Everyone was still being roused when Saché conferred with Tindé’s unofficial guardian and the widow of one of the other two people dead, who insisted there be some sort of burial. “Even if we just blast a hole in the ground and throw some dirt on top of them,” said the widow, whose name was Alexé Verine.
“That may be all we have time to do,” said Saché, “and only if we do it now, while everyone’s getting ready to go.”
“Give us a pairs of blasters then,” said Alexé. “We’ll go right out there.”
“Do you know how to fire them?” Saché found herself asking. When the women looked at each other, she called Latt over.
It actually worked out fairly well in the end, as the three of them were at work covering the three dead as everyone else shuffled up the stairs and out, and each of them passed the open grave, and so had a chance to pay their respects, and most as least stopped for a moment or so, though a few looked away, so much pain on their faces Saché, from where she watched everyone exit, though they simply couldn’t bear it.
Everyone still alive could more or less walk, though not all of them could walk very fast. When almost everyone was out, Saché left the last people to emerge without her and went to where Mondie and Temmy were near the front of the group, staring out at the path ahead while talking to each other with such smiles that she thought they had to be reminiscing. But as she reached them, she heard the wife say, “And that was probably where Rolla came from,” and her smile faded.
“Is Rolla still alive?” she asked.
Mondie shrugged. “She and her family lived in Gerra. We haven’t heard from them since the invasion began.”
“From what I heard,” said Saché, “Gerra surrendered without any bombing. You can hope they survive the detention camps.”
Temmy closed her eyes and turned her face away; that might be the best possibility for her daughter at the moment, but it was still a painful one. Then she seemed to steel herself, as her husband said, “Come, Temmy, they’re all out now.”
It was even slower going than Saché had anticipated. Even the people who were perfectly healthy were beaten down both physically and emotionally. Everyone’s feet dragged; nobody responded to her urgings, which she knew were harsh, but she didn’t know how else to urge. Again she contemplated how she was the wrong handmaiden to lead this group.
She was able to realize, when she thought about it enough, that was these people really needed was hope. Hope that they weren’t just running around delaying the inevitable, that they actually had the ability to thwart the Trade Federation at least until the Queen returned with the proper power of the Republic behind her, which many people, Saché was learning, didn’t think it was possible for her to obtain. That hope she herself clung to, and she thought the other handmaidens did, but she wasn’t sure if even the militia men did.
Which of seven of them, she wondered, would be good at giving them hope? Vatié, maybe, with her ability with words? But was she in a state for it, so worried sick over her father?
At one point when she ended up walking alongside Yané, she whispered to her, softly as she could, “They’ll spot us, won’t they?”
“They will,” said Yané. “We can’t run if we can’t go fast. And if we can’t run...”
“...we need to fight.” That seemed at first thought an even more impossible venture. They didn’t have nearly enough weapons anyway, and these people were in no shape to wield them. But then again, she thought, if it was that or death, they might just find strength within themselves they normally wouldn’t. She supposed they could all pick up rocks; there were enough of them around on this terrain. If the battle droids brought ray shielding with them, it might just prove a more effective weapon than the blasters.
When Mondie told her they were close to the tower, she ordered handmaidens and militia men both to have their weapons out. She really wasn’t surprised at all that when the tower came into sight, a tall, odd, very dark grey thing with a fancy spire on top, when she zeroed in, she saw movement near the entrance.
The group had fallen quiet behind her; the possibility of battle droids had thankfully been passed back. “Halt,” she whispered to Yané, and the order too was passed back with surprising efficiency. The handmaidens and militia fighters without even needing a command all came to the front, and Saché gathered to them to her.
“I want two of us plus Glose and Briné to stay back here,” she said to them. “The rest of us go forward and we are going to storm that tower unless there are so many battle droids it’s simply impossible.”
None of them wanted to stay back, though when no one else volunteered Latt changed his mind. Saché considered Ardré as the lowest-ranked handmaiden still living, but no, this was what she was needed for. Ené was more suited for it, so she ordered her to stay back as well, and knew she’d made the right choice when the older handmaiden looked somewhat relieved.
