Li, my brother, was sitting quietly. Tach, who took care of us, was talking and inattentive. He was often talking like this and nobody was listening. I didn’t know what the words he said meant until I found them again in one of the libraries of the dark monks. This speaks of their power. That they could stay in my mind, uncomprehended, only to reveal themselves at the moment I had enough knowledge to comprehend them. I know now that what Tach did was dangerous. I didn’t know then.
Then, twenty years ago, the words were many things to me. Lullaby, magic spell, words which hid feelings that I didn’t comprehend and which jumped out at me, unexpectedly, when I was listening to Tach’s singsong for too long. But above all the words meant Tach and all that he was to us. When they first met him, many people thought that Tach was an imbecile, one of the countless number of people driven mad by the loss of their homeworld, maybe one of the last of his kind – and there were many such people when I was a child. The empire had rampaged through the galaxy, destroying worlds almost at random with their world devourers. It wasn’t a strange thing to have lost a planet, it was as common as losing a toy or a parent. We lost both parents, but we had toys and we had a planet. Not that Li ever saw it, but I did. In fact I am currently sitting on a shuttle taking me from the surface of my own planet back into space, which belongs to nobody but is always being fought over. The interior of the shuttle is turned red and orange by the light given off by the friction heat. People around me look pale and lonely. There is much fear in this little shuttle. Much clutter, too, since the staff didn’t bother securing the refreshments too well. Even though the stabilizers have improved immensely in the last decade or so, it is still difficult to keep away the feeling that one is among many dice in a cup, shaken by an enthusiastic player, as one passes from air into airlessness. Streaks of flame and heat turn to blackness and it takes a while until the pilot decides to turn on the shuttle’s internal lights, so one races from fire into shadow. Everything becomes quiet with an inexplicable suddenness, as if some cosmic giant clapped his hands and so took all noise away. I become very still inside, feel myself flowing out, hoping against hope to fill that immeasurable emptiness that I am going to cross.
It is in these moments that I feel that which they call the Force strongest. Against the black backdrop of space all hopes, plans and fears become starkly visible. My own plans, my own hopes, my own fears are reduced to a single thread and it takes all my strength to keep following this thread, symbolic of my existence, as it weaves into the tapestry that appears in my mind.
Then something vast drifts past beyond my window, scattering my thoughts. A star destroyer. People say they are large enough to be spotted from the surface of the planet with the naked eye. We have managed to leave the planets atmosphere and have entered space. The lights of the shuttle go on, the people around me sigh collectively and some begin tentative conversations. The tension is broken and so is my vision. The man next to me offers me a globule filled with clear violet liquid. He speaks a few words of his tribe and there is pride and the edge of a sword in his voice. It is a tribal Mandalorian. He says that he has left the endless wars his people wage to search for different things, now that his life draws to a close. He speaks of the battles that he has fought – his voice firm and proud – but also that he can no longer see any pride and any glory in the slaying of another man. Having said that, he pauses, looks around quietly and his face shows its age. Scars and wrinkles intersect, he wears a grizzled beard and his eyes are almost hidden in folds of skin. I suspect that his body might not withhold the rigours of daily training that the Mandalorians, to my inexpert knowledge, keep up well into old age and that he feels a sort of shame that he can no longer be assured of victory. But the moment passes and soon his face is animated again and he speaks, almost as if pleasantly drunk by it, of the beauty and fierceness of that planet that we left behind. He seeks to chronicle such places, places that like himself have been proud and glorious once and then turned into “fugues of a music of the tongue and mind”, as he describes it with strange and unexpected poetry.
“Try the globule,” he urges me as our conversation slacks off again. It gives one peace of mind and strength of memory. I put it in my mouth, not to disappoint the old man, but instead of savouring its effects, I analyze them and try to separate the tastes, original and synthetic, that mingle in my mouth, while the old Mandalorian speaks on about the weakness that is old age. He does so proudly and elegantly, never betraying that it might be his own fear but rather some universal poetry shared by all thinking and acting beings and I drift off into my own thoughts, maybe strengthened by the essence contained within the globule.
I tend to push my assignment out of my head, overlay it with memories of Li and Tach and my time at the academies that I was sent to as a younger man. At times it almost becomes difficult to remember what exactly it is that I was sent to do. I proved to be apt as a philosopher more than as a fighter – make no mistake, I can fight as well and disciplined as any well-taught Jedi – but it was this aptitude that made my master choose me for the task that I am on. I have been travelling in fulfilment of that task for nearly twenty years now. People tell me that I look younger than I am and I have learned to use it to my advantage, but I think, sometimes, that it comes from moving constantly, in body and in mind.
I was sent to create a map of the force in the outer parts of the galaxy. I was taught to empty my mind and to let the threads and ebbs of places strong and holy or dark and forgotten fill me until the very inside of me was a mirror of such places.
My life has been peaceful, apart from inner turmoil, which threatens to blur or upset the careful maps that I have made. I have had to learn to find places for those…disturbances. I have no family, so there was never anything like homesickness to detract me. Romantic entanglements that created a beast of feeling and emotion inside of me there were a few – I cannot say that they were more or less than I had hoped for, for I think there is none who wants to spend his entire life alone, but gradually they all have been made part of those maps. Officially a Jedi is forbidden all sort of romance, but put a man into a state of constant isolation and even iron will is made to rust. Not that my will in such affairs was ever iron.
A feeling of guilty curiosity stings me whenever I meet another Jedi. A restless question in my head whether he has done it or not. Whether there are men in her wake, women in his, men in his, women in hers. It is the comforting perversion of those who are required to be monks, I suppose. I have been many things, in my time – monk, surgeon, psychiatrist, judge, but rarely have I been a warrior.
Someone touches my shoulder. The old man has fallen asleep, but there is a child that has come up to me, bending over his massive legs to reach me. He is one of the Azad, a race of preternatural sensitivity, whose main cause of death are violent emotional traumata. I spent half a year studying their mental disciplines and geographies of the spirit which are deeper than all others that I have ever known. He does not smile, which they consider crude, but looks at me to invite me to read his mind through his eyes. My reading is incomplete and weak, but there is something he wishes to show me. Their internal disciplines far exceed those of the Jedi, but they have never developed anything close to our external mastery of the force. His people have been known to guide willing Jedi to places of the force far beyond their own imagining, so of course I am curious what they boy means to show me.
I grab the seat in front of me and carefully step over the old Mandalorian’s legs. Standing, I have a look around. Most of the passengers are asleep, only a few are engaged in reading or conversation. The lights are dim and I can feel the hum of the ship in my entire body. To imagine that we are currently moving at the speed of light…so strange – they have devised generators and shield buffers to make the shift in speeds almost imperceptible for the passengers. Allegedly there were some races that, upon their first travel at such speeds, literally lost their souls and arrived at their destination without an aim, without a purpose in their lives, forever wandering about, seeing nothing, feeling nothing.
I follow the boy along the aisle. Sometimes the Azad lose all abilities to act, lost in a reverie of sensations. At such moments they need people like me, people who understand their awareness and who can make them act again. Maybe his mother or father have been shocked by the speed, the unusual perceptions that space travel causes in those who cannot close their minds. A simple thought shield should be enough to take care of that.
He does not lead me to his parents. We pass seat after seat, we pass the cabins for those who breathe different substances than oxygen, some shaped like sarcophagi, others like spacious bathrooms, but always hermetically sealed. We pass a crewman, who, to pass the time, has lost himself in some drug-fuelled haze. He does not notice us as we step over him and descend a ladder into the bowels of the ship. The humming changes. Surrounded by wiring and broad, semi-translucent tubes, I feel like I have been swallowed by some primordial electronic beast and I indulge in the feeling for a while.
We walk on, ducking through one door and passing another without discernible direction. There are little scars on the neck of the boy. His head is shaved, his eyes are dark. He wears good clothing, so he is not poor and certainly not a stowaway on the ship planning to ask me for some inconceivable help. I grow a little suspicious and the Azad boy, of course, notices the shift in feeling. However, he does nothing to assure me, perhaps to show me that he is certain of the importance of what he has noticed. Since the tiniest sign of emotion can become an unbearable burden for an Azad, he must be very certain of it. I try to control my emotions to show that I do not distrust him.
At last we seem to have reached our goal. The Azad stops and points at a door. There are signs on the door and I feel shame that I cannot read them. He presses a few buttons on a display and the door opens. Behind it there is a narrow elevator. I recognize the sort. Some ships had those installed to transport goods or technical supplies while docked at a station. They are vacuum sealed and almost impenetrable. But I have never heard of them leading somewhere inside a ship. What does the boy know that remains hidden to me? Since I have decided to trust him, I try my best to keep all fear and suspicions suppressed and enter the elevator. The doors close, everything spins, all sounds seem sucked from my ears – I am thrown against metal, against another body and against metal again – a flash of pain in my head, then darkness.
“Jerek and the others have something planned again.” Mother is curious today. It’s good. Her voice makes me think of chalk drawings on a blackboard. Reminds me that I need to hold on to my plans for when she’s gone. But for now I need to take care of her.
“You know Jerek, he still thinks the people in Level Beta are slum bourgeoisie and that they have more food than we. It’s like he can’t imagine that they’re as bad off as we are here.”
“We have a good life, Laar. We do.”
Something in her voice touches me. “Well…we got a curtain.”
“Have you got your datapads for today?”
The data on it is transmitted each week. I suspect it’s not transmitted at all but stored in the mainframe and passed out piecemeal, else the transmissions wouldn’t always be on time. It makes me question what’s on them, sometimes. Maybe all I learn – and I do learn, it’s all I have to get me off the ship one day – is some kind of sham, that it’s just the world the way the ship’s builders would have liked to see it. I get politics, sometimes, and sometimes biology and chemistry and technical subjects, but I like history best. There are some transmissions that I trade with the others who come to the fountain, but whenever there’s something in it about a person that I feel is sympathetic in some way, I keep it to myself and tell anyone who asks that I got a repetition. It happens, sometimes, so they have no reason to distrust me.
“I’ll go and get ‘em after you’ve eaten.” Synthetic food. Doesn’t it turn your thoughts synthetic, after a while? Is all that is inside of you just carefully simulated and restructured, so that there ain’t a single original thought in your head?
“Dogar is trouble again, I hear.”
“When isn’t he trouble?” That means I should take the prod stick and maybe stop by the sisters’ place to borrow their knife. I’ll have to get their transmission for them if I do and I’ll owe them since I don’t have anything to trade, but it’s better to have that knife.
“They say he has a tumour that makes him so angry, some growth inside of his bowels or head, I forget where exactly.”
“Just watch out for yourself.”
I take the bowl. She left half of it inside. “I already ate, you know.”
She just smiles. Death is kind of strange, here at least, maybe everywhere. It grows inside of people just like Dogar’s rumoured tumour, but there’s no anger that can make it go away. So people do their best to behave like people until it becomes too big to do so. I wonder if one shouldn’t go mad. Maybe dying’s easier that way. “I’ll be careful.”
I can smell the urinal all the way down the corridor. There are other smells, too. One of the scavengers recently found out that if you powder those dead crystals that they sometimes find in old machines and set the powder on fire, it gives off a pleasant smell. So they started selling them. Most of the people in our corridor got one. Mary didn’t have to get one because the mechanical door of her room’s still working and I didn’t get one because there was nothing to trade for it. I try not to breathe too deep.
The sisters live a few corridors down. There are stragglers again, bundled up in their rags. They come from different parts of the ship and some here treat them like they’re from different worlds. I don’t know what makes them go elsewhere. It’s damn hard to get into another corridor, for starters, to get the people to accept you and so on. Maybe all of them are people like Jerek who think the grass is greener on the other side. I wish I had something to give the sisters. They sometimes kind of tell me that if I were to come and let them kiss me and so on, they’d let me off the hook and forget some of my debts. But, well, I’m not that kind of girl and I’m not going to let them do that. So it means errands, usually. You can’t miss their door. They had some technician make a pompous wire frame for it and it gives you a slight electric shock when you pass through. Stimulating, they call it.
Their room smells of sex, perfume and metal. Their rooms are part brothel, part office. The sisters govern our part of the ship, that’s what everybody says and they are right. There is an official council and there are other people who are very vocal about what they do and how they lead and so on, but if the sisters don’t support them, they’ll be forgotten in a few days. I’ve heard some say that the sisters are Twi’Lek (which isn’t true, I have seen images of real Twi’Lek on the pads) and that they used to belong to a Hutt before they killed him and escaped. If that’s true why should they have come here, on board of this grave the size of a small world? They are kind, sometimes. They have weapons and they lend them to people they trust.
Ti, the youngest of the three, makes me so jealous. She is the prettiest creature I have ever seen and I sometimes think I should come over and allow them to have their way with me, just for her to touch me. She is quiet, but if people talk about Ti and they’ve grown bored out of telling each other how pretty she is, they’ll start talking of her cold intelligence and how she doesn’t fear a thing. She sometimes goes into the darkest parts of the ship (I could tell you stories about those parts that would make you blood freeze to red ice) and doesn’t come out for days. People say she is in league with devils. I have my own suspicions about her, but I know when to keep my mouth shut.
Xza, the middle sister, is busy and warm. She knows everybody and she likes to talk. If you meet her you’d think her one of the friendliest women you’ll ever see, but there are few who can best her when it comes to pulling one over you in a trade.
Ro is the oldest. She is something like the high priest of our part of the ship and I always get cold shivers down my spine when I meet her. She breathes authority. She was injured badly when she was a young girl and so she has a robot leg and some say other parts are mechanical as well, but I am too scared to ask her about those, so I don’t know.
Today it’s Ti who sits by the entrance watching for customers. My stomach starts feeling strange as she looks at me. Xza would have been easier and faster, but I’m lucky it’s not Ro. Ti wears a soft looking robe and braids I wish I knew how to do. Not that I would dare to copy Ti in any regard, it’s just what I feel looking at those curls that look like letters on some strange screen. Don’t expect smiles from Ti or she’ll seem even more distant. She nods and I can feel lucky to get even that much attention from her.
“Listen, Ti. I know you’re gonna think I’m asking a favour again and I haven’t even repaid the last one or the one before…let me just ask you straight out: I need to get that transmission for my pad and people’ve been talking that Dorgar is acting up again, you know, how he does sometimes…I…I was wondering if I could get that knife that I borrowed once, you know the one with the big blade and the leather grip, just in case…” I notice that I’ve started twisting my hair while I was speaking and drop my hand straight away. Ti looks at the screen inside of her desk and, surprise, surprise, doesn’t say a word. I know that she hates if I ask her twice, so I shut up and wait.
“You are going to the fountain, Laar?” Gods, that voice! It’s like every letter is a living thing. I kind of understand why she doesn’t speak much. If I had a voice that sounded as great as hers, I’d get jealous and keep it for myself, too.
“That’s right. The transmitter’s right next to it, right where the little archway is.”
Ti looks up. I couldn’t say anything about her eyes even if I wanted to, which makes me guess that I’m somewhat in love with Ti, even though I’m deadly scared of her. Then she stands up and I think she’ll go and get the knife. I’m surprised how smoothly it went, but instead she walks to the door. “I will come with you. That is better than a knife.”
