Space spiraled into a mottled limbo, suspending them from reach of outside worlds. Sabé stared into it, feeling like a band that had just been stretched past snapping point and now lay finished and discarded on the floor.
Saché sighed and leaned back in her seat. A minute of silence hung between them, and then she tapped the edge of the control panel.
"So." Another pause. "You are being taken to the wastelands."
"Yes." Sabé's throat felt dry and itchy, but she resisted the urge to clear it. Too much noise, too much effort.
Saché pressed her lips together, then turned to Sabé, her jaw decidedly businesslike but her dark, familiar eyes uncertain and hesitant. "Most of the … particulars have been taken care of."
Sabé knew what her old friend was trying to say, and she could make it easier, but her mouth was dried shut. When a person was sent to the wastelands, he or she was effectively erased from society. The wastelands weren't a prison or retreat or rehabilitation center. Those places served a purpose, as did those who occupied them. You vanished. You didn't die or go 'missing.' Those people had records, legacies, trails. All records of her would disappear. Any money or property she had would be absorbed by charity without bearing the tax or records, with a certain percentage going toward the wastelands. Throughout Naboo's history, some had protested that family members should inherit 'lost' money and property, but it was always agreed that the wastelands would become dumping grounds for those victimized by conniving family members (not that anyone wanted to admit any Naboo would stoop to such measures).
But her family would realize what had happened. When her share in her father's guild disappeared and all evidence of her apart from their own memories vanished … they would know.
Sabé closed her eyes and bit her inner lip.
"Do you … do you want me to talk to them?" Saché asked quietly.
"No." She sucked in a breath through her nose and looked pointedly at the other woman. "You're not allowed."
"I know." Matter-of-fact, so like Saché.
Sabé looked away at the vortex of hyperspace. Would she forever be left in hyperspace? That's what the wastelands were, another displaced emptiness, only it rarely carried a being anywhere beyond the carved void. No defined term, no tasks. Prisoners across the galaxy were often employed to manufacture, assemble, or repair items or provide services; they were giving back to society. Stripping her of even that … the Senator had chosen her punishment well, and the former handmaiden doubted her former queen would issue a pardon.
Saché sighed. "I wonder if the old Sabé is still in there."
Looking down at the hands folded in her lap, Sabé thought, "I don't even know the answer to that."
"Or you're afraid of it."
Sabé looked up sharply—she'd spoken aloud. Then she quickly faced the hyperspace swirl. Saché had always known her so well.
In the silence that fell between them, Saché reached over to the knotted braid, soon to be the only evidence of Sabé's deed and existence. Delicately, as if the thick weave was made of glass, Saché picked up the braid, her brow furrowed as she studied it with the same intensity she used years ago on Queen Amidala's braids. Sabé's stomached lurched; she looked away into the hyper-void, hoping to become hypnotized by stars mutated into lines that dissolved into warbled swirls. It was unwise to stare into it for long, like staring into a sun …
"She didn't tell me much," Saché said, after how long, Sabé didn't know. The other woman's voice was quiet, but it banged against the hum of the engines. "And I know you won't tell me much."
Sabé fought to pull out of the magnetic abyss. Dizziness swept up from her stomach, pushed up through her head and out her eyes. Saché had set the contrition knot down again and seemed to be looking at Sabé's ear rather than her face.
"What did she tell you?"
Saché's shoulders relaxed slightly, then tensed up. She kept her eyes fastened just far enough away from Sabé. "Well … that she married Jedi Skywalker, for one. Thatis baffling."
"Have you met him?"
"No." Saché scowled. "But I've kept tabs on her, and, of course, there was the wedding. I still don't understand it, on his part. Aren't Jedi celibate? I very much remember money being exchanged on this."
"Yes," Sabé said, to cover the sting in her chest. Saché was not trying to joke or reminisce over a night so full of relief and celebration, and perhaps that's what hurt so much. She wasn't avoiding it, nor was she trying to soothe over their wound.
"Naboo has become a sort of moral compass these past couple of years," Saché went on. "When this gets out, and it will, because neither of them seems particularly skilled at discretion anymore, despite their 'secret wedding'—Naboo's going to lose what pull it does have in the Senate. Our ideas will be preceded by 'there's that renegade Senator from Naboo with her renegade Jedi husband.'"
Saché shook her head, pushed an imaginary loose hair away from her face. The cabin lights glinted off her dark, tight bun. She pressed her lips together, gave her head another shake, and let her eyes roam for a minute before looking at Sabé's ear again. Now, Sabé sensed, she would say what she truly wanted to say.
"You … it's true you tried to kill Skywalker." Saché said it flatly, but Sabé could read the miniscule hope there, a hint of a question, as if Sabé could deny it.
Saché's face became unreadable for a long moment, now that reality was undeniable. "You won't tell me why, of course."
Sabé just tried to meet her former friend's gaze. Of course she wouldn't tell. Nor would she say, He killed innocent and not-so-innocent people, and Amidala knew this and still married him. He would've killed me, too, understandably, but he had to hurt me first.
"You have your reasons."
"Yes." Sabé waited until Saché met her gaze. "But I will not justify them."
Saché's appeared to be the careful study of blankness, then she tilted her head to the side. "You know, I think there's very much the old Sabé in you. Just a demented hyperbole of the old girl."
