Am... I need to talk to you.
Silence...then faintly, from a great distance.
Ani! I need you. Where are you?
Just above Ord Mandell, love. I'm going to try to contact you on the holonet.
Hurry, Ani. Things are awful here.
He grimaced, wanting to fly directly to Naboo and not return to the cruiser. Yet he knew they needed him as well. Force, but he hated this! With a curse, he turned back to the cruiser to contact Obi-Wan and then speak to the Mon Calamari Admiral. Bail Organa might never forgive him if he just left and indeed, he had promised to stay as long as they required his services.
Helmet under his arm, Anakin strode across the deck toward the comm room. Admiral Rashad hailed him from the bridge, then moved to join him.
"Colonel, you seem disturbed. Have you discovered further Mandalorian troop movements?" The Admiral's protuberant eyes studied him and Anakin sensed the Mon Calamari's anxiety. The last battle had left the cruiser with numerous damaged areas requiring Ord Mandell's repair facilities.
"I'm not certain, sir. You know I have ties to Naboo. I have contacted my wife and she has indicated some sort of trouble in the system. Do I have your permission to make a transmission there to ascertain the difficulty?"
"Of course. Just use the usual precautions, Colonel...and let us know if we can be of assistance. Yours has been invaluable."
Anakin thanked him, then asked if he could make the transmission privately. Rashad gave a slight smile and waved him away. Without a moment's hesitation, Anakin hurried to make the appropriate connection, then return to his cabin. Once there, he placed the call on a narrow band holo. Amidala appeared, her image grainy and wavering with static.
"Ani! Thank heavens you called." She looked agitated and afraid, something he'd never seen before, even when she'd been threatened by the Trade Federation.
"What is it, Am? You sounded desperate."
"All supply lines have been cut and the Mandalorians have surrounded us. They've given us an ultimatum... Surrender the planet and leave or they'll kill us all, Naboo and Gungan alike." She straightened, obviously trying to control herself. "This isn't like anything that we've experienced before. They don't seem to really want anything except to take possession of the planet."
"Have you contacted the Chancellor?"
"I tried, but he's not accepting any transmissions. Can you come home?" she asked, her eyes pleading more than the calm tone she used.
"I'll find a way, Am. I promise. Just let me get a hold of Obi-Wan and put my affairs in order here," he told her. "Now, I've got to go. This has to be kept short."
She nodded, then cut the connection. He realized things must be really terrible there for her to sound so frantic. He reached out with the Force again, this time for Obi-Wan.
Anakin? Is there a problem?
Yes, Master. I must go to Naboo. Something is very wrong there. Amidala and Naboo are in trouble. The Mandalorians have moved against them.
I'll notify Bail Organa and meet you there. Contact me if I'm not there when you arrive.
I will, Master.
Anakin made his way back to the bridge and told the Admiral what he'd found out. Rashad offered what help he could, though in their current circumstances he could only give fuel and enough supplies to fill Anakin's fighter. Anakin put Isaad Rota'ai in command of the squadron. She would more than adequately fill his shoes until he could get back. Rota'ai, a Corellian by birth, had a great deal of Force sensitivity, which the Jedi Council had never discovered. He could trust her to keep his pilots together and lead them well in battle.
I'm coming, love. Just hold on.
He made a stop in the Corellian system, then moved on to Naboo, finishing his flight in less than three days. To make that kind of time, he'd pushed himself and his ship to the breaking point. Twice he'd been forced to land for more fuel and an hour or two of sleep. Then he'd climb back in the cockpit and race off toward Naboo again.
As he approached, he took in the clutter of Mandalorian ships in orbit around the planet. He waited for a challenge, but none came, which worried him more than if they'd targeted him. The closer he got to the atmosphere, the more apparent the reason for the lack of concern with his presence.
The glow of fires pierced the heavy black clouds above the surface. Naboo burned and Anakin had no doubt the Mandalorians had put the torch to it. Water still glimmered occasionally through the murk, but the conflagration continued to rage across Gungan jungle and Naboo plains alike. He set course for Theed, terrified for Amidala and the others.