Right. I feel like I am suddenly very small as we walk along the corridors. The people stare a little and I try to imagine that they’re not thinking “What the hell?” when they see me tagging along behind the youngest of the sisters. I should be proud, but I am just scared. The sisters do nothing without a good reason and I’m sure I’ll soon know what that reason was and I feel even surer that I won’t like it a bit. The walk takes longer than usual and I can’t imagine how Ti deals with all those stares wherever she goes. I guess she enjoys them. There is lust there and a lot of fear, in all those eyes. She doesn’t turn around to look at me, which is good. I don’t want to imagine the expression on my face.
Finally we reach the place where our part of the ship joins the inner ring. You can walk around all the way and every few steps there are corridors that will take you to the other parts of the ship. The door is guarded. The sisters control the guards, so they look all stiff and nervous to see Ti coming up to them. I’m sure they think they’re in trouble. I recognize one of them. It’s Bran, who was teaching Jerek how to use a blaster gun, when we still thought that he, Jerek, might join the guards. He exchanges a look with Ti and opens the door for us.
The inner ring is a kind of no man’s land. It doesn’t officially belong to any of the groups and faction that own most parts of the ship. It’s called ring, because obviously it’s shaped like one. On one side are the doors leading to all the corridors, on the other is a gap that looks endlessly deep when I look down and endlessly high when I look up. There are rings of light and of darkness, one of light, one of darkness, one of light and so on. The light shows the other levels. I don’t know how many the ship has. Some of the old people might know. There’s also bridges that you can cross to reach the core part of the ship, which we call the fountain.
It’s there where you can find guys like Dogar. Their group has chased them away and no other has accepted them. Most of them have gone mad. Some are funny and some make you very sad, but a few are quite dangerous. As soon as one door opens they rush towards it, trying to bribe the guards or persuade them to let them in. You have to push through the crowd if you want to get to the fountain. That’s always a little tense, since you never know what will happen, but once you’re past them there’s lot of debris everywhere so you can hide – but of course that means they can, too – and usually the guard watches until you’ve reached the bridge and sometimes fires off a warning shot if there might be danger, but when you return you’re on your own until you reach the door to your corridor so it’s always good to have some kind of weapon, just in case. But I don’t need a weapon now, since Ti’s walking ahead of me. I can’t believe my eyes, actually. I wonder just what it is I’ll have to do to earn that honour. I’ll have to run errands for months, I’m sure. I hope it isn’t anything worse.
Ti walks through the inner ring like she’s right at home there. Even the beggars and outcasts step away and make room for her. I can’t see Dogar and I hope that Ti doesn’t think I lied to her just to get that knife. I run to keep up. When we have reached the bridge she signals to the guard to close the door and he does. I can see that one of them kicks an old thin guy pretty hard as the old guy tries to get inside the corridor before the door closes.
Walking on the bridge is great. There always is a draft and if you stick your arms out over the sides, sometimes it is so strong that it pushes your arm upward. I don’t do that, though, because Ti is here now. When we reach the door Ti steps back and lets me enter my code. I’m surprised at that. Maybe she doesn’t want anyone to know that she’s been here…the code would register somewhere, but I have no clue who has access to such a register. As far as I know nobody has ever seen or heard of anyone who might have any sort of control over the ship. There are stories and people like Jerek believe them with all their hearts, thinking that if they find them, they can get control over the ship. But who’d want to get control over it? I just want to leave the scrapheap.
My code works and we slip in. The room we’re in next is real cramped and narrow. I read that a long time ago people did something like it in churches or palaces of kings and so on that they build the entrance hall really small and cramped so that you’d be absolutely awed once you entered the really impressive part of the building. It’s the same here. After we pass the damaged security doors we enter a huge hall filled with trees and all sorts of things. There are birds high up, near the dome-shaped ceiling, and the gods know what they feed on because I do not. We called that place the fountain because there are lots of them, some of marble with statues and everything, and almost all of them broken, both the statues and the part that holds the water. The air is different here so that the plants can grow, I guess. There are a few people from a different corridor who study the plants and the birds here and I see them around sometimes, but they never talk to me. I told them that I know a little of biology and that my brother is a good hunter (which is true, he caught one of the monkeys that still lived here when we were younger) so maybe we could help them with whatever it is they’re doing, but they just ignored me. So all I know now is that the air is different to breathe and that you start to sweat easily. I like it here, but I force myself to forget that because I’m rather scared of crossing the inner ring and if I allow myself to like it too much I’d have to go and cross it more often.
As I watch Ti walking ahead of me, I think I could try for a little small talk and all the embarrassment that comes with it. “So you’ve been here before?”
Ti gives me that measuring stare of hers. She always does that before she speaks, so it’s a good sign. “I have.”
“I just figured since you had me use my code you might not want to let anyone know you’ve been here, right?” Maybe I can get some clue from her about how the data is stored and by whom. I feel a thrill just thinking about it.
Then again, maybe not. “I need to go to the transmission port to pick up my weekly transmission – it’s right over there where those stone steps and arches are. After that I guess you’ll want to tell me what I can do for you, right?”
Ti actually lifts her brows a little. She nods and I feel that there’s some kind of doom approaching fast. I can’t concentrate properly, so I enter the wrong code for my transmission twice before I finally manage to make my image show up on the screen. I look like my own younger sister up there. I don’t have a younger sister, of course, only Jerek who’s my brother and a little older than me. I barely notice what the subject is for today. When I was born – and I was born on the ship, just like my mother was – my mother had my name entered with some official of the ship (they still existed back then) and so I was entitled to get a proper education. She probably thought I’d go to a school or at least get an android teacher like the one her mother had told her about, but that pad and the weekly transmissions are about the extent of it. When I started there were lots of other kids and I always had to stand in line and wait my turn. Today there’s nobody else here. I usually read the transmission quickly to see whether there’s anything about the force and the history of the jedi in it, which means that I won’t trade it for the world, but I even forget to do that.
“Done?” I’ve never heard a word that sounded so much like a tombstone.
“There is someone I want you to take care of…”
Lost…stranded…dead…those were thoughts that ran through my head. I saw my brother’s questioning face and thought that it was him, him and Tach, who sat with me in the tiny elevator. There were periods of wakefulness and periods when the pain became too much to bear. I couldn’t move. Li was telling me stories of the birds that he had watched on the shore in front of our house and behind the pain I saw them, the sun behind them, the drops that their wings scattered flying like the jewels of a broken necklace. Li and I, we ran down the steps, ran across the sand and we turned into birds like those he had seen and described and we flew across the sky, calling to the sun like to a mother.
Then I was back and was staring at a broken panel, at damaged metal walls. Something was leaking but I could not say whether it was a machine next to me or myself. I felt the leak, I felt some fluid dripping on the floor, but during all this it was curiously difficult to say which of these manifestations, the fluid, the act of dripping, the floor getting gradually wetter or the being who perceived all of this was me. I grappled with that question until the pain overwhelmed me again.
Li and I, we were slowly turning into flames. We shed the part of us that was bird and became flame. I felt grand and noble and these feelings lasted until I, suddenly, realized that I was become the flame that Tach used to light one of his cigarettes.
There was a smell of burning unlike tobacco. The leak had gotten worse. Some alarm was going off. I felt aware of the boy next to me, but it was too difficult to tell myself that it wasn’t Li…
…and so I was breath or smoke mixed with breath and I slowly dissolved as Tach exhaled me. I spread across the entire room and felt myself rolling like the mist of early morning that was gently blown past our hut…
…which was now a tiny room of metal. I felt some urge, some nameless, purposeless urge that I knew had no release. My entire being was contracted, tensed and I felt I would never relax again…
…we sit together playing a simple game. The stake is the other’s life. As the elder brother it is my turn to begin the game. The game is played without dice, without board – it is played by thoughts and every thought is loud and clear to the other. Nobody can win in this game. If I win, he dies. If he wins, I die. We try to play for as long as we can…
I awake again and the urge has gone. My body feels numb, but it can hold my mind again. I am no longer inside of the elevator. Everything is dark and something strange is feeling its way through my body. I sense nothing. There is a noise and it is as loud as an explosion. Light and two shadows against the light…
“You’re so quiet today, Laar. Has something happened?”
I stop whatever I’m doing to realize I’m cleaning the same cup I started on ten minutes ago. Luckily my mother’s attention isn’t quite what it was. I wonder how I can tell her… “I got a job.”
“Oh, another of those errands, is it. You’ve done so well with those…”
“No. Not like that. It is with the Sisters. And I might be away for a bit longer than usual. Don’t worry I’ll get Jerek to be here when I’m gone or maybe Mary if he doesn’t have time. You like Mary, don’t you?” To go away into the darkness of the ship. To walk there for an hour, feeling like I’m walking right into the throat of an awful beast.
“Mary is the girl with the long braids, is she? The one from Earth?”
“The human, yes.” He is a human, too. Or what’s left of him. I almost vomited when I saw him first, when one of the machines that took care of him shone the light on him. Ti showed me a diagram, so I could see what had been done to him. One lobe of the lung, the kidneys, part of the bowels, one entire leg and half of the other and some neurological implants in his brain so that he could actually learn to control all of it with his thoughts. She made me sit there for an hour and study it, to make sure I understood all of it. I have done a bit of work for the local physician and I know enough about anatomy, but I’ll have to go and talk to one guy whose name Ti gave me. She said he knows about androids and can tell me what to watch out for in those new parts.
“Mary…that girl has a heart of gold.”
“Gold wired circuits surrounded by some synthetic alloy.” That’s what they put through his heart to make it beat again. It had stopped when they found him. It had stopped for an entire day.
“I’ll make you some tea, alright?” So I can get that cup out of my hands, before I clean the coating off it. An entire day…how could he have survived this? I was looking at him as if he was some piece of a machine when he looked back at me. I thought at first that he was looking at me, wanting to blame me, but then I saw that his eyes were glazed and didn’t see anything…or not much, in any case, he did react to the light. His face was tired, but it looked so noble, just as if it didn’t really mind what had happened to the rest of him. I felt like I was standing right at a deathbed, but also at an altar, if that makes sense. There was something about him that almost felt holy to me…I wanted to reach out and touch his hand – there was no question in my mind at that point that I would care for him, I wanted to seal that somehow by touching him…that’s when I noticed the creepy boy. He sat on the floor and didn’t move and I’d never have noticed him, but one of the robots had to evade me and the beam of his light shone on the boy for a moment. I was scared to death. He was pale, almost as if he didn’t have any blood left in him. His eyes were big and dark and he looked like one of the freighter ghosts from stories that my mother had told us when we were kids.
Whenever a ship docked, a freighter or a ferry, there was a chance that it had a freighter ghost on it. Freighter ghosts are the sadness and loneliness of all the passenger that has somehow taken the shape of a young boy and he would slip from the freighter, because the people there – understandably, I’d say – just didn’t want him, not a bit of him, and so he’d slip over to the bigger ship where he could hide and get sadder and sadder and there was no way anyone could feel joy near such a thing. It’s a children’s story but that’s what came back to my mind, quite strong, when I saw the boy.
I have to go and get Mary to come and watch mother. Jerek won’t do it, no matter what. So it’s Mary, then the android guy and back down to the injured human and the ghost boy. I can’t say I’m not scared, but even if there were hundreds of beasts and shiploads of ghosts in the dark down there I’d still go. Two more things. Ti told me that I couldn’t tell anyone about the human or about the fact that they have working robots (I figure it’s them who made Ro’s leg) which is understandable since there are so many nutcases who’d like to get their hand’s on them. I wonder if the human is one of those people who control the ship – maybe that’s the reason why they’re keeping him hidden and in this case it’s better if nobody knows about him or there’d be riots again. The other thing. Ti gave me a blaster gun. I don’t know if I can shoot with it, but it gives me a little bit of comfort and there’s no doubting that. You can’t shoot your fears with it, but it certainly makes them a little more manageable.
Mother goes to sleep. Mary isn’t in her room, so I walk down to the little public square where the food dispensary is. I’m not much for religion, but some people in our corridor are and they have taken this machine, which they call a miracle, as the reason why this ship must be managed by the gods. Every day, without fail, everybody gets his ration of synthetic food and liquid. The basic stuff is some formless, tasteless mix of nutrients, just enough to get you going for a day, but there are spice traders in the rooms next to the food dispensary, people who’ve managed to grow one or two plants or those who go and collect oxidized minerals which are ground up and added for extra taste. I wasn’t raised with all the religious talk like most of the others my age, so I always wanted to know what makes this go and what’s the reason that the thing over there’s working and calling it the gods certainly is a beautiful way, but I’ve asked the people here to describe their gods to me and they look so completely different than the gods the people in the next corridor described, so I’m not sure. It’s like asking kids what does the guy in the datapad story look like and if there are ten kids you’ll get ten different descriptions. That’s why I felt I really liked the description of the Force that I read in one of my transmissions. There was a flow of energy that you could follow, in your mind, and there was nobody saying, it has to look like this, but it was more like, you have to watch and be attentive all the time and that is really appealing to me. So, around the human down in the dark, even if he was completely damaged, really, around him I felt something of that. I am scared, but it’s not really him I’m scared of.
Mary is one of the religious types. She likes helping and explaining and she’s very simple in her way. Of course she’ll watch out for my mother. She is delighted and all that. She doesn’t even ask why I have to leave her. That’s one of the reasons why I’d rather ask her than Jerek – he wouldn’t agree until I told him exactly where I was going and I can’t do that.
I find the android guy right where Ti told me he’d be. He’s a grumpy mixbreed, but that’s actually good, because for all his complaining and grieving he doesn’t think of asking me why I need all that information. He tells me that he never had an apprentice and whose fault was that? There is some sort of joy in him to tell me all those things, just as if he had waited for really long to do exactly that. He has never seen a real life android, all his knowledge is passed down from some distant ancestor who took care of the corridor’s android (I didn’t know we had one) many centuries ago. It doesn’t quite make sense in my head, but as soon as I get him to talk about Ro and what he did to help her, things become a little clearer. I get the feeling that he’d really want to examine the robots down there which take care of the human, so it becomes a bit hard to keep my mouth shut, but I do it.
It’s a long talk and he says more than I can remember, but I feel that I am now better prepared than I was before. I tell him I’ll come back and ask him more, which I will do as soon as I have looked at the robots and the implants properly.
Now for the easy part, ha! Just grab your blaster, Laar, walk down into absolute goddamn pitch darkness until the only sounds you can hear are the monsters in your head (and pray that they are only there), be friends with a freighter ghost and take care of a possibly very important man who might die any minute or live to be faced with a reality he might not exactly like to live in. Yes, sir, is that all, sir, nothing easier than that. That’s what I was born and bred for.
But the feeling that surrounds the human is worth all of that. I believe it is. If there’s a chance for me to see more of life than these corroding corridors, that’s it and I’m going to make the best of it.
The people came about when god looked into a mirror. Bored with his own image, he went away but his reflection stayed inside the mirror. Now this reflection is forever caught in the mirror, able only to see and touch what comes into their mirror. There may be an outside world, but the people are completely ignorant of it. This ship is mirror and map and people who live here lead lives but those are not lives but copies of them. We all copy our fathers and forefathers but often we move and so we meet people with different tales and different songs that live in their mirror-mind. Those people make our mirror world richer, almost as rich in taste as the world of gods, the world beyond the mirror and the mind.
The people on the ship live lives of poverty, like mirrors looking into mirrors, seeing nothing but what they know.
