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The Old Republic

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.

There was no time for witty rejoinder after that – Aronoke was kept busy firing shot after shot into the whirling mass of drones as they swooped down towards them. Jark Tander was blazing away beside him. It would have been easier if he still had his lightsaber, but he only had a blaster, and Hespenara was weaponless.

“We’ve got to retreat!” yelled Jark Tander, as they were driven back by a cascade of blaster bolts. The drones’ blasters were not powerful, but so numerous that they posed a serious hazard. “If we get inside and close the hatch, we should be safe!”

“But what about Master Caaldor?” Aronoke shouted back. “If the drones can’t get to us, they might all attack him.”

“Sorry, son, but that might have to be his own lookout,” the free trader said. She swore as a blaster bolt singed along one arm. “We’ll all be cooked to crispy corellian fritters if we stay here!”

“Fall back,” said Hespenara. “I’ll see what I can do!”

“No!” protested Aronoke. “Not by yourself!” But the green girl shot him a confident smile and he found himself hesitating. Hespenara stepped forward, reaching out with her arm. She stood there a moment, calm and focussed despite the deluge of blaster fire passing closely around her. Then she swept her arm across, and several drones smashed sideways, crashing into others and sending them tumbling. Another gesture and more drones fell. Aronoke looked on enviously. He had never been very good at alteration, but Hespenara was obviously talented – perhaps not surprisingly, since she had trained under Master Altus.

But for every drone Hespenara smashed aside, another swarmed in to concentrate its fire on her.

“Get back,” Hespenara called urgently. “Get under cover. I can’t hold them much longer.”

Aronoke ducked through the hatch while a few more drones were flung aside, and then Hespenara was dodging through after him.

“That’s all I can manage for now,” she gasped, “but we’ve got to hold so Kthoth Neesh and Tarric Gondroz can get in here!”

“They’d better hurry,” snapped Jark Tander. The drones were swooping and diving, firing ever more accurate volleys through the opening.

“There they are!” Hespenara pointed at two figures cowering behind some trees on the riverbank opposite. Aronoke could see Tarric Gondroz’s strange long face and Kthoth Neesh’s pale one close together. “I don’t think the drones have spotted them yet, but there’s no way for them to get through!”

Beyond the drones, Aronoke could see Master Caaldor in the distance, his lightsaber flashing brilliantly.

“We could run a distraction,” Aronoke suggested.

“But what?” Hespenara stared at him blankly.

“I’ve got just the thing,” said Jark Tander, and she ran back into the depths of the cargo bay. “Be ready to help your friends inside.” There was a roar as an engine surged into life. Aronoke leapt hastily out of the way, as a squat, rugged hover vehicle surged past him and down the ramp. It was a platform, a converted cargo lifter, doubtlessly used for the hunting trips Jark Tander had mentioned.

“Cover me,” ordered Jark Tander, following it out a short distance. She held a remote control unit in her hands.

Aronoke followed her out, focussing on shooting more drones. He missed many more times than he hit, but the constant fire kept the spheres darting from side to side, interrupting their firing pattern. Every now and then Hespenara gestured and drones were swept sideways.

The hover platform shot down the ramp and along the river bank, and sure enough, more than half the drones wheeled to follow it.

“Quickly, now!” Hespenara yelled to the pair in the forest.

Still concentrating on shooting, Aronoke had the impression of Kthoth Neesh and Tarric Gondroz closing rapidly, slithering a little in the sticky mud, and then the narakite was by his side, taking the blaster and firing with a deft aim that Aronoke could not hope to emulate.

The hover-platform did not stop; it swerved wildly across the muddy riverbank, gathering speed, and careering towards where Master Caaldor was pursuing Bolar Dak around the bounty-hunter’s ship amidst a cloud of drones. The Jedi was trying to get in melee range, while the bounty hunter was frantically using his jump jets to stay at range, firing tremendous bolts of blaster energy all the while. If even one of those shots hit, Master Caaldor would be atomised, Aronoke thought nervously.

“Incoming from your one-eighty, Master Jedi,” yelled Jark Tander.

The platform careered straight at Master Caaldor from behind, and for a moment Aronoke thought he hadn’t heard, that it was going to barrel into him, but at the last instant, without even looking back, Master Caaldor leapt nimbly into the air and landed neatly atop the platform. As he was carried forward towards the bounty hunter, he made another impossibly agile leap, swinging his lightsaber, not at the huge blaster rifle, which Bolar Dak was desperately trying to swing around in time, but at the armoured figure’s other arm.

Bolar Dak crashed sideways, screaming, as Master Caaldor’s lightsaber sliced neatly through the control panel mounted on his left armoured cuff. An instant later, the drones stopped dead and began raining out of the sky, like overripe metallic fruit.

Aronoke didn’t see what happened to Bolar Dak then, because he was busy avoiding the falling drones, but when he looked back, the bounty hunter was lying motionless on the riverbank, and Master Caaldor was striding towards Jark Tander’s ship.

“Well, that distraction went better than I expected,” Jark Tander remarked. “Lucky you Jedi are all that everyone says you are.” She wrestled with the remote controller and the platform began to return to the ship, at a much steadier pace. “We’d best get out of here quickly though. Bolar Dak might have alerted his allies.”

A few minutes later, both the hover-platform and Master Caaldor were safely aboard, and Jark Tander was at the ship’s controls.

“You have my thanks for your timely interruption, Jark Tander,” said Master Caaldor, taking a seat in preparation for take-off. “That bounty hunter was surprisingly dexterous.”

“Anything to get this unexpected mess over with more quickly, Master Jedi,” growled Jark Tander, weighting the last two words accusingly, but Aronoke could see a gleam in her eyes that belied her sharp tone. “Full throttle for Coruscant?”

“Yes, please.”


Jark Tander’s ship, the Irrevocable Accolade, was not well equipped to handle passengers on intragalactic journeys. There were only a few cabins, and like on the XL-327, these had to be hurriedly converted from store-rooms to accommodate everyone. Conditions were crowded and hardly private.

Nevertheless, after coming out of hyperspace, during the long descent towards Coruscant, made slow by the sheer volume of traffic coming and going, Aronoke found himself sitting alone in the tiny dining area with Kthoth Neesh. Hespenara and Master Caaldor were meditating in their separate cabins, doubtlessly considering what they were going to say to the Jedi Council when they arrived, while Tarric Gondroz was in the cockpit with Jark Tander, watching the approach of the planet on the viewscreen.

“I never thought I’d be landing on Coruscant,” said Kthoth Neesh, swirling her protein shake around in its cup. “It’s not the sort of place narakites usually go, on account of Republic security being a bunch of anal gravity-wells with long memories.”

Aronoke laughed. “I don’t know if I’ll have time to show you around,” he said reluctantly. “It will depend on what the Jedi Council says. They might be annoyed with us for not doing what we were supposed to.”

“They can’t be too angry, can they?” asked Kthoth Neesh. “After all, you found Hespenara, saved her from being a garden ornament, and found out all that stuff about those other Jedi masters.”

“We also put ourselves out of communication, directly disobeyed instructions, and lost a ship,” Aronoke pointed out.

“Oh, well if you put it that way.”

“What are you planning on doing now?” Aronoke asked. He couldn’t imagine that the Jedi Council’s plans would extend to Kthoth Neesh, Jark Tander or Tarric Gondroz. At least, not beyond asking them a few questions.

“Well, I’m not planning on hanging around on Coruscant, that’s for certain,” said Kthoth Neesh easily. “Jark Tander’s agreed that Tarric Gondroz and I can tag along for awhile. Make ourselves useful. I guess I’ll see where that goes, and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll probably go back to the narakite fleet.”

“Back to Captain Krondark?” asked Aronoke sceptically.

Kthoth Neesh made a rude noise. “Not after that skiving freakweasel went off and abandoned us like that. Not that I can’t understand why he did it, and not that I might not do the same thing myself in his position, but I’m not stupid enough to put my neck in the laser-guillotine a second time running.”

“Are you going to visit Ashquash while you’re here?” Aronoke asked. He was looking forward to seeing his ex-roommate again, but the situation between him and Kthoth Neesh made it more difficult. He had experienced that same attraction to Ashquash. It was very confusing, and should his obsession with Kthoth Neesh come to light, Aronoke didn’t know how he would go about explaining it to her.

Kthoth Neesh looked awkward too.

“I know you’ll probably think I’m an awful coward,” she said hesitantly, “but I think I won’t.”

“Why not?” asked Aronoke. “It would mean a lot to her.”

“I know,” sighed Kthoth Neesh. “But if I stay aboard ship there’s no need for me to pass through customs. I don’t think my papers would hold up well to inspection. And then…Ashquash is becoming a Jedi, like you. You aren’t even supposed to have family. Having me turn up now, is only going to confuse things. She might not want to see me.”

“I don’t know about that,” countered Aronoke. “Most Jedi know where they came from. Who their families are. It’s really hard, not having that to fall back on. It’s like you’re always hovering, with nothing beneath your feet. I think knowing she had a sister and who that sister was would be a great boon to her.”

“Mmm. Maybe. I’ll think about it,” said Kthoth Neesh evasively. She leant a little closer to Aronoke. “You know, being a Jedi isn’t really your only chance.”

Aronoke opened his mouth to protest, but she laid her small white hand on his chest, silencing him with a look.

“You shouldn’t automatically believe what they say. You’re not the same as all those other Jedi. You weren’t raised in the temple since you were a little kid. You’re different.Who knows what you can and can’t do?”

“I know I’m different, but-” Aronoke began, but Kthoth Neesh pushed him in gentle admonition.

“Just hear me out. There’s lots of other things you can try, and if you ever change your mind, decide that it isn’t what you want after all, or if, say, they kick you out for dragging your poor old Master into too much trouble, you should remember to look me up. You can always find word of me with the narakite fleet.”

She looked up at him earnestly as she spoke and her hand was toying with the lapel of his robe. “I’ll miss you,” she added in almost a whisper.

“I’ll miss you too,” Aronoke answered uncomfortably.

“I tell you one thing,” said Kthoth Neesh more mischievously, leaning close, looking up at him. Her face was no more than a foot away. Her hand stroked his chest gently through the fabric of his robe. “I wish that imperial scout hadn’t come back just then. Things were getting interesting.”

Aronoke flushed deeply. He picked up her hand and gently but firmly removed it.

“I know, I know,” Kthoth Neesh said, laughing, blushing herself. “I’m just teasing. But keep that image in mind, Padawan, should you find yourself looking for a new direction.”

It was an image that would return to him far too often for comfort, Aronoke thought, a source of many nights of sleepless meditation. It was just as well that he and Kthoth Neesh were to be separated. She was far too tempting.

“I have to do things this way, Kthoth Neesh,” Aronoke said. “I promised I would. I swore an oath. To Master Altus, who saved me from Kasthir. I promised I would try and follow the path of the Jedi Order, in exchange for taking me with him. If I break my word so easily, then I’m no better than Captain Krondark.”

“You were just a kid,” Kthoth Neesh snorted. “And you have given it a try, looks like to me.”

But Aronoke was shaking his head. He knew he hadn’t tried hard enough, that Master Altus would be disappointed if he did something as stupid as running off with Kthoth Neesh. Not to mention what Master Caaldor, who had put such trust in Aronoke and his visions, would think.

Kthoth Neesh sighed. “Well, keep it in mind, anyway,” she said, a little sadly.

“I will. I could hardly forget,” said Aronoke.


Two years spent on Coruscant hardly made it his homeworld, but to Aronoke, it felt like coming home. It all seemed so smugly familiar. Master Caaldor was not pleased to be back. Aronoke knew his Master had no fondness for the city planet, preferring less populated and bureaucratic environments. He felt he should dislike Coruscant too, by way of solidarity, but he could not bring himself to feel that way. He was looking forward to seeing the Jedi temple again, to meeting his clan mates once more, and Coruscant felt safer now than it ever had before. He was an old hand at navigating the crowds at the spaceport. He was used to the distracting flicker of the advertising holos, well-acquainted with the great diversity of sentient species who came to visit the seat of the Republic senate, and unperturbed by the swarming traffic and the vast depths that yawned between the immense monolithic buildings.

Armed additionally with the information that Master Skeirim was a traitor, Aronoke felt that his enemies weren’t as threatening anymore. Were no longer so mysterious. It made sense, didn’t it? Master Skeirim was interested in the biocron, Aronoke was connected to it in some strange way, and so Master Skeirim was almost certainly the one who had sought to manipulate Aronoke during his time in the Jedi Temple.

The only problem with this theory, tidy as it might be, was that Master Skeirim hadn’t been present when some of those things had been happening. He had been off betraying Master Altus and then pretending to look for him. Also, Master Skeirim had limited influence, whereas Aronoke’s harasser had demonstrated an ability to manipulate events that marked them as someone with considerable power.

Could it be that Master Skeirim was part of a conspiracy? Or were there several separate enemies that sought to use Aronoke for their own ends?

And what were those ends?

It was typical, Aronoke thought, that every answer only seemed to open up more questions.


The Jedi Council was intimidating enough when you had been obedient and obeyed all their instructions. It was more so now, Aronoke thought, as he followed Master Caaldor into the circle of Jedi Masters in the big council chamber deep within the Jedi Temple. It was the same room he had entered when he had been fresh off Kasthir, dressed in Master Altus’s old robes. The robes were still in Aronoke’s bag, carried safely through his various adventures, but too small for him now, at least in length.

Amongst the circle of Jedi Councillors, Aronoke could see faces that he recognised: Master An-ku, of course, with her fierce striped togrutan face and towering horn-tails. Master Rosfantar, who had rescued Aronoke, Draken and Ashquash from the heights of the Jedi Tower and had been nice enough to cover for them. Master Nethlemor, the overseer of examinations. Master Belor, who had argued that Aronoke should not be allowed another chance to become a Padawan. Master Kordu-molh the stuffy duros, and a handful of others with whom Aronoke had only had incidental contact with. The vast majority were unknown to him – a panoply of faces and races, both holographic and solid – but all regarded him and his Master with unpleasantly intense scrutiny. Aronoke swallowed his nervousness, squared his shoulders and did his best to remain calm. These were only Jedi, he told himself. They were nowhere near as scary as Careful Kras.

“Master Caaldor,” said Master An-ku, who was acting as chair, “and Padawan Aronoke. I am pleased to see you intact.” Her tone made it clear that this was something of a surprise. “Padawan Hespenara, I am glad indeed, as I’m certain we all are, to have you returned safely to us, after all that has befallen you.”

Aronoke almost smiled, remembering his first impression of the word befallen.

“I believe you have important news for us,” Master An-ku continued, her stony glare settling on Master Caaldor.

“Yes, Master An-ku,” said Master Caaldor, completely unconcerned by her displeasure. “Padawan Hespenara has information regarding the whereabouts of Master Altus, and the circumstances of his and her own disappearance.”

“Very well. However, I would like to begin with your own activities, and since this matter appears to concern your Padawan to a high degree, perhaps he would outline recent events to us. Please, Padawan Aronoke, tell us what has eventuated since you and Master Caaldor left the Jedi Temple, not so many weeks ago, on what was intended to be a journey to Illum to craft your lightsaber.”

Master An-ku’s glare remained on Master Caaldor a long moment before she switched her scowl to target Aronoke.

“Yes, Master An-ku,” said Aronoke uncomfortably. He had expected to stand at his master’s side, making the occasional observation when called upon to do so, but it seemed Master An-ku had other ideas. “Much of what we did has nothing to do with why we have returned so quickly now.”

Master An-ku made a dismissive gesture.

“Where should I start?” Aronoke asked, uncertainly.

“Start at the beginning, from when you left Coruscant,” she said.

“Yes, Master.”

Aronoke went through the story of his short career as a Padawan, stumbling a little at first, but quickly gaining momentum. He kept carefully away from personal topics, such as his attraction towards Kthoth Neesh, and attempted to put the best light on certain of Master Caaldor’s decisions, such as why they had chosen to not go to Illum, and why they had placed themselves out of contact of the Jedi Temple.

The Jedi Council dwelled annoyingly on the early, peaceful mission on Erebor-3, and Aronoke had to struggle with his patience while fielding their questions. He knew he should give this matter due attention, that the potential discovery of something that increased the chance of force-sensitivity was an important matter, but every minute he spent talking about Erebor-3 was another that Master Altus spent in captivity, and Master Skeirim’s perfidy went unchecked.

He was relieved when he was finally allowed to continue on to their more recent adventures, to Hespenara’s rescue, the encounter with the Sith, and their eventful escape from Quebwoz. But even now, the news Aronoke most wanted the Jedi Council to hear was delayed; Master An-ku carefully directed his narrative, confining him to events he had experienced himself. Finally, when he had finished, there was silence for a few moments, as the members of the Jedi Council digested the information he had related.

“You were promoted to Padawan and sent out of the Jedi temple early for your own protection and in order to continue your training with less disruption, is that not so, Aronoke?” Master An-ku asked.

“Yes, Master An-ku, and also to protect Ashquash.”

“It seems strange then, that Master Caaldor should suddenly choose to take you into a dangerous and unpredictable situation on Quebwoz,” commented Master An-ku.

“Master Caaldor didn’t choose by himself,” protested Aronoke. “He believed that I had been granted visions through the Force for a reason, and that ignoring those visions was just as dangerous as following up on them. He asked me what I wanted to do, and he held by my decision.”

He was surprised to see that some of the Jedi Councillors nodded when he said this, as if they agreed with Master Caaldor’s decision, while others, including Master An-ku, looked stern and disapproving.

“And do you think that was a wise course of action, Padawan?” she asked.

“How can I think otherwise, Master An-ku?” said Aronoke. “Hespenara is here because of that decision. The risks we took, the material possessions we lost, how can those compare to the value of her freedom?”

“Yes, we are all relieved that Hespenara has been returned to us,” said Master An-ku, “but the situation could have turned out far differently. As it is, you have lost a ship, a Jedi lost her life attempting to assist you, and you may well have caused diplomatic difficulties by breaking the Republic’s treaty with Quebwoz.”

“It’s not just Hespenara, herself, Master,” said Aronoke. “It’s the information she carries. We now know where Master Altus is being held captive, and also…”

“Yes, I will ask Padawan Hespenara to relate her own story, Padawan,” interrupted Master An-ku crisply, “but first I would like you to answer one last question: do you consider that Master Caaldor has shown adequate concern regarding your safety during your travels with him?”

“Yes, of course, Master An-ku,” said Aronoke stalwartly. “I would trust Master Caaldor to look out for me under any circumstances.”

“I see,” said Master An-ku. “Your loyalty to your Master is certainly commendable. I believe that is all we require of you at this time, Padawan Aronoke. You may go. Report to the medical bay and have your injuries seen to.”

Aronoke gave the Jedi Council a respectful half-bow, and was escorted outside by a formally-robed attendant.


It was difficult to retire quietly without knowing what further discussion was taking place, to go meekly to the chambers assigned for his and Master Caaldor’s use. The style of the guest chambers was familiar – Aronoke had often visited Master Altus and Hespenara while they stayed in the Jedi Temple. They were designed for habitation by a master and padawan and were not especially large, but they were comfortable, and Aronoke spent some time tweaking the settings to how he thought Master Caaldor would like them. Then he sent a message to the medical bay, obediently setting an appointment as per Master An-ku’s instructions.

That done, he forced himself shower and rest. He would have prefered to exercise, to help settle his mind, but his leg still ached dully. As he settled into one of his favourite meditative positions in his own chamber, Aronoke sighed. It would be difficult calm himself enough to reach a proper meditative state. His thoughts were in turmoil.

Aronoke knew Hespenara would tell the Jedi Council everything, that she was as determined to see Master Altus rescued as he was. Of course it was unlikely that the Jedi Council would decide that Aronoke should go and rescue him, but Hespenara was Master Altus’s padawan, so surely she would get to go along. It was her duty, after all.

Aronoke felt a sudden pang of jealousy, much like he had once before. It was not fair! Hespenara was Master Altus’s padawan, she got to travel with him everywhere, to learn from him, whereas Aronoke would never have that opportunity.

It was ridiculous to feel that way, he knew. Firstly, Master Altus himself would disapprove. Secondly, Hespenara was his friend, whom he had been so glad to rescue. Thirdly, Aronoke had his own master, to whom he owed a great deal. A master who had allowed him to pursue his visions, despite the trouble it might land them both in. A master whom he both liked and respected. To wish he had a different master was the worst sort of disloyalty.

It was not important, who got to rescue Master Altus. The Jedi Council would surely choose whoever was most suitable for the task. As long as he got rescued, and was returned safely, that was what mattered.

But they had failed before, and it was my vision, Aronoke thought doggedly. No one rescued Hespenara either, until I took matters into my own hands. Is that what the Force is trying to tell me? That I have to be part of all these events? Or am I just being stupid, wanting to rescue Master Altus myself, because I want to impress him? Because he rescued me?

But it was more than that, Aronoke knew. He could not do anything else, not where Master Altus was concerned. It was something that didn’t fit within the Jedi Code, friendship that went a step too far. Not an attraction, certainly not an obsession like Aronoke had felt towards Kthoth Neesh, but something deeper, emotional and intrinsic. A platonic dedication that Aronoke was helpless to oppose. Jedi Code or no Jedi Code, Aronoke knew that he would do anything in his power to help Master Altus.

Sighing again, he settled back to try to calm his mind, to cleanse it of his impatient anticipation of Master Caaldor’s arrival, hopefully with more news.


As it turned out, Master Caaldor had not yet arrived by the time Aronoke’s medical appointment came around, so he had to depart without learning anything new. It was with some impatience that he departed, striding quickly despite his limp, as if hurrying would make it over more quickly.

When he arrived in the medbay, he was met by D-2J399, the medical droid who had always overseen his medical treatment.

“Hello, D-2,” said Aronoke, pleased to see the familiar droid. He still did not like medical examinations, but the pang of unease was merely a discomfort, no longer a source of fear. He knew he would have felt differently if it had been a different droid.

“Greetings, Padawan Aronoke. It is a pleasure, as always, to administer to your health concerns. You will be glad to know that my data banks have recently been updated regarding medical treatment specific to your species.”

“Well, that’s good to know,” said Aronoke, bemused. “I’ll be in even better hands than before.”

“Strictly speaking, my grasping and manipulative appendages are not hands, Padawan Aronoke, but a discussion of structural terminology is not my primary goal at this juncture.”

“This won’t take long, will it, D-2?” Aronoke asked. “I’m in something of a hurry.”

“It is most likely that your assumption is correct, but the error margin of my estimate is considerably higher prior to complete scanning. My preliminary scans have detected that you suffer from extensive, if superficial, tissue damage, and some underlying structural injuries that are of greater concern. Please remove your garments and step in front of the scanner.”

Aronoke complied.

“The injury to your left patella and the underlying bone and muscular structures is more extensive than I initially estimated,” said the droid. “It is advisable that you undergo treatment in a kolto tank. As one is available, I advise that this should be performed immediately.”

“I didn’t think it was that bad,” said Aronoke evasively. He was still limping, but he thought his leg was getting better. Being sealed in a kolto tank meant he wouldn’t find out what the Jedi Council decided for days!

“The nature of the injury is such that without treatment, the probability of repetitive strains and subsequent weakening of the joint is as high as 38.57%,” intoned D-2 solemnly.

“Urgh,” said Aronoke. That did seem a considerable risk.

“You are also suffering from extensive contusions, abrasions and burns, which although minor and healing well, will almost certainly result in some scarring if treatment is withheld. Are you willing to undergo treatment?”

Aronoke hesitated. It seemed likely that the Jedi Council would take immediate action in regard to rescuing Master Altus. If, by some slender chance, Aronoke was a part of those plans, he might be left behind if he was in a kolto tank when the others left.

But if he didn’t take the treatment, they wouldn’t take him anyway, because he was still injured.

You’re being foolish, trying to second-guess everything, Aronoke told himself firmly. Just stop it.

“Alright, D-2, if you think it’s best,” he said reluctantly.

“Very well, Padawan Aronoke, I will have the tank prepared at once,” said D-2. “If you will go through the door on your right, we will prepare you for immersion.”


Waking up in the tiny green world of the kolto tank was not one of Aronoke’s favourite moments. There was a rising sense of panic at being submerged, held in check by a heavy lethargic calmness. It was like fighting an impossibly heavy green blanket with your arms tied. Then full consciousness came flooding back, with a decisive clarity that swept the feeling of helplessness away. When he opened his eyes he could see a distorted view of the chamber beyond the glass, with blurry figures moving in it. Someone tapped on the curved surface, and then a face was pressed closely against it. Aronoke could recognise Draken’s cheeky grin. Someone was with him, further back, a pale green-tinged blur that Aronoke’s Force senses immediately recognised as Ashquash. Knowing that they could see him far better than he could see them, he waved. There was more activity, and then Draken and Ashquash were gone, doubtlessly shooed from the room by a medical droid.

A few minutes later, Aronoke was dressed and striding out to meet them. He felt better all over, fresh, awake and ready to deal with anything. His knee felt good as new and his limp had vanished. He hadn’t realised how bad he had actually been feeling, how many of his injuries he had been controlling, until now, when they were gone.

“Aronoke! You’re looking so… grown up,” said Draken, bounding up to meet him. Ashquash was following at a distance, dignified and quiet. Her calm demeanour hid an inner turmoil that Aronoke could not help but detect, for it spilled out everywhere, through cracks in her control. Gladness, uncertainty, hope, fear…

“I hope that’s not a bad thing,” said Aronoke mildly.

“What happened to your hair?”

Aronoke ran a hand absently through his very short hair, still scarcely more than a finger-width high and patchy in places.

“I made a stupid mistake and got caught in an explosion,” Aronoke explained. “While we were rescuing Hespenara from the queb.”

“I can’t believe you actually got to go and rescue her!” exclaimed Draken enviously. “You’ve only been a padawan such a short time and already you’ve had more adventures than most people get to have in a whole life time!”

“It’s just the way things worked out,” said Aronoke.

“Where’s your lightsaber?” Draken looked about Aronoke comically, as if expecting the weapon to miraculously appear somewhere.

“I don’t have one at the moment,” Aronoke explained. “We ended up not going to Illum, because Master Caaldor thought it was too predictable, too likely to be anticipated by my mysterious enemies. I was using another one for a while, but I’m afraid I lost it in the explosion.”

“Lost it? Already? You don’t even have your own lightsaber and you’ve lost one already? That might be some sort of new record!”

“I’m pleased to see you, Aronoke,” said Ashquash with a flicker of good humour, pushing the irrepressible Draken aside. “We heard you were back, and wanted to come and see you earlier, but they put you in the kolto tank before we had a chance.”

She looked so small, Aronoke thought with relief. So young. It was like she was back to being his kid sister. Looking at her just now, with Kthoth Neesh fresh in his mind, he couldn’t imagine feeling the same way towards her as he had when he had left. And yet, she was there, demandingly present in the Force in a way that other people, even people he knew well, like Draken or Master Caaldor, were not.

“How are you doing, Ashquash?” he asked. “Have things been better since I left?”

She nodded, a little hesitantly. “At first, not so much, but now it’s getting better.”

“No more attacks?”

She shook her head, reluctantly.

“Kthoth Neesh came to see me yesterday,” she said, overtly changing the subject.

Draken stared at her, puzzled. “Kthoth Neesh?” he asked.

“She did? That’s great!” said Aronoke, surprised. “She said she didn’t know if she would. She was worried about her papers not getting her through Republic Security.”

“Kthoth Neesh?”

“The Jedi Council wanted to speak to her, to ask her some questions,” explained Ashquash. “About what happened when you found her. About what happened to her narakite friend who got pushed out an airlock. Since they brought her here anyway, and granted her an amnesty for her past actions, she asked to see me, and in consideration of the unusual way I left home, the Jedi Council agreed.” Ashquash paused, biting her lip, and for a few seconds the look in her eyes was intense, like she wanted to absorb as much of Aronoke as she could. “It was very strange to see her,” she admitted slowly. “Strange, but also good. I feel better about myself, more confident. Able to move on more easily and focus on becoming a Jedi.”

“Well, that’s good!” said Aronoke. “I’m glad she was brave enough to come and see you. She was worried about how you would react.”

“Brave enough to see me?” snorted Ashquash. “She’s as tough as wampa claws! I expect I would have turned out like that too, if I hadn’t been stolen away,” she added wistfully.

“You are like that,” put in Draken. “Kthoth Neesh?” he prompted hopefully.

“I was scared of you, when I first saw you,” admitted Aronoke, smiling. “I remember thinking I wasn’t going to let any kid, no matter how tough he was, push me around, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to manage.”

Ashquash smiled, enough so that it dimpled her face attractively.

“Master Skeirim told me there would be others like me, others who had come from unconventional situations to train at the Jedi Temple, but I didn’t believe him. Not until I met you.”

Aronoke’s heart fell at the mention of Master Skeirim. It was suddenly obvious that Master Skeirim’s defection could not be anything but acutely painful to Ashquash, even if its revelation was completely necessary. His face must have revealed something of these thoughts, because Ashquash’s smile was instantly erased to be replaced with uncertainty.

“What?” she asked urgently. “What’s the matter? Has something happened to Master Skeirim?”

“We found out something from Hespenara when we rescued her,” said Aronoke reluctantly. “She and Master Altus were meeting with Master Skeirim on Zynaboon when they were captured. They were all together when they were attacked by Imperials and were taken prisoner.”

Ashquash’s face went through several changes, flicking from worried to confused and back again in rapid succession.

“But… Master Skeirim wasn’t a prisoner,” she said slowly. “He was at the Jedi Temple no more than ten days ago. He’s been here often, since Master Altus disappeared.”

“I know,” said Aronoke heavily. “Master Skeirim wasn’t taken captive, and he didn’t report anything about what had happened either. He was even assigned to try to find the others afterwards, and never said a word to the Jedi Council about where they were. He made certain no one would find them.”

He didn’t voice his suspicion that Master Skeirim had played some part in drugging Ashquash, but the implication was there, hanging in the air between them, heavy and almost tangible.

“No!” cried Ashquash. “Not Master Skeirim. He wouldn’t do a thing like that! There must be some mistake!”

“I don’t think there can be,” said Aronoke grimly. “It fits together – he worked with Master Altus, they were both interested in the same things. Obviously there was some rivalry between them that no-one knew about. I’m sorry,” he said, more gently, reaching towards Ashquash’s shoulder to try to comfort her.

But Ashquash flinched away.

“I can’t believe it,” she said, vehemently, her eyes flashing. “Master Skeirim saved me from the slavers, brought me here to the temple! He’s a good Jedi. He can’t be a traitor! You’re wrong, Aronoke. It’s a lie!”

She ran from the room, nearly bowling over an orderly droid who was coming in to see what the disturbance was about.

“I’m sorry,” Aronoke apologised to the droid. “We didn’t mean to make so much noise. We’ll leave at once.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t have told her,” he muttered to Draken as they strode out of the medical bay. “Should have left it to the Jedi Council to send someone to break it more gently.”

But the younger boy was shaking his head.

“It’s better this way,” he said wisely. “The truth is more important than hurt feelings. You’re her friend and her clanmate – she trusts you to not cover up unpleasant things just to protect her. She’s shocked and angry now, but not really at you. I expect she’ll come to see you again once she’s had time to think things through. I just hope she doesn’t decide to run away.”

“Draken,” said Aronoke solemnly, “you sound awfully like a Jedi.”

Draken clapped him chummily on the shoulder. “That’s because I am one, son, and don’t you forget it! Oh, and one more thing?”

“Yes?” Aronoke paused, expecting more insightful revelations into Ashquash’s reaction.

“Who in the nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine great constellations of Ribor is Kthoth Neesh?”


Master Caaldor was not in his quarters when Aronoke arrived back, and when he did return, several hours later, he looked tired and introspective. His face cleared when he spied Aronoke in the common area of their apartment.

“Ah, Padawan,” he said. “It’s good to see you up and about, and in good time, too. Everything back in the right place, I hope?”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke. “I feel much better. What’s happening?”

“Nothing,” grumbled Master Caaldor. “Nothing right now, besides endless discussion in regard to the information we brought back. You’d think our course of action would be obvious, but if there’s anything a committee is good for, it’s for finding endless ways around the obvious.”

He sounded frustrated.

“Master An-ku expressed a wish to see you as soon as possible,” he added. “You had best make an appointment with her immediately.”

“Yes, Master. They are going to go and rescue Master Altus, aren’t they?

“Oh, yes. Preparations are underway. The debate is mostly regarding the possible diplomatic repercussions of sending Jedi to a world controlled by the Sith Empire.” He regarded Aronoke with a slight frown, as if evaluating what he saw. “Tell me, Padawan, what are your wishes – do you wish to be a part of the rescue operation, or are you content to leave the matter in the hands of others?”

“I’ll do whatever you and the Jedi Council decide is best, Master,” replied Aronoke primly. He had resolved that he had to act obediently, since he couldn’t trust his judgement – not where Master Altus was concerned. He would adhere to the Jedi Council’s decision, no matter how painful it was.

“Yes, I’m sure you will,” said Master Caaldor, looking mildly amused, “but that’s not what I asked. If you were the one responsible for making the decision, what would you do?”

“I’d go myself,” said Aronoke promptly. “I know I can find him, especially now we know where to start looking. No one else has been able to, and there’s been plenty of time to try.”

“I thought you’d say that,” said Master Caaldor. “I’ve done my best to persuade the Jedi Council that your visions are of utmost importance in this affair – that you are an integral part of this stream of events, and interfering in your destiny is even more dangerous than letting things run their course.”

“Do you think they’ll listen, Master?”

“I don’t know,” said Master Caaldor. “Certainly if Master An-ku has her way, you’ll be taken out of my hands and locked back up in the Jedi Temple, padawan or no.”

