Aronoke was not certain what language Master Insa-tolsa spoke, but he could not understand it at all. It was with a series of hand gestures and intonations that Aronoke was ushered over to the part of the testing facility where he was going to stay. The big alien loomed high over Aronoke, had a long curved neck with peculiar eyes on a strangely shaped bar-like head at the end. Later he learned that Master Insa-tolsa’s kind were called ithorians.
If Master Insa-tolsa hadn’t so obviously been trying to be kindly and welcoming, Aronoke would have been highly intimidated. Though Master Altus had said he could trust these people. Nevertheless, it was with some trepidation that he followed the two aliens, wondering what he had gotten himself into.
He was escorted to a human person whom the aliens spoke to in their sing-song voices. She seemed to understand them easily enough. Turning to Aronoke she said, “I’m Mizra. I’ll show you where your room is.” She was abrupt, but Aronoke was relieved she spoke the same tongue he did and followed her readily enough.
“Arrow-noke,” said Mizra, reading it off her datapad, pronouncing it like ‘joke’. She looked at Aronoke impatiently over the top.
“Aronoke,” said Aronoke.
“Oh. Aronoke,” corrected Mizra flatly. “You’re in number 412.” She showed him where the door was. Inside lay a small chamber with not much furniture, but Aronoke thought it must be like the one on the ship, with things that slid out of the walls. Mizra didn’t explain how any of the functions worked, but seemed to assume that Aronoke would know how to do that already. She seemed in a hurry to go away and do something else.
“The ablutions area is down at the end of this corridor,” Mizra said, waving her hand in one direction, “and the refectory is down that way.” She pointed the opposite way. “You can find out the meal schedule on your viewscreen and that’s where your messages will arrive too. Tomorrow you will most likely be sent down to the testing rooms to be evaluated, but I don’t expect you will have to do anything before then. You will probably want a bit of a rest.”
“Yes,” said Aronoke, feeling that was very true. He was wondering what an ablutions area was. And where the viewscreen was. Mizra hadn’t shown him that either.
“There’s some meditation chambers down that way,” said Mizra, pointing in a third direction. “And the exercise facilities are downstairs, but you probably don’t want to bother with all that. You’ll be doing it all soon enough, if you get through. Just let someone know if you can’t find something. They’ll be sure to tell you.”
With this cursory introduction, Aronoke was left alone in his room. One wall of it seemed to be made entirely of a window that looked out over the city. Outside a stream of traffic was surging past. It looked very busy and not restful at all. Alarming to think it was real, not just a picture. Aronoke went over to the window and eventually found there was a control that let it become opaque, so that the room became more like a cave, safe and hidden.
After that he spent some time playing with the other controls. They were not so difficult to work out, being similar to the ones on the ship. Then he looked at the viewscreen, which seemed to have more controls all by itself than all the rest of the room put together. One of them started a meditation program. It recited Jedi sayings to calming background music. They were simple, thought-provoking messages, and Aronoke liked them. When he worked out how the bed appeared, Aronoke laid down on it for a while, glad to have everything quiet and not moving. Glad that he had this personal space to try to organise his thoughts in. It was all very luxurious and comfortable, difficult to believe it was real.
And yet it was.
Whatever happened next, surely it would nothing like being a skimmer.
He didn’t know if he could do this thing. If he could be a Jedi like Master Altus. He would just have to see how things went.
He thought he dozed a little then, for when the odd noise sounded at his door, he was not certain that he had really heard it. He went over to it, pressed the control to make it slide open.
Outside there was a green girl. She looked a bit like Hespenara and Master Altus, with tattoos on her face, but she was a slightly different colour of green.
“Oh, hello,” she said. “You must be Aronoke. I am Emeraldine, a friend of Hespenara. She sent me to find you, to show you to dinner. I’m still an Initiate, so it’s easier for me to get to this part of the temple.”
“Hello,” Aronoke said.
“I’ll show you where the refectory is and how things work, if you like,” said Emeraldine. “It’s all a bit confusing at first. There are lots of people and it’s all set up to work a certain way. It’s quite easy once you know it, but the first time it can be awkward.”
Hespenara was palming off her responsibility to look out for him onto someone else, Aronoke thought to himself. Not that it really mattered.
Emeraldine was more delicately built than Hespanara, seemed friendly enough, was probably a few years older than him. There seemed no harm in following her.
And, he realised, he was hungry.
“Okay,” said Aronoke. He stepped out of his room and let the door slide shut behind him. He followed Emeraldine down the corridor in the direction Mizra had indicated the refectory lay. It was not far. Shortly they came out into a large room filled with many tables and chairs. Aronoke had never seen so many in one place. It looked like there were enough for a thousand people. Along the edges were places where the food was being served by droids. The droids filled your plate for you from a countless array of choices. There were so many different things to choose, that Aronoke had no idea where to start.
“If there’s nothing you recognise, just try a few new kinds,” said Emeraldine airily. “No one will make you eat something if you don’t like it.”
“Can you eat here whenever you want?” asked Aronoke, stunned by the amount of food that was present.
“They like you to come at the traditional times,” said Emeraldine. “But I expect if you were really hungry you could always get something.”
“There’s always food here?”
It was like it rained from the sky in this world, food and drink, thought Aronoke. Like in a story. These people ate so much, so often, they didn’t seem to really value it at all.
With more than a billion people on the planet, where could it possibly all come from?
And yet, there seemed no shortage.
Bemusedly Aronoke followed Emeraldine to the counter with his plate and watched the droid fill it up. It was really difficult, he found, to choose what to eat. The droids would keep asking him if he wanted some of something and it was so difficult to say no.
But if the food was always here, then there was no point hiding some away in his robes, no matter how much he felt like doing so.
After their plates were full, Emeraldine led Aronoke over towards the tables. Most of the other diners were little kids, Aronoke realised, younglings that only came up to his chest. There were adults overseeing most of the tables the little kids sat at. There was a great deal of noise and bouncing around, nonetheless. Aronoke could not help but smile. Little kids were the same all over, just more energetic if they got fed too much.
“Oh look, there’s Draken,” said Emeraldine and steered Aronoke over to a taller figure who sat alone at one of the tables. He was a human boy, about the same size Aronoke was himself and perhaps the same age.