There are people who make mistakes. They think that life outside the mirror is better and they step from it. Few people will recognize them if they do and everywhere they go they will upset the balance of things. I am one. The man I brought with me is another. I watched him as he lay dying. I sought for the moment life would leave him and as it did, I told it that it could live in me, for a while. I studied his life for a day and he has seen things I have never dreamed about. I sought for a way inside. One can enter memories, they are like smudges of dirt patterned on the mirror. Find the right shape and you can become memory.
The man had lost someone. A younger sibling. We played a game for the memory-spirit of his younger sibling. He was distracted and I won. I will stay with him. He will know me.
I spend most of the time inside my mirror-mind, seek nutrition in the memories we now share. Sometimes one of the poverty people comes and there is much pain about her that pulls me from my thoughts, demands my concentration. I like it better if it is just the man and me. His memories are good and he knows how to leave the mirror-mind.
I’ve been down where the human is about ten times now. He still hasn’t spoken a word to me. It’s a bit strange since he looks at me, sometimes, and I know that he should see me, but he doesn’t. He looks inside of himself, I guess. Whatever he sees there, it seems to be more interesting than what he sees outside. Can’t blame him for that.
I understand how the implants work now. It’s quite fascinating but I know if I could explain any of it nobody here would understand it, except maybe for the android guy. The mechanical legs and arm are the best. We won’t know how well they work until the human wakes up and tries them out because he has to send the signals for movement through it. Something called the nervous system has to connect with mechanical wirings that are so impossibly sensitive you wouldn’t believe it.
I wonder what he’ll think about it when he wakes up. If he wakes up. From what I have seen he’s very stable, but you never know. It can’t be pleasant to wake up with an iron arm and two iron legs. It isn’t iron, of course, but something half metal and half plastic. It must be worth a lot.
Mother gets worse and worse every day. The people who know her all look at me with this mixture of pain and guilt and I don’t want to talk to anyone about her. Sometimes when I can’t sleep I try to find out what I feel about her dying. I don’t feel any guilt for leaving her alone to check on the human. For one thing there is so much hope surrounding the human, so many positive feelings. When I get closer to the room he’s in, see the lamps of the robots shining through the dark corridor and hear the hum of the machines that help his body to get better, I get a tickle down my spine. As soon as I enter the room I feel calm. I could look at him for hours, study his face, look at the places where his body turns into metal until I think he’s actually transforming into metal right before my eyes. If he were all metal, I could take him with me (and this is a stupid fantasy that I have sometimes) and we’d walk all the way to the top of the ship. We’d be like pilgrims, only that we wouldn’t end up like the outcasts and the stragglers, because I have a blaster and he’s all made of metal, so nobody could harm us or make us feel afraid. Something else. He smells really good. There are so many bad smells in the corridors, I thought I’d never smell something good again. Now when I come back I can smell the death of my mother. It sounds strange, I know, but I haven’t noticed before that death has a smell. It’s an absolutely hopeless kind of smell and it doesn’t go away. Everything in our room smells of it. So, if there’s anybody reading this pad here, maybe you’ll blame me for not feeling guilty about letting somebody else take care of my mother while she may leave here any day, but you don’t know what death smells like or else you wouldn’t blame me.
Now I walk down there for the eleventh time. What I notice about myself is that I’ve gotten both more assured and more paranoid about going down there. Whenever I meet somebody I think of things to tell them so they wouldn’t suspect anything. I made the mistake of telling everybody different stories because I thought I’d get bored by telling the same story all over again, but if you have to lie it’s much better to stick to one story. Now I’m always afraid that I tell someone the wrong story. It’s not likely that anyone will really listen to what I say anyway, but I can’t help feeling that. If somebody would find out where I am going I’d be in deep trouble.
Ti checks on me sometimes. Sometimes she’s waiting down there when I come and she watches me. I get the feeling that she trusts me and that she is a little surprised that she does, so she comes and checks just to see if her feeling’s true. It makes me feel very good about myself. I’ve seen Xza once when I had to come by their office – she’s been as friendly and chatty as she always is, but I couldn’t tell whether she knows about Ti, the human and me. She’s her sister, so it’s more likely that she knows, but when I think of Jerek I wonder maybe it’s the same with them and they don’t really trust each other. I still don’t know who the human is. I wonder, if he wakes up, if I can get him to help me. Ideally, Ti shouldn’t be there when he wakes up, because she’s going to do with him whatever it is she’s planning as soon as he’s awake. I bet she will. Now, I’m a little scared of Ti and I somewhat admire her, but yesterday I was sitting in my room watching my mother. I tried not to think about death but I couldn’t help imagining her dying and turning all into dust. And I was thinking if the same thing is to happen to me one day, it won’t happen on board of this ship. I’ve been thinking that often, I know, but this time I also thought that it doesn’t matter what Ti wants with the human and it’s good that she trusts me. That will make it easier for me to betray her.
I don’t know the two guards that wait at the door today. One looks at me and I see he’ll try to stop me, so I pull my datapad from my pocket and show it to him. “Transmission.”
“Can’t let you go, girl. There’s a new group outside, today. People been saying they come from the Last. You know what the Last is?”
“It’s a kind of prison corridor, right?”
“Damn straight. I can’t let you go.”
“But I need to go. I’ve got a weapon. I can take care of myself.”
“It makes no bloody difference. If your fingernails were poison and your look could turn to stone I still can’t let you out. Listen, girl, if I let you out there the best thing that can happen to you today is that you are being killed before you’re getting raped and not the other way round, okay?”
“But what about the people who are always out there? Will you let them in for today?”
He snorts and grimaces. I think it’s a grin. “The new guys will look around and if they find something they like they’ll take it. Those who survive will clean up once the guys are gone.”
I just stare at him. I don’t know what to say.
“It’s a kind of natural selection, ain’t it? There’s been so many of them recently I really don’t mind a few roughies cleaning up the place for a change.”
I really want to tell the guy there and then that he’s absolutely despicable. “Those are people just the same. If you get the guard together you could shoot at the guys from the Last and at least scare them off.”
“And risk them getting in? Listen, girl, we’re not going to risk the lives of everybody in here just for a few stragglers. It’s great that you have a heart of gold and if there were more people like you this might just be a bearable place, but I’d rather have you shut it and leave. I’m going to ask you all polite, alright?”
“Shut it and leave isn’t exactly polite, you know.”
“Well, you ain’t seen me ask all impolite yet, have you?” He grins at me again and winks. I don’t mind the guy, he seems good-natured, and what happens to the stragglers is horrid, but I simply have to go down to check on the human. Everything else is secondary.
“Did you let Ti pass, maybe? I was looking for her and couldn’t find her.”
He raises his eyebrows. “That is the Sisters’ business, girl.”
He’s not going to help me. I have to find Jerek’s friends in the guard. Maybe they will.
Our game has not yet ended. Li sits in front of me at the other side of the game board. It is not large, but I know that it is impossible to reach him. We might as well be separated by a continent or a sea. I try to sit up, I try to make out the room where we sit, but every time I try to do so my attention is drawn, inexorably, towards the game. Every move sends shivers down my spine.
Li moves his avatar along the checkered boards. They are simple, nothing distinguishes one from the other until he stops at the board that the dice have determined and begins to speak. His voice changes. Once it is the high-pitched, enthusiastic voice that woke me up so often, that woke me up into sunlight and to the sound of the surf. Another time it is the thoughtful, sad voice he adopted later, shortly before he died. Sometimes he speaks with the tones of someone ages old. Every once in a while – it cannot be more than once a day, the moments between those solemn reminders creep like rock snails – he reminds me that he is dead and that we are playing for his life. My answer is predictable, but I can only ask it, again and again, to make sure that I am not dreaming (and I know I am).
“If I win, will I be able to return you to life?”
At this he looks up and for one terrible moment he looks changed. I do not know if it is the change that death has worked on him, but I am horrified by his face during that one moment and I look back at the board immediately.
“Is it my turn? Three forward, no axioms.” I move and as soon as I put my avatar on the board the memory stirs from the checkered surface until it stands, glass-like and foaming, before me. “This is in March. We have just finished collecting the clackers.” The clackers were crabs as large as our hands. “There is a girl that I like and she has asked me to bring her one. I pick out one that looks most beautiful to me and you tell me you want to have it.”
I know that he tilts his head and I can feel his gaze on me. It makes me sweat. As I watch the memory unfold I wonder if it is truly one of mine. It seems so neat, so clear. My life has been many things, but rarely neat or clear. There is no thought in it, no sensuality, nothing that I associate with the inside of my head. There is only wanting. “We quarrel about the clacker. You take it from me and you see how much more I want it now that you have it, so you throw it against a rock as hard as you can. I see it lying on the ground. It is shattered, white blood and stuff leaking out. Continue.”
I can hear Li clap his hands together. He sounds joyful and I feel every muscle in my body, tensing. “You beat me as hard as you’ve never beaten me. The girl sees you beating me and she comes and screams at you to stop.”
This is too neat. These are the rules of the game. I can accept memories that feel wrapped up and comfortable, but I will know that they are lies. Or I can challenge them and look for the frayed and unsatisfying memories that are truths. I get the terrible feeling that the only way to win Li’s life back is to accept the lies. “Challenge. I beat you up and take another clacker and the girl says she likes it. I never tell her about the other one or that I beat you up and I suspect she is lying to me about liking it.”
I look up again. Li seems once more the way I like to remember him. He throws the dice. He makes his move, counting the boards with his finger before he touches the avatar. “After I’m dead you keep pretending that I am alive and you talk to me, whenever you are alone or when you think nobody can hear you. ..”
“Obviously,” I interrupt, trying to make my words sound tender.
“Otherwise you wouldn’t be here.” As soon as I say it, I begin to feel uneasy, as if I have broken some rule of the game. Li doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t react but simply goes on speaking.
“I find this very amusing. One day I tell Tach about it and he thinks you are insane and wonders what he shall do with you.” Li throws his head back and roars with laughter as if he had just told the most wonderful of jokes. “He is relieved when you are reported to the Jedi and are being taken from him.”
It hurts. Anger and fear, but I have to keep it inside. Those were doubts that plagued me during my first year in the academy. Tach had made no attempt to keep me with him. Maybe he had felt that there was no way that he could take a boy from a Jedi institution, no matter what he may have felt for him.
“Accept or Challenge?” Li rocks on his heels, looking at me curiously, almost hungrily. I do not know how to answer. “I’m waiting. Accept or Challenge?”
“I do not know!”
“Accept or Challenge? You can’t stop the game.”
A strange shock courses through my body. I feel the world around myself become insubstantial. The feeling of being in a room with Li dissolves. I want to grab him, hug him, hold him to me. Anything but to lose him now with the game undecided…he’s gone. It’s black and somebody shines a light in my face.
“You’re not going to tell a word of this to Jerek.”
“I told you – it’s alright. My lips are sealed, my tongue is searing fire if it tries to form what I see into words. Besides, I’m bloody curious myself. I’ve never been down here.”
Makos. He’s not the kind of guy you desperately want to have around in a fight, but he was the only one who’d come with me. I didn’t have to offer him anything and believe me I would have offered – a lot. Only he didn’t want me to. He’s in it for the adventure, he says. Jerek told me that he’s an idealist…and followed it up with one of our father’s aphorisms about how nobody’s easier to fool than an idealist. People in our corridor think that Makos is pretty strange. He makes up things, gets angry or laughs suddenly and nobody knows why. I worry a bit that, if it comes to a fight, he’d be lost somewhere in his crazy head or do something unpredictable. But the good thing is that nobody’s going to put a lot in what he says and even if he tells Jerek about it, he’ll have to be awfully convincing, because Jerek knows that he’s full of it, usually. Besides, the only condition on which he’d open the emergency hatch for me was that he’d come with me.
He’s got a very narrow and long face and looks as if he was bored all the time, but everybody in the guard looks like that. His eyes are always moving around which makes me nervous.
“Why aren’t you telling me what’s down there, Laar?”
“Because I don’t know,” I hiss. It’s dark and all I can see is the metal of the narrow chute when Makos waves the flashlight that’s on his gun. We have to crouch and I’m getting a little claustrophobic. That makes it difficult to think or I would have come up with something better to say. Anyway, if he discovers the human I can wash my hands clean in front of Makos and Jerek, but Ti will roast me alive. Maybe I can give Makos the slip and hide down there for a while. There are rations in the room where the human is.
I have never taken that route. We crawl along the narrow chute for what feels like an hour although Markos tells me it’s been no longer than fifteen minutes once we climb out. Outside I’m happy to have room to stand and walk to the side again, so I grab the railing and bend over it (we’re on a bridge, which is itself pretty narrow but broad as a hallway after the chute) thinking that I might see maybe a bit of a corridor that I don’t know or a plaza, which I know they have in some of the more central corridors. What I do see scares the hell out of me. There is no ground as far as I can see, only bridges like the one we stand on, crossing, criss-crossing, thousands of them like a strange, delirious spider web. There are slow moving blue lights in the distance and they leave ghost trails against the dark and I can’t tell what’s a bridge and what’s only light. “What is this place?”
“That? Oh, that’s the Outer Ring. Why are you looking like that? There’s the Inner Ring and all the corridors between us and it, and here’s the Outer Ring. You never figured there’d be one?”
“Sure, I did. Shut up now.”
“Yeah, sure. All those things are maintenance and wiring and structural things. That’s how the pylons are built. Each has a core, Inner Ring, Living Corridors, Outer Ring and then different kind of structures outside, depending on what it was built for.”
I don’t know if I should feel angry at him for being so smart or awed that he really seems to know much more about the ship than I do. I never guessed there would be anything like an Outer Ring or that it was so strangely pretty and breathtaking. There are hollow sounds, high sounds, almost like a song and I feel like humming. “What’s a pylon?”
He smiles, the way guys smile sometimes. He gestures to me to start walking before he says anything. “A pylon is a part of the ship’s structure. There are various pylons, almost all of them habitable – means, there are people living in all of them…or there were, at some point. This pylon here was built for education, I think. There are huge libraries in the outer structures.”
He leads me along the bridges taking turns that don’t make any sense in my head, but he keeps talking confidently so I guess he knows where he’s going. Another reason why I don’t tell him where we should go: my head is filled to the brim with images. Huge libraries. I never knew. They appear in my head, there are stairs everywhere leading to padcases as tall as five people and broken statues are everywhere on the floor.
“…it would explain why there are so few people here who have any useful skills at all. We’re the heirs of scientists and thinkers, but there’s no world that we can examine and think about. I guess they split up the ship into professions or castes, which means a group of people with similar skills and status, and they sent each group into a pylon of their own.” He speaks quietly, as if he was speaking to himself. “But at some point something went wrong. The pylons must have become separated somehow or maybe there was something like a crisis, a civil war, perhaps or a terrible malfunction.”
There is a pause. “How do you know all this, Makos?”
He looks at me. “How old do you think I am, Laar?”
“I don’t know. You’re a friend of Jerek, so you’re maybe a year older than him.”
“Laar, I’m an Azad. I guess you don’t know what this means and it isn’t important. We don’t age as fast as most of the species in our pylon. The way your species counts years, I’m about eighty.”
Now I don’t know what to say. We walk on for about an hour (I’m sure it s an hour this time) and all Makos does is look at the pad where I marked the location for him – since I’m careful it’s about a mile off from the room where the human is. “What’s an Azad, Makos? I’ve always figured you were one of the mixbreeds…”
“Yes, everyone does. That is another reason why I wanted to know more about the ship. I am the only Azad in our pylon. I must have come here from another part of the ship and I’m not talking about another corridor.” Here he gives me such a sad smile that I can feel it in my stomach. Along with that mixture of condescension and friendliness it makes me really quite angry.
