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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josie tensed herself to jump, and the statue moved.

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

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


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

‘Thank you,’ said the creature.

‘What for?’ asked Tash.

‘You caught me,’ she said.

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

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

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

‘Yes,’ said the creature.

‘I will put you down now,’ he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Okay,’ said Josie. ‘Thank you.’

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

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

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

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

‘Sorry,’ said Tash.

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

‘You can let me go now,’ she said.

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

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

‘What does that mean?’ he asked.

‘I am happy,’ she said. ‘That’s all.’

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

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

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

‘What does that mean?’ he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I suppose so,’ said Josie.

‘Uphill or downhill?’ asked Tash.

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

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

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

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

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

Tash was stone. Nera’s world turned swiftly around its cheerful yellow sun, and summer followed winter in bewildering succession. Men rose to greatness and built things to last forever, and their grandchildren saw those things wither and fail.

Time does not flow the same way in different worlds, and on the clouded world of the thalarka time sped by yet faster still. While Tash was stone the long rule of the Overlord ended and those who came after her fought one another with evil over-powerful things, and it came to pass that a lifeless grey sea roiled without ceasing over all the places Tash had ever known or heard of before he was cast into the void. But Tash knew nothing, felt nothing, saw nothing.


Josie was a prisoner in Telmar for several weeks before she found the door. Yustus was busy researching magics to make her see, and Eber and Jabeth had been sent off to the Valley of Fire, wherever that might be, and were not expected back for some time. (Jabeth was the ifrit who had found it such fun to let her ankle drop in midair.) Ureth and Saleh carried her up and down through the window of the tower on the infrequent occasions Yustus wanted to gloat or make some unpleasant measurement of her face; and Zardeenah provided her with every comfort. She remained friendly, and Josie remained none the wiser as to whether it was true friendliness or a sham. Zardeenah was willing enough to talk, but Josie soon learned the topics about which she could not speak, at the bidding of her master: it was useless to ask any question that might have some bearing on the possible weaknesses of the magician, or a way that Josie might escape. At night she often heard the howling of wild dogs in the lands beyond, and Zardeenah said that these were ones descended from the men of Telmar, who Aslan had turned into beasts.

‘I rather hope the gazelles don’t manage to persuade this Prince Margis not to come here,’ Josie thought to herself. ‘I should like nothing better than a Prince with an army of knights to rescue me from this tower. And that magician certainly deserves to have his head lopped off.’

During this time Josie explored the tower room thoroughly. A blind girl can explore a room quite as well as a sighted one, given enough time, and when she is done she knows a great many things that the sighted one still has no clue about. The door was one of those things you or I might walk past a thousand times, and not notice a thing, but to Josie’s sensitive fingers it was as obvious as a line of red ink on a whitewashed wall, and the handle concealed in the carved olive branches of the panelling no more hidden than a brass knocker. It was a door about Josie’s size, under a writing desk that was ifrit-sized, which was a further reason she supposed why Zardeenah did not seem to know it was there. She was consumed with curiosity about what might lie behind it. It was good to have something to think about that had nothing to do with her troubles – except, just perhaps, as the first link in a plan of escape. The door was locked, but she had a very good idea of where the key might be – there were several keys inside a little porcelain box on a high shelf. The problem was only that Zardeenah never left her alone.

‘But if humans are really so clever at fooling ifrits, like she says we are, I should be able to think of something.  Or I could ask, I suppose, since I have not been told the door is forbidden. But, then if it is, as it probably will be, she will be forewarned and hide the key, and maybe put something heavy in front of the door.’


After Josie thought of something to distract Zardeenah it all happened exactly as she had imagined: when the lady ifrit had gone, she retrieved the porcelain box, rummaged through it to find the keys and took them under the desk with her. In a most satisfactory way the very first key she selected slipped easily into the lock and turned, and the door opened. The air behind it was cool, with a faint smell of drains and mouldy straw, and the inside of the door was covered with a thick coat of dust. She stepped cautiously through the doorway, careful to touch the walls and floor only with her bare hands and feet, since she did not want to leave telltale smudges on her clothes. Beyond the door was a little landing for a spiral staircase with steps leading both up and down.

‘It is a sensible thing to be here,’ she thought. ‘The tower was probably built in the first place by men who didn’t have ifrit servants, and would need a way to get up and down. And even if it was built later by the evil magician, if I was him I would want a way to get anywhere without letting my slaves know, just in case.’ Josie put the ‘if I was him’ out of her thoughts – it was too horrible to think that it might ever be true – closed the door behind her, and started down the staircase.  She passed other landings, and there might have been other doors with keyholes that a sighted girl could have peered through, but likely as not it would have been pitch black in those rooms anyway. She hurried on toward the bottom, because she wanted to find out what was behind the door, which meant getting as far she safely could get in the short time she had.

