She wasn’t all that surprised when Ardré came along and plopped herself down beside her, then asked, “Are you holding up fine?”
Her response was a shrug. “Are any of us?”
Ardré leaned in close and said softly, “Being disconnected from your senses, I mean. You may be hiding it well, but I know how awful it is to be outright blocked from the Force.”
“For you, maybe,” she said. “But I endured it plenty of times between the ages of five and thirteen.”
“FIVE?!” This apparently shocked Ardré so much she yelled this right there in the middle of the crowded street. And because they were pretty much the leaders of everybody at the moment, that meant everyone in hearing range was looking at them. Including Lané and Latt, and the former looked very disapproving. That made sense; they all knew the image they projected right now was important.
And there was nowhere to go, really, no place in the village that was likely to be empty, and to run out to beyond the buildings just to have a private conversation was probably irresponsible. They both knew that, so Ardré just said, in her previous low volume, “We are going to have to talk about that a lot when all this is over. Meanwhile, I do have one piece of advice, though I have no idea whether this will work or not even if it can be managed, and I’m not sure right now it can, and that’s to try to seek out the company of anyone your mind might be most comfortable around. I know you’re not used to having such people; I remember even when I only had one such person in my life, I think staying closest to her for prolonged period of times really helped my senses increase.”
Was there anyone, Coté wondered? Maybe spending more time in company specifically with her fellow handmaidens, especially Briné, whom everyone always felt more at easy around, at least when she was in a good mood.
But the chance of her powers returning grew a lot less likely, when only moments after Ardré had said this, Arthi came over, grim-faced, and said to them, “Tollo Mothemi is dead.”
“I’m sorry,” Coté said automatically, but he barely nodded; he was already moving on. She watched him make his way over to Lané and Latt, and break the news to them. Latt bent his head down, and leaned heavily into the arm Lané offered him, even as she continued to walk him along, saying things to him to try to get him to keep going.
“We should go pay our respects,” said Ardré, and she was right; he had, after all, been their fellow militia man. So they got up and headed for the medical house, where they believed Mothemi had been taken, and presumably breathed his last.
Losté and Ené ended up falling in silently with them as they walked. They didn’t need to talk; it wasn’t like either pair had any doubt about where the other pair was going. Ardré and Coté ended up getting a little separated as they half-lined up in order of their militia rank and seniority, but Coté found she didn’t mind at that moment. It felt like she was walking slightly back in time, when she’d been a militia private rather than a handmaiden, for it was as that that she now acted.
He had been taken outside, and placed on a makeshift bier of rocks, with what looked like a pair of slightly burnt tablecloths under and on top of him. Over him stood Rorerrie, just staring down, as if he was having trouble comprehending it.
Ené spoke: “It is hard to lose a man, isn’t it?”
“Of course,” he said. “I thought I heard mention that you girls lost one of your own as well?”
“We did,” said Ardré, and she went into details about Moré, emphasizing her assistance to Briné, which made Rorrerie sigh and say, “Wish she’d been here, then. Though I suppose it wouldn’t have made much different in this case. They don’t tell you about this, you know. And I mean, I hope you don’t get upset at me for pointing this out, but your Moré died quickly. They don’t tell you that sometimes those killed quickly don’t die that way. That there can be a long stretch of time where you feel you have to try to save him, and you can’t....” His voice was starting to shake.
“Don’t be ashamed for trying,” said Ardré. “Never that.”
“I’m not,” he said, in that same shaky tone. “Although it wasn’t me who tried anyway, of course, it was our two medical people and the old woman, but, well, you know what I mean. I just...I just don’t know...”
“I don’t think there’s anything to know,” said Losté, very gently. “You did everything right, and so did everyone else, and he still died, and that’s all there is to it.”
The other militia members were arriving now, Hock and Merine, and then Kloiterrie, and then Arthi returning, Tenil with him. Each in turn put their hand on Rorerrie’s shoulder, and Merine and Arthi both murmured things to him, maybe more of what the handmaidens had been trying to tell him already. Whether it took or not Coté was unable to tell.
