The first minute or so in Yoda’s private interview chamber didn’t make him think otherwise either. He entered and knelt, and Yoda stood by the shuttered window, staring out at its slats. “Cloudy, you are,” he said to him. “Around you, the clouds gather, great and dark.”
“I would think they gather around us all,” he replied.
“But feel them more, you do,” said Master Yoda as he turned towards him and came to sit down. “Because of your Padawan. Careful, you must be.”
“I know,” he said. He would never admit it to anyone else, how he couldn’t help fearing for her life. That his last Padawan had been killed by the Sith made that worse. So far he’d been meditating it out, but the fear kept creeping its way back in something by as much as being in her company or so much as hearing her voice in the other room, wrapping a tight tendril around his heart, which screamed at the injustice of it. She was one of the brightest and kindest souls Mace Windu had met in all his years. She ought not to be killed by the Sith.
“Careful,” Master Yoda repeated. “Especially because to the Avvarbor System, you must go, and with you, she should go.”
That he had not been expecting. He had been aware that he himself might go, but even that had not seemed likely; he had thought there would be too much chance of the Sith seeing that and guessing why; so far it was hard to believe they could know their transmissions had been detected. “Why both of us?”
“A child, she is not. When sent to lure out the Sith, you were, that was one thing. But this mission…not one to keep her away from. Especially not when too long in the Temple has she lingered.”
“What exactly are we to do, then?” Mace asked. He saw Yoda’s point, and there was nothing he had said that Mace hadn’t at times thought himself. But yet he still thought he could only be sure of such things when he knew every last detail of where they would be going and what they would be doing and who they were going to be dealing with.
“A general information finding mission, this will be. Some time, it may take; your Padawan you will need also because you both will need to look. Places, you must look in, people, you must talk to, interviews, trying to find out if anyone has seen anything out of the ordinary. Know, you do, that Padawan Naberrie may form connections with people; confidences, she can get from them, where you can not.” Yes, Mace knew that too. And yet now for the first time he thought about how being the one to really get associated with the civilians and spend all the time with them also increased the danger to her.
Also, he was no fool, and he knew how Master Yoda thought, as least as well as anyone besides he himself did. “Are you hoping she will lure the Sith to us?” he asked. “That he may be willing to come for us specifically because as a Padawan, she would be a weaker target?”
“Hope, I do not,” was the reply, which said everything, even before the old Grandmaster said, “But know also, you do, what is at stake here. This is why I saw that careful, you must be.”
Mace Windu understood. Even if it wasn’t his actual agenda, if it ultimately happened, and resulted in bringing even one Sith Lord down, Master Yoda would feel no regret, even if Padmé didn’t survive. He would feel sorrow, of course, and Mace believed he would feel it deeply and for all of the likely many years he had left. He would not see the sacrifice as nothing; indeed he would see it as being as far from nothing as it could be. But he still wouldn’t flinch from it.
Meanwhile, Mace himself would have to do the same thing. Unless some shatterpoint appeared to him to direct his path to a place less painful-or perhaps more. All he had was hope that the will of the Force would not demand her life from Padmé when she was still so young.
Not that he could ever explain any of this to her. There were too few Jedi who understood things like he and Master Yoda did, and she would never be one of them; that was not what she was meant for.
“A few more days, it will be,” said Master Yoda. “Find more information, we should first try to do. But not very long. Two weeks, at most.”
Mace was glad for that. Aside from that meaning more time to prepare practically, it gave him time to prepare, to detach himself, all without Padmé sensing not so much a blip in the Force anywhere around him.
And when the date was set for their departure, he informed his Padawan he would spend the entire day before in meditation, and told her she should get some meditation in herself sometime during the day, but also that she could decide who to see and tell that the two of them were going to be away from the Temple for some time. Having her schedule completely to herself meant not only could she take as much time as she wanted with saying goodbye to Anakin, but she could also take the time out to talk to Master Jinn about teaching him more about hacking.
When she got to their quarters she found Anakin alone; he had the vague idea that Master Jinn was off with Obi-Wan somewhere. “It’s kind of strange, really,” he said. “They’ve always spent a lot of time together without ever telling me what they’re doing. I didn’t think too much of when I was younger, but now I wish they wouldn’t keep something they’re always doing from me. Does Master Windu meet up with Master Billaba like that all the time?”
“They did that once,” said Padmé. “Three years ago; I never knew what it was about. But not repeatedly. But all Masters are different. Maybe you’ll find out when you’re knighted.”
