Initiate (Aronoke - Book 1)

By ACFellows

Scifi / Fantasy

Changing

A few days later, when they had just come back from exercise class, Draken said to Aronoke: “Coming to have a shower?"

Aronoke fidgeted and stared at the floor.

"I had one not long ago," he said defensively.

"I don't think I've ever seen you have one," said Draken accusingly.

Everyone was obsessed with showers here, Aronoke thought. Even the little kids went into the ablutions block at least once a day just to wash themselves. Once every day! The ones who were reluctant were herded in by Razzak Mintula. Aronoke had always made himself absent when she went around rounding them up.

"I mean," Draken continued, "it's all very well not showering back on your primitive desert planet, where there’s no one but a bunch of stinky miners and criminals, but now you're training to be a Jedi, you have to think about appearances. You can't just go around looking shabby. I don't care personally if you smell like sentient slime that evolved in the sewerage treatment system, but you've got to remember you are representing all the Jedi order now, not just yourself anymore."

Sentient sewerage? Aronoke sniffed himself. Perhaps he smelt a bit stale, but that was all. Guiltily he remembered Master Altus had insisted that he wash. That Hespenara had noticed immediately when he hadn’t for a few days. Maybe it was part of being a Jedi to be so unreasonably fastidious about washing. Just like wearing robes was.

But the shower on the ship had been dry…the one here used water. Aronoke had seen how it worked and was horrified. Obviously people here used water for all sorts of things that Aronoke would never have considered.

In some ways it had been easier being a skimmer. No one expected you to wash. Ever.

"I washed on the ship," said Aronoke stubbornly. "That wasn't long ago."

"Suit yourself," said Draken and he went off to the showers. Aronoke saw him come back later, clean and slightly moist looking. Urgh. He couldn't get used to the idea of getting wet all over. The smell of the water, doubtlessly full of strange dissolved substances from the air. The way it would feel against his skin.

Razzak Mintula must have also noticed that Aronoke was not washing because a few days later she came to talk to him about it.

"Aronoke, you have to go and have a shower,” said Razzak Mintula, in a voice that broached no argument. “It is important that you maintain a basic level of hygiene. I know you come from a desert planet, but there's plenty of water here on Coruscant. It is not going to run out."

Aronoke shuffled his feet, feeling uncomfortable.

"I had a shower on the ship", he protested. "It wasn't that long ago."

"You should shower every day," said Razzak Mintula fixing him with her most stern expression. "Directly after you exercise. Showering every second day is acceptable, but that is the bare minimum."

Aronoke did not know what to say. He stared stubbornly at the ground, wishing he could avoid the issue. It was not just washing. He had seen how the little kids behaved. Even Draken. Running around wildly all over the place, not respecting each other's privacy. He was worried that someone would look in. He didn't care about them seeing him naked. It was his back, and despite Master Altus's reassurance, he didn't want anyone asking questions about it. But he couldn't tell Razzak Mintula that.

"Do you understand, Aronoke?" Razzak Mintula asked.

"Yes, Instructor Mintula," said Aronoke, “but it’s wet!”

“The water will not hurt you,” she said severely. “You are old enough to shower yourself and when you have tried it, I am sure you will find you quickly get used to it.”

Aronoke was silent. Could feel himself start to sweat.

Razzak Mintula continued to stare at him sternly, pinning him with her eyes as thoroughly as Fronzak might have stabbed a rock-tick with his vibroblade.

"Do I have to come in there and make you?" she threatened.

Aronoke immediately envisioned Razzak Mintula dragging him into the showers by one ear, shoving him in a cubicle, watching as he got undressed. The look on her face when she saw all the scars and the thing on his back. Shock and pity, and maybe something worse. Revulsion.

"No," said Aronoke quickly.

"Very well then," said Razzak Mintula. "Go and have a shower now."

It was with considerable trepidation that he collected some clean clothes and went off to wash himself. It took a long time. He did not like to get entirely under the water at once. It felt very strange, the way the dribbly trickles of water trailed across his skin like an impossible deluge of warm sweat, insidiously coursing down to wet every part of him. Aronoke started with his hands and feet, tried to put just one part of him underneath at a time. It was worst with his head.

He did not feel properly dry for several hours afterwards.

