It was a silly gesture, and Callista knew it.
Almost as soon as she said his name, she felt the hot rush of blood reach her cheeks, embarrassment burning into her as she realized what she had just done without being aware of it. Immediately she looked up to see if anyone had been close enough to hear her, but thankfully, she was alone--the rest of Jeor Goresh's crew was hundreds of meters away, scurrying about in the ark down below.
Last night she had dreamt of him--as she did every night--and though the details had long since faded from memory, she remembered hearing his voice, calling out to her in the distance, and she had answered him as she did just now.
She sighed involuntarily and shook her head, stray locks of malt-brown hair falling in her eyes. Of course I didn't hear him, she thought. The bitterness of the realization swept over her again with the force of a tidal wave, as harsh and as painful as always. And yet as she stood there, leaning against the doorway of Jeor's makeshift office, eyes fixed on the distant heavens where she had spent the last five years running away from the memory of the great love of her life, she could have sworn she felt the gentle touch of his mind--if only for a fleeting moment. Even six years without the Force had not robbed her of the memory of that unmistakable and exhilarating sensation, the feeling of one being reaching out to another in the Force.
A connection that even she didn't know was possible between two people.
The whisper of his mind, as real as the whisper of his voice.
It was impossible though, or at least, unlikely. Though she had experienced small victories in the months since she left the Zicreex to re-devote herself to reclaiming her powers--she had managed to sharpen her already quick reflexes even more, and teach herself to slip into the Jedi meditation state once again--the harsh truth was, she still could not touch the Force.
It taunted her at times. So close, yet still so far away--sometimes she could almost feel its faint tendrils brushing against her like the light mist of saltwater. But those rare moments vanished soon after, as if they had never come, leaving Callista to wonder if she'd ever know the feeling of the Force flowing through her veins again.
No, she reasoned, she couldn't have felt Luke just now.
It was just her imagination. It had to be.
She kicked at the ground in frustration, the salty spray of sea water stinging her eyes. Or perhaps it wasn't the ocean mist at all, but the uninvited tears that had risen to the surface, despite Callista's best attempts to suppress them. Every day was like this. There were moments--many moments--when thoughts of Luke Skywalker suddenly invaded her consciousness, like an unheralded storm from the depths of Chad's oceans, washing ashore all that had long been buried.
All that could not be forgotten.
His face... Those clear blue eyes... The radiant smile that first greeted her in her dream-like state aboard the Eye, when she had almost forgotten what it was to live until he walked into her life... They haunted her night after lonely night when she dreamed of him. Ached for him.
But she had taught herself over the years to keep him out of her thoughts. She had to, in order to keep going.
"Hey Callista! When you're done daydreaming over there, could ya give us a hand?"
The deep, full-bodied voice bellowed from below, and Callista straightened immediately from where she stood, realizing that she had stayed up far too long. She took a few steps forward from the doorway to lean over the edge of the pier. There he stood--arms akimbo, eyebrow cocked in mild annoyance. Jeor Goresh was not known for his patience, and it occurred to a mortified Callista that he must have been waiting for her for at least twenty minutes now. She held up her hand in a gesture of apology. "I'll be right there, Jeor!" She waved the small breather mask in her hand. "It took me a while to find this," she said. Hoping a little humor would be enough to appease him, she added, "It's a mess in there!"
Jeor Goresh responded with an infectious laugh that seemed to come from the depths of his rounded, protruding belly. "C'mon," he replied, shrugging his massive shoulders as he shook in laughter, "You've seen worse, I bet. You traveled with Gamorreans for years, and you're telling me you've never seen a little untidiness?"
Callista flashed a mischievous smile. "Untidiness?" she repeated in mock disbelief, "Even Captain Ugmush's quarters were neater than yours!"
"You're mighty spunky for someone who's in danger of her pay being docked today!" Jeor grumbled, and despite his smirk, Callista knew a smile was hiding just beneath the surface of his gruff exterior.
