Part 2: Star-Crossed
Part 2: Star-Crossed
--One Standard Week Ago--
"We should abort, sir! Our deflector shields can't withstand much more of this!"
In the corner of his eye, a brown-and-tan blur slid across the cockpit to fetch up against the copilot's seat. :Padawan?:
:I'm fine, Master.:
Qui-Gon braced himself. "Stay on course." Lights beeped and flashed on the control panel in front of him. "Do you have a cloaking device?"
"This is not a warship!" Panaka snapped as another explosion caused warning panels to scream in alarm. "We have no weapons, Ambassador! We're a nonviolent people, which is why the Trade Federation was brave enough to attack us in the first place!"
A sudden lurch filtered the thought into the Force-bond thrumming between Qui-Gon and his apprentice. :Obi-Wan?:
But the young Jedi was distracted from whatever had sparked the curse. :Master – we've been hit! The power . . .:
Light flickered uncertainly, the shrill screech of an alarm sounding through the Nubian's cockpit as electric current wavered.
"No weapons," Qui-Gon breathed. Blue eyes found Obi-Wan standing steady at his side, thoughts moving as quickly as his own behind mental shields. We can't take another hit. Even as the thought came, the ship shuddered around them. Qui-Gon reached for the pilot's attention, fingers squeezing Ric Olié's shoulder. "The Trade Federation uses pulser tracking for its weapons. Spin the ship. It'll make it difficult for them to get a reading on us."
Levers were flipped; in mere seconds, the Nubian entered a slow twisting dive, the battleship ahead encompassing the viewport before sliding out of focus. They were gathering speed, the pilot's knuckles white on the controls as gunports, towers and stabilizers flashed by.
"Something's wrong. Shields are down!" Olié wrestled the controls, fingers flying from buttons to levers and back. The next words escaped in a shout. "Sending out the repair crew!"
Sharp blue eyes shot to the viewscreen; Qui-Gon felt the Force whisper as the repair crew shot from an airlock, motoring toward the damage with jerky speed.
:Master. Fighters.: Obi-Wan was calm, just a hint of tension underlying the words coloring their bond. :It seems the Trade Federation has caught on.: They'd been hugging the battleship's shadow, keeping it from effectively employing its weapons without incurring damage to itself.
Robotic attack ships danced through star-speckled space around them as their pilot worked the controls. For all his skill, Olié was hampered by the need to keep the astromech droids intact and connected to the ship. Too quick a movement, and magnetic grapplers or not, they'll go flying.
Obi-Wan caught the wayward thought, grim pragmatism seeping between them. :Then we really will be helpless.:
Gun slots opened on the underside of the attack ships tearing along the length of the battleship, racing toward the lone Nubian cruiser. Panaka cursed lowly as two astromech droids were neatly blown free of their hull. Slender grapple-arms from the remaining two dug deeply into the open compartment.
Apparently they don't need the Queen alive as much as they need to stop her contacting the Senate. They could do nothing but wait. Trust in the Force. Still, the need to take action clenched his fists, echoing strongly back from his apprentice. Both Jedi remained still, focused on the viewport and two droids with nine lives resting on their ability to repair the wiring sparking into space.
Shattered metal and fire were shed as the Nubian slipped through vacuum.
One droid, small and blue, left.
:Come on, come on . . .:
The thought slipped through Obi-Wan's shields; Qui-Gon sent a small pulse of reassurance that was accepted and returned before the younger Jedi tightened his mental barriers to their usual strength.
White light flared into existence on the control panel. Olié cried out triumphantly. "The shields are up! The little droid did it!" Relief flooded the Force from the four beings in the cockpit as thrusters roared.
Well away from both Naboo and the Trade Federation, the damage assessment came. "It's not good."
"What's the problem?" Obi-Wan slipped into the copilot's seat, nimble fingers familiarizing themselves with the controls.
Qui-Gon watched Panaka carefully; dark skin had paled as the man looked over complaining panels. Quite a few lights were blinking in alarm, signaling damage warnings.
"It's the hyperdrive," Olié pointed to a fluttering gauge. "It's been hit, but it's not leaking. I've only ever heard of this happening. A bolt must have hit the wiring leading to it, but it didn't fry the circuits. It got channeled into the drive; it's charging the power cells."
