Now, it was changed again. To think, once she’d been so foolish that when she’d looked at the sewage of that moon and wrinkled her nose, she had thought this kind of thing could never happen on Naboo.
They found dead people before they found any signs of life. In most cases there wasn’t even much they could do when it came to the bodies, half of which were crushed under immovable blocks of sandstone and granite; the beautiful artwork of Naboo’s civilization had been used against its people to devastating effect. They had been dead long enough for the smell to set in, especially on the warm, summery day, and Yané wanted to retch, and when she stole glances at the others, she saw none of them kept a straight face, and Yules Latt appeared almost faint.
When she first heard the whimpering, she thought it was her head playing tricks on her. But then Ardré said, “Stop, I hear something.”
“I hear it too,” said Rorerrie. “Sounds like a woman. In there.” He didn’t even need to point. They were all turning to the charred remains of what had been a normal-sized private home, the garden of which they might have been standing in; the wreckage was so scattered it was hard to tell where the road ended and people’s yards began. Had some family managed to hide in their home, until the Federation had left?
If they’d had any doubt, a moment later they heard a plaintive voice say, “Please wake up, Mesia, please...”
Which made them all relieved when, just before they reached the door, they heard an infant’s wail. A moment later the implications hit Yané; they had a baby that needed to get out of the city immediately.
Meanwhile, Latt said softly, “I think I know her.” They heard a hysterical sob, and he broke into a run. Part of Yané knew she should call out to him to be careful, but she doubted he'd hear.
They caught up with him in what looked vaguely like a family room, throwing aside blocks of wood that had piled up, behind which they could glimpse a flash of sea green garment and black hair, and more pointedly, they could hear both her and her baby’s cries.
There was a cracked couch in the way too, and it took all of them working together to pull it aside. When at last they had dragged it back a few feet, a whole pile of wood collapsed around them, opening up the far side of the room.
It was actually less damaged; the walls were all intact, though the windows were broken, and the computer panels smoked out. But there was a toppled display shelf, under which was yet another crushed corpse, and next to it, clutching a wailing baby, was an olive-skinned woman who looked only a little older than Rabé.
“Kya!” It was only at Latt’s exclaiming her name that the young mother reacted to the arrival of rescuers, and Yané saw no recognition as she took in the young man. “Don’t you remember me, Kya?” he pleaded. “It’s Yules Latt! You used to be friends with my sister Tordé, when you two were both at school.”
“Yules Latt?” She wasn’t in much of a condition to consult her memory, but after a moment of so it seemed to come to her; she nodded through her sobs.
Yané took charge, stepping carefully over what debris was on the floor. “Ms. Kya? We need to get out of here. It’s not safe.”
“Where is safe?” cried the young woman, and she had a point Yané couldn’t deny.
Still, she said, “We need to get where it’s safer; this place could finish collapsing at any minute. Come on.” She placed her hand on the woman’s back, and Kya started to walk forward.
Yules took hold of her shoulder. “Come on, Kya,” he said. “I’m in the militia now. I can keep you and your new baby safe.”
She was starting to calm. The baby was another matter, though, continuing to crying, despite her feeble attempts to soothe it. It was horrible to hear, frightening with the sounds of collapsing still around them, but there wasn’t time to do anything about it. She looked at the others. “Ardré, could you lead these two out?”
“Others?” squeaked the woman; she sounded like she didn’t believe them.
“Yes, Kya,” said Latt. “We’ve got a whole group outside the city.”
“Come along,” added Ardré. Though maybe she was a little too rough as she hooked their arms together; the woman flinched, and her baby started crying harder.
But they had to move quick; the walls started to crash down behind them as they broke into a run. Five steps out of the house and they heard the loudest groan yet, and a thud so great it had to be the foundations themselves falling to the soil. Kya let out another breathless sob. “Don’t look back,” Yané said immediately. “Don’t look back.”
She didn’t. Ardré moved her hands to her shoulders to further discourage her from turning around. The baby continued to wail as she glanced at Yané, who nodded at her, and she steered Kya down the debris-ridden street. “Look forward,” Yané heard her say. “Don’t look to the sides.”
Yané felt the wish to go with them. But instead she turned the other way, and looked down the line of other houses in various states of ruin. “Latt,” she asked, “what are the exact dimensions of the town? How far do we walk before the closer edges will be on the side, and it becomes more likely survivors will flee that way instead of down this way?”
“It’s really hard to get out from the sides, the way the town’s arranged. But actually, I’m not sure everyone will leave the city. A few more blocks and they might think they’d have a better chance to reach the park in the center. They might have even been there already; it's got an underground component in which they might have been hiding."
