Chapter 24. The Gate
"Please stop sniffling, Mouse," Padme asked, more sharply than she had intended. "This gown won't fasten itself."
Rhea was trying, she really was. But when it came to dealing with fussy formal garments quickly and efficiently, Eirtaé had no match.
"Where is Eirtaé, anyway?"
"I'm so sorry, My Lady." More sniffles. "She asked me to help you dress. I don't know where she went."
Padmé turned away from the sight of Rhea's blotchy face and looked longingly at her comfortable Tatooine clothing, which lay crumpled on the floor. The shadier the business, the more proper one's presentation had to be. It wouldn't do to appear before Nute Gunray in anything less than Senatorial splendor.
Somewhere far away in the back of the Veritas a loud, rhythmic thumping had been going on for some time. Padmé didn't know what it was, but she wished it would stop. And she wondered where Eirtaé was. It was time to go, and there were still matters to be dealt with.
"Here, let me do this." Padme snatched back her sleeve, where Rhea had been fumbling with fasteners. "You run and find Eirtaé for me. And I need Artoo."
"The…. the droid?"
"Yes, the droid! This instant! Go!"
Rhea fled. Moments later, the astromech trundled into the small cabin, whistling. The faraway banging continued.
Padme frowned at the droid, then glanced at the door. Still no Eirtaé. No witness, then. Very well. Closing the door and locking it, she turned back to the droid. "Record this message, please, Artoo. Top security encryption. Sole and exclusive recipient, the Queen of the Naboo. Delivery parameter, the event of my death."
She paused for a long moment, collecting her thoughts.
"If you receive this message, Your Highness, I am dead and Galactic War has surely begun…" Padmé proceeded to set out for her Queen all that she knew about the people and the events in which she was now enmeshed. For much of the information provided she had to cite Anakin Skywalker as the source, but added a final request (on Naboo, final requests were treated as sacred) that the young man from Tatooine remain safely anonymous to all but the Queen. In closing, Padme asked for special favors for her personal staff that would secure their futures for all time.
"End of message, Artoo."
The droid whistled in acknowledgement, holographic beam switched off.
The moment of silence that followed was perhaps the most desolate of Padmé's life. She had to leave now. No coming back, probably. Not ever.
Move! She ordered herself, and yet she lingered.
One more thing.
"Artoo, there is another message. The second is for Anakin Skywalker. Same encryption. Same delivery parameter." She straightened her shoulders and consciously smoothed her features. The second message was harder to begin. Before the beam switched on again, Padme had to quickly dab away a rebellious trickle of moisture that threatened her court-perfect makeup.
"Anakin, if you are alive and receiving this message, it means that I have failed in my mission to stop the destruction of Tatooine and that Galactic war has begun. I am so sorry… I'm sorry…." Padme struggled to get hold of herself. "Despite your great personal losses, I beg you to consider the fate of innocent people everywhere when you decide what to do next. You are an extraordinarily gifted man, and not, I think, destined for a small life nor small deeds. If you could find it in your heart to take up my fight for peace and justice, for compassion and equality throughout the Galaxy, my death would be a hopeful beginning rather than a meaningless end. Help them, Anakin. Please fight on the side of all those who have no champion of their own. You are my only hope."
Padme swayed a little. "As for me, all I can say is thank you. You helped me to find my way again when I was lost. I had forgotten my life's true purpose. I had become afraid. With you, I remembered. With you, I found my courage. I only wish …"
"My Lady!" A voice shouted in the corridor outside.
"My Lady! We must go this instant!"
When the cabin door swung open, the holobeam was gone and Padmé stood next to the droid looking calm and splendid.
"Of course, Captain Typho. I am ready."
She swept past him into the corridor, the R-2 unit close at her heels.
In the narrow confines of Dooku's golden sailship, Anakin's shoulder was practically brushing Dooku's, but he could not have been further away. After agreeing to join Dooku he had not asked a single question, but had withdrawn to a place so far inside of himself that the distance between them felt like the span of a galaxy. The boy still had sand in his hair. Wrapped in his rough cloak, he sat with his face turned away from Dooku. Perhaps he was staring out at the stars, perhaps at nothing; even the Force offered few clues to his state of mind. There was anger, of course, which Dooku had anticipated, even counted on. But the anger that pulsed from Anakin was not the hot, easily exploitable anger of fiery youth. Anakin's anger was cold. Quiet. Controlled. It was the anger of a Sith – the deep source of Sith power.
