An ominous feeling of dread filled Obi-Wan’s mind as he watched the Neimoidian dreadnought Independence grow ever larger on the virtual viewport.
To be fair, he thought, it is in the nature of a dreadnought to inspire dread. The corner of his mouth lifted in a half-hearted smirk, but the expanding darkness in his mind threatened to crush even his indomitable good humor.
“I have a very bad feeling about this, Master,” he said, turning to the older Jedi by his side.
“Yes,” replied his friend and mentor, not even bothering to raise his eyes from the holopad projected in his lap. “This is a trap. They intend to kill us.”
“It is not that, Master. That feels…small, compared to what I am feeling.”
Qui-Gon sighed and looked up from the words and images displayed by the tiny projector hovering in the air before him. “Very well.” He closed his eyes and drew a deep, steady breath. “Clear your mind, and we will see if I can help find the source of your discomfort.”
Obi-Wan obediently closed his eyes and banished all thought from his mind. He was immediately enveloped in the warm, nebulous presence of the Force. He felt Qui-Gon’s mind–old, knowledgeable, and kind–gently attach to his own. With a small impulse, Obi-Wan expanded his presence in the ether of the Force, probing for the dark blot that represented the near and present danger of the Neimoidian trap.
As their minds brushed against the small, black anomaly, images and feelings flooded through their minds. Murderous intent, nervous anxiety, contempt, fear, aggression, and fleeting glimpses of battle, of flying bodies, explosions, and the hum of dancing lightsabers. A regrettable event in spacetime, no doubt, but not a threat to the success of their mission.
With a much stronger impulse, Obi-Wan set his mind to expand through the Force until his presence felt stretched to its breaking point and the ether had become thick and obscuring. At the edge of his reach, Obi-Wan brushed against a dark object so massive that it seemed the Force just outside his sphere of influence had been replaced with nothingness. His mind sought to recoil from the abyss, but Obi-Wan was nothing if not stubborn. With the unbending iron will that forever hid just beneath the surface of his jovial and mischievous nature, the experienced padawan sent another powerful surge of mental energy to shore up the limits of his presence in the Force.
Simultaneously, Qui-Gon expanded his own presence in the ether, joining Obi-Wan in an effort to push farther into the void. The more attention the two men focused on the abyss, the more it seemed to push back, exerting an unpleasant pressure on their shared energy. Probing the darkness along multiple points of their maximum limit only served to weaken their shared sphere of influence. Finally, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon focused their shared energy into a spear of light thrusting into the unknown. Rather than illuminate their quarry, the darkness reacted in an almost sentient fashion, defending itself from their combined efforts by sending a searing jolt of pain into Obi-Wan’s and Qui-Gon’s minds. Though the experience lasted mere seconds, the agony was so great that it felt as though it lasted an eternity. The shock broke the connection between the two men, and they were unceremoniously dumped back into physical reality.
Obi-Wan came back to himself to find his hands clutching the armrests of his acceleration chair, and his mouth sore from clenching his jaw. He turned to Qui-Gon, and the two shared a worried glance. Qui-Gon tapped the biometric harness that bound him to his seat, and without a word he stood and walked over to the large virtual viewport, his arms tucked into the folds of his robe. Obi-Wan took a moment to flex his fingers and toes, and to work out the tightness in his jaw, and then he followed the Master’s example.
They stood in silence as they made their final approach to the Independence. Deep green photovoltaic plating filled the screen, all of space blocked from view by the massive starship. Measuring a full kilometer in length, the Independence was still one of the smallest dreadnoughts manufactured by the Trade Federation for the Neimoidian fleet, but it also boasted the latest in shield and stealth technology, making it one of the most persistently dangerous ships in Confederation space.
“It seems they will be putting us in one of the aft cargo bays,” Obi-Wan noted as giant blast doors parted to reveal a bustling landing deck. Qui-Gon said nothing, staring blankly at the vid screen as though it might reveal some secret to him if only he paid close enough attention. “An effort to keep us as far away from the bridge as possible, I would guess,” the padawan continued quietly to himself. He had grown accustomed to Qui-Gon’s occasional introspections, but had yet to master the art of remaining silent. “I do take pleasure in the mechanics of speech,” Obi-Wan confessed, shrugging and speaking mostly to himself.
Their little automated shuttle, operating on commands from the Independence’s flight controller, slowly crossed the kinetic force field that protected the cargo bay from outgassing. The hair on Obi-Wan’s arms and neck stood upright as the field passed through him. The idea that atmosphere and pressure were contained by an invisible energy barrier dependent on electricity, an energy source so easily interrupted, always chilled the padawan.