"And that means?" Captain Panaka locked both hands behind his back, rigidly staring out the viewscreen.
"When we discharge it, it's going to use that energy." The pilot leant back in his chair, one hand a frustrated fist against its arm. "It's how the hyperdrive normally works, charging its cells in the moments before the jump. But there's a regulator protecting against energy surges until the drive is engaged. That's been blown out."
"We won't be able to stop," Qui-Gon realized.
"We'll be locked into hyperspace until the energy runs down. The longer we wait to jump, the worse it will be. The power will build up."
"So we could overshoot our destination." Uniformed shoulders lifted in a precise shrug. Panaka blinked. "By how much?"
"However much energy was absorbed from the blast," Olié's voice was tight. "And how it converts to distance in hyperspace."
"You don't know."
"No," the man snapped. Took a moment to regain his temper. "No one has any way of knowing; the drive might even burn out before we reach our destination, and we'll undershoot. Best we can do is point ourselves toward known space and give it a shot. Fifty-fifty odds."
:And if there isn't enough energy to get us as far as we plan on going, we'll be adrift.:
Over years of negotiation, Obi-Wan had learned well that some things were better left unsaid. Qui-Gon reached for the Force, listen-feeling to its gentle currents. :We have plenty of rations, Padawan. If we lose power closer to the Core, we'll have a better chance of getting picked up on a distress signal.:
:Picked up by the Trade Federation, yes. And then we'll truly be in trouble.:
Qui-Gon shifted his gaze to the starry viewport. "Do you think we'll have enough power to jump to Coruscant?"
"I have no way of knowing," Olié said bluntly. Fingers drummed restlessly at the edge of the control panel. "But most likely, wherever we end up, the hyperdrive will be shorted. Too much energy."
But the faster they made the decision, the better their chances would be for a short-distance jump . . .
Reach for the Force. Feel it. "Then we'll have to land somewhere, make repairs to the ship. What's out there?"
Reddish-gold hair bent over the starchart; Qui-Gon leant over his padawan's head to see around both Obi-Wan and the pilot.
"Here, Master." Sea-change eyes picked out the only choice apparent to them. "Tatooine. Small, poor, out of the way. It attracts little attention. The Trade Federation has no presence there."
"How can you be sure?" Panaka couldn't see the star-chart from behind them; the Queen's head of security could not conceal his agitation.
"Because it's controlled by the Hutts."
Alarm started in brown eyes. "The Hutts?"
"It's risky," his padawan agreed, attempting to soothe the security captain's tension. "But there's no reasonable alternative."
Panaka was not convinced. "You can't take her Royal Highness there! The Hutts are gangsters and slavers! If they discovered who she was -"
"It would be no different than if we landed on a planet in a system controlled by the Trade Federation," Qui-Gon interrupted. The Force was nudging him gently; this was the right decision. I can feel it. But why? "Except the Hutts aren't looking for the Queen, which gives us an advantage."
"It's a Rim world," Panaka hissed. "If we overshoot, we'll be in uncharted space, past the Outer Rim, with no hyperdrive. We're best served by heading toward Coruscant directly. Even if we don't make it, we'll be better off than if we end up adrift beyond the Rim."
:He has a point, Master.:
"We might not even make it that far," Qui-Gon pointed out. "It's equal odds either way."
:And Jedi have a record for tilting the odds in their favor, is that not so, Master?:
He fought back a smile. :Listen to the Force, my cheeky padawan.:
Panaka shook his head, opening his mouth as if to say something. Frustration seeped into the cockpit as the dark-skinned man turned away.
Qui-Gon reached, tapping the silent pilot on one shoulder. "Set course for Tatooine."
Tiny room. Me not stayen here anymore, nosa way!
Tiny room. Me not stayen here anymore, nosa way!
JarJarcracked open the droid storage-bay door. Da transport not spinnen anymore. Da Naboo gone. Mesa wonder. . .
The Naboo hadn't said anything, after coming to take the little blue driod away. De Jedi said stay, said mesa needs keepen outta trouble. But the alarms were off, and all was peaceful. Why should he have to be stuck in here a minute more?
