“Initiate Aronoke,” said a metallic voice, and he blinked to recognise a droid bending over him. “Can you hear me? How many fingers am I holding up?” It waved its droid hand in front of his face, a blur of metallic appendages too close and fast for Aronoke to focus on.
“I… don’t know,” he said, still feeling dazed. “What happened?”
The black-and-red fog was ebbing a little, but not as quickly as he would like.
“You fell unconscious during your examination,” said the droid. “Quite suddenly with no apparent stimulus. It has has not yet been determined why. Unfortunately your examination had to be stopped before it was complete. Your fellow initiates carried you here.”
“I…don’t remember,” said Aronoke, confused. He tried to sit up, his body feeling fine, but the droid reached out a hand to prevent him. His head still felt oddly clouded. He could see some other initiates standing in an awkward group some distance away, watching. They seemed faintly familiar.
“Please remain in a reclining position,” said the droid, reaching out an arm to steady him. “You must undergo medical testing before resuming verticality.”
“Okay,” said Aronoke. He lay back on the grass and allowed himself to be loaded onto a medcradle and floated off to a medical laboratory.
Master Nethlemor was waiting there and stood watching as they took him off the stretcher and laid him on a bench.
“Aronoke, what happened?” he asked, concerned, as the droid began running scans.
“I don’t know, Master Nethlemor,” said Aronoke. “I don’t remember.”
“What is the last thing you do remember?”
Aronoke tried to think back to that morning, before the test had started and suddenly memories gushed back into his mind all at once.
Aronoke's third test was to be held in a substantially different location from the first two. He recognised the coordinates as being somewhere up near the top of the temple, where the speeder ranks were. As he made his way there after breakfast on the prescribed morning, he wondered if it was to be held outside the Jedi temple.
When he arrived at the coordinates listed, he saw that he wasn’t the only person waiting. Two other initiates were already there. One was a nervous looking human fellow with a thin moustache. Another was a human woman, with interesting hair tied in intricate bands at the back of her head. Aronoke was careful not to look too closely at that – he still found women’s hair very distracting. The third arrived shortly after Aronoke had found a bench to sit and wait on, and was a rodian. They all wore initiates’ robes like his own, and Aronoke found himself wondering if they were real candidates or merely Jedi posing as them to make up the numbers for the test. He wondered then if there were always fake candidates, or merely if there were not enough people sitting the test that day.
At the correct time, four droids came into the chamber. Each approached one of the waiting initiates.
“Examination Candidate Aronoke?” said the droid that came up to him. “Please stand by in preparation for boarding the shuttle.”
“Yes, certainly,” said Aronoke. He stood where the droid told him to, and waited while two of the other candidates were loaded onto a shuttle. It was different from the one he had rode in when he first arrived on Coruscant. It had a separate compartment for each initiate and Aronoke could not see outside. He took his seat expectantly, wondering why they were being taken outside the Jedi temple for this last test. Perhaps to test their ability to function outside the temple’s shielding? He was ready for the sudden exposure of his senses to the Force and grateful for the excursions outside when he had gone unshielded, or he would have been very taken aback indeed.
Presumably handling this sort of exposure was something else that was usually taught at a later stage of training. Perhaps it was something that most students weren’t affected by. Aronoke remembered Hespenara saying that she had to work hard to sense the currents in the Force.
The shuttle travelled for some time, and then made two stops in short succession. On the third stop, the door to Aronoke's compartment slid open. There was a short passage beyond, and then another doorway which opened automatically as he approached it. It slid shut behind him.
He found himself standing in something that reminded him of the environments at the biological gardens. Although he could still see the faint green lines of a dome high above him, this was a self-contained outdoor environment. It was quite hot, Aronoke noticed. Pleasantly warm by his standards. He was certain that he would find Kasthir itself very hot after spending so long in the climate controlled environment of Coruscant. Trees grew everywhere. Thick bushes and weeds clustered where the larger trees had toppled.
Just in front of him, on the ground, lay a practice sabre.
Aronoke remembered the last test. He was not going to be fooled by the same trick twice, even though this time he knew he had no eye lenses in. Slowly he let his shields recede, letting his senses expand to fill the surrounding area, until he had located the edges of the dome. He could sense the other candidates spread out across it. Could also faintly sense the city beyond and several Jedi masters in relatively close proximity. The examiners, he thought. Or perhaps the emergency response crew, in case someone fell on their head. Him, most likely. There were also other things lurking amongst the dimmer force-web of the vegetation. Subsentient creatures, some larger than others. They were mostly predators, he thought. There was a large one quite close to him. A group of smaller ones were already rapidly closing in on the candidate closest to him.
In the centre of the dome there was a gleaming nexus of Force power. An artifact of some sort perhaps? It was an obvious goal.
Jedi would not ignore colleagues in need, Aronoke knew. With some haste he scooped up the practice blade and began running through the jungle towards the nearest candidate, leaping over fallen trees and densely tangled bits of underbrush. The group of creatures had closed on their victim rapidly. The larger creature was following Aronoke from a distance, hunting him. Doubtlessly waiting for him to be distracted. He kept one part of his mind watching it, while he manoeuvred himself towards one of the outlying creatures attacking the other candidate.
It looked like some sort of insect, Aronoke thought, brown-carapaced and hardy, with lots of legs. It was quite large, coming up somewhat past his knees.
“Help!” called the other candidate, rather belatedly, Aronoke thought. It was the human man with the little moustache. If he hadn’t been well on the way to help already, surely the fellow would have been overwhelmed long before he could have reached him. He was stuck, Aronoke saw, trapped up to the knees in some sticky globular substance, presumably spat by the creatures.
Aronoke slashed forcefully at the nearest bug and succeeded in hitting it and distracting its attention. The human was gamely trying to wade towards Aronoke, presumably so they could work together to drive off the creatures.
The bug-thing spat at Aronoke and a glob of sticky stuff splattered on his hand, having little effect other than to stick his practice blade to his skin. He swung at it again and missed, but caught it hard on the underside with his backstroke as it reared up to spit again.
The creature let out a squelchy squeal, and suddenly, before Aronoke could pull away, it curled itself up into a ball.
