For disclaimers, warnings and pairing notifications, see Chapter 1.
Author Note: A pretty long chapter this time at just over 9k words, but I couldn't find a convenient break point in it. Hope you enjoy anyways.
Several hours later Obi-Wan returned to the small skiff they had arrived in, in search of Anakin. Stopping, he reached out and probed the ship for signs of life, but as far as he could tell, the ship was devoid of any life. Nevertheless, the ship was the last place he had left to look. Even Padmé had not seen Anakin since they had last left together. So he walked up the ramp and onto the ship. On cursory inspection he did not see Anakin anywhere. But then he heard a small crash and a loud stream of quite untranslatable exclamations in Huttese emanating from the shaft that gave maintenance access to the ship's main engines. He could not help but grin at his old friend's penchant for tinkering. Idly he wondered whether Anakin would finally manage with this ship what he had been threatening to do since the age of about 10 and create an engine that could move the ship from one place to another instantaneously. He entered the maintenance bay of the ship and leaned over the edge of the shaft, looking down into its dark tangle of wiring and conduits. He could not actually see Anakin, which he expected since the hyperdrive was actually round a corner at the bottom of the shaft.
He was just about to call out and let Anakin know that he was there when Anakin's hand appeared from around the corner in the shaft. At the same moment, a rather hard and fairly heavy object struck him in the back, nearly sending him tumbling down the shaft. He managed to regain his balance and thus escape the undignified fall into the shaft, but the tool's course was altered so that instead of landing in Anakin's hand as it was clearly meant to do, it embedded itself firmly in the floor of the shaft about 20 centimetres from Anakin's outstretched hand.
"Kriffing tools!" Anakin swore, this time in Basic. His arm reached the extra distance and wrenched the hydro-spanner away from the floor before disappearing back round the bend in the shaft. Obi-Wan waited for a moment, listening to the sounds of Anakin working on whatever it was he was working on. Then after a moment the mechanical sounds stopped. Assuming that it might be safe to distract Anakin now, Obi-Wan spoke.
Unfortunately he turned out to be quite inconvenient in his timing. For at once there was another, much louder crash, and he could see several sparks jump out of the shaft. This was immediately followed by a startled yell from Anakin and yet another round of cursing, this time in far too many languages for Obi-Wan to keep up. He got the general gist of it though, and decided to beat a hasty retreat away from the edge of the shaft before Anakin could make good on some of the more exotic threats he had just made regarding Obi-Wan's limbs and internal organs and the arrangement thereof.
It was several minutes before Anakin emerged once more, this time levitating himself all the way up the shaft, revealing himself to be stripped bare to the waist. His face and chest shone with sweat and sported various black smudges, a testament to the time he had just spent in the cramped and none-too-clean shaft. His hands, both the organic one and the prosthetic, also sported a number of minor burns, presumably from whatever had shorted out or broken when Obi-Wan had made his presence known to Anakin. Obi-Wan could not help but grin at the irately amused expression on Anakin's face. It felt good for him to do so. How many moments just like this had they shared during the Clone Wars? Moments when Obi-Wan, being mechanically ignorant had managed to mess up whatever Anakin was working on yet again. Whether it had been their fighters, or a captured droid transport to escape in, or a com-link to get in contact with their forces. Obi-Wan had always allowed Anakin to do the mechanical work, but then managed to somehow distract Anakin at the crucial time, causing the repair to be delayed, often by time they did not have. Anakin had often joked that Obi-Wan's little distraction routine was more dangerous than an army of battle droids when they were in a tight situation that required his technical skills.
"Master," Anakin asked with amused exasperation, obviously also remembering the countless similar incidents, "How many times have I asked you not to distract me when I'm working on something delicate?"
Obi-Wan pretended to think about that one for a second.
"Quite a few, I think," he said.
"Then why don't you listen?" Anakin asked, a smile on his face as he enjoyed this situation. One of the few in which he could play the teacher and Obi-Wan was the lax student.
"I am trying," Obi-Wan said, in a credible imitation of the tone Anakin used when on the receiving end of such a sentiment from Obi-Wan.
At that Anakin could hold a straight face no longer, and collapsed into laughter. Obi-Wan joined him after a moment. The tensions between them forgotten for now as they shared an old joke between close friends.
All too soon, however, the moment of humour was over, and Obi-Wan's face returned to seriousness. Seeing the change in his former master, Anakin also sobered up. Obi-Wan opened his mouth to speak, but Anakin held up his hand, stopping him before he could start.
"Let me shower and change first, Master," Anakin said, "Then we can sit down and talk about it for as long as you like."
"Fair enough," Obi-Wan allowed graciously. He was quite surprised, having come fully expecting to have to force Anakin to sit down and hear him out. For him to be willing to talk about doing something he did not want to do was nearly unprecedented. Before, he would either have refused point blank, or needed to be ordered into it. Never before had he been willing to be swayed by persuasion. "I shall be in the cockpit when you are ready."
"I'm not changing my mind though," Anakin warned as he walked out, with just a hint of his old petulance.
