"Glorious," Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn murmured, his eyes lighting with awe and reverence. The luminous tapestry of royal purples and glowing, fiery oranges draped from one curving horizon to the other, adorned with luminous pennants of cloud: the Living Force's triumphant, silent canticle to the rising sun.
His Padawan gritted his teeth and sent their small ship into a sickening dive, narrowly avoiding the next volley of shots aimed at their rear deflectors. Something blared a shrill alert on the console. The decks shuddered beneath their feet.
"A bit too fast, Obi-Wan," the tall man advised, a slight frown creasing his brow. "Let them clip us next time."
His apprentice shot him a fulminating look and clenched his jaw, putting the belabored ship through a corkscrewing barrel-roll as another armada of plasma bolts came winging their way. The shields flared bright as energy packets glanced off the spinning vessel's hull.
"Uugh," the pilot gasped, straightening out of the hurtling aerial maneuver with a distinctly nauseated look on his young face.
Qui-Gon exhaled sharply, as close to an expression of impatience as a Jedi master of his years and experience might ever display. "Relax," he advised his companion. "Just let them get in a hit."
"I'm trying, master," the young Jedi replied, tightly.
"There is no try," his mentor placidly reminded him.
The defensive computer blipped its next warning in a piercing tone. "Ah," the tall man smiled. "Torpedos. Now we're getting somewhere."
Obi-Wan swallowed visibly, features hardening into a furious concentration, knuckles whitening about the yoke as he began jinking and jiving to evade the new threat. Two separate seeking missiles cruised along behind them, steadily gaining, their con trails like wicked scars etched across the magenta skies.
Qui-Gon leaned back in the co-pilot's chair, discreetly testing the crash harness with one hand. "Breathe, Padawan. Use the Force. Let it guide you."
The young Jedi growled audibly. "Down!?" he answered, in what amounted to an indignant yelp.
"Yes, Padawan," the older man half-chuckled. "If that is the way the Force is guiding you. Down."
The hull rattled violently as they hit a pressure pocket in the atmosphere. A torpedo overshot them and circled round; Obi-Wan pointed the ship toward the distant center of gravity and sent them hurtling in a precipitous dive, corkscrewing out at the last moment as the seeking missile again barely missed their starboard wing.
"I hate flying!" the Padawan snarled, twisting and climbing once again.
Qui-Gon sighed and leaned across the console, placing one broad hand on the yoke and pulling it slightly toward himself. The small ship jerked in mid-air, shuddering as the two Jedi momentarily fought for control.
And then the missile struck them a glancing blow, one that did not do explosive damage but which sent them into an uncontrolled spin.
"You see?" the Jedi master inquired, tightening his crash harness as the craft spiraled about wildly, losing altitude at an alarming rate. "That wasn't so difficult."
The undulating canopy of a rainforest appeared below them as they dropped, gracelessly, below the clouds. "Blast it!"
"Had you allowed them to hit us five minutes ago, as you were instructed," Qui Gon informed his student, "We would have been over grasslands. Much more favorable territory for a crash."
Obi-Wan ignored the chastisement, struggling to hold the ailing ship's nose up, to guide them in a low glide over the seemingly endless expanse of green.
"Yes, master." They dropped, dropped further… like a stone skipping on water they hit the topmost layer and went sailing upward again only to crash back down, ploughing through branches and leaves in a shower of splintered green and shrieking noise.
"Oh not good-"
The ship lurched, flipped upside down and took a sickening plunge before coming to a sudden and deafening halt. The emergency crash buffers were deployed, instantly filling the cockpit with pressurized air pillows. The Jedi slammed forward into these yielding objects, and were then thrown backward into their seats by the rebound.
"Well?" Qui-Gon grunted, dangling in place. The safety harnesses kept them firmly attached to their seats. The console flickered a few times and then gave up the ghost. The Force hammered wildly in two racing pulses, but otherwise flowed undisturbed.
"We are upside down, master," his apprentice complained, working at his harness release clamp.
"That is to be attributed to your piloting skill," the tall man reminded him, similarly freeing himself. They cautiously rolled onto the roof of the ship and pried the access hatch open. A fifty meter drop opened below them, a tunnel of variegated greens and browns ending in a soft pile of undergrowth far, far below.
Obi-Wan gritted his teeth, but made no reply. He took a deep breath and then slipped his legs through the opening, gracefully dropping through the hatch into the jungle below. Qui-Gon watched his twisting acrobatic progress down to the jungle floor – the leaps off jutting branches, the mid-air somersaults, the completely unnecessary backflip over the last line of creeper vines, and then followed, sailing downward in a Force-cushioned and far less ostentatious display of skill.
Once safely sheltered beneath the broad roof of the undercanopy, the two Jedi squinted up at the dark silhouette of their abandoned ship far overhead.
"That's going to count against us," Obi-Wan observed, regretfully.
"Focus on the present moment," his mentor replied, automatically. "Which way shall we proceed?"
