Anakin wasn't a baby. He knew how things worked. He knew that a slave child was a long-term investment—they took a lot of care and food and water for years, and labor from their mothers, before they were able to work and make up the cost of it. And he knew Watto resented him, resented the fact that he ate and used water but couldn't do much around the shop, yet.
Still, he could do a little bit. Like scrubbing the less delicate parts so they didn't look so grimy and old.
Usually, he didn't have to do it in the hot sun, though.
He'd never been out this far into the desert. All the kids played in the outskirts, but a slave who went further than that was just asking to get blown up, like Lakshem had been just last week. It was okay, though, because Watto had brought him and Mom out here to help him salvage a wreck. Not a Hutt wreck—even Watto wouldn't dare touch their stuff—but one of the other small merchants of Mos Espa.
They'd driven out there that morning, and Mom had given him a pile of parts easily stripped from the wrecked speeder, and here he sat under an awning scrubbing grime and scorching off metal while she and Watto took more stuff off the speeder. Anakin was hot and the sand itched like always and there wasn't any breeze and he only had a small canteen that had to last all day so he was a bit thirsty, and he would much rather be playing with his friends or poking around the wreck to see if there was any interesting stuff there. But if he didn't sit and scrub, Watto would get mad, and maybe hurt him or mom.
Anakin heaved a sigh and let his mind wander. The desert looked so empty compared to Mos Espa—no buildings, no people running around except Mom and Watto and Anakin—but it didn't feel empty. There were plants and animals hidden around, in crevices in the rocks and burrows in the sand, he knew, and as he sat and scrubbed it felt like maybe he knew where they were, like he didn't need his eyes to see them. The desert was alive, he realized, even when it looked dead; he didn't think he'd ever have noticed if there were more people around, if he'd been busier, but with nothing to do but scrub he stretched out with his ears and his heart and there was so much here! He'd never been anywhere the press of people didn't drown out the call of the desert. It made him feel more alive than he'd ever been, like he could fly faster and farther than any speeder.
There was a crash from the wreck, and the spell was broken. Watto swore at Mom for being too clumsy and too big, and how he should sell her and Anakin and get him some slaves who could fit into tight spaces. Then they switched spots so Watto was on the inside taking things apart for salvage, while Mom worked on the outside.
Mom looked flushed—it must be really hot in there. She had gotten a tarp from somewhere and brought a body out of the compartment. It smelled pretty bad, even though it had been dead less than a day. She laid the body on the tarp. "Watto, can I wrap up and stow the bodies now?"
"Get all of them out of the compartment, I don't want to have to share space with them and they've already stunk the place up," Watto said. "But only stow Gemark and his daughter, their family will pay us to bring the bodies back. Nobody'll pay for slave carcasses, so just dump them. The scavengers can have them."
Mom's face got a pinched look and she gave a hard stare to the compartment where Watto was. She got Anakin to help her dig a shallow grave for the people who would be left in the desert, and set him to carrying stones from the nearby outcropping to cover them. Watto, being taken up with his work inside the compartment, didn't notice.
Neither did he notice her taking the clothes and stuff off the dead slaves and hiding them on her and Anakin. The extra layer made Anakin hotter, especially with the sleeves and legs rolled up, but he didn't complain. Watto would take the stuff if he found it, but Anakin was good at hiding things.
Once the corpses were stowed, Mom went back to stripping the wreck while Anakin cleaned the parts. But this time, she was close enough to him that they could talk, and she passed the time by telling him stories about the desert. Mom was such a good storyteller. She told him about the animals and about the spirits of the desert. She was in the middle of a story about how the Noo-uni stole a traveler who fell asleep in their wadi and when he woke up, a century had passed. She was just getting to the good part when Watto stuck his head out of the hatch.
"Noo-uni, bah! Slave superstition and worship of the dead! Don't fill the boy's head with that poodu. If you have to talk, say something useful. Like how to tell when a sandstorm's coming, so he won't end up like Gemark did." He held out his canteen. "And get me some more water. Idiot human. The desert's nasty enough without making up ghost stories to scare the kiddies with."
Mom refilled the canteen, and Watto grabbed it out of her hand and ducked back into the wreck. Mom turned her stories to more practical lessons. They weren't as fun, but it was better than nothing, Anakin supposed.
