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Star Wars Episode I: Attack of the Clones

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A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away ...

STAR WARS

Episode I

ATTACK OF THE CLONES

 

Turmoil has engulfed the galaxy. Several thousand star systems, calling themselves the Separatist Movement, have cut all ties with the long-standing Galactic Republic.

In an unexpected move, the Separatist leader, COUNT DOOKU, has launched a coordinated attack on the vulnerable Outer Rim planet of Naboo.

As the Republic Senate endlessly debates this alarming chain of events, the Supreme Chancellor has dispatched two Jedi Knights, the guardians of peace and justice, to settle the conflict …

  


  

Naboo. More green than blue, brilliant with early morning light, and eclipsed by the fleet of battleships deployed in blockade formation. As modified Lucrehulk-class cargo freighters, the battleships had a ponderous quality: a center sphere surrounded by an oblong disc open at both ends. Being modified, quad turbolaser cannons lined the equatorial band in batteries of three. All at once, red laser blasts erupted from the barrels, aimed at the Republic transport attempting to reach the planet’s surface.

Outfitted for diplomatic missions, thus rendering it helpless, the compact transport dodged the lasers arcing across the bow. Several hits breached the shields to scorch the blue and white haul. As though guided by the Force, the transport swooped clear of a barrage of laser fire and swung closer to the flagship at the heart of the blockade. This gave them temporary cover. But in the final run across the gap, from the cover of the flagship to the planet’s surface, the transport took a shot to the port engine. Sparks erupted, and the loss forced the pilot to veer starboard, then angle the nose for entry into Naboo’s atmosphere.

Breaking atmo meant stress on the already weakened shields, the burn up of re-entry blazing the hottest red. At last, the clouds parted to reveal a lush, green landscape glittering like a gem in the morning light. And then the transport broke in half.

Wrenching sounds split the cockpit from the rest of the fuselage, leaving the latter half to plummet to the forest below. The impact shook the birds from the trees and a fireball erupted, igniting the canopy. As for the cockpit, it spiraled down, the attached wings having caught the air, and both passengers strained against the centripetal force to unlatch his harness and grab the para-foil behind his chair.

Only one passenger made it out, flung like a rag doll into midair, and the silvery material of the para-foil slowly descended into the trees.

Trapped between the controls and the pilot’s seat, and unable to rise against the pressure shoving him against the bulkhead, Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi folded his knees to his chest and braced himself for impact.

The plunge jerked him hard, his head slamming into the controls. The pressure lessened and in a rush of noise, water parted around the canopy. Obi-Wan forced himself to move. He stepped up onto the seatback, climbed up to the ragged lip of the cockpit, but just as he grabbed a section of fractured haul, the water swelled, spilled over the sides, and drenched his Jedi robes. The water surged, rushed over his head, blinded him, and quickly dragged the cockpit under. Obi-Wan found himself submerged. He kicked, freed himself from the cockpit and surfaced, his gasp loud in his ears.

He had crashed in the middle of a lake — thank the Force — the forest seen on either shore. The air swarmed with gnats, a cloying tropical heat that would have him breaking into a sweat the moment he dried off. Then he looked up. With the mix of clouds and the sun at early morning, the sky was near white, but a black smoke cloud spiraled down to where he had landed. Obi-Wan clenched his jaw, then swam to shore.

The Jedi garment, a tunic, leggings, utility belt, boots, and robe, had been manufactured to be warm in the coldest climates, cooling in the hottest, and fast drying when wet. Obi-Wan slogged onto the beach, then searched the shoreline for Qui-Gon while also waiting to dry out. He checked his comm, but it fizzled and sparked in his hand. Great.

Obi-Wan swallowed a spasm of unease, concerned about the venerable Jedi Master and whether or not he had survived the evac. Well, no, not only that. Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn, admired for his courage and admonished for his carelessness, had been an intimidating first meeting. An alderman Obi-Wan knew by reputation, and now he would see if that reputation held water. It made him question their newly formed partnership and whether it would hold up under this mission.

And as a newly invested Jedi Knight, Obi-Wan had a lot to prove.

Their mandate and mission specs detailed the goal of negotiating the blockade away from Naboo space — and as to why the leader of the Separatist Movement made it his personal obligation to harass such a small planet, Obi-Wan questioned even now. Perhaps Count Dooku fancied himself a bully and did this to flex his power? Obi-Wan had no patience for bullies.

Either way, he couldn’t wait for Qui-Gon; he had to head to Theed.

According to the sensors just before they went offline, their transport was angling toward the global south-west, and since Naboo was a world divided between the tropics and the temperate, the capital Theed would be to the south-east. He entered the forest.

The air became oppressive. Each breath dragged, thick with a verdant perfume, and he broke out in a sweat. The brush crackled with every step and had to duck under branches sagging from the weight of overgrown foliage. Sunlight spilled through the canopy in slivers of quick-brilliance, and the rustling of the trees shifted the slivers into slip-sliding patterns. Obi-Wan picked his way through the forest, blinded by overcast, yet, guided in his assurance in the Force.

A tremor in the Force alerted him to danger. Moments later, a sentry, dressed in Separatists red, stepped through the trees. When their gazes met, the shock on her face would have been comical in other circumstances. She looked miserable, her bald head slick with sweat, her white cheeks flushed. Then she came alert and drew her blaster.

“Hands up!” she said in Galactic Basic Standard.

Obi-Wan obeyed. He didn’t need violence to get out of this.

Before he could implant a Force-suggestion to turn around and go back the way you came, she raised her voice and called, “Here! I found an insurgent!”

Insurgent? Master Qui-Gon? Perhaps not, though he should have expected some kind of an insurgency, similar to how he should have assumed there would be an invasion force; however, in the pre-mission briefing, there were no signs of life in this region of the planet. Very interesting.

Now that he could make more than a cursory assessment, the Separatist soldier was more than miserable: her clothes were sweat-stained and ripped, singed in patches, and the back of the hand holding the blaster sported a long scab not yet healed with bacta. That same hand trembled and her violet eyes — an Onurian of Onuria, one of the planets to join the Separatist Movement — held a frazzled and crazed look, as though one wrong move and she would unleash on a hair-trigger.

Twigs snapped and leaves crackled. A harsh hacking sound, and the overhanging foliage collapsed. Two more Separatists in red, looking equally miserable, stepped forward, the one in the lead carrying a machete while the one in the back drew binders from his utility belt. The one in the back was a green-skinned, bug-eyed Landurs, and the one with the machete, calmer than the other two, was a dark-skinned human with short, curly hair. His gaze swept down, dismissive of such robes because who didn’t wear robes in the galaxy? Then that same gaze locked onto Obi-Wan’s hip — onto Obi-Wan’s lightsaber because with his hands up, his robe fell open to reveal his weapon. The human swore.

“He’s a Jedi.”

The Onurian woman gaped, her gaze sweeping Obi-Wan, too, and seeming to reevaluate her captive. The Landurs, approaching with the binders, made a rattling sound deep in its throat, neck ridges flaring.

“Jedi, huh?” it said in Urs-speak, a quick clatter-and-whistle language Obi-Wan hated studying as a Padawan because it made his ears ache. He winced now, too. “The Jedi aren’t wanted in the Separatist Nation.”

Obi-Wan slipped into a meditative state, thinking of a way out of this. He could incapacitate his adversaries, and then be more mindful of his surroundings in the future, but something in the Force told him to wait, like a current of reassurance wrapping around his person.

The Landurs ordered Obi-Wan to bring his hands in front of him just as the human reached forward to take Obi-Wan’s lightsaber. At that moment, a figure flashed through the trees, grabbed the human Separatist, and dragged him into the bush, the latter’s limbs flailing. His screams died in a gurgle. The Onurian and Landurs whirled toward the noise, but by the time they turned, it was too late.

Obi-Wan pounced.

He grabbed the Landurs, the one closest to him, and incapacitated it by hitting the windpipe high on its forehead, then gripped the neck ridges until it lost air and slumped, unconscious.

The Onurian was busy firing into the bush, the pinging sound of her blaster rolling like an incessant wave as red blaster bolts struck plant life and ignited small fires. Suddenly, that same flash grabbed her, too. She screeched, the blaster bolts arcing wildly through the air. Obi-Wan ducked to avoid a shot that would have grazed his shoulder. And then all fell silent. Drawing himself up to his fullest height, Obi-Wan scanned the densely packed foliage for the figure. Too fast to be human, but also not Qui-Gon since the Jedi Master would have revealed himself by now. Obi-Wan opened himself to the guidance of the Force and said,

“Thank you for your help. I believe we are friends? My name is Obi-Wan Kenobi. What is your name?”

The bush next to him unfolded, startling him into a truncated flinch. As he watched, the bush kept unfolding, standing at a good two meters, its striped, tan pelt helping it blend into the forestry. Obi-Wan had to blink until his eyes separated the figure from the trees. The figure wore a loincloth, a woven belt, and carried a spear. The gray eyes, absent of any white and on either side of a long muzzle, blinked while short ears flicked and twitched on top of its head. It stood on bent hind legs like any woodland fauna, but upright with long arms and prehensile hands. Obi-Wan didn’t know what to call it.

The creature’s eyes flickered to him and the wisdom in its gaze would put most of the Jedi Council in their place. “I am JarJar,” it — he — said in Basic, voice gravelly and deep with a thick growl possibly native to his people. Obi-Wan nodded, pleased with himself for discovering a new species where none had been before. “You are welcome, Obi-Wan.” JarJar turned and disappeared into the forest.

“Wait. Wait!” Obi-Wan followed, cursing himself for losing his Jedi serenity and tripping over his own feet and getting tangled in the bush. “JarJar, wait. Can you help me? I need to find my fellow Jedi and we need to get to Theed — find the Queen — ” A branch slapped him in the face, he grimaced. “Try to end this conflict.”

Obi-Wan bounced off an invisible tree — no, it was JarJar, who had stopped so suddenly Obi-Wan couldn’t see him. He righted himself, opened his mouth to reiterate his request, and then noticed JarJar’s attention taken up by the sight before him. Obi-Wan turned and felt the blood rush out of his cheeks. “Oh.”

The silver of Qui-Gon’s para-foil dangled from the trees. The harness trailed like fingers, confirming that Master Qui-Gon had ejected safely. Further on, however, jagged tree stumps peppered the landscape, hewed down into a large rectangle. A bunker sat in the center, high black walls and blue electric fence surrounding the perimeter. At first, a thought about a relay tower flashed through Obi-Wan’s mind, until he assessed the bunker further and realized it was a prison.

JarJar pointed, said, “They took your Jedi in there. And my people, the Gungans.” He turned, dropping his arm, his gray eyes pleading. “Help free my people and your Jedi, Obi-Wan, and I will get you to Theed.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Less than an hour later, Obi-Wan set the charges.

He and JarJar had returned to the fallen Separatists, grabbed the power packs out of their blasters and the signal flares off their belts, and then cracked the packs before lacing the flare tips into the unit. Obi-Wan raced through the trees, setting charge after charge and keeping an eye out for the near-invisible Gungan.

A part of him wondered what Master Yoda would have to say about this.

Then the other part of him dismissed that part because he was a Knight now and he had a job to do.

Task completed, Obi-Wan dashed the sweat from his brow, and then stationed himself in the bushes with a clear view of the prison camp. He clipped his lightsaber off his belt and settled down to wait.

JarJar’s signal came in a burst of light, a tree erupting into flames. Another burst of light, then another. The dense foliage encouraged the fire to spread, and soon all the trees in the perimeter burned. Of course, the wind shifted so the smoke overwhelmed him; Obi-Wan blinked, vision blurring, tears running down his cheeks. He hacked against the smoke rattling in his lungs, smashed his sleeve over his nose and mouth and hoped the Separatists would show up soon —

A klaxon buzzed. Not soon after, the bunker’s door swung open and uniformed Separatists stormed out, armed with a water hose and running to the perimeter to douse the flames.

Obi-Wan darted out of his hiding spot, kept low, and put on a burst of Force-speed to cover the clearing. Without igniting his lightsaber, he used the butt end to clip a Separatist on the back of the head, rendering her unconscious before pivoting and taking out the other two with a punch to the gut and a broken nose. He wasted no time turning his attention to the bunker, swept in through the open doors and made it three steps before someone shouted, “Intruder, halt!”

Obi-Wan spun and ignited his lightsaber in the same motion, the blue beam humming as he deflected a blaster bolt back to the Separatist, and then spun to do the same to the two commandos who stormed around the corner. These two wore masks under their helmets, a curious addition since it wouldn’t help in the heat. With a shrug, he dismissed these thoughts, left the bodies where they fell, and hurried to his destination.

Admittedly, he didn’t know much about the bunker’s layout, but his experience with other military installations usually put the control room on the upper level. Obi-Wan took the stairs three at a time, then ducked blaster fire to his head, brought the blue blade of his lightsaber up and deflected bolt after bolt into the phalanx. Really, it was only five soldiers, but phalanx had a nice ring to it. These commandos, too, had masks in their helmets. Hmm. Once they were down, Obi-Wan used his lightsaber to slice a human-sized opening through the blast door. The scorch of superheated metal tickled his memory. Several of his missions with Master Yoda had always ended with him having to do this. Cut the door open, you will. Obi-Wan grinned, then paused, his grin fading. He sensed adrenaline and anticipation … the fear of dying. He powered down his lightsaber.

Obi-Wan raised a hand and a Force-push sent the metal flying. The Separatist cried out, his terror ending in a meaty slam against the wall. He took a breath, releasing his emotions into the Force, and then stepped inside. He had reached the control room.

And nobody had turned off the alarm.

Working quickly, Obi-Wan glanced at the control panel, at the security footage playing on the monitors. The perimeter cameras, with a low resolution feed and a view of the surrounding forest, showed JarJar handling the water hose and dousing the fires. The Separatists who had brought out the hose were unconscious on the ground.

Obi-Wan paced, scanning monitor after monitor until he found a crowd of Gungans corralled together … and Qui-Gon sitting in the corner. Relying on his experience with control room control panels, Obi-Wan flipped several switches, shut off the klaxon, then smashed the gate release button. As the doors parted on the security monitor, the deck rumbled under his boots.

He searched the room, opening unlocked drawers and cabinets. He reached a locked door, sliced through it with a quick touch of his lightsaber, and found a trove of Gungan weapons, maces, spears, and battleaxes all lining the walls. He briefly considered the logistics of carrying them all, but only need Qui-Gon’s lightsaber and utility belt. On a low shelf, Obi-Wan grabbed said items, then left the control room, skipping down the stairs two at a time. At the bottom, he whirled and headed through a corridor that, from the position of the security camera, would take him to the prisoners.

He reached the opened gate just as a Gungan — not JarJar, though at first glance, all Gungans had the camouflage skin — skidded to a stop. Obi-Wan should have know it wasn’t JarJar because this one wore a different colored loincloth.

Obi-Wan called on the calming presence of the Force and sent a tendril to the Gungan. “Is there a Jedi with you? Tall — well, tall as you, but taller than me.”

The Gungan tilted its head quizzically, like an animal listening for a predator. And then Obi-Wan realized it probably didn’t speak Basic. He had just assumed that since JarJar did … and admonished himself for being species-ist.

The pounding of booted feet alerted him to a new arrival. Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn exited the holding cell while slipping on his robe, his long legs eating the distance. Sweat rolled into his beard, his pale cheeks flushed, and when he caught sight of Obi-Wan, a delighted, “Ah,” was the only acknowledgment. Obi-Wan pushed down his rising irritation. Really, was he expecting a hug ? Wordlessly, he handed Qui-Gon his lightsaber and belt.

“How will we get the others to follow?” Obi-Wan asked, but a clatter of hooves cut him off. Qui-Gon’s head came up and Obi-Wan spun to see JarJar approach, skid to a stop, and then speak to the nameless Gungan in a gruff, cutting language. The strange Gungan responded in kind, and then turned and called out to the others, waving his arm in a follow me gesture. Soon, clattering hooves rang across the deck as a stampede threatened to carry him away. Qui-Gon seemed to get a kick out of it, his usual countenance seeming to glow with an inner radiance and, after tapping Obi-Wan on the shoulder, ran after them. Obi-Wan followed, his stumpy, human legs nowhere matching the gait of the long, graceful Gungans. Even Qui-Gon seemed to keep pace easily. It would be fitting to call on another burst of Force-speed, but the Force was an ally, not a crutch. The herd broke out of the bunker, reached the smoldering treeline, and then vanished into the foliage.

Obi-Wan ran. Eventually, when his legs burned and his lungs heaved and the sweat ran into his eyes, he came to a clearing and stopped. And gasped.

The Gungans had come to a halt, too. A few were gathered in a ring, kicking, stomping, and beating the Gungan in the center. Between a pair of legs, Obi-Wan could see, much to his surprise, that the brutalized Gungan was JarJar, body curled into a ball. The remaining Gungans merely watched.

Obi-Wan spotted Qui-Gon on the other side of the herd pushing his way through the inert mass. Obi-Wan jumped into action and shoved his way into the huddle, using the Force sparingly since he didn’t want to hurt these people. At last, he stepped over JarJar, raised his arms, and the Gungans backed away. Their facial expressions were difficult to interpret, but Obi-Wan read hostility clearly enough — hostility directed at the Gungan on the ground, though he didn’t understand any of it.

Qui-Gon knelt to check JarJar’s injuries. The Gungan’s voice reached his ears, gravelly and wet: “Let them be, my friends. They have a right to their anger.”

Obi-Wan blinked, his incredulity escaping through clenched teeth. “For being rescued?”

“I am a traitor to my people,” JarJar said. “I believe the Gungan and the Naboo should have no hatred between them. My people do not believe this.”

Obi-Wan didn’t quite understand, but continued to act as a barrier between JarJar and his people. Qui-Gon spoke,

“Can you translate what I am about to say?”

“I can,” the Gungan said.

“Because the Jedi helped save you from imprisonment, we would like a reward. We take this Gungan as a prize, to watch after and protect, as he will protect us.”

Obi-Wan felt his body jerk reflexively at the phrasing, as well as the idea that a person could be a prize . But upon watching the Gungans’ expressions as JarJar’s words chopped and cut through the crowd, many lips curled in confusion, and then eyes widened in surprise. Once JarJar’s word petered out, Obi-Wan held his breath. If Qui-Gon had misspoken, or enacted a cultural gaffe, the odds of getting out of this would be bloody. Like a ripple, the Gungans exchanged looks all around, muttered words among themselves. At last, one Gungan spoke, the words short and to the point.

JarJar said, “Take him.”

In pairs, the Gungans turned and disappeared into the trees, disturbing nary a leaf. Once they were alone, Obi-Wan tucked a shoulder under an arm and helped Qui-Gon maneuver JarJar to his feet. Obi-Wan’s shorter stature put him at eye level with the mottle bruising on the Gungan’s shoulder. Despite that, JarJar looked sound, except he wouldn’t make eye contact, lashes sweeping low over his cheeks.

Obi-Wan cleared his throat. “Are you all right?

“I have a boat that can get you to Theed.”

The Gungan spun and, leaning on his spear, led them away from the ruins and back through the forest, but not towards the prison. Falling into step, Obi-Wan kept his voice low,

“A ‘prize’, Master Qui-Gon? What would the Council think of us dealing in flesh?”

Qui-Gon’s startled, but amused, look caught Obi-Wan unawares because a contrite person wouldn’t wear such an expression. “Weren’t you listening? He is a prize to us as much as we are to him. The Wookiees call it a life debt.”

Staring at the Jedi Master in astonishment, Obi-Wan allowed Qui-Gon to move ahead and squeeze through a tight thicket. He amended his previous assessment of the Jedi Master, adding headstrong and opportunistic.

JarJar stopped at a river. The Gungan removed branches and leaves, and then turned over a boat and Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon helped him to launch it into the water. Instead of being a canoe with paddles — wouldn’t that have won the award for Worst Mission Ever? — the boat had been modified with an electric motor, something Obi-Wan didn’t think the primitive Gungans would have. Then again, what did he know about these people?

JarJar ushered them on board, took the helm, and revved the motor. He turned the rudder so they completed an arc, the waves spraying the shore. The sticky wind ruffled through Obi-Wan’s hair, snapped Qui-Gon’s length out behind him, and JarJar angled them towards the sun.

Theed came upon them in bursts. Majestic and elegant, with towering columns supporting tall structures, long windows, and statues at the foot of sweeping staircases. A blue sky completed the elegance, though marred by billowing, black clouds. Heavy shelling blasted the western region, hurling thunder and smoke. Once-elegant buildings were smashed into rubble, the impacts sending shock waves through the air.

Obi-Wan thanked the Force they were on the northern side of it, so no one could possibly see them passing —

A commando on the far shore saw them passing.

The masked Separatist fumbled for his comm. Obi-Wan shouted over his shoulder, “Incoming! Evasive maneuvers!”

A high-pitched whistle zeroed in on their position. Obi-Wan clung to the boat as it whipped a hard right. The impact crested in white caps, and then the river exploded in a column of water. Another whistle, a hard whip to the left, another explosion. He winced, his ears ringing.

At the bow, Qui-Gon climbed to his feet. Obi-Wan watched, with a growing sense of concern, as the Jedi Master shuffled to adjust his balance with the whipping boat. Another explosion erupted, this time spraying them with heated water. Obi-Wan dashed the moisture from his eyes and watched as Qui-Gon seemed to transcend their turmoil and stand without effort.

The whistle of incoming shells faded. The boat motor puttered, fell silent, their craft slowing, then bobbing in place. Qui-Gon remained as still as any statue, immovable aplomb worthy of the Jedi name. Obi-Wan soon understood why.

The Force screamed. What came at them, about the width of the lake and twice that long, wasn’t a shell, but a ship, a busted engine trailing black smoke. It eclipsed the light. Obi-Wan gasped, sensing the lives on board, terrified, screaming: They knew they were going to die.

But Qui-Gon seemed to ripple. Perhaps it actually happened, perhaps it was a play of the light, but his body, his torn robe, even his hair lifted with the power concentrated around him. Obi-Wan sensed the Force like he had only once before, a living, breathing embodiment centered in the Jedi before him.

Eyes closed, Master Qui-Gon raised his arms and the ship stopped short of brushing his fingertips. Time stopped. Obi-Wan threw a glance over his shoulder to trade a look with JarJar, who stared, slack-jawed. When Obi-Wan turned back around, Qui-Gon had shifted his stance, then his arms and gently — so gently — the ship, a chrome-plated cruiser, glided across the lake to land safely on the closest shore. Once the ship touched down, Qui-Gon opened his eyes and released a long exhale.

Everything started again at once. Blaster fire erupted over Obi-Wan’s head, but he waved his hand in a Force-push and the three commandos on the far shore went flying backwards into the trees. Qui-Gon dropped into his seat, then signaled for JarJar to head to shore. “We need to help those people.” He, at last, acknowledged Obi-Wan’s staring at him, blue eyes hooded.

Awe and respect warred within Obi-Wan. No other Jedi aside from Master Yoda had ever displayed such mastery of the Force. He would have to unlearn what he had learned.

As though having heard his thoughts, Qui-Gon’s face drooped in a tired smile. “Always be mindful of the moment, Obi-Wan Kenobi.”

 

Chapter Text

 

A scorch mark fused the gangplank shut, so Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan used their lightsabers to slice open the hull. The passengers in the chrome cruiser had a curious reaction. Only a few threw themselves upon their rescuers, the others keeping their backs turned or their heads lowered. Yet, when the Naboo saw JarJar, they retreated, refusing to make eye contact altogether. JarJar, too, refrained from any interaction. Remembering JarJar’s words about the hatred between the Naboo and the Gungans, Qui-Gon took careful note of it.

As they explained it, the passengers were able to flee the chaos in the capital because they knew a private yacht owner, but their ship had been caught in the crossfire, no doubt because a large, luxury cruiser was an easy target. Even Theed Palace had fallen to the Separatist army.

Qui-Gon pressed his ration of food cubes on the survivors, and then offered JarJar’s assistance, who could help them find shelter in the forest and survive until this crisis ended. The Naboo recoiled at the offer.

“No. We can … manage,” one of the men said, the distaste thick in his voice. He gathered the others, thanked Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan again, and then herded his group into the forest.

“May the Force be with you,” Qui-Gon whispered. He turned to JarJar. The Gungan had turned their boat upside down, and now disguised it with branches, his hooded gray eyes giving nothing away. “Is there much distrust between the Naboo and the Gungans?”

“From the beginning, Master Jedi.” JarJar’s hand made a sweeping arc, unreadable for now.

“But what happens to one of you happens to the other,” Qui-Gon said, ever reasonable. He saw Obi-Wan start, irises shifting from blue to green. The young Jedi’s gaze hardened with admonishments, no doubt concerning the naivety in Qui-Gon’s assertion. Such cross-species negativity on these outer worlds was much more complicated than Jedi politics — a former apprentice of Master Yoda would know this. But hope could be found in unlikely places. “Surely your people can see that, especially now?”

JarJar’s head swung around, his deep, sad eyes looking across. Their heights were evenly matched. “Even now, Qui-Gon. I fear it will be as you said.” Suddenly, he stepped back and bowed. “This is where I leave you.”

Obi-Wan started. “Now? Here?”

“I got you to where you need. Our agreement is finished.”

JarJar gripped his spear, broke into a trot, and vanished into the tree line.

Qui-Gon shared a look with Obi-Wan, a subtle reminder to resume their mission. He took point. If the palace had indeed been overrun, then getting to the Queen would be trickier than he had anticipated. With a gesture, he implanted a Force-suggestion for masked commandos to look the other way as they passed. The distant shelling echoed through the silent forest, though they did come across a large quadruped nipping at leaves. It snorted and took off, hooves pounding into the soil. A few meters onward, they reached the city limits.

Theed was even more beautiful close up, aside from the crumbling buildings, of course. Qui-Gon spotted the sparkling, verdigris dome of the Theed Palace tucked between a cracked rooftop and a statue holding a spear aloft.

With a gesture, Qui-Gon led the way to a portcullis, just in time to avoid Separatist commandos patrolling the streets. The red uniforms and helmet-masks stood out in stark contrast to the subtle sandstone and brilliant jades of the city, their synchronized steps loud in the square. Qui-Gon never failed to notice the absence of people. Of course: they were probably in camps or under house-arrest like the Queen.

Once the Separatist patrol turned the corner and disappeared from view, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan cut across the pavilion, then hurried up the stairs to a colonnade overlooking an avenue. Following it, they came across a lone sentry. Qui-Gon sent out another Force-suggestion, and he and Obi-Wan crept past.

An electric burst-fizzle erupted in the distance, quickly followed by an explosion, then black smoke wafting towards the sky. Other explosions answered, the thunderous booms of direct hits and the smaller echos of blaster fire. He traded a look with Obi-Wan and they both peered over the balustrade. Careful to stay low, he spotted a group of people fleeing from the fighting. The group leader, a dark-skinned man in a Naboo security uniform, held a young woman’s hand, her white face in stark contrast to her voluminous, black gown and feathered headdress.

Qui-Gon thanked the Force. They had just found the Queen — or, rather, she came to them .

Hurrying along in the Queen’s cortege were a swarm of similarly dressed handmaidens, the hoods of their dresses obscuring all but the bottom-half of their faces. From their bearing, the handmaidens were trained fighters, though weaponless. And bringing up the rear were two other of the Naboo security forces, who paused to shoot at their pursuers. A squad of Separatists commandos ducked for cover, but one took a blaster bolt to the chest and went down hard.

As they watched, the Queen’s cortege turned towards the Jedi’s hiding place, passing under the colonnade and onto a side street, the Separatists in hot pursuit.

Out the corner of his eye, he saw Obi-Wan unhook his lightsaber from his belt. Qui-Gon followed suit.

As one, they vaulted over the balustrade, and landed between the fleeing Queen and her pursuers. The Separatists staggered to a halt, helmet-masks tilting bewilderment. Qui-Gon figured the odds: There were too many to Force-suggest at once, and if he didn’t have to, he wouldn’t kill them.

But the moment one opened fired, they all fired. Qui-Gon’s lightsaber hummed to life a second before the first blaster bolt left the chamber, the green blade humming in sweeping arcs, deflecting enemy fire and directing it back to the source. Working in tandem, Obi-Wan’s blue blade rushed forward, taking out the Separatists in the rear. A bit of a show off, that, but effective. Reckless, if Qui-Gon were being honest. When the last of the Separatists fell, Obi-Wan deactivated his lightsaber, but didn’t lower his guard. When Qui-Gon powered down his lightsaber and turned, he saw why.

