Nute Gunray sat on the Queen's throne, rubbing his temple in thought with one hand as he fought a losing battle to stop the increasingly obvious shaking of his other hand. He wished, not for the first time, that he was somewhere else. Anywhere else. It did not matter where. As long as it was far, far away from anything that could harm him, he would be happier than a overzealous grub who had the largest stockpile of food.
He hadn't wanted this. Not if this was the price he had to pay for it. And now, with the Queen and her Jedi allies back on the planet and one of the two rogue Jedi in their midst, the possibility of ending up dead was that much greater than any potential reward.
He had to have an escape plan. Something that could get him out of this situation if things turned out as bad as he feared they were going to get.
He thumbed the communication switch, and a few moments later, a hologram of Daultay Dofine appeared in front of him. “Yes, Viceroy?"
“Captain, send a tech team from the ship down to the surface," Gunray ordered, feeling a thin film of perspiration form on his brow as he struggled to control himself. Best not to let Dofine know how agitated he appeared. Dofine was rather paranoid enough. “Have them begin modifications to the Lapiz Cutter. I want it capable of flight without assistance from the Control Computer by the end of the day."
The order clearly surprised Dofine. "Viceroy, I do not believe that is a wise idea. Aside from the fact that such a task would take more time than you specified, there is also the fact that to do so shows a lack of faith on your part to the entire planet. To show that you could be driven away from your claim by a force that is not only insignificant to our droid forces but is made up of primitives shows that..."
Gunray slammed his fist down on the armrest of the throne in a clearly uncharacteristic display of anger. “I do not care how it makes me appear in the eyes of others, as long as I am alive to swallow the humiliation. Now do it."
The hologram of Dofine flickered as it dissipated and Gunray went back to having his private heart attack. Despite the situation, and how confident he had appeared in front of Lord Sidious, he knew that the task at hand was the reprisal that he always knew would come. He only hoped that the droids would be enough to stop them all. Once the Queen signed the treaty, all would be well.
And then there was the second Sith. And the Jedi prisoner.
Gunray brought his attention back to the present as he saw Rune Haako approached. “Yes?"
Hakko looked at Gunray with what could only be described as a curious glance mixed with the fear that he was apparently unable to hide as effectively as the Viceroy was. “If I may be so bold, Viceroy, I would have to agree with Dofine. Any rash action on our part would only serve to undermine what we have accomplished here thus far."
Gunray affixed Haako with a stare, and was not surprised to find he took several steps backward. Haako was no more brave than he was, and he had much less experience in concealing his cowardice. “Need I remind you that it was rash action on our part that caused us to get into this situation in the first place? And was it not you that said that we should not have made this bargain to begin with? You seem to have a history of tucking your tail between your legs and running, Rune. Would you prefer that we allow ourselves to be captured, hmm? Brought before the Senate and have everything that we have worked for so long to acquire taken away from us?"
Gunray's words were having a powerful effect on Haako. “No...no, Viceroy. I am merely suggesting..."
Gunray was off the throne before Haako could finish speaking, shuffling towards his lieutenant angrily shaking his fist. “Let me state this to you, Haako. Dofine will not intimidate me. You will not intimidate me. Not even Lord Sidious will intimidate me. I am the master of my destiny. No one else. And if I see fit to abandon Naboo if it means my continued survival, I will do so."
“But...remember Monchar," Haako sputtered. “What happened to him when he...defied Sidious."
Gunray's anger lost some of the fire that had fueled it at the thought of learning of Monchar's death. “Indeed, you are correct. And we have the instrument of his destruction here with us. We must be careful if we hope to survive this..."
He trailed off as he noticed that Haako was no longer looking at him, his gaze instead at the archway to the room, where the horned and tattooed Sith stood, apparently taking in the conversation with a vested interest. Gunray fumed at the thought. He was normally a private humanoid, and was not accustomed to having his actions monitored. Although he was often on edge when it came to Lord Sidious' infrequent visits, the fact that his apprentice was here made him even more worried. He did not care to think about what the two discussed in secret.
