mlhkvh5 – Hugs you. Thanks once again for the lovely review. I'm tickled that you're still enjoying the story. More is below and a larger post as promised.
Note (1): Sorry for the confusion over chapter 14. A day or two after posting it, I noticed some weird format type errors that I just couldn't fix, so ended up removing. I meant to put it back up sooner, but RL got in the way. Hopefully, I've managed to fix the problem---also as the timing is about right, I'm posting chapter 15 as well.
Note (2): There is a scene in chapter 14 where I've used an element of one of HC's newer movies, 'Jumper' as inspiration. If you've seen the movie, you should spot it.
Note (3): Credit to Wookieepedia for the info on the Falleen.
"Explain to me what I'm hearing!" Sal demanded. There was banked fury in his eyes and his wiry hair had funnels in it from his fingers raking through it.
It wasn't the first time he'd made the demand, or been the only one to make it. Padmé had put them off until they reached her apartment in the Transvision Tower. Now that they were inside, and away from prying eyes and ears, she was out of excuses. Grimacing in sympathy, Lorne gave her a reassuring pat on the back on his way to the kitchen and the small bar she kept stocked there.
Padmé was grateful beyond measure that they'd met the Pylean at the detention centre. It had been the only good thing to come out of that wasted trip. They hadn't been allowed near Anakin. All they could find out was that he'd been 'voluntarily' detained for reasons of security, and that she'd been removed from the council and stripped of her authority pending a hearing. The exact reasons for both had not been forthcoming. She'd been rooted too deep in icy shock to even protest her sudden lack of status. Not that she would have got anywhere. Lyonides was in full dictator mode, and using the Falleen ship and Anakin's unmasking as both cloak and excuse. That knowledge along with gut-churning worry for Anakin, had dominated the two hours, wearing her down to the point of wanting only to curl into a ball and weep—instead, she was going to have to bare her soul.
So be it.
Folding trembling hands in front of her, Padmé stiffened her spine and took a deep breath before turning to face the bewildered and angry faces of Sal Trent, Oboné and Saber Throm. They were standing in tight a group at the threshold of her formal receiving room. Freyrr had been unable to come. Unlike Lorne, she stood no chance of being able to disguise her non-human status, even in the current furore.
She didn't bother inviting anyone to sit; the mood of the group was too volatile. "It's true," she stated baldly. "In life, Anakin was Darth Vader."
The stunned silence told her they'd been hoping against hope for something along the lines of a deniable smear campaign by Lyonides.
"That makes no sense," said Sal flatly. Hands on hips, he shook his head, refusing to believe it. He started to pace, never taking his eyes off Padmé. "I might have died before he came on the scene, but I've heard about Vader." Furious, he stabbed a finger at her. "He was a stone-cold killer, and that's putting it nicely."
The others murmured their agreement. Oboné's face was shuttered to the point of being stony, while poor Throm looked utterly pole-axed. Anger rose in the room so sharply, she could almost taste it. Domed head whirling from one face to the other, Ceetee merely toodled nervously, obviously sensing the spiralling tension.
"I can't deny that, but you need to give me a chance to explain," she spread her hands, "please!"
Nobody moved, either to leave or take a seat. She took it as a good sign and a willingness to listen, and at this point, didn't dare hope for more.
Padmé had no problem seeing the whole situation from their point of view. Like her, they were all struggling to overcome shock, but at least she'd known about Anakin's past. She understood that to the others this was a double blow, layered as it was with the belief that they'd been deceived. She willed her mind to calm, knowing she needed every last drop of her oratory skills to make this mess make sense to them.
She just wished they'd sit.
"Before we get to Vader, I want you to understand that Anakin was a powerful Jedi. He was also a good man, and a brave one. He did all of the heroic deeds that you've heard about. He was the man you know now, only less … experienced."
She ignored Sal's snide aside and ploughed on. "I knew him—more—I loved him and he loved me. It was forbidden by the Jedi code, but we married in secret at the very beginning of the Clone Wars." She glanced at Oboné, and saw a stronger flicker of hurt cross her friends face. "I'm sorry I lied to you," she offered, softly, hurting too. Shame washed over her. She twisted her hands, fighting tears. Rather than make excuses, she got back to the past. Her voice turned husky. "It was Chancellor Palpatine who twisted him into a monster. We didn't know Palpatine was a Sith lord until it was too late. He'd been poisoning Anakin's mind for years—decades—grooming him to fall to the dark side."
"The dark side of what?" asked Throm, surprisingly brusque.
"The Force," Padmé explained. "It's where the Jedi get their powers."
Realising just how crucial it was that they understood the next part, she paused to marshal her thoughts.
"Like many, until I met Anakin, I didn't know much about the Jedi. They were a mystery, a living legend. Even now I don't fully understand a lot of it. All do know is that there is both a light and a dark side to the Force. The Jedi follow the light, nurturing peace and harmony, respecting all life, cultivating compassion and selflessness. The Sith were their opposite in every way, craving power above all else and stopping at nothing to get it. The Jedi and the Sith were mortal enemies. There have been battles between the two sides going back millennia's. At the time that I met Anakin, the Jedi believed that the Sith were extinct. They were wrong, and it was there undoing."
"Alright, say for the sake of argument I'm buying this hocus-pocus," interjected Sal, still pacing, too angry to settle. "What's it got to do with a man going from peace-loving guru to commander-in-chief of psychoville?"
"He has a point," agreed Throm. "It doesn't make sense."
"She's getting to that." Lorne came back, carrying a tray of drinks and aiming an admonishing glare at a prowling Sal. "How about we all get comfortable for the big expose, huh?"
Lowering the tray to the acre-wide marble table between the twin, curved sofas, Lorne flapped his hands at them. "C'mon. Sit. Take a load off, I guarantee that you'll need it."
If nothing else, the interruption broke a few chips off the ice blanketing the room. Obediently, if reluctantly, the tight knot of people dispersed to find seats.
Settling onto one of the cushions, Padmé smiled gratefully when Lorne took a seat next to her and handed her a tumbler filled with something amber-coloured and potent. Oboné and Throm took the couch opposite. Obviously deciding that Padmé needed the support, Ceetee trundled over to her other side. She was now flanked and it helped enormously.
Sal opted to remain standing, although he did swipe up one of the other cups. He downed it in one and then glared at the empty bottom.
Relaxing a fraction, Padmé began again, picking up from where she'd left off. "A few months before the end of the Clone Wars and the birth of the empire, Anakin started having nightmares. He'd had visions before that came to him in dreams. He saw his mother suffer and die—tragically, they turned out to be true. He loved his mother and losing her almost destroyed him. He blamed himself for not acting sooner, or being strong and powerful enough to protect her—he was young and angry and never recovered from that devastating loss."
It hurt her to realise just how true that was. Anakin had been damaged from that day on and she hadn't truly recognised it.
"These new dreams scared him because they were about me." A sharp twist of grief forced her to pause. Gods. Just thinking back to that time made the lump in her throat swell to triple the size. It was like looking back through fogged glass at a blurred version of herself—a version who was happy and wrapped up in what was going on inside her body. She had to swallow and then force herself to speak, "I was pregnant and he dreamed that I would die in childbirth."
She mustn't have hid her distress very well. Oboné's face softened. "And did you?"
Padmé gave her a wobbly smile. "Not exactly. Palpatine, who was actually a Sith lord called Darth Sidious, used Anakin's fear of losing me. He revealed himself to him and told him lies about knowing a way to save me. He made Anakin think that his only choice was to watch me die, or learn the power of the dark side. At first Anakin refused. He even told the Jedi Council of Palpatine's true identity, but then it all went wrong. The Jedi masters sent to arrest the then Chancellor were at the point of killing him when Anakin turned up. You have to understand that before this Palpatine had been like a beloved uncle to him—then there was his belief that only Palpatine knew a way of saving me, and that if he died, I would surely die to."
"He stopped them from killing this Palpatine," guessed Throm. Now his temper had dispersed, his nerves were back, and bad enough that he was practically vibrating. He had an excuse. If they weren't fugitives yet, they soon would be. Padmé knew Lyonides well enough to expect it.
"Yes, at a terrible cost. Palpatine, who was actually Sidious, killed the last of the Jedi masters present, making Anakin culpable too because of his actions." Despite her best efforts to remain composed, Padmé felt the tug on her heart at this reciting of the past. "He must have felt so torn and lost, I can't even imagine it. That was the turning point. Sidious offered him a final choice to join him and save me, or go back to the Jedi order whom he'd already betrayed. Anakin chose to save me."
"He must have loved you very much," said Oboné.
"Does," interjected Sal and Lorne in tandem.
"—Too much. He simply could not face another loss. If it hadn't been for me, and his fear of my death, he would never have fallen to the darkness. Anakin would have remained the hero he was supposed to have been and Vader would never have come into being."
"You're not responsible, you know," said Oboné gently. "Whatever he did, that's on him, not you or anyone else. He made a horrendously bad choice."
"I know that, but—" Padmé simply couldn't explain her own feelings of guilt, so she didn't try. "After I died, I asked another Jedi how a decent, honourable person could become someone so twisted so horribly quickly. I needed to understand." Qui-Gon's face swam before her, his eyes sorrowful. She recalled the pain of that time as a lance through the heart. "He told me that once a Jedi turns to the dark side it consumes them in moments, like a poison of the heart and mind, eradicating mercy and intoxicating them with power. From that moment on, the good man Anakin had been was gone—lost, subjugated, dead—and Darth Vader was christened by his new master. He did terrible things…"
"I have a question for you," quipped Lorne when she trailed miserably off. "How did he end up in the black armour? I mean—is it just me who can't see that ensemble as a fashion statement?"
