Chapter XIV – Knights and Pawns
Koth Styemms sat down at the terminal with a frown on his face. He was experienced in removing information from computer databases all over this sector of space. However, putting information in the system was very different and proving to be more difficult than he first thought.
He checked the readout on his SB-20 droid and continued working. This had to be one of the more unusual requests he had gotten from a client, but he didn’t ask questions. Smugglers ask questions, not slicers and certainly not one aspiring to be the best in the sector.
“SB, run a check on the internal scanners again and make sure that we’re alone. I don’t want another repeat of that little ‘accident’ with the wookiees on Kashyyk,” Koth said. “When you’re done there, run another back-trace so we’ve covered ourselves well enough.”
The Bothan’s fur rippled in concentration. He was well beyond slicing into merchant accounts or rigging starfighter races. This was a job that would catapult him into legendary status. Finally, his talents would be used by some of the best (and best paying) people on the black market.
When he had first constructed a working computer at the age of three, he knew he was destined for the world of electronics. Over the years, that knack had evolved into a trade that he was plying throughout the digital galaxy. Only missed opportunities and bad luck had stopped his reputation from being known in every back alley and slicer’s den in the galaxy. This time, everything would be different.
His SB-20 droid had a positive report on everything. No personnel were around to disturb his work and the one trace that was done was simply a routine security sweep. The false network he set up had it completely fooled.
The minutes ticked by as his work continued. Nearly an hour later, SB chirped at him.
Koth patted the droid on its metallic head. “Almost there, little byte. All that’s left is a little careful backtracking to make sure no one can even tell I was ever here,” his brow furrowed as his concentration intensified.
He checked to make sure he had added the travel orders, personal logs, meal vouchers, financial transactions and everything else his client had asked for. As an added bonus for authenticity, he sliced into a meeting between multiple heads of state and added a few things to their agenda.
Then he double checked his work to make sure it met not only with current Republic codes, but the timetables were correct as well. One missed detail meant sloppy work and no one ever paid for sloppiness. Finally he set his sights on one last assignment that was apart from the others. One that his employer was very, very specific on.
Finally, he sat back and sighed. The job was absolutely perfect, without a doubt his finest achievement. He disconnected the SB-20 droid and replaced the socket guard on the terminal. All that was left was to make contact and collect the rest of his pay. He keyed the completion code into his transmitter and left the room. He made sure to put the tunic of the technician he “borrowed” back on and that the false name tag was in view. Whistling to himself, he and SB-20 walked out of the Republic Data Center with not so much as a second glance from security.
Koth took the Mass Transit System and finally let a smile creep upon his face. As the buildings whipped by him, he chuckled quietly to himself. It took a great deal of restraint to stop himself from laughing loudly and drawing attention to himself. His financial future, his career, his legacy, they were all secure now.
He stepped off the MTS and walked over to a quiet alley and waited for his client. The SB-20 droid whistled a warning and he tensed automatically. Seconds later, a man in a dark cloak and hood pulled up over his head appeared out of the shadows. He approached Koth Styemms slowly.
“You indicated that the job is completed?” the man asked.
“It has to be the best job I have ever done. It also has to be the most unusual job, but still a masterful job. Now where’s the rest of my pay?” Koth asked, his eyes narrowing.
“You will wait while I ensure the job is of the quality I am looking for,” the client pulled out a digital tablet and began to key in a series of commands. Koth nervously looked around for a minute before the man returned his attention to the slicer.
“The orders are flawless, the work impeccable, and everything I want appears to be there in every detail,” the man finally said.
“Making heads of state look bad is one thing, but I’ve never had someone plant transmissions on his own assistant before. Especially ones so…incriminating. I assume Senator Palpatine has good reason for that,” Koth said.
The hooded man only grunted in reply while he checked his tablet.
“So now I can get paid for quality work?” Koth said with an air of annoyance.
“Absolutely,” the man said and pulled his hood back revealing a black and red streaked face with small horns protruding from the top of his head in a circle. He raised his hand to be eye level with Koth and squeezed the air.
Koth began to make soft choking noises. He grabbed at his throat and struggled to draw in any air at all. His SB droid made a tremendous noise, beeping and chirping and spinning in a circle. With his other hand, Darth Maul used the Force to rip the top off of the droid. Koth Styemms looked on in horror as the droid fell over in a shower of sparks.
He tried to move toward the man, but found his strength leaving his body. Still, he managed to take a few steps toward his murderer. Darth Maul’s eyes glinted in delight. He dropped to one knee, but still reached out toward his former client. In response, his killer squeezed his hand until it closed into a fist.
Koth Styemms heard his windpipe crack shortly before he fell over and let death take him. The last thing he saw in this life was his killer standing over him, clearly enjoying himself.
Anakin thought that his heart was going to beat itself right out of his chest. He was standing on a golden floor in the middle of a circular room. The floor was two circles, the outer circle was gold with red markings and the inner circle was red with gold markings. Sitting in chairs with low backs to them in an almost full circle around him were the twelve members of the Jedi High Council. A number of objects were in front of him ranging from four small red balls to rocks and another chair. Obi-Wan Kenobi was standing in a corner, mute and unmoving.
“Anakin Skywalker, you have been brought before the Jedi High Council to see if you have the necessary ability with the Force to be trained as a Jedi Knight of the Republic. If you do, then you will be admitted to the Jedi Academy and be trained in the ways of the Force,” Jedi Master Mace Windu said.
Anakin couldn’t help but notice how Master Windu didn’t mention what would happen if he didn’t pass this test. He swallowed a little and tried to mentally prepare himself for whatever was coming next.
“We will put you through a series of tests starting with the most basic of trials. After which we will discuss your future,” Mace Windu continued.
“Now comes the fun part,” Anakin muttered. But hardly had the words left his mouth before all four of the balls began to hover into the air. One of them shot towards him and Anakin had just barely time to move his head out of the way. A second moved towards his chest and Anakin jumped to one side as the Masters looked on. The third and fourth moved together at incredible speeds and tried to come at him from opposite angles. Anakin dodged one and plucked the other out of the air. He dropped to all fours to avoid one, and then rolled over flat on his back as one narrowly grazed his forehead.
The three remaining red balls continued their assault on Anakin. They came at him from different sides, angles, and speeds, trying to keep him off balance. He had managed to use his reflexes to keep from getting pummeled by the Jedi’s test. He knew he couldn’t keep dodging them forever, something had to be done.
