Something of Value
By Seldes Katne
Captain Panaka stared over the communications officer's shoulder. "Still nothing?"
Panaka was silent for a moment, then nodded. "All right. It may be nothing, but we're going to have a look anyway. Contact Team One and have them meet me in the central courtyard." The officer acknowledged the order, and Panaka left the communications center.
A dark-skinned, powerfully built man, Panaka had trained offworld and served for a time with a Republic Special Task Force. He had returned to his native world to join the Royal Naboo Security Force and had eventually become Head of Palace Security. Most of the time he dealt with matters at the Palace and the spaceport, but a message had come in that morning that turned his attention further afield.
According to the message, a farmer had reported seeing smoke coming from the woodlands to the west of Naboo's capital city of Theed. The local constabulary, which consisted of three, had sent a party of two to investigate. That had been yesterday; as of this morning neither man had returned, and the remaining officer had radioed for reinforcements.
That far from Theed there were only a few farms, and not much in the way of civilization. The area was at the edge of human territory on Naboo. It was also, Panaka knew, the closest human habitation to the territory claimed by the Gungans. Living almost entirely under water, the non-human inhabitants of the planet kept mostly to themselves, with only a few individuals from either race having much contact with each other.
Until recently. Five months ago when Naboo had been invaded by the Trade Federation's droid army the humans and Gungans had become allies in a three-pronged battle to reclaim their world. For the most part successful, the event had at least set the stage for increased contact and cooperation between the two races. So far both sides had been more concerned with rebuilding what had been lost, the few reports from the Gungan city of Otoh Gunga positive, passing on good news of restoration and a continued suggestion of cooperation.
Panaka found the speeder parked outside the palace in the courtyard. Lieutenant Delinar, a sturdy woman approaching middle age, was already standing at the driver's side of the vehicle. She saluted, a gesture Panaka returned. "Lieutenant Frenz is getting supplies ready," she reported. "Once that's done, we'll be ready to go."
Panaka stepped back inside and flagged down a member of the palace guard. "Tell Her Highness that we'll be out for the next three or four days," Panaka said. Then he related the account of the radio message and sent the man on his errand.
A lean, dark-haired young man, Lieutenant Frenz, was loading two bundles into the speeder as Panaka walked outside. The back seat of the speeder already held four assault guns, which were heavier issue than usual, along with ammunition and some smaller arms. The three officers climbed into the vehicle and Lieutenant Delinar drove out the palace's main gate.
Normally a matter this far from the palace would be handled by civilian law enforcement. Thanks to a long period of peace, coupled with a general philosophy of pacifism, there hadn't been much need for a police force on Naboo for decades. However, after the battle with the Trade Federation a number of people had felt a need for more of a military presence. Officers who would normally be assigned to the area around the capital had been sent to more outlying areas to supplement or reinforce the local police. Maybe, Panaka mused as the speeder left the central part of the city and headed for the outskirts, the Queen and her advisors would finally see the need for more officers and more training.
The ride to the constabulary outpost was uneventful. By early afternoon the three officers had met with Lieutenant Ebri, the remaining member of the local guards. She'd informed them there had been no contact with the missing men. The woodlands were quiet, with no signs of activity.
Panaka took over the radio and relayed orders to the remainder of the palace guards back in Theed. "We'll be moving the command center," he told them. "I'll have Lieutenant Delinar standing by, with a portable unit we'll set up part way back to the capital. If our party fails to check in or a confirmed situation occurs, send out a squadron to assist. Notify the pilots and a medical team that they're on standby." Panaka signed off.
Sending Delinar to set up her listening post, Panaka commandeered a second speeder. He and his officers divided up the supplies and weapons. "All right; we'll come in from two different directions. Radio channels are to be left open at all times -- no more 'disappearances'. Use your discretion about when to contact me." He paused. "It could be a brush fire, it may be the Gungans, it may be something else. Let's find it and deal with it."
"Yes, sir." Lieutenant Ebri, a trim young woman who had only been with the guards for a couple of years, saluted crisply and settled herself into the driver's side of the speeder. Lieutenant Frenz saluted as well and got in on the passenger side.
A couple of hours later Panaka was easing his way through the underbrush on foot. He had driven the speeder as close as possible to the target area, then had shouldered his pack and hiked into the woods. He was beginning to understand why the Gungans continued to use pack animals. Most of the humans' ground-based vehicles were too large to use in the woods, and frankly worked better on paved roads or, at least, level ground.
This was untamed wilderness -- old growth trees several meters in diameter were common, the trunks hosting clumps of vines and creepers. Brush, weeds, and wisps of grass grew in abundance. There were no signs of trails, and only small, intermittent clearings broke up the foliage. Several times he heard things moving around him, and once he startled a flock of peko-pekos that erupted from the grass into a frenzy of bright feathers and shrill calls. He crouched for a while, listening, but heard nothing to suggest that the birds' flight had alerted anyone or anything else to his presence.
Ten minutes later Panaka caught the sound of small branches snapping, as through something were being dragged or pushed through the brush. He began easing forward a few steps at a time, careful where he put his feet in an effort to make less noise than whatever was ahead.
There was a mutter of voices, and Panaka slid into a crouch in the middle of a grove of bushes. Carefully reaching forward he parted a handful of leaves with his fingers. Off to his left a figure moved, and Panaka recognized the shape -- Gungan. The creature seemed to have tossed a strap or a belt of some kind up into the branches of a tree and was pulling at it with both hands.
Panaka squinted at it. Another figure stepped into his limited line of sight. As it turned sideways to face the Gungan Panaka could see that this was a humanoid. Short tentacles rippled at the bottom of its face, and its hand was clawed. It was a Quarren, a native of the watery world of Mon Calamari.
What's a Quarren doing here? Panaka thought, and then the creature brought its other hand out where he could see it. It was holding a rod -- a Gungan energy pole -- and as he watched it touched the pole to the Gungan's side. Panaka caught a glimpse of a spark, and the Gungan squealed and twisted away, getting only as far as the length of the strap. Someone shouted in the distance, and the Quarren repeated its action, forcing the Gungan up against the tree trunk. The Quarren turned in the direction of the voice, paused, and then lowered the energy pole. The Gungan sank against the tree, panting.
He needed to get around this pair and see where the voice was coming from. Only when he had a clear picture of the whole situation could he even consider a rescue. Although it was clear that the Gungan was a prisoner, Panaka had no idea how many comrades the Quarren had with it, how many other Gungans might be their captives, or what exactly was going on.
Easing the leaves back into place Panaka slipped out of his hiding spot and retreated back toward the speeder. When he was certain he was out of earshot of the Quarren he unclipped the communicator from his belt.
"Panaka to Team One. Over."
An open comm line hissed back at him. He repeated the hail, with no response. A dampening field, he supposed, which made sense, given what he had seen the Quarren doing.
Circling around the area would accomplish two things: give him a better idea of what the Quarren and its friends were up to, and bring Panaka around to Team One's position, or at least the place where they had entered the woods.
