Lord Azazel took a deep breath, inhaling the sweet, fragrant air through his host’s lungs while puffing out his chest. The extravagant robes, knickers, tights, and boots of the Minister he was possessing were almost comical, but he felt dignified and worthy of attention none the less. This host was trim, tall, but not too tall, with close-cropped white hair and a clean-shaven face, strong jaw and cheekbones creating an almost dashing appearance.
The trip to Naboo on the diplomatic shuttle had been most entertaining. He’d allowed the host to have control, unable to alert his companions to Azazel’s presence, of course. Darth Azazel had relished in their naïve, welcoming nature, as they allowed him into their most inner sanctum, allowing him access to their Queen (the real queen , not her decoy), all the while unaware of the monster in their midst.
Over the last week or so, he’d attended meetings, held court—or whatever it was Ministers did when they sat in a throne-like chair and people came to them with their problems, and worked in his office. Apparently, his host was the Minister of Interspecies Relations—a trying job that headed up diplomatic relations between the humans on Naboo and their aquatic counterparts (as well as dealing with other species on other planets). It would have been dreadfully boring if not for the joy of interacting with such patently racist, hateful, angry people of both species airing out their petty disputes.
Now it was time though. Time for the penultimate phase of his plan to begin. Today, the Queen was hosting a public reception in the palace square, due to give some great and memorable speech about the state of Naboo or some equally ridiculous drivel—it was all vote mongering, after all. But it was perfect for his plan. The Palace Guard would be there along with all the Queen’s handmaidens, the planet’s senators in the Republic Senate, the cabinet (including himself), and about one hundred thousand residents from all over Naboo.
As he stepped farther out into the warm spring breeze, pausing at the top of the palace steps and looked down over the crowd gathered below, neatly boxed in by marble facades and water, he couldn’t hold back a smile.
There, at the opposite end of the square was the Queen’s personal transport. Fast, large enough to accommodate a sizeable crew and passengers, it was the perfect fit to carry out this phase of his plan. Oh yes, this speech would be most memorable, but not for the reasons the queen intended.
By the time John arrived in-system at Naboo, he realized, of course, it had been five standard days since Darth Azazel’s ship had arrived and no record of any fire. Frustrated, John had rented both a berth for the Folly. John could have stayed on the Folly, but since residents of Naboo didn’t do much in-atmo flying and newsfeeds couldn’t be reliably accessed from the spaceport, he also booked a room in the least-opulent hotel he could find near-ish to the capital city, Theed, (which had the best news holos) and waited for any sign.
He had then sliced the planetary vital statistics registry and logged the name and location of any child he could find who would reach the age of six months in the next standard day. He had the Folly track and monitor all five hundred and sixty children’s homes, looking for any of the tell-tale electrical or weather disturbances or strange energy fluctuations that accompanied the Sith’s attacks.
Belatedly, John prayed Azazel wasn’t going after some poor Gungan child, because due to poor relations between the Gungans and the humans on Naboo, he had no remote access to Gungan vital statistics, nor any practical way to get in-person access (the Gungans were almost as paranoid as the Onderonians were militaristic and bureaucratic). He then wondered briefly if Lord Azazel could burn an underwater dwelling, but then figured if the Sith could burn ferocrete, durasteel, damp jungle homes, stone, and everything in between, water shouldn’t be that much of a stretch.
So, he had the Folly watch the oceans for any unusual electrical activities, tides, currents, salinity changes, storms, earthquakes—anything that could conceivably indicate the Sith’s presence.
Then John sat on tenterhooks at his mobile comm unit… and nothing happened. The sixth day came and went and yet, there was no hyperspace distortion indicating the Sith had left the system, and—after checking and rechecking—no record of any fire.
John was alarmed and wary. This broke pattern from everything the Sith had done as long as John had been tracking him. Sure, the Darth’s second trip to Coruscant had broken pattern too, but Sam’s fire and Jess’s death had taken place within mere hours after his arrival.
Now, the Darth had been on Naboo for eight days and still no fire.
John was getting increasingly anxious. Had the Sith arrived too soon? Had he changed ships mid transit (no, the arrival distortion had been present)? Had someone stopped him, and all this worry was for naught? Yeah, if only I could be so lucky, John thought ruefully.
