ALTERNATE DARKSIDE ENDING: CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

A few minutes later and many floors higher, Padmé and Anakin stepped off the turbolift and drew down their hoods.  They strode quickly down the curving hallway to the door of Senator Organa's apartment.  After she took off her gloves and tucked them into her belt, Padmé reached out and tapped the buzzer. 

"Who is it?"  It was Bail's voice. 

Padmé looked up to Anakin; he considered it for a moment and nodded.  "Bail, it's Padmé." 

A soft tone buzzed and the lock released.  Padmé waved her access badge across the panel.  The door slid open and they stepped into the deep shadows of his sitting room. 

Bail already had risen from his desk in the corner and met them in the middle of the room.  A late-evening session of the Senate recently had ended, and he still wore his purple three-piece suit and frilly white shirt.  His eyes revealed his surprise at their appearance and attire, although a broad grin split his face inside his narrow moustache and goatee. 

Padmé walked quickly forward and shook his hand firmly.  "It's good to see you." 

"I'm so relieved you're safe, Padmé," he replied very seriously.  "We had no idea where you were.  It's quite disconcerting when even Dormé doesn't know anything."  He looked quickly to Anakin.  "I'm sorry, Skywalker.  You should know the Council believes you are a danger to Padmé." 

"I figured as much," Anakin chuckled darkly.  "They'll learn their mistake soon enough, if they haven't already." 

Padmé laughed too.  "He's not, Bail.  In fact, he's my husband now." 

Bail's face lit up.  "Are you serious?" 

"Yes, I am," she smiled.  "It's wonderful.  Although please don't tell anyone until I've had a chance to make a public announcement through my office?" 

"Of course."  He looked stunned.  "This certainly is a surprise.  I must say, I'm very happy for you."  Bail reached out and took Padmé into a gentle embrace. 

When she pulled back, her voice lost its friendly tone.  "Unfortunately, I didn't come by just to say hello.  I have something very difficult to ask you." 

"What's that?" 

"While I was away, Dormé came across some records from two years ago," Padmé began.  "About the write-in campaign." 

Bail frowned and looked down at the floor.  "I see." 

"I trusted you, Bail.  I thought you were my friend."  She took a deep breath and continued.  "You knew I wanted my political career to be over when my term ended as Queen.  That I wanted to move on with my life.  So why would you have worked to get me elected to the Senate?" 

Bail met her gaze and turned his palms outward apologetically.  "I'm sorry, Padmé," he sighed.  "It was Palpatine's idea.  We both wanted a strong Senator from Naboo to replace Schmidt.  You were the obvious choice.  I thought we should have respected your decision, but Palpatine convinced me otherwise.  The Republic needed you; Naboo needed you.  We knew you wouldn't refuse to serve.  I told myself you would love being Senator and everything would work out." 

"So you manipulated me?  You exploited my integrity?"  Padmé shook her head in disbelief. 

"I don't know what else I can say."

"There's nothing you could, Bail.  Sorry doesn't give me my life back," she growled.  "You lucked out.  I have enjoyed being a Senator.  So for now you have nothing to worry about from me."  Then she remembered.  "And I suppose you and Palpatine warned Jacen never to tell anyone, even me?" 

"That's right.  I'm sorry about that too." 

Padmé snickered.  "Yeah, sure."  She took Anakin's gloved hand in her bare one.  "Goodbye, Bail." 

When the door slid closed behind the two black-clothed figures, Bail shook his head and wiped his eyes.  "Blast it!  I knew I'd regret it," he reminded himself as he looked blankly out the window into the dark night sky.  "So why did I listen to you, Palpatine?  Why?"

---

They rode all the way to the top floor of the Senate apartment building.  When they turned into the hallway, Anakin felt a disturbance in the Force.  The closer they walked to Padmé's apartment, the worse it became.  A few seconds later, he recognized it as a woman's despondent panic.  The kind of specifically dreadful fear he always had hoped he never would sense again.

Anakin grabbed Padmé's hand urgently and yanked her along as he broke into a run.  "Open the door!" 

From the tone of his voice and the painful strength of his grip, she knew better than to ask any questions.  They reached the door a few strides later.  She already had her access badge out and waved it over the panel. 

He knew every inch of the suite.  He had memorized it completely when he had guarded Padmé here weeks ago.  So without hesitation he followed the waves of terror and led her immediately toward the open door of Dormé's bedroom. 

Just before they entered, Padmé heard her friend's desperate, plaintive sob.  "No!  Jacen, please!  Stop!"  For a split second, Padmé saw Jacen pinning Dormé to the bed, one arm over her neck, the other forcing her leg to the side. 

With the Force to guide him, Anakin reacted instantaneously as he charged in.  His right hand flicked out and an invisible strike blasted Jacen's body lengthwise off the bed.  It spun a full revolution in the air before it smacked face-first into the wall with a calamitous crunch, then dropped straight down to the floor with a thud. 

Dormé sat up quickly and pulled her knees frantically to her chest.  Padmé rushed to the bed and hugged her tightly.  They watched Anakin stalk around the end of the bed and face the floor on the other side.

"Are you insane?  Don't you understand Basic?"  In a flash, he had lifted Jacen from the floor by his throat.  Jacen's nose was shattered, blood running down his face.  Anakin raised Jacen high off his feet and smashed the back of his head into the adjacent wall.  "She said no!" 

Although she was appalled by the situation too, Padmé was startled by the apparent depth of Anakin's rage.  His voice was as hollow and cold as she had ever heard; his eyes were filled with more hatred than she had ever seen.  Before she could say anything to try to calm him, Jacen's body flew through the air over their heads and out the door.  When it hit the back of the sofa in the sitting room, she was fairly confident the sound she heard was bones breaking.

With what looked like only a few steps, Anakin walked back around the bed and out.  Padmé clutched Dormé to her chest.  As Dormé shook with sobs, Padmé rubbed her back softly. 

Anakin approached Jacen's ruined frame.  Glaring into Jacen's eyes, Anakin pulled the glove off his right hand.  He pointed it downward.  "You need to know what it's like," he screamed.  "It's like this!"  A thin yet powerful tendril of Force lightning arced from Anakin's fingertips and scorched Jacen below the waist.  Anakin let it flow for a few moments before he ceased it. 

Fortunately for the two women, the loud crackle of the energy drowned out Jacen's horrifying shriek.  And Padmé already had closed her eyes.  Whatever Ani does to him, he deserves it.  For what he tried to do to Dormé.  As she squeezed her friend more, she took a deep breath.  It could have happened to me!  Despite her anger, she didn't want to watch Anakin's assault. 

It didn't last much longer anyway.  Anakin grabbed Jacen by the front of his shirt and dragged him along the floor.  The wide, floor-to-ceiling window to the balcony slid slowly up as he approached.  Out in the frigid night air, Anakin roughly threw Jacen to stand against the waist-high wall. 

In the Force, he could sense the man dying.  So he made sure to get the message across before it happened.

Padmé opened her eyes when she heard Anakin speaking.  She focused on his voice to hear it over the noise of the airspeeder traffic and wind.  "When I was seven," he said to Jacen without emotion, "my mother was raped by one of the slave masters in Mos Espa.  Her pain was unbearable.  Even then I felt it in the Force.  It took her months and months to get control of her life again.  And she never got over it.  Never!"  Padmé could tell Anakin had lost control completely.  "It happened right in front of me.  I tried to stop him, but I wasn't strong enough!  He just knocked me away!"  Padmé thought it looked like Anakin shook from crying before he finished.  "I wanted to kill the man who did that to her.  Except I was too young, too weak."  He laughed a grim and sinister cackle.  "I'm not anymore."

With another flick of Anakin's right palm, Jacen's torso twisted unnaturally over the wall before his feet flew up and flopped over the edge too. 

Padmé could not bring herself to think about how far the corpse would tumble in the air before it would encounter a surface to break its fall. 

---

Hours later, shortly before dawn, Padmé found Anakin in her bedroom, sitting on the edge of the bed and looking aimlessly out the window.  Neither of them had changed their clothes yet, even though in the meantime he had gone back to the Blue Hawk and retrieved an overnight bag for each of them. 

She sat down next to him and wrapped her right arm around his shoulders.  "We made it in time.  She's shaken, but she'll be okay.  She's finally sleeping now." 

Anakin looked into her eyes.  "I'm so glad to hear that," he whispered sadly. 

"I'm so sorry about your mother," Padmé said quietly.  "That's awful." 

"Thank you," he managed through a new round of tears.  He tipped backwards onto the bed, and she held him snugly in her arms.  After a little while, he regained his composure.  "I love you, angel."

"I love you too, Ani."  She kissed him gently on the cheek.  "We still have another visit to pay while we're here.  Should I call in and get an appointment?" 

"Now?" 

She giggled.  "The Chancellor has aides on duty at all hours.  It's no problem." 

"Okay."

She returned from the sitting room after only a few minutes.  "We're all set.  We have the first appointment after lunch." 

"Today?  On such short notice?"

"I'm sure they had to cancel another meeting, but the night secretary was too circumspect to tell me.  All she said was that the Chancellor had left strict instructions that you or I be given immediate priority." 

Anakin smiled up at her standing over him.  "That's nice of him." 

"Yeah," she agreed.  "How much time do you need to get ready when we get up?" 

He thought for a second.  "Half an hour?" 

"Good.  So we can still be fully rested."  She reached down her hands and pulled him to his feet.  "Shower, then sleep?" 

He nodded as he let her tug him gently into the refresher. 

ALTERNATE DARKSIDE ENDING: CHAPTER FORTY

As they stood waiting in the outer office to be summoned inside, Anakin and Padmé looked at each other.  It was the first time in many days they had set aside the disguises and cloaks.  She wore a navy blue formal Senate gown, her maroon tied up in a braid on the back of her head.  He had rejected out of hand the idea of wearing Jedi robes, so he dressed in his tight black flight suit and knee-high black boots.  Nervously he ran a hand through his short black hair.

Within the spacious office, Darth Sidious rose from the chair at his desk.  I must be very careful.  There is much I do not yet know about Skywalker's use of the dark side.  Or, more importantly, how Senator Amidala feels about it, if she even knows.  Supreme Chancellor Palpatine tapped the intercom.  "Send them in."

The Rodian secretary, Dar Wac, motioned them ahead from behind his desk.  "He is ready to see you now." 

Anakin took Padmé's left hand in his right as they entered through the opening door. 

Palpatine walked forward to meet them in the middle of the room.  "Anakin, Padmé, it is a great relief to see you both alive.  I have been very worried." 

"Thank you, your Excellency," Padmé answered for both of them.  They squeezed hands, reassured by Palpatine's calm demeanor and friendly use of their first names. 

"Please, have a seat.  I am sure we have much to talk about," Palpatine gestured, indicating two large chairs pulled up to face the broad and wide mahogany desk.  While he walked, Sidious very subtly pressed a tiny wisp of his feelings toward the pair.  What he found lifted his spirits immensely.  Skywalker was raging with the dark side; it coursed through him powerfully and dominated his emotions.  Even better, Amidala was filled with anger and hatred too.  And best of all, they were deeply and irreversibly in love.  This will be far easier than I ever imagined.

When Palpatine took his seat across from them, Padmé spoke.  "We have come to see you about several matters.  I'm not sure where to start." 

Palpatine leaned his elbows on his desk and pressed his fingertips together just above the surface.  "Well, why don't you begin," he soothed with a grandfatherly smile, "with why you have come to see me together.  I must say, I would not have expected it." 

Anakin reached over and took her hand again.  "We are married," he stated bluntly.  "We fell in love on Naboo, and have only grown closer and more in love since."

"I love Anakin with all my heart," Padmé agreed.  "I will never give him up."

Palpatine lifted his arms and leaned back in his chair.  "This is most unanticipated news."  He paused.  "Of course I am delighted for you.  What a happy event!"  He took a deep breath, then looked to Padmé.  "The Senate could not care less."  He quickly faced Anakin.  "But the Jedi will not be so indifferent." 

Anakin's eyes flickered with fire and his voice became hollow.  "The Jedi are nothing to me now.  I am through with them." 

The glee in Sidious' soul almost revealed itself on Palpatine's face.  Yet he forced a somber expression and turned to Padmé again.  "Surely, Senator, this troubles you?" 

"Not at all."  Padmé squeezed Anakin's hand.  "There is much you do not know of what has happened."  She sat forward in the chair.  "On Naboo, Anakin had a terrible vision of his mother's suffering.  Despite our instructions, we traveled to Tatooine to help her, only to find that we were too late."  She wiped a tear from her cheek with her free hand.  "She had been kidnapped and tortured by Tusken Raiders, and she died just after Anakin arrived." 

"I'm so terribly sorry," Palpatine mourned. 

"And it is the Jedi's fault," Padmé continued.  "They kept Anakin from her for all of his training.  They could have purchased her freedom and brought her here to Coruscant, or at least a planet more hospitable than Tatooine." 

Anakin could stay quiet no longer.  "And it gets worse.  On Geonosis, five Jedi were sent after Dooku, Obi-Wan and me and three of my friends.  When we got to him, he sent super battle droids after us.  Obi-Wan ordered my friends to fight Dooku while we fought the droids.  Obi-Wan must have known that was backwards.  My friends, they weren't strong enough.  Dooku killed them easily.  It was disgusting."  Anakin had to wipe off his cheeks too.  "And then, after I killed Dooku, Obi-Wan tried to stop me from leaving with Padmé; he tried to convince me to stay with him."  He swallowed hard.  "We told them not to chase us, but they did."  He balled his left hand into a fist and slammed his knee.  "I hate them for what they've done to my life!"

"I can understand your anger, my son," Palpatine tried to calm him.  "Certainly, you are to be congratulated for stopping Dooku.  Perhaps you have read on the Holonet how the Separatist insurrection already has suffered many defeats without his leadership?"  He paused and they nodded.  "I am not quite sure how you intend to proceed from here, however." 

"I will leave the Jedi Order," Anakin declared.  "I want out." 

"And we would like you to intercede on his behalf," Padmé clarified.  "They will not easily let their strongest and best apprentice depart their ranks.  They will go to any means necessary to prevent it, I believe.  They will stop at nothing."  She paused, composing herself a bit.  "We will need to meet with them, but I am afraid what they might try to do to us." 

Palpatine nodded slowly and peered off into the air to think.  After a long moment, he looked again at them.  "You know there is little I can do with the Council directly.  They do not heed advice from me."  He leaned forward on his elbows as before.  "But there is something I can do for you.  Refuse to meet them in their Temple, where they hold all the cards and all the power.  Meet them here, in my office." 

Padmé smiled.  He is a brilliant politician.  A master of strategy.  What an excellent plan.  "You would do this for us, your Excellency?"  As the words left her mouth, she already knew what was coming next: Palpatine flashed his trademarked knowing wink.  If he were not willing, he would not have offered.  "We are deeply thankful," she said humbly.  Anakin nodded in agreement. 

"You owe me nothing," Palpatine responded graciously as Sidious cackled silently in triumph.  

"Something else has been bothering me," Padmé offered after a short silence to make changing the subject appropriate.  "You and I always have believed in democracy.  Yet the emergency powers were passed, and you continue to hold them."

Palpatine exhaled a long and solemn breath.  "Do you remember, Padmé, what you said to me in my office here on Coruscant during the blockade crisis, as Queen Amidala stormed out and returned to Naboo?" 

How could I forget?  "It is clear to me now that the Republic no longer functions," she answered, looking distantly out the window, lost in memory.

"You have been here in the Senate only two years," Palpatine reminded her gently.  "I have been here over thirty, the last ten as Supreme Chancellor.  The Senate is getting worse.  Much worse.  The corruption and incompetence are paralyzing.  We could never fight a war in this condition."  He sighed again.  "The bureaucracy is equally inefficient, if not malicious.  If I could not bypass them, we would be losing the war." 

Anakin chuckled derisively.  "The Jedi Council barely functions, and that is only twelve." 

Palpatine did not react.  "I can see, Padmé, that you are troubled by this."  She nodded.  "Do not take my word for it.  While you were away, the Senate did manage to pass a few bills.  One created a new office to assist me in my duties.  A position of Deputy Chancellor.  As long as I choose a sitting Senator, I can fill the post without legislative confirmation."

Padmé was in shock.  "What are you suggesting?"

"If you will accept it, I will select you," he answered directly, staring hard into her eyes.  "Serve with me as my Deputy Chancellor.  Help me with the Senate.  Assist me in cleansing the bureaucracy.  Work with me to fight this war to win.  For now, we will need to proceed under the emergency powers.  When the situation improves, we will end them together." 

Still stunned, Padmé was silent and looking down at the floor.  Anakin squeezed her hand and looked at her.  "I would be honored, your Excellency," she finally replied.  "Even in ordinary times, the Republic was in greater turmoil than I cared to admit to myself.  In this war, the stagnation and decay is poisonous.  Everything we have fought so hard to build could be lost forever."  She looked up and met Palpatine's gaze.  "I will accept.  I will serve you, and Naboo, and the Republic to the best of my abilities." 

