Star Wars AU Episode I: The Puppet Master

Chapter 18

Fambaa, driven by infantry prodding the beasts, lumbered from the swamp, huge generators strapped to their wide backs. As they passed from swamp to plains, the ground beneath them gave a tremor. At last, all the fambaa reached their designated positions.

"Now," said General Ceel.

Enea, sitting on a kaadu to the General's left, lifted the long, curved battle horn and blew a short and then a long note. The horns of other Gungans in the distance echoed in reply. The long sound of the battle horn was joined by the hum of the engines. Pulses of light flashed, arcing upwards and outwards, meeting the flashes of light from the other fambaa. The light wavered from red to gold, then to a shimmering translucence.

The droid commander, after a long relay from palace window to command ship to OOM-9, gave a signal and the tanks opened fire at the ranks of Gungans. Round after round of searing laser struck the liquid energy enfolding the Gungan troops with flashes of light and thundering booms.

The laser fire against the shields was blinding and the absorption near deafening, but still, General Ceel sat firm. With a downsweep of his arm, another note played on the battle horns, echoing across the ranks of Gungans. Naiia flinched from the attacks striking the shields in front of her, but held firm to her position.

At General Ceel's command, loaded with vast blue energy balls-two feet in diameter and requiring two Gungans to position them into the catapult-fired. Unlike the bright reds and greens of laser fire that crashed ineffectually against the Gungan shields, the blue payload flew from the catapult and across the ridge. The balls easily passed through the shield, and bypassing the massive frontal armoring, struck the top of one tank.

The tank was instantaneously engulfed in a nimbus of wildly arcing electricity, as lances of lightning flew from the machine in all directions. Clangs within the vast vehicle sounded and the nose of the tank struck ground.

Within the shields, the Gungans raised their spears and cheered.

Maybe we're not gonna all die after all, thought Naiia as she watched the exchange of fire stop against the shields. Catapult projectiles splashed the ground between shields and machinery. Some of the attacks struck and seemed to disable the tanks. One large energy ball remaining on the ground in front of the tanks, still intact. Others had gone further yet, one seemed to have struck a large snub-nosed machine at the rear without apparent effect. More tanks had been maneuvering in an effort to evade the Gungan catapults, but several had been hit.

Then Federation guns went still. As the vast machinery which had not been disabled was moved to the rear, Gungans cheered again.

The Federation was not prepared to surrender yet, however. Massive transports rumbled to the front of the Federation's line. Round doors opened from the nose of the craft, and rails moved row upon row of battle droids.

"What's this?" said General Ceel worriedly, as rows of battle droids were deposited on the ground in front of the transports.

"It's ok," said Naiia. "The Jedi wouldn't think we're in trouble yet." She gripped the staff of her pennant more tightly. I hope they'd think this isn't trouble.

In unison, the vast ranks of battle droids unfolded. As one, they stood and readied the blasters with which they had been packed. Commands relayed across arcs from Nute to Daultay and then from OOM-9 to the droids.

Forward marched the battle droids in ranks as deep and wide as the ranks of the Gungans. As the transports continued to spit out more and more droids, Naiia began to wonder if they were, in fact, out-numbered.

What happens if the shield falls? Then we're in trouble. Even Qui-Gon would think so, thought Naiia.

Amidst the wailing alarms, brilliant bursts of laser fire struck around the hangar as the Naboo, the Jedi, and Deak, trailed by R2-D2 rushed in from the street. More battle droids fell, by blaster or lightsaber. Others retreated, pursued by the Naboo and Jedi.

"Get safe, Dee," said Qui-Gon as he continued in pursuit of the battle droids.

Deak climbed into one of the waiting fighters, peering over the back edge at the continuing fight. The Naboo seemed to have had considerable training with the blasters they carried, and for the moment it looked as though they were in complete control of the situation.

"Into your ships!" came the yell. Deak thought that was Padmé's voice, but there was so much noise that it was hard for him to be absolutely certain.

Pilots fell from the main body, activating other R2 units in the storage. Dodging blaster fire, they clambered aboard the starships, pilots and R2 units moving to where they needed to be. Deak crouched low into the shadows beneath the instrument panel of the ship he was in.

The engines roared to life, momentarily drowning out the sound of the battle around them. One fighter, then another, lifted away and soared into the blue sky beyond.