“Give me a planet under my feet and I shall be happy once more,” Obi-Wan muttered to himself.
“You have an uncomfortable life ahead of you if you fail to overcome your fears of space and flight, my young friend.”
Obi-Wan smiled at Qui-Gon’s comment. “I would not describe them as ‘fears,’ Master Qui-Gon,” he responded, “but as preferences. I simply prefer to be on the ground, where I am not dependent on machinery for safety.”
He glanced over to find Qui-Gon glaring at him sternly.
“Sometimes, my young friend, I worry for your future as a Jedi. Your optimism and good nature are powerful allies against the darkness you will encounter in your duties, but your flippancy and casual disregard for danger may very well be the end of you.”
Obi-Wan, slightly taken aback by his mentor’s rebuke, stayed silent until the shuttle gently touched down in the space that had been cleared for it amidst the machinery and supplies in the cargo bay. As the two men bent their knees fluidly to compensate for the small bump involved with any shuttle landing, Obi-Wan decided to attribute Qui-Gon’s stern remark to the nasty shock they had both endured upon encountering the vast and almost sentient void in the Force.
“I apologize, Master, but I am not entirely sure what danger it might be that I am disregarding. I seek your guidance in this matter.” Ever the earnest student, the sincerity in Obi-Wan’s voice must have broken through Qui-Gon’s irritation, because the older man let out a sigh, shaking his head and putting a hand on Obi-Wan’s shoulder.
“Fear, Obi-Wan. Fear is the danger that you dismiss so casually,” he said, briefly squeezing Obi-Wan’s arm before lifting his hand and waggling an admonishing finger at the padawan.
Obi-Wan tilted his head quizzically and raised an eyebrow in confusion. The effect must have been comical, because Qui-Gon chuckled and shook his head once more.
“You have a question,” Qui-Gon observed, stepping away from the virtual viewport as it irised off, revealing a blank metal bulkhead as opaque as the rest of the shuttle’s interior.
“Yes, Master,” Obi-Wan replied, following the older man into the shuttle’s main corridor. “We are taught that fear is poisonous, a clear path to darkness. Is this not true?”
“It is true, yes,” conceded the Jedi Master. “However, you make the mistake of assuming that you can defeat fear by ignoring it. That path leads to suffering and death, if not to darkness.”
The two men paused at the shuttle’s passenger hatch, waiting patiently for Independence’s traffic computer to clear the shuttle for safe disembarkment. Obi-Wan contemplated Qui-Gon’s words, introspectively analyzing his past behaviors and reasoning how he may have been foolishly putting himself, and others, in danger.
“How, then, shall I defeat fear, Master?”
“Again, you assume too much, my padawan,” admonished the Jedi Master. “You assume that fear is a force to be defeated. That is similar to thinking that a planetary weather system is a force to be defeated.”
“But we have defeated weather systems, Master,” Obi-Wan declared. “Many planets within the Republic have adopted weather management systems to dampen the most destructive forces of nature.”
“Ah, now we come to it,” Qui-Gon quickly replied, rising a finger thoughtfully. “Those worlds you speak of have not defeated nature any more than Jedi have defeated fear. On those worlds, the weather is managed.”
A female voice rang through the shuttle, declaring in clear, enunciated Galactic Basic Standard that the Jedi could safely exit the small craft.
“‘Safe’ is a relative term in this case, considering their plans,” Qui-Gon joked quietly in an aside highly uncharacteristic of the older man.
I must be rubbing off on him.
Qui-Gon set off down the ramp, and Obi-Wan followed closely. They were greeted at the bottom of the ramp by the translucent blue hologram of a handsome older woman, projected by a small spherical drone floating just off to the side.
“If the respected delegates from the Galactic Republic will please follow me,” said the hologram, gesturing with her hand in the direction of a large bay door directly across from the shuttle, “I will deliver you to the conference room where Captain Tukhano and Vice-President Nguwen of the Trade Federation will meet you for negotiations.”
“Is it normal for the Neimoidian fleet to employ human figures in its holographic VIs?” Obi-Wan, always curious, directed the question at the spherical drone rather than the hologram. He always preferred to deal with the source of the virtual interface, rather than the illusion the interface created.
“No, respected delegate. However, just as the Neimoidian fleet uses Galactic Basic for ship designations, for the sake of trade partners, so does the fleet carry an expansive library of VIs, to accommodate any delegates we might entertain aboard our vessels. Does this interface not please you? Another can be assumed.”