“Can you take us towards that park?”
“If there are no blocked roads...”
The streets certainly weren’t clear. Not long after they’d resumed walking they found one house blown apart so violently the great bricks were piled up upon each other all across the road, and they picked their way over them, Yané’s skirt nearly getting caught on one of the jagged edges. They saw no one else alive; instead they saw one dead man sprawled in the middle of the street, a jagged piece of sandstone and roof tiles on him. But there was nothing impassable, and in fact, as they walked on, Yané thought the level of the pillars of smoke in her line of vision started to decrease, the fires burning out. For some reason that made her heart clench all the harder, whether in anxiety or just sadness she didn’t even know.
Shortly before they reached the park Ardré caught back up with them, out of breath from running, though she'd gotten out and back faster than she should have. Yané was too grateful to care.
Sardié’s Green, as Julika’s park was called, was just big enough that when the group turned into its entrance beyond a large smoking superdome Yané couldn’t quite see the end, though she could see the line of buildings, one of which was still on fire. More importantly she could see a small but thick knot of people gathered in the middle, sitting besides a pool of water that might or might not have been a fountain normally.
There were faint cheers when they were spotted, and an middle-aged man came to greet them. “Uri Harjoril,” he introduced himself. Yané recognized the name; the Harjorils were like the Lasaras, a locally powerful family. “Are you a handmaiden to the Queen? We’d heard she’d fled Naboo.” He did not sound pleased at the notion that she had.
“She didn’t want to,” she told him. “She only did so at the urging of the Jedi. They came here to negotiate, the Federation tried to kill them, I think, and, well, I guess that convinced them the Federation would try to kill her too, because they insisted they would. She requested they take her to the Senate. Maybe appearing in person will get something out of them.”
“She is young yet,” sighed Hajoril; he didn’t sound like he’d put much faith in the Senate. But he sounded like he would forgive her ultimately, and he also sounded like he knew better than to ask for any of their names. “I don’t suppose most of us would be much good in a fight, but if you want us for anything, we will follow your lead.”
“Thank you,” she said. “We need to get all the survivors. Do you any notion of where any others might be?”
“I know where they aren’t,” he said grimly. “We were the people who hid when the battilions came to herd everyone else out. There's an underground space below this part here, where we gathered. After the droids left, some of us went to find more people and bring them here. We cleared out most of the back half of the city, except a couple of corners, before the bombing started. There were 34 of us at that point. Including my sister Retaé; the rest of our family was taken.”
That she wasn’t emerging out of the crowd said enough about whether Retaé was still alive or not. “I am sorry,” she said. “We must rescue any survivors in the front half. Do you have anyone willing to go with us?”
“Miss,” Latt spoke up. “Can I stay here and help these people out?”
“Yes, absolutely,” said Yané without hesitation. She wasn’t sure what he could do, but it felt right to leave someone here.
“I’ll go with you.” A girl strode out, clearly barely older than Yané herself, if that. Which actually made Yané hestitate for a moment; they needed steady minds and maturity for these actions. But they also needed all the help they can get. Especially when she knew from her gestures Briné was staying behind too after assessing the wounded.
The girl’s name was Tiwden Minnel, and she certainly knew the city, and particularly knew its electrics, because she’d been studying for a career in that. She was quick to tell them, as she led Yané, Rorrerie, Coté, and Ardré down what she called Mardolé’s Road, that Julika had one of the best and safest systems on the planet, and had that missle hit any other town in the immediate area, the damage would have been far worse. On further pressing, though, she admitted there was a catch. “If anything happens to the power plant,” she said, “we’re all in serious trouble. We’ve got it in the northeast corner of the city, and its protected by a tough alloy wall which must have survived the blast, but might be vulnerable to melting.”
“Let’s head there, then,” said Yané. “We can look for survivors en route.”
They never reached the plant. They had turned onto the lane that led there when a group of three young men appeared on the far side and broke into a run when they saw them coming. “Tiwden!” cried the closest of them. “Thank all the old gods we found someone in time! The wall’s melting down!”
“Flarg!” Tiwden swore. “Flarg flarg flarg flarg flarg!” If there had been any doubt to the seriousness of the situation, the way she went from cocky assurance to positive terror knocked it out. She then drew it a breath, and asked, “How close is the nearest fire? What’s the temperature? Do you know, Garth?”
