It was a bright clear day, a good day. Any day you could see the ground clearly from the flier was a good day. Quasper was piloting as usual, Aronoke slouched in the passenger seat looking idly out the window. It had been a good haul, no problems, and Careful Kras would be pleased.
It was important that Careful Kras was pleased. Aronoke had good reason to want to avoid Careful Kras’s attention.
It had been some time since the incident with the mouthy duros kid, the little hostage who had given Aronoke so much trouble. He had been asking to be beaten up. You didn’t give the higher-up skimmers or beaters a hard time if you fancied having all your teeth in your mouth, if you liked your face the colour it was. The duros kid had only been a hostage, not even a valuable hostage. Careful Kras had wanted him undamaged, had ordered Aronoke to lay off him, but Aronoke hadn’t listened. The duros kid was very mouthy and thought he could order Aronoke around, so he had lost his temper and pounded him just a little.
Maybe it had been asking for trouble, Aronoke thought, but what followed had been all out of proportion for what was merely a minor case of insubordination. The hours of cutting and burning with liquid fumes, the scarring of Aronoke’s face.
Aronoke shuddered slightly as he thought of it, pulled his over-robe more tightly about himself. Concentrated on staring out the flier window so Quasper couldn’t see his expression.
Quasper Jowl wasn’t a bad sort as Fumers went. Had decided once, a long time ago when Aronoke had only just started skimming, that Aronoke was his luck. Said that it was only Aronoke’s luck that had got them through that sudden sandstorm and back to base without passing through the middle of a mountain along the way. Aronoke flew with Quasper a lot after that.
They were just flying over the place where the arconans’ speeder was – a relatively recent wreck. Aronoke had been assistant skimmer for Amicable Ozenari, more commonly known as Mill, the day the arconans had arrived. They were relatively new. Green miners. Mill’s flier was having battery problems and he had been worried it wouldn’t make it back to base. There was the radio. They could have used it to call for help if necessary, but Mill had landed and taken the arconan’s battery instead. It was a low thing to do, a malicious thing to do. Would have been kinder to shoot them dead. Next time they passed that way and every time since, the speeder had still been there. Aronoke didn’t know what had happened to the arconans. Bodies didn’t last long in the desert.
Today Aronoke straightened with interest in his seat, just as Quasper saw it too. Another flier, not a Fumer flier, but one from back in Tarbsosk. A Quell flier, that was it, with two strangers outside on the dirt investigating the arconan speeder. A couple of duros engineers loitered closer to the flier. Four then, at least.
“Should we go see what they’re up to?” asked Quasper.
“There’s four of them. We’d be outnumbered,” said Aronoke dubiously. He was still small for his age, light-built and weedy, no great hand with a blaster. Was it worth courting trouble? It was a worthless wreck, long since picked over.
“Your call,” said Quasper.
But they would have to report the strangers. Quasper would certainly do so. And then Careful Kras would want to know who and why, and then, should he take offense at the information not being forthcoming, Aronoke, as the fully qualified skimmer, nominally in charge, would take the blame.
“We’d better check it out,” said Aronoke, with a sigh. “Take her down, but not too close. Give us some room.”
Quasper brought the flier down, stirring up a whirling mess of sand and dust as it settled. Not too close and not too far away either, Aronoke noted with satisfaction. You wanted the ship to be close enough to hide behind if the shooting started.
Donning his respirator and tightening the over-robe about his face, Aronoke climbed out of the flier, and started across the dusty flats, blaster ready to hand. It was a nice blaster, not new, but in good condition. A weapon to be reckoned with. Aronoke had bought it himself, on a trip to Tarbsosk. Bought it out of his own wages and some money lent from Gyrie Jim. Was still paying Gyrie Jim back. It was practically the only thing worth having that Aronoke owned.
Quasper was still some distance behind as he approached the strangers. They wore long robes with deep hoods, not uncommon dress on Kasthir, but the robes were of a cut that Aronoke had not seen before. The faces inside the hoods were almost entirely covered by shiny new respirators, more fancy than anything Aronoke had ever seen before, but the bits of the faces that weren’t covered were green. Tattooed and green. Off-worlders, then. Aronoke didn’t know anyone who was that sort of green.
