He heard Amidala's cry as he flew against yet another Mandalorian battle group.
Don't get distracted!
No one could afford for him to lose focus at this point. The clones out manned and nearly outgunned them two to one in this engagement. He rolled his ship and followed his wingman to the left to cover the medical ship against a pair of fighters who had broken off from the main battle.
"Gold One, this is Gold Leader... Don't let them through, Isaad," Ani warned, then let loose with a burst of laser bolts at the junques fleeing before them.
"I copy, Gold Leader," his second responded, breaking off to pursue one of the pair who sped toward the unprotected med ship's flank. She clipped the fighter's starboard engine, then continued to pound the wounded ship until it blew into a thousand pieces.
Anakin smiled grimly at his wingman's success, then proceeded to ensure the other junque joined its mate's fiery destination. The others in his squadron reported similar victories.
"Good work, Gold Squadron. Regroup and follow me. We're taking out that Mandalorian base on Urbax that provides them sanctuary and supplies."
"But, sir! Our orders are to escort the medical frigate to Ord Mandell," Isaad protested.
"I know, Gold One, but unless we get rid of their resources, nothing will keep that frigate or the Republic safe. Now... Follow me or leave me, but I'm going down there and put an end to it... here and now."
He didn't wait for them as his hatred and anger at the Mandalorians grew apace with his worry for Amidala. As he descended on the otherwise agricultural backwater planet, he sent a spear of thought to her.
I'll come to you soon, love. I promise. I just have to take care of this first.
She seemed so weak, so much in pain. Had something gone wrong?
He clamped down on his concern, putting all his concentration on discovering the hidden clone base. Using his Force abilities, he stretched his senses out... looking for that odd Force signature he'd first felt on Mandalore from the ranks of soldiers outside the General's palace.
There... in that stretch of woods. Something... out of place. That had to be what he sought.
"Did you find it, boss?" Isaad's voice broke into his thoughts.
"Glad you could make it, Gold One."
"We wouldn't miss it for the world, Gold Leader," she responded and he noted on his screen the tiny green dots of his entire squadron. A rueful smile tugged at his mouth.
"Following me into perdition, eh?"
"Wherever you go, we go, Ani. You know that," she told him. "Now where are we going?"
"Down there at five o'clock. The base lies beneath the trees' canopy."
"What about the locals?"
"We can't afford to hold back because of them. Bomb the place... turn it into rubble. Any survivors, we'll question them later to find out what they know."
"Copy, Gold Leader," Isaad replied in a neutral voice.
Anakin detected the discomfort his pilots felt on attacking the base with the possibility of taking out innocents as well. He almost told them the end justified the means, but he thought better of it. Bitterly, he realized they would most likely tell Obi-Wan about this whole thing and such words would only damn him further in Kenobi's eyes.
"Let's go, Gold Squadron. Angle your vector to five point two and try to hit that off colored sector of woods. That's where the base is. We'll go down afterwards and search for any further information."
Without waiting for their acknowledgments, he dove toward his goal, guns blazing. The woody cover crumbled beneath his attack, revealing grounded junques and buildings obviously quickly constructed. Tiny figures in Mandalorian armor scrambled toward their ships.
"Don't let them get airborne! Destroy their ships and lay a perimeter of fire around the camp," he ordered.
His squadron split to accomplish what he wanted of them. He felt flushed, his blood pounding his ears as he continued to pound the disabled ships into useless wreckage. In a red haze, he took in the fiery circle surrounding the base with satisfaction.
"Good job, Gold Squadron. Land in that clearing and we'll reconnoiter the place."
"Should we notify the Admiral?" Petro Morka, his youngest pilot asked.
"When we having something productive to report, I will file a complete report. Until then, keep your eyes and ears open."
They set down in an untouched area, keeping their battle gear on. Even with the filters, the smell of burning plants and less pleasant things seeped into their helmets air supply. The group remained quiet as they moved toward the flames. Anakin had them bring their extinguishers with them in order to open a path to the besieged camp.
He refused to see the scorched land he had caused... the dead and dying animals, the destroyed woodlands. All his energy centered on dredging out of the remaining Mandalorians the whereabouts of the cloning center. He took it as a personal mission to oversee its destruction.
They found the ten Mandalorian pilots holed up in one of the bunkers. Anakin shuddered once again at their murky Force signatures. Not Mandalorians... at least not 'original' Mandalorians. He gestured to his squadron to stay back, relying on the Force to deal with the enemy.
"I offer asylum to anyone who will speak of your central base's location," he told the Mandalorians.
"How can we trust you, Jedi?" one of them asked from the safety of their shelter. Anakin kept his face blank, though his mind raced. How in the galaxy had they known?