Though Naboo considered itself a cosmopolitan planet, it was still an Outer Rim World, relatively peaceful until this moment, and had probably never seen a Jedi before. Rumor spread lies and lies bred distrust. Who knew what lies these people had heard? The Naboo security team, who had valiantly defended their Queen, now had their weapons trained on the Jedi, their twin faces — literally, they were twin brothers — hard, fair-skinned, and ready to kill. Beyond them, the Queen’s contingent had stopped to watch, the handmaidens forming a circle around their queen. The dark-skinned man leading their retreat moved forward and ordered his men to lower their weapons. “Can’t you see they’re Jedi?” The twins’, as well as the Queen’s, expressions shifted from distrust to shock.

What rumors have they heard?

The dark-skinned man nodded a greeting. “I’m Captain Panaka, head of the Royal Security Forces. We were worried whether or not the Chancellor received out distress call. But your negotiations with Count Dooku appear to have failed, ambassadors.”

“The negotiations never took place,” Obi-Wan bit out. Traditionally, the senior Jedi took the lead on a mission, but Qui-Gon allowed it, also detesting how nothing seemed to be going their way.

Captain Panaka’s brow furrowed, but Qui-Gon interrupted. “We need to contact Chancellor Valorum and alert him of these developments.”

“Communications are jammed,” the captain said.

Typical for invasions. “Do you have a ship?”

“This way.”

Obi-Wan guarded the rear while Qui-Gon moved to take point behind Panaka. But first, he bowed to the Queen. They navigated the twisting side streets, not encountering any other red uniforms, and that alone should have been the first warning. Qui-Gon felt the ripple through the Force before he could warn anyone. He threw himself in front of the Queen. At that moment, an explosion rocked the buildings around them, followed by a black mushroom cloud surging high into the sky. Panaka swore. “The hangar bay.”

Darting down a side street and around a corner, they came face to face with a blackened smear in the ground. Four Energy Pummels, leased by the Trade Federation — one of the many organizations to join the Separatist Movement — had their barrels pointed at the two walls left on shattered foundations.

Captain Panaka escorted them into a nearby outbuilding where they took refuge in a machinist shop. The twins blocked and bolted the door with whatever scraps they could find while Qui-Gon helped Panaka do the same to the back door. Obi-Wan guarded the handmaidens; they guided the Queen to a chair, rearranged her skirts, and helped her sit, a heavy sigh escaping her red and white lips.

“Do you have alternative transport?” Qui-Gon asked Panaka.

“Yes, but they’re starfighters at the spaceport,” Captain Panaka said. “All the pilots are in the camps and the Queen’s transport was in the main hangar bay.”

Obi-Wan bit his lip, brows canted in contemplation. “If we can get a starfighter, it would be easier to run the blockade. I can return to the Senate to report this.” Qui-Gon heard the missing, though there are no reinforcements coming . Outside of Jedi protectors, the Republic had no standing army to fight a war. A sobering reality that the galaxy had been at peace for too long.

One of the handmaidens opened her mouth with an audible ah , but cut herself off. Captain Panaka swung around, nailing her with a pointed stare. Even the Queen’s head whipped around so fast, Qui-Gon worried about her neck straining under the weight of the headdress. Not an admonishment from the Queen, more like curiosity. Obi-Wan traded a glance with Qui-Gon, sensing a silent conversation happening there. A tense moment passed before Captain Panaka released a deep sigh. In a well-rounded voice without any accent, the Queen said,

“Take one of my handmaidens.” The handmaidens gathered to form a wall. The one who had spoken moved behind them and began to disrobe. Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon, Panaka, and the twins turned to offer her privacy. Obi-Wan said,

“With all due respect, Your Majesty, ours is a mission of political delicacy and no place for a handmaiden.”

“She can speak as my voice,” the Queen said, “and request aid from the Senate.”

“If that’s the case, then you will do — ”

Footsteps sounded, and then Obi-Wan ended his statement with a surprised, “Oh.” Qui-Gon turned to see a young woman, who, without the hood, had flawless, ivory skin, and long, brown hair gathered into a bun … and who looked exactly like the Queen. The handmaiden’s dress was actually a robe, folded over the arms of one of the other handmaidens, and revealing a white bodysuit underneath. Captain Panaka handed her his holster and the nameless handmaiden fastened it around her hips. She said,

“The both of us can sneak into the spaceport easier than the nine of us snuck out of the palace.” Her clipped, formal speech pattern caught Qui-Gon off guard. He had expected her to sound like the Queen. She certainly looked like the Queen.

“The waterfall side?” Captain Panaka asked.

She pivoted, nodded, and then looked at Obi-Wan expectantly. “Ready?”

Obi-Wan looked to Qui-Gon. The latter nodded, feeling the certainty echo in the Force. “Go. I will stay here and protect the Queen.”

“I can protect the Queen,” Captain Panaka said.

“I do not doubt it,” Qui-Gon said, carefully. Then, with more care, “But something about this situation doesn’t sit right with me. Why would Count Dooku ignore all negotiations and launch a full-scale assault on such a peaceful planet?”

A frisson moved through the Force, startling Qui-Gon with it’s strength and the promise of answers. He would have to remain with the Queen. He needed to follow his instincts.

Panaka said, “Dooku is a bully.” He turned to the handmaiden, his voice softening with honest concern. “Be careful.”

The handmaiden nodded, her mouth set in a hard line. Qui-Gon said, “What is your name?”

“Padmé.”

 

* * *

 

Obi-Wan liked Padmé. She moved through the city with a cocky assurance, dodging from cover to cover, careful to peer around every corner, and past patrols with the kind of stealth most Jedi initiates would envy. Theed was a tragic city, now. He tried to imagine it the way she knew it, beautiful and majestic at its prime. The shelling had bypassed the spaceport region, allowing them to move under an arcade that, then, ended at Separatist tanks, troops, and speeders.

Many of the uniforms on patrol were too far away to influence with the Force, and even if they were close, there were too many. Obi-Wan calculated an alternative approach, then amended his calculations as Padmé led him to a wall. She slipped her fingers into a ordinary crack, then tugged. A door swung open. Padmé led him inside, gently pulled on a notch in the door until it sealed, plunging them into darkness. Padmé’s small, dry hand gripped his and she led him down a corridor, detritus crackling under their boots. A dank scent tickled his nose and the warm dampness of moisture touched his skin. In a few steps, he heard the muted roar of a waterfall. The waterfall side. Such a provision made him wonder why the Naboo would be so peacefully paranoid. Something to do with the Gungans, perhaps? Padmé released his hand, pushed open a door and, once through it, sealed it shut again, the patterns on the wall matching seamlessly.

They were in a repair bay, the astringent stink of Malastarian fuel heavy in the air. Padmé led the way through a service corridor and up the stairs to a magnificent hallway where they had to stop, backtrack, and duck behind a column. Red uniforms in helmet-masks were stationed at intervals down the length of the hallway, two dozen in all.

Padmé whispered, “That’s the only way to the hangar.”

Obi-Wan bit back a swear, then again as Padmé slid the ornate blaster out of its holster.

“I guess there’s no other choice,” she said.

Alarmed, Obi-Wan struggled to keep his voice down. “You want to take them all on?”

She nailed him with a chilling look. “Do you have a better idea?”

He didn’t, but before he could stop her, she ducked out of hiding long enough to aim single-handed and fire. A direct hit, the commando falling with a shocked, echoing cry. The sound alerted the others, who drew their weapons and fired, but not before Padmé took out two more. Obi-Wan had his lightsaber in hand. He moved forward, deflecting blaster bolts back into the fray. As he gained ground, he sensed Padmé’s pacing behind him, her quick reflexes taking out commando after commando.

With two commandos left, he heard an order barked from behind and spun. A sweep of his lightsaber deflected a barrage of blaster bolts in a single arc, an impressive feat. Six more commandos had arranged themselves in a firing row, squeezing off round after round. Obi-Wan reassessed his liking of Padmé — they couldn’t handle this.

Then she screamed.

Obi-Wan whirled. Padmé clutched her side, torso curled into the pain, but she continued to hold her arm aloft, firing. The red uniform ducked behind a column. Getting distracted like that may have cost him his life — their lives. Qui-Gon’s words, be mindful of the Living Force , echoed in the stillness, a split second that seemed to extend to hours, and Obi-Wan allowed it to guide his actions. He swept out with his lightsaber, the blue blade singing as it bisected the nearest column. With the Force flowing through him, Obi-Wan raised a hand and brought the column down. It slid, tipped, and crashed with a thunder of noise and debris. The commandos scattered to safety.

Obi-Wan whirled the very moment Padmé whirled. Her eyes went wide, but he scanned for the commando who had kept her attention, seeing only the red uniformed bodies on the floor. Obi-Wan shut his eyes. The bloodshed never got any easier. With an exhale, he released his emotions into the Force, determined to meditate at the earliest convenience, and deactivated his lightsaber. He turned back to check on Padmé, had every intention of offering his arm to help take pressure off the wound, and, instead, encountered a glower, her face like stone.

Obi-Wan rolled his eyes. “Send me the bill.” He clipped his lightsaber back onto his belt, wrapped an arm around her waist, careful to avoid her wound, and then eased her arm around his shoulders. Padmé’s lips tightened, not in pain, but aggravation, prompting Obi-Wan to roll his eyes again. “Care of the Jedi Temple.”

They hobbled around the fallen commandos, Padmé leaning into his side. Her slight limp slowed them down, but providence reigned: At the end of the hallway, she keyed in a lock-code, what the Separatists had not bothered to re-code, the lock-pad beeped, and the blast doors parted. The wind swirled, whistling unheeded from the door to the open end because the hangar was free of commandos. Both Obi-Wan and Padmé breathed a sigh of relief. Plus , the felled column would give them the time necessary to load into the starfighters and blast out of there.

Like the rest of Naboo, their N-1 starfighters were streamlined, elegant, and painted the color of sunrise. Three rows were held up on docking clamps, but a portable stairway provided access for the pilot.

Obi-Wan seated Padmé first, and then, under her instruction, found the astromech droids hiding behind a door. They came alive the moment Obi-Wan entered. A little blue and silver droid as well as a red and gold one trundled out, their triangular wheels supporting a cylindrical shell topped by a flattened octagon: the defunct X-4 series. Obi-Wan grimaced. It said much about Naboo’s status as Galactic Citizens. Padmé flipped a switch on her cockpit control panel and the starfighter extended a claw to grab the blue and silver droid and raise it into the socket. Obi-Wan hurried to a starfighter, ran through pre-flight checks, then engaged his own astromech. He watched Padmé seal her cockpit, unlock the docking clamp, and tear across the bay into the open air. The unfamiliar Naboo language graced the controls, but one starfighter was all starfighters, so he followed suit.

Padmé’s starfighter soared straight for the horizon. Obi-Wan angled his ship to match her altitude. Without warning, red turbolasers shot across the bow. He swerved to avoid the next and saw Padmé’s ship do the same. She had fine control and maintained a steady climb through the atmosphere.

The clouds parted, revealing the inky depths of space, and the blockade. Obi-Wan engaged shields just as the splash of turbolasers bounced across his viewport. Padmé fared no better, but she executed a spin and missed the majority of the barrage.

His comm unit crackled to life. “Follow me,” Padmé’s voice filter into the cockpit. Her starfighter dipped, then rolled, angling between the Separatists ships, similar to when he and Qui-Gon had first braved their descent. The firing ceased, but Obi-Wan didn’t take any comfort in it because at that moment, the Force rippled, violently , and he gasped in response. Padmé’s voice again crackled into the cockpit,

“Calculate the jump to Coruscant.”

Obi-Wan obeyed, pressing the buttons and learning that his astromech was called X-4 314. The oblong end of the Separatist ship passed overhead, and they were clear … and the firing didn’t resume. Obi-Wan glanced out the viewport, then picked up his visual scanning and patched through to Padmé: “Incoming. One mark at three-six!”

The moment the warning left his lips, a single red bolt of a turbolaser hit his stern, exploding in a shower of sparks. Over the comm, he heard a digital scream as his astromech cooked in its shell. He winced, then patched in through to Padmé. “I’m flying blind.” The control panel flashed with a digital scramble and the throttle tugged out of his grip. “Go without me.”

He saw her starfighter pivot in an acrobatic move, but not fast enough to avoid a red turbolaser. It struck the undercarriage and the comm buzzed with Padmé’s cry of frustration. “My hyperdrive has just been hit. There’s not enough power to get this ship to Coruscant. The hyperdrive is leaking.” Obi-Wan craned his neck, but couldn’t see the enemy ship. The violent ripples through the Force, though, kept him on edge. What was it?

What Obi-Wan couldn’t see was a black starship, scooped wings set around a spherical cockpit, the cargo hold flattening into a pointed bill. Having sailed out of the Separatist flagship’s cargo bay, it steadily gained on the Naboo starfighters, unleashing precise laser blasts on the smaller ships.

Padmé said, “Reroute emergency power to the hyperdrive. Use the manual control to input coordinates. There’s a planet close by. Tatooine. We can stop and repair there.”

And tend to your wound , Obi-Wan thought. He followed her terse instructions while still dodging the turbolasers and admiring her skill to do the same while injured. Once the navicomputer flashed green, Obi-Wan punched the controls and watched the stars streak across his vision.

 

Chapter Text

 

Black grease spurted onto Anakin Skywalker’s cheek, and he rubbed it away before it could stain. Now it would only stain the back of his hand. He gripped the hydrospanner tight and went at the bolt again, whispering, “Gently … gently,” so as not to strip it. If he screwed up this restoration, that would be another twelve hundred lost. Independent contracting had gotten fiercely competitive after the Hutts took over the planet. Even the Jawas had to convert to a mobile scrap business just to stay out of the Hutts’ clutches. Watto’s Repair and Trade was the last junk dealer in Mos Espa, so Anakin wished for gently . He smiled when the bolt popped free, set it aside, then removed the engine block.

Pod racing was also in the Hutts’ clutches. This Plug-F Mammoth Split-X engine belonged to a Dug named Sebulba, the best on the circuit. And also in the Hutts’ pocket. Competing cost too much — the entry fees alone were astronomical — and as Anakin cleaned out the regulator with a sharp blast from an aerosol nozzle, he sighed in rueful desire. He could podrace … if only. That list of if only reached from here to the Core Worlds, personal and professional reasons both. With a sigh, Anakin replaced the engine block, and then secured it in place, careful not to strip the screws.

He shut the lid, and then wiped down the oil spills before heading over to the cockpit and activating the motor. The energy binders flared to life, making the turbines growl. Anakin grinned, a thrill dancing up his spine, then killed the power. He pulled a rag out of his utility belt and wiped his hands before stepping out from under the tarp and heading into the shop’s main area.

The garage was in the back past rows of scrap: hyperdrive generators, droid casings, moisture vaporators, durasteel replacement parts for the shop’s upper levels where Watto made his home. Anakin barely registered the suns at post-noon, the heat crackling across his exposed face. He heard Watto’s hurried flapping, a clear indicator of agitation. Rounded his shoulders, Anakin took a deep breath, and then entered the dusky interior of the shop.

Immediately, the spicy scent of their best paying customer assaulted his nose, overwhelming the sour and earthy scents Watto sprayed in the shop to remind him of Toydaria. Sebulba sat on the counter, his leg-hands inside a clanging bag of coins, though Watto’s blue and green wings continued to flap. Anakin frowned. If anything, Watto loved money more than he loved, well, anything. Something wasn’t right, and Anakin stuffed his rag back in his belt.

Chut chut , Watto,” he said in Huttese, the standard beside Basic. The Tatooine colonists had learned to adapt if they wanted to survive. “Sebulba. Just finished for ya.”

The Dug cut his eyes across at Anakin, finished counting, and placed the coins on the counter. Then he hopped down and made for the garage, his head coming up to Anakin’s knee. Anakin pivoted to watch him go, then swung back around when Watto’s flapping stopped. The Toydarian now sat on a stool behind the counter, counting the money, one coin at a time. He sorted a short stack and pushed them towards Anakin. “No more can I afford.”

Anakin inhaled through clenched teeth, his anger tightening his chest. “What? Again? Why?”

“Had to pay the Hutts. They ask for more now.”

Them again. Anakin kicked a protocol droid shell. It toppled and clattered to the ground. “That’s a first rate job! Look, I know I don’t ask for much, but I need this for the farm. The — ” He broke off, too ashamed to mention it, but he needed to make Watto understand. “The Hutts have been pressuring us, too.” Not to mention what their thugs did when Cliegg refused to pay. “Watto, please, I need this money.”

With an effortless lift of wings, the Toydarian took flight and flapped towards Anakin, his portly stomach drooping in defiance of the anti-gravity action. His snout and fleshy mouth both flattened in a frown. “I’m sorry, Anakin. I have to let you go, too.”

 

* * *

 

The speeder tore across the dunes. More of a hanno speeder, really, a bucket with a single engine in the prow, but the effect was the same: a lightweight chassis capable of high speed and lots of it.

Anakin reveled in the wind ripping through his hair, blistering his cheeks, so hot with tiny grains of shrapnel-like sand skating over the transparisteel windscreen and inflicting the kind of miniscule damage that would balloon into bruises if his skin wasn’t already so weathered. Nineteen seasons in the Tatooine desert, a true-born son of the suns, it didn’t bother him any.

Beggar’s Canyon showed up like a shadow on the horizon. The hairpin turns, tight squeezes that scraped the paint off his hanno speeder more than once, and the breath-taking drops scared off all but a crazed few. Most of the pod racers practiced in the Canyon, since the Hutts used it in the Boonta Eve Classic. Anakin veered off the path home, headed straight for the drop. He came upon Cil Junket, a Kal-Cil racer also angling her pod towards the Canyon. Anakin eased up on the clutch, shifted gears, and accelerated to match her speed before she could disappear over the first drop. Two of her six eye stalks swiveled around, and one of her four arms waved in greeting. Her brown and aqua skin, protected by gray racing leathers, flashed in the suns, and her very long fingers beckoned and pointed, a tacit invite to take it on with her. Anakin grinned and veered closer, spun the hanno speeder into a drift and dropped so fast his body lifted out of the seat.

She plummeted like a stone. The twin turbines of Cil Junket’s racer hovered higher than the pod base. But then Anakin heard the distinct compression burst of her engines, the energy binders flared white, and she took off faster than Anakin could compensate in his relatively slow hanno speeder. The canyon floor hit him so hard, he jerked in his seat with enough force to rattle his teeth, but Anakin wasted no time bleeding the throttle and catching up.

The first hairpin turn ended at a sheer wall wide enough to discourage the most suicidal of risk takers. Anakin followed Cil Junket around the pass, then angled his hanno speeder on a vertical pivot. He squeezed between two sandstone towers, having to lean so far back in his seat, one of the columns grazed his nose.

The low-hanging stalactites of Laguna Caves required a reduction in speed. Especially in the dark. Cil’s species had incomparable night vision, and he heard the gear shifts and compression fields of her engines ahead of him, but for Anakin … For some reason, dodging between the stalactites always passed by in a blur, as though a voice inside him whispered there, move, that way . He responded without questioning it. Had never questioned it, in fact, because only the most reckless pod racers screwed up the Caves.

If only …

And then a frisson of feeling hit Anakin so suddenly, he lost his concentration. He ducked just in time to miss a stalactite to the head and emerged from Laguna Caves to see Cil Junket take the next hairpin turn into the final pass. He eased up off the accelerator and slowed to a stop, grimy like back in his days working the moisture vaporators. Anakin hated giving up to Cil Junket, even if she was the second best racer on the circuit, though that feeling refused to leave. Almost like a scream of … terror and helplessness. He scrambled onto the hood of his hanno speeder and drew himself up to his full height, searching the horizon.

A haze gathered in the distance, slowly and steadily blocking out Tatoo II. A sandstorm. It would be on them in thirty minutes, though that wasn’t what had reached him. Then he saw it, two ships punching through the storm, trailing smoke and debris. They were so low, he didn’t need macrobinoculars to see that . As he watched, he gasped in fear as the two starfighters did nothing to slow their descent. How could they? The electrical interference from the sandstorm would have fired their circuit boards. He heard the roar of Cil Junket’s pod pull up next to his hanno speeder. All of her eye stalks were captivated by the sight before them. “Should we … ?” she began in Huttese.

Before Anakin could respond, the starfighters slammed into the faraway dune, sending up a spray of sand. Cil Junket jumped in her seat, then clicked her teeth in her people’s version of a long whistle. “They’re dead.”

Anakin shook his head. He didn’t know how he knew, but they weren’t dead. Both were injured, one severely, but not dead. He dropped into his seat, and revved the engine. Cil Junket said,

“You’re going after them?” She gestured to the horizon. “But the storm.”

“Get inside,” Anakin said, swung his hanno speeder around and shouted over his shoulder, “Be sure to power down!” He took off.

This end of the Canyon wasn’t as thrilling or challenging as the other, but he still had to maneuver through the Canyon Dune Turn. And then the desert opened up before him, the hard-packed turf that helped his hanno speeder reach unfathomable speeds. Really, he didn’t know: he had to remove the speedometer when upgrading the throttle. He lost a little speed when the dunes dipped and swirled, making his bucket seat bounce. Following the smoke trail, he reached the wreckage, swung to a stop, and took in the damage.

The starfighter closest to him had the cockpit dome removed, carbon scoring up the fuselage, and a smoking engine, the astromech cooked in its shell. Anakin spotted the second starfighter in the distance. A person in the brown robe stumbled towards it. Anakin climbed out and hurried over.

He hated crossing the open desert. Especially now, his skin prickling with the menace of the approaching storm. But he raised his arms and waved. “Hey!” The man in the brown robe whirled, appeared to squint. “Let me help you!” Anakin finished crossing to the stranger, saw that he was actually quite young, no more than a few years older than Anakin’s nineteen seasons. Glazed green-blue eyes refused to focus and blood ran from his temple.

“Thank you,” he said in a curious accent.

“I’m Anakin.”

“Obi-Wan.”

Although Obi-Wan looked human, Anakin had couldn’t place his origin. Surely not Corellian — not with that accent. Then again, what would he know about the wider of the galaxy?

They reached the second starfighter. Obi-Wan gripped the haul to remove the cockpit dome, and then cried out and snatched his hands back. His palms blazed red. The storm must have fried their shield generators, giving them the full burn of re-entry. Obi-Wan wrapped the robe around his hands and tried again, but the cockpit dome refused to budge. Anakin’s hand flew to his tool belt, palmed the hydrospanner, and began to unscrew the bolts securing the dome. Then he replaced the tool, wound his desert wraps around his hands, and together, he and Obi-Wan removed it.

Anakin’s breath caught in his chest.

She was a vision, like an Angel of the moons of Iego, the most beautiful creatures in the universe. With her eyes closed and her face slack in repose, it was a vision. The red stain spreading across her white jumpsuit, however, marred it. Obi-Wan reached out to release her harness, but his fingers fumbled, and then he swayed, fell to his knees. Anakin moved to catch him, but Obi-Wan waved him away. “Help her, please.”

Anakin removed the harness, gathered her into his arms, and lifted her out of the cockpit. She weighed nothing, petite, though most humans were petite compared to him. He checked on Obi-Wan, who had his head on the sand, shoulders flexing with his breathing.

“You may have a concussion,” Anakin said.

Obi-Wan glanced up, then nodded, then shut his eyes as though to stop the world from spinning. “I’ll be all right in a moment.”

Anakin checked the horizon, grimaced. The storm was close. “We don’t have a moment. Come on. I can get us to safety.”

Anakin lowered the unconscious woman’s legs to grab Obi-Wan’s collar and haul him to his feet. Keeping a hand on Obi-Wan and an arm around the unconscious woman, he marched them all back to his hanno speeder. Obi-Wan had regained his balance by then and helped to strap the young woman into the bucket, taking the back panel for himself. Anakin squeezed in next to her, revved the engine, and asked the gods, the galaxy, and the Angels to get them home fast.

 

Chapter Text

 

Padmé woke with a groan. Her side throbbed, her limbs heavy. Even blinking hurt, but she knew life when she felt it and didn’t deny this experience, regardless of how painful. Moisture touch her lips and a hand lift her head. She drank too fast, the water going down the wrong tube, and she pulled away, coughing.

“Better?” said a woman’s voice.

Padmé forced her eyes to focus and encountered a woman of weathered skin the quality of tanned leather, her coarse, dull hair pulled into a braid pinned at her nape. Her kind eyes and kind smile made Padmé smile in return.

“Shmi,” she said by way of introduction. Padmé introduced herself, and then peeked under the blanket. Her bodysuit had been hacked down to trousers, her side having been healed with bacta, the smooth skin showing neither a crinkle nor a wrinkle. But when she tried to sit up, the soreness traveled like lightning up her side, and Padmé gasped. Shmi’s hands eased her back down. “Easy. There’s no place to go now, what with the storm.”

Storm? Now that she could concentrate, Padmé heard the whipping, howling, scraping against the exterior of the building. Looking around, she noticed that she was in a clean, neat, if shabby bedroom and the handwoven blanket scratched her skin. “Where’s Obi-Wan? Is he all right?”

Shmi opened her mouth to answer, but raucous laughter cut her off. Men’s voices, distant, yet, loud. Shmi’s lips spread into an indulgent smile. She turned to the open doorway. “The patient needs her rest!”

Padmé heard chuckling — no, giggling — and then an unfamiliar voice said, “Sorry, Mom.” And then they burst into laughter again. Then one shushed the other, who shushed the other, who shushed the other, and then they dissolved into giggles. Again.

Padmé canted a brow. “Drunk?”

Shmi rolled her eyes. “I wish. Think we should get you moving. The bacta healed the wound, but you need to work out that soreness.”

She flicked open a poncho, scooped her arm under Padmé’s back, and helped her sit up, the pain forcing a hiss through Padme’s teeth. Shmi secured the poncho with a belt, then, in incremental movements, Padmé managed to swing her legs over the side. The pain flared red hot when Shmi lifted her into a standing position, and Padmé gritted her teeth. With Shmi’s arm around her waist, Padmé managed small steps across the room, out the door. The hallway led off in two directions. One was a dining room where the shutters had been closed for the duration of the storm, and the other was a communal room where Obi-Wan and an unfamiliar young man were seated, talking animatedly about something she could only guess. Obi-Wan had shed his brown robe and the young man was busy fiddling with … Obi-Wan’s lightsaber . Padmé reeled.

Jedi let other people touch their lightsabers?

When Shmi steered them into the communal room, both young men whipped around, then stood. Obi-Wan’s usually impassive face mellowed with relief and the nameless young man — gangly, who had not yet grown into his height — smiled shyly. Shmi helped Padmé sit on a couch, then exited with the promise to start dinner; Obi-Wan handed her ration cubes from his belt. He returned to his seat.

“How are you feeling?”

Padmé shrugged. “Sore, but that’ll pass. Who’s this?”

The nameless young man stepped forward, went to shake her hand, but he had the deconstructed lightsaber and a hydrospanner in each palm, dropped his hands, and then blushed. It was quite becoming. “Anakin Skywalker,” Obi-Wan said. “He helped save our lives.”

Padmé felt a renewed rush of appreciation flood her chest. “I’m forever in your debt, Anakin. How badly were the fighters damaged?”

Anakin huffed, sat. “Hard to say until I get a look at them, but according to Obi-Wan’s laser sword — ” The Jedi grimaced at those words. “ — the storm’s electrical charge fried most of the circuits. I don’t know if they’re salvageable.”

Padmé looked around, wondering how they had light if the storm would fry the circuits. Then she noticed the solar battery fed through the ceiling. Wait. “Not salvageable? But we — ” She fought down the rush of panic — wouldn’t do to panic. “Anakin, we can’t stay here.”

The young man looked between her and Obi-Wan, and then the life in his face fled. “Oh. I know. I mean, who would want to stay here, right?” He attacked the lightsaber with renewed vigor. At that moment, the savory aroma of dinner wafted through the air. Padmé shared a look with Obi-Wan, reading reluctance, but also the practicality of their situation.

“What Padmé means is, we have a mission of great importance,” Obi-Wan said, gaining Anakin’s attention.

