Star Wars AU Episode I: The Puppet Master

Chapter 17

Naiia had wakened as the first light began to filter into the holy place of her people.

"Don't touch that!" said Neiira.

Guiltily, Naiia brought her hand down from where she had almost reached to scratch and said, "It itches."

"Of course it does." Neiira walked over to re-apply a glob of glistening goo as she spoke. "Tomorrow it will be better, but you don't have tomorrow to wait."

"You've done well, Swuyswuy," said Boss Nass, coming over to his niece. He stepped back, eyeing the blue pattern tracing down her nose, which curved around her lips to bloom on the right side of her jaw. He nodded with apparent approval. "Come, if you don't eat now, you will be fighting hungry."

Naiia followed toward the tables where the food had been set up. Here and there, Naboo sat uneasily eating the Gungan fare. At one small table, several Gungan leaders were sitting with the Queen of Naboo and one of her handmaidens. Against one tree, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan were deep in conversation, while Deak sat on the ground nearby in a meditation position.

Throughout the large expanse, Gungans were making adjustments to bracelets, counting off energy balls and carefully packing them into their packs. Other Gungans drove the herd of kaadu in from the swamp. Three rather bored Gungans sat surrounded by their packs, drinking from mugs, ignoring the hubbub.

"You! Drink piwony after we've done kicked Federation ass!" The sergeant paused with his cart, staring down the three. With only token protest, two of them dumped the remainder of their mugs, while the third merely set his on the ground behind his pack. One of his companions, however, poked the younger Gungan in the gills, and whatever had been whispered was sufficient enough to get the third mug dumped as well. "Too damn early for that anyways!" He continued on his way, stopping by Naiia. "Ianthe Naiia."

"Hey, Sergeant Merr," said Naiia.

"Here's your kit." The sour-faced Gungan sergeant handed Naiia the shield bracelet, a heavy pack, and a tall staff bearing the emblem of the Gungan 5th Kaadu Corps. "You're to report to General Ceel." He walked away, muttering, "Can't believe that wet ink'cruit's gonna ... Orders is orders, but ..." He continued toward other clusters of preparing Gungans, having no time for actual conversation, but mumbled as he went, pulling various items from the cart he pushed.

Naiia slipped the bracelet on her wrist, and made her way over to the place where the General, Queen, and her handmaiden were conferring with her uncle.

"Hey!" said Naiia, surprised.

Padmé, dressed in the crushed velvet tunic and overcoat of the handmaidens, put a finger over her lips, shaking her head.

"Ah," General Ceel turned, eyeing Naiia. "Go wait over there." He pointed impatiently, and turned back to the table.

As the rose-tint of dawn came over Theed, just as it had done so for thousands of days before this one, quiet reigned. This dawn was no exception, changeless despite the beginning of the Federation occupation.

Where swamp met grasses, small animals crept from cover to the water's edge, as birds swooped through the cloudless sky.

The first ripples of the murky water could be seen only by the ollopom. The swirls grew, scattering the shy creatures of Naboo. Then, the tattooed head of one, ten, then hundreds of Gungans bobbed to the surface, bubbles streaming behind them. Riding kaadu, Gungan cavalry marched from the swamps as the small animals fled and birds took flight.

Walking out of the swamps came hundreds more Gungans, spears in hand. Numbers swelling, the Gungans continued as the fambaa emerged, inert shield generators on their backs.

The whine of insects gave way to the low rumble of tanks and the small hovering craft of individual battle droids. They fanned out from Theed now, still searching for the occupants of the cruiser which had been found the previous evening.

Naiia, sitting on her kaadu behind General Ceel's, felt proud of her people and the banner she held. As far as her eye could see, the grand assemblage of Gungans prepared to fight. Riders had reached the other collections of Gungans, and so now Gungans of all cities had converged on this point, ready to face the Trade Federation as one.

Nute Gunray and Rune Haako trembled before the hologram image of the robed man shimmering before them.

"You have disappointed me, Viceroy," said the man.

"My lord ..." began Nute.

"You defied me," said Lord Sidious. "You did not kill the Jedi."

"We tried," said Nute. "We tried everything ..."

"You did not try hard enough. I shall send my apprentice, Lord Iacchus, to you. He will deal with the Jedi since you cannot," said Lord Sidious. "I hear the Queen has returned to you."

"She ... she landed in the swamp, my lord," stammered Nute. "We sent out patrols and located the ship. It will not be long before we have them in hand."

The robed man was silent for a long moment, and then he said, "How ... unexpected of her. Too aggressive. Be patient. Let them make the first move."

"Yes, my lord," said Nute.

The dark-garbed Zabrak strode into the room, following the yellow-painted battle droid commander.

"Ah, Lord Iacchus," said the robed man in the hologram. "Good. Our young, foolish queen surprises me."

Nute stared in dismay at the newly arrived Sith. He is here to kill me.

