Too Much Democracy The characters, ships, droids, places, concepts--hell, pretty much the entire Universe this story takes place in belongs to George Lucas. After this summer's movie season, most everything else will, too, I think. And I'd have it no other way. I'm not making any money off this story--merely doing with words what I used to do with action figures when I was five.

Author's Note: I'm not as well-versed on Star Wars technology as I am with Star Trek stuff. If there are any gaffes in the story, please let me know and I'll make the necessary changes. Thanks.


Too Much Democracy

Too much democracy...

The words uttered by Qui-Gon only a few hours ago-seemingly days ago-suddenly blazed through Obi-Wan Kenobi's mind, causing him to momentarily lose his connection with the Force. In an instant, he went from being one with it, his mind and limbs an extension of its power, to just another humanoid flailing about with a laser-sword.

All around them, all over the settlement's ramparts and defensive walls, the battle droids swarmed like dusky-brown insects, their skeletal bodies advancing with a grace and fluidity of movement undeserved by a collection of servos and hydraulics. The overcast haze of the oncoming storm was pierced by red and blue blaster fire as the droids stepped over the wreckage of their damaged and destroyed comrades, the burned and broken bodies of the settlers, and continued inexorably into the defensive fire. In this distance Obi-Wan saw troop carriers arriving on the outskirts of the settlement, the beds of the repulsor-sleds cradling the deployment racks for 112 additional soldiers.

Reaching out for the Force, Obi-Wan caught a flash out of the corner of his eye-blue, the color of a settler's blaster-and a nanosecond later there was an explosion at his elbow as a battle droid exploded. Obi-Wan hadn't even been aware of its presence.

The concussion threw him off balance, his boots losing purchase on the scattered piles of droid components that littered the ground. He fell hard, jagged pieces of metal stabbing his brutally through his Jedi tunic. Through a gap between two staggering battle droids, he saw Qui-Gon gracefully deflect a blaster-bolt not at its firer, but into an overhang, which tumbled around him, crushing the advancing team of droids. Qui-Gon, of course, was untouched by the falling mortar and alloy. He was one with the Force.

A clawed foot landed heavily on Obi-Wan's leg, and he cried out in pain. The battle droid swiveled its long head to regard him. Though constructed by the Xi Char to the specifications of the Neimoidians to resemble that species' skeletons in an effort to instill terror, to Obi-Wan the droids looked like bipedal Turagan racing hounds. The voice that emanated from the droid's vocoder wasn't very threatening, either. Scratchy and pinched it was almost comically overmatched by the ambient noise of weapons fire, shouts, and screams.

"Surrender to our custody and you will not be harmed!"

The bore of the heavy blaster-rifle yawned before him like a spaceport. Obi-Wan lashed out a clumsy swing of his lightsaber, slicing the barrel of the rifle and sending debris scattering. He backswung and bisected the droid's midriff, and it crumpled in a hot cloud of sparks and vapors and the whine of failing mechanisms.

Obi-Wan disconnected the droid's spasming foot off his leg, grimly noting the unusual claw attachment that the Cheng had outfitted them with for better terrain locomotion. He reached out for the Force, felt its currents and eddies all around him, prepared for it to wash over and through him.

Then he saw the line of ten Destroyer Droids unfolding not fifty meters away.

2

"I fear we are living in a time of too much democracy, young padawan," Qui-Gon Jinn said sagely, but not without just a hint of humor that tugged at his leonine features now reflected in the Republic scout's viewport. "The Senate has its procedures for assessing the possibility of intervention in the internal or semi-internal conflicts of sovereign worlds. They are not quick routes to action, either."

Obi-Wan stood beside his Master and stared through the same viewport at the same dusky, gray-green world. Cheng'Olith IV. Furthermost planet of the Cheng'Olith sector and currently in dispute by rival religious factions within the Cheng government. Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon had been thoroughly briefed by the Jedi Council when they'd been assigned this mission, but Obi-Wan found his thoughts wandering away from the labyrinthine details of the conflict. It was like so many others, remarkable only in its banality.

"With evidence of offworld settlement, the Senate should be able to take some action, though," Obi-Wan speculated aloud. "That would change the whole nature of the conflict. No longer a civil war, but an act of orchestrated genocide."