“My planet is under attack and we have to get to Coruscant,” Padmé said. Anakin’s head whipped around, his blue eyes widening. “I need to speak as the Queen’s voice and request aid to defeat the Separatists who have invaded Naboo.”

“But it’s more important that no one knows we’re here,” Obi-Wan said. “Our lives depend on it.”

Anakin nodded. “I’ll see what I can do.” He then eased the panel off Obi-Wan’s lightsaber. “Get ready to dig, though.” He reached to the tool belt at his waist, swapped out his hydrospanner for a solder-blaster, and tapped it at strategic points in the circuits. Obi-Wan leaned forward to get a better look and Padmé found herself caught up in Anakin’s intense concentration. A few more touches, then he used the hydrospanner to screw the panel back into place, and handed it to Obi-Wan. “That should do it.”

Obi-Wan inspected his lightsaber, aimed it at the center of the room and ignited it. The blue blade came alive with a snap-hiss , the hum permeating the air. Anakin gasped; Obi-Wan grinned. He deactivated the lightsaber and reattached it to his belt, then shook Anakin’s hand. “Let me know how I can repay you.”

Padmé thought Anakin had the cutest smile, so shy and so humble. She found herself smiling before she realized it.

“Dinner!” No matter what could be said, Shmi had pipes.

Obi-Wan rushed forward, beating out Anakin to help her stand and walk to the dining room. A pattern on the ceiling arched over the table, and once Padmé was seated, Obi-Wan and Anakin took the chairs on either side. Shmi came out carrying a large platter of food and a pitcher of blue liquid. Two different men entered. The first was a little younger than Anakin, though of the same stature as the older, wizened man who trailed after. Shmi made the introductions: “Owen. And Cliegg Lars, Owen’s father.” Padmé noted the phrasing. They dined on a plant-based dish and a sweet, refreshing blue liquid called bantha milk. Whatever a bantha was. Padmé felt her strength returning.

Cliegg spoke in a gruff voice, “The Tanders decided to relocate after all.”

Shmi murmured in sympathy, and Owen patted her hand. “Damn Hutts,” he said. “It’ll be us next.”

“Bite your tongue,” Cliegg said. “The Lars homestead has been passed on to me from my father and from his and will pass on to you. We’ll fight this.”

Owen spread his hands. “How?”

Cliegg made a noncommittal sound in his throat. His hard gaze turned on Anakin, who ate with his head down close to his plate. “How’s work, Ani?”

Padmé nearly choked on her milk, but table manners learned in the Queen’s household stopped her from making a scene. Ani? She liked it.

Anakin cleared his throat. “’Bout that. … I, um, I was fired today.”

Three pairs of incredulous stares filled the silence. Padmé dropped her gaze back to her meal, but Cliegg’s next words made her look up again.

“Hell of a time to tell us.”

“I know,” Anakin said. “I should have said something sooner.”

“Damn right.” Cliegg’s voice rose in volume. Shmi cut in with a soft, “Cliegg,” but the former barreled on. “You know that Hutt scum is coming past here tomorrow and it’s the money or my legs.”

“Father, I’m sure that’s an exaggeration,” Owen said.

“Tell that to the south vaporators — which still need to be fixed.” Cliegg eyed Anakin, an accusation weighing down the distance. “The Hutts won’t be satisfied with property damage anymore. Any severance pay?”

Anakin emptied the pack at his waist, pushing a short stack of coins towards Cliegg, who counted swiftly before sitting back with a disgusted sigh. “Nowhere near enough. Have you looked for another job?”

Padmé dropped her gaze, pretending not to notice the red flush under Anakin’s tanned skin. She spared a side glance at Obi-Wan, who kept his attention on carefully cutting precise squares out of his meal.

“I will.”

“Get on it. We don’t have the room to feed someone who’s not pulling their weight.”

“Cliegg!” Shmi snapped, and the tension in the room reached unbearable heights. Padmé racked her brain, thinking of some way to diplomatically quell this situation. But before she could break in, Shmi said, “Everyone in this family ” She paused for emphasis. “ … is worthy to be under this roof. Ani can go out to fix the south vaporators — ”

“Actually, I was going to help Obi-Wan dig out his starfighter.”

Cliegg banged his fist on the table. “We’re short handed!”

“Then I’ll head out to the south vaporators,” Shmi interrupted, an edge to her voice. “Simple vandalism is easy to repair and I’ll work it around my regular chores. Cliegg, I have coins stashed under the mattress. You can make up the difference there.”

Silence followed, and Padmé wished for an end to the fourth most uncomfortable dinner of her life. A marriage proposal at fourteen had ended with her father chasing the suitor out of the house. Being twenty-four now, she could look back on it and laugh. But this? Manners on the Outer Rim Territories seemed to be lacking at best and criminal at worst. Who would discuss such personal matters in front of strangers?

Anakin chose that moment to launch up out of his chair and stalk out of the room. Padmé watched everyone but Cliegg watch him go. Owen went to stand, but Shmi beat him to it, rushing out in a rustle of skirts. Silence descended.

Owen said, “You know, Beru said the Sand People have been spotted venturing farther and farther out from the Jundland Wastes — said the Hutt influence are pushing them toward the farmers. Thank the stars they only attack at night, right?”

 

* * *

 

Anakin reached his room and threw himself face first on the bed. The mattress had no give, smelled of the spices his mother used to delouse the bedding, but it was familiar and warm and it was his. For now. Just as he was about to get comfortable, Shmi entered. Without knocking, of course. Her soothing presence unknotted the tension in his shoulders and Anakin lifted his face from the pillow and sat up. She took a seat on a nearby stool, and waited.

Anakin sighed. “What do you want me to say?” He threw up his arms, and then threw his stupidly long legs over the side, but remained seated. He didn’t like looming over her. “Cliegg just … He hates me.”

Shmi shook her head, but didn’t voice the objection. This wasn’t the first time they had had this conversation. She took his sun-tanned hand in her weathered one, the callous on her thumb a rough tickle as she rubbed it over his knuckles. “I won’t argue that it was very prickly in there.”

And in front of Padmé and Obi-Wan, too. The shame burned his cheeks. He dropped her hand and threw himself face-first into the pillow again. Some people paced; he sulked. He felt a tap on his leg.

“Marrying Cliegg was the best for all of us. You can see that right? Cliegg was a widower with a young son, and you and I needed a fresh start.” She didn’t have to remind him. Living as no better than slaves in Mos Espa, barely able to scrape together enough to eat, but they were together and they were happy. Until Shmi met Cliegg, married him, and moved them both out here. Owen loved having a big brother and Anakin loved Owen, but Owen was practical where Anakin was bullheaded. And Cliegg prized practicality above everything.

The one thing Anakin resented, though, was never knowing his own father. His mother never talked about him, but Anakin had always assumed he had gained his technical skill from him. Which was why working in Watto’s shop had become the favorable alternative to living on the Lars homestead under Cliegg’s constant disapproval.

The problem lurked at the top of his list of If only . He loved his mother more than the urge to just leave , but, now, out of a job and condemned to stay and help out here until he could find employment, he wouldn’t make it another day. He couldn’t take it any more.

But if he abandon his mother, what would that do to his conscience?

Shmi’s calm voice broke through his thoughts. “Storm’s let up.”

Anakin rolled over and pulled back the screen on his window, and instantly regretted it. Sand poured into the room. Shmi made a cluck ing sound of disapproval. Anakin scooped the sand back out the window and looked up at the night sky. Two of Tatooine’s three moons hung overhead.

“Beautiful night,” his mother said.

Anakin nodded. He felt so small when he looked at the stars, more so right now than ever before. But that wouldn’t last. “Be careful tomorrow.” He didn’t know why he said it, just that he had to. She dropped a kiss on his hair, then left.

Regardless of how it happened, one day he would be out there traveling the stars with nothing to stop him.

 

Chapter Text

 

After ejecting from their doomed craft, Qui-Gon’s parafoil caught air and jerked him around so harshly, the movement wrenched his back. Nothing too painful, just a reminder of an old injury. At his age, he shouldn’t be on missions in the first place; instead, sitting on the Jedi Council in a cushy chair and losing his connection with the wider galaxy. As his parafoil evened out and he descended, Qui-Gon allowed himself a rueful smile just thinking about the Council. And then turned his attention to the starship. Black smoke spiraled down, and, more distressing, no sign of his co-pilot. The starship disappeared past the canopy followed by a muted splash. By then, Qui-Gon’s boots brushed against the leaves, branches snagged at his robe, his leggings, tunic. He pushed the branches out of the way, wincing when one slapped against his cheek, and then it all came to an abrupt stop.

His feet dangled several meters off the forest floor. Looking up, the parafoil twisted in the branches, the thin material impaled. His robe, too, snagged on a branch. Qui-Gon guessed his odds. If he released and landed, he could slow his descent with an aid of the Force, adding a cushion to ease the impact on his knees. It would mean ripping a larger hole in his robe, but that could be patched. But if he climbed up, then released himself and freed his robe, he could climb down and not face the impact on his poor joints.

Ultimately, the decision was taken out of his hands. Just as he came to the second conclusion, footsteps sounded and red uniforms approached, their faces covered in helmet-masks, blaster rifles raised.

One of the uniforms climbed up, drew a dagger, and sliced through Qui-Gon’s harness. He heard his robe rip, and then the forest floor rushed up at him. He cushioned his landing with an application of the Force, but the very contact vibrated through his boots, up his ankles, to his knees, and into his thighs. Qui-Gon bent forward to land with bent knees, but even that did little to deflect the impact. He eased himself upright and rounded his shoulders. He would not show anything less than Jedi aplomb.

No doubt those surrounding him were Separatists. Which made Qui-Gon question how Count Dooku had raised an army so quickly. No doubt the Count, the former Senator of Naboo, had been planning this for years prior to secession, which brought up the next question as to whether the Naboo people would be held accountable for the Count’s actions even if the system had not joined the Separatist Movement.

And why everyone, including the Jedi, had been caught unprepared.

Now that he could see the trees for the forest, a prison camp lay just ahead, stumps surrounding the area. The commandos took his lightsaber and utility belt, and escorted him to the camp at blaster rifle point. The camp’s outer walls gave way to a second wall, then opened to a bare field where the prisoners were held.

Qui-Gon found himself as tall as the people inside. They were bipedal, their lithe agility making their movements willowy and deceptively fragile, but only the hard looks in their eyes and the sureness of their bearing had Qui-Gon realize that they were a warrior race.

The gathered heat of the canopy sat oppressively upon the camp, though the prisoners had no reaction to it. Naturally. Qui-Gon settled in the only area of shade against the far wall and shrugged off his robe. Yup, a tear, the newest of several accumulated over the decades. He’d repair it later. Right now, Qui-Gon composed his mind for meditation.

He didn’t know much about Obi-Wan Kenobi, this being their first mission together, but the young Knight must have survived that crash. Qui-Gon refused to believe otherwise. The Jedi were not impervious, but it hurt to see young Knights cut down in their prime.

Qui-Gon’s most pressing issue, now, was escape … though not on his own. These warrior people were trained, disciplined and willing to battle for their freedom. Since none of the prisoner-warriors had bother to approach Qui-Gon the moment he had entered — in fact, most eyed him disdainfully and kept their distance — the Jedi Master figured the best means to stage a prison break would be to familiarize himself with the leadership and defer to their decisions. A stirring in the Force assured him that this was ideal.

A brown-and-green warrior sat in the center of a circle of five, their heads bent together, a grating language rising and falling around them. Qui-Gon automatically assumed the warrior holding everyone’s attention was the leader — their deferential treatment would have been enough to confirm it.

But just as Qui-Gon made to stand, a faint explosion rocked the canopy and a tree went up in flames. He and his fellow prisoners looked up, and then another explosion and another, trees bursting into flames. The perimeter alarm buzzed, loud and grating. Qui-Gon grinned.

Rescue.

Trapped on the planet, however, he, Queen Amidala, and her retinue had no chance of rescue now. The shelling had stopped, but patrols marched the streets day and night. The machinist shop had a cellar where Qui-Gon and the Naboo slept. He disguised the door with boxes, a Force-pull easing them into place. If a commando broke in — usually to use the fresher — Qui-Gon would implant a Force-suggestion to ignore the boxes, ignore everything, do what you need to do and get out . As for food, the Thule twins went out at night and returned before daylight. Sunrise of the fourth day, however, saw only one twin return.

His uniform, down to shirtsleeves and trousers, was singed and ripped, blood wetting the sleeve. “Not mine,” the twin said. He handed over their only other blaster to Panaka. His twin’s blaster. “Sir, I wasn’t followed, I’m sure of it, but our position may be compromised.”

Captain Panaka nodded. He, too, was down to shirtsleeves, but his bearing was no less a captain. “I’ll inform Her Majesty. We’ll use the old supply tunnels at the Veterans Memorial.”

Qui-Gon shrugged into his robe. “I can influence the minds of the Separatist patrols to ignore us until we’re safe.”

Panaka blinked. “You can do that?”

“The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded.”

Queen Amidala and her four handmaidens had commandeered the rear of the cellar, stringing up their outer robes as a privacy curtain. Still in her heavy dress and white makeup, the Queen slumped in her seat in a very un-queenly manner, though that could be excused. Captain Panaka related the details and two of the handmaidens helped the Queen stand. Without their robes, the handmaidens shared a likeness — no, sameness — and Qui-Gon’s mind scratched at the surface of an answer. But not now, not when he had people to protect.

With a judicious application of the Force, Qui-Gon moved the boxes blocking the door, then eased it open on well-oiled hinges. He led the way outside. This early in the morning, a sliver of blue-gray predawn touched the lip of the horizon, cutting through clouds made of incendiary and debris, a black shroud that obscured the stars. The streets were cluttered with rubble, former colonnades and verdigris roofs, stairs that led to nothing, the darkened windows clinging to their last wall. Qui-Gon’s heart hurt; not only his feelings, but what he sensed from the Naboo.

Twice he had to place a Force-suggestion to get them across a wide boulevard. Separatist landcruisers and Energy Pummels became more prevalent the closer they came to the city center, but stepping through hollowed out buildings kept them clear of any commandos. Panaka and the handmaidens helped the Queen across the rubble, holding up her skirts and taking her hand. By the time the sun peeked over the horizon in a smear of orange light, they had crossed into the cultural plaza. Captain Panaka whispered the directions to Qui-Gon, how to enter the Veterans Memorial and access the tunnels there.

The problem came when they closed in on the Veterans Memorial, using a side street so they didn’t have to cross the avenue. Tucked against a former house, they had a clear view of the Memorial, rubble surrounded by four walls. I should have known.

Captain Panaka wiped a hand over his face, flicking away the sweat. “All right. We’ll head into the forest.”

“Sir, the Gungans,” Thule whispered.

“I know, but we’re out of options. There’s a cave linked to the tunnels. We can follow them to — ”

The Force rippled. Qui-Gon turned.

A red uniform wearing a helmet-mask stumbled out from behind a collapsed staircase, adjusting his flies. When the commando caught sight of them, his blaster rifle swung up, but Qui-Gon swiped his hand out in a Force-push, throwing the commando into the stairs. However, a blaster bolt fired into the air and ricocheted off a free-standing wall. Voices sounded and boots stomped on the ground.

Qui-Gon waved the Naboo on. “Go.”

They broke into a run, Qui-Gon guarding the rear. The rubble slid under their feet, but they made it past the last standing wall, then across a wide boulevard littered with stones. The sound of booted feet, a voice shouting, “It’s the Queen! Take her alive!”

Qui-Gon whirled, and came face to face with a squad of ten Separatist commandos. They rushed forward, across the boulevard, into the shadow of the standing wall. Qui-Gon closed his eyes and allowed the Force to flow through him. Lifting his hands, hearing the commandos closing in, feeling the warm morning air. A creak, screams, and a deafening crash, the breeze swirling his robe around his ankles. Qui-Gon opened his eyes to see the wall crumbled at his feet. He released his emotions into the Force, and then whirled to join the Naboo in the forest.

Captain Panaka led them between the trees, through the underbrush, and, at last, to a cave, where the Force buzzed with life. Panaka aimed his blaster at the cave’s entrance, then lowered it. Other humans guarded the cave entrance. Young, Naboo by their singed, ripped, and dusty dress, men and woman both. From inside the cave, an older male with sun-warmed skin emerged. He bowed, leading the other humans to bow, too. “Your Majesty.”

“Headmaster Dannt,” Queen Amidala said.

Dannt’s brow quirked, his lips parted as though he would speak, but then his dark eyes cut across to Qui-Gon, assessed, then to Panaka. “Captain, you couldn’t have come at a better time.”

Dannt lead them into the cave. The morning warmth tapered off to a slick coolness. Lamps were strewn on the ceiling, from the entrance, to a tunnel, to a second chamber. Queen Amidala took a seat on an outcropping, her white makeup unsullied, but slick with sweat. More young people populated this chamber — students. One young man, who shared Panaka’s dark skin, tended to a cooking fire, rodents on spits.

The Headmaster led them to a crate. A young woman with fair skin and red hair and a young man Qui-Gon guessed to be Dannt’s son, since they shared similar features, focused their attention on a map, rocks pinning the corners flat. Introductions followed, these Naboo shocked to see a Jedi, though no accusations about failed negotiations followed.

Dannt gestured to the map. “They’re setting up a military cache. Blasters, power cells. Armed, we can begin an insurgency.”

Qui-Gon pointed to the field outside of the city. “Draw the Separatists out of Theed, you’d have more of a chance to launch a counterstrike.”

“With what army, Master Jedi?”

Qui-Gon stuck his hands into opposite sleeves, an old technique for when he had to broach an uncomfortable subject, what he habitually did in front of the Jedi Council. “What about the Gungans?”

Dan é Oli é , the red-head, had the most explosive reaction. Not the cringe and silence Qui-Gon had observed previously, but an outright snarl. “What have the Gungans ever done for us?”

“They would kill us as soon as look at us,” Captain Panaka said.

“The only good Gungan is a dead Gungan,” Gregar Typho said. Not Dannt’s son, as Qui-Gon had assumed.

“Such animosity must be put aside,” Qui-Gon said, seeking reason, “if you plan to fight for your planet.”

“Master Jedi,” Headmaster Dannt said, a shadow over his dark eyes, “there is too much history between our species to settle overnight. Besides, we must think about the future. The most important thing is how to retake the city.”

Qui-Gon dipped his head in acquiescence. A whisper in the Force told him to have patience, wait and see .

Headmaster Dannt, Captain Panaka, and the students mapped out a plan to ambush the cache and steal the shipment of blaster rifles and power cells. As a Jedi, Qui-Gon could not fight this battle, so when Dannt requested his help, he had to admit, “I can only protect you. I can’t fight a war for you.”

The Headmaster’s brow tightened in mild ire, but he and his students dined on roasted rodent meat, and then conscripted Captain Panaka’s aid: “We’ll need a lookout.” Queen Amidala gave her blessing and the Captain addressed Qui-Gon with a brief, “Protect her,” before joining the others.

Silence fell. The Queen’s fidgeting and the handmaidens’ conversing in low tones disturbed the quiet, and Qui-Gon mentally prepared his argument. “Your Majesty.”

Her head whipped around, the feathers fluttering. “Master Jinn.”

“I ask for your permission to make contact with the Gungans.”

The handmaidens’ conversation stumbled to a halt, their incredulous stares sweeping around. Even the Queen looked nonplussed, sitting so still and silent Qui-Gon feared she had stopped breathing. Odd, considering a Queen would have more poise. Her fingers knotted in her lap and she dropped her gaze.

“That is … I have … Do you think that’s wise?”

“I believe gaining the allegiance of the Gungans is vital to the survival of the Naboo. Allow me to speak as your voice.” Qui-Gon felt his lips twitch in an abbreviated grin. “It has happened before, Your Majesty.”

The Queen seemed to deflate in her seat. She shared a look with the handmaidens, then Qui-Gon, gaze shadowed in uncertainty and fear. “Very well. I wish you the best.”

He bowed and left.

But when Qui-Gon exited the cave, his instincts came alert. The Force rippled, violently , a miasma of darkness he had never felt before. His pausing in the entrance must have spooked the sentries because the woman on his left cleared her throat. “Master Jinn?”

In a sickening rush, an invisible push hit him in the chest and Qui-Gon’s feet left the forest floor. He flew backwards. The lights in the cave tunnel flashed past, the wind twisted his robe around his legs, and his hair flapped over his shoulders. With a jolt, his back slammed into the rock wall. The impact shook his spine and he crumpled to the ground, the life gone out of his legs.

He heard the ping of blasters discharging, a familiar hum …

Qui-Gon swallowed his sickness, forced his head up. His vision wavered, but he could make out a red lightsaber wielded by a figure in a black robe. The figure ran the lightsaber against tunnel wall, leaving blackened excoriations in his wake. Then the robed figure stood over Qui-Gon, face hidden in the depths of the hood, darkness and violence pulsing in his being. Qui-Gon could only swallow and try not to lose consciousness.

The figure’s boot lashed out, slamming into Qui-Gon’s chin. His head snapped back, but he didn’t yet lose consciousness. He heard screams, the hum and hiss of a lightsaber. The screams grew louder, the sound of a struggle, and then …

He came to with a hand on his forehead. A gruff voice said, “My friend, are you alive?” Qui-Gon blinked, and it all came rushing back.

He sat up, swallowed his sick, and looked up into a Gungan’s face. Not just any Gungan, but JarJar, whose bruises had discolored into green and purple splotches. Qui-Gon grunted a question because he didn’t trust his stomach not to upend itself if he opened his mouth.

JarJar understood. “I heard the noise. I ran as fast as I could and found you here.”

Proof that JarJar had been tracking them. Qui-Gon gestured for the Gungan to help him stand. Once on his feet, Qui-Gon took several deep breaths, touched the lump on the back of his head, and then staggered to the inner chamber. The lights highlighted the excoriations on the cave walls, the kind made by a lightsaber, bootprints and what looked like shoes being dragged against her will. When he entered the inner chamber, the handmaidens were unconscious on the ground, two of them crumpled against a wall, the other two having black slashes across their chests. Qui-Gon knelt over the unconscious ones, checked the pulse at their wrists. Alive.

Heavy footfalls made him turn. A voice said, “We saw a starfighter take off. What — ?” and then Captain Panaka, Headmaster Dannt, and those who had gone out flooded into the chamber, drew their weapons and pointed them at JarJar.

Qui-Gon lurched to his feet, putting himself between the Naboo and the Gungan. “Weapons down, Captain.”

Captain Panaka’s dark eyes flickered from corner to corner, though his blaster never wavered. “Where’s the Queen?”

The question Qui-Gon had not allowed himself to face. The dark presence, the figure in the black robe, had taken Queen Amidala.

Qui-Gon should have listened to the Force, to wait and see. He would never forgive himself.

 

Chapter Text

 

Obi-Wan dusted the sand from his hair — sand got everywhere — and disembarked Anakin’s hanno speeder. The lanky young man had parked close to where he knew the N-1 starfighters to be buried, had brought along two shovels and a sand blower strapped to the speeder’s back panel.

Obi-Wan shucked his robe and grabbed a shovel while Anakin set up the blower. His plan, as he explained it, “is to not dig straight down, but create a pit of concentric circles so we can climb back up when we’re finished. And for you to clear any excess sand so we’re not digging our way out again.” He pointed the sand blower away from the hanno speeder, then pulled a cord and let it run.

The blower’s clattering rumble punctuated their movements. Anakin angled the sand blower in a circle while Obi-Wan dutifully shoveled excess sand to the side. They dug deeper and deeper until the dry air evaporated the moisture inside him and Obi-Wan’s head felt like a furnace. He called for a break. Sitting on the hanno speeder’s hood, Anakin was painted in sand, and Obi-Wan figured he must look it, too. They passed Anakin’s water skin back and forth, the sips slacking his thirst, except many of the sips were as salty as the sand..

When they resumed work, it took another fifteen minutes before they spotted a cockpit dome peeking out of the dune. Anakin set the sand blower aside. He returned to the hanno speeder for the second shovel and, together, they scraped at the sand and uncovered the starfighter’s chipped and scorched fuselage. It was Padmé’s; the intact astromech confirmed it.

Obi-Wan brushed sand away from the octagonal eyepieces. The red and gold droid chose that moment to come alive, whistling and beeping what Obi-Wan assumed were demands to Get me out of here . How would he know, he didn’t speak binary. Anakin found the manual release and Obi-Wan used the Force to levitate the droid out of its hold and onto the sand. He caught Anakin gaping at the casual display of the Force and had to stop himself from smirking in return.

Obi-Wan and Anakin resumed their sand blowing and digging and found the second starfighter. The blackened astromech was fused to the hold and the transparisteel dome had been cracked in the landing. Obi-Wan rubbed his temple, flooded with the memory of hitting his head, but little else. Anakin pried open the engine compartment, his sigh all the confirmation Obi-Wan needed.

“Yeah. Totally fried. The storm strikes again.”

Obi-Wan bit back a swear. “So there’s really no way to repair it? Either of them?”

Anakin shook his head. “Better to sell the hull for scraps and buy new. Have any money?”

“I can get some transferred — ”

Anakin pulled a face. “Republic credits? No one will take that out here.”

Obi-Wan sighed. “Great.” Then eyed Anakin. “ You don’t happen to have a ship, do you?”

“Are you kidding? If I had a ship, what would I be hanging around here for?”

Obi-Wan thought about that, paired it with dinner’s extreme uncomfortableness, and chanced a question. “So why do you stay?”

Anakin cast him a look, his blue eyes bright. “How can I abandon my mom?”

Obi-Wan could sense the fragile nature of Anakin’s trust at that moment, so he changed the subject. “Do you have any kind of transmitter? One powerful enough to broadcast to Coruscant?” Getting to Coruscant wasn’t their priority anymore, but since they were past the communications blackout …

Anakin frowned. “No, but that X-4 unit should suffice — I mean, if I boost the signal and unscramble the security codes. Whose is it?”

“Padmé’s.”

That got a smile. Very interesting.

 

* * *

 

Left behind while the Lars/Skywalker family went about their chores, Padmé settled on the couch in the main room and waited for Obi-Wan and Anakin to return. Her side ached, mild pain compared to last night’s. Owen had asked whether or not Padmé needed company, but one stern look from Cliegg had sent him on his way. Diplomacy was in Padmé’s blood, so she bid the family a good morrow, and then sat back to redress her strategy.

The mission to Courscant had ended before it began. She knew that, and they didn’t have the means or the credits to resume it. Naboo, one of few Outer Rim Worlds that was a member of the Republic, still had to operate within the jurisdiction of trade and negotiations with its neighbors. No one here would take Republic credits. If they could get their hands on something tangible, something with more bargaining power, then they might be able to barter passage to the Core Worlds, even if Tatooine looked more like a scoundrels’ nest than an upstanding spaceport. Still, beggars couldn’t be choosers.

And such thoughts awakened more than introspection.

The Separatist armada had dropped out of hyperspace at third-hour planet time and immediately dispersed into a blockade formation. In the following thirty minutes, a communique had been broadcast to the palace channels for Queen Amidala to respond to the Separatist leader, Count Dooku, in an hour’s time or he would begin the invasion. Amidala had consulted her ministers. After his successful secession from the Galactic Republic, and taking thousands of star systems with him, including the Trade Federation, the Banking Clan, and many tech guilds, Dooku show of force was a grandstanding gesture, all to put the Republic on edge. Since the Count meant to posture and no more, Queen Amidala’s best response would be to humor him, and then urge him on his way.

Had that been a wise decision, to challenge a warmonger? If it backfired — and, statistically, she had feared it would — then it would mean hundreds if not thousands of lives caught in the crossfire. Amidala, then, addressed her ministers.

“Send out a distress call to the Senate. And get the people out of the city.”

The ministers turned their heads, sharing unreadable looks. “To where, Your Majesty?” Governor Sio Bibble said. “We dare not enter the forest.”

“We have no choice, Governor,” Amidala said. She squinted as the light hit her eye. Out the window, the sun peeked over the horizon, ivory pale and —

No. Not the sun.

A ship, oblong in shape with an orb at the center, reflected the rising sun, the flashes of light dazzling the eye. Amidala nodded to the window behind Captain Panaka. He turned and the muscle in his jaw jumped. Another ship followed, then another, until they filled the sky, brilliant with light and movement.

