(1) Credit to Wookiepedia for the restaurant name.
(2) Thanks to YellowDart for the beta.
(3) I am so sorry for the delay in posting this chapter. Among other things, RL decided to make thing interesting technology wise. I've been suffering with a whole bunch of virus' that (after days trying to fix it) meant I had to completely wipe my hard-drive and have it rebuilt.:(
and for a moment I thought Pad could die, but then again the story
wouldn't have the life it does with tortuing her and ani. LOL. But it
Thank you so much for the reply and letting me know that you're enjoying the story!
mlhkvh5 - I just got caught up on the last few chapter, and I am speechless! The rescue of Chewbacca was exciting, and the way you write Anakin and Padme getting closer, and that Kiss! was wow! Then the pull back in the next chapter, with the hurtful comment at the end by Padme puts them back at square one almost. The fight with Darth Maul and the entire story is enthralling, like watching a movie. I get popcorn when I read your story! Looking forward to more!
Hey there! Aww! I'm so pleased that you enjoy the chapters so much. It really means a great deal that you're still finding it gripping. Thanks for the ongoing support!
Lal08 - Absolutely beautiful chapter... Loved the last scene and their interaction...
Thanks! *blush* I love knowing that it hit the right notes for you. X
THANK YOU TO EVERYONE FOR THEIR PATIENCE AND I HOPE YOU ENJOY THE NEW CHAPTER.
Guil Natar was not ignorant of his own shortcomings. He had no friends and no loved ones. He did not have to wonder why. His nature was entirely selfish; his instinct for survival was overly well-developed, and he had no loyalty whatsoever—except to himself. Backstabbing, kickbacks, petty squabbling and all of the subtle, and not so subtle, intrigues of public life was his life, and soul. What brought these rare reflections to mind was the Premier himself. For the first time in seventy odd years, Lyonides did not look well, or in control. It wasn't anything obvious, but Guil's instincts were quivering. Concern for himself and his position, was, as usual, uppermost in his mind.
Face blank and eyes sharp, he bowed. "You sent for me, my lord?"
Lyonides was lost in thought, drumming the fingers of his right on the polished expanse of his desk. There was a fine tremor in the hand and the quartz ring on his index finger was slipping down. He was losing weight, and sleep, by the looks of it Natar noted. The mid-day sun, blazing down from the circular skylight built into the ceiling, was merciless in highlighting every sagging shadow.
It took a moment for Lyonides to drag his attention from whatever was occupying his mind to acknowledge his presence. Blinking, he nodded and waved a hand. "Yes, take a seat Guil. We have things of a delicate nature to discuss."
"Of course, my lord."
Natar took the proffered seat, folding his flowing black robes fussily around his tall, thin frame. As he did, his mind pondered the term 'delicate'. Over the years, they had discussed many things others would consider unconscionable. Curious, he waited to find out more. There were no attendants or guards in the Premier's apartments. Not so long ago, Lyonides would hardly move a step without someone to dance attendance—more of a status symbol than a necessity, yet recently he'd become increasingly solitary. Was he about to find out why? Intrigued, Natar leaned forward and set his gaze on the man behind the desk. "How may I be of service, Premier?"
"I have a job for you that is not to be delegated to an underling, are we clear?" Lyonides voice sounded rusty, as if through lack of use or a dire need of water.
Natar didn't hesitate. "Certainly, my lord. I am at your command."
Pulling open a drawer on the right of his desk, Lyonides withdrew a datapad. Once it was in his hands, he held onto it a beat longer than necessary before sliding it over so that Natar could pick it up. He nodded at the slim hand-held recording device. "On there is a list of names of people whose backgrounds I want investigating. I want a full accounting, particularly professional and character assessments. Leave nothing out. You are free to interview each as thoroughly as you like, but be diplomatic and discreet. I don't want them alienated, or your discourse with any one of them to be revealed to the public."
Natar was disappointed, to say the least. He had been expecting something a lot more interesting than invading the privacy of some citizens. He glanced at the names and raised a brow, recognising a few. His interest piqued again. "Am I allowed to ask to what this request pertains?"
Lyonides looked set to refuse. Quickly and smoothly, Natar made an educated guess, adding, "It would be extremely helpful to know what it is that you want me to find—before I start to search."
"The people on that list are journalists," admitted, Lyonides, bluntly. "I want you to find me one who is both daring and vindictive enough to assassinate the character of a man revered by the public—currently." He added the last with a kind of silky significance that was telling in itself.
Natar could only stare. Surely he couldn't mean who he thought he did, could he? He coughed. "Forgive me, my lord. Do you mean Skywalker?"