Emperor Palpatine paced up and down in his office, considering the events that had led to this moment. He now stood at the pinnacle of power in the galaxy. Every system of the Republic bowed before him, he held the power of the Republic's armies in one hand and the far more awesome power of the Dark Side of the Force in the other. He had a strong apprentice, perhaps one of the most powerful Force users ever to have existed, whom he had now turned nearly irrevocably to the Dark Side. Only one last challenge remained for his apprentice, and he was confident that Lord Vader would acquit himself well in it. Nevertheless he could not shake the feeling that something had gone wrong. Something was not as it should be, and he could not place it. Nowhere could he find any flaws in his design, yet a tiny voice in the back of his head whispered doom to him. He trusted such feelings, for more often than not they were the whisperings of the Force. But he was annoyed that he could not pin down what exactly was out of place.
The only factor beyond his immediate reach was Lord Vader, and there he felt he had nothing to worry about. From the moment of his little visit from that incredibly annoying little green freak of a Jedi, he had known that it would be the legendary, dogmatic and thoroughly blind Obi-Wan Kenobi who would be facing Lord Vader. He had expected that battle to take a long time, and he could still feel Lord Vader's continuing struggle through the Force. Certainly Kenobi was putting up an impressive fight to so frustrate his apprentice. Indeed he would have given much to be there, simply to watch what he was sure was proving to be a truly epic battle. But the task was Lord Vader's, he could not interfere in the step that would seal the boy forever to the Sith, and he felt none of the glimmerings of light in his presence that might signal a switch in allegiances on the boy's part. Lord Vader was as deeply entrenched in the Dark Side as if he stood by his master's side.
What, then, could the source of his doubts possibly be? Suddenly the answer came to him in a flash. The Senate. Although the majority of the Senate had willingly submitted their worlds to his rule in exchange for promises of wealth or power, there were yet a few holdouts that refused to give up their tired and decrepit ideals of democracy, in particular some of the members of that ridiculous Delegation of the Two Thousand. They had nevertheless submitted, but in a moment of perfect clarity he saw that their capitulation was a sham. They were already planning a revolt against him. He would need to move swiftly and decisively to put an end to this before it began. Pressing a button on his desk he activated the com-link with his outer office where Mas Amedda sat awaiting his commands.
"Speaker Amedda," he said to the foot high image of the tall Chagrian, "Summon to me the delegations of the Mon Calamari, the Quarren, and those from Kashyyyk, Sullust, Alderaan, Chandrila and Senex. And ensure that the meeting is monitored by security forces, as a precaution. It has come to my attention that there are traitors in our midst, which cannot be tolerated."
"Yes, Master," Amedda replied, bowing slightly before turning away to carry out his orders. Palpatine sat back down, smiling evilly to himself as he considered what would be a fitting punishment for those who plotted sedition and treason against the Empire.
The doctors were most disturbed when Anakin burst into the med centre. Nevertheless they did nothing to hinder him, the determined look on his face told them that this was not something they wanted to interfere in. He consulted briefly with Healer Arden and she rushed off. Then he made his way quickly to the maternity ward of the med-centre. He halted outside the door to Padmé's room, taking a moment to compose himself before he knocked. When she saw the grim look on his face as he entered, her anxiety climbed.
"What is it?" she asked, "Has something happened?"
"Yes," Anakin replied tersely, "We need to leave now."
"Because hours ago various members of the Senate were arrested on Palpatine's orders for 'treason against the Republic'. Among them were Senators Organa and Mothma."
Padmé looked horrified.
"Has anything been said about their fates?" she asked quickly.
Here Anakin brightened, noticeably.
"Yes, actually. The broadcast said they were being held on Coruscant while trials were prepared. Which gives us an opportunity."
"An opportunity?" Padmé asked, not quite following for a moment. Then it dawned on her what her husband was implying. "We're going to rescue them?" She asked, excited.
"Yes, Yoda, Obi-Wan and I need to return to the Temple. While we do that, we can also free the senators. The charges include plotting to overthrow the Empire. If there is any truth to that charge, then they may be able to help us."
"What are we waiting for?" Padmé asked, throwing back the covers on her bed and swinging her legs around so that her feet were on the floor.
"Actually," Anakin replied, quite seriously, "Healer Arden is just coming with her best estimate of when you are due," then his tone became somewhat lighter, and he grinned rather crookedly, "After all, going into labour in the middle of a rescue mission would make it much more challenging."
Before Padmé could come up with a suitable retort, Healer Arden breezed in with a stack of paperwork. She made a show of outrage at Padmé being halfway out of bed without a doctor's permission, and ordered her back into bed. Anakin watched with growing amusement as the woman who had debated in the Senate every day for at least a decade was rendered helpless by the determined Healer. Of course in the Senate, one could not threaten to have one's opponent sedated, so he supposed that the healer had rather an unfair advantage. Once Padmé was ensconced in the bed once more, Healer Arden made a few final checks. Then she handed Anakin Padmé's chart with a note scrawled at the bottom that read: 'Seven standard days, don't let her do anything strenuous.', before turning to Padmé and saying:
"Now, you can get out of bed, Mrs Skywalker. And since you husband tells me you'll be leaving shortly, I'm urging you to seek medical care at your next port of call, unless your husband, or one of the other Jedi with you is a trained midwife."
"Thank you, Healer Arden," Padmé said with as much dignity as she could muster. Then she got up completely, shedding her hospital gown and donning her own now freshly laundered clothes. Anakin thanked the healer and the happy couple left. They met up with Obi-Wan and Yoda at their ship, and the four of them boarded and departed Pollis Massa. They did not, however, set course for Coruscant as Padmé had expected. Instead Anakin keyed in a course for Alderaan.
"Why Alderaan?" she asked him.
"We need to contact Bail's wife, so that we have somewhere safe to bring the Senators. Also there's something I want to drop off with her."
