques he had been taught. Deep slow breaths. He visualised a peaceful safe place, where his mind could wander freely, and began a repetitive slow recital of the Jedi Code. He felt tension draining from his muscles like fluid. All his uncertainty left him, blowing away like loose sand in the wind. He was good at this. It was easy.

When Aronoke felt completely balanced, he fixed Master Altus in his mind. Not just the green man’s image, but the sound of his laugh, the shape of his smile, the tone of his voice. The puzzled expression in his eyes when Aronoke had first encountered him. His effortless use of the Force to enhance his speed and strength, to move objects with a casual gesture. His patience in teaching Aronoke the earliest Jedi principles. His sadness when he first saw Aronoke’s back. His kindness in bringing sweets for Aronoke’s clan mates. His willingness to eat strange tentacular food. His loyalty in keeping Aronoke’s secrets. And most importantly, those steady blue eyes boring into Aronoke’s own, demanding his surrender that day on the Kasthir sand.

With those things predominant in his mind, a cohesive memory of all the things that made Master Altus who he was, Aronoke reached out towards the great blue bulk of the planet, searching down in the deep dark water.

And was immediately drawn into a gentle green vortex.

It was not like he was sucked forcefully away. It was not especially frightening or overwhelming, but it was completely unlike anything Aronoke had ever experienced before. If anything, it was most like Kthoth Neesh’s overly familiar caress, imposing herself upon him in such a way that he did not care to resist.

That was not a very Jedi-like sensation. It was all wrong.

He made himself resist, but the vortex did not react. It was merely there, flowing inexorably around him, drawing him down to the surface with persistent gentle fingers, like Kthoth Neesh might, were they back in the Quebwoz jungle, alone and free from obligations…

Aronoke felt his body react, somewhat to his embarrassment. He lost focus, lost concentration, and was left sitting in his chair, uncertain of how much time had passed.

“Is everything well, Aronoke?” Master Temon’s voice spoke over the communications system.

“Yes,” said Aronoke. “I’m fine. I just lost focus. It’s…stranger than I expected.”

“Do you wish to stop now?”

“No, I’m just getting started. I would like to continue,” said Aronoke, glad that his robes were so concealing.

A pause.

“Very well, we accept your judgement.”

He closed his eyes, reaching for calmness, and was pleased to find it returned with little effort. His body relaxed, relinquishing itself to his control. Once again he fixed Master Altus in his mind and reached towards the ocean, more determinedly this time, attempting to ignore any outward influence.

Green tongues ran across his skin. Kthoth Neesh, Ashquash.One demandingly sought out his ear. Green hands ran their fingers through his hair and across his face, probing his mouth. Skin touched his skin, in forbidden places. Being flayed as a child, strapped to a bench naked. The Kasthir biocron from his vision. His lightsaber burning through a pirate’s body. The smell of burning flesh. All these sensations and memories weaved in and out of his mind, but Aronoke endeavoured to ignore them, seeking only one thing.

Master Altus? Master Altus, where are you?

He seemed to call, to search, for ages, confounded always by the backdrop of the surging green montage, so unJedi-like in nature.

Then finally a thready certainty came to him. It was not like his visions, not crisp and clear, but more like a static-blurred communications’ signal, faint but recognisable. Master Altus was there, very far away, very deep beneath the Zynaboon sea, and he was still alive.

But his exact location was impossible to discern, hopelessly buried by the green images and sensations that assaulted Aronoke’s mind.

Aronoke opened his eyes and pushed himself upright. His body felt stiff and cold, like he had been sitting still for a long time.

Nearby Hespenara stirred and looked over at him.


“He’s still there, Hespenara, and he’s still alive!”

Hespenara looked profoundly relieved. “I knew he was,” she said.

Then the doors opened and the Jedi Corps technician hurried forward to free him from his chair.


“He was in some sort of hibernation trance,” Aronoke explained to the group of Jedi afterwards. They had insisted that he refresh himself first, which was just as well, since he had needed to visit the hygiene facilities rather desperately. “I couldn’t tell where he was, I’m afraid, not even what hemisphere of the planet. Only that he’s deep below the ocean somewhere, and that he’s still alive, but not conscious.”

There were more questions then. Master Quor had a plethora of them – how had the trance felt? Was it different than usual? In what way was it different? Aronoke tried to answer his questions calmly, but felt himself growing more tense with each one.

“I’m sure Aronoke can answer the remainder of your questions once he has had a chance to rest, Master Quor,” said Master Temon firmly.

“Of course, of course. But-”

“Besides, I am interested to see the results of your scans,” continued Master Temon smoothly. “Surely you have gathered enough data to begin a preliminary analysis?”

Master Quor was instantly distracted. “I will begin at once, Master Temon,” he said, and abruptly left the room.

“Get some rest, Padawan,” said Master Temon. “We will proceed to the planet’s surface and begin our investigations there. I daresay we will have need of your services again shortly.”

“Well done, Aronoke,” said Master Caaldor, and Aronoke knew he was not only talking about the information about Master Altus.

Then he was also gone, and Hespenara and Aronoke were left alone in the conference room. Aronoke felt uninclined to move immediately. He was exhausted, which was strange, since he had done nothing besides sit in a chair for the past twelve hours.

“It’s good news,” said Hespenara, still sounding nervous. “Jedi can hibernate to withstand situations that are too difficult to otherwise survive. To put themselves beyond the reach of their enemies. Master Altus spoke of such things to me once, but I have not learned enough to attempt it.”

“He will be alright,” said Aronoke firmly.

“Yes,” agreed Hespenara, but she did not sound convinced. She was sitting very stiffly, but then suddenly seemed to take stock of herself and rather forcibly relaxed.

“Thank you, Aronoke,” she said, smiling and taking his hand. “I know seeing isn’t easy – it comes at a price. Thank you for trying to help Master Altus.”

“How could I do anything else?”


The Triphonese Griffon made a hasty descent to the Zynaboon surface shortly after Aronoke’s revelation, spending as little time in the atmosphere as was safe. Aronoke did not pay much attention to the details, but there was much talk aboard ship of the Griffon’s shielding capabilities allowing it to make a faster than usual landfall. Or waterfall, in this case. Everyone was required to assume crash landing positions for the final impact, and Aronoke was glad that he was lying down in bed, for it was rather rough. Then there came a very odd sensation indeed – a swaying and rolling – and he realised that the ship was being moved about by water. Aronoke was glad that he didn’t suffer from any kind of travel-sickeness, because if he had, he was certain that the swaying motion would have made him very ill indeed. He wondered how awkward it would be to move about the ship, but his apprehension was needless. After a few minutes, the ship steadied as it sank deeper in the water where the motion was gentler and the ship’s stabilisers could control the movement more efficiently.

He turned over and went back to sleep.

He had slept perhaps a total of eight hours before he was awoken by a chime at his door.

“Yes?” he answered sleepily, thumbing the communicator.

“Padawan Aronoke?” came Master Quor’s resonant, enthusiastic voice. “If you have rested enough, I would like to meet with you in my laboratory. Some of the results from my scans are complete, and would benefit greatly if you could explain your experience from your own perspective.”

He sounded tentative, almost apologetic, and Aronoke felt almost sorry for him.

“Of course, Master,” he made himself say politely. “I will be there as soon as I’ve had breakfast.”

Master Quor’s laboratory was a small room, next to the chamber Aronoke had used for his sensing attempt. It was very clean and white, and there were many interesting machines mounted on the walls and on benches. Aronoke could detect more than one interesting source of Force power amongst them. It made sense, of course, that machines that measured fluctuations in the Force would have to be Force artefacts themselves.

“I’m very pleased you have come, Padawan,” said Master Quor, waving Aronoke to the only other chair in the room, a high, long-legged stool obviously designed for quermian use. “As you can see, these are the readings we took yesterday of your attempt to locate Master Altus.”

He gestured to a nigh incomprensible list of numbers displayed on a viewscreen. “If we examine the alpha and beta-wave components of your midi-chlorian activity- ” he gestured, and the mass of numbers was replaced by a bouncing, incomprehensible line, “-there is nothing unusual, but if we examine the remainder of the emission components, which we would usually consider background noise – a different picture emerges!”

Triumphantly Master Quor pushed some more buttons, and another graph appeared below the first. It was also a squiggly incomprehensible line. Aronoke could make nothing of it, save that it seemed very different from the first, a dense zigzag with occasional dramatic peaks of activity.

Master Quor waited expectantly.

“I’m sorry, Master Quor,” said Aronoke, “but I have had very little education in science. Perhaps you could explain what these graphs mean?”

Master Quor seemed pleased to be asked and launched into a convoluted explanation of the various units displayed on the axes and how they related to Aronoke’s use of the Force, but Aronoke was quickly lost in the complicated terminology. Master Quor came to the end of his explanation without Aronoke feeling he understood any better.

He shook his head. “But what do the graphs tell us?” he asked, bewildered.

“But it’s obvious, Padawan!” said Master Quor, looking as pained as he could with his perpetual grin. “This top graph demonstrates your use of the Force to achieve your desired goal – in this case to find Master Altus. You can see that the pattern of your Force usage is very similar to the blue line, which may be considered to be the standard, which suggests that you use the Force to sense things in a manner very like other Jedi do.”


