Tower of Time: Long Ago and Far Away
   

Taninim and Leviathan
Part 2 - Leviathan
3976 BBY

Red light from the setting sun filtered through the metal blinds over the slophouse's windows, casting narrow blood-tinted stripes across the humans huddled inside. The slophouse was well beyond serving food to the frightened throngs of villagers that had been pouring into Neviverum since early that morning—since the Mandalorians burned in out of nowhere and sacked Quelil City. Before the lunch hour was over, the metropolis was flattened, taking the entire planet's government with it. But even before the Premier’s Palace had fallen, villagers from the Quelil hinterland began to flee their homes for the safety of closest fortified city they could reach. Over the course of the day, Neviverum swelled to nearly three times its usual population. Gyms, schools, and slophouses like this one became temporary shelters.

The slophouse's owner shuffled between tables, chairs, and people slumped over on the ground with a pitcher of water in his hand. It was the least he could do during a state of war. Few people ordered any food, for most were scared out of hunger. All they really wanted was a ceiling and some walls between them and the sky—a sky that a Basilisk War Droid could drop out of without warning. He hoped that once the Mandalorians were gone, some of these refugees would regain their appetite, or at least drop him some coin for his hospitality before they went back to their homes in the country.

Some of his guests tried to sleep away their anxiety, practically piled on top of their relations, leaning against a wall or a table leg. Others talked among themselves, hushed, and still others strained to listen to one of the portable radios that someone had thought to bring along. One constant in all of their activities was a tense, apprehensive fear.

A staticy radio drawled on in one corner, “...unable to... damages in Quelil Ci... guard by... lorian troops. It... assumed that... completely destroyed...”

“Mommy, I wanna go home,” a little girl whined.

“Shh,” her older brother hushed her, “Mom's trying to listen to the radio.”

“But I wanna go home,” the girl's timbre raised to nearly a wail.

“Hush Pressa,” her mother turned her attention away from broken broadcast and squeezed her daughter closer. “We'll go back to Squinquargesimus when we know it's safe. The man on the radio says that it's still dangerous.”

Seeing that his mother was no longer paying attention to the radio, the boy had no scruples blurting out the question that had been burning on his mind, “When are the Jedi coming to save us? Where are they?”

“They will be here soon, Alek, I hope,” his mother said through a sigh and ruffled his thick, black hair.

“And they'll stop the Mandalorians, right?” the boy, Alek, persisted.

“Of course they will,” his mother nodded absently, already listening to the broadcast again.

“...not left the system... No word... further attacks have.... reported, but Basilisks... sighted over...”

“Where's daddy?” another daughter tugged urgently at her sleeve.

Her mother pursed her lips, “He went out to see if it's safe to go yet.”

“When will he come back?” the girl demanded.

“When it's safe, Ann,” her mother deflected again, “We don't know how long that will be.”

Alek knew better. All three of his little sisters, Ann, Pressa, and the still slumbering Emerlie, had been napping when their father left, blaster in hand, promising to help defend the city against the Mandalorians, if it came to that.

Dissatisfied, Ann turned on her older brother, “Alek, what are Jedi like?”

“They're brave, and wise, and carry this light sword—vvvt, vvvt!” he pantomimed for both of his sisters, and anyone else who was watching. “And they always help out people in trouble.”

“Like us,” Ann said quietly.

“Yeah, like us,” Alek nodded. “I know they're coming.”

“...have been attacked! ...repeat Arkentis and Parvi... been attacked!”

The slophouse caught its breath and stood still. The Mandalorians were not gone. They had regrouped and were attacking other major cities. What was bad had become worse. Whispers erupted. People stirred around the room. Where there was a little room to pace, some did.

“...military cannot... back against... onslaught of... forces...”

Alek's mother held more tightly to the toddler sleeping in her lap, her face pale.

“...just in! Quemetli has been... Three cities... under fire! ...seem to... attacking...tary targets...”