The Padawan turned a slow circle. The shrill cacophony of the rain forest wove a dense veil of sound in every direction. "They'll send scout droids first," he guessed.
The tall Jedi master looked dubious. "In a jungle? We will not be easy to locate, among so many life forms. I would expect a sentient tracker, instead."
His apprentice grinned. "Better and better. Let's find high ground."
Qui-Gon nodded in agreement, and they set off, pushing through the underbrush and climbing among the sculptured hills and vales of massive root systems. Insects buzzed and fluttered and greedily availed themselves of any exposed patch of skin. The humidity quickly reduced their tunics to damp and sticky discomfort. Soon their hands and faces were grimed and their hair disorderly and fretted with delicate cobwebs.
"Magnificent," the Jedi master breathed as they emerged at last into a grotto where light fell unbroken from a high opening into a tranquil green pool. A waterfall cascaded over jutting boulders held fast in the ancient grasp of tree roots and clinging vines. A rainbow aura rose off the water where the falls plummeted to a gentle foaming bath. A few native grazers jerked their heads upward at the arrival of strangers and disappeared from the edge of the watering hole.
Obi-Wan stretched himself prostrate upon the yielding soil and drank deeply of the water, splashing a liberal amount onto head and chest. "Ah," he remarked, happily kneeling at the water's edge, droplets streaming down the nape of his neck and off his braid's tufted end. "Thank the Force. It's blasted hot here."
Qui Gon grunted in agreement, cupping his hands to bring water to his own mouth. "And the plan is…?"
Obi-Wan peered through the gloaming beneath the tall trees all round. "The hunted controls the hunter. We need a transport, one that can pass back through their orbital blockade undetected. The best way to get one of their ships is to bring it here. So, when their scout arrives, we put up a good show of fighting and then surrender. Well, one of us does. Then, when they call for reinforcements and a ship comes, the other one of us hijacks it and we make our escape."
The tall man tilted his head slightly. "Fine. But which of us surrenders?"
"You, master. I'll hide at the top of the falls."
"Hm. It might be better to leave the stronger member of the team free, Padawan. A matter of simple prudence. If there is to be bait, it ought to be you."
The young Jedi pressed his lips together in disapproval. "I'd rather do the hijacking."
"I can take them down easily, master." The ghost of a smile lit his eyes. "I'd rather like to, in point of fact."
One of Qui-Gon's brows rose. "I know that, too," he said repressively. "But that does not justify taking unwarranted risks. We shall play our weaker sabaac card and reserve the ace until the last hand."
His student's gaze flicked irritably to one side before returning to the older man's face. "Yes, master."
"Good. It's settled. I'll conceal myself at the top of the falls. You stay here and wait to be captured." He strode toward the waiting cliffs, pausing momentarily at their foot. "By the way, Obi-Wan, you've done marvelously well. I'm sure our opponents are quite vexed with you by now…. If it's any consolation."
"I'm going to surrender to people who are annoyed with me? That makes it ever so much better," came the predictably sarcastic retort.
Qui-Gon chuckled and ascended the slick cliff-face in a single graceful leap.
Their wait was of short duration. Less than a handful of minutes later – a span of time in which the industrious blood sucking gnats and mites made good use of the opportunity presented them – the Force tautened with the approach of a cunning newcomer. Qui-Gon flattened himself at the pinnacle of the falls, while Obi-Wan crouched expectantly behind a convenient knot of bushes.
The slender figure which slipped into the sky-domed sanctuary form the jungle's pillared nave was a human youth no older than Obi-Wan himself, though certainly one whose lethal grace bespoke years of training and dangerously honed senses. Clad in a drab soldier's unisuit, his face protected from the invasive flies by a simple bandana, only a pair of sly grey eyes were visible beneath his short crop of dark hair. This stealthy visitor prowled into the clearing with a tense alertness, and stopped by the pool's edge, his head raised as though scenting some invisible, impalpable wind.
A tiny rustle in the yarbanna seedlings' branches to his right invited further investigation; but the stranger ignored the ruse and turned his attention to the clump of wide-leaved grool on his left, instead. His grey eyes narrowed in satisfaction as he slipped a lightweight stun blaster from its holster on his thigh, cautiously edging closer to his prey, a low chuckle issuing from his throat as he stalked nearer.
The grool bush twitched and uttered a low and musical chuckle of its own.
"You may as well surrender," the hunter addressed the clump of foliage, in a civil tone. "I know you're there and I've got this whole area staked out with seeker probes. You're outnumbered."
The bush bowed graciously and then sprang back to attention as the young Jedi stepped from behind it, tossing his cloak to the damp earth with casual insouciance.
"Oh good," he drawled. "I was afraid this was going to be boring."
His interlocutor raised the blaster and pointed it directly at his opponent's chest.
The Padawan's hand rested lightly on his saber hilt, but his posture betrayed no anxiety. "You first," he challenged, one eyebrow twitching upward sardonically. "Even you can't miss at this range."
A bird screeched somewhere overhead. Insects hummed busily in the hot mist.
"Surrender, you crazy gundark. You're the last one standing – I've got the entire team ready to back me up."