He was pacing back and forth in his hotel room, which, being on Naboo, was far larger than he was used to. His research was spread out all over the room—datapads strewn on the bed and table, holoprojections running from a holoprojector stashed on the couch. Notes scribbled on bits and sheets of flimsi were tacked to the walls, on the floor, even on the ‘fresher door. His hands were running through his hair tugging at the strands in frustration. John was sure he had twice as much grey now as he’d had only weeks before.
Think, damn it Winchester, think! He berated himself. He had to be missing something. He turned, having reached the wall and an image caught his eye on the comm unit. He’d turned on a local news bulletin earlier and had left it on with the sound off.
John rushed to the controls and turned on the sound. The reporter was mentioning some big royal speech that was taking place at the Palace Square today. He could see a crowd of tens of thousands gathered behind the reporter as she talked about all the officials and dignitaries who would be present.
John’s heart sank. Azazel had left Onderon on a diplomatic shuttle, what if… He scrambled to the in-unit computer console quickly drawing up the passenger manifest for the diplomatic transport Azazel had used. John had sliced the file upon leaving Onderon. The ambassador to Onderon, the chief of Naboo’s Planetary Defense forces, several members of the palace guard, the Queen, half a dozen hand maidens, the Minister of Commerce, the Foreign Minister, the Minister of State, and the Minister of Interspecies Relations had all been secretly on board along with a couple dozen staff and crew. All of whom would be at the Queen’s speech today along with most of Naboo’s other important government officials, many military officers, and one hundred thousand civilians. Sithspit! John wasn’t sure what exactly Azazel had planned, but the twisting in his gut made him certain whatever it was, it would happen there.
He took off at a run to hail the first transport he could find to the Palace Square.
By the time John arrived—by wheeled transport, the Naboo were way too fond of their rustic aesthetic—the Queen had made her grand entrance and begun her speech. She was talking about commerce and opportunity and new plans and something about personally taking her proposal to the Senate, while standing at a podium at the top of the palace steps, flanked by the planet’s senators and various cabinet members.
John was rushing along the outside of the crowd, in some places squeezing between people and building walls, tripping and shoving his way through. He expected to draw attention, especially the closer to the palace he got, but the people were so enthused, on their feed and jumping and cheering with approval, that his progress went unnoticed. He got the impression that nothing short of rushing the queen or making a grab for her ridiculously elaborate garments, coiffure, or jewelry was going to attract any attention.
After at least ten minutes of jostling, clambering, and pushing, John had made it three-quarters of the way to the palace and was now only 50 or so meters from the steps. He paused to pant as he reached a spot where the exterior wall of one of the buildings that ringed the square jutted out so he had to squeeze his way through the crowd. He had just started moving again when everything changed.
“People of Naboo, it is my pledge to you that we will get these new trade routes approved and together with our new agreement with On—” the Queen was saying when her voice suddenly cut off.
John looked up, squinting to get a better look at the Queen. She seemed to be opening and closing her mouth and trying to gasp, pulling at the high collar on her dress.
Murmurs sprang up throughout the crowd, and someone could be heard yelling “she’s choking!” John resumed his shoving, trying to get closer.
Suddenly, just as suddenly as she had been cut off and as she started to waiver—confused and nervous aides and guards swooping in to support her, she gasped, shaking as if a giant unseen hand had unclasped from her throat, falling forward on the podium and sucking in air in giant gulps.
Oh fuck! John thought, recognizing the Sith Lord’s handiwork. Whatever Azazel had planned was happening now.
“People of Naboo,” an unnaturally loud voice boomed, not as if amplified, but as if it populated the air—somehow coming from everywhere at once.
John looked up at the palace steps, focusing while the rest of the crowd gasped and then entered stunned silence. There! The Minister of Interspecies Relations—if John recognized him correctly, was walking towards the Queen and as he descended the steps. Ok, so that’s who Azazel had hijacked!
“I am a Dark Lord of the Sith, and I have come to exact revenge on you for an injury perpetrated on me by one of your Jedi five thousand years ago,” Azazel continued, eyes turning to yellow if what John thought he saw and the cries of several children at the front of the crowd were correct.