He would have to get quicker at it, Aronoke thought afterwards. It struck him that if he got up very early in the morning when everyone was still asleep the shower room would be empty, and it would be safer.

From then on the whole experience was more bearable. When no one else was around, he didn’t get the creepy feeling that someone was going to come in and surprise him.

Aronoke had been in the primary training centre for a week when Emeraldine came to visit. She came after afternoon lessons.

"I thought we might go out and do something," said Emeraldine. "Perhaps you would like to spar."

"Okay," said Aronoke. So he and Draken and Emeraldine went down to the exercise facilities. Emeraldine led them over to a rack which contained a number of practice sticks for practicing sparring.

"First you learn with practice sticks, then practice blades and finally lightsabers," said Emeraldine. "Here, take a stick."

The stick felt hard and slightly awkward within Aronoke's hands. Too long to be a knife. Not balanced like a vibroblade. Wasn't sure how to hold it for a few minutes, and slid his hands up and down its length, considering.

"Well?" said Emeraldine, holding her stick naturally in two hands, relaxed and ready.

Aronoke needed no further encouragement. Deciding to wield the stick like a vibroblade, he swung and slashed at Emeraldine.

"You don't hold anything back do you?" said Emeraldine, parrying his blows with some effort.

"Sorry," said Aronoke. Fights were always serious on Kasthir, even the ones you fought for fun. Aronoke had seldom won any of them. Skimming had hardly ever required fighting, only when the miners were new, and then there were usually lots of Fumers to take care of things. Occasionally a miner got it into his head that he wasn’t going to hand over his skim, but that could usually be solved with a bit of brash bravado on the skimmer’s part, accompanied by some reckless blaster-waving.

"No, it's good," said Emeraldine, puffing a bit. "So many people hold back."

Emeraldine won. Nevertheless Aronoke was not displeased with his efforts. Emeraldine looked like she had to work to keep up with him.

After Aronoke's turn, Draken had a go against Emeraldine and then they sparred each other.

"That was good," Aronoke said to Draken afterwards, feeling a sense of satisfied achievement. "We should do that more often."

"Yeah," said Draken, grudgingly. "It wasn't bad." He had lost both his sessions, although, as Emeraldine said, it wasn’t supposed to be about winning. It hadn’t been too difficult to beat Draken. Aronoke had knocked his stick decisively out of his hands. Draken had obviously never been involved in any serious fighting.

"If we have to learn to use those things anyway," said Aronoke, "then we might as well start learning them now. That way we'll be better at using our lightsabers quicker."

"That’s true. We're already behind the others because we're older," said Draken.

Aronoke shrugged. "We’re ahead of the others in some things, because they're smaller than us."

"They'll be younger than us when they finish," said Draken.

"Not by so much," said Aronoke. "And why should it matter anyway? We should practice as much as we can. That way we might catch up."

"That's probably a good idea," said Draken.

Aronoke found that he liked the routine of doing the same things every day in the same order. It lent a predictability to his life that he found reassuring. Knew where he stood. The things that they learned were simple compared to learning skimming. Much less dangerous. There was no chance of getting killed at all. No need to worry constantly about who was behind you.

Aronoke thought that Draken felt more constrained by their lifestyle than he did. Draken was used to going where he liked, felt that it was okay to break the rules, as long as you didn’t get caught. He had told Aronoke that on Coruscant, rules were often no more than meaningless bureaucratic sludge, brought into place because the bureaucrats needed something to do. They weren’t always there because they were necessary, but because someone who sat in a distant office thought that was how things should be done. If you broke the rules, mostly you wouldn’t die from it, unless you carelessly fell off a railing or crashed your speeder. As Draken said, if you were that stupid a bunch of rules probably wouldn’t save you anyway.

In the desert rules were different. Weren’t written down anywhere. Rules on Kasthir were practical things that stopped you from getting killed. Things like don't go outside without your ventilator. Don't stay out overnight. Stay out of the shade. Don’t mess with the higher-ups. People who ignored those things did not survive.

Here the rules were less important, but it was still easier to go along with them than to break them. Aronoke did not see the point of that, not when they were already given everything they needed. More than enough food. Clothing. Lessons. Enough things to do to keep busy all the time, if you wanted.