“This is pointless,” Anakin said to himself.
He felt the remaining three balls coming toward him. He flung the ball he had in his grip toward one and when the two collided they both dropped to the ground. The other two increased their speed and aimed directly for his chest. Anakin reached out with the Force again to increase their speed so that they overshot him. As the balls blew past his shoulders, he whirled around to see that he overestimated how much influence with the Force he needed and both balls shot through a window on the far side of the Council Chambers, shattering it instantly and vanishing from sight.
“I’m so sorry about that,” Anakin said to the Council. “I’ll pay for that! I’ll stay here and fix it myself if I have to!” he said quickly.
The Masters exchanged looks. “The window is of no importance,” Master Windu said.
The green skinned Master Kit Fisto stood up and walked toward Anakin Skywalker with a helmet in his hand. He then closed his eyes for just a moment, and four additional Kit Fistos appeared. All five of the Jedi Masters grinned at the perplexed Anakin.
“You must determine which one is real,” Mace Windu said.
“Well that’s easy!” Anakin exclaimed. “He never moved at all!”
“I wasn’t finished,” Kit Fisto said and walked toward Anakin and placed the helmet on Anakin’s head. The helmet had a blast shield that blocked his entire vision. Anakin now had to pick the real Jedi Master out of the lineup totally blind.
He heard the five Fistos slowly walking in a circle around him. While Anakin was thinking, trying to figure out which one was which, he heard their pace quicken and they also changed direction at random moments. Anakin turned where he stood; trying to determine which one was the real Jedi Master. He tried to figure it out by listening to their footfalls. Perhaps the real one would have real footsteps? After a few minutes, they were walking very fast now and Anakin was thoroughly confused. He knew that this too had to be a pointless exercise if he used conventional means to succeed. Anakin closed his eyes and concentrated on the Force.
The instant he began to use the Force to flesh out the real Master Fisto, he heard five snap-hiss sounds and a humming filled the air. He panicked for a split moment as he envisioned five Jedi Masters with lightsabers ignited circling him and his hold on the Force evaporated.
The five Jedi Masters began to swing their lightsabers in his direction. Anakin instinctively ducked and dived as he felt the blades whirl past him. He was totally blind now; the Force and his sight were gone. All he could do was imagine one of those green blades slicing into his head.
One of the blades finally struck home and Anakin felt a searing pain in his leg just below the knee. He dropped to one knee and clutched the leg in pain. Surprisingly, there was no gaping wound in that leg. Another blade struck his shoulder and again he cried out in pain. Anakin knew that he must be being hit by the “fake” Masters, but if he was hit too many times or if one hit his head, he wouldn’t last too long even if he wasn’t being hit by an actual lightsaber.
The five Kit Fistos turned their walk into a jog and Anakin shook the panic from his head. He dropped all the fear from his mind and stretched out with the Force yet again. He could feel the doppelgangers melt away until the five Jedi Masters jogging around him with lightsabers blazing, were reduced to only one. As one of the blades swung for his head, he reached out and grabbed the robe of the real Jedi Master.
Anakin felt the helmet being lifted off him and his first image was a grinning Kit Fisto. The Jedi Master’s obsidian eyes glinted in the light. “Not bad, kid,” he patted Anakin on the shoulder.
“And now Anakin, we have one more trial for you today,” Mace Windu said as Kit Fisto sat back down. “Just relax, Master Yoda won’t take long.”
Anakin took a deep breath and tried to prepare for the next taxing trial.
“How feel you?” A soft voice asked.
Anakin nearly jumped on the spot. While Mace Windu’s voice was deep and strong, this voice was soft, almost curious in nature. Yet it held such confidence and conviction that Anakin knew instantly to be serious with the small, green Jedi Master sitting in the center of the circle looking at Anakin with great interest. The entire Council seemed to melt away and he felt as though he and Yoda were the only two in the room.
“I don’t understand,” Anakin responded.
“Physical in nature, not all trials are,” the small Master replied. “Mental, spiritual, more important trials these can be. How feel you?” He asked again, pointing a gnarled wooden cane at Anakin.
“A little tired, sir. I’ve never done anything quite like this before back home,” Anakin admitted.
“Miss your home, do you?” the Jedi Master asked.
Anakin pushed thoughts of Owen out of his mind. “Not really, there wasn’t much for me to miss. I was very glad that Jedi Kenobi didn’t send me back to that waste of space. I’m looking forward to…looking forward,” Anakin said.
“As a Jedi, much accomplishment you hope for?” He asked Anakin.
“I can do amazing things with the Force and I know that I can do much more when I am trained,” the Masters exchanged glances again. “We’re only given one life, sir. With the Force, I know I will do great things and become something incredible,” Anakin swelled up with pride.
Yoda sighed. “Much ambition I sense in you. To recklessness your ambition leads you. Fear too, there is. Fear of failure, fear of your future, fear of anonymity.”
“What’s wrong with wanting to do your best? Master, people have been holding me back my whole life. For the first, and perhaps the only time in my life, I can be something other than a nobody from the planet known throughout the galaxy as “Nowhere”. I have a future here, a real future!” Anakin had to stop himself; his hands were slightly shaking and were balled up into fists.
In a corner of the room, he could see Obi-Wan Kenobi shaking his head and mouthing “pleasure to serve”.
“Jedi Kenobi, join your Hopeful you will,” Master Yoda beckoned him to stand in the circle.
He walked over and stood beside Anakin with his hands folded inside his simple, brown robes. He gave Anakin a look of reassurance as the two of them stood before the Jedi High Council. Anakin felt comforted that the Jedi Knight who had been with him at the beginning was now standing with him in his hour of greatest need.
“Strong feelings you have that he should be trained,” Yoda said as a statement, but there was the air of a question.
“He is older than any other Hopeful we have accepted in the last two hundred years. There is no denying that the disturbance he makes with the Force can be felt by everyone in this building. Look at what he has accomplished on Tatooine and Alderaan with no training at all. I have no doubt in my mind that he will be one of the finest Knights in the Jedi Order.”
Anakin couldn’t help but feel his chest swell his pride.
“Agrees with you, the Council does about his ability,” Yoda said. “But doubts we have, about his discipline and control. Concerned we are, about his reach into the Dark Side,” several other Masters nodded in agreement, including Master Windu.