That would not have been an issue, except it curled up so quickly and tightly, that Aronoke's hand and practice blade were caught in the middle of it.
He tried pulling free, but the sticky glob had additionally stuck his hand and his blade to the middle of the creature. He tried lifting the creature to smash it against the ground, but it was awkward and heavy. He tried kicking it, but was too close for him to make much impact.
All the while, Aronoke could still sense the larger predator approaching. It was somewhat above him, just over the level of the canopy. He assumed it was something arboreal or something that flew. Wondered how he would fight it off if he was still trapped when it attacked. Even as he struggled to free himself, a plan began to form in his mind.
Suddenly the three other bug-creatures surrounding the other initiate scuttled off and disappeared into the underbrush, where they curled up like the first one had. They could also sense the approach of the predator in the trees, Aronoke realised.
“Careful, there’s something big up there,” called Aronoke, gesturing with his head. “About to attack us.”
About to attack him, he realised, as he caught a glimpse of a dark, tattered bat-like form preparing to swoop down towards him.
“I can’t get loose!” the other initiate yelled, tugging futilely at his glob-encased legs.
“It’s okay,” said Aronoke, focusing on the bat-creature. “I’ve got it.”
He changed position, switching his grip so his left hand grapsed the other end of the practice blade. Waited… waited… and as the creature swooped at the last minute, he rolled on the ground on his back, using his weight to swing the bug-thing between himself and the swooping predator. Sharp claws raked across the bug, tearing big rents in its carapace, but it was not over yet. The predator was coming around for another attack. This time, from his position on the ground, it was harder for Aronoke to move to shield himself. He managed by the merest whisker to avoid being clawed. The bat creature flew up into the trees, out of sight. Aronoke could sense it waiting there for something.
For its poison to take effect, he realised, as the bug-creature relaxed about his arm and came part-way uncurled. Whether it was dead or merely paralysed he was uncertain, but he wasn’t going to wait around to see. He worked his arm gradually free, and then went over to help the other initiate who was in the last stages of freeing himself.
“That was a fancy move you pulled there,” the man said, approvingly. “The name’s Piralon Thrux. Thanks for helping me with those things.”
“It makes more sense to work together,” said Aronoke. “I’m Aronoke.”
“I haven’t seen you around before,” said Piralon Thrux, but Aronoke thought it was not a good time for idle conversation. His Force senses suggested to him that this Initiate’s Force abilities were far stronger than he had demonstrated during the fight, so he was almost certainly only pretending to be sitting for the test.
Aronoke took charge.
“Come on,” he said. “That bat-creature hasn’t gone. It’s waiting to eat its dinner. We had better be off before it decides it wants an extra helping.”
He turned back towards the middle of the dome, “We should try to meet up with the others, I think,” Aronoke said. “It makes sense that they will head towards the middle too. In fact, I think they’re ahead of us.” He could sense the other initiates closing upon the central location, and set off in that direction, reminding himself that it was not a race.
They made their way through the jungle, Aronoke using his force senses to avoid the other creatures which inhabited it. He was relieved that the bat creature chose not to follow them, but stayed behind, presumably to feast on the bug-thing. It was not a long walk to the centre of the arena, as Aronoke now thought of it. The other two initiates had arrived shortly before them. They turned to watch him approach, from where they stood looking at something.
Set into the ground were four platforms. If there was anything else to see it was buried beneath the dirt. It looked like the start of some sort of puzzle, Aronoke thought.
“Greetings,” said the human woman with the braids. She did not look like she had faced any difficulties reaching the centre. Did not have a hair out of place, Aronoke thought. “I’m Leptospora. The others introduced themselves as well, and Aronoke followed suit. The rodian was called Oobalur.
“So, I wonder what we are meant to do here,” said Leptospora, gesturing at the platforms. There was little enough to go on. Aronoke could not sense anything more even with his Force senses. The proximity of whatever was producing the Force energy was making it difficult to see anything subtle nearby.
“It looks like we are meant to work together,” said Aronoke. “Four platforms, four of us. I expect we each have to step onto a platform to trigger what comes next.”
“Seems reasonable enough,” said Piralon Thrux.
“Still, there is a possibility that it is a convoluted trap,” said Aronoke. “Although I don’t really believe it is. One of us should probably step up first, in case it is. No sense risking all of us at once.”
“Right then,” said Leptospora. “I’ll volunteer for that.” She strode over to the nearest platform and stepped upon it. Nothing seemed to happen.
The other initiates spread out, each choosing a platform at random. Aronoke stepped on his, then Piralon, and finally Oobalur.
As the rodian stepped into position, the platform Aronoke stood on began to vibrate gently. The ground began to shake gently and then to move. Dirt quivered in place, as if there was going to be an earthquake. Then plates slid aside underneath, revealing a cavernous opening. Walls began rising between the candidates. Some sort of spinning cylindrical construct, the source of the Force power Aronoke had sensed, began to rise in the middle. Runes indicating the qualities of Emotion, Ignorance, Passion, Chaos, and Death were marked on its sides and seemed to cover pressure plates or switches of some kind.
He was right. It was almost certainly some sort of puzzle.
“…One moment I was standing on the platform, and the next I woke up lying on the grass,” said Aronoke to Master Nethlemor. “I wasn’t trying to do anything, wasn’t feeling particularly stressed. I felt I was doing well and was almost enjoying the test.”
“Initial scans have revealed no physical abnormality or chemical imbalance to suggest why you might have lost consciousness,” said the medical droid. “Please remain still while some final data samples are taken.”
“There were no visions this time?”
“I don’t remember anything, Master,” said Aronoke.
“An investigation will have to be made,” said Examiner Nethlemor. “To determine why you were unable to complete your test. For now, just follow the medical droid’s instructions and you will be escorted back to your clan rooms once the scans are complete.”
“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke. He felt confused and disappointed. Fainting in the middle of a test for no reason… was there something seriously wrong with him? Something left over from his injuries in the second test? Or was it another harassment?
Aronoke was left to lie in the medical bay for some time while further scans and tests were performed. Afterwards he was allowed to get up and make his way over to the shuttle to be taken back to the Temple. He tried to centre himself by meditating during the flight back. His mind felt tenuous and off-centre, like after he had tried to detect Master Altus. The red haze still hung over everything, making his efforts curiously ineffective.
