At six o’clock the next morning—so very, very early—JT’s alarm goes off. She lies snuggled under the covers for just a few moments longer. “All right,” she then tells herself, “all right, let’s do this!” With a heave, she flings off the covers. Still clad in her comfy black poofy pants and soft, long-sleeved gray V-neck, she shuffles down the halls of Dame Metropolis towards the botanical gardens. The corridors have an entirely different feel at this early hour. She passes joggers, elderly couples, people out walking pets. It occurs to her that Kerr-Lonn-Ny has probably already finished her daily triathlon by now. Even the hall lighting has a softer glow, as though a sun or two is just rising over an absent horizon. JT looks around her with slowly widening eyes, taking in the strangely peaceful vibe. “I didn’t even know they had this!” she marvels.
Kerr-Lonn-Ny and Tcho have been spending time in the gardens in the mornings, but they are not there when JT enters. Neither is Ursa Diol, who she is supposed to be meeting. While she waits, JT admires her surroundings. Not just the plants, but also the impressive holographic installation that creates the illusion of an open blue sky. The true ceiling is probably an extra deck’s distance above, based on the tallest trees she observes, but the illusion of continuing height extends much farther than that. She idly considers what flying through here with her jetpack would be like. And then I’d be able to get close enough to dismantle one of those projectors to take a look at how they work…
JT’s mental meandering is cut off by the sound of her full name. Ursa Diol is right on time, the day’s schedule having not yet had time to slip. Her approach is not accompanied by the familiar clacking of heels, as she, too, is in more relaxed attire: a loose purple tunic and slipper-like flats. “Ursa! How are you doing? It’s so nice in the morning! They had all these dim lights out. I have not been out this early before.” JT goes on to admit that she had not actually been in the garden area at all yet. “I really should have. It’s good to get planet-side sometimes and see the plant life.”
They begin to stroll among the plants. JT lets Ursa lead the way and start the conversation. The older woman asks after JT’s meditation practice to see how compatible their styles are. JT does not want to spend the whole conversation lying to Ursa, but the Jedi code is not a good way to start things off. She tries to come up with some other believable description, pulling on a few details that are sort of true. “I’ve known a few really cool artists in my time, and I find the different ways they capture what they see with their work to be really fascinating. I try to focus on what they were trying to capture when they made the piece I’m contemplating. I don’t know if you know this, but I’ve spent a lot of time living on desert worlds. You can only stare at so much sand, so looking at something else is always neat. Have you heard of Jeppo Jr? He’s an excellent artist, and he did an interesting piece of a complex nebula in the style of a super-old artist, Val Isa. I’ve used that piece a lot to help me focus. I spend a lot of time working on ships, and that puts it all in the larger space.” JT can see that she is losing Ursa with her wandering explanation. “So! This natural space is a little unfamiliar to me, but that’s why it’s fun to try out!”
Has this woman ever actually meditated? Ursa Diol wonders. This Jai Tessa presents a rather confusing and incongruent picture. She has claimed that she used to be a starship engineer and now she is an event planner. She speaks of so much time spent on ships but also in deserts. And these artists—Ursa has certainly never heard of them. It all just sounds like one big disconnected story, like she has fabricated a commonality to gain approval. Ursa supposes that the younger woman may have invited her to meditate simply to continue their conversation from yesterday. If that is the case, Ursa will have to take the lead on this morning’s practice. Not a problem, of course. Not so different from my career.
JT is content to follow along with Ursa rather than share her Jedi mantra. The older woman leads her to the labyrinth section of the gardens, where tall hedges create a single one-way path lacking the branching that a maze would have. Okay, I got this, JT thinks. I can walk. She is prone to wandering, both physically and mentally, so keeping to a path is normally quite challenging for her, but she is willing to give this a try.
As they proceed, Ursa explains that the labyrinth allows one to clear the mind because there are no choices to make about where to go. “You are simply moving forward, and the walls guide you to where you need to be.” She rates the Dame’s labyrinth as acceptable, though she comments that it does not provide as authentic an experience as she would have at her own back home.
That evaluation catches JT’s attention. Elaiza, particularly in their most recent training sessions, insists on her Jedi teachings as being the one right way to meditate. “What makes one more authentic than the other?” JT asks. She examines the bushes around her and then tilts her head back to gaze upward. “Is it the holographic sky? ‘Cause it’s really cool.”
