Star Wars AU Episode I: The Puppet Master

Chapter 3

The scarlet Radiant VII made her way through space smoothly, so not even a ripple formed on the top of the tea in the cup before Qui-Gon Jinn as he sat at the table in the diplomatic salon. His fingers steepled as he looked into the cup. The room was simple, far simpler than the chamber in which he had met with Supreme Chancellor Finis Valorum.

Thick, imported tapestries with abstract geometric designs lined the walls, dampening sound such that even the slightest sound wave did not carry beyond the walls of the room, any efforts at prying further stymied as the chamber was swept on an hourly basis as well as before all meetings for the presence of listening devices. Qui-Gon hid his surprise behind a carefully schooled serenity as he followed the luxury droid, for this was the sort of room to be used for only the most delicate and secret of matters.

A luxury droid! After that recent scandal, the Chancellor should be more concerned about appearances—such a thing as this won't help him, thought Qui-Gon, his face revealing nothing of these thoughts.

The chancellor's face was lined with concern as the droid brought both men goblets filled with a ruby-hued wine while they exchanged pleasantries. Despite the trappings of success all around him, it had been a difficult year for the Chancellor who seemed to bear a significant unseen weight upon his shoulders.

"I have received a plea from Naboo regarding the Trade Federation's actions," said Finis, setting aside his goblet as sign that pleasantries had run their course and he was now at the heart of the matter. He reached to one side, pressing a button, and a hologram sprang to life.

Wearing stiff garments and an elaborate headdress, a young woman now stood in miniaturized form before the Supreme Chancellor and Qui-Gon Jinn, seeming not to move at all as she spoke.

"Chancellor, the situation on Naboo is grave. Our people are suffering—dying—as the Trade Federation prevents trade from reaching our planet. You must force the Trade Federation to end this blockade. I hold you responsible for the failure of the Senate to act, Chancellor. Every day you delay, you are taking bread from the mouths of our children," pleaded the message of the recorded hologram.

Finis hit the button again, and the image winked out of existence, and he said, "Were it a simple matter of the blockade, their situation would not be so dire, but it seems that the crops were struck by Rust Disease, and imported food was to make up the shortfall. The problem is this, the Trade Federation has stayed just inside the laws of our Republic—they push the very limits, but have not yet crossed the line. While their ships remain in place, we have a fait accompliwhile sufficient momentum in the Senate has not yet gathered to change the situation. Few consider the troubles of one Outer Rim world significant, yet ..." Finis paused, sipping the wine, and concluded, "I would ask of you that you travel to Naboo."

"I will need the approval ..." began Qui-Gon.

"Master Gallia has already consented," replied Finis, "and in fact it was she who suggested that you and your padawan would be well-suited to handle such a matter."

"I see," replied Qui-Gon.

"The Trade Federation must remove its blockade of Naboo," said Finis. "After that, I can call a special session of the Senate and the matter will be dealt with while the people of Naboo are no longer suffering."

The silver protocol droid entered the room, interrupting Qui-Gon's thoughts.

"We have entered the Chommell Sector, sir," said the droid.

"Thank you," acknowledged Qui-Gon. "Please inform the captain that the Federation is not to delay our boarding, though they may attempt to do so."

"Very well, sir," replied the droid, with one message delivered and another received, departed.

"How do you think the Federation will respond to the Chancellor's demands?" asked Obi-Wan.

"They are cowards by nature," said Qui-Gon, lifting his cup, examining the leaves within. "The negotiations will be short."

Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan donned dark travel cloaks over their white Jedi robes in preparation for boarding the Trade Federation's ship for the negotiations.

The behemoth of the Saak'ak had come into view as Obi-Wan followed Qui-Gon onto the bridge of the ship.

Under the direction of the captain, the pilot maneuvered into position as the two Jedi came to stand beside the captain on the shadowy bridge of the Radiant VII.

A viewscreen flickered into life, the green-gray face of Nute Gunray coming into focus, filling the small screen.

"Captain," said Nute, his tone seeming to exude a greasy ooze, "to what might I owe this unexpected pleasure?"

"Viceroy, the ambassador for the Supreme Chancellor requests a meeting with you," replied the captain.

"Of course, I should be delighted to welcome the ambassador," replied Nute. "I am afraid, however, that we will be unable to accommodate his Excellency at this time."

The slight clipping of her words was the only betrayal of the captain's annoyance as she replied, "With all due respect for the Trade Federation, the Ambassador for the Supreme Chancellor wishes to board immediately."

