Razzak Mintula was not pleased when Aronoke told her about the field trip.
“It’s highly irregular,” she said grumpily, “but I suppose you must go.”
Aronoke put it down to her not being fond of changes in schedule. Perhaps she did not think it appropriate that a Jedi as important as Master Altus should pay so much attention to a mere initiate like Aronoke. That was probably true, Aronoke thought, but he had to admit that he liked it.
“You’re late!” said Hespenara when Aronoke arrived out of breath at Master Altus’s rooms on the prescribed day.
“Everything conspired against me,” said Aronoke. “There was this thing blocking the corridor. Then I got lost trying to find a way around.”
“You should always plan enough time to cover such mishaps,” scolded Hespenara. “Jedi Masters should never have to wait for initiates. You’re lucky we didn’t leave without you.”
“I’m sorry,” said Aronoke, penitently.
“I believe I am ready to go now,” said Master Altus mildly, appearing from the back room.
Hespenara sighed, her authority undermined.
He was always so calm and unruffled, willing to believe the best of Aronoke. Sometimes Aronoke wondered if he really deserved the friendship of such a person.
Today they did not leave the temple by one of the main exits, but took an elevator to the top levels where ranks of speeders awaited the convenience of the temple residents. The machines were all pristine and shiny, and the one which had been assigned to them was especially red and glossy.
“Oh now this is something!” exclaimed Hespenara in pleasure, running a hand along the speeder’s side. “This is one of the recent models. They must have gotten some new ones in.”
Aronoke had to admit that it was very fine. It looked sleek and fast and was very shiny. He could see a distorted image of his face reflected in its side.
“You may drive, Hespenara,” said Master Altus, taking his choice of the seats. Aronoke climbed into another while Hespenara took the controls.
“This should be fun,” said Hespenara eagerly, pressing the control to start the speeder and steering it out towards the exit hatch. The hatch opened automatically in front of them and the speeder swooped smoothly out into the air beyond. Aronoke admired Hespenara’s casual skill and confidence in steering out into the traffic. He could drive a speeder – at least, the sort of speeder they had on Kasthir – but he would not like to try it amidst all the vehicles that swarmed Coruscant’s airways.
As they left the temple, Aronoke prepared himself to be overwhelmed by the city all over again. He had anticipated the great lines of traffic that criss-crossed the sky and the impossible expanse of buildings. What he was not expecting was the great throbbing pulse of the Force that suddenly welled up from the great seething network of lives and entities around them as they moved out from the Temple’s protective bulk.
“Oh!” said Aronoke inadvertently, surprised by how strongly it surged about him. He felt for a moment like a tiny insignificant mote swept along within the tumultuous coursing of that vast network.
“Can you sense the Force flowing through the city?” asked Master Altus.
“It’s huge!” breathed Aronoke, awed. He was not certain if he was drinking it all in or drowning in it.
Master Altus seemed to do something then, something to shield Aronoke’s perception of the currents that flowed so massively around them. Aronoke relaxed a little, unaware that he had been holding himself so tensely.
“You’re lucky, Aronoke,” said Hespenara. “I still sometimes have to try really hard to sense the currents in the Force.”
Aronoke digested that information for a moment. surprised. He was better at this than Hespenara? She was, after all, already a padawan.
It’s nothing to be proud of, he told himself firmly. It’s not like he had put in a great effort to learn it. It had just happened. And yet he felt pleased.
Pleased, and a little scared. It would be easy to be swept away by that endless shifting network. To lose himself in its immensity. He was glad that Master Altus was here to help him.
“It was not like that last time,” he said shakily, trying to make himself relax.
“That is because your abilities have been developing,” said Master Altus. “The shielding in the Jedi temple prevents you from detecting it constantly, but now you are outside you can sense it fully. That is one of the reasons that I thought it important for you to come along on this trip. If Kasthir had been a more populated planet you would have sensed the Force long ago and it would not have come upon you all at once, but because it was such a dead place there was less to sense and your abilities did not develop in the way they usually would. Now they have been opened to a greater stimulus they have developed accordingly, and, of course, been heightened through your training as well.”
Training. Yes, his lessons had heightened his senses, Aronoke realised, and his instructors had also tried to prepare him for this moment, but he had forgotten everything he had been taught in his astonishment. Sitting back in his seat, he closed his eyes and concentrated on his favourite meditation exercise. To his relief, it was still just as easy to find the calm place inside him which helped to steady himself.