“Surely not, Master,” Aronoke objected, but Master Caaldor’s eyes were fixed sternly upon him.

“I’m afraid so,” he sighed. “Hespenara has voiced Master Altus’s suspicions that you are connected intrinsically to the biocron on Kasthir, that the images on your back are a map to its location, and it seems that these theories are revelations to the Jedi Council as well as to us.”

“He didn’t tell them anything.” Aronoke was not surprised. He knew that Master Altus was dutiful, but he would not reveal secrets passed on to him personally, in confidence. Only Hespenara knew, because she worked so closely with him, and she had been part of the matter from the beginning. He remembered the green man’s aversion to paper work and his dislike for bureaucratic processes, things he had in common with Master Caaldor. He also remembered how Master Altus had encouraged him to keep the markings on his back secret.

“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.”

Master Altus had always treated the things Aronoke told him as secrets, not to be written down. It was one of the reasons why Aronoke trusted him so absolutely. Master Bel’dor’ruch had commented on Master Altus’s secrecy, Aronoke remembered, although at the time he had been too overwhelmed regarding the revelation of his back to pay it much heed.

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

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

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

Master Bel’dor’ruch had been right, Aronoke thought to himself. It was all related to the Biocron, and through it, to Aronoke himself. But surely…

“Master Bel’dor’ruch must have reported her findings to the Jedi Council,” Aronoke said, frowning. “She had those scans taken of my back. She said they might help find Master Altus.”

“Yes, they knew about your tattoos,” Master Caaldor said. “But not what the markings meant. There was some speculation, but no real answers. Not until now.”


It was an uncomfortable thing, to be the key to such an important artefact. It was almost as though Aronoke was an artefact himself, like the ones in the depths of the Jedi Archives, that Draken had wanted to sneak in and look at when they were both children.

“The Jedi Council are largely of two minds concerning your case,” Master Caaldor was continuing. “Some of them consider that you are too important to be risked out in the field – that you should be kept here in the Jedi Temple safely out of the hands of the Sith. Should the Sith capture you, there is little to prevent them from recovering the Biocron, and they will doubtlessly put it – and you – to unmentionable purposes.”

“And the other half?”

“They are more of my opinion,” said Master Caaldor, smiling. “They agree that you have a purpose in the wider galaxy and that the importance of allowing you an active role outweighs the risk. That is also why the debate is taking so long. But, even as the talking continues, an expedition is being prepared for the rescue attempt. An outright attack on a Sith-controlled world is inexcusable at this time, since we are ostensibly at peace, so it will by necessity be small and secretive. Master Temon has been placed in command, and he will be accompanied by his padawan, Tolos, and Hespenara. Master Quor, who is a researcher with a strong interest in the Biocron, will also be going.”

Aronoke knew neither Master Temon nor Master Quor, but from Master Caaldor’s tone he assumed that there was little rapport between him and the latter.

“And us?” he asked, trying not to feel too hopeful.

“That hasn’t been decided yet.”

“And Master Skeirim?” asked Aronoke. “What’s being done about him?”

“He is currently not in residence at the Jedi Temple,” said Master Caaldor. “He unfortunately left on assignment a short time before we arrived. He has been summoned back to Coruscant to account for his actions.”

Aronoke pulled a face. “It seems unlikely that he will come back voluntarily,” he said. “Surely he’ll make a run for it.”

“Perhaps,” said Master Caaldor, “but perhaps not. You have to remember, Aronoke, that he has followed the Jedi Code his whole life. He may have simply lost his way – one bad decision, one tenacious fear after another, mounting up to direct his course along a path he once would never have chosen. If there remains a great enough remnant of the Jedi he once was, then he will return to us, and otherwise – ” He shrugged grimly.

“He might go to the Sith?”

“He has almost certainly had dealings with them already,” Master Caaldor pointed out. “It is merely another step along an easier, if darker, way.”

“I hope he comes back, for Ashquash’s sake,” said Aronoke. “And yet – that might ultimately be more difficult for her.”

“If he returns, he will be offered a chance of redemption,” said Master Caaldor, “but he will never have sanctioned influence over Ashquash ever again. Of that you can be certain.”

“Good,” said Aronoke, with some relief. “I just hope she’s strong enough to cope with all this, on top of everything else that has happened to her.”

“Her mentors in the Jedi Temple will be alongside to guide her,” said Master Caaldor. “If she can bring herself to trust in the Force, she will make it through these difficulties.”

But Aronoke could not help but dwell upon the roiling emotions he had felt peeling off Ashquash, even before she had learned of Master Skeirim’s betrayal. What would happen to her if she didn’t have the strength to become a Jedi? At least, he thought, Kthoth Neesh had made the important first step of contacting her. If she wasn’t destined to become a Jedi, then the support of her family had to be the next best thing.


“You wished to see me, Master An-ku?”

Aronoke stood in Master An-ku’s office, which was an impressive circular marble chamber with shelves of datacubes and a long, narrow table in lieu of a desk. Imposing stone statues in white and rose-pink, symbolic featureless figures representing the Jedi and their role as peacekeepers in the galaxy, stood at intervals along the walls. An assortment of chairs, both comfortable and practical, completed the furnishings.

“Yes, Padawan Aronoke.” Master An-ku was sitting behind the table in a well-worn way, like she had been there a very long time. She looked tired, Aronoke thought, looking at her more closely. The colourful blue-and-orange stripes across her togrutan face disguised most of the crease-lines that crinkled the corners of her eyes and lined her mouth. Like Master Caaldor, she was older than she looked.

“Please be seated.” She gestured gracefully towards a chair on the opposite side of the long table, and Aronoke perched upon it obligingly.

“I am sure you are aware that Hespenara’s report has caused quite a stir, Padawan,” said Master An-ku heavily. “You have been the source of considerable discussion and dispute.”

“I’m sorry, Master,” Aronoke began, but Master An-ku held up a hand to stop him.

“No, you are not here to be admonished,” she said. “Your master is ultimately responsible for your actions in this matter, and his decisions on your behalf have garnered enough support in the Jedi Council to be approved, despite my own misgivings. You are fully aware of what Hespenara’s revelations mean, should Master Altus be correct?”

“I think so, Master An-ku,” said Aronoke steadily. “I’m supposedly connected to an important Force artefact, or collection of artefacts, known as the biocron. Since I am bioengineerd, it seems likely that I was created purposefully in connection to it, although how, why and by who are as yet unclear. The markings on my back are a map, probably leading to the fragment of the biocron located on Kasthir.”

“This makes you an obvious target for the Sith,” said Master An-ku. “And I believe they are already aware of your existence. It can be assumed that the Sith on Quebwoz was there with the sole intention of taking you prisoner. From what you have said, it is obvious that he wasn’t intending to kill you.”

“That’s true, Master,” said Aronoke.

“There has been considerable debate regarding whether or not you should be sent on the expedition to Zynaboon to recover Master Altus,” Master An-ku continued, and Aronoke’s heart leapt uncomfortably. “Your connection to Master Altus and your success in locating Hespenara makes you the best possible chance the rescue expedition has to find him quickly and recover him subtly.” Aronoke’s face must have betrayed his rising hope, for Master An-ku held up a restraining finger. “However,” she said firmly, “from your visions it also seems most likely that Master Altus is being held where the biocron is located. We have no idea what effect its close proximity may have upon you, or, for that matter, that you might have upon it.”

“I understand, Master An-ku,” said Aronoke, trying to stay calm.

“Nevertheless, it has been decided that you and Master Caaldor will be a part of this expedition,” said Master An-ku heavily, “should you be willing to go”.

Joy rose in Aronoke’s throat, threatening to bubble over into an exhilarated war whoop. It was all he could do to sit still and keep quiet. He couldn’t remember ever feeling so purely happy about anything. Leaving Kasthir had been a dream come true, but it had also been a voyage into the unknown, attendant with its own worries. Passing his exams to become a padawan had been a happy occasion, but he hadn’t wanted to leave the Jedi Temple so soon.

This outcome, he realised, was the only right one. It felt like destiny.

“You will accompany the expedition on one condition,” Master An-ku continued sternly, holding a restraining finger up at him again. “You will assist in attempting to locate Master Altus, but you will remain on board the ship unless Master Temon, who will be in command, instructs you otherwise. There can be no unauthorised escapades this time. Is that perfectly clear, Padawan?”

“Yes, Master An-ku, it is,” said Aronoke, his heart still soaring.

“I can see that there is no question of asking you if you wish to go or not,” said Master An-ku, sounding a little exasperated. “The answer is written all over you. Go and inform Master Caaldor that you are both to depart with the expedition when it leaves, as soon as preparations are complete. You are to draw a lightsaber from the reserves held by the weapons quartermaster, but if everything goes according to plan, you will have no need to use it.”

“Yes Master An-ku. Thank you.”

“There is no need to thank me, Padawan,” said Master An-ku, although her fierce face had softened a little in response to his cheerfulness. “If it was up to me, you would be kept here in the Jedi Temple, safe from harm, at least until we have learned more about the biocron and your role in respect to it. You may go.”

Aronoke stood and bowed formally before departing, but he found it impossible not to walk with a bounce in his step as he hurried back to his quarters, to share the good news with Master Caaldor.

Zynaboon at last! Even if he only got to stay on the ship, it was better than nothing. He would play a part in saving Master Altus, and possibly learn more about the biocron, that strange and powerful artefact that had exerted such an intrinsic effect upon his whole life without him ever knowing.

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.

At last, when everything had stopped moving, when the ship had ground to a creaking hull-rending halt and the whine of the engines choked into uneasy silence, Aronoke found the wherewithal to pick himself up and take stock of their situation. It was dark, very dark, but he could feel Hespenara stirring on the bench beside him and hear Tarric Gondroz muttering from across the corridor.

The emergency lighting flickered into dull green life.

“Is everyone alright?” asked Kthoth Neesh, her voice sounding strained and a little out of breath. Aronoke’s deafness seemed to be receding. He could hear her quite clearly now.

“I’m okay,” gasped Hespenara. “Just rather shaken up.”

“I can’t believe we’re not dead!” wheezed the kubaz.

Aronoke undid the buckles on his safety harness. “Everyone’s fine,” he said, standing up, his senses having already confirmed this, “but I think the ship’s not going anywhere any time soon. We’d best see what Master Caaldor thinks we should do now.”

Kthoth Neesh followed his lead, unbuckling herself and then helping with Hespenara’s harness.

“You should get yourself some other clothes, Aronoke,” she said. “And you need a medpac.”

Aronoke looked down. Kthoth Neesh must have been badly shaken to not take this obvious opportunity to leer at him, he decided. His garments were badly shredded, revealing more of his skin than he liked. His heart suddenly skipped a beat, as he wondered how obvious the markings on his back were.

No, don’t even think about that, he told himself firmly. There were more immediate things to worry about.

Like his leg. The left one was deeply gashed by shrapnel and gently pulsing blood. He hadn’t noticed it hurting any more than the rest of him, but now, as if encouraged by his attention, it began aching with a dull stabbing pain.

“I just have to speak to Master Caaldor first. Will you..?” he indicated Hespenara.

“I’ll look after her,” Kthoth Neesh said agreeably. “Come along, Padawan Hespenara. We’ll get you cleaned up and into some other clothes.”

“I could use a change,” said Hespenara wryly.

Aronoke could hear them continuing to banter as he stumbled and limped along the oddly angled corridor that led towards the front of the ship.

“Those robes are looking decidedly dated.” Kthoth Neesh’s voice was tinny but audible. “Let’s see if we can find you something in a more modern style. And do you realise you haven’t had a shower in over two years?”

“Better than Aronoke when we first met him,” came Hespenara’s reply, and Aronoke smiled to himself, blinking away the sudden tears that came into his eyes.

Master Caaldor was still sitting in the pilot’s seat when Aronoke came into the cockpit, bent over the instrument panel. He looked up as Aronoke came in. “Everyone is alright?” he said. It was only barely a question.

“Shaken and a little bruised, but nothing worse than that, Master,” said Aronoke. Master Caaldor’s dry expression told him that his own condition was obviously a lot worse.

“You should get yourself cleaned up, Padawan,” said Master Caaldor. “You could use some medical attention. In fact, you should probably be in a kolto tank, judging by that leg, but we don’t have the facilities. We do, however, have a little time. I don’t think the queb saw exactly where in the river we came down, which gives us some leeway. I’ve dampened all our external emissions short of turning off our life support systems. It’s best that we meet any new obstacles rested and refreshed.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke, “but there’s something I have to tell you first. Just before we were taking off, I sensed something – or rather someone – in a ship high up in the atmosphere. I’m certain it couldn’t be anything other than a Sith.”

“A Sith?” asked Master Caaldor, studying Aronoke’s face intently for a moment. He sat back in his chair and stroked his beard thoughtfully. “Well, that does complicate matters.”

“Why would a Sith be here now, Master?” Aronoke asked.

“There could be any number of reasons,” said Master Caaldor slowly, “all unrelated to our presence here.”

Aronoke nodded.

“However,” Master Caaldor continued, “I am not a subscriber to coincidence. It seems to me that there can only be one reason for the appearance of a Sith here now, and that is because we are here. Either they have traced Hespenara, or they came in pursuit of us. They could have had informants on Zamora station, or amongst the queb.”

“What do we do, Master?”

Master Caaldor sighed. “For the moment, we hide,” he said. “I have a knack for dulling the emanations that Force-users naturally emit, which is one of the reasons that you were assigned to me, Padawan. I can keep us concealed from the Sith for a considerable length of time.”

“But what about the queb?” asked Aronoke. “I doubt they’re going to give up looking for us any time soon. They must know that we’ve crashed, even if they don’t know exactly where. If they find us, the Sith won’t be far behind. They might even combine forces.”

“We’ll worry about that when the time comes, Padawan,” said Master Caaldor. “We have some time in hand. Time that you should put to good use. Go and clean up and have that leg seen to. I only had time for very basic first aid earlier.”

“I’m sorry about the droids, Master,” said Aronoke, remembering his nigh-disasterous mistake anew. “I didn’t sense them at all, only the queb.”

“That’s something we can concentrate on during your future training,” mumbled Master Caaldor, his attention already back on the ship’s readouts. “Now go.”

“Yes, Master.”


Aronoke felt considerably better once he was clean and PR-77 had seen to his wounds. He had instructed the droid to cut his hair off evenly, which left little more than the barest fuzz covering his skull. He would have to cultivate a new padawan’s braid once it grew, he thought sadly.

“I do hope the ship will be repairable, Master Aronoke,” the droid had said nervously while it applied synthflesh to his various injuries, “but I estimate that there is only a 2.34978 percent chance of that being achieved with the equipment and spare parts we have on board.”

“Don’t worry, PR,” said Aronoke comfortingly. “I’m sure the Jedi Council will recover or replace the ship.”

“But a new ship would not be the same,” quavered PR-77. “I have spent years adapting this one and ensuring that its systems run according to Master Caaldor’s most exacting standards.”

Aronoke privately thought that PR’s standards were likely to be far more exacting than Master Caaldor’s.

“I think I may request that I remain with the ship, if Master Caaldor is required to abandon it,” PR-77 continued, pausing thoughtfully. “I don’t know that I could bear to think of it left alone, slowly deteriorating under the water, only observed by hostile river creatures.”

“If that happens, I’m sure Master Caaldor will want to bring you with us, PR,” said Aronoke firmly. “You are too valuable to be left behind.”

“You are very kind, Master Aronoke,” the droid said mournfully. “But there is also my collection of images of different models of ships. I doubt there will be time or storage capacity to recover it from the ship’s databanks before we are required to leave.”

“You can always start a new collection, PR,” said Aronoke wearily. “Master Caaldor and the Jedi Order need you more than your collection does.”

“Master Caaldor has put a great deal of trust in me, granting me the duty of overseeing the XL-327’s maintenance to such a high degree,” the droid said, brightening a little as it glued another patch of mismatched synthflesh on Aronoke’s upper thigh. The synthflesh was of a pinkish human skin tone, suitable for use by Master Caaldor, so it looked terrible applied to Aronoke’s dusky blue skin. It was a minor thing, not worthy of his consideration – he knew the colour would adapt to his own within a few days. “Do you realise, Master Aronoke, that he even entrusted the naming of this ship to me, back when we were first granted its use by the Jedi Council?”

“You named the ship?” Aronoke asked, a little confused. He had only ever heard it referred to by its number.

“XL-327 has such a nice ring to it,” said PR-77 proudly.


“Aronoke, come in and sit down,” said Master Caaldor, indicating a chair near Hespenara. The three Jedi were meeting in Master Caaldor’s personal chambers, which were on as lopsided an angle as the rest of the ship.

“Aronoke, you’re looking so grown up,” said Hespenara, smiling at him. “You’re even taller than I thought.”

“Your sight has come back?” Aronoke asked.

“Yes, although it’s still a little blurry,” Hespenara admitted. “I feel vastly better after my rest.”

“I trust you are also feeling recovered, Padawan?” Master Caaldor asked.

“Mostly,” said Aronoke. “A bit stiff and sore, but nothing to worry about.” He ran a hand ruefully across his extremely short hair.

“Good. Let’s get down to business then. I shall entrust most of the conversation to you two, since my attention is largely absorbed with maintaining a shield over us all, to ensure that the Sith don’t find us. I know we are both eager to hear Hespenara’s story, so we will start with that.”

“Very well, Master Caaldor,” said Hespenara, gracing the older Jedi with a polite gesture. “Master Altus and I, as the Jedi Council are doubtlessly aware, were investigating an artefact known as the Biocron.”

Aronoke glanced at Master Caaldor but could see no hint of recognition in his master’s face.

“It’s a very ancient Force artefact, or should I say, network of artefacts, with nodes, or individual Biocrons if you like, hidden across the galaxy. They are large and ancient machines, incredibly complex and very powerful, thought to have been created by a mysterious and as yet unknown race of ancients. They are very strongly tied to living systems, but, as far as we know, no one has found any way of actually controlling or activating them.”

She looked at Aronoke seriously and he felt an icy wave of trepidation rise in him.

“Master Altus was convinced that you, Aronoke, were intrinsically connected to them.”

“Oh,” said Aronoke weakly. “So that was what you were investigating on Kasthir?”

The image from his vision arose as fresh and clear as ever in his mind – the now-familiar underground chamber floored with red sand and writhing bone-sucking worms, the simple monolith statue seething with dark Force energy.

“Yes,” said Hespenara, a little grimly. “Both Master Altus and Master Skeirim, Ashquash’s master, have spent years researching the Biocron, hoping that there might be a way to use its power for the benefit of the Jedi Order and the greater galaxy. We went to Kasthir, following up one of Master Altus’s leads, hoping to find part of the Biocron there.”

“And you found it?” Aronoke asked.

“We didn’t locate it entirely,” said Hespenara. “It was too deeply buried, but Master Altus found enough to convince him that it was there.”

“But you did find me.”

“We weren’t looking for you. You were a surprise.” Hespenara smiled, doubtlessly remembering the scruffy little chiss skimmer she had first encountered. “Even when we found you, we didn’t know you were anything more than a Force-sensitive kid, but Master Altus wanted to take you off Kasthir as quickly as possible, back to the safety of the Jedi Temple. Being so near the Biocron was dangerous for someone as inherently Force-sensitive as you, he said. We broke off our investigation early.”

Aronoke had no idea that they had considered his welfare so important. He remembered how he had expected that the deal would never go through. How it was impossible that he would ever leave Kasthir. Strong emotions rose in him, remembering what it had been like to feel those things, and he schooled himself to be calm and patient.

“Later he decided you were connected to the Biocron,” said Hespenara.

“I showed him my back when we were on Coruscant,” Aronoke said. He remembered the Jedi Master’s reaction. Master Altus had asked him nothing about the strange tattoo or the hideous scars that obscured it, but had only reassured Aronoke that no harm would come to him because of it. Only a good deal later had he asked questions and recorded an image of it.

“Master Altus thought you were created as a living key to the Biocron,” Hespenara said. “He believed that the markings on your back were a map, showing the path to the Kasthir Biocron. It explains why you were there in the first place – someone was trying to follow the map.”

“Uncle Remo?” mused Aronoke. The new information cast the large pink twi’lek, one of the few of Aronoke’s childhood memories that was not unpleasant, in a different light. “He was just a treasure hunter?”

“We don’t know what Remo’s intentions were,” Hespenara said. “Master Altus thought he was one of the researchers who worked with the project that created you, somewhere in the Empire, and that he went rogue and stole you away from them. He may have wanted to use you himself, he may have intended to sell you, or he may have taken you to Kasthir to hide you, thinking that your connection to the Biocron might protect you in some way. I don’t expect that we’ll ever know,” she concluded gently.

“Why did Master Altus never tell me any of this?” Aronoke asked, dismayed. Feeling betrayed and disappointed. He had learned he was bioengineered from a droid, sent by his harasser. He had felt so abandoned and alone, not knowing where he had come from, or why he had warranted such negative attention.

“Master Altus didn’t piece together everything I’ve told you until later,” said Hespenara. “He didn’t have a chance to tell you all of it, but I think he wouldn’t have told you anyway, at least not right away. He sought to protect you – he wanted you to have what you never had on Kasthir. He hoped that within the Jedi Temple you might be able to experience something of the childhood you missed out on. He wanted you to have as much time as you needed to feel safe and to grow into the Jedi he thought you could be.”

Her face fell. “I suppose his attempt to protect you failed after all,” she said sadly, “or you wouldn’t be here, a Padawan already.”

“Someone found out about Aronoke’s hidden potential,” observed Master Caaldor quietly. “He was not allowed to pursue his studies peacefuly within the Jedi temple, but was hounded by attempts to influence him in a most un-Jedi-like way. Being made a padawan early was considered the best alternative, especially when taking into account Aronoke’s rapid maturation.”

“The harassments started up again after you left,” said Aronoke to Hespenara, “as soon as Master Altus was gone. It wasn’t just me that was affected – they tried to get to me through Ashquash in a very harmful way.”

“And we didn’t come back to stop it,” Hespenara said heavily.

“But what happened to you and Master Altus?” said Aronoke. “How did you come to be frozen in carbonite?”

“Master Altus uncovered a lead regarding a Biocron hidden deep beneath the ocean on a planet called Zynaboon,” said Hespenara. “I don’t expect you’ve heard of it – it’s a water world controlled by the Sith Empire, unremarkable in most aspects, save that it’s inhabited by a native race of natural force-users, called the Kroobnak. We went there incognito, planning to meet with Master Skeirim to combine forces to search for it.”

Aronoke sat very still. “Master Skeirim?” he asked. “He knew you were there, on Zynaboon?”

“Yes, of course,” said Hespenara. “Master Altus and Master Skeirim often worked together. We went to meet with him, but the Imperials somehow found out we were there. There were so many of them and they had back-up forces. Mercenaries. Master Altus and Master Skeirim put up as much of a fight as they could, but it wasn’t going well, and after that – well, I don’t remember. I was stunned during the fight, and after that I suppose I was frozen in carbonite.”

“We have to get this information back to the Jedi Temple,” said Master Caaldor.

“I don’t understand,” said Hespenara, looking bewildered.

“Master Skeirim wasn’t captured by the Imperials,” said Aronoke. “He didn’t say anything about meeting Master Altus on Zynaboon.”

Hespenara looked horrified. “He betrayed us? But why? Master Altus and Master Skeirim were close colleagues.”

“He’s the one who has been put in charge of leading the search to recover you,” said Aronoke grimly. “No wonder it was taking so long. I wonder what else he might have been responsible for.”

Could Master Skeirim have also been involved in the strange incidents that had plagued Aronoke in the Jedi Temple? He hadn’t been there most of the time, Aronoke remembered, but he was Ashquash’s mentor and would have had ample opportunity to drug her. Master Skeirim had also encouraged Aronoke and Ashquash to spend time together. Had the entangling emotions that developed between them, the strange uncontrollable wave of lust, also been part of his plan?

If he had been responsible for hurting Ashquash, Aronoke thought, with an un-Jedi-like pang of fury, he would pay for what he had done to her.

Calm. Peace.

“So I was captured and frozen in carbonite,” said Hespenara. “But what happened to Master Altus?”

“I’m afraid we don’t know,” said Master Caaldor, but Aronoke shook his head fiercely, for he had worked something out in his head that very moment.

“He was captured by the Imperials, either then or later, trying to save Hespenara,” he said, intently. “He was taken prisoner on Zynaboon, and hidden away in an Imperial facility there, deep under the water. That’s the place I saw in my vision – an Imperial base, deep in the ocean, with strange Force-sensitive sentients swimming above. He was alive,” he told Hespenara darkly, “but suffering. Tormented. They were torturing him somehow but he was withstanding it.”

“Oh no!” said Hespenara, paling. “Poor Master Altus.”

“From what Hespenara has told us, it seems likely that facility is also where the Biocron is hidden,” said Master Caaldor thoughtfully. “Which brings us to the second part of our discussion. This information only makes it more imperative that we get out of here and back to the Jedi Temple as soon as possible. We will have to abandon the ship, I’m afraid. PR will be most upset.”

Aronoke judged that his Master wasn’t too pleased about it either.

“Getting away without a ship won’t be easy,” Aronoke said. “We’ve got the queb and the Sith looking for us everywhere, and there’s no vessels to, ah, requisition, down here on the planet’s surface.”

“The ship is too badly damaged to be repaired here,” said Master Caaldor shortly.

“Can we send a distress signal?” asked Hespenara.

“Sending a conventional communication will pinpoint our position accurately to our pursuers,” reminded Master Caaldor, looking strained. Aronoke guessed that the effort of maintaining the shield protecting them from detection was weighing heavily on him. “Although the content of our message would be protected by encryption, that’s of little help to us. With all the scanners they’ve doubtlessly deployed, they only need to pick up a stray electronic signal. By the time help arrives, they’ll have traced it back to our current location.”

“Bolar Dak is probably out there looking for us too,” said Aronoke glumly. Seeing Hespenara’s blank look he added “Bolar Dak is the bounty hunter who froze you in carbonite and auctioned you off. He worked with the Empire and for the queb.”

“I see,” said Hespenara.

There was a long minute of silence while they all thought.

“What if one of us sneaks off the ship,” said Aronoke slowly, “and fires off a distress signal from somewhere else? When the Jedi come to find us, we can send them a message then. If they’re close to us, they should be in a position to help us more quickly than the queb can trace us.”

“That could work,” said Hespenara. “I expect there’s a portable distress beacon somewhere on this ship. As long as it gets off a signal, there’s a good chance some Jedi somewhere will pick it up.”

“Of course, it could also attract a lot of unpleasant attention,” added Aronoke.

“Nevertheless, it’s probably our best chance,” said Master Caaldor. “All that remains is to decide who should do it. I am obviously the least injured, but I am also the only one able to hide our presence from the Sith.”

“That leaves either Aronoke or myself,” said Hespenara reluctantly. “I can see quite well now, but I’m afraid I’m not feeling very fit. Certainly not up to a cross-country expedition. That leaves Aronoke, but he has been quite badly injured.”

“There’s also Kthoth Neesh” said Aronoke. “She could come with me.” He didn’t bother to mention the kubaz. If Tarric Gondroz ran into any trouble, Aronoke didn’t doubt that he would sell them out immediately to save his own skin.

“That’s probably our best option,” said Master Caaldor. “Ask Kthoth Neesh if she will accompany you, Padawan. PR can assist with finding the distress beacon. You must not take any unnecessary risks. Better to fail to set off the beacon than to get captured by the Sith. I have little doubt they have made an arrangement with the queb specifying that they are to be given custody of any prisoners which are taken. Except perhaps for you, Hespenara.”

“Doubtlessly they plan for me to continue as some sort of lawn ornament,” said Hespenara wryly.


“I’d best leave immediately,” said Aronoke, climbing to his feet. “Perhaps you can decide where the best place would be to fire the beacon off while I gather together the equipment I will need.”

“May the Force be with you, Padawan,” said Master Caaldor.


“Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so quick to volunteer,” said Aronoke, looking doubtfully at the underwater breather Hespenara had just passed him. “I didn’t get up to the part of the training where we learned to operate these.”

“Look on the bright side,” said Kthoth Neesh, not looking any more enthusiastic. “At least you get to wear a spankworthy swimsuit.”

The narakite girl was dressed similarly to Aronoke himself, in a form-fitting full body underwater suit with a tight-fitting face mask.

“The breathers are very easy,” said Hespenara reassuringly. “You can’t go wrong, so long as you remember to breathe through your mourth and not through your nose.”

“Have I mentioned my phobia of water?” Aronoke quipped half-seriously, but both Kthoth Neesh and Hespenara looked so worried, he wished he hadn’t said it aloud. “It’s true – I don’t like water,” he added, trying to sound reassuring, “but I can deal with it when I have to. I’ll be fine.”

He didn’t feel like he was going to be fine when he and Kthoth Neesh stood in the ship’s airlock with cold green river water rising up around their waists. He felt like he was going to panic, to spiral out of control like he had when Ashquash pushed him in the pool, when he had thought he was drowning. Perhaps the Aronoke of back then would have perished in this situation, a victim of his own fear, but he had come a long way in the intervening months. He knew how to control his fear. Knew so many things he hadn’t known then.

A minute of meditation. A deep breath through the breather as the water rose to cover his face. A momentary twist of fear in his gut as the water completely filled the airlock, quelled by calm confidence that everything was okay. He was in control. Here by choice. He could do this.

By the time the outer airlock door slowly ground aside, manually opened by Aronoke and Kthoth Neesh, Aronoke was ready to face the great brown and green current of the open river beyond. A flick of his feet, and his special swim-shoes expanded into graceful flippers, allowing him to swim far faster and more competently. Beside him, Kthoth Neesh was also making good progress. The narakite girl had no more experience with swimming than Aronoke did himself, having been raised on a space station and spent most of her life on ships, but she grinned cheerily at him and made a thumb’s up sign as they surged downstream, angling across towards the riverbank.

Being underwater was not so different from being in open space, Aronoke thought to himself. It was odd that the latter didn’t disturb him anywhere near as much as the former.

The plan was that they should swim a considerable distance from the ship before surfacing near the riverbank, just in case they were observed leaving the river. Once on land, they would trek through the jungle several miles towards a low hill offering a vantage point above the trees. Here, they would set off the distress beacon and then retreat quickly back into the jungle. Once certain that they were not being followed, they were to return to the ship by a different route.

It sounded easy in theory, but in the field, even the best-laid plans were open to random influence and unknown factors, something that made itself clear only minutes after the two explorers had left the ship.

Aronoke had been keeping his senses open, watching for anything that lived in the water that might be a threat. There were plenty of small things that dwelt in the river. The vast majority of them were tiny – single-celled algae, slightly larger plants, some weedy and free-floating, others adhering to the bottom of the riverbed in the shallows. Then there were animals. Tiny swimming worms composed of chains of flat paddles, and crustacean-like creatures composed of balls of conjoined limbs, no larger than the fingernail on Aronoke’s smallest finger. Larger swimming wrigglers with fins and tentacles ate the algae and the smaller creatures, and then there was….

Big. Very, very big. Aronoke could sense the curiosity and hunger of the giant river worm as it oscillated through the water towards them. It was easily large enough to swallow them whole. He couldn’t be certain if it was purely aquatic or an amphibian, but now was not the time to get caught up in interesting taxonomic details.

Kthoth Neesh grabbed at Aronoke’s arm and he realised he had stopped swimming. She made a querying gesture and he pointed off through the water towards the creature. Big, he mimed, putting his hands far apart. Snake. He pressed his hands together and made an undulating movement. Kthoth Neesh stared off into the murky water, glanced back at Aronoke and shrugged. It was still too far away to see, but it was getting closer with every second. Too quickly for them to make it to the riverbank, Aronoke judged, even if they headed directly towards the closest point and swam with everything they had.

He gestured for Kthoth Neesh to wait and swam a few strokes closer to the creature.

As the monster came nearer and nearer, Aronoke tried to be calm and focussed his senses on its brain. It was small compared to the vast bulk of its long, thick finned body. The monster was surging forward, opening its mouth, getting ready to engulf him. Aronoke wondered briefly if it would swallow them both, and if he would be able to cut his way out of its gargantuan body with his lightsaber before he was digested.

Ah. No lightsaber.

This was not a good time to try learning how to trick minds, but on the other hand, the creature’s intellect was small. It should be easy to trick. It was the best option left to him.

Calm, peace and certainty. Aronoke tried to channel the Force into one decisive sweeping thought, emphasised by a single gesture.

You don’t want to eat us. You should go away.

For a moment he thought it hadn’t worked, as the creature continued to bear down upon him, but perhaps it was merely momentum that carried it along, for at the last moment, tossing Aronoke aside in its tumultuous wake like a drowned leaf, it streamed past him and Kthoth Neesh and continued on its way up the river.

Once he had righted himself, Aronoke located Kthoth Neesh and swam over to her. She hung in the water, her eyes huge and round in her face mask. She looked vastly relieved to see him and made emphatic gestures towards the shore.

Yes, perhaps we are far enough away from the ship, Aronoke thought to himself, and he nodded. They lost no time making their way to land.


“I thought we were dead and no mistake,” spluttered Kthoth Neesh as she tore off her mask. “Monster bait. Then I thought it had swallowed you. I wonder what made it change its mind. Lucky it didn’t decide to come back for a second try.”

“Yes,” said Aronoke taking a grateful breath of fresh air and restraining himself from kissing the ground. It sounded good from a dramatic perspective, but the riverbank was profoundly muddy. “Come on – there’s no time to waste. Let’s be off up that hill and get this over and done with.”

He retracted his flippers into his swim shoes and together they set off towards their goal.