Nute's face was inscrutable through the screen as he replied, "Yes, yes, of course. Ah, we'd be happy to receive the Ambassador ..." His tone gave lie to his words as he repeated, "Happy to."

With that, the screen went black.

"Thank you, captain," said Qui-Gon.

"They've opened the docking bay for us," said the pilot, beginning to maneuver into place.

The Radiant VII made its way in, docking within the enormous main bay of the Saak'ak. Another protocol droid stood at the ready, waiting for the disembarking passengers of the Radiant VII. Around the bay, various orange and silver worker droids were busy about their tasks.

The door slid open, and Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, hooded by their travel cloaks, stepped out of the cruiser.

"Greetings, sirs," said the protocol droid, "I am TC-14 at your service. This way, if you please."

Without speaking, Qui-Gon nodded and moved to follow the droid, Obi-Wan following just behind and to the right of his master. Behind them, the cruiser's door slid shut once more. The silver droid led the two men down a hallway and with a wave of the droid's hand before a sensor, a door slid open, and TC-14 led them into the formal conference room.

The room was simple in its elegance—a round table dominated the room with several upholstered chairs around the table. Green plants were about the walls, and a few birds moved from one to another, singing.

"I hope you honored sirs will be most comfortable here," said TC-14. "My master will be with you shortly. I shall bring you drinks."

The droid bowed, and departed the room. Qui-Gon lowered the hood of his robe, looking out through the window at the blue-green planet of Naboo.

Obi-Wan likewise lowered his hood, moving to the window beside Qui-Gon as he said, "I have a bad feeling about this."

"About the mission?" inquired Qui-Gon.

"Not exactly," replied Obi-Wan. "It's ... something just out of sight, a shadow, like smoke ... elusive."

"You can spend a lifetime chasing the shadows and smoke, Obi-Wan," said Qui-Gon. "Keep your attention focused on what is here and now, not on the anxieties of what may be."

The silver protocol droid had move directly to the bridge to inform the viceroy that the ambassadors had arrived.

"The Ambassadors are Jedi Knights, I believe," said TC-14. "They await you in the conference room."

Captain Daultay Dofine swiveled to look at the droid at these words. Nute Gunray himself was visibly disturbed.

"What?! What did you say?" said Nute.

Failing to comprehend tone, TC-14 repeated, "The Ambassadors are Jedi Knights, I believe. They await you in the conference room." With that, the droid departed, intent on getting the promised drinks for the Jedi.

"They've been sent to force a settlement," said Daultay, clearly distraught. "We're done for! I knew it!"

"Stay calm," said Nute, whose demeanor did not match his words as he moved to the communication chair. "I'll wager the Senate doesn't know what the Chancellor is up to here."

Like a macabre Cheshire cat, the image of a sparkling black hood which meshed imperceptibly with the black background, only chin and mouth distinct, popped into existence before Nute as Rune Haako and Daultay came to flank him.

"Has the Queen contacted you?" he said.

"Not yet. My lord, we have visitors," said Nute. "The chancellor has sent ambassadors, and we could not delay their boarding any longer."

"Lord Sidious," said Daultay, "we are finished! We cannot go against Jedi!"

"I am amused." The robed man chuckled, though the sound spoke not of amusement but a concealed anger. "Viceroy!"

"Yes, my lord," said Nute, tremulously.

"Keep that stunted barve out of my sight." said the robed man, his tone a low menace promising far worse. "Understand?"

"Yes, my lord," said Nute, and he made a shooing motion at Daultay.

Daultay was all too happy to depart the presence of even the image of the man, evidenced by the speed of his movement.

"This turns of events is unfortunate. We must accelerate our plans, Viceroy," said the robed man, as Nute felt himself almost envying Daultay's freedom from the presence of this man. "Begin landing your troops at once."

"Ah ... my lord ... is that ... legal?" inquired Nute, edgily.

"I shall make it so," replied the robed man.

"And the Jedi?"

"Kill them," said the robed man negligently. Damn Valorum! He shouldn't have meddled.

"Yes, my lord," replied Nute.

With that, the image of the robed man winked out.

Minutes ticked by, neither droid nor Nute Gunray had entered the conference room since the two had been ushered there.

Obi-Wan said, "Is such a wait usual?"

"No," replied Qui-Gon, frowning, his nose up as though sniffing emotions. "Such a petty matter ... there is ... inordinate fear here."

TC-14 returned to the room bearing a tray of refreshments as Qui-Gon winced.