“Draken has come to the temple late, like you,” said Emeraldine. “He’s being tested as well.”
Aronoke was relieved, glad he was not the only one who was not so small.
“We should wait for the platitude before we start eating,” said Emeraldine primly as she set her plate down on the table. “That’s just the way it’s done.”
“Hey, I’m Draken,” said the human boy cheerfully as Aronoke sat down.
“Aronoke,” said Aronoke.
“Pleased to meet you,” said Draken. “So you’re a chiss! I haven’t met a chiss before.”
Neither have I, thought Aronoke to himself, but he said nothing aloud. It was too strange, he thought, to have never met anyone of your own species. It was another way to be different from everyone else.
“Are there a lot of chiss where you come from?”
“Have you ever been to the chiss homeworld? D’you know what it’s like?”
“Where do you come from?”
“Oh, is that an ocean world?” asked Emeraldine.
Aronoke made an amused noise. Kasthir was the complete opposite of that!
“No? I thought it sounded like an ocean world from the name,” said Emeraldine apologetically. “Desert then?”
“Yes,” said Aronoke.
“I expect it’s very different from Coruscant and that you feel rather shocked by it all,” said Emeraldine, seemingly unconcerned by Aronoke’s monosyllabic responses. “I know when I first came here I was completely overwhelmed by the spaceport and the city. I hated it, everything was so busy. I come from a farming world, probably much more heavily populated than yours, but still so much quieter than here.”
“It’s all very strange,” admitted Aronoke, feeling comforted that other people felt overwhelmed by Coruscant too.
“Oh, I think they’re about to play the daily platitude,” said Emeraldine. “We’d best be quiet.” Sure enough, after a few moments, a deep calm voice intoned the platitude. It was a saying, Aronoke realised, like some of the things that Master Altus had been teaching him on the ship. Like the recordings in his room. Once it was finished everyone in the room replied to it, as if the mysterious voice could hear them all. They all said the same thing, in chorus. It was surreal, Aronoke thought, to hear all those voices speaking together.
As if that was some kind of signal, everyone started eating.
The food was amazing. Almost everything was new. There were a few things that Aronoke had on the ship, on the way here, but most of the things were different again and many of them were not processed stuff.
These fresh kinds of things, vegetables, meats and fruits, were almost unheard of on Kasthir. A meal like that was worth more than a slave. And here Aronoke could fill his plate with food like that and eat as much of it as he liked.
“I come from here,” said Draken. “Well, not here in the Jedi temple. I mean from Coruscant, from the lower levels. Way down. I never saw the sky until I was ten.”
“That’s weird,” said Aronoke. He couldn’t imagine not being able to see the sky.
“Well, not down there, it’s not. It’s so far down it would be dark all the time if there wasn’t lighting. It wasn’t such a bad life – there was a lot more freedom than living on the higher levels. Not so many rules.”
He went on to talk about the games he and his friends had played and the pranks they got up to, dodging repair droids and hiding in the water purification subsystems. It sounded like a lot of kids’ stuff to Aronoke. Not like being a skimmer at all. Being a skimmer was a job. Draken seemed to think that his stories made him exciting and dangerous, but there was no real danger to it, Aronoke decided.
He didn’t say these things to Draken, well aware that no one likes to be told that they’re just a kid. Besides, maybe on Coruscant those things were considered exciting and dangerous. He was happy to sit and listen to Draken’s stories, to make interested noises now and then. While Draken was talking about himself, no-one was asking uncomfortable questions about Aronoke.
All too soon, somewhat before his plate was quite empty, Aronoke found he was full, unable to eat another bite. Not used to such big meals. A few minutes later the room hushed and there was another platitude, to signify the end of the meal. They brought their plates over to another counter, where they were whisked off by the cleaning droids, ready to be processed for next time.
“I’ll see you later!” said Draken. “I’ll look for you at breakfast!”
Aronoke felt content and sleepy by the time he got back to his room, escorted by Emeraldine.
“I’ll drop by again soon,” said Emeraldine and she left Aronoke outside his door.
The next morning, Aronoke found his own way to breakfast.
The evening before he had been to examine the ablutions block, had been horrified to find that most of the hygienic facilities there involved a great deal of water. It seemed completely wasteful. There was water to wash your hands in, to flush the automatic latrines and worst of all, the showers used water too, not like the one on the ship. Everyone used as much as they wanted all the time. Aronoke wondered how there could be so much of it. Back on Kasthir, where everything was produced by vaporator and heavily filtered before you could drink it, no one would ever consider bathing in the stuff.
It was like bathing in credits.
Aronoke looked at the showers and shuddered. There were little private rooms, but it would be easy to look over the wall or under the door if you wanted. He wouldn’t like to bathe in there, where anyone might look in and see his back. Who knew what would happen then? Even if he hadn’t been worried about that, the thought of getting wet all over was a very strange one. Wouldn’t all that water just dissolve him? Wash him away?
Besides, he had washed on the ship. Surely there was no need to do it again for a very long time. He could not remember ever having washed like that before. So maybe he would do it again in a year or so.
While he stood, watching the water run out of the tap, wiggling his finger in it thoughtfully, a little kid came along and looked at him.
“Is the tap broken?” asked the little kid.
“No,” said Aronoke, shutting it off quickly. The little kid watched him, like he was putting some complicated thought together.
“I’m Bezru!” the little kid said suddenly. “I’m going to be a Jedi!” He strutted about for a minute self-importantly, looking quite ridiculous in his little robe. “Are you going to be a Jedi too?”
“Probably,” said Aronoke.
“My sister isn’t going to be a Jedi,” Bezru confided. “She might have got a stuffed bantha, but she isn’t going to be a Jedi. Only I am.”
There did not seem to be a reply to this, so Aronoke said nothing.
Everyone in this place was crazy.
This morning he found Draken easily in the refectory, because the other boy spotted him first, waved so enthusiastically that it was hard to ignore him. Aronoke didn’t know anyone else, mostly they were little kids anyway.
“I looked up chiss on the holonet,” said Draken enthusiastically, when Aronoke sat down. “There was a lot about them on there, and about the chiss homeworld. Have you read it?”
