Alderaan to Atrivis
Diana DeRiggs & Csillag
Inspired by one of Csillag's original tales part of what eventually became Hobbie's Saga this is the non-Hobbie tale of characters first introduced in that story, and dovetails into The Rescue.
"QuiNan, that woman scares me. She came out and started screaming when I was going out shopping. Please don't leave me here alone!" Dareen Milson hated being clingy and dependent, but the woman down the hall had burst unexpectedly out of her apartment and started yelling abuse at her and her daughter that morning. "That woman scared the daylights out of our daughter you know how sensitive she is and I'm not crazy about having to walk past her door, either! It's like that woman lies in wait for me!"
The tall man looked down at his beautiful blonde wife, "I don't want to leave, Dareen. But I have to, there's important work to do. You know what I'm saying; we can't talk about it anymore, it's too dangerous." He hugged his wife closely, "I'll tell you what, when I get back in the morning, we'll look for a new place to live, okay? A better one, so go ahead and start packing if you want something to do. I promise, we'll go to a better place in the morning!"
Dareen sighed. She always felt so safe with her husband, whom she'd met while she was still at the university. She never got to finish her studies, thanks to the whirlwind romance, and then she found out she was pregnant with Sela. The young child was precocious and sharp, and she was the apple of her father's eye.
Dareen knew better than to complain when her husband was so stressed. She didn't exactly know what he was doing, but she knew it was important. He'd whispered to her that the Empire had built something awful that would be used to subjugate their planet. Alderaan was politically and officially pacifist, but many rumors circulated that it harbored leaders in the growing uprising against Imperial rule under Emperor Palpatine. These days, even the rumor of such seditious behavior was enough to get a planet bombed back to the stone ages the Imperial Destroyer starships were named to remind everyone that such a bombing was possible. They all had to be careful what they said, for ears were everywhere.
That was another rumor the Empire had planted spies on every level and aspect of Alderaanian society. QuiNan had told her that family members would turn each other in for the bounties of credits and spice. How low could a person sink? Even as she asked herself that question, she realized she could count several people living in her apartment complex who would do such a thing. Especially that woman down the hall.
Dareen had no idea why the woman suddenly took a dislike to her, but she was elderly and possibly not all that mentally stable. True, as a Twi'lek, perhaps the old woman had suffered a life in slavery a common fate for females of that species. But no matter how awful a life Dareen imagined for her, she could not understand why the woman felt compelled to swear and curse specifically at her and her daughter every time they went past.
Never mind her anymore, Dareen scolded herself for adding to QuiNan's concerns, he promised we'll look for a new home in the morning, and that will be that! "Thank you, QuiNan. You know I feel bad doing this to you ..." "Darling, I feel bad about having to leave you, especially today, but this is important. I can't tell you why or how, but trust me, it's important and necessary." The husband cuddled his wife quietly beneath the blankets of their bed, enjoying the silence as their toddler slept. "You still have that flimsi I gave you?"
"Yes, and it's safe, and I haven't looked at it, just as you instructed," Dareen was mildly annoyed that he kept asking about the little scrap he'd given her a month before.
He smiled at her pouting, "Trust me. Promise you'll trust me? Keep it on you, wherever you go. And remember, if I am not where I said I'll be, when I said I'll be there, then look at the flimsi and do exactly exactly as it says. Promise?"
She shivered, dreading the ominous tone of QuiNan's whisperings this evening. "Yes, of course I trust you! I'll do as you say, don't worry about me. Just ... just don't not come back, okay?"
It was his turn to shiver, "I wish I could promise that, sweetheart." They said nothing more as they held each other tightly.
* * * * *
QuiNan hadn't come back by 0600, as he promised he would. Dareen watched the hands on the chrono tick slowly another hour, and still no comhail; no tall, lanky man coming through the door. Without thinking, she packed up some things for Sela, a change of clothing for herself, their papers ... and tiptoed out the door with her still-dozing daughter on her shoulder. She walked quickly when she heard the bolt-latches on that crazy woman's door pop and rattle.
How does she know it's me?? Not wanting to hear the ranting, she decided that she wouldn't wait for the turbolift, instead running further down the corridor and into the emergency fire escape staircase. Afraid that the Twi'lek would follow her into the cramped space, Dareen hopped down the stairs two at a time, balancing her child on one arm, the bag of things on the opposite shoulder. She thought she heard someone open the door to follow, but she wasn't sure and kept running.
At last, out of breath, Dareen sat down on the steps. She had to rest for a moment, and felt she'd put enough distance between herself and the floor where she and QuiNan had lived since they were married. It had been a nice housing complex only a few years ago, but lately it seemed more riff-raff and women like the crazy, hollering Twi'lek had moved in, making the original tenants miserable. More and more had moved out, and Dareen was close to tears as she carefully adjusted the still-sleeping Sela onto her lap. How had her life come to this? Sneaking down the escape stairs to avoid an old woman!
She looked around to make sure she was alone, and reached into her brassiere. She'd sewn a pocket into it to contain the tiny piece of flimsi QuiNan had referred to last night. She wiped her forehead of perspiration; it was dripping into her eyes and making her eyes sting. She didn't want to cry, but the emotional stress and the hot salt of her sweat were too much to hold back.
She tried not to sob audibly, and was grateful that Sela was a heavy sleeper in the early mornings.
Dareen blinked and focused on the flimsi she'd unfolded to read. In the dim light, she was at the center was a crudely drawn eyeball, a heart, and a nerf. What?? Is this QuiNan's idea of a joke?? Such a thing was not beyond her husband's sense of humor, but she didn't think he'd be so cruel. She took some deep breaths and looked at the drawings again.
Oh! That's a female nerf! She noted the udders her husband had deliberately drawn, A eeuw? Oh, QuiNan! She groaned as she realized her husband had drawn her a message as a rebus: Eye Love Eeuw = I Love You. I'll kill him, she smiled to herself at his awful pun.
And that was all.
Assured, Dareen restored the flimsi to its hiding place, picked up her daughter and the bag, and walked quickly down the rest of the steps till she got outside.
* * * * *
"Mama, I'm hungry, please Mama!" Dareen knew it was mean to ignore her daughter's pleas to be fed, but Dareen was on a mission and she couldn't stop. She couldn't even stop to get a cracker or formula for the girl. Quinan had told her to do exactly exactly as instructed, and she was doing it.