For, at that moment in the docking bay, a gun had swiveled and scored a direct hit on the unshielded Radiant VII, turning the cruiser into a fireball, those within the cockpit seeing incoming doom with enough time to feel terror but not enough to change their fate. Immediately afterwards, the worker droids watered the debris to cool it, cleaning away all traces of the ship once it no longer smoked.

"Sorry, sirs. The Viceroy..." began TC-14, continuing toward Qui-Gon with its tray.

Suddenly silenced mid-song, the birds dropped from their faux branches.

Qui-Gon jumped to his feet, knocking against the droid's tray. "Gas," said Qui-Gon, and he took a deep breath.

"Sir?" said TC-14. "Do you not like ..."

Obi-Wan followed his master's example, thankful that he had at least learned the rudiments of breath control already. The room filled with a bilious green gas. Battle droids, weapons at the ready, thronged in the hall as the door slid open, the bilious gas all that could be seen within the room.

Unprepared for such an undiplomatic situation, TC-14 stepped from the room and said, "Oh, excuse me, so sorry," then hastened away from the conference room, empty tray still in hand.

Another hiss, a hum, through the now-dissipating fog, the flashes of light—green and blue cleaved the first row of battle droids as Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan emerged into the space they had carved for themselves in the hallway.

One battle droid, marked with the colors which indicated his more complex programming was apparently mid-report as he said, "...not sure where ..."

OWO-1 never got to finish his statement as Qui-Gon's lightsaber cut him in half while several alarms began blaring through the ship.

"To the bridge," said Qui-Gon, surveying a hallway filled with the smoking and sparking remnants of the group of battle droids.

"Yes, Master," replied Obi-Wan, and he followed along.

Metallic feet tramped amidst the blare of warning alarms. Battle droids clogged the path from intersecting hallways at every turn. Deflecting blasts back into the droids, cutting through others, the Jedi pressed toward the bridge. On occasion, reducing the numbers by simply shoving the droids into the walls with a seemingly casual wave of the hand, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan continued along the hallway, intent on reaching the bridge. Almost to their goal, sparks showered around the hallway from severed droid parts as the bridge doors slammed shut, and a second door could be heard scraping closed behind it.

Qui-Gon began cutting through the door with his lightsaber, metal glowing red then white, turning like water, melting away. As it separated to leave a central hole in these shielding doors, the molten metal solidified slightly to clang against the metal floor.

Suddenly, Obi-Wan turned as two wheeled droids, at a near-impossible pace came rolling down the hallway behind them.

"Master! Destroyer droids!" he warned.

Qui-Gon turned as the droidekas took on the tripodal form and began blasting at the two Jedi.

Ably deflecting the blasts with their lightsabers, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan began making their way down the hall as more wheeled droids approached from yet another hallway, forcing the Jedi back-to-back to deal with the attacks from both directions.

"These have shield generators!" said Obi-Wan, seeing a reflected bolt dissipate against an otherwise invisible wall.

"It's a stand-off," said Qui-Gon, "let's go!" We don't have time for this.

The ventilation shaft muffled the blaring klaxons as the two Jedi made their way along it. Finally, reaching an area not yet on the alert, Qui-Gon opened the way into the room as he drew up the hood of his cloak, standing in the shadows of the quiet bay.

Looking around, they could see that they had entered what must be the main hanger bay, for it was far larger than the one in which they had disembarked from the Radiant VII.

Mechanical figures stood in rows before folding up as a large bar extended from a ship, collecting a string of these inert battle droids and drawing them into its depths.

Standing in the shadows of the bay, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan saw still more worker droids continue the work of loading these droids—blasters appended to their hands telling the tale of their purpose.

"Battle droids," whispered Qui-Gon, "too many to count."

"They are going to invade," said Obi-Wan. "And soon."

"It's uncharacteristic of the Federation," said Qui-Gon. "We must warn the Naboo and then contact Chancellor Valorum. Let's split up—stow aboard on different ships. We can try to meet down there. Though, if they land far apart, look for me no longer than one day before going to Theed to give warning to Queen Amidala."

"Yes, Master," replied Obi-Wan.

Moving cautiously through the shadows, Qui-Gon made his way to one of the ships and disappeared within. Likewise, Obi-Wan made his way through the shadows to a different ship.

Within the ship around the folded battle droids, Obi-Wan was cramped, though he managed to find a reasonably less-uncomfortable position and began to meditate, awaiting the landing on the planet of Naboo.

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