“And ever since their reckless duel,” said Brexter, “the spirits have made sure Madame Vulture and Comrade Bat are never out at the same hour of day.”
“C’mon,” a turquoise, three-legged heckler said, “there ain’t no spirits.”
“You’ve never seen a vulture and a bat at the same time, have you?” Brexter shot back, and the heckler downed another shot of Unkar Plutt’s terrible grog rather than muster a coherent reply.
When she finally sputtered something about how “none of your off-world critters could last a day in our heat, huh,” he only rolled his eyes before scanning the room. A young human in the back had been rapt with attention to his account, as unmoving as Sleepy Jopin.
A moment too late, Brexter noticed one of Plutt’s larger and more inebriated scavengers crossing her path and ploughing over the girl’s stool. Plutt turned, his attention easily distracted by noise closer than the circling sandstorm outside. “C’mon up here,” Brexter waved, taking another swill of ale. His shoulder twinged in pain, and he set down his tankard before it could spill.
The girl hesitantly stepped forward, perching on the edge of the stool. M0-Z7 was making the rounds; “May I get you some beverages? Mind-altering substances are recommended for biological organisms to avoid negative mental impact from weather-related phenomena.”
They paused and stared at each other awkwardly for a moment. Then M0-Z7 whistled again in binary.
“I don’t need anything,” the girl finally laughed. “I like sandstorms!”
A bit affronted, M0-Z7 clanked off again to find a deeper-pocketed customer, maybe a passing pilot.
“Don’t mind the droids,” Brexter said, “creatures of habit. Sandstorms, now. Did you ever hear of the Noo-uni?”
The girl shook her head. She was as pale as Brexter was dark, and her ears already seemed to hang on his words—or perhaps the desert beyond.
“They live on Tatooine, I’m told. Another desert world. But all that’s ever been seen of them is shadows, so there’s no telling if they’re tall as humans or wide as Crolutes.”
“Say what now?” Plutt yelled.
“I was only giving an edifying and instructive history lesson for the benefit of our esteemed clientele.” Brexter sipped some more ale. Surely even Plutt realized that keeping the crowd occupied during the storm was a worthwhile goal? Brexter, for all his affectations, wasn't his enemy. “As regards a personage name of Sleepy Jopin, what was still a young idiot when he went to cross the desert, in search of fresh water.”
“The desert,” said Unkar Plutt, “is an enemy that is not to be crossed.”
“Takes one to know one,” said the turquoise heckler.
“Come again?” Plutt asked.
Brexter hurried on before she could start a fight. “Being a savvy journeyman, he knew how to descend where the climb was not steep, and walked down into a wadi, where he saw a pool of standing water.”
“Personages in your narratives who pursue instant gratification have a statistically improbable likelihood of supernatural transformations leading to their downfall,” M0-Z7 pointed out, giving Platt a big pitcher of ale, “thus I predict Jopin will do the same, in defiance of sensible causality.”
“You mean is he gonna drink from it without thinking and get turned into a blob...of sand? No, this isn’t that kind of story. He looked to the sky to see if it was the rainy season.”
“Do they not have meteorology in Tatooine?” a pilot asked.
“I heard Luke Skywalker was from Tatooine,” said another, “surely they have calendars.”
“Luke Skywalker?” The girl sat up on her stool. “Really?”
Brexter shook his head. War heroes, and him. “Maybe so, but this is an old story, back when there was only the dry season and the rainy season. All Jopin knew was that if the sky was dark, it would be dangerous to get caught alone. But it was bright, so he didn’t look to see the shadows on the sand. The Noo-uni.”
“If this is a factual narrative that has been transmitted to the present day,” M0-Z7 speculated, “these ‘Noo-uni’ must not have killed him. Or left some evidence behind of their existence...”
“Shut up and let him talk,” said the turquoise alien.
“So Jopin figured it would be safe to rest a while,” Brexter went on. “He was very tired, after having walked all that way, and parched. Then he fell asleep, in the wadi of the strangers. And when the Noo-uni came back, they saw someone sleeping in their lands!”
