Star Wars-The Phantom Menace eBook #starwars #ebooks

A LONG TIME AGO IN A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY…

 1

 Tatooine.
 The suns burned down out of a cloudless  blue  sky,  washing  the  vast

desert wastes of the planet in brilliant white light. The resultant glare
rose off the flat, sandy surface in a wet shimmer of blistering heat to fill
the gaps between the massive cliff faces and solitary outcroppings of the
mountains that were the planet’s sole distinguishing feature. Sharply
etched, the monoliths stood like sentinels keeping watch in a watery haze.
When the Podracers streaked past, engines roaring with ferocious hunger and
relentless drive, the heat and the light seemed to shatter and the mountains
themselves to tremble.
Anakin Skywalker leaned into the curve of the raceway that took him
past the stone arch marking the entry into Beggar’s Canyon on the first lap
of the run, easing the thruster bars forward, giving the engines a little
more juice. The wedge-shaped rockets exploded with power, the right a tad
harder than the left, banking the Pod in which Anakin sat sharply left to
clear the turn. Swiftly, he adjusted the steering to straighten the racer,
boosted power further, and shot through the arch.
Loose sand whiplashed in the wake of his passing, filling the air with
a gritty sheen, whirling and dancing through the heat. He ripped into the
canyon, fingers playing across the controls, hands steady on the steering.
It was all so quick, so instantaneous. One mistake, one misjudgment,
and he would be out of the race and lucky if he weren’t dead. That was the
thrill of it. All that power, all that speed, just at his fingertips, and no
margin for error. Two huge turbines dragged a fragile Pod over sandy flats,
around jagged – edged mountains, down shadowed draws, and over
heart-wrenching drops in a series of twisting, winding curves and jumps at
the greatest speed a driver could manage. Control cables ran fr’lffi the Pod
to the engines, and energy binders locked the engines to each other. If any
part of the three struck something solid, the whole of the assembly would
collapse in a splintering of metal and a fiery wash of rocket fuel. If any
part broke free, it was all over.
A grin split Anakin’s young face as he injected a bit more power into
the thrusters.
Ahead, the canyon narrowed and the shadows deepened. Anakin bore down
on the slit of brightness that opened back onto the flats, keeping low to
the ground where passage was widest. If he stayed high, he risked brushing
the cliff faces on either side. That had happened to Regga in a race last
month, and they were still looking for the pieces.
It would not happen to him.
He shoved the thruster bars forward and exploded through the gap onto
the flats, engines screaming.
Sitting in the Pod with his hands on the controls, Anakin could feel
the vibration of the engines travel up the control
cables and fill him with their music. Wrapped in his rough-made
jumpsuit, his racing helmet, his goggles, and his gloves, he was wedged so
closely in his seat that he could feel the rush of the wind across the Pod’s
skin beneath him. When he raced like this, he was never simply the driver of
a Podracer, never just an additional part. Rather, he was at one with the
whole, and engines, Pod, and he were bound together in a way he could not
entirely explain. Each shimmy, each small throb, each tug and twist of strut
and tie were apparent to him, and he could sense at any given moment exactly
what was happening throughout the length and breadth of his racer. It spoke
to him in its own language, a mix of sounds and feelings, and though it did
not use words, he could understand everything it said.
Sometimes, he thought dreamily, he could sense what it would say before
it even spoke.
A flash of gleaming orange metal shot past him on his right, and he
watched the distinctive split-X of Sebulba’s engines flare out before him,
taking away the lead he had seized through an unusually quick start. His
brow wrinkled in disgust at himself for his momentary lapse of concentration
and his dislike of the other racer. All gangly and crook-legged, Sebulba was
as twisted inside as out, a dangerous adversary who won often and took
delight in doing so at the expense of others. The Dug had caused more than a
dozen crashes of other Podracers in the past year alone, and his eyes
glinted with wicked pleasure when he recounted the tales to others on the
dusty streets of Mos Espa. Anakin knew Sebulba well – and knew better than
to take chances with him.
He rode the thruster bars forward, fed fresh power to the engines, and
rocketed ahead.
It didn’t help, he supposed as he watched the distance between them
narrow, that he was human or, much worse, that he was the
only human ever to drive in the Podraces. The ultimate test of skill
and daring on Tatooine and the favorite spectator sport of the citizens of
Mos Espa, it was supposed to be beyond the skill and capability of any
human. Multiple arms and multihinged joints, stalk eyes, heads that swiveled
180 degrees, and bodies that twisted as if boneless gave advantages to other
creatures that humans could not begin to overcome. The most famous racers,
the best of a rare breed, were strangely shaped, complexly formed beings
with a penchant for taking risks that bordered on insanity.
But Anakin Skywalker, while nothing like these, was so intuitive in his
understanding of the skills required by his sport and so comfortable with
its demands that his lack of these other attributes seemed to matter not at
all. It was a source of some mystery to everyone, and a source of disgust
and growing irritation to Sebulba in particular.
Last month, in another race, the wily Dug had tried to run Anakin into
a cliff face. He had failed only because Anakin sensed him coming up from
behind and underneath, an illegal razor saw extended to sever Anakin’s right
Steelton control cable, and Anakin lifted away to safety before the saw
could do its damage. His escape cost him the race, but allowed him to keep
his life. It was a trade he was still angry at having been forced to make.
The racers whipped through columns of ancient statuary and across the
floor of the arena erected on the edge of Mos Espa. They swept under the
winner’s arch, past row upon row of seats crammed with spectators cheering
them on, past pit droids, repair stations, and the boxes where the Hutts
watched in isolated splendor above the commoners. From an overlook in a
tower centered on the arch, the two-headed Troig who served as announcer
would
be shouting out their names and positions to the crowd.
Anakin allowed himself a momentary glimpse of blurred figures that were
left behind so fast they might have been nothing more than a mirage. His
mother, Shmi, would be among them, worrying as she always did. She hated
watching him drive in the Podraces, but she couldn’t help herself. She never
said so, but he thought she believed that simply by being there she could
keep him from coming to harm. It had worked so far. He had crashed twice and
failed to finish even once, but after more than half a dozen races he was
unharmed. And he liked having her there. It gave him a strange sort of
confidence in himself he didn’t like to think about too closely.
Besides, what choice did they have in the matter? He raced because he
was good at it, Watto knew he was good at it, and whatever Watto wanted of
him he would do. That was the price you paid when you were a slave, and
Anakin Skywalker had been a slave all his life.
Arch Canyon rose broad and deep before him, an expanse of rock leading
into Jag Crag Gorge, a twisting channel the racers were required to navigate
on their way to the high flats beyond. Sebulba was just ahead, rocketing low
and tight across the ground, trying to put some distance between Anakin and
himself. Behind Anakin, close now, were three other racers spread out
against the horizon. A quick glance revealed Mawhonic, Gasgano, and Rimkar
trailing in his strange bubble pod. All three were gaining. Anakin started
to engage his thrusters, then drew back. They were too close to the gorge.
Too much power there, and he would be in trouble. Response time in the
channel was. compacted down to almost nothing. It was better to wait.
Mawhonic and Gasgano seemed to agree, settling their Pods into place
behind his as they approached the split in the rock. But Rimkar was not
content to wait and roared past Anakin split seconds before they entered the
cleft and disappeared into darkness.
Anakin leveled out his Pod, lifting slightly from the rockstrewn floor
of the channel, letting his memory and his instincts take him down the
winding cut. When he raced, everything around him slowed down rather than
sped up. It was different than you’d expect. Rock and sand and shadows flew
past in a wild mix of patterns and shapes, and still he could see so
clearly. All the details seemed to jump out at him, as if illuminated by
exactly what should make them so difficult to distinguish. He could almost
close his eyes and drive, he thought. He was that much in tune with
everything around him, that much aware of where he was.
He eased swiftly down the channel, catching glimpses of Rimkar’s engine
exhausts as they flashed crimson in the shadows. Far, far overhead, the sky
was a brilliant blue streak down the center of the mountain, sending a frail
streamer of light into the gap that lost brilliance with every meter it
dropped so that by the time it reached Anakin and his fellow racers, it
barely cut the dark. Yet Anakin was at peace, lost deep within himself as he
drove his Pod, bonded with his engines, given over to the throb and hum of
his racer and the soft, velvet dark that folded about.
When they emerged into the light once more, Anakin jammed the thruster
bars forward and streaked after Sebulba. Mawhonic and Gasgano were right
behind. Ahead, Rimkar had caught Sebulba and was trying to edge past. The
lanky Dug lifted his split-X engines slightly to scrape against Rirnkar’s
Pod. But Rimkar’s rounded shell eased smoothly away, unaffected. Side by
side the racers tore across the high flats, headed for Metta Drop. Anakin
closed on them, drawing away from Mawhonic and Gasgano. People said what
they wanted about Watto-and there was plenty to say that wasn’t good-but he
had an eye for Podracers. The big engines jumped obediently as Anakin fed
fuel into the thrusters, and in seconds he was drawing alongside Sebulba’s
split-X.
They were even when they reached Metta Drop and rocketed over and
tumbled straight down.
The trick with drops, as every racer knew, was to gather enough speed
going down to gain time over your opponents, but not so much speed that the
racer couldn’t pull out of the drop and level out again before it nose-dived
into the rocks below. So when Sebulba pulled out early, Anakin was
momentarily surprised. Then he felt the backwash of the split-X engines
hammer into his Pod. The treacherous Dug had only looked as if he would pull
out and instead had lifted away and then deliberately fishtailed atop both
Anakin and Rimkar, using his exhaust to slam them against the cliff face.
Rimkar, caught completely by surprise, jammed his thruster bars forward
in an automatic response that took him right into the mountain. Metal
fragments of Pod and engines careened away from the rock wall in a fiery
shower, leaving a long black scar along the ravaged surface.
Anakin might have gone the same way but for his instincts. Almost
before he knew what he was doing, at the same instant he felt the backwash
of Sebulba’s engines slam into him, he lifted out of his own descent and
away from the mountain, almost colliding with a surprised Sebulba, who
veered off wildly to save himself. Anakin’s sudden wrenching of his Pod’s
steering took him spinning away into the midday, off course and out of
control. He pulled back on the steering, eased off on the thrusters, cut the
fuel supply to the big engines, and watched the ground rise up to meet him
in a rush of sand and reflected light.
He struck the ground in a bone-wrenching skid that severed both control
cables, the big engines flying off in two directions while the Pod careened
first left, then right, and then began to roll. Anakin could only brace
himself inside, spinning and twisting in a roil of sand and heat, praying
that he didn’t wind up against an outcropping of rock. Metal shrieked in
protest and dust filled the Pod’s interior. Somewhere off to his right, an
engine exploded in a ground-shaking roar. Anakin’s arms were stretched out
to either side, keeping him squarely placed through the pummeling the Pod
experienced as it continued to roll and then roll some more.
Finally, it stopped, tilted wildly to one side. Anakin waited a moment,
then loosened his restraining belt and crawled out. The heat of the desert
rose to meet him, and the blinding sunlight bore down through his goggles.
Overhead, the last of the Podracers streaked away into the blue horizon,
engines whining and booming. Silence followed, deep and profound.
Anakin glanced left and right at what remained of his engines, taking
in the damage, assessing the work they would need to operate again. He
looked finally at his Pod and grimaced. Watto would not be happy.
But then Watto seldom was.
Anakin Skywalker sat down with his back against the ruined Pod, gaining
what small relief he could from its shadow in the glare of Tatooine’s twin
suns. A landspeeder would be along in a few minutes to pick him up. Watto
would be there to chew him out. His mother would be there to give him a hug
and take him home. He wasn’t satisfied with how things had turned out, but
he wasn’t discouraged either. He could have won the race if Sebulba had
played fair. He could have won easily.
He sighed and tipped back his helmet.
One day soon he would win a lot of races. Maybe even next year, when he
reached the age often.