"Really?" Padmé asked, "What?"
"You'll see," Anakin replied evasively.
"Anakin!" Padmé exclaimed, not fooled at all by her husband's act, "You are not just dumping me on Alderaan!"
"Actually, that was what I was going to tell you next, you should stay behind on Alderaan and help Bail's wife prepare a hiding place."
"No! Why should I stay behind? Give me one good reason!"
"This," Anakin said, holding out her chart with the scribbled note at the bottom, "With the time it will take us to get to Alderaan and then from there to Coruscant, you're due right in the middle of the time when we would be trying to rescue your friends. Plus I'm sure breaking into two of the most highly guarded facilities in the whole of the Empire right now comes under the heading of 'something strenuous'. So I'm begging you, Padmé, for our children's sake as well as our own to stay on Alderaan while Yoda, Obi-Wan and I take care of this."
This last sentence was accompanied by a look of such pleading in her husband's azure eyes that Padmé's heart melted. How could she refuse him when all he was thinking about was the welfare of her and their children? She might be afraid to lose him, like she nearly had on that landing platform, but she could not help loving him for wanting to keep her safe.
"Alright, Ani, I'll stay on Alderaan," she sighed, but then became sterner, "But you'd better hurry back to me."
"Angel, you know I'll always come back to you. You're everything to me."
"Flatterer," she said with feigned disdain. Inside, however, she was warmed by the glimmer of Anakin's old self that was visible in his words. She had always worried about his leaving during the Clone Wars, and he had always used the same words to reassure her. Hearing them now was like a balm on their troubled relationship, a reminder of better times and a hope to work towards in the future.
The trip to Alderaan took most of the day, and it was late evening when they landed at the palatial complex in the planet's capital of Aldera. Breha Organa, Queen of Alderaan and wife of the esteemed Senator, received them graciously, if somewhat stiffly. Her attitude was completely understandable, however, considering her husband's predicament. She brightened considerably when she learned of their intended mission, and agreed to prepare to shelter and protect the fugitive Senators on their return. She also proved amenable to Padmé's presence, once she got over the shock of discovering that the Nubian Senator was married to Anakin, and she was quick to reassure Anakin that Padmé would have every available care when it was time for her to deliver their children. Anakin had also proved the innocence of his comment about dropping something off by leaving behind a small holo-disc, asking Padmé to take care of it and telling her that if he should happen not to make it back, the contents of the disc were for her. All in all, the visit had proved to be a highly successful one. Now all Anakin had to worry about was the upcoming rescue Yoda, Obi-Wan and he were undertaking.
Overall he didn't like it. It was not that he did not see the importance of rescuing the captive Senators, he did. What he did not see, however, was how Obi-Wan and Yoda could trust him enough to bring him along. He knew what they were doing. In all likelihood, Kenobi had told Yoda about his refusal to touch the Force, and they were dragging him along in the hopes that he would have no choice but to call on his old Jedi skills during the course of the mission. They were probably right too, after all they were going to break into and out of two of what were undoubtedly the most heavily guarded buildings in the galaxy. The three of them would need every power and advantage they could get, especially since he and Obi-Wan were missing their lightsabers. However that did not mean that he had to like it. He had not been lying to Obi-Wan when he said that the Force was too much power for him to be trusted with. Still, he rationalised, with two Jedi Masters to keep him in check, perhaps he could risk it, just this once. Then he could take Padmé and leave, leave the galaxy to its fate and raise their children while Obi-Wan and Yoda went off to be the heroes.
These thoughts were interrupted as Obi-Wan came into the cockpit of the skiff and sat in the co-pilot's chair. For several moments they both just sat there, staring out at the psychedelic swirl of colour that was the only view available in hyperspace. Finally, however, Obi-Wan broke the silence.
"How are you feeling?" he asked.
"Fine," Anakin answered flatly, not wishing to get into another debate about trust, or use of the Force, or any one of the thousand other issues that Obi-Wan now seemed to want to talk to him about on an hourly basis.
"You're lying," Obi-Wan observed calmly.
Anakin sighed dramatically.
"Why did you ask then, if you already know the answer?"
"I wanted to see if you knew the answer."
"Please, Master, no more mind games. I'm coming with you just like you asked, aren't I?"
"Yes, but there's much more to it than just the one rescue mission, Anakin, you know that. There is the future of the Order to think of."
"Well don't let me stop you thinking about it then," Anakin said, making as if to leave. Obi-Wan stopped him with a hand firmly holding onto his wrist.
"You know what I mean, Anakin."
"Don't," Anakin warned, shaking his head, "We've been through this already."
"Yes we have," Obi-Wan agreed, "But you don't seem to have considered anything I said."
"Because you have no idea what you're talking about," Anakin said roughly, "If you had ever touched the Dark Side, which I'm very glad you haven't, Master, you would realise what it is, why I can't ever risk it again."
"Then help me," Obi-Wan pleaded quietly, "Help me to understand. I want to, Anakin, I want to understand what you've gone through, to share that burden with you. Together we can overcome it, I'm sure of it."
"I appreciate what you're trying to do, Master, believe me," Anakin responded with equal earnestness, "But this burden is mine. It's my punishment, for what I've done, and not half as much as I deserve."