“Oh. Well it was quite interesting. You might want to look at it.”
“I guess,” said Aronoke. He felt a curious reluctance to look at anything about chiss. They were strange people he had never known. People who had abandoned him. He had never seen another chiss, not even here on this impossibly busy world. Did not want to be defined by them.
Besides, he couldn’t read.
“You don’t have to eat that stuff, you know,” said Draken, wrinkling his nose up at the green spiky fresh vegetable-things on Aronoke’s plate. “You don’t have to choose things you don’t like.”
Aronoke shrugged. The crispy spiky vegetable things were amazing. Worth more than a skimmer’s wages for a week. If you could even buy something like that on Kasthir.
“I can’t imagine anyone liking that stuff,” continued Draken. “Are you trying to be really holy and abstemious, eating things like that?”
Aronoke said nothing.
“Because if you are, I don’t expect any one will really notice. They don’t pay that much attention here in the testing facility. Unless you pile your plate with nothing but sugary stuff.”
“We didn’t have things like this on Kasthir,” said Aronoke.
“We didn’t have them where I grew up on the lower levels either,” said Draken. “Because we thought people were stupid if they ate the same thing twice if they didn’t like it.”
“Where I grew up, we thought people were stupid if they didn’t eat the same food twice just because they didn’t like it,” said Aronoke.
There was a pause while Draken considered this.
“Yeah, well, you’re not on Kasthir now, are you?” he pointed out lamely.
Aronoke regarded him impatiently. “Do you really think I would bother eat this if I didn’t like it?” he said.
“All right, all right, point taken.”
After breakfast, Aronoke went exploring. He didn’t like not knowing where anything was, wanted to get a feel for the layout of this place. He went and looked at the meditation rooms. Wandered down to the other levels where there were lots of little private rooms just like his. Got a feel for where the halls leading out of the training facility went. It was not long before he felt confronted by the vast endlessness of it all. The temple was huge. Beyond it stretched the city, and there was no edge to that. It went around and around forever. He went back to his room, feeling overwhelmed, had not been there long when the impatient Mizra came to find him.
“What are you doing?” she said. “Didn’t you look at your schedule? You’ve got an appointment to be tested.”
She waved at the viewscreen where a message was displayed. Aronoke had seen it earlier, before breakfast, but had no idea what it read.
“Can it say something?” he said, gesturing at the viewscreen.
“Yes, of course it says something,” snapped Mizra crossly. “It says you have to be at the testing room ten minutes ago!”
“No, I mean the viewscreen,” said Aronoke. “Can you make it speak with a voice?”
“Oh,” Mizra strode over to the screen and did something to it. A pleasant sounding voice began reading out the message. “Yes, it will read out loud if you like, so if the lighting is too dim or whatever...but you should be going to your appointment now, with Tester Quifiniac,” she finished hurriedly. “I will show you where it is.”
Tester Quifiniac was a human man, tall and thin, robed like most Jedi. He spoke in a patient sing-song voice, obviously used to dealing with very small children. Aronoke was not used to anyone talking like that, but so many people talked in peculiar ways here, he did not pay it any particular heed.
“Ah, Aronoke,” said Tester Quifiniac. He glanced down at his datapad. “Personally recommended by Master Altus,” he sounded impressed. “Very good. Now I am sure you are Force-sensitive, because Master Altus is very rarely wrong about these things, but he has requested that you be tested so we can be absolutely certain, and so we can tell more about your abilities, their strengths and weaknesses, if you are.”
Aronoke nodded. He was glad that he could understand everything that Tester Quifiniac said.
“Now first, can you recite the Jedi Code?”
Aronoke nodded. That was one of the things Master Altus had taught him. There was a pause while Tester Quifiniac looked at him expectantly.
“There is no...” prompted Tester Quifiniac. Aronoke scowled.
“People ask things in such a strange way here,” he said impatiently. They were always asking the sorts of questions that you would answer with a yes or a no, and expecting you to answer something else entirely. “It doesn’t mean I don’t know it. I do.” And he recited the Jedi code as Master Altus had taught it to him:
“There is no emotion, there is peace.
There is no ignorance, there is knowledge.
There is no passion, there is serenity.
There is no chaos, there is harmony.
There is no death, there is the Force.”
“Very good, Aronoke!” said Tester Quifiniac. “Would you like a jujube?” He pronounced it ju-ju-bee. Aronoke was not sure what that was, but Tester Quifiniac was holding out a small bowl of soft candies so Aronoke could take one.
Never pass up free food.
Aronoke took one and ate it, marvelling at the strangeness of the world.
After the Jedi Code, there were some other simple questions, most of which Aronoke remembered from Master Altus’s lessons. This seemed more like a lesson itself, rather than a test, he thought. He hadn’t expected it to be so easy. He should have remembered that most of the people coming here to be tested were normal little kids. Just because some of them were Force-sensitive didn’t mean they were necessarily smart or attentive. Tester Quifiniac rewarded his efforts liberally with candy, and Aronoke realised that was for the little kids too, to help keep their attention on the testing. Aronoke did not mind. He liked the candy.
Besides, no one had ever given him rewards for doing something before. Unless you counted getting paid for jobs. Or not being beaten up.
After the questions, there were some exercises which were supposed to test his Force-sensitivity. He had to do some basic meditative techniques. Had to try and sense if a particular object made him feel a particular way, which he could not. To try and move a line across a screen, which he could. These things went on for some time before Tester Quifiniac dismissed him.
“That will do for now,” said Master Quifiniac. “You have done very well. You should come back tomorrow for further testing. The appointment will be in your schedule.”
“Okay,” said Aronoke.
“Can you find your own way back to your room?” asked Tester Quifiniac.
“I think so.”
He did. It was not so difficult once you had done it once, after all. He went back into his room to look at the viewscreen.
“You have two new messages,” said the viewscreen, when he came close to it.
Two! Aronoke didn’t know hardly anyone here. Who would send him messages?
“I want to see them,” said Aronoke and the viewscreen obligingly brought them up. One of them was from Hespenara and the viewscreen displayed it first.