"I take it young Skywalker has arrived?" Sidious' image asked the Mandalorian general.
"His ship entered Naboo space not twenty minutes ago, my Lord. As you commanded, we have not engaged him."
Sidious gave a cold smile. "Indeed. Proceed as we've discussed previously. Is the Queen in custody?"
"Yes, my Lord. My troops have disposed of the rest of the Naboo and Gungan populace as you wished. All excepting the Queen's own attendants... We're holding them as well to ensure her cooperation."
"Very well, General. Keep me posted on Skywalker's actions." The holograph faded to nothing.
Flames enveloped Theed, the buildings in ruins, the handmaidens' quarters in the palace with one wall gone as if an ion cannon had taken it out. Anakin landed his fighter in the deserted square, then hopped out and ran toward the palace. He didn't sense Obi-Wan and the others anywhere near and in desperation, he sought Amidala.
Her sorrow reached him first and he knew she hadn't been able to save her people, human or Gungan. An awful anger filled him, making him want to kill every Mandalorian he came across, regardless of the danger to himself or anyone else. In a blind rage, he pounded down the palace's wrecked and empty hallways, lightsaber drawn and lit. He felt her presence close by and began poking his head into every tiny room throughout the place.
I'm here, Ani. Down in the toward the generators...
The haze cleared from his eyes and with a conscious effort, he spread out his Force sense, seeking his wife. There... Sprinting down the partially broken staircase, he moved without further hesitation to her location. Vengeance could wait for the moment.
As he came around the last landing, a group of Mandalorian soldiers moved to intercept him. Despite his Jedi training, Anakin spared no thought for his actions as he sliced through them with his weapon. Behind them, through the closed door, his wife and her handmaidens awaited and nothing, neither man nor machine, would keep him from them.
"Stand back, Am. I'm going to burn through the door," he shouted, then proceeded to cut through the lock. It fell off in a single molten piece and the door swung open to reveal the women huddled against the opposite wall.
Amidala ran to him, clutching him as if he might disappear before her eyes. "I couldn't save them, Ani... None of them. My friends, my parents, my people... They're all dead... My planet's dead. Why?" she wept.
He couldn't answer her, for he understood no better than she did the Mandalorians' actions. All he could do was hold her and plan on how he would escape with her and the others.
"Sio Bibble?" he asked.
"They murdered him first, Ani. He tried to reason with them when my negotiations failed. He said they didn't respect a woman ruler. That a man would have better luck. But he didn't. They cut him down without so much as a word." She bit back another sob. "He posed no threat to them. Unarmed and elderly, how in the world could he do so?"
"I don't know, Am. All I do know is I've got to get you and your friends out of here. All I have is my fighter. Obi-Wan said he'd be here to meet me, but I think I was too fast for him." He looked over her head at the other women. Sabe' stepped forward.
"He'll be here, Lord Skywalker, if he promised. I know a place we can wait safely. If we'd been able to leave before the invaders arrived, we could have gotten many away. But it was as if they knew exactly what we planned," she told him. "Someone has betrayed us, my Lord. Of that, I feel certain."
They made their way toward the palace hangar bay, not certain if any of the ships had survived the Mandalorian attack. Anakin felt greatly disturbed at Sabe''s pronouncement. How could they have been betrayed? And by whom? He set aside those disturbing thoughts and set about finding a way to get Amidala and her four remaining handmaidens off of Naboo.
His luck held out. A small shuttle nestled in one corner of the bay, untouched among the wreckage of less fortunate fighters and the Queen's Nubian. From the one corridor, a familiar whistle brought smiles to the group's faces.
"R2! You're safe," Amidala exclaimed.
The droid wheeled toward them, a string of beeps, chortles and other mechanical noises bursting from him. While Anakin might not actually understand R2, he got the sense he had something important to tell them. He wished he had brought 3PO along instead of leaving him on Coruscant.
"Come on, let's get you out of here," Anakin told Amidala, then ushered her into the shuttle. "Can you pilot this thing?"
