Tower of Time: Long Ago and Far Away
   

Under the Shadow of the Builders
Part 13- The Builders' Wasteland

Bastila woke up and demanded to be put down just as they were entering their hanger bay again. The residual anger from meeting with her mother had not yet faded.

“You two didn't have to leave your dinner on my account,” Bastila said irritably.

“If you're looking for someone to blame for interrupting our meal,” Carth pointed out, “I'd fault Calo Nord and his bounty hunter buddies.”

“If they tracked us all this way...” Bastila started, but she trailed off. She turned and stormed off towards the Ebon Hawk's loading ramp.

“Um, Bastila,” Ev called after her, “Mission just called on the comlink and she said there's a slight problem on the ship.”

“What sort of problem?” she called back as she disappeared up the ramp. A moment later, she shrieked, “What are these things?”

Ev trotted up the ramp, Carth following after her. Even after what Mission had said, he wasn't sure what to expect. Small green and yellow amphibious creatures with two webbed feet, wide mouths, and bulbous eyes hopped everywhere around the Ebon Hawk. Occasionally, one would stop and croak before hopping on. Drawn by Bastila's shrieks, a crow of them hopped curiously over to entrance ramp.

“Gizka,” Ev said dryly.

“And how did these gizka get on to our ship?” Bastila demanded, wading through the amphibians at her ankles.

Ev tried to pick one up, but it wriggled out of her hands. “The better question is: how do we get them out?” she said.

Mission poked her head in. “Oh good, you're back,” she said, “Big Z said some Aqualish came by with a huge crate, saying it was our shipment. He put it in the cargo hold, but the crate broke, and now these things are everywhere on the ship except in that crate.”

“It looks like we got a shipment that was meant for someone else,” Carth concluded.

“Then we have to find out whose it is before we're accused of theft or something,” Ev said, “That's the last kind of attention we want.”

“Perhaps the spaceport control office has some record of who they belong to,” Bastila suggested.

The three of them left Mission to babysit the gizka while they rushed back out of the hangar bay and to the spaceport control office. Thankfully it was still open. The office, however, did not keep records of that kind and offered no help in finding the gizka's rightful owner. Nor did they offer to help remove the creatures. Bastila, Carth, and Ev returned back to the ship empty handed.

Canderous, Jolee, and Juhani returned later with the promised supper. The rest of the crew took a late supper then headed to bed. That night, Carth not only had the snores of Canderous, Jolee, and Zaalbar to contend with, but the hopping and croaking of the gizka as well.


Carth sauntered out into the main cabin of the Ebon Hawk the next morning and looked around. Zaalbar and Canderous were still asleep. The Wookiee always did his share of sleeping, and Canderous had been up late the night before telling more of his war stories to Ev and Mission. That was always something Carth made a habit of avoiding. He couldn't understand how those two got enjoyment out of tales of Mandalorian slaughter.

In the central part of the ship, Jolee, Mission, and Juhani sat slurping some sort of porridge around the pazaak table.

“There's more of this back by the synthesizer,” Mission gestured with her spoon to the cargo hold. “It's not bad. Ev must have whipped it up this morning.”

“Where's Ev anyway?” Carth asked.

“She is already gone,” Juhani answered.

“Said something about Jawas,” Jolee added.

“The bartender last night mentioned that if anyone knew about a star map, it would be the Jawas,” Carth nodded slowly, before heading into the cargo hold. He returned with a bowl of porridge and shoveled it down as fast as he could.

“You're in a hurry this morning,” Jolee observed.

“I'm going to go see if Ev has had any luck,” Carth announced and stood up. As he was about to leave, he remembered the other missing party member. “How is Bastila doing?” he asked.

Juhani shook her head. “I sense her fighting with her anger and grief,” the Cathar Jedi replied. “She hardly slept at all last night. She is meditating even now. I do not expect that she will be ready to go in search of the star map today.”

“I guess it's best to leave her alone then,” Carth shrugged and turned to go.

“We'll catch up with you later once Canderous is up,” Mission said.

Although there was little relief from Tatooine's heat in the morning, Carth didn't feel right going out not fully dressed. Being on the job, around other soldiers or no, required some sort of uniform, in his mind. Carth slipped back into the bunk room where Canderous and Zaalbar still slept deeply. He dressed quietly, pulled on his boots, and last of all, his jacket. Across the left shoulder was a clean cut, stained dark brown by his own blood. I'll have to soak that, won't I? He thought fondly before slipping it on.

Stepping over several gizka on his way out, Carth braved Anchorhead once again. Many more people were out and about in the streets than there had been the night before. The full heat of the day had not yet set in. Carth wandered slowly down the street, keeping his eyes open for Ev.

He finally spotted her at the opposite end of town, not far from the cantina where they got their dinner the night before. She stood over a tiny Jawa, deep in conversation. At her side was a bronze plated droid of a style he had never seen before. It swiveled its head warily. Picking up his pace, Carth strode over to them.

“Morning Ev,” he said before he had quite reached her, waving, “It looks like you're already hard at work.”

“Observation: This meatbag is interrupting your dealings,” the droid by her side said in a menacing male voice, “Query: Shall I kill him for you, master?” Carth noticed just then that it carried a blaster rifle.

“No, no,” Ev replied quickly, “This is Carth. He works with me. You're to obey him just as you would obey me.”