Billed face followed by eyestalks peered into the corridor. If the Jedi had gone that way to the cockpit, then he wanted to go . . . this way. Shiny metal gleamed on all sides.
A Naboo passed.
JarJar waited, hands behind his back and swiveling on the heels of his large feet. Any minute, dey gonna tell mesa to go back –
Not a word, and the Naboo was gone.
Dey not mind if mesa looksee, den. One webbed finger slid along smooth steel. JarJar ambled through the corridor, blinking in the bright light. Something shifted under his touch; a metal panel fell from the wall. Ouchie!
Hopping, JarJar clutched the abused foot. Ouchie, ouchie, ouchie! The thin metal plate slipped as his toes landed on it, sending the Gungan flying against the opposite side of the corridor. Panting, he stared at the panel. Whatsa dis?
It had been covering a mess of wires that now spilled out of the wall at human eye-height. Oh, no, dis bombad! If the Naboo or the Jedi saw, JarJar would be in big trouble. Me gotta be putten dis back, den. Okieday, dat not looken too hard.
But no matter how he pushed, the wires still bulged from either side of the panel, sticking out. JarJar glared at the panel, snapping his bill a moment. "Mesa know! Gotta pushen da wires in first, den putten de cova back on!"
Metal dropped by his toes, and JarJar reached for the wires.
"Ouchie!" Sparks flying from a wire with metal peeking from under the protective plastic. Bombad, bombad!
But nothing more happened. JarJar eyed the wires carefully; he'd dropped them at the first tiny, burning pain. Fire was not something anyone from Otoh Gunga liked. He was trying to think what to do next when he heard it.
Boots on metal, like the Jedi, or the Captain of the Naboo Queen. Hurry quick!
JarJar darted down the next corridor, and the next, and the next. Long minutes later, deep in the ship, the Gungan came to a panting halt against silvery metal. "Whosa! Dat be close!"
It was when he looked at the narrow corridor that he realized he had no idea where he was. A minute's wandering found him poking his head through an open airlock with an oilcan just outside the door. "Heydey ho!"
The Gungan jumped. "Me sorry," JarJar slid through the airlock, sheepishly avoiding the Naboo handmaiden's eyes. He knew the little blue droid she was cleaning; the Naboo had taken it away. "Me not mean to scare yous. Okieday?"
The girl smiled under dark hair. "That's all right. Come over here."
JarJar came forward a few steps. Dat driod be banged up good. Worken, dough. "Me find oilcan back dere. Yous need it?"
The girl nodded. "It would help. This little guy is quite a mess."
Scrambling back, JarJar stretched a hand through the airlock door. Where dat go? Ooh! Fingers tight around his prize, JarJar brought the oilcan he had remembered to the girl. "Dis helps?"
"Thank you." The oilcan transferred from Gungan to Naboo. Pouring some oil on the cloth, the girl started rubbing the R2 unit's dome.
Me like dis Naboo girl. "Me JarJar Binks."
"I'm Padmé. I attend her highness, Queen Amidala. This is Artoo-Detoo." One eyestalk turned toward the droid; JarJar kept the other on the girl. "You're a Gungan, aren't you?"
Long ears flapped against his neck as JarJar nodded.
Puzzlement and curiosity crept into the girl's voice. The rag rubbing at scorch marks on the white dome slowed. "How did you end up here with us?"
JarJar thought about it a minute. "Me not know exactly. Da day start okieday wit da sunup. Me munchen clams. Den, boom!" A shiver flapped his ears a little, making both eyestalks twitch. "Maccaneks every which way, dey flyen, dey scooten . . . Me get very scared. Den Jedi runnen, and me grab Quiggon, den maccaneks rollen over, den go down under da lake to Otoh Gunga ta Boss Nass . . ."
He didn't know where to go from there. En da Core, and da fishen. . . He didn't really remember that. Padmé nodded, encouraging.
JarJar shrugged. "Tis 'bout it. Before me know what, pow! Me here!" Weight slipped back onto his haunches. "Get very, very scared." The Gungan looked at the droid, then the Naboo girl. Padmé smiled some more.
Me feelen good.
"We're lost." They must be. Too much time had passed.
