(1) Huge thanks to my betas YellowDart and NikeJ for all of their excellent help—much appreciated.
(2)I have to give a big shout-out to Wookiepedia for the excellent source of facts about the Star Wars verse. I've used it lots, so it deserves a mention.
(3)Also, I've drafted in an old friend from another fandom to act as an extra in the next chapter (three)—you'll probably know who I mean when you come across him—there is no infringement intended, it's just fanfic etc etc *g*.
"He's gone too far this time."
Padmé Amidala strode down the grand corridor of Roth's palatial palace. Wall friezes showing spirits moving joyously up to the first-world lined both sides. Behind them, the premier's officials were exiting the audience chamber, splitting off to resume their duties. Surrounded by the usual bowing sycophants, Lyonides himself was getting ready to board his shuttle, embarking on yet another 'trade' negotiation with the Geonosians of Lona Naxivio for more droids.
She was furious and her thoughts were an angry whirl. Things were just as bad here as on the other side—the social elite were pampered and protected while the common people suffered. It was indefensible, barbaric. All in a good days work for Lyonides, she thought savagely.
With every step, her fists became as tightly clenched as her jaw. She cast one of her escorts a hard, glittering look. "This totalitarian state has to end, Saber. You know that as well as I do. There is no discussion, no debate. Only his rule."
Short, balding and nervous, Saber Throm glanced nervously around, hissing, "Councillor Amidala, please! You must start practicing discretion."
"I tried that before and it doesn't work," she dismissed, softening it with a smile. "Lyonides knows how I feel, anyway—"
"Of course he does, because you never try to hide it." Throm had to mop the sweat from his brow and his hand shook. "He's indulged you on many occasions…"
Padmé halted so abruptly that her voluminous skirts bristled. Now it was her turn to interrupt. "Indulged me! All I've done is petition him for the barest levels of comfort for the ordinary people—for the newcomers. The dead come here mourning for the living just as much as the living do for the dead. The world as they know it—their very lives have ended. They're lost and terrified. They need our support." She flung out her hands, furious, "And, all Lyonides cares about is automating everything and amassing an army." Agitated, she started walking again. "He can pontificate all he likes in public, everyone knows he doesn't care about anyone but himself. He's trading souls for a set of blasters on legs."
"Personally, I think he's baiting you." Councillor Oboné was a big-boned, ebony-skinned woman with a deep, resonant voice. "He can't really mean to trade all of our surplus minerals for those ghastly battle droids—there would be even more riots."
"Politically, it's a tricky issue," agreed Throm. "The people know we need better defences and Lyonides has a fair few convinced that droids would be more effective than troops in fighting off Narzgh raids. Then there's the golden promise of increased output from the mines, thus allowing him to finally purchase the extra energy cells we need to extend the barrier."
"False promises, all of it," said Padmé. "We know too well that blasters have a limited effect, and he could have bought the cells already if he was really planning to. In the meantime, people in the outer rim are little more than bait—and they know it. It's why they riot."
"To some people, the cost of losing a percentage of the population to achieve greater security is acceptable," pointed out Oboné.
Knowing it was true, Padmé grimaced. "Only so long as it is not they who are living beyond the rain shield, of course."
"Of course." Oboné smiled.
Four tiny housekeeping droids zoomed up and passed their feet, chittering and squawking. It broke the tight tableau.
"Come," said Throm, his bald pate shining anew. "Let us not linger. Lyonides' spies are everywhere, particularly in the palace."
They turned for the Thousand Year steps, famous throughout the city for the monolithic stone statue of a female figure, raising her arms to break the chains that bound her. Just another useless platitude in place of true freedom. "So, you think he means to discredit me for opposing the plan?" Padmé prompted Oboné. The same thought had occurred to her.
"Many will take his insinuations more seriously if they feel that you are not taking their dearest concerns to heart." Oboné's huge shoulders, swathed in white robes, lifted in a shrug. "It is hardly surprising that Lyonides wants your reputation tarnished; you are just as much a thorn in his side as you were in his fathers before him."
With concern written all over his face, Throm took it further in reminding her, "He tried to have you assassinated if you recall. He's serious in his intentions of ridding himself of you."
"Maybe, but we don't know for certain that it was Lyonides." Smiling and patting his arm, Padmé shook her head. "And, I've been targeted by assassins before so this is nothing new. Our illustrious Premier is adept at putting on a façade, but I've learned how to see past that. He's not giving off any signals that concern me, other than his usual selfish posturing and lies, that is."
