Initiate (Aronoke - Book 1)

By ACFellows

Scifi / Fantasy

Captive

The sound of the flier was completely gone before Aronoke felt capable of moving. He was not badly hurt, had merely been winded, but the sudden reversal of his fortune left him feeling stunned. When he finally did move, he picked himself up slowly, like he was an old man. Straightened his over-robe sheepishly. Master Altus was ignoring him entirely, was over with Hespenara, helping her with Marassi. The beater still seemed to be alive.

Aronoke stood still, looking about himself as the strangers tended his fellow Fumer. Hoped to see his blaster somewhere, tucked behind a rock or lying in the sand. Not because he held any thought of shooting the strangers. He was badly shaken, had been certain he was dead. Was almost relieved that he couldn’t see the blaster, because then he would have to go and pick it up and who knew what the strangers might make of that? They might think he was going to attack them and then what would happen? Yes, maybe it wasn’t a good idea to look for the blaster. Better a live skimmer with no blaster, than a dead skimmer. Not much better, but better nonetheless.

The off-worlders had Marassi loaded into the flier. Aronoke was surprised that they hadn’t left him to die in the desert. Marassi would have done that to them happily enough, were the situation reversed. After looting their bodies. These off-worlders had strange ways, ways that would have made Aronoke consider them soft, if he hadn’t personally seen them fight.

Why hadn’t they killed him? A native guide? That made no sense. Aronoke knew the desert, sure enough, nearly as well as any skimmer. Had lived here and in Tarbsosk his entire life, but he didn’t know anything about these canyons or what the strangers might be looking for in them. Couldn’t even guess at what they might want there. There was nothing there to want.

After Marassi was loaded, the off-worlders made a desultory search of the area. Wandered around the gorge for a few minutes looking about themselves. They stopped to examine pieces of rock, even picking some of them up and turning them over. That was dangerous practice. Things lived beneath the rocks, beneath the sand, anywhere there was shade. Things that sensed movement, moisture and vibrations. Things that could burrow through living flesh as though it were baked bantha fat.

The strangers had proven they could look after themselves, were masters of combat to a degree that Aronoke would not have deemed possible just a short time ago. Had strange magical powers at their disposal.

But anyone could fall prey to the dangers of the desert, secretive and deadly as they were.

Why should he care? Surely it would be better for him if the off-worlders were eaten and killed by something. He glanced across at the Quell flier, thinking that he could just possibly take on two duros by himself, could take the flier and escape, could go back to Careful Kras a hero, but the gangplank was closed and the duros engineers safely locked inside.

And he had no blaster.

All thought of heroics fled from Aronoke’s mind as he saw what would happen. Were the strangers to die, the duros would take off and Aronoke would die too. He held no hopes of rescue by Careful Kras. The Fumers would not come back here today. And tomorrow it would be too late. No one survived dawn out in the open in this part of Kasthir, not with the fumes that rose from the ground, stripping flesh from bones as the sun hit the sand.

He had better make sure the strangers didn’t die then.

Thankfully, they had given up poking around the rocks and were heading back to the ship. The one called Hespenara went straight up the gangplank, but Master Altus came to stand near Aronoke, who hadn’t moved since had he had gotten up.

“We’re leaving,” said Master Altus. “You’d better get on the ship,” and he gestured that Aronoke should walk ahead of him, up the gangplank and into the flier.

It was a very fancy flier, spacious, well-maintained, flasher than anything Aronoke had ever ridden in. The ventilation system was going full-bore and inside it was very cold and smelt strange. It was a different design than the ones he was used to, with multiple compartments. Master Altus waved Aronoke over to a seat and the younger one, Hespenara, watched him to make sure he did up his straps properly.

Aronoke knew about the straps. He wasn’t stupid. Didn’t want his face smeared all over the wall when the flier hit some turbulence. He fastened the buckles and sat back in his chair.