 2

 Do you have any idea what this is going to cost me, boy?  Do  you  have

any idea at all? Oba chee ka!”
Watto hovered before him, launching into Huttese without even thinking
about it, choosing a language that offered a vast array of insulting
adjectives he could draw upon. Anakin stood stoically in place, his young
face expressionless, his eyes fastened on the pudgy blue Toydarian hovering
before him. Watto’s wings were a blur of motion, beating with such ferocity
it seemed as if they must surely fly off his lumpy little body. Anakin
stifled an urge to laugh as he imagined this happening. It would not do to
laugh just now.
When Watto paused for breath, Anakin said quietly, “It wasn’t my fault.
Sebulba flashed me with his port vents and nearly smashed me into Metta
Drop. He cheated.”
Watto’s mouth worked as if chewing something, his snout wrinkling over
his protruding teeth. “Of course he cheated, boy! He always cheats! That’s
how he wins! Maybe you should cheat just a little now and then! Maybe then
you wouldn’t crash your Pod time after time and cost me so much money!”
They were standing in Watto’s shop in the merchants’ district of Mos
Espa, a dingy mud-and-sand hut fronting an enclosure packed with rocket and
engine parts salvaged from scrapped and junked wrecks. It was cool and
shadowy inside, the planet’s heat shut out by the thick walls, but even here
dust hung in the air in hazy streamers caught by the ambient light cast by
glow lamps. The race had long since ended and the planet’s twin suns had
dropped toward the horizon with evening’s slow approach. The wrecked
Podracer and its engines had been transported by mechanic droids from the
flats back to the shop. Anakin had been transported back as well, though
with somewhat less enthusiasm.
“Rassa dwee cuppa, peedunkel!” Watto screamed, starting in again on
Anakin in a fresh burst of Huttese.
The pudgy body lurched forward a few centimeters with each epithet,
causing Anakin to step back in spite of his resolve. Watto’s bony arms and
legs gestured with the movements of his head and body, giving him a comical
appearance. He was angry, but Anakin had seen him angry before and knew what
to expect. He did not cringe or bow his head in submission; he stood his
ground and took his scolding unflinchingly. He was a slave and Watto was his
master. Scoldings were part of life. Besides, Watto would wind down shortly
now, his anger released in a manner that would satisfy his need to cast
blame in a direction other than his own, and things would go back to normal.
All three fingers of Watto’s right hand pointed at the boy. “I
shouldn’t let you drive for me anymore! That’s what I should do! I should
find another driver!”
“I think that is a very good idea,” Shmi agreed.
Anakin’s mother had been standing to one side, not saying, anything
during the whole of Watto’s diatribe, but now she was quick to take
advantage of a suggestion she would have made ‘I herself, if asked.
Watto wheeled on her, spinning violently, wings whirring, and flew to
confront her. But her calm, steady gaze brought him up short, pinning him in
the air midway between mother and son. “It’s too dangerous in any case,” she
continued reasonably. “He’s only a boy.”
Watto was immediately defensive. “He’s my boy, my property, and he’ll
do what I want him to do!” “Exactly.” Shmi’s dark eyes stared out of her
worn, lined face with resolution. “Which is why he won’t race anymore if you
don’t want him to. Isn’t that what you just said?”
Watto seemed confused by this. He worked his mouth and trunklike nose
in a rooting manner, but no words would come out. Anakin watched his mother
appreciatively. Her lank, dark hair was beginning to gray, and her once
graceful movements had slowed. But he thought she was beautiful and brave.
He thought she was perfect.
Watto advanced on her another few centimeters, then stopped once more.
Shmi held herself erect in the same way that Anakin did, refusing to concede
anything to her condition. Watto regarded her sourly for a moment more, then
spun around and flew at the boy.
“You will fix everything you ruined, boy!” he snapped, shaking his
finger at Anakin. “You will repair the engines and the Pod and make them as
good as new! Better than new, in fact! And you’ll start right now! Right
this instant. Get out there and get to work!”
He spun back toward Shrni defiantly. “Still plenty of daylight for a
boy to work! Time is money!” He gestured at first mother and then son. “Get
on with it, the both of you! Back to work, back to work!”
Shmi gave Anakin a warm smile. “Go on, Anakin,” she said softly.
“Dinner will be waiting.”
She turned and went out the door. Watto, after giving Anakin a final
withering glance, followed after her. Anakin stood in the shadowed room for
a moment, staring at nothing. He was thinking that he shouldn’t have lost
the race. Next time-and there would be a next time, if he knew Watto-he
wouldn’t.
Sighing in frustration, he turned and went out the back of the shop
into the yard. He was a small boy, even at nine years of age, rather
compactly built, with a mop of sandy hair, blue eyes, a pug nose, and an
inquisitive stare. He was quick and strong for his age, and he was gifted in
ways that constantly surprised those around him. He was already an
accomplished driver in the Podraces, something no human of any age had ever
been before. He was gifted with building skills that allowed him to put
together almost anything. He was useful to Watto in both areas, and Watto
was not one to waste a slave’s talent.
But what no one knew about him except his mother was the way he sensed
things. Frequently he sensed them before anyone even knew they would happen.
It was like a stirring in the air, a whisper of warning or suggestion that
no one else could feel. It had served him well in the Podraces, but it was
also there at other times. He had an affinity for recognizing how things
were or how they ought to be. He was only nine years old and he could
already see the world in ways most adults never would.
For all the good it was doing him just at the moment.
He kicked at the sand in the yard as he crossed to the engines and Pod
the droids had dumped there earlier. Already his mind was working on what it
would take to make them operable again. The right engine was almost
untouched, if he ignored the scrapes and tears in the metal skin. The left
was a mess, though. And the Pod was battered and bent, the control panel a
shambles.
“Fidget,” he muttered softly. “Just fidget!”
Mechanic droids came out at his beckoning and set to work removing the
damaged parts of the racer. He was only minutes into sorting through the
scrap when he realized there were parts he needed that Watto did not have on
hand, including thermal varistats and thruster relays. He would have to
trade for them from one of the other shops before he could start on a
reassembly. Watto would not like that. He hated asking for parts from other
shops, insisting that anything worth having he already had, unless it came
from off world. The fact that he was trading for what he needed didn’t seem
to take the edge off his rancor at having to deal with the locals. He’d
rather win what he needed in a Podrace.
Or simply steal it.
Anakin looked skyward, where the last of the day’s light was beginning
to fade. The first stars were coming out, small pinpricks against the
deepening black of the night sky. Worlds he had never seen and could only
dream about waited out there, and one day he would visit them. He would not
be here forever. Not him.
“Psst! Anakin!” A voice whispered cautiously to him from the deep
shadows at the back of the yard, and a pair of small forms slipped through
the narrow gap at the fence corner where the wire had failed. It was
Kitster, his best friend, creeping into view with Wald, mother friend,
following close behind. Kitster was small and dark, his hair cut in a close
bowl about his head, his clothing loose and nondescript, designed to
preserve moisture and deflect heat and sand. Wald, trailing uncertainly, was
a Rodian, an off-worlder who had come to Tatooine only recently. He was
several years younger than his friends, but bold enough that they let him
hang around with them most of the time.
“Hey, Annie, what’re you doing?” Kitster asked, glancing around
doubtfully, keeping a wary eye out for Watto.
Anakin shrugged.
“Watto says I have to fix the Pod up again, make it like new.”
“Yeah, but not today,” Kitster advised solemnly. “Today’s almost over.
C’mon. Tomorrow’s soon enough for that. Let’s go get a ruby bliel.” It was
their favorite drink. Anakin felt his mouth water.
“I can’t. I have to stay and work on this until…” He stopped. Until
dark, he was going to say, but it was nearly dark already, so…
“What’ll we buy them with?” he asked doubtfully.
Kitster motioned toward Waldo
“He’s got five druggats he says he found somewhere or other.”
He gave Wald a sharp look.
“He says.”
“Got’em right here, I do.”
Wald’s strange, scaly head nodded assurance, his protruding eyes
blinking hard. He pulled on one green ear.
“Don’t you believe me?”
Wald said in Huttese. “Yeah, yeah, we believe you.”
Kitster winked at Anakin. “C’mon, let’s go before old flapping wings
gets back.”
They went out through the gap in the fence and down the road behind,
turned left, and hurried through the crowded plaza toward the food stores
just ahead. The streets were still crowded, but the traffic was all headed
homeward or to the Hutt pleasure dens. The boys zipped smoothly through
knots of people and carts, past speeders hovering just off surface, down
walks beneath awnings in the process of being drawn up, and along stacks of
goods being set inside under lock and key.
In moments, they had reached the shop that sold ruby bliels and had
worked their way up to the counter.
Wald was as good as his word, and he produced the requisite druggats in
exchange for three drinks and handed one to each of his friends. They took
them outside, sipping at the gooey mixture through straws, and made their
way slowly back down the street, chatting among themselves about racers and
speeders and mainline ships, about battle cruisers and starfighters and the
pilots who captained them. They would all be pilots one day, they promised
each other, a vow they sealed with spit and hand slaps. They were right in
the middle of a heated discussion over the merits of starfighters, when a
voice close to them said,
“Give me the choice, I’d take a Z-95 Headhunter every time.” The boys
turned as one. An old spacer stood leaning on a speeder hitch, watching
them. They knew what he was right away from his clothing, weapons, and the
small, worn fighter corps insignia he wore stitched to his tunic. It was a
Republic insignia. You didn’t see many of those on Tatooine.
“Saw you race today,” the old spacer said to Anakin. He was tall and
lean and corded, his face weatherworn and sun-browned, his eyes an odd color
of gray, his hair cut short so that it bristled from his scalp, his smile
ironic and warm. “What’s your name?”
“Anakin Skywalker,” Anakin told him uncertainly. “These are my friends,
Kitster and Wald.”
The old spacer nodded wordlessly at the other two, keeping his eyes
fixed on Anakin. “You fly like your name, Anakin. You walk the sky like you
own it. You show promise.” He straightened and shifted his weight with
practiced ease, glancing from one boy to the next. “You want to fly the big
ships someday?”
All three boys nodded as one. The old spacer smiled.
“There’s nothing like it. Nothing. Flew all the big boys, once upon a
time, when I was younger. Flew everything there was to fly, in and out of
the corps. You recognize the insignia, boys?”
Again, they nodded, interested now, caught up in the wonder of corning
face-to-face with a real pilot-not just of Podracers, but of fighters and
cruisers and mainline ships.
“It was a long time ago,” the spacer said, his voice suddenly distant.
“I left the corps six years back. Too old. Time passes you by, leaves you to
find something else to do with what’s left of your life.” He pursed his
lips. “How’re those ruby bliels? Still good? Haven’t had one in years. Maybe
now’s a good time. You boys care to join me? Care to drink a ruby bliel with
an old pilot of the Republic?”
He didn’t have to ask twice. He took them back down the street to the
shop they had just left and purchased a second drink for each of them and
one for himself. They went back outside to a quiet spot off the plaza and
stood sipping at the bliels and staring up at the sky. The light was gone,
and stars were sprinkled all over the darkened firmament, a wash of silver
specks nestled against the black.
“Flew all my life,” the old spacer advised solemnly, eyes fixed on the
sky. “Flew everywhere I could manage, and you know what? I couldn’t get to a
hundredth of what’s out there. Couldn’t get to a millionth. But it was fun
trying. A whole lot of fun.”
His gaze shifted to the boys again. “Flew a cruiser filled with
Republic soldiers into Makem Te during its rebellion. That was a scary
business. Flew Jedi Knights once upon a time, too.”
“Jedi!” Kitster exhaled sharply. “Wow!”
“Really? You really flew Jedi?” Anakin pressed, eyes wide. The spacer
laughed at their wonder.
“Cross my heart and call me bantha fodder if I’m lying. It was a long
time ago, but I flew four of them to a place I’m not supposed to talk about
even now. Told you. I’ve been everywhere a man can get to in one lifetime.
Everywhere.”
“I want to fly ships to those worlds one day,” Anakin said softly.
Wald snorted doubtfully. “You’re a slave, Annie. You can’t go
anywhere.”
The old pilot looked down at Anakin. The boy couldn’t look at him.
“Well,” he said softly, “in this life you’re often born one thing and
die another. You don’t have to accept that what you’re given when you come
in is all you’ll have when you leave.” He laughed suddenly. “Reminds me of
something. I flew the Kessel Run once, long ago. Not many have done that and
lived to tell about it. Lots told me I couldn’t do it, told me not to bother
trying, to give it up and go on to something else. But I wanted that
experience, so I just went ahead and found a way to prove them wrong.” He
looked down at Anakin. “Could be that’s what you’ll have to do, young
Skywalker. I’ve seen how you handle a Podracer. You got the eyes for it, the
feel. You’re better than I was at twice your age.” He nodded solemnly. “You
want to fly the big ships, I think maybe you will.”
He stared at the boy, and Anakin stared back. The old spacer smiled and
nodded slowly.
“Yep, Anakin Skywalker, I do think maybe one day you will.”

 ***

 He arrived home late for dinner and received his second scolding of the

day. He might have tried making something up about having to stay late for
Watto, but Anakin Skywalker didn’t lie to his mother. Not about anything,
not ever. He told her the truth, about stealing away with Kitster and Wald,
about drinking ruby bliels, and about sharing stories with the old spacer.
Shmi wasn’t impressed. She didn’t like her son spending time with people she
didn’t know, even though she understood how boys were and how capable Anakin
was of looking after himself.
“If you feel the need to avoid the work you’ve been given by Watto,
come see me about the work that needs doing here at home,” she advised him
sternly.
Anakin didn’t argue with her, smart enough by now to realize that
arguing in these situations seldom got him anywhere. He sat quietly, eating
with his head down, nodding when nodding was called for, thinking that his
mother loved him and was worried for him and that made her anger and
frustration with him all right.
Afterward, they sat outside on stools in front of their home in the
cool night air and looked up at the stars. Anakin liked sitting outside at
night before bed. It wasn’t so close and confined as it was inside. He could
breathe out here. His home was small and shabby and packed tight against
dozens of others, its thick walls comprised of a mixture of mud and sand. It
was typical of quarters provided for slaves in this part of Mos Espa, a hut
with a central room and one or two bumpouts for sleeping. But his mother
kept it neat and clean, and Anakin had his own room, which was rather larger
than most and where he kept his stuff. A large workbench and tools took up
most of the available space. Right now he was engaged in building a protocol
droid to help his mom. He was adding the needed parts a piece at a time,
scavenging them from wherever he could, slowly restoring the whole. Already
it could talk and move about and do a few things. He would have it up and
running soon.
“Are you tired, Annie?” his mother asked after a long silence.
He shook his head. “Not really.”
“Still thinking about the race?”
“Yes.”
And he was, but mostly he was thinking about the old spacer and his
tales of flying mainline ships to distant worlds, of going into battle for
the Republic, and of rubbing shoulders with Jedi Knights.
“I don’t want you racing Pods anymore, Annie,” his mother said softly.
“I don’t want you to ask Watto to let you. Promise me you won’t.”
He nodded reluctantly. “I promise.” He thought about it a moment. “But
what if Watto tells me I have to, Mom? What am I supposed to do then? I have
to do what he tells me. So if he asks, I have to race.”
She reached over and put a hand on his arm, patting him gently. “I
think maybe after today he won’t ask again. He’ll find someone else.”
Anakin didn’t say so, but he knew his mother was wrong. There wasn’t
anyone better than he was at Podracing. Not even Sebulba, if he couldn’t
cheat. Besides, Watto would never pay to have someone else drive when he
could have Anakin do it for free. Watto would stay mad another day or two
and then begin to think about winning again. Anakin would be back in the
Podraces before the month was out.
He gazed skyward, his mother’s hand resting lightly on his arm, and
thought about what it would be like to be out there, flying battle cruisers
and fighters, traveling to far worlds and strange places. He didn’t care
what Wald said, he wouldn’t be a slave all his life. Just as he wouldn’t
always be a boy. He would find a way to leave Tatooine. He would find a way
to take his mother with him. His dreams whirled through his head as he
watched the stars, a kaleidoscope of bright images. He imagined how it would
be. He saw it clearly in his mind, and it made him smile.
One day, he thought, seeing the old spacer’s face in the darkness
before him, the wry smile and strange gray eyes, I’ll do everything you’ve
done. Everything.
He took a deep breath and held it.
I’ll even fly with Jedi Knights.
Slowly he exhaled, the promise sealed.

