- Death-Major Character
- Death-Minor Character
- Action Adventure
- Science Fiction
A pale pink and orange haze lingered over everything, giving the planet the feeling of perpetual sunset. Tall, elaborate buildings rose high above the ground, connected by long skywalks. From Padmé’s research, their rooftops were all designed as landing pads, allowing the elite to come and go without rubbing shoulders with the “riff-raff” on the ground.
If she’d come here on a diplomatic mission, she would never have smelt how the slums on the ground stank of smoke and sewage. There were people everywhere, living in squalor and disease. Every time she saw a beggar on a street corner, Padmé wanted to stop to give them credits, but she couldn’t without drawing undue attention to herself.
Politicians had failed the people of Eriadu City.
Once Palpatine was defeated and balance was restored – however long that took – Padmé was going to change that. The people of Eriadu City deserved better. It was scary to think how easy it would have been for her to overlook their plight if she had come here as a senator, enjoying the views at the expense of the people below.
To say Palpatine’s reward money would be life-changing for these people would have been an understatement.
Padmé was grateful for the hood shadowing her face, and that the twins were safe with Erisi on the ship. Obi-Wan had escorted her out earlier to buy the herbs, but she’d agreed to stay to mind the twins – with the ship on full defence mode, although they hadn’t told her why – until they could return with Kalei. If Erisi had thought it was odd, she mercifully hadn’t said anything.
The door was programmed only to open if Erisi allowed it, and Obi-Wan had given her a crash course in manning the blaster in case she needed it.
Padmé and Obi-Wan had done what they could in the way of disguises, using mouth inserts to make their facial structure look different and contacts to change the colour of their eyes. It wasn’t much, but it was enough that nobody should be able to identify them in a crowd.
‘The guards are on alert,’ Obi-Wan whispered, his eyes narrowed.
Every few blocks, two guards stood at the corner, their gazes sweeping over everyone who passed by. Padmé tried not to tense or show any other outward sign of discomfort, not wanting to draw attention to herself.
There were so many people bustling around; there was no reason for the guards to single them out. But the hair on the back of her neck stood up, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong.
When they passed the corner, she tilted her head towards Obi-Wan. Her concern was mirrored back at her on his face.
‘It’s too late to turn back now,’ she said quietly. This was their one chance. If they backed out, they would have to leave, leaving Kalei behind. ‘Maybe someone’s visiting and they don’t want to risk trouble. Or maybe this is just normal security around here.’
It would have been nice to actually believe that.
‘Perhaps,’ Obi-Wan said flatly.
Keeping to the same slow walk felt like torture. The sooner they reached the park they’d chosen as a meeting place, the sooner they could leave again. But speeding up would be risking detection.
It felt counterintuitive, but in this case, the best way of getting back quickly was going slowly.
Nevertheless, before long, they were entering the park. Off in one corner was a cove of thick trees, their branches interweaving into a canopy. A flash of grey stone peeked through a gap in the leaves. As they neared it, Padmé heard the sound of flowing water.
It was exactly as Kalei had described it.
‘I’m not sure if that’s supposed to look comforting or foreboding,’ Obi-Wan muttered.
She was leaning towards the latter. ‘Let’s just get out of here.’
Obi-Wan entered first, bending his head to get through the gap between the trees. His hand dropped to the place his lightsaber was concealed in his robes. ‘Kalei?’
After a moment, he turned back and nodded to her.
Padmé followed him into the cove, relaxing when she saw a familiar figure standing by the crashing water of the fountain. With brown hair and eyes and a narrow face, she looked enough like Padmé that one might confuse her for the senator at a distance. The hood of her cloak was tangled up in her hair, as if she’d recently removed it.
She seemed to be in good colour and health, but she was jittery, her fingers tapping against her side as her feet shuffled on the spot.
Kalei’s eyebrows lowered in confusion when she saw Padmé, but after a moment, her face cleared. ‘Of course,’ she murmured.
‘It’s so good to see you again,’ Padmé said, stepping forward and pulling her into a hug. ‘You’re well, I hope.’