Like the first part of their journey, the trek through the jungle looked far easier on a map than it was in practice. The jungle in this area was pock-marked with clearings and criss-crossed by streams. Whereas walking through a rainforest was relatively easy, since there were not many plants that grew beneath the canopy, this area was tangled with dense stringy undergrowth and oozing lobe-leaved creepers. Many tiny creatures lived amidst the densely coiled brambles and vines, and Aronoke and Kthoth Neesh were continually stopping to remove would-be parasites from their clothing. Aronoke was grateful for the tough form-fitting swimsuit now – Jedi robes would only be an additional encumbrance under these conditions.

They had been pushing their way through the undergrowth for about an hour before Aronoke heard the sound of a ship approaching.

“Quick, someone’s coming!” he said, pulling Kthoth Neesh under the nearest bush.

The ship that passed almost directly overhead was sleek, black and triangular.

“An Imperial ship,” said Kthoth Neesh, staring up at it angrily.

Aronoke was no expert on ship models, but his senses told him that this vehicle did indeed contain the Sith that he had sensed earlier. Suddenly the spark in his mind that represented the strange Force-user flared oddly, and Aronoke hastily withdrew his senses, clamping them tight around himself. Too late. The ship altered its path and began to curve almost lazily around, circling around their hiding place.

“They detected me,” he hissed to Kthoth Neesh. She shot him an alarmed glare.

How did Master Caaldor’s Force shielding trick work, Aronoke wondered fretfully as the ship droned by overhead. Another thing he had never been taught. The best he could do was to sit quietly, gathering his Force powers around him in tight-fitting quiescence. He tried to empty his mind and visualise empty space, an absence of everything except the natural world around him, continuing with its biological business. No Jedi here.

“I think they’ve given up,” said Kthoth Neesh after a few minutes. The Sith ship had streaked away across the sky, but not so very far, Aronoke thought, allowing a tiny tendril of his senses to follow that strangely tainted flare in the Force. It was setting down over there behind those trees, perhaps a mile away.

“We’d better hurry,” said Aronoke. “They haven’t gone far. They’re still looking for us.”

Kthoth Neesh nodded grimly. “Then let’s make as much distance as we can.”


Another hour and Kthoth Neesh was flagging and Aronoke was limping, despite his efforts to control the injury in his leg. They had reached a more substantial tract of forest and were walking under the trees. The sun was setting, casting long, low-angled rays sporadically through the canopy. The sounds of forest creatures heightened around them to a new crescendo as the diurnal cycle of the forest shifted through a crepuscular interlude.

Aronoke had been glad they had not encountered anything more difficult than the regular hazards of the jungle. Large predators had been conspicuous only in their absence. He was glad too that Kthoth Neesh had accompanied him. He had tried to keep his senses wound in tight, only using them intermittently to spot approaching threats. As his injuries had made themselves more loudly known, he found it difficult to concentrate, and he was grateful of the pirate girl’s quick eyes in helping to avoid potential dangers. Aronoke had not spotted the metallic wasp’s nest, suspended at head-height from a tree, nor had he noticed the trail of enormous spiked many-legged ground bugs, each the size of his hand, that consumed everything in their path. Both threats had been successfully avoided; each could have caused them serious trouble had they not been noticed in advance.

He and Kthoth Neesh had both heard the occasional sounds of speeder bikes criss-crossing the jungle around them. Thus far they had been lucky, easily able to avoid the search pattern of the vehicles, but the buzz of engines was a constant reminder that their enemies were aware of their presence and were hot on their trail.

As they reached the top of one slope and turned towards another, Aronoke could see the forest opening up into another clearing ahead.

“I think that is it,” said Kthoth Neesh, looking up from the navigation unit she carried. “It’s as close as we’re going to be able to get, anyway.”

“Good,” said Aronoke. “You might as well wait down here. There’s no sense both of us setting up the distress beacon – it might attract unpleasant attention rather quickly.”

“I can do it,” said Kthoth Neesh. “Your leg will slow you down.”

Aronoke’s injury had worsened as the day progressed, and his limp had grown more pronounced.

He took a swig from his water flask as he considered her offer, then passed it to Kthoth Neesh. “I can handle it,” he said to the pirate girl. “This is our mess that you’re caught up in, so it should be my responsibility. Besides, I’m experienced at being blown up.”

She smirked tiredly at him. “All right then. I’ll head north from these coordinates and meet you near the base of the hill,” she said. “I’ve no doubt you’ll be able to find me there.”

Aronoke nodded. “If I’m not back in half an hour, return to the ship,” he said.

“I will, but there’ll be no need,” said Kthoth Neesh. “I know you Jedi – tough as gundarks and full of hidden surprises.” She leered at him as she said the last bit, although Aronoke thought it was more through habit than from any immediate desire. They were both far too exhausted to worry about such things now, he thought.


The hill-top was choked with undergrowth and alive with tiny creatures. Clouds of leathery winged fliers, no larger than Aronoke’s thumb, flitted raspily through the maze-like world formed by the densely packed sticky-leaved plants, while many-legged carapaced invertebrates clung to leaves, flew through the air, crawled on the ground and burrowed underfoot. Swarms of aerial tentacular bladder-creatures were starting to awaken in dark clusters under the nearby trees. Here and there, larger creatures wandered through the tangle, preying on the smaller ones. Aronoke stamped out a small clear space at the top of the hill, and set down the distress beacon, feeling guilty that he was about to turn this thriving environment into a blazing warzone simply by pressing a button. He looked back along the way he had come, picking out the path he had made through the undergrowth. He intended to return along it with all possible haste as soon as he had activated the beacon.

He took a deep breath, snapping his control fully over the injury in his leg, dampening the pain, and simultaneously twisted the control on the beacon to start signalling. The barrel-shaped device expanded, mechanically unfolding stubby stabilising legs and spindly antennae. A small dish started revolving, and the whole unit emitted a faint glow. Aronoke did not wait to see more, but began running, across the clearing and down the hill, focussing on turning his body into a Force-driven propulsion machine. He surged through the undergrowth, leaping over the denser tangles of plants, narrowly avoiding ensnaring himself in the multitude of twisted vines and thorny bushes. He reached the edge of the clearing and continued off under the trees, his breath coming in steady, controlled gasps, the Force fuelling his muscles towards greater effort as the way became clearer.

How far… how far should he run? How quickly would…

The hillside exploded behind him, spectacularly. Trees on the edge of the clearing were knocked flat by the force of the explosion, and Aronoke himself was carried forward several metres and rolled along the ground like a quozball. He picked himself up painfully, staring in astonishment at the devastation raging behind him. The whole hilltop was ablaze with fire. The beacon surely hadn’t managed to function for more than a minute before it had been completely destroyed.

Someone was extremely averse to the idea of them getting help from outside. He could only hope that the brief window the distress beacon had signalled within would be enough.

There was no time to hesitate; enemy forces would soon be here, looking for him. Hopefully they would be uncertain as to whether he had been caught in the blast, and would spend some time trying to determine if this was the case.

Breaking into a steady jog-trot, Aronoke began running through the darkening forest, heading towards his meeting point with Kthoth Neesh.


Not far. Not far now. Surely no more than another hour. Aronoke was more tired than he had ever been in his life, except perhaps for that one time when Mill thought it would be funny to drop him off ten miles from Bunkertown, to see if Aronoke could run that far in the single hour remaining before sunset. Aronoke had been completely convinced that Mill was entirely capable of abandoning him out in the Fumelands at night, and had ran, as hard and as fast as he could, across the loose sand, across the firmer, crumbly ground scattered with tiny marble-sized rocks, across the vast dangerous sprawl of the Fumelands that lay between himself and safety. On and on, chest aching, robes flapping, legs turning to rubber beneath him. His ventilator filters hadn’t quite kept up with the demands his labouring metabolism had put on them and his body demanded water that he didn’t have.

Aronoke had nearly died of sheer relief when the flier had returned minutes before sunset. Mill had smirked as Aronoke climbed weakly inside. “You’re slow, kid,” he drawled. “There’s still three miles to go!”

Aronoke was certain that Mill would never have bothered to return, if not for the fact that Careful Kras would have been angry if anything had happened to him because of one of Mill’s stupid jokes.

As he and Kthoth Neesh straggled across yet another dark forested slope, Aronoke paused to briefly sense his surroundings and was immediately aware of a sentient approaching quickly from ahead of them.

“Another speeder bike,” said Kthoth Neesh at almost the same moment. “Hide!”

There was little cover, other than tall thin tree trunks. Both Aronoke and Kthoth Neesh dived behind the same fallen log, which would have been a close fit for just one of them. Despite the tenseness of the situation and his considerable weariness, Aronoke was intensely aware of the narakite’s warm body pressed up tightly against his own.

No, no time for distractions!

The speeder was drawing near, travelling quite slowly as it picked a path between the trees. A searchlight flickered between the treetrunks, glancing momentarily off the top of the log they hid behind. The engine slowed as the bike drew very near indeed and then idled a moment. A masked, slightly robotic voice spoke briefly.

“This is unit six, reporting in. All clear,” the rider said.

Aronoke held his breath. The speeder bike could be no more than two body-lengths away from them. The bike rider waited a moment that seemed to stretch on forever before he spoke again. He must be receiving further instructions, Aronoke thought.

“At once, my Lord,” said the rider, and the speeder bike turned and zoomed off through the trees.

Aronoke and Kthoth Neesh lay still and silent for a short eternity, crushed up against each other behind the log, as the sound of engines receded.

“Why, Padawan,” the narakite girl said seductively, twisting around to face him, “and here I thought you weren’t interested.”

Aronoke blushed and opened his mouth to voice a denial, but before he could say anything, Kthoth Neesh leaned over and kissed him.

And like before, when he had kissed Ashquash, a great green wave of energy broke over Aronoke, tearing his control aside as if it counted for nothing. His Jedi training was washed away, forgotten, as was his weariness and the pain of his injury. Any thought of shielding or restraint was lost in the current that ran between his body and hers, in the intense biological resonance between them, and the awareness of a connection, distant and tenuous, controlled by an ancient alien instrument, that nonetheless linked them intrinsically through the Force.

He kissed her back, pushing himself against her with a fierceness that Kthoth Neesh herself hadn’t anticipated. Her eyes widened and she tried to pull away, but she was trapped between Aronoke and the log. Then she gave in, relaxing against him, her hands coursing down his back delightfully. Aronoke was completely lost in the sensation, unprepared for the abrasive interruption when she suddenly broke the kiss and wrenched her head aside.

“Aronoke!” she hissed, fiercely.

He ignored her, driven by his rising passion, tugging at the fastener of her annoyingly restraining swimsuit.

She slapped him across the face. Hard.

“Ow!” he said, stung. She had wanted this… she had taunted him. What right did she have to suddenly deny him now?

“The speeder,” Kthoth Neesh hissed frantically. “It’s returning!”

Sanity returned slowly and Aronoke’s face burned with the enormity of his own foolishness. Whatever he had just done, whatever he had been intending to do, had doubtlessly blazed through the Force with a penetrating, clear and unique signature. Back in the Jedi temple, Master Insa-tolsa had known instantly that something was happening to Aronoke when this had happened with Ashquash! Here, now, while trying to hide from the all-too-observant senses of a Sith lord, Aronoke had announced their position as clearly as if he had fired off a flare.

Aronoke pushed the confusing tangle of thoughts aside, pushed himself away from Kthoth Neesh and scrambled to his feet.

“Stay in hiding,” he snapped at her. “I’ll distract him.” He ran over to hide behind the trunk of a nearby tree.

The speeder bike approached, more carefully than it had the first time. The rider was obviously alert and fully aware that there was some danger in the area. He probed the jungle carefully with his searchlight and scanned the ground, looking for footprints. Aronoke waited until the bike was near the fallen log and then leaned out a little too far from behind his tree.

The rider must have had some sort of augmentation system, Aronoke thought later, for he detected that slight movement immediately. His blaster rifle swung around to point at Aronoke instantly. “You there, step out into the open slowly. Throw down your weapons!”

The speeder bike rider dismounted smoothly while keeping Aronoke in his sights. He wore Imperial armour in camouflage green and black and the rifle that was trained on Aronoke was held sure and steady. Aronoke had no doubt that he was a trained professional soldier and a crack shot to boot.

“Don’t shoot!” Aronoke stepped slowly out from behind the tree, arms raised, moving carefully. Growing up in the company of Fronzak and the other Fumers had made him fully aware of exactly what damage a blaster could do. He was a Jedi now, capable of dealing with mundane forces like blaster fire, but he had a different plan in mind. Catching a glimpse of a slight movement behind the log made him certain that Kthoth Neesh had exactly the same idea.

“This is Unit 6,” said the trooper into his communicator, his attention focused intently on Aronoke. “I’ve located the subject. Repeat, I’ve located the subject at my current coordinates.”

Aronoke swore silently to himself. He had hoped to distract the man enough so that he didn’t send out an alert. Best to deal with him as quickly as possible and to get on their way.

“I didn’t mean to startle you,” said Aronoke, talking to keep the speeder bike rider’s attention firmly on himself and to cover any small noises Kthoth Neesh might make. “I won’t do you any harm. In fact, I’m glad to see another sentient face. I’ve been wandering around this jungle for days, ever since I was separated from my hunting party. Just about near starved to death.”

“Keep your hands where I can see them and lay flat on the ground,” said the speeder bike rider, ignoring Aronoke’s patter. “Any sharp moves, and I’m instructed to shoot first and worry about your health later.”

“There’s no need to be like that,” said Aronoke, in a wounded tone. He moved slowly to comply.

The speeder bike rider made a choking noise and dropped to the ground, Kthoth Neesh’s vibroknife protruding from his back. The blaster rifle fell from his hands unfired. Aronoke could sense the life fading from him as he fell.

He turned to Kthoth Neesh.

“Don’t you ever do anything like that to me again,” he snarled, stepping towards her, ignoring the second vibroknife she still held in one raised hand. “No more seductions. No more kisses!”

“You didn’t seem to mind,” she said indifferently, dropping her hand and lightly kicking the body of the fallen soldier, making sure he was properly dead.

“This is not a game,” said Aronoke angrily, overflowing with self-loathing. “Not an amusing challenge. I don’t have time to explain, but I have enough problems without you playing with me. I know you don’t understand – I don’t understand properly myself – but there’s more at stake here than simply the Jedi code.”

“I’m sorry,” said Kthoth Neesh curtly, but her face showed a moment of genuine regret. Then, as her expression closed down, Aronoke’s anger faded, and he chided himself for giving in to it so precipitously. For shouting at Kthoth Neesh, when the one he was really angry with was himself.

“I’m sorry too,” he said more quietly. “I should have more control. It’s not your fault, Kthoth Neesh, it’s mine, although I would appreciate it if you made things a little easier on me.”

The narakite girl studied him a moment, her emotions opaque to Aronoke’s scrutiny.

“Come on,” she said quietly. “Like you said, we don’t have time. Let’s get out of here.”

She climbed on the speeder bike and waited for Aronoke to climb up behind her.

As they zipped away into the darkness, Aronoke wished his life was less complicated. He could blame Kthoth Neesh, but she wasn’t a Jedi. He could blame himself, and by all means, he deserved a hefty serving of self-criticism. Yet there was something else with which some of the blame deserved to lie, and now he had a name for it. The Biocron.

4 – Carbonite

Aronoke adjusted his gun-belt for the third time in as many minutes and took the carry crate of plant samples back from from Kthoth Neesh. The pirate girl was carrying a basket of cuttings in her other arm.

“Stop fiddling with that,” she hissed. “You look about as convincing as a wookiee pretending to be a queb. You’re supposed to be a smuggler, not a green wannabe!”

“I don’t think it matters if I come across as a wannabe,” said Aronoke mildly, “and besides, if I was a real smuggler, this thing would be worn and comfortable, not hard edged and chafing.”

“If you were a real smuggler you’d resent looking like a walking garden,” retorted Kthoth Neesh. “Whose idea was this anyway?”

The cover story had been Master Caaldor’s idea, and Aronoke opened his mouth to remind Kthoth Neesh that native plant specimens were one of the few remarkable commodities on Quebwoz Prime, and that biocollectors would pay good money for these plants, as long as they arrived in good condition.

“Stop arguing, both of you!” Tarric Gondroz was hung about with so many cachebags and carry-alls, that it was hard to tell what race he was. They all contained more botanical samples, including a carnivorous motile variety that seemed to be taking an unhealthy interest in his snout. “I’m going to have to put this lot down very soon, or we’re going to have salad instead of specimens!”

“There’s just one shop left.” Aronoke took another look at the map on his datapad and started off through the maze of buildings. “I think it’s this way.”

“You said that half an hour ago!” complained Kthoth Neesh. “Give me that map!”

Sighing, Aronoke stopped and passed the datapad to her, almost dropping the carry crate in the process. He stood shifting from one leg to another while she looked at it for a few minutes, all too aware that their diverse group had no hope of blending in, despite the busy streets. The queb crowd flowed around them, universally short, lithe and whiskered. Their sleek, shiny fur and long top-knots varied from pale grey through dusty violet to almost black, and their large eyes were attentive and curious. Both genders, which Aronoke could not tell apart, wore little in the way of clothing, sporting simple dhotas fastened at the waist by large buckled belts. Engraved bangles, torcs and armbands completed their ensemble, the jewellery mostly made of copper, pewter or burnished plasteel and covered with crawling uninterpretable hieroglyphs.

The excursion to locate plant specimens was a scouting mission. They were disguised as independent traders since Quebwoz was a closed system, closed off to agents of both the Sith Empire and the Galactic Republic under the Quebwoz treaty signed perhaps fifty years earlier in the interests of maintaining the world’s independence and minimising galactic influence. Although the treaty had been a Republic initiative, intended to support the developing Outer Rim world in its fledgling intergalactic interactions, Aronoke privately thought that the Queb had wrangled affairs heavily towards their own advantage, since it gave them the benefit of trading with whomever they wanted with no outward repercussions.

The nurseries and florists they had visited were all close to the Kalarka compound, the place were Hespenara was being imprisoned. Most of the shops were single-storied, flat-roofed buildings with cool, dark interiors, but the goods were displayed under airy awnings outside. There seemed to be no organised street pattern, the buildings sometimes clustered and sometimes single, forming little islands with the ‘roads’ flowing in the spaces in between. Here and there amidst the flat rectangular sprawl, grand pagodas towered, surrounded by extensive private gardens, walled off behind high metallic walls or electrified fences.

Their eventual target was the largest of these. Aronoke had tried to sense Hespenara and had caught a faint impression of her there. He had been relieved to detect even that; the fact that she was preserved in carbonite seemed to make locating her more difficult. Still, confirmation that she was there was all they needed.

Reconnaissance had revealed that the Kalarka compound was a substantial estate in a dominant position neighbouring the immense sporting stadium, the esteemed cultural hub of queb society. Reputations rose and fell upon the results from the sporting arena; fortunes were made and lost. All the most important queb families sponsored athletes to compete in the events held there. The stadium was always busy, hosting minor competitions and training sessions in between more important events. Aronoke had been most interested to note that the Kalarka compound had its own private entrance into the stadium. Although the passageway was certainly guarded, he thought it might well be of interest to Master Caaldor in planning their rescue attempt.

Kthoth Neesh frowned and turned the datapad ninety degrees. “Are you sure this is the right map?”

Tarric Gondroz made a despairing noise. “I need a drink,” he wheezed. “Let’s find a place to buy one, and you can work out where we’re going while we’re sitting down somewhere nice and cool and shady.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Aronoke admitted. He had been enjoying the sunshine and the heat, but the humidity was oppressive and he was thirsty. The Kalarka platform, where they had landed, hovered high above the intensely jungled surface of the planet below, a wilderness world renowned largely for its large predators and hunting preserves. Even at this elevation, it was much hotter than the standard temperature maintained on most human-inhabited space stations. Of course, it was quite mild compared to Kasthir.

Tarric Gondroz led the way to a drinking establishment they had passed a few minutes previously, showing more energy than he had all day. Aronoke trailed behind the kubaz and Kthoth Neesh thinking how odd it was to be posing as the kind of person he might have become if he were not a Jedi, had he ever won his freedom from Careful Kraas. It might not be a bad life, he had to admit, not if he found the right sort of person to work for, or managed to earn enough credits to work for himself. But as Master Altus had told him, and as Aronoke knew well from his studies in the Jedi temple, being force sensitive changed everything. There was no middle ground; there was only the Light side or the Dark side. Trying to pretend he had no Force abilities would change nothing. They would have presented themselves whether he had chosen to pursue them or not, and if he had not been trained to cope with them, terrible things might well have eventuated. Aronoke shuddered to think what would have happened to him if his Force abilities had become active while he was still on Kasthir. That would have been a good way to end up dead, or worse.

The cantina was a dimly lit building that catered more heavily to the local crowd than it did to tourists, although a flickering holographic drinks menu on one wall did list drinks in Basic rather than the local queb lingo. Tarric Gondroz had already found them a booth along one wall and was divesting himself of his various burdens. The kubaz let out a long relieved sigh as he took a seat on one of the benches. Kthoth Neesh took a place opposite him and looked up at Aronoke impishly. “I’ll have a Red Star,” she said mock-sweetly.

“I’ll have a Something Blue, that is, if you’re buying,” said Tarric Gondroz. “I’m unfortunately completely out of funds, since I was forced to leave everything behind fleeing for my life from those violent refugees. I mean,” he amended hurriedly, seeing Aronoke’s wry expression, “since you kindly rescued me from the very unfortunate position I foolishly got myself in.”

“Alright,” said Aronoke resignedly and he went over to the bar to order. The barkeep had been watching the small group of newcomers with mild disinterest since they had come in, and set about mixing the drinks Aronoke ordered while he stood waiting.

“Well, aren’t you a breath of fresh air. New here, huh?”

It was a human woman, with shoulder length brown hair, perhaps twenty years older than Aronoke himself. Her face was weathered and her garments looked like the well-worn version of this own: the kind of clothing preferred by experienced independent traders of the spaceways. Her expression was slightly puzzled, but not unfriendly.

“It’s not every day we get a human visitor here on Katarka platform, let alone someone as exotic as you. Looking for a native guide to do some sightseeing?”

“No, we’re here on business,” drawled Aronoke, dropping back into his native Kasthirian accent. Living on Coruscant had considerably changed the way he spoke.

“Ah,” said the woman. “Business. Jark Tander’s the name.”

“Jaxxor Branx,” said Aronoke, using the cover name he had chosen.

“If you’re interested in plants, I’m in the business of running expeditions down to the planet’s surface. Hunting, exploration and so forth. I know all the best places if you’re looking for the real stuff, instead of the things the vendors sell platform-side.”

“It’s not up to me,” said Aronoke. “It’s up to the boss. Captain Oldric’s back on our ship, the XL-327. He’s got a buyer looking out for exotic plants and sent us out to collect some samples.”

“Your boss, eh? Would he mind if I dropped by, maybe gave him my spiel personally?” asked Jark Tander.

“I’m sure that would be fine, although I don’t know how long we’re going to be here.”

“Well, here’s my data card, in any case. Maybe you can give him that, and tell him if he’s interested in going down to the surface and collecting some real specimens, I’m the best you’ll find for the job.”

“Sure,” said Aronoke. “I’ll tell him.”

The bartender arrived back with the drinks, and Jark Tander gave Aronoke a sketchy wave and moved off towards the exit, while he carried them back to the table. He set the Red Star, a drink with layers that gradated from thick golden yellow to dark maroon in front of Ktoth Neesh, and a clear bright blue effervescent one, containing tiny silver spheres that rose and fell with the bubbles [1], in front of Tarric Gondroz. He settled gratefully into the seat next to the kubaz to drink his own kwaro juice.

“I see you found a friend,” remarked Kthoth Neesh.

“A local, interested in taking us down to the planet’s surface,” said Aronoke. “I referred her to M… Captain Oldric. I think we should probably head back to the ship immediately, instead of finding this last shop, to give him fair warning that she might show up there.”

“Oh, thank every star in the Kiatu constellation!” said Tarric Gondroz, wiggling his fingers in the air and turning his eyes exaggeratedly towards the heavens. Unfortunately, the carnivorous plant specimen chose this moment to make a darting lunge at his snout, and Aronoke barely managed to rescue the kubaz’s drink and his own in the resulting tumult.


“A local human, eh?” said Master Caaldor, when Aronoke reported in back on the ship. “Perhaps she might be useful in our investigation. We had best prepare ourselves in case she does decide to visit. There are some things in storage that ought to make our ship somewhat more convincing.”

Half an hour later, Aronoke had to admit that the XL-327 did look more like the independent trading vessel she purported to be. The plant specimens they had so painstakingly gathered were strewn across a long work-table in the main lounge, while anonymous crates and tools stood about in the usually pristine hallways. A pile of dusty advertising holocubes from a wide variety of worlds formed an interesting sculpture on a side table. There was even a racy swimsuit holocalendar featuring tasselled Twi’lek girls, ten years out of date, that Kthoth Neesh had found somewhere and tacked up on a wall. Master Caaldor looked strange to Aronoke, dressed in unfamiliar clothing, although he did look far more like a smuggler than Aronoke did to himself. The role was obviously one he had played before.

When Jark Tander turned up, later that evening, Aronoke thought the ship made a positive impression on her. “Tidy looking vessel you run here, Captain Oldric,” she said to Master Caaldor, looking about herself. “I trust your offsider told you why I’m here.” She nodded to Aronoke, who was lounging idly against a wall.

“He did indeed,” said Master Caaldor. “Jaxxor, why don’t you go and fetch us some of that Corellian Spiced Ale?”

“Yes, Captain,” said Aronoke. By the time he returned, Master Caaldor and Jark Tander were deep in conversation about places in the galaxy he knew little about, exchanging stories about trading runs made in the past. Aronoke wondered at Master Caaldor’s knowledge of such things and the ease with which he discussed them with someone who was in that line of business themselves.

“Well, too bad I can’t interest you in a guided tour of the surface,” said Jark Tander reluctantly getting to her feet after several rounds of drinks. “I must say it’s been nice to have some human company for a change. It’s funny really – I came out to Quebwoz because I thought I was done with other humans for a good long time, but a few years later and here I am, seeking out their company.”

“I’m sure there’s a proverb about that,” said Aronoke, and Jark laughed drily.

“Don’t get me wrong,” she said, “the Queb are good people in their way, but slipperier in their business dealings than Huttese swamp snakes. You’d do well to mind what deals you make while you’re here.”

“Is that a quality common to all Queb, or just the Kalarka?” asked Aronoke.

“Oh, all Queb really,” said Jark Tander. “The Kalarka clan are just better at it than most, as you can see by their wealth and success. They control this entire platform and it’s one of the more prominent ones.”

“We’ll be careful,” said Master Caaldor. “Thanks for the tip.”

“Here’s my frequency in case you change your mind, or if you ever come back this way,” said Jark Tander, passing a holocube to him.

“We’ll be sure to do so,” said Master Caaldor, beaming charmingly as he ushered her out.


Concealed by the dark velvety night, Aronoke followed Master Caaldor through the streets of the queb city towards the stadium. There was an odour of moisture and unfamiliar vegetation in the air, while insects and birds performed a constant background concert, despite the late hour. There were still a few queb in the streets, taking advantage of the cooler temperatures, but all the shops had shut save for a few scattered drinking houses. Even the great bulk of the stadium was quiet, the great spotlights still lit, but only dimly. Only a few athletes practiced out on the great expanse of duragrass.

Aronoke’s thoughts were racing. His hand itched to check the lightsaber hidden in his pocket, but he restrained himself, telling himself that the gesture was too suspicious. Were they being watched? Aronoke could not be sure. His senses told him that there were people everywhere in the surrounding houses and buildings – sleeping people, talking people, people doing late-night jobs – but his focus seemed twitchy and erratic, jumping from one cluster of living things to another, making it impossible to tell anything accurately.

“Stay calm,” admonished Master Caaldor as they approached the private entrance to the Kalarka compound, his voice barely more than a whisper, and Aronoke tried to relax, forcing himself to run through one of the simpler meditations.

As they moved into the entranceway, two stout queb guards stepped out to block their way. They were dressed in professional looking security armour, rather than traditional queb garb, tailored to fit their unique anatomy.

“This is a private throughway,” said the slightly taller of the two guards, crossly stepping to block their way. His nose quivered indignantly. “Public access is not allowed, human.”

“You must go back to the street and find another way around,” said the second, more helpfully.

“We are expected. We should pass through,” said Master Caaldor, waving his hand casually in front of the indignant guard’s face.

The queb looked at him for a moment. Its mouth dropped open slightly as it thought.

“They are expected,” said the guard, stepping out of their way. His fellow looked at him in mild confusion for a moment, but then nodded. “They should pass through.”

Then, easy as that, the gate was opened and they were walking along an impressive hallway into the interior of the queb compound. The passage bypassed the outer gardens and courtyards, leading directly into the interior of the massive pagoda that lay at the compound’s heart.

“We should get off this main corridor as soon as possible,” said Master Caaldor quietly.

Aronoke nodded. Their first goal was to find a terminal that would give them information regarding the layout. Master Caaldor chose a broad intersecting hallway and then picked a door, seemingly at random. He led Aronoke into a supply room and headed straight over to a terminal against one wall, where he began pressing buttons. A schematic came up promptly and Master Caaldor scanned it with his datapad.

“Central security is located here,” he indicated to Aronoke, pointing to a chamber at the junction of two major hallways – the one they had been following and a longer one that formed the backbone of the ground level of the pagoda. “Can you tell which of these walled gardens might be the one Hespenara is in?”

There were several large enclosed courtyards within the building’s bulk, any of which might contain the garden from Aronoke’s vision.

Aronoke focussed his senses and his perception of Hespenara’s frozen presence solidified, far across the compound. “I think it’s this one over here,” he said, stabbing a finger at the diagram.

“Good,” said Master Caaldor. “All we have to do is to deactivate the skyshields from the main security centre, make our way there, and signal the ship.”

He seemed blithely confident, Aronoke thought, when there were so many things that could go wrong!

“What about Bolar Dak?” he asked. “Aren’t we going to get him too?”

“We’ll worry about him once we’ve got Hespenara,” said Master Caaldor. “Chances are, he’ll be sent after us, saving us the trouble of finding him.”

Aronoke nodded. That made good sense.

Master Caaldor appeared to have completely memorised the layout of the compound from one good look at the schematic and didn’t refer to his datapad as they moved along hallway after hallway, detouring through room after room and scorning the use of major passageways. Where there was no way through, his lightsaber made quick work of thin-walled partitions. Aronoke recognised some landmarks from his brief surveillance of the map, but quickly felt lost. As they moved along the passageways, he was aware of queb in some of the side rooms and moving nearby, but nevertheless he was taken by surprise when a queb suddenly stepped out into the hallway ahead of them. It was dressed in a fancier version of the security armour worn by the entrance guards.

The queb seemed surprised to see them too. “What are you doing here? You have no right to be here.”

“We are supposed to be here,” said Master Caaldor, waving his hand casually in the Queb’s face. “We are expected.”

The queb hesitated for a moment, a peculiar expression crossing its furry face. Its dark, flat nose twitched expressively and its luxurious topknot quivered.

“No you’re not!” it said, suddenly punching a button on a control bracer locked about its forearm. Immediately an alarm began to sound in the distance. With its other hand, it reached for a formidable-looking blaster. “Surrender!”

Master Caaldor gestured briskly, and the queb security captain – if that’s what it was – was flung sideways into the wall of the passage. It slid down, slightly dazed, but even as it reached the floor it began to pick itself up, aiming the weapon as it did so. Another gesture from Master Caaldor and the blaster rattled across the corridor to land at Aronoke’s feet. Aronoke picked it up and pointed it at the guard.

“I think you’d better do what we say,” he said.

“You won’t get away with this,” the security captain chittered angrily. “Kalarka hires the best security on Quebwoz Prime. Surrender now and you may still get off lightly.”

“Thanks for the warning,” said Master Caaldor drily. “However, we’ve come this far, so I think we’ll take our chances. Bring our friend along, Aronoke. Perhaps he’ll prove useful.”

Aronoke grabbed the captain and hustled him down the corridor, keeping the mean-looking blaster pointed at the alien’s head. He hoped he wouldn’t have to use the weapon; it was non-standard issue and he was not sure how it worked.

The security alarm had done its work, and security guards boiled out of side passages to block their way as they approached the security centre.

Vermalkat!” shrieked the security captain, twisting wildly in Aronoke’s grip and forcing him to tighten his hold. “Bejari di kar! Instalki mari ar kar!

Master Caaldor waved an arm, and the security guards were swept aside like skittles.

“Lay down your weapons and let us pass,” demanded Master Caaldor, as the guards began picking themselves up. “Otherwise your captain loses an eye!” He gestured at Aronoke with his head as he spoke, and Aronoke shifted the blaster obligingly. “Do as I say, and no one gets hurt!”

The guards muttered uncertainly, but the captain had sagged slightly in Aronoke’s grip when he saw his guards were dealt with so easily. “Let them pass,” he croaked. “They are some kind of vermalkat!”

“Vermalkat?” wondered Aronoke and Master Caaldor shrugged. Beyond, the guards were laying down their blasters and backing away, muttering in the queb language to each other.

“You, gather up the weapons and drop them down that chute,” said Master Caaldor to one of the closer guards, gesturing towards a handy waste-disposal panel in one wall. He waited watchfully while the guard gathered up the fallen blasters and disposed of them. “Now, remove yourselves. If I see any of you following us, your captain will pay the price, one body part at a time!” The guards began scuttling away, some hastily, some more reluctantly.

“Bring our friend along,” Master Caaldor said to Aronoke, once the guards had complied. Turning, he strode off down the corridor, casting stern glances in the direction the retreating guards had taken. Aronoke followed in his wake, all too aware that the queb had not retreated far and could still cause trouble.