All at once, Alek's mother was on her feet, gray eyes set like hard steel. Emerlie fussed sleepily in her arms. “Alek, girls,” she said with hushed urgency, “get your backpacks. We're going.”

Alek was already on his feet. At nine years old, he was old enough to have wanted to join the Royal Army at least once already. He had poured over the propaganda picture books, memorized names, ships, and bases. There were four major military bases on Quelil: Arkentis, Parvi, Quemetli, and Neviverum.

Alek didn't need any further encouragement to sling on his pack and take Ann and Pressa's hands, younger by three and four years. He was cold with fear, but he would take care of them. He followed after his mother towards the door of the slophouse, keeping his younger sisters close.

They weren't the only ones. Anyone who had been awake enough to comprehend what the warning on the radio really meant for them were on their feet and ready to flee.

Outside, dusk was upon the city. What few lights illuminated the narrow streets they rushed along soon winked out, dousing Neviverum into blackout. They hurried past shuttered windows and closed doors. What started as a trickle quickly grew into a torrent of people, all pressing down the streets in the same direction. Above the stomping and shuffling of feet, there was little sound but the occasional child's wail or a low, whispered murmur.

Alek held tightly to his little sisters' hands and kept close to his mother, who still carried his youngest sister in her arms. “Mom,” he asked, “Where are we going?”

“To the spaceport,” she answered.

“There's enough ships for all these people?” Alek asked, awed. They turned onto a main street and they swelled in to meet a bigger crowd like a tributary stream meets a river.

She shook her head, but only just barely. “And that's why we have to hurry,” she said.

Alek couldn't see or hear the source, but suddenly a new urgency surged through the streets. People pushed and hurried more quickly and more fearfully than before.

“Where are the Jedi?” Alek moaned. Ann squeezed his hand.

The rounded a corner, and Alek could see the fin of a starship sticking up above the buildings ahead. They were close. The whine of engines and hiss of repulsorlifts revving up carried towards them on the night air.

Then there came the rumble of engines, an alien buzz, from behind. Some people stopped to crane their necks and look behind them. Alek's mother pressed determinedly on ahead, Alek and his sisters at her heels.

Laser canons shrieked. The ground rumbled with a great, roaring blast.

“It's the Mandalorians! Run!” someone yelled.

The mob broke, screaming, yelling, and running.

“Stay together!” Alek's mother yelled over the top of all of it, and the currents of people fought to sweep her away.

But it was in vain. No one was looking down to see children underfoot. Every man and woman was staring straight ahead, thinking of only one thing: the spaceport right around the corner.

Alek lost Pressa at his left hand first, then the crowd wrenched Ann out of his right. “Ann! Pressa!” he screamed, but the rushing mob carried him along, “Mom!” Rather than be trampled, he ran, as fast as his nine-year-old legs could carry him. “They'll be okay. They'll make it to the ships,” he whispered to himself.

He heard a little girl's scream and he thought immediately of Pressa. “Don't think that way, she's okay!” he panted as he ran.

Then suddenly, there it was. The crowd splintered, each person dashing for whatever ship seemed best, or closest, yelling entreaties at the pilot not to take off, not yet. Alek whirled around, searching desperately for his family, but he could barely make out one face from another, lit only by the faint blue of engines glowing to life. “Mom!” he yelled once more.

Ships were beginning to lift off. Alek bit his lip, then turned and sprinted for the nearest open cargo ramp. “They'll make it,” he panted to himself.

Alek poured up the ramp with other faceless, terrified Quelilians. It began to rise, closing, even as he ascended. Before it hissed shut, the ship lurched, repulsorlifts engaging and lifting the ship away.