“Resignation: If you insist, master,” the droid replied and relaxed its weapon.

Ev flashed Carth a quick smile. “I'm surprised to see you out so early this morning, Carth,” she said.

“What's all this about? And the droid?” Carth asked, making a sweeping gesture between the Jawa and the droid.

“Carth, this is Iziz. He is the head of a clan of Jawas in the area,” she explained. “Iziz, this is Carth Onasi, our pilot.”

The Jawa measured him up with its tiny glowing eyes and chattered something that sounded friendly.

“Nice to meet you too,” Carth replied slowly, “I guess.”

“And this is HK-47,” Ev added, referring to the droid, “He's our new protocol slash battle droid.”

“You bought a droid?” Carth asked, “Do we even have the credits for that?”

“We'll talk about that later,” Ev said quickly, “For now, I'm in the middle of making a deal with Iziz. I think he knows where the star map is and can take us there, but we're going to have to jump through some more hoops again.” She sounded more pleased than annoyed, however.

Iziz chattered a long but rapid statement to Ev.

Ev though for a moment, her brow furrowed in concentration, then replied, “To the north east of here? You're sure.”

The Jawa's response was short this time.

“And how many of your people have been taken by the Sand People?” she clarified.

Iziz uttered something in reply.

“Fourteen? We'll do what we can,” Ev promised.

The Jawa seemed to thank her then said a few more words of instruction.

“Of course,” Ev nodded, “We'll come and find you once we have set them free.”

The Jawa made one last comment before shuffling away.

“Care to explain all that?” Carth asked.

“So, Iziz's clan is a small one,” Ev explained, “They lost fourteen people to a recent Sand People raid. Those captured Jawas have been enslaved and forced to set up gun turrets and other defenses for the Sand People enclave not far from here. The very same tribe that Czerka has been having trouble with.

“The star map, or at least what he thinks is our star map, is deep in the dune sea in a fairly dangerous region. He will take us there, but his clan is so thinned by those abductions, and it isn't safe to go with such small numbers as they have.”

“So, we need to free the Jawa slaves now too?” Carth concluded.

Ev nodded. “Or the deal is off,” she replied. It was the first time her irritation let on. “Why can't any of these searches be straight forward?”

“We could ask other Jawas?” Carth suggested.

Ev shook her head, “The place is in the middle of their territory. Other ones wouldn't know about it or be able to get us there without clan squabbles.”

“And the droid?” Carth asked.

“HK-47 speaks the Sand People language,” Ev explained, “My Jedi training tells me that I should like the diplomatic solutions that that Duros suggested, even if, in our crew, we probably have the firepower to mount a full-on assault on their enclave. And, I guess I'm a bit curious about these Sand People. It seems like no one has ever bothered to start a dialogue with them. If they're an ancient indigenous people from this planet, maybe they have some interesting things to say. The tough part is going to be getting close enough to start a dialogue.”

“Suggestion: Or we could utilized your aforementioned firepower and obliterate the Sand People, then take the tiny hooded meatbags away once they are all dead,” HK-47 offered.

“Or not,” Ev replied firmly. “How's the shoulder doing, Carth?”

He rolled it backwards a few times, wincing a little. “Still sore, even after Jolee worked on it,” Carth replied, “But not painful any more.”

“Good,” she replied, relieved. “With a reputation like Calo Nord had, I'm surprised he missed your heart. But, I'm glad. I don't know if we could have saved you then.”

Ev slowly moved out of the sun and into the shade. Carth strolled along with her. “You know,” he started, “Calo wanted both you and Bastila alive. I wonder why.”

“I'd been thinking about that too,” Ev replied, “Maybe because they heard I was a fresh padawan with a angry streak. I don't know about you, but that sounds like Sith bait to me. But if that were the case, the would probably want Juhani too. Or maybe someone sensed that I had a link with Bastila, and that was enough to want to bring me along. It doesn't make much sense though.”

“Your guesses are better than mine,” Carth shrugged. “All I know about Jedi and the Force is from what I read back on Dantooine.”

“That would make you one of the most Force-educated military officers in the service,” Ev commented humorously, “Though I'm still surprised that you even bothered to research it all.”

“Hey,” Carth laughed, “I was bored.”

“That's a thought, though,” Ev said.

“What?” Carth asked.

“That maybe officers in the fleet should know more about how Jedi work,” Ev suggested, “That way they know how to work with us and utilize us better. The Council does drag its feet when it comes to collaborating with the military, but I'm sure it will continue to happen.”

“I think you Jedi like to maintain your air of mystery,” Carth teased, “If we knew more about the Force, you Jedi would lose some of your mysticism.”

“Not even the greatest masters have fully understood the Force,” Ev said distantly, “I can't pretend to. It is as much of a mystery to me as it is to everyone else.” After a pause, she chuckled, “Listen to me: 'us' and 'them.' It wasn't that long ago when I was a soldier and Jedi were an enigma.”

Carth clapped her gently on the shoulder, “It's not a bad change. You're doing things that I can't understand, but whatever it is, you Jedi just might be able to save the Republic.”

“With a little help from a few 'normal' folks,” Ev flashed him a toothy white grin.

Just then, they caught sight of the others tramping up the dusty road towards them; Juhani, Mission, Jolee, and Canderous. Bastila was not with them.