Sabé raised an eyebrow. In that instant, she saw at seventeen-year-old Saché throwing her a cross-eyed look from underneath her cowl as they listened to Sio Bibble blather relentlessly in the throne room in Theed. Sigh-o Babble, Saché used to mutter behind closed doors …
"I should've never left Naboo without telling you first," Sabé said quietly. Though her eyes were dry, she felt them tighten, as if searching for a release.
"Yes. You should have."
They stared at one another, and Sabé remembered more clearly than ever how a strange five-year-old girl had come up to her in the village's common pasture, stood with her hands on her hips, wildflowers tangled in her hair, and declared, "I just got here, and you're going to help me get into Old Man Torti's cabinet, andthen we'll be friends, you'll see." Sabé who had been lying on her stomach, studying the wriggling adventure of two furry wollipurs in the grass, had only hesitated a moment. The dirtied, hemmed trousers and wild hair spoke trouble, but Saché had been so sure and Sabé so bored and wishing it wasn't a school holiday that she'd jumped to her feet. She could see a path of trouble under Saché's feet, but it had felt right somehow …
Then Saché had stormed into the Thasyin house, upset because her parents believed her to be too immature for Theed. They finally relented after Sabé spoke to them. The girls plotted it out beforehand. The training would "sort out the mischievous attribute," and Sabé would be a "guiding influence." Yet Sabé had an equal hand in the pranks, and now … now Sabé was the banished one and Saché carried a delicate but heavy responsibility in the planet's security.
Sabé forced her mind back to the present, back to the woman studying her intently. It was painfully tempting to think about the past, when things were simpler, she was so sure of her place and not concerned for her fate—but it would be cruel to reminisce, because the present right now was riding hard the edge of unbearable—
The ship shuddered. Sabé's senses jumped to the present as the guidance panel blurted in alarm and Saché swore fiercely.
The Gazer jerked and lines stretched across the viewscreen, shook, and turned into distant stars and the infinite void hyperspace had been hiding them from.
Saché scrambled over the panel, shaking her head and muttering. "We were due for real space in two minutes, but—" The radar blinked erratically. "—I think—look—do you see anything? Anyone?"
Sabé was already looking, heart pounding in her ears as she tried to stretch out with the Force. "You don't think it was a net, do you?"
"I don't know, they're very unreliable, pirates rarely use them, it would take some amazing planning and organizing—it's pinpoint coordinates—" Saché's stopped, and Sabé's stomach clenched into an icy fist. They stared at one another. There was no need to say it. Together, they scanned the viewscreen as the radar continued to seizure.
We were due out just skirting the edge of the Koornacht Cluster, Sabé thought quickly. What did she know about this region? Not much … No one did. It was Deep Core but sparsely populated and difficult to navigate through.
"How about some new coordinates?" Sabé muttered.
"I'm trying, but my instruments are—"
"What was—?" Sabé held the question and concentrated on what had flickered across her eyes and mind, near the top left corner of the viewscreen. The stars were distant, but the Koornacht Cluster, if one looked longer than a second but did not look directly into it, could make out a filmy sort of fog among the scattered stars. Closer suns beamed almost lazily through the fog, which had the disorienting affect of neither appearing close or far away.
Concentrate. Sabé blocked the instrumental sounds and Saché's cursing as she focused on whatever had caught her attention. It seemed to form under or behind space, like an object coming out from behind a curtain. Soaking up whatever distant light hit it, the structure's rotation was nearly imperceptible. No lights flickered around the cross-shaped paneling, so she could not be certain of its shape, but Sabé had a sinking feeling it was indeed an obscure but effective jump net. Which meant someone was bound to show up any moment now.
"I will punch you if you finish that thought," the other snapped.
Sabé glanced over to find Saché removing a plate and exposing the underbelly of the control panel.
"Is there anyone else you tried to kill that I should know about?"
"No. They're dead."
Saché paused and glanced up. "Not sure whether to be relieved or bothered by that."
"What are you doing?"
"A little bypassing. If I can jump us out of here, even, say, a little to the left, I can get us back online and out of here before whoever wants us dead shows up."
Sabé mentally swore and turned back to the viewscreen. One of the mechanics in the royal hangar had taken a shine to Saché years ago, much to the chagrin of Captain Panaka. Hotwiring was generally frowned upon, even if it wasn't to lift palace property or skirt security nets. Obviously Saché had expanded her knowledge, and Sabé wondered how many other systems beyond Naboo ships Saché could manipulate.
So much about her I don't know, she thought sadly, for a moment forgetting the present situation. The fear in her chest sank under a leaden sorrow that she would not have a chance to know Saché again.
The lights flickered and Saché mumbled something as she peered deep inside the control panel. Then a tremble rolled up from the stern and Sabé had a very bad feeling. The radar screamed and went dead.
"That's bad." Saché sat up and scratched the tip of her nose. She slammed the panel plate shut and grabbed the manual controls.
The Gazer bucked, keeled starboard, and then bucked violently to port against Saché's guidance before grinding to a halt.
"Locked," Sabé bit out.
"You know, it's common courtesy to let your catch see you," Saché said with half-hearted air.
"Why don't you mention it when they come aboard?"
