Star Wars AU Episode I: The Puppet Master

Chapter 11

The large amphitheater was beginning to become quite full as Qui-Gon led Padmé and Naiia into the stands. People and beings of all manner of shapes and sizes had filled the amphitheater.

"Pomegranates! Dates!" called out a multi-armed being, walking up and down the stairs of the grand amphitheater, pausing occasionally to collect money and pass a quickly twirled paper cone filled with the customer's choice. "Ice cold ayran!" called another vendor as he walked through the aisles of the colorfully-canopied boxed seats, pouring for his customers from a tank worn on his back. "Fried trooshti!" Vendors moved through the amphitheater, offering a dazzling array of food and beverages, their cries intended to draw customers. "Fresh Ibian! Get it while it's wriggling!" "Besnian sausage on a stick!" "Boga noga!" "Hot salted crunchbugs!"

"Ooooh, can we get some of that?" asked Naiia, as another vendor pushing a cart filled with an amber liquid neared, calling out "fresh Klatooine paddy frogs". "Please?" she begged.

Qui-Gon was on the verge of saying no, but reconsidered. It might keep her quiet, he thought, as he motioned for the vendor to come over.

"She'll take one," he said, with a slight gesture as he offered the coin to the gap-toothed man. "This will cover it, yes?"

The man took the credit and said, "That's it, yes." He reached into the tank as the hapless creatures swam trying to evade him, pulled one out, and handed it to Naiia as he quickly re-capped the tank with his other hand. "Thank you, and enjoy the race."

"Thanks!" chirped Naiia as she settled back into her seat and bit one of the waving legs. "Hey, it's really good. You wanna bite?" she asked, holding it toward Padmé.

"Err ... thank you, no," said Padmé, retreating as far as her seat would allow. "I'm not hungry."

A booming voice came over the loudspeakers, cleverly positioned so as not to ruin anyone's view. From the announcer's box, a figure with two heads began speaking, first in Huttese.

"Greetings! We have perfect weather today for the Boonta classic," announced Beed.

"That's right," replied his co-joined partner. "Absolutely right. And a big turnout here, paid admissions almost at a record today. I see the contestants are making their way out to the starting grid now."

"You wanna bite?" said Naiia, offering her still-squirming frog to Qui-Gon.

"No, thank you," replied Qui-Gon, as he settled into a meditative state despite the surrounding din.

Unperturbed, Naiia continued to bite into her frog as a line of podracers emerged from the large hangar, the pilots walking alongside the crafts and pausing, turning to face the high royal box.

Shmi entered the hangar, quickly picking out the craft she had seen taken from behind Xa'ej's hovel, and hurried over. Before he could protest, she embraced her son, and said "Be safe."

"I will, Mom," replied Deak. "I promise."

Shmi hurried away toward the grandstand as the podracers continued to leave the hangar for their starting positions.

"Yes, there they are!"

"That's Aldar Beedo of Ploo Two."

"On the front line, our reigning champion, Sebulba from Pixelito. By far the favorite today."

As though to prove the announcer's point, a cheer rose from the stands from many sections.

"Ratts Tyerell of Aleen and Mawhonic of Hok round out our frontline."

"And Gasgano from Troiken in his new Ord Pedrovia."

"Two time winner, Boles Roor of Sneeve."

"There'd Dud Bolt of Vulpter and Clegg Holdfast of New Plympto."

"And a late entry, Watto's Deak, a local boy."

"I hope he has better luck this time." A chuckle rippled through the crowd at that.

"Ebe Endocott of Triffis and Teemto Pagalies of Moonus Manel."

"Wan Sandage of Ord Radama, Mars Guo of Phu, and Elan Mak of Ploo Four."

"There's Ben Quadinaros of Tund, and our own Ody Mandrell of Tatooine."

"And Neva Kee of Xagobah rounds out our field today. I see the flaggers are moving onto the track."

Jabba the Hutt moved into his box, waving to the crowd as all of the pilots made some sort of motion that looked like a bow.

"His honor, our glorious host, Jabba the Hutt has entered the arena."

The crowd roared in approval as Jabba was joined by others of his kind, along with a retinue of humans, chained slave girls clad in little more than Naiia herself, and a few other beings of near human and humanoid variety.