Kalei returned the embrace warmly before pulling away. ‘I wish we were reuniting under different circumstances. Please don’t take offence, but this is the worst possible time for this. The Festival of Flames is on tomorrow, so a lot of people have come from off-world to celebrate, and there’s extra security around.’
‘None of the timing in this is what we would hope.’ That being said, it was a relief to hear about the festival. It seemed that the guards weren’t there because of them after all. ‘We’re going to have to move quickly.’
‘Are there any areas we should avoid?’ Obi-Wan asked. ‘Crowd cover would be ideal, but we don’t want to get caught up in a brawl either.’
‘I don’t have much experience on the surface,’ Kalei admitted, returning to her jitters. ‘I usually use the skypads when I travel.’
It was agreed that they would return the way they’d come. They were already familiar with it, after all, and would be able to recognise if anything had changed.
‘Don’t forget,’ Padmé said for Kalei’s benefit, ‘we need to make sure we look like we belong here – act natural.’
Kalei nodded, her fingers still tapping against her thigh. ‘I can do that.’
Kalei, as it turned out, could not do that. She was a constant bundle of nerves and anxious energy that seemed to return no matter how many times Padmé and Obi-Wan tried to calm her. It was odd; she’d never had this problem before while working as Padmé’s decoy. Then again, many years had passed since then, and they hadn’t had much time to prepare. Being thrown into a life or death situation again had to be difficult.
At least her anxiety seemed to be confined to fidgeting rather than looking at the guards; appearing too aware of them was a surefire way to attract their suspicion.
But why was that? Padmé was hyper-aware of every guard they passed, although she was doing her best to hide it. If she weren’t as good at hiding her emotions, she would have been examining them openly. Why wasn’t Kalei?
Lowering her voice so only Obi-Wan could hear, Padmé whispered, ‘Something feels off about this.’
He nodded. ‘I know, but we can’t stop here. I’m thinking of a plan.’
Padmé knew she was probably overthinking this. All of her decoys had been trained in handling dangerous situations. In all likelihood, this was just a remnant of that – Kalei being too out of practice to keep her composure but remembering this, at least.
But her instincts said otherwise, and she’d long since learned to trust her gut.
They couldn’t go back to the ship until they’d sorted this out. Her friendship with Kalei should be able to survive a false accusation, but she ignored her instincts and they turned out to be right, the repercussions would be dire.
‘To our left,’ Obi-Wan muttered out of the corner of his mouth.
Keeping her head still, she glanced in that direction. Two of the guards had left their post and were walking into the middle of the street. All around them, the crowd parted to let them through.
Almost by silent agreement, Padmé and Obi-Wan both picked up their pace, Kalei copying them after a brief pause.
After a few seconds, Padmé stopped and turned in a circle, frowning at the street signs as if she were confused. Out of her peripheral vision, she could see the guards walking, slowly but surely, in their direction.
Further down the street, other guards were doing the same.
‘I don’t know,’ Padmé said, putting on the first accent she could think of. ‘I’m sure we were supposed to turn already. Mari’s house is off to the right, isn’t it?’
‘No, it’s further along,’ Obi-Wan said, following her lead, although his accent wasn’t as polished. He and Kalei must have stopped when she had.
‘If you say so. But you know she’ll be mad if we’re late, even if we got lost.’ Keeping the expression of confusion on her face, Padmé turned and started walking again. ‘They’re following us,’ she said softly.
There was no doubting it. Dread building within her, she asked Kalei, ‘Who came to speak to you about me?’
Kalei started. ‘Nobody. People have asked me about you over the years when they’ve found out I was in your service, but not since your messages. Why? Is there a problem?’
The whole time she was speaking, she didn’t meet Padmé’s gaze once.
‘Kalei.’ Padmé’s tone was firm and unyielding. ‘Somebody asked you about me, didn’t they? They asked you to do something.’
‘Don’t think about lying again,’ Obi-Wan added. ‘Jedi can tell whether people are being truthful.’
Padmé knew that wasn’t the case, but it seemed that Kalei didn’t. Her shoulders hunched, and tears pricked at the corner of her eyes. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Who?’ Padmé asked again.