Draken argued with Razzak Mintula and the other instructors a good deal more than Aronoke did. Ashquash often didn’t do the lessons at all. Just sat there or did angry pointless things. But that was the riksht talking. He would soon get bored doing that as the addiction lost its hold on him.

Slowly, a little more with each passing day, Ashquash did seem to grow more sociable. Slowly began to participate.

One day, when Aronoke was sitting in the common room doing his reading homework, Ashquash came over with his own datapad.

“Do you mind if I sit here?” said Ashquash.

Aronoke was surprised to be asked. The common room belonged to everyone.

“No,” he said. Ashquash sat down on the other side of the table. Began doing his own reading lesson. They sat there in silence, each doing their own work, but somehow it was more companionable than working alone.

It was the first sign that Ashquash was getting better, Aronoke thought.

After that the pale kid would often come and sit with Aronoke. Together they studied in silence, until after a while, Ashquash started asking Aronoke questions. Would ask about the meaning of a word or how to write a sentence. Aronoke was further ahead, since Ashquash had spent a lot of time being angry and avoiding lessons, so he often knew the answers.

After a while, he started asking Ashquash questions back.

"So do you like it better here now?" asked Aronoke, during one of these sessions.

"I don't miss the riksht as much," said Ashquash.

"Do you still think they're lying?"

"I don't know," said Ashquash uncertainly. "They do teach us a lot of things."

"That's true," said Aronoke.

He did not want to say too much. Knew that the spice messed your brain up. Thought that Ashquash had to decide for himself.

It was during one of the sparring sessions with Emeraldine that Aronoke found out something interesting about Ashquash.

"So how is Ashquash doing?" asked the green girl as they went to return their practice sticks to the rack. Draken, full of energy as always, had already put his stick back and run off ahead.

Aronoke had long since learned that Emeraldine, Hespenara and Master Altus were all mirialans. Mirialans had funny cultural ideas about tatooing a record of their personal achievements on their faces. It explained why Master Altus had so very many tattoos, Aronoke thought privately.

"I think he's getting better," said Aronoke. "Does more things."

"She's had a difficult time," said Emeraldine. "Hopefully she's getting over her addiction now."

Aronoke stared at Emeraldine. "She?" he asked incredulously.

"Yes," said Emeraldine, smiling at him. "A lot of races look different from standard humans you know. You should know that as well as I do. Ashquash is a narakite, and her people do not have obvious female characteristics like humans do. They’re more androgynous looking."

Androgynous. Aronoke turned this peculiar word over in his mind and decided to look it up on his datapad later.

"I thought she was human," he said aloud. "Just rather skinny and pale." He thought to himself that it was strange to be sharing a room with a girl. He had never noticed before, so should he let it bother him now? Did it really make any difference?

“Are you sure?” he asked Emeraldine.

“Yes,” said Emeradine, amused.

“Are they all bald?” asked Aronoke, but Emeraldine did not know.

Next time Aronoke saw Ashquash he couldn't help but try to see if he could tell. Couldn’t, really. She was flat-chested and straight-hipped as any of the male people he knew.

Exactly one month after his last medical examination, Aronoke had to go for the follow-up one. He was careful to see the same droid that he had seen before. He thought that way there was less chance of something going wrong about his back.

He still felt uncomfortable, although nowhere near as scared. This time it was merely an inconvenience.

“You are free of parasites,” said the droid, when he stood naked against the scanner.

“Good,” said Aronoke, but it didn’t seem to please the droid so much. Aronoke thought it probably wanted more parasites for its collection.

“I will have to examine the sites where the parasites were attached,” said the droid, “to ensure that there is no scarring.”

Aronoke stared at the droid like it was stupid. Made an amused noise.

“Scarring?” he said incredulously. “Why would that matter? Bug-bite scars would be tiny.”

“The parasites were attached in delicate biological tissues,” said the droid. “It is important to check for scarring to ensure that you do not suffer any discomfort or dysfunction later.”

Aronoke rolled his eyes.

“I do admit,” said the droid, after a long pause, “that you do suffer from a large amount of accumulated scar tissue and that further scarring may seem insignificant by comparison. Nevertheless, while your health falls under the responsibility of this facility, it is my duty to ensure that all further scarring is minimalised.”

