Ewok oratory, no matter its qualities, wasn’t known for its elegance, sophistication, or brevity . That’s what Ben’s mom said, anyway—she’d said those words, or something similar anyway, to his father that morning before they’d said goodbye to him and traveled across Coruscant and down into the Night City. She said it again, under her breath, as the third Ewok chief stood to speak.
Ben groaned under his breath.
“Ben,” his mother said with a warning look, as though she hadn’t just whispered something rude herself. Shifting in his seat, he scratched at the back of his head and pressed his lips together. Mom turned her attention back to the raised platform at one end of the hall where the chiefs of the tribes sat. Ben almost wished he’d spent the day with his dad instead of his mom, even though his dad had boring meetings and flimsi work all day long.
Two Ewok tribes were in the middle of a dispute which couldn’t be settled by exchanging debts or bribes, so a hearing had been called to resolve the issues before war erupted between the tribes. The hearing was held in the great hall in the Untagroot Tribe’s village, and members of all of Coruscant’s Ewok tribes were present. As a Jedi and friend of the Ewok tribes, Ben’s mom was invited to help mediate.
Ben didn’t have classes or lessons that day, and his cousins and most of his friends were off-planet. Going to an Ewok trial sounding like it might be interesting.
It was really, really boring.
He scratched the back of his head again. His mom looked over, her gaze sharp. “Did you pick up lice again?”
“No, Mom,” he said sourly. “That was Jacen.” The infestation of head lice that Jacen had brought back from Corellia—and spread to his siblings and cousin—had been disgusting. The lice massed together in little clumps on his scalp and had to be scraped out by a medical droid. This didn’t feel anything like that.
She smiled and brushed his bangs back with her hand. He tipped his chin up, pressing his head into her hand so that she would do it again. She stroked her hand back and forth a few times.
“My head just feels itchy.”
“We’ll check it out where we get to the surface.” She pulled her hand away and turned back to listen to the chief currently giving an extended monologue in sonorous Ewokese.
Not that kind of itch, he thought. Now that he was paying attention, he knew that the itch came from inside his head.
It was a strange feeling, like a scratching sound just out of hearing. He put his hands over his ears to make sure it was in his head and not coming from somewhere in the room.
“Mom, do you hear anything?”
“Objection!” a grizzled Ewok screeched, leaping to their feet, furry hand in the air.
“Hush, Ben. I have to listen to this.”
“Bounty Hunter Tuam,” the Chief said, looking annoyed. “You may speak.”
This was going to take forever.
“Mom.” She didn’t respond this time. “Mom, I’m going to go talk to Aneeka. And see what Ubati’s up to.”
“Okay.” Mom didn’t look even over. “Just get back here when the hearing is over.”
The maze of corridors that made up the Ewok village was impossible to navigate if you weren’t already familiar with the structure. Ben knew that Ubati’s home was located several corridors to the left and Aneeka was a few floors up. They weren’t high enough in the Ewok hierarchy to be part of the hearing, but as part of the Untagroot tribe, they were probably in the village somewhere. He could go see them, like he’d told his mom—but he wasn’t planning to go looking for them. Taking the corridor straight ahead, he followed it until he reached a spiral staircase and headed down.
The Ewoks had built the Untagroot Village themselves from scraps of scavenged material—metal, fiberplast and plastisteel woven and welded together. The entire structure grew out of the end of one of a stalagmite cloudcutter that hung upside down from the ceiling of the undercity, like a massive wasp’s nest on an icicle. His father called it “one of the wonders of the Night City.” His mother said it was a fire hazard.
A dozen ladders hung from the bottom of the village structure, connecting the tribe’s home to the floor of the Night City. The ladders had also been cobbled together by whatever materials the Ewoks had at hand. Whenever they came to the village, his mother always touched the bottom rung of each ladder and listened to the Force before she decided which one was safe to climb. Ben just choose the closest one and began to climb down.
An empty, vaguely circular clearing at the foot of ladders was the only open space as far as Ben could see in any direction as he descended, carved out of the jumble of dilapidated buildings that made up the fringes of the Night City. A couple of Ewok guards lurked at the perimeter of the clearing, but they were more concerned with anyone who attempted to go up the ladders into the village, rather than anyone leaving, and they didn’t try and stop him.
They would definitely tell his mother which direction he took if she came looking for him. Ben headed back the way they’d come, but as soon as the guards were out of sight, he changed course, headed away from the center of the city. The sound scratching at the back of his head was clearer outside the village; it called to him from somewhere off in the distance, beyond the glittering lights of the Night City.
It was cold outside the Ewok village. He zipped up his quilted jacket and lifted the hood to hide his red hair like Mom had taught him. Ducking his head, he stuck his hands in pockets as he walked and felt for the comlink he carried on him, running his fingers over the oblong surface. Mom would comm first if she discovered he’d left the village. The call in his head still felt a long way off, and he didn’t want her to call him back before he found it. He picked up his pace.
He followed the call to one of the passageways that tunneled through the underlevels. It was lit with a few decrepit bulbs that shoe yellowly at infrequent intervals, but it appeared to be well-traveled. As he stood at the entrance, a Talz shouldered past him and down the left turn in the passageway as he stood.
He should turn back. The lights of the city behind him, even shrouded in a permanent haze, felt more welcoming that the gloom of the tunnel before him. He rolled the com in his hand, the power switch under his thumb. The call tugged in his head. Flipping the switch off, he stepped into the tunnel and took the first turn that led deeper down, away from the city.
He lost track of how long he walked. He passed other beings now and then, but they were fewer and fewer further along the passageway he went. Whenever the corridor forked or twisted, he paused, listening for the call, and then took the route that felt right.
When he came to the end of the lit passageways, he dug around in his jacket until he found his pocket glowrod and switched it on. Figuring he might as well take a quick inventory, he found a small pocket knife, a folded toolset, and an energy bar, as well as the silenced comlink. He ate the energy bar as he walked.
