Chapter 1: The Imperial Star Destroyer Ravager – In the Sands of Jakku – ABY 24 (5 Years Ago)
We meet a lonely girl named Girl, who someday will carry another name.
Things never went her way, but Girl knew that her luck had to change sometime. Abandoned, sold by her parents to the avaricious junk boss Unkar Plutt and his cruel crew of orphan ‘minders’, she survived day to day on the rations that she earned by gathering salvage from the wrecks that littered the sands beyond Niima Outpost.
She was alone in the expansive darkness in the Atmospheric Processing Complex of the Imperial Star Destroyer Ravisher, as it sat in permanent dry dock in the Starship Graveyard of Jakku. She tugged lightly at the goggles that protected her eyes. Ravisher was huge – the size of a small city on one of the Core Worlds from what she’d heard - but at least it was reasonably stable, its bulk having settled soon after it came to its final resting place.
Other ships shuddered into hidden pockets in the dunes without warning, callously taking any scavengers still inside to their doom. Places like the Sinking Sands swallowed ships whole, taking with them any chance of salvage.
The ship lay in the sands for more than a decade, as the scavengers of Niima slowly worked their way into the stale dark core, past the husks of damaged droids and the armor that still contained the remains of the stormtroopers who had perished there.
Girl’s small hands pulled at the of the environmental core control module illuminated by the small light on her head. Three redundant systems were in every scrubbing tank of every ship of Imperial design. Often, the ones she found had been damaged in the battle or in many cases, neglected by the dispirited crews in the weeks between the Battle of Endor, and the Battle of Jakku.
This one was whole. She pressed the switch, and the maintenance light glowed brilliantly in the extreme darkness. It had probably been replaced right before the Ravager went into battle.
Something stirred deep inside her that made her heart beat a little faster, and she felt a lightness at the center of her chest.
This would be the turning point. Maybe this would pay enough so she could lay in supplies for the coming bad season, when temperatures on Jakku soared to deadly levels, forcing even the native inhabitants of the planet to go to ground. Maybe this year she wouldn’t have to borrow against what she’d already repaid on her indenture, and she could start paying back.
In the humid silent darkness, she breathed thanks to the ghost of whichever Imperial Environmental Services engineer was responsible for this ship. Their diligence two decades ago would put food in her belly today.
She wrapped both hands around the green cased cylinders. Her hands were small, even for a 9-year-old. The container was smooth, with no ridges or indents that she could grip.
The lightness in her chest faded, then flared again.
She unwrapped her scarf from around her head and wrapped it firmly around the cylinder, hoping it will give her the leverage she needed.
She tugged, throwing herself in the counter clockwise motion she knew will unlock it. Despite her best efforts, it wouldn’t budge. She was strong for her age, but this part was designed for a droid to maintain, not human, and certainly not for children.
Her stomach growled. She hadn’t eaten yet today. Unkar had been setting the price of salvage lower and lower as they got closer to the hot season. She’d been scrimping and saving, but she needed this ECCM to break even.
Frustration nibbled at the hope in her chest. Why can’t things just go her way for once?? She was so close!
She grunted, giving into the frustration, throwing her hands up in the air. The sound echoed in the hollow corners of the scrubbing tank.
No one will come to help her. No one would hear her at all. Not that they could – the EPC on the Ravager was buried behind sealed blast doors. Only Unkar’s orphans were able to slink through the droid maintenance tunnels and air ducts of the ship to the parts that remained.
Her ‘minders’ had left her alone hours ago. They never stayed. They were responsible for Unkar’s crew of indentured children and, technically, one of them was supposed to stay.
They were realists. If she got stuck, there wasn’t much they could do, even if they cared to. The children brought in profit for Unkar, but one truth remained.
Girl was one of the disposable ones. Parents unable to feed another mouth abandoned children regularly on Jakku. They were taken in by the New Anchorites, or the work gangs at the gas mines, or sometimes found more unscrupulous occupations. Or sometimes they were sold into indenture.
Something told her she was different – she was special, she was skilled, but that wouldn’t bring her parents back to her. She hadn’t cried about it in two years. She wasn’t about to start again now.
If she weren’t ready when the Minders returned (which varied greatly from day to day), they would leave her defenseless, overnight on the waste fields. Long ago she learned to carry a stick to defend herself against the creatures that roamed the sands at night, and she always wore an extra layer of fabric she could use to ward off the cold night air. Luck had helped her survive to 9. Other indentured children hadn’t fared as well.
Loneliness was her only true companion.
She had been pushing her luck of late, and she knew she’d get the back side of Barsa’s hand (or worse!) again if she didn’t do what she was told. Girl’s anger would get the better of her, and Barsa was happy to remind her where she belonged.
Her hand went to the bruise purpling on her arm. They didn’t like it when she went off on her own, searching for her own salvage. But she’d wasted uncounted hours waiting for them to collect her.
She tugged and tugged and tugged, but the ECCM still wouldn’t budge. Tears welled up in her eyes. She knew they’re a waste of water. She refused to let them fall.
Her friend BZ9-L1 loved to tell stories of the mysterious Jedi of old, who would have simply called the Force, and it would have lifted the ECCM removal tool that certainly lay somewhere in the darkness nearby to her hand.
For a moment, she believed in the Force, that it was more than just the stuff of the vivid imagination of her droid friend.
She turned back to the ECCM. This time, instead of pouring her frustration on it, she breathed deep, willing the part to come free.
Something twinged in the ship. The floor tilted slightly and she heard the sound of metal shuddering. She was lucky to escape from other ships later settled into those unmapped holes in the desert floor, but she’s never felt the Ravager move before.
That jarring feeling scared her more than anything. Her path to the outside world was precarious if the ship is stable. Bulkheads and huge parts hung tenuously over the air ducts she had followed to this point, needing only the slightest nudge to block her escape.
She gave one final tug to the ECCM, expecting resistance. Only this time, there was none.
She didn’t know if the corroded bezel broke free of its own accord, or if the last frustrated yank had broken the seal, but this time it came free immediately.
Despite the danger, she tried to remove its two mates, and was rewarded with parts that were perfect in every way.
“Yes!” she whispered, awed at her luck.
She’d eat well tonight. She might even get a full portion.
There were three, and she counted them as she placed them carefully in her carry sack: One for her, one for her minders, and one for her future.
Not only that, but there were another dozen in various states of decay just waiting for her to return for them. The greatest haul of her entire life!
But then she knew she was pushing her luck as the floor shuddered again beneath her feet. Now was the time to leave, if it wasn't already too late.
She scaled up one side of the scrubber tank in the Atmospheric Processing Complex and down the other.
The metallic groan that rises from the superstructure is loud, cutting through the thick darkness, setting her heart beating even faster.
There was no time to worry. She needed to escape. She shut her fear behind walls of willful forgetfulness and began the journey to the light.
The grumble of the derelict ship reached the soles of the soft boots that barely protected her feet from the sharp metal edges that filled every ship carcass.
The fear refused to remain behind the walls of her mind, rising in her throat, making her heart pound.
She needed to get out, now.
The ventilation shaft rolled under her as she crawls hands and knees, pushing her precious carry sack in front of her.
Moments passed slowly. Hand over hand, she skittered, stopping to push her treasure. She tried to breathe slower, controlling the fear that threatens her.
The sack fell suddenly through the entry hole in the ventilation shaft, taking her breath away as its tether pulled on her belt.
Grabbing the edge of the hole, she swung down to the floor of the ship.
She steadied herself against the bulkhead and a jolt of pain ran up her arm as it rose unexpectedly to meet her.
Splintered metal, mixed with dust and sand, fell in waves as the floor tilted, making her grateful for the goggles made from retrofitted Storm Trooper armor.
As she dashed down the angled corridor, her feet slid on the dusty floor, and she felt her backpack slipping down her back.
No! she screamed internally. Those perfect ECCMs were her ticket to a hot meal and a happy stomach. She refused to lose them.
She stopped for a heartbeat, giving the backpack a bump with her butt, then tugged on the jury-rigged straps, jostling the load up her back until it was comfortable on her shoulders once again.
There was another metal screech, this time above her head. Looking up, she saw the compartment fire door, designed to contain atmosphere during a hull breach had lost its pinning. She was standing directly in its path, certain to be crushed by the dead weight.
Unconsciously, she raised her hands up to protect her head.
Miraculously, the door slowed. Taking her shot, she pushed off from the ‘wrong’ side of the door, just as it slid shut.
Hallway after hallway, she ran now, her backpack canting from side to side with each stride, realizing that any bulkhead might snap shut. She never feared being inside the big ships until now.
As she reached the ragged hole on the side of the ship, she breathed in huge lung-fulls of the hot dusty air that flooded through the breech. She took a moment to rest against the now heavily angled bulkhead wall.
She longed for someone to tell of her near disaster, but she knew that no one would care.
Barsa would only complain about the lost an opportunity to be rid of her least favorite trouble maker.
Moments pass, and the sound of creaking plasteel slowly returns to the uncanny silence.
Despite all, she still had her three ECCM’s. It didn't matter if anyone cares or not. She wasn't dead, wounded, or trapped and she would eat tonight. That was an acceptable outcome.
She rappeled down the wall of the wrecked Star Destroyer, now several feet further from the ground than her belay rope. She had to drop the backpack to the ground, before following, landing crouched in the soft sand.
The shade of the ship was little comfort as the sun passes noon. She pulled her remaining water ration from her belt, sipping it slowly, wondering where she could hide this treasure until she could retrieve it unseen.
If Barsa was true to her usual careless manner, the crew would come for her as the sun was sinking in the sky. That meant she probably had the afternoon to herself.
She mourned the loss of the other ECCMs that still sit in their cradles inside the big ship. She won't be able to get past the bulkheads that have slammed shut.
Her ears picked up the sound of a turbo laser over the whistling desert wind.
She scanned the horizon with her binocs. To the south was the ‘Plaintive Hand’ - a rock formation that had somehow survived the fall of both Imperial and Republic ships during the Battle of Jakku.
Near it was an Imperial installation - a Weapons Facility it was believed, but no one knew for certain because of the guns.
The junk wall was as close as anyone got to the mysterious Imperial installation. Inside would get you dead - and quickly.
She started walking, telling herself she just wanted to see what was going on.
She understood the draw the Weapons facility held, like some forbidden treasure chest. Wouldn’t something so strongly defended contain valuables? Until someone reached the door, it would remain a mystery.
She was smarter than that.
Someone was not. Someone was tempting fate because the sound of the laser canon rang again over the bright golden sand.
Chapter 2: The Emperor's Observatory - Jakku - ABY 24 (5 Years Ago)
Who is challenging death at the Weapons Depot? (Unbeta'd - lost this chapter and had to recreate it.)
The juvenile Jakku steelpecker tilted his wings, catching the currents raised by the rapidly heating surface of the desert below, drawing his body higher. The heat of the sun baked the strong black flight feathers on his wings, and the dry hot wind ruffled his downy breast feathers. Towering plateaus and jutting rock formations dot the horizon coloring the world in stripes of beige, red and yellow.
To the north, a gigantic spaceship carcass lurched out of the sandy dunes, the broken ragged edge of its hull canted into the ground at a drunken angle. Meters away, the rest of the ship lies mashed against the ancient plateau.
This would be an ideal place to call home. It had food, shelter and space where he could raise a new generation of steelpeckers.
Warily, he circled the carcass from a distance, unsure if this prime location was already occupied.
Movement below drew his large sharp eyes. He banked warily, prepared to fight for the right to this territory.
A small human, neither dangerous nor edible in its living form, climbed out of the hole in the side of the ship.
Curious, he tilted his wings, and rode a downdraft to see what else might be there.
Distracted, it was nearly too late when he heard the belligerent clamor of a much larger steelpecker. The razor-sharp beak and grasping talons of his opponent convinced him that he was not strong enough to replace this mature bird. Perhaps when he is stronger, he will return as a viable challenger.
He headed south.
His head throbbed with a rapid pressure change, signaling that a late spring storm lay just beyond the horizon. Even a steelpecker would need to seek cover from the advancing tempest.
Resting on the top of a rock shaped like a human hand, his sharp eye searched for something, anything that would give him shelter.
From his stone perch, a metallic glint nearby drew his eager eye. There to his surprise, was a circle of metal objects. Beyond this strange barrier lay the desiccated remains of dead creatures and the tools they once carried.
A feast as well as refuge!
Circling high above, he noticed the hull of a small ship near a dune. This ship was larger than the one in which he had been raised. It would be just the right place for a young steelpecker to make his nest, to woo a lady bird, and raise up a new generation of chicks.
He does not understand the term ‘picky’ and the concept of luck evades him completely. Food is food, and shelter is shelter, and he would claim this territory as his own.
Joyfully, he sang the traditional war song of his people - the discordant rasping sound like metal being rendered by a food processing system. This belonged to him. Let his song serve as a warning to those who would try to invade his domain.
He dove toward the nearest morsel, extending his claws and flapping his wings to slow his flight. As he descended, he heard his call answered. He’d never heard this call before but it didn’t matter.
This invader must move on or die as his claws and beak tore him apart.
He repeated his war cry.
The thrum of charging batteries, followed by the metallic report of the auto-trigger and the whine of the air sliced by the bolt of a laser cannon cut his call, ripping it from his throat. Cut to bits, his body strewn randomly around the field of the dead, his short life ended, his battle over.
His passing is not unwitnessed.
On a rock nearby, inside the circle of death, a wiry humanoid lifted her head and looked up from her seat on a tattered plasteel plate. The intense Jakku sun once again glinted off her mirrored goggles.
Her graying tunic and hooded desert cloak contrasted gently with the beige sand, with only glint of the intense furnace of Jakku’s sun in the mirrored goggles she wore betraying her position. That same glint had called the young bird to its doom.
No stranger to the coming and going of life, she feels the small sudden ebb of the bird’s presence in the Force. Its life had been cut short but only by moments, the many paths of the force all leading to the same end.
From her place of meditation, she praised the Ashla and the Bogan for their dance of balance. Somewhere another bird lives on, the meager resources of the desert shared.
She raised a gloved hand to push up the goggles that had lead the young bird to its end and turned her head in the direction of the building shrouded by the enveloping sand, its golden doorway only visible beyond.
Under the lenses were only smooth skin where most humanoids had eyes.
Gently, gently, as passively as she could, limiting her scope to the immediate vicinity, she scanned for any disturbance in the Force.
It was imperative that she blend in with the surrounding life, maintaining as neutral a presence in the Force as she could, appearing to any Force Sensitive as if she were human.
He must not know that she’s here. The Guardians would be challenge enough.
The desert wind on which the bird had so recently flown clawed at the fraying gray mask that tried in vain to protecting her from the sting of the scouring sand.
It didn’t matter. She wouldn’t be here long.
Behind her, a wall of forsaken, unusable debris: Tie fighter wings twisted beyond repair, a plasteel bulkhead warped by a fall from the outer reaches of the atmosphere, the shell of an X-Wing fuselage burnt beyond recognition. Once the pride of their respective fleets, these formerly bright objects were reduced by war to scrap, but now served a new purpose. The barricade was the border between the familiar everyday menace of the desert and the far more dangerous space within, where death was guaranteed. Every scavenger knew to stay on the outside. Only the ignorant, the hopeless or the reckless would risk going beyond.
If anyone had seen her, they would have thought her one of those daring fools who sought the prize they imagined was stored inside, or a hesitant suicide, standing inside the line where only the hopeless and the desperate dared to go.
She was none of these. Never reckless, well acquainted with the danger of what lay beyond, her hopes lay at the heart of the deadly laser nest.
But along with the treasure was something far more dangerous than the Turbo lasers that protected what was inside from what was outside.
She must not wake him.
Satisfied that her presence was unremarkable, she rose from her meditation.
She pulled off her gray gloves, exposing slender ebony hands, free of any ornament or ostentation, calloused by the friction of thousands of days of training. One hand dug deep into the worn rathtar leather satchel that hung loosely across her body, drawing out an orb that glistens silver in the blazing hot sunlight. On its surface, a miniscule blue light pulses weakly, nearly invisible against the copper-gold glare of the sand.
Rising gradually, it flew slowly out along a line toward the golden door a hundred meters ahead.
This place had lived in her daily thoughts over the years as she had hopped stealthily between planet and moon and space station, between mining colonies and temples, to the hidden underworld ghettos of stagnant cities and idyllic outer rim hamlets where the children looked at her out of questioning eyes. They’d never seen her kind before, but they brought her fragrant flowers and joyous songs of welcome. Would they have been so kind if they knew who she had been, all the terrible things she had done?
This would be a precision strike, no different than the many missions she had undertaken for her now dead Masters, only this time the mission was her own. Her time was short. Beyond the horizon loomed the storm the natives call X’us R’iia. The scourging sandy wind that plucked at her was only a harbinger of what was to come.
She was resolved. In and out, careful to not disturb what slumbered inside.
Then maybe back to that little village and the children that reminded of her of the one she had been forced to leave behind.
Her feet burned, the penetrating heat only dimmed by the soles of her soft gray boots. Stepping carefully among the desiccated and blackened remains of fools that approached unprepared, she respected their final resting place.
The unrelenting sand caresses the mummified limbs and torsos, covering and uncovering them like a slow tide. Here they remained, untouched, for the living dared not retrieve the dead for fear of joining them.
A hot red beam shot out of a cannon on the roof of the building, ionizing the air in its path and striking the sphere with a violent boom. The device’s shield absorbed the energy, but the blast triggered the device. Seconds later, the orb exploded into a matrix of smaller devices, each carrying the signature of a battle droid.
The cannons spit red death again, a matrix of fury, targeting the smaller devices no less than if they had been an approaching army. Shield-less, these pellets take the brunt of the barrage, exploding into small fiery balls, sacrificing themselves.
Age and lack of maintenance had taken its toll on the machinery. One bank of guns did not fire. The scavengers did not know, and the corpses that littered the ground have no one to hear their whispered secret. The surviving pellets reached out to their fellows, their crystal centers creating a net in the Force, then dropped to the ground and drilled their way into the loose sand.
Another large sphere rose from her right hand. She held her left hand out in the direction of the building, palm out, fingers loosely extended, guiding it with the Force. The sphere moved along the path of the first, passing the along the trajectory that its predecessor marked as safe.
It slowly worked its way toward the sandy dune and the golden door of the Observatory, only to meet the same fate as its companion. The device reminded her of the home world she will never see again, and the cones of the Blazing Conifer found in the Alpheridian High Range – sealed shut, safe from the rasping claws and sticky tongue of the Brazan topher, bursting open when the resinous parent tree bursts into flames, spreading its seed, the tree’s ashes providing nourishment to the seedlings.
Again, air was split and it whined as atoms were torn apart by the red energy of the canon. Again, it found its mark. Again, the sphere exploded into a grid and the components died in tribute to their mission.
The spheres reached the halfway point. They were rare, and they cost her everything she could afford to give. She was left with only the staff, with which she refuses to part.
The remaining devices firmly planted in the sand, she launched a third orb.
This one followed the angle discovered by the second, passing obliquely by an abandoned Lambda class Imperial shuttle that sits a bit more than half way between her and the Observatory. Unlike the debris behind her, the shuttle was perfect except where years of sandstorms had worn away at the colors leaving a drab brown underlayment where once pristine white had once marked it as part of the Emperor’s fleet.
The turbo lasers continued to defend their demesne, destroying the intruders as each successive round approaches the center. They neither knew nor cared that the war had been over for years, or that their Emperor was dead at the hands of his own Apprentice.
She reached out her hand and felt the pinprick presence of the kyber crystal fragments buried in the devices. The web of Force energy, invisible to technology, was a clear path to the sensitive.
The guns remained silent as she carefully stepped on the path that glows in her mind. She whispered another grateful prayer to the Ashla and the Bogan for their guidance as her steps reach the shuttle.
She was familiar with the Observatories scattered throughout the galaxy. This one would be no different. The door was locked with a bio-code will open only to an exclusive list of the Emperor’s closest associates. That list has become mercifully short.
The Emperor and his apprentice were dead. Gallius Rax and his companions had gone to the Contingency. Those remaining were dead, imprisoned, hunted, or mad.
The explosives she carried would take care of the door but they also guaranteed her death if they jostled the broken canon back to life.
Once the door was breeched, she would need to be swift. There would be a few precious moments between the initial explosion and the awakening of the Guardians. Alone, she had little chance of defeating them with her staff. Inside she would find the help that she needs, or she would die in the escape.
She prepared for the fight to come.
What she wasn’t prepared for, here in the middle of the sands of the desert world of Jakku, was a fearful ripple in the Force. The silent voice rang in her head with uncontrolled terror, a mental cry saturated with fear. It carried with it a scent, a flavor, an aura reminiscent of her former life, when her tattered soul was healing, when she had something to live for. The time before the Rending.