Sitting back in his chair, Lyonides gave a sickly, wry smile at his reaction and steepled his fingers under his chin. "I know what you're going to say, so there's no need to say it. Just do it, Natar."
"But…but, his acclaim has only increased in the last ten days …his finding out that the Narzgh die when exposed to the sun—the entire city is still celebrating." Realising that his voice was rising to a whine, Natar pulled himself together and gestured with the datapad. "Certainly, I can try to find you such a person, but have you considered the ramifications if this backfires on us? As much as I would personally love to see the man suffer for his arrogance, it could be disastrous."
The sickly smile stayed in place and for once the blue eyes were oddly hot instead of calculating and cold. "Let me worry about that. As someone has recently said to me, the loftier a height from which a man topples, the swifter and harder will be the eventual fall."
There was that significance again—as if Lyonides knew something that he didn't. Obviously he did. Natar felt a shiver run down his spine. All of a sudden, he was catching a scent that quickened his heart, the scent of secrets and crushing ruination. What did Lyonides know about Skywalker? Some people's vices were perversions of the flesh, Natar's were perversions of the spirit, it was why he was so good at certain less publicised aspects of his job. Lyonides might as well have been wafting a lit death-stick under the nose of a junky. He felt pinned in place. Now his hands started to shake, with excitement. "If I do find someone, we'll have to give them something extraordinary to broadcast." He licked his lips because his mouth had suddenly gone dry. "Something that can be proven," he cautioned.
Like a web being weaved, the pause that followed skilfully built tension. "And they shall have it," said Lyonides, voice low and intense. He stood, rounding his desk to perch on the far edge and lean companionably close. "As I'm sure you know, my dear Natar, given the right incentive a disillusioned populace can be vicious in ripping apart the very same person they've so recently been worshipping." He canted his head. "I would even go so far as to say that the one feeds directly on the other."
Given the current climate, it didn't sound plausible, and yet there was something vilely cunning in Lyonides' expression that convinced Natar. He was mesmerised. A second shiver passed down his spine. On one level at least, the security minister and the premier had always been in complete agreement, no sacrifice was too high in the quest for power and position, or retaliation too strong when either was challenged.
Skywalker was past due for the last. Natar had not forgotten, nor forgiven, his single humiliating encounter with the Jedi.
Natar's pulse kicked up another gear. "I look forward to seeing if you're right, my lord. If that is all, I'll get started." Anxious to begin, he rose to leave.
Lyonides waited until he was about to press the door release before stopping him. "Actually, there is just one other thing. The last name on that list is not a journalist." Smoothly, he went on, "I want Zarc Wess located and brought to me. Don't let anyone witness who has taken him or where he's being brought. As far as anyone else is concerned, he is simply missing. Secrecy is crucial, do you understand."
Head filled with visions of a humbled, vilified Skywalker, Natar answered by rote. "Yes, my lord, of course. It shall be done exactly as you ask."
Lyonides waited for the door to shut behind his security minister, then shook his head, lamenting, "What a ghoul you are Natar, and so pitiably easy to manipulate because of it. Useful though."
Following orders, he walked straight to the holotransmission grid. He didn't need to key in the necessary code. He had barely inhaled in a fortifying breath when the blue image of a fully cloaked Sidious duly appeared. The figure didn't speak, waiting. Pride was no longer a factor. He bowed. Sidious then deigned to rasp a single word. "Report."
The words jumbled together in Lyonides' head as the usual paralysing fear took a hold, as it always did when faced with the Sith lord. It was an effort to unlock his tongue. When he could, he rushed into speech. "The shortlist of journalists is about to be whittled down. My security minister is a quick worker when motivated. I expect him to have a name for me before nightfall."
"Will be delivered to me directly."
Sidious nodded, a mere movement of his concealing hood. "Good. When that happens, bring him to me. I will see to him personally. I want no mistakes."
Obediently, Lyonides inclined his head. The dark lord was pleased. The constriction in his chest eased. "As you wish, Lord Sidious."
There was a pause. The kind that left his heart hammering, waiting for the blow to land. He didn't have to wait long. "I sense anxiety in you, Premier. You're not beginning to have second thoughts I hope?"
"No. No. Not at all. It is merely that Skywalker is still posing a threat. The way he looks at me. I'm certain that he suspects that you are here—"
Sidious dismissed Skywalker with a flick of a wrist. "Of course he suspects. The point is that he won't find me. He may even consider confronting you—something he would have done immediately at a more reckless time in his life, but he will hold off. I know my old apprentice. He learned patience as a Sith, something the Jedi failed to instil in him, and will not want to tip his hand too soon. Quiet your fears. He won't make a move on you until his position is stronger. That caution is working in our favour." There was a thoughtful pause, then the dark lord conceded, "Still, we have to work quickly."