“There are two main things that are interesting about the second graph,” said Master Quor, staring at Aronoke with his round eyes and speaking slowly and carefully.

He must think me a particularly dull student, Aronoke thought.

“Firstly, this component of a Jedi’s Force use would typically be virtually non-existant. It is usually excluded because it is not significant and doing so reduces statistical error.”

“But this time it is significant?” Aronoke hazarded.

“Correct. The standard measurement is again the blue line in the background. As you can see, your line is far higher. Secondly, this line would usually be straight. If it showed any activity at all, it would follow the pattern of the first graph, although greatly smoothed. As you can see, your graph shows continuous rapid oscillation with occasional irregular event peaks. These rival the alpha and beta components in magnitude, and in some instances, exceed them. It demonstrates a completely different pattern.”

“Oh,” said Aronoke weakly, feeling lost again.

“This means you were involved in another, completely different interaction using the Force while you attempted to find Master Altus,” said Master Quor, solemnly. “It is not only separate – it is performed in an entirely different way. I believe this interaction originates from a source other than yourself, and this graph displays your reaction to it. Of course, the most obvious assumption is that it is the Zynaboon biocron, indicating that you most likely have a capacity to interact with all biocrons, not merely the one on Kasthir.”

The green montage, the strange sensations – Aronoke had assumed that they could only be a side-effect of his proximity to the biocron. Master Quor needed all these machines and graphs to determine that?

“Does it affect everyone that way, or only me?” he asked.

“A good question,” said Master Quor approvingly. His hands rattled over the controls, bringing up other, different graphs. “These are the results of scans I performed upon myself and Padawan Tolos this morning, while we performed simple sensing tasks. As you can see, neither of us demonstrate the peculiar effect you do. With your permission, Padawan, I would like to replicate these simple tests upon you. If you continue to demonstrate the same unusual patterns, we can assume it is most likely your unusual connection to the biocron that is responsible. Of course, to be absolutely certain, we would have to perform the same tests on you again in complete isolation of the biocron, if such a thing is even possible.”

“It would be the same sort of thing as yesterday?”

“Some sensors and a simple guessing game. It need not take long,” said Master Quor hopefully.

“Very well then,” said Aronoke, thinking that Master Quor wasn’t so bad when he wasn’t talking about reproduction or bioengineering. He didn’t completely understand the graphs or Master Quor’s explanations, but they did seem very interesting.

“Excellent! I’ll have the test chamber prepared at once! While the technicians make everything ready, perhaps you can relate, Padawan Aronoke, exactly how you felt and what physical sensations you experienced just before you woke up the first time, when you lost focus.”

He pointed to a particularly dramatic peak on the second graph.

Aronoke blushed fiercely, remembering what else had dramatically peaked just then.

Aronoke clung to Kthoth Neesh tightly as they zoomed between the dark trees. Branches occasionally whipped across his face, but that was better than the lashing he had gotten when Kthoth Neesh had tried to cross one of the open clearings. That had been a mistake. They had been forced to forge a path back towards the forest and had lost much of their lead.

“They’re gaining on us!” Aronoke’s words were whipped away uselessly, long before Kthoth Neesh could hear them, but she seemed to understand anyway. The angry insectile humming of the imperial speeders was louder now, clearly audible over the whine of their own bike’s engine. After Aronoke had inadvertently given their position away, the speeders had converged on them all too quickly. If only he could drive, Aronoke thought, they might have gotten away – he might have managed to fly completely in the dark with the assistance of his senses – but it had proved impossible for Kthoth Neesh to navigate the forest without the headlights and they had been followed. Even with the lights on, Aronoke wasn’t sure they would avoid crashing. He had shut his eyes tightly several times when they came too close to trees.

It was no surprise that their pursuers were gaining; they were trained Imperial scouts, while Kthoth Neesh’s experience was limited to a few occasions when she had visited planets and tried out the local transport. Narakites didn’t have much need to learn to pilot ground vehicles. Aronoke’s experience was more limited still, because the Fumers had never used bikes, so all he could do was cling to Kthoth Neesh and hope for the best.

It was strange, Aronoke thought, to be holding her closely so soon after the fiasco behind the log. He would have preferred to retreat far away from Kthoth Neesh, to come to terms with the strangeness of his overwhelming attraction to her, but necessity was a strong master.

He should be thinking about something else, he thought crossly, or at least, be working on regaining his equilibrium, but it was difficult when he was expecting they would crash at any moment.

Blaster fire had been whistling after them, but it didn’t seem like their pursuers were trying very seriously to shoot them. They were obviously supposed to be taken alive. Then suddenly there wasn’t any firing at all. Aronoke glanced back over his shoulder and saw one of the bikes was outdistancing the others. It drew steadily closer, flicking through the tree trunks with reckless expert ease. The rider must have amazing reflexes, Aronoke thought to himself. He had never seen anyone drive with such disregard for personal safety, not even Mill, but this person was taking insane risks and winning them time after time. Almost as if… of course, he realised with a pang of dread. It was the Sith.

“Drive faster!” Aronoke shouted in Kthoth Neesh’s ear, and the narakite girl stiffened tensely and bent further forward over the bike’s controls as if she was urging it onwards. The bike behind them swooped and zagged, drawing so close that Aronoke could see by the flashing headlights that its rider wore full body armour, black, ornate, and patterned in a distinctive style. It was definitely the Sith. Aronoke could see him casually steering one-handed while he reached for something at his waist. Could see his hand coming forward with a bright blaze of red as his lightsaber activated. Like a jouster, the Sith thundered after them and with a sudden sideways swoop, slashed at their speeder.

Much to his shame, Aronoke squealed in a most undignified way as he swung his leg up and out of the way, clutching even more tightly to Kthoth Neesh to avoid falling off. The speeder swerved alarmingly, sparks blazing off the rear panel, and she almost lost control. She hit the brakes hard as the bike slewed wildly from side to side, and the Sith shot past them, careering ahead into the forest. The other bikes were forced to go around them, to slow and curve back, but Kthoth Neesh heeled the bike over almost at right angles, pointed it at what looked like a solid wall of vegetation and pushed the accelerators full forward.

Aronoke ducked as some low-hanging branches nearly took off his head. One impacted against his back, where it was deflected by the thick swimsuit material, while a stick scratched painfully across his face, just below one eye. The speeder hurtled unstoppably onwards crashing through the bushes. They were angling downwards now, through stringy saplings and scraggly foliage, until the speeder suddenly shot out over water, trailing a mess of broken vines behind it.

The river!

Aronoke hadn’t been certain the speeder would even hover over water, but this model was apparently capable. He looked back over his shoulder, but he could see no one following. The density of the undergrowth had slowed pursuit for the moment. He glanced quickly upstream and downstream, but he couldn’t see very far in either direction. The river curved sharply here and the vegetation on the banks was dense and obscuring. If they hurried they might get out of sight before their pursuers could see which way they went. But which way should they go? Aronoke thought the ship lay downstream somewhere – they had travelled very quickly and had surely come further upriver than they had walked, but heading straight towards it might give their hiding place away. Upstream only led further from safety, and Aronoke doubted that Kthoth Neesh would be able to outmanoeuvre the more experienced scouts for long. Or they could abandon the bike and…

“Quick!” he shouted in Kthoth Neesh’s ear. “Stop! Deactivate the hover-thrusters.”

“But we’ll sink!” the narakite yelled unthinkingly, and then she staightened in comprehension. She braked so hard that Aronoke nearly shot over her head; was crushed up against her back, only barely resisting being flung off. The bike bobbed alarmingly over the water. It took a moment for Kthoth Neesh to find the controls and then quite suddenly the bike dropped in the water and began to sink, taking them both with it.

Aronoke felt a pang of dread as the water closed over his head and had to will himself to be calm as he kept hold of Kthoth Neesh with one hand while he fumbled in his swimsuit pocket for his breather with the other. If it wasn’t there, if it had somehow fallen out, then he was sure to be caught. Aronoke remembered Master Caaldor’s directions all too clearly. Don’t take any risks. Better to fail than to fall into the hands of the Sith. But then his fingers closed on the familiar wedge of the breather and he pushed it into his mouth, remembering to breathe out first to expel any liquid that might have gotten into it.

With any luck, Aronoke thought, the current should bring them straight back to Master Caaldor and the others. As he drifted, holding tightly to Kthoth Neesh’s hand, Aronoke concentrated hard on trying to dampen his thoughts and his connection to the Force, trying to hide their presence. It was difficult, because he had to keep one tiny tendril of his Senses open, feeling through the water for the vast bulk of the ship and Master Caaldor’s presence.

No sign of the ship, no sign of Master Caaldor’s familiar calmness. Surely they hadn’t come so far upstream as all that. Aronoke could sense a sudden spike of intense Force-driven rage from nearby. The Sith had lost them, he realised in relief, and had probably used the Force to do something nasty to one of his underlings. He wouldn’t like to be one of those speeder bike scouts right now.