"Enough, Master. The choice is made. I'm helping you with this mission because you asked me to, and I'll help you by plumbing the Dark Side for you because I'm the only one of the three of us who can be risked in such an undertaking. If by some miracle I make it through and you don't have to put me down like a rabid dog afterwards, then I'll settle down with Padmé and we'll raise our children until they are old enough to choose their own paths."
He pulled his hand out of Obi-Wan's grasp and swept out of the cockpit. Obi-Wan let him go, realising that he could not win this battle on this day. There would be other days though, he thought to himself, and perhaps the successful completion of this rescue might give his old Padawan some of his confidence back.
The rest of the journey through hyperspace passed without incident, and seven hours later Anakin returned to the cockpit to pilot them down to the planet. Their Theta class shuttle was ubiquitous enough not to draw any attention from Traffic Control. Then Anakin made for the Temple's landing platform, which resulted in them being challenged. Anakin and Obi-Wan had prepared for this by donning clone armour and voice modulators, so they looked and sounded like ordinary soldiers. Their stated cover was as a demolition team, travelling to the Temple to prepare for its impending destruction, one of the few of Palpatine's plans that Anakin was already aware of. Luck, or the Force, was with them and their cover was accepted without question. Proceeding to the Temple, they landed in one of the subsidiary hangar bays. Anakin and Obi-Wan shed their disguises to reveal their Jedi robes, then the three disembarked and entered the halls of the Temple.
Their first stop was the Temple's workshop and armoury, where Padawans were taught basic mechanics and where they constructed their first lightsabers. Since the start of the Clone Wars it had become more and more common for Jedi to lose their lightsabers in battle, so the workshop had kept on hand a number of spares, which they hoped to procure for themselves. Anakin had chosen their landing spot with this destination in mind and they were able to cover the short distance between the landing bay and the armoury without incident. There they found half a dozen lightsabers still intact amongst the wreckage of machinery. Obi-Wan was relieved to see that the bodies of the fallen Jedi had been cleared out since the last time he had been there. He was not sure how Anakin would have reacted if they had come across any of his victims, but he was sure it would not have been good. He was also encouraged by the small smirk that appeared on Anakin's face as he picked up one of the lightsabers. Perhaps some adventure would convince Anakin that remaining a Jedi was the right thing to do. His old Padawan had always been a bit of a thrill-seeker, a remnant of his childhood dreams about Jedi, and he would surely get his fill of that on this mission. They clipped the spare lightsabers to their belts, keeping their chosen ones in hand, in case they should need them, and then moved on.
Their next stop, the Archives, proved considerably more difficult to get to. They had expected heavy guard details in the Temple, since they knew that it was still thought to be summoning Jedi back from the war to their doom. What they had not expected, however, were the static guard posts that seemed to have cropped up every few hundred yards. When Obi-Wan and Yoda had first penetrated the Temple the guard forces had consisted entirely of roving patrols, but now many major intersection sported static strong points that necessitated a much more circuitous route since they could not risk an engagement yet with not even half their mission achieved. At last, however, they made it to the Archives. There it was easy to lose themselves in the banks of data-chips and crystals until they came across a secluded terminal. Obi-Wan and Yoda moved off to tackle the restricted sections of the Archives, the areas only masters and Council members could enter, while Anakin stayed and began to search the public sections of the Archives for any and all records on the Sith. On impulse he also included in his search all materials on lightsaber and Force techniques, knowing that if the Jedi Order was to be re-established this was knowledge they would need to teach any potential students. Finally the terminal spat out a list of the data-chips and crystals that contained the information he sought. It was rather a long list, but there was no helping that, besides, he had a plan to help fix that. He had brought with them some blank data-chips which he had spent some of the flight tinkering with. Taking them apart, he had sandwiched extra layers of storage material into the set-up, doubling and then tripling their storage capacity. The one hundred long list of items he now had would easily fit into just thirty of the blank chips, which would fit easily into a small pouch hanging from his belt. He set off through the stacks, collecting the chips the computer had indicated and brought them all back to the terminal. He then set the terminal to work, copying the data from the Archive chips to his modified ones.
Looking around to determine that the Archives were deserted, he decided that there was one little errand that he could take care of while the transfer was in progress. Finding another terminal, he turned it on and set to work. The Jedi Temple's computer was up-linked to the entire holo-net, and through it to the Senate building as well. He had never really practiced slicing, but building machines had provided him with experience in programming computers, and his knowledge of electronics allowed him to figure it out very quickly. He broke into the Senate databases and downloaded all the current and draft resolutions, so that they could get an idea of what Palpatine's political plans were for the present and future. He also broke into the Supreme Chancellor's Office computer and simply initiated a full download from there. Finally he sliced into the Coruscant defence network and added a few subroutines to the defence response programmes, a few little surprises to help cover their escape when the time came. Feeling a little frivolous from his complete success, he returned to the Supreme Chancellor's network and left Palpatine a personal message before disconnecting again. The data he recovered filled another five of the chips he was carrying before he snuck back to his initial terminal to see how that little job was going.
He ran into Obi-Wan and Yoda, looking to see where he had gone, their robes bulging with retrieved holocrons and data-discs. Not saying a word he quickened his pace until he stood by the terminal and checked the progress of the data transfers. Seeing that they were all done, he retrieved his thirty modified chips and placed them in his belt-pouch along with the other five, leaving the originals where they were,. With luck their movement would not be noticed until they were long gone from the planet. The terminal's internal chrono showed that they had been there sixty minutes already. Time to leave.
