This cannot possibly be where it all ends, thought Padm? Skywalker, Amidala of Naboo, former Queen, former Senator and wanted criminal. Not here. Not now. Not in this place.
Another explosion shook the elderly cargo ship and she grabbed the edge of the table to keep from being hurled onto the floor of the dingy cabin.
"Galactic cruiser," snapped Captain Typho. "Can?t hide or outrun them in this thing. I don?t understand why they haven?t blown us to dust yet. Why waste all that armament on one insignificant little cargo ship?"
His last words were drowned out in the screaming of laser fire and another blast rocked the aging vessel violently. Then, after a last terrifying jolt, everything stopped. The silence roared in their ears and for the space of a few heartbeats, the handful of crew and passengers found themselves wondering whether they had just died.
"Tractor beam," breathed Typho. Then realization hit. "They?re going to board us!"
Moving fast, he leaped up to draw his side arm and position himself facing the door. The two heavily armed handmaidens and their two Alderaan escorts quickly took up positions around Padm? in a protective gesture they all knew would be futile.
The attack had begun just as they had gathered around the conference table to discuss their dwindling options of evasion. While her defenders reacted, Padm? remained in her seat, powerless to move. Her very heartbeat and breathing had frozen in her terror. All her thoughts were collecting painfully around a single realization:
He?s found me. He?s on that cruiser.
She was ill from exhaustion and beside herself with a mother?s grief. There was nothing within her with which to face the shadow that hunted her. No strength. No courage. No hope.
Captain Typho?s voice broke into her silent thoughts.
"My Lady," he said grimly, "please arm yourself. We will need all hands for this one."
His grip tightened on his blaster as he turned his gaze back to the door.
He is so loyal, she thought with a pang. I owe him so much.
Padm? looked around at the terrified people in her cabin. She stretched her feelings out into the rest of the ship and detected the same fear, the same sense of waiting for the end.
For them, she would find the strength.
Slowly, as if awaking from a bad dream, she became aware once again of her heartbeat, irregular but still strong, and of her breathing. She was alive for the moment, as were those who depended on her, and on whom she depended even more. And while she was alive she needed to act.
From the cargo bay there were sudden noises and a sense that the ship was being boarded. Padm? closed her eyes and allowed the impressions to come to her. Then, having found what she was looking for, she rose from the table, turned toward the people who were planning to die for her, and spoke to them for what might be the last time.
"Listen to me carefully," Padm? ordered. "No one is to offer resistance. You, the pilots and the crew are to allow the boarding. Above all, no one is to fight back."
All their faces turned toward her. She saw their shock, and resentment. She had not only brought them here to their deaths, but now she was depriving them of the opportunity to face that death with the adrenaline rush of a fire fight. Padm? understood too well how much they wanted to take action, but she also knew why they must not.
"The Dark Lord himself is here. I will speak to him alone."
"My Lady, how can we give up without a fight? He has chased you to Hell and back. He wants you dead." It was clear that Captain Typho spoke for all the faithful souls whose eyes were now glaring at her.
Don?t mutiny on me now, Padm? begged silently. Trust me one last time. In the resolute voice of a commander she said, "If he only wanted me dead we wouldn?t be here now. But don?t tempt him! Do you understand? No one is to fight!"
Sab? looked at her sharply. No one spoke or moved.
"Go on," Padm? ordered. "Move! Tell the others. There is to be no resistance."
With the conviction that they were going to their certain doom, her crew and companions roused themselves to comply. The three men left the cabin reluctantly, looking back to see whether she had lost her mind. Dorm? threw herself at Padm? and gave her a brief, desperate hug before following the others out of the room.
Only Sab? remained rooted to the spot. She glared at Padm? and deliberately checked her sidearm before stowing it.
"What are you thinking?" she hissed. "Do you actually believe you can reason with him? He is dangerous. What he did on Naboo?"
"What other choice do I have?" Padm? asked gently. "You know if we resist we will be slaughtered. I have to see him alone. He is looking for me ? perhaps I can convince him to let the rest of you go."
"Goodbye, My Lady," Sab? said with cold fury, and followed the others out of the cabin
Padm? stood alone in the center of the cabin and fought to bring her fear under control. She had faced death so often recently that she had stopped caring whether she lived or died. The only thing that drove her on was the primeval protective instinct of a mother.
Twins. They were as rare on Naboo as star stone jewels, and always greeted as a blessing from the Gods.
She forced her breathing into the rhythmic pattern that always brought calm. He had taught her to become one with the Force, and now she was using it in order to face him.
Going more deeply into herself, Padm? let go of her feelings, of the space surrounding her, of the growing noise in the remainder of the small ship, and of her fear. She became so still that her stillness formed a bubble of calm that centered on her but seemed to spread throughout the ship. It dampened sound and motion. It was so potent that even the fearful crew in the other parts of the ship were able to remain quiet and passive in the face of certain annihilation. None of them moved as they were disarmed and rounded up by the Galactic Senate?s clone troopers.