They took a break and a nap when the suns were at their highest and hottest, and weren't back to Mos Espa until late that evening. Watto went to his home immediately, but made Mom and Anakin stay up to check the store over to see that the slave he'd borrowed to work the counter while they were gone hadn't hurt or stolen anything. By that point, it was cold enough Anakin was grateful for the extra layer of clothes under his own.
When they finally confirmed everything was as it should be, they still couldn't go home to bed, no matter how much Anakin yawned. Instead, Mom put the clothes and trinkets they'd smuggled out of the desert into a bag, and led him back to the slave quarters. Nobody much cared what slaves did, so nobody noticed that they went to someone else's hovel instead of their own.
Mom knocked quietly, and the door was opened by a woman who felt so sad, Anakin felt his own eyes tearing up. He did that, sometimes, felt other peoples' emotions instead of his own. They went in, and there were a bunch of people gathered around, sitting on the floor or old crates or anything they could find. Mom spoke quietly with the woman for a bit, and then handed her the bag. They sang a quiet song, the one they'd sung last week when Lakshem had been killed and then finally, finally they could go back to their own home to sleep.
And also Anakin could ask a question he'd been wanting to all day. "Mom?" he asked. "Was Watto right? About the Noo-uni? Do they really exist?"
Mom sighed. "Oh, Ani, Watto only believes what he can see and hear and touch, and he's never seen a Noo-uni. Neither have I, but I know there are many things that are real that we can't see and hear and touch."
"So do I, Mom," Anakin said. After all, he'd known as long as he could remember that there were things he could feel that he shouldn't tell Watto. Or any other adult besides Mom.
"Yes, of course you do, Ani," Mom said with a smile, ruffling his hair.
"Why doesn't Watto want to believe in them, then?" Anakin said.
"He gets scared of things bigger and stronger than he is."
"What? No way! Watto doesn't get scared!" Watto was an owner, a master; Watto was the one people were scared of. Not Anakin, of course, Anakin was much too old and brave to be scared of Watto anymore.
"Oh, he does," Mom said. "And then he blusters or gets cruel to cover it up. He doesn't like being afraid. The desert scares him, I think; it is big, and harsh, and it can kill you so easily. Like those poor people we buried today."
"How many people does the desert kill?" Anakin asked.
"Oh, I don't know, Ani, but it's not a small number."
"Is the desert mean, then? Like Watto can be mean?"
Mom hesitated. "No, Ani, the desert isn't mean or cruel. But it isn't kind or gentle, either. The desert just is. I don't think it notices us any more than we notice a tiny bug. But it is fair. It plays no favorites, makes no bargains. It kills owners just as easily and quickly as it kills slaves, and just as impartially. Like we saw in the wreck, today. But it also gives us things—animals, plants, more life than you would ever imagine could live there, to look at it, and wadis and oases and spirits, too. It is vast beyond your ability to imagine, and powerful, and hard. And that is what makes Watto afraid, because he only likes things he can control. And the desert can't be controlled."
"Even by the Hutts?" Anakin found that hard to believe. The Hutts controlled everything.
"Even by the Hutts," Mom said with a smile. "The desert is what it is, and always has been, and will always be: itself, no matter what or who lives in it or around it."
"Oh," Anakin said, comforted to know there was something so free, so big and powerful, that nothing and no one could control it.
Luke's favorite thing in the whole wide world was market day, when they went in to Anchorhead to sell fruits and vegetables and (sometimes, if they had a little extra) water. They'd have gotten a better price in Mos Espa, but not enough to cover the cost of fuel and time to get there, and so Anchorhead it was. Which Luke liked, because when else did he get to see other kids in person, and not over the comm screen as they did their schoolwork together?
In the morning, they'd unload the goods and help set up booths, and in the evening they'd help pack everything up again, but in between … in between, they had the time free to do whatever they wanted.
After playing kickball for a while, Luke stopped to take a drink out of his canteen, carefully gauging how much he had. Probably not enough that he could afford to play longer—Aunt Beru had given him the lion's share of the water they'd budgeted for the day, and nobody had any to sell. It was the dry season, and dryer than usual. Uncle Owen had thought they might have enough water to sell (and what a price it would bring, in a drought like this!) but then two of the vaporators had broken down. He might have enough to keep going for a while, but Fixer kept mocking him for being little, and Camie got mean when she wasn't winning, and low water was a good excuse to stop.