Saché removed the blaster from her hip holster. "Think I will, now you mention it." She stood up, stretched an arm to a small compartment above the viewscreen and removed another blaster. After she checked the battery, she tossed it to Sabé and started toward the cockpit entrance.
Sabé gripped the blaster. Saché had tossed it to her without thought. A level of trust still existed between them. A tightness enveloped her as she stood up. Whatever was about to happen, she would see Saché through it.
The Gazer shuddered with a dull, heavy thud near the entrance. Saché's jaw visibly clenched as she held her blaster ready. The lights flickered again and the hair along Sabé's neck stood on end as a pulse disengaged the ship's gangway circuit. She wanted to place herself between Saché and the intruder, but the other woman was locked in her position and Sabé would only break her focus. Instead, she moved to the left side, noting all the tight angles a missed shot could ricochet off of and make the situation very bad very quickly.
There was a faint click from beyond the hull, and then two long seconds of nothing. Sabé tried to reach out to the Force, but it slipped away, leaving a trail of frustration. She took a deep breath—Don't think about that, it'll make things worse—
The gangway opened—Saché shifted, ready to spring—Sabé's mind went deliciously blank as her muscles took over—the shadowy flicker of movement preceded their predator's entrance—
Saché fired, the sharp, short whine exploding in Sabé's ears. Her finger tightened and she saw Anakin Skywalker whirl around, eyes red with rage, before he collapsed against Padmé. Then her vision snapped back into place as the twin bolts disappeared into the figure. Absorbed, her mind started to whisper—but then—
A red bolt flashed—Saché cried out—dropped—
NO! Sabé fired at the same moment blue flashed toward her—
Pain, then nothing.
A hiss and beat signaled Razak that the air decompression was complete. He didn't spare a glance to the body now floating outside the NT-Gazer's hull, though he did pass the ship a look, promising to return for it. The small nob of an instrument, fastened just under the nook for a disengaged drag fin, gave a quick yellow link. It was not as thorough as a cloaking device, but it caused less disruption than a scrambler. With so little traffic passing through the Koornacht Cluster, he doubted the pseudo-cloaker even had a need, but he wasn't about to give the NT-Gazer away if he didn't have to.
Being resourceful and utilizing both living and material assets were at the core of Razak's philosophy. No honor code, that was for sure. Honor codes got in the way. He'd seen what they did to others in this business of skillful, hired help. It led to shot backs, betrayal, and complications in tense situations. Some employers respected honor codes; it boiled down to misplaced trust in the code and hired help. If someone didn't take advantage of your honorable philosophy, that code would take care of you. And how did you blast a personal code without hitting yourself?
Razak settled into the crash seat, flexed his double-jointed fingers over his skiff's controls.
This had been an easy assignment. Smooth, as the Count's tended to be. The man had a taste for power and the flamboyant, but he kept the latter reserved for special occasions. Well-connected, well-funded, and well-minded … that was how Razak liked them. Of course, he didn't trust the Count anymore than the Count trusted him. The moment Razak took a misstep or ceased to be useful, the Count would no doubt kill him—but Razak intended to be long gone by then. And the Count knew this, too, because Razak believed in an upfront working relationship.
He was not in this for the bloodthirst, like so many out there, nor did he have naïve aspirations of striking the right job and retiring on some paradise moon, surrounded by concubines, riches, and not a care in the galaxy. That was boring and stupid. No, he was good, this was interesting, and he intended to be where the power was at.
He ran a thin tongue over his pointed teeth as he powered the No Drop's engines and angled the skiff toward Kutag, it's sun, Doornik-881, nothing more than another hazy orb in the distance.
The power certainly was not where it once was, and the galaxy was slowly starting to catch on. Razak would ride ahead of the crest. The Count was not his only present employer, and Razak had a mind enough to know the Count would not be pleased where else Razak was dipping his claws. Oh yes, Razak knew the power was not necessarily seeping out of the Republic. In fact, it was gathering at its core, and he wondered almost absently how the rocks would shatter when that wave punched against the shoreline.
But he was not about to underestimate the Count, either.
It would almost be a pity when that wave hit the shore. Both his top employers were content to let Razak take other jobs between their assignments because they understood the need to weave and gather—his assets would become theirs—and he was more than happy to take advantage of their own. A symbiotic relationship, if one wanted to get warm and fuzzy about it. But when it all broke loose, he would doubted he would have quite as many opportunities. He might even have to make a life or death alliance choice.
Razak flipped to autopilot and unfolded his taut limbs from the crash seat. He hadn't bothered closing the cockpit to the other compartments. Idly, he ambled over to the prone figure strapped on a crash bench aft of the 'fresher closet. He crouched, the back claw behind each heel rising as his legs folded. He tilted his head to the side, scanning the unconscious woman. With the claw of his index digit, he moved the uneven hair away from her face. A faint red line marked his path across her nose and cheek.
This small human had captured and killed a top bounty hunter. The Slissian had not been an ally or comrade, Razak never had those, but she had been a partner and sort of crosshair on a few assignments. She was out for blood. Killing Jedi Padawans must have been the ultimate thrill for her (it was a job full of opportunities for Razak). This was what happened to the thrill-seekers, Razak thought. They wound up dead at the hands of someone who popped out of nothingness.
