Eli didn’t understand why he was chosen for the task. He was told that the choice was made by the Emperor himself. A choice that no one could understand, but that no one dared to object.
The order came directly to the Strikefast, and captain Parck immediately ordered to change course. They had to abandon the current mission because the Emperor’s order had the highest priority. Cadet Vanto tensed up - their new objective was three days of flight away and situated deep into Wild Space, almost at the border of the Unknown Regions. His return to the Academy on Myomar was already delayed due to an unexpected chase after pirates, and now it was completely unknown how much time he was going to lose on this task.
Captain Parck was assuring him that should they succeed, His Majesty would definitely reward him with his favour and arrange him all possibilities to pass his exams in time. But for some reason Eli wasn’t inclined to trust the authorities. Neither those who were close to him, nor those who were far away.
Their destination turned out to be a deserted planet, whose surface was covered with traces of space battles and ruins of once-great cities. After securing their position in orbit, captain Parck ordered to prepare a shuttle for landing whose passengers were him, cadet Vanto, and two battle droids as an escort.
“And why did you ask me to take my civies… sir?” Eli asked when the shuttle detached from the cruiser. While he wasn’t told anything about this task before, now it seemed to be the perfect time to finally get some answers.
“Is that the only thing that bothers you?” The captain sneered. “Change your clothes, by the way. According to the intel, that the guard at the gate should believe, you are pure-hearted stranger, not a soldier. According to the rumors this thing can read your soul, but… just in case.”
“W-what?” The cadet hiked nervously after receiving such shocking information. Parck gave him a long, stern commander’s gaze, and Vanto, curling his face into a displeased grimace, started to pull off his military boots. Changing clothes took him less than three minutes and, staring through the view window towards the planet’s surface, an endless desert sizzling under its sun, he felt glad that he took a hat and a bandanna to protect from dust and heat when he left Lysatra.
“Nevermind all that.” Parck added, when he finished, rewarding his obedience with a pleased smile. “Your task is simple. You should enter, take a specific target and give it to me,” The Captain activated a holo, which demonstrated a fresco whose subject was the dark silhouette of an object.
“Is that… a tea-pot?” Eli couldn’t help chuckling while observing it. This mission looked more and more like some tyrant’s teasing performed by his superiors to make them look dumb.
“I have no idea what that is. It is not our concern to understand the Emperor’s plans, however for whatever reason he needs that thing. For the welfare of the Empire, I don’t doubt.”
“We’re flying to the galaxy’s edge to find an ancient teapot for the Emperor’s collection,” Eli murmured. “Marvellous.”
“Lose the attitude, cadet.” Parck reprimanded sharply.
“Will I finally go back to Myomar after this? I’m already two weeks late!”
“Oh, don’t worry, Vanto,” captain replied and didn’t even try to hide his irritation. “You will get back to your Myomar as soon as you finish the task.”
“And why me, by the way? I’m talented in math, not in tomb robbing!”
“We are landing,” one of the droids informed the others, and so they fell silent.
Eli swallowed nervously and rubbed his hat’s strap. Something about the upcoming mission was frightening him, and there was nothing rational about this fear.
The shuttle was lowering into the ruins of the ancient city, majestic and standing even after centuries passed since its erection. They landed in a place where light barely reached the ground, and where Eli had expected heat, he instead stepped into cool shadow.
“Did you memorize what the target looks like?”
“The teapot? Yeah, but… aren’t you coming with me?”
Parck scoffed. “I thought that was obvious. And remember. You go in. Take the thing. And go out. No hesitation or getting side tracked. And don’t even think of taking anything else in there - you’re going to pay your life for it. Now go. The cave is there.” Parck waved his hand in direction of the narrowing dark crevice between rocks, in which could be seen marks that were once walls of tall houses.
Eli looked at his superior with misunderstanding once more. He had no special equipment, and his physical condition was far from perfect. All these vague explanations and secrets made him feel it like the mission was much more dangerous and serious than the captain described it.
“Now go already, cadet!”
And so, he went forward. With every step he became more and more worried. Stones under his feet rolled, and the sound reflected from the walls of the crevice with frightening loud echoes. Eli shivered - further there was only a darkness that made his hair raise. He activated a shoulder light and finally saw something looking like the entrance of a cave.