“Remember, if I see anyone following us,” Master Caaldor tossed over his shoulder as he led the way towards the security centre, “your captain will pay the price!”

Several queb heads withdrew hurriedly from the corridor.

Reaching the security office, Master Caaldor hastened over to a large central console, while Aronoke found a handy storage locker to shut the security captain in.

“I’m sure your guards will come and let you out soon,” he replied to the queb’s spluttering protests.

“Are you any good with these things?” Master Caaldor mused, once the captain was safely out of the way.

“Sorry, Master,” said Aronoke. “I’ve never had much training with computer systems.”

“Hm, well, we’ll just have to hope that my paltry skills are enough to deactivate the skyshields,” said the older Jedi, frowning in concentration as he navigated the complexities of a security menu. There was a tense silnce while he worked, during which Aronoke uneasily eyed the exits from the security room. He could sense the queb gathering in several locations, preparing their defensive.

“There, maybe that will do it!” Master Caaldor said triumphantly.

Heavy duty plasteel barricades slid down simulataneously to block all exits from the security room, sealing the chamber with a heavy clang.

“Or maybe not.” Master Caaldor turned back to the panel.

Aronoke felt oddly comforted by the barricades – even though it seemed they now were trapped, there was less chance of being suddenly swarmed by the queb.

“No, I think the shield is down,” Master Caaldor said, after a few more minutes. “I triggered some sort of security failsafe while deactivating it. All we have to do is to make our way to the garden.”

“Oh,” said Aronoke, looking at the barricades dubiously. “We cut our way out?” He could hear faint sounds and detect the accumulated life-signs of many queb guards massing behind them. A lightsaber would deal with most obstacles, but cutting through the heavy plasteel barriers would be slow work. The guards would have plenty of warning and it would be a messy fight if they had to leave that way.

Master Caaldor drew his lightsaber and plunged it into the security console, sending out a shower of cascading sparks and causing a minor explosion. Security display screens flickered into blurs of static.

“Ventilation shafts,” he said, gesturing to a panel in the ceiling. “You go first, Padawan – cut through that grill.”

Climbing on top of the console, Aronoke drew his lightsaber and sliced through the edges of the grill in the ceiling. It was easier said than done, and Aronoke was certain that the tough metal would have stood up to anything short of a lightsaber or a high grade lasercutter. He neatly sidestepped the panel as it fell out and climbed cautiously up through the hole, trying to avoid the still-smoking edges.

“Which way?” he asked uncertainly, peering along a long dark crawlspace that led in both directions. No, he should know this, he thought. He could still sense Hespenara – she was somewhere off to the…


Aronoke hastened along on hands and knees, pausing only to make sure Master Caaldor was following him.
Moving as quietly as possible, they navigated several intersections.

“One moment.”

Master Caaldor had stopped and was inspecting his datapad, its faint green glow casting an odd tinge to his face. “Our best bet is this chamber here – it looks like a maintenance room. From there, it is only a short way out to the garden. Take the next left and be wary of a shaft down.”

“Yes, Master.”

Before long, they stood, dusty and dishevelled, in a small, metal-walled chamber with a single door. Tools and equipment hung on two walls, with a maintenance terminal taking up most of a third.

“Is there anyone in the room outside?” Master Caaldor asked quietly.

Aronoke closed his eyes and obediently cast his senses to the room beyond the door. The unmistakeable signs of life lay beyond.

“Yes, but I think it’s only one person,” said Aronoke. “They seem quite alert – perhaps it’s a security post.”

“We incapacitate them and go straight through,” said Master Caaldor showing Aronoke the schematic on his datapad. “Out this door here, along this hallway and outside.”

“Yes, Master.”

“Very well. I’ll open the door and you take point.”

Aronoke swallowed firmly and nodded, his lightsaber ready in his hand.

The door slid open and Aronoke rolled through, coming to his feet a short distance in front of the single queb occupant.

Who was accompanied by four heavy-duty security droids.

Bantha crap, Aronoke thought wildly. He hadn’t sensed the droids at all! He had gotten the situation completely wrong! He lunged towards the queb guard, aware that the droids would not be able to shoot him without harming the queb if he could only get close fast enough, but the guard was on his toes and vaulted nimbly back behind a low barricade that partially blocked the other exit while the droids moved to intercept Aronoke. Aronoke landed, rolling awkwardly to avoid the droids’ fire and came up ready to plunge his lightsaber into the turbomechanism of the nearest one. He was vaguely aware that Master Caaldor was coming into the room behind him.

Aronoke’s lightsaber missed its target, shearing off one of the droids arms instead. The other arm twisted around and fired at him, forcing him to duck aside. As he swivelled on his back foot, deflecting blaster fire and coming around for another attack, something sailed towards him from over the barrier, but before Aronoke had time to identify it, the object was abruptly deflected, suddenly changing direction midair, as if it had hit an invisible wall. For a moment it looked like it was going to sail back over the barricade, but it impacted against the rim instead. Aronoke had only a fraction of a second to try to shield himself, before the explosion effortlessly tossed the heavy droids aside, picked him up, and flung him backwards to smack painfully into a wall.

* * *

There was a loud ringing in Aronoke’s ears and the world swung sickeningly from side to side. A terrible burning smell filled his nostrils. Everything hurt, in a blaze of agonising, burning pain that washed over his whole body. He tried to open his eyes, but they wouldn’t open, and for a moment he wondered disconcertedly if he was blind. Panicking, he struggled for a moment, but his limbs only twitched feebly and his eyes stubbornly refused to open. Abruptly the world swung around in a circle and he found himself set down on something spongy and cool. It hurt. Everything hurt. Someone said something in a faint mumble and something briefly stung his arm.

As the pain retreated a little, one of Aronoke’s eyes came partly open, and he realised that they were merely gummed shut by his partially molten eyelashes. He fumbled at them awkwardly with his irresponsive hands, rubbing them until he could painfully tear them open.

The world was blurry and seemed darker than it should, for all that they seemed to be in a well-lit area outside. Most of Aronoke’s vision was obscured by dazzling after-images of the explosion. The ill-defined silhouette of Master Caaldor hovered in Aronoke’s view, and he was saying something. Shouting something, Aronoke realised, and gesturing.

“I can’t hear you,” Aronoke said, and he realised he must have been deafened by the explosion, because he couldn’t hear himself either. Master Caaldor said something else, and pushed a communicator into Aronoke’s hands. He pointed at the sky.

“You want me to signal the ship?” Aronoke asked, hazarding a guess, and Master Caaldor nodded. He pointed over to one side and hurried in that direction. Aronoke straightened to see where he was going and gasped involuntarily. It hurt horribly to move. It took him a few moments to succesfully control the pain enough to concentrate on anything else. As it receded to within bearable levels, Aronoke’s vision began to clear, and he turned his attention back to the communicator. Opening the channel, he pushed the button that signalled the ship and was relieved when the signal was answered almost immediately. He could tell someone was speaking, but couldn’t hear who it was, or what they were saying.

“This is Aronoke,” he said into the communicator, hoping he wasn’t yelling too loudly. “We’re ready for extraction at my current coordinates.” A voice at the other end said something, but Aronoke had no idea what it was.

Aronoke went to slide the communicator into his pocket, only to discover his pocket wasn’t there. Most of his clothes still hung on him, but only in burnt shreds. Grimly he took stock of himself. His lightsaber was missing! The blaster pistol he had worn was still holstered by his hip, although the holster was only hanging by a molten strand. Aronoke forced himself to his feet, finding his limbs to be bruised and scorched but unbroken. He felt very ethereal, a sensation augmented by the ringing in his ears and the strange muted silence of the world around him. Looking around for Master Caaldor, he caught sight of a flicker of movement from a doorway in the main building and identified several beweaponed queb taking cover behind a low stone wall. He hastily he ducked behind the lip of a low fountain as a few blaster shots whined past him, close enough that even he could hear them.

From that vantage point he could see Master Caaldor a little way along a stone garden path, kneeling beside a very familiar ornamental sculpture. Aronoke felt even more ethereal as he saw the scene from his vision laid before him in reality; there were no dancing queb, but there was Hespenara, frozen in carbonite, while Master Caaldor knelt, doing something to the controls of the carbonite block, doubtlessly beginning the thawing process.

A few more blaster bolts zinged overhead, reminding Aronoke that he should be doing something about the advancing queb. Even though he felt stretched to his limits by controlling the pain of his injuries, he tried to extend his senses to detect the approaching guards. None of them had managed to sneak around into positions from where they could get a clear shot at him. He peered over the edge of the fountain and inaccurately returned fire, sending the more daring ones scrambling for cover. He didn’t hit any of them, but his use of his senses allowed him to keep them pinned down effectively. He hoped that would be enough. Curiously, he began to feel a little better as he focussed on his task, trying to keep the queb at bay to buy Master Caaldor enough time to free Hespenara.

Suddenly, Aronoke became aware of another disturbance – something much further away and far above them. At first he thought it was the XL-327 come to rescue them, but then he realised that what he was sensing was another Force user, flying high overhead. Had the Jedi Council sent someone to help, Aronoke wondered confusedly. But how had they known where to find them?

But no, that distant presence was subtly different from the Jedi he was so accustomed to dealing with. This was something else. Another kind of Force user, he realised, and a moment later it was clear that whoever had just entered the atmosphere of Quebwoz Prime could be nothing but a Sith.

A shiver went down Aronoke’s spine as he took several more shots at the queb, who had taken advantage of his momentary distraction to advance a little. Then they were suddenly falling back, and Aronoke was not sure why, until a shadow fell over him, deepening the darkness around him. The XL-327 was setting down a short distance away, flattening several ornamental hedges in the process. Aronoke scrambled unsteadily to his feet as the ship’s ramp dropped down. A figure leapt out as the ship’s external lights suddenly blazed into life, bathing the garden into stark patches of light and shadow, revealing it to be Kthoth Neesh, looking about herself and making a quick and shrewd evaluation of the situation. Her gaze fell upon Aronoke and she looked just a little taken aback.

She didn’t hesitate, however. She raced towards him and grabbed him by the elbow, pulling him towards the ship and saying something as she did so.

“It’s no use – I can’t hear you,” yelled Aronoke in response. She hurried him over to the ship, dragging him up the ramp and sitting him rather forcefully on a metal bench just inside. She pulled a safety harness around him, snapping the clips shut, and then leaned over Aronoke’s body, pressing her lips so close to his ear that he could feel the moistness of them against his skin.

“Where’s Master Caaldor?” she yelled.

“Down there and to the left, getting Hespenara,” Aronoke replied, faintly hearing her query. “He might need some more covering fire while he finishes.”

Kthoth Neesh gave him a grin and an exaggerated salute and raced away down the ramp, while Aronoke leaned back against the wall, his head spinning. He closed his eyes, cautiously running a hand over his face and head, wondering how bad the burns really were. His hair! It was mostly gone, leaving nothing much behind save for a few ragged patches and some lumpy molten stubble that came away at his touch. Besides that, the damage didn’t seem as extensive as it could have been. His attempt to shield himself from the heat must have had some effect after all.

He opened his eyes and recoiled in surprise, because Tarric Gondroz’s elongated face was barely a foot from his own. The kubaz held up his hands placatingly and said something.

“I can’t hear you,” began Aronoke again, with some exasperation, when he realised that his hearing was returning and he could hear a little more than he had up until now. There was the dull rumbling of the ship, felt more as a vibration than anything else, the nasal buzz of the kubaz’s voice, and the intermittent high-pitched whine of blaster bolts. Then there was a sudden tangle of motion on the ramp, and Aronoke was overjoyed to see Master Caaldor, singed but intact, cradling a shivering Hespenara in his arms. Behind him came Kthoth Neesh, pausing to fire several parting shots back down the ramp as she came.

“Take us out of here, PR!” Master Caaldor yelled, faintly but audibly, and the ramp began to close as the ship’s engines whined into action. He set Hespenara down on the bench beside Aronoke.

“Take care of her, Padawan,” he yelled to Aronoke. “She’s suffering from carbonite sickness and I have to go forward to handle the ship. There’s going to be a fierce pursuit and it might be beyond PR’s capabilities to get us out of here safely.” Kthoth Neesh said something that Aronoke didn’t hear and staggered off down the corridor after Master Caaldor, while Tarric Gondroz hastily sat down and strapped himself in as the ship lurched wildly into the air. Aronoke grabbed Hespenara, before she could topple forward out of her seat, and fastened the straps around her.

“It’s me, Hespenara. Aronoke,” he said, as he fastened the clips into place. “You don’t have to worry. You’re safe now.”

The ship surged violently and shuddered, putting the lie to his words, and Hespenara said something, turning her face towards him. She put out a quavering green hand and found his shoulder. It travelled upwards, gently touching his face as she said something else.

“I can’t hear you, Hespenara. There was an explosion – it deafened me, but my hearing is coming back a little now,” Aronoke said.

“Aronoke!” said Hespenara. She must have spoken more loudly, because Aronoke could just hear her, if he used his sense abilities to augment his hearing. “It really is you – I can tell – but you’re so tall!”

“It’s a long story, but Master Caaldor and I came to rescue you.”

There was a pause as the ship lurched crazily again.

“You’re a Padawan?” asked Hespenara, her voice tremulous. “How long… How long was I frozen?”

“Not as long as all that,” said Aronoke hastily. From her perspective it would be impossible to know how much time had passed. It could have been more than a decade. “I grew up more quickly than a human would, remember? It’s only been about two years.”

“Two years,” repeated Hespenara, sounding rather dazed, as if she couldn’t really comprehend the information. “Two whole years… but…. Master Altus? Is he here too? What happened to Master Altus?”

“I’m sorry, Hespenara,” said Aronoke, taking her hand. “We don’t know where he is. You both disappeared, so we knew something drastic must have happened to both of you, and then we found out that a Jedi frozen in carbonite was auctioned off in Primtara sector. We don’t know what happened to Master Altus, apart from that he was captured by someone and kept somewhere against his will. I do believe that he’s still alive though.”

“I…. I do too,” said Hespenara, blinking furiously. Her face was paler than it had been. It had a yellowish tinge that didn’t look healthy. “I think I’d know if he was dead.”

“We were hoping you might be able to tell us something that would help us find him,” said Aronoke.

Just then Kthoth Neesh appeared, carrying a blanket and some drink bulbs in one arm, and hanging on to the safety railing with the other. She manoeuvred herself into the seat on the other side of Hespenara, and fastened the straps around herself, before tucking the blanket around the shivering mirialan.

“I’m Kthoth Neesh,” she told Hespenara as she worked. “I’m helping out for the time being.” She twisted the top of a drink bulb and pressed it into Hespenara’s hands. “This restorative beverage ought to get you feeling better quickly,” she told her. She passed another to Aronoke. “You should probably drink one too, Padawan. You look terrible.”

Aronoke obediently sipped the drink and then drank more vigorously as he realised he was very thirsty. The slightly tart liquid seemed to send cool tendrils winding through his brain and body tissues, soothing the fierce throbbing of his outraged skin.

“Padawan?” asked Hespenara again. “So soon?

“A lot happened while you were away,” said Aronoke. “The Jedi Council judged it would be better if I got out of the Jedi Temple sooner rather than later, and so they sent me off with Master Caaldor.”

“I don’t think Master Altus would have approved,” said Hespenara. “He wanted you to stay in the Jedi Temple as long as possible. He felt you needed time to establish yourself there after everything that happened to you on Kasthir.”

“I know,” said Aronoke, “but Master Altus wasn’t there.”

Hespenara opened her mouth to say something else, but just at that moment an explosion rocked the ship and it was flung sideways.

“Oh, by the Great Green Nebula! I’m too young to die!” wailed Tarric Gondroz, throwing his arms up to protect his face.

“What’s happening?” asked Aronoke, as the ship came out of its roll and regained some stability.

“As far as I can tell, some ship came streaking out just as we were taking off, and has been doing it’s best to take us out of the sky,” said Kthoth Neesh, wincing and rubbing a bumped elbow. “Master Caaldor is doing his best to get us out of here intact, but I don’t think it it’s going too well. I think I see why he usually prefers to let the droid fly.”

“Maybe it would have been better to stay frozen in carbonite until this was all over,” said Hespenara wryly.

“There wasn’t much choice,” said Aronoke.

“I’m very grateful, really,” said Hespenara, smiling wanly. “It’s just hard not being able to see anything.”

“Trust me,” squealed Tarric Gondroz, “you’re not missing anything worthwhile.”

Even as he spoke another explosion rocked the ship, sending it plunging towards the planet’s surface in an irreconcilable descent.



[1] You can make this drink yourself. Fill a glass with lemonade (the colourless effervescent variety), add blue food colouring, and sprinkle in a few silver cachous balls – the sort used in cake decorating. The balls rise and fall attractively with the bubbles. A friend and I invented this drink (or re-invented, most likely) as a prop to add colour to a pen-and-paper roleplaying session using the original Star Wars roleplaying system.




[1] You can make this drink yourself. Fill a glass with lemonade (the colourless effervescent variety), add blue food colouring, and sprinkle in a few silver cachous balls – the sort used in cake decorating. The balls rise and fall attractively with the bubbles. A friend and I invented this drink (or re-invented, most likely) as a prop to add colour to a pen-and-paper roleplaying session using the original Star Wars roleplaying system.

“I think it will be enough if we merely escort the Perspicacity from our own ship,” Master Caaldor said, as they prepared to take off. “Our presence nearby should keep the refugees in check now that they anticipate their journey’s end.” The refugee ship was already hovering above the asteroid that had been its unplanned home for far longer than intended, while the crew performed last minute checks on the engines. “If there’s some problem we can cross over, of course, but things have settled down since the perpetrators of the murder were arrested.”

The documents Aronoke had recovered had contained evidence identifying the killers. The victim was a wealthy kubaz belonging to an opposing faction, one much smaller than that his killers belonged to. His death had not been a random unplanned act of violence or an accident, but an organised thing, and Master Caaldor had decisively and efficiently unearthed those responsible for ordering and carrying out the murder.

Aronoke was glad to not have to travel with the refugees. Although he felt sorry for them, especially for the children, the atmosphere of the larger vessel was oppressive. It was hard to remain uninfluenced by all the negativity and anger that had built between the ship’s crew and the more obstreperous passengers. He was glad too of the prospect of several days of relative peace and quiet. He would still have to tend to the prisoners of course.

Master Caaldor ordered Aronoke to let the pirates out when it came time to leave. There was no sign of the narakite pirate ship anywhere near the asteroid now – it was long gone.

“We are going to Trangoz system, where the refugee ship is headed,” Master Caaldor announced. “As it seems your captain has decided not to wait for you, you have a choice. You can choose to remain here, on the surface of the asteroid, on the off-chance that he chooses to return, as I agreed -”

“Frek that for breakfast,” said Rakskrak under his breath, but still quite audibly.

“- or you can ride with us to the station and get off there,” finished Master Caaldor.

“That’s hardly a choice,” muttered Tarth Lendriac, the old narakite. “Begging your pardon, your Jediness, but getting off on the asteroid is no longer a valid option.”

Master Caaldor shrugged. “You know your captain better than I do. He may yet come back in time.”

From the glances the three pirates exchanged they certainly didn’t think so. Aronoke didn’t either, but he knew Master Caaldor was merely taking a hard line with the pirates, letting them know that he wasn’t going to stand for any nonsense.

“Excuse me, Master Jedi,” said Tarric Gondroz, stepping forward. “I’m not a pirate! I haven’t made any agreement with you at all, although of course I’m very grateful that your Padawan stepped in when he did and took me over here. It’s all been quite comfortable, and I don’t want to complain, but do you intend the same offer to extend to me?”

“As far as I’m concerned, you chose to throw your lot in with these pirates,” said Master Caaldor mildly. “It seems poetic that you share their fate.”

“But the station will be crawling with refugees!” Tarric Gondroz protested. “My life won’t be worth a mynock’s fart if you leave me there!”

“Perhaps you should have thought of that before,” said Master Caaldor.

The pirates had been conferring. “We’ll take the ride to the station, Master Jedi, and thank you for your generosity,” said Tarth Lendriac. “You’d be entirely in your rights to leave us behind, according to the deal the captain made, but we’d rather come along with you.”

“Very well, then,” said Master Caaldor. “Aronoke, see our guests back to their cabins.”

“Shall I prepare the ship for take-off, Master?” asked PR-77.

“Yes, thank you, PR.”

The next few days passed slowly as the refugee ship limped through space, sound enough to ensure the safety of its passengers, but still too highly damaged to reach its full speed. The Jedi vessel matched the larger ship’s pace, and Aronoke spent most of his time concentrating on his training regimen of reading, lightsaber drone practice, and cooking. Master Caaldor had suggested that Aronoke attempt the latter using the minimal resources of the tiny onboard kitchen. Aronoke was not sure why, since Master Caaldor seldom ate anything besides Ration Bar B, one of the standard ration packs issued to Jedi field operatives. Whereas once Aronoke would have thought Ration Bar B to be the Food of the Gods, after having spent several years enjoying the wide variety of dishes available at the Jedi Temple refectory he found he preferred fresher fare and in greater variety.

In any case, Aronoke tried some of the simpler recipes in “Easy Recipes for the Shipboard Cook – Basic Meals using Easily Synthesised Components” which he had found on a datapad in the kitchen, and tested his concoctions on himself, Master Caaldor and the pirates. Judging from their reaction his cooking wasn’t terrible, but still held room for considerable improvement.

The Orproz Blotoz memorial station was a large radially symmetrical vessel with many outstretched arms, a great grey mechanical starfish hanging in space. Although it lay within the same system as the planet Trangoz, which was the refugees’ destination, it was isolated in deep space, far from any other body. Aronoke thought privately that he would not like to live on a tiny artificial world like a space station, confined to a mechanically maintained bubble of air and life. He reflected that he had been spoiled by the luxuries of the Jedi Temple; when he had lived on Kasthir, he would have thought the ugly space station something akin to paradise.

Master Caaldor waited until the refugee ship had docked, and then ordered PR to dock their own ship and had Aronoke assemble the prisoners.

“We are currently in the process of docking with Orproz Blotoz memorial station, in the Trangoz system,” he told the pirates. “This is the destination of the refugee ship we have been accompanying, and doubtlessly the station will have a very high refugee population, at least until they are dispersed to their new homeworld.”

“Excuse me, esteemed Jedi Master,” blurted Tarric Gondroz, bowing obsequiously. “But delivering me onto that station is no better than a death sentence. The refugees will see to it that we’re lynched before we’ve been there a day!”

“Perhaps you should have considered the implications of your actions earlier,” said Master Caaldor mildly.

“Yes! You said so before, and yes, I see that now,” wailed Tarric Gondroz miserably, “but I can’t take back what I have done! I would if I could, but the refugees are hardly going to take sorry for an answer. I already tried that multiple times, I assure you, and to no avail, which is why I was so eager to throw myself under your benevolent protection. Please, I beg of you, don’t leave me here! I’ll take my chances with Republic law enforcement any day!”

Master Caaldor shifted uncomfortably, and Aronoke thought that his master did not like having the prisoners on board his ship and had hoped to be rid of them as quickly as possible.

“Very well,” Master Caaldor said, throwing up his hands. “You may stay aboard for now.”

“Oh thank you, thank you!” Tarric Gondroz wheezed in relief.

Master Caaldor sighed and looked at the pirates. “Having extended this offer to one of you, I suppose it would be unegalitarian to not offer it to all of you.”

“Thanks, but we can look after ourselves,” said Tarth Lendriac. “I’m not afraid of a bunch of snouty refugees. We’ll be getting off here, thanks all the same.”

Rakskrak nodded emphatically.

“Actually, Master Jedi, I think I’ll take you up on that offer,” interjected Kthoth Neesh. “Seems to me, the space station isn’t a healthy place to be right now.”

“What!?” exclaimed Tarth Lendriac. “We aren’t going to stick together? You’re deserting us? The captain won’t like it, girl.”

“The captain can go frek a hyperbolean death weasel,” said Kthoth Neesh easily, with no hint of venom. “He left us for dead on that airless ball of dust. I don’t owe him anything and I figure this is a good chance to break off and start something new.”

She exchanged a glance with the kubaz, and Aronoke guessed that they had come to some sort of agreement during their shared incarceration.

Tarth Lendriac struggled for an argument, but then obviously gave it up as a bad deal. “Bah! Do what you like then. Just don’t expect the captain to welcome you back with open arms once the Sweeping Hawk latch onto your trail!”

Kthoth Neesh shrugged, unimpressed.

Tarth Lendriac made a dismissive gesture and stalked off towards the airlock, where PR was waiting to return the prisoners’ weapons and escort them off the ship.

Rakskrak looked from Lendriac to Kthoth Neesh hesitantly.

“I’m with him,” he said awkwardly. “No offense, Master Jedi, but I’d rather take my chances.”

“Be on your way then,” said Master Caaldor comfortably, gesturing towards the airlock.

Once the two male pirates were gone, Master Caaldor turned to face Kthoth Neesh and the kubaz.

“Since you’re staying on, I’m going to lay down the law,” he said. “You’re not prisoners any more – you can consider yourselves passengers. My padawan has more important things to do with his time than fetching your meals and escorting you about. If either of you demonstrate any inclination towards violence, towards recovering your weapons or taking over our ship, I’ll ensure that the rest of your journey is extremely uncomfortable and terminates in you being handed over to Republic Security on an inner-system world. Otherwise you will depart at the next stop we make where your personal safety is not in question. Is that completely clear?”

“Yes, sir,” said Tarric Gondroz.

“Glassteel,” said Ktoth Neesh. “Thank you for your forbearance, Master Caaldor.”

Master Caaldor nodded curtly, and made his way towards his cabin.

“Aronoke, I wish to speak with you in my study,” he said, as he passed.

“Yes, Master.”

Master Caaldor sighed as he lowered himself into his chair as though he were feeling the weight of his years, and Aronoke was reminded that he was far older than his appearance suggested.

“I wish you to go aboard the station, Padawan,” he said. “Make sure that the Perspicacity has docked safely and that the refugees have been allowed to disembark and are being housed appropriately. We haven’t brought them this far for them to get caught up in some bureaucratic nonsense now.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke.

“There’s no need to go at once. Give them time to disperse. If there’s anything that requires my attention, send me a message. And Aronoke -”

“Yes, Master?”

Master Caaldor stared at him thoughtfully.

“I trust you agree with the decision I made regarding the pirates?”

“Of course, Master.”

“I was hoping Ktoth Neesh would choose to stay with us a little longer,” said the older Jedi, bridging his fingers comfortably, “which is why I extended my offer to her and the others. I thought it likely she would accept after what you told her about your vision.”

Aronoke nodded.

“I am convinced there is something important about her,” Master Caaldor continued. “You wouldn’t have seen her otherwise. Those visions you had are all connected which is why the Force showed them you all at once, entwined. I believe it is important that we don’t ignore them, but at the same time following up on them means working at cross-purposes to the Jedi Council. I have been strictly instructed that my primary objective is to keep you safe while continuing your training, and yet, my own intuition tells me that you must follow the path that the Force has presented you, or our efforts will be in vain. Where is it that you want to go, Aronoke? What would you do, given the choice? Following your visions would almost certainly lead us into danger, and equally likely, the Jedi Council’s displeasure.”

Aronoke’s heart pounded more quickly in his chest.

“I want to rescue Master Altus and Hespenara, Master,” he said, immediately. “I know it sounds arrogant, to think I could do so when more experienced Jedi have failed, but I’ve always felt I could find them, if only I was allowed to.”

Master Caaldor nodded, as if this confirmed his personal opinion.

“Good. Keep probing Ktoth Neesh for more information and try to befriend her, but remember – she’s not necessarily your ally, nor do her purposes mesh with our own.”

“I know that, Master.  She keeps trying to seduce me, to convince me to join her pirate gang.”

“And is she succeeding?”

Aronoke blushed deeply. “Of course not, Master.”

“See that it continues to be so,” said Master Caaldor, candidly. “If you find yourself experiencing any difficulty or loss of direction, please come and speak with me.”

“Yes, Master.”


Late the next day, Aronoke was returning to the ship, satisfied that the refugees were in good hands. The kubaz on the station had seen many shiploads of passengers pass through already, on their way to a new settlement on Trangoz, and the process for handling their arrival was well established. Although the refugees from the Perspicacity would have to wait several weeks until transport was available to their new home, their quarters on the station were spacious and all their needs had been catered for. Aronoke had been pleased to see that the ugly mood between the various factions appeared to have dissipated as he had predicted.

“Master Jedi! Wait!”

The voice rang out from down the passage and was followed by the clatter of small feet. Aronoke turned to see three kubaz younglings running after him down the passageway, dressed in crude approximations of Jedi robes. He immediately recognised them as children from the Perspicacity.

“What are you three doing here?” asked Aronoke as the kubaz younglings hurried up.

The older two, a boy and a girl, hesitated shyly and pushed forward the youngest, a stout girl of about five or six, who looked up at Aronoke with big imploring eyes.

“We waz to go wiz you!” she said. Obviously she had learned the basic phrase by rote just for this occasion, but even so, Aronoke was not immune to its impact.

“We’ve been training hard,” added the older girl, hastily. Her basic was stilted, but clear. “We can show you what we’ve learned. We want to be Jedi too!”

Aronoke smiled.

“I’m sure you have,” he said gently, “but not everyone can be Jedi, no matter how hard they train. It’s just something you are or you aren’t.”

“Even if we can’t be Jedi, we could still be useful,” blurted the oldest boy. “We could be your servants. We could help you aboard your ship, even if it’s boring jobs.”

“I’m sorry,” said Aronoke, “but it isn’t my ship. I’m only an apprentice, and I have to do what my master tells me. I can’t bring you along, even if I would like to.”

All three hung their heads sadly and the youngest began to snuffle a little.

“Just because you’re not coming with me, doesn’t me you can’t continue your training,” said Aronoke. “All the things you learn will still stand you in good stead one day, if you keep on trying.”

“How do you know?” asked the older girl sullenly. “You got to be a Jedi. You were never stuck having to be a boring old settler.”

“No,” said Aronoke, smiling. “When I was your age, I wasn’t a settler. I was a skimmer. I would have done anything in the whole galaxy to be a settler like you.”




“Everything in order?” asked Master Caaldor when Aronoke returned.

“The refugees are in good hands,” said Aronoke. “Seems that everything is progressing well and most of the trouble has evaporated now there’s more room and better facilities.”

“Excellent,” said Master Caaldor. “There’s nothing to delay us here any further. I believe our next stop should be -”

Just then the buzzer from the ship’s airlock sounded several times, loudly and insistently, as if someone was hammering on it repeatedly and hard.

“Goodness gracious me,” came PR’s tinny voice from out in the hallway, as he tottered towards the airlock. As Aronoke arrived to see what was going on, the droid activated the intercom. “Yes? Who is it?”

“It’s me, Rakskrak!” came a desperate out-of-breath voice. “Please, Master Jedi, let me in! I’ve changed my mind!”

“Should we let him in?” Aronoke asked Master Caaldor, who had followed him out into the corridor. “Obviously he’s run into some sort of trouble.”

“Hrm,” said Master Caaldor critically. “I suppose we can hear him out. Why don’t you deal with this matter, Padawan, and let me know your decision.”

“Yes, Master.”

Aronoke took a deep breath and straightened his robes as Master Caaldor disappeared back inside his study. “Open the airlock, PR, and let him in.”

“Yes, Master Aronoke,” said the droid. It activated the airlock controls and Rakskrak fell through the hatchway and stumbled to the floor.

“Thank you,” the young pirate said, trying to catch his breath on his hands and knees.

“What’s going on?” asked Kthoth Neesh, coming up behind Aronoke. She had obviously been sleeping and seemed to be wearing little besides a loose robe tied about herself. “Rakskrak! What are you doing back here?”

“It’s terrible, Kthoth Neesh,” said Rakskrak, picking himself up. “Tarth Lendriac – he’s dead!”

“Dead?” asked Aronoke. “What happened?”

“The kubaz – that’s what happened. They nearly caught us both, only I managed to get away, but they got hold of Tarth and flushed him out an airlock!”

Kthoth Neesh flinched. She gave Aronoke a considering look.

“Please, Master Jedi, don’t make me go back out there! I don’t want to die! I’ll do what you say, anything!” Rakskrak was in a blind panic, clutching at Aronoke’s robes, tears and snot streaming down his face.

“Pull yourself together, Rakskrak,” said Ktoth Neesh, kneeling to disentangle the narakite boy’s hands from Aronoke’s garments. “I’m sure Padawan Aronoke will put in a good word with his boss to let you stay and he certainly doesn’t want you blubbering all over him.” She looked up at Aronoke inquiringly.

Aronoke was still feeling stunned. If he hadn’t told Kthoth Neesh about his vision, would she have been flushed out the airlock instead? Had her unpleasant death been averted, only to fall upon another? Was that how these visions worked, or would Tarth Lendriac have died, regardless?

“Master Aronoke, what course of action do you suggest?” prompted PR-77.

“You did make your choice,” said Aronoke to Rakskrak sternly. “You chose to throw in your lot with Lendriac, and you were well aware of the risks. If you hadn’t victimised the refugees in the first place, doubtlessly he would still be alive and you wouldn’t be in this position.”

“I know,” said Rakskrak piteously. “I know, but it’s our way. I’ve never known any other.”

“You always have a choice,” said Aronoke mildly. “Perhaps you should reconsider your career. Even if you survive this incident today, there’s no guarantee that you will next time.”

“You mean you’re going to let me stay?” asked Rakskrak, looking confused.

“You may stay, on the same terms as the others,” said Aronoke. A flood of relief washed over the young pirate’s face.