A high hill shadowed the tower, which might even make it harder for the STAP ships to spot them, though they couldn’t rely on that. They had left Temmy and Mondie behind, not wanting to have to worry about their safety during the fight that was likely coming up, but as they crept over the hills’ feet, exploring furrows and rises that seemed to mostly provide too little shelter, Saché found herself thinking their knowledge would’ve come in handy.
Unfortunately, the battle droids at the tower spotted the handmaidens before the handmaidens spotted them, and it began with two blasts shot at them. One missed all together, but Saché felt the second singe her skirt even as her brain yelled at her to dodge before they fired again. Their first round of return fire they were all running for the nearest furrow, no one was aiming and everyone missed. Saché found she was much more unsteady on her feet than it made sense of her to be.
They tumbled into an unexpectedly deep ditch, skidding down, their feet sliding on dirt, colliding into and falling on top of each other. One of the guys cried out, as if he’d been hit, and Saché wasn’t even able to figure out which; there wasn’t time. “Let them come to us!” she yelled, and certainly nobody objected.
The droids were coming to them. They weren’t as audible on the grass but she could tell that, and that there were more of them than the two who had first fired on them. “If they all come out from the tower and here we’ll be done with them much quicker,” she growled, but by her side her words generated a frightened whimper. It could have been masculine or feminine, and she had no idea whose it was, and deliberately didn’t look in the direction of it.
She did think it was Rorerrie who said, “If I’m right, the best time to fire would be in seven...six...”
Saché consented by taking the countdown up with him, as the heads of the droids came within her sight: “five...four...three...two...one...SHOOT!”
She hit the head of her target, and she saw several more blasts hit home, but not all of them even within her sight went down. They fired the second round as return blasts hit them; Saché didn’t hear any more cries, but she felt the heat as several of the droids fired at the top of the ditch, trying to force them out of their hiding place; it was like a large flame held right in front of her face, or like what had actually struck her face during her youngest years, which was suddenly very hard not to think about, even with the battle going on around her.
There were no more droids in her own line of sight, and from somewhere else in the ditch she heard possibly Ardré say, “Three more left standing.” Then she heard someone else cry out, and on impulse she popped herself up out of the ditch, to see for a split second one droid close to the ditch and two more together a bit further away, before she had fired straight into the torso of the close one and some instinct brought her squatting back down, two blaster bolts soaring harmlessly over her head. Someone near her yelled in what was clearly pure alarm, but others acted; there was another smattering of blaster fire and then Rorerrie called, “That’s it; we’ve taken them all down.”
“Yours was the final shot,” Drosos Merine said to him as they rose, and several others, handmaidens as well as his men, nodded. Saché herself nodded purely in acknowledgement, then without pausing between rising and striding forward headed for the tower.
“There are probably others waiting in there,” she reminded the others once they’d all fallen in behind her, Yané and Rorerrie somehow materializing near the front. She took a look at the rest and noted the burn high on Jan Kloiterrie's collarbone; he had been the only one hit. “Be ready.”
Sure enough, when they reached the broad tower door, which was a non-automatic one on hinges, and Saché and Rorerrie together shoved it open, two more bolts flew right out. They’d shot too quickly, Saché thought as they returned fire, before they could’ve hit anybody. As a result they hit nobody before they heard two loud clanging thuds from inside of both droids going down.
“How many more left now?” Hock wondered out loud as they burst in. There were no responding blasts, so it seemed there was no more on the first floor, as least.
It gave them a chance to survey the room. There wasn’t much in it. Near them were a pair of metal tables that were all marked and scuffed up like there’d been computers on them recently removed. On the other end of the room sat a pair of boxes. Half of the floor was covered with dirt and straw and possibly some stones, but nothing that looked metallic, at least in the limited light.