From inside the hospital there had already been coming a faint din of work still being done, but while they were still standing there, they suddenly heard a cry of triumph, and then a whir and hum, and Losté spoke the obvious: “They’ve gotten the generator to work.” She turned towards the door and went inside; the other handmaidens followed, as did Arthi and Tenil, and, after a moment’s pause, Rorerrie.
The place was crowded, aside from Saché, Briné and Glose, the boy Schulek, and Losain Perine, there had also been five more people that presumably had held at least some of the needed knowledge about power or mechanics. But the lights were on, and so was the bacta tank, though it didn’t have any bacta in it. “How long would the tank need to have bacta in it before it was fully operational?” Saché was asking Perine.
She considered. “Not as long as you might think, though probably at least three hours.”
“Since we have no patients who need it right now,” said Saché, her voice low but calm and collected, “then we don’t need to hurry with the bacta, especially since we don’t even know if we’re staying here or not.” Taking notice of the newcomers, she addressed them, “About that, do you have any information so far?”
“Not yet,” Coté told her, “but I think Lané and Latt should be done with the first round of questioning people within the next hour.”
“Good. Rorerrie, Tollo Mothemi was essentially your man; do you know if he had any particular requests about being buried?”
Rorriere shook his head, saying, “No, but Drosos Merine might. They were very good friends, I believe.”
Now that she knew that, Saché also wanted to offer him her particular condolences, so she said, “Come with me back out to him then?” He looked glad for the request, as she’d hoped.
Outside, the handmaidens and militia men had started to fall away, returning to tasks they had to do, but Merine was still there, sitting against the wall with his hands on his knees and his head bent down, though he didn’t appear to be crying. When Saché quietly spoke his name, he rose his body without raising his head. “I am most sorry for you loss; I understand you and he were close.”
“We were, in our way,” he said dully. “Though right now, I just wish I’d known him better.”
“Then you don’t know what his funereal wishes might have been?” asked Rorerrie.
“I think he said once he wanted to be cremated,” he said.
“The fire…” Saché started.
“If it’s only one fire, we don’t have to worry about it attracting attention,” said Rorerrie. “There have been a few fires in some of the deserted villages; my men and I have seen them.”
“But can we burn any of the buildings here down?” pointed out Merine. “Is there anywhere we can even put a pyre without putting them at risk?”
“How far outside the village could we go without attracting Federation attention?” Saché asked Rorriere.
He took a moment to consider. “A few thousand feet would probably be fine,” he said. “But what are we going to build a pyre of?”
They really did need to inventory everything in the village anyway, Saché thought. But before she could begin to formulate plans for that, just then, Latt came running to the group of them, calling, “M’am, sir! There are two men just arrived, saying they represent an organized resistance movement. They want to talk to whoever is in charge here.”
Rorriere looked at Saché along with the others, and she was aware she was under no obligation to take him with her to greet them. She wasn’t sure if it would even be a good idea to; she wanted to establish herself as the undisputed authority in this group of people. But somewhere in her, the thought had formed that after their initial dispute, he had more or less obeyed her, and meanwhile he had been very strong and brave, and he deserved credit for keeping his men together the way he had before they’d run into the handmaidens.
She wasn’t going to take only him, though. “Rorriere, to me. Where’s Yané?”
Yané was fetched within another ten minutes, she and Rorriere fell in and flanked her as she followed Latt through the village to the house where he’d left the newcomers. For one moment as they walked she wondered if they ought to have their blasters out. But it didn’t matter; she was grateful for them both then. It gave her an odd feeling of strength, and she knew it would make her look a lot more in control of everything and everyone than she currently felt.
She found the two men, both tall, broad fellows that didn’t look much older than she was, surrounded by various villagers. Also Lané, who was talking with one of them; Saché thought she heard her mentioning Vatié’s name. But he broke off when Lané gestured to Saché and muttered a quick identification of all three of them to him, stepping out of the small group of people and offering his hand. “Tatton Olié,” he said. “and this is Mart Yolierre. We come to seek and offer help, and to invite anyone who wishes to join our resistance movement. You are the most senior handmaiden to the Queen left on Naboo, I believe? I have been told she has fled.”