“A trespasser and a thief could be rightly killed,” Plutt pointed out.
“Maybe so,” said Brexter. “The Noo-uni could search a human’s thoughts even without him waking, and they knew that he had come in search of water. ‘If it’s water he wants,’ they figured, ‘he’ll get some, all right.’ So they took him and snatched him up to a high pillar in the desert, and they cursed him to sleep until the wadi was full of water.”
“If rainfall evaporates every dry season, the cycle could last indefinitely,” said M0-Z7, “with no overflow.”
“Until one really bad flood came,” said Brexter. “A flood so terrible, even the Noo-uni got reminded to check up on their wadi, and remembered the man who’d been sleeping on top of the pillar beyond, unchanging season in and season out. So then, they let him wake, and sounded a warning to never again trespass in their lands. But he was still up the pillar, with no way down. The Noo-uni don’t particularly care enough about humans to set Sleepy Jopin back on the ground, you see.”
The pilots chuckled.
“But to make matters worse, a hundred years had passed since he’d first set out from home.”
“A hundred years?” the girl gasped.
“Of course, the orbital period is not as long on Tatooine,” M0-Z7 informed them.
“Hundred-year storms, I’ll tell you what,” Platt scowled, “you all lollygagging around as if this is the worst storm in a century. It’s died down enough, get back to work.”
The Empire, some said, did not have much going for it. With weapons destroyed and leaders vanquished, its political grip was crumbling into the void.
What it did have, Brexter reminded himself, was far better in-atmosphere fighters than the Rebellion could muster, no matter what kind of groundswell of support the latter mustered. Flying low to the ground, he’d be safe from the maelstrom below, and might even be able to take a shot at blowing up any important military structures he spotted planetside. The tide would turn, and though he didn’t need to boast about being there to see it, he would do his part. He would still have a place to serve, a role to fill, and the rightful government would carry on.
Then his computer flared to full power, alerting him to the noise of the battle above. As he cocked his ears for any pattern in the firing, bombarded by information but unable to make sense of it, he skimmed over the bleak planet. Detached from the rest of the fleet, he awaited useful targets coming into view, but saw nothing. Jakku was desolate, a sand trap almost too useless to defend.
Out of nowhere, a rebel fighter emerged, blasting him out of the sky. Half on autopilot, he engaged the safety protocols he had memorized years before, but it all felt in vain. His shoulder burned with pain, and in the middle of the desert, nobody would save him. He felt confident he would die alone, as high above the dunes as a long-forgotten ghost…
Jopin would have been stranded up on top of the pillar, had it not been for the chopter that was passing by. For the people of the village had only just learned to build chopters, in the century that had gone by. Jopin was still hungry and thirsty—he had not eaten in a hundred years, after all—and thought it was some monster created by the Noo-uni. Only when it circled close and a woman dropped a rope ladder did he hear a friendly voice. “How did you get up there?”
“The Noo-uni brought me,” he explained, naturally. “But how did you get up there?”
“This is my chopter,” she said. “My name is Suzhon.”
“And I am Jopin, but can we perhaps make acquaintances later?”
“Well met! My mother’s grandfather bore the same—ah, never mind, come along.” And nodding at the rope, she led him into her chopter.
When Suzhon brought Jopin to the village, she was cheerful. For she had brought her chopter to see the flooded wadi, but was delighted to find a man who climbed pillars and spoke to unseen spirits. Jopin, however, was heavy of heart. All his kinsfolk and dear friends were dead; even the Jawas he had haggled with, all commended to the sand. The ceilings where he had found shade had been destroyed in windstorms, and built anew, levels upon layers until his little village almost looked a city! And with the new technology, there was talk of keeping ice cold all the night. A proper miracle, they said, and rejoiced. So the desert folk were happy, all but Jopin, who wished he had never set foot into the sands.
“Please do not move your shoulder!” trilled a droid. “You may be experiencing some residual numbness. This is normal. Do not be alarmed.”
