Obi-Wan shut off his comlink, a slight smile drifting across his face as he slipped back into the small living space of the hovel. Qui-Gon, Anakin, and Padme immediately looked up at him.
"Garen said that the hyperdrive appears to be operating normally. They are going to run a few more diagnostic tests and then we should be ready to leave for Coruscant."
"Yippee!" Anakin shouted, drawing the attention of Shmi who entered, carrying an overstuffed bag of belongings that had not been sent to the ship with the hyperdrive. "Mom, we are going!" Anakin ran over and threw his arms around his mother, causing the bag to fall from her arms. She laughed, choosing to return her son's embrace before retrieving the bag.
Obi-Wan took the opportunity to pull Qui-Gon aside. "Are you still certain you want to take them to Coruscant?" he whispered. "Master Jun would no doubt allow them to accompany her back to Dantooine."
"She has several stops left and might not return for weeks. It will be faster to return to Coruscant and accompany Masters Drallig and Tachi back through Aksu." Qui-Gon smiled warmly. "Besides, I promised Anakin he could see the city planet."
"What about his shields?" Obi-Wan ran a hand through his hair. "It would be dangerous for the Sith to become aware of him."
"He has been learning and making adequate progress," Qui-Gon said with confidence before placing his hands on Obi-Wan's shoulders. "And I can supplement when necessary."
Obi-Wan opened his mouth to speak again, but was aware of two crystal blue eyes studying them intently from across the room. He offered Anakin a smile, hoping he would return the gesture. Instead, the boy turned away, causing Obi-Wan to let out a frustrated sigh.
"I said that he needed time," Qui-Gon reassured him. "Then, I believe he will seek you out. He's too curious to ignore you forever."
"Padme, we should return to the ship," Obi-Wan said to the young woman sitting on the sofa before directing his attention back to Qui-Gon. "Come when you're ready."
"We shouldn't be long," Shmi said. "I just want to take these items to Jira."
"And remember, we have to sell my pod," Anakin chimed in.
"I haven't forgotten," Qui-Gon said, offering a brief wink as he ruffled the boy's hair.
"We'll see you when you get back," Padme said as she followed Obi-Wan out the door.
Well-paced steps led them through town. Both moved with a sense of purpose knowing the trip back to Coruscant would return them to their respective duties. They stayed quiet; any attempts at conversation would have resulted in a mouthful of the planet's abundant sand.
After the transmission from Naboo, Garen and Panaka had agreed to move the queen's vessel to a different location farther from the outskirts of the town. The new path took them down into a small canyon walled with rocky cliffs that provided much appreciated shade from the blistering heat. Obi-Wan paused for a moment, resting a hand against the rough surface. He suddenly felt heavy, as though a crushing load had been placed on his shoulders and was weighing him down.
"Are you okay?" Padme asked.
"I will be," Obi-Wan said, trying to determine why he felt so suffocated. He was stronger today, barely having any stiffness from the blaster wound, and he quickly determined his uneasiness came from the Force. "I sense something …"
"What is it?" Padme asked, still ignorant of Jedi ways, but understanding that what he sensed seemed to be important.
"It is elusive …" he trailed off as he closed his eyes and cast his awareness out into the Force, using it to augment his senses. Beyond the wind that wound its way between the canyon walls … it was a low hum … mechanical, like the vibrations of an engine. His eyes snapped open.
Padme turned and began to take steps up the hillside, not questioning her companion.
"Faster," Obi-Wan commanded, gently nudging her back as the warning of imminent danger began to grow in the Force. "We have to hide."
"I won't let you fall," he assured her, steadying her slight form through the Force as she obediently quickened her pace.
The whining grew louder to where Padme could hear as well, and she cast a worried look back to Obi-Wan before trudging forward again. They passed a crevice in the rock and Obi-Wan slipped back into the small nook, grabbing Padme from behind, taking care to extend his shields around her presence.
The droning echoed through the canyon walls before finally stopping near where they had rested just moments before. They heard the crunching of heavy bootsteps in the gravel below them. Through cracks in the rock, they saw a heavily shrouded black figure step into view. The being threw back its hood revealing a small crown of horns and the red and black markings that had become all too familiar to Obi-Wan.
Padme's breath caught heavily in her throat and Obi-Wan cupped his hand over her mouth to keep her quiet, an action that made her jerk in his arms. "Shhh," he soothed softly. As she stilled, he relaxed his grip on her, blinking his eyes repeatedly as a sense of vertigo washed over him. He could feel his heart hammering in his chest, his breathing loud to his own ears.
Something he recognized as a probe flew toward the Sith. The zabrak studied the device for a moment and Obi-Wan's thoughts went to the queen's ship sitting nearby and his master, who had likely begun his own trip out of Mos Espa. Both were in danger. Casting one last glance around the canyon, the creature pulled its hood back over its head.
Obi-Wan and Padme both remained still, even after the whine of engines faded into the distance. Finally, he released his hold on her and they both scrambled out of the nook and back down to the canyon floor.