Alek clung to the grab-hold next to the hatch and stared fixatedly out its small viewport. People were packed in tightly around him; nearly forty in the small cargo hold. The ship blasted off, arching away from the spaceport. Alek watched as the crowd swarmed onto ships below, as ships took off, and as there were fewer and fewer ships left for the swelling mob to escape on. He swallowed hard. “They made it to a ship. They were at the front. I know they did,” he murmured, his breath fogging the viewport. With his spare hand, he hastily wiped it clear. A sleek-looking Corellian freighter blasted towards them, fleeing faster than any of the others around it. “Like that one,” he told himself.

Just then, a Mandalorian Basilisk War Droid zipped by beneath them, scattering bright laser fire in its path. The fast freighter burst into flames, like brilliant fireworks, and rained down debris on the city below. Alek caught a gasp in his throat. Neviverum grew smaller and smaller, far below. Despite the blackout, the city glowed, in flames. Other burning cities appeared as tiny, bright dots on the dark canvass of the land below. More ships fell blazing back to Quelil behind them, shot down by the Mandalorians.

The ship rattled and shook as it drove up through the atmosphere. The hull of the freighter began to glow with the heat and the strain, but soon enough they were out in open space. All of Quelil dropped away behind them. Alek grasped at the grab-hold more tightly. He had never been in space before.

Suddenly the ship bucked and the lights flickered. Some people screamed. Alek's voice caught in his throat.

“Get us out of here!” a man bellowed.

“The shields will hold!” a man's voice yelled over the comm.

Through his small viewport, Alek could only see the nose of the great Mandalorian Dreadnaught that hung in orbit around his planet.

Another blast jarred the ship. Alek screamed along with the others this time.

Then, just as suddenly, the ship jumped into hyperspace, and all was quiet.

Not long after, a portly man with a hat suggesting naval affiliation in his youth appeared at the door at the head of the cargo hold. With heavy eyes he surveyed his passengers. All strangers. Everyone stared back at him hopefully. He was the pilot, their savior. With a sigh, he finally spoke, “I can get you all as far as Harloen. That's all my fuel—and my systems can handle. Harloen is on the Hydian Way. You should be able to get transports back to your home, if that's what you want, or anyplace else in the galaxy, really. We'll be there in a few hours.” With one last look over his passengers, he turned to head back to the cockpit, but paused. “I'm sorry,” he added mournfully, then retreated, punching the door shut behind him.

Alek's heart sank. He was alone. Even if his family had made it to a transport in time, there were hundreds of systems close by that their ship could be taking them to. It wasn't like all the pilots had a conference before the raid and all agreed to meet on Harloen. He slumped down to the floor. Tears welled up in his eyes. He fought to keep them back, but he couldn't. Hugging his knees and quivering, he cried.

Some time later, when he had nearly run out of tears, he felt a hand on his shoulder and a kindly voice asked, “Are you alright son?”

Alek sniffed and looked up. A man with warm hazel eyes and a curly brown beard was gazing down at him. He was probably in his early forties, but to Alek, he seemed old.

“Mom, Dad, Emerlie, Ann, and Pressa, they're all gone!” he half-spoke, half-sobbed.

“I'm sorry,” the man squeezed his shoulder, “Did they make it to another ship?”

“I don't know,” Alek cried and wiped his nose on his sleeve. “The Mandalorians came and everybody started running and screaming and I lost them. I don't know... I don't know...” He broke down again.

“There, there,” the man said soothingly. “I bet they're on one of the other ships that made it out.”

That was not comforting to Alek. In an instant, as if it were burned into his memory, he could remember the crowds of people in the spaceport, thousands more than there was room for on the ships. He saw before him ship after ship shot down in balls of fire. He remembered how their own transport had shook under laser blasts when the Mandalorian dreadnaught had born down on them. Just how many other ships could have made it through all that?

“What's your name, boy?” the man asked.

“Alek,” he answered, sniffing.

“From?”

“Squinquargesimus,” Alek replied. A wave of homesickness washed over him.

“Squinquargesimus,” the man repeated, ”Why, that's not so far from my own Olvia. A nice little town, that.”

Alek found himself nodding.