“I believe the only reason there is any pull to the Dark Side is because of a lack of training and education. He doesn’t fully understand what is happening to him, he doesn’t know how to control the unique ability he has with the Force. Anakin may have shown dark tendencies, but I am convinced that all he needs is the proper guidence,” Obi-Wan said.
It was then that Obi-Wan took his leap of faith. “If the Council has doubts, then let him be my Padawan. I will be responsible for his training and oversee all aspects of his education. Together, we will iron out the wrinkles he has and ensure his commitment to the Jedi Order,” Silence filled the room as Anakin’s heart hammered in his chest.
For a long time, no one spoke. Anakin felt the room swirl before him and he felt infinitesimally small. Finally, Master Yoda said, “To have your Padawan, too young you are. When trained, assigned to him, another Knight will be.”
Anakin’s heart did a flip. Just like that, he had gotten both exactly what he wanted and exactly what he didn’t want. He would become a Jedi Knight, he would be trained in the ways of the Force, but he would have to leave Obi-Wan Kenobi.
“Disagree with the decision of the Council, you do? Yoda asked.
Anakin almost screamed the nature of his disagreement, but before he could speak, Obi-Wan answered and Anakin realized that the question wasn’t meant for him.
“Yes I do. Anakin and I have a history together. I discovered him, and I made the case for him before you today. I have witnessed his abilities and we have a bond together. He trusts me and I…I trust him as well,” Obi-Wan admitted. “If the Council has doubts, then I ask for a sponsor. I ask that a Master supervise the training and education that I give to Anakin.”
“That’s an interesting request,” Master Windu said. “I don’t see the harm in it. You propose that Anakin receive his Jedi training from a Knight he is comfortable with and our Knight will receive his Jedi training from a Master. I am comfortable with this arrangement,” he nodded his bald head and Anakin saw others on the Council nod with him.
“Will of the Council it is,” Yoda said. “Train Jedi Kenobi I will in ways of training a Padawan. Place Anakin with the Hopefuls, we will. Much work he must do to catch his peers.”
Anakin couldn’t hold it in anymore and burst out, “When do I start??” His comment drew several chuckles from the Council.
“After we make you look more like an official Jedi Padawan,” Mace Windu said and Anakin felt the eyes of everyone in the room go right to his shaggy hair. “Before we begin, it is tradition that you say farewell to your loved ones. Who shall we make arrangements with?”
Anakin seriously doubted that Owen would even believe he had been accepted into the Jedi Academy and doubted even more that he would come say farewell to him. His thoughts gravitated to only one person he could possibly want to see before he enters the Jedi Order.
“How do I get in contact with Senator Amidala?” he asked the High Council.
Felic paced outside Spaceport Terminal Forty-Two. The shuttle had docked nearly ten minutes ago and his party had not arrived yet. Were they discovered? Had he been sold out? He nervously glanced over his shoulder just to make sure that the Republic Guards weren’t behind him.
Finally, he walked away from the shuttle. He would look out of place if he stood by an empty shuttle for too long. He checked his personal communicator to see if he had missed any messages from them.
As he walked, he was flanked by two Anzati who kept pace with him.
“The Sable Dawn greets you once again, Felic Ordon,” the taller one said.
“We need to speak somewhere more privately. There is a secure room nearby that the Dawn uses for such occasions,” the two Anzati escorted him to a conference room in the spaceport and locked the door behind them.
“You aren’t the ones I dealt with on Alderaan. I need names to verify identities,” Felic demanded.
“Not trusting the Sable Dawn can be most hazardous. Our names stay with us for…security reasons.” Two tentacle-like proboscises curled out and extended from their cheeks and began feeling their way to Felic’s head. “Surely, you understand the need for anonymity,” the shorter one said.
“Y…yes, yes, of course,” Felic stammered and shied away from the probing tentacles. “I can assume all the arrangements I set into motion are nearing completion? My timetable is very tight.”
“The Gamorreans and the Sennex pirates will be arriving when and where you specified. They cannot arrive too soon or else they will attract attention. Subtlety is our most potent weapon at this point,” the taller one said.
“Whatever. All I need to know is if everything is going as planned?” Felic asked nervously.
“Everything will be fine as long as the Sable Dawn gets paid,” the shorter one said.
“You don’t work in politics this long without knowing how to move a little money around,” Felic said and a grin grew across his face.
“Taxpayer money is the best currency the Sable Dawn could ask for,” they smiled back at him.
Chapter XV – Instigator
Sitting in a park with the Jedi Temple just behind him, Anakin paced in front of a bench and fidgeted, running a hand through his sandy colored hair. Over and over again, he tried to clear his mind and reach out with the Force. He tried to focus on the birds, the trees around him, or even the passing pedestrians. Every time he tried, his thoughts became muddled, un-coordinated, and always went back to Padme.
As the sun began to sink behind him, Anakin saw Padme and Khian coming along a path toward him. His mind instantly focused.
“Is it true, Anakin? The Jedi Order?” The sparkle in her eyes was all Anakin needed to see.
“That’s right. I’ve already been assigned to Jedi Kenobi as his Padawan. I start training tomorrow and I have no doubt that I’ll sail to the top in no time. Maybe I’ll even be ready in time to help out with your investigation,” Anakin threw out his chest a little.
Padme giggled and Anakin blushed as he looked into her eyes.
They both turned to look at Khian, who just folded his arms. “What?” he asked.
“Khian, can you go patrol a perimeter or something?” Padme asked.
“As you wish m’lady. Just bear in mind I won’t be far…from either of you,” he shot a dark glance at Anakin before walking down a path.
“I can’t believe this is all happening so fast. It seems like it wasn’t that long ago that I was just some chump pilot on Tatooine and now I’m going to be a Jedi in the middle of a galactic controversy,” Anakin said.
“That’s probably because it was just a short time ago. We’ve only known each other for a little while and so much has happened and even more is going to happen before we know it,” Padme replied.
“Those politicians you were with?” Anakin guessed what she was alluding to. “You almost disappeared into that crowd when we landed.”
“Next time I’m surrounded by some of the greatest politicans in the galaxy, I’ll wear higher heels,” Padme laughed and pushed a tendril of hair behind her ear.