"Your master wouldn't appreciate you taking this action. Didn't he tell you to keep away from us?"
"My Master is Obi-Wan Kenobi and why would he do any such thing?"
His only answer was raucous laughter and then the laser bolts began to fly. He ducked, drawing his lightsaber and fending off the shots. Behind him, his pilots returned fire and in the melee, no survivors remained. Anakin kept his anger in check, though it simmered and bubbled under his words.
"Search the place. See if anything remains in their computers. Report back to me. I'll take care of examining the bodies and the ships." He waved them off and they went without question.
Eerily, beneath each Mandalorian helmet, an identical face peered sightlessly at him as he divested the bodies of their armor. None carried identification except for a number tattooed on their left forearm. His rummaging through the wrecked ships yielded no better answers. His last hope in this fiasco remained with any stored information in their computers. Even that became dashed with the crestfallen looks on his fellow pilots' faces.
"No. They destroyed their own databases, Ani. The computers that appeared intact had been wiped clean."
He gave a grim nod, then whirled and stalked back to his ship. The others followed in worried silence.
"I'll take responsibility for this, if that's what's the concern," he ground out as he climbed into his seat.
"That's not it, Ani. You just seem so... " Isaad hesitated.
"Just leave it, Isaad. Something's happened to my wife and I can't go to her. So just leave it alone."
"All right, Ani," his second agreed, though he sensed she liked no better than he did.
Amidala struggled to regain consciousness, aware of something terribly wrong. She felt on fire, her lungs gasping for air and her body in an agony of cramping. She wept, calling out Anakin's name repeatedly until Sabe' feared for her life.
"Can't you do anything more?"
"I'm sorry, Sabe', but the virus has caused her to abort and now I'm doing everything in my power to keep her alive." Esme' rubbed the bridge of her nose as though she suffered a headache, then turned back to medical equipment. "See, her heart and respiratory rate are far too fast. I've given her intravenous hydration and antibiotics, but that's only of limited use in a viral infection. Other than supportive measures, at this point there's not much else I can do."
The healer sighed as she watched Amidala's deteriorating vital signs. Sabe' realized her questions only made things worse, so she returned to replacing the cool cloths on Amidala's fevered forehead. If only Anakin were here, things might have turned out differently. Tears sprung up in Sabe's eyes as she remembered the tiny still form as Esme' had drawn it from Amidala's convulsing body. So much hope, so much belief in the rightness of things had died with the little boy. And now Sabe' feared Amidala would leave as well.
Hurry, Anakin, hurry. She needs you terribly.
Instead of the disciplinary action he expected, Anakin received a hero's welcome on the Mon Calamari cruiser. The base his squadron had taken out had been a vital link in the Mandalorian power base. With its destruction, the enemy's communication network had been severely damaged. Still, despite the victory, his crew bought his distraction to the Admiral's attention. The Mon Calamari recalled that Skywalker's wife expected a child in the near future and called him in for a personal conference.
"Congratulations, Colonel Skywalker on your fortuitous action," the Admiral began. "Is there anything we can do for you to show our appreciation? This has most assuredly shortened the war."
"Just let me go to my wife, Admiral. I'll contact General Kenobi to provide a replacement, but I need to leave right away."
"Not a problem. The Mandalorians lick their wounds at the moment and all that is required is a mop up action. Go ahead. All I ask is that you keep in touch."
"My thanks, Admiral," Anakin told, relief plain in his voice. He saluted and hurried off to contact Obi-Wan.
"Something's awfully wrong with Am, Obi-Wan. I just know it. I heard hear call for me during the last battle, but I haven't been able to get in touch with her or sense her since. Has Bail heard anything?" Anakin paced before the holo transmitter, unable to hold still.
"Not that I know of, Anakin. Are you going right away?"
"Yes. The Admiral's given me leave until further notice. Can you meet me on Alderaan?" He needed some support when he went to find out what had happened to his wife.
"I'm afraid not. I've just gotten word that Adi Gallia and Eeth Koth died in an ambush on Balloriat," Obi Wan told him with a pained look.
That brought Anakin to a halt. Masters Gallia and Koth... gone? That made a total of ten of the twelve Masters and several hundred of the Jedi, Knight and Padawan alike, that had fallen since the Clone Wars onset. He remembered Adi Gallia's kindness, Eeth Koth's insights. "Master, I'm sorry. What of Masters Windu and Yoda?"
"They are safe at present, but things are not well on Coruscant, Ani. Go to Alderaan and Amidala. She needs you more now than we do. Take care and be mindful of the Force. Until we meet again, my Padawan." With that, Obi-Wan cut the connection.
