Everyone who's interested: This is my take on Star Wars Episode I, as well as my very first story that's (quite a bit) longer than a few pages. The whole thing is now posted in its entirety, so now I'm off to work on Episode II. Let me know what you think! Thank you! By the way, if you notice any seemingly random hyphens throughout, it's because I formatted it into a book size (which hyphenates long words in Justified) and copied/pasted from that into this forum. I've tried to find them as I go, but I may have missed some. Also, there were originally indents at the beginning of each paragraph, but I'm unable to replicate that here. I'm sorry it's so block-ish. A Note from the Author Thank you for reading my retelling of Star Wars: Episode I! Before you read this book, please understand something: I am fully aware that my version of this story is subjective. Over the course of writing this book, I have encountered many differing and valid views regarding the story of Anakin Skywalker, his turn to the dark side of the Force, and the fall of the Galactic Republic and its replacement by the Empire. The very fact that people have an opinion on the matter demonstrates how impactful, for better or worse, that the original prequel trilogy was on Star Wars fans. I greatly respect the source material in terms of vision and hard work, and I also understand that there are many ideas and alternate versions created by fans—some of them fleshed out in great fanfiction on various websites and other repositories—that I decided not to include here. It does include many scenes, lines, and locations from the original movie version and script hewn into a form that is hopefully entertaining, clear, and true to the original concept, but several pieces of the story have been altered in a way that I hope will enhance it instead of detract from it. My purpose in writing this, along with my retelling of Episodes II and III, is to show two things: how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader, and how the Old Republic fell at the hands of Palpatine, who instituted a new government called the Galactic Empire. It will lead into the events of Episode IV: A New Hope, as did the original version of Episode III (which I am currently mapping along with Episode II for my next two novels). I am attempting to do this by returning to a more character-driven model reminiscent of the original trilogy, but I am also trying to keep any change to the EU stories leading up to and surrounding the prequels to a minimum. Of course, there will be many inconsistencies between this version and the correlated stories already written by other authors, but I hope that you find my story entertaining and true to the spirit of Star Wars nonetheless. May the Force be with you. STAR WARS EPISODE I REBORN:AN UNSEEN FORCE NATHAN F A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away... Turmoil has engulfed the waning Galactic Republic. The Trade Federation, which has been secretly gaining power in the Senate through its underhanded dealings with the outlying Rim planets, moves to break with the Republic and create a separate government, the Confederacy of Independent Systems. Their blockade of deadly battleships surrounds the peaceful planet of Naboo in a show of power, as the Federation begins accelerating plans to bar all trade and travel within the helpless system. But there is a darker purpose behind this move that remains to be seen. Meanwhile, two Jedi Knights, the guardians of peace and justice, speed toward the industrial planet of Corellia to investigate the dealings of a vicious crime lord that has been smuggling illegal wares throughout the galaxy... PROLOGUE The shining spires of Corellia's capital city, Coronet, seemed to reach up and grab at the ambassadorial shuttle as it descended through the atmosphere. Endless lanes of traffic wrapped around and through the buildings, giving the effect of flowing rivulets or even arterial networks—Coronet was alive. The system's yellow sun glinted brightly off of the distant snow-capped mountains near the edge of the city as well as the massive shipyards orbiting the planet high above them. A landing pad steadily grew larger in the viewscreen as the young female pilot conversed with the ground crew and prepared to activate the ship's landing gear. "Republic Ambassador shuttle 84B-57 requesting permission to land," she said with a clipped, professional tone, her finger on the comm switch. A scratchy reply came almost immediately. "Permission granted, Ambassador shuttle. Please follow our signal transmission." Coordinates scrolled across the screen in front of the pilot. "Acknowledged." Behind the pilot, young Obi-Wan Kenobi scanned an entry in the ship's data bank, reviewing the information concerning their mission. "This is fortunate, Master—reports indicate that our target's base of operations is in this very sector of the city. The search may take less time than we expected." He grinned up at the solemn-looking older man standing behind him. Qui-Gon Jinn offered a smirk to his apprentice. "We must be wary, Obi-Wan. You know as well as I do that appearances can be decep—" The ship suddenly, violently pitched, and a deafening roar sounded throughout the cockpit. Obi-Wan fell forward into the data bank control board. "What was that?!" he choked out. "Forward shields at maximum!" the pilot yelled, clearly just as confused. "Ground crew, what is—please respond—what was...?" Only faint static could be heard on the communicator. With a thin column of smoke issuing from its barrel, the defense cannon to the right of the landing pad lined up for another shot. The pilot began trying to stabilize the ship as it leaned to the port side, threatening to lose control completely. She turned to her passengers, a terrified look on her face: "I don't think we're going to make this landing!" Qui-Gon, both hands firmly gripping the back of the pilot's chair, merely closed his eyes in concentration and exhaled. "Lower your landing gear, pilot." "But sir—" "Trust me, we'll make it down. Just lower your landing gear!" The pilot shakily complied as another laser beam punched the ship's forward shields. Gradually, the large vessel began to stabilize and even out. Obi-Wan looked at his master in awe. Is he... is he holding up the entire shuttle with the Force? Finally, the long ambassadorial craft touched down on the landing pad, still in one piece. The pilot peered through the viewscreen, then back at the bearded, leonine man standing behind her, at a complete loss. "Well, I'm... thank you—How...?" Qui-Gon opened his eyes and smiled grimly down at the pilot. "We may be under the range of the defense cannon, but we aren't out of danger just yet. Please lower the entrance ramp." The pilot touched a button, and the two Jedi dashed down the ramp and toward the landing platform's large, boxy control facility. "Obi-Wan, go find out who's manning that defense cannon—and stop them!" Qui-Gon commanded the younger man running next to him. "We'll need to take off again once this is over." "Yes, Master!" Obi-Wan diverted and ran toward the looming cannon as Qui-Gon approached the control facility. * * * Qui-Gon stepped into a side doorway cautiously and stole inside. As the door hissed shut behind him, overhead lighting gradually stuttered on—this part of the building was clearly not maintained regularly. A faint musty scent hung in the air, matching the tarnished surfaces of the long passage. He moved down the hallway, stretching out his senses through the Force. Several beings were in a room about fifty meters down, and didn't seem to have any hostile intent... but they certainly were in a hurry. He jogged past various doors and dark halls, noting that the facility seemed to be much larger than it appeared on the outside. Eventually, he could see a light shaft spilling from a large doorway in front of him and to the left. Just before he reached it, however, his comlink sounded in the folds of his cloak; he stopped and leaned against the cool wall next to him and put the device next to his ear. "Master, I'm not quite sure..." Obi-Wan began uncertainly, "...I don't see anyone here. They must have left very recently, though." "I see. There's definitely something strange going on here. Keep investigating, and let me know what you find." Qui-Gon listened to the voices coming from the room ahead; they sounded official, efficient. And numerous. Perhaps the spice smugglers are in this very building... he mused. He clicked off his comlink and continued forward. Upon reaching the room, he noted that it was actually an expansive hangar, and the light he could see through the doorway was natural sunlight shining through the transparisteel windows above. Small transport vehicles idled along one side of the enclosure as various humanoid figures milled about, carrying crates and barking out short orders. Every one of them was dressed in the sharp dark green and grey uniform of CorSec, the Corellian Security force. Good, Qui-Gon thought, maybe our contact man is in this group, and I can find some answers. "Hello!" he called out. Several of them abruptly stopped and looked at him. "My ship just landed on this platform, and we were supposed to—" He never finished his sentence, for at least half of the group suddenly pulled out hand blasters and began to shoot at him. Having discerned their hostility through the Force from the moment they dropped their hands to their weapons, Qui-Gon already held his ignited lightsaber in front of him, and he deflected any shot that came close. "Right then!" he said, an exasperated look on his face. He deftly backed out through the door and began running farther down the hallway. He heard the echoing footsteps of several of the CorSec officers—if they were indeed CorSec officers at all—as they gave chase, shouting various threats after him. His comlink chirped again. He kept running as he held the comlink up to listen. "Master, it seems that someone has set up an override program for the defense cannon that allows them to fire from a remote location. Whoever is behind the attack must be somewhere else, though I assume it's nearby. I've managed to disarm the cannon, but—" "So we'd be able to take off?" Qui-Gon asked between breaths. "Yes, Master... are you all right?" The Jedi turned sharply down another dim hall. "I've run into a bit of trouble with security." "What do you mean?" Obi-Wan looked down at the comlink quizzically. In place of an answer, the sound of blaster fire squealed from the tiny speaker into his ear. He bolted out of the cannon control room and across the platform, toward the facility. * * * Qui-Gon leaned hard against a plasteel container and caught his breath. At this moment, he was extremely glad that the ground control facility was so labyrinthine—he could sense that most of his attackers had already gone past the room he was in, searching other corridors. He seemed to be in another hangar of some sort. He stood and began to take in his surroundings: The roof was not transparent here, and let in no sunlight; the artificial lighting was not even attempting to be an adequate substitute, either. Large vehicles were crammed from one end of the room to the other, and any spare room besides was full of crates similar to the one he had hid behind. Curious, he undid the simple lock on one of the containers and lifted the heavy casing. Inside, a glint of metal— A door close by hissed open, and Qui-Gon turned, ready to fight. He quickly dropped out of attack stance, though; it was his apprentice, wearing a very distressed look. "Ah, there you are, Obi-Wan. Are you all right?" Qui-Gon asked, smiling. Obi-Wan raised an eyebrow. "I was about to ask you the same thing. What happened?" "It seems you were correct: our investigation isn't taking nearly as long as I thought it would. Although there is still the mystery of the Corellian Security officers I encountered who fired at me a little earlier." "CorSec fired at you, Master? But they were the ones who asked us to investigate here in Coronet!" Obi-Wan's puzzled look dropped to the crate next to Qui-Gon, which the Jedi Master was opening again. "Is that it? Did you find the smuggled spice?" "No..." Qui-Gon answered as he hefted the lid from the container and quietly set it atop another crate, "...these are weapons of war." Inside were rows of different types of armaments and blaster power packs, as well as what appeared to be mass-produced droid parts. Obi-Wan took a step toward the crate, examining the various pieces. "What do you think this is for, Master? I know Corellia is not the most loyal system in the Republic, but this...?" "I'm not sure, Obi-Wan... We seem to have unearthed a great deal more questions with this find—" Qui-Gon paused as he heard returning footsteps in the hall, "—and that would be our CorSec officers. Let's be on our way." Obi-Wan glanced down again at the crate. "But Master, shouldn't we do something about all this evidence?" He looked around the hangar at all the armored vehicles, jaw slack. "Wow..." "At the moment, we don't have much time. We'll return soon, with a larger force, but for now—let's get going!" They started toward the door Obi-Wan had come in through, but it was too late—one of Qui-Gon's pursuers stepped into the hangar behind them, saw the retreating Jedi, and called back to his comrades: "Hey, he's in here! Looks like he brought a friend, too!" Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan turned to face the increasing number of officers, drawing their lightsabers and readying themselves for a fight. "Calm your mind... and try not to hurt anyone, if you can help it; we need only to reach that door," Qui-Gon said over his shoulder to the anxious Obi-Wan. "To be a Jedi is to know peace." "Yes, Master." Obi-Wan inhaled deeply and steadied his hands around the hilt of his lightsaber. Their attackers began to fire, and energy bolts lanced all around them, filling the air with the smell of ozone. As they deflected or absorbed any direct shots with the shimmering blades of their lightsabers, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan slowly backed around crates and vehicles toward the door and their subsequent escape. But no; that door opened as well, and at least two dozen more CorSec-uniformed beings poured into the room, blasters at the ready. Obi-Wan swiveled and stood directly behind Qui-Gon, ready to take on the new threat— ...They did not fire. In fact, the first group stopped firing too—all three parties stood still, confused at the scene that lay before them. Finally, the man who came upon the Jedi minutes ago spit out, "Blast, it's CorSec! Take them out!" and began firing again. The new CorSec group—which, apparently, was the real Corellian Security—immediately took action; diving around containers, firing stun bolts, and covering all the exits, they made quick work of the impostors. The Jedi took part in the short skirmish as well, deflecting any narrow misses from the enemy weapons and using the Force to shove the assailants against the rear wall. In a matter of minutes, most of the agressors were either sitting on the floor with restraints around their wrists or passed out cold against the back of the hangar. One of the officers, a man in his thirties with a dark goatee and an infectious smile, approached the Jedi and warmly shook their hands. "I'm Major Rostek Horn—you must be Masters Jinn and Kenobi? Supreme Chancellor Valorum told me you would be arriving in Coronet today." Obi-Wan blushed and ran his hand through his short hair. "Actually, I'm still just an apprentice..." "Ahh, I thought you looked a little green," Horn said as he winked at the young man. "I'm glad the both of you showed up when you did. These boys gave us the slip over in the Telshi sector on the north side of the city. We thought we had lost them to another few weeks of investigation, until your pilot sent out a general distress signal. We got here as soon as we could." "We are very grateful, Major Horn. Things were definitely getting a bit out of hand." Qui-Gon returned the officer's smile. "You believe this is the same group as the ones who have been smuggling glitterstim spice to Nar Shadaa?" Horn's look turned to one of confusion. "You mean you don't?" Qui-Gon walked back over to the crate he had opened and motioned at the armaments within. "Well, this seems to be quite a bit different from your normal illegal narcotics operation," he said quietly. Upon seeing the contents of the crate, Horn finally began to take in his surroundings in the hangar. His expression turned again from confusion to grave concern. "Yes... I believe... I believe this is another operation entirely." He seemed lost in thought for just a moment before ordering several of his men to search the entire facility. "My apprentice and I will be glad to help you find out the ones responsible for this," Qui-Gon offered. "I appreciate it, Master Jinn. And if it were up to me, I'd ask for your service in a heartbeat." Horn gave the Jedi a half-smile. "Unfortunately, I have further word from Chancellor Valorum that the two of you, upon completing your mission here, are to go with all deliberate speed to the Mid-Rim planet of Naboo to negotiate a treaty between the Trade Federation and the planet's primary government." He said this as if quoting a memorandum, but he couldn't quite keep the sardonic tone from his voice. Corellians weren't always keen on the directives of the Republic. "The Federation claims they have the right to blockade the planet according to a previous business arrangement, but Naboo's representative is telling a different story," he continued. "But... we haven't completed our mission here!" said Obi-Wan. Major Horn smirked. "He seemed to think this is a pretty big issue. He specifically wanted Master Jinn to go." He nodded in Qui-Gon's direction. "You're good at negotiating, apparently?" "I seem to have a way with people." Qui-Gon grinned. "Master, the trip will take days... must Valorum send us?" Obi-Wan whispered. Qui-Gon turned to the younger man. "I don't like it either, my young padawan, and I know it isn't the most exciting assignment. But Valorum has been given permission by the Council to send us wherever he thinks we are most needed—" he turned back toward Horn and spoke a bit louder, "—and we are needed elsewhere, it appears. Major Horn, I trust that you and your men will be able to handle things here?" "Oh sure," Horn looked around at all the vehicles filling the hangar, "My people are good at paperwork." He gave a sharp exhale and began walking with the Jedi toward the door that exited into the main hallway. As they stepped around the shackled impostors, one of them coughed out a slight chuckle and looked up at them. His brown eyes were defiant, or perhaps mad with overconfidence—Qui-Gon could not tell exactly. His ragged voice made out the words, "It's too late... Jedi." He spat this last word with vitriol. Qui-Gon stopped, leaned down, and made a mild face toward the man. "What is too late?" he asked, looking the man directly in the eyes. The man could not hold his gaze, but he gave out another quiet laugh. "The Republic is finished... We've already done so much in the shadows. You have no idea what is coming... soon." "Where are these weapons headed?" ...The man would not answer, so Qui-Gon continued. "Who is your master? Who sent you here?" After a few moments, the man again looked at Qui-Gon and smiled wickedly. "Maul." * * * "Master, what do you think he meant? What is 'Maul'?" Obi-Wan asked as the two Jedi boarded the Ambassador shuttle. "I have no idea, Obi-Wan, but I'm sure it will be revealed to us soon. Our present concern is the blockade at Naboo, so let us turn our full attention there." Qui-Gon made a motion to the pilot, and the engines started. "Yes, Master. Have you ever been to Naboo before?" Obi-Wan looked distractedly through the viewscreen at the defense cannon, which was now pointing quite harmlessly in the opposite direction. "I haven't. We should find out as much as we can about it during our trip." Qui-Gon turned to the pilot. "Thank you for sending that distress signal earlier; CorSec officers came at just the right time. Is the ship safe to travel?" She smiled up at Qui-Gon. "Yes sir, our shields have been weakened somewhat, but she'll hold up just—" "Master, look!" Obi-Wan interrupted, pointing toward the ground control facility below. Qui-Gon looked just in time to see a tall, shadowy, cloaked figure turn into the side door. "Did you see him?" Obi-Wan continued, "He looked... well..." Qui-Gon finished his statement: "Evil." He stared at the dark doorway that the figure had just occupied. Just what is going on here? he thought to himself. I sense a strong presence of anger and destruction... He turned to Obi-Wan, a solemn look on his face. "I'll contact Major Horn and let him know we sighted this creature. Meanwhile, pull up a file on Naboo from the ship's data bank and find out about the people there." Qui-Gon sat down and tapped several buttons on the console behind the pilot as Obi-Wan made his way to the shuttle's main compartment. Eventually, a holo-image of Rostek Horn appeared on the screen. "Major Horn here. Ah, Master Jinn." "Major, we saw a black-cloaked humanoid on the east side of the facility as we were taking off. Perhaps he's the leader of your group of impostors." Except they weren't emanating such... hatred, he added to himself. "Acknowledged. I'll send some of my men to investigate. Thanks for keeping us updated, Master Jinn." "Of course. Qui-Gon out." The image disappeared, and Qui-Gon leaned the back of his head against the shuttle interior to meditate. What could that man have meant by "soon"? I'm sure that at least one of the Jedi on the Council would have sensed an imminent attack on the Senate... unless the Senate is not where the attack will take place. Qui-Gon sighed softly as the stars around the Republic Ambassador shuttle stretched into hyperspace. What new surprises does the galaxy have in store for us on Naboo? CHAPTER ONE Naboo was a lovely emerald and sapphire jewel; its beauty and tranquility offset by the ring-shaped Trade Federation battleships surrounding it like a chain. According to the data bank, the planet was home to two major sentient races: Naboo, humans who came to the planet more than three millennia ago in colony ships from Grizmallt; and Gohltans, a native race of tall, grayish-skinned amphibians that lived in extensive underwater cities. While the two species had only minor skirmishes with each other throughout their long history, their societies were certainly not at all integrated; both tended to keep to themselves, and whether this was because of a natural variance in preferred habitat or a conscious choice of the leaders, the file did not say. The red and white Ambassador shuttle drew nearer to one of the Federation ships, which loomed in its viewscreen to the point of completely filling it. The pilot turned from her console to speak to Qui-Gon Jinn: "Sir, shall I request permission to dock?" "Yes, pilot; tell them we wish to board at once." Qui-Gon peered out at the massive Lucrehulk-class vessel hanging in space before them—each ring had a break in it with a large slot on one end; this was the hangar in which they were to land. Through the ring's opening could be seen the colossal, spherical reactor core: the command center of the giant craft. "Yes, sir." The pilot nodded and turned back to the console to hail the Trade Federation ship. Within seconds, a holo of a large-eyed, pale-skinned Neimoidian materialized before the pilot, who spoke carefully: "Honored viceroy of the Trade Federation, this is Republic Ambassador shuttle 84B-57 requesting to dock immediately." The Neimoidian's slick, noseless face effected the approximation of a smile. "Ah yes, of course. We have made extensive preparations for your arrival. Docking instructions will be transmitted to your ship momentarily. Welcome, welcome!" Welcome, I'm sure, thought Qui-Gon, who stood behind the pilot just out of range of the comm sensor, observing the transmission carefully. These pompous, smooth-talking Federation businessmen didn't seem to say much except what they did not sincerely mean. The image faded as the hangar bay doors in front of them slowly began to open. At last, the Ambassador shuttle landed in its assigned dock, and the Jedi disembarked. A silvery protocol droid met Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan promptly at the hangar's