He squinted into the sun, cradling the Republic blaster in his hands as he lined up the targets in his sights.
The blaster fired five shots in rapid succession, sending each of the cans spinning off the fence. Pieces of charred, rusted tin scattered across the manicured grass, making the well-tended backyard look like the scene of a ship crash in miniature.
"You're not bad with that thing," Carvan said. Lounging back on the steps, his gangly frame was all knees and elbows. "You make a real stupid face when you're aiming, though. Lemme try."
"Yeah, you're going to blow your damn foot off and then I'm going to have a great time explaining to the old man how some idiot kid managed to crack the codes on his footlocker," Jaq said, raking a hand through his hair. He sighed. "Go set up new cans and I'll start thinking up excuses."
Carvan took another lazy puff of ryll, grabbed three rusty cans and clambered up to his feet. He moved even slower than usual, as though he was shuffling around in a higher gravity than everyone else on the planet. When it came time to line up the cans as targets on the fence, his long, spidery hands fumbled.
Slouching down on the steps, Jaq grimaced at his friend's clumsiness. He picked up the abandoned ryll joint, adjusted its sloppy roll, and took a contemplative drag. "I've got a bad feeling about this, Carv."
He was joking now, but lately the sudden jolts of strange foreknowledge had been coming more frequently. He'd be sitting at his desk on one of the rare occasions when he actually hauled himself into class and then suddenly, he would sense something gnawing at the pit of his stomach, an anxiety searing under his skin that he couldn't explain. Everything was normal, at least as normal as it had ever been. But somehow he felt a dire certainty that at any moment the roof or the sky were going to come crashing down.
Carvan reached out a skinny arm for the blaster. "Give it here, man. I haven't done this for a while, but I used to be good."
"Another dangerous side effect of smoking spice: delusions of grandeur."
"You've got to be kidding me. You sneak the gun over here and now you won't even let me try it? That's damn ridiculous, Rand. I'm telling you, I know what I'm doing."
He was about to hand the blaster over to his friend, when he heard the familiar clanking of a certain protocol droid. If his father was using the damned thing to spy on him, the old man obviously thought he was deaf.
"Master Jaq! Master Jaq?"
Jaq stowed the blaster under his jacket and passed the joint of spice back to Carvan, who clenched it in his hand. By now they were pros at the fine art of feigned indifference.
The protocol droid staggered through the gate. "Master Jaq. I have been instructed to tell you to come home immediately."
Jaq glowered at the droid, wondering if he could get away with using this glorified tin can for some more target practice. "Yeah? So what does the old man want?"
"My programming does not extend to providing rationales that were not supplied by the master. I was simply told to find you and request that you return to your domicile."
It was supposed to be a top-of-the-line droid, cost more credits than Jaq had seen in his life, and his father used the thing as a pricey com-link.
"Fine. I'm coming," Jaq said. "But it better be good. I'm not in the mood for some father-son bonding." He turned back to Carvan. "I'm out. I'll see you and the rest of the guys at the docks tomorrow. And tell that schutta Halu that either he gives me that card or he pays me some credits."
"Heh, yeah, I'll talk to 'im," Carver replied. He rubbed the scruffy red goatee that constituted the greatest achievement of his sixteen years of life. "See ya."
"Later," Jaq muttered, turning towards his parents' house. His "domicile". That was a good word for it.
He walked through the door and found his parents sitting at the kitchen table. His mother's back was bowed and her face was averted but he could see her shoulders shuddering with smothered sobs. His father was reading a data-pad, his profile like something chipped out of rock. Ignoring her, Jaq thought. I wonder if he'd ignore this blaster if I shoved it in his ugly face.
The room was dead silent except for the steady whirr of a cleaning droid swishing along the floor, leaving narrow paths of sparkling linoleum in its wake.
"What's the problem?" Jaq said.
His father's eyes remained fixed on what he was reading. "Your brother's dead. I hated to interrupt you while you were out wasting my credits, but I thought you might want to know."
His mother gave a low sob, burying her head in her hands.
"What? What are you talking about?"
His father slammed the data-pad down on the table. "A 'training accident', they call it. I call it a damn farce. He's first in his class, probably first in any class they could throw together, and he goes down in a training run? Atton could have flown through anything those imbeciles at the academy put in front of him."
It didn't hurt. It just felt numb, as though he was walking through water or falling in a dream. He stared at the wiry black hairs creeping out of the old man's right ear.
"Crashed into an obstacle. One of those big glowing blocks. Does that sound like the way Atton is gonna go out? Sounds more like something you'd do."
"Or something you wish I'd do," Jaq muttered. He looked daggers at his father, loathing him. A bloated old soldier limping around on an implant leg. Disgusting old bantha doesn't even realize that stuff has started sprouting out of his big droopy ears.
"Some son of a schutta at that academy made a bad mistake here," the old man fumed. "I'm going to see that more than a few heads roll for this. They sent us his stripes and his mech droid like it was some kind of consolation prize."