“Silence!” Azazel demanded with a wave of his hand, and those who were talking were silenced. Apparently, not strangled, just muted, as the horrified silent screams of several people indicated.
John ducked down and started shoving through the crowd. Around him people were either starting to cower, making like they were going to flee, or seemingly silently wondering with very confused expressions if this were some kind of elaborate joke.
“I will take twenty-two of your number in equal trade for my loss. The twenty-two I choose will come with me and leave on the Queen’s Yacht. Anyone who tries to interfere will suffer my wrath!” Azazel proclaimed. He had now bypassed the Queen and was standing about half-way down the steps.
As John worked his way through, he saw people start to move, a few handmaidens, a senator, one of the other cabinet members, then pilots, soldiers, men and women from the crowd of all species present—no children, John noticed with mixed relief—all began moving apparently much to their surprise and against their will toward the broad center aisle of the square that led from the steps to the ship and was still otherwise clear of people.
“No, no, not my wife!” Someone who had apparently not fallen under Azazel’s earlier silencing trick screamed. John saw a man across the aisle holding onto a woman’s arm and tugging as the woman—who looked shocked, miserable, and distraught—forcibly marched towards the ship.
Azazel held up his hand, and the man was silenced and stopped moving, still struggling, as if held by an unseen force.
At that the crowd erupted. There were a handful of seconds of sheer pandemonium—people trying to rush the aisle, others trying to shove and trample their way to the back of the square towards the exit, officials scrambling up the steps away from the Sith trying to retreat into the palace. Everyone, absolutely everyone who had not already been silenced shouting and screaming.
“He’s using the Force!” “We’re all gonna die!” “Someone shoot him!” John heard the words echo around him. Then just as suddenly as it had started, it stopped. Everyone who had been screaming was silenced. Everyone who had been rushing the aisle had been held back. Those rushing for exits were now struggling against unseen bonds. John saw silently wailing babies and adults with eyes wide with terror and shock. And all the while, the twenty-two hostages moved steadily towards the ship whose boarding ramp had now lowered. John had to do something! He had to stop Azazel!
John realized that he was still moving, perhaps because he was trying to reach Azazel rather than running away, he didn’t seem to be affected by whatever Force-tricks the Sith was using on the rest of the crowd. Now only five meters or so from the foot of the stairs where Azazel stood, John acted without thinking.
Pulling his blaster from its concealed holster inside his jacket, he screamed “No!” and leapt forward over the crowd, firing at Darth Azazel. The bolts hit one , two, three, but Azazel didn’t seem to notice. His body seemed to take damage, then start to heal. After the first few, Azazel held up his hand towards John’s blaster, sending the bolts careening wide, redirecting in all different angles—some hitting the buildings that surrounded the square causing chunks of marble and dust to rain down on the crowd, others slicing dangerously through the cowering audience, others angling harmlessly at the ground or sky.
“Mwahahahahahaha!” Azazel laughed maniacally as John finally ceased shooting (he did not want to give Azazel any more ammunition, and besides, his blaster had nearly overheated!). “Why John, you fool, fancy seeing you here!” Azazel sneered, speaking directly to John.
John was really not surprised that Azazel knew his name, but the lack of surprise unnerved him
“Azazel, let them go!” John commanded grittily, surprised he could still speak.
Azazel seemed nonplussed that John knew his name. “Trying to get power over me by using my name, by telling it to them?” he asked, sweeping his arm over the frozen crowd. “It’s wise, wise, but it’s not going to work. I want them to know who I am. Their precious Jedi have done so well to try to erase my legacy from the universe, but you know that hasn’t worked. Now they know it too! Maybe they’ll learn why this has happened to them,” Azazel smiled, “and understand.”
Great, John thought, just what I wanted, make the psychotic Sith Lord happy. “I won’t let you take them!” he exclaimed, finding he could still step forward and taking three more steps towards Azazel. “You won’t kill anyone else! Take me instead! I’m not letting you have them and you can’t have—”
“Your son?” Azazel cut him off. “Really, John. You don’t let me do or have anything. I am taking these people and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. And while your self sacrifice is—cute—now isn’t the time. All in good time, John, but not now,” Azazel continued, amused, almost affectionate, as he stepped forward and started towards the ship. He paused and turned to face John again. “Even if more of your shots had hit me rather than giving me delicious,” he gave a pleased, giddy, almost orgasmic shudder, “creative ways to inflict pain, the blaster bolts wouldn’t hurt me, they’d just hurt my host.” He leaned towards John who was now frozen in place out of shock, not the Force, “and my host doesn’t need to be alive for me to use it. Besides, this isn’t the one I want anyway.”