There wasn’t any ordinary entrance. It looked more like then open jaw of some huge mythic beast which, as it seemed, could come alive any minute and devour an unlucky traveller. And the moment Eli reached to step over the threshold, that very thing happened - the earth started trembling, stone jaws moved, and he barely managed to jump backwards to evade the enormous teeth.
“O-o-oh Kriff, I wasn’t prepared for this!” he yelled after stumbling and falling to the ground. The fall disoriented him slightly and he tried to hide his face behind his sleeve, hoping, that captain Parck would hear the noise and send help.
“Who disturbed my slumber?” the living cave pronounced, and in the context it didn’t even seem odd to young cadet.
“Fine. I must be dreaming,” he muttered and lowered the bandage that hid his face. “I am Eli Vanto. My apologies, if…”
“Only one is worthy to enter the Cave of Wonders!” the cave continued with words like thunder. “The one who’s values remain unseen! A diamond in the rough!”
“Eh, what that krayt’s spit?” he dusted down and rose. “No, my values are quite evident. I’m a great counter. I love numbers, I’m good at math and…” he turned around to look at the place he came from. The shuttle couldn’t even be spotted from his current location. And there was no way back. Disobeying the Emperor’s orders would never end good. Death in the jaws of living cave seemed now to not be the worst thing that could happen. “What am I even doing here…” he dropped his hands and shook his head, realizing how ironic his destiny appeared now.
“Come in!” the cave roared and opened wider. The path in front of him was illuminated with a shimmering glow, the source of which was unseen.
“Come in. Take the teapot. Get out. Maybe it’s gonna work out.” Eli shivered where he stood. “I’ll just ask for the one thing… If I’m not worthy, just kill me quickly, alright?”
He assembled all his courage, shut his eyes and stepped in with almost a jump, being ready to feel the ceiling falling on him the next moment. However, nothing happened. He stood still for a few seconds and finally opened his eyes.
Inside, the cave was nothing like what he saw on the surface. If outside the place looked like hot desert, here every stone was covered with life. There was glowing moss, mushrooms, worms, and insects. It all was shimmering with multiple colors and shades that filled the cave with light. It looked so amazing that the fear that petrified the young cadet slowly began to subside.
“Come in. Get out. No hesitation,” he repeated nervously and moved further through the broad space towards a ladder which he descended. Soon it broadened into a big shimmering hall, where the natural dome of the cave was decorated with artificial architectural additions of delicate shape. Luminescent plants on the walls also seemed to be placed deliberately - the spots of color combined into beautiful patterns, fitting into the artist’s design.
It took some time for Eli to notice that among all this beauty the floor of the cave was covered with treasures, reflecting all the colors of the place. There were rare gemstones, thing of metal and stone, sculptures and paintings, and all of it wasn’t placed chaotically, but settled in clear mathematical order, and the cadet also noted that their placing corresponded to the laws of golden ratio.
“Now I only have to find that teapot,” Eli moaned, his eyes wandering around through the treasures. But he didn’t even have to look for it - an object, matching the image on the holo, was standing in the middle of the hall on a lifted platform. “Oh, great. Now I’m halfway through.”
He approached it and observed his objective suspiciously for a while. A squat metallic teapot with a thin handle and prolonged gooseneck looked completely harmless, but now, after young cadet encountered a talking cave his intuition spoke that it couldn’t be so simple. But right now he had only one way to get out of here.
He pushed himself and grabbed the teapot quickly, and then jumped backwards immediately, expecting some trap to spring. But still nothing happened. Eli breathed out in relief.
“Well… that was easy. I shouldn’t be so…” suddenly the metal in his hands started shining and became burning hot. Eli tried to stop it, throwing it on the floor, but the shimmering glow had a life of its own and jumped back up into his hands. He stepped backwards, shaking his hands rapidly, stumbling over a chest and falling into a pile of gems. The glow came under his skin of his palms and, after shaping into a beautiful form resembling those on the walls of the cave, faded, leaving almost unnoticeable blue burn.
“Oh no… how do I… where… oh, god,” he looked around himself and under, but couldn’t see anything looking like the teapot or whatever might be left of it. Then he looked at his palms, still itching after the burn. “He’s never gonna believe me…”
“Hey, Vanto! What is taking you so long?” The cave’s walls brought the captain’s words to him so loud and clear; it was as if he were standing nearby.
“Coming, sir,” he replied quietly and passed back through the cave to meet his destiny, and likely reprimand.
