Qui-Gon held up his hand, stopping his padawan in mid-stride. Obi-Wan glanced about with a creased brow.
With binocular precision, Qui-Gon's eyes peered into the crowd. There was a power nearby—raw and unruly. He had no sense of its origins, or its alignment, but it pulsed in his chest like the thrum of machinery.
"Do you not sense it?" he asked.
Obi-Wan shut his eyes, reaching into the mass of slavers and scoundrels wandering Mos Espa. It was faint at first. Its presence in the Unifying Force was weak compared to the Living Force, but the padawan finally found it.
"Yes. I feel it." His brow furrowed deeper. "But it's not Darth Maul. Something more powerful, but… far less disciplined."
"Perhaps one untrained in the ways of the Force."
"If that's true, we must find them," Obi-Wan said gravely. "There is a darkness about this aura."
Qui-Gon glowered. "I sense only innocence."
"You sense what you wish."
The master's eyes blackened like an ever-expanded shadow. It was not uncommon for Obi-Wan to forget his place. His confidence, forged in war, far exceeded his knowledge—and the problem grew more acute as Obi-Wan neared his twentieth birthday.
"You have much to learn of the Living Force," Qui-Gon said. "You would do well to trust my judgment."
Obi-Wan was neither meek, nor fiery. He said passively, "Perhaps we should focus—"
"Help! Help! Help!"
The Jedi whirled around at the scream of a frightened child. They sprang forth, fighting through the crowd toward the desperate voice. No bystanders acknowledged it—at least not with their eyes.
Obi-Wan shoved aside a drunken Rodian, revealing a blonde-haired boy cowering on the ground, his bowl-cut hair framing a cherub face. He raised his hands to shield himself.
A tall, grizzled man in faded black body armor loomed over the boy, aiming a blaster between his eyes. The man's hands didn't shake; he was in his right mind.
Qui-Gon's lightsaber flashed on and cut off the blaster barrell—nearly taking a limb from a passerby. The act barely registered with the black-armored man before Obi-Wan delivered a right cross that knocked him off his feet.
The armored man blinked, tasting blood at the corner of his mouth. His head bobbed as he regard his attackers. When he saw Qui-Gon' s face cast in green light, the man struggled to his feet and disappeared into the night.
The crowd, though it gave no sign of recognition, fanned out around the Jedi and the boy so that the three had air.
Qui-Gon clipped the lightsaber to his belt. He ignored Obi-Wan and looked down at the boy.
Covered in grime, with round full cheeks that concealed his malnutrition, the boy had a look of wild self-reliance that only an orphan could achieve. The danger gone, he lowered his hands and met Qui-Gon's gaze—holding it without any trepidation.
Though we profess a wider circle, there are very few people you believe are truly special. You can count them on a hand, or in your in mind. Qui-Gon felt a new purpose rising in him.
"Hello," he said warmly, bending down to offer a hand. "My name is Qui-Gon Jinn. I'm a Jedi Master."
Obi-Wan glanced between them. The boy looked like Qui-Gon grown backwards to the final stage of innocence. He watched the boy reach out and take his Master's hand, and watched his Master squeeze it.
Obi-Wan knew he wasn't a padawan anymore.
"How do you know my name?" Obi-Wan demanded.
"The Force has a way of filling in the blanks," Palmer said, an enigmatic smile forming. "But it doesn't know everything. So why don't you help me out—what brings you to the desert?"
Obi-Wan despaired at how he slithered from word to word. This wasn't the man who Windu had described. "I'm looking for an artifact," he said. "A book."
Palmer made a show of thinking, then nodded with a raised finger. "You know, come to think of it, I did have one of those. But I'm afraid I gave it away."
"To the Sith?"
"What if I did?"
"Then you're a traitor," Quinn gnarled.
"A traitor to what?" Palmer shot back. "I don't wear your robes, Master Jedi. Betrayal requires bonds that I severed long ago."
The old man's voice held the impatient conviction that he was better than the Order for having chosen another path, as if selfdom is virtuous regardless of its outcome.
"Surely your disillusionment with the Jedi could not blind you to the Sith's evil," Obi-Wan said.
"You think I care about your little war, one way or the other?"
"You should!" Julian growled. "The entire galaxy is at stake!"