Azazel started walking again and John made to run after him.
“Weren’t you listening when I mentioned wrath?” Azazel asked.
And then John was shoved, hurled, picked up and tossed by the Force sailing backwards through h the air until he slammed head to toe into the marble façade of the palace, head cracking with a sickening thud as he blacked out.
Sam closed his eyes and concentrated on levitating again. His control was getting much better. Miss’Ouri had told him so. They had already practiced meditation and projecting thoughts and images into others’ minds—a skill Miss’Ouri said would come in handy with hunting in general—and now it was levitation. Sam was reaching out in the Force to connect with the presence of other objects and entities and moving them, feeling the connection grow between them in the Force.
Chevy, who had been hanging around, pleased to know that Force users couldn’t affect droids’ minds, cooed warily from somewhere off to Sam’s right as two medium-sized rocks next to her lifted off the ground.
“Good, good Sam,” Miss’Ouri encouraged. “Now lift yourself also.”
Sam reached out with the force and envisioned himself becoming lighter, light as a feather, so easy to hold in the air… and then he was floating, still in his cross-legged position, he felt himself drifting closer to Chevy. Sam tried to stabilize himself, stilling, staying in one place.
Sam was so, so open to the Force. And that’s when it hit him, the images slamming into him, sending spikes of white-hot pain through his brain. He knew what was happening, even though it had never happened while he was a wake before. A vision.
Sam gasped aloud, and then he wasn’t on Dantooine any more.
A fire burned all around him, white hot and melty. The smell of sulfur and ash thick in the air.
He could feel how humid it was, taste the tang of Bacta on the breeze, see the mud-brick traditional dwellings of the Vratix, the insectoid sentients known for inventing Bacta.
Thyferra, he was on Thyferra… and he was seeing the past.
A man was pinned to the ceiling over an infant’s crib. Terrified. He was so scared that his death would mean failure and doom, and not just in his mission, but for the entire galaxy, universe maybe. He kept hoping there was another way, but he was doubtful. He knew he was going to die. The pain was terrible, but nothing like the terror of knowing the Chosen One would be there soon… and there would be no Marker to show him the Rune, and likely, no Rune at all to find.
On the edge of the dying man’s pain and awareness, Sam felt the pressing glee of another mind, a dark mind… a dark mind that was overpowering someone else, someone who was not really aware, a host. The dark mind was creating the fire and he was … pleased, so pleased. At last, he had found one of the weapons the foolish Jedi had set against him. He knew they wouldn’t be able to keep it from him forever!
Sam gasped as he felt Darth Azazel reach out with the Dark Side and touch something. It was small and square and stone, and it was buried in the foundation, hidden. Azazel tried to move it, but the object pushed back. It was strong with the light side, refusing to let the Sith lord move it. Azazel sensed—and so Sam knew—the stone was imbued with Cortosis ore, so it would be almost immune to a lightsaber’s blade. Clever. Very clever. No bother… Azazel could still destroy it with fire and… pressure—given enough heat and pressure, even the hardest stone would be transformed.
Sam saw a jet of flame fly out from Azazel’s hand, pressing through the floor into the foundation, crushing and melting the stone. Azazel pushed harder and harder, all the while, holding the dying man on the ceiling transfixed and in agony, forcing him to watch. Watch as Azazel destroyed the Rune.
And with a sickening tearing sensation that produced an echo in the Force, Sam saw the Rune implode into a crushed, melted blob, its effectiveness destroyed.
The dying man felt horrible grief and… failure. At last, Azazel let the flames consume him…
Sam got the sense someone else had entered the room and Azazel disappeared, but Sam was already being tugged away.
Then Sam was falling, falling back into himself from the inferno on Thyferra, and physically falling to the ground. He landed with a pained thud, half on top of Chevy, who gave off an injured-sounding squeal followed by a concerned whistle.