The staircase ended in a small room with a very dirty floor. Something that could only have been the dried-out body of a rat crunched under the ball of Josie’s left foot. Here was a grate, from which the foul smell of drains was strongest; and here was a faint draught playing across her ankles, coming from under a door. She bent down and felt the cool night air trickling in, carrying with it the unmistakeable scent of honeysuckle. The hopeful outsidiness of the smell made her desperately keen to keep going.

Here was the door’s handle, rough with verdigris. She turned it with difficulty and pushed against the door. When nothing happened, she forgot she was trying to keep her clothes clean and threw all her weight against the door through her shoulder. On the third try, the door swung open with a loud crack and spilled her out through a honeysuckle vine onto the grass.

‘Well, that’s torn it,’ she said, fingering the tear in the shoulder of her dress. ‘It will be hard hiding that I’ve been somewhere I shouldn’t now.’ She stood up and dusted herself off. ‘So I should make the most of this adventure while I can.’

It is unfortunate that things that are beautiful and people who are kind do not always go together, for that walled garden was a very beautiful place and it would be nice to think that it had been planned by a man of Telmar who had something kindly inside of him, in order to imagine a place so lovely and peaceful. But history is full of tyrants who made the most beautiful gardens and temples and thought nothing of also making pyramids from the severed heads of the peoples they conquered, or fires to roast their enemies alive. So the man who planned that garden was very likely as horrid as all the other men of Telmar who come into this story.

The garden was round, with a wall on all sides, and had been planted with many different flowering plants which were now growing with a wild exuberance, though it had been kept up well enough that there were still lanes of lawn in between them. Next to the honeysuckle were oleanders, and then wisteria, and then several sorts of flowering bushes and vines that Josie did not recognise.  Standing around the edge where the marks on a clock would be were cypresses, and in the middle was a stone fountain, dry except for a little puddling from the rain. It was one of those fountains like a pie-plate, with an edge you can easily step over, a flat tiled expanse for the water to play in, and something in the middle for the water to come out of. This something was a pedestal about as high as Josie, with carved horses’ heads around the edges, and in the centre two sandalled stone feet that presumably connected to the rest of a statue – but Josie could not reach that high.

In one place in the wall there was a gate made of metal bars, but it was locked fast, and fit snugly into its stone arch, so there was no question of Josie squeezing through the bars or over the top of them. ‘So that way is out,’ she told herself.

Beyond the cypresses, right up close to the wall of the garden, were three more statues. There was a stag with his head low to the ground, as if he was about to charge; a large snarling cat that might have been a lioness or a leopard; and some sort of fairy-tale creature that Josie did not recognise. It was twice as tall as she was, and had bandy sorts of legs with clawed feet, arms that bent down at such strange angles that she bumped her head against them more than once – it did not help that there were four of them – and bits of it seemed to be carved into very realistically textured feathers. When she climbed it, since it seemed to be the tallest thing close enough to the wall for her to get an idea of how tall the wall was, she found it had a head like some great bird of prey.

‘What curious taste in statues these men of Telmar had,’ said Josie to herself. ‘It must have been a terrible lot of work to carve these things, and here they are tucked away in a corner of this garden.’

Josie found that by standing gingerly on top of the head of the bird-headed thing, supporting her weight by one hand leaning against the wall of the garden, she could just reach the top of the wall with the outstretched fingertips of her other hand.

‘I could probably jump and grab the top and pull myself up,’ said Josie to herself. ‘But there is no way of knowing what is on the other side. If it is the outside, I will have to deal with those wild dogs; and if it isn’t the outside, well, it could be anything. And the drop could be a lot farther on that side, for all I know.’

Josie was spared the chance to do something rash at that moment, or dither further about whether she should do something rash, by losing her footing and falling to the ground.

She lay there under something like a camellia bush, catching her breath. She had had the wind knocked out of her, and struck her elbow painfully on a foot of the statue, but did not seem to have broken anything.

‘Oh dear,’ she said to herself, hearing flapping in the sky above her. ‘Can Zardeenah be back so soon?’

There was more flapping as whoever it was entered a window, then she heard her own name called inside the tower. Very shortly afterward the sound of ifrit wings flapping came again, as Zardeenah – for it had been her voice – launched herself back into the air.

