Star Wars AU Episode I: The Puppet Master

Chapter 16

The cockpit was uncrowded, even as Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan stood beside Captain Panaka, watching as the ship dropped from hyperspace. The choking cloud of Federation battleships was gone as they approached the lush blue-green planet of Naboo. Through the window, a lone ship was visible in orbit.

"At least we won't have to run the blockade again," said Captain Panaka.

Obi-Wan shook his head. "That just means we'll find it on the surface."

"Still got to get by that one," said Ric, pointing to the ship.

"That would be the droid control ship," said Obi-Wan.

"They probably spotted us," stated Ric. "And we can't do much about it, not in this ship."

"If they did, we won't have much time to evade them," said Captain Panaka. "I will let the Queen know we've arrived."

"Set down there," said Obi-Wan, pointing to a location on the map. "That looks like about where we first arrived."

"What good will that do?" said Ric.

"Puts us close to that Gungan city," replied Obi-Wan. "I believe the Queen wants us to go there."

"It's dangerous," said Captain Panaka. "I don't like it."

"You can always explain why you chose somewhere else," retorted Obi-Wan.

With an exasperated huff, Captain Panaka left the cockpit.

The ship set down on the edge of the ground near the swamp lands. The Queen, her four handmaidens, Captain Panaka, the other troops, and the Jedi, Naiia, and Deak all prepared to disembark.

"I don't like this, madam. The risks--" said Captain Panaka. I wish she hadn't overruled me. She's too valuable. This is exactly why I wanted her to have a decoy in the first place!

"Your objections have been duly noted," replied Queen Amidala. "I realize this decision will change everything for Naboo. We are a peaceful people, and I wish more than anything that it had not come to this. But sometimes, there is no choice. We will fight to regain the freedom of Naboo because that is something worth fighting for."

"There's going to be a battle?" said Deak, excitedly.

"Yes," said Queen Amidala, "I'm afraid so."

The ramp lowered. Captain Panaka led the way off the ship, looking about warily.

"Too quiet," said Naiia.

Qui-Gon nodded. "The droids were terribly efficient."

Naiia bounded ahead and into the water, preparing to dive toward her city.

"We will not be able to get under water so easily," said Queen Amidala.

"I know," said Naiia, eyeing the others' dress. "I'll go down and talk to Uncle Rugor."

Taking a running leap, Naiia bounded across the poms.

"I hope this works," said Captain Panaka, watching Naiia leap upward and somersault, before diving beneath the surface.

Naiia swam toward her city, a prickle of fear taking her as she sensed something terribly amiss. As she came closer, she realized the cause of her dread--the darkness of the city. Welcoming lights which should have proclaimed home, absent.

Laa swam unfettered about her as she reached the bubble which surrounded Otoh Gunga, and then made her way inside.

Finally able to see in the vastly diminished light, Naiia saw that the corner of one building had been sheared away. Remaining blast marks on the wall told the tale of a terrible fight. Racing down the street, she hurried to her home.

"Dad! Mom!" she called as she reached the house, finding the door ajar. She stepped into the darkened home. "Dad? Mom? Aetos? Melia?"

"Anybody here?" Naiia ran from one room to the next, flinging doors open-not sure if she wanted to find her parents and younger siblings here or not. One room after another, empty.

Relief and fear mingled with one another. My family is not dead ... but where are they? Where is everyone? The silence was beginning to wear terribly on her nerves, and she ran from her house to the high board room.

Empty! Never! thought Naiia, stunned. "Where'd they go?" She walked up to the seat where her uncle normally would have been, and sat down.

'What would I do if I was Boss?' thought Naiia. She sat at her uncle's place, closing her eyes until she could almost imagine hearing his voice again.

"Of course!" she cried, as her eyes snapped open once more. She bolted from the seat. Naiia ran back down, finding the docks where the bongos had been. They're gone. Naiia stared blankly at the emptiness of them.

Naiia ran again, finding street after street silent and empty. More blast marks scarred the walls, and in one place, a thin metallic arm was wedged in a crack. Never had cracks in the streets before, thought Naiia. Abruptly, she sat on the edge of this new fissure surrounded by emptiness, and wept, hugging herself. They came here ... they came for my people, too. We're lost ... what am I going to tell them?

As she sat, staring into the emptiness, she remembered her pride, telling the Queen of Naboo, We wouldn't just let some army come marching in and take over without a fight. We got our own army, and we'd fight them. She glanced up at the scarred walls. We did fight them. And lost ... Now what?

Naiia trudged back to the point of her entry, and began a slow swim back to the people she had left in the swamp above. I gotta think of something.

Naiia surfaced with a small splash and walked out of the water, shaking her head.

"What is it?" asked Qui-Gon.

"They're all gone!" said Naiia. "Everybody. I couldn't talk to nobody. There was some kinda fight, looks like. They broke some of the houses, and ... Otoh Gunga is empty. All empty. I never seen ..."