“Hi Aronoke,” said a recorded image of Hespenara. “I hope you are settling in okay, and that Emeraldine found you yesterday. Master Altus sends his regards. You can contact me at this message address if you need anything. I’ll be in touch again soon.”
Hespenara was being dutiful, thought Aronoke. Doing what Master Altus had told her to. She seemed nice enough in the message, but he didn’t believe she really liked him on her own account. Was not his friend.
Aronoke had never really had any friends. Was not quite sure what they were. Where they started being a friend and stopped being only someone you knew. Quasper was okay, treated Aronoke pretty good most of the time. Did what he said because Aronoke was a skimmer. But Aronoke would not call him a friend. It struck Aronoke that he would probably never see Quasper again and that seemed unbelievable. It made him feel oddly lonely, although he did not like Quasper that much.
Over the years Aronoke could only remember two people who he might have called friends.
Uncle Remo and Boamba didn’t count as friends. Uncle Remo was a relation. Boamba was someone who looked after him. Sometimes they had hit him, sometimes yelled at him, but they had both kept him fed and clothed and looked out for him when people picked on him. But he didn’t think of them as friends.
The first person Aronoke might have thought of as a friend was a duros kid named Ebraz. He was a hostage about the same age as Aronoke, had suddenly turned up as a menial in Careful Kras’s kitchens. Ebraz had lived a fairly sheltered life for someone on Kasthir, didn’t know how things worked. Had become Aronoke’s faithful shadow for a few months, until he disappeared one day. Aronoke found out he was sold back to his people. Together they had done some interesting things in Bunkertown. Went exploring. Stole things together. It had been useful to have someone else to order around, someone who did what he said. Aronoke had missed Ebraz when he went home.
The other person was Kresmindle, a green gunner who came to work for Careful Kras. He was not a kid, but was still fairly young. Refused to take orders from Aronoke, but still spent a lot of time hanging around with him, because Aronoke knew how things worked better than he did. He had a stupid mouth that got him into trouble with the other Fumers, a habit Aronoke was trying to break him of. Kresmindle was convinced that he could steal a speeder and run away across the desert. That he could make it back to Tarbsosk and somehow earn a ticket off-planet, to Syndaar. Aronoke told him that was stupid. It would take too long. You’d run out of fuel in the desert. The dawn fumes would get you and you would be dead. But Kresmindle wasn’t convinced, wouldn’t listen, and one day he was gone, trying to run away. They found his speeder a while later, stranded out in the desert. They found Kresmindle too, and sure enough he was dead.
Aronoke broke out of his reverie as the other message started playing. This one was from a droid. “As a new recruit it is strongly recommended for your physical health and well-being that you start an exercise program,” said the droid. “Since you have recently arrived from a planet with a substandard atmosphere, it is best that this should commence immediately. Please report to the exercise facilities.”
It said a time, which was later that day and had the location number for the exercise centre. What with Mizra’s directions and his earlier explorations, Aronoke thought he would be able to find it.
First it was time for the midday meal. Aronoke could not see either Emeraldine or Draken, but he knew how things worked and was content to sit and eat by himself.
Then he found his way down to the exercise facility to report to the droid.
“Greetings, Aronoke,” said the droid when he got there. It pronounced it like “joke” like Mizra had.
“Aronoke,” said Aronoke.
“My apologies Precursory Initiate Aronoke,” said the droid.
“An initiate? Is that what I am?” said Aronoke. Master An-ku had said that, back at the Jedi Council. That he was to be an initiate, but he hadn’t realised that it was a title like skimmer.
“Yes, you are an initiate,” said the droid. “You have recently arrived from a planet where you may have experienced substandard atmospheric, hygiene and nutritional conditions, so it is important that you undertake a healthy exercise program to help develop your lungs, musculature, circulatory system and other biological functions so they may reach an appropriate level of fitness.”
Aronoke didn’t understand all it said, but it was a droid so that was not surprising. He gathered that it thought he didn’t get enough exercise, because of where he came from. Personally he thought that he was likely to have got a lot more exercise than people who lived on Coruscant, with all their fancy taxis and automatic facilities.
“An exercise program has been arranged for you to meet your biological needs,” the droid was saying. “If you come this way I will show you the exercise facilities and instruct you in the use of appropriate exercise equipment.”
It was all fancy machines, Aronoke saw. Trust these people to have machines for things you could do with your own body, like run or jump or lift things. They had to have funny machines to help them do it. Mostly the people exercising wore tight-fitting garments. Aronoke shrank back into the cover of his own robes. It felt naked enough in these clothes.
The droid was tottering about showing one of the machines to Aronoke. He hadn’t heard what the droid called it, having been too busy looking at all the other people exercising. It looked like it should be called something like the round-and-round-atron. The droid was explaining, Aronoke thought, what the health benefits of using this particular machine were.
“Why don’t you try and have a turn?” it said presently. It looked easy enough. Aronoke went to climb up on it.
“No, no,” said the droid, fluttering its hands in the air in concern. “You should take off your outer robes before operating this piece of equipment. Otherwise there is a 17.9321 percent chance that you might trip and injure yourself!”
Aronoke looked at the machine doubtfully. “I think it’ll be okay,” he said.
“I assure you, Initiate Aronoke, that it will be far better if you remove your outer garments. It is not advisable to wear long entangling garments while operating exercise equipment!”
“I don’t want to,” said Aronoke.
“Oh dear,” said the droid flightily. “Perhaps you could explain why not?”
Aronoke hesitated. He knew that any reason he came up with would not seem acceptable to the droid.
“It might be dangerous,” he said at last, weakly.
“Oh no, I can assure you, Initiate Aronoke that it is far safer to operate this equipment without your outer robe than if you should attempt to exercise with it in place!”
Aronoke grew impatient. “Just let me try,” he said at last. “It can’t be that hard.”
He got up and tried but the droid was right. The robe did get in the way. It flapped about his legs and caught in all the wrong places. It didn’t help that the robe was too big. He managed to do the exercise without tripping, but it was a lot harder than it needed to be.
“What’s next?” he asked the droid when he had finished.
The next machine was difficult – it used muscles that Aronoke obviously didn’t have. He was unable to do enough of that activity for his robe to actually start getting in the way.