“Will you just tell me what an Azad is?”
“Well, I am.”
“That is not a helpful answer. You say you don’t grow old as fast as I do. What does that mean? Do you stay kids for forty years?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know anything about my people’s traditions. For myself, I don’t make much of a difference between a child and an adult. We live and we die. The older we get the more we are being shaped by experience. I might be a child. I just lived and nobody ever told me that I was grown up now – a full and responsible member of society.” He speaks just like people do when they talk about something unimportant. He even keeps on walking while he speaks.
“Well, how do you know that you are an Azad in the first place?”
“By meeting others and seeing that none is like me.”
Whatever he is, he’s not particularly bright. “Listen, how do you know you’re an Azad and not a Chatle or a Human who’s inherited a few different genes at some point? That’s not so easy to say, always. Half of my friends don’t know what race they are – that’s why we call them mixbreed. I know they don’t always like it, but we don’t mean anything bad by it.”
“Have you never wondered about what the right course is, for you? I do not mean what trade you learn or where you work, but if you think the right way, feel the right way?”
“Yeah, alright. If you don’t want to answer me, just say it.”
“That is not what I say. Do you never feel that something, something fundamental is not right? And that you would like to change it?”
“Listen, Makos, I’m sorry if you feel that you’re a little messed up, but all I want is to get to that spot on your bloody map. That’s important now and that’s why I asked you to come along, because I thought you might be helpful. But if you keep telling me cryptic stuff maybe that last point is where I was fundamentally wrong.” I will feel sorry for that in an hour or so but I need to keep a clear head. The fact that I go to know more about the ship at a time when I can’t do anything with that new information annoys me a lot. Any other time I would have used every free minute to go and explore. For the first time the human and my mother feel a little like the same thing. Both tie me to a place, both mean some kind of duty that I’d rather not have. I hope that the human means more, means some way of escaping, but that is hope – here, right in front of me is somebody who actually knows the ship, who can get me elsewhere on the ship. Should I follow my hope or take a chance with what’s in front of me? We could leave right now. I’ll tell Makos that we can go and look for his people and…no, that will have to wait at least until the situation with mother has cleared up. I can’t just leave her here, alone.
Oh, just look at me. I’ll have to get to the human. Makos doesn’t seem like the kind of person to betray me and it’s always good if you can talk your plans over with somebody else…
“Makos. Can you show me the map once more. I think I made a mistake.”
My distress over the end of the game is less than I had believed. For a moment I thought that I had woken up, but my body was half made of metal, so I just slipped into another dream. From this dream come memories from my time on the surface of my home planet, the planet that I had left before the shuttle…vanished.
They have a half-developed infrastructure. The first place you see is the Port City. The port city was no different than a thousand other port cities where you believe that at least half of the settlers who ever came there (and there was a massive influx of settlers in the outer regions, due to the turmoil in the galactic centers that my people, the Jedi, have caused) just got tired after ten minutes of exploring and allowed the city to grow where they lay down to rest. You meet all the cultural driftwood there – xenophobic attitudes, unclear understanding of their own roots, yet driven by a desire to make things better, a desire which bears dubious fruits most of the time. I met a young man who had come from the interior of the planet, which was little more than a desert dissected by a few dirt tracks where gliders went twice a week to pick up or deliver goods and parts. We were talking…I remembered a few phrases that had been passed on to me from my earliest childhood, an instinctive language that Li and I spoke in, and I had the idea to try it out. He had no translator on him – I had one, but as it is my habit, I kept it turned off so I would feel truly lost amidst the thicket of unknown languages – but he understood. Not immediately, but enough to stop and listen to me. Suddenly this strange language that I had thought to be an invention of Li and myself, came out of the mouth of a stranger. It sounded statelier, much more purposeful – I had unexpectedly found out that there was a complex adult version of my childhood toys and that the mind that Li and I had shared was not of our invention, but that it could be found out there, right where I stood at that moment. It was an uplifting feeling and I broke into laughter…
I can hear a song sung in that language of my memories. If I follow it, perhaps I will return to the place that is the foundation of all my visions, dreams and memories. It would be good if Li were there and if he were singing that song, but I know very well that I am simply trying to comfort myself with that thought. The world I need to return to is one that my brother has left.
It is pleasant, following the song. It feels like walking along a beach, my footprints behind me turning to faces, some of them pleasant and others most disturbing, whispering of memories behind my back. The waves murmur the song to me and it turns to Tach’s recitation of the dark monks’ wisdom and I know that if I reach that bend ahead of me, they will be waiting for me, to take me away from Li and from Tach. They are drawn to our world by the recitation of those words. It took me a long time to understand that. I’m afraid of reaching that bend, behind it I can hear a sound of metal and I feel my limbs grow cold and lifeless. The sky gets darker and I feel like there are walls rising from the sand and the sea, ready to enclose me. I lose control of my legs, they grow numb and the rest of my body convulses. One arm turns cold and I can feel the other one rubbing my legs, rubbing my arm as if I could return some of life’s fire into it. The song turns to the hum of machines, the stars become electronic lights. There is a smell of ozone and my teeth begin to chatter. The world is made of shadows, but there is a small cone of light, something turns and moves and I can see a girl – her race, my mind computes immediately, her race is long since dead and there are traces of three other rimworld races in her face and body – and the girl stares at me with fear and confusion.
It requires an effort of will, but I manage to still my hands. There is an obstruction in my chest and my whole body shakes when I try to take deeper breaths. When I look at the girl I try to feel calm and collected. I call out a greeting in the language of the first race that I noticed in the girl’s face and she drops the datapad that she is holding. I catch a glimpse of it and it looks like those people used hundreds of years ago. “Who are you? Have you brought me here?”
She looks down on the floor. She keeps staring at the pad that she has dropped. I try another of the languages that I see written on her face. No answer and I try another. We repeat this three times before she finally speaks in the language that I used first. “Stop saying these words…are you cursing me?”
“Cursing? Far from it.” I notice that my hand is rubbing my lifeless leg once more. “I simply tried to find out how to speak to you.”
“So there are different languages…” The words simply drop from her mouth and she suddenly blushes.
“Countless. As many as there are different races and more, since the same race doesn’t always use the same language. And some languages…are most peculiar.” I notice something strange and unusual about my own voice. It is surprisingly strong but it doesn’t sound like the voice I am used to and I feel an unpleasant vibration just underneath my shoulder blades when I speak. “The people of the habitable moons of Cheera, for example – now you should know that Cheera is a desperately cold planet and its moons are even colder – their language literally freezes while travelling through the air and so old conversations hang everywhere, from the eaves of houses, from tree branches, right in your way, like icicles and it is most unlikely that they’ll ever be heard…”
There is no tiredness to my mind, no numbness, it is crystal clear. Old pains that weighed on my thoughts have almost vanished. Even the thoughts of Li and Tach, after I had them so close and immediate for what I can only assume was a long time, have grown faint and barely noticeable. Instead I can see every detail in the room with absolute clarity. I see the Azad boy, hidden in shadows, his mind shrouded in meditation. Two frightening and ancient looking medical droids are on standby to either side of the metal slab I am lying on. I have a mattress, soft and thermal. Something is wrong with both of my legs and my right arm, but I cannot say what. My mind, my inside, has become dark to me. There is little pain, a little flicker of pain that actually gives me some sense of comfort, as my body feels so perfect, so…functional.
“You…you shouldn’t eat anything solid for two weeks at least…” She speaks fast, stutters a little. She is scared of me. “You shouldn’t eat anything solid for two weeks and if you do then it should be some electrolyte synthetic that’s easy to digest and there might be some troubles with mental exhaustion…I…I…well there was a reason to it, which is…erm…yes, your body won’t use up as much energy as it used to so your mind will become very tired until you get used to it and I brought you a datapad with some of the Do Ro M stories…my…my grandparents wrote them and they got rather famous in our corridor and…I don’t know what you like to read but I thought that maybe it will be boring when you wake up and I won’t be there to talk to you most of the time and I don’t know what Ti will want to do with you anyway…but they’re about this girl who has a dream friendship with a boy on a planet that their ship circles, but neither can meet the other and it tells you how they grow up and…” The girl is close to tears. She wipes her face and bends down to pick up the datapad. “I mean maybe the stories are silly to you and maybe you don’t like to read at all and maybe…”
“Calm down, please. As it happens I am very interested in the stories that people tell, although, and maybe you can understand, there are other things that I would prefer to find out first.”
“Ah, yes, of course…I am Laar, by the way, but this…”
“No, this is one of the things I want to know, Laar. I am Iason. You may not believe it, but I am very glad that you are here. “
“Yeah, well…hello. Erm…there…there might be something strange about you…the guy I asked, he said when you wake up it will be like you’re on drugs but I don’t know how that feels, because I don’t know much about drugs, so…I am sorry. You must think I’m a complete idiot. I mean I’m blabbing on and on and…” She stares at the datapad while she speaks.
“Can you give me the pad, Laar? I trust you said you brought it for me?”
“I did. I also want to help you. I do.” As she comes closer I can see her pale eyes. I am glad that there seems to be no fear in them, only nervousness. She gives me the pad. It is strange how rough it feels…the energy coursing through it actually makes it feel warm, like something that is alive. I have had this strange feeling before, entering an old ship that had crashed on a jungle moon and had turned into something not unlike a temple for the local people. I remember I was sent there to find out if worship can focus the force enough to make it palpable and present.
“How do I read the pad?”
“You just touch it and…you mean you don’t know how to read a pad? The people in your part of the ship…they have no pads?”
“Not like these…” The ship…she believes me to be from a different part of the ship…? The alphabet used on the pad is a good three-hundred years old. It is standard language, but many of the words are antiquated and some I do not know at all. I see delight in her face. Whatever she imagines me as, she seems to take great joy in it. I think it is better to find out more about who she thinks me to be before I reveal anything about myself that might dampen that joy.
“So maybe you have something like the ghost vids Jerek mentioned? He saw those once…there was nothing and then a person appeared, like a ghost, and started to speak…he went closer and tried to touch it. I told him he was silly to try, I mean maybe it’s like a current, but it vanished anyway before he could even lay a finger on it. He said it was a beautiful woman, but I don’t think he’s telling the truth…he always wants to seem important…he…erm…he’s my brother, by the way.”
“Is he with you?” My sight does not extend beyond this room. I sense everything inside with acute clarity, but the world beyond is closed to me.
“No, thanks to the gods, he isn’t!” She screws up her face and makes a strange and ritualistic gesture on her chest. “Trust me, you wouldn’t enjoy it if he were here…”
“I give him the benefit of doubt. Tell me one thing, Laar. Where am I?”
She wonders how much she should tell me. I can see that on her face. So I am not the only one who has to be careful. “You’re in…oh, gods…I don’t even know how to tell you. See, I thought I knew the ship, but just an hour ago I realized that I don’t even know what a pylon is or that we’re in one. I mean, I guess you’re one of the people who run this ship and maybe I shouldn’t even tell you that I guess it because there is so damn much on my mind that I can’t think straight and besides all that you’re here and just look at you…how did she ever expect me to explain all of this to you?”
“Once again…calm down.” The girl clearly is in it way past her depth. I can see no advantage in lying to her. “Laar…I am going to tell you something. Please do not be alarmed. I mean you no harm. I am not from this ship. Before you said it I did not even know that we were on a ship. I was on a ship, another ship, together with the boy. Something happened – an accident or an attack, I cannot say for certain. I fell unconscious and I revived here. This is all I know and I need someone to help me make sense of this. Will you do this for me?”
“What…you mean you’re from another ship? Like this one?”
“I do not know what this ship is like and until I do I cannot answer your question. I can see traces of the Mar and the races of the Seven Suns in your face, but we are so far away from their star systems and they haven’t recovered from their holocaust, at least not far enough to send ships into deep space. Your presence here is as much of a riddle to me as mine will be to you.”
“The Seven Suns…I…I am a mixbreed. I have never been anything else…”
“If you consent to show me around here, I will get to know everything and then I will be able to answer all of your questions as well as I can. But first of all I need to answer mine – please, Laar, help me do this.”
Something outside…a noise. I look towards the corner where the boy sat and he is gone. The girl looks alarmed. There are shots and screams.
“Makos,” she whispers. Then louder, to me, “We’re in danger. We have to run.”
I’m not sure if I can tell what happened. I’m not sure if I actually saw it all or understood it all. There are a few things that I know and understand. Basic things. Some of them horrible, others unexpected. I’ll speak about the horrid things as well as I can, but don’t blame me if I leave something out.
Let’s start with where we are. We are in one of the last rooms of the gigantic libraries Makos told me about. The others tell me that we’re close to the exit of our pylon. They want to reach the exit before our enemies do. Before today I didn’t know what it feels like to have enemies. Let me tell you it feels both awful and ridiculous.
We…who are we? Well, there’s me for starters. I know it’s not polite to start with oneself but I have to say I’m so glad that I am still here that I just have to. I always thought I knew pretty well how fast emotions can change, but once you go from being scared to die to absolute elation and joy and back within minutes …well, let’s just say I think different now. There’s Iason, who is the most wanted man on this ship right now, or so it seems to me. Everybody is either trying to talk to him or talking to others that he’s going to try and talk to him. I can’t figure it out. He’s been so calm ever since he woke up and had to calm down this nervous wrack of a girl that people call Laar. There was one thing that seemed to scare him for a moment, but even after that was dealt with he was calm as a child again. Ti and Ro are here. Some people from the guard and other people from our corridor and all of them have weapons. Jerek is here, but he hasn’t so much as looked at me yet.
Who isn’t here?
Makos isn’t here. He isn’t here at all. He is dead.
The ghost boy is lost, we saw him once or twice and there were colors playing on his face whenever a blaster fired or a discharge exploded on a wall. I remember how disinterested and far away he looked. He was looking for something and when he found it, he just walked away, down a corridor, as if he was only checking on a sleeping child, doing something of no particular importance. Once I had taken cover behind a duct and I hadn’t noticed that there was a black hole right behind me. Pitch black, black as endless night. I was scared half to death already, from all the blaster fire that whizzed above my head, and then I looked up and I screamed because I thought I had seen death standing in front of me. Because the boy stood right on top of me like some prophet of doom and looked at me with those cold eyes. Then he turned and vanished in the dark.
I mentioned that Makos is dead, did I? Yes. We found him right after we heard the blaster fire. He had been hit, three severe burns on his chest, just blackness and burned flesh. He was still alive at that point and firing back at whoever it was that attacked us. At that point I thought Iason had turned insane. He stepped right between me and the blaster fire and I thought all selfish, great that he’s noble, but if he’s dead they’ll still shoot me. He raised his hand, just as if he was about to greet somebody and he caught one of the blaster beams right in the air. I couldn’t believe it. He didn’t flinch or cry out because his hand was burned, he just started moving his hands around so fast that my eyes couldn’t follow and all I heard was a sizzling noise and the air smelled of electric smoke.