"That alone may not be enough," Qui-Gon replied, the humor gone and replaced by a brittle blackness that sent a ripple of dread down Obi-Wan's spine. "Genocide is no longer the call to action it once was. The Senate must decide what the consequences of their action would be. There are trade disputes and shipping lines to be minded. The costs of the possible disruptions of trade and commerce must be weighed. Any evidence we bring back to Council and Senate will simply complicate their already narrow focus."

On a none-too-deep level, Obi-Wan knew this. After all, when was the last time the Republic had taken bold, aggressive action on any matter of morality or sacrifice? Still, he was but a padawan-learner on the road to being a Jedi Knight. It was not his responsibility or his place to affect the Senate or the Council or anything else for that matter. A Jedi Knight was not a politician, not a despot, not a general, nor a mercenary-a Jedi was merely a tool of the Republic.

But he felt the tremors in Force around Qui-Gon, and even if he had not, he knew his Master well enough to know that he found no similar tranquility in the narrow parameters of their mission. For Qui-Gon, this was to stare at the face of darkness and yet not engage it.

The Scout banked and angled in through a heavy system of atmospheric chop that the motion-baffles couldn't completely compensate for, and they reached out the bulkheads for support. A moment later, the thick, greenish clouds gave way to the sodden ground below. Cheng'Olith IV was an ugly world, though not a hostile one. It was also bereft of any valuable resources, natural or otherwise.

"I cannot fathom why such a world is worth a fight," Obi-Wan said. "Any fight."

In response, Qui-Gon touched the control panel beside the viewport and the ground was suddenly magnified 500 times. He pointed to a spindly, skeletal robot. "Battle droid," he explained. "Likely provided by the Trade Federation-they're huge consumers of automaton-armies. The Cheng can wage war on this world for as long as they like an never see an actual casualty."

"Except their bank account," Obi-Wan nodded, understanding.

"Exactly. War no longer requires sacrifice or loss. It has been stripped of all meaning beyond the cold equations of expenditure versus gain. It's all very sanitary and acceptable and easily stomached by the good senators. Again, too much democracy."

3

The scout put down in a heavy moss-tree growth area. Though they doubted the Cheng would attack a diplomatic mission, there were not many Cheng present, and neither Qui-Gon, nor Captain Katanga trusted the battle droids to recognize the diplomatic colors when they saw them.

Outside the heavy growth area, atop a rolling, gray-green hill, Qui-Gon triangulated the position of the distress-call that had started this whole affair.

When the Cheng had moved upon Cheng'Olith IV, it had caused only a slight ripple in the Senate of the Republic. Neighboring systems were concerned about the security of their borders and their trade routes, but there was little moral outcry. After all, the planet had become a stopover for all manner of smugglers, bandits, pirates, and outlaws. It was remote, yet still accessible to a major system, never settled, and seldom visited by the Cheng. But when the transmission was received, it became clear that this matter may not be as easy as first thought.

It had been a grainy, static-choked message sent by what appeared to be bluish-skinned, humanoid beings with expressive faces and malnourished frames. "...siege...they are exterminating...never offered surrender or relocation..." the central figure had jabbered, the words seeming to tumble out of his mouth while others-males, females, children-huddled in the background until a wash of flames and overloaded optical sensors ended it.

Only then did the Cheng admit that they had been moving colonists offworld. Cheng'Olith IV had apparently become something of a haven for wanderers of the legitimate variety as well. The soil was fertile and the weather conducive to raising edible crops, and for those established groups or races fleeing persecution, prosecution, or just looking to detach themselves from their own existence, Cheng'Olith IV was a good port.

The blue-skinned aliens turned out to be the Quandrons, indigenous to one of the moons in the Cheng system. They tended to be Luddites--shunning technology and contact with alien races. This splinter group had broken off, taken a continent as their own, and began the long, slow process of trading and producing enough materials to carry themselves away.

The question of how many Quandrons had been removed by the Cheng and where they'd gone had sparked a debate in the Senate that had gobbled up an entire voting-cycle, and when the details of an acceptable accounting to be demanded of the Cheng had finally been hammered out, a detailed analysis of the transmission yielded the possibility of heavy weapons fire in the background. With genocide possibly being a factor, the Chancellor had overrode the debate and announced a small fact-finding mission to decide the veracity of the charges.

And now, Obi-Wan's master was operating the signal-finder to ferret out the source of some much fractiousness. He'd figured it out quickly, Obi-Wan noticed as he crested the hill with their supplies.