The rest of the exercising was more of the same. Aronoke didn’t think much of it. Would have much preferred to exercise in less technological ways.
That evening as he was going to sleep, Aronoke thought about how quickly everything became normal. Even in only a single day at the testing facility, he had learned a huge amount about how things worked. There were still lots of things he hadn’t tried. Lots of things he didn’t understand. But it didn’t seem as impossibly difficult as it had the day before.
“Why are you still wearing those big robes?” asked Draken at breakfast the next day. “Haven’t they given you any the right size yet? Look, your sleeve is getting in the gravy.”
Aronoke snatched the sleeve out. Wiped it off.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “It doesn’t matter.”
He felt comfortable in the too-big robes. They had belonged to Master Altus. He wanted to keep them.
“Gosh, you’re easy going,” said Draken. “I wouldn’t put up with that, if I were you, letting them keep you down by not giving you the proper clothes, just because you come from a primitive backwater planet. I mean you’re supposed to be going to be a Jedi. Supposed to look the part, you know. To take pride in your appearance. I mean, every single Jedi is a representative of all the Jedi everywhere.”
Aronoke didn’t feel like a Jedi yet. But maybe Draken was right. The clothes identified who you were. If he didn’t dress like an initiate, other people wouldn’t know how to treat him properly. Might not take him seriously. Like if you were a skimmer who dressed wrong.
He went back to his room after breakfast, had a better look around. He hadn’t looked inside the cupboard since the first day he arrived. Inside he found that a number of new things had appeared. There were four sets of new robes, all in Aronoke’s size. Four sets! There were all the appropriate layers of trousers and shirts and underthings to go with them. Quickly Aronoke dressed in one of the new sets of clothes. It did fit him much better, but it was not as concealing as Master Altus’s old clothes had been. Aronoke did not want someone to disappear those things, not like had happened with his skimmers’ clothes. He wasn’t sure why but they were important to him, so he folded them up neatly and hid them in a corner of the cupboard.
The new robe did not hide his face half so well, Aronoke thought, suddenly noticing that there was a mirror on the inside door of the cupboard.
He had never seen himself so clearly. He pulled the hood off to get a better look at his face.
I look like a kid, Aronoke thought, shocked. Bigger than all those little kids around here, but not so much. Gosh, he really was short and skinny – far skinnier than he had imagined. Smaller than he was in his own head. Blue skin, a dusty sort of blue with a lot of grey in it. Glowing red eyes. Dark hair, a really dark blue that was almost black, cut fairly short but haphazardly in uneven lengths. He had done that himself with a vibroknife. It didn’t look anything like he had imagined it would. He looked mostly surprised and scared, he thought. Toughened his face up in his best skimmer scowl. That was not so bad. That really did look rather scary. Then he grinned smugly at his reflection, ruining the effect. A cheeky two-year old grin. A kid’s grin.
There was a fine weathering of lines on his face, Aronoke saw, that didn’t look like the faces of the kids here. A different sort of expression about the eyes. That was because of coming from Kasthir.
The viewscreen was making a chiming noise, demanding attention. There was something on his schedule coming up. Another testing session, Aronoke saw. Then, after lunch, there was another appointment. A medical examination. He had already had one of those at the spaceport. Didn’t see why he should have another. Still, that first one, the only medical examination he could ever remember having, had been harmless enough.
The second training session was much like the first one. If anything, it went even more smoothly. There was more Force-sensitivity testing, and, knowing what to expect, Aronoke found it easier to perform all the exercises he had done already.
It was the medical examination that turned out to be problematic.
Aronoke found the right door without too much difficulty and was met by a medical droid.
“Greetings,” said the medical droid. “I am medical droid designation number D-2J399, and I will be performing your medical examination today.”
“Okay,” said Aronoke, a little nervously.
“Are you near-human biological Precursory Initiate Aronoke?” asked the droid. Like the exercise droid, it said his name wrong.
“Aronoke,” said Aronoke.
“My apologies, Initiate Aronoke. If you will please stand in front of the scanner on the wall.”
Aronoke went and stood there.
“It says in your quarantine medical records that upon arrival on Coruscant you were suffering from an infestation of offworld silicone-based parasitic organisms,” said the droid. “The scanner suggests that some infestation still remains. That being the case, it will be necessary for me to make a visual evaluation of your dermis to ensure that all the parasites are completely eradicated. Please remove all your garments to prepare for visual evaluation.”
Remove all his garments?
“I don’t want to,” said Aronoke firmly.
“I realise it is possible that you may suffer a cultural inhibition regarding removal of your clothing,” said the droid. “And I reassure you that this is a medical facility and that I am fully programmed to perform such operations in complete confidence. Only medical data which is relevant to your ongoing health will be recorded and may only be viewed by ranking medical officers.”
Aronoke had no idea what it meant.
“I don’t care,” he said firmly, a dull ache filling his chest. “I don’t want to.”
“The medical examination must be complete in order for you to successfully finalise your preliminary testing!” said the droid.
Aronoke said nothing. He did want to finish the testing. Wanted to carry through his part of the agreement with Master Altus. But he did not want the droid to see his back, let alone record what it saw there. Did not want anyone to see that. Did not know what would happen if they did.
“Oh dear,” said the droid, seemingly at a loss. “I suppose I must contact my superior!”
Aronoke waited sullenly while the droid did this.
The superior was a middle aged human man. Aronoke did not know his name. Aronoke scowled at him fiercely, using his best skimmer scowl.
“What seems to be the problem here, D-2?”asked the supervisor.
“Subject Aronoke does not wish to remove his garments for purposes of medical examination,” said the droid.
“You don’t?” said the supervisor. “You don’t have to worry about the droid, son,” he said to Aronoke, not unkindly. “I know you probably haven’t seen many of their sort out on the world where you come from, but he won’t hurt you. You don’t have to worry about taking your garments off in front of him.”
Aronoke shook his head, deeply embarrassed. He wouldn’t have cared about that. Not very much, anyway.
“I just don’t want to,” he said.
“No?” the supervisor seemed puzzled. “What seems to be the problem then?” He stared at Aronoke for a long moment. “You were mistreated perhaps, during a similar situation?” he asked more cannily.