‘The Supreme Chancellor. I didn’t know what I was doing at first, I swear. He contacted me a few weeks after you did and asked if I would like to be part of a new medical program he wants to trial.’ Kalei’s face was beseeching. ‘I… I felt flattered that he remembered me, let alone thought to ask me. It’s been so long since I left, and apart from your messages over the years, he’s the only one who has ever reached out to me.’
‘And then the topic changed,’ Obi-Wan said.
‘Yes. He asked about you – innocent little questions at first – and I didn’t see the harm in answering them. You’d only told me that you needed my help, after all… I never imagined it was him you were running from. But then I started getting suspicious, and when I tried to change the subject, he threatened me.’
‘How did he even find you in the first place?’ Padmé had been convinced Kalei was safe. They hadn’t seen each other since she left, so while they’d been in contact, she’d assumed Palpatine would look at her more recent connections first.
‘I think he reached out to all your old decoys and handmaidens.’
Hadn’t Padmé and Obi-Wan agreed that with the resources at Palpatine’s disposal, even the medical clinic would find it hard to keep secrets from him? How hadn’t she realised that would apply to her friends as well?
‘You said you were thinking of a plan,’ Padmé said, turning to Obi-Wan.
Padmé spun. The guards who’d been following them – Padmé counted ten – had drawn their weapons and were starting to run after them.
‘I think the decision’s been made for us,’ Obi-Wan said. ‘Try to get in with the crowd.’
The three of them sprinted forward and into the thick of the crowd, ducking their heads to keep from being seen.
It wouldn’t last for long; they were only thirty metres from the landing yard. While they could follow the crowd and double back later, Padmé doubted it would work. The guards knew which landing yard they’d used now, so if they didn’t make a break for it now, it would be teeming with enemies by the time they returned later.
They would have to leave the crowd soon. And after that, they would still have to get to the ship and wait for Erisi to let them on. All without getting hit.
‘Are you wearing a listening device?’ Obi-Wan asked Kalei.
‘I’m sorry. He made me. That’s why I didn’t ask… I didn’t want him to…’
They were nearing the opposite edge of the crowd; they were going to have to make a break for it. Padmé drew her blaster as Obi-Wan pulled out his lightsaber.
Padmé was torn. She still trusted Kalei’s intentions, no matter what had happened. If Kalei were asked to choose between Padmé and Palpatine, Padmé had no doubt her loyalty would be with the former.
But that didn’t change the fact that she’d been compromised. They didn’t have time to scan her to make sure Palpatine hadn’t put any tracking devices on her. Besides, while Padmé didn’t blame her for not giving her life for her secret, especially when she didn’t fully understand the situation, it meant she could no longer trust her to come with them.
If it were just Padmé and Obi-Wan, she would have taken the risk. She would have asked Kalei to remove any devices she knew about and then done a more thorough search after they’d taken to the air.
But it wasn’t just them anymore.
‘I understand.’ It would be a lie to say she forgave her, but hopefully Kalei could take some comfort from the fact Padmé knew her actions hadn’t been malicious.
Padmé thrust her hand into her pocket and pulled out some credits, pressing them into Kalei’s hand. ‘Stay with the crowd and take off anything Palpatine gave you that might have a tracker on it before you break away.’
Before Kalei could reply, she grabbed Obi-Wan’s arm and pushed through the last layer of people and out into the open.
They broke into a sprint. From behind them, people shouted in alarm, and the red light of a blaster shot past them.
‘They’re firing through the crowd!’ Padmé exclaimed, shocked at the realisation.
‘Don’t look back.’
They kept up their pace, zigzagging in the hope that nobody would be able to get a clear shot. The dingy gates of the landing yard were still twenty metres away, nineteen… There was no other cover, so they had no option but to keep going.
It was the tenset nineteen metres of Padmé’s life, but soon, they were ducking behind the gates and peering back at the crowd.
The first of the guards had cleared the crowd, which was quickly dispersing. They were still a distance away, but they were approaching rapidly.