Against the odds, Padmé's lips twitched—just as he'd intended¬—yet, this was also a sore spot. "Another Jedi called Obi-Wan Kenobi had survived the massacre at the temple and the traps laid by Sidious' troops. He hunted Anakin down on a lava planet. I was there too. An—Vader and I argued, and in his rage, he hurt me. Afterwards, there was a duel and Vader was grievously wounded. Sidious had to practically rebuild his body with prosthetics and he needed a permanent life support system simply to breathe."
Sal finally sat down, staring moodily at his out-stretched legs. "Doesn't sound like a barrel of laughs."
"Some might say he deserved it," suggested Oboné sombrely.
"Some might," agreed Padmé, tiredly. "I died that same day, within moments of my twins being born. I hadn't been seriously hurt, but I'd lost the will to live. Anakin had ripped my heart out and I didn't know how to fix it. I didn't have the strength to carry on and I just … faded."
Their unspoken shock at her statement raked a nerve that had been festering for over twenty years. She could read it on their faces. They found it hard to believe that she'd given up on life just after bringing two new lives into the world. Well, so did she. She got to her feet so fast her head spun. She couldn't bear to look at them and see them judge her. Arms crossed defensively over her chest, it was her turn to pace.
Her voice was clipped when she said, "I've worked hard never to let myself get that weak ever again. It cost me the chance to be there for my children. I have a son and a daughter that I've never been able to hold, or tell them I loved them and I'm sorry for leaving them, and I never will." She shot a glare at Sal, parroting his words back at him acidly. "Knowing that hasn't been a barrel of laughs either."
There was an embarrassed pause and Padmé felt her face heat with a flush at the realisation that she'd just over-reacted. She closed her eyes. "I'm sorry, that was uncalled for. Blame it on a really bad day."
Flashing her a look with more than a hint of sympathy, Oboné rescued her. "Okay, so we now know how Anakin turned evil, but you still haven't explained what came after, and how he ended up here and not a Narzgh."
"I only know sketchy details. I spent the first year after death in the first world. When I couldn't stand seeing what he'd turned into any longer, I exiled myself here."
There were more recoils of shock. Sitting up straight, Sal voiced what they were all thinking, "Whoa! Back up. You went to the first world, and then left it? What, you hopped on a shuttle one day? Are there return tickets?"
"Those in the first world have a lot more freedom than those in the second," Padmé explained. A headache was brewing at the back of her head, an ever tightening vice that she attempted to massage away. She sank back into her seat. "We can pass through the veil to the living world as spirit-shades, or slip through to this one as real people. I chose to come here and stayed. I've been here so long that I'm not even sure if I can pass back again. I've never tried. I do know though that if I die here, I'll return to the first world and won't have the strength to pass through again. The warnings I've been given are explicit on that."
"Back to Anakin not being a Narzgh," prompted Lorne while everyone else was still goggling. "He must have landed on one humdinger of a get-out-of-jail-free card. I don't suppose you know who dealt it?" He shrugged when four sets of quizzical eyes swung his way. "That bit was fuzzy when the princess here was singing. Call me curious."
"Anakin told me that our son Luke saved him—that his love for our son broke through the darkness and brought him back to the light." Padmé's gaze turned inward. She desperately wished that she could visualise that scene. "Vader was gone and Anakin was back. He sacrificed himself to kill Sidious, the emperor, and saved Luke. Apparently that sacrifice was enough to earn him a chance to redeem and he was sent here." She shrugged, admitting, "I'm not sure why he came through looking exactly as he did when Sidious first turned him into Vader—maybe, he did die at that point and this is just a balancing of the scales. I really don't know, and we haven't exactly been…chatty on the topic."
"This Sidious," said Sal, "he's the same guy that Anakin thinks is pulling Lyonides' strings, right?"
"Yes. Obviously, he died at the same time as Anakin. It's certainly possible that he's escaped the hell of the third world during a Narzgh raid and is using his dark side powers to remain here instead of being forced back where he belongs." Padmé's stomach cramped with terror just thinking about it. "It would go a long way to explaining why things have escalated so much in the last four months."
"And these new nightmares…is Anakin gonna go back to black because you might be at risk." The others sat up straighter when Sal asked that question, eyeing her sharply.
She kept it brief and concise. "No. I haven't let him get close enough that losing me is an issue."
Sal looked sceptical. "That's what you think."
"And what's that supposed to mean?" Padmé bristled.
After a tense moment, Sal's eyes dropped from hers and he shrugged."Nothing. Never mind."
Dismissing him, Padmé looked back at the others. Now seemed as good a time as any to get to the point, so she did exactly that. She leaned forward. "We have to save him. We have to find a way to get him out of there. It's obvious that Lyonides has arranged this and is planning on handing Anakin over to the Falleen. We can't let that happen."
An uncomfortable silence followed. No-one would meet her eyes.
Padmé felt sick at the thought of trying to rescue Anakin alone. It would be impossible. She needed them. She waited until the lengthening silence forced them to look at her. "I know that you're shaken, and that the stories are damning. I'm not denying that as Vader, Anakin committed atrocities, but he's trying to redeem—just like everyone else." She had no idea if she was getting through to them. Raking a hand through her now loose hair, Padmé wracked her brains for a way to appeal to them. "He was planning to tell you all himself, but he ran out of time before he could work up the nerve. I'm not excusing what he did, or asking you to. I'm asking you to remember that he's not Vader anymore. You know how hard he's fought to save lives and make a difference—to atone. Don't turn your back on him, I'm begging you. Please, you have to help me, help him."
Zarc Wess did not want to wake up. Unfortunately, he didn't have a choice. Even before his eyelids flickered open, terror-soaked adrenaline was shooting through his veins, bringing him alert. His heart was already thudding and meagre muscles aching. His chains clanked when he started to trembled violently. His manacles were attached to a long chain, letting him squat on the filthy floor rather than hang on the wall. The ancient restraints were crude but effective. He could only imagine the fiery agony of days spent hanging from the wrists.
He knew he was lucky. At least he could cover his ears and cower on the floor until eventually falling into a fitful doze. Only, he hadn't fallen asleep, he remembered, but had passed out at the point where he simply couldn't take it anymore, and it hadn't even been him who was being tortured. Wess squeezed his eyes shut again at the memory, refusing to look and willing his mind to shut down again. He didn't want to see her. He couldn't bear it. Obscenely horrific images assaulted his mind. Nerves already shot, bile spat up into his mouth. Quaking, he actually considered smashing his head on the floor in the hope of making it all go away again.
Sobs choked and whined in his throat. Even so, he had his ears pricked for any signs of life down here in hell with him. There were none. Oh Gods! She was dead. The old woman was dead.
All of a sudden, he had to know if he was truly alone now. He had to know. Bracing himself with his arms wrapped around his waist, Zarc shuffled to sit upright and opened his eyes. Inch by inch, he dragged his gaze to where the old woman who'd called herself Tenku had hung. What he saw had him screaming, screaming, and screaming. Madness skittered, howling, at the edges of his mind. He couldn't stop screaming.
She was very definitely dead, but Wess wasn't alone.
Freyrr met them outside the laundromat they'd been given as a meeting point. Sandwiched on one side by a massage parlour, and a sexual aids store on the other, the cleaning service looked incongruously tame in comparison. Padmé didn't care. She was just glad to see her friend after the nightmarish day they'd had. It was also the first time she'd seen the Wookiee since the news had broken. Gods! Was it only a few hours ago? Padmé embraced her and tears stung her eyes when the hug was returned. Pulling back, she looked up the long way necessary to see Freyrr's face, and found none of the censure she'd been dreading—just loyalty and calm acceptance.
Under the cloak of her hood, she smiled tremulously. "It's good to see you old friend."
Freyrr's soft rumble was equally affectionate.
Similarly concealed under a hood, Sal looked uneasily over both shoulders and then nodded at the laundromat. "C'mon, let's not loiter. We probably reek fugitives and the Hole is lousy with folks that would love to take advantage of that fact."
Taking point, Freyrr growled a little when the doors swished automatically apart when she approached. Before they'd even stepped inside, the three of them were hit with a wall of overpowering odours. It was the intermingled stench of wet, dirty laundry, detergent and exhaust steam from the dozens of washers churning away in uniformed rows.
"Looks like somebody's home," commented Sal, sotto-voice.
"There'd better be, since you set up this meeting," Padmé hissed back. "I hope this doesn't turn out to be a wild bantha chase."
"You and me both, Councillor."
Inside, they lowered their hoods and walked in single file between the rows of humming machinery. Flexible pipes the size of a man's thigh snaked and wormed their way down from the ceiling to feed each washer individually. They resembled mutant space worms scavenging on ship wreckage. It was stiflingly hot and the floor was covered in gritty quator sand to soak up the moisture from the regular billows of hot, damp steam.
On the far wall, tucked away in a corner was a doorway marked, Staff Only—No admittance beyond this point. From what they'd seen there was no other viable option. Giving a what-the-hell shrug, Sal hit the door release. The door slid up and on the other side stood a smiling Besalisk.
Padmé used her left hand to lower Freyrr's blaster muzzle. Wookiee's don't generally like surprises. "You must be the one called Jester, is that correct?"