“Greetings, my heavily robed friend,” said the taller one, his voice distorted by the respirator, although not so much as usual. Probably because it was so fancy, Aronoke thought. “I am Master Altus Qonduli, and this is my padawan, Hespenara Laas, of the Jedi Order, and we have come here in search of some information. Can you tell us what has befallen the arconans who flew this vehicle? What happened here? We have been tracing them for some time.”
Aronoke hesitated. It was his job to speak to them. He was the skimmer. But Master Altus spoke in a way completely unlike anyone he had ever heard before. Used peculiar words. Jedi Order? What was that? Padawan? The smaller figure was slighter and might well be a woman. A kind of concubine? Befallen? The arconans hadn’t fallen anywhere...the speeder was relatively undamaged. These were the desert plains – there was nowhere to fall.
“This is Fumer territory,” he said at last, straightening his shoulders and putting on his best intimidating attitude. He hefted his blaster meaningfully. “It belongs to Careful Kras. You can’t just come here doing whatever you want.”
This was the part where the strangers apologised and then the haggling could start. Everything had a price. They would pay a fee, Aronoke would tell them about the arconans, perhaps even extort more money if they intended to stay here longer. Might even act as guide to help them find what they wanted, if Careful Kras decided that way.
But the strangers didn’t seem to know the rules.
Quasper arrived then, and, annoyingly, the strangers turned to him, like he was the skimmer, not Aronoke. This still happened from time to time. Not with the old dust miners who knew them both well, but sometimes with the new ones. They picked Aronoke for the underling, because he was short and slight and turned to the taller Quasper for instructions. Quasper usually set them straight quickly enough, but it was always irritating.
This time it was more than irritating.
“Ah, perhaps you can help us,” said the littler one, Hespenara, her voice obviously lighter than Master Altus’s even through the respirator. “Can you tell us what happened here, to the arconans who flew this speeder?” and as she said it she waved her hand in the air in front of Quasper’s face.
Aronoke waited for Quasper to tell her that they had to deal with Aronoke, because he was the skimmer.
“I can tell you what happened here,” said Quasper helpfully, and before Aronoke could do anything he was blabbing out the whole story.
“Hey!” said Aronoke, scandalised, and he gave Quasper a hard shove to make him shut up, but Quasper only looked confused. “What? I was just telling them...” And he launched back into the story again.
“Shut up!” said Aronoke more forcefully and hit Quasper hard with the butt of his blaster. Something was wrong. Quasper could be a bit thoughtless sometimes, but he knew the rules. Wasn’t stupid.
“Go back to the ship!”
“You’re blabbing everything. Go back to the ship and get further instructions.”
“Further instructions. Right,” Glaring at Aronoke, Quasper shook his head and turned back to the flier.
As Aronoke turned his attention back to the strangers, the younger one looked directly at him. “What happened to the arconans?” she said, waving her hand again.
For a moment, Aronoke considered telling her the truth – that he didn’t know. The arconans had been abandoned in the desert and no one knew where they went or what happened to them. What harm could it do, after all? But that wasn’t the way things were done and what was she doing, waving her hand at him like that? What she had done to Quasper? It was some kind of trick.
He hefted his blaster more threateningly. “Stop that,” he snarled. “I don’t know what you did to him, but it’s not working on me. This is Fumer territory. Information isn’t free. You can’t just wander around doing whatever you like.”
Then an odd thing happened. A little thing, but it was still odd. The younger one hesitated and looked at Master Altus, who was watching Aronoke inquisitively with a strange expression on what could be seen of his face. An expression of puzzlement and uncertainty. “What are you?” he asked quietly.
Not ‘Who are you?’ Not asking for Aronoke’s name. It was confusing. Aronoke knew he was easily mistaken for a duros when wrapped up in his over-robe. His dusty blue complexion and red eyes were all that the strangers could see. He was not a duros, was, as far as he knew, unique, but they weren’t to know that. It was none of their business.
“I’m a skimmer,” snarled Aronoke. “I work for Careful Kras.”
Master Altus seemed to come to some decision.
“My apologies,” he said. “I can see that there is nothing more for us to learn here. The arconans were stranded in the desert and most likely came to an unfortunate end. Hespenara, head back to the ship. We are done here. We are leaving.” He made Aronoke a sketchy gesture of farewell and strode off across the sand back towards the Quell flier.