‘Back, I must get back,’ thought Josie, and scrambled to her feet, thinking at that moment only of hiding herself in under the blankets and pretending not to have been away when Zardeenah returned again. She had long practice at remembering the layout of new places on a brief acquaintance, so was able to run across the garden back to the door at a cracking pace without tripping over anything.

‘I will have to pretend I fell asleep somewhere peculiar, and didn’t hear her,’ Josie told herself, walking up the stairs as quickly as she dared. She knew her clothes would be dirty from falling to the ground, and it would be obvious to Zardeenah that she had gotten out somehow. ‘But maybe she won’t notice. Please, God, let her not notice.’

When Josie returned the ifrit did not seem to be there. She locked the hidden door, changed into a nightdress, took one of the underblankets from her sleeping pile, and curled up in a corner between a cabinet and the wood-box.

Before long there was the flapping of wings at the window, and a voice calling once more, bright with anger. ‘Josie?’

Josie stirred as if she was waking up from a deep sleep, and answered. ‘Yes?’

Josie could not see Zardeenah, but she could feel her eyes boring into her as she gave her a long stare. ‘Indeed, yes,’ said Zardeenah, the words pronounced so that they meant something entirely different.  ‘So, you have been there all this time?’ she asked.

‘All this time?’ said Josie.

‘Very well then,’ said Zardeenah. ‘Come out of there and sleep in the proper place.’

‘It felt more comforting over here when you were gone, somehow,’ explained Josie, acting as if she were younger than she was. She gathered up the underblanket and wandered over to her bed acting as sleepily as she could manage.

‘I don’t believe you for a moment,’ said Zardeenah. ‘Up to some scheming, I am sure. Well, I would do nothing else in your place.’

‘I’m sorry,’ said Josie, settling herself down on her bed of blankets.

‘There are stranger things in the world,’ said Zardeenah, and Josie could still feel the pressure of her inhuman gaze. ‘I have it mind not to tell you the news Saleh has brought.’

‘Please tell, Zardeenah,’ said Josie, ‘I really am sorry to worry you.’

‘Not so sorry as you will be when you hear it, girl,’ said Zardeenah, but her voice was not unkind. ‘It would only have meant his death, of course, but your ally from the human lands will not be coming to save you. He has turned back.’

‘Oh,’ said Josie, thinking of the man Margis she had never met. She had not known that she had put any hope at all in him coming to rescue her, but at the news that he certainly wasn’t, she felt a crushing sense of disappointment. ‘That’s too bad,’ she said.

‘Console yourself with the thought that he would certainly have died otherwise,’ said Zardeenah. ‘He and all of those with him. We ifrits are powerful servants.’

Josie did not find this a terribly consoling thought. ‘Do you know why he turned back?’ she asked.

‘His brother was thrown from a horse and broke his neck,’ said Zardeenah. ‘That is the tale Saleh brought. He was needed then to return to the city of the humans.’

Josie thought of Gerry and the accident again, and bit her lip. ‘Maybe he will try again later.’

‘Indeed,’ said Zardeenah. ‘Maybe he will.’


At midwinter Jabeth and Eber returned with two great diamonds from the Valley of Fire, and Yustus made Josie feel them.

‘Are they not splendid?’ he said. ‘They are exactly the right size, and a splendid shade of blue. I always think that a pale woman like you looks most imposing with blue eyes.’

Josie held the stones in her hands and wondered if they would smash if she were to hurl them at the floor.

Yustus snatched the diamonds out of her hands as if he could tell what she was thinking. ‘You are growing well,’ he said approvingly. ‘Soon you will have reached your full height, and then, ah, then let the world tremble before a new queen!’

‘I will kill myself first,’ said Josie. ‘I will.’

Yustus laughed. ‘No, you won’t. The power that is in you will not let you. The hunger for life is strong in you. I never saw the White Queen, but I recognise in you what is said of her in the tales. Only those who are exceptional in power are drawn through from world to world.’

‘You should be careful, then,’ said Josie. ‘Maybe I’ll work out how to use my power against you.’

‘Delightful, child!’ said Yustus, reaching out and patting her cheek. ‘Delightful! You just keep telling yourself that.’


