Countless miners watched Yerin, Quillow, and Firanesh as they passed, used enough to the sight of an academic like Dr. Lamenk’srey but openly gawking at the rare sight of Jedi and the oddity of a local in their camp. There were hundreds of tents gathered together, the majority of them marked with a stylized logo of the fish that gave Coppergrin Mining its name, but a few of the tents stuck out with their fraying ropes and faded designs, standing at the edge of camp where Dr. Lamenk’srey was heading.
“We’re headed right there; you’ll know it when you see it. Just like archaeologists to not be given fancy tents,” Dr. Lamenk’srey remarked with a wry grin.
As the four passed by, many of the miners leaned out of their tents to steal glances at them, dressed in their plainclothes or with stained Coppergrin jumpsuits rolled down to their waists. Some were cooking at this hour, mixing up their rations with what game they could catch and dark blue buns made from the local rice; other miners lay injured in their tents, minding their own wounds with bandages and juvan salves. On the archaeologists’ side of camp, massive fans meant to ward off the heat did little to cool the muggy air, instead only blowing scents that made evident the Republic’s imposition upon the jungle: woodsmoke, veg-meat, and burnt coffee, along with the reek of powerful pesticides.
Their voices enveloped in the powerful thrum of whirling fan blades, a band of archaeologists from a number of Nabooan universities in cooperation with the Antiquities Institute sat drinking around an open fire, passing around an open bottle of Corellian brandy with a number of emptied bottles cast off around them. Looking to a short dark-haired man shouting some joke about careless graduate students, Dr. Lamenk’srey called out: “Dr. Stempara! We have some… special
visitors here if you’re not too preoccupied. With luck, they might help with the dig site situation.”
“Special visitors?” Swiveling his head at the sound of a familiar voice, the man—Dr. Stempara—rose to his feet, brushing his hands off on his trousers with a huff. “How nice to see you, Dr. Lamenk’srey.”
With a sharp smile and a gleam in his eye, he approached the group, looking them up and down. “Some friends you’ve found there,” he said to the Twi’lek. “It’s not every day one sees Jedi at a dig site. Now, to whom do I have the pleasure of acquaintance today?”
“Yerin Kha.” Thankfully, Yerin had made a point to put her boots back on before visiting the camp so as to not meet them like a barefoot beggar. Donning a polite smile, the Togruta offered the archaeologist her hand to shake, taking care to match the firmness of his grip when his hand met hers. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Stempara. And this is my friend….” As her voice trailed off, she nodded to Quillow, leaving the Ithorian space to introduce himself as Dr. Stempara offered him his hand.
“I am called Quillow; this one is pleased to greet the Dr. Stempara—” the Ithorian replied in his strange melodic accent that was now tinged metallic as he spoke through the heavy lump of a translator strapped to his neck-hump, its thin silver implements stretching over both of his mouths on either side of his neck. The Jedi's green hood gracefully—and telekinetically—lowered as Quillow's four lanky fingers and thumb wrapped around the man's wrist and forearm like glossy vines. A squinch of his eyes and a nod of his head completed the friendly introduction, though his mouths and throats burned from the acrid taste of the defoliants. His gaze slowly drifted to Yerin, then to Dr. Lamenk'srey.
“My companion and I were accompanying the wonderful doctor that we might observe the development here. If there are issues, we would hear them,” he continued, turning once more to his Jedi colleague and nodding at her.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you both,” said Dr. Stempara.
“Quillow speaks rightly. Dr. Lamenk’srey mentioned an archaeological dig at the ruins of the Tower of Senlev, so we went to investigate. But before we arrived here, we met with the Onethi, who told us that the Tower is sacred to all the Bunumi,” Yerin said, tilting her head curiously. “Are you not concerned with how the locals may receive your effort to excavate the ruins of the Tower?” The faintest note of worry wavered in her voice, but she did what she could to smooth it flat.
Gently extricating his forearm from the slender fingers that twisted around it, Dr. Stempara nodded to both of the Jedi.
“Both of you may rest assured; I have already been familiarized with the situation, though I believe you may be… misled by the locals’ account, for which I do not blame them,” he said, his voice softened with sympathy. “It is simply a consequence of their lack of history. My team and I see no continuity between the people of Senlev and the Onethi—or any of the other Bunumi tribes, for that matter. The notion that the Bunumi are the heirs of Senlev is a mere legal fiction,” he added, punctuating his words with emphatic gestures. “Misconceptions aside, there is
a problem with which you two might be able to help me. Have you any other Jedi friends?”