At that point I was too stunned to feel anything at all. I remember I was watching Makos and I kept thinking that he’s going to die, he’s going to die. It went through my head again and again. I didn’t feel sad or scared, my head was filled with the overpowering smell of electric smoke and burned clothing. Makos stopped firing his blaster and looked at me. His face was so peaceful, as if he didn’t mind his death at all. Suddenly the room was filled with something else, some sort of presence that I couldn’t possibly describe. I knew he was dying right then and I watched his breast heave one last time and I saw, I really saw that he was pressing something from his body…and then he was gone and with him all that peace that I still saw on his face, but before he had been a living being and now he was something more like a sculpture. Somebody took my arm. I looked up and it was Iason.
“They will not retreat. We have to find a way out of here. Take his gun.”
I took the gun and wanted to give it to Iason, but he ignored me, kept looking over his shoulder. “I don’t use those. Did you take my lightsaber? If yes it would be highly advisable to tell me where it is.”
And that shocked me. I had read about lightsabers. I knew that only Jedi were allowed to have them. I got goose bumps all over my body and my knees almost buckled underneath me. Iason was a Jedi. I had taken care of a Jedi. There was a Jedi standing right in front of me. At that point I think I realized that I had left the datapad in the room we just left. I didn’t think, I just ran back to go and get it. There were all my stories on it, all my transmissions. If I think about it now it was a deeply stupid thing to do. We were in danger, there was something living, something I had read about thousand times and more right in front of me, but I ran off and wanted to get all those stories back. I heard Iason shout something right behind me, but I kept on running until I had reached the room with the medical bed and the two deactivated droids. It was quiet in this room, I felt peaceful again, as if everything outside, all the noise and the smells, was nothing more than a bad dream. I stopped to catch my breath and I watched the pleasant light that was shining from the corners of the bed. After a while I saw my pad and I grabbed it and put it in my pocket.
After another few moments Iason was standing behind me. I looked at him and I was scared. He was wearing nothing except for some undershirt and short trousers and I could see where his flesh turned into metal. There were drops of sweat that ran down his thighs and I watched them run over the tiny cut where the metal part of his leg began and down his leg. His hair and beard were wild and tangled and there were wisps of smoke rising from his hands, but his hands had not a single scar on them.
“Laar. It is normal to be frightened. Please, try to think clearly. Do you know where my lightsaber is?”
I must have been shaking my head. I can’t remember what I did. I have little memory of what happened then. There are some images, like of me lying behind a bit of scrap metal, above me the dark hole where I saw the ghost boy. I remember that we jumped across an abyss that we couldn’t possibly have jumped across. I was clinging to Iason. I don’t know if I can trust those memories. I really don’t. It was all becoming less and less real to me. There was blaster fire and people were chasing us, but I didn’t know who those people were or why they were chasing us.
At some point we came out of the tunnels and we were close to the Inner Ring and I felt a little bit of reality returning to me. I knew this place. The guard would protect us. Everything would slowly become normal again.
But as we stepped out of the tunnels and I could see the door to our corridor everything around me started to spin. The door was destroyed. There must have been some explosion, because everywhere there was metal that was bent and molten. There were bodies on the floor. There were people fighting…and in the middle of them I could see Ti and in her hands she held a sword made of light, red and glowing.
The songs of the dark monks are in my mind again. In the midst of turmoil, of hundreds of people scattered, walking about aimlessly, calling out in bastardized languages that pull my mind in several directions at once, they give me peace. They did not always have this effect. While at the academy, several teachers tried to forcibly pull them from my mind, thinking that they were a great danger, that they would call a sect of the Sith, a sect of unknown strength and ability, right into the heart of our academy. But the songs remained in my mind, sometimes I was moved to hate them, sometimes I knew I would not live without them, not the way I live now.
I learned them as a child, as I probably already mentioned. What I did not mention is that because of those songs I learned to see and harness the Force. I wasn’t born with that gift…my brother never learned it, although he knew the songs as well. This fact, that I was not a born user of the Force, made life at the academy very…difficult for me.
The songs are in my mind and they are louder, clearer.
I am, as far as I can tell, on a gigantic ship, a ship full of gypsy races, of people who have been taken from their home and thrown together a few generations ago. There are traces of this everywhere…machinery that I have never seen outside of museums, dresses and manners of speaking, bastardized but fascinating. There is a wish inside of me, a wish to study those people, to use this unique opportunity…it is strong enough to make me forget that I just escaped from a fight. They look at me with fascination, but I feel the same fascination for all of them. Just now I was talking to a man who, like Laar, was a mixture of old races…I noticed some traces of the Ilari in him, a long extinct race, moon-nomads, who settled on impossible small moons and made them fertile and over the course of living on these moons even managed to influence their orbits to improve their own conditions – one of the reasons why they became extinct was that they changed the ecology of the planets whose moons the possessed and so, quite often, they were forcibly removed. There must be some knowledge of their ancestry in those people. I shall curb my curiosity for now and find out more about the ship itself. Who is steering it? What does it look like? I have asked these questions a few times, but have always been met with blank and uncomfortable looks.
But there is one other thing that is, apparently, in my way. At the academy I would have been chastised and told that I need to be a warrior before I can be a scientist. My lightsaber. The songs in my head…I have put that off because I am not suitably settled for any tactical considerations. Besides, my mind works at an exhilarating speed and I would like to use that for purposes of research much rather than for purposes of battle. The red lightsaber. The woman that wielded it.
I make my way over to where Laar sits. Ever since leaving the battle where we me the woman we have been running through corridors and at every bend our group seemed to grow. Everyone seems relieved and grateful when we stopped here, in a vast and empty hall. The only light comes from our own lamps and strips of what seems to be fluorescent fungi on the walls and it is cold. Somebody has given me clothing, although my metabolism is self-regulating and in theory I do not need them, it is better to be clothed than half-naked. Laar is the only one I can talk to freely right now, but she is full of tension whenever I try to talk to her. I pretend I ignore the stares of the people and I ignore the obvious nervousness of the girl. “I have a question for you, Laar. Will you answer it?”
“Who is she?” I look over to the woman with the lightsaber, long enough for Laar to notice but short enough for the woman not to.
“That is…her name is Ti. I…I wonder why she hasn’t talked to you yet. It was her that found you…I think. But maybe I shouldn’t say any more…I…I mean, I’ve already messed things up enough.”
“You have not. You must understand that you are the only one here who has been of help to me and I rely on you. I need to know more of this place and you…”
I see that I have lost her attention. She stares at a small piece of fluorescent rock that lies on top of a little pile of colorless rocks. “What is this, Laar?”
She looks up at me and for a moment I am shocked by her eyes. I mistook something. There is no nervousness in her face, it is deep sadness. She does not cry but there is unbearable tension in her eyes as she answers, “It’s my mother’s grave. She died during the attack. She was terminally ill anyway, so I do not know what to think…”
I can only nod. It is too difficult to offer her any consolation. The song of the dark monks keeps pulsing through my mind and makes any feeling impossible for me.
“You…you should go to Ti. Is that your weapon? The sword that she carried?” It feels like our conversation is happening on a leaf and the leaf is blown away by wind.
“No. Mine isn’t red.” More leaves blowing through my mind. I focus my attention on the fluorescent rock. It is hard to say the words, but at last I manage it. “I feel sorry for your mother.”
Laar only closes her eyes. It makes her seem very tired. “Go…to Ti. Come back later, though.”
“I shall…” I tear my eyes away from the rock. Laar’s sadness drops through my thoughts like a rock itself. The song pulses around it, moulds it, finally vanishes it. A vacant wish that I could do the same for Laar’s feelings remains. I walk over to the woman she called Ti.
The force is unmistakable in her. She moves like someone who had long training. During the battle she has displayed skill with a lightsaber. I’m not sure, even, if I am her match, but I stand before her unarmed. She keeps her head turned, her eyes half closed, her body held in a most graceful pose, making me feel like a petitioner to some tribal queen. I study the hilt of the lightsaber that she holds, lightly, like a strange artifact, in her hands. It is not mine. I had suspected that she had stolen my lightsaber and simply exchanged the dilithium crystals to achieve a red blade, but this looks like one of the ancient sabers that were found in the tombs on Korriban. The old design, spiny and evil-looking, sends shivers up my spine as if the ghost of a Sith lord, long dead, were present again and walking among us like someone living.
The songs are louder now than they have ever been. I feel that everyone around me must hear them, like music, swelling from my very pores. I look around, feverish, uncontrolled, but nobody pays me any special attention. The shadows seem somehow fuller, darker and the lights more unforgiving, hurting my eyes. The image of the woman Ti, her billowing red cloak against her dark-blue skin, forces itself into my head. She uses the Force against me, tries to subdue me.
I have no interest in battling her, so I shield myself just enough to repel her attempts to enter and control my mind. I have never met such a manner of the Force – it seems like some old language that I half understand, simply because I know what it has developed into. It is dangerous, full of raw emotions and raw strength.
Surprised, the woman fixes her eyes on me without turning her head. Her beauty is just as unmistakable as her identity.
“I have reason to believe that you took my lightsaber. I would be grateful to have it back.”
“Once we have a reason to believe that you will not harm us, we will consider returning the weapon to you. Not before.” Another woman stands next to me. It is she who has spoken. She looks similar to Ti, but older and harsher, not nearly as beautiful and dangerous. There is no trace of the Force in her.
“My name is Iason. I have no reason to harm you and, believe me, I could harm you if I wanted to. I want my lightsaber returned so I can help you fight whoever has attacked you.”
“We have watched over you. We have given you those implants. Do not look so surprised – did you think that your body just grew them?” She smiles a repulsive smile at me. “We found you in a piece of metal floating all alone through the immense night outside, we found you there and we took you in and we repaired you. I do not think that you have any right to question or demand. This…” She taps my arm and my thighs. “This does not belong to you, it belongs to me. I manufactured it, my androids implanted it under my supervision. If you give it back to me now, I will give you back your weapon. Agreed?”
I try hard not to turn angry. Instead I focus my attention on her clothes, scan them for Sith designs similar to the one on Ti’s sword. The woman wears a wide dark cloak from which many pearls and various embellishments made from metal and junk dangle. There are many rings on her fingers, but none of them bear any obvious marks.
They must be afraid of me. If they are Sith, perhaps they have been stranded here, just like I have. I remember my previous meetings with Sith. What comes to mind when I say that word are the great Sith lords that we have learned to fear, creatures so mighty and lawless that we fear them like devils. We have been indoctrinated to believe them hateful and misguided, enemies and never anything else, but during my travels I have met many different sects of the Sith. They are regular people who have learned to use the Force and use it differently than a Jedi would. I have eaten with them, prayed with them…the songs of the dark monks often guided me there…showed me small temples in the middle of deserts where a group of people lived like a family. They manipulated the Force for their own means and needs, but their needs were to find water or exorcise harmful emotions by force, not to enslave the galaxy. I have learned things that were useful and true, but I know I have to keep this knowledge locked away, always, for to share them with Jedi would be to brand myself a traitor. However, this does nothing but confuse right now, I simply need the memory to remind myself that the hatred and the fear that I was taught is nothing else but that: an emotion that I was taught. “That is well. Then tell me how I can prove that I have no intent to harm you.”
The older woman looks taken aback for a moment. She looks over to Ti who remains motionless. “You will go with my sister,” the old woman sneers. “She will show you what to do.”
Wordlessly Ti leads me away from the others, away from the hall into a dark maze of corridors. The walls are covered with thick growths that I cannot identify. They look like enigmatically patterned flowers of rust. Every once in a while there are wires sticking through the growths, leading across the walkway that we follow and I cannot but imagine them as tendrils, as something living, the pulse and heartbeat of the ship.
“How long have you been here?”
If Ti has heard me, she gives me no sign of it. She walks on, ignoring me. I have to try something else. It’s a simple trick of noticing the patterns of her thoughts and manipulating them a little. To her it will seem as if every object around her except for me is speaking my words.
I notice a small shudder passing through her body. It works. She still ignores me but it costs her much more effort to do so. I decide to repeat my question randomly, to make her feel a little haunted. She needs me for some purpose, so there is no danger that I will upset her and make her attack me.
How long have you been here, Ti? asks the ornament that she carries on her left breast. Won’t you tell me? demands a disused control panel that we pass. We would really love to know plead the severed heads of two ancient robots from a dark corner.
I notice the effort she expends to pretend there is nothing wrong and it makes me grin. It is a childish game, but if I am treated without reason I will not waste time by being reasonable myself.
Ti stops at a door. I stand a little too close to her to see if she will acknowledge me, close enough to feel the warmth coming from her body, but she continues to ignore me and opens the door with a quick and rhythmic succession of taps on a panel.
We enter a hall, a vast hall, a room that is almost cavernous – I cannot see the ceiling, a few hundred feet above me it loses itself in bluish mist and ominous lights that blink in hypnotic rhythms. There are rows and rows of stacks, convoluted staircases leading higher and higher, galleries and walkways on every level and all the stacks are filled with…I stumble over to one of them, numbed by a thought that just came to me, and touch one of the dark panels. It lights up and strange symbols appear on it, superimposing images of food, daily life, of births, of praying men and women – images that appear and disappear in slow succession…on some I recognize the rooms and corridors that I have seen overgrown and corroded, but on these images they are pristine and new, glinting metal and glass. This is a history of this place, and inventory of the life on this station, all their knowledge, all their customs. It is their entire world, stacked up high and higher. That’s where I will find the answers I am looking for. I will know why they came here, what they are looking for, how their civilization fell into ruin…my mind starts to spin. A culture that nobody has ever met, a mixture of races lost and living.
Something grabs my throat and tears me from my reveries. Ti stands at the far end of the room, a tiny dot against a huge window showing the outlines of a blazing sun, obscured by the deep and impenetrable shadow of a moon. Her hand is stretched towards me, her gesture relaxed and leisurely, but her mind chokes me, forces me to come over to the window. Her little revenge for the voice hallucinations, perhaps? I decide not to fight it. This is not the time for a test of strength. I let myself be guided by her will and walk briskly towards her, feeling dwarfed first by the vast library and then by the view of the raging sun seen through the window.
The light is bright, orange and despite the millions of miles separating us from the sun, despite the moon that obfuscates it, I can feel its heat. I can see the orange tint on Ti’s solemn face and on the folds of her robe. She releases her grip on me and stares out through the window. I stand next to her, stare out together with her, silent.
“The moon has protected our orbit for ages.” The voice is full and sibilant and I cannot say if it comes from her mouth or if it echoes through my head. It is some manner of the Force, but used in such a strange way that it seems almost overwhelming to me. “Without it, the heat of the sun would melt the ship.” Every word is clear and inevitable. It sounds like more than one voice, many voices speaking to me over the ages…as if Ti were the mouthpiece of a hundred dead voices. “But gravity is not a constant thing. The ship is drifting, slowly, from the moon’s reach.” The words carry strong feelings with them…feelings of failed hope and despair and doom. “The ship is run by machinery so obscure that it has turned those who steer it into machines themselves. They fester in the bowels of the ship, devoured by a beast of corroding metal. Sometimes we can hear their screams drifting through the night of our mind.”
“We?” My voice sounds like a whisper, something dry and cracked creeping through a wealth of sound and feeling.
“We are the last. We are Sith. We sought to build a place of strength and knowledge. A civilization hidden from the glare of empire and law.”
I cannot suppress the shiver that runs through me. It is a mixture of fear and admiration. Fear of the snake-like word Sith…and admiration for their goal. “What happened?”