“You won’t regret it, Master Aronoke,” said Rakskrak. “I swear on Bizruth’s black nebula you won’t!”

“He’s Padawan Aronoke,” Kthoth Neesh corrected. “The master is the other one.”

“I’m sure Kthoth Neesh can fill you in on the rules,” said Aronoke, and the female narakite nodded, taking Rakskrak by the elbow and guiding him off towards the room he had occupied so recently.

“You let him stay?” asked Master Caaldor, when Aronoke arrived to report.

“His life was at risk,” said Aronoke. “I could hardly deny him refuge. The other one was flushed out an airlock, probably by the refugees.”

Master Caaldor sighed. “And so our actions come back to us,” he said mildly. “Well, I’ve had enough of the Perspicacity and its occupants to last several decades. Time we were on our way, Padawan. Tell PR to set course for Regado in Primtara sector. It’s a highly technological world where practically everything is for sale. We should be able to find out more about this White Krayt there.”

“Cancel that,” said Kthoth Neesh, suddenly appearing in the open doorway. “I don’t mean to intrude, Master Caaldor, but I couldn’t help overhearing. I know a thing or two about the White Krayt, and the place you’re looking for is Zamora station. The White Krayt’s main offices are there. Chances are you might find out more about your lost frozen Jedi if you know exactly where to go and what to say.”

“You’re volunteering for the job?” asked Master Caaldor.

“Guess I owe your padawan and all,” admitted Kthoth Neesh, a little grudgingly. “If it weren’t for him, I reckon it’d be me eating vacuum instead of the old man. He wasn’t a bad sort, Lendriac, and I wish it had happened to someone else, but I’m still glad it was him instead of me.”

“Very well then,” said Master Caaldor. “Zamora station it is.”


They did not travel directly to Zamora; Master Caaldor stopped off in Regado sector after all, to send a message back to Coruscant.  He had been eager to avoid talking to the Jedi Council directly, and so the message had been a recording, a unidirectional missive, the contents of which Aronoke had not been privy to.  He had taken the opportunity to send his own message to Draken like he had promised.  It was odd to think of Draken still back in the Jedi Temple, his situation unchanged. Aronoke’s own life was so different now, and full of such interesting things that it was hard to believe he had ever wanted to stay in the Jedi Temple.

Rakskrak chose to leave the ship during their stopover in Regado.  He had tried to convince Kthoth Neesh to join him – begged her even – but she had airily denied him.

“I’ve got a deal going here,” Aronoke heard her tell the younger pirate firmly.  “You go ahead, and try and make something for yourself.  Regado’s no tough crowd like on that kubaz station. You’ll fit right in, and we’ll probably meet up later.”

“Don’t you want to go too?” Aronoke prompted Tarric Gondroz, when the kubaz showed no sign of leaving.

“No, no,” said Tarric Gondroz hurriedly.  “We’ve got a business deal arranged for later, Ktoth Neesh and I.  I’ll stick with her, unless you’ve got other ideas of course.  I won’t be any trouble, I promise!  I’ll be useful, even.”

“Hm, we’ll see,” said Aronoke noncommitally, but since Master Caaldor said nothing about enforcing the kubaz’s departure, he had stayed on board.


Zamora station was an elongated ovoid of metal hanging in space, more organic and multi-globular in appearance than Oproz Blotoz station had been.  It was busier too, thronged about by a flotilla of large vessels, while a steady stream of small space skiffs taxied in between. Large holoadvertisements hung about the designated space lanes, advertising casinos, ship modification services and cargo storage facilities.

“We have to proceed with caution.  It’s not the sort of place where the Jedi Order holds any jurisdiction,” warned Master Caaldor.  “Our presence will still carry some weight, of course, by means of the rule that might makes right.  No one wants the Jedi Order breathing down their necks, which is certainly what would happen if we disappeared here.  I expect we can come to some sort of arrangement with a business-being as astute as the White Krayt.”

“Is this whole station owned by him?” asked Aronoke.

“From what Ktoth Neesh tells me, he maintains a controlling influence.  It is run as a trade centre, masking a black market operation, dealing, no doubt, in goods equally as dark and dangerous as a Jedi frozen in carbonite.”

Aronoke nodded.  It was the equivalent of a compound back on Kasthir then; a place run to the convenience of a few at the expense of many, but nevertheless, a place of protection that its underworld inhabitants could call home.

It was a good deal grander than any establishment on Kasthir, Aronoke thought a short time later, as he strode along the glossy glassteel hallway of the station’s main promenade at Master Caaldor’s elbow.  The walkway was busy, thronged by a diverse collection of aliens, merchants, customers and dancers.  Exotic pets were common, and many shoulders sported colourful multi-headed avians, tentacular arboreal hexapods, or tiny wide-eyed long-haired lemurkin.  Kthoth Neesh walked a short distance ahead of the Jedi, sliding deftly through the crowd, her attitude nonchalant, her slouch almost too casual to be believable.

Despite the glitter, Zamora Station still reminded Aronoke strongly of Kasthir.  It was not so much the architecture, which was expensive and technological compared to Kasthir’s worn squalor.  It was the people –  the way they walked, the way they held themselves.  There were races here that Aronoke would never have seen back on his homeworld, but regardless of species, both locals and visitors were aware of everything that happened around them. The casual ease with which they wore their weapons told Aronoke that this was a dangerous place for the uninitiated.  He and Master Caaldor were a novelty here, it was obvious, and they stood out just as thoroughly as Master Altus and Hespenara had on Kasthir.  They drew curious glances from most of the passers-by, while Kthoth Neesh went virtually unnoticed.

About half way along the main drag Aronoke noticed an impressive establishment, obviously the sleek and well appointed headquarters of a wealthy trading company.  The name was written in flamboyant golden hololetters in the convoluted script of the kubaz language, but repeated below in Huttese and Basic: White Krayt Enterprises.

Aronoke fully expected that this was their destination, so much so that he slowed his pace as Ktoth Neesh led them past the front door.  He glanced uncertainly at Master Caaldor, but the older Jedi was looking distractedly across the corridor at a display room modelling interior ship fittings.  He opened his mouth to say something aloud, but Ktoth Neesh shot a cool glance at him over her shoulder and gestured minutely with her head further along the main corridor.

They strode further along the promenade, following Ktoth Neesh, who shortly turned into a narrower although equally well presented corridor, and then into another completely utilitarian one.  A short distance along this, the pirate girl paused outside an unmarked door with no ostentatious markings or gaudy sign.

“That back there was the front door,” she said softly. “A distraction for those who don’t know the facts. This is where the real business happens. Now hang back, and let me do the talking, or we won’t get to speak to anyone who knows anything, let alone the White Krayt.”

Master Caaldor made an acquiescent gesture towards the door, and Ktoth Neesh traced several symbols, one atop another, in quick succesion on a touch-pad on the wall beside it.  After a moment there was a muted noise and the door slid back abruptly.

Beyond, Aronoke found himself looking along a short unremarkable corridor with another door at the other end, something that looked like it led to a maintenance room. Was this really a place of business?  It felt more like walking into an ambush. Master Caaldor was calm and unhesitant, however, following Ktoth Neesh inside and Aronoke trusted his lead. The door slid shut behind them, closing with a conclusive ringing clang.  Aronoke still felt uneasy, trapped inside this unknown place, but Master Caaldor showed no sign of concern, and he reminded himself that even if it was a trap, few restraints could hold Jedi for long.

The second door slid open as they approached, emitting a gust of cooler, more sophisticatedly filtered air, and revealing a plain but expensive chamber more expansive than Aronoke had expected.  The floor was dark extruded stone with shiny glistening darkest-green specks in it, the walls sleekly curved metal decorated with holosculpture.

Ktoth Neesh strode decisively up to a desk, where a yellow-green professionally dressed twi’lek woman sat behind a terminal.  Aronoke could see the glitter of a decoration on the twi’lek’s temple, just below the base of one of her head-tails, and guessed that it was a cybernetic implant of some kind. Off to one side of the reception desk was a dark glass door, leading to an alcove.  Aronoke could see large shapes moving subtly there; beaters, no doubt, he thought to himself.  Obviously, whoever it was they were going to see was somewhere behind there.

Master Caaldor drifted into the room, to all extensive purposes admiring an abstract holosculpture in subtly shifting dark red and burnt orange.  Aronoke glanced about, and noticing a long, low bench of white marbled stone, went and sat on it.  It was something of a surprise when the hard, cold surface he had been expecting yielded comfortably beneath him, adjusting simultaneously to his body temperature.

Ktoth Neesh spoke avidly to the twi’lek receptionist, gesturing towards the Jedi with a sweeping gesture of one arm. Aronoke could hear the rise and fall of their voices, but could not make out exactly what they were saying.  It took him a moment to remember to drop his shielding and reach out with his Senses to extend his natural hearing.

“…I figure that this could be turned into a useful opportunity,” Ktoth Neesh was saying, “if it’s handled the right way.  They were going to find their way to you, with or without my help – thanks to Jedi mind tricks and Tarth Lendriac’s loose lips – so I figured it might be best for your people and my people if they arrived under my guidance, relaxed and willing to make a deal, instead of all wary and looking for trouble.”

The receptionist put her head on one side, and frowned.

“Well, as relaxed as Jedi get, anyway,” Ktoth Neesh continued drolly.  “I think the lightsaber blades come up so regularly mostly ‘cause nothing else gets to.”

Aronoke tried hard not to blush as the two women laughed.

“One moment, please,” said the receptionist.  She stared vacantly into space for a few moments, and Aronoke guessed she was communicating over a cybernetic interface.

“Master Jedi,” she called, more loudly.  “Please, step this way.  The White Krayt will see you now.”


The internal office was large and comfortable, more like a recreational lounge than a workplace, and large display screens on the windows showed vistas of space around them, a myriad of twinkling stars, bright lights and busy ships.  Its occupant was a kubaz, unremarkable in appearance to Aronoke, except for its subtle but numerous cybernetic implants.  It was dressed in dark, flowing clothes, simple but expensive, and Aronoke could not tell what gender it was, despite his practice dealing with kubaz on the Perspicacity.

“Please, Master Jedi, have a seat,” the kubaz said in smooth, almost unaccented Basic, gesturing towards comfortable chairs arrayed near the viewscreens.  “Some refreshments?”  It gestured, and a small wheeled droid appeared with a tray of drinks and sweetmeats.

“No, thank you,” said Master Caaldor crisply, waving the droid away.  “I would prefer to get straight to business.”

“As you wish,” said the kubaz.

“You are the White Krayt?” asked Master Caaldor sceptically.

“I am the Voice and the Ears of the White Krayt,” said the kubaz smoothly, “and authorised to serve as his direct agent. He is a busy entrepreneur with many interests and can not always be physically here to deal with every matter that unexpectedly arises, but you may be assured, Master Jedi, that you have his attention.”

“Hm,” said Master Caaldor.  Aronoke could see he didn’t like the prevarication, but it was obvious that they had little choice.

“I am here in regard to a cargo which I know passed through your organisation’s possession some time ago,” Master Caaldor said.  “A female mirialan Jedi preserved in carbonite.”

“White Krayt Enterprises would never intentionally do anything to incur the displeasure of the Jedi Order,” said the Voice.  It would have continued further, but Master Caaldor held up one hand, and it paused expectantly.

“There is no point denying it,” said Master Caaldor, “I have firm evidence, verified to my complete satisfaction by a Jedi Seer.  The mirialan Jedi was certainly in the White Krayt’s possession and was later sold at auction in this sector.”

“There are an extensive number of subsidiary organisations that deal and trade with us,” the Voice said.  “It is possible that one of these handled this cargo without our knowledge.”

“I don’t care who handled it,” Master Caaldor said, his tone hard and uncompromising.  “I’m certain the White Krayt is an astute enough business-being to be perfectly well informed concerning the actions of the web of miscreants and troublemakers who work for him, directly or indirectly. What does concern me is the retrieval of the miralan Jedi.  I wish to know where she might be found.  Should this information be readily forthcoming and the Jedi be recovered, I see no need for further investigation or reprisal.”

“I assure you, White Krayt Enterprises was not involved in any aspect of the transacation you describe,” said the Voice, unintimidated.  “However, I believe we may be able to provide the information you seek.  As you have mentioned, very little of the business that occurs in Primtara sector goes unnoticed by our operatives.”

“The Jedi’s current location is all I require,” said Master Caaldor.

“Of course, this information can only be provided at considerable cost to White Krayt Enterprises,” the Voice continued, its tone almost oily. “While the White Krayt himself would be more than happy to provide this information gratis, a disclosure of this nature will have sizable repercussions that will be of detriment to our profit margins.”

“I have no interest in your business dealings,” said Master Caaldor.

“And yet, this is a place of business,” replied the voice.  “Generally we restrict our trade to resources and commodities, but in this case the White Krayt would be willing to consider an exchange of services. We provide you with the information, in exchange for a favour. The handling of a small matter, doubtlessly of little inconvenience to one such as yourself, Master Jedi, would go a long way towards balancing the spreadsheet.”

“I will not tarnish myself or my padawan in any activity of a dubious nature,” said Master Caaldor flatly.

“Of course not, Master Jedi. I would never suggest such a thing,” said the Voice.  “But surely you would not be averse to capturing an agent who was instrumental in delivering your Jedi compatriot into the hands of the one who now holds her.”  The Voice looked at Master Caaldor expectantly, but he said nothing, merely waiting for it to continue.

“That one not only dealt the Jedi Order a terrible insult, but also stole valuable data from one of our closest and best beloved trading partners,” said the Voice. “We would consider the retrieval of this person to be adequate compensation in exchange for the information we provide you. Since he is currently in the same location as the Jedi you seek, you would hardly be inconvenienced at all.”

Aronoke could see that Master Caaldor did not like coming to such an arrangement with the Voice.  Although mind tricks might persuade the Voice to be agreeable, it was obvious that the kubaz in front of them was merely a go-between, incognisant of the actual information they sought.  They could go no further without making a deal.

“Very well then,” said Master Caaldor, doubtlessly having come to the same conclusion.  “We will retrieve this operative and return them to you, providing they are still at the location you provide.”

“That will be satisfactory,” said the Voice.  “We are well aware of the reputation of the Jedi Order, and have every confidence that you will honour your obligations.  The mirialan Jedi girl is in the possession of the Kalarka family on Quebwoz Prime, the only inhabited planet in the independent and rarely visited Quebwoz system in the Outer Rim.  There you will also find Bolar Dak, the agent previously mentioned.  He is a bounty hunter of notorious reputation, known to stoop to such crimes as kidnapping and extortion.  The coordinates are on this data stick.”

“Sounds like a charming fellow,” said Master Caaldor flatly, leaning forward to accept the data stick the Voice passed to him.  “Well, it seems we have a deal.  You can expect delivery of this Bolar Dak upon the successful conclusion of our expedition, should he still be on Quebwoz Prime when we arrive.”  He stood to leave, and Aronoke hastily followed suit.  Ktoth Neesh, who had remained standing quietly by the door, smiled at them sunnily.

“May your efforts be rewarded profitably,” said the Voice, as they were shown outside.

“See, no hassles,” the pirate girl said as they made their way back through the station proper.  “A quick trip to Quebwoz Prime, and you’ll have your mirialan corpsicle alive and kicking again.  My debt will be all repaid, and we’re all happy.”

“I somehow doubt it will be quite so straightforward,” said Aronoke.

Ktoth Neesh shrugged.  “You’re Jedi.   You can always work your amazing mystical hoo-ha on them, like you did on us.  I doubt these Queb people could be much tougher.”

“That remains to be seen,” said Master Caaldor, “although it is true that those who possess Hespenara are not the ones who captured her and Master Altus. However, they must anticipate that the Jedi Order might seek to retrieve her, and that suggests a certain degree of blatant confidence of their part.  Let us hope it is misplaced.”

Aronoke said nothing, but a joyful feeling of anticipation rose in him at the thought that he was finally embarking on the mission that he had wished to pursue for so long; a mission that he had never expected Master Caaldor to support him in.  Surely if they managed to retrieve Hespenara, she would have new information on Master Altus’s whereabouts, and the green man could be released from the prison Aronoke had envisioned him in.

“You’re happy,” noted Ktoth Neesh when she and Aronoke crossed paths in the tiny ship’s galley, after the ship was underway.  “You look different when you’re really happy. Kind of glowy. Getting this Jedi girl back is really important to you, isn’t it?”

Her tone suggested that there was something more between Hespenara and Aronoke than mere friendship, and as she spoke, she moved far too close for comfort, looking innocently up into his face, so close that he imagined he could feel the warmth radiating off her body.

Aronoke drew back a little, but the food synthesizer was behind him and he bumped into it.

“It’s not like that,” he protested.  “Hespenara and Master Altus are the ones who found me, back on Kasthir.  The ones who took me to Coruscant and had me trained as a Jedi.  If it weren’t for them, I’d probably still be back there.”

“It wasn’t a nice place, huh?”

Aronoke shook his head. “Everything that lives naturally on Kasthir is poisonous.  There’s nothing there but dust storms and a few minerals rich enough to attract the more desperate miners.  No one would want to live there, if they could choose anywhere else.  I worked as a skimmer.”

“A skimmer!” exclaimed Ktoth Neesh, looking genuinely surprised.  She was obviously familiar with the term.

“I worked for a duster, hitting up miners for a percentage of their take,” said Aronoke. “The Jedi came there looking for something and I tried to stop them.  Let’s just say that didn’t go as planned.”

Ktoth Neesh had sidled forward while Aronoke spoke and now she reached out a hand to trace an undulating path down his chest.  He froze, unsure whether to rebuff her over-intimacy or to try to ignore it entirely.  There was a part of him that didn’t want to do either; part that wanted her to continue.  His awareness of his body had increased exponentially, the tiny details of his anatomy snapping so intensely in focus that the galley and Ktoth Neesh’s voice seemed to come from far away.

“And here I thought you were such a straight-liner,” Ktoth Neesh was saying softly.  “A good little Jedi who never put a foot wrong, and here you are, far more like me underneath those fancy robes and platitudes than anyone would ever guess.”  Her hand had reached Aronoke’s navel.

“No,” he said, swallowing hard.  “It’s not true.  I’m a Jedi now.  I put that behind me.”

“Tell me,” she said, as her hand drifted ever so slowly lower, “did Ashquash and you ever do anything like this, back when you were room-mates?”

Aronoke felt heat flood his cheeks and he slapped her hand abruptly away.

“No!” he said vehemently, pushing roughly past her and away down the hall.

“Oh, of course not,” said Kthoth Neesh to his retreating back, and she whistled cheerfully to herself as she began to program the food synthesizer.


Aronoke was woken by the chime at his door. “Master Aronoke,” the ship’s droid’s tinny voice said over the intercom. “Master Caaldor wishes to speak with you on the communicator.”

“Okay, PR,” said Aronoke, trying to blink himself awake.

It was all very well for practiced Jedi Masters like Master Caaldor to get along without any sleep, but Aronoke still found it difficult. It was hard to wake up quickly after only six hours. He had been awake for more than twenty-four hours previously. It was no use complaining – Master Caaldor would only say he had to work harder on his control techniques.

He rubbed his face, stripped off his sleeping robe and quickly dressed, yawning hugely.

“Are you ready to take a shift here now, Aronoke?” asked Master Caaldor, and Aronoke nodded. “Yes, Master,” he said. “I should probably see to the pirates first, though.”

“Do that and then come across,” said Master Caaldor. “I’ll see you on the bridge.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke again.

He dealt with the two male pirates first, checking the older one’s arm, which seemed to be healing well. He showed them into the facilities at the end of the hall near their cells, and then provided them with food and drink. Next he took the kubaz out and did the same with him.

“I must express again how grateful I am that you rescued me,” said the kubaz. “Those others would have killed me for sure! My life was worth nothing back there.”

“Perhaps you should have been more careful how you dealt with the pirates,” pointed out Aronoke. “I don’t know what sort of deal you made, but obviously the other refugees consider you to be a traitor.”

The kubaz fidgeted anxiously. “That wasn’t my intention,” he said, his voice whining nasally. “I didn’t want anyone to be hurt. The pirates were frightening! They threatened us! Someone had to say something.”

“Your fear betrayed you and through it you betrayed your friends,” said Aronoke patiently. “Sometimes it’s better to do nothing than to act out of fear.”

Hearing his own voice he couldn’t help but smirk internally at himself. Spouting platitudes. Making moral judgements. So much had changed in the way he thought about things. Yet even when he had been a skimmer working for Careful Kras, Aronoke had known that it was better to stick by his own people than to betray them to one of the opposing compounds. No matter what the blandishment, what the temptation, no one ever trusted a turncoat, no matter what side he ended up on.

Although wasn’t that what Aronoke himself had done, when he made that deal with Master Altus? Turned traitor to the Fumers?

Life was complicated. That moment on the sand when Master Altus could have killed Aronoke had been crucial. That was when everything had changed.

“I hope you Jedi will consider taking me with you when you leave this place,” said the kubaz. “If you hand me back over to those refugees you might as well have left me there in the first place. Not that I’m not grateful, mind you.”

Aronoke shrugged. “It’s not up to me, it’s up to Master Caaldor.”

“You might tell him that I’ve been very well behaved,” suggested the kubaz, as Aronoke opened the cell door to put him back inside. “Tell him I deserve another chance. My name is Tarric Gondroz, by the way.”

“I will be sure to tell him exactly how you’ve behaved, Tarric Gondroz,” said Aronoke, propelling him gently through the door.

“Your turn,” he said to the pirate who looked like Ashquash.

He took her to the facilities first. When she was finished there, he said “I would like to talk to you for a minute.”

“Me?” said the pirate, scowling. “What about?”

Aronoke silently gestured she should walk in front of him. He took her to the common room of the ship, where there was more room and it was more comfortable to talk. The pirate glowered at him suspiciously and stood staring at him with open resentment.

“What do you want with me?” she demanded.

“Just to talk, nothing more,” said Aronoke. “Firstly, what’s your name?”

“Kthoth Neesh,” said the pirate sullenly. “And I know you’re Padawan Aronoke and a Jedi and all that.”

“Yes, that’s right,” said Aronoke. “Do you know someone called Ashquash?”

The pirate girl forgot to glower at him for a moment, her mouth dropping open slightly, her eyes widening. She recovered quickly, but Aronoke had been watching for her reaction. He could see that the name meant something to her.

“I don’t think so,” said Kthoth Neesh stubbornly.

Aronoke smiled. “I can see that you do,” he said. “I thought you might be some relation of hers. She looks a lot like you.”

Kthoth Neesh was surprised enough to forget to glower. “She’s my sister,” she said guardedly. “She was taken away by the Sweeping Hawk when she was very small, only two or three years old.”

“The Sweeping Hawk?”

“Another clan of my people. Our enemies.”

“You make slaves of each other?”

Kthoth Neesh nodded. “It’s our way. Our life is harsh, but it makes us strong. How do you know Ashquash?” she asked, curiosity tinging her voice.

It was Aronoke’s turn to hesitate, but there was no harm, he thought, in telling Kthoth Neesh what he knew.

“She was my room-mate at the Jedi Temple. She was being trained, like me, to become a Jedi.”

“A Jedi? Ashquash?” Kthoth Neesh’s mouth dropped open again. It was a long moment before she closed it properly. “I didn’t know my people could become Jedis.”

“It’s true that there aren’t many,” said Aronoke. “Just like there aren’t many of my people. Ashquash was rescued from the slavers by a Jedi master and he recognised that she was Force-sensitive, so he brought her to the temple to be trained. It hasn’t been easy for her though. While she was a slave she was addicted to riksht, and it was difficult for her to be weaned off it.”

Kthoth Neesh was nodding. “It’s the only way we can be made slaves,” she said proudly. “Our people are strong willed and do not submit easily. Is that why you chose me as a hostage? Because you thought I looked like Ashquash?”

“Yes,” said Aronoke. “Partly. I recognised you,” he said awkwardly, “not only because you looked like Ashquash, because frankly, you narakites all look alike to me, but because I had seen you before.”

“Seen me before?” Kthoth Neesh frowned.

“In a vision,” admitted Aronoke, feeling very pretentious.

“You have visions? You are a seer?” asked Kthoth Neesh doubtfully.

“I’m not fully trained. I’m only an apprentice,” said Aronoke. “I had a series of visions during one of my tests and you were in one of them. I recognised you immediately when I saw you in the hallway when you were trying to ambush us.”

“Bah, you took us far too easily,” said Kthoth Neesh, scowling and rubbing her arms. “All by yourself. Jedi have so much power, and you do so little with it.”

“We do plenty with it,” countered Aronoke. “We defeated you and rescued those refugees, for one thing.”

“Yes, you have a point. But in this vision, what was I doing?”

Aronoke felt uncomfortable. Telling someone you had foreseen their death was an awkward thing.

“It’s not good, I can see,” Kthoth Neesh remarked lightly.

“You were being pushed out an airlock,” said Aronoke.

Kthoth Neesh was silent and thoughtful for a moment. She didn’t question Aronoke’s vision. Seemed willing to believe it well enough. “Not good at all then,” she said, pulling a face. “It could happen, of course. The sorts of things my people do, it could happen all too easily. Can I avoid it, this fate, or is it a fixed destiny?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Aronoke. “I’m not trained as a seer. But I would think it could be avoided, otherwise why would the Force show me something like that?”

“I thank you for the warning,” said Kthoth Neesh. “It is very strange to think of Ashquash as a Jedi,” she said, shaking her head from side to side. “Is she doing well?”

“She has had a hard time of it,” said Aronoke. “She has some problems in the Jedi temple that have been difficult for her to deal with, but she is very determined. I hope she will succeed.”

“She was so small when she left,” said Kthoth Neesh. “Hardly more than a baby. She probably doesn’t remember anything of what it was to be one of us.”

Master Caaldor was waiting for him on the refugee ship, Aronoke reminded himself.

“I had better go now,” said Aronoke. “There are things I am supposed to do.”

He escorted the pirate back to her cell and locked her in, thinking that although he had confirmed Kthoth Neesh and Ashquash’s relationship, he had learned little.

Why had the vision of the pirate girl been tangled up with all those other things? With Master Altus and Hespenara, and that strange underground place on Kasthir?

As Aronoke pulled on his suit and PR checked that he had done all the connections up properly – he had only used the suit for the first time when he and Master Caaldor had taken over the pirate ship the day before – he tried to piece together what it might mean.

If they were all isolated events, why had he seen them all together like that, mingled through each other at the same instant, and yet each distinct?

He wished he had more training as a seer. It was all very well for Jedi Masters to go about cautioning initiates against using powers, but sometimes things happened without you intending them to. No one had ever explained anything about what he should be doing with his senses, other than restraining them.

No, that was not quite true. Master Squegwash had encouraged Aronoke to use his senses during his lightsaber training, and Master Caaldor had called upon Aronoke to use them several times, to sense things that Master Caaldor himself could not sense accurately. The trials, too, had required that Aronoke use his senses to complete them.

Obviously the use of Force powers, other than control, was something Initiates learned more about during the later years of their training. The years that Aronoke had missed out on.

On the refugee ship, repairs were proceeding very slowly.

“The mood amongst the refugees is unsettled,” said Master Caaldor. “They feel considerable resentment towards the ship’s crew. You should make your presence known, Padawan. If there are any disturbances, you may have to use an ostentatious display of power to maintain order, like you did yesterday when you were escorting the prisoners.”

Oh, so Master Caaldor had heard about that?

Aronoke nodded. “I spoke to the pirate I saw in my vision, Master,” he said.

“Oh? And did she have anything interesting to say?”

“It seems she is Ashquash’s sister,” said Aronoke. He had already discussed Ashquash with Master Caaldor earlier; how she had been his room-mate and had borne the brunt of a number of insidious attacks, presumably because of her friendship with Aronoke.

“That is a strange coincidence,” said Master Caaldor, “and yet, I am inclined to think it is no coincidence at all. The Force works upon us in peculiar ways. You would not have seen her, and we probably would not have encountered her if she did not have some connection to the other visions you had at the same time.”

“I can’t see a connection,” said Aronoke. “Perhaps I will learn more if I speak to her again.”

“For now, stay here and keep order,” instructed Master Caaldor. “You can contact me on the communicator if anything arises that you can not handle yourself.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke.

More of the ship’s crew were on duty on the hulking refugee vessel, Aronoke was pleased to note, and more of the systems were operational, although it would still be many days, he was informed, before the ship was ready to depart the giant asteroid where it had landed to attempt to make repairs.

Aronoke spent most of the day touring about the refugee ship, making his presence felt. Most of the refugees seemed grateful to be rescued, but some of them were despondent and fractious. They had fled from their home planet, driven out by a terrible civil war, and they came from many different factions and social situations. While some had managed to retreat with their resources partly intact, many had only managed to escape with their lives. There was considerable resentment between some of the different factions. This was, Aronoke gathered, a ship that had left late in the war, when there had been little choice left about leaving. Those who were cautious, who had the wherewithal, and who had planned ahead had left on earlier vessels.

These people were desperate and unhappy, having not wanted to leave their world at all.

Still, they were lucky to be alive, Aronoke thought. Lucky to not be taken as slaves. He thought they would feel a lot better once they reached their destination and could leave the overcrowded, smelly transport ship behind. Once there was room to spread out, the different factions would not be pressed up against each other. There would be less friction than there was now.

Of course, until the ship was repaired, the order of the day was keeping the refugees from each other’s throats, and also under the control of the ship’s crew. Many of the refugees felt the latter had handled the incident with the pirates very badly.

It was not all doom and gloom though.

“This kubaz wants to know how you became a Jedi,” said the crewman assigned to be Aronoke’s interpreter.

“Not everyone can become a Jedi,” said Aronoke. “Only those who are Force-sensitive are selected to be trained. Usually those people suspected of being Force-sensitive are brought to a Jedi temple for testing, and if they pass the requirements, then they are trained. Usually this happens when they are very young.”

The crewman relayed this information.

“He says there are some children on the ship they think might be Force-sensitive,” interpreted the crewman.

Aronoke stifled a smile. He thought these people were impressed by their rescue and quick to see an opportunity for their children.

“He wants to know,” the crewman continued, “if you will bring these children to the Jedi temple to be tested.”

“We can’t do that,” said Aronoke. “Master Caaldor is in the middle of other Jedi business, and won’t be returning to the temple any time soon.”

“Can’t you tell yourself if these children are Force-sensitive?” the crewman asked next.

Aronoke hesitated. It would be wrong to give the refugees any false hope. “I might be able to tell,” he admitted at last. “But I am not an expert. I am only an apprentice, not a Jedi Master. I can give you my opinion, but even if someone is Force-sensitive, I can’t promise to take anyone to the Jedi Temple to be tested.”

“But you could tell the Jedi about them?”

“Yes, I expect so,” said Aronoke. “If Master Caaldor agrees with my opinion.”

“He says he will gather the children together,” said the crewman, “if you will agree to test them later.”

“Very well,” said Aronoke, thinking that such an event might make a welcome distraction for the refugees, if nothing more.

The kubaz passenger went off smiling.

There were no serious outbreaks of discontent amongst the passengers during Aronoke’s watch. Nevertheless, he was very tired by the time Master Caaldor returned to take over. There were still the pirates to see to when Aronoke got back to the ship.

“You know, Aronoke,” said Kthoth Neesh, when Aronoke was taking her back to her cell after she had used the facilities, “there could be lots of opportunities for someone like you outside of the Jedi order.”

“I’m quite happy where I am,” said Aronoke firmly.

“But just imagine,” said Kthoth Neesh, stepping a little closer to Aronoke than he found comfortable, “what someone like you could do if you joined a group like the one I belong to. You could be rich, own your own ship. No one would be able to stand up to you.”

“I’m not interested in becoming a pirate,” said Aronoke. The smell of her breath washed up into his face. It was warm and slightly spicy; not at all unpleasant.

“But why be a servant to someone like your Master, when you could be your own Master?” asked Kthoth Neesh. “The master of others? I could introduce you to the others in my group. Smooth things over, so there are no hard feelings…?”

“Then I wouldn’t be a Jedi at all,” said Aronoke. “Jedi don’t seek power or personal wealth. When Jedi follow that path, we become something else. Something dark and terrible.”

“It might not be as terrible a thing as they want you to believe,” said the pirate girl, sidling closer still. The static slider on her jumpsuit was not closed all the way to the top, Aronoke could not help but notice, revealing more of her smooth white skin than he had seen before.

“It’s not what I want,” said Aronoke uncomfortably. “I’m happy being a Jedi.”

“Isn’t there anything you do want?” asked Kthoth Neesh, looking up at him, all wide-eyed innocence. Her hand toyed with the slider of the jumpsuit, tugging it even lower, and her freshly moistened lips indicated that whatever he asked for might well be freely available.

A pang of undeniable lust washed over Aronoke. He felt a sudden connection to Kthoth Neesh, a sense of how her hormones were coursing through her body. A sudden intimate awareness of the changes her tissues made in response to them. He knew exactly what her body wanted and what his own desired in response.

Right here. Right now. Master Caaldor was far away on the refugee ship, and need know nothing…

What do you think you’re doing, Aronoke thought furiously at himself, blushing. This isn’t how Jedi behave!

He stepped back. “At the moment, I want to get some rest,” he said abruptly. He was too tired for this. He shoved Kthoth Neesh back into her cell less gently than he might, locked the door, and stomped off to bed.


Despite his exhaustion, Aronoke found himself lying awake thinking over what had happened. It had been very like when he had gone to say goodbye to Ashquash shortly before he had left the Jedi Temple. He still blushed and felt guilty when he remembered that occasion.