Palmer shook his head mildly. "Spoken like a man who doesn't know his history," he said, looking at Obi-Wan. "You see, I know where we've been. I've read the books; I've studied the ruins."
He smeared some dust between his fingers. "Five thousand years ago: the Great Hyperspace War. The Sith struck out with evil intent, but they were driven back and killed." He wiped away the dust. "When Exar Kun slaughtered everything that moved, the Jedi Council thought they were living in the End Times."
"This is different," Obi-Wan said. "The Mercy Seat is – "
"An ancient weapon of unimaginable power. Don't you think that's what they said when Revan found the Star Forge?"
"Is there a point in our future?" Landon quipped.
Palmer smiled coldly. "Evil often wins, but it seldom conquers. Even after five thousand years." He looked at Obi-Wan. "So, yeah, my man: when a band of Sith Lords rolls up and asks, 'What's it gonna be—your life or this book?' I don't carry the galaxy on my back."
Quinn scowled. "You're a coward."
Palmer never seemed to blink, like he had brille instead of eyelids. "It's more shameful," he said easily, "to deny fear than it is to run from danger."
There was nothing to hold onto. Every word was in shadow. Obi-Wan stepped toward him, and with diminished patience said: "What else did you give them? Did you translate the book? Show them anything else?"
Palmer seemed to allow Obi-Wan a moment to study him. Then he smiled slightly, twisting around and crouching beside a crate. His gray jacket bunched on one side to reveal an old lightsaber.
When he turned back, he was holding a folded parchment.
"There's something I didn't show them," he said. "Something special. Something only meant for Obi-Wan Kenobi."
Obi-Wan was still. His face did not change. He glanced at the parchment, then at Julian. The doctor frowned and Obi-Wan didn't.
He looked back at Palmer.
"I'm afraid the negotiations have stalled," Mon Mothma said, hands folded on the desk in front of her. "The Sith keep funneling millions of credits of aid into the planetary government, while we offer nothing."
Padme smiled sympathetically. "I wish there was more we could do, but with the way the war's going, we have to focus our resources elsewhere."
"I understand. And truth be told, there's not much to do at this point. It won't be long now before the planet's annexed by the Sith."
"It's that dire?"
"The Sith have expanded their embassy by five square miles. They say it's to accommodate additional diplomats, but we've seen the transports—and the soldiers."
Miler glowered. "And we're just letting it happen? They'll control all the fuel in the sector. The entire outer rim will fall."
Mothma leaned back in her chair. Her worthless mandate was a weight around her shoulders.
"If there was something I could do," she said, "believe me that I would."
A rush of pity, unwanted by its target, filled Padme. There's no greater pain than the realization you aren't useful.
"There's still a way to win this war," Aayla reminded them, and she did her best to appear reassuring. "It's why we've come here, Ambassador."
Mothma sat up a little straighter. Her eyes were a little more open.
They didn't tell her the whole truth, but they told her enough.
Vader marched down the hallway toward the embassy command center. He had preparations to make. There were key generals whose support he required to complete his coup without damaging the Sith's infrastructure.
He didn't need their support, of course. But a long internal struggle would allow the Republic to regroup and delay Vader's plans. And he was not, by any standard, patient.
He swiveled back to find a low-ranking officer jogging toward him. The young man caught up breathlessly, pausing for a greedy gulp of air before reporting: "I have word from our agent in the Republic embassy."
There was a barely-restrained excitement about his person.
"Senator Padme Amidala signed the visitor log forty-five minutes ago. She and a small contingent are meeting with Ambassador Mothma."
Vader's back straightened. In his mind's eye, he saw Padme seated opposite the bureaucrat, looking too regal for her surroundings.
Despite Halm's importance, the Republic wouldn't send a senator to a remote outpost to negotiate a treaty. There was only one reason they would risk Padme's safety.
She was here to find Palmer and gain access to the dig site. And she would get what she wanted, as she always did. Soon, Republic researchers would claw at Halm's innards until they uncovered the secrets of the Architects.
Vader's rage, which sometimes receded but never disappeared, began to rise. While he believed he and his Horsemen could defeat whatever power the Mercy Seat possessed, he need never find out if he acted swiftly. He could crush right now the Jedi's last hope.
"Tell Commander Argyle to prepare his forces for immediate deployment."
"Which squadrons, my lord?"