Panaka rose and skirted around the Quarren and its captive, far enough away so that (he hoped) neither would hear him. The brush was beginning to thin, and visibility increased. One hundred paces past where he had first hidden to watch the Quarren Panaka got his first good look at what had caused the smoke.
A mid-sized transport ship sat in a clearing next to the edge of a lake. In the open space between the lake and the ship four Gungans crouched, spreading what looked like kelp out onto the grass. All four were dividing their attention between their work and the being (apparently human) who stood watching them. The human held a standard-issue pulse rifle.
As he crept forward Panaka caught glimpses of other beings, either human or humanoid, either watching the Gungans or working with them. There was at least one other Quarren in the group.
Panaka paused in his place in the brush. Obviously these people were interested in something under the surface of the lake; that would explain both the Quarren and the captive Gungans. The four Gungans working on shore wore collars -- probably Slavers. While serving with the Republic Special Task Force, he had fought and captured a number of pirates and smugglers, and had seen some of the tools they'd carried. Among them were Slavers, restraints that could deliver a painful shock or cut off an air supply. The Gungan tied to the tree hadn't worn a collar; possibly the slavers hadn't planned on taking captives, and had only a limited number of collars on hand. Some of the smuggling community weren't too picky about what kind of merchandise they bought and sold, and would likely be carrying a few collars on board just for a situation like this.
Besides, the Gungans maintained a warrior tradition. A Gungan might fight against a slave collar in spite of the pain, but by keeping one or more Gungans hostage, the slavers had effectively "persuaded" the others to cooperate.
Panaka had counted six smugglers, but there might well be others in the water. He glanced around at the water a few paces to his right, briefly considered using the lake to get around the encampment, then rejected the idea. He wasn't carrying a breather, and he had no idea where the rest of the work was being done under water. It would have to be back the way he came, then. And fast -- the smugglers had to know that someone would come looking for the missing officers sooner or later.
About twenty paces back toward his original position a Quarren rose from the woods ahead of him, rifle trained on him. Panaka froze. The Quarren didn't say a word, but the gun made the creature's intent clear. Panaka raised his hands.
The Quarren came forward, circling around behind. It shoved the barrel of the gun into his back, then grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and swung him around, propelling him toward the lake. At the bank, it shoved him again, so that he stumbled into the water. Panaka suspected that he knew what had happened to his two missing officers; a drowning was less suspicious a cause of death than a blaster shot at close range. The smugglers could take what they came for and be off-planet with no one the wiser. He wondered briefly whether they planned to kill the Gungan captives, or just transport them off-world and sell them.
The Quarren waded into the water and, turning the rifle sideways, rammed it into Panaka's stomach. As the human doubled over the Quarren seized the back of his head and shoved it underwater.
With no chance to catch a breath of air, Panaka struggled, grabbing for the Quarren's leg. The Quarren responded by slamming the butt of the gun into the back of his head. Dazed, Panaka still twisted, instinctively trying to reach the surface. His fingers closed around fabric. The Quarren held him under with its weight -- and suddenly the weight was gone.
Panaka clawed his way to the surface, gasping and coughing. Beside him the water churned with another struggle as the Quarren wrestled with a lean, leather-clad shape. Gungan, Panaka thought weakly as the Gungan punched his opponent in the forehead. The Quarren staggered and went down, the blaster nowhere to be seen. Still panting, Panaka managed to stay on his feet as the Gungan turned toward him, only to whirl at the sound of shooting. The fight had caught the attention of some of the rest of the smugglers.
"Need -- to get --" Panaka gasped, but never finished his sentence. The Gungan seized him by the front of his shirt, right fist clenched. The blow caught the human in the chin hard enough to daze him. Clamping a hand over Panaka's mouth and nose the Gungan took them both under water.
For a few moments Panaka couldn't move. Sounds under water were muted but he thought he heard gunfire. He had no air; his hands clutched at the Gungan's arm, and then tore at the fingers over his face. Kicking and struggling, his vision darkening, he fought both the Gungan and a growing weakness in arms, legs and shoulders.
Suddenly he was shoved upwards. Gulping air, he felt ground under his feet as someone grabbed the collar of his shirt and pulled him into shallower water. Coughing, he stumbled toward land. They were in a dimly lit pool leading up to a dirt floor. Panaka collapsed onto the bank, finding a dirt ceiling over his head. They were underground.
The Quarren erupted from the water, blaster in hand. The Gungan promptly put his head down and charged, slamming into his opponent at waist level. The Quarren tumbled over backwards still clutching the blast rifle. The Gungan pounced on the weapon and twisted it away from its owner. He backed up two paces, brought the rifle up and pulled the trigger. The blast caught the Quarren in the face. It went down and didn't get up again.
Half sitting, half lying on the bank Panaka managed to catch enough of his breath to demand, "Why did you do that? He had information we needed!"
The Gungan threw him a look over his shoulder before diving below the pool surface, taking the dead Quarren with him. Panaka staggered to his feet, looking around the small chamber. A globe of light provided the only illumination in the cavern. There were a few tools Panaka didn't recognize, an energy pole, and not much else. He glanced toward the back of the room, where the light was dimmest, and realized he wasn't alone.
One look at the Gungan lying in semi-darkness, and Panaka knew the human security forces on Naboo weren't the only ones suffering the loss of an officer. The Gungan was stretched out on his back, the blackening hole of a blaster shot leaving the upper torso open. This one, at least, had died fighting, wounds in front.
The first Gungan's head broke the surface of the pool, and Panaka rose from his place beside the corpse. The Gungan was panting as he stood in the shallows. "Wesa needsa watch for a while. There may be more commin."
"You had to shoot him?"
The Gungan nodded. "Hesa followed us'n. Besides, this way mebbe hiss friends will think they shot 'im temselves." He stumbled up onto dry land and stood leaning against the wall of the chamber, breathing deeply.
Panaka peered at him closely. He recognized the Gungan from the strategy session over the Battle for Naboo and the parade afterward. "Captain Tarpals, isn't it?"
The Gungan nodded wearily. "Yessah. My remember yousa, Panaka -- that's why yousa down here and not still uppa there." He shook himself and stood away from the wall. Tall and lean, even for a Gungan, the Captain wore the same leather uniform of most of the Gungan soldiers, including the piece that fit over his face. Tarpals also sported a set of whiskery growths on his upper lip. Panaka couldn't tell if they were a racial characteristic or whether they constituted the Gungan equivalent of a mustache.
Panaka pulled himself into a sitting position. The Gungan waded back into the water, reaching down to pull the blast rifle out of the shallows. He studied the gun for a moment, and then offered it to Panaka. The human accepted it and examined the settings while the Gungan walked back to the shore and bent down to pick up the energy pole. He glanced at the grip, grimaced, and then crouched beside Panaka, pole held in both hands. "Theysa not much charge left." He nodded at the rifle. "Howsa that?"
"It should work -- these things are built pretty tough. It would be better to take it apart and let it dry out, though." Panaka pulled the power pack out. "You wouldn't happen to have a dry cloth here, by any chance?"