The three Jedi moved swiftly and silently, heading back to their ship, the first part of their mission accomplished. Unfortunately they did not quite manage to make it back. As they entered the corridor that led to the inner hangar door, all three of them suddenly felt a flash of danger. Behind them a squad of clone troopers rounded the corner and spotted them.
"Look! Jedi! Blast them!"
Anakin, who was in the middle, reached out to either side and gave his companions a shove forward.
"Go!" he shouted, "I'll hold them until you're ready to take off!"
Then he turned and ignited his borrowed lightsaber, the green blade extending just in time to pick off a blast heading for him. Calling on the Force as easily as if he had never ceased to be a Jedi, Anakin stood his ground less than two metres away from the door his companions had just fled through. His blade wove an impenetrable shield of green light before him, picking off every single one of the clone troopers' bolts and redirecting them back at the troopers themselves. It was not enough, however, for one had commed in a report already. Opening himself further to the Force, Anakin could feel responses coming from clones throughout the Temple, heading to their position. No doubt similar alerts were going off in any local air defence stations there were. Hopefully they would find themselves with a few surprises to contend with before they could scramble fighters or transports to intercept them in the air. Suddenly from behind he heard the roar of thrusters, and felt Obi-Wan calling him through the Force. Not slowing the movement of his lightsaber, he backed up the last two metres, opening the door behind him remotely with the Force. He stepped through and mentally keyed the door closed. Then he plunged his lightsaber into the door mechanism, destroying it and thus sealing the door shut.
Turning he saw their Theta class shuttle hovering by the hangar bay doors. Running towards it he took a flying leap to land on the shuttle's extended ramp, only then extinguishing his blade. He continued his forward momentum into the ship, slapping the control panel to retract the ramp as he went past and hearing the answering hiss of hydraulics as the ramp was raised and the craft sealed. It was then that he picked up on something that made him afraid for the first time since they had started on this mission. In the Force, there was a huge surge of anger that was very familiar to Anakin. Palpatine knew, knew that they were there. He pushed the fear away, there was little he could do about it now. Using the Force had been necessary, and he certainly was not going to willingly draw on the Dark Side just to prevent Palpatine from realising they were there. The best he could hope for was that they would miss each other altogether since Palpatine was now sure to be headed for the Temple, where he had felt the disturbance of Anakin's presence in the Force, whereas he was now going to the Planetary Detention Centre. Anakin moved swiftly into the cockpit, taking the pilot's chair that Obi-Wan had left for him.
"Palpatine knows we're here," he said without preamble as he brought the shuttle out of the hangar bay and set a course for the Detention Centre, which was only a few tens of miles away.
"How do you know?" Obi-Wan asked.
"Didn't you feel it?" Anakin asked, puzzled, "He's furious. I think he knows it's me."
"I did not sense anything." Obi-Wan replied.
"Neither did I," Yoda agreed, "But closer than we are to Palpatine, you are. Possible it is, that sense him you can where we cannot. A great help this link may prove to us later on."
"I just want it gone," Anakin muttered as he turned his concentration to weaving the shuttle at top speed through Coruscant's traffic lanes.
Ahead they saw the large squat building that was the Detention Centre come into view. Fortunately the surprises that Anakin had planted in the defence grids so far seemed to be working, the laser cannons that provided air defence were not lit up, and no military craft were in sight. Deciding that since their cover was already blown ,stealth was useless, Anakin aimed the shuttle directly for the prison's landing bay, a cavernous opening roughly in the centre of the building. Fortunately for them, the Detention Centre was mostly guarded by droids, since the work was routine and therefore judged to be less important than the battlefield for the presence of clones. Thus the hangar bay was devoid of guards. Anakin set the shuttle down at the very back of the bay, nearest to the exit. After all the Senators would need to be got on board quickly to protect them from any guard force that might try to prevent their flight.
Disembarking, the three companions found themselves alone in the hangar.
"I have a bad feeling about this," Anakin commented.
"As well you should, Lord Vader," a raspy voice said from behind them, "Betrayal is not something I suffer lightly."
The three whirled to find Palpatine standing there, glaring daggers at all three of them, but Anakin most of all. He appeared to be alone, but Anakin guessed that he had sent his Red Guards to secure or terminate the prisoners they were hoping to rescue. Yoda had already faced Palpatine and, by his own admission, come very close to losing his own life. Obi-Wan was not nearly as strong as Yoda in the Force, nor as skilled with a lightsaber, he would not last ten minutes against the Sith Master. Anakin knew that there was only one solution to this problem, but he did not like it.
"Go," he said, turning to Obi-Wan and Yoda, "Find the Senators and free them, I'll handle this."
"But Anakin…" Obi-Wan tried to argue.
Yoda, at least, got the message and started to head off into the Detention Centre, dragging Obi-Wan with him by the simple device of clutching the hem of his robes and not letting go while moving inexorably. It was quite a comical sight to watch the tiny Grand Master pulling along the considerably taller and heavier Jedi Master by his cloak. Anakin watched them go with something akin to longing on his face. Then he turned back resolutely to face Palpatine.
"What do you hope to accomplish by this, Lord Vader?" Palpatine spat the last two words like a curse.
"Don't call me that," Anakin said mildly, acting as though he was completely unperturbed by all this, whereas inside he was shaking with fear.
"Why not, Lord Vader?" Once again Palpatine emphasised his Sith title.
"My name is Anakin Skywalker."
"A weak name," Palpatine sneered, "For a weak person, a slave. I offered you so much more than that. I offered you power."
