Les cinched up his haversack, packed with the bare essentials for his journey, clipped his lightsaber to his belt, and headed out the door of his room, down the columned corridor. He cast his eyes to the floor, focusing on his booted feet to avoid glimpsing Asya’s door as he passed, even though it was closed, as it had been since she shut it for the last time prior to heading back to Xenen.
But, no, that wasn’t right, he recalled; late on the first night back home, hoping a midnight stroll might clear his head so he could get some sleep, he’d heard his mother’s voice crying softly from the other side. Feeling as though he were intruding, he passed on by without interrupting her private outflow of grief.
He didn’t know how she did it. As for himself, he knew he could never again be able to bring himself to cross that threshold. Nevertheless, he had only to close his eyes for his memory to reveal what lay behind it in exact detail: walls decorated with New Republic Navy recruitment posters, their dashing renditions of fighter pilots grasping their helmets while looking stoically off into a starfield bejeweled with starfighters flying formation; the X-Wing models, Les’ earliest attempts, frozen in midflight just short of the high ceiling she’d painted to look like the sky; the Atadian flag adorning the wall above her bed, upon which her favorite stuffed animals sat waiting for the girl that would never return….
He quickened his step, putting space between himself and the empty room. Things were not as they should be, nor would ever be again – she should be here, with them, their family whole. He missed her voice coming from down the hall, catching a glimpse of her crossing the courtyard. He couldn’t escape her, or the guilt and grief left in the wake of her visitation with the Vong – at least, not here. It had become necessary to isolate himself from it all before it drove him to madness.
Passing by the study, he was met with his father’s voice in the communications room that connected it. He talked to himself as loudly as if there was someone there to share the conversation with him, though little sense could be made of what was said. Peeking in, Les saw him sitting on the floor amid the entrails of the comm consoles – not content with merely repairing the faulty equipment, he was conducting a major overhaul. Typical. Bent over a maze of circuitry and wires, he was so absorbed in what he was doing that he failed to see his son standing in the doorway. Les paused for a long moment, wondering whether he ought disturb him, or forgo any farewell and just leave.
As he pondered this, he couldn’t help but note the trembling of his father’s hands as he labored to join the ends of two wires together. What had once been barely perceptible, as they toiled together on the Stormcrow following their skirmish with the Vong, had increased to an unmistakable tremor. Though restless to begin his journey, Les again questioned robbing his father of his assistant. Feeling a sudden twinge of guilt over taking off to leave him companionless, he decided that the least he could do was grant him the courtesy of bidding him goodbye, and broke into his father’s one-sided conversation.
Mark looked up suddenly with a lost expression, as though forgetting for a moment where he was, then he broke into a smile upon seeing Les in the doorway. “Morning, son.”
“Afternoon,” he corrected.
“Oh?” he inquired, looking about to note the position of sun and shadow as it fell upon the room. “Hmph. So it is. Where’d the time go? Still here, I see. I figured you’d have taken off at first light.”
He was surprised he remembered; he’d become quite absentminded of late. “Time doesn’t matter, where I’m heading.” But it mattered here, and he reflected with mixed feelings on the days he’d lost in being detained by his father’s pleas for aid. Each day his torment grew until he had to at last turn insistent.
“Aye, right you are,” he replied, returning his attention to the wiring.
“How’s it going?” he asked.
“All right, I suppose. When this is all put back together, we’ll have a stronger, steadier, more reliable signal, right here from Arradan – one that’ll keep us connected to Atad no matter where we are, or what decision they come to back at the capitol.”
“Speaking of which, is Mom back from Atadia yet?”
“No,” he answered, raising his eyes to the skylight as though by doing so could make the Stormcrow appear.
“She talked about getting back, what…yesterday?”
Mark nodded. “That was her estimate.”
“You think that’s a good sign? That they’re taking her seriously?”
Mark exhaled a cynical chuckle. “What do you think, son? This is Atad we’re talking about. Never a presence in the Republic Senate – New, or Old; never having anything whatsoever to do with anything that goes on outside this planet’s atmosphere. Not even the Empire’s hostile takeover back in the day could convince these people – my people, mind you,” he smiled, not forgetting to count himself among their number, “- that what goes on ‘out there’ can affect life here. I have my doubts that this threat to the ‘rest of the galaxy’ will convince them otherwise. Not until it’s too late.”