She rejected the call. Protecting others was no longer her purpose.
She reminded herself that her goal was more important than a single life. Determined not to be distracted, she continued toward the door.
Her ears, numbed by the increasing howl of the wind, caught the cry that split her resolve.
“No. Leave me alone!”
A child’s cry.
Of course, it would be a child. Only one child mattered.
She wrestled with the altruism that threatened to overshadow her mission.
She was no longer that person, was she?
A second voice boomed over the whistling wind.
“Throw out the garbage, Barsa. Throw her!”
With a sigh, she returned the thermal detonator to the pouch and pulled her goggles back onto her face. Pulling her staff from the where it nestled against her back, she turned and retraced her steps at a run.
The seam of the pouch, having seen her through many a battle, finally gives way in the jostling of her jogging run. The thermal detonator, safety catch still on, slips out the bottom. It rolls, unnoticed, across the sand. It comes to a rest as it taps gently into the helmet that once belonged to a New Republic fighter pilot.
She bargained with herself. She could always return once she has completed this last mission of mercy, once the storm has abated.
But in the back of her mind she knew better. Though she wished otherwise, the Force is not done with her. She has followed this path her whole life, through good and bad, dark and light. Maybe this sacrifice would help repair her broken soul.
Chapter 3: The Sands of the Plaintive Hand Plateau – Jakku – ABY 24 (5 Years Ago)
Curiosity can kill.
Girl couldn’t see much, even when she stopped to put the binocs in front of her eyes. She bargained with herself - just a little further, just until she could see what was happening.
Barsa warned Girl plenty of times not to wander. The distinctive sound of the faulty lift mechanism on Barsa's speeder could be heard from a kilometer away. That would give her time to run back before Barsa knew she had left.
It was probably over already. The cannons never missed. She wondered if it the poor soul was anyone she knew.
Maybe this adventurer had made it to the safety of the Lambda-class shuttle that was rumored to be scuttled right next to the door of the facility.
That’s probably what they were after. It tempted her as well. It was well beyond reach, but one day she would claim it for her own.
She picked up her feet, jogging along now as fast as the sands and the heat allowed her.
That shuttle would more than pay off her indenture and a one-way ticket off planet, Just because her parents abandoned her here didn't mean she had to stay. She could probably pay to fly in stowage, but there was a chance she could impress the Captain with her skills to get her an upgrade or even a place on the crew.
Or maybe she would fly it away herself. Most of the ships here were Imperial, designed for full-sized adults, so it might be a while before she could do that.
She shook her head sadly. Yeah, that would never happen. Lost in thought, she didn’t realize how close she was getting to the wall.
There was a flash of movement as the cannons reported again. She swore she saw someone there, in the shadow of the giant rocks, among the scavenger’s wall of junk that fenced the perimeter of the cannons.
Whoever it was had survived! How?
Temptation balanced against the warning that repeated in her head. Barsa had had enough of Girl’s independence and wouldn’t put up with disobedience again. She should go back now. She turns and looks back at the Ravager, and she realizes that she’s closer to the wall than to the ship. She’s committed now. She might just as well go on. She can still get back if Barsa stays on her usual schedule.
The cannons started again. That’s impossible, she thought. The fool was trying again!
She nearly returned when the guns fell silent again, but a third salvo told her that this was no ordinary attempt on the Weapons Depot. Someone was going to get in!
The sounds of the cannon stopped before she reached the junk wall. Perhaps the brave person had finally met their end. Or maybe they’d made it to the shuttle, or the golden door that sat in the dune. Did it matter? They’d still have to get back out.
Reaching around behind the remains of a Tie-Fighter wing twisted in the perfect shape to hide her valuables, she wrapped her shawl around the ECCM and buried it in the sand below. She jumped up quickly at the unmistakable sound of a speeder crossing the sand, coming in her direction.
There was no mistaking the whine of a speeder – the malfunctioning lift mechanism caused it to lean awkwardly, except when Barsa rode shotgun. It was her ‘minders’ returning, drunk as usual, from wherever they had been lounging.
Somehow, they knew where she was, even though she couldn't be seen behind the wing because the speeder changed its path from the Ravager to where she stood by the wall. She wouldn't be able to deny her wrongdoing this time, and the punishment would be severe. Why couldn’t they be late just this one time?
Barsa’s enormous frame was draped across the passenger seat, Dangti in the pilot’s seat, and the pile of armor and chitin in the back was Kremool. Barsa was the leader of the goons – more than two meters tall, elaborate braids covering bald patches on her scalp, human in name only. She was truly frightening to the band of indentured children Unkar kept as his permanent supply chain.
Girl had nowhere to run, so she stayed, waiting for the inevitable.
“Why aren’t you at the ship, Girl?” Barsa’s booming voice called out as they approached. “Don’t you know it’s dangerous to be going off on your own?”
“Yeah,” agreed Dangti sarcastically, her blue fur rippling in the desert wind. “What if X’us R’iia came for you?”
Girl recognized the tang in the air now. A storm capable of ripping flesh from bone would blow through soon. Soon it would rip through the Wastes, destroying anything in its path.
“There'd be one less mouth to feed, I imagine,” drawled Barsa.
Girl's hands ached as she stood with her fists clenched at her sides, her brain humming with stress. “Someone’s trying to get into the Weapons Depot,” she offered as her excuse.
The trio fell out of the speeder, and Girl sees the determination on their faces. They wouldn't go easy on her this time.
“What a stupid idea. No one’s going in there. Not as long as the cannons are still working.”
Barsa stood over Girl, glaring down like a sand vulture over a corpse.
“We warned you before, but you never learn,” growls Dangti.
Kremool burbled. Its translator, interspersed with static, pronounced, “Girl will not learn lesson. Girl wants to see the guns. Maybe Girl should see the guns.”
Barsa turned to Kremool, an evil grin lighting her scarred face. “What a great idea, Kremool. One less brat to watch and X’us R’iia will guarantee there’s no evidence.”
Girl ran, evading Dangti as the blue-furred Minder chased. Before long, Dangti captured the girl, who kicked as she was dragged back to where Barsa stood.
“I’ve had enough of you, Girl!”
Barsa effortlessly lifted the child, flinging her over her shoulder.
“No! Leave me alone!” Girl cried. Barsa would welcome the chance to be free of her at last.
Kremool darted forward on all four supporting feet, excited, slobber dripping from its mandibles.
Barsa hauled the screaming skinny girl to the border.
Girl wished that Barsa would let her go. There was the shortest of hesitations as she told Barsa, “I bring in a lot of salvage for Unkar. If you hurt me, Unkar will be unhappy!”
“Such a shame that the girl ran off, Unkar. She didn’t know about the storm. We couldn’t stop her. Brats are foolish. Sometimes they die!” Barsa intoned.
Kremool adds, “Dead Girl tells no stories.”
“Too bad you didn’t behave, Girl. You were warned. You will be replaced.”
“Throw out the garbage, Barsa. Throw her!” screeched Dangti, rubbing her hands together gleefully.
“No!” Girl screamed, as Barsa advanced to the barrier. Girl wiggled and snarled, pummelling Barsa’s back uselessly as the brutish Barsa ignoree her attempts to escape.
A loud boom rolled in their ears. The guns which were silent, whined once again.
A cloud of sand blew over everyone as the cannon blasts exploded just beyond the wall.
Barsa hefted Girl into the air, throwing her over the debris, and into the danger beyond the wall.
Girl’s heart thudded in her chest, as she realizes that Barsa really did it this time. Scrambling to climb back over the wall, she watched as red beam lanced toward her, screaming its victory cry as it cut through the air.
And then her feet were no longer on solid ground. Dust clouded her vision, and she was lifted violently into the air.
She found herself flying back over the wall, landing awkwardly on her feet before falling on the ground near Barsa.
Girl’s reappearance was startling.
Girl was grateful the reprieve but didn't know how she could be back on the safe side of the wall.
Barsa was not startled for long. She lunged for Girl, intent on throwing her back into the death zone. Girl screamed, punching and kicking with her little hands and feet, desperate to keep Barsa from throwing her again.
Girl fell backward, crab crawling back until she touched the Tie fighter wing..
From the cloud of dust emerged a shape, humanoid, dressed in worn garments of dusty gray, eyes hidden behind mirrored goggles.
Dangti took a kick to the chest with a loud thud. She landed prone on the ground; her head knocked to the dirt, stunned.
The newcomer held a wooden staff in dark willowy hands. It swung with precision, whistling through the dry, desert air. The staff turned end over end, finally coming to rest under the warrior’s right arm, the left arm extended for balance.
Barsa was not impressed. She reached for her favorite weapon, a glimmering vibroknife, and stood ready to take on this threat. The grin drawn on her face at the prospect of tossing Girl to the guns was replaced with a sneer. Sizing up her opponent, she was confident of her superior strength and size. The stranger, tall, but thin, was not likely to be a match for the much broader and taller Barsa.
The newcomer stood defensively before Girl, separating her from Barsa’s crew.
“I recognize you,” said Barsa, “Didn’t I see you getting off that Ithorian shuttle yesterday? This is not your business, Mirror. Maybe you don’t understand how this works. Girl here,” she pointed at the child whose back is against the wall, “is indentured to Unkar and we are Unkar’s hands. Mind your own salvage!”
“Salvage? Hmm. You are right. This is a matter of salvage. You say this child has an obligation to this Unkar. You are his hands, his servants, the minders of his orphans, are you not? The shepherds of his briang, are you not?”
The stranger's voice wa female but filtered by a droid vocoder.
“Briang?” asked Barsa, “What’s that?”
Kremool’s translator sparked back to life, “Cattle.”
“Cattle. Yeah, that sounds about right. Wrangling orphans is like herding cattle. Wild, smelly cattle that need to be shown their place.”
“Then we agree,” Mirror said. She pointed her staff toward Girl, “You have willingly sent cattle to a place of death. A slaughterhouse. I redeemed her. I claim her life. She is now my salvage.”
“You can't do that!”
“But I have. Your Constable Zuvio would be able to provide judgment in this case, would he not? Or are you afraid of what he would say?"
“You’re going to pay for what you did!”
“The child is alive solely because I saved her. She belongs to me now."
The stranger maintained a warrior stance, guarding her prize.
“Unkar will have your head.”
“I don't think you want Unkar to hear of your failure.”
“He won’t. Because you’re not going to tell him.”
“I would be careful if I were you,” the stranger said, twirling the staff again experimentally.
“I’m not worried about your little staff.”
Barsa held up her vibroknife. “This is my favorite toy, and it likes the taste of blood. Even cuts durasteel. Wood will not protect you. You willing to test it?”
Barsa dashed forward swinging the vibroknife. It connected with the staff between Mirror’s hands, but instead of being sliced, the wood remained whole.
“That’s not possible,” Barsa blurted, eyes wide.
“Don’t believe what you see? Why don’t you come closer so you can see better?”
Mirror advanced on Barsa. The staff connected with an arm, a leg, her back. Barsa was completely outmatched, and her original bravado gave way to anger.
“What are you two doing standing around?” panted Barsa to her crew, “Get her.”
Kremool advanced on chitinous support legs, waving insectoid ‘arms’ each bearing a sharp blade. Dangti got to her feet and shook the sand from her blue fur before attacking from the final angle.
Barsa ran forward again. Mirror’s staff caught Barsa at the wrist, sending the vibroknife humming away. Dangti came in low and was dropped by a quick chop to the head. A reverse of the staff, and Barsa was puking the remains of her liquid lunch over the sand.
A flip of the staff ripped off Kremool's helmet, exposing his eyestalks. Girl saw the opening and grabbed great hand fulls of sand. She ran up to Kremool, tossing the sand directly into his eyes. Kremool gasped and blinked, trying to clear his vision.
“Ah, sand in the eyes. I always forget about the eyes. Useful, child. That was useful,” Mirror chuckled as she spun and hit Kremool’s now vulnerable mandibles.
She turned quickly, stepping on Barsa’s chest plate, pinning her to the sand. Her staff pointed threateningly at Barsa’s neck, she spoke.
“You had your chance to walk away but you chose to fight. This staff is not my only weapon. Knowledge can also be a weapon.”
Mirror swirled her staff as if making that point, “Word at the spaceport, Barsa, is that you peddle parts to the spacers without letting your boss in on the transaction. That you cheat Unkar whenever the opportunity presents. I don’t think he would be pleased to hear that any more than what the girl would say, would he? You’re not sharing nicely.”
“Who told you that? Unkar won’t believe an off-worlder,” spit Barsa.
“Really? You’ve got quite the operation going. There's plenty to see if you know where to look. You trade parts for death sticks and spice, then sell those to desperate scavengers. A word to the right ears would more than dent your business, wouldn’t it?”
Girl didn't know how Mirror knew so much about Constable Zuvio. He and his cousins were the only semblance of Law in Niima and the associated territories. He could not be bribed, and his sense of justice was legendary.
He hated the spice trade, and had buried too many paupers who were slaves to their addictions.
“Take me with you!” begs Girl.
“I cannot take you but I can promise you protection.”
She turns to Kremool, “You’re Granasian. You can feel the storm that’s coming over the horizon.”
“R’iia’s fury will be terrible," agrees Kremool.
“I will be generous. I have no place to care for a child. Legally, Unkar has a right to her services unless she dies or pays off her indenture. Thus, I grant Unkar reasonable use of her labor until her indenture is paid. I accept her obligation as my obligation just as her life is my life. If she is harmed, I will hold you responsible. She will keep your secrets. You will do well not to make me show you what happens to those who cross me.”
Barsa lunged again at the stranger, but was held back by Kremool.
“Your offer accepted,” responds Kremool, nudging Barsa. “No harm done to the child. We take her home now.”
“You do that. I’ll be checking in on her to be sure you do. If any harm comes to her, I’ll be sure that you’re next.”
Barsa grabbed Girl by the scuff, throwing her in the speeder and before she got in herself.
The stranger disappeared back behind the wall of debris.
Chapter 4: The Unknown Regions – The First Order Vessel Sovereign Fury – ABY 24 (5 Years Ago)
Snoke's plan proceeds as Commander Hux begins preparations for Starkiller Base
“Supreme Leader, Barracks J has been eradicated. Their first incursion was a failure. Several of the troopers showed weakness and compassion to the inhabitants of Hays Minor during the extraction.”
Hux stood with a practiced, polished calm exterior, true thoughts buried as deeply as the pits of Mustafar, before the dais where the golden throne sat.
“I see. And how do you plan to deal with this disobedience?”
The Supreme Leader’s voice rolled through the large chamber at the heart of the Star Destroyer Sovereign Fury, echoing off the walls. Supreme Leader’s even tone let him know this was merely a question, not an accusation. When angered, being in his presence was very likely to be painful, if not deadly.
“The whole batch was tainted. Execution was the only appropriate punishment, of course. It is already done. They are to be an example. I’m sure this will instill the correct level of enthusiasm in their comrades.”
“Commander Hux. You have proven yourself again.”
“Thank you, Supreme Leader. Other than this outlier, my conditioning methods have exceeded even my expectations. The training of Group Gamma will commence.”
“You have surpassed your father’s goals. He was a very determined man, but he lacked your conviction.”
“Supreme Leader, may I ask for your intercession with Captain Canady? He questioned the necessity of the bombardment of the mining colony. It would have been wasteful to move the fleet elsewhere to test when the planet was perfectly suitable.”
“Have all usable ores been extracted?”
“Yes, Supreme Leader.”
“Very well then. I will see to it that he is reminded of his place in the Order. His skills are valuable, but he must learn that he serves me, not Palpatine. In fact, it may be time for you to receive your promotion, General Hux.”
A smug sneer appears on the young man’s face, “Thank you, Supreme Leader.”
“Tell me of your pet project, General. I am eager to hear how it is progressing.”
“We have located an appropriate planet in Grid G-7. The Engineers retrieved from Hays Minor have been assigned to begin the preliminary excavations. The first phase will require 5 years, with another two for placement of the thermal oscillator components. I project completion in approximately 10 years.”
“Ours is a long game. Anything else?”
“Yes, Supreme Leader. We were pleased to find that the planet has an unexpectedly high mineral content. Among the valuable assets is a large pocket of Kyber crystals. Additional staff from Hays Minor have been relocated to catalog and excavate the crystals.”
A hum builds at the base of Hux’s brain overriding his ability to think clearly. It is deep and forbidding, unfurling like a dark dagger in the center of his mind. This type of probing is not new to him. Experience tells him that fighting it just leads to pain, and deeper exploration of his thoughts,, something that could have serious repercussions. He forces himself to remain calm, focusing on the recent reports from the planet he thinks of as Starkiller Base, allowing the tendrils to touch the surface of his recollections without hinderance.
Hux’s eye is drawn to the recess behind the Supreme Leader’s throne, where the Supreme Leader’s attendant ‘Navigators’, the source of his discomfort, hover. The creatures’ normal low murmur deepened significantly at Hux’s news. Normally quiescent, the drone that usually indicates their presence intensifies, becoming a deep unsettling thrum that reverberates in Hux’s ears, sending a wave of discomfort down his spine and into the soles of his carefully polished boots.
Hux gathers his control, fighting the panic he feels as one glides forward, its purple robe hiding the movement of its feet, giving it an inhumanly smooth gait on the reflective floor.
Gratefully, the creature approaches the throne rather than Hux. It bows slightly as it turns, ignoring completely the deadly weapons borne by the Supreme Leader’s Praetorian Guard.
Praetorian guards were Hux’s elite soldiers. Their high level of conditioning should have made them loyal - to Hux - even to death.
But those same Navigators with their strange mind control had twisted that loyalty, removing their humanity, making them the unerring warriors his best conditioning could never match. These soldiers who had been among the first indoctrinated by his own father, Brendol Hux, no longer even recognized him unless the Supreme Leader bade them to.
The unsettled feeling is replaced by pure jealousy. These creatures achieved in moments what years of patient conditioning could not create.
Leader Snoke raises a hand, the single black crystal embedded in a chunky ring shines briefly as he indicates to the Navigator that its concern has been noted.
“Excellent, General. The largest and best Kyber crystals are to be delivered to my personal storage hold. The rest will be used to power the weapon.”
Satisfied, the Navigator returns to its station in the shadows behind the scarlet curtains that line the periphery of the hexagon.
Hux breathes again.
“It is already done,” responds Hux with an ingratiating grin, pleased to have anticipated the Supreme Leader’s request.
“Finally, General Hux, there is the matter of the mole. Is she in place?”
“Yes, Supreme Leader. Her conditioning is complete.”
“And she will perform her duty when called upon?”
Hux didn’t trust this wizardry, but that is not the question his leader asked. He knew the only true conditioning took time and technology, not this magic “Force.” He would not be responsible if she failed.
“Your companions are quite thorough, Supreme Leader. No amount of Jedi trickery will be able to ascertain the truth. She truly believes that she was abandoned on that hellhole. He will not be able to resist her story.”
“Good, good. She will insinuate herself with young Solo, and when the time is right, she will be the lynch pin that turns him to the Dark Side. He will be my ultimate weapon.”
“The boy is a weapon?”
“He is no longer a boy, but nearly a Jedi Knight.”
“A Jedi as a weapon against Jedi?”
“Ah, but that is the delicious part, General. Much like Palpatine, I have spent years setting up the playing pieces. He will never be a Jedi. But neither will he be a Sith. He will follow a path of my choosing, as my apprentice.”
Hux really didn’t understand the subtleties of the religions of the Force. He listened as attentively as possible, given the consequences of not listening, but he really didn’t see the difference.
“Skywalker is unsure of the boy’s suitability, and his uncertainty has stunted the boy’s true vocation. Skywalker’s reluctance to allow Solo to participate in the Jedi Trials will be his downfall. His uncertainty will be his undoing. I have stoked the spark of the boy’s anger. His failure at the Trials will fan the flame that will lead to the end of the last Jedi Temple. Above all, blame will fall squarely on the Master.”
The Supreme Leader relaxes back onto his throne, waving his arm to accentuate his point.
“The boy is truly special. Never before have I seen such raw power. My companions and I have prepared him since infancy, much like you prepare your troops for battle. Now go prepare your troops. They must be ready when the time is right.”
“It will be as you command, Supreme Leader.”
“Excellent. You are dismissed, General Hux.”
Chapter 5: Skywalker's Jedi Academy - ABY 24 (5 Years Ago)
Ben Solo is not safe from Supreme Leader Snoke's plan, even at the Jedi Academy.
His ears were ringing. Not the vibration that shakes every molecule of your being when entering lightspeed, or the intimidating, distinctive drone of a lightsaber mid-arc, or the alarming sound of a broken lift mechanism on a speeder bike, but a discordant grating unlike any he could remember, setting his jaw on edge.