Aronoke watched him go uncertainly, feeling unsettled and dissatisfied. This was not how things were supposed to go. People weren’t supposed to, well, just leave, without ever having come to an arrangement. And yet he was well aware that he was all by himself and outnumbered, that Quasper had done whatever the strangers had told him to and would be no help at all. It was an untenable situation. It was best to call it in and wait for instructions. Surely Careful Kras would not be displeased with that.
“I called it in,” said Quasper when Aronoke had settled back into the passenger seat of the flier. “Careful Kras is sending out Fronzak. We’re to follow the strangers and see where they go, keeping in radio contact with Fronzak’s ship. Careful Kras doesn’t want their sort just wandering around out here.”
“What sort is that?”
“I don’t know. Strangers. Off-worlders with no real business to be here. Fronzak will handle it.”
Fronzak Trio was one of the high ranking skimmers, a Zabrak of wavering temperament inclined towards sudden decisive violence. The sort of person suited to being a skimmer, really. It had been Fronzak, all that time ago, who had taken Aronoke from the scraping-pool and inducted him as a skimmer. He had this idea in his head, he said, of getting a skinny little kid, giving him a big gun, and taking him along as a skimmer. It would be good for the Fumers’ image to have a little kid taking skim from people. Keep them in their place. He would be a sort of mascot. Aronoke had not complained, because it was a promotion and he had been given his first blaster and lessons in how to use it, but he had not been very good at it at first. The blaster was too heavy and he had needed both hands to aim it. That was okay – he had only been required to follow Fronzak around and watch what he did.
Now he was a skimmer in his own right, working on his own. Although he was still not very good with a blaster. It was hard to get enough practice - battery packs were expensive.
“What did you want to go telling them everything for?” said Aronoke angrily to Quasper, ripping his respirator off. “That little green one just waved her hand and you told her everything.”
“I... don’t know,” said Quasper worriedly. “Damn, I did tell her everything, didn’t I? It must have been some sort of mind trick! She did something to my mind.”
“Then why didn’t I tell her everything?” said Aronoke dubiously. “She did it to me. I didn’t start blabbing everything.”
“I don’t know,” said Quasper angrily. “Probably you don’t have enough mind to trick!”
“Yeah, right,” Aronoke snorted. “At least I didn’t blab.”
The strangers’ flier curved off towards more jumbled territory, to the badlands on the edge of Careful Kras’s run, where Aronoke had not been very often. There was nothing out there, no minerals, no miners, nothing but pinnacles and canyons of rock, swarming with unpleasant wildlife best avoided. It was not very long, perhaps a span, before the strangers’ ship, a mere blip on the radar screen, made a landing amidst the cliffs and gorges.
“Fronzak is ahead of us,” said Quasper as they approached the landing site and Aronoke could see Fronzak’s ship, swooping down toward the ground some distance away.
“Set her down, quick,” said Aronoke.
Quasper set down the ship a little behind Fronzak’s, so as not to scour the higher-up skimmer with dust. Fronzak was already striding across the sand towards the strangers, accompanied by Marassi, one of the beaters. His pilot had stayed in the flier.
It was probably going to get violent then.
“Perhaps you’d better stay here,” said Aronoke to Quasper.
“But they did that thing to my mind,” said Quasper vengefully, already getting out his blaster.
“Exactly. They might do it again and then where would we be?” said Aronoke practically. “Stay here.”
Quasper grumbled but took Aronoke’s order and settled back in the pilot’s seat.
Stepping down on the floor of the broad gorge, Aronoke could see Fronzak and Marassi had just reached the strangers. He was going to miss everything. They could have waited. Aronoke had spoken to the strangers first – they were his mark. For a moment he was angry and then he bit back his indignation. There was no point in arguing about it – Fronzak was a higher-up Fumer and Aronoke had not managed to deal with the strangers by himself. Best just to hurry over, so as to not miss the fight. To do his part, should it come to that. The strangers had nice gear. There might be trophies or other rich pickings.
Aronoke broke in a jog-trot towards the group on the sand. He was not very near when he heard Fronzak’s voice raised angrily. It was going to be a fight all right. Fronzak was drawing his blaster. Aronoke drew his own blaster while still running. Fronzak was firing...