At times it seemed to Josie that she had spent all her life as a prisoner of the evil magician. At first she missed her mother, she missed her sister, she missed potatoes and the smell of the bush and the hot Australian sunshine; but she missed these things less and less each day, and all her memories of her life before she came to the new world grew more and more vague and dreamlike.  From the passing of the seasons, she could tell that more than a year went by: a year of eating Telmarine food, and wearing Telmarine clothes, and only rarely speaking to anyone other than Zardeenah.  She could feel her body growing and changing – which would have happened wherever she was, but seemed almost to be a malign enchantment in Telmar. For she knew that when she had grown close enough to a woman’s size and shape Yustus would judge her big enough to steal her body, and this made the process of growing up, which was already nasty enough, truly horrible.

Every month or so Josie would be brought before Yustus, who would appraise how much she had grown and say again how fine her white arms would be splendid for casting incantations. Sometimes he would come up and squeeze her arms when he said how fine and white they were, and once he had her brought before him naked – so he could look her over for blemishes, he said – but he did not do any of the most dreadful things that Josie had feared evil magicians might do to girls they captured, especially after she had heard Zardeenah’s stories.

Josie often felt that she would have gone mad if it were not for the garden.  She could not go down there often, and had to plan her excursions very carefully so as not to be caught. When she thought about it, she was quite certain that Zardeenah had a good idea of where she had gone, that first night when she returned unexpectedly; but Josie was very careful not to give her any extra cause for suspicion. Thinking about how she would next get out took up a good deal of Josie’s time; and when she was out, she savoured every moment of the outside air on her skin and the smell of the garden, and learned every branch of the bushes until she could navigate in the garden as easily as she could in her bedroom at home.  Sometimes she would sit underneath the statues and talk to them.

It was a summer evening and the crickets were loud, and Josie was stretched out on the grass beneath the statue that was rather like a lion.

‘It seems a terrible shame to bring me here just so I can be a prisoner and then be taken over by an evil magician. What is the point of it all? I wish I knew what was going on. Please, Aslan, if you can hear me, do something to get me out of here.’

These were the sorts of thoughts that had gone and on around in her head unceasingly all year. She prayed a little prayer. ‘Please, God, help me to get out of here.’ She tried to be calm, and breathe slowly, and told herself for the ten-thousandth time that while there was life there was hope. After a while she felt a kind of peace.

‘It will be all right in the end,’ she told herself. ‘It has to be.’

She gave the face of the great stone cat a familiar pat, and made her way back to the door at the base of the tower.

The next day Yustus told her she was ready.

“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.



Yustus’ room was warm and comfortable after Josie’s painful journey through the skies, but it had a feeling of menace to it, the feel of a place where terrible things had happened once and might well happen again. How she could tell this from the smell and the sounds of the room and the feel of the upholstery against her hands, Josie could not say, but she knew it to be true as clearly as she could tell wool and eggshell apart.

‘Why have you brought me here?’ Josie asked the evil magician. She coughed.

‘Because, I heard that you had come here from another world. Bring her something to drink,’ Yustus commanded, and an enamelled cup filled with some sort of fruit cordial was almost instantly pressed into her hands. It smelled pleasant, but Josie did not drink it immediately. ‘There is something that only someone from another world can help me with. Something I have been working on for a long time.’

‘What is that?’ asked Josie.

‘We have plenty of time to explain the details,’ said Yustus. ‘All the time in the world. I would not concern yourself with that now. Have you indeed come from another world?’

Josie considered refusing to answer Yustus’ questions, but instantly discarded the idea. He seemed quite capable of being very nasty to her, and had answered her questions so far – after a fashion – so there would be a kind of injustice in not answering his. ‘Yes,’ she said. She coughed again.

‘Drink, drink, you silly child,’ said Yustus. ‘How can you talk when you are coughing all the time?’

Josie had been at school enough to get accustomed to obeying orders from unpleasant people, so took a drink of the cordial. It was made of some citrus fruit she did not quite recognise, and nice enough that she very quickly drank it all without noticing.

‘Have you come here with any brothers? Perhaps a male cousin? A fiance?’

‘No,’ said Josie. ‘I am alone.’

‘Whyever do you keep your eyes shut, child?’ said Yustus impatiently.’ Have a look around you at the glory that was Telmar.’

‘She is blind, Master,’ said Eber’s voice, as Josie was opening her mouth to say the same thing.

‘Blind? Fool among ifrits, why did you not tell me this at once?’ The brittle mask of friendliness fell from Yustus’ voice.

‘I crave your pardon, Master,’ said Eber, in an tone of oily subservience that Josie could tell hid contempt for the human who had somehow gained power over him. ‘It seemed that you wished to speak with the child at once, and I did not wish to interrupt.’

‘Bah!’ said Yustus. ‘Is what this fool among ifrits tells me the truth, child?’

‘Yes,’ said Josie.