The trouble was, it was not something that Dooku had taught him.
It was also something that discouraged conversation. They flew on in silence, even as the giant forms of starships began to fill the viewscreen. Anakin's gaze shifted from one to the next while the tiny sailship passed among the great vessels like a speck of dust among mountains. When at last they reached the Serena and the docking data appeared on the navicomputer, Anakin studied that also. When the sailship whispered to a halt in the Serena's echoing docking bay, Anakin leaped out and managed to cross the entire bay side by side with Dooku, even matching him stride for stride, without once looking at him.
So be it, Dooku thought. That anger will be needed.
He led the way to the Serena's eerily silent automated bridge and indicated a specific place where Anakin should stand. With a few economical gestures, he activated theholovid transmitter and a life-sized image of the Viceroy of the Trade Federation, Nute Gunray, appeared in a conical holobeam in the center of the bridge. In his appointed spot, Anakin remained well outside of Gunray's vision and awareness, although for his part, Dooku experienced every stab of the young pirate's suppressed hate.
"So, Count Dooku," the Nemoidian began without preamble. "Was your meeting on the planet's surface successful?"
Already short-tempered, Dooku took his time answering. It wasn't just that he enjoyed keeping the Viceroy waiting; he needed to work out why the flat-faced pest was acting as if it knew his business. He had not mentioned a meeting, only an errand. Why did the odious Neimoidian seem so smug?
"What meeting, Viceroy?" he sniffed at last.
"I have it on reliable authority that you had some important business to transact on the planet – business that you have no intention of sharing with your partners in the Confederacy!"
What reliable authority? What is the idiot talking about? "My dear Viceroy." Dooku affected a bored tone. "Who has been disturbing your narrow little world with lies this time?"
The excited Neimoidian couldn't hold himself in check. "Lies, you say! You are the liar, Dooku! You are the one angling to make a large personal profit before this planet is destroyed!"
"I have no idea what you are talking about." It was disturbingly true.
"I know all about it," the Neimoidian sputtered incomprehensibly. "I know of your plan to acquire the water technology, but you will not succeed!"
At this point Dooku would have dismissed the Neimoidian as a raving lunatic were it not for a sudden wave of emotion from Anakin, who otherwise remained quietly in his corner. Dooku's eyes narrowed.
"I do think you are misinformed, my friend," he suggested crisply. "Our mission here is one of war, not commerce. I was merely ascertaining the safety of one of my operatives before we make our move. What is it that has distressed you?"
"Your deceit!" The Neimoidian howled again. "But I have the measure of you now, Dooku. Moments from now I will have the full rights to the technology you seek, and your game will be at an end. The only thing destroyed here will be your plan!"
"Viceroy Gunray!" Dooku stalled, his mind racing. "What has happened in my absence to disturb you so?"
There was a commotion of some kind behind Gunray in the holobeam. Another Neimoidian came into view and whispered something inaudible next to Gunray. The Viceroy turned his head away, but Dooku thought he heard him say, "Bring her aboard." Gunray turned back to face Dooku, something like glee contorting his flat face. "We are finished here, Dooku. Your coalition is finished. Once the others know what I have to offer them, they will abandon you as well."
The coalition? Did that unspeakable creature mean to imply that the confederation Dooku had worked a decade to stitch together in support of his Master's plan for total Galactic domination was about to fall apart over… over what, exactly?
Dooku found himself in a hell of incomprehension. As Darth Tyrannus he was unmoved by the worst extremes of evil and misery. The only thing left in creation that he could not bear was being left in the dark, being played as a fool. Sidious knew this, and used it against him mercilessly. That was why Sidious had to be destroyed. And now here was this… this worthless Neimoidian, making him feel as idiotic as the most ordinary of life forms, and it was not to be borne! And Anakin, who belonged to him, somehow was part of whatever was going on behind his back! He, Dooku, was a Sith Lord, who could be bested by no one, was commanded by no one, was not to be jeered at or despised… He already had raised his fist to summon the Force to squeeze the worthless life out of that green piece of pond slime, to watch him choke to death in terror and confusion, without so much as a hand around his disgusting neck, when Anakin suddenly stepped forward and spoke to the Neimoidian WITHOUT PERMISSION!