"Shh, Sela, I know, I know," Dareen tried to comfort her daughter while walking briskly, "I'm hungry, too. But we have to stop at a teashop, you'd like that, wouldn't you? I'll buy you a pretty cake, okay? Just hang on, Sweetie."
This placated the girl, who clung on as her mother jogged down another street. She did like the little cakes at teashops. But her eyes widened when her mother turned into a tapcaf ...
"Mama?" The pretty child clung harder to her mother, "This is where grumps go!" Dareen smiled despite herself; grumps is the word Sela used for "grown-ups," but the double-entendre lightened her mood. She went into the dining area and was relieved to see the corner table was unoccupied and made a beeline for it. She sat her child down and put the bag she carried on the floor between her feet, so she'd know where it was. The 'droid took her order for a fairycake for Sela with some fuzzyjuice, and a tisane and pressed sandwich for her. Then she allowed herself a breath and looked nervously around her.
It was early but a bit after the workers' breakfast rush, so the tapcaf was only lightly populated. She steeled herself for the flood of memories that came every time she sat here; it was here where QuiNan had proposed marriage to her, and it was here where she had met them for lunch when still students to tell him she was pregnant. It was their special place, and QuiNan had joked that he'd always equate this corner of this poor little tapcaf with the first "I love you" Dareen had ever uttered to him.
It was their private memory; she imagined that QuiNan thought a seemingly harmless love note on Dareen's person would not attract any attention if she was detained or ... or killed ...
"Mama, are you okay?"
Sela's worry dispelled Dareen's, and she woke out of her reverie with new resolve. "I'm fine, Sweetheart. Do you suppose your fairycake will be here soon?" As Sela strained to look for their serving 'droid, Dareen scolded herself, You're no good to Sela dead! Dareen drew a sharp breath, not wanting to think of that possibiily, We don't know what happened to QuiNan, but you have to keep Sela with you. You're the adult, don't panic!
After sharing the sandwich and cake, Dareen felt much better and Sela was in a better humor. Dareen did wonder what she was supposed to find here. Would QuiNan meet her here? How long should she wait? And if he didn't come, what should she do?
She was gazing out the window while Sela was playing with the crumbs of her fairycake when some movement outside the window caught her eye. QuiNan? What are you ... Then it was gone. Had she seen her husband? She resisted the urge to even gasp or move to the window. She had Sela to consider, and didn't want to startle the child. But she stared and stared at the spot where she thought she'd seen him, willing him to appear again.
He didn't, of course, but she realized she was looking directly at a small sign on a shop down the street. It read "Vacation Escape Cruising Yacht" and had an arrow pointing around the corner. For some reason, the lights that formed the sign were dim, but the illumination on the second word would flicker more ... He is telling me to escape! QuiNan, it WAS you!
Trying not to cry, Dareen put some credits on the table and took her daughter's hand. "It's okay, Mama will hold onto you, we're going now." She tried not to walk too quickly, but she had an urgent need to follow that arrow ...
* * * * *
As soon as she stepped out onto the street and located the sign she'd been looking at, a strange thing happened. First, she thought the lights of the sign had simply given up trying to work and had gone dark. Maybe once the message was delivered, it didn't have any need to keep flickering? It was daylight, so she didn't notice all the lights in the other shops had also blinked out. Anything requiring municipal power had stopped working, and as she walked in the direction the sign pointed, she became conscious of an eerie sound.
The normal hum and whizzing of daily life was gone. It was replaced by verbal panic and swearing. She initially didn't realize what had happened, but as she walked and took notice of her surroundings, it seemed there was a power outage in the area.
Oh, great ... what else can go wrong? She hoisted her daughter up in her arms, rather than risk her being trampled by people running down the street. Dareen soon realized that this power blackout was not necessarily a bad thing it would mean her erratic running around in the street would not be noticed as unusual. For she still had no idea what she was looking for, and kept bustling to and fro, looking for another sign from Quinan.
QuiNan is looking after us, Dareen was sure of it. So keep your eyes open and look for what he wants you to see! She looked for anything, but it was difficult without a clue other than an arrow on a storefront ...
"Mama, look at the fairy!" Sela was oblivious to the throngs and their reason for being out on the street. "It's the fairy who made my cake!"
Dareen swung her eyes toward the direction Sela was pointing and saw a picture of a butterfly wearing a chef's hat graffitied onto the side of an alley between two buildings. Sela had always like butterflies. She called them fairies, and loved how they fluttered, especially the luminescent ones with the shimmering wings. QuiNan had taken her to a lapidarium when she was only a year old, and the girl's remarkable memory had retained the images of the beautiful insects thereafter.
A baker butterfly? It's a good a hint as any, thought Dareen, and she decided that given the things she'd experienced today, QuiNan would not have given her overt clues to follow. So she shoved her way a bit sideways in order to go down that narrow alley. Her bulging bag bounced against her and the walls as she half-waddled down the unevenly-cobbled walkway.
At the end of the quiet alley, she was surprised to see a door marked with a tiny butterfly on the knocker. I guess this means I have to pass through it. Dareen felt like the main character in the children's book Amida in Fantasyland, who had to eat, drink and follow signs to get to her eventual destination. It was a very popular book, even though it had only published in the past couple of decades. Dareen remembered the anticipation she and her classmates felt when it was first announced for sale, and when it was made into a holomovie a few years later. She smiled as she noticed the door was very small. Dareen was less than 1600mm tall, but she'd have to duck her head to get under the jamb.
The door stuck when she tried the handle, but when Sela did the same in an attempt to "help," the door opened without a sound. The room within was dark, and Dareen was frightened, but she tried not to show it. "Look, Sela! It's a door, perfectly your size! Shall we go in and see what's in it?"
She ducked in and hoped the ceiling would not be so low that she'd have to crouch while walking. Fortunately, it wasn't quite that short. She thought, This is how QuiNan must feel when he enters normal rooms. He was so tall ... She couldn't prevent herself from thinking of him in the past tense.