entrance, introducing itself as TC-14. It led them to a well-furnished conference room with a panoramic window overlooking the planet below. Obi-Wan gazed out the window for a moment, then looked at Qui-Gon, who was accepting a drink from the protocol droid. "Master, do you think this treaty will go over well? Regardless of how diplomatic the Federation seems, they appear to be firm in their resolution to blockade Naboo." Qui-Gon took a sip of his drink. It was pleasantly sweetened, and warm. "Obi-Wan, expand your senses—I feel that there is more greed here than malice. The leaders of the Trade Federation will follow after any profit that is to be made; that is their only real ambition. Naboo is rich in resources, but I'm sure that the Federation will accept the Chancellor's offer, as it is to their benefit." He walked to one of the chairs surrounding the black table in the center of the room and sat. "As for their move to break from the Republic, it is certainly their right. There are many systems and peoples in our galaxy who simply wish to be left alone." After offering Obi-Wan refreshments, TC-14 said, "Thank you for your patience, sirs; my masters will be here shortly," and walked out of the room. * * * "What did you say?!" the Neimoidian viceroy, Nute Gunray, spluttered at the droid standing before him. "The ambassadors are Jedi Knights, I believe," TC-14 replied matter-of-factly. Gunray looked with alarm at his associate, Daultray Dofine, who appeared to be in a similar state of shock. "Jedi? This must be a serious matter indeed to Valorum, if he sent Jedi..." Dofine blinked and wrung his hands together. "He means to force us into a settlement... I'm sure of it!" Gunray assumed a thoughtful expression, then said, "We must remain calm. I will contact Lord Sidious. You—" he pointed at Dofine, "—go distract them. Tell them what they want to hear." The other Neimoidian's mouth fell open. "I'm not going in there with two Jedi! Send the droid back!" Gunray nodded and waved TC-14 away with his hand. "Tell them we are finishing some other business, and will be there shortly." "But sir, I already told them that—" "Just go!" TC-14 stared at Gunray for a moment, its blank expression somehow still conveying disapproval. Then it abruptly turned and walked out. "I think it's about time we had that droid's memory bank wiped again," muttered Gunray. He adjusted his large, intricately-patterned robe and walked toward the communicator nearby. Dofine followed behind, still wringing his long-fingered hands. After establishing a secure connection, the Neimoidians waited to see if their transmission would be received. "Perhaps—perhaps he is otherwise occupied," said Dofine, a hopeful note in his voice. But finally, the signal light turned green and a hologram formed. The image of the older man who now stood before them was dressed entirely in black; a hood covered the upper half of his face. He wore an impatient scowl already, but this was typical. The viceroy did not know much of anything about Darth Sidious except that he was always scheming, usually angry, and never satisfied. Gunray had to admit to himself, though, that Sidious was fully capable of backing up every word he said with swift and powerful action; and whatever the ambitions of the Trade Federation may be, it was most beneficial—and safe—to follow his every command. Nute Gunray put on his most obsequious smile as he spoke. "My lord Sidious... it is most gracious of you to accept our transmission—" he began. "Get on with it, Viceroy," Sidious snarled, "why have you contacted me? Have the Chancellor's ambassadors arrived?" "Precisely, my lord, just as you predicted. Only..." Gunray hesitated. Sidious said nothing, expectant. The viceroy cautiously continued, "...only, the ambassadors are... Jedi." Darth Sidious did not react for several moments; this unnerved the Neimoidians even more than if he had gone into a rage. Finally: "Jedi, you say. Yes... I see. Valorum foolishly believes he can hide behind them and still control the Senate. It is of no matter." "'No matter?'" Daultray Dofine stepped forward as he spoke. "This scheme of yours has failed, Lord Sidious. We could not possibly take Naboo if the Jedi are involved!" Sidious' scowl darkened further. He did not answer Dofine, but rather addressed the viceroy. "Gunray, I don't want this pathetic lifeform in my sight again. Do you understand?" "Y-yes, my lord, as you wish." Gunray shot a murderous look at his associate, who bowed tremulously and scurried from the room. The Dark Lord spoke again: "This turn of events is... unfortunate, Viceroy, but still wholly under my control. We must accelerate our plans. Begin landing your troops at once." "My lord—won't the Senate hear of this?" "As soon as the invasion begins, scramble all planet transmissions. By the time this news reaches Coruscant, Naboo's foolish young queen will have already signed the treaty, and the planet will be ours. You may proceed." The viceroy bowed. "Yes, my lord. And what of the Jedi?" "Chancellor Valorum should never have sent them. Kill them immediately." The hologram faded before Gunray could reply. * * * The young pilot of the Ambassador shuttle swiveled idly in her chair as the diagnostics ran on the onboard computer. She hoped that the Jedi would not be long in figuring out the details of their negotiation with the Trade Federation; everything about the events of their trip thus far practically screamed setup. She sighed nervously and closed her eyes, trying to relax. After a moment or two, she heard the humming of a servomotor outside the ship. Her eyes snapped open again, and she looked out the viewscreen to see the large laser turret positioned next to the hangar opening swivel toward the shuttle. Her last thought before the turret fired was Not again...! Her scream was silenced by the brilliant explosion, and then she—along with the Republic Ambassador shuttle—was no more. * * * Qui-Gon leapt from his chair and ignited his lightsaber; Obi-Wan followed suit a fraction of a second later. The protocol droid TC-14, who had returned to the room, tilted its head and effected a surprised "oh!" as it dropped the tray it was carrying. Obi-Wan spoke an answer to Qui-Gon's unvoiced concern: "I felt it too, Master." "Be on your guard, Obi-Wan." The Jedi looked toward the door, their lightsabers at the ready. However, it was slowly being obscured by an increasing amount of— "Dioxin gas!" Obi-Wan exclaimed. Both quickly inhaled just before the pale yellow cloud enveloped them, then ran toward the door. On the other side, a dozen dull grey battle droids wordlessly moved into an attack formation and pointed their blasters at the door. Their instructions, as relayed to their CPU's simultaneously from the control center elsewhere on the ship, were to completely disintegrate the enemy Jedi with all diligence. Their memory banks did not hold any verifiable data on the battle tactics of Jedi Knights, so the droids defaulted to their basic directive: shoot at anything that moved. Suddenly, a green shaft of light pierced the door, followed by a blue one. The two shafts moved in a slow circular motion until a large section of the door was only connected by a sliver of cable. The two Jedi burst through this hole, brandishing their lightsabers; Obi-Wan used the Force to hurl the chunk of door at the droids, who barely had any time to register that they were being attacked. The gas filling the room behind them seeped out of the sparking hole they had made. After a moment, having processed the threat now standing before them, the remaining eight droids resumed their directive: kill the Jedi. They began to fire. The Jedi deflected each bolt; some were reflected back at the droids, some were merely directed toward the walls. Qui-Gon lunged forward, using his lightsaber to cut down the droids closest to him while Obi-Wan used the Force to throw the rest against the nearest bulkhead, breaking them to pieces. The immediate threat taken care of, the Jedi began to run down a side hallway. "More are on their way, I'm sure. We must find a way off of this battleship," Qui-Gon said over his shoulder to his apprentice. * * * "V-viceroy... have you ever encountered a Jedi before?" Daultray Dofine asked fearfully as he looked at the readouts transmitting from the conference room sensor devices. "Well... no... but surely—s-send destroyer droids after them! They must be stopped!" Nute Gunray commanded the droid controller sitting next to him. The droid controller, a Neimoidian whose eyes and mouth were encased by a transmitting device that linked directly to his brain, turned toward Gunray. "Destroyer droids are expensive, sir. I'm not sure we—" "Quiet! Send them! We cannot afford to let the Jedi escape!!" * * * "Shouldn't we locate the viceroy and take him with us to Coruscant?" Obi-Wan questioned as they cut through another door with their lightsabers. Before Qui-Gon could reply, five large, circular objects rolled into the hallway behind the Jedi and uncurled themselves to become four-legged destroyer droids. Each droid activated a small shield bubble around itself and began firing volleys of blaster bolts at the two Knights, who had retracted their blades from the mangled door panel and raised them into a defensive posture. Any reflected shots were blocked by the droids' shielding, so Qui-Gon began to move in closer to them. "Obi-Wan, try to disable their shields while I deflect their lasers—can you sense the controls?" "I'll try, Master!" Obi-Wan stood close behind Qui-Gon and half-closed his eyes. After a few seconds, the foremost destroyer droid's shields abruptly fizzled out, and a reflected blaster bolt made short work of it. However, the others adjusted to this tactic and began to spread out, trying to circle around the Jedi. "There—there are too many!" Obi-Wan cried out. "Here, follow me!" Qui-Gon replied, and the two took off down the hallway to their right. The destroyer droids folded up again and rolled after them. Qui-Gon stopped after several meters and looked to his left; a nudge in the Force turned his attention to an air duct in the bulkhead next to them. "This way!" he said. Using his lightsaber, Qui-Gon sliced through the metal grating covering the duct, and the two hastily crawled inside. * * * "Sir, they've gone into the ventilation shaft," the processed voice of the droid controller stated. "The destroyer droids are unable to pursue." "Blast!" Gunray shouted. "Do you have any idea where they are going?" "I'm sorry, sir; there are no sensors in the air ducts." Gunray thought for a moment, then: "I want droids patrolling every part of the ship! We must stop the Jedi!" Dofine gave a terrified look to the viceroy. "We're finished!" * * * Qui-Gon, confident that their trail had been lost, dropped silently from the ventilation shaft to the metal floor of an enormous hangar bay on the other side of the battleship's outer ring. Obi-Wan landed beside him a second later, and the two began to warily take in their surroundings: the hangar had few actual life forms in it; these seemed to be maintenance workers that were completely unaware of the situation going on nearer to the bridge. However, there were also thousands upon thousands of the thin, human-sized battle droids, all dormant and standing in rows stretching from one side of the hangar to the other. Gigantic tanks and military transport vehicles, the same as those Qui-Gon had discovered on Corellia, were parked in similar rows next to the droid ranks. Droid starfighters hung on racks above them like mynock cave dwellers. Obi-Wan swallowed nervously. "An army of battle droids. I think we've found out where those armaments on Corellia were headed..." Qui-Gon thought hard for a moment as he stroked his beard. "This is an odd play for the Trade Federation. We must contact Chancellor Valorum, and try to warn the people of Naboo before this invasion army reaches the planet's capital." He stood up and jogged toward a transport near their hiding place. "Come on, let's stow aboard one of these ships to the surface." Obi-Wan followed after him. * * * "Sir," the droid controller turned toward the viceroy, "we are receiving a transmission from the planet. It's Queen Amidala of the Naboo." "Good, good... and what of