Hespenara awoke shortly before the flier landed at the third testing site. Wiped the little trail of drool from her cheek, looked around to see if anyone had noticed. Aronoke had. Looked back at her when she stared at him with curious interest.
Padawan, that’s what Master Altus called her sometimes. Aronoke had recognised it as a title at once. Like duster, or scraper or skimmer. Still wasn’t sure what it meant. Not concubine after all, he thought, but something more like “offsider”.
The flier was settling down on a stretch of high rocky countryside, somewhere Aronoke had never been before. It was on top of a plateau high above the floor of the canyons, barren and rocky. A place no one ever came, because there was no reason to go there.
When the off-worlders dismounted from the flier, Aronoke went with them. Whereas before he had a vested interest in keeping them alive so he would not be abandoned in the desert, now he had even more of a reason due to Master Altus’s offer.
It couldn’t be true. But even the smallest chance was worth pursuing. Following the off-worlders across the plateau, Aronoke scoured the harsh landscape for dangers. It was somewhat alien. He had never been anywhere like this. The air was hard to breathe. The rocks lay scattered widely, but not randomly. They were clustered here and there, some of them lying in patterns that looked like straight lines.
“It’s a ruin,” he said, surprised. He had seen ruins before, although none like this. People had lived here, for what purpose he could not guess, but the stone structures had obviously been quite extensive.
“Yes,” said Master Altus, seeming pleased. “It looks very promising, much more so than the other sites. Now, if you and Hespenara will stand back over there, my as yet unidentified new companion...?”
Aronoke followed Hespenara back quite some distance.
“You do have a name don’t you?” asked Hespenara, rather impatiently.
“Well, what is it?”
“Aronoke,” said Aronoke.
“Oh,” said Hespenara. “Well, you know our names already, so I needn’t tell you them again.”
Across the field of dust and stones, Master Altus was holding out one arm and raising it slowly. As he did so, a great rock trembled and shuddered, then slowly rose up off the ground and floated over to one side, obediently following his movements. Hespenara had stopped talking to watch, her face full of pride. Aronoke found his mouth had dropped open. The rock was massive. His knees felt weak and he was a hair’s-breadth from falling to the ground in awe. Would have, if Hespenara had not been there. It was the most amazing thing he had ever seen. After the first rock came a second, slowly waggling free from the dirt before floating serenely over to settle beside the other. Then Master Altus’s arms swept slowly out to one side and moved gently across, a great swathe of stones and dirt following his movements, rising up and settling easily in a great pile.
“He’s awfully good at it,” said Hespenara admiringly. “I hope I can be as good as him one day.”
Aronoke could not imagine even being able to lift a pebble. Felt again the extreme improbability of having anything in common with Master Altus, who was beginning to seem more and more like some sort of god. Felt the great contradiction between that and the fact that it was Master Altus himself who claimed it was true.
Hespenara turned to Aronoke again.
“Have you worked out in the desert for long, for your duster? Is that what it’s called?”
“For a long time,” said Aronoke.
“Did you choose to go and work for him? I mean, did they give you a choice, or did they just take you?”
“They took me,” said Aronoke, shrugging.
“That’s terrible!” said Hespenara, sounding shocked.
Aronoke shrugged again. “I was just a kid,” he said. Kids were meant to be told what to do. Were small, unable to do a full share of the work. Had no say in the way things were, but had to make the best of things in the cracks between everyone else. Hespenara seemed to understand what he meant. Did not seem to agree.
“That makes it even worse!” she said. “Not better!”
Aronoke shrugged again. When he was living with Boamba in Pline compound, things had not been so bad. Boamba was busy, was trying to earn enough money to get off planet. She worked long hours and often he had to look out for himself.
Then Boamba got hooked on spice. Started coming back less and less often and acted strange when she did. Soon, Boamba and Aronoke got kicked out of Pline Compound. Had to go and live in the Grinder. There was less money so Aronoke had to scrounge more to get enough to eat. Boamba came home less often and the house got emptier as she sold more and more things to buy spice with. She even sold some of Aronoke’s things. Aronoke had to spend a lot of time trying to earn money. He scavenged, stole things, got into knife fights with people. Mostly had his face rubbed in the dirt.
