Title: Chapter One: The Beginning and the End
Disclaimer: I do not own Star Wars and am not making any money with this story.
Characters: Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Supreme Chancellor Palpatine. Oh, and Artoo, of course...
Summary: What if Anakin hadn't managed to land the Invisible Hand safely on Coruscant? What if the ship's crash had been fatal? And what if one of the passengers on that doomed ship had the power to save himself... a power he could not fully control?
Author's Note: Uh, I'd just like to say that Anakin knows a lot more about heatstroke than I do, so if he gets anything wrong, it's my fault. For those of you reading Alexis, this story is not set in the same continuity, although there is some crossover. For the purposes of drama, neither Obi-Wan nor Anakin have been to Korriban before.
Anakin dreams of Tatooine. Its arid winds sweep across his face, hot and brittle. Piloting a podracer across a plane of white sand, he tries to reach Mos Espaa before something terrible happens. But the Dune Sea stretches on into the interminable distance. The hands, coated in sand to cling to the controls, are those of a nine year-old boy. Other racers zip past, dust pluming upward in their furious wake – he can hear their cruel Huttese insults. But Anakin isn't following the course; he needs to get out of here, needs to get to Mos Espaa…
"Anakiiin!" Sebulba jeers, viciously ramming the side of Anakin's pod, "Tah pee-chah ah kulkee flunka, Anakiiin!" Wicked blades cut through Anakin's left engine as he tries to disengage. "Meecooda joggdu stafa do tah poda!Wake up, poodoo!"
Suddenly Sebulba vanishes and the only thing Anakin can see is red sand. Not fine Tatooine sand, but groud-up, rocky-clay rubble. It seems to be suspended somewhere above him. Am I underground? Anakin wonders. He glances behind him: orange clouds stretch lazily out across a dusty sky.
"Anakin!" Obi-Wan Kenobi stands, staring at the tangle of scrubby, mortified tree Anakin is caught up in, "Are you alright?." The Jedi Master's creamy tunic is coated with red sand, and his red-blond fringe is matted with fast congealing blood.
"Hey, Obi-Wan…" Anakin grunts, gritting his teeth as the tree attempts to keep his struggling body stationary with its jagged, ivory limbs. "This'll be the tenth time I've saved your life, right?"
"Oh?" Kenobi raises an eyebrow, half-smiling at Anakin, despite the severity of their situation.
"Well," Anakin grips one of the sun-bleached, rotten branches, using it to launch himself into the air to land neatly beside Obi-Wan. "We're alive, aren't we? So that must mean I piloted that hunk of junk into the dirt without us getting killed."
"I'm not so sure, Anakin. I've taken the readings and we're nowhere near Coruscant. In fact, we're in the Horuset System."
"But that's… in the Outer Rim…"
"Exactly," Obi-Wan turns away from Anakin, "Come on, we need to find the Chancellor, otherwise all of this will have been for nothing."
Anakin's eyes widen, "Palpatine!" Our mission… that's what my dream was trying to tell me! The Chancellor is nowhere to be seen as Anakin sprints across the dunes. Pieces of what might have once been the Invisible Hand are scattered across the sands, glittering as they catch Horusnet's harsh rays. There is no shade, and Anakin's head is pounding along with his feet. I hope I didn't get heatstroke lying in that tree – that's all I need right now! It doesn't look like there's any moisture to be had for miles around...
"Anakin, wait –!" Obi-Wan watches as Anakin's loping figure dips beyond his sight into the valley below. He follows, but slowly, extending his awareness out into their surroundings. Every granule of sand seems to be steeped in foreboding, as if the ground itself were haunted. This is the work of the Sith Lord we have been hunting, the Jedi feels it in his bones. Not Dooku, but the elusive architect responsible for Master Dooku's fall. But surely it is beyond even the most powerful of sorceries to send beings so far across the galaxy? Obi-Wan has never encountered any record of such a phenomenon in the archives. It worries him that Anakin doesn't seem aware of the darkness which lurks under this hot sun, carrying the memories of ancient terrors within its desolation. I will certainly have a lot to report when we get back to Coruscant. His forehead itches, but Obi-Wan doesn't touch the drying blood, wary of infection.