"Welcome!" said Jabba, his voice booming through the arena, needing no amplification to be heard. "Sebulba of Pixelito ..."

Sebulba stood and saved to the cheering crowd as Xa'ej made a final adjustment of the cables attaching the engines to the pod she had built, and continued checking the cable hitches as Jabba continued the introductions, each pilot waving to the cheering crowd in turn.

Sidling closer, Sebulba taunted,"You won't walk away from this one, slave scum! You'll be bantha shit."

"Don't count on it, sarlacc spit," replied Deak with a cold stare.

Sebulba backed off toward his racer, climbing aboard and strapping himself in.

"You'll do just fine,"reassured Xa'ej, standing next to R2-D2, fingers running over the droid curiously. "And I'm holding you to that. Imagine, getting to repair a starship like that!"

"Let the challenge begin," bellowed Jabba, as all the pilots moved into their pods.

Remember, concentrate on the moment. Feel. Don't think, remembered Deak. Trust your feelings. He pulled his goggles into place.

Around the area, pilots were flipping switches, powerful energy binders shooting between the engines of the pod, the roars of many high-powered engines echoing against the walls and from there throughout the arena.

"Get away from there!" shouted Ody Mandrell, though his words were almost entirely lost to the many engines as a droid remained in front of his engines.

As the powerful energy binders began shooting between the engines, the various creatures who had led the way with flags now moved to the side of the track.

"Oooh," said Naiia, mouth full of another bite of frog leg, "they're starting! I can't wait!"

Shmi climbed into the stadium seats, looking very anxious.

"The power couplings are being activated," said one announcer voice.

"They're clearing the grid now," said the other.

"I can't bear it," said Shmi. "You did this ..."

"He will be fine," reassured Qui-Gon.

"You Jedi are far too reckless," said Padmé. "The Queen ..."

"The queen trusts my judgment," said Qui-Gon. "You should, too."

"You presume too much," huffed Padmé.

"Start your engines."

In his box, Jabba reached into a tub, removing a frog like the one Naiia was consuming. He bit the head off, and spit it at the gong, the starting signal. As the gong sounded, a great green light began flashing on a thin walkway over the track. Podracers began shooting forward, but Deak's engine suddenly fizzled. Podracers swerved around him, and moments later, there were only two pods left at the start.

"And they're off!"

"Oh, wait... Watto's Deak has stalled, and Ben Quadrinaros seems to be having trouble getting off the start."

"Oooh, no!" said Naiia, standing up and jumping up and down. "Come on, start!"

"Sit down!" snarled a gruff voice from behind her, a hand on her shoulder to force the issue.

"You don't gotta be so rude!" she said, partially-chewed frog spilling from her mouth.

Just then, Deak's engine started, and he joined the race, the quadra-Pod still stubbornly refusing to move.

"And there goes Watto's Deak ... He'll be hard pressed to catch up with the leaders today."

"The leaders are in the mushroom mesa now, the first turn of the track. Mawhonic and Sebulba are neck and neck as they reach the turn."

Sebulba veered ever so slightly to one side, his dented pod against the side of Mawhonic's green pod. In the back, Deak was beginning to catch up to the slowest of the field, passing them.

"Oh! That has to hurt," said the announcer. "Mawhonic has crashed in the first turn. That's Sebulba in the lead now as he heads to the Needle's Eye."

Deak reached the thick of the pack of racers. Beginning to overtake on the inside, Gasgano moved inside, and then back to the outside as Deak attempted that side, matching maneuver for maneuver to maintain his position ahead of Deak. A cliff drop off, and Gasgano reached that first, dropping lower. Deak pushed, accelerating to take the drop high, sailing over Gasgano and speeding through the approach to the Needle's Eye.

Tusken Raiders had moved to the top of the canyon walls, and fired down into the course, one shot ricocheting off the newly repaired flap on Deak's pod.

"Looks like a few Tusken Raiders have camped out on the approach to the Needle's Eye."

The racers were now out of sight, except for the stalled Quadra-pod, so the crowd continued to watch through their small viewscreens.

"Where's Deak?" asked Padmé, looking worried.

Deak approached through the Labyrinth, powering through turns, over hills and cliffs. One pod after another fell behind him, though Sebulba remained in the lead.

"As expected, Sebulba is leading the way. Xelbree is coming up on his side now ... Oh! And Xelbree has lost an engine."