“Your friend should be okay,” said Hespenara as they took off, gesturing towards another compartment in the side of the vehicle. “He’s in the med-bay. We’ll take him somewhere he can get proper medical attention for his injuries.”

Aronoke didn’t say anything. He didn’t consider Marassi to be his friend, didn’t care if the beater lived or died. He was a nasty piece of work and Aronoke had kept out of his way as much as possible.

“We should really go back immediately,” said Master Altus, “but he is in a stable condition, unconscious and in no pain. It would be a pity to come all this way out here without checking the other site. It’s very close and shouldn’t take us long.”

Hespenara asked Master Altus a question then, one Aronoke did not understand, with names of people and things he had never heard of before. It seemed somehow related to their business on Kasthir. Master Altus answered her and Aronoke understood the reply even less. He listened to the sing-song pattern of their words, wondering how they could talk so easily about so many things that meant nothing. They were not in the air many minutes before the speeder came down again, making a smooth and comfortable landing.

Once it was settled, Master Altus and Hespenara unstrapped themselves from their seats, heading towards the gangplank. No one told Aronoke what to do. They didn’t say if he should come along or stay inside. It was safer to stay in the ship. A stray thought tugged at his mind that maybe there was a tiny chance that he could find a weapon and take out the duros engineers.

But they were in a separate compartment of the flier, up the front. Probably locked in. It was far more likely he would be shot or the strangers would come back and chop him into pieces with their light-swords. The flier was uncomfortably cold and smelt strange, even through his ventilator. He would wait outside. Besides, he couldn’t help but wonder what the strangers were doing. Careful Kras would want to know.

Aronoke trailed after them down the gangplank, which immediately closed firmly behind him.

They were in another canyon, narrower than the one they had previously landed in. They had come down closer to the side of it, a great wall of rock which cast a broad belt of shade at its foot. Master Altus and Hespenara were looking at it and Aronoke thought they seemed tempted to get out of the baking sun. Off-worlders did not like the sun. No sensible person would wander about in it given a choice. And yet the shade was worse, home to all sorts of creatures, none of them friendly or not poisonous.

These two mostly left the shade alone, to Aronoke’s relief. It was a perfect place for bone-sucking worm. Now that the gangplank of the ship was shut, he was having second thoughts about having come outside at all. It would have been safer to stay in there. But even if he were inside when the foreigners met some cruel fate, there would still be the duros to contend with. He didn’t count two chances in ten for his survival in that situation. Not without his blaster.

The strangers wandered about, peering at rocks and under overhangs in a way Aronoke considered to be very unsafe. He watched them from a distance, safely in the sun. It was not until they found a particularly cavernous overhang that they seemed at all interested in what they found. They stood peering under it and talking to each other. It seemed to Aronoke that they were considering venturing further inside, perhaps into some sort of cave.

That would be almost certain death. The dark crevices would almost certainly house something deadly and unavoidable, even for these supernaturally powerful people. People who tried taking refuge in caves, driven to desperation by an approaching sandstorm or the oncoming dawn, simply traded one horrible death for another.

It was the way of the desert. Harsh, cruel, unforgiving. The way things were.

Aronoke made up his mind and crossed the gorge to where they stood.

“...goes back further. Yes, I think it warrants further investigation,” Master Altus was saying and Hespenara craned her neck eagerly, peering into the shadows. Master Altus noticed Aronoke coming up behind them as he seemed to casually notice everything, but did not pay him particular heed.

“There is bone-sucking worm,” said Aronoke.

It was the first time he had spoken to them, since he had been taken prisoner. Hespenara looked at him distrustfully, then shrewdly back at the overhang and flinched away from it.

“Bone-sucking worm?” said Master Altus. “Ah yes, I think I remember that being mentioned to us back in Tarbsosk. Perhaps it is better if you wait outside, Hespenara.”

Hespenara was not so stupid, thought Aronoke. Her eagerness to explore had suddenly evaporated.