"Ten kilometers southwest," Qui-Gon said briskly, and Obi-Wan knew they'd be hiking this one.

"The ship is equipped with a speeder," he suggested as he held out an equipment belt. "We could be there in just a little under..."

"We'll walk," Qui-Gon said with certainty. "We have an excellent opportunity to exercise the physical body, we might as well use it. Besides, the slower me move, the more we see, the more there is to report back to the Senate and Council."

Obi-Wan conceded the point as he buckled his belt around his waist. They coordinated a rendezvous time with Captain Katanga and they set off.

4

The most remarkable thing about Cheng'Olith IV was its sheer unremarkability. Where there wasn't tall, slightly sodden grass, there was reddish, crumbly rock. Obi-Wan passed the time reaching out with the Force. Qui-Gon had been urging him to become more in tune with the living Force, and he tried. He tried to feel the ebb and flow of the Force around him like the currants and eddies of a lake-discerning where there were deviations, whirlpools, and disruptions. He couldn't keep his concentration fixed upon it, though. His perception kept being distracted by the residual traces of emotion and action. Fear, aggression, desperation, death. They lingered in the air like the smell of smoke on a summer breeze, and any doubts he had that the Cheng had been sterilizing their world were fast evaporating.

But impressions from the Force would not be adequate for the Council, and certainly would not be for the Senate. So they marched on toward the beacon, and soon came upon their first tangible evidence. Ironically enough, it was smoke that drew them off course and over the small ridge of fragile stone.

The settlement had been built into a rock face, leaving only one wall exposed. "Smuggler colony," Qui-Gon commented neutrally. "Easily defended, but difficult to detect from orbit or from the ground."

"Not anymore, Master," Obi-Wan answered. The settlement was now little more than a blackened cluster of melted warrens and hutches. The whole thing was probably a stolen Republic pre-fab settlement, augmented and refitted to serve the needs of the various vagabonds and reprobates that had inhabited it. They'd erected watch towers and heavy-laser turrets which now leaned bent, their tops burned away. From this distance and without the macrobinoculars they looked like decapitated Slantu tree-eaters.

"Smugglers are not ones to put up a ferocious fight to defend their residences," Qui-Gon said. "Once they've been discovered they're worthless. No point in risking your life for them."

"You believe they were overrun without provocation?"

"I don't believe that surrender was ever an option. Notice a curious absence, padawan?"

"Bodies," Obi-Wan nodded. "Human or droid."

"Indicating that a secondary sweep-and-clear team came through. Most likely they exterminated any survivors, destroyed the colony as thoroughly as possible and then removed any actual evidence."

Obi-Wan trained the recorder on the wreckage and activated the sensors. "We have evidence now, Master."

"We have only a destroyed cluster of buildings. Nothing more. The Senate will debate this a little, then dismiss the sensor logs as inconclusive. We have to find the beacon." With that, Qui-Gon spun quickly and strode off. His gait was not the measured, easy steps of a Jedi marshaling his energy for an endurance expenditure, but quick and purposeful, and Obi-Wan felt a tight ball of dread form in his stomach. His master had been appalled by the slaughter below them, and affected by the residual horror and anguish that still lingered in the Force.

And Obi-Wan knew that they would not simply take sensor recordings and leave.

5

They found themselves at the base of a long, grassy slope, the top of which emanated the promised beacon, when the Force washed over him a wave of anxiety, tension, and fear.

Obi-Wan spun, looking around him for the source, barely noticing that beside him Qui-Gon was doing the same thing. For one tense moment they simply stood and reached out with their senses, then the laser-bolts flared up in the mid-afternoon sun.

They spun in unison, lightsabers drawn and activated, and deflected the angry salvo back in the general direction of the STAP which had burst from a distant tree line, skimming the tall grass. It fired again, the skeletal droid that rode it, piloting in a zig-zagging pattern to lay down as thorough a field of fire as possible. Trapped as they were on the open, flat hill base, all the Jedi could do was deflect the hissing blasts.

The attack lasted only for a few furious seconds before a lance of blue fire expertly sheared off the right drive turbine, sending the small craft into a perfect arc into the ground. It hit with a dull thump of crumpling plasteel and incinerating engines, leaving only a twisting tendril of smoke to mark the impact site.