He had reacted so precipitously, despite his long inurement to Ashquash’s proximity. They had done little more than kiss, but they might have done so much more, were it not for Master Insa-tolsa’s timely interruption. Logic had been swept aside by lust, inexorable and undeniable, which Aronoke had experienced right down to a cellular level. He had put it aside as a fluke, born out of the emotional discord of saying goodbye to his friend, but the temptation he had felt when Kthoth Neesh attempted to proposition him had felt the same, an echo of that moment.

Aronoke knew from his studies that Jedi must avoid romantic entanglements and his training had previously helped him bridle his natural urges. He had thought himself well under control, but the incident with Ashquash had shaken his confidence and now it had happened again.

Had he been misguided in thinking he had mastered the meditative exercises Master Insa-tolsa had taught him? Or was this something different, something to do with being a chiss? Master Bel’dor’ruch had not mentioned anything he ought to be aware of and she was blunt enough to have done so, regardless of Aronoke’s embarrassment. But then there was his odd awareness of Kthoth Neesh’s biology. Perhaps it was something to do with his hyper-acute Force senses, something that had become apparent now because he was using his senses more and going unshielded more often?

Aronoke knew he should seek Master Caaldor’s guidance, but he felt embarrassed just imagining how to start that particular conversation. Master Caaldor would doubtlessly ask if it had happened before, and he would have to admit the scene with Ashquash. No, it was too painful. He would have to try and deal with it himself and hope that it didn’t recur.

Aronke sighed and began to meditate, trying to convince his agitated mind and his rebellious body to both be calm.


The next day, there was a murder on the refugee ship.

“A dead body, discovered by the kitchen staff!” Aronoke’s translator informed him. “They found him in the freezer, not yet frozen solid. Perhaps it was an accident.”

“I expect we should go and investigate,” said Aronoke grimly. It had seemed inevitable that something would happen on the refugee ship eventually, considering the turbulent social atmosphere. He had hoped that a Jedi presence would be a restraining influence, but apparently it had not been enough.

It did not look like the victim had struggled, nor was the door locked or forced shut. Questioning the kitchen staff who worked in the area immediately outside the freezer where the poor frozen kubaz had been found revealed nothing. It was obvious that the alien had been left in the locker alive and he appeared to have been uninjured. Had he been drugged or poisoned?

“We should search his living quarters and question the ones who knew him,” prompted Aronoke, scandalised that this had been left up to him to suggest.

“He was from floor nine,” said the translator, dismissively. “Almost all the trouble that happens comes from floor nine.”

“Why is that?”

The translator prevaricated. All of the inhabitants of floor nine were troublemakers. They came from opposing criminal elements that had fought like quats and queasels on their homeworld. Everyone would be better off, if only they had been left behind! Aronoke was left with the impression that the translator privately thought all the passengers on floor nine should be locked in and allowed to kill each other off, and that the resulting carnage would only be of benefit to the galaxy at large.

“Nevertheless,” said Aronoke firmly, “we can not allow this to escalate into a larger conflict, as it so easily could. Should one or another of these factions gain control, they might make a bid to take over the ship. Also, I don’t believe that everyone on floor nine can be involved. There are innocent people who must be protected.”

Somewhat wearily, the translator relayed Aronoke’s demands to the rest of the crew.

The investigation proceeded with more difficulty than Aronoke would have thought possible. Although the crew agreed that the victim’s quarters must be searched, they refused to participate more than minimally. Aronoke was escorted there by some of the refugees and quickly became aware that he was being led along a divergent and unnecessarily lengthy route through the ship. Since he didn’t know where he was going, Aronoke was forced to be patient and swallow his annoyance. It was obvious that the victim’s cabin would be extensively doctored by the time he got there.

Indeed the three kubaz in the small cabin seemed to know little about the murdered kubaz. Aronoke thought they were probably not the regular inhabitants of that room at all.

Being stymied like this was frustrating, but Aronoke thought it best to pretend he hadn’t noticed. Master Caaldor would be able to get more information and it would be easier if the perpetrators were unsuspecting.

It was when he was returning to the bridge that a kubaz sidled up to him and tried to pass him a parcel.

Aronoke hesitated. He was too accustomed to strangers trying to give him unwanted things to take it instantly.

“What is this?” he asked. The bundle was not large or heavy. He frowned uncertainly. Was it something to do with the case of the murdered kubaz or not?

The kubaz muttered something urgently in its own language, but Aronoke had no idea what it was saying. The alien thought for a few moments and put a few basic words together.

“Take… you take,” it buzzed. It held out the parcel.

But before Aronoke could take it, a group of other kubaz approached down the hall, and when Aronoke looked back, the parcel-bearer was gone, vanishing swiftly down a side passage.

Aronoke frowned again to himself. Had he had just missed out on something important?


The next day, Aronoke was escorted to a spacious chamber which had obviously been designated as a community recreational area. A large number of solemn adult kubaz were waiting there, along with clusters of children. Some of them looked hopeful, while others seemed merely apprehensive.

“These are the ones they have brought to you for testing,” Aronoke’s interpreter supplied unnecessarily.

“So I see,” said Aronoke, smiling.

It was not the first time he had dealt with identifying Force-sensitives. Master Caaldor and Aronoke had been investigating a town called Trefon on Erebor-3, an agricultural world in the Tionese cluster. Shoka-world, Aronoke thought of it in his mind, because of its endless plains of grass and high concentration of methane-producing herd-beasts called shoka. It had been a very alien environment to him – the blue sky, the towering banks of clouds, the endless fields of crops and creatures, the strange shoka-like smell of the air. It rained often, something Aronoke had never previously experienced. The area surrounding Trefon had produced a statistically improbable number of Force-sensitives in recent decades, and Master Caaldor had been investigating why this might be so. They had spent a lot of time interviewing the locals and driving across the endless plains, while Aronoke tried to sense anything unusual in the Force.

It was while they were staying in Trefon that Aronoke had suddenly noticed an odd, if minor, fluctuation. It had tugged at his senses insistently, and he had looked around startled for a moment before pinpointing the source of the disturbance. It originated from a woman with two children walking along the street. The smallest child, a youngling still too small to walk, was being pushed in a hovercrib. The child was waving its hands in the air in a seemingly pointless fashion, but Aronoke could tell at once that it was using the Force in a way akin to how he used it himself.

“I expect the best thing to do is to inform the child’s parents immediately,” Master Caaldor had said when Aronoke told him. “You can do that tomorrow, Padawan.”

It had seemed a serious duty to Aronoke. He was going to bring disquiet and uncertainty into these peoples’ lives. Getting the news from someone like him would make things even harder. Shoka-world was such a human place. People there sometimes crossed the street to avoid passing Aronoke too closely. He had not seen many non-humans there, and even an alien as mildy different as Aronoke was strange enough to be unsettling to the locals.

The parents had been shocked, and Aronoke did not feel he had broken the news well. He felt like the bearer of bad tidings. It did give him insight into how families felt about their children becoming Jedi. The little kids in Clan Herf had sometimes cried because they missed their families, but Aronoke had not considered how the families felt. Although becoming a Jedi was a great honour, it also took people away from those who loved them most.

There were some advantages to being a bioengineered creature with no family.

Now, however, there was no such concern; a quick scan of the younglings in front of him told Aronoke that apart from himself, there was no one even remotely Force-sensitive on the entire ship. It was disturbingly easy to tell. Aronoke found it unsettling how simple it was for him to sense things like that, things that he knew most Jedi Masters would have to consider carefully.

Even Master Altus, who had spent his career searching for Force artifacts, could not spot them as quickly as Aronoke, although his other abilities far outweighed Aronoke’s own.

Aronoke knew the kubaz would not be convinced if he told them straight out that none of the children were Force-sensitive. They would benefit from a distraction that lasted longer, something that let them think of something other than the sour, unhealthy environment of the transport ship. He made a short speech, interpreted by one of the kubaz who was fluent in basic, repeating what he had said before. That he was only an apprentice. That this testing was only his opinion. That even if the children were Force-sensitive, they would have to be presented to a Jedi centre for proper testing to confirm this. He and Master Caaldor could not bring the children, because they had other important Jedi business to attend to. This last Aronoke was making up. He had no idea what Jedi business Master Caaldor would choose to pursue next. Master Caaldor had made it clear that his major concern was keeping Aronoke safe, out of the hands of those who might wish him harm, or try to make use of the map upon Aronoke’s back. If they could do some good in the galaxy while achieving this, so much the better.

For the kubaz’s benefit, Aronoke made a show of using cards to perform a basic test on the children, examining them one at a time. He rewarded the children with sweets he had hidden in his pockets. For a short time the younglings were happy and distracted. Seeing their children enjoying themselves made the parents happier too, and they all relaxed a little.

“I’m afraid none of you are Force-sensitive,” Aronoke announced to the children and their parents, “but that is not a bad thing. It is not easy to leave your family and everyone you know, to live in a place far away and learn strange new things. And even after spending years in training, only a few candidates become Jedi knights. Being a Jedi is dangerous and a lot of Jedi die in the service of the Republic. Although none of you are destined to be Jedi, you should remember that doesn’t stop you from pursuing other careers, as pilots or or peacekeepers, for example. It doesn’t mean you can’t do things that are impressive. If you work hard, you can change your life and the lives of those around you for the better.”

Aronoke knew all too well that individuals, especially children, were often swept along by events, powerless to influence their destination. But no one needed to believe that. People needed to have hope.

Coming back from this event, Aronoke noticed the kubaz with the parcel approaching in the hall.

“Please, take…” said the kubaz. It muttered some other things in its own language, but Aronoke had no idea what it said. “Take….tell no one.”

This time Aronoke took the bundle it offered – it seemed to be a roll of flimsiplast – and secreted it in his robes.

“Did you learn anything new about the murder?” asked Master Caaldor, when Aronoke swapped shifts with him.

“Not really,” said Aronoke. “I think the refugees are covering up – they won’t tell me anything. I believe the three kubaz who supposedly shared a room with the dead man are plants. There is this though – some documents that one of the refugees slipped to me. They might be relevant.”

“Did you open the package?”

“No. I was being observed.”

“Hmm,” said Master Caaldor, taking the bundle. “I’ll have a look. Maybe talk to some of the suspects again.”

Master Caaldor would be able to get more information out of the refugees, Aronoke knew. He would be able to mind trick them into giving information.

“I had been hoping we could leave the refugees to take care of themselves, once things had settled down a bit,” Master Caaldor sighed, “but this murder has made the situation clear. The refugees have no confidence in the ship’s crew and if we leave, there’s a strong possibility everything will erupt into violence. For the sake of the innocent among them, we will have to wait until the repairs are complete and then escort this ship to its destination. It’s going to take a while, I’m afraid.”

When Aronoke got back to the ship, he gave the pirates their few minutes of freedom.

“How long is this going to take?” complained the eldest pirate. “Is your master really going to let us go afterwards? This is all taking longer than I thought it would.”

“The refugee ship is damaged,” repeated Aronoke. “It needs repairs before it can take off, and until then, my master and I must remain here. You won’t be set free until we leave.”

“Hm,” said the pirate unhappily. “The captain will be impatient to be underway. Do you know if our ship’s still waiting?”

“I don’t know,” said Aronoke. “It was last time I checked, but I don’t know about now.”

The last time had been a day or two before.

“What if the captain’s gotten really impatient and cut his losses?” said the pirate. “Gone off and left us. What would your master do then?”

“I expect he’d drop you off somewhere else,” said Aronoke. “I doubt he’d leave you here on this asteroid if there wasn’t a ship waiting to pick you up. Jedi don’t do that sort of thing.”

“Yes, but what sort of place would he drop us?” asked the old pirate cannily. “Straight onto a heavily policed republic world no doubt. Straight into the slammer.”

Aronoke privately thought it was likely to be somewhere more convenient to Master Caaldor’s plans – probably the first place they stopped. Master Caaldor did not like paperwork, council meetings or legal entanglements and was inclined to follow his own interpretation of the Jedi code rather than the Council’s. When they had left Erebor-3, Master Caaldor had even had PR disable the ship’s holocommunicator, so no one would know exactly where they were.

“If someone on the Jedi Council is trying to manipulate you,” Master Caaldor had told Aronoke, “than it’s safer if we have minimal contact with them.”

“It seems reasonable to me, but Master An-ku won’t like it,” said Aronoke. Master An-ku was the council member who was ultimately in charge of Aronoke’s affairs. She had been very diligent about checking up on exactly what he and Master Caaldor were doing, ever since they had left the Jedi temple. She had not been pleased when they didn’t go to Ilum as planned.

“Master An-ku and I have never seen eye to eye, anyway,” Master Caaldor replied easily. “As long as you understand why I’m doing things this way and don’t have any objections, I think we’ll fly silent.”

Aronoke had agreed. It did seem sensible.

He was loath to tell the pirate his guess, because he didn’t really know Master Caaldor that well yet. Master Caaldor might have other ideas.

“I don’t know. I will ask him next time I see him,” said Aronoke. The old pirate grunted uninterpretably, and Aronoke shut him back in his cell.

He saved Kthoth Neesh for last because he wanted to talk to the pirate girl again. He had thought of something else he wanted to ask her. Every time Aronoke escorted her to the facilities or accompanied her on walks around the ship’s corridors, she had continued trying to flirt with him. Expecting that she was going to try to seduce him had made it easier to resist. There had been no recurrence of the odd impulse Aronoke had experienced, and he found himself puzzled as to why he would react that way to her. She was not his type. She had no hair, was pale, tattooed and flat-chested as all narakite women were, and looked too much like Ashquash. Kthoth Neesh was Ashquash’s sister. He had felt the same way about Ashquash. So why had it happened with both of them? It was all very weird.

“So what’s this?” said Kthoth Neesh, when Aronoke led her into the tiny dining room that led off from the ship’s kitchenette.

“I want to talk to you,” said Aronoke. “But I’m tired and I need to eat. There’s plenty to share if you’re hungry.”

“More restless than hungry,” said Kthoth Neesh. She sidled a little closer to Aronoke.

“Sit down,” said Aronoke. “I haven’t forgotten that we’re not friends.”

“Would you like to be friends?” leered Kthoth Neesh, leaning closer still.

“Stop that and sit down,” said Aronoke impatiently. To his relief the pirate obeyed, sliding into the seat opposite him.

“I figure the captain’s not coming back for us, you know,” said Kthoth Neesh philosophically. “He’ll cut his losses and go. Not that it matters – we can hook up with them again. Unless there’s a better deal on offer.” She leered at Aronoke again so he might know exactly what sort of offer she would find interesting.

“My master will probably drop you off on the next world we visit, should your captain desert you,” said Aronoke.

“That would be right decent of him,” said Kthoth Neesh. “So what was it you wanted to talk about?”

“I noticed your ship had a lot of people frozen in carbonite in the cargo bay,” said Aronoke. He and Master Caaldor had regretted the necessity of leaving those people there, but the greater concern of rescuing the thousands of refugees had taken precedence. “Are those slaves that you captured?”

“No,” said Kthoth Neesh. “We don’t freeze people in carbonite. Don’t have the equipment. It’s too bulky for our kind of operation. But we transport ‘em quite often.”

“I’m interested in one particular person,” said Aronoke. “A Jedi frozen in carbonite, perhaps a year ago now. A mirialan girl with tattoos.”

Kthoth Neesh shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. Usually we don’t get to know any details, although maybe the captain does. I don’t know. I don’t remember any mention of Jedi though.”

“Where do you transport most of these frozen people to? If you transport them often, do you transport them for the same person or company?”

“The White Krayt,” said Kthoth Neesh. “He’s a kubaz and something of a legend. We run corpsicle runs for him all the time.”

“And where might he be found?” asked Aronoke.

“In the Primtara sector,” said Kthoth Neesh. “Anyone who’s anyone should be able to tell you where to find him. Mind you, you didn’t hear it from me.”

“Of course not,” said Aronoke, and Kthoth Neesh grinned.

“Good to see we’re on the same wavelength about something,” she said. She stared at him a moment and then shook her head dismissively. “It’s weird to think about Ashquash being a Jedi,” she said. “I can’t imagine it at all.”

“She’s not a Jedi yet,” Aronoke reminded her. “Hopefully she will make it. She’s had a tough time.” Tougher, he thought privately, because of her association with him.

“Ah well, maybe I’ll meet her myself again one day,” said Kthoth Neesh. “See for myself.”

Aronoke nodded. He stood reluctantly. “You’d better go back in your cell,” he said. “There’s things I’m supposed to be doing.”

“Aw,” said Kthoth Neesh. “You don’t have to lock me up you know – I promise I won’t be any trouble.”

“Yes, but trouble is what I’ll be in when my master comes back and finds his ship missing,” said Aronoke, gesturing that she should walk ahead of him down the hall.

“Have you given any thought to what I suggested earlier?” asked Kthoth Neesh persuasively as she complied. “We don’t have to join up with my old friends, you know. We could start afresh on our own. It might even be more profitable – my experience and your skills. We could do things our own way.”

“I’m not interested,” said Aronoke

“That’s a pity,” said Kthoth Neesh, posturing sadly. Her mouth made a little moue of discontent.

Aronoke smiled to himself as he locked her back into her cell. He found he was enjoying the back-and-forth of his conversations with Kthoth Neesh, now he had inured himself to her charms. Her offers appealed to the skimmer in him – he knew she would manipulate him shamelessly to her own advantage if he did take her up on them. He had no intention of doing anything of the kind, of course, but in an alternate universe, if he were still a skimmer and not a Jedi, he might well have enjoyed working with someone like Kthoth Neesh. Might well have ended up a pirate himself, if he had ever managed to get off Kasthir.



Aronoke’s hands were sweating slightly on the hilt of his lightsaber.  He stopped to wipe them on his robe.  He tugged at the helmet of his suit, which felt awkward and uncomfortable bunched down about his neck.  Too bulky.  He felt unpleasantly conspicuous without the hood of his robe to conceal his face, but told himself that this was no time to be worrying about that.

The hold of the pirate ship was filled with all sorts of equipment its narakite owners doubtlessly found useful in plying their vicious trade.  Grappling guns and welding torches.  Laser cutters, vibrosaws and robotic jaws to cut their way into the ships of uncompliant victims.  They were slavers, as most of the nomadic space-faring narakite clans were, and blocks of carbonite were clamped to the walls of the hold, each containing an unfortunate captive.  Aronoke had thought of Hespenara immediately when he saw those, and wondered anew what it felt like to be frozen like that.

You wouldn’t feel anything for very long, he thought.

“Follow my lead,” said Master Caaldor, directing Aronoke’s attention back to the matter at hand as the blast door into the main part of the ship slid back.

“Yes, Master,” Aronoke hardly had time to say before Master Caaldor was moving, running into the passageway beyond.  Aronoke followed behind him, not too close.  They had not fought side by side before, and he had no desire to get in Master Caaldor’s way.  To accidentally hit him.

Blaster bolts suddenly blazed from an open doorway ahead.  Most were deflected harmlessly by Master Caaldor’s swinging lightsaber, but one caught him in the side and he staggered, dropping to one knee.

For a heartbeat Aronoke hesitated.  This was an inauspicious start to his career.  He could see a possible future playing out in his mind’s eye.  Master Caaldor killed.  Himself quickly overwhelmed and taken prisoner by these pirates.  Frozen in carbonite like Hespenara.

No time for thinking like that.

Then he was sailing past Master Caaldor, parrying more blaster bolts with his own blade.  Covering his master and giving him time to recover.  He swung at the pirate in the doorway and cleaved through the blaster the narakite held.  There was an abrupt smell of ozone, hot metal, and something else.  Cooking flesh. The pirate cried out, part of a hand falling away with the blaster.  The rest of him fell back through the doorway out of sight.

Aronoke took cover behind the doorframe, feeling momentarily sick because of the pirate’s hand.  He swallowed hard and looked back at Master Caaldor.

“I’ll be fine,” called Master Caaldor, picking himself up and waving Aronoke forward.  “Take point.”

Aronoke peered cautiously around the edge of the hatchway without exposing himself.  He wondered nervously how many pirates were waiting in ambush there, besides the one he had injured.  Suddenly he realised that he had his senses clamped down tightly under control, just like he had during his early initiate trials.  He was running blind out of habit.  Behaving like a skimmer instead of a Jedi.

“Gundark piss,” he muttered, allowing his Force-senses free.  He could immediately sense the little knots of life in the Force-net around him.  Three pirates then, including the injured one.  Those were not moving, so they were watching, waiting for him to make a move.  Four further back, actively doing something.  He risked a glance around the door frame, drawing a few blaster bolts.  The further clump were hauling a mobile turret into position, were still setting it up.  That was the place he should strike.

As Master Caaldor limped towards his position, Aronoke swung around the doorframe, lightsaber ready, and flung himself along the corridor straight at the turret.  Blaster bolts pinged off his lightsaber blade easily.  He hardly had to think about parrying.  His force senses kept him safe, allowing him to react seemingly faster than was chissly possible.  Automatically.

All those practice routines had paid off.

One blaster bolt escaped his guard and scraped over his shoulder melting a patch of his suit.  Perhaps, he thought belatedly, he should have left that in the hold.  It would hardly be airtight now.  He would have to find another to get back to the ship.  Then his blade arced down through the turret.  Sparks shot out everywhere, cascading over him and the pirates, spattering against his suit.  The sparks quickly excalated into a small explosion, but Aronoke was ready.  The pirates were flung backwards, smashed into walls.  Aronoke staggered but kept his balance, the heat washing harmlessly over him. Unpleasantly hot, but not burning. Behind him he could hear a cry from one of the other pirates and then Master Caaldor was there beside him.

“Good work,” said Master Caaldor.

Aronoke felt a wash of pleasure at the compliment and told himself to stay focussed.  He looked ahead and saw an intersection.  Beyond was a heavy blastdoor that probably led to the bridge.  Aronoke could sense little knots of life waiting there on guard.

“Two more down that passage.  Four behind the door,” he whispered to Master Caaldor.  He knew his master’s senses were not as sharp as his own.  He was beginning to understand that he was unusually sensitive to minor fluctuations in the Force, more so than most Jedi.  Especially the fluctuations in living things.

“Let’s go straight through,” said Master Caaldor, and without further preamble he leapt ahead down the passageway.  He wasn’t limping at all now and moved very quickly for an old man.  Aronoke knew that Jedi didn’t age like other people, but it was still difficult to not have natural preconceptions.

Something rolled out of the passage to the side as he passed it.  A grenade, Aronoke saw, hissing green bilious smoke.  He clamped his mouth shut and held his breath, covering Master Caaldor as he drove his lightsaber into the control panel of the blast door, drawing a cascade of sparks.

The door remained stubbornly sealed, but very little could hold up to a lightsaber for long.  Aronoke knew that Jedi could hold their breath for a very long time, although he had never tested the limits of this personally.  Green gas was disspating through the corridor, the probing fingers of smoke spreading evenly to fill the air around him.  He concentrated on controlling his body’s need for air with the Force, but was beginning to feel dizzy.

“Do you think they’re down yet?” came one pirate’s voice from back around the corner.

“Are you crazy?” said the other.  “Can’t you hear that?”

That was Master Caaldor’s lightsaber cutting through the door.  Making slow progress.  Aronoke was glad when the door crashed open, the middle cut out of it.  He lost no time in following Master Caaldor through the opening into the space beyond where he could breathe normally again.  Between them they made quick work of the four pirates beyond.  One lost part of an arm and then the others were falling back, throwing down their guns.  Surrendering.  Aronoke sliced their dropped weapons in half and quickly swung his lightsaber through a rack of blasters and vibroblades that hung on the wall.  You didn’t leave your enemies armed, or even potentially armed if you could help it . Even as he cut through the guns, his skimmer self noted their destruction with mild dismay. How wasteful it all was!

“Quick thinking,” noted Master Caaldor approvingly.  “Stay here and guard these prisoners, Padawan, while I take the bridge.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke.  He stood watching the prisoners, glaring at them with his best skimmer scowl, while Master Caaldor moved onto the bridge.  There were sounds of his lightsaber swinging through the air, a little blaster fire, a squeal and then nothing.  He had met little opposition.

“Bring them in here,” he called a minute later and Aronoke waved the pirate prisoners onto the bridge to join the others that Master Caaldor had captured.  He herded them into a little group with his lightsaber openly drawn.

“Good. Keep an eye on them while I contact the Perspicacity.  Perhaps we can make some kind of deal.”

The Perspicacity was the refugee ship that the pirates had attacked.  Where many of them were still located, looting and terrorising the refugees.

Aronoke nodded, keeping his Force-senses open to watch for the two pirates who had ambushed them with the gas grenade from the hallway.  They had fallen back, but he did not trust them to stay away for very long.

“Captain Krondark,” said Master Caaldor, speaking into the short-range holocommunicator on the bridge.  “As you can see we have defeated your men and taken your ship.”

“I already know you’ve taken our ship, Jedi scum[1],” said Captain Krondark.  “My men have been keeping in contact with your exploits.  Just don’t think you’re keeping it.”  He was a big, intimidating narakite with plenty of cyberwear, who reminded Aronoke of Careful Kras.

“I believe we can come to some sort of amicable arrangement,” said Master Caaldor.  “Say, your ship and crew in exchange for the refugee ship and the refugees.”

“Listen here, Jedi,” said Captain Krondark, leaning closer.  “You might think you’ve got us strung up over a rancor-pit, but you haven’t.  Not even close.  You’re a Jedi, see.  We know your kind.  You’re soft, like Bantha fat.  Get off our ship or we’ll start slaughtering some of these refugees.  There’s thousands here – no one will miss a few hundred or so.  Like these ones I have just here.”

He gestured, and one of his underlings swung into view, holding up a frightened young kubaz.  The pirate’s vibroknife was biting into the hostage’s throat.  Aronoke could see a trail of blood seeping down the young alien’s neck.

“You forget, Captain,” said Master Caaldor calmly, “we also have hostages.  There’s only so many crew members you can afford to lose before you won’t have enough to man your ship.  And I already know the refugee ship is heavily damaged.  You won’t be leaving on that any time soon.”

“Pfah,” said Captain Krondark.  “You won’t hurt my people.  Not if they have surrendered already. What about your famous Jedi code?”

“The Jedi code is overrated,” said Master Caaldor evenly.  “Jedi protect the galaxy from threats.  From people like you, Captain. You’re on the wrong side to think you or your men will be protected by that.  Aronoke, bring one of those prisoners here, where the Captain can see.”

Aronoke picked one of the prisoners, grabbed her by the back of her tunic, and pushed her forwards to the holocommunicator, his lightsaber still drawn in his other hand.

“We’re not going to slaughter them all again, are we Master?” he said in a not-so-low voice as he reached Master Caaldor’s side, playing to his Master’s bluff. “The Council was upset last time.”

It was not really the Jedi way to mislead people in this way, Aronoke knew, although it was very much the skimmer way.  But these were pirates and there were thousands of refugee lives at stake.  He didn’t believe Master Caaldor would actually slaughter or hurt the hostage, although he might scare her.

These pirates could do with a good scaring.

“If the Captain forces my hand I am given little choice,” said Master Caaldor, with malicious glee.  “Even the Council will see that, if it even finds out, which seems unlikely.  Now, Captain, we can still come to some sort of arrangement, reluctant as I am to deal with your kind of piratical filth.”  He stepped closer to Aronoke’s prisoner, angling his body to block Captain Krondark’s view of her momentarily.

“You are frightened,” said Master Caaldor softly, gesturing with his hand briefly in front of the prisoner’s face, and the prisoner obliging gasped in terror.

“I’m frightened,” she said.

“I think you know what your Captain does not,” continued Master Caaldor smoothly, walking around the frightened pirate.  “Jedi are the blade that cuts away the rotting flesh, removes the infection, so that the entire galaxy may be healed.”  He gestured to Aronoke, indicating he should go ahead.

Aronoke brought the humming blade of his lightsaber closer to the prisoner’s face, allowing it to hover close to the woman’s cybernetic implants.  He could feel her trembling in his grip and felt sorry for her.  He remembered clearly what it had felt like to have a lightsaber poised so close to his throat.

“I suggest you think quickly, Captain,” Master Caaldor was continuing.  “My padawan was a slave himself once.  His patience with your kind remains dubious at best.  An unfortunate if useful shortcoming.”

The Captain hesitated and muttered something about conferring with his officers.  He was playing for time, Aronoke thought, and wondered why.  He let his senses drift out beyond the bridge, where he could sense a small group of pirates coming down the hallway outside, with another supporting group further back.  He pushed the woman prisoner back towards the others, hard enough to make her stumble, and stepped out of sight of the holocommunicator. Catching Master Caaldor’s eye, he angled his head towards the hallway where the pirates were approaching.

Master Caaldor pointed at Aronoke and then at the hallway.  An obvious signal that Aronoke should deal with the threat.  Aronoke nodded.

The problem with blasters, Aronoke reasoned, was that it was difficult to shoot at someone in the middle of a group of your friends.  Such as someone with a lightsaber.  Close quarters was the safest place for him to be.

He ducked through the hatchway and rolled along the hallway into the midst of the approaching pirates, avoiding a few startled shots that blazed over his head.  Coming to his feet, he swung his lightsaber at the meanest looking of the three, a tall narakite with a strange cybereye. The narakite shouted and dodged, and Aronoke only caught him a glancing blow along one arm.

“Get him!” yelled the one he had hit, but it was as Aronoke had hoped.  The ones further back couldn’t get a clear shot at him without shooting their friends.  He kept moving, twisting, narrowly missed a thin narakite wearing a big red-and-gold badge, and parried a woman trying to hit him with the butt of her blaster rifle.

“Get out of the way, so we can shoot him,” yelled one of the pirates from further back and the ones near Aronoke tried to obey.  Aronoke parried another blaster shot, lost part of one of his boots to a blast from a skinny narakite as the latter retreated, shooting at Aronoke’s feet as he passed, and spun around to strike again at the one with the cybereye, who looked like the leader.  He had intended to take out the man’s weapon or possibly his arm, but had misjudged his position.  He felt the lightsaber travel all the way through the pirate’s body and smelt the deluge of guts as they tumbled to the ground.    There was a hiss of steam and smoke from burning blood.  Aronoke saw the man’s astounded expression as the rest of him collapsed a moment later.

“Bantha crap,” said the nearest pirate hysterically.  “I’m not fighting no Jedi.”  He threw his blaster down, cringing against the wall of the ship.

Aronoke swallowed hard against his own nausea.  He had never actually killed anyone before, although he had threatened to often enough during his career as a skimmer.  Had seen enough people die. He knew this man had been his enemy and wouldn’t have hesitated to kill him, but that didn’t make it much better.

Now was not the time to have a fit of hysterics.  Master Caaldor was counting on him.

He used his Force control to school his body’s reaction to the shock.

“Throw down your weapons!” he commanded.  The thin young Narakite threw down his rifle.  So did the woman who had struck at him.  Two of the others in the back group threw down their guns as well and put up their hands to show they were surrendering.

The youngest two at the back were looking shocked.  Aronoke looked at them and recognised the nearest one with a pang of disquiet.

It was the narakite from his vision.

“Come on!” yelled the other and together they dashed away down the corridor.  Aronoke tried to slam them against the side of the corridor with his Force powers, but he was too slow and unpracticed and they disappeared around a corner.  He considered for a moment and decided not to give chase.  He had to take control of these other prisoners.  Doubtlessly the two young pirates would join the others or hide somewhere.  They could be dealt with later.

He herded the other four onto the bridge.

“Ah,” said Master Caaldor, speaking on the holocommunicator again.  “Here is my Padawan having dealt with some more of your men.  Bring one of those new prisoners up here, Aronoke.”

Aronoke grabbed the woman who had swung at him with the butt of her rifle, and pulled her in range of the holocommunicator.

“Captain,” gasped the woman, still shocked from seeing Aronoke cut down the man with the cybereye.  “It’s no good. He cut Lieutenant Thurian in half!  His guts fell all over the floor.”

Aronoke tried to look mean, although he felt almost as shocked as the woman was.

“Cut him in half?” said the Captain, eyeing Aronoke uncertainly.  Something he saw seemed to decide him.  “All right, Jedi.  You win,” he growled.  “You’ve got your deal.”

“Good,” said Master Caaldor cheerfully.  “Aronoke, see to restraining these prisoners while the Captain and I discuss the details of the exchange.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke.  He took the skinny narakite with the large badge to locate some restraints.  The man seemed to recover some of his composure while they walked through the ship.

“It’s not fair,” he complained to Aronoke.  “You Jedi are so powerful, how is anyone supposed to stand up against you?”

Aronoke shrugged. He was barely coming to terms with it himself.  Not long ago he had been just like this man, a normal person, or so he had thought.  Master Altus had seemed like a god.  Now Aronoke was training to become like Master Altus, in possession of abilities that he still didn’t fully understand. It seemed impossible.  Today seemed extra impossible.  Aronoke had not thought he would be doing things like this so soon.

“Here’s the restraints,” said the man bitterly, opening a locker.  “All best quality durasteel, blaster and vibroblade proof.”

Aronoke nodded, and gestured that the narakite should pick them up.  He escorted him back to the bridge where he made certain the prisoners were securely fastened out of reach of each other.

“Very good,” said Master Caaldor, when they were all chained up.  He looked more closely at Aronoke’s face.  “Are you all right?”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke a little wearily.  “I’m okay.”

He was not sure that he really felt okay, but he knew there was still work to do.  People to rescue.  Now was not the time to go to pieces.

“I suppose we should find ourselves some new suits,” said Master Caaldor reluctantly, looking at the hole in the side of his own suit and the missing boot of Aronoke’s.

“Yes, Master.  There were two more pirates that got away,” Aronoke told him.  “I think they escaped across to the other ship.”

“Ah well,” said Master Caaldor.  “That should make little difference.”

“One of them was the narakite I saw in my vision, Master,” said Aronoke.  “The one I told you about, that I had during my trials.”