The call led him to a massive pipe with a hole cracked in its side wide enough for a Wookiee to walk through. Lots of passageways in the undercity had once been part of a waterworks system that once had been used to pump massive amounts of water from the planet’s poles into the city. The ones closer to the city were lit, but this one wasn’t, though it was clearly being used as a passageway, if not as well-traveled as the main corridor. The pipe was dry, inside walls caked with decades of dust. After a moment’s hesitation, Ben stepped into the pipe and continued forward.
Sometimes something skittered at the edges of the pool of light cast by his glowrod, disappearing into the dark before he could spot them. He heard strange noises, too, an odd, irregular tapping in the distance, the sound of water gushing out of a pipe, scratching and pattering down side corridors where the pipe branched off. At one point a lizard as long as his arm darted directly in front of him. It paused for a moment and turned large eyes, sightless and cloudy, in his direction. Dotted lines of fuschia bioluminescence lit up its cheeks before it disappeared again, pink streaking across the dark.
Further on he came upon a mass of granite slugs, writhing together in a repulsive, gooey clump. Ben skirted the slugs warily but whatever they were doing—mating or fighting or whatever—they didn’t notice him.
He knew that there were worse things beneath the night city—he’d heard stories of dianogas the size of the Falcon and feral rancors that had escaped from zoos and lurked in tunnels beneath the city. Stories of people who got lost in the dark, and after years without the sun and fresh air, or by stumbling onto some long-buried Sith artifact—depending on the story and who was telling it—transformed into something bizarre and monstrous. He hoped that he didn’t run into anything like that.
The call felt louder now, more insistent.
The pipe ended abruptly, the end gaping in a yawning “O.” Beyond the pipe, the subterranean ceiling lifted far above his head, like a massive cavern lined with the ruins of long-abandoned buildings. In the gloom he could see the structure of an apartment building that looked as though the outer wall had been sheared clean away, the grid-like skeleton of empty, exposed apartments reaching up into the dark. Bioluminescent fungus grew out of the rubble like undersea coral, some standing as tall as his waist. They dotted the cavern with eerie patches of light that lit his path as he picked his way carefully through the crumbling cavern beneath the city.
A large blackened mass of twisted and charred metal sat in the center of the cavern beneath the rotting structures. As Ben stepped closer, he realized that it had once been a ship—a Skipray blastboat, probably, judging by the shape of the half-buried nose and the bent fin that rose over the rear of the wreck. There were faint traces of camo paint under the blackened streaks that covered the ship’s exterior, like a smuggler’s ship.
It looked as though it had crashed down into the planet—through layers and layers of Coruscant steel, through the ceiling of the underworld, until it came to its final resting place. The city had already sealed over the hole the ship had punched in its skin, leaving the wreck entombed in its depths.
Coruscant’s skies were protected by a force field that shielded the entire planet, but Ben had been taught that a few ships had crashed into the city during the Liberation of Coruscant, when the new Republic had taken down the shields to recapture the planet from the Empire.
His dad had fought in that battle, but that had been a long time ago. He hoped everyone on the ship had survived.
The light of his glowrod played along the body of the wreck until he found the vessel’s name engraved on its side. Mem—yirt—nern— the rest of the word was scorched away.
Something hit his shoulder, a sharp sting that made him shout in surprise.
“Scavenger!” A voice shouted. “This is my find! I call scavenger’s rights!”
The voice sounded kind of familiar, and Ben turned to see an Ewok standing on a heap of metal scraps nearby. The Ewok flung another projectile at him and hit his side.
“Ow! Hey! I’m not scavenging!’
He ducked a third object hurled in his direction.
“Take off, you scum-eating Huttkriffer!” the Ewok shouted in accented Basic.
Wait—he did know that voice! “Ralrk?”
The Ewok paused, half bent over to find another bit of rubbish to throw at Ben.
Straightening, Ralrk squinted past the light of Ben’s glow rod.
“Hah!” He shouted, sliding down the heap of debris. “The Skywalker boy!” He thumped Ben on the back and Ben laughed.
Ralrk had a large pack strapped to his back, with odds and ends poking out of the sides and top, everything tied down so that nothing would rattle. It worked; Ben hadn’t heard him sneak up behind him.
“Where is your mother? She’s not here, is she?” Ralrk looked around as though Mom was hiding nearby.
“She’s up at the Untagroot village. We came to the Night City for a—” What was the word for a hearing? “Etekah in the great hall—”
“An Etekah? Did that slimesucker Shati break the azat the Black Moon Gang placed against him?”
“No, I don’t think so. I think it had something to do with the Seer for the cloudcutter villages—”
Ralrk sucked air between his teeth, shaking his head. “Bad business, getting a Seer involved in an Etekah.”
“The leader of one of the other tribes offended him. Or maybe the head of the Empire Killers?”
Ralrk snorted. “Of course. Slimesucker.”
“There was a lot of other stuff too, about village rights. I don’t know, I wasn’t really paying attention.” Now he wished he had.
“Sounds like an Etekah,” Ralrk said, something wistful in his voice. Then he said, firmly, “There are no Etekahs down here, and no slimesucker chiefs either!”
It occurred to Ben that he hadn’t seen Ralrk in a while, and he hadn’t been at any of the Ewok cloudcutter villages the last time Ben had visited. “Are you living down here?” he asked.
Ralrk shrugged, rubbed at his nose, and looked away. The massive pack on his back looked as though it could hold all of his belongings in a big lumpy bundle, and the battered leather pilot’s helmet that he wore instead of the traditional hood looked even more ragged than Ben remembered. His fur was dark and matted in places.
“I lost all my debts and bargains, annoyed the chiefs. I was asked to leave the villages.” He waved a hand. “Dotika.”
Politics. It was the same word his mother used to describe the hearing he’d escaped, though she also translated it was “petty Ewok backbiting” when she talked to his dad.
“Does Mom know?”
Ralrk shrugged. After an awkward pause, he looked sharply up at Ben. “How did you get down here?”
Explaining why he’d come down below the Night City by himself—and convincing Ralrk not to send him back—was going to be tricky. “You know how my dad and mom use the Force to help people out?”