 3

 The  small  Republic  space  cruiser,  its  red  color  the  symbol  of

ambassadorial neutrality, knifed through starry blackness toward the emerald
bright planet of Naboo and the cluster of Trade Federation fleet ships that
encircled it. The ships were huge, blocky fortresses, tubular in shape,
split at one end and encircling an orb that sheltered the bridge,
communications center, and hyperdrive. Armaments bristled from every port
and bay, and Trade Federation fighters circled the big beasts like gnats.
The more traditionally shaped Republic cruiser, with its tri-engines, flat
body, and squared-off cockpit, looked insignificant in the shadow of the
Trade Federation battleships, but it continued toward them, undeterred.
The cruiser’s captain and copilot sat side by side at the forward
console, hands moving swiftly over the controls as they steered closer to
the ship with the Trade Federation viceroy insignia emblazoned on its
bridge. There was a nervous energy to their movements that was unmistakable.
From time to time, they would glance uneasily at each other-and over their
shoulders at the figure who stood in the shadows behind.
On the viewscreen in front of them, captured from his position on the
bridge of the battleship toward which they were headed, was Trade Federation
Viceroy Nute Gunray, his reddish orange eyes staring out at them
expectantly. The Neimoidian wore his perpetually sour expression, mouth
downturned, bony brow emphasizing his discontent. His green-gray skin
reflected the ambient lighting of the ship, all pale and cold in contrast to
his dark robes, collar, and tricornered headdress.
“Captain. “
The cruiser captain turned slightly in her seat to acknowledge the
figure concealed in the shadows behind her. “Yes, sir?”
“Tell them we wish to board at once.”
The voice was deep and smooth, but the measure of resolution it
contained was unmistakable.
“Yes, sir,” the captain said, giving the copilot a covert glance, which
the copilot returned. The captain faced Nute Gunray on the screen. “With all
due respect, Viceroy, the ambassadors for the supreme chancellor have
requested that they be allowed to board immediately.”
The Neimoidian nodded quickly. “Yes, yes, Captain, of course. We would
be happy to receive the ambassadors at their convenience. Happy to,
Captain.”
The screen went dark. The captain hesitated, glancing back at the
figure behind her. “Sir?”
“Proceed, Captain,” Qui-Gon Jinn said.
The Jedi Master watched silently as the Trade Federation battleship
loomed before them, filling the viewport with its gleaming bulk. Qui-Gon was
a tall, powerfully built man with prominent, leonine features. His beard and
mustache were close cropped and his hair was worn long and tied back. Tunic,
pants, and hooded robe were typically loose-fitting and comfortable, a sash
binding them at his waist where his lightsaber hung just out of view, but
within easy reach.
Qui-Gon’s sharp blue eyes fixed on the battleship as if to see what
waited within. The Republic’s taxation of the trade routes between the star
systems had been in dispute since its inception, but until now all the Trade
Federation had done in response was to complain. The blockade of Naboo was
the first act of outright defiance, and while the Federation was a powerful
body, equipped with its own battle fleet and army of droids, its action here
was atypical. The Neimoidians were entrepreneurs, not fighters. They lacked
the backbone necessary to undertake a challenge to the Republic. Somehow
they had found that backbone. It bothered Qui-Gon that he could not explain
how.
He shifted his weight as the cruiser moved slowly into the gap in the
Trade Federation flagship’s outer wheel toward the hangar bay. Tractor beams
took hold, guiding the cruiser inside where magnetic clamps locked the ship
in place. The blockade had been in effect now for almost a month. The
Republic Senate continued to debate the action, searching for an amicable
way to resolve the dispute. But no progress had been made, and at last the
supreme chancellor had secretly notified the Jedi Council that he had sent
two Jedi directly to the ostensible initiators of the blockade, the
Neimoidians, in an effort to resolve the matter more directly. It was a bold
move. In theory, the Jedi Knights served the supreme chancellor, responding
on his direction to life-threatening situations. But any interference in the
internal politics of the Senate’s member bodies, particularly where an armed
conflict between worlds was involved, required Senate approval. The supreme
chancellor was skirting the edges of his authority in this case. At best,
this was a covert action and would spark heated debate in the Senate at a
later date.
The Jedi Master sighed. While none of this was his concern, he could
not ignore the implications of what it meant if he failed. The Jedi Knights
were peacemakers; that was the nature of their order and the dictate of
their creed. For thousands of years they had served the Republic, a constant
source of stability and order in a changing universe. Founded as a
theological and philosophical study group so far back that its origins were
the stuff of myth, the Jedi had only gradually become aware of the presence
of the Force. Years had been spent in its study, in contemplation of its
meaning, in mastery of its power. Slowly the order had evolved, abandoning
its practice of and belief in a life of isolated meditation in favor of a
more outward-looking commitment to social responsibility. Understanding the
Force sufficiently to master its power required more than private study. It
required service to the greater community and implementation of a system of
laws that would guarantee equal justice for all. That battle was not yet
won. It probably never would be. But the Jedi Knights would not see it lost
for lack of their trying.
In the time of Qui-Gon Jinn, ten thousand Jedi Knights in service to
the Republic carried on the struggle each day of their lives in a hundred
thousand different worlds spread across a galaxy so vast it could barely be
comprehended.
He turned slightly as his companion in this present enterprise arrived
on the bridge and came up to stand beside him. “Are we to board?” Obi-Wan
Kenobi asked softly.
Qui-Gon nodded. “The viceroy will meet with us.”
He glanced momentarily at his protege, taking his measure. Obi-Wan, in
his mid-twenties, was more than thirty years younger and still learning his
craft. He was not yet a full Jedi, but he was close to being ready. Obi-Wan
was shorter than Qui-Gon, but compact and very quick. His smooth, boyish
face suggested an immaturity that had been long since shed. He wore the same
type of clothes as Qui-Gon, but his hair was cut in the style of a Padawan
learner, short and even, save for the tightly braided pigtail that hung over
his right shoulder.
Qui-Gon was staring out the viewport at the interior of the Trade
Federation battleship when he spoke again. “Why Naboo, do you think, my
young apprentice? Why blockade this particular planet, when there are so
many to choose from, most larger and more likely to feel the effects of such
an action?”
Obi-Wan said nothing. Naboo was indeed an odd choice for an action of
this sort, a planet at the edge of the galaxy, not particularly important in
the scheme of things. Its ruler, Amidala, was something of an unknown. New
to the throne, she had only been Queen a few months before the blockade had
begun. She was young, but it was rumored she was prodigiously talented and
extremely well trained. It was said she could hold her own with anyone in a
political arena. It was said she could be circumspect or bold when
necessary, and was wise beyond her years.
The Jedi had been shown a hologram of Amidala before they left
Coruscant. The Queen favored theatrical paint and ornate dress, cloaking
herself in trappings and makeup that disguised her true appearance while
lending her an aura of both splendor and beauty. She was a chameleon of
sorts, masking herself to the world at large and finding companionship
almost exclusively with a cadre of handmaidens who were always with her.
Qui-Gon hesitated a moment longer, thinking the matter through, then
said to Obi-Wan, “Come, let’s be off.” They passed downward through the
bowels of the ship to the main hatch, waited for the light to turn green,
and released the locking bar so that the ramp could lower. Raising their
hoods to help conceal their faces, they stepped out into the light.
A protocol droid named TC-14 was waiting to escort them to their
meeting. The droid took them from the bay down a series of hallways to an
empty conference room and motioned them inside.
“I hope your honored sirs will be comfortable here.” The tinny voice
reverberated inside the metal shell. “My master will be with you shortly.”
The droid turned and went out, closing the door softly behind. Qui-Gon
watched it go, glanced briefly at the exotic, birdlike creatures caged near
the door, then moved to join Obi-Wan at a broad window that looked out
through the maze of Federation battleships to where the lush green sphere of
Naboo hung resplendent against the dark sky.
“I have a bad feeling about this,” Obi-Wan said after a moment’s
contemplation of the planet.
Qui-Gon shook his head. “I don’t sense anything.”
Obi-Wan nodded. “It’s not about here, Master. It’s not about this
mission. It’s something…elsewhere. Something elusive…” The older Jedi
put his hand on the other’s shoulder. “Don’t center on your anxiety,
Obi-Wan. Keep your concentration on the here and now, where it belongs.”
“Master Yoda says I should be mindful of the future…”
“But not at the expense of the present.” Qui – Gon waited until his
young apprentice was looking at him. “Be mindful of the living Force, my
young Padawan.”
To his credit, Obi-Wan managed a small smile. “Yes, Master.” He looked
out the viewport again, eyes distant. “How do you think the viceroy will
deal with the supreme chancellor’s demands?”
Qui-Gon gave an easy shrug. “These people are cowards. I they will not
be hard to persuade. The negotiations will be I short.”

 On the bridge of the Trade Federation  battleship,  Neimoidian  Viceroy

Nute Gunray and his lieutenant, Daultay Dofine, stood staring in shock at
the protocol droid they had sent to look after the supreme chancellor’s
ambassadors.
“What did you say?” Gunray hissed furiously.
TC-14 was impervious to the look the Neimoidian gave it. “The
ambassadors are Jedi Knights. One of them is a Jedi Master. I am quite
certain of it.”
Dofine, a flat-faced, restless sort, wheeled on his companion in
dismay. “I knew it! They were sent to force a settlement! The game’s up!
Blind me, we’re done for!”
Gunray made a placating gesture. “Stay calm! I’ll wager the Senate is
completely unaware of the supreme chancellor’s moves in this matter. Go.
Distract them while I contact Lord Sidious.”
The other Neimoidian gaped at him. “Are you brain-dead? I’m not going
in there with two Jedi Knights! Send the droid!”
He waved hurriedly at TC-14, who bowed, made a small squeaky sound in
response, and went out.
When the protocol droid was gone, Dofine summoned Rune Haako, the third
member of their delegation, drew both his compatriots to a closed, separate
space on the bridge where they could be neither seen nor heard by anyone
else, and triggered a holographic communication.
It took a few moments for the hologram to appear. As it did so, a
stoop – shouldered, dark-robed shape appeared, cloaked and hooded so that
nothing of its face could be seen. “What is it?” an impatient voice
demanded.
Nute Gunray found his throat so dry that for a moment he could not
speak. “The Republic ambassadors are Jedi Knights.”
“Jedi?” Darth Sidious breathed the word softly, almost reverently.
There was a measure of calm about his acceptance of the news. “Are you
sure?”
Nute Gunray found what little courage he had been able to muster for
this moment quickly evaporating. He stared at the black form of the Sith
Lord in mesmerized terror. “They have been identified, my lord.”
As if unable to endure the silence that followed, Daultay Dofine
charged into the gap, wild-eyed. “This scheme of yours has failed, Lord
Sidious! The blockade is finished! We dare not go up against Jedi Knights!”
The dark figure in the hologram turned slightly. “Are you saying you
would rather go up against me, Dofine? I am amused.” The hood shifted toward
Gunray. “Viceroy!”
Nute stepped forward quickly. “Yes, my lord?”
Darth Sidious’s voice turned slow and sibilant. “I don’t want this
stunted piece of slime to pass within my sight again. Do you understand? “
Nute’s hands were shaking, and he clasped them together to still them.
“Yes, my lord.”
He wheeled on Dofine, but the other was already making his way from the
bridge, his face filled with terror, his robes trailing behind him like a
shroud.
When he was gone, Darth Sidious said, “This turn of events is
unfortunate, but not fatal. We must accelerate our plans, Viceroy. Begin
landing your troops. At once.”
Nute glanced quickly at Rune Haako, who was trying his best to
disappear into the ether. “Ah, my lord, of course, but… is that action
legal?”
“I will make it legal, Viceroy.”
“Yes, of course.” Nute took a quick breath. “And the Jedi?”
Darth Sidious seemed to grow darker within his robes, his face lowering
further into shadow. “The supreme chancellor should never have brought the
Jern into this. Kill them now. Immediately. “
“Yes, my lord,” Nute Gunray answered, but the hologram of the Sith Lord
had already vanished. He stared at the space it had left behind for a
moment, then turned to Haako. “Blow up their ship. I will send a squad of
battle droids to finish them.”