“I see you went a bought yourselves a droid,” Jolee observed, amused.

“Don't look at me,” Carth said defensively as Juhani leveled an disapproving stare in his direction, “It was all Ev.”

“Introduction: If I may,” the droid started in his eager tinny voice, “I am HK-47, protocol and combat droid. I am fluent in several million forms of communication and can adeptly utilize a wide range of light to heavy weaponry. Addendum: I also have a number of other useful protocols which are perhaps less legal and should not be spoken of in such a public location.”

Canderous chuckled, “Looks like a good purchase.”

“You bought this droid because it can speak the language of the Sand People?” Juhani observed flatly.

Ev nodded. “It is a far better solution to our problems than trying to slaughter an entire settlement of sentients, even if they tend to kill anything else they come across,” Ev explained.

“You bought this droid so we could rescue my brother?” Mission asked excitedly. She seemed almost ready to burst.

“That, and that we have another hurtle in our way to the star map,” Ev answered. She went on to explain the Jawa's offer and conditions.

“We can't go straight there ourselves?” Canderous asked. “The Jawas don't have a map or anything that we could follow? If you're in a hurry, trying to be diplomatic with a bunch of warriors isn't going to help.”

“That wasn't offered,” Ev responded evenly, “And I suspect, with our gear, it is too far to travel in the desert without a large supply of water and portable shelters.”

“I want to find Griff and all,” Mission said, “But if talking nice to the Sand People doesn't work, we could always try to fly to wherever it is in the Ebon Hawk, right?”

“That could alert anyone watching us to our goal,” Juhani pointed out.

“Tactically, a bad idea,” Canderous agreed.

“Well, sorry,” Mission retorted.

“It looks like we still have to hike across that hellish desert to find some Sand People anyway,” Jolee complained.

“Ev's idea seems to be the best we have,” Carth pointed out, “We spare lives, rescue others, have a chance at finding Mission's brother, and get a taken directly to the star map.”

“Right, we have to get Griff out of there if he's still alive,” Mission's enthusiasm returned.

“Carth,” Ev said with a warm smile, “I'm surprised. You're starting to sound more like a Jedi than a soldier.”

“Heh,” Carth laughed, “You guys are contagious.”

“And a right dehabilitating illness it is,” Jolee chuckled.

Juhani was not amused, but it brought smiles to everyone else's face.

“Well, the sun is getting higher and it isn't going to get any cooler for a while,” Ev started again, “Unless there are any other errands to run, let's get going.”

There were none, and they sauntered towards the huge outer wall of Anchorhead. After presenting their hunting permit to the Czerka city gate guard, they set off over the desert.

The vastness of the desert was something Carth was not quite prepared for. Except for Anchorhead behind them, endless rolling dunes of sand stretched out in all directions. Canderous' suggestion of trekking off themselves in search of an ancient artifact suddenly seemed even less welcome than before. Thank the stars for helpful Jawas. Of course, there was still a settlement full of Sand People between them and their goal.

“I only wish this could be done more directly,” Juhani murmured as they walked, “We can't know how much longer the Republic can hold off the Sith advances.”

Canderous chuckled, “You're worse off now with Malak at the head of the Sith than you were with Revan.”

“You'd be the first to say that,” Carth grumbled.

“Revan had a subtle strategy, picking targets carefully,” Canderous said respectfully, “But where Revan cut apart the Republic with a scalpel, Malak strikes like a sledgehammer. He is imprecise and destructive.”

“And you're saying that Revan wasn't?” Carth demanded. He felt his temper rising with the desert heat.

“Revan was destructive,” Canderous didn't seem worked up at all, “But if Revan won and took control of the galaxy, you would all have something to live on. With Malak, I wouldn't be so sure, with how much he likes to blow things to bits.”

“Like Taris,” Mission put in softly.

“Like Taris,” Juhani echoed firmly, “Which is why, more than ever before, we must strive to complete our mission and stop the Sith for good. Our Republic has never been in a more precarious place.”

“And we've never faced enemies like this before,” Carth added darkly.

“Not since Mandalore the Ultimate, anyway,” Jolee put in with much less seriousness than Carth would have liked. “And he was the worst thing since Exar Kun. Then, of course, he was the worst thing since Freedon Nadd, blah blah blah.”

“Care to explain what you're getting at, Jolee?” Ev requested with more patience than Carth felt.

“Do I have to have a point?” Jolee demanded, mildly irritated. After a moment, he answered, “You people are all talking about this war as if it's the worst that the galaxy has ever seen.”

“It might be,” Carth said defensively.

“But don't go thinking that this war, your war, is the most important just because you're in it,” Jolee scolded, “Sure, if the Sith win, we'll be in for a rough couple of centuries, but the galaxy will bounce back in the end.”

“Statement: After much more thrilling destruction and death,” HK-47 added.

“If we could all go escape reality in a little hovel in the wilderness, maybe we would feel as relaxed as you do,” Juhani said accusingly, “But to have the Sith overthrow the lawful government, to defeat the Jedi, that would be the end of everything we know and hold precious. The Sith are ruthless and cannot be trusted to rule justly.”

“Depends on your view of justice,” Jolee replied.

“And now you're going to tell us that you like the Sith's way of doing this?” Carth accused.