"Aw, you wouldn't do that..."
"Try me," he said, before the corners of his mouth twitched into an exasperated grin. Threats were useless for him. No matter how intimidating he tried to be to his crew, they could always see through his act. "Would you get down here already? Time's a-wastin', let's move it!"
"Aye-aye, cap'n!" she said, saluting him in jest. She bounded down the stairway of the pier and with one swift leap, landed onto the deck of the main barge where Jeor stood. The wind had started to pick up, whipping at her hair, and she brushed aside the disobedient curls that came loose from her braid. One last time, she took another long look at the pier as the ark pulled away. Her eye caught movement at the bottom of the docks, black and bronze gleaming in the coy sunlight. As if on cue, several cy'eens had burst out of the ocean, playfully darting in and out of the water, singing their ocean lullaby. Mesmerized, Callista watched them and couldn't help but smile. She remembered the sight of them well, from when she was a child sailing these same seas so long ago.
A thousand lifetimes ago.
There were times, especially when she was alone on the Eye, with nothing but her memories to sustain her, when she wondered if she would ever live to see her home world again. And even after she had received the unexpected gift of rebirth, and was swept away by Luke to Belsavis, Yavin 4, and countless other worlds, her heart longed to return to the one place where her past came alive. Where the Callista she knew, the Callista who swam with the cy'eens and laughed with the tsaelke--the Callista who once touched the Force--still existed as a spirit embued in the saltwater tides.
Perhaps, she had thought when she first landed on Chad's surface after more than forty years away, coming here would give her peace. And perhaps the peace she so longed for would somehow allow her wayward powers to return.
Perhaps that was the way of the Force.
"Mother says there's a hurricane coming at nightfall," Jeor told her as he came up behind her. "You know her track record."
Callista nodded without facing him. "Manzir's amazing," she replied. "I don't know how she knows these things, but she hasn't missed yet..."
"She swears she feels it in her bones," he said with a chuckle. Callista heard him crouch down to sit on the edge of the ark, his boots thumping softly as his heavy feet dangled off its side. "I don't know, I guess when you get to be her age, you're more at one with nature or something. Whatever it is, it's sure a useful skill to have."
Callista laughed, almost more to herself than to him. A wistful laugh, carrying regret rather than amusement. "I used to know when storms were coming too," she murmured. Back when I had the Force, she finished in her mind, and her hand slid down to the lightsaber at her side. She looked down and closed her hand on the cool metal of its handle, her finger lightly tracing the pattern of tsaelke she had etched with care all those years ago. With a shaky sigh, she released it again to swing at her hip.
Even six years later, the trauma of her loss still seared into her, a dull pain that had not lessened with time.
"Papa used to be amazed when I would tell him that we needed to dock because of a storm," she continued, still staring in the direction of the singing cy'eens, though by now they were invisible in the distance. "I'm not sure Uncle Claine ever believed me, though. He'd tell me it was just me being lucky, but I was right every time..."
Behind her, she heard Jeor get up and shift his weight side to side, as if debating whether to approach her, fumbling for the right words to say at that moment. "Well... anyway..." he said at last, awkwardly clearing his throat, "We can still get pretty far down the Current before the storm hits. We'll have to stay put for a while though, till it breaks. Goodness knows I just paid a fortune to get this thing in tip-top shape again." He reached down to bang at the hull for emphasis. "And I won't let another nasty hurricane pull 'er apart again!"
Callista could feel his growing discomfort with the silence, as he rambled on. "I just hope we don't get caught in wystoh territory by the time we dock. As if a hurricane weren't enough to worry about..."
A few moments passed before Callista finally spoke. With a conscious effort, she pushed out the sad thoughts from her mind and turned to Jeor with a smile. "Aw, where's your sense of adventure?" she teased.
Jeor rolled his eyes and threw up his hands. "I give up with you," he laughed. He paused before turning to leave, a look of fatherly concern on his weathered face. He opened his mouth to say something, then, as if thinking the better of it, closed it again a few seconds later and smiled.