 In the conference room in which they had been left, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan

stared at each other across a long table.
“Is it customary for Neimoidians to make their guests wait this long?”
the younger Jedi asked.
Before Qui-Gon could respond, the door opened to admit the protocol
droid bearing a tray of drinks and food. TC-14 crossed to their table,
placed the tray before them, and handed each a drink. It stepped back then,
waiting. Qui-Gon motioned to his young companion, and they lifted the drinks
and tasted them.
Qui-Gon nodded at the droid, then looked at Obi-Wan. “I sense an
unusual amount of maneuvering for something as trivial as this trade
dispute. I sense fear as well.”
Obi-Wan placed his drink back on the table. “Perhaps…”
An explosion rocked the room, spilling the drinks, sending the tray
with its food skidding toward the edge. The Jedi leapt to their feet in
response, lightsabers drawn and activated. The protocol droid backpedaled
quickly, arms lifting, muttering its apologies, looking every which way at
once.
“What’s happened?” Obi-Wan asked quickly.
Qui-Gon hesitated, closed his eyes, and retreated deep within himself.
His eyes snapped open. “They’ve destroyed our ship.”
He glanced around swiftly. It took only a moment for him to detect a
faint hissing sound from the vents near the doorway.
“Gas,” he said to Obi-Wan in warning. In the cage beside the door, the
birdlike creatures began to drop like stones.

 On the bridge, Nute Gunray and Rune Haako watched through a  viewscreen

as a squad of battle droids marched into the hallway just outside the
conference room in which the Jedi were trapped. On crooked metal legs, they
approached the doorway, blasters held at the ready, a hologram of Nute
directing them from behind.
“They must be dead by now, but make certain,” he directed the battle
droids, and switched off the hologram.
The Neimoidians watched closely as the foremost of the battle droids
opened the door and stepped back. A cloud of noxious green gas poured from
the room, and a solitary figure stumbled into view, arms waving.
“Excuse me, sirs, I’m so sorry,” TC-14 babbled as it maneuvered through
the battle droids, holding aloft its tray of scattered food and spilled
drinks.

 In the next instant the Jedi appeared,  charging  from  the  room  with

lightsabers flashing. Qui-Gon’s weapon sent a pair of the battle droids
flying in a shower of sparks and metal parts that scattered everywhere.
Obi-Wan’s saber deflected blaster fire into several more. He raised his
hand, palm outward, and another of the droids went crashing into the wall.

 On the bridge viewscreen, smoke  and  lingering  clouds  of  green  gas

obscured everything. Alarms began to sound throughout the battleship,
reverberating off its metal skin.
“What in blazes is going on down there?” Nute Gunray demanded of his
associate, eyes wide.
Rune Haako shook his head doubtfully. There was fear in his orange-red
eyes. “You’ve never encountered Jedi Knights before, have you?”
“Well, no, not exactly, but I don’t see…”
The alarms continued to blare, and suddenly Nute Gunray was unabashedly
afraid. “Seal off the bridge!” he shouted frantically.
Rune Haako backed away as the doors to the bridge began to close. His
voice was small and went unheard as he whispered to himself, “That won’t be
enough.”
In seconds, the Jedi were standing in the hallway outside the bridge,
dispatching the last of the battle droids that stood in their way. An
unstoppable force, the two men worked in unison against their adversaries,
seemingly able to anticipate every form of attack. Lightsabers flashed and
stabbed in brilliant bursts of color. Droids and blasters fell away in
broken pieces.
“I want destroyer droids up here at once!” Nute Gunray screamed,
watching as one of the Jedi began cutting through the bridge door with his
lightsaber. He felt his throat tighten and his skin begin to crawl.
“Close the blast doors! Now!” One after another, the blast doors began
to shut and seal with hissing sounds. The crew stood transfixed as on the
viewscreen the Jedi continued their attack, lightsabers cutting at the
massive doors, melting away the steelcrete like soft butter. Mutters of
disbelief were heard, and Nute screamed at them to be silent. Sparks
showered off the blast door under attack by the Jedi, and a red spot
appeared at its center where the larger man plunged his lightsaber into the
metal almost up to its hilt.
The viewscreen suddenly went blank. At the center of the door, the
metal began to turn molten and drop away. “They’re still coming,” Rune Haako
whispered, gathering his robes as he backed away further. Viceroy Nute
Gunray said nothing in response. Impossible! he was thinking. Impossible!

 Qui-Gon was hammering at the blast door with every ounce of strength he

possessed, determined to break through to the treacherous Neimoidians, when
his instincts warned him of danger from another quarter.
“Obi-Wan!” he shouted to his companion, who wheeled toward him at once.
“Destroyer droids!”
The younger Jedi nodded, smiling. “Offhand, I’d say this mission is
past the negotiation stage.”
In the hallway just beyond the area in which the Jedi fought, ten
destroyer droids rolled into view. They resembled gleaming metal wheels as
they rounded a corner, smooth and silent in their approach. One by one they
began to unfold, releasing tripods of spidery legs and stunted arms into
which laser guns had been built. Crooked spines unlimbered, and the droids
rose to a standing position, armored heads cocked forward.
They were wicked-looking and deadly, and they were built for one
purpose only. Skittering around the final corner to the bridge entry, they
triggered their laser guns, filling the open area with a deadly crossfire.
When the lasers went still, the destroyer droids advanced, searching for
their prey. But the anteway was empty, and the Jedi Knights were gone.

 On the bridge, Nute  Gunray  and  Rune  Haako  watched  the  viewscreen

flicker back to life. The destroyer droids were reverting to their wheeled
forms, spinning away across the entry and down the hallway, clearly in
pursuit of the Jedi. “We have them on the run,” Rune Haako breathed,
scarcely able to believe their good fortune. Nute Gunray said nothing,
thinking that their escape had been entirely too close. It was ridiculous
that they should be fighting Jedi Knights in any event. This was a matter of
commerce, not of politics. The Trade Federation was fully justified in
resisting the Republic Senate’s foolish decision to impose a tax on trade
routes when there was no basis in law for doing so.
That the Neimoidians had found an ally to stand with them in this
matter, to advise them on imposing a blockade and forcing a withdrawal of
sanctions, was no cause for calling in the Jedi. He hunched his shoulders
and made a fuss over straightening his robes to disguise his shaking. He was
distracted suddenly by a call from the communications center behind him.
“Sir, a transmission from the city of Theed on Naboo.” The viewscreen
to the planet flickered to life, and a woman’s face appeared. She was young,
beautiful, and serene. An applied beauty mark of deepest crimson split her
lower lip, and a golden headdress framed her powdery-white face. She stared
out at the Neimoidians from the screen as if she were so far above and
beyond them as to be unapproachable.
“It’s Queen Amidala herself,” Rune Haako whispered, just out of holocam
view.
Nute Gunray nodded, moving closer. “At last we’re getting results,” he
whispered back. He moved to where he could be seen by the Queen. Cloaked in
her ceremonial robes, Amidala sat on her throne, an omatc chair on a raised
dais fronted by a low, flat-surfaced divider. The Queen was surrounded by
five handmaidens, all of them cloaked and hooded in crimson. Her gaze was
steady and direct as it took in the viceroy’s leathery countenance.
“The Trade Federation is pleased you have chosen to come before us,
Your Highness,” he began smoothly.
“You will not be so pleased when you hear what I have to say, Viceroy,”
she said flatly, cutting him short. “Your trade boycott is ended.”
Nute fought down his shock, regained his composure, and smirked at
Rune. “Really, Your Highness? I was not aware…”
“I have word that the Senate is finally voting on the matter,” she
continued, ignoring him. “I take it you know the outcome already, then.”
Nute felt a measure of uncertainty take hold. “I wonder why they bother
to vote at all.”
Amidala leaned forward slightly, and the Neimoidian could see the fire
in her brown eyes. “I have had enough of pretense, Viceroy. I am aware that
the supreme chancellor’s ambassadors are with you now, and that you have
been commanded to reach a settlement. What is it to be?”
Nute Gunray felt a deep hole open in his waning confidence.
“I know nothing about any ambassadors. You must be mistaken.” There was
a flicker of surprise on the Queen’s face as she studied the viceroy
carefully.
“Beware, Viceroy,” she said softly. “The Federation has gone too far
this time.”
Nute shook his head quickly, drawing himself up in a defensive posture.
“Your Highness, we would never do anything in defiance of the Senate’s will.
You assume too much.”
Amidala sat motionless, brown eyes fixed on him-as if she could see the
truth he was trying to hide, as if he were made of glass. “We shall see,”
she said softly.
The viewscreen went blank. Nute Gunray drew a long breath and exhaled
slowly, not caring much for how this woman made him feel.
“She’s right,” Rune Haako said at his elbow. “The Senate will never
let…”
Nute lifted one hand to cut him short. “It’s too late now. The invasion
is under way.”
Rune Haako was silent for a moment. “Do you think she suspects an
attack?”
The Viceroy wheeled away. “I don’t know, but I don’t want to take any
chances. We must move quickly to disrupt all communications down there until
we’re finished!”

 In the main hangar bay of the ship, Qui-Gon  Jinn  and  Obi-Wan  Kenobi

crouched silently in the opening of a large circulation vent that overlooked
six massive double-winged Federation landing ships surrounded by a vast
array of transports. The transports were large boot-shaped vehicles with
bulbous noses. The doors that formed those noses gaped open, racks were
extended, and thousands of sleek silvery shapes were marching inside in
perfect formation to be secured. ..
“Battle droids,” Qui-Gon said softly. There was surprise and dismay in
his deep voice.
“It’s an invasion army,” Obi-Wan said. They continued to watch for a
time, taking in the scene, counting transports and droids as they filled the
half – dozen landing craft, taking measure of the size of the army.
“It’s an odd play for the Federation,” Qui-Gon observed. “We’ve got to
warn the Naboo and contact Chancellor Valorum.”
Obi-Wan nodded. “We’d best do it somewhere besides here.”
His mentor glanced at him.
“Maybe we can hitch a ride with our friends down there.”
“It’s the least they can do after the way they’ve treated us so far.”
Obi – Wan pursed his lips. “You were right about one thing, Master. The
negotiations were short.”
Qui-Gon Jinn smiled and beckoned him ahead.