But the Jedi didn't notice. They'd turned to face the small group of humanoids approaching them, blasters cradled casually, but accessibly. The foremost carried a slender rifle with an impressive scope. Obi-Wan knew she'd been the one who'd taken out the STAP. Even without the rifle, the euphoria and cold satisfaction she radiated were a dead giveaway.

"You're not mechanical," the leader said, her voice sibilant with what Obi-Wan guessed were multiple vocal cords. "And you're not Cheng." Green eyes narrowed to even slits. "So whatever are you doing here?"

Qui-Gon sheathed his lightsaber and approached them in the open, fearless style that was taught to Jedi Knights. "I'm Qui-Gon Jinn, and this is Obi-Wan Kenobe. We've been sent by the Senate to obtain evidence that the Cheng have been cleansing this world of all life. Wiping out all intelligent life."

"Evidence," the lead humanoid said with a bitter twist to her lips. "Come. We'll provide your evidence. Come."

6

The burial spots were marked by exhausted blaster-rifles, but they were barely visible through the narrow view slits of the infirmary. There once had been diagnostic beds, but the equipment was dark and dead, and all available floor space was occupied by slumped, bandaged patients. They sighed, moaned, gasped in pain, and whimpered in their unconsciousness.

"These are the survivors," Tlala said, hitching her sniper-rifle more securely on her shoulder. "But how many of them will remain so by this time next week is unclear. If any of us are still alive then is unclear." She motioned to them, and they followed her through the reinforced tunnels deep into the octagonal room which served as their command center. A smattering of other soldiers worked on consoles and computer systems that were obviously patched together and retrofitted from other systems with other intentions. One wall was a gigantic viewscreen, and Tlala called up a tactical map. She gestured to a series of thick clusters of symbols. "That's the Cheng droid armies. They're gathering at a staging area in the Southern plains-the most likely where the STAP that attacked you came from-a probing attack. They'll be mounting a massive offensive to decimate this settlement. The triangles are troop carriers. The squares are battle tanks."

There were a disturbing number of both on the map.

"The civilians are in shelters buried beneath the tunnels. They used to be an underground speeder network. It was a manageable transportation system that didn't disrupt the crop soil. Now, that's more or less unnecessary. We will hold them off up above."

They'd been given a tour of the surface of the fort already, and Obi-Wan had been impressed. A small community of farmers had built in a relatively short period of time, a walled obstacle course that had managed to hold off repeated droid exploratory attacks for the last month or so. It was a mass of trenches, bunkers, ramparts, and gun emplacements. He would have almost been confident in the colony's ability to fight off the droid army if he didn't know that every one of those troop carriers held 144 droid soldiers.

"You'll be overrun," he said a bit more frantically than he'd intended. "Outnumbered, outgunned, they'll simply overwhelm you."

"There are chances for victory," Tlala replied without much enthusiasm. "If the battle tanks can be commandeered or destroyed violently enough to damage enough soldiers. We have two expert slicers working on jamming the control signals. But yes, you are correct. We will most likely lose this battle. However, the object is not to defeat the droid army, but to protect the civilian population. If they believe they have killed us all of us on the surface, they may never inspect closely enough to find the tunnels. They are not an occupying force, merely one of decimation and annihilation."

They walked in silence to the surface, and Obi-Wan felt the brutal anxiety of the soldiers chill the Force around him, making him feel like he was in the middle of an icy lake. "You've certainly got plenty of arms. Enough for an army. Where did a colony of farmers come by this amount of ordinance?"

"We traded with the smuggling hideout near Clearridge. They believed they could evacuate before the droids attacked, but they never thought to jam any high-orbit sensor sweeps. The Cheng army had been aware of every move they made. The attack came as they were loading up their ships. By and large, unarmed and vulnerable."

"If that's true, then they also know that you've armed yourselves," Obi-Wan said. "They know about your defenses, and they know about your tunnels."

"Our defenses, yes. The tunnels, however, were populated while we jammed their scans. They didn't attack during that period-when we were most exposed and vulnerable. It's likely they moved on to another settlement or province somewhere. It is, after all, a large planet." Tlala gave them a wintery smile, which merely increased Obi-Wan's uneasiness. She was right, of course. What was playing out here was happening all over the planet. This one small cluster of people represented very little in the face of the extermination of a population.