Lyonides bowed his head lower, grateful to be able to report additional success. "The Falleen have taken the bait and are on their way even as we speak."
"Yes, I am aware of that. The timing is admittedly, tight, but that is an unfortunate necessity. Everything is proceeding exactly as I have foreseen. Soon, Premier, Skywalker will be dealt with and your life will be a great deal less complicated, then you will know that I always keep my promises."
For some reason, hearing that statement tightened the vice around Lyonides again. "Thank you, my lord. I will be forever in your debt."
was caught in a thrashing, turbulent sea. The wild chop of the waves
ripped at his clothes and flesh, pulling, tugging, crashing over him.
His vision was reduced to blurs of colour that would coalesce into
yelling faces before washing away again. The roar of those same waves
battered at his ears. He tried to lift his arms to wade through the
torrent, but for some reason his arms were locked behind his back. He
sucked in air thick with hysteria. More faces swam out of the
darkness before his eyes. Anger seethed and it wasn't his own. He
was panicking, trying to find Padmé. He had
to find her. The need to find her was like a second heartbeat
drumming in his head. He had to warn
her. He had to get
her away! Suddenly, out of nowhere, darkness spewed up like billowing
black smoke, swallowing everything in its path. Finally, he saw
Padmé. Her face was full of anguish and she was reaching out to him
with both hands. He tried to surge towards her, straining, but the
riptide took him, dragging him under. He yelled her name, fighting,
trying to get back. The panic choked him, surging into his throat,
filling his lungs, drowning him. When he surfaced he was flying. Fear
was like a hooked claw in his mind now. Beneath him was an
unutterable vision of horror. The sight seared itself into his
brain—a mass of bodies writhing in a raging madness of intolerable
pain. The wailing was like a physical wall he had to fly through to
find Padmé. She was here. He had to find her.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, darkness spewed up like billowing black smoke, swallowing everything in its path. Finally, he saw Padmé. Her face was full of anguish and she was reaching out to him with both hands. He tried to surge towards her, straining, but the riptide took him, dragging him under. He yelled her name, fighting, trying to get back. The panic choked him, surging into his throat, filling his lungs, drowning him. When he surfaced he was flying. Fear was like a hooked claw in his mind now. Beneath him was an unutterable vision of horror. The sight seared itself into his brain—a mass of bodies writhing in a raging madness of intolerable pain. The wailing was like a physical wall he had to fly through to find Padmé. She was here. He had to find her.
A hand shook Anakin's shoulder, waking him. "Hey!" said a voice.
He jerked upright, chest juddering. His eyes locked on Sal's. He saw the flash of concern in dark eyes that the other man couldn't hide. He tried to speak, but his throat wouldn't cooperate. It came out as a groan.
Sitting back on his haunches, Sal said it for him. "That must have been some nightmare, kid. You're shaking like you're about to come apart on me." His lips kicked up. "You're not, are you?"
The concern was still there, but Sal was hiding it. Grateful, Anakin managed to say, "No."
The sweat was already cooling on his skin. The nightmare clung to the edges of his mind, unwilling to let go.
"So, another nightmare," said Sal, resignedly after a long moment. He was in his pants and shirt with the ties undone on the rough, tan cotton. Sleep wrinkles were visible grooves on his face. He'd obviously rolled out of bed to wake Anakin. "How many is that this week, three?"
Embarrassment mixed with the leftover fear, congealing it. Nodding shortly, Anakin threw back the sheet clinging damply to his skin and swung his legs off his bed. There, he put his head in his hands, digging short nails into his scalp. Viciously, he wished he could reach into his own head and rip out the part that insisted on tormenting him.
Why did he keep dreaming about Padmé? It was driving him crazy. As if things weren't bad enough with the possibility that Sidious was here in Roth. He didn't need this. He didn't want to go through this again.
Sal move back to his own bed, Anakin caught the creak of his weight settling on the mattress.
He looked up and caught Sal cracking a yawn through a hand that was roughly scrubbing his face. "Sorry I woke you."
"I'm getting used to it." Bleary-eyed, Sal regarded him. "What's with you recently? You been eating too much spice or something? That Ukutan stew of Lelo's could stop a bantha in its tracks."
If only it was that simple.
"It's nothing. Go back to sleep. I'm going to take a shower." Anakin rose jerkily to his feet, stumbling over a corner of the sheet that had become entangled around one ankle. The grey light outside the shutters hinted at dawn. There would be no more sleep for him he decided as he headed for the refresher, not for as long as he could stave it off.
