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Saga Episode I: An Unseen Force (TPM rewrite) (12/17 FINAL)

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction- Before, Saga, and Beyond' started by Snocone, Sep 20, 2015.

  1. Snocone

    Snocone Jedi Knight star 1

    Registered:
    Sep 14, 2015
    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.
     
  2. Snocone

    Snocone Jedi Knight star 1

    Registered:
    Sep 14, 2015
    So it bumps when you reply? Interesting...

    CHAPTER FIVE

    "Grab onto something, folks," barked Ric Olie as the transport burned through the atmosphere, "We're in for a wild ride. Is Queen Amidala secure?"
    "Yes, sir," responded Qui-Gon, who stood at Olie's shoulder and gazed through the viewport at the ominous chain of Federation battleships directly ahead. "Does this transport have any weapons?"
    Olie kept his expression grim as he looked up at the Jedi Master. "Nope. It wasn't built for battle situations. Let's hope we catch them off guard and slip by before we show up on their displays."
    As if in response, a voice hailed them on the communicator: "Unidentified transport, return to the planet. If you refuse to comply, we will fire."
    "Fat chance," Olie muttered, and pushed harder on the accelerator.
    Obi-Wan, who had been standing behind his master, decided it would probably be better to stay out of the cockpit during the present situation, and motioned to Binjar to follow him into the hold. He located the spacious droid compartment and said, "Binjar, stay in here for now. I'll check on the queen."
    The door slid shut in front of the Gohltan, and he turned to face the dormant astromech droids standing in a row there. More Lifeless Ones... 'droids' the Jedi called them, pondered Binjar as he crouched in front of the dome-topped little machines. These don't seem to be as dangerous as the others.
    With a low boom, the ship rocked, sending Binjar crashing into the group of droids. They all powered on simultaneously and beeped and trilled angrily at him. "I—I'm sorry!" Binjar apologized, trying to pick the droids up and set them on their treads. One of them, a white R2 unit with blue markings, extended a small utility arm and sent an electric jolt through Binjar once it had been righted. "Hey!" Binjar complained, "I told you I am sorry!"

    * * *

    Ric Olie looked at the pulsing red light near the top of the control panel as laser cannon fire streamed around them. "Shield generator's been hit! We're losing bow defenses fast!" He pressed a communication switch and set it to close-range frequency. "Gold One and Gold Two, do you copy? I need frontal assistance!"
    The two starfighter pilots veered closer to the transport and pulled ahead. "Copy, Transport. We've been trying to draw off fire, but they seem to have caught on to our plan," relayed the strong female voice of Gold One.
    "Stay sharp out there! We'll get to work on these shields." Olie pressed another button on his console.
    From the rear of the ship, four astromech droids rolled into a small elevator slot and were propelled to the outer hull of the craft. Each droid electromagnetically locked to a rail system that rose from the surface of the vessel and began rolling toward a sparking circuit panel near the center. A stray blast of laser fire from one of the Trade Federation ships disintegrated one of the droids just as it was extending its utility arm to begin working. The other three moved around the panel in its place and started their repairs.
    "Come on... we're running out of time," remarked Olie, staring down at the readouts display. He ran his fingers through his thinning brown hair. "Our shields will cut out long before those laser batteries do." A ring-shaped Federation battleship started to fill the craft's viewscreen as they rocketed through the exosphere.
    "Look," said Qui-Gon, pointing out at one of the flanking Naboo starfighters. "Gold Two has been hit." A stream of smoke poured from the fighter's wing.
    "Gold Two, are you all right?" questioned Olie, finger on the comm switch.
    "Yes sir, but... I don't think I'm much good out here now," Gold Two's unsure voice returned.
    "You get back to Theed, pilot; we'll make it."
    The pilot turned to starboard and headed down to the planet. "Sorry, sir!"
    Olie swerved the transport to dodge another volley of laser energy, but not fast enough: two more astromech droids were destroyed; one from the lasers and the other from the sheer force of the craft's propulsion as it bucked through the oncoming assault. "Our shields are gone," said Olie hopelessly, "A couple more hits and we're done for."
    Qui-Gon bent forward and peered at the control board in front of the pilot. "Wait... look at that!" Portion after portion of the display slowly turned from red to a soothing green.
    "What the..." Olie pressed a few more buttons, and a holodisplay of the ship's systems came up. Shield integrity climbed and finally peaked; apparently, the lone remaining R2 unit was able to redirect energy from the ship's transmission system and bring the bow shields back online. "That—that little droid did it! Shields are at full power!"
    Olie gave a brief, triumphant look to Qui-Gon, then turned to face the last battleship in their way before pulling into the clear. He hugged the side of the enormous structure, staying out of the laser fire above, and finally shot into the glittering blackness of space. The Naboo starfighter pilot, her task complete, veered off and above the blockade line and sped back toward the planet, dodging laser fire as she went. Olie clicked the comm switch before she went out of range. "Great work, Gold One, I'll put in a word for your promotion when we get back."
    "Much appreciated, sir. Safe travels," the pilot replied.
    Obi-Wan, seeing that they were past the blockade, slipped back into the narrow cockpit and stood next to Qui-Gon. "I've spoken to the queen and Captain Panaka. Tried to calm them down a bit. You may want to go back there in a moment," he whispered. Qui-Gon nodded in reply.
    "All right, next stop: Coruscant," Olie said as he made calculations to jump to hyperspace.
    The control panel made a disagreeable alarm sound, and the transport remained in realspace. "Hey! What's this?" Olie exclaimed.
    Qui-Gon spoke quietly behind the frantic pilot. "Do you think the hyperdrive was damaged going through the blockade?"
    Olie looked at the scrolling data on the display in front of him. "Yes... it looks like she'll only make short jumps..." He made a deep frown. "We'll need repairs. We'd never make it to the capital in this condition."
    "We'll need to find a nearby place to repair the ship, then," Qui-Gon reasoned out loud. He turned and spoke to Obi-Wan: "Do a search on the astronavigation chart of systems close by."
    Obi-Wan nodded and sat down in front of the console. "I'm not sure what we can find this far out into the Rim." He pored over the map, then finally said, "Ah, here's one, Master. Tatooine... Along the Triellus trade route. It's poor and relatively unknown—and it looks like the Federation has no presence there."
    Qui-Gon approached the holodisplay and studied it. "Yes, I've heard of it; that may work. There are a couple of spaceports. And where there are spaceports, there are traders and mechanics." He stood up straight and made his way to the rear of the ship, which housed the queen's quarters. "I just hope the queen doesn't mind a bit of a delay."
    Obi-Wan smirked as he fell in step behind Qui-Gon. "With as many of those as we've had recently; she'll need to get used to it."

    * * *

    "Your Majesty, are you unharmed?" Qui-Gon asked the queen once he entered her warmly-lit chamber.
    The queen smiled weakly. "Yes, Master Jinn. I think we'll be all right. I'm just glad we made it through." Her handmaidens all sat around her, looking similarly relieved.
    The Jedi Master nodded, then looked over at Captain Panaka. He was sitting in the corner of the room; a blank, hollow expression on his face. "Captain?"
    Panaka sat unblinking and silent for several moments before whispering, "I just... I let Kiers die back there."
    Qui-Gon walked over and put his hand on the man's shoulder. "Captain, you did nothing of the sort. Both of you fought very bravely to cover the queen's escape. Kiers made a noble sacrifice for his queen and his people. He is one with the Force, now; and can finally rest."
    The queen also came and sat on the other side of Panaka in support. "Besides, Captain... I need you to come along to Coruscant to protect us there!" At this, Panaka's face brightened a little.
    Qui-Gon cast an apprehensive glance toward Obi-Wan, then faced Amidala. "Actually, Your Highness, we came back here to tell you that a slight issue has arisen. During our flight through the blockade, the shielding and the hyperdrive were damaged. While an astromech droid was able to draw power from the transmission system to repair the shields, the hyperdrive is damaged beyond repair. We must detour to a nearby system and find a replacement."
    "I see..." Amidala's expression turned to one of unease.
    Before she could continue, a mechanical warble sounded behind Obi-Wan: the blue R2 unit had returned from repairing the shield generator, and was now being led into the queen's quarters by an embarrassed-looking Binjar.
    Binjar smiled awkwardly and began speaking. "Ah, sorry to interrupt. I think this, um, droid just wanted to see what's going on..."
    The queen smiled warmly at the grimy little astromech droid. "It wanted to see, hm? Is that the one that fixed our shields?"
    "Yes, Your Highness," responded Qui-Gon.
    "Wonderful. Well, Gohltan—" Qui-Gon noticed that Queen Amidala did not use Binjar's name, and stiffened as she spoke, "—Master Jinn has just informed us that the ship's hyperdrive is in need of replacement, so we must now make our way to..." she looked at the Jedi questioningly.
    "...Tatooine, Your Highness," Qui-Gon finished.
    Captain Panaka, alerted, quickly sat up. "Tatooine? You can't take Her Majesty to Tatooine! It's controlled by the Hutts. If they discovered Her Majesty there—"
    "—It would be no different from what the Trade Federation would do," Qui-Gon interrupted. "Except that the Hutts aren't looking for her, which gives us the advantage."
    At this, Panaka's expression hardened, but he remained calm. "I'm just concerned for the queen's safety."
    Qui-Gon nodded. "I understand, and I'd rather the queen didn't have to go there either," he admitted. "But it's the closest planet we could find that would take her beyond the reach of the Federation. You'll need to trust my judgment in this matter."
    Amidala glanced nervously at her handmaidens, then answered, "We will go to Tatooine, then. Gohltan!"
    Binjar took a step forward. "Yes?" he asked warily.
    "Please clean this droid so that it may continue to be of use to us," she commanded.
    The Gohltan looked down at the droid, then back at the queen. "O-of course, Your Majesty." He tapped the droid's dome-shaped sensor center as he turned to leave the room. The R2 unit beeped, then turned on its treads and followed Binjar.
    Amidala looked again at Qui-Gon and asked, "How long will this detour take?"
    Qui-Gon shrugged. "I'm sorry, Your Highness, I'm not sure how long it will take us to find an adequate replacement for the hyperdrive. Tatooine has a couple of large spaceports, so we should be able to leave again for Coruscant quickly once we find the right parts."
    The queen stared at him solemnly. "We must make it to the capital to convince the Senate of the Federation's treachery. It is our only hope."

    * * *

    "As you see, my lord, we have taken the royal palace and all of Theed," said Viceroy Gunray to Sidious' hologram as he swept his arm around the room. "Of course, it is all thanks to your brilliant strategy and—"
    "Enough," growled Darth Sidious. "Has Amidala signed your treaty yet?"
    Gunray cringed. "Ah, no, my lord. She has, ah... disappeared. One Naboo cruiser was able to get past the blockade."
    Though the Sith Lord was hundreds of light years away, Gunray was certain he could feel his seething anger there in the palace at Theed. "Do you understand, Viceroy, the extent of your failure?" Sidious began darkly. "If neighboring systems were to receive word of your activity on Naboo, they would raise their defenses—and their voices in the Senate. I want that treaty signed."
    "M-my lord, it's impossible to locate the ship. It is out of our range!"
    Sidious did not speak for a few moments. Gunray wondered if he was coming up with all the various ways he could do away with them, and was about to blurt out some more excuses, but finally the man said, "It is not impossible for a Sith."
    At this, a gruesome figure stepped into the holoprojector field behind Sidious. He was human-looking, save for the six or eight short, wicked horns protruding from his skull and his blood-red skin hue. His entire face was branded with some sort of tribal or ceremonial black markings, and his reddish-yellow eyes burned with nefarious rage. He was dressed in a black tunic and pants with a wide belt, and wore matte black durasteel armor on his forearms, chest, and legs.
    "This is my apprentice, Darth Maul. He will find your lost ship." Sidious uttered this last part with disdain, causing Gunray to begin quaking with fear. To his relief, however, the Sith Lord had nothing more to say, and the transmission ended.
    Gunray turned to see Daultray Dofine approach-ing from another part of the palace. "What is it, Viceroy?" asked Dofine, noting the dread in the other's expression.
    "I-I just spoke with Lord Sidious... and his apprentice, Darth Maul."
    "Apprentice?!" Dofine croaked.
    The viceroy nodded. "He is going to track down the queen. If we fail Lord Sidious again, he... he may..." He could not finish the statement.
    "This is getting out of hand!" sputtered Dofine. "We should not have made this bargain!"

    * * *

    Binjar crouched in the droid compartment in front of the trilling, whistling astromech, wiping it down with a stained and tattered rag. "I told you, I have no idea what you're trying to say to me!" complained Binjar. The droid kept on whistling.
    The queen has no right to command me to perform such an inferior task, thought the Gohltan angrily. She's not even my queen. He had to concede to the fact, though, that at present, he didn't exactly feel like King Nasgohltan cared much to have him as a subject either. I guess I don't really fit anywhere.
    He grunted as he cleared off a particularly resistant swath of blaster scoring; underneath was a small plate that displayed the droid's serial number. "R2-D2, huh. Is that what people call you?" Binjar asked, interrupting the unit's annoying chirping. It swiveled its dome top and pointed its lone photoreceptor at him, then beeped what may have been an affirmative. "I see," Binjar smirked, "That's a pretty ridiculous name."
    R2-D2 began rocking slightly and blatting. A slot opened, and the little utility arm extended again. "No, no! I didn't mean it!" cried Binjar, hastily scooting backwards toward the door.
    Suddenly, a small voice spoke behind him. "Hello, are you all right...?"
    Binjar jerked around, startled by the unexpected presence. He looked up to see one of the queen's handmaidens standing in the doorway. She smiled, abashed, and handed him a small container of cleaning fluid. "I'm sorry to have scared you. My name is Padmé. I didn't catch your name back at the palace..."
    The Gohltan warily took the cleaner and then resumed scrubbing the droid. "I am called Binjar Skimb," he said indifferently.
    "It's nice to meet you, Binjar," continued Padmé, walking into the compartment and sitting gracefully on a crate nearby. "How did you come to travel with Master Jinn?"
    "I'm not too sure, really. I was hunting for breakfast near the lake, then the Lifeless Ones came down; and the next thing I know, I'm flying through the upper skies with two Jedi and cleaning Artoo-Detoo here, thanks to your queen," he summarized, avoiding eye contact with the young woman.
    To his surprise, Padmé giggled, then hastily covered her mouth. "I'm sorry, that just sounds like quite a story!" she softly intoned. "I'm also sorry that the queen was so short in speaking to you. She is just a little afraid."
    "Afraid?" Binjar questioned, skeptical. "What is she afraid of?"
    "Well..." Padmé blushed again. "We Naboo have always felt that the Gohltans resent us for coming to the planet so long ago and building our cities everywhere, pushing you back into the lakes. So we're afraid that you—that the Gohltans will try to reclaim our land again."
    The Gohltan's gold-flecked eyes opened wide with shock, and he finally looked at the handmaiden. "'Reclaim your land'? We have always feared that the Naboo would come try to take our underwater cities!"
    Padmé tilted her head. "I'm not sure we'd much like living under water... and even if we did, we'd make sure it was all right with your leaders first."
    "It is the same with us—we are quite comfortable where we are."
    The girl grinned, and a relieved look washed over her face. "I'm very glad to hear that, Binjar." She picked up another rag laying next to her on top of the crate, then crouched down opposite the Gohltan and began cleaning R2-D2 with him. "I really hope that Gohltans and the Naboo can learn to be kind to one another someday."
    Binjar smiled. "I'd like that too."

    * * *

    The silvery transport lurched out of hyperspace and into the mass shadow of the desert planet Tatooine. "Wow, we made it!" exclaimed Ric Olie. He turned to the Jedi and Captain Panaka, who were huddled behind him in the cockpit, and beamed proudly. "Those Federation cowards couldn't find us here if they tried."
    Qui-Gon clapped him on the shoulder. "I sincerely hope you're right. That was some impressive flying back there!"
    Olie smiled, then resumed looking through the viewscreen at the barren planet before them. "There it is—Tatooine. It's so bright, you'd think it was a star at first." Its twin suns blazed off of the ship's port side, cooking the planet's surface.
    Obi-Wan leaned forward. "I've heard a legend that Tatooine was entirely covered in oceans and lush rainforests in the ancient past."
    "Is that so?" Olie snorted dubiously. "Well, they're all gone now, that's for sure. Tatooine is nothing but a big ball of dirt."
    "Look, there's one of the bigger cities," Qui-Gon pointed out. The terminator line was just creeping away from the outermost buildings.
    "Should I land on the outskirts?" inquired the pilot.
    Qui-Gon shook his head. "No, I think we'd attract more attention that way. Let's follow the standard protocol, and land at the spaceport." He pointed at a part of the city where traffic onto and off of the planet seemed most frequent. "I think that's it."
    "Do you think the ground control will want to know where we've come from?" inquired Obi-Wan of his master.
    "It's unlikely," replied Qui-Gon. He leaned in closer to Obi-Wan, trying to stay out of earshot of Captain Panaka, and whispered, "So many unsavory people come here, they probably won't even ask for our identification."
    Obi-Wan cracked a smile and nodded. "Sounds exciting."
    A gruff voice crackled over the intercom. "SoroSuub-issue passenger shuttle, you have clearance to land in docking bay twenty-seven. Welcome to Mos Espa."
    "They... they didn't even ask if we had any illegal items or passengers on board," mumbled Panaka to himself.
    Qui-Gon shot an amused glance to his padawan. "What did I tell you?"
     
  3. Snocone

    Snocone Jedi Knight star 1

    Registered:
    Sep 14, 2015
    Now posted with correct formatting. Sorry to anyone who has been reading along and was confused by the lack of italics... This is one of my favorite chapters. Mainly because 1. Tatooine is similar to New Mexico, where I live and 2. It introduces the main character, Anakin Skywalker as well as a new OC, Tulam Uvl, a Han Solo-esque shopkeeper with an interesting past.

    CHAPTER SIX

    Once the transport had landed in docking bay twenty-seven, Obi-Wan began to work on removing the hyperdrive core from its compartment in the center of the ship. While the T-14 hyperdrive—as well as the J-Type 327 royal transport that employed it to travel at point one-five past lightspeed—was masterfully designed by Sullustan engineers to provide ease of access as well as top performance, the system was not heavily-shielded, and was not built to withstand interstellar battle. Consequently, the outer plating of the hyperdrive was cracked and splintered in several places, and many wires had fused to the compartment and each other during the last short jump along the Triellus route to Tatooine. Qui-Gon, dressed in tattered garb more appropriate for Mos Espa, came upon the legs and torso of his apprentice while transferring from the queen's chamber; the rest of Obi-Wan was deep in the wire-webbed abyss. R2-D2 was stationed in front of another panel nearby, using its utility arm to reroute a particularly complicated bundle of wires.
    "Is that you, Ric? Can you hand me that hydrospanner there?" Obi-Wan called out.
    Qui-Gon passed the tool to the hand blindly reaching toward him. "Obi-Wan, I'm on my way to look for a new hyperdrive."
    Obi-Wan let out a small sound of recognition, then slid out of the compartment and sat up in front of the older Jedi. He wiped off his glistening forehead with his sleeve. "Very good, Master; this one doesn't have much life left in it, I'm afraid."
    "That's unfortunate. But I'm sure at least one of the places around here has the parts we need." Qui-Gon glanced down toward the queen's chamber, then back at his apprentice. "Try to contact Coruscant as soon as you finish. We must alert the Chancellor to the Trade Federation's attack. Perhaps this will move the Senate to action."
    "Yes, Master."
    "I warned the queen not to send any transmissions to Naboo; they would surely be intercepted by the Federation, and establish a trace to our location here. I'm afraid, though, that her concern for her people might outweigh her caution... Be mindful of her activity, Obi-Wan—"
    "Yes, Master."
    "—but try to be sympathetic." He gave a hard stare to his apprentice.
    "I will, Master. I promise." Obi-Wan looked bashfully at his feet.
    "Very good." Qui-Gon patted the younger man's shoulder. "I'll stay in contact with you and let you know when I find what we need." He looked down at R2-D2. "Come along, Artoo; I'll need your help finding those hyperdrive parts."
    The droid beeped pleasantly and rolled toward the landing ramp. Obi-Wan smiled at Qui-Gon as he followed R2-D2 down the ramp into the crowded spaceport, then slid back into the compartment and continued to work.

    * * *

    Qui-Gon Jinn looked around himself at the cylindrical docking bay that now housed their ship. The sloping walls and humming landing lights were caked thick with the exhaust from thousands of vessels. Several suspicious-looking creatures milled about; he could sense that many were either trying to sell illegal wares or hoping to stow away on some passenger transport. All of them seemed nervous or angry to some degree. As he was nearing the passageway to the street outside, he felt a sharp poke to his thigh and looked down to see a mousey Chadra-Fan motioning to him conspiratorially.
    "Want some chiiqriba?" the furry alien squeaked, subtly opening the corner of his tunic to reveal a row of thin vials containing a slimy, reddish substance. R2-D2 trilled warily.
    "Wait!" a voice called behind Qui-Gon. He turned and squinted. Panaka, Binjar, and one of Queen Amidala's handmaidens were jogging toward him, trying to avoid running into any of the numerous passersby between Qui-Gon and their transport. He looked down again; the Chadra-Fan had vanished into the crowd. Well... that was questionable, Qui-Gon mused, smiling despite himself.
    Once Panaka and the others caught up to Qui-Gon, Panaka said, "The queen wishes her handmaiden Padmé to accompany you."
    Qui-Gon glanced at the girl. She was now dressed in rather plain clothing instead of her typical resplendent dress, but this did nothing to hide her noble gait and demeanor. "Absolutely not; this place is far too dangerous," the Jedi said sternly.
    "The queen would like to learn more about this planet," Panaka persisted. "She is certain that you would be able to protect Padmé."
    "I will also help protect the queen's handmaiden," Binjar said quietly. Padmé shot him a brief, grateful smile.
    Qui-Gon stared austerely at them for a few moments before grumbling, "This is not a good idea. Stay close to me." He then turned and began walking toward the exit.
    Before he could take more than a couple steps, Padmé clutched his sleeve and said, "Wait, Master Jinn... Please."
    He turned to look at her. "What is it?"
    "I'm sorry for being a burden on you... I just—the queen wanted—"
    Qui-Gon's expression softened. "No, Padmé, it's all right. I just don't want anything to happen to you. Tatooine is nothing like where you come from—there are many dangers here."
    "I understand; I'll stay near you." Padmé smiled gratefully up at the Jedi. "Thank you."
    Qui-Gon nodded, and the four of them moved out of the grimy docking bay and into the glaring brightness of the world outside. Open-air shops and restaurants lined the streets, and vendors shouted their wares in either Basic or Huttese. The cracked and sun-bleached buildings throughout the city were primarily made out of plaster-covered bricks, and rarely reached more than one story. Dewbacks, lethargic reptiles that were over three meters tall, plodded past the Jedi and his companions; they were being led along by hooded Jawas or other dry-climate creatures, carrying enormous packs full of goods for sale. There was a general atmosphere of hardiness and survival instinct out here in the city of Mos Espa; this was an unfamiliar way of life to the handmaiden and her Gohltan companion.
    "These people, they... they don't look so well," murmured Padmé as they walked past a particularly gnarled old human, who was sitting on a bench next to his shop and smoking a rather large amount of some unknown substance. R2-D2 made an uncertain warbling sound as it hastily rolled past the old man.
    Qui-Gon made a grim expression. "On a planet like Tatooine, with such scarce resources, you must fight to survive."
    Padmé looked around them, her gaze unfocused as she tried to take in all the new information. "What do the people here do, exactly...?"
    "Moisture farmers for the most part. Some indigenous tribes and scavengers, like those Jawas." The Jedi pointed at a group of the secretive little creatures standing nearby. They appeared to be scheming over the best possible way to pilfer R2-D2, their shining yellow eyes following the droid with covetous interest. Qui-Gon continued, "The few spaceports like this one are havens for those who do not wish to be found."
    Padmé swallowed and looked behind her; their ship could no longer be seen through the passage into the docking bay interior. "I see."

    * * *

    Binjar, who absent-mindedly strolled behind the two humans, awestruck by the unfamiliar sights around them and more than a little exhausted by the dry atmosphere, noticed a tasty-looking piece of smoked meat hanging on display in an open-air shop they were walking past. We had next to nothing to eat on the way here, he thought to himself, and I'm starving! He casually pulled the morsel from the display and put it in his mouth. It had a rich, spicy, delightful flavor. Wow! This planet offers amazing fare... perhaps it isn't so bad after all, Binjar smiled. He continued walking behind Qui-Gon and Padmé, revitalized by the snack.
    R2-D2 swiveled its receptor dome to look at Binjar, hooting a question.
    "What?" asked Binjar, trying to guess at the droid's meaning. "You wouldn't be able to taste it, I think."
    Padmé turned to look at Binjar with an inquiring expression. "What are you talking about back there?"
    "Oh, this droid... it is a bit strange."
    Padmé shrugged, a half-smile playing across her face. "If you say so."

    * * *

    Eventually, the four of them made their way into a plaza of sorts; it was surrounded by several shops of varying size and upkeep. One to their right seemed to be more of a junkyard than an actual place of business; Qui-Gon barely gave it a glance before moving on to the next one. "I sense this may take quite some time," he sighed.
    They finally approached a decent-looking shop with a well-swept doorway and a sign in front, written in perfect Basic and stiff Huttese, that said "Tulam's Shipyard—Find the right parts to reach the stars!" Padmé and Binjar cautiously peered inside while Qui-Gon looked around the corner at the collection of wares in the back for anything remotely similar to the parts they needed. A fence blocked his way on that side, preventing him from examining anything very closely.
    "Artoo, can you see anything we need back there?" he asked, putting his hand on the droid. R2-D2 bleeped a negative.
    A deep, scratchy voice spoke from among the various ship parts. "Hullo there! Welcome to my shop, friends!" After a moment or two, Qui-Gon was able to see the person that the voice was connected to: A massive, well-built fellow dressed in a torn-up pilot outfit was making his way through the assembled machinery toward them. He looked to be in his sixties, though Qui-Gon presumed that the harsh Tatooine atmosphere may have aged him considerably. His bald, tanned head had a long scar connecting his left ear with his left eyebrow, and he walked with either a swagger or a limp; Qui-Gon was unable to tell which. "Here, meet me inside, eh?" he boomed.
    As the three stepped inside the shaded interior of the establishment, Qui-Gon expanded his senses to gauge the hardy-looking shopkeeper. While he was in no way hostile, Qui-Gon noted a strain of something suspicious in him. Desperation? he wondered. No, not that extreme... Impetuousness, maybe.
    The man walked through a small door into the front of the shop to meet the travelers and offered a casual smile as he shook Qui-Gon's hand. "The name's Tulam Uvl, as you probably guessed from the sign out front. What brings you to Mos Espa? You certainly aren't from around here," he surmised, eyeing Binjar.
    Qui-Gon, avoiding the question, replied, "My companions and I are looking for parts for a J-Type 327 SoroSuub hyperdrive."
    "Sure, yes... I have that," said Tulam. He shot a sidelong glance at Padmé as he turned to search outside. "You folks traders, or...?"
    Padmé tensed and glanced nervously at Qui-Gon, who shook his head almost imperceptibly. He said aloud, "We're from Eriadu, making our way along the Triellus trade route. Smugglers tried to commandeer our ship at Ryndellia, but we were able to make a series of short jumps here before our hyperdrive gave out."
    "Huh." The muffled voice of Tulam, accompanied by the sound of clanking metal as the man searched through his stockpile of ship parts outside, sounded less than convinced.
    Qui-Gon leaned down toward Padmé and whispered, "He's lying, I can sense it. He definitely doesn't have what we're looking for. And he seems a bit too interested in where we come from, as well." She gave him a surprised, questioning look, to which he said, "He probably counts on the idea that we don't know anything about ships. He'll give us some broken scrap that shorts out and strands us just when we're out of the planet's atmosphere, I'll bet."
    Tulam sauntered back into the shop front. "Yeah, I have it out back. You going to pay now, or when you bring a sled to pick it up?"
    Qui-Gon stared directly into the shopkeeper's eyes and waved his hand in a half-circle. "You don't have the parts we're looking for, do you?" Padmé looked at him quizzically, startled by the sudden abruptness.
    "I don't have the parts you're looking for." Tulam said this as if he were in a trance.
    Understanding dawned in the young handmaiden's face as she noticed Tulam's eyes unfocus as he answered. Her look of confusion turned to one of consternation. "What—what are you doing?" she hissed.
    Qui-Gon shook his head and continued. "You can tell us where to find the parts we need."
    Tulam stepped around the counter and led them outside. "I can tell you where to find the parts you need—see there?" He pointed vaguely toward another shop a few buildings down. "Owned by a Toydarian named Watto."
    "That will be all, thank you." Qui-Gon made one last hand motion, then exited Tulam's shop with a fuming Padmé, a confused Binjar, and a nonchalantly-whistling R2-D2.
    Once they were a few meters away from the shop, Padmé moved forward ahead of the Jedi and stopped, turning to face him. "Master Jinn, what gives you the right to use an innocent man to get that information?"
    "He's not innocent," Qui-Gon answered matter-of-factly. "He tried to deceive and swindle us. We don't have time to search every shop, anyway; we must get to Coruscant as soon as possible, remember?"
    Padmé's eyes averted, but she kept her insistent tone. "I remember, but... does that give you the right to control him like that? I thought the Jedi were concerned about the wellbeing of all life-forms."
    Qui-Gon stared at the girl for a long moment, considering. Finally he said, "You make a very good point, Padmé." He looked back at the open door of Tulam's shop behind them, then down at the ground. "The Force should only be used to help others, and I should have trusted its movement instead of trying to move it myself. Even though our situation is dire, that gives me no excuse."
    He gave a small smile to the relieved-looking Padmé and touched her shoulder with his hand. "Perhaps you are not the only one who has something to learn here on Tatooine," he admitted, then continued toward the shop in front of them.

    * * *

    The four of them entered the interior of the small, dusty shop. A long counter was on one side of the establishment, and several shelves and bins, packed with everything from droid parts to power cells, lined the walls. Another door led out to a small courtyard where larger pieces of machinery sat, baking in the heat of the suns. A small sensor in the doorway made a pleasant jingling sound as Qui-Gon passed it.
    "Doesn't look like much," he commented, hands on his hips. He looked down to see Binjar crouching in front of a small, dormant maintenance droid. "I wouldn't touch that if I were you," he warned.
    Binjar looked up at the Jedi with wide eyes. "Will it attack us?"
    Padmé giggled. "Probably not, but it'll make a mess in this tiny little shop."
    Before their conversation could continue, a blue-colored, flying Toydarian with stubby little arms and legs and a trunk-like nose flapped into the shop front from a side room. "Guta naloya, bi nocho Watto," it rumbled to Qui-Gon in Huttese, "Ha chubasko da nala?"
    "Nice to meet you, Watto. We're looking for a J-Type 327 hyperdrive unit; I was told you may be able to help us." Qui-Gon tapped R2-D2. "My droid here has a readout of the parts we need."
    R2-D2 trilled obediently, and a small hologram of the hyperdrive core materialized in front of its sensor dome. "Ahh, SoroSuub-issue, eh?" Watto nodded, studying the hologram. "We have lotsa dat." He hovered over to the door leading outside and called out, "Uska! Rikka de unko!" He then turned and beckoned to Qui-Gon. "Let me show you what I got, eh? We justa wait for—ah, dere he is."
    A teenage boy, his face and tattered clothes covered in dirty stains, jogged up to Watto from another part of the yard. He had sandy blonde hair and a tired look in his blue eyes. "Sorry, I was just—" he began.
    "Chut chut! Ganda do wallya," the flying alien reprimanded. "Me dwana no bata." He pointed at the counter inside, then turned and led Qui-Gon and R2-D2 into a path between the stacks of machinery in the yard. "Yes, ah-we gots a nice one over here..." his voice faded off as they disappeared behind an enormous, teetering pile of engine parts.
    The boy sighed heavily, then turned and shuffled into the store. He crouched in front of a bin of dusty pieces of hardware next to the counter, pulling each piece out and wiping it off with a rag he had procured from a pants pocket. He didn't seem to notice the other guests standing in the entrance to the shop.
    Padmé stared down at the ragged-looking boy for a moment before venturing, "Hi there, um... what're you doing?"
    The boy looked up at Padmé and nearly dropped the piece he was cleaning. His gaze became fixed for a couple of moments, then he shook his head slightly and stood. "Sorry, what did you ask?"
    Padmé blushed slightly. "Oh, nothing; I just... I'm Padmé. What's your name?"
    "Anakin. Anakin Skywalker," the boy grinned, stepping forward to shake her hand. His hand was covered with machine oil and dirt stains, but she inhaled and took it, smiling a bit stiffly.
    Anakin looked at Binjar, who was absent-mindedly scanning the shelves farther back into the shop. "You're a Gohltan, aren't you?"
    Binjar nodded, caught off-guard by the recognition. Padmé squinted at the boy, remembering Qui-Gon's caution. "How do you know that...?" she probed.
    Anakin shrugged easily. "I listen to all the traders and pilots come through town and tell stories. Naboo is part of the way up the Triellus route, right? Near Enarc."
    Padmé nodded her head yes, still somewhat careful. Anakin continued, "I'm a pilot myself, you know—someday, I'm going to get off of this piece of dirt... but don't tell Watto." He smiled again, more soberly this time.
    "You're a pilot? But, you don't look any older—" she caught herself and blushed again. "I'm sorry. How old are you?"
    Anakin laughed. "Don't believe me, huh? I'm fifteen—I've been flying all my life. My friend Tulam's been teaching me how to work the low-altitude craft and speeders after Watto lets me leave for the day."
    "How long have you been here?"
    "I was around three years old when Gardulla the Hutt bought my mom and I, but she lost us to Watto betting on the Podraces."
    "Bought...? Are you a slave?"
    Anakin's expression became hardened at this question. Hardened... and sad. "I guess you could say that. Doesn't make me any less of a person, though," he answered quietly. Binjar, noticing the rising tension, hastily and quietly made his way toward the entrance and slipped out.
    "Oh! I'm sorry, Anakin," Padmé replied, feeling embarrassed. "I've never been this far away from my home before... this is a strange place to me."
    Warmth flooded back into Anakin's expression. "Ah, that's fine." He held up the small piece of hardware he was cleaning. It was roughly cubic in shape, and had a couple of knobs on one side. "Have you ever seen what one of these does?"

    * * *

    "So-ah, what d'you think?" pressed the flying Toydarian, rubbing his clawed hands together and smiling obsequiously.
    Qui-Gon looked down at R2-D2, who gave a short, affirmative beep. "Well, the droid seems to think everything is in order."
    Watto chuckled. "You're lucky, my friend—I'ma da only one hereabouts who has one."
    "So we've discovered," Qui-Gon grimaced.
    "But, ah, you may as well buy a new ship, eh? It would be cheaper, I think!" The alien's tone took on a bit of a suspicious edge. "Saying of which, ah-how's you going to pay for dis? I think dis be worth at least a hundred peggats."
    Qui-Gon began rummaging through the pack he was carrying. "I have twenty thousand Republic dataries—"
    "Republic credits?! Republic credits are noa good out here, eh? I need something more real."
    "You don't take Republic money?" Qui-Gon snorted.
    Watto folded his stubby arms and hovered a bit closer to the Jedi's face. "Where you think I could usa dat on Tatooine, eh? Da Jawas don't take it. Da Hutts don't take it. I don't take it. No money, no parts, no deal!"
    Qui-Gon stared at the alien angrily for a couple of moments. He glanced over to his right and saw Padmé through the door of the shop, laughing as she talked with the boy. Remembering his earlier lesson, he merely forced a smile, said "We'll get back to you, then," and stalked back into the shop interior. R2-D2 followed, giving its approximation of a sigh as it went.
    "Padmé—let's go," Qui-Gon said brusquely as he walked past the chatting teenagers.
    Padmé gave a confused look to the back of Qui-Gon's head. "What is it? I thought we needed—"
    "Later!" snapped Qui-Gon, cutting her off.
    Padmé raised her eyebrows at Anakin, who responded with a similarly-lost expression. "Well, it was very nice meeting you," she murmured as she turned to leave.
    "Nice meeting you, too!" Anakin beamed at her.
    Once the travelers had left, Watto flapped up next to Anakin's shoulder and remarked, "Core Worlders... dey thinka dey know everything."
    The boy chuckled, staring out the door after them distractedly. "They seemed all right to me."
    "Hrm." The Toydarian looked around the shop. "All right, you can go home after you cleana da racks, eh."
    Anakin grinned. "Thanks; I'll get right on it."

    * * *

    "Oi, Anakin, how was today?" called Tulam as the boy strolled past his shop through the shimmering heat waves created by the suns directly above.
    Anakin gave a half-smile to the shopkeeper and diverted into to the well-swept doorway. "Work was work, you know. Nothing I can really complain about. Especially since Watto let me off early today." His face brightened. "There were some customers that came by several minutes ago, though—did you see them?"
    Tulam scratched his head. "Yeah, they came by awhile ago, didn't stay long..." His expression turned to one of deep thought. "...I think that guy with the beard was a Core-worlder. I could tell from his snobby accent." He scowled. "I thought I'd gotten away from their type by setting up shop out here in the Rim. He didn't seem to like me much, but I can't quite remember what we talked about..."
    Anakin laughed. "I'd have thought by now that the heat couldn't get to you."
    "Right? Looks like I need a break!" Tulam grinned and leaned against the counter. "Say, are we still up for trying to finish the pod later this afternoon?"
    "Oh, yes! Right!" Anakin's smile grew even broader. "I think we'll get it done in time!"
    "Of course we will," said Tulam, slapping the boy on the back with his huge hand.
    Anakin stared out the doorway at the dusty street. A hot breeze was picking up. After several idle moments, he said wistfully, "I don't think they were all that bad."
    "Huh? You mean those Core-worlders?"
    "...Yeah."
    Tulam smirked knowingly. "It's 'cause of that girl, huh."
    Anakin blushed, but didn't say anything.
     
  4. Snocone

    Snocone Jedi Knight star 1

    Registered:
    Sep 14, 2015
    As characters are introduced and their lives begin to intersect, we see more character development through various interactions.

    CHAPTER SEVEN

    Qui-Gon leaned against the wall of the alleyway, relieved to be out of the sun for a few moments. His companions all looked similarly exhausted; Binjar was especially fatigued, and sat down next to Padmé's feet, breathing heavily. Qui-Gon pulled his comlink from the pocket in his tunic and clicked it once. "Obi-Wan?"
    The young Jedi's reply came almost instantly. "Yes, Master, I'm here. How's the search going?"
    "Not so good. We've found a working T-14 hyperdrive, but the seller doesn't accept Republic money. Do you know of a transfer station of some sort? Or something on board we could sell for the amount he's asking for?"
    "We could probably get rid of the old hyperdrive pretty easily. It could be gutted for working parts. How much do you need?"
    Qui-Gon did the calculations in his head. "About four thousand credits-worth of the local currency."
    Obi-Wan whistled. "That would be quite a stretch, I'd say. I'm not sure we could pawn off our hyperdrive to the Jawas for more than two."
    "Let's start with that. Anything else you could think of that we could barter with?"
    "Hm..." Obi-Wan seemed to be searching through the ship's interior as he spoke. "A few containers of supplies, the queen's wardrobe, maybe. But that still wouldn't come close."
    Qui-Gon rubbed the grit from his eyes; the breeze that had been wisping by earlier had become a much stronger gust. "All right. I'm sure another solution will present itself. Have you been able to contact the Supreme Chancellor?"
    "No, Master... The power that R2 unit drew from the transmission system to sustain the shields through the blockade drastically limited our range—I'm sorry. We're still able to receive transmissions, at least."
    "The Force will guide us, Obi-Wan. Try to get the most you can for the old hyperdrive. I'll check back later." Qui-Gon clicked the comlink again and put it away, stepping back into the oppressive heat. The others reluctantly followed.

    * * *

    About a block down, the street opened into another square that was full of tarpaulin-shaded restaurants. Several creatures sat around tables, ordering meals and eating them; and the alluring smell of smoked meats and baking bread filled the air. The Jedi and his companions stayed close to the line of busy restaurants, partially to walk in any bit of shade the thick tarps offered, and partially to avoid the busy traffic bustling up and down the avenue. Binjar, who was faint with thirst, stumbled along behind the two humans and R2-D2.
    A tall mug of a creamy, light blue beverage sitting on a nearby bar caught the Gohltan's eye. Without a second thought, he walked over to it, picked it up, and drank the entire glass. He set the empty mug back on the bar and sighed contentedly.
    A raspy, guttural voice shouted behind him in Huttese, "Chuba!" This was followed shortly by a sharp jab at Binjar's left thigh.
    Startled, Binjar spun on his heel to see a gangly alien with a long face and an angry snarl glowering up at him. It came up to Binjar's knee, standing on strong forelegs and using one of its scrawnier hind legs to point at him. "Chubasko ni kota?! Ochapa neelo tog!"
    "Sorry, I don't speak Huttese," said Binjar.
    The creature began again in halting Basic, assuming an even angrier expression. "I say, that my drink. You buy another for me, roschat."
    Binjar looked behind himself at the mug. "If it's yours, why did you just leave it here?" He turned back toward the alien and was answered with a powerful kick in the face. He pinwheeled backwards, completely caught off-guard, and fell into the bar behind him, causing the empty mug to drop and shatter on the ground. The gangly creature pounced on him, grabbing his neck with its hind legs, and shoved him up against the side of the counter.
    "Roschat da kweel tog, mala—" the spidery alien started, tightening its grip on the neck of the bewildered Gohltan.
    "Hey!" barked Qui-Gon Jinn, who had heard the commotion behind him and jogged back to where the fight was occurring. "What's going on here?!" he demanded, fingertips brushing the lightsaber hilt under his farmer's poncho. Padmé and R2-D2 timidly peered out from behind Qui-Gon as the two aliens scuffled across the dirt.
    Finally, another voice spoke levelly behind the Jedi. "Chesko Sebulba mas, fola uman... Matesa ootmian da onga ponipa." It was Anakin Skywalker, who had been walking by on his way home.
    The long-faced alien scowled up at Anakin, then reluctantly stepped off of Binjar, who looked more perplexed than anything. Anakin, fishing a small coin from his pocket and flipping it to the alien, continued in Huttese, "Boko usala tog mucheesko. Do sa."
    The creature moved away from Binjar and grumbled, "Nic me chouwa wimo noke maka." Then it sauntered off toward another restaurant. The nearby patrons, who had been watching the tussle with lazy half-interest, went back to their meals.
    Binjar stood up, rubbing his neck and trying to dust himself off. Padmé stepped closer to him and put her hand on his arm, an anxious expression on her face. Qui-Gon looked around them, then addressed Binjar. "What was that all about?"
    The Gohltan answered with a shrug. Anakin replied for him, "He must've done something to make Sebulba angry."
    "I think I accidentally took his drink from the table there—" Binjar pointed at the bar, "—but I didn't mean to get in a fight about it!"
    "Binjar, you can't just take things from restaurants. Not without paying for them," Qui-Gon chastised.
    Binjar appeared to be lost at this, so Padmé spoke up. "Gohltans don't have a monetary system, Master Jinn. They share amongst themselves, or barter occasionally."
    "Plus, Sebulba's a Dug—an especially short-tempered Dug," Anakin added. "He would've picked a fight with you even if you had looked at him the wrong way."
    "I'm sorry, I didn't mean anything by it," Binjar maintained.
    Qui-Gon smiled. "Ah well, a lesson learned." He looked at Anakin. "Thank you, my young friend. And thank you also for spending your own money on that drink—that was very kind of you. I didn't catch your name earlier at Watto's shop... My name is Qui-Gon Jinn."
    The boy grinned and shook the Jedi's hand. "I'm Anakin. Nice to meet you—again, I suppose." He laughed. "Come on, let's get something to eat." He began walking down the street next to Padmé, with Binjar behind them, cautiously looking around himself for other mean-spirited locals.
    Qui-Gon stayed still for several moments, staring at the placid boy walking away from him. R2-D2, still parked next to the Jedi, swiveled its dome and pointed its photoreceptor at him, hooting a question-like tone. Qui-Gon looked down at the droid and stroked his greying beard. "I don't know, Artoo... I felt something in the Force just now, talking to that boy. There's something about him."
    The little astromech droid, which knew nothing about the Force, merely made an assenting beep, then headed after the rest of the party. Qui-Gon followed, deep in thought.