But Master Altus was still going inside? Crazy. Aronoke could relate a dozen incidents with bone-sucking worm where people had died, or, more frequently, had limbs amputated. A dozen incidents he had personally witnessed. Bone-sucking worm, apart from Careful Kras, was Aronoke’s greatest fear. When he had been younger he had been boastfully certain that he would be too fast, too careful, too good to be gotten by bone-sucking worm, but that was before one night when he had woken from deep sleep to feel the rustling tread of hundreds of little legs scratching against his naked chest. A bone-sucking worm, attracted to the heat and moisture of his sleeping body.

If he had moved slowly, rolled in his sleep, not woken properly he would have died then in great agony.

If he had woken up five seconds later, the jet of spit would have perforated his body to the bone, creating a sucking wound the worm could crawl in and excavate further. Spitting directly against his naked chest, there would have been no hope. His organs would have been dissolved, his body eaten from the inside out.

If had grabbed the wrong part of the creature in the dark, if it had twisted the wrong way, if he had been slower he might also be dead, might just have lost an arm.

If Mill hadn’t shoved him into the dust lake earlier that day, kicked him and rolled him about in the nigh-liquid layer of dirt just for fun, he would be dead too. Because if he had been less dirty, bruised and tired, he would have worn his clothes to sleep like usual, would have beaten them out and put them back on. Would never have slept naked under just the blanket and the bone-sucking worm would have almost certainly got tangled in the layers of cloth and not been flung cleanly away.

As it was, he had been lucky. He had grabbed the creature by a non-dangerous bit and flung it away like lightning before it spat. Even as it was, the spit had spattered diffusely across his chest and upper arms, leaving an agonising trail of suppurating wounds that took forever to heal. They had scarred badly, but Aronoke was alive and did not lose any limbs, which was more than most people could say after such a close encounter. Not that they’d be alive to say it.

Master Altus descended into the darkness, passing out of sight, and Aronoke wondered what would happen if he failed to return. Hespenara did not seem overly concerned and wandered about over the sand looking at bits of rock, but Aronoke did not take any confidence in her casual air. These off-worlders might be powerful, but they knew nothing about the desert. Aronoke watched anxiously. He was surprised when Master Altus was not gone very long. When he emerged with no sign of injury. Surprised and relieved. An odd feeling to feel towards the fate of a stranger. Master Altus climbed up out of the darkness, dusty and stained and smiled at Aronoke.

“Nothing very profitable I’m afraid. We will have to continue our search elsewhere,” he said to Hespenara, who had come back to see him emerge. “For now we will return to Tarbsosk.”

“Yes, Master,” she said, and made a laser-line back to the ship.

Master Altus followed more slowly, dusting himself off, and Aronoke trailed along with him.

“Thank you for the warning,” the green man said. “There were several unpleasant creatures in there. They would have been a nasty surprise to come upon unexpected.”

Aronoke said nothing. It had not been a favour. It had been a survival tactic.

They climbed back into the ship. Once again, Master Altus indicated that Aronoke should go in ahead of him and Aronoke did. He settled into his seat and fastened the straps without being told. Hespenara had been busy fetching food. She offered a wrapped ration bar and cylinder of drink to Aronoke as well.

“Want some?”

Perhaps it was a mere politeness to her, to share the food, but it was unexpected largesse to Aronoke. Food was survival. Without money, there was nothing. Nothing to scavenge but garbage. No potable natural sources of water. No edible creatures to hunt. You either bought it or took it off someone else.

The ration bar was new, the wrapper unblemished, colourful and shiny. The drink cylinder was sealed, large and full.

He felt a pang of scorn for these off-worlders who would so readily share their food with someone like him, someone who was their enemy and who could give them nothing in return, but he was hardly going to complain, would not say no. He took the ration bar and the cylinder when they were offered.

From hard-won experience he knew that the only safe way to keep food was inside you. If you kept it in your pockets or hid it somewhere, chances were that someone would find it and take it off you. That was nothing to get upset about. It was the way things were. You had to be smart if you wanted to survive and get ahead. It only got really difficult if you had more stuff than you could carry about with you, or if you had stuff that was nicer than other peoples’. The only way to keep that and not get robbed, or more likely beaten or killed, was to have allies.

