Zak spent most of the day in the room given to him by Jedi Master Luke
Skywalker—a title which in itself shocked him—sifting through the mechanics on
his bench, checking out the clothing he had been provided. He even chanced a
look at some of the historical documents, starting with the Rebel Alliance’s
destruction of the horrific Death Star, marking the turn of the tide of the
Apparently, he soon found, people started to mark time by the Battle of Yavin. Beforehand, it had always been the Treaty of Coruscant that had been the time marker. But now everything was BBY—Before the Battle of Yavin—or ABY—After the Battle of Yavin. It would take time to get used to.
Before lights out that night, Luke had summoned both he and his sister Tash to meet him on the roof of the building. Zak knew why before he’d even left his room. It had been many years since he had seen Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Princess Leia—Leia Solo now, he reminded himself—and he knew that the great Jedi would want to know all that had happened to Zak and his sister since they had last seen each other on Kiva. It wasn’t a discussion that Zak was looking forward to, and he really didn’t want to be reminded of what he and his sister had lost. He could tell by the amount of times that his sister choked on her own words that she was having difficulty with it as well.
He knew she missed their uncle as much as he did—not that he was really their uncle. He was only related to them because his brother had married their mother’s younger sister. But, still; if it hadn’t been for that humourless, overprotective and often mysterious shape-shifter, they would have died when—
He pushed it out of his mind whenever it popped up.
But it was part of the reason that he could get no sleep that night, no matter how much he tried to exhaust himself. It was that, and Tash’s last words to him before they both departed for bed plagued his thoughts.
“I want you to promise me something,” she had said. “I want you to promise me that for as long as we’re here, you won’t go looking for trouble.”
He snorted at the thought as he turned to his side and clamped his eyes shut again.
He couldn’t quite bring himself to see what it was that she could have meant by that. In all of their years together running from the Empire, he had not once ever gone looking for trouble. Trouble had come looking for him. And when it came looking, it usually found them both.
Around midnight, or Zak’s approximation of midnight, he decided that lying in bed staring at the ceiling or the wall was going to do nothing for him. He needed to exhaust himself somehow.
He decided then and there that a walk would do just that. Not an especially long one—a short one if at all possible—but a walk nonetheless. To Mustafar with Tash’s attempt to order him around, he thought to himself. It was a new life for them, and he felt that there was no place safer than under the protection of the galaxy’s greatest Jedi.
Pushing himself out of bed, he hastily donned a dark tunic and darker robe from his wardrobe, tucking the gloves into his belt for the moment and tugging his boots on while heading for the door.
He opened it a crack and leaned close to the narrow opening to see if he could detect the sounds of sentries—human or otherwise—nearby. There were none. In fact, he had the strongest sense that he was the only one awake at this time. Even the Jedi mentors had fallen into deep slumbers. It was one of those feelings of certainty he had grown used to on the run from the Empire.
But the lack of a sentry altogether only reinforced in Zak’s mind the amount of trust that Skywalker placed in everyone there; trust that no one would go sneaking out at this hour—that trust was only slightly misplaced in Zak. He felt guilty about that, but he was sure that Luke would understand.
Zak moved quickly, drawing his robe tightly around him and holding it closed at the waist, throwing the robe’s hood over his head. He dashed out of the room and banked an immediate right where he then dashed around the outer walls of his room and up the corridor past the mentors’ rooms. He followed the corridor to the lift banks along the north-eastern corner of the level. He waited quietly, impatiently, for one to open at his presence and then ducked inside quickly, slapping the control that would take the lift down to the next level.
It would take more effort and sneakiness to escape this place at night than it ever would have taken him back on GemDiver. Whenever he found it difficult to sleep at night on the station, he often snuck out of the guest quarters assigned to him and made his way to the observation decks on the upper levels for some peace and solitude. The lift banks on GemDiver took him many levels. The difference here was that each lift bank only went between a pair of levels, instead of more than that. Maybe it had something to do with the stepped design of the building, maybe it was something else.
When the lift stopped on the second level, Zak peered out through the open doors, checking again for sentries, before stepping out and around into the northern corridor.