Master Insa-tolsa was waiting at the speeder terminal when Aronoke arrived.
“Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “I will escort you back to your clan rooms. It is better that you do not travel alone so soon after regaining consciousness.”
“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke, subdued.
“Was there anything unusual about this incident?” asked Master Insa-tolsa, as they set off through the passages.
“I don’t know, Master. It was strange in that I was standing there one minute, not feeling particularly stressed. I didn’t feel dizzy or anything. Then I awoke lying on the grass. I have no idea what happened.”
“That is unfortunate,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “And quite peculiar. We must await the result of your extended medical tests before coming to any conclusion.”
“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke dully.
“If it remains inconclusive, you will have to attend a meeting to determine the outcome of your test,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “It must be decided if you failed because of some external influence. If that is the case, you will be assigned a new test instead.”
“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke. “It was going so well up until that point, too. I thought I was doing well.”
But, he reminded himself, the worst thing that could happen was that he failed. That he got to remain in the Jedi temple and repeat the tests again later. That was not so terrible.
But it might be terrible for Ashquash, he thought.
Aronoke spent the rest of the day quietly in the company of his clan mates. He went to bed early and tried to sleep, but woke up sweating. His mind was completely tangled, still full of red pulsing ropes of darkness.
This is no good, he thought. This is something unusual. He got up and went to the meditation room, but it was several hours before he really felt his mind was clear again. He was exhausted, ethereal and almost asleep on his feet by the time he had finished.
A few days later, Aronoke was required to attend the inquiry regarding his examination. It was held in a room near the council chamber he had visited when he first arrived in the Jedi temple. There were fewer masters attending this session. Master Nethlemor, the examiner was presiding.
“Initiate Aronoke,” said Master Nethlemor. “This hearing is to determine whether or not your recent examination, which was prematurely terminated and which you were unable to complete, should be deemed a failure or whether you deserve a second attempt to complete to test.”
“This is Master An-ku, who will be arguing in your defence, and Master Belor, who will be arguing that you have failed. Before we begin this process, I must ask do you yourself desire to perform a replacement examination, should this hearing be decided in your favour? If not, there is no necessity for us to continue any further at this time. You will be presented with another opportunity to sit for your examinations to become a padawan after you have continued with your training program as it stands.”
Aronoke was silent for a short moment. He was tempted by the opportunity to stay in the Jedi temple, but he did not like to fail without trying as hard as he could. And staying in the temple also meant that Ashquash and his other clanmates would continue being at risk.
“If this inquiry is decided in my favour, I agree to perform a replacement examination,” said Aronoke.
“Very well then. Before the Masters pose their arguments, both for and against you, what is your opinion regarding the test you have just failed to complete? Do you believe that you should have failed, or that you should be given a second chance?”
Aronoke hesitated. He could not decide either way, because he did not know why he had fainted.
“Please, speak,” said Master Nethlemor as the pause lengthened. “There is no correct answer.”
“I can not decide either way, Masters,” said Aronoke, giving an awkward little bow. “I remember nothing of how I came to faint. I was standing on a platform. I did not feel like I was about to faint. I felt curious about what was going to happen. I did not even feel particularly stressed. I felt I was doing well. And then I woke up lying on the grass. If I fainted because of some external influence, then I would say I deserve a second chance, but if I fainted because of some weakness in myself, well, then I do not.”
“Very well. Master Belor will now present his case.”
Master Belor was an elderly human man and he rose from his seat to speak.
“As Initiate Aronoke has so conveniently summated already,” he said, “fainting because of some internal weakness can only be classed as a failure on his behalf. The examination chamber has been carefully examined and its condition is no different than it has been during the many thousands of examinations which have already been performed in it. It is designed in a manner to make tampering with the results of examinations as completely foolproof as our technology allows. The probability of such interference is so minute that it can not be credited, without even considering what motive could possibly exist for wishing this specific candidate to fail. With no evidence of any tampering, the simpler suggestion is obviously the correct one. It is obviously a failing on Initiate Aronoke's behalf.”
“Very well,” said Master Nethlemor. “Master An-ku?”
Master An-ku stood up.
“In the vast majority of situations there would be no question of such an event being anything other than weakness on Initiate Aronoke's behalf. However, Initiate Aronoke has already been the subject of a number of peculiar harrassments and events which are extremely unusual in their nature. These interferences have proven unable to be prevented or traced, despite the efforts of a large number of Jedi Masters working in concert to do so. Firstly, it may be argued that Initiate Aronoke has already suffered unusual stresses due to these unwarranted attacks outside of the examination chambers, and that these events may have had a deleterious and unfair influence upon his performance during his examinations. Secondly, if we have been unable to trace the origin and path of these interferences previously, perhaps we are also missing something now. I argue that Initiate Aronoke deserves the benefit of the doubt due to the uncertainty of the situation, and should be given the opportunity to undertake a fourth test.”
Aronoke was doing his best to stand still and keep his mind calm. He was willing to let the masters decide for him. He would be satisfied, he told himself, whatever the result.
“So to make sure the situation is absolutely clear to all parties,” said Master Nethlemor, “I will outline the situation as it stands. Aronoke has already completed two prior examinations. The first, which was a test of Control, was ruled to be a pass, and the second, a test of his Sense abilities, was also ruled to be a pass. He also performed very well during the third test up until the point when he suddenly fell unconscious. He need only pass a third examination to be awarded the rank of Padawan.”
Aronoke felt a glow of pleasure. So he had passed the first two tests! He was pleased too, at Master Nethlemor’s evaluation of his progress through the third examination.
“Master Belor, do you wish to speak further?”
“I wish to speak in regard to Master An-ku’s first point,” said Master Belor calmly. “Other initiates also suffer stresses peculiar to their situation in the Jedi temple, which may, to them, seem as difficult to deal with as those experienced by Initiate Aronoke. Students are expected to pass the tests in spite of these pressures. It is part of the process. I do not believe that Initiate Aronoke deserves any special treatment in this regard.”
