Star Wars AU Episode I: The Puppet Master

Chapter 9

"Your report?" said Darth Sidious, surreal in his black robe shielding nearly all his face, surrounded by an aura of glittering black, looking like a disembodied mouth speaking to them.

"We control all the cities in the north," replied Nute, "and are searching for any other settlements. Resistance ..."

"Yes, yes," said Darth Sidious, with an impatient gesture, as though he knew already the answers to the questions he asked. "You've done well enough ... for now. Destroy all high-ranking officials, Viceroy. Slowly ... quietly ... do not allow one to become a rallying point. Be thorough. And Queen Amidala, has she signed the treaty?"

"She has disappeared, my lord," replied Nute, trying not to betray his fear. Tremulously, he picked at his robe, silently announcing his failure. "There was ... an escape."

"An escape?" hissed Darth Sidious.

"One Naboo cruiser ... got past ... the blockade ..." managed Nute, barely able to get the words through his fear-choked throat.

"You defy me! How did she escape, Viceroy?" whispered Darth Sidious.

Cowed by the malevolence of Sidious' whisper, Nute Gunray found himself wishing the floor might swallow him where he stood--barring that, that death might strike him now. Instead, he was forced to continue to face the man, to give an explanation of his failure. "My lord, I ... her guards were overpowered. We ..."

"Viceroy, find her!" ordered Darth Sidious. "I want that treaty signed!"

"My lord," said Nute, very nervously, "it's impossible to locate the ship. It's out of our range now."

"Not for a Sith," hissed Darth Sidious.

Behind him, a horned man, his red face framed by black tattooed symbols and small horns atop his head.

"Viceroy, this is my apprentice, Lord Iacchus," said Darth Sidious, his voice tinged with a deep menace, moving ever closer to a hiss. "He will find your…lost ship. And perhaps I shall not cause you to suffer for your incompetence."

"Yes, my lord," replied Nute meekly.

The hologram faded away.

Head in his hands, Nute said, "This is getting out of hand ... now there are two of them!"

"We shouldn't have made this bargain," said Rune as he stood and began to pace. "What will happen when they discover the Jedi were not killed?"

"I don't want to find out," answered Nute, meticulously arranging his robes again in a vain attempt to avoid betraying his nervousness at the very thought.

"And what will the Jedi do when they become aware of these Sith lords?" Rune was wearing a pattern in the tile with his worried pacing.

"I had no choice!" snapped Nute. "I'm still rather fond of living. Or have you forgotten ..."

"No," said Rune, shuddering at the memory of the events at the failed Eriadu Trade Summit. Well and truly trapped we are. One way or the other, we're just walking dead.

Turning from his conversation with the Nemoidians, Darth Sidious turned to the red-skinned man covered with the black tattoos within that seamless black room. The Zabrak sat, staring at the model, his eyes focused deep beyond. Before him, spinning marbles rotated in mid-air. They were of many colors: red and orange, green and blue, yellow and brown, milky white ... some larger, some smaller, each revolving around small blinking lights. However, it was not the beauty, as undeniably beautiful as this art was, which drew his attention.

"Lord Iacchus?"

"I have the results," Iacchus stood, giving his master a bow as he regained his feet. "Tatooine. It's sparsely populated. Finding the ship should be a simple matter now, Master."

"Good," replied Sidious. "When you have found her, take the queen back to Naboo, where she will sign that treaty."

"Yes, Master," replied Iacchus with another bow.

"After that, she will not matter any longer."

"Understood, Master." Sharp teeth bared as he began to contemplate just what might be done to the future irrelevant queen, playing through one amusing scenario and then another-at least, amusing to the satyric man.

"Everything is going as planned," said Sidious, looking at the glittering model of the galaxy, no longer aware of his apprentice's continuing presence, a slow smile spreading over his face. "The Republic will soon be in my command."