Aronoke was not sure that Careful Kras’s examination of him was a similar situation. He said nothing, feeling his skin burning with fear and shame. He hugged his robes about himself tightly and scowled as fiercely as he could.
“Perhaps it’s best if Aronoke’s medical examination is rescheduled for a later time,” the supervisor said finally. “You can move on to your next subject, D-2,” he told the droid.
“Very well,” said the droid, not seeming very happy at this disruption to its routine.
“Now why don’t you come and sit out here in the hall for a while,” said the supervisor, directing Aronoke out of the medical bay. “Just take a seat here,” said the man, indicating a convenient bench. “I’ll contact the Master responsible for your testing and see if he can come and talk with you.”
“Okay,” said Aronoke reluctantly, feeling small and stupid. No one else would make a fuss, he was certain. Not even those little kids. But they didn’t have something weird on their backs. Something awful. So awful that even Careful Kras wanted it destroyed. Aronoke sat down feeling sick. Waiting on the bench helped him feel a bit less frightened, but no less stubborn. He couldn’t show them. Wouldn’t. He didn’t know what would happen, what they would do to him when they found out.
After long minutes, Master Insa-tolsa arrived. Aronoke felt depressed. He couldn’t see how Master Insa-tolsa could make things better. Aronoke could not imagine explaining to him. He was too incomprehensible. Indeed when he apppeared, he was speaking in his alien voice, using that language Aronoke could not understand. His tone was obviously meant to be reassuring, but Aronoke did not recognise a single word of it.
Master Insa-tolsa suddenly seemed to realise this, because he took out a gadget and spoke into that. Words began coming out a little slowly, interpreting everything he said so that Aronoke could understand it.
“Greetings, Initiate Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “Why don’t you come this way, so we can talk more privately?”
Aronoke allowed the looming alien to steer him into a small private room, something between a waiting room and an office.
“Now, what seems to be the problem?” asked Master Insa-tolsa. “Supervisor Gilnar of the testing facility’s medical centre has reported that you refused to get undressed to be examined by the medical droid.”
Aronoke felt scared and ashamed all over again.
“I just don’t want to,” he said.
“Is there a reason for your reluctance?” asked Master Insa-tolsa. “There is no need to be frightened by the medical procedures. Very few of them actually hurt and the droid will explain everything before they are actually performed. It will not do anything without your prior permission.”
“It’s not that,” said Aronoke.
“Can you explain?” asked the giant alien.
Aronoke shook his head.
“Perhaps there is someone else you might feel more comfortable talking to,” said Master Insa-tolsa, appearing to take no offence that Aronoke did not want to tell him. “Is there anyone else at the testing facility you would prefer to speak with?”
Aronoke shook his head. They were all strangers. He didn’t trust any of them.
“Can I speak to Master Altus?” he asked at last, carefully. Knew Master Altus was busy doing important things. Was too higher-up. But he was the only person who Aronoke felt he could possibly talk to about this. It would be hard even with him. Most likely Master Altus would be too busy anyway. Wouldn’t talk to Aronoke. Was already somewhere far away.
But Master Insa-tolsa was nodding like there was nothing out of the ordinary about Aronoke’s request. “Let’s see if he is available,” said the big ithorian, bringing a communicator out of a pocket in his robes. Master Insa-tolsa spoke into the communicator for a little while, using the language that Aronoke did not understand, and then suddenly there was a little transparent holo-figure of Master Altus standing there on the communicator in Master Insa-tolsa’s hand.
Aronoke swallowed. This was not any good. How could he talk properly to a tiny hologram of Master Altus? In front of Master Insa-tolsa? He knew Master Altus could hear him and see him, but it was not the same. Was not reassuring at all.
“Aronoke! I hear your testing is going very well,” said Master Altus. “I’m sorry I have not been able to come and see you.”
Aronoke nodded, uncertain of what to say.
“Master Insa-tolsa says that there is something you want to talk to me about,” prompted Master Altus and he waited patiently.
“They wanted me to have a medical test,” said Aronoke. “They wanted me to get undressed. But I didn’t want to.” He could hear his own voice sounding awkward and defiant and hung his head, embarrassed. It was no good. He couldn’t talk like this.
“Medical tests are nothing to worry about,” said Master Altus. “They won’t do you any harm. Won’t hurt you.”
“That’s not it,” said Aronoke.
There was another long pause, like Master Altus was waiting for Aronoke to explain. When he did not Master Altus said, “Perhaps it would be better if you come and see me tonight, Aronoke. I will send Hespenara to fetch you. Will that suit you?”
“Yes,” said Aronoke, greatly relieved.
“I will see you tonight then,” said the tiny figure of Master Altus and then he was gone.
“I will show you back to your rooms,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “It will be time for you to have another meal soon and then you can attend your exercise activities this afternoon.”
It was not even lunchtime. Aronoke felt drained and tired from so much fearful anticipation. Like the whole day had passed and it was time to go to sleep.
“Yes, Master,” he said obediently to Master Insa-tolsa.
Aronoke did not want to go to the exercise centre that afternoon. Did not like the machines for exercising. They were too difficult and awkward to use. Perhaps there was somewhere else he could exercise, he thought to himself. Somewhere where he could do some running. He felt like doing something mindless that would drive away the uncomfortable thoughts in his head. There were few active things to do here in the training facility, plenty to challenge to the mind, but not much to tire the body. He was not certain how to find out where he could run.
In the end he went to talk to the droid at the exercise centre.
“I don’t want to exercise on the machines,” he announced to the droid.
“Oh, but I must reassure you that the exercise machines in the Training Centre are of a very advanced design,” said the exercise droid. “They are expressly constructed for meeting the physical training requirements of humans and near-human species.”
“Yes,” said Aronoke. “But I thought I could do something else. Is there somewhere nearby, where I could run?”
“There are most certainly places which have been set aside precisely for that activity,” said the droid. “However I must insist that the training program designed for you has been professionally matched to your training requirements and that merely running will not replace them in efficiently bringing your physical performance to a higher standard.”
“I don’t care,” said Aronoke. “I just want to run.”
The droid seemed very disappointed, but told him the directions to the running track.