"Go on," Callista nodded, knowing what he was going to say. "I'll be in in a little bit. I just..."
"I know," he said. "Take all the time you need."
Callista's gaze was fixed on the tiny remote floating before her. It darted about her like a small insect, randomly zigzagging as it released quick, unpredictable blasts in quick succession. There was a time when she could easily handle five of them--all on their highest setting--but at that moment, she struggled just to stay ahead of the one that seemed to have a mind of its own. It seemed to be mocking her.
She had been locked in a fighter's stance for so long now, that she had lost track of just how much time she had been here in the empty mess hall, matching wits with the errant remote. It felt like it had been hours since she last breathed. She had been afraid that the slightest movement would break her concentration--what little she had at this stage, after the hours of relentless, numbing practice.
She threw a glance at the chronometer on the wall before her. Already past 0300 hours, she was shocked to note. Her muscles screamed out in agony--they had given up the fight long before she did, but something in her told her to keep going. "Fight through the pain, the exhaustion, the uncertainty," Master Djinn would have told her. "It is the only way a Jedi earns his dues."
This is my only chance...
It was the thought she had clung to all these years: that if she could only work hard enough--fight hard enough--perhaps it would come back to her again. On its own.
"You're still up?"
Callista pivoted behind her, surprised that someone else was awake at this hour. She smiled upon seeing the tiny, wizened old woman who had entered the hall. "I should ask you the same thing, Manzir," she said. "You couldn't have heard me from all the way down here? I didn't think I was being that loud..."
Manzir shook her head and laughed. "No, of course not... But I had a feeling you'd still be at this. I was right."
Callista smiled sheepishly and shrugged. "You were right--as usual."
She let out a small yelp as the remote tore into her forearm with an unexpected blast, and managed to swing her topaz blade just in time to deflect its next shot.
Angry at herself for having taken her eyes off it for a second, she shut it down, letting it drop to the ground in a soft thud. She watched it fall, then let out a sigh that shook through her body. After a while, she looked up at Manzir again. "I'm sorry," she muttered as she powered down her lightsaber and hooked it once again to her belt. "I guess that was my own fault... I shouldn't have let myself get distracted..."
"You don't have to be sorry," the older woman answered, waving off Callista's embarrassment. She crouched down and picked up the remote, handing it back to Callista. "I see how hard you work at this day after day--I think you're entitled to have a letdown or two, don't you think?"
Callista smiled. "I'm afraid I've surpassed my quota for the day, then."
"I can't even begin to imagine what this must be like for you," Manzir said. "I know I would probably go crazy if I suddenly woke up and couldn't see or hear anymore. This can't be any easier to deal with."
"After six years," Callista said softly, "I had hoped I would have found the secret to dealing with it. But I suppose it's going to take me a little while longer."
"I just wish... You don't have to be so hard on yourself, you know."
Something in her voice reminded Callista for a moment of her own mother, and she felt the tension leave her. "I know you're right," she nodded, instinctively touching the lightsaber at her hip. "But I just keep thinking that the minute I let up..."
"That what? That all your hard work will be for nothing?"
Manzir walked over to her, and reached a wrinkled hand to Callista's chin. "My child... Sometimes the more we struggle, the harder we make things for ourselves. You have to learn to let go every once in a while."
Words of wisdom, thought Callista. It was something Djinn would have said to her too, had he lived to see his student lose her contact with the Force. She wondered if he would have done anything differently in a similar situation.
"Oh my, do you hear that?" Manzir exclaimed, turning her ear towards the direction of howling wind as it rattled and shook the barge. She shuddered along with the tremors. "It's a good thing we were able to dock before nightfall. This storm is turning out to be worse than I thought it would be."
