At one point Noonnie, seeing how Padmé wasn’t getting much help from her sons, answered a question about the public transit in the city they were landing in herself: “Don’t try to take the skyliners. Everyone wants to take them, but they’re terribly maintained, often loaded over capacity, and the lines that say they go out of the city usually don’t have any units running that far more often than every couple of hours, if that.”
“So a poorly maintained system, then?” asked Padmé. Not surprising; those were everywhere. Although still enlightening for what it said about the government the inhabitants of Ruuger’s had turned their back on.
It was also illuminating when Taleb added, “Give the way transport is between cities in general, it kind of isn’t surprising everyone in one of them would decide trying to deal with any of the others just isn’t worth it. I still wonder how all those Eposulates even got to Colorpa in the first place. Did they walk?”
“Probably went into those huge vans you see everywhere in Fikio-that’s not that far from Ruuger’s, after all. Couldn’t have been a pleasant journey, though. Granted, a lot of the roads in that area are taken care of by Fikio’s government, even the ones they aren’t officially responsible for, but you figure the roads just outside Ruuger’s must be awful. The government barely got them built without the protests turning violent.”
“So cities are responsible for the maintenance of the roads outside them?” Mace asked. He and Padmé had known that already, which had made him worried she wouldn’t ask, and he wanted them talking about this.
“They’re responsible for everything,” said Urch, which they’d also known.
“So does anyone resent Ruuger’s? It doesn’t sound like they pull their share.”
“If we’ve do, we’ve a right to,” said Taleb, which was a yes, at least on his part. Also made it unlikely Mace should risk continuing on his current line of questioning; he had at least gotten the impression of resentments he'd been checking for.
They were running low on time, anyway, just then came the announcement over the intercom: “Attention, passengers. We are currently approaching our destination of Avvarbor Prime, and we expect to be entering the gravity field in about twenty more minutes, and should be touched down within an hour after that. Please be advised that you should be secured in your seats within the next half an hour.”
“You two should use the ‘fresher,” Noonnie said to the boys. “I’ll take you.”
The ‘fresher wasn’t far outside the compartment, but there would be a line. Mace wondered if Padmé would admit to herself the relief it would be to have a break from being surrounded by so many cranky minds, two of them juvenile. The downside to her empathy was she suffered more from it.
Indeed, her tone did sound a little lighter as she said to Taleb, “I hope there isn’t too much hostility between the cities. We’ll be traveling between them a lot while we’re here.”
“I would think,” he said, smiling, “you’d be more worried about hostility towards yourselves as Jedi.”
“Oh, is there some of that?”
“Here and there,” he shrugged. “More in some cities than others. I suspect it would be worse if you got into Ruuger’s, but who knows what they think there about anything offworld. You want to be especially careful in Myzine.”
“We know about the unfortunate incident that happened with the Jedi there twenty years back,” said Mace. It hadn’t actually been that unfortunate an incident; there hadn’t even been anyone killed, but he had the feeling it was seen as one.
“Of course you do,” he said. “Just count yourself lucky nobody thinks much of the high-stepping people of Myzine outside their own city. Word-hawking, hair-sweeping, stuck up whirlers they are; everyone knows that. They probably even know it in Ruuger’s.”
By the time Noonnie came back with the boys, Padmé had managed to get the kind of details their arrival point of Colorpa and the surrounding cities the travel guides didn’t always provide, such as the governmental turmoil in Astromi, the recent rise of a youth movement with deeply disturbing values in Moki, and potential health hazards nobody was admitting to in Fikio. She even kept him talking about a kid-friendly version of a feud that was taking place in one of Colorpa’s least reputable neighborhoods after the rest of his family returned.
“I’m hoping we’ll land to the news that the whole thing’s over,” said Taleb, finishing his account. “It would be nice to not get anxious every time two people on the bus look like they might be hostile to each other…” At that moment, the ship began to decelerate, and his next words were lost in a pained groan. Next to him his wife clung tightly to the seat, and their children looked downright sick, though nothing worse came from them besides quiet noises of pain. It was easy for the two Jedi, of course, to let the Force take them just enough that they did not truly feel the crashing out of lightspeed.
They were out of it. The family gasped for breath, and Noonnie murmured something which sounded less than polite under her breath.
And then, the Arkanian, who had barely spoken through the entire journey, said, his voice slightly above normal volume and very, very precise, “A few of them are leaving the system, and with it, the group, but most of the Eposulates have been bound for Ilborbor.”
“How do you know that?” Mace demanded. “Why are you only telling us that now? Why should we even believe you?”
