NOTES: I'll apologise upfront for the shortness of this chapter and will try and get fourteen up a little sooner to make up for it.
Big thank you's to everyone for keeping up with this story!
LAL08 - A new update is below. I'm tickled that you're still enjoying it :)
Lorne loved the lull between the lunch time crowd and the evening regulars, if for no other reason than it formed an important part of his 'me' time. Even an effervescent entertainer who adored crowds needed some downtime to unwind.
With an hour to go before he was due on stage, he was in the shower. Lather slid down green skin from spiked, blonde hair while he gyrated unabashedly to his own belted-out rendition of I Will Survive. The holonet had been left on in the den, adding to the background noise. During the fraction of a pause following the second chorus, he caught the word Vader. Shocked, he got a flashback of a mechanical rasp, black armour and an even blacker attitude. How was that for a mood killer—or should it be chiller? Puffing out the breath he'd just taken to launch back into song, Lorne frowned and shut off the steam, cocking his horned head to listen. Having substantially better hearing than the average human, he had no trouble in catching the name again.
He got an instant rash of goose-bumps.
Uh oh! So not good. Grabbing his long robe and still dripping suds, Lorne made a beeline for the den. There, he found the not-so-admirably catty Selona Vere of JRN in full three-dimensional Technicolor, and looking unusually sombre, if you ignored the gleam in her green eyes.
…The Premier's office is refusing to confirm or deny that the Falleen are in communication with palace officials. However, our source at the palace has hinted that, not only are they in communication with us, but they're demanding that the man responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of their people is handed over for justice. Indeed, the only element of this incredible story that doesn't appear in doubt is that Darth Vader, scourge of the galaxy, perpetrator of mass genocide and countless other heinous acts is living amongst us in Roth. Even more shocking, he's seen by many to be a hero. More on this story after a short break. Don't go away.
Lorne's jaw hit the deck. "Oh crap!"
Too caught up with what he was seeing, he didn't even notice that his whole apartment was beginning to vibrate.
They only had so many ramps, so Anakin was working on his back underneath a TS500 speeder. He was fitting a series of powerful UV generators to the undercarriage. The mid-evening sun was just beginning its descent and it was hot, dirty work. A bead of sweat trickled into his right eye, stinging, and he swiped it away. There were five other engineers all working with him on various vehicles, including Freyrr, who had a knack for mechanics that he'd learned to count on. On the encircling track, Sal and Padmé were training the pilots who would fly the speeders and bikes during raids, frying as many Narzgh as possible with each sweep. Built for use in city traffic, the smaller and much more manoeuvrable vehicles would be perfect for covering an urban landscape such as Junga Roth.
That was the plan anyway.
It was a hodgepodge operation that was a far cry from the vast resources and streamlined production of the Imperial war machine, but it was better than nothing, and it felt good to be finally getting somewhere. He was also fully aware that inactivity was the last thing he needed. As if to prove him wrong, the hydrospanner slipped and he scraped two knuckles on the lamp casing. Muttering a curse, he shook off the pain and told himself to be grateful that he had hands to actually get dirty and bloody instead of soulless prosthetics. Another plus was that he'd rather be tinkering around with machinery than driving himself crazy chasing a phantom. The work also helped him think. While he fiddled with conduits and power cells, his thoughts swung between Padmé and Sidious.
Not that he got very far with either. He'd meditated for hours, opening himself up fully so as to feel any disturbance in the Force, no matter how minute. He'd searched every inch of the city and talked to every single one of Lyonides' entourage. It had been long, frustrating work without access to anything like the myriad network of spies he'd employed as Vader. No one knew anything. As infuriating as it was to admit, he was forced to concede that there was no hint of his old master anywhere. Worse, it was impossible to make plans when he didn't know from where, or how, his enemy would strike. Just as they'd agreed in the meeting, all they could do was recruit as many allies as possible and wait for the right opportunity. Force! He loathed waiting. Even now frustration simmered in his blood, waiting for that moment when his control would slip so that it could flood his mind and make him do something rash.
As for Padmé…
Effortlessly, her beautiful face formed in his mind's eye. His heart skipped and then lurched in his chest. His fingers fumbled the final connection of wires between power cell and generator, causing it to spark ominously.
Padmé was tearing him apart in so many different ways, he was struggling to hold himself together. The nightmares he'd been having were a constant horror lurking at the back of his mind, waiting to pounce, but they weren't the only torment. For a few brief seconds when they'd kissed, hope had soared inside him, only to have that hope wither and die a little more each day since.
At least I know that I won't end up a slavering beast intent only on maiming and killing.