All the time they were streaking quickly across the planet’s surface towards Prelix sector, their destination. It took a little over an hour, enough time for Aronoke to become adjusted to the traffic and the noise and to regain his composure. As they arrived he could see that their destination was an immense building with a modular, globular appearance. It looked like many small rounded buildings of varying shapes and sizes, all cemented together, a little like it had been modelled on an insect nest, Aronoke thought. It was not, he judged, as wealthy a district as that surrounding the Coruscant spaceport, but still immense, modern and shiny. As they grew closer, he could see glowing signs and holographic posters advertising a wide variety of products. It was, he realised, an immense marketplace, larger than any bazaar on Kasthir. Indeed, more expansive than Tarbsosk in its entirety,
“We shall go to level fifty-three, Hespenara,” said Master Altus and the speeder swept down towards a parking rank, presumably near that level. Aronoke was highly distracted by the towering advertising holos, the swooping tangle of speeders and the crush of people as they left the vehicle and moved into the bazaar. Most of the people they saw were duros. They were given a politely wide berth; the crowd had a tendency to part around them, and some people made signs of respect. Now and then, Aronoke heard people saying “Jedi,” amongst the crowd.
Inside the bazaar there ranged a confusing plethora of shops, many of which were selling electronic gadgets of interesting kinds. So many things that could be stolen! So much richer than the market in Tarbsosk, where Aronoke had spent his days begging and stealing before he had become a Fumer. Aronoke noticed that there were beaters outside many of the shops, security personnel guarding the premises. He could spot a beater anywhere, even though these had small subtle weapons compared to their equivalents on Kasthir. There was not much time to look at everything; Aronoke had to concentrate on keeping up with Master Altus and Hespenara, who were striding along as if they knew where they were going.
Hespenara led the way over to a bank of elevators and they rode up with startling speed, floors flashing by in a streaky blur of lights and colours outside its transparent walls. Aronoke was glad when it stopped and they could get out, even though the ride had only taken a few seconds.
This level was filled with shops of a different kind. They were like treasure caves full of ancient things. Some seemed dedicated to particular sorts of objects, like antique datapads, while others were stocked with a wide variety of peculiar things, artifacts and relics. Every direction Aronoke looked, he could see a thousand mysterious alien objects which he could not determine the purpose of.
One of the latter shops seemed to be their particular destination. Without explaining their purpose, once inside Master Altus and Hespenara began moving amongst the racks and shelves, perusing the objects on display. Aronoke realised they were browsing for Force-related artifacts which might have found their way into this immense bazaar. Aronoke wondered if this was something which they did often. Wondered how many artifacts did end up for sale in places like this every day. He followed in Master Atlus’s wake, staying close to the Jedi Master, and cautiously looked about himself, wondering if he could spot anything.
Something immediately snatched at his attention like a bright flare of color in his mind’s eye. It was a moment before he was aware that the gold-and-black mask did not actually glow. That his Force senses that were detecting it.
Master Altus was keeping a subtle watch over Aronoke. He saw Aronoke’s head turn towards the mask and looked at it himself a moment later.
“Yes, that certainly is interesting,” Master Altus said.
He picked up the mask to look at it more closely and turned it over in his hands. Brought it over to the vendor and haggled over the price.
“It is not that the artifact itself is so important,” he said to Aronoke when he had successfully purchased it. “It is a minor thing, but it would not do to leave it where anyone might get their hands on it.”
“I can’t see anything else of interest, Master,” said Hespenara, appearing out of the depths of the store.
“Perhaps we should look in that shop over there next,” said Master Altus, gesturing at an establishment further along the row.
But before they could make their way to the new shop, Hespenara caught her Master’s sleeve. She nodded subtly across the concourse.
“Yes, I see him too,” said Master Altus. Aronoke looked about, bewildered, wondering what they were talking about, but by then Master Altus was striding towards a duros standing nearby. The duros saw him coming and quickly turned to dart off into the crowd.
“Hey!” called Master Altus, “I would like to speak to you!”
The duros did not stop. Like Aronoke at the battle scene in the desert he obviously wanted to avoid Master Altus and attempted to hurry away. He did not get very far. Master Altus made a quick gesture with one hand and the duros stopped, held fast, unable to move.
Aronoke felt almost sympathetic. Wondered what the duros had done to attract Master Altus’s and Hespenara’s attention. He did not have to wonder long.
“Tell us why you were watching us,” said Master Altus, standing in front of the captive duros.
“I was not watching you,” the duros said, in a rather stilted voice. It did not look very comfortable, stuck in place like that. “You are mistaken.”
“No, I am absolutely certain,” said Master Altus, his eyes fixed on the duros’ flat-paned green face. “You should tell me why you were watching us.”
He passed his hand in a familiar way in front of the duros’s gaze.
“I should tell you why I was watching you,” said the duros more helpfully. “I was told to watch for any Jedi who came in the building. I am supposed to report their activities to my employer. It is nothing personal.”
“Who is your employer?” asked Master Altus.
“Mangra the Hutt,” said the duros.