"You know how they said in the Science lesson that a lot of asteroids have water ice in them?" Luke said.
"What about it?" Camie asked without bothering to look at him.
"Couldn't they mine it?" Luke asked. He wished there were other kids to hang out with, but Mola and Brexter hadn't come today, and none of the other moisture-farm kids in their educational cluster were close enough to regularly market at Anchorhead. Biggs didn't mind Camie and Fixer, so Luke just had to deal with them. "Or, I don't know, drop it down in the middle of the desert somewhere, so we could have more water?"
Camie wrinkled her nose. "It'd burn up in the atmosphere, stupid. And then, no water!"
"I suppose you could bring it down in a ship's cargo hold," Biggs mused.
Fixer laughed. "That's a stupid idea. You'd need a Star Destroyer or something of that size to manage it, Biggs, and if you had a ship like that why would you bother with Tatooine? I had a ship like that, I'd be out of here so fast …"
"Yeah," Luke said. Tatooine was nothing but sand and Hutts and hard work and boredom. Maybe when Luke was older he could get a job as a pilot, like his father had? He'd probably need a better school course than the one the Empire provided for free, and that would be expensive. He sighed at the familiar thought. "Just wish we had more water. Especially in a year like this." Nothing could make Tatooine bearable, but at least not being the absolute worst would be a step up.
"Don't we all," Camie said.
"A lot of the ships that dock in the spaceports sell off some of the water in their tanks, pick up a few extra credits that way," Biggs pointed out.
"Yeah," Luke said. He wondered if his father had ever been on a ship that did that.
They played quieter games until it was time to pack up and leave.
"Did you get the parts?" Luke asked Aunt Beru in their skimmer on the way home.
"Yes," she said, but her face was tight and Luke could feel how worried she was. "They cost a bit more than I expected, though."
Luke sucked in a breath. He knew what that meant. It meant no new shoes for a while even though he really needed them, and maybe smaller meals for a while, so they could sell more of their produce to make up the difference. And that was assuming they could fix the broken vaporators. If the parts weren't right, or didn't do the trick …
Aunt Beru glanced down at him and ruffled his hair. "Don't worry, Luke, your uncle and I will figure it out."
Luke nodded, although she didn't see it because she'd turned her attention back to the drive.
Once they were back at the farmstead, Aunt Beru went into the hydroponics cave to talk to Uncle Owen while Luke unloaded the speeder and squared everything away. By the time he finished, Aunt Beru was ready to work on the vaporators, so all three of them put on their coats and got out their guns and gear and the new (to them, anyway) parts and went out to work on it.
Luke was nervous. They rarely went outside after dark; Grandma Shmi had been taken at dusk, and Sand People did most of their moving at night, to avoid the heat and glare of the day. And they'd often steal water and it was so dry this year, their normal oases might have failed.
But they couldn't afford to have the vaporators down another night, particularly not if they'd had to pay too much for the parts …
Uncle Owen stood guard, scanning the desert for heat sources and movement. Aunt Beru worked on the vaporators, as quickly as she could. Luke held the light for her, carefully shielded so it only shone where she needed, and hoped no Sand People were near enough to see it and come looking.
Luke sighed with relief when it hummed to life. Aunt Beru bolted the casing on, and back in to the farmstead they went. But before he headed down into their home, as Uncle Owen re-set the perimeter alarms, Luke looked up at the stars. You could see the stars from the courtyard, of course, but only a small patch of them. Here, they stretched so wide above the desert that he had to turn to see them all. How many, he wondered, had his father travelled to before he died?
"Luke, time to come in," Aunt Beru said.
"Why do Humans live on Tatooine?" Luke asked as they walked inside. "I mean, how did we come to be here? Humans aren't built for the desert, not like Sand People are. We dry out too easily."
Aunt Beru smiled. "Humans aren't built for space, either, yet we travel through the stars."
"That's different," Luke said. "Space is exciting."
"Only when something goes wrong, like a pirate or slaver attack," Aunt Beru said. "Which is another way it's like the desert."
"You're underestimating us," Uncle Owen said, "and the desert, too. We do just fine, here."
Aunt Beru nodded. "The desert is harsh, but it provides everything we need—"
"Except parts," Luke said.