“It’s like that. There’s something—someone—calling out in the Force down here. I can hear it in my head, I need to find out what it is, and if I can help.”
“Ah! A mission from the Force,” Ralrk said with great satisfaction. “Which direction do we go?”
“Oh,” Ben said. He hadn’t expected Ralrk to believe him at all, let alone offer come along. “Um. I think it’s that way.”
“Should we wait for your mother?” Ralrk didn’t quite meet his eye when he asked the question.
“We don’t have to wait for her.”
Ralrk didn’t ask if she knew where he was, so that it was only a lie of omission.
“Let’s go.” Ralrk slapped his back again. “This wreck is tapped out, anyway. Too old.” He unhooked a lantern from his pack and turned it on, casting a pool of light in front of him.
Ralrk seemed to know where he was going, following an invisible path that wound through the debris. They passed a smaller wreck, of what might have been a shuttle once, but was so shattered it was hard to tell. Behind a chartreuse fungus that was nearly as tall as he was, there was a dark hole in the side of a building, with rubble scraped away on either side.
“This is a scavenger tunnel,” Ralrk explained, gesturing as they passed through the entrance. “They run all through the undercity. They’re safer than the other tunnels.”
The tunnels looked like they’d been carved out of compacted rubble. They widened and twisted, dropped down steep inclines and branched into multiple directions. The tunnel worked its way around the ruins of old buildings, and sometimes an incongruous door or an entire room jutted into the passageway. Ben wasn’t sure that he would have been able to find the scavenger tunnel, but the call in his head indicated that they’d picked the right direction.
The bioluminescent fungus he’d seen in the cavern had been seeded deliberately to highlight sharp turns of forks in the tunnels, and signals and signs that Ben didn’t recognize were painted on the walls at irregular intervals in bright, reflective colors that jumped out in the gloom.
Ralrk pointed to one of the symbols. “Watch out for borcatu!” he translated cheerfully.
“Nasty trash eaters. They’ll rip you to shreds.”
They didn’t run into any borcatu. Ralrk had a compass—an old one, the numbers dim on the circular readout—and he checked their progress as they moved through the tunnels, though he let Ben lead the way.
The call tugged impatiently in his head. It almost sounded like the whine of someone in pain.
“Down that way,” Ben said as they came to another branching junction in the tunnel system. For the first time, Ralrk hesitated, hissing between his teeth.
Ralrk hesitated. “There might be seduk’uk down that way.” He pointed to a series of symbols painted on the wall.
“What are seduk’uk?”
“Not chenuk?” Chenuk was the Ewok word for monsters that Ben had been taught. He liked chenuk stories, but he’d never heard of seduk’uk.
“Not chenuk. Seduk’uk. Bad things that shouldn’t be. A chenuk is just a monster that wants to eat Ewoks because that is what it was born to do. Seduk’uk come from the darkness between worlds. They don’t belong here. Bad magic.”
“Oh,” Ben said. “Those are just stories, though.”
“Jedi are just stories to some people. Young Ewoks,” he continued, his voice thick with scorn, “believe that the Black Moon never fell out of the sky, and that the Golden God who saved the Ewok people is just another myth.”
He lives with my Aunt, Ben didn’t say. That was something he wasn’t supposed to talk about with their Ewok friends.
“The Force says that we need to go that way,” Ben insisted.
Ralrk sighed, muttered something under his breath that Ben didn’t understand, and followed him down the tunnel marked with the seduk’uk sign. There were fewer fungi to light the way, and no painted signs at all, though the tunnels continued on as though they ran the length of the city.
The call led them to a bend in the tunnel, where a narrow passage branched off the main passageway and opened up at the base of a building. The walls of the building looked substantial, as though it hadn’t deteriorated as much as the rest of the city at this level. Ben noticed grooves in the wall that indicated that there had once been a door in the wall, but it had long ago been carried off by scavengers. Beyond the rectangular gap where a door had been, a staircase spiraled up into the dark.
“We go up?” Ralrk asked.
The beam of Ben’s glow rod disappeared into the dark height of the stairwell. “Yeah.”
The first door they came to along the staircase didn’t feel right, and the second door didn’t open at all. Several turns up the staircase, a short hallway led off of a landing, with a door at the end of the hall. The stairwell continued to climb, but Ben was certain that this was their destination.
“What is this place?” he wondered as he shone his glowrod over an Imperial seal that had been etched into the center of the door. Ben had never seen one outside of museums and holos. “An Imperial bunker? What’s it doing down here?”
There was a gleam in Ralrk’s eye. “A secret Imperial bunker? An abandoned secret Imperial bunker? If the Imperials hid something down here, then it must be valuable, yes?”
“I dunno,” Ben said. “It’s kind of weird, isn’t it? Why would the Imperials have a bunker all the way down here?”
Ralrk shrugged, dropping his pack against the wall so that he could climb on top of it to reach the control panel beside the door. He pulled out a small, rusty knife and began to pry at the corner of the panel until the knife snapped.
“Huttkriffer,” Ralrk hissed under his breath.
“I’ve got a knife you can use,” Ben said.
As he pulled the knife out of his pants pocket, he remembered the comlink tucked in his jacket. After handing Ralrk the knife, he took out the comlink and turned it over in his hands. He should call Mom and check-in— especially before they broke into an Imperial bunker, or whatever it was.
Ralrk clicked his tongue in triumph and the door reluctantly began to slide open with a painful grinding sound. He sprung down from the pack and peered in.
“Should we check in with my mom before we go in?” Ben asked.
Ralrk looked over his shoulder and grunted, his eyes sliding away, drawn back to the open door.
“I’m going to call Mom.”
A second after he’d powered on the device it connected with a beep and his mother’s voice, distant and distorted, snapped through the connection.
“Ben Skywalker. Where in—where are you?!”
“Um.” Ben winced. “I dunno.”
“You don’t know.” Mom could make her voice go cold as a tundra, even over a com line.