“But…she is the daughter of Lord Leslye Skyy.”
“I’m not sure if that’ll play in her favor or not.”
“Yeah, but, all she’ll have to do is point out what happened to….” He stopped before speaking the name, but it was too late; a curtain of gloom fell across the room. “I mean, that wasn’t so very far from here.”
“If I may speak, master?” The deep, resonant voice of the tall Zehdekian took them both by surprise, his appearance in the room having been accomplished with cat-like silence. He had come into their very midst, bearing a tray of refreshment for his masters, which he set down on the one available space on the cluttered cabinet. Beside it was a generous and well-presented plate of food, untouched – breakfast. Mark’s face reddened when he saw the browning fruit and bread gone dry, realizing he’d again forgotten the necessity of eating. Giving his father a disapproving look, Les took note of how his clothes fit more loosely nowadays, as well as the increased prominence of cheekbones on his already thin face. Work proved to be an effective evasion from the grief that threatened to overwhelm him, thus he threw himself into it to the point of obsession, often to the neglect of all else. He might unwittingly starve himself to death, but not before everything in and around the house and the Stormcrow had been properly, if not overly, tweaked and modified.
Though Narak surely had to have noticed the neglected meal, he showed no sign that he did. Standing erect, he clasped his long, blue-skinned hands before him, his expression as unchanging as ever. His color-changing, pupil-less eyes, a Zehdekian’s only outlet of emotion, for the one knew how to read them, displayed a milky, mellow orange, actively swirling like a muddy puddle that had been disturbed, stirring anew every time he blinked.
When it became apparent that the one proudly proclaiming himself their slave was awaiting their permission to speak, Mark nodded. “Yes?” he questioned, curious. When a Zehdekian offered a piece of his mind, it was a time to sit up and listen close, for it may not happen again. “What is it, Narak? By all means, speak whatever you like, whenever you please.”
Narak gave a slight bow. “The message sent by the young master – Maker keep her close to his heart – did not go unheeded by my kindred.” His eyes brightened to amber as he clasped a fist to his chest to respect the memory of Asya, who had become something of a hero in their eyes. “The…guardians…keepers of the years are prepared to meet whatever may come.”
Though the alien had struggled with the words, Les understood that he was trying to say that not only had Asya’s death not been in vain, but also that the Zehdekians, his people, had notoriously long memories; history was their teacher, and the lessons learned never faded over time. Come what may, the natives of the Zehdek moon would be ready to face it, with both eyes open. Unlike the governments of many worlds, they didn’t mess around or waste time with an abundance of words when action was called for.
“Thank you, Narak,” he answered on behalf of the Wylers, if not for the under-appreciative Atadian population, who may be in a position one day to have to thank the Zehdekians for themselves. “We’ll not forget this.”
If Narak was capable of smiling, he might have; but instead his golden eyes glazed over with a silky, silvery sheen. He bowed again. “Thank you, young master. Forgive me if I spoke out of place.”
“Not at all,” said Mark, as the alien returned to his duties. “Any time.”
Pouring the tea, he stirred it with a wooden spoon, tapping it twice on the rim, then placed a naccau leaf in each cup. The floating green leaf spun hypnotically on the surface of the pale brown liquid. The tall alien wordlessly gathered the neglected meal onto the tray without any indication of insult, then excused himself, closing the double doors behind him as he withdrew from their presence.
Following the age-old practice, Mark dipped the leaf in the tea, closed it in his mouth and let it set for a moment on his tongue before chewing it to pulp and swallowing. Les did the same. The unusual flavor that he could find no comparison for as the leaf was crushed between his teeth had always been his favorite part, but now it only served to elicited the memory of the time Asya sneaked a handful of immature leaves from the naccau tree in the courtyard, and the stomachache that kept her in bed all the next day as a result. She never touched naccau tea after that; couldn’t even stand the smell.
There it was, another one – another memory to haunt him, another weight added to his heart, distracting him from concentrating on regaining his footing with the Force. He had to get away from here – just a few days with nothing between himself and the Force but darkness, desolation, and water dripping on stone. Again he wondered if he were really just running away, a thought he quickly ushered from his mind, reminding himself this was a legitimate exercise; ‘Jedi time,’ as his mother so often put it.