Parck was waiting for him near the entrance, but didn’t dare to step over the cave threshold. He definitely knew more than he spoke of. Perhaps he would know about the peculiar behavior of the weird teapot. Vanto wished to hope for it. But he barely believed this could happen.
“Show me,” The Captain said strictly, pointing his blaster into the cadet’s belly. Eli swallowed nervously feeling cold running down his spine again. Now his death seemed more certain and frightening than some half an hour ago.
“Sir, I’ve… found the teapot, but it… the moment I took it it vanished and… I don’t know what happened. You know more than me, maybe you need to realize some investigation...
“I see. You’ve failed. How sad. I will inform the Emperor that… a casualty occurred.”
“What? No, sir, please!”
“Sorry, cadet. Nothing personal.”
The shot sounded loud. Eli cried in pain, pressing his wound reflexively, and the next moment he shook, feeling the weakness taking over his body. The captain kicked him in his ribs, and he rolled down the ladder, hearing the roaring stones of closing cave with his fading conscious.
When he woke up, he felt no pain. On the opposite, he felt so relaxed and full of energy that he didn’t believe at first that he was alive. His next assumption was that the weird adventure for the teapot was just a long, unpleasant dream. But it was also wrong - the glowing cave was still around him after he rubbed his eyes.
He looked down and discovered a blaster burn on his shirt. However when he touched his belly, he didn’t find any wound. He was completely fine - there wasn’t even any pain after the fall. Only his hands were itching where the intricate burns still were, and that itching was getting stronger.
“It seems that soon I’ll stop needing to wonder.” He mused as he moved his sleeve and rubbed his wrist. A cool wave of relief ran through his hands, and his burns started shining again. This time it didn’t cause any pain. The shining moved from Eli’s hands and flowed through the air in a shimmering band, looking like polar lights.
It curled under the ceiling in a few rings, then went down and shaped into humanoid figure. Soon it faded, and in front of Eli there was now a tall man in loose gowns with golden embroidery. He looked almost human, but his skin was pale blue, and his eyes were menacingly a burning red. His features looked like they were set in stone by an unknown sculptor that was trying to create a statue of a wise and just god of war. Long black hair was assembled in a thick tight braid, and on his wrists there were heavy bracelets from metal that looked similar to that of which the mysterious teapot was made.
“Wow!” Eli’s lips were curved into a nervous smile, while he himself rose on his elbows and tried to crawl away from the visitor. “Are you a Chiss?”
“For ten thousand years I haven’t met anyone who knew the proper name of my race,” the man replied and his thin lips twisted in a restrained smile. His voice was low and soft, and blew away cadet’s fear like soft warm breeze. “It looks like you are the one I’ve been waiting for. May I know your name?”
“Vanto. Eli Vanto. From… from Lysatra,” Eli replied awkwardly, proceeding to blink nervously, still not completely believing in what was happening. “And you… do you live here?”
“Eli. I love the sound of your name,” he came closer and slowly lowered on his knees, then bowed to Eli, spreading his hands in front of him so that his broad sleeves laid around him in beautiful blood red circle. “From now on I will serve your will.”
Eli rose on his feet, observing the strange man attentively. The latter remained immobile, and even his heavy braid didn’t fall to gravity. Eli didn’t find anything better than to sit in front of him and touch his hand, to confirm he was real. His palm was warm and living. Even slightly hot. Blue skin on it’s inner side was a little bit more pink, dark veins could be seen under it, so that Chiss was proven to be a creature of flesh and blood.
“I seem to… misunderstand something. Completely. I guess I’m delirious, and in real life I must be on the threshold of death.”
“I have cured your wound. Your life is safe. May I get up now?”
“Ah, yes, of course,” Eli said perplexed, realizing that he was still holding his hand. He rose again and helped the Chiss to stand up. The latter didn’t straighten himself fully, leaving his face leveled with Eli’s. His attentive burning gaze made Eli feel almost warm.
“Haven’t you ever heard stories of wishmasters in your childhood?”
“No, not really. Mostly scary tales of the Chiss that can freeze you in the forest when you get lost in winter. Or steal you at night and eat you alive. Or… even worse.”
“That’s all right. We will have eternity to fill the gaps in your education.”
Eli didn’t notice when he appeared behind him and embraced his shoulders softly.