“There is no need for that,” Qui-Gon assured the drone. “Please, lead us to the conference room.”
“Of course, respected delegate,” the VI responded. The drone floated away, toward the bay door the VI had indicated earlier, and the VI moved its legs to provide the illusion of walking. Qui-Gon immediately followed the hologram, and Obi-Wan could only shake his head and follow suit. He personally would have had the drone turn off the VI, but the matter certainly was not worth another lecture from his friend about the virtue of software designed to emulate sentience.
The large bay door slid open quickly and quietly, indicative of the dreadnought’s young age and relatively peaceful tour of service. Though the ship had been involved in several trade dispute blockades, to Obi-Wan’s knowledge Independence’s main gun—the massive rail gun that ran nearly from stern to bow, necessitating the dreadnought’s length—had only ever been fired in carefully controlled training exercises. The ship’s peaceful history was reflected in the pristine conditions of its exterior and interior functions.
With the drone leading at a comfortable pace, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon walked through a brightly lit corridor wide enough for a small speeder to navigate. The walls were smooth and gleaming, painted a glossy blue-white hue. Dark, thin sensor strips near the ceiling ran the entire length of the corridor, and likely the entire vessel, presumably allowing the ship’s security detachment to see and hear everything happening aboard Independence.
“If I may, Master—
“You are wondering how you should manage your fear, if not to dismiss it,” Qui-Gon interrupted.
“Yes, Master,” Obi-Wan nodded in affirmation as they walked.
“You must first acknowledge that you are afraid, Obi-Wan.” Qui-Gon adopted the same posture and tone he used when delivering lectures at the Jedi Academy, forcing Obi-Wan to hide a smile as the older man fell into his most comfortable role, that of a teacher. “What are we taught about our feelings, our instincts?”
“A Jedi is one with the Force. As a Jedi, I must trust my feelings, because they flow outward from the Force.”
Qui-Gon nodded in approval. “Precisely. Fear is a feeling just like any other you will experience. Fear, anger, and sorrow are important feelings, Obi-Wan, because they speak to the cores of our beings. We are not machines, and we must not strive to be like machines. The Force only acts through life.”
Obi-Wan increased his pace so that he could walk beside his mentor. “I am beginning to understand, Master,” Obi-Wan started, “but what about the risks posed by these darker emotions?”
“A Jedi is not defined by his or her thoughts and emotions, Obi-Wan. A Jedi is defined by action. Admitting that you are afraid takes a tremendous amount of courage. Acting righteously and without hesitation, even in the clutches of such dark emotions, takes an even greater amount of courage. This is what separates the Jedi from the sith, and a Jedi from a Jedi Master.”
The holographic woman had stopped just outside a door set into the right wall of the long corridor, the little floating drone suspended in the air just a few feet away. The door slid open without a sound, revealing a roomy elevator car. The holographic display winked off, and the drone buzzed into the car. The two brown-robed men followed, and the door silently closed behind them. There was a short tone and a very brief, almost imperceptible jolt, and then the car accelerated upward, toward the main crew decks.
“I see,” Obi-Wan said slowly, digesting his mentor’s lesson. “Am I to assume, then, that this sort of temperance is involved in the Temple Trials?”
“That is a safe assumption,” Qui-Gon said quietly, a faraway look stealing onto his face as he stared straight ahead at the elevator door. “However, remember that the trials are unique to each Jedi attempting them. You can never be fully prepared.”
Obi-Wan opened his mouth to ask more of Qui-Gon, but the Master interrupted him. “And that is all I have to say on the matter, my padawan.” Obi-Wan swallowed his question and shut his mouth, knowing better than to press the older man any further. Absently flicking the single braid of hair that marked his station as padawan over his shoulder, the young man turned to the spherical drone.
“Independence, what information are you authorized to provide us concerning the nature of this blockade?”
There was a brief moment of silence as the little drone presumably queried the ship’s mainframe and diplomatic parameters, and then it responded in the same female human voice projected by the VI. “Unfortunately, respected delegate, I cannot provide you with any information other than what you have already received via the short-beam briefing that was transmitted to your vessel: we believe that the ruling body of Naboo commissioned the research and development of weapons designed specifically to target Neimoidian physiology, and as such we are within legally obliged to blockade the planet until such a time as a thorough investigation has been completed.”
Obi-Wan cocked his head quizzically. “That is rather odd, considering that the ruling government of Naboo does not even have a standing military.”
“Again,” replied the drone, “I apologize that I cannot provide additional information. Your line of query is one that should be directed to Captain Tukhano and Vice-President—” The drone fell silent before it could finish. Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon shared a glance.