“Okay, okay, just look,” said Aronoke, wishing it would hurry up so he could get dressed again. It seemed to take forever checking all the places he had been bitten.

The droid was finally satisfied that everything was healing well. Then it fussed about for an eternity taking various measurements.

“You have grown substantially in height and mass,” said the droid. “And you have also gained considerable physical condition. You are rapidly approaching a size and mass that falls within acceptable parameters for your age and species.”

“Good,” said Aronoke.

“It is an honor to continue participating in your medical care,” said the droid. “It is very interesting to be able to collect data regarding a near-human species outside of my previous experience.”

When he left, Aronoke was glad to hear that he wasn’t required to return for another six months.

“It’s not fair,” said Draken the next day during free time. “Do you know that Jedi don’t get any holidays? At school you get holidays. If you have a job you get holidays. But here in the Jedi temple we don’t get holidays at all. We work all year round doing the same things, except if there’s a special ceremony or something.”

Aronoke shrugged. This was one of those concepts that escaped him.

“I mean, it’s the law that people get holidays. As Jedi we are supposed to obey the law, and yet we don’t get any holidays. That doesn’t make sense.”

“What are they?” asked Aronoke.

Draken looked at him like he was stupid. Ashquash, who was sitting nearby and listening in, made an amused noise.

“You don’t know what a holiday is?” Draken asked, incredulously.

Aronoke shrugged again, feeling stupid.

“It’s when you don’t have to do any work or any lessons. When you have a day free to do whatever you want.”

Like a whole day of free time, thought Aronoke. It sounded boring. He liked the lessons. Felt like each one was making him better and stronger, less like a victim. Draken acted like the lessons were a torture that adults and bureaucrats had invented to inflict upon the young and keep them in their place.

“So it’s when you don’t have anything you have to do,” he said aloud.

“Yes!”

“But if you don’t do anything in your job, then you wouldn’t get paid,” said Aronoke. “That could be bad.”

“That’s not how it works,” said Draken. “They have an agreement, see. You don’t have to do anything for the day, but you still get paid for it. For doing nothing. That’s the way it works. It’s fun – you get to sit around and play simulation games, or go exploring or swimming. Maybe go on an excursion to a different sector. Sometimes you have special food, or a bit of money to spend on fun things.”

“It doesn’t seem so important,” said Aronoke frowning.

“Slaves never have holidays and never get paid,” Ashquash put in.

“Doesn’t seem important?!” said Draken. “You know what I think? I think you’ve never had any fun in your whole life. Neither of you. You don’t know what fun is! So when someone tells you about something that is fun, you don’t know what it is and so you don’t want to do it!”

Perhaps, Aronoke thought, that was more than a little true.

A few days after the medical evaluation Master Insa-tolsa came to see Aronoke, took him aside into a little private room where they could talk quietly.

“How are you finding your training, Aronoke?” asked the big ithorian. His great strangely shaped head swung gently from side to side as he spoke, the interpretation device making his booming voice small and tinny.

“It’s okay,” said Aronoke. “The lessons are very easy.”

“They will grow more difficult with time,” said Master Insa-tolsa patiently.

“I don’t mind,” said Aronoke.

“Is there anything which you feel is lacking?” he asked.

“Lacking, Master?” said Aronoke, not sure what he meant.

“Missing or incomplete,” elucidated the Master. “Anything that you feel you should be being educated in that you are not.”

“I don’t think I’m the one to ask, Master,” said Aronoke. “I don’t think I know enough to be able to tell.”

Master Insa-tolsa liked this answer. “That is most likely absolutely correct,” he said approvingly. “However, if there is any part of your education which you would like to expand upon, you may let me know.”

Aronoke had thought of one thing.

“The physical training classes we have are not very challenging, Master,” said Aronoke. “Because most of my clan is so small. A few of us are much larger than the others – couldn’t we learn things that are a bit more advanced?”

Master Insa-tolsa made a deep thoughtful booming sound that the translation device interpreted as “Hmm…”

“Some of us have been practicing sparring in our spare time,” Aronoke continued. “Maybe we could learn some basic weapon training?”