“Yeah—I dunno. I heard this call in my head through the Force so I followed it down through the tunnels under the Night City—” The story tumbled out. Ben didn’t know how to stop, or what to say to cool his mother’s temper. “It’s okay. No one bothered me and we didn’t run into any monsters or anything. Ralrk’s here too.”
There was a moment of silence on the other end. Ralrk swiveled around, his eyes narrow.
“Let me speak to Ralrk,” Mom said.
“If you were a wokling,” Ralrk said quietly to Ben, “I would lift you up upside down and drop you on your head.”
Ben was glad he wasn’t a wokling, but he didn’t think it would matter if his mom was as mad as she sounded.
“Everything’s fine!” Ralrk grabbed the comlink. “Your boy is safe and healthy, I swear on the Golden God! And he’ll stay that way! When have I ever let you down?”
Mom didn’t say anything, that way she did when she wanted to make you realize you’d said something really stupid before she took you to task.
“We traveled through the scavengers tunnels!” Ralrk babbled into the silence. “Very safe! On my honor as an Ewok!”
“Is this a scheme?” Mom said. “Force help me, if this is one of your schemes—”
“It was my idea, Mom!” Ben said.
There was another pause. Ben wished he could sink even deeper below the city.
“Ralrk, where are your coordinates?” Mom snapped.
Ralrk pulled out his compass and read off the numbers, followed by directions that Ben couldn’t really follow, even though he’d just traveled along the same route. Eventually he realized, after a series of directions that he didn’t remotely recognize, that it wasn’t the same route. There were many ways through the undercity.
When Ralrk finished, he passed the comlink back to Ben.
“Ben, I’m coming to get you. I’m already on my way.”
She cut the comm Ben and leaned back against the wall to wait. Ralrk glared at him and then stalked over to his pack and busied himself by digging around, pointedly not speaking to Ben. After a few minutes, he got up again, glanced at Ben, and then disappeared through the doorway. A stuttering electrical buzz heralded the flare of lights in the ceiling, illuminating the room beyond the door.
Ben slid down the wall, his hands on his bent knees. From where he sat, he couldn’t see much in the room, just the occasional glimpse of Ralrk moving around.He wanted to see what as in the bunker as much as Ralrk did, and Mom hadn’t said anything about not looking around while they waited for her to show up. He still hadn’t found the source of the call, which echoed pitifully in his head. Maybe someone had gotten trapped in the bunker. He couldn’t turn his back on someone who needed help, and Mom would be there soon anyway.
He sat until he couldn’t stand it anymore, and then went over to the door.
Inside the room the lights were dim, as though the generator that powered them barely had enough strength to keep them on. A desk had been shoved against a wall, and a few data cards were scattered across the floor. It wasn’t a very big room, with a single door at the far end.
Ralrk had emptied all the drawers and lined the contents up on top of the desk. A few more ancient-looking datacards, a few styluses, other odds and ends. He’d left the desk to search a long cabinet built into the wall.
“Weapons locker,” Ralrk said, pointing to the rack on the inside. It was empty as well. “Nothing of use,” Ralrk sniffed. He swept the contents into his pack, which he left right inside the door before he surveyed the room again, hands on his hips.
“An abandoned secret Imperial bunker,” he declared, as though finding it was a great triumph.
“I guess so,” Ben said. If the Imperials were long gone, then it probably wasn’t dangerous to just look around, though something about the place made him uneasy. He scratched at the back of his head.
Having finished his inspection of the room, Ralrk went to the door on the far side and reached up to press the release. It took a moment for the antiquated electronics to respond before the door slid open. Ralrk hovered in the doorway a moment, looking pointedly over his shoulder until Ben joined him. On the other side of the door an empty hallway curved away to the right, the grey walls cold and blank. It was quiet, except for the faint buzz of power surging through long-neglected circuits and the hissing sound of an air circulation system.
The first door they came to along the curving hallway slid open with a painful scraping sound. It only opened a few handspans before it jammed. Through the gap they could see a long storeroom, with rows of dusty shelving stretching in each direction. A few solitary crates had been left behind, still sealed shut.
“Ah!” Ralrk cried. “This is a good find!”
“But you don’t know what’s in the boxes,” Ben said.
“There’s a market for everything, especially in the Night City, and Imperial goods are harder to get these days. A good find,” he repeated.
“But what if whatever’s in the boxes had gone bad?”
“Then we sell the boxes! Let’s see if we can find more.”
The storage room was large enough that the next door they came too opened onto the other end of the rows of shelving. The corridor continued to curve, the hallway disappearing around the bend.
Whoever had abandoned the bunker had left scraps of rubbish littered here and there on the floor. Ralrk kicked at a long silver cylinder down the hall, where it rolled until it hit another, slightly larger silver cylinder with a snarl of wires sticking out of each end. A trail of wires and bolts left a trail to another piece of the machine, large and rounded. It took Ben’s moment to realize what he was looking at—the torso of a protocol droid, its limbs scattered down the hall.
“Who would have done such a thing?” he asked. It seemed wrong to touch the remains of the droid; wrong to leave it like a desecrated corpse.
Ralrk didn’t have any such compulsion. He poked his hand into the silver shell and dig around. “Not scavengers,” he said. “It still has good parts inside.”
Ralrk nodded philosophically. “Who can say with those slimesuckers?”
The next door was a few paces from the body of the droid. It opened onto as an office, and so did the one after that; small rooms littered with old data cards and bits of debris that Ralrk ignored. He deemed some of the old comm stations and monitors worth scavenging—later, when he had the time and means to drag them out of the bunker. The Empire wasn’t coming back to Coruscant and Ben knew that they were the enemy anyway, but he felt a little uncomfortable with Ralrk’s glee at stripping the rooms. He wondered what his Mom and Dad would think.
Past the block of offices, the rooms got...strange. The walls of the first room were covered in small cages, with two long metal tables in the center. The cages were empty. Ben stuck a finger through the mesh and wiggled it—what had they put in these cages? What were they doing in an Imperial bunker? Ralrk tapped at the metal tables and muttered to himself, but moved on when he didn’t find anything else he deemed worth salvaging.