In response, the Besalisk raised all four of his arms, a show of welcome and to prove that he wasn't armed himself. "That's right, Ma'am. I get called that on account of a penchant for … well, let's just say humour and leave it at that. Don't need no other name. Most folks know me as Jester, anyways." His huge mouth was spread wide in a grin, and if he'd had a hat, she was sure he would have tipped it.
Yellow eyes gleamed with good humour in the brown face. Still, there was a shrewdness there that Padmé didn't discount. Bounty hunters weren't known to lack intelligence, and according to Sal and Lorne, Jester managed a whole cadre of them.
Sal reached out and shook of those hands. "Hey, Jester. Thanks for making time to see us. I owe you."
"Be sure I'll collect," was Jester's jovial response. "Come in. Come in. You'll have to excuse the accommodation. Let's just say that I figured you'd appreciate a bit more privacy than my usual place of business."
So saying, he led them into a short corridor and through another door. This led to a room that was filled floor to ceiling on one side with crates of parts and detergent capsules, judging by the block stencilling, anyway. There was also a trio of ridiculously flimsy chairs and a snack dispenser. Jester walked over to the far wall and flipped open a panel built into it. The Besalisk then input a sequence of some kind and a portion of the wall slid apart to reveal a turbolift.
His sweeping gesture was an invitation for them to enter it. "This way, folks. We'll use my office."
The elevator was roomy, but given the size of Freyrr and Jester it was still a cramped—and thankfully short—journey going down. The elevator stopped with a gentle bump and opened its doors to reveal a cavernous warehouse run by droids. A quick glance was all it took to identify weapons of all sizes, crates of spices and all sorts of other illegal goods and contraband. The worst was the living stock. There were whole stacks of tiny, stinking cages filled with small-sized, non-sentient beings—destined to be pets or snacks. The screeches, chirps and chitters of desperate misery from the inmates was heart-rending.
Obviously, this was a sideline for Jester. Padmé doubted that he had the appropriate license to trade in exotic creatures. License holders were required to supply a basic level of care and comfort, as well as fulfil other obligations.
Spotting Padmé's disapproving scrutiny, Jester grinned without an ounce of contrition, showing his blunt, stubby ring of teeth. "Don't worry, Councillor. We won't be disturbed down here."
It was a subtle warning not to interfere, or offer an opinion.
After a moment, Padmé nodded stiffly. They needed as much help as they could get, and she was in no position to be picky. Jester could end up being invaluable. Still, she promised herself a return visit at some point in the future.
Once inside a private office, and before either Sal or Padmé could speak, Jester pre-empted the need for a lengthy explanation. "This is about that man of yours, Skywalker, ain't it?"
"It is," confirmed Padmé, declining to sit.
"We need him out of there, Jester," added Sal, cutting to the chase. "We can't let Lyonides just hand him over to the Falleen." He shot Padmé a challenging look, adding, "If that's what he's planning."
In the massive seat behind the desk, Jester let out a bark of laughter, smacking one hefty knee with a palm the size of a dinner plate. "Oh you can bet your sweet ass that Lyonides is plannin' just that. I already heard as much and my source has never let me down yet."
"What else does your source tell you?" asked Padmé, suddenly feeling breathless.
"That for a cold-blood species, the Falleen are sure feelin' vengeful. The second they turned up, they put an offer on the table—give us Vader and we'll leave, but if you don't, we'll raze your city to rubble—ironic considering what ticked 'em off in the first place. The funny thing is, Lyonides already had your man in custody before the message even came through." Seeing a Besalisk wink was bizarre considering their avian heritage. "He must be getting psychic in his old age."
That was hardly news. They'd already suspected that Lyonides had somehow arranged this nightmare. "Do you know when and how the handover's supposed to take place?" asked Sal.
"That's to be decided—after the trial."
"Why put him on trial? If this Skywalker has confessed to his true identity, and you're sure that his appearance of youth is deceptive, then that is sufficient for us."
Commander Xellas was typical of the Falleen species, tall, sleek and elegant. The reptilian ridges on his face gave him a high-boned appearance, carving his face into tightly-scaled peaks and valleys. The exception to Falleen foibles was his clothing. The military cut of his uniform was utilitarian rather than the usual rich textures coupled with jewel-toned colours. Similarly, his abrupt, no-nonsense approach to negotiation was a far cry from the usual intrigues favoured by most of his kind.
"He hasn't confessed to anything. In fact, he hasn't even been questioned, yet."
Lyonides didn't take his eyes off Skywalker, visible through the one way transpariplas. He was thoroughly indulging his enjoyment of the sight and there was a definite thrum of pleasure in his blood. His nemesis was manacled to their most secure interrogation chair, contained within a shield and wearing silver-coloured interconnecting patches that delivered a regular, low voltage charge of electricity throughout his body. Powerless to rip them off, Skywalker was pale, damp with sweat and twitching uncontrollably. Lips turned up in a smile, Lyonides was reminded of an infant sloth he'd watched die as a child, caught between the tiny gap separating two energy streams. The best, though, was Skywalker's expression between spasms—absolute agony.
It was a revelation of sorts to realise that watching an opponent become reduced to such a pitiful state was, in many ways, better than sex. Undeniably enervated, he couldn't tear his gaze away.
Xellas slid Lyonides a sharp glance. "Then why is he being tortured?"
Before replying, Lyonides made a mental note to save the surveillance holocam recordings for prosperity, and future entertainment.
He didn't bother to hide his impatience when he finally answered Xellas. "We don't need to question him. I already know he's Vader. The point of the electrical charge isn't torture, but to disrupt his rather unique abilities. We used an experimental drug initially, but the dose required could kill him if used too often. This is an alternative safeguard." He finally turned to face his guest. "We don't want him to escape now do we?"
Xellas gave a stiff bow. "No, Premier, we do not want him to escape. However, I can't help but note that you're enjoying his pain. My own people's rancour I can understand, but what can you have against him? You died years before Vader began to plague the galaxy."
Lyonides saw the layer of faint disgust in the otherwise dispassionate green eyes looking at him. It irked him considerably. "What would you do, Commander, if one of your men tried to take over your command, ruining morale and turning the heads of the others who would otherwise obey you without question?"
"I would execute the individual before he could become a problem. Not put him on trial."
Lyonides smiled coldly. "Unlike you, I didn't have such a luxury available to me at the time, and things have become even more complicated since." He motioned for Xellas to walk with him. "Even I must occasionally answer to the people, Commander. If you'll follow me I'll show you something that may explain it for you."
He took the Falleen commander to another room in the underground complex. The interior of this room was more like the deck of a huge, technological battleship than a mere surveillance room whose sole purpose was to spy on the city's populace. A dozen people and a multitude of droids were kept frantically busy monitoring holotransmissions, both private and media, and relaying information to troops on the ground.
"What do you see?" Lyonides asked Xellas sweeping his hand to take in the plethora of images: tearful interviews, churning crowds, overturned vehicles, demonstrators struggling with security services. Even muted, the accumulation of sounds assaulted the ears.
"A circus," said Xellas, eyeing it all with his lip curling derisively. "Hysterical people all venting their passions in a disgusting display of overindulgence." A delicate shudder of distaste passed down his lean frame. "You will never see Falleen behave so disgracefully. You humans have no self-control."
"I don't disagree," returned Lyonides smoothly, "But you're missing the finer point—as in—what exactly is causing them to become hysterical in the first place."
"I had assumed it was the unmasking of Vader."
"You're half right. I've had people following the mood of the crowd and their reports make for interesting reading. It may come as a surprise to you that not everyone is out for Vader's blood. Some simply refuse to believe it. For many more, he's come to mean a tenuous security—a symbol of hope, if you will—and in the interests of self-preservation, they feel that his past is irrelevant regardless of his identity." Lyonides spread his hands. "After all, we're all here to redeem for something."
For the first time, Xellas came close to exhibiting fury when he all but spat, "Vader is a vicious, murderous slug. He doesn't deserve a chance to redeem."
"Quite." Lyonides smiled politely. "But you see my dilemma? I need to be seen to give him a chance to defend himself—and have him confess publicly in an arena that I can't be seen to manipulate. The important element from your point of view will be the council vote, and that will be entirely staged. Don't worry," he added, exuding confidence and assurance, "You will have your revenge, Commander. Doing it my way will simply make things much easier when I do give him to you."
Xellas stared at him and then gusted out a sigh, shaking his head. "Play your games, Premier. Just don't think to double-cross me. It could be catastrophic for you and your population, whatever their opinion of this Skywalker. I will give you twelve standard hours to prove his identity and hand him over."
There wasn't so much as a feeble flicker of a distant star to lighten the enveloping blackness of night. Barricades had been set up around the palace perimeter. The heaving crowd strained against it, nearly crushing those fortunate, or unfortunate, enough to be in front. The more determined and enterprising scaled whatever was handy for a better view. Things were much quieter now, the people waiting tensely for the first sight of Skywalker. Scuffles still broke out when the hecklers managed to work the crowd enough, stirring up fear and anger, but mostly people just waited.
"Who in chaos hold a trial in the middle of the damn night?" growled Sal as they weaved through the crush of bodies.
In full regal Naboo makeup to disguise her features, Padmé didn't consider it that hard to understand. "Someone who wants it done lightening fast so people don't have time to really consider what it is their doing, and with the possibility of thinner crowds to give him less of a problem. He can't wait and risk the people waking up to the fact that they've all done things to atone for."
It made sense from Lyonides' point of view. It had been less than eight hours since the story broke and there were already questions being asked about why a man was being tried for his actions back in the living world. Logically, Padmé knew that Lyonides couldn't risk waiting too long for everyone to calm down.