Slowly, achingly, Brexter sat up. He hurt all over, except for the aforementioned shoulder, and a short silver protocol droid was looming over him. His fighter had careened into the sand, and an enormous speeder bike was hovering nearby.
“I have taken the liberty of securing your blaster,” said the droid. “You are in protective custody.”
“Ah! The aerial hostilities have come to a close. The Empire has offered its complete surrender.”
“Surrender...” Brexter shuddered. “Then why are you here? Are you a rebel? You can’t take me back.”
“Your identifying records have been found and verified, Brexter Dunegleam. The Jakku provisional authorities have concluded to high probability that you are not an ideological threat, nor a valuable hostage.”
In spite of himself, Brexter laughed. “I’ve flown all around this planet. You don’t have anything resembling ‘provisional authorities.’”
“In the very welcome absence of military command, civilian leadership will...arise. There’s room for plenty of markets to serve this planet, for anyone interested in making some credits.”
“Are you offering me a job?”
“I predict you will acclimatize here much better than self-righteous idealists who have other duties to fulfill on, perhaps, more densely populated worlds.”
“You’re putting a lot of faith in someone who would have killed you if I’d seen you an hour before. Two hours? How long have I been out?”
“Seventeen point six standard hours, and please, I don’t need to assume anything on faith.”
“Okay, okay.” Brexter unsteadily clambered to his feet. It wasn’t like he expected another speeder bike to come along any time soon. “I don’t think I’ve, uh, processed your name...”
“And you’re, what, my probation officer? Rescuer?”
“I prefer co-entrepreneur.”
“Right,” he said, boarding the bike, and very much hoping whatever M0-Z7 had used to dull the pain in his shoulder would hold on long enough to allow him to grip the handles.
Brexter adjusted his headset, picked up his console, and launched into another round of the flight simulator. The virtual spaceship that spread out before him had to be several years out of date, a fact that didn’t instill him with great confidence. What was the point of learning new skills, if they would all be outdated by the time he got a commission?
Still, he reminded himself, they couldn’t just let anybody have access to the finest Imperial technology. If nothing else, the frequent noises of what could only be student merrymaking after curfew demonstrated that several of his classmates were clearly not up to par. Let the system weed the carousers out, and then perhaps he’d get clearance to advance.
Brexter’s ship dodged through asteroids, took a shot at a pirate, evaded some high-grav starfield, and met up with a passing fleet, moving into formation. Not bad, the computer graded him. 92% accuracy. The screen offered further feedback; he should have been stayed farther away from the starfield and not tried to slingshot it. Tricky gravitational maneuvers were reserved only for enormous military-grade constructions, not individual fighters.
As far as homework went, Brexter figured, he couldn’t complain. He was certainly doing better than slackers like Biggs Darklighter. And while his Literary Analysis grades in equally virtual consoles back on Tatooine had regularly exceeded 92%, the advice from the automated droids hadn’t been nearly as helpful.
“A hundred years?” gawked the children of the village. “Is it true that the Noo-uni let themselves be seen in those days?”
“Of course not,” Jopin told them. It was hard not to snap that it had not changed that much, because in so many ways it had, but did they really think he knew what the Noo-uni looked like?
“And did the Jawas pitch tents and live within the town?”
"No, they roved in and came to trade. They still do that now, don’t they?"
"Yes," Suzhon said, “they still do. Let Jopin be.”
And when heavy rains fell upon the village, the children danced in amusement as if it was nothing unusual, heedless of the water that was being wasted as it fell to the sand. “Do they think this happens every season?” he asked Suzhon, once they were out of earshot.
“Them? They might. But you let them be, as well, they’re only children.”
“And do what? Am I to come back here just to stand idle? Don’t tell me you expect me to construct one of those freeze-boxes.”
“I don’t know,” Suzhon sighed. “I came to the wadi for the same reason you must have, long ago—to find some way to bring water back. But come the dry season, it’ll burn away, and if there really are Noo-uni out there, we can’t go making enemies of them.”