“Far be it for me to dissuade any biological entity from pursuing any exercise activity that may promote health and fitness,” it said. “I hope you will come back soon,” it added as Aronoke turned to leave. “New exercise machine models are expected to arrive soon. Perhaps these upgrades will be of greater interest to you in the pursuit of your fitness goals.”
Aronoke found the running track without too much difficulty. Was getting used to the way the halls and corridors were ordered. Still found it hard in places where there were too many signs. The track wove around the inside of a great atrium, a pleasant space with places to sit and even some planters containing trees. There were a few people running around the track already, none of them wearing robes, but Aronoke did not let that bother him. Starting at a determined jog-trot, he headed off around the circuit.
He did not get as far as he would have liked. Running here was different. His lungs, despite the deficiencies of Kasthir’s atmosphere, or perhaps because of them, seemed to adjust fine. It was his legs that gave out first. The ground was hard, the shoes he wore were different than the boots he was used to and he had never run for long distances. Still, he thought, he had done his best. Perhaps he could go further next time.
Back at his room, he took a bit of a rest, was surprised when the door-chime rang and it was Hespenara already.
“Are you ready to come and see Master Altus?” asked Hespenara and her nose wrinkled a bit. “You really should have another wash you know,” she said apologetically.
Already? thought Aronoke.
“But it’s wet,” he said, cringing a little. Hespenara looked at him and seemed to decide that this was an argument she could easily avoid. Was willing to leave it to someone else to coerce Aronoke into proper hygiene habits.
“Oh well,” she said. “I don’t expect Master Altus will mind.”
But Master Altus had insisted that Aronoke wash in the first place. Aronoke felt guilty. Wanted Master Altus to be pleased.
“I can get changed,” said Aronoke, suddenly remembering the pile of clean robes in his cupboard. He darted back into his room, unceremoniously locking Hespenara outside to change into his clean clothes. He was a bit sweaty, he noticed, from the running. The smell of the sweat seemed easier to notice now that he wasn’t so covered in dust. He used the old robes to wipe himself down and quickly got dressed.
“That’s a bit better,” said Hespenara when he came out, and Aronoke was pleased.
Hespenara had a little speeder, a bike only meant for one or two people. It was a funny looking bubble of a thing that made Aronoke smile. “Climb on,” said Hespenara and he climbed on the back. Soon they were moving off through the hallways. There were special paths which the speeder was restricted to, even though it did not go particularly fast. Still, Aronoke thought, it was a lot faster than walking.
They zipped through the Jedi temple. Through many parts that Aronoke had not seen before, off to where he supposed that the real Jedi lived. Hespenara parked the speeder, took Aronoke to a door and rang the chime.
Master Altus’s rooms were dim and peaceful, larger than Aronoke’s but not very much so. Hespenara showed Aronoke inside and there was Master Altus waiting.
“Aronoke!” said Master Altus. “It’s good to see you again.”
It’s good to see you too, Aronoke wanted to say, but instead he just smiled.
“Thank you for bringing Aronoke, Hespenara,” said Master Altus, smiling warmly at the green girl. “You can go now.”
“Yes, Master,” she said and left the room, closing the door behind her.
“Why don’t you sit down,” said Master Altus, indicating a low chair behind a table. He sat in the other chair himself when Aronoke sat down. “I trust you haven’t been finding the testing centre too complicated or the tests too confusing. It’s nothing like anything you would have known on Kasthir, of course.”
“It’s weird here,” admitted Aronoke. “There are lots of people. But mostly it’s everything else. Moving everywhere, going on and on endlessly. So many buildings. Machines for everything.”
Master Altus nodded. “You might try thinking of the Jedi temple like a world within a world,” he said. “Instead of thinking about all of Coruscant, think of the temple like it was a small city of its own, forming a protective bubble around you. It’s a peaceful place, Aronoke. The people here will not harm you. They will look after you. You will be safe here.”
“Master Altus,” Aronoke said haltingly, awkwardly, not like he had practiced in his head. “I never said... thank you. For taking me off Kasthir.”
“You’re welcome,” said Master Altus. “And you need not worry. Your gratitude was quite apparent from your attitude.”
Aronoke nodded. Felt embarrassed. Wished the weight of his back wasn’t on him, making this conversation less easy than it might have been.
“Your early test results are in, and show that you are certainly Force-sensitive, like I suspected,” Master Altus said. “You have done well. Soon you will be assigned to a Jedi clan and then you will move to new, more permanent accommodation and start your training properly.”
“Clan?” said Aronoke. “What is that?”
“A group of ten people, who all train together. You will learn alongside your clan-mates, help each other to achieve your goals, train to use lightsabres, do everything together. Your clan becomes your family, sharing a common goal.”
Oh. It was like all the people who belonged to a compound. Like the Fumers, only smaller. Aronoke nodded. That didn’t seem so bad.
“I will do my best to see that you get assigned to a group that is not only younglings,” said Master Altus. “There are not many others who start their training as late as you do, but there are some.”
“That would be nice,” said Aronoke, thinking of Draken. It seemed likely that he might get assigned to Draken’s group then, assuming that the other boy passed his tests too.
But he wouldn’t be able to go and join his clan until he had his medical examination, he realised. He straightened his spine. He felt scared enough that he might be sick, but it was best to get it over with. Master Altus was patiently waiting, realising, perhaps, that he was working up to saying something.
“They wanted me to have a medical examination,” said Aronoke. “The droid wanted me to get undressed. But I didn’t want to.”
“It’s important that you have the medical examination,” said Master Altus. “The medical staff only want to make sure you are fit and undiseased, that you are ready for training. Since you have come from a place like Kasthir, where medical practices are very backward, the procedures are more exacting than they would usually be, but they are still nothing to worry about.”
“I know that,” said Aronoke a little impatiently. “That’s not the problem.”
Master Altus waited for him to explain. Aronoke closed his eyes a moment, swallowed down the sick fear.
“I didn’t want anyone to see. I don’t know what will happen. What they would do if they saw.”
He felt like he was going to burst into tears. Angrily held them back. Waited for Master Altus to ask the obvious question: ‘If they saw what?’.