“Well, what do you want?" he spoke, attempting to conceal his anger. “Shouldn't you be with the prisoner awaiting the arrival of the Jedi?"
Maul fixed Gunray with a stare. “They will not reach her."
Gunray blew out a deep breath. What had poisoned the local water supply recently that had given those around him an infallible belief in their own abilities? “You cannot seriously suggest that they will not reach the prisoner, are you? Even if we have two thousand fully deployed droids between the palace entrance and her room, they will find some way to get to her. We should have her killed now while you go and deal with the others personally..."
Suddenly Gunray felt his throat constrict. He struggled to breathe, but could not pass fresh oxygen into his lungs. He collapsed to his knees and looked to Haako, only to find him similarly afflicted. He passed his gaze back to Maul, whose arm was outstretched and closing, almost as if he was the one causing their air passages to close.
Gunray knew he had made a mistake, and that he was about to pay for it with his life. He was thus never more thankful for the incoming communications signal from the guard force stationed outside the hanger. He felt the pressure on his throat ease and quickly got to his feet, straightening his robes and breathing in heavily.
Once he was in full control of his faculties, he pressed the button that would transmit the message to the inset wall panel. The image that appeared on it was enough to have him wish that Maul was crushing his throat again.
Naboo soldiers were firing at the droid forces. Others piloted landspeeders that attacked the nearby AAT's. And he was sure that he saw several of them slip pass the guards and sneak into the hanger.
Gunray couldn't believe it. “I thought that the battle was going to take place far from here. This is too close."
Haako stepped up beside him. “Even if they could get fighters off, they will be no match for the Droid Control Ship. We will smash them without fail."
Gunray pursed his lips. “Perhaps." He turned to look at Maul. “And as for you, I would suggest..."
He paused as he realized that Maul was no longer in the room. "Good riddance," he thought. Gunray did not like the Sith Lord, but he knew that he was capable of dealing with the matter. This left him with the opportunity to find a way to figure out a way to get out of this.
He returned to the throne and thumbed the communications switch. “Dofine, have the tech shuttle land on the outskirts of the city, furthest away from the area of the battle."
“Do not question me!" Gunray roared. “Just direct their shuttle to a safer landing zone. And activate the droid forces in the planes. It is time to end this fiasco."
"One way or another," he thought as he flicked the communication switch off and turned to Haako. “Well, would you prefer to remain here? Or do you wish to continue living?"
Haako didn't need to be told twice. He was halfway to the arch before Gunray had finished the questioned. After a few moments, Gunray turned to follow, all thoughts about the battles going on outside pushed aside.
Willow could feel it through the Force. Something was happening nearby. And she had no doubt that the majority of the beings in the palace were now focused on it.
She had to move now.
It had taken some effort, but she had managed to control her emotions enough to tap into the Force and subtly begin to work on her bonds. She tested link after link, searching for the weak spot that she knew lay within. She reached out and felt the connection between the cool metal of the binders and her flesh. She began to drive a wedge between them, forcing them open.
Her thoughts turned to Tara, how she was going through so much in the past few days, and that it was all because of her. She promised herself that if they got out of this alive, she would be a more diligent student and not cause the two of them to get into so much trouble.
She panicked, thinking that her distraction would cause her to lose her focus in the Force. She was thus surprised to find that, with a faint click and a rattling clatter, the binders fell to the ground and she was free.
The noise must have alerted the droid guards outside, as the door opened and they stepped into the room, blasters drawn and pointed in her direction.
Acting on instinct, Willow extended her hand, sending a Force Push at the droids which sent them flying out the door and into the wall outside, collapsing into a heap of messed up parts.
Getting to her feet and running outside, Willow suddenly realized how vulnerable she was. She didn't have her lightsaber anymore, and if she was right, then the entire area was likely to be filled with blaster fire and bodies everywhere. She had to defend herself, but with what?
She looked at the droids, noticing one of their blasters. "What am I thinking?! Using a blaster? Tara wouldn't approve of it. She hates guns. HATES THEM!"