Anakin calmly interjected.  "I want to help."  They looked at him in surprise.  "Well, not with the Senate or the bureaucracy, of course," he snickered.  "Perhaps with the war effort?" 

Padmé grinned broadly.  "I'm sure we will be able to find something suitable for you to do, Ani." 

Palpatine nodded.  "I would never let your skills go to waste," he suggested, allowing just a bit of Sidious to creep out for a moment, certain the unspoken implication about the Jedi would not be missed. 

"With the time of yours we will be taking," Anakin asked, "when should we meet with the Jedi?" 

Palpatine tapped the intercom.  "Inform the Jedi Council that Skywalker and Amidala have returned to Coruscant and wish to meet with them.  Tell them it will happen in my office tomorrow morning or not at all."  He looked at the young couple across from him.  "Do not doubt it.  They will be here." 

"In that case," Padmé said, "there is one other matter.  What if the Jedi seek to seize us before then?  What if they come after us, like they already have?" 

Anakin slapped his knee with his palm.  "Let them come!  They'll never get past me!" 

Palpatine chuckled lightly.  "I am sure that is true, my son, but it would be better to avoid a confrontation, don't you think?"  He tapped the intercom again.  "Send two platoons of the Chancellor's guards to the apartment building of Senator Amidala.  I want guards at all the entrances, and on her floor.  And immediate, constant surveillance by armed airspeeder.  No one is to be given entry unless Senator Amidala or Master Skywalker agrees.  Not even a Jedi.  Is that understood?"

"Yes, sir," the Rodian's voice replied.  "The orders go out forthwith." 

"Well, then," Palpatine smiled, "enjoy your evening and night.  I will see you in the morning."  He rose and headed around the desk to walk them out. 

"Thank you!"  Padmé wrapped him in a warm embrace.  "Thank you so much!  For everything." 

"You are very welcome, my young friends," Palpatine answered peacefully. 

Anakin simply shook his hand.  "I appreciate all of this, your Excellency, more than you can imagine.  I look forward to working with you." 

Palpatine could only nod.  When the door closed behind them, Sidious slapped his palms together and pumped his fists in the air.  I look forward to it as well.

ALTERNATE DARKSIDE ENDING: CHAPTER FORTY-ONE

The Jedi Council convened immediately when the subcommittee returned from the meeting in the Supreme Chancellor's office.  Yoda, Mace Windu, Plo Koon, and Obi-Wan Kenobi had attended.  As the other members took their seats, Mace began the report. 

"You all have heard, I assume, the announcement early this morning, before our arrival to meet with them, that Senator Amidala has been appointed to the new position of Deputy Chancellor?"  He waited and confirmed the nods. 

"Well, it gets worse," he sighed.  It was all he could manage to start. 

"Hmm.  Much worse," Yoda nodded after a long pause. 

To break the uncomfortable silence, Ki-Adi-Mundi took the initiative.  "Is he willing to return to the Temple?"

Obi-Wan shook his head.  "Not on conditions we ever could accept." 

"So the rest of you can understand," Mace explained, "I will need to start from the beginning.  Skywalker and Amidala are romantically involved.  More than that, actually.  They have married."  Startled glances passed around the room.  "Skywalker will not agree to end the relationship for any reason." 

The usually placid Depa Billaba was incensed.  "Then he must be expelled on that basis alone!" 

"It may come to that, yes," Mace conceded.  "Moreover, Skywalker insists he be elevated to Knighthood.  As you know, Obi-Wan was promoted after he killed the Sith Lord on Naboo a decade ago.  Skywalker demands the same treatment because he killed Count Dooku."

"Except that Obi-Wan did not use the dark side to kill," Ki-Adi-Mundi clarified indignantly.  "Skywalker drew upon the Sith lightning when he fought Dooku.  This is totally different!"

"Of course it is," Obi-Wan acknowledged.  "But Anakin will never see it that way." 

"And Skywalker killed two of his fellow Padawan learners," Adi Gallia pointed out, as if anyone needed to be reminded.  "I suppose he expects us to ignore that?"

Mace nodded.  "He maintains it is our responsibility for their deaths.  Had we not disregarded their instructions and sent the Padawans out, it would not have happened." 

Shaking heads and forlorn sighs went around the circular room again.

"Let me get this straight," Saesee Tiin began.  "Skywalker believes he is entitled to be a Jedi Knight, notwithstanding that he has demonstrated a lack of emotional control in two very, very profound ways.  He used the dark side of the Force to kill, and he has taken on a strong and perpetual attachment."  He looked at his colleagues in disbelief.  "He's asking us to abandon the Code." 

Yoda chuckled.  "No, no.  Only an exception for himself, does he seek.  For everyone else, acceptable the Code is." 

For a few moments, the joke lightened the mood for the others.  Then Mace continued again.  "Have no doubt, friends, we made our position clear to Skywalker.  Marriage is forbidden for a reason.  He cannot be a Jedi and a husband.  It would be far too dangerous, especially considering what he already has done.  And he must atone for his use of the dark side, and for the slaying of his colleagues, before we will even consider letting him take the Trials." 

"I should point out," Obi-Wan commented, "that the four of us believe Anakin was using the dark side even in our conference today.  We were completely unable to read his feelings.  And throughout the meeting, his right hand never released its hold on Senator Amidala's left hand.  None of us was able to read her feelings either, as we have in the past.  Anakin was shielding them both with the dark side.  I am certain of it." 

Eeth Koth tilted forward a bit, clasping his hands in front of him.  "So what was the conclusion of the meeting?  Are we to act now?"

"No," Mace answered quickly.  "Chancellor Palpatine proposed a temporary solution we tentatively accepted on the Council's behalf.  We will consider Anakin suspended from the Order.  On probation, if you like."  He looked quickly around the circle.  "Anakin will be given an assignment in the Republic's military forces.  Most likely involving resolution of the remaining Separatist violence.  We will receive reports on his conduct and activities.  After several months, both the Council and Skywalker will reevaluate the situation.  Perhaps, with some time to reflect, Skywalker will come around." 

Plo Koon had been reluctant at the meeting and still was not convinced.  "And if he does not?" 

Yoda sighed.  "Nothing now, must we decide."  He looked hard at him.  "But if so, expel him, we must." 

"His power is already quite strong," Ki-Adi-Mundi interjected with trepidation.  "We can't just let him wander the galaxy with it.  Or let the Sith gain control of him.  He's perilously close to falling to the dark side." 

"We know," Mace admitted.  "Yet the Chancellor's compromise buys us time, gives us a chance to hope.  What other choice do we have?  Despite the risks, he has not yet done enough to warrant our…  Oh, let's face it.  To warrant our killing him."

Obi-Wan nodded.  "I feel I have failed you.  That I have not trained him properly."

Adi Gallia spoke before any of the others could.  "That is nonsense, Obi-Wan, and you know it!  Each Jedi must make his own decisions about his future.  Qui-Gon chose rightly.  So did you.  Dooku did not."  She spread her hands out to her compatriots.  "We have done all we can for Skywalker." 

"We must have faith he will follow the right path," Mace agreed calmly.  "And if he does not, we will stop him." 

Yoda closed his eyes and kept his thoughts to himself.  He knew what the others did not.  If misplaced our faith is, by then too late, it will be.

---

After the Jedi departed his office, Palpatine asked Anakin and Padmé to stay for a few minutes.  "There are two small matters I would like to discuss," he told them. 

"First," he said, looking to Padmé, "I have made the effective date of your appointment as Deputy Chancellor two weeks from tomorrow.  In the meantime, I would like the two of you to take a honeymoon.  You have been through far too much for such young lives.  It is long overdue for you to enjoy some quiet time alone together." 

"Thank you, your Excellency," Anakin exclaimed in excitement.  "This is fantastic." 

"Oh, Chancellor, how can I ever thank you?"  Padmé's tears streaked her face. 

"Please, please, Anakin, Padmé," Palpatine interrupted.  "Dispense with the formalities.  We are friends, colleagues now.  Just Palpatine will be fine." 

They looked quickly to each other.  In all the years she had known him, Padmé had never heard anyone address him by his name rather than an honorific.  Their gazes said the same thing.  Wow.

"Thank you," she mumbled.  It was all either of them could muster. 

"The second matter relates to Anakin's assignment."  Palpatine brushed his brow with the sleeve of his long blue robe, then tapped the intercom button three times without speaking.  "As you know, the Jedi have been leading the clone army.  They have been doing a serviceable job, to be sure, but they are not trained soldiers.  We need leaders with more experience and knowledge in strategy and war.  So I have begun to form the small nucleus of an officer corps for the Army of the Republic by recruiting away a few of the very best generals and admirals from the paramount planetary forces of the Core worlds." 

"That sounds like an excellent idea," Anakin agreed.  "It will make the army much more effective and powerful.  How do I fit in?"

"In two ways," Palpatine smiled.  "You can assist with interviewing candidates.  Your skills in the Force will be a great asset in detecting deception and evaluating judgment.  In addition, I propose to assign you the rank of Brigadier General.  Although you are not suited to broad battle strategy, you are the perfect choice to lead our three brigades of Special Forces clones."  He glanced to Padmé.  "What do you think, Deputy Chancellor?" 

She grinned broadly.  "I approve.  I most definitely approve." 

Behind them, the door to the office slid open.  In strode a tall and thin man of fair complexion, about forty years old, with slicked-back black and piercing blue eyes.  He wore a crisp gray uniform. 

Palpatine rose from his desk chair and walked to the middle of the room.  "Welcome, General."  Anakin and Padmé stood as well and approached the new arrival.  "Anakin, Padmé, allow me to introduce you to the general in charge of our new corps.  The finest tactician in the galaxy, bar none." 

"Wilhuff Tarkin," the man introduced himself, extending his hand first to Padmé.  "It is a pleasure to finally meet you, Senator Amidala." 

"Thank you, General," she replied as she shook it.  "If I may ask, which is your home planet?"

"Eriadu, in the Outer Rim," Tarkin answered. 

"We're all neighbors, then," Anakin kidded.  "I'm from Tatooine."  They shook hands too.  "Anakin Skywalker." 

"I've heard much about you," Tarkin nodded.  "All good.  Our mutual friend the Supreme Chancellor is most impressed by your skills," he chuckled.  "I await the opportunity to get to know you better when you return in two weeks.  I am quite confident our partnership will be fruitful." 

ALTERNATE DARKSIDE ENDING: CHAPTER FORTY-TWO

As soon as they left the Supreme Chancellor's office, Anakin and Padmé rushed back to her apartment and packed their things.  Padmé wrote a short note to Dormé and left it on her pillow.  They went to the Blue Hawk without stopping to eat, and the starfighter tore up through the atmosphere at a speed that would have been insanely unsafe for any other pilot.  And less than an hour after they had bid Palpatine farewell they were at lightspeed, headed for the only possible destination: Naboo. 

Thanks to a highly aggressive hyperspace path Anakin and Artoo agreed upon, the trip lasted just over a standard day.  On the way, they decided to spend the first two nights of their stay in Theed, even though it would reduce their time alone.  It was worth it. 

They both relished the opportunity to spend some real time with Padmé's family, unlike their two prior, very hurried visits.  And they had an enjoyable lunch with Sabé, Rabé, Saché, Yané, and Eirtaé.  Then they paid a brief visit to Saché's apartment to see Jenny Antilles, who was adjusting very well to her new surroundings. 

On the morning of the fourth day of the honeymoon, they returned to the lake retreat and were pleased to learn the same villa was available again. 

---

After lunch on the broad veranda, Padmé gently tugged Anakin to the edge of the rose-lined balustrade.  For a few minutes they stood in silence, looking out over the placid waters of the lake below and listening to the mellifluous songs of the dozens of birds in the surrounding trees. 

Holding her left hand in his right, he turned to look at her.  She wore a revealing peach dress that clung snugly to her torso and hips.  Her hair, still dyed a deep maroon, hung long and loose down her back, a few curls sneaking out over her chest.  He almost lost his train of thought when his eyes caught the plunging neckline yet again.  "I love you, angel," he whispered. 

She spun to face him too.  He was wearing a simple white shirt and knee-length tan britches.  She reached up and brushed his black-dyed hair with her free hand.  "I love you too, Ani." 

They leaned in for long and passionate kiss.  When she finally broke it, gasping for air, she rested her right hand on the balustrade again. 

"Ow," she whimpered. 

Anakin glanced down quickly and saw her shaking her hand briskly back and forth in the air.  "What happened?"  He let go of her left hand and reached out and tenderly took her right hand by the wrist. 

"Oh, it's nothing," Padmé smiled.  "I just nicked my finger on a thorn.  It surprised me more than it hurt.  It's fine." 

"Never.  It's never fine when my angel is in pain," he insisted.  He drew her hand up to his face.  A single drop of blood was forming on the tip of her ring finger. 

"You can kiss it and make it better, if you like," she teased. 

"Hmm," he mumbled as he nodded and leaned on the balustrade with his left hand.  Very suggestively he took the tip of her finger between his lips and held it there. 

She was startled by the warm tingling sensation running from her fingertip all the way up to her shoulder until it diffused into her body.  It was only a few seconds until he released her finger from his mouth and offered her hand back to her.  When she looked at it, the tiny wound was completely healed.  She stared at him in amazement.  "I was kidding, you know." 

"I know," he chuckled giddily.  "But I wanted to."

She giggled along with him.  Then her Force presence shifted.  "Speaking of wants," she whispered huskily, "I need to freshen up.  Will you meet me in five minutes?"  The look in her eyes told him where.

"Of course, angel," he grinned.  After she disappeared inside, Anakin stepped back from the balustrade.  He planted his feet apart and clasped his hands at the small of his back.  He watched a falcon soaring and swooping through the air in the distance, riding the air currents over the lake.  In a sudden plunge, the predator dove with blistering speed and scored a direct hit on a lazily drifting yellow songbird.  The display of skill and deadly power pleased Anakin immensely. 

Just as he was about to turn inside, from the corner of his eye he noticed something strange on the balustrade.  Where he had rested his hand while healing Padmé, the two roses he had touched were now brown and dead.  He leaned down for a closer look.  Sure enough, although the surrounding bright red flowers were very much alive and radiant in the Force, these were drained of life.  He blasted a burst of air between his lips and the flowers evaporated into a small cloud of dust.  Interesting, he thought.  Most interesting indeed.

---

Padmé rolled over under the sheets and gently rocked Anakin's shoulder with her left hand.  "Ani?"

He stirred.  "I'm sorry," he replied groggily, still facing away.  "I didn't mean to fall asleep." 

"It's okay," she giggled.  "It gave me time to think."

He rolled around to look at her.  "About what?" 

"You know how I've been saying that I need a change in my life?  That I don't want to be Amidala anymore?  That I want to be Lady Vader?" 

"I remember," he nodded as he ran his right hand across her cheek. 

"When we get back to Coruscant, let's do it.  For real.  Officially," she grinned.

"You mean it?" 

"I do," she answered.  "Deputy Chancellor Vader.  Brigadier General Vader."

Anakin grinned back.  "It does have a nice sound to it." 

"I was wondering something too," Padmé admitted.  "I like our new hair colors.  They really suit us.  And they certainly suit the Vaders.  Do you think you could use the Force to make them permanent?"

"You mean to alter our bodies so our hair grows in this color?" 

"If you could, yeah."

"Anything's possible with the Force.  I'll meditate on this for a while and figure out how to do it."

---

A few days later at breakfast, Padmé smiled across the small table at Anakin.  "Do you mind if I go into Theed for a few hours this morning, maybe through lunch?" 

"Nope," he shook his head.  "I really should meditate again.  I haven't done that enough since we've been here.  It's fine." 

"You're not going to ask why I'm going in?" 

"It's not that I don't want to know," Anakin chuckled happily.  "I assumed it was to see your family." 

"It's not," she winked.  "I'll tell you when I get back?" 

"Sure." 

After Padmé and the droids lifted off in the Blue Hawk, Anakin went back to the bedroom and opened one of his travel bags.  Inside, he found what he was looking for: a small palm-sized box.  It had been delivered to her apartment during their meeting with the Chancellor and the Jedi; he had not made time to open it until now.  A tiny card was attached to the top.  It read, To: Skywalker.  A token of appreciation.  From: A friend.  Anakin untied the string and lifted the lid. 

Inside, carefully packed in soft tissue paper, were three transparent crystals.  He knew immediately they were for his lightsaber.  With a few short steps he grabbed his tool kit from the closet floor and rushed to the table downstairs.  In a matter of minutes, he had disassembled the crystal assembly in his blade and inserted the new gems in their place. 