 4

 A twilight that was misty and seemed  perpetual  lay  in  silvery  gray

layers over the green lushness of Naboo as the Federation landing ships
descended out of the black infinity of space to settle slowly planetward.
One set of three moved away from the others, dropping silently through
clouds that hung still and endless across the world’s emerald surface.
Ghostlike as they passed through the haze, double wings shaped like a giant
I, they materialized one by one near a vast, murky swamp. As they gently
landed next to the dark waters and clumps of trees and grasses, their metal
bodies parted to allow the bulbous-nosed transports to offload onto the
surface and begin forming up. Some distance away from the closest of the
landing craft, Obi-Wan Kenobi’s head broke the swamp’s still waters. A quick
breath, and he was gone again. He surfaced once more, farther away, and this
time took a moment to look back at the invasion force. Dozens of transports
filled with battle droids and tanks were moving into place in front of the
landing craft. Some hovered above the swamp’s waters. Some had found
purchase on dry ground.
Far to his left, he caught sight of a shadowy form running through the
mist and trees. Qui-Gon. Obi-Wan took another deep breath, submerged
swiftly, and began to swim.
Qui-Gon Jinn slipped wraithlike through the swamp, listening to the
sounds of heavy rustling and snapping branches behind him as the Trade
Federation transports began to advance. Mixed with the deeper, heavier whine
of the transport engines was the higher pitched buzzing of STAPs-singie
trooper aerial platforms-small, individually piloted mobile gun units used
to transport battle droids as scouts for the main army. The STAPs whipped
above the watery terrain of Naboo, fleeting shadows as they surged in front
of the larger transports.
Animals of all shapes and sizes began to scatter from their places of
concealment, racing past Qui-Gon in search of safety. Ikopi, fulumpasets,
motts, peko pekos-the names recalled themselves instantly to the Jedi Master
from his preparation for this journey. Dodging the frightened creatures
stampeding around him, he cast about for Obi-Wan, then picked up his pace as
the dark shadow of a transport appeared out of the mist directly behind him.
He was running out of firm ground and searching for a way past a large
lake when he saw a strange froglike creature before him. It was squatting in
the water, its rubbery body crouched over a shell it had just pried open,
its long tongue licking out the insides with a quick whipping movement, its
throat swallowing. Casting aside the empty shell, it rose to face Qui-Gon,
its long, flat ears dangling from its amphibious head in broad flaps, its
ducklike snout working thoughtfully around whatever delicacy it had removed
from the shell. Eyes that protruded from the top of its head blinked in
confusion, taking in Qui-Gon and the animals about him, then seeing clearly
for the first time the massive shadow from which they fled.
“Oh, oh,” the creature muttered, the syllables clouded, but
recognizable.
Qui-Gon broke left past the strange creature, anxious to get out of the
path of the approaching transport. The creature dropped the shell, eyes wide
and frantic, and grabbed onto Qui-Gon’s robes.
“Hep me, hep me!” it cried plaintively, rubbery face contorting in
shock and desperation.
“Let go!” Qui-Gon snapped, trying in vain to break free.
The transport thundered toward them, skimming the surface of the swamp,
flattening grasses and stirring up water spouts in the wake of its passing.
It bore down on Qui-Gon as he fought to break free of the creature that
clung to him, dragging it sideways in a futile effort to escape.
Finally, with the transport only meters away and looming over him like
a building about to topple, the Jedi Master pushed the creature into the
shallow water and sprawled facedown on top of it. The Trade Federation
transport passed over them in a wash of sound and shocked air, the
vibrations hammering into their prone forms, flattening them into the mire.
When it was safely past, Qui-Gon pulled himself out of the mud and took
a deep, welcome breath. The strange creature rose with him, still clinging
to his arm, cloudy water dripping from its flat-billed face. It gave a quick
glance after the departing transport, then threw itself on Qui-Gon, hugging
him ecstatically.
“Oh boi, oh boi!” it gasped with a high-pitched, warbled sound. “I love
yous, love yous forever!”
The creature began kissing him.
“Let go!” Qui-Gon huffed. “Are you brainless? You almost got us
killed!”
The creature looked offended. “Brainless? I speak!”
“The ability to speak does not make you intelligent!” Qui-Gon was
having none of it. “Now let go of me and get out of here!”
He freed himself from the creature and began to move off, glancing
around uneasily as the high-pitched buzz of STAP’s sounded in the distance.
The creature hesitated, then began trailing after him. “No, no, me stay
wit you! Me stay! Jar Jar be loyal, humble Gungan servant. Be yous friend,
me.”
The Jedi Master barely glanced at him, watching the shadows, searching
now for Obi-Wan. “Thanks, but that won’t be necessary. Better be off with
you.”
Jar Jar the Gungan splashed after him, billed mouth working, arms
waving. “Oh, bot tis necessary! Tis demanded by da Guds. Tis life debt. Me
know dis, sure as name be Jar Jar Binks!”
The swamp reverberated with the sound of STAP engines, and now two of
the gun platforms burst from the mist, bearing down on a fleeing Obi-Wan
Kenobi, battle droid drivers wheeling their speeders to the attack.
Qui-Gon pulled free his lightsaber, motioning Jar Jar away. “I have no
time for this now…”
“But must take me wit yous, keep me-” Jar Jar stopped, hearing the
STAPs, turning to see them bearing down, eyes going wide all over again.
“Oh, oh, we gonna-“
Qui-Gon grabbed the Gungan and threw him facedown in the swamp water
once more. “Stay put.” He flicked on the lightsaber, bracing himself as
Obi-Wan and the pursuing STAP’s approached.
Jar Jar’s head popped up. “We gonna die!” he screamed.
The battle droids opened fire with laser cannons from their gun
platforms just as Obi-Wan reached his friend. Qui-Gon blocked the bolts with
his lightsaber and deflected them back into the attack craft. The STAPs
exploded in shards of hot metal and fell into the swamp.
An exhausted Obi-Wan wiped his muddied brow, gasping for breath.
“Sorry, Master. The swamp fried my lightsaber.” He pulled out his weapon.
The business end was blackened and burned. Qui-Gon took it from him and gave
it a cursory inspection. Behind him, Jar Jar Binks pulled himself out of the
muddy swamp water and.blinked curiously at the newly arrived Jedi.
“You forgot to turn off your power again, didn’t you, Obi-Wan?” his
friend asked pointedly.
Obi-Wan nodded sheepishly. “It appears so, Master.”
“It won’t take long to recharge, but it will take some time to clean it
up. I trust you have finally learned your lesson, my young Padawan.”
“Yes, Master.” Obi-Wan accepted the proffered lightsaber with a
chagrined look.
Jar Jar pushed forward, amphibious feet flopping, ears flapping, long
limbs looking as if they might take him in almost any direction. “Yous save
me again, hey?” he asked Qui-Gon rhetorically.
Obi-Wan stared. “What’s this?”
“A Gungan. One of the locals. His name’s Jar Jar Binks.” Qui-Gon’s
attention was directed out at the swamp. “Let’s go, before more of those
STAP’s show up.”
“More?” Jar Jar gasped worriedly. “Yous say more?”
Qui-Gon was already moving, shifting into a steady trot through the
mire. Obi-Wan was only a step behind, and it took a moment for Jar Jar to
catch up to them, his long legs working frantically, his eyes rolling.
“Exsqueeze me, but da most grand safest place is in Otoh Gunga,” he
gasped at them, trying to catch their attention. All about, lost somewhere
in the mists, STAPs sounded their high-pitched whine. “Otoh Gunga,” Jar Jar
repeated. “Tis where I grew. Tis safe city!”
Qui-Gon brought them to a halt, staring fixedly now at the Gungan.
“What did you say? A city?” Jar Jar nodded eagerly.
“Can you take us there?”
The Gungan seemed suddenly distraught. “Ah, oh, oh… mebbe me not
rilly take yous…not rilly, no.”
Qui-Gon leaned close, his eyes dark. “No?”
Jar Jar looked as if he wished he could disappear into the swamp
completely. His throat worked and his billed mouth opened and closed like a
fish’s. “Tis embarrassment, but…me afraid me be banished. Sent oot. Me
forget Boss Nass do terrible hurt to me if go back dere. Terrible bad hurt.”
A low, deep, pulsating sound penetrated the whine of the STAPs, rising
up through mist and gloom, growing steadily louder. Jar Jar glanced around
uneasily. “Oh, oh.”
“You hear that?” Qui-Gon asked softly, placing a finger on the Gungan’s
skinny chest. Jar Jar nodded reluctanrly. “There’s a thousand terrible
things heading this way, my Gungari friend…”
“And when they find you, they will crush you into dust, grind you into
little pieces, and then blast you into oblivion,” Obi-Wan added with more
than a little glee.
Jar Jar rolled his eyes and gulped. “Oh, oh. Yous point very good one.”
He gestured frantically. “Dis way! Dis way! Hurry quick!”
In a rush, they raced away into the twilight mist.

 Sometime later, the Jedi and the Gungan emerged from a  deep  stand  of

swamp grass and thick rushes at the edge of a lake so murky that it was
impossible to see anything in the reflection of twilight off the surface.
Jar Jar bent double, three-fingered hands resting on bony knees as he fought
to catch his breath. His rubbery form twisted this way and that as he looked
back in the direction from which they had come, long ears flapping with the
movement. Obi-Wan shook his head at Qui-Gon Jinn in faint reproval. He was
not happy with the Jedi Master’s decision to link up with this
foolish-looking creature.
Somewhere in the distance, they could hear the steady, deep thrum of
Federation transport engines.
“How much farther?” Qui-Gon pressed their reluctant guide.
The Gungan pointed at the lake. “We go underwater, okeday?”
The Jedi looked at each other, then extracted small containers from
their clothing, releasing portable breathing devices the size of the palms
of their hands.
“Me warning yous.” Jar Jar’s eyes shifted from one to the other.
“Gungans no like yous outlanders. Yous not gonna get warm welcome.”
Obi-Wan shrugged. “Don’t worry, this hasn’t been our day for warm
welcomes. “
“Get going,” Qui-Gon motioned, fitting the device between his teeth.
The Gungan shrugged, as if to disclaim all responsibility for what
would follow, turned back to the lake, performed a wild double somersault,
and disappeared into the gloom.
The Jedi waded after him.
Downward into the murkiness they swam, the Jedi following the slender
form of the Gungan, who seemed far more at home in the water than on land.
He swam smoothly and gracefully, long limbs extended, body undulating with
practiced ease. They swam for a long time, angling steadily deeper, the
light from the surface fading slowly away behind them. What light there was
came from sources beneath the surface, not all of them visible. The minutes
slipped away, and Obi – Wan began to have second thoughts about what they
were doing.
Then suddenly there was a new light, this one a steady glow that came
from ahead. Slowly Otoh Gunga came into view. The city was comprised of a
cluster of bubbles that connected to one another like balloons and were
anchored to several huge rock pillars. One by one, the bubbles grew more
distinct, and it became possible to make out the particulars of the
structures within and the features of the Gungans as they moved about their
business.
Jar Jar swam directly toward one of the larger bubbles, the Jedi close
on his heels. When he reached the bubble, he pushed at it with his hands and
it gave way to him, accepting first his arms, then his head and body, and
finally his legs, swallowing him whole and closing behind him without
rupturing. Amazed, the Jedi followed, moving through the strange membrane,
entering the bubble without resistance.
Once inside, they found themselves on a platform that led down to a
square surrounded by buildings. Light emanated from the bubble’s walls in a
steady glow, brightening the space inside. The Jedi found the air
breathable. As they descended to the square below, water dripping from their
clothing, Gungans began to catch sight of them and to scatter with small
cries of alarm.
In short order a squad of uniformed Gungan soldiers appeared, riding
two – legged mounts with billed faces not entirely dissimilar to their own.
Kaadu, Qui-Gon recalled-swamp runners with powerful legs, great endurance,
and keen senses. The Gungans carried long, deadly-looking electropoles,
which they used to motion back the distraught populace at the same time they
advanced on the intruders.
“Heyday ho, Cap’n Tarpals,” Jar Jar greeted the leader of the squad
cheerfully. “Me back!”
“Notta gain, Jar Jar Binks!” the other snapped, clearly irritated.
“Yous goen ta Boss Nass. See what he say. Yous mebbe in big trubble dis
time.”
Ignoring the Jedi, he gave Jar Jar a quick poke with his electropole,
sending a shock through the hapless Gungan that lifted him a half meter off
the ground. Jar Jar rubbed his backside ruefully, muttering.
The Gungan soldiers took them through the buildings of the city, down
several connecting passages, and into what, Jar Jar whispered to his
companions, was the High Tower Boardroom. The room was transparent on all
sides, and small glowing fish swam about the outside of the membrane, tiny
stars against a darker backdrop. A long, circular bench dominated one end of
the room with one section set higher than the rest. All the seats were
occupied by Gungan officials in their robes of office, and a way was quickly
made for the newcomers through Gungans already present to conduct other
business.
The Gungan occupying the highest seat was a heavyset, squat fellow so
compressed by age and weight that it was impossible to imagine he had ever
been as slender as Jar Jar Binks. Folds of skin draped from his body in
loose layers, his neck was compressed into his shoulders, and his face bore
such a sour look that even Jar Jar seemed more than a little cowed as they
were motioned forward.
The Gungan officials stared, muttering among themselves as the Jedi
approached. “What yous want, outlanders?” Boss Nass rumbled at them, after
identifying himself.
Qui-Gon Jinn told him, relating what had brought the Jedi to Naboo,
warning of the invasion taking place above, asking the Gungans to give them
help. The Gungan council listened patiently, saying nothing until Qui-Gon
was finished.
Boss Nass shook his head, the flesh of his thick neck jiggling with the
movement. “Yous can’t be here. Dis army of maccaneks up dere tis not our
problem.”
Qui-Gon held his ground. “That army of battle droids is about to attack
the Naboo. We must warn them.”
“We no like da Naboo!” Boss Nass growled irritably. “And dey no like da
Gungans. Da Naboo think dey more smart den us. Dey think dey brains so big.
Dey have nutten ta do wit us cause we live in da swamp and dey live up dere.
Long time no have nutten ta do wit each other. Dis not gonna change because
ofmaccaneks.”
“After that army takes control of the Naboo, they will come here and
take control of you,” Obi-Wan said quietly. “
Boss Nass chuckled. “No, me think not. Me talk mebbe one, two times wit
Naboo in whole life, and no talk ever wit maccaneks. Maccaneks no come here!
Dey not even know Gungans exist!”
The remaining members of the council nodded in agreement, muttering
their verbal approval of Boss Nass’s wisdom.
“You and the Naboo are connected,” Obi-Wan insisted, his youthful face
intent, not ready to concede the matter. “What happens to one will affect
the other. You must understand this.”
Boss Nass dismissed him with a wave of one thick hand. “We know nutten
of yo us, outlander, and we no care about da Naboo.”
Before Obi-Wan could continue his argument, Qui-Gon stepped forward.
“Then speed us on our way,” he demanded, bringing up one hand in a casual
motion, passing it smoothly before the Gungan chief’s eyes in a quick
invocation of Jedi mind power.
Boss Nass stared at him, then nodded. “We speed yous far away.”
Qui-Gon held his gaze. “We need transport to Theed.”
“Okeday.” Boss Nass nodded some more. “We give yous bongo. Da speedest
way tada Naboo is goen through da core. Yous go now.”
Qui-Gon stepped back. “Thank you for your help. We go in peace.”
As the Jedi turned to leave, Obi-Wan whispered, “Master, what is a
bongo?”
Qui-Gon glanced at him and cocked one eyebrow thoughtfully. “A ship of
some sort, I hope.”
They were moving away from Boss Nass and the other Gungan officials
when they caught sight of Jar Jar Binks standing forlornly to one side,
wearing wrist binders and awaiting his fate. Qui-Gon slowed and made eye
contact with the unfortunate creature.
“Master,” Obi-Wan said softly in warning. He knew Qui-Gon too well not
to see what was coming. ‘
The tall Jedi moved over to Jar Jar and stood looking at him.
“Dey setten yous up for bad fall!” the Gungan declared sullenly,
glancing around to see if anyone else might be listening. “Goen through da
core is bad danger.”
Qui-Gon nodded. “Thank you, my friend.”
Jar Jar Binks shrugged and looked sad. “Ahhh, tis okay.” Then he gave
the Jedi Master a slow, sheepish grin and a hopeful look. “Hey, any hep here
would be hot.”
Qui-Gon hesitated.
“We are short of time, Master,” Obi-Wan advised quietly, moving to his
side.
The Jedi Master turned to face his protege, eyes distant. “Time spent
here may help us later. Jar Jar might be of some use.”
Obi-Wan shook his head in frustration. His mentor was too eager to
involve himself when it was not necessary. He was too quick to adopt causes
that were not his own. It had cost him time and time again with the Jedi
Council. One day it would be his undoing.
He bent close. “I sense a loss of focus.”
Qui-Gon’s eyes fixed on him. “Be mindful, young Obi-Wan,” he chastised
gently. “Your sensitivity to the living Force is not your strength.”
The younger Jedi held his gaze only a moment, then looked away, stung
by the criticism. Qui-Gon turned from him and walked back to Boss Nass.
“What is to become of Jar Jar Binks?” he asked.
Boss Nass, who was engaged in conversation with another of the Gungan
officials, turned to him in annoyance, his heavy jowls puffing. “Binks
breaks nocomeback law. Breaks exile. He be punished.”
“Not too severely, I trust?” the Jedi Master pressed. “He has been of
great help to us.”
A slow laugh rumbled out of Boss Nass. “Pounded unto death, dis one.”
Somewhere in the background, Jar Jar Binks moaned loudly. There were
mutterings about the room. Even Obi-Wan, who was back at his Master’s side,
looked shocked.
Qui-Gon was thinking fast. “We need a navigator to get us through the
core to Theed. I saved Jar Jar’s life on the surface. He owes me for that. I
claim a life debt on him.”
Boss Nass stared at the Jedi in silence, a deep frown furrowing his
brow and twisting his mouth. His head seemed to sink deeper into his
shoulders, into the wattles of skin that obscured his neck.
Then his small eyes sought the unfortunate Jar Jar, and he gestured.
“Binks?”
Jar Jar moved forward obediently to stand beside the Jedi.
“Yous haf life debt wit ills outlander?” Boss Nass demanded darkly.
Jar Jar nodded, head and ears hanging, but a flicker of hope springing
into his eyes.
“Your gods demand he satisfy that debt,” Qui-Gon insisted, passing his
hand in front of Boss Nass’s eyes, invoking his Jedi power once more. “His
life belongs to me now.”
The head Gungan considered the matter only a moment before nodding in
agreement. “His life tis yous. Worthless, anywhat. Beggone wit him.”
A guard came forward and removed Jar Jar’s wrist binders.
“Come, Jar Jar,” Qui-Gon Jinn advised, turning him away.
“Through da core?” Jar Jar gasped, realizing suddenly what had
happened. “Count me outta dis! Better dead here den dead in da core. Me not
go…
But by then the Jedi were dragging him out of the room and all sight
and sound of Boss Nass.