Sabé Mabriee. A royal bodyguard that disappeared and then reappeared on the trail of a few showy mercenaries. She used practical tactics, found the best pebble to drop in a pond causing the least amount of ripple. No doubt she overpowered the Slissian mercenary using tactics not dissimilar from Razak's own.
He grinned as he stared at the still, crumpled form. The foolish believed in showing themselves to their enemy, whether it be for the challenge, fairness, or poetic element. Not Razak. Why open himself like that? It was far more practical to use his pin-thin camera scope to peer into the NT-Gazer's gangway, spot his capture, and know exactly how and where to shoot before exposing himself. From what he'd seen of Mabriee and knew of the Naboo agent, they would have marked him in the time it took to enter, assess, and shoot.
The mercenary pinched the camera scope from his hide vest pocket, rolling the thin instrument between two clawed fingers. It didn't cost that much, but it paid for itself over and over. How bizarre and saddening that it was not utilized by more? Then again, he would have more competition …
The woman twitched. Yes, she was due to come out of the stun effect soon. Razak stood up, his armor creaking along his joints. Frob'plar hide absorbed blaster bolts better than any synthetic armor. Pity no one had the foresight to save a few for breeding and manufacturing purposes before the species was wiped out. He'd only procured this set by beheading its previous wearer.
Razak retrieved the small kit from an overhead compartment. Mabriee twitched again, murmured. She was no danger. He had her strapped immobile on the bench, but the Count seemed to agree that captives were easier unconscious. No need to feed or listen to them.
The Count had given him a "preferred solution." Razak, if he wanted to take the time or energy, could analyze it, but he didn't care. If it kept her out, that was fine.
He removed the cap from the syringe and folded himself down. The needle glinted in red-cast interior light. Pressing a claw against her inner arm, he coaxed a vein toward the surface, absently marveling at her delicate build. He never underestimated someone by their appearance (in his early days, he was nearly incapacitated by a tiny creature not even a meter tall), but every now then he wondered about all the different forms of training that culminated into seemingly innocuous weapons.
Then he pushed the needle into her vein. The clear solution tightened her arm muscles before she went utterly still.
Time to let the Count know he was on his way.
Over the past decade, Obi-Wan had grown somewhat used to the curious eyes that tended to follow his travels through the Jedi Temple. He doubted he would ever be comfortable with the scrutiny and speculation, but he'd come to accept it as an element of training Anakin Skywalker, the potential Chosen One, and how he'd come to that position. If he was walking alone, he could usually pass unnoticed; Anakin had a tendency to command all eyes to him and usually managed to 'accidentally' overstep Obi-Wan's shoulder because 'his legs were longer.' The older Jedi pretended to pay the following gazes no mind, so most stares and furtive glances came from Padawans and younglings.
But now Obi-Wan walked alone.
And all eyes followed him.
Obi-Wan had taken to service passages and obscure, roundabout corridors as much as possible. Although Jedi were imbued with the art of discretion from an early age, word of Anakin's departure from the Order had gotten around these past couple of days. No one had approached him about it, but the usually serene haven buzzed with heady whispers, its walls were alive with wondering minds. How far the speculation went, Obi-Wan didn't know, nor did he care to find out. Did they think Anakin left or was forced out? Obi-Wan supposed he should clarify that Anakin left on his own accord, but that did not seem entirely accurate of the Council's stance and decision, had they been given the chance to motion and approve the former Padawan's dismissal.
Furthermore—and Obi-Wan loathed himself for it—he was not entirely certain Anakin deserved a clean break. Looking at the facts, both great and small, seeing how they worked together to form the Unifying Force … he was good at that, but it was tempting to dwell in the Living Force already lost in the past. Whenever he entered the empty apartment, Obi-Wan only felt the vacuum of memories of Anakin—insolent, mischievous, astounding, volatile … and sincere. Whatever Anakin was at any given moment, he was genuine and sincere. Pure.
Even when he was lying. Anakin usually lied for a greater reason. Even when it was selfish, the ultimate intent had a serving cause.
The apartment had become a suffocating trap, so Obi-Wan sought peace in meditation chambers, the Room of a Thousand Waterfalls, buried and distracted in the Archives … to no avail. Once out in the corridors, he wanted to hide from the wondering gazes, the murmurs of those who were saying they'd expected this all along or wanted to express their concern. But he couldn't hide. Nor could he run, as yet another journey through the Temple was proving.
Obi-Wan found himself wandering down one of the lesser used service passages. The door on the end was open to a greater chamber beyond, and as he neared it, he realized it was one of the reserve hangars. Lights were on, and he could faintly hear the whir of a maintenance droid. This hangar he'd only occasioned once or twice before for missions that weren't on record. Seasoned Knights and Masters were aware of the unmarked Jedi fleet, and although it was not directly said, those off-the-record missions were becoming more frequent these past few years. (Of course, how could you accurately measure that without the record?)
The frequency was about to increase, Obi-Wan was willing to bet. Outside the Temple's great walls, Coruscant was vibrating with news bigger than the dissension of a Jedi Padawan. Battle had broken on the Outer Rim, and several more worlds had announced their intentions to join the Confederacy of Independent Systems.