Vader glanced out the near window at the wisps of sand blowing across the courtyard, and the town that lay beyond.
"All of them."
Palmer led them through the abandoned mine. They had no light but the thin beam from his palm beacon.
It was cold down here. The stench of death was strong. Countless miners had perished in these corridors.
When they were two miles deep, Obi-Wan asked skeptically: "How much further?"
Palmer made a show of examining his map. "Not far. There's a fork up ahead; we'll follow it right."
"How do we know you're not leading us into a trap?" Landon asked.
Palmer let out a low, breathy sound that may have been a laugh. No one could see his face. He angled the light so as to remain in shadow. "Trust me," he said.
Obi-Wan reached out through the Force in search of intelligence, but perceived no living beings. However, the Dark Side was deceptive, and this cavern had been touched by it.
"The air's getting stale," Julian remarked.
"That means we're close," Palmer assured him, before glancing at Obi-Wan. "I would've thought you could sense it by now, but you don't feel a thing, do you?" The young Jedi shook his head. "No matter. We'll be there soon enough."
Palmer had a sinewy strength that sometimes surprised people. With a soft grunt, he pulled back a jagged boulder and rolled it to one side, revealing the crawlspace leading into the chamber.
He entered first, then Obi-Wan and the others. They'd have been in total darkness but for Palmer's beacon, which he set on the ground. The rest of the group stumbled a little before finding their footing.
Before its recent rediscovery, the chamber had been vacuum-sealed for myriad millennia. There was enough air to breathe now, but it tasted foul. Julian wrinkled his nose.
"Someone wanna turn the lights on?" Landon quipped.
With a soft hiss, Palmer's lightsaber ignited. The purple edge lit his eerie smile.
He walked to the near wall. There was a deep groove in the rock face that circled the whole chamber, and it was filled with a kind of cloth. Palmer touched the cloth with the tip of his lightsaber.
Almost instantly, the cloth began to burn, a low flame spreading in both directions until it made a full ring around the chamber. There was enough fire and light now to make out everything. The ceiling was transformed into a map of the galaxy, and the other five walls told a story in writing and pictograms.
Julian smiled with boyish enthusiasm. The colors had faded, but that made it no less spectacular. He swept his eyes across the chamber, turning his body in a full circle.
"This is unbelievable," he marveled. "I've neither seen anything like it."
Obi-Wan picked up Palmer's beacon, using it for extra light as he scanned the rock face. He took a few steps so that he was at Quinn's side, and asked: "What do you make of it?"
"Just like the book. A little bit of Rakatan, a few other dead languages. The pictograms are consistent with Ancient Halmese, so at least some of this was done by the natives' ancestors."
Obi-Wan looked at Palmer. "And you? Can you read all this?"
The archaeologist chuckled beneath his breath. It was a dark, creepy sound. "That all you notice? Pictures and words?" He squinted his eyes and gestured around him. "You don't hear the sound—the echo of people?"
Julian frowned. "Are you talking about ghosts?"
"There's no such thing," Palmer said. "Not like you think. Past and present—future—they aren't serparate things. People invented time just to keep from hearing voices."
Obi-Wan tucked down the ends of his beard before shining the beacon on a new area of the wall. There was an image of two priests standing before an altar.
Julian cleared his throat, and said politely to Palmer: "For those of us who aren't…" He paused helplessly. "… in touch with the spirit world, why don't you just start there?" He gestured to the pictogram.
There was something about the doctor that reminded Palmer of his mother. That wasn't good or bad. It's just something you notice.
Palmer took a few steps to the middle of the chamber. He glanced all around, as if to refamiliarize himself, then began in an even voice.
"You go far enough forward and all of history is accused of being myth. If it wasn't written down in a way we're comfortable with, then maybe it didn't happen," he mused. "But I can tell you that the Architects were very real. They were the first true sentients in the galaxy. And five million years ago, they took their first flight to space."
Obi-Wan moved the beacon to a crude, disc-shaped craft.
"They wanted to explore—make contact," Palmer said. "But there was no one out there—at least no one worth talking to. Every race they encountered was in a primitive state. And so they were the first to ask the question: what's the point? Why are we here?"
"Asking myself that right now," Landon mumbled.