 ***

 On the bridge of the Trade Federation's lead  battleship,  Nute  Gunray

and Rune Haako stood alone before a hologram of Darth Sidious. Neither of
the Neimoidians was looking at the other, and both were hoping the Sith Lord
could not sense what they were thinking.
“The invasion is on schedule, my lord,” the viceroy was saying, robes
and headdress hiding the occasional twitching of his limbs as he faced the
cloaked and hooded form before him. “Our army nears Theed.”
“Good. Very good.” Darth Sidious spoke in a soft, calm voice. “I have
the Senate bogged down in procedures. By the time this incident comes up for
a vote, they will have no choice but to accept that your blockade has been
successful.”
Nute Gunray glanced quickly at his compatriot. “The Queen has great
faith that the Senate will side with her.”
“Queen Amidala is young and naive. You will find controlling her will
not be difficult.” The hologram shimmered. “You have done well, Viceroy.”
“Thank you, my lord,” the other acknowledged as the hologram faded
away.
In the ensuing silence, the Neimoidians turned to each other with
knowing looks. “You didn’t tell him,” Rune Haako said accusingly.
“Of the missing Jedi?” Nute Gunray made a dismissive gesture. “No need
to tell him that. No need to tell him anything until we know for certain
what has happened.”
Rune Haako studied him a long time before turning away.
“No, no need,” he said softly, and walked from the room.

 5

 Obi-wan  Kenobi  sat  hunched  over  the   controls   of   the   bongo,

familiarizing himself with their functions as Jar Jar Binks, positioned next
to him, rambled on and on about nothing. Qui-Gon sat in the shadows behind
them, silent and watchful.
“Dis is nutsen!” Jar Jar moaned as the bongo motored steadily away from
the shimmering lighted bubbles of Otoh Gunga and deeper into the waters of
Naboo.
The bongo was an ungainly little underwater craft that consisted mostly
of an electrical power plant, guidance system, and passenger seating. It
looked somewhat like a species of squid, having flat, swept-back fins and
aft tentacles that rotated to propel the craft. Three bubble-canopied
passenger compartments were arranged symmetrically, one on each wing and the
third forward on the nose.
The Jedi and the Gungan occupied the nose compartment, where Obi-Wan
had assumed command of the controls and Jar Jar had been instructed to start
directing them through the core. It seemed that there were underwater
passageways all through the planet, and if you were able to locate the right
one, you could cut travel time considerably.
Or in the alternative, Obi-Wan thought darkly, you could cut your own
throat.
“We doomed,” Jar Jar muttered plaintively. His flat-billed face lifted
away from the directional guidance system toward the Jedi, his long ears
swaying like ridiculous flaps. “Heydey ho? Where we goen, Cap’n Quiggon?”
“You’re the navigator,” Qui-Gon observed.
Jar Jar shook his head. “Me? Yous dreaming. Don’t know nutten ’bout
dis, me.”
Qui-Gon placed a hand on the Gungan’s shoulder. “Just relax, my friend.
The Force will guide us.”
“Da Force? What tis da Force?” Jar Jar did not look impressed. “Maxibig
thing, dis Force, yous betcha. Gonna save me, yous, all us, huh?”
Obi-Wan closed his eyes in dismay. This was a disaster waiting to
happen. But it was Qui-Gon’s disaster to manage. It was not his place to
interfere. Qui – Gon had made the decision to bring Jar Jar Binks along,
after all. Not because he was a skilled navigator or had displayed even the
slightest evidence of talent in any other regard, but because he was another
project that Qui-Gon, with his persistent disregard for the dictates of the
Council, had determined had value and could be reclaimed.
It was a preoccupation that both mystified and frustrated Obi-Wan. His
mentor was perhaps the greatest Jedi alive, a commanding presence at
Council, a strong and brave warrior who refused to be intimidated by even
the most daunting challenge, and a good and kind man. Maybe it was the
latter that had gotten him into so much trouble. He repeatedly defied the
Council in matters that Obi-Wan thought barely worthy of championing. He was
possessed of his own peculiar vision of a Jedi’s purpose, of the nature of
his service, and of the causes he should undertake, and he followed that
vision with unwavering singie – mindedness.
Obi-Wan was young and impatient, headstrong and not yet at one with the
Force in the way that Qui-Gon was, but he understood better, he thought, the
dangers of overreaching, of taking on too many tasks. Qui-Gon would dare
anything when he found a challenge that interested him, even if he risked
himself in the undertaking.
So it was here. Jar Jar Binks was a risk of the greatest magnitude, and
there was no reason to think that embracing such a risk would reap even the
smallest reward.
The Gungan muttered some more, all the while casting about through the
viewport as if seeking a road sign that would allow him to at least pretend
he knew what he was doing. Obi-Wan gritted his teeth. Stay out of it, he
told himself sternly. Stay out of it.
“Here, take over,” he snapped at Jar Jar.
He moved out of his seat to kneel close to Qui-Gon. “Master,” he said,
unable to help himself, “why do you keep dragging these pathetic life-forms
along with us when they are of so little use?”
Qui-Gon Jinn smiled faintly. “He seems that way now perhaps, but you
must look deeper, Obi-Wan.”
“I’ve looked deep enough, and there is nothing to see!” Obi-Wan flushed
with irritation. “He is an unneeded distraction!”
“Maybe for the moment. But that may change with time.” Obi-Wan started
to say something more, but the Jedi Master cut him short. “Listen to me, my
young Padawan. There are secrets hidden in the Force that are not easily
discovered. The Force is vast and pervasive, and all living things are a
part of it. It is not always apparent what their purpose is, however.
Sometimes that purpose must be sensed first in order that it may be revealed
later.”
Obi-Wan’s young face clouded. “Some secrets are best left concealed,
Master.” He shook his head. “Besides, why must you always be the one to do
the uncovering? You know how the Council feels about these…detours.
Perhaps, just once, the uncovering should be left to someone else.”
Qui-Gon looked suddenly sad. “No, Obi-Wan. Secrets must be exposed when
found. Detours must be taken when encountered. And if you are the one who
stands at the crossroads or the place of concealment, you must never leave
it to another to act in I your place.”
The last of the lights from Otoh Gunga disappeared in a wash of
murkiness, and the waters closed around them in a dark cloud. Jar Jar Binks
was taking the craft ahead at a slow, steady speed, no longer muttering or
squirming, his hands fixed on the controls. He flipped on the lights as
darkness closed about, and the broad yellow beams revealed vast stretches of
multicolored coral weaving and twisting away through the black.
“I respect your judgment in this, Master,” Obi Wan said finally. “But
it doesn’t stop me from worrying.”
Like all of the Jedi Knights, Obi-Wan Kenobi had been identified and
claimed early in his life from his birth parents. He no longer remembered
anything of them now; the Jedi Knights had become his family. Of those, he
was closest to Qui-Gon, his mentor for more than a dozen years, who had
become his most trusted friend.
Qui-Gon understood his attachment and shared it. Obi-Wan was the son he
would never have. He was the future he would leave behind when he died. His
hopes for Obi-Wan were enormous, but he did not always share his student’s
beliefs.
“Be patient with me, Obi-Wan,” he replied softly. “A little faith
sometimes goes a long way.”
The bongo navigated a coral tunnel, the bridge work revealed in deep
fissures of crimson and mauve in the glow of the little craft’s lights. All
about, brightly colored fish swam in schools through the craggy rock.
“Are the Gungans and the Naboo at war with each other?” Qui-Gon asked
Jar Jar thoughtfully.
The Gungan shook his head. “No war. Naboo and Gungans don’t fight. Long
time ago, mebbe. Now, Naboo keep outta swamp, Gungans keep outta plains. Dey
don’t even see each other.”
“But they don’t like each other?” the Jedi Master pressed.
Jar Jar snorted. “Da Naboo gotta big heads, alla time think dey so much
better den da Gungans! Big nuttens!”
Obi-Wan bent over Jar Jar Binks, his eyes directed out the viewport.
“Why were you banished, Jar Jar?” he asked.
The Gungan made a series of small smacking sounds with his billed lips.
“Tis kinda long story, but keeping dis short, me… oh, oh, ahhh…kinda
clumsy. “
“You were banished because you’re clumsy?” Obi-Wan exclaimed in
disbelief.
The bongo turned down through an open stretch of water between two huge
coral shelves. Neither the Jedi nor the Gungan saw the dark shape that
detached itself from the larger outcropping and began to track them.
Jar Jar squirmed. “Me cause mebbe one or two little bitty axaudents.
Boom da gasser, crash der Bosses’ heyblibber. Den dey ‘-! banish me.” ‘!
Obi-Wan was not entirely sure what Jar Jar was telling him. But before
he could ask for clarification, there was a loud thump as something struck
the bongo, causing it to lurch sharply to one side. A huge crustacean with
multiple legs and massive jaws ringed with teeth had hooked them with its
long tongue and was drawing them steadily toward its widespread maw.
“Opee sea killer!” Jar Jar cried in dismay. “We doomed!”
“Full speed ahead, Jar Jar!” Qui-Gon ordered quickly, watching the jaws
open behind them.
But instead of pushing the throttles forward, Jar Jar panicked and
jammed them into reverse, causing the little ship to fly directly into the
mouth of their attacker. The bongo slammed into the back of the monster’s
throat with a heavy thump that sent the Jedi reeling over the seats and into
the walls. Rows of jagged teeth began to close about them as the lights on
the control panel flickered uncertainly.
“Oh, oh,” Jar Jar Binks said.
Obi-Wan leapt quickly back into the copilot’s seat. “Here, give me the
controls!”
He seized the throttles and steering apparatus and shoved everything
into forward, full speed ahead. To his surprise, the opee sea killer’s mouth
opened with a spasmodic jerk, and they shot through its teeth as if from a
laser cannon.
“We free! We free!” Jar Jar was jumping about in his seat, ecstatic
over their good fortune.
But a quick glance back revealed that they were lucky for a different
reason than they thought. The opee sea killer was caught in the jaws of a
creature so huge that it dwarfed even the beast it was eating. A long,
eel-like hunter with clawed forelegs, rear fins, and a wicked pair of jaws
was crunching the sea killer into tiny bits and swallowing it down eagerly.
“Sando aqua monster, oh, oh!” Jar Jar Binks moaned, burying his face in
his hands.
Obi-Wan increased power, trying to put more distance between themselves
and this newest threat. The sando aqua monster disappeared behind them, but
the lights of the bongo were flickering ominously. The little craft dived
deeper, penetrating the planet’s core. Suddenly something exploded inside a
control panel behind them, showering the cabin with sparks. Seams split
overhead, and water began leaking through the bongo’s outer skin.
“Master,” Obi-Wan said as the power-drive whine took a sudden dive,
“we’re losing power.”
Qui-Gon was working over the troubled control panel, head lowered.
“Stay calm. We’re not in trouble yet.”
“Not yet!” Jar Jar had lost all pretense of calm and was flailing about
in his seat. “Monstairs out dere! Leakin in here. We sinkin with no power!
Yous nuts! When yous think we in trubble?”
With that, the lights inside the bongo went completely black. Jar Jar
Binks had his answer.