The whistle must have been enough to alert Dean, because as Sam regained his perception of the outside world, he was acutely aware of the pounding splitting, nauseating pain in his head and Dean.
“Sammy, Sammy, what’s wrong?” Dean asked worriedly, voice frantic, hands skimming over Sam’s body checking for injury.
Sam could feel Dean’s body behind him, supporting and Dean’s hands on his face, trying to get him to open his eyes.
“Had…” Sam started, but couldn’t concentrate on forming more words as his stomach rolled. It was all he could do to fight the nausea, holding himself as still as he could manage and waiting for it to pass.
“He had a vision,” Miss’Ouri explained.
“While he was awake?” Dean asked, alarmed. Sam felt Dean’s body tense and turn behind him.
“It can happen,” Miss’Ouri answered, and Sam could hear her robes rustling as she walked over to him. “Let’s get you inside,” she said gently, voice quiet and soft.
Sam finally managed to open his eyes to the world swimming behind him; Dean’s eyes looked back at him, wide with concern.
Dean helped Sam to his feet, and with Miss’Ouri’s help, guided Sam inside.
When Sam was seated on the couch with a Perigen patch at his neck (Dean had insisted, and since Sam hadn’t mastered any Jedi healing trances, he gladly acquiesced), Sam said, “I saw the past.” He related the details of the vision to Miss’Ouri, Dean, and Chevy (who was thankfully unhurt).
When Sam was done, Miss’Ouri scrunched up her face, reaching out with the Force. “I think you saw the truth, Sam,” She said “I can feel the echo where the Rune broke.”
“So, what does this mean?” Dean asked from his seat next to Sam—he was hovering, but Sam didn’t mind; Dean’s proximity was soothing. “Does this mean the Runes aren’t an option? One’s gone?” Dean sounded desperate.
Miss’Ouri closed her eyes again, searching. “I don’t think so, Dean, I… I’m not sure, but I think there may have been more than four Runes, just in case something like this happened. All those fires… If Azazel really was going after Rune Markers, that could mean a lot of Runes, and I haven’t felt this echo anywhere else,” She confirmed.
Sam shuddered, recalling the feeling of failure that had coursed through the victim when the Rune collapsed. “Why am I seeing this now?” Sam asked.
“Perhaps now you are ready to know,” Miss’Ouri suggested. “Rest, Sam, take a break. We can resume your training this afternoon, when you are feeling well.”
“I’ll stay with you,” Dean offered.
“Thanks,” Sam accepted gladly. He really didn’t want to be alone with his thoughts right now.
But as he rested, Sam couldn’t shake the feeling that something more was coming, that the reason for his vision would soon become clear.
It didn’t take John long to remember what had happened when he woke up lying on the too-soft white sheets of what was obviously a hospital bed, the smell of antiseptic an immediate give away. What did surprise him was that he was not strapped down, tied down, or otherwise restrained. He had assumed opening fire mere feet from the Queen and a hundred thousand onlookers would be a certain way to windup restrained in law enforcement or military custody. Instead—if the young statements of the young nurse who was currently fussing over his bed were anything to go by—he was being treated as some kind of hero for braving the danger and trying to defend Naboo. The Queen wanted to honor him.
John was also surprised that, beyond the lingering taste of Bacta and a vague scab on the back of his head, he felt fine, and was otherwise unharmed.
“You spent twenty-four hours in a Bacta tank,” nurse number two explained as he checked on John and brought him what was probably supposed to be lunch. “We’re sorry it wasn’t one hundred percent of the recommended time, so you may have a few lingering scrapes and aches. There were many people with strangling injuries, others trampled in the stampede, so we have been keeping people in only ninety percent of recommended time to ensure we can treat them all, he explained.
That’s how John found out he had no memory of the last twenty-four hours—not uncommon with Bacta, but it had been so long since he was at a proper hospital, he had forgotten how forgetful it made him—and that Azazel’s stunt had injured even more after the Sith had left.
“What happened,” he asked the third person who came through his room, a doctor.
“Some people actually think it was a Sith Lord,” the doctor said, sounding entertained and amused. “But there haven’t been any of those in what, five hundred years? Others think the Minister just lost his mind and everyone’s made up all the stuff about people getting strangled without anyone touching them. They seem to think the injuries are all just from people panicking,” he gossiped merrily.