Tlala gave them meal packages and excused herself. Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon sat at the base of a gun turret and ate their nutrient concentrations, while they watched the defenders clean and prep weapons and discuss tactics and maneuvers.

"They're very brave," Obi-Wan commented, suddenly feeling foolish at the obviousness of the observation.

"Bravery. Desperation. They have run out of alternatives," Qui-Gon replied. Only someone who'd known him as long as Obi-Wan would ever have been able to detect the tightness in his voice.

"We're too far from Republic space to call up a warship."

"It would require that they violate Cheng sovereignty," Qui-Gon added. "That is never done lightly."

"If we transmitted the data that we have to Coruscant-"

"Action would not come quickly enough." Qui-Gon finished his meal and discarded the container.

"Too much democracy," Obi-Wan said bitterly.

"Yes."

"If that army is massing as we speak, the attack will be imminent. We should leave soon and request evacuation from Captain Katanga."

Qui-Gon inhaled deeply through his nose, and Obi-Wan could feel the uneasiness and reluctance radiate from him. Leaving this place and these people to their own struggle cut against everything he'd been conditioned to be as a Jedi Knight. But there was also their mission, and the fact that even Two Jedi Knights could not successfully drive out a military force of that magnitude.

"Yes," he said after a moment of furious contemplation. "Yes, we should."

Obi-Wan opened his comm-link and contacted Katanga. "We're just completing a diagnostic of the engines. We should be able to fire them up and be airborne in about an hour." the young captain reported. An hour was more time that Obi-Wan would have liked to stay here-though, not because he was afraid. A Jedi Knight was, after all, only a servant and if in the course of his service to protect the vulnerable he was called upon to die, he would do so. No, Obi-Wan's greater concern was that Qui-Gon Jinn would change his mind and fight beside these people, waving off Katanga's frantic attempts to evacuate them. And the Council would not see the nobility in such a choice, only the defiance.

A moment later, though, that choice was taken away from them.

A curt cry crackled from the north wall, quickly drown out by a heavy, furious droning. Obi-Wan spun to see seven STAPs gliding over the colony's defensive walls.

In unison, he and Qui-Gon drew and activated their lightsabers, as the air around them sizzled with laser fire.

7

The STAPs spread out along the colony's perimeter before commencing their strafing runs, their small laser-cannons exhaling red bolts of blaster-fire which exploded against the ground and sent the defenders scrambling for the cover of their protective trenches.

Obi-Wan felt the Force guide his hands, bringing the lightsaber up so that the blade was at a downward angle and positioned perfectly enough to deflect the blasts back into the first STAP that sighted on him. The bolts ricocheted off his blade, sending a slight tremor through the muscles of his arm, then arced back to where the STAP was beginning a leisurely turn. The STAP's own blasts blew out its drive unit and tore the pilot droid off its mount, flinging it to the ground like so much metal-alloy garbage.

He spun, blocked two more blasts from behind him-these didn't hit the STAP--then leapt into the air in a graceful cartwheel the trajectory and altitude of which was far beyond the physical abilities of any humanoid. He rode the Force like a glider in a headwind, let it take him into the STAP's course, and then, when his leap had reached its apex, swung his lightsaber in a long arc that decapitated the pilot droid and sent the brainless vehicle spinning over the south wall.

He landed easily, his senses reaching out in all directions, filtering the fear and excitement around him. Two STAPs had been destroyed by turret-guns-he could feel the gunner's satisfaction-and Tlala was sighting on another with her sniper rifle. To his left, Qui-Gon had hurled his lightsaber like a lance which impaled STAP and droid, piercing the dual mechanical hearts of the machines, and they dropped from the sky like a stone. Obi-Wan could feel Qui-Gon pull his lightsaber back to him user the tether of the Force.

Tlala's STAP went down, bleeding oily smoke, but the seventh escaped over the north wall. "I suppose it's a bit too much to hope that we've run them off?" she called to Qui-Gon past the trenches lined with defenders holding their blaster rifles at the ready.

"That was just a reconnaissance attack," Qui-Gon answered grimly. "If they'd been serious, they'd've carried concussion missiles or some other type of anti-personnel device."

"Why don't they send in the tanks?" Obi-Wan wondered aloud. "They could easily topple the walls and fire into this place with cannons and shells and missiles."