“Master Altus felt that it was important that your education proceed slowly and steadily, Aronoke,” the ithorian said after a few moments. “He felt a time of calmness and an orderly routine was what would benefit you most greatly and that your education should not be hurried despite your late start here. However, it is true that most of your clan-mates are physically much smaller than you, and that your physical training classes may not be sufficiently challenging. I will see what your instructor recommends.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke, impressed that Master Altus had bothered himself with specifics about his education.

“There is another matter which I wish to talk to you about,” Master Insa-tolsa continued.

“Yes, Master?”

“It is about you being a chiss. Do you know much about the chiss yet?”

“No,” said Aronoke. He felt awkward even thinking about them – a race of strangers who looked like him. Who had somehow carelessly misplaced him. Sometimes when he had been small, especially after Uncle Remo had died, he had imagined a story in his head in which he belonged to a family of people who looked just like him. Who had been horribly distraught when he had been kidnapped and taken away, and who were still out there somewhere looking for him. But that’s all it was – a story. It had nothing to do with the real chiss, who were allied with the Empire and thus adversaries of the Republic, as Draken had pointed out to him.

“Well, you may not know this, but being a chiss is biologically very like being a human, except in a few important aspects,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “One of the primary differences, the one that is going to begin affecting you very soon now, is that chiss reach maturity much earlier than humans do.”

“Oh,” said Aronoke, not liking where this was going.

“We estimate from your medical results and from what is known of chiss biology that you are somewhere between eleven and twelve standard galactic years old,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “In chiss, this age marks the point when a child begins to rapidly grow into an adult. You can expect that you will grow a great deal over the next few years and that by the end of them you will be fully grown.”

Aronoke felt acutely uncomfortable. Had expected to have years before he was grown-up yet.

“This is something that would not happen to humans until several years later and which would take longer to complete,” said Master Insa-tolsa.

“So I’ll grow even bigger than everyone else in my clan?” Aronoke asked, dismayed.

“For now, yes,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “Of course, they will eventually catch up with you, but that will take quite a few years.”

Aronoke’s heart sank. He didn’t want to be the big one, didn’t feel secure in that role at all. At least, he consoled himself, he would be better able to kick everyone else’s butt.

“Your emotional and mental maturity will proceed apace with your physical growth,” said Master Insa-tolsa, “so you will be better equipped to deal with your growth than you feel you are now.”

Aronoke nodded, but he could not imagine it.

“This also means that you are going to have to proceed more quickly through certain of your lessons than the rest of your clan,” continued Master Insa-tolsa. “It is important to your training as a Jedi that you learn the composure necessary to deal with the hormones produced by your changing body. In order to successfully do that, you must learn new meditation techniques to help you come to terms with the onset of sexual maturity, since this will bring with it new challenges.”

It was embarrassing, despite the calm way Master Insa-tolsa put it. Just my luck, that I have to have my biology explained to me by an ithorian, thought Aronoke, although being told by someone of a similar species might have been even more embarassing. The worst part was that it was another way in which he could be singled out from all those around him. Aronoke felt deeply disturbed. Grow into a fully grown man in a few years, when he had thought he had years and years to do that in?

It was hard to accept.

“How do you feel about this?” asked Master Insa-tolsa.

“I wish it wasn’t like that,” said Aronoke resentfully. “I wish I didn’t have to change so quickly. It makes me feel uncomfortable. I don’t like being different from everyone else.”

He had given up being a kid on Kasthir. Coming here had been like being a kid all over again, in nicer ways.

“There are many places in the galaxy where chiss are quite numerous,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “Your species is not so uncommon. They all grow up in this way. It is quite normal”

“There aren’t any here.”

“That is true, but I am certain you are not the first chiss to be trained to be a Jedi. I am sure if I look in the records I can find examples of other chiss who have done so.”

“But they aren’t here now,” said Aronoke.

“That is true.”

“And even if they were, it would be strange, because I have never seen one before. It’s not like I feel like I am one of them.”

“So you would rather you were simply a strange-looking sort of Coruscanti?” asked the ithorian.

“Yes,” said Aronoke, although he would have preffered to be a normal-looking Coruscanti, someone that people would not notice.

“Unfortunately it is not so,” said the Master. “I am sorry.”

“It’s just the way it is,” said Aronoke. “I know I can’t change it. It just seems difficult.”

“Your clan-mates and your teachers will help you overcome these difficulties,” said Master Insa-tolsa calmly. “You do not have to face them alone. You can come and talk to me if you feel concerned about them.”