"R2 unit, power up and arm all weapons," ordered a pilot about to enter the craft in which Deak crouched. Before she could reach the cockpit, a burst of laser fire struck her, knocking her backwards. Deak did not dare peek to see if she had survived or not.

One more ship, and it sailed away into Naboo's blue sky. The last craft save for the one in which Deak now hid moved away from its mooring as three droidekas entered the hangar. Unfolding quickly, they fired upon the unshielded rear of the ship. Just short of the horizon, the craft exploded into an orange inferno.

Eerie silence was broken only the crackle of the fire. Deak could hear the sound of droidekas re-folding and rolling away.

Away! No, that means they're after Qui-Gon and Padmé!

The Naboo fighters soared across the blue skies of Naboo.

"Bravo Leader, all units report."

In order, the crew responded, sending in confirmation of readiness. Yet there were gaps in the replies, telling of the failures to escape the hangar.

"Niner?" came Ric Olié's voice. No reply ensued. "Eleven?" Silence.

The nine craft continued across the blue skies of Naboo, not yet making for space. Instead, far from Theed, they set down at the edge of a swamp.

"We don't have much time," said Ric Olié, clambering down from his fighter.

"We work fast," replied the Gungan awaiting them. "You will see."

Twenty Gungans swarmed around the fighters, quickly taking torpedoes, removing the conventional charge and replacing it with a similar-sized ball of blue goo.

"Hope this works," muttered Ric.

"It will open the nyork shell of that ship," said one of the Gungan workers. "Better than these." He gestured at the pile of charges that had been removed.

"Hope you're right," said Ric. "All right, Bravo Squad-we're off."

The Gungans retreated into the water as the Naboo craft launched away, incinerating the grasses at the edge of the swamp. As the last ship set off, the piled charges were enveloped by flames. The concussion shook the last fighter, and a vast steam arose as water forced upward from the swamp extinguished the fire.

The battle in the plaza, intended as a diversion, ended as Captain Panaka and his group rejoined the others.

"Ships are away," said Padmé.

A hurried conference between the Jedi, Captain Panaka, and Padmé followed. They moved quickly toward the exits which would lead them into the palace.

The door opened before their group arrived. Like an uncoiling cobra, the black garbed Darth Iacchus stepped into the doorway. He said nothing, merely smiled with glittering sharp teeth, holding his lightsaber in hand.

Warily, Captain Panaka gestured for the Naboo with him to retreat. Perhaps not a moment too soon, for they now found themselves in the vise-three droidekas wheeled in behind them with the menacing man in black before them. They unfolded and began to fire, downing two soldiers.

Unmoved by what lay behind them, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan moved toward the horned man. As one, the three dropped encumbering cloaks. Green. Blue. Red. Darth Iacchus brought out his lightsaber, and now revealed the reason for the hilt's unusual length as it sprouted shimmering red blades from both ends.

Lightsabers struck one another with lunges and parries in their attacks. As the formal combat of skill continued away from the door to the palace, the droidekas fired again, downing another man and striking the Queen in her shoulder. Seeking cover, the rest of the group began firing back at the droidekas.

"I'm going to help!" said Deak, watching over the back of the cockpit.

The nose was pointing away, and Deak looked for the targeting switch for the torpedoes. The ship shuddered suddenly as the cockpit hood slid shut over him. He fell into the pilot's seat from the motion. Deak reached for the bars to steer, and tried hard not to think about the unnaturally crumpled position of the person that had been trying to enter the ship only a few moments before. Another man went down, and Deak frantically tried to remember everything he had ever learned about such craft.

Exactly nothing. I'll just look for what I don't recognize. Finding a bank of such unfamiliar buttons, Deak pushed one, and the nose laser fired, ripping into a destroyer droid. Attacks from Naboo had finally taken its toll on the second, and two of the wheeled monstrosities went down.

Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan continued to fight the dark-clothed man, the scream of blades crossing added to the din of laser fire and alarms.

Taking advantage of the distraction, the Naboo hurried through the door and away from the hangar. Deak could only guess that they were continuing to the palace, for they were quickly out of sight. The Jedi seemed to possess a very slight moment of advantage as they pressed their foe into another hallway and vanished from Deak's sight.

"Good luck," whispered Deak. "We're all gonna need it."

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