As he took a cautious sip of the hot liquid, Mark interrupted Les’ musing as he murmured, “They’re good people, all; let’s hope the Vong’ll just pass on by.” He lifted the cup to his lips, the tip of his moustache dipping into the hot tea as he sipped. How could the quaking of his hands not bother him? Though it was so bad that he nearly sloshed the tea out over the rim, he seemed to take no notice at all. “Because if they don’t,” he concluded, “they’ll not stand a chance, no matter how ready they think they are.” He sighed. “Not a chance.”
As Mark set the cup aside and returned to his work, Les felt once more the tang of guilt that had kept him tied here for longer than he’d wished. “Need a hand?” he asked, hoping he would remember, would notice the bag slung over his shoulder – he needed this journey, needed to be alone, be free of the coils and memories of everyday life in Arradan as he sought out his place, if any, in the Force.
“Well…” he began tentatively while licking wayward drops of tea from his moustache. Though he thought he might have caught a glimmer of mischief in his eye, Les held his breath; he wasn’t sure what he’d do if he said ‘yes.’ Pulling himself to his feet with the aid of a nearby chair, Mark rose so painfully that Les crossed the room to help him up. “S’alright,” he told him, wincing. “Just been sitting in one spot for too long.” Settling in the chair and exhaling a long breath, he found his pipe among the parts and tools lying about on the console, tapped out the ashes in a little gray pile amid the mess and took his time in filling the bowl afresh.
With an undying fascination Les watched his father fill and light the pipe that had once belonged to his grandfather, gone forever with Alderaan. Eyes affixed to the old pipe, his mouth watered to hold it between his teeth, in spite of the objections his parents would certainly raise – then grow a moustache and have green eyes and scrawl quick sketches on his cuff for want of paper as ideas struck him and understand how all things work and come up with creative ways for how they can be improved and be the best pilot ever known to the galaxy. The woody aroma that wove itself into the air along with the languid smoke was a comforting manifestation that filled him with fondness and memory. Merely the smell of it clinging to his father’s clothes transported him to a place of peace and safety, where he knew he was always loved, like being held in a warm embrace. It brought to mind all those hours they’d spent together, working their hands and minds over a project or problem. In short, it reminded him of that forever-lost feeling of youthful innocence that comes with being a child, yet unaware of evil in the universe. Since Asya’s death, the knowledge that those days were past, and were indeed an illusion, had risen to such acuteness as to bring a rare tear to his eye.
Satisfied that he’d held his son in suspense long enough, and then holding out another moment longer, Mark leaned over the panel and flipped a couple of switches. Leaning back in the chair, he nodded with satisfaction as a section of the control board lit up in steady green lights. There was a twinkle in his eyes as they met with his son’s hopeful gaze. “Oh, I guess I might be able to get by without you, just a little while.”
Les smiled in relief; he hadn’t forgotten.
A familiar sound approached from the distance, triggering a spark of delight in Mark’s eye. “Sounds like your mother’s back,” he said as the two of them raised their faces to the domed skylight in time to see the Stormcrow flash by overhead. “Yep, there she is,” he confirmed as he set the pipe aside and got up, having less trouble rising from the chair than from the floor.
By the time they’d made it to the front door and out onto the terrace, Janet was emerging on her speederbike from the woods surrounding the landing clearing. Shutting down the bike, she sat there for a long moment, still dressed as the diplomat on official business, as though she had come straight from a meeting in some high-ranking assembly, which in fact she had. The anger and disappointment on her face told them all they needed to know as far as her meeting went with the Atadian Security Council. At last she looked their way. Allowing herself a little smile, she swung her leg over the bike and hopped down onto the ground. Mark met her half way and put his arms around her, while she sank into the embrace, resting her head wearily onto his shoulder.
“Welcome back, General,” Mark said, lifting her chin with his finger to press his lips affectionately against hers. Feeling as though he were spying on something private, Les averted his eyes and shrank back into the shadows.