Aronoke had never had that sort of stuff. Had no allies either, not unless you counted the Fumers. Sure, they were protection against folk from other compounds, but they were just as likely to take things off you themselves. It was safer to be inconspicuous.

This food was not at all inconspicuous. Aronoke had never seen such god-like food, let alone eaten it. The only safe way was to eat it all immediately.

Aronoke took off his ventilator and pulled down the wrapped bands of cloth that covered the lower half of his face. He pushed back his hood so the dust couldn’t sift down and started eating the ration bar. The drink was cold, colder than anything he had drunk before, tangy and sweet. The ration bar was unbelievably good, moist and full of flavour. All the ration bars he had before were dry and tasteless, usually squashed or broken, scavenged from crashed vehicles or hoarded by Uncle Remo. It really was the food of the gods.

“Why,” said Hespenara, in loud surprise, “he’s just a kid!”

Aronoke, caught up in the niceness of the food, was caught off-guard. His first reaction was to shrink back into his seat. The second was to draw himself up and give her his most menacing glare, one worthy of a fully-fledged skimmer.

“No, I’m not,” he said.

“How did someone like you come to be working out there in the desert?” asked Hespenara disbelievingly. Perhaps taking his wraps off had been a mistake, Aronoke thought gloomily, because now they wouldn’t take him seriously at all. He was well aware that no one on this planet looked like him. People who didn’t know him were often surprised. Still, he thought, taking another bite of the ration bar, the food had been worth it.

To Hespenara he said nothing. He just shrugged. It was impossible to explain. He would not explain to off-worlders. Information was not free.

Hespenara fell quiet. Master Altus said nothing, regarding Aronoke with an intrigued look that lasted long minutes and felt like it was boring into Aronoke’s head. It wasn’t until later, after a second helping of ration bars and drinks, after Hespenara had fallen asleep, that Master Altus spoke. Aronoke was tired himself by then. It had been a long, confusing, stressful day. He didn’t like to sleep unguarded amongst strangers and so was struggling to stay awake against the humming lull of the flier.

“You still haven’t told us what your name is, my laconic companion,” said Master Altus, conversationally.

That was an odd thing to say, Aronoke thought. He did not say anything, as the comment did not seem to warrant an answer. He was not sure what laconic meant. Something circular?

“It strikes me you are very young to be out in the desert working for a duster. How old are you?”

“Three.”

“Three?” said Master Altus, looking surprised. Aronoke scowled. He had not yet managed to pass himself off as three to anyone, but that did not stop him trying.

“Two.”

Master Altus did not look any more believing.

Aronoke shrugged. He knew he was actually somewhat shy of two in Kasthir years, although not by very much, but doubtlessly these strangers used something else, fancy galactic something else, and Aronoke did not know what the conversion rate was.

“Do you have any relatives here on Kasthir?” asked Master Altus.

Aronoke shook his head.

“None at all?”

“No.”

Uncle Remo, his only known relative, was dead. Had died more than half a lifetime ago.

“Have you lived on Kasthir all your life?”

Aronoke hesitated. He thought that Uncle Remo had brought him here, all those years ago, but he could not remember. Could hardly remember Uncle Remo. He shrugged.

“Someone brought you to Kasthir long ago? But you can’t remember?”

Aronoke hesitated and then gave a tiny nod. All these questions. No one had been so interested in him since Careful Kras had taken him in, had asked Aronoke all sorts of things and liked none of the answers. Aronoke was beaten and flayed afterwards for what felt like hours.

He had only been a little over one then.

“Did you have relatives on Kasthir, once?”

Aronoke hesitated.

“Brothers, sisters, parents, uncles, aunts, cousins....” Master Altus elaborated.

“I had an Uncle,” said Aronoke. “Uncle Remo.”

“Is he still alive?”