“She goes to Coruscant to seek help from the Senate,” said Saché, wondering uneasily what people were thinking of the Queen’s departure, and if they would be angry at her for it. “And, yes, I am, and she left all but her most senior three handmaidens here to fight back against the Federation however we can.”
Thankfully, these two men showed no sign of anger; Olié merely said, “Very well, then. It sounds like we have come to the right place.”
“You have,” said Rorriere. “As well as there being nine handmaidens here, four of which, by the way, also have experience in the militia, I am one of eight militia men who have joined forces with them. The rest of the people here are mostly survivors of the city of Julika, which, if you have not heard, I am sorry to say the night before last was extensively bombed, and I am sure there are plenty of people here, who, with the right instruction, would be happy to fight back against those who have destroyed their home.”
“Very good. Lané here tells me you also have found a working bacta tank?”
“We do,” Saché confirmed. “Would you like to see it?”
“Briefly,” he said. “Then the two of us would like to take you-and you also, perhaps, Sergeant Rorerrie, back to our current encampment to meet our own commander.”
Saché couldn’t say she liked Olié addressing him in this way, as if he was not under her command, but then again, she firmly reminded herself, they would probably not both put themselves under the command of Olié’s superior, so it probably mattered less anyway. Still Yané wasn’t happy either, and didn’t really hide it, as they headed out, and while Lané kept a neutral face, Saché suspected she felt the same way too.
Outside word had spread around enough that a few onlookers had shown up. Yolierre, who had been very quiet indeed, spoke in a tiny voice now, when he said to his companion, “If it was two nights ago, and they’ve been on the run since, most of them aren’t going to be of much use.”
“They’ll be of however much use they’ll be of, and require however much aid they require,” they heard him murmur back, but he didn’t look happy either, especially when he saw how some people were even limping.
Saché wasn’t exactly thrilled herself. She had to decide what was best to do about them, and she suspected that task would still fall to her even if she did come under someone else’s command.
Merine was gone; Mothemi’s body was now being attended by two young women, around seventeen or eighteen, Saché thought. She identified Mothemi to their two guests as they approached, and when he stopped to pay his respects, the two girls identified themselves as Hatcha Folerrie and Hollé Droshierre. When they learned where the two men are from, Folerrie said, “I don’t think either of us would be much good at fighting, but if you can find any use for us, at any time, we’ll always be ready to help, aren’t I right, Hollé?” and the other girl affirmed that she was.
Inside, the scene was much as they’d left it, except a number of things that had been scattered on the floor were now place on higher surfaces, and many of them were now plugged in to recharge their power cells. Briné and Glose both had to worm their way over from the far corner to be introduced. “We’re trying to calculate the minimum of bacta needed for the tank to do its job,” she said to Saché, then to the two newcomers, “you wouldn’t happen to have some, would you?”
“We can see about bringing you some,” said Olié, “although we, like you I assume, must be careful with our supplies. And I assume if we do aid you with the bacta tank, you will treat our people in it.”
“Of course,” said Briné, clearly confused as to why such a question would even need to be asked. Glose did not look confused, however, and perhaps was thinking the same thing Saché was: it was all very well to say everyone would be treated, but with only one tank there would soon be the question of priority.
Now wasn’t the time to ask it, though, and Olié then said to her, “If you want any more medical supplies, your commanders will be coming to meet ours, and I am willing to take back a list.”
It took a few minutes for Briné and Glose together to make one, during which another thing occurred to Saché, and she said to Olié, “Sir, I believe we should perhaps also be accompanied by another one of my band. As Rorriere told you earlier, four of them are in the militia, all are still officially active members, and Ardré Kartik is actually by seniority the ranking member of the militia among all of us.”
Olié’s eyes immediately flew to Rorriere, who looked decidedly away; it seemed it might be a big deal that he had not disclosed this right away. That, Saché realized, was not good; the last thing they needed right now was any sort of trouble among themselves. And now she felt the threat of failure leap up and menace her, because she had no idea what to say to fix this situation, or even if it was a good idea to say anything.