“My argument stands as presented,” said Master An-ku solemnly.
“Very well,” said Master Nethlemor, turning his attention back to Aronoke. “This concludes the portion of this inquiry requiring your presence, Initiate. Let me congratulate you on the successful completion of your first two examinations, and the successful completion of the portion of your third examination up until it was terminated due to medical concerns. You will be informed shortly as to the results of this inquiry, and should it be decided in your favour, you will receive notification regarding your substitute examination within the next week.”
“Thank you, Master Nethlemor,” said Aronoke. He bowed again and made his way out of the chamber, feeling relieved that it was over. Making his way back to the clan nest, he felt he had done better than he had thought he would. As he walked back, he noticed he was being followed by a droid – it looked like a protocol droid this time. It tailed him, not very unobtrusively, almost all the way back to his clan rooms. Aronoke didn’t want it wandering about there, close to his younger clan mates.
“What do you want?” he asked rudely, turning to confront the droid.
“Want, Initiate?” said the droid. “I do not want anything. I am merely performing my regular duties about the temple.”
“That’s a load of gundark piss,” said Aronoke, coining an expression he hadn’t used since his days as a skimmer. “You’ve been tailing me all the way back from the Council chambers. Why are you following me?”
“I assure you, I am not following you,” said the droid stuffily. Aronoke was carefully checking its identification plaque while it spoke, identifying its number. “There has obviously been some sort of peculiar coincidence that has led you to this mistaken observation. I admit the chances are-”
The droid suddenly stopped speaking and gave a peculiar little shudder. “Oh,” it said. “What a convenient situation. I believe I have a message for you, Initiate Aronoke.”
A familiar-looking holotransmission began.
“Aronoke,” said the scrambled voice. “I am disappointed that you chose not to receive the last message I sent you, but no matter. I have some important information for you. If you would like to help Master Altus, you will come to these coordinates tomorrow morning at seven hundred.”
The appropriate coordinates followed quickly, and Aronoke repeated them several times in his head to memorise them.
“Goodness!” said the droid, twitching its hands in the air feebly. “I don’t know what came over me. I have never been in this part of the temple before! I must return to my regular duties at once!” It tottered off, leaving Aronoke standing, watching thoughtfully until it disappeared from sight.
Reporting this incident in the usual way was obviously no good at all. When he had brought Razzak Mintula’s attention to an appointment like this, there had been nothing there to find. His assailant had stayed away. Reporting directly to Master Insa-tolsa had resulted in the message cylinder blowing up, again leaving no evidence. There had to be some other way to do this. In class, the younglings had been practicing writing by hand, on sheets of flimsiplast. Some were still lying about the clan common room, along with several writing styluses. Aronoke picked up a sheet and took it to his room, and with some difficulty, began to scribe a letter:
I am sending you this message because I have received another holo-transmission from a droid. The droid’s designation is TR443. It followed me back from the Council chambers after I attended the inquiry there. The holotransmission said I should go to a particular location tomorrow morning at 0700 if I wanted to help Master Altus. I am sending this message with Draken, so it might not be intercepted.
Beneath he wrote the coordinates the droid had told him.
Later that evening, an hour or two after dinner, he went to Draken’s room.
“Can I talk to Draken alone for a moment, please Golmo?” he asked. “In here?”
“Uh, sure, Aronoke,” said Golmo, looking a little curious. Aronoke had never asked anything like that before.
“Draken, can you do me an important favour?” asked Aronoke, once Golmo was gone and the door was closed. Draken was already looking intrigued. Aronoke knew he would enjoy a task like this one.
“Uh, sure,” said Draken. “What is it? Is it something mysterious?”
“Yes,” said Aronoke. “It’s important, or I wouldn’t ask you like this. Can you take this message to Master Insa-tolsa for me? He needs to see it right away, and I don’t want to be seen taking it myself. The less noticeable you are, the better it will be.”
“I can do that,” said Draken. He took the flimsiplast message, looking more nervous than Aronoke had thought he would. “Does Master Insa-tolsa know I’m coming?”
“No,” said Aronoke. “He’s probably in his chambers. I’m sure you can find them.”
“That shouldn’t be too hard,” said Draken, “but…ah…can’t you at least tell him I’m coming? He mightn’t be pleased.”
“I can’t do that. It would defeat the purpose,” said Aronoke.
“I see. I suppose if you want it to be secret that’s true,” said Draken, starting to look more excited.
“Don’t worry, I’m sure he won’t mind,” said Aronoke. “If you get into trouble with him or anyone else, you can tell them that I stood you up to it and I will explain to them. It will be fine.”
“Sure, Aronoke. Of course I can do it.”
It was the sort of mission Draken was perfect for, Aronoke thought, as his friend hurried out of the clan rooms. A way his clan could help him deal with his problems. He was well satisfied with having thought of sending a message by this means, and fairly certain that his harrassers would not expect this. He had tried nothing of this kind before.
Draken was gone for some time. It was not a short walk to Master Insa-tolsa’s quarters. He came back looking pleased with himself.
“It all went well,” said Draken. “Master Insa-tolsa didn’t mind at all. He’s quite nice really.”
The next day, Aronoke was careful to go out for a long walk around the time he was meant to go to the coordinates in the mysterious message. He figured that if his harasser had some way of observing his comings and goings this might convince them that Aronoke was doing what they wanted. Later that day he received a message asking him to go and speak with Master Insa-tolsa.
“That was well thought of by you to send a message by those means,” said Master Insa-tolsa approvingly. “We were able to intercept a droid at the coordinates you gave us. A red lightsaber crystal of an unsual kind was recovered from the droid.
“A lightsaber crystal,” said Aronoke, a little shocked. Such an item would not be trivial to bring into the Jedi temple. There would be serious risks involved.
“Indeed,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “This is something of a breakthrough in this investigation, Aronoke. I hope very much that some information leading from this might help us finally identify the perpetrator.”
“I hope so, Master,” said Aronoke, inwardly sighing. He held little hope by this time that his harasser would ever be found.
Several days later, he received a message from Master Nethlemor that the inquiry had decided that Aronoke could sit for a fourth examination.