“I met with Supreme Chancellor Valorum and briefed him, his aides, the High Speaker of the Republic, Senator Palpatine, and more dignitaries than I can remember on what we found on Alderaan. They watched the holo-image I recorded and were as shocked as we were,” she continued.
“Please tell me you edited out the part where I tapped on the glass,” Anakin pleaded.
“Look on the bright side, you are now known among the highest levels of the Republic,” she giggled again.
Anakin found it very hard to be mad or embarrassed when she was smiling or laughing.
“Was there more to the meeting than the recording?” Anakin asked.
“Yeah, sorry. After I showed them the holo-image, Chancellor Valorum wanted to know what we should do next. Senator Palpatine volunteered to help me with my investigation and the Chancellor agreed!” she was positively glowing.
“Wait, so he’s taking over? That doesn’t seem fair,” Anakin was confused.
“No, you misunderstand,” Padme explained as they strolled through the park. “Senator Palpatine will work with me. Anakin, there is the possibility that this will go well beyond one crazy general on one planet. I have to discover how far this conspiracy goes and having such an influencial and experienced man like him helping me will add some serious muscle,” she said.
“Just please be careful. We’ve already gone through one attack together. More attacks could follow if you’re right about this,” Anakin warned.
“Hey, enough about me. You’re the one living the dream and becoming a Jedi Knight!” Padme sat on a park bench underneath a blossoming tree and beamed at him.
“Well, I’m not actually becoming a Jedi Knight. Obi-Wan says it takes years of hard work, studying, and training before I can be his Padawan. I figure I’m on more of a learning curve,” Anakin smiled.
“How much of a curve?” Padme asked with a raised eyebrow.
“I’ll be knighted and able to help you in a week or so,” Anakin laughed as he sat down next to her. They settled into an uncomfortable silence as the sun began to dip behind the Jedi Temple.
“I’m going to miss you,” Padme finally broke the silence.
“Yeah I…wait, what?” Anakin looked at her with his mouth slightly open.
“Anakin, I feel really close to you,” she said, staring at the ground. “We’ve been through so much together in such a short period of time. It’s been an incredible experience and I don’t think I want that time to end just yet. I sound so selfish.”
Anakin wasn’t sure how he could speak with his heart thumping in his throat. “No you don’t. Can I tell you something?” he asked.
“Of course, you can tell me anything,” Padme looked at him with soft, understanding eyes.
“I had a home, Beru hanging around at every opportunity, Owen constantly looking after me, not to mention crowds of people cheering my name, and yet I’ve always felt alone.When I got to Alderaan, all of that changed. I was with people that mattered to me. I haven’t felt the empty feeling that loneliness walked with in a long, long time,” Anakin smiled.
“I think I know exactly how you feel,” Padme said and put her hand on his.
“I hope I’m not interrupting anything?” a soft voice made Anakin and Padme jump where they sat.
They whirled around to see Senator Palpatine walking up the path to meet them. It was darker now and his figure seemed much larger silhouetted against the twilight sky. Padme’s hand shot away from his as they both stood up in his presence.
Anakin couldn’t help but feel compelled to bow a little, but Palpatine waved him off. “Please young man, a bow to a lowly senator isn’t necessary. If anything I should be bowing to the man who single-handedly saved Padme’s life and delivered her to the Galactic City.”
“Well I don’t know about ‘single-handed’, Obi-Wan was there,” Anakin blushed.
Palpatine put a hand on his shoulder. “Come come Anakin, the entire Senate is buzzing with your heroics on Alderaan. I have just come from the Republic Executive Building and your name is on everyone’s lips,” Palpatine said with a smile.
Anakin stared at him, dumbfounded as Palpatine added the compliment Anakin had been waiting for.
“I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the halls of the Jedi Temple were ringing with talk about your admittance tomorrow. You may be the most anticipated Hopeful since Master Phanius.”
“That seems a little dark, comparing Anakin to the first of the Lost Twenty,” Padme remarked.
“Great Jedi are great Jedi, regardless of which ‘side’ history says they are on,” Palpatine replied.
“What brings you out here, senator?” Anakin asked.
“With all the pomp and circumstance, I didn’t get a chance to formally meet you earlier today. I wanted to take the opportunity to wish you the best of luck tomorrow and tell you that I shall be observing your progress with great interest,” Palpatine smiled.
“You came all the way out here just to wish me luck?” Anakin asked.
“How perceptive, dear boy,” Palpatine chuckled and patted him on the shoulder. “I saw the two of you walking together and decided to seize this opportunity to speak with my colleague as well,” he turned to Padme.
“I’m afraid I am going to take a rather larger role in your investigation than we previously discussed. I will need you to use your contacts on Alderaan to squeeze more details out of the facts while I look to more Galactic matters.”
“I was under the impression that being shot at by Tarkin’s men made this my investigation,” Padme protested.
“My dear you must understand that you’re on Coruscant now. You have done remarkably well, but this is a game on a much different level than what you’re accustomed to. Rest assured, I have much work for you to do. This investigation is creeping by and my needs require that it proceed much faster,” Palpatine replied.
Anakin’s communicator beeped at him. “I guess that’s my call,” he shrugged.
“Congratulations once again, young Skywalker, make us all proud!” Palpatine beamed at him.
Anakin turned to Padme. He wanted to say so much to her before he left, but he simply couldn’t get the words out. Instead he just reached out and shook her hand.
“Good luck Padme,” he said in a flat voice.
She returned the handshake, but the look in her eyes told him that she wanted to say more as well. “I know you’ll hear this a thousand times, but may the Force be with you,” she smiled.
Khian came back up the path. “Hey, you two done here?” he stopped when he saw Palpatine was with them. “Senator, how did you get by me? I didn’t see anyone else come up the path,” he asked.
“Really sir, you expect too much from an old man,” Palpatine resume his typical and kindly smile.
Khian took a hard look at him before turning his attention back to Anakin.
“Hey kid, knock ‘em dead in there and I mean that literally as well as figuratively. I hope you knock them flat on their butts,” Khian said with a grin. “Here, you’re gonna need this,” and he tossed Anakin a tiny piece of circular plastic wrapped in a soft fabric.
“What is this for?” Anakin asked.
“Trust me, you’ll find out and you’ll thank me for that someday,” Khian laughed again, but Anakin didn’t see what was so funny.