    * * *

    "Hi, Jira!" said Anakin as he and his companions walked toward an outdoor shop tended by a wizened old woman. She was hunched and weathered, but had a very kind face.
    "Oh, hello, Ani!" the woman replied amicably. "Found some friends, have you?"
    Anakin smiled toward Padmé and Qui-Gon, then nodded at Jira. "Yes, they came by Watto's this morning." He stepped toward the small table she had sitting in the entrance to the shop; several pastries of various shapes and sizes sat in rows atop the faded fabric cover. He produced three more coins from his pocket and held one up to Binjar. "This is what people here exchange for food—oops!" The copper-colored coin slipped out of his hand and fell to the ground.
    "Here, let me get that for you," Qui-Gon said, and leaned forward to pick it up for him. As he bent down to retrieve the coin, the slit along the side of his tattered outfit opened to reveal a lightsaber hilt hanging from his belt.
    Anakin saw the Jedi weapon, but did not say anything as he accepted the coin from Qui-Gon's outstretched hand. "Thank you," he said, smiling distractedly. He turned and paid for three of the old woman's pastries, then handed them to his companions.
    "Mm, this is good!" smiled Padmé.
    Jira grinned and winked at the handmaiden. "Made 'em fresh this morning."
    Binjar chewed his pastry thoughtfully. "So... you collect bits of metal and give them to people, and they give you food in return?" he asked Anakin.
    The boy chuckled. "Yeah, that's basically it."
    Another strong gust of wind whipped by the party, nearly knocking Padmé over. The old shopkeeper grabbed a corner of the flapping tarp above her shop and made a perturbed sound. "That storm'll be on us quick, Ani—you'd better get home fast."
    Anakin nodded and looked at Qui-Gon. "Do you have shelter?"
    Qui-Gon peered down the street. Giant clouds of roiling dust were rapidly approaching the side of Mos Espa they had come from. "We'll probably just go back to our ship."
    "At the spaceport?" Anakin looked at the Jedi skeptically. "You'd never make it in time. Those dust storms are dangerous. Come on; I'll take you to my place." He thanked Jira, who was wrapping up the rest of her pastries, and jogged down a nearby avenue. The others followed, trying to keep their balance against the powerful winds.

    * * *

    Obi-Wan Kenobi stood in the entranceway to docking bay twenty-seven, trying to see up the street. Large gusts of wind, carrying vast amounts of dirt and debris, obscured anything beyond a few meters. Shop keepers along the path were hastily rolling up their tarps and packing away their wares as the oncoming dust storm loomed closer. Well, this'll certainly complicate things... he thought to himself, sighing impatiently.
    Captain Panaka came and stood next to the young Jedi. His expression indicated that he was thinking along the same lines as Obi-Wan. "Do you think they'll make it to the ship in time? We'll need to seal it up soon."
    "I'm not sure—this storm looks pretty bad."
    Before Panaka could reply, a small beep sounded in his breast pocket. He pulled out his comlink and clicked it on. "Yes?"
    Ric Olie's voice sounded tinny through the little speaker, but there was a clear tone of urgency. "Captain, it looks like we've picked up a transmission... it's from Naboo."
    Obi-Wan and the captain exchanged surprised glances. "We'll be right there," Panaka said into the comlink, then jogged back toward the transport, Obi-Wan right behind him.

    * * *

    "Mom, I'm home!" called Anakin as they stepped into the small, dimly-lit house.
    Padmé ducked into the doorway and looked around at the place. It consisted mainly of one center room, with a nook off to the side for preparing food and a small entrance to a couple of sleeping quarters in the back. Although well-kept, it was little more than a whitewashed hut.
    A lump formed in Padmé's throat as she realized just how destitute Anakin's family must have been. I've never needed anything back on Naboo, she soberly reflected, and yet Anakin acts so contented and peaceful, despite having to live this way.
    As Qui-Gon, Binjar, and R2-D2 crowded into the house behind Padmé, a small woman walked in from one of the back rooms. She had long, dark brown hair pulled back into a simple ponytail with a touch of gray at her temples; and thin, weary wrinkles were forming around her eyes and mouth, but she looked to be a very kind-hearted and strong-willed person. She began to reply to Anakin, but stopped short as she saw the large group of strangers huddled in her doorway.
    "Hello, Ani—oh my!" she started, eyes wide.
    Anakin grinned. "These are my friends!" He pointed at each one as he gave out their names. "This is Padmé, Qui-Gon, Binjar, and Artoo." R2-D2 warbled happily.
    Qui-Gon held up his palms in a helpless gesture. "Ah, your son—he offered us shelter here during the dust storm."
    "This is a nice place," whispered Binjar to no one in particular, looking at the scattered pieces of artwork hanging on the walls and the dusty, antiquated machinery sitting in various corners.
    "Do you want to see the droid I'm building?" Anakin asked Padmé excitedly. He grabbed her hand and led her past his mother. R2-D2 followed, uttering a string of beeps and trills.
    The woman watched them walk past, a somewhat dazed expression on her face, then turned back to the other two, who were still standing just inside the front door. "Nice to meet you; my name is Shmi." She reached forward and tenuously shook Qui-Gon's hand.
    Noting her bewilderment, Qui-Gon reached into his outer garment and pulled out a few small multi-colored packages with labels depicting different types of food on them. "I've brought enough food capsules and rations from our ship for all of us," he offered.
    Shmi smiled and took the packages, and seemed to relax a bit. "Thank you; I appreciate it." She sighed through a wry grimace as she looked behind herself at the back rooms again. "That boy—always helping people as much as he possibly can; it really is wonderful. Quite a handful, though." She walked into the kitchen nook and began to heat up a small pot of water.
    "He's been very kind to us, that's for sure," Qui-Gon agreed, stepping forward and sitting on a small chair next to the rickety table that stood in the center of the room. "That's some storm outside!" he continued, trying to reiterate the reason for their sudden invasion.
    Shmi nodded as she pulled out plates and bowls from a shelf next to the stove. "It's that time of year—the moisture farmers have it rough during this season. Fortunately, our master doesn't run a moisture farm."
    Qui-Gon thought for a few moments, his hands folded on the table in front of him. Finally, he said, "Anakin really does have quite a way about him. Has he become talented at fixing machines and such, working for Watto?" He looked toward the back rooms, hearing the cheery conversation of the two youths drift above the howling wind outside.
    "Oh yes, very much so. You probably heard; he's building his own droid back there from various parts that our friend Tulam has been supplying him with."
    "I see." Qui-Gon tensed at the mention of the shop keeper they had met earlier, feeling somewhat embarrassed. Before he could continue, his Gohltan companion spoke.
    "Your son saved me in a fight today. I was very honored," Binjar said in a solemn tone.
    "A fight? Oh dear!" Shmi placed her hand on her forehead.
    "It's not what you think—Anakin is just a good negotiator," Qui-Gon hastily interjected.
    Binjar continued, oblivious to Shmi's anxiety. "I did not know the customs of this city, so Anakin taught them to me. I am very grateful." He looked over at the food Shmi was preparing on the small stove. "But—forgive me, I do not have any metal pieces to give you in exchange for your food."
    Shmi looked at the Gohltan quizzically. Qui-Gon laughed heartily, then said, "All right, allow me to explain..."

    * * *

    "...Yeah, I'm building it for Mom to help around the house. It's almost finished. See, watch this!" Anakin set the small, blocky maintenance droid on the floor and pressed a switch on its back. It whirred to life and began waving its multi-jointed utility arm at Padmé, whistling and chirping. It awkwardly wheeled across the uneven floor of the small room, finally running into R2-D2. The astromech droid blatted, and the two struck up a conversation in their electronic language. Padmé giggled as she watched the interaction.
    "It's perfect, Anakin! I can't believe you made that all by yourself!" she bubbled.
    Anakin reddened. "Well, Tulam has been helping me and giving me the parts I need." He grinned, "But that isn't the half of it. Wait till you see my—!"
    "Anakin, time for lunch," his mom called from the front of the house.
    "Oh, right." Anakin smiled softly and turned off the maintenance droid. Padmé and R2-D2 followed him out of the tiny space back into the main area.

    * * *

    "Replay the message again, please," requested Obi-Wan, standing in front of the communicator with arms crossed. The queen stood on the opposite side with her other three handmaidens; all of them wearing anxious expressions. Panaka paced along the side of the main chamber.
    Ric Olie, who sat at the communicator's wraparound control board, nodded once and pushed the playback button. At once, a staticky quarter-size image of Sio Bibble warped into being above the holoprojector. His clothes and general appearance were very disheveled. "This is the only part of the message that made it through that dust storm outside," explained the pilot.
    "—contact me at once. Please, Your Highness! People are dying! They're... over every... catastrophic! We must bow to their wishes... nothing more I can... —cellor Valorum might..." The hologram froze at this point. Governor Bibble's face stared out, appearing terrified.
    Obi-Wan glanced up at Amidala. She looked as if she were about to cry. He spoke softly, "Your Majesty, it's a trap to try to establish a trace, like Qui-Gon explained earlier. We must not send a reply—"
    "But I—I already sent a small signal, just to acknowledge receipt..." Amidala admitted in a near-whisper.
    "You did?" Obi-Wan demanded. Seeing the distress in the queen's face, he dialed back and took a deep breath before continuing. "I'm sorry. But even the smallest response may have alerted the Trade Federation to our location here."
    Panaka stopped pacing for a moment and spoke up. "They may not be able to determine it was us—or in any case, it would take some time, right? It's not as if the queen sent a holovid or even an audio message. It was a general short-range transmission from Naboo; other nearby ships may have sent a receipt signal as well."
    Obi-Wan rubbed the back of his neck and sighed. "I'm really not sure." He turned and walked toward his small quarters, pulling his comlink from its pocket in his tunic. "I must contact Qui-Gon. Hopefully he's still all right. We may need that hyperdrive even sooner than we expected."

    * * *

    Qui-Gon could barely make out the words of his padawan through the distortion caused by the sand storm that was currently in full force over Mos Espa. He held his comlink closer to his ear. "Say that again, please?"
    "The queen... —ceipt signal to the transmission we received... —aboo. If the Federation intercepts that... may trace it back here." Obi-Wan's voice cut in and out, but the message was clear.
    "I see. You're right, it was probably bait to establish a connection trace."
    "What if it's true, and... —eople of Naboo really are dying?"
    Qui-Gon exhaled sharply and looked behind him at Padmé, who was happily conversing with Anakin and his mother at the table. "Either way," he concluded, "we're running out of time."

    * * *

    The sun had long since fallen below the horizon on Coruscant, and the city lights shone brilliantly amidst the endless maze of monolithic skyscrapers. Lanes of traffic flowed below the dark balcony upon which two black-robed figures stood.
    One of them looked out over the sprawling cityscape and smiled—all those people below were completely unaware of that which would transpire soon, even in this very city; and beyond that, what would happen all throughout the galaxy.
    In time, this—all of these wretched, stupid creatures and their many plans, dreams, and schemes—will be mine, thought the man, grinning wickedly.
    "My lord Sidious," broke in the other, pulling the man back into the present from his reverie, "Tatooine is sparsely populated. If the trace was accurate, it should be no trouble to find them."
    "Excellent." The man pulled back his black hood to look into the eyes of his apprentice—the man's face was that of Senator Palpatine of Naboo, but his eyes burned with the furious fire of the dark side. "Kill the Jedi first—painfully, if they resist—then bring Amidala back to Naboo. She will sign the treaty, and then the conquest of the first of many systems will be complete."
    Darth Maul's face split into an eerie grin at this statement. Sidious' apprentice, Maul, was relentless, skilled, and bloodthirsty—all admirable traits in the Dark Lord's estimation. His eyes burned with the same rage; but he, too, had learned to be patient as the Sith bided their time, waiting for the perfect chance to strike.
    Sidious turned to look out over Coruscant's night life again. "It is regrettable that your plans were stopped by those same Jedi on Corellia," he gave a reprimanding glance to the tattooed, nightmarish Maul, "but this will only make their destruction that much more satisfying."
    Maul looked down below for several moments in silent agreement. Finally, he whispered, "At last, we will reveal ourselves to the Jedi." He clenched his fist as his gaze returned to his master. "At last, we will have our revenge."
    Sidious nodded. "You have been well-trained, my young apprentice. They will be no match for you."
    Darth Maul grinned again, then turned and disappeared into the shadows of the tower. Palpatine pulled his hood back over the top of his head and reflected over the events leading up to this moment as he resumed gazing out over the city—as Senator Palpatine of Naboo, he had been able to worm his way into the highest processes of the Galactic Republic, pretending to work toward achieving peace with that simpleminded Chancellor Valorum; as Darth Sidious, Lord of the Sith, he had used the greedy, conniving Neimoidians of the Trade Federation to provide the perfect means to begin dismantling that very same Republic.
    The time for an upheaval has come, he contemplated. After a millennium, the time for a new Age of the Sith is here.
     
  5. Snocone

    Snocone Jedi Knight star 1

    Registered:
    Sep 14, 2015
    CHAPTER EIGHT

    Qui-Gon and his companions sat around the little table with Anakin and his mother, eating a lunch comprising the rehydrated rations he had brought from the ship as well as a remainder of a small loaf of bread and some hardy vegetables Shmi had procured for them. The sandstorm beat against the tiny house, giving the calm inside an atmosphere of serenity and peace.
    Anakin and Shmi were explaining the plight of the slaves on Tatooine to an appalled Padmé and Binjar. "There aren't enough droids among the middle class to support the economy here, so a lot of refugees or travelers from other systems become pressed into slavery just to survive," Shmi said.
    "And with the two suns beating down every day of the year, slaves typically don't last very long anyway," added Anakin. "They put trackers in our bodies to find us in case we try to escape off-planet, but they don't care much if we go out into the Junland Wastes. Between the Sand People, Desert Howlers, and the heat, you can't get very far."
    Padmé stared at him, her mouth half-open. "I can't believe there's still slavery in the galaxy... The Republic's anti-slavery laws—"
    "The Republic has no presence here. We have to make do without," Shmi cut in, a somewhat bitter edge to her voice.
    There were several moments of awkward silence and clinking metalware before Padmé ventured, "So, Anakin... You were saying that you had been building something else besides that droid?"
    "Oh! Yes, Tulam and I are building a podracer!" Anakin replied, flashing a big smile. He looked around the table at the others. "Has anyone ever seen a podrace before?"
    Padmé and Binjar shook their heads no, but Qui-Gon answered, "I have indeed, on Malastare. Very fast... very dangerous."
    Anakin looked up at Qui-Gon with a confident gleam in his eyes. "I'm the only human who can do it."
    Qui-Gon's expression changed to one of peculiar curiosity. "You must have Jedi reflexes, if you can race pods."
    Anakin shrugged, looking at his plate. He ate a couple more bites, then cautiously asked, "You're a Jedi, aren't you?"
    Qui-Gon leaned back in his chair and gave Anakin another ponderous stare. "What makes you say that?"
    "Well... For one thing, you have a lightsaber. Only Jedi carry those. Also..." he glanced uncertainly at his mother, "...I just sort of felt it, I guess."
    Qui-Gon continued to stare at Anakin, his food temporarily forgotten. "Do you... can you tell who is a Jedi, and who is not?"
    Anakin shrugged again. "I can feel something around everyone, but they're all different."
    Qui-Gon remained silent for several moments. Padmé glanced back and forth between the two, wondering about the sudden change in atmosphere, while Shmi had an expression that indicated she was keeping a great secret, her gaze fastened securely to the plate in front of her.
    Finally, Anakin spoke again, quietly this time. "Why are you here? Have you—have you come to free all the slaves?" There was a flicker of hope in the question.
    Qui-Gon glanced at Padmé and Binjar. "No, I'm afraid not. We're on our way to Coruscant, the capital of the Republic, on a very important mission."
    "How did you end up here in the Outer Rim?"
    "Our ship was damaged, and we're stranded here until we can repair it."
    Anakin's face brightened a little. "I could help, if you need it. I can fix anything."
    "I'm sure you can," Qui-Gon smiled, "but first, we must acquire the parts we need."
    "We don't have enough metal—" Binjar began.
    "Money," Padmé corrected, giggling.
    "—yes, money, to get them," the Gohltan finished, throwing a vexed look at Padmé.
    Padmé grinned at Binjar, then assumed a thoughtful expression. "Isn't there some way we could get those parts from Watto? He must have some sort of weakness."
    Shmi finally looked up from her plate again. "Gambling. That's the main way that money changes hands around here. Everyone bets on those races."
    Qui-Gon looked at her with a bemused expression. "Is that so...? We may be onto something, then."
    Anakin leaned forward, an enthusiastic smile on his boyish face. "The pod Tulam and I have been building—it's the fastest ever! There's a big race tomorrow, on Boonta Eve, we were hoping to enter—"
    "But Anakin," his mother interrupted, "Watto wouldn't let you—"
    "Watto doesn't know I've built it!" Anakin retorted. He looked at Qui-Gon. "You could tell Watto it was yours, and get him to let me pilot it for you."
    Shmi's brow furrowed. "Anakin. Sooner or later you're going to get yourself killed in one of those races."
    Padmé's eyes widened. "Killed?"
    "Ahh, it's not all that bad. I love it." Anakin sighed and slumped in his chair. "Anyway, the prize money would more than pay for the parts they need, even without the betting."
    "Is there anyone friendly to the Republic who might help us?" asked Qui-Gon. Shmi shook her head, and stood up to start collecting everyone's plates.
    "Mom, they need our help," Anakin persisted, "and I can help them. I don't see any other way for them to be able to get to Coruscant."
    "Now, Anakin, I'm sure there's another way," Qui-Gon said.
    Shmi sighed. "No, there isn't... not really. Anakin's right—he's probably your best chance at leaving, given the circumstances."
    Anakin had practically begun to vibrate with excitement. "So that's a 'yes,' right?"
    His mother gave him a reprimanding look, but it was thinly concealing a smile. "You're going to be the death of me, boy."
    Anakin stood, knocking his chair back, and hugged his mom. "Yes! I'll go tell Tulam—" he turned to Qui-Gon, "—and then we'll go talk to Watto!"
    The Jedi smiled, not sure if he should show gratefulness to Shmi or if he should insist they keep searching for an alternate plan. "Well, only if your mother is sure..."
    "Oh, I don't like it at all," Shmi grimaced, ruffling Anakin's hair, "But maybe—maybe he's meant to help you."
    Qui-Gon nodded at this revelation, suddenly lost in thought. Finally, he said, "That is certainly a possibility."

    * * *

    It was a couple hours past noon in Mos Espa, and the stark homes and buildings were now accompanied by slowly-growing shadows. The furious squall had finally died down, and Anakin and his companions meandered their way to Tulam's shop to discuss their plan. Qui-Gon stayed in the doorway, an awkward expression on his face, as Anakin chatted with the massive shopkeeper. Tulam, too, avoided discussion with the Jedi; though he couldn't quite remember what had happened earlier, he still regarded the other warily. Anakin was oblivious to this.
    "All we need to do is convince Watto to let me enter in this race," Anakin was explaining to Tulam.
    Tulam winked. "And all you need to do is win it."
    Padmé gave a questioning look to the boy. "What does he mean by that?"
    "Well..." Anakin looked down at the shop's floor. "...I haven't exactly won a race before."
    The handmaiden looked incredulously between Anakin and Tulam. "You've never won a race?"
    Anakin put his hands up defensively. "I would've won the last one, but Sebulba flashed me with his engine vents right before the drop into Arch Canyon on the final lap."
    "That Sebulba is a podracer, too?" asked Binjar, tensing his jaw.
    Tulam snorted. "Cheater, more like."
    "I know I can do it this time. The racer we've built can beat anything!" Anakin asserted. He turned to Tulam, looking for support.
    "Oi, Anakin's good, no doubt. And his piloting plus my mechanical genius makes for an instant win, I'm sure of it!" Tulam declared, chuckling. He continued, "All right, boy, you head on over and talk to Watto while I gather up the tools we need to finish. I'll meet you at your house in a few."
    Anakin nodded animatedly and exited the shop. Padmé walked out behind him alongside Qui-Gon, a very uneasy expression on her face. Binjar and R2-D2 casually took up the rear. After a couple of meters, Anakin swiveled on his heel and said to the party, "I'll go on ahead and see you at Watto's, all right?" He then turned and jogged up the street.
    Padmé leaned close to Qui-Gon as they walked and breathed, "Are you sure this is a good idea? I mean... we're reducing our chances of getting to Coruscant to betting on a race."
    "I know it seems like quite a risk," Qui-Gon admitted, "but can you think of a better solution?"
    Padmé stared straight ahead for several steps, not saying anything. Finally, she pensively replied, "No, I suppose not."
    Eventually, they reached Watto's shop. Inside, Anakin was making his case to the stubby Toydarian. Binjar sat on a stool inside the doorway as Qui-Gon, Padmé, and R2-D2 approached the two to join the conversation.
    "Da boy tells me you wanna sponsor him in da race. How's you do dis? Not on Republic credits, I think, eh?" Watto chuckled drily.
    Qui-Gon motioned to R2-D2. The droid chirped, and a hologram of their ship appeared in front of it. "My ship will be the entry fee."
    Padmé let out a small gasp, but decided to refrain from questioning the Jedi. Surely he has a plan that involves us keeping the ship, she thought to herself.
    Watto hovered closer to the hologram. "Ah, not bad, not bad. Sullustan, eh," he mused, scratching his stubbly chin.
    "It's in good order, except for the parts I need," Qui-Gon continued.
    Watto glanced over at Anakin, who was trying unsuccessfully to hide his hopeful enthusiasm. "What will da boy ride? He smashed up my pod in da last race. I doubt you's be able to fix it overnight, no?"
    Anakin deflated slightly. "I told you," he mumbled, "it was Sebulba's fault. I saved most of the pod anyway."
    Watto laughed; clearly, he wasn't too torn up about it. "Dat you did, eh." He tilted his head in Qui-Gon's direction. "Da boy is good, no question!"
    Qui-Gon nodded and said, "Well, I have acquired a pod in a game of Chance." A grin tugged at the corner of his mouth. "It's the fastest ever built, they said." Anakin blushed slightly.
    "I hope-ah you didn't kill anyone I know for it." Everyone laughed awkwardly at this, including Watto. He continued, "So, you say you supply da pod and da entry fee, I supply da boy; we split da winnings, ehh, fifty-fifty I think?"
    Qui-Gon assumed a wounded air. "Fifty-fifty? Please! Only if you put down the entry fee."
    This time, both Anakin and Padmé looked at the Jedi as if he had lost his mind. He winked at Anakin, who stood leaning against the shop's dusty counter behind Watto.
    The Toydarian snorted derisively. "Not-ah likely!"
    "How about a deal?" Qui-Gon pressed. "If Anakin wins the race, you keep all the winnings, minus the cost of the parts we need. If he loses, you keep our ship."
    At this, Watto squinted at the Jedi, then at Anakin, trying to put on a front of indecisive skepticism, but Qui-Gon could see the avaricious gleam in his eye. Qui-Gon moved his own expression into the best sabacc-face he could muster and coaxed, "Either way, you'll get back the entry fee, plus much more."
    Finally, Watto reluctantly nodded and grunted, "Deal." He slapped Qui-Gon's hand in agreement.
    "Very good," Qui-Gon said. "Anakin, we'll meet you at your house once you finish working out the registration with Watto." Anakin grinned excitedly at the Jedi, then at Padmé. She attempted a smile in return as Qui-Gon turned and walked out of the shop.
    Once the Jedi and his companions had walked some distance from the shop, Watto chuckled and muttered, "Your friend is a foolish one, methinks."
    Anakin rolled his eyes. "Where are those registration forms?"

    * * *

    As the group returned to Anakin's house and walked inside, Qui-Gon heard his comlink chirp. He stepped back out of the doorway and around to the side of the hut that wasn't baking in the direct sunlight and pulled it out. "Yes?"
    "Master, it's Obi-Wan. I was finally able to get rid of the old hyperdrive once the storm calmed down. The ship is a bit lighter now, and only capable of sublight travel."
    Qui-Gon smirked. "How much did you get for it?"
    "Well, I wish we had a protocol droid on board. I'm not too skilled at bartering in the Jawa trade language, unfortunately. We got it up to about forty-six peggats, and they wouldn't go any higher."
    "I see. Don't worry too much about it, Obi-Wan; I've found a possible solution to our problem." He explained the recent events, including their staying at Anakin's house and entering his pod in the Boonta Eve race the next day.
    Once he had finished, Obi-Wan was quiet for a few moments before asking, "What if this plan doesn't work, Master? We could be stuck here a long time..."
    "Either way, we don't have much of a choice. Our ship would never make it to Coruscant, so unless someone provided us with another hyperspace-capable vessel, this is the only option we have at present."
    Qui-Gon looked up the street at the rough-looking pedestrians and shop owners that had resumed their daily business after the dust storm. He continued, "...And considering the creatures that frequent the spaceport, I'm not sure it would be wise to ask around for help."
    Obi-Wan breathed a resigned-sounding sigh. "I understand, Master."
    "Plus, there's something about this boy, Obi-Wan..."
    "What do you mean?" the younger Jedi asked.
    "The Force is unusually strong with him. He practically emanates a Force aura; I've been almost overwhelmed by it."
    "Aura?" Obi-Wan questioned further.
    "Yes. And I feel that he will play a key part in our getting to Coruscant. I'm sure of it."
    "I see..." Qui-Gon's apprentice muttered, but he didn't sound quite convinced.
    Qui-Gon heard a hiss behind him, and Shmi stepped through the doorway of their house. The two Jedi hastily finished their conversation as Shmi walked around the side Qui-Gon was standing on. Clicking off his comlink, Qui-Gon gave a short smile to her and said, "It seems everything's gone well with Watto. Anakin should be on his way back now—"
    "Heeyy!" called Anakin, who was approaching the house at that moment. Tulam, carrying a large pack that was presumably filled with tools, walked beside him.
    "—Ah, there he is." Qui-Gon smiled and waved.
    Anakin grinned as he walked up to the two adults. He looked at his mother and said, "We should be able to finish fixing everything up tonight! And—" he held out a thin stack of flimsiplast sheets, "—I've got the registration forms right here. We're definitely in the race tomorrow!" He handed the forms over to Qui-Gon. "You'll need these tomorrow when we go to the track to prove that it's your podracer and everything." He smiled knowingly.
    Shmi put on a tense grimace. "You make sure everything is running perfectly," she admonished Tulam.
    Tulam smiled crookedly. "Don't you worry about that. She'll be purring like a Howler kitten in no time." He lumbered around the side of the house with Anakin in tow. Qui-Gon and Shmi followed a few steps behind to observe.
    Behind the house was a thin alleyway connecting to a courtyard surrounded by other huts and buildings. Clearly, it was the perfect place to conceal such a project, as there seemed to be minimal local activity on the adjacent street. With a flourish, Anakin pulled off the tarp covering a large, bulky object that was more or less in the middle of the courtyard to reveal the podracer he and Tulam had been building.
    Although the cylindrical, heavily-modified Radon-Ulzer 620c turbine engines seemed to be in good enough condition to start, they didn't look like they could do much else. Steelton control cables connected the two engines to the rounded metal cockpit which gave the vehicle its name. Thin air scoops that were used for turning and maintaining control jutted out from the front of the engines. Faded paint and scavenged parts made up the racer's general appearance.
    "I know it probably doesn't look like much," commented Anakin, "but it'll be the best pod in the race tomorrow!"
    Qui-Gon's face fell after studying the beat-up racer. I'm not so sure about this, thought the Jedi. But... the Force has an interesting way of bringing the best out of the most hopeless-looking situations sometimes. He forced a smile toward Anakin and said, "I know it will be. I'm looking forward to seeing you win tomorrow."
    Anakin smiled brightly, grabbed a wrench from Tulam's bag laying on the ground next to the pod, and set to work.
     
  6. Snocone

    Snocone Jedi Knight star 1

    Registered:
    Sep 14, 2015
    There are a couple of major diversions from the original plot in this chapter--they're subtle, but they have long-reaching ramifications.

    CHAPTER NINE

    Qui-Gon leaned against the rear of the house with Shmi, and together the two of them watched Anakin, Tulam, and R2-D2 weld, assemble, and torque various parts of the twin turbine engines as the suns sank lower toward the horizon. Padmé and Binjar had made their way outside a little while earlier, and were now standing near the podracer, watching the improvements being made with a keen interest. Occasionally, one of them would ask a question about one of the parts being fixed or added to the racer; Anakin and Tulam both seemed to love explaining their craft to the curious onlookers.
    The Jedi glanced sideways at the boy's mother. "Anakin is quite an amazing young man; you should be very proud."
    "Oh, surely," replied Shmi, smiling softly. "He's always giving of himself, with no thought of return."
    Qui-Gon nodded. "But there's more to it, isn't there?"
    Shmi stared at the Jedi for a long moment, looking as if she was debating over whether or not to say something. Finally, she whispered, "Yes."
    "He can see things before they happen. That's why he appears to have such quick reflexes. It's a Jedi trait."
    Shmi looked around herself at the dingy surroundings. "He—he deserves more than a slave's life. It's not big enough for him."
    "Had he been born in the Republic, we would have identified him early. The Force is very strong with him, that much is clear. Who is his father?"
    "His name is Rewel Skywalker. We met on Desevro, his home planet." Shmi's eyes became unfocused, and her face took on a wistful expression that indicated she did not often bring up the subject. "I was there on an extended trading voyage with my former master, Pi-Lippa. Rewel was under a shipping contract with her while we were there, so we saw each other often, and fell in love. We kept it secret, though, since I was just a slave. Once his contract was up, he started asking Pi-Lippa if there was any more work that needed to be done, even for free, just so we could spend time together." Shmi laughed quietly as she reminisced. "Pi-Lippa eventually found out, of course, but she was very kind about it, and allowed us to wed. Rewel was going to use his meager savings to set me free, but..." her voice caught in her throat for a moment, "...he passed away in a hyperspace miscalculation accident before he could. Then Pi-Lippa died too after a short while, and I was sent to serve her relatives. That was when I had Anakin." She swept a wisp of her dark hair out of her eyes and glanced at Qui-Gon, embarrassed. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to go on and on."
    Qui-Gon held up his hands invitingly. "No, please, continue. You said Rewel was from Desevro?"
    "Yes." Shmi blushed slightly. "Most humans from Desevro are extremely closed off from the rest of the galaxy, I know. But Rewel wasn't like that. He was a freighter pilot, and loved to visit other cultures. I think that same open-mindedness and love for adventure showed up in Anakin."
    The Jedi Master smiled. "I can tell. Well—his father being from Desevro would definitely explain why Anakin was never discovered. They aren't exactly friendly toward the Republic, nor the Jedi."
    Shmi nodded, her face downcast. "Rewel never really seemed to have any special powers either, but... I didn't know him for that long."
    The two stood silently for awhile, watching Anakin's decent-looking racer transform into a masterpiece under the care of its patient mechanics. Qui-Gon noted how friendly and respectful Tulam seemed to be whenever Anakin would ask him a question. Perhaps I misjudged him, he considered.
    As if she could read the Jedi's thoughts, Shmi said, "That Tulam has been such a great friend to us ever since he arrived here on Tatooine. Anakin really looks up to him like a father. Sure, he's got his rough edges, but..." She let the statement linger.
    Qui-Gon stared down at the ground, pensive. Finally, he bowed his head slightly toward Shmi and said, "If you'll excuse me." Then he walked down into the courtyard.

    * * *

    Tulam was crouching in front of the left engine, tightening the clamp around the fuel distribution line, when he felt a light tap on his shoulder. He looked up to see Qui-Gon Jinn standing there. "Yeah?" he grunted warily.
    "I was wondering if I could talk to you for a moment," Qui-Gon answered.
    Tulam stood and stretched, trying to look casual. "Sure thing," he said. He followed Qui-Gon a few meters down the narrow alley and stared at the Jedi pointedly.
    Qui-Gon cleared his throat. "Ah, Tulam, I owe you an apology. When my companions and I first arrived at Mos Espa, we didn't quite know what to expect. We were in a very bad position, with no way to get to our destination. And as you know, Mos Espa has more than a few... unsavory residents."
    Tulam crossed his thick arms and raised an eyebrow at the other man. "Uh huh?"
    "Right, that's not an excuse." Qui-Gon faltered a bit. "I made you out to be a swindler when we first came into your shop. That's why I treated you so poorly. I was wrong to do so, as my companion there pointed out." He nodded toward Padmé, who was sitting cross-legged next to the podracer listening to Anakin recount a past race. "Seeing you interact with Anakin and helping him and his mother really showed me that I shouldn't have been so quick to judge your character."
    The old shopkeeper stared at Qui-Gon for several moments, chewing the inside of his cheek. Finally, he chuckled softly and shook his head. "Core Worlders..." he mumbled, smirking. "Ahh, I suppose I should've been more straight with you, too. I was really hoping to get that astromech droid in a trade, see. But anyway, don't worry about it." He held out his calloused, machine-greased hand.
    Qui-Gon shook it warmly, smiling. "Actually, I really am from Eriadu. But they're about as Core as an Outer Rim planet can get."
    Tulam laughed outright at this remark. "You got that right! As a matter of fact, I'm from Alderaan myself, used to be a freighter crewman, but I came out here to the Rim to get away from the politics. I swear, if I hear another word about that Senatorial Trade Summit Resolution..." He chuckled again.
    Qui-Gon nodded in assent. "I completely understand that sentiment. Unfortunately, it seems that the fight over trade routes has made it out to the Rim as well—in short, that's why we're here. I'm an ambassador for the Republic."
    "You here to pull Tatooine into the dispute? I don't think the Hutts would take too kindly to that."
    "Ah, no... We actually never intended to come to Tatooine in the first place." Qui-Gon glanced over at Padmé and Binjar again. "We're on our way to Coruscant to plead the planet Naboo's case to the Senate. The Trade Federation has illegally invaded her capital city, Theed."
    Tulam's expression turned to one of shock. "Invaded...?"
    "Yes; the Federation forces started landing just yesterday. And with our ship lacking a hyperdrive as well as a communication system, the invasion may be well along by the time we can finally alert the Senate."
    "Wow..." Tulam's jaw slackened. "That's awful."
    Qui-Gon nodded. "The only option we have at this point is to win the Boonta Eve race tomorrow, and use the winnings to purchase a new hyperdrive from Anakin's master, Watto."
    "So that's what Anakin was talking about," Tulam said thoughtfully. "Well, as you can see, the podracer is turning out perfectly. And Anakin'll win tomorrow, no problem. Once he sets his mind on helping out a friend, there's nothing that can stop him."
    Qui-Gon grinned, but before he could reply, Anakin called out, "Tulam! I think it's ready to go!"
    The two men walked back to the pod. Anakin crawled into the cockpit while Tulam and R2-D2 did a systems check. "All right, Anakin, fire it up!" boomed Tulam once they had finished.
    Anakin gave a thumbs-up and a grin, then started the sequence. "All right girl, let's see what we've got," he spoke quietly as he eased up the fuel injection lever and started the cockpit repulsorlift, causing it to rise slightly above the dirt. He pushed the ignition switch. The violet-white power coupling flashed into existence between the receptor plates on each engine, linking them together; and then, with a roar, both engines blazed to life. The two engines' own repulsorlifts kicked in and gently raised them off of the ground, and the Steelton cables went taut.
    As the engines settled into a thrumming rhythm, Anakin leaned back heavily into the cockpit seat and looked up into the darkening golden sky. He lifted his fist into the air in a display of victory, and everyone cheered.
    Through the twilight, Shmi saw a tear run down Anakin's grimy, grinning face.

    * * *

    Tatoo I had already dipped below the horizon and showed only a glimmer of deep orange over the stark landscape; its binary, Tatoo II, still hung almost completely visible above the horizon line, giving the sky a brass hue. A long, sinister-looking craft descended through the desert planet's atmosphere, cutting a golden scar across the sky with its condensation trail.
    The vessel landed in the middle of the vast desert just as Tatooine's second sun dropped halfway below the skyline. It had a thin, blade-like bow, with a spherical stern and two angular wings jutting out on either side. Sand clouds whipped up on either side as the ship's repulsorlifts gently set the craft down. Once it had settled, the landing ramp descended to the barren soil below.
    From the dim interior of the ship, Darth Maul confidently stepped down the ramp onto Tatooine's surface and held up a pair of electrobinoculars to scan the area. His black cloak whipped around him in the dry, warm desert breeze, but his focus was uninterrupted. By the binoculars' enhanced vision, he spotted three settlements in as many directions: Mos Eisley, Anchorhead, and Mos Espa. Lights were slowly winking on throughout the towns as darkness fell.
    Lowering the electrobinoculars, the Sith then pressed a small button on his wrist controller, and three spherical DRK-1 probe droids slowly floated from the ship's entrance behind him. These droids were entirely black, with various sensors and antennae bristling all over them; and each had a single photoreceptor glaring out from its equator. They hummed past Maul and split up to investigate each of the three settlements.
    Satisfied, the Sith apprentice turned and walked back up the ship's ramp to meditate in his chamber. The Jedi who had stopped his operation on Corellia were worthy opponents, and he wanted to be in prime condition when he faced them.
    Faced them, and killed them.

    * * *

    Qui-Gon was standing in the middle of Tatooine's shimmering desert, dressed again in his dark grey Coruscanti cloak. The twin suns were directly above him, heating the atmosphere to a migraine-inducing, oven-like temperature. Anakin Skywalker stood before him, saying something over and over, but his voice sounded muffled and distant.
    "What are you saying, Anakin?" Qui-Gon inquired. "Repeat yourself!"
    Anakin kept speaking the same phrase, but it still made absolutely no sense to the Jedi Master. Frustrated, Qui-Gon shouted, "I can't understand you!"
    All at once, the heat surrounding Qui-Gon like a thick blanket seemed to fade into the background of his perception. Anakin opened his mouth once more and calmly said, "Give me your lightsaber, Qui-Gon. I must save the Jedi."
    Qui-Gon unclipped his lightsaber and handed it to the boy. Anakin nodded and examined the hilt closely, a solemn look on his face. Finally, he ignited the blade.
    It was a bright ruby color—the color of a blade typically favored by the Sith, whose dark order had gone extinct more than one thousand years prior.
    "That—that's not possible!" gasped the Jedi. "I built my lightsaber myself—the blade shouldn't..."
    His voice trailed off as he noticed that his surroundings had drastically changed. He looked up at the sky. It was now nighttime, and hundreds of thousands of stars were splashed across the blackness of space. But not all the lights above were distant suns—
    "They're ships," Qui-Gon noted. Enormous warships of varying size and design hung above the planet's surface, pummeling each other with sheets of turbolaser volleys. Smaller, winking lights zipped back and forth; these must have been one-man fighters. Burning shrapnel from the battle began to fall all around Qui-Gon, pock-marking the glistening sand.
    The Jedi looked back at the young teen standing before him. Anakin had a pleasant smile on his face, and seemed to be oblivious to the conflict above.
    He locked eyes with Qui-Gon. "Thank you," he said, still smiling. Abruptly, he turned and began walking away from the Jedi, across the desert and toward a brightly-lit town in the distance. He held Qui-Gon's ignited lightsaber in his right hand. The blade was still red.
    "Anakin? Anakin!" Qui-Gon called after him. "Where are you going?"
    The boy did not answer; did not slow his pace. Qui-Gon began shouting his name over and over, "Anakin! Anakin!" but, to his confusion and frustration, he discovered that his own voice had become muffled, and sounded as if he were trying to scream underwater. He tried harder, shouted louder, but Anakin did not seem to hear him—
    Qui-Gon awoke with a start, breathing heavily. A cold sweat covered his body. He sat up from the woven mat he had been sleeping on in Anakin and Shmi's tiny home and looked around, letting reality seep back into his mind. Binjar slept soundly on the other side of the room, and R2-D2 sat dormant in a corner.
    The Jedi shook his head slightly and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, then quietly stood and made his way to the front door, trying to step softly around his Gohltan companion's long legs. Once outside, he walked around the corner to the rear of the house and leaned on the crumbling wall there. He sighed heavily, still considering the dream, and stared up into the vast galaxy above.
    After several minutes of meditation, Qui-Gon heard the small beep of his comlink from his tunic pocket. He pulled it out and clicked it on. "Obi-Wan?"
    "Yes, Master... I'm sorry if I woke you," Obi-Wan answered in a low tone.
    "Actually, no; you didn't. Did you feel it too?"
    "A disturbance in the Force, yes. A sort of foreboding sense... Do you think the queen's receipt signal was intercepted and tracked here to Tatooine?"
    Qui-Gon recalled his dream, but decided not to mention it. "That could be the case, yes. We must be wary."
    "Yes, Master. Panaka and I have been keeping an eye out around the spaceport all day for any sign of hostile activity. I'm currently on watch."
    "Very good, Obi-Wan. Do try to get some rest, though."
    "Certainly, Master. You too."
    Qui-Gon smiled softly and turned off the comlink. He reflected on the strange series of events that had led to them being stranded on that remote, barren rock of a planet, wagering their mission's success entirely upon the piloting skill of a young man named Anakin Skywalker. The Force certainly was enigmatic in its unfolding.

    * * *

    Hints of morning light spilled into the courtyard behind Anakin's house. The boy was already there with R2-D2, applying paint detailing to the podracer's cockpit. The majority of it was a silvery white, and intersecting blue lines criss-crossed the surface. The air scoops on the front of the engines were a yellow ochre color, symbolizing his being from the planet Tatooine. Just below the seat depression, on the outside, he painted a stylized letter senth inside of the letter wesk in dark orange to represent his family name, Skywalker.
    "Well, what do you think, Artoo?" he asked the droid, standing back to admire his work. The little astromech hummed appreciatively.
    After a little while, Padmé made her way into the courtyard, yawning sleepily. She gave a sweet smile to Anakin once they made eye contact. "Good morning," she said softly.
    "Morning!" Anakin beamed.
    "Are you ready for the race today?" the handmaiden asked, examining the podracer.
    Anakin patted one of the engines. "I think so! This one'll be racing circles around the others. Most pilots opt for big, powerful engines—I'm going for speed and control. Plus, I know the track better than everyone out there."
    Padmé gave the other a confident smile. "Perfect." The two looked over the racer for several moments more until she continued in a quiet, sincere tone, "Anakin—thank you so much for helping us. You don't know how much this means."
    Anakin grinned over at her. "It's my pleasure!"
    At that moment, Qui-Gon, Binjar, and Shmi appeared at the mouth of the alleyway. Anakin gestured at his mechanical masterpiece, with its bright new paint. "How's she look?"
    Shmi gasped and gave a small clap, then came and put her arm around Anakin's shoulders. "It's magnificent, Ani!"
    Anakin leaned against his mother and exhaled. "Thanks! I think she turned out well."
    Qui-Gon crossed his arms and nodded at the boy. "It's a beautiful machine. You and Tulam should be proud."
    Anakin smiled. "He'll be coming by here any minute with his sled to take it over to the track."
    As the four talked further about the impending race, a slight mechanical hum filled the air around them and slowly grew louder. "Ah, that's him!" Anakin said, strolling out to the street beyond. After a few minutes, he appeared again, with Tulam edging his wide gravsled and speeder through the alley behind him. Anakin jogged over to the podracer cockpit, jumped in, and turned on the racer's repulsorlifts to make it easier to maneuver onto the sled. After crawling back out again, he, Tulam, and Qui-Gon moved it onto the sled and secured it with plasteel bindings. R2-D2 rolled up onto the sled behind the pod and whistled impatiently.
    "It looks like the droid is ready to go," Binjar said, shaking his head. Padmé suppressed a laugh.
    "That's a great paint job you did, kid," acknowledged Tulam, giving Anakin an approving smirk.
    "I'm glad you like it!" Anakin replied. "Are you ready to go over to the stadium?"
    Tulam nodded and jumped into the speeder's driver seat. "Hop in, and let's get over there and registered, huh?" He made a motion toward Padmé. "You come along too, little lady!" Padmé blushed slightly, then made her way to the passenger seat next to the old shopkeeper.
    Anakin gave Tulam a thumbs-up, then turned to the others. "What about you three?"
    "We'll walk over there now," Qui-Gon answered. "I'll make sure to bring the forms with me." He held up the yellowed sheets. "See you there!"
    Shmi waved as Anakin made his way around the gravsled and sat behind Tulam. Then she, Qui-Gon, and Binjar went up through the alley and began walking down the street, toward the outskirts of the city.
     