One final chance. It would all hinge upon this last test. The subject for the examination was Moral Applications of the Jedi Code. The sort of thing Aronoke had always had trouble with. The sort of decisions that could get you killed on Kasthir. And yet, those were the rules Master Altus lived his life by, so it was obviously a viable choice.
Sighing, he set himself a reading schedule that covered all these moral topics. He carefully studied a wide variety of historical situations and moral tales to use as examples. Throughout this time he continued his lightsaber training, but decided to take a break from running.
To his relief, the fourth test was within the limits of the Jedi Temple. It seemed less likely that the examination could be tampered with there, with so many Jedi nearby.
Aronoke was precisely on time.
“Initiate Aronoke,” said the examination droid, when he arrived at the examination room. “Your final examination lies through this door. You may take up to twenty-four hours to complete it once you pass inside. Please step through the door.”
“Certainly,” said Aronoke, stepping through the door when it opened. Twenty-four hours was a long time for a test. What could it possibly involve?
Inside, he found himself in a moderately large chamber, almost cubic in shape. Before stepping forward, he allowed his Force senses past the shield of his control, out to the extents of the room.
Up near the ceiling, a large box hovered, suspended by two energy-beams. Aronoke could see two controls for operating the system, high up in the walls well out of reach, which would, if his evaluation was correct, move the box across horizontally and vertically. They could be triggered by using the Force to push them, something Aronoke was not very good at. He could tell also that hidden nozzles lay behind the controls. Operating each one would expose a nozzle, allowing something to flood into the room.
Water? Sleeping gas? Aronoke had no idea. He didn’t like the idea of water. He thoughtfully took off his outer robe and hung it over some pipework before beginning.
The pipework was at one side of the room and looked readily climbable, Aronoke noted.
First he decided to tap one of the controls to see what happened. That way he would be prepared for whatever lay ahead and could plan his next move. He reached out through the Force to push one of them. It was a simple mechanism, easy to push. It was no more difficult than lifting a pebble. While it was depressed, the box in the ceiling moved incrementally across the room towards the pipework. There was a hissing noise, as some sort of gas flooded the room. The temperature immediately grew a little colder.
Aronoke was relieved that it wasn’t water. He tried the other control. This time the box moved downwards. More gas hissed in. Aronoke noticed that moving the box downward produced far more gas than moving it across.
Very well then, he had a plan. He didn’t put his robe back on just yet, but continued moving the box downwards until it was at a height so that he would be able to climb on top of it. Then he used the first control to move it across to a position near the climbable pipework. The temperature in the room had dropped remarkably by the time he was finished, but controlling his body temperature was something even Clan Herf had studied, and Aronoke was able to maintain his at a comfortable level. Taking his outer robe, he tossed it up on the top of the box and began climbing the pipework.
The last step onto the top of the box was the most difficult. A thin patch of slick ice had already formed on the box’s outer surface. Unfortunately that was just the place Aronoke had chosen for a foothold. His foot skidded suddenly off into space, sending him plummeting headfirst towards the floor.
He twisted in mid air and landed on his feet. He rolled his eyes at himself. What was it with falling during these tests? Quickly he climbed back up the pipework, avoiding the slippery patch this time. Crouching on top of the cube, he put his outer robe back on.
On top of the cube was a simple puzzle square with sliding pieces that had to be moved to make a picture. Aronoke recognized the picture from some of his reading, of the Jedi Tower on Taris. The puzzle itself was simple enough to complete by trial and error, and was easier because he knew the picture. Once done, a panel clicked open, revealing a trap door that lead down inside the box. Down in there, Aronoke could see a chair, a desk and a datapad. The examination he had to complete.
Carefully he climbed inside the box, sat down at the datapad and began. The test was not as difficult as he had feared. Easier than writing the essays had been. Mostly he had to make moral decisions in regard to different situations, but the numerous examples he had studied stood him in good stead. The longer explanations some of the questions required were difficult for him to formulate, but still lay within his capabilities.
As he worked, Aronoke was aware that the nozzles in the walls of the room outside hissed occasionally, letting more gas in to cool the room. As time went on, the temperature grew even colder. Aronoke was glad when he came to the end of the examination paper, and quickly checked through his answers. He was relieved to climb back outside and push the buzzer on the outer door to be let out.
He had no doubts that he had passed this test, and felt pleased with himself. Everything had gone right this time, apart from falling off the box on his first attempt to climb on it.
He was even more pleased to receive his formal results a few days later.
“Congratulations!” said Master Insa-tolsa. “You have passed the tests required to pass to the rank of Padawan.”
Aronoke was silent for a moment. He was pleased that he had passed, certainly, but sad that Master Altus was not here. If his education had proceeded normally, he might have become Master Altus’s padawan after Hespenara had become a Jedi. It was certain now that he never would be.
“Thank you, Master,” he said.
“Typically your next task would be to forge your lightsaber,” said Master Insa-tolsa, “after which you would be available for selection by a Jedi Master. However, the Council has decreed that in your case, they will begin the selection process immediately and have called for expressions of interest from Masters wishing to take a padawan.”
“That’s good, Master,” said Aronoke.
“I believe there have already been several expressions of interest,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “Usually any Master wishing to take you would approach you directly, but in your case the Council has chosen to intervene and will decide on your behalf.”
“That is probably all for the best,” said Aronoke. He was glad that he would not have to worry about not being chosen, like Emeraldine had.
Razzak Mintula had congratulations to offer as well.
“I’m glad to see that your hard work has paid off,” she said. “Although you have not been here very long, and, I feel, perhaps not long enough, congratulations, Aronoke. I’m sure you will make a fine padawan.”
“Thank you Instructor,” said Aronoke, smiling.
“I’m sure your clan-mates will be eager to congratulate you too,” said Razzak Mintula. “They have been very excited, following your progress through the tests. It was been an excellent educational experience for them, one that I am certain will be of value to them when it comes time to prepare for their own tests in the years to come.”
“I’m glad that it has been of some benefit,” said Aronoke. He still felt that he had been hurried through his training far more than he would like. “I hope that all the trouble will now stop, and that things might be a little more peaceful for you and the clan, Instructor.”