He looked down the adjacent corridor, running down the eastern side of the level in front of the row of rooms and strained his ears for even the faintest of sounds. Again, he heard nothing save the gentle hum of power from the lifts across from him. He darted forward to the next set of lift banks—one lift stood open, ready for him—and darted inside the lift. Catching his breath, he pushed the control to take him to ground level and closed his eyes for the duration of the trip down.
Less than five minutes later, Zak was outside in the cold air of the night time jungle. It was dark out, but not too dark. Light from the many stars overhead shone down upon the moon, giving him enough to make out shapes and shadows in the gloom.
He took several paces away from the outer wall of the massive stone building and opened all of his senses to the jungle.
A handful of sounds alerted him to the wildlife and movement in the nearby jungle. Whisper birds were quiet at this hour, as were those few woolamanders that dared to come this close to any area humanoids occupied. There was a faint, faraway buzz as a swarm of piranha beetles surged through the air in search of unsuspecting prey, and the slither of a crystal snake hidden somewhere in the underbrush of the jungle.
The thought of the crystal snake reminded him again of his uncle as he remembered the last time he had been bitten by such a creature and sobered his relative excitement. He did not care to repeat the experience, but did not fear it as he had no intention of entering the jungle at—
There was movement in the trees, distracting his train of thought and he squinted as he looked at the tree line. He thought he saw a shadow move, something human-sized, but thought that it was entirely possible that his mind was just playing tricks on him. At this hour in such a dark place where he had not been before, he wasn’t willing to rule out the possibility.
A breeze had picked up, and he slipped his gloves on and wrapped his arms around himself as best he could in an effort to keep the warm robe closed tight around his body.
Now that he was outside, he looked around at his surroundings; the temple walls stretching for many meters on both his left and his right, the tree line on the edge of the courtyard wrapping around both the courtyard and landing pad and, probably, the entire Praxeum grounds as well.
Then he saw it again; the shadow.
It looked like it could have been a human shadow, and reassessed his assumption that he was the only one awake. He didn’t know many people in this place, and therefore the sleeping habits of any of them could very well coincide with his own. Carefully, he took a few steps in the direction of the tree line, his pupils dilating to take in as much light as possible from the sky to identify the potential company.
When he got closer, however, the shadow ducked out of sight behind a thick Massassi trunk. He wished he could control his abilities, his connection to the Force, enough to send a deliberate probe outward to identify them. But he couldn’t do that yet, much to his disappointment; his abilities were still infantile compared to those of the Solos. He brushed aside dense jungle undergrowth, defying his instincts to stay out of the jungle to investigate the strange shadow.
After a few minutes, he pushed through to a small clearing with many tree trunks that had been hollowed out from rot at their bases and decided that he’d gone quite far enough. However, he hadn’t thought to get himself a holomap of the immediate area, so the only way he could get back was to double back on his steps and head that way. Unfortunately, he ended up trekking deeper into the undergrowth, leaves crunching and twigs snapping noisily under his feet.
When he finally stopped to take another look around, he saw the shadow again. He was closer now than last time, and he could tell that whatever it was, it was definitely humanoid in shape. He wondered if whoever, whatever, it was knew he was so close. Intent not to frighten it with his proximity, he did not approach it and, instead, called out to it.
“Hello?” he called in a low voice. The shadow straightened up and turned as if to face him, but Zak could make out no features, just the blot of black against the darkness of night. “Hello? Who’s there?” he tried again. There was no verbal answer, but the shadow did turn again and take off in the opposite direction.
“Hey!” Zak shouted, taking chase.
Part of him was screaming in his head to turn right back around and continue trying to get back to the temple, to ignore this strange presence. It could be dangerous. And yet the adrenaline junkie in him was determined to find out who it was that appeared to be stalking him from the thick jungle, now that he knew it was definitely not just a specimen of nocturnal wildlife, and why.
But what was most disturbing about it was that he could feel the other person. Though the shadow had since left his sight, he could still track it by some kind of instinct he could not explain. Was this the Force? He didn’t know, and right now he didn’t particularly care. He would listen to whatever it was that was telling him where to go.
However, it wasn’t an entirely fool proof instinct. Without warning, he suddenly found himself at the top end of a very steep slope. He didn’t realise it soon enough to stop and stumbled over a tuft of thick grass at its peak.