“Yes, Master. Thank you.”

“The new meditation exercises will be added to your schedule,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “It is important that you practice them diligently. Usually you would not encounter such procedures until much later in your training, but your late arrival combined with the biology of your species means you will have less time to learn them than other students.”

“I will do my best,” said Aronoke, making a small bow of respect.

Growing up in Tarbsosk and running around the Grinder had given Aronoke a crude knowledge of the facts of life, but now he felt hopelessly uneducated about them. Hadn’t expected to have to deal with such things already. Had never thought he might grow up differently from humans. He hadn’t wanted to know more about the chiss, but it seemed that hiding in a bunker was no longer the best strategy. Now that he could read at least a little bit, he would have to find out what was going to happen to him over the next few years.

And how it all fit in with being a Jedi… well, even the lessons they had learned thus far made it clear that Jedi did not form attachments. Were not allowed to fall in love, or take a partner. Aronoke wondered if the meditation made you immune to these temptations and how difficult they would be to avoid.

The new meditation exercises were difficult. Although Aronoke tried his best to practice them over the next few weeks, he felt he wasn’t making much of an improvement. They were hard to concentrate on, especially since whenever he tried to perform them, he found strange images coagulating in his mind. It took him some times to realise that the images were a map of the Jedi Temple. A Force-map, dominated by locuses of power – whether relics, people or places, he was not sure – marking where things strong in the Force were located. He could sense large areas of blankness, places where the Force was subdued artificially. He thought that those places were where the really impressive Jedi artifacts were kept, screened so as not to overwhelm the people who lived in the temple.

Aronoke sometimes felt that if he only looked hard enough, the fuzzy blanketing screen would fall aside and he would be able to see the artifacts clearly. He thought they were probably great blazing sources of Force power that might sweep him away enitrely.

Most of the time he could tune these things out, but if he thought about them too much, it was like he flipped a switch in his brain and they were there instantly.

So far, he had always been able to turn the switch off again. The meditation exercises seemed to help with that too. But sometimes he worried that he might not be able to turn it off. That he might panic and be swallowed up by that unseen world. Worried that all that background information would stop being interesting and start being something else entirely. Something frightening. Something that, if it proceeded uncontrolled, could rise up and drive him crazy.

He asked Draken about this, if Draken ever felt that way, but Draken said he did not. Aronoke thought that Draken’s talents with the Force were probably rather different from his own. He did not ask Ashquash, because Ashquash was too paranoid already.

So when Draken asked him if he wanted to come exploring, to see if they could find a way into the Jedi archives to sneak a look at the secrets stored within, Aronoke was not very eager.

But he didn’t want to tell Draken why. He would sound like a scared kid.

“It doesn’t sound very interesting to me,” he said diffidently.

“What? Oh come on! Don’t you want to get a taste of what true Jedi power is like?”

Aronoke shrugged. He didn’t want to at all, but he didn’t like to let Draken down. They were friends now, he thought. Clan-mates. You were supposed to help your clan-mates. He wasn’t sure what a Jedi would be expected to do in this situation. None of the moral stories they had been taught in class seemed to apply. Talk Draken out of the idea? Report him to Razzak Mintula? Neither seemed an attractive option.

And it was after all, only kid stuff. Exciting and possibly dangerous, but little more than a game. A small, rebellious voice somewhere inside him suggested that if he was going to grow up so quickly, then he’d better do as much kid stuff as he could right now. Soon it would be too late.

“Oh, alright,” he said to Draken.

“Yes!” said Draken, excitedly, whirling about. “Let’s go tomorrow after class. I’ll tell the others.”

He rushed off.

It was breaking the rules, Aronoke thought, suddenly uncertain again. But such powerful relics were unlikely to be unguarded. Surely in all the thousands of years that the temple had stood on Coruscant there must be many initiates who had been tempted to go and look at them. Such priceless relics would be very carefully locked away where not even Draken could reach them.

At least he hoped not. If any initiate could sneak successfully into a place like that, it would probably be Draken.

Draken’s little expedition included three other initiates, other than himself and Aronoke. All of these were humans who had grown up in the undercity. Aronoke didn’t know them very well; they were members of another clan, about the same age as him and Draken.