It burned within Jopin that even his savior did not fully trust him. But he thought back to the desert, and said, “I have an idea.”
EVALUATION: Shows technical proficiency and adequate familiarity with local species. Irrelevant to future, interplanetary prospects. Suggest applying yourself to more practical ventures.
Well, Brexter had, and let the autotutors look at him now. Rising through the academic ranks, and soon—
A noise in the hall. He took off his headset, and paced over to the door. “Keep it down!” he hissed. “Some of us are trying to study.”
“Brex! Sorry,” blushed Biggs Darklighter.
He was surrounded by a gaggle of other students, most of whom Brexter didn’t know: a short-haired tan Coruscanti, a tall and gangly core worlder, and a couple slouching outer-rimmers. “Fellas, this is Brexter Dunegleam, from Tatooine.”
Biggs made a lightning round of introductions. His fellow cadets seemed to all prefer outlandish nicknames, or maybe emulating callsigns was just fashionable. He’d always been able to befriend even the most rough-and-tumble of kids. These kids seemed—not cruel, exactly, just unfocused. Washouts, they called them at the Academy, where they could afford to watch excess water and recruits run down the drain.
“It’s been a while,” Biggs grinned. “How’ve you been?”
“Busy,” Brexter said pointedly. “And you?”
“Eh, can’t complain,” said Biggs. “Professor-Lieutenant Carlif will be the death of me at this rate, but otherwise everything’s good.”
“I let you borrow my notes,” muttered one of the outer-rimmers, Mel or Pell or something, “I don’t know what you’re complaining about.”
“Yeah,” said the Coruscanti, “that’ll work, you can cheat off him and you’ll fail it too.”
“Carlif grades on a curve,” laughed Biggs, “we’ll be fine.” The young students giggled, and Brexter rolled his eyes.
“If that’s all,” he said, “some of us have relevant coursework!”
“No—hey—” Biggs started. “What I meant was, I was wondering if you wanted to, uh, join our study group. It would be great to get your notes and—”
“Not do your own work, I’m sure,” Brexter laughed. Biggs at least managed to be slightly endearing about the baldfacedness of his plea.
“Look, you and I both know there’s more to life than passing Carlif’s finals,” Biggs said, and that at least Brexter could get behind. “Vel’s—” That was it! “—mom has a cantina we can visit during shore leave. We wanted a chance to see the galaxy; let’s not spend every minute in the dorms.”
“We’re a long time from thinking about shore leave at this rate,” Brexter sighed. “Look, this is our way out. But the quickest way to leave is to get a commission, and I think I’ll be able to manage on my own.”
“You heard him,” said Vel. “Don’t push him if he’s not interested. If you change your mind, you know where to find us.”
“Of course,” Brexter forced a smile. “If I hear crash noises from the simulator, can I assume that’s Biggs’ room?”
“My simulations are exceptional,” Biggs protested. “I’ll be the one setting modern political history to music in order to memorize it.”
“Good luck, then.”
Brexter nodded. “And the same to you.”
When Brex got a new speeder bike, his parents told him he could ride into and around Anchorhead by himself, but if he was going any farther away than Tosche Station he needed someone else to come with. They never said it had to be an adult, though, and it wasn’t like they wanted to supervise him all day. They had the markets to run.
But Biggs wasn’t about to trek into the desert on a bustling Anchorhead market day. “You and Mola and Luke showed! We can play kickball! A real game, c’mon.”
“I dunno,” Brex said.
“Aw, you’ve gotta play! You’re not just gonna let Fixer crush us under his foot, are you?” And how could Brex say no to that?
Brex, Mola, and Luke took up sides against Fixer, Camie, and Biggs. The latter side got off to a fast start, with Biggs sending one of Brex’s deliveries soaring past a wandering droid in search of spare parts, and Mola lackadaisically failing to defend against Camie’s kicks, but Luke’s defense almost singlehandedly made up for it, as he dove in every direction to knock Fixer’s catches out of the sky.
“We should switch up teams,” Camie whined, “this isn’t fair.”