"Yeah, well, not everyone is Darth kriffing Vader, and gives the neighbours itchy trigger fingers."
Padmé sighed. Unfortunately, he had a point. It wasn't just an issue of fairness. Lives were at risk from the Falleen ship—which was why they had to make sure that when they did rescue Anakin, they drew the Falleen into chasing them, and made it look as if he had no plans to return to Junga Roth. If she thought about it, she had to admit that the whole plan was fraught with flaws and risks—so she didn't think about it. For once, she wasn't interested in looking too far into the future. She just wanted them all to make it through the night.
Wearing a silky pantsuit with an ornately embroidered shimmersilk overtunic that reached her knees, Padme worked her way back and to the side, aiming for the edge of the gatehouse and a clearer spot. As she did, she almost fell over a group who had taken to sitting down. Sal caught her arm to help her keep her balance, snarling back at the abuse that sailed after them for having trodden on fingers. She could feel his tension through the grip on her elbow and it stoked her own to even greater heights.
Padmé's heart was hammering and she felt as if she wanted to be violently sick, or would if she'd been able to eat anything to actually bring up. It didn't matter that she'd seen action before on equally dangerous occasions. This kind of thing was not her milieu and she felt like a foolish amateur who was about to get a great many people killed.
Get a grip and focus, she told herself fiercely. Anakin needs you.
As soon as she had a clear enough space, Padmé lifted her comlink to her lips. She kept her voice rock-steady by sheer willpower. "Alright. Let's go. Everyone remember their positions and stick to the plan. Improvise only if you have to. I know we haven't had much time to prepare—"
"Two whole hours," muttered Sal sarcastically.
"—But, if we work as team, we can do this."
Her comlink buzzed with an incoming transmission. It was Jazz, one of Jester's hunters, and one of the four he'd loaned them for this rescue. They were in the crime boss' debt to an alarming degree, but Padmé didn't care about that—couldn't. "They're moving Skywalker now. I saw him for a few seconds before they loaded him on the transport. He's in one piece, but doesn't look so hot. If they head straight for the palace his ETA is ten minutes."
He didn't look so hot. She didn't dare picture what Lyonides had done to him. Jester had already told them enough to have her wanting to spill the Premier's blood personally. Fury bubbled, adding to the fear and screwing her nerves even tighter. Gods. She just wanted this to be over and Anakin safely back with them. This time it was harder still to keep her tone even. "Okay, ten minutes until they get here. Remember, we only make our move after the council vote." Padmé's fingers tightened around the slim, cylindrical device until the knuckles turned white. "Good luck, everyone."
Images bled into one another, as did reality and dreams. Anakin was helpless to stop himself from being pulled, shoved and jostled. He had no strength and no power. His feet were moving, but he had no idea where. He couldn't move his arms, or focus and he stumbled many times, only to be roughly yanked upright again. Everything was spinning. He heard voices, but it was as if they came from under water. At one point, he felt the vibration of lifting off and, for one brief second, he was lucid enough to know he was once again drugged and in the middle of being transported somewhere.
Then the slipstream of his subconscious pulled him under again.
He was in a turbulent sea of searing anger and crushing fear. Garbled yelling and shouting assaulted his ears. He was being pushed and tugged here and there like flotsam in a swollen steam. He tried to lift his arms, but couldn't move them no matter how hard he strained. All around him hysteria was ripe in the air, soaking into his skin and shredding reason. Faces leapt out of the seething darkness; one of them was Padmé's. She was close, but not close enough. She was shouting at him, her face alive with desperation. It was like receiving a stab of adrenaline straight to the heart. The sight of her was the jolt he needed to start shoving back. He *had* to get her. He recognised this scene. He'd seen this. She needed him—his wife, his love. She couldn't be here. He had to get her away NOW.
Then he felt it, the disturbance in the Force that was more a violent quake than a quiver. The Force was screaming, and then so was everyone else. Anakin felt the burn of his own hoarse cry as it fled his throat. "PADME. No, No, NO!"
He had to get her to go away. "Padmé RUN! Please! Please! RUN!"
She couldn't hear him over the cacophony. He struggled harder than he'd ever struggled before. Terror crashed over him in waves. He could feel the darkness closing in, getting closer. Suddenly his arms were free. He reached for her and she reached for him. Almost there. Almost touching. Then her face went blank with shock and she was falling away, her face lifeless…
Horror writhed in his brain. NO!
Something heavy and blunt crashed into his left cheekbone, slamming his head into another, harder surface behind him. Agonised stars exploded in his brain and, as if from a great distance, he heard the gruff demand, "Shut the hell up, slimespawn, and quit hollering. Your problems haven't even started yet."
Bending at the waist with the floor rushing up to meet him, Anakin felt the bile rush up and erupt out of him.
The gruff voice was now filled with disgust. "Ah, kriff, he's spewed again. How long till we kriffing land?"
Anakin was given another injection only instead of clouding his mind this one began to clear it. His surroundings slowly stopped spinning and his vision came into focus by degrees. The first thing he noticed was a mosaic floor that stretched out ahead of him, leading to tiered benches crammed row upon row with taut, staring faces. Finally, he saw a smiling, relaxed Lyonides who was, for once, lounging in his ornately carved chair. An equally ornate ceiling soared overhead. Piece by piece he gradually recognised where he was—the palace audience chamber. His hearing cleared too. There were mutters from the packed benches, hissed exchanges that reeked fear. There was also the hum of electronics from dozens of holocam recorders.
It was eerily like his last visit to this very chamber when he'd deliberately baited the city's undisputed dictator. Only this time his hands were manacled behind his back and there were dozens of blaster rifles aimed at his body.
While his vision had improved everything else was a blur of confusion and he couldn't think why he was restrained.
Anakin swayed on his feet, barely managing to keep his balance. Every muscle in his body ached and a vice-like headache threatened to crush his skull. He was incredibly weak. Why was he so weak? He tried to think through the pain and confusion, to remember why he was there. It all came back to him in a jagged, despairing rush: the Falleen, his identity as Vader being broadcast for all and sundry to know, Natar arriving with a platoon of troopers, giving himself up rather than risk the others—then pain and disorientation—until the nightmare.
The panic that choked him in his dreams gripped him now. Everything else was forgotten. The lingering after-effects of the drugs they'd been pumping into him cleared enough for one thought. Where was Padmé? Desperate, he sought and found Lyonides, staring into those cold grey eyes to demand, "Where is Padmé Amidala?"
The words came out rusty and slurred, but clear enough. As if his question had been a signal, all other voices went abruptly silent. Directly ahead of him, Lyonides rose to prowl the chamber floor.
"How very devoted and husband-like of you to ask," said Lyonides with a wry smile that he shared with the assemblage before facing Anakin again, "But, we'll get to your wife later. For now, we have some questions for you."
How did they know he and Padmé were married? Anakin wondered dully. His head whirled sickly. That was another unfathomable question that he wasn't up to working out yet. Licking dry lips he tried to sound authoritative, but it only came out pleading, "I need to know she's alright."
"Unfortunately, I have no idea where she is." The corners of Lyonides' mouth kicked up in another, far less pleasant smile. "However, I can promise you that I plan on remedying that fact soon enough."
It was a relief to have it confirmed that his deal with Natar had spared Padmè being detained too. Still, Anakin was lucid enough to recognise the threat buried in the casual words. He tried a step forward and almost stumbled when his legs threatened to fold, sending him to his knees. "Leave her alone."
"Is that an order, Skywalker?" Lyonides sauntered closer, head cocked, expression coolly amused. "Somehow, I don't think you've grasped your situation yet. Let me enlighten you. We're here to establish who you are—or rather were—and if we as a council should hand you over to the Falleen, who are, as we speak, looming over the city and planning to annihilate us if we don't."
Alone, surrounded, Anakin digested that information and closed his eyes, defeated. An icy sickness washed over him. It was over. His efforts to atone, his promise to Padmé—he'd failed it all. His life or the lives of every single Rothian. There was no choice. The brief strength he'd found to defend Padmé withered inside him and died. The whirl in his head returned with a vengeance. He had to swallow to speak. "It doesn't sound like you have much of a choice."
Head bowed, he missed the triumph that glowed briefly on Lyonides face. "So, are you admitting that you were Darth Vader, second-in-command to the Emperor and murderer of millions?"
If the chamber had been eerily silent before, it was nothing in comparison to that single, poised-on-a-knife-edge moment of waiting.
There was no thought in Anakin to deny it. He couldn't. His head was simply too heavy for his neck to lift it, so he didn't try. He didn't want to anyway; he couldn't bear to see the effect of his confession. Only one thing in his life had been harder to do, and that was to kneel before the Chancellor and pledge himself to death. Hollow despair echoed in his voice. "Yes, I admit it. I was Vader."
The silence lasted a micro-second longer—then the chamber erupted. Peace was shattered. Voices rose and words were lost in the cacophony.
Anakin squeezed his eyes shut, trying to hold back tears and wishing he could block out their reaction. It was as if the horror of his life was being reflected back at him a thousand times over. Given a choice, he would have preferred a return to the oblivion of the drugs.
"Silence!" thundered Lyonides, turning in a circle to glower at the fifty-nine councillors, many of whom had risen from their seats. "Sit down," he snapped. "We're not finished here."
Peace returned, fraught with tension.
"What is the point in dragging this fiasco out any further?" asked Bac Gon into the silence. His grey-skinned Munn face was haughtily impatient. "He has admitted to being Vader. We should just give him to the Falleen and be done with the matter."