The door closed and latched behind them, and Dareen was hoping she hadn't made a terrible mistake. Refusing to let go of her daughter or their bag of belongings, she willed herself not to walk back to the door and pull it to make sure it opened. She stood still for a few minutes, hoping her eyes would adjust to the dark, and remembered that with a power outage, she might not see any light at all. But she did hear something!
There was a hollow-sounding pinging, like metal on metal, but it seemed far off, perhaps in a different room? She whispered to Sela, "Do you hear that? That must be the fairies making more cakes! Shall we follow the sounds and try to peek at them working?" She fervently hoped she was not leading herself and her daughter into something unsavory. But she had no other hint as to what to do.
So they would listen, think about where the sound came from, then walk toward it. Then they'd stop and listen again, then walk again. I'm a blind Amida, thought Dareen.
She didn't really recall what happened, but suddenly everything in her mind went blank. She became conscious of lights passing over her face and was surprised that her eyes were closed. Dareen popped them open and was horrified that she could only see a light beaming at her face. Where was Sela?
A man's voice spoke calmly, "You seem to have knocked your head against a beam, young lady. If it wasn't for your child yelling for help, we might never have known you were here."
"Where ... where is she?" Dareen was panicked now, struggling to sit up.
"She's here, she seemed to be tired from yelling for help, so she fell asleep. I promise you, she's fine. Here, take her hand."
Dareen was relieved to feel her daughter's warm hand, to feel the pulse beating, signifying she was alive. She remembered that Sela was a heavy sleeper, and tried not to worry about her. "Who are you?"
"For now, I ask you to follow me. This place is not secure; you were knocked out for only a few minutes, fortunately. But we cannot stay here; I think I know who you are, but I can't be sure. Don't tell me your name yet." The man started to walk away from her, "Follow the light. And I have your bag, I imagine you'd prefer to carry your child. Don't worry, your head found the only low-hanging beam in the room."
We've come this far, best to follow this adventure through. She got up on her knees then pulled her daughter up to her shoulder for what felt like the umpteenth time that day. Good thing she's a small child. Dareen remembered being worried that she wasn't growing fast enough. She had talked to Quinan about getting growth therapy for Sela, but he'd assured her by saying he had been a small baby, too.
The man beamed the light on a staircase to silently let Dareen know what was coming. He didn't speak again, so she kept her questions to herself for the time-being.
As they descended the stairs, Dareen scolded herself for being so out of shape, as she started perspiring more than she had all day. But then she realized the air she was breathing had become humid. They were going down, and wondered if they were yet below the watertable of the city. The sounds of her footsteps were echoing, making her think they might be in a non-insulated ferrocrete tunnel or pipe. After a few more minutes, she could make out the sound of splashing. Where were they going?
The echoes suddenly appeared less close and the light from the glow torch stopped moving forward. She stopped behind the man who had been leading her and she saw the torch come toward her. Dareen braced herself for the worst, whatever that might be, and fought back the rising panic when he pulled her close and pulled her head to him. She was relieved when he simply put his lips directly to her ear and whispered to her, "We are entering a ship. It is crowded with people like you, so don't be frightened of them. We're all frightened. Find a spot and sit. You're the last two we can take, so we'll be leaving immediately."
"No," the man replied, still whispering, "no time. We are using the blackout as cover. There will be time later."
With that, the glowtorch moved away, and Dareen wondered if she should follow. If she lost her resolve to see this adventure through, she doubted she could find her way back out in the dark. She thought about how her morning had started, how she'd run down the fire stairs to avoid a confrontation with that crazy Twi'lek woman, how she'd interpreted the notes and clues left to her. QuiNan said to trust him. He got us here, so I'll ... trust him! And she walked forward.
* * * * *
Dareen had found a small spot just big enough for her to crouch down by the pilot's instrument panel, on the co-pilot's side. The man who had lead her down here had not lied. The ship was silent, but she knew it was filled with terrified passengers of many species, but most of the beings here were human like her. The glowtorch only illuminated a small area, but she could see that people were pressed rather tightly together. They moved their legs to make way for her, and shuffled over as much as they could to make the tight space available for her. She dared not ask for extra space for her daughter, and simply held Sela on her lap.
The man who had led her here sat in the pilot's chair. Lit by the glow of the instrument panel, Dareen saw he'd stuffed her bag beneath him; there was nowhere else to put it, and she was grateful he did not require her to leave her things behind. She felt the ship lurch as it moved soundlessly along one of the ancient canals that had helped drain the land of the city, making it habitable. As the city had grown, the canals were built-over and forgotten. Dareen had studied ancient Alderaanian mythology at the university, and had read about such tunnels, but never thought they would still exist!
At least I have the benefit of being able to watch the pilot steer the ship. She wondered about the passengers crammed into staterooms and cargo areas, who could only sit in the dark to conserve power and reduce delectability and hope that they'd be all right.
She wondered how the man could see, even as she realized he was steering by instrumentation. She saw a co-pilot sitting in the seat next to him, but that person was not doing anything. Dareen soon realized that the person was a passenger, and wondered if QuiNan was this man's copilot? Was her husband meant to be here for this attempted escape?
Where were they going?
Suddenly she saw they were out of the tunnel and it was dark outside. How long had she been walking? Had it been so long ago that she ran down the stairs from the crazy Twi'lek woman down the hall?
Dareen felt so fatigued, but the adrenaline kept her and all her fellow passengers awake and tense. She couldn't see the glow of the city behind them, and then realized that the power outage was ongoing. She thought that this man was clever to use the power cut as cover for their escape, but then she remembered seeing her husband just before the power had gone out. She wondered if Quinan had actually caused it?
Where were they going? Perhaps they'd be sailing to an island in the middle of the ocean somewhere? But what use would that be? Thoughts and worries and fears kept her from dozing. She envied her daughter who was still asleep, and occupied herself with coming up with something to explain to Sela when she woke up about what was happening to them.
The ship kept sailing on the surface of the water for several hours, but still none of the passengers dared to move or make a sound. The pilot was concentrating on their journey, and no one wanted to distract him.
But at last the sound of the engines changed abruptly. She felt the ship rumble and start to climb upward, away from the planet. How unusual ... a water launch? She wondered how far they'd fly but became conscious of the fact that the ship was not leveling off to fly parallel to the planet's surface. Instead, it kept climbing toward the stars!