It was fortunate, indeed, that Lané was still there with them, and she said, “Yes, we tend to forget that, don’t we? We are so used to the following the rank of the Handmaidens that we forget the lowest-ranked of us still alive is the highest-ranked by other standards-although that, of course, is because both of our little groups have suffered losses at the hands of the Federation already.”
“You lost someone?” It had definitely been smart of Lané to mention that; it helped distract Olié. “Allow me to give you my condolences for her. How did it happen?”
Saché was able to take over there, telling them about their blowing up the museum in Theed and how Moré had been fatally shot. Both men had enough questions about just how they’d blown the museum up and how much they knew about how things currently were in Theed(she wished they knew more), that it gave their two medics more than enough time to come up with their list and for them to get out of the hospital. Saché noticed that Rorriere lagged slightly behind as they did so, and looked like he’d been punched.
A great part of her wanted him to stay there, and that way. She especially found herself thinking that Olié might be right to find fault with his not being honest about his rank; she knew well honestly on all points was needed in the militia, just like it was needed among the handmaidens. But at the same time, he had already been in command of his group when they had met up with theirs, and his men had been looking to him, and that didn’t count for nothing.
It was enough that when she feared he might fall out of the group completely and not accompany them back to the resistance, she said, “I do want Sergeant Rorriere to come with us.”
"If you do,” said Olié neutrally. “But I want Ardré Kartik as well, if you don’t object.” Saché wasn’t going to fuss about that.
“This is not an easy journey,” he said to her, Yané, Ardré, and Rorriere when the six of them stood at the edge of the village together. “We came most of the way here on a pair of speeder bikes, and ones lengthy enough that there is easily room for the four of you on them also, but they are currently hidden in the Roosted Rocks. Our priority in this journey is to avoid being traced. If we were traced to where we are going, the results would likely be the death of all of us, and the loss of any hope of the Trade Federation being driven off by any forces left on this planet. Therefore we will do anything to prevent that. Do the four of you understand what I mean, when I say that?”
“You mean the six of us have to be ready to be shot down, as an alternative,” said Saché, deliberately beating Rorriere to it. She did feel a protest within her, when she saw how pale Yané looked then, and remembered how she wasn’t even thirteen, and she even briefly wanted to command her to stay behind. But she didn’t flinch; none of them did, and Saché felt it was somehow too late for that, that both of them had to go, or it was somehow a display of weakness.
“Exactly,” said Yolierre. “We’ll be at greatest risk of it during the walk, but the risk remains throughout the trip.”
“And if at any time we think they are letting us live, so that we can track us, we may even have to provoke them into shooting. Although at least then we have a reasonable chance of making them think they’ve killed us. But in short, if at any time I tell you I believe any ships above or any droids nearby have spotted us, the rest of you must do exactly as I say. Do you all promise to do this?”
“Promise,” said Saché, glancing over at the other three, and feeling much relief when they all promised themselves.
“Very well, then. Follow me.”
Ten minutes walking out in the grass, and if it wasn’t for his words hanging over their heads, it wouldn’t have felt that different from what they’d already been doing, although it was less worrying when there were only six of them. Then they moved into terrain that had more rocks in it, allowing them to dash from boulder to boulder, sometimes spending as much as five minutes crouched in the shadows of them when they heard a whir above.
The Roosted Rocks were a fairly well-known landmark, a group of rocks that formed a structure big enough to easily hold a dozen people, possibly carved by Gunguns, or possibly by the “second wave” of human settlers who had come to Naboo from the Kanz sector two centuries after the main wave of refugees from Grizmalt; scholars debated it. It was also surrounded by large rings of flowerbeds; all the rocks had been removed. The six of them took it in while standing by a slab covered in the graffiti of visitors. “Run when I say,” said Olié, “and fast as you can.” Saché moved herself down into a crouch, thought about the training camp, the sprints they’d done sometimes through swampy waters. She liked the notion that the three of them just might outrun the three men.