She gave him a disgusted look. "Of course. I may not be the hot shot ace you are, but I know my way around a cockpit."
He grinned at her, pride at her accomplishments overshadowing, for a brief moment, the horrible situation they had found themselves in. Anakin glanced back at the other women, who settled themselves into the seats and began to strap in, then joined his wife at the front of the shuttle.
"I need to stay behind, Am. Someone has to look for other survivors. There has to be somebody else who found a hiding place..."
Amidala put her hand over his. "Yes, love... I understand, though I wish I could keep you by my side." She leaned forward to press her mouth lightly to his.
The touch of her lips against his flooded him with violent need. They'd been married such a short time when he had to leave her and months had passed since he'd held her. With a groan, he pulled her into his arms, covering her face and neck with kisses. She melted against him, responding with equal passion, until the sound of distant cannon fire dragged them from their ardor. Reluctantly, they broke apart, aching and miserable with thwarted desire and the loss of their safe haven.
"Go to Coruscant, Am. You'll be safe there. If I find anyone else... When Obi-Wan and Bail Organa get here, they'll have the means to evacuate any other survivors." He gave her face a gentle caress. "I'll cover your escape in my fighter, then I come back and start my search."
"Take care, beloved. I couldn't stand it if I lost you, too," she murmured, pressing her cheek against his palm.
He made his way back to the square, fired up his fighter, then hovered near the hangar bay's entrance. A few minutes later the shuttle sped through the opening and toward space, Anakin's fighter close behind. Once again, no challenge, but Anakin didn't leave the ship carrying its precious cargo until they went into hyperspace. Her last message to him had filled him with the determination to make the Mandalorians pay.
"Come back to me, love. You're all I have left now."
He sped back to the planet, skimming the surface, his sensors seeking any sign of life. Clusters of Mandalorian troops greeted him with bursts of blaster fire as he flew past. He moved toward the Gungan jungle, toward the sanctuary Jar-Jar had shown them years ago.
Spirals of oily black smoke rose from the place. As he drew closer he saw Gungan bodies among the shattered statuary and vegetation, strewn like limp dolls and a child's playing blocks across the ground. A lump rose in his throat. Annoying as Jar-Jar had been, Anakin never would have wished such an end for these people.
He landed in a clearing and set off on foot toward the destruction. Reaching out with the Force, he tried to find any flicker of life. Nothing met his senses...not Gungan, nor any animal life. What had possessed the Mandalorians to obliterate all living creatures on Naboo? Other systems had never had such total erasure of their ecosystems and many had fought back rather than attempt negotiation as Amidala had.
Master, there's nothing left alive except some plants. No one except the Queen and some of her handmaidens. I sent them to Coruscant.
Wise action, Padawan. Our forces will be there within the hour.
I'll be in the old Gungan sanctuary, Master. Unless the Mandalorians come for me.
Take care, Ani and don't try to fight them on your own.
Anger rushed through Anakin. Where had his master been when he needed him? Obi-Wan had no idea how bad things were on Naboo. Well, he'd take a few of the invaders out while he waited. His master could find him later, but for now, he couldn't stand the inactivity...especially surrounded by the evidence of their barbarous natures.
He climbed back into his fighter and sped back toward the nearest Mandalorian troops, lasers blazing. The bolts cut through them like a sharp knife through ripe *palli* fruit. Their deaths beat at him, but he erected tight shields against the pain.
The more he slaughtered them, the grimmer his expression became until it assumed the aspect of a mask...impersonal and uncaring. He could rationalize this taking of life. They were only clones, of that he felt certain... unnatural and an obscenity against the Force. He pulled on that very power to seek out and destroy the destroyers.
"Anakin!" His master's voice crackled over the comm, obvious distress in its tone.
"I'm busy right now, Master," he muttered, spraying yet another group of Mandalorians with deadly fire.
"Stop, Anakin! This senseless destruction ill befits a Jedi!"
I don't care, Obi-Wan. They deserve it. They murdered the Naboo and Gungans... They're only clones. They can't be allowed to do this anywhere else.
