"Someone heard us?" Saché's voice dropped down to a whisper. The grenades can be stopped, she reminded herself. We can hold out here if we need to.
"No," Lané whispered back, "but a bunch of battle droids have entered the museum and gone down the corridor. They're patrolling back and forth...I don't think they're leaving....there are more coming."
The others had come in in time to hear her. "There's a window in the third section," whispered Ené.
Saché nodded. The group tiptoed through the first two sections, Saché taking note of the grenades passing the 19 minute mark, and reached the third. The window was big enough to crawl through, but to get to it they would have to climb up an active construction unit, which appeared to be assembling the droids' feet.
Saché put her hands on it and found it wasn't too hard to hoist herself up. She peered out the window. "All clear. I'll jump down and help everyone out. Moré first."
She landed easily on the pavement outside of the museum, and looked around. There was enough time to escape on foot, but she didn't want to stay in Theed. Then she turned to received Moré as the latter jumped down, helped by Ardré, who came down after her, then turned to receive Ené. As the two older girls both helped Losté down, Saché considered the two ends of the street.
"Yané's run to lock the door!" Her attention was pulled back by Vatié's news as she came down. "She's worried about the battle droids coming in and finding the grenades before they've gone off!"
"She's not back in here yet!" Coté added as she followed Vatié.
"It's okay." Briné was coming out. "She's running in now."
Indeed, only a few seconds after Briné hit the ground Yané appeared in the window, and everyone helped her down. Saché grabbed her arm, and said, "Don't do that again." But there was no time to elaborate. "Everyone down this way." She led them to their right, towards the outskirts of the city.
After three blocks, she found what she was looking for. Guarded by battle droids, a whole row of vehicles loomed teasingly in reach. There was an open-air speeder, just big enough to hold them all, at their end. The question was if they could get to it, get into it, and get away in it, without being shot down.
When the Neimodian first appeared, Saché thought they were dead. But as the battle droids turned their attention to him, Saché whispered to Yané, "What's the depth of that small speeder? Would be we able to squat in it?"
"Think so." Yané didn't sound at all sure, but it was their best chance.
Saché waited until several droids had walked up to the Neimodian, then whispered, "Don't shoot, just....run!"
They ran. When they reached the speeder they kicked at the battle droids' legs and knocked them down, then leapt in as the other droids turned around.
"Stop them! Stop them!" She heard the Neimodian yell. "Shoot the-"
She hadn't even realized she'd aimed and fired at him until he fell, unmistakably dead. There was no time to think even then; the battle droids had opened fire, and as Losté started the craft the others desperately tried to cover her.
"As soon as we're clear of Theed I'm going to kick us up to maximum speed," Losté was saying, "so everybody hold-ahh!" Thanks to the other handmaidens' cover fire they had been unable to get at her head, but the battle droids had shot Losté's hands, and she recoiled, clutching at them. Ené took her place, crouching over the controls as she worked them. They were gaining speed now, a few moments more...
She heard Briné cry out "No!" and a sickening thudding sound. No, Saché thought frantically, don't let her have just been killed. Don't let anybody have just been killed, but especially not her!
"We're clear of Theed!" Ené yelled and next thing Saché knew she was flattened against the side of the speeder as they accelerated, her face smushed into the metal. Several moments passed as she was unaware of anything else around her. Then the speeder started to slow down a little and she pulled herself up and looked around.
Theed was nowhere in sight. They were skirting the side of woods Saché didn't recognize, going over grassy fields. Taking this speeder into the woods probably wasn't practical, she quickly realized; it was a little too big for that.
Now came the hard part. She had to look and see if what she had heard was Briné's death.
The first thing she saw was Briné, uninjured, leaning over Losté and seeing to her hands. For a moment Saché felt sweet relief. But then she realized that Briné was working alone.
And then she saw, next to Losté, Vatié determinedly looking at them, and not looking at the middle of the speeder, and Ardré, face grim and tired, staring blankly in the direction Vatié was looking away from.