They didn’t talk too much about it, though, because they wanted a chance to talk about themselves too, and they also had to discuss her upcoming proposal to Master Jinn. “I wish I could help you,” said Anakin. “But I’m not sure it’s safe for me to even be in the same place. I’m not sure you shouldn’t try to take a walk with him or something.”
“Well,” said Padmé, “Master Windu does want me to meditate sometime today. I could ask him to guide me in one of the gardens.”
“Deceive him and then let him look into your mind right afterwards?!”
“That I can take care of.” Padmé did not smile, because it was not appropriate to. “After all, my feelings by then should be just what he expects.”
Master Jinn came back alone, and Padmé started with the news about the prolonged mission. “You aren’t allowed to tell me any details, are you?” Master Jinn asked with a kind smile, before she had to say it. “I’m sure Anakin wasn’t happy to hear that.”
“Not any of it,” said Anakin. “But I understand she has to go.”
“And I have to do some meditation today, and I thought maybe you could give me some guidance for it in one of the gardens, help me with the Living Force.” Awkward way to make the request, but it was one made up of two true statements. “Are you free right now?”
“More or less. Very well, then. Anakin, if you could meet me in the refectory for lastmeal at 1900?”
“You don’t like keeping things from me, do you?” asked Master Jinn as they were headed towards the Rock Garden. “I sense guilt in you, and a heavy burden of concealment. Also that you have something to tell me.”
Padmé had been hoping he’d interpret her feelings that way. “I have a suggestion, actually,” she said. “And this isn’t from my Master; it was completely my idea. I think you should have Anakin trained better in hacking. I mean, he’ll learn it much better, since he already knows a lot about computers, and for the kind of investigating you want us doing, it’s something one of us has to get good at.”
He showed no immediate reaction; she hadn’t really expected him to. She made a guess at his main reservation: “Do you think he’s less suited to it in personality?”
“If you will not tell him this…”
“Of course not.” She wouldn’t, though she might feel some sorrow over it. Or a lot.
“I don’t regret our attempt to get him into the communications room,” he said. “Although I do wish very much it had actually worked, given I had to let him do this. Because I do nonetheless worry about encouraging him to be disobedient.”
“You don’t have to do anything right away,” she said, “and I think this is a skill he should learn sooner or later; it matches the gifts the Force has given him.” She had to cut her thoughts off on the matter there, though, so she asked, “Have you talked to him about your concerns?”
“Not recently, but he knows them. If he remembers them.”
There was the opportunity for telling him a powerful truth: “Master Jinn, I am certain Anakin has never forgotten a thing you’ve ever said to him. Or anything you’ve made clear to him without outright saying it.” That got an emotional reaction within him strong enough she could sense it through his shields. Keep going. She could hear Master Windu say it in her head. “You could even use it as an opportunity to talk to him about this. Sweeten your words with the promise of him getting to learn something I know he wants to know.”
“Not yet,” said Master Jinn, but he was clearly going to think about it, which was what Padmé had been hoping for. There’d be plenty of time while she was away. Maybe not enough for him to go forward with it, but even that wasn’t impossible.
“I’ll help you however I can,” she told him, because she would. “Do whatever you’d need me do to, give whatever reminders you want me to give.” He knew that already, and he was right to. She didn’t think he even looked into her mind for that one.
“I’d be grateful for the help,” he said. “Although I don’t know if you could truly keep much from him…but hopefully you won’t have to.”
They were nearing the rock garden now. Padmé kept talking, just a little more effort. “I imagine he must be a handful as a Padawan, Anakin. Sometimes I wonder if my own Master could’ve handled him.” More truths, very much so. “Of course I’m going to abide by your judgement when it comes to him.”
“You shouldn’t try to flatter me,” Master Jinn told her, but it was gentle. “Even if you do mean it. Besides, to do the kind of in depth Living Force meditation I want to teach you today, you should start clearing your mind now.”
“Yes, Master Jinn,” she said, and set to work at it. She’d worked on this with her own Master recently, getting to the point where she could get her mind as empty as the vacuum of space with very little effort.
About a minute later they stepped into the Rock Garden, and Padmé Naberrie was thinking of nothing but the sight of the rocks before her, the way they were scattered about the grass and the other various planets, the feel of the pebbles at the entrance under her boots, the smell of the sediment-filled dirt.
