After ejecting from their doomed craft, Qui-Gon’s para-foil 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. As his para-foil evened out and he descended, Qui-Gon allowed himself a rueful smile just thinking about the Council and their lost connection to the wider galaxy. And then he 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 his cheek, and then it all came to an abrupt stop.
His feet dangled several meters off the forest floor. Looking up, the para-foil twisted in the branches, the thin material impaled. His robe, too, had snagged on a branch. Qui-Gon figured his odds. If he released and landed, he could slow his descent with an aid of the Force and add 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. Qui-Gon 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 allowed himself a wince, then 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 utilitarian interior, 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 in the corner 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, if prompted, willing to battle for their freedom. He had seen it before. 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 warrior, who had arms, legs, and chest stripes in contrasting shades, 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.
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 the Naboo and Qui-Gon 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 security 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 followed, 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. He lifted his arms, hearing the commandos closing in, feeling the warm morning air. Then he dropped his arms. 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. 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, assessing, then to Panaka. “Captain, you couldn’t have come at a better time.”
Dannt led them into the cave where 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 slick with sweat. More young people populated this chamber — students. One young man, who shared Panaka’s dark skin, tended to a cooking fire, roasting rodents on spits.
The Headmaster stopped at 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?”
Dané Olié, 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, brown 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 limbs.
He heard the ping of blasters discharging, a familiar humm …
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 humm and hiss of a lightsaber. The screams grew louder, the sound of a struggle, and then …
He came to with a furry 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. 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.