 In the conference room of the lead battleship of the  Trade  Federation

fleet, a hologram of Darth Sidious towered over Nute Gunray and Rune Haako.
The Neimoidian viceroy and his lieutenant stood motionless before it,
reddish orange eyes fixed and staring, reptilian faces betraying every bit
of the fear that held them paralyzed.
The black-cloaked figure of Darth Sidious regarded them! silently.
There was no hint of expression on his shadowed countenance, which was
mostly hidden within the folds of the cloak’s hood. But the rigid posture of
the Sith Lord’s body spoke volumes.
“You disappoint me, Viceroy,” he hissed at Nute Gunray.
“My lord, I am certain that all-” The subject of his anger tried
futilely to explain.
“Worse, you defy me!”
The Neimoidian’s face underwent a terrifying transformation. “No, my
lord! Never! These Jedi are…resourceful, that’s all. Not easily
destroyed-“
“Alive, then, Viceroy?”
“No, no, I’m sure they’re dead. They must be. We-we just haven’t been
able to confirm it…yet.”
Darth Sidious ignored him. “If they are alive, they will show
themselves. When they do, Viceroy, I want to know immediately. I will deal
with them myself. “
Nute Gunray looked as if he might collapse under the weight of the Sith
Lord’s penetrating stare. “Yes, my lord,” he managed as the hologram
vanished.

 Inside the troubled bongo, Obi-Wan fought to keep control as the little

craft began to drift aimlessly.
Abruptly the whine of the power drive came alive and the aft drive fins
began to turn. “Power’s back,” Obi-Wan breathed gratefully.
The lights on the control panels blinked on, flickered, and steadied.
The exterior directional lights followed, momentarily blinding them as they
reflected off rock walls and jagged outcroppings. Then Jar Jar screamed. A
new monster was sitting right in front of them, all spines and scales and
teeth, crooked clawed forelegs raised defensively.
“Colo claw fish!” the Gungan shrieked. “Yous Jedi do something! Where
da Force now, you think?”
“Relax,” Qui-Gon Jinn said softly, placing his hand on Jar Jar’s
twitching shoulder. The Gungan jerked and promptly fainted.
“You overdid it,” Obi-Wan observed, wheeling the bongo about and
jetting away through the darkness. Even without looking, he knew the colo
claw fish was in pursuit. They were inside a tunnel that probably served as
the creature’s lair. They were lucky to have caught it by surprise. He
angled the bongo toward the cave entrance and a series of overhangs that
might provide them with a little protection on their way out. Something
slammed into the bongo, held it fast momentarily, then released it. Obi-Wan
increased power to the drive fins.
“Come on, come on!” he breathed softly.
They shot out of the cave directly into the jaws of the waiting sando
aqua monster. The creature jerked back at the unexpected invasion, giving
Obi-Wan just an instant to bank their craft hard to the right. The jaws of
the aqua monster were still open as they sped between teeth the size of
buildings.
Jar Jar’s eyes flickered open. He caught sight of the teeth and
promptly fainted again.
Out through a gap in the sando aqua monster’s fangs they sped, the
bongo shaking with the thrust of its power drive. But the colo claw fish,
still in pursuit, did not veer aside quickly enough and flew right into the
larger hunter’s maw. The jaws came down, engulfing it.
Obi-Wan increased power to the drive fins as bits of the colo claw fish
reemerged briefly through the sando aqua monster’s grinding teeth, only to
be sucked quickly from sight again.
“Let’s hope that’s all the snack he requires,” the Jedi observed with a
quick glance back.
Apparently it was, because it did not come after them. It took a while
to revive Jar Jar and a good deal longer to complete their voyage through
the core, but with the Gungan’s somewhat questionable help, they finally
emerged from the darkness of the deeper waters toward a blaze of sunlight.
The bongo popped to the surface of an azure body of water, green hills and
trees rising about them, clouds and blue sky overhead. Obi-Wan steered the
little craft to the nearest shore, shut down the engines, and released the
nose hatch. Qui-Gon rose and looked around.
“We safe now,” Jar Jar observed with a grateful sigh, leaning back in
his seat. “Tis okeday, hey?”
“That remains to be seen,” the Jedi Master said. “Let’s be off.”
He climbed from the bongo onto the shore and started away. Obi-Wan
glanced meaningfully at Jar Jar and followed.
The Gungan stared doubtfully after the departing Jedi. “Me comen, me
comen,” he muttered, and hurried after.