She addressed one of the other two guys as she asked this question, and he shook his head in answer. “The meters are all offline,” he said. “About half of the cells are powered down, but there’s a fire besieging the north wall, pretty widespread; I don’t think that can be stopped.”
“That’s not nearly enough,” said Tiwden. She looked away from them all for a moment, Yané noticed her hands were shaking. “Okay,” she turned back to address Yané. “You have to get back to the square,” she said. “You have to get back there as fast as possible and tell them to get moving southwest. If it gets too hot you might not even have time to get out of the city limits, but if I can get a few more of the cells powered down, you should be able to get far away enough. With a little luck, I might be able to do enough to keep most of the city from the initial explosion, but there may be radiation issues, so unless I can actually get them all shut down, you’ll have to keep moving after the explosion. I’m afraid anyone we haven’t found it’s too late to look for.”
“Wait a minute,” Yané cut her off, horrified as she realized what the girl was saying. “You think there’s going to be an explosion that would kill you, and you’re going to...” She couldn’t finish it. She just couldn’t.
“I have to.” Her voice broke as she said it, and tears sprung from her eyes. Helpless rage washed over Yané, that this child had to die. It was obvious she was the only one who could do it to preserve everyone else, if this Garth person, who apparently knew something about the plant, couldn’t manage it.
With an “Oh, Tiwden,” the first boy to speak embraced her tightly. She let him for several long moments, and Yané realized it was her job to direct them apart, because there was no time to lose. With everything she had, she wished, for the first time ever, that she wasn’t a handmaiden at all, but someone else who would never have to be so cruel. Then she took hold of Tiwden’s arm.
The girl pulled away from her friend quickly enough. “I know,” she said, looking away again, but her arm moved in a obvious move to wipe her tears away. “I’m going. Run back. Run!” And she ran, down the street, down towards the plant, down towards death.
“Come on,” Yané forced out as she took off, and the others followed, but ten seconds later the three newcomers were all lagging, and though her own pain had been fading steadily, the running was causing it to flare up again. For a moment they stopped, and she couldn’t keep from bending over, clutching at her battered side, gritting her teeth to keep from moaning.
“I think Ardré should go on ahead,” said Coté. “She’s the fastest here.” Yané nodded at her, and she was gone like a blink of light. She was able to pull herself up then, but she knew already the run back to the park was going to be agony.
It was, and as a group they still weren’t able to go very fast. Coté kept having to stop to wait for the others, until Yané wondered if she shouldn’t tell her to go ahead too, just in case something went horribly wrong and the plant blew up before the slower ones could get far away enough.
But they were close enough to the park, all in all, to reach it while the crowd that had been there was still in sight. They were all panting hard enough by now they were easily heard, too, and from the rear Ardré detached and came back. “We’re going in two groups, one of fast movers, the other helping out the slow ones. Latt’s with the first group; they’re going to carve a path out of the city and circle around to join everyone out in the fields. We’re following at what pace we can manage.”
“Not nearly fast enough, no doubt,” growled Rorerrie. Yané really, really wanted to slap him.
Instead she turned to Coté, and asked her, “Can you do any...”
She shook her head. “Shut down right now. Sorry.”
With all the wounds and deaths of Julika, that was only to be expected. But even so, Yané felt the disappointment slice through her, their last hope of saving anyone else gone. She felt like a total failure then. But there wasn’t time to feel much, not if she wanted to keep these people alive. “Then let’s go.”
They were well enough out of range when the explosion came, though they felt the force of it, the very ground below them shaking as the roar filled their ears. Yané kept her feet steady and forced herself to look back. Most of that corner of Julika was up in flames. The entire city might burn down before anyone was able to stop it.
At least that was what Saché told herself, as she paced around the perimeter after things had calmed down, waiting.
Yules Latt was maybe the most welcome sight she’d ever seen in her life when he arrived with then other people, even if he didn’t have any of the handmaidens with him. Though it was not he who greeted her first. Instea, she was introduced to Uri Harjoril, who took charge of confirming the power plant had melted down, that some poor young woman had gone there to keep it in check and essentially sacrificed herself to save the rest of them, and that the handmaidens should all arrive with the second group of wounded.
Having over twenty refugees with them made the need to find cover urgent, and the impossibility of it more likely. Saché found herself soon contemplating the need to appear strong versus the need to get away from them all long enough to be able to think.
At least until Harjoril took her aside, and said, “I know of an underground zip block storage facility not far from here. It’s possible, of course, that the Federation has found it, but if we want to move these people somewhere safer, it’s probably our best bet.”
“Okay,” said Saché, trying to hide her relief. “As soon as the second group gets back, then.”