“On Coruscant I happened to get acquainted with a former Eposulate. I did not tell you because I did not wish to spend the entire journey here being interrogated, Master Windu.” He spoke the name with clear emphasis; he no doubt knew him already by reputation. “You don’t need to believe, me, of course, since I know you can’t sense deception in most Arkanians, but I suspect you will. You could try to go to their city to ask them there, of course, but I too share the impression that those you would find there would be reluctant to answer you.”
It was true they couldn’t sense deception, or all but the strongest of other emotions, from Arkanians, but nonetheless Mace’s feelings still told him this one was nominally telling him the truth, if perhaps also leaving something out.
“Well,” said Padmé thoughtfully, “we could probably still get that they were going to Ilborbor confirmed, if we asked enough people.”
“You two,” sighed the Arkanian, “I have no doubt at least you, Master Windu, are now thinking of tracking me down in the spaceport and forcing me to tell you more…”
“Well, he shouldn’t have to!” interrupted Urch. “You should tell him everything now.”
The Arkanian gave him an extremely patronizing look. He seemed completely unaffected by it, or by the gestures his parents made towards him. “These Jedi want to help us,” he insisted. “You shouldn’t keep information from them. That information might save lives!”
And then Padmé said, softly, “It might, you know.”
He turned that condescending look to her now; she, too, didn’t flinch. “Do you believe me?” she asked.
“You…” He finally sighed. “Yes, you I believe.”
Then he said, “The Eposulate I met in Coruscant said their community is breaking apart, has been since Toona Pir’s death, and there are currently two main factions in the city, after the leader of the third-the one the leaving Eposulates sided with-died of an apparent heart attack. One of them is for increasing the city’s population by getting aggressive in their recruiting. The other thinks there are too many people there and are advocating for a purge-and some of the members of that faction don’t think they should merely banish those they decree unworthy. The latter is also rumored to be in contact with some very unsavory characters not from the city, and possibly not even from the planet; there are stories of their leaders going outside the city walls at night to meet with a mysterious hooded figure, or possibly even bringing him within the walls.”
He spoke this last part as if he didn’t believe it, but that was fine. There was no need for him to.
There was no process for Ruuger’s City, of course. Padmé did make a point of asking at one of the information kiosks, and had the man there laugh at her face for her pains. “We don’t have to go within the city walls just yet,” Mace noted as they walked away from that one. “We can start by investigating the outskirts. So long as we have pre-clearance for enough of the neighboring cities, they can’t send us away from there, at least not by legal means.” There were four other cities in that area; by the end of the day they had pre-clearance for three.
The entire three hours Mace also quietly kept track of the Arkanian through the Force, but he didn’t seem to be doing anything remarkable; just went to one of the hotels adjoining the spaceport and stayed there. Bothering him further right then didn’t seem like the best strategy. That left them with one obvious thing to do next: see if they could find anything out about what a ship bound for Chandrila had gone to Coruscant instead.
For that, Mace made a very quick call to Master Yoda about two hours after landing, and an hour and a half after that he called back to tell them the Council had agreed to their mission’s new pretense. So Padmé by him on his left, he requested to see the spaceport manager, and thankfully there no one tried to stall with them or mislead them. Presumably they figured it was too important a situation for them to dare.
The manager, who went by the family name of Uied, wasn’t human, which was mildly surprising, since the system’s population mostly was. He was a dark and thick skinned being about Mace’s height, and seemed unbothered by the Jedi’s gaze as he lowered his hood, while Padmé for the time being kept her own up. He knew her mind was on the staff gathered outside Uied’s office, probably speculating as to what they were doing there, though they were not to be privy to this meeting. “What brings a pair of Jedi to my office, feeling they themselves must speak to me?” he asked, but there was more bluster in his words than anything else. He would ultimately accept their claim, and not be skeptical about his own importance in the galactic scheme of things.
“I assume you have heard about this already,” said Mace, “but 16 days ago, a ship unexpectedly arrived at Coruscant…” He told the story as the Ersus had told it to them, though he spoke more of the general events than of their experience, and made it a version that sounded like it had been told by someone official, rather than by someone who had experienced it. “This is a matter of very great concern,” he said to Uied, who was emitting very strong distress in the Force, “and we must find out the reason for it. Some sort of computer issue seems the most likely culprit, but if there is any chance that sabotage was involved…”
“I have known about the Zarlot 3, yes,” he said. “I can tell you that we’ve looked into the logs it put into the spaceport before departure, and they all indicate the ship was planning to go to Chandrila. Whatever got into those droids didn’t get into them through any of the spaceport’s computer systems.”
“When did you first start looking? Was there perhaps any chance for hacking to be covered up?”
“I doubt it, Master Jedi. We take the integrity of our systems very seriously here, given what could happen if one of them went wrong.” Mace sensed no deception from him there. “We have had people try to hack us, and we are very good at detecting some trace of it. We even have a hacker of our own on the staff to fight back. Believe me, the moment we heard about the Zarlot 3, she worked almost constantly for ten hours straight, looking for any trace of tampering. She found nothing.”