Anakin walked out onto the broad grass lawn at the base of the villa.  Looking out over the lake, which mirrored the soft rolling clouds in the calm surface of the water, he took a few deep breaths before he sat cross-legged on the grass.  He held the lightsaber in both hands and began to meditate.  Slowly but surely he filled himself with the Force, then projected the energy into the crystals of the weapon.  As he concentrated, he let all of his unresolved feelings of anger and pain and hatred and sorrow and rage burn furiously through his veins and blast fiercely into the blade.  Filled with the dark side, he had never felt more powerful in his life, even when he had killed Count Dooku or Jacen Organa. 

Suddenly, as he felt the raw energy of violence and vengeance flowing through him, he knew his task was complete.  His eyes popped open and he sprang to his feet in an instant, and he held the handle in front of him in both hands.  He thumbed the switch.  A hiss and pop broke the still air and a brilliant blade of light burst forth. 

Red. 

A bright, shimmering, whirring, intense red, the color of the roses on the balustrade lit by the warm midday sun.  He paused for a moment, admiring his work.  Without conscious thought, his left hand pulled away and drew the other lightsaber from his left hip.  From Ellina's old handle, the matching red blade that once had been Dooku's activated as well. 

Anakin charged across the lawn, the twin red blades flawlessly executing form after technique after style of lightsaber fighting.  After a few minutes, dueling against the air lost its fun.  Fortunately, he had retrieved his four training remotes from the ship before Padmé had left. 

---

Several hours later, Padmé found Anakin in a small glen among the trees about fifty yards from the villa.  In her hand, she carried a small picnic basket with their dinner; over her shoulder, a small bag with blankets to spread on the grass and bottles of juice to drink. 

She assumed he sensed her presence, but nevertheless she concealed herself and watched him.  His shirt and shoes were dropped in the grass near her; he wore only his britches and belt.  She hid behind a tree and gawked in awe and admiration as he used two red lightsabers to defend himself against what to her seemed unrelenting and impossibly fast attacks.  The four flying remotes streaked through the air and fired constantly.  She could barely even see what was happening, and yet he could dodge or parry every single tiny laser bolt. 

About ten minutes later, Padmé simply could not control herself any longer.  She stepped around the tree and into the clearing.  She was confident he would not let the remotes attack her.

He didn't.  Before she was even three steps onto the grass, he leaped a dozen feet into the air, soaring over the remotes, waving his hand to trigger them to shut down as he did.  He dropped gracefully to the ground in front of her, landing squarely on his feet, drenched in sweat.  "Did you have a nice visit?" he asked as he deactivated the two blades and clipped them to his belt.   

The only answer he received was a ferocious embrace and very passionate kiss.  He barely had time to notice that the yellow dress she wore now was even more flattering, and more distracting, than the peach dress several days before. 

A long time later, they lay on a blanket on the grass, looking up at the orange evening sky.  Padmé pulled the covering blanket up to her chin.  "When did you learn that?"

Anakin snickered.  "I was about to ask you the same thing." 

"Well, I asked first."

"Alright.  I had a very successful meditation today.  I changed the crystals in my lightsaber…"

"I noticed," she cut him off.  "It looks good."

"I think so too," he smiled.  "And I meditated about other things too.  I had a lot of the Force flowing through me today.  More than usual."  More than ever before. 

"I suspected as much," she giggled, brushing the hair off his forehead.

He glanced around them.  Much of the previously green grass had turned brown, and a few of the nearby trees now looked sickly.  "And I think I succeeded with the Force on our hair like you asked."

"That's good," she smiled.  She plopped her chin onto his chest.  "I'm famished.  Can we eat now?" 

"Sure," he agreed.  "But only after you tell me who you visited today."

"I went to see Jenny again.  And after she left for the arcade with a few of her new little friends, I had a very enlightening conversation with Saché," Padmé winked.

Their laughter rose into the sky and echoed through the woods all the way back to the villa. 

ALTERNATE DARKSIDE ENDING: CHAPTER FORTY-THREE

Her first full day back on Coruscant had been an exhausting one.  Padmé had taken the oath of office as Deputy Chancellor, publicly announced her marriage to Anakin at her first press conference, and submitted the required documents to formalize the change of their surname to Vader.  All before lunch.  A dozen different meetings about Senate business had occupied the rest of the day, including one over dinner.  When she finally had arrived home to the small Senate apartment an hour ago, she barely had managed to let down her hair before she flopped spread-eagle on the bed, staring at the ceiling, still wearing her purple gown.  With no end in sight to such frenzied agendas, she was more convinced than ever that she and Anakin had made the right decision on the flight to Naboo to postpone starting a family for a while.

Her doze was broken when she heard the buzzer for the main door sound.  "Dormé," she projected as much as she could manage, "can you get that?  It's Anakin, I assume." 

"Of course," she heard her handmaiden answer from the sitting room.  "The security service says his access badge should be delivered tomorrow." 

"Good," Padmé sighed.  The swish of the opening door was followed immediately by a startled shriek from Dormé. 

"Sorry, sorry," came Anakin's voice.  "I should have called ahead to warn you." 

"No, no, it's fine," was the reply.  "I'm still a little edgy, that's all."  A pause.  "It's quite the intimidating appearance you have, I must say." 

By then Anakin had made his way across the sitting room, and he stopped in the open doorway to Padmé's bedroom.  "Why thank you," he grinned over his shoulder.  "That's what I was going for." 

"Good night, you two," Dormé responded faintly, heading toward her bedroom. 

Padmé lifted her head and looked at her husband.  Instantly she understood. 

Tarkin had promised that a custom-fit battle suit would be ready for Anakin when they returned.  And it certainly provided a menacing look indeed.  The core of the suit was a shiny black armor breastplate that covered his torso, waist, and lower hips.  Along the shoulders were five additional gray bands of armor plating.  He also wore knee-high black boots and black gloves that covered his hands and forearms.  The light gray fabric covering the remaining surface of his arms and legs was skin-tight to flaunt his powerful muscles.  From the wide utility belt, a lightsaber handle hung at each hip.  The final touch was a huge cloak, the hood drawn down, the same obsidian shade as his hair. 

"You've arrived just in time, General Vader," she welcomed him suggestively. 

"Just in time for what, Deputy Chancellor Vader?" he asked as he stepped inside and waved the door closed behind him.  The small bag he carried in his left hand, containing several extra sets of the fabric portion of the suit, he tossed to the foot of the bed. 

"I was going to change and go to bed without you," she teased.  "I'm totally exhausted." 

"Me too," he agreed.  "I had a lot of new material to learn today."  He offered her his hands, and she pulled herself to her feet by them. 

Padmé disappeared into the large walk-in closet.  "So, have you and Tarkin agreed on your first assignment yet?" 

Anakin hung the cloak from a hook on the wall near the door.  "Actually, we did."  Standing next to the bed, he began to undress as well, tossing the gloves on the end of the bed.  "Angel, how much closet space are you going to be able to make for me?"

"None," she answered very seriously from inside.  "I ordered you two armoires and two bureaus today.  They're being delivered tomorrow.  There's space for them along that far wall there.  That'll be enough capacity for you, right?" 

He laughed heartily as he pulled the boots off.  "Plenty.  I have a much smaller wardrobe than you!" 

She stepped out from the closet in a short-sleeved white cotton shirt that hung about halfway down her thighs.  "That's true," she giggled.  "Although we will have to buy you a few more formal outfits.  You won't be able to wear military attire like that to many of the events you'll have to attend with me."  She walked inside the refresher, leaving the door open. 

"I know," he conceded.  By now he had removed the armor, which he stacked carefully in some free floor space in the corner.  "Sorry," he realized.  "I never finished answering your question.  My first assignment is going to be Tatooine."

"Really?  That's hardly a hot spot right now," she wondered between splashes of water on her face. 

"True," he agreed as he pulled off the snug fabric.  "But we thought an easier mission to start would be good.  A planet I know fairly well, one that will be comparatively easy to pacify.  You know, begin simple, build from there."  He headed toward the refresher in his boxer shorts.

"Your turn," she smiled.  She intentionally brushed against him as they passed, running the fingertips of her right hand across his bare chest.  "I think that sounds like a good idea.  Gain some confidence early, then tackle the tougher worlds," she said as she slipped between the sheets.

"Yep," his voice concurred over the running water.  "You understand I'll be gone at least a month, right?" 

"I know," Padmé sighed.  "But I'm going to be very busy myself with this new position.  I'm not sure I'll be home much at all.  I'll miss you a lot, but at least I'll have so much to do I won't have any time to sulk about it." 

"Yeah, that's about right."

"What's taking you so long, Ani?" 

Anakin chuckled as he wiped the towel around to dry his face and hair.  "I'm going as fast as I can, angel."  The balled-up white shirt flew through the open doorway and hit him squarely in the back of the head. 

Amazingly, he discovered he could move even faster after all.

---

A few days later, Anakin strode quickly down a hallway in the principal military hangar on Coruscant.  All the necessary arrangements had been made, so this afternoon he finally was scheduled to depart for Tatooine. 

The Blue Hawk now was docked in a hangar bay at Padmé's Senate apartment building.  The starfighter technically belonged to the Republic, not the Jedi, and a stroke of her pen had made it the personal transport of the Deputy Chancellor.  Except for the signal jamming and transmission encryption technologies, Anakin took all of Dooku's computers and databases to an incinerator and destroyed them.  They no longer had any intention of helping the Jedi determine the identity of the Sith Master, whoever it was.  And the billions of credits in Padmé's secret bank account stayed where they were, accumulating plenty of interest. 

With their analysis tasks cancelled, the droids offered to assist Padmé in her new position as best they could.  Threepio, of course, was a natural fit with his excellent abilities in protocol and translation.  Artoo, on the other hand, spent most days in the apartment.  Anakin and Padmé wondered what he did all day, but decided not to ask. 

His black cloak billowing out behind him, Anakin spun on his heel and walked into the enormous bay where the Tatooine-bound naval cruiser was docked.  The large warship reached almost to the high ceiling of the room and extended nearly to each wall.  A few dozen yards ahead, ten white-armored clonetroopers stood waiting for him at the base of a boarding ramp.  Inside the vessel were six battalions of clone soldiers, the almost three thousand Special Forces and an additional three thousand regulars, as well as numerous starfighters, gunships, and assault tanks.  Given Tatooine's relatively low population, the entire invasion army fit in this single ship. 

About halfway to the ramp, Anakin heard a voice call out. 

"Anakin."  It was Obi-Wan. 

Anakin turned around to see Obi-Wan step through the same door he had.  When their eyes met, Obi-Wan relinquished the shield around his Force presence that had concealed him.  Anakin dropped his hands to his hips, hovering just above the two lightsaber handles hanging from his belt.  "Leave here, Obi-Wan."

Obi-Wan continued to approach.  "I need to talk to you."

"I am leaving in ten minutes.  I'll give you five."  Without looking behind him, he lifted his hand to signal the clones to stay where they were and not interfere. 

Obi-Wan's face betrayed his shock and concern at the dark armored suit Anakin wore.  "You have not returned to the Temple.  I was hoping we could at least have a meal together and discuss everything that apparently has happened."

Anakin shook his head in disgust.  "There is nothing left for me at the Temple, Obi-Wan.  There is not a single thing in my room that I even want to have.  Throw it all away." 

"It is not too late to work this out with the Council, Anakin.  I am sure we can reach a compromise…"  A small blast in the Force sent him staggering backwards several feet. 

Anakin lowered his right hand back to his hip.  "I have no interest in negotiations.  The Jedi Order has destroyed my life.  I have lost my best friends and my mother because of you.  I will never be made a Jedi Knight, not by this Council, and they never would let me live in peace with my wife.  I agreed to this probationary period only to avoid a confrontation.  Nothing will change.  If the Order will not accept me for who I am, it cannot have me."

"You are using the dark side, Anakin.  And you know it.  It cannot bring anything good into your life.  You must be aware of this."  Obi-Wan extended his palms outward in a gesture of conciliation.  "You should let me help you follow the right path."

Anakin scoffed.  "I haven't become a Sith, if that's what you're worried about.  I have no better idea than you who the other Sith Lord is."  He pointed a finger at Obi-Wan.  "I meant what I said to you on Geonosis.  I am my own master now.  I will not be a slave to the Jedi Council anymore.  And no Sith Lord will ever be my master either." 

Obi-Wan clasped his hands in front of his chest.  "You don't know the power of the dark side.  Don't be so certain of your own power.  If Dooku was merely the apprentice, the master will overpower you." 

"You seem to forget that I killed Dooku.  Quite easily, in fact, considering how quickly he slaughtered my friends and dispatched you."  He reached up and ran his black-gloved fingers through his short black hair.  "And I am far more powerful now than I was then.  If the other Sith Lord does plan on attacking me, he will be in for quite a surprise." 

"What has made you this way?  Why do you have such anger and hatred in your heart?  I want to help you."

Anakin pointed at Obi-Wan again and walked a few steps closer to him.  "You have never wanted me, Obi-Wan.  You took me as your Padawan only out of obligation to Qui-Gon.  You thought I should not be trained."  Anakin saw Obi-Wan preparing to offer a denial.  "Don't even try to lie to me!  You forget how strong I am in the Force.  Even then, ten years ago, I sensed it in you.  You thought it was too dangerous.  And nothing in the last decade has changed your opinion."  By now, the armored Anakin towered over Obi-Wan, a finger only an inch from his nose.  "You have held me back!  Made me weak!  Limited my abilities and tried to thwart my emotions!  Well, Obi-Wan, I am done with it.  It is over.  I will trust my own feelings.  The Force will guide me to my destiny."

"Your destiny is to be a Jedi," Obi-Wan said quietly.  "To fulfill the prophecy and bring balance to the Force."

"The prophecy is a lie," Anakin laughed in a grim and sinister voice.  "It is a cryptic and ancient riddle to which there is no answer.  It does not govern my life."

Obi-Wan hoped to calm him down by changing the subject a bit.  "Why have you and the Senator taken the name Vader?  What does it mean?  How did you come to find it?" 

"In the Force, you fool," Anakin answered.  "It was given to me when I asked the Force for guidance.  It is our expression of our future together, as husband and wife.  We are not who we once were.  A slave, a weak little boy, a pathetic Jedi experiment.  Or an isolated, unhappy, and miserable politician.  Together we are better than we used to be.  And stronger.  That is what Vader means to us."  Anakin looked over his shoulder to the ship.  "I am leaving you, Obi-Wan.  I am going on my mission.  When I return, do not bother me again."  One last time, he pointed a finger.  "And if I learn that you or any Jedi has troubled Padmé in any way, I will kill you.  Every last one of you." 

Obi-Wan watched in dismay as the terrible figure stalked away.  "Please, stay here.  Come with me.  I can help you.  You still can accomplish many positive things.  You still can be a great Jedi, Anakin Skywalker."

The response was hollow and cold, without the figure turning around.

"That name no longer has any meaning for me."

ALTERNATE DARKSIDE ENDING: CHAPTER FORTY-FOUR

The painfully hot desert wind of Tatooine whipped through the open sides of the soaring gunship.  Anakin tightened his grip on the support strap as he stared out over the infinite expanse of sand about thirty feet beneath him.  The twin suns scorched the air, almost as if they intended to burn all of the life off the planet's surface.  A purpose not far removed from the one Anakin had in mind. 

"Five more minutes, sir," the clonetrooper pilot reported over his shoulder.  The dozen clone soldiers in the back of the gunship with Anakin stood silently at attention. 

"Thank you," Anakin acknowledged.  He used the time to ponder how much his life had changed in such a short period of time.  Six weeks ago he had arrived here hoping to find his mother safe, share with her the wonderful news of his engagement to Padmé, and remove her once and for all from this horrible place.  Instead, because of the Jedi's errors he had lost everyone in his life that he cared about except Padmé.  And he had come to understand just how much Obi-Wan's training had held him back, made him weak, and restrained his power.  As he watched the small white dome rush toward him, he felt joy in his heart knowing that now he controlled his own life.  Now and forever. 

The gunship swooped gracefully to a stop a few yards from the homestead entrance.  To the sides, two more gunships landed.  The clonetroopers swarmed smoothly from the open sides and set up a defensive perimeter around the building.  Not that there was any threat, of course.  It was easier, however, simply to let them follow procedure. 

Anakin hopped gently to the ground, his black boots sinking an inch into the loose upper layer of sand.  He brushed his cloak away from his sides and strode through the open doorway and down the stairs.  "Hello?" he shouted.  "Hello?  Is anyone home?"

When he reached the bottom of the stairs, Beru was waiting for him.  "Hello, Anakin," she smiled.  "This is a surprise."  If his dark armored battle suit distressed her, he could not see it on her face or sense it in the Force. 

He reached out, took her hand, and kissed the back of it.  "It's a pleasure to see you again, Beru."  He clasped his hands behind his back.  "Is Owen here?" 

"No.  He's at Toshi Station for the afternoon, picking up some power converters.  He won't be back until tonight." 