Padme thought she understood the game of politics, but over the next four months she had been run across more roadblocks, stonewalling, and difficulties than she ever imagined. The investigation on Alderaan was difficult enough, but now she was dealing with dignitaries, military officials, and diplomats from across the entire Republic. This meant that every one of the problems she initially faced was now multiplied on over a dozen worlds.
Her office was just the apartment that Palpatine had moved her to in the City of Spires on Coruscant, not too far from the Senate Rotunda itself. The view outside her sleeping quarters showcased the massive Senate building with the never-ending stream of traffic passing just in front of it. As she shook the sleep from her eyes, she was impressed with how different the society was compared to Alderaan.
On Alderaan, she couldn’t go more than a few meters without someone recognizing her. On Coruscant, with its endless skyscrapers, several trillion people, and constant interstellar traffic, she was beyond anonymous. Even in the world of politics, she was one among countless thousands who served the Republic. This world within the world of Coruscant was full of now familiar faces that were never happy to see her. She was the long arm of Senator Palpatine and she learned that his reach was long indeed.
Up until now, she had been able to use the momentum of her initial discovery to loosen a few tongues. She had learned that although General Tarkin was behind the expansions and the cloning facility on Alderaan, he was just another pawn in a much larger game. Every lead she followed spawned more questions. Every question she answered spawned two more leads. Who was giving the orders? Where did the funding come from? What was the purpose behind the clones? The Spaarti Cylinders didn’t come out of nowhere, what technicans engineered them?
Now, her investigation had stalled. She had reports from some of the greatest minds in the Republic. She was reading the words of Doctor Anton Billicks, Oro Thalia, and a dozen other genetic history makers. She had lodging and meal vouchers, transmissions sent to loved ones, personal logs, progress reports, everything to show they were working at a furious pace. What she did not have was their current location since a Major Issic assumed command. An entire team of genetic giants had disappeared.
Padme ran a hand through her hair in frustration as she read the messages on her digital display that was on the wall in her living quarters. Most of the messages she received overnight were responses to her responses to the responses of her responses to inquiries she had made over the past few weeks. There were also messages from various groups expressing either there support or condemnation of her investigation.
She had also received a message from Senator Palpatine reminding her that all personnel she brought with her from Alderaan had to file the appropriate travel forms. She furrowed her brow in frustration and went to order her morning meal. She had been on Coruscant for over two months. Why would he remind her to file paperwork for interstellar travel so long after it had happened?
She had come to admire the energy that Senator Palpatine had. He was constantly meeting with key senators, judges on the Supreme Court, corporate leaders, and dignitaries from across the Republic. His schedule over the last few weeks showed a whirlwind of meetings with regents and senators from over twenty different worlds along with communiqués from the same twenty world’s garrison commanders. Yet, with all this activity, he had never once turned down a request from her for a meeting whether it was just for a moment or over an hour.
As she sipped on her morning caffa, a thought struck her. She placed an urgent transmission to the Ministry for Military Transport. As the transmission was commencing, she checked her chronometer. Luckily for her, the call was answered by the Deputy Minister herself.
“Good morning Senator Amidala. What can I do for you?” the minister asked.
“Hello Illiana, it’s been a long time, how’s Satie?” Padme asked.
“She asks about you constantly. If she’s not asking about you, she’s telling her friends at school tales of her brave aunt who is saving our world from total destruction,” Illiana said with a smile.
“I wish she wouldn’t call me that. We’re not really related, we just spent a lot of time together at the Regent’s Office,” Padme sighed.
“And a lot of time dodging red tape, and a lot of time dodging my ex-husband, and too much time dodging very bad blind dates. But I doubt you called over here just to discuss our grand adventures,” Illiana brought the conversation back to business.
“Minister, anytime there is official business conducted by the military that takes them off-world, there is a paper trail, correct?” Senator Amidala asked.
“Of course. If the military brings even a hairbrush from off-world, they have to file the proper forms, just like everyone else,” the Deputy Minister for Military Transport responded.
“Then I need all military on and off-world transport forms filed six months before and after their first expansion of the garrison on Alderaan,” she requested.
“I’ll call up the paperwork and have it transmitted to your office within the hour. Is this related to the cloning thing?” Illiana asked, her eyes twinkling.
“You know I can’t discuss an ongoing senatorial investigation, even with you,” Padme began.
“Yes yes, you would if you could, but you can’t so you won’t. Watch your back out there, Padme,” Illiana ended the transmission.
Padme turned to look out her window at the Senate Rotunda. While she waited for Illiana to send her the data, she opened a link to the Coruscant Military Database. She began to maneuver her way through the database and began reading the section regarding travel orders. If there was a paper trail on her planet, then now was the time to stop thinking small and start looking for paper trails across the Republic. She began pacing in front of her window as she hoped this information would prove to be very educational.
Anakin’s morning was anything but educational. He was woken up by the early morning bells of the Jedi Academy. He stretched, rubbed his head and sighed as he felt the lack of hair. The Jedi had trimmed it down to a crew-cut style, except for the back, which he had begun to grow into a braid.
As he felt the small but growing braid, his fingers ran across the fabric covered hair tie that Khian had given him. He rolled his eyes at the thought of Khian giving him an “I told you so” look before rolling out of bed and joining his classmates for their morning lesson.
While “classmates” was the official term for the others in Jedi Hopeful Class J-94, being around children who were still learning how to wipe their noses was degrading. Every other Padawan looked at Anakin with a mix of curiousness and contempt. He could hear whispers in the halls wondering not only how someone so old was admitted, but what he was doing with a class full of babies. The questions were often followed by the pointing and the quiet laughter and once again, Anakin felt like he was an outsider who was second-best.
He had high hopes that Obi-Wan would come visit him today. On the rare occasions that his master had come to see him, Anakin was spared sleeping through lectures on how the Force was everywhere and how to respect all things. He had been at the academy for two months and all they had allowed him to do was levitate a few pebbles. The constraints placed on him were maddeningly frustrating, but his master reminded him that you have to learn how to crawl before you could walk.
He nearly tripped over one of his classmates on the way to Classroom 47-B in one of the lower wings of the Academy. He mumbled out a token apology to a curly headed boy named Tothic as he entered the familiar classroom. To his dismay, a protocol droid waited for them with a holo-imager. Anakin knew he was doomed to another lecture from a video that wasn’t even interactive presented by a droid that was oblivious to all reasoning.
