A Familiar Face


1.

There was a short half hour before dawn when the cold of night had fled, and the inferno of day had not yet arrived, when absolute stillness settled upon the desert. The winds, which shifted direction diurnally, and the susurration of rodent and reptile life, broke and changed rhythm. The land appeared in stark clarity, neither veiled by the dark nor yet warped and obscured by mirages. This time was the nadir, the heartbeat of emptiness between an exhalation and the next indrawn breath, the center point in a meditation, balanced between active striving and passive listening. This predawn moment was the planet's silent truth.

It was also a convenient time to travel. Most nocturnal predators had retired, while the daytime dangers had yet to rear their ugly heads from sandy burrows and dens. The Tusken people cherished a taboo against movement during this hour – the spirits claimed the brief twilit interlude as their own, and would be displeased by any interlopers. The sand would not burn an eopie's feet, heat not cause the beast to drop dead from thirst or sudden stroke. And to one who was burdened with the gift, the morning silence was a stretched typanum: any disturbance in the Force would be carried to his attention as swiftly and clearly as a shout.

This was why the hermit arrived in town well ahead of normal business hours, well ahead of the greater number of shopkeepers' assistants and delivery sleds drawn by beasts and ramshackle droids. Grav units were too rare and expensive this far out to be wasted on such quotidian affairs. The pharmacy he wished to enter was dark, shutters still closed over its low-arched door. The eopie which had borne him so many klicks from home munched in its feedbag, and blinked one brown eye at its owner, suggesting a jaded indifference to his plight.

"Enjoy your breakfast, my friend," he told it with a pat. "You've earned it – for once." The beast blinked and chomped, oblivious to the cutting jest, oblivious indeed to everything but its own gratification and a few annoying flies which already buzzed about its ample hindquarters. Rather like the majority of beings in the galaxy, the hermit mused cynically.

Stepping over a dried pile of eopie droppings from some previous occupant, he left the beast tethered in the corral behind the marketplace and went to seek out some more stimulating – and less odiferous- company. A caff vendor accosted him at the corner, and he purchased a large serving of the bitter, dark arjees brew- more for an excuse to loiter than for the taste. They drank it black here on Tatooine, with a filthy dredge of grit at the bottom of the cup. This last sludgy detritus was customarily taken into the mouth,, swished about, and then spat into the nearest gutter of patch of dry earth.

"So uncivilized," the hermit muttered, observing another early morning customer indulge in this vile habit a few paces down the street. He wandered slowly down the length of the main thoroughfare, pretending to savor his steaming beverage, senses unfurled through the plenum, seeking and listening for untoward presences, or the hint of troublesome events ahead. He waited for the pharmacy to finally open, so that he might attend to his business and depart before the streets grew crowded. The time dragged by, and the caff grew cold as the air began to ripple with warmth. The hermit crossed to the opposite side of the street and deliberately chose a spot to lean against a wall. He happened to lean against a Wanted poster, casually blocking his own lenticular image from view.

Blast the slothful pharmacist. Other shops were opening; why not his?

"Hey, cochoonka blimii, geezah," sneered a young male Rodian sporting an outdated pilot's jacket. He approached at a slow, predatory prowl.

The hermit's Huttese wasn't perfect – far from it – but he was familiar with the last term. Old man? For stars' sake, forty standard years hardly qualified one as senile in most parts of the galaxy. But then, life here on this planet was nasty, brutish, and short. Most humans didn't make it too far past forty, simply because living conditions were so harsh.

"Da audee mo phonii? Cochoonka blimii, tibi geezah."

Now the brash young gangster, or whatever he called himself, was leaning forward into his face, round opalescent eyes threatening, puckered mouth drawn into a tight point of displeasure. The Force thrummed with his unsophisticated, bullying anger. He wanted the old man to get out of the way so he could have a clearer view of the poster, and the hefty Imperial bounties offered for the various villains it portrayed.

"That might prove…problematic," the hermit explained, with a hint of civil if insincere apology. He spoke Basic with a refined mid-rim accent. He did not budge.

The Rodian snorted. "Prob-lemm-ateek?" he mimicked. "Tooga la shenubi probbah, geezah." One green fist came up, lightning fast, to strike the offending curmudgeon out of the way. "Aiiii!" the young ruffian wheezed, cringing, as his wrist was caught in midswing and twisted into a sharp tendon-snapping bind. "Poodoo! Poodoo!" His free hand went for the custom blaster strapped at his hip, but likewise found itself imprisoned in a painful and precise grip.

"You have made a mistake. I am beneath your notice," the hermit told the Rodian, his voice pitched low and evenly. The thug's eyes seemed to glaze over for a moment, and then he relaxed. The hermit released his hold.

"Shooni da boonka," the green-complected alien snorted, casting a contemptuous look at the bearded human standing before him. He shrugged and moved away, shambling across the dusty street with an affected swagger of indifference.

The hermit released a long breath, and brushed his fingertips against something cool and smooth concealed beneath the rough folds of his cloak. Most the natives accepted his eccentricities as the unfortunate effect of too much time spent alone, or of some hereditary mental infirmity. It was only the greedy ones – the bounty hunters and suchlike who worked for the resident Hutt overlord – who might even take a second look at him. But a second look might be all that was required. The image on the Wanted poster was a fairly accurate likeness, taken off the holonet footage from the last months of the war. He watched the belligerent youth who had accosted him just now enter a bar further down the street. Apparently he was presently out of work, and needing to drown his woes in the usual manner.

The hermit sighed and resumed his vigil, still blocking the inconvenient poster from public view. Then he noticed that the pharmacist was at long last open for business.