"That's okay," Anakin shrugged.  "I'll just tell you now, and you can tell him later." 

Beru nodded amiably.  "Well, in that case, please come inside and sit down.  Would you like something to drink?"

---

After dinner, Beru explained to Owen everything Anakin had told her.  When she finished, they leaned back in their chairs and looked in each other's eyes. 

"Well, I guess this is for the best," Owen said calmly as he interlocked his fingers against the back of his head.  "With the aurodium, we can afford to move off this planet.  There's really nothing for us here.  We were just in a rut."  He frowned.  "And I certainly don't want to be around for unmitigated carnage." 

"You can say that again," Beru agreed.  "The military cargo ship will arrive tomorrow night."  She chuckled lightly.  "Not that it will even take us more than a few hours to pack the things that are worth bringing." 

Owen laughed too.  "It's pathetic how true that is, isn't it?"  He leaned forward and propped up his head with his hands.  "He really had the soldiers exhume Shmi's body?"

Beru nodded.  "Yes.  It was very touching and reverent.  Ceremonial, really." 

"Did he say where he's taking her?" 

"To Naboo.  Apparently to the same cemetery where Padmé's ancestors are buried."

For the first time in hours, Owen smiled.  "That's nice.  She deserves a fitting resting place like that."

"You know," Beru wondered aloud, "we could go there.  Naboo, I mean.  I'm sure if we asked, Anakin would hold off the reburial until we're there to see it.  To say goodbye one more time.  And if it's really as beautiful as Padmé says, maybe we wouldn't want to leave."

Owen thought about it for a moment, then rose to his feet.  "That's as good a plan as any." 

---

Two weeks later, Anakin stood inside a large, high-ceilinged room that once had been the auction hall in a slave trader's facility.  Now it served as his latest temporary war room for the pacification of Tatooine.  From a small portable holoprojector, a ten-foot diameter image of the planet rotated slowly in the air in front of him. 

The tiny number of cities still amazed him.  Even if one counted the smallest settlements and all of the outlaw fortresses, there were fewer than a hundred communities on the entire planet.  And as indicated in white on the projection, all but four already had been conquered by the clonetroopers.  Local leaders had been summarily executed.  A team of bureaucrats and governmental organization experts from Coruscant were well underway with their task of establishing a stable planetary administration that soon could join the Republic.  And yet he knew that all of the immeasurable areas of the planet that did not contain population centers were far from uninhabited.  The vast majority of the indigenous scavengers and natives, like the harmless Jawas, he was content to leave undisturbed. 

One group, however, would be given no quarter.  Squadrons of gunships and starfighters had been sent across the deserts with life-form scanners.  The orders were strict and clear: the Tusken Raiders were to be wiped out.  Men, women, and children all.  Not a single one was to be left alive.  Period. 

Two-thirds of the planet was shaded a light green for those zones already forever cleansed of the sand people.  Anakin turned to the clone lieutenant at his shoulder.  "What are the latest reports?" 

"Yes, sir, General Vader," the soldier answered promptly.  He lifted his datapad and read off the information.  "The three remaining cities, including Mos Eisley, will fall within the day.  Government-creation teams have arrived at each location.  And the extermination program is proceeding on schedule.  We estimate completion within ten days." 

"Very good, lieutenant," Anakin nodded.  "And here in Mos Espa?" 

"They await your arrival in the town square, sir.  We are in total control." 

"Excellent.  Commend your men on a job well done."  With a wave of his hand, Anakin dismissed the lieutenant and turned on his heel to head out the door. 

A few minutes later, he arrived in the open-air market area not far from Watto's shop.  Despite his temptation to visit the Toydarian, he had decided it would be better for both of them if he did not. 

As the lieutenant had reported, the plaza had been readied for his arrival.  To the left was a tightly packed cluster of about thirty slave traders and slave masters.  On the right sat two enormous Hutts, roasting in the blazing heat without their usual access to water.  After mulling it over for a moment, Anakin turned left. 

He stood about ten feet away from the men.  When he approached, he sensed their panic and desperation in the Force.  He laughed a loud and menacing sneer.  "It is time for justice, my friends.  None of you remembers me, I am confident.  Once, many years ago, I was a slave here.  I had good fortune and my freedom was won from my master.  When I left, I vowed one day to return and free the slaves.  Now I have done so."  He looked to the clone captain who commanded the forty soldiers guarding the slavers.  "Kill them." 

Without another glance he spun on his heel again and strode quickly toward the Hutts.  The shattering rings of blaster fire echoed off the buildings and down the streets as the clones did as they were ordered and slaughtered the men he had wanted to kill for so long. 

He stopped a few paces in front of the two Hutts.  "Hello, Jabba.  Hello, Gardulla.  Do you remember me?" 

Neither Hutt would look at him. 

"Do you remember me?" he asked again in Huttese, this time injecting the words with all of his malice. 

Jabba spat a gob of saliva in his direction.  Gardulla rolled her eyes.  "I don't remember slaves," she answered in Huttese with disgust in her voice.

"How about this then?" Anakin taunted, once again in Basic.  "The Boonta Eve race ten years ago." 

The two Hutts stared at him in disbelief.  "No.  It can't be," Jabba stammered in Huttese. 

"Oh, but it can," Anakin laughed.  "Anyway, it doesn't matter.  I just wanted to be sure you knew who it was who killed you."  With that, he lifted both of his black-gloved hands in front him and clenched his fists tightly.  The Hutts began to gasp and flail as they slowly choked to death, their throats crushed by the Force.  As he watched them suffocate and sensed their gradual deaths, he felt the Force flowing through his own body with more intensity and strength than he ever had felt before.  The furious fire of the dark side coursed through his veins and fueled his mind to new levels of supremacy.  Even without any Master to train him, he was growing more powerful. 

Later that night, Anakin lay down on a simple cot in a small alcove off his war room; even dressed only in his boxer shorts the heat was almost unbearable.  Nevertheless, he closed his eyes and cleared his mind.  He focused for a moment on his own body.  All the power in the Force he had achieved in the market had stayed with him.  It was a wonderful feeling.  Then he concentrated fiercely and sent his feelings the long distance across the stars to Coruscant.  In an instant he touched Padmé's spirit in the Force.  Worlds upon worlds away, she was awake too, trying to fall asleep just like he was.  He knew he could not reach her with his thoughts, at least not from this great a distance until he could get better at it.  But he could send a wave of emotion to reassure her.  I love you, angel.  I miss you too.  I'll be home soon.

---

For the almost three weeks Anakin had been gone, Padmé had thrown herself headlong into her duties as Deputy Chancellor with a passion and forcefulness she had not found in herself since the blockade crisis in her first year as Queen over a decade ago.  She arrived at her office in the Executive Building before anyone else, even Palpatine, and stayed long after all the others had gone home for the night.  Immersing herself in work distracted her from the fact that Anakin would not be there when she did the same.  So she was at the apartment only to sleep. 

Last night, like all the others, despite her exhaustion from the day she had remained wide awake for too long as she lay in bed.  She had stared at the ceiling, gazed lazily out the window, or played with locks of her long crimson hair.  Then, unexpectedly, she had felt calm and content.  It was a soothing rush of peacefulness, like the warmth and comfort of a relaxing hot bath.  There was no doubt in her mind that somehow Anakin had sent his love to her.  She had wrapped her arms around herself as tightly as she could, clinging with all her might to the wonderfulness of the moment.  And within a minute she had fallen soundly and happily asleep. 

In the morning, Dormé discovered she had to jostle Padmé far more vigorously than usual to rouse her from her slumber.  "Padmé!"  The seventh poking in the shoulder.  "Padmé, please."  Still no response.  "Fine.  Be that way."

Dormé left the bedroom briefly and returned with a transparent blue pitcher filled with ice water.  "I'm going to count to five, Padmé.  If you're not up, I'm dumping this on you."  She swirled the container to make the liquid swish and the ice cubes clink against the glass.  "One."  "Two."  Swish-clink-swish.  "Three."  "Four."

"Alright, alright, alright," Padmé moaned as she rolled onto her back and pulled her arms from beneath the covers.  "I'm awake.  I'll get up."  She sat upright and ran her fingers through her hair a few times.  "You enjoyed that far too much for my taste." 

"Hmph," Dormé grumbled.  With her left hand, she held her thumb and forefinger a small distance apart.  "I was this close to pouring on four, you know."  She sighed loudly and indignantly, mostly for effect.  "I can't wait until Anakin is back.  He always wakes you.  I'm sick of having to be your backup alarm clock instead." 

Padmé looked into her friend's eyes.  "I'm sorry.  I don't mean to bother you.  I really don't.  I'll try harder from now on, I promise."  She scratched an itch on the side of her neck.  "I can't wait until he's back either." 

Dormé nodded knowingly.  "Well, since it's here, would you like some water?"

---

Later that day, Padmé gazed out the window of her office at the wide ferrocrete plaza between the Executive Building and the huge Senate dome in the distance.  She focused her eyes on the tall and elegantly formed statues lining the edges of the mall.  The figures were intended to depict no particular individuals; rather, they were icons representing the long and illustrious history of political and military heroes of the Republic.  It occurred to her that all of them appeared to be male.  Some definitely were non-human.  Yet none had the shapely curves of torso and hips one would expect in a stylized human female.

This will change, she thought.  I will change it.

For several weeks she had been considering talking to Palpatine about why he had organized the write-in campaign that won her the election to the Senate.  Today, finally, she understood.  Naboo needed a powerful Senator to represent its interests.  The galaxy needed potent and fierce leaders for times of crisis like these.  And as Chancellor, Palpatine personally needed a strong and reliable ally in the Senate.  It was even more crucial now that he be able to place unconditional trust in the person holding the post of Deputy. 

Her desire to leave government two years ago had been selfish and shortsighted.  It would have gone against everything she believed about politics to have walked away when her service could make such a difference in people's lives, in Naboo's future, in the galaxy's fate.  A person with her vision and skill had the obligation to serve.  So, she realized, Palpatine had been right and she had been wrong.  It was best for everyone that he had not listened to her and instead had ensured her unwanted victory, knowing she would accept the position. 

And besides, if she had not been serving in the Senate and had been living a humble and mundane life on Naboo, perhaps she and Anakin would not have found each other again.  That alone was reason enough to be glad she had won after all. 

Padmé shifted in her chair and directed her stare at the glimmering Senate building.  Thin streams of airspeeder traffic flowed gracefully through the sky in their usual patterns.  The sun was shining and hundreds of pedestrians moved pleasantly along their respective paths into the structure.  To any other observer, it would have looked like the perfect day. 

For Padmé, however, it seemed as if a dark cloud hung over the home of the legislature.  During her brief tenure as Deputy Chancellor, she had studied the dynamics of the legislative body more closely than she ever had before.  She perused dossiers on each of the 1,023 other Senators.  She reviewed detailed analyses of voting records and voting patterns, both individuals and blocs.  She met with numerous committees and subcommittees.  She considered staff reports on recently enacted legislation and tracking data on a year's worth of failed measures.  All of it led her to only one possible conclusion. 

Democracy was a sham.  A pretense.  A farce.  Worse, even.  A cancer on the spirit of the galaxy.

The Senate was a failure.  It no longer acted for the common good.  Only bribes or favors or crass cronyism mattered anymore.  Whatever the galaxy needed, the Senate would do the opposite. 

Were the Republic at peace, perhaps she could have found the resolve to try to repair the broken system from within.  But war still raged in too many sectors.  True, the Separatists were weakened and on the run since Dooku's death about two months ago.  Yet there were regions they continued to dominate, and the threat of renewed violence persisted in many more.  And her dearest Naboo was close, far too close, to the front.  After all, she had once traveled to Tatooine without a hyperdrive, and Geonosis was less than a parsec farther away.  The Separatists had to be eliminated once and for all. 

And yet the Senate had done nothing. 

The clone army was winning victories now, but slowly.  The Jedi were serving as officers as best they could, but as Master Windu incessantly pointed out they were not trained to lead soldiers.  Even more significantly, the core values of the Jedi Code prevented the Order from waging the war the way it needed to be fought.  Overwhelming force.  Surprise attacks.  No mercy. 

The Jedi were weakening the Army of the Republic the same way they had weakened Anakin. 

Recently, at last, she and Palpatine had been able to make progress.  General Tarkin's burgeoning officer corps was becoming more impressive by the day.  As strategy and tactics improved, so did military success.  Under the emergency powers, actions could be taken.  War could be fought and won.  The galaxy could be reunited and peace and prosperity brought to all systems far and wide. 

Padmé rose from her chair and straightened the elaborate burgundy gown that perfectly matched her hair.  She stormed from her office and headed down the hallway.  Seeing the determination and purpose in her demeanor as she left, her secretary called ahead.  As she stepped into Palpatine's outer office, she saw Dar Wac waving her on.  "He can see you now, Lady Vader." 

She strode confidently inside, beginning her diatribe as she went.  "The Republic is dead."

ALTERNATE DARKSIDE ENDING: CHAPTER FORTY-FIVE

At the Chancellor's podium, the dull roar that always accompanied the slow and deliberate seating of the delegates of the Galactic Senate today seemed even louder than usual.  There was a buzz in the chamber, an audible murmur of anticipation and excitement.  Everyone knew a significant speech would be delivered today.  The word among the Senators was that it would be the greatest and most eloquent of Palpatine's long and glorious career. 

It was a year to the day since the beginning of the first battle of the Clone War at Geonosis and ten months since the conquest of Tatooine, the first of many pacifications of Separatist or outlaw worlds.  Although the insurrection had not yet been defeated fully, victory was at hand.  This remarkably swift and brilliant success was attributed by almost everyone to the Triumvirate waiting patiently for the enormous room to quiet.  Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, Deputy Chancellor Vader, and General Vader had accomplished more in one year under the emergency powers than any prior leaders had been able to achieve over the course of decades of recent history. 

Many in politics and the media predicted that at least part of the Supreme Chancellor's address would include the announcement that the Jedi Order officially was being relieved of all command assignments in the Army of the Republic.  The officer corps formed by General Tarkin had reached the size and skill necessary to run the entire gargantuan force, whose clone soldiers now steadily were being supplemented by eager recruits. 

And yet no one believed this could be the sole purpose for the special session.  Speculation and rumors were rampant.  As it turned out, the prediction about the Army was correct.  Only the trio on the dais was aware of the rest.

When the sun had risen that morning, it had dawned on last day of the Republic and the first of the Empire. 

---

That evening after dinner, the Triumvirate retired to a large study off Palpatine's main office in the Executive Building.  Floor to ceiling, the three walls were covered in mahogany bookshelves filled with parchment tomes and the occasional datacard.  The fourth wall was a giant window overlooking the majestic skylines of the capital, which were tinted a soft amber glow by the light of the setting sun.  To one side, an expensive audio system softly projected Naboo folk tunes.  Toward the other side, open bottles of Naboo fruit wine and Corellian champagne rested on a small glass-topped table.  In the comfortable plush furniture, the three triumphant individuals clinked their crystal goblets and toasted their success yet again. 

"To Naboo," grinned Emperor Palpatine.  "The finest planet in the galaxy."  The expensive silks of his deep blue robes rustled as he lifted his arm. 

"Yes, yes indeed," cheered Padmé, her elegant purple gown glistening in the dim lights of the study.  With the Senate reduced from a true legislature to an advisory body to the Emperor, her position as Deputy Chancellor was no longer needed.  Premier Vader would preside over the Senate and, should it ever be necessary, would be heir to the throne.  "To Naboo."

"I couldn't agree more," nodded Anakin.  Now-Lieutenant General Vader formally was second-in-command of the entire Army of the Republic, and tonight he wore the dress-whites uniform appropriate for his station.  In reality, though, even Tarkin knew Vader's true supremacy lay elsewhere: in his skills in the Force and his position in the Triumvirate.  "To Naboo."

When that toast finished off their drinks, Anakin set down his glass and rose to his feet.  While Palpatine poured more wine for each of them, Anakin paced calmly over to the audio system.  After a few seconds, he found the piece he wanted and selected it to play next.  He turned around and lifted his right hand lazily. 

Padmé and Palpatine looked up to see the table and four chairs drifting slowly through the air from the middle of the room toward a corner.  "What are you doing?" his wife asked in surprise. 

"Clearing some space," Anakin replied unhelpfully.  The table plopped gently to the floor and the chairs followed.  "It's time to really celebrate.  It's time to dance." 

Without warning the traditional Coronation Waltz soared from the speakers placed precisely throughout the room.  With an elated giggle, Padmé sprang to her feet and extended her hand.  "Palpatine, my dear friend, you never had the joy of having this played for you back home." 

The newly crowned Emperor smiled broadly.  "That is true, that is true."  He took her hand and pulled himself to his feet.  "I distinctly remembering watching a young Queen Amidala dance to this song on her coronation night.  It was with your father, am I right?" 