The golden droid waited until they were all seated before speaking. “Hello Hopeful Class J-94, I am C-3PO, human/cyborg relations. Today, I have been assigned to present a very interesting video about the Force and how it interacts with all living and non-living entities. Please remain seated and silent until the video terminates,” the droid said in an annoying prissy voice. It pressed a few buttons on the terminal and a hologram appeared before them. It was of a Jedi Master that had already spoken to them several times before.
The image began to drone on about how the Force flowed through all living things and how you could use the Force to sense and manipulate non-living things. Anakin quickly began to lose interest and wonder to himself what he could “sense and manipulate” to liven things up just a little.
Anakin closed his eyes and began to stretch out with the Force. If there was one thing he had learned in his time at the Academy, it was how to sharpen his sense of the Force so that he could feel things much easier than before. This time, he could feel the young students concentrating on the video before them. Their minds lay open to him as he probed one and then another. Finally, he settled on Kymia, a Zabrak girl whose short temper made her an easy target on more than one occasion.
He stretched out and gave Kymia a little push in the head with the Force. She looked over her shoulder and glared at a Rodian boy named Jaton. This boy was smaller than the rest of his class and usually kept to himself. The combination of these two would make a wonderful morning diversion. Jaton looked blankly back at her before she turned back to continue watching the video.
Anakin reached out again and gave her hair a sharp tug. The girl whirled around and glared at Jaton who now looked both puzzled and defensive. Slowly, Kymia turned back, but threw the occasional suspicious glance back at Jaton. Anakin reached for a third time and focused on pushing her head one more time. He over-did it this time and Kymia’s head shot forward quickly and hit the floor with a loud thud. She leapt to her feet and lunged at Jaton, her vicious yell ripped through the air.
The entire class, except for Anakin, stood up and formed a circle around the two combatants and cheered loudly. Kymia and Jaton rolled across the floor grappling with each other. The protocol droid stopped the video and turned the lights on in the room.
“I’m not programmed to stop violent acts!” C-3PO exclaimed before shuffling its way out of the room and into the hallway.
Anakin roared with laughter, clutching his sides at the sight. As suddenly as the fight had started, it had stopped and the room again grew silent with the exception of Anakin’s laughter. Half a second later, he stopped laughing when he saw that C-3PO had returned and Obi-Wan Kenobi was standing next to the golden droid.
Without a word from Jedi Kenobi, the Hopeful class sat down and Anakin slowly walked out into the hallway.
“I realize how difficult this must be for you, I really do. You’re with children less than half your age hearing about topics that even I found boring when I was younger. But you cannot ignore the fundamental lessons of the Force, regardless of your ability. You have to understand that only when you learn the basics, can you advance,” Obi-Wan lectured to him.
“But Master, I am advancing! I can do so much more than any of those kids,” Anakin explained.
“If it were a simple matter of being able to use the Force, I’m sure they would advance you. You can accomplish so much more with a combination of ‘brains and brawns’ than with brawn alone. You have to try harder,” Obi-Wan said firmly.
“I’m sorry Master. I try to slow myself down, I really do. It’s just some of these droids with their videos can be so mundane. Aren’t there better ways to properly educate me?” Anakin’s desperation came through his voice.
“This is how the Jedi have been training throughout the centuries. The more you learn now, the better quality the training will be later. After all, if you don’t learn how to properly maintain and operate the Volo, how can you get the most speed out of it?” The analogy Obi-Wan offered hit home.
“It’s all a question of patience, control, and discipline. If you can get through C-3PO’s horrible, wretched, prissy voice and get through those boring lectures, then you will have no problem listening to two squabbling bureaucrats bicker over how high the flags should be at a conference table,” Obi-Wan explained.
“That explains how you survived the conference on Alderaan. I never thought Tarkin would shut up. I’ll go back in and listen, Master. I hate disappointing you,” Anakin started to walk back to the classroom, but Obi-Wan caught his arm.
“I have another idea. If you can give me your Word of Honor that you will give this your best effort, I think I can give you a little taste of what you can expect,” Obi-Wan began to walk down the hallway as Anakin gave him a suspicious glance.
Chapter XVI – The Hutt Hut
Late into the night, Khian pored over the complicated security plans and building schematics. He made a mental note to change Senator Amidala’s route to the podium again, just to shake things up.
Following her around was exactly as complicated as he thought it would have been. Her schedule was practically non-stop meetings in different buildings with different people across Coruscant. Every one of those meeting places had to be screened, the droids carefully searched for tampering or sabotage, and every one of the participants of the meetings painstakingly scanned, and in some cases, frisked.
Khian rather enjoyed the last part. The annoyed look on some bureaucrat’s face as he searched their personal droid or themselves yet again always made him smile. He noticed how it didn’t take too much to upset a diplomat or military official. Something as simple as running their digital tablets through an x-ray scanner could make them easily agitated and he was happy to oblige.
To date, he had found two different sets of explosives in his searches. One was hidden in the Senator’s transport on the way to a meeting with a military tribunal. Another was literally built into the table’s wood grain at a conference with three Galactic Senators. Even Khian was impressed at the creativity of these attempts on her life. He had tried some ingenious ways to kill people before, but explosives built in the grain of the wood? He had to try that himself some time.
Ever since he had won the job, Khian’s impression of the senator had changed. She was hardly the dainty, delicate figure that some female senators were. She was beyond beautiful, but her dedication to her job was also beyond admirable. She was determined to do everything she could to bring the truth into the light. Considering that her cause was against a monstrous cloning facility, Khian was as supportive as he could be.
After all, clones could be taking jobs away from good, honest killers.
A door closed behind him and he leaped out of his chair. His vibroblade, Alanna, flashed into his right hand and his blaster was at the ready in his left hand. He eyes locked on his target.
“Whoa, truce!” Padme yelled, her hands high in the air.
Khian allowed his muscles to relax and he put the blaster on the table. “You are way too stealthy to be a senator. It must be the slippers,” he laughed out loud.
“Yeah, I got these at the Lethal Politicians Emporium. Their motto is ‘We’ll talk you to death.’” Padme laughed along with him.
“What are you still doing up? After the marathon you had today, I would’ve thought you’d be all tuckered out,” Khian said, sliding Alanna back into the spring-loaded mechanism in his sleeve.