Dareen had never been off-planet before, but she had seen many holomovies of the experience. This was quite different, and she wondered if it was because they were so obviously overloaded, or perhaps it was the unusual takeoff? She watched the pilot frantically pull switches and push buttons, and wondered how he could manage all those instruments and controls on his own without a co-pilot. He was visibly perspiring and moving quickly; Dareen started to get worried.
The ship was wobbling badly as they ascended higher through all the levels of planetary atmosphere. She realized the destination was indeed off-planet, but with the ship moving so erratically, would they make it? She saw other ships streak by. But she didn't hear any control authority chatter, and thought, Perhaps we are simply making a run for space?? Whatever they were doing, it appeared to be illegal and unauthorized and Dareen couldn't control the sob that formed in her throat as she imagined the consequences of being on this ship.
The sky showed many fewer atmospheric effects now, but still the ship did not move smoothly. She heard the pilot curse to himself. Where she was sitting, she could look directly at his face, and she saw him silently mutter, "Come on, come on ... move, move ... damnit, why can't I get enough power ..." Dareen couldn't imagine what could be wrong and held Sela more tightly, I really don't want to die tonight ...
Dareen felt her daughter stir, then saw her wake up and smile at her mother, who bravely smiled back. Sela had always been an astute child, and she looked around her surroundings quietly and seemed to understand she should hold her tongue. She settled on looking at the bright, pearlescent colored buttons by her head, crammed up against the co-pilot's panel as they were. She saw the man sitting at the panel playing it like a musical instrument, but Sela felt there was a note or chord missing. Without understanding why she did it, she stuck out one finger and softly pressed it against a particularly beautiful butterfly-colored button. I'll help you, butterfly!
The stars in the viewport stretched and turned into lines, then the inky darkness was filled with a blue-white light! Some passengers gasped, others cheered! Yet others wept or applauded, and she saw the pilot's shoulders relax. Was this what they were trying to do? And had her daughter just helped them make the jump to hyperspace? She peered closely at the iridescent button that had pulsed in shimmering waves just moment before, but now glowed steadily. Power bypass, it read, crudely lettered in what she recognized as her husband's handwriting ...
Dareen decided to keep this part to herself. No need to insult the pilot by letting him know her toddler had helped him co-pilot the refugee ship!
* * * * *
They'd spent many days onboard the cramped ship, but for every passenger it felt closer to years sealed in a ration can. The ship was overloaded and the passengers were ordered to remain calm and not speak, to conserve oxygen and food. Even so they managed murmured conversations, and Dareen discovered that those around her arrived at the ship in their own manner. None had used the "butterfly path" she had felt compelled to follow. One man had been told by his mother to meet him at a particular place, but she never showed up. Instead, his wife and children arrived at that spot, and all had told him his mother had given them identical instructions, except his youngest son had a note on flimsi instructing him to go into a tapcaf and ask for someone named Tonpil. Following her instructions, they found the Ithorian, who stared at the family long enough to make the man feel this was some elaborate joke, though it was not like his mother to have a sense of humor so convoluted. Finally, he ordered them to sit at a table and wait. And then one by one, Tonpil lead them into a hole cut under the floor, and told them to keep walking, there would be only one path.
"What happened to Tonpil?" Dareen was interested that this man's mother had used her grandson to carry the flimsi, as QuiNan had used symbols that would attract the attention of his very young child. The man didn't know what had happened to the Ithorian, nor even how his mother had made this decision with him.
The uncertainty of what was going on made continued conversation impossible. The claustrophobic conditions were terrible, akin to a prison. Soon, the reality that they were escaping their home planet descended on each person and hysteria took over where stunned panic had been.
The passengers did not always treated each other with respect or kindness. Petty fights over every square millimeter of floorspace would flare up, and some had taken to stealing food and water from one another. Dareen had not known to pack any food, and so rationed what was given to her carefully between her and her daughter, hoarding the rest since she understood that she didn't know how long they'd be on this ship, or even how long the space rations would last. Dareen thought she was doing a good thing by saving some food for later; besides, she and Sela were small and thus she reasoned they could live on less. In any case, the hygiene facilities onboard were limited, and in their overcrowded situation, the less waste produced, the better.
QuiNan had often told her she was too charity-oriented and kind for her own good, often giving away something she desperately needed herself to someone whom she thought would need it more. He had cautioned her not to be disappointed if such charity blew up in her face, so to speak, for not everyone would be grateful for her gestures or gifts.
Even so, she felt she had to offer a foodboard wafer to a woman who's children were wailing from hunger. To her surprised, the woman grabbed it and started screaming that Dareen was hoarding all the food! People around Dareen started tugging at her things, tearing her clothing and her screams brought the captain, who was compelled to point a blaster at the crowd. There had nearly been a riot, and the captain threatened to jettison any perpetrators directly into space with the refuse dump the next time such a thing happened again. Dareen cried silently, unable to meet the captain's glare.
They'd landed at some prearranged places, sponsored by friendly sympathizers, and many of the passengers begged to be able to stay rather than get onboard the ship again. The pilot who had removed them from their home planet Dareen had learned his name was Thom Varth only released a certain number of passengers via some selection process known only to him. He explained repeatedly that they were refugees and could not take advantage of their hosts who offered a safe harbor at great risk to themselves and had to continue onward.
Then the passengers started to get sick. Some would get better, and some wouldn't. Others didn't get it at all. Nearly none of the children contracted it, but over half of the adults came down with symptoms which included a persisting, hacking cough; dry, itchy skin; blurred vision; dry mouth. Though seemingly not serious, it was delibitating and as cramped as their conditions were, it spread through the ship quickly. It was another humiliation and deprivation of being refugees.
About six or so standard weeks later (it was hard to tell how long they'd been on Varth's ship), they landed in a desolate place, far from a spaceport or town. Captain Varth called all the adult passengers outside, asking them to leave the children onboard. Frightened to leave their offspring behind, but desiring to get out of the stifling ship, they shuffled out. What was happening? Would they or their children be sold into slavery? That was the latest whispered rumor to consume the crowd.