Ursa clarifies that she was not intending to demean other meditation practices. Rather, she personally cannot meditate in this location to the same depth that she would be able to when in the natural setting in which her technique was developed. “The labyrinth I have back home is a coral reef that I would be swimming through, a three-dimensional labyrinth.” She gestures up at the blue illusion above them that still has half of Jai Tessa’s attention. “So even that distraction is not available.”
“I haven’t heard of that underwater style before. Is it from Naboo?” JT asks. “Or some oceanic world?” She has never been to such a planet. She did date a Nautolan in college but things never got serious enough for him to invite her back home to Glee Anselm. And DRS’s contribution to stopping the aquatic sentient plague never actually took them to Dac.
“It’s an ancient practice from the planet Naboo, predating its colonization by human settlers,” Ursa explains. JT jerks her attention back to the present, particularly interested in what her companion has to say about the full sensory experience of using an underwater labyrinth. “You cannot feel air around you the way that you feel water around you. And also, when we walk here in the air, sound is very different from what you would experience underwater. The auditory sensations, the tactile sensations—completely different.”
JT is no swimmer, having never ventured out in anything wilder than the hot springs at Blue Spring Lodge, but there are elements of what Ursa is saying to which she can relate. She takes oil baths to relax, and part of what is so soothing about them is the feel of the oil on her skin, so different from the harsh dry air of the desert or the overly-conditioned cold air of a starship. Moreover, as a jetpack enthusiast, JT can certainly appreciate three-dimensional movement. “Three dimensions, yeah. That makes sense. I’ve done some work in space,”—just yesterday, for example— “and atmosphere, too… I know most organics haven’t, but have you ever tried an oil bath?” Ursa’s single raised eyebrow answers that question. “It’s a really calming thing for me. You feel safe, like nothing can get you. The oil creates a nice protective barrier. It’s also just… thoughts of home, I guess,” she trails off quietly.
Ursa considers the collection of non sequiturs that is Jai Tessa. Desert planets, oil baths… what is this woman’s home? “Are you normally stationed on a ship?” she asks.
“I grew up on a ship. I went to school on a somewhat obscure Outer Rim planet; I went to Tusk University of Tatooine.”
“As in, Eli Tusk, the tech entrepreneur?” At the blue-haired woman’s nod, Ursa resigns herself to facing the day without the centering she usually gets from meditation. There is too much talking, of course, and just being around Jai Tessa, the perpetual distraction, defeats the very purpose of the labyrinth. But more than that, the woman has unwittingly stirred up issues with which Ursa has been grappling for years. She considers shutting down the conversation to try to get in some truly meditative time, but there is value in talking things through with a neutral, disinterested party, and so she continues the line of discussion. Perhaps this sunny sounding board, with no stake in the fate of Naboo, will provide the fresh perspective that Ursa needs to truly make progress.
JT, on the other hand, finds the whole experience of the labyrinth meditation quite pleasant. Elaiza’s style requires JT to be folded up on the ground trying to remember a mantra she only half agrees with. She wonders whether Val Isa, who lived so long ago, meditated the same way that Elaiza does. JT is a very antsy, mobile person. For her to just sit down with her eyes closed and clear her mind is quite difficult. Trying out another meditation technique—a moving one, no less—is very helpful to JT. Without the need to focus on stilling herself, she can focus on other things. Once she really gets in the zone, she closes her eyes and lets the Force guide her steps forward rather than relying on the topiary walls. In three dimensions, she imagines, the experience would be even better. She would just go wherever the Force led her. I’ll have to try this out with the jetpack sometime. But Ursa is talking again, and she needs to tune into that!
“Yes, Tusk, he has his hands in many technological areas. We’ve benefitted from his expertise in various facilities on Naboo. What is your degree in?” When JT replies that she studied starship engineering, Ursa comments, “Ah, that’s not the type of technology that the moff was acquiring from Tusk.”
“I got really into Tusk because of his starship stuff, but do you mind if I ask what he was helping you with?” Not bindercuffs or repulsor traps, I hope. “I know these days especially, he’s involved in a lot of different things. Of course, he converted his company into a variety of charities. It’s very noble of him. There’s some controversy about his early business dealings, though.” That’s someone I was able to fix, JT reiterates to herself, shoring up her resolve that reforming the moff is not an unreachable target. Maybe something similar will work here. Her eyes drift back up to the projected sky as she reminisces about the holographic ghost she worked up to prompt Tusk’s conscience.