"The point is that I have decided that he will be given a chance to defend himself," said Lyonides pointedly. He then clasped his hands behind his back, wearing an expression carefully set into sombre lines. His gaze encompassed them all. "Who here can deny that he's provided important services to the city? Services that demand Vader be given a chance to explain himself—before the vote is taken." His next gesture took in the crowds waiting outside the palace perimeter. "It would hardly be fair to do otherwise, and the people waiting out there—in the dark and cold—are are expecting nothing less."
If anyone was surprised to have Lyonides talk about fairness, they didn't dare mention it, or that he was obviously playing to the media. The holocams whirred and lapped it all up.
Anakin finally looked up, his expression stark. Lyonides carefully prepared statements gave him no relief, quite the opposite. He shook his head, ignoring the pain the movement caused him. "I won't play your games. I've already told you that I was Vader. We both know that you have no choice but to give me over to them—do us both a favour and get it over with."
"And I've already said that a vote will be taken once you've been given a chance to explain your past." Lyonides stepped closer, close enough to lean in and say, "Will you deny your victims the chance to hear for themselves why you did what you did? And the people who believed in you, who thought you could save them—" out of view of the cams, Lyonides' face twisted, "—do they not deserve an explanation?"
"You're wasting your time," Anakin rasped through a tight, dry throat. He could feel every eye on him, filled with fear and condemnation. Shame cut him to the bone, drilling into his mind. He kept his gaze on Lyonides. "I can't possibly explain any of it to you. I have no excuse, or defence. I don't have the words. No one could possibly understand—"
"Why don't you let us decide that," retorted Lyonides. He returned to his seat. "For a start, we need to know if it's true that you bombarded a Falleen city from orbit, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people?"
When Anakin didn't respond, he leaned forward in his seat, raising his hands. "It is topical, Skywalker. Speak. Enlighten us as to why we have a ship invading our skies."
There was another thunderous silence.
"Yes, I did it." Anakin finally replied. "I'd been using the planet as a base for a bioweapons experiment. It went wrong, broke containment. I ordered the city destroyed to prevent an outbreak of a disease that could easily have spread to other planets."
More mutters broke out from the benches.
Sitting back, sublimely at ease, Lyonides quirked a brow. "That doesn't sound so monstrous."
"I didn't try and evacuate." Sweat popped out on Anakin's face. "There were a dozen things that I could have done before killing all of those people. It didn't even occur to me to try. I judged it more effective to simply incinerate the surrounding area. I didn't hesitate and felt no remorse. It was wrong, and it was monstrous."
"And Alderaan?" prompted, Lyonides silkily. "A city wasn't enough for you so you went after a whole planet—home to millions of peaceful people."
Having started, Anakin found it spilling out of him. Images and faces swam before his minds eye. Leia, his brave, beautiful daughter, her horror and grief as she watched her home planet blasted into nothingness. All of a sudden he couldn't hold it back.
"I didn't pick the target, or order the weapons to fire, but I was there." Anakin's stomach roiled under savage twists of guilt. He didn't notice the single tear that slid down his face. He was too busy being buried alive under an avalanche of memories. "I'd been a Jedi once, I should have protested, done something, but I didn't. I just stood there watching, and feeling, as millions cried out in fear and then were silenced—forever. Their deaths meant less than nothing to me. I'm culpable."
The crowd was completely, utterly silent. Lyonides had set up massive viewscreens as big as airbuses at strategic locations all over the city, obviously wanting to make sure that no-one missed the show. All over Roth, people would be standing with faces turned to the sky, or glued to their holo's at home. It was torture for Padmé to watch. She'd seen Anakin sunk into despair, seen him doubled over with grief, but she'd never seen him broken—not like this. For more than an hour now, he'd been forced to rake over his past. Every question and answer seemed to sap him of life, etching torment ever more strongly on his face. Her own face was wet with tears.
She hadn't understood fully before, but now she did. The Anakin she'd known and loved had ceased to exist when he'd become Vader. And knowing that, she couldn't help but think of how much more of a torture it must be to remember it all now that he was back, and to know that, regardless, he was responsible for allowing it to happen. To remember each atrocity and feel, as he hadn't been capable of feeling at the time, the horror and revulsion—it would drive many insane. He'd been hiding it, denying it by throwing himself at the Narzgh. She'd seen the cracks herself at the first threat of exposure. Anguish closed her throat and her heart ached for him. Her hands fisted. Couldn't they see just how much he regretted it all, how much he repented? Could anyone miss what she could see so clearly on his face? The guilt was tearing him apart. For stars sake he was practically on his knees!
And yet his first thought had been of her—which was so typical of him.
Gods. She loved him so much! She wished she could make it stop. She despised Lyonides for doing this to him. She had to fist a hand into her mouth to hold back the sobs welling in her throat. Right at this moment, she wished, she dearly, dearly wished that she hadn't held Anakin at arms length. She should have let herself hold him at least once, and told him that she forgave him and loved him. What if they failed and she never got another chance?
A hand dropped on her shoulder. It was Sal, and it was as if he'd been reading her mind. "They miscalculated," He told her gruffly. "They should have let him walk in there straight-backed and proud. I mean, look at him. He looks wasted, like he's been beaten over the head with a club for a couple days. He can hardly stand. He's broken up. He's been tortured, you can kriffing see it." He stabbed a finger at the distant screen. "Compare that picture to the warrior battling Narzgh raid after damned raid. People are going to start to feel sympathy. No-one who sees this—hears this—is going to doubt that he wants to atone. Hell, I wasn't sure, but this crapshow has me convinced. I guarantee that this is gonna come back and bite Lyonides in the ass."
"Maybe," said Padmé, shakily. "But what if it's too late by then?"
"We've covered the highlights, I think," said Lyonides. He was back to prowling the floor, heels clicking on the decorative floor. "And, so far, we have: mass murder, rampant enslavement and systematic terrorising of whole systems. You were a busy man, Lord Vader."
"I was trying to bring peace, or thought I was. He told me it was about bringing peace, ending war, suffering—I didn't realise, and then it was too late." Anakin's voice was hoarse, disjointed. It was a gargantuan effort to lift his head and meet Lyonides' gaze again. "I've had enough. I've told you enough. End this now, please!"
"In a moment, but first I want you to tell me about the Jedi themselves. Surely, they must have been like your family during your early years?"
Anakin's head swam, thick with spiking agony from the headache stabbing inside his skull. The Jedi? Yes, the Jedi had been his family, and Obi-Wan his father and brother. Until he'd betrayed them. He saw Obi-Wan's grief as they faced one another on that landing pad on Mustafar and wanted to reach out and beg. Master, help me!
His answer was also from the past, and heart-breaking. You were my brother, Anakin. I loved you. You were the Chosen One. It was said that you would destroy the Sith, not join them. Bring balance to the Force, not leave it in Darkness.
I had to obey my master. I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry! Forgive me! Anakin had no clue that he'd spoken the words aloud.
A voice called him back to the present. "You must remember the Jedi, Lord Vader." Lyonides was standing right in front of him. It might as well have just been the two of them. Everyone else was stunned into absolute, riveted silence. Numbed by pain and exhaustion, Anakin had completely forgotten about there ever having been others in the chamber with them.
Hunched over, barely able to stay on his feet, Anakin was too tired and drained to fight. His tears had dried, but his face was ravaged. "What do you want to know?"
"I want you to think back to the day you first adopted the mantle of Vader. What was the first task that you performed for the new emperor?"
Unbelievably, fresh agony lanced him. No, it couldn't be… "What do you mean?"
There was no mercy in that icy grey gaze. "Exactly what I say. What was your first task as Vader?"
Once again memories rushed at Anakin. The Jedi Temple, knights and masters he'd known from a youngling, and the younglings. Force! The younglings.
"Master Skywalker, there are too many of them. What are we going to do?"
He'd killed them, cut down innocent children even while they'd been looking to him to protect them. He could see them falling like broken dolls to the floor of the temple—small forms with tiny hands and rounded cheeks. Young lives monstrously taken. It was despicable, unspeakable. How could he have done that? He'd slice his own hands off before he'd hurt a child. Yet he had. It was unbearable to think about. Fresh horror clutched at his chest, raking bloody claws over his mind. He couldn't block it out anymore and confine the memories to dreams. He didn't notice the physical pain when he finally fell heavily to his knees.
"No!" Anakin shook his head, sounding like a wounded animal. "NO! It's not possible for you to know that. How do you know about that?"
Lyonides didn't stop smiling. "You slaughtered the very people who raised you, including children as young as three, didn't you? And not from a ship, but up close and personal" He didn't wait for a reply, "But then killing other people's children can hardly matter when you almost killed your own." Mock sorrow flitted over Lyonides' face. "Poor Padmé assaulted by her own husband on the cusp of giving birth to your son and daughter. How you must have broken her heart. I'm really not surprised that she preferred death to facing that distressing fact."
Impossible. It was impossible for anyone to know that. Unless…!
A red haze dropped like a curtain over his mind. Without any warning, Anakin lunged to his feet so furiously fast that some of their audience screamed and began to scramble out of their seats. Every word out of Lyonides' mouth had been like a lash, only this pain had brought anger with it to douse the anguish. It had to be Sidious. He'd suspected that Lyonides was under the emperors sway, but now he knew! Savage fury gave him strength; Anakin could feel it boiling through him, filling his veins with molten energy. Ignoring the troopers now advancing and face contorted, he raged, "How do you know that? No one knows about that. No-one, but him. You're in league with him aren't you? ADMIT it!"