Tarpals glanced over his shoulder at the dead officer, and then shook his head. "Not much inta line of supplies down here."
Panaka began disassembling the rifle. "I guess air drying will have to do." He spread the pieces out on the bank. Then he glanced at the body behind them. "I'm...sorry about your officer." The Gungan nodded, saying nothing. "What can you tell me about what's happening on shore?"
Tarpals was silent, studying the water. Then he sighed. "Mesa t'inks a dozen Outlanders uppa there. Theysa got four of our'n folk, plus one'a my's officers prisoner. My've seen them tekkin watcherim outt'n the water and dryin' it on shore."
"What's this watcherim?"
"Issa food plant. Wesa grow it in small patches in the outlying villages." The Gungan shook his head. "Why anyone wansa steal it, mesa not know. Iss not very valuable."
Panaka frowned. "Not to your people, maybe. But plants can have different effects on different beings. Something you eat on a daily basis may turn out to have medical uses on other planets, or be poisonous for others, or even be a narcotic on some worlds. That would make it extremely valuable to the right people."
"Yousa t'inking these Outlanders iss drug runners?" Tarpals mused.
Panaka thought for a moment. "It would make sense," he replied finally. "I suspect that during the Occupation, some, ah, enterprising member of the Trade Federation took samples of the local plant life, or talked to prisoners about it, or found records someplace. They need to be stopped, and fast. If they get away with this, you can bet there'll be more smugglers coming to get their piece of the profit."
The Gungan stared thoughtfully at the far wall across the pool. "My agrees with yousa," he said finally. "Wesa needsa stop them. There's reinforcements commin, but theysa tekkin' three, mebbe four days to get here. If'n what yousa saying is right, wesa needsa do something now."
"Right. My patrol and I brought a pair of speeders and left them well out of the target area. Unless these off-worlders hike in the right direction and know exactly where to look, they're not likely to find our transportation." Panaka shifted position. "The speeders may be far enough outside, or can take us outside the dampening field. Then we could communicate with the capital and get a couple of aircraft out here to disable the smugglers' ship. That would keep them stranded on Naboo until we could round them all up."
"Yousa brought a patrol?" the Gungan asked, finally easing out of his crouch and sitting on the bank next to Panaka. "What happened to dem?"
Panaka shook his head. "I don't know. They may still be alive and mobile, but I have to assume they're not and that everything depends on us. What we need now is to get from here back to our speeders. I suspect our smugglers may have sensors set up around the ship."
"Ssensorss," Tarpals echoed. "What'n that?"
"They're....devices that tell you what's going on in a specific area." Panaka's hand moved in a circle. "They can detect movement, sometimes body heat -- it depends. We may be able to slip past them. What do you think our chances are by water?"
The Gungan considered. "My've seen three of dees--" here he wriggled the fingers of his left hand under his chin to simulate tentacles, "swimmers."
"They're called Quarren. They come from a planet that's almost entirely water." He'd have to explain Mon Calamari in more detail sometime; he suspected Tarpals would appreciate the information and be sharp enough to understand it. The only Gungan who had ever been off the planet had been Jar Jar Binks, and that mostly by accident.
"Quarn," Tarpals echoed. "Mm. If'n they's smart, theysa have at least one in the water to keep watch. If'n wesa wait 'til dark, wesa could get out by water, swim long way 'round to the shore, then wesa be outside their," the Gungan's upper lip curled slightly at the unfamiliar word, "ssensors."
"I don't think we should wait that long. Aside from your people being captives, the smugglers could up ship at any time." Panaka thought for a moment. "Although at this point there's not much we could do to stop them, is there?"
Tarpals shook his head. "Wesa needsa wait. My've been waiting for almost two days. Theysa prob'ly still searching for us'n out there. B'sides, yousa can't swim very far under water. How's yousa goin' get pasta guards if'n yousa in plain sight?"
Annoyed, Panaka had to agree. "We'll still have to hike to the speeders," he pointed out. "Depending on how far out we get, that could take more time than we have." He looked at Tarpals as the Gungan smiled and shook his head. "What?"
"Mesa got that problem solved. Wesa get to land, my'll tekk care'n the rest. Yousa no worry 'bout that. Shesa still out there somewhere."
Panaka stared at him. " 'She' who? I thought you said there were only three of you when you got out here." He glanced at the body at the back of the cavern.
The Gungan snorted softly through his whiskers. Panaka suspected his companion was laughing. "What, yousa t'inkin' wesa walked here? Wesa mounted patrol. Theysa least one kaadu out there in the woods. Wesa find her, shesa carry us'n."
"Okay, we've got a plan. All we need to do is wait until dark." Panaka thought for a moment. "On the other hand.... I hate to say this, but I think we might better wait until just before dawn. We're going to need to see where we're going, not just in the water, but when we get to shore. I have a homing beacon for my speeder, but there's no way I'll be able to see it in the dark."
Tarpals considered. "Thassa mekkin' sense. Wesa take turns sleeping, then head out in the early morning."
Before lying down to sleep, Panaka related the tale of his patrol's activities. "We still don't know what happened to the two officers who originally came to investigate, although I suspect they're both dead," he concluded. "That Quarren was certainly ready to kill me."
The Gungan nodded. "Mesa no think these smugglers have much use for the Naboo," he agreed softly, looking down at the ground between them. "But wesa don' know that for sure." Changing the subject, he told Panaka some of what had brought the Gungans to the site. "Wesa were on patrol through our outlying villages, four of us'n. Farmers tol' us'n 'bout strange noises inna water. Wesa thought mebbe it was sea monsters come through the repellent fields.
"Mesa sent one soldier, 'long with one'a the farmers, back to Otoh Gunga to tell the Bosses what happened, then the three of us'n headed this way. Wesa found a homestead, abandoned wesa thought.
"The Outlanders surprised us'n. Theysa fired at us'n, killed one'a the kaadu and tekking the rider pris'ner." Tarpals sat blinking in silence for a moment. "The two of us'n fought back, but there were too many of them." The Gungan glanced over his shoulder. "Eldess was killed in the water. By then wesa both been thrown, and the kaadus fled into the woods."
Panaka looked around. "How did you know this cave was here?"
The Gungan snorted again. "Thissen the guard post for this area. Wesa use this for patrols. Wesa built this."
"You've got more of these around?"
"Wesa got posts all 'round the p'rimiter of the swamplands. Patrols are scheduled regular. Theysa good for training."
"I'll bet." Panaka paused. "Well, I guess we've done all we can for now. We probably should rest while we've got the chance. Do you want the first watch, or shall I take it?"
"My've got it." Tarpals rose and waded into the pool.
"All right. Wake me in a couple of hours." Tarpals stared back at him. Panaka realized the Gungan probably had no idea how long an hour was. "Or whenever you need a break." He laid the rifle on the ground, stretched out beside it and closed his eyes.
They traded watches twice during the night. Panaka woke an indeterminate time after the second switch with Tarpals's wet, whiskery face peering at him. "My've been up already," the Gungan told him. "Issa getting light soon. Wesa go now." Panaka rose and stretched, then set about reassembling the rifle.