“My name's Arrik,” he said, extending a hand to Alek. Alek unwrapped himself from his huddle and took the man's much larger hand. “That's better,” Arrik said warmly, “You look like a strong boy, Alek. You must be, what, twelve years old?”

Alek straightened up proudly. “I'm only nine,” he replied, “But Mom always says I'm big for my age.”

“That you are, Alek, that you are,” Arrik nodded. “I know this is rough on you—it's rough on all of us—but you'll find your way just fine. Now, I bet you and yer family were some of those that came into the city this morning, eh?”

Alek nodded. “Dad said we would be safer in the city, with the army to protect us,” he explained, “Only a couple of men in the village had hunting blasters, he said.”

“That's what all of us in Olvia thought too,” Arrik said nodding, “But, looking back, I reckon we were all wrong.”

“What do you mean?” Alek asked.

“Well, you saw what happened in Neviverum,” Arrik pointed his thumb over his shoulder at their fellow passengers, “We lost. The Mandalorians wanted a fight, so they went straight for the capital and then all the military bases. Maybe if we had all stayed home, they would've left us alone. They must have known that the villages were filled with a handful of hunters at best, no soldiers. No fight for them.”

“We should have stayed at home...” Alek moaned, realizing that everything could have been different if his family hadn't left Squinquargesimus.

“But, then again, if those bucketheads are as cruel as they say,” Arrik countered himself, “They could've nuked our villages anyway, just for the fun of it. And we wouldn't have stood a chance. At least this way, we got out alive.”

“We did,” Alek replied numbly. After a moment, he asked, “Why didn't everyone get on ships and leave right away, as soon as we knew the Mandalorians were on Quelil? Then we'd all be safe.”

“The Mandalorians may have been in Quelil City, but their big ships were still in space, Alek,” Arrik explained, “I don't think anyone wanted to run a chance against getting shot down by one of those dreadnaughts when they thought they were safe on the ground.”

“Safe,” Alek echoed bitterly.

“Well, we're safe now,” Arrik assured him, “Quelil is lightyears behind us, with all them Mandalorians too. It's late. You should rest up a bit. We'll be on Harloen in not too long, and it's a big place.”

Alek nodded wordlessly, and, for the first time, pulled his pack off of his back. Unzipping it, he pulled out a large, plush bantha. Pulling it tightly to his chest, he asked, “Where are you going to go, from Harloen?”

“Oh, I've got a cousin who moved to Taris,” Arrik answered, as if still mulling over the idea, “It's not too far, so I figure he can probably put me up for a while, at least. You got any family off-planet?”

Alek shook his head.

“Then you should start thinking about what you plan to do once we get to the spaceport,” Arrik advised. “You could come with me if you—”

“No, that's okay,” Alek said quickly. Arrik was nice, but he was still a stranger, and his mother always told him not to trust strangers. He tried to think of a plan, but he was too tired, too shocked to think straight. Then, a thought struck him. “Why didn't the Jedi come?” he asked.

Arrik looked back at him, surprised.

“Why didn't the Jedi come?” Alek repeated, “They're supposed to always be there for people in trouble.”

“I don't know, son,” Arrik admitted with a sigh, “Maybe you should go an ask them yourself.”

As Alek settled into sleep, hugging his stuffed bantha, a plan unfolded in his mind. He only hoped that a stuffed animal, a deck of sphereball trading cards, some neutro-bars, and the backpack he carried them in were enough to buy him passage to Coruscant.


***


After waiting in line for nearly an hour, Alek was finally in front of one of the six consoles that ringed around a large, semi-circular desk. Alek punched in his information at the immigrations console as best as he could, only stopping once to bit his nail nervously.

He reached the last question and paused to nibble at his nails again, 'Purpose of Visit: Tourism, Visiting Friends/Relatives, Business, Study, Government Official, Transit, Refugee, Other.' He pressed the box for 'refugee', and hit the 'submit' button.