“Hm,” said Master Altus, and Aronoke could not tell if the name meant anything to him or not. “Very well, be on your way,” he said to the duros. “And tell your employer that we do not appreciate having our activities monitored.”
“As you say,” agreed the duros, sagging in relief as Master Altus let it go. It scuttled off, hasty and furtive as a bone-sucking worm seeking shelter from the sun.
“My apologies for the interruption, Aronoke,” said Master Altus. “I was not expecting anything other than a quiet outing to do some shopping.”
“It is no problem, Master,” said Aronoke.
They continued on their way, looking for more items of interest.
In the next shop there were racks upon racks of datapads. To Aronoke’s eye they all looked old or used to varying degrees. Apparently it was not the datapads themselves that the Jedi found interesting, but the information that was stored upon them.
“Now, Hespenara, why don’t you take the datapads on that side of the room, and I will take these.”
The two Jedi examined the datapads in a well-practiced efficient manner that Aronoke admired. His reading was coming along quite well, but there were still many words he found difficult. He was too slow to assist with a task like this. Would not know important information even if he read it. Hespenara found something that Master Altus decided was interesting. They brought this datapad over to the vendor and purchased it.
“Now let us find somewhere to eat,” said Master Altus.
They were almost at the large open area where food was sold, when Hespenara said “Master, look,” and Master Altus almost simultaneously: “Yes, I see him.”
They were so perceptive and worked so easily together. Again, for a moment, Aronoke was jealous of Hespenara, but this was not a good time to stop and sort through these thoughts. Instead Aronoke looked too, trying to see what they were looking at. They were passing through a section where there was an open central courtyard, giving a view to higher and lower levels. He saw nothing, not before Master Altus was suddenly running off along the broad walkway, much faster than Aronoke could keep up. Hespenara set off after him, Aronoke following in her wake as best he could.
People moved out of Master Altus’s way, but mostly he was gone before they had finished moving, leaving a confused wash of shoppers behind him. Hespenara and Aronoke had a harder time of it, having to find a path through these people, who were stopping, turning in confusion, and asking questions of each other. They were forced to duck and weave a great deal. Far ahead, Aronoke could see Master Altus make one tremendous leap and then another, propelling himself up to a higher level of the market through the central well. Aronoke lost sight of him then and focussed on keeping up with Hespenara. He found himself falling further and further behind her, and was grateful when she finally came to a stop, looking about for an elevator or a handy set of stairs.
“What are we chasing?” asked Aronoke, a little out of breath. “I didn’t see.”
“Another duros,” said Hespenara. “Watching us and talking into a communicator.”
“Oh? That doesn’t sound like very much.”
Hespenara shrugged. “Master Altus must have seen or heard something interesting to chase him like that. Look, I think there’s a ramp over there.”
It took some minutes to make their way up the ramp. By the time they reached the level above and located Master Altus, the duros he had apprehended was dangling in mid-air, surrounded by a number of bazaar beaters.
“Yes, I’ll think you’ll find he has a very interesting record and is wanted on a number of charges,” Master Altus was saying to the security personnel.
“Yes, thank you Master Jedi,” the most senior of them said. “We will take him from here, if… uh… you’ll just let him down.”
“Oh, of course,” said Master Altus. The hovering duros was lowered to the floor. He was relieved to be taken away by the beaters, Aronoke thought.
“Ah, there you are,” said Master Altus, spotting them in the crowd. “My apologies. Hopefully the rest of our excursion will go according to plan.”
“I don’t mind, Master,” said Aronoke.
“You did have some reason for chasing him, Master?” inquired Hespenara uncertainly. “Didn’t you? It’s not usual for Jedi to pursue criminals – that’s for Coruscant security forces to take care of.”
Master Altus didn’t seem inclined to answer her question. He evasively mumbled something that was lost in the interested hum of spectators watching the duros prisoner being led away.
Aronoke and Hespenara exchanged bewildered glances.
“Let us be on our way,” Master Altus said more clearly, a few moments later.
Aronoke followed Master Altus and Hespenara through the bazaar, admiring the shops as they passed by. Finally they came to a section which sold a great deal of food, although much of it seemed to be marketed towards duros. Aronoke looked at the things that were on offer. Most of them had wavy tentacles or twitchy feelers or other bits that moved. The rest consisted of pots of things that writhed like worms.
Most of the creatures on Aronoke’s planet were highly poisonous. He felt a distinct aversion to eating anything that moved. He was surprised to find a kind of food that he thought he wouldn’t like.
“They are not really alive,” Master Altus said cheerfully, perhaps noting Aronoke’s expression. Just then, the vendor droid arrived to serve them.
“I will have one of those squares with only a few tentacles, please,” Master Altus said, pointing to something that twitched and shuddered in a pile below a transparent counter. “And one of those green drinks, thank you.” He turned to his companions inquiringly.