"The smugglers don' seem to know wesa here, and no'un entered the pool," Tarpals continued as he picked up the energy pole. "Yousa ready?"
"Is it much of a swim?" Panaka asked as they waded into the water.
Tarpals shook his head. "Iss no' far to the surface. But wesa needsa swim as far underwater as wesa can, so's wesa surface 'way from the ship. Yousa needs hang onto my belt?"
"Guess I'd better," Panaka answered. "Once we're outside, I can surface if I really need to."
When his head broke surface Panaka took a moment to get his bearings. Only the dimmest light showed that sunrise was on the way; even better, there seemed to be a fog over the water. Tarpals had surfaced an arm's length away, only his eyes showing, his long haillu trailing in the water behind him like weeds. Panaka suddenly realized how the Gungan could have spent two days watching the smugglers virtually undetected; by floating close to shore among the water plants, Tarpals blended in with the stalks and floating vegetation.
The Gungan's head cleared the water just enough to murmur, "Wesa going," before ducking back under and turning away. Panaka followed.
There was plenty of light by the time Tarpals headed toward the bank, well away from the smugglers' ship. The sun was just below the horizon, the sky turning from charcoal grey to light yellow. The Gungan floated in the shallows, listening. Then he crept out of the water and onto the bank.
Panaka joined him in the underbrush. "Now what?"
Tarpals glanced around, then placed one hand over his muzzle and produced a warbling sound. "Now wesa wait," he whispered back. Panaka spent a few minutes looking the rifle over while Tarpals repeated the sound several times.
Finally in the distance there came an answering warble. Tarpals called again.
From the brush to their right came a telltale whine, and the grass burst into flame. Crouching, both human and Gungan scrambled in the other direction.
"The smugglers know we're here!" Panaka snapped. "They may have had a sentry in the water."
"Deesa way!" Tarpals rose from his crouch and broke into a run.
"You think you can catch a kaadu like this"" Panaka was running hard on the Gungan's heels. "They're shooting at us!"
"Shesa no be carrin' 'bout that," Tarpals called back. "Shesa trained for battle -- shesa be there." He warbled again, and the answer came back much closer. "Wesa needsa keep moving!"
They burst through the brush and skidded to a halt as the kaadu -- a two-legged animal with leathery hide and a duck-billed muzzle -- almost ran then down. She still wore saddle and bridle. Tarpals grabbed the reins and clucked at her. The kaadu sank into a crouch and the Gungan swung into the saddle. He held out a hand to his human companion.
Panaka dodged around the kaadu suddenly, aimed the blast rifle into the trees, and fired twice. Someone screamed. The human slung the strap of the rifle over his shoulder and all but ran up the kaadu's leg to fling himself into the saddle behind the Gungan. Tarpals clucked again, and the kaadu rose. Shouting, he slapped the reins against her neck. The kaadu leaped forward.
"Head north!" Panaka shouted.
Tarpals half-turned in the saddle. "Yousa hang onto mesa, now!"
Panaka gripped the Gungan's belt as the kaadu's gait jounced them both. He unlimbered the rifle and held it in a firing position. "Don't worry -- I'll be right behind you all the way!"
The Gungan threw him a look over his shoulder. He still carried the energy pole in the hand not gripping the reins.
The bushes and trees blurred past. In a few minutes they had outdistanced any pursuit on foot, but Panaka kept looking back over his shoulder. One of several things could happen now. The smugglers could break out whatever speeders or other personal mechanical transportation they had and come after the escapees, or recall all personnel and take off with their cargo, or lift off now and leave behind anyone unfortunate enough to still be out in the woods. Unless Panaka's two officers were still alive and free, only he and Tarpals would know what was really happening here. If the smugglers knew it was just one human and one Gungan, their best bet would be to eliminate the two witnesses, finish loading the contraband as quickly as possible, and then lift off. Not only would killing Panaka and Tarpals buy the smugglers more time, it would also remove the only two people that could identify the ship and various crew members.
Panaka laid the gun across his lap and reached into his belt pouch for the tracking device. "Start working your way west," he shouted to his companion, and the Gungan nodded. "At this pace, it won't be long at all."
The kaadu's pace slowed as she plowed through small bushes and skirted trees. Her riders had to duck branches. Panaka jounced in the saddle, but Tarpals seemed to have no trouble keeping his seat, swaying with the rhythm of the kaadu's footfalls. Occasionally Tarpals would raise the energy pole to push branches out of the way.
"A little more to the north," Panaka called forward. He was hearing a strange droning noise. For a moment he thought the jolting might be affecting his ears; then the sound deepened into the whirring of a motor. The smugglers were after them.
A kaadu might be the fastest animal on land, Panaka thought, but it would be no match for a speeder bike or other machine. "Tarpals!" The Gungan glanced over his shoulder. "In a couple of minutes we'll be at the spot where I left my speeder. I'm going to jump!"
The Gungan shook his head. "Thass a bombad idee," he shouted over his shoulder. "Yousa gonna brekka you neck!"
"You'll have to slow down a little --" Panaka broke off. Once again the brush nearby exploded into flames, and the kaadu suddenly swerved to the right to avoid it. Panaka clamped his knees against the kaadu's flanks, whipped around and snapped off a shot at their pursuers. He caught a glimpse of a two-man bike behind them.
"You'll need to slow down. When I'm off, take them around in a circle and bring them back to the speeder. I've got a weapon mount -- I can get them off your tail." The Gungan opened his mouth; but Panaka cut him off. "Just do it!" He twisted in the saddle to fire again at the bike. The driver swerved and disappeared between the trees. "Now!"
Tarpals hauled back on the reins, and the kaadu slowed. Panaka jumped, rolling to absorb the force of the landing. With a shout, Tarpals urged the kaadu back to full speed and vanished into the brush. Panaka heard the telltale whir of the engine as the bike shot past in pursuit.
Shoving the blast rifle into the crook of a tree, Panaka scrambled for the speeder, which stood mostly hidden among the bushes. He stabbed the power button, then flung himself into the back seat and unlimbered the gun, swinging it around to face the direction in which Tarpals had disappeared. For a few moments there was no sound other than the rustle of leaves. Then he caught the snapping of branches and the roar of an engine.
The kaadu, rider still mounted, burst from the bushes to his right and shot past him. Panaka hastily swung the gun around and opened fire, strafing in a sweeping arc. Someone yelled, and the speeder bike materialized in the same place from which the kaadu had appeared. Panaka fired at it, trying to match the bike's momentum as it passed. The bike slammed into a tree a few meters away and exploded. Panaka ducked into the back seat to avoid the heat of the fire.
A few minutes later Tarpals reappeared from a different direction, the kaadu now moving at a walk. He pulled up next to the speeder, where Panaka was scanning the surrounding area for any survivors. "Thass fine shooting!" the Gungan remarked, eyeing the wreckage. Panaka managed a tired grin.
"Thanks. Now, let's get some back-up." He reached into the driver's side of the vehicle and unhooked the remote comlink. Adjusting the frequency, he spoke into it. "Panaka to Delinar."