Then, pain. A punishing throb from the center of his skull, radiating to each eye. Unconsciously, he pressed a hand against his temples, only to find cold wetness dripping from the top of his close-cropped black hair. It slipped down the back of his head, following the path of his Padawan braid, before dripping, drop by drop, to the ground.
The darkness was so complete, it was as if he didn’t even have eyes.
Throwing his left hand out in front of him, he gathered the energy of the force, searching his surroundings for danger. Despite his confused state, he found nothing nearby that could be a threat. His safety assured, he changed his search to determine where he is.
Again, he reached out with the Force, looking for light.
A dim glow rose from two meters away, illuminating the space between.
Slowly his eyes adjusted to the low light, and he recognized the shape of his work desk and sleeping mat unrolled on the floor.
His own room at the Jedi Academy. Home. Or as close as he has to it.
In his head, he heard a voice. The voice. The voice that has lived in his head ever since he learned what words were. Not the usual refrain of fear, anxiety and anger, but a soothing, “Everything is normal. Nothing is wrong.”
Something else pricked at the back of his mind, elusive, chained away from his conscious thoughts, struggling to be free of the bindings that trap it out of reach. Everything is not normal. Something is very wrong.
“Focus on the here-and-now,” reminded that voice in his head, the sensible calm admonition eerily out of character.
It is a lie! shouted that something from the depths of his mind, in a voice so small that it might go unheeded if he were not so practiced in self-reflection. At self-loathing. There is something he needs to remember. Something important. Remember!
The infuriating ringing in his ears and throbbing ache in his head refuse to be soothed, increasing in tempo with the shouting of the little voice. The floor wobbled underneath him, his normally solid steps as unsteady as a toddler just learning to walk.
The minute voice from the back of his mind broke through the painful haze for just one moment, one final push before it is silenced.
Someone else is here! Beware!
He sensed nothing, just the infernal buzzing that steals all thoughts, urging him to stop.
Maintaining his guard, he scans the room, and finds no one.
He called on his Jedi training, steadying his pulse and clearing his head. As his balance returned, he swung the door closed, shutting out the icy rain.
His cloak was still on the peg behind the door, where he placed it, sodden, after returning from evening fight practice. He touched it. It was dry.
Rattled, he looked down at his chrono to the implausible - it is now midnight. When he last checked it, it was early evening. Four hours lost. No memories remain of that time.
This was a new nightmare to add to his collection. His life has been filled with nightmares, visions and voices, but this was something new. He had never lost time before, never forgotten where he had been, or what he has done.
Calling on the room lights, he checked for signs of a struggle.
The room seemed untouched. Nothing was out of place.
Fearing the worst, he looked down, and felt his arms for bruising or strains, finding no injuries or blood.
His or anyone else’s. Maybe this time the monster stayed in its cage. Maybe this time, no one else was hurt.
It did not make him feel better. He is Jedi trained, and powerful. There are so many ways he is dangerous, so many ways he could cause harm that don’t leave a mark. An unstable, worthless monster, with more power than he deserves.
The voice told him many times that the Academy is his cage, an excuse to get him away from the densely populated Hanna City, away from the unknowing masses that would suffer at his hands. Away from the embarrassment that he has been and continues to be to his family. He knew better. They try to be kind, but they can’t hide the truth that is his malady.
He was sent here because only Uncle Luke understood his growing power. Only Uncle Luke had the power to stop him. To control the monster.
Here, in the middle of the plains of Marular, on a sparsely settled world in the Outer Rim.
The little voice at the back of his mind was silent, but he feels that something is missing. Something he’d wanted badly was now gone. If he only knew what.
One thing at a time. Breathe. Good. Now what is it?
His calligraphy set, data pad, and diary sat waiting for him at his desk. The Compass, the project Uncle Luke had set for him, had not moved from the corner under the now illuminated desk lamp.
He looked down at his hands. Bare. His gloves were gone. Fear crawled up his spine, set him searching.
His ungainly feet regained their surety, and he prowled the small room looking for them.
It was a wonder he had found them in the first place as they sat, dusty and unnoticed, tucked on a shelf in an obscure shop at Black Spire Outpost a single light jump from where he now stood.
The shopkeeper seemed surprised to see them but was more than willing to sell them for a ridiculous price. After a spot of haggling, the gloves found their way onto his belt until he could study them further.
They were simple brown gloves that, other than their unusual size – just right for his hulking hands - seemed perfectly normal.
They were there, on the floor near his desk, crumpled.
Picking them up reverently, he slipped them on.
Their effect was instantaneous and miraculous. The roiling emotions around him – the nightmares and dreams of his fellow Padawans, the vicious hunt of the nocturnal raptors, the timorous fear of its prey – snapped shut in an instant, bringing him closer to . . . normal.
He took them off again, folding them and placing them on his desk. He didn’t need them here in the safety of his own room, but he could no longer imagine leaving without them.
He walked to his wardrobe and snatched up a towel. He ran it over his sodden hair, trying to ward off the chill, finally tucking it around his neck.
The hum in his brain slowly faded. He found that he could concentrate again, pulling fragmented memories from the woolen darkness of his mind.
Walking back from the evening fight practice in the main hall, black mud sucking at his boots in the incessant rain that was so common on the plains.
Hanging his cloak at the door.
His evening routine of exercise, writing, and meditation.
The memories from here were fuzzy. An unwelcome visitor? An argument. Loss of control.
He sat at his desk, trying to drag the thoughts out of the murk.
Think! It’s important!
“The shuttle!” he unexpectedly said, the sound of his voice ringing unexpectedly in the silence. “What happened at the shuttle? Sana?”
SOMETHING IS WRONG.
SOMEONE was here.
There was a shadow near the door . . .
He woke with his head on his desk, head aching as if he had spent his evening binge drinking, rather than studying the ancient texts that sat on his desk next to the ancient Compass Uncle Luke had tasked him with studying.
His gloves sat nearby, neatly folded.
His eyes hurt all the way to the center of his brain, probably the result of an evening of intense concentration.
His chrono told him what he already knew – he’d fallen asleep with his head in the Jedi texts. Again.
Half past midnight.
Around the compound, Ben felt the mental murmurs of the sleeping residents of the Temple. His sleeping mat seemed to welcome him as he walked, with an unusual lack of grace, to his mat. He chalked it up to the effects of his ‘nap.’
He settled into meditation, slowing his pulse and drawing on the Force.
He reached out. Even across the lightyears, her presence was bright in the Force. Mother. Untrained, she didn’t feel him watching out for her from afar, doesn’t know that he forgave her and understood why she sent him here. What else could she do when he had betrayed her trust, had exposed the secret of his power to the galaxy?
He was relieved to find her safe, her mind calm. He withdrew the seeking tendril. For now, there was peace. For a moment, it almost felt like she sensed his presence, reaching out to touch him in return. His concentration was shake for a moment. That had never happened before.
A warmth like a flickering candle glow grew in his chest. The air seemed to muffle. His awareness of the life forms around him, from the tiniest microbe to the skitter mouse that lived under his hut, to the stalking nocturnal creatures in the forest nearby faded as if someone had placed a blanket of silence around him.
A connection across time and space. Not his mother then. Someone else. He felt her.
“The girl,” he whispered to himself.
There is a short-lived feeling of. . . satisfaction? nearby. He should chase it down, but he was unwilling to let this connection go.
The girl that lived in his dreams, the rare dreams that felt strangely prophetic, the ones that caused his heart to race, the ones where he feels accepted despite who he is. He could almost see her – near his age, with soft brown hair and hazel eyes, a staff across her back. Not some pampered Senator’s daughter who sought the political connection to Senator Leia Organa or scion of some throne who desired the lineage of Ben Solo- Organa, Prince of the late lamented planet of Alderaan, more than his heart. But someone who earned her own place, someone worthy, and even more than that . . . a warrior! He felt her power in the Force . . . she truly was his equal!
The sky darkened, and rain poured out of the darkness, black mud, not unlike the mud outside his own door, surrounded her. Her planet reminds him of this very world. Could she be here, somewhere on this planet? No, he chided himself. He feels everything around him. The blazing powerof her presence would have called him before. So she was somewhere else.
A cold breeze brushed his cheek like a door had opened and shut. Was it the dream, or was it reality?
The red licking flames lighted the surroundings, a battlefield, and she stood undeterred as a massive warrior advances on her. His heart leapt. She was so strong, but her staff was no match for the blade of the terror that approaches. She needs help!
A second warrior, black-clad and masked, even more immense than the one that threatened the girl, advanced. His red lightsaber crackled and spit, lighting the black and chrome mask with an eerie light that made him seem even more intimidating.
Sith? He wondered. Was this blade a relic of the past, a found saber whose crystal he had won over? Impossible. The Sith were long gone.
His pulse raced, his muscles flexed, scream for him to take action. He wanted to save her, but he knew he was just an observer – trapped in his own time and space.
His view shifted. The lightsaber was now IN HIS OWN HAND. The glow of the cross guard illuminatee a black glove.
He wore the skin of the Dark Warrior. He’s never heard of a Force ability like this – to control another’s body – but so much Lore has been lost, he couldn’t say if this is unnatural.
It didn't matter. This was his opportunity.
His practice with a real saber was limited, but he has been training since childhood. It will have to do.
There was no time to admire the heft of the weapon or to gain an understanding of its swing. It was much heavier than he anticipated, and he adjusted his grip.
A quick, dirty thrust was all he had in his arsenal. But was enough. He ran the unsuspecting warrior through, piercing organ and bone, dropping the warrior to the ground.
She looked on, stunned at what he had done.
He thought at her, knowing she wouldn’t be able to hear him, “Run. I’ll find you.”
He will find her. He must find her. First, he would deal with the knot of warriors that stand in the beating rain behind him. There were six of them, each carrying a weapon from different species and planet, all equally deadly.
Strangely, they did not move with or against him during this entire episode. He prepared to fight.
One of the figures approached him, weapon idle. A young man’s voice said, “He had it coming, Master. He ignored your orders. What of the girl? Is she the one we need to capture?”
The words that come from the warrior’s throat surprised him.
“Leave her. She’s nobody.”
It was his own voice but the man was not surprised.
Perhaps this was part of the projection. He heard his own voice but the soldier heard the voice of his master.
“As you wish, Master.”
The vision faded, disappeared. He strained to stay connected to her as he felt the link drop, leaving an emptiness. He felt the very essence of her mind – her loneliness, mirroring his own. Would she be able to see beyond the monster that he is, beyond the imprint the nightmares have left on his soul?
Chapter 6: In the Sands of the Plaintive Hand Plateau, ABY 24 (5 Years Ago)
The Battle of Jakku had many casualties, both organic and mechanical. One has waited for this day for a long time. . .
In the desert of Jakku, buried deep in the sand among the widely scattered guts of an Imperial walker, a scrap of consciousness sits. A trickle of power – nearly depleted - to the sensor is the only sign it is dormant, not dead.
It is waiting for something, but the bits it requires to parse that information are tucked away in archive storage, not currently vital to the mission.
It is little more than a processor attached to a data core on a memory board, a sensor array and the remains of what might have once been a metal skull. It knew it was not whole, its appendages blown away by the explosion that left it buried deep in the sand as the remnants of the Empire fought the New Republic during the Battle of Jakku.
A raw signal spirals along the few electric nerves that remain undamaged.
Ping: Delta Group Leader Five. Roll call begins. EndTrans.
Ping: DGL to Delta Fiver One Seven. Status report. EndTrans. Response: Delta Fiver One Seven. Roger, roger. EndTrans.
Ping: DGL to Delta Fiver One Eight. Status report. EndTrans. Ping: Delta Fiver One Eight. Roger, roger. EndTrans.
Ping: DGL to Delta Fiver One Niner. Status report. EndTrans. Ping: Delta Fiver One Niner. Roger, roger. EndTrans.
Ping: DGL to Delta Fiver Two Zero. Status report. EndTrans. Ping: Delta Fiver Two Zero. Roger, roger. EndTrans.
Ping: DGL to Delta Fiver Two One. Status report. EndTrans. Ping: Delta Fiver Two One. Roger, roger. EndTrans.
A surge of electric joy – the song of his people!
The roll call continues. Hundreds of B1 Battle Droids. In formation, in radio range.
His processor recalls the formation, the hum of preparation, the inclusiveness of the battalion.
Ping: Delta Group Leader Five. Roll call concludes. Roger, Roger. EndTrans.
He only needs to trigger the recovery beacon, and they will come, to rescue him from where he has lain for processing cycles uncounted.
Query: Primary Processor to Torso Hardware. Message: Activate recovery beacon. Send Message. EndTrans. Message sent. EndTrans.
Timeout. No response from Torso Hardware. EndTrans.
Query: Primary Processor to Spine Hardware: Message: Autonomic Repair Mode. Send Message. EndTrans. Message sent. EndTrans.
Timeout. No response from Spine Hardware. EndTrans.
Query: Primary Processor to Sensor Array. Message: Scan for Torso. Send Message. EndTrans. Message sent. EndTrans.
Query: Sensor Array to Primary Processor: Message: Scan in progress. Send Message. EndTrans. Message sent. EndTrans.
His joy is short-lived.
Ping: Delta Control Group Leader Five. Incoming Fire reported. EndTrans.
Ping: Delta Fiver Six One. Delta Fiver One Seven and Delta Three Four Niner no longer responding. EndTrans.
Ping: Delta Fiver Two One. Incoming fi . . .
Ping: DGL to Delta Fiver Two one. Report. EndTrans.
Ping: DGL Five. Squadron regroup and report. EndTrans.
The signatures blink out in ones and twos and threes, violently silenced.
Someone is performing violence.
Shaken from low power mode, the memories stored for safe keeping begin to surface. Some crucial data is completely erased by corrosion. Other information can remain in long term storage – knowledge of puppetry will not help it escape from its tomb.
Tension hums in the Battle Droid circuits. Somewhere, there is violence. Somewhere his comrades are being destroyed.
It waits, attuned to the readings, on constant alert. Precious energy is wasted, boosting the sensor to full range.
And then there is radio silence. No ping, no reports, no “EndTrans.” No command to return to base. Nothing.
As if the battalion never existed.
A tingle flows over the processor core.
Query: Power Control to Primary Processor. Message: Energy Levels Critical. Reduce load or shut down. Send Message. EndTrans. Message sent. EndTrans.
Query: Primary Processor to Power Control. Message: Acknowledge. Resume Low Power Mode. Send Message. EndTrans. Message sent. EndTrans.
Query: Primary Processor to Sensor Array. Message: Halt scan for Torso. Begin Low Power mode. Send Message. EndTrans. Message sent. EndTrans.
Query: Sensor Array to Primary Processor: Message: Low Power mode commences. Report dangerous atmospheric low-pressure area approaching. Send Message. EndTrans. Message sent. EndTrans.
Perhaps that is what is destroying the nearby battalion.
A song leaks out of long-term memory. A memory comes from the song. A boy and his bantha.
The song repeats. The words shift. The song repeats. The words shift.
Without warning, the sand above shifts, swirls, syphons. A whirling maelstrom pulls at the sandy tomb, plucking the bit of metal and wire out of its cradle, sending it into the air.
The wind lifts it, again and again. Finally, it crashes to the ground, far from where it had lain for years.
Free at last of the constraints, it scans the area.
Autonomic Repair Mode overtakes the primary registers in the storage processing unit. All other processes are shunted to secondary queues.
The average battle droid would have settled for waiting.
This battle droid, its memory banks full of alternate, improved programming, will not wait. Somewhere, its master needs it.
It begins to sing the song, a song that would have been discordant even when his vocoder was whole.
The song competes with the wind that howls, threatening to cover it again with sand.
The wind fades.
The sun rises, furiously hot, and the droid’s sensors detect motion in the vicinity.
The song continues, a crazy lilting melody, no longer the story of the boy and the bantha he lost, but now the story of the boy and the droid he found then lost, who returned to find his master was now a man. This is not a child’s song. It is a song of bravery and perseverance. Of hope and despair. Of love lost and found.
This is a story that begs to be an opera.
He fashions its first aria.
Query: Sensor Array to Primary Processor: Message: Motion detected. Life form approaching. Send Message. EndTrans. Message sent. EndTrans.
A single eye lights briefly as sensor array captures the approaching creature.
Query: Primary Processor to Data Core. Message: Review sensor data and determine danger level. Send Message. EndTrans. Message sent. EndTrans.
The creature is reptilian, wrapped in sandy bandages, leading a lumbering luggabeast.
Query: Data Core to Primary Processor. Message: Sensor data indicates Teedo, reptilian native of planet Jakku. Danger level minimal. Send Message. EndTrans. Message sent. EndTrans.
The teedo pokes at the hawk-like battle droid skull, determining it is not currently dangerous.
The world teeters back and forth violently as the teedo shakes the Battle Droid skull, probably in an attempt to discourage the discordant sound. In response, the droid increases the volume of the harsh trill.
Unable to quiet his prize, the teedo drops it in the carry sack and attaches it to the back of the luggabeast.
The droid studiously ignores the attempt to silence it, belting out the gleeful aria with abandon.
Teedo knows exactly who will buy this, and he is eager to be free of the pain in his ears.
Chapter 7: Niima Spaceport – Fuel Depot - ABY 24 (5 Years Ago)
The whole trip back from the Weapons Depot, Girl plotted her escape from Barsa. She did not believe for a minute that Barsa feared the stranger, or that the stranger really meant her offer of protection.
Briang. Cattle. She was nothing. Nothing to Barsa. Nothing to Unkar. Nothing to Mirror.
Most definitely nothing to her parents, who had dumped her into this life when she was still a child.
No one would care if she lived or died, so she would have to look out for herself.
Sharp impulses ran up and down her nerves as adrenaline pumped through her system, hate building in her mind as she relived the scene from the Depot in her head on a loop.
Behind her goggles, her eyes were narrowed in anger as Niima’s Arch appeared over the sand speeder windshield.
Pedestrians dodge the speeder as Dangti angles in behind Unkar’s tent. The wind was picking up speed, howling through the erstwhile streets of Niima, driving sand before the storm edge, already obscuring vision. The Narquois hops out of the speeder, pulls the canopy shut, and anchors the speeder in the storm bay.
Girl stomps off toward the ‘dormitory’ where Unkar houses his ragged orphans. But instead of opening the door to relative safety, she skirts quickly around the corner, and out into the heart of Niima. No one would count the orphans, and unless one of the crew dwelled on the recent scuffle, no one would notice she was gone until it was too late for them to go looking for her.
She could feel the storm brewing, the pressure in her head telling her that this was bigger than any storm she had previously experienced.
For a moment, the stranger pops into her head. Would Mirror know enough to take shelter? She seemed to know based on her conversation with Kremool, but even natives might be taken in by this storm. She’d lived on Jakku her whole life, but she’d never had to be out in the storm. The one benefit of working for Unkar. He provided for his indentured children.
Like cattle. Expendable cattle.
A shift in the wind off the desert turned the limited visibility into darkness.
She runs, pulling up the fabric she usually wore around her shoulders into a makeshift cowl, desperately hoping she could keep the blistering blowing sand out of her mouth, nose, and eyes.
She reaches out desperately for anything anchored to the ground, that would keep her inside the Niima limits. It would be so easy to miss the markers and wander out onto the sands, where she’d never be seen again. X’us R’iia had claimed many, even from the relative safety of Niima.
She reconsiders her choice to leave. No one would know she was gone, and even if they did, Barsa would never take a chance going out in this to find her. She was probably drinking, safe in the Niima Tavern. Fear knots her stomach as she realizes that alone as she had always felt, right now she was completely on her own.
The cowl slips down her face, obscuring what little vision she had to start with. She releases the grip on her recently patched heavy fabric satchel, to pull her mask back into place.
As the fabric came away from her goggles, she sees a blue glow - storm static - playing along her fingers. Storm static is beautiful - harmless personal lightning bolts like a child’s plaything - but it was a sure sign that the storm would be one to remember. Mesmerized by the blue lights, she comes up short when her knee knocks hard on something. Her torso kept moving, slave to physics, nearly throwing her on a pile of. . .
Fuel containers. Empty ones, she hoped. Storm static and ungrounded Kesium gas containers were a tragedy waiting to happen.
That meant she was near the Spaceport, most likely at the Fuel Depot. Much further West, and she would have missed the canisters completely. There was only the rare spaceship still grounded between her and the waiting arms of X’us R’iia. She was incredibly lucky to have found that. BZ9-L1, a very unique and ancient droid, manages the Depot. If she could reach the old Imperial Shuttle that served as the Depot headquarters, she knows BeeZee will let her stay until the storm passed.
He has seemingly unlimited stories of the Jedi, and the Sith, and the galaxy since the Old Republic. She’d patiently listen to any rusty old story he’d like to tell if it meant she was safe on the old ship.