"We might not know it was him," argued Throm, sombre, afraid but loyal, "But he has influence with the more prominent citizens, and convinced them of the need to crack down the on the darker elements of the outer rim. Never forget that he has many friends and advocates, and is unparalleled at keeping his own counsel. He certainly did when he assisted his father to an early second demise. I tell you, if it wasn't for your fearsome Wookiee friend here, I wouldn't sleep at night."
At his statement, there was a roar of approval from behind Padmé's right shoulder. Turning her head, she forced a smile at the towering Wookiee who'd adopted her—or rather they'd adopted each other, "Thank you, Freyrr."
They stepped out from the shade of the palace into sunshine. Soft and golden light bathed the extensive, ornamental palace gardens ahead of them and, over the encircling balcony, you could see the commerce and finance district, sitting twelve storey's below. Here and there, spirals of black smoke still rose; stark evidence of the recent, desperate demonstrations that had ended in bloody riots only hours before. Twelve hundred dead and many more wounded. The nearest medical centres were on full alert, and so were the enforcement teams. The blast shields ringing the inner core of the city were down, preventing passage from the beleaguered outer rim—containing the fear and suffering in the very place that engendered it.
She wanted to do so much more, but had to content herself with taking the fight to the top.
Turning back to Throm and Oboné her smile faded. "Don't worry about me, Throm. I've learned to take care of myself." Her gaze switched to the far-distant forest spreading out beyond the decrepit outermost edges of the city, vast and primal. "Worry about what is going to happen now that the rainy season is approaching and half the city is once again left unprotected."
Understanding, Councillor Oboné laid a hand on Padmé's shoulder. "We have another appointment with the Premier the day after tomorrow; maybe he will have more time to listen then."
"He'd better. If possible, he's worse than his father. I can't decide if he's merely utterly corrupt and self-seeking or genuinely evil." Padmé knew she sounded grim. She had a bad feeling about the future and, no matter what she tried, she couldn't shake it. The suspicion hovered at the edge of her mind that something awful was about to happen, but when she tried to pin the nebulous feeling down, it just grew less substantial.
Please let me be wrong about this. Please. I've seen enough torment and hopelessness, felt it. I can't stand any more. It has to end.
Junga Roth wasn't all that different from other cities Anakin had been to in his life, but it was certainly no Coruscant. Jutting up into the sky were the usual cloud-scraping towers and spires that made the ground level superfluous to all but the street vermin. In her usual blunt style, Tenku had given him the low-down as they approached. The city was laid out in circular districts, with the privileged living atop commercial and city administration centres, conveniently close to core services and occupying the heavily protected centre. Everything else ringed it. The remaining five million inhabitants were spread in circles of ever decreasing wealth with the poorest and least 'productive' citizens living nearest the edges. Newcomers occupied the outer rim—fresh fodder for the Narzgh. If you lived long enough to save some money and bribe your way into a 'core' occupation, then you could move deeper into the city.
They entered through a thick, studded metal gate built into the perimeter wall of the city. The wall itself was several standard feet thick and supported by thick buttresses. It was pandemonium on the other side. Pedestrian and speeder traffic was heavy and virtually unmanaged, choking the converging street from all angles. The noise was incredible, and the atmosphere rank with a dull panic as the sun began to drop. Worker droids similar to the PK's Anakin had seen in life were scurrying around spreading what looked like sand. Nobody paid them any attention, including the band of armoured guards preparing to shut the massive gates. Directly on the left was a long, squat, bland and windowless building that he was told served as both processing centre and temporary shelter for the newly dead. Tenku left him there and disappeared back into the crowds thronging the streets.
The first, fat drops of rain splattered the gritty street as Anakin walked inside. His footsteps echoed on the bare stone floor of the long, artificially lit anteroom. At the end stood a blue humanoid-shaped droid holding a datalink, ostensibly barring the door at the end. As Anakin approached, the droid looked him up and down.
If it could have scowled, it would have done so. "What are you doing in here? You're not allowed to use this entrance. This is for the registration of new citizens only."
Great, a snotty droid with delusions of authority, he thought and halted in front of it. "I am new. I've just come in from the outside. I was told I had to come here."
"But…" it looked him up and down again, confused, "…you're wearing clothes."
"A habit of mine," he replied dryly.
"Did you steal them?" the droid asked, its electronic voice sounding scandalised, "Stealing is a crime punishable by overnight banishment, you know?"
"I didn't steal them. I was given them." Deliberately, Anakin took a step closer, his expression cold and with the lightsaber hidden under the tunic. "Why don't you just tell me where I'm supposed to go and save us both more unnecessary aggravation?"