  7. Snocone

    Snocone Jedi Knight star 1

    Registered:
    Sep 14, 2015
    CHAPTER TEN

    Some of Mos Espa's especially industrious shop keepers and restaurateurs were already setting up their tables and wares along the sides of the avenue, looking forward to the increased traffic resulting from the race. Binjar looked longingly at the roasted meats and breads they walked past, but kept his hands to himself this time, a much wiser Gohltan after the previous day's altercation.
    "Do you think they'll get there long before us?" inquired Qui-Gon as the three of them walked past more weather-beaten homes and buildings.
    "Just a little earlier," Shmi replied. "Tulam will have to take his speeder down the few streets that are wide enough."
    Qui-Gon nodded and continued walking, a somewhat strained expression on his face. Noticing this, Shmi asked, "Are you all right?"
    He looked at her for a long moment, then quietly replied, "I had a bit of a hard time sleeping last night. I've just been running a lot over in my mind."
    Shmi pursed her lips. "I certainly understand that. It's been quite a long journey for all of you, hasn't it?"
    "Yes it has. But then, I'm sure everyone goes on some form of a long journey throughout their lives. It's what betters us; makes us stronger. Anakin has come a long way to make it to this point, I'm sure."
    The woman smiled softly. "Yes."
    They continued on in silence for awhile before Shmi spoke again. "Can you... can you help him? Take him with you?" she asked, giving an imploring look to the Jedi.
    "I don't know," Qui-Gon admitted, looking at the ground in front of him. "Jedi prospects are sent to the temple on Coruscant as infants, usually. Anakin is much older than any apprentices I've ever seen there, and I'm not sure that the Council would even accept him. But..." he sighed determinedly, "...I've been feeling more and more that we were meant to meet you and your son. And I'd like to try to find a way to free the both of you and take you to Coruscant with us, and let Anakin be tested. He would make a brilliant Jedi apprentice, I think." He smiled at her.
    Shmi returned the smile. "You're very kind, Master Jinn. But you needn't have me along. If Anakin was given a chance to leave this place, I'd be happy." She took a few more steps, then spoke again, "You know, he looks up at the stars almost every night and tells me that he wants to visit every single one of them someday."
    Qui-Gon chuckled appreciatively. "That's quite a dream. He sounds just like my apprentice, Obi-Wan."
    Binjar spoke up behind the two. "Is Anakin coming with us, then?"
    Qui-Gon turned his head as they neared the westernmost wall of the city and replied, "Perhaps. I've been wondering if we can use Watto's gambling addiction against him."
    Binjar nodded thoughtfully and remained silent.
    Shmi laughed. "Is that so?" she asked. Qui-Gon merely gave a wry smile in response.
    The three of them approached the large stone archway and road that led out of Mos Espa and toward the enormous stadium that housed the racetrack's starting line and thousands of eager fans. Other groups of people, residents and foreigners alike who were also going to watch the podrace, milled past them.
    After another few minutes of walking, they could see the cavernous garage-like structure in which each pilot's podracer sat. Other racers and their pit crews, as well as an assortment of gamblers, businessmen, and backwater-planet crooks moved anxiously back and forth, arguing over the strengths and weaknesses of each pod and finalizing bets. Tiny, four-limbed mechanic droids crawled all over the machines, performing last-minute tune-ups.
    "Do you see—oh, there he is!" said Shmi, waving enthusiastically. In the distance, a grinning, sandy-blonde teen waved back. Qui-Gon and his two companions made their way toward him.
    Once the group reached Anakin inside the hangar, he pointed over at a shifty-eyed alien who was casually chatting with Watto a few meters away. The alien had very pale skin, needle-point teeth, and two long, fleshy brain tails issuing from the back of his head that were twitching on either shoulder. "That Twi'lek there is the one you'll need to talk to about registering the podracer. His name is Bib Fortuna." Anakin sniffed contemptuously. "He reports to Jabba the Hutt."
    Qui-Gon nodded and walked toward the two, pulling out his forms. Watto, noticing him, leaned over and muttered something in Huttese to the Twi'lek.
    "Dat's a pretty nice pod," grumbled Watto, turning back to the Jedi once he approached them. "Where did you say you gots it again?"
    "Oh, here and there," Qui-Gon replied, grinning. "I have the registration forms; Anakin told me to give them to you, sir." He handed the flimsiplast sheets to Fortuna, who bowed and took them to another group of people sitting behind a counter farther inside the hangar.
    "I wanta see your ship da moment da race is over, eh?" Watto said, casting a wary sideways glance at Qui-Gon.
    Qui-Gon chuckled lightly. "Patience, my good friend. You'll have your winnings before the suns set—and we'll be far away from here."
    The Toydarian snorted, causing his trunk-like nose to twitch comically. "Not if your ship belongs to me, I think!" He jabbed a finger into the center of Qui-Gon's chest. "I warn you... no funny business."
    Qui-Gon put on an innocent expression. "What, you don't think Anakin will win?"
    "Don't-ah get me wrong, he is a talented pilot. A credit to your race, but, eh—" he motioned to his left at a burnt-orange podracer with enormous split-X engines, "—Sebulba's going to win, I think." Next to the elongated cockpit of the racer, the gangly Dug was being massaged by a shapely blue-skinned female alien.
    Qui-Gon made a sour face in Sebulba's general direction. "What makes you say that?" he asked Watto.
    The hovering shopkeeper shrugged. "He always wins da Boonta Eve. I'ma betting heavily on Sebulba."
    The Jedi stroked his beard, a glint appearing in his eyes. "I'll take that bet," he said, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.
    Watto jerked his head toward Qui-Gon, a look of shock written in his gruff features. "You'll what?"
    Qui-Gon kept a detached air. "I'll wager my new podracer against, say... the boy and his mother."
    "No pod is worth two slaves," Watto growled, swiping his hand through the air. "Not by a long shot!"
    "Well, the boy then."
    The Toydarian's greedy eyes moved back and forth between Qui-Gon and the shiny silver and blue racer sitting a few meters away. He scratched the back of his head and muttered to himself, deep in thought. Finally, he appeared to have a brilliant idea, and pulled a coin out of a pouch at his waist.
    "We'll let fate decide, eh? Here's-ah one trugut. Heads, da boy—" he tapped one side of the coin with his clawed index finger, then flipped it over, "—and tails, da mother."
    Qui-Gon reached out with the Force and sensed that one side of the coin, the one ascribed to Anakin, was definitely heavier than the other. This must be how Watto typically wins his bets, he thought, trying to hide a smile. 'Let fate decide,' indeed. "Sounds good to me," he said aloud.
    Watto tossed the coin into the air. Keeping a nonchalant look, Qui-Gon barely lifted his hand as the coin dropped to the ground. It landed heads-up.
    Watto looked as if he had just watched his shop go up in flames. He quickly tried to disguise his dismay with self-righteous annoyance. "Y—you may have won da small toss, Core Worlder," he spluttered, "but you won'ta win da race, so it makes no difference!" He snatched up his coin, turned, and performed the flying equivalent of stalking away in a rage.
    Qui-Gon watched the alien go, a thin, satisfied smile on his face. He then turned and made his way over to Anakin and the others, humming to himself.

    * * *

    An onyx-colored DRK-1 probe droid whisked down the dusty Mos Espa street near the spaceport like a detached shadow, its photoreceptor lens expanding and retracting as it processed its surroundings. Most of the town's inhabitants paid it no mind, as it clearly didn't have any money. The droid peered down alleyways and behind shops, looking for its target: Queen Amidala of Naboo. It was also programmed to recognize Qui-Gon Jinn, Jedi Master.
    Quarsh Panaka sat at a small wooden table just outside docking bay twenty-seven, eating a local delicacy of dekaa root and chorsh-rabbit meat wrapped in a flat, circular bread. The meat is a little gamey, and probably not quite worth the ten truguts I paid for it, Panaka decided, but all in all, this a great combination, with the nutty flavor of the dekaa root and the—
    His meandering gaze snapped to intense concentration as he caught sight of the probe droid drifting past his stained, dusty table at a distance of about a meter. He tried to remain as casual as possible as the droid went by, wishing that he had worn something besides his spotless military uniform to go out onto the street. Several tense seconds ticked by as the droid hovered around the restaurant right next to Captain Panaka. He subtly pulled his cap farther down over his eyes.
    Finally, the droid seemed satisfied with its reconnoitering, and floated farther down the avenue. Panaka breathed a sigh of relief, then bolted out of his chair and ran back to the ship once he was sure the droid was out of sight.
    He walked up the vessel's ramp and saw Obi-Wan to his left, staring at a datafile on the ship's computer and chatting distractedly with Ric Olie. Their conversation faded as they noticed Panaka's distressed expression.
    "What is it?" asked Obi-Wan, swiveling in his chair to face the captain.
    "I spotted a probe droid outside," he replied, catching his breath. "I don't want to be paranoid, but... it seems pretty likely that it was looking for us."
    The muscles around the young Jedi's eyes tensed. "Do you know what kind of probe droid it was?"
    Panaka looked to the side, through the viewport. "It was black... Had various antennae and peripherals sticking out of it... A single photoreceptor—Aren't they all the same?"
    Obi-Wan sat back in his chair. "I'm not familiar with a design that matches that description." He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "And no, there are several different kinds, depending on what they're looking for. Some, like the kind that work on asteroid mines, merely scan for ore deposits and such. Others, though, the kind that aid in detective work—they're programmed to find specific people." He stood up and picked up his comlink from where it was resting on the computer console.
    "Master?" he said into the comlink, holding it up to his face.
    After a second or two, Qui-Gon replied. "Yes, Obi-Wan?" The sound of clanking metal and the voices of multitudinous creatures talking or shouting could be heard in the background.
    "Ah... Where are you?"
    "Oh, we're at the podrace stadium, moving Anakin's machine out onto the track. The race is starting soon." Obi-Wan could hear the excitement in his master's voice.
    "Sorry to bother you, but Captain Panaka saw a probe droid outside the spaceport a moment ago. It wasn't a design I recognized, but I wanted to let you know in case you see one there."
    Qui-Gon's tone became much more serious, and the noise around him died away, indicating that he had found a quiet corner to talk to Obi-Wan from. "Thank you for alerting me," he said. "I have no doubt that it was sent by the Trade Federation. They must have tracked that receipt signal, like you said last night."
    "Do you think it's related to that disturbance we felt as well?"
    "Likely," Qui-Gon answered, sounding thoughtful. "Stay with the ship for now. I'll keep on the lookout here."
    "Yes, Master." Obi-Wan clicked off the comlink and gave a grim look to the other two men standing there.
    Ric Olie had his arms crossed and an expectant look on his face. "Should I keep the engine hot?"
    Obi-Wan shot the pilot a half-smile. "I don't think so. Between Panaka and me, we'll be able to protect the ship from those Federation droids."
    Olie tipped his chin. "Right, right. You seemed to have no trouble back at the hangar on Naboo."
    Panaka turned on his heel and went toward the rear of the ship. "I'll let the queen know what's going on," he said. Rather stiffly, Obi-Wan noted.
    "What's his problem?" Olie asked once the captain was out of earshot.
    "Master Qui-Gon told me one of his men died in the fight as we were taking off," Obi-Wan recalled. "I'm sure that was extremely hard for him."
    "Understandable," the pilot agreed. "Let's hope we can get out of here soon, so no one else has to die at the hands of the Federation, huh?"
    Obi-Wan nodded in reply, his expression pensive.

    * * *

    "[Welcome everyone; welcome to the Boonta Eve Podraaaaaaaaace!]" the amplified voice of the long-necked announcer, Gorha, called in Huttese. His words were translated into Basic on a huge holo-display above the commentator box.
    The crowd—aliens and humans alike, from all parts of the Mid and Outer Rim—cheered wildly. They sat in an enormous semi-circular amphitheater that bordered the starting line, which was currently occupied by the staggered lineup of podracers. The twin suns shone intensely overhead, but this didn't seem to affect the excitement-filled atmosphere in the slightest. Vendors, moving up and down the stands, offered overpriced snacks as well as portable viewscreen rentals for anyone in the crowd who had neglected to bring their own to watch the race streamed live from holocams placed along the course.
    "[I see the contestants are making their way onto the starting grid,]" the announcer continued animatedly. As each pilot made his way onto the track, Gorha announced its name and system of origin. Depending on each pilot's status in the podracing community, the crowd's volume rose and fell drastically.
    "[...And up next is Anakin Skywalker, a latecomer to the Boonta Classic. He's a human boy from next-door Mos Espa!]"
    Anakin, walking in with Tulam, waved to the crowd as he approached his pod. There was only a smattering of applause, and this only from the local onlookers. Anakin tried to ignore the lack of support as he and Tulam gave the engines a final review.
    "Don't worry about it, kid," grunted the shop-keeper as he intently peered at the thrust coil of the righthand engine. "They just haven't seen what you and this pod can do yet."
    Anakin gave a half-hearted smile. "Right."
    If he had any thunder to steal, it was gone the instant Sebulba sauntered out onto the track. The stadium, from one end to the other, practically exploded with near-rabid cheering. Gorha picked up on this immediately: "[From Malastare, it's Sebuulllbaaaaaa!!]" The crowd seemed to outdo itself at this announcement, erupting into even louder adulation.
    Anakin sighed and pulled himself up into the cockpit of his racer. Tulam merely smirked and handed the boy his helmet. It was dinged and pitted from several past races; and the flight goggles were slightly crooked, but still serviceable.
    The young pilot shook out his straight blonde hair and eased the helmet on as the announcer continued to introduce other pilots. He ran through a systems check again, then powered up the pod's repulsorlifts. The racer gently rose off the ground above its starting position.
    Anakin looked up to the right to see an obese Hutt with wide-set, slitted eyes undulate into the silk-draped spectator box next to Gorha's: Jabba Desilijic Tiure, crime lord and thrill seeker. He was flanked on either side by snooty-looking creatures and pleasure slaves alike; the former hoping to gain the massive slug's favor and the latter wanting nothing to do with him. Bib Fortuna, the shifty, red-eyed Twi'lek, stood at Jabba's elbow.
    "Where's Mom and the rest?" Anakin asked Tulam.
    Tulam shielded his eyes with his hand as he scanned the crowd. After a moment, he pointed to a row of seats well below Jabba's box and to the right. "There. Nosebleed section," he said. Anakin waved, and smiled as he saw his mother, Binjar, and Padmé wave back. Qui-Gon, who stood towering next to the handmaiden, seemed to be distracted; he was looking around at the crowd as if searching for a specific person or thing.
    "All right, start 'er up," Tulam said, giving the cockpit a final pat.
    Anakin went through the sequence as he had done hundreds of times: Begin the fuel relay. Pull back the thrust control and set the throttle to neutral position. Activate the electrical systems and monitors. Turn on the power coupling to link the two engines.
    Press the ignition switch.
    The Radon-Ulzer engines coughed and shuddered, then ignited with a spectacular roar.
    Anakin pulled his goggles down over his eyes and gave a thumbs up to Tulam, who saluted in return and ambled back to the stands where the others were sitting. He looked around himself at the other racers, who all wore similarly-determined expressions. Tatooine may not have had much going for it, but the Boonta Eve Classic was where podracer champions were made.
    The lap indicator light on the arch above the course beeped twice. Anakin peered up at Jabba the Hutt, who was slouched next to a copper-colored gong and holding a long mallet in his hand. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the giant worm slung his arm rather lazily and sounded the gong.
    The lap indicator beeped again and turned green.
    Anakin shoved the accelerator handle forward... and with a jerk and a kick, his engines died. The other twelve racers swerved around him haphazardly and shot down the track in a whirlwind of dust and grit. The crowd's cheering turned to laughter as they began to notice the stalled pod still floating on its repulsorlifts above the starting line.
    Anakin, his ears burning under his helmet and heart beating thunderously in his chest, rapidly began going through a diagnostics check, trying to find the problem. He briefly glanced over to see Tulam jogging back toward the pod.
    "[Ooh, it looks like Skywalker has stalled!]" Gorha's nasally, mocking voice rang out overhead.
    "I—I don't know what happened!" Anakin said as Tulam approached.
    The man put his hands on the rim of the cockpit and leaned in, staring at the console. "What the..." He pushed away and stepped next to the engine, running his hand over each piece to see if he could find any broken points. Anakin went through the startup sequence again and began pressing the ignition switch over and over. Tulam, still searching the engine systems, suddenly jerked his hand away and put his fingers in his mouth; apparently he had touched the scalding thrust coil accidentally.
    The stadium onlookers laughed and jeered even more raucously. Swearing loudly, Tulam began kicking the engine with his large, booted feet. Anakin cringed and kept trying the ignition.
    Suddenly, the engines sputtered and started again. Anakin looked at Tulam, a mixture of shock and relief in his expression. Tulam mirrored the look, staring back and forth between the boy and his racer.
    A moment passed before Tulam shouted, "Go! Go, Anakin!"
    Anakin shook his head, snapping out of his surprise, and jammed the accelerator handle. The podracer blasted off down the track in a flash, Radon-Ulzer engines screaming. Whooping and cheering, Tulam raised his fists above his head triumphantly.
     
  8. Snocone

    Snocone Jedi Knight star 1

    Registered:
    Sep 14, 2015
    While writing this, I originally had only a very basic outline for the podrace--Anakin flies around really fast, there are close calls and angry noises from Sebulba, and Anakin wins, hooray. Once I got to the actual chapter, though, I realized I needed a much more detailed scenario in order to make it fun and understandable, so I made a separate outline just for this chapter. Consequently, it ended up being my favorite chapter out of the whole book. I hope you like it!

    CHAPTER ELEVEN

    The individual stone formations lining the Starlit Flats seemed to lose their shape and blur together like brown paint on an azure canvas as Anakin sped past them. He didn't have time to concentrate on them, though; one wrong move, and he'd join the krayt dragons as a fossil in the sandy wastes. He nudged the throttle to starboard to slip through a large archway and spotted Clegg Holdfast, Nosaurian racer from New Plympto, up ahead.
    All right! Already made it to the first racer. That didn't take long at all, Anakin thought, smiling. Maybe I still have a chance. Lining his engines up to a straightaway, he pushed the accelerator and moved forward to intercept the ungainly machine.
    The reptilian Holdfast didn't even have enough time to yell out a curse as the little silver racer blew past him. He jerked to the left to avoid collision with the giant boulder that rested on the lip of the canyon running through the Aldo Plains, and dropped in. By that point, Anakin's cockpit was a distant glint between the high rock walls.
    The trick to racing pods, Anakin found over the few years he had spent in Watto's less-than-smooth rides, was to always be aware of all parts of the machine as they worked together to make up the whole. There wasn't just left and right when you were trying to dodge rapidly-approaching objects; the repulsorlifts had to be adjusted to lift the racer over or duck under any hurdle that the front sensors didn't have enough time to compensate for on their own. The engines, too, had to be calibrated in tandem to fly harmoniously and retain their electrical coupling. This idea of cohesion between the racer and the machine—and the disastrous risk that it promised if one was not adroit enough to handle it—is what drew daring pilots to attempt the various circuits scattered across the galaxy.
    Piloting gave Anakin a dynamic, sparking thrill in his entire being—it was what he felt he was born to do, as well as what kept him going. Fortunately, his mother had learned long ago that Anakin was drawn to it like a Jawa was drawn to shiny objects, and had resigned to the fact that he would find a way to fly whether she approved or not.
    He tapped his air brake slightly as the canyon walls to either side narrowed and then connected overhead to become a labyrinthine cave. Just ahead, in the dimly-lit cavern, were two more racers. Using their massive engines to ram each other closer to the ever-looming walls on either side, the pair were too distracted to notice Anakin sidling up behind them until it was too late.
    Anakin, having raced this course enough times to do it with his eyes closed, channeled a boost of power to his lifts just as the passage interior expanded upward into a large cavity, and launched above and beyond the two podracers. Caught in a moment of shock, one of them merely stared at the impossible sight, then abruptly careened into a stalagmite and exploded in a deafening fireball. Anakin winced as he dropped back down in front of the remaining racer. That could easily be me if I'm not careful. My pod may be the fastest on the track, but it's also the most fragile, he cautioned himself. He juked left and right to avoid the remaining stone deposits of the hazy cave and launched into the sunlight. Just ahead was the Chakto Mesa, named for its mushroom-shaped rock formations—chakto in Huttese—and the Metta Drop. Shiny moving spots dazzled in the distance: the middle of the pack.
    Only nine more racers to go, and I'm still in the first lap, Anakin thought, smiling.

    * * *

    "[Sebulba's in the lead crossing Crater Valley; he's being hounded by Mars Guo in his Collor Behemoth racer,]" Gorha's projected voice recounted enthusiastically to the stadium onlookers. The screen above his box showed the holocam feed of the two racers as they vied for first place.
    "[They're ramming each other now. Their engines are matched. Those orange split-X engines can really take a beating, folks. Wait... It looks like—looks like Sebulba's pulling ahead now! He's in front of Guo. The Phuii is trying to edge around the side of Sebulba, but he isn't allowing it!]" The announcer's voice rose in pitch and volume. "[The Dug champion is—it seems he's trying to—Sebulba is holding what looks to be an autowrench!]"
    The crowd watched in anticipation as the wily Dug racer glanced behind himself at the pursuing Mars Guo, held up the autowrench he had procured from somewhere in his cockpit, and tossed it nonchalantly into the Behemoth engine's air intake.
    A brief moment of electrified near-silence settled over the stadium as the onlookers collectively gasped.
    Guo's engine jerked as if choking on an unchewed piece of food, then detonated in a bright burst of fire and metal. No longer linked by the violet-white power coupling, the Phuii racer's remaining engine dived into the cracked ground and began to tumble, which in turn slung the cockpit up and over. The angular cockpit rolled on its edge for several meters, then caught on a rock and flipped, slinging the helpless pilot up into the air like a doll. Guo, whose reptilian race was hardy and compact, landed heavily and lay on the ground for a couple of moments, then staggered to his feet, cursing and spitting.
    The crowd loved it.
    "[Oooh, a spectacular exit from the race by Mars Guo! Sebulba is in front!]" Gorha yelled over the raucous audience. Sebulba roared through the stadium after a few moments to deafening cheers, waving and flashing his sharp, glinting teeth. Several more racers followed just behind him, starting their second lap out of three.
    Shmi and Padmé peered anxiously at their rented viewscreen, tapping the arrow in the corner to switch between the track's cameras. Anakin was nowhere to be seen. Binjar, over a head taller than the two girls, craned his neck to look over them at the screen, then resumed staring down the track. Qui-Gon's eyes were half-closed in sage concentration. He seemed to be attempting to channel calming Force energy to Anakin, wherever he was. Tulam and R2-D2 stood in the dirt just below them, ready to assist Anakin in case he stopped for repairs.
    "Do you see him?" Padmé asked nervously, looking up at Binjar.
    The Gohltan's eyes squinted, and he held his hand to his brow to block out the suns above. "I don't think so, but I'm not sure—wait!" He pointed excitedly at a distant reflection that was being followed by a streak of dust. "I think that's him!"
    Sure enough, Anakin blasted through the stadium a few seconds later, his concentration zeroed in on the track ahead. His few supporters whistled and cheered; several others in the crowd took notice as well. Watto, in a small box on the other side of the track, ground his mismatched teeth together, slightly worried about the rapid advancing of Anakin through the group of racers.
    Gorha sounded taken aback, his voice uncharacteristically erratic. "[It's—it's Skywalker, past the middle of the pack and in sixth place already! This is turning out to be quite the race, folks! He's being tailed by Elan Mak and Ebe Endocott, who are grappling for seventh!]"

    * * *

    Anakin pulled out a small rag from his snug-fitting flight jacket and swiped them across his goggles while speeding through the Starlit Flats for the second time. He had heard from some of the other pilots and podracing junkies that one of the things that made the Mos Espa course so challenging, especially for racers from wetter worlds, was the constant presence of dust. It caked on the high-speed pilots to choke them and obscure their vision, and could reduce a perfectly-tuned engine to grinding, broken machinery if proper precautions were not taken.
    Fortunately, having grown up here, Anakin barely gave it a second thought. His machine, which sported very narrow, shielded air intakes, was similarly resistant to the elements.
    He glanced behind himself just before dropping into Aldo Canyon. Through the stream of dirt his repulsorlifts were kicking up, he made out Ebe Endocott, an ape-like Triffian in his J930 Dash-8 podracer, edging past Elan Mak's barrel-shaped engines. Although he had just passed the two coming into the second lap, he knew they were still a very real threat.
    Anakin also had the five racers ahead to consider. All of them were hailed as champions throughout the Outer Rim territories, and while they were extremely skilled pilots in their own right, most of them would not hesitate to knock the others out of the race through less-than-sanctioned methods. Sebulba in particular, he knew, would do anything short of pulling out a hold-out blaster and nailing his opponents right between the eyes.
    He emerged from the Aldo Cavern just in front of Endocott and Mak. The two of them, hoping to cut around Anakin and the racers ahead, banked sharply right toward the Canyon Dune Turn. The dunes were indeed a shortcut, but their advantage was practically nullified by the presence of a rather large camp of hostile Tusken raiders, who enjoyed taking potshots at passersby with their long cycler rifles. Anakin grimaced as he imagined what could happen to the two pilots.
    Shortly ahead of him were two more racers fighting over fourth place: Teemto Pagalies, a Veknoid flier in his distinctive wheel-shaped cockpit; and Boles Roor, famous not only for his numerous podracing achievements, but also his status as one of the most talented glimmik singers in the galaxy. Roor flew almost casually in his outdated Bin Gassi racer, as this was his third appearance in the Boonta Classic, and he seemed to be racing merely for the thrill of it at this point. Pagalies, on the other hand, was anxiously weaving back and forth, trying feint after feint in order to pull ahead.
    Anakin grinned. One advantage to entering the lineup so late was that the other pilots, in their singular obsession with getting ahead of all their rivals, seemed to forget he was even part of the race until his relatively-tiny pod was barrelling past them.
    He rammed his accelerator forward to intercept the two feuding pilots in front of him.

    * * *

    "Anakin's gaining on those two racers!" Padmé trilled, looking up from the viewscreen at Shmi and practically bouncing up and down from excitement. Shmi looked similarly exhilarated, beaming with pride.
    Even Qui-Gon was beginning to liven up. "I think he just might win this," he speculated, smiling.
    The giant holodisplay above Gorha's box showed Sebulba battling with yet another would-be usurper of his prized first-place position. The challenger, Mawhonic, was an even-tempered Gran, also from Malastare; he considered Sebulba to be his arch-nemesis in the realm of podracing. His machine, a GPE-3130, boasted large, cone-shaped engines with thin thruster rockets on the outside of each for extra propulsion. Swiveling one of his three eyestalks to keep an eye on Sebulba in case he carried any more autowrenches in his cockpit, Mawhonic made his move.
    "[It looks like Mawhonic is overtaking Sebulba! He's pulling ahead now as they are starting into Arch Canyon—Mawhonic is in the lead!]" shouted Gorha, bobbing his head back and forth on his long neck in astonishment. The people throughout the stadium were practically worked into a frenzy. "[Sebulba appears to be hanging back, waiting to retaliate... They're cutting through the Canyon quicker than I've ever seen any pilot cut, folks. The two are approaching Crater Valley... Sebulba is advancing! Sebulba is coming alongside Mawhonic now near the finish of the second lap!]"
    Sebulba stayed next to the Gran racer, a sly smirk inching its way across his long face. He moved closer and closer to his rival until a thin exhaust port on his left engine lined up perfectly with Mawhonic's right thruster rocket.
    Only it wasn't an exhaust port. It was a blowtorch.
    "[What's this? It seems—is that fire coming from Sebulba's engine? It is! A torch is cutting into Mawhonic's side thruster rocket! That can't be a good combination!]"
    Sure enough, after a few moments of the onslaught, the rocket exploded, causing a violent chain reaction that ended in an unconscious Mawhonic skidding across the dirt in his crumpled cockpit, fiery remnants of his racer strewn all over the bottom of Crater Valley.
    Gorha sounded like he was trying to stifle a chuckle. "[Well, that's it for Mawhonic, folks! Sebulba is in the lead once again!]"
    The holodisplay switched to another camera, showing a miniscule pod with thin Radon-Ulzer turbines lean nearly onto its side through a narrow arch and pull past an outmoded old machine with bulbous Quadrijetengines.
    "[And it's Skywalker in fourth place now with Mawhonic out, passing former champion Boles Roor. He's gaining on Teemto Pagalies coming into Arch Canyon!]" Gorha relayed. More and more people cheered for the underdog Anakin and his unassuming little podracer as he overtook pilot after frustrated pilot with apparent ease.
    His mother, seeing his latest dangerous move past Roor, shook her head worriedly and pursed her lips. "I wish he wouldn't get so close to those arches!" she lamented, half to herself. Padmé nodded in solemn agreement.
    Across the track, Watto fluttered back and forth, cursing under his breath. He was also very anxious, but for an entirely different reason. He knew he couldn't back out of all his high-stakes bets now—the Hutts, who valued money, pleasure, and the honoring of business arrangements above all else, would surely hear any case against him and exact quick and excruciating punishment.
    As Sebulba's racer rumbled through the stadium into the third lap, Watto let out an exasperated sigh amidst all the cheering and shouting fans. Even though the chances of Sebulba losing this race were quite slim, they seemed to be inversely related to the gap that Anakin was rapidly closing between the two.

    * * *

    Anakin stared unblinking at the wheel-shaped cockpit immediately in front of him. He knew that if he could not get ahead of Teemto Pagalies before dropping into the canyon up ahead, he probably wouldn't have another chance until the third lap. He slowly edged to starboard, preparing to shove his accelerator forward—
    Time nearly seemed to stop. A voice—or it would have been a voice if it was audible, or even used conventional methods such as words and sentences—suddenly pressed into Anakin's head, communicating an immediate and acute sense of danger. Instead of punching the accelerator handle, he inexplicably hit the brakes.
    Time resumed its normal pace. The massive barrel-shaped engines of Elan Mak's podracer haphazardly swerved left just in front of Anakin—where Anakin would have been if he hadn't braked just a split second ago.
    Adrenaline coursed through his body as he considered what had just happened. I would've died right then. I would have been dead, if not for that—that warning... He shuddered uncontrollably. I forgot all about Mak and Endocott after they detoured into the Canyon Dune Turn. He looked over at Elan Mak, who was swearing vehemently at the foiling of his plan, then craned his neck back and to the right to check for the unaccounted-for Ebe Endocott. He saw the Triffian's smoking podracer slowly chugging its way out of the dunes, having apparently been hit by the well-aimed shot of a Tusken rifle.
    Anakin shook his head, took a deep breath, and resumed his original plan of working his way past Teemto Pagalies. Elan Mak, unable to keep up in his less-than-average racer, slowly fell behind Anakin again. Anakin gave his fuming opponent a little wave, then pushed the accelerator handle forward, speeding after the circular cockpit ahead.
    Pagalies risked a quick look at the human racer that was following just behind. He gave him a big-toothed sneer just before dropping into the canyon.
    Anakin, instead of dropping in behind the Veknoid, banked right and eased his accelerator forward. He drifted away from the lip of the canyon toward a sharp turn in the gorge ahead.
    If I can get the angle and the timing just right, Anakin surmised, his jaw clenched in concentration, I can probably head him off at that turn.
    At the last second before dropping into the curve, he pulled hard on the right engine brake and simultaneously punched his left-side repulsorlifts, causing his cockpit to swing to the left and lean so far right that he could feel the strain of his safety harness cut into his shoulder. His podracer slid into the canyon turn, its repulsorlifts cushioning his machine from wrecking into the far wall by just a few centimeters. As soon as he made it safely to the bottom of the narrow gorge, he jammed his accelerator and took off through the ravine, ahead of the nonplussed Teemto Pagalies.
    The squat Veknoid racer, completely startled by this unexpected move, nicked the side of the canyon with his left engine as he sped through the curve. It pulled up and away from the right engine, unlinking the power coupling between the two and disappearing in an eruption of fire. The other engine shot in the opposite direction, yanking the wheel-like cockpit along for a few meters until the Steelton cable connecting the two snapped. Pagalies and his cockpit then rolled down the canyon yet farther until friction finally arrested their momentum, and the battered pod fell on its side like a giant coin.

    * * *

    "[Aaaaamazing, folks! Skywalker is in third! He's moving up to take on Gasgano now, aaaannnd—]" Gorha held his breath as the two racers rocketed into the stadium. Anakin took the inside of the turn and pulled past Gasgano to the sound of cacaphonous cheering from the audience. "[—he's in second! Second place at the start of the third and final lap! Gasgano does not seem amused!]" Gorha continued excitedly.
    Indeed, the eight-limbed Xexto Gasgano looked furious on the holodisplay. Even his powerful, extensively-customized Ord Pedrovia machine could not hope to match the swift Radon-Ulzer engines of Anakin's racer.
    "I knew it!" said Tulam, still standing down on the track, his arms crossed and feet splayed to shoulder width. "You can't make a better pod than that!" He looked down at R2-D2, who was whistling excitedly and rocking back and forth on its treads.
    The old shopkeeper smiled down at the droid. "He'll take Sebulba, no doubt!" Then he resumed staring up at the display overhead. That is, if Sebulba doesn't wreck the kid first, he thought with a twinge of concern.

    * * *

    Anakin spotted the massive split-X engines ahead, near the top of the Starlit Flats. It was just him and Sebulba now, and he only had a short final lap to overtake the wily Dug. He gunned his engines to cut the distance between them before he had to slow down to get through Aldo Canyon.
    Fortunately, one of the very few advantages that Anakin had over Sebulba was space: in narrow passages like Aldo, Anakin had a rather wide margin of error with which to maneuver his racer; Sebulba was constantly having to concentrate on keeping his engines away from the protruding cave structures, and could not afford to drive at top speed. Thus, by the time the two of them blasted into the shimmering light of the suns up on the Chakto Mesa, Anakin was right behind the Dug. He nudged his throttle and pushed his accelerator as soon as they passed the first mushroom-shaped rock, hoping to catch Sebulba off guard. The trick worked: In a marvelously fluid move, Anakin slid ahead of the burnt-orange racer.
    His face registering both shock and seething anger, Sebulba roared ahead and positioned his flashing power coupling just behind Anakin's cockpit. Anakin heard the furiously-churning split-X engines all around him like a mechanical firestorm, but did not dare turn his head for fear that he would lose just the slightest bit of speed and get pulled into Sebulba's huge air intakes—a death whose agony he could not begin to comprehend. The enraged Dug stayed on Anakin's tail through every swerve and past every obstacle until finally, he caught up.
    Anakin felt a hideous jolt course through his podracer, and his engines screeched alarmingly. He glanced back to see that the energy binders between Sebulba's engines had briefly made contact with the rear edge of his cockpit, then he turned his head back around to observe his electronic instruments going haywire. Suddenly, something in his left engine disintegrated with a loud bang, and smoke began pouring out of its heat exhaust port.
    The thick stream of smoke proved to be Anakin's salvation; it enveloped Sebulba, causing him to choke and gasp and veer to the side, away from the small cockpit in front of him. He banked left and sped ahead toward the rapidly-approaching Metta Drop.
    Anakin forced himself to calm down as he stared at the oncoming cliff and the stretch of sand beyond. Only Arch Canyon and Crater Valley remain, and then the race is over, he noted. I still have a chance. As his electronics came back online, he furiously tapped through his engine system readouts on the small control board in front of him, guessing at the nature of his machine's damage. It was as he suspected: The surge of power from Sebulba's engine coupling had caused one of his thermistors to overheat and explode.
    He breathed a sigh of relief. Tulam had thought to build in backup circuits in the event that his own energy binders became unstable. He quickly pulled out the small connector pin and wire that linked his cockpit and the left engine's system and plugged it into the second slot right next to it. As the lip of Metta Drop came into view, Anakin switched off his cockpit electronics, then flipped them back on, resetting them. He saw Sebulba drop just a few meters ahead; then, gritting his teeth with determination, he shoved his accelerator as hard as he could. The Radon-Ulzers, pushed to their limit, screamed as Anakin flew off the edge of the Chakto Mesa.
    The little podracer soared through the air like a white-winged rukaso eagle, far beyond Sebulba's heavy machine. Anakin channeled more power to his lifts as he landed and shot through the middle of narrow Arch Canyon, just ahead of his rival.

    * * *

    "[It's Skywalker!!]" shouted the announcer, nearly out of control with excitement. The audience erupted into cheers and clapping. Padmé, overcome with elation, hugged Shmi tightly and screamed as loud as she could. Tears of joy streamed down Shmi's face as she watched her son move ever closer to the finish line. This was it!
    Directly across the track, Watto slapped his forehead in dismay. He could hardly believe what he was seeing on the holodisplay. Anakin, his nobody slave in a pod from who-knows-where, was actually ahead of one of the galaxy's greatest podracing champions. He didn't know what he would do if Sebulba lost. Even though he would still have a bit of change left over from the prize pot, his reputation as a professional gambler would be shot and his slave boy—who was looking more and more useful by the second—would be gone forever.
    The Toydarian groaned, suddenly feeling much older. This was it.

    * * *

    Anakin squeezed through the last of the arches in the Canyon and blasted out onto the final stretch: Crater Valley. He turned his head and saw Sebulba glowering laser bolts at him. His engines, nearly out of fuel, roared determinedly, as if they somehow knew the end of the race was just ahead. Just a little more! Almost there! he silently willed his machine.
    Sebulba, practically blinded by his wounded pride and animosity, swerved sideways in a last-ditch effort to stop Anakin. His left engine collided with Anakin's right with a metallic clang. Anakin let out a yelp of surprise, but maintained control as he fought to stay ahead. The Dug pilot swerved again, bashing into Anakin's racer and causing one of the yellow air scoops projecting from the front of the turbine to crack in half. Sebulba then pulled his throttle right in order to wind up for another bludgeoning swing at Anakin's racer, but, to his surprise and dismay, it stuck.
    He looked over the side of his cockpit and saw that the steering rods on both of their engines had hooked together. Anakin saw it too, and began jerking his throttle toward Sebulba in an attempt to loosen the rods and free himself. Sebulba pushed in the other direction, trying to run Anakin into the sand.
    The boy peered ahead of them and saw the stadium approaching, as well as the giant cliff face that the stadium was carved out of. He then looked up at Sebulba, who was still leaning on his throttle; apparently the Dug pilot, in his neurosis, was completely unaware of how close they were. The two podracers rocketed nearer and nearer to the packed arena. Anakin stared back and forth between Sebulba and the oncoming cliff, desperately trying to break free from the enormous engine right next to him.
    Suddenly, a brilliant thought struck him. He smiled up at Sebulba as he jammed his throttle toward him, nearly causing the Dug to go into a fit of rage. Sebulba pushed back as hard as he possibly could—
    —And in a flash, Anakin heaved on his air brake.
    The two steering rods clipped off at their bases and spun through the air. Sebulba, still shoving his throttle with all his might, abruptly lunged his racer to the left, into the open space that Anakin no longer occupied. Too late to recalibrate its arc, Sebulba's flailing left engine plunged into the cliff just outside the stadium and detonated. His other engine tipped into the ground and exploded as well, flinging shrapnel in every direction.
    Anakin ducked to avoid the spinning blades of Sebulba's coolant fan as he passed through the last few meters toward the finish line. He glanced down to his left to see Sebulba's cockpit still skidding through the sand. Even after such a traumatic wreck, the Dug was still conscious, shaking his fist uselessly at him.
    He shot into the high stadium entrance, and time seemed to slow down yet again. Only this time, it wasn't to warn him of danger; it was to allow him to experience every smiling face, every clap, every cheering shout to its fullest extent. Every heartbeat was an eternity of exuberant joy, and he exulted in each one.
    Anakin, his face and machine covered in dirt and grime and his grin stretching from ear to ear, passed the finish line. He had won the Boonta Eve Classic.
     
  9. Snocone

    Snocone Jedi Knight star 1

    Registered:
    Sep 14, 2015
    CHAPTER TWELVE

    Anakin Skywalker, breathing heavily and leaning back into his pilot chair, found himself lost in a sea of shouting, dancing, and waving by members of more sentient species than he could remember ever having seen in his life. His eyes swam with emotion and sweat. He looked to his left to see Tulam, a giant in the crowd, offering his hand to help him out of the cockpit. He slung his arm and used Tulam's weight to drag himself out, but before he could get his second leg quite free, the cheering mass of beings around his racer lifted him above their heads, chanting "Skywalker! Skywalker! Skywalker!" over and over.
    After carrying him to the side of the track, the swarm of people finally put him down and began to ask him every sort of question imaginable. He felt as if he were dreaming. As if from a great distance, he saw his mother and Qui-Gon pushing their way through to him. Someone offered him a large canteen full of water—a luxury fit for royalty on the completely-desertified planet. Anakin consumed it voraciously, giving a grateful look up to the giver.
    He almost choked when he recognized him as none other than Bib Fortuna, who had made his way down from Jabba's box and was now giving him a needle-point grin.
    "Ssskywalker, isn't it?" the Twi'lek lisped. "You are a masssterful racer. Watto the Toydarian iss your owner, iss he not? I am sure that Jabba would rather enjoy a conversation with him thiss afternoon—"
    "I'm afraid Jabba won't have Anakin today," Qui-Gon interrupted, emerging from the pressing mass and stepping up next to them. "I'm sure that His Excellency could easily find another racer to bet on."
    Anakin looked up at the Jedi Master questioningly. Qui-Gon merely winked at him, then resumed his glare at the sleazy Fortuna. The Twi'lek administrator's lip curled slightly, then he turned and sidled back through the crowd.
    Anakin's mother finally squirmed her way through the throng of people and enveloped him in a tight embrace. "You did it, Anakin! You won! My boy!" she exclaimed, her cheeks moist from happy tears. He grinned ecstatically in response and began to make his way through the crowd with her.
    As soon as they made it out of the claustrophobic mob, Padmé practically tackled Anakin in a gleeful hug. "You were amazing! That was so nerve-wracking!" she said in a flood of girlish enthusiasm, kissing him on the cheek. He blushed a deep red and gave her a flustered smile. Leaning closer to his face and staring straight into his eyes, she said more quietly and solemnly, "Anakin, you've saved us. We can get to Coruscant because of you." Her face broke into a grin as she stepped back and began walking toward the hangar with Shmi and R2-D2.
    Anakin, still flushed from his neck to his ears, turned his head to see Tulam and Binjar staring at him. Although he couldn't read the facial expressions of Gohltans very well, he understood Tulam's merry, knowing look all too easily.
    "...Whatever," he muttered. Speaking a little louder over his friends' laughter, he asked, "Where'd Qui-Gon go off to? He was here just a second ago."
    Tulam smacked him on the back. "I'm not sure, kid. He'll come around. Hey, let's take your pod back to the hangar and get home. It's time to celebrate!"

    * * *

    Qui-Gon did not say a word as he walked into the shaded observation box that Watto was occupying, but he could sense that the Toydarian had already been trying to come up with some loophole by which he could keep Anakin. His leathery wings were flapping just enough to keep him aloft, and his loose-fitting face seemed to droop even more than normal.
    "You—you swindled me," Watto attempted weakly.
    "Swindled? The prize money is yours, remember?" countered Qui-Gon, stepping closer to the desolate shopkeeper.
    "But not da ship, da hyperdrive, and-ah da boy!" Watto shot back, ticking off each item on his fingers. He squinted at the track and the dissipating crowd of people. "Somehow you knew he'd win. It wasa rigged, I think!"
    Qui-Gon shook his head and smirked. "Whenever you gamble, my friend, eventually you'll lose. Bring the new hyperdrive to the main hangar, and I'll come by your shop afterward so you can give me Anakin's release codes."
    Watto crossed his thin arms, refusing to meet the Jedi's gaze. "You can't have him," he said quietly. "It wasn't a fair bet."
    "A fair bet?" Qui-Gon repeated. He stared pointedly at Watto until the Toydarian finally glanced over at him, then coolly continued, "Would you like to discuss it with the Hutts? I'm sure they'd be happy to settle this."
    Watto blinked in surprise, as if he was counting on Qui-Gon not knowing that such an option existed. He swiped his hand through the air and turned away from the Jedi, looking resigned. "No, no—take him. I'll get da parts, eh?" He fluttered through the entrance, wobbling back and forth dejectedly.
    Qui-Gon smiled softly, turned on his heel, and started for the hangar.
    He did not notice the black probe droid stationed on the opposite side of the stadium, staring at him fixedly throughout the entire exchange.