"Is that it?" Jaq said. He spoke slowly, keeping his voice level, carefully enunciating each word. "Is that what you wanted to say to me?"
"Yeah," his father growled. "That's all I wanted to say to you."
Jaq spun on the scuffed heel of his boot and headed towards the stairs. He tossed his last word carelessly over his shoulder. "Good."
When he got to his room, his brother's utility droid was sitting there. A T1 unit. Nothing much to look at, that was for sure. Just a squat little tin can with a big squarish head. It tilted this blockhead slightly, regarding him, and emitted a few high-pitched beeps.
"Get out of here," he snarled.
He didn't even know why it wasn't in the crash. Atton had always brought it along with him on flights. If the stupid thing had come along, maybe -
He feigned as though he was going to kick the droid and it spun away, beeping indignantly.
But it stayed in the room, its lights flashing, casting soft tints of blue and red upon the empty walls.
Sighing, he threw himself down on his bed and stared at the various pictures of fast ships and scantily-clad cantina girls tacked onto his ceiling. A twilek in a gold bikini winked down at him, but for once he felt like he wasn't in on the joke.
His father's Republic blaster was still hidden in the pocket under his jacket. Its hard metal form pressed uncomfortably into his ribs.
The droid's lights kept flashing.
He sat up and glared at the little mech. "What do you want?" he muttered.
The droid wheeled closer to him, but stayed carefully out of range of his feet or fists. "Beep-bip-beep."
Scowling, Jaq slid out of bed and padded towards the droid. It motored away from him.
"I'm not going to hurt you. I just want to check out your systems."
The droid stopped and slowly spun around to face him. "Bluurp-beep!"
"I don't know what the hell that means," Jaq sighed. He wished that some tech would look into giving mech droids vocabulators. Their incessant, unintelligible babble wasn't cute or endearing. It was irritating as all hell.
"Blip blip beeeeeeeeep!" the droid replied.
"Speak Basic, damn it!" Jaq smacked the droid.
Suddenly, the droid's head spun in a full circle. Its single eye emitted a ghostly blue light, projecting the image of a man who looked like an older, taller, less unkempt version of Jaq himself. Atton. The holovid was grainy and a little out-of-focus, but he could see the exhaustion on his brother's face. He was wearing his cadet's uniform but it wasn't as starched and pressed as usual.
"Hey, buddy. How's it going?" It was strange to hear that voice and know that it was the voice of a dead man greeting him in the darkness of his room.
Atton continued. "I programmed the droid to pass this message on to you and only you. Don't show Mom or Dad, alright? I know I can't make you keep this from them, but when you hear what I have to say, I think you'll see it my way. I'm going to be honest with you because I think you deserve to know, Jaq."
The holo-vid image sighed. "This isn't easy, but here it goes: I got caught cheating on my Astrophysics exam. They're calling all my grades into question now and it doesn't matter whether I earned them or not. I think the Board's starting the process to kick me out. It's going to be a big deal and you can imagine how much Dad is going to love that, right? After all the credits he spent?"
Jaq stared blankly at the face of his dead brother, a face contorted by pain. For a second he imagined that he was looking into a mirror. The better me, he thought. His gut churned inside him.
The steady voice quavered. "I just think it will be a lot easier this way. If I don't have the Academy, I don't have anything anyway. It's going to look like an accident. That's good, huh? Nobody has to find out about any of it. But you and I, we know different. And I think that's the way it's gotta be, kid."
Don't call me kid, you schutta, Jaq thought. Not when you're telling me this.
He didn't want to know. But he knew exactly, instinctively, what his brother meant, what he'd been thinking when he decided to send his shuttle careening into that obstacle.
"So I guess what I'm saying is, don't be an idiot like me. Don't be a coward," Atton's holo-vid image said through the static. "Dad always had it wrong, you know. You probably knew that already, but remember it, okay?"
Jaq felt his chest tighten. Swallowing the lump in his throat, he started mentally flipping through the cards in his pazaak deck. He couldn't remember the last time he'd cried and he liked to keep it that way.
Atton's voice came in a strange monotone, as though he was just reading instructions from a flight manual. "Anyway, Jaq, I've got to get going now. It's almost time for training. Be good to Mom, okay? And take care of yourself. I'll see you later."
The holo-vid stuttered, the last words repeating themselves again and again amid the wavering beam of static. Atton's face had dissolved into a riot of pulsating beige and black pixels but his voice was still there: "I'll see you later. I'll see later. I'll see you lat-"
Jaq punched the droid and then yowled in pain and frustration, shaking his bruised fist.
"This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you," he mumbled.
The impact of his punch didn't even dent the droid's head, but it caused Atton's voice to skip a beat. There was a moment of blessed silence. And then the vocal track resumed, reiterating those last three words as though they were a real promise instead of a hollow lie, just another game of pretend for them to play.