The apartment didn't run to a sonicshower, but used a sansisteam instead. Shutting the refresher door, he hooked his fingers inside the waist of his drawstring pants and pushed them down. Naked, he stepped inside the cubicle. Once the steam jets engaged, he planted a hand on the permaglass for support, and finally let the shakes have their way.
The fragrant steam soon clouded the entire cubicle, enveloping him and slicking his skin with moisture. Tears welled again and a few managed to slip down his face. His mind was similarly rebellious. The dreams had begun immediately after his duel with Maul. The same questions haunted him after each. Why did he keep dreaming about Padmé being in danger? Was it reaction to the danger she'd been in then, or something more sinister? If he tried to find out was he actually going to make it happen—like last time? He didn't know. He didn't dare risk trying to find out.
He didn't know what to do!
A few minutes later, clean, if not refreshed, he walked back out wearing his only spare pair of pants. Sal was sitting with his shoulders slumped and hands dangling between his knees. He eyed Anakin sourly, obviously now awake enough to be getting ticked off at being woken so early. "So, you off on one of your wandering stints again, or going back to the factory?"
Finding a fresh tunic and pulling it over his head, Anakin kept his face devoid of expression. "Wandering stints?"
"Yeah, were you disappear for hours searching for some elusive lord of darkness or whatever?"
Anakin felt a twist of dark humour at hearing Sidious described in such a way. He'd told the others what he'd sensed and his suspicions. Their reaction had been mixed and exactly what he'd expected. Padmé was concerned and Sal was sceptical. His brows snapped down. "I didn't realise you were keeping such close tabs on me?"
Sal wasn't in the slightest bit fazed by his scowl. "You've been working flat out with the engineers, translating those barrier specs, training the new recruits that are suddenly coming out of the woodwork, and scouring the city every spare minute. You're always on the move doing something. If you're not careful you're gonna burn out, crack or both." He spread his hands. "How's that helping anyone?"
Pressure built at the back of Anakin's head. He didn't want to be questioned. He wanted to be just left to get on with what had to be done, including finding out for certain if Sidious was once again lurking behind the scenes. Didn't they understand how important it was that he know? He checked himself then. Of course they didn't. Only Padmé knew the truth. He buckled the utility belt that Obi-Wan had given him with short, economical movements of his hands. "I like being busy. I'm fine."
"Since you ask, I'm going to the factory." Sitting back on the bed, Anakin tugged on the only things he'd splashed out on credit-wise, a decent pair of boots. Dressed, he snagged his hooded robe and headed for the door, tossing over his shoulder, "I'll see you at the briefing later."
"I have a few deliveries, but I'll be there."
At the door, Anakin went still, hand hovering over the panel, but not touching the door release. A second ago all he'd wanted was to get out. Now he couldn't. Slowly, compelled, he turned back to Sal. "I need to ask you a favour."
A wary look came over the other man's face. "Alright, name it."
There was an infinitesimal pause while Anakin almost changed his mind. Inside him a tug of war raged. When it came right down to it, it wasn't in his nature to ask for help. He preferred doing what needed to be done in his own way, using his skills and instincts to defeat whatever obstacles were thrown at him. But this was different. His helplessness in the dream was still fresh. He forced the words out, "I need to ask you to look after Padmé if anything happens to me. If for some reason I can't."
If Anakin had thought Sal would simply offer a solemn acceptance of the charge, he was doomed to disappointment.
"Damn it! I knew you were gonna say something like that. You keep calling her name out in your sleep like your hearts being torn out." Agitated, Sal shot to his feet, raking a rough hand through his short, greying hair as he paced. "Look, I owe you, and I think you're a great guy, but don't be asking me to take on that responsibility. Do you think I can't see how you look at her? The pair of you might as well have tragic lovers tattooed across your foreheads in screaming neon—" He jammed a thumb into his own chest, "—and you expect me to protect her for you? I'm a has-been freight driver that managed to screw up everything decent in his own life. I'm nobody's idea of a bodyguard. Not anybody sane anyway."
"My dreams," said Anakin, carefully, brushing aside the tirade, "sometimes come true. The last time it happened, I tried to handle it alone and destroyed everything that mattered to me. Many people paid the price for my … arrogance. I can't let that happen again. In this dream, Padmé is in danger and I can't get to her in time. I need to know that someone is looking out for her."
"Damn, you just had to tell me that didn't you? What happened to being stoic and silent?" Sal visibly deflated, but he wasn't out for the count yet. "What about Freyrr," he asked desperately, "why don't you ask her?"
"Freyrr can't go into the Core. You can." Anakin could sense him weakening and pressed, "Stop selling yourself short. I wouldn't ask if I didn't think you could do it."