Seventy-six hours. A day more than necessary.
And there was as yet no sign of stopping.
Olié's fingers drummed against the nav computer's console, beating out a rhythm of twisting anxiety. "We were due to drop out of hyperspace an hour ago. The power surge doesn't show any sign of dying out."
Dammit. "I must inform Her Majesty. Do you have any projection for possible rundown of power?" Panaka could hear the grimness in his own voice. What he was really asking was, 'Do you have any idea when – where – we'll stop?'
The pilot's gaze was frustrated; in it, Panaka read his answer. It was too much to hope for. "All I can tell you is that we've been bounced beyond the Outer Rim. The navcomp is plotting our course and feeding it into the hyperdrive continuously – it's a miracle we haven't blasted through a star or planet yet."
Olié's word was good; for all he was only a pilot, the man had had the best education and flight school available on Naboo. Which was why he was pilot of the Queen's shuttle. More importantly, he knew when to keep quiet and when to speak out.
Her Majesty will not be pleased.
Panic thrummed at him, lodged deep in the back of his mind; Panaka stiffened cringing vertebrae. Not only the threat to her Highness, but what about Naboo? My planet, my people – how can we help them, lost as we are?
The Trade Federation had won.
Our people are dying, and we are lost to them. How will I tell the Queen?
She could read the raw despair in Panaka's face, though he tried to hide it behind impassive duty. Kept her back straight under the weight of the ceremonial gown pulling her shoulders and headdress pressing her spine down into the thronelike chair. "The pilot is certain?"
"Quite certain, your Highness. He has no way to measure how far we'll end up from the Outer until we come out of hyperspace."
"Very well. See that we are notified immediately on dropping out of hyperspace."
"Yes, your Highness."
She might not be the Queen, but Panaka didn't know that. I can't leave him feeling like he failed. "Captain."
Brown eyes in a stern visage – but Sabé had learned to read political masks much tougher than his. "No one could have predicted this turn of events. We shall not be defeated by it. Our people will receive the aid they need." Somehow.
"Your Highness." A stiff bow later, the doors whisked closed.
Stars, our people . . . Can't think of that now. She couldn't. Stuck in hyperspace and unable to do anything . . . if she let herself think on it, she'd go crazy. Sabé grunted a little, shifting under the heavy headdress.
I don't know how Padmé does it.
Though to be fair, they all shared the load. Queen Amidala was a role more daunting than any one person. It was all of them – Eirtaé, Rabé, Yané, Saché. Padmé most of all. And me.
Sabé got to play Queen now, though, which meant dealing with the headdress all day. And we all share the responsibility. Not that the public would know that. But Queen or not, Padme was only fourteen, and you could only pack so much political experience into the three years she had spent as an Apprentice Legislator.
Not that sixteen is so much more knowledgeable. But together, all the handmaidens had over a decade's worth of experience in many varied areas, which meant that the ideas they bounced among themselves were refined and calculated even before the 'real' advisors were informed.
A breath in her ear, jerking her from reverie and the struggle not to slouch. I wish Yané and Saché were here too. With the six of them, no problem was unsolvable. Stars, what's happening to them - "Sabé. The Jedi are here."
Here we go again.
Letting Eirtaé adjust the headdress, she waved at the entrance. Rabé grinned and moved to key the doors open.
And three, two, one.
Royal demeanor smoothing her expression, Sabé straightened her back once more.
Let's do this.
:There is no emotion, there is peace.
:There is no emotion, there is peace.
There is no ignorance, there is knowledge.
There is no passion, there is serenity.
There is no chaos, there is harmony.
There is no death, there is the Force.:
And it was everywhere.
In hyperspace for days –
Leave it behind. There was nothing but the Force.
And in the Force was everything.
A sense just as real to him as vision and touch and scent, having facets of all of these and more. Pouring blazing warmth into every pore, the Force swirled about him. It was here, surrounded by the dearth of space, where it was easiest for him to feel the faint flickers of the Living Force in the beings sharing the ship with him. It was when surrounded by the choices and conflicting paths of many life-forms that the Unifying Force gave him strength.
Obi-Wan left his body further behind in a rhythmic cadence of measured breaths, sinking deeper into meditation. Let the shields come down, let the Force flow through him unimpeded.