Sebulba veered away from the exploding engine, continuing through the pack. Deak, meanwhile, continued to work his way through the rest of the pods between his own and Sebulba's, lost to vision by the sands that had been stirred by the mass of pods crossing the Dune Sea.

As Sebulba, leading the pack, began to enter the arena, Ben Quadrinaros' pod finally fired up ... The engines flew off as he put it into gear, exploding against the walls of the starting grid.

"There goes Quadrinaros' power couplings."

"And Sebulba, leading the pack, is finishing the first lap in record time."

As the pods continued passing through the arena for the conclusion of the first lap, the people in the crowd stood, cheering for their favorites.

"Two more laps?" shrieked Naiia. "They gotta do that two more times?"

"It looks like Watto's Deak is moving up through the field. He's in ..."

"Sixth place. Not bad. Ody Mandrell into the pits for some attention."

Ody continued shouting at the droids working on an engine-when a droid got sucked in, he shouts were accompanied by gestures and a deepening maroon across his face. The engine sputtered and died, the dented droid clattered to the ground, and, a moment later, the engine exploded in a puff of black smoke.

"Droids!" shouted Ody, giving the dented droid a vicious kick before he stomped away.

As another racer started the perilous attempt to pass Sebulba, a small piece of metal—extra decoration that Sebulba kept for just such an occasion—flew backwards into Neva Kee's engine.

Neva Kee struggled, veering into Deak's pod, unhooking a strap linking the pod to the engines. Deak struggled to regain control as his pod shuddered and twisted from the uneven thrust.

"Got it!" he gasped, grasping the loose strap and pinning it into place.

Sebulba cut through the engine of the next aspiring leader so that pod dropped to the desert floor in a cloud of sand. Close on the tail of that pod, another pod was lost in the clouds. Hidden in the sandcloud, the two pods crashed together resoundingly. Deak rounded the corner, moving through the sand cloud, and came out the other side.

"At the start of the third and final lap, Sebulba is in the lead, followed closely by ... Watto's Deak."

The two racers, now well ahead of the pack, continued through the arena and into the last lap as Sebulba attempted to separate Deak's engines from his pod, as he had done so many times already in this race. Evading the exhaust port blades, Deak went wide off the course.

"Watto's Deak is forced onto the service ramp!"

Deak closed his eyes, moving from ramp to track, cutting inside sharply.

"Incredible! A controlled thrust and he is back on course ... and in the lead! What a move!"

Sebulba remained close on the rear of Deak's pod. Deak, remembering how he had been almost prevented from passing, continued to match Sebulba move for move, as Sebulba moved to bump him from the rear as he entered the turns of the Labyrinth.

Rounding the bend, a piece of engine started to shake loose, and Deak quickly moved to bypass, losing just enough speed for Sebulba to pass.

"Sebulba has regained the lead."

Deak made several attempts to pass, finally faking inside and passing outside before Sebulba could react as they reached the long flat stretch of the final approach to the arena.

"He's catching Sebulba."


The crowd was roaring their approval of the race as Sebulba moved sideways, tapping into Deak's pod repeatedly until the steering rods had hooked together.

"That boy is out of his mind."

"They're neck and neck."

"They're side by side."

"Shoulder to shoulder."

Deak tried to veer away from Sebulba. The two pods firmly linked foiled his efforts. Then, moving toward Sebulba, he made a quick thrust. His steering arm broke, and the pods separated. Tension released, both pods began spinning. Sebulba scraped an ancient statue lining the course. One engine exploded and then the other. The pod, bereft of two engines, skidded through the fireballs. Sebulba got out of his racer, throwing a broken piece to the ground in frustration. Deak flew through the fireball and on out the other side, managing to move forward despite the spin.

"And it's ... DEAK! Watto's Deak!"

"Watto's Deak has won the race! The crowd is going wild!"

Indeed, the crowd was on their feet, shouting and cheering as unnoticed probe droids continued to move through the crowds.

Qui-Gon walked to the box where Watto had been watching the race. Several aliens left, laughing and counting money. Qui-Gon paused in the doorway.

Watto looked up and snarled, "You! You swindled me! You knew the boy was going to win! Somehow you knew ... I lost ... everything." He flew up, face against Qui-Gon's face.