He stumbled a few steps, an uncontrolled few steps down the slope, and then tripped and hit the slope hard, tumbling down it end over end and hitting the ground with practically every part of him. It took less than half a minute before he hit level ground, and when he did he landed hard on his left arm. He felt, and heard, the crushing of the bones below his elbow, and the pain that seared up into his brain like a sharp arrow tip.
It took great effort to force himself not to cry out.
It was almost unbearable. He could recall no pain he had endured before like this in his life.
Bracing himself with his right hand, he looked around, still on the ground, and saw nothing but grass and shadows that were being cast by dozens of different things. Amongst these was the humanoid shape again, closer than before but still entirely cloaked by shadows.
He pushed himself to his feet, using his right hand as a brace upon the ground, and staggered for a few seconds as he regained his balance. His left arm hung useless and searing at his side and he winced with the fresh surge of pain that shot up into his brain as he stood.
He eyed the shadow for a second before stumbling after it. He cradled his useless arm with his right hand and gave chase again, eager now to find out who had caused him this pain and find out why.
He ran on, trying his best to ignore the pain in his arm that surged with each stride and the tears that threatened to burst from his eyes.
Again, because of the darkness cast by the giant trees, he didn’t see another obstacle in his road and was tripped up again. After five seconds of unbalanced running, he fell to the ground again, crushing his left arm for the second time that night and falling from the realm of consciousness.
He awoke the next morning groggy and confused. Clamping his eyes shut, he tried to fight back the nausea from his gut and the pain in his left arm.
Hold on—pain? Left arm?
The last thing that Zak could remember was leaving his room in the middle of the night to go for a walk in the courtyard outside the Praxeum building. After that it was as if there was a gap, a dark place, a—
Your memories will return, a voice penetrated into his mind from somewhere in the dimmed room. Zak tried to reach out with his Force senses, forgetting that they were still mostly underdeveloped. The voice chuckled at his attempts. Whoever it was definitely had a connection to the Force, and a more developed one than he.
He opened his eyes and looked around.
He couldn’t recognise the place he was in, but it was bigger than any standard room. He wasn’t in the jungle anymore, of that much he was certain. He could see no trees overhead, nor any grass beneath him or bushes and scrubs around.
He sat up, awkwardly with only one hand to brace himself, and looked down at his left arm which was slung across his chest in a stable-looking sling made of what looked like woolamander fur. He tried to move his arm and felt the tug of a strap around his torso. Whoever had slung his arm had tied it around his body to restrict any attempt he made to move it.
This far away from the academy, and Zak was under no illusion that he had been returned to the academy, he doubted that whoever it was that had spoken into his mind had was someone that he knew. And yet, despite that, they had known him well enough to predict that he might try to move the arm when he regained consciousness. Whoever they were, they were smart.
Your complements are not necessary, the ethereal voice said again. Zak could hear the smile behind the words.
But looking around, he could see no one in the … what? Where was he? He looked around again; taking inventory of the room he was in. His robe had been removed and had been bundled up as a pillow for his head as he lay, and the left sleeve of his tunic had been cut away in order for the stranger to be able to work on his arm.
Under him, several thick layers of bed coverings had been spread out in what was obviously a makeshift bed. To his left and right were banks of control boards, and a chair to his left that had been torn from the floor plates. More control boards flanked the sides of the room, but their chairs had been ripped out and removed from the room entirely.
The room, or chamber, or deck, was roughly twice his height, and easily four or five times that in length and width. It resembled half of an oval, a flat wall at the back with a trio of lift tubes; the walls curving around to meet at the front where he sat.
He got unsteadily to his feet and leaned back on the forward control boards for support as he checked out the broken light fixtures in the ceiling and walls, and the smashed control boards all around the room.
It was a ship. The idea popped into his head suddenly and unexpectedly that it irked him that he hadn’t realised it sooner. This was obviously some sort of command module.
It looked like someone had turned it into a home over past years; almost everything was covered in dust or dirt. There were empty emergency ration packages torn open and strewn around a storage container in the corner that looked like it had been used as a waste container—now overfull.
And still, he was alone.
Who was that voice?