It was the first time Callista had even noticed the storm. She had been so focused on her exercises in the last few hours that she had managed to drown out the fury outside--and now she wondered how she ever could have missed the almost frightening wailing of the winds. She made her way to a small window and peered out. She could barely see past the downpour of rain that battered against the hull of the ark, and suddenly, she recalled Jeor's earlier fears about his newly renovated ship surviving such a storm. Shivering in the coolness, Callista wrapped her arms tightly around her and craned her neck to watch the pulsating rhythms of the violent waves crashing against the ship.
Suddenly, a small, muffled bang caught her attention.
It was subtle, and for a moment Callista wondered if she had just imagined it. But it came again--a little louder this time, and accompanied by a mild vibration just beneath her feet. She turned beside her to Manzir. "Did you... Did you just hear that?"
"It's really fierce out there, isn't it?" Manzir answered.
Callista shook her head and rose up on her toes to look outside again. She couldn't see anything through the downpour of rain, but... something else was there.
She was sure of it.
"No, Manzir, I don't think it's the rain... It can't just be the rain..."
"What can't be the rain?"
A loud clank rang out a few seconds later. Both women struggled for the balance as the aftershock caught them off guard.
"That! Did you hear that?"
Manzir nodded slightly, her eyes narrow, as if straining to hear the sound. Suddenly, her eyes fluttered wide and flew to meet Callista's gaze. "Callista," she whispered, her voice barely audible against the wrath of the storm, "Are we anywhere near the wystoh?"
Oh stars, the wystoh...
Callista held her breath and turned her head to look out the window. From her vantage point, she could see nothing suspicious--no visible signs of the extremely territorial and often violent hunters of the sea, who had been known to attack unsuspecting water-ranchers caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"I can't tell what's down there," she said. Mist was beginning to form on the windows, and she frantically tried to wipe the moisture off to see something--anything. "There's something there, though... I'm sure of it..."
"Do you think it's them?"
Callista didn't answer. The look of near-panic on Manzir's face told her that the old woman must have seen this thousands of times before--probably about as many times as Callista had in her youth. And they both knew what could come next if they didn't act quickly.
Jeor. She had to tell Jeor.
"It's coming from right below," she said, as another tremor bumbled beneath them. The engines were located in the underside of the ship--Callista swallowed hard as the panicked realization dawned on her that someone may have broken through the panels on the bottom, and water was now seeping through.
Even before she saw Manzir gesture towards the comlink panel on the opposite end of the hall, she had already spun and raced towards it, her fingers fumbling for the switch.
"Jeor, get down here!" she said, fighting with every ounce of strength she had to keep panic from setting in. "Jeor, are you there?"
The comlink cracked and Jeor's groggy reply came through the speaker. "Cal? What is it?"
"Something's down here, banging against the ship," she said. "I can't see what it is, but if the wystoh have found us..."
She knew she had Jeor's undivided attention now.
"Sound the alarm, Callista. Meet me at the deck--I'll be right there... No one's going to take this barge apart, not if I have anything to say about it!"
I hope you've fixed this thing like you promised, Callista thought, as she punched furiously at the keys. An error flashed after she entered the code.
Wrong combination! Damn it, Jeor...
The code had been changed several times since she had joined the crew--she didn't know how in the world anybody could possibly keep track of all of them, but she had no choice but to remember as many of them as she could and hope she would somehow stumble upon the right one soon.
One more try did the trick. The sirens blared a few seconds later, and she turned behind her at Manzir one last time. She could see the old woman making a move to join her, but Callista shook her head.
"Manzir, we don't know how many of them are out there... Please stay here--it'll be safer..."
Disappointment flashed in her eyes, but soon after, she nodded. "You be careful," she said.
Callista nodded and gave her a small smile. "Hey, I may not have the Force anymore," she said, "But I can still fight a hell of a fight! Those wystoh won't get away so easily..."
The sound of Manzir's nervous laughter blending with the savage winds was the last thing Callista heard as she sprinted up the narrow gangway. She had walked this same plank countless times before, but tonight it seemed endless, as if she would never reach the deck in time. But she did, and the avalanche of rain nearly overtook her when she emerged. Her jumpsuit clung to her body, the shock of cold water soaking through the thin material, making her gasp out loud.