    * * *

    Inside the hangar, Tulam finished guiding the podracer onto his gravsled just as Qui-Gon approached. He jumped off the side of the sled and wiped his forehead with his faded sleeve. As Anakin chattered with his mom and his new offworlder friends a couple meters away, Tulam stood back and exhaled, trying to take a quick break before they headed out into the suns' heat again.
    Qui-Gon stopped next to him, gazing at the group with a slight grin on his face. "That was quite the turnaround," he said, casting a sidelong glance at the old shopkeeper.
    Tulam nodded in assent. "I gotta be honest—after that start, I wasn't sure he'd even make it across the finish line, much less win first place."
    "That podracer was masterfully built, I'd say," the Jedi responded, turning his head to glance at it. "Will you be keeping it for future races, or...?"
    "Eh, I'm not sure. Now would be a great time to sell it, to be honest. Price should be high after that upset." Tulam shook his head in amazement. "He beat Sebulba. Sebulba! Really something." His gaze turned to the boy, who was standing next to his mother, gesticulating wildly as he recalled a particularly tense moment of the race. "Anyway, I think the money I could get for it would go a long way toward helping those two out. That poor woman and her son have seen enough trouble to last three lifetimes."
    Qui-Gon raised an eyebrow. "You'd give them the money?"
    "Oh, sure. I make plenty at my shop. Plus I've got a nice sum left over from my piloting days. One good thing about the Coreward systems is they pay pretty well." The shopkeeper smiled wistfully. "Anakin and I could build another one before next year, I'm sure."
    "Actually..." Qui-Gon leaned closer to the other man and lowered his voice conspiratorially, "...I've just freed Anakin from slavery. He is to come with us to Coruscant tomorrow—but you mustn't ruin the surprise; I haven't told him yet."
    Tulam stared at him with wide eyes. "You did what?"
    Qui-Gon laughed and made a quieting motion with his hand. "I haven't gotten the codes from Watto quite yet, but I'm going over there soon for them so I can tell Anakin tonight. Shmi already knows I've been thinking of a plan to free him, but I haven't told her either."
    Tulam's mouth hung open in shock. "I—I can't believe it! That's wonderful news!" He chuckled and clapped Qui-Gon's shoulder. "He'll be so excited."
    Qui-Gon saw Watto enter the hangar on the opposite side, shoving a large crate with all his might. He waved the Toydarian over. "I was wondering if you'd take the new hyperdrive to our ship, if you don't mind?" he asked Tulam. "I can ride out with you so that Anakin doesn't realize I've gone over to Watto's."
    "Sure thing! I'll load it up now." Tulam turned and made his way toward the groaning, straining Watto and hefted the crate onto his gravsled. R2-D2 rolled onto the sled just after it and began running its sensors, ensuring that the new piece of equipment was in proper working order.
    "Anakin, Tulam and I are going to take the new hyperdrive to our ship," Qui-Gon said, drifting over to the group. "We'll meet you back at the house before we leave—if that's all right with your mother." He gave her a questioning look.
    "Of course! We'll see you there," Shmi replied. She eyed the Jedi, silently wondering about the outcome of his bet with Watto, but Qui-Gon only smiled fractionally as he turned and pulled himself into Tulam's speeder.

    * * *

    "Obi-Wan, our new friend Tulam is on his way with the hyperdrive; he should be there shortly," Qui-Gon spoke into his comlink as he stepped out of the speeder and walked toward Watto's shop. The suns were approaching the horizon, and the gold tinges of first twilight were beginning to paint the sky.
    "All right, Master. The boy won the race, then?" came the response. For a reason that Qui-Gon could not quite ascertain, his apprentice's voice sounded a bit... depressed. Or distant.
    "Yes, it was amazing! I'll have to show you the holovid later." He paused in front of Watto's doorway, wondering about Obi-Wan's dejected tone. Finally, he asked, "Is there something troubling you?"
    "Oh, it's nothing, Master. I—I just wish I could've seen the race, is all."
    So that's what the issue is, thought Qui-Gon, smiling to himself. "I wish you had been there too, Obi-Wan. But I'm sure you'll have plenty of time to discuss it with the champion himself—Anakin will be coming with us to Coruscant to be tested."
    The warmth seemed to come back into Obi-Wan's voice at this new piece of information. "Really? Wow—who would've thought we'd find a Jedi on Tatooine?"
    Qui-Gon nodded and quietly replied, "It is quite the coincidence, isn't it?"

    * * *

    Tulam counted out the docking bay numbers under his breath as he drove down the street. Suddenly, he jerked his speeder to the side—a massive, four-eyed Talz, having lunged out of the way of his wide craft, began buzzing curses at him through its narrow proboscis.
    "Sorry pal," Tulam called out with a shrug, still driving. Finally, he saw a faded number 27 painted on a rusted doorpost and pulled the speeder up next to it. He jumped out and made his way through the entrance, edging his way past several disreputable-looking creatures and toward a long, smooth vessel that looked to be entirely plated with chromium.
    The transport's landing ramp hissed open, and a dark-skinned man in a military uniform practically lunged down it, brandishing a hand blaster with obvious conviction.
    Tulam slowly held up his hands. "That's a nice gun you've got there. BlasTech?" he asked, trying to make conversation.
    "Who are you? Why are you here?" the man snapped, drawing closer.
    Tulam tried to suppress a smile as he answered, "Easy, easy. I haven't come looking for your princess or anything. I'm a friend. I've brought the new—"
    The man, whose eyes widened at the mention of the word "princess," waved his blaster menacingly as he interrupted the other. "You're with the Trade Federation, aren't you? I didn't know they had started hiring thugs."
    Now, Tulam was a little offended. "Hey, look buddy—" he started, taking another step forward.
    A shout issued from the inside of the ship, and a young man wearing a loose-fitting, dark grey jacket bounded down the ramp, waving his arms. "No no, Panaka, hold on! Put down your blaster!" He jogged up behind Panaka and pushed his outstretched arm down gently. He was holding a comlink in his other hand. "Qui-Gon sent him. He has our new hyperdrive," he said confidently. His sure gaze wavered, and he looked at Tulam. "You do have the hyperdrive, right?"
    "That's what I was trying to tell this guy," huffed Tulam. R2-D2 rolled into the bay and halted next to him, warbling questioningly. "Artoo, tell them!"
    The droid chittered, then moved past the two offworlders and up the ramp.
    "Thanks," Tulam muttered sarcastically.
    Panaka glared at the shopkeeper with suspicion, but relaxed a little when he saw R2-D2. Finally, he said, "All right, bring it in then. Obi-Wan, do you think you could help him?"
    The younger man nodded and stepped forward. "Master Qui-Gon also told me that I should give you the money we received for the old hyperdrive." He held out a small black case. "He said it would be best to give it to Anakin's mother."
    The shopkeeper smiled warmly and took the case. "That sounds like a wonderful idea. I'm sure she'll greatly appreciate it."
    Tulam then turned to retrieve the hyperdrive from his speeder. Behind him, Panaka called out, "—And she's the queen, not a princess."
    Tulam rolled his eyes and kept walking.

    * * *

    Tatooine's primary sun was halfway below the horizon by the time Qui-Gon Jinn left Watto's shop with Anakin's release codes safely stored in his datapad. He was walking down the avenue, reading them over for the third time, when he heard the swelling hum of an approaching speeder. He looked up to see Tulam, slung casually over his pilot couch, coming toward him.
    "Hello there!" called Qui-Gon, waving.
    Tulam pulled up next to the Jedi and grinned. "Are those his codes?"
    Qui-Gon handed the datapad up to the shopkeeper. "Yes indeed. I'm on my way over to tell him the good news."
    Tulam ran his hand over his bald head as he scanned through the forms. "I can hardly believe it. They've been slaves here for so long..." He looked up the street with unfocused eyes, then shook his head and turned back toward Qui-Gon. "Here, get on."
    The Jedi nodded, cast him a grateful smile, and pulled himself up into the passenger seat. The two traveled without speaking for a few blocks, enjoying the cooling evening air, before Tulam finally spoke again.
    "I really hope Anakin decides to go with you. I think he'd be in good hands that way."
    Qui-Gon glanced sideways at the man next to him. "I appreciate the sentiment! Do you suppose he'll have some reservations?"
    Tulam smirked. "Well, he's an adventurous kid, to be sure. But—this is all he's ever known. He's made some friends here; good friends. He knows his way around. He may be a slave and all, but Watto typically treats him all right."
    Tulam stopped speaking for another few moments, then resumed more quietly, "I've been around the galaxy, seen a lot of strange things, been in a lot of scary situations. But the scariest part of it was facing the unknown."
    Qui-Gon looked at his companion. "Yes, you're right. I suppose that our reaction to the unknown is what measures us. It can refine us or destroy us if we let it."
    Anakin's small house came into view. Tatoo I was now completely hidden behind the desolate curvature of the planet, and its twin was following close behind. Anakin, his mother, and their new friends stood leisurely talking outside the front door in the waning sunlight, still glowing from the day's excitement. Padmé stood rather close to the boy, listening to him with rapt interest.
    The corners of Tulam's mouth turned slightly upward as he observed the scene. "Hey, promise me something," he said to Qui-Gon.
    "Yes?" questioned the Jedi.
    "Promise me that no matter what unknown Anakin has to face out there, that he has a good friend like you, or that Obi-kid, facing it with him."
    Qui-Gon smiled. "We'll certainly do our best. But even if we are not physically present, the Force binds all of us together. Anakin will never be alone."
    Tulam said nothing in reply, but only nodded slowly.
    The two men pulled up in front of the house and jumped out of the speeder. Anakin greeted them with a smile and a wave of his hand. "Were you able to get the hyperdrive into your ship, Master Jinn?"
    "Yes, thank you for asking. Here," he motioned to Tulam, "we have a gift for your mother."
    Tulam procured the black case he had received from Obi-Wan from his satchel and handed it to the boy. Anakin took it with a curious expression on his face and handed it to Shmi, who opened it. Both her look and Anakin's changed to one of dumb-foundedness as they registered the contents inside.
    "Oh my..." Shmi gasped.
    Qui-Gon's face broke into a grin. "Forty-six gold peggats; the price we received for the parts from our old hyperdrive. Since your son won the race today, we won't be needing that any longer."
    Shmi's eyes welled up. "I—I don't know what to say..."
    Tulam was beaming as well. "I'm going to look into selling the pod too. With that money, you'd be set for quite awhile, I figure."
    Shmi gave out a small laugh of amazement through her tears. Anakin gave her a strong hug, then moved over to Tulam and hugged him too.
    "Aw, none of that, now," said Tulam abashedly, messing up the boy's hair.
    Anakin stared pointedly up at Tulam. "So... you're selling the pod?"
    Tulam laughed heartily at this question, then finally spoke, "Well, y'see kid, you probably won't be needing it anymore."
    Answering the boy's look of confusion, Qui-Gon finally shared the news: "I've freed you from Watto, Anakin. You're no longer a slave. You are to come with us to Coruscant to be tested and learn the ways of the Jedi—if you want to, of course."
    Anakin took a step back, astonished. "Freed me...?" A blissful smile formed on his face as gasps and words of congratulations issued from the group around him.
    "I can't believe it..." he continued through his dazed grin. "Free." He said this word as if he had never heard it before in his life.
    Qui-Gon put his hands on Anakin's shoulders. "Well, Anakin, would you like that?"
    The boy looked into the Jedi Master's eyes and smiled even wider. "Of course I would like that! I would love that!"
    The group cheered joyously. Anakin's gaze drifted from person to person, unable to comprehend this wonderful news—
    —His eyes landed on Shmi, who was using her best efforts to maintain a happy look for her son, but could not quite conceal her sadness at knowing the full story. He turned and stared at Qui-Gon again. "Did you—did you free Mom too?"
    Qui-Gon's expression became solemn. "I'm sorry, Anakin... I wasn't able to. Watto wouldn't have it. I tried to—"
    "I can't just leave her here!" Anakin interrupted, glancing back and forth between the two.
    "Anakin, don't you worry. I'll take good care of her, just like always," assured Tulam.
    "I'll be fine, Ani! I'm a strong lady!" Shmi confirmed, stepping forward and putting her arm around his shoulders.
    Anakin stared at his feet, at a loss of what to say. Finally, he murmured, "I think... I need to think about this." He then wandered into the hut.
    Tatoo II was now halfway below the horizon. The group of friends looked around at each other in the fading light, various expressions of concern now shadowing their faces. Binjar looked especially unsettled at this turn of events.
    He finally spoke, his gravelly voice low and careful: "I feel what Anakin feels, I think. To leave the familiar makes one feel more out of place and alone than ever before."
    His companions nodded soberly.
    Finally, after a few seconds of awkward silence, Tulam spoke up. "Hey, let's go have some dinner together, huh? I'll pick up food for everyone. I can get something for Anakin too." He bowed his head slightly, turned, and walked up the street toward one of the vendors there.
    "Good idea," said Qui-Gon. He and the rest of them slowly followed the old shopkeeper, finally resuming conversation again.
    Shmi stood there in front of her house for another moment. She resolutely wiped the tears from her cheeks, inhaled, and stepped forward to join the group.
     
  10. Snocone

    Snocone Jedi Knight star 1

    Registered:
    Sep 14, 2015
    An improvement (hopefully) on the 2-minute departure scene in this chapter, as well as a frenetic lightsaber fight--finally!

    CHAPTER THIRTEEN

    It was now nighttime in Mos Espa, and the sparkling stars winked high above the slave quarters on the edge of town. Anakin, his mother, and Qui-Gon Jinn sat around the table in the Skywalker house, discussing what lay ahead. Padmé and Binjar, both exhausted from spending another day in the harsh heat, were already asleep; Padmé in Shmi's room and Binjar stretched out in Anakin's.
    "Yes, Anakin, learning the ways of the Force is very difficult at times. But it is always rewarding," Qui-Gon explained.
    Anakin looked at the Jedi. His eyes were full of conviction as well as indecision. "I've always heard stories of brave Jedi Knights who have fought for justice throughout the galaxy—that's something I've always wanted to do myself, too. But, I—I just never really considered that it would mean—that I would have to leave..." His voice caught in his throat as he glanced at Shmi, and he stopped.
    His mother leaned forward in her chair and grasped his hand. "Ani, my place is here. My future is here. It's time for you to go find your destiny—and that's something I cannot always be with you to experience."
    The boy hung his head and stared at the dusty floor. A couple of tears fell from his cheeks, making small wet circles on the ground. "I don't want things to change," he said quietly.
    Shmi smiled and lifted up his chin. "You can't stop change any more than you can stop the suns from setting, Anakin."
    He gave a small, dry laugh, then sat back and exhaled sharply. The woman continued, "Besides, you know that Tulam will always be here to help me out. You can trust him, can't you?"
    Anakin nodded slowly. "Yeah. At least that won't change." He smiled fractionally.
    Qui-Gon's gaze became more solemn as he stared at Anakin, trying to choose his words carefully. "Anakin, as I've told your mother, I have felt a very strong presence of the Force around you—so strong that it is nearly overwhelming. I'm not quite sure what it means, but I feel I must at least take you to stand before the Jedi Council on Coruscant to find out their wisdom on the matter. It is my conviction that even though you are far older than the other apprentices who train at the temple, it would be most beneficial and fulfilling if you were to learn the ways of the Jedi. The Jedi Grand Masters there could not possibly deny this—this aura of the Force surrounding you. It may persuade them to grant an exception. Or at least that is my hope."
    Anakin sat for a couple moments more, looking past the Jedi through the tiny window cut into the wall next to the front door. He stood up and made his way over to it, deep in thought. Finally, he turned and looked at Qui-Gon. "All right," he said quietly, yet firmly, "I'll go."
    Both Qui-Gon and Shmi smiled at him as they stood. His mother walked forward and hugged him tightly. "You'd better get ready, then," she softly intoned.
    "Obi-Wan and our pilot have almost finished connecting the new hyperdrive, so we'll be leaving first thing in the morning," Qui-Gon added. Anakin nodded and walked toward the back of his house into his small room to get his few belongings packed.

    * * *

    Binjar awoke to see, in the meager reflected light of Tatooine's moons, the figure of Anakin Skywalker, who was standing motionless near his feet and facing away from him. He was staring forward as if in a trance.
    "Are you all right, Anakin?" the Gohltan groggily asked, blinking several times as his slitted pupils adjusted.
    Anakin did not turn, but answered quietly, "I think so... I've just never done anything like this before."
    Binjar leaned his head back and stared at the ceiling. Next to him, Anakin began putting various items into a small cloth backpack. The two did not speak for several minutes as the boy rummaged around his room. He picked up a boxy, metallic object with wheels and a small utility arm projecting from it and looked at it for several moments before putting it back down on its shelf.
    The boy resumed speaking softly as he folded a threadbare shirt. "I'm really excited, but I'm scared, too. I've never even been to Mos Eisley, let alone the other side of the galaxy. I have no idea how long it will be before I see my mom or friends again. But I'd also like to see what's out there—I've always wanted to be a pilot. I've always wanted to help people, too. I can do both if I'm a Jedi." He chuckled to himself.
    Binjar nodded, still staring up above him, considering. Finally he said, "I had never gone anywhere in the upper skies either until we came here. I was afraid at first. Very afraid. But now—now I am glad I came."
    Anakin stopped what he was doing and looked at Binjar. "I bet it was a hard decision, huh?"
    The Gohltan let out a small laugh. "Well, it was not exactly a planned decision. It was either that, or be killed by the Lifeless Ones—droids—that took Naboo." He shifted on the small flaxen mat he was lying on. "But I have already learned so much over the last two days. I have seen your example; how you've tried to help us on our journey without having grown up in the same family or city as us. You are very brave, I think. And very kind."
    Anakin smiled as he set his pack down on the floor. Then he yawned and crawled onto his own mat. After a few moments, he spoke into the silence again, "Let's both learn to be brave."
    Binjar did not answer, but only continued to stare at the ceiling until finally, both of them drifted off to a dreamless sleep.

    * * *

    "Have you finished installing the hyperdrive?" Qui-Gon spoke into his comlink.
    "Yes, Master. We're ready to go as soon as you return to the ship," came Obi-Wan's enthusiastic reply. Clearly, he was just about done with being holed up in the cramped transport.
    "Very good; we're on our way." Qui-Gon clicked off his comlink and walked out of the house into the silvery morning light. Behind him, Binjar and Padmé said their goodbyes and thanks to Shmi, then made their way to the street as well. Last of all was Anakin, who stood in his doorway, a contemplative look written on his young face.
    Shmi came and stood behind him. "Ready?" she asked, smiling.
    He turned and stared into her eyes. His own were rapidly filling with tears. "I'm going to come back and free you. I promise," he choked out.
    She nodded and ran her fingers through his hair, then pulled him into a warm embrace. "I know you will, son. I'm so proud of you."
    Anakin sobbed a couple of times into her shoulder before slowly pulling away from her. "I love you, Mom. I'll see you again."
    Shmi tried to hold back her own tears, but a small line of them still streaked down her time-worn face. "I love you too, Anakin. I'll be waiting here for you."
    Anakin sniffed and wiped his eyes, then grinned at her. It was the same look he had always had throughout his life; a look of resolute hope and positivity that outshined any hardship they had weathered. He finally turned and started walking after the rest of the group as the twin suns slowly rose above the horizon. He didn't look back.

    * * *

    Tulam was hunkered over in his shop's courtyard, welding the cracked casing of a moisture vaporator back together, when he noticed four familiar faces coming down the street. He pulled off his dark goggles and walked through his shop to greet them before they left town.
    "So, you've decided to become a Jedi?" asked Tulam, arms crossed and smile on his tanned face.
    Anakin grinned up at the massive man. "Yep. The best Jedi there ever was."
    Tulam's laugh boomed throughout the square. "Great, kid! Well, 'may the Force be with you,' and all that."
    The boy joined in laughing. "Thanks! And Tulam..." His expression became a bit more grave. "...Thank you for everything. Please take care of Mom while I'm gone."
    Tulam winked at him. "Of course I will." His gaze turned to the other three. "I wish I could help you in some way," he said to Padmé and Binjar.
    Padmé stepped forward and gave the man a hug. "Thank you, Tulam! You've already helped us out so much, though, with the podracer and everything."
    Qui-Gon nodded. "Indeed, without your help, we probably wouldn't be leaving for Coruscant right now. We owe you a great deal."
    Tulam shook his head. "Don't worry about it." He offered his hand to the Jedi Master. "I'll see you around, huh?"
    Qui-Gon took his hand and shook it firmly. "Some day, I hope."
    Tulam waved at them as they headed toward the spaceport, then turned slowly and walked back into his shop. As he stepped into the courtyard to begin welding again, he noticed the large, rusting engine of a Suwantek TL-class freighter sitting next to the fence. He stared at it for several moments, lost in thought. "Yeah... some day," he mumbled.

    * * *

    Just as the company was in sight of the docking bay, Qui-Gon sensed something wrong. He stopped and stared around them, his gaze finally settling on a small object several meters away at the head of one of the streets perpendicular to theirs.
    It was a black probe droid. Its photoreceptor was pointed directly at them.
    As the droid turned and began meandering down the street, Padmé looked up at the Jedi quizzically. "What's wrong, Master Jinn?" she asked.
    Qui-Gon glanced at her, then at the other two. "Go to the ship immediately. Tell the pilot to take off as soon as you're there. Go!"
    The three did not question him further. They began jogging toward the small entrance to the bay in which their ship was housed. Qui-Gon ran toward the intersection between the two streets in order to try to stop the droid. As he arrived at the corner, peering up the street for any sign of the floating black sphere, a gruff-looking vendor next to him spoke.
    "Hey friend, you want a smoked chorsh-rabbit meat wrap? It's our house special. Only ten truguts. Comes with—"
    Qui-Gon held up his hand to silence the vendor. He saw a figure farther up the street, running toward him as fast as it could. The restaurateur, whose sales pitch had faded into nothing, followed his line of sight up the avenue.
    The Jedi's eyes widened. It was the same creature he and Obi-Wan had seen on Corellia. And he looked angry. As he sprinted toward Qui-Gon, he pulled a narrow cylinder from his belt and thumbed a switch on it. A ruby-colored blade sprang to life.
    Qui-Gon whirled around, looking for the other three. They were still somewhat far from the docking bay entrance. "Run!!" he yelled after them. He turned back just in time to ignite his own lightsaber and pull it up for a block—the creature, a humanoid with several sharp horns crowning his head and intricate black markings etched all over his dark red face, had leapt forward with unnatural speed and strength to cut him down.
    Padmé screamed in terror at this sight as she ran, then tripped suddenly over an indentation in the ground. Binjar swiveled on his heel, bent over, and quickly scooped her up; then they continued as fast as they could toward the docking bay door. "Out of our way!" he shouted to the multitude of beings loitering there. A growing number of them began to take notice of the fight taking place across the street.
    The demonic figure relentlessly hacked again and again at Qui-Gon Jinn, searching for an opening in his defense, pushing him back toward the spaceport. Qui-Gon, his heart racing as he parried each swing, realized with dismay that this creature was not merely a brilliant fighter; he was well-trained in the Jedi arts. Dark tendrils of Force energy seeped around them on the unseeable plane like vines trying to sap the Jedi Master's spirit and cause him to falter.
    Sweat forming on his brow, he stepped sideways and feinted left, then lunged right. The dark fighter intercepted his move easily with his own blade, pulling it upward and around, attempting to throw his adversary off-balance. He bared his teeth ferally as he stabbed his lightsaber forward. Qui-Gon narrowly avoided the blade, stepping to the side, then swung his sword downward to knock his opponent's weapon away.
    Vendors up and down the avenue had long since abandoned their posts, and were either running away screaming or cowering behind any large solid object they could find. The dark creature, unconcerned with collateral damage, waved his lightsaber in wide, sweeping arcs, opting to use his great strength to stun the Jedi into defeat. Smoldering remains of tables, counters, and tent poles littered the street around them.
    The hint of a wicked smile played across the branded face as the creature clashed his lightsaber with Qui-Gon's. As the two combatants edged closer to the docking bay, pieces from the damaged shops around them rose into the air and flew forward, given animation via the Force by the enraged fighter. Qui-Gon, his concentration now split between sword-fighting and warding off the objects spiraling toward him, retreated farther backward toward the bay. He was quickly running out of room.

    * * *

    Obi-Wan, who had been chatting leisurely with Ric Olie in the cockpit of the queen's transport, noticed rushing movement out of the corner of his eye. He stepped forward to get a better look through the viewscreen.
    Below, shoving his way through the crowd of denizens was Binjar, who was protectively holding the queen's handmaiden Padmé in his arms. A teenage boy in ratty clothing ran beside them. They were all wearing extremely distressed expressions.
    "Lower the landing ramp!" barked the young Jedi to the pilot standing beside him. Olie hastily complied. As soon as the ramp was touching the ground, the three tumbled into the ship, gasping for air.
    "Master Jinn said to take off quickly!" the handmaiden breathed. "He's in trouble!"
    As Ric Olie powered up the ship's engine, Obi-Wan knelt next to Padmé, as it seemed she was favoring her left ankle. "Are you all right?" he asked her. The boy, whom Obi-Wan had assumed was Qui-Gon's new Jedi hopeful Anakin, stared at her with intense concern.
    "I'm fine," she replied through gritted teeth.
    Captain Panaka stumbled forward from the rear compartment as the ship lurched off of the ground. "What happened? Where is Master Qui-Gon?"
    Binjar, with one hand gripping Olie's piloting chair, pointed through the viewscreen at the docking bay entrance. "Out there. Someone attacked us."
    "Attacked? Federation droids?" demanded Obi-Wan, looking back and forth between the Gohltan and Padmé.
    "No," the handmaiden replied fearfully, "It was a—a person, I think. He had a lightsaber."
    Obi-Wan's blood ran cold. "A lightsaber? Are you sure?"
    Padmé nodded, still breathing heavily.
    Just then, a perturbed voice broke out over the intercom. "SoroSuub-issue passenger shuttle, you have not yet received takeoff clearance. Please return to your assigned docking bay and—"
    Ric Olie slapped the comm switch off as the craft slowly lifted. "Now they're concerned about flight protocol," he grumbled.

    * * *

    Past the flurry of attacks the dark figure relentlessly hammered into Qui-Gon's blade, the Jedi Master could see impatient rage beginning to scrawl across the face of his adversary. Cautiously, Qui-Gon stretched his senses behind himself into the spaceport, which was now only a few short meters away from where the two were fighting. It seemed that his companions were successful in making it to the ship, as he could feel its displacing presence in the Force now rising above the bowl-shaped depression and coming toward them.
    The creature sensed it too. His lunges and swipes only became more furious as the silvery transport loomed over them, casting a dark shadow over the street and kicking up a blinding cloud of dust around the two combatants. He held his lightsaber above his head and swung it downward as hard as he could, causing sparks to fly from the contact point between the two blades.
    This ferocious move caught Qui-Gon off guard. His wrist jerked from the impact, and his sword dropped out of his hand, humming to the dirt below where it deactivated.
    Almost without thinking, Qui-Gon leapt straight up into the air toward the ship, using the Force to propel him unnaturally high. The landing ramp was still lowered, and Qui-Gon grabbed the edge of it tenaciously, pulling himself aboard. As soon as he was standing, he called his lightsaber to his hand from the ground below.
    The dark fighter, momentarily surprised by Qui-Gon's escape, composed himself and jumped after him onto the ramp. His footing was unsure, though; and he wavered a bit on the edge of the platform. Qui-Gon used this lapse in the creature's concentration to gather as much Force energy as he could and shove the wrathful attacker back off of the ramp toward the shrinking street below. He landed in a crouch just in front of the spaceport entrance, then carefully stood.
    Qui-Gon stared past the slowly-closing landing ramp down at the creature, who was surrounded by a swath of destruction from their fierce battle. The horned fighter, seething and baring his teeth, glowered right back until the hatch was closed and the shuttle was safely rocketing through Tatooine's shimmering atmosphere into the black space beyond.
     
  11. Snocone

    Snocone Jedi Knight star 1

    Registered:
    Sep 14, 2015
    (Hopefully) Much-improved-upon version of the transitory scene to Coruscant. Better than Deadpan-akin with, "I made this for you. So you'd remember me. I carved it out of a japor snippet... It will bring you good fortune." *chirp chirp* "Ani, when did you even have time to carve this?" "In those plot holes in the last scene. They were huge."

    CHAPTER FOURTEEN

    Qui-Gon, exhausted and leaning heavily against the bulkhead of Queen Amidala's transport, gratefully accepted a small water canister from Binjar as Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Padmé all knelt around the Jedi Master, anxious about this new dangerous enemy.
    "Who was that?" Padmé asked him, putting her hand on his heaving shoulder.
    Qui-Gon took a long draft from the container, then spoke. His voice was raspy and weary-sounding. "I'm still not quite sure." He glanced at Obi-Wan before continuing. "I think he may be the same person we saw on Corellia, before we came to Naboo to negotiate the treaty."
    Padmé's eyes widened. "You've met him before?"
    Obi-Wan answered for the older man, who was still quite out of breath. "We only saw him briefly while we were leaving. But it seems his operation in Corellia's capital city, Coronet, is linked with the invasion on Naboo. We found droid parts, weapons, and vehicles in a hangar there, ready to be transported."
    Qui-Gon nodded. "This appearance on Tatooine only confirms his involvement. I believe that he was after the queen."
    Padmé paled and began trembling. "Really?"
    "I'm afraid so," replied Qui-Gon somberly. "What's more, he was exceptionally strong in the dark side of the Force."
    The little handmaiden stood up slowly without saying another word and walked down the metallic hallway toward the rear of the craft. Binjar followed, wearing a troubled look. Anakin watched the two leave, then turned back to Qui-Gon. "He definitely didn't seem like a Jedi to me," he reflected.
    A shadow crossed Qui-Gon's face. "Therein lies the real mystery behind all of this. He is a trained assassin—trained to defeat Jedi. It took all of my strength to overcome his fierce attack. I could see complete confidence in his eyes..."
    He trailed off, then shook his head and inhaled deeply. "...And if he is connected to the invasion on Naboo, there is far more to this puzzle than we know."
    Anakin assumed a contemplative expression. "Are there any 'Evil Jedi,' Master Jinn?"
    The older man frowned, recalling the dream he had, and wondered once more about the meaning of it. Finally, he quietly replied, "The Sith, as they are called, have been extinct for a thousand years. The ancient Jedi exterminated the last of them in the Light and Darkness War, leading to an age of peace and prosperity for the Jedi and the Republic. There have been a few Jedi that have left the Order over the years, but none of them became so immersed in the dark side, at least to my knowledge."
    "Do you think someone could have revived the Sith Order?" Obi-Wan asked, staring at him fixatedly.
    Qui-Gon sighed heavily. "I do not know. But in any case, we must alert the Jedi Council to this chain of events. That creature is most certainly Force-capable, and was sent to destroy us; there is no doubt."
    Anakin and the two Jedi considered this silently as the ship sped farther and farther away from the desert planet. After several moments, Obi-Wan abruptly stuck out his hand toward Anakin.
    "I'm sorry, I don't think we've been introduced," the young Jedi said, grinning, "I'm Obi-Wan Kenobi."
    Anakin smiled warmly as he shook the young man's hand. "Very nice to meet you! I'm Anakin Skywalker. Are you a Jedi Knight?"
    "Not quite—I'm still an apprentice," answered Obi-Wan, turning red.
    Qui-Gon chuckled. "Not for long, I'm sure." He turned to Anakin. "I'm sorry I forgot to introduce you two." He stood up slowly and patted the teen on the shoulder. "I think the queen would like to meet you as well; come on."
    The three made their way to Amidala's chamber just as the transport entered hyperspace.

    * * *

    Anakin stood before the queen in her chamber. Padmé, who had already changed back into her lovely crimson dress, and the other three handmaidens sat around her like the petals of a beautiful flower.
    "Hello, um... Your Majesty. My name is Anakin Skywalker," Anakin said sheepishly.
    Qui-Gon, who was standing behind the boy, laughed softly and gave him an encouraging pat on the back, then looked at Amidala. "Anakin here is responsible for helping us on our way to Coruscant. I'm not sure if Padmé has told you yet, but because of his heroics in the podrace yesterday—" here, Padmé shot an admiring grin at Anakin, who blushed even deeper, "—as well as his enormous generosity with the race winnings, we were able to get our new hyperdrive without paying a single credit."
    "Anakin is going to Coruscant to train as a Jedi," Padmé added from her place at Amidala's side. She grinned at him again.
    The young queen gave Anakin a regal smile. "Thank you, Anakin. We are very glad to have you along, and all of us are extremely grateful for your help as we fight for Naboo's freedom."
    The boy nodded, still embarrassed, and did not reply. The queen turned her gaze to the Jedi Master and spoke solemnly. "Padmé also told me of this new threat you faced just before we left Tatooine, Master Jinn—you say he knew the ways of the Force?"
    "Yes, Your Highness," Qui-Gon replied. "I believe that he was also responsible for supplying the Trade Federation with the resources necessary to invade your planet."
    Panaka, who was standing with Binjar off to the side near the chamber's far wall, spoke up. "The Neimoidians couldn't possibly have someone so powerful in their employ. Do you think that someone in the Senate could have arranged all this?"
    Qui-Gon thought for a moment before answering. "That is a good question, Captain; one we'll need to investigate thoroughly once we reach the capital. To my knowledge, there is nothing beyond typical political infighting at the Senate chamber. Still, we must be prepared in case this mysterious assassin shows up on Coruscant. We'll not be caught unawares again."

    * * *

    Nute Gunray, exalted viceroy of the Trade Federation, strode leisurely through the dimly-lit halls of Theed's royal palace. It was night there in the capital, and the pleasant feeling of humidity, a result of Naboo's largely-tropical atmosphere, surrounded Gunray like a comfortable blanket. He preferred such a climate over the cold, dry, sterile decks of his battleship—even though Theed's primitive facilities left much to be desired in the way of technological creature comforts, it had a certain rustic appeal that the viceroy found to be quite agreeable.
    Fortunately, most of the palace was still intact, despite a valiant effort by Theed's pathetic militia to reclaim it from the invading forces over the last two days. The Trade Federation could easily conduct their sector affairs from this system with little, if any, expenditure. The living spaces, of course, would have to be refitted to accommodate the influx of Neimoidian business owners and their preference for wetter habitats, but this was of little concern. After all, Naboo was only the first step in a much larger campaign, and by the time the details of their plot made their way to the Senate, the Confederacy of Independent Systems would be well on its way to dominating the Mid and Outer Rim.
    And who knows? We may even be able to move into the Core at that point, Gunray mused. He eventually stopped in front of a dark cell flanked by two TFB1 battle droids. The thin sheen of an energy barrier stretched across the doorway—not that it was really necessary. The old, frail human sitting inside was capable only of routine government procedure and nothing in the realm of heroics; he probably wouldn't even make it more than two meters out of the cell before the droid sentries incapacitated him.
    Gunray smiled pleasantly down at the man, who was sitting on a bench in the cell with his head lowered despondently. "Governor Bibble, did you really think we had any interest in negotiation? Naboo is helpless against the might of the Trade Federation. It was only a matter of time after we made our business arrangements all those months ago that the Federation's leaders would realize just how beneficial it would be to simply seize your planet's resources for our own use." The viceroy bent forward and purred, "Your queen is lost, your people are dying, and you, Governor, are going to die soon along with them, I'm afraid."
    The governor did not move or look up at Gunray, and kept silent for several moments. Gunray stood up straight and began to turn around when Bibble finally spoke. His once-melodious voice was now reduced to a gravelly whisper. "Your plan cannot succeed—the Republic will come to our aid. Once the Chancellor finds out—"
    "Valorum?" The Federation viceroy snorted. "Valorum will never find out. All communication on this planet is monitored. The queen and her Jedi protectors have been found and dealt with. All of your transport ships have been disabled. There is nothing in store for you except defeat and destruction, Governor—you must recognize this. Perhaps it will make your passing a little easier."
    Bibble's head sagged slightly, but he did not answer. Gunray heard footsteps down the hall and turned to see Daultray Dofine striding confidently toward him.
    "Viceroy." Dofine stopped in front of Gunray and bowed. "We've successfully managed to fit five squadrons of droids with the new watertight membrane technology, as you asked. These primitive underwater colonies will be routed out before long, I'm sure of it."
    "Excellent," Gunray answered. The two of them began casually walking back up the hallway toward the vacant throne room together as he continued speaking, leaving the governor to sit and consider his lamentable failure. "The Gohltans are amphibious, are they not? They prefer a wet environment as we do. Perhaps, after they have been wiped out, we may bring their habitational technology to the surface."
    Dofine smiled thinly. "A wonderful idea, Viceroy. I shall ensure that the new waterproof droids are programmed only to destroy the Gohltans themselves."
    The viceroy nodded. "They don't stand a chance."

    * * *

    Padmé stood in the main cabin of the ship. The ambient lighting had been dimmed, and the holo-projector was replaying the message the ship had received earlier on Tatooine.
    "—contact me at once. Please, Your Highness! People are dying! They're... over every... catastrophic! We must bow to their wishes... nothing more I can... —cellor Valorum might..."
    The handmaiden put her hand over her mouth and shook her head as the image froze. Communication trace or not, I can't bear to see him this way, she thought to herself, trying to hold back her tears. Rabé had told her the full story in private once she and the others had returned to the ship a few hours ago, but she had never imagined just how heart-wrenching the beleaguered image of Governor Bibble could be until she saw it for herself.
    Just then, she heard the quiet hiss of the doorway behind her and turned to see Anakin stepping into the room. He, noticing her anxious expression, stopped just inside.
    "Sorry, am I bothering you?" he whispered.
    "Oh, no Anakin; not at all!" She sniffed and wiped the moisture from her eyes. "I'm watching this message from our governor—it's just difficult to see him like that, and then think about what must be happening in Theed right now."
    "May I see the message?" he asked, stepping closer to her and looking down at the now-dormant holoprojector.
    "Of course." She turned toward it and pressed the button. The fearful visage of Sio Bibble blipped into existence, and the message started. Anakin watched the full communiqué with a deep look of concern etched in his young face.
    Finally, the projector finished replaying the holovid, and the image dissolved. Anakin stared into the blank space for several moments before speaking.
    "That's awful, Padmé. I'm so sorry," he said quietly, putting his hand on her arm.
    She nodded in reply, overcome with emotion. Anakin continued, "Im sure the queen will be able to convince the Senate that your people need their help, if she cares for them as much as you do."
    She gave him a grateful look. "Thank you. Did you like meeting her?"
    Anakin blushed slightly. "Yes... I didn't really know what to say, though. I've never met a queen before."
    Padmé giggled. "Never, in your whole life?" She smiled softly and looked down at her feet. "She and I were best friends growing up. I'd do anything for her."
    "Oh yeah?" Anakin grinned. "I'm glad you have a friend like that. That's kind of how I feel about Tulam—even if he's an old man."
    The two of them shared a laugh at this remark. Anakin sat down in the chair next to the holo-projector and exhaled. "Have you ever been to Coruscant before?" he asked, putting his hands behind his head and swiveling the seat back and forth.
    "No—I've never even been off-planet," she replied.
    "Perfect! I don't feel so out of place, then."
    Padmé smiled at him. She could tell that he was trying to make her feel better, but was feeling quite nervous himself. "Are you excited to become a Jedi?"
    Anakin assumed a thoughtful expression, and his chair stopped swiveling. "Well, I'm not even sure that I'll make it in. Apparently I'm a lot older than the age that the Jedi Masters tend to accept. Master Qui-Gon seems pretty certain, though. Anyway, I don't really know what to expect—I'm a little anxious I guess. But I'm sure everything will turn out great." He gave out a short, soft laugh. "I think we both need some sleep before we reach the capital, huh?" He stood up and took a couple steps toward the doorway.
    Padmé yawned through her smile. "Yes, I'd say so." She walked with him out of the main cabin, and the two of them made their way down the corridor of the transport toward their separate quarters. On the way there, they passed the small room that the two Jedi were staying in. They were sitting on their bunks on either side of the small space and talking in hushed tones, but stopped when the two teens walked by.
    "Good night," Anakin said, smiling at Qui-Gon.
    "Sleep well, my young friend," the Jedi Master replied.

    * * *

    "You were right, Master. I feel it too—the Force aura surrounding him," said Obi-Wan once the two Jedi were alone again. "What do you suppose it means?"
    "I'm not quite sure," Qui-Gon answered quietly, "but one thing I am certain of—Anakin will be an instrument of change within the living Force. All creatures have some measure of the Force, but somehow, he seems to embody it fully. More than any being I've met; more even than Master Yoda, perhaps."
    The younger Jedi took this in thoughtfully. "I do think that it would be best if the Council allowed him to be trained," he said after a few moments. "Honestly, I don't see how they could turn him away."
    "I'm glad you think so," Qui-Gon smiled. "I'm just afraid that they'll deny him for the sake of tradition."
    Obi-Wan shook his head. "Master, you know there's never been a case like this. Yes, he'll take some time to learn the basic principles, but I'm sure it wouldn't be long before he catches up."
    The older man smirked. "Master Yoda may side with me, but some of the others—Master Windu, Master Fisskhar—they are quite strict about keeping every law and maxim of the Jedi upheld. And who would train him? There are not enough of us, especially with Master C'Baoth talking about bringing Jedi along on his Outbound Flight project to the Unknown Regions." He rolled his eyes at this last statement.
    "Well, Master..." Obi-Wan stared at his feet, suddenly abashed. "...I—I was wondering if you meant it when you said earlier that you didn't think I'd be an apprentice for much longer. And I do—I do think that I could face the trials, if the Council approves. Then perhaps you could train Anakin yourself."
    Qui-Gon looked at the young man with a mixture of shock and amusement on his face. Actually, he was very certain that Obi-Wan was ready for the trials, but he wondered why he acted so unsure of himself as he spoke.
    Obi-Wan continued, sounding as if he were trying to inject confidence into each word. "I'm twenty-one now, and I've been training under you for over ten years, and—well, you've been like a father to me, during a time I've needed one most, but..."
    In an instant, Qui-Gon understood. His apprentice wasn't unsure of his training as a Jedi. He was unsure of a future that didn't include Qui-Gon as a constant, supportive presence. As a close friend who was always there. Emotion welled up in him as he considered this future, and he solemnly put his hand on Obi-Wan's shoulder, trying to keep his voice steady.
    "Obi-Wan, I foresee that you will be a great Jedi Knight. And I know that you are ready to face the trials. You have been through every possible hardship during your time as my padawan, and I have the utmost faith in your character and skill. I most certainly agree with your recommendation."
    The younger man visibly relaxed, but a hint of regret still showed in his face. "Thank you, Master. I'm honored." He smiled and leaned back onto his bunk. "I just wish I had as much potential as Anakin seems to show."
    Qui-Gon chuckled softly. "Everyone follows their own path, Obi-Wan. Who is to say what each person's potential is, or what each person's destiny entails?"
    He considered his dream again. He had given Anakin his own lightsaber in it, but the blade was red. What could it have meant? he pondered, his gaze fixed on the dull metal wall above his apprentice. It was a mystery the Force seemed content to guard for now, he decided. And as he had reminded Obi-Wan many times, concentration on the present path was the most practical choice.
    After a moment, the Jedi Master lay his head down on his rather soft mat and sighed lightly. "There is still much ahead of us on this journey, Obi-Wan. Many mysteries remain yet unanswered. All we can do, though, is meet each day and situation as it comes."
    Obi-Wan's reply came quietly and clearly. "Yes, Master."
     