"Eventually they stopped wondering at their origin, and took creation upon themselves. They built cities covering planets; they made the hyperspace routes that we all use to this day. Every vestige of civilization is the result of their ingenuity."
Obi-Wan shifted the light to another area. Beneath some writing he couldn't decipher, there were drawings of many species—Iridonians, Killiks, Columi, Humans—crawling out of swamps toward a humanoid figure holding out shackles.
"But it wasn't enough to build things. Power is meaningless when there's no one to hold it over. So they went back to those other planets. And they left pieces of themselves—a foundation for intelligence."
Julian squinted at the drawing, and his brain tumbled inelegantly toward an answer he didn't like. "Are you saying that we—all of us, the whole galaxy—are an experiment? We didn't develop naturally?"
Palmer smiled devilishly. "You say that like it's a bad thing, Doctor. Aren't you glad to know your origin? All our ancestors came out of the same swamp."
"Out of the swamp—and into slavery," Quinn said.
Everyone's eyes fell on the humanoid holding shackles.
"Expansion requires sacrifice. And if you're smart enough and strong enough, the sacrifice is someone else's."
Obi-Wan dragged the light along a series of images depicting slave labor and city-building. "Their empire—how far did it reach?"
"It was limitless. The core worlds, the outer rim—even parts of the unknown regions. Wherever there was life, the Architects were known."
On one of the other walls, a brilliant limestone temple, surrounded by men in white and black cloaks, glittered under a sky with three suns. The men held long brown staffs punctuated at the top by glowing spheres. Could these have been the progenitor to the lightsaber?
"They knew the ways of the Force," Obi-Wan said.
"Some. Use of the Force was restricted to priests. Commoners and slaves were punished for its exercise."
Julian scowled. "These Architects sound pretty bloody backward. All that technology—all that influence—and not an ounce of conscience."
"Conscience is in the eye of the beholder," Palmer said. "You spray your house for insects, you call it fumigation. To the insects? It's a holocaust."
"That's a damn fine rationalization, but that's all it is."
Obi-Wan smiled softly and patted the doctor's shoulder. "Point taken." He looked at Palmer. "Their robes… black and white…"
"Disagreements developed. The 'Levolents' were the dominant priests for over a hundred thousand years. They used the Dark Side to drive the empire's expansion. Eventually, there was nothing else to conquer and the Levolents turned their attention to other realms—to controlling the incorporeal. That's when a new group emerged. They called themselves the 'Mercians.'"
In the next frame after the temple drawing, a pictogram showed two armies, one clad in black and the other white, facing each other on a grassy plain.
"A civil war," Obi-Wan surmised.
"The Mercians believed it was the Architects' duty to follow the will of the Force—the Light Side. They opposed imperialism, demanded freedom for the slaves. And eventually they won the Prime Minister to their argument." Palmer smiled, amused by it all. "The empire fell into chaos. Most of the planets stood with the Levolents. The war seemed hopeless for the Mercians, until the slaves rose up and evened the odds."
Julian's eyes raked over the war's depictions. His face narrowed and wore down to the sharpest depressions. "Bloody butchers," he murmured. "The whole lot of them."
Obi-Wan studied the wall closely, merging it in his mind's eye with Palmer's words to create the illusion of experience.
"Before," he said slowly, putting something together. "You mentioned 'other realms'—controlling the incorporeal. What did you mean by that?"
"The Levolents were masters of the Dark Side. And there was one man in particular, one whose name wasn't recorded, as if even in life he was a spirit not to summon—one Levolent who knew secrets we can't imagine."
"What secrets?" Obi-Wan demanded.
Palmer gave a breathy laugh. He was so cold, so deliberate and passionless. "The secrets. He got behind the curtain—saw the workings of existence. He took up creation and ending like an author's imagination."
Obi-Wan glanced down. He looked to one side, then lifted his chin.
"The Force. He became—not one with it, but parallel," Obi-Wan said, mouth opening and closing while his brain caught up. "He influenced the midichlorians to—to what? Create life? Steal it?"
"That's a start."
"What happened then? A coup? He took over the Empire?"
"Don't think so small," Palmer chided. "Why would a man sit down to fish if he had the power to drain the pond?"
He watched with interest the unfocused quality of Obi-Wan's eyes. There was such depth in the man. For most people, the brain does the lifting; for others, it's the heart. But Obi-Wan's activity was centered in the soul. Every thought, every feeling, was pumped out of it like well water.