They drifted for ten minutes and then ten minutes more, and Aronoke began to grow worried that they hadn’t been upstream of the ship at all. That they were drifting further and further away from safety with every passing moment. Maybe he had missed the ship in all this sludgy water. Or, worse still, maybe this wasn’t the right river. Aronoke allowed his senses a little more freedom, letting them probe out further, and was relieved to detect a familiar, if somewhat muted presence on the riverbank. Aronoke tugged at Kthoth Neesh’s hand and began to swim for the shore.

“What are you doing here?” Aronoke asked Hespenara as he staggered out onto the muddy bank. Behind him, Kthoth Neesh spat out her breather and let loose a deluge of curses as she examined something clinging to her leg.

“Leeches!” she said in disgust.

“I came to find you!” said Hespenara. “I was feeling better, and you’d been gone such a long time. Master Caaldor thought it best that I try and locate you, since he was worried you couldn’t find your way back, but I met a rather unpleasant creature while I was trying to get out of the river. I’m afraid it took me a while to deal with that.”

“The giant river worm?” asked Aronoke, and the green girl nodded.

“We met it too.”

“We’d better get back to the ship,” said Kthoth Neesh, still plucking at slimy things attached to her swimsuit, real and imaginary. “Wouldn’t be surprised if those speeders are still looking for us.”

“I can see you have a story to tell,” said Hespenara. “Let’s get under cover. You look all done in.”


“Padawan. I’m glad to see you’ve returned safely.” Master Caaldor looked remote, as if he was trying to see something far off in deep space, and Aronoke thought that his Master couldn’t continue shielding them for very much longer.

Aronoke, Hespenara and Kthoth Neesh had cleaned up and changed out of their wet garments. Aronoke had been glad to retreat into the depths of his Jedi robes. They felt safer than the tight-fitting swimsuit and helped conceal the collection of minor injuries this latest escapade had earned him. Yet, despite his weariness and the deterioration of his limp, all the scrapes and scratches didn’t weigh him down as heavily as his disappointment in himself.

“I take it things did not go as smoothly as we hoped,” Master Caaldor said, giving Aronoke a scrutinising look. Aronoke tried hard not to flush, wondering if his Master had detected the terrible surge in the Force that had attracted the Sith. Probably not, Aronoke deduced. Master Caaldor had been busy shielding the ship and was not particularly good at sensing things. He was probably just noting Aronoke’s grim expression.

Should he tell his Master what had happened? Almost certainly. But would he? No. Not now. Not with Kthoth Neesh and Hespenara here listening. It was far too embarrassing. He took refuge in starting his report instead.

“We managed to avoid being detected until after we set the beacon,” Aronoke said. “There were imperial speeders out looking for us, but it was very easy to hide from them. It took longer to get to the hill than I thought, because the terrain was very difficult, but once we got there, that part went quite well. But the beacon only signalled for a about a minute before someone blew it up. I don’t know that it was really signalling enough to do any good.”

“There may still be a response,” Master Caaldor said reassuringly. “The signal contained coded data as to our location. If it was detected by any Jedi anywhere, merely once, they will know where to find us. The beacon does not need to continue being active for them to do so.”

“So you encountered trouble on the way back?” Hespenara asked, and Aronoke couldn’t help but look at Kthoth Neesh. She looked back at him expressionlessly and shrugged.

“It was always going to be the rough part,” she said wearily. “Once we set up the beacon they knew exactly where to find us, of course. We got out of there quickly, but they were closer on our trail than before.”

Aronoke heaved an internal sigh of relief. He hadn’t really thought that Kthoth Neesh would reveal what had happened, but he was still glad she hadn’t said anything. I have too many secrets, he thought glumly, thinking of the map on his back. I don’t really need another one. In the end though, he realised, all his secrets came from one source, which at least was something Master Caaldor already knew about. But he still knew, deep down, that his Master should be told about what had happened between him and Kthoth Neesh – about what kept happening.

“And then?” asked Master Caaldor, and Aronoke realised that they were all looking at him, waiting for him to continue as he stood there, caught up in reverie.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m tired.” He forced himself to breathe, slowly, deeply, and drew upon the Force to make himself calmer. To override aches and pains to allow him to concentrate better. As his heart rate steadied and his muscles began to relax, the right words came into Aronoke’s mind.

“On the way back, we were seen by a scout,” he said. “At first we hid and he went away, but he came back again after a few minutes and began looking around carefully, like he knew we were somewhere nearby. I think the Sith must have detected us.”

“Oh?” said Hespenara. “That’s surprising. Most Jedi, and Sith too I expect, wouldn’t be able to detect someone easily amidst all that jungle, unless you were doing something very overt and powerful.”

“Our Sith could possess a talent for sensing,” observed Master Caaldor, staring at Aronoke thoughtfully.

“Maybe we made some noise and the scout heard, I don’t know,” said Aronoke. “Maybe he saw our tracks. It just seemed like he came back so suddenly, I thought it must be the Sith. We managed to get the drop on the scout, but not before he gave the alarm. We took his bike.”

“Then it was like we’d shot at their capital ship or something,” Kthoth Neesh interjected smoothly. “Suddenly there were speeders everywhere, chasing us. I tried to head upriver, but they caught up quickly. I’m not very good with speeders.”

“Most likely they had some sort of tracer on the bike,” said Hespenara.

“Possibly,” Kthoth Neesh replied. “But they didn’t seem to be able to trace it when we dumped it in the river.”

Aronoke listened to her tell the rest of the story. They had been very lucky to get away, he realised, and yet, the danger had not completely passed. The Sith might still trace them along the river, if he realised they had disappeared into it. He would doubtlessly be watching and scanning it much more closely than before.

“I suppose now we have to wait,” Hespenara sighed.

“For a time,” said Master Caaldor mildly. “There’s a limit to how long I can maintain our shielding. Hopefully the Sith will lose patience with the search before then.”

“So we do nothing?” asked Aronoke.

“Eat. Drink. Rest,” said Master Caaldor. “If nothing has happened after twenty-four hours, then we’ll have to work out another plan, but until then, we are best off conserving our energy.”


In the end they waited for about eleven hours.

Aronoke was awake again by then, having slept for nearly all of them. He was sitting in the cockpit in the co-pilot’s seat, leaning back in his chair with his feet up on the dash, concentrating on scanning the sky for ships – ships that might contain Jedi come to help them. It was important that any Jedi should be quickly informed of the situation, so they didn’t fall foul of either the Queb or the Sith.

Master Caaldor sat in the tilted pilot’s seat, steadily staring out into the murky water that lay beyond the front viewscreen. He hadn’t slept for at least three days running, Aronoke knew, but he didn’t seem to have any trouble staying awake. Aronoke wished his own control was so effective.

But there were things Aronoke could do better, despite his limited experience, and sensing other Force-users was one of them. Aronoke had been concerned that using his Force-senses might alert the Sith, and Master Caaldor had conceded that there was a risk, but, he had added, there was a risk in everything.

“Even merely hiding poses a risk,” he had said. “Everything is connected in the Force.”

Yes, thought Aronoke, every moment they delayed gave Master Skeirim a chance to pursue his treacherous plans, whatever those were. Every moment was one that Master Altus spent in suffering. And so Aronoke scanned for ships, for Sith or Jedi, hoping that help would come soon.

And then help came.

At first Aronoke thought he was imagining the twinkle in the sky, for it was as faint as the most distant star still visible to the naked eye. The tiny blip of Force energy was erratic, thready and diffuse, and yet he knew it was there. He sat up to focus more carefully. Even though changing his physical position made no difference to how well his Force senses worked, it still felt like moving helped. It seemed to help now, because a few moments later he had honed in on the twinkle and was certain of what he was sensing.

“Someone’s here,” he said to Master Caaldor. “Travelling in a ship, just entering the atmosphere. I think it’s a Jedi, but I can’t be sure yet.”

“Make sure first,” said Master Caaldor. “Then we’ll make contact.”

Aronoke obligingly probed more intently. Yes, it was a ship, a small ship probably, since it contained only one person, now descending through the higher reaches of the atmosphere, drawing closer to them with every passing second. The pilot was a human woman. She tensed and looked around, probably checking the instrument panels. She was definitely a Jedi, Aronoke thought, detecting no trace of the hot intensity he had felt surrounding the Sith. Her connection to the Force deepened and flared, and Aronoke realised she had detected something of his perusal and was trying to tell what he was.

It’s me, Padawan Aronoke, he thought at her, wondering if he could make her understand. Could you speak, mind to mind through the Force? He had no idea. He tried to connect to her more strongly, but only found himself more highly aware of her physical form. She was tall and slim, although not as tall as him. Her long hair was pinned neatly back in a tight braid. He could feel the flow of blood through her veins, the constant onward march of her digestion, the light play of the muscles in her hands and arms as she expertly manipulated the controls of her ship.

Aronoke hesitated a moment, remembering what had happened when he had sensed Kthoth Neesh so closely, but this time it was different. The strange attraction was not there: the experience was as sexless as if the woman had been a tree. There was no sudden overwhelming lust, no biological imperative, but just a deep awareness of her biological structure.

Suddenly Aronoke could tell something was happening, not because he could see it, but because the Jedi could. There was a rush of adrenaline, quickly controlled and harnessed. She wrestled with the ship controls, and the effects of gravity on her body told Aronoke that her craft was ducking, rolling, weaving.