Saché went over to the boxes and tried to get them open, but they were sealed tight and it would take time; they needed to make sure the rest of the tower was clear first. “Upstairs,” she ordered. “Blasters at the-” But she was cut off as a bolt flew past her and hit one of the two boxes straight in the middle; the heat was nearly searing as the box was fried. The battle droid toppled off the stairs as Yané shot him down. “I think there’s another one,” said Rorerrie, and there were several moments’ tense pause, before a second one did indeed appear; it fell before aiming, hit by multiple blasts.
“Good thing that first one missed,” commented a dazed sounding Lexi Tenil.
“It didn’t,” said Yané grimly. “A shot like that, with that kind of blast, from that kind of blaster? It was trying to destroy whatever’s in those boxes.”
“Get the other one out of here then,” Saché ordered. “Obviously if they don’t want us to have it it has to be important.”
She looked at Rorerrie, aware he probably knew how strong his own men were better than her. She wished she didn’t see the flash of a smirk from him, but it was gone quickly enough as he ordered, “Mothemi, Arthi, take it out and get to a bit of a distance. Arthi, stay guard over it while Mothemi comes back in.”
Both men grunted as they picked up the box, and as they began to slowly lug it out Saché went to the stairs and started up them, as it occurred to her that if there were any more droids left in the place, they might try to destroy anything else that might be of use, and it would be good to try to find them and shoot them down before they decided to. The others followed, Yané ending up in front of Rorierrie on the narrow staircase.
There turned out to be one more droid left, on the fourth floor, which like the third floor had little on it. They heard its footsteps from the floor below and took it down easy before it could fire a shot.
On the fifth floor they found a pair of basins. One of them might have originally held water, but the liquid in it now was so fouled up it was useless. The other, one the other hand, was filled with dried food that still looked old, but still good. “We need some bags or something,” commented Yané.
“Or something with which to cut our skirts,” said Saché. “The two of us would probably move better if our skirts were cut to the knees anyway.”
They ended up using a foot from the battle droid from the fourth floor, which turned out to be very sharp. Saché stuck it into her belt afterwards for later use. The skirts had already been ripped in places, mostly near the bottom, and part of Yané’s had blaster burns, but they managed to sew up two bags and fill them with the basin’s contents. Saché would’ve liked it more had she had some faith they could reuse them without them falling apart, but as they descended the stairs she still felt a strong satisfaction; the mission to the tower had been a success.
Arthi was still standing guard over the box when they came out; Saché noticed some blaster burns on it, as if he’d attempted to get it open that way, but there hadn’t been many, since he’d obviously wanted to avoid damaging whatever was inside it, and he hadn’t seemed to try anything else to get it open. Which was unfortunate, since she was aware it was going to be very hard to move it anywhere as it was.
She looked up at the sky; it was around noon. It was actually a little hot out; she wondered how close they were to the equator. She didn’t want to leave the box alone, but she also thought it might be easier to carry it once the heat of the day had passed, and they didn’t have to all stay with it. “I want two volunteers to stay here with the box,” she said. “The rest of us will bring the food back to the others and see if they have anything for opening boxes.” Rorerrie volunteered, of course, as did Losté, which pleased Saché, since the older handmaiden was probably most suited for it anyway.
As they made their way back she couldn't help the fears that the group had been attacked, that a group of flying droids had come down with blasters, or something like that. But they were all still there more or less as they had left them, most of them sitting or leaning against rocks or furrows, too many of them not really responding at all to the sight of their leaders’ return-a few of those briefly eyed the bags, only to clearly lose interest quickly.
But Briné, Ené, and the two militia men hurried up to them, and when Saché explained the situation while Briné worked on Kloiterrie's burn wound, Ené immediately said, “I might be able to crack that. Let me have a shot at it, anyway.”
When Losté saw them return, she immediately exclaimed, “Ené! You really think this box is some sort of machine?”
“It’s worth my looking at it, anyway,” Ené responded, and she knelt to examine the box. They watched as she felt her way around its sides, her focus mostly lower down, and then suddenly grinned. “This,” she declared, “is an Estuarine-designed lockbox. I’ve seen this type before.”