They found the same metal tables the next few room, but instead of cages, cabinets, and banks of machines and equipment whose purpose he couldn’t guess lined up against the walls. The next room was connected to the first through a door in a corner, and looked pretty much the same as the first. They uncovered odd tools that had been left behind—scales and scalpels and lots of empty glass jars.
Some of the machines looked like they belonged in a medical facility. “I think this was a lab,” Ben said as he rubbed dust off a glass monitor. “You know, with scientists and experiments.”
Ralrk hummed. “There are stories of Imperial scientists who made dark machines for the Empire. But the stories say they all died on the Black Moon.”
“That’s what I thought, too. Maybe they did. This stuff is really old.”
One of the doors in the lab had a window, and when he pressed his face against the transparasteel, he could barely make out a large room with high ceilings, filled with thick pillars. A room at the center of the bunker, with all of the labs and storage rooms wrapping around it. The door wouldn’t open, but there had to be an entrance somewhere. He leaned back until he could see his reflection—doubled and distorted, as though he’d grown a second pair of eyes and his mouth had stretched wide across his face.
At the end of the interconnected laboratory rooms, they found a door that led back out to the curved hallway. The entrance to the pillared room was around the next curve in the hall. Double doors stood open to a dark, cavernous space beyond the threshold.
“It smells funny in there,” Ben said.
A sweet-sharp smell like a med center, the mix of chemicals and bacta that caused unpleasant memories to swirl up in his head. A few years ago Mom had been badly hurt in an explosion and sweet, sticky scent brought back the days he and Dad had spent in a med center waiting for her to come out of the Force trance and bacta tanks.
There was something else as well, a rancid smell that he couldn’t identify, that made him want to leave the area as soon as possible.
Ralrk hissed and then backed away from the door. “Could be toxic. We need protection,” he said and dashed back down the hall.
Ben followed him back to the room by the staircase, where they’d entered the bunker. Ralrk’s pack was still sitting by the door. He opened a flap and dug around until he pulled out a small face mask and strapped it on, and then rooted around in the pack again until he came up with a second mask and handed it to Ben.
“I was going to sell it.” It was a human-sized helmet, the surface battered and dirty. Ben wiped it with his sleeve. “It will fit, yes?”
It did. As the helmet sealed over his mouth, the sound of his breath hissing through the respirator echoed through his head, a harsh— hhrrrhh-shhh sound that struck a jolt of fear down his spine. That sound. That sound was fear and rage and the cold of the dark side. He’d heard that sound in his nightmares.
Darth Vader. Grandfather.
It’s just air through the respirator, that’s all. That’s all.
His mother wouldn’t be scared of a sound.
“Are you ready?” Ralrk said.
“Yeah.” The frosted faceplate in the front of the mask stretched around the front of the helmet, and only the edges of his peripheral vision were blocked. It was fine. It didn’t bother him at all.
They returned to the entrance of the big central room. Only a few light sources still functioned, scattered throughout the massive space, casting light that pooled between the pillars and made the dark corners seem even deeper in contrast. The pillars he’d seen through the window were bacta tanks, rows and rows of bacta tanks, massive glass cylinders that stretched to the ceiling and as far as he could see in the gloom.
They weren’t ordinary bacta tanks. They varied in size, the largest bigger than any bacta tank that Ben had ever seen.
“You could fit a rancor in there,” Ben said.
“Ah! That’s what they’re for! Tanks for animals.”
“I guess so,” Ben said. He’d never heard of bacta tanks for animals, but they had to exist in zoos and wildlife shelters, and it made sense. “Why are they down here?”
Ralrk didn’t have an answer.
Many of the tanks were still filled with old bacta, cloudy with age. A few stood empty, and a couple were half-filled, as though the bacta had leaked away with time. Nothing stirred in the tanks. The chamber was quiet as a crypt, and under the steady hiss of their respirators, the only sound was their footsteps echoing against the tanks. The room seemed to stretch on and on, the silence pressing down on them.
Ralrk drifted to the right, away from the center of the bata chamber. “Over here,” he called, pointing toward the wall on the other side of the tanks.
Rough holes had been torn in the wall as though someone had taken a sledgehammer to it, leaving a shockwave of debris across the floor. One of the holes was large enough to drive a swoop through and on the other side of the gaps they could see more laboratories. The tanks nearest the hole had been cracked, and one was completely shattered, so that all that remained was a sharp ring of glass around the base.
His voice muffled by the mask, Ralrk exclaimed over the possibility of new things to scavenge as he scrambled through the largest opening.
Ben looked back toward the center of the chamber, obscured by the rows of tanks. It felt like something was watching them, a sort of slithering feeling at the back of his head. He didn’t like it.
A Jedi didn’t ignore that kind of feeling, but there was no sign of anyone else in the room, or any sign that anyone had been down in this bunker for years. Maybe there were still security cameras active, triggering his awareness, though Ben hadn’t seen any, and there was no one was left to check them.
“Ralrk?” His voice sounded strange and hollow through the filter of the mask. The Ewok had already disappeared behind the wall, and there was nothing he could do but follow.
Whoever had torn into the walls had left a path of destruction through the interconnected laboratories on this side of the ring that circled the central chamber. Turning on the lights, when they found the switches, didn’t help.
A large piece of equipment had been torn out of the wall, wire gaping out of the wide hole, the machine a crumpled mess in the middle of the lab. Ben and Ralrk edged carefully around it. Long workbenches had been toppled and various instruments lay strewn around. The doors that connected the labs had been torn off their tracks.
“What happened here? Did the Imperials do this before they left?” Ben asked, though he couldn’t imagine why. He nudged a pile of rusted instruments with his foot. They were long and thin metal rods, with pointed or curved ends like a med droid’s tools.