Razzak Mintula sighed. “I know you would have liked to spend longer with us, Aronoke. I am certain, however, that despite the shortness of your stay here in the temple, that a strong bond has grown between you and the rest of your clan mates, one that you may come to appreciate further in your later years as a Jedi.”
By the time he became a Jedi, Aronoke thought, it was likely that his younger clan-mates would just be taking their tests to become padawans, although Ashquash and Draken could hope to graduate earlier if they were were diligent in their studies.
“Thank you, Instructor. I know that’s true.”
“I know Ashquash would like to congratulate you as well, but unfortunately she must remain in her rooms near Master Skeirim’s quarters for the moment.”
“Hopefully she will be able to return to the clan once I am gone,” said Aronoke sadly. It would be hard to not see Ashquash before he left.
“Perhaps,” said Razzak Mintula somewhat guardedly.
“How is she doing, Instructor? I hope she is improving.”
“You were not told, because it was decided that it was better to avoid distracting you from your tests, but Ashquash is not doing very well at the moment,” said Razzak Mintula. “Despite the precautions taken, she was drugged again during your tests.”
Aronoke was shocked. Outraged. “Again!? How can this keep happening, Instructor? I can’t understand how it can’t be stopped.”
“I can’t either,” said Razzak Mintula tersely. “It is just evidence that whoever is doing this is very powerful indeed, someone with considerable influence.”
“Well, perhaps she will be left alone once I am not here,” said Aronoke.
The younger members of Clan Herf were eager to help Aronoke celebrate and he found himself more popular than ever over the days that came next. There was nothing for him to do – lessons were over.
“You finally get a proper holiday,” said Draken self-righteously.
Aronoke laughed. “I suppose so.”
It was too difficult to do nothing. Aronoke rested more than usual, accompanied his clan-mates during some of their lessons, and spent free-time playing games and helping with homework. After four days of this, he received official notification that he had been assigned for apprenticeship to Master Ninnish Caaldor, a Jedi master who seldom came back to Coruscant, but would arrive to collect Aronoke in a few days’ time.
“Then you’ll get to go to Ilum to get your lightsaber,” said Draken enviously. “I bet you can’t wait.”
Aronoke shrugged. He felt that getting a lightsaber was another immense responsibility. Would forging a lightsaber be another kind of test, he wondered. How difficult would it be?
“It will certainly be exciting,” he admitted.
“I wonder what your Jedi master will be like,” said Draken, voicing Aronoke's own thoughts. “I don’t expect you’ll come back here for a good long while, if at all, so we won’t get to know.”
“I’ll try to send a message when it’s appropriate,” said Aronoke. “Although you’re right – it could be some time before I can.”
The next afternoon a message came from Ashquash, a stilted recorded message, carefully cut-and-pasted. Ashquash wished Aronoke congratulations on becoming a padawan. She was glad he had passed his tests. Aronoke sent a carefully composed reply, sorry he was leaving Ashquash behind without properly saying goodbye.
Then the next day, his holocommunicator chimed, and there was Ashquash herself, no recording this time. She looked pale and thin. Her eyes were large and slightly wild. She looked dangerous and only barely in control, but determined and courageous.
“Aronoke,” said Ashquash. “I wanted to say goodbye properly. Will you come and see me?”
Aronoke hesitated just a moment, but surely there could be no harm in it.
“Of course,” he said.
“Then come now to the rooms at these coordinates. I can’t stay long, but at least we can talk.”
They were chambers near Master Skeirim’s, Aronoke could see from the coordinates. Rooms close to Ashquash’s new quarters.
“I’ll be there right away,” Aronoke said.
Walking through the familiar hallways of the Jedi Temple, he couldn’t help thinking that it was somewhat unusual. Razzak Mintula had said he couldn’t meet with Ashquash, but he was confident that she wouldn’t lead him into a trap, and if she was still drugged and strange, well, he knew about such things from his time with Boamba. He wouldn’t let himself or Ashquash come to any harm.
Aronoke palmed the door control when he arrived at the appropriate location and to his surprise the door slid back at once, without waiting for verbal confirmation from within. Beyond lay typical rooms of the type kept to house Jedi Masters while they visited the Temple, much the same as those Master Altus had inhabited while he had been here.
Inside, Ashquash wheeled hastily to face Aronoke, looking tense and defensive, and only relaxing when she saw it was him.
“Aronoke! Come in,” she hissed and hurried forward to close the door behind him.
“Are you supposed to be here, Ashquash?” asked Aronoke. “I hope you’re not going to get into any trouble over this.”
“As if I could be in any more trouble than I’ve already been,” said Ashquash, dismissively, stepping close to him and speaking softly. “I couldn’t let you go without saying goodbye! You’re my only real friend!”
“You know that’s not true,” said Aronoke. “What about the rest of the clan? You know that they care what happens to you. Draken helped to rescue you too.”
“I know, I know,” said Ashquash dismissively. “But they don’t really understand. The younglings are too little, and Draken only thinks he knows what the seamier side of the galaxy is like. He doesn’t truly understand what that sort of life is like, not like you and I do.”
“Nevertheless, they can still help you,” said Aronoke, but Ashquash made a dismissive, impatient gesture.
“They wouldn’t let me send a proper message before,” she said. “They were worried about what I might say.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Aronoke, smiling. “I’m glad that we can speak before I leave. I hope that things will go better for you now that I’m leaving. That everything will get easier.”
Ashquash looked down. She chewed her lip. Looked back up at him. “Master Skeirim has promised that it will,” she said steadily. “He said if it doesn’t stop after you have left, than he will take me away from here, to continue my training somewhere else where it can’t happen any more.”
“That’s good,” said Aronoke. “So he should too.”
“I’m not giving up,” she continued, glaring at him, making him smile because he knew she meant it. “I’m not going to let them influence me in this way, no matter what, if I’m only strong enough. I’m going to try as hard as I can, Aronoke, and one day, you’ll see. I will be a proper Jedi. I’ll come and see you when that happens. We will be Jedi together.”
“If you weren’t strong enough, Ashquash, than no one would be,” said Aronoke. “You’re the strongest person that I know.”
Ashquash looked away then. The faintest pink tinge highlit her bone-white cheeks.