The winds off the Graveyard often carried with them detritus from the ships – she knew immediately when the color of the sand changed from reddish brown to blue that the storm carried RecyOx, the fine dust that captured oxygen for recycling from one of the large ships, maybe even from the Ravager itself. She’d need to find shelter, and fast. The particles would spread quickly in this wind, capturing all the oxygen from the air. She’d need to make it to the toolshed or the Depot, or things were going to go downdune fast.
She was soon lost among the maze of fuel cannisters in the blistering suffocating winds. She couldn’t ever remember there being quite so many cannisters. They are a maze on a good day. Now, they are a labyrinth, pulling her to her unknown fate.
Hand over hand, she followed a line of containers, hoping against hope that none of the containers still had enough gas to ignite. If one container exploded, they all would.
She walked straight into a post with her bent head. She was boxed into to a dead end.
Tremors run through her hands and her knees become weak as the day’s adrenaline rush took its toll on her. She sinks, exhausted, to the sand, curling up into a ball against the post.
The sand begins to pile around her as the containers check the sand’s swirl. She scrambles to brush the sand that is now layered over her legs, but the effort leaves her even more breathless. The air grows stale inside her cowl, and she struggles to pull air into her lungs. In the fog of her mind, it occurs to her briefly that she may be suffocating. Her head feels fuzzy and she can’t think straight.
A calm dreaminess fills her mind, removing the panic that was driving her rapid shallow breaths.
Then she heard it, not with her ears, which ring with the whining wind, but deep in her mind. It forces a calming stillness that was not her own.
The voice. The voice that appeared in her dreams since she was a child. The voice that lulled her to sleep when no other one would. But it was different this time.
Usually, it reassured her, “I’ll come back, sweetheart. I promise.” Now it said, “Stay there. Remain calm. Quiet, slow breaths. I’m coming for you.”
Panic gone, she reaches with her remaining strength into her satchel and pulls out a rag doll. Captain Raeh is scared. She needs comforting.
She imagines the sound of a droid, beeping angrily at her. Even the droids order her around.
“No, stupid droid. Leave me alone.”
Damage imminent. Interface required. Escalating to command queue.
The droid was actually there, not a dream. It reaches to the post above her head, and presses the button on a comm.
“What is it now, Hil?” spoke a voice from the other end of the comm circuit.
Female human detected. Interface required. Danger level 3.
“Danger Level Three? What have you found, Hil?” asks a voice in a smooth Core World accent.
Hil pokes Girl with an appendage.
“I told you to leave me alone, you idiot!” she mumbles.
“Girl? Girl is out in this storm?”
Affirmative. Danger Level 3. Interface assistance required. Female human is immobile.
The voice on the comm speaks to her.
“Child. Listen to me. Follow Hil. Come inside the Depot.”
Her voice slurs with sleep, “Hi, BeeZee. Can you tell me a story?”
“Yes, Girl. I’ll tell you a story. Come inside, and I’ll tell you the story of the brave Captain Raeh, who saved Niima during the Battle with the Empire.”
“Ooh, that’s my favorite. I’m just going to nap for a bit, then you can tell me the story.”
“No, no, child. That’ won’t do. I need you to get up and follow Hil. He’ll get you into the Depot and I’ll give you a full portion.”
Food. She is so hungry, but her stomach couldn’t override the fuzzy sleepiness in her brain. Nah, she’d rest first.
“Hil? Where’s Hil?”
“He's right in front of you. Follow him.”
“Okay. I see Hil. I'm going to sleep now.”
“Oh, this won’t do at all. I’m sorry, Girl, but I can’t come out to get you. You need to go with Hil. The storm is too strong. If you don’t come inside, you’d die.”
“Don’t worry, BeeZee, I won’t die. Just going to take a nap.”
“I am so sorry, Girl. Hil, activate Defense Mode Alpha.”
Defense Mode Alpha activated. Danger level two.
“Yes, Hil, you are surrounded by Kesium gas containers. I recommend accuracy.”
“The girl, Hil. One bolt, ¼ power.”
A buzzing sound and the sting, like the sting of a sand bee, draws Girl’s attention to her shoulder. Hil is poking her, and it stings.
She grunts sullenly at the sudden pain.
“Stop it. That hurt! Let me sleep.”
¼ power mode insufficient.
“You’re right Hil, it is not enough. Repeat, ½ power.”
Pain rocked through her shoulder where the droid had poked her. Her eyes popped open, and she could see the glowing yellow eyes of the HL2 droid. A burning hatred grew in her center, anger and righteous indignation. She hated that droid with all her remaining strength. She imagines sending the bolt of energy back at the droid, payback for the pain it had inflicted on her. It rolls back as energy sizzled around its head.
She’d never seen storm static that strong before.
Controller board damage detected.
The only binary she understood was affirmative and negative. It didn’t matter now. This was a fine place to sleep. She’d take BeeZee up on his offer of food tomorrow.
Controller board damage detected.
“Girl. You must get inside!”
BeeZee’s normally unflustered tone took on an unusual urgency.
Suddenly, she finds herself lifted into the air, hoisted into the arms of someone wearing mirrored goggles.
Involuntarily, she gasps behind her veil as she rises above the blue particles
Hil beeps frantically, his beeps and whistles no longer making sense, complaining about intruders.
Girl’s doll falls from her arms.
“Captain Raeh! I can’t leave Captain Raeh!”
The stranger reaches down to allow Girl to scoop up the doll and loses her vocoder into the sand. There’s no time to retrieve it.
Girl is carried up the ramp of the repurposed Imperial Lambda class shuttle, half buried on the edge of the Spaceport. It was old – older than the Battle of Jakku, and years of sand had blasted and buried it. The hatch opens, and she is carried in, followed by Hil.
BZ9-L1 waits behind the counter, manipulator arm still touching the Comm.
“Thank you for rescuing Girl.”
Girl is placed on the padded side bench.
The stranger turns, removes her hood and exposes a dark face with faint striations like scars or tattoos.
BeeZee’s yellow eyes scan the stranger.
“Ah, you’re back, my old friend.”
“I was sure you were dead.”
“Apparently not. But neither are the ones that captured me. I hope my compassion doesn't return to haunt me.”
She peels off the outer garment, setting it on a chair next to the counter.
“Hmm. We shall see, won’t we? Jakku is a bit of a dangerous choice, isn’t it?” he says, returning to his usual perch behind the counter.
“There was no choice. It is time.”
“Good. That’s very good. I’d like to return to my original torso. This one is rather too modern, and I’ve had no end of trouble with this motivator,” he says, tapping the offending appendage, eliciting a low metallic thrum. “They don’t make them like they used to. What about the girl?”
Girl slits one eye open, listening to the conversation.
“I will do this without her. I’ve grown accustomed to working alone.”
“You can’t do this alone. You need a helper. She needs a teacher. Sounds like a perfect arrangement to me.”
“She is safer without me.”
“I do not agree. It is only a matter of time before she unknowingly shows Niima outpost what she’s capable of. You know Unkar would sell her in a heartbeat, to someone who would use her talent for less scrupulous purposes. I’ve been able to keep her safe until now, but. . .”
“Thank you for watching her. It is my shame. . .”
“It was not your fault. Besides, I no longer have younglings to teach. Watching her gives me purpose.”
The stranger turns her attention from the droid to the Girl.
“You must rest, Girl.”
She raises a hand toward Girl as if laying a gentle palm on her head.
A warm buzzing passes through Girl's mind, as her eyes become heavy.
Sleep, a voice seems to say inside her mind. Rest.
Girl fights the insistent order. She wants to hear more, but she has never been this tired before, even after the longest day in Unkar’s service.
She heard BeeZee's comment, a fading sound as she passed into sleep, “Here we are again. . . a Jedi, a droid and a youngling. I seem to recall that’s how all this started.”
“I am no Jedi, Master Huyang.”
"And no one calls me Master, my dear Mira. I am BZ9-L1, master of the Fuel Depot."
And then sleep, an irresistible wave, pulls Girl under.
Chapter 8: The Jedi Temple at the Crystal Cave - Ilum – BBY 19 (44 Years Ago)
Shortly after the fall of the Jedi Temple on Coruscant
Smoke fills her nose. Heat burns the exposed skin of her face as fire spreads uncontrolled beyond the last remaining wall. Lasers whine overhead, the shockwave pulsing ozone as their energy pounds the permacrete. The scent of death and blood fill the air, leaving no respite for those defending the city.
It should have filled her with fear, but she feels only duty.
Bodies, some clad in white armor, some in rags, some still twitching, some just still, some moaning in agony, some crawling for their lives - the tattered remnants of the battle, strewn in the mud on a field on a planet where she had never stood before this day.
Without warning, the lasers cease, and her ears ring with the sudden silence. A figure in black armor accentuated by an ominous cape with an angular helmet glinting in the fading light appears, his footsteps ringing across the now silent the battlefield, the thrum of his red lightsaber the only sound above the now diminished cries of the wounded and dying.
A Sith Lord. She feels his presence, radiating the Dark energy of the Force.
She walks more calmly that she feels, a full-grown warrior, her green lightsaber held guarded, hoping against hope that she can persuade him to see reason. He is more powerful that anyone she has ever met. . . save one. The fight is not a long one – her saber training had been long ago been curtailed, and her attempts to sway his mind are met with a bone chilling cold wall that sucks the heat from her soul. The end is mercifully quick, despite his reputation. She feels the black nothingness shroud her. From the darkness, the wail of a newborn. It seems to go on for hours, but finally the cry quiets pitifully as the abandoned babe succumbs to the forces of nature. The galaxy is shrouded in fire, smoke and blood as a new enemy strikes from beyond known space. The Empire is broken and the New Republic unwilling to militarize, leaving the peoples of the Galaxy susceptible to the encroaching evil.
She walks more calmly than she feels, a full-grown Luka Sene, her hands empty of any weapon, the ring of her faith in the Force glinting in the fading light. His mind is a bone chilling wall, and despite her years of training, she cannot breech it. She recognizes the strength of his Force Signature. It can’t be him, can it? The end comes mercifully quick, despite his reputation. Black nothingness shrouds her. Then, the wail of a newborn. There is a child’s laughter, then angry petulant screams. The child grows, and finds her power in the Darkness, guided by a powerful Darkside user. Her power is challenged by the scion of the Light, descendant of the Chosen One. They battle, but he is defeated by the combined might of Master and Apprentice. The galaxy is again shrouded in fire, smoke and blood.
Exhausted, she walks nervously, a wooden staff held on guard, knowing it will be no use against his superior saber. She has been in hiding since the fall of the Jedi Order, its only remnant, a mere Padawan and He is the Chosen One. He does not even deign fight her but leaves her to the Acolytes of Darkness. They cut her mercilessly, wounding not killing, playing with their prey until they tire of the game. They leave her dying on the battlefield like her Master before her, until the Force claims its servant. The child is born, grows and commits herself to the acetic life of the Church of the Force, ironically never discovering her own force power. She lives and dies in the desert where she was born. The Enemy arrives, and no one has the strength to fight them.
Resolute, she strides across the field of battle, allowing herself only a surreptitious glance at the dismembered corpse of Jedi Master Tigaran, cut down by the Sith Lord’s saber. She is to blame for this loss but there is no time for either guilt or sorrow. He demands her skill and her fealty in exchange for the freedom of her people. She knows who he is – Master of Darkness, Lord of the Sith, Apprentice to the Emperor. She sends a silent apology to the crystal within her saber as she drawns it, placing it ceremoniously in his hands. In time, he finds her weakness, leading her to the Dark. The Dark gives her access to martial skills more advanced than she learned from the Jedi. She wears his uniform and hunts the hidden Jedi at his command as one of his Inquisitors. There is blood and death and fire and smoke, but again she survives the swing of the pendulum. The child is born and grows, balanced in the Force, secure in her power and shielded from the extremes of light and dark, guided by a hand that protects and teaches. On the horizon is an enemy doesn’t care about the history of the Empire and the Republic, only about gaining power. The galaxy is again shrouded in fire, smoke and blood, but now there is hope. . .
The frightening images of battle subside, cut like a door slamming shut. The smell of fire and ozone and death are replaced by sterile cold air and echoing silence.
“No!” she whispers, her heart pounding, her breath a frozen fog.
“Calm, Padawan. Breathe. The vision has passed.”
The voice. The voice that has been in her head since before she knew what words were.
Here, in this place sacred to the Living Force, its power channeled from the unclaimed kyber crystals spread throughout the cave system by the six in her hands, the strength of his presence undeniable.
Here, he is reflected in the Force as he may have been by light in life. His appearance has not changed since she was an infant. His eyes are a brilliant shade of compassion and wisdom. His voice is full of restrained mirth, as if he had a secret joke he was keeping to himself, with an equal measure of sorrow.
Here, he is no longer the whispering voice that had set her on the path she now trod, first in disobedience of the will of her own people, then of the Jedi Council. Here, she feels his presence as a fully manifested being, brighter in her sight even than her own brothers and sisters of the Mira.
She gathers her breath, holds it for a moment, and breathes it out slowly, steadying her pulse.
She has been blessed and cursed by the Force with visions, all her life. In them, she can see pictures in her mind unlike anything her brothers and sisters of the Mira have ever experienced - colors and shapes reflected in light.
She asks the question even though she already knows the answer. She needs to hear it from him, “Are these the only choices? The only paths?”
As always, he is a teacher first. “What do you feel?”
“I am scared, but that’s not important. So much depends on me following the best path.”
“Good. You see that the ‘right’ path may not be the best path. You must let the Force guide you as the moments unfurl. The visions are only to provide you with the shape of what is to come.”
“There are so many variations, dozens of alternatives beyond those I have seen. How will I know which way to choose? So many things can go wrong. Save the girl, save the boy, save myself. Which path is the best one?”
“Trust the Force. Maintaining balance is not easy. Know that sometimes, the path to the light leads through darkness.”
Acceptance. Understanding. And yet, fear.
“Were it just me, I would accept the darkness knowing it is the way to balance. But my actions will lead others to pain and suffering.” “
"Tell me, Padawan. Who are you?” he asks.
Her breathing steadies.
“I am Padawan Ora, student of Master Tigaran. I am a Jedi.”
“And I am not Master Tigaran. I can see who you truly are, behind the shield that hides the real you. So tell me, young Nandes, who are you?”
There were days when she forgot that there was more to her than meditation and martial practice.
“I am T’ien Nandes, Visionary of the House Ora of Alpherides. The Force my Guide and my Sight. The balance of the Ashla and the Bogan is my Duty.”
“That is not all, but you will discover that in time. You are uniquely a Visionary Jedi.”
She feels him walk slowly around her.
"It may feel sometimes like you are torn apart, and that one side is wrestling to take control. The blending of these two personas you will allow you to succeed, Nandes. In the balance is strength. You are not limited by the restrictions of the Jedi or the Mira."
She hums in understanding.
"I would have liked to have you as my student. There is so much we could have done.”
The cold air of the cave rustles through the stalagmites, reminding her that there is a world beyond this cave and this moment in time.
“I’m honored, Master. But to willingly accept the darkness? The beliefs of the Jedi are not that far removed from the beliefs of the Mira’s Luka Sene. As a Jedi, I am sworn to uphold the light.”
“Are you? T’ien Nandes is sworn to maintain the balance of Ashla and Bogan. The Force chose you, Nandes, and gave you the gift to make it possible. Listen to your instincts. Reach out to feel the will of the Force around you. It will tell you what you need to do.”
“I must return to my people and learn the secrets of the Luka Sene.”
“Yes, Nandes. The few remaining Jedi are scattered, in hiding. You are burdened with the desire to restore what the Emperor has shattered, to rebuild the Jedi Order. You must let go of Padawan Ora and return to your people as T’ien Nandes. On Alpherides, among the brilliant Luka Sene, you must learn the most confidential secrets of the Luka Sene Benal.”
She sits in reflective thought for a moment. The scholars of the Luka Sene, with their unique Force vision, had over the aeons developed many special skills unknown even to the Jedi. Among these was the School of the Benal, healers of the mind, who helped those who had turned to the Dark reclaim their place among the People, the Mira.
“I believe I now understand, Master.”
“And the crystals. They must be hidden until the time is right.”
The six stones lay across her palms, newly retrieved from where they had waited for a connection to their partners. Her visions told her of the destruction of the cave, and that she must come here to claim them on behalf of those not yet born.
They pulse with the Force as she repositions them in her left palm, her right grasping one of the mottled grey Ysalamiri skin gloves hanging from her belt.
She places a stone in each finger, two in the center. Once they are secured, she places the glove in her pocket.
The kyber crystals are now silenced, hidden by the Ysalamari skin’s Force muting properties. Her connection to the crystals remaining in the cave is broken. The Force is dimmer now and the visitor is again a shadow of the brilliant spirit he was a moment ago.
She stands, steadily as if she had merely risen from meditation, rather than from visions that would change the course of her life forever.
She pulls on the matching right glove, the deep blue black of her skin accentuating the delicate cutwork on the backs.
The crystals are the reason she is here. Not to commune with the bright spirit, or to strengthen the visions that have been fading as she approaches puberty, but to preserve a small number of precious kyber crystals for the yet unborn Force Wielders for whom the Jedi tradition of The Gathering will be but a story of the age of the lost Jedi Order.
She has tunneled through a vision of each possessor, performing their Gathering for them in absentia. The crystals were sharp in her palms, buzzing in anticipation, yet sensing her purpose, meekly allowing her to remove them from the cavern where they were formed.
Another act that would have earned her the displeasure of the Jedi Council, if they still existed.
She feels a stirring in the Force.
Though dimmed, her guide remains, his voice clear and strong as ever.
“I know you sense him, Nandes. He is coming. You are not ready to face him. You must go.”
She senses her guide retreating back into the Cosmic Force.
"I am grateful for all you have done for me, Master.”
“I have taught you all I have to teach. If you had been my pupil, I would recommend you be elevated for your faith and courage, but that will never be.”
“Although I am no longer a Jedi, Master, I am honored.”
He continues, “Sadly, we will not meet again. I know you are capable and will do what is best.”
She steps delicately across the cave floor, savoring these last moments in the full light of the Force.
It seemed redundant to wish the blessings of the Force on a being that is part of the Force. “Thank you, Master Qui-Gon.”
She hears one final echo of the voice she knew so well. “May the Force be with you.”
Chapter 9: The Jedi Temple - Ilum – BBY 19 (44 Years Ago) Part 2
A youngling, a droid and a Jedi
Second half of Chapter 8. Yllana Ti-Gan defends the Jedi's sacred Crystal Cave against invaders.
She was Yllana Ti-Gan, Jedi Techician. Not Knight, not Master. Just Yllana. Her lack of rank wouldn’t keep the Empire from killing her if they had the chance.
She and her navigator droid BeeZee had spent the 3 weeks since the fall of the Jedi Temple skirting Imperial patrols, dropping into far flung planets like Batuu and Jakku for supplies, searching for the right place to hide the Crucible – the treasure of the Jedi Fleet and home to Master Huyang’s extensive collection of lightsaber parts. She still hoped the could find another Jedi – a real Jedi Master or even just a Knight – to tell them what to do next.
She was nobody, but she was all the Jedi Order had left. How she and the droid had found themselves here on one of the most sacred sites of the Jedi Order she didn’t know. She wondered if someone had carelessly left the secret coordinates the Nav computer, and BeeZee had punched the wrong button.
Maybe it was the will of the Force. Now that they were here, she couldn’t just leave this to the Empire and the fearsome new Sith Lord – Darth Vader - to take the Kyber crystals that were destined for future generations of the Jedi Order.
The Sith longed for power, and the potential of the crystals buried in the heart of the planet to power weapons of true devastation brought despair to her heart.
It was just a matter of time before the Empire came for harvest the crystals that harmonized in the cave beyond the waterfall.
She would do her duty, even it cost her life.
And it would, most likely.
Jedi are trained from childhood in the Martial arts. Some specialized in the art of the saber, others in the staff. Ti-Gan was skilled with neither. The life of the Jedi Knight and the honor of battle had been beyond her. She had instead chosen the life of the Corps, finding solace in the work that helped the war from afar.
Now all those Jedi Knights and Masters had been betrayed, slaughtered by the Clone armies they commanded, on the orders of the Emperor himself. Those who were not were in hiding, camouflaging themselves among the populace of teeming cities or hermits in the desert of distant worlds.
She should be hiding, too. But she now believed the accidental arrival at Ilum was the sign that the Force meant her to be its guardian.
But she had already failed at this vital obligation, because someone had slipped past her defenses as she slept.
She had felt a roiling disturbance in the force. It seemed distant, but strong.