Qui-Gon smiled, remaining silent for a moment. "Eventually, you will lose when you gamble, my friend," said Qui-Gon. "Bring the parts to the main hangar. I'll come by your shop later so you can release the boy."

"You can't have him!" shouted Watto. "It wasn't a fair bet."

"Would you like to discuss it with the Hutts?" said Qui-Gon, as an unnoticed probe droid drew close to this conversation. "I'm sure they can settle this."

"No, no! I want no more of your tricks." Watto deflated. "Take him!"

After all the racers had crashed or finished, Shmi hurried into the hangar, followed closely by Naiia and Padmé.

"Oh, it was so exciting!" chirped Naiia, giving Deak a hug.

Embracing her son, Shmi gasped, "Oh, Dee ..."

"Ah, gee ..." said Deak, squirming out of the embrace. "Enough of this ..."

"We owe you everything," said Padmé.

"Just feeling this good was worth it," said Deak. And seeing Sebulba crash, too!

Behind them, Qui-Gon was harnessing some eopies to a container of parts, Xa'ej perched atop the parts.

"Padmé, Naiia," said Qui-Gon. "Let's go. We've got to get these parts back to the ship."

As Qui-Gon helped Padmé onto one eopie and Naiia to the other, he said, "I'll return the eopies by midday."

As the small caravan reached the sleek spacecraft, Obi-Wan came out of the ship.

"Start getting this hyperdrive generator installed. Put the old one on the cart—Xa'ej here wants to tinker with it, and send the eopies back when you've made the exchange. I'm going back now. Some ... unfinished business. I won't be long."

As Padmé and Naiia slid down from their mounts and ascended the ramp, Obi-Wan said, "Why do I sense we've picked up another pathetic lifeform?"

"Xa'ej will not be going with us," said Qui-Gon. "It's the boy. The one responsible for getting us those parts."

The still-shielded and unnoticed probe droid suddenly turned and sped away back to Iacchus.

Qui-Gon walked through the slave district, finding Deak, and brought out some credits from beneath his poncho.

"The winnings," he said, handing them to Deak.

"Yes!" said Deak, and he ran ahead of Qui-Gon to his home.

Shmi was inside, cleaning the already clean house.

"Mom, look at all this money!" said Deak, handing the coins to her.

"Oh, my goodness," said Shmi, taking in the weight of them. "That's wonderful."

"And Deak has been freed," said Qui-Gon.

"What?!" said Deak, turning around, his eyes widening.

Shmi was silent, looking as though she had been struck in the face by a mighty blow.

"You're no longer a slave, Deak," said Qui-Gon.

"Did you hear that, Mom?" said Deak, overjoyed. "Was that part of the prize?"

"Let's just say that Watto has learned ... an important lesson," said Qui-Gon, "about gambling."

"Will you take him with you?" said Shmi, biting her lip.

"Our meeting was not a coincidence," said Qui-Gon. "Deak is strong with the Force." He turned to Deak, and said, "But you may not be accepted by the Council. It will not be an easy life, there will be many challenges. Do you wish it?"

"A Jedi!" said Deak. "Yes! It's ... what I've always wanted. I've dreamed about it. Can I, Mom?"

"The choice is for you alone, Deak," said Qui-Gon.

"I want to go," said Deak.

"Then pack your things," said Qui-Gon. "We haven't much time."

"Yippee!" said Deak, and then he started for the other room, and stopped.

Shmi had a hand over her mouth, barely able to remain composed.

"What about Mom? Is she free, too?" said Deak. "You're coming, aren't you, Mom?"

"I tried to free your mother, Dee," said Qui-Gon, "but Watto wouldn't have it."

"Dee, I ... You deserve better than a slave's life," said Shmi. "I love you, Dee ... now hurry."

As Deak ran into the next room, Qui-Gon said, "I will watch after him. You have my word. Will you be all right?"

"Does it matter?" said Shmi.

"I did try," said Qui-Gon.

"I'm sure you did," replied Shmi, turning and walking away.

His few things in a sack, Deak turned to his mother. "I'm going to miss you so much, Mom."

"I love you, Dee," said Shmi. "My love will go with you—always."

For once, Deak did not resist her embrace, but then he broke away. " I.. will become a Jedi and I will come back and free you, Mom," said Deak. "I ... I promise."