  12. Snocone

    Snocone Jedi Knight star 1

    Registered:
    Sep 14, 2015
    Mmm, Coruscant. There are enough EU descriptions of Coruscant to choke a Hutt, but I still like how mine turned out. My rendition of the scenes on this planet is hopefully a little less confusing and a little more character-strong than the original, and contains a very critical difference from the original story: Anakin Skywalker does, in fact, end up being accepted by the Council as a padawan. But that won't be until chapter 18. Sorry for ruining the surprise.

    CHAPTER FIFTEEN

    The enormous city-planet of Coruscant stretched out before the viewscreen, its curvature interrupted by a seemingly-infinite skyline of silvery architecture built by multiple species through multiple eons, giving it the appearance of some bizarre, massive dragon's snaggle-toothed maw. Directly below the ship were cavernous gaps of intense darkness between the newer buildings, which were standing directly on top of the older generations of structures. Tiny lights occasionally flickered through these shafts like Ithorian firespiders: the distant headlamps of midlevel speeders and transports.
    Coruscant had indeed once been home to numerous indigenous species and had been blessed with an abundance of natural resources, but the days of such prosperity had disappeared hundreds of years before under the layers of ferrocrete and durasteel that now glinted in the light of the system's sun. The only wealth that came from the planet now was of an ideological nature: the governments of all the systems of the Galactic Republic met here to discuss and debate the state of the galaxy as well as the inner workings of the relationships between various species and people groups. All outcomes, whether they were the resolution to a war, crisis, or need, were decided here; and unfortunately, credits were more often exchanged in bribes or blackmail than justice was exacted.
    Anakin, Padmé, and Binjar all stood crowded into the cockpit behind Ric Olie as he commenced landing procedures and slowly descended toward the platform closest to the Senate chambers. The enormous platform sat hovering over a void in the midst of several prominent structures. Lines of traffic stretched above and below it from one horizon to the other like planetary particle rings created from an anciently-destroyed moon.
    "It's huge," Anakin gasped, trying to comprehend the enormity and complexity of the city before them. Padmé and Binjar, mouths agape, simply nodded next to the boy.
    "Really something, eh kid? Here, sit down," said Olie, motioning to Anakin and then to the copilot's chair beside him. "I hear you've flown before?"
    Anakin practically jumped into the seat beside the pilot and looked over at him with eager anticipation. "Yeah! My friend Tulam taught me how to fly all kinds of craft back on Tatooine, but—" he looked around at the control panel stretched around him, "—I've never flown anything like this, that could reach escape velocity."
    "Ahh, it isn't too different, really. I'm sure you could pick it up in no time."
    Anakin beamed at him, then up at Padmé, who smiled distractedly, then resumed looking at the looming Senate chamber ahead. Anakin followed her gaze and saw a small shuttle parked on one side of the chamber's landing platform, with several figures standing before it.
    "Who is that?" Anakin asked.
    Olie leaned forward to try to get a better look. "I think that's, ah... that one on the right is Senator Palpatine, looks like. And the man with him, that's—"
    "Chancellor Valorum," Padmé finished, a bit of a strain in her voice.
    Anakin turned toward the handmaiden again, a quizzical expression on his face. "What's wrong?"
    Padmé pursed her lips and continued to stare forward. "Nothing," she said shortly.
    Anakin continued to watch her for a few moments before turning back around, still wondering at Padmé's tense behavior but deciding not to pursue the matter.
    Binjar finally spoke into the silence. "Is Palpatine the Naboo people's ambassador?"
    "That's right," Padmé answered. "He represents our planet in the Senate. Though," she gave the Gohltan an apologetic look, "not the entire planet, I suppose." Binjar gave a small, understanding nod in return.
    Eventually, the transport's repulsorlifts made invisible contact with the platform, and the craft gently came to a halt. Once the landing ramp was completely lowered, the entire party aboard exited the ship by groups: First came the Jedi and Anakin, then Queen Amidala and her coterie, followed by Captain Panaka, Binjar Skimb, and Ric Olie. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan bowed as Palpatine and the Supreme Chancellor, along with two guards, approached from the other side of the platform, and the two politicians in turn bowed deeply before the queen.
    "It is a great gift to see you well, Your Majesty," said the elderly Palpatine, smiling warmly. "With the communications breakdown, we've become very concerned. I'm anxious to hear your report on the situation." He stood up straight and motioned to his companion. "May I present Supreme Chancellor Valorum."
    The gaunt Chancellor bowed again before Amidala. "Welcome to Coruscant, Your Highness. It is an honor to finally meet you in person."
    The young queen nodded fractionally. "Thank you, Supreme Chancellor."
    Anakin looked at Padmé and found that she had the same stiff expression as she had worn when they were approaching the landing pad. Amidala, as well, looked less than pleased.
    Valorum did not seem to notice. "I am compelled to relay to you how distressed everyone is over your system's predicament. I've called for a special hearing in the Senate for you to present your own position."
    Amidala gave a tight smile. "I am... grateful for your concern, Chancellor."
    The Supreme Chancellor nodded, then turned to Qui-Gon. "Master Jinn, I speak for myself as well as Senator Palpatine in thanking you and your apprentice for ensuring the queen's safety during her voyage here."
    Qui-Gon smiled genially and gestured toward Binjar, Panaka, Olie, and Anakin, who were all standing somewhat awkwardly off to the side together, unsure of what to do with themselves during the formalities. "We had much help," the Jedi Master said proudly, putting his hand on Anakin's shoulder. "This is the one responsible for getting us here as quickly as we did—we shall be presenting him to the Jedi Council to see if he will be accepted as an apprentice."
    Both Valorum and Palpatine's expressions turned to appreciative surprise. "My, that is wonderful news!" Palpatine said, nodding at the boy. "What is your name, young man?"
    "Anakin Skywalker, sir," he answered, holding out his hand solemnly. "It's nice to meet you."
    Palpatine took his hand and shook it once, smiling. Qui-Gon continued speaking, pointing at the other three: "And these are all residents of Naboo and members of the queen's court. Well—" he faltered, looking uncertainly at Binjar.
    "That's right," Padmé interjected, grinning at the Gohltan, "Binjar has been of great aid to all of us." He shot her a warm smile in reply.
    Qui-Gon cleared his throat. "Indeed he has. They have all been very helpful during our trip thus far."
    "Wonderful to have all of you," said Valorum, smiling thinly. He and Palpatine turned and walked toward the Senate chambers, guards on either side. Queen Amidala, her handmaidens, the two officers, and Binjar followed close behind them. Anakin took a couple of steps before realizing that the two Jedi had not moved.
    He turned and looked at Qui-Gon, embarrassed. "Aren't we going with them?"
    The Jedi Master let out a small chuckle. "No, we are going straight to the Jedi temple. The Council has convened in order to hear our news of the recent events. Come on, that transport can take us there." He pointed at the small taxi that the politicians had been standing in front of earlier and started casually walking toward it. Obi-Wan followed, trying to keep his rushed stride in check.
    Anakin took one last look at Padmé, who was now walking up the carved stone stairway to the entrance of the Senate chamber alongside the queen, then jogged to catch up with the two Jedi.

    * * *

    "The situation is far worse than you know," said Queen Amidala to Palpatine once she and her handmaidens had taken up quarters in the residence area and made their way to Palpatine's modest office. The queen was now wearing a thin, elegant robe of black and beige shimmersilk, with her hair in a relatively-simple design under a black, feathery headdress—this to symbolize grief before the Senate during her presentation later that day. Her handmaidens also wore undecorated black and beige gowns. Panaka and Ric Olie stood near her, both with arms crossed and dour looks on their faces, while Binjar and the four handmaidens sat on couches near Palpatine's desk. Valorum had excused himself minutes before and gone to attend other matters.
    The queen continued, a bit of a tremble creeping into her voice, "Our planet has been invaded by the Trade Federation, Senator. They have taken Theed, and many of our people have been slain. The Neimoidian viceroy tried to force me to sign a treaty allowing their presence on the planet as its new rulers, but I was able to escape with the help of the Jedi."
    A look of shock spread over Palpatine's lined face. "Invaded, Your Highness? The blockade was known to us here, but the Federation would never—"
    "I watched their droid troops cut down one of my own men as we escaped the palace," Panaka hotly interrupted.
    Ric Olie added, "We also saw smoke rising from several towns near the capital as we went through the blockade—which, by the way, tried to shoot us down."
    Palpatine glanced between the two men, at a loss. He then pressed his lips together firmly and moved to the vast window overlooking the city. He stared at the traffic moving by for several moments, pondering.
    "This is certainly grave and unexpected news, Your Majesty," he finally said, turning and looking at the queen again. "Unfortunately, as I have mentioned before, there is little that Valorum can do to help us in this matter. He is a politician, and is mainly concerned with quelling the hostile reactions to his trade route taxation reforms throughout the Senate—Naboo is, regrettably, only a small side effect in his mind."
    Amidala shook her head. "This situation cannot wait! Surely there is some way to enlist the help of the Republic?"
    Palpatine sighed. "The Republic is not what it once was. The Senate is full of greedy, squabbling delegates. There is no interest in the common good. I must be frank, Your Majesty; there is little chance the Senate will act on the invasion in its current state."
    "But... Valorum seems to think there is still hope," Rabé, the queen's handmaiden, said from her place on the couch.
    The senator gave her a grim look, then turned his gaze back to Amidala. "If I may say so, Your Majesty, the Chancellor has little real power. He—well, due to his recent decisions, systems and factions such as the Trade Federation have essentially bought the majority vote. It's all about credits, now; and the bureaucrats and businessmen are the ones truly in charge."
    The queen stared at Palpatine unwaveringly, bravely. "What can we do? What can I do to help my people?" She glanced at Binjar. "To help all of Naboo?"
    Her voice rose as she turned back to the senator. "This heinous act by the Trade Federation cannot become a precedent for other systems! Their plan to break away from the Republic to form their own government will only legitimize their occupation—and ensure our planet's destruction!"
    Palpatine looked at his feet as if choosing his words extremely carefully, then turned his eyes to meet Amidala's. "Our best choice would be to push for the election of a stronger Supreme Chancellor. One who will take control of the bureaucrats and give us justice. As queen, you could call for a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Valorum. It may give voice to those in the Senate that wish to see action on behalf of the defenseless."
    "A vote of no confidence...?" Amidala looked stunned. "I couldn't—he may not be a strong Supreme Chancellor, but he is clearly our ally."
    "My queen—" Palpatine's voice quieted almost to a whisper, "—what good is an ally if he cannot bring justice and hope to our people? Any other course of action would certainly take weeks, or even months, before Naboo is saved."
    "Our people are dying, Senator. The Trade Federation must be stopped!"
    "I'm sorry, Your Highness, but there is little we can do at this point. Until there is movement in the governmental system, we must accept Trade Federation control."
    Amidala shook her head sternly. "That is something I cannot do."

    * * *

    Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, with Anakin just behind them, approached the wide entrance to the inner sanctum of the Jedi Temple. The architecture was rounded and modern-looking to match most of the rest of the current Coruscanti ecumenopolis, but there was also a strain of ancient serenity and gravity to it: the surface of the immense doors separating the Council from the rest of the temple was layered with intricately-carved wroshyr wood from the planet Kashyyyk, and the walls, columns, and arches within were cut from stone, as opposed to being made of durasteel. Elegant brise soleil stretched over the tops of the enormous transparisteel windows behind the Council, shading the interior of the sanctum from the direct sunlight above. Beautiful aswa trees from Ithor, with their small, silvery leaves, stood in front of the columns in between each of the twelve Jedi Masters seated in a circle.
    Qui-Gon turned just before walking through the doorway and spoke to Anakin. "Wait here for a bit while we discuss the current situation with the Council, Anakin. We'll call you in as soon as they're ready to speak with you."
    The boy nodded, and then the two Jedi stepped through the doors and walked into the sanctum to speak with the Grand Masters seated within.
    "Master Qui-Gon and your apprentice, Obi-Wan—good it is to see the both of you again," said Yoda, who sat hunched in his seat, clutching his walking stick with both hands. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan bowed in a gesture of respect toward the ancient, green-skinned Master before Qui-Gon spoke.
    "Master Yoda, as well as each of the twelve Grand Masters of the Council—greetings," he began, looking around at them. Straightening up, he continued solemnly, "We, unfortunately, have little time to tell you of the events that have transpired over the past few days, but I must start by alerting you to the fact that the Mid-Rim planet of Naboo, where Valorum sent us after our mission was concluded on Corellia, has been invaded by the droid armies of the Trade Federation."
    Master Fisskhar, a Mon Calamari, blinked his globular eyes in shock. "Invaded, you say?"
    "Yes; we were able to rescue the queen of the Naboo people, Amidala, but the planet's outbound communications were jammed, and we thought it best to come here to plead Naboo's case before the Senate in person. I fear, though, that there is little they will do."
    "The Trade Federation is full of businessmen, not army commanders," came the deep, rich voice of the dark-skinned human Master Mace Windu. "Their move to separate from the Republic was presented in the Senate as purely economic strategy. What do they gain by attacking a system of the Republic?"
    "That brings me to my next point, Master Windu." Qui-Gon took in a deep breath, then exhaled it sharply. "I believe that the Federation's invasion was orchestrated by a Sith Lord."
    Various expressions of shock and dismay appeared on the faces of the Jedi Masters. Some of them looked as if they had been half-expecting news of this sort to come at some point or another; despite the exhortation of the Council for all the Jedi Masters of the galaxy to remain watchful for any dark side activity during their travels, there were now just too few of them—less than one hundred and fifty in all—to be able to stay vigilant enough.
    "A Sith Lord?" demanded Windu, leaning forward in his seat.
    "We encountered a creature on Corellia whom we later ran into again during a stop on the planet Tatooine. He was extremely well-trained in the ways of the Force, and attacked us just as we were about to leave to come here, intent on taking the queen. It took all my strength to defeat him," Qui-Gon recounted. "On Corellia, in the same facility we first saw this assassin, we found droid parts, vehicles, and weapons that matched the models used by the Trade Federation to take Naboo's capital, Theed."
    Yoda's wizened face screwed up into a look of deep consideration. "In great danger the Republic is, if returned the Sith have, after a millennium of waiting for the right opportunity."
    Tibin'iyas, a Twi'lek Jedi from Ryloth, hissed, "The queen—she is here on Coruscant, then? She must be protected, Master Jinn." Her brain tails, which were resting on either shoulder, twitched thoughtfully. "What if this Sith Lord traces you here?"
    "Actually," Obi-Wan said quietly, looking down at the stone floor, "I have an idea about that."
    Master Windu held out his hand in a welcoming gesture. "Please, speak your mind, Obi-Wan."
    The young Jedi apprentice took a step forward and looked directly into Windu's eyes. "This Sith Lord, as well as the leaders of the Trade Federation, would have to expect the queen to return to Naboo as soon as she can with a larger military force granted by Supreme Chancellor Valorum. They are probably preparing to defend against a large-scale assault in the event that Amidala was able to make it to Coruscant to speak to the Senate. As the capital of the Republic, Coruscant would be much too risky of a place to attempt anything—even if the assassin was able to trace our ship, he may opt to wait on Naboo for her to arrive and capture her there in the midst of battle.
    "What they may not expect, though, is for us to infiltrate the palace at Theed and bring the Trade Federation leaders back to Coruscant and to justice. If we go in quickly and quietly with a small group, I'm sure Master Qui-Gon and I could stop the Sith Lord, and the rest could take the Federation leaders if we catch them off-guard."
    Yoda nodded slowly. "Dangerous this plan is, Apprentice Kenobi. But the only way to save Naboo it may be, if Valorum does not send help."
    "We will attempt to find more information on this Sith's identity and motive behind the attack on Naboo," said Mace Windu to Qui-Gon.
    "Thank you, Master Windu. The security officer responsible for the investigation on Corellia is a man named Rostek Horn—he would probably be a good person to start with," replied Qui-Gon.
    "Very well," said Windu, nodding toward both of them, "Go with Queen Amidala and stop the Trade Federation's assault. May the Force be with you."
    Qui-Gon bowed, but did not turn to leave. "Actually, there is one other matter I was hoping to bring to your attention."
    "More to say have you, Master Qui-Gon?" inquired Yoda, squinting his eyes fractionally.
    "Yes..." He looked around at the members of the Council, trying to sense what their reactions would be before he revealed his conviction. "I believe that I have encountered a manifestation of the living Force."
    Several of the Jedi performed the equivalent to raising their eyebrows. After a moment, Yoda closed his eyes and smiled knowingly. "Sense him I can, waiting outside our chamber. Bring him before us."
    Qui-Gon nodded to Obi-Wan, who turned on his heel and went to call Anakin into the chamber. Once the large, hinged doors had been opened, Anakin Skywalker timidly walked in and stood next to Qui-Gon, with Obi-Wan just behind him in silent support.
    Around the three of them, each of the Jedi Grand Masters had assumed a strangely-mixed expression of curiosity and cognizance as they focused their attention on the boy. None of them spoke for over a minute, perhaps trying to fully grasp the presence that Anakin exuded within the currents of Force energy that surrounded them. Anakin waited uncertainly, shifting his feet back and forth.
    Finally, the silence was broken. "Please, tell us your name," Mace Windu invited warmly.
    "Anakin Skywalker," he tenuously replied.
    Qui-Gon put an encouraging hand on the boy's shoulder as he briefly explained how Anakin came to be with them. "We met Anakin and his mother on Tatooine while our ship was broken down. He helped us on our way to Coruscant. While we were there on Tatooine, I came to realize that Anakin is, essentially, an embodiment of the living Force."
    The Jedi Master looked around the room, gauging their feelings. Most of them already seemed convinced of Anakin's place in the Force, even if they didn't quite know what to do with it yet. He took this as a good sign. "I ask that he be tested in order to become a Jedi apprentice."
    Mace Windu peered at Anakin thoughtfully. He glanced over at Yoda, who nodded sagely, then turned back to Qui-Gon. "We will test him, then." He stood up to direct Anakin to another room to begin.
    Anakin looked back at Obi-Wan as he walked away, who gave him a big grin. The boy cracked a brief, small smile as he turned and continued to follow Master Windu.
    Qui-Gon thanked the Jedi, then said, "Obi-Wan and I must go to the queen now to support her case to the Senate." He and his apprentice bowed deeply. "May the Force be with you."
    "And may the Force be with you," Yoda replied as the two turned and walked out.
    "Consider deeply this turn of events, we must," croaked the old Jedi Master once Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan had left the inner sanctum. "Uncertain, the future is. Let us meet it in the light instead of the dark."
     
  13. Snocone

    Snocone Jedi Knight star 1

    Registered:
    Sep 14, 2015
    CHAPTER SIXTEEN

    Traveling through hyperspace in his angular ship toward Coruscant, Darth Maul knelt before the communications console. A hologram of his master, Darth Sidious, stood above it. Maul did not dare to look up at him.
    "You have failed to destroy the Jedi, my young apprentice," growled Sidious acidly. "And Queen Amidala is here, about to personally plead her case in the Senate. Explain."
    As I suspected, Amidala has fled to ask for help from the pathetic Valorum, thought Darth Maul, simultaneously proud that he had deduced her location and full of rage at her—and especially the Jedi—for succeeding in eluding him.
    Really, there was nothing to explain—he, a trained Sith assassin, had utterly and completely failed in his mission on Tatooine. Sidious was baiting him into exposing his vulnerability, trying to force him to lose control. Maul would then be adding failure to failure, and his master would take every chance to point this out to him in the most humiliating way possible.
    Maul despised the old man. He planned to kill him as soon as possible; but this, as he well knew, was part of his training. This burning hatred only fed his power in the dark side and made him stronger. Once Darth Sidious was dead, he, Darth Maul, would become a true master of the dark side; and would take his own apprentice to train in all the ways Sidious had taught him. So went the Rule of Two.
    Any explanation would sound like an excuse, he knew. Finally, he whispered, "I will not fail you again, my master."
    "No, you will not," snapped the Dark Lord. "You will go to Naboo to complete the subjugation of the planet."
    Darth Maul resisted the urge to glower up at his master as shock and disappointment washed over him anew. He was close to reaching Coruscant to correct his failure; very close. Journeying to Naboo would not only take several hours, but would also rob him of his prize—the annihilation of the Jedi and the capture of the queen. He sneered down at his ship's deck, simmering with anger.
    Sidious continued quietly, perhaps pleased at having added further shame to his apprentice, "A new opportunity has arisen here; one that I must be quick to take advantage of. Amidala will stay on Coruscant until she receives aid from the Senate—I will make sure of it. By then, Naboo will be ours. Afterward, you will have a new assignment to the planet Kamino."
    Maul, trying hard to keep himself in check, merely bowed his head slightly lower and said, "Yes, my master." The transmission faded, leaving only the silence and stillness of hyperspace pressing in around the Sith assassin.
    He stood and stared at the console for several moments before turning and stalking into the cockpit to reroute to Naboo.
    Darth Maul hated the silence, as much as he needed it to meditate. He preferred the sounds of anguish and destruction of those lesser than he to sharpen his focus. Once he had cleaned up after those disgusting Neimoidians on Naboo, he would find Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi and relish in their slow and painful obliteration, whether his master Sidious approved or not.

    * * *

    "What other choice do we have?" Amidala said softly to Rabé, her faithful friend and servant, as they waited in the queen's quarters. They sat across from each other in comfortable reddish-brown chairs. The light of Coruscant's sun stretched across the floor through the tall window next to them.
    "I'm—I'm not sure," Rabé replied, biting her lip.
    Amidala sighed nervously. "This is our only chance. If Valorum cannot help us, I don't know if there is anything else—" she stopped speaking, tears welling up in her eyes.
    Rabé tenderly held the queen's hand, keeping silent as the two girls grieved together.
    After several moments, Amidala spoke again with a steady voice. "The Supreme Chancellor is just a politician, as Palpatine said before, but... he seems to be a good man. And surely there are members of the Senate who truly care about the plights of other beleaguered systems—we will find support there."
    "I hope so," Rabé answered. "I just wish there was more that Senator Palpatine could do."
    The queen nodded in agreement. Before she could say anything further, though, a chime issued from the panel next to the door.
    "Enter," called the queen, standing and composing herself. Rabé stood next to her.
    Palpatine walked in, his expression solemn. "My queen, the Senate has assembled to hear your case. Please, follow me."
    The three of them made their way through the cavernous hallways of the building toward the main Senate chamber in the center. None of them spared a moment to gaze out the windows they passed; all fixed their eyes forward. Amidala, now completely calm, assumed her royal, aloof expression as they drew near to the doorway to the platform that would take them to Naboo's congressional box in the chamber.
    "This way, Your Majesty," Palpatine said, standing next to the doorway and motioning through it. He glanced down at her feet for a moment. "Are you all right, Your Highness? You're limping," he noted, looking unsettled.
    The queen nodded and smiled cordially before walking through the entrance. "Yes, Senator; thank you for your concern."
    Amidala and Rabé walked into the Senate chamber and seemingly into the very heart of the Republic. As the platform there elevated to take them to Naboo's seat, the young queen looked around herself at the immense room: Every system from every corner of the galaxy that belonged to the Galactic Republic was represented there, whether by an actual senator or by holographic proxy, if that system's representative was taking care of other matters and could not be physically present. The room's high walls were at a slight incline so that the tiered rows of congressional boxes sat perched progressively outward from the center. There, in the middle of the vast chamber and raised to being nearly equidistant from all the senators by hydraulic lifts, was the seat of the Supreme Chancellor, Finis Valorum. Surrounded on either side by two of his close aides, Valorum already looked extremely weary. Being under constant attack for his reforms had clearly taken its toll on the man.
    Palpatine, who stood at Amidala's left shoulder, murmured in her ear, "This debate over taxes is the only issue these people care about, Your Highness—it can never truly end unless a stronger leader is elected; one who could put an end to this ridiculous dispute once and for all and give us justice."
    The queen did not answer.
    Chancellor Valorum leaned over his voice amplifier. "The Senate now recognizes the representative of the sovereign system of Naboo."
    Palpatine stepped forward in the box and spoke into his microphone. "Thank you, Supreme Chancellor." He gestured to the entire room with his arms, gathering their attention. "Senators and various delegates of the free systems of the Republic, I bring ill news to your hearing: As a result of the privileges granted by recent legislation, and unbeknownst to myself until today, the functional constituency of the Trade Federation has invaded our home planet, causing chaos and—"
    "That is outrageous!" interrupted Lott Dodd, the representative of the Federation. "I object to Senator Palpatine's slanderous comments! We of the Trade Federation are committed to peacefully withdrawing from the Republic, as is our right. We have no conflict with Naboo!"
    Valorum had already begun to sweat. He ran his hand through his hair and glared at the Neimoidian. "The Chair does not recognize the Senator from the Trade Federation at this time."
    Seething, Lott Dodd backed away from his microphone, clearly not ready to give up this fight yet. Palpatine displayed no reaction to the indignant outburst.
    "To state our allegations, I present Queen Amidala, ruler of the Naboo people, to speak on our behalf," Palpatine continued. He moved back and stood behind the queen.
    Amidala took her place in front of the voice amplifier to a smattering of applause. She spent a couple of moments gazing around at the chamber, with its multitude of diverse creatures, before speaking. Her voice was low and calm, but there was a definite edge to it. "Honorable representatives of the Republic, I come before you under the gravest of circumstances. My home planet, Naboo, has been overrun by the droid armies of the Trade Federation. I motion that the systems of the Republic send aid to—"
    "I object! There is no proof!" screamed Lott Dodd, pounding his fist on the railing of his congressional box. "This is incredible. I strongly recommend that a commission be sent to Naboo to ascertain the truth!"
    Chancellor Valorum wheeled and shot a blackened scowl at Dodd. As he opened his mouth to speak, another voice issued far below.
    "I have witnessed this invasion firsthand, as my associate here has." It was Qui-Gon Jinn, who stood alongside Obi-Wan Kenobi in a small entryway on the floor level of the chamber. "And do not forget that the queen is herself a witness of the underhanded tactics of the Trade Federation."
    Several of the senators made noises of surprise or annoyance at this unanticipated interruption. Palpatine peered down at the Jedi, a look of confusion written on his face, as did Chancellor Valorum. Amidala gave Qui-Gon a small, brief smile.
    Next to speak was Ainlee Teem, the Gran representative from Malastare. "What gives you the right to say anything on this matter, sir? You are not a senator!"
    Lott Dodd was quick to follow this line of thinking. "This human's statements are not valid, Supreme Chancellor! He is not a legitimate representative of Naboo!"
    Qui-Gon put his hands on his hips and gave an incredulous stare up at the Neimoidian. "As a Jedi Knight, sworn to protect the systems and peoples of the Galactic Republic, I feel that I have the right to intercede on Naboo's behalf. In any case, I was sent to Naboo by Valorum himself to negotiate a treaty with the Trade Federation."
    Various muttering conversations sprang up all around the Senate chamber as Valorum looked back and forth between his two aides and Qui-Gon Jinn. He seemed at a loss, and did not speak for several moments. His aides whispered in his ears, shooting Amidala, Qui-Gon, and the Federation representative surreptitious glances.
    Palpatine leaned forward to speak to the queen, whose expression was slowly turning to disbelief. "You see, Valorum is won over by those in his confidence: bureaucrats. Businessmen. They care nothing for our people's wellbeing. Valorum is afraid of upsetting those systems with the most wealth and control—Master Jinn's interruption will likely be overruled."
    Finally, the Supreme Chancellor spoke. "The point is conceded to Senator Lott Dodd," he said in a careful, even tone, turning to Amidala. "Will you defer your motion to allow for an objective commission to explore the validity of your accusations?" He subtly stressed the word objective.
    "To me, this sounds like yet another plot of the Republic to maintain control of dissenting systems through lies and corruption," boomed the raspy voice of Passel Argente, Koorivan senator—a strong supporter of the Confederacy movement. As soon as he said these words, yet another shouting match erupted between the various senators over taxes, representation, conspiracies, and the legitimacy of each viewpoint, and the situation at Naboo faded into the background.
    Queen Amidala watched the debacle, speechless. She looked at Qui-Gon Jinn mournfully, trying to hold back the discouraging feelings that were again welling up inside her, then glanced over at Senator Palpatine, who shook his head resignedly.
    Taking a deep breath, she stood close to the voice amplifier, looking around at the arguing senators dolefully. One by one, the representatives noticed her stare and quieted, their dispute slowly dying away.
    Amidala spoke. Her voice trembled with indignation, but she stayed calm and cool. "I will most certainly not defer, Supreme Chancellor. My people are dying. Dying! Such an issue is not a matter of debate over regulation, but of the value of the lives of my subjects. I came here to resolve this attack on our freedom and peace now. If you will not take action, Supreme Chancellor, then I must move for a vote of no confidence in your leadership."
    Stunned silence followed throughout the chamber for several seconds as Valorum, who looked like he had been slapped, drifted backwards and sat in his chair. However, a murmur among the senators began to swell as they considered this radical new turn.
    "I second the motion," said Bail Organa, representative of Alderaan. He gave a reassuring look to the queen, and she replied with a relieved smile.
    Gradually, the various systems' senators fixed their eyes on Valorum and became silent again, waiting to see his reaction. The Supreme Chancellor was pale and trembling in his seat. One of his aides, Mas Amedda, stepped in front of the microphone. "The—the motion has been seconded, however—"
    "The motion must be decided upon in this session," Organa pressed.
    "Yes... yes, you're correct, Senator Organa." The heavyset Amedda wiped his forehead with his hand. "All candidates for the position must be nominated by the members of the Senate within the hour..." He glanced down at Valorum. "...And a vote shall be taken tomorrow between the candidates and the current Chancellor. I move for a recess of the Senate."
    "Seconded," quickly responded the thin voice of Lott Dodd. He, too, appeared to be rather discomfited by the goings-on.
    "Motion sustained, then. Dismissed," said Amedda, pressing the master switch that turned off all the voice amplifiers throughout the chamber. The representatives began to file out of their congressional boxes and onto the platforms that would take them to the doors leading out of the room.
    Queen Amidala stared forward at the slouched Valorum for several moments. The Chancellor's gaze was fixed on some indefinable point on the inside wall of his platform, and he did not look up when Amedda spoke to him.
    Palpatine leaned close to the queen's shoulder. "You've made a very brave choice, Your Highness. Now they will elect a new Chancellor. One who will not let this tragedy continue."
    Amidala nodded once toward him, then turned to make her way out of the chamber. She gave one last glance to Qui-Gon Jinn before stepping onto the lift next to Naboo's box.

    * * *

    "That was awful," Queen Amidala said miserably. She and Rabé were sitting on one of the couches in Palpatine's office. Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Binjar stood around the two girls, all wearing solemn and sympathetic looks. The two officers Panaka and Olie stood facing inward near the windows overlooking the cityscape. It was now close to sunset, and the polluted atmosphere gave the waning light around them a deep red-orange hue.
    "I was afraid they'd be too caught up in their prior debate to pay you any mind, Your Majesty, but... I didn't anticipate that they'd be so closed to your plea—and during a special session to specifically discuss Naboo's invasion, at that," remarked Qui-Gon. "Honestly, your decision to move for a vote of no confidence may have been the only choice that will yield any results."
    "I hated to see Valorum like that, but I had no other option," the queen agreed. "And I have no idea what we're going to do next," she continued, sighing deeply. "Meanwhile, every hour that goes by is another hour for the Trade Federation to further ensure their control over my people!"
    After a minute or two of sorrowful silence, Obi-Wan spoke. "Your Highness, I may have come up with a plan that could win us back Theed, if you would hear it."
    Queen Amidala looked up at the young Jedi with wide, hopeful eyes. "By all means!" she replied.
    Obi-Wan began pacing slowly in front of the couch as all attention in the room focused on him. "The Federation leaders cannot possibly know the outcome of your visit here yet. They may expect you to wait on Coruscant until you have gathered enough forces to meet them in battle, and would be shoring up their defenses for such an attack. So, if we instead left here as soon as possible and took a small group into the palace once we arrive—"
    "—We could slip in unnoticed and capture the Trade Federation viceroy," the queen finished for him, beginning to smile.
    "Exactly. Is there some way in that does not involve going through the front gates?"
    "Yes..." The queen's voice took on an air of serenity and nobility. "There is a secret way only known to Naboo's royalty behind the palace, on the waterfall side. It is somewhat treacherous, but that is what allows it to be hidden so well. The passage outlet is very near the hangar and the rear wall of the throne room."
    "Perfect!" grinned Obi-Wan. The others in the room all began to take on more confident expressions.
    Amidala sighed again. "I'm just so afraid that we are going to arrive to a city of death and desolation," she murmured. Rabé took her hand and squeezed it gently.
    Binjar, who had largely kept silent during their entire time on Coruscant thus far, sat down cross-legged in front of Amidala and looked up at her levelly, his gold-flecked eyes unblinking. "Do not despair, Naboo queen. Not all hope is lost for your people. The Gohltans will fight the Lifeless Ones if they are attacked, and win the planet back for us."
    Amidala stared at the tall alien. "Do your people have a military force?"
    "Oh, yes," Binjar answered, smiling, "The various Gohltan clans each have their own army of warriors."
    The queen leaned back, a shocked expression on her face. Before she could continue the conversation, though, the door slid open; and Senator Palpatine strode in, looking very pleased.
    "Your Highness!" he began, approaching the group, "I have been nominated to succeed Valorum as Supreme Chancellor!"
    The queen stood and smiled softly at Palpatine. "Really?"
    "Yes—it is a surprise, to be sure," the senator replied, nodding, "but a welcome one. Your Majesty, if I am elected, I will put an end to corruption in the Senate and strip the bureaucrats of their unjust power, I assure you."
    "Who else has been nominated?" Amidala asked.
    "Bail Organa of Alderaan, Ainlee Teem of Malastare, and Onwals Gallir, a Mon Calamari. However, I feel confident that our current predicament will gain us a strong sympathy vote—I will be Chancellor." He gave her a thin-lipped grin.
    The queen tried to return Palpatine's smile, but she still looked troubled. "I fear by the time you have control of the bureaucrats, Senator, there will be nothing left of our our people, our way of life..."
    The senator nodded gravely. "I understand completely your concern, my queen, but unfortunately the Trade Federation has possession of Naboo for now. Until I can petition the Core systems to grant us a sizable loan of military personnel and equipment—which will be one of my first orders of business if I am elected—there is not much else I can do."
    Amidala grimaced at him. "Senator Palpatine, this government machine is your area of expertise, and I appreciate your efforts, but it is time I returned to my own. I have decided to go back to Naboo."
    Palpatine's jaw dropped slightly. "Go back?" he spluttered. "But, Your Majesty—be realistic. They'll force you to sign the treaty! Stay here, where you will be kept safe!"
    "I will sign no treaty," she answered. She gave a dignified look to Qui-Gon. "The Jedi and my officers will keep us safe."
    The queen turned toward Ric Olie. "Pilot? Ready my transport. We leave first thing in the morning." The man bowed quickly and jogged out of the side door.
    Amidala then looked back at the wordless Palpatine. "It is clear to me now that the Republic no longer functions. I pray that if you are elected, you will bring sanity and compassion back to the Senate."
    "We'll go see how Anakin is doing at the Jedi temple, then meet you at your ship tomorrow morning," said Qui-Gon, nodding to her and Palpatine before making his way out of the office with Obi-Wan.
    "Senator," the queen said, giving him a cordial smile, "I thank you again for your counsel. My handmaiden, Binjar, and I must return to our quarters to prepare for the trip. We shall speak again soon, I trust." The three of them stepped around Palpatine and walked out.
    The senator stared at the door they had just exited through. "Yes, of course, my queen. Very soon," he muttered.
     
  14. Snocone

    Snocone Jedi Knight star 1

    Registered:
    Sep 14, 2015
    One important change I wanted to make was to the overall demeanor of the Jedi Masters. Instead of haughty jerks, I made them more like real people. I also wanted to make Anakin's "padawan test" more memorable and reminiscent of Luke's test of raising his X-wing on Dagobah. Finally, please take note of the brief mention of Dooku, Qui-Gon's former master--I made more of an effort to link this story with the following two Episodes.

    CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

    "Feel, you can, the Force in others?" Yoda asked. He, Mace Windu, and Anakin had been sitting in a comfortable, well-lit chamber farther inside the Jedi Temple for the last couple of hours, where the Jedi Masters had been asking the boy several questions about himself and his life on Tatooine. A small fountain burbled in the center of the room, creating a peaceful and serene atmosphere.
    Anakin sat up a little straighter in his chair. "I suppose that's what it is. Everyone has something like that in them that I can feel, and each person is different; but I had never heard it being called the Force. I've heard of Jedi, of course, but I just thought they were brave heroes who fight for justice throughout the galaxy. I don't think I ever met one before Master Jinn, but I knew that was something I always wanted to do too."
    Master Windu smiled. "Many Jedi have done very heroic things over the ages. Some of them, though, discover that being a hero may sometimes just mean living a life of quiet service to others."
    Anakin nodded, not quite sure how to respond.
    Yoda peered at him thoughtfully. "And how feel you, young Skywalker?" he asked, tapping his own chest with a clawed finger.
    The boy thought for several moments about this question. "I suppose I don't really consider that very often," he said, shrugging. "I was nervous when we first started, but not so much any more."
    Yoda's eyes half-closed, and he smiled. "Good, good. Learned, you have, to overcome fear of meeting others. Of condemnation."
    Mace Windu leaned forward slightly. "However, I sense another fear in you—a great fear of loss."
    Anakin looked at the floor in front of his feet. "I do miss my mother," he admitted quietly. "And I—I don't want anything to happen to her."
    "That's very understandable, Anakin," the dark-skinned Master said, "But as a Jedi, you would need to learn to conquer that fear through patience and wisdom."
    Anakin assumed a quizzical expression. "What does being a Jedi have to do with missing my mom?"
    "Everything, young Skywalker," Windu answered. "Immobilizing fear, when there is nothing you can do to change your circumstances, leads to anger; not only at the situation, but also at yourself and those you care about. Anger, then, leads to hate—"
    "—And of the dark side, hatred is," finished Yoda.
    The boy nodded thoughtfully. "That makes sense. Is that why children are sent to the Jedi temple so young? So they don't miss their parents as much?"
    "Precisely," Mace Windu confirmed, nodding. "That is also why we discourage romantic attachment. If one is not securely grounded in the light side of the Force, fear for his mate or the heartbreak that accompanies loss are often too great to overcome."
    Anakin sat back in his chair again. "This test isn't as difficult as I thought it would be."
    The two Jedi chuckled. "Oh, no?" Yoda said, smirking. He pointed at the fountain in the center of the room. "Try to move the water, you must."
    Anakin stared at the old Master for a moment, wondering if he had heard him correctly. Then abruptly he stood up and walked over to the bubbling fountain, knelt in front of it, and cupped his hands to draw out some water.
    "No, no," chastised Yoda, a light tone in his voice. He squirmed out of his chair and hobbled toward the boy. "Not with your hands, young Skywalker. With your mind." He gently tapped Anakin's blonde head with his walking stick.
    "With my mind?" He turned and looked hard at the cascading water.
    "Use the Force to move the water, you must. Feel it flow through you, you will."
    Anakin scratched his head, then closed his eyes and stretched his hand toward the water.
    At first, there was absolutely nothing in his perception except the blackness of the back of his eyelids. But then, slowly, he felt something—not really the harsh, sparking sensation of electricity, as he had come to experience multiple times while working on shorted-out ship parts and power cells in Watto's shop; but a warm, lively, fiery feeling, as if he were standing in the morning light of the two Tatooine suns.
    He opened his eyes to a squint and peered at the fountain in front of him.
    It looked exactly the same as before.
    Anakin sighed and turned toward the two Jedi standing behind him, half-expecting a rebuke. To his surprise, they both had expressions that were a mix between wonder and contentment.
    "I—I failed the test, then?" Anakin asked.
    "Fail, you did not," Yoda whispered.
    Anakin stared at the Jedi Master, confused. "What do you mean? Nothing happened."
    Yoda shook his head and pointed up, behind and above Anakin's head. The boy turned, trying to see what Yoda was gesturing toward, then finally looked straight up at the ceiling—
    —There, floating about two meters above him, were hundreds of sparkling droplets of water.
    Anakin grinned and turned back toward the two Jedi, his eyes wide with excitement. "Is that—did I...?" At that moment, all of the minuscule water drops fell simultaneously, tapping against the ground and dampening Anakin's hair and shoulders. He laughed with giddy excitement.
    The two Jedi Masters glanced at each other, deep in thought.
    "Strong is the Force in you, Anakin Skywalker," Yoda said solemnly.