A burst of static followed, then a fuzzy voice answered. "Captain Panaka! I've been trying to reach you!"
"Sir, when you didn't check in, I ordered the pilots to wait in the hanger bay in pairs. We're less than an hour from sending out aerial search parties."
"Launch a pair of fighters to our position." Panaka craned his neck to read off the coordinates on the speeder's control panel. "Send the best pilots we've got. We have one mid-sized freighter on the lakeshore and probably a dozen --" he glanced at Tarpals for confirmation and the Gungan nodded, "-- smugglers manning her. They've got hostages, at least five Gungans and maybe some of our people as well. Tell the gunners to cripple her on the ground if at all possible. Send a squad of ground troops to the same coordinates. Once the ship's disabled, we'll still need help dealing with the smugglers."
"Yes, sir!" There was a pause on the other end as Delinar relayed the orders. Then her voice returned. "Captain, what will you do now?"
"I'm going back to the freighter," Panaka replied. "I've got some help on this end. We're going to try to keep the smugglers busy. Panaka out." He reached back into the speeder and tapped a security code into the keypad on the storage compartment's door. Inside sat the spare weapons he had locked in before he'd headed into the woods, along with a set of spare energy packs. One blaster went into his empty holster and an energy pack into a pouch on his belt. A moment later he fished a handheld computer unit out and tucked that into a pouch. Then he pulled a second blaster out and offered it to Tarpals, who accepted it with a pleased look on his face. Although the Gungan didn't have a holster, the blaster could be thrust firmly through his belt.
"When you're ready to shoot, press this," Panaka said, indicating the safety switch, "then aim using this," he tapped the sighting scope, "and pull the trigger here." He demonstrated, and the Gungan copied his moves. Tarpals tucked the blaster into the back of his belt
"Ready?" Panaka asked.
By way of reply, Tarpals clucked again to the kaadu, which obediently sank into a crouch and allowed Panaka to climb back on. A few moments later they were trotting through the brush toward the smuggler ship.
"Our pilots will be here in a few minutes," Panaka explained. "If they can hit the ship while it's on the ground, it'll be up to us to keep the smugglers from killing the hostages. You've been around the ship for the last two days. What can you tell me about the exits?"
"My've been in the water for the last two days," Tarpals corrected him. "Thesa one main ramp leading to the shore side of they'n's ship. If'n thesa more exits, my've not seen them." He pulled back on the reins, bringing the kaadu to a stop, then turned slightly in the saddle. "Wesa might'n have problems with dees... sssensors. My could come in by water, but--"
"Wait. You take the weapon, come in by water, and start shooting. While you're drawing their attention, I'll try to slip in by land and use this," he pulled the handheld computer unit out of his belt pouch, "to open the lock on a back hatch."
The Gungan eyed the computer doubtfully. "This'n explosive?"
"No, actually, it's a lock-pick." Panaka grinned. "It's a standard issue for law enforcement. We use it mostly to help people who lock themselves out of their houses, but it has other uses, too. And if that doesn't work," here he patted the blaster in its holster, "I've got a couple of other tools. Once I'm inside the ship, I can either take out the engines or members of the crew." He paused thoughtfully. "You said one of your officers is being held prisoner? Too bad we couldn't get him a weapon, too."
"Yousa no worry 'bout that," Tarpals replied, as the kaadu crouched to let Panaka off. "Mesa sure the smugglers will have alla the weapons wesa need'n."
"I'll get as close as I can, and then wait for the blaster firing," Panaka told him. "Good luck, Captain."
"Yousa the same," the Gungan replied, and the kaadu rose and carried him out of sight. Tarpals rode the kaadu straight for the lake at a dead gallop, pulling to a stop just short of the edge. Flipping the reins up onto the animal's neck, the Gungan paused to power up the blaster rifle, then dismounted and jogged into the water, diving as soon as he was far enough out.
The smuggler camp was roiling with activity. Three of the captives were rushing bundles up the ramp and into the ship while two others sat to one side under guard. Tarpals surfaced amid the same clump of water plants that had shielded him for the past two days, and waited. A third captive was added to the two sitting on the bank, and then a fourth, and finally the fifth. Tarpals stood up, swung the barrel of the rifle at the guards now leveling their weapons at the prisoners, and opened fire.
The first guard collapsed, mortally wounded; the second was cut down as he swung to fire at Tarpals. Two more figures appeared around the side of the ship, closely followed by a third, and the two men who had been overseeing the loading of the contraband sprang into sight in the opening at the top of the ramp. All five of the captive Gungans had thrown themselves on the ground.
The smuggler guards opened fire. Tarpals dove and immediately twisted to avoid the shots, eeling through the water. He surfaced close to shore, put a hand to his muzzle, and made a trilling call.
Crouched just beyond what he thought was the edge of the sensors, Panaka waited. At the first sounds of fire he sprinted for the ship, watching the guards pelting toward the action on the lakeshore. Finding the closest exit hatch he slapped the lock pick over the keypad, and the computer began cycling through number codes. Panaka's gaze flickered back and forth between his wrist chronometer and the computer's display panel. He'd decided on a thirty second deadline to break the code; after that, he'd shoot his way in.
Three humans and a pair of Quarren bore down on Tarpals's position. As the first man brought his rifle down to take aim the brush nearby burst apart and the Gungan's kaadu, drawn by her rider's call bounded over the prone captives to land squarely on top of the smuggler. The man didn't move as the kaadu, bawling loudly, slammed into two of the remaining smugglers, aimed a vicious kick at a third, and then broke into a gallop across the clearing in front of the ship.
One of the captives rolled to where the dead man lay and snatched up his weapon, barking an order to the Gungans still on the ground. All four of them scrambled for the woods on hands and knees.
A high-pitched mechanical scream in the distance heralded the approach of two Naboo fighters, and suddenly the smugglers abandoned their attack on the Gungans and fled toward their freighter. Tarpals scrambled up the bank to join his officer, but both were forced into the woods by covering fire from the two men crouched at the top of the boarding ramp.
Panaka jerked his head up at the sound of his approaching pilots. He took two steps back, aimed the blaster and fired into the hatch's keypad, which exploded in a shower of sparks and metal. He shoved the blaster back into its holster and reached into the keypad opening, singeing his fingers on the burning wiring within, and twisted a metal rod. The hatch slid open a hand's width -- and stopped.
Conscious of the fact that he'd probably just set off half a dozen internal alarms, Panaka braced one hand and foot against the open edge of the hatch and shoved. The door slid laboriously open. Once inside the hatch he shattered the red plastic covering of the emergency controls, and a moment later was drawing his pistol in the dim light of the ship's corridor.
Explosions sounded from outside, and the ship's deck pitched under his feet. Panaka braced himself against the corridor wall. If that hadn't been a direct hit, it had certainly been close. Pistol held in a firing position, Panaka started forward. He needed to find the cockpit or the engine room and get control of the ship as soon as possible.
Footsteps rang on the metal floor and a Quarren burst into view at the end of the corridor. Gun already in position, Panaka fired; the Quarren went down and stayed there. Panaka leaned forward to relieve the creature of its gun, and caught the sound of faint shouting.