Out the corner of her eye, she saw her ministers stand and shuffle forward for a better look. Captain Panaka backed away just as one of the ships broke off from the group and landed outside the forest. The Captain turned. His perpetually worried face should have put her at ease with its familiarity. This time, it set her on edge.

And then they fled just as the first shell rocked the city.

With a sigh, Padmé brushed fingers over her side, the muscles twitching.

The underground aspect to living in the desert had its advantages. As the afternoon approached, the twin suns created haze lines outside the open doorway. That morning, she had watched Owen and Cliegg retract the large door screen, the son holding a blower aloft while the father eased the screen back, their duel efforts preventing sand from entering the house. Though, and Padmé shook the ends of her braid, sand got everywhere.

The hum of a hanno speeder alerted her to Obi-Wan and Anakin’s return. They both appeared at the entrance on the other side of the courtyard, holding Obi-Wan’s robe between them. Something red and gold shimmered in the robe, and by its motions Padmé knew it to be the astromech that had flown with her, X-4 211. She chastised herself for getting so sentimental over a droid, but a part of her was glad it had survived.

And then she realized why it needed to be carried. The X-4’s design flaw had been its wheels, what no doubt spun out in the sand, whereas the newer R-series had flat treads that could tackle any terrain. Inexpensive astromechs bought on the black market for Naboo’s security forces who would rarely see action was just another reminder of her backwards little planet.

Obi-Wan entered, sand blown hair standing on end, and eased X-4 to the floor. Then he folded his robe into a square and set it aside. Honestly, Jedi attire wasn’t that different from what many people wore on lesser developed worlds. It would make blending into the populace easier. For example, Anakin wore threadbare, but clean clothes, similar in texture and style to Obi-Wan’s, save for the simplicity in the folds of his tunic and leggings. He also wore wraps around his wrists and ankles to keep the sand out, and Padmé thought that a much-needed, practical addition to anyone living on desert worlds.

X-4 trundled up to Padmé, whistling greetings. She didn’t understand binary, but smiled regardless and went to pat its head plate. Obi-Wan grabbed her hand. “He’s been baking in the sun.”

“Ah.” She pulled her hand away, unaccustomed to being so manhandled. “What makes you think it’s a ‘he’?” She twisted one side of her lips to show the playfulness of the comment and Obi-Wan matched it.

“Very well.” He pulled up a chair and sat, the half smile refusing to budge. “ She , then.”

“We can send a signal to Coruscant if you want,” Anakin said, staring at a wall, his shoulders and spine arched into a hunch, as though trying to make himself smaller somehow. His comment made her sit up despite the renewed flare in her side.

“Is that so? Yes, please. I’ll program in the contact codes.”

Anakin asked for Obi-Wan’s help in pulling out a solar battery and a viewscreen, which he then hooked up to X-4 and positioned in front of Padmé. Another design flaw in the X-4 series had been the almost simultaneous development of holographic projection programmed into the R-units. Viewscreens were for backwaters, Naboo being no exception.

Padmé rattled off the contact codes, and then waited. The screen flickered to life, a familiar, tired face looking back at her. But once the receiver recognized the caller, her features came to life, her posture straight.

“Your Majesty.”

Sitting on the other side of the screen, Anakin flinched and Obi-Wan’s brow furrowed.

“Have the Jedi ambassadors arrived?”

Padmé nodded. “They have, Senator Naberrie, but the negotiations failed through no fault of the ambassadors. Naboo is under attack. The Separatist forces have not only blockaded the planet, but our capital city is in ruins. I ask for reinforcements to fight this battle.”

Senator Sola Naberrie spread her hands in a helpless gesture. “My apologizes, Your Majesty, but the Senate is aware of Count Dooku’s actions. He hasn’t just attacked Naboo, but six other star systems on the Outer Rim. These systems are not members of the Republic, but they, too, have requested intervention. And the Senate itself is bogged down in bureaucracy.” The Senator paused, her lips thinning. “The Republic has no standing army to fight a war.”

Padmé blinked away her shock, not liking the moments in diplomacy where one didn’t say what the other would have to infer. Even with Dooku on Naboo’s doorstep, it wouldn’t be worth it to risk Senate intervention. Requesting Jedi ambassadors had been risky in itself, but this? Padmé kept her voice steady through sheer force of will. “So we’re on our own?”

“I’m very sorry, Your Majesty. The Republic is simply unprepared.”

Out the corner of her eye, Padmé tracked Obi-Wan’s movements until he stood off to one side, staring at the screen. His jaw dropped. “Padmé?”

Senator Naberrie started, looked off to the side, though at that angle, couldn’t see the one who had spoken. “What was that?”

Padmé cleared her throat. “Thank you, Senator. I’m sorry more couldn’t have been accomplished.”

The Senator’s face sobered, the weathered lines around her mouth deepening and showing her age. Padmé’s age, eventually. “I’m sorry, too, Your Majesty. I know heartfelt platitudes won’t mean much, but good luck.”

Padmé signaled X-4 and the screen went dark. She sat back, struggling not to feel so down, but with the weight of her planet and lives of her fellow Naboo in the back of her mind, she struggled in vain. How to fight the Separatists and save Naboo?

Obi-Wan moved back to the chair he had vacated and aimed a hard look Padme’s way, the accusation coming off him in waves. “That was … a person who looked like you. An older version of you.”

Ah. This. It was bound to happen. But such conclusions were better left for others to uncover instead of being told outright. They tended to believe their own deductions despite the evidence presented. He was a Jedi. So. “Yes.”

“And the Queen’s handmaidens — you keep your faces covered, but I swore I couldn’t tell any of you apart. I didn’t want to come off as an offworlder, so I kept that thought to myself.”

He fell silent, the grinding of the gears in his head nearly audible to her ears. She eyed Anakin, who pretended not to listen as he dismantled and set aside the solar battery and viewscreen.

Obi-Wan’s head came up, his blue eyes clear. “You’re clones.”

Padmé nodded. “Yes. All of the Naboo are clones. Yes, we know it’s illegal. And, yes, I had no choice in the matter. But that doesn’t dismiss the fact that we are still people who deserve the right to live.”

Obi-Wan folded his arms over his chest, holding himself and settling back in the chair. “I was questioning why Senator Naberrie didn’t try harder to gain the Senate’s intervention. The Republic will do nothing to help you.”

Don’t you think I know that? Padmé fumed, but thanked her diplomatic training for the ability to keep her thoughts unvoiced. Even if the Republic saw them as freaks worthy of less than muddy boots, she still had to try. Naboo’s acceptance into the Senate had been based on a ruse; and now Senator Naberrie, the second Senator of Naboo, existed as Queen Amidala’s older sister, sharing a strong likeness. A thought struck like lightning. “Could the Jedi help?”

Obi-Wan shook his head. “We’re peacekeepers, not warriors, regardless of what the tales allege.”

She would have continued to argue, would have made the case to brainstorm new strategies, but a terrified scream cut her off:

“ANAKIN!”

 

Chapter Text

 

Anakin spun and rushed back across the courtyard, up the stairs, all without thinking, all by following the notion that something had happened and it wasn’t good.

He came out through the dome to see Owen on the sand, his hand torn open at the palm and leaking red, and Cliegg beside him, one of his legs missing, his kneecap gushing blood. Both were sun burned and sand whipped. Cliegg’s V-35 Courier drifted not too far away, the thrust turbines smoking. Anakin rushed forward, feeling — no, sensing — Obi-Wan’s presence behind him. Anakin lifted Owen out of the sand, seeing the torn fabric of his tunic and the burn marks on his leggings. Obi-Wan ripped the remainder of Cliegg’s leggings and used it to tie a tourniquet. Cliegg howled in pain.

Owen was gasping for air. “Shmi … Shmi’s still out there.”

Anakin’s blood stilled in his veins. “What happened?” he heard himself say.

“I finished early and I thought Shmi could use some help, so I went to find her, but there was evidence of a struggle, and bantha tracks in single file. Sand People. I found Father and we went after her, but the Sand People attacked us. I had a blaster and we managed to get away, but they shot at our speeder and we managed to make it here …” He dissolved into dry heaves, the body too dehydrated to give up more than salt.

Anakin maintained his hold on Owen through sheer luck because he didn’t have the strength to stand anymore. But he did because the galaxy was an unforgiving hellhole looking to trap him in its madness. “Which way were the Sand People going?”

“East,” Owen said.

Anakin nodded. His hanno speeder was still parked just past the dome and he could get to it and be on his way in seconds. “Owen, can you walk?” The younger man nodded, and then took his own weight. “Obi-Wan, see to them? I’m going to find my mom.” Anakin marveled that he could speak so calmly after everything that had happened, as though heard through a filter. He headed off toward his hanno speeder.

“Anakin,” Obi-Wan called. But he didn’t stop, hopped into the bucket seat. “It’ll be dark soon. Wait for sunrise, at least.”

The roar of the engine cut out all other sounds, and Anakin cranked the accelerator, swerving east, past the family’s line of moisture vaporators, and out towards the Jundland Wastes.

He tore through the canyons, the cliffs saturated in washes of orange and amber, while the shifting suns cast deep, dark shadows in the crevasses. He slowed, searching the ground. Bantha tracks appeared ten minutes later, overlapping in the traditional Sand People formation. But he didn’t hear braying or the distinct, hoarse cry the Sand People made whenever they spotted an intruder. Nevertheless, Anakin followed them.

At sunsset, he arrived at the Dune Sea. Two Sandcrawlers were parked on a dune, the gangplanks lowered, a group of Jawas sorting through the scrap scattered on the sand. From the parts he could identify, a battle had happened here, a chassis in pieces, turbines blow apart, durasteel plates and transparisteel shards. Anakin parked and stepped out of his hanno speeder. The Jawas abandoned their scavenging and banded together, tittering in Jawaese. Then the chief Jawa stepped forward and switched to Jawa Trade Talk; Anakin addressed him in Basic.

At first, the chief wanted to sell Anakin a protocol droid at half its market value, but Anakin reiterated his need to find a caravan of Tusken Raiders. The Jawas had an easy relationship with the Sand People, neither enemy nor ally, so they must have seen something. The harshness of his tone washed over the chief Jawa in a near-visible wave. The latter’s shoulders hunched and the chief Jawa pointed north. Anakin hopped back into his hanno speeder. He headed north, out to the Tusken Flats.

Called so because of the cracked salt flats that shimmered white under the noon suns, only the Sand People braved it, and by doing so received their other name, Tusken Raiders, those who came from the Tusken Flats.

The Flats went on forever, silver in the twilight, the vastness making it impossible to find any tracks. Anakin slowed to a halt. He flipped the back panel up, dug out the water skin, and his raspy throat wept in relief at the first touch of moisture. Anakin drained the skin. He hadn’t had the time to refill it after sharing it with Obi-Wan, nor did he consider saving any for the return journey.

And there would be a return journey.

Like a echo felt from within, a cry of desperation made Anakin drop the water skin. The pain — the agony — twisted in his belly, and without hesitation, he revved the hanno speeder, whipped it around, and headed north.

By the time he found the bantha tracks, the moons were cresting in succession. The moonslight cast conflicting shadows, and he swore he lost the tracks when, in reality, they veered west. The drop in temperature raised the flesh on his arms. Anakin could have dug out his poncho, except he didn’t want to stop, and followed the tracks at a crawl, too terrified to speed up because he might lose them, but too scared of what could be happening to his mother to not go faster. Anakin briefly considered igniting a flare stick, but then the harshness of the feeling meant he was getting close.

The Tusken Flats gave way to the Copper Mesa, where moonslight picked out the jagged hills of the Valley of the Hunted in the distance. Campfires flickered on the mesa floor. Anakin pulled his hanno speeder over to a rock big enough to hide it, shut off the engine, and took his 6-2Aug2 hunting rifle out from under the seat and his macrobinoculars out of the back compartment. Camping on a mesa meant the Sand People could keep watch for an attack; however, with the knowledge that no one risked crossing the Tusken Flats but the Tusken Raiders, Anakin didn’t assume the Sand People would be on the lookout tonight. Still, he would have to be smart if he planned to save his mother. She was here. He knew it.

Keeping low, Anakin clung to the shadows, dashed across the sand when his intuition alerted him to move-there-go! That sense, sensation, the voice pointing him in the right direction had saved his life on numerous runs through Beggar’s Canyon and would save his life tonight. At least, he hoped so.

In no time, the mesa stretched out before him. Anakin ducked behind a rock and opened his macrobinoculars.

Sand People tended to cooking fires, the tents arranged in a lax formation, while children chased each other in a silent game all children played. But at the center of the camp, awash in the moonslight, was his mother. Strung up on a scaffold, and so far away, he couldn’t see whether or not she breathed.

He couldn’t think, didn’t want to think. Anakin dropped the binoculars, raised the hunting rifle, aimed at the figure tending a cooking pot, and squeezed the trigger. The kick slammed the butt into his gut, the rapport like crack of doom. The slug sailed with a whistle, dropping the figure like a sack of grain. Again, Anakin aimed and fired, and again the next one fell. By the time the third dropped, a hoarse bellow went up, and suddenly, a dozen other figures flooded out of the tents, a swarm crossing the mesa to bear down on Anakin’s hiding spot. A few aimed their own rifles, fired, but Anakin dodged, returned fire.

If his senses hadn’t screamed at him to DUCK! , his brains would have been in the sand. A Raider had come around the back of his hiding spot, a gaffi stick whistling through the air. The pointed end crashed into the rock with an echoing thwack . Anakin thrust the butt of his rifle into his attacker’s chest, then clubbed him across the face. The helmet went flying, but he didn’t have time to quench the curiosity of what a Tusken Raider looked like under the mask. Anakin flew out from his hiding spot, shot a charging figure, and then swept the rifle’s muzzle at the legs of a fleeing figure before shooting it in the back at close range. That one buzzed up his arms. A part of him like it.

He raised the rifle, spun, fired. Automatic, a burn sizzling in his chest. Nothing could call it peace the way it hurt, but with every dead body, he was … whole.

At last, he could catch his breath. Anakin whirled, checking for any more attackers, but only bodies littered the sand. He clenched his fists around the hunting rifle and hurried to his mother.

The tents were silent, the air reeking of bantha dung, what the Sand People used for kindling. Shmi was bound at the wrists, her eyes swollen shut. Her face had been knifed, hair shorn in places, missing in others, and blood had dried on her neck and down the front of her tunic. It was a miracle she had made it this far.

Anakin dropped the rifle, battled with the straps, and cradled his mother to his chest, her limp body strangely heavy. “Mom?” He pressed an ear to her mouth and felt the faint susurrations of breathing. The lips moved. Anakin lifted his head to watch the muscles in her face struggle to respond. At last, her eyes opened to slits, one bloodshot, the other with a blown out pupil. Anakin felt his smile falter. “Mom?”

Her lips moved and her voice croaked, but he couldn’t make out the sounds.

“I’m here, Mom. I’m going to get you out of here.”

As he spoke, her eyes rolled up and her body went slack. Something ancient and primal inside him responded to it, a sense of passing he couldn’t name. Potent. Everlasting. Nothing survived in the desert without its approval, and tears were no different. He had nothing left.

Pain bloomed in the back of his head. Anakin whipped around, seeing two Tusken children, who scooped up rocks, reared back to hurl them. He set down his mother’s body and reached for the rifle. He felt nothing. Simply hoisted the weapon and fired.

 

Chapter Text

 

Her name was Sabé. The decoy Queen. The handmaiden who had been taken. He should have known. Qui-Gon had been alarmed, at first, when the Naboo didn’t want to launch a rescue mission, until Captain Panaka explained the ruse. Regardless, his heart hurt for the young woman. But even if they attempted a rescue, the logistics of such an endeavor were further compounded by the practical dilemma of not knowing Sabé’s location as well as being without transports.

Queen Padmé Amidala had departed the planet with Obi-Wan, and would remain safe as long as Sabé maintained the artifice. Qui-Gon wondered if Obi-Wan knew, and then whether the dark Force-user who had taken Sabé could be working with the Separatists? If so, then it changed everything.

He dared not assume much, but the violence in the robed figure, the creeping cold that had resonated from his very being, pointed to the Dark Side, a power Qui-Gon had encountered only once as a Jedi. And since it was the Dark Side, it stood to reason that such a Force-user had to be a Sith.

Which, of course, changed everything, especially why a Sith would leave Qui-Gon alive.

With the Sith having been extinct for a millenium, their resurgence, now, would disrupt the peace in the galaxy; however, the Separatist renting the Republic in two and this attack on the Naboo had already seen that fruition. Dark or Light, the Force was always the Force, and it was in all things.

The Naboo Underground abandoned their cave after much debate. Their concern was not just capture by the Separatists, but also encountering the Gungans, though JarJar volunteered to escort them far away from Gungan territories. No one took him up on that offer, so JarJar stayed close to Qui-Gon, both exiled to their corner of the group.

Pushing through the underbrush, and tugging his robe free, the temperature swelled the deeper they moved into the forest. The Force sang with life, the hissing lizards, the scurrying rodents, the twittering birds, and the odd predator Qui-Gon sent on its way with a gentle go. Without warning, the ground rumbled under his feet. The Naboo stopped, trading glances. Even JarJar tilted his head, ears flicking.

The Gungan pointed west. Qui-Gon announced that they would investigate, and JarJar led the way at a brisk jog. Qui-Gon kept pace easily, his long legs eating up the distance, though nowhere as lengthy as a Gungan’s. Then JarJar slowed to a stop, barely winded, stepped out of the tree line, and dropped into a crawl.

Qui-Gon joined him, up a hillock, the tall grass parting in a wave as a pulsing thud rumbled under his palms. At the top, Qui-Gon peeked over the crest and bit back his surprise. A gray-brown field had replaced the green valley below, the dirt piled into steep mounds where Separatist commandos and a laser turret were on guard, a control room at the heart of their defenses. In three separate locations were plasma miners, repulsorlift vehicles that burrowed into the ground and shook with a repetitive pulse. At the top of the miner’s cab, the siphoned plasma glowed in a collection tube, and Qui-Gon understood why the Separatists wanted this planet. With such raw materials, their war effort could go on for … years.

Having his fill, Qui-Gon tapped JarJar on the shoulder, and they crawled back down the hillock and into the treeline. The ambush came soon after.

He should have known because JarJar paused, readied his spear, and then the trees came to life. Not literally, but the movement of the Gungans as they revealed themselves made the forest take on added dimensions, their gray eyes blinking and chests heaving to show that they lived. The four females wore sleeveless smocks where the three males wore differently patterned loincloths, their spears and battleaxes and shields held at the ready.

Qui-Gon raised his hands, stepping forward. “JarJar, tell them I wish to meet their leader.”

The Gungan language rattled and hissed, clashed and growled as JarJar engaged the sentries. At last, one of the sentries looked Qui-Gon up and down, and then uttered a command. Qui-Gon had to surrender his lightsaber, JarJar his spear, and only then did the sentry wave them onward.

They didn’t have far to go. After crossing a shallow river, the current coming up to mid-calf, they reached series of ruins where dozens of Gungans were on patrol. The forest had reclaimed toppled columns, branches wove around decapitated statues, and ivy crept through smashed walls. Gungans sat on the ruin’s stairs, in groups, chewing on leaves. There were more Gungans on the fractured tops of towers, blending in with the canopy and seen only when they moved.

“Otoh Gunga,” JarJar said. “At least, what’s left of it.”

In the heart of the camp were the Naboo surrounded by several well-armed Gungans. Forced to kneel, hands on their heads, Captain Panaka and Headmaster Dannt glared at Qui-Gon as though blaming him for this.

The sentry led them to the same brown-and-green Gungan from the prison camp, also sitting with five others, none of whom looked up at the newcomers. Qui-Gon bowed, regardless. “JarJar, please translate.” Said Gungan stayed behind him, he noticed, the translation shattering and clashing close to his ear.

“My name is Qui-Gon Jinn, Master of the Jedi Order. I come to you on behalf of the Naboo’s Queen Amidala. This planet is under attack, as you no doubt know, and the Naboo need reinforcements to help fight back against the Separatists.” The translation stumbled, hit a pause, but then resumed, flawlessly. “As the co-species of this planet, it is imperative that you fight together … or fall together.”

Qui-Gon waited, feeling multiple stares bearing down. He called upon patience, waiting for the Gungan leader, Rugor, to respond.

Suddenly, Rugor shot to his feet, reached his full height, and began to pace. Back and forth, accompanied with gestures and words. Words that the Gungans nodded along with, words that were punctuated with a clang of a hoof on the cracked stone, words that rose in pitch and ended with a venomous timbre. All the while, JarJar translated,

“Who are these Naboo to us? Invaders. Destroyers. This temple was not always ruins. Driving us from our land. Building on the ashes of our villages. Now they want our help? No. NO! Let them die. Every Naboo.”

And then Rugor spat on the ground.

Qui-Gon shook his head, drawing upon his patience. Always patience. “There is no excuse. And I cannot say ‘the past is in the past’, but now — here — are two people who need to become one. The Separatists will not stop until this planet is utterly destroyed.”

Rugor whirled, gray eyes hooded with suspicion. “They bomb your cities, not ours.”

“Not far from here is a plasma mine operated by the Separatist Nation. Already, they are stripping the planet of natural resources, felling trees, killing the fauna — all to power their war against the Republic.” He paused, waiting for JarJar’s translating to catch up. “But you can stop them here. Right now. Strike the mine and deliver a crippling blow to their war effort.”

Rugor turned away, stalking like a beast to a toppled column, his shoulders hunched. Other Gungans watched him, seemingly tensed as though waiting for an answer.

Qui-Gon exhaled, releasing his doubt into the Force, and then gambled all their futures on the next statement. With a wave of his hand, he imbued it with a Force-suggestion. “Protect you planet if not your pride.”

Rugor whirled, gray eyes alight with fury. He spoke in a rapid, grating delivery, JarJar translating, “Our pride is our planet.” A pause, and Qui-Gon curbed his pleasure that the gamble had paid off. With such a powerful mind, Rugor could have been difficult to persuade, but some persuasions were more than commands.

Rugor waved him forward. “Come with me.”

Qui-Gon eyed JarJar before they both followed Rugor deeper into the ruins. A few of the roofs had not been lost in the destruction, but trees had grown in the corners, the branches curving along the ceiling to knot together. Shadows crept up, echoing with a faint screech of metal grinding metal, the kiss of sparks, and gruff voices that rose and fell in measures. As they neared, light began to illuminate the darkness. They soon reached an inner chamber populated by Gungans of various skin pigmentations hard at work assembling and refining weapons. Not just any weapons, but energy catapults, anti-air missile launchers, personal energy shields, and blue plasma grenades.

And there were thousands of Gungans, more then Qui-Gon had anticipated. He could barely hold back his shock.

Rugor looked smug if not outright pompous. “We know of the violators of our planet. We will fight them and we will win.”

“Just the mine?” What he planned skirted the very edge of Jedi decorum, and wouldn’t the Council have a field day with that? Rugor made an interrogative noise and Qui-Gon didn’t wait for JarJar to translate it. “What about the violators in the city? Defeat them all at once.”

Rugor tilted his head, features mellowing into an intrigued expression.

“Draw their forces to the field — the Naboo can help with that.” Especially if it meant taking the weapons cache.

Rugor rubbed the thumb of one hand against his first three fingers as if in contemplation. Suddenly, his shoulders straightened. He faced Qui-Gon head on and clapped him on the shoulder, uttered a quick phrase, then turned and left.

Qui-Gon whirled to JarJar, who looked stunned. “Well?”

The Gungan blinked. “He said, ‘We go to war.’”

 

Chapter Text

 

Padmé heard the whir of the hanno speeder as it neared, and then power down at the homestead dome. The courtyard created an echo effect, enhancing the movements of the speeder’s passengers — hopefully, passengers — as they exited the vehicle and headed down the stairwell. The movements were slow, heavy, and when Anakin emerged from the stairwell’s archway with a wrapped body in his arms, Padmé’s heart sank to her knees. Next to her, Obi-Wan seemed to deflate in his seat, and Owen started forward, crossing the courtyard to Anakin, who veered off course as though he didn’t want anyone to touch him … or her. With the body in his arms, Anakin disappeared into a side room, Owen following.

Cliegg had retired to the dining room. Through the open doorway, Padmé watched him fold his hands on the tabletop and did her best not to judge. Obi-Wan had called on his medic training in order to stop the bleeding and save Cliegg’s life, so the elder Lars had spent the interim keeping his bandaged leg stump elevated and drinking bantha milk. Now, his sun-tanned skin appeared whiter than pale.

 

* * *

 

The console’s sudden beeping brought him out of a light meditation. He unfolded, rising from the deck, and hearing the rustle of his cloak as it unfurled. Taking the pilot’s seat, he flipped switches until the results appeared on the viewscreen.

The woman who looked like the Naboo Queen was speaking into an astromech unit, saying, “Naboo is under attack. The Separatist forces have not only blockaded the planet, but our capital city is in ruins. I ask for reinforcements to fight this battle.”

Only the Queen could make such an entreaty to the Senate. He felt his lips curl in a sneer. Count Dooku had been right after all.

Pressing buttons, the image flicked off and the screen shifted to star charts, showing the source of the recording. Tatooine, an out-of-the-way dustball with no ties to the Republic or the Unknown Regions.

He charted a course, waited for the navi-computer to confirm the coordinates, and then eased his ship into hyperspace.

 

* * *

 

Leaning on Obi-Wan, Padmé locked her knees and breathed through the lingering soreness. Shmi deserved that much. Cliegg kept his distance, his repulsorlift chair emitting gentle hum s as it idled in place. Owen and Anakin had dug a grave. Then Anakin, pushing aside Owen’s hands, lowered the wrapped body into the ground, and alone, swiped sand onto it, smoothing out the lump until the ground looked undisturbed once more. Owen planted a headstone, the name Shmi Skywalker Lars etched across it. Padmé had only known her for a short time, but such a simple relic wasn’t meant for someone so dynamic.

Anakin remained kneeling, his fingers buried in the sand. Though moisture was scare on such an arid world, Anakin’s eyes shimmered with wetness, but what fell may have been salt, the body’s way of conserving moisture. When he stood, his eyes were dry, and Owen pushed Cliegg’s chair back to the dome.

“I want to go with you,” Anakin said to Padmé and Obi-Wan. She blinked and felt Obi-Wan’s full-body flinch. Out the corner of her eye, Padmé saw Owen stumble to a halt and pivot to look over his shoulder. Anakin continued: “I can fly. I’m a good pilot. And you need a ship — I know where we can get one. And,” this he addressed to Padmé, “you need fighters? I know where we might find some.”

“Where? Here on Tatooine?” Padmé managed despite her shock. Owen abandoned Cliegg’s chair next to the dome and was marching back towards them.

Anakin shook his head. “No, not Tatooine — ”

“What are you on about?” Owen demanded, his tanned face flushed an alarming shade of red. Padmé tried to take a step back, but collided into Obi-Wan.

Anakin dropped his gaze, shoulders hunched, and addressed the ground. “I’m leaving, Owen.”

“No, you’re not.”

“I’m not having this conversation.”

“You need — ” Owen cut himself off, blue eyes sweeping over to the two strangers, then he grabbed Anakin’s arm and dragged him aside.

Padmé looked up, trading a glance with Obi-Wan, but the promise of getting off planet had rooted them both to the spot. Voices floated back to them. Owen was saying,

“You have a family here. Shmi would have wanted you to stay with the farm.”

“No offense, Owen, but you’re not my family,” Anakin said, his tone gentle. “Cliegg isn’t my father — he can barely look at me. Now I know he despises my presence and blames me for it all and trust me I blame me more. I will never … Padmé and Obi-Wan need help, and I can help them.”

“But you don’t know what you’re getting into. She needs fighters? For what, a war? You’re no soldier, Ani. Let these people handle their own battles.”

“Owen, I’m not asking. Take care of the farm. Take care of Cliegg. And marry Beru — she loves you. Good luck. I won’t see you again.” His voice caught on the next: “I can’t ever come back to this place.”

Owen’s plea of “Ani …” ended the moment Anakin turned his back. He returned to Padmé and Obi-Wan, his eyes dry, as she feared they would be for a long time.

“Let’s go.”