Anakin nearly ran to the hangar bay. The Admiral had given him the use of his personal shuttle and though it handled like a space slug, Ani couldn't refuse it in good conscious. The squadron needed every fighter it had. With the Admiral's and his pilots' good wishes, he took off and headed toward Alderaan.
As he pushed the shuttle to its limit, Anakin remembered his last desperate flight toward Amidala. Then he'd found disaster in the form of a destroyed Naboo and its people. Now he feared a more personal sort of misfortune, for even when under siege, Amidala had responded to his mental contact. The eerie silence that persisted after his repeated Sendings worried him almost as much as when he had lost his mother.
Not again... Please, not again.
Nearly a week later he finally arrived in Alderaanian space. Traffic control cleared him without delay and that bothered him, too. He set down in the palace hangar, impatiently waiting for the landing ramp to descend before he ran down it and into the building.
"Where's Queen Amidala?" he demanded of the first servant he saw.
"In the infirmary, Lord Skywalker," the flustered woman answered, pointing down one of the many hallways.
He pushed past her, stretching out his Force senses in desperation. The infirmary... What had happened? Blindly, he strode past door after door until he caught her weak call.
Ani... I'm sorry...
Like metal filings to a magnet, she pulled him with her presence. He entered the large area Bail had set aside as an infirmary and found Sabe' and Esme' seated before a computer.
"Where is she?"
"Anakin! Thank the Force you're here," Sabe' exclaimed.
"Tell me what's wrong. I know something awful's happened to her. What is it?"
The two former handmaidens exchanged glances, then Sabe' rose and went to him. Her words struck him like a physical blow.
"She lost the child, Ani. Esme' did everything she could. Amidala pushed herself unmercifully... Every day she went to the refugee camps. When a Dafier influenza epidemic broke out, she refused to stop going. She's terrible ill, Ani. Esme's not certain if she'll pull through."
Painful wrenching sobs threatened to rip from him. His hands clenched at his sides until the short nails dug into his palms. It took every iota of his strength to not do something dreadful to the two poor women who stood before him. How could they allow her to endanger herself and their child?
"Again... Tell me where she is or..." He left unsaid the threat of violence he tried to suppress.
"This way," Sabe' told him, walking before him into one of the smaller side rooms.
Amidala lay very still, numerous tubes and lines extending from her body. Her beautiful face looked so pale. He knelt beside her, taking her hand between his own.
"I'm here, Am."
Briefly, he thought her too far gone to sense his presence. Then her hand moved in his, clasping it and her eyelids fluttered.
"Ani? Is it really you?" The weakness of her voice nearly made him weep.
"Yes, love. I'm sorry I couldn't get here sooner. We've had a great victory. The war should end soon."
"That's wonderful, Ani, but... I'm so sorry, too. The baby..." Silent tears crept from the corners of her eyes as she squeezed them shut and took a shuddering breath. "It's my fault. I should have listened--"
"No, Am. Don't blame yourself. I should have stayed with you instead of going off to fight. If I had, I could have taken care of you," he insisted.
"Oh, Ani. No more recriminations. Not for you. I'm an adult. I should have known better. Both Sabe' and Esme' tried to warn me, but I couldn't stand by and watch those poor people suffer without trying to help."
"Hush, love. Just get well. Here... Let me help." He released her hand, then took her head between his palms, closing his eyes to open himself to the Force. This time he wouldn't allow his subject to stop him. He would heal her through the power of the Force as he had tried with his mother. In his sensitive state, he saw the virus burning through Amidala's veins, tearing down her defenses.
*Begone you vile things. You have no place here,* he bid the disease as he mended the damage the tiny microbes had caused. Slowly, he began to gain ground against them until he no longer sensed their alien presence. Exhausted, he slumped beside his wife; reassured he had done all he could for her. As he sank into sleep, he felt her hand, cool and soft, brush aside a lock of hair from his face.
"Thank you, beloved. Now if you could only heal yourself as well," she murmured.
On Coruscant, Palpatine received word of Amidala's unfortunate illness and the loss of her child. He muttered to himself over lost opportunities, then allowed himself a moment of satisfaction at another report. Two more Jedi Masters had fallen victim to the Mandalorians. Only Windu and that annoying troll, Yoda, remained of the Council. He paused to consider how he might use the Skywalker tragedy to his advantage.
Perhaps he might find some reason for Kenobi to alienate Anakin further. For now, Palpatine decided, the kindly Emperor must express his sorrow on the young couple's sad loss and offer any assistance they might need. He supposed he should be thankful the former Queen still had a number of childbearing years before her. If he allowed Skywalker to remain beside her and nurtured their relationship for a space, he might still have his ideal apprentice grow within her.