“It’s just luck,” Fixer shrugged, “the kid can’t keep it up.”
“All right,” said Brex, “pick on someone your own size.”
Luke glanced down at his canteen. “I’m out of water. Can we stop?”
“Nah, come on, it’ll be fine!” Biggs protested. “I want to play with you. Guys?”
“You keep going,” said Brex. “Luke, want to see my new speeder bike?”
“Yes,” Luke said immediately. “Do you have a canteen?”
“Sure. We won’t be long, just till sundown. I have to help my dad pack up his booth too.”
“What about kickball, though?” Biggs protested.
“It’s too hot,” said Mola. “Let’s just play sabacc.”
But Luke followed Brex onto the speeder bike, and they took off into the desert.
“Remember,” Jopin explained, “I climbed down to reach the wadi. We cannot hope to build a simple pipeline back to the village, unless we first overcome the slope of the ground there.”
“But how can we do that?” Suzhon asked.
“We ought to destroy that pillar. That will give us plenty of raw material to work with.”
“And if the Noo-uni are angered by you imposing on their lands once more?”
“Then let me bear their wrath. What more can they do to me?”
At this Suzhon was fearful, for she did not wish harm to befall even Sleepy Jopin. But he steeled himself, and convinced her that his boldness was wise. So when they reached the pillar, she withdrew and let him dismantle it on his own.
Now the Noo-uni who go unseen act without kindness, and without pity. But now and again they act with deep knowledge, and they know well that humans who live between water and sand live by both faith and by surety. So when they saw what Jopin was doing, they said one to another, “Let them be, so long as they stay awake and do not linger too long in our lands. For what is one pillar to us, who may always build again? It is well that they may build too.”
Then from the wreckage of the fallen pillar, Jopin and Suzhon began to shore up the wadi so that the floodwaters would run down towards the village. On and on they built the waterway, and soon the people of the town came to their aid as it drew ever nearer. Old and young together, they fused together a seamless chain. And that is how Jopin the Sleeper took a hundred years to bring water to his village.
“All right,” Brex said. “Your aunt’s gonna be looking for you, yeah? I told you you wouldn’t get too thirsty.” The dunes had flown by, wave upon wave of one hill rippling into the next as the bike etched its track into the sand.
“Nah, we can keep going,” said Luke. “I think there’s people out there!”
“People? Here?” Brex echoed.
“Past that next dune,” Luke nodded.
It wasn’t like Brex could laugh—there he was, young and strong enough to ride out there on his own with only Luke for company. Who was he to say someone else didn’t have the same idea? “Okay, but quiet,” he said, “there could be sand people.”
“They don’t sound like sand people,” Luke mentioned.
Brex didn’t hear much of anything, but he wasn’t sure whether sand people made any noise before they carried you off. The stories his dad told him weren’t as scary. He revved the bike forward slowly, quietly, until a man’s outline came into view. “Hey, it’s all right! It’s only Ben Kenobi.”
“Oh, you know. Old Ben, lives out beyond the dunes. Guess even he must need to come to market sometimes.” Brex made a tight spin, flinging sand behind them as he turned the bike around and set his course towards Anchorhead.
“And who was he talking to?” Luke asked, his words muffled in the wind.
“What?” Brex said. “It was just him, I dunno what he was doing.”
“No, I heard him. Talking to—a desert spirit, or the Noo-uni, or someone.”
Brex leaned forward, willing the bike to go faster. Luke wasn’t a dumb kid, he knew from the virtual classes they’d taken together. But with Fixer giving him grief and everything else, he had enough problems without going on about myths and spirits.
On the other hand...Brex knew all the stories too. If there really were Noo-uni out there, the last thing he wanted to do was make them mad.
“All right,” he finally said. “You’ve got better ears than me. Just don’t tell Camie, she’ll be mad they didn’t invite her over for a nap.”
Luke laughed as if it was nothing. “Camie’ll be mad that she lost her canteen to Mola at sabacc again.”
“There’s that,” said Brex, and made his way across the dry sea.