“I’m not hungry, Master,” said Hespenara quickly.
“I prefer my food not to move,” said Aronoke, emboldened by Hespenara’s refusal. “I am fine, thank you.”
“As you wish,” said Master Altus. He paid the vendor, took his meal, and sat down to eat his tentacles.
“Look, Aronoke, those things over there don’t look so bad,” said Hespenara, pointing to what looked like a sort of white, pasty substance sold in little cones. “Would you like one of those?”
“Sure,” said Aronoke. Hespenara went over and purchased two of them. It was quite pleasant Aronoke decided, after he tasted it, although it had an unusual flavor, minty and musty. He was not certain he wanted to know exactly what the stuff was made from.
“Very tasty,” said Master Altus approvingly, as he finished his tentacular meal.
“Does that food keep moving after you have eaten it, Master?” asked Aronoke curiously.
“No, not if you chew well,” Master Altus replied. “I was thinking, Aronoke,” he said, “that you would probably like to buy some treats to bring back to your clan mates.”
He passed Aronoke a credstick with a comfortable sum of credits – enough to buy some treats for everyone.
“Thank you, Master,” said Aronoke, touched by the green man’s thoughtfulness. He spent an enjoyable hour after lunch finding the right things to bring back to share with his clan. He picked out a complicated puzzle with gaudy flashing lights, and a little holosculpture with a gallery of different images. The rest of the money was quickly spent on some interesting duros candy of a variety that did not move at all.
After that it was time to leave, and Aronoke was pleased to arrive back in the peaceful reverence of the Jedi temple away from the traffic and all the people.
“Thank you for bringing me on this field trip, Master,” he said to Master Altus on the way back in the car. “It was very educational.”
“You’re most welcome,” said Master Altus. “I must apologise again for the exertive interruption. I had not expected anything of the sort to happen.”
Aronoke smiled, thinking that wherever Jedi went, interesting interruptions were certain to happen.
“It does not matter,” he said aloud.
It was fun to come back to the clan room and distribute his small gifts, which were enthusiastically received. Jedi did not collect personal possessions and were not supposed to form attachments to objects, but a few small ornaments in the clan rooms were not considered to be important, as long as the initiates did not treat them as such.
The next few months flew by, and nothing unusual happened, although the days were not uneventful from Aronoke’s point-of-view, absorbed as he was in his lessons in history and philosophy, reading, meditation and physical training. He worked himself hard, although his life still seemed luxuriously easy. Grew like a young rancor, with an intense ferocity that astounded even himself. It seemed he needed new robes nearly every other week, and it seemed wasteful to go through so many clothes so quickly. He felt awkward and gangly most of the time, uncoordinated and unbalanced, like his neural system couldn’t keep up with his growth rate. He was filling out a good deal, but mostly growing taller. It seemed that he would be tall if he did not slow down soon.
During this time too, he found himself plagued more and more by certain distractions. Oddly enough it was hair that usually set them off. Apart from Razzak Mintula’s long, silver pony tail, Riala from Clan Ryllak had that long wisp of hair that sometimes strayed over her face which made him feel distinctly unsettled.
Was it strange that he found these things attractive? Was it abnormal to be attracted to humans? It said in the documents Aronoke had read about Chiss that they were thought to have descended from human colonists, countless ages ago, but they did not seem to be considered near-humans, like the Mirialans were. Yet, the information available on Chiss was limited. It seemed that little was known about them in the Republic, and that Aronoke’s race was mysterious and secretive. Doubtlessly more was known about them in the Sith Empire, but that was of little help here.
In any case, if he wanted to be a Jedi, Aronoke knew he had to put these impulses aside and not dwell upon them. More and more he found he had to take a few steps away from the subject of his attention and school himself to calmness. He tried to employ the meditative techniques which he had been taught whenever it happened, and they did seem to help.
Slowly, even these things became normal. He did not find the changes in his body as disturbing or unnatural as he had thought he might. It seemed that his mind was growing up along with the rest of him, and that he was able to cope better than he had thought he would. It seemed that every day Draken became smaller rather than that Aronoke was getting bigger. More and more the things Draken did, and more especially the things Draken wanted to do, seemed like kids’ stuff. That did not mean that Aronoke did not like Draken. He did. But he looked forward to the day when Draken caught him up.
Aronoke found that he was having more of his serious conversations with Ashquash instead.
“Do you understand what they mean us to learn by this?” Aronoke asked Ashquash one day, looking up from the moral tale they were both studying. “Why does he just walk off into the desert, instead of helping the villagers or killing the Sith? I don’t understand how he can just do nothing.”
Ashquash looked thoughtful.
“It’s because neither is a good decision,” she said. “He chooses consciously to make no decision, rather than to make a bad one.”