“She’s been spotted,” said Aronoke aloud, and realised he hadn’t answered Master Caaldor’s most important question yet. “She is a Jedi, and I think she’s looking for something – for us, most likely – but she’s been spotted. I think she’s in combat…”

Master Caaldor said something then, but Aronoke didn’t hear it, because one moment he was embedded in the strange Jedi’s biology, and the next moment…. intense agony, pain, every molecule within his awareness being torn apart from every other, and she was nothing, falling through glaring light into darkness, and Aronoke was falling too, clinging to the shred of Force that was all that was left of her, because that was all there was to hold on to…

Someone slapped him hard in the face and it was like they’d slapped his bare brain, it was so devastatingly shocking. It was Hespenara, Aronoke saw, bent over him, pulling her hand back for another slap. Aronoke winced, putting up his hands automatically to shield his face, and Hespenara’s hand fell away in slow motion.

“She…they…” said Aronoke numbly, feeling each word to be a huge mountain he had to climb with numb legs.

“We know,” said Hespenara sadly. “We felt it in the Force.”

“Let’s get him up,” said Master Caaldor and together the two Jedi helped Aronoke to his feet. “You’re lucky you’re still with us, Padawan,” he scolded Aronoke as they helped him sit back down in his chair. “You must never allow yourself to become so heavily invested in what you Sense that you lose track of yourself, of your connection to your body. One of the major hazards that affects Seers is that they can become lost in the Force, unable or unwilling to return to themselves. Following someone into death is a hazard not even the greatest of Seers should tackle.”

It must have been serious, Aronoke thought, still dazed. His master looked so relieved.

“We don’t want you stuck as a mindless vegetable,” said Hespenara, also looking grim and shaken.

“I’m…sorry,” said Aronoke. His mind fumbled with the concept of being a Seer. The Seers in the Jedi Temple were such distant mysterious figures, he couldn’t imagine himself being one. And then they tended to stay there in safety, guarded like sacred relics, not taking any action but only making predictions of the future and watching for secret signs of trouble. He shivered, thinking how difficult such a life might be.

“Your training has been far too sketchy,” Master Caaldor was continuing. “Unfortunately your abilities in sensing far outstrip my own, and I have little knowledge of the specialised techniques Seers use to safeguard themselves. Until you can receive proper training, you must be very cautious, Padawan. Your natural instincts have served you well thus far, but out in the field there are always new dangers. The situation is hardly ever entirely predictable.”

No, Aronoke thought vaguely. There were river monsters and explosions.

“I blame myself,” Master Caaldor was saying. “I’ve made too many demands of you when you have had so little training.”

“No, Master, it’s not your fault,” said Aronoke, forcing himself to straighten a little, to push aside the heavy lethargy and the strange numbness that fogged his mind. He sternly made himself take stock of his condition, to flex his hands and wriggle his toes. He felt too loosely attached to his body, like that time long ago, when he had tried to see what had happened to Master Altus. “It’s like you said – we have to take risks and this one was mine. I had to try, and I don’t hink I’ve suffered any lasting harm. You brought me out of it.” He smiled weakly over at Hespenara, who was still regarding him with some concern. “You didn’t have to slap me so hard, though,” he said, trying to lighten the mood.

“That was the third time I slapped you,” said Hespenara flatly. “I thought we’d lost you.”

“I’m fine,” said Aronoke. “Just a bit shaken. But that Jedi… she’s not fine. She’s dead.”

“Do you have any idea what killed her?” Hespenara asked.

“It was almost instant,” said Aronoke. His voice still sounded dreamy, even to himself. “She was trying to evade something, throwing her ship around the sky. She must have been hit. It was… awful, but she didn’t suffer. It was so quick….”

His voice trailed off again, as he relived that terrifying yet oddly exhilarating moment.

“Stay with us,” growled Hespenara, roughly shaking his shoulder.

“Sorry,” mumbled Aronoke sheepishly.

“We’ve got to decide what to do next,” said Master Caaldor. “Whatever we do, the risks we have already taken will doubtlessly pale beside the ones we must take now.”

“We have to make sure the Jedi Council learns about Master Altus and Master Skeirim,” said Hespenara firmly. “If we are about to be caught, we have to send a message telling them what’s happened, so they can take action.”

“Yes,” said Master Caaldor. “That is a valid point. But I am loathe to sell ourselves cheaply to our enemies by broadcasting where we are. It is vital that we stay out of the hands of the Sith. Perhaps there is still a way we can win our freedom.”

Aronoke knew Master Caaldor wanted to save them all, but it was entirely obvious that it was him his Master was talking about. That it was vital Aronoke didn’t fall into the hands of the Sith, because of what was on his back. That Master Caaldor felt somewhat guilty, because they were here against the Jedi Council’s orders to stay as absolutely safe as possible.

“Let’s go through all the possibilities,” said Hespenara. “Ideas… We could lay an ambush for the Sith, tackle him head on, and take his ship. There are three of us and only one of him, although he does have lots of trained soldiers.”

“It would be best to avoid physical conflict if at all possible,” Master Caaldor countered. “The Sith might be able to bring in Queb reinforcements.”

“We could try setting another distress beacon, somewhere else,” said Hespenara, counting off on her fingers.

“They’ll just blow it up again,” said Aronoke dully. “Probably even faster this time. I barely got out of range as it was.”

“Besides,” said Hespenara, “it’s too dangerous – dangerous for us, as you say, but also dangerous for whoever comes to help us, unless they come in numbers, which they are unlikely to do, considering this world is off-limits.”

“We could choose to do nothing,” said Master Caaldor. “We could wait until someone investigates the disappearance of the Jedi who attempted to rescue us. She most probably sent a communication saying she was investigating a distress signal before she came here.”

“That might take a long time,” said Hespenara grimly. “I hate to think of us sitting here, waiting, hiding at the bottom of a river while Master Altus is still a captive.”

“We need to get a ship,” said Aronoke dreamily. “But the spaceport is up on the platforms and there aren’t any ships down here, except the ones looking for us, who are our enemies, and maybe mostly just atmospheric fliers anyway, and a few that come down to… that…”

Aronoke stood up abruptly, his mind suddenly racing.

“Aronoke?” prompted Hespenara gently, hovering at his elbow. He must look very unstable, Aronoke realised.

“That woman I met in the bar,” he said aloud. “The one with the ship who wanted to be our guide – she gave us a holocube with her frequency…. What if we called her?”

Hespenara looked blankly across at Master Caaldor who was stroking his beard and nodding thoughtfully. “Our enemies probably won’t be expecting us to make use of local frequencies since we’ve already shown our hand by trying for intergalactic assistance,” he said. “It’s possible they may still intercept any communication we make, possible also that Jark Tander won’t want to work against the Queb, but maybe…”

“We can offer her a good incentive,” said Hespenara. “Surely the Jedi Temple will hold good on any reasonable offer you make her to bring us to Coruscant.”

“It’s worth a try,” said Master Caaldor, “and there’s no point waiting any further. Padawan, if you could fetch the holocube…?”

It was a request designed to force him to focus, Aronoke realised, and perhaps to take him out of the room, so the other Jedi could discuss him in his absence. He stumbled along the sloping corridor into the main living area of the ship. Kthoth Neesh and Tarric Gondroz were there, gloomily playing Smackdown on the sloping table.

“What’s happening?” asked Kthoth Neesh, dropping her cards and leaping to her feet at once.

“Help’s not coming,” said Aronoke. “We’re trying something else.”

Quickly he explained what had happened and what the new plan was.

She frowned at him. “That doesn’t explain why you look so terrible.”

“I’m fine – I just overdid things. Jedi things,” said Aronoke, but it didn’t stop her from coming over to stare at him as he began to search through the holocubes. They largely lay where they had been stacked before, stuck together by their magnetic surfaces despite the trauma suffered by the ship. “I expect we’ll be leaving rather quickly if this works,” he said, sorting amongst the teetering pile, “so you’d best get together anything you want to bring. We won’t be able to take much – only what we can easily carry – and it had best be wrapped in something waterproof.”

“Waterproof? You mean we have to swim out?” asked Tarric Gondroz, sounding alarmed.

“At least you didn’t bring much luggage,” said Kthoth Neesh lightly.

“Fate obviously has it in for me,” moaned the kubaz, cradling his head dramatically in his hands. “I can’t swim! I’ve traded a watery death in a tank for one in a stinking muddy river.” He scuttled off into the depths of the ship, making unsettled wheezing sounds as he went.

Aronoke turned his attention back to the task at hand. Jark Tander’s holocube had to be one of the ones on top.

He had just found it when Kthoth Neesh laid a hand on his arm. In his current state of mind it translated into a physical shock and he started, turning abruptly, the holocube in his hand. She looked up at him, and Aronoke was surprised by the genuine concern in her expression.

“Are you sure you’re alright?”

“I’ll recover,” said Aronoke brusquely.

“I’m sorry for what happened,” she said softly, her voice thick with emotion. “I didn’t mean for things to take off like that. I mean, I do like you, but mostly I was just fooling around. Not…thinking, I guess, about what it really might do to you.”