"I've found Artoo!" Anakin's cry is faint with distance. Standing on the lip of a narrow valley, Obi-Wan can see Anakin, about half-way down a steep slope, at the bottom of which might once have been a river worming its way through rock; now only the rock is left. The astromech droid is beeping loudly, as Anakin lifts the R2 unit into the air with the Force and sets it down onto the defunct riverbed, causing it warble happily as it trundles along, Anakin following. The young Jedi cups his hands around his mouth: "Artoo has a fix on the Chancellor's beacon – it's still active!"
A high-frequency pulse beats in the shoulder of the man lying in the centre of an ancient lake; its vibrant life long turned to fossils. This transmitter has already saved Palpatine's life once, now it will do so again. Surgically inserted into the Supreme Chancellor's shoulder and coated with a special film which allows it to escape the attention of any foreign scan – it is the Republic's guarantee that they will always be able to divine the location of their well-beloved leader. Palpatine himself had not been in favour of the suggestion – put forward by the security-conscious Senator Ask-Aak, who was then joined by the Chancellor's entire staff, from Sly Moore to the lowest-ranking Red Guard. It had been politic to bow to their wishes and was, indeed, of service to his intentions, but Palpatine has never felt easy being so constantly monitored.
Now, his every bone aches with weariness. Some part of his mind is aware that his soft, office-pale skin is slowly being crisped an unhealthy red by unforgiving Horusnet, but Palpatine can't find it in himself to care. All his reserves are spent. Even the fact that he has just accomplished a feat of dark magic, which the legends say only Darth Bane ever made manifest, is not enough to stir him. The taste of this intimately familiar air is one of ashes – memories eddy and voices long-dead arise to taunt the being who claimed to be beyond their hideous call...
"You're leaving me, Master?" a young voice asks dispassionately.
The tall Muun turns, silhouetted in the light of his shuttle, his sharp black eyes beady with anticipation. "Yes, Sidious. Every apprentice must face the trials of Korriban alone." His elongated, grey fingers ruffle the fine, red hair of his creation, as he uses the other hand to bring the child close. "It is the beginning of every Sith, and their end."
"But what is to be my task?" Large amber eyes gaze seriously at the Dark Lord. The human cannot be older than ten, yet his features convey the jaded sensibilities of an ancient, and he carries a blade of red fire at his hip.
"I do not know, young one. That, you must discover on your own – if you survive that long... I hope they do not judge you too harshly."
He lifts the child from the ground, bringing his gash of a mouth beside the child's small ear. "Shhh... they are waiting for you." The Muun kisses the child fiercely, leaving an ugly pink mark on the smooth skin, and then pushes him away, into the desert. "Go!"
"Sir?" The low cadence of Skywalker's concern brings him out of recollection enough for his eyes to flicker. It is the beginning of every Sith, and their end... "He's not moving." Strong hands gripped Palpatine's wrist, "... and his pulse is going crazy."
"It took me several hours to find you," Obi-Wan crouches down on the other side of the supine Chancellor, "so he must have been lying here for half a day, and I can't imagine Grievous was kind enough to give his hostage any hydrating fluids."
Bloodshot eyes crack open. "Don't leave me...the beginning... and the end... here. It's all wrong, we're... it's changed... oh..." the words barely constitute the limits of a whisper.
"Oh great, he's delirious. We need to get him some shade fast or he's not going to make it." Anakin leans over and dribbled the last of the water from his flask slowly into Palpatine's mouth. He pulls the Chancellor's head into his lap, using his tall frame to create a refuge from the sun.
"Anakin?" The weak, bone-dry appellation is too much like the soft cry of recognition Anakin has heard on his knees in another merciless desert. Now, as then, he cradles the weak form to his chest.
"You're going to make it, sir. You hear me? We'll get you some shade. Obi-Wan's found a nice, dark cave you can rest in, and then we'll find some more water." He is aware that he's beginning to unravel inside, that fear is spooling in his chest, but Anakin feeds on its threads, using it to pull himself onward as he continues to talk to the Chancellor, trying to keep those faded eyes from closing.
Palpatine can't be allowed to slip into unconsciousness. "Then, while you're recovering, I'm going to program Artoo to generate a strong enough signal to get us off this dust-ball," Anakin explains, as he carries Palpatine toward the small cave they've found – little more than a shallow dent in the rock, really. "Back to Coruscant to kick some Separatist aa... I mean, huh, we'll wipe those bastards from the galaxy. All of them. And then this'll all be over."
"Are you using propaganda to keep him awake?"
"It's not propaganda if I'm telling the truth, Master."