“Now!” Olié yelled, and as one they sprang forth, feet pounding over the flowers, eyes locked on their destination. Her hope about their being faster didn’t come true; Ardré could only keep up with the three men, and she and Yané staggered behind. Olié kept glancing behind him, but he kept nodding as he ran; at least they were going fast enough.
But when they were halfway to the Rocks Yané suddenly slipped and hit the ground. In her haste to get to her feet she stumbled again twice, and by the time she started running again she was further behind. This time, when Olié looked back, he shook his head, and Saché felt dread fill her beyond anything she’d felt so far.
He didn’t say anything until Yané had been the last to reach the Rocks, under which the STAP ships at least were unlikely to spot then, but by then he had gone to where the bikes were pressed down into a crevasse and pulled out a scanner, and he shook his head. “They saw her,” he said.
“So what happens now?” asked Yané, terrified.
“For now,” said Olié, “we stay here, and see how they respond. They may think the group of you are here.”
“They’ll send plenty of droids, then,” murmured Ardré.
“Or will they it might only be me?” said Yané, even more quietly. “Only one target.”
“If we can keep them far away enough from us,” said Olié, matter-of-factly, and Saché felt her sickest yet.
But then Ardré said, “How good a look did they get of her? Is it possible that if they found one of us visible, and don’t get close enough to detect those of us hidden in here, they might not realize that person and Yané aren’t the same person?”
He looked at the device again, tapped a command, then said, “They probably only got her height. But they probably got that very accurately, to within an inch, a couple of inches at most.” He took a look at Ardré and shook his head; she had at least three on the rest of her fellow handmaidens.
Saché and Yané looked at each other, each very aware of how alike in body they were, having both been chosen to be alike to the Queen, after all. “Saché,” breathed Ardré, “forgive me for asking this question, but do you think Yané would be able to lead us?”
There was a single, terrible moment, where all Saché could think was she absolutely could not be that cold and calculating, while also knowing that she might have to be. She knew then that order would never come out of her mouth, but it was clear it would come out of Olié's if he felt it necessary.
Then the next, they heard a buzz fill the air, and before they could react to it, Yolierre said, “Do you think you could make me a hood out of your skirts that would fool them?”
“It probably would,” said Olié, looking over the skirts dispassionately. “I’m afraid your modesties would both be compromised, but I assume you wouldn’t mind, under the circumstances?” All Saché could do was shake her head. To speak now at all was impossible. “We have about five minutes. Yolierre, as soon as you’ve got the hood on, just pop your arm out first, then your head, and then shoot. Despite your belief on the matter, Sergeant Kartik, I don’t think they’ll necessarily send very many droids, but Yolierre will have to shoot them down by himself if…” He didn’t say the rest. He didn’t need to.
The colors were such that the cloth had to be cut from the tops of the dresses; Saché and Yané’s backs both were bared as they hastily threw the two pieces of orange cloth over their imposter, trying to place them in such a way that they wouldn’t slip and fall. Meanwhile, Olié has his eyes closed, and looked like he was focusing on the increasing volume of the buzz. “Three droids, I think they’re sending, maybe four, five at most. That means there’s a chance…the rest of you, get back further into the Rocks. I’ll stay just behind you, Yolierre.” Saché suppressed her urge to protest; she had to remind herself she was not in command anymore. It was harder than she’d thought it would be.
The buzz got so loud they knew the droids had reached the rocks, and from there it all happened so fast Saché didn’t even know exactly what happened. There was blaster fire, and then Olié was racing back to them with a limp Yolierre on his arm, his head so burned by blaster fire he looked terrifying, but clearly still alive. “There’s just a chance he’ll live,” he told them, “if we can get him to the others and our medics alive.” Or to Briné, Saché thought, but clearly he wasn’t willing to go back that way and let any droids spot them. “Sergeants, I assume you can fly the N7 model?”
“All three of us can as well,” said Saché, as Rorriere nodded. “We learned as part of our training.”
At least Olié didn’t looked that stunned, or maybe he just didn’t care. “You take his bike then,” he said to Saché.