Then one day, Boamba hadn’t come back at all. Was dead, Aronoke expected. A few days after that he was driven out of Boamba’s digs by a bunch of bigger people. Had to live on the streets. He wasn’t very good at it, was starting to starve.
That’s when the Fumers found him, were specifically looking for him it seemed, because, in the speeder going to Bunkertown, they had some of the things that used to be in Boamba’s house.
They had brought him back like a piece of loot, but at least he hadn’t starved.
Remembering these things made Aronoke start to think about what would happen if he had to go back. What Careful Kras would do to him.
Hespenara must have detected something of his apprehension.
“I doubt that Master Altus will send you back there,” she said. “Not if you don’t want to go. He will probably drop you off in Tarbsosk, or maybe even somewhere else if you ask him.”
“He said I could come!” objected Aronoke angrily. Insecurely. Wanting to believe it was true. Knew she hadn’t known that. That Master Altus hadn’t told her.
“Come?” said Hespenara. “You mean back to Coruscant?” She seemed surprised.
“That’s what he said.”
“If he said that, then, well, that’s what will happen,” said Hespenara, resignedly. “You’ll come back with us. He wouldn’t say it if he wasn’t going to do it.”
Really? Aronoke wanted to ask. Are you absolutely sure?
But Master Altus was coming back across the rearranged field. Now there was a large pile of loose dirt lying next to a big hole. Hespenara and Aronoke began walking across towards him. Down at the bottom of the hole Aronoke could see a dark space, leading into something that reminded him of the tunnels of Bunkertown.
“I believe I shall go down and investigate alone, Hespanara. If I find anything interesting, I shall return to collect you. You had best stay up here, in the ship if you like. I may be some time.”
“Yes, Master,” said Hespenara.
Master Altus looked at Aronoke and then back down at the dark hole in the bottom of the pit. “Bone-sucking worm?” he asked.
Aronoke hesitated. He had no experience up here on the plateau. “Probably,” he said. “Probably other things too. Foot-eating crystal. Maybe Bloat-bug. I’m not sure. I don’t know this kind of place.”
Master Altus nodded. “Wait up here with Hespenara.”
Master Altus climbed agilely down the rocks to disappear into the gaping hole at the bottom. Once he had gone inside, Hespenara turned to go back over to the ship. After she had gone a little way, she paused to look at Aronoke.
“Aren’t you going to come and wait in the ship?” she asked.
“I’ll wait here.”
“In the sun?” Hespenara seemed to find it hard to believe that anyone would prefer to do so.
Aronoke shrugged. “It’s cold in there. It smells funny.”
“Suit yourself,” she said. She went back inside and the hatchway closed behind her.
For a long time Aronoke merely waited, standing in the sun. It was not so hot, although the air was thin and smelt peculiar, even through his ventilator. He knew better than to sit on a rock or on the ground. That was just asking for something to burrow out from underneath and bite you. After a time he grew bored and wandered over to have a better look at the pile of dirt and stones that Master Altus had excavated. There were bits of ruin in there, he reasoned. There might be something valuable, something worth looking at.
He walked around the edge, poking at interesting bits of rock with the toe of his boot. Chances were, anything living in this dirt was long gone after it had been shifted about like that. There were lots of things that looked like little bits of ruin mixed through the dirt.
Then he saw it, an odd-shaped piece of stone, carved with odd markings. Aronoke couldn’t tell if they were supposed to be words or pictures. It was not especially big, a little larger than his fist and shaped like it was meant to be spun on one of its pointy ends, like a spinning top.
Aronoke’s curiosity won out over his caution. He bent to pick it up. Maybe Master Altus was looking for something like this. Might be pleased. If Aronoke found it, then they could leave and all the waiting would be over.
It was cool and hard in his hands, but he had hardly touched it when the transparent man arrived.
Just in front of Aronoke on the sand, the transparent man was as large as a real man would be, detailed and realistic in every way, save that he was transparent. He was more crisp and real looking than any holo-image Aronoke had ever seen before. Aronoke quickly dropped the stone thing, certain that it had been responsible for his appearance. He had hoped that the transparent man would disappear again, so that Master Altus could deal with him upon his return, but he did not.