The door ahead on to his right opened to reveal what were unmistakably captives -- two small Gungans huddled on the floor of a cage, and Lieutenant Ebri shackled to the wall beside them.
"Get your head down." Panaka fired a single shot to shatter the bolt holding his officer in place. Ebri slid to the floor, metal cuffs still on her wrists, but no longer bound.
"Are you all right, Lieutenant?" Panaka asked as he crouched beside her.
"Mostly, sir. I'm just bruised in a few places." Ebri was trying unsuccessfully to slide the bindings over her hands. The cuffs wouldn't fit, no matter how she tried to tuck her thumbs in. Finally she gave up and ran one had through her hair; the blond strands had come loose and were straggling into her eyes. "I think they kept me alive because they thought they could sell me off-world after they were done here."
"Is anyone else --"
"I -- I don't think so, sir," Ebri's eyes closed and she dropped her hands into her lap. "I haven't seen anyone except these two." She opened her eyes and turned her head toward the two small Gungans. The larger of the two drew itself up onto its elbows and blinked weakly at Panaka. The smaller one made no movement at all.
Panaka's mouth thinned as he turned back to Ebri. "Can you move?"
"Yes, sir --"
The ship lurched, throwing Panaka to the floor beside his officer. The larger Gungan pressed back against the wall.
"Are we -- did they --" Ebri was scanning the ceiling.
"I think we're off the ground," Panaka responded grimly. He gripped the blaster tightly. "We need to get forward to the cockpit --"
An explosion rumbled from the rear of the ship. The deck tilted sharply, forcing both officers to scramble for the nearest solid object. There was a crash and a shriek of metal; the deck bucked several times beneath them, then came to a shuddering stop for a moment before beginning a side-to-side rolling motion. The roaring of the engines had faded to almost nothing.
"Is that --"
"Re-enforcements," Panaka told her, scrambling to his feet. "Sounds like our pilots hit the engines, and we're in the water. I have an extra gun for you. We need to get up front and get control of the ship. You up for it?"
Ebri nodded grimly. "Let's go."
Out in the corridor Panaka and Ebri stepped over the dead Quarren and headed forward, Panaka leading. Water was already beginning to slosh along the floor plates.
The freighter's deck design was simple: two decks, each with a main corridor. Several ladders connected the two decks. Panaka paused at the bottom of one ladder and peered upward. He glanced back over his shoulder at Ebri, who nodded and stepped closer, pointing her weapon up to cover the opening above. Blaster clutched in his right hand, Panaka scrambled upwards.
Ebri began firing past him as he neared the top of the ladder. He gathered himself and sprang over the last two rungs to land on the deck in a crouch. He could hear Ebri's boots on the ladder behind him, and a moment later she was crouched in the corridor with her back to him, firing toward the rear of the ship.
"Forward!" he shouted over his shoulder, and sprinted toward the front of the ship.
Two men materialized out of a doorway to his left. Panaka shot the first one, and the second halted, dropped his weapon on the deck and raised his hands. "Don't shoot!" Panaka shoved him back into the room, reversed his grip on the blaster, and slammed it against the side of the man's head. The smuggler collapsed.
At the end of the corridor, a pair of metal doors stood firmly closed. Panaka fired into the center of the door seam; the shot left barely a blackened mark. "We need to find something to pry these open," he told Ebri. Both officers began moving along the corridor, opening hatch doors in search of tools, Ebri finally locating a long piece of metal that would serve as a crowbar. Several more shots put enough of a dent in the seam to force the crowbar between the doors.
"Sir, if we don't do something soon, we're going to be trapped in here with the smugglers," Ebri pointed out as she and Panaka positioned themselves on the end of the metal piece. "And those Gungan children --"
"Know how to hold their breath under water, just like the adults," Panaka finished for her. "If we're in the water, Lieutenant, I think we have help on the way. Now, push."
Sparks erupted from a wall panel as the officers shoved against the crowbar, and the doors began to inch open. A stream of water poured out of the crack. Panaka let go of the metal and braced himself in the door opening, shoving with both hands and feet. Ebri stepped back and lifted her gun.
The control room was a shambles. One human was slumped in a chair at the control panel, a second stirring feebly on the floor. The front view plate was cracked, water running in rivulets down the walls and across the deck. Outside, the water level lapped about two-thirds of the way up the view plate.
"This ship's going down fast," Panaka remarked as he stepped forward to check the unconscious man for a pulse. Ebri stood back and covered him. Panaka holstered the blaster and grabbed the seated smuggler under the arms. "Let's get them out into the corridor," he ordered, and Ebri motioned with her weapon to herd the second man outside. From somewhere in the back of the ship came the shouts of other surviving crewmembers.
With both men out in the corridor Panaka stepped back into the cockpit, cast around for the intercom controls, and spoke into the loudspeaker. "Attention all personnel. This ship is under the control of Naboo security forces. All remaining crewmembers are ordered to leave your weapons behind and come to the forward cockpit immediately. Bring all underwater breathing apparatus with you - the ship is sinking fast and we will need to swim to shore." He switched off the intercom and stood peering into the water, which was creeping up the view plate. "Come on, Tarpals, we could use some help here."
Outside in the corridor the remaining members of the smuggler crew had arrived, climbing up from the lower deck. Ebri stood with her back to the cockpit door, weapon trained on the new arrivals, both of whom dropped their weapons back down the ladder on her order.
"There's another of your people in the room down the hall," Panaka told them. He relieved the smugglers of the breathers they'd brought; there were plenty of the devices to go around. "Get the last man up here, and get a breather into the mouth of anyone who's unconscious. Where's the nearest airlock?"
"Emergency exit at the end of the corridor," one of the men replied, jerking his head aft.
"Get everyone down there," Panaka said. Two of the men began dragging their unconscious shipmate toward the rear of the ship; a third, still staggering, stumbled to the room that held his last crewmate. Panaka motioned to Ebri. "Can you get below and free those Gungans? I want to keep an eye on this lot."
"Yes, sir." Ebri slung the gun strap over her shoulder and trotted to the ladder, disappearing below decks. A few minutes later the sound of a single shot echoed up from below.
Panaka motioned everyone to the end of the corridor and waited, but Ebri did not reappear. Finally, he retreated back to the ladder and called down, "What's taking so long, Lieutenant?"
There was a pause. "I'm sorry, Captain. I had to shoot the lock to get the cage open. The littlest Gungan isn't moving at all, and I can't convince the bigger one to come out of the cage. It's probably scared to death."
"Bring the smaller one," Panaka shouted back. "Maybe the bigger one will follow." A few moments later Ebri appeared at the ladder, the Gungan slung over her shoulder. The water on the lower deck was almost to her waist. Bracing the Gungan against her shoulder, she began to climb, struggling to balance herself with her free hand.