There was no mistaking where it originated - she ran to the Temple through the raging snowstorm that seemed to be a permanent fixture on Ilum. The icy chilled air burned her lungs as she slid into the outer Temple, lightsaber drawn and lit, to find her shame carved as a hole in the ice waterfall that protected the entrance.
She knew better than to underestimate her opponent based on the size of the breech. It was large enough for Master Yoda, and his skill in battle was unmatched.
Despite her fear of the Jedi Grand Master, she really wished he was here right now. She was completely alone to oppose this threat.
Her brain was on high alert, her senses probing the Force for a sign of whatever had invaded the sacred Crystal Cave.
Her comm sputters to life, shattering the silence of the Temple. The unmistakable voice of the Navigator droid reaches her ears, its core world accent laced with a hint of metallic feedback.
“I need you to return to the shuttle at once and prepare it for launch.”
“I can’t. Someone is inside the cave. We need to be sure they don’t tell the Empire.”
What would she do if they got out? She’s never had to kill anyone before.
Humph. She’s a Jedi, whether Master, Knight or no. This is her mission.
“The Empire is coming.”
“I know. We’re staying anyway.”
“No, Yllana. We have to go before they arrive. Ships have just appeared out of hyperspace at the jump point. Imperial vessels. They’ll be here soon.”
“Oh,” she stutters, “How many, what type?”
“Too many for us, I’m afraid. At least one Super Star Destroyer.”
“We’ve got to defend the temple.”
She twirls around, too fast. Too much adrenaline. Too much for her mind to handle at one time.
“Why did she stick this in your stubborn head? You’ll just die. Then who will help me?”
“They won’t hurt you – you’re a droid.”
“I thought better of you, Yllana. The lightsabers that defended the Temple at Coruscant were crafted on this very ship, under my direction. He knows me. Knows that I have taught a thousand generation of Jedi the art of creating a saber. Do you think he won’t scrap me?”
“What are you talking about BeeZee? Just because you’re a droid onboard The Crucible doesn’t make you Master Huyang. Remind me to check your cognitive circuits if we get out of this alive.”
Another voice, childlike in contrast to the droid, breaks the silence of the Temple.
“Even without Master Huyang, the lightsaber parts aboard the Crucible would be of great value to a reformed Jedi Order. Or Darth Vader and the Inquisitorius he is forming.”
Her heart leaps. She spins again, whipping up the light saber to a semblance of an offense.
She is mortified that she’s allowed herself to be surprised by the same being she was waiting for moments ago. This is why she was never elevated. Her mind is too scattered. Too many stray thoughts pummeling at her brain.
Yllana senses the power of the newcomer, turning her lightsaber toward the unknown being.
“Who are you and what do you know of Darth Vader?”
Could this small girl, her tan tunic streaked with dark stains of an unknown substance, the eyes of her sable face hidden behind an elaborate mask, be any sort of threat?
She recognizes the girl’s planet of origin. Alpherides. A Miralukan. So no eyes, just a mask.
But in the girl’s hand, held in a defensive grip is a shiny new lightsaber. A Jedi youngling?
“Without a kyber crystal and the knowledge of how to craft a saber, they are just parts,” Ti-gan asserts.
“Darth Vader has already turned one of the Temple Guards and he will find more Force Sensitives to turn. The Dark Side knows your weakness. Those parts could be used by either the light or the dark. If we can’t hide them, they should be destroyed.”
BeeZee sounds appalled, “Let’s make that the last option, shall we?”
A ghostly voice whispers in Ti-Gan’s head, “Remember this. Remember her. Trust her.”
“You. You’re the Miralukan youngling Master Huyang told me about. Before . . .”
Her mind is very fuzzy. She should know this.
“Before the betrayal. You know me. I am Nandes Ora.”
Ti-Gan powers off her saber. The girl is friend, not foe.
“You came with me on the shuttle outside.”
Nandes hums a low affirmative tone.
“It is our shuttle. We need to go. Now. The window is small, but we can make it.”
Nandes powers off her saber as well, running for the door.
“I am not leaving. The cave must be defended,” asserts Ti-Gan stubbornly.
Nandes removes her remaining glove, tucking it into her belt. Hands waist high, palms up, she slowly approaches Ti-Gan.
“We cannot save it. It will fall, and the crystals contained in it will power a weapon beyond your imagination.”
Ti-Gan plants both feet firmly on the frozen Temple floor.
“The more reason to defend it.”
The comm springs back to life, “It is a useless gesture.”
“I must have a head injury. I can’t remember things I know I should know. Tell me, how old are you, youngling?”
“Padawan, Master Ti-Gan. 10 standard years.”
“I’m not a Master, and you’re just a child. You must be advanced if a Master would take you as Padawan at your age.”
“10 standard years. Miralukans mature at a different rate. I was near the age of majority when I came to Coruscant. My Master was one of the greatest the Jedi Order ever produced. It is my great sorrow that she is not here now.”
“How did you survive?”
“Nandes is a Visionary,” says BeeZee.
“A Visionary?” Ti-Gan asks, “How did you ever allow get the Luka Sene to allow you to leave Alpherides?”
“We don’t have time to discuss this now. Master Huyang is in danger.”
“Master Huyang was destroyed at Coruscant. BeeZee is just a navigator droid. Why does everyone think he is Master Huyang? They don’t even look alike.”
“Ti-Gan. Ora. Save the discussion for later. This planet is about to be surrounded by Imperial ships. We need to leave now before they see us,” says the voice on the comm.
“I can’t leave. The cave. . .”
“Rest, Ti-Gan,” orders Nandes, gently touching the woman’s arms with her bare hands.
Ti-Gan’s eyes close, but a portion of her brain continues to process her surroundings.
“Master Huyang,” says Padawan Ora.
“You have put her in a trance again, haven’t you?”
“It was necessary.”
“I cannot get used to her not knowing her true past.”
“It was her idea. If she doesn’t know who she is, she can’t give herself away. I wish it had been a cleaner job, but my training was limited.”
“It would be very useful to have a Master Jedi on this trip.”
“We’re lucky we haven’t been recognized as it is. She’s in there, just buried behind the persona of Ti-Gan. When we get to Alpherides, the Luka Sene can release her.”
“So we’re going to Alpherides?”
“Yes. Master Qui-Gonn has released me from my Jedi vows. My mission here is done. I am no longer a Jedi.”
“Her true personality is trickling through. Master Tigaran would defend Ilum to the death. The persona you created for her has leaks, my young friend.”
“It’s not like I’m experienced in this. And it was a rush job. The visions aren’t always specific about when things are going to happen. I was lucky to get her off Coruscant before Skywalker got there.”
Nandes faces Ti-Gan, holding both her hands. “Master, trust me one more time. You must get the Crucible to Alpherides. They will keep Master Huyang safe. There are a thousand generations of Jedi history stored in his memory banks. We need to get back to the ship right now. You need him If you are going to restore the Jedi Order. Ti-Gan must return to the ship, Master.”
“I’m going to release her. She’ll go with us now.”
Ti-Gan opens her eyes.
“What are you waiting for, child? I know this is against all the rules of the Council, but you’re going to have to obey me as if I were a Master. Get on that shuttle, now!”
“Yes, Master Ti-Gan.”
Chapter 10: The Heart of Jakku - ABY 24 (5 Years Ago)
What waits in the Heart of Jakku?
Millennia had passed, but it could have been mere minutes. After the first century, time no longer meant anything to him.
The super-heated darkness had held him in its merciless grasp since the day he’d been betrayed by his apprentice and her lover. He, one of the most powerful Sith to ever live, now existing in a half-life in the silence at the core of a world so removed from the centers of civilization.
Silent like a grave. Forgotten like the kings of yesteryear.
The trickle of Force emanating from the limited lifeforms on this barren world was barely enough to keep him sentient.
But he lived, starving, suffering from the pain, longing for the nourishment of the Force, on the planet he himself had once gorged on, destroying the life that could have sustained him through his trials.
He remembers, always, R’iia and Da’Sheen.
The traitor and the deceiver.
He knew her mind. She couldn’t betray him. She was his most devoted servant, giving everything she had to him – to the dark side.
Until the Jedi twisted her mind, hiding her true intent like a bezoar in the guts of a herd beast.
The Sith and Jedi worked together to imprison him in the one place that could hold him – the center of the planet that he had laid to waste.
A planet that had once been lush and green. Full of life.
Full of the Force.
Even a planet abundant with life could not fill his hunger.
The cities, the jungles, the factories, the oceans. The Jedi Temple that had stood over the bore hole that lead to the heart of the planet.
And that is where they trapped him, comatose as he digested all he could hold, betrayed by his most trusted apprentice when he was at his weakest.
The combination of their Force Powers, light and dark, had sealed his fate and the shaft that lead to freedom.
The Jedi could not have done it without the Sith. The Sith could not have done it without the Jedi.
But now. . . now there was a crack in the plug. This was a posthumous gift of the Sith Emperor Sideous, whose servant, blind to the Force and unaware of what lay below, did his Master's bidding, delivering to the center the items needed to break the bonds that had held him there for millennia.
The servant thwarted in his own task, his mortal remains now lay a dry shell in the hall of the Observatory that had been built around the bore hole.
A flutter of excitement as he senses, in the world above, an innocent strong in the force but untrained. Much like R’iia had been so long ago.
He sets his plans in motion.
And now he waits for the bait to draw in his prey.
Time means nothing to Darth Nihilus.
Chapter 11: Niima Fuel Depot Office - ABY 24 (5 Years Ago)
Mira is not the only one who has found Girl. Does she have the strength to protect Girl from the darkness?
Girl rarely remembered her dreams. The normal dreams, that is.
But then there were the other dreams. They had a mental tang, a scent of something beyond memory and ever slightly tinged in the realm of vision, raveling at the edges and humming with peculiar vibrations.
She knew they were special, and they were her own little secret.
This one had always been her favorite. Mornings uncounted she lay on the mat that sat in the most distant corner under Unkar’s shop, pulling the discarded canvas that served as her blanket up over her nose, risking Barsa’s foot in her arse, so she could savor one more moment in the world so far and so different from the Ship Graveyard of Jakku.
It washed over her in drowsy contentment, bringing with it the only feeling of safety she’d ever known, connecting her with a world far from her dreary life on Jakku.
When days were hard, she would roll the memories of it through her mind like a gift to herself, savoring the feeling of freedom that came with it.
In her dream, warm moist breezes ruffle through her hair. The light had a fluorescent green glow, enhancing the appearance of so much verdant life. So much more green than she had ever seen.
This time, she arrived at the dream world at sunset, the remains of the day glowing red against the grey-green sea. The seabirds called to their mates, urging them to return to their rooks in the green moss filled crags among the towering granite spires.
In the growing darkness, she could no longer see the birds, but she could still feel them as their awkward feet caught on the sharp stones filled with grasses, leaves, and twigs that sheltered the babies.
A fog bank rolled in, the day’s humidity coalescing into fog as the cool evening air overtook the warmth of day. She’s enchanted – imagine water just hanging lazily in the air! She reached out, swirling her hand through the cold mist.
The fog deepened, swirling around her until she could no longer see anything else, trapping her in place. Pressure filled her ears, pressing her arms against her body until it no longer responded to her wishes.
She struggled, but no matter how hard she tried, she could do no more than blink her eyes.
She knew that she would be free if she could just wake, but the sleep command still held her in its grasp.
Then she felt that someone else had arrived.
Her heart sang happily. Maybe this was one of the blessed dreams where she was not alone. Where the dark-haired boy came to talk to her. To tell her that she’s not alone. That she’s special.
But instead of his gentle reassurance, there was something else.
It radiated something oppressive and powerful. A presence heavy and ancient reminding her of the claustrophobic tunnels of the Ravager, crawling through the dark in conduits designed for droids but passable by a human child.
She’d spent many hours in the cramped spaces, darker than night, superheated with the noonday sun beating on the ship carcass.
Controlling her fear and the possibilities of death and injury had made her the best scavenger in Unkar’s crew, maybe even on the entire planet.
So the fear she felt now was so unnatural.
She shouldn’t be panicking.
But then came the ringing that bypassed her ears, going straight to her brain.
Not the echo of knees and hands pattering along the length of the supply chute or electrical conduit, but an unearthly sound – moaning, keening, whining like the winds of X’us R’iia that raged outside, but these existed – lived – inside her mind.
Just when she thought she could tolerate the vibration in her skull, came the pain. A punishing throb from behind her unseeing eyes to the center of her skull, like the beak of a steelpecker into the rotting carcass of a grit crawler.
She begged her paralyzed hands to move – to shield her from the onslaught – but it was of no use.
She was no longer alone, but she didn’t know who this stranger is.
He is dark and forceful, sleek and intelligent, quick-witted and strong, and he strode into her dream.
“Hush, my child. Do not try to run. Stay with me and watch the sunset. It has been ever so long since I have seen a sight like this. I want to see it through your eyes,” he purred, in a voice so deep that it reached into her soul and pressed on the back of her mind.
The darkness that surrounds him was not that normal fall of night, but something cavernous and still, with the fetid tinge of decay.
His creeping shadow was heavy as lead as it draped over her, wrapping her in his aura of suffering and pain and an overwhelming hunger.
The carefree dream had turned into a nightmare. She had no volition, no ability to move, nowhere to run. She was pinned where she stood, helpless to do anything but listen. Paralysis.
“I’m taking a moment to savor the sky, the wind, the earth. I haven’t thought about them for so long. Then we will talk, youngling. We have much to discuss.”
Instead, she reached out with something else. Something that’s been dormant inside her. Pushing him away. Demanding he leave her alone.
The voice, imperious and powerful, rumbled through her mind, plowing away any thoughts of her own.
“Ah. Excellent. That’s it. Reach out. You are as powerful as I remember. She has tried to shield you from me, but your power no longer fits in the container she has built for you. I would have found you soon, regardless.”
“Who are you?”
“You will see. Come to me, my child.”
She resisted as best she could, but the compulsion that his voice commands is beyond what she has ever known.
There was a string, deep obsidian, connecting her to him. At the end, she could sense the overwhelming darkness, an overpowering sensation of heat. Her mind showed her a container blue hot inside and green outside, a small crack leaking the darkness in a ragged stripe.
“Yes, come to me. I have waited so long for you. I have chosen wisely. The Force is strong with you. You will make an excellent apprentice.”
“She could not hide you from me forever. You belong to me.”
Girl did not understand.
“No, you do not need to understand. Just obey.”
Her voice was mute, but the question continued to echo through her mind, “Who are you?”
“Persistent, aren’t you? That is a question for another time. You called me. Your anger is so strong, so powerful. You need direction, training. I can teach you.”
Girl remained silent for a moment, not knowing how to respond.
She knows she didn’t call anyone.
“Ah, but you did. An outstanding display of Force lightning for a first attempt. To show this level of talent at such a young age is promising. Such anger at such a simple thing as a droid, but it was enough to expose you to me.”
The words echoed in her head.
The Force. The Force that she’d heard about from the Anchorites. From the Church of the Force. From BeeZee’s Jedi stories. Was it real after all?
“Do you understand hunger, child? Oh, I see you do. The Force will bring you whatever you desire. You need never want again.”
The rumbling of her belly agreed with the voice. When had she eaten last?
Never needing to hunt for her next meal? Never worried about a cuff to the head? Going where ever she wants whenever she wants?
“The Force will give all that and more. Power. Riches. Revenge.”
Unending raw power, fueled by anger and pain and suffering, power stronger than anything she’d ever known.
Revenge against Unkar for his greed, against Kremool and Dangti for the fervor with which they had punished her over the years.
And Barsa. Barsa who showed her hatred of Girl in every possible way. She imagined Barsa, blown apart by the turbo lasers at the Weapons Depot, a fitting revenge for her attempt on Girl’s life.
And her parents.
She hadn’t thought of her parents in ages. They had left her before she even knew them. How dare they leave her, without a name, without a home, without a family?
“Yes, you see the power of the darkness. I will be your Master. Your family. You will need no one else.”
The belonging she’s been searching for.
It would be so easy.
“Yes, come to me, my child.”
She tried to sit, her feet longing to move. To walk through the sand to where . . . her Master? . . . waited.
Like a skitter mouse nest freeing its inhabitants after the Blaze, her feet moved, cracking through the restraints Mira has placed on her.
Hands, strong, with dry calloused palms, grabbed her by the shoulders, pressing against her bare upper arms, touching skin to skin.
Her eyes opened, showing her the face of Mira, dark eyeless sockets staring sightlessly into her own, foreheads pressed together, so close that Girl could smell the fear on Mira’s skin, could see the puckering scars that marred the smoothness of her dark skin.
“It’s a lie.”
What is a lie?
In her mind, a pinhole of light appeared in the darkness. Far away. So far away.
The voice continued, bringing with it memories of a woman she once knew, a memory she didn’t know that she had lost.
“I am here. I am here for you now.”
The voice was faint in the distance, but so insistent. Mira’s lips did not move, but Girl could hear Mira’s voice.
The other voice rang through her mind, overpowering, seeking to redirect her thoughts.
“Ah, my unworthy servant seeks to steal you from me once more. She fooled me once. Do you believe you can trust her? You don’t know who she is.”
“I am not Sister Ten, Master Nihilus. You no longer control me. You must believe me, Girl. He offers you power, but it will only lead to pain and suffering. He is the thief. He’ll use you for your power, steal all you have to give, then discard you.”
“Ah, you still call me Master. I have greater plans for this one, servant. She is no trifle to be consumed. She will be the greatest Sith of her era, and the path to my freedom.”
“At what cost? Girl, don’t go this way.”
“I see your mind, Girl. Long have you suffered under the hand of the unworthy. You are greater than that. She knew that but abandoned you anyway.”
“I did not abandon you. I was taken from you. I protected you by staying away.”
“She’s afraid she can’t protect you, and in that she’s wise. She can’t. Her compassion is her weakness. If she were truly powerful, she would have trained you and taken you as an apprentice. She is weak and a fool. She is not strong enough to take you from me.”
Girl felt the pull as the two forces struggled for her attention. The woman – Mira – was no match for his much stronger power.
“I can teach you the ways of the darkness. You will invincible. Pledge yourself to me, and I will show you the power of the darkness. I have lived for a thousand generations. I will always be here for you.”
He pushed memories into her mind, searing pain freeing what had been hidden in the back of her mind. They bobbed like jetsam caught in the quicksand of the Sinking Fields, flashes of light and darkness.
Unkar. The desert. A ship lifting off from Niima Spaceport.
The voice of a young Girl, “Nan! No! Don’t leave me!”
Unkar. His meaty fist holding tight to her tiny arm. “Quiet, Girl.”
Tears, a waste of water, crying because someone was lost to her. Someone dear.
The connection she felt was torn apart as the ship raced into the atmosphere, and into space. Her memories of that person fading, funneled into a numb container in her mind, inaccessible.
The anger remained. Loneliness overwhelmed her.
Anger and sadness meld into the conduit that connected her to this immensely powerful being, black as basalt leading her to a place that was blacker than the bowels of the Ravager at midnight, and hotter than the sun at midday.
Hunger. Overwhelming hunger. A raw emptiness like she’s never experienced, an implacable desire to consume.
Hunger has shadowed her for her entire life, but she has never felt anything like this before. It was ravenous, capable of devouring anything it encounters.
Betrayal and anger filled her chest with agony.
Anger like a beacon in the hot darkness. Suffering like she’d never feel love again.
Blacker than black calls the darkness, “Come to me, child. I will show you power, power greater than anything you have ever known.”
The power dragged her, like a rope at her waist. Back, back into the dark.
“Girl! Don’t go this way. Come back!”
How could she trust Mira, if what he says is true? That Mira had abandoned her when she was helpless?
Occupied by her thoughts, Nihilus pulled her faster and further into his web.
Soon, she was too far away, her voice fading.
Girl’s thoughts began to mirror that of the being that offered her a place, a belonging that she’s been seeking for so long.
She was suffocating, falling into the power. Invisible smoke filled her lungs until they scorched.
Then there was the pulse of a cooling breeze and a release of pressure.
Someone else was here.
His aura was green. She recognized him. The boy that lived in her dreams since she can remember, bringing with him the peaceful green of the Island to sooth the heat and pain.
Except he was no longer a boy. He was a man, and he was strong. Strong with the Force.
Behind him was Mira, a channel in the Force, siphoning the power of the Force like a strongman pulling two ropes in opposing directions.
“Reach out,” he said, his voice calm and soothing, “I can help you.”
She wanted to reach out her hand, but she couldn’t.
Her fingers scraped at nothing. Just darkness.
The green glow grew, like a candle in the darkness, growing as he came closer. There was no face, just a form.
“Reach out with your feelings. Can you feel me?”
She exhaled, releasing the breath she didn’t know she was holding. She’s suffocating no longer.