So the itinerary had to have been changed on the ship itself, either before or after it had spent its time being prepped and boarded, even though before would’ve meant complicated work, to keep the changes from being transmitted to the spaceport, and after would have to have been done by one of the passengers, and done before the ship made the jump to hyperspace at the latest. “Do you happen to have a list of all the passengers on board?”
“Not a complete one, though passengers can enter their information into our systems for convenience. Many don’t, and if there were any of those Eppies on board, they probably didn’t. Still, at least that means there’s no problem with me giving it to you; they waive their privacy over it.”
Such a list probably wouldn’t be of much use, but Mace took it anyway. “If there were any abnormalities you or anyone else happens to remember, no matter how small they may seem…”
“I’ll repeat that to my staff,” said Uied, and Mace doubted their chances of getting much out of them either, unless it came tonight before they left the city. They weren’t going to sleep in it; they had too much traveling to do.
They left the spaceport after that, walking slowly and taking a route nearer to the staff offices, just in case anyone came running. Padmé, still the young optimist, kept taking slight glances in the general direction of the staff-only doors, but, as Mace had sadly expected, no one came bursting through them with vital information that had them running to do something dramatic.
Instead they emerged into Colorpa, and the most impacting thing they would see that night was the city spread below them. It ran downhill most of the way, a gentle cascade of shimmering lights in the earliest parts of the evening, the structures surprisingly flat, most of them two or three floors at most, it looked like, although they knew the more expensive ones had more underground. Much taller were the city walls; they were visible in the distance as thick glowing lines. Towards the center was a dark hole which Mace thought was probably due to an outage; there was light enough to see that structures aplenty were built there. Everything else was well lit indeed, as were the roads they could see going beyond the walls. The buildings were tightly packed in, too, sometimes it was difficult to tell if there was space at all within the clumps of some of them, and it didn’t look like there were very many other open spaces either. Through the Living Force, Mace could sense the high density of the city’s inhabitants, and the relative lack of other kinds of life.
That was probably what Padmé paid the most attention too. She looked out at the city and said, “This is the most heavily populated city in this part of the continent, isn’t it? With many inhabitants not very well off.”
“That is true,” said Mace. “Be careful for pickpockets.”
The public transit system within the city was a good one, especially from going from the spaceport to the outskirts. The station was barely a minute’s walk from the spaceport entrance, they caught a bus in even less time. Ten minutes later Calorpa had rushed past them as a fast-running line of lights outside the bus windows, and they were in a holding alcove waiting for the longbus to Myzine.
Transportation out of the city, as they had been warned, was another matter. They had the misfortune to arrive right after one bus had departed, and the next one was two hours local, which was longer than two hours standard, away. It seemed the less glamorous longbuses sometimes weren’t any better than the skyliners. As a result, the earliest hours of the morning found them sitting in the middle of an empty stop, the din of the city surprisingly loud behind them, neither of them in any state to sleep, in too public a location to get away with proper meditation, and, once the incomplete passenger list was read through with little jumping out at them, with absolutely nothing to occupy them.
For the first half-hour of their wait, Mace semi-meditated instead, sublimating his awareness away from there and into everything he could sense through the Force coming out of Colorpa. He found nothing worth noting, though, and eventually he came back to check in with Padmé, and found her holding herself rigid. He had noticed during his meditation that there was a good deal of misery in the city at this moment, more than once would expect even from such a place.
When she noticed he had come out of it, she asked, “I’m wondering where that family we traveled with is right now.”
“You shouldn’t worry about them,” he said gently. “There’s no reason to believe anything bad is happening to them.” Then he sensed something else. “Also, someone’s coming…” A moment later the shatterpoint came into crystal clear focus. Also the dark intent. “Stay here.”
The newcomer was male, probably around thirty years standard, and an inhabitant of the planet. When he got closer to him, Mace mostly sensed anger, but not hot anger. Rather the underlying rage and resentment of someone who had been ill treated for a very long time, and was likely happy to find any target to lash out at. Also, there was fatigue, and hunger, both of them also long-term; this was a man who lived a life of deprivation.
By the time he had positioned himself to take the man down, the only thing Mace felt for him was pity. Not that he could allow that to cloud his mind. He was especially glad he’d left Padmé where she was sitting. She’d never faced this kind of foe, he could not be absolutely certain about her abilities to steel herself, and now was not the situation in which to test that, if it could be avoided.