And on rippling currents it carried away guilt over the suggestion of Tatooine which had thrown them beyond the Outer Rim; worries about the Naboo and Trade Federation; anxieties and the tense beginnings of anger; until all that remained was soothing assurance.
Warmth, embracing the core of him, gentling rays lacing light and life through his soul. Home.
Be well. Know that this is the path you are on, for good or ill. You follow the will of the Force.
Shifting, in the beautiful light sparkling around him; translucent waves of color-warmth-chimes sweeping and rolling. Coming closer.
What is it?
When he realized what he was feeling, Obi-Wan sucked in a breath. Let blue-green eyes drift half-open, and opened himself completely to the Force. It wasn't a sudden surge, a wave hitting him with the force of tsunami, like other visions had been. It was the inexorable flow of a stream in spring, thawing from frozen trickle to pounding torrent.
It was faint, but gaining power.
They were going to make the jump to hyperspace –
Faces. Humanoid, all – one with upswept ears – staring forward.
Blurs smeared before his mind's eye, overlying one another almost before he could understand them. Here and there he caught a flash of something, someone, he recognized in the blur of faces and things he didn't; Amidala, Qui-Gon, the Senate, the Temple – and a shuddering dark chill ripped flash-fire over his bones.
One shaky gasp threw him into the abrupt realization of flesh closing in about him. Roughly regaining a sense of body, of self, Obi-Wan stared at the blank durasteel panel in front of his nose. Where and when were present in his mind as though they had never left.
And just as abruptly, he realized that he couldn't feel the faint shipwide vibration that indicated the Naboo cruiser was still in hyperspace. An extension of the Force was enough to confirm it.
A moment of rushing blood and stretching compressed muscles before his feet would take him without complaint. He needed to find his Master.
Leaning and twisting to stretch out a spine that felt permanently kinked from two days in the pilot's seat – in hyperspace – he hit a button. Yanking up the navcomp's display, Ric Olié started scanning the stars in every direction. No, no and no.
No star systems recognized.
Worth a shot.
The ship could backtrack their route from this point, but as of now they were in uncharted space. Deciding Corellian best fit their situation, Ric started swearing.
I don't believe this. I am never going to get paid. And even if I do, there's nowhere to spend it!
Letting the curses flow in a cathartic stream, he stopped paying attention to what his mouth was saying and turned to the computers instead. Sublight engines, check. They weren't completely dead in the water. Main engines, yes. Life support – thank the galaxies, we won't asphyxiate. Or freeze to death. Though they just might starve, if they were out here long enough.
He switched to Wookie, the only language really made to roar out frustration, on reading the display. Fried. Completely. Stars, it'll take us centuries to get back to our space traveling at sublight!
"Is something wrong?"
"Space!" Heart running a marathon, Ric turned to see the Jedi Master, Qui-Gon Jinn, at the entrance to the cockpit. Sucked in a deep breath, trying to summon the cool that he felt with controls alive, rather than blinking in distress, under his hands – and failing miserably. "That depends."
Making his report, Olié eyed the older man carefully, and didn't see so much as the flicker of an eyelid. I don't think I want to see him lose control. Someone who could be as calm as Jinn had been with blaster fire raining down on them. . . . no, he didn't want to be anywhere near the disaster that would shake the Jedi's calm. "I can make some repairs from inside," Ric summed up. "But we only have one astromech droid, and cruisers usually receive maintenance on the ground or in starship bays. We don't have any suits, not that we could get outside if we did."
The airlock that let the droids outside was tiny for a reason. All ships had to worry not only about stowaways, but contraband – and when the pilot never even knew it had been brought on board . . .
"How many of the repairs can you perform inside the ship?"
Ric reached under the main control panel, wriggling fingers between steel plates. He tossed off a brief prayer and yanked. Biting dots of fire sparked out at him, but, luckily, he didn't electrocute himself. Which means the short is outside . . . "Most," he answered the Jedi. "But a lot of the work that needs to be done is on the hyperdrive, and only the astromechs can reach it. We can send the one droid we have out there. . ." Not that it'll do much good.
Footsteps. "We're totally alone out here, then?"