"I don't know," Qui-Gon admitted. The two Jedi deactivated their lightsabers to conserve power and let them recharge, and they waited.

In the trenches, behind armored blinds, the defenders waited, too. Sighting down the barrels of their battered rifles, sighting on nothing but the empty space in front of them. In the turret-guns, the three-man crews waited in sweating, claustrophobic anticipation, knowing that they were prominent targets and if their armored shielding didn't hold, their deaths would not be pleasant.

And deep below the surface, in the tunnels, the Quandron population of this colony waited. The old, injured, infirm-all those unable to fight or necessary to tend to the ones who were injured in doing so-waited for the battle to begin and end and to see whether the next people into the tunnel would be liberators or exterminators.

8

The attack came after a leisurely assembly of tanks and deployment of troops. The droids' programming obviously contained the importance of psychological factors in warfare-the way that anticipation, the sounds of the droids unfolding from their racks in the troop-carriers, the impassive might of the tanks, all frayed the nerves of an enemy made weak by possession of higher-brain functions.

Obi-Wan tried to contact Katanga to tell him to cut off the diagnostic and get the blessed ship airborne, but found his transmission jammed. They were trapped here. Impressed into this fight, and there was no missing Qui-Gon's satisfaction in this. "Then we, too, will fight," he'd announced.

The tanks opened fire at the command of the lead tank's pilot who'd made a gesture with one metal-skeletal arm. They concentrated their fire at a central point in the north wall, hitting it with the full, combined fury of their cannons and their projectile-launchers. The heavy shielding lasted only a few minutes against the violence of the assault, the armor shielding unable to maintain its integrity in the face of laser-fire, armor-piercing shells, and concussion missiles. The turret guns fired madly, their twin barrels firing intermittently, one firing while the other recharged, but it took several hits to destroy just one tank, and they couldn't inflict enough damage in time.

Tlala leapt from her defensive position shouting futilely over the ear-splitting din to the wall-commanders, "Tell them to target the troops! The troops!" But by the time the commander could figure out what she was saying, the wall exploded inward in a spray of metal fragments and melted alloy. Battle droids advanced quickly and nimbly in small units-not the lumbering, mindless advance that had been expected. The turret guns swung to target them, but the tanks were faster and took them out with quick, precise shots that left them little more that burning, blackened canisters.

Suddenly, blaster-fire created a wall of iridescent blue from the defender's positions, but the droids found safety, cover and returned fire with unerring accuracy. They cut holes in the defensive lines of the trenches then hopped in and faced the defenders at point-blank range. In other times, this would have been the point in the battle when bayonets were fixed, as wielding rifles at such a range was difficult for even the most skilled soldier, but bayonets were useless against the droids, as were physical blows. The droids' spindly appearances masked the power of their hydraulic limbs. They fired without mercy, sterilizing whole sections of the trenches, cutting down defenders and their comrades both. But that didn't matter. Their primary objective was to take this colony and they had the troops to spare.

The tripod-mounted blaster-cannons fired steady streams of blaster-bolts, tens of them a second, but the best they could do was cut down the droids as they poured through the opening in the wall. They couldn't take them all out and once the droids made it into the trenches, there was nothing they could do.

Tlala's people were fierce and fearless, but not well trained. They didn't act as a unified force, did not consolidate or coordinate their defenses, and the droids saw this and took advantage of the holes rapidly forming in the positions.

A grenade landed in Obi-Wan's trench, about ten meters from where he stood. He reached out with the Force-used it as a vent to shunt the deadly blast away from the defenders around him, but a few moments later, a storm of red bolts cut most of them down, and droids filled the trench, digging into the soil with their clawed feet.

Obi-Wan shouted a war cry and waded into them, his lightsaber carving through metal and wiring and plastic, severing limbs, heads, chestplates, deflecting blasts back into the attackers. The air and ground around him grew hot with the combined energies, but he closed his mind to it and concentrated on the Force, which flowed through his body and guided his movements like a master puppeteer.

"Surrender and you will-"

Obi-Wan's blade cleaved through the lead droid-a commander of some sort, judging by his markings-from the top of his wedge-shaped head to the base of his torso, the two pieces falling aside to reveal three more, blasters staring him like the multiple black eyes of spider. He thrust with the Force, knocked them backward in a tangle of thin arms and legs and pulled their blasters' triggers, incinerating the tangle with their own weapons.