“I do believe our welcome has already been worn out, Master,” Obi-Wan said calmly.
“Indeed,” Qui-Gon responded curtly. “Cover yourself!”
Obi-Wan acted immediately, holding his robe up from the inside to completely cover the exposed parts of his body just as the little drone self-detonated. The small explosion rocked the elevator car, and flames hungrily clawed at the flame-resistant robes of the two men to no avail. Obi-Wan, more attuned to the Force than his Master, had also instinctively pushed at the drone with his mind as it had exploded, deflecting shrapnel that would have otherwise shredded the two men.
Coughing as acrid smoke replaced the flames in the car, Obi-Wan bent forward to check on Qui-Gon, who had been closer to the floating sphere when it had exploded.
“I’m fine,” Qui-Gon choked out amid wretched coughing. “Though I am certainly getting too old for this sort of thing,” he added.
Obi-Wan chuckled as he straightened out and used the Force to press the black smoke up against the car’s ceiling. “Well, that was not very nice of our hosts,” he observed, taking note of the extensive damage dealt to the elevator car. The once immaculately smooth, white walls were now warped and peppered with dozens of holes, some as big as a human fist. The largest hole had even managed to puncture all the way through the car, revealing the rapid vertical ascension of the elevator in its shaft. Obi-Wan redirected the smoke, forcing it out of the hole he had found.
Another explosion, this one from outside and above, rocked the elevator car, forcing Qui-Gon to his knees and almost doing the same for Obi-Wan.
“Plan B is to drop us down the elevator shaft?” The padawan was incredulous.
“It would appear so, Obi-Wan,” Qui-Gon responded, placidly composing himself on the floor as though he was about to meditate. “You may want to sit down for this,” he added.
Obi-Wan dropped to his knees beside the Jedi Master just as another explosion from above shook the elevator car violently. There came the screeching of metal on metal, like the dying groan of some massive metal creature, and then Obi-Wan’s stomach seemed to jump into his throat as the car tore free of its cables and plummeted down the shaft.
The elevator fell uninhibited for only a few seconds, and then Obi-Wan felt their wild descent slow, then stop. Qui-Gon’s eyes were shut as he focused on holding the elevator in place with the Force.
Obi-Wan stood again and took two steps toward the car’s door. He placed both hands, palm-first, on the cool surface. With a thought, the padawan pushed on the door, channeling the Force through his hands. The door bulged outward with a metallic squeal, but Obi-Wan could feel the object resisting his efforts, the natural tendency of solid matter to retain its shape. The padawan concentrated harder, and the door burst away from the elevator car with a loud clang, smashing into the nearby shaft wall before dropping away out of sight.
“We need an exit, Master,” Obi-Wan called over his shoulder as he peered out of the gaping wound he had created in the elevator car. He looked down, but could not spot an access hatch; when he turned his head to look up, he could just make out an opening in the shaft where two Neimoidian security officers were frantically reloading their large shoulder cannon. Stretching his right hand out of the the car, Obi-Wan reached out with his mind and grasped the two unfortunate officers, imagining them in the grip of his fist. With a sudden jerk of his hand, Obi-Wan wrenched the hapless Neimoidians from their perch and down into the shaft. Their screams were cut short when their bodies crunched sickeningly against the top of the elevator car.
Obi-Wan grimaced at the sound and cast a glance back at Qui-Gon. The Master was looking at the younger man disapprovingly, with a raised eyebrow. “I am sorry, Master,” Obi-Wan apologized. “I just didn’t think that our little vehicle would do well against another blast from their cannon.” Qui-Gon just shook his head, closed his eyes, and continued to Force-lift the elevator car. Shrugging, Obi-Wan turned back to the open doorway to watch the elevator shaft seemingly fall away as they ascended.
They reached the open hatch above, and Qui-Gon held the car in place while the two men disembarked. They found themselves in another white corridor, similar to the one the drone had led them through, except that approximately one hundred meters from the elevator shaft the corridor branched into another at a ninety degree angle. As Qui-Gon took the lead and walked toward the branch, the elevator car left to scream down the shaft, a squad of fully-armored Neimoidian shock troops poured out of the adjoining corridor.
With their glossy black military-grade exoskin covering them from head to toe, including the varied skull ridges that protruded from their heads like ceremonious antlers, the squad resembled a swarm of very large, bipedal beetles. Their musculature was accentuated and enhanced by the biotechnological armor they wore, adding a distinctly threatening characteristic to their appearance. All of the soldiers carried the latest model of the Trade Federation’s most popular heavy assault blaster, and several were already raised and poised to fire upon the Jedi.
