THE PHANTOM MENACE

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

It is an age of unrest in the Galactic Republic. The Senate is divided and plagued by corruption. The worlds of the Outer Rim, the Republic's farthest reaches, protest the growing power and authority of the Jedi Order as the Galaxy slips into an economic depression. Galactic industry suffers under the brutal taxes necessary to maintain the flagging Republic.

Angered by a Jedi ruling against their claim of transport fees unpaid by the government of the planet Naboo, the Trade Federation has blockaded the world and is demanding restitution from the Senate. The Senators from the Rim Worlds, championed by Count Dooku of Serenno, have aligned themselves firmly with the Trade Federation and the Senate has degenerated into vicious debate. Desperate to keep the fragile peace intact as elections loom, Supreme Chancellor Valorum has dispatched Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi as ambassadors from the Republic to the Trade Federation. But there are darker forces at work than greed and injustice; the Sith walk in the shadows, scheming and plotting, and unbeknownst to the Jedi the Republic teeters on the brink of total collapse.

Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan must find a way to relieve the threat of violence over Naboo and to restore peace and prosperity to the Galaxy…

CHAPTER ONE: Negotiations

QUI-GON

Qui-Gon Jinn strode briskly along the curved, grey-walled transit corridor of the Trade Federation battleship. An expensive-looking silver C3-series protocol droid led the way. His apprentice,Obi-Wan, kept close by his side, glancing with interest at the myriad branching passages that led off from the great ship's thoroughfare. Skeletal battle droids marched along the halls in perfect clanking lockstep, the uniformity of their presence interrupted only by the occasional robed and green-skinned Neimoidian technician. Qui-Gon was reminded forcibly of a hive of industrious insects, orderly and efficient but myopic in the extreme. Greed and fear hung like perfume in the stale, recycled air.

The silver protocol droid halted before a heavy durasteel pressure door and half-turned to face Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, its servos whirring. "The Viceroy and his Consul will be along shortly," it said in its crisp, fussy voice as a seam appeared in the center of the door. The door slid open with a hiss, revealing a stark room dominated by a long metal table, empty except for a tray of drinks, and an observation porthole that afforded a view of Naboo's northern polar ice cap, and the blockade fleet. The droid bowed. "Viceroy Gunray sends his apologies for the delay. He will arrive shortly, once his business on the bridge is concluded."

Qui-Gon smiled faintly. "Not at all," he said, and moved past the protocol droid toward the window and its slice of Naboo. The lucrehulk-class warships of the Trade Federation fleet, pale grey three-quarter toruses of weapon-studded armor and cargo space surrounding bulbous command spheres, hung in the blackness at regular intervals around the planet. Qui-Gon heard the door hiss shut. "Drink nothing," he said to Obi-Wan as his Padawan approached the table.

There was a clink of glass on metal as Obi-Wan set down the glass he'd taken from the tray. "You don't think they'd try to poison us, do you?" he asked, his tone dubious.

Qui-Gon turned from the window and its grim outlook on the blockade. He tried not to show his surprise at how old Obi-Wan looked in his diplomatic robes and roughspun tunic. The boy would be ready for the Trials soon, read to end his apprenticeship. The thought made Qui-Gon weary. "Viceroy Gunray is either slighting us with his absence or preserving his deniability," he said. "If he meant to take our presence or these talks seriously, he would have met us himself at the docking bay. Instead he sends a droid. What does that tell you?"

"He wants to convey his disdain for us," said Obi-Wan at once. "He's showing us he's in control of the situation, that we don't carry weight here."

Qui-Gon nodded. "Well done," he said. "You are learning to be mindful of the ebb and flow of events, of the currents of the Living Force. Too often we lose ourselves in glimpses of the future, or in the pondering of so-called higher mysteries."

Obi-Wan frowned down at the table, two fingers resting lightly on the polished metal. "I feel something," he said. "Something wrong."

It struck Qui-Gon then, a brief wave of nausea as voices in the Force were choked off mid-scream. His hand moved to the hilt of his lightsaber. "They've destroyed our ship," he said calmly, drawing the weapon and igniting it. The crackling green energy blade sprang to life with a snap-hiss.