"That's what you meant by incoporeal," Obi-Wan said, the idea taking shape. "The Levolents wanted to transcend their bodies. And this one—the Nameless One—he actually did it. He became timeless. He became a focal point of beginnings and endings, like the Force."
Palmer nodded approvingly.
"Someone wanna tell me what the hell all this has to do with a magic chair?" Landon groused.
Obi-Wan shined the light on a drawing of a white-robed man meditating—surrounded by smoky shapes that looked like unformed humans.
"The Mercians worshiped the Force," Palmer said. "They could accept the Dark Side; they could accept that justice, while constant, sometimes moves backwards. But they would never accept something that existed outside the Force."
"So they created the Mercy Seat," Quinn suggested, "as a means to oppose the Nameless One."
Julian furrowed his brow. "Okay—" He paused to shake his head. "That makes sense on… some level," he said hesitantly, "but how—what's its function? What does the Mercy Seat do?"
Obi-Wan looked at Palmer expectantly.
But the archaeologist only smiled. "When you know that, you'll know everything."
Julian sighed. His eyes tracked the beacon light as it glided up the near wall to the ceiling, which—filled with drawings of star systems—acted as a primitive planetarium.
"What's all of this?" the doctor asked.
"The Mercy Seat was constructed on a planet said to be a 'nexus' of the Force—a point of convergence," Palmer said. "It was a planet deep in the Unknown Regions, and almost impossible to get to. But a small group of Mercians managed to create a narrow hyperspace route through all the asteroids and debris."
Palmer gestured to another planet back in known space.
"When they returned home, they told no one what they'd done. There were rumors, of course. But those who knew the Mercy Seat's location took it to their graves. The hyperspace coordinates were written down only once: on a stone tablet hidden away in a Mercian sanctuary."
"What happened to it?" Quinn asked.
"During the war, the sanctuary came under siege and the Levolents found the tablet. There was a struggle, and the tablet cracked in two. The Levolents took one piece, while the Mercians escaped with the other."
Palmer gestured to a part of the ceiling too badly corroded to make anything out. "I can't tell you where the first piece ended up. The writing there—you can see it's damaged."
"What about the other piece?" Obi-Wan asked.
"The Mercians' piece ended up on an outer rim world. Today, we call the planet Mareth."
"Then that's where we start."
Julian blanched. "Mareth?" He narrowed and his eyes and repeated for emphasis: "Mareth? You can't be serious about going there—it's under quarantine."
"What are you talking about?" Landon demanded. "What quarantine?"
"Three years ago, there was a disease—a plague. It consumed the entire planet," Julian said. "The Republic set up an orbital defense system, so that any ships leaving are destroyed—and any incoming ships are blocked by a force field."
Obi-Wan took a long look at the drawing before switching off the beacon. He regarded the men calmly.
"We'll have to find a way through," he said. "There's no other choice."
"There's always a choice," Landon balked.
"I will not allow this galaxy to fall to the Sith," Obi-Wan said, raking a stern gaze over them. "We all know the stakes. We must find the Mercy Seat—and the road starts at Mareth."
He wasn't only the Negotiator for his ability to foster truces. Everyone was silent.
Landon scowled and glanced off.
"Do the Sith know about the tablet?" Obi-Wan asked Palmer.
"Not yet," the older man said. "But it's only a matter of time until they find this. They'll figure it out."
Obi-Wan scanned the rock for weak points. "What would it take to destroy this chamber?"
"Not much. Three—maybe four proton charges."
After a moment's pause, and with an uneasy sigh, Landon reached into his pouch and produced a stout metal cylinder. It was immediately recognized as a permacrete detonator. He held it out for the others' inspection. "Will this do?"
Palmer smiled slowly, laughing beneath his breath.
A thousand bodies blocked the horizon.
The Four Horseman fanned out ahead of the infantry, which marched in their wake in perfect synchronicity. The soldiers' rifles were drawn and rested in firm hands parallel their bodies. The glare from the fading sun washed out their faces. Their anonymity struck fear.
The locals peered cautiously out windows and from alleys, and a brave few stood in the open. There was complete stillness over everything. For years, Halm's people had enjoyed the comfort of perpetual negotiation; they'd worn as a cloth the sense of their own importance. That was all gone now.