“It’s more my fault than yours,” said Aronoke. “You haven’t dedicated yourself to live by any code.”

“I know,” said Kthoth Neesh. “But still. At first I meant it, trying to seduce you so that you would let me go, one way or another. After that it was just funny, but I never expected you to… well, I didn’t mind but…”

“It’s alright,” said Aronoke. “I don’t properly understand why this is happening to me, or why you in particular have this effect on me. It’s not normal – it goes way beyond a normal attraction.”

Kthoth Neesh smiled a tiny mischievous smile. She was incapable of being repressed for long. “And here I thought I was just that sexy.”

“You are,” said Aronoke, seriously, and was surprised to see her pale cheeks tinge with pink. “But that doesn’t mean I should be acting like I have been. Being a Jedi… that’s my big chance. Maybe my only chance. I don’t want to stuff it up.”

“I’m sorry,” said Kthoth Neesh, contritely. “I’ll try to behave.”

“I’ve got to get this back to Master Caaldor,” said Aronoke gently, holding up the holocube.

“I could take it,” she said, reaching towards it. “You still look like you’re going to faint. You should sit down.”

Aronoke drew his hand back closing his fist over the cube. “It’s okay – I think they’ll want to keep an eye on me,” he said, and the Narakite nodded, stepping aside.

It was all horribly awkward, Aronoke thought grimly as he stumbled along the passage to the cockpit, and for a moment he envisoned an easier world where he wasn’t Force-sensitive, wasn’t a Jedi. Where everything wasn’t so much trouble and he could kiss Kthoth Neesh again without worrying about the consequences.

But there was never any point wishing for might-bes. No use imagining that you had a real family when you were a bioengineered freak, for example. And everything was so much better, a thousand times better, than it had been on Kasthir.

Yes, it was better to be a Jedi than a skimmer. Better to be a Jedi than a Sith. And then there were things he had to do, traitors to apprehend and friends to rescue Things that seemed impossibly difficult to manage, but the sorts of things that Jedi did all the time.

Being a Jedi was the only thing that really gave his life form and meaning. He couldn’t just give up because things became difficult. Because he was suddenly obsessed with a girl. No, he would save Master Altus. He would learn more about the biocron and find better ways to deny its hold over him. He would become a proper Jedi in proper control, and then these juvenile worries would seem unimportant.

Feeling more in charge of his destiny, Aronoke passed the holocube to Master Caaldor.

“Sit down,” said Hespenara firmly. “You still look like you’re going to fall over.”

“I’m fine,” said Aronoke mechanically, but he sat where she told him to anyway.


“Blasted droids – always causing problems,” growled Kthoth Neesh from the muddiest extremity of the riverbank, staring into the brown water as if the intensity of her glare alone could levitate PR-77 out of the mud. The rest of the party was perched on a giant dead tree partly embedded in the bank of the river, which extended some distance out over the water. Tarric Gondroz clutched his carry-all miserably, while Hespenara was keeping a careful look out for trouble.

“PR should be fine,” said Master Caaldor vaguely. “He’s quite waterproof.”

“But what if he gets swallowed by a river-worm, or stuck in the mud, Master?”

“Then I expect we’ll have to leave him behind, but there’s no need to be alarmed yet. Besides, I believe that’s him now.”

Sure enough, there was a swirling in the water, and Aronoke could see PR’s domed head just below the surface. The strange muted sounds rising from the water suggested that the droid was complaining non-stop as he slowly but steadily forged his way up out of the river.

Exiting the ship had been less of a drama than Aronoke had anticipated. Tarric Gondroz had been assisted by Hespenara, who was a stronger swimmer than anyone else. The other Jedi and Kthoth Neesh had managed without assistance, but PR-77, being made of metal and rather heavy, had immediately sunk to the bottom and been lost from sight. They had been forced to leave him behind while they made their way to shore, where they had quickly changed into dry clothes.

“I suppose we should find better cover,” Hespenara said uneasily, once the droid was out of the water. “Oh, do be quiet, PR – we’re trying to be inconspicuous.”

“Sorry, Mistress Hespenara.”

“Perhaps under that clump of trees?” suggested Aronoke, but they hadn’t moved far towards it, when the noise of engines warned them of an approaching ship .

“Quick!” said Aronoke, but it was too late – the vessel was obviously coming straight towards their position. It was with some relief that Aronoke saw it was the sort of ship he might have expected a smuggler to own, a slightly battered vessel about the same size as the XL-327, and surely not the sort of craft a Sith would deign to travel in.

With some difficulty, the ship set down on the riverbank, half-in half-out of the water, angled so that its access hatch was over the shore. Even before it came to a complete halt, the ramp came smoothly sliding down.

“Come on, it must be Jark Tander,” said Aronoke, but before anyone could move, shots ripped into the riverbank as a second ship streaked overhead.

It was a small strangely shaped vessel that looked a bit like a triangular wedge with three long tails, and it curved sharply about and came angling down towards them.

“It’s going to land!” yelled Hespenara and they all scattered. Aronoke and Master Caaldor went straight forward into the trees. Hespenara darted behind a slimy rock, while Kthoth Neesh and Tarric Gondroz fell back behind the log.

“Oh no!” said Aronoke. “The droid!”

PR-77 had attempted to run after the others, but had slipped and fallen in the mud. He was laying on his back on the muddy riverbank, his arms and legs twitching helplessly.

“Too late,” said Master Caaldor grimly.

The ship came down, contacting the muddy ground. It didn’t stop immediately – the bank was too slippery for that. It skated along on its landing struts. For a moment, Aronoke thought PR would be crushed, but the droid managed to roll sideways, flopping on his face, and the ship narrowly slid past, burying the droid in a wave of mud. It continued inexorably onwards, straight towards Kthoth Neesh and Tarric Gondroz. Aronoke thought they would be crushed to death for sure, and they obviously thought the same. Aronoke could hear Tarric Gondroz’s panicked wail and see Kthoth Neesh’s pale face gaping in terror, as the ship slid towards them, closer and closer. Kthoth Neesh made a last desperate lunge towards the jungle, dragging the kubaz after her. She would have been too slow, but the ship finally crunched to a halt, crashing forcefully into the log. Splinters flew and the great trunk shuddered, but the tree was so heavy and well buried that it barely moved. The narakite and the kubaz kept going, seeking the cover of the trees.

“Quickly now,” said Master Caaldor. “Get PR and head to the ship.” He gestured to where Aronoke could see Jark Tander, blaster in one hand, waving desperately at them from the ramp.

“But what about the others?” Aronoke asked. “I can help…”

“Get on the ship, Padawan,” said Master Caaldor sternly. “Let me worry about them.”

Aronoke obediently sprinted across the mud to where PR was wallowing.

“Master Aronoke,” said the droid. “For a moment I thought I was scrap-metal. Luckily the danger is past, but I still seem to be somewhat stuck!”

“Come on, PR,” said Aronoke, trying to tug the droid to its feet and getting more muddy than he would like.

“I knew I should have stayed on the ship, Master Aronoke,” said PR, his efforts to stand more of a hindrance than a help. Clumps of mud flew through the air as he waved his arms effusively. “I’m not designed for working in such primitive unstable environments!”

“Stop talking, PR, and get up!”

“Yes, Master Aronoke, I am trying!”

Finally, the muddy droid was standing and Aronoke led him hurriedly across to the ramp where Jark Tander waited.

“Go inside, PR,” Aronoke said, a bit breathlessly, and the droid meekly complied.

“Jaxxor Branx,” said Jark Tander, looking him up and down. Aronoke realised somewhat belatedly that he was wearing his Jedi robes rather than his smuggler disguise. “Or, should I say, Master Jedi, since I suppose that’s not really your name. I can see you’re not the freelance entrepreneurs I took you for. Are you really a Jedi, or is that a disguise too?”

“I’m Padawan Aronoke of the Jedi Order, and that’s Master Caaldor,” said Aronoke, deciding there was little point in further prevarication. “We were working under cover. We came here to rescue Hespenara.” He gestured across at where the green girl was running across the muddy bank towards the ship.

“You can explain later, once we get off the ground,” said Jark Tander tersely, passing Aronoke her spare blaster pistol. “That is, if we get off the ground. I trust you actually know how to use this?”

“Yes,” said Aronoke.

“I mightn’t have agreed to this if I’d known you were Jedi,” muttered Jark Tander, giving him a hard stare. “I smelt something funny when you wanted to go to Coruscant. Who’s the canned meat?”

This last she directed at the well-armoured figure that had emerged from the other ship.

“Bolar Dak,” said Aronoke. “A bounty hunter.”

Jark Tander nodded grimly. “I’ve heard of him – he’s considered to be bad news. I suggest we fry him if he comes anywhere near my ship.”

“Well, you’re the captain,” said Aronoke, checking the settings of the blaster.

Hespenara came slithering across the last bit of mud. “Master Caaldor sent me back,” she told Aronoke, with a brief acknowledging nod to Jark Tander.

“Yes,” said Aronoke. “I think he’s a bit leery of the possibility of losing any more padawans.”