Obi-Wan swallowed and turned to the door, drawing his own lightsaber as a faint hissing joined the low, steady thrum of the ship's engines. "Gas," he said, and clapped a hand to his mouth. Billowing green clouds of smoke were pouring into the room from vents concealed in the polished metal floor.

Qui-Gon took a deep breath and closed his eyes.

NUTE

Nute Gunray wrung his long-fingered hands and tried not to sweat, though he knew the effort was a futile one. His skin was already slick with oily perspiration beneath his heavy robes of office and tall black headpiece. "The Jedi ambassadors have arrived, my lord," he stammered.

The hologram of the cowled man who called himself Sidious stared at him, face lost in shadow. "And they will be dealt with." It was not a question.

"Even as we speak," said Nute in his most placating manner, unable to keep a sort of hunching bow from bending his shoulders.

Rune Haako, Nute's lieutenant and chief settlement officer, folded his arms and made a disapproving humm-ing sound deep in his wattled throat. Sidious ignored the other Neimoidian. "You are to commence landing your troops. Seize the capital, and make certain that the Queen and the junior Senator are detained," he said, gesturing vaguely toward Nute with a wrinkled hand. "My apprentice, Darth Maul, will arrive shortly to ensure your safety."

Nute's lipless mouth worked. "Of-of course, Lord Sidious," he gasped. "At once."

The hologram flickered and vanished, plunging the room into darkness. Nute composed himself and turned to Haako, who was frowning at him. The Viceroy adopted his most convincing look of disdainful confidence. "The situation," he said, pushing aside his wriggling doubts and fears, "has been dealt with."

"Jedi do not die easily," said Haako.

Nute sneered, though privately he was inclined to agree.

The two Neimoidians left the round-walled privacy chamber and onto the cathedral-sized bridge of the Saak'ak, flagship of the Trade Federation fleet. Battle droids and Neimoidian technicians manned the various stations on the bridge's concentric tiers, centered on the Captain's command dais where Daulty Dofine stood listening to an OOM command droid's flat, toneless report. Dofine turned as Nute entered the room, the corners of his mouth drawn down in displeasure. The Viceroy felt his innards squirm.

"The Jedi have left the conference room, Viceroy," said Dofine, his tone morbid.

Haako sat down in a suspensor chair on the topmost tier, near the helmsman's console. "We will not survive this, I think," he said.

Nute trembled, wiping his mottled green hands on his red gown of office. These moments of truth always upset his digestion. How he longed to table accounts, or perhaps to draft a trade agreement. But he had not clawed his way to the top of the Trade Federation to be undone by antiquated monks. He drew himself up to his full height. "Dispatch the droids," he said to Dofine, fighting to keep the tremor from his voice. "Make certain they destroy the Jedi."

"Doomed," said Haako, shaking his head.

QUI-GON

Qui-Gon slid out through the half-open doors, shrouded in the stinging gas and lightheaded from lack of breath. A squad of battle droids, the heart of the Trade Federation's war machine, advanced with measured, clanking tread along the corridor. Their skeletal hands clutched mass-produced blaster rifles tight against their chest plates. They halted as the gas cleared. Blasters rose in perfect unison to point at the doors of the conference room. Qui-Gon put his free hand on Obi-Wan's shoulder as the younger man joined him in the billowing cloud, hunched low to the floor with his lightsaber drawn and unlit. "Patience," whispered Qui-Gon. He closed his eyes and felt the future move. The Force flowed through him.

The droids advanced a step. One raised its skeletal metal arm. "Fire," it said.

Qui-Gon moved, lightsaber crackling to life as he left the gas cloud. His arm moved without thought or volition and blaster bolts ricocheted around the corridor, scorching walls and metal skeletons. A droid fell, smoking. Qui-Gon's feet slid across the deck, adopting stances of their own accord. He floated in a still place and deflected outcomes and futures without conscious effort. Obi-Wan leapt past him, lightsaber glowing blue. He cut down two of the droids, spun and dispatched a third. Hunks of metal clattered to the decking, their sliced edges glowing yellow. A moment passed and Qui-Gon deactivated his weapon and took a deep breath of the dry, filtered air. The Force bled away in slow measures until he stood again in a long, curving corridor amidst the smoking wreck of the droid squadron.