Ralrk shrugged, ducking into the next lab. Ben followed. None of the lights in this laboratory were still working, and Ben lost sight of Ralrk in the dark, though he could hear him picking his way through the rubble. Something crunched under Ben’s feet like glass and sparkled in the light of his glow rod. He crouched down and reached for the shards as though someone else was directing his body, and he felt a strange dissonant note echo through his head. Not glass—crystal.
The gasp hissed strangely out of his helmet and he heard Ralrk move closer. “These are kyber crystals,” he said.
Kyber crystals, dashed into tiny fragments, covered the floor of the laboratory. They didn’t resonate through the Force the way a lightsaber crystal did, but he could still hear a subtle, warped hum in his head as his fingers brushed over them.
Someone had been experimenting with kyber crystals, in a laboratory—an Imperial laboratory—buried so deep beneath Coruscant that no one had found it in decades. Cold dread slid over his shoulders and down his back.
“I don’t think we should be here anymore,” he said slowly.
He didn’t realize that the call had stopped until it sung out in his head again, like a voice in his ear. The hair on the back of his neck stood up.
Something was very wrong.
He fumbled for his comlink, but it didn’t even connect when he keyed in his mother’s number. There must be some sort of shielding or a scrambler in the bunker; the comlink had worked in the stairwell. He couldn’t wait until they got out again—everything about this was wrong, wrong —and he had another way he could reach her. Closing his eyes, he pushed everything out of his head—the call, the fear creeping up his spine—and reached out.
She replied instantly, as though there was no distance between them at all. Ben?
Mom, I think we’re in trouble. Ben wasn’t skilled enough in telepathy to explain everything. This place feels wrong. I think we’re in danger.
He caught a quick flash of her racing through the tunnels below and felt better immediately, though it didn’t ease the sense that danger was lurking nearby, waiting, watching.
Hang on, Ben, I’m coming.
He thought about reaching out to Dad, but he didn’t want to worry him. Mom was coming. She’d be there soon.
He opened his eyes to see Ralrk crouched beside him, his head tilted to the side as he watched Ben’s face.
“We need to get out of here.”
“There’s a set of Hartek power chargers over there.”
“Imperial made,” Ralrk said slowly, as if that would make it clearer. “In good condition.” He stood and walked away.
“Ralrk!” Ben jumped up and chased after him. “I think we should get out of here. It’s not safe.”
Ralrk grunted but didn’t look up from the piece of equipment he was trying to dig out of a heap of junk.
Ben couldn’t stand to be in there any longer. There was something about the chamber of bacta tanks that made him uneasy, so he searched through the labs until found a door that opened onto the long circular hallway. This end of the hallway looked the same as the other end; a long grey passageway that curved out of sight on either end.
The call tugged at his ear, insistent. It was close. So close—down the hall in the opposite direction from the undamaged labs and their exit.
If he just—took a look. He could take a quick look and make sure it wasn’t someone he could help before his mother arrived. He turned down the hall and had barely made it around the curve when he stopped short and stared at the—the creature—that crouched in the hall, its bulk filling the corridor and blocking his path.
Ruddy, sandstone skin stretched over sinewy arms that knuckled the floor, sharp elbows punctuated by nasty-looking spikes, and claws caked with grime at the end of its wide, four-fingered hands. It stood on two legs, hunched over like a rancor, a massive horned crest rising above its head. The horns on its head and the curved tusks that framed its mouth were a dark grey. It worked its jaws as it looked at Ben, revealing a row of jagged teeth. Ben froze, dread locking him into place.
A large kyber crystal had been implanted in the creature’s left eye socket, casting a sinister blue glow over the right side of its face. The single remaining eye glittered maliciously out at him. He thought he saw the kyber pulse once, a flicker of pure light.
The call in his head went dead.
As Ben stared at the creature, it made a choking sound deep in its throat. Was it hurt? The call had sounded like a creature calling out in pain.
A warning surged through the Force, and Ben instinctively threw up his left arm to protect his face—forgetting the helmet he still wore—as the creature opened its mouth and spat. Yellowish spittle flew toward Ben, smearing across the front of his helmet. Pain shot through him where it splashed around his hand, venom eating into his skin. Ben screamed.
The creature screamed too, the cry of a predator. Somehow he forced his legs to move, stumbling backward, turning and bolting back toward the lab. Flinging himself through the door, he scrambled over an upturned lab bench, staggering as his feet hit the other side.
He could hear the kyber monster barreling down the hall behind him, and he hoped—prayed the Force—it wouldn’t be able to fit through the door of the lab. His head whipped around as he heard the kyber monster scrape through the entrance behind him. One of the horns on its head tore a chunk out of the doorframe, but it only blinked its single eye as bits of plaster rained down on its head.
As he spun back around, Ben tripped on a wire and went sprawling. White-hot pain shot up his arm as his venom-splatted hand smacked against the floor, and he sucked back a sob. Behind him, the kyber monster shoved the bench to the side. Putting his weight on his uninjured hand, Ben pushed himself to his feet and staggered into the door that led to the next lab.
There was a clear path through the rubble to the door that led to the consecutive lab after that, and Ben took it to the room that had the largest hole gaping into the hall of bacta tanks. He made it through the door and wedged himself behind a bank of machines that leaned up against a wall, in the hope that the creature would assume that he’d escaped through the gap, and hunt him there.
He hunched down against the wall and tried not to breathe. His heart was pounding so hard he felt sure the monster could hear it.
While running through the rooms, he’d pressed the venom-splattered hand up to his middle, against his jacket, and when he peeled it away, the front of his jacket was soaked in blood. The pain made his head swim.
He reached out through the Force, flinching back away from his mother the minute he made contact. Mom was scared, really scared. He’d never felt her that scared before. Never.
His hand hurt so much.
Another screech echoed through the quiet of the lab as the kyber monster made its way toward the room where he was hidden. He could hear debris crunching under its feet, and the kyber monster’s wet, raspy breath as it moved closer and closer.
Go away go away go away, he thought.
A cry escaped him as the entire bank of machines was wrenched away, metal screeching as it was dragged across the floor and flung into a corner. The kyber monster loomed above him, blocking out the remaining ceiling light flickering above them. All Ben could see was the blue crystal shining down on him.