Face buried in a mass of wires, Ric didn't look up to answer the younger Jedi. "Yep."
"Then what's that?"
Ow! Ric hissed a curse, pulling his head up carefully a second time. And spared a moment to push his jaw back into place. "Let's get a closer look."
Kenobi took the copilot's seat, and Ric engaged the sublights. A gentle pull on the controls sent them skimming over to the . . . thing. Cylindrical, blinking lights –
Jinn's own steps were quiet; Ric felt the weight of his hand on the back of the pilot's seat as if warm flesh rested on his shoulder. "It looks like a buoy."
It looks like a jury-rigged thermal detonator, is what it looks like. But those kinds of space-mines were long past. No one used them anymore. Except pirates.
But they were so far off normal space-routes that putting an explosive here to knock unwary ships out of hyperspace would just be a waste. Not pirates. But what -
Ric shot a hard glare at the Jedi. "Who would be broadcasting, way out here?"
A moment later, soft beeps of varying lengths filled the cockpit. "It's coming from the object," the younger Jedi offered, blue-green filled with interest.
"It's a code." The authority loaded into Jinn's voice was heavy.
Staring at the red-blue-blink through space, Ric didn't know he'd voiced his first thought until he heard it. "But for what?"
"Padawan. Can you decode it?"
Ric blinked. Are you laser-brained? No one could just listen to a bunch of beeps and then –
Staring at the Jedi's eyes, a shiver raised the hair on the back of Ric's neck. There was an expression on his face that said no-one-home, like the look on his father's during the last days of Junta Olié's life.
Then something twitched, and the Jedi was shaking his head. "I'll need some time, Master. It's a cipher, I believe, but I can't be sure."
Oh, you're kidding me. Well, if he hadn't known from the Master's inhuman calm, this brought the point home. Jedi really aren't like normal people.
"Very well. I'll inform Panaka and her Highness of our situation." But the older man didn't move. What's he waiting for?
Coruscanti accent, alien to him from a life on Naboo and in the space around it. "It seems, Master, that we have two options. We could try to backtrack to known space using our sublight engines."
Pointless, Ric wanted to point out. Yeah, the ship might make it back. Might. With our great-grandkids. He bit his tongue instead.
"Or we could try to hijack this buoy. Whoever put it here did so for a reason, and it's sending out a signal. If we could use that to our advantage, we might be able to affect a rescue for ourselves."
"Kick up enough fuss, and they'll come looking," Ric muttered, bending back under the sagging panel disgorging wires onto the durasteel by his feet. He kept one ear keen for the words passing between the Jedi, and decided he'd rather have a fixed ship than a part in the conversation.
"It would seem the latter is the better option."
There was a puzzling silence where the next words should have been; Olié didn't realize the Master was still present until the next sound - footsteps, fading this time.
Bypass here, route this wire into the main circuit, test the current – he needed to leave for tools and come back several times, but it was three hours later by Olié's count when the Jedi sat back in his chair.
"I think I've managed to crack it, thank the Force," he sighed. For all they were almost the same age, at that moment, the Jedi seemed older. "I'm testing the signal now, and my message should rouse the curiosity of whoever's listening, if I've done it right."
Cracking knuckles one by one, Ric stared at rhythmically blinking lights just beyond the viewscreen. "You're not sending out a distress signal?"
"Not right away," Kenobi drummed fingers against durasteel in thought. "No need to let whoever's listening know how bad off we are if we can help it. And it's not an emergency yet."
Let me get this straight. We're so far beyond known space that we haven't a hope of getting back without our computer, likely never to see anyone or anything we know ever again. How isn't this an emergency?!
Well, on the other hand, the Jedi could be right. At least they weren't losing atmo through a hull breach. Cold settled in his bones at the thought – every spacer's worst nightmare. Then we really would be dead.
"All we can do now, is wait." Was he imagining frustration in that even tone?
A look at Kenobi's face convinced Ric otherwise. Great.
Back in the lower regions of the ship, with the little blue droid that they owed their lives to, was the best place she could think. Five days.
There was hope, in the signal stolen from the space buoy, but Padawan Kenobi had only tested it so far, and was skeptical about the results.