‘Well, that is a problem.’ He paced back and forth. ‘It would be better if you were a man, but there is no shame in that; after all, the Queen-that-was-is-and-shall-be is a woman. I expect that will be quite interesting. But the blindness, that is another matter. A serious one.’ Back and forth the man paced, his boots striking the floor emphatically. ‘There will be a way around it. A magic. There always is something. Yes, I remember reading about artefacts for such things. Enchanted jewels. It can be done. I will do it. It will just take some time and preparation. We have all the time in the world.’

Josie had not really felt scared of the Master of the ifrits before; she had been too glad not to be manhandled through the air any more, and more angry than afraid. But what he was saying now frightened her.

‘What do you mean?’ she asked.

‘I was going to keep it a surprise,’ said Yustus petulantly. ‘We have plenty of time. But no matter. There is no harm in telling you. There are things that only a body that has come from outside this world can do: very important things. Things I have been waiting a very long time to do. So we are going to swap. I will have your body, and you will have mine.’

‘That’s not possible,’ said Josie, trying to keep her voice steady.

‘Oh, it is,’ said Yustus, sounding very pleased with himself. ‘No one else has done it, but I have done it. This is not my first body. Nor my second.’ He laughed.

Josie could not think of anything else to say. She concentrated very hard on being brave and thought of the kindly voices of the rock-badgers and the gazelles. She thought of Aslan, who seemed to show up at the end of stories in this world and make things alright. She tried to pray to the God of her own world, who used to show up in stories thousands of years ago, but the words got tumbled and tangled together in her head.

‘You can tell me more of your world later, child,’ said Yustus. ‘I will be interested to hear of it. But now, I have much to do. Take her away.’

‘Yes, Master,’ said a chorus of ifrits.

‘You’re not going to fly for miles and miles again, are you?’ Josie asked, as the gigantic over-warm hands of the ifrits pulled her not ungently up from her chair.

‘Many leagues,’ said one of the ifrits.

‘As many as there are grains of sand in the desert,’ said another, with an evil laugh.

‘Do not listen to them,’ said Eber. ‘It is not far.’

It was a very short trip and seemed to be mostly up. The night air was blessedly free of Yustus’ nasty perfume, but the room she was brought into next was even thicker with the same kind of smells.

‘Zardeenah, here is the man who has come from the other world,’ said Eber.

‘Indeed,’ said a voice that could only belong to a lady ifrit. It was a voice like wild honey and the fancy cream soups they served on board the steamship and was not at all kind, not exactly, but from the very first word Josie felt it to be more trustworthy than the other ifrits. ‘I am called Zardeenah, girl. What are you called?’

‘Miss Furness,’ said Josie. She felt a strong urge to call this lady ifrit, ‘Ma’am’ and struggled against it on principle.

‘It is a well-fashioned name,’ said Zardeenah. ‘You may go,’ she said to the ifrits who had brought Josie, and they departed in a great flurry of wings.

‘You have had an arduous journey,’ Zardeenah went on. ‘You must be tired, and hungry, and you appear very disorderly.’

‘Yes,’ said Josie. ‘I have been dragged about from world to world and place to place like a – I don’t know. Nothing makes sense, and everything here is so horrible.’ She had not meant to say so much.

‘Now, now,’ said Zardeenah. ‘We will do one thing at a time, and the first is to see you properly settled.’

Zardeenah led Josie to a low table and sat her down on a cushion, and there were pleasant things to eat and drink: much more of the fruit cordial she had before, and pomegranate juice, and the sorts of human food she had not had for some days; a great slab of roast pork, bread and olives and pickled turnips, a kind of toasted cheese that was very nice indeed, and to finish off, pastries that were sticky with honey. Josie was hungry, and ate a great deal.

‘Now to deal with your hair,’ said Zardeenah. A hot bath had been run somehow close at hand while Josie had been eating, in a vast stone tub that made sense when Josie thought of how large the ifrits seemed to be. Zardeenah washed Josie’s hair, and then combed some kind of strong-smelling oil through it. She had quite a skill at untangling hair, Josie thought; it was getting done much quicker than she had thought it would be after her days sleeping out of doors, without any matted places having to be cut out or painfully pulled apart.

‘That man – that magician – wants to swap bodies with me,’ said Josie.

‘I know,’ said Zardeenah. ‘He is our master, and we cannot go against his wishes. But we do not have to approve of everything he does.’ Whether Zardeenah was really kindly, or was just artfully pretending kindliness, had ceased to matter to Josie.

‘Has he really done it before?’ asked Josie.