In the darkness and the haze of blinding rain, she managed to make out the shape of Jeor lumbering towards her. Behind him was his gawky, gangly son, Salmo, and other crew members she couldn't quite recognize from a distance.
Though the sound wasn't quite as apparent from the deck as it had been down in the belly of the ship, it was there nonetheless. Callista leaned over the edge in the hopes of seeing something that would tell her what this was, but there was nothing there but the waves battering against the ark.
As the men came closer, she motioned towards the bottom of the ark. "It's down there, whatever it is!" she shouted above the unrelenting winds.
She heard Jeor curse ferociously. "I'm not letting anything tear this thing apart again!" he roared. "I'm going down there!" Water splattered onto the deck in all directions as he hurled himself into the ocean and vanished into its dark depths.
"Is he insane?" cried Fane Talsen, a crewmember who was well-known for frequently butting heads with Jeor. "If they are down there, he can't possibly take them on alone!"
She saw three or four more men dive in after Jeor, and Fane uttered more profanities.
She ignored him, and turned instead to the rest of the men. "I'm going in after them," she said. "If we're not back up in a few minutes..." Something stopped her from finishing the thought. "Keep your eyes open. If they've penetrated the ark from below, then there's no telling how many of them there are!"
She rose to standing at the edge of the ark, tearing her breather mask free from her belt and biting hard on it to send a stream of oxygen to her lungs. She swore inwardly--there was hardly any oxygen left in its air tanks, probably no more than fifteen minutes worth if she was lucky. Well, she thought grimly, what's living, if you're not living dangerously. Here goes nothing...
The freezing water stabbed her like a thousand knives when she plunged in. But before she could even register the sudden drop in temperature, an onslaught of waves smashed her unexpectedly against the hull, her breather mask nearly ripped from her mouth by the force of impact. Darkness fell on her for a few isolated seconds. When her vision finally returned, it was impossible to tell how long she had been out.
Not that she could see anything too clearly. It would be a few hours still before the sun would emerge again, and the moons could provide only so much light this far down into the oceans. She would have to make do with trying to make out shapes through the murky waters.
She ran her hand down the side of the ark to orient herself, then slowly made her way down to the underside. She felt hands grab her suddenly. Her first instinct was to fight against whoever it was--she managed to loosen the person's grip, until she realized it was Jeor who had grabbed her on the wrist to pull her down to where the others were.
She followed him down, still keeping one hand on the hull as they lowered themselves down the side of the ship. Her vision had still not adjusted, and now things seemed blurrier than ever. She thought she saw the rest of the men, and they were holding something--a dark, rectangular object, at least two meters in length.
It had to have been what was banging against the ark. The panels underneath were still intact, from what she could make out--thank goodness for small miracles, she thought.
Jeor signaled everyone to raise the object up to the surface.
It was metal. The cold, smooth surface shocked her for an instant when she touched it, and she looked up at Jeor in curiosity. His eyes met hers for an instant--uncertain of what it was as well. He made a motion to swim up, pulling the object with him.
The oxygen was fast running out. Callista knew she had been under water for too long, and there was no telling how much longer her breather mask would hold out on her. Swimming as fast as she could, she gasped when her head finally broke the surface, taking in gulps of air to fill her lungs.
"We need... help..." she managed to utter.
Jeor and the others pushed the block onto the deck, where it fell with a resounding boom, causing the entire deck to shake in response.
Still clutching her breather mask in her hand, Callista climbed up the side and collapsed onto the deck, hands so numb from the cold water that she could barely grip the metal ladder. She gasped for air, her lungs burning mercilessly within her, her head throbbing from its impact with the hull.
Then her eyes widened in horror as she saw--for the first time--what they had brought from out of the water.
Even through the rain, she could see it clearly.
A block of carbonite, and inside: the body of a man with a look of absolute terror on his face.
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