"The other one's still down there," she told him as she stepped onto the deck. "Sir, maybe I should stay --"
"No," Panaka replied. "I'd rather you go with this one. I don't know if it'll wake up once you're outside or not, but if it doesn't, you'll need to get it to the surface right away. I'll take care of the other one." He looked up at the group of smugglers standing warily at the escape hatch. "You. Out. Get to the surface and go straight to shore. We've got Gungan allies outside, and they are not happy with any of you right now. If I were you, I wouldn't do anything to aggravate them." He nodded to Ebri and put the breather into his mouth. She copied his motions.
One of the men pressed the emergency switch, and the escape hatch blew open, disappearing in a cloud of bubbles as a great rush of water flooded the corridor. The smugglers vanished into the wave, struggling against the flow. Panaka nodded to Ebri, who, carrying the Gungan, plunged under the water and swam for the opening.
A series of agonized squeals rang from the lower deck. Panaka jerked the breather out of his mouth, and clung to the ladder as he bent over the opening in the floor, where the water was rushing downward in a whirlpool. "Look, if you can hear me, I'm not going to hurt you," he shouted. "We need to get out of this ship." The squealing continued unabated.
The water was now almost chest-high, and Panaka slid the breather into his mouth. He made a move to swing himself onto the ladder - and a long grey shape slid through the hatchway and plowed toward him. The Gungan surfaced an arm's length away, bracing itself against a support beam, and eyed Panaka distrustfully. The human gestured forcefully down the ladder. The Gungan dove and, ignoring the ladder completely, dropped through the hole and splashed into the water below. The wailing of the younger Gungan abruptly ceased.
A second grey shape shot through the emergency exit, and a familiar face emerged from the water. "Yousa needsa go," Tarpals barked over the sloshing of the rapidly rising water.
"My will take care'n them." The Gungan jerked his head toward the rear of the ship. Panaka dove beneath the water's surface and sculled to the hatchway, braced his legs against the outer hull and pushed out into open water.
The smugglers' ship was almost completely underwater by the time he surfaced and began the swim to shore. Midway there, the two adult Gungans appeared. The unfamiliar one surfaced briefly and blinked at Panaka a couple of times before diving again; he caught a glimpse of the youngster below it in the water. Shortly thereafter Tarpals himself appeared almost at Panaka's elbow. The human stopped swimming and tread water. "Is everyone all right?"
"Theysa fine," Tarpals replied. "Yousa the last." The Gungan captain accompanied Panaka until the human stumbled out of the water and collapsed on the bank.
Someone had radioed an "all clear" to the medical rescue team, Panaka thought wearily as he caught sight of a pair of small crafts winging their way toward him over the water. The tiny ships hovered for a moment over the open bank, then settled near the water's edge. One ship dispatched a pair of medical officers; the second held half a dozen security officers. The lieutenant in charge eyed the Gungans uncertainly until Panaka hailed him.
"Leave them alone for now," Panaka told him. He indicated the smugglers. "Take these people into custody. Charges of murder, smuggling, kidnapping…. And whatever else I can think of when I've had a chance."
He spent the better part of an hour fending off the doctors as he organized search parties to begin looking for the three missing officers. One of the physicians finally forced him to sit down and eat, for which he was secretly grateful. The rest of the medical staff was busy treating the smugglers for assorted injuries before they were shipped back to Theed. The pause gave him time to talk to Lieutenant Ebri, whom he had ordered off duty. The woman was sitting with her back against a tree, legs drawn up to her body and arms folded on her knees.
"I'm sorry, sir," she said as they sat on the bank, gazing out over the water and trying to politely ignore the knot of Gungans off to one side. "I just - it's not fair that the only reason I'm still alive is because someone thought of me as a valuable commodity. And the smugglers didn't spare anyone else, except those two Gungan children, who they kept alive for the same reason."
"First of all, we don't know for certain that you are the only survivor," Panaka told her. "There's a chance that we may find one or more of the others still alive out in the woods. And the fact that you were alive and on that ship meant that there were an extra pair of hands to capture the rest of the smugglers, and give those two youngsters a chance to survive."
Both humans found their attention drawn to the Gungans as the group rose, almost as an individual, and waded into the water. One of the adults was carrying the smaller of the two children. Tarpals and the larger child stopped midway out, but the rest of the Gungans kept wading until they were nearly chest-deep in water. The Gungans not holding the child began dipping their hands into the water; they alternated between trickling the moisture over the youngster, and rubbing handfuls of water over the child's face, arms, and haillu. After a few minutes, the adult holding the child eased into the water and disappeared from sight, resurfacing again to allow the other adults to resume stroking the child.
Panaka and Ebri sat watching. "Do you know what they're doing, Captain?" Ebri asked finally.
"No. I don't know any more about the Gungans and their rituals than you do."
Ebri sighed. "We've shared the planet with them for millennia, and we still know next to nothing about them. You known, one of the reasons I asked to be assigned to this area is because it was so close to the Gungans' territory. I wanted to get a look at them, maybe even meet one. This wasn't what I had in mind at all." She gazed at the group out in the water. "I hope - I hope this doesn't mean the child's going to die. That would just be too much after everything else that's happened here."
A few minutes later Tarpals bent down to say something to the second child, and then came wading back to shore. The child looked over its shoulder uncertainly at the bank, and then turned its attention back to the adults in the water.
Panaka gestured the Gungan over. "What's going on?"
Tarpals sighed heavily and settled himself in the grass next to the humans. "The littlest one, hesa not doing well. If'n hesa stays close to hiss parents, mebbe hesa realize hesa safe now."
"And the water?" Ebri asked, craning her neck to watch the Gungans.
"The same. Water is very important to us'n. Wesa sleep in'a, travel in'a, live in'a. Mebbe if'n hesa feel water 'round him, hesa realize hesa not in the ship any more."
They were silent for a moment, then abruptly Ebri stood up. "Excuse me." She strode toward the water's edge.
"Lieutenant!" Panaka called after her.
Ebri turned back. "I want to go help, sir. He's the only one I feel like I can do anything for right now."
Panaka glanced at Tarpals, who looked from him to Ebri and back. The Gungan shrugged slightly. "Shesa no can hurt." Panaka nodded permission, and Ebri proceeded to wade out to where the Gungans were standing. As she passed, the second child shied away, but soon moved back to its former position. The adult Gungans paused in their ministrations as Ebri approached. Panaka thought they were eyeing the woman suspiciously. Ebri spoke, her voice lost in the distance from the shore to the small party's position. As she spoke, she was showing the Gungans her wrists, still raw from where the bindings had been cut away by the doctors. Finally the adult Gungans turned their collective gaze to Tarpals, who nodded in an exaggerated motion so they could see his approval. The Gungans moved aside for Ebri, who began carefully rubbing wet hands over the child's haillu.
By late afternoon the first of the search parties had located and brought back the bodies of the first two officers to go missing. Both had apparently been drowned, then buried in shallow graves over which brush had been loosely laid. Less than an hour later, a more positive report came in: Lieutenant Frenz had been found, badly injured but alive and hiding a fair distance from the clearing. Panaka watched as two more members of the medical team hurriedly shouldered emergency packs and jogged into the woods after the search party messenger.