“I don’t know if I could do that. To not act,” said Aronoke. “Not when the problem remains unsolved. He doesn’t achieve anything by walking away. He avoids the issue when he is sent there specifically to solve it.”
“But by taking action the outcome would be worse,” pointed out Ashquash. “It is better that the villagers handle their own problem than that he makes a bad decision on their behalf.”
“I suppose so,” said Aronoke uncertainly.
Ashquash was a very different person than when she had arrived, even though only a year had passed. Aronoke would have found it difficult to imagine having a moral conversation with her then. Would have found it difficult to imagine having a moral conversation.
Then came a day when Master Altus asked Aronoke to come and visit him in his rooms. Aronoke had been there often by then. The green Jedi and his padawan had come to visit Clan Herf sometimes as well. They were always popularly received because Master Altus was fond of bringing treats.
“I will be leaving again soon, Aronoke,” Master Altus said. “Departing on another expedition.”
“I think you will not be sorry, Master,” said Aronoke, grinning. “You can leave that paperwork behind you.”
“Yes, there is that,” said Master Altus. “As I think I told you once before, it is only a few Jedi who ever return to the Jedi temple once their training is finished. The vast majority move on to other assignments in distant parts of the galaxy and seldom, if ever, have reason to return to Coruscant.”
He looked at Aronoke seriously. “I have a favour to ask you before I go,” he said calmly.
“Of course, Master. Anything,” said Aronoke.
“I am not entirely sure, but where I am going there may be an opportunity to do some research regarding that image on your back,” said Master Altus. “I have researched it somewhat already, although there is little enough to go on, but I have been unable to find anything quite like it. There are mentions of such things in some records in the Temple archives, but nothing that describes it closely, and certainly not anything from recent times. I would like to make an image of the markings your back so I can take it with me.”
“Oh,” said Aronoke, the old fear rising within him. “An image? I…I suppose so.”
He had said he would do anything. “Yes, of course,” he added.
This was Master Altus after all. Aronoke trusted him more than anyone else, although it was still not easy to remove his shirt. With awkward fingers he undid the ties and catches and pulled it off. He stood still, trying to repress an urge to shudder, and was relieved that it did not take long for Master Altus to record an image onto his datapad.
“Thank you,” said Master Altus, while Aronoke was redressing. “I know that you do not like revealing it.”
“It is not as bad any more,” said Aronoke awkwardly. “It does not matter.” A moment later he added curiously: “What does it look like now? Has it grown through very much?”
“Yes, it is much clearer than it was. Would you like to see?” asked Master Altus.
“Yes,” said Aronoke and he came over to look at the image on the datapad that Master Altus was holding out. He had never seen it so clearly. The design there looked quite distinctive. It was obvious now that it was some sort of map. Although the mass of ridged scars was still there, they had stretched and softened with Aronoke’s growth, and the image seemed to have risen to the surface of his skin. The markings were less blurry than they had been, although still difficult to see clearly in some places.
“It looks different than I remember,” said Aronoke. Brighter as well as larger. It was easier to make out the smaller details. “It certainly looks very strange.”
“Would you like a copy of it?” asked Master Altus. “I can send one to your own datapad.”
“Thank you, but no,” said Aronoke. He did not want to see it all the time, and besides, if it were stored there it would be easier for other people to see it. The file on alien martial arts had appeared unbidden. Perhaps files could be read from his datapad as well. He would rather not have to worry about keeping his datapad concealed as well as his back.
“Very well then,” said Master Altus. “I will let you know if I find anything out when I get back.”
“Thank you, Master.”
“While I am gone, as I’m sure you already know, you may speak to Master Insa-tolsa about anything at all.”
“Of course, Master,” said Aronoke, making a small bow of politeness. He was much more comfortable with Master Insa-tolsa than he had once been, but he could never speak as openly with him as he could with Master Altus.
It was with some sadness that he returned to the clan nest, knowing he was going to miss seeing both Hespenara and the green man.
It was only a few days after Master Altus’s departure that strange things began to happen.
Aronoke thought later that he ought to have anticipated this, but there was no expectation of it in his mind when he saw the odd appointment on his schedule early one morning as he was arriving back from his habitual running session. At once he thought of it as an odd thing, because the appointment was to a room he had not been to before: Creche 237. Also, the appointment did not seem to have either a person or a purpose attached to it.
He immediately went to Razzak Mintula’s office, but she was not in it yet because it was still very early. Went to her rooms instead.
“Instructor Mintula?” he asked, thumbing the door panel communicator. “Can I speak with you please?”
“Just a moment,” came the ragged sleepy voice of Razzak Mintula. “What’s the problem, Aronoke?” She sounded grumpy, but Aronoke knew she just wasn’t properly awake yet.