...and then the world lost all sense of rightness. Fronzak’s blaster bolt bounced away harmlessly. He must have missed, but Fronzak never missed. The strangers were drawing weapons from nowhere, strange super-weapons shaped like vibroswords but so much more elegant. They were beams of light, so bright it hurt to look at them, and the strangers were swinging them about, not wildly, but in measured controlled arcs, beautiful and deadly. Then, within a few seconds, Fronzak - tough, violent, vicious Fronzak, at least ten times tougher than Aronoke himself - was falling to the sand. Nearby, Marassi was screaming, his arm flying in a different direction from the rest of him.
It was like a great fearful hand squeezed Aronoke’s chest and he slowed to a stop almost involuntarily, he was so stunned by the course of events. He had brought his blaster up when the fighting began and it was still there, forgotten and wavering embarrassingly now, pointed in the general direction of the strangers.
Fronzak was down, Marassi was down and screaming, and Aronoke was abruptly alone, between the strangers and the ships. As they both turned to look at him, he heard the unmistakeable sound of Fronzak’s ship taking off. He glanced briefly back over his shoulder, to see if Quasper was leaving too.
But no, Quasper’s flier was still quiet, waiting.
Time passed with horrible slowness. The younger one, Hespenara, was turning, bending over Marassi, doing something to stop the screaming. The other one, Master Altus, was looking straight at Aronoke.
“Throw down your blaster!” he commanded and Aronoke’s hand shook even more. Throw down the blaster? Not likely. It was practically the only thing he owned. It had cost many lots of wages, wasn’t even paid for yet. Aronoke knew he should shoot at the stranger – he was still far away. Even Aronoke could hit him before he ran over here. But Fronzak was laying there dead and Fronzak was far tougher than Aronoke... Frozen in indecision, Aronoke did nothing for a very long moment, not until Master Altus started striding towards him across the sand.
When he did, Aronoke panicked, had to do something, squeezed the trigger of the blaster and shot at him. Not a bad shot either, for once. And then another strange thing happened. With casual ease Master Altus’s light-blade swung around in front of the blaster bolt.
The blaster bolt bounced right off. Went bouncing harmlessly away into the walls of the canyon. Aronoke had never seen anything like it.
He turned and ran.
He had never run so fast before, nor so desperately. What if Quasper lost his nerve and took off? Left him behind, like Fronzak’s pilot had. Quasper’s ship had started, was ready to take off, but was still waiting. Waiting for Aronoke, who had a head-start and was practiced at running across the sand. Off-worlders seldom were. He could make it. Could surely keep well ahead of Master Altus, who was heavier and older...
There was a whirl of sand, a rush of air and somehow, impossibly, Master Altus was in front of Aronoke, between him and the ship, his light-stick held ready.
“Stop!” he commanded.
But Aronoke was not going to stop for anything. He ducked around Master Altus, losing speed by giving him a cautiously wide berth. He didn’t want to get anywhere near that light-stick. Master Altus didn’t do anything, didn’t try to hit him with the light-sword. “Throw down your blaster,” said Master Altus calmly. “We will not hurt you.”
Yeah, right, thought Aronoke. As if he was going to believe that. Picking up speed again, his breath sobbing in his chest, he made a last desperate sprint for the ship.
It was like the air itself hit him, full length, flinging him sideways like a scrap of cloth, sending him sailing across the gorge to slam heavily into the ground where he rolled over a few times. It was like a speeder Aronoke had once seen hit by a sudden sand-whirly. Picked up and smacked against the ground like it weighed nothing. His blaster flew off somewhere, his ventilator had slipped and he could not breathe. Could not see anything. Could not think for long moments. When his vision cleared and he could see again, there was Master Altus, standing over him, the glowing light-stick held mere inches from Aronoke’s face. He could hear it hum and sizzle in the air, could feel the hot sand and rocks against his back, smell through his sub-standard respirator the familiar combined smell of his own sweat mingling with fumes to rise around him.
So this is it, he thought, the fight going out of him all at once. How it ends. It should be quick, not so bad. He shut his eyes.
The moment seemed to be taking a long time.
He wished it would hurry up.
He opened his eyes again. Beyond the light-stick he could see Master Altus’s calm steady gaze boring into his own. “You’re going to come with us,” Master Altus said, his voice as unperturbed as ever. “We could use a native guide. You might be of some assistance in our further endeavours.” He drew back suddenly, the light-stick retreating, and, leaving Aronoke lying on his back, walked off across the sand towards Hespenara, entirely unconcerned.
In the distance, Aronoke could hear the unmistakeable sound of Quasper’s flier retreating across the sky.