He didn't blame her for saying it: it was true, but it had driven a wedge between them. From that moment on, she'd pulled back from him, and the look in her eyes when she looked at him—wariness. It was as if she was afraid that he might get it into his head to try and force his attentions on her.
As if he would ever do that to her. He had more self-control than that. He would never…didn't she know that?
Anakin's breath shuddered in his chest. Clenching his jaw, he squinted against the threat of tears and got back to trimming the wire, something he should have done before trying to connect to the generator.
She was driving him crazy. So focus!
His love for her hadn't changed, and the fact that she could hold herself back from him with so little effort was another knife twisting in his belly. He didn't understand how she could do that!
Don't think about it. Keep busy. Concentrate on what you have to do.
What did he have to do?
Confess to the others his past as Vader.
Wonderful. Another painful subject.
Padmé was right about that too. He hated the idea, but he knew she was right. They were good people and deserved to know who was standing beside them as they risked their lives. He just hadn't figured out the 'how' and 'when'. He kept tripping up on the details. Should he talk to them individually or as a group? Mostly he preferred the idea of a group confession—get it over and done with—but their likely reaction still made his guts clench. He was procrastinating and Anakin knew it. A part of him even resented having to reveal his past at all—deeply resented it. Why couldn't he be left alone to battle for his redemption? Wasn't he doing enough already without baring everything…?
Anakin shook his head, forcefully dismissing that line of thought. No. It had to be done. He knew it was the right thing to do. And, doing the right thing, no matter how painful, was a habit that he needed to get back into.
Soon, he promised himself, expression grim. Tonight.
A strange vibration coming from the ground under his back yanked him out of his introspection. The Force had been oddly edgy and expectant all morning, making him jittery along with it. Uneasy, Anakin pulled himself out from under the speeder to locate the source of the tremors in a more conventional manner. He wasn't the only one who'd noticed. A glance around showed that most of the others had also halted work to look around them too. They didn't have to search far. Overhead, a ship far larger than anything he'd seen so far in the second world was descending through the haze of cloud clover. The ship dwarfed the kilometres-wide arena below it. Even before it was fully visible, he realised that it was easily the size of a capital ship, or mid-range battle cruiser.
He sensed Sal come up behind him. "Do you recognise it?" Anakin asked, tightly. The uneasiness was creeping along his veins now. Again, he probed the Force and came up with no discernible threat, it was too unspecific for that. He wasn't reassured.
Sal used the fingers of one hand to scratch at his whiskery jaw. He hadn't bothered shaving that morning. "I'm not a hundred percent, but I think it's the Falleen. No-one else I've traded with bothers with ships that big—it's not worth it with only dead space and a few wasted stars to explore."
"Falleen." Anakin felt numb as suspicion crashed down on him. He saw himself as Vader standing on the bridge of the Exactor, coldly watching the so-called sterilisation of a large Falleen city after his biological experiment had broken containment. The orbital bombardment had been thorough, and devastating. He saw again the mushroom clouds of billowing, explosive fire—a ravenous dragon consuming everything in its path. At the time, he'd considered the deaths of hundreds of thousands a small price to pay to prevent a plague. Since then a number of Falleen had tried to exact revenge. Numerous attempts had been made on his life.
The conscience that had been absent that day threatened to choke him now. His dreams were filled with a parade of his victims, but he'd caused so much death, grief and misery over his years as a Sith Lord that his sub-conscious hadn't gotten around to the Falleen yet—until now. He should have tried to evacuate them and set up a screening process for any contagion. He hadn't done either of those things: he'd just killed them. He'd created the threat and then wiped thousands of people out of existence as easily as if they too had been nothing more than a virus needing to be purged. A despicable, monstrous act. Useless tears burned behind his eyes.
Sal didn't notice his anguish. "I don't know what they're playing at coming in so low. It's a heck of an aggressive manoeuvre for them. They normally stick to themselves and settle for acting superior from a distance." He grinned, digging the pitted scars in his face even deeper. "Do you think they're trying to tell us something?"
"This is something to do with me."
Both of Sal's brows shot up. "Look, kid, I hate to burst your bubble, but not everything is to do with you."
"I didn't mean it like that." The numbness had spread to every muscle. He'd left it too late to tell the others he was Vader. He knew it. Certainty was like lead in his heart.
On cue, a pair of shuttles came into view, flying over the retracted roof to come into land. The insignia of Lyonides' security service was easily visible on both. His first sight of the Falleen ship had given him a jolt, but it was the shuttles that truly resonated through the Force—ringing with danger. The expectancy he'd been sensing all day was tightening with every beat of his heart, reaching snapping point.
Spotting the fact that they had visitors too, Sal's mocking grin faded. He slid Anakin a sharp glance. "Okay, my mistake. Maybe it is something to do with you."