In the cabin, Padm? opened her eyes and waited. Before long the sound of marching boots grew louder and then stopped outside her door. An order was given.
"Stay here. I will go in alone."
And then, as she had known he would, the man spoken of in whispers as the Dark Lord stepped through the door and into her calm. He wore a long dark cloak with a hood, which he reached up and removed with gloved hands. His face was Anakin?s ? oh, Gods, it?s Anakin?s face ? a face she had once known better than her own. But there the resemblance ended.
His expression was one she had never seen. His face, once so animated and ready to smile, was a hard mask of lines and angles. His eyes ? when Padm? looked into them she was frightened. How could a person?s eyes change like that? They had once been blue, a bright, sparkling blue like the lakes on Naboo. Now they seemed darker, and somehow blank and lifeless. She felt like an insect stuck on a pin when he looked at her.
Darkness seemed to have come into the cabin with him.
Padm? kept an iron grip on the emotions that wanted to surge to the surface. From deep inside her stillness, she waited for him to speak.
"It is good there was no resistance," he said without preamble. "No one got hurt."
How odd that he would say that, Padm? thought, when he has already hurt so many. Unbidden images rose into her mind ? images of her friends and loved ones at home being rounded up and questioned. Images of firestorms that the abundant waters of her home planet could not quench. Images of fear and suffering and death.
Of two tiny babies, taken from her and hidden.
She let the memories go again, not daring to permit them shatter her fragile shelter of calm.
Out loud she only asked, "Why have you boarded us?"
He ignored her question and demanded, "What is your destination?"
Padm? knew that in a matter of moments he would have that information from her flight computer, so she cooperated.
"For shelter," Padm? said, "and rest." To hide from you. To receive the hospitality of the only people in the Galaxy who will dare to give me refuge. To raise your children.
If I live.
She studied him carefully, from inside her hard-won calm, looking for clues that might tell her what to expect. Not long ago she had known him so well that she could read his thoughts. Today she stood in front of a terrifying stranger who had pursued her across the galaxy leaving devastation in his wake. My willing executioner, she thought. If I only knew why.
Padm? found herself fighting hard to contain her rising fear. She wondered what he actually saw out of those odd eyes. Could he detect her secret? Did he know?
"Who else knows your destination?" He spoke to her familiarly, as though they were continuing a previous conversation, and yet without warmth.
Padm? took a deep breath and tried to think. She knew better than to lie. "Not many. I have been in hiding since the price was put on my head. My Alderaan escorts arrived to pick me up in disguise. Captain Typho made the arrangements in person so no one else was involved. No one was told my destination."
"You are being honest with me," he said flatly. It was an observation, not a question.
"Why wouldn?t I be?" Padm? said. "There is a great deal at stake. You hold our lives in your hands."
"My Master wishes you terminated," he agreed.
Terminated. A chillingly factual term for murder. Despite her best efforts to remain objective, Padm??s mind began to fragment into images from her past and memories of her dreams for the future. It seemed she had very little time left, and nothing at all left to lose.
"And will you now do as your Master bids?"
"No," he said shortly, as if the answer should have been obvious to her already. Padm? stared at him. Her fragile bubble of calm was beginning to disintegrate. "You will proceed to Alderaan and remain in hiding there." He continued. "No one will follow you."
"And my companions?"
"This ship is free to go. Contact no one, or I cannot protect you further."
"Protect me? Protect me? Why?I thought you were sent to kill me!" In vain Padm? looked for some kind of message in those unreadable eyes. The surprising gesture of mercy brought with it unbidden waves of pain and loss. If he had behaved as expected she could have continued to think of him as a stranger and as an enemy. But this? Was he still there?Could he still see her as a person rather than as an ? an assigned victim? She couldn?t stop the hot tears from spilling down her cheeks so she tried to ignore them.
There was a long pause as the Dark Lord regarded her in absolute stillness. Then he said only, "I tried to find you on Naboo."
"Ah." There it was. Grief and rage surged through her, wrecking her center of calm once and for all. She stood before this shadow creature unprotected, vulnerable, and shaking.
Naboo had been attacked and occupied by Republic forces after it was declared a disloyal planet, largely due to Padm??s own opposition to Supreme Chancellor Palpatine?s policies in the Senate. Millions had been killed and the planet had been turned over to the control of the Trade Federation, which had long coveted it. Padm? had been declared a traitor and barely escaped with her life, and with only a handful of trusted friends. Pregnant and desperate, no one in the Galaxy would take her in. Finally, Bail Organa of Alderaan had offered to hide her, but she had given birth before she could go.