"You offered me more slavery, Sidious," Anakin countered, "I looked into the Darkness and I didn't see anything there that I could ever want! I saw endless suffering in the name of a false security, I saw the destruction of all those I had called friends, but most of all I saw the death of my wife. A death you promised me I could prevent but which it turns out I nearly caused."
"You would have been well served to have killed her. It would have made you stronger."
"At the cost of my soul, not something I am willing to give up for something so fleeting as strength in the Dark Side. I already have plenty of strength in the Force"
"Do you?" Palpatine intoned softly, surreptitiously raising his hands.
Anakin's danger sense flashed again, warning him of the impending attack. Knowing that, unlike Yoda, he could not block the Force Lightning that was undoubtedly what Palpatine was about to throw at him, he leapt out of the way, hitting the durasteel deck and rolling swiftly to his feet almost ten metres away from where he had previously been standing. As he rose, he unclipped his borrowed lightsaber from his belt and ignited the forest green blade. Palpatine's next blast of Force Lightning earthed itself on the blade rather than in Anakin's body. Anakin's hands shook with the intensity of the blast, but he reached into the Force to provide him with strength and it responded as it always had.
Palpatine, however, had not even begun to get started on young Skywalker. His rage at the boy's betrayal knew no bounds, and now he channelled all that anger into his lightning attack, multiplying the intensity many times over. Skywalker's blade was blasted out of his hands, and the deactivated hilt went skittering across the hangar deck, coming to a halt a hundred metres away or more. Skywalker, meanwhile bereft of a defence was writhing and screaming in agony. Palpatine smiled, enjoying the young fool's agony, he had underestimated the power granted by the Dark Side.
Anakin writhed, unable to stop himself from screaming under the intense assault of the Force Lightning that was ravaging him both physically and mentally. The pain caused by Force Lightning was much more than mere electrical shock, it brought to mind every painful and humiliating experience he had ever had until all he wanted to do was die to escape both the pain and the shame. Over and over he relived the experience of holding his mother as she passed away. Over and over he heard the gravelly voice of Master Yoda tell him that he would not be trained as a Jedi. Every single memory of something bad came roaring out of the recesses of Anakin's mind, showing him how weak he was, how feeble and worthless, how insignificant. Now he had made his final mistake, believing that he could take on a Lord of the Sith without the aid of his greatest strength, his anger. He was a fool, he was worse than that, he was a dead fool.
Then his determination kicked in. He was not dead yet, there had to be a way to end this. His mind grappled with the hazy fog of pain that was clouding his thought processes. He refused to fail, Yoda, Obi-Wan and the captive Senators needed him, Padmé was waiting for him to return. He could not disappoint them, he would not. Yoda knew of a technique to absorb and deflect Force Lightning, so Anakin knew that it was possible. Unfortunately Master Yoda was not around to give him a class, he was otherwise occupied. Anakin therefore turned instinctively to the one thing that had always answered his call, even when he had been too young to know what it was. He cast out into the Force. Help me! He cried silently at it, and as it always had, the Force responded to his call. It rolled over him, speaking to him in images and sensations, half whispers of thought and emotion that tantalised with knowledge and promise. Opening himself further to it than he ever had before, Anakin reached out to try and grasp the solution. He had never opened up this much before. Yoda had always warned that to open oneself too fully to the Force was to surrender one's individuality. Now however, that fate seemed insignificant compared to the failure that loomed if he should surrender his life. The Force swept through him in a tidal wave of power, a living river of light that tugged at him, urging him in a million different directions at once.
For his part, Palpatine was amazed by what he was sensing. Skywalker's life force had been growing dimmer by the second as his body succumbed to the damage being caused by his Force Lightning. Now, however, it blazed forth like a newborn star in the throes of thermonuclear ignition. The power Palpatine watched pouring into his former apprentice was everything he had imagined it could be. What an apprentice he would have made! Betrayal, however could not be countenanced, Skywalker must die. He poured more power into the lightning, intending to finish this now and then go in search of the last of the Jedi. Then the unthinkable happened, Skywalker rose to his feet! Palpatine was shocked and outraged, no being should be able to survive his Dark Side onslaught, yet Skywalker was standing there, surrounded by a crackling electric nimbus as though the hungry lightning was nothing more than an illusion. Then he looked closely and his surprise redoubled. The Force Lightning was being absorbed into Skywalker's body. He was taking in the energy as though it was water and he was a sponge.
Filled with the Light, Anakin let Palpatine's onslaught wash over him, and through him, and around him. It was so simple that he could not believe he had not guessed it before, but at the same time he realised that it took a very special mind-set to fully comprehend, a mind-set he could never have reached if the Force had not shown him how. The key was to simply release everything, becoming a perfect channel for the energy to pass down and back out into the Force. For now he was content to continue this. Every second that Palpatine was futilely attempting to blast him into ashes was another second that Obi-Wan and Yoda had to complete their mission.