Along the river bank, Master Caaldor seemed to be delivering an ultimatum to Bolar Dak, while Kthoth Neesh and Tarric Gondroz were doing their best to sneak by unnoticed, making their way along the edge of the jungle. The bounty hunter didn’t seem inclined to surrender. From the way he gestured with his enormous blaster-rifle, Aronoke thought he was making it quite clear who he thought was capturing who. He must have finished with something threatening, because Master Caaldor suddenly took a single step back and drew his lightsaber, as the bounty hunter threw something spherical into the air. It rose unnaturally swiftly, obviously under its own power.

“What is that?” Aronoke wondered aloud. “Some kind of explosive?”

“Surely he wouldn’t blow himself up too,” said Hespenara. But even from this distance it was becoming obvious that the sphere was a flying droid. It had extruded wing-like fins, antennae and little blaster guns.

“It looks little more dangerous than a Jedi training drone,” said Hespenara sceptically. “Master Caaldor shouldn’t have any trouble dealing with that.”

Even as she spoke, a swarm of larger drones, as uncountable as insects, swooped up from behind the bounty hunter’s ship and streamed down in an angry cloud towards them.

‘Tomorrow,’ thought Josie, in an agony of bitterness. Yustus had explained how it would work to her with an unutterably nasty glee. She would be given a drug to keep her from moving, and her eyes would be cut out, and then the blue diamonds would be put in their place, and once they had healed into place and he was sure she could see through them he would swap her into his own loathsome body. ‘And then he will kill me, I suppose,’ she said to herself. She fought down a terrible feeling of being powerless, trapped, overwhelmed.

It was the middle of the night, and Zardeenah had gone somewhere – Josie did not know where, or how long she would be gone, she had just heard her go as she lay there unable to sleep – so Josie had gone into the garden. She would try to escape. She could not fly herself, or burrow through the ground like a mole; the only way was to chance climbing over the wall. She should have done it before, she cursed herself, but the evil magician was quite right when he said that she could not will her own destruction. And climbing the wall, not knowing what was on the other side except for hungry wild dogs and mile after mile of wilderness, had seemed to her until this very moment too much like suicide.

Josie climbed carefully to the top of the bird-headed statue, judging each step carefully so she would not slip. She balanced herself on its head, made sure of her footing, and then leapt up to grab the top of the wall. Her fingers clung for an instant, then slipped, and she crashed down to the ground.

Determined, she grimly climbed the statue and tried again, with the same result. This time she could not help crying.

‘Try again, Josie,’ she told herself, wiping her face on her arm so she would not make her hands wet. ‘Try again.’

She climbed the statue a third time, tears streaming down her face. She told herself fiercely to stop blubbing, but the tears would not stop coming. Slowly, carefully, she steadied herself on the shoulders of the statue, then its head. ‘Third time lucky,’ she told herself, wiping her face on her arm again.

Josie did not notice, but in each place her tears landed on the statue, it began to change. The exquisitely-carved feathers became yet more fine, beyond the skill of any carver, then stirred in the gentle breeze. The stone became softer and warmer than stone. And the patches spread – slowly at first, and then with the swiftness of a locomotive.

Josie tensed herself to jump, and the statue moved.

The head turned, the body twisted at the hip, and she fell again. This time the statue caught her. The four arms, no longer stone, but flesh, made a secure net beneath her, cradling her like a baby.

Josie took a long shuddering inward breath, abruptly forgetting to cry any more. The arms smelled comforting in a feathery way, like a pillow, and she found she was not scared at all. A voice – a strange unmusical but not at all unpleasant voice – formed a word she did not understand.


‘Nera?’ said Tash. The world was streaming back into warmth and colour with unimaginable speed, bringing his mind back from whatever stony place it had been sleeping in, and there was a creature in his arms. It was a living creature with two arms and two legs and a tuft of dark fibrous stuff on its head, a human being, and though it was wet in patches it did not appear to be bleeding. He bent his head to down to look more closely at the creature in his arms, and the impossible hope within him died. It wore the same kind of black garment and seemed to be the same kind as Nera, but it was a paler creature than she had been, and taller, and fleshed like one who had more regular meals, and smelled saltier. Nera was gone. She was dead; he had seen her, moments before, and his heart should still have been hammering with the horribleness of it all, but it was slow, slower than it ought to be at a normal time, and he was holding on to this new human being.

‘Thank you,’ said the creature.

‘What for?’ asked Tash.

‘You caught me,’ she said.

‘Oh,’ said Tash. He uncurled one arm from beneath her and touched the wetness of her face. It made his skin tingle in a curious way, and sent a twitch of exultation all the way up his arm to somewhere between his shoulderblades. The creature made a noise then, and he drew his hand back in alarm. ‘What is happening?’ he asked.

‘I was climbing the wall, trying to escape from this garden,’ she said, wiping her eyes. ‘You were a statue. Then you came to life.’

‘Oh,’ said Tash. So that was what had happened to him; they had made him into a statue. ‘Then we should get out of this garden?’

‘Yes,’ said the creature.

‘I will put you down now,’ he said.

‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘My name is Josie.’

‘I am Tash,’ said Tash, and very carefully set her down on the ground. He seemed stronger than he was used to being, and did not want to hurt her. He looked around. There were strange things above him. The moon was a skinny toenail clipping of light, and the sky was alive with hundreds or thousands of stars. He was glad for the walls and tall plants that put some sort of a limit to the unsettling bright things, confining them to a ragged circle of sky above him. The plants were unfamiliar. Besides the stars, the human Josie, and himself, there was nothing that he recognised in the garden. Things built out of stone are much the same on any world, however, and that was clearly a broken stone tower jutting upward, beyond the garden. A little further away there was another tower, unbroken, with light coming from windows about halfway up. It was a warm, reddish gold kind of light, not at all like the fires of his own world. ‘This must be Nera’s world,’ he thought, fascinated.

‘The wall is behind you,’ said Josie. ‘I don’t know what is on the other side.’

‘I will look,’ said Tash, forcing himself back to the task at hand. He would have struggled to climb a wall like this on the world of the thalarka, but here he simply had to reach up, grab the top, and pull himself onto it. The sky was larger from up here, and it made him dizzy. Beyond the wall was a valley overgrown with the same tall plants that grew in the garden, but now he was looking down on them: the tops of the closest were twice the height of the wall beneath him. A few miles away in every direction he could see the valley rise into hills covered with the same sort of plants, and when he peered down he could see a trickle of water glistening over rocks.

‘What is there?’ asked Josie, after he had spent rather a long time looking out at it. The bigness of the sky with so many stars in it gave him an uneasy giddy feeling that refused to go away.

‘It goes down a long way,’ said Tash. ‘Steep, but not straight down. I could climb it. There is a stream, and a big space with lots of plants.’

‘They are coming for me,’ said Josie urgently.

‘Who?’ said Tash. Then he too heard the flapping – the beating of several pairs of wings of Tash-sized creatures, approaching the tower.

‘Ifrits,’ said the human. This word meant nothing at all to Tash, but he was sure he did not want to find out anything more about the they who were coming for Josie just at the moment. Josie was standing by the wall lifting her arms above her head, and Tash let go of the narrow wall with a pair of hands to hoist her up.

The memory of Nera spilling out of his arms recurred horribly to Tash. ‘I will hold you and climb down,’ he said firmly. ‘It will be alright.’

‘Okay,’ said Josie. ‘Thank you.’

Tash was unaccustomed to being treated so politely. This Josie was different from Nera: she seemed to be from a nicer place than Nera had been, a safer place. He wondered how she had come to be a prisoner here – there was so very much to wonder about. Until a little while ago the world had seemed full enough of curious and intriguing things, though it consisted every day of the same grith fields, the same featureless sky, and the same thalarka; and now everything was new. The air was dry and cool and smelled of things he had never smelled before; and all those strange new points of light in the sky were like thousands of eyes watching him.

‘Is something wrong?’ asked the warm and curiously pleasant-smelling creature that was clinging around his neck.

‘No,’ said Tash. He must try to not get distracted, he thought. He would be useful in this new world. He would not lose this human – Josie – like had lost Nera. ‘I will climb down now,’ he said aloud.

Tash missed having all four arms to climb with, but it was not a great burden carrying Josie; it was as if she weighed nothing at all. It was further to the base of the wall on the outside, with hardly anything to hold on to, and there was only a knob of rock at the beginning before the cliff began, but the cliff was not difficult to climb down once he was there. Only near the bottom, under the shadow of the plants, did he get overconfident and distracted into peering at the sky, and ended up half-scrambling and half-rolling the last few dozen feet into a thorny bush.

‘Sorry,’ said Tash.

‘It’s okay,’ said Josie. ‘You took all the lumps.’ Indeed, without thinking he had curled himself around Josie to protect her.

‘You can let me go now,’ she said.

‘Yes, I will do that,’ Tash said, putting her down carefully beyond the bush. They seemed to be not far from the stream he had seen from above.

‘Thank you,’ said Josie. ‘Thank you very much,’ Her voice sounded different than it had inside the garden – higher in pitch, with more breath in it. She made a curious noise that sounded unaccountably pleasant to Tash.

‘What does that mean?’ he asked.

‘I am happy,’ she said. ‘That’s all.’