The transparent man stared straight at Aronoke. “You don’t belong!” he said indignantly. Perhaps he was just a holo-recording, Aronoke thought, but then he continued like he could see everything. “You! What are you? You are not meant to be here!”
It was best not to answer, not to say anything, Aronoke thought. He carefully kicked the carved stone thing further away, so it rolled across the dirt some distance, hoping that the transparent man would vanish, but the glowing figure persevered crossly.
“Answer me at once!” said the transparent man. “What are you?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” said Aronoke. A chiss? Was that the word Master Altus had used? He didn’t want to use that word for himself. It was too new and didn’t fit.
The transparent man peered at him scrutinisingly. “Well, you’re not a Sith,” it said, with some sastisfaction Aronoke thought. “I don’t know what you are. You are something else. You don’t belong.”
“What are you?” asked Aronoke, greatly daring. “Why are you here talking to me?”
“I am a Guardian of this place,” said the transparent man. “And you don’t belong here. Go away, and come back when you have chosen your path.” He persisted a moment longer, glaring at Aronoke, and then vanished into nothingness.
Aronoke thought it wise to retreat closer to the ship. It was obviously not safe to poke around looking at these rocks.
Master Altus was gone some time. He looked dirty but pleased when he came back. The front of his robe was covered with splotches of ichor and white fragments of crushed carapace.
“It looks like we have found something,” he said with some satisfaction, brushing bits of the carapace off his robes absently. “Perhaps what we were looking for. It’s really quite remarkable!”
“I found a thing over there,” said Aronoke, informatively.
“Really?” said Master Altus, with good-humoured interest. “What kind of thing?”
“A stone thing,” said Aronoke. “Carved. It made a transparent man.”
“Oh, that does sound interesting. Let us go and see.”
Together they went across the dirt to where the carved stone relic lay, where Aronoke had kicked it. The green man bent to look at it, picked it up. Aronoke had expected the transparent man to come and ask questions again, but nothing happened.
“What did the transparent man say to you?” asked Master Altus, placing the relic back down upon the ground.
“He said that I didn’t belong. He said he was a guardian and he asked what I was. He said I wasn’t a Sith.”
“Oh, well that’s good,” said Master Altus.
“What does that mean? A Sith?”
“The Force can be used in two ways For the Light side, like the Jedi use it. To protect and defend, to learn and gain knowledge, to promote peace. But it can also be used in a different way, to gain strength and power regardless of the price. To rule over others. That is known as the Dark side of the Force, and the people who practice that path are known as the Sith.”
“Oh,” said Aronoke, not really understanding. Peace. Good. He was vaguely aware of their meanings, but those were concepts from stories, out of place on Kasthir. Aronoke could only remember a few things that might fit those ideas. Boamba taking him in, being nice to him when Uncle Remo was dead. Uncle Remo telling stories to make Aronoke laugh. That was where those things belonged. In stories. The Dark side sounded more like real life, like the way things were usually done on Kasthir. It was strange to imagine that they could be done differently. A Sith, he reckoned, must be something like a duster.
“I think it is best to leave this artefact here,” said Master Altus. “Hespenara and I must return beneath the surface for a little while longer and then we will be finished with our business here. Perhaps it is better if you wait on the ship this time.”
“Okay,” said Aronoke and he followed the green man back onto the ship. This time he was content to wait on board and doze in his seat while the off-worlders went back outside. He felt surprisingly tired, worn out with hope and learning so many new things. It did not seem long at all before the off-worlders came back, pleased with the success of their expedition.
Aronoke did not remember much about the journey back to the Quell base. He slept most of the way. He felt nervous when they reached the Quell compound and stayed carefully out of the way in the ship while everything was unloaded. He didn’t want to antagonise the Quellers. Knew that they would shoot him down if he even looked at anything wrong.
Finally, when everything was taken off the ship, Master Altus came back to collect him.
“Aronoke?” he said. “We’re finished here.”
Aronoke jumped quickly to his feet.
“So, you want to come back to Coruscant with us?” asked Master Altus.
As if Aronoke would change his mind about that!