He DARES! He DARES! So violent was Dooku's rage that he was ready to strangle Anakin, too.
"Viceroy Gunray. I am Anakin Skywalker, inventor and owner of the water technology. May I ask who is negotiating for me?"
The shock of surprise was enough to stay Dooku's hand, if not his wrath, so that both Anakin and the unwitting Neimoidian continued to breathe. For the moment.
"It is an honor, Skywalker! If your technology does all that Senator Amidala assures me it can, the opportunity for profit will be quite beyond your imagining. Let me assure that whatever amount Count Dooku has offered you is far less than you will receive from the Trade Federation. You must remember how well connected we are throughout the Galaxy, how well placed to distribute your technology to the Galaxy's furthest reaches."
Anakin smiled crookedly, making Dooku want to knock him sideways. "Your proposal interests me greatly, Viceroy. But I'd like to speak with the Senator."
Gunray stared for a moment, probably as puzzled as Dooku was about what Anakin and Amidala could say to one another in plain sight and hearing of the two parties who were supposedly competing for … something… that Anakin had to sell.
He told me nothing of this! Dooku's hand was a rigid claw by his side. The other twitched toward his lightsaber.
"As you wish. Hold, please." Gunray vanished, leaving his side of the transmission empty. Dooku turned to Anakin and hissed between his teeth, "What is this? Are you mad? You are MINE to command!"
Outrageously, insufferably, Anakin ignored him, his whole being apparently focused on the flickering holobeam. Dooku grasped his arm viciously. Anakin twisted out of his hold. Half an instant later Anakin's arm was bent violently behind his back, seconds from breaking, and Dooku's red lightsaber was at Anakin's throat.
"Unhand that man, Count Dooku!" Gunray reappeared in the picture, shouting furiously. Behind him, incongruous in Senatorial splendor, her face as expressionless as a mask stood Padmé Amidala of Naboo.
A shudder went through Anakin. "Go ahead," he hissed at Dooku through a sweat of pain. "Fight your Master alone. I don't care."
Sidious. The coalition. Dooku's rage retreated in the same measure as his fear surged. What was wrong with him? He was behaving irrationally. He was so close to his goal – he must not err. He must not!
With one last vicious twist of Anakin's arm, Dooku set the boy free, sheathed his weapon, and donned a demeanor of icy composure.
"Calm yourself, Gunray. Skywalker is my apprentice. Lessons are mine to dole out where and when needed."
"Your... your apprentice, Dooku?"
The idea of another Sith Lord in the making had a satisfying effect on Gunray, who cowered visibly. Amidala, however, seemed unsurprised. Dooku began to wonder just what Anakin had told her about him. About their lessons together. How much had he confided to her?
Anakin must trust her very much. The bitch.
And then Amidala bowed. Formally. In exactly the right degree for greeting ... an equal.
"Greetings, Count Dooku," Amidala said smoothly. "Greetings, Anakin. It seems that we have a number of important topics to discuss."
Four times that woman had escaped her death sentence. Four times! Bitterly, Dooku looked his failure in the eyes and nodded frostily, the minimum correct response. The entire left side of his body, the side next to Anakin, was beginning to feel physically cold. The boy's unconscious power seemed to be uncoiling within him, fueled by Force-knew-what kinds of tangled emotions. For the first time, it occurred to Dooku to worry that it would be released too soon. The boy had to stay calm until it was time. He had to be controlled...
For that to happen, I first have to control myself, Dooku admitted to himself finally. And at last, his Mastery returned. His hands unclenched. His brow smoothed. Most importantly, the Force wrapped itself around Anakin like a plasma shield, insulating Dooku from the chilling effects of boy's untrammeled fury.