No more droids tried to take the trench. He leapt out of it and deflected blasts from the droids still pouring into the colony, but their numbers were growing, and many of the blaster-cannons had been taken out by droid sharpshooters. Not even a Jedi could deflect that many blaster shots-certainly not a mere padawan learner.

He lunged and rolled into the next trench, landed on a droid, and found himself surrounded. Their tapering heads swivelled to assess this new threat, and as they did, Obi-Wan knelt and raised the lightsaber above his head, twirling it in his fingers like a baton until it had made three complete rotations and sliced through all the surrounding attackers.

Two more emerged from around a bend in the trench. Obi-Wan pulled with the Force, sending a heavy, missile-launcher on top of them. They crunched and sizzled a bit.

From behind! The Force screamed in his mind, and without turning he thrust the lightsaber out straight from the hip. He spun to see two more droids impaled on the beam. He deactivated the weapon and let the cored machines topple to the ground.

He ran the length of the trench and around the bend, past the droids he'd crushed with the missile-launcher, and into the adjoining trench. Talala's defenders were mostly gone, he saw, with only a handful left, trying to fall back and fire at the advancing droids at the same time. They weren't successful, and the droids cut them all down. Anger flushed hot in Obi-Wan's mind and ran to confront the droids, slashed them furiously to pieces, ignoring everything, the lightsaber suddenly bulky and unfamiliar in his hands. Only when he saw that he was slicing a dead pieces of metal did he realize that he'd made the most critical mistake a Jedi can make-he'd let his anger blind him to the Force.

He tried to calm himself, took deep breaths, tried to feel the Force once more.

Too much democracy...

Reaching out for the Force, Obi-Wan caught a flash out of the corner of his eye-blue, the color of a settler's blaster-and a nanosecond later there was an explosion at his elbow as a battle droid exploded. Obi-Wan hadn't even been aware of its presence.

The concussion threw him off balance, his boots losing purchase on the scattered piles of droid components that littered the ground. He fell hard, jagged pieces of metal stabbing his brutally through his Jedi tunic. Through a gap between two staggering battle droids, he saw Qui-Gon gracefully deflect a blaster-bolt not at its firer, but into an overhang, which tumbled around him, crushing the advancing team of droids. Qui-Gon, of course, was untouched by the falling mortar and alloy. He was one with the Force.

A clawed foot landed heavily on Obi-Wan's leg, and he cried out in pain. The battle droid swivelled its long head to regard him.

"Surrender to our custody and you will not be harmed!"

The bore of the heavy blaster-rifle yawned before him like a spaceport. Obi-Wan lashed out a clumsy swing of his lightsaber, slicing the barrel of the rifle and sending debris scattering. He backswung and bisected the droid's midriff, and it crumpled in a hot cloud of sparks and vapors and the whine of failing mechanisms.

Obi-Wan disconnected the droid's spasming foot off his leg. He reached out for the Force, felt its currents and eddies all around him, prepared for it to wash over and through him.

Then he saw the line of ten Destroyer Droids unfolding not fifty meters away.

He didn't even think, just shouted, his voice not amplified, but carried to all who it needed to reach. "Ion cannons, now! Northeast rampart!"

The Destroyers opened fire with their rapid-fire blasters, their shields flickering translucent as they absorbed laser-fire. Obi-Wan heard the screams in his ears and his mind.

But it lasted only a moment, a moment before the few defenders with shoulder-mounted ion-cannons suddenly and instinctively targeted the Destroyers. The white blasts sizzled on the shield-bubbles like acid. Subsequent bolts broke through and the insect-like Destroyers stumbled, suddenly sliced to pieces by blaster-fire, their primary systems suddenly defunct.

Through the Force, Obi-Wan felt Qui-Gon's pride in him.

But it was fleeting. A moment later, the first tank appeared in the rift in the wall. It opened fire with everything: main cannon tearing chunks out of the armored trenches, anti-personnel missiles decimating anyone not under cover, and small arms cutting down those who ventured close enough to try to attach and explosive to its armor. It slid into the colony with the low rumble its massively-powerful repulsorlifts and made way for the second, and then the third.

Obi-Wan's heart dropped. It ended here.

But the ion cannons fired again, this time into the tank. They managed to coordinate their attack, sending a steady stream of bolts into the thing, eliminating systems and weaponary. It drew the fire of the other tanks and the battle droids clambering over the walls.