She looked, and saw Moré lying in the middle of the speeder where she had fallen, with a blaster wound having burst her neck open. Lané was leaning over her, trying to close her mouth; she'd probably closed her eyes too. Saché doubted Briné had even needed to examine her.
Saché wouldn't have gone to the Handmaidens' Graveyard, because it was where they might be expected to go to, but for the knowledge that it had a freshwater fountain. They could only hope the water was still running.
By the time they approached, they had prepared Moré's body as best they could. They'd cleaned and covered her neck, tied her hair back, and smoothed out her dress. But now that they were closing in on their destination, all eyes were on the lookout, and each handmaiden had her blaster ready.
"Can you sense anything?" Saché asked Coté. "I know you usually can't sense battle droids..."
"Nothing," Coté replied. "Though I think when we killed that Neimodian and Moré was killed less than a minute afterwards it sort of shut me down there anyway. I kind of felt him die..." She looked a little haunted. "And then my head sort of blinked out, and I haven't been able to feel a thing since."
When I killed that Neimodian, you mean, Saché thought. She still hadn't reacted to the fact that she had killed a sentient being. At the moment, she wasn't sure she could afford to.
They touched the speeder down some distance from the graveyard, and snuck closer on foot. Several times a rustle in the bushes or tiny footsteps on the grass made one or more of the girls jump up and train her gun on an animal. Then when they were creeping down the walls of the Outer Graveyard, there was a unexpected tap, and Saché turned and fired her blaster and blew a hole in the grey stone. From the other side a spiked krevol scurried over the top and away. At least I didn't hurt the poor thing, she thought, but she had turned crazy in front of the other handmaidens, which was very bad, and she wasn't even sure why she'd done so.
In the silence that followed, Lané said softly, "If there's anything in that graveyard, we'll know within the next five minutes or so."
Noone said anything after that. Saché knew it was smarter to have complete silence, but she hated it at this moment. Everyone had to be looking at her. What they were thinking about what had just happened? Were they worrying for her sanity? Would they hesitate to keep following her?
When they heard no footsteps and no voices, Saché said, "I don't think anyone's there yet, but we'll look in both graveyards and the shrine to make sure. Then we get Moré's body into the freezer, fill up on water, and get out of here. Everyone stay together."
They fell in behind her. They followed her through the gate, and all of them gazed upon the empty graveyard where they all hoped to be buried someday. They walked the length of the Outer Graveyard, past the graves of over three centuries of women who had served in their station before them, most of the older ones for all of their days, for it was only about a century ago that their mistresses' positions had stopped being usually for life. When they came around to the gate again, having neither seen anyone nor been shot at, they filed into the Inner Graveyard. This was a much smaller plot of land and the graves here were sparse, for the Inner Graveyard was reserved for those who had died in direct service to their mistress. Here Moré would be buried, when there was time to bury her.
The shrine was attached to the outer wall of the Inner Graveyard, and was accessible from both the front and the back. Inside they turned on the lights and stood in the empty vestibule. On the walls were written the names of those handmaidens whose deaths had left behind no body. A few objects dedicated to the memory of one or more of the women hung from the walls or were displayed on two stone tables which stood by either wall.
The last place to check was the cellar. Here were kept various odds and ends: a databank containing information on over a thousand year's worth of handmaidens, an interactive map of the graveyard showing where all individuals were buried, and at the far end, a walk-in freezer.
"Briné, Ardré, go back to the speeder and get Moré's body," Saché commanded, "and bring it back here as quickly as you can. The rest of us will go out to the fountain."
The fountain was in the Outer Graveyard, right outside the shrine entrance. Briné and Ardré accompanied the others out and watched them kneel by the fountain to drink, and fill the makeshift containers they'd created by welding together loose pieces of metal. They themselves walked on and out of the graveyard.
Outside, aware of the danger, they both kept lookouts, and didn't try to talk. But when they were climbing into the speeder, Briné said, "Let me just say, Ardré, that I already knew what you were talking about last night, about how Moré felt about me. I spoke honestly to her on the matter back when we were all still in training. She didn't want me to alter my behavior around her, so I didn't."