‘Yes, Miss Furness,’ said the ifrit. ‘Once in my time, and twice in the time of my mother before me. The body he is in now is the body of a brigand who killed a man and ran away over the mountains to avoid the revenge of the man’s family. Better for him that he had suffered it!’

‘I have to get away,’ said Josie, fighting back tears.

‘Indeed,’ Zardeenah said. ‘You are lucky that you are blind, or he would have begun the rituals at once. But he will be a long time looking for some magic to restore your eyes, and in that time, who knows what will happen? You may think of something, or an earthquake may level this place, or an ally may turn up for you. Who knows, maybe the Lion will come again?’

‘I guess so,’ said Josie.

‘There, that is done. Now we will get you dressed, and you can sleep.’

‘I don’t think I can possibly sleep,’ said Josie, but in truth she was already feeling relaxed and sleepy from the bath.

Josie’s old clothes from the ship had vanished while she was in the bath, and instead there was a nightdress of some light smooth fabric that smelled strongly of cedar. After wearing the same clothes for day after day and night after night, clothes that were intended for a very different climate, it was very comfortable indeed

‘Probably they are just being nice to me so I won’t try to run away,’ thought Josie to herself. But at the moment there seemed nothing else she could do.

Zardeenah led her to a pile of blankets on the floor – so very soft and comfortable they were, much nicer than meadows, or even her bed on the ship – and she fell asleep nearly at once.

Josie dreamed all night that she was back at school, doing problems in geometry. However long she took to do a problem, it seemed that hardly any time passed, so that she began to despair of the lesson ever ending.  When she finally awoke she ached all over from being carried through the air, but not nearly as badly as she thought she would.  It was more like the almost comfortable ache you sometimes get after exercise than the screaming pain she had dreaded. It was very comfortable to lie in bed in the morning – or the afternoon, it felt more like an afternoonish kind of warmth – knowing she did not have to get up and go to school. If she had not been the prisoner of an evil magician who wanted to steal her body, and if she had not been separated by an unimaginable gulf of space and time from everyone and everything she had ever known, it would have been perfect.

‘I suppose it makes sense that Yustus would be nice to me,’ she said to herself. ‘He would not want to worry me and make me sick, if he is going to take my body over.’ She tried to think of something more pleasant, but everything she thought kept bringing her back to her present troubles. ‘I was just saying how everyone in this new world had been so kind to me.’ She sighed. ‘And now the gazelles will be worried about me as well, and Murbitha will get in trouble.’

After a while Zardeenah fetched Josie out of bed and made her have breakfast. There was strong and rather gritty coffee that she did not much like, and a kind of flat bread sprinkled with salt and herbs that she did.

‘So you are an ifrit?’ she asked Zardeenah over breakfast.

‘Indeed,’ said Zardeenah.

‘If you will pardon me asking, what is an ifrit exactly?’

‘We are the people of the fire,’ said Zardeenah in a good humour. ‘All things that are fiery delight us; and as the fire rises, so we fly, as you have seen. We ruled these lands before men came, together with the djinn, the people of the air.’

‘I have a feeling I may have heard of you somewhere – in my world they have stories about people like you, who are magical and fly and live in places like this, where there are pomegranates and gazelles.’

‘I am pleased to hear that our fame has spread so far,’ said Zardeenah.

‘In the stories they – the djinns, anyway – are always making deals with men to use their magic that turn out badly for the men.’

‘Would that it were so!’ said Zardeenah. ‘The truth is unfortunately very nearly the other way around. We are forever making deals with men that turn out badly for us.’

‘Come to think of it, some of the stories are like that, too,’ Josie admitted.

‘For instance, my parents had dealings with men that ended with me and all my brothers and sisters slaves to this magician.’ Zardeenah sighed.

‘That’s terrible!’ said Josie. ‘Why would they do such a thing?’

‘At that time they were in trouble, and it was made to seem the easiest way out of their troubles. At times we find the words of men very convincing. Sit still a while longer, and I will comb your hair again.’

‘How many brothers and sisters do you have?’ asked Josie.

‘We were seven; four boys and three girls,’ said Zardeenah. ‘I am the eldest.’

Josie decided it was best not to tell Zardeenah how horrid her brothers were. Perhaps Zardeenah would have been horrid to her as well, if she had not been commanded to be nice. ‘Will I meet your sisters?’ she asked.

‘Alas, no,’ said Zardeenah. ‘Our master sold them.’