The passengers huddled by the landing platform, afraid to put distance between them and their loved ones, but Varth insisted they walk a little way from the ship. When they refused, Varth told the children that they could come outside, but they were to guard the ship, and not to stray from it. The adults then could at least have eye contact with the children.
Varth looked around at the gathering of exhausted, dirty, paranoid men and women of many species. He told them they were not to speak till he was finished, for what he had to say would affect all of them, and he only had time to say it once before they had to leave the system. Every person looked back at the children, wondering what awful things could happen to them now. First, Varth told them the illness they were experiencing was the reason their loved ones had made plans for them to escape Alderaan. "I know all of you have family members who are force-adepts. These family members were children or still in the womb during the Jedi Purge engineered by Emperor Palpatine, and thus escaped direct detection. But they've grown to adulthood and are considered resources for the Emperor to exploit either to join him and Lord Darth Vader or to use in "testing" and he needed a way to identify those with strong Force abilities. He would execute them, or make them into Dark Force-adepts."
There was a stunned silence among the gathering, as they all tried to cover the shock that someone knew that they had a potential Jedi in their families. They had all married men or women with Force abilities; they hadn't realized this is what the passengers had in common. It was unsafe to talk about the Force, and none would admit to having relatives marked with it, out of habit and self-preservation.
"The illness was engineered to affect those without any Force abilities; thus if a suspected Jedi-sympathizer contracted the virus, they'd quickly spread it to their circle of family and close friends. The Empire would recognize those in contact with the virus carriers who had NOT gotten sick to be potential Jedi, and extract them. Those who had harbored Jedi would also be removed from society."
"What does that mean, extracted or removed?" A short man with brown hair demanded to know.
"Qwerth, don't be stupid. You know what it means. The virus would be transmitted via innocuous means like through parcel mail to target suspected families." The assemblage started to talk, but Varth held up his hand to silence them. "QuiNan Milson, whom most of you know, uncovered the plot but recognized that even though the government of Alderaan is officially pacifist, the Empire was moving in to subjugate us. Our group decided on a plan to get our loved ones off-planet before the Empire released it's virus. I regret we were too late; they released it earlier than the stolen documents indicated they would."
There might have been more questions, but the gathering was interrupted by the surge of yelling, screaming, crying children running from the ship to find their parents. All of them were in tears, crying that something awful had happened! Several of the adults, including Thom Varth, collapsed or doubled over in agony. Dareen panicked and ran toward Sela, who had stopped running and was clutching her head and screaming. What's happening? Don't take Sela from me, no!
* * * * *
Varth had not shown symptoms of the virus he'd described, and Dareen realized this meant he, like her husband, had Force abilities. QuiNan had never spoken to Dareen about his talents, but she realized he was special very astute and could read others with uncanny accuracy. He could "see" what was bothering people, or determine the source of their emotions. Like he'd told her that the wild, angry Twi'lek woman down the hall had suffered from a very hard life, first as a slave, then in search of her daughter, who had been sold from her mother's arms. She'd wondered how he'd known that. If that had happened to her, she'd go raving mad, too.
He also told her to not speak to the old woman about her bad behavior toward Dareen and Sela, for she could be under someone else's control. She didn't understand then what he'd meant, but now wondered if the Twi'lek was the one who caused QuiNan to not come home that morning. Upon speaking to others onboard, she understood that the Empire had molls living among the people, looking for those who might have any inkling of the Force. Dareen reasoned that the glitterstim that the old Twi'lek was obviously taking was Imperial blood money, and wondered how many grams of spice were equal to her husband's life.
As for her, she had no Force abilities at all, and as proof, she came down with all the horrible symptoms of the Emperor's virus. She had a dry, unproductive cough that never got better and was very achy all the time. She was relieved that Sela didn't seem to get sick; this was her first real indication that her daughter had inherited QuiNan's Force-sensitivity.
The children and Varth had described a horrible pain washing over them at the end of the meeting. They'd heard voices screaming, felt their blood pounding ... was this a side effect of the Emperor's disease? Perhaps it affected those with the Force, after all?
But no. Sela and the other children insisted it was real, not simply a cold. They had actually heard the voices, and felt the stabbing pain like a metal pick through their eyeballs and skulls! Not understanding what had happened, they cried and the stress level was heightened.
The remaining legs of their journey were torturous. Varth explained that he could not leave all of them with benefactors on other systems. For one, there were simply not that many beings who could take in a frightened family. For another, he'd already gotten back word that some of the so-called benefactors had, in fact, opted to hand their wards over to the Empire in exchange for the bounty for Jedi. Varth held his eyes downcast as he announced this last fact to the remaining refugees. No one had anything to say about being left on other systems after that.
Varth did not reveal much at any one time. The refugees surmised that he didn't trust them or maybe he didn't really know where he could take them? Dareen bit her bottom lip, not sure if she should defend Varth or demand more information. All these long weeks stretched into months and like the others, Dareen was fatigued and still sick from the Empire's disease. She'd had enough and thought she'd crack at any moment; it took every ounce of her will to not lose her mind! The only thing keeping her together was Sela, who needed her desperately now that things were so different. Dareen had put off her questions about her daddy, but she didn't know how much longer she could stand to not know, herself.
At last, they landed on a planet with a lot of plants. The humid, hot air was rather subtropical in feel, also evidenced by the palm-like trees around the clearing surrounding the craft. Varth had ordered them to take all of their belongings off the ship, and the passengers wondered if he meant to abandon them in this wild place? Still, for most of them, they'd accept that fate rather than climb onboard the fetid-smelling ship again.
Indeed, he did this was their new home, the Atrivis system. They would be safe from the Empire here. "I must take the ship off-system, so it can't be traced. I will trade it for another, and be back with supplies as soon as I can, but I can't promise a time. Like you, I am now a fugitive and a refugee. For now, you have a month's worth of food. In that time, you will have to build shelters, clear land and plant crops to be self-sustaining. I'm sorry, but this is the best we could do with the short notice we had; as I told you at a previous meeting, the Empire started to move much sooner than their schedule had indicated."
The loud-mouthed man named Qwerth was the first to speak up, "Take us back to Alderaan!" He was followed by others who wept or shouted the same demand, thinking they'd prefer to take their chances with the Empire rather than become sustenance farmers!