The galaxy was exploding around him, and yet all Obi-Wan could do was wander aimlessly. It had only just occurred to him a couple hours earlier as he'd emerged from the Room of a Thousand Waterfalls, after an only somewhat productive meditation, what Anakin's failure to become a Jedi would mean beyond Obi-Wan's emotions and personal misgivings.
Jedi Knights were not deemed failures if their Padawans did not succeed, but Obi-Wan knew his failure in training Anakin was just short of disaster. Was the silence by the Council actually a sign they were re-assessing Obi-Wan's own condition as a Jedi? Would he be taken off active duty? It had been so long since Obi-Wan had cause to be concerned for his own status within the Jedi Order, and the once pestering fear in his past started to worry him. If the Council thought he would better serve the Order off the active list, Obi-Wan would obey them accordingly. It stung, but he could see reasoning behind it. Perhaps it would be better to let him sort things out before diving into the brink of war. Yet wouldn't it be better to not let him sit and stew?
It does not matter, he told himself. It was not about him, Obi-Wan, but about the Order and the Republic. Rushing off to escape the void Anakin had left behind was entirely the wrong reason to embark on a mission. And, Obi-Wan knew his Padawan's loss would only be more poignant out there.
Add into the mix that stubborn, tiny hope he could somehow bring Anakin back.
Obi-Wan paused in the entrance to the hangar. Expertly-maintained scuffed hulls shone dully under illumination banks. His eyes fastened immediately on the practical lines of the Lorian and he swallowed against a dry throat. The small craft rested on its landing spokes, the ramp was lowered, and its inside glowed from soft service lights. Obi-Wan stepped forward, both repulsed and mesmerized by the sight of it.
A service droid wheeled around the Lorian's bow and beeped, but the Jedi paid it no mind. It had been two days since Sabé had left for her exile on Naboo. He'd woken up that night in a cold sweat, too uneasy for having placed himself in a sleep trance (regular sleep seemed like an impossible dream). The image of her lying unconscious and bleeding on the floor had been imprinted in his mind until dawn, a lasting vestige of what Anakin had done. Yet it had felt fresh that night, and his sleep trance should have cleared his mind every night.
Staring at the Lorian now, Obi-Wan pushed the chilling scene from his mind and stepped toward the ship. The droid beeped pointedly, but the Jedi ignored it. He felt another presence lurking nearby, like a tiny animal peering from behind a tree, uncertain whether an intruder was friend or foe.
"Hello, Kailje," Obi-Wan said quietly, turning toward the presence.
A jumpsuit-clad, petite figure slowly came around the Lorian's stern, and Obi-Wan caught a whiff of grease, cleaner, and flowery perfume. A heart-shaped, pale blue face with large, dark eyes smiled shyly at Obi-Wan.
"Hi, Knight Kenobi," said Kailje, her round cheeks brightening. Her navy jumpsuit was covered with darker streaks, and her small waist was obscured by a utility belt from which hung a datapad, spanner, and various tools. A short, thick shock of rusty, curly hair topped her head, and Obi-Wan would not have been surprised to find a cocktail of maintenance chemicals lost in the fray.
The maintenance droid warbled, tilted its narrow head, and then wheeled off around the Lorian's bow again.
"What brings you down here?" Kailje asked, one small but sturdy hand brushing the Lorian's hull as she stepped toward him. "You're not taking one of these out, are you?" Her eyes, already large, widened. "No one told me—I haven't got anyone prepped yet!"
"No, no, you're fine," Obi-Wan said soothingly. "I was just … out for a stroll."
"Oh, well …" Kailje deflated and inhaled. Obi-Wan absorbed her energy, which was a strange but refreshing mixture of openness and shyness that bubbled around the edges of his consciousness. She was not Force-sensitive, one of the few in the Jedi Temple. About twelve years ago, Knight Borto Honna learned she had a niece, whose parents' will bequeathed the girl to the Jedi upon their death. Honna, like nearly all Jedi, had no real ties to her family, but the Morlachi people took heritage very seriously. Had Honna refused Kailje, it would have essentially brought Morlach at war with the Republic.
Kailje, for her part, had taken to the Temple, and Obi-Wan supposed the Temple had taken to her. He didn't know who exactly had taken her under their wing, since Honna was an active duty Knight, but the child had found her place in the hangars and with the service droids. After a failed attempt to enroll her in a Coruscant academy, the Jedi Masters let the shy girl help and oversee the droids. Obi-Wan knew that although the girl was a flittering presence, many Jedi appreciated a living touch to the very mechanical atmosphere of the service docks.
The girl certainly had a knack for mechanics. Obi-Wan had on occasion observed her chattering and humming away to the droids as if they were living beings, her closest friends. She usually clammed up or hid from people, though over the years, she'd become much more approachable and occasionally prone to chatter.
If Anakin wasn't with him. One would think that two tinkerers would get on famously, but Anakin, on the few occasions the two had interacted, had been a little antagonistic. He was quick to point out when Kaijle was wrong or did not figure out the problem fast enough. Obi-Wan had sensed some resentment buried in Anakin: Kaijle's place at the Temple was unchallenged and she was not even Force-sensitive, whereas Anakin always seemed to be on shaky ground with the Jedi Council. So, Obi-Wan had made it a point to himself to offer encouragement to Kaijle when he could without looking like he was blatantly apologizing for Anakin's brusqueness (though he had apologized on occasion).