"Oh yes," Padmé grinned back.  "I remember it like it was yesterday."  By now the pair had reached the center of the room.  One set of hands held out, the others on each other's hips, they stepped in perfect rhythm across the smooth wooden floors. 

"This was a great idea, Anakin," Palpatine told him as he whirled past. 

"Thanks," Anakin tipped his head.  Standing to the side, he felt a wave of happiness wash over his body.  It had been a difficult year.  A very, very difficult year.  But he and Padmé had never been more in love.  And tonight, more than ever before, he felt that nothing could separate them.  Everything they had worried about at the lake retreat all those month ago, all of that was gone now.  They were two of the three most powerful individuals in the galaxy.  They were unstoppable.  And their union would last forever. 

When the waltz ended, Palpatine gracefully spun Padmé into Anakin's arms.  "Now, you two, I insist you share a dance as well."  A brisk tango swirled into the room, and the married couple almost flew through its steps. 

Anakin and Palpatine took turns dancing with Padmé.  Once, to give her breather, they found immense amusement in dancing one song together, although with both of them trying to lead it soon degenerated into hopeless laughter. 

Over an hour later the sky was dark when Palpatine called it quits for the night.  "Please, stay as long as you like.  Finish the wine."  He flashed them his wink and a little smirk.  "I'm getting too old for this.  In my day, I could revel into the wee hours with the best of them.  Not anymore."  He found his blue cloak on the sofa and walked to the door.  With a flick of his hand, he bid them good night.  "I'm taking tomorrow off.  You ought to as well."  The door slid closed behind him.

"In that case," Anakin laughed, "we should finish the wine!"  Just as Padmé was about to head back toward the table for their goblets, however, he reached out a hand and stopped her.  "Wait.  One last dance first." 

Padmé waited patiently for the short moment it took him to select the tune on the audio system.  Her heart melted when Across the Stars began to play.  Tears flowed down her cheeks as Anakin wrapped his arms around her and held her firmly.  "I can't believe you," she sobbed. 

"What?  Don't you like it?"  He thought her Force presence felt happy, but he wasn't sure. 

"Of course I do," she smiled before she planted a passionate kiss on his lips.  "I didn't think you remembered.  Rabé's wedding seems like it was so long ago." 

Anakin could only chuckle giddily.  "Those little secret kisses?  How could I forget?" 

Padmé shrugged inside his arms.  "I just wasn't sure, that's all." 

"Being kissed the first time by the woman you've loved your entire life is not something you forget.  Ever." 

"I suppose so," she conceded.  "I'll remember that kiss in the hallway of my parent's house until the day I die."

With that, they rocked tenderly in silence for the remainder of the song.  After it ended, they sat down again on the sofa and drank the last few glasses of wine.  Entwined contentedly in each other's arms, they gazed out the window at the tiny specks of lights from the towering buildings and thin moving lines of airspeeder traffic. 

After a while, Padmé's mind reverted from its reverie to the reality that Anakin's grasp had become a bit more urgent, his kisses on her neck slightly more insistent and provocative.  She glanced quickly around the room, and a wisp of nervousness emerged in her Force presence.  "Please, Ani, not here." 

He sat up, adjusted her shoulders with his hands, and looked deeply into her brown eyes.  The twinkle in his eyes and sly grin on his face almost made her laugh.  "Why not?" 

She stared into his intense blue eyes and spoke sternly.  "It makes me feel uncomfortable."  He stared at her incredulously, dumbfounded by her reaction. 

Then, in an instant, he swept her into the air and carried her effortlessly in his arms as he strode rapidly toward the door.  "Fine.  Then we're going home." 

---

Obi-Wan Kenobi crossed his arms and leaned his elbows along the stone edge of the parapet high on the main spire of the Jedi Temple.  His heart was filled with sorrow and dread as he gazed indiscriminately into the dark nighttime skylines in the distance.

Ten years ago, he had stood on this exact spot with his Master, Qui-Gon Jinn.  In the blazing orange glow of a sunset, Obi-Wan had declared that Anakin was too old, that the boy already was infected with too many attachments and dark emotions, and that the Council never would agree to train him.  Qui-Gon, as he always had done, had defied the consensus and insisted Anakin some day would become a Jedi, even if the Council disapproved.  The dispute had been mooted by Anakin's clear display of Force guidance in the Battle of Naboo.  And so, from a sense of obligation to his Master's dying request, Obi-Wan had taken the most controversial Padawan learner in the history of the Order.  Although often his own self-doubts still troubled him immensely, in his heart Obi-Wan understood what the other Council members constantly and insistently reminded him: he had given Anakin the very best Jedi tutelage possible.  Ultimately, Anakin's fate could be decided by no one but Anakin himself. 

Nevertheless, today's latest decision was far worse than the Jedi had expected.  The fog of the dark side in the Force had become so great that even a momentous event like this was invisible to the Jedi.  Even to Yoda.

For centuries the Order had served the Senate and the Republic with honor and integrity.  The needs and wishes of the Jedi always had been made subservient to the greater good of the galaxy, at least as the Senate defined it.  The Order refused to intervene in political affairs in any substantial way. 

Now the Republic was gone.  Palpatine had declared himself Emperor.  Premier Vader, formerly Senator Amidala and long a staunch supporter of the Order, would supervise an emasculated Senate.  And Obi-Wan's erstwhile apprentice, Lieutenant General Vader, no doubt would assume the role of using the Army of the Republic to enforce the Emperor's will and stifle any dissent. 

Other than removing them from all military commands, no mention was made in the Emperor's speech of what would happen to the Jedi Order.  Whatever he had planned, it seemed unlikely it could be auspicious.

And yet less than an hour ago the Jedi Council had voted nine to three to do nothing.  To wait.  To meditate.  To trust the clouded and impenetrable Force.  The majority was adrift in logic and incomprehension.  First, it was true the Jedi did not yet know who Darth Sidious was.  Second, it also was true the Jedi had no evidence of any kind that Anakin had become a Sith, or even that he had fallen further toward the dark side in any significant way.  While the units he commanded had committed numerous questionable, if not clearly criminal, wartime acts, civilian officers without Force powers had done similar, and worse, actions too.  This was why, every time Anakin's status had been raised again in the Council, the vote had been to postpone the issue; after an entire year, nothing had been done except to continue the probationary period.  Third, it was possible the declaration of the Empire would be beneficial to the galaxy in the short run by enabling peace and prosperity to return.  Fourth and most of all, the majority maintained, there was no basis to conclude, other than as a hunch, that Emperor Palpatine and the Vaders were responsible for the growing strength of the dark side. 

To Obi-Wan, all of this was nonsense.  Of course there was no proof.  But Jedi always are taught that evidence can lie.  The eyes can deceive.  The ears can trick.  Language can be manipulated.  Force signatures can be distorted.  A Jedi in tune with the Force, however, can trust his own feelings, even when the will of the Force becomes opaque.  It was what Qui-Gon always had admonished him to do: to realize the limitations of the unifying Force and follow the guidance of his own conscience and the living Force.  He had done so, focusing his mind solely on the here and now.  And his feelings told him, loud and clear, that Anakin had fallen.

He sensed their presences before they arrived.  The glass door hissed open behind him and the other two dissenters joined him on the balcony. 

"Thinking about Qui-Gon, you were, no?"

Obi-Wan tilted his head over his shoulder and nodded sadly to Yoda.  "In part, yes."  He grunted off his arms and spun around, resting his lower back against the low wall.  "Mostly I was thinking about Anakin.  About the future."

"Troubling subjects both," Mace Windu sighed as he matched Obi-Wan's pose against the wall and tucked his thumbs into his belt.  "This is a most unfortunate situation.  Made all the worse by the fact we could not foresee it."

"On the rise, the dark side is.  Ready to strike, the Sith are."  Yoda frowned grimly.  "Assume, we must, that none of the future, we can see.  Whatever happens, unexpected to us, it will be."

Obi-Wan shook his head in dismay.  "You are right, Master, as ever.  What can we do, however, with the rest of the Council against us?"

Mace pushed off from the wall, turned around, and supported himself with his arms, his hands clasped fiercely to the balcony's brim.  "We will wait for an opening.  Eventually the Triumvirate will do something intolerable.  When they do, we will act."  He blew out a long and disgusted deep breath.  "We must keep the Jedi ready as best we can without the Council's assistance.  Our attack must be sudden and overwhelming."

For the first time, Yoda confessed his visions.  He knew his two companions would tell no one.  "Even then, prevail we may not.  Powerful, Skywalker is.  More powerful, I think, than Qui-Gon understood."

"We should not abandon all faith," Mace stated calmly.  "There is still a chance something inside Anakin may turn him back from the dark side."

"Hmm," Obi-Wan nodded, staring straight up into the sky.  "That boy is our last hope."

"Yes," Yoda agreed, following Obi-Wan's gaze.  "There is no other."

ALTERNATE DARKSIDE ENDING: CHAPTER FORTY-SIX

Bail Organa ran for his life through the back alleys and deserted buildings of the capital city of Alderaan.  His fancy Senate attire had been abandoned in favor of a simple gray pilot's jumpsuit.  He carried a blaster pistol in his right hand as he tried to sneak his way to the third main hangar, hoping desperately this time he could find a small starfighter in which he might be able, somehow, to make an escape. 

The Empire was only eight weeks old.  Three weeks after the declaration, he and about two dozen other Senators had confronted Premier Vader in a closed-door meeting in the Executive Building, demanding that democracy be restored and the Imperial edicts rescinded.  Within an hour, each had been branded a traitor. 

Now he possessed only the barest information about what was occurring even on his own planet.  This he knew for certain: seven or more Imperial destroyers and countless smaller warships blockaded them.  A complete embargo had been implemented ten days ago.  All communications, both off-planet and on the surface, had been jammed.  Access to the Holonet was silenced.  And Alderaan's meager space defenses had been quickly annihilated. 

Then, yesterday, the devastation had begun.  The massive Imperial starships initiated unprovoked orbital bombardments of major cities.  Only the three largest on the planet, including the capital, had energy shields.  In all the others, untold millions were dead.  Wave after wave of Imperial clonetroopers were landing and beginning the capital's occupation.  In a city of only six million people, his sources estimated at least sixty thousand invaders.  In the first seven hours. 

Like an incomprehensibly loud clap of thunder, a crushing shockwave of sound shook the buildings and heaved the streets.  Bail's bones and teeth rattled in his body and his insides whirled and dove in shock.  Then another.  And another.  His ears were stunned into temporary deafness.  Pain spiked through his brain and spine. 

Although he had never heard the sound before, he knew what it was.  The Imperial destroyers were testing the energy shield.  For now, apparently, it remained functional.  The clones' attack on the generator facility would be relentless, however, and the Alderaanian security forces soon would weaken and give way.  Then, he feared, horrors beyond his wildest imagination would be visited upon his people. 

And worst of all, less than an hour ago the spies had reported the most frightening piece of information yet.  Somewhere in space above him, Premier Vader and Lieutenant General Vader circled Alderaan.  Apparently they wished to oversee the planet's defeat personally. 

---

In another sector of the city, a small group of cowering individuals moved slowly down a hallway.  They were surrounded by white-armored clonetroopers with blaster rifles pointed at them.  After a short time, the prisoners entered a large room with high glass ceilings.  It was a greenhouse filled with trees and ferns and flowers.  The sunlight streaming in from above gave the space warmth and color in addition to the sweet and pleasant aroma. 

Two sinister figures stood at the far end of the room, a portable holoprojector at their feet.  The tall man wore a terrifying black-armor battle suit and an enormous black cloak, the hood up to conceal his visage.  The shorter woman was dressed in a strapless gown of deep purple, with matching long gloves and billowing cloak; her hood also was up over her face.  Several dozen more clonetroopers stood guard in the room and one uniformed officer waited deferentially to the side. 

Without a glance at the new arrivals, Anakin spoke to the officer.  "What is the problem, Major?  From the sound of it, the shield is still in place." 

"Yes, General Vader, it appears so," the young man answered.  Major Veers probably was about Padmé's age, maybe older, and he was scared out of his mind.  With a quick glance to a datapad, he provided as much information as he could.  "Colonel Lezzo reports that his surprise attack on the generator facility's rear entrance was anticipated by the locals.  It may take another two hours or more to capture it."

"He is as clumsy as he is stupid," Anakin spat in disgust.  He waved his left hand toward the holoprojector.  "Bring him up at once." 

"Yes, sir, General, right away," Veers answered immediately.  Despite his fear, he dialed in the code correctly.  A slowly rotating flat map of the city vanished and was replaced by a wavering blue image of Colonel Lezzo, about fifty percent actual size. 

"My apologies, General Vader," the image began, "but the resistance forces are stronger than we…  aaah…  urk."  With both hands, the image clawed at the collar of his uniform.  As if that could restore his lost ability to breathe. 

His clenched, black-gloved right fist barely angled forward from his side, Anakin stared into the dying eyes of his incompetent subordinate.  "You have failed me for the last time, Colonel Lezzo." 

For his part, Veers shifted his eyes ever so slightly to watch a remarkable phenomenon.  As General Vader used the Force to strangle the Colonel, the plants near him began to wilt, then droop, then lose their color, then die.  All in a matter of several frenetically irregular heartbeats. 

After Lezzo's image teetered and flopped backwards in death, Anakin turned his head.  "Go to the outskirts and take the generator facility within the hour.  You are in command now, Colonel Veers." 

An incoherent mumble and a frantic bow were all Veers could muster before he ran from the greenhouse as fast as he could. 

With that matter resolved, Anakin and Padmé finally turned their attention to the prisoners being detained about fifteen feet in front of them.  There were nine women and four men, most younger than thirty.  They wore expensive clothes befitting their employer. 

"These are the servants of House Organa?" Padmé asked the clone captain. 

"Yes, your Excellency," the captain replied emotionlessly as he strode ahead to address them.  "The smart ones.  The rest were not willing to be taken alive."

"Very good, captain," Padmé nodded.  She and Anakin walked forward until they were only a few paces from the group.  "We are here to offer you a deal," she announced to them.  "The first one to lead us to Senator Organa will be allowed to live, as will his or her family."  The fate of the others and their families did not need to be spelled out. 

One of the men unwisely shoved his way out of the packed bunch and stood even closer to the two Vaders.  "Why should we believe you?  After you get what you want, you'd just kill us regardless!" 

From beneath her hood, Padmé scoffed.  "Believe what you like, young man.  But I will keep my word.  I always do."  She waved her hand dismissively in the direction of the other captives behind him.  "Perhaps your friends are more familiar than you with my policies.  Kessel and Corellia each avoided this fate by submitting to Imperial rule.  I certainly did not order them punished anyway." 

"You lie!"  Blood rushed to the man's face as he screamed at the top of his lungs at her.  "That's a lie!  No one knows the truth anymore!  Your word is worthless here!"

Anakin had seen and heard enough.  In a motion so fast none of the prisoners even could perceive it, his right hand slashed to his belt, drew and ignited his shimmering red lightsaber, and swung the blade gracefully from right to left to behead the man where he stood.  As the body slumped to the floor in a heap, Anakin spoke as much to the dead man as to the living prisoners. 

"I find your lack of faith disturbing."  He allowed the red blade to whir and hum through the air for several more seconds before he deactivated the weapon and clipped it back on his belt. 

"Now," Padmé tried again, "are you all really willing to give your lives, and your families' lives, simply to protect one pathetic man?  Not one of you will accept our offer?" 

After a long and tumultuous silence, from the back of the cluster a quivering but resolved teenaged girl spoke.  "I will.  I will bring him to you." 

---

Bail backtracked over the path he had taken earlier.  The third hangar had been pulverized to the ground by blasts from Imperial artillery cannons manned by the clonetroopers.  He was out of ideas.  He jogged pointlessly along the sides of buildings and around corners.  There was nowhere to hide.  Yet he was unwilling simply to walk into the street and surrender himself to Padmé.  No, not to Padmé.  The woman he had known, and cared for so much as a friend, was gone.  Premier Vader, the horrible killer she had become, might as well be a completely different person.  Padmé was dead.  From a certain point of view. 

He ducked inside an abandoned bank to cover some distance away from the street.  Just as he was about to dash across an alley into an empty grocery, he was startled by a quiet yet insistent summons. 

"Sir!" 

Bail spun and pointed his blaster at the source of the words.  It was Lilly, a sweet seventeen-year-old brunette girl, one of the servants of his House.  She still wore her elegant sundress.  With great relief, he lowered his weapon.  "Lilly!  You're safe!"

"There's no time, sir," Lilly persisted in her soft voice.  "We've found a place to hide.  Come.  Please."  She reached out and took his left hand in hers. 

They ran together at top speed for almost ten minutes, weaving in and out of buildings, hiding from patrolling clonetroopers, trying to ignore the sounds of war and death the occupation had brought to their home.  Finally, inside a deserted hall at the university Lilly slowed her pace.  "We're almost there," she told him through her ragged and desperate breaths. 