“I’m sorry it’s so early, Instructor, but there’s an odd appointment on my datapad scheduled for very soon now, and if I don’t speak with you I will miss it entirely.”
“Odd appointment?” asked Razzak Mintula blearily. “What appointment?”
Aronoke passed her his datapad and she took it and squinted at it. Her long silver ponytail was undone, Aronoke noticed, her hair draped over her shoulder in a disorderly straggle. Feeling the heat build in his face, he quickly stared at the floor and shuffled backwards a little. It was embarrassing, but he thought Razzak Mintula was well aware of these feelings he had towards her. She usually was careful to stand at a comfortable distance.
“That is very odd,” said Razzak Mintula. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone being sent to an appointment in that location. I’m not even sure what sort of room it is. It looks like something to do with maintenance.”
“It doesn’t say what it’s for either,” said Aronoke. “Do you think I should go or not?”
“I don’t see what harm you could come to in the Jedi temple…” said Razzak Mintula uncertainly.
“I don’t mind going as long as you know about it,” said Aronoke.
“No, I think it is best that I come with you,” she said, more decisively. “There’s no need for you to go alone. I will be ready in a few minutes.”
The room, when they got to it, was not particularly interesting. It was empty and seemed to be part of the maintenance section. Both Aronoke and Razzak Mintula looked about with considerable care, but the time of the appointment came and went without anything happening.
By the time they arrived back at the clan nest, the appointment had disappeared from Aronoke’s datapad as if it had never existed.
“I don’t like it at all,” grumbled Razzak Mintula, “although it could just be a technical glitch. I will make enquiries.”
A few days after this, Aronoke was coming back from the swimming pool where he had been looking at the water. He still did not like it any better. He was acutely uncomfortable whenever he was near it. This distrust seemed to be strongly embedded in him.
Could you become a Jedi if you were scared of water? Surely such a failing would be deemed an unacceptable flaw, Aronoke thought gloomily to himself as he came up the long corridor to the elevators that would take him back to the residential level. He was considering what else he could do about it, when he suddenly noticed that there was a droid in corridor ahead of him. The droid was in the middle of the passage, and as Aronoke drew close to it, moved to block his way.
“What is this about?” asked Aronoke, suspiciously, looking at it. It was a maintenance droid of some sort, a stocky cylindrical contraption with many tool-bearing arms. The droid acknowledged him by flickering a ray of blue light over his face.
“Identity confirmed. Transmitting message now,” said the droid, and it began projecting a little holoimage that danced and shimmered in front of Aronoke.
There was no figure in the holo, which was unusual in itself. Instead there was a flashing sequence of geometrical shapes and images whirling in confused chaos.
“Greetings Aronoke,” said a voice. Like the image it was scrambled, easy enough to understand but impossible to recognise. Its pitch shifted from high to low in an unpleasantly discordant fashion.
“I am pleased to communicate with you at last. Firstly, I wish to reassure you that I am a friend, an ally who has your best interests at heart. I wish you no harm. Indeed, I am only interested in seeing that you reach your full potential, despite the opposition that you may soon face. You may not be aware of this, protected and lowly as your current position is, but there are those on the Jedi Council who are not pleased with your presence. Troubling times lie ahead of you. The truth has been hidden and it has fallen to me to reveal to you the less-pleasant actuality – that there are many who feel that you can not be allowed to succeed in becoming a Jedi. They will seek to prevent you for many reasons, and indeed many have already argued that there is no benefit in continuing your training. Some think that you are too old to become a Jedi, while others say that a chiss has no place in the order, allied as your people are to the Empire. It has even been voiced that it would be a perversion, should someone who is bioengineered to be strong in the Force, as you are, be allowed to become a Jedi.”
Bioengineered? asked a tentative voice in Aronoke’s mind.
“And who are you?” asked Aronoke aloud. “You can’t be much of a friend if you are not willing to even reveal your identity.”
“I am afraid that I must be cautious,” said the voice. “I am merely one individual amongst many enemies. My identity must remain secret at this time. However, I recognise that this is a difficult situation for you to accept. Please be assured that I ask nothing of you. I will only seek to assist you by giving you information. How does that sound?”
Information. It was a tempting thought. Information was power. But, thought Aronoke, how could he trust anything that came from an unidentified source such as this? False or corrupted information was of no value, and indeed could do great harm.
Look at what had happened to Vark.
“Why are you interested in me?” he asked.
“You are an opportunity that should not be squandered,” said the voice. “I am certain that you will find me to be of benefit in time, for you shall be in need of allies. I will be in contact with you again, as it becomes necessary.”
“Initialising self-destruct sequence in three seconds,” said the droid. “3…2…1…”
Aronoke barely had time to leap out of the way before it exploded with some violence, sparking and smoking. It fell to the ground in a crumpled heap.