“Oh, now that is interesting,” said Master Caaldor.  “What do you think you should do about it?”

It was exactly what Master Altus would say, and Aronoke felt a pang of sorrow, reminded that the mirialan Jedi was still missing.

“I’m not sure, Master,” he said at last.  “It would be good to be able to talk with her, at least.”

“Yes, I think that would be a good idea,” said Master Caaldor mildly.  “We shall have to see what we can arrange.”

“Yes, Master.”

Aronoke had not heard exactly what arrangements or threats Master Caaldor had made, but they were unhassled as they crossed over to the refugee ship.  Two suited pirates crossed back to the pirate ship at the same time.  None of the ship’s guns made any attempt to shoot at them, although Aronoke felt nervous at the thought.  If there was a good time for treachery, surely this was it, while they were dressed in suits passing between the two vessels.  Master Caaldor evidently had the same thought, for they lost no time making the crossing.  It helped that the pirate ship was very close to the refugee vessel, presumably to facilitate loading the pirates’ newly gained loot.  The guns could not easily swivel to aim at them there, and would be likely to damage the pirate ship if they did.

Once inside the refugee ship, Master Caaldor removed his helmet and Aronoke followed suit.  He was hit at once by the odour of a thousand unhappy sweating bodies confined within a vessel whose life-support and filtration systems were suffering serious liabilities.

They had not progressed far inside before they met a large group of the Narrakite pirates on their way back to their own vessel.

“Jedi,” said a large narakite that Aronoke recognised as Captain Krondark. He said the word like it was an offensive term. The pirates carried bundles and bags, doubtlessly containing the loot they had pilfered from the refugee ship. “You have a lot of nerve interfering with our business. You’ll pay for your interference one day. You might have got the the drop on us now, but there’ll be another time. You and your freaky alien sidekick.”

“You have to realize that this is only business, Captain Krondark,” said Master Caaldor, unperturbed. “I would think that someone like you would understand that. Now, we have a deal, and I mean to see that you keep your side of the bargain. It seems to me that as soon as you are back on your own ship you are in a good position to take revenge upon either us or these refugees. I’m willing to overlook those trifles you are carrying with you, but in exchange I want three hostages as insurance against your good behaviour until the refugee ship is ready to leave.”

Captain Krondark made a growling noise.

“I’m not going to let you harm any more of my people, Jedi,” he snarled, but Aronoke could see he was already peering at his companions as if he were deciding whom he would leave behind.

“They will not be harmed,” said Master Caaldor. “They will be left on the asteroid’s surface when we leave, with all their weapons and possessions. Padawan, choose three of the captain’s men and see that they are looked after.”

Aronoke had already seen the narakite from his vision amongst the captain’s men. She stood at the back of the group, angry and smouldering, glaring at him as though he were a demon. Aronoke picked another of the pirates first – an old hand with a wrinkled face – then the narakite who looked like Ashquash, and finally another young one, a scowling young man.

“These will do,” he said.

The pirate captain grumbled and Aronoke thought that these were not three pirates he would have chosen himself, but he seemed too intimidated by the Jedi to not comply.

Aronoke removed the three pirates’ weapons as their colleagues moved away towards the airlock.  Even as they stood there, he could sense the great unhappy bulk of refugees massing around them.  The vessel was large, but even so, it was crammed with thousands of passengers, many of whom were sick or injured.  Aronoke could see kubaz faces appearing in doorways along the hall.  Could hear the buzz of their conversation echoing through the metallic passageways.

The kubaz language was meaningless to him, but occasionally a recognisable word was repeated:  “…Jedi…”

Aronoke gestured that the prisoners should follow Master Caaldor and trailed along behind to make sure they behaved.  They had not moved far when the kubaz began to appear.

“Ah, Jedi, yes?  You save us.”  The kubaz version of basic was buzzing and distorted but understandable.

“Yes,” said Master Caaldor.  “I am Master Caaldor of the Jedi Order, and this is my padawan, Aronoke.  I need to find someone in charge of this ship.  Are you part of the crew?”

“The crew, yes,” said the kubaz.  “The bridge.  Go to bridge, see there.”

“Yes, I thought as much,” said Master Caaldor.  “I will make my way there.  See to the prisoners, Aronoke.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke.  He turned to address the kubaz as the older Jedi swept off down the dark flickering hall.

“These are our hostages,” said Aronoke.  “They need to be imprisoned somewhere to ensure our safety, and the safety of everyone on this ship.  Do you understand?”

“Yes, prisoners,” said the kubaz.

“Are there some cells where they can be safely locked up?  Where they can’t get out, and no one can hurt them?”

“Follow,” said the kubaz, gesturing blatantly to illustrate.  “I show.”

They moved through the dark bulk of the ship.  More kubaz gathered inquisitively, still too cautious to approach Aronoke and his prisoners closely.  Around them the buzz of “…Jedi…Jedi…” rose as Aronoke’s little group passed.

“You needn’t have bothered with hostages,” said one of the pirates, the eldest one.  “The captain’ll keep his word.  If he makes an agreement with you, he’ll keep it.”

“Unless there’s ithorians involved,” said the youngest.

“There’s no need to mention ithorians,” said the eldest irritably.

“If your captain is so honourable,” said Aronoke, “than you need have no fear of him abandoning you here.”

“The captain wouldn’t abandon us,” said the youngest one stoutly, although the other two exchanged worried glances as if Aronoke had voiced an unspoken fear.

“If you Jedi weren’t so unfeng powerful you’d have never got the better of us that way,” grumbled the old pirate.  “You and your lightsabers and your mind powers, smacking people into walls.”

“He chopped Thurian in half,” said the pirate from Aronoke’s vision.  “I saw it.  Clean in half.”

“Like a demon,” said the old pirate, shaking his head.  “With blue skin and glowing demon eyes.  What are you anyway?”

Aronoke did not answer, but gestured that they should continue after the kubaz.  He had a job to do. Soon they arrived outside a series of stout cells and the prisoners were locked inside.  Aronoke took the passkey to the cell doors and put it inside a pocket for safekeeping.  Then he headed off in the direction of the bridge in pursuit of Master Caaldor.

His path was not unobstructed now.  As word of the pirates’ evacuation spread, the refugees and ship’s crew began to emerge in fource.  A woman rushed up to Aronoke and clutched at his robes with one hand.  In the other arm she cradled a small kubaz child, which lolled there, limp and pale.

“Her baby is sick, very sick,” said the kubaz crew-member accompanying Aronoke.  “She begs help.”

Aronoke looked at the baby and could sense that its life signs were weak.  “I’m sorry,” he said gently.  “I’m not a healer.  There must be a medical officer on this ship somewhere.  There is a med bay?”

“Yes,” said the crew-member.

“Then let’s go there,” said Aronoke.

They escorted the woman to the medical bay, which was already overwhelmed with casualties.  The chief medical officer was very busy, but directed one of his assistants to take charge of the baby, and took a moment to speak with Aronoke,

“Ah, Master Jedi,” she said.  “Thank you for seeing those scum off our ship.”

“You’re welcome,” said Aronoke.  “Do you have everything you need here?”

“The situation is desperate.  Supplies are short, and all our skilled staff are already overworked.”

“Our ship is small and we don’t carry many supplies,” said Aronoke.  “But I will see what can be done.  It might take a while, but I expect supplies can be brought in.”

“Thank you,” said the medical officer.  “And now if you’ll excuse me…”

“Of course,” said Aronoke.

The next few hours were hectic and tiring.   Aronoke found Master Caaldor on the bridge, speaking to those of the ship’s officers who had survived the encounter with the pirates and had managed to return to duty.  Their numbers were despairingly low, but more arrived as the ship began to return to some semblance of normalcy.  Aronoke was kept busy patrolling the ship and helping to restore order.  He helped cut the ship’s second-in-command out of the storage locker he had been locked in.  He settled disagreements between the refugees and ship’s crew.  Everywhere he went, he could hear the interested buzz of kubaz voices, their words uninterpretable, save for the constant rejoinder of “…Jedi…..Jedi….” repeated here and there.

“You had best go back to our ship, Padawan,” said Master Caaldor after some hours had passed.  “Get some rest.  I’ll take a shift here, and you can spell me later.  It’s probably best if you take our hostages back with you.”

Aronoke nodded.  “Yes, Master,” he said. The mood on the refugee ship was grateful but tempestuous.  Certain elements amongst the refugees could not be trusted to stand by the Jedi’s agreement with the pirate captain and would doubtlessly kill the prisoners if they found them.

When Aronoke returned to the brig where the prisoners had been locked up, he noticed another prisoner sealed in a tank full of liquid further down the hallway.  It was a kubaz, whose snout only just reached above the level of the water in the tank.  The tank was locked, so without further ado, Aronoke cut through the hatch,  jumping aside as water gushed out.

The prisoner lurched gratefully out and dropped to sit on the floor.

“Thank you… thank you, Jedi,” the kubaz wheezed.

“What were you doing locked in there?” asked Aronoke dubiously.  “Did the pirates lock you up?”  He didn’t remember seeing the kubaz there when he had locked the prisoners up, although perhaps he had not noticed him.

“No… not the pirates,” said the kubaz wretchedly.

“Oh.  Your fellow passengers then?”

“Yes.  But, I swear,” said the Kubaz, crawling forward to catch at the leg of Aronoke’s suit, “it was all a misunderstanding.  I didn’t do anything wrong – I was trying to help!”

“Trying to help, how?” asked Aronoke, sceptically.  “Let me guess – you cut a deal of some sort with the pirates and the others have taken exception to it?”

“Yes,” said the Kubaz sadly.  “But that was not my intention.  I was trying to help everyone!”

“Hm,” said Aronoke.  “Well, it seems that your colleagues do not see things that way.”

“Please don’t leave me here!”  gasped the Kubaz, clutching at Aronoke’s boot.  “They’ll kill me.  Please, take me with you, or lock me back up!”

Aronoke shook the kubaz free.  “Stop that!” he ordered.  “Get up. I suppose you can come with us.  As a prisoner, mind you, until we work out what’s going on.”

“Oh, thank you!  Thank you!”

The kubaz obviously wouldn’t be safe left on the ship by himself.  He would probably be killed.  Aronoke turned his attention to freeing the pirates and kept a close eye on them as he gestured them out towards the main corridor.  He herded them and the kubaz ahead of him, so he could keep a close eye on them.

“So what are you going to do with us now?” asked the old pirate as they made their way through the refugee ship.  The young male one was sullen and gloomy, while the other one still looked angry and shocked.  Very like Ashquash, Aronoke thought, remembering his clan mate from when he had first seen her in the Jedi temple.  “I suppose it was all a trick really.  You won’t really let us go.”

“This ship needs to be repaired,” said Aronoke.  “Until it’s able to continue on its way, we’re stranded here, and so are you. We’re obviously not going to give you up until we’re ready to leave.”

“The captain wouldn’t go back on his word,” said the youngest one fierily.  “Not if he made a deal. Not unless there were ithorians involved.”

“I told you before, Rakskrak, there’s no need to mention ithorians,” said the old pirate testily.

“Where are you taking us?” asked the one who looked like Ashquash.

“Over to our ship for safekeeping,” said Aronoke.  “Master Caaldor thinks it won’t be safe for you to stay here, in case the refugees get their hands on you.”


“I suggest you stay close and keep quiet,” said Aronoke.  “The refugees aren’t too happy with what’s happened.  Things could get nasty if we’re swarmed.”

“You’re going to get us killed!” said Ashquash’s lookalike hotly.

“I don’t fancy going anywhere without my blaster,” said Rakskrak.  “Where’s our weapons?  When are we going to get them back?”

“At the end,” said Aronoke.  “You’ll be left on the surface for your captain to pick you up, and you’ll be given your weapons then.”

They were all silent for a time.  Perhaps, like Aronoke, they had noticed the dull, irritable murmur of the nearby kubaz who had noticed their party passing.  Perhaps they were busy wondering if their captain would really bother come back for them, and what would happen to them if he did not.

Aronoke did not see who started it, but he was aware for some time that the kubaz were following them in considerable numbers.  That the refugees were growing ever more resentful.

“Make way,” he said.  “These people are prisoners of the Jedi Order and under my protection. Move aside, please.”

But most of the kubaz did not understand basic.  They only understood their own language.  Perhaps they simply chose not to listen.  The mood of the crowd was growing ugly, and then someone threw something.  An empty canister of some sort that narrowly missed the youngest pirate and bounced off the wall near Aronoke’s head.

“Get back!” ordered Aronoke, trying to be stern and intimidating.  “These are my prisoners.  You will let us pass!”

But the kubaz were too angry to listen.  They charged forward, attacking the pirates with makeshift weapons and their bare hands.  Aronoke was grateful that they did not carry blasters and vibroblades.  The pirates were grouped close around him now, pushed back by the crush of kubaz bodies.  One of the pirates cried out in pain.

Aronoke drew his lightsaber, raising it high above his head before he activated it.  He swung it into the low ceiling above himself so a cascade of hot sparks rained down on the crowd.

“Get back!” he ordered again.  “These are my prisoners.  You will return to your quarters and let us pass!”

The result was instantaneous.  At the sight of the yellow blade of light, the kubaz scattered and fled, disappearing into the depths of the ship.  Aronoke kept his lightsaber ready for a time, but there was no need.  The mob had dissipated as quickly as it had arisen.  He turned his attention to the eldest pirate who was cradling one arm.

“Are you all right?” asked Aronoke.

“I think it’s broken,” said the one who looked like Ashquash.  “He needs a medpac.”

“Probably best to treat it back on our ship,” said Aronoke.  “Best to get you out of here as quickly as possible.  Help him along.”

The pirates seemed shaken and did not protest.  They were eager to hurry through the corridors to the ship’s cargo hatch, where they found suits to make the crossing over to Master Caaldor’s ship.  Aronoke ushered them intside where he had them remove their suits.

“Master Aronoke!” said a droid, appearing beside Aronoke as he herded in the prisoners.  “Master Caaldor called ahead and said I should prepare some cells in which to incarcerate some prisoners.  I thought you should know that they are ready.”

“Thanks, PR,” said Aronoke.  PR-77 was Master Caaldor’s ship’s droid, responsible for keeping the ship tidy and well maintained.  He was also a comptent mechanic and pilot, was fond of holochess, and kept a collection of holorecordings of different types of star­ships.  Aronoke had not been certain how to treat PR at first, but was beginning to appreciate his capabilities and grow accustomed to his presence.  As Master Caaldor said, PR already performed many of the minor menial tasks that might otherwise be considered appropriate duties for a Padawan, so his presence on the ship freed Aronoke to concentrate more heavily on his training.

Not that there had been a great deal of active training yet.  Master Caaldor seemed to be of the opinion that Padawans learnt best by doing rather than studying.  Still, there were a lot of things Aronoke hoped they would study more formally when there was an opportunity.  He did not know most of the Force tricks he had seen Hespenara and Master Altus perform. He was not very practiced at hurling pebbles through the air, let alone people.  He did not know how to trick people’s minds.  Still, it was early days yet, and he schooled himself to patience.

Aronoke escorted the pirates to the two cells PR had prepared, which had served more recently as storerooms.  Despite the fact that Jedi did not collect personal possessions, Master Caaldor’s ship seemed to have accumulated a large quantity of equipment and oddities over the years and was quite full of things.  Aronoke’s room had needed to be cleared of some of them when he first arrived.  These rooms were obviously designed  to be cells, despite their more recent function.

After a little thought, Aronoke put the pirate who looked like Ashquash in a cell with the kubaz.  She would be easier to speak to that way, when he wanted to question her later.  He put Rakskrak in the other cell by himself, while he tended to the older narakite’s injuries.

“I’m sorry about your arm,” said Aronoke, as he fastened an immobilising splint around the broken limb.  “I’m no expert at this sort of thing, but the scanner shows the bones are properly aligned.  Hopefully it feels better.  It should heal well.”

“I probably shouldn’t say this,” grumbled the pirate, “since it was your fault we were there at all, but I’m glad you were there to send off those refugees, or we’d all be dead by now.”

Aronoke nodded.  “I’ll check this arm again later,” he said.  “Best to get some rest.”

He locked the pirate in the cell with Rakskrak, instructed PR to keep an eye on things, and went off to get some rest himself.


[1] Scum was not the actual word Captain Krondark used.  He said something in the Narakite lingo that would have made Aronoke blush, had he understood the meaning.

<Holographic Recording #396774192, Jedi Temple Records.>

<Sender: Padawan Aronoke.  Originating System: Trace Route Blocked>

<Recipient: Initiate Draken, Clan Herf, Jedi Temple Primary Training Centre, Coruscant>


The holodisplay flickers into life.  This holorecording was obviously made on an antiquated system not yet upgraded to run recent message protocol standards, because the quality is considerably sub-standard.  Additionally the message is perforated by bursts of static, not so that the message is incoherent, but detracting from the aesthetic quality.

The holorecording is of a rangy young man dressed in jedi robes.  He has dark hair, cut knife-edge straight at his jaw.  A very short padawan braid is tucked behind his right ear, and he bears a distinctive scar on his left cheek.  If he were human, he would perhaps be eighteen or nineteen years of age, but he is not human.  It is difficult to tell what colour he is in the holorecording, but his eyes are decidedly peculiar.  Should you have met a chiss before, you would likely pick him as one immediately.  He is tall and lithely muscled.  Wears his height with a slight awkwardness, like he is not yet completely accustomed to it.  His expression is good humoured and relaxed.

“Greetings Draken,” says the holorecording.  “I trust this message finds you and the rest of Clan Herf in good health.  You may show the younglings this message if you like.  I have sent Ashquash a message as well, and I sincerely hope that things are better with her than when I left the temple.”

“Master Caaldor and I have been doing a lot of travelling.  We seldom stay in one place for very long.  I am coming to realise what a sheltered upbringing we have in the Temple.  There is so much to learn and see out here, even on the most peaceful planets.”

“Turns out we didn’t go to Ilum after all. Master Caaldor had some important business to finish on other worlds first and I am not in such a hurry to forge my own.  I expect we will get around to it eventually. Master Caaldor has entrusted me with another lightsaber, one which belonged to a Jedi he knew who was killed in action.  It is not a new weapon – it has seen a lot of fighting.  The blade is an orange shade of yellow, and I am growing quite fond of it.”

“Master Caaldor is an interesting person to travel with.  He has his own ideas about how things should be done, and I trust him to keep me safe.  He is not very fond of political entanglements, for which I find myself unable to blame him.”

“So far I have gotten to do quite a lot of speeder piloting.  I have seen an ocean, although only from a distance and I have been out in the rain.  Saw towering pillars of clouds like foam stacked in the sky.  Fields of grain as far as the eye could see. I have seen quite a few other new things, especially creatures, although no dangerous ones as yet.”

“We had a run in with some space pirates, who were threatening a refugee ship.  I didn’t know how I would handle myself in real combat.  Thought, I suppose, that I wasn’t ready for it since I never learned level six, but it went better than I expected.”

“Please give my regards to Emeraldine, should you see her.  I hope her apprenticeship is going well.”

“Don’t get in too much trouble back there.”

“May the Force be with you.”

Aronoke woke lying on something strange and not quite soft. He could see the corners of jungle trees out of the corner of his vision. He felt peculiar for a few moments, heavy and lethargic. His mind moved very slowly, grainy and dark, shot through with pulses of red.  His connection with the Force felt strange and ropy, slithering like hot intestines. He looked about himself, confused. Had he been drugged, like Ashquash?

“Initiate Aronoke,” said a metallic voice, and he blinked to recognise a droid bending over him. “Can you hear me? How many fingers am I holding up?” It waved its droid hand in front of his face, a blur of metallic appendages too close and fast for Aronoke to focus on.

“I… don’t know,” he said, still feeling dazed. “What happened?”

The black-and-red fog was ebbing a little, but not as quickly as he would like.

“You fell unconscious during your examination,” said the droid. “Quite suddenly with no apparent stimulus. It has has not yet been determined why. Unfortunately your examination had to be stopped before it was complete. Your fellow initiates carried you here.”

“I…don’t remember,” said Aronoke, confused. He tried to sit up, his body feeling fine, but the droid reached out a hand to prevent him. His head still felt oddly clouded. He could see some other initiates standing in an awkward group some distance away, watching. They seemed faintly familiar.

“Please remain in a reclining position,” said the droid, reaching out an arm to steady him. “You must undergo medical testing before resuming verticality.”

“Okay,” said Aronoke. He lay back on the grass and allowed himself to be loaded onto a medcradle and floated off to a medical laboratory.

Master Nethlemor was waiting there and stood watching as they took him off the stretcher and laid him on a bench.

“Aronoke, what happened?” he asked, concerned, as the droid began running scans.

“I don’t know, Master Nethlemor,” said Aronoke. “I don’t remember.”

“What is the last thing you do remember?”

Aronoke tried to think back to that morning, before the test had started and suddenly memories gushed back into his mind all at once.


Aronoke’s third test was to be held in a substantially different location from the first two. He recognised the coordinates as being somewhere up near the top of the temple, where the speeder ranks were. As he made his way there after breakfast on the prescribed morning, he wondered if it was to be held outside the Jedi temple.

When he arrived at the coordinates listed, he saw that he wasn’t the only person waiting. Two other initiates were already there. One was a nervous looking human fellow with a thin moustache. Another was a human woman, with interesting hair tied in intricate bands at the back of her head. Aronoke was careful not to look too closely at that – he still found women’s hair very distracting. The third arrived shortly after Aronoke had found a bench to sit and wait on, and was a rodian. They all wore initiates’ robes like his own, and Aronoke found himself wondering if they were real candidates or merely Jedi posing as them to make up the numbers for the test. He wondered then if there were always fake candidates, or merely if there were not enough people sitting the test that day.

At the correct time, four droids came into the chamber. Each approached one of the waiting initiates.

“Examination Candidate Aronoke?” said the droid that came up to him. “Please stand by in preparation for boarding the shuttle.”

“Yes, certainly,” said Aronoke. He stood where the droid told him to, and waited while two of the other candidates were loaded onto a shuttle. It was different from the one he had rode in when he first arrived on Coruscant. It had a separate compartment for each initiate and Aronoke could not see outside. He took his seat expectantly, wondering why they were being taken outside the Jedi temple for this last test. Perhaps to test their ability to function outside the temple’s shielding? He was ready for the sudden exposure of his senses to the Force and grateful for the excursions outside when he had gone unshielded, or he would have been very taken aback indeed.

Presumably handling this sort of exposure was something else that was usually taught at a later stage of training. Perhaps it was something that most students weren’t affected by. Aronoke remembered Hespenara saying that she had to work hard to sense the currents in the Force.

The shuttle travelled for some time and then made two stops in short succession. On the third stop, the door to Aronoke’s compartment slid open. There was a short passage beyond, and then another doorway which opened automatically as he approached it. It slid shut behind him.

He found himself standing in something that reminded him of the environments at the biological gardens. Although he could still see the faint green lines of a dome high above him, this was a self-contained outdoor environment. It was quite hot, Aronoke noticed. Pleasantly warm by his standards. He was certain that he would find Kasthir itself very hot after spending so long in the climate controlled environment of Coruscant. Trees grew everywhere. Thick bushes and weeds clustered where the larger trees had toppled.

Just in front of him, on the ground, lay a practice sabre.

Aronoke remembered the last test. He was not going to be fooled by the same trick twice, even though this time he knew he had no eye lenses in. Slowly he let his shields recede, letting his senses expand to fill the surrounding area, until he had located the edges of the dome. He could sense the other candidates spread out across it. Could also faintly sense the city beyond and several Jedi masters in relatively close proximity. The examiners, he thought. Or perhaps the emergency response crew, in case someone fell on their head. Him, most likely. There were also other things lurking amongst the dimmer force-web of the vegetation. Subsentient creatures, some larger than others. They were mostly predators, he thought. There was a large one quite close to him. A group of smaller ones were already rapidly closing in on the candidate closest to him.

In the centre of the dome there was a gleaming nexus of Force power. An artifact of some sort perhaps? It was an obvious goal.

Jedi would not ignore colleagues in need, Aronoke knew. With some haste he scooped up the practice blade and began running through the jungle towards the nearest candidate, leaping over fallen trees and densely tangled bits of underbrush. The group of creatures had closed on their victim rapidly. The larger creature was following Aronoke from a distance, hunting him. Doubtlessly waiting for him to be distracted. He kept one part of his mind watching it, while he manoeuvred himself towards one of the outlying creatures attacking the other candidate.

It looked like some sort of insect, Aronoke thought, brown-carapaced and hardy, with lots of legs. It was quite large, coming up somewhat past his knees.

“Help!” called the other candidate, rather belatedly Aronoke thought. It was the human man with the little moustache. If he hadn’t been well on the way to help already, surely the fellow would have been overwhelmed long before he could have reached him. He was stuck, Aronoke saw, trapped up to the knees in some sticky globular substance, presumably spat by the creatures.

Aronoke slashed forcefully at the nearest bug and succeeded in hitting it and distracting its attention. The human was gamely trying to wade towards Aronoke, presumably so they could work together to drive off the creatures.

The bug-thing spat at Aronoke and a glob of sticky stuff splattered on his hand, having little effect other than to stick his practice blade to his skin. He swung at it again and missed, but caught it hard on the underside with his backstroke as it reared up to spit again.

The creature let out a squelchy squeal, and suddenly, before Aronoke could pull away, it curled itself up into a ball.

That would not have been an issue, except it curled up so quickly and tightly, that Aronoke’s hand and practice blade were caught in the middle of it.

He tried pulling free, but the sticky glob had additionally stuck his hand and his blade to the middle of the creature. He tried lifting the creature to smash it against the ground, but it was awkward and heavy. He tried kicking it, but was too close for him to make much impact.

All the while, Aronoke could still sense the larger predator approaching. It was somewhat above him, just over the level of the canopy. He assumed it was something arboreal or something that flew. Wondered how he would fight it off if he was still trapped when it attacked. Even as he struggled to free himself, a plan began to form in his mind.

Suddenly the three other bug-creatures surrounding the other initiate scuttled off and disappeared into the underbrush, where they curled up like the first one had. They could also sense the approach of the predator in the trees, Aronoke realised.

“Careful, there’s something big up there,” called Aronoke, gesturing with his head. “About to attack us.”

About to attack him, he realised, as he caught a glimpse of a dark, tattered bat-like form preparing to swoop down towards him.

“I can’t get loose!” the other initiate yelled, tugging futilely at his glob-encased legs.

“It’s okay,” said Aronoke, focusing on the bat-creature. “I’ve got it.”

He changed position, switching his grip so his left hand grapsed the other end of the practice blade. Waited… waited… and as the creature swooped at the last minute, he rolled on the ground on his back, using his weight to swing the bug-thing between himself and the swooping predator. Sharp claws raked across the bug, tearing big rents in its carapace, but it was not over yet. The predator was coming around for another attack. This time, from his position on the ground, it was harder for Aronoke to move to shield himself. He managed by the merest whisker to avoid being clawed. The bat creature flew up into the trees, out of sight. Aronoke could sense it waiting there for something.

For its poison to take effect, he realised, as the bug-creature relaxed about his arm and came part-way uncurled. Whether it was dead or merely paralysed he was uncertain, but he wasn’t going to wait around to see. He worked his arm gradually free, and then went over to help the other initiate who was in the last stages of freeing himself.

“That was a fancy move you pulled there,” the man said, approvingly. “The name’s Piralon Thrux. Thanks for helping me with those things.”

“It makes more sense to work together,” said Aronoke. “I’m Aronoke.”

“I haven’t seen you around before,” said Piralon Thrux, but Aronoke thought it was not a good time for idle conversation. His Force senses suggested to him that this Initiate’s Force abilities were far stronger than he had demonstrated during the fight, so he was almost certainly only pretending to be sitting for the test.

Aronoke took charge.

“Come on,” he said. “That bat-creature hasn’t gone. It’s waiting to eat its dinner. We had better be off before it decides it wants an extra helping.”

He turned back towards the middle of the dome, “We should try to meet up with the others,” Aronoke said. “It makes sense that they will head towards the middle too. In fact, I think they’re ahead of us.” He could sense the other initiates closing upon the central location, and set off in that direction, reminding himself that it was not a race.

They made their way through the jungle, Aronoke using his force senses to avoid the other creatures which inhabited it. He was relieved that the bat creature chose not to follow them, but stayed behind, presumably to feast on the bug-thing. It was not a long walk to the centre of the arena, as Aronoke now thought of it. The other two initiates had arrived shortly before them. They turned to watch him approach, from where they stood looking at something.

Set into the ground were four platforms. If there was anything else to see it was buried beneath the dirt. It looked like the start of some sort of puzzle, Aronoke thought.

“Greetings,” said the human woman with the braids. She did not look like she had faced any difficulties reaching the centre. Did not have a hair out of place, Aronoke thought. “I’m Leptospora. The others introduced themselves as well, and Aronoke followed suit. The rodian was called Oobalur.

“So, I wonder what we are meant to do here,” said Leptospora, gesturing at the platforms. There was little enough to go on. Aronoke could not sense anything more even with his Force senses. The proximity of whatever was producing the Force energy was making it difficult to see anything subtle nearby.

“It looks like we are meant to work together,” said Aronoke. “Four platforms, four of us. I expect we each have to step onto a platform to trigger what comes next.”

“Seems reasonable enough,” said Piralon Thrux.

“Still, there is a possibility that it is a convoluted trap,” said Aronoke. “Although I don’t really believe it is. One of us should probably step up first, in case it is. No sense risking all of us at once.”

“Right then,” said Leptospora. “I’ll volunteer for that.” She strode over to the nearest platform and stepped upon it. Nothing seemed to happen.

The other initiates spread out, each choosing a platform at random. Aronoke stepped on his, then Piralon, and finally Oobalur.

As the rodian stepped into position, the platform Aronoke stood on began to vibrate gently. The ground began to shake gently and then to move. Dirt quivered in place, as if there was going to be an earthquake. Then plates slid aside underneath, revealing a cavernous opening. Walls began rising between the candidates. Some sort of spinning cylindrical construct, the source of the Force power Aronoke had sensed, began to rise in the middle. Runes indicating the qualities of Emotion, Ignorance, Passion, Chaos, and Death were marked on its sides and seemed to cover pressure plates or switches of some kind.

He was right. It was almost certainly some sort of puzzle.


“…One moment I was standing on the platform, and the next I woke up lying on the grass,” said Aronoke to Master Nethlemor. “I wasn’t trying to do anything, wasn’t feeling particularly stressed. I felt I was doing well and was almost enjoying the test.”

“Initial scans have revealed no physical abnormality or chemical imbalance to suggest why you might have lost consciousness,” said the medical droid. “Please remain still while some final data samples are taken.”

“There were no visions this time?”

“I don’t remember anything, Master,” said Aronoke.

“An investigation will have to be made,” said Examiner Nethlemor. “To determine why you were unable to complete your test. For now, just follow the medical droid’s instructions and you will be escorted back to your clan rooms once the scans are complete.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke. He felt confused and disappointed. Fainting in the middle of a test for no reason… was there something seriously wrong with him? Something left over from his injuries in the second test? Or was it another harassment?

Aronoke was left to lie in the medical bay for some time while further scans and tests were performed. Afterwards he was allowed to get up and make his way over to the shuttle to be taken back to the Temple. He tried to centre himself by meditating during the flight back. His mind felt tenuous and off-key, like after he had tried to detect Master Altus. The red haze still hung over everything, making his efforts curiously ineffective.

Master Insa-tolsa was waiting at the speeder terminal when Aronoke arrived.

“Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “I will escort you back to your clan rooms. It is better that you do not travel alone so soon after regaining consciousness.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke, subdued.

“Was there anything unusual about this incident?” asked Master Insa-tolsa, as they set off through the passages.

“I don’t know, Master. It was strange in that I was standing there one minute, not feeling particularly stressed. I didn’t feel dizzy or anything. Then I awoke lying on the grass. I have no idea what happened.”

“That is unfortunate,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “And quite peculiar. We must await the result of your extended medical tests before coming to any conclusion.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke dully.

“If it remains inconclusive, you will have to attend a meeting to determine the outcome of your test,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “It must be decided if you failed because of some external influence. If that is the case, you will be assigned a new test instead.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke. “It was going so well up until that point, too. I thought I was doing well.”

But, he reminded himself, the worst thing that could happen was that he failed. That he got to remain in the Jedi temple and repeat the tests again later. That was not so terrible.

But it might be terrible for Ashquash, he thought.

Aronoke spent the rest of the day quietly in the company of his clan mates. He went to bed early and tried to sleep, but woke up sweating. His mind was completely tangled, still full of red pulsing ropes of darkness.

This is no good, he thought. This is something unusual. He got up and went to the meditation room, but it was several hours before he really felt his mind was clear again. He was exhausted, ethereal and almost asleep on his feet by the time he had finished.

A few days later, Aronoke was required to attend the inquiry regarding his examination. It was held in a room near the council chamber he had visited when he first arrived in the Jedi temple. There were fewer masters attending this session. Master Nethlemor, the examiner was presiding.

“Initiate Aronoke,” said Master Nethlemor. “This hearing is to determine whether or not your recent examination, which was prematurely terminated and which you were unable to complete, should be deemed a failure or whether you deserve a second attempt to complete to test.”

“This is Master An-ku, who will be arguing in your defence, and Master Belor, who will be arguing that you have failed. Before we begin this process, I must ask do you yourself desire to perform a replacement examination, should this hearing be decided in your favour? If not, there is no necessity for us to continue any further at this time. You will be presented with another opportunity to sit for your examinations to become a padawan after you have continued with your training program as it stands.”