The man who had once been her Anakin, who was now the Dark Lord feared throughout the Galaxy, had been given control of armies of clone troopers and had cut a terrible swathe across her beloved home planet, searching for her. It was a miracle that she had managed to elude him then. Now, somehow, he had caught up with her.
"Were you responsible for the destruction of Naboo?" she hissed. "Was that your doing?"
He remained impassive. After a long silence he said, "Naboo was doomed by your treasonous actions. It was my Master?s decision. Not mine."
"But you carried it out. You were there."
"I was on Naboo after the occupation. I was searching for you."
"To bring me before your Master," she said bitterly.
"To keep you from him."
Again, Padm? was stunned. Perhaps he does know, she thought. Perhaps that is why. He and his troops had slaughtered her family and her friends and had all but destroyed her beloved home planet. Yet bizarrely, he still wanted to protect her. She forced herself to remember how dangerous he was. It wasn?t really Anakin standing before her, it was an enemy. If he wanted to give her a last chance for his own twisted reasons, she would take it and go.
"Then let us go," she said. The tears had stopped.
"Go," he said
And so it ends, she thought. Here. Now. In this place.
Emboldened by her unexpected reprieve, Padm? suddenly didn?t want him to leave. She needed to understand what had happened to him ? how, in such a short time, he had become this sinister creature who spread anguish in his wake. She was desperate to know, if only to have something to tell her children. If she didn?t survive, at least Obi-Wan would keep them safe.
If he could.
"Anakin!" Padm? heard herself call out his name without wanting to. "Why? How did it come to this?"
The dark figure looked at her with unreadable eyes. Then he said, very quietly, "I have no choice. The powers that hold me, once taken up, cannot be put down."
The ordinary cabin seemed full of billowing shadows. She felt as though they were crushing her.
"What could possibly be more powerful than love?" Padm? asked, starting to tremble.
The shadows in the room deepened and Padm? felt herself beginning to sway. When in the midst of the growing darkness the figure that had once been Anakin spoke again, it was in a voice she did not recognize.
"Destiny," the voice said. "It binds and holds us all."
"You fool," Padm? sobbed, sinking slowly to the floor as her knees gave away, "you are the one who taught me that I can choose my destiny."
For a long moment he towered over her, staring down at her silently. Almost absently he removed the black glove from his left hand. Padm? flinched violently as he reached toward her, and then realized that he was holding out his hand - his living hand - to help her up. Recklessly she took it and let him pull her to her feet. It was warm. It felt human. For a brief moment she could imagine that Anakin was still there and none of the terrible things between them had happened.
Then the Dark Lord dropped her hand and said, in a voice filled with shadows, "The only free choice you have is the one I have just granted you. Stay and die, or go now and live. Anything else is an illusion."
Without another word, he turned to leave. At the cabin door he stopped and looked at her one last time.
"Don?t look back," he said.
It was Anakin?s voice.
The door opened and he went through it, taking the darkness with him. And then he was gone.
When Captain Typho burst into the cabin after the Galactic troops released him he found his mistress collapsed on the floor trembling uncontrollably. "Did he hurt you, My Lady?" he demanded. Padm? couldn?t speak, but managed to shake her head briefly.
Sab? and Dorm? shot into the room and took command of the situation. They wrapped their mistress warmly against shock and made her comfortable until the trembling stopped.
Padm? collected herself enough to give orders. "He is letting us go," she said. "If we go straight to Alderaan without contacting anyone, we will not be harmed."
The Captain and the handmaidens exchanged glances. "It?s a trick," spat Typho. "Why would he do that? How do we know we won?t be followed? He?ll do to Alderaan what he did to Naboo, looking for you."
Padm? only shook her head. "Why would he let me go, if he only intended to follow me again? This is our last chance, Captain," she said. "Just take it, and go!" Typho was opening his mouth to argue when their small vessel lurched violently, knocking the passengers around like toys. Typho found his way to the COM link to the pilot. "What happened?" They all expected to hear that they were being attacked.
"Shock wave, sir." The pilot?s voice registered surprise. "That Galactic cruiser just exploded!"
He promised that no one would follow us, Padmé thought. She felt a sudden surge of relief mixed with horror. "Get us out of here," she ordered. "Now!" He all but destroyed an entire planet to find me. Now he has destroyed his Master?s ship to make sure we are not followed.
Her three loyal protectors looked at her with the same question in their eyes. Dorm? gave it a voice. "Do you think he was on that ship?"
Padm? thought for a long moment. She tried briefly to reach out with her feelings, to see whether she could somehow find him in the great void, but she was weak and shaken and unable to find her center. She shook her head. "I don?t know," she said, "but somehow I don?t think so. We can?t assume it."
"This nightmare has no end," growled Captain Typho on his way out the door to secure the ship and give orders to the pilots.
It will end some day, thought Padm? as she wrapped her arms protectively around herself and curled up in a ball of misery.
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