Getting the message, the droid hurriedly gestured to the doors behind it. "Through there. Join a queue."
The twin doors slid back automatically at his approach and Anakin did a double-take at what he saw on the other side. Ten dozen processing consoles manned by more droids were ranged on the far left of a cavernous, soulless hall. Snaking out from them were long queues of naked, shivering sentients—mostly human. There were thousands of them and ranged in age from late teens to centennials. Under the harsh glare of phosphorescent panels built into the low ceiling, many of them were weeping and close to hysterical, while others stood glassy-eyed and vacant. Standing apart as he was, they appeared so cowering, weak and helpless that Anakin wondered for a moment how humanity had managed to attain such a powerful hold over the galaxy. Stripped to the skin, they were nothing.
It embarrassed him to be the same species.
The savagely derisive thought, and accompanying feeling of arrogant superiority, chilled him to the bone; proof that the Sith he'd been still lived. He felt a quick, vicious twist of guilt and self-abhorrence. Where was compassion now? Granted, this may be a grotesque production line of flawed beings, but he was the most flawed of all, he told himself grimly. With more patience than he would have managed without the guilt, he joined the nearest line, smiled at the starkly terrified man in front of him, and waited to reach the front.
When it was his turn, the droid didn't even look up. "Name?"
He'd expected the question and considered lying. He didn't, because he could foresee a time when such a lie would be exposed. "Anakin Skywalker."
Pointing to the square, black screen tilted towards Anakin, the droid instructed, "Place your hand firmly on the palm reader, please. Press hard and keep it there while the scanning takes place."
He did as he was told, spreading his fingers to match the etched diagram on the reader. A green light flashed across the dull, smudged plasto under his palm. His prints would now be on record, he thought. Would Padmé find out about his arrival through this one act? Would she hide? Seek him out, or expose him as the murderer of thousands?
The droid interrupted his bleak musings. "Very good. Date of birth and home planet prior to death."
"41.9 BBY. Home planet Coruscant."
"Age is 45 then." The droid finally looked up, and paused. "You appear young for your age, human Skywalker. I should warn you that it is in direct violation of city code to lie during processing."
He definitely didn't like these droids. Anakin enjoyed the fantasy of using one good force-shove to send this pile of metal and chips into the wall behind it, turning it into scrap. "In that case, it's a good thing that I'm not lying, isn't it? Just consider me well-preserved," he said.
The blue head tilted, silently considering him further, "You're also wearing clothes."
Impatience simmered hotter, he banked it. "A point on which I've already explained myself to your friend at the door. I met someone on the way here, and she gave me the clothes. I thanked her and we parted ways. It's as simple as that."
It was also more or less the truth.
A few more beats passed before the droid finally dropped its electronic gaze, saying, "You are more fortunate than most."
"I'm getting that picture." Others were being herded past him clutching stained, musk-smelling rags that made his own thin, scratchy clothing look like shimmer-silk in comparison.
"Regardless of your luck, I am programmed to give you your allotted covering." Grimacing, Anakin had no choice but to take the meagre pile, consisting of grey tunic and pants. The droid wasn't finished. "Your number is 3ABYC265675901. Do not forget it, or you will not be able to claim the rest of the benefits allocated to new arrivals. Temporary accommodation is available for a maximum of ten standard days. Do you require accommodation?"
After confirming that he did, Anakin was directed to a bank of elevators through another set of grey sliding doors. As he walked towards them, he heard a recorded message played over the intercoms. The voice was huskily female and designed to be soothing; it might have worked if it wasn't looped to run continuously. 'Welcome to Junga Roth. Newcomers are advised that ALL reflective surfaces are prohibited. Water is to be kept in opaque containers only. Remember, spills must be dealt with INSTANTLY and reported to the nearest housekeeping droid. Quator sand is kept in easy-to-use automatic chutes on every floor of the accommodation block. Welcome to Junga Roth. Newcomers are advised…'
He wondered about a city paranoid about water being set right in the middle of a rainforest.
(Three weeks later)
Pilas Lyonides didn't hold the title of king. He didn't need to. At less than 1.7 metres tall and a stingy one-hundred and thirty pounds, he was a small and trim man with a neat head of greying black hair. He wore rich, finely decorated tunics and fine-tooled leather boots that belied his beginnings on the smuggling haven that was the planet Socorro on the outer rim of the galaxy. He'd died only moments after his father, Petris Lyonides, and followed him to the second world. Ruthless by nature, cunning by necessity, and with a survival instinct that rivalled any in the galaxy, the Lyonides family had scrabbled their way to the top and stayed there for over a century. He'd seen this city burn, its people ravaged to the last thousand, and was more than resigned to the fact that it would likely happen again. Personally, he had no intention of dying again because he knew he'd be going straight down.