Quillow raised a finger and tapped at the right side of his neck. “And often are the consequences of anger more grievous than what caused it.”
The Ithorian left it at that, clearing his burning throats, the sound of which was alike to that of a sickly choir. He idly fiddled with the trinkets on his belt as he remembered what the elder had told them earlier— ‘Perhaps it is better for them to forget, then, if Stempara is truthful,’
he pondered. The archaeologist’s question hung in the air a moment as Quillow's thoughts briefly passed over Welck's datapad.
“Yes; three more of our compatriots are now there.” The Ithorian slowly twisted his torso and pointed at the square official's building. “There were more of us, but... we are committed to help where it is required.”
Wincing sympathetically at the sound of Quillow’s cough, Yerin opened her mouth to speak, but Dr. Stempara beat her to it. “Well, your help would be much appreciated!” he said.
“Now, all I need is for you two and your friends to just keep this between us, at least for a while.” As he leaned in toward them, Stempara’s gaze flicked upward to compensate for the disparity between his stature and his guests’, particularly Quillow’s. “You see, Edburn Gaff—Governor Prem’s aide—has… interests that are misaligned with the needs of the Republic and this planet’s locals both.”
“I see,” Taking a breath only to grimace at the stinging in her throat, Yerin tightened the edges of her smile in the hope that it would make her appear more neutral than she felt. Strong sentiments are unbecoming of a Jedi,
she reminded herself, for they betray attachment.
Yerin’s eyes began to water from the chemicals afloat in the air; she blinked in a vain attempt to see clearly again. Dr. Stempara is lucky to stand with his back to the wind.
“How can you know that for certain, Doctor? If their interests are a high priority for you, have you spoken with the Bunumi about what they want?”
“I don’t have to!” With a wave of both his hands, the archaeologist continued, “Well, I don’t know so much of the language, but that’s beside the point. If they’re unsatisfied with the dig now, they’ll be even angrier to hear what Gaff has in store. All that greedy bastard wants here are the artifacts, and artifacts alone. For all I know, he and the Governor might try to sell them to some museum on Coruscant.” He wrinkled his nose, his lip curling with as much disgust as professionalism allowed.
“And that wouldn’t please anyone except Gaff and his superiors,” Yerin mused. “So you would like us to do something about the Governor’s aide? Should we speak with him too?”
“Just don’t let him get away with it. There’s so much more to this planet than just a few shiny artifacts. Indeed, Bunum has the promise to be the beginning of a rich relationship between the Republic and its subjects. The Bunumi in particular have much to offer the rest of the Republic, from what I’ve seen—we’ve got a lot to learn from their lifestyles so in sync with nature. And their primitive towns shall in turn benefit from the technology of the Republic and our scientific advancements. It’s a win-win.”
Quillow fought back the urge to roll his eyes skyward. Primitive. The Republic is nothing more than a common collective of tribes—they may understand technology better and live behind metal walls, but it is very much a tribal affinity that greases its machinations, like one great herdship,
he thought, though he held his tongue. Dr. Stempara was correct about one thing, at least—learning from living in sync with nature. Perhaps if he applied the effort even he could realize that we're all already “subjects” under the Force. An understanding the Bunumi are much closer to; the healthiest tree does not eat its own roots.
The Ithorian's thoughts trailed off to his home above Ithor. The philosophical sentiment was one of the first that young pupa are taught once their metamorphosis allowed them to understand speech. Of course, the clerics don't use the term ‘Force,’ but Quillow knew now what they truly
The Ithorian glanced at Yerin and tented his fingers. “We will assuredly relay the issue to our other companions when next we meet.”“Lifestyles … in sync with nature.”
Dr. Stempara’s words brought to mind fields of tall red grass that waved in the hot summer wind and summer days beneath the shadows of mountain crags that had not yet been turned into enormous mines, the air clear and clean and sweet with the redolence of fruit. As a little girl on Shili, Yerin had felt the earth’s pulse nearly thrumming beneath her feet. Once, her father and her aunt had brought home an akul they had slain; she had watched them take care to use each part of the beast—teeth for jewelry, hides for shields and sandals, meat to keep for the winter, beads and broth from the bones. When the Republic had come to her village and asked them the price of a slain akul, they had laughed. The labor had begun and ended to sustain their village; the akuls were both slain in small numbers and preserved in greater ones so that the Togruta would continue to thrive in both the present and the future. How could one put a price on the indefinite sustenance of life itself? Transactions have a definite beginning and an end,
she noted, but the life of a community is far longer; its needs stretch and grow and change indefinitely and in every direction. The Force runs in everything, too; if one puts a price on the fruits of the land, does one not put a price on the Force?