“She has a bit of a hobby sometimes,” Losté explained softly to Saché. “Gadgets, mostly, sometimes droids, she gets interested in. Takes them apart to see how they work, usually.”
Saché only asked in response, “So can you get it open?”
She seemed to consider the question, then said, “I would need a J-liner, probably, but then it would be nothing.”
But none of them had a J-liner, and while apparently that was a relatively small, simply tool, Saché, at least, hadn’t the foggiest idea where they could got to get one. “Until we can find one,” she said, “we’ll have to keep the box with us. Meanwhile, we have to gather to decide where we’re going next.”
When they returned to the group, they did spend a little bit of time inquiring to make sure no one happened to have a J-liner in their pocket, but of course no one did. One person, on hearing about how heavy the box was, suggested it be buried somewhere to keep it safe until someone could come back for it, but between the time that would take and the feasibility of sending someone back before the Federation found out it was missing and went looking for it Saché quickly rejected the idea.
By the time she had gathered most of the handmaidens and militia men together to make their next move, afternoon was well underway and everyone was wondering how much longer they could stay in one place out in the open like this. “That we’ve been spotted by now there’s no doubt,” said Kladi Hock. “It’s only a matter of time before an attack comes. We need to find some sort of cover.”
“There’s not much around here, though,” said Latt. “I’m afraid the closest thing to cover around here is Piyoeré. That’s a tiny village which I think we could probably get to well before sundown. But of course...”
“Something that size,” mused Lané, “would they bother keeping many battle droids there?”
“If they expected we were coming there,” pointed out Vatié.
But no one had a better idea, and it no doubt occurred to all of them that there was as good a chance as any that there would be a stray J-liner left lying around somewhere. If it came to hiding the box, too, one of the militia men suggested it could be stashed in one of the houses. “Surround it with other boxes,” he said, “hide it in plain sight, maybe, that can sometimes work really well with droids.”
“Or not at all,” said Yané, “but Federation droids are the type where I think it would. If we only knew their exact programming...”
It was eventually decided that everyone would take turns carrying the box for half an hour at a time, two people per shift. Saché and Yané took the first shift together. By the time they had finally gotten everyone moving and were ten minutes underway, Saché’s arm already felt like it was falling off, her shoulder was so strained she thought it might break this way, and even when their slow pace worried her she was grateful for it. They weren’t really capable of leading the way either; they had to leave Rorierre to do that, which he did, as Saché thought through the haze of strain and pain that he ought to still be subordinate to the other handmaidens according to the militia chain of command, but they could not afford a dispute over it that afternoon. Besides, it was harder to think how to tell him that politely when it was so hard to think about anything besides the current dire state of her arm.
Though as their half an hour at last approached its end according to Rorerrie’s chronometer, she said to him, “A leader of your caliber ought to accept a shift with this burden sooner rather than later,” which of course got him to volunteer. For the next half hour he was the one who trudged with the box along with Mothemi, while Saché and Yané took up the head the group, though at one point Briné joined them to examine their arms. Her spirits were further increased when Piyoeré appeared in the distance as a pale structure up above the plains, and Latt was quick to confirm it was the village, and it didn’t look too badly damaged.
When Coté offered to take the next shift, Ardé immediately said she would take it with her, and that Briné and Glose along with the injured Kloiterrie should be exempt, an idea that the others agreed to readily enough. Though as the two of them lugged the box along, though Coté found she preferred not to try to speak or do anything else besides take each step forward, Ardré kept the strength to talk, leaning in to whisper, “When do you think your senses will come back?”
She shrugged. “Tindé’s death sent me way back, I’m afraid. More than deaths usually do, I think.” She desperately hoped Ardré wouldn’t ask her why. She didn’t want to talk about that with anyone ever, how much the girl’s pain, strong enough that she’d felt it faintly in her final hour or so, had reminded her of what she herself had already long suffered at her age.