 

* * *

 

As they l oaded into the hanno speeder, a series of beeps and warbles made them turn. Obi-Wan laughed as the X-4 droid trundled in, making rude noises, possibly about being left behind. Obi-Wan patted the flat of the droid’s octagon. “You’re always welcome, my friend.” He helped lay the astromech on the hanno speeder’s rear panel, tethered it in place, and took a seat there. With Padmé squeezed into the cab, Anakin started the engine, Obi-Wan feeling the rumble under his legs. Then the yellow and orange landscape breezed past as they left the homestead, and Obi-Wan squinted against the sand excoriating his skin.

A tremor in the Force hit him like a punch to the gut. Before he could shout for evasive maneuvers or reach forward to grab the controls, Anakin reacted with lightning quick reflexes, jerking the controls to the right. The hanno speeder swerved, sending Obi-Wan skidding across the panel into X-4. Padmé cried out. Then , a micro-second later, a red turbolaser blast exploded the ground where they had been, hurling up a whirlwind of sand. The hanno speeder swerved again, this time sending Obi-Wan skidding in the opposite direction, and he gripped X-4 for balance. The astromech warbled animatedly, but whatever it could be saying was lost when the next red turbolaser exploded the sand next to them. Obi-Wan wrenched around to find their attacker.

He squinted against the sand stinging his eyes — seriously, it got everywhere — and spotted a flash overhead, dark, but too far away to make out the specifics. The only thing Obi-Wan knew was that it echoed with the same violence in the Force that he had felt during their flight from Naboo.

The blue sky and yellow and orange landscape streaked past as the hanno speeder whipped around, throwing Obi-Wan flat on his back. When the engines rumbled, the throttle bleeding out in a scream, the hanno speeder sailed forward, missing yet another turbolaser blast, but the momentum shoved him back. Obi-Wan not only skidded, but went flying. He caught a glimpse of Padmé turning in her seat, her hand flying out to grab his ankle — “Obi-Wan!” — but he caught air and landed hard on his back, the wind punched out of him. Sand from the turbolaser strike sprinkled down like dust, landing in his mouth. Coughing, sputtering, and wheezing, Obi-Wan sat up and spotted the speeder, Padmé still reaching out. The vehicle whipped around, missed another turbolaser blast, but the same trick didn’t hold twice.

Next, came as a series of blasts, too fast and too frequent for the hanno speeder to do anything more than take a hit. Anakin threw himself over Padmé , pushing them both into the fragile safety of the cab, just as the blow to the nose sent the speeder’s rear sky high. The vehicle balanced on its nose, and then tipped over to crash on its side. The exhaust ports, extending as they did, made the speeder tip over and land upside down.

Obi-Wan scrambled to his feet and hurried forward. He craned his neck, scanning the sky for any sign of their attacker, but just because he couldn’t see the ship didn’t mean he no longer felt the violent Force signature. In fact, it roared in his depths.

Just then, a starship woosh ed overhead, and Obi-Wan felt the emanations coming from that ship. He paused — against his better judgment — to watch it swing around, and then land on a flat parcel of rock.

The fighter’s gangplank lowered and a hooded figure emerged. Fear threatened to crush his chest, but Obi-Wan took a deep breath and released his emotions into the Force. From this distance, he could just make out the red and black tattoos adorning the face, the rest of the figure’s raiment being black itself, short cloak and high boots being the second most distinguishing features. The figure headed straight for the overturned hanno speeder, and Obi-Wan broke into a run.

The cloaked figure continued to walk as passively as if it weren’t a race. As Obi-Wan neared, he could see Anakin’s torso pinned under the cab. The young was struggling to lift it, tiny vibrations in the Force making Obi-Wan take a mental pause. The fuselage shuddered, rising away from Anakin’s hands, but not enough to show a true skill with the Force. Obi-Wan would address it later.

For now, he reached Anakin’s side. He looked up to see the cloaked figure, whose steady walk retained its sedentary pace. That infuriated Obi-Wan more than he cared to explore. Turning back to Anakin, Obi-Wan used a small application of the Force to lift the hanno speeder off Anakin’s torso, allowing the younger man to drag his legs out. As Padmé was still trapped, Obi-Wan called on more of the Force, and gently lifted the hanno speeder so as not to rattle Padmé or any new injuries. He made it to a forty degree angle , and no more.

A Force-push hit Obi-Wan like a wall of violence. The desert streaked, his robe catching around his legs, and he landed in a spray of sand.

Anakin watched Obi-Wan go flying, feeling his own eyes turn the size of discs. He spotted the cloaked figure coming for them, and reached under the hanno speeder for the 6-2Aug2 hunting rifle , but a negligent wave of a hand sent Anakin tumbling through the air. He heard himself shout. Blue sky and yellow sand whipped across his vision and he landed on his face, the sand shoved straight up his nose.

Disoriented, Obi-Wan heard Anakin’s shout, coughed to clear his throat, and ran a hand over his eyes. Through the grit obscuring his vision, he caught sight of the hanno speeder being Force-thrown onto its base, Padmé rocking in her seat. And then his stomach crashed to his feet. The cloaked figure ignited a red lightsaber and cut the side panel clean off.

No. No one but a Jedi has a lightsaber.

That thought died a quick death as the cloaked figure deactivated his lightsaber, grabbed Padmé ’s arm, and hauled her out. She reached for the chome blaster at her side, but the cloaked figure knocked the weapon out of her hand.

Padmé struggled, but the stranger had a vise-like grip on her arm. Being pinned under the speeder was favorable to this. The one holding her had his face in the shadow of his black hood, but she could make out black skin and red tattoos — or red skin and black tattoos — a hard mouth, and nothing else. She had a momentary panic when she saw the red lightsaber be cause why would a Jedi attack them?

Obi-Wan leapt to his feet. He put on a burst of Force-speed, the landscape passing by in a blur, drew his lightsaber, and swung for the cloaked figure’s head in an arc that would keep Padmé clear of danger.

The cloaked figure raised his lit lightsaber, the red and blue beams slamming into each other with the music of such a clash. His opponent’s lightsaber was well constructed, a secure casing … but he was clearly not a Jedi . Obi-Wan dragged his gaze from the lightsaber, past the tattoos, and to the figure’s eyes. A black pupil, surrounded by yellow bleeding into red, and enclosed by a thin sliver of white. Evil lurked there. Dare he think it, the Dark Side of the Force.

Obi-Wan released his terror into the Force, felt serenity steal over him, and then the cloaked figure attacked.

Shoving Padmé into the sand, the cloaked figure pushed against Obi-Wan’s lightsaber, forcing Obi-Wan to move or else fall and lose his advantage. Once enough ground had been gained, the cloaked figure then unleashed a series of vicious blows, what Obi-Wan blocked, feeling the Force flow through him. His foot work forced him back. This attacker couldn’t have been a Jedi because he didn’t have the same Jedi training, as exhibited by the fighting style. The forms taught in the Jedi Temple were about defense, not attack. Obi-Wan called upon everything in him to keep his head.

Padmé winced, the pain in her side a steady pulse, but she didn’t have time to feel sorry for herself. Obi-Wan and the robed stranger were otssing up dust clouds, red and blue lightsabers flashing. Padmé pushed herself up and hobbled over to her chrome blaster where the stranger had tossed it.

Where he fell, Anakin shook his head, snorting to clear his nostrils, and shook the sand from his face. He whirled, seeing Padmé reach for her chrome blaster while Obi-Wan and the hooded figure fought with red and blue laser swords.

On shaky legs, Anakin stumbled back to the hanno speeder, briefly questioned when or how it had landed right side up again, and entered the cab, staring in dismay at the cleanly sliced off side panel. He pressed the ignition button, but the engine sputtered, the exhaust ports giving up a burst of smoke.

Hand closing around the blaster, the metal oddly slick in her palm, Padmé raised her pistol and fired.

Obi-Wan caught a glimpse of Padmé firing, the distinct rapport echoing. In response, the cloaked figure whirled his lightsaber over his head and behind his back, the movement blocking a stream of blaster bolts.

With the cloaked figure distracted, Obi-Wan aimed to dismantle the lightsaber, angling his next stoke up, but the Force screamed at him to move, move, now, NOW . The cloaked figure spun. Obi-Wan saw a flash of a second red blade as he leapt back. Regardless, pain lanced across his belly, the smell of burning cloth and skin stinging his nose, the sub-vocal sound of flesh sliced open reaching his ears . The pain crested in Obi-Wan’s gut, punching a scream out of him, and his hand spasmed, the lightsaber falling from his grip. Obi-Wan landed on his back, the very action renewing the agony in his belly, but he had no more breath left to cry out.

At the hanno speeder, Anakin grabbed his hunting rifle, but the crash had bent it. He muttered a swear, and then tried the engine again. He slipped the tethers off X-4, and opened the back panel. The interior was flooded with fuel, leaking fast and spurting.

Anakin turned back around, fumbled to lift the seat and open the storage compartment. He had extra slugs for his rifle, much good those would do, flaressticks to start a fire, and an emergency tent in case he ever got stuck outdoors after dark. His hand landed on the roll of spacer’s tape and rip off a strip.

Obi-Wan blinked against unconsciousness. Through the fading edges of his vision, the cloaked figure’s lips pulled back over stained teeth, a clear look of victory in his eyes. “I only need to keep one of your alive.”

Obi-Wan gritted his teeth, the voice hitting him like a rumbling sear square in the chest.

Padmé gasped when the red lightsaber had proved itself to be double-sided, so stunned she neglected to fire. She gasped again when Obi-Wan fell, unable to believe that a Jedi wasn’t as powerful as the stories said. T he red lightsaber rose, preparing for the killing blow, so Padmé renewed firing. The stranger whirled, deflecting the blows with flashy twirls of the lightsaber, and then flung out a hand. A tug began at her fingers before her blaster went flying. It landed on the other side of a dune. Padmé stared after it in astonishment.

The stranger was stalking towards her and Padmé fought down her panic. She broke into a run towards the blaster. But the world froze and Padmé felt gloved fingers seized her neck in a brutal grip. Fingers tightened on her throat and she reached up to ease the pressure else she would choke. Padmé kicked, her breathing wheezing through a closing throat.

Through his fading consciousness, Obi-Wan heard a strange skidding sound. He managed to let his head loll to one side and saw the cloaked figure marching back to his starship, dragging Padmé with him. The edges of his vision darkened, and then …

Anakin squeezed thespacer’s tape around the split fuel line, then snatched off his overtunic to soak up the leak. If he started the engine with that puddle in there, it would be the planet’s biggest explosion since the Whitesuns experimented with auto-chargers. Anakin shoved the fuel soaked tunic aside, jumped back in the cab, and started the engine. It rumbled to life.

He jerked the controls, angled the hanno speeder around, but he was too late. Obi-Wan was laid out on the sand, the robed stranger and Padmé were heading up the starship’s gangplank. The gangplank rose, but Anakin charged the ship anyway. Anything to help Padmé escape.

The starship’s engines started up, the vibration making the sands bounce in waves. It lifted off, the landing struts retracting, and then, with a woosh , sailed off into the sky.

 

Chapter Text

 

Her journey in the stranger’s ship had been uneventful. He hadn’t even bothered to secure her in the brig before using a remote console to start the engines and take off. Only then had he shoved Padmé into a cell, locked it, and forgot about her.

The ship smelled the way the Midling Forest smelled in the middle of summer, not sweet with moss and verdant, but sharp with wood and brambles. Overall — and something Padmé would admit only to herself — she was terrified. Not for herself because one didn’t go into public service to serve oneself, but for Obi-Wan and Anakin. Padmé’s nose wrinkled of its own volition just remembering Obi-Wan’s scream as the red lightsaber nearly bisected him. He could be dead, and who knew how Anakin would survive in the middle of the desert with a broken speeder?

Padmé stretched her neck, trying to ignore the sensation of gloved fingers tightening on her throat. Never had she been so manhandled. She wrapped her arms around herself to stem her nerves. By the rumble under the deck, they were heading into hyperspace.

They didn’t go far. After a short, interminable amount of time, since the cell had no clock, they dropped out of hyperspace. A series of clangs followed, and then the ship became silent. The stranger didn’t come to gather her; instead, four red uniformed Separatist commandos in helmet-masks arrived, flanking her front and back. They didn’t lock binders on her; perhaps they didn’t see her as a threat?

The commandos marched Padmé down a beige corridor, reached the door at the end, and pressed the button for it to slide open.

The office was fit for an executive, a wide desk, stylish furniture, and a viewport overlooking Naboo. Storm clouds swirled through gray haze, their meeting obscuring the southern and eastern continents. She could only surmise the destruction Dooku’s warships had wrought upon the planet.

The black skirts and feathered headdress standing in front of the viewport turned in a ripple of movement, the white face stiffening in shock. Padmé swallowed down her alarm. The person behind the desk waved them in.

Padmé neared, the commandos taking up positions at the door. His face hadn’t aged. Tanned, hale, with a clean jaw and dark hair kept short. Count Dooku stood and bowed to Padmé. She turned and bowed to the Queen.

“Your Majesty.”

Dooku rolled his eyes. “Don’t be insulting. Did you think I, of all people, wouldn’t know this Queen is a decoy?” He waved to a chair. “Sit.”

Sabé grabbed Padmé’s fingers, squeezing them briefly, an apology, but Padmé forced a smile, no apology necessary. Padmé took an empty seat, and Sabé took the chair on the other side of the room. They would have to be smart in order to get out of this.

Dooku steepled his hands in front of his chest. An obnoxious gesture if she ever saw one. “You understand the ineffectiveness of the Senate. Bureaucracy and inadequacy as far as the eye can see.”

She did, the Separatist Crisis the cause of the Senate’s current, bloated state. Instead of fighting to hold the Republic together, the Treaty of Alderaan had allowed the Confederacy of Independent Systems to break free and carve new boundaries in the star charts. Dooku’s willingness to rally star systems and corporations together had little to do with the ban on cloning and more to do with the ethics of corruption. It boggled the mind, however, that he would choose to attack. What did he stand to gain? Padmé held back a sigh, her heart aching as she tried to reason why the Count felt justified to bring his homeworld to its knees.

And the fact that maybe she could have prevented it.

Dooku’s brown eyes watched her, intent. Then he leaned forward, hands flat on the desk top. “But what if I told you there’s a way to heal the Senate? A way to restore the Republic to its former glory?”

Padmé felt her chin tick up of its own accord. Shock, though she would never admit it out loud. “And which glory is that, Count? Not everyone can be the despot of their own tiny kingdom.”

A sharp grin split his face. Humor or lagging patience, she couldn’t tell. “One can’t always repair the broken starship, you know. Sometimes one must sell off the scraps.” He gestured to viewport, to Naboo.

Padmé swallowed down her horror, the answer forming as fast she spoke it. “You mean to beat other star systems into submission. Make them join your — ” She racked her brain for a better word. “ — slaughter.”

Dooku shot out of his chair, leaning bent in half over the desk. So sudden a movement, it startled her into sitting back. His face had hardened, jaw clenched, the muscle in his cheek jumping. “Slaughter? Who had the opportunity to prevent the slaughter that has claimed the lives of millions of Naboo? Tell me that, Your Majesty.”

Padmé shut her eyes, despair threatening to consume her. She wouldn’t deny his words because she couldn’t. If only … Over the faint hum of the ventilation, cloth rustled, then the pacing of booted feet rounded the desk, stopped at her side. Padmé opened her eyes, seeing the sharp crease of dark red military trousers in her peripheral vision. She forced herself not to look up. To do so would mean surrender.

Yet, surrender sounded better every moment.

Cloth rustled as Dooku knelt. She controlled her flinch. His face so close to hers was a blur of textures if she cut her eye sideways and tried to focus. His exhales disturbed the hairs that had escaped from her braid, pushing them against her cheek. Their faint tickle made her shiver, nothing more.

“There is another option.” Hot breath caressed her neck, his whispered words pouring into her ear. “Join me and we can give this galaxy something it has been missing: Justice. Think, if there were justice, you wouldn’t have to hide here on the outer edges of a government that considers you less than human.”

Padmé swallowed in a dry throat. His natural musk, free of any cologne, surrounded her like the most sickening perfume. “That’s treason. The Republic will consider Naboo a hostile system and treat us as such.”

He scoffed. “What do you care? You’re just a clone.”

He drew away, stood, and crossed to the viewport. Padmé tracked his movements, watched Dooku place a hand on the transparisteel, as if trying to cradle Naboo in his palm. “So are you.”

She saw the edge of his cheek twitch, the watery reflection in the transparisteel giving a smirk. “Not the only one.” He turned, gestured at the commandos standing guard. “If you please.”

Padmé turned. To her right, Sabé’s painted face followed her movement. The commandos began to remove their helmet-masks, unlatching a catch under the chin, and then lifting the hard cover off. Sabé’s faint inhale could be mistaken for surprise, but Padmé assumed — and refused to believe otherwise — that Sabé shared a mutual disgust.

The commandos had Dooku’s face. Younger, yes, but there all the same. Hair shorn to bristles, brown eyes set in a hard face. Dooku had been planning this because it took a lifetime to nurture a fully-matured clone. No doubt these clones had been given acceleration to double their development, or how else could Dooku have so many? Tiny kingdom, indeed.

The Naboo cloned because they had no other options, kept strict rules, and lived by a code of conduct to see that all Naboo were treated as individuals with the opportunities to flourish as such. Their ostentatious clothing and embellishments signified their individuality, but they relied on sameness when they had to hide themselves in public settings. That, and no one dared to look under a hood. But to create life for the sole purpose of using it to kill, and then allowing it to die as expendable fodder made Padmé furious. What kind of life could a clone live if they knew nothing else?

The laws that banned cloning centered on the ethics, asking whether a clone had rights if it was engineered, or did those rights belong to its engineer? When did the clone’s life begin?Because a clone emerges from a tank, was it truly born? Such obvious answers for such stupid questions — when was she never born? — but the ways to abuse the technology had overridden any other argument. With enough money and time, anyone could create an army and march on the Republic with sheer numbers. Not far from the truth, then.

More than that, Dooku had stolen the original genetic model.

Padmé couldn’t feel her fingers. She looked down and saw her hands gripping the back of the chair, the skin flushed as pale as the walls. She forced herself to release the chair, and then turned to face Dooku. The fire of pins and needles kept her grounded. Good. She needed her wits.

Dooku watched her with his head cocked to one side. “So what do you say? Would you truly turn your back on your family?”

Padmé scoffed. “Is that what you call them? ‘Family’? Your hubris is appalling, Count, and I will have no part in it. Throw me in a cell and leave me to rot. You’re wasting both our time.”

Silence fell, its stillness stealing over her like the cold of the first frost. Dooku’s face shifted from impassive to shadowed to enraged. He pushed away from the viewport and closed the distance to loom over her, but this time she lifted her head and met his gaze head on. She wouldn’t flinch, regardless of the fury burning like flames from his eyes.

“Guards, make sure Her Majesty and her friend are comfortable. My office if yours, my lady. Please enjoy the view.”

He swept past the commandos, the doors sliding open and closed with a near silent woosh. Padmé allowed herself to exhale. Not a sigh, for she had nothing to be relieved about, but the beginning of being able to breathe again. She hadn’t realized how Dooku took the air out of the room with his very presence.

A hand closed over hers. Padmé jerked, then turned to see Sabé, tears dripping off her chin. Padmé turned her palm up to grip Sabé’s hand. They would make it out of this. How, she didn’t know, but she knew that if she blinked hard against the stinging in her eyes, it was a sure sign of her personal determination.

 

* * *

 

Count Dooku stalked through the disc section, past commandos in helmet-masks, to the hangar bay. His anger remained unabated, but took on a different edge because the agent didn’t bother to show up for debriefing. After Dooku inquired after the agent’s whereabouts, his second-in-command directed him to the hangar bay. He now faced the Scimitar , the gangplank sealed, the engines silent. Hyena -class bombers lined the deck, and the distant clang s and hums of activity filled in the silence. He wouldn’t knock. Or call out. He was a Count.

At last, with his patience ebbing, Dooku hit the emergency release latch and stepped back to allow the gangplank to descend. Absolute darkness greeted him, accompanied by the metallic smell of engine exhaust. Dooku squinted against the darkness, then headed up.

When the deck evened out, a snap-hiss rent the silence as a red lightsaber blade cut through the dark. Dooku felt his heart leap into his throat. Before he could speak, he found himself crowded against the bulkhead, the blade at his throat, the hum loud in his ears. A faint heat sizzled the fine hairs off his chin. Its wielder moved into the light, the tattooed face showing redder in the light and darker in the shadows. Though which was the skin and which were the tattoos, Dooku didn’t know. The yellow of the eyes glowed with an orange hue.

Dooku swallowed in dry throat. “You didn’t check in.”

“You have the Queen,” the agent growled, voice low and raspy.

Dooku checked himself before he stepped into the agent’s space and lost his head. “Two starfighters made it past the blockade. Did you find her accomplice?”

“He was a Jedi.”

The breath punched out of him. “Did you kill him?”

“I didn’t have time.”

Dooku clenched his fist to stop himself from punching the lightsaber-wielding agent. “Then make time. Coming back here will let the Jedi know of your involvement with me. Find him and kill him.”

Silence as the pupils of the eyes expanded like a starburst. Strange. Dooku didn’t know the agent’s name, only that he was a Sith, enemy of the Jedi, and how he was here at the behest of Dooku’s nameless financial backer, all to keep tabs on the Confederacy of Independent Systems. Dooku bristled at being treated like a dog, but he did understand wanting to keep an eye on one’s investment.

At last, the lightsaber retracted. In the darkness, booted feet echoed on the deck, and then the deck rumbled underfoot, the engine roared to life, and the lights came on. Low light of a sickly red. He assumed that the agent’s species needed less light. As it were, the hood drawn up over the agent’s head cast most of his face in shadow, the body lost in the folds of the robe. Dooku rounded his shoulders and straightened his lapels.

“Very well, Count Dooku.” The agent turned and exited to the cockpit.

Dooku stepped out of the fuselage, squinting when he returned to the light. He backed away, far enough to escape the exhaust and watch the Scimitar lift off, the repulsor range near-visible against the hangar’s deck. The ship pierced the magnetic field, and then curved in an arc before becoming a dot among other dots in the blockade. Dooku knew the moment the Scimitar went into lightspeed, a dot winking out of sight, like a star bursting into another form.

 

Chapter Text

 

Obi-Wan woke with a gasp. Anakin jumped, grabbed Obi-Wan’s hand. The latter’s head whipped around, then his sand crusted features went slack and his lids dipping down over blue-green eyes. Obi-Wan’s hand squeezed Anakin’s in a brief grip, and then released, moving to lie back on the sand.

“Where is she?”

Anakin sat back, feeling the material of the tent bow against his back, and took a deep breath, fighting back the despair. “He took her. Whoever he was.”

“We need to find her.”

Obi-Wan hissed as he sat up, but Anakin pressed him back. “It’s too dark. The Sand People might find us.” Mentioning their name had the empty feeling harden like a stone in his chest, so Anakin plucked at his sleeve in order to feel something else. “We can move at daylight.”

The lamp Anakin had rigged together — a flarestick under the transparisteel dome he had pried off the hanno speeder — cast a shadow as Obi-Wan’s hands touched the blackened mark across his tunic. Then through the material and his fingers came away smeared in salve. He canted a brow at Anakin.

“I found a salve in your belt pack.” Anakin clasped his hands between his knees, feeling sheepish for having gone through someone’s personal belongings. But why? It was about saving a life. “And reattached your laser sword.”

Obi-Wan’s hand landed on the cylinder at his side, his cheek twitching with a faint smirk. “Lightsaber.”

Anakin liked that name better. “How do you feel?”

“Worse than when Master Yoda hits me with his gimmer stick.” Obi-Wan huffed. “Thank you.”

Anakin nodded, then: “What could that creature want with Padmé ?”

“I don’t know. But he was strong in the Force. I dare say he might have been a Sith Lord.”

“A what?” Anakin had never heard that term before in his life.

Obi-Wan’s blue-green eyes caught the light, the shadows on his face dancing as the flarestick flickered. “Anakin, what do you know about the Jedi?”

The young man blinked, caught unawares. “You said Jedi weren’t warriors, but after what I saw …” He trailed off without even realizing it, a grin stretching his cheeks as the memory of the fight flashed through his mind.

“We’re not warriors,” Obi-Wan said, the edge in his tone wiping Anakin’s thoughts clear. “We’re the keepers of the peace, and rely on the Force to guide our instincts. Sometimes we must fight, but that is always a last recourse.”

Anakin fought down the heat rising to his cheeks, the shame more profound than any he had ever felt … back when his mother was alive. He swallowed another sip of water to combat the lump in his throat.

“The Force is strong with you.”

The awe in Obi-Wan’s voice made Anakin look up. Brows low, Obi-Wan’s eyes were deeply shadowed, and being watched so intently make a feeling like an electric shock run up Anakin’s spine.

“I could sense it in your handling of the hanno speeder. You responded before I could.”

Anakin shrugged. “It’s just something I could always do — like Beggar’s Canyon.” The clues came together in his head, like a puzzle snapping into place. But the flutter in his belly reeked of doubt and Anakin stamped down his excitement. He kept his gaze on his fingers, tight around the canteen. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Because I believe you have the potential to be a Jedi Knight. With time and training, you could become a great Jedi Knight.”

Anakin felt his neck grow warm and he rubbed it, unable to hold Obi-Wan gaze. “You’re just saying that.”

“A Jedi never lies. But training to become a Jedi is not an easy challenge. And even if you succeed, it’s a hard life.” Anakin glanced over as Obi-Wan settled back, the movement shifting the light so his blue-green irises shined once more. “Every living thing is the Force. And if you are mindful, you can understand the will of the Force. But the choice must be yours.”

Anakin felt the truth of Obi-Wan’s words echo inside him like the assurances he felt whenever he ran the Canyon. It hinted at opportunities, a future he wasn’t ever sure he could have while being trapped on this planet. It would mean so much more than his initial plans of, hopefully, being a navigator on a spice freighter.

That day he had hoped for was now, where he would be among the stars. He just might make it out there after all.

 

* * *

 

Anakin had pitched their tent in the shade between a rock outcropping and the hanno speeder, as a way to “block the light so the Sand People wouldn’t spot us.” They packed up and reattaching the transparisteel dome, X-4 whistling and warbling, probably contact deprived after being out-of-doors all night. As Obi-Wan strapped her to the back panel, he mused how such a droid would have such a personality. Anakin at the controls, Obi-Wan gripping the seat so as not to get thrown out the missing side panel, they headed out.

Anakin knew someone who could help them get off planet as well as a way to help Padmé . “Hopefully.”

Checking the chrono, they made it to Mos Espa in an hour’s time. The outpost was no more than a machinist shop spread across several streets. No spaceport or docking bay, just … junk. Mos Espa’s shadows, brought on by overhanging banners, deep archways, and buildings sitting close enough to cut down on the blowing sand offered minimal relief, but two days on this planet wasn’t long enough to get used to the heat. Anakin pulled the hanno speeder into an empty spot outside a dealer’s shop, and then helped X-4 down. She trundled inside first, Anakin and Obi-Wan following.

A small shop of dim lighting and the faint scent Obi-Wan had come to associate with fired clay. Like with many scrap shops, machine parts lay everywhere, but with an orchestrated flow , if that made any sense. There wasn’t any clutter, just a lot of stuff.

A, uh … Obi-Wan wracked his brain … A Toydarian hovered in place, flapping its wings, as it moved from shelf to shelf, muttering under its breath. The moment Anakin spoke in a language Obi-Wan didn’t know, the blue Toydarian turned, uttered a greeting in that same language, voice gruff and scratchy, and then flapped over, giving them all an appraisal. The breeze from his wings carried with it the scent of his people, a sharp, sour secretion, but also shifting the cooler air around. The Toydarian uttered another phrase, then Anakin said, “I’m calling in a favor, Watto. A ship. You owe me.”

“Yeah, Ani, yeah,” the Toydarian said in Basic before flapping away, but whirled back around when Anakin said,

“And pilots. We need pilots.”

Watto gave him a look, the bug eyes half-lidded and shrewd. Watto flapped over to the shelves behind the store counter, and then dipped down, coming back up with a disc he slotted into a reader. Star charts appeared on the viewscene, detailing the Mid Rim. X-4 rolled forward and plugged in, the star charts flicking past. Watto tapped one chart, which froze on the screen said,

“The Pirate’s Nest. Only the mad go there, eh.”