Gusting out a sigh, Sal gave in, ungraciously. "Fine. I'll keep an eye on her. Just do me a favour and make sure that whatever's got you tied up in your dreams gets untied real quick."
He couldn't go to the temple, and all of his other haunts were similarly being watched. Zarc Wess was literally pissing himself with fear. He'd gone to ground instead. The recyclers outside the Event Horizon restaurant were renowned for being the worst in the Core. Wess buried himself inside one, oblivious to the slime and stench. Sitting with his skinny arms around his knees, he rocked backwards and forwards, all the while muttering to himself in a near soundless whisper. His only company was a few dozen thumb-sized vermin with red eyes, twitching noses and clattering claws. They scurried around and over him as if he wasn't there. He had no idea how long he'd been inside the recycler, but dawn couldn't be far away. Fear, hunger and misery were a grinding ache in his gut. His whole body was quaking and he wished desperately for a bottle, even the rotgut whiskey they served at the Boja Bar.
He didn't bother to wonder why they were after him: he knew. Thanks to the Jedi and the pretty councillor, the secret was out and they'd want to make sure that Wess didn't blab and make things even worse.
A hysterical giggle rasped his throat. They'd do terrible things to him if they knew he already had. "Too kriffing late. Too kriffing late. Can't take it back now, no." He shook his head from side to side, red-rimmed eyes demented, chin rasping on his bare knees in the stinking darkness. Mucous dribbled down unnoticed from his nose to his upper lip. "Nobody can take anything back. It always comes back to get you." At that, a keening sob worked its way up from his chest.
When the lid of the recycler was abruptly ripped up, blinding him with light, he screamed.
"The man who gave us the plans for the barrier said that the technology was a work of art: having examined them, I have to agree with him," said Anakin to the people encircling him and Ceetee. "It is also my opinion that the barrier is being used nowhere near to full capacity." He paused. "It's been set to exclude the Outer Rim for no good reason that I can tell. The power cells are fully rechargeable and in perfect working condition."
There were general mutters from the small, trusted group listening. Present from the council was Padmé, Oboné, and a newly introduced councillor Anakin hadn't met before called Saber Throm, as well as Freyrr, Lorne and Sal. The arena, the site of Maul's death, was their base of operations and jokingly renamed the 'factory'. It had seemed apt to use it since the site had seen the turning point in the battle against the Narzgh. Junga Roth was now energised and full of hope. Changes were happening at a phenomenal rate. Speeders, bikes and other small craft were up on ramps on the arena floor, either in-process or waiting to be converted to carry the new UV weapons currently in production at various locations in the Core. The track was a training ground for new recruits. Below ground, one of the surgical enclosures once used to treat injured swoop drivers had been converted into a conference room. The entire chamber was starkly white with a mixture of medical and communications apparatus huddled around. An empty bacta tank stood in one corner and the moulded examination platform had been pushed against a wall.
The briefing was already half over. Much to the gratitude of his audience, he'd wisely cut back on the technical jargon, probably due to eyes glazing over.
"So, you're telling us that Lyonides has been lying all of this time?" queried Oboné. She was sitting down in one of the chairs that had been scrounged from another part of the complex. Throm was also seated, with everyone else choosing to stand.
"Yes, and not just about that. I also believe that the barrier originally did more than just prevent rain from getting into the city." Anakin told Ceetee to change the image to a specific one he wanted shown. Once the little droid had done so, he pointed out some of the more complex modules. "See these flat surfaces here, there's a whole grid network of them. Each ones feeds into conductors via power conduits, eventually leading to an enormously powerful capacitor, which in turn, feeds to a currently inactive fusion reactor."
"Sounds great, but what does it do?" asked Sal, arms and legs crossed, leaning back and looking relaxed—even bored.
"I'm not sure, but given what we now know about the Narzgh and sunlight, I suspect that the large, flat panels are actually some kind of solar panels—a means of collecting and storing UV."
There was a stunned pause. "Not just a means of defence, but of offence," breathed Padmé, mind whirling. She looked over, catching Anakin's gaze. "If any Narzgh got in, they could be dealt with almost instantly."
A sudden charge in the room had everyone straightening, as if electrified.
"That's still supposition at the moment," Anakin cautioned with a frown. "I'm still not sure how the UV would be delivered to the barrier itself so that it could be filtered down." His frown dug deeper and he gestured at the slowly rotating image suspended in the air by Ceetee's holoprojector. "My best guess is that it must be some kind of fusion-powered chemical reaction. I need more time with the plans, and likely a visit to the barrier generator station and substations."
"They'll never let you near it." In his full dress robes, Throm was an earnest, jittery splash of shimmering colour. "Nobody gets near the barrier. The guards have authorisation to shoot to kill if anyone even approaches. They don't even try and make an arrest. It's instant execution, no excuses."