Not today. Not ever.
Now, he stood surrounded by those equally greedy for power, and they feared him: except for one irritating exception. He turned to her now. "I lived for forty-four years; and I've been dead for one-hundred and fifty more. I think I've got a few years on you, Councillor. I know what my people need. So, why do you persist in preaching at me?"
In anyone else, the last soft-voiced question would have raised a bone-deep chill. Ministers and aides seated in the five-tiered, encircling benches exchanged glances, shifting uncomfortably as yet another confrontation arose between their volatile leader and the contentious Councillor Amidala. With his hands behind his back, Lyonides kept pacing, prowling around the outer edges of the floor. He rarely, if ever, sat down, not even to eat.
Padmé kept her countenance calm. "I'll save my preaching and get to the point then. We don't need more droids. What we do need is more energy cells so that the barrier can be extended to cover the whole city. It is the only, and the best, way to protect all of our people."
It was a risky move. Lyonides hated to be challenged directly, considering it an attack and reacting accordingly. If there were murmurs of agreement from any of the other sixty people present, they were too scared to make them audible. The atmosphere tightened as the entire chamber held its collective breath.
The explosion didn't come.
Rather than answer her himself, Lyonides glared expressively at his security minister, prompting the man to respond. Guil Natar got to his feet. "Really, what good will extending the barrier really do, Councillor Amidala? We can hardly cover the entire forest and they would only attack our outer perimeters harder, and push deeper if they…." He petered off, raising his hands in a telling gesture, leaving the rest of his statement hanging.
"If they don't get easy pickings from the outer rim of the city," Padmé finished for him regardless, her expression twisted with distaste. She kept her seat, barely. "You truly disgust me, Nater."
Standing between them with his booted feet spread on grey-veined marble, Lyonides snorted, cold blue eyes alive with amusement at the seething anger arcing between his lackey and his nemesis. "Natar is head of security for the city, my dear. Tough decisions have to be made." He inclined his head mockingly at Padmé, pointing out, "You're supposed to despise him, or he isn't doing his job?"
"In that case he's doing an excellent job—in that, if nothing else."
"I agree with Councillor Amidala," announced Oboné, shifting forward to enter the debate.
This time the audience chamber came alive with mutterings. Lyonides overrode it all with a hard smile. "I'd be more surprised if you didn't—the same for you Throm. As it happens, you can all hold your tongues as I've already sent the shipment to the Geonosians. The deal is struck and can't be broken." He glanced questioningly at a gangling, grey-skinned Muun swathed in the traditional black shawl of his people. "In fact, I'm expecting the ship to be back…when exactly?"
"Later this evening, my lord," said Bac Gon, amending it to add, "If all goes well, of course. The Geonosians are hardly trustworthy."
"Have you ever flown a Lemidian before?"
The voice was deep and gravelly and suited the owner's short, barrel-chested frame. Acting as co-pilot, Anakin glanced over at him. "It's not that different from the early Corellian YG freighters. I'll manage."
The pilot, Sal Trent, didn't look reassured. Black eyes squinted suspiciously in a severely pock-marked face. "We'll be picking up a lot of expensive cargo at Lona, and I don't plan on doing all the flying, so I hope you'll do better than manage, kid."
That earned Sal a longer, icier look. "I'm not a kid."
"Whatever. So long as we deliver our cargo and pick-up Lyonides' droids without a hitch, I don't give a crap." Sal got on with flipping switches, checked the resulting readouts while the ships' engines warmed up. Under his breath, he muttered, "Forty five my ass."
Anakin let it go. He was learning to let a lot of things go. Some things were easier than others. Lack of sleep didn't help. His sleeping hours were plagued by nightmares—a mish-mash of memories that burned right through to his soul. As Vader he'd learned not to dwell, to forget the past and live purely in the present, rarely feeling guilt or remorse and concentrating solely on an objective. Now, he had no discernible objective, and he was powerless not to dwell. It was as if Vader's mask had kept it all at bay, and with it gone he was helpless to prevent the overdue tide. The solace of meditation was also being frustratingly elusive. The forest on the other side of the perimeter wall bothered him. It was primordial and the sheer mass of living matter condensed the Force incredibly, battering his mind with its power every time he attempted to meditate.