At the top of his screen flashed the world 'incomplete!' Almost immediately, the woman behind the desk was leaning over to get a better look at him. At least he thought she was a woman. She was of a long-snounted, hairy species Alek had never seen before.

“Excuse me, Master Alek,” the alien woman began politely, “What is your surname?”

“What?” Alek asked.

“Your last name?” she persisted, and when Alek continued to stare at her blankly, she continued, “Your family name, clan name, heard name, or home-name?”

“Uh, my home's name is Squinquargesimus,” he replied, pointing to the field marked 'city.'

“I see. Thank you,” she nodded, and quickly typed something into a console Alek couldn't see on the other side of the desk. “You will need to visit the office of the office of Refugee Registration of the Department of Immigration in the State District if you wish to receive official refugee status,” she explained absently as she typed.

“Okay,” Alek nodded uncertainly, trying to remember everything she said.

“There,” she said, with a last definitive click at her console. Handing Alek a compact datapad, she said, “Welcome to Coruscant, Alek Squinquargesimus.”

“But that's not—” he started to protest, but was gently pushed out of the way but the next person in line to use his console. He walked out of Immigration and looked down at the small datapad in his hands, 'Welcome to Coruscant: Visitors' Guide.' Finding the first quiet nook, Alek browsed through the maps and transportation section of the guide. He noted the waved fee for children under the age of ten on the metro tube system and broke into a grin. It wouldn't be a long walk after all. He pocketed the datapad and looked around him. Bright lighted signs and arrows pointed towards the skyways, public shuttles, and the metro. He knew right where to go.


The Jedi Temple was huge, bigger than Alek could have ever imagined. While Coruscant's vastness awed him, the temple took his breath away. He started up at the wide stairs ahead of him, the great doorway at the top, and the four monumental statues of ancient Jedi that framed it. The Jedi temple rose up behind all that, its corner towers threatening to pierce the cloudy sky. He buried his nervousness and started up the steps. When he reached the grand entrance, there was no one there to greet him, nor to turn to him away. He stepped inside.

Alek drew in a deep breath. The Jedi Temple was just as immense on the inside. Polished stone walkways with gracefully carved railings gave way to halls and galleries below. Great pillars supported still more floors above. Everywhere were robed Jedi, going about their business; some walking briskly to one destination or another, others chatting leisurely together, and still others standing deep in thought. All these Jedi lived in one great temple. All these Jedi should have been there to save Quelil.

Alek balled his fists in anger as he looked down at the Jedi in the levels below.

“Can I help you?” a girl's voice asked.

Alek turned around to see a girl a little older than him. She had brilliant green skin, yellow eyes, and glossy, black hair. A thin braid draped down over her shoulder. Alek shirked back in surprise. He had never heard of someone like her before either.

“Can I help you?” she repeated.

“I, uh,” he stammered, then straightened up, fueled by his anger, “No, you can't. But you could've when the Mandalorians attacked Quelil!”

“Uh, sorry?” the green-skinned girl drew back.

“Where were the Jedi when my home was being destroyed?” Alek demanded loudly, hot tears threatening to blur his vision, but he held them back. “Where were you?”

Her eyes grew wide. “Wait,” she said quickly, and turned to scamper away, “I'll go get M-Master—“

A woman wearing long, white Jedi robes swept around the corner. Alek had never seen such snow white hair in anyone so young as she looked.

“Master Atris!” the girl exclaimed, looking embarrassed.

“What is the problem here?” Atris asked coolly.

“Problem?” Alek started angrily, “The problem is that the Mandalorians burned Neviverum to the ground with my whole family in it! It's that the Jedi weren't there to stop them!” In the days since leaving Quelil, Alek had seen the holonet reports on the destruction of his world, each one worse than the last. “Why?” he demanded angrily.

Other Jedi, drawn to his noisy fit, appeared around him, watching both him and the Jedi Master for the next move.