"What was that about?" Padme asked. Obi-Wan ignored her as he pulled out his comlink.
"Garen!" he called urgently into the device.
"Obi-Wan? Is something wrong?"
"I just saw one of the Sith. It has probes in the area and may have detected you."
He heard muffled voices as Garen gave orders in the background.
"We are taking off now. I have your location. Shut off your comlink and we will pick you up there."
"I need to alert my master."
Let me handle that. You need to stay quiet until we get there.
"Why do you assume that was a Sith?" Padme asked as soon as he shut the comlink off.
"I have seen it before," Obi-Wan said. He shuddered at the oppressive darkness that had overwhelmed him just moments before. "And I sensed it through the Force."
"There was only one. Could you have defeated it?"
"I don't know," Obi-Wan admitted. "And it was better to not take a chance. We are both needed on Coruscant."
"Thank you," Padme offered, nodding.
The roar of starship engines soon rumbled nearby, shaking the canyon with its deep echo. Obi-Wan took Padme's hand and they both ran for the ship, not stopping until the landing ramp was closing behind them. Immediately, he headed for the cockpit and found Garen with Panaka and the Naboo pilots.
"Did you contact Qui-Gon?"
"We are going to set down near town and pick them up," Garen responded. "Do you know which direction the Sith went? We have been unable to pick anything up on sensors."
"No, my visibility was limited."
The edges of Mos Espa came into view, and the pilots sat the ship down as close as they dared. After a quick comlink call, they sat back to wait for Qui-Gon and his companions to approach. Obi-Wan felt it first, and then Garen felt the tingle of warning in the Force that allowed them to know danger was approaching.
"I have something on sensors," one of the pilots said. "A swoop of some sort … approaching fast."
"It followed the ship," Garen murmured. "Shoot it when it's in range."
"I can't hit it," the pilot said in a panic after several failed attempts. "I've never seen anyone maneuver like that."
"Let me try," Garen said. Sitting down at the controls, he followed the approaching target on sensors and let out a volley of blaster fire. The Sith wove through the display, never slowing down as it continued its approach.
"There's Qui-Gon," Garen heard Obi-Wan say and knew time was short.
Garen closed his eyes, delving deeply into the Force. He could sense the Sith approaching and almost see beyond to its intended path. Squeezing the trigger, he released another volley of blaster fire, letting second sight guide his aim.
"Got it!" one of the pilots cheered.
Garen opened his eyes in time to see the swoop roll into view, a smoldering ball tumbling across the desert floor. But the rider was gone. A second later, a cloaked figure somersaulted into view in the distance, sweeping away its cloak as it landed in the sand. It held something in the air, and Garen heard Obi-Wan hiss in a breath as two glowing beams flickered into existence. Then the being began running toward the ship.
"Shoot it," one of the pilots urged.
"No!" Obi-Wan warned. "The blade will deflect any blaster fire back to the ship."
"Do you think they can make it in time?" Garen asked.
"Come with me," Obi-Wan said.
They slipped through the ship's corridors, Garen pulling out his lightsaber as they hit the landing ramp. "Only if we absolutely need them," Obi-Wan said, grabbing his blaster instead.
"Sure, use sabers on the droids and blasters on the Sith … makes perfect sense," Garen mumbled.
They ran down the ramp and out to meet those approaching. Qui-Gon turned to face the Sith, putting himself between the creature and those fleeing to the ship. Anakin was breathing heavily, his short legs making it difficult to run in the sand. Obi-Wan scooped him up and hurried him toward the ship while Garen helped Shmi.
"Come on!" Obi-Wan yelled back to Qui-Gon with urgency when they reached the landing ramp. "Tell them to take off," he said, turning to Garen.
After what seemed like an eternity, the ship began to lift off, and Qui-Gon jumped, Obi-Wan steadying the older man as he landed on the ramp. They both looked down at the Sith as it stopped, too far away to do any harm. Glowing red eyes bore into them as the creature's weapon blinked out of existence one blade at a time.
Xanatos entered the darkened warehouse, brisk footsteps carrying him toward the shrouded figure waiting in the center of the room. He kneeled, bowing his head in submission. "What is your bidding, my Master?"
Darth Sidious stood with his back to his apprentice, his fury thick in the Force. Xanatos braced himself, assuming his actions at the press conference had formed his master's rage. He said nothing … it was better that way.
"Maul has failed. Queen Amidala and Senator Kenobi have both escaped and presumably are in route to Coruscant."
A smile slipped across Xanatos' face at his good fortune, thankfully hidden by his contrite posture.
"In addition … they saw him."
A deep sense of satisfaction set in as Xanatos realized that Maul's punishment would be devastating. Sidious was not likely to be forgiving for such a gross error.
"What would you have me do, my master?" he asked, coloring his words with absolute humility.
"I am sending Maul back to Naboo to await my further orders. Continue as planned." Sidious continued to look ahead. "You may go."
"Yes, Master," Xanatos said, rising from his place on the ground.