the Jedi? Have they been found?" "No, sir. But my droids are scanning every part of the ship; it's only a matter of time." "Excellent. Bring up the transmission." Gunray stepped in front of the communicator as a hologram of the queen materialized. She was young for a human; perhaps fifteen or sixteen standard years of age, and wearing the beautifully-decorated finery and regalia of Naboo royalty. Her pale-painted face had small elements of red detail on the cheeks and lower lip, and her long, dark brown hair was twisted into tight braids and drawn through several rings that stood out from her large headdress. Closely surrounding her were four women of similar age and beauty wearing hooded crimson robes, presumably her personal servants. She spoke with precise regal bearing, but she could not completely disguise the tremble in her voice. "Viceroy Gunray, I must kindly request that you remove your ships from the vicinity of Naboo. Your trade boycott of our planet has ended." The viceroy smiled inwardly. "Exalted Queen! I'm glad to see that our presence here has finally been acknowledged. But... we are not going anywhere." Queen Amidala studied the viceroy carefully. "I'm aware that the Chancellor's ambassadors are with you now. I was told that you would reach a mutually-beneficial settlement—" "I know nothing of any ambassadors, Your Highness," Gunray lied, interrupting her. "You must be mistaken." The queen shifted in her seat, but kept eye contact with the viceroy. Yes, silly girl... it is much too late for negotiations, Gunray said to himself. He continued aloud, relishing Amidala's obvious discomfort. "We are very firm in our commitment to peacefully separating from the Republic, and your planet is the perfect place to start. Our new Confederacy will greatly benefit from Naboo's resources. I am confident that the Senate will gladly consent to our proposal." Amidala's eyes widened almost imperceptibly. "You've gone too far, Viceroy…! We may have had business dealings with you in the past, but our loyalty remains to the Republic!" "Now, Your Highness," Gunray smiled placatingly, "We would never do anything without the approval of the Senate. And I am sure that our... arrangement... will benefit your people as well." The queen stared at him for a long moment. "We will see," she curtly replied, then ended the transmission. Nute Gunray stood there a moment, smiling. Dofine drifted up behind him, his large eyes blinking several times with concern. "Do you think she suspects an attack?" The viceroy snapped out of his reverie and turned to his partner. "I doubt it. But in any case, we must move quickly to disrupt all communications down there." He chuckled thinly as he put his hand on the other's shoulder. "And then... the planet will be ours." CHAPTER TWO "The negotiations haven't started because the ambassadors haven't arrived? That couldn't be true; I have assurances from the Chancel...his ambassadors did arri...it may have...because..." The hologram of Senator Palpatine, representative of Naboo in the Senate on Coruscant, flickered and then faded completely, leaving only the quiet sound of static. Queen Amidala and her advisers, who had been talking with the elderly Palpatine from the sunlit throne room of the royal palace, looked at each other in confusion. "Senator Palpatine...?" questioned Amidala. She glanced at Sio Bibble, the regional governor. "What happened?" "I—I'm not sure, Your Highness." Bibble turned to the captain of their small military force, a dark-skinned man in his mid-thirties named Quarsh Panaka. "Captain, send one of your men to check the signal receiver." "Yes, sir," Panaka replied, and turned to walk out of the room. One of Amidala's handmaidens, Eirtaé, took a small step forward next to the queen and asked in a near-whisper, "Do you think they'll come here...?" "Invasion? They—they wouldn't!" The queen stood and gave a wide-eyed look to Bibble, who was stroking his white beard and staring at the quietly-hissing communicator. After a moment, he looked up at her, a deep shadow of concern darkening his expression. "My queen, if the Trade Federation has cut off our communications with Coruscant..." The aging governor let this thought linger, and said nothing more. Queen Amidala walked to the large-paneled window overlooking the palace courtyard and stared up at the sky in dismay. "Why haven't the Chancellor's ambassadors arrived to negotiate the treaty…?" she asked no one in particular. Turning back to Bibble, she asked a little louder, "What can we do?" The tapping of boots steadily became louder in the hallway behind the queen, and Panaka appeared, a vexed look on his face. "Your Highness, we found nothing wrong with the receiver. I believe the Neimoidians are blocking us." He took a long breath, then continued: "My queen, we have only a small force here in Theed—about five hundred troops at most; and each town has a very small militia, but... this would not be nearly enough to stop the might of the Federation." "I—I could not condone a course of action that would lead to war, Captain." Amidala glanced at her handmaidens, who each wore expressions ranging from fear to confusion. "We must continue to try negotiating with them." "But, Your Majesty—we've lost all communications!" Bibble said. "We have no other choice, Governor." Amidala turned again to gaze out the window. Light splintered and refracted as it connected with the splashing fountain in the courtyard center. "The Naboo are a peaceful people... we could not withstand an attack." * * * A few hundred kilometers east of Theed, serene plains and murky swamps stretched across the planet to make up most of the terrain of Naboo's surface. Dense forests grew up in some areas, accounting for the homes of several of the planet's diverse surface-dwelling species. However, on this particular day, a Gohltan—deep water dweller in their language—cautiously crept through the forest closest to his former home's entrance, feeling quite out of place with no water surrounding his lithe, lanky body. He was hunting a small crustacean, hoping to make it his breakfast. Slowly and quietly, the Gohltan stretched out his mottled gray hand to grab the creature... ...A low, throbbing hum gradually filled the air, and the crustacean skittered off into the brush. The Gohltan looked up through the trees, perturbed—this quickly turned to fear as a ship the size of a small town began to push the foliage down and aside with its massive repulsorlifts. The Gohltan ran for his life. * * * Once the droid squadron aboard the transport had exited, Qui-Gon quietly opened the door of the cramped compartment he and Obi-Wan were hiding in and slipped down the boarding ramp and into the trees. Turning to see if Obi-Wan was following, he noticed instead two of the droids walking stiffly back onto the transport, blasters in hand. Reaching out with the Force, he touched his apprentice's mind to find out whether or not the droids had been alerted to their presence. He sensed some tension in Obi-Wan, but no fear; apparently the younger Jedi had noticed the droids coming and had crawled back into the compartment before they could catch him. Good, Obi-Wan, he thought, Your patience has grown. As the droid-controlled tanks and scout units began to fan out across the plain, Qui-Gon moved farther back into the natural camouflage of the thick leaves and branches behind him. It looks as if the droids are starting with the smaller towns first before taking Theed, he observed, noting the concentrated force moving toward a small village about a kilometer away. As Qui-Gon slowly moved backwards, his eyes on the droids nearest to the forest, his foot collided with something soft, and he almost fell. Regaining his balance, he looked down to see a gray-skinned, moist arm. Investigating further, he discovered that the arm was connected to an unconscious Gohltan. The creature had a bruising knot on the back of his smooth, almost-round head, and much of his body—or, at least, the parts not covered in tattered, fibrous clothing—was plastered with leaves, mud, and other bits of plant matter. Qui-Gon sat on his haunches and put his fingers on the temple of the Gohltan, checking his life signs—he did not seem to be injured other than a mild concussion. Obi-Wan, having finally evaded the droid sentries, jogged up to his master, who was struggling to set the long, grayish body up against a large tree. "Master? Is it... alive?" Qui-Gon grunted as he finished the arduous task. "Yes. One of the Gohltans. He is only unconscious." The elder Jedi looked farther into the forest, catching a glimpse of another droid transport that had obviously landed only minutes before theirs. "I think he was running from that ship there. He must have collided with one of these trees... Did any of the droid troops see you?" "No, Master. I believe they know we've escaped, though. I was able to check the ship's console once those two droids left. There was a directive to all the troops here to examine their craft for any 'unnecessary impedimenta' and to destroy it before advancing." "I see... We must be careful. Perhaps we can search for a small transport in one of those nearby towns and get to Theed before the Trade Federation." He looked down to see the Gohltan's large, gold-flecked eyes opening slowly. His vertically-slitted pupils adjusted as he inspected his surroundings. His unfocused stare finally landed on Obi-Wan standing above him, and he suddenly jerked backwards; his movement halted at once by the tree he was leaning against. As he rubbed the back of his head, still warily regarding the two men next to him, he spoke: "Are you... Naboo...?" His wet, slightly-gravelly voice and thin humanoid mouth created very recognizable Basic. "No, we come from Coruscant," answered Qui-Gon. "That is the city across the large waters?" "It is a city across the stars," Qui-Gon smiled and pointed at the sky. The Gohltan blinked a couple times, then looked through the forest at the transport. Droids were still organizing into small units and combing the area. Another look of fear crossed the Gohltan's face. "Are you... with the Lifeless Ones?" He glanced at the droids, then back up at Qui-Gon. "No; we have come here to stop them. We are Jedi Knights." "Jedi..." A small hint of recognition, perhaps, in the Gohltan's eyes? "Master, we have no time. We must be on our way to the capital," Obi-Wan said, an impatient strain in his voice. Qui-Gon stood up. "You're right. But we must at least try to help this one to his home, or the droids will surely kill him. What's your name, my friend?" He put out his hand to assist the Gohltan. "I am called Binjar Skimb... and I have no home." The Gohltan shakily stood as he said this, relying heavily on Qui-Gon's supporting arm. "No home...?" asked Obi-Wan. "Our ship's data file said that Gohltans live in large, underwater family-societies—" "Our king banished me to the surface," Binjar said quietly. He stared down at his feet. Qui-Gon put his hand on the Gohltan's shoulder. "Binjar, we must leave this forest before those Lifeless Ones find us, or they will kill us—and you, after they force you to tell them where the rest of your people are." Binjar gulped loudly. "I understand. Come, I will take you to Eres Gohlta. Do people from Coruscant have gills?" "Gills?" Qui-Gon chuckled. "No, but we do have breathing devices. We'll be fine." Binjar nodded, a solemn look on his face. "I do not think our king will appreciate humans coming into his city. But—better than here!" He turned on his heel and began jogging, his long stride still somewhat shaky. Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon followed at a full run as they tried to match the Gohltan's pace. After a short while, the trio came to a beautiful, shimmering lake at the edge of the forest. Binjar turned to the Jedi and said, "This is the entrance to Eres Gohlta. Try to swim close to me." He then turned back and dived into the water, making hardly any splash. Obi-Wan squinted up at his master. "I thought we were trying to get to Theed before the droids?" "Our immediate concern is making sure they are unaware of our location. They cannot follow us into the water." Qui-Gon detached a cylindrical device from his belt and pushed a button on it. Two small tubes that ended in filters popped out of the sides of the cylinder, and a clear membrane unfolded from the middle. "Plus, Naboo's data file said that many of these underwater tunnels snake throughout the planet's crust—perhaps we could find a different path to the capital." He put the breathing apparatus over his mouth and nose, and stretched the membrane over his eyes. The membrane sealed just above his eyebrows, creating a protective bubble over his face. "I don't think these filters would last quite that long," Obi-Wan said, and donned his own breather. Qui-Gon merely shrugged and half-smiled, then stepped into the water. Obi-Wan sighed into his face mask and followed. * * * The sunlight overhead faded as the Jedi swam behind Binjar into an algae-speckled passage at the bottom of the lake. This gradually opened up into an enormous underwater chamber, and through their masks’ membranes they could see a dim light in front of them, coming from a source hidden by a giant cliff of rock. Binjar, clearly much more at home in the water than on land, stopped occasionally to wait for the Jedi to catch up to him. At last, they rounded the cliff. Stretched out before them was a beautiful, bubble-encased city: Eres Gohlta. Every part of the massive structure was a separate sphere; platforms ran along the bottom of the city, connecting each section to the main dome. Support beams jutted out from the outermost walls of the city and bored into the cliffs surrounding it. The eerie yellow lights on the buildings within Eres Gohlta gave off a hazy glow, causing the surrounding bubbles to shine as well. Binjar and the two Jedi approached the main section, and the Gohltan motioned to his companions as he swam downward and below the foundation platform. The Jedi followed and came under the platform just in time to see Binjar's feet disappear into a small, membranous opening. Obi-Wan swam up into the opening after Binjar, with Qui-Gon just behind him. The barrier stretched up around the two Jedi, then finally opened to let them through; it closed up just as Qui-Gon pulled his foot through and stepped out into the city. Obi-Wan took in his surroundings as he peeled off his breathing mask. They seemed to be in the main plaza, and a palace of strange geodesic design loomed to their left. The air inside the bubble was very muggy and warm, but oddly clean-smelling. Buildings and homes of beautiful color and design lined the streets around them, all having the appearance of giant pearls that had been carved into dwellings. Several other Gohltan passersby, taken aback by the sudden intrusion into their daily lives, gasped and veered away from the three. "What's their problem?" Obi-Wan asked, crossing his arms. "You are human, so they think you are Naboo. Gohltans are taught from a young age that the Naboo are to be avoided at all costs," Binjar explained. He gave the Jedi a short beckoning wave with his hand and began walking toward a small space in between the buildings. "Come, we must plan a way for you to get to Theed before—" A sharp whistle, interspersed with clicks, sounded behind the three just before they made it to the alley. "I had a feeling this would happen..." Binjar said gloomily, still massaging the bump on his head. Before the Jedi could ask for clarification, a stern-looking Gohltan rode up to them atop a large, bipedal, lizard-like creature from the direction of the palace. "Eesani, Binjar-teles. Chorath malyeh?" Binjar whispered to his companions: "Captain of the Guard, Colpals." He then replied in his native language to the other Gohltan, avoiding eye contact as he did so. "Eesorah, Colpals-mushti. Get wasthorim malyeh ti Jedi muyalnee. Esh-halban de—" "Vosanim!" Apparently Colpals had already heard enough."Get hawi. Ivvin ti Jedi sav dithto malyeh. Shalla Nasgohltan dishay." Once the stern Gohltan had turned and begun to ride back toward the palace, Obi-Wan spoke up. "What did he say, Binjar?" Binjar sighed and began shuffling toward the geodesic dome. "We are going to appear before King Nasgohltan and his advisory council. They may let you return to the surface if you can convince them you aren't Naboo spies." The Jedi followed on either side of the Gohltan, still sopping wet from their swim under the lake. "I'm sure we'll be able to explain our mission to him, and perhaps he could help us..." Qui-Gon offered. Binjar let out a short, sharp laugh. "Even if you could explain," he looked down at Qui-Gon with a smirk, "You are still outsiders. Gohltans do not usually help outsiders." "Master Qui-Gon has always been good with negotiations," grinned Obi-Wan. "Binjar—what will happen to you?" "I've returned after being banished. I've brought outsiders into Eres Gohlta. It is very likely I will receive belshava yotoh." "Belshava yotoh?" Obi-Wan tried out the words. "What's that?" "Death sentence," Binjar said simply. * * * "Binjar. How could you show your face here again?" The booming voice of King Nasgohltan echoed through the palace chamber. He sat forward in his ornately-carved throne and shot an icy stare at the newcomers. A school of prismatic fish approached the bubble behind the clear ceiling of the geodesic palace, then suddenly turned in tandem and swam into the darkness. Binjar Skimb did not answer. Qui-Gon looked directly at the monarch, his gaze unwavering. He seemed to be concentrating. Obi-Wan's eyes darted around the dimly-lit chamber, taking everything in. Other Gohltans sat in a semicircle with their king in the center, whispering to each other. All of them wore shimmery dark blue and gold tunics. Nasgohltan was crowned with a peculiar spiraling, spiny shell and grasping a whitish, gnarled scepter with a softly-glowing blue sphere on the end. The king spoke again. A hint of concern played through his dark tone. "Binjar... you know our law. You were not to come back here." He motioned at the two Jedi. "And you brought these humans into our hidden city of Eres Gohlta... What if they bring others? Our security must not be compromised." He pointed at them with the scepter, and the glow in the tip became slightly brighter. Qui-Gon kept a mild face as he began speaking. "Your Majesty, I assure you, we would never do such a thing. On the contrary, we are here to save your people as well as the Naboo. The Trade Federation will—" King Nasgohltan waved his hand. "I do not know of the Trade Federation. You are here to find a way to take our city for the Naboo—or for those Lifeless Ones that now walk the surface world." "Once those 'Lifeless Ones' take Theed, they'll find a way to come down and take your city as well. We have come to stop them," Qui-Gon pressed. "We must get to Theed to warn Queen Amidala before it's too late—for all of you." The king looked at Qui-Gon for what seemed like an eternity, considering. Finally, he quietly said, "We care nothing for the Naboo, and they care nothing for us. You are Naboo agents. Alweth!" he called out, pointing his scepter at the Gohltans restraining Binjar, "Tchelah nos, meyr-tolwith ti Naboo-avakh. Get lewi. Oras meyavin sav ahnoyisht." Two more guards stepped into the room from a side entrance, pointing their poleaxes at the Jedi menacingly. The edges of the blades on their weapons glowed with the same blue light as King Nasgohltan's scepter. Qui-Gon motioned to Obi-Wan and then put his hands up in a gesture of compliance. His apprentice, disbelieving, slowly followed suit. As they turned and walked toward Binjar and the other two guards, the exiled Gohltan gave them an "I told you so" look and sighed heavily. Qui-Gon smiled confidently at him as the three of them were ushered out of the throne room. * * * "Only four on security detail? I'm offended," whispered Qui-Gon to his padawan as they were roughly pushed into a dim, opalescent cell with a solid metal door. He was grinning despite the situation. Obi-Wan looked at him incredulously. "What're we going to do now? They took our lightsabers from us. We'll never make it to Theed at this rate." "Patience, Obi-Wan. I saw exactly where they put them down—and they don't know that we have the Force as an ally." Obi-Wan grimaced, shook his head, and sat in the middle of the smooth floor. "Whatever you say, Master." Qui-Gon smiled gently down at his apprentice, then turned. A narrow slot in the door provided a meager light source in the cell and also allowed him to peer at the guards standing at the other end of the short room. After several minutes, the four guards appeared to be tired of chatting idly and staring around at the drab details of the holding block, so they filed out into the hallway beyond. Qui-Gon chuckled. "Binjar?" he softly questioned, standing close to the narrow slot in the cell door after seeing that their security had exited the room. A moment or two passed before they heard the Gohltan respond from the next cell over. He sounded quite desolate. "What?" "Is there some sort of water craft here in Eres Gohlta that we could use to go through the tunnels and get to Theed?" "Yes..." The Gohltan's voice wearily replied. "...Not that it matters. We couldn't possibly break out of here without the proper tools; and even if we did make it to the water, some deep sea monster would eat us." Qui-Gon smiled again. "Binjar, I can get us out. Do you know how to pilot this water craft?" Binjar sighed. "Yes. It is not far from the palace." "Very good." Qui-Gon peered through the small slit in the door at a large metal crate that sat near the wall on the opposite side of the room. Laying on top of it were the Jedi's lightsabers and utility belts. The Gohltans, not really knowing what the weapons were, did not think to lock them in a more secure location. Qui-Gon closed his eyes and concentrated, feeling outward via the Force until he could sense his lightsaber hilt. Slowly, the weapon rose into the air and moved toward the cell. "Step back," he ordered Obi-Wan, then did so himself. With a snap-hiss, the lightsaber ignited, and the emerald blade edged its way through the door's lock until a hole appeared large enough to fit a hand through. Qui-Gon deactivated the lightsaber once it came all the way through the hole, then pushed the heavy door open as quietly as possible. "Now, this won't take long," Qui-Gon whispered as he began cutting through Binjar’s cell door. Just as he finished slicing through the lock, he heard a shout behind him in the Gohltan tongue. He swiveled to see the four guards assigned to them barrelling through the opposite door. Obi-Wan called his lightsaber to his hand from the nearby crate and ignited it, holding the blue blade before himself in a defensive posture. Qui-Gon matched his apprentice on the other side, with Binjar cowering behind them. "Do not hurt them, Obi-Wan," the Jedi Master cautioned, "Only fight to disarm." "Yes, Master," Obi-Wan replied. The guards ran headlong toward the two Jedi, brandishing their poleaxes. With quick, fluid movements, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan stepped forward into the fray, twirling their lightsabers upward and around to cut through the Gohltan weapons with ease. Within seconds, all four guards found themselves with no adequate defense against the foreign tactics of the outsiders. They put up their hands in a pleading fashion, muttering in their watery language. "Binjar," Qui-Gon spoke over his shoulder, "Tell them we mean no harm to them, nor to their people; and that they must stay here until we are gone." Still standing behind the Jedi, Binjar complied nervously. "Alweth-mushtir boht malyeh ti Jedi vos. Nohsha get ree Gohltan-sov. Galayr, pasth ti ayuwah ekhmoyyav." The guards nodded anxiously. Qui-Gon motioned to Binjar as the three stepped around the trembling security guards, grabbed their utility belts, and slipped through the door. "Please, lead the way to the water craft so we can get out of here," Qui-Gon urged as he clipped his belt around his waist. Binjar nodded and loped down the narrow hallway, the two Jedi jogging behind him. Once the three were outside the palace, they again heard shouting to their rear; apparently, the four guards had already left the prison and found backup. Binjar pointed in front of him at a large opening in the side of the city-bubble similar in design to the one they had