“Now let me explain briefly,” he proceeded. “I am an omnipotent genie. I can make wishes come true. No limitations. No exceptions.”
“Does it have something to do with that teapot, right?”
“Teapot?” Chiss frowned. “That thing is called a lamp. Ancient lighting that existed before the electricity was invented. But yes. I was inside it, before you touched it.
“Now I seem to understand why the Emperor wanted it so badly,” Eli moved his eyes and bit his lip. “And why gave us so little data on this mission.”
“Good for me this time I protected it well from those unworthy,” he took Eli’s hand and touched the burn on his wrist gently with his finger tip. “And now my will is in your hands. So, Master Vanto. What do you wish?”
“Well, I… really wish I could peacefully end up my education in the Academy. I should have returned there weeks ago, but this stupid mission… Captain Parck must have mentioned that I’m gone in his report. How can I return now?”
“Very modest wish, I’d say,” the genie nodded his head aside and lowered his eyelids.
“But you can make it, if you’re the omnipotent… what did you call that?”
“And do you have a name?”
“Oh, you…” Chiss’ lips trembled for a moment, demonstrating his amazement, before him pressed them tight and moved his eyes. “I don’t think you’ll be able to say it right. But… I think you may call me Thrawn. Considering I’m your companion from now on - it is acceptable.”
“So can you make my wish come true? Bring me back to Myomar in a way so that I won’t have any problems with captain Parck or the Emperor?”
“Of course,” the genie waved his hand in the air, and Eli, after he blinked, found himself in the middle of the very familiar broad entrance hall of the Academy. His dirty civilian clothes were replaced by a clean uniform, and on his shoulder was hanging the very sack he took on board of Strikefast.
There weren’t many people in the hall. Nearly everyone was away for their duties, and among those present some were communicating with the droids near the infoconsole and some were hurrying for the lessons. Cadet Vanto appeared from nowhere, but nobody noticed him. He restrained himself not to cry in amazement and proceeded to the timetable to see the date that was two weeks ago - the very same by which he should have been back to, if the cruiser didn’t deviate from the initial route.
“It… cannot be!” he opened his sack and checked the contents - all his stuff, including the spare clothes, which he used on the recent mission, were there, clean and neatly folded. He looked around himself - his new friend couldn’t be seen anywhere. Then he looks at his wrist - the burn was still there, but wasn’t itching.”
“Eli!” a familiar voice called for him and the next second someone pulled his sleeve. Vanto turned around and saw a student from parallel group - a dark-skinned girl with curly hair that many considered his girlfriend. He was even fine with the thought of making these rumors come true, but studying took all his time and attention, not leaving any space for such thoughts.
“Olivia! Uh… hello.”
“I didn’t know you were back! I heard that other guys are stuck on Strikefast because it went krayt knows where.”
“Yeah, sort of. Fortunately I… managed to finish my duty earlier and returned in time,” he said and gave her a strained smile, while having no idea on how his words correlated with the truth.
“Don’t hang around then!” she pulled his sleeve again and made few impatient steps in the direction of one of the side corridors. “The lecture starts in a minute!”
“Yeah… sure,” he shook himself of all the remaining doubts and followed her. Finally everything went according to his life’s plan again.
Just when all today’s lessons ended, Eli rushed into his apartment. After locking himself in, he activated a pad and requested the Strikefast flight plan. It was in the same point where they were on his memory two weeks ago - following the patrol route where they encountered the pirate vessel a day after. Then he looked into his dossier - everything was written the same way he told to Olivia - mark of excellent ending of duty and serial number of the shuttle that delivered him.
It seemed that everything happened in the best possible way, but shivers went down his spine. It all was so unlikely, this could easily be a dream. He nervously rubbed his wrist and immediately moved his hand away, remembering how it ended the last time. But it was too late.
The lines of the burns on his arms started shining again, moving away from the body and forming into the genie.
“How may I serve you, Master Vanto?” he gave him a suave bow, spreading his beautiful gown all over the floor of small quarters.
“Oh, Kriff! You… you’re real!” Eli felt weakness in his legs and set on his bed. Genie didn’t answer anything, remaining in his humiliating posture. “Um… er… Thrawn, right?”
“Right,” he replied, and again it seemed to Eli that he heard a sound of bitterness in his voice.
