A/N: Thanks so much to everyone who took the time to provide feedback. It's more inspiring to write when you know someone's reading. I hope you enjoy this latest installment.
His back went rigid. He tucked his mouth into his hand. His eyes were two mirrors throwing Padme's light at her.
"Obi-Wan, please say something," Padme pleaded.
His shock began to fade. "We didn't meet until you were queen."
"I know. But I also know that we met before that."
He dropped his hand, taking a breath. Finding his bearings, he considered the details. "You said my beard was—"
"Gray," she said. "You were far older than you are now. Twenty years—perhaps more."
"He didn't say anything else? Just warned you about Vader?"
Padme nodded. He rose slowly from his chair, pacing to the wall. He flattened a palm and leaned heavily on it.
"Is it so mad?" asked Padme. "There's nothing in our physics—nothing in the Force—that says time travel isn't possible."
"Improbable—but not impossible. There was a Jedi master who purported to time-travel out of his body. He reported historical events with high accuracy."
"This wasn't your mind," she said firmly. "You were flesh and blood."
Obi-Wan looked back, eyes full of bewilderment. He smiled thinly at her. "I believe you. Of course, I do."
Padme's heart clenched. She lilted her voice hopefully. "Can we not hold it as a blessing? I met your older self; that means you're still alive in twenty years. If you die before then, you'll never come back to meet me. It would be a paradox."
"A 'paradox' is a convenience," Obi-Wan said.
"What do you mean?"
He swept a hand through his hair, blinking at the ground. It was challenging to distill. "As sentient beings, we covet structure," he explained. "Our lives are linear—sequenced—so we apply that structure to everything else. But the universe is far vaster—more complex and mysterious—than that. A paradox is the failure of our rational minds to think more expansively."
Padme drew her brows together. "But it already happened. It's a fact—part of history—that you travel back to meet me."
Obi-Wan ghosted a smile. She was eminently logical. "When you were in school, what was the analogy they gave you for time?"
"They said time is a river," she recalled, "flowing in one direction. It sweeps up everything."
"And that's true—but only in that we perceive it so. The Force connects everything in the universe, across time and space. Thus, the past, present, and future are in constant occurrence. Time is not a river; it's that field on Naboo, extending endlessly in all directions."
Padme sucked her lip into her mouth. "So, you were walking one way across the field—but then you turned back. You walked to my place in time, where I was a little girl."
"But still—the paradox—"
"When my older self went back, he disturbed the grass. He bent the blades. And as I move forward, I'll bend them again—but in a new direction."
Padme scratched her temple. Her mind was molasstic; she slowly trudged toward his reality. "If you're right about that, then we can change what happened." She met Obi-Wan's stare. "Did the mission fail? Is that why you went back—to give us another chance?"
"That's my suspicion."
Padme shook her head slightly. "But why come to me; why warn me about Vader? How would that help our mission?"
Obi-Wan's breath hitched. "Perhaps it wasn't about the mission," he said in a low voice. "Perhaps he did that for himself."
Padme drank in his solemness. His spine was stiff, shoulders rolled forward. His eyes were two gravity wells drawing her helplessly to their conflict. For a fleeting moment, they were both unguarded, exchanging feeling beyond words. Something ended; something began.
Obi-Wan glanced off, breaking their connection. He forced a neutral expression. "We're getting ahead of ourselves," he said smoothly.
Padme matched his professional tone. "So what do we do?"
"We don't have much to go on. But I know two places we can start."
Palmer sank in his chair in an illusion of nonchalance. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"It's time for answers, Mr. Task," Obi-Wan said. "The truth, if you're capable."
"We're all capable. That's why lies are so fun."
Obi-Wan folded his hands in his cloak. His eyes, as ever, were passive and clear. "On Halm, you knew my name before I gave it. You said the chamber was meant for me. How did you know that?"
"Because I was told you'd be there."
"By who?" Obi-Wan demanded.
Palmer uncrossed his legs and stood. He faced the far wall to deny Obi-Wan his expression. "I almost killed him on sight," Palmer said, smiling at the memory. "We fought to a stalemate. He was entirely defensive; not once did he try to kill me. Even a fool knows to listen to one who refuses to be an enemy. So I opened my ears, man."
"Who was he?"
"He looked about seventy. Wore a Jedi's cloak, though he certainly wasn't one. His eyes were pain personified. He was a ghost in a body."
Obi-Wan's lips were a straight line. "What was his name?"
Palmer turned to face him. "Never told me," he said, relishing Obi-Wan's disappointment. "But he had a great deal to say—about the Architects. He told me the story on the walls of that chamber. And he told me where to find it."
Obi-Wan's eyes narrowed. His easy posture belied a knot in his stomach. "And me? Why was I important to him?"
"I didn't ask; I didn't care. But he was adamant. He knew you were coming."
Obi-Wan took a breath, trying to place the account in his growing puzzle. "Did he say anything about Vader? About Padme?"
A cruel grin tugged at Palmer's mouth. "Not as such." At Obi-Wan's stare, he expounded: "He said he'd failed at his duty—allowed evil to kill innocence. He didn't mean it conceptually. He was talking about people."
Palmer's conjecture hung in the air—a frozen bullet. Obi-Wan's brows pressed toward his eyes. The cool dread of inevitability snapped down his spine. "Where did he go?" he asked.
"He vanished in the night," said Palmer. "Could be anywhere now."
Obi-Wan was still for a long moment, mind racing in circles. He pulled his cloak tighter and walked to the door. "Tell no one what we've discussed," he said over his shoulder.
Palmer smiled, signing a cross on his heart.
The comm-room door slid shut behind him. He eased into a chair, stroking keys on a console. A hologram of Coruscant appeared in front of him.
"Location, please," a computerized voice said.
"Jedi Temple," replied Obi-Wan.
"Who do you wish to contact?"
"I wish to reach Master—"
Piercing alarms rang from the speakers. All the lights flashed red. He leapt from his chair. It hit the wall with a bang.
He shot into the corridor, rushing to the cockpit. R2 received him with a strident beep.
"What's going on?" Obi-Wan demanded.
R2 reported engine failure. Landon burst in, taking the pilot's seat. He flipped a switch and studied the screen. "We're losing power," he said breathlessly. "We'll never make it to Mareth. We have twenty minutes—tops."
Obi-Wan pulled up a star chart. His eyes darted over the nearby planets. "There's only one world in range," he reported. "Axxila."
Landon blanched, freezing in place. He shook it off before Obi-Wan noticed. "Then I guess we're going to Axxila."
The ship rocked, throwing R2 against the wall. He gave a low whine but kept pace with the Jedi.
Obi-Wan ran into the engine room, finding Miler and Aayla. He ignored their dishevelment (and Aayla wearing Miler's jacket). "What's the situation?" he asked.
A panel was pried off, revealing machinery. The wires were pristine; the tubes pulsed with blue light. But white gas billowed from underneath. Miler waved at it as it plumed in his face. "We've got a coolant leak—pretty bad," he said flatly. "The regulator mus' be tot'ly shot."
Miler pulled off another panel—this one on the undercarriage. He crawled under to examine it, but it was too dark to see. Obi-Wan ignited his lightsaber, directing its glow. Miler squinted and looked in. The coolant regulator, an intricate cylinder, was riddled with incisions. They were too precise to reflect incidental damage.
"What do you see?" Obi-Wan asked.
Miler crawled out, covered in soot. His blackened face was set grimly. "This wasn't an accident," he said.
Aayla swallowed. "You're not suggesting—"
Obi-Wan's eyes hardened, glowing in his saber light. "We have a saboteur."