"Except parts," Aunt Beru said. "Even at its driest, though the desert gives us enough water to live on. It gives us seeds that grow into plants we can eat and use medicinally, it gives us animals for protein."
"Outsiders, they come and they think the desert is barren, nothing but sand and rock," Aunt Beru said. "But we know better, don't we? There's always life, somewhere. You just have to find it. And where there's life, there's a chance."
"A chance for what?" Luke asked.
"Hope," Aunt Beru said. "Growth. Change. Something new."
"Or maybe just another day," Uncle Owen said. "Speaking of which, tomorrow we'll all need to be up bright and early to check on the repairs before it gets too hot. Is your homework done?"
Luke made a face. "No, but it shouldn't take long."
"Come get me if you need help," Uncle Owen said, "and then to bed with you."
Everyone said her family wasn't coming back for her, and Unkar Plutt kept talking about throwing her out on the street to fend for herself, but Rey knew they'd come for her, some day. That's why she liked sandstorms.
Well, one of the reasons. The other reason was that when they were stuck inside, there wasn't much work to do.
But during sandstorms, if Rey found a quiet, out-of-the-way spot on the outer edge of Plutt's building, and sat very still and closed her eyes and breathed slowly, she could hear voices calling her name.
They weren't her parents' voices, but sometimes they were close enough that she could pretend. (She kept telling herself that she'd recognize her parents' voices when they came, that she hadn't forgotten.)
"What are you doing here, you little rat, looking for something to steal?"
Rey opened her eyes, and found one of Plutt's rougher customers looming over her. "No," she said, pinching herself to keep her voice steady, because she was already small and young and she couldn't afford to seem weaker than she already did.
Another pilot was behind him. "Give off, Rip, if she were stealing she wouldn't have been sitting there with her eyes closed." She looked Rey up and down. "What were you doing kid? You weren't sleeping."
"I was listening to the storm," Rey said.
The nicer pilot laughed. "Stupid kid—nothing to hear there but the sound of grit I'm going to have to scrub out of my engines tomorrow before I can take off. If you want to listen to something, that geezer from Tatooine's telling stories in the main room."
"And stay outta my stuff," the nasty one said, glowering at her speculatively.
Rey didn't know whether he wanted someone to beat up or something worse, but she wasn't about to stick around to find out. She headed back in to the main area where the grounded pilots and locals were gathered to drink and wait out the storm.
A grizzled human with dark skin was holding court when she got there, waving a tankard of ale to punctuate a story. Rey didn't know it—Tatooine was pretty far away from Jakku. It was an interesting story, so interesting that Rey wasn't quite as alert as she needed to be, and one of the scavengers almost tripped over her before she could get out of the way.
"Look where you're going!" the scavenger barked at her.
"Sorry," Rey said, even though she'd been standing still, and it wasn't her fault. It drew attention to her, and she started to back up to the wall—Unkar Plutt was frowning at her, and she didn't want to give him an excuse to dock her rations.
"No, kid, come on up, if you want to hear my stories, there's a chair you can have right here," the storyteller said. He pointed to a stool nobody had taken because it was close enough you might get slopped with ale at his more expansive gestures.
Rey moved the stool to a safer distance and perched carefully on it.
"So what were you doing, kid, surely nothing in this dump's more interesting than me?" he said.
"I was listening to the storm," Rey said. She knew better than to mention the voices, but people still laughed and called her stupid and crazy.
"No, no, the kid's got a point," the storyteller said. "Deserts, they're not just sand and stone. They're alive, they've got their own minds, and if you listen carefully you can hear the spirits talking—but you've got to be careful, because some are good and some are bad and some don't care a hoot and a holler for living things."
"The desert is not alive, and there are no such things as spirits," said a fussy droid Rey didn't recognize. "Anything you hear is merely pressure waves caused by wind as it blows."
"No, there's more to it than that," the storyteller insisted. "I mean, some of the wind's howling is just that, but sometimes it's not the wind that's howling. Let me tell you about the noo-uni we have on Tatooine."
Rey listened, fascinated, long into the night.
"Anakin, you have more talent in the Force than anyone I know," Obi-Wan said. "Why do you have so little consistency? Why can you do something one day but not the next?"
Anakin opened his mouth to say 'I don't know, master, I'm trying my best,' but he'd been with the Jedi long enough to know what the response to that would be.