Iacchus' presence did not continue, however, much longer. For he wasted no time in departing to fulfill his master's bidding, pausing only to stock a few additional supplies suited to this particular task.

Using paths known only to his master and himself, Iacchus flew his sleek craft into the desert wastes of the planet. Traveling in his orbit, he selected a darkened mesa on the edge of the setting of the suns. As the ship neared the surface, a small herd of banthas fled the strange intruder, lowing in their panic.

Unperturbed by the disruptions he had caused, Iacchus walked to the edge of the mesa upon which he had landed. Taking his binoculars, he scanned in one direction, and then another, continuing until he had examined the entire horizon. Reaching to an armband which had once seemed merely decorative, he pushed several buttons, and three probe droids floated out of the open hatch of his craft.

Making no gestures, he merely stood watching as the probes disappeared toward the horizon in three different directions, his will directing them.

He frowned at the strange eddies in the Force seemed to surround him. Jedi, he recognized that presence, but another one as well, unfamiliar. He did not mention the Jedi. Another test, he thought. Small matter, that. Easily managed. But this other?

He stared out at the horizon in the waning light, unmoving.

Perhaps I shall find an apprentice here of my own, he thought. A smile, which might have revealed a multitude of sharp teeth had there been sufficient light, split his face as he continued to stare at the blank horizon.

To call it a city would have been optimistic on any world other than Tatooine. Yet here, Mos Espa glittered against the sands, and on the outskirts of this small city the Naboo spacecraft remained at rest as the sands blew up against the gleaming chrome. Obi-Wan stood at the base of the ramp, scanning the horizon as the wind began to pick up speed.

Captain Panaka walked down the ramp to stand beside Obi-Wan without speaking. His posture, however, showed his great disapproval of the current situation.

"This storm'll slow 'em," said Obi-Wan, acknowledging the other man's presence, without dropping the binoculars from his eyes.

"It looks pretty bad," replied Captain Panaka, shielding his eyes and looking at the dark cloud on the horizon. "We're going to seal the ship. They can't mean to come back here in this."

"No, they won't," said Obi-Wan.

Captain Panaka put a hand to his ear as his comlink sounded, and said, "Yes?" After a short moment, he said, "We'll be right there." Then, to Obi-Wan, he said, "We must go to the Queen's chambers."

Closing the binoculars, Obi-Wan turned to walk into the spacecraft, Captain Panaka behind him.

As Obi-Wan entered the queen's chamber, he saw that the queen and handmaidens had gathered around a table. Looking more closely, he saw an extremely poor-quality transmission of a hologram of the man he had briefly met, Sio Bibble.

"...cut off all food supplies until you return ..." he said, flickering into static before resuming, "the death toll is catastrophic ... we must bow to their wishes, Your Majesty ..." The image flickered into static again, and then Sio Bibble resumed, sounding increasingly anxious, "Please tell us what to do! If you can hear us, Your Majesty, you must contact me..."

The queen was visibly upset by this transmission, looking as though she were trying to compose her thoughts into a response.

"It's a trick. Send no reply," said Obi-Wan. "Make no transmission of any kind..."

"How can you be so certain?" asked the queen.

"I can sense it," said Obi-Wan. "You must trust me, Your Majesty. The Force ..."

The sound of the ship being sealed could be heard clanging mournfully, momentarily cutting off Obi-Wan's words. Outside, the winds had gained speed to howl, audible despite the layers of metal separating them from the winds.

Alone, so alone, Obi-Wan thought. We must not give in to fears. I must be strength.

"And what if you are wrong?" the queen asked sharply, as the image of Sio Bibble replayed.

"I am not mistaken," replied Obi-Wan firmly, even as, in a small corner of his mind he wondered, And what if I am? It doesn't matter—the Federation would find us ... The queen will be killed ... all Naboo nothing but Federation slaves in all but name. No! It's too grave a risk, and there's nothing we can do here, but wait for Qui-Gon to return with those parts we need. I am not mistaken.

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