“Thank you, Aronoke,” she said. “Thank you for helping me and being my friend.”
“You’re welcome,” said Aronoke. “Thank you for helping me. All the studying and the conversations that we had… I doubt I would have passed if I hadn’t had you to discuss all those moral tales with. Look after the others for me, the younglings, and Draken, if you can. And I’ll hold you to what you said, about meeting up when we both are Jedi.”
“You can count on it,” said Ashquash fiercely.
Aronoke smiled down at her. She stood very close to him now, her eyes full of some undeniable emotion. He felt a sudden hot rush of realisation that Ashquash was well and truly a girl – a young woman, he amended – and that he was attracted to her, even though he had always gone to great lengths to deny it to himself. He felt his face heating as his body began to respond to her close presence with an undeniable giddy enthusiasm.
And at that moment, just as he was forcing himself to step back, to take a deep breath, to use his meditative techniques to bring himself back under control, his habitual shielding from the Force was ripped aside by a sudden wave of energy. It was not like the currents of Force energy he had felt exuded by strong sources of Light side energy, like powerful uses of Force by Jedi Masters. It was not like the ropy red pulsing strands that had entangled him after he had fainted during his trials. If anything, it was overwhelmingly green, filled with the vibrancy of living things. It pulsed undeniably through him like a new alien heart beat, exultant and demanding.
Suddenly Aronoke was completely aware of the workings of his own body, like he had been when he was injured during the trials. He was also intimately aware of Ashquash and exactly how her body was responding to his own, like they were undeniably connected in some way. He was mesmerised by the rush of blood through her veins, the fast beat of her heart, the building insistence of the attraction she felt for him. And then somehow, crazily, she was stretching up to kiss him, and his lips were pressing themselves against hers. Her tongue flicked into his mouth, hot, wet and demanding. Her arms reached around him and pulled him against her, and he gasped, overwhelmed with confusing emotions.
Maybe Boamba had hugged him sometimes when he was a child, but it was certain that no one had since.
He felt a sudden hunger for physical contact that transcended any thought of restraint. He pulled her more firmly against him, his hands groping clumsily to remove the frustrating barrier of her clothing. Her hands had slid inside his tunic to touch his bare skin, and he shuddered with the intensity of the contact. He felt the warmth of her pale hands against his back, and shivered as she slid them lower, under the band of his trousers. He tugged at the ties that fastened hers, and they came undone with surprising ease.
And then his holocommunicator chimed insistently.
For a moment, Aronoke considered ignoring it, but the noise was enough to break the moment, to allow common sense and self-control to reassert themselves.
A sudden wave of shame washed over Aronoke as he realised what they were doing, already well on the way to being half-naked. Ashquash had a reason; she had been drugged and had not yet completely recovered, but he had no such excuse. His face burned hotly and he gently but insistently pushed Ashquash away.
“Aronoke!” she complained, still clutching at his robes.
“I have to answer this,” said Aronoke firmly, and he untangled her resistant fingers, and walked away into the back section of the room, straightening his garments. He took a deep breath, and answered the call. A tiny holographic image of Master Insa-tolsa appeared. Aronoke knew the ithorian master well enough by now to recognise his expression as one of considerable concern.
“Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “Is everything well with you? I felt a sudden strange disturbance in the Force and it seemed to me to originate from your vicinity.”
“No, Master,” said Aronoke, grateful that the holographic image was colourless, and would not betray his blushing. “I inadvertently let my shielding slip for a moment, but now I am recovered. Perhaps that is what you sensed.”
“Hrm,” said Master Insa-tolsa, seemingly unconvinced. “Well, so long as you are certain. I know this has been a time of some stress for you, Aronoke, and it would be sad if you were to suffer some mishap now.”
“I’m fine, Master,” said Aronoke, trying to slow his still-racing heart and to exert calmness over his rampaging hormones. “I just need a little time to compose myself.”
“Of course, Padawan. I need not remind you that you can come to me
if you experience any further difficulties.”
“I will, Master. Sorry to be the cause of such concern.”
He turned the holocommunicator off, and turned to Ashquash who was standing there, caught somewhere between alarm and unrepentance.
“I’m sorry,” said Aronoke. “I shouldn’t have done that. I lost control. We shouldn’t be doing this at all, of course, but especially not now, while you are still recovering. Things are confusing enough.”
“There will hardly be any time later,” said Ashquash, bitterly, hugging her arms around herself.
Aronoke sighed, still struggling to regain equilibrium. He couldn’t believe he had just acted like that, so uncontrolled, in the face of all his training. He could only put it down to a relaxation of his usual vigiliance, in relief that the trials were over.
“Look, we are trying to be Jedi. This is not a Jedi-like way to behave – not at all. I’m supposed to know better – I’ve just been made a Padawan and something like this could destroy everything. Not just for me, but for you too. Do you really want that?”
Ashquash looked uncertain, but the expression in her eyes made Aronoke think that she really did not care, that if he suggested they leave the Jedi temple and run away together, that she would take his hand and never look back.
“And besides,” he hurried on, resolutely, trying to ignore the small part of his mind that was already plotting out that strange alternate future, “you saw what just happened. Master Insa-tolsa has been watching over me for years, since I was a new initiate and scared of the power of my own senses. If I lose control like that again, he won’t just call. He’ll be over here in person to see what’s happening to me, in case it’s some new persecution dreamed up by our enemies.”
Hope died in Ashquash’s eyes and she nodded sadly. Her shoulders slumped and she stared at the floor.
“I’m sorry, Ashquash,” Aronoke said. “I’m sorry to confuse you even more. I don’t know what came over me. I’ve never felt anything like it.”
“It’s alright,” whispered Ashquash. “I think I’d better go, now.” She slowly refastened her clothes.
“That’s probably a good idea. I have to go too.”
She walked to the door, a small, sad, lonely figure. When she reached it she took a deep breath, obviously preparing to face the world again, alone.
“May the Force be with you,” said Aronoke. It was the first time he had said it aloud.
“May the Force be with you too, Aronoke,”said Ashquash quietly, and she slipped out the door and was gone, leaving Aronoke wishing that he could somehow help her achieve her goals. He knew he really couldn’t, except by following what he was already doing. Going away. What had just happened only made that more imperative.