Captain Panaka interrupted, "Would they be taken to the camps?"

"They were probably all killed," said Obi-Wan, looking thoroughly disgusted by his own words.

"No," said Naiia. If you do this, Swuyswuy you will be. I am Swuyswuy. I don't have my tattoo, but I am Swuyswuy. "No," she repeated, more confidently. "Gungans are too smart for that. All the bongos are gone, too. No, I think ... I think, they went into hiding. When there's trouble, there's a sacred place we'd go ... We'll find them there."

"All right, Naiia," Qui-Gon put a hand on her shoulder. "This sacred place, can you take us there?"

Naiia bit her lip, looking at the group. "Never had Naboo in our sacred place before."

"Ianthe Naiia," said Queen Amidala. "Nothing has changed but the place."

Naiia blinked, and said, "I warn you, they won't be happy to see you. Especially there."

"I understand," replied Queen Amidala.

In the distance, a whine of mechanical searchers rose above the stillness of the swamp.

"There is little time," said Qui-Gon.

"All right," said Naiia, and she took another look at the group, shook her head, and turned.

Beckoning the others to follow, Naiia set off along the edge of the swamp.

"Madam, are you sure she can be trusted?" said Sabé.

"Absolutely," replied Queen Amidala, carefully picking her footing as she moved across the swamp behind Naiia.

The sun had risen to near noonday height when Naiia reached a stand of trees, its gnarled roots digging deep into the swamp water.

"We continue through here," she said, turning back to them, her face drawn with worry.

"We can manage," said Qui-Gon, as though the whine of the hovering craft of the battle droids were growing ever louder, warning of a near-discovery. "Keep going, Naiia."

They continued across the roots of the trees, finally reaching a field of marshy grass. On all sides, save the narrow path which had brought them here, the tree roots twisting upward to create an impenetrable wall.

Naiia looked nervous, but she paused, and said, "This is it."

"It's a dead end!" accused Eirtaé. "You must've made a mistake!"

Naiia shook her head vigorously, and burst into a trill of notes.

As the last of Naiia's notes faded into silence, the group stood uneasily, shifting from foot to foot as a gloomy haze descended on the clearing. Moments passed, and then a slight rustle was heard.

Captain Tarpals, accompanied by a dozen Gungans armed with spears, emerged into the clearing through the haze.

"What's this!" he exclaimed. "Ianthe Naiia! And outlanders? Not again!"

"We've come to see the Boss," said Naiia. "My uncle's gonna want to hear this."

"No," said Captain Tarpals.

"I am Swuyswuy," declared Naiia. "You will take us to the Boss."

Captain Tarpals greeted that statement with a roll of his eyes. "We take weapons first," he said, finally. "All of them."

Captain Panaka sputtered, "That's...!"

"Our word is sufficient," said Qui-Gon, his tone low, gesture hidden within his travel cloak. "We come in peace, and promise not to disturb the harmony of your sacred ground."

"A promise is enough," said Captain Tarpals. "You come in peace, promise no troubles, no fighting."

"Yes, that is what we promise," replied Captain Panaka, startled. I'm not going to ask why. Just be grateful these barbarians have a little decency.

"This way," said Captain Tarpals, as the accompanying Gungans moved to surround the Jedi, Deak, and the Naboo.

Unlike Naiia, Captain Tarpals led across the swamp and the gnarled roots with little concern for how the humans were faring. As they continued through the swamp trees, the canopy grew ever denser, as if they were inside a building.

Half-crumbled forgotten gods lay on the ground. Here and there, only a platform remained behind. Vines draped from the trees, wrapping around stones, forming a living wall around them. The sound of insects and the mournful call of a peko peko could be heard as they progressed even deeper. Finally, they came into a place where a large number of Gungans were located-clearly refugees, as there were elderly and children present along with the hearty adults.

Reaching what had once undoubtedly been a grand temple, Captain Tarpals led the group over broken stones, their passage marked by exclamations of alarm from a number of the Gungans.

At the far end, the temple's natural decay resolved into a network of swamps and streams, with islands of stone poking up here and there. Upon the largest of these islands, Nass Rugor sat, surrounded by his council and more armed Gungans.

"Ianthe Naiia!" rumbled Boss Nass. "You were supposed to take these outlanders away! What do you mean by this, bringing even more! And to our sacred place! Who are these people?"

"I am Amidala, Queen of the Naboo," she replied, stepping forward.

"Naboo!" Boss Nass's face began to color unpleasantly, as he thundered. "We don't like the Naboo. We don't want the Naboo in our sacred place! Our troubles are your fault! The machines that came to destroy our homes, to drive us out--was because of you!"

More of the adult Gungans, all armed, had moved around the edges of the clearing where the humans now stood with Naiia.