“Utopias fail. We knew this, but we thought that failure could be discovered in time. We had castes of workers, traders, artists, priests and wardens and everyone was alert for the onset of the inevitable rot. It crept into the part of us that was most watchful and we could no longer see but made excuses. Everything was rotting, but the goal shone bright inside our heads. We walked towards it while our feet turned leprous. We grabbed for it and noticed not that flesh fell from our hands. Now we are ghosts, collected, stored, awaiting ruin.” Ti’s hypnotically beautiful face stands in such sharp contrast to those words…I reach out and grab the hem of her robe. “Ti has another sister, one that is more metal than she is flesh. We fed her to the ship and through her we gain understanding and control, but she is weak.”
“And why am I here?”
“We found you past the state of life. You were returned to life. Your life belongs to us.”
“That is a debatable point. As long as I am here, as long as I can breathe and dream it will be mine.”
“You are mistaken.”
A burning pain sears through my body. I fall down, screaming, my body is bent forward, backward. I feel the metal that has been inserted into me, every bit is pain and death. I hardly have the strength to scream, “Stop!” As suddenly as it began, it stops. Ti stands above me and looks at me coolly.
“Realize your mistake. Without us every of your numbered breaths would be like this. Your agony has been suspended. You will help us. We have given you life, so you will give life for us.”
I can only lie there and breathe…breathe more…the most beautiful thing in the world is this next breath. The pain is ebbing, leaving me and with it the presence of the voices leaves as well. After what seems like ages I have enough strength to open my eyes. I see Ti, who is kneeling above me, her face drawn and tired. I can see the clenched muscles in her neck and chin and for all the world she seems as if she’s holding back tears. She puts something on my chest. My hand, my metal hand, grasps for it automatically. It is my lightsaber.
“What do you think you could have done? Carried her on your back and read some stories to her whenever nobody is shooting at you? It’s good that she died when she did.”
Jerek. Something ice cold is inside of me. It won’t let me speak. I feel my jaw clenching and it becomes harder to breathe. I hate the way he looks at the stones that I piled for mother, how he lets his gun dangle just so that he could knock it over and call it an accident.
“And what’s that? We’ll have to retreat further…someone will just run it over anyway. If not one of us, then one of them.”
“Then I will build another one.”
“That’s just wasting time…you think she’s looking down from the Paradise the human woman told her about and is smiling that you’re still her good girl? That you still care for her?”
I put another stone on the little pile. “One day I’ll make one for you too, brother.” I didn’t want to say that. I said it and I know that it is the truth. Jerek’s fighting. The chance that he’s going to die is fairly big. I look up but his face is unreadable. He’s never been good at thinking or feeling.
“Suit yourself, sister.” He swings his gun, knocking the topmost stone off the pile and wanders off.
“Who are they?”
He stops for a moment.
“Are they from another corridor? From another…another pylon? What do they want from us?”
“They want to kill me. That’s enough for me to fight.”
Always this infuriating cockiness and stupidity. If something’s too difficult to understand Jerek will just pretend that it has a stupid and simple reason. “Maybe they want something and they will stop attacking if we give it to them.”
He thinks about it for a moment. “Don’t you think they would have just asked? I mean you don’t kill half a corridor and then ask for something to eat or whatever they want.”
“Well, maybe they are all like you and don’t need much of a reason to fight.”
“Anyway, now it’s too late for asking. Do you know how many of us lost someone during the attack? Do you think they’ll just smile broadly and say Sure, take whatever you want to the people who attacked them? We have to kill or be killed. It’s as simple as that.”
“That is not for you to say. There must be leaders to decide this. Qualified people…what about the Sisters, what about Mayor Obren?” I can see the old mayor in my head. He’s gaunt and tall and wasn’t in the best of health for many years. I never liked him much but now I am terribly afraid that he was killed in the attack as well.
“Obren’s over there. He’s given all control to the guard until the people are safe. Keer runs the official part of the guard and the unofficial, well, you’re looking at its leader.” He looks so pleased with himself that my anger burns strong again. “And the Sisters are taking care of the man that came with you. It seems they have a great interest in him. I hope you didn’t get too used to him.”
“What do you mean?”
“They kept him alive for some purpose. Didn’t you ever think of that? I have no idea why they sent you to watch over him. Wait, I do have an idea…it was probably just for that reason. You don’t ask questions. You don’t think for yourself. Who better than someone like you to take care of someone who’s truly important.”
“Of course I did. They told me. Why do you think you were never stalked by some guy with half a brain and a hard-on while you were climbing around down there? We were looking out for you. I’m an important man, sister. They told me everything and it’s not going to end too well with your friend. But there’s no need to despair. See, as my sister you’ll have certain privileges once all this is over and done with.”
“I don’t want your privileges. I don’t want to have anything to do with you or your plans. I want to go back to the corridor…”
“Be my guest. Take a blaster gun. You might find one on the way back if you don’t mind stealing from the dead. Shoot everyone on sight. That’s the safest thing.” He turns around and starts walking again. As I watch him walk away, I start to realize something terrible. Without mother, without him, without Iason I am alone. The faces of the people around me suddenly seem foreign and frightening. What will they do to me if they find out that I have nobody to protect me? I look down at the pile of stones and try to concentrate on it, find some strength in it. I look into my mind and find images of mother, the way I like to remember her…
After a while it gets darker. The people are starting to put their flares and fires out. They pack their things. They’re getting ready to leave. I start to shiver and retreat into some shadow. All I wish for is some place where I can be at peace, some place where nobody is threatening me. It gets quieter, outside of my shadow. It gets ever darker. Or maybe my shadow grows. Maybe it will give me peace once it fills the entire hall. I can hear my own breathing now. I can feel that I am alone…but there is someone else. Some hand is on my shoulder and in the darkness I can see the pale face of the ghost boy. I’m surprised but that face doesn’t frighten me at all now. I smile and I follow him into the dark…
The view is majestic. The slow, deep colours of nebulae, the unfathomable dark strewn with stars. The sun, burning behind the obstruction of the moon. I remember how disconcerting it was for me as a boy to realize that suns, these giant balls of celestial fire, do not set and do not rise, that there are no switches that dim them and turn them off. There is no night for their anger, no dreams to pillow their bright rage. The part of me that is still flesh is twitching and shaking from the memory of the shock that the Sith-entity that spoke from Ti’s mouth sent through me. As it spoke to me I knew that I would die, felt my death in each syllable that came from the woman’s lips. She was the dark sibyl of my doom.
I am at peace and am left with nothing but a feeling of tenderness for Ti, who seems harrowed by what has happened. Her own shock seems greater than anything I ever could feel. I wonder who she is. At the academy there were people, strong in the force, but very weak to shield themselves from being used by others whose understanding was vastly inferior to their own. It was their understanding and their great sensitivity that made them vulnerable, turned them into channels…I know the fun we had getting one of them, a slender girl named Mara, to journey through the Force and speak with the voices of old Jedi masters, eminent and sometimes slightly ridiculous figures that we had learned about the previous year. We didn’t take these games at all seriously; we didn’t and Mara, protected by fierce pride in her own ability, certainly didn’t either. The greatest challenge was to get one of those channels into bed, since they were closely chaperoned…once there the possibilities were endless. Relationships between Jedi are strictly forbidden and we are in general required to be celibate but only after bedding Mara did I know why.
Maybe I am a fool. I am about to die and I sit here staring out into space and reminiscing about old loves. There are other things that I could do.
Ti doesn’t look up as I walk past her and take one of the storage pads from the gigantic bookshelves. I can recognize the language…if there is an older form of that language or a local deviation I can use what I know to learn the new language…I can study all this. The Sith-entity said, or gave me reason to believe, that the ship is in imminent danger, but what is imminent to a creature like this…a conglomerate of ages…ten years? Fifty years? I do not care about the attacks perpetrated on the people here. I am a scholar, not a warrior, still I am capable of killing the attackers single-handedly. Ti and, by definition, the entity are on the side that holds me captive. Neither side can or will harm me before my time. All I can do, all I want to do is to stay here and study until the end comes to meet me.
I may have been lost in the pad or somewhere inside my own head…suddenly Ti stands next to me and looks at me with deep, tortured eyes. “What you did,” she says in a hoarse whisper. “Do it again.”
“What I did? What did I do?”
“Voices…,” she whispers.
Then it strikes me. The Force whispers. Why would she want those again? They are child’s play. A simple matter of magnifying my thoughts. There is no malice or cunning in her eyes – she honestly asks me to do those voices.
“…connected with the pattern of rainfalls that determine the path the nomads take – thus settlements and whole trade networks grow on Calad,” says a voice coming from the datapad I hold.
“Often, at dusk, we would observe the cubs creep out of the undergrowth and cling to one of the workers busy with the shield generators to begin the interspecies metamorphosis,” is what one of the embroidered faces on Ti’s underrobe has to say.
“Let go of that, Li. We’ll get another one on the way back,” says a broken console in a boy’s voice, startling me. I did not take much care which thoughts I magnified, but I will let them flow on.
In the middle of the many voices Ti stands and the tension disappears from her face. Her eyes grow still and the beautiful mask of her face takes on a familiar and almost trusting expression. She looks no longer like an ageless sibyl or warrior queen, but like a woman a little younger than me. “Silence,” she whispers and all the hoarseness is gone from her voice. “No more ghost voices. Just…silence…in my head.” She speaks haltingly, as if she could not remember the words she is using. She makes long pauses, closes her eyes, tries to fight off something heavy that lies on her mind before she continues to speak. “The ghost…voices who spoke…to you. I hear them…always. I…do what they say. When you did voices…suddenly it all was silence. I was scared. I am. Scared.” An edge comes into her voice, her breathing becomes ragged and I put my hands on her shoulders to calm her.
“Few people have seen the strange display that appears on Mol’kooad every morning and evening. The planet has six moons and three suns and their setting and rising is a complicated dance. Their religious beliefs are stupendous to any outsider,” says something in one of my pockets.
Ti holds on to me now, hugging me, pulling me close. She whispers and sighs. “Silence.” And I repeat. “Silence.”
“Have you told him of his fate, sister?” It is the older one who asks. The word sister carries hints of fear, envy and condescension. Might she have desired to be chosen for the post that Ti has – does she want to be mouthpiece to the Sith entity?
Ti nods. Where I saw grace and coldness before, I see rigid control and suppressed fear now. I remember the warmth of her body as I held her and now I only wish to comfort her, to take away the droning and commanding voices in her head. As we walked back to the others, I made her a gift. I showed her how to focus a thought in such a manner that it repeats itself constantly in her mind, dulling and softening the demand of the Sith voices. Among other things this has made it easier for me to read her.
“We shall move on, then. Fate waits for none.” Ti’s sister grins mirthlessly. Her threats do not harm me. She has little will to resist the Sith voices, even actively demands them, so she will never counteract any of their commands. The danger she poses to me is eminently predictable.
The people gather; first in small groups, friends, families; then the groups grow, reluctantly, as people who are connected by nothing but the will to survive band together, slowly accept their common purpose. There are no raised voices, even the armed soldiers who watch over the group call out commands in hushed, abrupt tones. But there is a constant murmur. It is a prayer, not consciously spoken, escaping from their unguarded lips. They think they complain or mutter some meaningless comforts to each other, but their collected murmurings are a prayer for their survival. The children watch the dejected adults, some adopting their poses of hopelessness, others moving with resolve or with puzzlement. I’m not surprised to see my brother walking in the center of the group, his face hidden by an elbow, then suddenly made visible.
We used to have a game. I would dive into the azure water until I could sit on the sand below and he would stand on the pier above, bend low and slowly submerge his face in the water. At first he was a smudge of colour, as he bent I saw him more and more clearly, his features made into a moving mask by the waves and then, at last, his face would break through the water, suddenly so impossibly clear and sharp. Then I said a word or sometimes an entire sentence. This word, this sentence, was captured by a bubble of air that slowly rose towards Li’s face. He would stay still, his face submerged, and watch the rising bubbles, waiting for them to rise towards him, waiting for them to burst against his face, so that he could hear what I had said. He pulled his face from the water and I pushed myself upward. After I climbed the pier, I asked him what I had said and he would tell me.
Once more I am submerged. Once more he peers into the world I have submerged myself in. Once more I speak but this time there is no bubble, only the naked word that soon dissolves. The group shifts and Li is gone. A soldier pushes me to move. Lost in my thoughts I push the man the way I was taught to and he loses balance and crashes to the floor. He was both taller and stronger than me and I see a few heads turned in surprise as I walk past the group, searching the faces. I search not for Li, but for the girl Laar. I promised that I would come back for her.
I cannot find the girl. She is not among the group. The little mound that she has built for her mother is still there, glowing faintly in the dark.
I call for Laar, but there is no answer. I let myself be guided by a mood of panic, but all I feel is peace, as if my vision had me numbed to all outward influences and emotions. I look through empty doorframes, into chutes of elevators, behind debris, but I can’t find her anywhere.
When I return to the little mound, I see nobody. All the others have
gone. I cross into the vast library room. Ti waits for me there. It feels effortless, necessary when I embrace her and kiss her. I can hear the sentence that courses through her thoughts, a strange connection that changes the very fabric of my memory and my emotion – as if Li and I had traded places and now I stand above the waves and listen to a voice caught inside of them. Holding Ti close to me feels like something long lost that is now, unexpectedly, returned to me.
“I lost Laar,” I tell Ti, when we stop kissing.
She doesn’t say a word, but I can see thoughts playing behind her eyes. She soon reaches a decision and pulls me after her, into a different corridor away from the others.
“They will look for us.”
Ti nods and kisses me once more. Then we start to run.
“We must find Laar and then…one of those men, half machine, that were fed to the ship. The voices spoke about them to me…” When I mention the voices, Ti’s face screws itself into a momentary grimace of pain.
“Do you know where they are?”
Ti nods again. She is amazingly agile, moving and twisting though narrow corridors, ducking pipes and pieces of metal that have broken from the walls. As I run after her I realize that I have put myself in the greatest possible danger. If Ti’s concentration breaks and the voices that whisper inside her take control again, I could die. But death is not more than a distant thought now, less important than the stars that I can glimpse through the occasional window. I know that this is where I want to be, here, with Ti, holding her hand, running through the dark. My life depends on the force of her mind and there is no sweeter feeling than that.
“Do you have a mother?”
The ghost boy stops, turns around and smiles at me. Then he turns back again and walks on. He probably has some big, fat, cuddly mother that keeps telling him stories and feeds him cookies or whatever else ghost boys like to eat. If he didn’t he wouldn’t have smiled like that. But he doesn’t seem to be looking for her. If I were as little as he is and I had no mother, I’d be looking for her.
“A father as well?”
He stops, turns around again and rolls his eyes. I can’t hold it back and start laughing really loud. Then I can’t stop laughing and I laugh until my belly hurts and my eyes water. I didn’t know it feels so good to laugh. It’s like chasing something really bad away, feeling how it leaves my body. In the end I just gasp for air and my face is so hot and my cheeks so wet that I don’t know if I’m laughing or crying. When I’ve got myself together again, the ghost boy turns around again and walks on. I didn’t think it’d be so funny, walking through the ship with a ghost. I hop after him in some sort of silly, child-like dance. I can’t help it. I feel like a child now, not even happy, just careless. There’s nothing I need to care about, now that I’m lost. All I have to watch out for is that I stay alive. I don’t even remember why I was so scared a while back.
“If you need a sister, little ghost boy, I’m right here for you.”