Speedily, Lyonides backed away, but it wasn't a retreat. Coolly, he quirked a brow, casually waving back the troopers even as he spoke, "I don't know who you mean by 'him', unless of course, you mean the white-haired old man who sent you here—Kenobi something or other, isn't it?"
That broke through the furious haze and stopped Anakin in his tracks. He felt sucker-punched. "No, I don't believe you. You're lying. It's Sidious, not Obi-Wan—"
"Do you think that you're the only one who gets visits from those on the other side? My informant was an old man with blue eyes. He told me about you. In fact, he had lots of interesting things to say. He was your mentor wasn't he? If you doubt me, ask yourself how I know that it was he who put you on this so-called path to redemption?"
Lyonides ignored the desperate shout. "Did you really think that you could redeem yourself? Get back all that you lost because you threw it away? Come on." Tsking, he slowly shook his head, grey eyes alight with amusement. Almost conspiratorially, he added, "Have you considered that this ridiculous illusion of hope is in fact your punishment, precisely because it will never happen?"
It was Anakin's turn to back away, utterly and completely shattered. The rage had drained as if it had never been. He was once again mentally reeling, waxy pale and swaying. "No. No." he denied hoarsely. "He wouldn't lie to me."
Retaking his seat, Lyonides finally let his true emotions show—contempt, hatred and triumph. "Look at you. Faced with your crimes you become pitiful, so much for the great Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker." Dismissing Anakin with a derisive flourish, he turned to survey his council. "We're finished here. It's time to vote."
"The council votes are in. They're giving him to the Falleen—tonight. Just like Jester said they would." Sal's expression was grim. "It looks like we're on." He gripped Padmé's shoulder. "Are you okay?"
Padmé wanted to shake her head. No. She wasn't okay. She felt wrung-out to the point of being hollow. Instead she nodded. "I'm fine. Let's go." She started to weave and thread her way through the remaining throng. "I just hope that Ceetee made it into position?"
"Me," said Sal, "I'm more worried about Lorne and that bounty hunter. This whole plan hinges on them getting the job done."
Striding down a corridor of the security centre and trying to look like he belonged there, Lorne was feeling the pressure, and not liking it one bit. He couldn't quite figure out how he'd managed to get himself into this situation again.
Yeesh. So much for 'once bitten twice shy'.
Jazz, the human female bounty hunter he'd been partnered with, was as tall as the Pylean and looked like she'd born ready to rumble. Wiry red hair tamed into intricate cornrows framed a tanned, hard face. She filled out the male tech's uniform far more impressively that the poor shmuck who'd originally owned it, and who was now unconscious and stashed away.
As for Lorne, he was wearing a holo-ring around his neck. It was the latest in a line of hi-tech gadgets that would provide a user with a 3-D disguise. It was currently projecting a human head over his own far more interesting and handsome one. Anyone looking at him would see an average Joe with a goofy smile and the charisma of a squashed turnip.
When he said so, Jazz gave him a blank look. "What's a turnip?"
His reply was a grimace and a forget-it wave of one gloved hand.
Jazz had more than the unconscious tech's uniform. She also had his identirod and a micro-film cast of his right palm sealed over her own—all they needed to get inside the main control room at the city's security centre. Of course, getting inside was only a small part of their 'mission'. They also had to incapacitate everyone inside it and then take all of the equipment offline, effectively blinding Lyonides' forces.
The security centre was bustling. Techs and troopers streamed passed and the glides and elevators were constantly disgorging passengers—many of whom looked terrified to be there. Lorne didn't blame them. There was a sterile soullessness to the complex that he found unnerving. The coward in him wanted to run screaming back out into the night. If anyone took it into their heads to sing, he might just do it anyway. They had to take one of the elevators down a level. Exiting with a dozen or so others, they hung a left into another corridor. This level was even less friendly. Directly in front of them a pair of troopers were dragging a limp, groaning man between them whose feet were trailing along behind him. Trying not to imagine were the poor guy was headed, Lorne did his damndest not to catch anyone's eye. His mouth was dry and both of his hearts were beating a heckova tattoo. By the time they reached the blast-sealed door that protected the control room, his gut was one massive ball of anxious gas.
Looking unflappable and utterly cool, Jazz inserted the identirod, then laid her right hand on the palm-plate located at the side of the door at waist height. Two tension-humming seconds passed before the light went green and the door slid upwards. They were in.
Inside, technology abounded. The blast of noise and images was like a wall of motion that you passed through after crossing the threshold. The door slid shut again behind them. Nobody paid them any notice.
They were standing on a small deck with two steps down leading onto the main floor. The walls and floor were a gleaming black with all colour and light coming from the multitude of images, flashing control panels and consoles. People and droids filled the chairs and darted between stations. Palming the EMP grenade in her left hand and the rebreather in her right, Jazz slid Lorne a tight smile. "What was that phrase you used earlier…'it's time to rock and roll'?"
"That would be the one, sugarplum." The gas grenade in his own hand felt hot and Lorne almost dropped his own rebreather through sheer, sweaty nerves.
Inserting her rebreather, Jazz dropped to the floor, slamming the magnetic bottom of the conical grenade on the floor, activating it. Lorne copied her. An electro-magnetic pulse and coma gas were set off simultaneously. Micro-seconds later, the droids collapsed, folding in on themselves, toppling like mannequins as their processors shut down in the blink of an eye. The humans took a little longer, but even they didn't have time to realise what was happening and set off an alarm before they too were lying sprawled wherever they'd fallen.
Cautiously rising to stand straight again and take stock, Lorne took his first relatively easy breath. "So far so good."
Having locked the door from the inside, Jazz tossed him a blaster on her way passed. "You stay by the door and blast anyone who manages to get through. I'll get the barriers down and make this place unusable for a while."
The blaster felt even more alien in Lorne's hand than the grenade had done. "You do that, and try and make it snappy will you. I've got a club missing its host."
It took an interminable amount of time to thread through the crowds to the point that Jester had told them they could use the stolen identirod to get through the barrier and into the palace grounds. The hoods of their robes hid Padmé's and Sal's faces and they didn't speak as they skirted the lights, sticking to paths that hugged the walls and the shadows. Taking the East steps under cover of the waterfall that tumbled down between them, they reached the top avenue that ran parallel to the utility and administration areas of the palace. A five minute jog brought them to the single doorway. A dozen meters away from it, Padmé used her comlink. "Ceetee, we're here. Open her up."
The door slid open just as they reached it and Ceetee stood framed inside the door frame. The little astromech droid gave a series of buzzes and whistles as a welcome that held more than a hint of relief to see them. At the same moment Padmé's comlink gave two crackles, just as an alarm started to blare.
She looked at Sal. "Lorne did it. The barriers are down and they know something's up. We need to get to those hanger bay doors now!"
Sal didn't argue and they sacrificed stealth for speed. With the barriers all down, the surging, hysterical crowd would keep the troopers busy, but they would also create a greater urgency in Lyonides to get Anakin safely aboard the Falleen ship. Meaning, they had to reach the hanger bay first and seal the doors so that the shuttle intended for use would be inaccessible. Leaving Lyonides with no choice but to return Anakin to the security centre, via a forced march through the courtyard and gardens—an area now swarming with irate citizens, and vulnerable to ambush.
That was the plan anyway. However, the plan suffered a setback when they rounded the last corner and found a quartet of edgy troopers standing right outside the hangar bay doors. The troopers were huddled in a confused group and tapping the sides of their helmets, as if hoping to get their defunct coms systems working with a little persuasion.
Abruptly, Sal and Padmé slowed to a sedate walk, but it was too late. The troopers had spotted them and now formed a line, raising their blaster rifles. "Erm, what's our excuse for being in the area again?" asked Sal, sotto-voiced.
Padmé sucked in a breath, her mind racing and coming up blank. "We don't have one."
"Right. I knew that." Sal plastered on a big smile for the advancing troopers. "So, what are we gonna do?"
Lorne and Jazz almost made it to the elevator. An alarm was blaring with furious urgency and squads of troopers were racing towards the now sealed, and strategically damaged, control room. One of the last to pass them was a group including a ranking officer. He drew the eye simply because he wore no anonymous helmet. A stride passed Lorne, he suddenly whipped around and snagged the Pylean's elbow. "Hey you! You're a tech. What in chaos is going on in the control room? Everything's gone down." His bullish tone matched a granite hard, scarred face and suggested the current crisis was personally their fault.
Oh, if only he knew, thought Lorne. He gave a sickly smile. "Sorry, don't have a clue. We're just off to fetch our repairs kits. Y'know, diagnostic…er…tools to help us figure it out."
"Repair kits," the officer echoed, unimpressed, obsidian eyes narrowing.
"The doors have been sealed, sir," offered Jazz quickly, intervening. "We need a decoder to try and bypass, or failing that, a laser torch. We were just going to get them."
It took a long heartbeat for him to release Lorne. "Then don't let me stop you," he said, not bothering to hide his less than admiring opinion of Lorne. "In fact, I'll send an escort to make sure no-one else impedes such an important mission. What were your names and rank again?"
"Electrotech First Grade Swayle and Goran, sir," Jazz answered without missing a beat.
"Okay, Swayle and Goran, here is your escort." He called over two nearby troopers and gave them their orders, then turned back to Lorne. "Make it quick and don't keep me waiting. I have a low patience threshold."
Lorne believed him.