“Right,” said Draken. “According to these old schematics I found, there’s an empty area here behind the Archives and if they’re accurate, we should be able to get through right here.”

His finger stabbed a place on his datapad.

Aronoke looked at the place doubtfully. It seemed likely to be an omission in the plan for security reasons, but Draken was much better at these things than he was himself. The other three initiates were all nodding and making suggestions for how to get to the empty area.

“I’ve got it all worked out,” said Draken airily. He detailed a long, confusing plan that Aronoke found difficult to remember.

The first part involved sneaking out of the Primary Testing Unit without being seen, a skill Draken had perfected during his many exploratory expeditions through the temple. After that, as they started moving into territory Draken had not explored in as much detail, it grew more difficult.

Aronoke had been with Draken to the corridors where the droids took their oilbaths, and reaching that point was relatively easy. Beyond, the passages were busier, with few hiding places and more droids coming and going.

Aronoke had considered that getting caught was one way to avoid having to break into the archives, but after a few minutes it was difficult to want to. It was easy to get caught up in the game, and Aronoke felt his heart beating fast in his chest as they moved from room to room.

But despite this change of heart, Aronoke was not used to this sort of sneaking. Bunkertown and the Grinder had lots more hiding places. He was the one the security droid spotted first.

“You,” said the security droid. “You are an initiate. You are not supposed to be here!” It looked about more carefully and spotted the others. You, you, you and you! You are also not supposed to be here! State your identity and authorisation!”

“We’re here under the authorisation of Master Hrmmrphahrmbm,” said Draken, making the name something between a mumble and clearing his throat.

Aronoke found it hard not to laugh, but the droid was not fooled.

“Please clarify,” said the droid. “I do not recognise the name of that master.”

“Master Hrmmrphahrmbm,” said Draken, a little more loudly, but no more clearly. “He’s one of the more alien masters.”

“Please repeat the name of the master with greater clarity,” said the droid severely.

“Oh, it’s no good,” said Draken to his colleagues. “Run for it!”

And so they ran. It is hard not to run when others do and for a few fast minutes it was something like a wild game of hide and seek. The droid must have called for back-up, however, because then there were suddenly droids everywhere, down every turning, no matter which way they went. Very soon they were completely surrounded and forced to surrender. Dragged back to their clan-rooms in disgrace to be admonished.

Draken was taken in to be scolded first. He came out looking suitably chastened. Aronoke had not been punished here before. Knew the way things worked well enough to be almost certain that the punishment could be nothing terrible. Nevertheless, he still felt nervous – he remembered too clearly what punishment Careful Kras would have inflicted. He went in the room when Razzak Mintula called him in.

“Aronoke,” said Razzak Mintula sternly. “What were you doing in the maintenance corridors? I am sure you are well aware that area is off-limits to acolytes.”

For a long moment Aronoke said nothing. He did not want to blame Draken. He had made up his own mind to go along, even if the whole thing had been Draken’s idea.

The silence stretched on too long.

“Well?” Razzak Mintula snapped, making Aronoke jump.

“We were just fooling around,” Aronoke said defensively.

“I am disappointed with you, Aronoke,” said Razzak Mintula. “Very disappointed. As one of the older members of Clan Herf you are expected to act responsibly to be a good example to the smaller ones. Instead you go gallivanting about in an off-limit area causing trouble for the security staff and wasting everyone’s time.”

Something snapped in Aronoke then. Found himself suddenly angry.

“But that isn’t fair,” he said petulantly.

“Fair?” asked Razzak Mintula crossly. “What isn’t fair?”

“That I am expected to be responsible. When the younger ones are my age, they won’t be expected to be a good example for anyone. Because there won’t be anyone smaller.”

That wasn’t really what Aronoke wanted to say.

What he wanted to say was when he had been the same age as the younglings, he had been knife-fighting on the streets of Tarbsosk trying to get enough food to stay alive. Had been taken away by Careful Kras and given a job as a menial when he was one year old. About six galactic standard years, he reminded himself. Then when he was eight he had been learning to be a skimmer, and at ten he was a full skimmer sent out to go and collect skim from the miners. An adult’s work with an adult’s responsibilities.

He hadn’t had a chance to be a kid. Not really. And now he was going to finish growing up practically overnight.