“Come over here.” Master Jinn led her to a spot in the garden, one where long dark stones formed loops all around them and the soil between them was mostly sand. “Kneel.” The sand was fine enough to get into her leggings as she obeyed, but Padmé made no protest, still thought of nothing but it smushing around her knees. Master Jinn knelt opposite her. “This might strike you as an odd place,” he said, “to try to meditate on the Living Force.” It hadn’t; she wasn’t thinking about such things because now was not the time to think about them. “But I find it best to do it in a place where you have to reach out slightly-but only slightly, because there is still plenty of life right around us.”
When he finally entered her mind a few minutes later, he found it filled with nothing but her awareness of the Living Force. Had anyone at that moment asked her about Anakin Skywalker, or about Dooku, she would’ve needed a moment to remember who they were. He, of course, had no reason to.
Ahead of them was a very tall man Mace thought to be Arkanian from his eyes, who was as indifferent to having a pair of Jedi behind him as one would expect a member of that species to be. Behind them was a dark-skinned human family that he thought were probably Avvarbor natives from their dress, consisting of a father, mother, and pair of twin boys. One of those boys did initially tug at his mother’s dress and talk about the Jedi, but she just reminded him they’d seen Jedi here on Coruscant already. It turned out to be a good thing they thus didn’t have anyone hostile to them around them, because as they presented their boarding passes to the Bith, he handed each of them a chip with a compartment number on it, the compartment in which they would spend the next day and a half the trip would take, and he was quick to spot they were being handed out in groups, and that the Arkanian and the Avvarbor family had chips with the same number. The Arkanian noticed this too, looking over the family as the two parents help their children over the gap between the spaceport floor and the threshold of the ship, and shrugged as if in mild irritation with his lot in life.
His actions made Padmé notice too, but of course her reaction was quite different, he saw how even through her hood she met the eyes of one of the boys, and she must have winked at him or something, because his face split into a huge grin.
They’d been late to board, which meant they had quite a walk to their compartment. They didn’t make it there before both boys were making complaints-in their own language, but the tone made the general drive of their words obvious. The Arkanian glared at them, which had absolutely no effect, no matter how long he did it. Mace himself mostly tuned them out, but he did pay careful attention to how it affected Padmé. Her soft spot for children was something he’d never even tried to train out of her; some things were simply too much part of who a person was.
At last they reached their destination, though one of the boys exclaimed his dismay when he saw what waited for them. The compartment had in it a pair of long, narrow seats on either side of it, and while the covering on them looked comfortable enough, there was the question of if they were going to be able to sleep when there wouldn’t be room for any of them to lay down. He and Padmé would have no problem, of course, but the civilians would be another matter. And even outside sleeping, it would be unpleasantly crowded for all of them when they’d be sitting there for as long as this was going to take.
The Arkanian hastily hurried in and claimed the end of the seat to the left that was right by the viewport. Mace himself sat in the other corner. Padmé sat next to him. The parents herded their children in, and on their direction they plopped down next to the Jedi, while their mother and father set themselves down opposite Mace, probably just to be far away from the being on the other side of the seat.
The children did quiet down then, but even so, Mace was preparing to just taking himself down into meditation as quickly as possible. But before he could start, he heard Padmé ask them softly, “Are you afraid of the takeoff? It’s not true, you know, that people break apart from the inertia or get horribly sick or explode or anything like that.”
“I know that,” said one of the boys; his Basic was accented, but he could speak it. “Roomo is scared, not me.” Roomo objected to that loudly.
“I’m sure you’re both very brave boys,” she said, and out of the corner of his eye Mace watched her remove her hood, which no doubt left the boys feeling easier; children always liked Padmé when they saw her face. “Was this your first time being off your homeworld?”
“First time for any of us,” said their mother. She held out her hand, and Padmé took it. “Noonnie Ersu. This is my husband Taleb, and our sons are Roomo and Urch.” She held it out to Mace next, who gamely lowered his hood and shook it, and then to the Arkanian, who just sat there and ignored them all.
“We didn’t mean to go to Coruscant,” said Urch. “We meant to go to Chandrila. But our ship went to the wrong place.”
“Really?” A shocked Padmé looked to Noonnie and Taleb for confirmation.
He nodded. “It was a crazy thing. We got our tickets and go on the ship, which was a small one, and we were at a platform that said ‘Departure for Chandrila,’ and the ticket taker should’ve noticed if we were getting on the wrong ship, and also everyone else on it had also bought tickets for Chandrila and thought we were going there. It was droid-piloted, and even when someone realized we were going to the wrong planet, they still wouldn’t even talk to us, let alone change course. After we landed, we all made a complaint, of course, and I think most of the other passengers focused on getting passage to Chandrila for free. But when the hotel chain we’d booked our reservation on offered us a more expensive room here without making us pay any more, we decided we could have our holiday here instead.”