Varth simply looked back at the angry crowd, waiting for them to tire of yelling, knowing the Empire's illness had weakened them so they were not physically a threat to him, as disorganized and sick as they were. As the coughing and gasping subsided, he started to speak, very quietly, "There is no "home" for you to return you. That awful feeling your children experienced was the death of our home planet."
Qwerth coughed again, "You're definitely mad, take us home!"
Varth glared at him, "Alderaan was destroyed by a new weapon. It is unclear the nature of the weapon, but the planet has been completely annihilated. What was once everything we knew ... is now a field of rubble. I have been receiving coded and public-access reports, and I'm afraid what I report now is true. There is no more Alderaan to go home to. This destructions is what your loved ones saved you from. Quinan knew it, but didn't know how it would happen."
The stunned crowd didn't move.
"So stop whining and get on with it!" Varth lost his temper for the first time since they'd met him the day they left Alderaan. Tears flowed as he shouted at them, "You, you're in charge of housing! Figure out how to build a shelter! There are tools and manuals in that storage hold! You, you decide how to clear land! You, you are in charge of planting! The rest of you shut up and listen to these people. Then pick new leaders and start again!" Varth pushed people toward the piles of leaf litter and had them uncover the hidden stashes of rations and tools. He took command of getting materials unloaded, choosing people to work at tasks, regardless of their skills and experience.
"Anyone who doesn't work, will not be given their share of rations, will not be allowed in the shelter. In other words, YOU ... WILL ... DIE." Varth put harsh emphasis on these words. "If that is how you wish to honor the relatives who risked everything to save you, then go quietly and don't come back. Thre are plenty of ways to die in the jungle."
Many of the refugees started to weep, and children clung to their parents in terror. Dareen dared to speak as Varth panted in exhaustion and emotion, "Captain Varth ... Thom ... what happened to ... our loved ones?"
Varth looked up, his face redder and more rock-like than before. "They're dead. Or if not dead, the Emperor would take them and torture them to become Dark Side adepts." He said all this quietly, and let the silence signal the start of the survivors' mourning.
Then more quietly, he said to Dareen, "I'm sorry, but QuiNan is dead ... whether actually dead or a puppet of the Emperor's, he is dead to you. You have to forget about him and live. That's the last gift he gave to you. Honor it, Dareen."
The insanity that Dareen felt all the time on the ship, just out of eye-shot, just out of reach ... when it came and embraced her, she didn't fight it ...
* * * * *
Dareen didn't know how long she was in that state. She knew she followed orders, whoever gave them to her. She couldn't learn, but she could dig trenches, carry materials, harvest vegetables, hold nets to fish the waters of the nearby beach. The more repetitive and mind-numbing the task, the better.
She didn't remember thinking the whole time. She didn't remember if she ate. Worst of all, she didn't remember what she had done with Sela. The child was with her the whole time she was there, but Dareen didn't recall doing anything with her. Like the rest of her life, she simply moved from task to task. She ate when she was told to eat. Slept when she was told to sleep. The others around her noted that Dareen's very young daughter Sela was looking after her mother far better than Dareen was looking after Sela.
In this zombified condition, Dareen persisted, but that was all. She didn't notice anything, didn't care for herself, didn't realize that over a year had passed and her daughter's next birthday had gone by. She grew more sick, still delibitated by the Empire's weeding disease, till she could no longer be used for any sort of work in the colony. She'd be injured by keep doing as she'd been told; she'd likely do her task till she bled to death. The others met and voted and agreed to take Sela away from her, because Dareen was killing herself. Better to spare such a young child her mother's suicide, and get her used to a foster family.
That morning, they came and simply led Sela away, who initially protested and cried, then left silently when she saw that her mother could only lay catatonic on her sleeping mat. Dareen lay there with her eyes open for many long hours, since no one had come to wake her and put her to work. She didn't eat or drink.
Sela snuck back that night with some water and pulled her mother's head up to help her drink. She kissed her mother's cheek and said, "Mama, I miss you. I don't want to say goodbye. Please come back?" She left the bowl of water by her mother and crept out of their shack to return to the foster family.
Dareen's eyes tended to dry out from the hours of staring into space as she worked or slept. This dryness contributed to her unhealthy, dull countenance. Many of the settlers had had similar looks for varying lengths of time. It was not unusual to go catatonic when in shock at their situation. It's simply that Dareen's case was so extreme that it was killing her.
Perhaps it was the water that little Sela Milson fed to her dying mother, or the kiss ... Dareen might have heard the plea her daughter had delivered, as if the girl knew her mother had given up on life. Maybe it was the thought that her child would be an orphan in a galaxy at war, far from the life Dareen and QuiNan had intended for Sela. But something finally got through that night to the dying woman, and her eyes went wet for the first time in many, many months. Whatever it was that imprisoned her brain and her heart flowed out of her, at long last.
When she awoke, Dareen remembered she was conscious of the wrenching pain throughout her body, due to her self-starvation and the hard manual labor her petit body had performed and the injuries she'd sustained. Then she realized there was an awful smell, and that it was coming from her own body. She tried sitting up, but her body was unaccustomed to obeying her and she trembles as she forced her arms to do as her mind ordered. Her legs were in agony as she hobbled to the doorway and clutched at the frame. What has happened to my body? When did this happen to me?? How long had I been asleep? Where is Sela??
She hadn't, of course, simply "woken up" though there were many sleep-like aspects of Dareen's state those long months. Dareen later reasoned that it was as if she had gone into a walking coma, where some part of her brain dealt with the functions to keep her alive, but that was all. Her last conscious thought had been that Thom Varth's revelation regarding QuiNan's fate had destroyed her and she thought she had died and gone to hell; in fact, instead her mind had shut down to protect itself from that potentially fatal damage.
People told her that her toddler had cared for her for close to two years while she was in that automaton state. Dareen was sorely ashamed of herself, and was forever grateful for QuiNan's daughter for doing what was needed to save herself.
Sela was delighted that her mother was fine, and that she'd be allowed to return to live with her. But she was still a child, and she was confused why her mother would not let her do the things she'd always seemed to do before. It lead to some stubborn battles over control, but in the end, Dareen had to conclude that Sela deserved her autonomy and had earned her right to adult responsibilities. As a mother, this was difficult to accept, but it was harder to accept what would have happened if her daughter had not been so strong or so precocious.