"And she made it harder for herself that way," noted Ardré. "Poor girl. I think she was a lot more stubborn than she was happy, if you know what I mean."
"I do, and she was. But what could I do? She was of age. I had to respect certain wishes of hers." She was reminding herself of this as much as reminding Ardré of it. Ardré, meanwhile, had scooped Moré up into her arms and was descending out of the speeder, without making any further comments. There was really nothing, now, that she thought could be said. Besides, it was a good idea for them to resume their earlier stealth.
They returned to the graveyard, and to the fountain, where the others were done. "I'll take her inside," said Saché. "You two drink and fill your containers. As soon as I come back we're heading back to the speeder; it's too dangerous to stay here much longer."
The fountain water was brackish and heavy, but it felt good going down. Both girls drank more than they probably should have, and Coté stopped them both by placing her hands on Ardré's shoulders and saying, "That's enough. We all drank a lot, but we're trying to not have to have to stop the speeder less than an hour into our flight to relieve ourselves."
“Right,” Ardré agreed, as Saché emerged from the shrine.
They were halfway to the graveyard gate when the sound of buzzing again filled the air. “If we run into those searcher droids,” Saché sighed, “is there anything we can do?”
“Shoot them down and run for it,” said Yané. “It’s a good thing we’ve got that speeder now. Though I’m not sure they can’t track that, but I think that’s a chance we’re going to have to take. And remember, the droids usually travel in twos.”
“Losté, Ené, blasters ready.”
“We’ve all got our blasters ready,” Coté reminded her, not at all gently.
When they reached the gate, the buzzing was so loud they all knew immediately, the searcher droids had to be on the other side.
Was there any other way out of the graveyard? Saché didn’t know of any. She looked at the faces of her companions, half-hoping that one of them might. But there was no reason any of them should, and noone offered one.
Before Saché could think of another course of action the air above them screamed and from the top of the wall the two droids came charging down. They were two disc-like things as large as the handmaiden’s heads, they vibrated violently, the buzzing sound nearly deafening. =
“Shoot! Shoot!” Saché yelled, even as she aimed herself. Several blasts joined hers. Half of them hitting the graveyard wall, but the two droids fell at their feet, still buzzing faintly.
“We should leave them there,” said Yané, “and get out of here as quickly as possible.”
As one the handmaidens ran out of the graveyard towards the speeder. There seemed to the feeling that somehow a whole battalion of battle droids was already closing in on their location, and it was only by running as fast they could that they could hope to get out alive.
“Once we’ve put some distance between ourselves and here we’ll abandon the speeder and take cover,” said Saché. “They know we’ve taken it, and they’re bound to look for it.”
“How are we to hide it, then?” asked Ené. “Because once they find it they’ll have to know we’re nearby.”
This gave Saché long enough pause that she was silent until after their transport had picked up speed and the graveyard was out of sight. Then she said, “We'll find a place somewhere, then proceed on foot.”
She thought she heard someone mutter something. Angrily she glared over the others, demanding, “Who said that?”
They looked at each other in bewilderment. For one crazy moment Saché thought they were keeping the culprit from her, but then she realized they couldn’t have any more idea than she did, if indeed she hadn’t just imagined it somehow. “Never mind,” she said impatiently. “Does anyone know this part of the planet?”
“What part of the planet are we on?” asked Coté. “We’re traveling so fast I can’t tell!”
“I know where we are,” said Losté, “and we’re traveling towards the area where I grew up; I know it inside and out.”
“Are you mad?” demanded Vatié. “They’ll know to look for us there!”
“Not necessarily,” replied Lané. “Remember, they keep us as low profile with as little information as possible. The Trade Federation might not even know all our names, and I doubt they have any idea who are families are, where we come from...perhaps if they do some research with the right names they could track down me, and Vatié would be pretty obvious, but as I said, they might not even have sufficient records for that. They won’t have any notion of who exactly Losté is, even if they have her name.”