Anakin was so frozen that he didn't sense Padmé and Freyrr until Padmé's hand settled on his arm. He jumped, staring at her blankly. "What is it," she asked him, concern etched onto her face. Her fingers squeezed, offering comfort and demanding an answer. "Ani, what's the matter?"
Anakin shook his head. She looked back at the first shuttle and her brows snapped down into a frown. "I've seen that lead shuttle before. It belongs to—no—how can that be?" Her hand dropped, and shock widened her eyes. "What would Natar be doing coming here?"
Nobody ventured a guess. Everything was happening too fast.
Another pair of transport craft came into view behind the first. They didn't come into land, instead remaining airborne to patrol the sky over the arena. The mounted armament on the half-folded wings was clearly visible and their mission objective needed no explanation. Escaping in the Limidian or any of the speeders was now impossible without risking a collision or being shot down.
As if to reinforce that fact, they all heard the rhythmic march of inhuman feet. In perfect synchronisation hundreds of bulky super battle droids emerged out of the regularly spaced audience tunnels on the first tier of the encircling stands. They spread out. Ominously, their right forearms were extended, unerringly aiming the twin cannons mounted inside the arm at the small band of people on the grounds.
They were effectively surrounded.
Padmé fought Sal's grip on her arm, but found she couldn't break free. Fury bubbled under her skin, stoked by panic. She hadn't realised what Anakin was telling the other man do to until Sal had grabbed her and begun pulling her away before the shuttles had a chance to land. Anakin had even handed his lightsaber to the other man. She rounded on Sal. "Get your hands off me. I want to go to Anakin. This is crazy!"
Craggy face as grim as death, Sal shook his head and continued to pull her away. "Sorry, Councillor, I don't know what in chaos is going on, but he wants us to get out of here." He was literally dragging her along. "If you think I like this, I've got a newsflash for you, I don't. But, something tells me to listen to him. I trust my instincts." He grimaced. "Not to mention I made some stupidass promise—"
The droids were ignoring them, confirming that they were here only for Anakin. Turning his head, he bellowed for the others to get underground and head for the emergency exits. His gravelly 'or else' tone got them moving without protest. The only exception was Freyrr. After Maul and her banishment from the Core, the Wookiee had given up trying to look harmless. She now wore the armour favoured by her kind and there was a deadly looking blaster carbine in her huge hands. As she loped along beside them, she growled menacingly at Sal. The translation was simple. As well as not liking this abrupt change in circumstances, she was strongly objecting to Padmé being manhandled.
Sal ignored the Wookiee, likely trusting that she wouldn't shoot him.
Face flushed red, Padmé dug in her heels. A frantic glance back showed that Anakin was almost at Natar's shuttle, surrounded by armed troopers. The sight made her heart stutter. What was going on? Why was he being arrested? "Your instincts are wrong," she snapped at Sal. He had to listen to her. "Listen to me. I know him. Anakin wants us out of the way because he knows he's in real danger." A glimmer of understanding had her adding, "Either that or it's some kind of stupid guilt complex. He needs us."
"What he doesn't need is us all being arrested. We can't help him if we're stuck in the cell next to him, now can we?"
While she was arguing with Sal, Padmé kept an eye on what was going on back at the shuttle. She saw Natar himself step off the shuttle ramp to meet Anakin. He was wearing a smile that was sickeningly satisfied even at a distance. She couldn't remember the last time Natar had personally visited the Outer Rim for any reason. The implication was terrifying.
"For Gods sake I'm on the Council. I may be able to help him now!"
Her certainty made Sal hesitate. Padmé took advantage and finally managed to wrench herself free. She lunged far enough away to avoid recapture and then sprinted across the cracked ferrocrete of the arena floor. Behind her, Sal cursed and pursued. Voicing her confusion and anger, Freyrr followed.
Heart pumping, she reached for more speed. A few meters ahead, she saw Natar's bald head jerk towards the shuttle, ordering the troopers to take Anakin on board. Gods. No! She was going to be too late. He was on the ramp now and about to disappear. She couldn't understand it. What was he doing just going quietly? He'd done nothing wrong. They had no right. None of this made any sense.
She was almost there. "Anakin!" His name was wrenched from her.
Anakin looked back once—caught her eyes—and then let himself be led inside. She stumbled to a panting stop a few feet from a still smiling Natar. He'd waited for her to catch up and his gloating face made her blood boil dangerously. It was lucky she wasn't armed or she might have been tempted to shoot him. As it was, she had to curl her nails into her palms to stop herself from leaping on him. Sal and Freyrr came up on either side of her.
Spitting mad, she snarled, "I demand to know why Skywalker has been arrested."
