The Gungan submarine had descended into Naboo’s strange labyrinth of water-filled caves, far beneath the surface of the planet. Ayo Verna and Yarua sat silently in their cell. With nowhere else to look, they stared at the floor, not having the slightest idea where they were being taken. The cell had no windows and they preferred to avoid the gaze of their captors.
The bongo slowed to a halt, the turbulence giving way to an eerie smoothness.
"Sounds like we’re there," whispered Ayo. Footsteps pounded closer and the two guards flanking Ayo and Yarua motioned for them to get up.
"Yousen comin wit ussen," barked one of the guards. "Move!"
Ayo and Yarua were marched from the bongo and into a dry dock. They were being escorted so quickly that they barely had a chance to look around. However, Ayo tried the best he could to catch a fleeting glimpse of this beautiful underwater city. It was almost organic in appearance, in the same way as the submarine from which they had recently disembarked.
Otolla City consisted of plazas set within immense bubbles reinforced by a framework. The water outside shimmered with fish, which surrounded the city as if drawn by its lights. Passing Gungans stopped and stared at the two aliens being marched through the streets.
The party arrived at a chamber set aside from the rest of the city. A row of formidable-looking officials sat around one side of the bubble-chamber, centred upon a small, wiry Gungan dressed in a long robe and crown. His eyes poke out from beneath the crown as if they were shoots. This was Boss Gnule, the ruler of the Otolla Gungana Clan.
The guards bowed to Boss Gnule and presented their prisoners. A few of the other officials stared in amazement at Yarua and whispered amongst themselves. They had never before seen a Wookiee, and the sight of this huge, furry creature brought about a certain feeling of awe.
Boss Gnule eyed his guests with interest. True, according to Captain Anatida, they could be part of an invasion by the Naboo, but he did not consider it likely. The Naboo were arrogant and condescending towards his people, but they were cowards who would never dream of starting a war. He had to consider all of the facts.
"Yousen invadin da land o’ da Gungans," said Boss Gnule in his high-pitched, nasal voice. "What yousen Naboo sayin for youselfs?"
Yarua grunted softly at the Gungans.
"We apologise for any act of invasion, your honour," said Ayo. "We are not from this world. Our ship’s been crippled so we’ve had to make an emergency landing."
Boss Gnule carefully considered this news. "Hmm," he puzzled, extending his eyestalks for a closer look at his guests. "Yousen no look lika da Naboo to mesa."
"We’ve come from Coruscant," said Ayo, "the central system of the Republic."
Yarua wolfed at Boss Gnule and Ayo introduced themselves.
"My name’s Ayo Verna, pilot of the Red Planet," He nodded towards his Wookiee companion, "and this is Yarua. He a Wookiee, from a planet far from here."
"Wesen no seein da Wookiees before," said Gnule. "Hesa berry beeg and hairy." Yarua grunted at the Boss’s observation.
"Your Honour," said Ayo respectfully, "we were sent by the Senate to gather intelligence on the activities of Lord Koraetor Mandalore."
Boss Gnule folded his arms and considered this information. Mandalore’s people had destroyed vast areas of swampland in recent years, clearing the forests in order to extract fossil fuels for sale offworld. This angered Boss Gnule, for his own people, along with the Ankura Gungans, had experienced the military might of MHG. Both Clans were powerless to stop the relentless decimation of their homeland in pursuit of profit.
"Wesen knowin boot da Mandalorey," said Gnule. "Hesa berry bombad! Hesa plunderin da Sacred Land!"
"We were sent by the Republic to investigate Mandalore," said Ayo, "but our ship had been attacked. We were forced to land in the swamp. Our other crew member’s wounded and he could die."
Yarua whimpered at the mention of the injured Zephoid Zez they had left on board the Planet.
"We’re deeply sorry if we invaded your land," said Ayo, "but it’s urgent that we fix the ship, otherwise we’ll never get back home, and Mandalore will escape justice."
Boss Gnule conferred with his council of Reps seated beside him as Ayo watched, his heart racing in anticipation.
"Hmm," said the Boss. ‘Wesen considerin yousen plea, an’ da Gungans are gonna ‘elp yousen." Ayo smiled with relief. "Wesen no likin dose who bully an’ pillage." Gnule frowned with pride. "Wesen Gungans knowin what’s right."
"Thank you for your help, your Honour," said Ayo. "Do you happen to have any, er, reactor coolant?" he asked as visions of the Planet’s dead power core danced in his mind. The reactor was the primary reason for their being here, and their first priority was getting it repaired.
Boss Gnule rose from his perch and stepped up to his guests. He looked up at them and smiled.
"Wesen give yousen meddaseens an’ ’lectric parten for yousen skeebeetle, but wesen know nottinks boot da ‘racta-coola’ dat yousen askin for."
"Reactor coolant," corrected Ayo gently. "Without it, your Honour, our 'skeebeetle' wouldn’t fly."
Gnule paused for thought. "Wesen no have da skeebeetles," he admitted, "wesen no usin dem, but da nearest place where yousa be findin dem is in da Fort Myreion," Gnule adjusted his crown and smiled, his eyestalks stretching out towards his guests, "da house o’ da Mandalorey."
Ayo glanced with trepidation at Yarua. "Great," he exclaimed in a whisper. "Out of the frying pan and into the fire."
"Wesen givin yousen map o’ distreek." Gnule smiled as a young servant presented the visitors with a large trunk. "Yousen no worry boot yousen friend. Hesa gonna mend."
* * *
The planet of Naboo appeared as a globe of blue marble as Sarolyn Lordan peered through the porthole beside her seat. The Sullustan businessman next to her was asleep, his head leaning towards her and sporadically touching her shoulder. She gently nudged him away.