Obi-Wan felt his brow quirk without his input. This deep into desperation, there was no place but mad. “Should take a two day lightspeed jump to get there. I assume they’re not nice people.” His voice rose on an inflection as if it were a question even though it wasn’t.

“You assume right,” Watto said. “Cut your throat just as soon as look at you. This is suicide, Ani.”

The side of Anakin’s lip lifted in an aborted grin. “When can you get us that ship?”

With a gruff sigh, Watto flapped away.

The hanno speeder came upon the outskirts of the city, where they reached a scraped together cruiser baking in the twin suns’ merciless glare. Obi-Wan flung up a hand to shield his eyes as they approached. As large as an agro transport, it made them into a target, but it would have to do. Anakin pulled on the emergency lever to force the gangplank to descend, then headed in. X-4 rolled up behind Obi-Wan, whistling in delight when they entered the fuselage.

The cockpit was two steps ahead, Anakin flipping the controls, the deck vibrating as the engine warmed up. “Thank you, Watto, at least there’s fuel.”

X-4 plugged into the navicomputer, beeping confirmation about something.

Obi-Wan sat forward. “X-4, scramble code five to Courscant, care of the Old Folks’ Home.” He had a sense that if the astromech’s octagon could pivot, it would, giving him a “look”. Anakin arched a brow, but Obi-Wan flipped through the controls, found the holographic recording mode. He composed a message in his head, said, “The Sith have returned.”

His scarred abdomen twitched. Obi-Wan shut down the recorder, then waved Anakin on.

He adjusted his harness as a rumble-purr rattled the deck under his feet, not only loud, but smoke rose through the deck. Obi-Wan traded a glance with Anakin, who shrugged, then hit another series of buttons. The whir of gears and the clang of metal against metal confirmed that the gangplank had been raised. Anakin pulled back on the throttle, and Obi-Wan pressed back in his seat. Out the viewport, the blue sky sailed forward, and then the c louds parted to reveal the veil of stars, and never had Obi-Wan been so pleased to see the familiar embrace of space. He had no intentions of dying on that planet.

Anakin handled the control well enough, struggling with the course corrections, the controls shuddering in his hands. “X-4, input the coordinates for the Pirate’s Nest.”

The astromech whistled and blooped a response, then blooped another response.

“Hang on.”

Anakin flipped two switches — that sent out sparks — and the streak of hyperspace filled Obi-Wan’s vision, spiriting them away.

 

Chapter Text

 

Qui-Gon felt the presence before he heard the twig snap. He slipped out of meditation, taking several deep breaths to re-acclimate himself to the world, and watched Captain Panaka come up short, obviously surprised to see an alert Jedi Master staring back at him. Panaka said, “We’re ready.”

Qui-Gon unfolded himself, slipped on his robe, and joined the others.

Panaka led Qui-Gon to where Thule-not-actually-a-twin and the Queen’s remaining handmaidens, Cordé and Dormé, waited. Like Padmé, these handmaidens were down to a white jumpsuit and armed with a chrome plated blaster. JarJar and Headmaster Dannt’s team were at Otoh Gunga handling the second phase of their plan.

Qui-Gon took point. He dashed through the trees, the gathering dusk aiding their disguise, and led the way to the edge of the forest. The military cache was there just past the city limits: an electric fence crackled blue, guarding one Energy Pummel, six land cruisers, a supply depot, and security tower in the center. Qui-Gon debated their best method of approach since igniting his lightsaber would give them away. So he turned, leading the team further into the trees.

Keeping low, Qui-Gon opened himself to the Force, the pulse of life flowing through him. He sensed hostility and headed towards it. By coincidence, he came up behind the sentry, grabbed helmet, and threw him to the ground. Since doing so stunned the sentry, Captain Panaka disarmed him, then kicked him in his solar plexus. The muffled oof would have been comical in other circumstances.

Qui-Gon tugged at the helmet, but it required unfastening a chin strap that linked to a secondary back strap. As he reached around to removed it, he explained his plan, “Lieutenant.” Thule stepped forward. “Dress as a sentry and bring us in as your captives, and then we can — ” But once Qui-Gon slipped off the helmet, he stopped.

The sentry was human, male — as assumed from his stance — dark-haired, tan-skinned, and clean shaven. And with Count Dooku’s face.

Captain Panaka’s footsteps approached, and Qui-Gon looked up, seeing a correlating bewilderment in the Panaka’s and Thule’s expressions; Cordé and Dormé, too, once they arrived. Taking into account the knowledge of Naboo’s cloning practices, Qui-Gon first assumed that other Naboo had joined Dooku’s crusade, making this run-in with the sentry a fluke, but Thule said,

“I can’t disguise myself as a clone — they know each others’ movements. I would give us away immediately.”

Qui-Gon sat back, racking his brain. Then, “You can tell this isn’t the real Dooku?”

“A clone can always spot another clone,” Captain Panaka said.

An excellent tool in their arsenal. Jedi were trained in defense, attuned to the Force, but even Force-signatures weren’t overtly distinct despite knowing what to sense. If they could reach the real Count Dooku, they might just end this invasion and save Naboo.

With a wave of his hand, Qui-Gon led the team to a place where the edge of the electric fence came meters close to this patch of forest.

Qui-Gon shrugged off his robe, tied it around his waist. Aided by shadows, Qui-Gon shimmied up the trunk, out on the branch, and dropped, landing in a crouch. He ducked behind one of the land cruisers. Peering around the exhaust port, he spotted three sentries in the security tower, their silhouettes outlined against the dark orange sky. Qui-Gon scanned the area, for the power cells. He would have to dismantle them if their escape were to be without challenge.

With a kitten’s soundless grace, the handmaidens landed inside the compound. Qui-Gon left them to it. Hugging the shadows, he made his way past the other land cruisers and found a short-sequence power regulator binding the fence’s electrical field. And frowned.

Captain Panaka approached, quiet on his feet. He eyed the power regulator, grimaced. “If we destroy it,” he whispered, “we’ll only have seconds before the main power clicks back on.” Trapping them inside, he left unsaid. Panaka nodded to the security tower, the whites of his eyes widening, implying raised eyebrows. The primary sequence console would be close to the guards up on the tower, so …

Qui-Gon headed forward. He palmed his lightsaber and ignited it, the green glow and heavy buzz slicing through the gathering darkness. A pivot and two swings, and the tower leg snapped in half, landing with a muffled thud next to his foot. Qui-Gon deactivated his lightsaber and retreated, ducking behind a fuel truck. In silhouette, the guards peeked over the side. Without warning, a loud crack , then the tower swayed, the guards’ silhouettes falling into each other. Another crack, then splitting, ripping sounds, followed by a whine before the tower tipped over in a clean arc, crashing into the ground with the guards’ screams and throwing up dust.

Qui-Gon approached, waving the dust aside and coughing to clear his lungs. He rounded the cracked tower base to see the guards unconscious on top of each other. He knelt and removed the helmet-masks to check their individual pulses. If he had any reservations that Dooku had cloned himself, such doubts were wiped away in that moment.

Overhead, the primary sequence console lay fractured, spitting sparks, the lights on the panel flickering. Qui-Gon ripped the cord from the side panel, pried open the bottom panel, and ripped free another handful. The console winked out, the last sparks flying. Around him, the fence’s electric blue energy field fizzled out. Captain Panaka approached, clapped Qui-Gon on the shoulder, then headed to the storage depot.

They worked like a well-oiled machine: Qui-Gon ignited his lightsaber to cut the lock on the depot doors; Cordé and Dormé and Thule backed three land cruisers over and, together, they loaded crates of blaster rifles, grenade launches, power packs, and everything not bolted down. The handmaidens and Thule drove the land cruisers into the forest, the repulsor fields straining under the added weight. Captain Panaka piloted the Energy Pummel while Qui-Gon steered the fuel truck.

The Jedi Council would have a field day with this.

 

* * *

 

The Mid Rim looked exactly the same as the Outer Rim, but not similar to the Core Worlds of Republic Space. Constant traffic, pile ups, and docking nightmares were Obi-Wan’s experiences of Corusant. Except now: With several hundred Senators leaving empty seats when their worlds had departed during the Separatist Crisis, the traffic had thinned significantly. The very notion of not falling in line with archaic practices had turned many species off from the Senate in general, and the Republic in particular.

The Mid Rim was empty of shipping lanes — not even the occasional cruiser made an appearance. A moon streaked across the bow, pale blue on the axis from the light of a distant sun, but whatever system they were in didn’t show up on the navcharts. Why would it?

X-4 beeped and Anakin checked the viewscreen. “We’re being pursued. Hold on.” The ship dipped, shoving Obi-Wan against his harness, and sending X-4 rolling forwards with a squeal.

Obi-Wan felt a frisson in the Force, a surety profound in it its stability. “Remember what I told you, Anakin: Be mindful. Let them board.”

Anakin whirled, brows up to his hairline. Obi-Wan settled into the calm, assurance and peace aiding his natural confidence. Anakin must have seen it, too, because the pressure pushing Obi-Wan against his seat decelerated and Anakin switched over to the sublight engines.

The ship shuddered thereafter. Attacks on the outer haul. A sudden jerk threw Obi-Wan against his harness, then another, followed by an odd lurching motion, like dragging a chair across wet sand. Metal scraped against metal, a decompression field hissed as it stabilized, and then Obi-Wan threw off his harness and headed to the gangplank.

“X-4, stay here.” He heard Anakin say, the droid beeping in response.

Obi-Wan hit the button to release the gangplank, and then descended, more sure of anything than he’d ever been in his life. Anakin’s foot falls were close behind. They finally cleared the cruiser, only to enter a larger ship. A frigate. Where they faced off against a phalanx of blasters and ion pistols. The people holding the weapons, from silver-skinned Jaqians to a bulbous-headed Brmunese and a few light- and and tan- and dark-skinned humans, were all dressed in clothing more than likely stolen from easy prey and slapped together with the word “haphazard” in mind. The only person not aiming a weapon at them was a tall woman with tanned skin and a buzzed scalp, whose dark eyes, surrounded by heavy epicanthic folds, glinted like daggers.

“Surrender all weapons and you might survive this,” she said, her rolling accent like nothing Obi-Wan had ever heard before. Perhaps she came from another galaxy?

Obi-Wan hand over his lightsaber. She examined it before dropping her hand. When she turned to Anakin, he only had his utility belt, and a hydrospanner threatened no one, so he was allowed to keep it.

The woman eyed them up and down. “My name is Tak Rydel. You are guests of the Marauders. Anything you have is now ours. That ship … if you want to call it that … is ours. Any tech you have is ours.” She eyed Anakin. “Could use a mechanic. Have a protocol droid needs a new memory core.” Then she eyed Obi-Wan. “Don’t have charity to give.”

“What if we’re looking to escape with our lives?” Obi-Wan said.

That caught her off guard, her epicanthic folds stretching to their widest width. “We trade in goods and services.”

Obi-Wan slipped his hands into opposite sleeves. “Then I’m willing to trade.”

Tak threw her head back and laughed. The other Marauders joined in, the sound echoing in the hangar. Tak wiped a tear from her eye, and when the Marauders quieted, she swept her hand toward Anakin. “Brig.”

The pirates surged forward, snatching Anakin away. He called Obi-Wan’s name, threatened violence if they didn’t let him go. So much for being mindful. When hands grabbed Obi-Wan, he went without a fight.

He lost track of their direction, the twists and turns happening too frequently, the corridors too narrow and too similar for him to do anything more than move where they wanted. At last, when the hands at last released him, and a door slid shut, locking with a resounding click, Obi-Wan took a moment to look at his new prison.

Or not a prison. An office, by the layout. The computer consoles, that had come standard with the frigate, were repaired with scraps of other machines, alive with light displays as a blinking monitor scrolling through some language Obi-Wan had never seen before. Moving closer to the port side viewport, he found himself looking out over a fleet, two Class-A freighters, four luxury yachts, and three carriers no doubt loaded with who knew how many starfighters. The Marauders were conditioned to chasing their prey. Did they know what they were getting into when the prey surrendered?

The lock disengaged and Tak entered, X-4 following. The droid had a restraining bolt fitted to its casing. She obediently trundled across the deck to the clobbered together console and injected plugged in. Tak reengaged the lock, the click overwhelming in the silence, and then sat at the desk and began typing. The screen in front of her switched to a new view. Obi-Wan waited.

The viewscreen went fuzzy, static arcing across the bands, and then sputtered with sound. Off and on, minutes trailing by, until the image coalesced, the cheers of a crowd heard over the speakers. Tak whistled, then pumped her fist in the air while grinned at Obi-Wan. “Pod racing! Finally! Couldn’t get this thing working for a standard month.” She settled back in her seat, plopped her heels on the desk, and crossed her ankles. The images flickered across her face, the Boonta Eve Classic according to the announcers.

Obi-Wan blinked hard to keep from rolling his eyes. Master Yoda never permitted that. “Excuse me.”

Tak reached into a drawer and pulled out a cast-plast container of red triangles. They stuck to her fingers the moment she dipped her hand inside, what she proceeded to slurp off one by one.

Obi-Wan cleared his throat. “Excuse me. Are we here to negotiate?”

Tak, finally, glanced over. “Hmm? Oh.” She waved a hand at the viewport. “See that? Repairs. Fuel. Crew members who need to eat. I need those things and you’re going to provide them for me. That is, if you have anything of worth. Though I doubt it, seeing as how you dress like you’re poor.”

Obi-Wan curbed a smile; the Jedi rejected all worldly goods.

Tak sucked a few more red triangles off her fingers. Her lips were stained. “So what’ll it be? I know a pirate who could use such a robe.”

“If I can give you what you want, is there any guarantee that I and my fellow traveler will be allowed to leave?”

Tak smiled, though never taking her eyes from the screen. The announcers mentioned how Tusken Raiders were shooting at pods at the Canyon Dune Turn. “Don’t trust my word as a pirate?”

“Your profession does leave much to be desired.”

Tak barked a laugh, dropping her feet and turning her full attention on Obi-Wan. “Why come out here, huh?”

“To find you.”

“So not a coincidence running into us?”

Obi-Wan allowed his lips to twitch. But before he could open her mouth and begin negotiations, the Force resonated with a warning. Then a klaxon howled.

Tak shut off the viewscreen, slapped a comm button. “Yerl, report!” A language with the fluidity of rolling waves answered. Tak shot a gaze straight at Obi-Wan. “A battleship is infiltrating our space.”

Obi-Wan bit back a swear, a momentary thrill bursting through his chest as the answers came together all at once. “X-4.” The droid beeped. “She must have been tracked before. And they’re tracking her again.”

The wave-like language returned, filtering through the comm, and Tak’s brow rose to her scalp. “Really? They have? Turn off the klaxon. Rydel out.” The noise died, and Tak sat back in her chair, her gaze a picture of intense study. “The owners of the Separatist battleship only want ‘the Jedi’. That’s you, isn’t it? Of course it is, they wouldn’t bother with a sand mouse. The deal is, if I turn you over to them, my fleet can go free, but if not …” On the screen, one of the pod racers hit a wall, exploding in a shower of sparks and engine parts. No word from the announcers if the racer survived. “Why are they so interested in you?”

Obi-Wan drew himself up to his full height. “I am the designated guardian of Queen Amidala of the Naboo.” Tak’s eyes glazed over with what must have been avarice. Good. “Her planet is under attack by the Separatists, and the Republic cannot help us. I was hoping to barter your services in order to save her people.”

Tak’s hand went up. “Hold on. The Marauders are not soldiers. It’s her planet — make her fight for it.”

“She tried, but she was taken prisoner.”

“Falling asleep on the job, then?”

Obi-Wan chose to ignore that. He was already having a hard enough time not beating himself up for losing Padmé. “If I’m handed over to the Separatists, you’ll be signing not only my death warrant, but death for all of us. Every Marauder. Every Naboo and Gungan. If you help us, I can get you fuel, a place at a repair dock, anything you need. I only ask for the opportunity to rescue the Queen.”

“You mean a battle.”

Obi-Wan nodded.

“What proof can you give me?”

Obi-Wan gestured to X-4. “Check the astromech’s registration. Property of the Royal House of Naboo.”

Tak peered around X-4’s casing, then sat up straight as though shocked. She turned a sly grin on Obi-Wan. “I knew I had a good feeling about you. Keep your end of the bargain and I’ll keep mine.”

“I need to see my companion first.”

Tak hit the comm button. “Yerl, tell their Admiral I’ll send the Jedi over in twenty minutes.” When she saw Obi-Wan’s look, Tak cut the comm, said, “I made you a promise, didn’t I?”

Obi-Wan felt his eyebrow quirk of its own accord. “A pirate’s promise.”

Tak grinned. “Hey, I like that.”

She led Obi-Wan through a twisting labyrinth to the brig in the bowels of the ship, where Anakin was in a cell, sitting on the floor and tucked close to the bars. His utility belt was on a shelf just out of reach.

When Anakin saw Obi-Wan, he shot to his feet, a smile splitting his face in two. Obi-Wan grabbed Anakin’s utility belt and slipped it between the bars. “Tak has agreed to help us.”

The pirate in question opened the cell, and Anakin’s face drew a blank. “Trusting pirates?”

“What choice do you have?” Tak said.

The Force issued a warning. “Incoming,” Anakin said before Obi-Wan could. Obi-Wan threw out a hand to brace himself against the bulkhead just as an explosion rocked the frigate.

 

Chapter Text

 

Anakin followed Tak to the bridge, Obi-Wan trailing after. The pirates were busy at their stations, shouting reports, damage to the hangar bay , evasive maneuvers . Tak approached the … species Anakin had never seen before — but how could he having been isolated on a dustball? Short, coming only to Anakin’s waist, with a broad neck and seemingly no face aside from the vertical slits down the middle of its opalescent skin.

“Yerl, report,” Tak said.

Yerl responded in a language that Anakin would describe as rolling, like the swirl and whip of a sandstorm.

Tak rolled her eyes. “Those morons!” She nudged aside the green-skinned, green-eyed, green-haired comm pirate, slapped a button. “Separatist Admiral, this is the Commodore of the Marauders, Tak Rydel. What in blazes are you doing firing on my flagship?”

The Force — a relief that he now had a name to put to it — shouted another warning. “Incoming!” Obi-Wan said before Anakin could, then a second explosion rocked the bridge, sending the helmsman to the deck. Sparks flew from the panels, and a console began to smoke.

Tak leaned forward to scream into the comm. “You bastards! We had a deal!” She locked gazes with Obi-Wan.

“Even if you send me over, they’ll want no witnesses,” Obi-Wan said.

A voice said, “Damage to the Rush . Damage to the Raid. Tak, they’re targeting the carriers.”

“Tak, communications are effectively jammed,” said the comm pirate in a lilting, feminine-sounding voice.

Tak released the talk button and addressed Yerl: “Scramble remaining starfighters. Launch a coordinated on their battleship and bring it down.”

Yerl made another rolling sound.

“Damn! Hangar bay’s shot. Then fire everything!”

A sudden jerk threw Anakin into Obi-Wan, Obi-Wan to the deck, and Tak into her comm pirate. “What now?” she demanded, pushing herself upright.

Anakin helped Obi-Wan stand, a little embarrassed that he hadn’t sensed whatever that was through the Force. Maybe because he wasn’t trained enough, but Obi-Wan hadn’t sensed it either.

The familiar screech of metal being torn through by a plasma torch filled the silence. Tak spat a swear. She drew the blaster holstered at her side. “Arm yourselves.” The pirates drew their weapons. Tak nailed Anakin with a look. “Sand mouse, can you shoot?”

He bristled at the name, but, “Yes.”

She knelt, drew a slimmer blaster from the holster strapped around her ankle, twirled it around in a flashy display, and slapped the grip into Anakin’s hand. The compound material was still warm from contact with her skin, and Anakin felt the rounded edges scrape against his callouses as he wrapped his fingers around it. Out the corner of his eye, he saw Obi-Wan palm his lightsaber.

“Dap, commence firing — I want that thing wrecked. All personnel, off the bridge.” All but the helmsman and weapons officer leapt to obey, flooding out the blast doors. “Nurrestes,” Tak said to the helmsman, a dark-skinned Corellian male, “you know what to do.”

“Sure thing, Tak.” Nurrestes’s grin could only be called devious, stretched from ear to ear like that.

Tak cocked her head, indicating that Obi-Wan and Anakin should follow. Before Anakin could fall into step behind her, a hand landed on Anakin’s shoulder. He turned and looked down, seeing Obi-Wan’s concerned expression.

“I can handle myself.” Anakin congratulated himself for curbing the petulance in his voice. The time for childhood was long over.

“I don’t doubt it,” Obi-Wan said. “Trust your instincts and be mindful. May the Force be with you.”

Anakin nodded, feeling like a benediction had been granted upon him. They headed out, the deck under his feet rumbling in response to the laser cannons cycling through ordnance. Anakin and Obi-Wan joined Tak at the T-juntion at the end of the corridor. Half the bridge crew were to one side, and the other half at this side. Obi-Wan pushed his way forward, but Tak grabbed his elbow. He whirled, brows raised.

“Rookies in the back.”

Obi-Wan frowned, looking ready to protest, but a blaster bolt pinged in the distance. The team behind them were firing on soldiers in red wearing helmet masks. Upwards of twenty flooded the corridor.

Firing from their end drew Anakin’s attention back to their side where more red-clad soldiers flooded the corridor. The pirates maintained their defenses, returning fire. Anakin chose to use his height to his advantage, aiming for the shoulder armor and charging the blaster to full power. He picked off a few, their bodies spinning in a half-circle before falling to the deck. Another pirate pierced the soldier armor with a shot from a blaster rifle.

Obi-Wan raised his hand, throwing bodies against bulkheads, clearing a path for the pirates to continue firing.

The deck tilted, and Anakin stumbled into Obi-Wan.

“Here we go,” Tak said, voice raised over the din. “Brace yourselves!”

Anakin wondered where they were going when the deck went ninety degrees underfoot. He stumbled, tried to brace himself against the bulkhead. The blaster bolts from the red soldiers went wide as they stumbled into each other. The deck continued to tilt until Anakin landed on his belly, Obi-Wan landing on his back next to him. Along with the pirates, they slid across the deck to land on their feet on the far bulkhead. The pirates fired, the red soldiers unable to climb to their feet in time in order to fire back. Now Anakin understood why rookies needed to be in the back.

“Move!” Tak said.

Her team pushed forward, those in the front clearing the corner before grabbing the red soldiers’ bodies and piling them to one side. Anakin cast a glance behind him, seeing how the other team, led by Yerl, did the exact same thing. Walking on the bulkhead was disconcerting, at first, but as long as he thought of it as the deck, he could adapt.

Down the next corridor, they reached a ladder tube now on its side. Tak ordered the team to split, taking Obi-Wan, Anakin, and another pirate with her down — well, across — the tube, while the other team headed onward. “Flush them out,” Tak ordered the other team, and then grabbed a ladder rung, pulled herself into the tube, and crawled.

Anakin tucked his blaster into his utility belt, and found himself behind the other pirate in their team, and Obi-Wan behind Anakin. The overhead for the tube was low, since it would be slim in order to maximize space on a frigate, overall giving it a claustrophobic effect. Anakin wasn’t claustrophobic, but the effect was still disconcerting.

At last, then made it to the next level, where Tak and the pirate exited. Anakin grabbed the ladder rung, twisted his body in order to step out onto his feet — he would rather not fall out face first in front of the person who called him “sand mouse” — but the ladder tilted under him.

Tak extended her hand. “Come on, sand mouse, hurry.”

Anakin fought down the irrational irritation that name caused and gave up trying to turn himself around. He grabbed Tak’s hand, but the world tipped again. Anakin lost his balance, Tak’s fingers being snatched away from him, and as the ship shifted, he plummeted straight down head first.

Anakin screamed — he could admit it — and heard Obi-Wan’s shout of alarm overhead. Five deck levels breezed past, but then his descent slowed through not effort of his own. Anakin looked around, amazed, then between his feet, seeing Obi-Wan’s arms raised, eyes closed, a look of concentration on his face.

Anakin would have praised the Force, except it also delivered a cloying pulse of what he could only describe as evil, the likes of which crushed his senses. Of cold and … death.

Anakin put up his hands, fingertips touching the bulkhead, and then grabbed the lip of the bulkhead and pulled himself out. Anakin drew his blaster immediately and looked around. Obi-Wan pulled himself out, palming his lightsaber. He caught Anakin’s look.

“I sense it, too.”

Standing on the bulkhead, this corridor was different from the ones above deck. Dark metal with utility lights underfoot. Anakin considered going back up the ladder, probably find Tak and continue to clear the ship, but the Force sang with violence.

In a rustle of robes, the Sith dropped from overhead. Obi-Wan shoved Anakin out of the way, then tucked a shoulder and rolled to gain distance. Anakin scrambled to hug a shelving unit bolted against the bulkhead, heard the hum and sear of the red lightsaber that ignited and smacked into the deck where Obi-Wan had once been. Obi-Wan rolled to his feet, ignited his lightsaber, and blocked a flurry of blows, pushed back step by step. In comparison, the encounter on Tatooine had been mild. With this, it was a whirl of red and blue, repeated crashes fueled by fury and hate. He feared Obi-Wan wouldn’t make it out of this alive.

Anakin palmed his blaster, then recalled when he had seen on Tatooine. The lightsaber would deflect the blaster bolts, possibly back at him, killing him instantly. So … Anakin eyed the shelving unit and the crates lashed there.

Obi-Wan’s back hit the wall, the Sith’s red lightsaber slamming into his blue blade, the force of the impact shaking the hilt in Obi-Wan’s grip. The Sith’s red and black face leaned close, head topped in a crown of horns marking him as Zabrak just like Master Eeth Koth on the Jedi Council. With teeth barred, the yellowed eyes were cast into unholy flames from the light of his red blade. The power behind the lightsaber pressing against his own had Obi-Wan’s hands threatening to cramp he held the hilt so tightly.

 

He would have to go on the offensive, though it went against the Jedi Code and his Jedi training. Master Yoda would disapprove.

Suddenly, the Sith pivoted, raised a hand, then a crate crashed into the wall. Behind the Sith, Obi-Wan saw Anakin rearing up to hurl another crate, but his expression shifted to panic. The crate flew out of Anakin’s hands, skidded across the deck and —

Obi-Wan shoved against the lightsaber, catching the Sith unawares. The Sith stumbled, fell, rolled backwards and up onto his feet, showing exceptional maneuverability. Obi-Wan pressed his advantage, swinging hard and gaining ground, though not by much. The Sith met him blow for blow, the lightsabers hissing and humming with every clash. Obi-Wan stepped into the Sith’s defenses, aiming to shoulder check him, but the Sith met Obi-Wan shoulder to shoulder. The impact crashed their lightsaber blades into each other. Standoff. Then the Sith twisted. In a blinding flash, his blade crackled down Obi-Wan’s blade, reached the hilt, and Obi-Wan released his lightsaber. Either that or lose his hands. Obi-Wan backed away to put space between them as his lightsaber deactivated, the hilt clanking against the deck. The Sith grinned.

Then the deck shifted.

Anakin prepared himself for the slide, except it didn’t happen the way he expected. Instead of sliding across the bulkhead to the deck, he slid down the bulkhead toward the stern of the ship. The crates tumbled off their shelf and skidded along with him. At his feet, Obi-Wan and the Sith slid, too, as well as a cylindrical object that had to be Obi-Wan’s dropped lightsaber.

Obi-Wan spotted a sealed blast door at the end of the corridor. He called on the Force and hurled a crate towards it. The sensor activated, the blast doors parted, and Obi-Wan slid through into a cargo bay. He called his lightsaber to his hand, then crashed into the far bulkhead. More crates crashed into bulkhead, one aiming right for his head, but Obi-Wan ignited his lightsaber and sliced straight through it, the two halves parting to land on either side. The ship would hold position for who knew how long, so he looked around for the Sith and for Anakin.

He didn’t spot Anakin — troubling — but he did spot the Sith overhead, hanging off the parted blast door by one hand and looking down, a grin distorting his face. Suddenly, the dual blades of his lightsaber ignited in a resounding snap-hiss, and then he dropped.

Anakin had collided with another shelving unit, twisted around to lie flat on his belly, and looked down. Through the opened blast doors, he heard more than saw lightsabers crashing against each other. He jumped down.