Bail nodded, still clinging to her hand while they jogged down another hallway.  Then, at last, Lilly stopped outside a closed chamber.  With a tilt of her head, she indicated to him they should go inside.  He shoved hard with both hands on the pair of large oaken doors, swinging them to open into the room. 

His heart sank in his chest and his stomach lurched painfully. 

The Vaders. 

The small and cozy room had a few windows high up along the far wall.  The side walls were wood paneling covered with intricate ancient tapestries.  In the middle of the room was a little table, an elaborate luncheon set out atop it.  There were two chairs at each end.  Standing across from them, Lieutenant General Vader seemed to fill the entire room with his towering dark presence, his armored suit glittering in the lights of the chandeliers.  Next to him, Premier Vader had crossed her arms over her chest, accenting the long gloves and bare shoulders.  Cascades of her long maroon hair ran down the back of her deep purple gown.  Their cloaks were draped over their chairs. 

After an awful pause, the General spoke.  "We would be honored if you would join us." 

Bail reacted the only way he could: he raised his blaster and opened fire.  Instantly, the General's black-gloved right hand flew out from his side.  The blaster bolts curved in the air and flew straight at his extended palm, then at the last second diverted again and slammed into the side wall.  It was impossible.  Only a heartbeat later, the General's wrist shifted ever so slightly in the air and the pistol was torn from Bail's grasp with a strength that almost dislocated his shoulder.  For a split second Bail thought he saw a shimmering red lightsaber appear to slice the pistol in half, but by the time the metal pieces clattered to the stone floors the blade was nowhere to be seen. 

Not knowing what else to do, Bail looked at Lilly. 

Tears streaked her face and sorrow filled her eyes.  Her voice cracked in agony when she spoke.  "I had no choice.  They promised to spare my family.  I'm sorry." 

Bail sighed forlornly.  "I'm sorry too."

The Premier waved them forward.  "Please sit down," she smiled at both Bail and Lilly, her right hand gesturing subtly toward the two empty chairs opposite the Vaders at the table.  "Have something to eat.  We have much to discuss." 

Lilly stepped fearfully ahead.  Bail stood in place.  "You must be joking.  Under no circumstances will I share a meal with you.  Not after what you have done to Alderaan.  What you have done to me."

The General sneered in amusement as he ran the gloved fingers of both hands through his short black hair.  "Perhaps you think you are being treated unfairly?"

Bail was so dumbfounded he could not formulate a response for several seconds.  "What?"

"I promised Lilly and her family sanctuary from the occupation," the Premier explained.  "I will keep my promise after lunch."  She cocked her elbows and rested her hands on her hips.  "I promised you Alderaan would be safe if you simply would agree to swear allegiance to the Empire.  You have not done so.  I see no unfairness here." 

"This is ridiculous," Bail exclaimed in disbelief.  "How can you not see the evil you have wrought?"

"It is all a matter of perspective, traitor," the General stated calmly.  "The devastation of a few worlds is a small price to pay for the peace and prosperity that can be brought to the galaxy only by the Empire.  It may seem evil to you, in this time and place.  To the galaxy as a whole, in the long term, it is only good."  The General smirked, as if he had read Bail's mind.  "From a certain point of view."

"I will die before I join you," Bail declared defiantly. 

The Premier's right hand flashed to the small of her back, flew upward again with a palm-sized blaster pistol, and squeezed off a single shot. 

After the body hit the floor, the General grinned broadly at the Premier.  "Your aim is getting better all the time.  Right between the eyes."

ALTERNATE DARKSIDE ENDING: CHAPTER FORTY-SEVEN

The small shuttle descended slowly through the pale yellow sky of early morning on Coruscant.  In the rear cabin seats, the two passengers were relieved finally to be returning home from the month-long conquest of Alderaan.  Even on the short flight down from the destroyer, Anakin had become quite uncomfortable: the standard-size bucket seat was not designed for a tall, well-muscled man in a black armored battle suit.  By contrast, Padmé lounged easily in her royal blue gown, legs stretched out ungracefully along the floor, hands clasped at the back of her head. 

Without warning Anakin rose to his feet and began to pace rapidly back and forth across the tiny room.  It took only five strides before he had to spin around. 

After a half dozen circuits, Padmé began to wonder.  "What's wrong, Ani?"

As he stepped over her legs again, he paused and gazed down into her eyes.  "I sense a great disturbance in the Force."  He vigorously ran his black-gloved fingers through his short black hair.  "Our arrival is troubled."

She pulled her feet in and sat up straight in the chair.  "Is there anything we can do?"

"I doubt it."  He started to pace again.  "I'll just have to react to whatever comes."  He tapped his fingers against the two lightsaber handles hanging opposite on his hips. 

A few minutes later, the shuttle landed smoothly at the edge of a broad plaza near the government complex.  Padmé took Anakin's gloved left hand in her bare right as they began to descend the boarding ramp.  Waiting for them at the bottom was Emperor Palpatine, dressed in elaborate blue-and-gold silk robes.  "Welcome home, Anakin, Padmé.  It's delightful to have you back."

"Hello, Palpatine," Anakin smiled.  "We're very glad to be home again." 

Padmé stepped forward and wrapped the older man in a warm embrace.  "It's good to see you."

The Triumvirate walked toward the crowd of several thousand well-wishers arranged at the far end of the plaza to meet them.  After only a few steps, Anakin stopped.  He threw his arms to the sides to block Palpatine and Padmé from proceeding.  "Wait."  A few heartbeats later he took two long strides forward and turned around to face them, the lightsaber handles in his hands.  "Board the shuttle."

Padmé was stunned.  "What?" 

Anakin let an unusual amount of severity slide into his voice.  "Board the shuttle!  NOW!"

Behind him, Padmé saw that a group of figures had broken away from the crowd and were running forward.  Suddenly, cloaks were dropped and lightsabers blazed into view.  She and Palpatine needed no further encouragement to sprint immediately back to the shuttle and up the ramp. 

With his right thumb, Anakin released his huge black cloak and let it balloon to the ground.  He ignited the twin red blades and charged to engage the onrushing Jedi.  The Force told him there were thirty attackers.  Some of their Force signatures he recognized, the rest he did not.  In the last few moments before the melee would begin, he tore down the restraints in his mind and plunged fully and completely into the dark side.

---

Padmé unconsciously took Palpatine's hand as they stood behind the pilot in the cramped cockpit of the shuttle.  "There are so many," she fretted.  "How can he possibly defeat them all?"

Emperor Palpatine slowly and calmly took a deep breath.  "There are many," he agreed.  "But remember, Padmé, how powerful Anakin is.  He is greater than any of them."

"I hope you're right," she sighed.  "I don't want to lose him."

"You won't," her dear friend reassured her as he squeezed her hand.  "With the Force to guide him, he will prevail."

Padmé leaned in to the pilot.  "Be ready to take off.  But only on my word."

---

A quartet of Jedi reached Vader first, three Padawans led by Ki-Adi-Mundi.  It took only a moment for Vader to diagnose the weakness in their formation.  Shielding his intentions in the dark side, he struck with an advantage of surprise.  His left fist, clenched around the lightsaber handle, punched in the air toward them.  With both red blades, he pounded Mundi's blue lightsaber to the side, then whirled on the balls of his feet to attack the pair of Padawans staggering from the invisible blast in the Force.  His swirling strikes took their laser swords out of position in an instant.  He had bisected one and decapitated the other before Mundi or the third Padawan could react. 

Vader's attunement to the Force had never been sharper.  Every detail of the developing fight interlinked in his mind and directed him to the perfect strategy.  Even in his armored battle suit it was simple to execute a lunging roll along the ground that brought him up behind his opponents.  Blocking Mundi high with his left blade, he snapped the Padawan's weapon to the side and impaled him low through the abdomen.  Two lightsabers on one, Mundi had no chance.

---

Padmé's jaw dropped in shock.  As much as she loved Anakin, as powerful in the Force as she knew from personal experience he was, as great as her confidence in him always had been, the speed and ease with which he had slaughtered four Jedi was astounding.  She knew now, in a way she never had before, that she didn't need to say it.  But she whispered it under her breath anyway.  "May the Force be with you, Ani."

---

Ten more dead Jedi later, the Force powered its way through his body with greater intensity and strength than ever before.  Vader sensed the flow of the battle changing behind him.  When he spun around, he saw why.  Fifteen of the survivors stood back, regrouping and contemplating strategy.  Facing him, alone, was Obi-Wan.

Vader stepped backward several strides, drawing his former mentor with him.  "I've been waiting for you, Obi-Wan.  The circle is now complete."  His right blade slashed out and sparked against Obi-Wan's blue weapon.  "From the beginning, you did not want me in your life.  Now I no longer want you in mine."

Obi-Wan parried away Vader's attacks.  "You can't win.  The dark side is not stronger.  Together, we will defeat you."

Vader laughed.  "You're wrong, Obi-Wan.  Wrong on all three counts."  To ensure the other Jedi stayed back, Vader pointed his left blade toward them.  Falling deeper into the dark side, he unleashed his fury down his arm and channeled it through the Force-infused weapon.  Outward from the tip of his blazing red lightsaber, Force lightning sparked and crackled in the air toward the formation.  Most of the Jedi reacted in time to absorb the fierce energy with their lightsabers; the few who did not screamed in agony and writhed in pain on the ground.  His solo duel with Obi-Wan assured, Vader drew the twin blades into attack position and rushed him.   

For the first time ever, Obi-Wan was afraid to die.  Not for his own life, of course.  That he would give up without regret to do his duty, just as he would have on Naboo over a decade ago, or on Geonosis the previous year.  This time, however, he sensed there was more at stake.  That if he failed, no one else would be able to stop the terrible fiend whom Anakin Skywalker had become.  Obi-Wan lunged to the side and tumbled gracefully along the ferrocrete to evade a blistering series of swings from the pair of red lightsabers assaulting him relentlessly.  The speed and power of the attacks was immeasurably greater than anything of which his opponent previously had been capable. 

The hollow and cold voice of his former apprentice spoke.  "I can sense your fear.  You are right to be afraid."  The left red laser sword came within a hair of separating Obi-Wan's right arm from his shoulder.  Then Vader said something more. 

"If I strike you down, I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine."

As those words registered in his brain, it all came together for Obi-Wan.  Something had been wrong in the Force when Vader had slain the fourteen Jedi.  Now he knew what it was.  Ordinarily when a Jedi died, he or she became one with the Force.  When Qui-Gon slipped away in his arms, Obi-Wan had felt all of his Master's strength in the Force disperse into the rolling energy fields of Naboo.  Here, today, it had not happened that way.  The energies of the dying Jedi should have radiated away to join the diffuse currents of life on Coruscant.  Instead, the flows had been pulled directly into a new receptacle.  It was impossible.  His murdered colleagues were not becoming one with the Force.

They were becoming one with Vader. 

A broad grin crossed Vader's face when he saw the look of understanding appear on Obi-Wan's.  He had hoped his old Master would figure out the truth before he died.  It would make his victory that much sweeter. 

During their honeymoon on Naboo, he inadvertently had discovered that he could drain the Force from living things.  Initially, he simply had transferred the energy from two roses on the balustrade to Padmé, healing her tiny wound in the process.  Later that day, in the woods, he had stripped some of the flora of the Force to power himself.  Except that he did not expend all of it and had realized that his body had retained the remaining energy.  While strangling Jabba and Gardulla, and in the greenhouse on Alderaan, he had perfected the skill.  No longer did he use other life simply as an energy source to avoid tiring; rather, he could take that strength into himself permanently and grow more powerful with each other living thing he sacrificed.  Today, against the Jedi, his hatred had fueled the technique to the supremacy he had hoped to achieve.  The brutally brilliant fire of the dark side within him was almost unimaginable. 

And when he sucked all of Obi-Wan's Force energy away, he would be invincible. 

Vader perceived that the momentary shock had left a gaping hole in Obi-Wan's technique.  "You are unwise to lower your defenses," he snarled as he swung for a mortal strike.  Obi-Wan reacted in time to block the blow, but in doing so he left himself hopelessly out of position. 

A few moments later, it was over. 

---

Padmé leaned past the pilot, propped up on her elbows from the console.  She marveled at the devastation Anakin had inflicted on the Jedi.  In only a matter of a few minutes.  Nevertheless, her fingers still tugged anxiously at a few locks of her long crimson hair with one hand and at the japoor snippet pendant with the other. 

When Obi-Wan was struck down, Anakin seemed to surge forward with renewed vigor and stamina.  Padmé thought it looked as though there was a visible glow around him now.  As if his power had become so great she actually could see the Force surrounding him. 

She signaled a thumbs-up to Palpatine when he returned to the cockpit from a short trip to the back of the shuttle to make a transmission on the comlink.  Complying with his request, the Holonet now was broadcasting the events in the plaza live throughout the galaxy. 

---

BREAKING NEWS: CORUSCANT.  In a stunning development, a few minutes ago agents of the Jedi Order tried to assassinate Emperor Palpatine when he arrived to greet Premier Vader and Lieutenant General Vader on their return to the capital after a successful diplomatic mission to Alderaan.  This apparent attempted coup is still in progress.  It is believed that General Vader personally is repelling the assassins.  We bring you live video of the scene.  We will provide more details as soon as they are available.

---

The fifteen Jedi carefully took up defensive stances and waited for Vader to approach them.  He paced deliberately forward, his red blades humming through the air.  He glared into the eyes of a Padawan on the right side of the formation.  In surprise, he watched the young man's eyes glaze over, then roll back in his head.  The body shivered and dropped limply to the ground. 

The apprentice had died of fright.  Literally. 

Before he could test yet another newfound power, Mace Windu stepped a few strides out toward him. 

Vader sneered at the older warrior.  "Your feeble skills are no match for the power of the dark side.  You too will pay the price for your lack of vision."  Vader whirled ahead in a barrage of strikes that even the master swordsman could not defend.  When he sensed three Padawans moving against him, Vader had to shift his focus to them and was unable to capture the Force essence of the legendary Jedi Master as he struck him down too. 

Two quick lunges to each side finished off the three valiant but foolish learners.  Vader faced the eleven remaining Jedi once more.  "You are beaten.  It is useless to resist.  Why let yourselves be destroyed as Obi-Wan did?"  He had killed eighteen others, of course, but there was only one whose death he relished above all the rest. 

Eight of the Jedi spun around and fled. 

The three brave Padawans moved slowly toward him.  The young Twi'lek boy was filled with fear but was emboldened not to abandon his duty.  A slightly older Zabrak boy was too.  The third was a human girl, probably about fifteen years old, with fair complexion and long blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail.  She was not afraid.  In fact, she was angry.  At what, Vader could not be sure.  So with a burst of Force-powered speed he drove quickly at the two men and killed them in a flash. 

Then he faced off with the final Jedi willing to confront him. 

What is your name? Anakin asked her through the Force. 

She did not answer.

The girl's green eyes bored into his with a ferocity he had not seen from a Jedi in a long time.  As their blades clashed the first initial probing strikes, he pondered it.  She didn't look familiar, so it seemed unlikely she would have reason to be angry at him personally for something he might have done to her in the past.  He watched her lightsaber technique and was impressed with her abilities.  The girl retreated a few steps and whirled away, her tan Jedi robes fluttering in the air as she regained her momentum and prepared to defend his attacks again, simultaneously calming her mind and focusing the Force within herself. 

Then it hit him.  She reminded him of Ellina.  Unconsciously, he let a small smile curl across his lips. 

You know who I am, he reminded the girl.  I would like to know who you are.  What is your name? he asked again, this time with more anger and viciousness in his mental voice.

I'm Geo, the girl responded through the Force. 

Thank you, Geo.  I appreciate your candor, he replied with a respectful nod.  Tell me, Geo, why are you so angry?

I'm strong in the Force, she answered, stronger than anyone else my age.  And yet my Master won't train me like I want.  He's too slow.  I'm going nowhere.  I can be so much more powerful.

Anakin sensed the girl struggling harder and harder as he pressed his assault against her.  Of course he could kill her at any time.  But something about her held his interest.  He increased his barrage again, and Geo used her anger at her Master to defend herself.  Good, good, Anakin praised.  He thumbed off the left blade and clipped it to his belt, and attacked her with two-handed swipes of the remaining lightsaber.  Let the hate flow through you.  He held back from his full capacity, testing her skills and pushing the limits of her concentration.  Each time her desperation increased, he sensed her drawing further on dark side emotions to stay alive.

After another minute, Anakin made his decision.  He spoke to Geo one last time through the Force.  Then he stepped back three long strides and turned off his weapon.  The girl halted her movements and deactivated her green blade as well.  With a nod, she spun on her heel and ran away from him as quickly as she could. 