He couldn’t tell Razzak Mintula all that. It was too personal. He stared at the floor and simmered.

“Alright,” admitted Razzak Mintula, perhaps sensing a mine-field that she didn’t want to wander into. “It’s not fair. But that doesn’t change anything, it’s just the way things are. I expect you to act your age.”

Whatever age that was, thought Aronoke bitterly. A kid by Coruscant standards, an adolescent in terms of chiss biology, an adult in terms of being a skimmer. Argh.

Still, what Razzak Mintula said struck a note with him. Life wasn’t fair anywhere, even here in this place with all its rules and peculiar ways. It was just the way things were.

“Do you understand, Aronoke?” asked Razzak Mintula.

“Yes,” said Aronoke.

“You are confined to the clan room for a week, outside of lessons,” said Razzak Mintula. “That will be all.”

Confined to the clan room? Apart from missing out on practicing sparring with Emeraldine, that was hardly a punishment. Looking up at Razzak Mintula’s severe face he was suddenly struck by an odd feeling, a disturbing impulse that her long silvery ponytail was really very attractive. That it would feel nice to stroke it with his hands. No! He couldn’t feel that way about Razzak Mintula! He was horrified with himself, acutely embarrassed, felt himself turning an interesting colour.

“Yes, Instructor Mintula,” he said hurriedly and fled.

He didn’t want to grow up. To change. Not yet. But it was happening already.

For a few days after that, Draken was quiet and repentant, but his ebullient spirit could never remain repressed for long and soon he was planning a second expedition to the Jedi archives.

“We just have to find a better way to avoid the security droids next time,” he told Aronoke. “There’s certain to be a way to get past them if I look for it.”

Aronoke was even less eager to try a second time. He did not want to see the Jedi Archives. It was like a bone-sucking worm in a box to him, a dangerous thing best avoided, not something you should go and poke a vibroblade at for fun.

“Why do you want to go and see it so much?” he asked reluctantly. “We’ll only get in trouble again.”

“I don’t know. Because it’s powerful? Don’t you want to see a really powerful Jedi artifact, to know what they’re keeping secret from us?”

“Not really,” said Aronoke. “I guess we’ll get to see them later.”

“Bah, you’re getting really boring,” said Draken despairingly. “All serious about lessons and sparring and sticking to the rules and everything. Well, I like the sparring too, that’s not what I mean. But lessons, lessons, lessons all the time gets so dull.”

“It’s just all so easy,” said Aronoke apologetically.

“Yeah, well maybe, but that makes it less interesting, not more interesting,” said Draken crossly.

“That’s not really what I mean,” said Aronoke seriously. “I find some of it challenging. I don’t know how to read properly yet and I have to work hard to catch up with the rest of you. There are lots of things I find difficult to get used to. But overall, everything is so easy. I know you feel restricted by all the rules, but compared to where I come from, this is like being handed everything you need without having to pay the price for it.”

Draken made an unconvinced noise, but his eyes were on Aronoke, impressed by his seriousness. Aronoke did not usually make such personal or lengthy speeches.

“It’s like,” said Aronoke, inspired, “it’s like it’s a holiday every single day.”

Draken said nothing for a long moment.

“I do want to be a Jedi,” he said. “I want to get through my training, for my family and my level and all that to be proud of me, but I also feel that’s something everyone expects of me, because I come from a poor district. Expects me to be the local boy done good. To be a lower class hero and a good example for all the kids where I come from.”

“That’s not why you should do it,” said Aronoke. “Not for your family or your level or anything. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. It matters what you get out of it. You should do it for yourself. Then one day when you’re a full Jedi, you’ll be the Jedi that you want to be, not the one that everyone else expected.”

Draken thought about this. “I think I get it,” he said. “You’re saying that I shouldn’t become a Jedi for the honour or the glory or to please the people back home. You’re saying I should bide my time, endure the training, see it through and then, once it’s all finished, I can go on to do whatever I really want when it’s all over.”

“Well, not exactly,” said Aronoke, who had been trying to say that self-improvement was a goal within itself, but Draken was quite taken with this concept and wasn’t really listening any more.

It probably didn’t matter, Aronoke thought. By the time Draken finished his training, had spent all those years in the Jedi temple, he would have changed too.


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