Aronoke shook his head. Uncle Remo was dead. Aronoke couldn’t remember how he had died, just that he had.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said the green man.

“He was a twi’lek,” Aronoke continued, remembering fat, pink Uncle Remo. He had been nice enough that Aronoke could remember. After he died, Aronoke had been taken in by Boamba, another twi’lek. She had been nice too at first, had looked after Aronoke as best she could. Before she turned to spice.

Master Altus looked somewhat surprised. “Ah, not your real uncle then. An honorary uncle.”

Aronoke shrugged. An uncle was an uncle. He was not sure what the difference between a real one and an honorary one was.

“It’s unusual to find one of your species here,” Master Altus was continuing. “Do you know of any other chiss on Kasthir?”

“Any what?”

Master Altus looked a little startled by Aronoke’s ignorance. “Chiss,” he said. “It’s the species that you are.”

“Oh. No.”

“I’ve never heard of any chiss being here either, not even anywhere in this sector,” mused Master Altus. “Nowhere remotely near to here. It is most unusual that you are here at all. Someone must have brought you here for a purpose. It is very intriguing.”

Aronoke shrugged. He was used to being the only person of his kind, although it didn’t make life easier. That was another good reason to keep well covered. It didn’t pay to stand out, to be different or interesting. Most of the time.

Master Altus fell to musing in silence and Aronoke was silent too.

The flight back to Tarbsosk took several hours. Hespenara awoke when they arrived and Marassi was unloaded. At first, Aronoke thoughtlessly began to follow the off-worlders down the ramp off the ship, but then he realised that they had landed in the middle of the Quell compound. He could see several of the Quell goons standing nearby cradling blasters. Hastily, Aronoke changed his mind and took his seat back on the ship, before the Quell beaters could take offence at his intrusion and gun him down where he stood. Perhaps they would not, because he was with the off-worlders. Perhaps the off-worlders would intervene if they tried, but it was better not to tempt fate.

Thus far the off-worlders had behaved like he was some sort of important guest rather than a prisoner, feeding him fine food and talking to him. But Aronoke did not trust them. Why were they doing this? People didn’t do things without a reason. They must want something. Perhaps they were trying to win his confidence, to gain his trust now in order to use him for some plan of their own later. There was not much he could do, beyond keeping on his toes. He was convinced that any overt resistance was pointless. Had great respect for Master Altus’s combat abilities. But he fully intended to keep his eyes and ears open, to try to work out what it was they wanted. And to look for a means of escape.

They were not in the Quell compound for very long. Presumably only until the ship was refuelled. Aronoke stayed quietly in his seat, his wraps back around his face, until the off-worlders came back aboard and settled into their places.

“All done,” said Master Altus. “Now, off to the third site. From the description, I have hopes that this one will be more promising. Perhaps we will actually find something of use there.”

The off-worlders seemed to consider that it was time for another meal. These people seemed to eat all the time! Every few hours! Aronoke did not complain. Accepted the food he was given.

The food came in a sort of automatic heating tray this time, with a silver base and a tab you pulled to start the heating process. Aronoke wouldn’t have known how to do it, but he surreptitiously watched Hespenara. Inside, when you opened it, was a large spicy meal, mostly consisting of vegetables. Aronoke ate it all. Drank the bulb of drink handed to him too. And was offered seconds. It was overwhelming, so much food. Aronoke almost didn’t care what the strangers wanted him for, if they kept feeding him like this.

A small voice in his head made a warning noise, telling him not to get to used to it. It was going to be difficult to go back to Careful Kras. After all this, it would be surprising if Careful Kras didn’t take a decided interest in him upon his return. He would want to know about the strangers and what they were looking for. He was bound to think that Aronoke had done something wrong. Or had not done something he should have. There were so many things that were mysterious about these off-worlders, Aronoke was sure to be unable to answer all of Careful Kras’s questions. And then Careful Kras would be angry. Would remember Aronoke’s interesting problem and then there would be burning fumes and knives and pain.