"I think I understand what is happening here," Dooku said smoothly to the figures in the holobeam. "Viceroy Gunray, the purpose of my trip to the planet's surface was solely to retrieve my apprentice before our attack." He gestured gracefully toward the towering column of resentment at his left. "Whatever Anakin and his people have to sell is of no interest to me at all, you must believe that. My relationship with Anakin is that of Master and Pupil. My sole and great concern is our Confederation and the war to come. The only difficulty we face here is that of timing. Our plans here must go forward, Viceroy, surely you understand that?" He leaned forward into the holobeam, knowing that this would make his features appear to loom hugely on the other side of the transmission. "You do understand the consequences of betraying our cause?"
Again, Gunray visibly flinched. Amidala merely raised an eyebrow. Damn the woman!
Turning to Gunray, Amidala said, "Viceroy, you must understand that all the data and prototypes for the water technology are down on the planet you are planning to attack." Turning back to face the holobeam, she added, "Anakin, if Tatooine is destroyed, how long would it take you to reproduce everything you have built and tested here in another location?"
For a fleeting second, it seemed as if Anakin was suppressing a smile, but the impression passed just a quickly. Crossing his arms over his chest, Anakin frowned and thought for a moment. "The first setup took me five years to complete. I suppose, with enough resources, I could rebuild it all in a year. But without my data, I'd need to do the experiments all over again. Two years with the research, say. Give or take."
Dooku ground his teeth.
"Two more years to reach the point where the technology could be produced and sold." Amidala summarized. "And if you were to have access to your existing laboratories on Tatooine?" she continued calmly, looking intently at Anakin. "Assuming you had all the resources you need, how long before production could begin?"
Anakin focused on Amidala to the exclusion of all else. "We could start production as soon as a facility is built," he said slowly. "If we started work now ... perhaps by BoontaEve?"
Amidala nodded almost imperceptibly, and Anakin's shoulders seemed to relax a fraction.
They're making this up as they go along! Dooku realized furiously, but Gunray was already taken in. Even in the bluish light of the holobeam, the Nemoidian's eyes glowed hot with the fever of greed.
"I'm certain it won't be difficult to transfer this technology – whatever it is – elsewhere." Dooku was finding it harder and harder to hide his impatience. "I will contribute whatever resources are necessary, including my apprentice's time. But right now..."
"Liar!" Anakin hissed, loud enough for everyone to hear.
Dooku whirled to face him.
"You promised to spare my planet and everyone on it if I came with you. Well, I'm here – not because I'm any apprentice of yours, but because of that promise. This is the perfect opportunity for a strategic withdrawal, and yet you're still trying to get back to your original agenda of destroying Tatooine and everyone on it." Anakin stepped closer until they were practically nose-to-nose. "I owe you nothing. Our deal is off."
"A deal?" Nute Gunray squealed. I KNEW it!"
Dooku's attention remained wholly on Anakin. "You arrogant pup!" he snarled. "What makes you think that you will outlive your usefulness?"
"You surprise me, Count Dooku." Amidala's voice cut through the argument. "Is it possible that you truly believe in old-style military dominance over economic and political ascendancy? The ability to create, and to supply, something as basic as unlimited water... do you genuinely believe that it is in anyone's best interest to destroy that ... power?"
Water? Is that what they are talking about? ... Wait, WATER? Finally, in a belated flash of insight, Dooku understood the extent to which he had underestimated the boy. However dazzled Anakin might have been by him initially, he had known how to keep his secrets to himself.
He turned slowly to his rebellious apprentice. The invisible Force bonds around Anakin tightened. Sweat stood out all over the boy's skin, and he was having trouble breathing.
"You... can create water?" Dooku murmured, too low for the others to hear.
"In a manner of speaking. I can certainly ...encourage... it."
"And you did not see fit to tell me about this?"
"None... of your business," Anakin gritted out.
"Oh, but it is, my young, misguided apprentice. Everything about you is my business." Dooku leaned closer. "Everything that is yours is mine!"
"You... wish..." The boy was beginning to turn blue, but his attitude hadn't improved one iota. And in truth, Dooku felt other kinds of binders tightening around himself in equal measure that he was making Anakin suffer. Sidious. The Coalition. His Master's careful plan, sabotaged by Dooku's insane hopes for this one defiant, insufferably talented creature...