used to enter Eres Gohlta. In front of the opening sat a small submersible. The vessel was thin and elegant and resembled a ray, with sloping side fins and a long tail. Binjar approached it and slapped a switch on the side to open the cockpit, beckoning to the Jedi to get in as quickly as possible. About fifteen guards were hotly pursuing them from the direction of the palace, yelling threats in their native tongue. Qui-Gon practically leapt into the rear seat, with Obi-Wan slipping into the passenger chair just as rapidly. Binjar climbed into the other side and sat down heavily in front of the driver's controls. He jammed a button next to the throttle, causing the bubble-like canopy of the craft to slide over the cockpit, then reached down and started up the sub's systems. The platform that the craft was sitting on slowly extended through the filmy membrane into the water. As soon as the turbine motor of the craft was through the opening, Binjar shoved the throttle, and the submersible shot forward past the cliffs surrounding Eres Gohlta into the deep blackness below. CHAPTER THREE "Order! I said, there will be order!!" shouted Supreme Chancellor Finis Valorum. His thin, raspy voice echoed throughout the immense Senate chamber on Coruscant, the capital planet of the Galactic Republic. The various senators from all the systems of the Republic that had been arguing over trade route taxation ceased talking over each other, but their resentful frowns remained. Valorum, gnarled hands clenching his podium, resumed his speech: "The efforts of our government will always remain steadfast in bringing peace to its systems, no matter the cost. As Senator Lott Dod previously mentioned—" he gestured toward the gaudily-dressed Neimoidian representative from the Trade Federation, "—according to Article Twenty-Eight, Subsection Three-Seven-Four, a system may peacefully withdraw from the Republic if it follows the proper procedures. And you know that the Trade Federation has been granted the status of a functional constituency, the same as a planetary system, in our Senate—" "Planetary systems don't have the right to force other systems into one-sided agreements," interrupted Chi Eequay, Wroonian Senator of Saleucami, "and neither should the Trade Federation!" Cheers from various Mid- and Outer-Rim planets sounded throughout the vaulted chamber at this comment. "We have done no such thing! She must be silenced!" objected Lott Dod, shaking his fist at the blue-skinned Wroonian. Chi Eequay sneered in response, then turned and spoke into her voice amplifier to Valorum. "Peace should not come at the expense of freedom, Supreme Chancellor! The Trade Federation has no right to exploit the establishment of successful trade routes, no matter where in the galaxy they are!" Valorum ran his fingers through his silvery-white hair. "The Senate does not recognize the representative of Saleucami at this time." At this, Chi Eequay sat down abruptly in her seat, a disgusted look on her face. Lott Dod grinned triumphantly. Valorum continued, "The Trade Federation is only upholding their previous trade partnership with Naboo in this matter. They have every right to their blockade of the system until they ensure complete autonomy from the Republic." He glanced nervously at Senator Palpatine of Naboo, who sat in his own congressional box, observing the proceedings with a mask of indifference. Curiously, Palpatine said nothing at this comment. "Chancellor, your tax laws on Rim trade routes have only dug you a hole that has resulted in the current crisis we now face," began Bail Organa levelly. A young senator representing the planet Alderaan, he was also the younger brother of the wise Alderaanian king, Ralla. "Naboo may have rich exports, but they have no way of defending themselves against the Trade Federation—" he put his hand up to stop Lott Dod before he could begin arguing, "—if they ever decided to do anything... rash." "I—My point is..." stuttered Valorum, caught off-guard by this blunt accusation, "Unless there is a direct confrontation or revision of terms between the Federation and Naboo, they must abide by the terms of their contract—" At this, grumblings turned again to shouting and wild gesticulating among the members of the Senate, drowning out further comments from the Supreme Chancellor. "Order, all of you!" he attempted, but it was too late; at least for this session. Palpatine remained silent. * * * "We're going to die," Binjar deadpanned. He leaned forward in his seat, with both hands firmly gripping the throttle and his face close to the canopy window of the small marine craft. Any light from Naboo's sun that made it through the cracks in the planet's crust above was almost completely diffused at this depth, so the three travelers could only see what was revealed by the two narrow shafts of light projected by the submersible's forward lamps, and little else. Glowing fish and various other toothy creatures occasionally approached the craft with curiosity, adding to Binjar's paranoia. "Calm yourself, Binjar." Qui-Gon offered a smile as he patted Binjar's shoulder. "We'll make it through. The Force will guide us." Binjar turned and gave a skeptical look to Qui-Gon. "You haven't seen what's down here." After a few awkward moments of silence, Obi-Wan tried to distract him from his increasing terror. "Ah, so, why were you exiled, Binjar?" "I... Well, you might say it is because I am afraid." Binjar's expression turned solemn. He stared straight ahead as he maneuvered the craft around a particularly large rock formation. "Afraid?" Obi-Wan probed. "Gohltans are a noble people. We have strong warriors in every city, and every male is required to go through training in order to protect his clan." Binjar's voice shrank into a near whisper. "I showed much promise, and even went through training, but when the time came to protect our city from the predators that share our waters, I did not join in the battle. The king told me that I was a coward; that I was disloyal. So I was sent to the surface to be a teles, a... I don't know the word, a—" "Outcast," Qui-Gon said, a distant look in his eyes. "I understand. I believe it is wise to avoid conflict. But conflict becomes one's only option at times, especially when the lives of others are at stake." This was taken in thoughtfully by the other two. Finally, Obi-Wan began to ask a question: "Master, do you think—" The submersible suddenly jerked to a stop, prompting a yell from Binjar, then began moving rapidly backward through the water. The three turned to look through the rear window—behind them, reeling the craft in with a sickeningly long tongue, was a hideous, spiny fish. Its translucent fins and body quivered as it yanked the craft closer to its waiting maw. Two sets of long, thin teeth opened wider and wider to accept the prey. "Reithk!" Binjar cursed as he realized that, in his sudden panic, he had pulled backward on the throttle instead of forward, moving them even closer to the monster. Obi-Wan lunged across Binjar and grabbed the controls, pushing them forward and away from the ghastly creature, but the fish's tongue remained wrapped around the rear of the craft. The control panel began sparking as the sub strained against the fish. "I told you!" screamed Binjar, "We're going to die!" All at once, the ship was free. Qui-Gon peered out of the window into the near-blackness; an even larger, serpentine monster had taken advantage of the fish's distracted focus and grabbed it with its giant claws. The fish let out a terrifying roar as the dragon began to pull it apart and put the pieces into its hungry mouth. "Saved by an even bigger fish—how fortunate!" Qui-Gon smiled as he turned to face forward again. Both Binjar and Obi-Wan spared a moment to give Qui-Gon an exasperated look. "That... that was a sando," Binjar shakily explained as they slipped into another narrow tunnel, "It means 'large waters demon.' We must be getting closer to Theed." He exhaled loudly and massaged his forehead with one hand. Finally, he spoke again: "We are the first travelers I know of to have swam in the same waters as the sando and survived." "There now, you see, Binjar?" Qui-Gon clapped his shoulder again. "We'll get to Theed just fine." The cabin lights of the craft began to flicker and dim. * * * Naboo's bright, yellow sun shone directly above the little village. Its smooth stone streets were lined with vine-covered vashar trees, whose large, spade-shaped leaves spread over the town's walkways to create a pleasant canopy of shade. Water flowed alongside the trees in shallow, man-made conduits, drenching the tree roots and creating peaceful gurgling sounds as it moved along. Three units of twelve battle droids each moved down the town's main street in perfect unison. Their heads swiveled at 45-degree angles, photoreceptors absorbing data regarding their surroundings. There were several sentient lifeforms in this town and, judging by their heat signatures, they were largely unaware of the droids' presence. Finally, four adult human males, all carrying handheld blasters, warily approached the foremost unit. The droids all stopped walking simultaneously. "Hey. What do you want here?" asked the man in front. Information scrolled through the droids' brains in a fraction of a second: [query: human male ---- NOT human female Queen Amidala ---- black hair/brown eyes/age: 46.4 Naboo annual cycles ---- ?member of Naboo government ---- processing... processing... negative ---- ?threat ---- processing... unlikely ---- /endquery] <surrender—weapon,> one of the droids said in a tinny voice. The TFB1 battle droids were not built to hold extended conversations with lifeforms, and as such, they had very little vocabulary or reasoning power. "What for?" The man pointed the blaster at the droid who spoke. "How about all of you leave this town and move along, huh?" His three companions also raised their blasters. Their blood pressure climbed higher and higher, which indicated to the droids that their capacity for practical battle tactics was inversely lowering. The droids stood silent for several moments. The lead man took a small step forward and licked his lips. Suddenly, one of the droids raised his assault rifle and shot the man in the stomach. As the other three humans dashed back down the street and ducked into various alleyways, the droids assessed the condition of the lead male and determined that his central nervous system had ceased functioning before he had even hit the ground. The droids then looked up and resumed their information-gathering about the town. [query: status of human societal settlement ---- NOT Theed ---- ?vital to mission ---- processing... processing... negative ---- ?destroy settlement ---- processing... processing... positive ---- /endquery] The three droid units separated into groups of four and marched through the town, silently torching buildings and shooting anything that moved. After the droids finished razing the town, a small, oval-shaped transport descended through the atmosphere and landed in the central square. Burning vashar branches that littered the scorched pavement were gently pushed aside by the transport's repulsorlifts. The exit hatch opened with a hiss, and two finely-dressed Neimoidians walked down the ramp. They surveyed their surroundings, pleased looks on their faces. A droid approached the two and said, <settlement—destroyed.