    * * *

    Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan silently walked through the twilight down the wide steps of the Senate building toward the side of the landing platform in front of it. Qui-Gon approached a thin pedestal near the edge of the platform and pushed a button on it, sending out a hailing signal to any nearby taxis in the area. A short, cream-colored transport broke out of one of the skylanes several meters away and slowly made its way to the Jedi, and a hatch on the side opened. The Bith driver nodded at them with his large, oblong head as they stepped into the craft and sat down.
    "Take us to the Jedi temple, please," said Qui-Gon, then turned back around to face his apprentice in the cramped vehicle. The Bith nodded again and ascended into another lane of traffic.
    "What is it, Master?" asked Obi-Wan, noticing the other Jedi's strained expression.
    Qui-Gon exhaled sharply and stared out the window at the city lights. He inwardly lamented at the lack of any starlight due to the light pollution that practically created a separate atmosphere inside the planet's recreated one. Coruscant has given up the true lights above for its artificial lights below, he thought to himself, grimacing. This could be a metaphor for what many of us do with our own personal lives—we get so caught up in that which is immediately in front of us that we neglect the overall picture.
    "Master?" Obi-Wan repeated.
    Qui-Gon shook his head and looked at his apprentice. "I'm sorry. I'm just thinking over what has happened in the last few days. Wondering if we made the right choice in bringing Anakin with us here to Coruscant. Was it truly the will of the Force to take him from his home and expect him to adapt to an entirely new way of living?"
    "He did want to come with us," Obi-Wan reminded him. "In a way, I feel it's an even better situation than the typical method of separating infants from their parents before they really even get to know one another. Anakin has more of a bearing, having been brought up by his mother."
    "That's true. But with that comes a greater risk of sadness and anger from the separation. What if something happens to her?"
    Obi-Wan chuckled softly. "You're sounding more worried than the boy, Master. Tulam will be able to take care of her."
    "And that's if the Jedi Council even allows him to be trained," Qui-Gon said, smirking.
    "They will, Master. Like you've said, I think we were meant to meet him; to bring him with us. There's no way they could reject him."
    Qui-Gon nodded and resumed staring out the window. "I believe you're right. Anakin's future is clouded, but his place in the living Force is undeniable. He does have much to learn, but he has a teachable spirit. Surely the Council sees this."
    Eventually, the taxi slipped out of traffic and stopped in front of the magnificent building. Qui-Gon handed the driver the required amount of credits, thanked him, then stepped onto the duracrete pavement. Obi-Wan pulled himself out of the vehicle behind the older man, and the two of them made their way up the steps and into the Jedi temple.
    Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan walked through the grand, familiar halls of the temple, nodding or waving at passing acquaintances as they made their way farther inward to the heart of the structure.
    There really are so few Jedi now, Qui-Gon considered with a sense of regret. While I am grateful that we have had such a long era of peace, I wonder if perhaps we have neglected our training and discipline because of it. What would happen if the Sith truly did return, after a thousand years of silence?
    Perhaps this possible neglect was the real reason his former master, Dooku, was becoming more and more dissatisfied with the Order. To him, a lack of numbers in the Jedi ranks meant a lack of purpose; a lack of clarity. Once, the Jedi had representatives in nearly every system in the known galaxy—their presence was appreciated and sought by every race and people group. But ever since the threat of the Sith was quelled on Ruusan during the Light and Darkness War and the systems of the galaxy once again decided things through the engine of government instead of the tactics of military strategy, the Order had naturally assumed the role of a constant, watchful defender against potential breakouts. There was no direct enemy—except, perhaps, apathy.
    It is difficult to be watchful when the opponent is invisible, Qui-Gon reflected.
    The heavy doors of the inner sanctum of the temple finally came into view. Qui-Gon stopped before them and ran his fingers along the elaborate carvings in the wroshyr wood, still lost in thought. Obi-Wan waited patiently behind him.
    Obi-Wan was the type to get things done. To rush headlong into a difficult circumstance and finish it as quickly and cleanly as possible. This confidence came from his ability to gauge all angles of a situation and grasp the most likely outcomes—with more experience, his intuition would most likely outweigh his impetuousness. The young man was wise beyond his years, and had taught his master many more things than Qui-Gon would care to admit.
    Qui-Gon turned his head and gave Obi-Wan a short, appreciative smile before pushing the doors open and stepping into the chamber.
    Eleven of the twelve Grand Masters were once again assembled there, all sitting in their circular chairs and speaking amongst themselves. The aswa trees standing between them had all changed their leaves to a pretty yellow-orange, as they did every night after the sun went below the horizon. They were chosen to decorate the chamber specifically to remind the Jedi of the constant flux that life presented; even though structure was beneficial and necessary as a foundation, change was what reminded all beings that they were really alive. To reject it was to reject the very nature of life.
    "Greetings, Master Qui-Gon and Apprentice Obi-Wan," rumbled the horned Gotal Master, Hagrak.
    The two bowed. "Greetings," spoke Qui-Gon.
    "Anakin Skywalker and Master Yoda will be joining us shortly," said Mace Windu. "How went the hearing in the Senate?"
    Qui-Gon wanted to ask what the outcome of Anakin's testing was, but he had long since learned to be patient with regards to any matters involving the Council; they could be trusted to bring up the result when the time was right. Instead, he answered Master Windu's question. "It was worse than I feared; the senators were unwilling to hear Queen Amidala present her case. Valorum would not even listen to my corroboration during the session. Eventually, the queen moved for a vote of no confidence in the Supreme Chancellor."
    "A risky move, but perhaps necessary," lisped the Twi'lek Tibin'iyas.
    "Yes; though I fear this decision may only have the appearance of movement, while the heart of the real issues in the Senate remain unchanged," said Mace Windu quietly.
    Before the conversation could continue, the side door opened. Anakin walked into the room, followed by the slowly-moving Master Yoda. The boy, stopping in between two of the Masters on the far side of the room, smiled a bit nervously at his two friends as Yoda hobbled over to his seat.
    Once Yoda was settled into his chair, Mace Windu leaned forward and stared at Qui-Gon. "You were right—the Force is incredibly strong in him."
    Anakin beamed at this remark, looking back and forth between Windu and Qui-Gon.
    Qui-Gon gave the teen a triumphant smile, then turned back toward Mace Windu. "He is to be trained, then," he said, a flood of hope and confidence washing over all his previous unsureness.
    Windu glanced briefly at Yoda, then looked back to the two standing before them. "No," he finally said, sounding regretful, "He will not be trained."
    Qui-Gon's eyes widened. He was dumbfounded. He looked over at Anakin, who had paled considerably with shock and dismay.
    Obi-Wan took a step forward, his young face hard-lined and tense. "He must be trained; can't you see that the Force flows through and around him?" He walked over to where Anakin was standing and stepped behind him, putting his hands on his shoulders in support.
    "He is too old—too full of fear," Windu answered, his eyes narrowing slightly.
    "To properly bring out the latent abilities in Jedi apprentices, their training must start young, before they are set in their ways," added the Mon Calamari Master, Fisskhar.
    Obi-Wan shook his head. "The Force does not respond to age so much as a pliable will. Surely you see that Anakin—"
    "Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon cut in, a cautionary tone in his voice, "It would do you well to remember that impatient anger is of the dark side."
    His apprentice started to speak again, but stopped short, embarrassed. "You're right, Master. I apologize," he finished quietly.
    Qui-Gon looked around at the twelve Jedi Masters of the Council, trying to collect his thoughts before speaking. He knew Anakin was much older than any apprentice the Council had ever accepted, but he also knew Anakin's character. And while he, too, was not quite sure of what the future held for the boy, he was completely confident that Anakin would meet it well.
    "Masters of the Council," he finally began, "After we fled Naboo, our ship was badly damaged and could not endure the trip to Coruscant. We were able to make it to Tatooine, where we met Anakin in a parts shop. We later discovered that Anakin and his mother were slaves belonging to the shop's owner, and that Anakin had never known anything other than this life of slavery.
    "However, living under the harsh rule of his master never caused Anakin to become bitter; nor did he ever harbor any ill will toward his owner. He was never selfish while we were there, but instead did everything he could to help us on our way, even at his own expense. He used some of his meager resources to buy my companions food when we had no means of purchasing anything, and even went on to formulate the plan by which we were able to leave Tatooine in a timely manner and travel to Coruscant. He did all this without any thought toward his own betterment or even his own safety.
    "I myself, even though I am considered a Jedi Master, learned much after spending these last few days with Anakin; and though he was not formally trained from infancy to walk in the ways of the Jedi, I feel that he embodies the code more fully than many apprentices here at the temple.
    "Consequently, I must respectfully disagree with your decision, and I ask that you would reconsider your judgment after examining my case, as well as the testimony of any of my companions who have had the chance to spend time with Anakin. If you do reconsider, also know that I myself am willing to train him. My apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi, is mature and powerful in the Force, and I am confident there is little else he could learn from me; I submit that he go on to face the trials and become a Jedi Knight."
    Anakin was crying by this point. Obi-Wan, too, had a solemn look of appreciation for the eloquent and encouraging words his master had just spoken.
    The twelve Grand Masters were also similarly moved. They stared back and forth between Qui-Gon and each other, at a loss.
    Finally, Master Yoda gave Qui-Gon a serene smile. "Well-said, Master Qui-Gon. Spoken true of the boy, you have."
    Qui-Gon bowed toward the old Jedi. Standing up straight, he gave a reassuring nod toward Anakin and Obi-Wan.
    Yoda continued speaking. "Determine, we will, if Obi-Wan is ready for the trials. Short our time is, for you must ready yourselves to return to Naboo. Go with you, Anakin must, to observe the way of the Jedi padawan. To see your example and allow it to grow him. But decide tonight we will if becoming an apprentice is the best path for the boy."
    Qui-Gon smiled, relieved. From the positive looks on their faces, Master Windu, as well as the other Masters of the Council, generally seemed to accept Yoda's decision about reconsidering Anakin's apprenticeship without much reserve. Only a couple of them appeared to be uneasy. "Thank you, Master Yoda. We shall get ready and leave for Naboo in the morning after we have heard your decision," he replied, bowing once again. "May the Force be with all of you."
    Yoda slowly blinked his wide-set eyes. "And may the Force be with you."
    "With the Senate in the process of voting for a new Supreme Chancellor, the situation on Naboo could escalate very quickly," said Mace Windu. "A difficult and dangerous task lies before you, Qui-Gon; one that will affect the people of Naboo as well as all the systems of the Republic. Be careful."
    "I shall be." Qui-Gon glanced at Anakin and Obi-Wan, a half-smile still etched on his face. "Come on, you two. We have a long journey ahead of us still."
    The two nodded, bowed toward the Council, and hastily followed Qui-Gon through the large doors and into the corridors of the Jedi temple.
     
  15. Snocone

    Snocone Jedi Knight star 1

    Registered:
    Sep 14, 2015
    We're leading up to the climax now! Exciting!

    CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

    In the residential quarters of the temple, Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Anakin finished packing their things in preparation for the extended trip to Naboo. It was early morning; large, water-filled plasteel globes hung from posts in front of the circular windows, diffusing the white sun rays and giving the room a calm, meditative ambience.
    "Did you get enough sleep, Anakin?" asked Qui-Gon as he slung his small pack over his shoulder.
    "I guess so," the boy replied, rubbing his eyes. "There are a lot more noises during the night on Coruscant."
    The Jedi Master chuckled softly. "That's for sure! I suppose you are rather unfamiliar with cities full of so many people, being from Tatooine. Hopefully we'll have more time to catch up on the way to Naboo."
    "I was wondering: why am I coming along with you and everyone, instead of training here at the temple? Isn't that what new apprentices do before becoming padawans?" Anakin asked. "...If they accept me, I mean," he added, sounding hopeful.
    "That is typically the case, yes. However, given your age and circumstance, Anakin, you will be accompanying me on missions and voyages now, pending the Council's approval. As you purposefully keep your mind open to new lessons as you travel with me, you will hopefully glean any information from first-hand experience that you may have missed growing up in the temple."
    Anakin's voice quieted as he put the last of his belongings away. "Have I missed much?"
    Obi-Wan laughed from the other side of the room. "Master Qui-Gon can be stern sometimes, but he is a very patient teacher."
    Qui-Gon smiled at the other Jedi. "Thank you, Obi-Wan." He turned back to Anakin. "Don't worry. Stay mindful of the living Force, and watch Obi-Wan and I. You are very perceptive, and I don't anticipate that you'll have any trouble learning the ways of the Jedi."
    He meandered over to the door and looked at the two boys; Obi-Wan was sitting on his bed and tapping his fingers impatiently on his thigh, and Anakin was staring around the room, still trying to absorb all the new data. "Shall we be on our way, then?" he asked them.
    "Definitely!" said Obi-Wan, jumping up and practically jogging through the door. Anakin nodded and followed quietly behind.
    I have a feeling these two will either get along wonderfully or be at each other's necks, Qui-Gon thought to himself, smiling inwardly. He followed them through the door, and the three of them made the short walk back to the chamber where the Jedi Council sat.
    Once they were inside, the Jedi Masters wasted no time in discussing the matter at hand.
    "Master Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, Anakin Skywalker," Mace Windu said, nodding to each of them in turn. "We have talked further about the possibility of Anakin becoming a padawan, and have reached a consensus.
    "While it is true that Anakin is in great need of training, and needs to learn to overcome his fear, we also believe that what you and Obi-Wan said yesterday about him—and about the Force—was very perceptive. To keep tradition is wise, but to allow the Force to move where it pleases is wiser still. It is undeniable that the Force is stronger in Anakin than in most, if not all, Jedi apprentices here at the temple; and it is clear that his destiny is intricately entwined with the destiny of the galaxy."
    "Up to him, and to those who train him, his destiny is," added Yoda, giving a meaningful stare to Qui-Gon. "Unseen, the Force's movement is. Find his place in it as a padawan, he must."
    Anakin could hardly contain his smile. "Thank you, Master Yoda and Master Windu—and all of you," he said, bowing. "I promise I'll do my best!"
    Mace Windu smiled at him. "You have already done quite well, Anakin. Be sure to listen intently to Master Qui-Gon during your trip to Naboo and afterward. With training, you will learn to overcome your fear."
    Anakin nodded happily and shot a huge grin toward Qui-Gon, who returned it. Then, after a short farewell, the three of them left the inner sanctum and went through the many halls of the temple and out to the front, where a taxi was already waiting next to the small platform there.
    Once they were settled inside the taxi, Anakin took to staring out the window fixatedly. He seemed to be more than a little dazed from the events of the last couple of days, as well as completely awed by the foreign technology, customs, and atmosphere of the capital planet.
    Qui-Gon smiled. Truly, Coruscant was a world apart from any other place in the galaxy.
    "What do you see out there, Anakin?" he asked the boy, pulling him out of his reverie.
    Anakin assumed a thoughtful expression. "People, I guess," he finally answered. "All of them just living their lives. Some of them hoping for more, like I always did for so long." The muscles around his eyes tensed slightly as he looked at the Jedi Master. "Only... they already have so much here on Coruscant, don't they?"
    Qui-Gon nodded. "Yes, they do. But having and hoping are not always as related as you may think." He glanced out the window at the quickly-moving traffic lanes all around their taxi, then back at the boy. "How much you have—and that which you desire—all depends on your perspective, really."
    Anakin nodded, and remained silent. After a couple of minutes, though, he quietly spoke.
    "Master Qui-Gon, thank you. I really will do my best," he said. Turning to Obi-Wan, he added, "And thank you for supporting me too, Obi-Wan. Both of you have been so kind to me."
    "Of course, Anakin!" replied Obi-Wan, grinning. "I knew they'd accept you."
    They eventually reached the platform in front of the Senate building, where Queen Amidala, her entourage, and her ship were waiting. Ric Olie was sitting in the cockpit of the chromium-plated vessel, running a last-minute check of the hyperspace route, and Captain Panaka and Binjar were loading the last of their effects up the entry ramp. R2-D2 rolled back and forth under the craft, scanning the ship's systems and humming to itself quietly.
    The taxi gently touched down, and the side door slid open. Anakin hopped out first and ran to where Padmé was standing and talking to the queen and the other handmaidens. They were now dressed in pearlescent, light blue robes that glittered softly in the morning light.
    "Good morning, Your Majesty," he began, awkwardly bowing before turning to Padmé. She and the queen politely held in their laughter as the boy eagerly shared his news. "I've been accepted as an apprentice! Qui-Gon is going to train me!"
    Padmé grinned and gave him a big, excited hug. "That's wonderful, Ani!" she beamed.
    "I can hardly believe it—I'm going to be a Jedi!" Anakin continued. "That means I'll get to see all the different systems of the Republic—"
    "And probably some besides," finished Qui-Gon, who had walked up behind the boy with Obi-Wan. He smiled and put his hand on Anakin's back. "The galaxy is a large place."
    "I probably won't get to see you too often, then..." Padmé said, a little more quietly.
    Anakin's eyes widened as he made the connection. "I suppose not," he replied, sounding sobered. "But I will definitely come visit as soon as I become a Jedi Knight! Plus," his smile reappeared, "The Council said I can come to Naboo now, even though I'm not an official apprentice quite yet."
    Binjar, who had appeared at the top of the landing ramp of the queen's vessel, smiled down at the boy. "I am glad you're coming to Naboo with us, Anakin."
    "Me too!" Anakin replied. "Need any help?" he asked, jogging over to assist with the supplies.
    Once he was up the ramp, Padmé, the other three handmaidens, and the queen turned back to Qui-Gon with solemn looks on their faces. "Master Jinn," Amidala said, looking straight into his eyes, "The fate of our world rests upon our shoulders. We have succeeded at refraining from a recourse of open war thus far, and this infiltration of the palace may yet be our way of keeping Naboo from the scars of conflict. However—" she glanced sideways at Padmé, "—a war to save our people from destruction may end up being the only choice we have left."
    Qui-Gon gazed at the queen sympathetically. "I understand your desire to avoid such a wide-scale confrontation; you know, though, that Obi-Wan and I are only two people. We are committed to keeping you and your companions safe, but we can't fight a war for you, even with the Force aiding us."
    A hint of a smile played across Amidala's lips. "Let us leave for Naboo. I will tell you of our plan once we are all assembled in my chamber."

    * * *

    Nute Gunray stood shivering before the hologram of Darth Sidious. It was now midday there in Theed, but an icy fear gripped the viceroy, as it often did when he conversed with the Dark Lord. At this particular moment, he was trying to find the correct words to explain the current predicament he and his associate Daultray Dofine found themselves in.
    Typically, he considered himself an eloquent and effective speaker, able to smooth-talk any blithering business partner into unwittingly giving him and the Trade Federation practically anything they wanted through convoluted arrangements and intricately-crafted deals, but words always seemed to fail him when he spoke with Sidious.
    Especially when they had done something that the Sith Lord found unsatisfactory.
    "Ah, yes, my lord. The—we, ah, we have dealt with the Gohltan settlements, as you asked," he said tremulously. Dofine stood off a few meters to the side, wringing his thin, clammy hands.
    "The Gohltans have been annihilated, then?" the dark master probed in a suspicious tone, as if already knowing the answer.
    "Well, they—they are gone, Lord Sidious. We drove them out. Their main city is ours. However—"
    "You 'drove them out'? You were to destroy them, Viceroy! This is twice that you have utterly failed me."
    Gunray bowed deeply. "F-forgive me, Lord Sidious! If only we had more of the new membrane technology for our droids, we could send a larger—"
    "Silence!" roared the hooded figure. A shadow seemed to envelop the throne room for a fleeting moment. "Queen Amidala is alive, and is now on her way back to Naboo with the Jedi. As soon as she arrives, you are to kill her. She is of no further use to us now. We will soon move on to the next system in our conquest of the Outer Rim, Llanic, while the Senate continues its slow decent into oblivion.
    "I have sent my apprentice, Darth Maul, ahead of the queen in order to intercept the Jedi there. He will arrive soon to oversee the completion of your invasion. Report to me once Amidala is dead and the Gohltans have been wiped out. If you fail the simple operation of killing the queen upon her arrival, Darth Maul will finish the task for you—" his voice lowered ominously, "—and make the rest of your stay there rather... unpleasant. You have one last chance, Gunray; do not fail me again."
    Nute bowed again in terrified silence as the transmission faded. Slowly, he turned and stared wild-eyed at his associate Dofine.
    The other Neimoidian hoarsely whispered the viceroy's thoughts: "A Sith Lord... here? What do we do?"
    Gunray swallowed hard. "We do exactly as Lord Sidious said. There is no more room for error."

    * * *

    Ric Olie watched Anakin study the controls of the queen's transport with keen interest. The mesmerizing hyperspace tunnel flowed all around the ship outside like a glowing stream, but the boy was laser-focused on the console stretched in front of him, as he had been for the last half hour of the flight.
    "So I'm guessing those two control the pitch?" Anakin asked, staring down at the board.
    "That's right," Olie replied, a grin on his face.
    "And that's the forward stabilizer," the boy continued, seeming to gain more confidence by the second.
    "Exactly."
    "So really, once you make it out of the atmosphere, it isn't too much different from piloting a land speeder."
    "Well, it is slightly bigger," the pilot answered, chuckling. "You catch on pretty quick, kid."
    Anakin smiled at him, but Binjar walked into the cockpit before they could continue the conversation. "My apologies for interrupting, but the queen wishes Anakin to join us in her chamber to discuss what will happen once we reach Naboo," the Gohltan said, nodding slightly at the two.
    Anakin shot an uncertain glance at Olie, who gave the boy a reassuring smile in response. "I'll catch up later, when you come back in here to learn more controls. I figure I can just take a break and let you fly at that point," the pilot joked.
    Anakin laughed and nodded, then followed Binjar through the ship and into the queen's room where Panaka, the two Jedi, and the royal retinue were speaking in solemn tones. Panaka was in the middle of explaining his reservations to Amidala.
    "...believe that they'll capture you and force you to sign the treaty as soon as we land, Your Majesty. They've got to be on high alert—they'll notice us for sure if we land anywhere near the palace."
    "Your point is well-noted, Captain," the queen said graciously. "We will land nearer to the swamps and lakes, on the plains near Velka. It is one of the towns farthest from Theed, and I believe the Trade Federation forces are not as concentrated there. We will then find any supplies we can in Velka and the other nearby settlements and move to take the capital back from the Neimoidians." She looked at Obi-Wan for support, who nodded confidently.
    "I think we'll need a distraction—a big distraction—to be able to infiltrate the palace," Panaka continued, crossing his arms. "Even if we did make it inside, they're sure to have the place crawling with droids, unless we could trick them into coming out somehow."
    Amidala smiled knowingly. "Binjar?" she said, looking past the military captain at the Gohltan, who was still standing next to Anakin.
    "Me, Your Highness?" Binjar replied uncertainly, taking a small step forward.
    "Yes." Her smile shrank into a grave expression of regret. "I would first like to apologize to you on behalf of the Naboo royal family for our disdainful treatment of your people. Padmé has told me all about your acts of bravery and humble assistance during your time on Tatooine. You have shown our people grace through your behavior, even while we feared the Gohltans because of our misunderstandings." She sent a quick glance to Padmé, who nodded once, then continued speaking. "We are honored to consider you a welcome member of our court at Theed, as an ambassador between our people and yours, if you would be pleased with this position. Perhaps then our people can work together to achieve peace."
    Binjar's mouth hung open slightly as he tried to absorb this statement. Finally, he stammered out, "Th-thank you, Your Majesty. Ah, yes... I'd be honored to be an ambassador." He nodded curtly, still taken aback.
    Amidala's smile returned, and she blushed fractionally. Her voice was quieter and more informal-sounding as she continued speaking. "Also, we were wondering if you would assist us in our plan to free Theed."
    "I'll help in any way I can," Binjar answered. "What do you need?"
    The queen turned her smile toward Captain Panaka. "A big distraction."

    * * *

    The chromium-plated transport blipped out of hyperspace within the Naboo system. The system's gas giant, appropriately named W'weyol, or storm in the traditional royal language of the Naboo people, loomed on the ship's starboard side; its endless bands of torrential weather patterns flowing across its surface. Naboo itself was a bright blue and green thumbnail far beyond them.
    "The scanner indicates that there's only one remaining Trade Federation battleship parked in orbit over Theed," Ric Olie said as he peered at the holoscreen in front of him. Qui-Gon, who was standing behind the pilot and had been alternating between looking at the screen and the approaching planet before them, made a thoughtful "hm" and crossed his arms.
    "That probably means that the invasion has been thoroughly successful," the Jedi Master said quietly. "Do you detect any outbound transmissions?"
    Olie shook his head. "Planet's still silent."
    Obi-Wan spoke up from beside Qui-Gon. "I suspect that last ship is holding down the communications channels as well as acting as a controller station for all the droids on the surface."
    Qui-Gon nodded at his apprentice. "You're probably right, Obi-Wan. I wonder where all their other ships have gone off to, though." He stepped forward and put his hand on Ric Olie's shoulder. "They may spot us going in. We'll need to act quickly once we land. They probably expect a larger force to be coming just behind us—we'll be able to use this to our advantage and slip in quietly."
    Olie nodded up at the Jedi, then slowly pushed the ship's throttle forward. "Let's do this. I'll be with you all the way," he said with a confident tone in his voice.
    "I know you will, and we greatly appreciate it," Qui-Gon replied, smiling softly. "I just hope the queen's idea works."

    * * *

    The thick grasses next to the desolate town of Velka flattened as the queen's transport lowered its landing gear and exerted its repulsorlifts for a smooth landing. Once the ship was down, the landing ramp extended; and Captain Panaka and Ric Olie, followed by the two Jedi, cautiously made their way down to the planet's surface, weapons at the ready. Once they were sure that the surrounding area was free from any enemy forces, the rest of the party made their way onto the plain as well.
    A deep lake partially surrounded by a thick forest of trees sat nearby at a distance of about fifteen meters. Binjar, after descending the ramp, took a few steps in the direction of the lake, then turned and made an uncertain look toward Queen Amidala. She replied with a small, confident smile, and he, seeming to find his resolve, turned and continued walking. He approached the edge of the dark water and dived in.
    Ric Olie walked up and stood next to the queen, her companions, and Anakin, having finished his reconnoitering with Panaka and the Jedi. "Where's he off to?" he asked Padmé, who, along with the other handmaidens, was now dressed in a set of combat-appropriate loose-fitting pants and a black short-sleeved shirt.
    The handmaiden smiled at him. "You'll see," she said coyly. The pilot smirked skeptically.
    Panaka, Qui-Gon, and Obi-Wan approached the group, and the queen turned to address all of them. "Captain, you and Officer Olie head into Velka to look for any supplies we might be able to use to get into the palace while we wait for Binjar to return."
    "I can go along too," Obi-Wan cut in. Qui-Gon shot him a hard stare. "—Ah, Your Majesty," he hastily added, blushing and looking at the ground.
    Amidala laughed. "Yes, of course! All of you are to meet with us here as soon as you can." Panaka, Olie, and Obi-Wan gave her a quick bow and ran toward Velka's broken-down front gates.
    "Your Highness, you said before that there is a secret way into the palace?" Qui-Gon asked.
    "Right." The queen nodded. "There are a series of catacombs that lead under the waterfalls and end up right near the rear wall of the throne room. The entrance from that side is hidden, and almost impossible to see, so I'm sure the Neimoidians haven't located it yet. We'll head in as soon as the droid army has been led out of the city."
    "Can I come, Master Jinn?" asked Anakin, giving a plaintive look to Qui-Gon. "I can help."
    "Anakin, I wouldn't want anything to happen to you," Padmé said worriedly.
    Anakin crossed his arms and stared at her. "I don't want anything to happen to you!"
    Qui-Gon put his hand on Anakin's shoulder as he spoke to Padmé. "I think it'll be good to have Anakin along. It would be too dangerous to leave him here by himself anyway." He smiled at the boy, then turned his gaze to Queen Amidala. "Now then, are you sure this will work, Your Majesty? What if King Nasgohltan refuses?"
    The queen looked at the Jedi Master with a resolute expression. "I trust that Binjar will at least be able to grant us an audience with him."
    Qui-Gon stared at the lake and didn't speak for a few moments. Finally, he quietly said, "I'm not so sure. We didn't exactly leave Eres Gohlta under the best of circumstances."
    Amidala did not respond at once, but only joined the Jedi in gazing at the lake. A slight breeze rippled the surface and fluttered the leaves on the trees surrounding it. After nearly a minute, she said softly, "This plan must succeed. We have no other options."
     
  16. Snocone

    Snocone Jedi Knight star 1

    Registered:
    Sep 14, 2015
    I tried to make the big reveal better in this version, as well as the interspecies tension leading up to it. Makes it more meaningful. I also made an entire section based on the question, "Where on Naboo did Panaka procure those random speeders before the final battle??"

    CHAPTER NINETEEN

    Crumbled buildings and homes lined the torch-marked streets of Velka. Panaka, Olie, and Obi-Wan stepped around strewn pieces of twisted metal, splintered boards, and charred stone as they searched each structure for supplies. There was a pungent smell of dirty smoke hanging over the whole town. Occasionally, they encountered blackened, carbonized remains of people who had lived there—people who had been going about their normal lives when the Trade Federation droids entered their town days before and destroyed it without remorse.
    "This—this is awful," Obi-Wan said, his voice cracking, as he peered through a crumpled doorway. His companions a little farther down the street did not reply. Seeing nothing but a few ashen remains of pastries—the place must have been a bakery—he stepped back and jogged to catch up with Panaka, who was examining a heavy-looking door with keen interest.
    "Did you find something?" Obi-Wan asked as he approached the captain.
    Panaka stroked his clean-shaven chin thoughtfully. "This building seems to be in better repair than the rest. I wonder if the citizens here used this place as a supply storage unit."
    "Can you open it?" asked Ric Olie, who had approached from the other side.
    The captain peered at the panel to the right of the door. It had a single red light on its upper right corner which blinked softly every few seconds. Text scrolled on the screen in the middle of the panel.
    "This is odd—it seems like it was locked from the inside." He looked at Olie, then over at Obi-Wan. "I'm afraid I don't know how to access it. Do you think you'd be able to get us in?" He glanced down at the lightsaber hanging from Obi-Wan's belt.
    The Jedi nodded, unclipped his weapon, and activated it. The blade extended with a snap-hiss, and Obi-Wan angled it to cut into the side of the door near the panel.
    "Hmm, this is strong stuff," Obi-Wan said, turning the hilt of his lightsaber and slowly guiding it downward through the door frame. "I suppose the Federation didn't want to waste much time picking through each and every building in their advance toward the capital."
    Finally, the entire lower right edge of the door was reduced to slag, and Obi-Wan retracted his lightsaber blade. The three used the tips of their fingers to grab onto slight indentations in the door's smooth face and slide it to the left. The heavy door seemed to be on rails, and squealed loudly as Panaka finished pushing it into the wall slot.
    The room they entered was pitch black except for the short shaft of light coming through the entrance, silhouetting the three men. From the slight reverberating sound over their breathing, they ascertained that the room was much larger than it looked on the outside. Panaka cautiously took a couple of steps into the building and blinked as his eyes tried to adjust.
    Just as Panaka took a third step forward, two things happened suddenly: The cold tip of a blaster was pushed into the side of his head, and Obi-Wan's lightsaber ignited. The soft blue light of the blade did little to reveal the identity of the person—or thing—standing in the blackness next to Panaka, and he dare not turn his head to look.
    It was a trap, thought Panaka, cursing his oversight. Those blasted Trade Federation cowards set up some droids in here to pick off any survivors that managed to get in.
    Panaka slowly put his hands up into the air. Obi-Wan lowered his blade but did not deactivate it; he probably recognized that the unseen attacker would be able to shoot its blaster a bit quicker than the Jedi could lunge with his weapon, and did not want to endanger Panaka's life any further. Olie, stunned into silence, froze in place behind Obi-Wan.
    A hand roughly shoved Panaka sideways into the darkness, and he pitched over, landing on his knees. His armored shin guards made a metallic ringing sound as they connected with the ground.
    The chak-chak of several more blasters clicking into ready mode resounded throughout the room.
    Panaka closed his eyes and hoped it would end quickly.

    * * *

    The smooth, wet head of Binjar Skimb emerged from the surface of the lake, shortly followed by the rest of his long, lanky body. Once he had pulled himself onto the shore, he shook himself off and walked over to where the group was still assembled and talking about their plan to liberate Theed.
    "There's no one there," the Gohltan said in response to the expectant looks, a peculiar mix of worry and relief in his expression. "From what I could tell, Eres Gohlta is completely deserted. There were a few droids stationed in King Nasgohltan's castle, but none of them saw me."
    The queen stared at him with wide eyes, at a loss. Qui-Gon interjected for her. "None of them are left? Did the Trade Federation destroy them all?"
    "I don't think so," the Gohltan replied. "More likely, they went to our people's sacred place farther into the woods." He pointed at the tall trees on the other side of the lake. "There, they will call a meeting between the Gohltan leaders to discuss the next steps to take."
    "May we go there?" asked Padmé.
    "Well..." Binjar hesitated. "I can take you there, yes, but you may not receive the kindest of welcomes."
    "We must try, for the sake of both our peoples," Amidala answered.
    With some reluctance, Binjar finally said, "Come then, let's go." He turned and started toward the thick foliage.
    Qui-Gon pulled out his comlink and clicked it a couple times, trying to signal his apprentice.
    "Obi-Wan?" Qui-Gon spoke into the comlink after a few seconds. He received no answer. I knew that outbound communications were down, but I thought that surface signals would still work, thought Qui-Gon to himself, frowning. "Obi-Wan, if you can hear me, our group is moving into the forest by the lake. Come as soon as you can."
    Still hearing nothing but faint static, Qui-Gon made a confused look, then put his comlink away and followed after the rest.

    * * *

    "...Come as soon as you can," finished the tinny voice of Qui-Gon Jinn. Obi-Wan looked down at his tunic pocket where the comlink was stored, then back up into the darkness, wishing there was some way he could send a reply signal back and let his master know that they were in danger.
    Nothing had happened for the last minute. Whoever was standing in the room was decidedly long in figuring out what to do with the three of them. Although he wasn't exceptional in sensing the identity markers of others through the Force as his master was, Obi-Wan was able to tell that the mysterious, silent assailants were not droids.
    That's good news, at least, Obi-Wan reflected, adjusting the grip on his saber hilt.
    Abruptly, overhead lighting came on.
    The room was indeed very large; Obi-Wan could see now that they were standing on the wide lip or catwalk of a room that went down at least two floors lower. The entire portion below their level seemed to have been carved out long ago from the soft soil and reinforced with stone slabs and thick wooden support beams. Doors were cut out at each level, leading into hallways and other rooms. Smooth metal covered the upper floor walls as well as the ceiling.
    Approximately seventy-five men and women standing on all three levels, several of them dressed in military garb and pointing assault rifles at the three, peered at them with suspicion. The lead attacker, though—the one who had pushed Panaka down—suddenly lowered his blaster and moved to help the captain up onto his feet. He looked to be in his late twenties, and had close-cropped black hair and olive skin.
    "Everyone, put down your weapons! It's Captain Panaka!" the man shouted. The people around and below them complied quickly.
    "So sorry, sir," the man continued, "we thought the Neimoidians and their droids had come back with a new weapon." He motioned toward Obi-Wan, who still held his lightsaber at waist level. "I heard his comlink go off, though, and realized that you were flesh and blood and, more importantly, not Trade Federation." The man shuddered. "Those droids are always silent when they attack."
    "That's all right," answered Panaka, pulling himself up with the man's hand. "You were trained to be this careful." He dusted off his knees and looked around at the facility. "I never knew this place was here. How many do we have?"
    "One hundred and sixty-eight men and women, plus several children. Our food rations have been running low, but we're still armed to the teeth. We've been planning to send a small group to pick up supplies from one of the other towns, but if Velka is an example of what the Federation has done all over, we may have to move out onto the plains to find resources." The man gave a grim look to Panaka as he continued speaking. "Did you just come from the palace, sir? We haven't heard much of anything over the last few days."
    "Ah, no. We've come quite a long way, actually. Our ship just returned from Coruscant. The queen is safe; this man—" the captain pointed at Obi-Wan, who deactivated his lightsaber and clipped it back to his belt, "—and his associate aided in her rescue."
    The man stepped forward and reached for Obi-Wan's hand. "Oh, thank the stars! We were so worried for her and the rest of the palace. My name is Rodi Persa. Again, I apologize for the rough treatment."
    Obi-Wan shook his hand and gave him a warm smile. "That's all right. We're just as glad that you weren't the Federation either."
    Persa looked past him at Ric Olie. "Ric, is that you? Wow!" He wrapped the pilot in an enormous bear hug, who returned it just as strongly.
    Olie laughed and slapped the man on the back. "Rodi, I haven't seen you since training!" His look suddenly became very solemn. "Is Eva safe?"
    Persa smiled and pointed behind him at a slender woman, also wearing military fatigues, on the first basement level. She smiled up at them, moving a loose strand of her short brown hair behind her ear, and waved.
    "She's fine, Ric; thanks for asking." Persa turned and motioned for the three of them to follow him to a stairwell a few meters away. "However, a lot of people didn't make it. The droid army is enormous. Probably fifty thousand, and that's just on-planet. They easily overran our towns and killed anyone who resisted. I believe they're keeping most of the people in detention camps—or at least that's what we hope for, as opposed to the alternative," he added, his face becoming downcast.
    "You said you have armaments?" Panaka asked as they moved past groups of the fugitives and descended the stairs.
    "Yes—not enough people trained to use them though. Strange problem to have," the man answered as he led them down a narrow hall that broke off from the main room, using a thin glow rod to light the path at their feet. "There are a few speeders as well."
    Eventually, after a curve in the hallway, they emerged into another room. It was smaller than the main facility, but still stretched beyond them at least fifteen meters. Six two-person military-grade speeders lined one wall, and about ten large crates of weapons and power packs were stacked next to another door on the right side.
    "That's one of two rear exits," said Persa, pointing at the durasteel door. "They lead to camouflaged and sensor-proof openings outside the city."
    "Perfect," said Panaka, rubbing his gloved hands together and walking toward the nearest speeder. "Officer Persa, I need you to round up any capable troops you have. A few of you will need to come with us to rendezvous with the queen."
    "She's here, sir?" Persa asked, a look of shock painted across his face. "Why isn't she on Coruscant?"
    "Because she wanted to come back and fight for her kingdom," replied Panaka simply, without turning. There was a strain of loyal admiration in his tone.
    "But sir," Persa continued, "I only have about forty troops trained for combat situations here. We wouldn't last five minutes against that massive droid army."
    "We have a plan," Obi-Wan said with a grin. "Don't you worry."
    Olie jogged over to Panaka's speeder and jumped on just as the captain started the machine. It gently rose a half-meter off of the ground.
    Obi-Wan followed and straddled another one of the speeders. "I'll follow you out, Panaka," he said as he pushed the control switch on the panel in front of him.
    "We're running out of time, Officer Persa," Panaka said over the high-pitched whine of the speeder engine. "Get five of your best men and come with us. The rest of the troops need to organize and mobilize, then meet at the lake to the east ASAP."
    Rodi Persa stared at him for a fraction of a second before saluting smartly and running back into the hallway.

    * * *

    The small, motley group of companions slowly worked their way through the forest. Diverse species of plants and animals surrounded them on every side. Occasionally, lithe feline creatures about a meter long would slink up to one of them, their long, fur-tipped ears and tail twitching with curiosity, and give them a speculative sniff. Anakin stayed close to Qui-Gon, glaring at the cats suspiciously.
    "I wouldn't worry about them, Anakin. They don't have any malicious intent," assured the Jedi Master.
    Anakin's brow furrowed as he looked at Qui-Gon. "How can you tell?"
    Qui-Gon smiled at the teen as he pushed a thin branch out of their way. "The Force connects us to them. As you grow in your perception of the living Force, you will learn to perceive the desires and designs of those around you as well. This harmony extends from us to all life forms and helps us keep peace between those who would have none."
    Anakin nodded contemplatively, and did not shy away from the inquisitive animals any longer.
    Ahead of them, Binjar and Amidala walked side by side, with Padmé and the other three handmaidens keeping close to the queen. Binjar was trying his best to lead them down the paths that were free of any sort of debris, but he seemed to be getting more and more anxious by the moment, tripping over rocks and exposed roots. Finally, Padmé asked, "Binjar, are you all right?"
    Binjar did not speak for several steps, then glanced back at the girl, his expression stony. "I am afraid," he said in a low voice.
    "Why are you afraid?" asked Amidala next to him.
    "Two times, I have left Eres Gohlta because of cowardice. Two times, I have refused to face that which I deserve. Now I am taking foreigners to the Gohltan sacred place—they may kill me as soon as we arrive."
    They walked in silence for a few meters before Amidala spoke again. "Binjar," she started solemnly, "Whatever happens to you, and whatever may have happened before to cause your people to drive you out, please know that we—all of us—consider you a close friend, and we couldn't have made it this far without you."
    Binjar gave the queen a long, thoughtful look, then quietly said, "I consider all of you my friends, too."
    The party eventually found themselves in a large clearing of sorts. Ancient, carved stone jutted out from the ground in various places, and there were enormous remains of statues hewn by Naboo's pre-human race, the enigmatic Elders. Reptilian flying creatures called to each other with hooting cries in the branches above. Thick, mossy vines stretched from tree to ground and back again, giving the surrounding forest an image of well-balanced symbiosis.
    Binjar, stepping forward into the center of the clearing, held up his hand to the others as if to say "wait." He then made a strange combination of clicking and whistling sounds with his throat and mouth.
    "I don't see anyone," remarked Anakin, peering at the foliage around them.
    "That is their intent," Binjar said over his shoulder.
    Eventually, several Gohltans materialized around the group, stepping silently from the thick forest like wraiths. They were all brandishing glow-tipped poleaxes. None of them seemed to be in the least bit pleased with the intruders.
    "Eesani, Gohltan-sov." Binjar croaked out. "Vad shil-tebnoh ti Naboo-avakh. Get ashpelaht ewwen."
    The surrounding Gohltan warriors did not reply. They edged closer and closer to the group. Binjar took a step back toward his companions and swallowed.
    Finally, there was movement next to one of the time-worn statues on the other side of the clearing: it was King Nasgohltan stepping out from behind the monument, scowl written on his face, gnarled staff in his hand. He stepped up onto the remains of a thick stone pillar there and snarled, "Eesorah, Binjar-teles. Yotoh di alwav-elrin?"
    "No, Your Majesty—they come in peace," Binjar answered in Basic. "I have brought them here to—"
    "Refrain from speaking, Binjar. You have tested my patience long enough," the king interrupted icily. Turning his gaze to Amidala, he continued, "You. You are queen of the Naboo, are you not?"
    "I am," the queen replied, trembling slightly.
    Nasgohltan stared at her for a long moment. Then, "You are very young for a human. You know little about ruling, but I see no deception in you. Did you send the Lifeless Ones to take our city from us?"
    Amidala gasped. "No...! I would never—the droids came to Theed first! Surely you have seen the smoke rising from the plains!"
    The king nodded slowly. "I have. However, if you—"
    He stopped speaking abruptly and jerked his head up, eyes wide. He waved to a couple of the Gohltans standing guard around the group and then pointed behind them at the forest. The two warriors disappeared into the trees.
    "What happened?" Anakin whispered to Qui-Gon, swiveling back and forth and glancing around to determine the cause for King Nasgohltan's sudden change in demeanor.
    Qui-Gon, with half-closed eyes, answered softly, "Obi-Wan is coming. He has some others with him, too."
    Eventually, the sound of rustling and cracking branches reached their ears, shortly followed by Obi-Wan, Panaka, Ric Olie, and six other men and women dressed in maroon and black military uniforms. The two Gohltans quietly walked just behind them, pointing their poleaxes forward menacingly.
    "Obi-Wan!" Qui-Gon greeted, smiling. "I'm glad you made it back. How did you find us?"
    The Gohltans stared at the Jedi Master disbelievingly, as did Obi-Wan. "I tracked your signal with my comlink, Master," he cautiously replied as he sidled up next to Qui-Gon. "Sorry I didn't answer you earlier—we were being held at blasterpoint at the time. But it's all worked out now."
    He looked at the angry Gohltan soldiers around them and added, "...Or, well... it was worked out. Then these Gohltans ambushed us next to the lake."
    King Nasgohltan pointed at the two Jedi in sudden recognition. "You! Binjar enlisted you two to help him escape from our prison!" he spat, "And now you have led these Naboo spies to our sacred place!"
    "None of us are spies, Your Highness—what we said about the 'Lifeless Ones' was correct, was it not?" Qui-Gon asked, holding up his hands in a pleading gesture.
    "And we only helped Binjar escape prison because he—" Obi-Wan began.
    "Quiet!" shouted the king. "This is all a part of a Naboo plan to take over Eres Gohlta—"
    "'Take over?' You're holding us here as hostages and then telling us that we're planning to take over your city?" broke in one of the uniformed Naboo angrily.
    "King Nasgohltan, please—we have come to ask you for your people's help!" Amidala said, stepping forward. The Gohltans near her tightened their grip on their weapons.
    The king did not seem to hear the queen, as he had begun arguing with the captured Naboo heatedly, and her small voice was lost under the vehemence. After a few moments, practically everyone was caught up in the shouting match between the two groups. Gohltan and human alike pointed fingers and hotly accused each other of intrigue, takeover plots, arrogance, and inferiority.
    Anakin looked at the chaotic debate around him with a shocked and hopeless expression, at a complete loss of what to do or say. He glanced at Padmé—
    The girl did not show any hint of fear, discouragement, or anger. Her face was a perfect mask of serenity and grace. She cast a quick look toward the nonplussed Anakin, then stepped sideways, took Binjar's arm in hers, and stared pointedly at King Nasgohltan.
    Nasgohltan saw the movement in the corner of his eye and turned toward this new development. His seething argument gradually faded into curiosity. Eventually, the others around the clearing also stopped talking and stared at Padmé until, finally, everyone was completely silent. Binjar himself looked down at the girl, confused.
    She smiled sweetly up at him, then resumed her serene expression as she turned her gaze back toward King Nasgohltan.
    "What is this...?" asked the king, taken aback.
    Padmé gave a short nod to Amidala. "Rabé, thank you so much, my dear friend; you have done well," she spoke quietly, "but I must do this myself."
    Amidala nodded and lowered her eyes in deference. "Yes, Your Highness."
    Padmé looked at Nasgohltan again. "Rabé is my loyal bodyguard, Your Majesty. She occasionally acts as queen in my place for my protection. I am Queen Amidala."
     