Kaijle's black, luminous eyes followed his gaze to the Lorian.
"New acquisition, she just came in a few days ago," she said, patting its conservative wing. "I like her. You don't see many of them around anymore—though I have, every now and then." She stepped toward the ramp, her boots thumping lightly.
Obi-Wan felt compelled to follow her.
The Lorian was empty and quiet, as if nothing terrible had occurred between its bulkheads. He stood just inside the opened ramp. What was he expecting? Some great moment of clarity? A tiny detail he might have missed?
"This is a good ship," Kaijle said, headed for the cockpit. "Not flashy or full of wasted juice. She's a clean, steady fly, I bet. Practical. That's probably why those covert ops people use them."
She slipped into the pilot's chair, blue fingers dancing across the control panel without touching any of the buttons. "Yep, a good fly, I bet."
"What are you prepping her for? A test flight?" Obi-Wan said, trying to sound nonchalant. Kaijle clearly lived in her own little world without connecting the Lorian to the latest Temple murmurs.
Kaijle nearly choked on a hysterical laugh. She clutched her chest and shook her head, a thin white rim showing around her eyes. "No! No, no, not me! I don't want to fall out of the sky!"
Obi-Wan chided himself. He'd forgotten Kaijle had an intense fear of flying.
"No," and Kaijle swallowed, shuddered, and then bubbled back to life. "Just cleaning her out and checking things over. Not that there was much to do. Whoever had this before us knew how to take care of her. Of course, Deetee found some blood deposits—Are you okay, Knight Kenobi?"
Obi-Wan blinked, then offered the girl a tight smile. "Sorry, I'm fine, Kaijle." He remembered scrubbing out the dried streaks and pools of their blood. Apparently he'd missed a few spots.
"You've been checking things over?" he said after a moment as Kaijle bent her head to check the datapad on her belt.
"Yep. Erased the nav history, any com-calls, that sort of thing. Wasn't much on there to begin with, though—hey."
Kaijle stopped, then bent low, her nose nearly touching the bottom front of the control panel. Obi-Wan could not imagine what held her so transfixed, and it was a good five seconds before she sat up, her white lips quirked to the side, young brow furrowed.
"That's odd," she said, then shrugged and ducked back down to her datapad.
Kaijle started, as if she'd forgotten Obi-Wan was even there. "Oh! Nothing, really. There's just this mark down there. A little sigil. I saw it before on a Lorian a few years ago. Probably one of the builders left a mark on every ship he built, they do that sometimes, you know."
Obi-Wan stepped forward and bent down, peering at the jointed curve where the floor and control panel met. His shadow almost obscured it, but there, thinly etched in the panel, were two slashes that crossed near their top ends. The bottom ends curved inward. They might have been scratches if not for the even perfection of their mark.
"You've seen this before?" he said, touching the sigil. He could feel no surface change under his fingertips.
"Yep. On a Lorian, too."
"When was this?" Could this be a clue? Some way to discover who was behind Sabé's actions? Was it a guild or clan symbol?
Kaijle shrugged. "Dunno, a few years ago." She tilted her head to the side, screwed up her face in concentration. "We had a couple ships come in, I helped with the upgrades. They weren't from the usual fleets. I remember seeing this mark on them, though."
Obi-Wan frowned and stood up, staring out of the viewscreen. Was it possible this was the same ship? If so, how did it come into Jedi hands before?
Kaijle's humming brought Obi-Wan back. She had her datapad plugged into the control panel, its screen flickered rapidly.
"You cleared out the history?" he said, trying to sound calm.
Kaijle jumped, as if she'd forgotten him again. An apologetic smile flitted across her face before she nodded. "Yep. Encrypted stuff, too. Can't access that, but I can sure delete it. Thought it would take me hours, but the system's aligned with ours, just tweaked a bit, so I had it in a pinch."
Obi-Wan closed his eyes and reached out to the Force to steady his racing thoughts and heart. No, he needed to clear his head and not make rash, wild assumptions. But it was difficult not to feel the pull of two Lorians—older ships favored by Republic ops—bearing the same mark, one upgraded a few years ago by the Jedi and now this one's internal memory and comm. aligned with the Jedi's system … Possibilities formed out of the melee in his mind, and the rational, hopeful part of his mind argued these were ridiculous and the product of stress, lack of sleep, and a succession of very bad days.
Was it possible this Lorian was part of the off-the-record fleet? It was quietly acknowledged among the older Jedi that some Knights and Masters operated 'without assignments.' Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon had completed missions of that sort, but it was also acknowledged in a not-talked-about way that there were even a select few who held very specialized positions in the Order. But there was no evidence and no real need to speculate. Whispers that the tradition of Jedi investigators and consulars were better left to the shadows. It made sense that the Jedi Council may be called to serve the Force beyond clandestine assignments for the Republic, or even within the Order.
But a bridge was forming … And Obi-Wan shifted uncomfortably over how the pieces could fit together. He had not made his distrust for political officers of the Republic a secret, but Obi-Wan did not want to indulge his misgivings and cloud his judgment. Yet given the disturbing ripples of conflict and battle erupting around him, he did not find it a great leap to suspect the Lorian and Sabé were a link to treachery within the Republic.