When Dareen's strength started coming back, she started working in the fields again. She felt she had to do her part of the manual labor, to earn the right to continue living in the community. Unfortunately, the hard physical work made her condition weaker; she had not recovered from that Empire's disease. In fact, no one had, but for over a year, no one had gotten worse, and they'd gotten used to it just another indignity to suffer in order to survive to the next day.
Rest didn't seem to help, so she worked as much as she could in whatever capacity, even getting up in the middle of the night to re-arm the smudge pots to keep seedlings warm and to keep bugs away in the sometimes chilly nights. Sela always got up with her and watched after her to make sure she didn't fall in the darkness, or when she started to hack with coughing and would get dizzy. The child was afraid her mother would succumb to the catatonia again, but she never said anything about it to anyone.
When at last Thom Varth returned to Atrivis, the community was in a very bad way. They had buried over a dozen of the adults and the survivors took in the orphaned children. Dareen and Sela housed two young girls in their shack and tried to comfort them; a neighbor had died from what looked like a new disease, and their father was close to death himself. This new disease seemed to strike at those who had Force abilities as well as the ones who were already ill, but the already weakened were the most susceptible.
Sela realized the significance, that her mother probably would get the new disease. Even so, she was still alarmed when she touched her mother's arm and felt the heat emanating from it. Her mother had it, too! Not wanting to be separated, she hid this fact from everyone else; when Dareen asked Sela, "Do I feel warm to you? I feel warm." Sela denied it, saying it was just a hot season.
Thom Varth Commander Varth brought medicines from the newly established military base. He explained he had accepted a commission with the New Republic and had spent the past year or so angling to have a starfighter base located on Atrivis, so that he could return to the refugees from Alderaan.
He recognized that the Alderaanians had a form of a viral infection called Bilbringi which manifested as a fever with its accompanying hallucinations, dehydration ... and death. It was treatable and curable, but he could not steal the quantity of medications required for the colony, nor did he have enough expertise on the clinical treatment of the patients to minimize the side effects of the medicines, which were strong and could cause blindness or death, too. The survivors could not get themselves to perform the necessary triage determining who would get treatment and who would be left to die. So they spread out the medicines most of it past its expiration dates or improperly stored as thinly as they could, hoping that the sick would survive long enough till Varth could get more help. It was the best they could do.
Dareen and Sela carried water, sponged down the overheated bodies of the dying to try and cool them, and helped bury and cremate the dead. Dareen was feeling worse and worse, till at last she had to admit to herself that she'd contracted the disease, too. Varth would be away doing his job for long periods of time, and food and medicines had to be strictly rationed till he could return. They all prayed that he would not be killed in some battle far away from Atrivis; by now, they all realized that he was the only person with access to the outside galaxy who knew where they were, or that they existed at all!
When he did return, they demanded that they be allowed to surrender themselves to his garrison for care. Was dying worse than surrendering to the rebels? But Varth asked them to hold on for a bit longer a new starfighter squadron was temporarily under his command for battle training. Since casualties were potentially high, a supply convoy would come to bring materièl for the care of the new pilots. He promised to arrange to hijack one of the ships; that would bring enough medicine and food to cure and feed those who remained. The sick men and women had no choice; they were too weak to resist Varth, but they were frightened to hope for too much. Wasn't hijacking dangerous? What if Varth was killed or arrested? What would they do if he didn't come again?
Sela and the other children were quietly sitting together; such was the situation in the colony that there were no longer enough healthy adults to look after individual children. All the children were herded into one hut for security, and to quarantine them from their sick guardians. None had contracted the original disease of the colony, due to their enhanced Force abilities, and thus were healthy enough to repel the Bilbringi Fever. But as they reached puberty, they started to succumb; none of the children looked forward to growing older. They thought about living without their relatives, about how they'd never see Alderaan again. They had all felt the death of their planet, even if they hadn't understood what it meant. It was a terrible thing to be an adult, it seemed.
One boy told the others that his mother had said it would be better for them to be discovered by the rebels than to die like animals in the wilderness; just before she died, she told him to find them. Another responded that he would gladly be a slave if his father could return from death. One by one, they started telling each other things they didn't tell the adults about their feelings. One girl wanted to trade her life for her mother's, so that her mother wouldn't be sick anymore.
When it was Sela's turn, she said, "I think the rebels must be nice people. They want to fight the people who made our mothers sick and our fathers have to disappear. Maybe we can talk to them and find out if they can help us?"
There was silence, and an older girl next to Sela said, "Maybe we can just ask them to come and find us?"
Without further discussion, they all started thinking hard about being found by the rebels.
* * * * *
Commander Varth showed up with a speeder overfilled with cases of medicines and foodboard. Only the children were there to greet him. Cursing to himself, he realized the adults of the colony were probably nearly all close to death. He saw how they had herded the children, who slowly came out of the one hut they'd been in to tell him that their parents were too sick to move. Varth gave each some of the rations and told them to return to their homes; he figured if their folks were going to die, it was important to say goodbye, no matter how young the children were. They have all the time in the universe to be dead.
He found some of the adults and told them he'd brought food and medicines, but the sick beings couldn't get up to help him. He told them not to worry, he'd do the unloading and instruct the older children to feed and medicate them.
Thom Varth knew it would do no one any good to cry. It was against his nature, and he didn't want the children to see him blubbering. He bit the inside of his cheek and settled for looking grim as we walked back to the speeder.
Is this how it would end? Felled by some tiny primitive organism on some backwater planet? Is this why we had worked so hard to organize the safety of their families? He bit down harder on the soft flesh inside his mouth and tasted blood. Did we just delay death for these people?
He couldn't remember seeing Dareen Milson, Quinan's widow, among the adults he'd located. He wondered if she had succumbed to the Fever already? He had heard that she had gone into shock for over a year after they'd arrived. Whe was was already frail and ill at that time; it was a wonder she'd survived as long as she had. Varth regretted his use of the past tense, telling himself fiercely, ... to have survived THIS long ...
Varth was so lost in thought that he nearly walked right into Wedge Antilles, the young commander of Rogue Squadron whom he'd been training for battle-readiness. He didn't know how long he'd been watched, but seeing the speeder full of supplies bearing the military markings, there could be no doubt of the nature of the crime Varth was committing ...