“I know. Meetings with representatives from Eriadu, Sullust, Telos, and Riflor all in one day! It’s draining, but necessary to get all the pieces to come together. If my theory is true, if what Illiana sent me is true, then the Outer Rim has a lot of explaining to do,” she said.
Padme sat down on the couch that was between them and closed her eyes for a moment. “You’ve been invaluable to me, Khian. Besides keeping me alive, you’re the only constant in the ever-changing world of politics. It’s incredibly soothing to have an anchor there for me,”
He sat down beside her. “Well it is an honor to weigh down such a beautiful boat,” he was staring at her now, he couldn’t help it. “I don’t know how you do it sometimes. You can say exactly the right thing at the right time and know when to say nothing at all.”
“Senator Bolet told me that silence can be louder than a pitched battle. Don’t sell yourself short, Khian. You’re doing exactly what you need to be doing, and doing it very well,” Padme’s eyes met his.
Silence filled the room as they looked at each other. Her eyes held the same fire they held in a debate with a Regent and they were just as mesmerizing as the flames. Her mouth grew into a smile and as his eyes locked on it.
Her eyes darted to where he kept Alanna and Khian fidgeted uneasily.
“You need your rest, senator. Your next press spectacle is approaching and I have no doubt that your constituents are dying to hear from you,” he stood up and went back to his table.
“Who was she?” Padme asked abruptly and Khian winced.
“I don’t know who you’re talking about,” he lied.
“Every time I smile, every time you look at me, every time we’re alone, you get close and then distance yourself. It’s clear to me that there was someone who was special to you once. Who was she?” She asked again.
“It’s not in my job description to indulge your every curiosity, senator. It’s time for you to rest now,” Khian said.
“Are you handling me?” Padme asked with a smirk on her face.
“I would never handle a senator…at least not while I’m on the clock,” Khian answered and he tore his eyes away from her and focused back on his security layout.
Padme conceded this round. “I feel like I’m back on Alderaan. My fellow congressional representatives are stonewalling me at every turn. Each meeting I hold reveals only a few answers, but more questions pop up after I leave,” she rubbed her temples.
“Maybe you’re taking the wrong approach. You’ve tried all the legitimate sources of information. Perhaps you tried something a little less dainty,” Khian grinned and Padme raised an eyebrow.
Anakin and Obi-Wan entered a large, square room. Three platforms spanned the length of this room, each one five meters higher than the last. There were gaps in-between the platforms as wide as two men, making it difficult to reach them. On the wall next to the one and only door were eight metallic objects that Anakin had seen before.
On the wall before him, were lightsabers.
“Master, what are we doing here?” Anakin asked. His heart gave a leap as Obi-Wan removed one of the lightsabers from the rack on the wall and ignited it. A green blade erupted and hummed in the air as Obi-Wan waved it around, testing its balance.
“Master Fisto showed you how it feels to be struck with a stunsaber. These are for training only, but I recall how Master Yoda once showed me how a blow to the head could be quite…uncomfortable,” Obi-Wan said.
Anakin selected a stunsaber from the rack and pulled it away from the wall. As he held his first weapon in his hands, he marveled at its construction. He had never been this close to one before and found it to be amazingly light, yet durable. He pressed a red button and a blue blade lit up before him. Anakin also waved his around, testing its balance and reach. He spun the blade around him a few times until he felt comfortable enough to face his master. Anakin gripped the blade in both hands and waited with tense muscles.
Obi-Wan smiled at him and motioned for Anakin to attack. Anakin accepted the challenge and swung right at Kenobi’s head. With incredible ease, he deflected Anakin’s blow and, half a heartbeat later, hit Anakin in his opposite arm.
Pain shot through Anakin’s lower arm and he quickly backed away. Obi-Wan also backed away, but kept his blade raised defensively.
“Going for someone’s head on the first swing is too obvious. Your legs told me where you were going to swing before you even moved your blade. Try again, but remember control, focus, and discipline. Don’t just swing wildly…” but Anakin was already on the move.
He moved right, and then hacked at Obi-Wan’s left side. Kenobi blocked it, but had to move back to do so. Anakin advanced and wildly chopped again and again and each time Obi-Wan had to retreat further and further. Anakin sensed victory was at hand as Obi-Wan reached the end of the platform and darkness threatened him from beyond the edge. Anakin feinted and attacked again, but when his blade was supposed to finally strike home, Obi-Wan was no longer there.
He had flipped himself up and over Anakin and now stood behind him. Anakin’s mouth was wide open, but not for long as Obi-Wan lashed out with his stunsaber again and caught Anakin in the middle of his back. The blow caused Anakin to drop to one knee and the wind almost rushed out of him.
“Better,” Obi-Wan judged. “You’re using the art of deception, but the Force will always be superior. You have to stop relying on your senses, Anakin. The physical sensation is just one you can experience. The Force can guide you if you let go of the fear and the doubt. Use the Force, feel it flow through you, let the Force become one with you and your understanding of it will enable you to do incredible things. And stop gripping the stunsaber so tightly. I promise it won’t fall out of your hand anytime soon.”
Obi-Wan prepared himself as Anakin slowly got to his feet and spun the stunsaber a few more times to get his feeling and rhythm back. He brought the blade up, but hesitated. Before he began his attack, Anakin closed his eyes and stretched out with the Force. Patiently, he waited until he could focus the Force within him, just as instructed. His senses heightened, Anakin could feel the very air around them alive with energy. He felt himself calm down, his emotions dulled, and a feeling of peace focused his mind. Anakin opened his eyes and attacked again.
Blows rained down upon Obi-Wan Kenobi from all sides now. He retreated hard and fast, deflecting and parrying swing after swing. Anakin’s face did not break into a grin. He did not focus on the joy of the moment. He simply focused his determination and continued the attack, trying to find a weakness. His attacks were faster than ever before, his blade blurring with speed as he felt the Force guide his actions.
Then Obi-Wan counter-attacked.
Anakin nearly stumbled and fell over as Obi-Wan switched from defense to offense in the blink of an eye. Instantly, Anakin was desperate to fend off another blow that would leave his body stinging.
“Don’t lose your focus! Keep your emotions in check and don’t let fear take you!” Obi-Wan yelled to him and continued his advance, but he could not land another blow on Anakin.