"Unfortunately, I agree, about the difficulty as well as the danger." Under the crisp white turban, Oboné's smooth, dark-skinned face was grave. "I remember when we managed to get most of the council to sign a petition requesting that a group of eminent scientists and engineers have a look at the barrier. Lyonides flatly refused, citing it was too risky."
"Then we have to overthrow Lyonides," said Padmé into the silence. To her mind it was the only plan of action that made any sense. The statement sent ripples of aftershock around the assembled group. Resolutely, she kept her gaze on Anakin, recognising from the shuttered look that came over his face that he was thinking along the same lines as she was—of the last time treason had come into their lives.
Then, they'd been on opposite sides.
"This is exactly what we've been looking for, and we can't let one man stand in the way." She moved to stand beside Anakin, the stiff skirt of her dress nearly brushing his robe. "Think about it," she continued. "Seventy years ago the city was perfectly capable of protecting its citizens, until suddenly it fails and the Narzgh go on a rampage of carnage, terror and destruction." She had everyone's attention. The others, barring Anakin, looked shell-shocked. "Out of the ashes, two men rise up to snatch power. Afterwards, there's always a portion of the population vulnerable to attack by the Narzgh whenever the demons want, and not because there is no other choice as we've been led to believe." She threw up her hands, frustrated with the blank faces. "Is no one else thinking what I'm thinking?"
"The slimy space-slugs cut a deal," growled Sal, shaking his head in disgust now that it had sunk in. "Millions of souls damned just so they can become top dogs."
"Then the son murders the father and takes the power all for himself," said Oboné, looking ill. Her lip curled, "Lovely familial relations, don't you think."
"Alright, so how do we take him down?" asked Sal, pushing away from the counter he'd been leaning against to pace. "Considering he has an army and we don't."
"It's not his army that concerns me," said Anakin, grimly, drawing all eyes his way. He folded his arms. "What concerns me is the identity of the Narzgh he's working with this time."
Selona Vere flicked the ash off the tip of her cigarette onto the floor next to her chair. Made up of a local leaf that some enterprising soul had dried and rolled, she used it to give her hands something to do. Even a hard-boiled reporter with a reputation for ruthlessness could get nervous on occasion. Selona was nervous now. She'd been to the palace lots of times, but never to this part. Underground interrogation chambers, cutting folks off from anyone who might care to hear their screams. Heebie-jeebies or not, she'd still made a mental note of the room. Not that there was much to note. There were no windows or decoration of any kind. She was reminded of the Temple, except the chairs had a bizarrely techno-medical look about them and came with built in manacles.
Her elbow brushed one of them and she gave it a jaundiced look. "Oh joy! I do love some S and M."
Despite the joke, she shivered, then told herself to get a grip.
Sitting back in the chair, bare feet on the table and with her blonde hair tucked behind her ears, she was just blowing out a stream of grey smoke, and seeing how far she could get it, when the door in front of her swished open. Her heart gave a sickly lurch of fear. That annoyed her, so she sucked in another lungful of smoke, making the tip glow red. With her free hand, she waved, making the gesture as sarcastically friendly as possible.
When Giul Natar sat down opposite, she made sure he caught the smoke fully in the face. "Why am I here?" she asked, pointedly, dropping her feet back to the floor.
He merely started fiddling with his datapad. "Selona Verhandra, is that your full birth name?" he asked without looking at her.
She shrugged and flicked more ash, while her stomach rolled queasily. What did the colourless weasel want? "Yeah, what of it? I go by Vere now, by the way."
"I'm aware of that." Natar finally looked at her. "Your occupation is a journalist, is that correct?"
It was an effort not to roll her eyes. She answered while slipping her shoes back on. "Yes, you may have seen me on the holo some time. I hold the prime six o'clock spot over at JRN—the largest network in the city."
His bland smile was colder than his eyes. "I don't have time to waste watching the holonet."
He pulled a flimsy out of a file and pushed it across the table to her, saying, "Would you care for some refreshment before we begin?"
"Excuse me?" Bewildered for the first time in…well…years, Selona dropped her eyes to the menu to check that it was indeed neatly listing food and drink: it did. The cigarette continued to burn unnoticed.
Deciding to play the game, she chose the most costly items on the menu, her native Alderaanian merlot and the fricassee of lepu. Natar didn't so much as blink and simply relayed her order through his comm.
Dropping the smouldering butt on the floor, she ground it out with her heel and then folded her arms on the table to level a direct gaze at Natar. "Okay, I'm intrigued. You have my full and undivided attention. What in Chaos is this about?"
