I watched with a mix of astonishment and annoyance as Thrawn punched in a code and opened my ship.
“She's all set to go, Sir.” The young landing dock worker told him.
“Thank you, Mr. Keach.” Thrawn replied taking the data pad from the young man’s outstretched hand. He didn’t say anything to me at all; he just walked on board with my stuff leaving me to follow him before the door closed. He made his way to the bridge, dropping my bag outside the crew quarters door. I tagged after him.
“How the hell did you open up my ship? I changed all the codes.” I asked as he began the pre-flight check list.
“You should know the answer to that.” He said as he sat in the pilot's seat.
“You're sitting in my chair and last time I checked the registration papers, this was still my ship.” I said crossly, my hands on my hips.
He sighed, stood up, took me by the shoulders and pushed me into the co-pilot’s chair. “You are still half cut on brandy which means you are not flying. So sit down and enjoy the ride.” Before I could say anything else he had strapped me into the seat as though I were a small child and then sitting back down in the pilot’s seat, slipped on the head set and was setting take off procedure.
I looked at him, watching his start the engines and set the flight plan. “You had a black backdoor installed in my ship.” I said. “That’s how you could override the new codes.”
“Thought it might be good to have options.” He answered. I felt my stomach do a little lurch as we lifted off from the docking pad.
“A black backdoor code is illegal! You gave this ship to me, you had no right!”
He glanced over at me and raised an eyebrow. “Yes, it was given to you, but you still work for the Empire and the Empire likes to keep its options open. So, before you get yourself worked up into a complete knot about it, you should be aware that only I knew about the backdoor and it was a precaution in case something happened to you. I’ve seen you work on ship’s computers remember, you are good at what you do so it seemed like a smart idea to have an extra key, in a manner of speaking, one you would not find right away.”
I didn’t say anything as the ship shuddered its way out of the atmosphere. I knew he wasn’t lying and I knew that he had been well within his rights to do what he had done. I watched how he handled the Ahnkeli’ Su’udelma. I could tell by the sureness of his touch, by how he manoeuvred the ship that he was good at this too. There was nothing for me to do except sit back and enjoy the ride, so that’s what I did. I loved it when the ship passed through the upper atmosphere and the shaking stopped, when the air gave way to space and instead of a hazy blue there was a deep velvety black littered with billions of stars. I never tired of that moment when we broke free from the planet’s gravity and soared smooth. Once past the atmosphere the ship levelled out and I unstrapped.
“Where are you going?” Thrawn asked as he set the nav computer.
“As far away from you as I can without having to wear a suit!” I was still cross and my head buzzed.
“Well while you are getting away from me, you can make yourself useful and make some coffee.” He said.
I spun around and with hands on hips stared at him. “This is MY ship! You don’t own me and you don’t order me around.”
He smiled coolly. “Not this trip, my dear. This time I am in command and you will do as you are told.”
I stood and stared at him. I wasn’t sure I knew this man. “When did you get so bossy?”
“You have no idea.” He said more to himself than to me then relented a little. “If I say please, will you make coffee?”
“You’re going to let me operate the stove?”
“I think you can manage not to blow us up and it’s not as if you’ll lose your stove operations certification if you make coffee under the influence.” He smirked as he set the last of the controls. We’d be heading into hyperspace in a few seconds. I waited for the hyperdrive to kick in, listened to the pitch of its whine and smiled. It was in good shape, sounded perfectly normal. The stars stopped for a split second and then elongated. The ship lurched and then we slipped into hyperspace. I never ever tired of it. Thrawn glanced up at me and arched an eyebrow. “You need instructions on how to find the galley?” he asked.
I opened my mouth to reply and then shut it again. I wasn’t going to win this conversation so I gave up. The truth of the matter was I wanted coffee too. It was early and I was starting to feel the effects of a hangover coming on. “Fine.” I said and stomped off to the galley.
Making coffee was relaxing, actually and while I was waiting for it to brew I poked around to see what he had done to my ship. Certainly there were new supplies on board and I smiled when I saw the fresh milk, fruits and what looked like meat for supper in the small refrigerator. I was sitting at the small dining table when Thrawn joined me. He poured two cups of coffee, dug out some sweet rolls and set them on a plate.
“Breakfast.” He said offering me a sweet roll. “Eat.”
“So, where are we going?” I asked sipping at my coffee. It was hot, creamy and the best thing I had tasted in a while.
“Hjal.” He said.
“Navaari? We’re going to see Navaari?”
He nodded. “When he learned that you had been found he sent word that now was a good time to pay a visit.”
“He knows what happened?” I asked wearily.
Thrawn nodded. “I sent word to them shortly after I found you missing. The Dantassi are among the best trackers and hunters in the galaxy. I didn’t think it would hurt to have extra eyes and ears keeping a look out for you.”