The being remembers. Tethered to his onyx throne – which his beloved student carved out in high relief from the tenebrous rocks which lie beneath the valleys of sandy Korriban – Darth Plagueis, he who was once called wise, touches the mind of his errant protégé and remembers with that apprentice things which time had previously stripped away. Other shades mull across the link, twisting themselves into Plagueis' remembrances, but the late Dark Lord safeguards his privacy with a ruthless flash of psychic claw which sends the too-curious ghosts back to their own sarcophagi.
'Sidious!' the cry reverberates through the labyrinthine passages of Plagueis' consciousness, trembling with a plethora of emotions. So many decades of decay have crept into the dark masonry since Plagueis' tomb was first sealed by his one youngling – the unspeakable child he loosed upon the galaxy. Without form, the mysteries are no longer clouded by fleshly ambitions, and Plagueis has long-since come to understand his great error which upset the sacred balance of the Force...
Long papery fingers carefully lifted the tiny corpse. A young spirit, yes, very young in the revolutions of the soul - but not yet gone; the spirit still clung to its lifeless host, unwilling as yet to release it. Lord Plagueis carefully supported the curve of the babe's over-large head in the crook of his elbow; its dead blue eyes staring up at him blankly. He wound the naked body up in the black drapery of his sleeve. The Force resounded around them and the Sith Master knew that he was right to come here, to this lonely plateau, as he had foreseen.
He had not foreseen that the object of his creation would be gone before he arrived. But perhaps that is my test? The Dark Side has gifted me with an apprentice, I will not disappoint it. One elongated digit ghosted over the child's tiny nose and the Sith Lord tenderly closed first one eye and then the other.
"Wake up, little one…" he whispered. My child, this little human is my child!
The effect was instantaneous. The child emitted a grisly sob and snapped open golden eyes tinged with blood. The infant began to give sharp cries, perhaps his spirit angry at being dragged back from the unknown. Yellow on yellow, the two regarded each other, the Force singing with dark intent.
The cold glow of Master Kenobi's lightsaber causes shadows to slide across the slick, black rocks. Artoo's scans of the area's geography appeared to be correct – water still flows in deep tributaries below the earth. He has left Anakin behind to look after the Supreme Chancellor, whilst he and Artoo attempt to locate a viable source of water. Obi-Wan quickly realised that relying on the local flora was not going to be an option, as the sap he'd been able to squeeze out of an exiguous local shrub registered on his scanner as highly toxic to most humanoids.
Yet, the sight of this subterranean lake leaves the Jedi Master nothing but apprehension. At the edge of the dark pool, Obi-Wan crouches down and extends his scanner close to the water. It is safe to drink. Clipping the scanner back on his utility belt, the Jedi submerges his hands in the cool water, unable to keep back a sigh – splashing it up toward his face and filling his flask with precious moisture. He dries his beard with the sleeve of his tunic. "Come in, Anakin, Anakin, come in… yes… yes, I've found water…"
A glitter across the darkness catches his eye. Warily, Obi-Wan scrutinises it. Whatever it is, it's nothing living. The Jedi carefully makes his way around the shallows of the lake; small winged creatures hiss and flutter somewhere above him, but they do not trouble him, perhaps simply wary on an intruder. The source of the glittering is just visible now: a pair of sun-coloured jewels wink and dazzle in the dark stone like amber eyes. The rock around them – a lintel – is cruelly scarred by deep-set sigils, familiar to the Jedi Master from his lessons as a padawan. He does not draw back, but frowns at the golden eyes which mark the closed passage. Their message is clear: only those of like gaze may cross the threshold. "Anakin…? Yes... I think I know where we are…"
At first it was necessary to coddle the child greatly – but Plagueis did not mind. The youngling's awareness of the Force was vastly superior to that of normal Force-sensitive children although it was often clumsy, its consciousness so busy exploring that it quite forgot the flesh it was meant to inhabit. The Sith Lord, who had superstitious notions of such things, put it down to the fact that the child's soul had never forgotten its moment of freedom and was thus discontent to remain stationary for too long.
It was so fragile, however, so wracked by epilepsy, migraines and fever that Plagueis was almost convinced that the Force didn't wish the child to live. All of these things weakened the child almost beyond repair and the Sith Lord was compelled to resort to complex rituals to keep the child not only alive but stable. These proved effective, but there were side effects to channelling powerful energies through such a small, delicate being.