> Nute Gunray nodded first at the droid, then at his associate, Daultray Dofine. "Excellent," he purred. "Our droids are making short work of these primitive towns. The queen will have no choice but to bow to our wishes." He turned and walked back up the ramp, motioning to Dofine. "Open a communication channel and attempt to reach Lord Sidious." After a few moments, a hologram of Sidious appeared before Gunray. He was, of course, frowning. "Yes, what is it?" "My lord, the invasion is ahead of schedule. Our droid armies have taken most of Theed's outlying villages with ease." "Very good. The Senate is distracted by endless bickering and procedure here; they will be forced to accept your control of the system once Queen Amidala signs your treaty." "The queen has great faith that the Senate will side with her if they hear of the invasion, Lord Sidious." A grim smile played across Sidious' lips. "She is young and idealistic, but lacks experience. You will find that she is easy to control." "Yes, my lord." Gunray bowed as the transmission faded. Dofine stepped forward once he was sure the communicator was off, still mindful of Sidious' earlier chastisement. "You didn't tell him about the missing Jedi?" Gunray turned and frowned at the other Neimoidian. "No need to report that until we have something to report!" * * * "Look, there is a bit of sunlight up ahead," Qui-Gon pointed. Binjar squinted as he looked forward; he was able to see some dim outlines and a widening of the tunnel in front of them at a distance of about a kilometer. Qui-Gon grinned. "What did I tell you? We're—" The submersible's control board sparked and snapped again. All at once, the craft's systems shut down entirely, except for a dim overhead lamp on the ship's interior. Darkness enveloped them as the sub slowly sank downward into the abyss. "Looks like it must've short-circuited," said Obi-Wan, leaning forward and pulling off a panel to survey the ship's wiring. "Binjar, calm down. You're being distracting," he added, annoyed. Qui-Gon put his hand on the shoulder of the trembling Gohltan, channeling peaceful Force energy to him. "We'll be fine, Binjar. Obi-Wan, do you think you can get it running again?" "Yes, Master; this is a common assembly pattern." He pulled a thin wire free from the board inside and attached the end to a different point. "These wires shouldn't be touching. If I can just redirect the current here..." The engine coughed, then turned again; finally the forward lamps flickered back on. "Yes! Perfect," smiled Obi-Wan. Directly in front of them was the jagged grin of another monstrous fish. Binjar screamed in terror as the fish, caught off-guard by the sudden glow of the ship's forward lamps, reared back. Its globular eyes retracted into its glistening face, and it uttered a low, confused growl. Obi-Wan again leaned over Binjar and grabbed the throttle, pulling the ship up and away from the creature. It lunged forward and snapped at the retreating craft, but was stopped short: the sando, still hungry after its first snack, had slid up behind the fish and grabbed it with its awesome claws. Obi-Wan deftly maneuvered the ship through the remainder of the tunnel; and at last they could see, through the murky haze, the outline of two massive columns and the remains of an ancient stone pier, built by the inhabitants of pre-human Naboo. Qui-Gon let out a sigh of relief. "Here we are!" "I can't believe we made it alive..." Binjar moaned faintly, still shaking from their trepidatious journey. "Hang on, my friend; there is more to come," Qui-Gon solemnly responded as the damaged submersible made its way to the distant, sunlit surface above. "I just hope we've made it in time to warn the queen." * * * Amidala stared out of the throne room's paneled window, shock and deep worry showing through her detailed makeup: below, at the very gate of her city, was a large force of droid troops and tanks. A small, silver transport followed behind. They are actually here. They are invading, the young queen thought dazedly. She turned to face Captain Panaka, who stood at the ready; he and several of his men waited on her word to go out and fight to protect her. Too overcome with emotion to speak, she merely shook her head no. I cannot send them to their deaths, she resolved. She turned and looked out the window again to see two figures descend on the landing ramp of the transport; she let out a small gasp as she recognized them as Nute Gunray and Daultray Dofine. "I knew it," she said quietly, trying to swallow a lump in her throat. "They have betrayed us." Sio Bibble walked over and stood at the queen's shoulder, observing with the same mixture of shock and horror at what was transpiring in the sunny courtyard below. "Your Highness... if they take you away—" The queen raised her hand to quiet the governor, then turned to face everyone in the throne room. Composing herself, she said, "Everyone, lay down your weapons and go meet the Neimoidians in the Grand Hall. I must confer with my handmaidens here in the throne room." She glanced at them; one of them, Rabé, nodded almost imperceptibly. Amidala then looked to the side at Governor Bibble. "Please, you must try to reason with them, Governor. Surely a settlement can be reached." The governor nodded, and he, along with Panaka and his small security force, exited the throne room. The queen took one last quick glance out the window, then turned to her handmaidens. "Hurry, we haven't much time." * * * The rounded canopy of the submersible broke the surface of the bright blue lake and slid open. Binjar nudged the throttle and lined their craft up with a small, wooden dock as the Jedi unbuckled their harnesses. Stretched out behind the dock was the magnificent city of Theed: Elegant, turquoise-domed buildings rose gently on a slope and surrounded the main palace, and beautiful, foamy waterfalls encircled it halfway around like a royal mantle. Vashar trees stood around the buildings and homes, contributing to the pleasantly organic visage. Once the sub was securely tied to the dock, Binjar climbed out, with Obi-Wan right behind him. The younger Jedi turned and held out his hand to Qui-Gon, but froze as he heard Binjar gasp. Obi-Wan spun around to see what the Gohltan was looking at: a detachment of about ten droids had rounded a building and was marching stiffly toward them. He put his hand to his lightsaber, but Qui-Gon motioned for him to stop. With a short half-smile, he pulled the hood of his dark grey Coruscanti cloak over his face and stepped onto the dock. Understanding dawned in Obi-Wan's eyes; he mimicked his master, and the two stood on either side of their Gohltan companion facing the approaching battle droids. Qui-Gon leaned in close to Binjar and whispered, "Get ready to run. We'll take care of these." Binjar merely gulped in response. The machines stopped about five meters in front of the trio, and one spoke haltingly. <hands—up. walk—forward—slowly.> The Jedi complied and stepped forward, with a shaking Binjar just behind them. As the Jedi slowly moved closer to the droids, one of them spoke again: <show—faces. give—weapons.> Qui-Gon lifted his hood and smiled as he pulled his lightsaber from his belt and ignited it. "Gladly." Obi-Wan did the same, and the two Jedi sprang forward to cut down their foe. Binjar ducked and dived to the side as white-hot blaster fire began spraying around him. The Jedi moved in, blocking shots and slicing through durasteel droid parts with each swipe of their lightsabers. One of the droids, effecting as much surprise as its modulated, static voice could muster, began to say, <you—are—escaped—Jedi—> but Qui-Gon decapitated it before it could surmise any further. After all of the droids were dispatched, the three bolted toward the distant castle. "The Federation troops must have already taken the palace!" Qui-Gon exlaimed as they ran down the stone alleyway, their footfalls echoing around them. "What can we do, Master?" Obi-Wan inquired. "We must find Queen Amidala and rescue her, then contact Chancellor Valorum," Qui-Gon replied. "Then what?" Qui-Gon thought for a moment before responding. "I'm not quite sure." CHAPTER FOUR The imposing wooden doors of the throne room opened with a bang. Governor Bibble, Captain Panaka, and his men, escorted by a cadre of droids holding them at gunpoint, walked briskly through. Their hands were in restraints behind their backs. The Neimoidian viceroy and his associate followed closely behind, triumphant smiles on their oblong faces. The queen and her handmaidens stood behind the conference table in the back of the room, watching the proceeds warily. "Your Highness, we must ask that you stand next to your governor here," Gunray chuckled. "We wouldn't want anyone to get hurt!" Scowling, Amidala and her coterie complied. Sio Bibble, quivering with anger, turned to face the Neimoidians. "How will you explain this invasion to the Senate?" he spat. "This amounts to planet-scale piracy!" Viceroy Gunray smiled and held out a datapad toward them. "The queen and I will sign this treaty, which grants the Trade Federation full occupational rights of Naboo—" "I will not cooperate!" shouted Queen Amidala. Padmé, one of her handmaidens, put her hand gently on the queen's arm. Daultray Dofine smiled wickedly. "Ah, Your Majesty, I am confident that the suffering of your people will make you see our point of view before long!" "Our battle droids should be able to help with that," added Gunray. He pointed at a droid. "Take them all to a detainment camp for... processing." He said this last word with relish. The droids silently raised their blasters toward the queen and her officials and walked them out of the throne room. "Lord Sidious was right, this will be all too simple," the Viceroy contentedly remarked, drifting to the window to watch their droid armies march across the vast plains. He saw the smoke from fires burning in the distance; probably they were the remains of towns, villages, livelihoods. After a few moments, he turned back toward Dofine, beaming. "Our Confederacy will soon be the greatest power in the entire galaxy!" He did not gaze out the window long enough to notice the two Jedi sneaking across a terrace above the courtyard, a lanky Gohltan ambling behind them. * * * She looks so serene, even in the face of such uncertainty, thought Captain Panaka to himself as they walked down the grand marble hallway towards the palace entrance. No wonder her people admire her so much. The queen, as well as her four handmaidens, displayed glacial calm as the battle droids behind them prodded their backs with blasters, driving them toward the bright, sunlit courtyard. Sio Bibble, too, kept all fear out of his expression. If only I could do something... distract these droids... Panaka looked around himself as they walked down the stone steps and past the courtyard's bubbling fountain. He scanned his surroundings; being the head of security for the palace, he knew of every possible escape route, every hiding place, every vantage point— What was that? he wondered, glancing up. Just in front of them was a decorated, ivy-lined stone catwalk; three figures had just stole across the top of it and hid behind a column. The droids escorting them did not seem to notice. He focused intently on the column and finally saw a face peek out from behind it: a young man with short brown hair, perhaps twenty standard years old, was looking directly at him, a finger to his lips. Panaka quickly turned his gaze ahead as the young man again disappeared behind the column, hoping that he had erased any sign of his observation. To Panaka's relief, the droids gave no indication of suspicion, and marched on. As soon as the group was under the arch of the catwalk, Panaka heard a snap-hiss. The droids stopped walking. Suddenly, the young man he had seen behind the column landed lightly in front of them and began attacking their captors with a glowing blue sword. A—a lightsaber! Panaka marveled. He's a Jedi Knight! Panaka heard a low thump behind him, and swiveled to see another Jedi, this one brandishing a green lightsaber, leaping into the fray. He was older than the first, but this only seemed to add to his capability in battle. He fought with grace and poise. "Queen Amidala, take cover!" shouted the older knight. He cut through the droids surrounding her, her handmaidens, and Governor Bibble with ease, then stretched his hand toward the droids closest to the arch. They were blown backwards into the wall by an invisible force and reduced to scrap. Incredible... the legends are true, Panaka thought, completely awestruck by the short work that the Jedi were making of the droid troops surrounding them. The queen ducked and made for the other side of the arch with her handmaidens while the two Jedi cut down the remaining machines. Panaka jogged after her to provide a barrier from the dwindling number of blaster bolts. Finally, the two lightsabers were deactivated, and the older Jedi turned to face the queen, a grim smile on his face. His associate walked up and stood at his shoulder as he cut the restraints of