“You… um… can get up,” he bent over him and took his hands, pulling him up. Then he rose from his bed, forcing the Chiss to rise with him. The Chiss straightened himself unsure, looking at his hands. “And… do you always have to do that ‘bowing’ thing? It makes me feel awkward.”
“I don’t need a servant. And I find slavery immoral. And besides… the Chiss in legends are always so proud and noble, and you look so beautiful, and I…”
“Beautiful?” Thrawn interrupted him. Eli looked at his amused face and only now he noticed how much cosmetics the Chiss wore. He lowered his eyes immediately when he saw him smile.
“Yeah, I… always imagined the Chiss as something mysterious and beautiful, and you… look exactly that way,” Eli spit out, feeling how blood rushed to his cheeks. Realizing that he still held the Chiss’ palms in his hands he felt even more embarrassed and hurried to let it go. He stepped backwards, forgetting that there was bed behind him. He stumbled and cried out, and would definitely fall, but Thrawn caught his shoulders firmly.
“Please, be careful, Master Vanto,” Thrawn continued to smile softly and helped him to sit down. Then, evidently avoiding the awkward silence, he pressed his palms one upon the other and looked around. “This place looks rather boring and depersonalized. Is it here you wanted to return so bad?”
“Well, I… have to finish the course. Decorations are not considered in military academy. They would distract the cadets,” Eli added and rubbed his nape. “I guess so.”
“You are very responsible young Master. Will you allow me to sit beside you?”
“Yes, of course, but… I don’t really have any wishes right now. I made sure that you are real, and I’m not dreaming. You took me out of that cave, moved in time and… now all goes according to plan.” Eli shrugged nervously, feeling, that the consideration of this events should reach him with a lot of stress sometimes. Perhaps. “What more should I wish?”
The genie raised his eyebrows in amusement and lowered on the bed near him.
“May I ask, what is this… plan of yours?”
“I am going to become an Imperial supply officer,” Eli straightened proudly. “I fit this assignment perfectly. Everything is already set. I just have to graduate.”
“A supply officer?” The Chiss’ face curved with a mixture of emotions, a blend where amused and misunderstanding dominated.
“Yeah, it is a fine and important job. Monitoring the warehouses, ordering the equipment, checking trade manifests, operating the accounts…”
“I know what this assignment includes, Master Vanto,” now Thrawn’s voice sounded disappointed. “I am just amazed that it doesn’t even come to your mind to reach for… something more. I can give you anything!”
“Right now, please, let me have some rest. This day was so intense, my head is boiling! I could barely hear what I was told at the lecture! And there is preliminary test tomorrow,” Eli interrupted, realizing that his words must have sounded rude. “And yes, thank you for taking me back in time, it would be very hard to fix if I missed it.”
“Obeying your will and receiving your approval is everything I exist for, Master Vanto. If you need me,” he touched the burn on Eli’s wrist, “you know how to summon me.”
“O-oh, wait, wait. Is it going to… be that itchy while you are… there? I’m afraid to ask where…”
“Oh, I’m afraid so. But if you feel uncomfortable - I can stay outside. I won’t occupy too much space.”
“You already did with that gown of yours!” Eli grunted. But within another blink of his eyes the genie, sitting right beside him a moment ago, disappeared and appeared again as a small clone of himself in the palm of his hand. Now he indeed took little space and weighed almost nothing. “Oh… oh wow that was… You can do even such things?”
“I took you back in time and space, edited the records and the memories of people that I have never seen before, and you are shocked more by simple correction of atomic dimensions,” Thrawn said and chuckled. His voice, despite his size, didn’t become quieter. “If you wish, I can become even smaller. Or I can become huge like a moon. Or even a sun.
“Oh, there’s no need. That will size will do fine,” Eli smiled, touching the fabric of his clothes with gentle curiosity. It became even more delicate than the most expensive silk he saw. “Now I can carry you in my pocket. I’m gonna have my pocket magic Chiss, huh,” he didn’t resist the intention to touch his face. Even his small copy had warm skin. Teasing his childish amusement, the genie grabbed his finger and jumped to sit on it. Eli laughed and rose him on the level of his eyes. “Kriff… that’s cool!”
“Looks like your life was very boring, Master Vanto, if you are so happy with such a minor miracle.”
“On the contrary. I am quite happy. And now I wish to sleep well, to have a good rest before tomorrow’s test.”
“If you say so.”