“Hey, slimesucker!” A datacard hit the creature’s horns and bounced away. “Eat this, seduk’uk!” Ralrk waved through a hole in the wall and shouted until the creature turned his way. “Catch me, slimesucker!” After tossing another piece of rubble at the kyber monster’s head, Ralrk backed away, waving his arms.
The creature hesitated, head still turned toward Ralrk, as though it was having trouble deciding which prey to pursue. It took a step sideways, toward the bacta chamber, and then its head swung back in Ben’s direction. He curled into a ball as the creature spat on him again, and yellow venom struck his jacket and helmet. Seemingly satisfied that the venom would prevent him from escaping, the kyber monster lumbered after Ralrk.
Ben allowed himself a few gulping sobs before he uncurled and slumped against the wall. He glanced at his hand and caught a glimpse of white bone through the pulpy mess of blood and tissue that had been his fingers. His head swam, his vision fading out for a moment before he swallowed and pulled back into consciousness.
He was going to bleed out or pass out and never wake up, even if the kyber monster didn’t kill him first.
I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.
It felt like something reached out for him, like a hand, cool against his forehead when he had a fever. Ben reached back.
You’re all alone.
His thoughts echoed strangely through his head. The touch was cold, but it soothed the pain enough for him to press his hand back against his side and pull himself to his feet.
You have to kill the monster. You have to use the Force to kill it—
BEN. He jumped a little as his dad’s voice rang through his head. BEN, DON’T LISTEN TO THAT VOICE. LISTEN TO ME—
Don’t listen to him. He’s too far away to help you and your mother will never reach you in time. If you don’t kill the monster you’ll die. You’ll die.
It was easy to block out his dad’s voice. He was so far away. The cold was seeping in through his jacket, setting into his bones. Was it shock? He didn’t know. His hand throbbed.
He nearly passed out again as he climbed through the hole in the wall, managing to keep himself from collapsing by gripping the broken edges of the hole with his good hand until it bit into his skin.
Ralrk weaved through the rows of great glass pillars, darting in and out of the light as the kyber monster pursued him. It seemed unhurried, as though it knew that it had them trapped, lumbering from one end of the room to the other.
As he made a wide circle around one of the largest tanks, Ralrk tripped on a power cord and went down with a yelp. The creature lurched forward in a sudden burst of speed and snatched hold of Ralrk with one of its long talons. Ralrk screamed as the talon tore at his side and the creature flung him across the room. He landed behind one of the broken bacta tanks.
“No!” Ben shouted. The monster straightened and turned its spiked head in his direction.
Good. Ice shot down his spine. Kill it. Visualize the monster’s throat, and just—press—down.
The icy blue crystal glittered as the creature began to stalk toward him. He just wanted it to stop.
You don’t want to die, do you? You can stop it. Kill it.
He could do it.
But—it was just a wild creature, in pain. It couldn’t help what had been done to it.
Dad? Mom? I don’t know what to do. I’m scared.
Ben, don’t give up. His father’s voice was like a lifeline and Ben clung fast. Don’t listen to the dark.
Now he could tell the difference between the light and the dark, and it was easy to turn away from that other voice and let the light come pouring into his head, suffusing him with warmth. It felt like mom and dad, like the echo of them coursing through the Force.
We’re here with you, Ben. We’re here with you.
He let it all pour out of him, rushing toward the mutilated kyber monster.
The large bacta tank nearest the creature shattered, an explosion of glass and bacta slamming into its side. It screeched as it lost its footing; continued to scream as it flailed in the slick pool at the base of the tank.
One after another, the tanks burst, row after row, caught up a storm of power swirling through the room. He could feel pain biting along his side as tiny shards of glass tore through his clothing, and then the wave of bacta hit him and dragged him under.
He was warm. Dry. A light weight covered his body, and it took a moment for him to decide that it was a blanket. He inhaled the cloying, nauseating stink of bacta mingled with a sharp chemical scent—a combination he knew well.
A figure beside his bed swam into focus as he blinked open his eyes. “Mom?”
“Ben.” She stroked his cheek, and when she leaned down to kiss his forehead, her unmistakable scent—the smell of home —blocked out the reek of bacta for a moment. She wrapped her hand around his, her grip almost too tight, but he didn’t want her to let go.
When tried to sit up, Mom pushed him back and pressed a button so that the head of the bed lifted smoothly until he was propped up.
“He just stepped out. He’ll be back in a minute.”
“Mom—there was a kyber monster—”
“Shhh.” Her hand squeezed his, and she brushed her fingers through his hair. “I know. Ralrk told us everything.”
His left leg ached, and he realized that he couldn’t really feel his left arm. It was covered in bandages, and when he tried to move it, it felt heavy and numb.
Mom followed his gaze. “The doctors had to remove two of your fingers,” she said, “There was too much damage from the venom. They’ll measure your hand for prosthetics later.”
“A prosthetic? Like Dad?”
“Yes, like your father.” Something was off about the way she says that.
She was shielded so tight he couldn’t tell what she was feeling at all. He tapped at her shields through the Force. Mom? Mom? She shook her head at him, her mouth in a tight line.
She must be really mad about his hand.
“Mom it’s okay,” he said, but even with her shields up he could tell that just made it worse. He backed off, stretching out so that he could find his dad.
Dad? As soon as he touched his father’s presence he was enveloped in a rush of warmth and affection. A few moments later, his dad was in the doorway, smiling, Ralrk at his side.
“Wokling!” Ralrk limped across the room and hopped up on a stool on the other side of the bed so that he could pat Ben’s shoulder. His right arm was in a sling. “Welcome back!”
Mom stood so that Dad could take the chair by the side of his bed. “Welcome back, Ben.” He kissed Ben’s forehead.
“Hi, Dad.” His eyes stung.
“How are you feeling?”
“You look good,” Ralrk said. “In fine health.”
“Are you okay?” Ben asked him.
“Yes! I smell like the gut lining of a Boti snake, but they say I can clean up before I go!’