Jazz waited until they were inside the elevator before making her move. With brisk economy, she shot both of their escorts at point blank range. Aghast, Lorne watched them slide motionless to the floor of the cage. The acrid stink of laser discharge, melted plasto and burnt flesh filled the small space.
"Hey, what happened to the 'no deaths unless it can't be helped' proviso of this mission?" he gasped.
"They couldn't be helped," Jazz retorted with a hard glance in his direction. She then positioned her considerable bulk in front of the doors, hiding the bodies from immediate view once the doors slid back. "Besides, Amidala isn't my boss. I got told to get the job done and get out—that's what I'm doing."
There was no more time for debate. The elevator doors slid open and they stepped out onto the ground floor of the now frenetic security centre. If possible, even more people were milling around than earlier. Twin hearts hammering, Lorne kept pace with the bounty hunter as they dodged and weaved around the crowd. He could see the exit a dozen meters ahead and had to restrain himself from breaking into a sprint. They were half way there when a commotion broke out behind them.
Sweat popped out on his face and Lorne didn't dare look around. "Oh. Oh. Not good."
Jazz risked a glance back. "You're not wrong. Run, and don't look back." She gave Lorne a push, then whirled to face the way they'd come.
Lorne did as he was told and ran, accompanied by the sound of blaster fire. The trouble was there were still a number of people in front of him and several of them were wearing uniforms and carrying blasters. It wouldn't take a genius to make the connection between the woman firing and the man making a run for it.
He was right.
Two troopers by the exit were already moving to intercept him. He was never going to make it, Lorne realised. Terror twisted his guts. He had no way of defending himself. He hated firearms and had given Jazz back the blaster as soon as he could. Dumb mistake.
Without any warning, someone grasped his elbow, swung him around and through an open doorway into a small, empty corridor. The door hissed shut behind him. Braced for being shot, Lorne froze and squeezed his eyes shut.
Only to snap them open again when a cultured voice said, "Take off the holo-ring. Your real appearance is far less of a danger to you now than the disguise."
What he saw was an old man with close-cropped white hair and beard and incredibly calm blue eyes. "Excuse me?" Lorne said, bewildered. "Who are—"
He was cut off. "There's no time for explanations, my friend. We really don't have long. They'll get through this door far easier than the control room. If you want to survive, you must do exactly as I say."
"Well, since you put it like that…"
With shaking hands, Lorne once again did as he was told. There was something so trustworthy about the old man that it seemed impossible to resist. The holo-ring disengaged with a crackle of energy and he was able to pull it away easily. The old man took it out of his hand and replaced it with a shimmering cerise shirt and an equally eye-popping floor length magenta robe. The holo-ring was soon tucked away out-of-sight under the old man's own nondescript brown robe.
"Remove the jacket and change—swiftly please. They're already working on breaking through to pursue you. We have to be ready for when they do."
The reminder wasn't reassuring. "This isn't my usual kind of gig, so I'm no expert, but shouldn't we be running somewhere?" Lorne asked as he shrugged out of the dull, forest green jacket.
"No, running will do us no good. Just trust me, and let me do the talking."
That was fine with Lorne. He'd never pretended to be a hero. "The floor is yours. I'm too terrified to spit, never mind talk my way out of this mess."
As soon as Lorne had removed it, the jacket went the same way as the holo-ring, leaving no trace of the escaping human male in a tech's uniform. The transformation was finished just in time. Lorne had just managed to don the robe when the door gave way and troopers stormed through the smoking gap.
Lorne couldn't suppress a yelp when half a dozen blasters were suddenly staring him in the face.
The small space was literally bristling with aggression. "Who are you two?" asked one of the troopers. "State your business."
Unfazed, the old man flashed a palm-sized transparent card. "I have a visitors pass. My friend and I had become lost and were on our way back to the reception area when a man came barrelling along and almost sent us flying. Then, when we got here, we found the door sealed."
Obviously anxious to get on with the chase, they accepted his story without question, zeroing in on the reference to their fugitive. "This man you saw, did you see which way he went?"
"I'm afraid that I really couldn't say." The old man looked properly apologetic and utterly harmless. "We were more concerned with getting out of his way."
Once again they took his word without so much as a suspicious flicker. Lorne could only stand and stare as they raced off down the corridor, leaving the exit clear.
"Right," said the old man with a mischievous smile, clapping Lorne on the shoulder. "I think that's our queue to make a swift exit. Follow me."
The reception area was carnage and there was no sign of Jazz anywhere. It looked like a war zone and Lorne couldn't help but admire a woman who could do so much damage single-handedly. He just hoped she'd managed to get herself out. As for their escape, in all the confusion no one questioned a non-human walking around where he shouldn't be. With calm, measured steps, Lorne and his strange new ally simply walked out of the building.
Once outside, Lorne tossed up his hands and finally asked, "Okay, I'm as impressed as all get out, and grateful to boot, but who the heck are you?"
"I'm a friend of a friend, and I can't say more than that so it's no use pressing me." The old man was sprightly and didn't slow down, leading Lorne on a criss-crossing route away from the security centre, talking as they walked. "I have to go very soon. By rights, I shouldn't even be here at all. But before I do go, I would offer you a word of advice. Don't go back to your club. Head straight for the Limidian and wait there for the droid and the pilot. As soon as they're onboard, take off and leave the city. Do not delay."
Despite the large part of him that wanted to get far, far way, Lorne halted and planted his hands on his hips. "Okay, and now you're scaring me. What about the princess and the love of her life we've just been trying to rescue—with a lot of pain and trouble, I might add?"
The old man stopped too. This time real sadness passed over the calm expression—a cold breeze over a sandy shore. "Anakin and Padmé will not make it to the ship, but with a bit of luck your paths will cross again." Briskly, he went on before Lorne could interject. "Just make sure you head south east once you're away from Roth, and, along the way, persuade that irascible pilot you call friend to sing you a song."
"Halt and raise your hands in the air. This area is restricted."
All Padmé could think was that right now they were dealing with four troopers. In less than a minute that number could leap up to hundreds. They had to act now.
The decision hadn't been fully made before the blaster was in her hands and she was diving to the side, squeezing off shots that hit two of the four troopers dead centre in the chest. Sal had done likewise, catching the third trooper high in the shoulder. Ceetee gave an electronic squawk and zoomed over to hug the wall, out of the immediate line of fire. Lying flat on her front, Padme continued to fire, clipping the fourth and final trooper on his helmet and distracting him enough that Sal could finish him off.
There was no time even for a second of relief. Scrabbling to their feet, they raced towards the hangar bay doors. Even before they'd reached them, Padmé recognised the dreadful, heavy march of super battle droids. A glance inside was all it took. She had to be pulled back by Sal to escape from the cannon fire that almost peppered her face. Her heart didn't just sink, it dive-bombed to the floor. Lyonides hadn't been so cavalier with the security of the hanger bay after all. It was full of heavily armed droids.
Next to her, a panting Sal groaned, "We are so doomed!"
Unfortunately, she couldn't disagree with that despairing assessment. It was desperation that made her do it. Sucking in a deep breath, she lunged for the other side of the wide double doors. Behind her, she heard Sal yelling at her for being an idiot. Cannon fire spat hot streaks that just missed her head. One of those streaks passed so close to her shoulder that she thought for a heart-stopping moment that she'd been hit, then she was on the other side and protected by the reinforced frame.
Sal had tried to cover her mad dash by firing at the super battle droids. Padmé kept up the barrage from the other side too, knowing as she did that they could only slow them down. There were simply too many of them. The wall opposite was already pitted, blackened and charred. "Ceetee," she yelled. "The charges…I need them."
Sal continued firing to protect the droid's manic zoom across the open doorway. "Tell me you're not gonna do what I think you're gonna do?" he shouted to Padmé.
"Just be ready to run," she advised him grimly. Taking each of the tiny, but incredibly destructive mines out of Ceetee's storage compartment, she prepped them for detonation with a mere flick of her fingernail, then sent them skittering into the hanger bag. The last one hit a super battle droid that was fast bearing down on them. They had mere seconds left.
"Ceetee, seal the door." Padmé yelled. The doors slid across and then a blast door slammed down from above.
"RUN!" Ceetee, Padmé and Sal got moving, racing to get as much distance as possible from the imminent explosion.
Anakin was an emotional husk. A blessed numbness was smothering every thought and emotion, dulling everything to cold grey. The minuscule part of his mind that was still paying attention to his surroundings was aware that something had gone wrong with the plan to hand him over to the waiting Falleen. The air was rife with anger, confusion and frustration. He simply didn't care.
They hadn't bothered to dose him up again—they didn't need to. He was surrounded by guards with his hands still manacled behind his back, and simply went where he was led. They took him out of the palace and into the grounds.
He was so mired in his own numb despair the pushing, shoving and jostling didn't register at first. When it did, it still took several moments for him to realise why it felt familiar—then the darkness, the sea of people, and his vision all seemed to close in on him, sucking the air out of his lungs and cramping his gut with horror. His nightmare—this was his nightmare coming true. That realisation blasted away the mind fog, replacing it with something far worse. The abrupt change made him dizzy. His senses returned in a pained rush, bombarding him with information. The crowd was a huge, boiling mass of thrashing hysteria highlighted by a dozen powerful sets of roving floodlights. The sheer level of noise made picking out individual words impossible. The guards, along with Anakin, were being pelted with detritus. The whole square was verging perilously close to a full-scale riot.