“That’s it. Breathe. Feel the Force around you. I’ll show you how.”
The Force? She knows she’s not special like that. She’s just Girl. She doesn’t even have a real name.
“Believe in yourself. I believe in you.”
The pain in her chest loosened. The anger bled away like sand down the side of a dune.
The woman’s voice warbled, returned. Strengthened.
“That’s it. Come away from the dark. I’ll show you the way.”
The pinprick of light became sunbeams like daylight through the pierced hull of a wreck. Silhouettes of the man and the woman sparkled, each in their own beam.
There was light.
That was what she was feeling – it was the Force and she could feel it flow through her.
The boy – her dream friend – looked at her. She can’t see his face, just his eyes. Deep dark eyes with a hint of sorrow. Eyes that mirror the same loneliness she feels.
And through the rumbling darkness that surrounded them she can feel a connection.
He has always been there. He didn’t care that she’s a nobody from a nowhere world.
There was a warmth to him, hidden behind the struggle.
Her body prickled as she returned momentarily to alertness.
A soft blanket was nestled under her chin and underneath her were cushions rather than the rough scrap of stained, shredded canvas that covered the mat that passed for her bed. Tucked up next to her on the pillow – a real pillow not her knapsack, which sat at her feet – was the scrap of scavenged rebel flight suit that, twisted crudely into human shape, was her doll.
Her Captain Raeh.
She fought waking. She didn’t want to lose him. She won’t let him go.
She reached again to touch him.
“We’ll meet again. I’ll come for you.”
“No, don’t leave me.”
“I need to go. It is too difficult to hold this connection for long. But I’ll find you. Just as soon as I can.”
The sound of his voice faded into nothing, and her ears began to register the sounds around her. No longer assaulted by the pulsing whine of the merciless gusts of X’us R’iaa, she could now hear the gentle susurrus of the ventilation system, and the quiet voices of BeeZee and the Miralukan Mira.
“She is safe now.”
BeeZee’s voice was more strained than she’s heard before.
“Something breeched the protections around the Observatory, Master Huyang.”
“Is he free?”
“No, but . . .”
“But she’s in danger. Take her away from here.”
“She has to stay. It isn’t time.”
“You and your vision. If she can’t leave, then you need to stay and protect her.”
“Hmm. We’ll see.”
Girl returned to the world of dreams, not knowing how close she came to disaster.
Chapter 12: Somewhere in the Outer Rim – ABY 24 (5 Years Ago)
A slice of the life of Ben Solo at 18, as he gets an opportunity to see what life would have been like if he hadn't gone to the Jedi Academy.
In the last chapter, Girl dreamed of the Island but found she was not alone.
She is measured and chosen by a being ancient and dark, who knows her and claims to her as his own.
She is saved by the intercession of Mira and the mysterious boy.
The outline of the dream stuck with him like the mud that clung to his boots during the rainy season at Luke’s Jedi Academy.
The vague recollection of a girl – the girl – skittered on the edge of his memory. The tighter he tried to hold on to the dream, the more it rolled away like fog at sunrise.
In the end what remained was the cold dread, a feeling of tangible danger that set his heart pounding, and the impression of pure darkness that lingered behind his eyes.
Drenched in sweat and feeling more drained than when he’d hit the bunk, he finally recognized the screech that meant that something somewhere was about to fail, hauling him from his anxious and unsatisfying sleep.
He needed to get to the cockpit.
“Padawan Ren, where are you going?” asked a sleep husky voice beside him in the bunk.
Sana. Her cobalt braid draped over her shoulder as she lay half on top of him, her smooth blue arm draped possessively across his shirtless waist.
Her body temperature was warmer than a human’s, and her skin was hot against his. She must have been there a while.
“What are you doing in my bunk? Tell me,” he asked blearily, his mouth dry.
“Padawan Ren, I had a nightmare. I didn’t think you would mind.”
Her red irises glowed gently in the half-light as she blinked at him.
How stupid of him to worry. It was Sana, not some stranger. She’d been with the Academy for six months now. He had trained with her. Studied with her. He should have learned to trust her by now.
Of course, she meant no harm. They were here on the Falcon, working together on a secret mission for his mother.
That sound was a nightmare, especially for someone who had little experience with spaceships. No wonder she was scared.
“It’s alright. Don’t worry. It’s not dangerous,” Ben said, and he felt her relax, “But I need to go,” he continued, “You going to be alright?”
Sana looked up at Ben, the eyebrows on her angular face knitted together, and she hums agreement low in her chest.
“Question, Padawan Ren.”
She sat quietly, holding her breath, waiting for permission to speak her mind.
“You know you can ask me,” offers Ben.
“Yes, Padawan Ren.”
Ben mentally cursed the cruel masters who had trained her this way. She would randomly wait, silent, for permission to speak, depending on whether she thought she'd be punished for the answer. Many times she needed to be specifically asked. Uncle Luke was working with her closely on this, and he hoped that this trip with Ben would give her the confidence to break through this inhibition. She was otherwise a brilliant student.
“What is your question?” he asked.
“The sound is awful. May I ask what is causing it?”
“It’s the gravimetric stabilizer,” he explained.
"Is that normal on the Falcon?”
He loved this old ship, but he knew it was held together with spit and binder tape. The malfunction wouldn’t cause permanent damage, but it wouldn’t make things pleasant, either.
He took a moment to explain it to her. “The gravity stabilizer keeps those inside a ship from floating while in space. It also adjusts when the ship moves inside a gravity field, so we don’t get knocked into bulkheads when the ship turns quickly. It’s close to overload. We should have replaced the bearing before we left.”
“You told me we couldn’t wait for it.”
“That is what I said. It is very important that keep this meeting. The schedule is tight.”
His eyes drifted back to the bottom of the bunk above him, and a final fleeting impression of the girl – the girl from his dream – flashed through Ben’s mind uncalled. The Girl from many of his dreams. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen her, but this was certainly the clearest he could remember.
He felt the connection between them ebbing. Whoever this girl was, he had promised he would find her.
The dream lay on the edge of his mind – impressions of power, of darkness, of hunger - and at the center of it all was the girl.
He chases the memory one more time, but it faded as dreams do. Nothing could be done to retrieve it, and the Falcon wouldn’t stand for him to dawdle.
Sana moved her arm from his waist to his arm, snapping him out of his reverie.
“Padawan Ren, where did you go?” she asks.
The thought was whisked away as if it never existed.
A thought tickled his brain. How did Sana crawl over him without waking him? He was a notoriously light sleeper.
There was no time to worry about it now, as the volume of the gravity generators increased again.
It was good to be back on the Falcon again after all these years, working with his dad on a mission for his mom. But one thing never changed about the Falcon – it always needed some work.
Ben was glad to have a chance to spend time with his dad.
Solo and Son. On a mission.
Then, suddenly, there was silence.
Sana sighs in relief.
Ben bolts upright, knocking his head on the floor of the bunk above, “Oh, that’s not good. Very not good.”
"Why, Padawan Ren?”
“That was the primary stabilizer failing. Without gravity stabilization, we can’t descend straight to the spaceport. We’re going to have to take an indirect path down to the surface to reduce the G forces. It’s going to be a bumpy landing.”
“Oh. Can I help?”
Sana was a great fighter, and her skills with the Force were just beginning to show themselves. But a mechanic she was not.
“No. Stay here. The bunk is the best place for you for now. I’ve got to get to the cockpit. Dad’s going to need me.”
The internal comm sounded just as he finished. The ragged voice of Han Solo came through.
“Ben, everything’s fine up here, but I could use a hand. You probably noticed we’re on auxiliary gravity. I’m going to need you to do some magic.”
Sana looked sternly at Ben, “Padawan Ren, does Han Solo think you can land this thing with the Force?”
“That’s not what he means. He needs me to plot the landing vector.”
She hummed again.
Ben punches the comm button on the bedside, “On my way, Dad.”
He swung his feet off the bunk.
Ben looked back to see Sana stretch, cat-like, as she took the space he vacated.
He pulled a black shirt over his head and stuck his arms into a mahogany-colored vest before shoving his feet into black boots.
Wrapping a holster around his waist, he straightened. Before him in the bunk mirror was a face he barely recognized. The mustache and goatee that greeted him were a few week’s growth, but the puckered scar that ran across his cheek and nose was applied yesterday by a skillful artist at Takodana.
“Padawan Ren, are you pleased with this face?” Sana asks with a grin, her arm propping up her head to look at him.
“What do you mean? Tell me,” states Ben.
“You do not look like Padawan Ren Solo. You are some mysterious brigand,” she giggled.
“Ah, I see.”
He smirked, and ran a hand through his black, sleep-tousled hair, trying to bring it to order.
“What do you think?” he asks, as she stares.
“This brigand is powerful, and to be feared because he was battle tested. You are no longer the student, but the master.”
Coyly, she averted her eyes, her unfiltered thoughts rising to the top of her mind.
She liked the bad boy look: his dark wardrobe, the scar, and the facial hair that made him look older than his 18 years.
He turned his thoughts elsewhere, granting her privacy.
Only his family knew of his secret shame. His indiscreet rambling through the mind of Senator had nearly gotten his mother censured once. It wasn’t long after that Uncle Luke formed the Jedi Academy.
It was best not to dwell on that. This was his life now.
And Sana was a fellow Padawan. Lenient as Uncle Luke was about many of the Jedi principles, he was very clear that relationships between his students were forbidden. As senior Padawan, he’d need to find a way to guide her on the right path.
He stashed his Padawan braid inside the shirt collar, the final reminder of his obligation to his Uncle.
Ben turned his head back toward the bunk, “I’ll be in the cockpit.”
She grunted and rolled back over.
He launched himself out the door, nearly ramming against the opposite wall as the gravity failed momentarily before popping back on at a portion of its regular strength.
That lack of full gravity gave him a wobbly pace, forcing him to hold on to the walls of the corridors as he went.
He felt like when he was 15 again when his feet suddenly didn’t know how far off the ground they were. He had spent months awkwardly ambling around the Academy gracelessly, consistently missing his targets with the practice saber until he became accustomed to his extended reach.
In the corridor, standing close to the auxiliary console was a blue and white astromech, its com link extended into the com port of the Falcon.
R2-D2 beeped as he saw Ben moving awkwardly down the corridor to the cockpit.
“Hey, buddy!” exclaimed Ben, as he ran a hand over R2’s dome in greeting.
R2 beeped again then turns his turret back to the wall outlet where he was communicating with the ship.
A stream of sharp whistles and beeps exploded from the astromech.
“Hey, hey. Language. She said what?”
R2 responded with more beeps and a low sliding whistle.
“Okay, okay. I guess the Falcon does sound like that. Which part?”
Beep, whistle, beep.
“Okay. I thought it was the bearing. I’ll let Dad know. We’ll want to see if we can get a replacement.”
He wobbled down the accessway toward the cockpit like a tottering drunk as the cabin continued to pitch.
Holding on to either side of the hatchway, he said, “R2 says the grav generator has thrown a bearing.”
His father's familiar grunt came from the pilot’s chair.
“I thought so, too. It was overdue for replacement, but Chewie couldn’t get to it before he had to leave.”
Han’s Wookiee copilot had returned home to Kashyyk after the birth of a grandchild.
“How is ‘Grandpa’ Chewie doing?” asked Ben.
“He arrived in time for the naming ceremony. No one celebrates the arrival of a new baby like Wookiees.”
The fingers of Han’s left hand played over the console, as he gripped the yoke with his right. Alarms rang as the ship swung from side to side, testing Ben’s footing like he was aboard a ship on the Chandrilan Sea.
Han waved a hand at the copilot station, “Get settled in, Ben. I need another set of hands here. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
Ben lowered himself into the copilot’s seat and scanned the readouts, familiarizing himself with the situation.
“It looks like the injector popped into priming mode. We’re low on fuel,” Ben reported.
“Yeah, I noticed that,” agreed the senior Solo.
Ben’s eyes roamed over the console and then over at his father in the pilot’s station, where he stared a minute too long at his dad.
Han Solo’s usual well cropped locks were uncharacteristically shaved, with long sides and a comb-over. A faded Imperial technician jacket, dusty, holey and ragged around the edges covered a similarly ragged shirt. His eyes were a bleary red as if he’d been staring at the sun far too long.
“What are you looking at?” Han said.
“Wow! Maz’s people did a real number on you. They took away Han Solo and sent me some washed up Imperial nobody with a death stick addiction.”
Han ran a hand over his bald shaved head, just like Ben had a few minutes before, “Washed up Imperial pilot, thanks. It looks that bad?”
“It’s pretty bad. Or you could just be getting old, old man?”
“Hey, hey. Just because you’re the big man in this scenario doesn’t mean you get to cut up on your old man.”
He pointed at a panel on the console and grunted. Ben hummed a low note and tuned a knob to match.
The rocking of the ship abated as the younger Solo rerouted power, boosting gravity in the main cabin and reducing it in the holds.
“Solo and son, on a mission. I miss this,” Han said, echoing Ben’s earlier thoughts.
They settle for a moment of peaceful silence before Han comments, “You look pretty scruffy for a Padawan.”
“Not for a pirate.”
“Yeah, not for a pirate. Black kinda suits you, but don’t tell Uncle Luke I said that. He was a little older than you are now when he went through his ‘black Jedi’ phase. I think the great and mighty Master Skywalker’s still embarrassed by it.”
The Solos smiled at one another, each quietly reveling in the thought of Luke Skywalker being embarrassed by his younger self.
Ben added a low drone of agreement deep in his chest.
“What’s the plan?” asks Ben.
“Since we don’t have enough fuel to try again, I had to adjust the angle of descent. As you can see, there’s a pretty severe storm most of the way to the spaceport.”
“Sandstorm, huh,” said Ben.
“Sand, and heavy static build-up. Significant lightning, strong winds. Wouldn’t be bad if we weren’t coasting with minimal gravity support.”
The situation was not ideal, but they’re together once again.
“When’d you pick that up?” asks Han.
“Humming like a Miralukan.”
“Is that what I’m doing? I’ve must be spending too much time with Targin. He’s one of the new younglings.”
“You don’t see them much anymore.”
“What?” asks Ben.
“Miralukans. They went back to Alpherides and rolled up the welcome mat when the Empire took over. They still don't leave often.”
Ben shrugs. “I’m not surprised. Targin’s family sent him once they heard about Luke’s Academy. Joining the Jedi Order was a kind of family tradition. They lost quite a few in the Jedi Temple Massacre.”
A yellow telltale grabbed Ben’s attention for a moment. He tunes a knob, then continues, “They’re all force sensitive, you know. Every single one. Most just barely so, but it’s how they see.”
“That’s right. No eyes? That must take some getting used to.”
“Targin wears a mask, so most of the time I forget. They hum because they can’t see if someone’s nodding. He's very good with the training drones.”
A turret appeared suddenly through the cockpit window.
Han pulled on the yoke, lifting the ship enough to avoid a crash, momentarily pinning Ben in the copilot chair.
Han announced, “And that was the remains of the Ravager,” as if Ben were a tourist sightseeing the wrecks of the Battle of Jakku.
As the tower glided underneath them, a large bolt of electricity discharged directly into the heart of the Falcon, causing her to drop momentarily into the sand before boosting back into the sky.
“Well, that’s not good. The environmental system took a hit,” said Ben, scanning the instrument panel.
“So it did. Check the shields,” said Han.
“Rerouting auxiliary power to the forward shields.”
Practiced hands ran over each console, adjusting for all the failed systems.
Han turned his head to Ben, “You think we can replace the gravimetric core without Chewie?”
He yanked at the yoke again as he avoided a mesa that suddenly appeared in front of them.
He snapped several switches, trying to compensate for the broken grav generator as the Falcon rolled to port.
Ben thought about it for a moment, “For anyone else, it’s a three-hand job. Chewie can do it by himself, but he doesn’t need to manage the lift.”
“We’ve got three hands aboard,” said Han.
“Maybe. If we had to, but Sana’s not the technical type.”
“She must be good with a saber, then,” says Han.
Ben looks back at his dad, “She’s second best in the Academy.”
“Oh, I see,” Han smirks.
“She’s got very quick reflexes, and she puts everything she has into it. I’ve had to yield to keep her from hurting herself sometimes,” Ben reported clinically.
“I didn’t need a personnel review.”
“Sorry. Habit. Uncle Luke has me analyzing the younglings. He says it helps with the training, but I think he’s training me to take over the temple someday. He wants to be out there looking for artifacts, not training up the next generation of Jedi.”
“Oh.” There was a hint of disappointment in his voice, “I suppose that means you’ll have no time to run off to see the galaxy with your old man.”
Ben frowned thoughtfully. There’s nothing he wanted more, but that wasn’t the life he had now.
“Maybe we can find some local talent to help with the repairs. Do you think this Unkar can get us some parts?” he offers.
“Yeah, maybe. Maybe. Look, Ben. Speaking of Unkar, I wanted to talk to you about him. He’s small time, but he’s got his hands in with some bad folks.”
“That’s why we’re here, isn’t it? Setting up supply lines for Mom’s new project, good or bad?”
“Mom’s project? I think she’s putting together a new rebellion, don’t you?”
“The New Republic isn’t giving her a choice, are they? Demilitarizing the Republic leaves too much unprotected. I know they don’t want to be seen as the New Empire, but it’s just a matter of time before someone comes along trying to take what isn’t theirs to take,” said the young Jedi.
“You sound like the son of a Princess, not the son of a scoundrel. I didn’t realize you were paying attention.” Han chuckles.
“How can I not with Mon Motha and mom debating outside my bedroom in my formative years?”
“Yeah, you have a point. Just be careful out there. You’re my son, and I know you’ll be able to manage Unkar. Just stay on the scoundrel side. I’ll be there if you need me, but I can’t get too involved. Too many smugglers know my face. I need to keep a low profile.”
“Just smugglers? I don’t imagine there’s anyone more official looking for you.”
Han waves a finger at his son. “Hey, watch it, hotshot. And you need to keep down the mystical mumbo-jumbo, too. They don’t like that stuff. And don’t be too nice!”
“I can be not nice. Look like a bad guy; keep the good guy inside.”
“Yeah, like that. When do you and Sana need to get back?”
“Luke sent us on the mission. He knows how these things go. We’ll get back when we get back.”
“Uh-huh. Maybe we take the long route home, then," said Han, a smile lighting up his now damaged face.
"Yeah, I'd like that," said Ben.
A bleep on the console drew his attention for a moment, then Han continued, “That Sana's a rare one. I’ve only seen her type once. There was this one Imperial admiral who looked like her. Him and Darth Vader were buddies. Do you trust her?”
“Admiral Thrawn? I remember him from history class. She is part Chiss, from what I’ve heard. She grew up somewhere in the slums of Battu. And, yes, I trust her.”
"Good enough for me, then," said Han with a nod.
The sand swirling against the cockpit windows thinned.
“She’s got a sense for when something’s about to go wrong. She set this whole thing up. I depend on her to let me know if we need to get out of there.”
“Hmph,” Han exhaled, “Another Sana I once knew could be counted on to get you into trouble. It might be nice to have it the other way around.”
“So I’ve heard.”
Han leaned over to slap his son on the shoulder, "Best not to tell your mother I mentioned her. Less said about Sana, the better."
"Got it," said Ben, conspiratorially.
The ship stabilized, and gradually the sand in the viewport is replaced with a dusty orange glow, then clear bright sun.
“Coming upon Niima Spaceport,” Ben reported, “It’s not much to look at, is it?”
“You should have seen it before the Battle of Jakku. It’s grown.”
The young man scans the marketplace of tattered canopies and battered starship waste, wrinkling his nose even though he can’t smell it. Yet.
“Yeah, like a festering sore," young Solo comments, "Can we even get fuel here?”
“They’re mining Kesium not far from here,” said Han, ”Some ‘entrepreneur’ set up an old shuttle as a fuel depot. Over there.”
Han pointed through the settling sand to the remnants an old Lambda-class shuttle.
“Good. Then that’s where we should set down,” said Ben, “Running through the landing checklist.”
“You want to take her in?” offers Han.
Ben hummed, and a grin eerily similar to his father’s lit up his face.
“Have at it, flyboy!” said Han, taking his hands from the controls and resting them behind his head.
Ben takes the yoke, smile still plastered on his face, and piloted the ship in.
Chapter 13: Niima Fuel Depot Office - ABY 24 (5 Years Ago)
Recap: Girl is an indentured servant on Jakku, abandoned by everyone except the cruel Unkar Plutt and his orphan 'minders.'
Rescued at the Imperial Observatory known as the Weapons Depot by a stranger with mysterious powers and a way with a staff, she has run away from her keepers, risking her life in the process.