Amidala, Panaka, and their companions with a vibroblade. Once finished, he said, "Your Highness, we shouldn't stay in the streets. Let's move to that alleyway there." Amidala nodded, a bewildered look on her young face, and the group started to walk hurriedly toward the passage. At that moment, Panaka heard a scuffling noise behind him. "Get down!" he yelled, turning toward the sound to meet the new threat. What he saw surprised him: it was not another troop of droids but a Gohltan, making his way around the arch and coming toward them. He must have been hiding until the skirmish was over, Panaka speculated. "What—what business do you have here, Gohltan?" he finally stammered. "Don't worry, he's with us," the older Jedi assured. Once they were all in the alleyway, he bowed slightly and introduced the three of them. "My name is Qui-Gon Jinn. This is my apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi—" he motioned toward the younger Jedi, who grinned at them, "—and our Gohltan friend here is called Binjar Skimb." Binjar nodded at the queen, but did not smile. She curtsied stiffly in return. Qui-Gon, perhaps sensing the tension between the two races, quickly continued. "Obi-Wan and I are the ambassadors for the Supreme Chancellor." Amidala made a wry smile. "It seems your negotiations failed, Ambassador." "The negotiations never took place, Your Highness," Qui-Gon replied. "It is urgent that we contact Chancellor Valorum as soon as possible." "The Trade Federation has jammed all of our communications," remarked Bibble glumly. Qui-Gon thought for a moment, his eyes distant. Finally he said, "Is there a transport here at the palace?" "Yes. This way." Panaka nodded and began to jog down the length of the vine-covered alleyway, motioning for the rest to follow. Eventually, after skirting across several buildings and meandering through shadowy passages, they entered a large stonework complex with an enormous facility on the farthest side. Panaka scouted ahead and confirmed that there were no droids in the immediate vicinity, then waved the others into the corridor that led to an expansive hangar. The group stopped at the entrance to the hangar and peered through the doorway. About a dozen battle droids stood at the ready in front of a sleek, chromium-plated vessel parked there. Several smaller one-man starfighters sat in rows behind the vessel farther into the interior of the hangar. "There are too many droids... how will you make it to the ship?" questioned Panaka. Obi-Wan looked confidently at his master, then at the captain. "Don't worry, we'll take care of them." Another droid platoon stood guard anterior to a small room that housed some haggard-looking Naboo dressed in fatigues. "Those are our pilots. We'll need to free them if you want to escape in the shuttle there," Panaka pointed out. Alarm klaxons began wailing all around them, causing the droids standing in front of the cruiser to immediately go on the alert. They methodically began marching around each ship and scanning every corner of the hangar. Panaka hastily ushered everyone back into the hallway, then turned to one of his small unit of troops: Kiers Avvath, a promising young officer with brilliant green eyes and an incorrigible spirit. "Avvath, I want you to head back up to the complex outside and act as a lookout while we secure the area." Avvath saluted smartly, said "Yes, sir!" and took off. "Now," Panaka turned to Qui-Gon, "what's your plan, Master Jinn? We don't have much time before those droids find us out here." "They must've discovered the remains of the droids we freed you from and sounded the alarm," Qui-Gon frowned. He turned to the queen. "Your Majesty, given our current circumstances, the safest option for you and your companions would be to come with us back to Coruscant to plead Naboo's case personally to the Senate." "Thank you, Ambassador, but..." she looked at her handmaidens as if to gain confidence, "...my place is here, with my people." "They will kill you if you stay," Qui-Gon said gravely. Governor Bibble gasped. "They wouldn't dare!" "The Federation viceroy needs her alive to sign a treaty and make their invasion legal—they can't afford to kill her," Panaka added. "And anyway, it would be almost impossible to break through the blockade with the invasion in full force—she would be in much more danger up there!" "There is something deeper going on behind all this," Qui-Gon asserted. "This is far too sudden and reckless a move for the Trade Federation; there is no logic behind it. My feelings tell me that you would certainly be destroyed if you remain here." Bibble, a thoughtful look on his face, said, "My queen, I believe the Jedi has a good point. Our only hope may be for you to appear before the Senate on Coruscant. I might be able to reason with the viceroy in your stead, and delay their advancement." Amidala looked down at the ground for a moment, then lifted her eyes up to meet Qui-Gon's. "Either choice presents great danger for us." She looked around at the group, fighting back tears. "...All of us." "Your Highness, I will come along to protect you," said Panaka, bowing. "Then we need to hurry, Your Majesty. You must decide," Qui-Gon pressed. The queen steeled herself and nodded resolutely. "I will go to Coruscant, if it means my people's freedom." * * * "What do you think they'll do to us?" whispered the pilot sitting next to Ric Olie in the square, dimly-lit storage room-turned-holding cell. "I'm really not sure... but I have a bad feeling about this," responded Olie, scratching his stubble-covered chin. The two of them, along with the other pilots of the Naboo Air Defense Corps, had been working through a standard holodisplay training routine when the invasion had started. They didn't even have a chance to pull out of the hangar; two Federation tanks had lumbered into its wide entrance and pointed their menacing cannons at the group of yellow starfighters just as the droid troops surrounded them, blasters raised. I guess that's the benefit of having machines for brains, Ric Olie lamented to himself, battle tactics are always perfectly coordinated. "Maybe... maybe that's how we can beat them," he said aloud. "What?" questioned the other pilot. "Eh, I don't know, I'm wondering if there's a way we can use the droids' hive-mind thinking against them to get out of here. You know, think outside the box. Do something they won't expect." A yell echoed through the vast room. Olie and the other pilots sat up, looking for the source; they didn't have to look very long, for running toward their cell in a full sprint was a baby-faced youth, a wild expression on his face, holding a lightsaber above his head. "Well..." remarked Olie to his comrade, "...I definitely didn't expect that." * * * "Obi-Wan! Mind your surroundings!" Qui-Gon shouted after his apprentice. Seeing it was no use, he turned to Panaka and barked, "Grab any blasters dropped by the droids and get the queen onto the transport!" Then he rushed to support Obi-Wan, who was already hacking away at the droids in front of the holding cell. Using the Force like an invisible tidal wave, he knocked several of the machines aside and high into the air as he ran, letting gravity complete their dismantling. Panaka and his men spread into a half-circle surrounding the queen and her cohort and ran just behind the Jedi, picking up blasters from the fallen droids and taking out as many troops around the silvery transport as they could. Noting that the Federation forces were mostly destroyed, the two Jedi turned and sprinted toward the two tanks standing guard at the mouth of the hangar. Before they could fire, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon were on top of each of them; the former using his lightsaber to reduce the cannon's barrel to slag and the latter cutting through the entry hatch to dispatch the droid gunner inside. Once the Naboo pilots were freed and the hangar cleared of all enemy troops, Panaka ushered the queen and her handmaidens up the landing ramp of the transport. As the Jedi jogged toward them, he motioned at three of the pilots. "Officer Olie, you're trained to pilot this ship, correct?" "Yes sir!" Olie responded, snapping to attention. "All right, get on board. The two of you," he pointed at the pilots, then at the yellow craft behind the transport as he spoke, "I need you to fly backup in your starfighters. But you pull out as soon as we're past the blockade, got it? We can't afford to lose anyone out there." The two pilots saluted and ran to their fighters. Panaka turned to his small group of soldiers. "Your mission is to keep Governor Bibble safe. Head out through the back and secure a ground transport. Try to make it to Werreth, or one of the other outlying towns, and find out a way to begin negotiating with the Neimoidians again. Perhaps they will let us remain autonomous in exchange for some of Naboo's resources." His officers all saluted, and led Bibble toward the rear of the hangar. * * * "That was some great fighting back there, pal," commented Ric Olie as the Jedi approached. "'Reckless' is the word I'd use," replied Qui-Gon, glaring at his apprentice. "But Master, everyone is safe, aren't they?" Obi-Wan protested as the group started up the vessel's boarding ramp. He looked over his shoulder to see a very out-of-place Binjar peering up into the craft's interior. "What about Binjar? We're taking him back to the lake, right?" he whispered to Qui-Gon. Qui-Gon sighed. "You know he would be in much greater danger there, between the droids and his exile. He will be coming along with us to Coruscant." Obi-Wan's expression turned to one of annoyance as Qui-Gon gave an inviting wave to the Gohltan. Just as everyone was secured aboard the craft, Kiers Avvath burst through the side doors of the hangar, breathing hard. "Captain Panaka, sir, more droids are on their way!" Panaka, still standing at the foot of the ramp, quickly tossed a blaster to Avvath and picked up another that was lying next to the smoldering remains of a droid. "We'll hold them down here while the ship takes off!" He turned his head and shouted behind him, "Olie, start your engine! We need to get out of here now!" Upwards of fifty droids poured in behind Avvath, who was now close to the queen's transport with Panaka, and began firing. The two starfighter pilots took their ships around the side of the transport, disintegrating several of the advancing troops with their powerful lasers before exiting the hangar, but the majority of them still marched dauntlessly toward the slowly-rising craft and its two defenders. "Captain, go! I'll cover your escape!" Avvath yelled over the blaster fire streaming around them. "No way! You're coming along, Kiers!" Panaka said as he dodged between the oncoming blaster bolts. Suddenly, a bright light blinded Panaka, and the smell of burnt flesh filled his nostrils. He blinked his eyes several times, trying to adjust. When the world finally returned to his vision, he looked to his right to see Kiers Avvath laying awkwardly splayed on the hangar floor, his expression set. A smoking hole was burned through his chest. "No!!" Panaka yelled. Overcome by grief and rage, he poured blaster fire into the ranks of droids before him, determined to obliterate every last one of them. A hand gently touched his shoulder, and a feeling of calm channeled through his frayed nerves. "Captain, we must go now. Please, come on board," spoke the soft voice of Qui-Gon Jinn behind him. Panaka turned his head to look at the Jedi, his typical military alertness replaced by a raw, despondent sadness. Unable to speak, he merely stepped back and up onto the rising ramp of the transport. Qui-Gon swiveled and faced the droids, who were several meters away from the ship, but still marching forward and firing their assault rifles. His expression switched from sympathy to pure, powerful concentration in a fraction of a second, and with a slight gesture of his hand, the entire front line of the advancing force was thrown violently backwards, taking out many of the droids behind them. As they tried to pick themselves up, Qui-Gon turned and jumped up onto the retracting ramp. The hatch sealed shut behind him, and the chromium transport shot upwards into Naboo's atmosphere.