When Master Ninnish Caaldor arrived, he did so in the middle of the night. Aronoke's holocommunicator chimed, waking him up, and it was a few minutes before he could remember what the noise meant. When he did, he sat up groggily and composed himself a little.
“Ah, Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “Master Caaldor has arrived to collect you. He is here at my quarters. I realize that it is the middle of the night, but you should come and join us here. He is eager to meet you at the earliest opportunity and wishes to discuss his plans for leaving Coruscant with you.”
“Yes, of course, Master,” said Aronoke. “I will come at once.”
The Jedi temple never really slept. There were too many different species of Jedi with different sleeping habits to ever conform to any single schedule. Too many people from different planets accustomed to different sleeping cycles. It was important that Jedi were on hand at all times to deal with galactic disasters and issues as they arose. Nevertheless, the corridors and chambers were distinctly quieter at this time of night, and Aronoke felt excited and out of place travelling through them, like an explorer embarking on a great adventure.
Aronoke had been to Master Insa-tolsa’s rooms many times over the last few years, and knew the way well. Nevertheless, this time he felt more nervous than on his previous visits. He knew that he could have looked up information on Master Caaldor on the holonet and learned a little about what he was like. He had not wanted to. He felt he wanted to form his own opinion first.
“Come in, Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa when he chimed the door.
In Master Insa-tolsa’s rooms waited a human man, not exactly elderly, but grey and bearded. He was a little shorter than Aronoke himself.
“Padawan Aronoke,” said Master Caaldor. “It seems you are to be my new padawan. I haven’t had one for a very long time – about twenty years to be precise – but I expect we shall get along passably.”
“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke. “I am pleased to meet you.”
“My last padawan was also a chiss,” said Master Caaldor. “I expect that might be one reason why the Jedi Council settled you on me instead of any of the other Masters who expressed an interest in taking on a new Padawan.”
A chiss too? But there was only one other chiss Jedi.
“You were Master Bel’dor’ruch’s Master?” Aronoke asked.
“Yes. She made an interesting Padawan, even if she was a rather slow learner.” Master Caaldor’s eyes twinkled mischievously, and Aronoke didn’t know whether to take him seriously or not.
“Master Insa-tolsa has been discussing your training with me in some detail,” Master Caaldor continued. “Not to mention these annoying incidents. All things considered, I am eager to leave Coruscant as soon as possible rather than wait until after the next shuttle is sent to Ilum. That is still some time distant, so I will request from the Council that I take you to Ilum en route to our next destination, so that you can forge your lightsaber immediately. That will be far more convenient.”
“Yes, Master, as you wish,” said Aronoke, smiling. He was pleased not to have to wait until the next shuttle. Going to Ilum with his new master would surely be far more pleasing.
“Very well then, we shall depart as soon as is practical. I trust you can be ready to leave tomorrow?”
“Of course,” said Aronoke. He had little enough to pack.
Master Insa-tolsa said something then and he and Master Caaldor fell into one of those conversations that older people enjoyed, full of people, places and situations which originated long ago, and Aronoke was left to listen. He was given some tea to drink and fruit to nibble on.
“You’ve been very quiet, Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa after a while. “Is everything alright?”
“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke mildly. “It is the middle of the night.”
“Why, so it is,” said Master Caaldor. “I was forgetting that you are on a Coruscanti schedule. You should probably get back to sleep. You can come and meet me back here tomorrow, at, let’s say, 1500 hours. Bring your things and we will leave then.”
“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke. “I will do so.”
It was difficult to go back to his quarters and sleep, but Aronoke reasoned that the later he slept the better, since he would be doubtlessly be required to adapt to Master Caaldor’s schedule. He slept through breakfast, and tried to rest as long as he could, but was accustomed to getting up very early, and even with the interruption to his rest, could not sleep much later than 1000. He had a shower, packed his things carefully into his bag. There was not much to pack – a Jedi does not collect personal possessions. There was his datapad and practice sabre, several sets of new padawan robes, the old robes of Master Altus’s that Hespenara had given him, three years ago. Aronoke held them up against himself and looked in the little mirror inside the cupboard door. The robes would fit well enough in the breadth, but were short in the sleeves now. The legs of the trousers would end somewhat above his ankles. He felt sad as he folded the robes away into his pack. He wished he was strong enough to go and save Master Altus from the pain and torment being inflicted upon him, far away on that watery planet, but he was still only a padawan, and a scantily trained one at that. How could he rescue Master Altus when the green man himself had fallen prey to whatever trap or danger had struck him down? Master Caaldor would hardly be likely to take Aronoke to rescue Master Altus, when there were other Jedi trying to do that at the Council’s behest. He would have other duties, and Aronoke was being sent away to distance him from his enemies, not to seek out even greater danger.
At lunchtime Aronoke said goodbye to his clanmates.
“We will miss you Aronoke,” said the younglings. They were solemn and calm as befitted young Jedi, and Aronoke smiled down at them.
“I will miss you too,” he said. “But it won’t be as long as it seems. Work hard in your training, and I’m sure we will see each other again, when you are padawans, if not sooner.”
“Don’t forget to have some fun too, Aronoke,” said Draken mock-severely. “It shouldn’t all be about meditating and philosophy and doing your Master’s laundry.”
“Don’t get in too much trouble while I’m gone, Draken,” said Aronoke. “I expect you to look after these younglings. You’ll have to run the sparring classes now, you realise. It’s become something of a clan tradition.”
“I’ll do my best, Aronoke,” said Draken and then he abruptly turned away.
“Goodbye, Instructor Mintula,” said Aronoke. “Thank you for all the lessons and advice that you have given me. They have always been useful and I’m certain they will continue to be so.”
“Goodbye, Padawan,” said Instructor Mintula. “You have been a good student and a good example for the younglings to follow. You may have only been here a short time, but I am certain that you will do well as a padawan. Listen well to your new master, Aronoke.”
“I will, Instructor.”
And then he was walking along the corridor towards Master Insa-tolsa’s residence, shouldering the pack with all his worldly belongings, the first step towards an unknown destination amongst the stars.