I'm dead, he thought. I'm dead anyway. I won't survive Sidious' wrath over this.
"Let... me... GO!" Anakin kept struggling, but it was more a battle of wills than bodies. The binders were invisible. To the observers, it might have looked like no more than a hissed private conversation. Caught in the vortex of fear and fury that both powered him and bound him, the world receded, and Dooku existed only in a blinding flux of rage and fear. Wisdom, experience, logic; all these were lost to him as Dooku sank down, down, down into blackness and despair, dragging Anakin with him, refusing to let him go. The boy weakened. Slumped. He could barely even gasp.
"Count Dooku!" Again, Amidala's voice pierced Dooku's mental cloud like a sharp blade. Would the woman never stop talking? She was droning on and on about mutual benefit and a solution that would serve them all.
A solution? Absurd. There was no solution. There was only Sidious, and the punishment for failure...
"Anakin! Anakin!" Now the insect drone was calling out Anakin's name. Shut up, woman, shut up, shut up...
Dooku felt a sudden snap of release, as if something had broken, and a dizzy flash. When he returned to his senses, he lay crumpled against the nav. console. Across the room, distorted by the conical holobeam and the transparent figure of Amidala within it, Anakin stood trembling and panting, glaring at him with a look of such pure undistorted hatred that Dooku nearly laughed. Welcome to my world, Anakin. Your hate makes you powerful.
"Anakin!" Amidala was saying again. Her courtier's mask could not hide the true fear in her voice. "Are you all right? What happened?"
Anakin shook himself like an animal after a fight, breathed deeply and stepped closer to the beam, all the while keeping a watch on Dooku out of the corner of his eye.
"It's nothing," he lied. "A difference of opinion, that's all. I... I need to talk to you privately about the water technology."
Gunray immediately appeared in the beam, as if he had been lurking nearby.
"Anything that is to be said must be said before me," he whined. "I must know everything if I am to make such an investment."
With all the indifference of the condemned for the petty, deluded strivings of the still living, Dooku remained where he was to watch the goings-on. It had nothing to do with him. Not anymore.
Anakin and Amidala locked gazes, and Dooku saw her nod ever so slightly. On that tiny signal, Anakin took a breath.
"There is no doubt that the water technology, as you call it, works, and will work under any conditions. There's just a small problem with reproducing it widely. You see... to be set into motion, the process needs um..." Anakin shuffled his feet.
"Go on," Amidala said gently.
"Um... the process is triggered by..." Anakin seemed to search for words. "I guess you would call it... Jedi powers? I mean, in our labs, nobody can get it working except... me."
Dooku's fog lifted. What?
"Jedi... what?" Gunray echoed him in a kind of high-pitched squeak. "Skywalker, are you telling me that this process of yours is not scientific, but some kind of religious fakery?"
"No! No, Viceroy, I'm not saying that at all. It is scientific. It can be replicated. It's just that ... well... one of the components, let's say, requires what the Jedi would call an application of the Force."
The cloud around Dooku vanished. The bright light of comprehension finally restored his wits, and with the return of his intellect came the purely joyful knowledge that once again, of all the beings in the Galaxy, he, Dooku, was the only one who truly grasped all the implications of what had just taken place. Sitting all alone on the floor, he started to laugh so loudly and joyfully that everyone turned to stare. Sidious... by the Force, had he just been sitting here waiting to die by that creature's will? Sidious had been wrong all this time, and he had been wrong to follow him! Sidious was an outdated relic of an ancient Sith past. The bothersome Amidala had been right in her own way – war was no longer the path to domination. Military might was not the path to power. Power was the path to more power – the power to decide life and death.
Water was life. Water was death. And Anakin... he'd been right about the boy all along. Anakin was the key to the future. Just not in the way that he had initially understood.