A clipped, metallic voice floated through the cabin, causing the Sullustan to awake with a startled snort. "This is 4-LOM at your service. The spacecraft will shortly be entering the atmosphere of Naboo, and I politely request that passengers please extinguish all smoking-materials and ensure seatbelts are fastened. Thank you for observing all safety precautions."
The planet had grown markedly and had now become a wall of blue and white. The ship began to shake, and the view had become obscured by a blistering pink glow as the ship’s belly heated to incandescence. The superstructure groaned in protest at the added stresses of re-entry, and Sarolyn was pushed deep into her seat as the cruiser fought its way downward. The Sullustan was silent, his eyes screwed up with fear. Sarolyn held his hand.
"It’s okay," she said over the turbulence. "We’ll soon be through."
The Sullustan replied in his own language and relaxed as the noise and commotion suddenly stopped. The flight was once again smooth. Sarolyn gazed outside at the mountains of cloud that hung in the crisp, blue sky.
Once again, the voice of 4-LOM came over the intercom. "We will shortly be arriving at Theed Civic Spaceport. Please ensure that you have all of your personal belongings with you when you leave. Thank you for travelling with Royal Starlines."
The ship cleared the cloud deck, and the city of Theed was visible below, spread out across the countryside like antiques on a market stall. The copper domes of the Royal Palace dominated the scene, and a river coursed through the streets before plunging over a scarp in a spectacular waterfall.
The cruiser swooped over the city before touching down in a wide courtyard surrounded by elegant spaceport buildings. Ivy and hanging vines were draped over the friezes and porticoes bearing flowers that stood out in a rainbow of colours in the light of the afternoon sun.
* * *
On board the Red Planet, Yarua had almost completed his repairs of Peetoo. The droid was not as badly damaged as Yarua had feared, for the energy bolt had caused only superficial melting to his sensor apparatus, and they were fortunate in that the central processor board and hard disk were unharmed. The Wookiee had replaced all of the damaged parts by adapting the Gungan components to make them compatible with Peetoo’s operating system.
Yarua finished polishing the overhauled droid and flipped the operating switch. Peetoo’s lights flashed and he bonged his status gong as his videoscreen showed a display of small, white letters that read:
This indicated that Peetoo’s Resident Operating System was now on line and that the droid was ready to have his software rebooted. Yarua inserted a datacard into Peetoo’s drive and downloaded the files that enabled the crew to communicate with the droid using human and Wookiee speech. Yarua growled with triumph, punching the air in victory as the newly repaired droid became fully operational.
"Welcome back, Peetoo," yelled Ayo from the sickbay.
Yarua ambled over to join Ayo, who was checking upon the condition of the Zephoid Zez. When they had returned from the Gungan city, the poor creature had stopped breathing, and it had been a desperate fight to keep the creature alive. Now, it was a different story, for the medicines and first aid given to them by Boss Gnule had almost healed the Zez, who was sitting up for the first time. Ayo had given the Zez a bowl of processed cereal soaked in water, food made soft so that the creature could chew without pain from its bruised jaws.
Yarua growled gently and stroked the Zez as the creature ate, his long, pink tongue lapping up the gruel with a hearty slurp. Ayo smiled at the creature. He was itching to find out more about the Zephoid Zez; their culture, level or technology, anything that could prove their sentience. If he could teach the Zez how to speak Basic, he would then be able to explain his people’s plight to the Senate.
Ayo stared into the Zephoid Zez’s yellow, saucerlike eyes. "My name is Ayo," he said in a soft, slow voice. "Ayo."
The small, timid creature looked back at Ayo and blinked meaningfully. He opened his fanged mouth and spoke in a quiet, dry, high-pitched voice. "I...o."
Ayo beamed. The creature was learning to talk. "Me...Ayo," he said. Ayo then pointed to the Zez. "You...?"
The Zez responded tentatively. He tapped his small, bulbous torso with a webbed claw. "Me... Zsssibeon... Munt." The claw pointed at Ayo. "You...I-o."
Ayo wanted to hug Zibeon. The small creature curled back his lips from his teeth, baring his fangs in the smile of the Zephoid Zez.
Ayo turned to Yarua. "We’d better hit the road as soon as possible. Let’s have a look at the map the Gungans gave us."
Yarua reached into the provisions trunk given to them by Boss Gnule and pulled out a roll of tough, waterproof fabric. He carried the roll over to the crew’s quarters. Ayo beckoned Zibeon to follow him, and they sat around the table. Ayo spread out the roll to reveal a map of the area in which they had landed.
"Fort Myreion’s here," said Ayo, pointing at the map, "right on the coast, about forty miles from Theed. Its going to be a long, hard trek getting there."
Yarua grunted painfully. He was well aware of the risks involved in breaking into Lord Mandalore’s hangar and stealing a flask of coolant ice for the reactor. It was the only way they could safely get off the planet, so he had little choice in the matter.
Ayo led Yarua and Zibeon to a small cross he had drawn on the map. "We’re here," he said, tapping the cross with a pen, "about six miles from the edge of the swamp. From there, we go across the Theeland Links to the hills." Ayo paused and glanced at his companions, checking that he had their attention. "Beyond the hills there’s a farm, where we might be able to find a transport of some kind. Its our nearest point of civilisation before we reach the sea."
Yarua grunted at Ayo and looked at him with scepticism. It was a far-fetched plan which could easily cost the their lives. The two of them were fortunate to have escaped from Despayre in one piece, and the young Wookiee was worried that this time around, they might be pushing their luck. Still, he remembered, they had no choice.
To be continued…