‘Oh,’ said Josie. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘When the humans first came to this land, they were nearly all men, and it was said that their honeyed words and earthbound beauty enticed many of our young women away, so that today there is much ifrit and djinn blood in the veins of the men of the south. Then we took ourselves away into the wild places so that we would have little to do with men. But there are still those among the Sons of Frank who desire wives from the daughters of the Efreeti, and if they cannot find them they are not above buying them; them, and the magics that keep them slaves. For my sisters were each enslaved to obey the wearer of a particular ring, and so long as their owners bear their ring they can do nothing  that he does not wish them to do.’

‘That’s disgusting,’ said Josie. ‘The men in this land do not seem very chivalrous.’

‘I do not know that word, chivalrous,’ said Zardeenah.

‘I am not surprised,’ said Josie glumly. ‘Why did he not sell you as well?’ she asked.

‘He would if he could, for I would have fetched a better price than my sisters. But he did not dare. I know too many of his secrets, and if I ever had another master I could use them against him. But my sisters did not know many of his secrets. They were young when they were sold. Sharnah was about your age, and Ayeshah a little younger.’

‘That’s terrible,’ said Josie.

‘There – your hair is done,’ said Zardeenah. I will tie it back, and then it will not be too disordered when you are brought to meet the master again.’

The master – that is, the wicked magician Yustus, as we should be in the habit of calling him, not being his ifrit slaves – approved of Josie’s clean hair and Telmarine clothes.

‘Much improved,’ he said to himself, when she was standing in the downstairs chamber like a china doll on display in a cabinet. ‘That is a figure I can see commanding armies. Raise your arms above your head, child.’

Josie saw no reason not to obey this command, and raised her arms.

‘Yes, those will be fine arms for casting incantations. It will take some getting used to, but still, I could do much worse. There will be all the time in the world. You can put them down now. Yes, in your form I will do great things.’

Josie flinched then, for Yustus and the foul perfume that hung about him had suddenly taken a few steps forward, and he had taken her chin in his hands. Now he was prodding at her eyes, quite unpleasantly.

‘There is just the matter of these. Diamonds will be best; yes, diamonds. I will send Eber to the Valley of Fire, there should be suitable stones there.’

Josie twisted her head out of the magician’s hands. ‘I’m not your toy,’ she said. ‘And you’ll never use my body to command armies, or see through diamonds with my face. I’d kill myself first.’

‘No, you won’t,’ said Yustus.  He ran his hand gently across her cheek. It was encrusted with stone rings and made her skin crawl, as if it were some loathsome creature you might find living under a rock.

‘We have that much in common,’ said Yustus, as she drew backwards away from him. ‘You have the same hunger for life that I do. I can sense it. And that will keep you hoping until the very last minute; and then it will be too late.’

Josie knew that what he said was true. ‘It’s not true,’ she said. ‘I’m not afraid to die.’

‘You only say that because you know you have no choice,’ said Yusuf, running his fingers through her hair. ‘What if you were not doomed to die, but could live forever?’

‘That’s stupid,’ she said, stepping backward again.

‘Those who are born here are doomed to die,’ he said. ‘The most powerful magics can give youth and strength and length of life, but at the end they will fail. But if a man comes from another world into this – then, O then, there are magics that can make him truly immortal.’

Again he ran her fingers through her hair, and again she took a step backward.

‘Know, child, that at the very uttermost end of the world there is a garden where magic apples grow,’ said Yustus. ‘Magic apples of immortality. When I was young I made a journey of many years to find them and bring them back here. Three of us set forth, and only I returned. I faced countless trials and torments. I doubt there has been any greater journey in the history of the world. I found the apples; I brought them back; but when I returned to Telmar I found that I was alone. My people had been turned into beasts by the magic of the accursed Lion. But he missed me. It was my destiny to escape his anger, and my destiny to keep all the apples for myself.’

‘It’s a pretty pathetic thing to be proud of,’ she said. ‘More likely you were too unimportant to bother with.’

Josie had backed up into a chest of drawers and could back up no further, and this time when Yustus ran his fingers through her hair he gripped it cruelly and pulled her head back. She could feel his nasty hot breath in her face.

‘It was destiny, I tell you. If the Lion did not want me to have the apples, he would have stopped me. And I was not unhappy to find Telmar empty. No, I exulted in it. Why should I have to share my prize? Or have it stolen from me by old fools? Never, little girl, never!’

‘Ow,’ said Josie.

Yustus let her hair go. ‘I still have some of the apples,’ he said. ‘Preserved by my magic for all these years. I will take your body, and then I will eat again, and this time it will not just be youth and strength. This time I will become immortal. I have waited lifetimes for this moment. These are glorious days.’