A small, evil smile played around Natar's lipless mouth. "What else? We have a story we want you to cover."
"We'll get to that soon." He glanced back down at his datapad. "From your records, I note that you are from Alderaan and died when the planet itself was destroyed. That must have been … difficult for you?"
She flicked off death and grief as if it were a pesky bug. "I got over it. I wasn't getting anywhere there anyway. My co-workers were jealous of my drive and stunning looks." Leaning back, she gave him a smile of her own that was less than pleasant. "Ironically, my career really took off when I came here." She lifted a shoulder, the picture of nonchalance. "I've got no complaints."
The food and wine arrived and they waited for it to be served. From the speed of its arrival, Selona figured it had to have been zapped rather than freshly cooked. She tucked in anyway. Natar poured her a cup of wine. "What would you say if I told you that one of the men responsible for destruction of Alderaan is here in Junga Roth, right now?"
Across from him, Selona spoke through a mouthful of lepu. "Wilhuff Tarkin is here, in Roth?"
Annoyance flickered in Natar's eyes. "Not Tarkin, no. Try someone much more evil and sinister, such as, Lord Vader."
This time her jaw dropped completely. Green eyes bugging, she had to take a hurried sip of wine to help her swallow. "You have got be kidding me. Lord Vader, the man in black and the Emperor's personal club to smite at anyone that steps a toe out of line?"
Natar fairly oozed satisfaction. "The very same."
Incredulous, she shook her head. As far as she was concerned, he had to be yanking her tail. "I don't believe you. The things we heard about him practically made him a legend, and not in a good way. If anyone was looking for a definition of a heartless, evil killer they looked no further than Lord Vader. If he's dead, he would have gone straight down."
The wine and lepu were forgotten. "He's here?. You're sure?"
"There is no doubt."
Her palms were damp and her head was whirling, but she was still a reporter, and her job was to report the news. It was just a bonus to her that this piece of news had the same amount of impact as that damned Death Star. Then a thought occurred to her that had Selona frowning in disappointment. "What kind of a story are you after, the redemption angle?"
"Oh, no. Quite the opposite." Natar didn't elaborate, but then he didn't have to.
Selona nodded her head slowly. It seemed prudent to hide her surprise, and glee. "Alright, I get it. Fine. You need to give me a name, though. He won't have come through in that armour and mask of his, and no-one has seen his face. How can you know who he is?"
"Can you think of no distinctive characteristic? A weapon perhaps that he favoured?"
She tried to think, raking back through memories. "I heard about a red blade, similar to—" She trailed off, dumbstruck.
"And there you have the name."
"No way. No kriffing way. Anakin Skywalker, everybody's favourite hero, is Darth Vader!"
The thing was, she already believed. It made a kind of weird sense. Vader had seemed unstoppable too. Shock held her frozen in place, and yet a kernel of excitement was already blooming in her belly. Skywalker was Vader. This was the story of lifetimes plural, and she was going to be the one who broke it.
Natar seemed to read her thoughts. "You have three hours to pull together a broadcast detailing as many of Vader's worst crimes as you can. We want to remind everyone of exactly what this man has done. We want his name to be a curse on the lips of every citizen—this is your task." A second flimsy was pushed across the table. "To help you, I have here details of some of his less well known escapades as provided by a reputable source. There are also a few personal titbits that you might find entertaining." Natar stood and bowed. "Make it chilling, Ms Vere."
Her hand shook as Selona reached out to pick up the flimsy.
The planning was over, such as it was, and they all had things to accomplish. Mainly to find allies who could be trusted. Everyone agreed that they were in no position to make a move now.
Padmé waited until the others had filed out before approaching Anakin. She was nervous. Interactions between them had been strained ever since Maul. She'd apologised later for what she'd said in the Limidian, but it hadn't been enough to wipe out the damage done by both their kiss and her rash words. Twelve days later, she was still trying desperately to see it as a positive, necessary step back from danger.
Except that kiss was haunting her. And, so was the fact that she'd hurt him. Gods! She wished that she dared tell him that she loved him, but the possibility of Palpatine, the orchestrator of their doom in life, being here, only made it even more imperative that she keep her distance.
"I'll be with you in a minute. I just want to get this done."
Anakin was hunkered down beside Ceetee, fiddling with some of the droids innards. An interface jack was plugged in between the astromech droid and a dataconsole.
"That's fine. No rush."
He was concentrating fully, allowing her to watch him without embarrassment while letting her thoughts continue along the same track.
To make matters worse, he wasn't avoiding her, quite the opposite. Anakin seemed to know where she was going to be almost before she did, and if it was in the Core, then he was right there at her side. Padmé suspected that Freyrr was in cahoots with him. Some of media, disgruntled that he refused to be interviewed, had started dubbing him her personal bodyguard.