“I never said that,” Jolee snapped, “I dislike those brutes as much as anyone else. But you need to slow down and take things in proportion.”

“Slowing down is the last thing we need,” Juhani jumped in.

“Maybe when we're wrinkled and old like you, we be just as bitter,” Mission said angrily, “But for now, I like freedom. Now that I can do something about it, I will.”

“And I never told you to give up,” Jolee pointed out, “I'm fighting along with you, aren't I?”

“Are you?” Juhani asked in a low voice.

“Anyway, I'm not going to be able to convince a bunch of jumpy youngsters like you of anything,” Jolee threw up his hands.

Ev took a deep breath and breached the uneasiness, “So, about those Sand People.”

“Right, Sand People,” Mission echoed.

“What's your plan?” Canderous asked.

“Well, it's hard to know how they will react to us when we try to act peaceably,” Ev said thoughtfully, “Seeing as no one has tried it before. We've got to get close enough for HK to say something to them.”

“Within range of their rifles,” Canderous pointed out grimly.

Ev nodded, “And it might mean letting ourselves be taken prisoner, just to get through to them that we have a different agenda.”

“Ev, I don't like the sound of that,” Carth said.

“I don't either,” Juhani agreed.

“For every gain, there come risks,” Ev pointed out, “Whatever the strategy, we were going to have to get in range of their guns anyway. The idea is to have a chat without them shooting at us in the end. It's the best I've got.”

“We'll follow you through it,” Carth promised.

“And we won't tell Bastila if you screw it all up,” Mission added.

Ev laughed, “Thanks.”

As they came over the crest of a large sand dune, they saw a huge sand crawler below preparing to disembark with a load full of miners. They caught up with a few of the stragglers that still crossed over the sand towards it.

“I hear that you're the muscle the office has hired to stop the Sand People attacks,” one miner observed, impressed, as he looked them over.

“They just keep coming out of nowhere,” another added, “It's spooky. Nothing we can do stops them. They have their Jawas take apart all the defenses Czerka sets up to protect us, and then use those weapons against us.”

“Clever,” Canderous observed.

“Good luck, you'll need it,” a third added.

Just then, they heard a chorus of whooping yells over the dunes. Six Sand People, robed head to toe, dashed over the sand towards them.

“Get ready,” Ev warned. She, Jolee, and Juhani whipped out their lightsabers while the others prepared to shoot. The miners huddled behind them, still too far from the sand crawler to run for cover. Those that had any weapons nervously readied themselves. The most any of them carried, however, was a stun stick or a light blaster.

You would think that Czerka would arm them better, given the attacks.

The Sand People were fierce, well trained warriors. The three Jedi had difficulty keeping all six at bay. The skirmish was one of predator and prey while the Sand People largely ignored the blaster fire. That turned out to be their undoing. Canderous shot down two and Carth took one. Once in one-on-one duels, the Jedi were much more at ease. The battle hardly lasted any longer.

The miners thanked them profusely, but before they could escort them to the sand crawler, another wave of Sand People charged over the dunes. This time there were only four. The fight began again. Suddenly, Ev cried out, “HK! Tell them to stop! Everyone, drop your weapons!”

“What?” Canderous demanded.

Somewhat reluctantly, the droid hollered in a tinny rendition of the Sand People's language. The four Sand People drew back for a moment, stunned.

Ev looked around, everyone still grasped their weapons. “Drop them,” she ordered, “and HK, tell them we want to discuss a peaceful solution to this conflict.” Ev extinguished her lightsaber and let it fall into the sand. Jolee followed her orders most readily, but the others hesitated.

Meanwhile, HK translated her request again.

Ev glared back at the rest of her group. Under her hard gaze, Carth found himself forgetting reason and letting his blasters fall into the sand as well. Mission and Juhani hesitantly followed suit, but HK-47 and Canderous' rifles remained firmly in their hands. With one abrupt gesture from Ev, their weapons flew free of their grasps and sailed into the sand.

The miners behind them stood frozen, terrified.

Meanwhile the Sand People measured them up curiously. One, seemingly the leader hollered something at Ev.

“Translation: He is stupefied by your actions, master. He does not trust you, but respects that you do not wish to fight. You will be taken to the chieftain, whom you may speak to, but you will do so as prisoners.”

“Very well, thank him,” Ev ordered, “And ask him to carry our weapons for us. Explain that we are reluctant to leave them in the sand to be lost.”

“Translation:” HK-47 began then broke off into a series of warbling screams.

The leader replied, then turned to his companions and gave some instructions. One carefully bundled up the collection of blasters and lightsabers that lay in the sand and rolled them together in a length of cloth.

The four Sand People walked around the group, making coarse gestured with their gaffi sticks.

“Translation: they request that we form a line and walk along quietly. They will lead at the front and guard at the back,” HK-47 reported.

Ev turned to the rest of the travelers and said, “You heard him, line up.” She put herself at the front of the line.

As Carth slipped into line behind her, he whispered, “Are you sure you know what you're doing?”

“I doubt killing more of their people will get us any friendlier with this tribe,” Ev whispered back.

Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Mission lined up behind him, then Juhani, Canderous, and lastly Jolee. Canderous looked angry while Mission looked positively terrified. Even despite Ev's warning, none of them were ready to be prisoners of a reputably brutal people. HK-47 wandered around the group, earning a disciplinary smack from one of the Sand People's gaffi sticks. He stalked to the front of the line and took his place in front of Ev.