At last, however, Anakin was tired of his passive role in this battle. Altering the flow of energies that was passing through him, he redirected a tiny fraction of the power he was absorbing, and mentally pushed outwards. The corresponding Force push blasted Palpatine off his feet and twenty metres backwards until he connected with the very solid duracrete wall of the hangar. The impact drove the breath out of his lungs, and he lay there wheezing for a moment. Then his fury returned full force and he leapt to his feet. The fury, however, was tinged with more than a little fear. Skywalker showed no ill effects from his battle with the lightning. His burns seemed to have healed, and his expression was determined. For the first time since he had met Skywalker as a young child, he questioned whether he could defeat the boy in open combat. Never before had the issue been a problem since he had never planned on facing Skywalker, but he had always judged himself to have the superior strength. Now, however, he was less sure. No one should have been able to survive the onslaught of his Force Lightning attack. Nevertheless he would not allow the whelp to bring years of careful planning crashing down. He drew the electrum plated hilt of his lightsaber out of the forearm holster he wore and ignited the blood red blade.
Calmly, his fear lessened from having survived Palpatine's initial onslaught, Anakin extended his hand and called his borrowed lightsaber to him. He ignited the forest green blade once again and raised it to the traditional Djem So guard stance. Palpatine snarled and leapt forwards, closing the distance between them in an eye-blink. The two blades, one green and the other red worked furiously, creating a web of light that would have been considered almost artistic in nature, had anyone been present to see it. The sight of two sword masters going all out would have awed any being in the galaxy. Stabs, thrusts, slashes, parries and ripostes were traded faster than the eye could follow as the two combatants brought all their formidable training and experience to the fight. Around and across the hangar they moved, ships and machinery in the hangar becoming cover to hide behind for a brief respite or platforms from which to strike on high or simply obstacles to be leapt over. Smaller objects became missiles hurled around with the Force as the two combatants sought to gain an advantage through distraction or surprise. The true spectacle, however, lay not in the physical dimension of the battle, but in the mental and spiritual components. The two, one Light the other Dark, grappled in the Force as fervently as they did with their lightsabers and with just as much skill. Anakin's presence blazed forth like a star gone supernova now, blindingly bright in the Force as he drew strength, both physical and mental from the Light. Palpatine, by contrast, was like an event horizon, sucking in all the light that Anakin was throwing at him and sending out his own tendrils of Dark energy to assault the Chosen One. The Force twisted and roiled around them both like a hurricane swept ocean as they clashed through it.
With every passing second that the fight progressed, Anakin's confidence grew. He had never expected to last this long against Palpatine, let alone continue to hold his own. The power of the Force filled him, renewing his strength and sustaining his muscles, which would otherwise be shrieking in exhaustion by now from the tempo of the fight. His powerful Djem So style was serving him well against Palpatine's agile but also fragile style, which most closely reminded him of the way Master Yoda used Ataru. His offensives were, for the most part countered, although he had been able to score one or two scorch marks down Palpatine's robes, but Anakin did not care. This fight was nothing more than a delaying action, every precious second bringing him closer to the point where he could disengage or receive help from Obi-Wan and Yoda. He could not spare much concentration for worrying about them, the duel required most of his focus, but he was measuring the time that had passed. If all went well, the two Jedi Masters should be back at any moment with their rescuees and Anakin could disengage from this battle which seemed as though it would continue perpetually if he were to stay. Nevertheless, his continuing success did not stop him from wishing that either Obi-Wan or Yoda was with him. It was unlikely that they would ever have such a good chance to destroy Palpatine as that which was now presented to them, and it galled Anakin that in all likelihood they would not be able to take it.
Even as he was thinking it, Obi-Wan and Yoda returned to the hangar, half a dozen Senators in tow. For a moment the small party stopped at the entrance, awestruck by the spectacle of the hangar, which had largely been destroyed, and the continuing combat. Obi-Wan in particular was overwhelmed by the strength his old Padawan was displaying, both in swordsmanship and in the Force. He had always been peripherally aware of the prodigious potential that Anakin had, but never before had he seen it in action as it was here. Here, now, there was no doubt whatsoever that Anakin was the Chosen One. The spell of the moment was broken, however, as he recalled exactly what they were supposed to be doing. Together, he and Yoda ushered the awestruck Senators onto the shuttle, and Yoda went to the cockpit to prepare the shuttle for take-off while he waited at the bottom of the ramp, prepared to give Anakin assistance or cover his retreat if needed, but mainly to watch his old Padawan back in action.
The two combatants were so caught up in their struggle that it was several moments before either sensed the presence of the new arrivals. When they did, however, Anakin's heart soared at their success, while Palpatine snarled at the failure of his Red Guards to halt the Jedi or even to slow them down long enough for him to deal with them personally. Palpatine renewed his offensive, forcing Anakin back, but Anakin did not mind. They were headed in exactly the direction he wanted to go, towards the shuttle. Sensing Anakin's intentions, Palpatine locked his lightsaber with Anakin's and spoke, offering the boy a place at his side one last time.
"Forget the weaklings on that shuttle, Anakin, they can never know you as I do. They will never forgive you, never forget your destruction of their precious Republic and Order. In your heart, you know that we are the same, that you belong to the Sith. Come with me now and I will forgive your betrayal. I will show you power you have only dreamed of, the power to have anything you desire."
Anakin, however, had heard these words before, and having journeyed into the Dark Side, he now knew how empty they were, how empty he would be if he accepted. He thought of Yoda and Obi-Wan, probably the only friends he had left, and of his wife, waiting for him back on Alderaan. How could he leave them in favour of such empty promises?
"Never," Anakin said in a clear, confident voice, "I'll never join you again. You have failed your Highness. I am a Jedi Knight, and you are my sworn enemy. I will not rest until you have been brought to justice."
"So be it, Jedi," Palpatine snarled as he broke the lock, pushing Anakin back, "If you will not join me, you will die."