Still, the trauma was of no matter to Plagueis. And the dividends were indeed great for, as the child grew older, it became apparent that it was a natural sorcerer and clairvoyant – gifted with more power than even Plagueis himself. Yet, as soon as possible, Plagueis turned the child over to droids and holocrons, as the Master was anxious to continue his own studies. The first few moons he left the child to its own devices it did nothing but scream and scream, hoarse eldritch squeals, throwing its benighted body against the magni-locked doors until it managed to unlock them with the Force. At which point Plagueis disciplined the child for disturbing his contemplations.
The Master had no idea what the child's eventual first words had been. Robbed of Plagueis, it had attached itself to the nurse-droid and attempted to imitate the droid's soft Coruscanti tones. It used the droid as an ad hoc mechno-chair, preferring to be carried in its durasteel arms than to walk, perhaps drawing some sort of comfort from the sound of the vocorder and the warm hum of circuitry. When the child outgrew such things it, of course, became necessary to destroy the droid, which provoked less temper than he'd expected. His apprentice had learnt, seemingly, the futility of such displays.
When the child was thirteen it was given a name: Sidious. At first the child didn't much care for the name – seeing it as limiting. What did it matter what it was called as long as it was? Its holographic tutors placed a great importance on names but to the child they seemed… unnecessary, like forms. The child often wondered why the Force wove such firm bodies when more immaterial ones could have sufficed.
But its Master had called it Sidious so it supposed it was good. Sidious, gifted with future-sight, did recognise that such a name would someday become significant. Plagueis had plans for Sidious which he would not yet reveal. Mainly, though, the Master was obsessed with the creation of the sith'ari – the perfect being of destiny. The Dark Lord never told Sidious that this creation had already been achieved, but encouraged Sidious to believe that he would be but a tutor to this greater being who would rule the stars as the oracles of the Sith dictated in ancient times, the true successor to the far-reaching powers of mighty Naga Sadow. Sidious, by comparison, was worthless, given nothing but craving, his Master's only bequest an endless fount of desire. That was the way of the Sith: only by creating such an emptiness could the galaxy once again be filled with dark majesty. A being as void as the cosmos, whose connection to the Force was so deep that the paths of a million stars could hold no mystery.
Many times, as Sidious' gifts flowered, Plagueis had considered relenting – aware of the cruelty of his experiment. Such sparse evidence of kindness as the Dark Lord had permitted himself were at first grasped with rapturous joy and then, as the training took its course, were carefully ignored by his student. Sith strictures, Plagueis knew, dubbed such things unnatural, as he was denying his child love, which was – but for hate – the chief passion of humanity...
'I am sorry!' the ghost calls, knowing himself unheard. Such pleasure there had been in Sidious' creation, and how far his student had come since those days – Plagueis is the envy of the Assembled Masters, for his beloved one has surpassed all expectation. Yet the manner of Sidious' inception has thrown the Force into consternation – and even now it sets in motion events which will correct Plagueis' mistake at terrible cost to the Sith Order.
Only he knows the extent of his child's loneliness, only he knows what a mercy it will be when the end finally comes. The universe itself would fail to glut his student's monstrous hunger. Not even Sidious himself realises this, still a child banging against a locked mangni-door which will never open. Nor will Sidious himself ever accept words of apology, should Plagueis ever own them, for Sidious' mind is akin to a delicately-wrought piece of machinery, designed for a solitary purpose. In his idealism, Plagueis dreamt of the perfect Sith ruler, and he gave birth to his dreamings in the form of his apprentice. Only in his own dreams could Sidious perhaps comprehend the terrible nature of his existence, and for these – Plagueis knows from traversing the ruler's thoughts – the Emperor's clever servants provide drugs to seal away the horrors within.
The three humans sit by the lakeside, relying on the almost-moonlight of two blue lightsabers. The Jedi monitor their surroundings as they talk quietly, whilst Palpatine – much revived by the water and clad only in his black under-robe – rests against the rocks, eyes closed but listening. "But why would he send us to Korriban?" Anakin asks of his former master. "What's the point?"
"Sith are creatures of caprice, Anakin. I believe the Sith Master is… taunting us…"
"I'm sosickof this! I thought Dooku's death would end it…!" Gruff with passionate ill-humour, the young man's voice echoes around the cavern, making sleepy creatures rustle above.