The Separatist movement had not been one of impulsion or without certain … regard in government or business factions. Jedi missions more often centered around entanglements connecting systems, businesses, and guilds than anything else. Count Dooku had been a high-ranking, deeply knowledgeable Jedi Master and now obviously ran deep in commerce and government alike. He would have known about the off-record fleet, quite possibly how to infiltrate the Order under its very nose and know how to twist it to his best advantage without bringing the entire Jedi Order against him—
Okay, maybe not that last part, Obi-Wan amended. He still was not certain if his discovery on Geonosis was entirely accidental or unanticipated. He had a feeling that if not that very day, Count Dooku had intended for someone to discover the droid army and catapult the galaxy into war. The logic, Obi-Wan couldn't quite follow yet, but he sensed that he was only seeing a very small corner of the picture.
Now, if Count Dooku—or worse yet, another faction or traitor in the Republic—was behind this, how did Sabé factor into it? Her visceral reaction to his earlier accusation of working for Dooku eliminated her knowledge that she was working for the ex-Jedi, but it was entirely possible that she was operating through affiliated channels and had become the pawn in the scheme.
Or that's what you hope, Obi-Wan chided himself.
He rubbed his beard in frustration.
Kaijle was moving around the cockpit, double-checking controls and humming under her breath, clearly unaware Obi-Wan was staring hard out the viewscreen. The thump of her boots as she headed aft a moment later was a dull, inaccurate echo of the manic pacing he'd done while stuck in hyperspace.
A small part of him wanted to curse the small technician for erasing the ship's data, but—and he took a deep, steadying breath—he'd attempted and failed to access the ship's encrypted files while waiting for Anakin and Sabé to recover. The reboot was a safety precaution for future use, not a peculiar lack of investigation on the Council's part. Still, the fact its system was aligned with the Jedi fleet and bore a strange marking seen on a Lorian before …
Obi-Wan gave the cockpit a last, sweeping glance. The interior stared back, strangely innocuous, though he could feel the faint tremors of Sabé's screams and Anakin's rage. He needed to speak to Master Yoda.
Obi-Wan headed out of the ship, not at all surprised to see Kaijle nosing around the hyperdrive console on his way out. He was, however, a little startled to find Master Yoda waiting for him.
The Jedi Master was seated in his hover chair a few meters away and wore his usual calm expression. How … fortuitous, Obi-Wan thought. Well, he supposed the Force was pointedly saying he couldn't avoid or mull over his disturbing thoughts.
Obi-Wan approached the floating Yoda and bowed. "Master."
"Wondering when seek me you would," said Yoda mildly, looking for all the galaxy as if he'd just woken from a nap.
It was too much to hope he didn't look guilty. "I've been meditating, both active and passively," Obi-Wan said.
"Hmm, brooding, called it is," Yoda said.
Obi-Wan couldn't argue the point, though he felt the implication might be a little more severe than necessary. Wasn't it better to face the facts rather than spin into denial? He was about to ask the Jedi Master what precisely he was doing here, but Yoda's eyes drifted toward Kaijle and the droid, then fastened back on Obi-Wan.
"To my chambers, Obi-Wan. Speak there, we can."
Throughout the journey to Yoda's living quarters, Obi-Wan fought the urge to fidget. Once again, he felt the measured, surreptitious stares as he walked along sweeping corridors with the hovering Jedi Master. Anyone walking with Master Yoda drew the curious, unless it was a tottering youngling. Obi-Wan certainly hoped he was past tottering stage, but at the moment, he would trade his lightsaber for the chance to have such bliss. But then I would have to learn all those lessons over again, and I'm relearning enough as it is, he thought. And he still had so much to learn still.
The Jedi Knight had only ventured into Yoda's living quarters a couple of times. They were tucked away deep in the Temple from the living quarters of initiates and those on the active list. The Jedi Master preferred to meet with students and Jedi in meditative chambers or classrooms; his small stature made his living quarters somewhat unaccommodating to taller species, but Obi-Wan also suspected that Yoda was just like everyone else and preferred a little privacy now and then.
The front door to Yoda's home was the same as any other, but the moment it hissed open, Obi-Wan was engulfed in a heady, moist rush of air and had to breathe carefully to adjust to the pungent swamp fumes. No one really knew where Yoda had been born, but his preference for the damp suggested swamps. Or, a younger Obi-Wan once suspected, the Jedi Master was just taking extra precaution that no one would drop by for a chat.
Yoda's quarters were divided into a front chamber for the average-sized visitor, but behind a small, rounded arch was a mystery. A Padawan had once joked that only Yaddle was allowed back there—and then had been 'accidentally' swatted on the shin by a passing Yoda.
The front room was circular, shadowed, and sparse except for a few viney, ropy plants and a couple of thick, round cushions. Wordlessly, Obi-Wan settled himself onto a cushion, the humid atmosphere becoming a silken glove rather than something to avoid.
Usually Yoda offered Obi-Wan something no one else would call tea, but today the Jedi Master merely stood before Obi-Wan, hands folded over his gimer stick. The two had not spoken since Obi-Wan had told him and Mace Windu that Anakin had made his decision to leave the Jedi.
"How feel you?" asked Yoda.