But first there was the issue of the wounded to deal with, and she took aside Glose for an update. “This group can mostly move,” he said. “There’s one man I don’t think could walk very fast, and one little girl who would need to be carried by someone-if she lives to see the second group arrive.” He gestured to a limp form laid out on someone’s dirty cloak, looking only about five years old, two women kneeling over her, one of them with her shoulders shaking. Saché tried to wrap her mind around the sight, only to realize she couldn’t afford to; she was too close to breaking.
So she went over to the man when Glose pointed out to her. He appeared to be middle-aged, though that might have been because his face was scrunched up in pain, and his left leg looked like it might be in a very bad way.
When she knelt over him, she had to angle herself as he struggled to unscrew his eyes, and she almost didn’t want to ask him. But she said, as gently as she could manage, “Sir, we must soon get moving to shelter. We will have to go as fast as possible.”
“You should leave me behind,” he croaked out; it clearly was worse for him to have to speak. “Save yourselves.”
Ené cried it out when Saché couldn't afford to, “Oh, what if there are more of him out of the city?”
“We’ll have to go in two groups if there are,” she replied, loud enough for everyone to hear here; Ené had wailed the question and gotten everyone’s attention. “One of us will travel with them.”
“I volunteer,” said Mothemi.
“Very well,” said Saché, though she wasn’t entirely happy about leaving Yané to possibly have to deal with him causing trouble.
It was a minute or so later when one of the men yelled he could see Yané’s group coming out of the city, and when she looked where he pointed, Saché could too. “Everyone get ready to go,” she ordered. Everyone responded, but too slowly, staggering to their feet and looking around in confusion as if they were suddenly expecting battle droids to come charging from some unknown direction, or weren’t sure where Yané’s group was supposed to come from. Saché wished she had some way to prod all of them at once.
It was enough to make her almost sick with anxiety by the time they finally were all up on their feet and starting to shuffle after her and Harjoril’s lead. At least Yané’s group wouldn’t be far behind them at all now, certainly always able to keep them within sight and follow their path. But Saché didn’t look back to see when they reached Mothemi. Thinking about how beaten up they looked, and how vulnerable they would be likely to be, would leave her unable to think straight. She was aware that the others, handmaidens and militia soldiers both, were keeping a good lookout as they formed a perimeter around the group, but she herself had to keep herself facing forward, looking where Harjoril told her to as he guided them off the flatter part of the grasslands.
The rolling hills that made them feel too much like a target at the top and not much safer at the bottom. At least it was at the latter that the entrance to the storage facility was hidden.
It actually hadn’t meant to conceal its existence from anyone;. It had just tucked itself in under a small mound of moss and lowbush to as to remove any unsightlyness. Saché liked that, that the devotion of the Naboo to beauty and to disturbing the natural terrains as little as possible had served them in their fight against the Federation. It had indeed; when she and Harjoril together first cautiously poked their heads through the long, narrow trapdoor, and he felt along the storage place’s roof until he had turned on its lights, it was clear from one glance that no one had been there for at least a few days, and probably longer.
It took time to get everyone underground. Even those without any injuries had to be careful descending down the steep, brittle, zig-zagging stairway that led down to the floor where the zip blocks were mostly lined up with a few scattered out of place. For those hurt, it was so dangerous Saché had to remind herself that to not come here would have been more dangerous still. Harjoril had gone down first, gingerly testing each step to see if it could bear his feet, even causing weak cheers to rise from the group when he had made it to the bottom. That left Saché to see everyone else in, watching as the other handmaidens and militia members helped hand down those not in a state to attempt the descent unaided. She watched Losté carry the little girl, whose name was Tindé; she was still alive.
There was still a small group waiting with her when Yané and Mothemi and their group came down the last hill; if any from the first group had fallen behind, they had been safely absorbed. “No more causalities from us,” was how she greeted the younger handmaiden. “You?”
“None,” sighed Yané, “Yet. I don’t know that anyone won’t perish on the stairs.”
Noone had, however, when an hour later Saché first watched Mothemi head down, then, after taking a last look, and seeing nothing within her eyesight, carefully stepped down, closing the door behind her.
Rorierre greeted her at the bottom of the stairs with, “How long do you think we can stay here safely?” No more hostility from him now. The trip with the two large groups had worn them all past arguing with each other, and maybe even bonded them together a little.
“At least overnight,” she replied. “I think we all need the rest.”