“Good,” said Saché. “Get us there as quickly as you can. How far away is it?”
“About an hour, I think.”
Finally she brought them down into a small thicket of broadbush, which closed in tightly around them and pressed the dark fronds into the handmaidens’ hair and against their cheeks. As Losté settled the vehicle to the ground and cut power, they felt the metal around them cease to vibrate and sink into the soft soil. Then the lights cut out and the thicket was plunged into darkness.
There were several very softly-spoken curses and then Vatié’s communicator clicked on.
“How much power is left in there?” Saché asked her.
Vatié checked the readout. “About 35 hours worth, I think.”
“Well, now that Briné has gotten the speeder door open, I think we should conserve. Turn it off.”
The light clicked itself off. In the dark the group pushed their way into each other and out of the speeder. Saché elbowed her way to the front of the group and was the first to emerge into the sunlight. She felt several bodies pressing into her back, and heard Yané’s voice near her ear asking, “What’s the plan now?”
Then she heard Losté’s response near her other ear: “There’s store houses near here. Easy opportunity to eat, and much more than we had this morning.”
Saché opened her mouth to object, because surely the store houses were guarded at least, and possibly raided and cleared of their contents as well. But her stomach audibly growled, and she instead asked, “How far?”
“Half an hour’s walk.”
“All in the open,” Briné observed.
“Not quite,” said Losté. “There are other structures closer to here-small, wooden, structures. There’s a chance the Federation hasn’t bothered too much with them. We can try breaking from building to building a large part of the way.”
This may have been the most frightening thing they’d done so far. Handmaidens were trained to stay hidden and unnoticed, and on running from the thicket, Losté taking the lead ahead of Saché, they felt the open sky above them, the lack of anything to hide behind. They bolted to rocks and trees that seemed far too small. The slightest sound made them all jump. After the first time noone dared even comment on that. But the need for speed was essential; they needed to get to cover before a STAP ship flew over.
Ten minutes in, they came to a ditch, and burrowed in with relief, shoving up against each other until it was hard to breath. Beyond it they could see a wooden barn, and another wooden building a little beyond that. “Wait here for a few minutes,” Saché ordered. “We’ll wait until one of the monitor ships has passed.”
“Actually,” said Losté cautiously, “I think it would be much smarter to start going through the buildings. It would give us more time after it’s passed; there’s more open land to cover after this.”
“And so we’ll learn if the droids have taken over them or not,” Saché grumbled, but she couldn’t deny Losté’s point. “Let me take another look. Let me through.” Brutally she shoved the other handmaidens aside, ignoring an angry, “Hey!” in her effort to get the best view over the other side of the ditch.
Losté was alongside her. “There are two barns within sight,” she said, “and beyond them it’s a short trip to the keeper’s cabin, then the threshing room. After that there’s more walking in the open, but there’s wood around the heavy-duty storage.”
Saché strained her ears for the sound of anything mechanical that might be in the area. “Doesn’t sound like there are any droids in the barn, at least; I think that’s within hearing range. Briné? Can you hear anything?” It was generally believed among the handmaidens that Briné had the best ears.
“Nothing,” said Briné. “That first barn, at least, is safe.”
Saché took a deep breath. “All right,” she said, “Break for it!”
The handmaidens leapt, tripping and falling and bumping over each other in their haste. Saché had to pull herself up twice before she stumbled in with the others into the deserted barn. They bumped into, then collapsed against wooden crates, feeling their way around in the darkness. “What’s in here?” Saché asked, panting.
“Flax and weeds,” gasped Losté. “Nothing of use to us, unfortunately.”
“How far is it to the next house?” asked Lané.
“Very short. But there’s a larger distance between the keeper’s cabin and the threshing room.” For several more moments, everyone continued to catch their breath. Then Losté said, “We came in through the back door. The front door is somewhere around...” She jostled her way through the other handmaidens, finally bumping Yané into the front door hard enough that it swung open, revealing a stone pathway. “That leads the animal barn and the cabin.”