Anakin shut out his Master, clamping his shields down until no sense of Obi-Wan leaked through. Then he continued on his deadly path, ensuring nothing survived of the invaders.
Sidious chuckled as he sensed the hatred and anger of young Skywalker as he proceeded to annihilate the Mandalorian ground troops on Naboo. Ah, yes...soon, very soon, he would take him to his side and make him his next apprentice. Already the negative emotions strengthened the young man in the Dark Side Force powers. All that remained was for young Skywalker to impregnate the Queen.
She'd come to Palpatine on Coruscant for sanctuary and solace, frightened and hurting at her powerlessness against the invaders. He'd made appropriate noises and put her up in his quarters. Close enough to continue feeding her anxious state and assess her fertility. Yes, she was ripe. The next time Skywalker went to her, a new life would grow within her.
A life he had plans for in the future. He could wait... After all, the Sith had waited two thousand years for these events to transpire. What were a few months, even a few years?
He donned his Palpatine persona once again and went before the Senate to bemoan the fate of Naboo and agitate for stronger action against Mandalore. How he loved playing one off against the other. Their very divisiveness assisted him in his plans. It wouldn't be long before he could declare himself Emperor. Indeed, he could rationalize the move with their inability to act in a concerted manner. They needed him to take over and provide order in the galaxy. Once he took care of the Jedi and his Mandalorian allies, there would be little opposition to his takeover. And for that, he needed Skywalker.
Palpatine put on a worried face, then entered the Senate chambers. A cacophony greeted him, pleasing him to no end, though he only showed distress to the delegates.
*Let it now begin,* he thought, then turned to the task at hand.
Anakin's rage settled into something coldly fierce so that when Obi-Wan and the others arrived, he scarcely heard his Master's words. He stood among the ruins of Theed while the Alderaanians searched for survivors. That goal he had completely forgotten in his need for revenge... for justice... that was what he believed he had accomplished. He knew the Council would never forgive his actions, but he didn't care at the moment. Obi-Wan stopped his tirade and looked at him expectantly.
An odd calm settled over Anakin. He no longer worried about what other Jedi thought of him. None of them understood himíµºí¿´ even his own Master. Sadly enough, most likely his Master understood him least of all.
"Well, Padawan? What have you to say?" His Master glared at him disapprovingly.
"I have no excuse, Obi-Wan. I did what needed to be done. They represented a threat to the galaxy's order. Indeed, they had already shown their barbarity and inhumanity. What I did was right. No matter what you believe."
Obi-Wan gave him a startled look and all at once it seemed Anakin's greater height grew even more. The Jedi Knight no longer seemed to recognize Anakin Skywalker, Jedi Padawan. A stranger stood in his place. One whose potential loomed ominously across the future.
"We will discuss this further upon our return, Anakin," Obi-Wan told him, a cool note in his voice. "For now, we must assist the others in our search."
"Nothing survived... Master," Anakin replied, reluctant to use the term any longer.
Obi-Wan's lips thinned, the struggle not to argue with him obvious. Throughout the ten years Anakin had trained with Obi-Wan, they'd always had their differences. This time Anakin felt certain things would never return to the way they had been before.
During his onslaught against the Mandalorians, the power of the Force had flowed more strongly through him than ever before. Even during his experience six years before, when he'd inadvertently killed an enemy, had he ever known such incredible heady strength. At that time, he'd felt remorse and had vowed to never use the Force in such a way. Now he believed the only way to defeat such as Mandalorians would be in just such a manner.
The coldness between he and his Master remained through the entire time they scoured Naboo's surface and underwater areas. As Anakin had foretold, no living creature except a few scattered plants had escaped Mandalorian attention. A very subdued battle group returned to Coruscant to report to the rest of the Republic about Naboo's fate. Bail Organa addressed the Senate while the Council questioned Obi-Wan and Anakin about the events.
Once they laid the bare facts before the Council, the Masters' faces reflected grave concern. Anakin stood before them, strangely detached... the rage still burning deep inside. He answered their questions without hesitation and sensed their distaste for how he handled the situation.