As lightly as a child, for he once again felt like a child, at least in spirit, Dooku leaped to his feet. The others gaped at the change in him. "Don't worry, Viceroy," he said cheerfully, approaching the holobeam. "It isn't a problem. The Galaxy is full of beings with these abilities. This just means that the production and distribution processes require special resources and specially skilled management with a vast network of the right contacts. In other words, it needs someone like...me." He bowed with a flourish, enjoying the slack-mouthed looks of shock on all three staring faces.
"No!" Anakin sputtered.
Dooku ignored him. "I suggest the following. The four of us comprise the perfect partnership for moving forward with this enterprise. Anakin, of course, is the inventor and holder of the intellectual property. You, Viceroy, have the fleet and the infrastructure for distribution. The Senator has the necessary political clout and contacts, and I have the necessary knowledge to make the process work ...
"No!" Anakin shouted.
"... and, of course, the vast resources it will require to bring it into full development. What do you say, Viceroy? Senator?"
"Yes," Gunray said so quickly that he almost tripped over whatever passes for a tongue in Neimoidian. "But of course, we will have to negotiate suitable terms..."
Dooku waved his hand airily. "Of course. A mere detail. Money, my dear Gunray, is no object." He looked at Amidala. "Senator?"
Anakin looked despairingly at her. "Padme, please..." Amidala gave him a long, unreadable look, and then spoke to Dooku directly.
"You will disperse this fleet immediately, never to return."
"You will free Anakin from whatever ... bonds... you believe tie him to you. You mentioned... an apprenticeship?"
Dooku's sunny mood dampened slightly, but a quick review of the larger picture confirmed that the apprenticeship too was a mere detail. There would be other ways to achieve his goals. Anakin was his regardless.
Beside him, Anakin sighed.
"And finally, you will submit to the Senate a declaration of peace, in which you will detail the steps your organization will take to dismantle all preparations for Galactic War."
The woman really was the bastard child of a hellhound. Was nothing ever enough for her? She was forcing his hand.
Ah, so be it. A bold move was required, so a bold move he would make. It occurred to him that death as a free man was quite a different thing from death in bondage. He chose death in freedom, if death it was to be.
"Were it entirely up to me, Senator, I would agree to this condition also. But I cannot. For you see, I am not the sole architect of this war. There is... another."
More shock from Gunray and Amidala. None from Anakin. Amidala, clever girl, appeared to notice that. And here, my friends, is where the future begins. We stand before Fortune's gate.
"If this ... other... believes I have betrayed him, the future ends right here. Everyone's future. Do you understand?"
Gunray gaped. Amidala nodded tersely.
"I must continue to act as if nothing has changed. I can subvert this little invasion, but for now, that is all."
"How can we trust such a double dealer?" Gunray rasped.
Dooku shrugged delicately. "As long as I remain alive and playing my game, everyone survives. Otherwise..." He let the sentence trail.
"All right." Amidala had her mask on again. It was impossible to see what she was thinking. Hopefully she would continue to act intelligently.
"Well, then. It seems we have a pact."
"Wait." Gunray looked at Anakin. "What about you, Skywalker? You have not agreed to anything. Will you give us access to your process and your labs?"
Anakin closed his eyes. The ensuing silence was so intense that it set the Force shimmering. At last he said, "Senator Amidala negotiates for me in all things. Her word is my word."
Dooku rounded on him. "And your word to me? My success ... our success ... depends on your assistance."
Another long silence. Anakin looked down at his feet. "I agree."
"Well, then. It seems we have our bargain."
"Turn back your fleet, Dooku," Amidala snapped, all pretense of courtesy gone.
In his new frame of mind, her tone didn't bother Dooku in the slightest. He had far graver concerns.
"Stand by." With a wave of his hand, he ended the transmission. After a pause to muster all his courage, he entered a code into the comm. Then he stepped back, staring at the machine.
No going back now.
Anakin looked sidelong at him. "What now?"
"A glimpse of what is to come." Dooku closed his eyes, discouraging any further questions. Silently they stood side by side in the center of the sleek, nearly silent bridge, neither speaking nor moving, for more than a quarter of an hour, until the Comm. sounded once more.
"Stand there, out of sight." He pointed to Anakin's corner. Anakin went.
The conical beam reappeared, and in it, like a dark deed personified, the full-height image of Darth Sidious. Dooku could not look at it – at him – without the familiar rush of hate. He bowed deeply.