"The Viceroy has made his choice," he said, glancing at Obi-Wan. "I suggest we find a ship and make our exit, before any further unpleasantness occurs."

Obi-Wan ran a hand through his cropped brown hair. "I suppose that concludes negotiations," he said, grinning.

The long, curving corridor that ran the length of the lucrehulk's three-quarter torus was empty and silent. Qui-Gon frowned. Gradually, a rhythmic rattle reached his ears. "Droidekas," he said shortly. "Destroyers."

The war droids rounded the curve of the corridor just as Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan in tow, chose a branching passage and sprinted down it. They were a dark brown in color, wheel-shaped and nearly three feet high in motion. One unrolled itself, crab-like legs scrabbling at the decking as its momentum carried it forward, and leveled its blaster arms at the hall as the others flashed past it. Bright red blaster bolts boiled the air, scorching the branch corridor's wall. The rattle of the approaching droidekas grew louder.

"Shafts!" shouted Obi-Wan, stumbling to a halt at the junction of another passage.

Qui-Gon turned and moved past his Padawan to the shuttered access hatch set in the wall. He ignited his lightsaber, cut away the durasteel shuttering with four quick slashes and stood aside to let Obi-Wan clamber into the dark recesses of the lucrehulk's ventilation ducts. A pair of droidekas rounded the corner just as Qui-Gon sprang after Obi-Wan and caught hold of a maintenance ladder ten feet down. Bright red flashes scorched the shaft above. Obi-Wan was already climbing down, visible by the glow of his lit saber. Somehow, Qui-Gon reflected with a sigh as he followed his apprentice, it always came to sneaking about in ducts.

The two Jedi slipped in silence through the metal veins of the Saak'ak. In some places the shafts were too narrow to stand, in others air exchange fans barred the way. Qui-Gon gave himself over to the Force, let it guide his footsteps through the echoing forest of wind and metal. He felt energy moving through the ship, the candle flames of thousands of battle droids and the brighter lights of the Neimoidians themselves, and of the ship's systems. There was a calm oneness to the order of the ship's operations, a march toward purpose and performance orchestrated with hardly a moment's upset despite the chaos on the fear-gripped bridge. Greater intimations slipped and swam beneath the surface of Qui-Gon's perceptions, the Will and Designs of the Force just out of reach...

"Master."

Qui-Gon opened his eyes to the blaring of alarm klaxons. A heavy durasteel vent cover stood before him, looking out over the cavernous floor of one of the Saak'ak's docking bays. Obi-Wan stood with his nose fairly pressed to the grate, staring down at the columns of battle droids marching in lockstep toward the neat rows of huge, heavily-armored multi-troop transports waiting in the shadows of eight colossal H-winged landing craft. "An invasion force," said Obi-Wan, turning from the grate. His expression was grim.

"So it seems," said Qui-Gon.

"How can you be so calm?" hissed Obi-Wan in a heated undertone. "The Federation is in full defiance of the Senate and the Council! Not to mention the people of Naboo, and-"

Qui-Gon met the younger man's eyes and Obi-Wan fell silent at once, glaring down at his boots. "Patience," Obi-Wan said after a long pause. "I know."

Qui-Gon put a hand on his Padawan's shoulder. "Escape must be our priority," he said. "We cannot hope to steer the course of the Federation's invasion alone. Warning Naboo, getting word to Coruscant-these things may make a difference."

Obi-Wan nodded, eyes still downcast. "I understand, Master."

"Then you're learning," said Qui-Gon. He drew his lightsaber and made four quick cuts to the grate. He and Obi-Wan dragged the heavy slab of metal into the shaft and leaned it carefully against the wall. Satisfied, Qui-Gon leapt from the still-smoking hole and landed without a sound on the deck twenty meters below, concealed by a forest of cargo containers. Obi-Wan landed in a crouch beside him and together they marked the movements of the battle droid squadrons. "We'll take a transport," said Qui-Gon. "The landers should bring us down near the capital, at Theed." He pointed at the nearest of the great MTT transporters, a brick-like slab of matte red armor built around storage racks cradling hundreds of dormant battle droids. "Stay close to crew. The droids travel in vacuum."