‘That’s good,’ he said. He looked at Josie, at the trees, at the wiry loops of thorn bush he had just climbed out of.

‘What is this place?’ he asked. ‘Why were you a prisoner?’

‘Hush,’ said Josie, in a different kind of voice again.

‘What does that mean?’ he asked.

‘It means you should be quiet,’ she said. She pointed upwards, and a few moments later Tash could hear them too – the ifrits had left the tower, and were fanning out across the valley. One of them called to another, and then another ifrit voice came, from someplace quite different. He could not make out any of the words. He crouched down in the undergrowth next to Josie for what seemed quite a long time.

‘We need to find a better place to hide, and quick,’ said Josie, when none of the ifrits seemed to be flapping close by.

‘Yes,’ said Tash. ‘Do you know anywhere?’

‘No,’ said Josie. ‘I haven’t been here before.’

‘We could follow the water,’ he suggested. ‘It makes sound, so it will make our sounds harder to hear.’ And even if it is cold, it will be get rid of this horrible dry feeling in my feet, he thought.

‘I suppose there might be overhangs and things,’ she said. ‘But it seems an obvious way for the ifrits to check.’

‘Where we are now seems an obvious place,’ said Tash. ‘But they haven’t come here yet.’

‘I suppose so,’ said Josie.

‘Uphill or downhill?’ asked Tash.

Josie made a noise that Tash recognised as one of exasperation. He had heard ones very like it from his mothers and sisters many times. ‘Whatever you like,’ she said.

Tash hurried toward the stream – the sounds of their flying pursuers were getting louder again – and then followed it upstream, plashing along the wet rocks at the edge. It felt nice to have water on his feet again, though it was as nastily cold as he had imagined. After a few moments he noticed Josie was falling badly behind. She was very slow. He backtracked a little. ‘Are you hurt?’ he asked her.

‘No,’ she said. Her face seemed to be wet again. ‘I’m sorry to slow you down. I’m blind. You might have to carry me.’

‘I will do that,’ said Tash, feeling useful, and scooped her up. It felt very good, despite all the horrible things that had happened and the danger they were still in, to walk so quickly through this wild place carrying someone who depended on him.

‘I am not useless here, not at all,’ he thought to himself.

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.

Cover BoT smlIt may seem that we have not been writing very much over the last six months or so, and this is both true, in terms of publishing things, and not true, in terms of projects that have been trickling along the background.  In my case, I have been working on “The Changing Man,” a teen fic novel set in the universe of “Misfortune“, and also on the second volume of Aronoke,  More recently I have started a story about a traveller boy in the world of Tsai, called “Sky’s the Limit” (which may never see the light of day), whereas Chris has been diverted into completing his Narnia fan-fiction story, Bride of Tash.

Today I put up the first chapters of Bride of Tash at, and also at Archive of Our Own, which is a fan fiction site frequented by our children.  There are great drosses of trash to be found on fanfiction collection sites such as these, mostly in the style of “What would happen if Major Character X had the hots for Major Character Y?” but there are occasional gems to be found floating in this sea of mediocre slush.

Bride of Tash can also be found here, in the Freebies section, where it will be updated prior to other postings.


Tash had always been told he was perfectly and completely useless.

‘Perfectly and completely useless,’ his father would say, in a voice that was an instrument  for making absolutely clear statements of mathematically precise fact.  His brothers would nod their heads solemnly in agreement, and his sisters and mothers would creak wheezily from their alcoves to show that they also agreed that Tash was perfectly and completely useless.

Tash would bow his head and let his arms droop, as if to agree that what his father said was true.

‘And yet,’ Tash would think to himself, ‘I am not useless at all.’ And he would daydream of what he would do one day to prove to everyone that he was not perfectly and completely useless and lose track of what his father was saying.

It is not my intention to excuse anything Tash did or didn’t do on the grounds that he had an unpleasant childhood.  I am not telling you this so that you will feel sorry for him, or so you can psychoanalyse him.  It is only that if Tash hadn’t had an unpleasant childhood, he would have gone on to live a very ordinary life like his brothers and would not come into this story at all.

For the first four years of his life no one said a kind word to Tash. Four years among the thalarka is about the same as fifteen or sixteen of our years, for the world of the thalarka rolls sluggishly around their great green marrow-fat pea of a sun. In all that time no one told Tash that he was anything other than perfectly and completely useless.

In point of fact, he was useless. To live in the Plain of Ua requires stamina, to work all day in the endless fields of mud: planting grith, and fertilising grith, and weeding grith, and warding off the beasts of mire and mist that are eager to eat the tender young grith plants, and harvesting the spindly fruit of the grith that must be picked in darkness and husked and pickled the same night it is picked so it will not spoil. Tash was weak, and could not do any of these things for more than half an hour at a stretch. Furthermore, he was sickly, and was forever getting fevers that made him no good for any work at all for days on end. Worse, he was impatient and easily distracted, and long before he was too weak to work he would usually have wandered off to tease some many-legged crawling thing with a bit of stick, or make little dams and canals in the mud with the hoe he was supposed to be weeding with.  And he was clumsy: he would trample the little grith plants, and pull them up instead of the weeds, and at harvest time he would get bits of husk in the pickling pot, and drop fruit in the mud, and stab his fingers on the prickly parts of the fruit so that they swelled up and were perfectly and completely useless for any more husking.

Once in each long year of the thalarka was the festival of Quambu Vashan, which was held in the city where the Procurator of the Overlord had her alcove, some days journey away on the edge of the Plain of Ua. There was always great feasting at the time of the festival of Quambu Vashan, and acrobats and clowns, though only old Raaku of all the villagers had ever seen them.

Two or three times a year the rain would stop and the sun would peer down through a canyon in the clouds. Then the thalarka in the fields would down tools and try not to look up at the great green marrow-fat pea of the sun and mutter proverbs. Tash would always look up at the sunlit sides of the canyons of cloud- which were almost too bright to see- and dream of what it must be like to be up there.

Eight times a year was the frenzy of the harvest, and after the harvest came the feasting, and after the feasting the coming of the Overlord’s tax collectors, to carry off rather a lot of the pickled grith that was left over from the feasting.

Two or three hundred times a year there would be some sort of holiday to break the round of working in the fields, with the proper dates for each holiday kept in order by the priests. There would be dancing in figures, and wagers on fights between caged mire beasts that were things like hairless weasels, and the priests would usually sacrifice something and make patterns on the walls of the priest-house with dripping bits from its inside.

Every day it rained.

The plain of Ua was a plain of grey mud, and the skies were of grey cloud, and the stick-like grith were grey, and the huts of the thalarka were grey. The thalarka themselves were also grey. The huts of the thalarka were dry inside with a fitful clammy dryness, in which lamps burned only with a feeble bluish flame.  Tash thought fire was splendid, since it was not grey. That was how he managed to burn one of his hands rather badly just before the harvest. At this particular harvest he was needed more than usual, since his two oldest brothers had been married off into other villages since the harvest before, but because of his injury he ended up being even less useful than usual.

This was not long before the festival of Quambu Vashan.  Besides clowns and acrobats, great numbers of sacrifices of a particular kind were always required at this festival, so it was the custom of the tax collectors of the Overlord to demand from each village they visited at the harvest an appropriate sacrifice. This would not be important if it were not that the sacrifices required for the festival of Quambu Vashan were thalarka of about four years of age. It was required that they have all their limbs intact, and have no obvious serious blemishes, but otherwise it was all the same to the Overlord whether they were useless or not.  This part of the festival did not feature in Raaku’s stories, and the older thalarka of the village tended not to discuss it in the presence of younger ones.

‘We should give Tash to the tax collectors for sacrifice at the festival of Quambu Vashan,’ said Tash’s father to his mothers one night. ‘For he is perfectly and completely useless for anything else.’

A family that freely gave the sacrifice for the festival of Quambu Vashan would be noted on the books of the tax collectors and not be called upon to give another for a generation, during which time more useful members of the family suitable for sacrifice would be spared to work in the fields. It was also the custom in Tash’s village for the families who had not given a son or daughter to the tax collectors to bring presents to the family that had, and speak approvingly of them, so Tash’s father’s suggestion was quite a good one. It is only fair on Tash’s mothers to report that they did not croak their agreement immediately, not until Tash’s father had reminded them of these things.

So after the harvest when the tax collectors of the Overlord came to the village Tash was sent off with them.

‘You are being apprenticed to the tax collectors,’ Tash’s father told him. ‘You will leave with them when they have finished lunch.’

Tash did not realise why he had been sent off until he had been travelling the rest of that day with the tax collectors. He had spent most of the afternoon staring up at the roiling patterns of the clouds, imagining that they had hidden meanings. They were like secret symbols from a mysterious power in the sky sending orders to its minions in the mire, in a tremendously complicated language that never said exactly the same thing twice.  The tax collectors had already collected four other young thalarka for the festival of Quambu Vashan. Three of them were girls, and Tash could not understand their speech – it was another part of Tash’s uselessness that he had a bad ear for women’s language – and the fourth was a boy. He was slow-witted and smaller than Tash, but he had paid more attention to the world around him.