Obi-Wan threw out his left hand and Force-pushed the vanguard violently into the nearest wall. Even with the protective exoskin, the skeletons of the three unfortunate point soldiers shattered loudly as they slammed into the wall, their shouts of surprise cut short. With his right hand, Obi-Wan drew his lightsaber, the blue plasma of the blade erupting out of the hilt upon his touch. The padawan heard the distinctive buzz of his Master’s lightsaber powering on next to him, but he did not spare a glance. Instead, before the rest of the security squad could recover, Obi-Wan Force-pulled on the next two soldiers while launching himself into the air; simple physics did the rest for him, sending him flying through the corridor towards the soldiers hurtling straight toward him. Before they could collide, Obi-Wan used the Force to push himself down to the floor, fatally smashing the two soldiers against the corridor’s ceiling. Their bodies hadn’t even collapsed to the floor by the time Obi-Wan bounded into the midst of the remaining squad.
The surviving members of the squad had finally managed to start discharging their weapons, but with Obi-Wan among them in extremely close quarters, and with Qui-Gon using his lightsaber to easily deflect any stray plasma rounds that shot down the corridor toward him, their resistance was far too weak and too late to save them. Obi-Wan’s blue saber buzzed and whirred lethally, hewing through the squad with ease. The intense heat from the plasma blade cauterized as it cut, so that by the time Obi-Wan was finished and the seven bodies of his victims lay about him in various pieces, only very little of their deep purple blood tarnished the brilliant white walls and floor of the corridor.
Obi-Wan straightened out of his fighting stance and powered off his lightsaber. He drew open his robe and placed his lightsaber against the outside of his right thigh. The electrotissue of his exoskin eagerly stretched out and grasped the hilt of the weapon, securing the lightsaber to the padawan’s side.
Qui-Gon calmly approached the outside edge of the carnage, his lightsaber already securely tucked away beneath his robe as well. Glancing around at the bodies, Qui-Gon shook his head sadly.
“Ours is a tragic task,” he commented. “Such a waste of life.” Obi-Wan nodded in agreement. “The fleet commanders should know better than to use aggression in an attempt to stop Jedi,” he continued.
“I believe the problem is that their superiors did not care for their lives,” Obi-Wan suggested sagely. “These soldiers were expendable, meant to slow us down.”
“I hope they see how little time that afforded them,” Qui-Gon said a bit louder than needed, for the benefit of whomever might be monitoring the security feeds of the corridor. “No doubt, though,” he directed to Obi-Wan more quietly, “they will continue to try. It is time to discard our outerwear, Obi-Wan. We will get to the bottom of this dispute, even if the our hosts choose the barbaric route over civilized negotiations.”
Obi-Wan obediently disrobed, revealing the off-white exoskin he wore beneath. The armor molded to the padawan’s bare skin, mimicking his musculature, the physique of young man trained for combat since childhood. The armor was about two centimeters thick, adding considerable bulk to Obi-Wan’s body. He was a small man, at a height of 170 centimeters compared to Qui-Gon’s 185, but his frame was wider and his body younger; particularly with the exoskin, Obi-Wan looked like he was built for war.
The padawan imagined the armor extending itself to cover his head and face, and the thought sent the appropriate signals to the cluster of nerve receptors plugged into the small implant at the base of Obi-Wan’s neck. The exoskin responded immediately, the bulge of extra electrotissue that ringed Obi-Wan’s shoulders surging upward, growing over his head to form a featureless mask and helmet. Millions of nanoscopic bioreceptors on the ends of each fiber of electrotissue covering his face constantly fed visual and auditory data directly into Obi-Wan’s nervous system, giving him enhanced sight and hearing capabilities.
When he turned to look at Master Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan saw that the Jedi Master was also now completely covered in armor, with the same featureless mask presented to the world. Obi-Wan briefly noted that a fully armored Jedi was likely terrifying to his or her enemies.
Let us find this Captain Tukhano and Vice-President Nguwen, shall we? Qui-Gon’s voice was projected directly into Obi-Wan’s auditory receptors via the exoskins’ ad hoc network. The Jedi turned down the corridor where the security team had come from, walking at a brisk pace.
Obi-Wan cast a glance around at the bodies and parts strewn around him. Using the Force to quickly gather his victims’ remains into a neat pile, the padawan draped both his and Qui-Gon’s large brown robes over the pile. Finished, Obi-Wan bowed respectfully toward the bodies, and then turned in a smart about-face and jogged down the corridor to catch up with his master.