“The droid won’t tell anyone anything,” Master Altus said, “whatever it sees. It is programmed to keep everything confidential. Only the senior medical officers will be able to view the records, and they will not show those things to anyone. They will only use these things to make sure you remain healthy. No one will do anything to harm you, regardless of what they might see during the examination.”
But Aronoke was shaking his head, not believing it, thinking that they might feel differently when they saw his back. Might react like Careful Kras had. Couldn’t trust the droid, or the senior medical officials.
There was only one person he might trust that much on this whole planet, amongst the whole trillion. The person who he had shot at, who had kicked his butt so easily by slamming him down on the sand, who hadn’t killed him, who had instead taken him away from Kasthir. Master Altus.
“Can I show you first?” he asked, hesitantly, wretchedly. It was so embarrassing. So frightening.
But Master Altus didn’t hesitate. Didn’t look embarrassed. He looked a little intrigued, like he had no idea what Aronoke might be about to show him. And very calm.
“Of course,” he said.
Aronoke stood up. Felt weak in the knees. Light-headed. Tried to force himself to stay calm. Couldn’t be worse than Careful Kras, he told himself firmly. Master Altus was nothing like Careful Kras.
He took off the outer robe and hung it neatly over the chair. Undid the fastenings on the shirt and took that off too. Had to keep moving, so he wouldn’t lose his nerve.
Aronoke’s front had scars everywhere. The bone-sucking worm scars were the largest, a dull, mottled, uneven backdrop to the hash of old injuries, places where he had been accidentally cut, scraped, burned with fumes from the little jets that sometimes came out of the walls and floors of Bunkertown. And then the knife marks, slashing and crisp, from the knife-fights in the Grinder when he was small, mostly on his arms. Bigger more recent ones from scuffles in Bunkertown. The place on his shoulder where a blaster bolt had just missed him. The place along his side where he’d been scraped along the ground when he fell off the speeder when it took off before he was ready. The lines on his chest where Geb had hit him with the hot roasting prong. The pock-marks from the year the pop-lice were so bad. The splotch on his stomach where he’d splashed himself with boiling fat.
But those were nothing, the marks-in-trade of an eventful life. He didn’t care about those.
He steeled himself and turned around.
Master Altus was silent for a moment. If he drew his breath in suddenly, he did so very quietly.
“Oh, Aronoke,” he said sadly, “you have been harshly ill-used indeed.”
Aronoke could not see the marks himself, knew that the scarred skin was stiff and thick, ridged with criss-crossing lines. Knew the game of three-legged trig stood out better than most things, from when Careful Kras had been most angry with him for beating up the mouthy duros kid. Stood still so that Master Altus might see below the scars, because that was what Aronoke was most fearful of anyone seeing. It still wouldn’t be any good if he did not.
“It almost looks,” said Master Altus, after a while, “like someone has purposefully tried to hide the marks of the tattoo that is underneath.”
“Careful Kras... didn’t like it,” said Aronoke, his voice cracking. “It grows back through the scars. Which is why they had to be done again.”
“Aronoke,” said Master Altus, firmly. “No one here would ever hurt you for the sake of whatever that picture shows. No matter what it says or portrays. They would be interested in it, but that is all.”
You’re sure? Aronoke wanted to ask. Absolutely certain? Couldn’t trust his voice, and merely nodded.
“You can put your shirt back on,” said Master Altus. “And come and sit down.”
Aronoke pulled the shirt back on, feeling self-conscious. Put the robe on over the top. Sat down feeling weak and dizzy with the strain of built-up emotions that were now slowly ebbing away. Perhaps some of this showed in his face, because Master Altus pushed a bowl of fruit at him across the table. “Have some fruit,” he said.
Aronoke picked up a small round fruit. Nibbled at it. More to have something to do than anything else.
“Do you think you will be able to have the medical examination now?” asked Master Altus.
“I don’t know,” said Aronoke. “Maybe.”
Perhaps it should have been a great relief to Aronoke to show Master Altus his back. He did feel reassured. But his fear about it had been there for so long, it was very hard to put aside all at once. Impossible to completely forget.
There was always the nagging thought that just because Master Altus did not take offence at it, did not mean that someone else wouldn’t.
“I will leave instructions that the medical droid will not mention anything of what it sees on your back to anyone,” said Master Altus. “Only the sorts of medical things that would be usually reported to the senior medical staff. There won’t be any need for it to mention the markings on your back at all. No one needs to see them or even know about them.”
“Okay,” said Aronoke uncomfortably. “I will try.”
“I will be going away in a few days’ time,” said Master Altus. “Off-world. At my own behest and that of the Jedi Council. I won’t be back for some time. I will ask Master Insa-tolsa to look in on you in my absence, to keep an eye on you. If you have any problems, anything that worries you, you can talk to him about it.”
“Okay,” said Aronoke again. He didn’t know if he could talk to Master Insa-tolsa like he talked to Master Altus. Didn’t trust him the same way.
For a while then they spoke of other things. Less important things. Aronoke was aware that Master Altus was helping to make him calm. To feel like he belonged here at the Jedi temple. Did not want Aronoke to feel he was a problem to be dealt with and then immediately dismissed.
Master Altus was very kind, thought Aronoke, very like the concepts he had taught Aronoke on the ship. Aronoke did not know if he could ever be like that. Thought that he might always be something of a problem and a disappointment to someone like Master Altus. Felt unworthy of such attention, as much as he liked it.
Nevertheless, he was feeling happier when Hespenara came to pick him up.
“We’ll be off soon,” Hespenara said over her shoulder as they moved through the streets. “Master Altus and I. Back off on another expedition. It’s to be a forest world this time. I’m quite looking forward to it, especially after Kasthir.”
“Less things to eat you,” said Aronoke.
“Oh there will still be plenty of those,” said Hespenara. “Only more furry ones instead of bugs. Large predators. But it will be nice to be somewhere green with lots of trees.”
Aronoke felt a pang of jealousy again. Knew he was not ready to go off on expeditions. Could not play any mind tricks or even lift a pebble.
Not yet, anyway.
“Good luck with the training, Aronoke,” said Hespenara when she dropped him off. “May the Force be with you.”
“Goodbye,” said Aronoke, wondering if it would be or not.