Report it, he told himself. He should report it at once. That was the proper Jedi thing to do, he knew, but his mind was racing onwards, digesting what the voice had told him, even as he stumbled on towards the elevators.
Bioengineered? He did not know that exact word, but he could piece the meaning together. A created thing, a purposely made thing, a chiss built to a pattern, just like a droid was built to a design. Aronoke didn’t like the idea of that at all, and yet such a thing made sense. It explained the odd markings on his back. Doubtlessly it somehow explained how he had come to be all alone on Kasthir. Aronoke could feel his wistful childhood dream of a lost Chiss family dissolving away to nothing. Odd, he thought savagely, he thought he had let go of that stupid fantasy years ago, but apparently he had not.
He wondered what the voice had meant when it said he was an opportunity not to be squandered.
He did not trust the voice, did not intend to follow the path it was trying to set for him, but it seemed to know things about him that he did not know himself.
Could he find out more by pretending to go along with it?
But what did it matter anyway? Jedi gave up their past lives, their family and their origins when they joined the Order. It was important that they stood apart from such things, so they could make balanced decisions and wield their power fairly. Aronoke had never had to worry about the difficulty of laying his family aside, although he knew many of his smaller clan-members still missed their homes. Finding out about his origins would surely only complicate matters.
Several days and sleepless nights of introspection did not make anything seem clearer. After realising he had been doing nothing but thinking in circles, he told himself firmly that he did not want a mysterious ally who spoke in riddles, who had secret and underhanded plans for him. Who chose the very moment that Master Altus left the Jedi temple to make overtures to him. It might, after all, be lying. Even about the bioengineered thing.
And yet, even though he told himself that, Aronoke was inexplicably sure it was not lying about that.
He knew what Master Altus would have him do. Master Altus would surely be disappointed if Aronoke faltered in his obvious duty as soon as he was absent.
He had to go and speak to Master Insa-tolsa about this, as much as he wished he could forget the whole mess.
He spoke to Master Insa-tolsa in one of the atrium gardens. This particular one was frequented by the Jedi masters who were permanently assigned to the temple and contained a cafeteria where they could sit and eat amongst the trees. It was one of Master Insa-tolsa’s favourite places, and Aronoke was glad to see the giant ithorian waiting at one of the tables, consuming an elaborate sugary construction.
“Ah, Aronoke, come and sit down,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “You can help me eat this. It is far too large for one person, and I know you initiates are always hungry.”
It was true that Aronoke was always hungry these days, probably because he was growing so fast, but the meals in the temple still came so regularly and so often that it seemed like nothing. Nevertheless, he took his place opposite Master Insa-tolsa and obligingly picked up a piece of the dark brown toasted confection and nibbled on it.
“Master Altus told me to come to you if anything unusual happened,” said Aronoke, “and something unusual has. Well, two somethings really, but I’m sure they are related.”
Quickly he related the incidents to Master Insa-tolsa, telling him about the strange appointment that led to the empty room and then about the exploding droid.
“It is intolerable that these things can continue happening within the Jedi temple,” boomed Master Insa-tolsa, looking as irate as Aronoke had ever seen him appear. It was hard to tell with ithorians. “I believe it is no coincidence that this has happened so soon after Master Altus has left. You have done the right thing, Aronoke, bringing this to me. I will make sure that it is reported to the Jedi Council. We must try to determine the source of these harassments and put an end to them.”
“The speaker said that it was alone and amongst enemies,” said Aronoke. “If it is nearby, as it seems it has to be, then I don’t see how it can be amongst enemies if it is a Jedi. And yet how could a Sith or anything like one remain hidden here?”
“It is very disturbing,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “We must renew our efforts to uncover the identity of this person.”
Aronoke went away from the meeting feeling dissatisfied. Master Insa-tolsa was reassuring, or tried to be, but it seemed that the Jedi masters were not making any progress in finding his mysterious assailant. If they could not find an enemy within their own midst, it seemed difficult to trust them with the protection of the whole galaxy. Still, he told himself, these matters were small difficulties compared to life on Kasthir. No one was trying to kill him. He had enough to eat. He was being taught things. The problems that arose from someone trying to manipulate him were minor and avoidable. He could simply choose to ignore what it said and the voice could do little about it. The idea that someone was trying to influence him was enough to make him stubborn against such interference.
He kept this in mind a few days later when another strange document appeared upon his datapad. It seemed to be something concerning meditation but he didn’t look at it very closely. Told Razzak Mintula about it at once.
“This is getting annoying,” said Razzak Mintula impatiently. “Just delete it Aronoke and I will send a message informing Master Insa-tolsa.”
This was duly done. Aronoke wondered what his mysterious assailant thought they could achieve by sending him these documents when surely he had made it clear that he was not interested. That he would not read them.