If possible, Natar's smile widened. "You are in no position to make demands, Amidala."
He hadn't given Padmé her title. Freyrr noticed too and was aggressive in voicing her disapproval. Reaching back to grab the Wookiee's wrist, she squeezed it in a mute request for quiet. Sal was right. They were in no position to take on the city's security forces in a fight. Damn it!
"What kind of a fool," Padmé said to Natar, wanting desperately to use more than words to rip into him, "arrests a man that the people believe can save them from the threat of being dragged down into eternal torment?" It gave her immense satisfaction to add, "You've just made the worst mistake of your career. There'll be riots. The people will demand his release."
"There are already riots," Natar informed her, silkily, "And nobody is asking for Skywalker's release, quite the opposite. In a very real sense, he's being detained for his own safety."
That statement robbed her of breath. She could feel the colour leech out of her skin. "What are you talking about?"
Instead of answering directly, Natar bowed his leave-taking. "I suggest you catch up with the today's news broadcasts," he left a delicate pause, "Lady Vader." Colourless grey eyes swept over Sal and Freyrr, including them. "I'm sure you'll find them as informative as the rest of the population."
Turning on his heel with a swish of black robes, Natar left them enveloped in a stunned silence. Reeling, Padmé felt as if she might shatter at the slightest touch. No-one spoke. Numbly, she watched the ramp retract back inside the shuttle. It was tears that burned her eyes rather than the churning air caused by the rise of a powerful repulsorlift engine. Long strands of dark hair had come loose during training, and they whipped around her face unnoticed as she watched the shuttle rise, paralysed by a sudden sense of hopelessness.
Oh, Anakin… She couldn't finish the thought because his stark, tormented expression of the night before rose up to haunt her. Her throat felt tight and lined with sharp, acidic sand. Now she understood why he hadn't resisted arrest. If his identity as Vader was all over the holonet, what would be the point?
Finally someone spoke. "What did he just call you?" It was Sal.
"It doesn't matter." To her own ears, Padmé's hollow voice sounded as if it came from a great distance. "We need to follow and find out what Lyonides is planning." Blindly, she turned to head for the Limidian, currently tucked away in the West corner. Directly over it, the sun was finally setting, visibly lengthening the shadows that stole both light and warmth.
Puffing and already red-faced from the previous dash, Sal had trouble keeping up with her. "If you understand any of this, I'd appreciate being enlightened?" Aggravation was clear in his tone.
"I can't tell you." The tears burned more viciously. She blinked them away and kept running. "You'll find out soon enough." A new fear snuck a fresh dart into her heart. She wondered if Anakin's prediction that his friends would desert him might come true.
"Is this anything to do with the nightmares he's been having?"
That query stopped Padmé in her tracks. For the second time in as many minutes, her world tilted. She felt as if she'd been sucker-punched. "He's been having nightmares!"
They'd drugged him. The second he'd stepped inside the shuttle, one of the troopers had produced a pressure injector and jammed it into his neck. Anakin had knocked it aside, but it was too late. As if a switch had been flipped, his vision fogged and his head began to spin. The helmeted heads of the troopers had whirled in a sickening kaleidoscope. Stumbling, he'd fallen to the floor on his hands and knees, vomiting. After that, the shuttle journey had been nothing but a nightmarish blur.
Apart from those few terse words with Natar in the grounds of the arena, nobody had asked him any questions, or offered any explanations. The latter were unnecessary anyway.
He was in a cell now, manacled to an interrogation chair and encased in a containment sphere. They were taking no chances. He could have told them it was unnecessary. He'd been given a second dose of the drug once the restraints were snapped in place. He'd had no more chance of evading that one than the first. He recalled harsh, mocking laughter and the disorienting wave of voices that alternately boomed and faded. Alone, his head lolled, too heavy for his neck. Sickness roiled. His limbs felt alien to his body, and while he could feel the Force, he was incapable of cohesive enough thought to reach out and use it. Anakin was completely helpless. Over the buzzing in his ears, one voice remained. It faded in and out, but was still a litany of torment coming from a flat viewscreen that he couldn't even focus on.
"… a harbinger of death and suffering …Evil …Vader, brought terror to an entire galaxy. Hated and feared … Mothers and fathers, lovers and spouses, sons and daughters killed or maimed … list of truly heinous crimes is unequalled. Thousands have already come forward with their personal tales of atrocity and horror… "
He had no way of shutting it out. He would have welcomed any amount of pain in place of that voice. He could feel his sanity slipping with every truth uttered in a calculating, condemning tone. He had no defence, nothing to hold onto. His moans scraped his throat.
He could face anything, but reliving the evil that had been his life—that he'd done.