“I missed you, Jan…missed you missed you missed you!” Mark exclaimed, accentuating his declaration with more kisses. That brought a smile to her face, but frustration lingered in her eye. “Need I ask how it went?” he asked as he smoothed her windblown hair.
“Know something? Politicians can be the dumbest people in the galaxy,” she complained.
“Can’t say I disagree with you there.”
“Honestly, time and again I can see why Father threw up his hands and closed himself off from the world.”
“You want to talk about it?” he asked as they started into the house, hand in hand, Les following at a respectful distance.
“The most they would agree to is to put the proposal for interplanetary communication through the committees,” she told him as Narak met them in the vestibule to take her cloak, “but I can’t see it going anywhere beyond that. They don’t see any need for even considering putting together an evac plan, or for setting up an early warning array.”
“What of the military?” he asked as they wound their way through the house in the direction from which Mark and Les had just come.
“Promises and placating words, Mark. They talk of putting the sentries on a heightened state of alert, but they’re wholly unprepared for an attack from the outside. The Imperial occupation taught them nothing.”
“Well, you know,” he reasoned, “this is all an entirely alien concept to them. No one comes to Atad from the outside, no one leaves. You and I, our family, coming and going, traveling to other worlds – we’re peculiar to them; the nonconformists. Atad’s been completely isolated and self-sustaining for all known history. They’ve been stuck in this vacuum for so long they don’t know anything different. What does the Vong invasion have to do with them, they probably wonder. They view what happened with the Empire as a fluke, a one-time thing, and that threat is ended, gone. Of course they’re going to have a hard time understanding.”
They fell silent, as they had by this time come to the communications room, where Janet stopped cold when she saw the mess. Finding her voice, she asked, “Um…how’s it going?”
Realizing how hopeless it must look, he told her, “Must admit it looks a tangle, but you know how I get into a project.”
“Oh, I’m not worried,” she resigned with a sigh. “At least one of us knows how to get a job done right.”
“Now, Jan, don’t do that,” Mark groaned. “You had a difficult job, and you did the best you could.”
“I just wish someone would listen.”
“Surely you found somebody’s ear. What about Lady Eldinand? Lord Theaphus?”
“Yes, well,” she was forced to concede, “but it’s too few. I guess I just expected more – enough to make a difference.”
He put his hands on her shoulders. “We’ll maintain contact with them as well as we can, keep them informed. Give them time; don’t give up yet.”
“How much time do you think they have?”
The question hung in the air, weighty and stifling, seeming to suck the very light and breath from the room. The bleakness she carried was beginning to rub off, but Mark stubbornly refused to give in. “Hey, now; chin up. There’s always hope.”
“Don’t forget about the Zehdekians,” Les reminded as he stepped across the mess to join them.
Janet spun around as though his voice startled her. Then she allowed herself a smile. While still stung by her experience with the bureaucracy, which shouldn’t have come as any surprise, their words gave her comfort, and she let herself relax. “I’m sorry, boys. It’s just…been a long week.” Looking tired, wrung out, she rubbed a hand over her face. “Of course,” she said, reaching up to comb her fingers through Les’ unruly hair, “the eternal Zehdekians. It’s a wonder they don’t rule this world rather than we humans. We’d probably all be better off for it.”
“They’re too humble to presume such a place,” Les said defensively.
Janet shook her head, even laughed a little. “There are some who would say they’re too simple, yet you understand them like father did, my Jedi Knight…. Wait a minute,” she said, suddenly remembering, “weren’t you going off into the caves for some ‘Jedi time’? Don’t tell me you’ve already gone there and back again.”
“I was just leaving.”
“Well, I’m glad I got to see you off before you embarked on your little adventure. How long do plan on being down in the Draed Mines?”
“I don’t know…a few days is all I think can be managed,” he said with a glance at the comm center. He honestly didn’t know how much time he needed; he hoped it would be enough.
“Well, you be careful down there,” she advised. “And keep your grandfather’s cloak on your shoulders at all times. It wouldn’t do to worry the Manes.”
“Don’t worry, Mom,” he said, doing his best not to roll his eyes. “I’ve been down there a dozen times, remember?”