In the Wild Space at the edge of the known Galaxy, the First Order, lead by Supreme Leader Snoke, gathers their forces preparing for their future emergence. Snoke speaks of a girl who will help him turn Ben Solo to the dark.
Meanwhile, young Ben Solo goes on a rare mission with his father and a fellow padawan to secure something for his mother's latest secret 'project.'
Trapped in the Observatory, a presence full of darkness and hunger looks for someone to free him from his prison.
And a little Girl just looks for someone she can depend on so she's no longer alone.
Girl peeled open her eyes. From her nest on the bench, she saw BeeZee counting and recounting the parts in the bins behind the counter. <
Niima’s Fuel Depot reminded her of one of the many tents that had sprung up inside Niima proper where the minutiae of daily life, usually from the long-dead crews of the ships buried in the Ship Graveyard, could be bought and sold.
Often, probably too often, BeeZee traded fuel for some geegaw he most definitely didn’t need.
It didn’t matter to the droid that managed the depot if they were a freighter captain trying to get home, or Teedo looking for fuel to keep their burrows warm on the nights when the temperatures plummeted to below freezing after a boiling hot day.
Girl wondered sometimes if BeeZee’s absentee master ever checked the records. It was true that the depot could have been run more efficiently. But that wasn’t BeeZee’s way.
Some of the things he traded found their way into the refuse heap, or those same trader’s tents.
But not all of them. The best things BeeZee hoarded like the glitter snakes that stole anything shiny or noisy.
A warm sandy breeze ruffled the edges of the blanket – a real blanket BeeZee probably got in some emergency transaction - as the open door admitted the final faded breezes of X’us R’iia.
A loud thump came from the corridor that once lead to the cockpit. Hil, his lifters retracted, his cranium exposed, launched forward suddenly, bumping into the wall, missing the distance required to turn the corner.
She sat up to get a better view.
“What’s wrong with Hil?” she asked, her voice still rough from the effects of her brush with death.
“Ah, you’re awake!” said BeeZee brightly, “I hope you had a refreshing sleep. Hil’s memory sustained an electrical overload. There is not enough undamaged storage space in his processor to navigate properly.”
“Oh,” she said, pulling her knees up to her chest as she hugged Captain Raeh, “I’m sorry, Hil. Can I help fix him? He saved my life.”
“We are both grateful that he did so, youngling. But I’m afraid he and I are both full of old parts that are hard to come by. There are times when being rare is not a good thing.”
“And the Jedi lady? Where is she?”
“She would probably disagree with that title,” suggested the droid in his Coruscanti accent, “but Mira left suddenly. She needed to deal with some unfinished business. She’ll be back before she leaves.”
Just like everyone else. The ones she liked would leave her, the ones she hated never left, “Oh. Mira’s leaving?” Girl hugged Captain Raeh tighter.
“So she tells me. She has a duty off-world that she needs to manage. I can see you’re disappointed.”
“I’m not. I can take care of myself,” Girl said, but tears began to form betraying her true feelings.
“I am disappointed as well, child. I tried to convince her to stay, but the Force speaks to her in ways like no Jedi I have ever known.”
Girl brightened, “Aha! She is a Jedi, then.”
“If you examine what I said, that is not the only interpretation. Regardless, I would find Mira’s company pleasurable, but if she says she is needed elsewhere, then there will be no stopping it.”
Girl felt gnawing in the pit of her stomach.
The minute Barsa heard that her protector has left her, there would be nothing preventing another attempt on her life. It hit her like a loose rigging - she was abandoned again.
She’d need a new protector.
It had been so nice staying with BeeZee. She didn’t have to barricade herself into the corner of Unkar’s basement or carry everything she owned with her every time she left. BeeZee would be a perfect protector, even if he weren’t organic.
“Let me stay with you,” she begged. “I can fix your motivator. I’m very good at fixing things.” BeeZee continued to putter, preparing the depot for the arrival of ships delayed by the storm.
“I would love for you to stay. I really could use a hand, especially with Hil damaged, but the minute Unkar finds out you survived, he’ll have Zuvio here to claim you. If we could pay off your indenture, I would approve.”
She was undeterred.
“I’ll work hard. You’ll have so much business you can pay off my indenture. I know where there are some ECCM’s. Good ones. And I will find more. Please. Don’t make me go back to Unkar and Barsa.”
The droid’s eyes dimmed slightly.
Sadly he said, “You can’t make more ships arrive, Youngling. Jakku will always be a backwater world. It’s too close to Wild Space to be of any value.”
“But you have so many beautiful things you can sell.”
“Ah. Most of it is junk, youngling, and my most valuable items are not for sale. Only the truly wise know their real value. Would anyone know the value of your Captain Raeh?”
Captain Raeh would be with her forever.
She wouldn’t ask him to part with anything as precious. What else could she offer?
“What about the shuttle?” she asked.
“This shuttle? It will never fly. The wings were torn off during the battle. Many of the vital components were sold years ago.”
“Not this shuttle. The other one.”
“Which other one?”
“The one from the Weapons Depot.”
“So you’ve seen it, eh? That’s far too dangerous, Girl. Even if you could get to it without getting shot by the turbo lasers, you’d have to get both the engines and shields going before you could fly it away. That would be a job a Master. . . “ he paused as if remembering where he is, “mechanic and an apprentice, not for a lone untrained youngling.”
“If I could get to it, I could fix it.”
He agreed with her, half-heartedly, “I sure you could. But we have time, Girl. We’ll think of something.”
She was determined to change his mind. She offered, “Let me fix your motivator, anyway. It’s the least I can do for your kindness.”
“I would be grateful if you would.”
The counter shook as Hil ran into it, his canister pincers stabbing the already worn makeshift base. The items that BeeZee had been organizing on the table rolled back into the space around the counter, falling with a variety of pings.
She swung her legs off the couch and hobbled to where Hil was repeatedly bumping into the counter. “You said his memory module is fried? That would take some serious power considering how well insulated that module is. That must have been some crazy storm.”
“Hmm. Yes, indeed.”
The roar of ship engines outside the shuttle momentarily drowned out all sound.
The console lit up with requests for fueling.
“Oh, dear. Without Hil, there will be many unhappy customers.”
The sound of retro-rockets faded, and the wind-down of the engines faded to silence.
Girl picked up the pieces from the floor and put them on the counter.
Another ship swooped in from the direction the storm just left in, retro-rockets ablaze, sending the sand scuttling.
Girl looked up from her task.
“Who is that hotshot in the YT?” she asked.
The landing was unbalanced, like a hapabore trying to regain its feet after getting stuck in a sand wallow, but it ended with a theatrical flair that showed the skill.
“Good thing this is a desert, anywhere else and the civil authority would fine him,” complained BeeZee, “Reminds me of that Skywalker. A great pilot to be sure, but he was always coming in too hot or showing off.”
“Who?” asked Girl, “Oh, a Jedi story? I don’t think I’ve heard that one yet.”
“I wish we had time for stories, but perhaps later. I have a backlog of ships that were waiting for the storm to pass. It’s going to get busy."
He paused, hesitant.
Maybe I could use your help just until Unkar comes looking for you.”
She remembered that when Unkar did come for her, she'd be locked in Unkar’s basement, on the hard pallet that she slept on until Barsa felt Girl had been punished enough, or she decided that Girl needed to earn her keep. But there was still a smile on her face. That was not now. Now, she could show BeeZee how much he needed her.
“I can help?”
“Yes, I really could use a hand. I’m not sure when I’m going to be able to find the part for Hil. He can still lift the canisters, but he needs to be lead. Can you do that? I can pay you for your help. You have a credit chip, don’t you?”
She touches it fondly.
“You’re offering me a job?”
“Yes, I guess I am.”
Girl grinned. This was her chance.
“It'll take a while for the landing sequences to complete. I can fix your motivator before I go. ”
“Can you? That would be very much appreciated.”
She tried to sound confident, “It’s probably only a loose wire.”
Girl took the tool kit and loosened the casing at BeeZee’s knee.
She pulled gently on the wiring inside the servo, tracing it from connector to connector. “I never saw tech like this before. It’s a strange combination. This isn’t your original motivator, is it?”
“Oh, no, youngling. I lost the original decades ago. This is the best an old droid can do here on the outskirts of known space.”
“Maybe if I connect this ground to the plating here and adjust the power feed here," she said as her deft fingers made the required connections.
A barely audible hum rose from the connector as the motivator comes back online.
She heard another sound and she prodded the wiring again.
“It seems to be working, but there’s a strange sound.”
“I don’t hear anything,” suggested BeeZee, preoccupied with testing out the repair. “That is so much better.”
He paced the length of the counter. BeeZee was at the far end when she realized that the sound that should have faded as BeeZee got further away, did not.
“The noise is over here.”
The sound was coming from a drawer near her knee.
“What’s in this drawer?” she asked.
BeeZee turned back to Girl and cocked his head slightly, “Why do you ask?”
“It’s humming?” she said.
“Humming?” asks BeeZee, “Interesting.”
BeeZee thought for a moment then suggested, “Go ahead. Open the drawer.”
There, nestled in a velvet case was a cylinder as long as her forearm, and a little bit thicker than Mira’s staff.
"Go ahead, Girl, put the box on the counter."
The box was heavy for its size. She lifted it onto the counter top.
BeeZee took the saber in his hand, hefted it. Rolled it over, and seemed to check the buttons on it.
“This, youngling, is a lightsaber, a formidable Jedi weapon.”
“A real lightsaber? How did you get it?”
“That is a question for another time. You say you heard it hum?”
“Yes. Maybe it was singing? I’m not really sure.”
An idea popped into Girl's head.
“Would Mira the Jedi Lady know how to use it? You once told me Jedi could stop laser bolts with a lightsaber.”
“Yes, they could. And I'm certain she would be capable, but I doubt she'd be willing to touch a lightsaber again.”
“But if she would, could she get me to the shuttle?”
“Perhaps. Her scars go so deep, youngling. Force knows if she'd be willing.”
Girl shoved her Raeh doll in her satchel.
“I will convince her.”
“This I would like to see! Fine. Take the lightsaber but be very careful. Those untrained in the art of the saber have found themselves in need of prosthetic limbs.”
“I will, BeeZee. I promise.”
Reverently, she placed the case in her sachel with her Raeh doll.
The YT cruiser went silent as the engines completed their landing cycle.
Girl looked at the list of ships waiting for fuel.
“Alright. The YT is closest. I’ll take care of it first.”
Chapter 14: Berth 2 - Niima Space Port - ABY 24 - 5 Years ago
Girl survived the worst storm of her life with the help of BeeZee the fuel depot droid, his sidekick HL2 the heavy lifter droid, and the mysterious Mira.
She offers to help BeeZee fuel the incoming ships until they can get Hil repaired, starting with the YT-1300f, Phoenix Rising.
And she meets the crew, who have a secret.
The heavy lifting droid, Hil, toddled along behind Girl, sensors carefully pointed so he could follow.
The back wall of the storm cleared the streets of Niima of the sand and Reox, transporting it out into the desert beyond.
Only a small scattering of sand deposited by the last dying puffs dotted the Fuel yard.
Girl found it hard to believe that this same space had been so dangerous only hours ago.
A strange high-pitched song warbled across the depot grounds.
“Here, Hil. Pick up this container,” she ordered the droid, ignoring the sound, “I’m marking this for the YT Phoenix Rising. Who names their ship something like that? Ugh!”
The sound got louder as a Teedo, native species of the planet, shrouded in their dusty torn wrappings approached her.
“Girl bar nada gren sala?”
“You want to trade that noisy thing in your bag for fuel? Hil, does he ever bring anything useful to trade?”
Hil responded with a mournful whistle.
The discordant sound grew louder as the Teedo opened the sack and put its hands inside to pull the item out.
“What is that?” she asked. It looked like it a steelpecker skull made of metal. The remains of some droid, maybe?
At first, the noise was barely recognizable, but gradually, as she listened harder, it sounded more like a song, and soon the words shaped from racket into Basic. The chorus repeated, beat after beat, gradually clarifying into a song about a droid and his boy.
A droid and his boy? Not a boy and his droid. Hm.
“Teedo, sona gren sala. BeeZee mar wana.”
“Bar mana,” the Teedo said, wandering toward the Depot headquarters.
It was a good thing BeeZee’s master didn’t watch the books. Girl was sure that an audit would turn up some questionable trades.
“Come on, Hil, we need to get a move on. These ships won’t fuel themselves.”
She walked backward in front of Hil, guiding him and his cargo to the ship.
The young scavenger spun around and looked up in awe. She had worked in the remains of gigantic starships, but none had impressed her the way this one did.
The battered hulk of the YT cruiser loomed over her. The hull was battered and scored. The primary escape pod was missing. The ship had seen better days, but in Girl’s eyes, she was a beauty.
Imagine the freedom – flying anywhere in the galaxy, one with your ship. Her dream ship wasn’t one of the monsters from the Graveyard that required a score of trained professionals, but one that could be handled by a crew of two. She lead Hil to the base of the docking ramp and said, “Stay here, Hil. I’ll be right back.”
She grabbed the evacuation line from the disposal shoot and dragged it under the belly of the ship. BeeZee told her this was not a job for a nine-year-old, but until Hil regained his navigation, she would do what she could.
The ship’s outbound connector was at astromech height, so she only had to stoop a little as she pressed the release toggle.
She’d salvaged a number of these ports months back, so she knew when it didn’t release immediately that this was port was going to be a tricky one.
Girl noticed a streak of charred metal, running the length of the belly of the ship.
Voices came from above her as the hatch opened.
“Luke hasn’t got room for more ‘students,’ so no let’s not have a repeat of Batuu this time,” came the gravelly voice of a human male, “No matter what your mother might do if she were here.”
“I found Sana, but Luke was the one who chose to bring her back.”
The new voice was younger, deeper.
The old man huffed, “Interesting. That’s not the impression I got.”
“Does it really matter?”
“I guess not.”
“I’m here for the mission, not to add to the academy workload. No strays. But I wouldn’t be here if Mother didn’t have a soft place for the stray and the scoundrel,” said the younger man, his voice, deep and resonant.
“Point taken. And like we discussed, no mumbo-jumbo. Our contact won’t trust us if they think we’re using some sort of Jedi Mind Trick.”
There was a pause.
“Don’t worry. I won’t let you down,” said the younger voice, “No mumbo-jumbo.”
“Of course, if you’re only listening in . . .”
“So not 'no mumbo-jumbo', just don’t get caught?”
Girl tried again to release the connector, but the evacuation port was frozen in place. She tugged hard on the handle, but it wouldn’t budge.
“Now you’re getting it. You may want to ditch the gloves, too. They just don’t go with the outfit.”
“You’re suddenly a fashion expert?”
“Hanging out too much with Lando, I guess. Old worn gloves just don’t match Aldaraanian shimmer silk. Do you know how rare that fabric is now?”
“Yes, I do and the gloves are not optional.”
“It’s just they might blow your cover.”
“Fine. I’ll put them away. I wonder what’s keeping Sana,” said the younger voice.
“Why don’t you go check? I’m going to see if the fuel delivery’s here.”
The voices trailed off.
Girl traced the damage with her hand, first stooping then crouching as the arc of the ship reached its lowest point.
It looked like a lightning strike, and it ran up the hull into the access panel for the Environmental Systems.
ReOx oozed onto the ground from the valve that leads to the storage chamber, mixed with sand that R’iia’s storm fed wind had forced inside the gaping hull.
Poor beauty, she thought.
In space, this would have been fatal. Once the oxygen stored in the ship runs out, only sand – incapable of carrying oxygen - would circulate in its place.
She whistled, low, “That’s some serious damage.”
“Hey, you, kid!” came a shout from the edge of the ship, “Get outta there. Don’t you know it’s dangerous hanging out under spaceships?”
Now she saw who the craggy voice belonged to - a middle-aged, paunchy, bleary-eyed human that stood near the loading ramp, leaning on one hand against the fuselage, trying to get a better look.
“I have to hook up the disposal line.”
“Don’t you have droids for that?” he asked.
“Droid’s broken. I’m helping out.”
“You’re leaking ReOx. Do you need help fixing it?”
“You a mechanic?” the man asked.
“Close as you’re going to get on Jakku,” Girl said, turning her eyes away from him to look at the belly of the ship.
“What are you looking at?” he asked.
Girl looked up, admiring the ship that loomed over her, “This is a Corellian YT freighter, isn’t it? I’ve read about them, but I’ve never seen one before.”
“They’re a beautiful piece of work, aren’t they?”
“Yeah, but her disposal port’s wedged.”
“It’s been that way for a couple of weeks. Let me help you with that,” he offered.
“I got it,” Girl asserted, pulling a tool from her satchel. She loosened a retaining binder. She tapped it with the back of her fist, removing a bit of rust that had gotten lodged there. The connector port opened.
“There, old girl, all better,” she said to the ship, giving it a gentle pat before pressing the hose connection to the port.
A crooked smile dawned over the old man’s broken face, “Hey, nice job. I’ve been trying to get that unstuck for a couple of weeks now. Glad to see there are some from the younger generation that appreciate true craftsmanship.”
Girl smiled. Praise was something she didn’t get often. “Yeah, too bad she needs so much work. A ship like this has so much potential. She needs someone to take care of her.”
“Hey, I look after the Phoenix. Most of the time. Ok, hotshot, so give me the rundown. What does she need?”
“You’re not getting back into space in any hurry. You’ve got sand in your Reox chamber,” Girl told him, “and a pile of Reox in the sand. It needs a complete flush. Something took out your redundant ECCM and the way this thing set down you’ve probably going to need a new gravimetric bearing.”
“Huh. Anything else?”
“That over there,” she pointed, “is carbon scoring. This lovely’s seen combat. I won’t ask about that. But what you’ve got here isn’t carbon scoring. This looks like electrical discharge or a lightning strike. So, if lightning got through, you’ve got an issue with the power feeds for the shields. There’s probably additional damage to your environmental system beyond the OxDistFeed and the control module, but I won’t know until I open her up. Do you want me to go on?”
“Nah, kid. You’ve sold me. Do you always sweet-talk the pilots who land here? You get a cut from the repair yard?”
She shook her head, “We haven’t got a repair yard. Jakku is nowhere. If you need parts, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve got scavengers who can tear down anything built by any shipyard. But come in broken, and you’re on your own.”
“You seem to know your stuff, local talent.”
“Yeah, well, I’m the best scavenger here. What are you hauling?”
“Now I know you’re not a spaceport regular,” he frowned. “If you don’t ask, I don’t have to lie.”
She blushed. Working at the spaceport was a new game to her. She would have to step it up if she wants to fit in.
“My name’s Dadin,” he said, thrusting a thumb into his chest, “I’ll ignore the question and answer the one you meant to ask. That’s a static discharge off one of the wrecks we passed as we came in. We didn’t expect the hit from below.”
“It was a bad storm, Captain Dadin. I imagine visibility was really low. If you were close enough to catch a discharge, your sensors need repair, and you nearly wrecked.”
He puffed out his chest, opened his arms wide and pouted. The too-tight tattered Imperial uniform strained, “Hey, I’ll have you know I’m a pretty good pilot.”
“Maybe. I saw you land. Showoff.”
The smile returned, twisted by the scar that marred the old face, “Yeah, that wasn’t me. That showoff was my ...” he trailed off, “the ship’s owner, Master Caelo. He likes to land the ship himself. And don’t let him hear you call me ‘Captain.’ I’m just a pilot. And between you and me, if he’d pay more attention to the Phoenix than his other ships, we wouldn’t be in this place.”
Dadin looked like a dangerous man, but there was something about the roguish grin, and his quick wit that appealed to her.Her intuition was rarely wrong.
“You obviously care about her. You should be her captain,” Girl stated, matter-of-factly,
The thud of boots came down the ramp, “What’s it going to cost me this time, old man?”
A tall man with dark hair reached the bottom of the ramp and approached Dadin near where Girl crouched under the belly of the ship. He sported a neatly trimmed goatee and mustache, but his face was marred by a large scar that ran across the center of his face, ending at the bridge of his nose.
The younger man’s clothes were a contrast to Dadin’s rumpled uniform. They were freshly pressed, and very likely worth more credits than Girl would earn in a lifetime.
He was dressed in black tailored silk from head to foot. A cape, black silk on the outside, a deep gold inside, swirled from his shoulders to mid-thigh, tossed over the right shoulder with bravado, his hand free to draw the fancy but functional blaster that sat holstered at his hip.
He looked like some Core world aristocrat, and his accent said the same. Maybe Chandrilan? It was not Coruscanti, like BeeZee.
She considered her worn tunic and pants; seams let out to accommodate her growing body and the gaps filled with what scraps of fabric she could find. Her boots were patched with enough binder tape to keep her feet in and the sand out. Her face was smudged with and sand and Reox.