It was a good defense, but too late. They were overrun.

A shadow and a great exhalation of hot air and turbines washed over Obi-Wan from behind. He spun and saw the scout ship looming huge, Captain Katanga's pinched face in the view port, the open ramp beckoning him.

Obi-Wan took one last look at the carnage and made for the ramp. Qui-Gon was directly behind him, and Obi-Wan couldn't help but feel somewhat disappointed by that.

9

In his small, white stateroom, Obi-Wan ate and drank to replenish what his body had expended in the battle. Beyond that, he was uninjured. Several hours into the journey home, Qui-Gon entered. He sat at the small table opposite Obi-Wan.

"You did well, padewan. Your training never anticipated a scenario such as this, but you will face it again. And you will face it well."

"Thank you, Master," Obi-Wan replied. This once, the compliment did not elate him.

"We could not have saved them, Obi-Wan."

"I've heard that Jedi can use the force to...affect a large group. That it can coordinate them. Make them more effective."

Qui-Gon nodded. "I've heard the same. Mostly in writings from the old times. I've never heard of it done. It requires a relationship with the Force so immediate and intense that only the very elite can manage it."

"Could you?"

Qui-Gon shook his head. "No. Perhaps Master Yoda...Master Windu..." He took a sip from Obi-Wan's glass. "I've sent the sensor logs from the battle. The Senate called an emergency assembly to review them."

"Have they decided?" Anticipation rose in Obi-Wan's chest.

"Yes. They will do nothing."

Obi-Wan was speechless.

"Following our transmission, they also received this," Qui-gon slid a small chip into the monitor in the bulkhead behind him. The screen flickered them displayed an image of Tlala. Her deep, green eyes dead and staring bluntly. Her bluish skin dull.

"I am Tlala Obletersk, of the Quandron colony Baptism. By now you have seen the images of our battle with the Cheng forces. I send you this so that those images will not be taken out of context and lead to action that is unnecessary and inappropriate.

"My people did indeed settle this world without authorization from the Cheng. When they requested our evacuation, we responded with obstinance and force. The violence you saw was a direct result of our refusal to negotiate a settlement with the Cheng. We made a grave mistake. We were proud and intractable, and in the end, the casualties must be on our heads, the blood on our hands."

Qui-Gon ended the vid.

"That's not her," Obi-Wan growled. "They used a mind-sifter or something equivalent."

"Yes," Qui-Gon said easily, "and the Senate knows this. But knowing and proving are separated sometimes by impassable gulfs."

"So they'll do nothing to the Cheng?"

"There is a vote to investigate the veracity of this declaration, but it's unlikely that'll yield much. To answer your question: no. Nothing will be done to stop this."

Obi-Wan settled back in his chair and closed his eyes.

"What troubles you, padewan? Beyond this transmission, what larger spectre haunts you?"

Obi-Wan opened his eyes and leaned forward, searching for solace in his Master's placid features. "Jedi Knights are the guardians of peace and justice in galaxy. Yet there is violence and injustice all around us. I'm having difficulty reconciling this discrepancy."

"The Jedi are servants," Qui-Gon reminded him. "When we presume to be anything more, we become dictators. And that is contrary to everything that we believe. We must have faith that those we serve, while they may occasionally stumble and do not always use democracy as well as they should, are ultimately worth serving."

"I've been having dreams, Master," Obi-Wan said with difficulty. "Dreams of the Republic falling."

A shadow flickered across Qui-Gon's face. "I have as well, padewan. But it is important to remember that the future is always in motion, and what we see of it is only a possibility. Not a definite. These are, after all, trying times. The Republic is too vast for effective government, and must cope and correct this. Consequently, their servant Jedi are not always utilized as effectively as they could be." He gave Obi-Wan a small, conspiratorial smile.

"If you were on the council, they would be."

Qui-Gon shook his head. "I do not believe so. But there is still the prophecy. The one who will bring balance to the Force."

"From the ancient texts," Obi-Wan said. "Do you really believe this?"

"I do, and you should as well. To ignore prophecy is to court disaster."

That road led to a lecture, so Obi-Wan changed the subject. Master and pupil, confidants, talked of other things on the long trip back to Coruscant, heart of the Republic. Choked by too much democracy.