Ralrk leaned in close and whispered so that Mom and Dad couldn’t hear: “I was worried about you, wokling. We were all worried about you.” He straightened up and continued in his usual cheerful manner, “Your mother killed the seduk’uk! She cut it to pieces with her lightsaber!”
“It was a Terentatek,” Mom said, leaning against the side of Dad’s chair. His Dad reached back and laid his hand over hers where it wrapped around the back of the chair.
The door slid open again and an Ithorian in a medic’s robes bustled in. “Gentlebeing! Gentlesir! You should not be here! You haven’t been cleared to leave your bed!”
Ralrk huffed. “Can I bribe them?” he asked in a loud whisper.
Mom’s mouth flattened into a line.
“Good sir—” the Ithorian said. “We do not accept bribes. Please come with me now.”
Ralrk looked at Dad, who gave him a slight shake of his head. With a sigh so dramatic his entire body slumped, Ralrk allowed himself to be led from the room.
“When is lunch served again?” Ben heard him ask the medic before the door slid shut. “How secure are the restraining bolts on the serving droids?”
Lunch. Even though he stomach was empty, Ben couldn’t imagine eating. It felt like too much effort and there was a strange taste on his tongue.
He smacked his lips. “Did I have to go in a bacta tank?”
“Yes,” Dad said. “Your mom put you in a healing trance—Ralrk too—and the doctors put you in a bacta tank when you reached the med center. After they—” Dad stopped and took a deep breath. “After they worked on your hand.”
“I’m sorry—I’m sorry about my hand, Dad.”
“Oh, Ben, no.”
“It’s my fault. I wanted to go down there—I thought someone was in trouble. I was just trying to help.” Ben could feel panic begin to bubble up, stopping up his throat.
The terentatek might be dead, but the laboratory was all still down there, under the medical center, under the cloudcutters, under his home. What else had crawled out of those bacta tanks?
Dark things. Seduk’uk. He wanted to ask his dad to go down there with his lightsaber and kill all of the monsters that lurked in the undercity, but it felt childish to even say it.
“It’s not your fault that you got hurt. You were attacked.” His dad squeezed his hand and Ben looked up into his eyes. The warmth flowed over him again. “You’re safe. Your mom and I are here.”
Mom stood up and walked out of the room.
“Mom?” Ben pushed himself up, trying to see out the door before it slid shut behind her.
“It’s okay, Ben.” His father eased him back onto the bed again. “Your mother’s just upset. She was very scared when you disappeared and when she found you after the terentatek attack.”
“I can’t feel that from her,” Ben said. “I can’t feel anything.”
“She’s shielding because she doesn’t want to upset you. I’ll talk to her.”
“Is she still mad at me?”
“She isn’t mad at you, Ben. Not—really. But we’re going to have a long talk when you get out of the med center.”
“Mom isn’t still mad at Ralrk, is she?”
“No—well. She’s still a little angry at him.” Dad sighed. “Ralrk shouldn’t have taken you down there, and he should have brought you back to your mother when he found you—but we’re glad he was with you. We know he tried to help save you from the terentatek, and we’re very grateful to him.”
“Is Ralrk gonna be okay?”
Dad smiled. “Yes, the doctors told us that he’s going to be just fine.”
“No.” Ben shook his head. That wasn’t what he meant, but his head felt like a holo that was out of focus, and he couldn’t grasp the right words. “Is he gonna be okay—you know. Up here in the city. The other Ewoks don’t—he doesn’t live with them anymore.”
“Oh,” Dad nodded when he worked it out. “Yes, he’s going to be fine. Your mother bought the cloudcutter where his tribe lives, and she’s going to put him in charge of the building.”
Ben could tell he wasn’t happy about that, and he didn’t know why. “Can she do that?”
“Yes, she can do that.” Dad sighed. “Your mother has a lot of investments—but it doesn’t matter. She’s going to make sure that Ralrk has a place to live. Whether he gets along with his people is up to him.”
“Okay.” His body was starting to feel heavy, and he felt his eyelids begin to sink. “But I just—” His protest broke off with a yawn. “Woke up.”
“It’s the medication,” Dad said with a smile, stroking his hair. “And your body is still healing. You should rest, Ben.”
He shook his head. “I don’t want to go to sleep...without Mom.”
“I understand.” Dad looked toward the door, and a minute later, it slid aside and Mom came in.
“Ben needs you,” Dad said, reaching out a hand. Mom let him pull her over and into his lap, his arm wrapping around her. She reached over took Ben’s hand again.
“You’re safe,” Dad said. “Your mom and I will be here.”
Mom didn’t say anything, she just gripped his hand like she’d never let go. The rims of her eyes were red like she needed to sleep too.
Dad rested his chin on her shoulder. “He’s a Skywalker, I’m afraid. You’re going to have to put up with both of us getting into scrapes for the rest of our lives. If it’s any consolation, we’re pretty resilient.” He winked at Ben.
“I should have reached you sooner.” Mom’s voice was so soft he barely heard the words.
“I’m okay, Mom,” he mumbled, his eyes drifting shut. Dad said something to her that he couldn’t hear, and her hand tightened around his fingers.
As he began to drop off, he reached through the Force again and felt his mother’s shields easing away. For a moment, he struggled to make sense of the emotions that swirled thickly around her—anger—but she wasn’t angry at him, which was confusing, fear—but what was she afraid of? It didn’t make sense. There were deeper things too, that he didn’t understand, and it felt like he was treading in brackish water. Before he could panic, he felt his father lifting him up out of the muck that threatened to overwhelm him. Dad felt strained too, simmering with tension that Ben had missed at first, and he realized that Dad had also been scared—just as scared as Mom—but he remained steady and sure, calming them both.
The part of his parents he could always feel through the Force wove together until he couldn’t tell them apart anymore; together they were so strong and bright that no monster could ever touch him again. They wrapped around him like a blanket, like a lullaby—whispering we’re here with you, we’ll always be here, we love you, you’re safe, you’re safe— lulling him back to sleep.