“Coruscant may not be the place people come to holiday,” said Noonnie, “but we found it quite fascinating…”
Mace didn’t really pay attention to all the details she went into, the various things on the planet they’d gone to see. Instead he exchanged a quick look with Padmé, and she had sensed it too: there was some significance to the whole business with the ship. He was also aware that such a thing out to have been on the newsnets, and he hadn’t seen it anywhere, and didn’t think she had either, but they might have just missed it.
She was listening to the woman, however, and it might be for the better if during the next day and a half she was able to talk about their adventures with these people, so Mace let her. She was perfect at it, even gasping when Taleb talked about finding out those things about the bus systems every resident of Coruscant knew about by the time they were ten, and sounding very eager to hear anything either of the two children wanted to tell her about.
The takeoff happened in the middle of Noonnie’s account of the previous evening, when they’d gone to see a show in one of the small downlevels theaters that most of those aspiring to make it on the Coruscanti stage started off in. One of the two boys reached over and clutched at the other’s hands, but that was as far as they went. Oddly, the Arkanian actually seemed to find it more difficult to deal with. For nearly two whole minutes he broadcast a great deal of distress through the Force, and when Mace looked, he could see he was a touch clenched into himself, and his hands had curled on his lap.
Once everyone was talking like this, and there were two young children involved, it was only a matter of time before one of them tried to talk to the stranger the adults would’ve left alone. It finally happened just after the transport’s intercom announced they had cleared the gravity field. By then the Arkanian was looking a little better, and maybe that was why Roomo thought it might be okay to lean forward as far as he could without slipping off the seat and ask, “What about you, sir? Do you live on Coruscant?”
“Roomo, don’t bother the old man,” said Noonnie.
“Like we shouldn’t bother the Eppies?” asked Urch, irritated.
“Now, Urch, don’t call them that,” his mother scolded; since it was a pejorative term applied to the Eposulates, one of those closed-off communities, who filled an isolated city on the main continent of Avvarbor Prime’s northern hemisphere.
“Why were they all in the spaceport, anyway?” asked Roomo. “They never leave their city, and suddenly they all wanted to go somewhere?”
“You think maybe it was because of the Mad Runner?” wondered Urch. “That he really exists?”
Master and Padawan met each other’s eyes again, and a little longer this time, as Taleb protested, “You know most of the stories they tell about the Eposulates aren’t true. The media’s always trying to slander them, just because they’re different from us, which is wrong of them. And even there was some crazy person running around their town, that wouldn’t explain why so many of them were leaving the planet. And it wasn’t all of them; in fact, it was probably just a tiny fraction.”
There probably was only so much about this that they wanted their kids to hear, but even so, Padmé carefully asked, “What is this Mad Runner, exactly? Is it something we should worry about? Or we might be asked to deal with?”
“Those Eposulates would never let you even if he does exist,” said Noonnie. “They’re probably trying to handle the matter without getting any outside authorities involved, again, if there’s any truth to the story. Basically there’s a rumor going around our homeworld of Avvarbor Prime that there’s a crazy person in this city called Ruuger’s, hurting and killing people. Ruuger’s is this city entirely inhabited by these people who call themselves the Eposulates. They founded the city about eighty years ago, led by someone called Toona Pir, who preached about how our government no longer represented the people in general, but was serving certain groups and treating everyone else badly. They won’t let the authorities do anything in Ruuger’s; when they’ve tried, the Epolusates have been violent towards them. Nowadays they are mostly left alone; the government no longer thinks it worth it to try to do anything about them. Like we said, they mostly stay in their city. They grow their own food in biodomes and make everything they need themselves. None of us have any of idea of even how many people live in their city, let alone who they are, so we can’t really know anything about what’s happening there.”
“Well,” said Urch, “except that I heard one of them say that his sister disappeared.”
“Disappeared?” asked Padmé.
“Yep, just went away and he didn’t know where she was. Maybe the Mad Runner took her away. Or maybe she didn’t want to see him and ran away from the city. I know there are people who do that sometimes.”
“Probably she just ran away,” said Taleb.
Maybe she did, Mace thought, but maybe the Mad Runner had had something to do with it. It was a lead worth following anyway when they got to the system, especially if Padmé could get more information out of this family first.