They'd been adrift beyond the Outer Rim when they should have made it to Coruscant, gone through the preliminary meetings, be addressing the Senate right now. The people of Naboo were starving, dying.
And they will continue to do so until we can reach the Senate. Padmé leant back against cool durasteel, ruthlessly honest with herself. And if the Senate does not listen, my people will continue to die even after we plead our case before them.
After all, there were billions of worlds in the Galactic Republic, represented in the Senate. Billions of worlds that cared little for the deaths on Naboo, and more for the benefits offered by the Trade Federation. She had a battle on her hands, one that she must win.
But how do I get their attention? How do I force them to listen, persuade them to support me? What she didn't have was the ability to make others care.
Then she would just have to find something else. Some hook, some lever. Something. I will save my people.
At least she wasn't totally alone. Eirtaé, Rabé, and Sabé were with her.
But we need a plan.
This was a development none of them had expected, that they hadn't even begun to deal with. It was far past time to start.
When we get to Coruscant, there will be no time for delays. Nails pressed crescents into the heels of each hand. Durasteel rested, chill and impassive, against the back of her skull.
Senator Palpatine. Her first source of information and aid, of course. But he won't be enough for immediate attention. Countering the Trade Federation's power required more sheer force of numbers in the vote, and that had always been the crux of the problem.
Rolling her head, Padmé closed brown eyes with a sigh. The point of democracy was to make it possible for everyone to have a say. But when over two thousand representatives convened, agreements were scarce. Not even taking into account the actions of political sub-committees, factions, and special-interest groups. . .
Though that was an idea. There were several that opposed the Trade Federation on socio-cultural, economic and environmental grounds. Perhaps –
Steel slammed blue-clad shoulders; Padme huffed out a surprised breath. Ow. "R2-D2," she read the astromech droid's designation.
A light blinked at her, and the little machine blatted. The white-and-blue dome spun, emitting a series of beeps and a flashing light or two as the droid wheeled toward the airlock and back again.
"What is it?"
An insistent bleep! was the only answer she got.
"All right, I'm coming." Boots braced against the floor, Padmé pushed to her feet in time to see R2-D2 scoot out into the corridor, whistling triumphantly.
It was waiting for her as she stepped out of the hatch, and the droid chirped and whistled, dome revolving excitedly, as it led her out of the bowels of the cruiser and toward the front of the ship. While in the beginning of the week she'd had a little time to herself, interacting with the Jedi and pilot rather than attending on the queen, she'd needed to put in time waiting on 'Amidala' for the sake of appearances. At least I had some time to myself to think.
And, slinking through the back of her brain, was the beginnings of the first hint on how she would structure her campaign to present to the Senate.
R2-D2's wheels locked just outside the cockpit.
"We're here?" Padmé asked it. The little droid beeped; she stepped past the hatch.
Oh. . . . "What kind of ship is that?"
They'd been found. At least, I hope we have. And not by the Trade Federation. But something as unusual and beautiful as that – besides, there was no Trade Federation logo anywhere on the outer hull, and they never missed an opportunity to advertise their identity. Even when they come to murder and despoil.
Master Jinn shook his head; Panaka was puzzled. The pilot said very little, but this time it was the younger Jedi who spoke. "We don't know."
"I've never seen anything like her." Olié cast another lingering glance toward clean white lines. "But if she picked up our signal -"
"We've been broadcasting continuously?" The handmaiden couldn't be older than the Queen herself – fourteen, perhaps younger. But knowing that Amidala was barely a teenager didn't change the fact that royal garb somehow added five to ten years to her demeanor and appearance. Qui-Gon shook his head. I'd much rather deal with the handmaidens than her Royal Highness.
"No," his Padawan answered. Qui-Gon recognized the line furrowing between ginger brows, could feel the mind behind digging methodically and deliberately through memories of the last five days.
I wonder. Reaching a long arm between the two pilot's chairs, he flicked a switch. "Subspace radio?"
"Incoming transmission," Obi-Wan answered, fingers twisting at a dial until sound filled the cockpit.
Bleep – beep bleep ping! Bleep, ping! Beep ping beep bleep!
Speakers fuzzed with momentary static before the pattern repeated itself once more.