Qui-Gon turned, leaving the hovel as Deak started to run to catch up.

"He was in my life for such a short time," said Shmi as the tears finally burst.

Walking down the street together with Deak, Qui-Gon suddenly caught sight of the lurking, shielded droid. Without breaking stride, he ignited his lightsaber, swung around and lunged, slicing the probe droid in half. The probe no longer well-concealed, Qui-Gon knelt and closely examined the sparking and fizzing droid.

"What is it?" asked Deak.

"Probe droid. Very unusual ... not like anything I've seen before," replied Qui-Gon, straightening. "Come on."

With that, he urged Deak to run as he led the way to the waiting spacecraft, Xa'ej and the eopies having departed already. As they reached the open expanse of desert between the edges of the settlement and the Naboo ship, Deak began falling behind Qui-Gon's longer stride.

"Master Qui-Gon, sir, wait!" gasped Deak.

Qui-Gon turned just in time to see the dark-cloaked figure bearing down on them on a speeder bike.

"Deak! Drop!" ordered Qui-Gon.

Deak dropped to the ground just as the dark cloaked figure swept over him, and Darth Iacchus had leapt off his speeder bike. In one swift motion, he had ignited a red-bladed lightsaber, his blow meant to kill as Qui-Gon's green intercepted a hairs' breadth before it was too late. Deak scrambled to his feet, as Darth Iacchus and Qui-Gon continued to fight. A cloud of sand surrounded them as they moved; blurring vision such that only the green and red lights could be seen moving apart and meeting within the cloud.

"Dee, to the ship!" shouted Qui-Gon. "Take off! Go! Go!"

As Darth Iacchus continued his relentless attack, Deak raced onto the ship. Half out of breath, Deak stopped in a hallway where Padmé and Captain Panaka were working on the last touches to the finished repairs.

"Qui-Gon's in trouble. He says to take off," gasped Deak. "Now!"

"Who are you?" asked Captain Panaka.

"A friend," answered Padmé, turning to lead the way into the cockpit, where Ric Olié and Obi-Wan were running some tests on the hyperdrive.

"Qui-Gon is in trouble," repeated Deak. "He says to take off."

"I don't see anything," said Ric.

"Over there," said Obi-Wan, pointing to the cloud of sand and dust. "Fly low."

As the Naboo spacecraft lifted away from the sands, Qui-Gon and Iacchus continued their battle. Leaping over one another, Iacchus attacked as Qui-Gon parried. The ship flew a few feet above the ground over them, and Qui-Gon leapt straight up onto the ramp leading into the ship. Iacchus, not to be outdone, leaped up also, though he had so little room that he stood on his toes as his heels rested on empty space.

Qui-Gon went on the offensive, pushing Iacchus off the ramp to the desert floor some forty feet below. The ramp closed, leaving Darth Iacchus standing alone watching the silvery ship vanish into the sky.

Winded, Qui-Gon remained by the ship's entry, breathing hard. Wet with sweat, a fine crust of sand adhered to his clothes.

"Are you all right?" asked Deak, wide-eyed.

"I think so," replied Qui-Gon. "That was a surprise I won't soon forget."

"Who was it?" said Obi-Wan.

"I don't know ... but he was well-trained in the Jedi arts," said Qui-Gon. "It seems he was after the queen."

"Do you think he'll follow us?" said Deak.

"We'll be safe enough once we're in hyperspace," replied Qui-Gon, "yet I sense he knows our destination already."

"So, what do we do?" said Deak.

"We?" said Obi-Wan, looking at Deak as he tried to figure out who this person was.

"We will be patient," replied Qui-Gon. "Deak, meet Obi-Wan Kenobi."

"Pleased to meet you. Wow!" said Deak. "You're a Jedi, too?"

Obi-Wan looked skeptically at Deak, even as he made his acknowledgment of the introduction as the ship lurched with the leap into hyperspace.

Iacchus stood on the desert floor, watching the winking light of the Naboo spacecraft, knowing there was no chance he could get back to his own ship and into space before the Naboo craft had made its hyperspace jump.

That boy ... they took him, thought Iacchus, feeling the keen disappointment as his potential apprentice evaporated like so much water in this desert, the eddies of the Force which he had felt now stilled as the ship vanished from Tatooine space.

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