Aronoke was silent for a short moment. He was tempted by the opportunity to stay in the Jedi temple, but he did not like to fail without trying as hard as he could. And staying in the temple also meant that Ashquash and his other clanmates would continue being at risk.

“If this inquiry is decided in my favour, I agree to perform a replacement examination,” said Aronoke.

“Very well then. Before the Masters pose their arguments, both for and against you, what is your opinion regarding the test you have just failed to complete? Do you believe that you should have failed, or that you should be given a second chance?”

Aronoke hesitated. He could not decide either way, because he did not know why he had fainted.

“Please, speak,” said Master Nethlemor as the pause lengthened. “There is no correct answer.”

“I can not decide either way, Masters,” said Aronoke, giving an awkward little bow. “I remember nothing of how I came to faint. I was standing on a platform. I did not feel like I was about to faint. I felt curious about what was going to happen. I did not even feel particularly stressed. I felt I was doing well. And then I woke up lying on the grass. If I fainted because of some external influence, then I would say I deserve a second chance, but if I fainted because of some weakness in myself, well, then I do not.”

“Very well. Master Belor will now present his case.”

Master Belor was an elderly human man and he rose from his seat to speak.

“As Initiate Aronoke has so conveniently summated already,” he said, “fainting because of some internal weakness can only be classed as a failure on his behalf. The examination chamber has been carefully examined and its condition is no different than it has been during the many thousands of examinations which have already been performed in it. It is designed in a manner to make tampering with the results of examinations as completely foolproof as our technology allows. The probability of such interference is so minute that it can not be credited, without even considering what motive could possibly exist for wishing this specific candidate to fail. With no evidence of any tampering, the simpler suggestion is obviously the correct one. It is obviously a failure on Initiate Aronoke’s behalf.”

“Very well,” said Master Nethlemor. “Master An-ku?”

Master An-ku stood up.

“In the vast majority of situations there would be no question of such an event being anything other than weakness on Initiate Aronoke’s behalf. However, Initiate Aronoke has already been the subject of a number of peculiar harrassments and events which are extremely unusual in their nature. These interferences have proven unable to be prevented or traced, despite the efforts of a large number of Jedi Masters working in concert to do so. Firstly, it may be argued that Initiate Aronoke has already suffered unusual stresses due to these unwarranted attacks outside of the examination chambers, and that these events may have had a deleterious and unfair influence upon his performance during his examinations. Secondly, if we have been unable to trace the origin and path of these interferences previously, perhaps we are also missing something now. I argue that Initiate Aronoke deserves the benefit of the doubt due to the uncertainty of the situation, and should be given the opportunity to undertake a fourth test.”

Aronoke was doing his best to stand still and keep his mind calm. He was willing to let the masters decide for him. He would be satisfied, he told himself, whatever the result.

“So to make sure the situation is absolutely clear to all parties,” said Master Nethlemor, “I will outline the situation as it stands. Aronoke has already completed two prior examinations. The first, which was a test of Control, was ruled to be a pass, and the second, a test of his Sense abilities, was also ruled to be a pass. He also performed very well during the third test up until the point when he suddenly fell unconscious. He need only pass a third examination to be awarded the rank of Padawan.”

Aronoke felt a glow of pleasure. So he had passed the first two tests! He was pleased too, at Master Nethlemor’s evaluation of his progress through the third examination.

“Master Belor, do you wish to speak further?”

“I wish to speak in regard to Master An-ku’s first point,” said Master Belor calmly. “Other initiates also suffer stresses peculiar to their situation in the Jedi temple, which may, to them, seem as difficult to deal with as those experienced by Initiate Aronoke. Students are expected to pass the tests in spite of these pressures. It is part of the process. I do not believe that Initiate Aronoke deserves any special treatment in this regard.”

“Master An-ku?”

“My argument stands as presented,” said Master An-ku solemnly.

“Very well,” said Master Nethlemor, turning his attention back to Aronoke. “This concludes the portion of this inquiry requiring your presence, Initiate. Let me congratulate you on the successful completion of your first two examinations, and the successful completion of the portion of your third examination up until it was terminated due to medical concerns. You will be informed shortly as to the results of this inquiry, and should it be decided in your favour, you will receive notification regarding your substitute examination within the next week.”

“Thank you, Master Nethlemor,” said Aronoke. He bowed again and made his way out of the chamber, feeling relieved that it was over. Making his way back to the clan nest, he felt he had done better than he had thought he would. As he walked back, he noticed he was being followed by a droid – it looked like a protocol droid this time. It tailed him, not very unobtrusively, almost all the way back to his clan rooms. Aronoke didn’t want it wandering about there, close to his younger clan mates.

“What do you want?” he asked rudely, turning to confront the droid.

“Want, Initiate?” said the droid. “I do not want anything. I am merely performing my regular duties about the temple.”

“That’s a load of gundark piss,” said Aronoke, coining an expression he hadn’t used since his days as a skimmer. “You’ve been tailing me all the way back from the Council chambers. Why are you following me?”

“I assure you, I am not following you,” said the droid stuffily. Aronoke was carefully checking its identification plaque while it spoke, identifying its number. “There has obviously been some sort of peculiar coincidence that has led you to this mistaken observation. I admit the chances are-”

The droid suddenly stopped speaking and gave a peculiar little shudder. “Oh,” it said. “What a convenient situation. I believe I have a message for you, Initiate Aronoke.”

A familiar-looking holotransmission began.

“Aronoke,” said the scrambled voice. “I am disappointed that you chose not to receive the last message I sent you, but no matter. I have some important information for you. If you would like to help Master Altus, you will come to these coordinates tomorrow morning at seven hundred.”

The appropriate coordinates followed quickly, and Aronoke repeated them several times in his head to memorise them.

“Goodness!” said the droid, twitching its hands in the air feebly. “I don’t know what came over me. I have never been in this part of the temple before! I must return to my regular duties at once!” It tottered off, leaving Aronoke standing, watching thoughtfully until it disappeared from sight.

Reporting this incident in the usual way was obviously no good at all. When he had brought Razzak Mintula’s attention to an appointment like this, there had been nothing there to find. His assailant had stayed away. Reporting directly to Master Insa-tolsa had resulted in the message cylinder blowing up, again leaving no evidence. There had to be some other way to do this. In class, the younglings had been practicing writing by hand, on sheets of flimsiplast. Some were still lying about the clan common room, along with several writing styluses. Aronoke picked up a sheet and took it to his room, and with some difficulty, began to scribe a letter:

Master Insa-tolsa,

I am sending you this message because I have received another holo-transmission from a droid. The droid’s designation is TR443. It followed me back from the Council chambers after I attended the inquiry there. The holotransmission said I should go to a particular location tomorrow morning at 0700 if I wanted to help Master Altus. I am sending this message with Draken, so it might not be intercepted.


Beneath he wrote the coordinates the droid had told him.

Later that evening, an hour or two after dinner, he went to Draken’s room.

“Can I talk to Draken alone for a moment, please Golmo?” he asked. “In here?”

“Uh, sure, Aronoke,” said Golmo, looking a little curious. Aronoke had never asked anything like that before.

“Draken, can you do me an important favour?” asked Aronoke, once Golmo was gone and the door was closed. Draken was already looking intrigued. Aronoke knew he would enjoy a task like this one.

“Uh, sure,” said Draken. “What is it? Is it something mysterious?”

“Yes,” said Aronoke. “It’s important, or I wouldn’t ask you like this. Can you take this message to Master Insa-tolsa for me? He needs to see it right away, and I don’t want to be seen taking it myself. The less noticeable you are, the better it will be.”

“I can do that,” said Draken. He took the flimsiplast message, looking more nervous than Aronoke had thought he would. “Does Master Insa-tolsa know I’m coming?”

“No,” said Aronoke. “He’s probably in his chambers. I’m sure you can find them.”

“That shouldn’t be too hard,” said Draken, “but…ah…can’t you at least tell him I’m coming? He mightn’t be pleased.”

“I can’t do that. It would defeat the purpose,” said Aronoke.

“I see. I suppose if you want it to be secret that’s true,” said Draken, starting to look more excited.

“Don’t worry, I’m sure he won’t mind,” said Aronoke. “If you get into trouble with him or anyone else, you can tell them that I stood you up to it and I will explain to them. It will be fine.”

“Sure, Aronoke. Of course I can do it.”

It was the sort of mission Draken was perfect for, Aronoke thought, as his friend hurried out of the clan rooms. A way his clan could help him deal with his problems. He was well satisfied with having thought of sending a message by this means, and fairly certain that his harrassers would not expect this. He had tried nothing of this kind before.

Draken was gone for some time. It was not a short walk to Master Insa-tolsa’s quarters. He came back looking pleased with himself.

“It all went well,” said Draken. “Master Insa-tolsa didn’t mind at all. He’s quite nice really.”

The next day, Aronoke was careful to go out for a long walk around the time he was meant to go to the coordinates in the mysterious message. He figured that if his harasser had some way of observing his comings and goings this might convince them that Aronoke was doing what they wanted. Later that day he received a message asking him to go and speak with Master Insa-tolsa.

“That was well thought of by you to send a message by those means,” said Master Insa-tolsa approvingly. “We were able to intercept a droid at the coordinates you gave us. A red lightsaber crystal of an unsual kind was recovered from the droid.

“A lightsaber crystal,” said Aronoke, a little shocked. Such an item would not be trivial to bring into the Jedi temple. There would be serious risks involved.

“Indeed,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “This is something of a breakthrough in this investigation, Aronoke. I hope very much that some information leading from this might help us finally identify the perpetrator.”

“I hope so, Master,” said Aronoke, inwardly sighing. He held little hope by this time that his harasser would ever be found.

Several days later, he received a message from Master Nethlemor that the inquiry had decided that Aronoke could sit for a fourth examination.

One final chance. It would all hinge upon this last test. The subject for the examination was Moral Applications of the Jedi Code. The sort of thing Aronoke had always had trouble with. The sort of decisions that could get you killed on Kasthir. And yet, those were the rules Master Altus lived his life by, so it was obviously a viable choice.

Sighing, he set himself a reading schedule that covered all these moral topics. He carefully studied a wide variety of historical situations and moral tales to use as examples. Throughout this time he continued his lightsaber training, but decided to take a break from running.

To his relief, the fourth test was within the limits of the Jedi Temple. It seemed less likely that the examination could be tampered with there, with so many Jedi nearby.

Aronoke was precisely on time.

“Initiate Aronoke,” said the examination droid, when he arrived at the examination room. “Your final examination lies through this door. You may take up to twenty-four hours to complete it once you pass inside. Please step through the door.”

“Certainly,” said Aronoke, stepping through the door when it opened. Twenty-four hours was a long time for a test. What could it possibly involve?

Inside, he found himself in a moderately large chamber, almost cubic in shape. Before stepping forward, he allowed his Force senses past the shield of his control, out to the extents of the room.

Up near the ceiling, a large box hovered, suspended by two energy-beams. Aronoke could see two controls for operating the system, high up in the walls well out of reach, which would, if his evaluation was correct, move the box across horizontally and vertically. They could be triggered by using the Force to push them, something Aronoke was not very good at. He could tell also that hidden nozzles lay behind the controls. Operating each one would expose a nozzle, allowing something to flood into the room.

Water? Sleeping gas? Aronoke had no idea. He didn’t like the idea of water. He thoughtfully took off his outer robe and hung it over some pipework before beginning.

The pipework was at one side of the room and looked readily climbable, Aronoke noted.

First he decided to tap one of the controls to see what happened. That way he would be prepared for whatever lay ahead and could plan his next move. He reached out through the Force to push one of them. It was a simple mechanism, easy to push. It was no more difficult than lifting a pebble. While it was depressed, the box in the ceiling moved incrementally across the room towards the pipework. There was a hissing noise, as some sort of gas flooded the room. The temperature immediately grew a little colder.

Aronoke was relieved that it wasn’t water. He tried the other control. This time the box moved downwards. More gas hissed in. Aronoke noticed that moving the box downward produced far more gas than moving it across.

Very well then, he had a plan. He didn’t put his robe back on just yet, but continued moving the box downwards until it was at a height so that he would be able to climb on top of it. Then he used the first control to move it across to a position near the climbable pipework. The temperature in the room had dropped remarkably by the time he was finished, but controlling his body temperature was something even Clan Herf had studied, and Aronoke was able to maintain his at a comfortable level. Taking his outer robe, he tossed it up on the top of the box and began climbing the pipework.

The last step onto the top of the box was the most difficult. A thin patch of slick ice had already formed on the box’s outer surface. Unfortunately that was just the place Aronoke had chosen for a foothold. His foot skidded suddenly off into space, sending him plummeting headfirst towards the floor.

He twisted in mid air and landed on his feet. He rolled his eyes at himself. What was it with falling during these tests? Quickly he climbed back up the pipework, avoiding the slippery patch this time. Crouching on top of the cube, he put his outer robe back on.

On top of the cube was a simple puzzle square with sliding pieces that had to be moved to make a picture. Aronoke recognized the picture from some of his reading, of the Jedi Tower on Taris. The puzzle itself was simple enough to complete by trial and error, and was easier because he knew the picture. Once done, a panel clicked open, revealing a trap door that lead down inside the box. Down in there, Aronoke could see a chair, a desk and a datapad. The examination he had to complete.

Carefully he climbed inside the box, sat down at the datapad and began. The test was not as difficult as he had feared. Easier than writing the essays had been. Mostly he had to make moral decisions in regard to different situations, but the numerous examples he had studied stood him in good stead. The longer explanations some of the questions required were difficult for him to formulate, but still lay within his capabilities.

As he worked, Aronoke was aware that the nozzles in the walls of the room outside hissed occasionally, letting more gas in to cool the room. As time went on, the temperature grew even colder. Aronoke was glad when he came to the end of the examination paper, and quickly checked through his answers. He was relieved to climb back outside and push the buzzer on the outer door to be let out.

He had no doubts that he had passed this test, and felt pleased with himself. Everything had gone right this time, apart from falling off the box on his first attempt to climb on it.

He was even more pleased to receive his formal results a few days later.

“Congratulations!” said Master Insa-tolsa. “You have passed the tests required to pass to the rank of Padawan.”

Aronoke was silent for a moment. He was pleased that he had passed, certainly, but sad that Master Altus was not here. If his education had proceeded normally, he might have become Master Altus’s padawan after Hespenara had become a Jedi. It was certain now that he never would be.

“Thank you, Master,” he said.

“Typically your next task would be to forge your lightsaber,” said Master Insa-tolsa, “after which you would be available for selection by a Jedi Master. However, the Council has decreed that in your case, they will begin the selection process immediately and have called for expressions of interest from Masters wishing to take a padawan.”

“That’s good, Master,” said Aronoke.

“I believe there have already been several expressions of interest,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “Usually any Master wishing to take you would approach you directly, but in your case the Council has chosen to intervene and will decide on your behalf.”

“That is probably all for the best,” said Aronoke. He was glad that he would not have to worry about not being chosen, like Emeraldine had.

Razzak Mintula had congratulations to offer as well.

“I’m glad to see that your hard work has paid off,” she said. “Although you have not been here very long, and, I feel, perhaps not long enough, congratulations, Aronoke. I’m sure you will make a fine padawan.”

“Thank you Instructor,” said Aronoke, smiling.

“I’m sure your clan-mates will be eager to congratulate you too,” said Razzak Mintula. “They have been very excited, following your progress through the tests. It was been an excellent educational experience for them, one that I am certain will be of value to them when it comes time to prepare for their own tests in the years to come.”

“I’m glad that it has been of some benefit,” said Aronoke. He still felt that he had been hurried through his training far more than he would like. “I hope that all the trouble will now stop, and that things might be a little more peaceful for you and the clan, Instructor.”

Razzak Mintula sighed. “I know you would have liked to spend longer with us, Aronoke. I am certain, however, that despite the shortness of your stay here in the temple, that a strong bond has grown between you and the rest of your clan mates, one that you may come to appreciate further in your later years as a Jedi.”

By the time he became a Jedi, Aronoke thought, it was likely that his younger clan-mates would just be taking their tests to become padawans, although Ashquash and Draken could hope to graduate earlier if they were were diligent in their studies.

“Thank you, Instructor. I know that’s true.”

“I know Ashquash would like to congratulate you as well, but unfortunately she must remain in her rooms near Master Skeirim’s quarters for the moment.”

“Hopefully she will be able to return to the clan once I am gone,” said Aronoke sadly. It would be hard to not see Ashquash before he left.

“Perhaps,” said Razzak Mintula somewhat guardedly.

“How is she doing, Instructor? I hope she is improving.”

“You were not told, because it was decided that it was better to avoid distracting you from your tests, but Ashquash is not doing very well at the moment,” said Razzak Mintula. “Despite the precautions taken, she was drugged again during your tests.”

Aronoke was shocked. Outraged. “Again!? How can this keep happening, Instructor? I can’t understand how it can’t be stopped.”

“I can’t either,” said Razzak Mintula tersely. “It is just evidence that whoever is doing this is very powerful indeed, someone with considerable influence.”

“Well, perhaps she will be left alone once I am not here,” said Aronoke.

The younger members of Clan Herf were eager to help Aronoke celebrate and he found himself more popular than ever over the days that came next. There was nothing for him to do – lessons were over.

“You finally get a proper holiday,” said Draken self-righteously.

Aronoke laughed. “I suppose so.”

It was too difficult to do nothing. Aronoke rested more than usual, accompanied his clan-mates during some of their lessons, and spent free-time playing games and helping with homework. After four days of this, he received official notification that he had been assigned for apprenticeship to Master Ninnish Caaldor, a Jedi master who seldom came back to Coruscant, but would arrive to collect Aronoke in a few days’ time.

“Then you’ll get to go to Ilum to get your lightsaber,” said Draken enviously. “I bet you can’t wait.”

Aronoke shrugged. He felt that getting a lightsaber was another immense responsibility. Would forging a lightsaber be another kind of test, he wondered. How difficult would it be?

“It will certainly be exciting,” he admitted.

“I wonder what your Jedi master will be like,” said Draken, voicing Aronoke’s own thoughts. “I don’t expect you’ll come back here for a good long while, if at all, so we won’t get to know.”

“I’ll try to send a message when it’s appropriate,” said Aronoke. “Although you’re right – it could be some time before I can.”

The next afternoon a message came from Ashquash, a stilted recorded message, carefully cut-and-pasted. Ashquash wished Aronoke congratulations on becoming a padawan. She was glad he had passed his tests. Aronoke sent a carefully composed reply, sorry he was leaving Ashquash behind without properly saying goodbye.

Then the next day, his holocommunicator chimed, and there was Ashquash herself, no recording this time. She looked pale and thin. Her eyes were large and slightly wild. She looked dangerous and only barely in control, but determined and courageous.

“Aronoke,” said Ashquash. “I wanted to say goodbye properly. Will you come and see me?”

Aronoke hesitated just a moment, but surely there could be no harm in it.

“Of course,” he said.

“Then come now to the rooms at these coordinates.  I can’t stay long, but at least we can talk.”

They were chambers near Master Skeirim’s, Aronoke could see from the coordinates.  Rooms close to Ashquash’s new quarters.

“I’ll be there right away,” Aronoke said.

Walking through the familiar hallways of the Jedi Temple, he couldn’t help thinking that it was somewhat unusual.  Razzak Mintula had said he couldn’t meet with Ashquash, but he was confident that she wouldn’t lead him into a trap, and if she was still drugged and strange, well, he knew about such things from his time with Boamba.  He wouldn’t let himself or Ashquash come to any harm.

Aronoke palmed the door control when he arrived at the appropriate location and to his surprise the door slid back at once, without waiting for verbal confirmation from within.  Beyond lay typical rooms of the type kept to house Jedi Masters while they visited the Temple, much the same as those Master Altus had inhabited while he had been here.

Inside, Ashquash wheeled hastily to face Aronoke, looking tense and defensive, only relaxing when she saw it was him.

“Aronoke!  Come in,” she hissed and hurried forward to close the door behind him.

“Are you supposed to be here, Ashquash?” asked Aronoke.  “I hope you’re not going to get into any trouble over this.”

“As if I could be in any more trouble than I’ve already been,” said Ashquash, dismissively, stepping close to him and speaking softly.  “I couldn’t let you go without saying goodbye!  You’re my only real friend!”

“You know that’s not true,” said Aronoke.  “What about the rest of the clan?  You know that they care what happens to you.  Draken helped to rescue you too.”

“I know, I know,” said Ashquash dismissively.  “But they don’t really understand.  The younglings are too little, and Draken only thinks he knows what the seamier side of the galaxy is like.  He doesn’t truly understand what that sort of life is like, not like you and I do.”

“Nevertheless, they can still help you,” said Aronoke, but Ashquash made a dismissive, impatient gesture.

“They wouldn’t let me send a proper message before,” she said. “They were worried about what I might say.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Aronoke, smiling. “I’m glad that we can speak before I leave. I hope that things will go better for you now that I’m leaving. That everything will get easier.”

Ashquash looked down. She chewed her lip. Looked back up at him. “Master Skeirim has promised that it will,” she said steadily. “He said if it doesn’t stop after you have left, than he will take me away from here, to continue my training somewhere else where it can’t happen any more.”

“That’s good,” said Aronoke. “So he should too.”

“I’m not giving up,” she continued, glaring at him, making him smile because he knew she meant it. “I’m not going to let them influence me in this way, no matter what, if I’m only strong enough. I’m going to try as hard as I can, Aronoke, and one day, you’ll see. I will be a proper Jedi. I’ll come and see you when that happens. We will be Jedi together.”

“If you weren’t strong enough, Ashquash, than no one would be,” said Aronoke. “You’re the strongest person that I know.”

Ashquash looked away then. The faintest pink tinge highlit her bone-white cheeks.

“Thank you, Aronoke,” she said. “Thank you for helping me and being my friend.”

“You’re welcome,” said Aronoke. “Thank you for helping me. All the studying and the conversations that we had… I doubt I would have passed if I hadn’t had you to discuss all those moral tales with. Look after the others for me, the younglings, and Draken, if you can. And I’ll hold you to what you said, about meeting up when we both are Jedi.”

“You can count on it,” said Ashquash fiercely.

Aronoke smiled down at her.  She stood very close to him now, her eyes full of some undeniable emotion.  He felt a sudden hot rush of realisation that Ashquash was well and truly a girl – a young woman, he amended – and that he was attracted to her, even though he had always gone to great lengths to deny it to himself. He felt his face heating as his body began to respond to her close presence with an undeniable giddy enthusiasm.

And at that moment, just as he was forcing himself to step back, to take a deep breath, to use his meditative techniques to bring himself back under control, his habitual shielding from the Force was ripped aside by a sudden wave of energy.  It was not like the currents of Force energy he had felt exuded by strong sources of Light side energy, like powerful uses of Force by Jedi Masters.  It was not like the ropy red pulsing strands that had entangled him after he had fainted during his trials.  If anything, it was overwhelmingly green, filled with the vibrancy of living things. It pulsed undeniably through him like a new alien heart beat, exultant and demanding.

Suddenly Aronoke was completely aware of the workings of his own body, like he had been when he was injured during the trials.  He was also intimately aware of Ashquash and exactly how her body was responding to his own, like they were undeniably connected in some way.  He was mesmerised by the rush of blood through her veins, the fast beat of her heart, the building insistence of the attraction she felt for him. And then somehow, crazily, she was stretching up to kiss him, and his lips were pressing themselves against hers.  Her tongue flicked into his mouth, hot, wet and demanding. Her arms reached around him and pulled him against her, and he gasped, overwhelmed with confusing emotions.

Maybe Boamba had hugged him sometimes when he was a child, but it was certain that no one had since.

He felt a sudden hunger for physical contact that transcended any thought of restraint.  He pulled her more firmly against him, his hands groping clumsily to remove the frustrating barrier of her clothing.  Her pale hands had slid inside his tunic to touch his bare skin, and he shuddered with the intensity of the contact.  He felt the warmth of them against his back, and shivered as she slid them lower, under the band of his trousers.  He tugged at the ties that fastened hers, and they came undone with surprising ease.

And then his holocommunicator chimed insistently.

For a moment, Aronoke considered ignoring it, but the noise was enough to break the moment, to allow common sense and self-control to reassert themselves.

A sudden wave of shame washed over Aronoke as he realised what they were doing, already well on the way to being half-naked. Ashquash had a reason; she had been drugged and had not yet completely recovered, but he had no such excuse. His face burned hotly and he gently but insistently pushed Ashquash away.

“Aronoke!” she complained, still clutching at his robes.

“I have to answer this,” said Aronoke firmly, and he untangled her resistant fingers, and walked away into the back section of the room, straightening his garments.  He took a deep breath, and answered the call.  A tiny holographic image of Master Insa-tolsa appeared.  Aronoke knew the ithorian master well enough by now to recognise his expression as one of considerable concern.

“Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa.  “Is everything well with you?  I felt a sudden strange disturbance in the Force and it seemed to me to originate from your vicinity.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke, grateful that the holographic image was colourless, and would not betray his blushing.  “I inadvertently let my shielding slip for a moment, but now I am recovered.  Perhaps that is what you sensed.”

“Hrm,” said Master Insa-tolsa, seemingly unconvinced.  “Well, so long as you are certain.  I know this has been a time of some stress for you, Aronoke, and it would be sad if you were to suffer some mishap now.”

“I’m fine, Master,” said Aronoke, trying to slow his still-racing heart and to exert calmness over his rampaging hormones.  “I just need a little time to compose myself.”

“Of course, Padawan.  I need not remind you that you can come to me if you experience any further difficulties.”
“I will, Master.  Sorry to be the cause of such concern.”

He turned the holocommunicator off, and turned to Ashquash who was standing there, caught somewhere between alarm and unrepentance.

“I’m sorry,” said Aronoke.  “I shouldn’t have done that.  I lost control.  We shouldn’t be doing this at all, of course, but especially not now, while you are still recovering.  Things are confusing enough.”

“There won’t be any time later,” said Ashquash, bitterly, hugging her arms around herself.

Aronoke sighed, still struggling to regain equilibrium.  He couldn’t believe he had just acted like that, so uncontrolled, in the face of all his training.  He could only put it down to a relaxation of his usual vigiliance, in relief that the trials were over.

“Look, we are trying to be Jedi.  This is not a Jedi-like way to behave. I’m supposed to know better – I’ve just been made a Padawan and something like this could destroy everything.  Not just for me, but for you too.  Do you really want that?”

Ashquash looked uncertain, but the expression in her eyes made Aronoke think that she did not really care, that if he suggested they leave the Jedi temple and run away together, that she would take his hand and never look back.

“And besides,” he hurried on, resolutely, trying to ignore the small part of his mind that was already plotting out that strange alternate future, “you saw what just happened. Master Insa-tolsa has been watching over me for years, since I was a new initiate and scared of the power of my own senses.  If I lose control like that again, he won’t just call.  He’ll be over here in person to see what’s happening to me, in case it’s some new persecution dreamed up by our enemies.”

Hope died in Ashquash’s eyes and she nodded sadly.  Her shoulders slumped and she stared at the floor.

“I’m sorry, Ashquash,” Aronoke said.  “I’m sorry to confuse you even more.  I don’t know what came over me.  I’ve never felt anything like it.”

“It’s alright,” whispered Ashquash.  “I think I’d better go now.”  She slowly refastened her clothes.

“That’s probably a good idea.  I have to go too.”

She walked to the door, a small, sad, lonely figure.  When she reached it she took a deep breath, obviously preparing to face the world again, alone.

“May the Force be with you,” said Aronoke. It was the first time he had said it aloud.

“May the Force be with you too, Aronoke,”said Ashquash quietly, and she slipped out the door and was gone, leaving Aronoke wishing that he could somehow help her achieve her goals. He knew he really couldn’t, except by following what he was already doing. Going away.  What had just happened only made that more imperative.


When Master Ninnish Caaldor arrived, he did so in the middle of the night. Aronoke’s holocommunicator chimed, waking him up, and it was a few minutes before he could remember what the noise meant. When he did, he sat up groggily and composed himself a little.

“Ah, Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “Master Caaldor has arrived to collect you. He is here at my quarters. I realize that it is the middle of the night, but you should come and join us here. He is eager to meet you at the earliest opportunity and wishes to discuss his plans for leaving Coruscant with you.”

“Yes, of course, Master,” said Aronoke. “I will come at once.”

The Jedi temple never really slept. There were too many different species of Jedi with different sleeping habits to ever conform to any single schedule. Too many people from different planets accustomed to different sleeping cycles. It was important that Jedi were on hand at all times to deal with galactic disasters and issues as they arose. Nevertheless, the corridors and chambers were distinctly quieter at this time of night, and Aronoke felt excited and out of place travelling through them, like an explorer embarking on a great adventure.

Aronoke had been to Master Insa-tolsa’s rooms many times over the last few years, and knew the way well. Nevertheless, this time he felt more nervous than on his previous visits. He knew that he could have looked up information on Master Caaldor on the holonet and learned a little about what he was like. He had not wanted to. He felt he wanted to form his own opinion first.

“Come in, Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa when he chimed the door.

In Master Insa-tolsa’s rooms waited a human man, not exactly elderly, but grey and bearded. He was a little shorter than Aronoke himself.

“Padawan Aronoke,” said Master Caaldor. “It seems you are to be my new padawan. I haven’t had one for a very long time – about twenty years to be precise – but I expect we shall get along passably.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke. “I am pleased to meet you.”

“My last padawan was also a Chiss,” said Master Caaldor. “I expect that might be one reason why the Jedi Council settled you on me instead of any of the other Masters who expressed an interest in taking on a new Padawan.”

A chiss too? But there was only one other chiss Jedi.

“You were Master Bel’do’ruch’s Master?” Aronoke asked.

“Yes. She made an interesting Padawan, even if she was a rather slow learner.” Master Caaldor’s eyes twinkled mischievously, and Aronoke didn’t know whether to take him seriously or not.

“Master Insa-tolsa has been discussing your training with me in some detail,” Master Caaldor continued. “Not to mention these annoying incidents. All things considered, I am eager to leave Coruscant as soon as possible rather than wait until after the next shuttle is sent to Ilum. That is still some time distant, so I will request from the Council that I take you to Ilum en route to our next destination, so that you can forge your lightsaber immediately. That will be far more convenient.”

“Yes, Master, as you wish,” said Aronoke, smiling. He was pleased not to have to wait until the next shuttle. Going to Ilum with his new master would surely be far more pleasing.

“Very well then, we shall depart as soon as is practical. I trust you can be ready to leave tomorrow?”

“Of course,” said Aronoke. He had little enough to pack.

Master Insa-tolsa said something then and he and Master Caaldor fell into one of those conversations that older people enjoyed, full of people, places and situations which originated long ago, and Aronoke was left to listen. He was given some tea to drink and fruit to nibble on.

“You’ve been very quiet, Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa after a while. “Is everything alright?”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke mildly. “It is the middle of the night.”

“Why, so it is,” said Master Caaldor. “I was forgetting that you are on a Coruscanti schedule. You should probably get back to sleep. You can come and meet me back here tomorrow, at, let’s say, 1500 hours. Bring your things and we will leave then.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke. “I will do so.”

It was difficult to go back to his quarters and sleep, but Aronoke reasoned that the later he slept the better, since he would be doubtlessly be required to adapt to Master Caaldor’s schedule. He slept through breakfast, and tried to rest as long as he could, but was accustomed to getting up very early, and even with the interruption to his rest, could not sleep much later than 1000. He had a shower, packed his things carefully into his bag. There was not much to pack – a Jedi does not collect personal possessions. There was his datapad and practice sabre, several sets of new padawan robes, the old robes of Master Altus’s that Hespenara had given him, three years ago. Aronoke held them up against himself and looked in the little mirror inside the cupboard door. The robes would fit well enough in the breadth, but were short in the sleeves now. The legs of the trousers would end somewhat above his ankles. He felt sad as he folded the robes away into his pack. He wished he was strong enough to go and save Master Altus from the pain and torment being inflicted upon him, far away on that watery planet, but he was still only a padawan, and a scantily trained one at that. How could he rescue Master Altus when the green man himself had fallen prey to whatever trap or danger had struck him down? Master Caaldor would hardly be likely to take Aronoke to rescue Master Altus, when there were other Jedi trying to do that at the Council’s behest. He would have other duties, and Aronoke was being sent away to distance him from his enemies, not to seek out even greater danger.

At lunchtime Aronoke said goodbye to his clanmates.

“We will miss you Aronoke,” said the younglings. They were solemn and calm as befitted young Jedi, and Aronoke smiled down at them.

“I will miss you too,” he said. “But it won’t be as long as it seems. Work hard in your training, and I’m sure we will see each other again, when you are padawans, if not sooner.”

“Don’t forget to have some fun too, Aronoke,” said Draken mock-severely. “It shouldn’t all be about meditating and philosophy and doing your Master’s laundry.”

“Don’t get in too much trouble while I’m gone, Draken,” said Aronoke. “I expect you to look after these younglings. You’ll have to run the sparring classes now, you realise. It’s become something of a clan tradition.”

“I’ll do my best, Aronoke,” said Draken and then he abruptly turned away.

“Goodbye, Instructor Mintula,” said Aronoke. “Thank you for all the lessons and advice that you have given me. They have always been useful and I’m certain they will continue to be so.”

“Goodbye, Padawan,” said Instructor Mintula. “You have been a good student and a good example for the younglings to follow. You may have only been here a short time, but I am certain that you will do well as a padawan. Listen well to your new master, Aronoke.”

“I will, Instructor.”

And then he was walking along the corridor towards Master Insa-tolsa’s residence, shouldering the pack with all his worldly belongings, the first step towards an unknown destination amongst the stars.


{Continued in Aronoke – Book 2 – Padawan.  Chapter 1 coming soon!}