Padmé poked her blaster through the holes of the fence and shot at one of the guards. It hit him square in his leg, and he stumbled, clutching his wound. The other guards hesitated; they obviously hadn’t been expecting their quarry to fight back. Now, they were the ones walking through the perilous open stretch of ground.
Padmé shot at another guard twice in quick succession. The first bolt missed its target by inches, but the second hit her in the chest.
Two down. Eight still coming for them, charging forward now, but there were more in the distance.
‘Let’s go,’ Obi-Wan said. ‘Backup’s coming.’
Letting off one last shot, not even bothering to aim, Padmé lowered her gun. They ran, darting from one ship to the next, using the vessels as cover for enemy fire that might be coming at any moment. Behind them, they heard shouting as the guards spread out and started searching the yard.
They were outnumbered, but they had the advantage of knowing where they were heading. It wasn’t long until they were rounding the last corner and rushing to the ship.
‘Watch out!’ Padmé pushed Obi-Wan out of the way of a blaster bolt. It collided with a small vessel behind where he’d been standing with a sizzle.
Obi-Wan ignited his lightsaber. Swinging it through the air, he stalked towards the guard standing down the walkway. ‘Get Erisi to open the ramp.’
‘They’re here! I’ve found them!’
Trusting him to handle the guard, Padmé turned to the ramp and knocked loudly before standing in front of the place she knew the security camera was. ‘Mockingbird,’ she said. ‘Mockingbird, mockingbird, mockingbird – ’
The ramp disengaged with a hiss and started to lower. To her right, Obi-Wan was using his lightsaber to deflect the blaster bolts, sending them careening off into the ground. Rocks and dust kicked up each time, leaving small holes behind.
Another guard rounded the corner, adding her blaster fire to the first’s.
Come on, Padmé thought. Her blaster was raised, but she couldn’t shoot without risking hitting Obi-Wan or his lightsaber.
Every second felt like an eternity.
Finally, the ramp was low enough to enter. ‘Get in!’ she called, clambering in. The added height changed her angle, giving her a clear line of sight above the top of Obi-Wan’s lightsaber. She started firing as a distraction, careful to avoid him.
He backed up, slower than she would have liked but as fast as he could while still covering himself. When he was close enough, he turned and rushed on the ship, hitting the button just inside to close the door.
‘What’s that commotion?’ Erisi asked, eyes wide as they rushed in. ‘Where’s your friend?’
‘Strap the twins in,’ Obi-Wan said as he sprinted out of the living area and towards the cockpit. ‘Prepare for an emergency takeoff.’
Padmé kept firing out the hole until the gap grew too small. Only then did she relax and turn to take in her surroundings.
Erisi was on the other side of the room, putting Leia into her travelling capsule. As the door sealed itself shut, Padmé joined her, taking Luke and fitting him into his.
‘We’re clear!’ Padmé shouted, knowing the ship was small enough that the words would carry.
Within seconds, there was a jolt as the ship lifted off the ground.
‘What happened?’ Erisi asked, sounding shaken. ‘I thought I was supposed to disembark here.’
‘We’ll have to wait for the next stop,’ Padmé replied, dropping into a seat as the ship swerved sharply to the left.
She hoped Kalei was safe. There was so much more that she could have asked: whether Kalei had somewhere to go, whether she knew the way to a passenger ship, whether she had family in the city. But she hadn’t, knowing that the answers couldn’t be allowed to change anything. They would have just distracted her.
Hopefully, the credits she’d slipped her would give Kalei options. She didn’t know if her friend had brought any with her when she left for the fountain, and Padmé didn’t want her to be obligated to go back to her dwelling. If she chose to, at least that would be out of choice, not necessity.
Kalei’s absence would also make the rest of the journey more difficult. They’d been relying on the fact that she would be with them to help them settle in, as well as to keep them from having to visit local healers too often.
As the ship left the atmosphere and the turbulence steadied, Padmé opened Luke’s capsule and took him into her arms, rocking him gently. If anyone had asked, she wouldn’t have been able to say whether it was for his comfort or her own.
Sometimes, it felt like they would never get free of Palpatine’s reach.