"It's a sequence," Olié frowned, listening. "The same thing, over and over."
. . . – beep . . . ping! . . . ping! Beep ping beep . . . !
An idea sparked in his padawan's brain; Qui-Gon sent agreement through the bond, and Obi-Wan's hands sped over the panel.
"What are you doing?"
"Filling in the blanks," Obi-wan glanced up at the white vision hovering some distance away. "That design is unfamiliar to the Republic. What's to say they speak Basic?"
Olié's green eyes were clouded. Tension lined the wiry body, seeping into every word. "You're sure there's life over there?"
"Yes." Qui-Gon reached through the Force, testing the flares of sentient life against chill blankness of space. "A few hundred life-forms, in fact." The ship nearly glowed with it.
Slender fingers closed on the sleeve of his robe; the young handmaiden's face was painful with hope. "Listen!"
Crackling resolved into words, the masculine voice calm. "Repeat: this is the United Earth Ship Enterprise. We convey greetings and await your reply."
Unusual. But a far cry from the hostile response he had half-expected for their interference in whatever device had put out the signal they'd needed.
Brown eyes wide, the young handmaiden appeared startled. "United Earth? Are there any planets nearby?"
Ginger spikes shook. "This is uncharted space."
"Are we going to answer?" The handmaiden's brown stare was pointedly leveled at the subspace radio.
Obi-Wan reached for the control. "United Earth Ship Enterprise. This is Nubian Cruiser, registration code 562R927A -"
:Go on, Padawan.:
"- in distress. We accept your greetings and convey our own."
Qui-Gon used the pause to read faint puzzlement in green-blue eyes. :What is it, Padawan?:
:Do you sense it, Master?:
The Force was alive to him once more, in the bodies filling white lines that had been summoned by their signal. Wholeness, he felt; each one distinct and different, yet all pieces joined in purpose to form a functioning lightsaber. Strength. Will-to-survive, but it was complex; sacrifice and duty and love rolled together in every being in that ship. And on top of it. . . curiosity, gentle, and brilliant as a Daywing.
Qui-Gon felt more than saw the younger Jedi shake his head. :There's something more, something . . . elusive . . .:
:Focus on the moment, Obi-Wan:
"Naboo cruiser. Our scanners show damage to your vessel, but we are unfamiliar with your technology. What aid do you require?"
"Scanners?" Olié blinked.
Brown hair shook; the handmaiden's lips were a thin line, holding back painful hope.
"United Earth Ship Enterprise. We have sustained engine damage through the exterior hull, which we are unable to reach. Are you able to dock with smaller ships?"
That might solve our problem.
"Cruiser," came the near-immediate reply. "We have shuttle bays large enough to accommodate your vessel. If you will allow us, we will use a tractor beam to tow your ship into the bay. We would also like to scan your ship's atmosphere to determine if it is compatible with our own."
Calloused fingers stilled on the transmission switch. "Master?"
He focused blue eyes on sleek white, still taking in the foreign lines of the massive vessel. Not a battlecruiser, nowhere near its size. But still, far larger than any transport vessel. "Our other options, Padawan?"
"Decline aid and spend the rest of our natural lives trying to return to known space." Years of learning to negotiate hadn't yet blunted his apprentice's occasional tactless comment. "There is a risk in accepting their aid."
We have no other choice. "Yes, there is."
"And you deem the risk acceptable, Master Jinn?" Padmé's chin tilted, stubbornness tracing her jaw and challenge shining from brown eyes.
"At this juncture we have few options, young handmaiden." And yet . . . the Force glows so brightly throughout this Enterprise. No fear shadows her. Though that could be because the nine lives aboard the Naboo cruiser were little threat – and they appeared to have technology that would tell them that.
A chill tingled along his senses – the handmaiden's anger was palpable, but only in clenched fists half-buried in overlong blue sleeves. "I will inform Captain Panaka of the situation," was what she said. The Queen's head of security was asleep, or he would have been in here long since.
Huffing, the whirl of blue and brown stalked from the cockpit.
An arm clad in Jedi robes reached for the radio switch, whipping the silence left by the handmaiden's frosty departure into something productive. "United Earth Ship Enterprise. That is acceptable. We convey our thanks for your aid."