"Uncertain." Obi-Wan tried to find the right words and the right order to say them. "Honestly, my Master, I am wondering where I go from here. I want to be of use, but I do not wish to serve as a way to avoid what has happened. And I cannot deny there is hope I can still help Anakin, though I know he can never return to the Jedi."
Yoda nodded, almost to himself. "Wish to go to war, do you?"
"Wish is not the word I would use," Obi-Wan said bluntly. "I wish to serve where I am needed."
"Ready, are you?"
Obi-Wan again searched himself before answering. "I do believe I am ready to take the next step forward." He paused, then spoke carefully. "I wonder if the Council might grant me permission to investigate whoever was behind Sabé's assassination order." He launched into the observations of the Lorian and possible connection to Count Dooku or someone within the Republic, and possibly, even, who was posting bounty for Jedi Padawans. Yoda's ears had pricked forward, but his face remained inscrutable.
Yoda shook his head. "No. Too close to the situation, you are. Cloud your judgment, it will."
"I have no … preference for either possible link," said Obi-Wan, though inwardly he sighed. The Council seemed a little inconsistent when it came to investigations and missions. Sometimes they sent Jedi into situations they were deeply familiar with, saying their knowledge would prove beneficial, and other times they feared a loss of objectivity and sent someone with only mission-file knowledge. Obi-Wan knew it was emotional bias that made the difference, but in this case, he could not see how enemy infiltration or Republic betrayal could be a better outcome over the other, and he held no hope an alternative answer would be any more pleasant.
"Already clouded, your emotions are," Yoda said firmly.
"Yes, Master." Obi-Wan could not hide his frown. "However …" He paused, reliving the odd, disturbing ripples he sensed in his sleep trance. He described the sense of urgency, almost as if Sabé or the Force was shouting his name, but he could draw no more from it than that. "Deciphering the Living Force was never my strength, as Qui-Gon constantly reminded me, but it has been a stronger pull on me these past couple of weeks."
"Search for answers surrounding Sabé, telling you to do, the Force is?"
Yoda lowered his eyes, his claws flexing lightly over his cane. After a moment, he shook his head and met Obi-Wan's gaze. "An investigation, there is," he said. "Join it, you will not."
Obi-Wan pressed his lips together, but nodded. "Yes, Master." He sensed a seed of frustration. See, Qui-Gon, this is what listening to the Living Force gets you. A quick no.
"Stay in contact with Skywalker, you should," said Yoda, temporarily stymieing the rebuke. "Volatile, the situation is. The change in him you saw … good, it could be, or great darkness, he may find."
Obi-Wan nodded. The calm and certainty in Anakin had felt alien, almost unnatural, but that could be because Anakin had always lacked control. Perhaps the decision to leave the Jedi and marry Senator Amidala were not for the right reasons, but his place in the Jedi Order had always seemed to Anakin as out of his control, a series of decisions made for him. Perhaps these past couple of weeks had been his Jedi trials and he had failed according to the Code, but in doing so had succeeded into something else …
He said as much to Yoda. The Jedi Master nodded.
"Hmm. Greater Skywalker's test may have been, if avoided it was? Greater the test, greater the consequences, hmm …"
Obi-Wan's brow furrowed. He must have misheard, but it almost sounded as if the assassination attempt had been a pre-ordained trial. The nature of the Jedi trials was a purposeful mystery. Padawans referred to the trials as if they were a scheduled event at the Council's choosing, but in reality they could be like Obi-Wan's—a mission that unexpectedly turned sour and he faced but overcame the temptation of the Dark Side. It seemed that when the Council sensed a Padawan was either ready to face the temptation or had peaked and could learn no more from the apprenticeship, then they would find a mission to truly test the Padawan. The Archives did not hold narratives of trials, but Obi-Wan had gathered a sense from references and insinuations in old records that special Jedi may be dispatched on a trial mission to test the Padawan without his or her knowledge. Of course, there had been speculation among the Padawans that the trials were really just a ruse, and that the "trial" was little more than a "got you!", handshake, and ceremony. (If that was the case, Obi-Wan needed to have a serious talk with the Masters, including Qui-Gon.) Trials did occur within the Temple, but once again, the nature of them was a closely guarded secret.
"A need for you, the Force will have, Obi-Wan," said Yoda, drawing him out of his rumination.
"Until then, meditate, heal, and reflect," Obi-Wan said without a hint of irony.
Yoda smiled warmly. "If favorites, I had …"
The younger Jedi tried to smile, but his heart was not quite in it. "May the Force be with you," Obi-Wan said, bowing his head.
"May the Force be with you."
Obi-Wan stood to go. As he reached, the door, Yoda called out.
"Perhaps now, a Knight, you will be," said Yoda.
Obi-Wan paused, thinking this over. Yes, he could see what Yoda meant. Most Jedi spent a few years, if not many, as a singular Knight before taking on the challenge of a Padawan. He'd never had that chance, and so, it was almost as if a piece of his training was missing. Experience and knowledge that he'd never had access to were now open to him. Quite the silver lining to the situation.
"Thank you, Master Yoda," he said, bowing his head again. As he stepped out into the corridor, however, Obi-Wan thought that although Yoda had smiled, the Jedi Master's were rather sad.