While he clipped the handle at his right hip, Anakin watched Geo recede toward the panicking throngs of innocent bystanders still trying to flee the plaza.  He slowed his heartbeat and calmed his mind from its combat intensity.  When he was composed after a few more seconds, with his left hand he pulled the comlink from his belt and tapped in the code for Padmé. 

She answered in an instant.  "Yes, Ani?"

"Contact General Tarkin immediately," he requested through his labored breathing.  "Instruct him that we must implement Operation Desecrate at once."

"Of course," Padmé's voice agreed. 

"Anakin," Emperor Palpatine interjected over the comlink. 

"Yes?"

"I'm surprised you let that last Padawan live."

"Oh, that," Anakin chuckled.  "She will yet be of some use to me."

"How so?" Palpatine's voice asked.

"Destroying the Jedi once and for all will be far easier with assistance from a traitor."

ALTERNATE DARKSIDE ENDING: CHAPTER FORTY-EIGHT

Anakin stood next to General Tarkin in the portable military command console, admiring the bright orange hues of dusk illuminating the distant skylines of Coruscant.  He spun around on his heel to face the towering spires of the Jedi Temple a few hundred yards away, shimmering with the same fiery tones. 

The large Temple plaza was surrounded on all four sides by legions of Imperial clonetroopers.  Nearly nine thousand foot soldiers stood at attention.  Hundreds of artillery batteries and armored assault tanks were primed and prepared for action.  In orbit above, a destroyer had arrived in position.  With a glance up from his datapad, Tarkin nodded to Anakin that Operation Desecrate could begin when ready. 

Anakin clasped his hands at the small of his back, closed his eyes, and dropped his mind deeply into the Force.  He pressed his feelings toward the Temple as he already had done several times in the last hour. 

This time he found the Force signature he had been seeking.  It sparkled at his touch and sent back emotions of anticipation and resolve. 

"I'll return shortly," Anakin told Tarkin, who nodded again in understanding.  Anakin stepped down from the command console and strode directly toward the base of the Temple.  With a wave of his black-gloved hand, two dozen white-armored clonetroopers jogged smoothly in formation to follow the armored General Vader, who seemed a bit smaller than usual without his billowing cloak. 

With his eyes, Anakin saw no Jedi moving against him.  In the Force, he sensed hundreds inside the Temple but none outside in the plaza.  About halfway to the edge of the Temple grounds, a small movement on one of the near spires caught his attention.  He looked up and grinned broadly.  Geo had sliced open a window with her lightsaber.  Clipping it to her belt, she carefully lowered herself out the aperture and let go.  She spun around gracefully and slid on her backside down the smooth stone of the outer wall, her tan robes snapping in the air.  Using the Force, she controlled the pace of her descent and within a few moments had landed gently on the ground.  Without hesitation she ran away from the spire's broad base and straight to Anakin. 

"Hello, Geo," Anakin smiled when she reached him. 

"Hello, General Vader," she acknowledged through her heavy breaths.  "I have what you asked for."  From her utility belt she pulled a small handheld datapad.  "The information is less than an hour old."

"Very good, my girl, very good," he praised while they walked back toward the console.  "The plan is in motion now.  I foresee no obstacles."  He reached out his black-gloved left hand and patted her shoulder. 

They reached the console a few strides later.  Anakin turned to the clone captain.  "Take this Jedi to the temporary confinement center.  I need to interrogate her further before she is terminated." 

Geo's eyes flashed with a fury that could not be feigned.  "WHAT?!?  But you promised!"

Anakin stared piercingly into her eyes.  "I apologize if there has been a misunderstanding."  He sent her a wave of emotion in the Force.  "I'm sorry."

Tears streaming down her face, Geo glared hard at him.  "I can't believe I trusted you!"  She reached for her lightsaber, only to find that Anakin already had snatched it from her belt and into his left hand with the Force.  "I HATE YOU!!"

After a dismissive gesture from Anakin, the clonetroopers wrestled Geo to the ground, then hauled her away in restraints.  As they began to leave, Anakin called after them.  "Never forget she's a Jedi.  You must be on highest alert at all times unless you are certain she is dead."  A Force-assisted standing leap brought him up to the console next to Tarkin again.  He activated the datapad and began to read. 

Tarkin immediately noticed the immensely pleased reaction on his colleague's face.  "So?" 

"This is remarkable," Anakin responded.  "The Order always keeps a real-time database of the location and assignment of each and every Jedi.  This Padawan managed to get us a copy.  Of this afternoon's data."  He shook his head in disbelief.  "I never dreamed it could be this easy.  We'll know exactly who we have to find." 

There was only one important Master whose fate Anakin did not already know.  Using the search function, he quickly found Yoda in the list.  Coruscant: Temple, read the entry.  Quickly Anakin surged his feelings out in the dark side to scan the towers in front of him.  Sure enough, within a few heartbeats he could sense the diminutive ancient Jedi Master sitting in the Council chamber atop the central spire. 

In a rush of engine noise, an airspeeder swooped to land behind the console.  The clonetrooper pilot disembarked, then walked around the small vehicle to assist Premier Vader in exiting.  Not that she needed it this time.  Instead of the customary formal gown, Padmé wore a simple dark purple jumpsuit.  She had a blaster pistol at her hip and her long burgundy hair restrained in a single long braid.  "Hope you didn't wait on my account," she apologized as she walked up the steps to join them. 

"Nope," Anakin smiled as he greeted her with a short and sweet kiss on the lips.  "I just learned what I needed to know.  But there's no reason to wait now that you're here.  It's time to finish what they started this morning."  He tapped an intercom button near the large computer screen in front of him.  "Admiral."

"Yes, sir, General Vader," the voice responded over the comlink.  

"Fire at will."

Padmé, Anakin, and Tarkin reached down for the three gray helmets resting along the back of the console platform.  The polarized face shields and severe-conditions audio dampeners would protect their sensory organs from the effects of the impending barrage.  While they waited the last few moments for it to begin, Anakin stretched out into the Force to monitor the Temple. 

Even with the helmets' protection, the first massive bolt of laser fire screeched deafeningly straight down from the sky.  Half as wide as the large central spire, the blazing streak drilled precisely into its pointed tip, incinerating the top of the structure and blasting huge chunks of stone in all directions. 

Anakin smirked to himself as he felt Yoda's Force signature wink out of existence.  As it became one with the Force, he lost track of it among the hundreds of other presences joining the flood of new life energy flowing out from the fall of the Jedi Order. 

The remaining two-thirds of the spire shattered and burned under the onslaught of further orbital bombardment from the Imperial destroyer.  With each passing second, two more gargantuan volleys crashed into the Temple.  The other four spires fell first, then the underlying structures began to be pulverized.  And more and more energy dissipated into the Force from the slaughtered beings inside. 

The destroyer's attack lasted only five minutes.  After a short pause for the huge columns of smoke to clear in the brisk evening wind, the clonetrooper-manned artillery guns and assault tanks opened fire in unison from the four sides.  The ground-based attacks continued for almost half an hour, firing shot after shot of vicious lasers into the crumbling stone walls.  By the end, nothing but smoldering ruins remained of the once-proud Jedi Temple.

Anakin was the last of the three to remove his helmet.  "It is done, then," he proclaimed with satisfaction. 

"Yes," Tarkin agreed.  "I had thought we would face more resistance."  He crossed his arms over his chest.  "So much the better that we did not."

"Indeed," Padmé smiled as she took Anakin's hand. 

Anakin turned to face the eight clone captains standing at attention behind the command console.  "If there are any surviving Jedi who try to flee, fire at them with the cannons and tanks.  Their lightsabers cannot deflect lasers of that magnitude.  With enough concentrated fire, you can easily kill one."  He brushed a hand through his hair to loosen it from the flattening by the helmet.  "After a few hours, send in your troops and ensure everyone inside is dead." 

The clones nodded in unison and sprinted briskly to their respective units. 

A short while later, Anakin squeezed Padmé's hand and looked into her eyes.  "I think we've seen all we need to see here, angel.  Will you come with me on a speeder ride?" 

"Of course, Ani," she smiled.  "I'd like that.  I'd like that very much."

They each hopped agilely over the sides of the parked airspeeder.  Anakin fired up the engines, boosted the vehicle off the ground with its repulsors, and took them high into the air toward the skylines in the distance.  For about an hour they flew through the capital, weaving in and out of traffic and swooping around the glittering skyscrapers.  At last Anakin's flight path headed in a steady direction through the city toward a nearby industrial sector. 

Padmé reached her left hand over and tenderly rubbed his knee.  "Are we going somewhere in particular, Ani?"

"Yes and no," he answered calmly without taking his eyes off the swirling traffic in front of them.  "I can perceive the Force far more clearly now.  The Temple always projected so much radiance into it."  He shook his head as he tried to figure out a way to explain it to her.  "I don't know.  Like when you're facing the sun and trying to look at something else and just can't see it right.  If you took away the sun, you could see it fine.  That's what the Force is like for me now."

"I think I understand."

"With the Order gone, I finally can sense the other dominating Force signature.  I'm just tracking down exactly where it is."

Padmé still was a bit confused.  "So who are we going to see?"

"The Sith Master."

It took ten more minutes for Anakin to find his way to a tall abandoned warehouse.  Their speeder circled the building three times.  He was looking for landing space on a ledge when a loud creaking sound shook the air and a concealed door slid up along one high wall.  With nimble ease, the speeder landed inside the dark and shadowy hangar bay. 

Anakin and Padmé disembarked over the sides of the vehicle and walked slowly toward the circle of light projected on the floor in the center of the enormous room.  She unsnapped the restraint on her holster; he unclipped one lightsaber handle from his belt and held it in his right hand.  They stopped at the edge of the yellow disc.  Across from them, a figure dressed in black robes and a huge black cloak appeared in the dim view. 

"Darth Sidious, I presume," Anakin said calmly. 

"I have been expecting you," the grim figure replied without emotion.  "I'm surprised it took you so long to discover me.  Welcome, General Vader."  He spread his bare hands wide.  "Welcome, Premier Vader."  He tucked his hands into the sleeves of his robes again.  "You still have much to learn about the Force.  I will teach you everything, my young apprentice."

Anakin's brilliant red lightsaber hissed and popped into the air.  "I am willing to learn," he glared.  "But I will never be anyone's apprentice again!"  He charged forward with his blade in attack position. 

Sidious' hands snapped out and a similar red lightsaber flashed to life to clash into Anakin's.  The armored young man swung three vicious two-handed strikes.  With simple arcs the concealed older man parried each one, his black robes and cloak swirling in the air.  For several minutes the two red blades screeched and smashed as they drove each other back and forth across the circle of light without speaking. 

Finally, Sidious spun out of reach and deactivated his blade.  "Your skills with a lightsaber are unparalleled," he offered simply.  "In this area, there is little more you can learn from me." 

Anakin thumbed off his weapon too.  "That no doubt is true," he conceded.  "But I will not be your servant.  Or your slave."  He kept the handle in his hand.  "I will train with you, but only as a peer.  If you cannot agree to this, you will have to fight me to the death, here and now." 

"Oh, Anakin, don't," Padmé gasped in dismay from several yards away.

"No, no," Sidious soothed with his voice.  "That will not be necessary.  I will train you as you wish.  We will be equals in this.  Not master and apprentice.  Simply two Sith Lords."

"Very well," Anakin nodded.  "Yet you must be aware that I have no reason to trust you."

"Oh, you do, you do," Sidious chuckled lightly.  "You just don't know it." 

With an understated flourish, Sidious lowered his hood. 

The rolling laughter of husband and wife echoed away into the high vaulted ceiling of the hangar.  It was a long time before they finally could regain their composure. 

"Oh, this is… it's… oh, my," Padmé stammered through her final fits of mirth.  "It's so perfect!"

Anakin had to wipe tears of glee from his face before he shook his friend's hand.  "So, when do we start?"

Emperor Palpatine simply smiled.  "No rush.  Whenever you like."  From somewhere within his robes he pulled out a palm-sized cube.  "In the meantime, you can study this holocron."  He tossed the device to Anakin. 

"Sure."  It plopped lightly into his hand and he tucked it away in a spare compartment of his belt. 

Padmé stepped over and took Anakin's hand in hers.  With a soft and gentle smile to Palpatine, she led Anakin toward the speeder.  Just before they climbed aboard, the older man's voice called out to them across the dark room.  "Farewell, Lady Vader."  The pair turned their heads back to him. 

"Farewell, Darth Vader."

ALTERNATE DARKSIDE ENDING: CHAPTER FORTY-NINE

Anakin lay in bed, reveling in his elation at the wonderful surprise.  In the four weeks since the destruction of the Jedi Temple, Padmé had been away from Coruscant almost the entire time for various official duties and a brief visit to Naboo.  He had not expected her home for another two weeks.  And yet twenty minutes ago she had walked unannounced through the front door.  Today was their sixteen-months wedding anniversary, and that gave her all the pretense she needed to justify to herself returning early to the capital. 

Despite their ludicrous wealth from Dooku's former funds, both of them were satisfied with her humble Senate apartment and neither was motivated to find somewhere else to live.  He gazed lazily around the small bedroom.  His two armoires and two bureaus filled one corner.  On one side of the bed were the wide windows; on the other were the doors to her walk-in closet and the refresher.  It was simple but adequate.  Of course they could have a more extravagant residence if that mattered to them.  But it didn't.

There was only one thing in the galaxy that did matter, and she was addressing him from inside the gargantuan closet.  "So have you made good progress with the Purge?  Is it almost done?"  They had talked at least once a day, usually more times than that.  Nevertheless, they always discussed everything more fully in person.  It was just what they did to enjoy being together again.

"Yep," he raised his voice to project it to her.  "Yesterday, in fact, I finished tracking down the last Jedi here on Coruscant."  It had been a relatively simple endeavor.  The Order's database had listed about forty Knights or Padawans with a designation of Coruscant: Mission.  In the Sith holocron, Anakin quickly had retrieved instructions for exposing shielded Force presences.  After he had trained himself in the technique, it took only meditation to locate and then eradicate the missing Jedi. 

"And the rest of the galaxy?  How many have we found?"  From the closet came the sounds of her unpacking clothes and hanging them up or tossing them in her hamper. 

"Last I checked, we'd confirmed about thirty-one hundred."  Before Operation Desecrate, the clone army already had reached across most of the galaxy.  With the database as a guide, Tarkin's troops had moved swiftly to seize Jedi.  Some were on peripatetic missions, however, and others managed to escape the initial attempt at capture.  Given the Empire's advantage in information and numbers, it would be only a matter of time before the clones hunted down the remaining eleven hundred.  And without the Temple to coordinate and assist them, the prey would be lost and confused.  "I'm not sure we'll ever be able to know for certain that we found every single one," he conceded thoughtfully.  "But it won't matter.  The organizational structure is gone.  And no one who's left is a threat."

"Have you decided what you want to do about the midichlorian testing?"  She poked her face and a bare shoulder around the corner.  "Should we suspend it?"

"I'm still thinking about that," he answered.  "We're clearly not going to form an academy or anything.  And without the Order, there's really no reason we need to know who's Force-sensitive and who isn't.  Any amount that some kid could train himself isn't a concern; no one's going to bumble her way into building a lightsaber."  He reached down and stretched his back by grasping his toes through the sheets with his fingertips.  "I guess that means there's no reason to test anymore, but I need some more time to meditate just to be sure I'm not missing something." 

"Fine with me," she chuckled from inside.  "Take as long as you want."  Wearing an unadorned golden silk nightgown, she stepped out of the closet and into the refresher.  "I'll be out in a second." 

Anakin peered aimlessly out the window at the multicolored dots of light whizzing through the nighttime sky.  The airspeeder traffic created remarkable patterns of streaks and waves as it flowed effortlessly.  It helped him keep his thoughts calm and his emotions composed while he waited.

Padmé exited the refresher and waved off the lights.  The automated window blinds closed as well, plunging the room into almost complete blackness except for a dim nightlight in the corner.  She slipped into the bed next to Anakin and cuddled against him, her right arm under his neck, her left hand resting tenderly on his bare chest.  "I missed you," she sighed. 

"I missed you too, angel," he murmured before he kissed her softly on her forehead and wrapped his arms around her back.  "Tell me all about Naboo."

"Let's see, where to begin?" she wondered aloud.  "Jenny's doing really well in school.  She'll almost certainly enter university early."  Padmé let out a little chuckle.  "She has a boyfriend." 

"Isn't she a little young to be dating?"

She kissed him on the cheek.  "Oh, Ani, she's almost sixteen.  And it's not like it's anything serious.  It's just a teenage crush."  She chuckled again.  "Plus, Saché knows every trick in the book.  She suckered her parents more ways than she can count.  If Jenny ever tried to lie to her, Saché would see through it in a second."

"That's good," Anakin replied.  "And how is Saché?  Has she found anyone?"

"No," Padmé shook her head.  "But she hasn't been looking.  She's content to wait another year or two until Jenny moves out.  Then I have no doubt she'll be back on the market with all that pent-up energy!"