"I have done as I felt necessary. For that, I do not beg forgiveness. Ten years... ten years I have worked to follow the Code. Never once has the Council given me anything you have not begrudged me. Because of this, my mother died. Now you chastise me for seeking justice for the destruction of my wife's home world," he accused. "I will not apologize for what I did."
"Padawan Skywalker, this attitude does you no honor. While the Council agrees that the Mandalorians' actions required justice, the manner in which you say you achieved it remains worrisome," Mace Windu told him. "For this, we must place you on probation. You will remain with your Master at all times. Obi-Wan, go to Alderaan and help them to strengthen their defenses. Our intelligence indicates they are most likely the next target."
Neither Obi-Wan nor Anakin looked particularly happy with the Council's pronouncement. Both gave curt bows and retreated from the chamber in silence. As they walked toward the Temple barracks, Obi-Wan gave Anakin several sidelong glances. At last, the young man could no longer stand the tension.
"Master," he began, the word a bad taste in his mouth, "I would ask that I at least be able to visit my wife if I am to be in exile on Alderaan."
Obi-Wan came to an abrupt halt. "Anakin, we're not enemies! No matter what, I believe you are good at heart. And I don't like the Council's decree any more than you do. Of course, you can go to Amidala. Even if you don't want me as your Master any longer, we have to see this through. We've both made promises we need to keep."
//Promise me you'll train him, Obi-Wan. //
//Of course, Master. I promise. //
The specter of Qui-Gon hovered between them, reminding them both of the bond they should have shared. A tiny chink in Anakin's carefully erected shields opened.
"I'm sorry, Master. At least for causing you trouble." *Though I won't apologize for pulverizing those Mandalorians.* He let that leak out before he slammed the barrier down again.
Obi-Wan merely closed his eyes with a tired sigh. "Very well. Apology, such as it is, accepted. Now get over to your wife's quarters and spend some time with her." He made shooing motions with both hands and it took no more for Anakin give him one of his old sunny smiles before he hurried off. "Be back tomorrow evening. We have some plans we need go over."
Anakin waved and disappeared around the corner.
Palpatine had provided Amidala and what remained of her entourage with an entire suit of rooms. Considering that the Queen had few possessions left, it seemed rather extravagant. She paced the confines of the luxurious place, wringing her hands and trying to settle the knots in her stomach. Had Ani made it off Naboo? Had Obi-Wan and the Alderaanians made it there? A lump rose in her throatíµí¸¡d any other of her people survived?
Horrid memories of Sio Bibble's death replayed in her mind, followed swiftly by those of the wholesale slaughter of all those in her sight as she stood by helplessly. She'd wept until her eyes ached and her head felt it would split. Her handmaidens that had been spared fared no better. She'd sent them to bed hours ago and had just peeked into the adjoining room to find them curled around each other for consolation. How she longed for someone to comfort her. Oh, where was Ani? She needed him so.
As if her very thoughts conjured him up, a knock sounded on her door. His familiar essence enveloped her, warming the chill from her heart. She flew to the door, pulling it open and him inside the room. Frantically, they held each other as though it might be the last time.
"Beloved, I feared so for you. Are you all right?" she asked him, running her hands over him, her eyes taking in every feature.
"Gods, Am... I tried to find someone. But..." His voice halted, as filled with misery as the day he'd come to her after his mother's death.
"Hush, love. You couldn't do anything... No one could." *Not even me.*
"I need you, Am. Let me stay with you tonight." He dragged her closer until she could barely breathe, then relaxed his hold a bit. "I have to go with Obi-Wan to Alderaan. Force knows when we'll be together again."
"Not again!" she protested. With a growl, she pulled his face to hers, devouring his mouth with her own until they both trembled with desire.
Somehow they ended up on the bed; clothes shoved aside just enough to allow hands to stroke sensitive spots. Just enough to permit that joining they craved so much. Even when they finished the first storm of passion, Anakin refused to leave her, staying inside her until he recovered enough to repeat the act again and again. Desperation shone from both their faces... a hunger that even physical lovemaking couldn't assuage.