"Our people have not always had the best of relations," said Queen Amidala, "but we are two great societies suffering from the same threat. The Trade Federation, with its droids and tanks, has destroyed too much already. I come to you today, seeking alliance."

"We won't form an alliance with the Naboo," declared Boss Nass, though his skin was losing the angry puce color, returning to its usual green, his tattoos standing out in sharp relief.

"Your Honor," said Queen Amidala. "My people are in camps, yours are in hiding. If we do not act quickly, and act together, we will lose both forever. I implore you to help us, Your Honor. Help us while we still have time." She dropped to one knee, and added, "We are your servants." She gestured to the others in her group.

The Naboo looked from one to the other, and then at their queen. One by one, they too knelt on the swampy ground. The Jedi, likewise, joined in the gesture, Qui-Gon motioning to Deak to do likewise.

"Our fate is in your hands, Your Honor," said Queen Amidala.

Uncomfortable silence stretched out, broken only by the whine of distant insects.

"Perhaps we can be friends," replied Boss Nass, moving down from his seat and across the swamp water toward Queen Amidala. "And send the machines away for good, no?" He stopped in front of the queen, extending a hand. "We talk more now."

"Thank you, Your Honor," replied Queen Amidala, rising to her feet.

"It was two days ago," he said, "those machines, they come to Otoh Gunga. Driving us out, and we heard nothing from other Gungan cities. If the same in other cities, they will come here, too."

"The other cities are further?" asked Queen Amidala. "We may not have the time to wait for them to arrive."

"I think they can't find us here," said Boss Nass.

"You didn't think they'd find Otoh Gunga, neither," said Naiia.

"Ianthe Naiia!" said Boss Nass. "Go, child, this is for adults."

"I am Swuyswuy," declared Naiia. "You said yourself, if I got them to Theed ..."

"Then see Neiira!" barked Boss Nass. "You still look like a child."

"Yes, Uncle Rugor," said Naiia with a toothy grin before she turned and left the gathering.

"She is right. We need to plan and begin moving. The Federation may have found my ship where we left it, and they will search the surrounding area for us. We need to move before they realize what we have planned." Queen Amidala paused pensively, then she turned. "Master Qui-Gon?"

"Yes, madam?"

"You have that dejarik game," said Queen Amidala. "Did you bring the board with you from the ship?"

"I did," he replied, bringing it out of his robe.

"Captain Panaka," said Queen Amidala. "I want you to go and find as many as you can of our people who can help in this matter."

"Yes, madam," replied Captain Panaka, and he moved away toward Captain Tarpals.

The two captains-Naboo and Gungan-conferred for a short time before Captain Tarpals led Captain Panaka away from the gathering.

"Make food for our guests," ordered Boss Nass, and then he gestured for his leaders to join him, as he and Queen Amidala began to make their plans, moving pieces about on the dejarik board.

Ascalm settled over the encampment once more, Qui-Gon took Deak aside, continuing his education in the way of Jedi meditations. Gungans continued their patrols of the perimeter, while others engaged in active drills.

As the sunset, one of the Gungans from a treetop said, "Naboo approaching."

Shortly thereafter, Captain Panaka, accompanied by several dozen uniformed Naboo, returned to the encampment with Captain Tarpals leading the way.

Looking weary, Captain Panaka made his way to Queen Amidala.

"I do not believe we were seen, madam," he said, brushing debris from his clothing.

"What is our situation?" asked Queen Amidala.

"Most of our people are in detention camps," said Captain Panaka. "There's a small resistance, but they have been able to accomplish little. I have brought as many as I could with me here." He gestured to the soldiers and pilots who had followed him.

"Good," said Queen Amidala. "We will need them."

"The Federation army is much larger and stronger than we thought, madam," said Captain Panaka, with a shake of his head. "We cannot win this battle."

"We can win," rumbled Boss Nass. "We have a very large army, too."

"The battle will be mostly a diversion," said Queen Amidala. "We will need to get our pilots in the air to take down the ship that controls the droids. And to draw the droids away from Theed-the Gungans will begin a battle on the plains and bring them into the swamps. But our true goal is to capture the viceroy. Cut the head, the rest of the Federation will topple." Seeing Qui-Gon standing close by, she said, "Don't you agree, Master Jedi?"

"It would seem the best possible move," said Qui-Gon. "Madam, I cannot deny that there will be great risk. Many may lose their lives, and the viceroy will undoubtedly be well-guarded, even if the majority of the droids are drawn away."

Boss Nass snorted, and said, "We are ready to fight."

"Without the control ship, the droids will be unable to function at all," said Queen Amidala.

Obi-Wan said, "But if the viceroy escapes, it will only be a temporary ..."

"That is why we must not fail," replied Queen Amidala. "Everything depends on this point. Without the viceroy, the Federation collapses."

"You come, we talk more on this," said Boss Nass, gesturing to the dejarik table where his generals were standing about. "We have much planning to finish."

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