“Yes,” he said.
“Very well,” the green man said. “Let us make an agreement. I will take you back with us to Coruscant, to the Jedi temple, where you will be tested for Force-sensitivity. Should you prove to be Force-sensitive, and I am convinced that you most certainly are, you will agree to undertake further training in the Jedi temple.”
Master Altus held his hand out, like he was sealing a deal. Aronoke did not hesitate, but spat on his own hand and held it out to shake. After a moment, Master Altus did the same. They shook hands firmly.
“Well,” said Master Altus cheerfully. “Let us go then.”
“The Quell people won’t like me,” Aronoke said, with some concern, as they headed for the gangplank.
“Just stay close beside me,” said the green man reassuringly. “I will explain to them why you are here. They will do you no harm.”
Aronoke was careful to stay at his heels all the way across the Quell warehouse where the ship had landed. It was a large open area, where large amounts of goods were passing from one part to another. Broad passages led off to other areas, but Aronoke could not tell what those might be for. He followed Master Altus out to a nicer room where some of the Quell higher-ups were waiting. They all stared with unpleasant interest at Aronoke, recognising him immediately, he had no doubt, as a Fumer skimmer. An enemy.
“Well, gentlemen, I believe that concludes our business here for the moment,” said Master Altus to the Quell higher-ups. “We will be departing back to Coruscant, although we may return at later date to continue our investigations.”
“It’s always a pleasure to do business with the Jedi Order,” said the most senior of the Quell people. “But what is this skimmer doing here? A Fumer, by the look of it.”
“I am bringing him back with me to Coruscant,” said Master Altus.
There was a momentary silence. Then a chorus of impressed and jealous noises.
It’s real, thought Aronoke. Really real. Really happening.
He felt completely dazed.
A large trolley had followed them into the room. It was heavily loaded with all sorts of gear, most of which looked brand new. There were respirators, survival tents, crates of new shiny ration bars just like the ones Aronoke had been given and many other things. The off-worlders’ equipment, Aronoke realised. It was worth a small fortune on Kasthir.
“I don’t see any point in bringing all these things back with us,” Master Altus was continuing. “They will only clutter up our ship. I don’t think there will be enough space, so it is probably better if we leave it all here.”
Aronoke was scandalised. Discarding so much stuff? Were these strangers made of money, to leave so many things behind so carelessly?
“Perhaps you might be able to find a use for them?” Master Altus asked. The Quellers’ reaction was as enthusiastic as Aronoke’s would have been in their place. They forgot all about him and crowded about, thanking Master Altus and looking at the things on the trolley.
Perhaps, Aronoke thought a long time later, that had been Master Altus’ intention all along. Perhaps it was his way of making a subtle bribe to the Quellers to forget all about Aronoke. To forget that he had ever been there at all, forget he had gone off planet.
As it was, they were soon out of the Quell compound, heading off across Tarbsosk to the landing bay where the off-worlders’ ship had been docked. To Aronoke’s amusement, they brought out a data pad with a map and began discussing the best way to get there.
“We have to get to A-27,” Master Altus said and Hespenara began trying to trace a route on the diagram.
“It’s easy,” said Aronoke and he effortlessly reeled off a string of directions. Off-worlders were always getting lost in Tarbsosk, like they were not used to finding their way around real towns.
“So we go along here and turn right at the end?” asked Master Altus, looking confused.
“Here, I will guide us,” said Aronoke comfortably, falling into a role he knew well. He had sometimes acted as a guide for off-worlders when he was a little kid still living in the Grinder. He had not lived here for a number of years, only came back now and then with the other Fumers on Careful Kras’s business or to spend his pay, still knew the streets better than his own face. He led them confidently through the streets, easily steering them past potential impediments. There was little trouble today. A young prostitute glanced at his companions as he passed, obviously dismissing them as potential clients but tried to cotton onto Aronoke, noting his skimmer’s clothes and sizing him up as someone who might have money.
“Come back to see me when you’re finished, skimmer,” she crooned. “I know lots of tricks!”
Aronoke ignored her, led the off-worlders to their docking bay, where they opened the lock.
And then he was going inside a real spaceship for the first time.