Before the droid could recover from the jolt to beep a complaint, he leapt to his feet and stomped on it with his right foot. His mud-caked black boot was much more effective than his fist.
The droid's head swiveled around and the recording cut out at last but it had ceased to matter to him anymore. The damage to his hand and to his feet couldn't stop him. Instead he chased the pain like a high and it was almost a relief to feel the bruises blooming on his cracked knuckles after that first stupid attempt to batter metal with flesh. He kept kicking the droid, shattering the visual projector, cracking the head piece, knocking slim sheets of metal off the squat body. Once in a while, the droid would emit a strange squeal or a low prattle of droidspeak, shaking awkwardly from side to side in its hopeless efforts to evade the pummeling. Jaq battered the droid until he could feel blood seeping from his own smashed toe, thick, warm, almost comforting, pooling at the front of his right boot.
He stared at the wrecked hunk of metal on front of him. You can't kill something that isn't alive, he reassured himself. Of course, the old man really would kill him once he saw this scrap heap and realized it was all that remained of Atton's last mech droid.
The blaster was still tucked under his jacket and he could still limp along on his feet. He knew it was time to go.
He packed light. Scooping up yesterday's clothes off the bedroom floor, he stuffed them into the small knapsack he kept under his bed. He pulled open his rusted old footlocker and grabbed a couple computer spikes and a security tunneller he'd kept hanging around in just in case. They went into the bag.
When he searched his computer desk, he found a datapad that might be useful. He tossed it into the knapsack. His savings would help too, all eighty-two credits of it, and the ten-credit bag of ryll stowed under his mattress that he knew he could sell for triple or quadruple the planetary price once he made space. He threw his stash into the bag along with his pazaak deck, depressingly incomplete as it was.
The bag was almost full when he realized the last thing he wanted.
He limped across the hall to his brother's old room. The door was encrypted but he'd made it his business to find out the code years ago. His fingers jabbed at the passkeys, spelling out the word "hyperdrive". The door slid open to reveal the empty bedroom that for the past year and a half had served only as a pristine shrine to Atton's awards. Ribbons of various colours spangled the walls, certificates of completion or merit hung in heavy black frames and on the sturdy shelves above, a fortification of trophies gleamed bronze, silver and gold.
There was only one he wanted and his hand found it almost by instinct. The golden cruiser. It was the one he had coveted and admired, the one he would have picked for himself if he could have imagined getting a prize for anything that didn't involve shooting tin cans with an outlawed blaster and cracking wise. It was much heavier than it looked, but he'd taken it down from the shelf so many times that he found it easy to heft and maneuver in his hands. He had memorized the inscription, but he knew that he could have read it just with the tips of his fingers: "To Atton Rand: For Outstanding Achievement in Republic Flight Training, Gold Level."
He crammed the trophy into the top of the bag, zipped the knapsack shut and strapped it onto his shoulders. The outline of the trophy dug into his back. It was an impractical choice, much too heavy, but he felt that its presence would help him somehow. It's never bad to keep a blunt object around anyway, he thought. Blasters were good for distance, but if he had to crack a skull or two the thing might come in handy.
He tread slowly down the stairs, trying to conceal the limp in his gait. He hoped that he wouldn't have to see them, that there would be a clear path to the door, but as soon as his foot touched the landing, his father was glaring at him. He was hunched over the kitchen table and now there was a large glass of Corellian brandy poured out in front of him. Jaq's eyes darted to the bottle. It was already half-empty.
He figured his mother had probably gone downstairs to the holovid room. She knew how to read the signs. Jaq was glad not to have to witness her quiet suffering or her quiet sufferance this time. He couldn't bring himself to comfort her anymore.
"What in the hell was that racket? Where do you think you're going?"
He shrugged. "Out."
The old man looked away from him and took a gulp of the brandy, his small, wary eyes closed as if to shut out the disquieting sight of his son, to focus only on the taste of expensive liquor.
Jaq turned his back on the stooped figure of his father at the kitchen table and walked towards the door. When he'd envisioned this moment in his head, he'd always thought that he would give a big speech that would tear the old soldier to shreds. He had often pictured himself provoking a fight, imagining that he might finally get the chance to ball up his fist and mash it into that glowering Sith's mask of a face. But Jaq knew that if they fought now, with his bruised knuckles and his banged-up feet, he'd lose, and he couldn't give the schutta the satisfaction of knowing he'd won in a fair fight.
He walked out the door. It slid shut behind him with the stomach-turning certainty of an axe severing a limb. His hands and feet ached and the bag felt like a boulder on his back, but he walked away. His gait was slow and ambling, but steady enough to conceal his limp. He didn't wince and he didn't stop to rest. He kept walking, walking across the city, towards the docks. With each step, his mind stretched towards the cold reaches of space and he imagined the steep trajectory and the velocity of a fast ship plunging into the vast darkness, no longer ensnared by the shackles of gravity. His escape route.