"Only a fool puts his faith in numbers," the young Jedi placidly replied, one hand still resting upon his weapon's crenellated pommel.
The thrum of a ship's repulsors stirred the leaves of the towering trees, the vessel's shadow momentarily eclipsing the sun overhead.
"This has been a long chase," the blaster wielding youth growled. "So let's finish this the easy way, shall we?"
Obi-Wan's mouth curved upward at the corners, revealing mischievous dimples. "If you insist."
An instant later his saber's sapphire blade flashed and howled in a blazing arc, deflecting his foe's first three shots. A soaring leap closed the gap between the two youths, and the plasma blade severed the blaster's barrel with another expertly delivered blow. The weapon's owner rolled backward out of range at lightning speed, springing to his feet with the confidence of a trained combatant. He shouted some terse order to his concealed allies.
Seeker probes and a cluster of other young humanoids in dull guerilla uniforms burst from cover, effectively surrounding the Padawan.
Obi-Wan cast a glance in either direction, calculating the odds and lazily flourishing his 'saber.
"Just surrender and have done with it!" the victorious hunter snarled at him, a definite edge of vexation sharpening his tone. "You stubborn chosski. You've lost."
The ship lowered itself through the open ring of trees, settling softly upon landing prongs on the other side of the quiet pool.
"That's it. Just nail him!"
An instantaneous explosion of shots sent birds and beats fleeing in terror, their cries echoing in every direction, their shrill protests a counterpoint to the howl and screech of a saber blade batting away a hail of low-power blaster bolts. Energy packets went sizzling into trees, into the earth, into the water where they sent up angry jets of steam. The saber blade sang with joyful defiance, carving liquid ribbons of light, defying assault, gouging burning slashes in to the droids' carapaces, keeping the sentient attackers at bay.
Obi-Wan fought like a cornered foxill, saber blazing, body twisting and dodging with consummate skill, teeth bared in a grin of unabashed enjoyment.
But sheer numbers did, in the end, overwhelm him. The pitched battle came to a sudden cease, the Jedi closely ringed by a circle of enemies now bruised, battered, burned – and in the droids' case, smoking and sputtering.
"Surrender!" the guerilla leader bellowed, ripping off his bandana to reveal a handsome, clean-shaven face. His eyes glittered with a rare fire.
The defeated Padawan shrugged and deactivated his thrumming weapon, glancing eagerly over one shoulder at the exposed and unguarded ship on the opposite bank. "If it makes you feel better, Garen."
"You pompous barve," Jedi Padawan Garen Muln whispered fiercely in his friend's ear as he snatched the saber out of its owner's grip.
"You're fortunate that was set to low power," Obi-Wan observed blandly, casting another expectant look over one shoulder. A faint line appeared between his brows.
"I should stun you anyway," the other Jedi youth grumbled. "You deserve it. Three days, Obi. I'm blasted sick of this exercise, you know?"
"Who says it's over?" his captive inquired, again looking toward the open but obviously not hijacked ship a short distance away. The worry line deepened to a pensive frown.
Garen Muln followed his gaze to the ship, eyes narrowing. A grin split his face. "Oh… I see." He slapped his companion on the shoulder. "Well, it looks as though you've forgotten to calculate in one wee detail."
This pronouncement was met with a look of blank incomprehension.
"Yes," Qui-Gon Jinn chimed in, joining the party at a careless gait. "I'm afraid this exercise is, at last, over."
Obi-Wan's jaw dropped. "Master! The plan! What are you doing?"
The tall man ignored his protégé's outraged spluttering. "As Garen says, Padawan. You have overlooked one essential – and deadly – possibility. That of treason."
Obi-Wan's mouth snapped shut, color rising high in his cheeks.
The Jedi master turned a baleful eye on Garen Muln. "I do expect payment in full," he said sternly.
"Yes, Master Jinn," the young Jedi meekly promised. "On my honor."
Obi-Wan snorted contemptuously.
"Can I put the binders on him… please?" Garen asked hopefully.
Qui-Gon turned, shrugging his indifference. "As you wish – I've kept my end of the bargain, and now we can all go home."
Obi-Wan's chest rose and fell in strictly controlled rhythm as Garen smugly fixed the binders in place. "Master! You… you… betrayed me? I – I –"
The smile lines around the Jedi master's eyes deepened slightly. "You should have sensed my duplicitous intentions long ago, Padawan mine."
"But - !"
"Come on," Garen Muln interrupted, tugging at his prisoner's wrists. "I'm taking you all the way to Coruscant in the brig, you gundark. Three days. Stars above, you owe us all!"
Obi-Wan cast a pleading look in his teacher's direction, but the tall man merely held up his hands palm outward. "The disposition of your affairs is no longer in my hands," he informed his apprentice. "And besides, I am quite looking forward to a quiet journey home."
And with one last teasing smile, he turned his back and made his way serenely toward the ship's open boarding ramp, leaving his stunned and speechless Padawan in the hands of his laughing age-mates.