He blamed it on having a fully organic body again after spending so long as only half a man. He'd had no idea how much of his power he'd lost on Mustafar; until now when it coursed remorselessly through him. It was a blast of noise instead of a controlled whisper—disorientingly powerful.
Then there was Padmé.
She was in the city; he could feel her. The certainty of it was a tremor in his heart.
"Did you say something?"
Jerked out of his thoughts, Anakin frowned. "What?"
"I asked you if you said something. I thought you did."
Had he said something? "I didn't say anything," he denied flatly. "You're imagining things."
Those black eyes seemed to bore right into his head. Keen intelligence and a bad attitude made for a strange combination in this man. "Whatever you say, kid. By the way, we're almost there." A mirthless smile curved Sal's lips. "It's nice to have some company for a change. You can't get better than stimulating conversation to pass the time, huh?"
Anakin ignored the sarcasm. "We're there…already?"
"Well, I guess you weren't bored. I'll have to learn to zone out like that." Sal gestured at the ship-wide cockpit viewport. "Look your fill; Lona Noxivio in all its repellently noxious, bug-like glory."
Below them, the crater of a volcano grew wider and deeper. The hives inside it were already visible. "I hope that thing's still active," said Anakin, earning a chuckle from the other pilot.
"You and me both, only not while we're in there. Come on. Let's get this 'trade mission' over and done with."
The Limidian lowered into the crater and then aimed for a deep fissure in the volcanic rock. The fissure turned out to be a hidden docking hanger. Landing and turning off the sub-light engines, Sal released the hatch, and together they walked down the ramp. Without the benefit of the freighter's air conditioning, the stench of sulphur was eye-wateringly strong. Stepping off the ramp onto smooth and hewn rock, Anakin saw with no surprise that the set-up was strongly reminiscent of the Geonosian home planet. The hanger went deep into the rock with numerous tunnels leading off. Wingless warriors carrying pike staffs and sonic blasters patrolled the tunnels and the hanger bay. Several of the worker-caste were working on the various ships docked inside. It occurred to Anakin to wonder if Poggle the Lesser was here—the Archduke and separatist leader whom he'd executed on Palpatine's order.
Wouldn't that be interesting?
"Pay attention and no sight-seeing," instructed Sal, low-voiced. "We've got a job to do, and I want it done fast so that we can get out of here."
Anakin had no inclination to argue. "I'm all for that."
They headed for the nearby stack of sealed metal containers. Anakin estimated there were about a hundred, and each was twice his height. In front of them stood a Geonosian delegation, complete with a protocol droid painted a dull, rusty red. As Sal and Anakin approached, the Geonosian in front started making the usual unintelligible clicking noises that constituted their language.
The droid translated and likely ad-libbed to make the greeting pleasant, "Good morning, pilots of Junga Roth. We hope that you had a swift and uneventful journey?"
"It was fine," said Sal, faking a smile and making his scarred face twice as unattractive. He nodded at the containers. "I've got your mineral, are those my droids?"
The protocol droid seemed shocked by his shortness, then resigned, "Oh…well, yes, certainly."
"Good. Let's swap." His meagre store of civility already depleted, Sal turned on his heel and went back to the Limidian. There was a recessed control panel built next to the exterior cargo hatch. When the lever was pulled another hatch opened, releasing a smaller and more robust ramp—perfect for loader droids on durasteel rollers.
Less than one standard hour later, the unloading was complete and the loading very nearly so. Everything seemed to be going well. Standing watch, Anakin couldn't shake a nagging feeling of looming danger. The awareness of it quivered up his spine to sit uneasily on his brain. Irritation bloomed when he couldn't pin it down no matter how deeply he searched for the source.
The protocol droid came over with an offer of refreshment before take-off. Curtly declining, he waved it away. He watched it walk stiffly back to the Geonosians and pass on his refusal. They didn't seem perturbed.
Something was definitely off.
Finally, the last container was being loaded onto the Limidian. Sal followed it in to make sure everything was secure. At the same moment another container came trundling out onto the hanger bay floor directly opposite their ship. The prickles of alarm escalated, raising the hair on the back of Anakin's neck. Standing between the container and the Limidian and using the Force, he zeroed in, scanning it. Certainty followed. He knew he'd found the source of the danger.
It was a front-loading container about two meters in height. Raising his right hand, he gave a sharp twist in mid-air. Still twenty metres away from him the slide-front of the container ripped up so fast the metal gave a protesting screech, startling everyone.
Inside stood half a dozen armoured humanoids bearing heavy blaster carbines.