‘Where do you think we will stop?’ said Tash as it started to get dark, meaning ‘where are we going to stop tonight’, but the slow-witted one took him at his word and said, ‘At the festival’.

‘Why did you say, ‘at the festival’?’  said Tash, since he was bored and couldn’t think of anything better to do than quibble with the slow-witted boy. ‘Why not say we’re going to the city of the Overlord’s Procurator?’

‘I don’t understand,’ said the slow-witted boy. He hung his head and drooped his arms in exactly the same way Tash had always done when his father told him how useless he was.

‘So, what does the festival have to do with it?’ said Tash impatiently.

‘I’m going to be a sacrifice at the festival,’ said the slow-witted boy. He said it in the same way that Tash’s brothers would say things like ‘I’m going to weed the south-eastern corner of the field today’.

Tash looked around at the others and thought that the tax collectors had treated all five of them in exactly the same way since they had left the village. Here they were, all walking in a line through the mud.  And he realised that his father had very probably lied to him, and that he was going to be a sacrifice as well. For a while he could say nothing at all.

‘I seem to be in terrible trouble,’ Tash thought.

Over the next few days of tramping across the Plain of Ua Tash tried to escape many times, but the tax collectors were experienced collectors of sacrifices, and he had no luck. They went through nine more villages and collected nine more sacrifices for the festival of Quambu Vashan. Five of these were boys, and they were all slow-witted except for Zish, who was contrary.

‘I was opposed to the ways of the village because they were brutish and stupid,’ said Zish, in a way Tash had never heard before, that was bitter and mirthful at the same time, as if it pleased Zish more than anything to call the ways of his village brutish and stupid. ‘So I’m to be sacrificed now,’ he went on. ‘At least my blood will be of some use to the Overlord Varkarian, if it is of no further use to me.’

‘I’m sure there is some way to escape,’ said Tash. ‘If we work together’-

‘There is no way to escape,’ said Zish in his bitter mirthful way. ‘This is our destiny, Valgur’ – he had confused Tash with one of the other boys, whose name was Valgur, and took no notice of Tash’s efforts to correct him – ‘to serve the Overlord by being sacrifices at the festival of Quambu Vashan. Our destiny is inexorable. Our destiny is irresistible.’

Tash stopped listening to Zish as he talked more about inexorable destiny and the usefulness of being sacrificed. Tash was not sure whether this was what Zish really believed or not. Perhaps he did not know himself whether he believed it or not. Sometimes Zish talked in such a way that Tash thought he must be mad, and sometimes Zish told Tash that he was mad.

‘I have said the same thing to you a dozen times, Valgur, and you haven’t said a word back, just gone on staring at the clouds,’ said Zish. ‘You must be mad. It is no wonder you are only fit to be sacrificed.’

At any rate Zish was too contrary to be in any way helpful to Tash.

If he had not known he was going to be sacrificed at the end of it Tash would have had a lovely time. The long hours of walking were dreadfully wearying at first, but he felt himself growing stronger each day, and the sacrifices were fed twice a day with the freshly pickled grith the tax collectors had gathered, which was more and nicer food than Tash had eaten before. Each day he saw new villages, with new and different temples, and new fields cut into different shapes, and great coiling worms of rivers, and broad lakes spotted with rafts, and companies of spear-men and javelin-women marching on the highroads, their armour as silvery-grey as the lakes and spotted with metal spikes instead of rafts. He had seen nothing but his village and the fields immediately around it for his whole life and found he quite liked travelling.

At the edge of the Procurator’s city Tash’s party met up with several other parties of tax collectors. All the sacrifices were collected together and tied in a long chain to keep them tidy, ankle to ankle and wrist to wrist, and in this way they all shuffled together into the Procurator’s city. This city was made of grey stone, huts and palaces alike, and they were scattered together in no particular order over the plain, at first with plenty of space between them but then closer and closer together until they almost blocked out the clouds.

‘Do not let the splendour of this place fool you, Valgur,’ said Zish. ‘Here, too, the ways of the common people are brutish and stupid. But we are irresistibly called to a higher destiny. Inexorably!’

In the middle of the city was the Tower of the Procurator of the Overlord, ten or twelve times higher than any other built thing Tash had ever seen. It was carved on every side with images of mist-beasts and mire-beasts and thalarka, all larger than life, and all making gestures of obeisance to the sigil of the Overlord Varkarian, which was at the top of the tower and was worked in huge blue stones like fire.

‘Sweeter than narbul venom is it to serve the Overlord,’ intoned the most senior of the tax collectors, when the party could first see this sigil in blue stones like fire. All the more junior tax collectors dutifully intoned in unison that it was sweeter than narbul venom to serve the Overlord, and so did the long line of sacrifices. Strictly speaking Tash had no idea whether this was true or not, having never tasted narbul venom nor anything other than grith. But he intoned along with the others. They only had a few moments to look at the tower. Tash would have stared longer, but was dragged along as he was chained to everyone else. Then they were steered through a big black door and down a long ramp which stretched down into a chamber somewhere underneath the tower. The ramp ended somewhere in the middle of the chamber, which stretched off into darkness on every side, over-warm and evil-smelling. Some dozens of boys and girls for the sacrifice were there already, chained to posts set in the floor in groups of six or seven. On top of these posts there were lanterns, and every post that had thalarka chained to it had its lantern lit, with a dancing flame that was more green than blue. Tash’s long line of sacrifices was split up into groups of six or seven and chained to posts, and at the same time the lanterns on top of the post were lit. But there were still many many more empty posts with unlit lanterns.

The chamber was drier than any place Tash had ever been. You or I would have found this its one redeeming feature, but to Tash it was unnerving. The dryness hurt his ears and made his throat itch.

The thalarka who lit the lanterns was an old priest woman, bent over like a grith plant that has grown in too dark a shadow, and she lit the lanterns with a thin silvery stick longer than she was tall. Tash found the lighting of the lanterns very interesting and wondered if the old priest stayed down in the chamber all the time, waiting for a reason to light the lanterns, or if she went somewhere else. She seemed so completely a creature of the dark chamber that Tash could not imagine her being anywhere else. Tash ended up chained with a group of dim-witted boys around one of the pillars at the edge of the darkness.

As soon as all the sacrifices were properly chained a group of younger priests handed out something to eat that was not grith. They were cakes of something very much nicer than grith, though I dare say you or I would still have found them very nasty, and Tash devoured his greedily. So did all the others. When they had finished eating two more priests in more resplendent garments – still mostly grey, but shiny – came and gave speeches, one in male language and one in female language.

The speech that Tash heard went something like this:

‘Welcome in the name of the Overlord Varkarian. Truly it is sweeter than narbul venom, and more pleasant than the song of horn and cymbal, to serve the Overlord Varkarian. Truly are you favoured, for through your sacrifice the Overlord will be glorified. Truly will your sacrifice bring the inscrutable designs of the Overlord closer to their inexorable fruition. Though you may have been useless until this moment, very soon you will attain to a destiny greater than that of many a skilled spear-man or artifex. The part you play in the designs of the Overlord is a very great one.’

There was much more like this and Tash soon stopped paying attention to it. He was more interested in the costumes of the priests than in what they were saying. Their chest pieces were particularly splendid, much more splendid than the chestpieces the priests of his village wore when they sacrificed mire beasts. They were set with such marvellous stones, blue and green and other colours he could not name, and shone delightfully in the lanternlight.

The priest explained while Tash was not listening that they would be given things to eat as nice as the cakes, or nicer, for the next few days until the festival, and that they would be taken out in batches and cleaned and ornamented before the ceremony, and then again that theirs was a rare and glorious destiny.

Because he was not listening Tash was taken by surprise to be taken out and scrubbed and plastered with some sort of oil and hung with jangling bits of fine chain. The only good thing about the oil was that it made it quite impossible to tell how evil-smelling the chamber was. The smell of the oil stung and tickled and burned and it was almost impossible to think of anything else when you had been plastered with it.

‘What’s that you’ve done to your hand, lad?’ asked the young priest who was seeing to the oiling of the sacrifices. ‘Burnt it, eh?’ The young priest found this amusing. ‘Well, mind you keep it away from the lanterns now. Stick one little finger in the fire and you’ll be sizzled to a crisp in an instant, with that oil on you.’

Tash took respectful note of this advice.

Tash had been chained to a post on the other side of the ramp from Zish, and the dim-witted boys who were chained with him were too dim-witted to be any use talking to. He spent the night peering out into the further reaches of the chamber, wondering what was there and thinking of all the marvellous things he had seen in the last few days and what a pity it was that he would be sacrificed in a few more days. The sacrifices around him shuffled and wheezed and jangled in their sleep and the smell of the oil hung thick and heavy in the air. No one came and turned down the lanterns, but they seemed to dim of their own accord, and burnt with feeble flames that were greenish-grey, if such a flame were possible.

Tash found it impossible to get free of his chains. Even if he had, it would surely have been impossible for him to have forced his way through the heavy doors, past the watchers beyond, and made his way to somewhere safe.

‘It seems such a waste, when the world is so big and interesting, to be ending so soon,’ he thought to himself. And a black mood took him and he thought to himself: ‘Perhaps I am useless after all’.



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?”


“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.


“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.


“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.