Perhaps it was better to get it over with. Perhaps the longer he tried to delay, the angrier Careful Kras would be. If he ran back as soon as he was able, maybe Careful Kras would be mollified and forget the torture.

He ate all of the second tray of food, although it took longer than the first one. Was surprised to find that he could scarcely finish it. If they offered him a third serving he would have accepted that one too – how could he not? But he knew he wouldn’t have been able to eat it. Not all of it anyway. He would have had to try to hide it somewhere inside his robes. Luckily he wasn’t offered any more. Even after the second tray he felt full, replete with more food than he had eaten for many years.

He slept then, would have been hard-pressed to stay awake. The droning of the flier was reassuring, even though it was unpleasantly cold.

When he awoke they had not yet arrived at their destination. Hespenara was asleep again, leaning back in her chair, curled up slightly in her robes. Master Altus sat quietly, noticed at once that Aronoke was awake and smiled at him.

“Have you ever heard of the Force, my anonymous friend?” asked Master Altus.

“No. What is it?”

“The Force is the power that binds everything in the universe together,” said Master Altus amiably, with the air of someone who was pleased to be asked. “A power that connects everything to everything else. Some people can harness the Force and manipulate that power,” the green man explained, “and they are known as Force-sensitive. You might have noticed some of the things I did earlier. Those were done using the Force.”

Things like me being thrown across the canyon and Master Altus leaping through the air faster than I could see, thought Aronoke. It would have been hard to miss.

“I think you might be Force-sensitive,” continued Master Altus.

That was the last thing Aronoke had been expecting him to say and for a moment he thought he had misheard.

“Me?” he said sceptically. “How?”

“You remember what Hespenara did to your friend? Made him tell her things he wouldn’t normally say?”

“Yes,” said Aronoke, scowling at the memory. “It was a trick.”

“It was. But it didn’t work on you. She tried it on you, but you didn’t pay any attention. Only someone strong in the Force would have been able to resist her so easily.”

“Oh.”

“Also I can sense it in you. I am almost certain.”

Aronoke turned this over in his mind. He didn’t really understand what Master Altus had said about the Force, had the impression that maybe it was something that they were looking for, something that fuelled their strange powers. A special kind of rock, maybe? It seemed ridiculous to consider that he could use it too. Throw people around like they were stones? Leap through the air like the wind? Believing that would be like if Mill suddenly decided that he could fly. Stupid. Impossible. It had to be a mistake.

The way Master Altus looked at him, like he could see everything inside Aronoke, made him feel uncomfortable. Perhaps it was Aronoke’s back that he could sense, the strange thing that was there. When Careful Kras had discovered it, he had taken great exception to it. Aronoke had not known it was there himself at the time, but Careful Kras hadn’t believed that.

Aronoke had never seen his own back very well, could not remember what it had been like before it had been scarred. There were few mirrors on Kasthir and none that Aronoke had access to. There were few naturally shiny surfaces anywhere. Few artificial ones too. Aronoke had never seen a speeder that hadn’t got most of the paint sandblasted off, nor a droid that hadn’t lost most of its external plating. Things like that were valuable on Kasthir – didn’t stay put unless you kept them close to you. Were up for grabs. Peering over his shoulder was the best look he could get. Didn’t do that too often, because other people might see it too. Besides, now there was mostly just lots of scars. The markings underneath seemed to slowly recover every time Careful Kras tried to eradicate them. To grow through the scars and slowly come to the surface again.

It was probably long overdue to be flayed. Aronoke knew that. Wanted to avoid Careful Kras’s attention for that reason. And now this had happened. His heart sank.

But the green man was continuing.

“People who are Force-sensitive are not very common,” he said. “And you in particular seem unusual. Your isolation here from others of your species is peculiar. There is obviously some mystery there. When we leave Kasthir, would you like to come back with us?”

Aronoke’s heart nearly stopped dead. He couldn’t have moved, even if a bone-sucking worm had walked towards his leg at that very moment. Not if he had caught on fire where he sat.