  17. Snocone

    Snocone Jedi Knight star 1

    Registered:
    Sep 14, 2015
    CHAPTER TWENTY

    The only sounds that could be heard were those of the skittish forest creatures scuffling through the brush and calling to each other in high-pitched, halting tones. Everyone standing in the little clearing stared at Padmé, who had just revealed herself to be the true queen of the Naboo people.
    Qui-Gon Jinn half-smiled as the pieces clicked into place. "I'm impressed," he muttered under his breath.
    Padmé, gaze still fixed on the dumbfounded Nasgohltan, continued speaking levelly. "I apologize for this pretense, but it underlines just how desperate our people are. From the day the Trade Federation came until now, they have been hunting me down in order to coerce me to relinquish control of my government, economy, and people. They have mercilessly killed my subjects and destroyed Naboo's peaceful villages, and have taken our capital at Theed. I and my companions barely escaped with our lives to plead with our allies on Coruscant, a planet far away from here, but they did nothing to aid us.
    "I have heard from Binjar that he was exiled from your kingdom. The circumstances are unknown to me, but I would have you know that he was kind and brave enough to save my life—regardless of our differences, regardless of anything my people have done, he risked himself when I was helpless. He has become our dear friend during our journey, not holding our practices or customs in contempt, and I am extremely grateful for him.
    "Now, King Nasgohltan, I ask you to extend that same goodwill and kindness to us. We are desperately in need of your help. Let us unite against our common enemy and save our planet together."
    She held her breath and stared at the king.
    Everyone's gaze turned toward King Nasgohltan, expectant. His stern expression had changed only fractionally. Slowly stepping off of the column he had been occupying, he strode over to Binjar and Padmé and locked eyes with the exiled Gohltan.
    "Binjar. You saved the life of the Naboo queen?" he questioned.
    "Yes, Your Majesty," Binjar answered, holding the king's gaze. "I—I did not know she was the queen at the time. But she, as well as the rest of my friends here, have displayed to me much kindness." He raised his hand and pointed at Anakin and the two Jedi. "Anakin showed me how to be brave, and Master Jinn taught me how to be selfless. I have learned many lessons, my king."
    Nasgohltan nodded slowly. "I see," he said in a thoughtful voice. "For a Gohltan, even an exiled Gohltan, to willingly risk himself for a Naboo—this shows great confidence in her character."
    He gave a sideways glance to Padmé. "And for a Gohltan to call her his friend proves that her character is strong and true."
    Padmé hazarded a slight smile at Binjar and patted his arm, then resumed looking at the king. "Your Majesty, I understand that we have our differences, but our societies have always maintained peace. The Trade Federation has destroyed all that we have worked so hard to build, and will only continue to destroy other peoples in its thirst for power. I have come before you now to humbly beg you for your help."
    Suddenly, she let go of Binjar's arm and knelt to one knee in the grass before the king. Her Naboo companions, still reeling from her earlier revelation, gasped in surprise, then quickly moved to follow her example, all of them hastily dropping down in a gesture of deference and solidarity. Her handmaidens, Rabé the decoy, and the soldiers were first; followed by Anakin, Ric Olie, and finally the two Jedi Knights. Binjar stood awkwardly alone among them for a few moments until he, too, knelt next to Padmé.
    Padmé looked up at the king from her place on the ground. "We are your servants. Our fate lies in your hands."
    King Nasgohltan's eyes widened, and he did not speak for several moments as his gaze swept over the scene. Finally, he turned and slowly made his way over the uneven ground back to the column he had stood on earlier and stiffly pulled himself back onto it. Staring after him, the Gohltan soldiers lowered their weapons fractionally, uncertain of what they should do in this situation.
    Still turned away from the subjacent group of Naboo behind him, the king stared into the thick forest and said in a low, thoughtful voice, "It seems that I had misjudged your character, Naboo queen. I understand now that you are not seeking to rule over us."
    He turned and looked into the hopeful eyes of Padmé and her companions. "We do have a common enemy, I see. Whatever lay in the past between the Naboo and the Gohltans, I tell you now that I pledge the friendship of our people to you, in order that we may fight... and succeed. The Trade Federation will not have our home, not as long as there is breath in our warriors."
    At this, the Naboo stood and cheered.
    Anakin stared at Padmé as those around him celebrated and began discussing their plan for Theed's liberation, his expression one of complete shock. This girl—this unassuming, sweet, beautiful girl whom he had come to call a friend—was the queen of Naboo.
    This certainly changes things, Anakin thought to himself, his shoulders slumping. If Padmé was really Queen Amidala, would she ever have time to spend with him and their other friends outside of her royal duties? Did she really enjoy spending time with a former slave from the dirtball planet of Tatooine in the first place? And after he left Naboo to train under Qui-Gon Jinn, would he ever even see her again?
    Anakin looked down to see that he was subconsciously trying to smooth the wrinkles from his tattered, beige-colored shirt. When he glanced up again, Padmé had turned and was smiling at him from her place a few meters away. It was a smile full of hope, bravery, and conviction; and he could see her immense relief pouring over all her previous fear and worry like a healing balm.
    He knew then that whatever happened, things were going to be all right.

    * * *

    Gunray stood feeling like a caged gundark before Sidious' hologram in the throne room at Theed. The recently-arrived Darth Maul, who was arguably the most terrifying creature he had ever met, loomed directly behind him, silently absorbing the conversation between the Dark Lord and himself.
    I'm trapped between a star and a supernova, thought Gunray, glancing surreptitiously over his shoulder at the horned Sith, then resuming his gaze at Sidious' frowning mouth.
    "We have discovered the location of Queen Amidala's ship, my lord," said Gunray. "It is near the fringes of the Naboo settlements, next to the swampland. It seems—it seems that there is an army forming there."
    "An army, viceroy?" Sidious questioned. "That is precisely why I commanded you to destroy the local population."
    "Y-yes, my lord."
    "The Gohltans, though primitive, will defend their territory if given the chance. Amidala must have enlisted their aid."
    "Yes, my lord." Gunray did not know what else to say.
    "It is of no matter. They will die all the same. Viceroy, you will send your droid army to meet them on the plains and wipe them out. Put an end to this pitiful rebellion."
    In a hurry to extricate himself from his position between the two dark creatures, Gunray hastily bowed, said "As you wish, Lord Sidious," and scurried away to the other side of the throne room to relay the command to the droid control ship far above. Maul remained standing before the hologram.
    "This is an odd move for the queen..." Sidious said, half to himself, "...It is too bold. She is planning something with the Jedi, I'm sure of it."
    He seemed to enjoy reminding Maul that he had thus far failed in his quest to destroy the two Jedi. Maul's scowl etched deeper into his face, causing his branded facial markings to sharpen and contort.
    "Be on your guard, my young apprentice. Allow the Jedi to make the first move, then meet it with the full fury of the dark side."
    "It will be my pleasure to destroy them, my lord Sidious," Maul hissed, and the transmission faded.

    * * *

    Sitting on the highest branch of a vashar tree on the edge of the forest near the lake was a Gohltan warrior. Though his eyesight was far better than that of a human, having evolved through generations of Gohltans living in the dark waters below the planet's surface, he had decided to take the set of electrobinoculars offered him by one of the Naboo soldiers as a gesture of respect in light of their new alliance. He gazed toward Theed through the device, half-distracted by the small insect that buzzed around his face.
    Finally, he saw what he was looking for: A phalanx of droid troops, their grey armor glinting in the light of the sun, was rapidly assembling outside the capital's walls. Massive tanks lumbered through the city gates to form the rear guard. The front rows of droids had already begun the long march toward their location.
    The Gohltan looked below to see Anakin standing there, expectant. "They are coming," he called down to the boy. "Ground forces in large numbers."
    Anakin ran to where Padmé, the Jedi, and the assembled Naboo stood conferring with Nasgohltan and his generals over a square-meter holographic map of the area provided by R2-D2. Binjar hung back behind the Jedi, peering at the map over their shoulders while trying to be unobtrusive.
    "They're on their way," Anakin said to the group.
    "Thank you, Anakin," Padmé responded, giving him a brief smile. She pointed at the place on the map that represented Theed and looked at those standing around her. "Starting from the capital here," she drew a line in the air above the glowing grid-lined terrain with her finger, "I estimate that it will take at least twenty minutes before the Federation droids reach the halfway point on the plains. The Gohltan army, along with the Naboo soldiers from Velka, will meet them in battle here."
    King Nasgohltan lifted his chin proudly. "Our fastest swimmers have been sent to the other Gohltan cities to enlist their help. They will arrive soon."
    Captain Panaka's jaw muscles tightened as he peered at the map. "Even with the Gohltan army, how can we win?" He gestured at the olive-skinned man next to him. "Officer Persa said that the Federation troops number at least fifty thousand."
    Padmé nodded in acknowledgment, then said, "The battle is only a diversion. While the Gohltan troops make headway on the battlefield, some of us will infiltrate the palace via the catacombs here—" she pointed at the representation of the waterfalls on the far side of the palace on the map, "—and capture the viceroy, Nute Gunray. In order to keep casualties to a minimum, Panaka, you will lead a group of pilots to the main hangar and our remaining starfighters. Once there, send them up to destroy the control ship orbiting above Theed. That should immobilize the droid army and end the battle quickly."
    Qui-Gon spoke up beside her. "The viceroy will be well-guarded by droids, but if the starfighter pilots are able to take out the control ship in time, we shouldn't have a problem getting to him."
    "Exactly," Padmé said. She turned to Captain Panaka. "I know that the control ship will be heavily-shielded, Captain, but it is essential that your soldiers find a weakness as fast as they can."
    Panaka bowed. "Yes, ah... Your Highness." He stood up straight, a sheepish expression on his face. "I'm sorry, my queen... I just wish you had let us know about your switch with Rabé earlier."
    Her reply was cordial, but it had a slightly mischievous undertone: "I thank you for your concern, Captain. But if you knew I was the queen, you would've never let me walk around Mos Espa without an accompaniment of at least ten guards."
    Panaka half-smiled, embarrassed, then turned to convey the orders to his troops.
    "The battle will be fierce, even if it is short," said Qui-Gon once Panaka had walked away. He glanced at King Nasgohltan. "The droids are perfect soldiers. They make no errors and do not tire. It is likely that many Gohltans will die on the field today."
    Nasgohltan smiled serenely. "This is a battle for our home as well as the humans'. We are ready to do our part."
    Binjar, who had been quiet thus far, edged his way into the central ring of people standing around the map and softly spoke, "With your permission, King Nasgohltan, I would fight with your warriors. I will not run away again. I have become brave."
    Padmé put her hand on Binjar's arm and smiled warmly at him, then looked at the king. He seemed to be deep in thought as he stared at Binjar.
    Finally, Nasgohltan reached down to his mid thigh and produced a small, plain dagger from a sheath tied there. He pricked the tip of his forefinger, and a small drop of dark orange-red blood appeared. The king approached Binjar and ran his finger across the exiled Gohltan's bony shoulder, leaving a streak there. He then handed the dagger to Binjar, who nicked his own finger, knelt to the ground, and smeared it onto the king's foot.
    Binjar stood again, gaze lowered. Nasgohltan gripped both his shoulders and muttered something in their own language, then said in Basic, for the benefit of those standing around them, "You are again a warrior of the Gohltan people, Binjar Skimb. You will fight to save Naboo today. May your hands remain strong on the battlefield."
    Binjar finally met the king's stare. "I am your servant, my king. May your gracious rule extend forever."
    After this short ceremony, Binjar felt a small arm slide around his waist and looked down to see Padmé grinning brightly up at him.
    "I'm proud of you!" she beamed, hugging him tightly. This was followed shortly by a strong handshake from Qui-Gon Jinn and a "Congratulations!" from Anakin.
    Binjar smiled at his friends standing around him. "Thank you. It is because of all of you that I am able to fight today." He put his hand on Padmé's shoulder. "Let us end this domination of the Trade Federation now."
    Padmé nodded solemnly, picked up a nearby blaster from their recently-acquired stockpile of weapons from Velka, and checked its charge. "Right. We'll see you soon, Binjar." She turned. "Let's get going," she said to the others; and she, the two Jedi, and Anakin began briskly walking toward where Panaka and Ric Olie were powering up their speeders with six other Naboo military.
    "Captain Panaka, go on ahead of us and scout out the waterfall passage," she said as she sat on a speeder with Qui-Gon. "We'll need to go in hard and fast." Panaka nodded, and he and his troops took off.
    Padmé looked around at her new friends and briefly reflected on everything that they had been through up to this point, culminating in a daring plan to recapture her home and planet from the Trade Federation. She would be fighting alongside these brave companions for their freedom and their very lives, as well as the lives of her people and their Gohltan allies.
    It was terrifying, to be sure.
    But it was worth the risk.
    "Are you ready?" she asked. Her three friends nodded without saying a word.
    Padmé faced forward and gripped the maneuver control, and the two speeders shot across the vast plains toward the gleaming palace in the distance.

    * * *

    "My lord Maul, our droid army has begun the march to meet the primitives in battle, as Lord Sidious desired," said Nute Gunray to the feral Sith, who was busy examining a holographic layout of the palace.
    Maul did not answer. Gunray cleared his throat. "Ah, Lord Maul, what if—what if the Gohltans break through?"
    Finally, the horned creature glared up at the Neimoidian viceroy. "Then you will receive the fate you deserve."
    Gunray visibly twitched, then bowed. "They will not prevail, I am sure of it."
    Maul continued speaking; his low, smooth baritone a stark contrast to his wickedly sharp features. "It is as my master said. I sense that the Jedi are planning something behind this open battle on the plain." He stared at Gunray, but it was almost as if he was looking through him, to some unseen, dark plane. "Their overconfidence will be their undoing."
     
  18. Snocone

    Snocone Jedi Knight star 1

    Registered:
    Sep 14, 2015
    When they said something in the movie about getting into the palace "via the waterfall side," I was excited to see some waterfall sets. But no, they just skipped straight to them creeping through the courtyard and shining lasers at each other. So I made sure to include the waterfalls during this beginning to the climax.

    CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

    The trees around the lake outside Velka swayed almost in unison, as if the forest itself were a sentient creature. Through the wall of foliage came one, then three, then hundreds of Gohltan warriors, all dressed in leathery armor harvested from the large undersea monsters that lived near their cities, and dull metal helmets that fit close to their scalps and extended down slightly in the back to protect their spines. Each of them carried a shield frame with an ionic energy barrier stretched across it as well as a poleax with a softly-glowing blade. Mounted Gohltans, riding their tamed, two-legged kaadu lizards at intervals of about five meters, strode alongside the main body of soldiers.
    As the Gohltan forces stretched across the plains toward Theed, enormous fambaa saurids, each nearly as long as the vashar trees were tall, surfaced and pulled themselves out of the black lake one by one with their powerful foreclaws. Each of the long-necked lizards sported a canopied saddle strapped to their back with thick ropes. Two Gohltans rode on every saddle; a strange, spherical node mounted between them. The nodes were off-white and nearly opaque, and had a faint, fiery center. The fambaa riders slowly maneuvered their ungainly mounts through and around the ground troops with their reins, evenly spacing themselves and creating a perimeter.
    A second, smaller group of Gohltans, intermingled with the remaining Naboo forces from Velka, stole along the edge of the plains through the forest there, moving ahead of the main army. In spite of the bright sunlight illuminating the fields, they moved like swift shadows through the dense forest toward the distant capital and anterior to the advancing droid lines.
    Binjar Skimb, now dressed in armor like his clan and comrades around him, marched along in the front wave of Gohltan troops. Eventually, they reached the peak of a gently-sloping hill and stopped. Binjar stared out across the green ocean of grass at the perfectly-organized army of machines stiffly making its way toward them.
    They reminded him of skeletons. A vast legion of the dead, coming now to force him and his people to join their lifeless ranks.
    "Nishak fambaa!" called out the commander next to Binjar, holding his fist straight out above his head and dropping it in a forceful gesture. The fambaa riders around them took shining poles from sheaths strapped to their backs and plunged them into the nodes mounted in the center of their saddles. As soon as this was done, vast columns of light erupted upward from the nodes and stretched out like membranes, meeting the other columns and creating a glowing umbrella that surrounded the entire Gohltan force in a protective energy barrier.
    Binjar noted that the distant rumble of thousands of droid footsteps was only slightly dampened by the barrier he now stood behind.
    It wouldn't be long now.

    * * *

    Padmé, the two Jedi and Anakin on either side of her, crept cautiously through the misty outcropping on the tall cliff on the side of the river behind the palace and peered across through a compact pair of electrobinoculars. Waterfalls high above poured torrentially onto the carved rock beyond them, creating a prismatic sheen over the stone archway between the two precipices. Noting the Naboo forces who had gone ahead of them stationed along the bridge, the young queen pulled out a small light signal and flashed it at them through the fog. Panaka, standing in the middle of the arch, flashed his own signal in reply, and made an inviting motion with his hand. Padmé and her companions jogged to meet them.
    "No Federation forces encountered thus far, Your Majesty. And the tunnels appear undisturbed," shouted Panaka over the roaring falls once the four had reached the bridge.
    "Good. We have little time. Come on," replied Padmé, and the entire group followed her into the wall of water on the other side of the river, below the palace.
    Once past the thundering falls, they slipped into a large tunnel cut into the rock there. Beyond them a few meters, the tunnel branched into two paths. "Captain, you and your pilots will go along that way toward the main hangar," Padmé commanded, pointing to the left tunnel, "while the Jedi, Anakin, and I head around the back toward the throne room. See if you can find any of our troops on your way, and meet us there quickly so we can catch the viceroy unawares."
    "So, just the one control ship up there is all we have to take out, then?" asked one of the pilots tensely, looking back toward the entrance.
    "'Just the one'?" Obi-Wan snorted. "We were in one of those ships earlier; they have impenetrable defenses."
    Qui-Gon shot his apprentice an icy glare. "Nearly impenetrable, perhaps." He changed his expression to a reassuring smile as he turned to the pilot. "I'm sure these talented officers will find no trouble in breaching them. And the Force will aid us all, as well."
    In contrast to the discouraged visages of the pilots, Qui-Gon noticed Anakin's expression, which was full of barely-contained interest and eagerness. He smirked at the boy. "You're with us, Anakin."
    Anakin blinked twice and managed an innocent smile. "Of course! Right."
    Captain Panaka looked around at his troops and waved toward the dark tunnel beyond them. "All right, you heard the queen, let's get moving."

    * * *

    A dank, musty smell hung in the air of the ancient passage Anakin and his companions now walked through. Carved, solemn-faced statues stood as columns along the narrow walls, casting long shadows behind and before them in a diameter around Padmé's hand lamp. The faint sound of dripping could be heard every now and then.
    "What is this place?" Anakin asked, glancing back and forth at the large square panels spaced evenly between the statues. His voice had an eerie hollow sound in the thin channel of stone.
    "It houses the ancient kings and queens of the Naboo people," Padmé answered quietly, solemnly. "There are several linked passages carved into the cliff below the palace. They've been here for centuries."
    Anakin swallowed. "I see."
    "Master, look there," Obi-Wan said, pointing at one of the panels along the wall. Like the rest of the panels, it had archaic carvings of Naboo's past events and notable ancestors accompanied by unreadable text; this one, however, portrayed a humanoid figure holding a sword and surrounded on either side by five others, all of them holding similar weapons. The swords were pointed toward the simply-drawn sky at the top of the panel, and each one had five narrow lines emanating from the blade.
    "It looks like—like they're holding lightsabers," Obi-Wan continued.
    Qui-Gon peered at the panel. "Curious," he softly intoned. "I wonder if perhaps there are Jedi in Naboo's history."
    Padmé, who was a few steps ahead of them, pointed beyond to the faint glimmer of light farther along the tunnel. "Just a few curves ahead, and we'll be out again," she said.
    Sure enough, in a couple of minutes, the party found its way to a steep stairway terminating in a wide grated opening, which led out to a veranda running alongside the courtyard of the palace. After quietly removing the grating, Padmé peeked out of the passage, scanning the area for droids.
    Seeing no activity, the four of them ascended through the exit and stole along the wall outside the courtyard. They stopped at an opening and glanced around the edge.
    There, standing perfectly still in the middle of the courtyard with assault rifles held across their chest plates, were twelve of the machine troops. They were all facing the opposite front gate.
    "Not too bad," Qui-Gon whispered. "Anakin," he continued, facing the boy, "you stay right here until we've finished these off, all right?"
    "What about her?" Anakin whispered back, pointing at Padmé.
    Padmé slid a hand blaster from her belt and handed it to Anakin, then produced a second blaster and examined the charge. "I'll be fine, Ani. I've had plenty of practice," she assured him, smiling. "If you have any open shots, take them."
    He rumbled a "hm," but did not argue. With this, Padmé, Qui-Gon, and Obi-Wan sneaked toward the droid regiment, weapons at the ready.
    The droids, their sensors completely focused on the gate in front of them, did not realize their enemy was upon them until it was too late. The back row of four fell quickly to the blades of the Jedi lightsabers as well as the precise shooting of Padmé's blaster, and the others had little time to react, only managing to fire a few shots before being similarly dispatched. However, just as the last droid fell, the three heard a clattering sound from the direction of the palace, getting louder and louder by the moment.
    "More of them," Padmé hissed, swiveling and pointing her blaster at the palace entrance.

    * * *

    Anakin crouched next to the edge of the opening into the courtyard, his blaster raised to eye level, waiting for the second detachment of droids to emerge from the palace. Sure enough, another dozen burst through the wooden doors and down the steps in a matter of seconds, lighting the courtyard with their blaster bolts. Anakin squeezed off a couple of shots, making sure to keep the barrel of his blaster pointed far away from his friends, and actually managed to connect with his target on both occasions.
    This is exciting, but... I'd rather be flying, he thought to himself.
    Suddenly, he heard a high-pitched squeal behind him and felt a sharp pain in the back of his neck. It spread instantaneously through his whole body, and he fell forward. Before his head hit the pavement below, he was able to turn to see the two droid sentries standing there, their blasters pointed at his face, their thin faces conveying absolutely no sign of feeling.
    They had stunned him.
    I wonder why that voice in my head didn't warn me this time, Anakin considered.
    Everything went black.

    * * *

    The final droid actually kept firing haphazardly despite missing its head, and Qui-Gon had to slice the blaster in half before it managed to hit one of them. He continued his blade's arc downward through the droid's legs, and it fell there, hissing slightly as the cauterized metal cooled.
    The courtyard was silent. Apparently, there were no more droids in the immediate area.
    The three ran back to their former hiding place. Upon rounding the corner, they discovered that Anakin was missing.
    "Do you suppose he took another route into the palace on his own?" Obi-Wan asked, his eyes wide.
    Qui-Gon shook his head. "No—I believe he was ambushed during the fight. I sense his fear here, but..." He stared down the veranda, then began jogging along the stone pavement. "Come on, he's in this direction," he called over his shoulder.
    Obi-Wan and Padmé exchanged worried glances, then took off after the Jedi Master.

    * * *

    Captain Panaka, Ric Olie, and the group of pilots edged through the alleyway leading to the main hangar, blasters held at the ready. Thus far, they had encountered minimal enemy presence—the queen's diversionary tactics had proved successful.
    Or this could all be a trap.
    The small force rounded the corner of a small supply barracks and jogged into the corridor leading to the hangar side entrance, then moved stealthily along the stonework walls, scanning the area for stray droid troops.
    Panaka abruptly stopped in front of one of the side doors before heading into the hangar—there, in the supply room beyond and trapped by the energy barrier across the doorway, were about twenty men and women, all unkempt and hollow-eyed. Several of them wore the maroon and black fatigues of Naboo's military. The captain slapped the control panel next to the door and darted inside, crouching next to one of them. His officers followed behind him and began attending to the others.
    "Sergeant Loran!" Panaka said, putting his hand on the shoulder of the woman he crouched beside. "Are you all right?" He gently smoothed her dark brown hair behind her ear with his hand and noticed the blood-clotted impact wound just in front of her hairline.
    Loran stared up at the man and gave out a raspy, relieved sigh. "You came just in time... They were planning to send us to our execution in a few hours."
    Panaka stood and looked around at the other prisoners sitting there, all gratefully accepting water and rations from the pilots. "What have they done…? Those Federation dogs!"
    Sergeant Loran grasped Panaka's shoulder and tried to stand up. He put his arm under hers in support. "Hold on, are you going to be okay?" he asked her, his face wrought with concern.
    "I've got plenty left in me to go after those Federation scum," Loran bit out. "Have any weapons?"
    "We have several spare blasters and proximity grenades," Panaka replied, handing her a hold-out blaster. "We're getting these pilots to the starfighters in the hangar so they can take out the droid control ship, then the rest of us are heading in to capture the Neimoidian leaders before they can call for reinforcements."
    A gravelly, aged voice broke out behind the two, from the back of the cell: "There are masses of droids here in the city... You'll never make it to the throne room."
    Panaka turned to look for the source of the voice; he gasped as he recognized Governor Sio Bibble sitting against the wall there, his face gaunt and his typically well-kept hair now matted and dirty.
    Panaka stepped forward and crouched down next to the governor. "We've got them diverted to the plains. The palace will be ours soon, don't worry," reassured the captain. Turning his head, he asked the others around him, "Can someone stay here with Governor Bibble? He needs medical attention, and we have supplies here—"
    Bibble held up his hand. "No, Panaka, I'm going to come with you. Give me a blaster," he interrupted, giving the captain a hard stare to silence any argument.
    Panaka sighed. "Come on then, we need to hurry." He stood and helped the elderly governor to his feet.
    The group of military, pilots, and public servants exited the cell and slipped into the hangar. Only four of the TFB1 droids were stationed around the bright yellow fighters there; with most of the Naboo in detention camps, there was no need for heavy defenses. Those with blasters quickly finished off the droids before they could sound an alarm while the pilots ran to six of the available ships, scrambled up the step ladders, and hopped inside.
    As soon as the canopy window of the last starfighter slid shut, the remainder of the group heard the tap-tap of approaching footsteps. Panaka motioned with his hand, then led the others to hide behind a stack of supply crates just as two more battle droids entered the hangar from the opposite side. Each of them held the arm of an unconscious figure between them, dragging it along toward the hallway where the captives had been held previously.
    From their vantage point behind the crates, Ric Olie jerked forward, sudden recognition written on his face. "They have Anakin!" he hissed, pointing at the unconscious figure.
    At that same moment, the two droids processed that the starfighters throughout the hangar were slowly rising on their repulsorlifts and heading toward the wide opening. They immediately dropped Anakin, pressed a switch on the side of their heads, and pulled their rifles from a clip on their backs. As the droids began firing on the escaping starfighters, a hideous electronic wailing pulsed through the air: the droid troops' alarm activated.
    Panaka wheeled toward the remainder of his team. "New plan. We save Anakin from those droids, then head out to the throne room to support the queen," he barked over the screeching alarm. He then stood and dashed toward the two machine troops, firing his hand blaster. His team followed behind just as the last starfighter exited the hangar and made its way toward the distant Federation battleship above.
    The two droids were quickly dispatched and their alarm silenced, but it was too late: as Panaka gently shook Anakin's shoulder to awaken him, two more squads of twelve droids each burst through the side door and began firing at the team. Behind them, four destroyer droids rolled into the cavernous hangar, unfolded on either side of the spindly TFB1 units, and activated their shields, creating a barrier that prevented any flanking.
    "Anakin, we need to move!" shouted Panaka, swiveling in front of the boy to shield him and snapping off several shots at the new force of attackers.
    Anakin reacted quickly, rolling forward and making for the supply crates a couple of meters away. The other men and women slowly backed toward the rear of the hangar, dodging sizzling blaster bolts and firing their own.
    "There are too many, sir!" cried Sergeant Loran before lunging behind the crate barricade. "We need to get out of here!" She slid her blaster through a space between the crates and kept firing, but the droids continued their advance.
    Panaka nodded and called out, "Fall back! Let's draw them into the hallway; this hangar is too wide for a firefight!" His small force ran for one of the doorways leading out of the hangar, but before they could reach it, the entry hissed open and another group of droids appeared, guns blazing.
    The captain stifled a curse. "Troops, form a shield around the civilians. Let's try to force our way through," he yelled. The military men and women quickly complied, making a crescent-shaped barrier and returning fire to the onslaught of machines.
    As the air filled with the strobing effect of the blasters and the smell of ozone, the door behind the initial group of droids open again, and three human figures emerged. Two of them held lightsabers. They all stood tense, ready to strike.
    "Master Jinn!" Anakin shouted.
    The Jedi, Padmé beside them, leapt into action; sweeping their lightsabers through the ranks of confused droids. Padmé dived to the side, taking out one of the destroyer droids with her blaster before it could turn and recalibrate its shields.
    Panaka and his forces cheered and reentered the fray.

    * * *

    "There, look—Troop Unit Sixty-Four isn't transmitting either!" worried Nute Gunray, pointing a trembling finger at the display in front of him. "What is happening?"
    Daultray Dofine nervously massaged his forehead, his large, reddish eyes blinking rapidly. "The enemy should be far from us, on the plains... this is too close! Who could have gotten past our defenses?"
    A sinister shadow moved forward to the viceroy's shoulder: Darth Maul. He peered down at the display, a near-maniacal gleam in his reddish-yellow eyes. "It is the Jedi," he softly spoke. "They are here, in the palace. Good."
    Gunray jerked his head to give a horrified stare to the Sith assassin. "Good?! They'll capture us, take us to Coruscant—or worse!" he gulped.
    Maul grinned. "Leave them to me." He turned, his cloak sweeping around him, and stalked out of the throne room, leaving the fearful Neimoidians to their mutterings.
     
  19. Snocone

    Snocone Jedi Knight star 1

    Registered:
    Sep 14, 2015
    Space battle scene in this chapter without lines like "Let's try spinning, that's a good trick" and "whoooaaa" -- But also more similar to Luke blowing up the Death Star because that was such an awesome scene!

    CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

    The Gohltan troops stood serene behind their glowing energy barrier as the volleys of destructive energy from the droid tanks and troops exploded mere meters in front of them like terrifying forces of nature: lightning, earthquakes, wildfires.
    Thoom. Kraak.
    "[The barrier holds,]" muttered Binjar in Gohl to his comrade.
    "[Why do we not fight?]" asked the Gohltan to his left.
    The commander gave them an impatient look. "[Our mission is to delay and distract the Lifeless Ones. We only fight if—]"
    His voice trailed off. The droids had stopped firing.
    "[Steady,]" the commander snapped toward the kaadu riders on either side of their front-most unit. The lizard-like mounts pawed the ground anxiously.
    The droid army, stretched out on the plains before them over a kilometer, stood eerily still and silent.
    "[What are they doing?]" asked one of the Gohltans.
    "[There is a ship far above Naboo that the Lifeless Ones came from. They hear its commands through the sky,]" Binjar replied, tightening his grip on his poleax.
    The inquiring Gohltan swallowed nervously.
    Finally, in unison, the foremost company of droids began marching forward. The first line of them, upon approaching the half-spherical, membranous barrier, leaned forward and cautiously stepped into the wall of protective energy. It stretched around the machines, then let them through with no resistance. Immediately upon entering the barrier, the droids began firing with their assault rifles into the army of Gohltans, who held up their shields just in time to deflect the sheets of blaster bolts.
    Binjar cursed. The commander next to him gave out a warlike howl and ran forward, using his poleax like a jousting lance as he barreled into the droid troops. Binjar took a deep breath, and along with his fellow warriors, followed the commander into battle.

    * * *

    Ssshhhhp. Obi-Wan's lightsaber retracted into its hilt as the remains of the last droid fell to the hangar floor with a clank. He looked around at the wreckage of the short skirmish: the parts of forty droids were scattered across the floor, their remains smoking and charred from blaster fire or the clean cuts of the lightsabers. Panaka and his group of Naboo stood around the hangar, still holding their blasters at the alert and breathing raggedly. They each had an expression of hope and willful determination glinting in their eyes.
    "Is everyone all right?" Qui-Gon asked from beside his padawan. He had barely broken a sweat, using the Force to enhance his movements and keep his energy reserved.
    Ric Olie crouched a couple meters away next to a Naboo officer, who was wincing in pain from a burn on her shoulder. "We have a couple of folks here who need bacta treatment, but fortunately nothing too serious," he replied.
    "Excellent," Qui-Gon said, smiling. "Now then, let's move quickly to capture—"
    "Wait!" Padmé gasped, cutting him off. "Where's Anakin?"
    One of the Naboo pointed at a starfighter on the other side of the hangar, which was slowly rising from the ground. Inside the still-open cockpit was a young man with sandy blonde hair and an intensely-determined expression on his face.
    "Anakin!" Qui-Gon yelled. "What are you doing?"
    Anakin gave the Jedi Master a thumbs-up. "I can help take out the control ship. It'll be just like podracing!" he shouted over the throbbing of the fighter's engines.
    Padmé took several stumbling steps forward as the craft gently began accelerating toward the opening and screamed, "Are you crazy? Come back! You'll die out there!"
    Anakin sent her a confident smile as the cockpit window began closing. "I'll be all right! Ric Olie showed me all the controls on the way here!"
    And with that, the craft wobbled its way out of the hangar and soared up into the azure sky.
    The small group left standing there stared after it, mouths agape. Finally, after a few moments of shocked silence, Ric Olie muttered, "He's right. I showed him everything."
    Padmé wheeled around and shot the pilot a scathing stare. "That was a terrible idea!"
    "I didn't know he'd commandeer a starfighter!" Olie retorted, holding his hands up defensively.
    "We don't have time now to discuss it, in any case," Qui-Gon reminded them. "We must move on with the plan and trust the Force to be with Anakin."
    Padmé scrunched up her face angrily, then said, "Come on. More droids are probably on their way." She began jogging toward the other side of the hangar, the Naboo following after her.
    Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan trailed just behind them. "We'll have to work on that recklessness in him, or he'll turn out just like you," the elder Jedi said crossly as he ran.
    Obi-Wan did not answer, but only smiled to himself.

    * * *

    Rodi Persa peered out from behind the thick veil of leaves at the last lines of the droid army marching toward the main force of Gohltans. He then gave a quick glance to the Gohltan beside him, who nodded and breathed out a short whistling sound over his shoulder.
    The two-hundred-strong detachment of Gohltan and Naboo warriors behind them started forward silently, picking their way through branches and over stones, edging closer and closer to the sea of machines. Distant rumbling and blasts of laser fire masked the quiet sounds of the advancing regiment as they exited the forest and began swiftly running toward the back row of droids.
    Just before they reached the enemy, the Gohltans let out a fearsome shout. The Naboo among them cried out as well, and the entire group engaged the droids with unbridled savagery, slicing through durasteel armor with their poleaxes and pouring blaster fire into the countless rows.
    The rearmost mass of droid troops was quick to react to this new development—the entire regiment silently turned in perfect unison and retaliated in full force with their assault rifles. When this first company of droids proved to be insufficient defense, the second regiment behind them turned as well and joined the fight. A nearby tank slowly leaned to one side on its repulsorlifts and curved toward the swarm of fighters, accelerating to assist the ground troops.
    "Tank is on its way; do just like we planned!" Persa shouted over the din of combat. Two of his Naboo soldiers along with one of the Gohltan warriors broke off and headed for the tank, dodging blaster fire along the way. As soon as they reached the vehicle, the three of them leapt onto the sloped side panels, and the Gohltan plunged his glowing poleax into the top hatch, melting the lock. As soon as this was done, the two Naboo pried the hatch open and shot the droid pilot inside.
    Persa gave a cheer as the two Naboo soldiers disappeared into the heart of the tank and steered it away from its current course. The Gohltan, his infiltration task complete, jumped from the side of the vehicle and ran back toward the main battle to rejoin the fight.
    The tank, under its new command, veered into the rows of droids and began unloading the full force of its blaster cannon into the enemy troops. Dozens of them dropped or disintegrated with every shot, and those droids that managed to fire back at the vehicle scored next to no damage as the tank plowed dauntlessly through the horde of enemies.
    Far away on the other side of the battle, the main army of Gohltan warriors let out a victorious shout as they observed the droid army rapidly scrambling to defend itself on two fronts. Strengthened by the sight of their comrades, the Gohltans engaged the enemy with renewed vigor.
    Perhaps there was hope yet.

    * * *

    Anakin scanned the small control board in front of him, trying to familiarize himself with the layout as quickly as possible as the ship soared upward through the atmosphere. Fortunately, most of the controls were practically a copy of the ones Ric Olie showed him in the transport on the way to Naboo, albeit a condensed version. Apparently Theed's engineers had opted for transferable ease of use over flashy novelty.
    "R5 unit, can you hear me?" he spoke loudly into the microphone attached to the pilot's helmet he had found in the floor of the cockpit upon entry. He wished Artoo were there helping him, but of course Artoo was with Queen Amidala's ship next to the lake far below, giving tactical information to King Nasgohltan and his troops.
    Queen Padmé Amidala... he remembered, sighing. That'll definitely take some getting used to.
    Before he could muse any further, the red and white R5 unit in the slot behind the cockpit chirruped a short reply, and several words scrolled across the screen in front of Anakin:

    <YES, I CAN HEAR YOU JUST FINE, NO NEED TO SHOUT>

    "An attitude, huh? Is that built into all R-series units?" Anakin asked, grinning.

    <ONLY 72.31 PERCENT OF R-SERIES UNITS, ACTUALLY>

    Anakin laughed. "Perfect. How long till we reach the Trade Federation control ship? And where are the weapons controls in this thing?"

    <3.65 MINUTES TILL MAXIMUM RANGE>

    As the droid conveyed this information, it brought up a small diagram of the ship interior on the screen as well, with weapons systems highlighted in green and shield systems in blue.
    "Easy!" Anakin said, gripping the weapon control stick. "This should be no trouble at all."
    As the atmosphere thinned, Anakin could see more detail of the star system beyond, all of the distant suns like sand grains sparkling in the shimmering deserts of Tatooine.
    "Isn't it beautiful out th—"
    An angular copper ship, covered in a veil of fire and smoke, appeared out of nowhere and spun haphazardly past Anakin's fighter toward the planet below like a comet, nearly clipping off his starboard wing and sending him to the same fate.
    As Anakin yelped and pitched out of the way, he finally saw the battle going on far to the right of his craft: at least fifty enemy fighters like the one that nearly wrecked into him meandered back and forth in groups of three, firing green spats of energy at the pitifully-small group of yellow Naboo ships. Stuttering clips of the communication between the Naboo pilots began to emit from the speaker in Anakin's helmet and grow clearer as he broke through the exosphere.
    "—Two, three of them...your port side, roll down and away!"
    "Copy... —eader. My rear deflector shields... taking a beating—"
    "Head around this way, mark zero-two-two. I'll cover you."
    "Copy, Leader."
    The ring-shaped Trade Federation control ship, a lifeless color of metal grey, provided an eerie background to the frenzied battle that produced a feeling of dread in the boy. He gripped the starfighter's throttle with sweating hands as he approached the cloud of fighters, took a deep breath, and exhaled it slowly.
    This wasn't just racing in a semi-friendly competition. There were no familiar landmarks to guide him; nothing but black vacuum. And those copper-colored ships weren't fellow racers all yearning to survive; they were lifeless droids with one mission: his destruction.
    A group of three of the enemy fighters broke off from the fray and headed straight for Anakin.
    "This is it," he said, gritting his teeth.

    * * *

    "Where to, Your Highness?" asked Qui-Gon as they headed down a long hallway connected to the back of the main hangar.
    "As soon as we pass this door, we'll turn left up the stairs. The throne room is right beyond that," Padmé replied between breaths.
    While the party was still several meters from the large door, however, it slowly opened, seemingly of its own accord.
    Just behind the durasteel door stood a black-cloaked figure. It pulled back its hood to reveal a crown of crooked, sharp horns and a face etched with intricate black brandings.
    Padmé and her companions stopped in their tracks, fear now making its way across their faces. "How did he trace us to Naboo so quickly...?" Padmé asked, beginning to pale.
    Qui-Gon grasped Padmé's shoulder. "We'll take care of this."
    Padmé, eyes wide, nodded and motioned to Panaka and the rest of the Naboo behind her. "Come on, we'll take the long way up," she said quaveringly, and they ran through a door to their left.
    Once they were gone, the two Jedi unclipped the lightsabers from their belts, ignited them, and held them up in front of their chests in a ready stance. The figure, still looming in the doorway, removed his outer cloak and cast it to the side, then produced his own lightsaber.
    "You are Maul, aren't you?" Qui-Gon spoke in a low tone. Obi-Wan gave his master a brief glance as he made the connection.
    The creature said nothing, but only grinned wickedly. He thumbed a switch on the hilt of his lightsaber, and a red blade snapped into being—
    —Another ruby blade materialized on the opposite end of the haft a split second later.
    A moment, an eternity passed as Jedi and Sith stared across the distance at each other. Then, as if synchronized, the two opposing forces ran at each other, blades held high.
    Just before reaching the two Jedi, Maul leaned in low and lunged toward Obi-Wan, catching him off-guard. Obi-Wan jerked backward, getting his lightsaber up just in time to ward off the hammering blow of the Sith assassin.
    At first, Qui-Gon wondered why the Sith would willingly surround himself on either side by stepping between the two of them, but it quickly became clear that he knew exactly what he was doing—his purpose in this move was to separate Obi-Wan from his master, knowing that the concern of the two Jedi for each other would distract them from fighting with full concentration.
    Fortunately, after enduring every possible circumstance and danger together for over ten years, the two Jedi fought as two parts of a whole now; their friendship bonded their hearts and minds through the Force. Qui-Gon, the patient, calm, analytical master and Obi-Wan, the intuitive, impulsive, adroit apprentice—their attributes complemented each other perfectly.
    The lightsaber blades of all three flashed back and forth at impossible speeds as they moved back toward the hangar behind the Jedi. Maul, flitting between the two like a shadow, parried their blows with both sides of his sword, acrobatically dodging, blocking, and swinging the dual blades back and forth.
    Qui-Gon silently willed his apprentice to conserve his energy—Maul did not even seem to be trying at this point.
    The Sith crouched low, slicing one of his red blades in a half circle, attempting to cut Obi-Wan's feet from under him, then performed a quick jab in the opposite direction toward Qui-Gon's face with the other end. Obi-Wan leapt backwards to safety just as his master parried the reverse attack to the side and pulled his own saber back for a swift stroke at the creature's neck. Maul ducked and spun out of the way, then arced up for a vertical attack. Qui-Gon stepped back just in time, blocking the swing with his blade above his head. He held for a moment, trying to lock Maul in place while Obi-Wan regained his footing and came in for another swipe.
    Past the sparking contact point between the blades, Qui-Gon saw the Sith assassin sneer. He noticed that they were now standing in the hangar.
    We haven't been pushing him back, thought Qui-Gon with dismay, he's been leading us this way on purpose.

    * * *

    "You're getting a little too close to the side of that thing, Gold Five," buzzed the squad leader's voice over the open channel.
    "Trying to find a way to get past those shields, Leader—any ideas?" queried the other pilot as he skimmed the surface of the Trade Federation control ship's outer ring.
    Anakin, feeling a little more at ease with the controls of his small fighter, sped toward the enormous battle station before him. He pressed the trigger button on the side of his throttle stick as two of the enemy ships arced past him, and a stream of green laser fire erupted from his vessel's blunt nose, connecting with the rear-most craft. The enemy fighter spun out of control and finally exploded in a brilliant fireball.
    "Good shot, uh..." Gold Leader hesitated.
    "Gold Seven," Anakin hastily responded in the deepest voice he could manage. "Sorry I'm late; Panaka sent me up to assist."
    "Roger that, Seven. We've cleared out most of the enemy fighters, but we're still having a hard time with the eyeball there," explained the leader.
    Anakin guessed that "eyeball" referred to the Federation control ship. It did look rather eye-like from a certain angle, he supposed, glaring at Naboo with mechanical disdain.
    He rolled his ship to the side and passed the break in the ring surrounding the central sphere. "Arfive, record any potential weak points in that middle section while I do a flyover. Let's see if we can find a way to bring this thing down."
    The astromech chirped an affirmative.
    "Gold Seven, three unfriendlies on your tail," spoke one of the nearby Naboo pilots. Anakin looked down at his proximity radar screen to see three pulsing red lights closing in on his own yellow marker, and a nauseating terror washed over him. He banked hard on his throttle and attempted a corkscrew down toward the planet below, but the enemy fighters copied his moves and kept on him closely. He pulled out of the spiral and yanked his controls back, sloping upward, but the three enemy craft again duplicated his maneuver, this time sending off several bursts of laser fire that narrowly missed his tiny vessel.
    This may end badly, Anakin realized. He thought of Padmé, Qui-Gon, and the rest of his new friends—how his life had been irrevocably altered from the moment they entered Watto's shop back on Tatooine. How much he longed to learn the ways of the Jedi. But fear—fear for himself, for his friends, for his mother—seemed to drain his strength, paralyzing him.
    Suddenly, just as it had during the podrace, time seemed to nearly come to a halt. In minute detail, Anakin could see the bolts and welds on the surface of the massive control station to his left; could see the hazy atmosphere enveloping the beautiful green and blue world below. He recalled Jedi Master Mace Windu's admonition back on Coruscant:
    As a Jedi, you will need to learn to conquer that fear through patience and wisdom.
    He took a slow, controlled breath, nudged the throttle downward slightly, and engaged reverse thrusters.
    The surrounding chaos ratcheted up to a normal speed again as Anakin's craft jolted to a near stop. The three enemy fighters shot past him toward Naboo. In a flash, Anakin switched his forward thrusters back on and began firing his lasers. The middle of the three ships now in front of him caught fire and spun out of control down into the atmosphere, and the remaining two enemies hastily split formation and headed in opposite directions.
    "Great move, Seven!" cheered the pilot who had warned him earlier.
    Anakin smiled, then headed back toward the control ship. "See anything?" he asked the R5 unit behind him.