Ceetee gave a series of protesting beeps and Anakin apologised.
Forcing herself back to the present, Padmé noticed that Anakin's hood was inside out. She had to battle the urge to reach out and fix it, telling herself that such an action was too intimate and too ... wifely. Honestly forced her to add that it was also close to the thick, dark blonde hair at his nape that she had once loved to run her fingers through.
Her fingers actually curled with the memory, which led to another one—the kiss. It was like a switch being flipped. She felt again the sweetly invasive sweep and dip of his tongue, imitating another, more intimate joining. Dizziness and liquid heat swirled. She had to close her eyes and clench her thighs to make it subside.
"Are you all right?"
Padmé snapped her eyes open again and locked with confused, concerned blue. She felt a spurt of frustration. Gods! Trust you to look up at just the wrong time.
"I'm fine." It came out as a croak. Clearing her throat, she folded her hands in front of her and tried again. "I wanted to talk to you, alone."
She could tell that the 'alone' part of her statement caught his attention. Anakin straightened immediately, dismissing what he'd been doing with Ceetee. "About what?"
Padmé took a deep breath and dived right in. "I've been wondering. Is it worth considering telling the others the truth about your past … association with Sidious?"
As she'd expected, his brows snapped down and she held up a soothing hand, saying, "Just in case."
Anakin turned his back to her. The rigid set of his shoulders made it abundantly clear that this was the last topic he wanted to discuss. After a few steps, he swung back. "Between the two of us we've told them everything they need to know. What good would it do to tell them more? I can't do this alone, not both Lyonides and Sidious. I need their help. What if they turn away from me?"
"Are you so sure they would?"
She saw his eyes darken a moment before he said, "I can never bring myself to ask anyone where they came from originally. Can you guess why?"
He didn't let her finish. "Well I'll tell you why. I don't want to find out that at some point in the last two decades I laid waste to the lush, verdant planet they loved and either enslaved its people, or wiped them out."
She swallowed, distressed, momentarily silenced.
Anakin wasn't finished. "Do you also want to know why I don't look at anyone's face unless I have to, why I avoid eye contact with strangers? I don't want to walk into a room, or down a street and recognise a victim that I sent here."
His glare lanced her and one hand chopped the air. "No, you don't, you can't. I was monstrous, Padmé—evil, without conscience." He moved off to pace, not looking at her, at anything. She was stunned, realising that she'd opened a door concealing a maelstrom. He was a contained storm of guilt-ridden emotion. "My own lust for power, my greed, my selfishness, all led me to the dark side—and it twisted me into something even worse. I have no defence. How can I possibly explain any of it to anyone and not have them turn away in disgust?" Lifting a hand, he raked it through his hair. His voice cracked. "I would. If it was me, I would turn away."
The truth hurt her almost as much as did him, but still Padmé wanted to go to him so much she ached. Memories of long ago when she could have put her arms around him and held tight taunted her. She dug her nails into her skin instead and kept her tone matter of fact. "Probably, but then you always had a problem trusting."
"What do you mean?"
You believed that the Jedi had betrayed you. You believed that Obi-Wan, the man you loved as a father, had betrayed you. It didn't matter how brightly our love shone, you believed that I had betrayed you to Obi-Wan. You could never accept in your heart of hearts that we loved you.
Padmé didn't say it, she didn't have the heart. "Nothing more than exactly what I've just said. You need to trust them. Yes, they may turn away initially, but I firmly believe that they'll also turn back. You're different now."
"Maybe you're right, but I can't risk it." He closed his eyes. His fists clenched. "No, that's not it. I'm scared of risking it. I'm a coward. I don't want to have to face them, or anyone knowing about my past." He opened his eyes again and found hers. She saw the shame and plea inside them. "I'm not ready, Padmé. I don't know if I'll ever be."
Padmé's heart twisted even harder. How could she push it when the idea so obviously tormented him? It took two steps to reach him and lay a hand on his arm. She had to tilt back her head to look into his face. "Alright, I'm sorry, I should have realised. I'm just scared. If Palpatine is here, he could reveal who you are. I was just trying to cushion that blow before it lands."
If possible his expression went even bleaker. "Lyonides knows."
"Lyonides knows. It was something he said to me the night I went to confront him. He said that I hadn't always disdained power. He tried to pass it off as if he meant the Jedi generally, but I don't believe him."
That news stole the breath from her lungs. "Anakin … that's—that's bad."
Anakin nodded. "I know." He tried to smile, making it more of a grimace. "I'll think about telling the others."
Note (4) After this chapter, everything starts to fall apart. Brace yourselves, folks *g*