He and Rorriere carefully balanced Yolierre between them, trying to talk to him, but while his eyes were open and moving he didn’t seem to really hear them. The three handmaidens piled together onto the other bike, Yané holding tightly to Saché as Ardré settled in behind them. This version of the N7 was actually slightly fancier than those they’d used in training camp, but the basic buttons and levers were the same, and as Olié powered up and his bike took position in mid-air, theirs easily followed.
He shifted forward, and they fell in behind them. They could see Rorriere trying to hold Yolierre up, and that he was getting blood on him. “I wish one of us had the ability to help,” sighed Yané, softly enough that only her two fellow handmaidens could hear her.
The Roosted Rocks had developed underground a surprisingly large group of rooms which were mostly used for administration of the park and storing of maintenance supplies. The entrance was within the rocks, and Olié maneuvered his bike through it, the handmaidens following. The place ran on its own power generator, so the lights turned themselves on as they came in. “We actually found a few people hiding down here,” Olié called to them. “We had a third person with us who took them back to camp. We dug our way in at one end; hopefully the hole will still be there.”
It was; about ten minutes later they emerged into a vast canyon, one Saché didn’t know the name of, though she thought the river they could see at the bottom was the Naker. Except that the waters of the Naker weren’t supposed to be that brown; she could only speculate how angry it would have made Briné to see that.
They did not go towards the river, however. Instead, Olié led them upwards. “There’s a gap in the rocks,” he called to them. “It’s a bit long; I just hope we can get through it before the light starts to fail.” Because the sun was getting low where they were, and Saché supposed that would help them evade Federation detection, but she wasn’t sure it wouldn’t cause her to crash into anything.
Darkness engulfed them about half a minute after they entered what felt less like a gap and more like a tunnel. In it, she was all too aware of the sounds coming from the bike in front of her; the roar of both engines wasn’t quite enough to drown out the combined whimper/gurgle, and the tiny, “Please, hold on,” from Rorriere. It meant he was still alive, Saché told herself. She wished she could be sure the sounds weren’t that of his last moments. And then he quieted, and the three of them on that bike were flying through the dark, their perception of the bike ahead of them limited, although as well as the sound of the engine there were less than pleasant smells floating back to them, and Saché was too aware how at that moment she had no idea where even she was, really; this wasn’t a part of the planet she knew well at all, she was starting to lose track of time, or even the speeds at which they had been going so far, and she was now far too helpless and reliant on someone she didn’t even know that much about.
It suddenly was becoming hard to breath, or hold on to the bike’s handlebars, or focus on steering. A distant part of her desperately protested THIS CAN’T HAPPEN NOW, she couldn’t lose things completely when in the company of these people, but another part could only think it was a marvel it hadn’t happened until now. The metal beneath her hands was getting more and more slippery, she was going to let go into another moment, but she was also sure they were about to crash, or she was about to cry, or fall off, or scream, or do the wrong thing and get everyone killed, or get her father to break out the prodder again or worse-
Another pair of hands seized her own and pressed them down, another pair of arms guided them; it was no longer she who was steering. Yané’s body pressed harder against her back, and she whispered, “Breathe, Saché, breathe. Don’t worry, I’ll steer. You’ll be fine. This will pass. You are strong and good and your family will never lay eyes or hands or anything else on you again. Everything will be okay. We will reach the Resistance and we will fight against the Trade Federation and we will win and they will go away. Just keep breathing, breathe until you know I’m right. Breathe, breathe, in and out, in and out…”
Saché was breathing. Her lungs hurt, everything hurt, and with each breathe out she wasn’t sure she’d get the next one in, but she was breathing. “The tunnel will end,” Yané was saying to her, just as she thought about how much she needed it to, she needed to be out in the open space, she needed to be able to know where they were going, even with Yané now doing the steering she still needed to know…
And then they were out, and they must have been going downward, because they were deep into the next valley, which wasn’t a small one, and yet was filled to the brim with people, people mostly in law enforcement or militia uniforms, but some in civilian clothes as well. Including a woman who at the sight of them burst out of the group of people standing nearest, and Saché recognized her as Yané cried out, “Ma!”