    <NOT YET>

    "All right, let's keep looking." As Anakin neared the monstrous station, scanning the surface of the central sphere for any activity, a thought suddenly occurred to him.
    "Gold team, where did the enemy fighters come from? Is there a tunnel somewhere, or—" he began.
    One of the pilots, seeming to catch on to his idea, answered, "There's a hatch on the break in that outer ring, opposite the landing hangar, but it's closed up tight for now. What's your idea, Seven?"
    Anakin thought for a moment, then replied, "Let's see if we can get them to open it again."
     
  20. Snocone

    Snocone Jedi Knight star 1

    Registered:
    Sep 14, 2015
    CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

    The battle outside Velka wore on. The Gohltans and Naboo fought heroically, yet still the relentless army of droids seemed to be infinitely-supplied and much better-equipped. The commandeered tank piloted by the two brave Naboo soldiers had finally been obliterated by three of the other tanks' cannons, and its burning hulk lay in the middle of the field like a funeral pyre. There were several losses from the Gohltan force as well as the Naboo, and the amount of droid parts littering the plains was staggering.
    Binjar, in a moment of brief respite, looked around himself at the battlefield. Such a war had not been fought on Naboo for hundreds of years. Patches of grass burned from where blaster fire had set it ablaze, and the skies were eerily lacking of any of the beautiful, rainbow-plumed avian creatures that tended to roost in the area during the warmer season.
    "[Binjar...]" choked out one of his comrades, stumbling toward him from behind. "[...I don't know if we will survive this day.]"
    Binjar turned and caught the other Gohltan just before he fell over on the trampled grass. "[It is true, we may not live to see the sunrise again.]"
    The other Gohltan warrior hung his head and sighed deeply. Binjar gripped his shoulder and continued, "[But we must fight on, so that our people and our children can live free. Retreat is not an option.]" He briefly glanced up at the palace far away and wondered if his friends were all right.
    His comrade stared at the ground for another few moments, then looked into Binjar's eyes. "[You're right. We fight not only for ourselves, but for those we care for.]" He stood and checked his weapon, inhaled deeply, and took off toward a particularly large knot of the machine troops.
    Binjar smiled wearily. I have learned what it means to be brave, he thought to himself.
    He adjusted his armor and followed the other Gohltan back into battle.

    * * *

    "Sir! Our droid starfighters are being rapidly destroyed by the Naboo!" cried one of the droid controllers to his Neimoidian commanding officer on the deck of the Trade Federation battleship.
    The officer peered over the controller's shoulder at the display, disbelief contorting his amphibian features. Several portions of the grid had changed from green to red, indicating the heavy losses the starfighters were suffering.
    "Well, send out another squadron! The enemy is sure to go down eventually!" the officer spluttered. He didn't want any news of this upset transmitted to the viceroy on the planet below. The reputation of the Trade Federation's invincible droid army must be maintained, after all.
    Especially since this particular dogfight was occurring uncomfortably near the control station itself. He wished Nute Gunray hadn't been so hasty to move the rest of their battleships to Llanic.
    The officer sighed distractedly; at least the station had top-of-the-line shielding. There was no way a minuscule, primitive starfighter could make so much as a dent. Absolutely no way.
    "...On second thought, send out two squadrons," he commanded.
    The droid controller nodded briskly and relayed the command to the hangar operators.

    * * *

    "Look!" Anakin shouted over the open channel to the rest of the Theed pilots. "That hatch on the side—it's opening again!" He banked to starboard and shot toward it. As the hangar slowly opened, masses of the copper-colored enemy ships poured out.
    "I'll go in with you, Seven," said Gold Three, and pulled up to his left.
    "Your timing window is small, pilots—we'll keep you covered from behind," added Gold Leader.
    "I'm more concerned about what's coming out of that hatch, myself," Gold Three responded. "Can anyone afford to follow us in to take down those new fighters?"
    "Copy, Three. I'm in," answered the enthusiastic voice of Gold Six.
    Anakin cleared the chatter from his peripheral thought and focused solely on the widening, brightly-lit rectangle on the terminus of the ring in front of him. He pushed the small Naboo fighter's thrusters as hard as they could go.
    "Enemy fighters approaching," relayed Gold Six. "I'll clear them out. Ready your torpedoes." She began unloading streams of laser energy into the oncoming cloud.
    "Forward shields at maximum," said Gold Three.
    Anakin flipped the torpedo activation switch on the side of his weapons control and tapped the trigger slightly with his thumb as his fighter screamed toward the control station. The wave of enemy ships fanned out in a netting pattern and sped toward him and the other two Naboo pilots on either side.
    Gold Three pulled slightly ahead and started to fire. A few of the fighters before them were hit by the laser blasts and fell toward the planet below, but the majority of them remained intact and began returning shots with near-perfect precision.
    Just before the three entered firing range of the hangar, Gold Six's portside wing caught a strong burst of strafing laser fire and burst into flames, causing her ship to begin spinning toward the narrow opening uncontrollably.
    "Eject, Six," Gold Leader called out over the comm channel, barely-restrained fear in his voice. "Lyasi, eject now!"
    Gold Six, unconscious due to the rapid spinning of her craft, did not eject.
    "No!" cried Gold Leader.
    Anakin spared a brief glance through his cockpit window at the doomed fighter and tried to swallow the lump rapidly forming in his throat.
    "Seven, almost there," Gold Three reminded him in a low tone.
    Anakin shook his head and looked forward. The hatch, having finished spewing out the enemy starfighters buzzing around them, began to close again. He gritted his teeth and pressed the trigger.
    Two proton torpedoes, their propulsion rockets glowing bright blue, joined Gold Six's flaming craft in streaking toward the Federation control ship.
    "Torpedoes away!" shouted Gold Three. "Seven, pull up—let's get out of here!"
    "Yes, sir!" Anakin veered away from the gigantic control station and sped toward the black openness beyond it. Once clear, he leaned his craft and stared down below.
    Just before the hatch door closed, Gold Six's blackened fighter skimmed through along with the two torpedoes.
    At first, there was only a faint increase in the glow emanating from the nearly-shut portal, but a chain reaction occurred as the torpedoes, along with Gold Six's wrecked ship, connected with the interior of the hangar. Slowly and silently, the right side of the outer ring began to balloon outward as each level inside it was incinerated; then finally, the entire structure burst in a torrential maelstrom of fire and shrapnel. As pieces of the ring soared outward from the explosion, they connected with the central command sphere, tearing it apart. The remaining droid starfighters, no longer receiving commands from the shattered control ship, began to weave erratically and crash into each other.
    Anakin and his small band of Naboo comrades cheered and shouted with elation. "We did it!" the boy yelled excitedly. "We actually did it!"
    "Great shot, Gold Seven! That was amazing!" congratulated Gold Three.
    "Let's celebrate planetside, team; we've got a lot to do once we get back home," said Gold Leader solemnly, and arced toward the surface. The rest of the pilots all gave an affirmative and followed him down.
    Anakin stared at the glowing cloud of debris as he sped downward and felt in himself the same fiery warmth. It was absolutely thrilling.
    So this is the Force, he considered.

    * * *

    Binjar pulled the tip of his poleax from the chest of yet another droid soldier. The droid did not cry out or gasp in pain; it ceased to function in an unsettlingly-silent manner, its narrow photoreceptors fading to black.
    At that moment, a searing pain spread through his right leg, and he fell to the grass. He swiveled his head around to see a battle droid pointing its hissing assault rifle at him, lining up for another shot.
    His blaster-burned leg now completely paralyzed, Binjar turned back around and gave one last look at the battlefield around him and the palace beyond the plains.
    This was a good way to die. He had done much good for his people and the Naboo. For his friends.
    Binjar closed his eyes and thought of his parents. They would have been so proud of him if they could see him here, a redeemed warrior of the Gohltan people.
    After a second or two, Binjar realized that he was still alive, as the pain in his leg was still very much present. He also started to hear the screams and shouts of many Gohltans and Naboo rise up over the plains, but... they were not cries of pain.
    Binjar opened his eyes and looked behind him—the battle droid that had been mere moments from ending his life now stood completely straight and still with its arms to its sides, a faint yellow light pulsing on its chestplate. It appeared to be in standby mode.
    The cries that he heard were those of victory.
    As Binjar began crawling toward the inactive droid to examine it, one of his comrades ran to him and lifted him up to a standing position, supporting him with an arm around both shoulders. "[The day is ours!]" shouted the Gohltan elatedly. "[The Lifeless Ones no longer function!]"
    Binjar began trembling as adrenaline rushed through his body, and he leaned heavily on his fellow warrior. "[The Naboo pilots—they must have destroyed the ship above us,]" he breathed, and pushed the droid standing there down onto the grass.
    They would see another sunrise after all.

    * * *

    Onward the three blade masters battled, toward the core of the palace. Stonework passages gave way to brightly-lit durasteel security corridors as they fought ferociously. Eventually, these opened up into a cavernous power station. Maintenance catwalks stretched across the room far above and below them, and the entire space pulsed with industrial, crackling energy. Colossal capacitors stood in a circle in the middle of the station, glowing white and violet. The intensity of the room mirrored and amplified the combat of the warriors now entering it.
    The chamber echoed the grating sounds of the three lightsabers as Jedi and Sith lunged back and forth, trying to exploit any hint of an opening. As well, on the unseeable plane where the Force resided, ground was being taken and lost. This was not merely a battle of physical strength; it was a battle in the hearts and minds of Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi. The Sith assassin Maul was ever eager to beckon them with the temptation to give in to hatred, to use the dark side of the Force to manipulate the battle as their anger grew. He smiled at each of them tauntingly, drawing them into that collapsing supernova of thrilling malevolence.
    Though Qui-Gon had endured many battles during his time as a Jedi Master, he had never encountered any creature so ruthless nor so disgustingly corroded with the dark side as this. He could feel the vehemence of Maul's fury pouring over his spirit like molten rock.
    He knew that no matter how terrifying this felt in him, it would had to have been compounded twenty times in poor Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan, taught only to defend the Republic from simple, Force-blind threats; who had never been trained to battle anything so vicious! Sweat dripped off of his brow and his breathing came labored as he parried each blow of the Sith's dual-bladed lightsaber.
    Qui-Gon knew too, though, that the light side of the Force which they championed was now flowing through him and his apprentice; it coursed through them like the mightiest river and carried them along, giving them strength and calmness of mind. There was balance here, no matter how hopeless it seemed.
    He rallied his strength and fought on.

    * * *

    Padmé stealthily approached the side entrance of the throne room, blaster raised in front of her chin, eyes darting back and forth and searching for any sign of movement. Seeing nothing, she slipped into the chamber and started for the communicator in the center of the large table there.
    Before she could take her third step, however, she heard the rising frequency of a blaster set into ready position behind her. She whirled around—Nute Gunray and Daultray Dofine stood there in the doorway, triumphant looks on their faces, holding silvery blasters and treading softly toward her.
    "Drop your weapon, Your Highness," commanded the oily voice of Viceroy Gunray.
    Padmé exhaled sharply and slowly knelt to the ground. "How did you know I was the queen?" she asked as she placed her blaster down.
    "Our droids scanned you and all your handmaidens as soon as we took Theed palace—it was just a matter of a facial comparison," crowed Dofine. "You and your little decoy may look similar enough to organic eyes, but our droids' photoreceptors are far superior."
    "So you've known all along," responded Padmé as she stood again, her tone laced with regret.
    "Of course!" said Gunray, waving his blaster at her. "You were foolish to think you could deceive us, and even more foolish to think that you could win this war. It is over, Your Highness; Naboo now belongs to the Trade Federation. The Senate can do nothing to stop us."
    "And this is just the beginning, isn't it?" Padmé asked, starting to tremble.
    Gunray laughed. "You are quite correct. Once we are finished here, we will move on to other systems in the Rim just like yours and conquer them for ourselves in the name of the mighty Trade Federation. Each unsuspecting planet will fall at our hands, until we rival the crumbling Republic itself. And then—takeover!"
    Padmé's eyes shifted to the tiled floor. "That would be a perfect plan, yes..."
    Suddenly, Panaka, Ric Olie, Governor Bibble, and the rest of the Naboo they had freed earlier burst into the room, blasters trained on the two confounded Neimoidians.
    As the two spun back and forth, unsure of who to point their weapons at, Padmé finished, "...if you still had an army with which to carry it out." Her expression had morphed completely from its former fear to a look of confident nonchalance.
    "What do you mean?" Gunray queried, eyeing the Naboo. A sheen of moisture began to form on his forehead, and he slowly lowered his blaster. "Where are our droid guards?"
    "Destroyed or inactive. Every single one of them," answered Captain Panaka, giving a quick, admiring grin to Padmé. "I think you can kiss your 'trade franchise' goodbye," he added sarcastically.
    Padmé nodded and produced a small device from the breast pocket of her shirt. "I'm sure Senator Palpatine and Chancellor Valorum would love to hear what you just told me." She smirked, holding the instrument up for the viceroy and his associate to see.
    "An audio recorder...?" Dofine asked blankly.
    "That's right!" Padmé said through a bright smile. "To be delivered to Coruscant, along with you two, on the next transport out."
    As the two Neimoidians floated weakly to the ground, a Naboo soldier jogged into the entrance behind Padmé and quickly bowed. "The pilots are reporting that they're just about to arrive back from destroying the control ship, Your Highness—you may want to go congratulate them."
    Padmé paled slightly. "Was Anakin with them?" she asked the officer.
    "I'm not sure, Your Majesty." The man diverted his eyes.
    Padmé thanked the soldier and walked out of the throne room toward the main hangar.
    The Neimoidian viceroy stared after her retreating figure, then looked at the officer who had just entered the room, a terrified look on his face. "The—the control ship has been destroyed?"

    * * *

    The remaining six Naboo starfighters gently descended through the atmosphere and entered the hangar opening. The rearmost fighter wobbled a bit on its repulsorlifts as it came into contact with the floor of the chamber, and the tip of its blunt, silvery nose tapped the craft in front of it with a clink.
    The cockpit window slid open, and Anakin climbed out, gingerly stepping down onto the wing and then jumping to the floor. The other pilots gathered around him, curious expressions on each of their faces.
    "'Gold Seven'? Why, you're just a kid!" exclaimed one of them.
    Gold Leader, a well-built, brown-haired fellow of about thirty, slapped Anakin on the shoulder. "You were amazing up there. What's your name? And how'd you learn to fly like that?"
    "Anakin Skywalker, sir," the boy replied, blushing. "I've been flying all my life, but Ric Olie taught me the controls to these starfighters."
    Before the pilots could inquire any further, a shout issued from the opposite side of the hangar. "Anakin! I can't believe you made it back!" It was Padmé, jogging toward the group. Her cheeks were flushed red from exhaustion and relief.
    Anakin stepped away from the pilots and was nearly thrown to the ground by Padmé's tackling hug. "Of course I made it back!" he protested, laughing and returning her embrace tightly.
    Padmé smiled into his shoulder. "That's twice you've saved us with your piloting, hot shot," she spoke quietly.
    Anakin finally pulled away, his expression solemn. "Where's Master Jinn?"
    Recollection of earlier events flooded back into Padmé's face, and she stiffly pointed at the door beyond them. "That dark creature with the red lightsaber—he's here. They must've gone that way, toward the palace's power station. But don't—"
    —Anakin was already sprinting toward the doorway, hold-out blaster in hand. "I need to help them if I can!" he called behind himself.
    "This is no time for heroics!" she yelled after him. He did not answer.
    Padmé watched him go, biting her lip nervously.
     
  21. Snocone

    Snocone Jedi Knight star 1

    Registered:
    Sep 14, 2015
    CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

    The two Jedi stood on a high, narrow catwalk, circling in tandem with the nightmarish Sith. He sneered at them disgustedly; he had apparently hoped to finish them off sooner.
    He's weakening, I can sense it, Obi-Wan considered. If only I could move in to
    Without warning, Maul lunged toward Qui-Gon, who blocked his vertical slash, then backflipped through the air to land just behind Obi-Wan. He stabbed his lightsaber directly toward the young Jedi's spine.
    Obi-Wan arched his back as he tried to spin and deflect the blow, but the tip of Maul's blade still cut into the flesh of his waist, passing through several layers of skin and cauterizing them instantly.
    He cried out in pain as he whirled his sword in a clumsy arc, aiming for the Sith assassin's wrist, but Maul had already begun to move again—crouching low and pulling his arms safely out of the way of Obi-Wan's blade, he aimed a kick at the Jedi apprentice's chest. It connected with a loud thump, sending Obi-Wan flailing off of the catwalk to another far below.
    In one swift motion, Obi-Wan deactivated his lightsaber and began to roll in mid-air, using the Force to slow his momentum. He landed on his shoulder on the lower bridge, then sprang to his feet. He looked above at his master, who was still dueling with the Sith toward a small door at the end of their walkway.
    Obi-Wan checked his side through the hole in his jacket—the mark where Maul's sword had grazed him was blackened and smelled of burnt flesh and ozone.
    That's a lesson I won't soon forget, he said to himself soberly. He recalled Qui-Gon's continual rebuke that he calm his mind and focus on the Force. Inhaling slowly and deeply, he closed his eyes and stretched outward with his senses.
    Heightened by his rapid pulse, sharpened by his focus, the Force created an expanding sphere of perception that rapidly filled the room he was in. He felt the sparking power of the capacitors humming to the left; could sense the gravitational pull of the world beneath him like a mother's embrace. Above him, a black hole and a yellow sun fought for dominance on a catwalk stretched like webbing across the chasm.
    Obi-Wan opened his eyes, tensed his leg muscles, and jumped upward.
    Propelled by the Force, Obi-Wan's leap was sure, and he landed gracefully on the bridge. He immediately turned and dashed toward the door through which Qui-Gon and Maul had just traversed. Upon entering the portal, he briefly glanced around the room they now found themselves in: Like the power station, the walls and ceiling of this room were coated in smooth, dull metal; in place of capacitors, however, were several huge slag pits where any excess construction materials were dumped in order to be melted down, purified, and reused. Cinder-specked smoke and steam rose from each pit like the breath of a sleeping wyvern.
    Qui-Gon Jinn dodged back and forth as the fight with the Sith assassin continued. Obi-Wan darted toward them, his strength renewed by the Force.

    * * *

    Anakin Skywalker ran as fast as he could down the stonework hall, straining his ears for any sound of his friends. Eventually, he reached a branch in the path and stopped, considering.
    A whisper that sounded rather similar to Qui-Gon's voice entered his mind: This way. Anakin nodded once and took off down the left-hand path.
    He desperately hoped they were all right.

    * * *

    Maul's nostrils flared as he thrust his blade toward Qui-Gon Jinn. The Jedi sidestepped to the right, swiveled, and brought his green lightsaber down as hard as he could. It connected with the Sith's sword haft and severed it in two, causing one end to retract with a snap.
    As the rent half of his lightsaber fell to the floor, Maul uttered a furious scream and began hacking wildly at the two Jedi with his remaining blade. Pieces of machinery and computer consoles tore from the walls behind him via the Force and spun toward his opponents in chaotic arcs.
    Ducking and veering past the giant objects lurching toward them, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan continued the intense brawl. Maul relentlessly pushed them back, closer and closer to a nearby slag pit, his eyes fiery with apoplectic rage.
    The two Jedi finally found themselves standing mere centimeters away from the edge of the pit. Maul, deftly parrying their blows and keeping them on constant guard, finally took a slight step back and then shoved his right arm toward Qui-Gon, using the Force to hurl him over the lip of the shaft.
    In that instant, Obi-Wan yelled out fiercely and swung his lightsaber upwards in a sharp arc. The blade swept through Maul's outstretched hand, neatly separating his last two fingers from his palm. The dark creature's remaining lightsaber fell from his grip and clattered to the ground, deactivated.
    As Maul reared back, howling in pain, Obi-Wan leaned over the side of the slag pit. To his immense relief, Qui-Gon had grabbed onto a protruding post about a meter beneath the opening and was now dangling precariously over the molten river far below.
    "Master! Give me your hand!" Obi-Wan shouted.
    Qui-Gon secured his grip on the post and reached toward his apprentice with his free hand. Obi-Wan grabbed it and began to haul him to the surface, but just as the elder Jedi reached the shaft's edge, Obi-Wan jerked backward suddenly and soared into the metal wall nearby with a sickening crack.
    Qui-Gon scrambled back out of the pit and called his lightsaber back to himself just in time to block Maul's one-handed sword strike; the Sith's wounded hand was stretched out to the right, using the Force to crush Obi-Wan against the durasteel-paneled wall.
    The Sith assassin took on a hideous, feral expression as he began to fight the Jedi Master left-handed—back and forth his ruby blade flashed as he clenched Obi-Wan's throat with an invisible grip. Obi-Wan struggled, clawing at his neck and sternum, but there was nothing he could do to release himself.
    On the opposite end of the spectrum, Qui-Gon's face was a mask of perfect serenity despite the sheen of perspiration on his forehead. The Jedi Master calmly blocked each slash and thrust with his lightsaber, waiting patiently for an opening.
    Finally, the opportunity came: Maul gave out a yell and lunged forward with all his might, straight for Qui-Gon's heart. Instead of taking the full brunt of the attack, the Jedi twisted to the right, allowing the Sith's blade to glance off of his own, then swept it down and around into a tight vertical arc, severing Maul's hand just behind the wrist. His lightsaber, still clutched by the disconnected left hand, spun in a loose circle and deactivated as it hit the ground.
    The Sith assassin gave out a tormented gasp and collapsed to the floor, holding the remaining stump that was his left arm with his damaged hand. Obi-Wan, finally released from his invisible noose, similarly fell forward onto his knees, coughing sharply. Qui-Gon angled his lightsaber, preparing to decapitate the evil creature—
    —Maul's gaze jerked up to stare Qui-Gon in the face, and he threw his right hand toward the Jedi, straightening his three fingers to point at Qui-Gon's stomach. There was a whistling sound, and the Jedi Master felt something painfully sharp enter his midsection.
    Qui-Gon grunted from the impact, then looked down to see a long metal point protruding from his belly. He paled as he slowly began to feel something course through his veins—something ominous and wholly unlike life had started to spread to all parts of his body.
    He felt his throat begin to constrict, and his vision blurred. He thought he heard the sound of his apprentice Obi-Wan crying out, but he wasn't entirely certain.
    The last thing Qui-Gon Jinn saw was the triumphant, wicked grin of the Sith assassin Darth Maul. Then—nothingness.

    * * *

    Anakin heard a scream echoing through the hallway he was running through and stopped.
    That—that sounded like Obi-Wan! he realized. He dashed forward again, eventually coming to a large room whose doorway was blocked by a shimmering energy barrier. He peered through it, trying to locate his friends—
    —There, just a few meters in front of him, was Qui-Gon Jinn, curled up in a fetal position on the cold metal floor and loosely clutching a red-tipped dagger-like object in his hand. To Qui-Gon's right was the dark creature, rising from the ground and advancing toward Obi-Wan, who was kneeling on the floor near the wall. Obi-Wan wore an expression full of grief and anger and exhaustion as he slowly staggered to his feet and called his nearby lightsaber to his hand with the Force.
    Maul, missing his entire left hand and two of the fingers on his right, bent over and extracted his lightsaber from the disembodied extremity that lay there and thumbed the activation switch. His blade snapped into being at the same time as Obi-Wan's, and the two warriors faced off.
    "Obi-Wan!" Anakin shouted, then began looking for the control to the barrier separating him from the scene in the room before him.
    Obi-Wan glanced at him just before raising his lightsaber to block a hammering blow by the Sith, and then the two started to battle yet again.
    Anakin desperately began pounding on the switch next to the door, but the barrier inexplicably did not dissipate. He finally raised his blaster and shot a bolt of blue energy into it. At last, the barrier collapsed, and Anakin darted through it and crouched next to Qui-Gon, whose skin was a pallid, ashen color. Anakin bent his ear next to Qui-Gon's mouth; the Jedi Master was still breathing, but only faintly, and in stuttering gasps.
    He glanced to his right: Obi-Wan, barely withstanding Maul's attacks, had been weakened considerably. In a terrible moment, Maul batted Obi-Wan's lightsaber out of his hand and then held his own above his head, ready to plunge it into the Jedi's chest.
    Time slowed.
    Anakin saw the fear in Obi-Wan Kenobi's eyes—it was the kind of fear that one has only when he is aware that his life is about to end.
    He looked down at Master Jinn, whose own life was almost extinguished.
    He saw the animalistic fury written on Maul's face as he stabbed his sword downward.
    Anakin stretched his hand toward the Sith assassin and uttered a horrific scream.

    "NOOO!!"

    All at once, Anakin felt something powerful rip through his being, and Darth Maul was suddenly and violently thrown sideways as if caught in an explosion. The opposite metal wall cratered from his impact and then collapsed outward, and the broken body of the Sith creature disappeared through the brightly-lit hole and fell into the roaring waterfalls below.
    Anakin began to cry.
    He looked down to see Obi-Wan staring at him, a look of shock and fear written across his face.

    * * *

    Obi-Wan, leaning heavily against the cool metal behind him, could not quite comprehend what had just happened. He had felt the wave of the Force emit from Anakin, had seen the Sith Lord Maul propelled into and through the wall. Now Anakin sat slumped over, weeping.
    Obi-Wan had never seen such explosive manipulation of the Force. Had never seen any being project that much power and ferocity.
    Through hazy vision and muted hearing, he recognized the small group of Naboo soldiers, led by Padmé Amidala, as they jogged into the room and began to attend to his master Qui-Gon and Anakin. They were speaking indiscernible, worried words to both of them. One of the Naboo looked up and saw Obi-Wan there and began to speak to him as he walked over, but the Jedi did not understand what the soldier was saying.
    Pressed to the limit, Obi-Wan finally passed out.
     
  22. Snocone

    Snocone Jedi Knight star 1

    Registered:
    Sep 14, 2015
    I've gone ahead and put the epilogue with this last chapter. So this is it! The end! I hope you've enjoyed my retelling of Star Wars Episode I. Please feel free to tell me what you think about any of it--constructive criticism is appreciated! I'm working on Episode II now, so hopefully that'll be done someday, and I'll post it here as well.

    CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

    The black fabric of night stretched over Theed. Naboo and Gohltans gathered in the courtyard of the palace in solemn honoring of their dead. Lit fires stretched upward into the skies as if to guide the spirits of the departed into the far reaches of the galaxy.
    Above the crackling sounds of the torches, a song arose: led by King Nasgohltan and quickly joined by the rest of his people, they sang a tune of remembrance and respect for the fallen. It was a low, soft melody sung in their watery language, and the Naboo listened in awed, sober silence.
    A lone ship descended through the atmosphere: a star among the stars. The Republic ambassadorial cruiser, its stabilizing jets glowing white, gently set down outside the front gates, and the landing ramp slowly lowered to the ground. In order, Chancellor Palpatine, Jedi Masters Mace Windu and Yoda, and four attendants exited the ship and walked into the assembly within the courtyard as the song of the Gohltans continued. Padmé, who was now dressed in her mourning colors of black and beige, along with Anakin, Obi-Wan, Binjar, and a few Naboo met them there, bowing respectfully. Trailing behind them were Nute Gunray and Daultray Dofine, their wrists bound behind their backs and their faces stretched long with paranoid anticipation of their fate. R2-D2 brought up the rear, his utility arm pointed threateningly at the two Federation leaders.
    "Congratulations on your election, Chancellor," said Padmé, smiling softly.
    Palpatine's lined face brightened as he bowed in return. "Your boldness has saved our people, Your Majesty. It is you who should be congratulated. Together we shall bring peace and prosperity to the Republic."
    The newly-elected chancellor's expression frosted over as his gaze turned to the Neimoidians. He motioned to one of the Coruscanti guards behind him and spoke in a low, ominous tone: "Take these two on board. We will deal with them later." The guard bowed and hastily complied, pushing the shackled viceroy and his associate unceremoniously toward the Republic vessel.
    Padmé held out her recording device. "Here is all the evidence, as spoken by the viceroy himself—I'm sure it will be enough to indict them. If not, the hundreds of our dead out on the plain and in the surrounding towns may be convincing." Her voice broke as she said this.
    Palpatine nodded at her, then at the two Jedi beside him. "Thank you, my queen. This atrocious war, made worse by the skeptics in the Senate and their meaningless bickering, should serve to unite the Republic toward adopting more proactive methods of protecting its members."
    The group of them turned and moved to stand among the assembled people there. Once the song was finished, King Nasgohltan stepped forward on the other side of the courtyard and spoke.
    "Gohltans and Naboo—many of our comrades, friends, and family were lost today. They fought heroically to preserve our homes and our way of life. Each of their deaths can be felt in our hearts, and we mourn them greatly.
    "However, their passing brought our peoples into an accord which has not been seen on Naboo for hundreds of years. Through war, we have achieved a strong bond of peace that cannot be broken. Tonight and forever, let us solemnly remember those who fought to protect us as we all work together to create a beautiful future."
    The people standing in the courtyard all nodded or spoke short phrases of agreement. King Nasgohltan concluded: "Tonight is a time of preparation, rebuilding, and remembrance. But tomorrow, let us celebrate our freedom from the Trade Federation!" Everyone clapped, then began to mingle and talk together in the light of the fires.
    Near the front gates, Chancellor Palpatine leaned over and spoke in Obi-Wan's ear, "Where is Master Jinn?"
    Obi-Wan gave him a peculiar stare for a moment, then said, "Come with me." He led the chancellor, along with the Jedi Masters, Anakin, Binjar, Padmé, and R2-D2 to a small chamber inside the palace. There, peacefully sleeping in a small bed surrounded by blinking monitors, was Qui-Gon. A 2-1B medical droid rolled back and forth, studying his vitals and administering medicine. Chancellor Palpatine gasped upon seeing the wounded Jedi Master.
    "How is he, Two-Onebee?" asked Obi-Wan of the droid.
    <Stabilizing,> the droid responded. It handed Obi-Wan a datapad and continued in its mechanical monotone. <Indication of partial recovery. Patient was revived too late for complete recovery, even with medicinal therapy.>
    "What happened to him?" asked Palpatine worriedly.
    Obi-Wan put his hand gently on the Jedi Master's shoulder as he explained. "We fought a Sith Lord earlier today, during the battle. Just as we were about to finish him off, he shot a dart into Qui-Gon's stomach."
    R2-D2 moaned softly.
    "What was on this dart?" asked Mace Windu, his facial features drawn into a stonelike mask.
    2-1B answered. <Chemical structure unknown. I will continue searching all available databanks for the answer.>
    "I've tried probing it with the Force, too, but... the disease, or whatever it is, seems to be unaffected by it," Obi-Wan added, his face downcast.
    Anakin, standing silent near the door with Padmé, had begun to tear up. The queen grasped his hand and squeezed it affectionately.
    "And what happened to the Sith Lord?" asked Yoda, his eyes blinking slowly.
    Obi-Wan remained silent for a moment, unsure of what to say.
    "I—I came into the room where they were fighting, and—" Anakin began to answer behind them all, but the young Jedi cut him off quickly.
    "—Anakin came in just in time to see me finish him off with my lightsaber. He fell into one of the slag pits near the center of the palace." Obi-Wan gave a meaningful look to Anakin, who clamped his mouth shut and nodded.
    "Very well-done, Apprentice Kenobi," said Chancellor Palpatine, glancing curiously at Anakin, then giving Obi-Wan a thin-lipped smile. "You are a brave man, to have beaten a Sith Lord." Obi-Wan bowed slightly in response. "And you, Anakin," the chancellor continued, turning to the boy, "I will be very pleased to see your advancement in training as a Jedi Knight. Very pleased, indeed."
    Anakin bowed as well. "Thank you, Chancellor Palpatine."
    "Do you think Master Jinn will be all right?" Binjar asked Obi-Wan quietly.
    Qui-Gon, who had been silent thus far, opened his eyes to thin slits and muttered something inaudible. His friends around the room gasped or smiled hopefully. Obi-Wan leaned forward close to the Jedi Master and asked him to repeat himself.
    The faintest hint of a grin appeared on Qui-Gon's kind face as he spoke again, a little louder: "I won't be so easily beaten."
    Obi-Wan, his eyes beginning to brim over, grasped the elder Jedi's hand and held it to his chest. "No, Master; of course not."
    "Obi-Wan, you will be a great Jedi Knight; much greater than I ever was," Qui-Gon continued in a whisper. "I will train Anakin once I recover, but I will need your help."
    "Yes, Master," Obi-Wan choked out. "I promise I'll do anything you need me to."

    * * *

    Anakin stood outside in the courtyard with Padmé as they set up long crimson and gold banners in preparation for the celebration the next day. Other Naboo and Gohltans scurried around, cleaning up the remains of droids and blaster-burned rubble. Padmé glanced around herself and smiled softly as she watched the two peoples work together.
    "I just can't believe we're here, after everything that's happened," she finally said.
    Anakin gave her a sidelong glance. "Me neither!"
    "Did you ever even think you'd end up doing anything like this? I mean... you're going to be a Jedi Knight!" she bubbled, grinning brightly.
    Anakin looked up at the night sky, then down at Padmé. Her eyes had stars in them, too. "I had always hoped," he quietly spoke, "but working for Watto day after day has a way of stealing that hope from you." His smile had a tinge of sadness. "I'm so glad all of you came to Tatooine. I mean—" he blushed, "—not that I'm glad you got stranded there or anything, but..."
    Padmé giggled. "I understand."
    Anakin adopted a serene expression as he continued. "Being a Jedi Knight will let me do everything I've always dreamed of doing. I've always wanted to travel the galaxy and see all the different peoples scattered out there, and I've always wanted to help bring justice and order to everyone I can. It's obvious that your Republic is not doing the best job to help the peoples of its systems. Maybe I can do it for them."
    Padmé tied the corner of her banner tightly. "You're right... I had no idea it was that bad until we were on Coruscant," she agreed in a low tone. "Perhaps we will be able to work with Palpatine toward restoring the Republic to what it once was."
    "I hope so," Anakin replied.
    Padmé turned toward him with an overly-serious expression. "You had better promise me that you'll see me as soon as you complete your training, Apprentice Skywalker."
    Anakin bowed with an elaborate flourish. "I promise, Your Majesty!" he said, grinning.
    "I mean it!" Padmé insisted, and laughed. She continued quietly, "I know you will become a great Jedi, Anakin. I just know it. And bring your mother when you visit! I want her to see the trees and rivers here."
    Anakin moved over to the next banner and began threading the corner tassel through a hook in the column. "After setting her free, Naboo will be the very first place we go."

    * * *

    Masters Yoda and Mace Windu still stood in the comfortably-lit medical room with Obi-Wan Kenobi, discussing the recent events with Qui-Gon Jinn, who still lay in his medical cot. Each of the Jedi wore troubled expressions as they considered the ramifications of a Sith reemergence. The 2-1B droid had since gone to attend to other wounded Naboo soldiers farther down the hall. R2-D2 left as well, deciding it would be more useful helping with tomorrow’s preparations out in the courtyard.
    "So, the creature was indeed a Sith Lord," Mace Windu said, the corners of his mouth turned downward in a thoughtful frown.
    "His command over the dark side of the Force was astonishing," Qui-Gon agreed. His once-powerful voice was now thin and fragile.
    "Always two there are: a master, and an apprentice," croaked Yoda. "That Maul was a Sith, we know. But whether he was the master or the apprentice—this remains a troubling mystery."
    "We must keep searching for the answer, then!" Obi-Wan said, clenching his fist.
    "You're right; we must. That will be one of your first tasks upon completing the trials and becoming a Jedi Knight, Obi-Wan," Master Windu replied, nodding. "The Council has decided that your trials will begin as soon as you return to Coruscant."
    Obi-Wan grinned excitedly, first at Qui-Gon and then at Mace Windu, then bowed low. "Thank you, Master."
    "Make a fine Jedi Knight, you will," said Yoda, his wrinkled visage stretching into a smile. The ancient Master turned to face the others as he continued: "Sense, I do, a great force of evil here on Naboo even now. Great, and powerful. A rift in the Force comes—that much is certain. When it comes is known only by the servants of the dark."
    "What can we do?" Obi-Wan asked.
    "Prepare ourselves," answered Mace Windu.
    "For what? What is going to happen?" Obi-Wan pressed, looking between the two Masters.
    Yoda's face became, in an instant, very sad. "A war is coming."

    * * *

    The skies over Theed were the clearest blue. Multi-colored kalta birds soared over the palace once again as if to herald the return of peace to the beleaguered planet. Prismatic ribbons criss-crossed over the courtyard where Naboo and Gohltans stood together, anticipating the culmination of their hard work in preparing for the day's festivities.
    At last, the parade began: several Gohltans, dressed in iridescent fabrics and armor, stood in a line on either side of the central fountain and blasted a note on their peculiar shell-shaped instruments as massive fambaalizards, each of them carrying enormous bouquets of Naboo's fragrant and beautiful flora in the center of their saddles, were led through by Eres Gohlta's victorious warriors. Naboo children ran laughing through the crowds and peered curiously at the Gohltans walking by.
    Behind the fambaa mounts came the Naboo military, either marching in straight rows or driving one of their gleaming maroon and black speeders. They waved at the crowds gathered around them, who cheered wildly. Flower petals were showered over the soldiers from the catwalks above by the spectators standing there.
    At the end of the courtyard near the palace, on an elegant wooden stage constructed for the occasion, stood Queen Padmé Amidala, dressed in a glittering white gown. Her lovely brown hair was curled into loose ringlets that draped gently onto her shoulders, and atop her head was a shining, silver crown. To her right stood her four handmaidens, who were also dressed in glimmering white, as well as Captain Panaka, Governor Bibble, Chancellor Palpatine, Binjar Skimb—who had been recently named Naboo's ambassador—and other members of Her Majesty's royal court.
    King Nasgohltan stood on the other side of the queen, leaning on his gnarled scepter and wearing a knee-length blue cape with gold accents. His circle of advisers joined him in standing there during the procession, all of them dressed in similar blue and gold raiment.
    At last, the grand parade stopped in front of the large stage.
    Anakin Skywalker, his hair now cut short in the style of a padawan learner, stood behind and to the left of Padmé and her cohort, along with Obi-Wan, Mace Windu, and Yoda. He stared distractedly at the lovely young queen as she turned to receive something from Rabé, the girl who had played the part of decoy during the dangerous last few days. As Padmé picked up the object from Rabé's hands, she briefly looked up at Anakin and flashed a girlish smile.
    Anakin decided right then that he had never met anyone, nor ever would, that was as wonderfully perfect as she.
    The queen turned, still smiling, to the crowd standing in front of the stage. Gradually, they all became silent and still. She held up that which Rabé had given to her: a perfectly-white, opaque, glowing orb—an ancient treasure of the royal family of Naboo.
    After a moment or two, Padmé spoke. "To all of you—Naboo and Gohltans, citizens of this beautiful planet we call home—I proclaim peace!"
    She then lowered the orb and handed it to King Nasgohltan, who bowed with stately grace. After straightening, he also turned to the crowd and held the orb above his head.
    "Let this serve as a continual reminder that no matter what trials we may encounter, both our peoples will stand strong together as one!" the king's low, gravelly voice boomed across the courtyard.
    The mass of onlookers applauded and cheered unrestrainedly and began again the celebration that would last long into the night—a celebration of bravery, of reconciliation, and victory.
    A celebration of life.


    EPILOGUE

    He gasped awake into a sea of black.
    Every cell of his broken body felt as if it were a sun—fire, and energy, and pain. He cried out with insentient anger as he writhed on the hot, hissing, metal floor.
    "Your failure in this matter is complete, my young apprentice."
    It was a voice he recognized. A voice he loathed.
    The voice continued speaking. "It is unfortunate that the Jedi did not end your life in the palace at Theed—it would have been easier for you that way."
    Immediately his body was again wracked with the sinister torture of an electricity that transcended the physical realm. This power could only come from using the Force, and only a Dark Lord of the Sith could wield it.
    And he was blind. What was left of his skeleton was most likely calcified from the powerful lightning that now bathed his frame. He had hardly any coherent thought.
    "K-kill me, my master..." he grated out through scorched vocal cords.
    "Kill you?" the voice smiled. "No, I am going to heal you, my young apprentice. And when you are healed, you will fulfill the mission I have planned for you on Kamino.
    "Next time, there will be no failure. All trace of error will be completely removed from you by the time I am finished. And then, the Sith's true purpose for the galaxy will be revealed to all—the destruction of the Republic and the annihilation of the Jedi.
    "Then, all will bend their knees to my rule, and I will rule them with absolute power. Then, my young apprentice, when I am finished with you, you will die."
     
    Erkan12 likes this.
  23. Sith-I-5

    Sith-I-5 Force Ghost star 6

    Registered:
    Aug 14, 2002
    Okay-dokey, got here from the Force Nexus debacle via your sig.

    Read up to Chapter One.

    Normally the lack of extra lines would be an issue for me, but your choice of font and font size managed for that not to be a problem.

    Very well written and engaging piece. Excellent idea to give the reader a different starting scenario, rather than just a retread of the film's storyline.

    Good stuff like buildings reaching up to grab at the ship, the pilot's clipped tones, lights stuttering on in corridors, light shafts, Qui Gonn determining hostility from people reaching for their guns and thus giving him time to bring up the lightsabre, all great stuff.

    No red flags.

    Two personal notes.

    CorSec were alerted by the pilot sending out a general distress signal; the defensive cannon firing at a ship attracted no attention? Does it happen that often over Coronet?

    I agreed with Obi Wan, and was thinking, a couple lines before he mentioned it, that their mission was to investigate the glitterstim; they were nowhere near completion of that mission, though that does raise a point.

    Someone sent the ship coordinates to land at that particular bay. It wasn't Maul's people, as they were not expecting visitors.

    Also, a suggested amendment:

    "Master, what do you think he meant? What is 'Maul'?" Obi-Wan asked as the two Jedi boarded the Ambassador shuttle.
    "It is another term for being scratched to ****. But other than that, I have no idea, Obi-Wan, but I'm sure it will be revealed to us soon.
     
    Snocone likes this.
  24. Snocone

    Snocone Jedi Knight star 1

    Registered:
    Sep 14, 2015
    Sith-I-5 Hey thanks! I welcome this feedback; I hadn't considered anything you brought up here in terms of conveying it to readers.Please, feel free to continue reading and provide any more thoughts. This is my first venture into fanfic.

    I think the story's later additions of entire scenes work a lot better, mostly because they are built off of the original Episode I plot/characters and not entirely new ideas. Please let me know what you think of my new and improved (hopefully) characters.

    I honestly don't have much of an explanation for this one... Perhaps it was high enough up in the atmosphere that few people noticed...? Or yeah, maybe Coronet is pretty wild as it is. Just a normal, everyday, run-of-the-mill defensive cannon firing. [face_hypnotized] [face_blush]

    Something I didn't really explain in the prologue, in order to retain mystery, is that someone must've received word that their ship was coming--Valorum had sent them (albeit to find glitterstim criminals), and as the bad guys didn't want anyone meddling in their business (which was actually war supply shipping), they kept track of the ships coming near the facility. At this point, all we know about the Trade Federation is that they're barring trade and travel around Naboo, but we see here in the prologue that the Jedi happened to stumble upon a very important find that was related to Naboo's predicament.This is explained more later.

    What I was aiming for in all this is to provide a reason for Maul's sense of vengeance toward them, in addition to his general Sithly mandate to kill good guys whenever he saw one.
     
  25. Snocone

    Snocone Jedi Knight star 1

    Registered:
    Sep 14, 2015
    [face_laugh]
     
    Sith-I-5 likes this.