He squeezed her firmly.  "And how about the others?"

"Well, Yané and Eirtaé married the guys we met last year.  They both seem happy.  And Sabé is Regent in the Palace right now, actually."

"Really?  When did that happen?"

"While I was there."  The arm under his head was starting to fall asleep, so she adjusted it a little.  "Queen Jamillia wasn't working out.  She said she'd comply, but her allegiance was questionable.  So I dethroned her." 

"Did you…"

"No.  I thought about it, but I didn't.  She'll be released eventually."  She reached up and began to run the fingers of her right hand through his hair while her left hand cupped his chin.  "I'll call an election later.  In the meantime, Sabé's in charge." 

He began to massage her shoulders through the nightgown, trying to rub away some of her lingering tension.  "By the way, a few weeks ago Dormé was talking about returning to the Theed office.  Do you know if she's going to, or will she stay with us for the time being?" 

"The other day she told me she would rather be on Coruscant after all.  Jar Jar's heading home, though.  He misses Otoh Gunga.  And I think Boss Nass will put him on the council of advisors, so he'll have something enjoyable to do when he gets there."

"That's good.  He's kind of annoying, but he has a good heart.  I just hope he likes whatever he ends up doing." 

"Me too."  She pulled her hand away to smack herself lightly on the forehead.  "Duh!  My family says hello."

Anakin let out a giddy laugh.  "Angel, no reason to be upset.  I assumed that!"

"Okay.  Mom and Dad are doing well.  They're really proud of me.  For a while they were concerned about me giving up on the Republic, but they trust my judgment, so they know the Empire is the best thing for the galaxy right now."

"Mmm," he nodded as he nuzzled her hair. 

"Sola and Darred decided not to have any more children.  And Pooja and Ryoo are still about the sweetest things you could ever imagine." 

"I bet.  They're adorable."

"True.  Babies are cutest, though, aren't they?  Can you believe it's been five months since Owen and Beru had Ben?  He's so sweet.  He never cries or anything.  And Rabé just had a baby girl.  Her husband is so excited he can barely stand it, and she's thrilled too.  I've never seen anyone as blissful as those two."

As she talked about the children and infants, Anakin could sense glimmers of anxiety and reluctance emerging in her Force presence.  "That's great.  I'm so happy for all of them."  He ran his hands down her back and pulled her closer to him.  "Tell me what's bothering you, angel.  I can sense it.  You can tell me anything."

Padmé kissed his cheek very sweetly.  "Okay, Ani," she whispered with trepidation in her voice.  "I have something to confess." 

"What's that?"

"Do you remember, right before I left, how I told you that I was moody and crampy because I had a touch of something?" 

"Yes," he soothed as he brushed her hair with his right hand. 

"That wasn't true."

"Hmm?" 

"I lied," she apologized sincerely, squeezing him tightly in her arms.  "I wasn't sick.  It was my cycle kicking back in.  I stopped taking the hormone treatments." 

Anakin raised an eyebrow and smirked.  "Were you planning on informing me at some point?" 

"Of course I was," she insisted as she snuggled him even more.  "But I figured as long as we didn't stop using both, it would buy me some time to get up the nerve to tell you." 

With his right hand he reached behind his head, opened the drawer of his nightstand, and pulled out a small box.  "You mean these?"  He couldn't help himself from giggling at the silliness of it all.  "They're not foolproof, you know." 

"Never tell me the odds," she giggled too.  "I took a leap of faith." 

"But what you're telling me," he clarified, "is that you don't want me to use them anymore."  He felt her tentative nod against his shoulder.  "I was beginning to think you'd never ask!"  With a sharp flick of his wrist the box flew across the room, careened off two walls, and clunked unceremoniously straight into the small wastebasket in the corner. 

"Are you sure, Ani?"  Her voice still registered concern, and her Force presence was unsettled.  "I don't want you to agree to anything you're not ready for." 

"Angel," he cooed, "I've been ready for a long time.  I was waiting on you." 

"Really?"

"Really.  I want us to have a baby." 

She brushed her fingers along his cheek and kissed his shoulder.  "So do I.  Do you want to start trying tonight?"

His very gentle and tender kiss gave her all the answer she needed. 

ALTERNATE DARKSIDE ENDING: CHAPTER FIFTY

"Today will be a great day," Padmé smiled as she and Anakin entered the deserted war room in the Executive Building.  First, it was her twenty-sixth birthday, and he had promised her a surprise present she would never forget.  Second, a tremendous victory celebration was scheduled for the evening to mark the end of the Clone War.  Not only had the last elements of the Separatist insurrection been crushed, but also all resistance to the Empire.  Third, Emperor Palpatine was returning to Coruscant within the hour; then she and Anakin could leave for a long-delayed two-week vacation. 

"Yes," Anakin agreed.  You have no idea.  Given the ceremony later, for now they both dressed in relatively simple attire: matching black shirts and pants and casual shoes.  He left all his military regalia behind, and she wore her crimson hair loose and unbound and no makeup on her face. 

Holding hands, they stopped in front of the gigantic three-dimensional holographic representation of the galaxy projected in the air over the large conference table.  This morning the last systems colored in red, designating rebellious planets, had been changed to the white color of the Empire.  Indicated with green were a few small territories outside its domain for now, including the Corporate Sector and Huttspace, as well as insignificant systems in the Outer Rim not yet worth the army's time and the few discovered worlds in the Unknown Regions.  It was quite an accomplishment for an Empire that only had existed for not quite ten months. 

"Pardon me, Premier Vader, General Vader," the solitary communications officer at the console said quietly.  "The Emperor's transport is in range." 

"Very good, Colonel," Anakin responded, running the fingers of his free hand through his short black hair.  "Bring it up on the viewscreen and put us in contact with him.  Then leave us." 

"Yes, sir," the man replied calmly.  A moment later, the image appeared on the enormous wall monitor.  Palpatine's small transport flew out from an open gigantic hangar bay in the side of a destroyer.  The escort for the descent to Coruscant below was a dozen triangular starfighters of the type formerly used by the Jedi Order.  As the transmission line crackled open, the officer rose from his seat and almost ran out the door. 

Anakin squeezed Padmé's hand once they were alone.  He raised his voice a little to account for the static.  "Did your trip to Corellia go well?"

"Yes, quite.  It was excellent," Palpatine's voice answered from the speaker. 

"We're glad to hear that," Padmé told him. 

"I have been meaning to tell you something," Anakin began.  "In my meditations, I have become enlightened.  Everything that has happened the last decade, and more I assume, has been your design.  The blockade of Naboo, the fall of Valorum, the ordering of the clone army, the Separatist war, the destruction of the Republic, and the annihilation of the Jedi.  You foresaw it.  You controlled it from the beginning.  It is all your doing."

"Yes, my young friend.  I am pleased you have discovered the truth for yourself."  It felt as if they could hear his very contented grin. 

"You even helped Padmé and me find each other again, didn't you?  I have had visions in the Force about her for as long as I can remember.  We are destined to be together.  And yet the Jedi, and events, always stood in the way.  Until you made other events happen instead.  You killed Schmidt and ensured her election to the Senate, you did not prevent the assassination attempts by Nute Gunray, and then you arranged for us to go away together to Naboo.  You set our destiny in motion again."

A pleased laugh sounded over the feed.  "Yes, it is true.  I admit it.  I do not think of myself as much of a matchmaker, to be sure.  For the two of you, however, it was my pleasure." 

"So over all of these years, everything has proceeded exactly as you have foreseen.  That is most impressive."  Anakin's voice sounded as if it reflected sincere humility and profound admiration.  "I have a question for you, Lord Sidious." 

"What is that, Lord Vader?" 

Anakin gently separated from Padmé and pointed both hands toward the viewscreen.  "Did you foresee that today is the day you die?" 

Stunned silence. 

Anakin carried out the technique he had been practicing for weeks.  He dropped his mind instantly into the dark side of the Force, drawing on the deep well of power within himself.  With his left hand, he projected an overwhelming wave of energy toward one of the starfighters.  With his right, he traced an invisible marker on the transport.  The starfighter pilot reacted immediately: under the influence of the dark side mind compulsion, he had no choice but to destroy the "enemy" ship in front of him. 

While Padmé watched in shock as one starfighter broke formation, a panicked yell from Palpatine finally came over the speaker.  "Do something!  Stop the ship!  Put up the shields!"  The transport had no shields.  It could not be stopped in mid-flight.  And nothing could be done. 

"You always have outplayed your opponents, Palpatine," Anakin shouted to make sure he was heard by the doomed man.  "Until today.  Until you made a fatal mistake and let your confidence become overconfidence.  A weakness."  He chuckled a sinister and very self-satisfied laugh of derision.  "Shame on you.  You should have known better than to ever let yourself trust me."

Before there could be a reply, the deluded starfighter pilot opened fire and the transport exploded in a brilliant incineration. 

A flick of Anakin's finger used the Force to flip the switch and shut down the viewscreen.  He had no desire to watch the hectic and confused aftermath of the assassination.  And he had no need: it could not possibly be traced to them.

Finally he turned to face Padmé.  She turned to face him too, her jaw hanging open in disbelief.  He tenderly sent a wave of calm to her in the Force and took her hands in his.  "Happy birthday, angel." 

"This was my present?"

"Yes.  Do you like it?" 

Tears began to stream down her face.  "Do I like it?"  In the Force, elation and ecstasy finally poked through her incredulous surprise.  "What do you think?  I'm the statutory successor.  You just made me Empress." 

"I know," he smiled lovingly.

She laughed giddily.  "The Empress and the Sith Lord.  Quite a team we are, huh?"

"The best.  The very best in the galaxy." 

She stepped forward and wrapped him in a fierce yet warm embrace.  He held her close and rocked her gently until her joyful crying passed. 

After several minutes she pulled back and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.  "I guess we have to cancel the vacation."

"Yes, I suppose we do."

"That's okay," she chuckled.  "Today has been the best birthday ever." 

Anakin grinned broadly, delighted everything had gone so well.  He took her hand again and led her toward the door.  Just before he waved it open, he stopped and looked her in the eyes.

"This will be a day long remembered.  It has seen the end of the rebellion, and now it has seen the end of Palpatine."

---

Before they left the Executive Building, Anakin made a decision.  "Padmé?"

"Yes, Ani?" 

"We need to stop by the detention block on level twenty before we leave.  There's someone you should meet." 

"Okay.  Who's that?"

He winked.  "It's another surprise." 

When they arrived and passed through the four security stations, he strode directly to a cell on the left-hand side of the corridor.  He entered a code in the wall panel and the door slid up.  He took her by the hand and led her inside. 

It was not at all the usual tiny holding cell.  The large white room was about fifty feet square.  Along the left wall was a set of exercise equipment, including weight-training machines and a treadmill.  Against the far wall were a big desk and several bookcases with printed manuscripts and dozens of stacks of datacards.  On the right wall were two open doorways, which Padmé surmised led to a refresher and a sleeping room.  The center of the room was entirely open floor, which provide a suitable enough space for moving workouts.

Sitting cross-legged in the very middle of the room was a barefoot girl about sixteen years old.  Her eyes were closed in meditation, but they opened when Anakin and Padmé stepped closer. 

With graceful ease the girl sprang to her feet and walked to greet them.  Unlike the orange jumpsuits required of other prisoners, she was dressed in a short-sleeved black shirt and knee-length black shorts.  Padmé instantly noticed the shiny silver lightsaber handle hanging at her right hip.  The girl had intense green eyes and shoulder-length blonde hair clipped back in a simple ponytail.  Despite her youth, her muscles were considerable and well-toned.  Padmé decided that with a little help on clothes and hair, the girl would be strikingly beautiful.  Clearly, she chuckled to herself, she would have to talk to Anakin about it.

The three of them met halfway.  "I will be back for you tonight," Anakin explained to the girl.  "My plan worked to perfection.  You won't have to stay here anymore." 

"Good," the girl responded.  "It was beginning to get a little boring hiding in this room." 

"I know, and I apologize for that," Anakin replied. 

"It's okay.  I don't mind," the girl shrugged.  "My skills are much stronger now, and I've learned a lot in my studies.  You told me six months, and you kept your word."

Anakin nodded.  "And I am proud of you.  This was quite a test of your patience, and you certainly have proven yourself."

"Thank you," the girl smiled, looking down at the floor with a bit of embarrassment, then back up again. 

Padmé's patience, on the other hand, had worn out.  She cleared her throat.  "Are you going to introduce me, Anakin?"

"I was getting to that," he chuckled, squeezing her hand.  "Padmé, this is Geo."  He put his arm around Padmé's shoulders.  "Geo, this is my wife, Padmé." 

"It's nice to meet you, Geo," Padmé said in a friendly voice. 

"It's a pleasure to finally meet you, your Highness," Geo bowed formally.  "I feel like I've known you for years, after everything I've heard about you."

Padmé looked to Anakin with surprise on her face.  "How does she know I'm Empress?  That just happened.  And who's talked to her about me?"  She lifted her eyebrows.  "Who is she?" 

He winked at Geo to let her know she had performed admirably; Padmé still had not figured it out.  "Darth Victus.  My apprentice."

---

Anakin had finished laying out his attire for the evening and was about to sit down on the end of the bed to begin getting dressed when it occurred to him that Padmé had been in the refresher an inordinately long time.  He did not sense anything abnormal in the Force, however, which left him without an explanation.  So there was nothing to do but ask.  "Padmé, is everything okay?"

"Yes, it's fine.  Just give me a second," she answered from behind the closed door.  After more like a minute, the door slid open and Padmé emerged in the sheer silken white slip she would wear under her gown.  In her hand, she carried a thin device a few inches square. 

"Are you feeling well?"  For the last few days he thought she had looked pale, but now her face was vibrant and perhaps even a bit flushed. 

"Well enough," she smiled.  "I didn't think it was possible, but this birthday just got even better." 

He looked at her quizzically. 

"I figured out why I've been feeling under the weather lately."

"Why's that?"

She lifted her hand to show him the device.  This has been the longest five months of my life.  In its center was a large blue dot.  "I'm pregnant." 

---

The young couple walked exultantly down the broad hallway toward their destination.  Anakin, Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith, wore his armored battle suit, the black cloak billowing in the air from their quick pace.  Padmé, Lady Vader, about to be crowned Empress and undisputed sovereign of the known galaxy, wore an elaborate gown, a deep royal purple with gold brocade, and her hair in a single braid down her back.  And long dark gloves that complemented his.

She was about to turn through the door when she realized he had stopped in the hallway.  "What is it?"

"You go," he smiled, waving her forward with a hand.  "This is your day." 

"No, Ani," she shook her head.  "Everything in my life is yours as well." 

"It's fine, angel," he told her.  "All that I have done, all that I have accomplished, has been for one reason only: to be with you forever.  This," he pointed through the door at the event waiting for their arrival, "is not about me.  It's about you.  You don't need to share it with me." 

"Yes, I do," she looked at him sternly.  "It will mean nothing without you there with me."

"This is not necessary," he pleaded again.  "These sorts of ceremonies make me uncomfortable." 

She stepped closer, stared hard into his piercing blue eyes, and spoke softly and gently.  "It is your destiny.  Join me, and together we will rule the galaxy as wife and husband."  She took his right hand in her left, interlocking her fingers with his and clutching him lovingly.  "Come with me.  It is the only way."  She used her eyes and voice to soothe and reassure him as much as she could. 

He let out a reluctant sigh, the insistence in her brown eyes yet again destroying his willpower to resist.  "Yes, angel.  I will do anything that you ask."  He tugged her hand just a bit as he leaned down, and she responded by leaning up to meet him in a short and tender kiss. 

And then he strode confidently with her out onto the viewing balcony.  In the expansive plaza stretching off into the distance beneath them, ten battalions of soldiers stood in formation closest to the building.  Almost ten thousand strong, the clones in their shining white armor and the recruits in their crisp red uniforms waited for their cue.  Behind the troops and to the sides, many times that number of ordinary citizens had jammed the open space to join the victory celebration turned coronation. 

Waiting respectfully at the rear of the balcony was Geo, wearing black battle armor identical to Anakin's.  She bowed to them as they passed.  "Good evening, Master.  Good evening, your Highness."

The lovers squeezed hands as they approached the railing, sharing in their marvel at the sight.  Then, together, Anakin and Padmé swiftly and triumphantly lifted their held hands and their free hands into the air over their heads. 

As one, the soldiers began the customary salute.  "All hail!"  Over the din of the cheering masses, the shout struggled to be heard.  After a short pause, the soldiers repeated the call. 

"All hail!"  This time the undercurrent of noise rapidly diminished and the pause was remarkably silent. 

The throngs of jubilant citizens joined the third and last salute.  "ALL HAIL!"  And at the final word, nearly a hundred thousand clenched fists punched toward the heavens in unison. 

"VADER!"

THE END