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, Cord é and Dorm é, waited. Like Padmé, these handmaidens were down to a white jumpsuit and armed with a chrome plated blaster. JarJar and Headmaster’s 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 the helmet-mask, 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-mask, 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 Panaka’s and Thule’s expressions; Cordé and Dormé, too, once they arrived. 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, he shimmied up the trunk, out on a 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 with a grimace. “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 moved 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 split the peace, 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. The guards screamed. The tower crashed into the ground with a spray of 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 cord. 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 were going to 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.
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 beeped 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 handed 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 released him, and a door slid shut, locking with a resounding click , Obi-Wan took a moment to assess 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 scrolled 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 plugged in. Tak reengaged the door 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 grinning 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, and she proceeded to slurp them 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 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 dread 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 not protecting 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.”
“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 quirked a brow. “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. 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.