Finally, the Sand People seemed satisfied and goaded them into motion. The departing miners watched them go, somewhat horrified, but no one tried to mount any sort of protest or rescue. The Sand People urged them on at a rather brisk pace. Carth was amazed at the ease with which they walked over the sand while he himself struggled to keep even footing on the shifting ground.

Their march was long and hot, but silent. The Sand People made no conversation and neither did their prisoners. Carth was glad that, although they took his weapons, they didn't take his canteen. He took slow, small sips at regular intervals, but was careful to conserve what he had. There was no telling how long the trek would be.

The day wore on and the twin suns rose higher in the sky. It was nearly noon, by his estimate, when they came over a large sand dune and the Sand People's enclave came into view. A small heard of bantha waded through the sand while other Sand People milled around them. The enclave itself looked to be made of old rusted out metal walls and cloth drapings for roofs. It would be relatively easy to pull it apart and move out. These were a nomadic people. What surprised Carth were the gun turrets and mines that encircled the camp. The technology was clearly recent and of Czerka make.

So this must have been what those miners were talking about. They must have used the Jawa slaves for that.

As they drew closer to the enclave, the Sand People that hung around shouted angrily at the train of outsiders. A few, however, watched them with silent curiosity. Their guards finally broke their self-imposed silence and hollered back at the surrounding Sand People.

Their odd procession did not stop at the front gate. The door guard pulled on a rope which drew up the door, long planks of rusted metal that rolled up on each other. As they passed inside, Carth had to fight down a small surge of fear. I really hope Ev knows what she's doing...

As Jolee and the last of their escorts passed through the door, it unrolled, clanging and rattling shut behind them. Their guides led them down a dusty corridor, earning more curious stares and whispers from the Sand People that they passed. They ducked into a canvass sided room, through it, and into another. Standing in the center of the central room was one dressed in darker wrappings than any of the other Sand People. The chieftain.

Two of their four guards respectfully approached the chieftain and seemed to be explaining the situation. One of them presented their prisoners' weapons, unrolling them on the sandy ground. Carth took some comfort in knowing that their three Jedi would be able to take up their lightsabers through the Force if needed. Ev already proved that when she disarmed HK-47 and Canderous. Their other two guards roughly prodded them out of their line and into a clump in the middle of the room. Ev and the droid stayed near the front.

Finally, the chieftain addressed them directly. When he finished his howling speech, HK-47 translated, “Translation: His people tell him that they attacked you after you defeated a hunting party of his Holy Warriors. You then dropped your weapons and asked for peace. What is your purpose? Why should he give outsiders such as you peace?”

Ev looked at HK and replied, “We come representing the people of Anchorhead and the Jawa clan under Iziz. We know the settlement has offended your people, but we do not know your reasons. We wish to understand you so that the attacks on our people can be stopped. Why do your people attack ours?”

After HK translated, the chieftain roared back an answer. “Translation: He does not trust you or your sincerity. Your people have no respect for the land. In their sin, they live apart from it, as if they are above it. This is unforgivable. The land they have settled on is the land of the Sand People, and they defile it,” the protocol droid explained.

“I also ask have come to ask about the Jawas you have enslaved. Their chief is worried about his missing people,” Ev added.

The chieftain's answer was short. “Translation: Who are you, outsider, to ask into our dealings?” HK pronounced.

“Is there any way we can earn your trust?” Ev asked.

Through HK, the chieftain replied, “Translation: His tribe wants to move farther into the Dune Sea, away from the defiling presence of these outsiders. However, water is even more scarce beyond this territory. If he were to have some moisture vaporizers, such a move would be possible,” HK explained.

“We will get you those vaporizers,” Ev promised immediately, “If you will allow us to leave.”

The chieftain replied, “Translation: he does not believe that you will do this, master, but you have his leave to go.”

Ev looked up at him defiantly and said, “I will remain here as your prisoner, a guarantee that they will return with what you want.”

“Ev, don't be crazy and stay here alone,” Carth hissed into her ear. He addressed the chieftain before HK-47 could translate, “I will stay here as well.”

“Translation: he is impressed, master. Your friends may take their weapons and leave, but you will stay here with him,” HK translated once he answered.

The others slowly, hesitantly, brushed around Ev and Carth, and took up their weapons that lay at the chieftain's feet. As Juhani passed by, she murmured, “Be careful. These people cannot be trusted.”

“They would say the same about us,” Ev murmured back.

Juhani nodded and promised, “We will return swiftly.”

“Just pray that there are some moisture vaporizers in stock back in Anchorhead,” Ev replied. “We've still got our comlinks. Let us know if any kinks come up. Oh, and you'll need this.” She handed Juhani her hunting permit. “Just pretend you're me.”

Juhani gingerly took the certificate and tucked it away. “And contact us if you have any problems as well, please,” Juhani whispered before picking up her lightsaber and striding off after the others. Two sand people, Carth couldn't tell if they were the same ones that had taken them to the enclave, escorted Canderous, Juhani, Jolee, and Mission towards the door.

Seeing Mission's hopeful look and she walked out, Ev addressed the chieftain again, gesturing to Mission as she left, “Mighty chieftain, we heard that this child's brother may also be your slave.”