"You bow to me?"
Sweat sprang up along the former Jedi Master's spine. He couldn't help it. "I do, Master."
"You will KNEEL!"
Even though his heart rebelled, his legs bent automatically, driven by a more primal impulse.
Sidious was displeased. But then, Dooku had known that he would be. He lowered his head and waited.
"What is it, Lord Tyrannus, that made you believe you could alter MY plans one iota?"
Dooku swallowed. "The confidence that you have shown in my judgment these past ten years, My Lord."
The Sith Lord made a sound like an animal's snarl. "That confidence was EARNED."
Dooku didn't respond. One didn't, when his Master was in this state.
"I TOLD YOU TO DESTROY THE PLANET!"
Alas, that did require a response... quite possibly, his last. Dooku steeled himself. He had never been a coward.
"It seemed unwise to move precipitously, My Lord, considering the presence of two persons of interest on the planet below. Senator Amidala, the prize demanded by the Trade Federation, is hiding on Tatooine. It would be difficult to provide Gunray with proof of her death if she were to die as anonymously as she is attempting to live."
The holotranmitter hissed coldly; the Sith Lord equally so, in his eventual response.
"And ... the second person of interest?"
This was the hardest part. The Great Gamble on which Dooku's dearest plans would pivot. The gauntlet he was about to throw down before the most dangerous creature in the Galaxy.
"Anakin Skywalker, of course. Given your particular interest in him, it struck me as ... wasteful ... to destroy him."
Sidious had never mentioned Anakin in Dooku's presence. Never.
"Yes, My Lord."
"What do you know of Anakin Skywalker, Lord Tyrannus?"
"He sought me out, asking to be trained in the Dark Arts."
"He sought YOU out?"
"And did you take him on?"
"Of course, Master. How could I not?"
A faint sound, a cross between a growl and a hiss, emerged from Sidious' waxy lips.
"Where is Skywalker now?"
"On the planet below."
"Why is he not with you?"
Dooku took a quiet breath to modulate his nerves. Equanimity was the key. He strove for balance.
"He objects to the destruction of his planet, and has embedded himself there as an ultimatum to me: he will die with his planet, or join me if I refrain from destroying it."
"You incompetent cur!" Sidious hissed. "How is it that you can be bested by a mere child!"
No response was expected, Dooku knew, because his throat was closing in the grip of a great invisible fist. He didn't fight it. Fighting only made it worse. Using all of his skill he relaxed his body, stopped breathing altogether, and endured. This time, he actually blacked out before Sidious released his hold, leaving him gagging and coughing pathetically on the cold floor in front of the holobeam. This, to be endured, heartened a little by the realization that Anakin had remained stoically in his corner with no more presence than a shadow.
"Pull the fleet back to deep space. Get Skywalker. And bring him before me."
That is what I was already doing, you moldy excrescence. But Dooku touched his head to the floor in front of the holobeam and murmured, "As you command, Master. And..." he dared raise his head a few inches, "... and Amidala?"
"Give her to Gunray as compensation."
"It will be done, Master."
"As you will be, if you disobey my orders one more time."
The holobeam vanished. Dooku took his time getting up from the floor. He was fully back on his feet before Anakin finally emerged from the shadows.
"Now you understand, Anakin. This is the full scope of the bargain you have made. Your planet for that creature's life."
"He... he knows about me."
"Don't be naïve, Anakin. He has had occasion to observe you. No one in the Galaxy has a better eye for raw talent than Darth Sidious."
Anakin remained silent for a moment. When he spoke, his voice was unsteady. "It seems that you have made a number of different bargains, Dooku. Which one will you keep?"
"Well, that IS the question, isn't it?" Dooku stepped closer, staring into Anakin's face. "The answer, my young apprentice, is entirely up to you. And by the way, you will henceforth address me as 'Count Dooku', or preferably, 'Master.'
Anakin shot him a look that would have shriveled a lesser man's flesh. "Don't count on it... Dooku." This time his voice didn't shake at all.
So insubordinate. Officially Dooku glowered.
(Inside, he smiled.)