“Listen!” Briné hissed suddenly. They all froze; Saché found she couldn’t even breathe. Then they heard it. “The STAP ship.”
“I think it’ll be up there for a few minutes,” said Yané. It was the faintest of whirring; Saché hoped that ship was far up high.
“Do you think they’ll discover the speeder?” asked Ené anxiously.
“Sooner or later,” snapped Saché, loudly enough to regret it a moment later.
Especially when Vatié hissed, “Don’t! They’ll hear you.”
“They probably won’t,” Yané replied. “We just have to wait. Keep calm...” She didn’t sound calm at all, though.
After what seemed like an eternity, at last they could no longer hear it. “Go!” Saché yelled, and again they all broke into a run.
Again they piled into the second barn, which was empty, which made Losté take a quick breath in. “There are supposed to be animals in here. Where are they?”
“The Federation must have taken them away, obviously,” said Coté. “Probably killed them.”
“Or even the farmers,” suggested Yané. “To keep them from the Federation.”
“They would never!” Ardré protested.
“Quiet!” Briné hissed at her urgently. Everyone fell silent.
Then Briné added, “Listen. The keeper’s cabin.”
They could now hear an unmistakable humming sound coming from that general direction. “Do we try to do something about what’s in there?” Vatié whispered.
“If we do that,” Coté pointed out, “they’ll know we’ve been here.”
“They’ll know that when the find the speeder,” replied Saché. “But we need more information. Stay here.”
The humming grew louder when she stepped outside. The keeper’s cabin was a dark gray structure a little further from the two barns; Saché also saw the outline of what she assumed was the threshing room beyond it.
Weapon at the ready, she stepped to the cabin door. She still heard only the humming, though. No whirring or clanking or anything. She was waiting to hear the first sign of it as she inched the door open.
She stepped into an empty room with two doors and a stairway. There were also a table, some broken chairs, and the melted-down remains of a console and efficiency cookset. The humming was coming from upstairs.
She put her ear to both doors, heard nothing, then inched both doors opened. As she’d thought, they led to a bedroom and fresher, both of which looked untouched by the cabin’s intruders; they probably hadn’t stayed here very long. They might not have even killed the keeper; she’d have probably smelt his corpse if it was in the cabin. Taken him to a prison camp, more likely.
Upstairs she found large piles of objects, mostly old-looking, many rusting. It took her several moments before she spotted a tell-tale glow, hidden underneath one of the bigger piles of older objects near the far end of the room. She picked her way over and pushed aside the smaller objects; the bigger ones were too heavy.
She couldn’t tell at all what it was. It was large, it had a Trade Federation design, there was a light-up screen filled with symbols she didn’t understand, and it hummed very loudly and vibrated under her hand.
After a moment’s hesitation Saché drew her blaster and fired straight into the thing’s center. She nodded at the broken and melted screen as it went black.
Then she heard a rumbling sound come from deep inside the device’s interior. She took several steps back before she saw it start to shake. She turned and ran.
The rumbling grew louder as she returned to the first floor and raced for the door. She thought the doorframe was shaking when she passed under it.
As she ran for the barns, she saw Yané come outside and her eyes widen. She looked back and saw the keeper’s cabin shaking. Then it exploded.
The force of it sent her flying through the air until she smacked into the barn wall. She crumpled to the ground in a pained daze.
Her head was pounding so hard she couldn’t think. She felt someone take her arm, and heard Yané yell, “Everybody run now!”
They ran. Saché’s feet stumbled, her head continued to pound, but she ran, her mind focused on the fingers sunk into her arm, pulling her along. She thought they were running downhill but that could have been her legs getting heavy and dragging her downwards.
She became more certain of their surroundings when she no longer felt the sun beating down on her neck and back and she heard the rustle and snap of more foliage underfoot; they had reached the safety of the woods.
She heard Losté call out, “This way! This way!” They were all following her, she knew this place, and she led them deep into the woods.