John raised an eyebrow. Oh yeah? Then how do you explain my injuries or all the strangled people? I suppose the crowd turned on each other and strangled in their haste to escape? Typical, civilians would make up all kinds of crazy, inconsistent stories and believe them, just to avoid facing the truth. If they could face the truth, maybe then their precious Jedi wouldn’t be so revered!
“Others are saying the kidnapper was an imposter trying out some new weapon,” the gossiping doctor continued. “Personally, I don’t know if it was an imposter or not, but I think the weapon bit might be right. Otherwise you just can’t explain all the crushed and bruised tracheas,” the doctor blabbered, adding an affected shudder. “But between you and me, I really hope we don’t see any more of this weapon, ‘cause those injuries are hard to treat fast enough," he added.
Fat chance of that! John thought bitterly. If Azazel had moved to kidnapping, and what had he said, something about exacting revenge and taking a number in even trade, this was probably going to happen again. The number of people taken and the whole thing itched at John’s memory, as if it wanted to be significant but just wasn’t quite there. Hopefully, once the Bacta hangover cleared it would come to him. Instead, he just nodded, and said aloud, “That sounds really terrible.”
He waited a few more minutes until the doctor had concluded his exam—it was only a formality anyway, the meddroids and Bacta tank’s scanner would have already given him a complete physical and diagnosis—the doctors just looked people over to comfort those who didn’t trust droids. “So, doc,” John said kindly, “how soon can I get out of here, I really want to check on my family. I have kids off-planet and they’ll be worried,” he explained honestly, even if he had been avoiding contact with those kids for a while now.
“Well, medically, you are set to go. We’ll just have to see if the Queen is going to give you an award, although, I suppose it’s fine if you check out, just as long as we know how to reach you. Oh, right, the Jedi have actually sent a delegation to investigate, a Master Shra or Shrin, Shran that’s it. They’re trying to quiet the people’s fears, show them there’s no scary Sith,” the doctor said with a nervous laugh. “They’ve been interviewing everyone who was there, just to get the facts, so they’ll probably want to talk to you and then you can go. I’ll go get them now!” the doctor blabbered in a rush before promptly disappearing out of the room before John could protest.
Great, John thought bitterly. Hyper gossipy doc probably things he’s doing me a favor. Not to mention that of all the times he’d cursed and begged and wished the Jedi would take Dark Side relics more seriously, the one time their presence is a big problem—and no doubt if the information he and his boys uncovered is true, attempting a cover-up—they decide to get involved!
John sat up, throwing off the thin sheet that covered him, pleased to find no pain or kinks in his back, and full feeling in his legs. He stretched, testing his shoulders and ankles, then quickly, carefully, quietly slipped to the floor. Aside from a split second of wooziness, he felt fine. Not bad for having had a fractured skull and who knows what else the day before.
John was dressed in thin, loose-fitting, lightweight pants and a wrap robe top—pretty standard for patient wear. Only, it would look a little unusual if he just waltzed out of the hospital wearing it, and it would certainly attract attention and make him easy to spot.
Just then he heard voices in the hall, one of them clearly Master Shran’s. They didn’t seem to be getting any closer, yet, but he couldn’t waste any time. He scanned the small room—and it was a room, not a cubicle or communal med bay. White walls, bright lights, shelves, holoscanner, meddroid (shut down), cabinets of supplies, and there—a larger, unlabeled cabinet. He darted to it and sighed with relief as it opened.
It was a patient property cabinet. Inside, he found his jacket and boots, no shirt or pants (they’d probably cut those off), and all his gear—datapads, forged ident card, credits, beckon call for the Folly, comlink. And there, underneath the in a transparent safe, were his blaster, holster, and the blade he’d been carrying.
A first, he was shocked to find them there in his room (he’d expected they would have been confiscated and taken as evidence), but then he recalled the nurse and doctor’s words. They thought he was some kind of hero (which stung, because John had never felt like a bigger failure). The queen wanted to honor him. They didn’t see him as dangerous or a threat, but instead probably wanted to put his blaster in a museum or something. It was probably locked up to keep it safe as well as for general safety. Lucky for John, whoever had locked it up hadn’t taken too close a look at his datapads.