Anakin landed with bent knees. When he peered through the parted blast doors, he gasped. Obi-Wan and the Sith were climbing onto the shelves and swinging their weapons. It didn’t look like a chase, but more for either combatant to gain the advantage. Obi-Wan bared his teeth, swinging with brute strength. The Sith did the same, yet, for him such brutality was a matter of cause. Anakin didn’t have to look far to see what had made Obi-Wan change.

Anakin looked for a way to help. He spotted a control panel and climbed down.

Obi-Wan called on the Force to leap up from one shelf to the next, landing on the same shelf as the Sith, their lightsabers clashing the moment he touched down. Out the corner of his eye, he spotted Anakin heading downward, carefully picking his way across the units and crates.

The Sith showed his maneuverability by twisting around to deliver a backwards kick to Obi-Wan’s face. The blow was more surprising than stunning. Either way, Obi-Wan lost his footing and stumbled back, fell off the unit and tumbled through mid-air. He crashed into the bulkhead, the wind knocked out of him.

Anakin reached the control panel just as Obi-Wan fell. He spotted the Sith preparing to jump. If he wanted this to succeed, he had to time it just right. Anakin gripped shelving unit, the ridged pole biting into his fingers. Just as the Sith jumped, Anakin screamed, “Obi-Wan, hold onto something!” and slammed the button. The cargo bay doors parted and the vacuum howled. Crates rattled against their tethers and Anakin reached over to snap their release.

Latched onto a shelving unit himself, his robe flapping out straight, Obi-Wan watched the Sith’s body get swept away by the vacuum and spiral away. He crashed into another shelving unit, his lightsaber deactivating. Then, when he fought against the vacuum, reaching up to secure his hold, a crate slammed into him. The impact knocked him free and into mid-air. In the next moment, the Sith sailed out through the cargo bay doors and into the vacuum of space.

Anakin hit the button and the doors closed, the vacuum petering out until the pressure normalized once more. Obi-Wan collapsed in relief, gasping for breath.

The deck shifted.

When the ship straightened out, with everything back where it once was, Anakin staggered over, his knees wobbling. He collapsed next to Obi-Wan and they sighed in unison.

The blast doors poarted and Tak and her pirates arrived, glancing around. Tak scowled. “Someone owes me 10,000 credits.”

 

* * *

 

The vacuum of space meant nothing to a Force-user. Darth Maul held his breath, calling on his training to slow his heart beat, then pressed a button on his gauntlet. In minutes, his ship arrived. The gangplank descended, and Maul pulled himself inside. Once the gangplank closed, and the atmosphere returned, Darth Maul allowed himself to breathe the ships’s recycled air.

He made his way to the cockpit just in time to see the pirate’s fleet jump into hyperspace. He grimace.

After tracking the useless X-4 unit, he had sent a summons for a Separatist battleship to join him at these coordinates. His prescience in the Force had him not dock with the Separatist ship, and seeing the wreck drifting in space, the oblong core blasted to nothing, he hadn’t been off the mark.

The pirates were heading to Naboo, meaning Count Dooku had already lost. Maul had been ordered to monitor their investment, and disobedience would be swiftly punished. He would have to push the hyperdrive in order to make it to the blockade and call a retreat. And he would also have to finish off the Jedi Knight once and for all.

Obi-Wan. Such anger festered in him. He would make a worthy apprentice, one who could help him overthrow his own master.

Decision made, Darth Maul input the coordinates and shifted into hyperspace.

 

Chapter Text

 

An hour after sunset, with Naboo’s moon rising at gibbous, their party moved through the dark as the forest canopy rustled in the cool breeze. Nocturnal birds hooted and rodents scurried by, paws scraping against the dry soil. Palming his lightsaber, Qui-Gon parted the underbrush with nary a sound. JarJar shadowed him, the Gungan’s long gait swallowing the ground, and then he broke off to disappear into the trees. Headmaster Dannt, his team armed with the stolen ordnance, led his students in flanking positions, the crack of dried twigs snapping underfoot the only sign of their movement. Captain Panaka in the Energy Pummel brought up the rear while Cordé, Dormé, and Thule drove the speeders, their whir a faint distraction.

It would have been better to do this under the dark of a new moon, but to strike when least expected was the key to their plan. The moon’s pale glow turned the canopy leaves jade, reminding Qui-Gon of the verdigris domes of Theed’s palaces and estates.

The Force warned him of hostility. No doubt, since they were closing in on the Separatist the mining camp; the pulsing thump of the plasma miner reverberated under Qui-Gon’s feet. Before he could take the sentry out with a leg sweep, blaster fire erupted in the distance, several shots from two, then three different blasters.

Voices shouted, and then Qui-Gon came face to face with the sentry. Unsurprised — unlike the latter — Qui-Gon ignited his lightsaber while swinging, the hum gentle against the forest noise. The blade sliced clean through the armor and the body smacked into the dirt. Qui-Gon deactivated his lightsaber and moved to the next target.

Then the forest erupted in blaster fire.

Red and green bolts whizzed by like flash fire. Qui-Gon activated his lightsaber, blocked a blaster bolt back to its source, and a voice cried out. Then he hurried onward, blocking bolt after bolt, letting the Force guide him, his glowing green blade making him a target. Suddenly, screams cut through the noise, the blaster bolts going wide. With the barrage silenced on his end, Qui-Gon waited for retaliation. But then JarJar breezed past, the flap of his loincloth the only sound to mark his passing. Then another chorus of screams followed. The blaster fire didn’t cease, but Qui-Gon sensed an incoming bolt and deflected it back, the sentry going down with a shout. Qui-Gon deactivated his lightsaber, the better to maintain his cover, then pushed through the trees towards the hillock.

He stopped before he parted the treeline, the pulsing thump working its way up his legs to a spot deep in his belly. Blocked by the rise, a searchlight scanned the trees, glossing over the canopy and missing the forest floor. The Force shouted a warning. Qui-Gon ducked behind a tree just as the shuffle and scrape of booted feet headed up the hill. When the searchlight cast the Separatist commandos in silhouette, b laster fire erupted from the dark forest.

Four separate bolts missed Qui-Gon completely. The commando silhouettes went down, some with a shout, the others ducking out of the line of fire. The commandos returned fire, the shots careening wildly and giving away their position. Trees ignited, brief sparks and explosions, the flames dying out as soon as they burst to life.

A whisper of the leaves to announced JarJar’s arrival. Qui-Gon turned to acknowledge his presence. Gungans were no more nocturnal than humans, but the moon’s glow cast his gray eyes silver.

The next part was the hardest; even a Jedi could only do so much. As the blaster fire bounced back and forth, red to green and back again, Qui-Gon led the way out of their hiding place and up the hillock.

JarJar swept forward, a shade among the darkness. Suddenly, the commandos screamed, their blaster fire careening into the sky. The screams went silent. Qui-Gon hurried up the hillock, pressing his body into the forest loam. At the crest, JarJar joined him, silent footsteps and movement.

The ground rumbled. Below, perimeter lights lit up the area, hurling conflicting shadows against the gray-brown ground. Separatists commandos and their non-helmet-wearing commander were scrambling, the laser turret rotating towards the hillock. Qui-Gon and JarJar ducked back into the cover of darkness.

As he told Captain Panaka, he could only protect; he couldn’t fight a war. Nevertheless, Qui-Gon whispered for JarJar to “Hold here”, and then made his way back to the treeline. Headmaster Dannt and Dané were waiting just inside the forest cover. Qui-Gon gathered them close and kept his voice low, describing the situation. Dané flashed a sliver of white teeth and whispered, “Leave it to me.”

Qui-Gon returned to JarJar’s side. Nothing had changed at the mine; no doubt the mine operators were hoping to catch the insurgents off-guard. Dané approached, sprawled on her belly, and peered over the rise. She pulled a grenade launcher forward, placed her shoulder against the grip, and said, “Cover your ears.” Qui-Gon obeyed. He didn’t see whether or not JarJar did, too. Four rounds fired off in rapid succession, the velocity rippling through the air like a physical blow. At the mine, the laser turret exploded in a ball of flames, the heat searing the fine hairs off his cheeks.

Qui-Gon blinked the fireball-shaped spot out of his eyes. The other Naboo arrived, the flickering fire picking out their movements. Dané set aside the grenade launcher as Headmaster Dannt passed her a sniper rifle. She lined up her sights and her shoulder jerked from the recoil, shot after shot whizzing down the barrel.

Gregor Typho and Ric Olié set up a mounted blaster cannon, but didn’t fire.

The Force shouted a warning. Qui-Gon grabbed the barrel and dragged sniper rifle over, aiming it at a Separatist commando pointing a portable plasma cannon at their position. The shot flashed from the sniper rifle, dropping the commando instantly.

Silence fell. The thumping pulse of the plasma miner had also fallen still, and the flames from the destroyed laser cannon crackled as the Naboo held their breath.

The snap and crash of felled trees rent the silence, a resounding cacophony that sent birds to wing, their silhouettes erratic against the moon. The Naboo turned toward the noise, Qui-Gon sensing their alarm like a sharp edge. Even with the shafts of moonlight punctuating the canopy’s agitation, the snap and crash of falling trees hinted at something big.

When the last line of trees thundered, the dust cloud wafting through the moonlight, the reveal took Qui-Gon’s breath away. “I have a bad feeling about this.”

A troop transport sailed over the felled trees, large enough to block the path behind it, and also large enough to flatten hundreds of meters of prime forest. The transport rolled to a halt, lowered itself onto the grass, and the gangplank swung down with a metallic crash. Under the harsh utility lights, red uniforms hurried out.

Gregor Typho unleashed the mounted blaster cannon, the rapid fire spraying through the commandos like a wave. Then the Energy Pummel sounded off some distance away, repeated impacts sending the red uniforms sky high.

Without warning, a trumpet sounded. The Naboo turned, silent, tense. When the trumpet faded, a guttural noise took its place, like hundreds of voices raised in anger. Ululations followed, and the ground shook.

The Gungans flooded out of the trees, swept over the troop transport and hurled blue plasma grenades into the driver’s compartment. More plasma grenades exploded onto the commandos, personal energy shields absorbing the return fire. Red blaster bolts whizzed through the air, taking down a few of the Gungans, but many were too quick, thrusting their spears into bodies, swinging their battle axes into masks. A head went flying.

Qui-Gon felt a ripple of warning in the Force. Soon, two starfighters zoomed by overhead, their laser cannons strafing through the forest. Qui-Gon ordered everyone to “Run!” The Naboo grabbed their weapons and swept over the rise, the landcruisers and Energy Pommel bringing up the rear. As they hurried down the hillock, it erupted, spraying dirt and noise. The shockwave knocked Qui-Gon head over heels and he landed on his back, winded. Beside him, Dané pushed herself up, shaking her head to clear it. Ears ringing, Qui-Gon sat up, and saw commandos bearing down on them. At that moment, the landcruisers, having been spared the brunt of the shockwave, swung around and fired their mounted laser cannons, taking out most of the red uniforms.

Still, blaster bolts whizzed through the air, catching Ric Olié as he tried to help Headmaster Dannt to his feet. Qui-Gon scrambled up, palmed his lightsaber and rushed forward, placing himself in front the Naboo and being the defender the Jedi were known to be.

Qui-Gon deflected a blaster bolt back to its source, and watched the commando crumple. More bolts whipped through the air, a barrage that had Qui-Gon losing ground instead of gaining it. Out the corner of his eye, he spotted the Naboo helping each other into the landcruisers or running for the dismantled mine.

At that moment, the Separatist starfighters returned, lasers ripping into the ground. One of the landcruisers took a shot to the rear. The engine exploded in a shower of sparks, dropping the repulsor field. It crashed into the ground and the handmaiden slumped over the controls.

The Gungan’s rolled their anti-air missile launchers onto the field, aimed for the starfighters, and let loose large blue plasma grenades. Two missed and struck the commandos, flattening them, but three more struck one of the starfighter. It sparked and spiraled down, crashing into the forest with a towering plume of smoke and flames.

At that moment, the Energy Pummel ceased firing. As Thule took a blaster bolt to the shoulder, spinning around to land backwards over his landcruiser seat, the Energy Pummel gave off a shower of sparks. The hatch opened and Captain Panaka exited, fleeing in a dead run. The Pummel exploded, the flames spreading. As Panaka reached Qui-Gon, he screamed, “Retreat! Retreat!”

Through the flames, six of Energy Pummels appeared, firing at the Gungans and at the forest, igniting fires.

Qui-Gon whirled and leapt onto the last landcruiser, grabbing the back of the seat to maintain his balance. “Go!”

The remaining handmaiden jerked the controls, swinging the landcruiser around, and under the hail of blaster bolts sped back to the forest. The Force aided Qui-Gon. He ducked several blaster bolts to the head, deflected the others away from the handmaiden. As they closed the distance, the Gungans and the Naboo were fleeing up what remained of the hillock, some taking a hit and rolling back down. The landcruiser swept up the hillock, the motor whirring. Qui-Gon checked over his shoulder. The Separatist commandos gave chase, half of them holding position and firing while the other half hurried up the hill. The Energy Pummels were busy taking out the Gungans fleeing in the opposite direction. A tremor in the Force gave Qui-Gon a warning.

One of the Energy Pummels turned, aiming at the hillock. In repeated flashes, lasers blasts slammed into the hill, hurling up grass and dirt. Qui-Gon squinted against the debris flying into his face just as the landcruiser took a shot to the rear.

Qui-Gon flew over the side. He instinctively tucked and rolled down the hill, his lightsaber deactivating, his hand clenching around it. Moonlight and darkness swapped places in his vision as the noise of laser fire and the cries of the dying echoed in his ears. He tumbled to a stop, the air punched out of him. He had landed next to a Gungan’s body, not JarJar, though Headmaster Dannt was close by. Qui-Gon looked up.

Separatist commandos marched forward, their rifles aimed, too many to take on at once, even for a Jedi. Their leader snatched Qui-Gon’s lightsaber out of his hand. “Stand up.”

Qui-Gon climbed to his feet. He drew on his calm to suffer the binding of his wrists behind his back. Then they forced marched him back to the troop transport, along with the rounded up Naboo, including Captain Panaka, but not JarJar. Perhaps he and the Gungans had reached the forest? Qui-Gon could only hope.

Dané had survived, too, as well as the last handmaiden and Gregor Typho. They were all marched into the transport and forced to sit on a bench.

“What’s going to happen to us?” the handmaiden, Cordé, asked.

With a groan, the gangplank slammed into place, the metallic clang the only answer.

 

Chapter Text

 

Obi-Wan felt Anakin watching him. He opened his eyes, pulling himself out of meditation, and stretched. Caught out, Anakin ducked his head and Obi-Wan smiled.

“Tak said we’re coming up onto Naboo.”

Obi-Wan nodded, climbed to his feet, and shrugged on his robe. He followed Anakin out of the passenger cabin to the bridge, where Tak was talking to Nurrestes at the helm, the blue-white swirl of hyperspace filling the primary viewport. When Tak spotted Obi-Wan, she headed over.

“Preliminary sensors show that blockade you warned us about. We’re down to five starfighters, so any encounter will have to be preemptive.”

Obi-Wan bit back a sigh, half his plan ruined.

Tak turned to address Dap, the weapons officer: “Shields up. Charge the main guns, wait for my command.”

“Yes, Tak.”

Nurrestes said, “Coming out of hyperspace in three … two … one.” The blue-white swirl gave way to the streak of stars that stilled, and Naboo and the blockade came into view.

Uvare, the green-skinned, green-haired, green-eyed comm pirate, a Meteke, spoke up: “Tak, they’re hailing us. A woman … calling herself Padmé Amidala, the Queen of Naboo.”

Obi-Wan made it across the deck in two strides, slapped the comm button. “Padmé, are you all right? Are you hurt?”

Padmé’s voice came over the speaker, crackling, but calm. “Obi-Wan, you should come to the flagship. I … have something to tell you.”

Brow furrowing, Obi-Wan opened his mouth to speak, but then Qui-Gon’s voice came over the comm cutting him off. “You should do what she says, Knight Kenobi. All will be explained.”

Obi-Wan felt his jaw go slack, snapped it shut. The comm went silent.

“Could be a trap,” Tak said.

Obi-Wan turned, catching Anakin’s eye. “Stay here. We might be able to end this without anymore bloodshed.” He clapped a reassuring hand on Anakin’s shoulder, then left the bridge, down to the hangar bay.

The Crusade -class shuttle carried him over to the Separatist flagship. When contacted, he confirmed landing, and then entered the hangar bay. Separatist starfighters were parked in their pods, Obi-Wan choosing to land in the middle of the bay. He released the gangplank and stepped out. In one corner, red uniforms held captive Naboo at rifle point. Huddled together, their similar and unfamiliar faces watched him, Captain Panaka’s being the most stark. The bay smelled of the metallic perfume of engine exhaust. The motorized whirring of a protocol droid echoed over the distant clang s, the droid’s feet scraping against the deck.

The silvery droid introduced itself as TC-14, female voiced, and showed him out of the hangar, down a corridor lined with red uniforms, to a conference room. When the doors slid open, the occupants looked up. Qui-Gon was seated at the conference table, his hands loose on his lap. He looked worn and weary, as though he had survived a battle. Padmé stood at the tranparisteel viewport, the Marauders’ fleet looming large in the frame. Not having changed out of her borrowed poncho, she crossed to the table and took the seat opposite Qui-Gon.

Padmé gestured to a chair. “Please sit.”

Her nervousness and despair had Obi-Wan on alert, but with Qui-Gon at ease, his only option was to sit. Padmé rounded her shoulders, then addressed the droid.

“Send him in.”

Metal scraped against metal, and then the door hummed open and clang ed as it shut.

Obi-Wan took a deep breath. “Padmé, what’s going on?”

“Whose ships are those?” she asked, gesturing out the viewport.

“Pirates, if you can believe it. Tak Rydel and the Marauders. I bargained with them to fight a battle for you, but … why do I feel you’re going to tell me something different?”

Qui-Gon sat forward, one large hand resting on the table top. “Your Majesty, now’s the chance to strike. You don’t have to go through with it.”

Obi-Wan cut his glance between them. “With what?”

But Qui-Gon continued on: “As Jedi ambassadors, we have the right to arrest the Count.”

Padmé’s shoulders sagged. “You can’t.”

Obi-Wan frowned, began to protest, but Padmé pushed away from the table, returned to the viewport and pressed her hand against it, directly on top of Tak’s flagship. “You can’t because he’s a clone.”

“He’s Naboo — ” Qui-Gon began.

“A clone of the clone. The real Count must have trained this one to harbor the illusion. Dooku is much too smart to put himself in the line of fire.”

The reality of the situation, and the hints at what was to come, made Obi-Wan sit up straight. He never liked a no-win scenario, and it was his mission to protect the Queen and bring a — hopefully — peaceful end to this conflict. He never had not before.

Padmé sighed. “Dooku could be anywhere.”

The doors slid open and Count Dooku — clone Dooku — stepped in. The doors slid shut behind him, and he spared Obi-Wan a brief glance, brows inching up, before eyeing Padmé. He smiled with all the shock of a slap to the face. Obi-Wan had never detested a smile as much as he detested that one.

“What have you decided, my lady?”

Padmé pivoted in place, her spine straight. Poised, centered, her gaze harder than volcanic rock. Queen Amidala of the Naboo. “Count Dooku, you are under arrest.”

The pause between her announcing it and Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon leaping to action would have been comical in other circumstances. As it stood, both Jedi didn’t have to try hard to wrestle the clone to the ground, but as Qui-Gon used Dooku’s belt to bind the clone’s hands behind his back, clone Dooku cried out, demanding that they stop, he had rights . Obi-Wan ripped the edge off his already singed tunic and stuffed it in clone Dooku’s mouth. Qui-Gon removed his own utility belt — the lightsaber missing, Obi-Wan noticed — and bound the clone’s ankles together.

They stepped back. Padmé joined them, looking down on clone Dooku effectively immobilized, his brown eyes glaring up at them. Obi-Wan turned to Padmé. “Now what?”

She headed to the door and flipped open the panel for the manual controls. As the doors began to open, Padmé turned a knob, shutting off the proximity sensors. “He wanted me to sign a treaty making this invasion legal and Naboo traitors to the Republic.” With the doors ajar, she squeezed her upper half out, then back inside. “The guards should be easy to get past. I just don’t have a weapon.”

Qui-Gon nodded, as though grabbing hold of her idea. “We’ll protect you.”

Obi-Wan eyed Qui-Gon’s naked hip, but the elder Jedi paid no notice. Then Obi-Wan shook his head, missing something vital to the plan. Their short hand was taxing to follow. “You’re fighting to retake the planet?”

“No. To evacuate it.” Padmé crossed back, stared down at clone Dooku, but addressed the Jedi. “Qui-Gon, you said the Gungans and the Naboo are POWs?”

“That’s right.”

Padmé pressed her lips into a thin line, contemplative. “Obi-Wan, when we make it to the hangar, get in contact with the pirates. Have them coordinate multiple drop zones for pick up.”

“We’ll need cover,” Obi-Wan said, casting a glance down at clone Dooku. “I’ll free the pilots, but the Jedi can’t fight a war for you.”

“So Qui-Gon told me.” Padmé turned back to the door, poked her head out. Once back in, she waved them on. “Let’s move.”

Qui-Gon, being the broadest and tallest of their troop, had more trouble squeezing through the narrow opening in the blast doors, but with a gentle application of the Force, he managed the gap. Obi-Wan followed, seeing the red uniforms down the corridor, but none paid them any attention. Padmé exited last, and then Qui-Gon slowly brought his hands together and the doors closed with a muted thump .

Padmé apparently knew the ship’s layout, led them down the corridor, the opposite direction from the hangar bay, her Jedi protectors flanking the Queen on a mission. Past the red uniforms, they faced off against two commandos guarding a door. Padmé stared them down, her head held high. “The treaty is signed. The Count has sent me to collect my handmaiden.”

A pause, but then one of the commandos pressed a button and the door hissed open. The handmaiden in the feathered headdress approached, gripped Padmé’s hand, and then Padmé turned and led them back the way they came.

Since the ship was disc-shaped, Obi-Wan had expected that they would return to the hangar bay, and they did, Padmé leading the way. What he didn’t expect was the hollow banging noise coming from the conference room. Over and over, as though booted feet crashed against the blast doors. Their little group pulled up short. A red uniform approached, worked the manual release, and the blast doors parted. Now the red uniform them spoke into a comm strapped to his wrist. “Code Red! Code Red! The prisoners have escaped!”

The echo of the announcement occurred at the backs, the commandos picking up the alarm. And then a klaxon sounded. And then Obi-Wan drew his lightsaber.

He took the rear, the spot closest to him, while Qui-Gon escorted Padmé and her decoy. They pushed back the way they came, back to the office where the handmaiden had been kept. Once inside, the doors sealing shut on additional blaster fire, Obi-Wan deactivated his lightsaber and open the manual controls, locking the doors. He whirled. “Now what?”

Qui-Gon crossed to a desk, the viewport filled by the green orb of Naboo. He opened drawers, made a pleased sound, and palmed his lightsaber. Padmé glanced at the ceiling while the handmaiden — Sabé, he would later learn — looked harried and on the edge of panic. Padmé pointed to the ventilation panel in the ceiling.

“Obi-Wan, can you use your lightsaber to cut that open?”

“Sure, but what makes you think we can fit through it?” Especially Sabé’s dress. It would clean the vents more likely.

Qui-Gon made another sound of delight, shifted back a panel to uncover a console. He tucked his lightsaber into his sash and began to flip switches and press buttons. “She’s right. We have to find some way out of here.”

Obi-Wan looked up, judged the distance, and pushed a chair over to get himself high enough. A screeching sound erupted on the other side of the door. Obi-Wan hit another button in the manual override panel and closed the blast doors. The screeching stopped. He ignited his lightsaber, stood on the chair, and made quick cuts around the grate. It fell, smashing into the deck. He widened the area for them to squeeze through. Obi-Wan deactivated his lightsaber and hopped down just as the klaxon shut off.

“There,” Qui-Gon said. “The communication blockade has been nullified. I sent out a missive to that pirate you mentioned to get started on the evacuations. And Count Dooku has just forbade any form of retreat.” He glanced up at the vent, then stepped up onto the chair, wrapped his robe around his hands and pulled himself up.

 

* * *

 

On Naboo, Anakin flew escort for one of the drop ships. Not exciting, at first, the Frenzy -series Challenger -class starfighter was able, if old, and he merely had to circle the pick-up point and wait for the drop ship to take off. Then Separatist Vulture -class starfighters broke through the clouds and unleashed laser fire. The Force warned him of the danger and Anakin dodged. The people at the drop ship, Naboo and another species, shoved their way on board, so Anakin whipped his starfighter around, fired back and hit only one of the Separatist starfighters. It spiraled down into the forest. The other Separatist starfighter swept wide, angling for a strafing run.

At that moment, the drop ship lifted off. Bad timing. The drop ship would be less of a target while in atmo, but without guns, it would be a dead limb in a foot race.

Anakin angled his starfighter between the Vulture and the drop ship, shields up to absorb any damage. When the Separatist starfighter released laser blasts, Anakin put his head down and opened the throttle. His shields flashed from the deflected impacts, his vision swimming with specks of light, but he he didn’t blink. The Separatist pilot did. Their game of courage ended with the Vulture starfighter twisting away. Anakin’s starfighter sailed through, and the Separatist fighter couldn’t compensate. It entered a spin, lost altitude, and crashed into the forest below.

Anakin grinned. All too easy. He re-joined the drop ship and broke through to the star strewn blackness of space. Drop ships were loading onto the Marauders’ fleet’s docking bays. They encountered no other resistance. Strange. Anakin steered his fighter into the Pierced Haul ’s a terrible pun if he had ever heard one — hangar bay, then exited the starfighter, waiting for Obi-Wan’s shuttle to return.

 

* * *

 

On the Separatist flagship, a squad of Separatist commandos set aside their metal cutter. Dooku glared at the doors, having heard the blast doors engage. He gritted his teeth, trying to think of another way through.

Suddenly, black robes swept past, the black and red face topped by a crown of horns. Dooku gasped, shocked that the Sith had returned, especially when the latter hadn’t bothered to check in — again. The Sith ignored him, assessed the metallic shavings, then drew his lightsaber, ignited the red blade, and thrust it at once into the center of the door.

In the office, the metal of the blast door superheated to red, melted, and sloughed off. Then the doors swept aside, too quick to be natural, and Darth Maul marched inside, stepping around the slag. The office was empty, a hole cut into the vent overhead. Separatist commandos swept in, uselessly aiming their blaster rifles at the whatever they deemed a threat. Maul glanced around, and then noticed the table pressed against the bulkhead. With a wave of his hand, the table slid aside, then a section of the bulkhead fell out. Stepping forward, Darth Maul saw that the edges had melted from the heat of a lightsaber, the doorway one of several that continued into the next room, the next, and onward.

“The starboard hangar bay,” Darth Maul said to the commandos, not bothering to raise his voice. “After them.”

In the last office area just outside the hangar bay, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon ignited their lightsabers, the green blade instantly cutting through the bulkhead, the blue cutting into the space next to it. When their lightsabers met up in the middle, the bulkhead dropped out, landing with a crash and several shouts. Hot metal glowed around the edges, but Qui-Gon was already stepping through, lightsaber humming and deflecting blaster bolts. Obi-Wan followed, his robe catching and singing on the superheated metal, but he had had worse. His lightsaber whirled in a blur of movement.

Not more than a dozen steps away were the red uniforms guarding the captured Naboo. They opened fire on the Jedi, but it was more difficult to deflect a blaster bolt when it had a chance of ricocheting and hitting an innocent. Still, a nudge with the Force made it possible that none of the Naboo were hit. Further still, Obi-Wan took the battle to them. He charged, relied on Qui-Gon to handle the wide shots, and so close Obi-Wan only had to pivot, dodge, and angle his lightsaber in order to take down the commandos. He released his emotions into the Force, turned to the Naboo and shouted, “Go!”

They broke into a run towards the starfighters. Obi-Wan deactivated his lightsaber, then turned to see Qui-Gon helping Sabé step through the cut out in the bulkhead. Behind him, the Naboo loaded onto the Crusade-class shuttle.

Captain Panaka joined them, and escorted Sabé and Padmé to the shuttle. Obi-Wan scanned the bay, didn’t spot any other commandos, and then joined Qui-Gon at the shuttle.