"They seem to be gathering at the edge of a swamp," said the droid. "Primitives. We will increase security in the detention camps."

"There is more to this than it seems, Master," said Darth Iacchus. "I sense something ... the Jedi could be using the Queen for their own purposes."

"They cannot interfere," said Lord Sidious. "It's in their ... covenant. We shall work this to our advantage. Lord Iacchus, you are to attend to the Jedi. Do not fail me."

"Yes, Master," replied Darth Iacchus.

"I have your approval to proceed, my lord?" said Nute, twitchily arranging his robes.

"Proceed," whispered Sidious. "Wipe them out, Viceroy. All of them. The Queen is of no more use to us."

The image of Darth Sidious winked out.

As the Naboo divided into two groups, Deak stood to one side confused. Pilots and a dozen other troops joined with Captain Panaka, Padmé, Eirtaé and the Jedi, with the remainder of the troops, Rabé, Dormé, and the Queen in the other. Gungans had lined up, moving off in their ranks, but Deak was sure he wasn't meant to be with them.

"Master Qui-Gon?" he said. "What about me?"

"Just come with me, Dee," replied Qui-Gon. "Stay close to me, and you'll be safe."

Safe? That's not what I wanted. Still, I guess I'll be close enough to the action, thought Deak.

There was little time for further contemplation, as the Naboo gathered on a handful of speeders taken from garages that had been abandoned when the Federation had rounded up Naboo for the camps. With no opposition on their path, they sped toward Theed. While many of the battle droids had been sent out to join the ranks facing the Gungan ranks, there were still quite a few marching in front of the entry to the hangar, and the plaza remained full of battle droids and tanks.

Ric Olié said, "Looks like they've increased the security around the hangar."

"That won't be a problem," stated Qui-Gon.

Deak looked at the small number of people in his group. Sure, everyone else has weapons, but there's not that many of us. How are we going to win? What am I going to do?

Qui-Gon crouched near Deak, and said, "Dee, once we're inside, find a safe place and stay there until it's over."

"Sure," answered Deak sullenly.

Captain Panaka signaled his group into motion. Several of his fighters with the Queen, Dormé, and Rabé moved carefully away from the rest of the group, getting into a position from which they could fire upon battle droids and clear a path to the hangar door.

A flash of light came from Captain Panaka. An answering flash from Padmé. In both groups, blasters were unholstered. Then Captain Panaka's group opened fire. Unsuspecting battle droids fell quickly into heaps of shattered metal. Other droids turned and began returning fire, drawing the conflict and the battle droids away from the hangar door.

"Let's go!" said Padmé.

"Stay close," Qui-Gon told Deak.

With that, Jedi, Padmé, Eirtaé, and several soldiers and a dozen pilots raced across to the open-and now unguarded-hangar door. It took little time for a klaxon to begin wailing in the distance-whether from the fight outside or their own, it was hard to say. Battle droids had been stationed inside the hangar, guarding the remaining spacecraft. With lightsaber and blaster, the battle droids were cut apart. One yellow-painted droid called for help to come into the hangar, but no additional droids were forthcoming from the plaza, where laser fire still echoed.

Nute Gunray and Rune Haako stood by the window in the palace throne room, silently wishing that the heavily tattooed Zabrak were elsewhere-somewhere far, far away from this throne room.

All the better to make sure any ... failures ... are promptly reported, thought Nute uneasily.

As the klaxons began to wail and the sound of combat rose from the plaza, Rune turned to Nute. "How did they get into the city?" he whispered.

"I don't know." Nute was miserable, sure that some dire punishment would be in store for him as a result of this. "I thought ... massing by the swamps, the battles would be far from here."

Darth Iacchus, bearing a particularly long-handled lightsaber, strode behind them. Moving silently, the depths of malevolence roiled like a humid breeze of summer, drawing the attention of the two Nemoidians. Uneasily, they turned toward him, instinctively backing away toward the window.

"Lord Iacchus." Nute inclined his head in greeting, managing to keep his voice level.

"I told you," said Iacchus with a snort. "More to this than you thought! Jedi have come here for a reason." His eyes glittered, a wild mania held within their yellow depths. "They think they have a plan to defeat us, Viceroy."

"A plan?" squeaked Nute.

"One which will fail." Iacchus grinned, exposing the wickedly pointed teeth, an expression which did nothing to ease the terror which his appearance instilled. "I assure you of that. The Jedi have come to Theed to die."

He stood in front of the two Nemoidians, smiling as his hands caressed his weapon. Without thinking, the pair shifted a half-pace further from the Zabrak.

"Wait here for my return," he ordered. With a sweep of flowing black clothes, he turned and walked away.

"Where are you going?" asked Nute, terrified.

"Where do you think I'm going, Viceroy?" sneered Iacchus. "I've told you already. To the hangar to take care of your mistakes."

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