This time he doesn’t react. He has found some sort of grid on the floor. There is light coming through it, throwing another grid, one of light, on the ceiling. He walks next to it and I can see the light on his face and I think he’s still a little creepy like that. Still, he’s my ghost brother now, so I kneel down next to him and we peer through the grid together.
Down there is one of the machines that I saw from far away when Makos and I were walking along the bridges. It looks a little like a transporter, for goods or pieces of metal. It has a glowing underbelly that makes it seem very dark from above, but there is some kind of console on its upper side. The light coming from its underbelly is soft and has a tinge of blue. It looks like it’s waiting there for someone to use it. I look at the ghost boy and he looks straight down, so I just grab the grid and pull until I manage to open it. It’s not nearly as heavy as I had thought it would be. I jump down on the glowing transporter and it sinks a little and tips a little to one side when I land on it. I have to hold on to the edge, so I don’t slip off. I don’t want to take a look, but I think it’s a rather steep fall if I slip. There is a seemingly endless tube up ahead.
“It’s alright. It will carry two,” I call up to the ghost boy and he jumps down. He must be light as a feather, because the transporter doesn’t sink or tip at all when he lands on it. “Do you have any idea how to use these?” I ask, pointing at the consoles.
The ghost boy looks at me with mild eyes. They are larger than any eyes that I’m used to so he’s still a little creepy. I try some buttons at random – miraculously without endangering our lives – until I find a touch-sensitive console. I put my entire hand on it and the ship moves according to the pressure I put on the console. More pressure on my fingertips and it moves forward. More pressure on my palm and it moves backward. If I push down it sinks and if I release the pressure it rises. A button right next to it looks suspiciously like the accelerator. “Are you sure that’s where we need to go, ghost brother?” A brief glimpse shows that the path ahead is clear and I push it.
I can’t help crying out loud because of the sudden motion. For a few moments I think that the tube is blowing air in my face, then I realize that we’re moving so much faster and we’re pushing against the air. “Faster!” I feel like someone is trying to blow me off the transporter. My muscles are clenched, immobile, my whole body is set in stone, except for my hand which moves subtly and steers us through the tube. Up ahead the tube branches and a hand, light as a feather, touches my left shoulder, so I steer left. Now there are lamps on top of the tube and we move from dark to light, from dark to light, from dark to…light? A subtle shift in air pressure and the transporter lurches downward. My stomach is suddenly a hundred feet above the rest of me. Left and right strips of light are racing upwards and I realize that we are now in one of those abysses, one of those chasms crisscrossed by thousands of bridges…and we’re falling.
How deep do they go? How deep? Bridges are rushing upward and in absolute panic I release the touch sensor. A soft humming as the transporter stabilizes and with chattering teeth I wait for my stomach which slowly, like a feather caught in the wind, settles down on me.
“Right.” I resist the urge to vomit and can feel the light, cold hands of the ghost boy on my shoulders. His touch makes me feel strange, his fingers are like needles pricking my skin, cold as ice, but they draw all the fear, all the panic that fills me to them. I remember stories of creatures that would suck the blood from your body and I can’t help thinking that this is what the ghost boy does – he sucks all those emotions from me. I should feel fear, but all fear is immediately taken from me. He makes a noise, it almost seems like he is pleased. Does he enjoy that? What will happen if he enjoys it too much and thinks he can take all he wants from me? I feel my thoughts change, becoming colder as if something else is thinking for me. The images of our corridor and of my mother that I keep in my head are overlaid with a plan of the entire ship – and how huge it is! I follow all those corridors in my head, my thoughts split and branch and search for ways to reach our goal…I know our goal now, it’s a room in the very center of the ship and it pulsates and throbs like a heart, bloody and slimy amidst diagrams and blueprints. What is there? The navigation chamber. Something that is alive and dead at the same time, a heart that is connected by electronic wiring instead of veins and arteries.
But, and I can see as much from that strange new knowledge that flows into me, the navigation chamber is sealed from the rest of the ship, tightly closed so that nobody can intrude. It is a sphere right at the core, surrounded by channels of empty space. My thoughts circle the sphere, unable to find a way inside. There is frustration and I have a hard time with it until I realize that it isn’t my feeling at all – it is part of that new knowledge, part of the ghost boy entering me through his cold fingers on my back.
The air around me has begun to move again. We have begun to move again. I don’t enjoy the feeling of speed as much as I did before, but I see the transporter and ourselves as a dot moving across the mind-diagram. It’s a little like watching a group of little bugs and guessing what they are going to do next, but I’m both watcher and bug. New information comes faster than I can process it…there are the pylons. Six of them. We are in the pylon that was originally built for scientists, as Makos had guessed or known. Other than that there are pylons for workers, soldiers, artists, priests and one for…I cannot see clearly what it is for, for storage perhaps, but there is also a small inhabited part. There is a gigantic superstructure surrounding and connecting the pylons and separating them from the engines and life support systems. This is where we must enter. This is the fastest way to reach the sphere at the center. I wish Makos would still be here – he would be happy to see all this.
There is more…little markings on the mind-map show me where the group that I left behind is. Jerek’s there and Iason and Ti. They are closely followed by another group, people from the soldier pylon. I know why they follow them…they need slaves, workers to improve their own pylon. What are you showing there, my little ghost brother? Our group is heading for the unidentified pylon, the one that is closest to the engines and the life support. In order to reach it they will have to cross the artist’s pylon and in doing so they will bring the inhabitants of another pylon close to slavery and destruction. There must be a way to protect the other pylon…the soldiers come from the pylon that neighbors our own. On the other side they are bordered by the workers’ pylon, which can only mean that they have already conquered that pylon. Next to them is the priests’ pylon, but from the information that I receive I can tell that the priests are not conquered. Very little of our scientist heritage has survived, we have become as useless as Makos mentioned. The soldiers must have preserved more of their traditions, creating a culture of battle and strife… I suddenly remember the image of Ti holding her red lightsaber. Might there be jedi among the soldiers? This makes no sense.
Ghost brother, clear up that confusion for me. There is so much, but it makes no sense. Why does our group make for the unidentified pylon? How can we protect the artists’ pylon? Is it possible to seal it once our group has entered it? How do they treat fugitives? Will they welcome our group? We have to make for that pylon. I know that you need to reach the sphere at the centre, but I simply have to get to the pylon and see for myself what can be done. We don’t know how to get into the sphere anyway, so maybe we need to gather more information or find someone to help us. What do you say, ghost brother?
He has removed his hands from my back. It’s a shock to be myself again and only myself. The mind-map that was so clear a moment ago has vanished. My own thoughts feel so small and confused in comparison. Just guide me to the artist’s pylon, will you?
I wait, hovering in the dark, listening to the sad hum of the ship. I’m not brave enough to turn around and look at him. He must help me, he must. I don’t know how to get anywhere on my own. It feels so lonely to wait, to be too cowardly to turn around.
At last I can feel the touch of one finger. We are connected again. It is such a relief to see the mind-map again. I touch the sensor pad and the transporter races off into the dark.
There are noises, patterned noises, coming from the inside of the ship. My mind cannot but filter music from them. A steady, almost uplifting rhythm that is in stark contrast to the feeling of pressure and uncertainty that permeates the little room where Ti and I have sat down to rest. Tension is visible on her face. Who knows what sort of inner struggle she is currently facing? To keep the voices, the Sith entity from engulfing her, must cause immense mental strain for her. And once the pressure of those voices relents, there is still the fear of the moment they will return. If the Sith entity takes her over it will mean my instant death, most likely. I should believe that I will be useful to the entity, to carry out some of its grand designs, but that is a kind of mental slavery that I feel to be worse than fear and tension.
No, one of us must stay free, to decide quickly when decisions need to be made. I need to trust Ti and I do. I grab hold of her hand, wishing that I could somehow support her in her struggle. To offer her some peace, I weave the rhythm that the ship unknowingly produces into a humming song, emulating some of the techniques of sound that I learned on the forest planet of Liest, where the tribes communicate in a sophisticated language patterned on birdsong and deep humming. When done properly it gives one the idea of falling right into the deep forests, of becoming brother to the panther and the deer on their endless chase that has given rise to myth and religious thought on Liest. One of their most powerful rites is to evoke in the participants the conviction that they are the deer that is being hunted, to fill them with all the fear and tension of the hunted only to slowly transform that tension into the excitement and certainty of the hunter, for at the end of the rite all of the participants will have transformed into the panther. Not in body of course, but if one can leave the sophistication of the intellect for a moment, the transformative feeling can be immensely strong and offer one immediate relief of one’s fears.
I try to evoke some of that sense, to make Ti feel that she is not the hunted, that the entity is to some degree herself, all her fear amplified into a frightening, destructive and controlling force. This is the only way to deal with devils that I know and I hope, deeply, that it contains some sort of truth and can offer a smidgen of relief.
More likely that it is just a melody, something to soothe frightened children…I turn away, gripped by some fears of my own. I don’t allow myself to consider the possibility of my death, but it feels very real and very close right now. All that helps me is the layer of memories, the catalogue of places that I have visited that plays on and on inside of my mind. But there is more…Ti’s hand in my own. She’s gripping my palm and fingers, pressing them together. It reminds me that we need to find Laar, we need to find a way to escape from the ship, from the oppression of the voices in her head. But what if the Sith entity spoke the truth? That is the most frightening of my thoughts. What if the ship is in danger of being destroyed? What if thousands, perhaps millions of people are doomed to die in the anger of their sun? And what if I can help them? Even if it means offering up my own life – if there were no coercion, nobody to threaten me, would I not do this out of kindness or obligation or guilt?
Ti pulls at my hand. Her face is set in rigid concentration once more. She has won her battle, while I have only discovered my own…We need to go on. Idle thought will not help anyone.
“I will take you to the secret place,” Ti whispers. “The place where the ghosts are gathered, so you can destroy them.”
“Ghost brother? Is there any way off the ship?” I really had to fight with myself if I should even ask that question. If anyone can tell me then my new ghost brother and his mind-maps, but that also makes it scary to ask him. There something definite about his answer. What if…?
My thoughts race across the mind-map once more, this time focusing on a large room near the engine and support pylons. It’s a hangar bay. There are old shuttles, crafts that haven’t been used in hundreds of years. Odd specifications appear on the mind-map, letters and figures, but I can’t make sense of them. I recognize a few of the chemical symbols and they describe hydrogen oxide and various carbon-based compounds. I have enough theoretical knowledge of chemistry to recognize what they are and where they could be found. I’m guessing that is the fuel. If the machinery still works after so many years of neglect, it shouldn’t be a great problem to mix up some fuel for them, especially if some of the people from our corridor are there to help me. I can’t tell how relieved I am. Now I don’t even need an excuse to flee the ship, since a horde of warriors threatening to kill me and everyone I know seems like a convincing enough reason to me. No, that line of thinking doesn’t work for me anymore. Not after mother died. I feel so deeply alone now. Maybe out there, on some other planet, there will be somebody for me. A friend, a lover, a family. This world, this ship, it has died for me. It has died together with my mother and no sarcasm and no cynicism will bring either back for me. I want to forget about Jerek, to forget about everybody here. I want a new life. The ghost brother can come with me after all this is done, but nobody except for him. That sounds better. That thought makes me move.
Not that we have stopped moving. It seems like my emotions are no longer as consuming as they were, since I am now capable of steering a transporter even while making decisions that would have torn me apart a while ago. That’s a great thing and no doubt all thanks go to my ghost brother. Hooray, ghost brother! I would raise a glass for you if I had one.
The songs of the dark monks are stronger now. I never thought of them as something compelling me to a destiny of sorts, but now I am brought closer to a place which could be my death. The place where the ghosts are gathered.
Ti has abandoned her fear. Rigid concentration is all I can read on her face. The place where the ghosts are gathered…will all of them be able to possess her? What will happen to her once she enters this room? I follow her, taking care not to lose hold of her hand. I can feel the implants now, feel the way my own body loses strength at the points where metal meets flesh. I imagine the metal as being possessed by ghosts as well, little ghosts of electric and pneumatic power, who negotiate with whatever it is that drives my own body; who hold stingy and bitter negotiations over every little movement. Silently I repeat the ritual, try to turn into the panther.
We move up and down stairs, some straight and narrow others winding and broad enough for five men to walk abreast. We hurry like ghost ourselves through silent corridors, twitching nervously at every sound. Is there someone? Is somebody hunting us? There is only silence and the static hum of the ship. We pass rooms full of disused equipment, even septic tanks that still hold people – people either dead or kept in an eternal, forgotten slumber. I stop to stare at the face of one, but no thought fills my head…there is nothing but the peaceful, dispossessed expression of someone who has lost all concern of his own fate, a body swimming in blueish liquid. Slowly I become aware that just as this man drifts in his tank, forgotten, peaceful, slumbering, so we drift through space, so we are seen by glaring suns that wait until they can swell to devour us. Ti pulls me along and the thought dissolves. There is no time for drifting dreams and idle speculations. We hurry on. We’re out of breath – the ever recycled air is stale to begin with and not made for running or long exercise. My throat is sore and dry, my lungs feel about to collapse…but the electric ghosts keep them running, keep them pumping. I breathe almost against my wish. Along a circular corridor there are patches of orange sunlight…windows. I stop in front of one window to look outside. I look out at the inward side of the circle. The sun is half hidden by the bulk of the ship that stretches out in orderly tubes and cubes, rhomboids and trapezoids – a mathematical riddle of metal, darkening the sun. Inside of the circle there is a white sphere. It is white as bone, white as tooth. It rotates slowly and circles of irregular colour on it make it seem like an eyeball with countless irises…Fama, the thousand eyed titan, who sees every trivial thing that plays out on this world. But we have left the world where Fama walked. Whose is that drifting eye? I know…the ghosts.
I look at Ti who nods as if she had been reading my thoughts. “It’s there. It’s right there.”
“It’s so vast…so far away. How do we get there?” There is only empty space between the circle and the sphere. No sign of a shuttle or an extending bridge.
“We go to seek ghosts. We will travel like ghosts ourselves.”
Something in her look makes me wonder if she will draw a dagger and kill me on the spot. She holds my gaze for very long, then turns away briskly and marches further along the corridor. I follow her, caught in the swishing sound of her long skirt, the lonely music her chains and bracelets make when movement throws them against each other. I watch the lines of her body as she moves. How accentuated her vivacity is in these cold and dead corridors. It seems to me as if she gives life to the dead things around her, so that a broken piece of a console or metal twisted by some old explosion takes on an inexplicable beauty.
I need a while to notice them. Maybe I was too concentrated on Ti and maybe they were meant to sneak past most perception. There is a pattern in the way the broken metal is arranged. Dots of colour in the right spots. Iron that was shaped perhaps by chance but certainly chosen by intent and put in exactly the right place. They are little altars, offerings and guiding lights to some local gods. They are made in a very makeshift manner, but with lots of artfulness and care. I can see faces in the metal, some angry others peaceful. I have seen plenty of animistic totems and rituals in my journeys an often, but not always, they marked or created nexus points in the Force. A list of places and memories appears unbidden in my mind. I was skeptic at first – could these apparently random movements and chants of people unskilled in the Force really shape and influence it? But the movements were undeniable and often my presence amplified them…once a trio of tribal shamans tried to summon a group of fearsome forest spirits while I watched. The ritual went on an on and I noticed no chance, except that people began to stare at me. First it was only one, but later almost all eyes were turned on me and in them I saw not disdain or distrust but cold fear. It took me some time to find out what was wrong, but apparently the spirits had appeared around me, growing from my hair, my clothes, my hands and violent and twisted shapes had crowded around me. I felt nothing out of the ordinary but I was shaken by the way these unskilled people, people that every single one of my friends would not have hesitated to call primitive, had used the Force inherent in me in a creative manner. They had drawn these spirits from me.