Heart thundering, Anakin ignored it all. He reached out to the Force, then recoiled at the rising dark energies poisoning it. Terror skittered down his spine along with self-loathing. How could he have only just noticed? Why hadn't he sensed it sooner? His nightmare hovered at the edge of his mind, tormenting him, especially the last image of Padmé's lifeless form being snatched out of reach.
Desperation left no room for anything else. All Anakin knew was that he had to find Padmè first, and then get her as far away from here as possible. He didn't doubt that she was here.
He searched the crowd and faces leapt out at him, but none were hers. There were so many people that despair threatened to make a return. How was he supposed to find Padmé amongst so many? As the small cavalcade of Anakin and his escort pushed through, the cries, yells and obscenities reached a cacophony. The crowd pressed in. The guards shoved back, hurling orders and threats that were ignored. Crowd control was failing, pushing the guards into a tighter ring around Anakin and hindering him. It really was like being tossed and battered about in a stormy ocean. With his hands still manacled behind his back, it took some effort to retain his balance, but it didn't stop him from turning in circles to continue his frantic search.
The guards riding speederbikes skimmed warningly close to the heads of the crowd, only instead of intimidating the people, the tactic only angered them. One of the speeders, along with its rider, was downed even as Anakin's attention was drawn by a flash of dirty white up ahead.
It was Ceetee. Ahead and to the right, the little astromech droid was doing a good job of muscling his way through the densely packed bodies. Anakin's heart skipped a beat. Padmè! She wouldn't be far away.
Then he saw her. She was following the droid, squeezing between the crush. Her dark hair was set into elaborate coils and her face was doll-like thanks to concealing cosmetics, but he would recognise her anywhere. Their eyes met briefly before the small gap in the crowd closed again and he lost sight of her. They'd been three meters apart. Determination to get to her was like a shot of adrenaline. Anakin lunged between two of his guards, using his weight to try and push through the crowd. The sheer size of the crowd pushed back, stopping him from making any headway. The guards were so busy they didn't even notice. Frustration, fear and anger writhed in him like live snakes.
Another gap opened up. As Padmè wasn't fighting against the crowd, she'd managed to squeeze closer.
Two meters now.
He refused to lose her. This dream was not coming true. He wouldn't let it.
He yelled her name, "Padmé!"
It was like screaming into the wind. The words were snatched away by the roars of thousands.
The dark side was growing, mushrooming. Panic hazed Anakin's mind and he threw it off—he refused to fail. He launched himself back into the crowd, heaving with his legs to force himself between those that got in his way. Curses were bellowed in his ears. Fury bubbled in his veins that he couldn't work his way through as fast as he wanted. He didn't have time to waste, every second was precious. He felt a frisson of warning from the Force, and lashed out with a Force-push at three guards that had followed him. As if picked up and tossed by some unseen giant hand, the guards went sailing into the air for several meters and then plummeted back into the thrashing mass.
Then it started to rain.
It took a second to sink in. Even the guards froze. Nothing else could have had the effect those simple drops of water had. As one, the crowd looked up at the sky, towards where the barrier should have been to protect the Core. The rain continued to fall, getting heavier. The barrier was gone. There was a heartbeat of silence, then the screaming started as pure panic set in. If possible the mayhem tripled. Buffeted on every side by people who were now trying to scramble their way out of the square, Anakin continued to heave and push, using his shoulders to ram his way through. It didn't matter, he was powerless to stop himself from being swept up in the mass escape attempt. The guards were equally eager to leave and forget their charge. The rain continued to hammer down, soaking Anakin to the skin.
Planting his feet to stop himself being dragged further away, Anakin tipped back his head and roared Padmé's name.
And saw her. The dark side was so strong now it felt as if every indrawn breath sucked it into his chest. Horror surged sickly. He was running out of time. Dodging and weaving, pushing and ramming, Anakin forced his way closer to her. Padmé was doing the same. His desperate resolve was mirrored on her face.
"Padmé, RUN. Please, please run."
The darkness was closing in, he could feel the hot, fetid breath of it gathering just ahead. The Force was quivering with it. Realising he had to get his hands free to defend Padmè, Anakin focused all of his considerable will on the manacles. With a click, they snapped open and fell to the ground, instantly lost under panicked feet.
One meter. Please, please. Let me be in time.
"You have to get out of here," he yelled at her. "Padmé…RUN—" Anakin had to throw himself to the side as more of the crowd stampeded passed, almost mowing him down. Like everyone else, their faces were dazed and white with shock.
The screaming was deafening and the rain was a watery bombardment. She couldn't hear his desperate shouting. Padmé's own lips were moving, trying to tell him something in turn.
The crowd was definitely thinning, but there were still enough panicked people milling around to create an obstacle course. Only a few more seconds, Anakin told himself, and then he'd reach her.
Throwing out an arm between fleeing bodies, she reached for his hand. Anakin did the same, thinking that as soon as she was in his arms, he was going to bodily force her away from this place.
Behind and to the side of Padmé, Ceetee gave a shrill whistled warning.
It happened in the blink of an eye. A dark, cloaked figure materialised directly behind Padmé. Before Anakin could do anything, it had clubbed Padmè over the head. Face turning blank with shock, she crumpled. The Narzgh caught her around the waist and picked her up as if she were a doll.
"NOOOO." On a surge of molten fury, Anakin went to leap after them, except something viciously strong wrapped around his left ankle, holding him fast. He fell, writhing and kicking out at the clawed hand that had him anchored, and yelling hoarsely. Bravely, Ceetee zapped the Narzgh holding Padmé, only to be kicked over onto its side for the attempt.
The droid landed with a protesting razz and a clang on the ground. At the same moment, a compartment on the droids compact body slid open, shooting something slim and cylindrical straight at Anakin. He caught it, activating his lightsaber and sweeping it down to slice off the forearm of the emerging Narzgh that had grabbed hold of him. Free, he rolled to his feet and gave pursuit.
Anakin's mind was a red haze. It was as if the broken man of mere minutes earlier had never existed. Every nerve, every atom of his body was focused on rescuing Padmé. Nothing else mattered. Did this creature really think that he'd let it snatch her away? He was a blurring streak pounding through the drumming rain. The Narzgh carrying Padmé spun to meet him, igniting a lightsaber of its own.
"Let her go!" Face tight, almost feral with fury, Anakin snarled the demand.
Instead of replying, the Narzgh struck out. Red and blue clashed. Anakin was hampered by the fact that he couldn't risk hurting Padmé—the Narzgh by being able to fight only single-handedly.
Slash, slash, parry, riposte, block. Anakin aimed for the Narzgh's legs only to be blocked. The constrained duel continued, until, obviously tiring of it, the Narzgh retreated, spun and ran towards a nearby abandoned speederbike. It moved superhumanly fast. Anakin followed. Other Narzgh came at him from all sides and were swiftly dispatched, not even slowing him down. He refused to let them—or anything get in his way. His pounding strides created splashes on the sodden ground. The lights continued to zigzag over the now deserted square. The Narzgh and Padmé were highlighted for a second by that bright yellow glow just as the Narzgh climbed onto the speederbike with Padmé and started the repulsorlift engine with a throbbing whine. Anakin reached for more speed, knowing even as he did that he wouldn't get there in time to prevent the bike lifting off. Desperate, he used the Force to throw his lightsaber in a whirling arc, aiming for the rear thrusters.
With a sweep of his own lightsaber, the Narzgh knocked Anakin's aside. The bike, with both passengers, lifted and zoomed off into the rain-filled night sky. Calling his lightsaber back to his hand, Anakin sprinted for a second bike. This one was lying on its side in an ever-widening pool of water. Yanking it upright, he cranked the engine. It started with a deep-throated whine, and he took off in a pursuit that had now gone airborne.
The traffic over Roth was murderous, and every bit as panicked as the crowd in the square. Breathing shallowly, eyes blazing and refusing to blink even to shake off the water, Anakin kept the other speeder in sight no matter what manoeuvres the Narzgh tried. A maelstrom of emotions simmered at the back of his mind, but he refused to let them out. He wasn't going to lose Padmè. It was a chant that he repeated over and over.
An airbus jammed with passengers lumbered into his path, he skimmed over it. Ahead, the Narzgh sent the speeder zooming between the support struts of two huge, neon lit skyads. Terror beat along with Anakin's heart. Padmè was unconscious and merely slumped over the speederbike's frame. If she fell, she would plummet many thousands of meters. The Narzgh joined a skylane, forcing a small single-person, canopied speeder off and into oncoming traffic. The driver had no time to take evasive action and collided with another, larger speeder. Both erupted into flames before going into an uncontrolled spin.
Coaxing every last drop of speed from his bike, Anakin zoomed through the flames and followed the Narzgh—who took the next exit at the last possible moment. Throwing his weight into the corner, Anakin followed at a reckless speed and managed to close some of the distance. Seconds apart, the two bikes shot out of the tunnel. He could see the Narzgh hunched over the controls with Padmè still draped over the front flight controls. Anakin's gut clenched at the precarious sight. He dropped down few meters, ready to go into a dive to catch her if she did fall.
It didn't come to that. The two bikes shot over the boundary of the Core and into the Outer Rim. Anakin recognised where they were—flying over the recycling plant where he'd lost the old man to the Narzgh at the end of his first battle with the demons. Panic started to strangle him when the Narzgh went into a steep, screaming dive, aiming for the deep, dark water accumulated there. He didn't need to be told that the Narzgh intended to take Padmé into the third world through it. He didn't think twice. Anakin dived after it. When the water closed over the Narzgh, Padmé and the bike, Anakin's followed at full speed.