"We must be patient, Anakin. The Sith Lord will reveal himself in time. And when he does, we will be ready for him."
"Well, I think he's a coward. What kind of warrior relies on others to fight his battles?"
"I think it highly likely our Lord Sidious isn't a warrior at all. His reticence and his sorcery mark him as something quite different."
The Supreme Chancellor's richly incisive voice is somehow unexpected in the bleakness of the cave, "Some days ago Master Yoda told me that, deprived of an apprentice, this Sidious might very well withdraw to preserve the Sith – whatever that might entail."
The youngest of the three let out a bitter laugh, "I doubt it! He'll probably just find some other Force-user with delusions of grandeur. I just wish he wouldn't toywith us like this!"
"Anakin…" Master Kenobi reproves his old padawan.
"Did it never occur to either of you," Palpatine snapped, his nerves obviously fraying, "that the Sith Lord probably saved our lives?"
"Chancellor, I'm not sure-"
"We were going to die! The ship was breaking apart! I don't know about you Jedi, but I'drather be deposited on a planet half-way across the galaxy by some mystic entity, than dead-on-arrival at Coruscant!" His face was invisible, away from the lightsabers, only a vague shape in the darkness.
A few pebbles tumble on the other side of the cave, hitting the still water with loud, thick noise. "What was that?"
A low growl fills the cave. As the Jedi stand and angle their weapons, Palpatine silently vanishes into the black water. A strange flutter of clicking begins above, the cave-dwellers shifting nervously. Blue eyes and blue beams roved through the darkness. "Whatever it is, it can mask itself in the Force," Obi-Wan comments, narrowing his eyes. At that moment three rows of large teeth yawned behind Kenobi who, caught by surprise, almost got caught between six giant canines as Anakin Force-pushes him sideways, leaping at the creature crying "That's eleven!"
But the creature is too fast, weaving nimbly out of the way of Anakin's lightsaber, the glare of his weapon revealing two candent golden eyes. "Jidai djarka!"it rumbles and lunges for Anakin. There is a swirl of light as Master Kenobi vaults through the air to land on its head, causing the scabrous creatures hanging from the ceiling to shriek and empty from the cavern in a noisome rush, forcing Obi-Wan to duck and cling to the monster's ghastly pinguid fur as it furiously attempts to dislodge him, its movements hampered by Anakin's attacks.
It rears up, balancing on two vicious paws, roaring in agony as Kenobi buries his blade in its back. But its frenzied convulsions fling the Jedi Master away to land in the water with a giant splash. Anakin surges forward, but the monster's long claws catch him across the shoulder, causing him to drop his lightsaber. "Jidai rezhal!"The creature moved to strike Anakin again, while Obi-Wan swam frantically for the rocks.
"Izt halvak Taral'ari!" A sepulchral baritone sounds from the dark recesses of the cave, resonating with authority. The creature gives a low howl, baring its many teeth at the fallen Jedi, and flees – loping feet eerily silent.
"Are you all right?" the Chancellor, his soaking garments casting water everywhere, kneels down beside Anakin, full of weary concern.
"Yeah, it just batted me about a bit. What the hell was that thing?" the young man summons his lightsaber and stands with somewhat self-conscious haste, brushing himself off.
"I think His Excellency knows more than us, Anakin," Obi-Wan points out dryly, emerging from the lake equally drenched.
"Wha – that was you?" Anakin is both confused and impressed.
"Mmm. They're called Tuk'ata. My family bred them when I was little. They're semi-sentient and possess the rudiments of language. We sold them offworld as guard beasts. I would guess that that is what the creature was doing here."
Anakin, who previously imagined Palpatine's childhood as being much like his wife's, can't make taming ravenous black beasts fit with the Chancellor and idyllic Naboo. "So… huh... you tamed these things as a kid?" It's possibly even more impressive than pod-racing.
"Of course not! I was only ever allowed near the puppies, specifically, cleaning up after them. But Idid learn some of the language, although I confess I've forgotten most of it."
"Well, it's lucky for us you didn't forget all of it, as I think it will be a while before we get off this planet," Obi-Wan sighs. "The question is what was that thing here to guard? I'd say I have a bad feeling about it, but this whole place contains nothing butbad feelings."
"Oh, I don't know Master," Anakin smirks, "the locals seem friendly." R2-D2 beeps loudly from a corner of the cave, perhaps the droid equivalent of Obi-Wan's long-suffering wince.