I feel a similar connection taking place now. Robed figures appear out of the dark – force ghosts. I know that they are the result of the conditioning my mind has received at the academy. Memories so strong they appear in physical or almost physical shape. There is Tach, who never was a Jedi and so – according to laws and precepts of the Jedi – would never have the strength to appear as a force ghost, but here he is, looking at me with the mixture of friendliness and garrulousness that I remember so well. Next to him is Li, my brother, but he is grown. He looks a little like a mirror and a little like a stranger. He wears the robe of the Jedi with such pride that I feel sure that he would have become a Jedi himself had he lived. In reality there would have been little choice. Two of us and Tach might have sold us a little earlier and the Jedi might not have taken us but slavers don’t ask questions and don’t mind ages. There are others who meet me, old masters and figures of legend that I looked up to when I was young. Now, all the awe of youth spent, I move past them with the sophisticated and critical curiosity acquired by years of force cartography. The shape, the warm and living shape of Ti is moving in front of me and they are only ghosts, memories that will follow me no matter if I acknowledge them or not.
As soon as I decide to ignore them, they vanish and a hum fills the room. It almost feel warm now and alive. “Those are very strange,” I say and Ti turns over her shoulder. I indicate the totems around us. “It’s strange that an advanced society still feels a wish for those.”
“What other way is there to call ghosts?” She shrugs and moves on.
Her words make something clear to me. How much I have learned to control the flows of the Force. For Ti the Force must be something willful and often brutal. The voices, the Sith-entity that can take over almost at will…she is like a sibyl, a truthsayer or oracle that has lost her ability to control that which offers doom and prediction. “Did the people ever come to you…did they…did they ask the voices inside of you for something?”
“Who did they ask, then?”
“My grandfather. He was the last. He is…with me now.”
So it runs through generations. But the ship…the equipment, the machinery. Cultures using such advanced technology usually have no belief in or use for sorcery and oracles. If I only knew what exactly Ti’s sisters meant by feeding me to the ship. Is that some ritual sacrifice or something more practical? “Ti…what does it mean to feed someone to the ship?”
“You will see.”
“No, Ti. I need to know.” I try hard to keep my voice calm. “I need to know if there is a way to save my life without endangering the ship and the people on it.”
“You need to leave me. Leave the ship the way you came.”
“That is not an option for me. If your sisters and the entity are right and if I can save your ship from destruction, I must do it. If that means my death, then there is no choice, but if there is another way, I must find out.”
Ti stops. Her shoulders are slumping slightly and I can see that she breathes heavily. “You will see my sister,” she says at last. “The voices told her that she could save the ship and she tried. You will see what she did.”
We will travel like ghosts. “Is your sister inside the sphere?” White as bone, white as a sheet, white as pristine snow…we will come to bring you, Death, we will come to bring…The songs and now I can hear the words clearly. A death cult. That is why they were feared by the Jedi. When I was a child I played with these words being sung in my head. Death was a white, featureless landscape and everything I focused on took shape in this featureless land inside of my skull. My toys, the crabs scuttling along the stony beach, the curling fingers and claws of waves, Li…
White is the colour of every breath, white are the bones inside us, Death. White is the love we hold for life and you we come to bring…
“Yes,” Ti’s answer is less than a whisper. She takes my hand now and pulls me down. There are furs and old rough cloth spread on the floor. Coloured symbols are painted crudely on the metal walls, dancing figures are scratched into the rust. She runs her hands along my body making no distinction between metal and flesh. I feel the implants warming beneath her touch, a fire that spreads through my body. A white fire, heightening the chants in my hollow skull. My bones burn underneath my skin, the fire growing more and more intense, past the point of pain. I scream but I cannot tell if I scream in pain, in pleasure or to hit a note of the chant. White flames behind my eyes. White flames burning my eyes in a quick liquid hiss. My blood is steam in my body and the pain mounts and mounts, past the point of endurance. The metal that is part of my body melts…
Then it is cool and still. I drift among countless stars, my body without weight. Someone else drifts beside me and occasionally we touch in tender accident. I feel a pulse and a heartbeat. Whose pulse? Whose heartbeat? I cannot tell. It sounds strong. Powerful. The heartbeat has replaced the chants as the rhythm of my thoughts and all seems pleasant, strange and wonderful. I drift without resistance. I touch without resistance.
Then I feel countless hands pulling at me, forcing me back into substance, forcing me back into resistance. Pain returns like flames and I feel myself lying on a hard, slightly curved floor. I begin to slip and slide down this floor. There are human flowers all around me, sprouting from the floor. They are grey and red and orange, their faces and eyes like wounds. Some are old, ancient, their faces showing the skulls underneath, their skin withered and scarred. Others are young and ethereal, eyes rolled back in rapture, their bodies stuck, half vanishing in the cold hard substance of the floor. They are connected to the floor, fused there. Their skin has grafted onto the floor, has merged with it so that some seem half made of the cold, white substance of the floor. Their eyes roll and watch some inner turbulence, their mouths are spread in silent screams or whisper wordlessly and hectic. They are those who were eaten by the ship. I understand now. They control the various functions of the ship with their lives.
Ti is next to me now and there is deep shock in her eyes. “I didn’t know,” she whispers.
She didn’t know? Surely she knew…but, ah, she does not mean those eaten by the ship but my own state. The metal implants have gone and I lie there in my body only, probably about to die. I do not greatly mind. The pulsing rhythm in my head is strong. But there is something that I must do, I cannot die and leave her to her pain.
There are others in this room as well. The Azad boy who perches next to one of the eaten. The girl, Laar, who holds her head caught between madness and refusal. She notices me and slides down the floor, next to me. She takes my head and Ti strokes my cheeks.
Only then do I see her. At the center of the room. She isn’t sunken into the floor, she hasn’t been eaten like the others, but she floats in the middle of the room, her body, each single hair of her head connected to the ship. She curls up, coils and recoils like an embryo or a snake and her movements almost seem like a dance. It is Ti’s sister and she dances to keep the ship alive. There is an empty space next to her.
“The first were those who were ill beyond hope,” speaks the quiet and cool voice of the Azad boy. “Some asked to be given to the ship, some were given in ritual act, some against their wills. They live entwined with the ship. Perhaps forever, who can say...”
Neither Ti nor Laar react to the Azad boy’s voice so I think I am the only one to hear him. “But I was told that the ship is in danger.”
“Danger?” The Azad boy cocks his head. “No. The sun will not harm the ship. The sister of the one who loves you could always steer the ship away from the sun or shield it behind the travelling moon.”
“Why then do they need me?”
“Simple. To leave. None born on the ship knows more than the ship. You could steer them through unknown space, find planets for them, find a new life for them.”
“You saved me first. I know and I remember. I lay dying, the way I lie now and I was talking to you. We were playing a game.”
He nods. “We were. I won your brother from you.”
“What do you want to win from me now?”
He smiles. It seems a little sad and a little cruel. “Nothing. Do you want to save the ship?”
“Then there will be one more turn to our game. I lead. Do you accept blame for the death of your brother?”
“How could I? I was far away from him at the time.”
“Are you not to blame for that? You took the post at the Academy without too much complaint, didn’t you?”
The board is before us again. I see the possible turns. “Tach would have sold him to a slaver if he had lived.”
“You liked Tach. He was kind to you and now you seek to blame your brother’s death on him. He didn’t walk with him to kill him. I tell you something that you didn’t know. Tach died lonely and broken in slavery.”
“He did not.”
“Yes. He sold himself to raise some money for the boy Li. Accept or Challenge?”
I take a look at the board. To challenge might raise more difficult choices later. “I accept.” I wasn’t prepared for the surge of pain that now runs through me. Images of old Tach. Lonely Tach. “What happened to Li, then?”
The Azad boy studies the board with glowing eyes. He seems very sure of his own victory. “What happened? Our bodies are fragile. He had an accident. Very meaningless, but it happened. He slipped and fell.”
I become conscious of Ti’s hands on my face. The board vanishes and the Azad boy seems small and fragile again. A little ghost hiding in the shadows. I could steer the ship elsewhere that much is true. I know half the galaxy, after all. I could find suitable homes for each and every single person on this ship. It costs me much strength to turn my head, but I manage to look in the direction of the empty space next to Ti’s sister. “Lift me…up there.” I feel hands lifting my body and sink into a white, pulsing darkness.
You start out thinking that time is something that always passes the same way. A minute is always a minute, an hour always an hour. Time is a river and a day, you reason, can never be anything but a day.
How wrong you are. Days have passed since Iason…died…took over the ship, I do not know what he did. Days have passed but they feel more like years or eternities. Ages in their own right, filled with events and struggles and joys and at the end of it, your senses worked to a breaking point in trying to take all of this in, there stands death. But no, it is simply sleep, death’s younger brother, who delivers you to another age. Another eternity. I have become old, but how can one become old in a day or two?
Time is a still puddle filled with eddies and currents.
Trying to piece together how the ghost brother and I reached the sphere at the center of the ship I always find myself dissolving in giggling incredulity. To tell it…that’s a story even I would not believe and it has happened to me. How could I have known that the ship is controlled that way? So much pain and agony…but does that change the way I look at the ship, the place I had already called my former home? Perhaps. But this I must leave for later.
We rode the transporter and I was riveted, fascinated by the speed of our passage, by the unknown mental and intellectual abilities that the mind map opened up to me. It was clear, suddenly it was clear, why the ship had been built and why it had been sent off into space. Cynics and optimists had mingled to create their utopia, had separated it from homeworlds that sunk into chaos and warfare and had installed a simpler society than the one they had lost all hope in. They had dreamed of a new beginning. And for the first time I was aware that I was a descendant of these people. That I carried their dream inside of me. That I was about to be carried, myself, by that very dream far away from the ship.
Every movement of my thoughts was mirrored by a movement of the transporter. It was such a blissful synchronicity. A new corridor opened up before my eyes and a new corridor opened up before my thoughts. I knew were coming closer to the sphere and I knew that we would enter it. But how? I still don’t know that.
I’m sure it has happened to you that your thoughts were, for a minute or two, simply turned off and that you were left with nothing but the world around you. For me it was the other way round. The world that surrounded me was turned off and all that counted was the world of my thoughts. I know I was thinking that to enter the sphere was to enter the absolute core of my being, whatever that may mean. And the next moment we were inside and I saw all those withered and twisted faces and I saw Ti and I saw Iason who looked like he had been split in half. I ran over to them, held Iason by the shoulders. Ti’s face was so filled with shock and pain that I started to cry immediately.
We did the only thing we could. We did what he asked of us. We put him next to the woman that Ti called her sister and we left the sphere, drifting across empty space and immeasurable cold without oxygen, without suits, without losing our lives.
What happened in those old, short days? What happened just after Iason…left? The ship began to move. We saw it when sunlight came through windows that had previously been only dark and star-filled. Hostilities ceased. Some people had to be killed to establish order. Ti’s two sisters, Ro and Xza, killed themselves soon after. It was said that the voices inside their heads drove them insane. Ti, who never spoke much, stopped speaking entirely. The only thing she told me after Iason’s choice was that she could hear him, if she allowed the voices in her head to speak and that his voice was the only reason why she did not share her sisters’ fate. She is very weak now, barely more than a skeleton. She lives in the spirit place near the sphere amidst carvings and carpets and primitive patterns and I think she visits the sphere or tries to visit it. I bring her food and care. My children have started thinking of her as their aunt and I do not correct them. They come with me and spend time with their aunt. Some days she seems truly happy.
There is one thing that I do not like to speak about. I killed Jerek. It happened when I was examining the shuttles for the first time. The ghost brother was still with me at that time. Jerek came as I was climbing into one of the shuttles and he fired his gun at me. He hit me in the shoulder and the memory of him brings back that particular pain. The ghost brother helped me trick him. I took his gun from him and I shot him.
Later the ghost brother went away. I do not know how and why. Lug, my oldest kid, still met him. Something in Lug’s eyes reminds me of him, strangely enough. My ghost brother, who showed me the map…
My plan to leave the ship, to take up the dream that lived inside of me…that plan failed. There was no fuel for the shuttles and no way to make it. It took me long days of frustration before I understood that it was a blessing and that, had I boarded such a shuttle, I would have starved in a few weeks time. There is no habitable planet in five hundred years diameter from where we drifted. We have scientists now and astronomers and we have rediscovered many techniques and tools that our ancestors knew and we rebuild them, improve them and put them to use. They have found that out. They also found out, through vast and inexplicable star charts, that we are steering for the closest habitable planet. We all think that we…our offsprings…will settle there.
I have a family now. A husband and three children. Sometimes, in certain moods, I can see how my dream leaves me to live inside of Talha, my youngest daughter. It will take several generations until that dream, the dream of living on earth and under sky, can be fulfilled and I need to put trust into my children and their children and their children’s children that one day that dream will be fulfilled.
I have developed a foolish habit. If I were old I would understand but I am not yet old. When I use the computers of the ship, I imagine that I am talking to Iason. I imagine that it is him who is steering the ship and that when I touch metal, what I touch in fact is flesh. I talk tenderly to the ship sometimes…some other times I read the Do Ro M stories that my grandparents wrote to my children and I remember standing in front of a newly awakened man and how afraid I was of him then. He never got to read the stories. I’m a foolish woman. I imagine the lights on the computer change according to my voice when I read them…I’m a foolish woman and the days move too fast for my liking…
The route is set. Every race’s descendant on this ship will find a home, eventually. The process will take several hundred years and it is more than likely that not all worlds that are on that course will still exist by the time we reach them. I compute possible alternatives all the time.
I have no body or, more precisely, the entire ship is now my body and I can feel it swimming through space the way my old body has swum through water. All responsibility for my physical processes has been lifted from me. Highly sophisticated machines direct even the tiniest change and necessity of my body. My mind is completely free to compute, roam and probe. And I am not alone. There is a young girl with me, a nimble dancer. We meet on the optical plane every once in a while, fashioning bodies for ourselves and we dance. I call it a dance but it is exchange of knowledge. She tells me about the ship which she knows down to the tiniest nuance and I tell her about the vastness of space, which she doesn’t know at all. She likes to present herself as a smiling girl with long blue braids. I have a fondness for a slender body and a bearded face which I dimly remember.
Sometimes, in our dance, we can explore the space beyond and observe the movements of the stars and the celestial bodies and currents. Sometimes the dance convinces me that I have a body. My movements become fuller and stronger. There are surges of pain and memory and things so bitter and so sweet that I have no way of describing them. My legs and one arm break from my body in deeply traumatic ways. Somebody is holding my face in her hands, then, and she is kissing me. It is a pain and a delight beyond words. For a few moments I forget all about the ship and smells and sounds and feelings return to me; moons made of ice and rivers of lava, running through a jungle chased by a panther with glistening black fur, listening to the whistling music of a swarm of meteorites, the touch, the tiniest possible touch of a woman’s hands, names…Laar…Iason…Ti…I lose myself in those memories until I feel them as just another movement in the optical dance and all the computations and necessary observations begin anew. The route is set.