A hint of unease twisted in Yerin’s stomach as she contemplated Dr. Stempara’s words. The town of the Onethi hardly resembled Coruscant, but the Bunumi were no animals crawling around undisturbed jungle. They, like the Togrutas of Shili, had still shaped the worlds around them: aquaculture fields and houses with durasteel roofs were not born whole out of the wilderness. Shili is part of the Republic, too, but what lessons has the Republic learned from their way of life? What costs might the Bunumi pay that the Togrutas did not?
“Yes, and I am quite certain that the distinctly superior
minds of educated and self-aware Republic academics will be more adept at discerning the way the Bunumi function in relation to nature than, ah, I don’t know, the people themselves,” Dr. Lamenk’srey replied dryly. She told a joke to Firanesh in his native tongue that made the Twi’lek laugh, but she gave little explanation to the Basic-speakers gathered there.
“Regardless,” she added with a scrutinizing eye, “I hope that your dig team is still in agreement with my wife and I that there is
indeed continuity between the modern Bunumi and those dead peoples buried in their stupas beneath the Tower, despite Coppergrin Mining’s copious funding towards the Antiquities Institute.”
Dr. Lamenk’srey’s joke drew Yerin out of her ruminations. Though she didn’t recognize more than half of the Twi’leki words, she smiled. Yet the twitch of Dr. Stempara’s eye betrayed that he, however, was far less pleased. “We’ll see about that. Though I hate to disappoint you, Dr. Lamenk’srey, my dig team has found nothing that suggests such a continuity.” He looked past her to the Jedi. “Is there anything else you two need?”
Quillow pointedly steered the conversation away from what was causing disagreement, adopting a softer tone of voice: “I certainly would not want to assume, and perhaps you are the wrong person to ask, but might we speak to the miners here, should we wish?”
“I’m afraid I’m not the one in charge of all that,” Dr. Stempara answered, brushing dust off his hands. “But I’m glad to help you. Yara Bolmett is the Coppergrin miners’ foreman and their supervisor here on site; she’d be the one to ask.”
Quillow slowly lurched forward into a slight bow, “I thank you. There is nothing else I would know from you—” the Ithorian turned to his Togruta companion.
“Thank you, Dr. Stempara!” Yerin chimed, inclining her head politely. “Your insights were most helpful.”
Waving the two Jedi off, Dr. Stempara called, “Good luck with the Foreman! She can be a little surly. And don’t forget what I told you two.”
Yara Bolmett was a short walk away, sitting beside a miner whose leg had been crushed by the collapse of a mining tunnel and now lay moaning in pain. The foreman was a broad-shouldered woman with steely eyes, and though she dressed alike to the rest of the miners for Coppergrin, her arm was marked by a patch that denoted her position over the others.
“Can I help you?” she asked as soon as the Jedi came near, watching them without the usual awe and respect that followed Jedi as they moved through the galaxy. “If you’re just here on a tour, then I’m afraid this ain’t the most interesting part of camp.”
Quillow spoke first, after giving a quick bow: “This one greets she whom he believes is the foreman Yara Bolmett—I am called Quillow—a Jedi here observing the dealings of the Republic and the Bunumi. I would know if my companions and I may speak to other of your people—” Quillow caught himself almost using the word ‘herd.’ “—that is, the other miners here, about what they’ve seen or experienced, and perhaps offer any aid if need be.” His eyestalks shifted from the foreman to the injured miner.
Shadowing her eyes from the stinging air, Yerin offered the foreman a smile. “We wish to do what we can for you and yours,” she said, her gaze drifting over to the injured miner. She was no medic, but to her the leg looked unsalvageable.
“That ain’t much,” Bolmett replied. “Honest work is hard work in this part of the galaxy. These kinds of wounds are part of the job description.”
She rolled back her left pant-leg to show a gleaming cybernetic foot, the model nearly a century out of date from the looks of it, but functional and well-maintained as were many things in the farthest reaches of the known galaxy.