"You are not merely strong, you are also hard-working and diligent," Obi-Wan said. "Any other Padawan, I'd say it was that they just weren't practicing enough."
"Sorry," Anakin said, staring down at the carpet. He really did try. It was just that sometimes the Force didn't want to respond to simple tricks. "It always works when I really need it to," he said.
Obi-Wan raised his eyebrows. "I shudder to think what things you have been through, besides the attack on Naboo, that you already know that as a ten-year-old. In any case, that's all well and good, but if you can't do it consistently, I guarantee you that someday it won't just work when you really need it to."
"I'll try," Anakin said. His skills were improving, just not fast enough for his Master. He wished Master Obi-Wan wouldn't complain so much. Even after a year with the Jedi, he still missed Mom like a missing limb. When he didn't know something, she explained instead of just yelling at him for being wrong. And she gave great hugs. Obi-Wan could be nice enough, and he could be really funny when he wanted to be (and it wasn't aimed at Anakin), but he didn't really give hugs.
"If trying were all it took, you'd have it down by now," Obi-Wan said. "You've done an awful lot of trying, but precious little doing. Obviously, we need to try this another way, figure out what is keeping the Force from obeying your commands, or—"
"Wait, obeying my commands?" Anakin asked, confused. Ever since Master Qui-Gon had told him about the Force, before they even left Tatooine, Anakin had thought of the Force as like the desert, wild and too vast to comprehend and too ferocious to tame. He asked it for help, when he needed it, and sometimes it was willing and sometimes it wasn't. He'd always thought he just needed more persuasive ways of asking it.
Obi-Wan stared at him, arching an eyebrow. "Yes, Anakin, the whole point of this exercise is that the Force should obey your commands. What did you think you were supposed to be doing?"
"Asking it to help?" Anakin said, wincing at his Master's tone. "I mean, the Force guides us, right? So that means it's in charge, and I need to ask it for help, right?"
"That … explains so much," Obi-Wan said, sighing. "Well, you're not wrong; the Force does guide us, and we need to listen to it. But it also obeys our commands. And it often happens, that the Force guides us to a situation where we are needed, and then obeys us as we use our powers to fix the problem. It is not a matter of the Force dominating us or us dominating the Force; it is a question of the proper balance. But as regards your abilities, it must be your will determining what happens. With the Force, to will is to do."
"Oh," Anakin said. He remembered standing on the bridge of Queen Amidala's ship as it left Tatooine, the sight of the desert that had seemed so vast and limitless when he was in the middle of it shrinking to nothing more than a marble behind them, then nothing at all as the ship jumped to hyperspace and the stars blurred together.
He liked the idea of controlling the Force; there was so little in his life that he'd ever gotten to control. Usually, others controlled him. He'd expected it to be better as a free Jedi than as a slave, and it was; he had enough food and water and everything he needed, and he had more free time, and they never ordered him to do anything painful or humiliating, but he still had a lot of people giving him orders.
He couldn't imagine anything controlling the desert. Even though it looked so small from space, it was too powerful. Maybe he needed to find some other way of thinking about the Force.
If anyone had told Luke even a year ago that he would ever think there could be such a thing as too much water, he would have laughed in their face. He sighed as he held up his socks. He'd hoped they would dry enough that his feet wouldn't squelch in his boots, but the humidity on Dagobah was so high that nothing was ever really dry. And his lungs had so much water in them, he couldn't ever get a really deep breath. If they could send half of Dagobah's moisture to Tatooine, both planets would be a lot more pleasant. Though, given the choice, he'd take Dagobah any day.
Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen would have loved to see it, everything so green and full of life, though Uncle Owen would have grumbled about all the wasted water just standing around.
"I hate swamps," Luke said with a sigh.
"After Tatooine, I'd think you'd find all this water a pleasant novelty."
Luke turned to find Ben's ghost standing next to him. He'd only appeared a handful of times since Luke came to Dagobah, but each time Luke saw and heard him more clearly. "If it hadn't drowned my X-Wing—and almost Artoo in the bargain—I might. And it's easy to call it pleasant when you don't have to deal with damp clothes sticking to you."
Ben nodded. "Fair enough. I wanted to tell you, I've been impressed with how quickly your training is progressing. Your skills develop at a remarkable pace."