Willow realized, however, that she had no choice. If she didn't take the blaster, she wasn't going to get very far. She reached down to pick up the blaster, noting how uncomfortable she felt holding it. She felt as if she was disrespecting Tara once again by clutching the weapon. Her Master had an intense fear of blasters and slugthrowers stemming back to her own apprenticeship, when she had taken a shot directly to the chest by a small time criminal slicer. She had told Willow that she had almost died from that incident, and that only her Master, a quick trip to a nearby hospital and immersion in a bacta tank had kept her from suffering any permanent damage.
"I'm sorry, Tara," she thought. "I know you won't like this, but I think you'll like a splattered Willow even less."
She made her way down the corridor, the blaster firmly clenched in her hand.
Tara sliced a droid in half and watched as it clattered to the floor, looking up in time to see the last of the fighters take off. She noted, however, that one had sustained a hit and was now spinning to the ground. She felt sorry for the unfortunate pilot, but realized that there was nothing she could have done.
Shutting down her lightsaber, she heard the Queen say that the Viceroy was most likely in the throne room, and the order from the Captain to head out. The thought made her happy. Once they got there, she would find out where in the palace that Neimoidian slime had put Willow, and then she would make him regret taking her.
The thoughts surprised her, as they treaded dangerously close to the dark side. At the moment, she wasn't interested in maintaining a check on her emotional state. All that mattered was getting Willow back.
Something else disturbed her. One of her recent dreams had been a situation similar to this. She hadn't told Master Qui-Gon about her visions, particularly because they involved his apparent demise at the hands of some unknown demon creature. Not only that, but also because it gave her concern for Willow's safety a more obvious emotional connection. And Master Qui-Gon would never approve of that.
As she joined the others in walking towards the blast door, she heard Qui-Gon tell Anakin to stay where he was. She couldn't help but smile at that. She knew there was something special about this boy, much like she knew that there was something special about Willow. She only hoped that the Council would change their minds. This boy deserved to be a Jedi.
The blast door ahead of them opened, and Tara froze. Standing in front of the group was a dark cloaked being whose head raised and peered at the beings in front of him. The yellow in his eyes burned like twin binary stars, and she felt them bore into her soul, exposing her deepest secrets to him.
It made her sick.
The Queen and the other soldiers moved off to the side, while Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan stepped forward. She moved to join them, but Qui-Gon's voice broke through her clouded mind.
“Master Maclay, go find Willow. We'll take care of this."
“But..." Tara began, but stopped when Qui-Gon turned and fixed her with a glare. She nodded in silent agreement, and moved off. As she did, she realized that she should have said something. It was quite likely that Master Qui-Gon wouldn't survive his encounter. Then again, her dreams said that Willow was in obvious danger. The logic of the situation, however, was that Willow was already dead.
"If she is, I want to see for myself," Tara thought. "At least then I can have closure. I'll never be able to forgive myself, but at least I can feel justified in my worrying."
She moved to join the Queen's group, only to stop again as a trio of destroyer droids appeared, unfolded and began to fire. Ducking behind a crate, she withdrew her lightsaber from her belt, hesitating as she moved to thumb the activation switch. She couldn't deal with the destroyers on her own. And Master Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan were too busy dealing with the demon
She heard several of the Queen's troops cry out as they were hit and knew that she had to act. Getting to her feet and raising her lightsaber, she began to advance on the droids, blocking the shots that came too close. It suddenly occurred to her that she had no idea what she was doing. Sure, she was very much aware of the fact that she was moving to deal with the droids, but how she would accomplish this task was another matter. The closer she got, the more likely that one of them would break through her defenses.
As Tara ducked behind another crate to reassess the situation, she heard another burst of blaster fire. Cautiously raising her head, she saw one of the fighters moving across the hanger, green bursts erupting from its forward mounted laser cannons. Each shot impacted directly against one of the droids, overpowering their deflector shields and blowing them apart.
"But how...?" she thought. Then it hit her. It must have been Anakin. The nine year old certainly had a knack of doing the right thing at the right time.
Tara moved to join the Queen's group as they headed off down the corridor to the throne room.
"Hold on, Willow. I'm coming."