From the other handmaiden’s sharp eyes, though, Coté knew she would ask sooner or later. But at least she didn’t then, just saying grimly, “If we go on like this, that won’t be the last death,” and falling into silence as both of them contemplated the awfulness of that.
Arthi and Hock took the shift after that, and Vatié and Tenil the shift after them, followed by Losté and Ené, then Latt and Merine. Then finally as Lané and Tenil finishing their half hour with it, the distant buildings started to finally become close. Saché supposed the inhabitants had probably surrendered without a fight, because their home was very clearly unscathed. It also left her very strongly convinced the place at the very least wasn’t deserted, and there was a good chance Vatié was right that they would be expected.
When they were in the city’s shadow and flirting with blaster range Saché again ordered the group to halt and called Yané, Losté, Ené, Ardré, Rorierre, and three more men of his choosing to follow her in. Ears perked and fingers were at the trigger they walked into the village, which was worse than walking into the tower, because small as it was as towns went, it was still ten times broader a space, with more places for battle droids to hide behind.
But when the first weapon flew out from a concealed assailant, instead of blaster fire, it was a rock, and it flew straight over Tenil’s head and collided with the blaster fire that did then come from behind the group.
The droid who had fired was fried by Latt behind it could get another shot off, but Saché was quick to realize the implications of its position. “We’re surrounded!”
“Wait!” A human voice called from the direction the rock had come from. “There aren’t as many of them as you might think. I’m not sure where all of them are...”
He’d taken too long to explain, the other droids had opened fire. He was telling the truth about number at least; only five blasts. Behind her Saché heard two cries, but no falls. They returned fire as best they could, but the disadvantage was theirs, with the droids hidden behind the buildings. She thought they might have hit two of them, but there were still three more blasts, and this time when there was a cry it was followed by a thud. Guiltily she hoped it was one of the militia men; the cry had sounded vaguely masculine.
Another rock flew out, this one aimed for the top of a spired squared structure that might have been the village’s tallest building, and they saw it knock a battle droid from the spire. Yané shot it just to make sure it went down. The other two blasts had come from the same place; a white clay wall no doubt surrounding the courtyard of a private residence; the others focused their fire on that. The rocks started going in that direction as well, though when the wall started to melt they were of less use-until Tenil suddenly yelled, “Throw the rocks onto the top! We need to make the wall collapse!”
The rocks landed on the top as Yané aimed her pistol down and started firing at the wall’s foundation points. The others continued to try to shoot at the droids around the wall’s no longer solid corners, and they might have hit them, for only one droid was still returning fire-completely blindly, Saché thought, since it wasn’t hitting anyone, when at last the wall groaned and fell back, crushing the last of the droids against the grass.
Her first thought was for the wounded; she turned around and hastily joined the others as they clustered around Losté, Rorierre, and Mothemi. The first two had new burns on their shoulders and neck, but were quickly brushing off attention, focusing it on the third, who was down on the ground, bearing wounds in his chest that made Saché wonder if there was any chance left; though by the way Latt was holding his pulse he clearly wasn’t dead yet.
Their helper had emerged; it was a ten year old boy with a weird black ponytail, dressed in a fairly simply tunic and leggings. Saché turned to him and said, “If that’s all the droids left in the village, run back out and tell Briné Salmune and Hadri Glose they’re needed.”
He obeyed, and she didn’t think he was the fastest runner but he came back with them soon enough. Briné took charge of Losté and Rorierre; she still had been carrying a bacta pack in the folds of her robes all this way, and they both looked impressed as she got it out and got to work on the burns. She’d also given Glose what looked like an unopened one, but as he examined Mothemi he shook his head. “If he were to have any chance,” he said to Saché, “it would have to be in a proper facility.”
“We have a medical house,” offered the boy. “The Federation took a lot of stuff out of it but they might have left the bacta tank behind. Anyway, I didn’t see anyone carrying it away.”