Mission paused in the canvass draped doorway, listening.

The chieftain uttered something angrily.

“Translation: there is one from the place of digging that looks like this small person,” HK translated, “But he is worthless. His very presence here is an insult to our people.”

Mission smirked, “That sounds like Griff.”

“Can he be released,” Ev asked.

The chieftain thought for a moment and then replied, through HK-47's translation, “Translation: His is a taint that must be lifted from this land. Perhaps if you vow to take him away, he will not have to be killed. But we will not discuss this until your clan returns with the moisture vaporizers.”

Ev glanced back to Mission and waved her away, “Go on Mission. The sooner you bring those machines back, the sooner we can get him out.”

“Got it,” Mission nodded with a smile and hurried away out of sight. This left only Carth, Ev, and their droid.

Carth and Ev continued to stand warily in the middle of the tent-like room. The Sand People stare measuringly at them.

“So now what?” Carth asked as he edged up closer to Ev.

“We wait, I guess,” Ev replied, “If they want us to move or do something, I'm sure they'll say so.”

They both looked up at the chieftain, who appeared to be thinking.

“You don't think they'll get impatient and try to kill us instead?” Carth whispered to her.

“Suggestion:” HK-47 put in eagerly, “We could kill them first.”

“No, that's not in the plan,” Ev retorted patiently, “But, Carth, I think we're safe here. They were willing to let us go in the first place. I offered me up as a hostage. You didn't have to stay, you know.”

“Neither did you,” Carth pointed out quietly, “But I couldn't just leave you alone here. Plus, the others won't need me crossing that desert. If the Sand People are going to leave them alone, what's the worst that could come in their path?”

“Other Sand People, wraids, territorial dewbacks, krayt dragons,” Ev suggested neutrally.

“Fine, I get your point,” Carth replied, “But they can handle themselves. If a krayt dragon does show up, then I wouldn't have been much help anyway. Look at it this way: you've got me to keep you company while they stare for the next couple of hours.”

Ev chuckled lowly, “Thanks Onasi.” A thought struck her. “You know, I wonder...” she started, “HK, tell them that we would like to learn more about the history of their people so as to better understand them and work out their grievances.”

HK-47 obediently translated.

The chieftain replied sternly.

“Translation: He says that their histories are sacred and are only repeated to those who are worthy,” HK filled them in.

“Ask him how we can prove our worthiness?” Ev asked.

After HK's initial translation, he replied, and the droid translated it back into Basic again, “Translation: for his warriors, worthiness is gained by killing a great many outsiders.”

“That's a little impossible for us,” Carth muttered.

The chieftain spoke again after some thought. “Translation: but you have fought against his bravest Holy Warriors and won honorably. You did not use the assistance of any machines. Although their deaths grieve him, it has proven you to be a great warrior, beyond the other outsiders who either flee or die. Perhaps this is enough. Perhaps you are worthy,” HK-47 translated.

“We would be honored to hear the history,” Ev said, bowing slightly.

The chieftain uttered a response and HK translated, “Translation: there is only one Storyteller who may repeat the history of his people. He will call for the Storyteller.”

Ev bowed again and instructed, “Thank him again, HK.”

The droid obeyed and the chieftain set about sending another one of the Sand People to find the Storyteller. Soon, another Sand Person walked into the chamber. Although he was wrapped just as the other Sand People, something seemed different about him. His movements were calmer and his voice, when he addressed the chieftain, was gentler.

The chieftain's guards shooed out some other Sand People, who must not have been considered worthy. After they slipped away, the guards securely closed the canvas tent flaps to the room. There was no squabbling in the whole process. Everyone seemed to reverently understand the practices surrounding the history of their tribe.

After conversing with the chieftain for a few minutes, another member of the clan presented the Storyteller with a wicker stool. He sat down and beckoned to Ev and Carth, motioning to them to sit. He began to speak.

“Translation: he has heard that you are great warriors and would like to hear the story of his clan. It is a history passed down from one Storyteller to the next, through generations. It is not written down, for a book or a datapad can be lost or stolen, cheapening its value. You are warned, however, that to repeat the history incorrectly is a blasphemy punishable by death,” HK-47 narrated.

“Thank him and ask him what parts of the narrative we can chose from to hear,” Ev requested.

HK relayed her message and the Storyteller replied. “Translation: You can either chose to hear the history or not to. It must be told as one complete tale.”

“Ev, why are we doing this? It's just going to be fables of a primitive people,” Carth whispered.

“I have my curiosities,” Ev replied simply, “And my theories. Besides, it will pass the time. Or would you rather stand around and be stared at?”

Carth shrugged, “Fair enough.”

“Ask him to begin the tale,” Ev said to the protocol droid.

Sitting perfectly erect on his stool with his hands in his lap, the Storyteller began. As he spoke, he gestured animatedly, nodding with his own words. HK-47 started translating for them almost as soon as he began to speak.

“Translation: the story begins in ancient times when they were not Sand People because there was no sand. The land was lush, green, and abundant, but they did not live with the land. They lived apart from it, building high walls and great cities. This was before the Long March, before the Great War, before the abduction, before the Builders.”

“The Builders...” Ev echoed quietly, nodding.