To add to the excitement, Tarpals's kaadu was spotted lurking on the edge of the clearing, apparently torn between wanting to rejoin her rider and wanting to avoid the humans. The Gungan rose and warbled to the animal, which responded by trotting into the clearing and almost running one of the smugglers over again. Panaka watched as Tarpals pulled the saddle off the kaadu and led it into the water, where it drank and submerged several times. Finally the Gungan led it back to the shore and took the bridle off, letting the animal wander around the clearing and graze.
By now the knot of Gungans in the water had dwindled; only one adult continued to stroke the child, while another adult held it. The Gungans had begun trading off positions; allowing each adult time to swim and, apparently, forage in the water for food. Lieutenant Ebri had let the Gungans move her away from the child; one of the other adults was carefully cleansing the woman's wrists. Finally the adult holding the child let Ebri approach and take the youngster for a while. A second adult took up the task of washing.
"What will yousa do with the smugglers?" Tarpals asked finally, still watching the movement out on the water.
"They'll be shipped off-world to a Republic Court and tried under Republic law," Panaka replied. "The charges we made against them will be heard by a tribunal, and the men will probably serve the rest of their lives in a prison colony."
The Gungan nodded slowly. "P'raps issa just as well." He fell silent and watched Ebri trade places with the Gungan adult in the water. "Wesa never goin' back to bein' left 'lone again, are wesan?"
"Probably not completely," Panaka replied. "But I think trying and convicting these smugglers will convince most of the rest of the galaxy that we can take care of ourselves. I don't think too many people will want to pay that big a price," he gestured to where the smugglers' ship lay under the water's surface, "for drugs, no matter how valuable."
"Captain? Captain!" Ebri's shout carried across the water. Both Panaka and Tarpals turned in her direction. "Look!"
The Gungan holding the child was wading slowly back toward shore. Under the adult's chin, the youngster was moving, rubbing one hand over its face, eyes still closed. As the Gungans and Ebri neared the bank the child opened its eyes and huddled, blinking, against the adult's neck. Then it extended its neck forward and delicately ran its nose across Ebri's cheek, sniffing at the human. Finally it tucked its head back under the adult's chin and lay watching as the rest of the Gungan adults clustered around it.
"Thass'n good news," Tarpals remarked, and rose to join his people in the water.
By sunset, Panaka was preparing to return to the capital with the remaining members of the medical team; the other ship having departed earlier with Lieutenant Frenz. The security personnel had left at the same time, and a couple of officers had been sent to retrieve the ground cars. The Gungans were apparently going to stay in the underground guard post until the rest of Tarpals's patrol arrived in the next day or so. Led by Tarpals's remaining officer, they were wading out into the water and disappearing beneath the surface, until only the Gungan captain and his kaadu remained.
"You're sure you'll be all right?" Panaka asked. Tarpals nodded.
"Wesa bein' fine, so long'n thesa no more unwelcome guests." Tarpals gestured at the sky.
Panaka grinned. "No arguments here." He hesitated, then held out a hand to the Gungan, who eyed it, clearly puzzled. "It's a ritual among the Naboo," Panaka explained. "Usually it's just a greeting or a farewell, but at one time it was used between two people to show each that the other wasn't carrying a weapon, and that they wanted to be friends. It's called a handshake."
Tarpals's hand was larger than a human's, and they ended up gripping one another's wrists. When Panaka let go, the Gungan turned to Ebri, who smiled and took his hand in the same gesture.
"Thank you, Captain, for letting me help earlier," she said.
"Thass'n current that flows both ways," the Gungan told her. He turned to Panaka. "Wesa workin' together again, mesa thinks."
"I'm looking forward to it."
"It's been an honor," Ebri added.
The Gungan bowed slightly, then gathered up the kaadu's reins and led the animal into the water. They waded away and submerged with barely a ripple. Panaka indicated the medical transport with a nod of his head, and he and Ebri turned their backs on the water.
"I'm glad this is over, sir," Ebri remarked as they boarded the craft. "I mean, I'm not sorry we worked with the Gungans, and stopped the smugglers, but what we had to go through...."
"I know." Panaka settled himself in a seat as the transport's doors closed behind them. "Good people died for this, both ours and the Gungans'. But we've forged closer ties with our neighbors, and we're showing some powerful people that we're not helpless. Hopefully, the gains will eventually outweigh the losses. But I agree, it's a high price to pay." Both fell silent as the transport lifted off and set course for the city of Theed.
Author's Note: All people and places from Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace (including Captains Panaka and Tarpals, Jar Jar Binks, the Gungans, the Quarren and their home world, the planet Naboo, and the cities of Theed and Otoh Gunga) are the property of George Lucas. They are borrowed for the purpose of this story, for which the author receives no payment, other than the enjoyment of writing. I already have a full-time job, anyway.
Many thanks to my beta readers: Raven, ValedaKor, and Rogue Knight. As this was my first attempt at a Star Wars story, I wanted several people to look the piece over and offer advice. Any remaining errors are entirely the fault of the author, and should not be blamed on either the beta readers or the characters.
I know that many people developed an intense dislike for the Gungans in The Phantom Menace. My biggest complaint, other than the "bathroom humor" jokes, was that I had a difficult time understanding what Jar Jar Binks was saying the first time I saw the film. (By the third time around, though, I finally got the hang of it.) One of my favorite characters from the film turned out to be Captain Tarpals, who had about three total minutes of screen time, and one of the best lines in the movie. (Faced with the threatening lines of droid soldiers just prior to the Battle for Naboo, he's the one who swallowed hard and muttered, "Ouch time" to Jar Jar. That pretty much summed up my reaction to all those droids....) Besides, I had to admire him for going back and attempting to rescue Jar Jar Binks at the risk of his own life, despite the fact that most of the time he seemed to consider Jar Jar to be a pain in the posterior.
I wanted to present my Gungans as being more mature and capable than the impression I got of them from the film. After all, they maintain a warrior tradition and a standing army. The idea that they're a bunch of kids with weapons is too scary to contemplate.
The unnamed kaadu who serves as Tarpals's mount in this story has a set of tricks and abilities reminiscent of the Lipizzan horses here on Earth. During the Lipizzans' 400-year history, many of the animals were taught jumps and kicks that could be used in times of war to fight in battle and protect their riders. (The horses are no longer used in warfare, of course. Nowadays they do riding exhibitions all over the world. If you get a chance, go watch one of their shows.) It just made sense that any race that maintains a warrior tradition and works on horseback (or kaaduback) would be likely to train their mounts to do this sort of thing.
As for my inclusion of Captain Panaka, well, why not? We really didn't get to see him do a lot in the film. Both he and Tarpals carry similar rank and are in similar lines of work; it made sense to me that they might get on rather well together, since they were likely to have met at least briefly during the course of The Phantom Menace. The biggest trick was getting them both out of their respective home cities at the same time. Maybe after this they'll turn out to be fishing buddies or something....
Information on Panaka's background is available in several places, including the officials Star Wars site at http://www.starwars.com and Star Wars Episode I: the Visual Dictionary.