Just as they reached the gangplank, that violent tremor in the Force returned, bringing Obi-Wan around, defenses up. He shuddered as the cold hand of death crawled up his spine. He … wanted to believe the Sith had died in the vacuum of space, but there were many ways to cheat death. Obi-Wan saw and felt Qui-Gon’s response, defensive, but also disbelieving.

“Get on board,” Obi-Wan said. Captain Panaka shepherded Padmé and Sabé’s up the gangplank and they disappeared into the interior of the ship. Obi-Wan turned to follow, but caught sight of Qui-Gon frozen in anticipation. “Qui-Gon, we should move.” The shuttle’s engines rumbled to life.

At that very moment, the Sith arrived in a swirl of black robes … and dragging something behind him. Qui-Gon’s gasp was strangely loud over the noise of the engines, his emotions of fear and uncertainty released into the Force. Several red uniforms flanked the Sith, rifles pointed at the Jedi. The Sith stopped his stride short of crossing the threshold where their lightsabers would meet. With a ripple of cloth, he tossed something forward, the thing he had been dragging. When it smacked into the deck, face turned to the side, the mouth opened in a rictus of agony, Obi-Wan swallowed his outcry. It was clone Dooku.

“Take him,” the Sith growled. “Let your Jedi Council and the Senate know that Darth Maul of the Sith is in charge now.”

Obi-Wan felt the shock reverberate through Qui-Gon like lightning striking a tower. Obi-Wan’s shock had been something closer to a thunder clap. For Qui-Gon, the very notions of the Sith, myths and legends over a millennium old, being back from extinction was something the Jedi Council needed to know. But why were they given a false Dooku’s corpse to facilitate it? There had to be more.

Obi-Wan stepped forward, releasing his fear into the Force. If Maul wanted, he could ignite his lightsaber and finish gutting Obi-Wan right now. Instead, Obi-Wan knelt, rearranged clone Dooku’s face, limbs, stretching the body flat. He lifted the dead weight into his arms, adjusted his balance, and stood. Trusting Qui-Gon to watch his back, Obi-Wan turned and headed up the gangplank into the shuttle. Qui-Gon joined him, then hit the button to seal the hatch.

But before the gangplank closed, Darth Maul delivered one last message: “We will meet again, Obi-Wan.” Obi-Wan turned, seeing the hideous grin, and suppressed a shudder.

In that moment, the Force spoke to him of a future where Obi-Wan would face off against Darth Maul somewhere, somehow. He only hoped it wasn’t cowardice how he wished that such a time would never come to pass.

Qui-Gon’s whisper broke into his thoughts, setting them firmly on another path: “Why didn’t he kill us?”

The shuttle took off.

 

Chapter Text

 

As pirates, the Marauders were arrested the moment they entered Coruscant space. In the frantic rush to prevent Tak’s fleet from being sliced in half, Obi-Wan gave the Jedi neutrality code, explained the situation, and ordered Tak to obey and bring their ships in for impound. The Mauraders were permitted to stay on board, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon ordered to report to the Jedi Temple. Obi-Wan prepared the shuttle; the Jedi Council offered the Naboo sanctuary; and Tak had no choice but to wait.

Anakin didn’t dare hug Padmé when he saw her, knowing that she was a Queen and all. That and the dark-skinned man with the thunderous expression kept him at bay; however, Padmé smiled when their gazes met. Then Padmé, the clone in a feathered headdress, and the serious man turned their attention to the Naboo, and Anakin wouldn’t see her again until after they reached Coruscant.

Obi-Wan and the dignified Jedi Master, Qui-Gon Jinn, excused themselves to join Padmé, so Anakin kept himself busy in the Haul ’s engine room, making conversation with the pirate engineers. When they entered orbit, Obi-Wan gathered Anakin, and along with Qui-Gon, they took the Crusade -class shuttle downside, Anakin at the controls.

Anakin’s excitement threaten to drown him. His first look at Coruscant was of tall towers straight to the horizon, sparkling in the morning light. He marveled at the skyscrapers, at the bustling activity, blown away by the very thought of a planet being an entire city. The sky traffic moved in staggered lanes, except the lanes they came across were filled with cargo cruisers and their starfighter escorts with varying markings, heading space-bound. When their shuttle passed over the mid-level parade grounds, Qui-Gon pointed out the cargo cruisers parked in formation as soldiers in the mismatched armor of their homeworlds filed on board.

Anakin swept into a traffic lane, then spared a glance at Obi-Wan, who wouldn’t look up from the launch platform. If he didn’t know any better, Obi-Wan hated … or, rather, disliked because Jedi did not hate … the idea of participating in battle. He had an odd feeling that things wouldn’t always be so simple in the future.

Obi-Wan tapped his shoulder and pointed. Anakin swerved out of the traffic lane and toward the tallest building he had ever seen. Above and beyond any other on the planet, it mocked the towers trying to reach its heights, elegance and simplicity. The Jedi Temple. He eyed a landing platform and headed down.

 

* * *

 

The Jedi Council was assembled. Twelve Masters sat in a circle, their calm like a balm through the Force. Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon bowed before the assemblage, then slipped his hands into opposite sleeves, then:

“Pardon me, Masters,” Obi-Wan said, “but where is Master Yoda?”

The seat in question sat empty.

Master Windu’s stern countenance, dark skin, and smooth head was in direct contrast with the light complexion and mountainous skull of Master Ki-Adi-Mundi, who bore a stoic but kindly expression. The Masters shared a look, cautious, yet, resigned. Obi-Wan stamped down a flutter of worry. If anything had happened to his former master, no one would have kept it from him. This wasn’t just about something happening; this was something that had happened.

Master Windu cleared his throat. “Master Yoda has chosen to step down from the Council. He disagrees with our decision.”

Obi-Wan waited, patience being the Jedi virtue, but expectation, and a reticent messenger, overcame his self-control. “What decision?”

Master Ki-Adi-Mundi leaned back in his chair. “In light of the revelation that the Sith are working with the Separatists, the Jedi Council have decided to enter the war.”

Out the corner of his eye, Obi-Wan saw Qui-Gon flinch, the shock rippling through the Force. Obi-Wan’s own surprise, if not outright revulsion, battled inside him like a wave washing through his body. Before he could protest, however, Master Windu leaned forward, his elbows on his knees.

“The Republic is scrambling to gather their forces and the Jedi have the knowledge and experience to be generals on the field of battle. Knight Kenobi, you are hereby granted the title of Master.” Obi-Wan blinked, but before the shock could register: “Master Jinn, Master Kenobi, you will receive your assignments and — ”

Obi-Wan stepped forward, hands dropping to his sides. “Master Windu, please. I have a boon to ask of the Council.” He called on the Force, gestured to the doors, and they parted. Anakin entered, his desert rags at odds in the serene, hushed halls of the Temple. Anakin reached Obi-Wan’s side and turned to face Master Windu. “This young man is strong in the Force. He is competent, capable, and courageous. I wish to take Anakin Skywalker as my Padawan learner.”

Obi-Wan heard the rustle of Qui-Gon’s robe as the other, presumably, turned to assess the young man in a new light. The Council members, on the other hand, were stunned into silence. Not because Master-Padawan pairs were being sent off to war — and no doubt they were, like on any other mission — but because Obi-Wan had neglected to mention Anakin until this very moment. It was an underhanded tactic to spring Anakin on the Council unawares, but so much more had been happening on the mission to Naboo.

Master Windu and Master Ki-Adi-Mundi assessed Anakin, not just with glances, but subtle disturbances in the Force, reaching out and through, slipping in and between. At last, they shared an unreadable look, Master Adi Gallia muttered something behind them, and then Master Windu sat back in his chair. “How do you feel, young man?”

Obi-Wan shifted a step back, careful not to scuff his boots against the floor, all to leave Anakin on his own. If the young man failed this, there would be no hope for his future. He caught Qui-Gon’s look, the latter sharing his thoughts.

Anakin shrugged in response to the question, and then straightened as though remembering where he was and who he was addressing. The sand mouse had to go away. A potential Jedi Padawan had to stand in his place. “Cold, honestly. Sir.” His cheek dimpled, a grimace. Obi-Wan curbed his own grimace, sympathizing.

Master Windu’s dark eyes became hooded, but Master Ki-Adi-Mundi spoke. “Be mindful of your feelings.”

Anakin nodded. “Yes, sir.” His shoulders lifted in a long inhale and Obi-Wan bit his lip knowing what was coming next. “But what’s that got to do with anything?”

“Everything,” Master Windu said, sitting forward once more. “I sense much fear in you.”

“Fear leads to anger,” Master Ki-Adi-Mundi said. “Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

“The path of the Dark Side,” Master Windu said.

Anakin’s back muscles tensed, even through the layers of his desert tunics, and Obi-Wan stepped forward, setting a hand on a shoulder, which immediately relaxed. Anakin threw him a grateful look, blue eyes bright. “Masters,” Obi-Wan began, “with training, Anakin can overcome his fears.” He turned his attention to the Council members, giving each a pointed look. “As we all have. No Jedi is perfect.”

That seemed to take the fuel out of their thrusters. Master Windu exchanged a look with Master Ki-Adi-Mundi. Without a word spoken between them, Master Windu addressed Obi-Wan, his dark eyes hooded. “Skywalker will be your apprentice.”

Obi-Wan smiled and Anakin’s grin could light up the room, his cheeks dimpling.

Master Ki-Adi-Mundi said, “See to your apprentice, Master Kenobi. You are relived of your duties until we summon you.”

Obi-Wan and Anakin bowed as one, then, clapping Anakin on the shoulder, Obi-Wan led him out of the room.

They didn’t spare a glance for Qui-Gon, who had to admit to being put out at being so summarily forgotten. Nevertheless, as the doors closed, Qui-Gon he slipped his hands into opposite sleeves, and waited for his assignment.

“Master Jinn,” Master Windu said, “we’re appointing you to unravel the mystery of the Sith.”

Qui-Gon felt his brow arch of its own accord. Not surprise, just mild curiosity. “On my own, Masters?”

Master Windu sighed, tired. “This war happened too fast. Thousands of star systems are under attack by the Separatist forces. The Jedi are spread too thin.” His pause seemed to swallow the galaxy whole. “The Naboo are refugees, but the Senate will not help clones. And the refugees they do help resent anti-species sentiment.”

“The future is clouded,” Master Ki-Adi-Mundi said.

“Remember, Qui-Gon,” Master Windu said, “If your attacker was indeed a Sith, then there are always two, a master and an apprentice.”

Qui-Gon left it there, bowed and made for the door, asking himself, So which did we encounter? The master or the apprentice? He would need help, if not from other Jedi, then maybe through other means? He spotted a one of the traffic lanes, a cruiser no doubt heading to the front lines, and an idea struck him unbidden.

 

* * *

 

Anakin’s cheeks ached because he couldn’t stop smiling. He was going to be a Jedi. Obi-Wan, however, reminded him that a Jedi must have a serious mind, yet, he was smiling, too. Things were going to be great.

Anakin’s enthusiasm curbed when he went to seek out Padmé . The Naboo were in the lower levels of the Jedi Temple, in a large room set next to a garden that gave way to a balcony overlooking the city. Padmé, Captain Panaka, the Naboo, and the Gungans sorted through water, food, and medicine for the sick. The Gungans were led by one called JarJar. When Anakin had been circling the drop ship, JarJar had led a Gungan fraction off Naboo while the other faction, led by Rugor, had elected to stay and fight. JarJar, now, handed out flasks of water to his people.

At last, Anakin spotted Padmé, ladling soup into bowls and handing them out to the people in line. He edged forward, allowing the line to move in front of him.

Padmé?” She ignored him. Anakin frowned. “Padmé ?”

She looked up, caught his eye, and shook her head. “Sabé.” Out of her skirts, headdress, and makeup, it was easy to mistake them. Only the voice gave it away.

“Anakin,” said a crisp voice. He whirled and came face to face with Padmé — who shook her head. “Sach é . Her Majesty is out on the balcony.”

Anakin thanked her and headed over.

For a moment, Anakin froze in place, taken by the image of his mother standing there, wrapped in her poncho. Except Padmé turned, as though sensing his presence, and the sadness in her eyes made his heart ache.

Anakin drew himself up to his full height, wanting to be as dignified as possible when he gave her the news, regardless of how he loomed over her. He always loomed. “I’m going to be a Jedi. The Council has decided Master Obi-Wan is to train me.”

Padmé flashed a smile over her shoulder, but it faded just as quickly, shading her next words in sorrow. “I’m so happy for you. I wish you the best.”

“Thank you.” And now he had to go. Except, he glanced around, eyeing the Naboo and the Gungans. “What will happen to your people?”

Padmé’s cast a glance at the huddled masses, then dropped her gaze. “I don’t know. Senator Naberrie is speaking to Naboo’s allies.” She paused, turned back to the cityscape. “What would she say? ‘Help Padmé Amidala, the Queen who lost Naboo’.”

Padmé’s shoulder began to shake. She buried her face in her hands and Anakin ignored propriety. He stepped forward, gathered her into his arms, and inhaled the waft of spices that came off her hair. It hurt so much not to help, reminding him too much of not being able to help his mother. He swallowed against the lump in his throat. “You’re strong, Padmé. You’ll make it.”

Behind them, Obi-Wan arrived, leaned against the archway, and waited.

 

* * *

 

Across the planet, past the power generators and into the forgotten quarter of the city, the Sith Infiltrator sailed through the power couplings, the metal of the ship absorbing and deflecting the arcs of energy. The Scimitar descended to a landing platform, touched down, and the gangplank descended. Darth Maul disembarked. The traffic lanes flashed by in the distance. He entered the tower.

Maul swept past the audience chamber and headed up, up the stairs, up the corridor, up to the receiving room pulsing with emanations of the Dark Side of the Force. There, in the shadows, a figure waited, seated in a high-backed chair, his hand the only part of him visible. Backed by the cityscape seen through the floor to ceiling window, the fingers waved him forward and Darth Maul obeyed.

He knelt at the robed feet, head bowed, the Dark Side pulsing inside him like a heartbeat. “Master.”

Out the window, the traffic winked out of sight, obscured by the shape of the Republic cargo cruisers shipping soldiers to the front lines of what history would call the Clone Wars.

 

Chapter Text

 

The idea of the Star Wars Saga is to watch the movies in sequential order and having them make sense. The best stories are the ones that never hand feed the audience the answers. By making the clues implicit, the movies have re-watch-ability, allowing friends, fans, and/or family to come together and discuss the reasoning behind the characters’ actions. Being explicit, however, cheapens the narrative and devalues the intelligence of the audience. In my mind, the Star Wars Prequels suffered from pointing to the screen and going, “You got it?” To illustrate my point, let’s look at the UN-Special Edition of Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, the scene between Darth Vader and the hologram of the Emperor:

 

     Darth Vader: What is thy bidding, my master?

     Emperor: There is a great disturbance in the Force.

     Darth Vader: I have felt it.

     Emperor: We have a new enemy. Luke Skywalker.

     Darth Vader: Yes, my master.

     Emperor: He could destroy us.

     Darth Vader: He is just a boy. Obi-Wan can no longer help him.

     Emperor: The Force is strong with him. The son of Skywalker must not become a Jedi.

     Darth Vader: If he could be turned, he would become a powerful ally.

     Emperor: Yes. Yes. Can it be done?

     Darth Vader: He will join us or die, master.

 

This scene is brilliant because it is a game of cat and mouse. Darth Vader and the Emperor are both predators and live under the ruling that there can only be two Sith at once or they would destroy themselves. (Thank you Wookieepedia for the source info.) Vader, regardless of whether or not Anakin feels anything for the child he thought lost, is playing the long game. He wants an apprentice to help overthrow the Emperor (“ … we can rule the galaxy as father and son.”). At the same time, the Emperor also wants a younger, less damaged apprentice (“He’s more machine now than man.”) and will turn Luke against Vader in order to make that happen. (“Now, fulfill your destiny and take your father’s place at my side.”) If either Vader or the Emperor let on what he is planning — regardless of the characters’ ability to infer what the other is planning — then the scene wouldn’t work. It would undermine everything the Sith are, that is, conniving, ambitious, ruthless, and always seeking power. The subtext of the dialogue reveals character motivation. Such text and subtext are used to fuel the Revised Prequels.

The most common thing I noticed about any Star Wars Prequel revision, be they movie edits or fanfiction or blogging about what to fix, is the tendency to rearrange the story of Episode I without really correcting what was wrong in the first place. It’s noble to want to honor the creator’s vision, but sometimes the vision can reach the audience unfiltered without a committee to workshop it or the necessary revisions to mature the ideas beyond their first draft. For perspective, and if you haven’t already seen it, please check out RedLetterMedia’s dissection of why The Phantom Menace is a broken movie.

Now, that’s not to say it’s a terrible movie. There are moments that shine, like Padmé’s goal of wanting to save her people; Duel of the Fates; the design of the Trade Federation starships; Darth freaking Maul. But there’s also a lot that doesn’t work, like Anakin the child, who has no agency in a story that is, ostensibly, about his origin, especially when it comes to making his own choices in how he comports himself during a battle and whether or not he’s mature enough to hit on a girl five years his senior.

What also doesn’t work is the focus. It’s Star Wars, not Star Peace. The backdrop of Episodes IV, V, and VI was the rebellion against the Empire: The Galactic Civil War. So, Episodes I, II, and III have to take place during a war that will span the Prequel Trilogy and have its conclusion by the third movie’s end. That war is the Clone Wars. Not Clone Wars or The Clone Wars the TV series, since the Revised Prequels do not and will not use any other canon aside from the Original Trilogy. The Clone Wars is an historical record that Luke references in Episode IV and was never explained in the Original Trilogy. If the Clone Wars was such a monumental event that Obi-Wan participated in (“You fought in the Clone Wars?” / “Yes. I was once a Jedi Knight, the same as your father.”), then the Clone Wars are also an event that can act as a backdrop for the wars in Star Wars and act as a bridge from the Prequel Trilogy to the Original Trilogy. That ability to bridge the two trilogies is what also contributed to several major decisions.

The most important thing when looking at the Prequel Trilogy as released, and RedLetterMedia as well as BelatedMedia both have a good point about this (If you haven’t seen it, please look up “What if Episode I Was Good?” by BelatedMedia.), is how Episode I lacked a main character. That protagonist can’t be Qui-Gon because he dies by the end of the first movie; it can’t be Anakin because he’s too young to influence events and we meet him too late into the story in order for him to be the protagonist; so that leaves Obi-Wan. It could be Padmé, seeing as how she has the most active goal of saving her people, but since we know that she will be Luke and Leia’s mother, and therefore not around later (“Leia, do you remember your mother? Your real mother?” / “Just a little bit. She died when I was very young.”), then we need a character who will bridge both trilogies and pass the torch when it’s Luke’s turn to tell the tale. And I’m going to take this straight from RedLetterMedia and BelatedMedia that Obi-Wan is the focus of the Prequel Trilogy, like how Luke was the focus of the Original Trilogy, while the full, overarching story that binds both trilogies together is Anakin’s fall and redemption.

So let’s continue to talk about bridging it all together. I’ve read blog posts complaining that there can never be a successful prequel because we already know what’s going to happen. That may be, but what we don’t know is the minutiae of what occurred in the backstory. For example, look at The Godfather Part II, which mirrors the story of young Vito Corleone’s rise to power as a crime boss with the story of his son, Michael, who experiences his own meditations on power and how it can corrupt. What occurred with Vito was unexpected, and I will stay away from spoilers, but we the audience took away the lesson that anyone can begin anywhere, but it’s their choices bred from circumstance that leads to who they will be later in life. The same philosophy can apply to almost any prequel, and to the Star Wars Prequels overall.

So let’s address the choices that don’t work.

Anakin. In The Phantom Menace, Anakin the child has no agency as discussed above, but also, he returns as Anakin the adult in Episode II, a massive shift between characters. Ten years is a long time, and the teenage years shape us as the adults we will become. A lot happened to Anakin during those formative years, so the intervening time between The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones needs to be explored. In Episode II, there are moments between Anakin and Obi-Wan that hint at a relationship we were not privileged to see, but one that would have lent a lot of credence to the speeches Obi-Wan gives in Episodes IV and VI about his relationship with Anakin. (“He was the best star pilot in the galaxy. And a cunning warrior. … And he was a good friend.” / “When I first knew him, your father was already a great pilot, but I was amazed how strongly the Force was with him.”) If Anakin was such a “good friend”, then we, the audience, need to see that. If Anakin was such a great pilot, then we the audience need to see that. If Anakin was such a cunning warrior, then we the audience need to see that. Film is a visual medium, and what we see is the truth to our eyes. Being told these things breaks the primary rule of storytelling, to Show, not tell. These are the reasons I chose to make Anakin 19-years-old when we first meet him, thereby making him closer to Obi-Wan’s 25 years of age and giving them a bond like brothers. And being so close in age offers a challenge as to how Obi-Wan will handle Anakin’s Jedi training.

The Trade Federation. The Trade Federation are manipulated by a phantom menace, if you will, and take no action for themselves other than to be cowards who are easily pushed around. Yes, this is how the characters were written, but why? Why couldn’t they be more dynamic? As it stands, after being defeated, the Trade Federation take a side seat to the cloning storyline in Episode II and only appear in order to get their revenge on Padmé. (Though, why? They were in the wrong and had justice handed to them, but I guess being petty is their thing.) So what else besides being expendable does the Trade Federation offer to the story? Since the Clones Wars are the backdrop of the Revised Prequel Trilogy, then the Trade Federation have to contribute to the Clone Wars in some way. That way is Count Dooku.

Now, I’m going to pop ahead to Episode II for a moment in order to make my point. Episode II offered a compelling villain in Count Dooku, but we didn’t see much of him because he was introduced too late and died too early within the framework of the trilogy. Since the Prequel Trilogy needs a consistent villain to embody the threat against our main characters, then Count Dooku must be introduced in Episode I, so that over the next two movies he can grow as a character and as a menace. Also, Dooku is not a Jedi in the Revised Prequels because that’s an extraneous subplot that doesn’t have much bearing on the core narrative.

Tatooine. Please don’t mistake me. This planet is instrumental in so much of Star Wars simply existing, but we visited the planet too many times over the course of the Prequel Trilogy and always as a sidebar to the core conflict. Tatooine may be seen as a subplot, but too many subplots can divert the focus and muddle the narrative. If I plan to write about the effects of the Clone Wars, then adding Tatooine would be a diversion. So how to handle this? The epiphany came when I realized that there was one story stretched across two movies, that being the loss of Shmi Skywalker. In the Prequel Trilogy, Anakin loses his mother twice, the first when he leaves to train as a Jedi and the second is her death at the hands of the Tusken Raiders. In the Revised Prequels, Anakin loses Shmi only once, a loss so devastating that Anakin vows never to return to Tatooine, and unlike Luke, Anakin never does. Shmi’s death and its fallout answer the question as to how Obi-Wan and Luke remained hidden on Tatooine without Darth Vader finding them. Easy: Anakin would never return to the place he hates the most. Remember in Episode IV how, even though the Star Destroyer was in Tatooine’s orbit, Vader ordered others to handle the search for the droids. Of course, he was delegating responsibilities, but comparatively, look at Vader in Episode V. Vader hunted down the Rebels on Hoth and chased the Millennium Falcon across the galaxy. Yes, those two examples could be seen as random plot points that simply worked to facilitate the narrative, but through the lens of the Revised Prequels, every choice in the Original Trilogy matters, even if those choices were made without any consequence beyond the story being told at that time. To conclude: Anakin will never visit Tatooine again.

The battle droids. Their very existence implies that the characters exist in a bloodless galaxy; therefore, entire wars can be fought at the expense of these brainless automatons without anyone of flesh and blood getting hurt. Sorry, George Lucas, but THIS IS THE WORST THING EVER! Wars are devastating. Wars are not kind or friendly or even predictable. People die in wars. Blood is shed. Friends are lost. Families are lost. It matters what we fight for because it defines who we are. What’s more, loss establishes stakes, that is, what the character(s) will suffer if they do not succeed in their goal, and without stakes there is no drama. Why should we care for brainless automatons whose characters were never built up and who can also be cut down like butter? Such a choice also gave the Jedi a chance to flash their lightsabers without the cost of killing another being. Which brings me to my next point.

The Jedi. Where to begin? … Jedi are not warriors or soldiers or swashbucklers. They are not adventurers or thrill seekers or daredevils. They are not impervious or overly talented or RIFE WITH BACTERIA THAT HELP YOU COMMAND THE FORCE! MY, GOD, CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT ONE?! I MEAN, WHAT THE – ?! …This has to do with building drama and raising the stakes. If the Jedi are impervious, then there’s no way for us to care about their struggles. The Jedi are monks. The Jedi are the guardians of peace and justice. The Jedi are an ancient order with traditions and rules that govern them day to day and have allowed their society to exist for over a thousand generations. Anyone — and I repeat that, ANYONE — can learn to use the Force, it only takes time, dedication, and an apt teacher. (If you haven’t already, please read starwars1999.tumblr.com) Yet, there are those who are sensitive in it. Think of an old soul. Ever meet that person who is wise beyond their years, mature before they’re ready, able to stand toe to toe with someone twice their age and not flinch? Someone who is Force-sensitive is very much the same way. (“... but I was amazed how strongly the Force was with him.”) Obi-Wan spent years learning how to channel the Force, whereas Anakin picked it up instinctively. The same is true with Luke and Leia, how “The Force runs strong in your family.”

What’s more, if the Jedi are monks, then they must dress like they’re poor, which the Prequel Trilogy excelled at. Most philosophies understand that worldly trappings are detrimental to mastering their discipline. Having Jedi dress in a simple robe, one tunic, one pair of leggings, one set of boots, and one utility belt unifies their philosophy and presents their dedication to the galaxy. Their style of dress cannot be called a uniform because uniforms are what soldiers wear. And in dressing this way, the Jedi can blend in, especially when they’re on poorer Outer Rim Worlds. The Jedi attire shows where their allegiances lie, that is, serving something greater than themselves, while also reminding them to treat everyone equally, from the less fortunate to the most affluent. (To illustrate this example, please look at A New Hope when Luke sells his speeder. Obi-Wan has his back turned, and if you pause the movie, he blends into the background. No one notices a Jedi until Jedi make themselves known.)

This also brings us to lightsabers. A lightsaber is sacred. YES, sometimes hands get cut off and sometimes stuff happens during a fight and the thing goes flying — it happened to Luke in Episode V and it will happen to other characters; however, lightsabers are not expendable. They are not drawn at a moment’s notice. They are not traded back and forth like some kind of blaster. A lightsaber is a Jedi’s weapon and must be treated with the utmost respect. If a Jedi loses their lightsaber, it should matter, it should matter, it should matter. And it should also be a moment in the story that is not easily fixed. It took Luke between Episodes V and VI to build himself a new lightsaber. It should be as strenuous for a Jedi in the Prequel Trilogy.

To expand upon that, let’s discuss lightsaber battles. Episode V is the epitome of the lightsaber duel. Notice I wrote duel. In the Prequel Trilogy, the lightsabers came out for battle — see Episode II — but as I’ve established, there are no stakes in taking down a battle droid. If the lightsabers came out during a battle where there were living beings being cut down, then the arena sequence in Episode II would have been a completely different scene. It would have added gravitas to this world, and it would have meant that Jedi taking a life is something they do as the last possible option. So that brings me back to the duel. In story, when characters can’t converse, they shout; when they can’t shout, they fight. Luke facing off against Vader in Episode V was that very moment of options running out and leaving the characters with nothing else but their willingness to fight. Martial arts training is about disciplining the mind as well as the body, and even though Jedi do not fight each other, they are still prepared to defend themselves. Luke’s duel against Vader was of a promising Jedi against a former Jedi, and they were both trained in the same forms, meaning that their duel took on a heightened quality and elegance. (“An elegant weapon for a more civilized age.”)

The Gungans. They can work, but it’s how they work, and that’s all I’ll say about that.

There are probably more things I can address, but these are the major things that needed to be redressed if the Revised Prequels were going to distinguish themselves from other attempts that tried to fix what was broken. Again, these choices are the ones I made in order to write the Revised Prequels. As such, there was a good foundation and a great story in The Phantom Menace; now let’s see if the Revised Prequels can make it so.

Also, and finally, because I am critiquing the work doesn’t mean I am critiquing your enjoyment of it.

Thank you.

--A. Gunter