I nibbled at the sweet roll. “How long till we get there?”
“Present course and speed, around forty six hours or so.” He said.
“Two days.” I sighed. “I just got away from being cooped up.”
He cocked his head to one side. “I thought you loved being in space. I thought you loved this ship.”
“I do.” I said. “But I like the open sky even more at the moment.”
He nodded. “Hjal has plenty of that.”
“But it’s cold, right?”
He grinned, got up poured us both a second cup of coffee and sat back down again. “Yes, it is cold, although it’s actually late spring at the moment so it's not quite so bad.”
“Define ‘not quiet so bad’.” I said sipping my coffee.
“In the winter, the temperature on Hjal is somewhere around minus forty to fifty degrees centigrade and in the summer it sometimes can get as high as ten degrees above the freezing point. Of course this depends on where one lives. Navaari’s clan live closer to the Northern pole, so right about now during the day it might get up to five above and at night, if the weather is good, hover somewhere around the minus twenty or thirty mark, depends on the winds.”
“Blessed almighty sarlacc that’s cold!” I whispered. “I’ll freeze to death.”
“I doubt that will happen. Kirja’navaar’inkjerii will see to it that you have the right clothing for traveling outside. I hope you do venture out because it is an extraordinarily beautiful place. I am quite certain you have never ridden a sled pulled by snow wolves across ice tundra before. And this time of year you might see the auroras that dance in the sky.”
He smiled. “Sky-fire, dancing lights in the night sky caused by the collision of electrons and atoms of the upper atmosphere. While Hjal’s sun doesn’t provide much heat it sends out intense solar winds and the planet has a powerful magnetic field. The best time to see them is spring and autumn so I am hoping you will be treated to a show.”
“We don’t get anything like that on Tatooine.” I said. “At least I have never seen anything like that on the planet and never heard tell tale of it.”
“Well, Tatooine, I am sure, has other amazing natural phenomenon.” He said.
“Yeah, heat.” I said tersely.
He laughed. “I’ll make certain you are not cold.”
I gave him a look.
He gave me a slow lazy smile. “Finish your breakfast.” He replied, getting up from the table, refilling his cup and headed up to the cockpit. “Oh I brought some books for you to read, electronic form I’m afraid but I think you will find them interesting. They’re on your bunk. When you’re done eating, I suggest some rest.
“All I have done for the last two months is rest.” I snapped.
“That wasn’t rest.” He replied as he left. “That was imprisonment.”
“What the hell do you call this?” I yelled after him.
“A holiday!” came the answer.
I sighed. There was just no winning with that man. I finished my coffee and the roll then decided that my bunk took precedence over everything else and I went to lie down. I grabbed my bag and settled in for the flight. I looked at the books Thrawn had brought for me and smiled. I tucked myself into the upper berth and started to read. The book was good but I was more tired than I thought. I didn’t remember falling asleep but the next thing I knew was Thrawn shaking me gently on the shoulder, waking me and asking me if I wanted to get up for supper.
“How long?” I asked getting up.
“Almost seven hours.” He said giving me a hand down from the bunk.
“Seven hours straight, I didn’t wake up screaming or anything?”
“No, you slept. I did check several times to make sure you had not suddenly vanished.”
I frowned at him. “What did you put in the coffee to make me sleep?”
“Nothing.” He said coldly at the suggestion. “But you feel safe here and you like being on board this ship, maybe it was just the sounds of the engines that were soothing.”
“I always did sleep well on board ships.”
“I know people like you, more at home in space on a ship than planet side.” He said, his expression softening. “The food is getting cold.”
“I haven’t slept like that in a long time. In fact I don’t remember the last time I slept for nine hours straight through.” I said digging out my toothbrush. “I’ll be there in a moment.” He smiled and left me to wake up. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.
It was a little surreal to be back on board my ship with Thrawn. It brought back a lot of memories and the ship was not so big that I could avoid him all the time. I tried as much as I could to stay out of his way, preferring isolation to company. I read the books he had brought for me and did my duties when I was called on to do so. I spent a lot of time in the engine room where it was warm and I felt my most comfortable. The first seven hours of good sleep were also my last and after this I slept fitfully often waking up, if not screaming, thinking I had, gasping for breath. More than once I had woken Thrawn as well and it had taken him some time to calm me down. I had always been prone to night mares but this was worse than ever. I had taken to dozing in the engine room because at least there when I woke up yelling blue murder it was drowned out by the noise of the hyperdrive itself.