“The Jedi do not involve themselves in conflicts which—” Atris started calmly.

“But why?” Alek almost screamed. “You Jedi are supposed to always be there to help people in trouble. That's what everyone says!”

“I'm sorry,” Atris replied, still icy calm, “But the masses are sadly misinformed.”

“If you'd've been there... if you'd've been there...” Alek finally broke down, tears streaming down his cheeks.

Alek felt two firm hands take his shoulders from behind. A soothing voice said in his ear, “There, there. We're very sorry about your family, and your home.”

Looking over his shoulder, Alek saw a man crouching behind him—or at least he looked like a man, except for his yellowed skin and turban-like tendrils of flesh twisted into a bundle on top of his head.

“I am also sorry that there is nothing we could have done to stop it,” he continued.

“But...” Alek protested weakly.

“Now, tell me, how could we have stopped an attack we knew nothing about?” he asked of Alek, “When the news reached us, Quelil had already fallen. Even if I had felt the cry of your people, little Quelilian, I could not have crossed that distance in time, even if the fastest ship.”

“But I thought the Jedi were supposed to be able to see into the future,” Alek protested meekly.

“Only glimpses, and only as the Force wills it,” he replied, “I am sorry that we could not foresee this tragedy.”

“Then you'll go and destroy those Mandalorians for what they've done?” Alek asked hopefully.

“No, we will not,” the Jedi replied and raised a warning hand before Alek could argue, “The Jedi do not act out of vengeance. We act out of wisdom and compassion.”

“We will not make war against the Mandalorians for war's sake,” Atris added sharply.

“Yes, yes, Atris,” he deflected her, then asked, “What's your name?”

“Alek,” he answered.

“Alek,” the alien Jedi began, “we cannot undo what was done to your home, but we can offer you a new family.”

“Master Willum!” Atris hissed.

“How would you like to become a Jedi, Alek?” Master Willum asked.

“I...” Alek stammered.

Sensing Atris's glare on him, Mater Willum reassured her, “He is strong in the Force and will be a ready learner, I'm sure. I can feel Force coursing through him.” Rising, he turned his attention back to Alek, “Come, I will take you to Master Nisi, head of the younglings, to get you settled while you take some time to decide.”

“No,” Alek said firmly, “I've already decided. I want to become a Jedi. I want to learn, so that when I'm grown up, I can save worlds like Quelil.”

Oss Willum cracked a smile. “Well, come along then,” he urged, “We will still need to introduce you to Master Nisi. She will orient you to your new life as a Jedi Apprentice.”

Alek took the strange-looking man's hand and willingly followed along with him. The small cluster of other Jedi who had been watching them dispersed, most feeling a little bit guilty about another planet ravaged by Mandalorians while they had done nothing to stop it. Though only a little guilty, as that was all their training allowed them to feel.


***


“This Alek, he is already nearly ten years old,” Bala Nisi assessed from her seat in the council chambers, “He has had sufficient elementary education, on par with most core worlds, but—” She hesitated.

“But he is very angry and very sad for one so young,” Oss Willum finished for her. “I sensed that as well.”

“Nine is not so very young,” Nomi Sunrider pointed out. “He will need special care and direction if he is to move beyond those negative feelings.”

“Then send him to us on Dantooine,” the blueish holoprojection of the Selkath Jedi Master Qual suggested. “I do not mean to slight the training regimen at the Jedi Temple, but many younglings before him have found comfort and peace in the and nature of Dantooine.”

“Master Qual is right,” Vrook Lamar agreed, another holoprojection in a seat beside him, “Let this Alek be trained here on Dantooine. With fewer apprentices, we will be able to keep a closer eye on him here.”

“Then it is settled,” Nomi agreed with a nod. “Master Nisi, would you take him with you when you next visit Dantooine to oversee the training.”

“Of course,” Bala bowed in her seat, “It would be my pleasure.”

- Next Part -


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