Vader imbibed their fear, feeling a distinctly sexual pleasure. Perhaps in his psyche, some wires had gotten crossed, or perhaps intimacy is no more than belief in your own power. Whatever its source, he would kill to maintain it.
The Republic embassy waited in the distance.
Mothma's eyes snapped to the door as it was flung open; the lanky man burst in with wild eyes. His glasses were slanted down on one side. He shook with energy.
Mothma felt a dread growing. "What is it?"
"Outside! Something – " He shook his head as if to clear it. "Something's happening."
With a quick glance at the others, the Ambassador rose to follow him. Padme, Miler, and Aayla weren't far behind.
They jogged down a long hallway, which spat them into the lobby.
They looked out through the glass panels into a sea of black and gray. The faces were indistinct, but Aayla needed not see them to know Vader was at the helm. Even Padme, untethered from the Force, seemed to know his identity. They stood transfixed; the entire war came flashing before their eyes.
Miler circled around to block their lines of sight.
"We have t'go!" he said quickly, directing it at Mothma. "Is there another way out? An evacuation route?"
She blinked a few times, like she were learning his language, before nodding dumbly. "Y-yes. Yes. There's an underground exit."
"There's a false floor panel in the staff quarters," the lanky man said. "It'll take us down through a tunnel to a landing pad."
"What about the others?" Padme asked.
"We can't help 'em if we're dead," Miler snapped. He grabbed the lanky man roughly and spun him toward the hallway, shoving him ahead. "Go!"
With one last glance at Vader's army, a hundred feet from the gate, the lanky man led the group away. Half-running, half-walking, they fell into an awkward rhythm.
Padme's thoughts were with Obi-Wan. For all she knew, he lay dead in the desert. But now wasn't the time. She shook off the reverie and hustled forward.
"This way!" The lanky man rounded a corner.
Miler, about to follow, stopped abruptly as the lanky man was thrown from out of sight back into view. Miler moved to help him, then froze as three men bearing rifles stepped around the corner.
The men wore embassy uniforms. They gestured with their guns for Miler to step back. After a moment's hesitation, he obliged. The lanky man writhed on the floor, holding his chin where the heel of a blaster struck it.
A fiery veil fell over Mothma. This was her security team.
"Hello, Ambassador," the lead man said, gray-blue eyes appraising her companions. "I'm afraid I can't let you leave."
Aayla glanced at Miler, as her hand edged toward her lightsaber. The soldier held her eyes, before shaking his head slightly. Aayla let her hand drop.
With the flick of a wrist, Vader forced open the huge iron gates leading to the embassy. The gates snapped to the sides, testing the hinges with a loud whine before rocking to a stop.
Demic led a contingent of men to secure the perimeter, while Wrath and Malice and two dozen soldiers trailedup the steps. Vader's cape waved as a hot wind blew through, scattering dust over the three Sith.
Vader could feel his men's anticipation; they had a childlike impatience to carry out violence. Of his three Horsemen, Demic was the thinker. The others required attention.
"They're to be taken alive until I say otherwise," Vader decreed, wiping Padme from his mind as Wrath and Malice nodded. "Be on your guard. I sense Jedi within."
At the top of the steps, Vader thrust his hand forward. With a single thought, he shattered the glass doors leading in. And then stepping through the opening, his Horsemen behind him, Vader came face to face with the Republic contingent.
Mon Mothma, held at gunpoint by her guards, received him defiantly—back rigid, face placid. But this only drew a wicked smile. Vader had always—in his own mind, at least—appreciated strong women.
Miler and Aayla withheld nothing in their postures; they were tightly coiled, barely restrained. Vader met their eyes casually, a smirk forming.
It fell, like it were struck from his face, when Padme stepped into view. In the ugly sunlight from outside, her skin, a porcelain color, seemed to sparkle, and her chocolate eyes were framed perfectly by the curled hair falling on either side of her. Her glossy lips seemed to float through the air.
His eyes were yellow, then blue, then yellow again.
Padme met his gaze. His mouth twisted down sharply on one side, and he remained exactly as he was, perfectly balanced. In a moment he was inside of her.
Padme would never get used to Coruscant's coldness. The cityscape was like a dark intruder; it got into everything, left you breathless. It was nothing like Naboo.