They waited. The moment came. The final droid battalion marched itself into perfect alignment with the MTT's storage racks, and then the droids shut down and folded themselves for transit. Qui-Gon vaulted easily over the cargo containers and raced across the open deck. Thirty meters, perhaps thirty five, with Obi-Wan sprinting at his side. There were no droids to see them, no security holos to record their flight. Qui-Gon closed his eyes again and let the Force take him as he climbed up and into the MTT's oil-smelling interior, surrounded on all sides by the compacted near-cubes of stored battle droids. He breathed in. He breathed out.

NUTE

"The Jedi have entered the vents," said the OOM droid in its flat, atonal voice.

"Then sweep the vents," cried Nute, clutching at his vestments. His voice was cracked. His lungs were seizing up, in need of the calming release of a spice capsule. There would be time for that later, though, once the situation was resolved. It would not do to incapacitate himself when Sidious might contact him at any moment.

"Yes, Viceroy," the droid acknowledged. It fell silent for a long moment, contacting its subordinates over the ship's network. Lights flickered rapidly behind its eye slits.

Nute drew himself up, struck by a terrible thought and attempting to avoid the appearance of blind panic. The Jedi, if they really had gone into the vents, could be anywhere inside the Saak'ak. They might be privy to all her secrets, to her every corridor and chamber. Even his own private quarters could no longer be counted on as safe. And if the droids did not apprehend the Jedi soon, they would come for him no matter where he went or how thoroughly he defended himself. His lipless mouth twitched. "Prepare my shuttle," he said in a strangled voice that did not seem anything like his own. "Captain Dofine, you have the command."

Dofine nodded and sank back into his half-spherical command seat, long green fingers tented beneath his weak chin. Nute gestured peremptorily to Haako and his adviser rose from his own seat, shaking his head as he did. They left the bridge in the company of a score of security droids. "This glorious retreat, at least, is sensible," hissed Haako to Nute. "Murdering Jedi during a negotiation session, destroying a Republic ship. Pfah, Sidious and his machinations will be the end of the Federation." The elder Neimoidian spat on the deck.

Nute felt a flicker of nervous fear at his old colleague's warning, but he had only to conjure up the image of the money Sidious represented. The impossible, incomprehensible money. And the prospects Sidious promised were richer even than all the credits in the First Coruscant Bank, richer than exclusive trade routes to the Core Worlds. Nute rubbed his sweating hands together. Independence. Autonomy. Words to frighten the Republic, to bring the teetering edifice of Galactic Government and its Jedi watchdogs to their knees.

The two Neimoidians boarded their shuttle as the first landers left the Saak'ak's portside hangar. Nute watched from the shuttle's boarding ramp as a pair of the great H-winged craft slid out through the shimmering magnetic containment field and into the void between the blockade fleet and Naboo's atmosphere. The planet was clearly visible through the field, filling the entirety of Nute's vision with mottled green and blue. He blinked, eyelids nictating over his sensitive eyes. To his every side great marching blocks of battle droids readied themselves for transport even as more landers rose from the deck and departed for the planet's surface. Rune was clever, and he was experienced. But he was not a visionary. He would never have been able to see what Nute saw in Sidious, to see the opportunity the Sith Lord represented.

Nute stepped onto the shuttle. The airlock hissed shut behind him as he took his seat opposite Haako, accepting a glass of thick yellow juma juice from a serving droid. Its smooth, sour taste soothed his stomach as the shuttle rose on a column of flame and left the hold to join the invasion fleet. Anything, he reflected, tapping a finger against the brim of his glass, to avoid the Jedi.

Haako, his own glass half-empty before the serving droid had even left the room, made a sour face at Naboo as it grew in the viewscreen. "This is folly," he said.

"This is the future," said Nute. He felt suddenly nauseous.