“What do you mean?” asked Aronoke stupidly, sure he had somehow misheard. Misunderstood.

“We are here on an expedition,” the green man explained patiently. “Looking for some important artefacts. Soon we will have finished and will leave Kasthir to return to the Jedi Temple and report our findings. I do not think you are an irredeemable criminal. I think it is important that you are tested and trained.”

Aronoke was not sure what that meant. A criminal? He was vaguely aware that was a bad person, but that was all. There was no law on Kasthir, only the laws the dusters made up over their own people. The unspoken rules that dictated behaviour between the Fumers. The natural law of the desert. The power of the strong over the weak.

“If you are willing,” said Master Altus, “I would like to take you back to Coruscant with us when we leave. Off this planet.”

Aronoke felt like he had walked into a world where everything was white and still. Like there was no one here except him and Master Altus. Surely he didn’t mean it. Surely it was a lie. Leave Kasthir. Go off-world? It was as crazy as being told that he had won the whole planet in some strange cosmic lottery.

Master Altus was saying something else, but Aronoke couldn’t hear him over the buzzing in his ears.

Going off planet was the ultimate prize, what every Kasthirian Aronoke had ever known was trying to achieve – other than the ones like Careful Kras who had set themselves up in positions of power, or the miners who were temporarily here to try and get rich.

To be given freely. To him. For nothing? He would have agreed to anything to do it. For the smallest chance to do it.

“Where would you take me?” asked Aronoke, the words tumbling out in alarmed haste. Master Altus had said something about where they would go already, Aronoke realised. The temple? What was a temple? He had the impression of a sort of palace. That seemed impossible.

“To the Jedi Temple on Coruscant,” said Master Altus patiently. “You can be tested thoroughly for Force-sensitivity there and if you prove to be Force-sensitive, you can be trained as a Jedi.”

Syndaar was the place people usually talked longingly of escaping to, a nearby hub-world from where they might escape to anywhere in the galaxy. Happy World, Aronoke had always thought of it. He had never heard of Coruscant. It was just a name to him, a magical mysterious name, synonymous with dreamland.

“What is it like there?” asked Aronoke, not even sure why he was asking. Surely anywhere would be better than here.

Master Altus sat very still for a moment. “You’ve never heard of Coruscant?” he asked, calmly.

Aronoke shook his head.

“It is the centre of the Republic,” said Master Altus. “Politically it is very important. The Republic Senate meets there, to discuss and decide affairs that affect the entire Galaxy. It is also where the Jedi Temple is, where we will be going. The entire planet is covered with city, and there are very many people there, approximately a trillion.”

Much of this washed beyond Aronoke’s understanding. A planet covered entirely with a city seemed to him as impossible as breathing pure fumes and surviving. He still could not understand why this was being offered to him. It could not be true. But, like the free food, he would be a fool if he did not grasp the opportunity wholeheartedly with both hands. If it was not true, he had lost nothing. He was a prisoner of these people already.

“Sure!” he said enthusiastically, feeling light-headed and giddy.

Master Altus had perhaps expected more persuasion would be necessary. Perhaps did not immediately realise that Aronoke was accepting his offer. But he looked pleased.

“Good,” he said after a moment. “Then you will be travelling with us.”

For the rest of the trip out to the next site Aronoke sat with his mind completely awhirl, trying to squash down the raging sandstorm of hope that Master Altus had released in his mind. He must not dare to believe in it. Later, if it did happen – not that it would – then he could believe it, but not until it did.

To never see Careful Kras again. To never go back.

No, it was too impossible. Something would happen. They would all be eaten by bone-sucking worm. The flier would crash in the desert. The people at the Quell compound would rise up and attack the strangers and they would all be killed. All these things were a million times more likely.

What would it be like? To go on a ship to another world? The impossible dream, too distant and unattainable to ever have been one of Aronoke’s personal aspirations. Happening to him?

It was too big. He felt like crying. Refused to.

It was best to wait and see.




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