“Translation: there are no words to say how long ago this was. Their ancestors, in their arrogance, even dared to touch the stars. This crime attracted the attention of the Builders. The Builders did not merely touch the stars. They lashed them to millstones. The Builders punished them for their crimes. They lifted the wealth of the cities off into the stars until there was nothing left for his people. The arrogant, presumptuous, and the worst of his kind were abducted and taken into the stars as penitent slaves. That was when his people realized their sin.”

“Translation: a great plague fell over the Builders. Seeing their oppressors weakened, his people wrought chaos in their machines and struck a great blow against the Builders. The Builders fought back with forbidden fire from the sky. Land turned to glass and glass into sand, but his people were prepared. They hid in houses carved into the rock of valley walls and that way survived. The Builders left for good.”

“Suggestion: If I may, master,” HK put in as the storyteller continued on, “This next part details the 'Long Walk,' their nomadic wanderings and coming into their identity as people of the sand. Let us assume that it was thousands of years of petty territorial battles and fights over who had the biggest bantha and ask him to move on.”

Ev shook her head, “He said that it must be told as one compete tale. Asking him otherwise could be offensive. And, given our surroundings, I'd rather not upset him or the other Sand People.”

“Submission: Very well master,” the droid sighed. “Translation: his people first wandered across the desert with feelings of despair...”

HK-47's assessment turned out to be mostly correct. Tales of the long walk lasted for nearly a standard hour. Ev continued to listen attentively, but Carth found his attention wandering. He gazed around the room, noticing that each gaffi stick that the Sand People held was unique. He noticed their own stiff attentiveness to the story. He looked over HK's structuring and admired the design and construction. He wondered just how HK-47 came to be such a blood-thirsty protocol droid in the first place.

He watched Ev as she listened. Her eyes were bright and engaged, her posture flawlessly tall. He couldn't help but think that the loose fitting brown and cream Jedi robes wrapped around her far more beautifully than any military uniform had. Her short cropped hair was a mess, but that only added to her character. Carth's own hair was probably just as out of place and full of sand as hers was. Seeing her sitting there next to him, so full of life and enthusiasm, even as she listened to some of the most boring drawl Carth had ever heard, a warmth washed over him. It was a feeling he hadn't had since before...

HK-47's tone suddenly changed into a more enthusiastic one, catching Carth's attention again, “Translation: after ages of living thankfully in harmony with the land, great machines again fell from the sky. They brought with them outsiders that reminded his people of their own abducted transgressors. These outsiders lived apart from the land, riding on machines and treating the land as dead and separate. This awakened anger in his people once again. His people vowed to drive away the outsiders and punish them for their sins. This is why they treat outsiders as they do.”

“Suggestion: Again master, this following narration is about the various settlers that landed on Tatooine, were fought with, and disappeared,” HK-47 again broke from his translation while the Storyteller spoke. “All are poorly described, not well distinguished from one another, and likely untraceable. Shall we save my vocabulator from struggling with his dialect and ask him to skip on?”

“HK,” Ev said sternly, “As I said before. We cannot interrupt his tale.”

HK-47 resigned himself to translating again without any further protest. This section lasted only another ten standard minutes, finally coming to invaders that sounded remarkably like Czerka.

“Translation: and then came the diggers with their big machines. They not only live apart from the land, but disrespect it so much as to dig pits into the earth. They used smaller machine weapons to drive off his people but did not succeed. His people enslaved the small ones to dismantle their machines and turn their own sinful power against them.”

“Translation: Since that day outsiders again fell from the sky, they have always been the same: adaptable slaves to the machine. Now you come here asking for peace. This may come to be a new chapter in their history.”

The storyteller fell silent at last.

“That's it then,” Carth observed.

“HK, thank him again for his time and this tale,” Ev said, “And that we are honored to have heard it. We will think long on the wisdom he spoke.”

“Query: Must we submit to such groveling before this primitive meatbag, master?” HK-47 whined.

“Say it, HK,” Ev ordered more firmly and the droid translated. The Storyteller made a short reply and stood up. Another one of the Sand People hurried over and picked up his stool, while two others drew back the canvas flaps to the room. The Storyteller strode slowly out, his stool bearer after him.

As Carth and Ev stood up again and brushed the sand off their clothes, there was a commotion in the corridor outside. Moments later, Canderous appeared through the doorway, bearing a large moisture vaporizer in his arms. Mission and Juhani followed after, carrying a second one between them.

“You made it back,” Carth exclaimed.

“Ready to pay your ransom with these machines,” Canderous said as he planted the heavy machinery into the sand at his side. Juhani and Mission gently laid theirs on the ground next to it.

“Two solar powered moisture vaporizers,” Mission announced, panting. “That should satisfy them, right?”

“Where's Jolee?” Ev asked quickly.

“The old man said he'd had enough of the sand and complained of sunburn,” Canderous scoffed, “Couldn't handle the heat, I'd say.”

“He remained back in Anchorhead,” Juhani explained shortly.

All around them, the Sand People howled and chattered among themselves. Finally the chieftain's voice cut through the chaos. HK-47 translated, “Translation: he is stupefied at what you have done. No other outsiders have ever acted towards his people as you have. These moisture vaporizers will allow his people to move onto better ground away from here. It is something that they have long wished to do.”

“We trade these for peace and for his captives,” Ev said, “If it pleases him.”