There were vendors in two of the storage facilities’ connecting passages, selling tiny snacks. Yané and two of the survivors who had had some hotwiring knowledge managed to get them to concede their entire contents, which gave everyone a little bit to eat. “Those’ll set off an alarm somewhere, probably,” she told Saché as they munched on pieces of hollis, Saché letting her tongue linger over the chocolaty taste. “Unless the line’s jammed, which is actually pretty likely. Hopefully if the Federation does notice it they won’t be able to figure out what it means.”
“We’ll still have to leave very early in the morning,” Saché noted. “And before that we have to see if there’s anything else useful in the corners and closets down here.”
“There’ll be water somewhere, I think. I hope.”
There was, as they discovered an hour after that, a large bin of it, which was among the day’s most welcome sights. There were enough bottles that that as she considered it along with Rorerrie, who had triumphantly discovered it and shown it to her, Saché found herself thinking they should develop a rationing scheme. He voiced an agreement as she said so, but noted it probably still wouldn’t last more than a day or so. “Maybe we shouldn’t even disturb this bin before morning,” he added. “Everyone just had some liquids from the vendors, after all.”
It was a little harsh, Saché thought, but she had to concede his point. Though looking at those big, full bottles actually made her mouth feel dry.
She almost wished they hadn’t made that decision when they came back to the group, and Vatié was waiting with grim news; two of the wounded had died. “Tull Verine and Mistro Corderrie. They’re debating what to do about burying them.”
“It’s not safe to go outside until we’re ready to move,” said Saché automatically. “Is there anywhere in here that could work, I wonder?”
“Maybe if we blew a hole open in the floor,” shrugged Vatié. “Though to be honest, I think we need to wait. It may be too much to hope for they’ll be the only ones dead tomorrow morning.”
“Would extra water help any of them, do you think?” she asked, leaning in and speaking quietly to keep the others from hearing.
“I’ll ask our two experts,” was Vatié's response. Glose and Briné, from what Saché could tell, had been working steadily from the time everyone had come down, barely pausing long enough to grab their portions of the food and shove it into their mouths.
They ended up taking one of the bottles from the bin, though in the end they didn’t even have to engage in much subterfuge; people weren’t paying much attention at this point. After they had already been exhausted by their ordeal in Julika and then had to walk a considerable distance to shelter, over half their group had already gone to sleep despite the relatively early hour. Even those still awake were mostly just sitting or lying around, talking quietly to each other or just crying. The two dead bodies had been moved to one corner, though Saché only knew they were there because of the thick knot of people gathered around them, blocking them from the sight of everybody else. All relations and friends, she wondered, or had some people felt the need to pay their respects to those they had never known anything about when they had still lived, but were now their fallen?
She herself gave water to little Tindé, a woman who might have been the girl’s sister or maybe just someone who’d taken charge of her-she knew her parents had been killed in the bombing-holding up her head to help her drink. “Her skin’s so hot,” she said; her voice was ghostly. The girl was wrapped up in blankets-there were cots kept in one of the back rooms-covering up her injuries, but her audibly struggling with each breath she took showed enough.
When most of the people were asleep, she took Losté and after a moment’s hesitation Rorerrie into an empty room and said, ”Suggestions for where we take all these people tomorrow?”
“Let me go talk to Kladi,” said Rorerrie. “I think he mentioned to me someone had an idea, and it might be as good as any.”
Hock had dozed off on his feet, leaning back against the wall, but Rorerrie gently shook him awake, and when told what they wanted, he nodded, and said, “I met with a guy who used to work here. Old guy; I forget his name. Let me find him.”
It took him a while, but they finally found him and his equally aged wife fast asleep in one corner. He yelled when woken up, waking up her and two more people and making everyone immediately around look over in alarm. Losté, who thankfully was still with them, made calming gestures to everyone while they tried to get the man, whose wife addressed him as “Mondie,” cognizant enough to answer their question.
When at last he was, he replied, “Ah, yes, yes. Well, what I was telling you earlier, sir, is that there’s an old abandoned tower not far from here. Not unlike something you’d see in a children’s tale, really; seven levels, though not much room on any of them. When I used to work here, I used to take Temmy here there after work, for some private time, if you know what I mean,” he grinned for a moment, but it faded quickly, “and I think we stashed some old wine there too, though who knows what shape that’s in right now. Might even be some water there, though I wouldn’t rely on it.”
Even the possibility of water spoke in the place’s favor, and Saché said, “If you can guide us there tomorrow...”
“We should be able to,” said Temmy, with the same brief smile her husband had bourn earlier. “I don’t think either of us will ever forget the way there from here.”