“Yeah, the work’s tough—but we’re built tougher. This is a good gig for the miners here, and I’m thankful—we’re all
thankful—to have well-paying honest work on the right side of the law. The Republic’s cut ain’t much of a price to pay compared to that you’ll pay smuggling arms or dealing smashbulbs on the street—too many folks take on work like that only to get mercilessly gunned down by some Hutt lapdog or a Corellian beat cop. This kind of work lets us get by on our own without bowing down to some gangster overlord. So we’ve been doing good for ourselves. Some folks you talk to might complain, but between you and me, I think they just ain’t cut out for this kind of thing. Go on ahead and ask what other folks think, but… I think some folks wouldn’t know a good deal if it blasted them in the face.”
Yerin answered Bolmett with a single polite nod. A pensive hum escaped her lips as she contemplated the foreman’s words. Though the temple of Senlev is sacred to the Bunumi, it may be that the miners here rely on the Republic’s presence on Bunum for work that keeps them out of violence and destitution.
Of course, the question of whether the deal was really as good as Bolmett had said remained; the Togruta knew that it could easily be in the foreman’s interest to overlook the dangers faced by the miners doing grunt work for Coppergrin.
“Thank you, Foreman Bolmett,” she said, scanning the nearby fires for any lone figures whose miens might suggest a willingness to talk. “I am glad to hear that the Republic provides such security here on Bunum to those who would otherwise resort to dangerous and illicit work to survive.”
Quillow blinked flatly. Life on a herdship was peaceful and structured—growing pupae were usually quickly assigned an area of work they showed an aptitude for; a calling, if you will. Coupled with a propensity to wholly exile those who wished not to participate in their society, Ithorians were afforded a peaceful culture, wherein citizens were provided for as much as they aided in providing. Quillow often forgot that other peoples and societies couldn't enforce such drastic measures—his time in training on Coruscant, where the possibility of banishment loomed in many an aspiring Padawan’s mind, only hampered his rapport in this regard further. Bolmett's statements left the Ithorian feeling humbled, and cemented in Quillow's mind the situation here on Bunum would only continue to spiderweb; but Welck was not here to help him parse his thoughts and feelings. A sorrowful chill and ethereal pull of his spirit tugged at him, an empty feeling that he wasn't sure he'd be able to fill. And should
he try to fill it? Would the memories be lost, then, consumed by a desire for comfort? Welck and Quillow together sought to shoulder the burden of memory of those perhaps too weak or lacking—was he
even fit anymore?
Quillow shook the thoughts away as Yerin answered, reattuning himself to the conversation in front of him, desperate to get his mind on something else. He glanced around at the numerous tents, and once more at the officials' building in the distance. He had a sense their other companions were close to finishing their meeting, had they not already.
“I would thank the Bolmett for being most forthwith, and for her good graces,” he croaked, tenting his fingers and bowing once again.
He glanced at Yerin, and back to the official's building, “Perhaps we might rejoin the others first, as they may wish to speak with some of the miners, as well.”
“Yeah, don’t mention it,” Bolmett said as she turned her attention back to her wounded compatriots, tacitly signalling that she had no more to say to the Jedi.
Some forty meters behind Bolmett, a Duros miner waved a red cloth in the air as though to call the Jedi toward her. In her tent, few beside the two outsiders could see her—it seemed that she was calling for their attention specifically.
The ribbon of red caught the attention of the Ithorian, who tapped Yerin gently on the shoulder and pointed the signal out. Without another word, Quillow lumbered forth, leathery fingers pulling back the flaps of the tent as he entered, though his height and general awkward anatomy left little in the way of comfort or grace; these tents clearly weren't made for someone of his size. He resigned to growing comfortable with a stoop.
“This one greets you and would know what you wish?”
“My name is Gunni Simris and I need your help. Can you and your friends meet me later behind the fans?” the Duros whispered, her red eyes furtively glancing to and fro. “There are too many prying eyes here—but we desperately need any aid you can provide.”
Quillow joined her in taking suspicious glances at her mention, seeing she was suddenly cautious. Nothing caught his eyes, but he admitted he didn’t know what he was looking for in the first place. If this was to be clandestine, they’d better make this meeting quick.
“We could certainly meet you,” Quillow replied with a brisk nod, one foot already out of the door.
“Thank you,” Simris said, swallowing nervously as she considered her next words, settling upon them in a flash of recollection. Though no Jedi herself, she spoke them almost like a prayer: “May the Force be with you.”