HK-47 translated and the chieftain replied, “Translation: He will have his people reduce their attacks on the settlement for now, but soon they will be far away. You may take the Jawas and the abominably lazy one with you when you go. They are past their usefulness to his clan.”

It seemed to be the end of the conversation, but Ev made one more request, “The chieftain of the outsiders ask that we bring some kind of proof of our meeting and agreement.”

The chieftain though for a moment, then held out his gaffi stick, speaking to Ev. HK translated, “Translation: he offers you his gaffi stick as proof. It is warn and he will soon need to construct a new one. You should also take your own weapons back before you leave.”

Ev took the weapon in her hands and backed respectfully away. “Carth, pick up the rest of our weapons,” she ordered, “HK, thank him again and tell him that we will be on our way.”

“Translation: he again expresses his amazement at you and wishes that more outsiders would be like your kind. This meatbag here will take you to where the slaves are kept.”

The Sand Person at his left broke away and gestured for Ev and the others to follow. Carth bent down and gathered up his blasters, HK-47's rifle and Ev's silver and bronze lightsaber. Before he could hand it to him, HK reached over and snatched the blaster rifle from him.

As they walked from the room, he holstered his own blasters and passed Ev her lightsaber. While still holding the gaffi stick in one hand, she clipped the lightsaber to her belt with the other. They traveled along a canvass-roofed corridor around inside of the Sand People enclave until the came to two more rolling drop doors. Their guide exchanged words with the guards, and one pulled a rope that drew up the door to the small chamber on their left.

A thin blue Twi'lek man wallowed in the dust. Seeing them, he quickly stood up and said in a whining voice, “I am a very high ranking executive in Czerka. You should bring me back to Anchorhead right away.”

Mission stepped forward, “Griff, don't you recognize me?”

“Mission? Mission! Joy of joys, my little sister is alive,” he didn't sound nearly excited enough, “When I heard that Taris got blasted, I thought you had gone down with the planet. What are you doing here?”

“I got a better job,” Mission snapped, “Is that all you have to say to me after all this time? After abandoning me on Taris? Lena said that it was your idea to leave me behind, not hers.”

“Aw, com'on Mission,” Griff chided. He fidgeted and looked everywhere but at Mission, “There's the truth and then there's the truth.”

“Lena was telling the truth, wasn't she?” Mission observed bitterly.

“Hey now, there's no need to get mad,” Griff said defensively, “I planned on going back to get you once I had enough credits to settle all of my debts. You know how it is.”

“Sure,” Mission replied gruffly.

“But you know, Mission, I'm glad you're not dead,” he offered hopefully. “And it looks like you're pretty well off yourself not. How about lending your brother something to get him back on his feet?”

“I can't believe this!” Mission explained, “Now you're even hitting me up for credits? Griff, that's low!”

“So, uh,” Griff stammered, looking from Mission to the rest of the group clustered around his cell, “You're going to get me out of here, right?”

“The Sand People said you could go,” Ev said. She was clearly not impressed with his behavior either.

“We'll take you as far as Anchorhead. I'm sure you can't even get there by yourself,” Mission said bitterly, “But after that, you're on your own, as far as I'm concerned.”

“Mission, come on,” he begged, but she turned her back on him.

“What about those Jawas?” Mission asked, ignoring Griff completely.

Another guard pulled up the door to the cell across from Griff's. It was packed full with tiny robed Jawas.

They immediately began to chatter at Ev.

“Yes, yes,” Ev stammered as she tried to keep track of their rapid speech, “Iziz sent me to get you back, and the Sand People have said you're free to go.”

The nearest two Jawas reached up, and shook her hands vigorously, one on each hand. She laughed a little. “Wait, there's only thirteen of you, what happened to the last one?” Ev asked.

Their solemn response was clear to even those that didn't understand their language.

“Iziz promised to lead us to someplace we want to go in the Dune Sea in return,” Ev explained.

One Jawa, seeming to be the leader, chattered a response at Ev. She nodded slowly as his explanation drew on.

Looking a little perplexed by the language, Ev turned back to the group, “This one says that they'll take us to their camp right from here. It's not far. But their sand crawler is small because their clan is small. They can't take all of us giants along. Only two, I think.”

“Count me out,” Canderous said.

“Ev, you need to go, right?” Mission pointed out.

Ev nodded in response.

“I could—” Juhani started quietly.

“I'll go with you,” Carth volunteered over her.

Ev nodded thoughtfully, “It will be me and Carth then. The rest of you, escort Griff back to Anchorhead and turn him lose there. Let us know via the comlink if anything comes up while we're away.” She paused, and then added as an afterthought, “And see if you can't do anything about those gizka.”

Their party, with Griff and a troupe of Jawas, walked back along the corridors and out of the enclave and onto the dunes. The Jawa's tugged at Carth and Ev, trying to lead them in a direction other than towards Anchorhead.

Before they parted ways, Juhani said, “Be careful out there.”

“Don't worry, Juhani,” Ev replied calmly, “We will.”

Griff slunk past them and slyly met eyes with Ev. “I don't suppose you could...” he started.

Ev flipped a hundred credit piece at him. “Get yourself a new job that isn't with those Czerka crooks,” she advised.

He began babbling his thanks, but Ev let the Jawas lead them off.

Surrounded by Jawas that only came up to their knees, Carth and Ev trekked off over the dunes into the double sunset.

- Next Part -

 

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