 6

 It was a little more than a week after the Podrace  and  the  encounter

with the old spacer that Watto summoned Anakin into the musty confines of
the junk shop and told him he was to take a speeder out to the Dune Sea to
do some trading with the Jawas. The Jawas, scavengers, were offering a
number of droids for sale or trade, some of them mechanics, and while Watto
wasn’t about to part with usable currency, he didn’t want to pass up a
bargain if it could be had for a favorable barter. Anakin had traded on
Watto’s behalf before, and the Toydarian knew that the boy was good at this,
too.
The blue face hovered close to Anakin’s own, tiny wings beating madly.
“Bring me what I need, boy! And don’t mess up!”
Anakin was entrusted with a variety of difficult-to-obtain engine and
guidance systems parts that the Jawas would covet and Watto could afford to
give up for the right set of droids. The boy was to take the speeder out
into the Dune Sea for a midday meeting with the Jawas, make his trade, and
be back by sunset. No detours and no fooling around. Watto hadn’t forgiven
him yet for losing the Podrace and smashing his best racer, and he was
letting the boy know it.
“March the droids back if you can’t barter for a float sled.” Watto
flitted about, issuing orders, a blue blur. “If they can’t walk this far,
they aren’t of any use to me. Peedunkel! Make sure you don’t get taken! My
reputation is at stake!”
Anakin listened attentively and nodded at all the right places, the way
he had learned to do over the years. It was only a little past midmorning
and there was plenty of time to do what was needed. He had traded with the
Jawas many times, and he knew how to make certain they did not get the best
of him.
There was a great deal Watto didn’t know about Anakin Skywalker, the
boy thought to himself as he went out the door to claim his speeder and
begin his journey. One of the tricks to being a successful slave was to know
things your master didn’t know and to take advantage of that knowledge when
it would do you some good. Anakin had a gift for Podracing and a gift for
taking things apart and putting them back together and making them work
better than they had before. But it was his strange ability to sense things,
to gain insights through changes in temperament, reactions, and words, that
served him best. He could tune in to other creatures, bond with them so
closely he could sense what they were thinking and what they would do almost
before they did. It had served him well in dealing with the Jawas, among
others, and it gave him a distinct edge in bartering on Watto’s behalf.
Anakin had a couple of important secrets he kept from Watto as well.
The first was the protocol droid he was reconstructing in his bedroom work
area. It was far enough along that even though it was missing its skin and
an eye, it could stand and move around, and its intelligence and
communications processors were up and running. Good enough to do the job he
required of it, he concluded, which was to accompany him on his bartering
mission. The droid could listen in on the Jawas in their own peculiar
language, which Anakin did not understand or speak particularly well. By
doing so, it could let Anakin know if they were trying to slip anything by
him. Watto didn’t know how far he had gotten with the droid, and there
wasn’t much danger Watto could find out while they were out in the Dune Sea.
The second and more important secret concerned the Podracer the boy was
building. He had been working on it for almost two years, salvaging bits and
pieces as he went, assembling it under cover of an old tarp in an area of
the common refuse dump in back of the slave housing. His mother had indulged
him, mindful of his interest in taking things apart and putting them back
together. She didn’t see the harm in allowing him to have this project to
work on in his spare time, and Watto knew nothing of the Pod.
That was an inspired bit of subterfuge on Anakin’s part. He knew, just
as with the droid, that if it appeared to have any value 1 at all, Watto
would claim it. So he deliberately kept it looking as if it were a complete
piece of junk, disguising its worth in a variety of clever ways. To all
intents and purposes, it would never run. It was just another childish
project. It was just a little boy’s dream.
But for Anakin Skywalker, it was the first step in his life plan. He
would build the fastest Podracer ever, and he would win every race in which
it was entered. He would build a starfighter next, and he would pilot it off
Tatooine to other worlds. He would take his mother with him, and they would
find a new home. He would become the greatest pilot ever, flying all the
ships of the mainline, and his mother would be so proud of him.
And one day, when he had done all this, they would be slaves no longer.
They would be free.
He thought about this often, not because his mother encouraged him in
any way or because he was given any reason to think it might happen, but
simply because he believed, deep down inside where it mattered, that it
must.
He thought about it now as he guided his speeder through the streets of
Mos Espa, the protocol droid sitting in the rear passenger compartment,
skeletal – like without its skin and motionless because he had deactivated
it for the ride out. He thought about all the things he would do and places
he would go, the adventures he would have and the successes he would enjoy,
and the dreams he would see come true. He drove the speeder out from the
city under Tatooine’s suns, the heat rising off the desert sands in a
shimmering wave, the light reflecting off the metal surface of the speeder
like white fire.
He proceeded east for about two standard hours until he reached the
edge of the Dune Sea. The meeting with the Jawas was already in place,
arranged by Watto the day before by transmitter. The Jawas would be waiting
by Mochot Steep, a singular rock formation about halfway across the sea.
Goggles, gloves, and helmet firmly in place, the boy cranked up the power on
the speeder and hastened ahead through the midday heat.
He found the Jawas waiting for him, their monstrous sandcrawler parked
in the shadow of the Steep, the droids they wished to trade lined up at the
end of the crawler’s ramp. Anakin parked his speeder close to where the
little robed figures waited, yellow eyes gleaming watchfully in the shadows
of their hoods, and climbed out. He activated the protocol droid and ordered
him to follow. With the droid trailing obediently, he walked slowly down the
line of mechanicals, making a show of carefully studying each.
When he was finished, he drew his droid aside. “Which ones are best,
See – Threepio?” he asked. He’d given it a number the night before, choosing
three because the droid made the third member of his little family after his
mother and himself.
“Oh, well, Master Anakin, I’m flattered that you would ask, but I would
never presume to infringe on your expertise, my own being so meager,
although I do have knowledge of some fifty-one hundred different varieties
of droids and over five thousand different internal processors and ten times
that many chips and…”
“Just tell me which ones are best!” Anakin hissed under his breath. He
had forgotten that C-3PO was first and foremost a protocol droid and, while
possessed of extensive knowledge, tended to defer to the humans he served.
“Which ones, Threepio?” he repeated. “Left to right. Number them off to me.”
C-3PO did so. “Do you wish me to enumerate their capabilities and
design specialties, Master Anakin?” he asked solicitously, cocking his head.
Anakin silenced him with a wave of his hand as the head Jawa
approached. They bartered back and forth for a time, Anakin getting a sense
of how far the Jawas could be pushed, how much subterfuge was taking place
with regard to their droids, and how badly they wanted the goods he was
offering in exchange. He was able to determine that several of the best
droids were still inside the crawler, a fact that C-3PO picked up from an
unguarded comment made by a Jawa off to one side. The head Jawa squeaked at
him furiously, of course, but the damage was done.
Three more droids were brought out, and again Anakin took a few moments
to inspect them, C-3PO at his side. They were good models, and the Jawas
were not particularly eager to part with them for anything less than a
combination of currency and goods. Anakin and the head Jawa, who were of
about the same height and weight, stood nose to nose arguing the matter for
a long time.
When the bartering was completed, Anakin had traded a little more than
half of what he had brought as barter for two mechanic droids in excellent
condition, three more multipurpose droids that were serviceable, and a
damaged hyperdrive converter that he could put back into service in no time.
He could have traded for another two or three droids, but the quality of
those that remained wasn’t sufficiently high to part with any more of
Watto’s goods, and Watto would be quick to see that.
There was no float sled to be had, so Anakin lined up the newly
purchased droids behind the speeder, placed C-3PO in the rear passenger
compartment to keep an eye on them, and set off for Mos Espa. It was just
after midday. The little procession was a curious sight, the speeder
leading, hovering just off the sand, thrusters on dead slow, the droids
trailing behind, jointed limbs working steadily to keep pace.
“That was an excellent trade, Master Anakin,” C-3PO advised cheerfully,
keeping his one good eye on their purchases. “You are to be congratulated! I
think those Jawas learned a hard lesson today! You really did show them a
thing or two about hard bargaining! Why, that pit droid alone is worth much
more than. ..”
The droid rattled on incessantly, but Anakin let him alone, ignoring
most of what he said, content to let his mind wander for a bit now that the
hard part was done. Even with the droids slowing them down, they should
reach the edge of the Dune Sea before midafternoon and Mos Espa before dark.
He would have time to sneak C-3PO back into his bedroom and deliver the
purchased droids and the balance of the trade goods to Watto. Maybe that
would get him back in the Toydarian’s good graces. Certainly Watto would be
pleased with the converter. They were hard to come by out here, and if it
could be made to work which Anakin was certain it could-it would be worth
more than all the rest of the purchases combined.
They crossed the central flats and climbed the slow rise to Xelric
Draw, a shallow, widemouthed canyon that split the Mospic High Range just
inside the lip of the Dune Sea. The speeder eased inside the canyon, droids
strung out in a gleaming mechanical line behind, passing out of sunlight
into shadow. The temperature dropped a few degrees, and the silence changed
pitch in the lee of the cliffs. Anakin glanced about warily, knowing the
dangers of the desert as well as any who were from Mos Espa, although he was
inclined to think from time to time that it was safer out here than in the
city.
“…a four-to-one ratio of Rodians to Hutts when the settlement began
to take on the look and feel of a trading center, although even then it was
clear the Hutts were the dominant species, and the Rodians might just as
well have stayed home rather than chance a long and somewhat purposeless
flight…”
C-3PO rambled on, changing subjects without urging, asking nothing in
return for his nonstop narrative but to be allowed to continue. Anakin
wondered if he was suffering some sort of sensory vocal deprivation from
being deactivated for so long. These protocol droids were known to be
temperamental.
His gaze shifted suddenly to the right, to something that seemed
strange and out of place. At first it was just a shape and coloring amid the
desert sand and rock, almost lost in the shadows. But as he stared harder,
it took on fresh meaning. He banked the speeder sharply, bringing the line
of droids around with him.
“Master Anakin, whatever are you doing?” C-3PO protested peevishly. His
one eye fixed on Anakin. “Mos Espa is down the canyon draw, not through the
side of the-Oh, my! Is that what I think it is? Master, there is every
reason to turn right around-“
“I know.” Anakin cut the droid short. “I just want a look.”
C-3PO’s arms fluttered anxiously. “I must protest, Master Anakin. This
is most unwise. If I am correct, and I must tell you that I have calculated
that degree of probability at ninety-nine point seven, then we are headed
directly toward…”
But Anakin didn’t need to be told what lay ahead, having already
determined exactly what it was. A Tusken Raider lay crumpled on the ground,
half-buried by a pile of rocks close against the cliff face. The look and
garb of the Sand People were unmistakable, even at this distance. Loose,
tan-colored clothing, heavy leather gloves and boots, bandolier and belt,
cloth-wrapped head with goggles and breath mask, and a long, dual-handled
blaster rifle lying a meter away from an outstretched arm. A fresh scar
slicing down from the cliff face bore evidence of a slide. The Raider had
probably been hiding above when the rock gave way beneath his feet and
buried him in the fall.
Anakin stopped the speeder and climbed down.
“Master Anakin, I don’t think this is a good idea at all!” C-3PO
declared in a sharp tone of admonishment.
“I just want a look, that’s all,” the boy repeated.
He was wary and a little scared of doing this, but he had never seen a
Tusken Raider up close, although he had heard stories about them all his
life. The Tuskens were a reclusive, fierce, nomadic people who claimed the
desert as their own and lived off those foolish enough to venture into their
territory unprepared. On foot or astride the wild banthas they had claimed
from the wastelands, they traveled where they chose, pillaging outlying
homes and way stations, waylaying caravans, stealing goods and equipment,
and terrorizing everyone in general. They had even gone after the Hutts on
occasion. The residents of Mos Espa, themselves a less than respectable
citizenry, hated the Sand People with a passion.
Anakin had not yet made up his mind about them. The stories were
chilling, but he knew enough of life to know there were two sides to every
story and mostly only one being told. He was intrigued by the wild, free
nature of the Tuskens, of a life without irresponsibility or boundaries, of
a community in which everyone was considered equal.
He left the speeder and walked toward the fallen Raider. Threepio
continued to admonish him, to warn him he was making a mistake. In truth, he
wasn’t all that sure the droid was wrong. But his trepidation was overcome
by his curiosity. What could it hurt to have just the briefest of looks? His
boyish nature surfaced and took control. He would be able to tell his
friends he had seen one of the Sand People close up. He would be able to
tell them what one really looked like.
The Tusken Raider lay sprawled facedown, arms akimbo, head turned to
one side. Rocks and debris buried most of the lower part of his body. One
leg lay pinned beneath a massive boulder. Anakin edged closer to where the
blaster rifle lay, then reached down and picked it up. It was heavy and
unwieldy. A man would have to be strong and skilled to handle one, he
thought. He noted the strange carvings on the stock-tribal markings perhaps.
He had heard the Tuskens were a tribal people. Suddenly the fallen Raider
stirred, drawing back one arm, bracing himself, and lifting his wrapped
head. Opaque goggles stared directly at Anakin. The boy backed away
automatically. But the Tusken just stared at him for a moment, taking in who
he was and what he was doing, then laid his head down again.
Anakin Skywalker waited, wondering what he should do. He knew what
Watto would say. He knew what almost everyone would say. Get out of there!
Now! He put the blaster rifle down again. This was no business of his. He
took a step back, then another.
The Tusken Raider lifted his head once more and stared at him. Anakin
stared back. He could sense the pain in the other’s gaze. He could feel his
desperation, trapped and helpless beneath that boulder, stripped of his
weapon and his freedom both.
Anakin’s brow furrowed. Would his mother tell him to get out of there,
too? What would she say, if she were there?
“Threepio,” he called back to the droid. “Bring everybody over here.”
Protesting vehemently with every step, C-3PO gathered up the newly
purchased droids and herded them to where the boy stood staring at the
fallen Tusken. Anakin put the droids to work clearing away the smaller rocks
and stones, then rigged a lever and used the speeder’s weight to tilt the
rock just enough that they could pull the pinned man free. The Tusken was
awake briefly, but then lapsed back into unconsciousness. Anakin had the
droids check for other weapons and kept the blaster rifle safely out of
reach.
While the Tusken Raider was unconscious, the droids laid him on his
back so he could be checked for injuries. The leg pinned by the boulder was
smashed, the bones broken in several places. Anakin could see the damage
through the torn cloth. But he wasn’t familiar with Tusken physiology, and
he didn’t know exactly what to do to repair the damage. So he applied a
quick seal splint from the medical kit in the speeder to freeze the leg in
place and left it alone.
He sat down then and thought about what he should do next. The light
was beginning to fail. He had spent too much time freeing the Tusken to
reach Mos Espa before nightfall. He could make the edge of the Dune Sea by
dark, but only by leaving the Tusken behind, untended and alone. Anakin
frowned. Given the things that roamed the desert when it got dark, he might
as well bury the man and have done with it.
So he had the droids pull a small glow unit out of the landspeeder.
When twilight descended, he powered up the glow unit and attached an
extender fuel pack to assure it would burn all night. He broke out an old
dried food pack and munched absently as he stared at the sleeping Tusken.
His mother would be worried. Watto would be mad. But they knew him to be
capable and reliable, and they would wait until daybreak to do anything
about his absence. By then, he hoped, he would be well on his way home.
“Do you think he’ll be all right?” he asked C-3PO.
He had placed the speeder and the other droids under the lee of a cliff
face behind the glow unit, safely tucked from view, but had kept C-3PO with
him for company. Boy and droid sat huddled close together on one side of the
glow unit while the Tusken Raider continued to sleep on the other.
“I am afraid I lack the necessary medical training and information to
make that determination, Master Anakin,” C-3PO advised, cocking his head. “I
certainly think you have done everything you possibly could.”
The boy nodded thoughtfully.
“Master Anakin, we really shouldn’t be out here at night,” the droid
observed after a moment. “This country is quite dangerous. “
“But we couldn’t leave him, could we?”
“Oh, well, that’s a very difficult determination to make.” C-3PO
pondered the matter.
“We couldn’t take him with us either.”
“Certainly not!”
The boy sat in silence for a time, watching the Tusken sleep. He
watched him for so long, in fact, that it came as something of a surprise
when the Tusken finally stirred awake. It happened all at once, and it
caught the boy off guard. The Tusken Raider shifted his weight with a
lurching movement, exhaled sharply, propped himself up on one arm, looked at
himself, then looked at the boy. The boy made no move or sound. The Tusken
regarded him intently for a long minute, then slowly eased into a sitting
position, his wounded leg stretched out in front of him.
“Uh, hello,” Anakin said, trying out a smile.
The Tusken Raider made no response.
“Are you thirsty?” the boy asked.
No response.
“I don’t think he likes us very much,” C-3PO observed.
Anakin tried a dozen different approaches at conversation, but the
Tusken Raider ignored them all. His gaze shifted only once, to where his
blaster rifle lay propped against the rocks behind the boy.
“Say something to him in Tusken,” he ordered C-3PO finally.
The droid did. He spoke at length to the Tusken in his own language,
but the man refused to respond. He just kept staring at the boy. Finally,
after C-3PO had gone on for some time, the Tusken glanced at him and barked
a single word in response.
“Gracious!” the droid exclaimed.
“What did he say?” the boy asked, excited.
“Why he-he told me to shut up!”
That was pretty much the end of any attempt at conversation. The boy
and the Tusken sat facing each other in silence, their faces caught by the
glow of the fire, the desert’s darkness all around. Anakin found himself
wondering what he would do if the Tusken tried to attack him. It was
unlikely, but the man was large and fierce and strong, and if he reached the
boy, he could easily overpower him. He could take back his blaster rifle and
do with the boy as he chose.
But somehow Anakin didn’t sense that to be the Tusken’s intent. The
Tusken made no effort to move and gave no indication he had any intention of
trying to do so. He just sat there, wrapped in his desert garb, faceless
beneath his coverings, locked away with his own thoughts.
Finally he spoke again. The boy looked quickly at C-3PO. “He wants to
know what you are going to do with him, Master Anakin,” the droid
translated.
Anakin looked back at the Tusken, confused. “Tell him I’m not going to
do anything with him,” he said. “I’m just trying to help him get well.”
C-3PO spoke the words in Tusken. The man listened. He made no response.
He did not say anything more.
Anakin realized suddenly that the Tusken was afraid. He could sense it
in the way the other spoke, in the way he sat waiting. He was crippled and
weaponless. He was at Anakin’s mercy. The boy understood the Tusken’s fear,
but it surprised him anyway. It seemed out of character. The Sand People
were supposed to be fearless. Besides, he wasn’t afraid of the Tusken. Maybe
he should have been, but he wasn’t.
Anakin Skywalker wasn’t afraid of anything.
Was he?
Staring into the opaque lenses of the goggles that hid the Tusken
Raider’s eyes, he contemplated the matter. Most times he thought there was
nothing that could frighten him. Most times he thought he was brave enough
that he would never be afraid. But in that most secret part of himself where
he hid the things he would reveal to no one, he knew he was cheating on the
truth. He might not ever be afraid for himself, but he was sometimes very
afraid for his mother.
What if something were to happen to her? What if something awful were
to happen to her, something he could do nothing to prevent?
He felt a shiver go down his spine.
What if he were to lose her?
How brave would he be then, if the person he was closest to in the
whole, endless universe was suddenly taken away from him? It would never
happen, of course. It couldn’t possibly happen.
But what if it did?
He stared at the Tusken Raider, and in the deep silence of the night he
felt his confidence tremble like a leaf caught in the wind.

 He fell asleep finally, and he dreamed of strange  things.  The  dreams

shifted and changed without warning and took on different story lines and
meanings as they did so. He was several things in the course of his dreams.
Once he was a Jedi Knight, fighting against things so dark and insubstantial
he could not identify them. Once he was a pilot of a star cruiser, taking
the ship into hyperspace, spanning whole star systems on his voyage. Once he
was a great and feared commander of an army, and he came back to Tatooine
with ships and troops at his command to free the planet’s slaves. His mother
was waiting for him, smiling, arms outstretched. But when he tried to
embrace her, she vanished.
There were Sand People in his dreams, too. They appeared near the end,
a handful of them, standing before him with their blaster rifles and long
gaffi sticks lifted and held ready. They regarded him in silence, as if
wondering what they should do with him.
He awoke then, jarred from his sleep by an unmistakable sense of
danger. He jerked upright and stared about in confusion and fear. The glow
unit had burned down to nothing. In the faint, silvery brightening of
predawn, he found himself confronted by the dark, faceless shapes of the
Sand People of his dreams.
Anakin swallowed hard. Motionless figures against the horizon’s dim
glow, the Tusken Raiders encircled him completely. The boy thought to break
and run, but realized at once how foolish that would be. He was helpless.
All he could do was wait and set.. what they intended.
A guttural muttering rose from their midst, and heads turned ~ to look.
Through a gap in the ranks, Anakin could just make out a figure being lifted
and carried away. It was the Raider he had; rescued, speaking to his people.
The other Raiders hesitated, then slowly backed away.
I in seconds, they were gone.
Sunlight began to crest the dark bulk of the Mospic, and C-3PO was
speaking to him in a rush of words that tumbled over one another, the
skeletal metal arms jerking this way and that.
“Master Anakin, they’ve gone! Oh, we’re lucky to be alive! Thank
goodness they didn’t hurt you!”
Anakin climbed to his feet. There were Tusken Raider footprints
everywhere. He glanced about quickly. The speeder and the droids obtained
from the Jawas sat undisturbed beneath the overhang. The Tusken blaster
rifle was gone.
“Master Anakin, what should we do?” C-3PO wailed in dismay.
Anakin looked around at the empty canyon floor, at the high ragged
walls of the cliff face, and at the brightening sky where the stars were
fading away. He listened to the deep silence and felt impossibly alone and
vulnerable.
“We should go home,” he whispered, and moved swiftly to make it happen.

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