Within thirty seconds, John had his slicing pad hooked into the lock and the lock opened. He quickly removed the contents and relocked it.
Then, John hurriedly slipped on the jacket, holster and boots, discarding the wrap robe first as the jacket wasn’t long enough to conceal it. He tucked his knife into his boots and then tucked in the pants as well before slipping the blaster inside the jacket and closing it over his bare chest. Without his pants, he didn’t have room for all his datapads, so he held the stack in his hands and hoped he could pass as a visitor immersed in some interesting reading.
He took five seconds to check his appearance in the over-sink mirror. He looked ok, rested even, thinner than he had when he’d last taken time to look at himself, but not injured or frightening. His graying stubble had lengthened into a short beard, but thankfully, facial hair was fairly common on Naboo. The hospital pants were very white, but with the waist covered by the Jacket and the bottoms tucked into his knee-high boots, they looked passably like the puffy knickers that were so popular among the Naboo. Satisfied that he would blend as much as possible, he crept to the door and glanced in the direction he’d heard Master Shran’s voice.
Just two doors up in the sanitized white hall was Master Shran, another Jedi, and the same two uniformed RI agents he’d seen on Onderon. Sithspit! They had their backs turned to him and seemed immersed in conversation with the doctor who had been treating him, the doctor’s arm just visible around the side of Master Shran’s contingent, Shran’s imposing form towering over him.
They seemed to be debating about interviewing John Shran was trying to assure the doctor they would be with him shortly, but needed to finish interviewing a young woman first (probably the patient whose doorway they were blocking). The doctor was making lots of noise about John’s heroics and his need to check on his family. By the sound of things, the two were no having a sort of standoff and would likely be at it for at least another few minutes.
Pulling himself in as deeply as possible, and doing his best to project an air of disinterested confidence and normalcy, John slipped stealthily out of the room and headed in the opposite direction of Shran, keeping his back to the Jedi contingent at all times. It was felling disturbingly like his exit from Onderon.
Well, he’d seemed to avoid getting on the Jedi’s radar so far, but considering he was now a “hero” running off and disappearing—a hero whose likeness had no doubt been captured on countless security holos both at the palace and the hospital, and whose fake ID had been scanned, his luck was undoubtedly about to run out, and he was going to wind up in an RI holding cell on some backwater planet unless he got out of there right now.
Rounding a corner, he spotted a reception station staffed by a young human woman and a shiny new protocol droid. Putting on his best endearing smile, John made a beeline for the station and walked up to the woman. “Excuse me, miss,” he said, smiling and getting the woman’s attention.
“Hello, how can I help you?” she asked, looking up from her console and returning his smile.
“I’m here visiting my mother,” John began, relieved that she didn’t seem to recognize him—he had no idea what news vids or holobulletins might have circulated while he was floating in Bacta. “And I’ve gotten myself a bit lost. I need to get back to my hotel to retrieve a gift for her, and I’m completely turned around,” he lied seamlessly. “What’s the quickest way for me to get a transport? I want to hurry back,” he added.
John listened attentively while she gave him directions, keeping an ear attuned to any sign of disturbance. Sure enough, when as she finished, he heard an uproar in the direction from which he’d come. Sounded like his absence had been spotted. Ignoring the sound of arguing voices, he thanked the woman, gave her another endearing smile, and headed in the direction she’d pointed him, which thankfully took him through the nearby waiting room and away from the commotion.
He slipped into a waiting turbolift just as the commotion reached the waiting room he’d just strolled through. John had the prickling feeling on the back of his neck that told him someone in Shran’s group had seen him enter—whether they’d recognized him from the back of his head or not, he didn’t know, but it was a safe bet that their interest had been piqued enough to go looking. He reached up, rubbing his head, remembering the scab he’d felt there, relieved that it seemed to be concealed by his hair. One small favor.
As the lift descended, he thought about getting off a level early and taking the utility stairs, but since he didn’t know where those were, it probably would cost him precious time and render him more likely to be captured.
