Anakin Skywalker listened to the storm.
He could imagine what the world outside looked like: a grim, vast, rainswept plain, extending off into darkness as mountains rose on either side of it, pitted and scarred with the tracks of ancient glaciers that had long since melted away. He could imagine the swollen clouds that choked the sky, lightning crackling between them, like synapses in some vast sky-borne planet-wide brain.
All this he had pieced together from the sounds of the storm, trying to form an image of a world he had never seen.
They had brought him here, hurt and unconscious, sedated almost to the point of death. When he had woken, it had been to the four walls and bare floor of a prison cell, to lingering pain and the freezing agony of the collar they had locked around his neck.
It shut out the world.
They still kept him sedated most of the time, but had he been able to speak without help he could have told them that the collar was sedation enough. There were scars on his throat now, long raking marks from where he had tried to claw the collar off. Even the inhuman strength in his artificial fingers had not been able to put a dent in it; he had given up trying when it became obvious that he was on the point of killing himself. The collar seemed to grow heavier with the passing hours, its grip more constricting.
Not even the slave-transmitter he had once carried within him--still carried, though now it was no more than a dormant fragment of metal--had done this.
Somehow, through what perversion of technology Anakin did not know, the collar severed him from the Force. While he wore it he was powerless, true, but he had been powerless before--hurt, or trapped, or simply compelled not to act. But only the collar had forced him to be alone.
The constant glow of millions of sentient souls had cradled him from the day he was born. As a Jedi, he had grown up in the sure knowledge that that endless ocean of spirit was his to draw on, to drown in.
Alone, he had begun to turn in on himself, dwelling on his own thoughts and shrinking away from them. Echoes of Tatooine chased echoes of Geonosis through his head, forcing him to acknowledge that he had committed murder. That he had killed in anger, without thought of mercy, compassion, or the Dark, without even a backward look as he walked away.
Bereft of the cushioning certainty of the Force, everything had become a shade of grey, shifting and uncertain as the Tatooine sands. Anakin wondered sometimes, in the depths of the night, how much of what he remembered was truth, and how much was fiction concocted by his fevered brain.
He remembered Geonosis, and...Naboo, afterward, and Padm?, but precious little beyond that. He remembered waking in the cell, weeks or months before, and remembered the first time the truth serum had taken over his powers of speech and forced him to confess.
They visited his cell from time to time, bringing food and water, and a needle. Sometimes it was a dose of sedative; more often it was the serum, forcing him to blindly spill out everything he knew whilst letting him retain just enough awareness of what he was doing to hate himself for it, and despair.
They knew he was a murderer, but they would not have cared.
They knew about the prophecy, and who knew if the phrase bring balance to the Force meant anything to them?
They knew about Padm?, though, and that thought made him shiver against the cold wall of the cell, sickened by the thought that he had betrayed her to them. They had taunted him with that confession, telling him that the Order would disown him, that she would be dismissed from the Senate. And later, that she had abandoned him, that she was carrying a child that was not his . . .
Once, amongst the jeers, they had brought him a message.
We have offered the Republic a choice: our freedom, or your death.
He understood that. It was the cold logic of war, by which he was neither a Jedi nor a husband nor even simply Anakin, but a bargaining chip to be used or sacrificed as needs be. But he understood with it that the Republic would not let the life of one man stand in the way of their drive to eradicate the Separatists.
He understood that, and still he was afraid to die.
Even their tread in the corridor made him flinch now. There was something blackly funny in that, in the fact that the Hero With No Fear could cringe like a scared child at the sound of footsteps, or at the soft hiss and click of an opening door. A clone-trooper, grown and raised with the single aim of battle, would have laughed. But the clones were generally deemed expendable by the enemy; they had never been valued enough to be taken prisoner. They had never sat chained in a prison cell, waiting for the end.
The clones had no families, no lovers, seldom even names. They had nobody to grieve for them if they died save their brothers, and their grief was curtailed by the necessities of war.
Padm? would grieve even as she put her case before the Senate. Anakin knew her stance as well as if she had rehearsed her speech to him: if the price of victory was one sentient life, it was too high.
And he knew it would never work. Padm? was regarded as a wishful idealist at the best of times, and the newly-disseminated revelation that she had been married to him would merely bias the Senate against her when she came to make her speech.
Anakin knew in the depths of his heart that his fear was shameful and unnecessary. Death, even ignominious death, hurt those who were left behind far more than it hurt the dead. He would be at rest within the Force; Obi-Wan, trained to think the Jedi way, would let him go; Padm?...would be devastated beyond measure. Would rather have died herself.
In this grey-blurred state of mind, Anakin could not be sure whether his fear was of his own death or for Padm? after it. In some way, the two had merged. Here, severed from the Force, the reality of her had been reduced to what he carried in his mind. Sometimes, in the fevered transition from sleep to waking, he wondered if he had dreamt her, and then if it would have been better if he had. Despair came to be like a friend, a lover, taking the place--beside him, as he slept--that Padm? had had before.
And always, outside, the shifting sounds of the storm, reminding him that time was passing.
When the door opened and it was not them, but instead a shadowy figure cloaked and hooded in black, the storm obscured most of the softly spoken words. Anakin grasped only the bare bones of its offer: that if he came with it, now, he would not die.
He went, the chains snapping back from his wrists at a gesture from his rescuer.
By the time the shadowy figure freed the collar from around his throat, the darkness of the Force that boiled and whispered around it did not register. Such easy distinctions as light and dark, good and evil, meant less than they had before. His world had been painted over in shades of grey, and the darkness that he sensed was grey to him as well.
He made himself a new life, obedient to the orders of the cloaked one. It seemed the least he could do, in return for his life, and why should he not do its will, when any deed was simply a question of one shade of grey rather than another?
So when in time it happened that it was necessary for her to die, that was grey too. She was at peace with the Force; and he did not grieve, for he carried her with him in his mind, a memory like the storm.
Original cover by Nemesis. HTML formatting copyright 2008 TheForce.Net LLC.