“In addition to starship parts, there are a lot of components in other industrial systems that use technology developed by Tusk. About five years ago we negotiated the contracts with him to put the refineries in place along Lake Paonga and install the drilling platforms.”
As Ursa continues on about Tusk’s visit to Naboo and his demonstration of the “highly efficient” equipment he had developed, JT racks her brain. Lake Paonga… Lake Paonga… The name sounds very familiar to JT. Sure, it was mentioned in the news broadcast yesterday, but there is something else. Then she remembers; she can even see the tagline across the bottom of the bottle in her mind’s eye: Bottled at Lake Paonga, straight from the source! “The model 37A Tusk refineries?” she blurts out. “Ugh, those things!” JT frowns. Maybe synthetic blends are better, after all. “They spew all sorts of gasses into the atmosphere. They pollute the water terribly. And the oil you get out… I wouldn’t take a bath in that! Why would Moff Panaka want that? Shouldn’t he be standing for the good of all the people on Naboo?”
Ursa wonders how Jai Tessa, given the very weighty nature of the charity she serves, can still be so naive. What does the good of Naboo have to do with any of this? But Ursa toes the company line. “The moffs are at the service of the Emperor, and everything they do is to make the Empire stronger. How wonderful it is that Naboo has so many resources to contribute to the Imperial good.”
JT hears her companion’s words, but she also notes her dead eyes. It seems Ursa is quite practiced at hiding what she truly feels from those around her. “Did the moff actually approve this?”
“What, do you think I managed this all myself and hid from my superior what I was doing? Of course the moff approved the oil processing. We of Naboo are very proud of the much-needed oil we supply to the Imperial fleet.”
“Does he not know what those facilities are doing to the planet?” JT presses. “Aren’t the Gungans an underwater civilization? Don’t they need Lake Paonga pristine to stay healthy? I mean, he’s the moff; all the people of Naboo are his responsibility. Those are his people, too; he needs to be taking care of them. Sure, his authority is bestowed by the Emperor, but his charge is to care for his people. He’s responsible for faithfully executing his delegated duties. He’s got to get resources, sure, but if he’s hurting his own people in the process…” JT’s articulation fails her. She feels a little out of her depth with the whole political discussion. Generally she stays on the edges of the Empire, avoiding it as much as she can. Renci may have bought into the Rebel cause, but JT had her fill of war during her childhood when Christophsis was overrun.
JT picks back up her argument perhaps not quite where she left off. “Surely he knew the dangers, then! Why would he proceed this way? Why choose that tech? Even five years ago, there were better ways to extract and process—” She gets worked up, tripping over her words. “Sure, it might be the cheapest way you could do it, but it’s only cheaper in the short term. But in the long term—He’s the moff! Isn’t the longer term view exactly what he needs? Couldn’t anyone have done something about that? Was no one in a position to do something?”
Ursa is momentarily taken aback by the flood of words. Up until now, Jai Tessa has seemed naive and distractible. The only focus she has been able to demonstrate is on her own gala. But now under this barrage at the center of the labyrinth, Ursa feels as far from centered as possible. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she snaps back. “Life is not as simple in Imperial hallways as it is on the rim. You ask why no one did something? The setup we have on Paonga now is the compromise! The number of refineries and platforms, their locations, that was the best I could do. How dare you presume to think that no one tried!”
JT does not bat an eye at the ruffled feathers before her. Her friends get worked up all the time, and when Kash yells at JT, she generally has something sharp nearby. But still, she should probably dial it back a bit. “Whoa, whoa, I wasn’t saying anything about you,” she assures Ursa. “I just don’t see how the moff could do something like that. How did he get to a point in his life where that is the acceptable compromise from his perspective? Was the moff always like this? I mean, you said you were hoping this cruise would help clear his head. Is there any way we could help it clear even more? You’ve been super helpful getting the moff to agree to come to the gala. I want him to have a good time at it, and I imagine you do, too. How can I help you out with this?”
Ursa Diol looks at what is before her, here in the middle of the labyrinth. She sees a spunky bundle of contradictions, but she also sees someone completely disconnected from Imperial politics. A sounding board with perhaps no repercussions. Someone without the will or the access to leak this discussion back to underlings who will backstab her or to the moff himself, who might finally snap completely. It is a risk, taking this woman into her confidence. But it is a risk that Ursa has been looking for the right opportunity to take for years. Now seems to be that time. Maybe there is hope.