He exited the lift on the designated floor and broke into a light job down the tall, wide, bright, airy corridor. It seemed to be some mid-level concourse, decorated with pink and green and white marble like so many buildings in Naboo, tall transparisteel doors opening at both ends to what appeared to be landing pads. One seemed to be for employee and service traffic, the other—the one he was heading towards—clearly a guest and patient entrance with taxi stands and unloading spots. The ceiling arched high over head, and his made light echoes as he moved. He could see a hovercab terminal on the other side of the double transparisteel doors straight ahead. John skillfully dodged around other patients, visitors, and doctors, slowing only when he’d closed the doors behind him.
Oh thank goodness they had hovercabs here and not just wheeled transports! The hospital was apparently one of the tallest buildings on this part of Naboo if his breathtaking view of the surroundings was any indication, its tower jutting high above the treetops. Even though he’d descended a dozen levels from his room (which, looking up, clearly wasn’t at the top of the tower by any means), he was still at least eight levels off the ground. Hovercabs made perfect sense here.
John quickly hailed the lead cab, stepping inside the enclosed passenger compartment. He hurriedly spouted off his hotel’s name and address to the blue-skinned Rodian driver, and after checking his pockets, offered the cabbie a hundred extra credits to step on it.
The driver eagerly complied, darting from the curb and sending John sprawling against the seat. The scenery passed in a green and pink blur. John marveled that they hadn’t attracted any police attention. Twelve minutes later, the cab was descending on its repulsors to the street in front of John’s hotel. John waved in thanks as the cabbie quickly ascended and flew back towards the hospital at a much more leisurely pace.
John estimated he had probably twenty minutes until the driver returned to the hospital, which, giving the guy five to get questioned and maybe ten for the Jedi to speed back here, gave John just over a half-hour to get out of here, maybe less if the cabbie got summoned back en route or was particularly forthcoming with information.
Thinking fast, John strode into the hotel and to the hotel’s side door to his room (which he had selected for it’s proximity to the exit and ground floor location) and scanned his ident card. Risky, yes, but the room was already registered in that false name and deducting credits from that identity’s account. It might tip the Jedi off a little faster, but the alternatives (slicing the lock, forcibly breaking in) would cost him too much time.
The door slipped open with a hiss, and John darted inside, simultaneously relieved he’d rented the room for two extra nights and cursing himself for making such a mess. “Lights,” he called, watching the glow grow around him as the door snicked shut behind him. John quickly checked the chrono—27 hours had passed since the Queen’s speech the day before, and immediately fired up the beckon call and opened a secure channel on his comlink, instructing the Folly to run through preflight as fast as possible, giving her instructions on spaceport queries, and programming in a flight path that would have her setting down in the small landing area across the broad street from the hotel—one other advantage to being on the outskirts of the city. John was sure the hotel would probably not appreciate the unscheduled landing, but he’d be in and out of there fast enough they wouldn’t have time to complain.
Then John was scrambling, collecting scraps of flimsi by the fistful and shoving them into his bag—remembering to check the ‘fresher and grabbing the flimsi there as well. He didn’t want to leave any clues behind for the Jedi to find, well, any more than absolutely necessary. He quickly changed, taking the hospital pants with him, and stuffed the rest of his clothes and gear into his travel bag as quickly as he could, relishing the feel of his own (soft, reliable, familiar) clothes against his skin.
By the time he had called up the auto checkout on his console (being sure to pay for the full reservation plus a little extra to hopefully ingratiate the hotel ownership, it was almost time for the Folly to land, and twenty minutes had passed since the cabbie had left. John flinched seeing the transaction total. That was a lot of credits. He’d have to be sure this ID’s account was drained and transferred to one of his other aliases as quickly an untraceably as possible.
He’d need more funds soon, but he’d have to worry about that later, as he didn’t really have time for a smuggling run or a Sabacc tournament right now. He had just finished erasing his terminal’s holonet and holocom records when he heard the familiar whine of the Folly’s repulsors. Shutting off the terminal and slinging his bag over his shoulder, he stepped out of the room, and called “lights off,” darting toward the exit and across the empty street to the Folly’s lowering ramp before his room’s door had even finished closing behind him.
Fifteen minutes later, when the Jedi would likely be arriving at his hotel, he was already in space, the Folly having gotten clearance under a different ID (hopefully the Jedi would waste lots of valuable time investigating one John Idanian, the fictitious persona he’d been using on Naboo), and headed after the Sith’s apparent exit trajectory.
Master Post | Part 11 | Part 13