He was likely not a man who had any understanding of how formidable his targets were; he might have been told, but had not comprehended. There was a disturbing bit of malice and glee when Padmé came within his sights, and she was alone. Mace did not allow himself to react to it, however, and waited until the man had run forward before he leapt from the shadows. He had brought three weapons with him, but they were still all easily knocked away, and by the time Padmé had finished the debate with herself of how to interpret his order and decided to stand in front of her seat with her lightsaber out, he had him in a headlock with his lightsaber blade to his throat.
“Who sent you?” he asked, deadly calm. He didn’t even put any Force Persuasion into it. The way this man was reacting, he wouldn’t need it.
“You think I know?” He was making a show of bravado. Unfortunately, he was also being honest. “Well,” he then added, “it was probably one of the big brass. But I can’t know which one.”
“Big brass?” Mace added. It made sense, that there’d be organized crime in a city like this, and they'd already heard about one alleged feud. Though his instincts told him it actually hadn’t been them. “They hired you through someone else?”
“I’m not giving you my friend’s name,” the man growled. “He wouldn’t know either. By the time you get back to which brass, they’ll have sent someone else.” He didn’t try to conceal the little bit of glee there.
There would likely be quicker ways to find out who was behind this anyway. “You tell me the time your friend came to you with the job,” he hissed.
“Don’t know, maybe about three hours ago.” The hostility rose up within again as he added, “Didn’t offer me as much money as usually goes for these things, but I told him I’d be happy to take a discount if the target was you.”
Padmé was opening her mouth, and Mace knew she was about to launch into a lecture that would fall on deaf ears. He jerked his head to stop her. “Did he know our names?” he asked. “Or did he just say Jedi?”
“He knew ‘em both. Too bad you’ll never know who he is.” That took some gall, on his past. Mace was almost impressed.
He was also sure they’d gotten all they could from him. Now, at least, he brought the Force in, “You will forget about all this. You will walk away and never try to attack any Jedi ever again.” Normally he would’ve turned him over to the authorities, but he wasn’t going to do that when he couldn't be at all sure they hadn't been involved with this attempted hit on them.
“I will forget about all this,” the man repeated as Mace let him go. “I will walk away and never try to attack any Jedi ever again.”
When he had walked away, Padmé deactivated her lightsaber and asked, “Do we leave now? Or do we try to investigate this? Or…”
Mace considered it. They absolutely had to follow up on this. The shatterpoint had made that clear. Except it had felt two-sided to him, like the way to turn these events involved dealing with both this city and the others in the area at once. That meant they had to split up.
He knew which of the two tasks she’d be better at and which one he’d be, so without further hesitation, he said, “You’re going to leave, and do what we’ve been planning to do. I’ll stay here for at least a couple of days, maybe join you later.”
Thankfully she made no protest, just nodded. “We’re going to discuss your exact itinerary before I go,” he said. “Sit down.”
He’d intended to stay there as little time as possible. For all he knew, this trail would go cold fast. But while Padmé had now been out in the field without him for a few hours multiple times, and even almost a whole day once, this was going to be the longest amount of time she would be by far. Depa had nearly gotten killed the first time she’d done that, though that incident hadn’t been anyone’s fault besides that of the person who’d tried to kill her. This was fresh in his memory, and despite the irrationally, Mace found himself repeating things to his current Padawan he knew she knew already, talking her through the basic procedures for entering each city. The longbus pulled up to find him giving her frantic last-minute advice for what to look for in Myzine.
They both stood up. She took his hand, and he let her. “I won’t let you down, Master,” she said to him.
“Don’t let yourself down, Padawan,” he replied.
She let go and stepped back, and then turned to board the longbus. Its automatic door had slammed shut behind her even before she reached the driver to pay the fare, and the bus had zoomed away barely a moment after that; as soon as the payment had been confirmed, Mace assumed. It all happened fast enough to blow his hood right off his head, and though he could sense Padmé’s presence in the Force, it was already rapidly fading into the distance.
He let it go. If something went wrong, he’d know it immediately, no matter how far away she was. Until then, it was no use having his mind on her.
Instead he opened it up to the city, let himself take in everything, all the joy and sorrow and anger and pain that most of the Order’s Jedi lacked the ability to connect to. He’d never even try to teach this skill to Padmé. For a minute or so, it was even too much for him to bear. A single tear escaped him, he thought too much of all the Jedi couldn’t do, all the things he himself would have to leave be as he went about what he would do tonight.
A moment later the grief was released away into the Force, and he was free to feel past the emotions, to the intent. That was harder still; thoughts themselves could not truly be read through the Force unless someone outright gave them over, which was not something anyone currently alive could do. But the presence of conniving could be found, of focused minds. He laid what he found out against what he knew of the geography of the city, what he’d read about on the voyage here, what that family on the ship had told them.
Two places of interest stuck out to him. One would have been preferable, obviously, but he could work with two. Cloak drawn tight about him, mind still attuned to the Force, Mace moved forward through the darkness, back into the city.