Thrawn had tried to talk to me about it, tried to draw out from me what had happened, what Jyrki had done but I would not and could not speak about it. We fought a lot and these fights usually ended up with him being tight lipped and terse and me yelling and throwing what ever was handy at the time. I did not understand how things could have gotten so bad between us because he was the one person in the entire galaxy I trusted, the one person I wanted to be with in every way possible but I could not talk to him about what I had gone through and I didn’t know why.
We were a couple of hours away from Hjal’s atmosphere when he came to find me. I didn’t hear him come and I got a start when he hunched down at my side and touched my arm. I was deep into the book I was reading and the engine hum blocked out anything else.
“Come with me, I have something for you.” He said helping me to my feet. Wordlessly I followed him up to the mess area. He was fully dressed in his Dantassi clothing, he looked elegant and mysterious all at the same time.
“You know enough about the Dantassi to know that when we land you will need to have your face covered.” He said. I nodded. “The last time I saw Kirja’navaar’inkjerii he mentioned that only children paint their faces and he gave me something to pass on to you.” He said handing me an animal skin bag. I took it gingerly and gasped when I opened it up. The bone mask was very beautiful.
“He made this especially for you. No one has ever worn this mask before.” He explained.
I turned it over in my hands, touching the surface that had been polished until it was glass smooth. The markings that Thrawn had drawn in blood upon my face when he had given me my name were etched into the bone and were coloured black. The inside of the mask was lined with what looked like animal hide which was soft and buttery, but I could not see how it was worn, there were no visible straps.
“It used to be that the masks were tied with leather strips but the Dantassi have combined nanotechnology with the craftsmanship of the ancients. It will feel a little strange at first but the mask will meld with your face. Don’t fight it let it do its work.”
I was a bit sceptical but I did as he asked and placed the mask over my face. It was very odd. The leather, which wasn’t really leather at all, shifted and formed, somehow sticking, if that was the right word, to my face. It wasn’t painful or uncomfortable it was just strange, as though I had suddenly grown a second layer of skin.
“How do I get it off?” I asked unable to keep from touching the smooth exterior of the mask.
Thrawn guided my fingertips to the upper left edge of the mask, at my temple. There were three tiny notches carved into the bone. He placed my three fingers and pushed then into the notches. The mask peeled away from my face as through it were nothing more than a light cloth instead of bone.
“Well, that’s different.” I said.
He smiled. “The Dantassi are unafraid of technology and this makes wearing the mask so much easier.”
“But you tie yours.”
“Mine is an antique which I have not yet altered.” He said, “And I am used to it. Kirja’navaar’inkjerii thought that this would be easier for you.”
“It certainly beats the face paint. I take it I should get changed and that the clothes you gave me are suitable?” I asked.
He nodded. “We will be landing in about forty minutes. Kirja’navaar’inkjerii will be waiting for us and we will be taken by sled to the village. The housing complex, the village is underground for the most part. It is bright and spacious but not outside. No locked doors, I promise.”
“I guess I will just have to deal with that.”
“I know this trip has not been easy for you,” he said gently, “but I think this will do you the world of good and it will stop Kirja’navaar’inkjerii from nagging at me.” He wanted to say more but instead there was just a silence that was neither comforting nor awkward. I held the mask in my hands and studied his face, trying to read his emotions and thoughts. There was concern in his eyes and other things I could not decipher. He caressed my face with the flat of his hand. I had to move away from his touch. The emotion that caress brought to the surface was almost physically painful. I couldn’t deal with it. I saw the flash of hurt in his expression but he hid it swiftly and well.
I went to apologise for what would have been the billionth time but he placed a fingertip upon my lips. “Stop. You have done nothing to say sorry for so don’t say it.”
With a sigh, I nodded. “I guess I’ll get dressed now. I take it you are piloting us down?”
“Yes.” He nodded. “So you have lots of time to get ready. Come and join me on the bridge when you are done”
I took my time as I got into the Dantassi clothes. The finishing touches were the necklace amulets that I had been given. I still wore the ma’arilite necklace though and I wasn’t taking that off. I tucked it under all the layers of clothing. With my mask in hand I made my way up to the bridge and took my seat in the co pilot’s chair. As we made the very bumpy ride down through the atmosphere I placed the mask over my face and became Akiana’myshk’apavjäska. It was a strange transformation and suddenly I was nervous about facing Navaari again. Nervous about the whole idea of everything this trip entailed.
Thrawn must have sensed this because he looked at me as we touched down on the snow covered landing pad.
“You have nothing to fear here.” He said as he turned off the ship’s controls. “This is a safe place. I cannot think of any place safer at the moment.” He unstrapped, got up and offered me his hand. “Come on, time to see what you think of life in the cold.” He said. I watched as he slipped into a fur lined coat and heavy gloves and knew I was indeed, going to freeze my butt off.