Am, if I could crawl inside your skin, I would. I never want to leave you again.
I feel the same, love. How can I stand it if you go away again?
He didn't answer in words, just took her again, absorbing her scream of completion with his mouth, then giving her his own as he once again emptied his essence into her. Exhausted, he rolled on his side, taking care to stay joined and wrapped around her.
"So tired, Ani, but don't goíµí±p;quot; she murmured against his neck.
"You're coming with me, Am," he told her drowsily.
"But what about Sabe' and the others?"
"You'll all come to Alderaan. I'd rather have you there than take the chance I'm not close by again when something happens," he insisted.
"Mmmíµí·¨at will we tell the Chancellor? And the Council?"
"I don't care. You're my wife and you belong with me." He kissed her gently, then gave a snort. "Besides, I can't get in any more hot water than I'm in right now."
He sighed and shook his head. "Tomorrow. Tonight's for us."
Obi-Wan stood on the balcony outside the barracks' room, disturbed with the sense he headed toward some fateful event in the near future. Despite Qui-Gon's insistence that he focus on the present, Obi-Wan had often had startling visions of the future. Yoda had told him these were not immutable, merely glimpses of the possibilities which might occur. Now he worried that the darkness the Council had sensed around Anakin had begun to consume his Padawan.
Needing to calm himself, Obi-Wan left the room and went to the Temple Gardens. This late he would most likely have the place to himself. He found his favorite spot to meditate and began the exercises to enter a trance. A wistful thought popped into his head as he tried to concentrate.
I wish I could talk to Qui-Gon.
A sigh of warm air swirled around him, bringing the scent of cedar and sweet grass. Obi-Wan, I have never left you.
His eyes flew open, but only the shadows of growing things greeted his eyes. "Master?"
I don't have the strength to show myself, Obi-Wan, but I will always be near if you need me. Close your eyes...attune yourself to the Force.
Obi-Wan did as Qui-Gon's essence bid him, feeling the presence draw nearer.
Troubled times loom aheadí¶í¿²se than anyone can imagine. Don't let Anakin become estranged from you, Obi-Wan. Terrible danger lies in that path. Beware the Sith!"
"Who is it, Master? How can I tell?"
I cannot say, but be aware of the powerful signature of the Sith Master. I can sense him nearby.
Qui-Gon's Force presence began to fade.
I can stay no longer, Obi-Wan. Take care and watch your back.
Obi-Wan wanted to cry out for his Master to stay. That he hadn't been ready to become a Knight and take his own Padawan. That he felt inadequate to training someone like Anakin. But he was alone with his fears and doubts, more disturbed than he had been before he'd sought out the peace of the garden.
Darth Sidious stood staring at the sleeping lovers, a terrible smile curling his lips. He reached out with the Force and probed the Queen's body. Yes, thereí¶í¸¥ tiny kernel of new life nestled deep within her womb. He must make certain nothing happened to her until after she gave birth. This plan of young Skywalker's for her to go to Alderaan fit well with what Sidious intended.
He'd managed, in his Palpatine persona, to get Bail Organa to agree to produce a greater number of weapons and spacecraft for the war effort. This had angered the Mon Calamari and representatives from Malastare since they had traditionally contracted for those.
What no one knew about was his own contract with the Kuat Shipyards for a new class of spaceship, one he had named Star Destroyer. Once he declared himself Emperor, he planned on maintaining peace between all the factions through Force. Now that Anakin Skywalker was well on his way to the Dark Side, he felt confident he'd soon have a new apprentice to oversee the military aspect of his rule.
Skywalker merely needed a bit of a nudge, one that would take place a little over nine months from now. Sidious' eyes raked over the couple, taking in the entwined bodies. Such a shame the beautiful young flesh would become marred, but he'd foreseen it as the way he would obtain his new servant. Best to let them enjoy their pleasures while they might. Soon, very soon, such activities would become a thing of the past in the flush of excitement the Dark Side power provided and then Sidious would make his move and reveal himself to Anakin. That person would die and become the new Sith Lord that Sidious needed to carry on the tradition.