Anakin continued to retreat, trading strikes with Palpatine as he went, but always moving towards the shuttle ramp and safety. Inside his heart was singing, and for the first time in his life he was sure that he had made the right decision, no catches, no pitfalls, just pure good. As they reached the ramp, Anakin gave a quick mental shove to Obi-Wan, who had been standing there, transfixed, probably shocked by Anakin's declaration. The Jedi Master started and sent a questioning probe at Anakin. He responded with a mental command, which Obi-Wan obeyed, rushing up the ramp and into the shuttle to tell Yoda that they should take off. Anakin, meanwhile halted his retreat, both feet planted firmly on the middle of the shuttle's ramp, no longer giving ground but rather hold Palpatine at the base of the ramp, refusing to give another inch to the raging Sith Lord.
Obi-Wan gave Anakin a mental warning seconds before the shuttle's thrusters fired, so he was prepared for it, with his feet braced. Palpatine, however, was not, and he was thrown off balance as the ramp rose jerkily in the air, no longer grounded on the hangar floor. Taking advantage of the opening this imbalance provided, Anakin's green lightsaber flickered out and found the flesh of Palpatine's sword-hand. The Sith Lord screamed as the forest coloured blade passed easily through flesh and bone, severing the hand, staggering back and clutching the stump of his arm. Anakin used the Force to telekinetically push Palpatine back further, and then slapped the control to raise the ramp. Anakin watched as the ramp closed, cutting off the view of the maimed Sith Lord staggering back to avoid the backwash of the shuttle's thrusters, and only when the ramp was fully raised and the hatch sealed, did Anakin extinguish his own lightsaber.
Turning, he felt suddenly exhausted as the Force drained out of him. The strain of the fight was catching up with him. Still he saw Obi-Wan standing behind him grinning like an idiot at Anakin. For his part, Anakin gave a weak smile back. He swayed a little and put out his hand to the wall to steady himself. Then he started shuffling tiredly up the ramp until his boot hit something hard that skittered away across the floor from the contact. Struggling to focus, he saw that it was a lightsaber, with a hand still attached. Palpatine's lightsaber, his mind told him. It must have rolled deeper into the shuttle as the ramp was raised and the shuttle took off. An idea pushed its way into Anakin's tired mind, one that would gall Palpatine no end. He turned it over for several moments examining it for flaws, but he could find none at the moment, so he attempted to bend down and pick it up. The action was too much, however, and his exhausted legs gave out beneath him, dropping him to his knees. Obi-Wan was by his side instantly, supporting him and asking him what was wrong. Anakin ignored him for a moment as he prised the abandoned weapon from the death grip of the severed hand. With great effort he removed his borrowed green lightsaber from his belt and replaced it with the electrum-plated hilt of Palpatine's own weapon. Obi-Wan saw the move and was both puzzled and disturbed.
"Explain…later," Anakin muttered, his mind starting to shut down from exhaustion, "Tired…"
With those words, Anakin slumped over, unconscious, and Obi-Wan had to wrestle to keep his body from falling prone to the durasteel deck. Instead he wrapped one of Anakin's arms across his shoulders and stood, half carrying, half-dragging his friend back into the cargo compartment of the shuttle, where the freed Senators sat together. The looked up as he entered with Anakin.
"Master Kenobi," Senator Mon Mothma of Chandrila said in her calm and soothing voice, "Is he alright?"
"He'll be fine, he's just exhausted as far as I can tell. We should check him for minor injuries though."
"Of course," said Senator Organa, rising from his chair. He took Anakin's other arm and draped across his own shoulders, and together he and Obi-Wan brought Anakin to a chair, where they deposited him as gently as possible, trying to avoid any jarring. Together they stripped away Anakin's outer robe and tunic, leaving him in his pants, boots and under-tunic. Then Kenobi quickly and expertly probed Anakin's body, both in the Force and with his hands, checking for any injuries. He came up empty. Relieved that his brother had come to no harm, he stood and looked at Anakin's face, totally calm and peaceful in slumber. Pride in his old Padawan shone forth from Obi-Wan. Today Anakin had proved himself both as a man and as a Jedi. He had faced the Dark Lord of the Sith, and not only survived but caused the Sith serious injury as well. He had undoubtedly faced sore temptation to give in to the Dark Side, but he had remained true to the Light. He had rejected Palpatine's promises of power and declared himself a Jedi Knight. Obi-Wan could not be happier with the situation. Anakin was back where he belonged, with the Jedi Order, and today he had demonstrated that he was truly their best hope of defeating the Sith. Obi-Wan had witnessed part of the physical battle, and that alone had been amazing enough, but what he had sensed in the Force had been truly incredible. His introspection was interrupted, however, by the whine of laser impacts on their shields. The shuttle shook slightly, snapping Obi-Wan back to the present.
"I should go and help Master Yoda," he said.
"We will watch over Jedi Skywalker," Mon Mothma stated calmly.
Obi-Wan nodded his thanks and left swiftly to join Yoda in flying the shuttle. Their escape proved to be relatively clean, however. Anakin had mentioned something about sabotaging the defence nets, and whatever he had done appeared to have worked supremely well. Their pursuit turned out to consist of a single ARC-170 fighter rather than the several squadrons that they had envisaged encountering. With Obi-Wan working the defensive lasers that the shuttle sported and Yoda flying they were easily able to clear the atmosphere and make the jump to hyperspace before any further pursuit could be brought to bear.
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