The two men looked at one another for a moment, then without a word, Varth passed a box of medicines from the speeder to Antilles. The younger man hefted it and walked it over to the clearing that Varth had come from, then returned for another. The whole time, they said nothing to each other.
Wedge heard Varth call over two of the older children in the eerily quiet village and instruct them how to administer the medicines, and how to serve the foodboard rations. Varth told them he'd be back in three days, then gestured to Wedge to get into the passenger side of the speeder.
Wedge had found Varth to be a cold and emotionless man, but this changed everything. He wondered who these children were and how had Varth come across them? Why was the village so quiet? Being an orphan himself, Wedge discovered that he could recognize other orphans on sight. He thought on the exhausted, starving faces and emaciated bodies, and wondered how many there were. The older children looked unhealthy and many had sores on their exposed skin, though the younger ones seemed fine. Perhaps it was a condition that came on to those who have readched puberty?
Wedge jumped at the sound of Varth's voice over the whine of the speeder engines, "Captain Antilles, you understand that what you saw and what we did ... it did not happen. These are innocent people, I discovered them during one of my constitutionals. Yes, I find walking to clear my head helpful too."
Wedge kept looking ahead down the path the speeder was following; Varth had obviously brought supplies to these people many times before, wearing a rough road with the ion trail of the speeder, through the semi-tropical jungle. "Where are they from, Commander?"
He wondered why Varth was struggling with something inside his head, for he seemed to hesitate to answer the question. But perhaps it was just Wedge's imagination. There were plenty of reasons for Varth to have taken a while to answer, but at last the older man explained they were miners and farmers from the hill country. The battles over the planet had resulted in debris landing on their settlement and killing several. So they moved down to the valley to avoid the worst of the lethal rain; at least the tree canopy in the valley would slow down any falling battle residue. But an epidemic had broken out in the moist, hot climate and most of the parents of the children Wedge saw were dead or dying.
"Captain Antilles, I have been supporting these people quite outside Alliance regulations, and I realize for this I am open to court-martial but what could I do? I am a tough man, but I couldn't leave them to die." This time, Wedge was certain that Varth was struggling to hold back tears. "But as my efforts haven't stopped them from dying and now I see the older children have started to contract the disease ... I didn't know that pilfering a few rations wouldn't help them. So ... I have been contemplating asking for official Alliance aid. Captain Antilles, will you help me help these people?"
Wedge was startled at the unaccustomed pleading tone from the normally gruff commanding officer. Varth didn't wait for his response, "These people need immediate medical attention. They are delirious, dehydrated, covered in sores, starving you saw the children. The adults are far worse off. Therefore, I was wondering how to approach Princess Leia Organa, with whom I know you are friendly, to appeal for her direct intervention. These people don't have enough time for bureaucracies and committees to assign funds "
"You don't have to talk me into it, Commander." This was the first and only time Wedge dared to interrupt Thom Varth, "I can guarantee I'll have the Princess's ear. I will need to do it in person since she has a deathmark on her head; I'm sure you understand I can't transmit messages to her since anyone intercepting them could figure out where she was located. But I agree, these people don't have the time to wait for a committee decision." Wedge realized he'd been sitting at attention in Varth's presence all this time, but he didn't let himself relax or slump into the seat, "Even though we're not due to ship out for a few more weeks, I think it'll be faster for me to wait till then and see the Princess directly for an audience, rather than try to get through secure channels."
Varth appeared to think it over, then nodded, "Yes, you're right ... you have a good head for getting around the bureaucracy, I see. I'll have to remember that." For the first time, Wedge witnessed a smile on Varth's face. Wedge found himself smiling too. What kind of worry must he have suffered, looking after these people on the sly? Wedge noted how many different species of children were present, and wondered at the nature of this refugee community.
Wedge got out of the speeder while they were still out of sight of the base, so that he could walk back on his own. He'd told people he needed to go for a walk by himself to clear his head, and it was best to preserve that impression, especially since Varth's absence from the base had no alibi. Before Varth sped off, Wedge offered to help take supplies to the people in the promised three days' time; he'd even help steal them out of the base stores. Varth glared at him, but he did it with a wink.
*** * * EPILOGUE * * ***
Both Wedge Antilles and Thom Varth contracted Bilbringi Fever, and both recovered under the care of Alliance doctors and medics. Varth's illness forced him to confess the existence of the refugee village, but he kept their real origins a secret. After all, they had escaped Alderaan because these were Force-sensitive individuals and their families and being a Force-user had severe penalties at that time in galactic history.
Wedge did not come down with symptoms of the Fever until he was back with the fleet. Throughout, he tried to tell them about the village, but had been sedated. He finally managed to keep his promise, and talked to Princess Leia upon his convalescence. Touched by the description and trusting implicitly in Wedge's evaluation, she agreed to help relocate the villagers. Even though it was never revealed to her that they were Alderaanians (Wedge didn't know this, of course), she somehow knew and felt that they were kin to her. At the time, she shrugged off the feeling as empathy for fellow refugees in a war-torn galaxy.
Dareen Milson survived the epidemic, and she and Sela grew close to Hobbie Klivian and his fiancé, Nia Ponsed. Rogue Squadron took part in the refugee relocation effort, and many of the pilots sponsored the orphaned children throughout their lives.
Thom Varth was indeed court-martialed for the theft of medical supplies and for endangering Alliance operations and the military base by exposing himself and Captain Antilles to Bilbringi Fever. However, due to the unusual circumstances and Princess Leia's testimony, his sentence was commuted in an unusual manner he was appointed New Republic governor of Dantooine, where the Atrivis refugees first attempted resettlement. He was occasionally mixed up with another Varth, who coincidentally was also a pilot, and he commanded the Atrivis Resistance based on Generis.
Varth and Dareen Milson became close friends, to the extent that Dareen became his deputy and personal aide during his time as a planetary official. When he died, he left all his belongings and assets to Dareen and Sela. They used the money toward Sela's education, and eventually for her to travel to Coruscant to accept a job as a social worker in children's services, where she specializes in interspecies adoption cases.
*** * * FINIS * * ***
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