Today's Senate hearing was a miserable reminder of government's intransigence. The Yellow Party and Blue Party, and the constituents they represented, were so polarized that every debate devolved into personal insults and ultimatums—and every floor vote was futile in light of the filibuster.
There were times a part of her wondered if democracy was even plausible. There was, after all, a reason the Sith were winning the war. But as quickly as the thought came, her shame would vaporize it.
Padme climbed the steps to her apartment. All she wanted now was a warm bath and eight hours of sleep. They were the only comforts a life of service regularly permitted her.
At the front door, she keyed in her entry code, sighing contentedly as the door opened to admit her into the foyer.
She set her bag and jacket down, then made her way to the living room. She pulled the pins out of her hair, so that its knots unwound and it cascaded down her shoulders. Already, she could feel the day begin to fade.
The computer obliged, and bulbs across the room came to life.
Padme shrieked, jumping back as her eyes fell on a fourteen year-old Anakin Skywalker waiting patiently on her couch, hands folded in his lap. He looked utterly unashamed.
"Anakin! What—" Her heart fluttered. "How did you get in here?"
He smirked in an unchildlike way. "I'm a Jedi, Padme."
The lamplight filled his eyes. They were blank of the thing that brought him. That was new to her; from the day they met, she'd read him easily; he was a bundle of nerves and sentiments straining against his skin. But now, seated in her living room, he was as empty as a droid.
"Jedi or not, it isn't right to break into someone's home," she said sternly.
Anakin regarded her perfect lips, twisted into a frown that reduced him to the least importance. He lifted his chin.
"I just wanted to see you," the boy said, making a sour face. "You're never around. I've been waiting to see you for weeks. I've gone by the Senate, but they say you're busy. Left you notes and no answer."
Padme's eyebrows forced a line in her forehead. She fell back on a practiced condescension she usually used on politicians. "I'm sorry you feel ignored, Anakin, but I'm very busy. War has its requirements. Perhaps when it's resolved, we can spend some time together. We could go with Master Obi-Wan to – "
Anakin scowled. "I don't want to talk about Obi-Wan. That's all I ever talk about. No one talks about me." The anger somehow gave momentum to his original purpose. He pulled a shiny silver locket from inside his tunic. A heart shaped-pendant dangled from a short chain that could likely wouldn't fit a grown woman's neck. "I bought this for you," he said in frustration. "I saved a week of meal stipends. And I bought you this."
Padme blanched as the boy opened the locket to reveal their portraits—one on each half. Hers was from a gala for visiting dignitaries. His was a posed image against an artificial backdrop. There was an unnerving intimacy about their pictures almost touching.
Her mouth opened and closed. She was conscious of her womanhood.
"Anakin…" His eyes bore into her. "That's—that's very sweet of you," she said nervously. "You didn't have to do this."
"I wanted to."
He held out the locket for her, but she stepped back to avoid it. At his puzzled expression, she said: "It's so nice of you, Anakin—it's beautiful—but I can't accept it."
The boy's eyes flooded with something dark. He made a fist with his free hand. His breath came short.
"I spent everything I had on it."
"I know. And it was very thoughtful, but—"
"I spent everything I had," he repeated in a high rasping voice. "I do something nice for you and you—you walk all over it. Just like you always have! I'd walk through fire for you, Padme, and you can't even return a message!"
His voice grew more shrill and childlike, but his eyes more dangerous. They had a light yellow hue and none of a Jedi's patience. She felt a chill run up her spine. Her neck-hair stood up.
"Anakin," she said, harshly enunciating, "I think it's time for you to leave."
His fist clenched, his expression trancelike. He was newly conscious of all he'd been denied in life. He knocked over a lamp across the room without even realizing.
Padme gave him a wide berth, but regarded him severely.
"Now," she demanded.
Anakin burned with a common feckless anger, out of all proportion to its cause, and he judged that what he perceived as her unreason was the consequence of her being inseparably joined to the man who was ruining his life.
With one final look, full of longing, Anakin stalked to the door and left.
But as he walked home through the manic city, teeming with rights and wrongs, Anakin knew that he would have what belonged to him. Her rejection was naïve. The power was his. He was a Jedi—the Chosen One—and she was part of his domain, the same as his lightsaber.
Vader smiled darkly.