It was more important to pay off her indenture than to buy new clothes.
“Why don’t you ask the local talent?” asked Dadin, pointing at Girl.
Someone fancy like this would probably be willing to pay well to repair this ship, and she was here first in line. For once, things were going her way.
She hesitated. This could be her last chance to make an impression on these rich off-worlders and she wanted to do it right.
“Go on, tell me what you think,” the young man said, his voice deep like the rare candies she got from the Anchorites when they celebrated their holidays.
“Your environmental system is too damaged to return to space. If there’s more than one of you, you’re not going to live long in space on a single ECCM, and you’ve got a serious leak of ReOx.”
She crawled out from under the ship and continued, “I can only imagine what it looks like inside if it looks like this outside.”
She unbent, rising to her full height, which still allowed her to stand under the ramp with a few centimeters to spare.
For a moment, the young man turned away from her, when a look of pain flashed across his features. He stared out onto the desert as if he saw something there. As his head turned back toward Girl, his face fell back into the flat, emotionless look.
“Is that so? Do you know something about ships, local talent?” he asks gruffly, “You ever work on anything this size?”
He probably thought she worked on speeders or even the wheel racers, oblivious to what a real scavenger did.
She considered a sharp retort but thought again.
She didn’t want to risk losing the chance at a whole new world of possibilities. Working with a real pilot, she could learn things that would get her off the planet and away from Unkar.
She needed to do what she could before the Phoenix flew away.
“Super Star Destroyers big enough for you? Maybe you’ve heard of the Concord or the Ravager? I’ve worked on both of those wrecks. Do I think I can handle something like a YT?”
She left the answer up in the air.
She continued, “I can help you find the parts and install them. You’re not going to find anyone better anywhere on Jakku. I’m nearly 10, and I’m very good at fixing things.”
Doadin put in his two credits, “I could use the spare hands, Master Caelo. I think she and I can patch the old bucket of bolts back together. The Phoenix isn’t a thoroughbred like one of your new racing ships, but she’s served you well.”
Racing ships? thought Girl. There were credits to be had here.
Storm clouds gather on Master Caelo’s face. Dadin doesn’t seem capable of keeping a secret.
“We’re keeping a low profile, Dadin, remember? If you mess up this contact, don’t think I won’t dump you out an airlock.”
“Yeah, your mother likes me, so you know that's not going to happen,” Dadin retorted.
Master Caelo frowned and grunted. He turned back with an appraising look at Girl.
“We’ll see what you can do, then. What’s your name, girl?”
"Your name,” he paused, realizing what she had just said, “is Girl?”
“Yes. Girl. My parents weren’t very good at making decisions except for when they cut me loose.”
“You’re on your own?”
“Yeah,” she lies. If she can stay off of Barsa’s radar long enough, she might be able to parlay this job into a ride off the planet.
He relented, “Dadin says he needs your help, but don’t let him make you do it all. I’ll leave it to you two to manage the repair. I have some important business to conduct.”
He turned to the old man, “Be sure we’re ready to go as soon as possible. The less time I spend on this sandy rock, the better.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Dadin, “Hey, fuel droid. Bring that canister this way.”
Hil acknowledged Dadin, hoisting the canister, and followed him up the ramp.
Girl continued, “The repair is the easy part. Finding parts for a YT, that’s a little more difficult.”
“I see. A minute ago, this was a simple repair.”
“The repair is easy. And there are plenty of parts, but Unkar’s got a corner on the market. You’ll have to deal with him.”
“And he’ll extract a ‘reasonable’ fee. I expect to pay a realistic mark up for the parts, but I won’t overpay,” Master Caelo said.
Girl said, “I can’t get you ReOx or the grav bearing, but I do have a high-quality ECCM that’s worth at least 50 credits. I can have it back here at sunset. I’m pretty sure Unkar can get you the rest.”
There, she’d done it. She was no better than Barsa, undercutting Unkar. But she liked Dadin, and she didn’t want him to die.
“I can get home without the grav bearing.”
Girl looked at him knowingly.
“You think so? I saw that landing. It was pretty fancy flying, but that’s not going to do you any good in space if you hit an asteroid swarm.”
Half a smile lifted the corner of his mouth for a moment.
“But,” he agreed, “it wouldn’t be wise to go back to space without another ECCM. Do you trust this Girl, Dadin?” he asked loud enough to be heard inside the ship.
“Yeah, she’ll do,” grunted the older man as he came back down the ramp followed by Hil.
Master Caelo stopped and looked Girl curiously. He cocked his head as if he was considering something.
He stared a bit too long, and Girl wondered what was on his mind.
She stared back, waiting for him to speak.
Finally, she had enough, “What’s wrong?”
“Do I know you?” he wondered aloud, “There’s something very familiar about you.”
“I don’t know. Have you ever been to Jakku before?” she asked.
“No, I haven’t,” he admitted.
“Right? Jakku is nowhere, and I’ve never left Jakku. So no, you don’t know me,” she sassed.
“There’s something,” he drawled.
A blue hand wrapped itself around Master Caelo’s waist, startling them both. The young woman’s blue skin, highlighted by a black and gold skin-tight suit that looked nearly like livery, showed ornately in the sunlight.
“Such insolence, child. I beg you not to take offense, Master Caelo,” said the young woman who came down the ramp silent and unseen, “She doesn’t know to whom she is speaking. Slaves should show more deference to their betters.”
“I’m not a slave. I’m indentured. There’s a difference,” Girl said, through gritted teeth.
“Ah. Indentured? At nine years old?” asked Master Caelo.
“Yes. I’ve been indentured since I was six. I’m hired out to BeeZee for the day today,” she lied again, “Broken droid. Working on ships is how I earn the money to buy out my indentures.”
“Hm. I see,” said Caelo.
“Yeah. So let me help you so I can earn enough credits to pay it off.”
Girl looked over Caelo’s shoulder to see Dadin wandering away from the ship, with Hil tagging along behind.
“Hil, stop! Come back here,” she called.
The dark-haired man turned to see Dadin ambling off and shouted, “Hey, where are you going, old man? You’ve got work to do. We’re not getting off the ground if you get put in the clink.”
“You don’t own me,” grunted the man, waving his hand like it doesn’t matter, “I need a drink. This place is drier than Tatooine. Don’t you worry, I’ll be back when I’m ready. Hey, ‘local talent,’ where’s the pub around here?”
“Down the main street beyond the red striped tent. You can’t miss it.”
“Great. I owe you. Are there any decent Sabbac players here?” Dadin asked.
“By ‘decent’ do you mean rich? I’ve never been to the pub. I’m only 9,” she said.
“You’re more like nine going on 19,” he waved his hand and nodded his head in her direction, “Look at those eyes. I’ve seen eyes those before. Remind you of your mother, Master Caelo?”
“Yes, Dadin. And mother would be disappointed if you ruined this mission.”
“Humph. R2, keep an eye on the Phoenix.”
The blue and white astromech droid on the top of the ramp beeped.
Master Caelo, “You’d best be back at sundown. Or you may be replaced by the local talent.”
Girl’s heart skipped a beat. He was just trying to motivate Dadin, but it reminded her that this could be more than just a repair gig. If she played her cards right, the Phoenix could take her to the stars.
Dadin snorted, dismissing his employer’s instructions with a disrespectful wave of his hand, “Yeah, I’ll be back when my pockets are full of credits from the Sabbac table.”
“Sober,” demanded Master Caelo.
A tilt of the older man’s head caught Girl’s eye.
The master and his pilot shared a wicked grin and a certain crinkle to their eyes. She’d heard that wealthy families sometimes kept their bastards close by. Maybe they were uncle and nephew, or even brothers.
What was clear was that they were both scrappers. The scars on their faces told the story. The younger one had a nasty, mostly healed wound across his cheek, but the years hadn’t been kind to the Elder. Girl wondered what he looked like before.
Dadin’s eyes had the rheumy look of someone heavily addicted to death sticks.
Master Caelo extracted himself from the woman’s grip and bent down to pick something up from the sand.
“Is this yours?” he asked.
He held a black mask with an embedded vocoder. It looked like the mask that the stranger – Mira – had worn when she rescued Girl at the Weapons Depot.
“Yeah,” she lied, “I lost it in the storm. The wind must have blown it over here. Thanks.”
She reached over to take it from him. For a moment, their fingers touched.
Girl felt a jolt, like an electrical charge, travel from his hand to hers.
Residual static, she thought for a moment, before everything went black.
A surge of emotions – longing, loneliness, determination, anger, fear, love, hunger, exhaustion, confusion, deceit, jealousy – filled her mind to overflowing.
At first, they were just a jumble, tumbling, and swirling. In moments that jumble separated into individual impressions, the essence of the living beings that surrounded her – a family of skittermice slumbering in their sealed nest under the shed, the Teedo now negotiating with BeeZee for fuel, Barsa and the other drunks at the Pub, Constable Zuvio on patrol, Master Caelo, Dadin and the blue girl.
She felt herself falling, more slowly than she thought was possible.
She felt arms wrapping around her, supporting her as she regained consciousness after a moment. Master Caelo had leaped forward to catch her before she fell to the ground.
“I’m okay,” she choked out, embarrassed at her weakness.
Master Caelo lowered her slowly to the ground but wrapped an arm around her shoulders to brace her in a sitting position.
She breathed quickly; her heart was racing, and in her mind, there was a presence that she’d never felt before.
Girl felt doors opening in her mind. Memories old and new played in her head, but she had no control over what appeared there.
She saw herself, six years old, waking up to find herself on Unkar’s shop, head woozy from a dose of ‘medicine’ her parents had given her. She remembered the feeling when she realized that they were never coming back.
She could smell the fear and unclean bodies as Unkar threw her in with the other orphans who lived below his shop — each one fighting for a scrap of a blanket to stay warm in the cold desert night, and the little food that Unkar gave the younger ones so they could work.
She remembered Unkar forcing her to hold her thumb to the datapad to signing her indenture paper in Constable Zuvio’s office before she even knew how to write.
Her eyes swam in the seemingly endless darkness of the docking bay of the Ravager, and how small it made her feel.
The claustrophobia as Barsa forced her into the Ravager’s maintenance conduits.
Girl recalled memories of friends who never returned from the same conduits and the time when she found the desiccated remains of a lost scavenger as she crawled in the pitch black.
She shuddered, remembering the time Barsa punished her disobedience by abandoning her overnight in one of the hulks.
Above all, she remembered the heat of the desert days, the constant hunger, the icy cold of the night.
But then there was a happy memory – those rare blissful times when she’d listen to BeeZee when he told his Jedi stories as they waited out the stifling hot Blaze season.
And then the memories became more targeted.
Half-forgotten memories, of the times she prayed to BeeZee’s intangible ‘Force’ for the strength to help her find her way when lost in the conduits, seeped into her mind.
The sudden compliance of the Ravager’s ECCMs as they pulled free in her hands passed into her thoughts.
Her mind reviewed the heart-rending panic when she ran for her life as the Ravager shuddered around her, threatening to pull her into the desert’s mysterious depths and the door that slowed down when it could have cut her in two.
The image of Mira’s staff, flashing in the sun as it spun, cracking against Barsa’s skull, filled her with relief.
She remembered the anger that made her run away from Barsa into the dangerous storm.
She saw Hil finding her in the storm with unusual clarity considering how sick she was, and the electricity from her fingers stunning the droid.
She recoiled from the guilt.
A voice, deep and sweet and familiar, said to her, “Please don’t fight me, sweetheart. I need to know. Just a little longer.”
Suddenly, she recalled the dream. The overwhelming hunger in the darkness evoked by the evil presence that tried to lure her back to his cage and the longing for freedom as Mira tried desperately to pull her back from the abyss.
And the boy. The boy with the green glow that lead her back to the light.
“Don’t let him touch you,” a soft but unfamiliar thought echoed through her mind.
Her eyes opened to find Master Caelo on his knees, his huge arms wrapped around her, his bare hands holding her wrists.
“Run. Get away from him, now!” ordered the soft voice, and strange, crushing sense of distrust slammed into Girl’s mind.
“What’s wrong with you? Stop touching me!” Girl yelled as she shook him off and tried to jump up, but his arms held her fast.
“It is you,” said Master Caelo, in a smooth, soothing voice pitched low that only she could hear, “Let me help you.”
She wanted to believe him, but the soft voice told her with another wave of misgiving, “He’s lying. He’s not who he says he is.”
She could feel the truth of this. This man, this princeling, was hiding a secret that scared her.
“It’s okay. Everything’s okay,” the man’s voice soothed, although his lips didn’t move.
How did he do that? He was somehow lying about who he was. What kind of con artist was he?
The new voice told her, “Run. He is a dangerous man. He’ll hurt you. Run home. Stay away from him.”
A wave of fear swept over her, and her body reacted as if she’d been stung by sand bees.
She pushed herself up out of his arms. She jumped up, and she ran, like a skittermouse trying to outrun a vworkka.
When the confusion cleared from her head, her feet were still pounding down the main street into Niima, running toward the only home she knew – Unkar’s shop.
She saw the pub with its tent sides raised to capture the cooling breezes.
At the door sat Hil, waiting with infinite droid patience for the person that last gave him an order - Dadin.
She didn’t know why she’d run away from the ship. Even if Master Caelo was dangerous, he wasn’t hurting her – only holding her when she felt faint. There was nothing scary about that.
Why would she ever run toward Unkar when BeeZee was the one who helped her? So what if he wasn’t who he said he was. If Dadin and Master Caelo were how she’d get off this stupid planet, away from the sand and the heat and Unkar and Barsa, then she’d do whatever it took to get there.
The first step was to get Hil, walk right past Master Caelo and finish the job she promised BeeZee she’d do. And tonight, she’d go back and help Dadin with the ship.
She’d show him what a good mechanic she was.
For once, she had a chance to change her luck. Fear has never stopped her before, and it wasn’t going to stop her now.
She said to the droid, “Come with me, Hil. We’ve got to finish fueling the ships.”
Dadin turned his head from inside of the pub and saw her, “Hey, local talent – did you change your mind about giving me some pointers?”
But Girl stopped in her tracks as she sees who’s sitting next to Dadin.
“Hey, you okay, kid?” Dadin said.
The other Sabaac player stood, tall and dangerous. More dangerous in Girl’s mind that Master Caelo.
“So, little skitter mouse, you survived the storm. Back to Unkar’s with you,” said Barsa, folding her cards.
Chapter 15: Berth 2 - Niima Space Port - ABY 24 - 5 Years ago
The crew of the Phoenix Rising meet the Orphan Minders.
Zuvio and his deputy moved as quickly as the heat allowed toward the spaceport.
“Third call this week,” commented Deputy Streehn through the wrappings that protected his lungs from the dry searing Jakku heat, his feet pounding on the compact sand, “Someone is stirring up the status quo.”
“Sounds like they’re trying to make a space in the market. How many ships are in?” Zuvio asks as he and his deputy rounded the corner onto the main street of Niima Outpost.
“Seven. The usual three from Obsidian Freight, Khuss Brothers with a long haul, and two from Bragg Group. There’s another group in orbit waiting for the next load.”
Nicco the Belarmian, his dusky gray skin peeking out from under his poorly wrapped bandages, let out an exasperated whine, as he skidded to a stop to avoid the constable and his deputy. His arms full of low-quality wares tumbled to the ground
“Sorry!” apologized Zuvio over his shoulder, not slowing. He turned his head back towards Streehn, “So all the loading bays are occupied and the ships are carrying full crews. The port will be busy. Where does the YT-1300 fit into this?”
What passed for the spaceport in Niima came into view at the end of the tent-lined corridor. Flashes of light and the unmistakable sound of blaster fire didn’t slow the pace of the Niima lawmen.
“Unknown. Phoenix Rising came in hot - during the storm - so they’re not local. Took some serious damage from the look of it. Could be a new player.”
The lawmen circled the depot and reached the grounded Imperial shuttle that served as the Fuel depot shop. Zuvio nudged Streehn and pointed to the top of the shuttle.
The familiar Coruscanti-accented voice of BeeZee, the Fuel Depot manager droid, rang over the loudspeakers, “Stop firing your blasters, you idiots. Do you want to blow up the entire Outpost?”
The two Kyuzo climbed the hand-made maintenance ladder to the top of BeeZee’s shuttle as silence settled over the port.
Streehn lay down with his blaster pointed down on the depot below, despite the L1 droid's warning, “I wish Drego wasn’t out with the barges. Another hand would be appreciated right now.”
“At least the storm cleaned the blood from the last fight,” said Zuvio, joining his cousin as he looked over the edge of the shuttle, holding his own blaster at the ready, “Given the heat, I expect there’ll be another.”
“Fight or storm?” asked the Deputy.
“Probably both. I’m not looking forward to either.”
Zuvio zeroed in a familiar face: Barsa, Salvage Boss Unkar’s chief henchman. She was holding her Vibro-knife at the throat of a stranger - a slovenly older human male wearing a stained and torn imperial jacket, his face heavily scarred.
“First time I’ve seen Barsa show her face at one of these brawls,” commented Streehn.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if Unkar had his oily hands in what’s going on with the shippers,” suggested the senior Kyuzo lawman, “But Barsa’s behind the port gang, too. She just keeps it quiet.”
Streehn nodded then pointed out familiar faces in the crowd, “But this isn’t her port crew. There’s Dangti, Berchan, Marcat, and Gerand.”
Zuvio looked where his cousin pointed.
“The Orphan Minders. They should be corralling the children for part cleaning duty,” said Zuvio, “Who is with the Imperial?”
A young woman with blue skin and red eyes in a pilot’s jumpsuit stood, her feet planted defensively, hefting a wooden staff. Next to her was a young human male with a goatee, dressed in black silks with a black and gold silk cape tossed over one shoulder, a fancy blaster still held in his hand. Behind him stood another familiar face – Unkar’s orphan, Girl.
Zuvio whispered to Streehn, “Girls gotten herself mixed up with an Alderaanian noble?”
Streehn adjusted the focus of his ocular enhancers, “The reflective index is in the same range as Alderaanian silks to them. Very rare.”
“Hmm,” considered Zuvio, “The pilot is not Duros.”
“No,” said Zuvio’s brother-in-arms, appraisingly, but said no more. Zuvio knew they were thinking the same thing. Chiss.
“An unusual group. They will require watching.”
“Barsa is already watching them. I’m not sure if that means they’re the competition or just unfortunate.”
Behind the strangers was the old Corellian YT freighter, a fraying paint job declaring it the ‘Phoenix Rising.’ The ship’s boarding ramp ended in the sand behind the Alderaanian.
Barsa’s bellow rose above the whine of the faulty environmental systems of the YT.
“Give me back the girl or I slit his throat.”
The older man growled, “I told you. She doesn’t want to go with you.”
“Quiet or I’ll mess up your face so bad it’ll look pretty again. Girl’s indentured to Unkar. She stays.”
The young man’s voice rang deep over the sand, “Are you her master?"
"I'm her minder. Unkar's her master."
"Dadin,” he pointed to the tattered man, “needs help to repair my ship. He says she'll do. What’s the price?”
“Look at you, little princeling. You buying a toy for your servant? How kind. You can have the brat, but it’ll cost you fifty.”
“She’s only worth fifty credits to you?”
“Fifty thousand for a stripling girl?” asked the Alderaanian, “I could buy another ship for that.”
“That’s what she owes. Let me tell you, she’s been a handful. Your ship is garbage, but your clothes tell me you can lay your paws on some credits. That’s the deal. You pay or she does. And we’re on a deadline. We need to get these ships loaded and airborne,” said Barsa.
“What were you thinking, Dadin?” chided the Alderaanian youth, “We’re not here to get you a new mechanic.”
Zuvio’s eyesight, like most Kyuzo, was better at a distance than up close. He saw Girl’s face fall as her hope of escaping the planet faded.
“But she could help with the ship.”
“So you can lay about hazy with spice? Do you think that’s the kind of life this girl needs?”
“But Boss. . .”
“No, Dadin. I have a deadline, too. I don’t have time for this,” stated the young noble.
He grabbed Girl by the scruff of the neck and pushed her toward Barsa. Zuvio noticed as both of them shuddered at the touch. Girl in fear of her fate, and the haughty Alderaanian at the touch of the unwashed. Both quickly recovered.
“Take her home,” he said roughly.
Girl turned and stared at the man, her face both angry and confused.
He holstered his blaster, “Tell Unkar that Master Caelo of the Phoenix Rising will pay him a visit this afternoon. We’ll see if there is any room for negotiation.”
Barsa shoved the Imperial back toward his master as Girl stumbled back over.
“Are we going to let Unkar sell her to these offworlders?” asked Streehn.
“The contract’s solid. I can’t find a loophole. Maybe it’s better for her.”
“Maybe it’s worse.”