"I just wish I understood more of the why," Luke said. "I know it works, and I'm not going to say anything is impossible after watching Master Yoda save my X-Wing. But so many of Yoda's sayings don't really make sense."
"They're not supposed to make sense, not in the way you mean," Ben said. "They're not propositions to be logically analyzed, but rather ideas to expand your thoughts beyond the obvious and surface. Jedi philosophy was something to study for a lifetime; you'll be meditating on these ideas your whole life long."
"So they're like proverbs from a religion?" Luke asked.
"Not like religious proverbs, they are religious proverbs," Ben said.
"Oh," Luke said. He hadn't thought of the Jedi as a religion, but it fit with the sorts of things Yoda kept saying. "It seems weird, though—most religions are all about things they can't see, right? Like gods, or enlightenment. But Jedi can feel the Force."
"Feeling—or seeing—is not the same as understanding, Luke," Ben said. "In all my years, there were always new things to learn about the Force, and things I never did understand." He looked off to the side, at something only he could see. He began to dim, as he always did before leaving to go … wherever he went when Luke could not see him.
"Speaking of things beyond understanding," Luke said, hoping that he could get Ben to stick around. "What about spirits, like in the stories on Tatooine? Obviously, ghosts exist," he nodded at Ben, "but what about the desert spirits? Or, I suppose, here on Dagobah, would there be swamp spirits?" Luke made a face, wondering what a swamp spirit would even be like.
Ben hesitated, but at least he stopped fading. "Twenty years ago, I would have said they didn't," he said. "I believed the orthodox Jedi teachings quite firmly, that such things were merely people with limited Force sensitivity projecting their own expectations on the Force. But then, twenty years ago, I didn't believe ghosts existed, and here I am."
"That's not what happens to all Jedi?" Luke said, startled.
"No," Obi-Wan said. "It's something I learned how to do on Tatooine. From another Jedi ghost, the first in … a long time. But if this is possible, I have no way of knowing what other impossibilities I dismissed might have some truth to them after all."
"Ah," said Luke, relieved that he wouldn't have to choose between the stories Aunt Beru told and the Jedi ways his teachers were showing him.
"Why did I see visions and hear voices when I touched the lightsaber the first time?" Rey asked Luke.
"Do you often have visions and hear voices?" Luke asked.
"No," Rey said. "Well, I could always hear voices in sandstorms back on Jakku, but I could never make out who they were or what they were saying." This led to a little digression where she explained how she would listen, and Luke told her that she'd probably entered a light meditative trance to do so, and what different types of meditation there were.
"But I wasn't meditating when I touched the lightsaber," Rey pointed out.
"Perhaps the Force was louder then," Luke said. "Or perhaps you're especially sensitive, and the intense experiences that lightsaber has been through have soaked into it. Or perhaps there was something about the place you were that magnified your connection to the Force—some places do that."
"You're no help," Rey grumbled.
Luke shrugged. "The Force is like that. It's not about finding the one right answer, and although we do control it to a certain extent, there is a limit to how much of it we can ever understand."
"What do you mean?"
"The Force is like the sea around us," Luke said. "Deeper than we know, with strange things lurking that have nothing to do with us. The Force is like the stars above us, infinitely vaster than we can know, with limitless things to explore and learn. And the choices we make lead us down our own path—choosing to explore one thing may mean that we can't explore this other, because while the Force is infinite, we aren't. The Force is an energy field, yet not one we can harness like a power generator. The Force is what binds living things together, and yet death is also a part of it. The Force is light, and the Force is dark. The Force can be used to do great good and great evil, and yet the Force can overcome all these things. The Force is like the desert, which is sometimes hot and sometimes cold and sometimes calm and sometimes has sandstorms, but which is always the desert. The Force is like the desert: it is dangerous, and capricious, but it doesn't discriminate. It is present in and works in all things, all lives. The Force is like the desert: if you respect it, it will provide you with what you need. Not what you want, what you need. If I had been present, when you had that vision, I might have been able to tell you more. But then again, I might not. And even if I thought I knew, I might be wrong. I have been before."
"Then what's the point?" Rey asked. "If the Force is so mysterious and unknowable as you claim, what are we even doing here?"
"That's the question, isn't it?" Luke replied. "What do you think?"