“That’s no good unless they left at least some bacta behind too,” said Glose. “Still, lead the way, Master...”
“Kells Srchulek is my name, sir. I think I’m the only inhabitant of this village who wasn’t taken away by the battle droids; I hid from them. Right this way.”
“Bring the others in here and start figuring out how we can hide people,” Saché ordered Yané. “And have someone dose out those fires; the less attention this place attracts from the air, the better.”
She herself followed Glose and Kells Schulek to the medical house, an ordinary-looking white square house from the outside, though she did not like the vague smell of smoke. Inside she recognized the setup of a small hospital-not the first one of those she had been in either after her youngest years, except that the furniture was all removed, and most of the equipment. The empty bacta tank was still there, though, and to Saché’s uneducated but somewhat experienced eyes all the important cables looked to be intact.
Glose looked too, then knelt to examine something lower down, where Saché had never looked. “We could probably make this thing work,” he sighed. “But it would take some technical rigging, and then we’d need to find enough bacta to fill it, and I don’t know if Tollo’s likely to last that long!”
“Try it,” said Saché. “We’re not giving up on anyone until they’re dead. And even if this doesn’t save him, having the knowledge of and preferably keeping the control over a working bacta tank could easily save many others later.”
She emerged to notice for the first time that the light was really starting to fade-were they further north than the day's heat had suggested? Also to the sight of enough people to make her feel everyone was now within the village limits. Unfortunately, neither Yané nor Briné were among those she could see, though Coté, Vatié, and Losté were. She doubted any of them knew much about bacta tanks, though, and she thought perhaps some of the other militia men might. So she went to them first.
But it was while asking Hock that she instead got an answer from the elderly woman next to him, who cut in with a, “Excuse me, but I know how to operate a bacta tank, though it’s been more than a few years since I did last. Let me look at it.”
Her name turned out to be Losain Perine, and the grin she made when she saw the bacta tank made Saché aware of how much she had wanted to see someone smile. “Just what I used to operate!” she exclaimed. “That’s lucky, you know; this tank is actually considered obsolete, and I don’t think there are that many of them still around. But obsolete still works when powered right. They should have an emergency generator in here, right?”
There was one, and Saché found Glose and Schulek examining it along with two more of the militia men. Unfortunately it appeared to be shorted out. “We should get the power back on in the town,” said Schulek. “I mean, I don’t know what you people intend to do next, but personally, I think it would be a good idea to set up base here.”
“It’s an idea worth considering,” said Saché, who hadn’t thought that far ahead yet, though she was aware she probably should have already. “But if a big battle droid army converges on here and traps us, what would our chances be?”
“Not as bad an you might think,” he argued. “Not if you use the resources we have here in Piyoeré. We’re actually a town of experimental engineers, you see, or at least a number of us are. My friends Tosi and Slyvé Minnel, for instance, I know they’ve been working three years on this firework generator that they’ve been testing with other explosives already, so I know we can use it for them, and I don’t think the Federation took it. And I know someone else who was developing this mass sound generator, one that can create false sounds all over the place at once, which I think would confuse any bunch of battle droids. And then there’s my own project, which I don’t know how much use it can really be, but if you feel a need to suddenly make something really hot, I have a device.”
“I’ll consider all that, then,” she answered him. “At the very least we’re staying here overnight, and anything you know about that could help us defend ourselves in event of an attack would be welcome.”
Indeed, she thought about it for most of the next hour, as she monitored attempts by those among their group that had at least minimal knowledge about such things attempt to restore power. Could they really run forever? She didn’t think they could, especially if they kept picking more people up. But the thought of making them a still, sitting target was almost scarier.
But in the end it wasn’t entirely her decision, or even that of anyone else in particular. Instead she called together Briné, Coté, Lané, and Yules Latt, and asked them to go around and get from people what they wanted to do. “Don’t spend all night doing it,” she said to them. “Everyone needs to get at least a little sleep at some point. But try to have some good information in the morning. Or at least find out if anyone stumbles upon that J-liner.”