“Yes, but….” She turned a pointing finger on herself. “‘Mother,’ remember? Just doing my job.” She hugged him and kissed his cheek because he’d grown too tall for her to reach his forehead. “Now, if you two boys will excuse me, I’m very tired. I’m going up to find a change of clothes, then when I return I’m going to sit back, put my feet up, sip cup of Cree’s wonderful tea – and keep you company, Captain Wyler,” she said, giving Mark a teasing smile. He grinned back at her, eyes asparkle. In that fleeting scene, Les caught a glimpse of his parents as they were, before…. His heart longed for the return to the normalcy they had lost.
Once Mark had watched her until she’d gone out of sight, he sank back in his chair before the communications board and played with a corner of his moustache, twisting the long whiskers between his fingers. The dark cloud Janet had brought home lingered, tainting the air with the premonition of an ominous storm darkening the horizon. “’Tis a pity,” he sighed in admittance that he, too, had harbored hopes that she could make them understand. “But I suppose if Jan, or even what happened to dear Asya, can’t convince them, there’s nothing that can; nothing but the enemy swooping in and slapping brute sense into them.” He looked up at his son. “Let’s hope it won’t come to that.”
“Yes, father,” Les said, his restlessness to begin his journey increasing with every passing minute – impatience Mark picked up on.
“So you’re on your way then, are you?” He took the pipe in hand to relight it, for it had gone out. “You still figuring on climbing down into the caves?”
“Mind what your mother told you,” he said, wrinkling his brow and pointing the stem of the pipe at him as he gave Les his version of Janet’s admonition to take care.
“Yes, sir,” he repeated, again resisting the urge to roll his eyes.
“I wish you well in your expedition. I hope you find what you’re looking for.” Giving his son a smile that was meant to be encouraging, he put out his hand, offering him a manly handshake.
Les looked down at his father’s open palm. The gesture, offered either out of deference or trepidation that he might consider himself too grown up to be wrapping his arms around his old man, Les saw as indicatory of the barrier that had arisen between them over the past days and weeks; growing, for some inexplicable reason, apart rather than closer together. The revelation startled him to the core and filled him with remorse. Rejecting the handshake, he leaned down and hugged him tight around the neck, pleasing Mark so much that he seemed reluctant to let him go.
“Thanks, Dad,” he replied as the embrace ended and he backed towards the door, careful to avoid Mark’s eyes, sensing they’d become moist with tears. “See you in a few days.”
“All right – go and do what you’ve got to do, but don’t take too long about it. We’ll be going back to Xenen once this is back online. Unless, that is, you’d care to remain behind.”
He shook his head. “No, sir.”
Being the answer he’d expected, Mark nodded.
As he put the room behind him, he paused just beyond the doorway to look back. One arm slung over the back of the chair, Mark slouched motionless where he sat, pipe hanging loosely from his teeth. Blank look on a face etched with lines that had deepened since Asya’s tragic end, graying hair hanging unkempt over eyes dull and fixed on nothing in particular, he looked older and more careworn than what his sixty years ought to have affixed. Les noticed the object lying in his hand. As he absently caressed with his thumb the little cam Asya had carried with her always, the aching of his heart could be felt from where he stood, and he wondered if any of them would survive this loss.
Aye, they would – life, and time, ever do they march on. Yet even Time itself, hailed as the great healer, could only cover their wounds with an ugly and tender scar – and how long that would take? Years? A lifetime? In the interim, all any of them could do was to live one day into the next and so on and on, propping each other up until it worked its wretchedly inadequate magic.
Standing on the edge of the north garden, Les looked off towards the border where Arradan met the dark curtain of trees drawn across where the path he would follow disappeared beneath their deep shadows.
In the face of it, he questioned what good any of this could do. Whatever expectations he might have had over this exercise were drowned in a sudden onset of apathy. With halfhearted effort, he drew upon the Force. Though the air itself was abuzz with the life surrounding him, rather than sensing the surge of energy he ought to, he felt little more than a spark. That separation bothered him, but not like it should. It had been, after all, a self-imposed exile, and he was out of practice. Wavering for a moment in indecision, he almost turned to go back into the house, yet he knew what he should do.
“Whatever the use of it, might as well get on with it and get it over with,” he said aloud to himself. Throwing his grandfather’s cloak across one shoulder and his haversack over the other, he commenced the journey that would take him to the darkest depths of the planet.