But a few days later the situation changed again.
It was the middle of the night and someone was shaking him by the shoulder. He came awake very slowly, tired out by training with Clan Ryllak the day before. Was glad that it was just Ashquash.
“Aronoke,” came Ashquash’s hissing gravelly voice, sounding almost gleeful. And again: “Aronoke, wake up! I want to go sparring!” Her fingers were digging into his shoulder, and he suddenly felt more awake. Apart from cooperative activities in physical training class she had never touched him before.
He was instantly more than usually aware that Ashquash was a girl. A strange girl, but still, a girl.
“Aronoke!” said Ashquash insistently.
“I’m awake,” said Aronoke swinging into a sitting position. “What is it? Is something the matter?”
“Come on! Come out to the training ground with me! I want to spar!” Ashquash’s usual cautious behavior was gone, replaced with a strange new enthusiasm. She bounced from foot to foot and swayed rhythmically. Her eyes were huge, her expression frighteningly exhilirated.
“What’s wrong with you?” asked Aronoke, dismayed. This was not the Ashquash he knew - it was a stranger.
Ashquash bounced around the room as if staying still was completely impossible.
“Nothing is wrong with me!” she said. “I just want to spar, what’s wrong with that?”
She spun and wheeled, spreading out her arms like she was trying to fly. Coming to a dizzy, staggering halt, she grinned at Aronoke and stepped towards him mischievously.
“It’s the middle of the night!” protested Aronoke, resisting as she took his hand and tried to pull him to his feet. “There is something wrong with you. You’ve been drugged, or something.”
“But I feel…” said Ashquash. She stopped and looked confused a moment, still holding his hand and never stopping swaying and rocking on the balls of her feet.
“We should go and report it,” said Aronoke, but Ashquash frowned suddenly.
“No! I want to go and spar! Aronoke, I thought you were my friend. Come and spar with me!”
“No, I can’t do that,” said Aronoke, although somewhere in his mind the thought of sparring was not unattractive. With Ashquash, who was a girl, and behaving very peculiarly. Anything could happen, out there on the empty training ground, out of sight of everyone. Ashquash’s hand felt warm and nice within his own, a tempting warmth that spread through his whole body. He began to feel very peculiar indeed.
But Ashquash was his friend and his roommate, and he must not think of her in that way. He had promised not to think of her as a girl. “And you must not go either. We should tell Razzak Mintula. This is terrible – people should not be able to do things like this to you. Not here.”
Who knew what this would do to Ashquash, who was still recovering from her addiction to riksht? It would be a great setback, Aronoke knew, once she got off her high.
Ashquash frowned. “No,” she protested. “Maybe I have been drugged, but don’t tell them. I won’t go sparring if you don’t want to, but don’t tell them. It’ll spoil everything.”
“We have to tell them,” said Aronoke. “Don’t you see? If you don’t tell them, you become part of the whole crime, even if it’s not your fault. This is something that’s been done to you, and it shouldn’t be allowed. They have to know so they can help you and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Ashquash’s head hung down. She didn’t say anything, but she made no move to stop Aronoke when he stood and went over to the door.
Razzak Mintula was obviously fast asleep when Aronoke palmed her door chime. Her voice came out through the door speaker, creaky, tired and not completely patient.
“What is it?” she asked, in a weary tone that made Aronoke realise that disturbances to her sleep were probably not all that uncommon. If you were the primary custodian of ten children, seven of whom were quite small, there were probably all sorts of things you had to get up in the middle of the night for. Even if they were being trained to be Jedi.
“Razzak Mintula, it’s me, Aronoke,” said Aronoke.
“What is it, Aronoke?” came Razzak Mintula’s tired voice.
“I’m sorry it’s so late, Instructor Mintula, but it’s Ashquash. She’s behaving really oddly, and I think someone has drugged her.”
“Drugged her?” said Razzak Mintula. “What? Wait a minute.”
There was a short delay, and then Razzak Mintula appeared at the door in person. Aronoke was so disturbed by what had happened to Ashquash that he didn’t even notice her silvery hair.
“What’s happened to Ashquash?” asked Razzak Mintula.
“She’s behaving really oddly,” said Aronoke. “She woke me up and wanted to go out sparring, even though it’s the middle of the night. She’s acting all crazy and bouncing off the walls. I think someone must have drugged her.”
Razzak Mintula led the way over to Aronoke’s room, where Ashquash was trying her best to look sober and restrained, although not making a very good job of it.
“Aronoke says I’ve been drugged and I think it’s probably true,” admitted Ashquash reluctantly. “I don’t know how it happened, I just woke up feeling that way.”
“You had best come with me over to the medical bay to see if we can get this sorted out,” said Razzak Mintula, and she steered Ashquash firmly out the door.