Josie was very grateful when Yustus at last summoned the ifrits to return her to Zardeenah’s tower.

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.”

If anything it was worse than the first time Tash had fallen into the void. Lights burned Tash’s eyes, unnameable sounds deafened him, and he felt like he was being torn apart. He and Nera tumbled through what seemed like a hurricane of blowing stones, then a fog that burned the skin, then a waterfall of something like lime ice seething with angry biting creatures. Tash clutched on to Nera with all his strength. There was darkness, and more burning, and cold, and light again. The pain seemed to go on for an age of the world

‘It will end, it will end, it will end,’ cried Tash. But he could not hear his own words.

Something heavy struck Tash and he found himself sprawled across it. It was stone. A stone floor. He had lost his grip on Nera. It was not at all silent: there were voices, making sounds that Tash could not think into words, and other sounds – the crackling of a fire, the crash of something glass falling to the floor. The air smelled almost pleasant, with smoke and aromatic oils and a vaguely animal smell he did not recognise. Tash got to his knees dizzily and looked about for Nera.

‘It is Number Five back,’ said an irritable human voice. ‘She seems to be dead.’

‘By the Lion’s arsehole!’ said another angry voice. ‘She had better not be. We don’t have any more children to spare.’

Two human beings, taller than Nera, dressed in similar black garments, had come up and were standing over a broken thing that lay about a dozen feet from Tash. A liquid much the same colour as the stones the priests wore in the tower of the Overlord was leaking from it.

‘No,’ said Tash. ‘No…’ He stumbled miserably toward the body. What had happened? He had held her so tightly. It must have been a sharp stone in the storm of sharp stones, striking her there. No, no, no. This was not how it was supposed to be.

‘What is that thing?’ said one of the human beings, looking at Tash as if he had not been visible until that moment. It was alarmed, but nothing like as alarmed as you or I would be if a creature like Tash appeared unexpectedly.

The other snapped its head up to look at Tash. ‘I have no idea. Do you think it killed Number Five?’

Some of the red liquid was on Tash’s hands. Nera’s blood. He was bleeding himself, from several little cuts. He stood up to his full height, which hurt. ‘I was trying to save her,’ he said pathetically.

‘Well, that does not appear to have been a success,’ said the human who had first noticed Tash. It came up to Tash’s bottom pair of shoulders, and had fibrous material around the front of its face as well as on top. ‘We could find you another one, if it is particularly important.’

Tash shuffled forward to Nera, paying no further attention to the larger human beings, and crouched down beside her. She was not breathing. Rather a lot of blood had spilled out onto the floor from the hole in her neck. No, this was not how it was supposed to be at all. He was supposed to be a hero. ‘No,’ he said. He struck his head with his hands, again and again.

When Tash did not reply, the human with the fibrous stuff on its face spoke more softly to the other, who looked something like a larger version of Nera. ‘Zara, probably best to get the wand, just in case.’

Then he addressed Tash more loudly, ‘What is your will, Dread Creature of Nightmare?’

Tash paid it no attention.

‘If you have any knowledge of the Elder Magics, we may well be able to come to some mutually beneficial arrangement.’

Tash struck his head with his hands again.

‘Where have you come from?’

Again Tash said nothing, crouching miserably by Nera’s side.

‘Bah!’ said the human. ‘Good, there you are, Zara. I don’t think this thing is dangerous. Or particularly powerful. But it does look like it will cause trouble. I think we should petrify it for now, and we can figure out what to with it later.’

‘I agree, Zymung.’

Tash learned then that petrification is not instantaneous, and that one ceases to be able to move or see quite a while before one stops hearing things. He had his face hidden in his hands, but he still saw a flash of white, and felt a painful throbbing noise that seemed to be only in his head.

‘When Yustus comes back with the apples, I am sure he will have some good ideas about what to do with this unexpected monster,’ said Zara.

‘Of course you do’ said Zymung. ‘You always think Yustus has good ideas. You would be happy to see Yustus as master over us all, I am sure. But he is just one voice, and nearly the youngest.’

‘The fact that he is young does not make him wrong,’ said Zara, with a sharpness that reminded Tash of his mothers.

‘You should use your understanding with him to make him understand his place, instead of encouraging him in his ambitions.’

‘I hardly think you are in a position to be giving anyone advice, Zymung.’

‘It is too bad about Number Five. I really thought it would work this time.’

‘Yustus should watch himself’


And then Tash’s ears were turned completely to stone, and he knew nothing.