Anakin’s focus suppressed his emotions and the fear melted away from him. Suddenly, he could see everything so clearly. Obi-Wan’s attack was simple, slow, and ineffective. Anakin’s blade began to move faster to ward off the blows and everything was sharper in his mind’s eye. Allowing the Force to guide him, Anakin switched back to the offense and in a flurry of swings, hit Obi-Wan once on his off arm.
Anakin stopped the attack, stunned at what he had accomplished. Kenobi seemed unfazed by the blow, but jumped onto the next platform. He stood five meters above Anakin and smiled down at him.
“If you want more, you’ll have to come up here to get it,” he taunted.
Anakin was dumbfounded. Levitating a chair was one thing, but levitating yourself? He paced back and forth for a moment, and then decided to just let it all go. He had saved Padme’s life, he survived an attack from Republic Commandos, and he had been accepted by the Jedi Council. If he was going to be the single greatest Jedi Knight in all of recorded history, then it was going to begin right here.
Before attempting to throw his body up an incredible height, Anakin thought it would be wise if he turned the stunsaber off. He walked up to the edge of the platform, looked up at Obi-Wan, and closed his eyes. As he reached out with the Force, Anakin felt that sense of focus return and he calmed himself. He concentrated on his own body and the Force that surrounded him. Anakin took a deep breath and leaped into the air.
He almost made it.
“Khian, are you sure this is safe?” Padme asked with a hint of alarm in her voice. Khian had brought her down to a sub-level of the City of Spires that from her lofty balcony overlooking the city, she never knew existed.
Padme could see the advantage of conducting less-than-legitimate activities down in the depths of the city. The sun was constantly blocked by the starscrapers that towered above them and the artificial illumination was somewhat lacking. As they passed a pair of rough looking Twi’leks carrying a large bag that was moaning in agony, Padme moved a little closer to her protector.
“Of course this place isn’t safe. I wouldn’t bring my mother down here if you put a blaster to my head,” Khian said. Seeing the shocked expression on Padme’s face, he corrected himself. “But I’m sure times have changed since the last time I was walking down on this level,” Padme pulled the hood of her cloak a little tighter as Khian led them to their destination.
The Hutt Hut had to be the smallest and darkest excuse for a bar on Coruscant. This seemed to be the ideal place to get away from it all, especially if “it” was the local authorities. Khian moved in front of her, but never moved more than an arm’s reach away as they naviagated around the bar.
A squat and brooding Rodian pulled on Padme’s arm, stopping her from moving on.
“We rarely get such a lovely creature like you down here,” the Rodian smacked his lips, his lisp very audible as he spoke Basic to her. “Why don’t you have a drink with me and my friends?”
“I think the lady has other plans,” Khian had reappeared at her side in an instant, one hand on her arm.
“No one asked you. Back off before my blaster tells your eulogy for you,” the Rodian hissed at him, patting a large pistol at his side.
Khian’s vibroblade, Alanna, flashed out from his sleeve and was pressed lightly against the Rodian’s throat. “You should stop thinking about eulogies unless you want to write your own.”
The Rodian locked eyes with Khian for just a moment and then turned back to his drink, muttering to himself. Padme breathed a sigh of relief, but Khian quickly kept her on the move. They continued going through the bar until they came to a booth in the corner. The padding was ripped in numerous places and she could see several scorch marks from leftover exchanges of blaster fire. There was a holo-sign on the table that said “Reserved”.
Khian sat down, pulling Padme down to the table with him and turning off the holo-sign.
“Don’t make a move, don’t speak, don’t start a petition, don’t offer an amendment, and don’t do anything to draw attention to us. You’re in my world now and I think you’ve seen how much fun you can have without your precious Jedi around. Just sit back and enjoy the local fare that your humble constituents have to offer,” Khian said as a small service droid approached.
“My friend and I will try menu number forty-two,” Khian told the droid.
“I’m sorry, sir, but the menu only goes up to forty-one items,” the droid replied.
“Please tell the chef that we’ll take two number forty-two’s,” Khian repeated.
“Very good, sir,” the droid replied and shuffled off through a door to a back room.
Padme checked the menu options again and looked skeptically at Khian.
Before he could reply, a tall Kel-Dorian walked out of the back room the droid had gone into and quickly sat down next to them. The Kel-Dorian had a nasty scar that ran along his entire jawline and looked very badly stitched. The bright white eyes glinted with anger. No one said a word for a moment, and then he reached over the table and punched Khian in the jaw.
Khian’s head shook violently with the force of the blow, but he did not fall over. “Is this the man who traded scars with me to seal a pact with the Kaleesh all those years ago?”
“Traded scars?” Padme asked and looked at Khian. He fingered the scar that ran above and below his left eye and, while still looking at her, quickly punched their host twice before she could flinch.
The Kel-Dorian’s head hit the back of the booth and his hardened expression melted into a smile. “My judgment has been wrong before, though,” he rubbed his jaw slowly.
“It’s been a long time, Korro. I would enjoy sitting here telling you what a pompous, money-grubbing, slow-on-the-draw loser you are, but I’m not here to reminisce about the good times,” Khian said.
“The good times? Do you mean that shell game involving the thermal detonator? Are you talking about the three meter tall Whipid prostitute on Coronet City?” Korro roared with laughter.
Padme raised an eyebrow and Khian shifted in his seat.
“We’re not here so you can embarrass me. This young lady has a few questions and I expect you to at least pretend you have some manners,” Khian said.
“You must mean that Senator Padme Amidala needs information and you’re showing off to her. I never thought I’d see you running around with a skirt again after what happened Ord Mantell.” Korro let out a hearty laugh at seeing Padme’s expression. “Don’t be so surprised Senator, I still have my finger on the pulse of Coruscant. Now what brings you to my humble establishment?” Korro asked.
“You’re on,” Khian said with a wave of his hand.
“Esteemed sir,” she began as she pulled her hood back, “the clones that I discovered seem to be just the tip of the iceberg. It is my sworn duty to seek out the truth and I believe that my investigation is close to uncovering that truth,” Korro immediately shook his head.
“Does she always enjoy hearing herself speak?” he mused.
“Hear her out, Korro. I listened to her and I think you should too,” Khian said and gave Padme a look of encouragement.
Korro shrugged and sat back as Padme continued. “Sir, the Republic needs help. I need to discuss the source of these clones with you. Now, my exhaustive research has led me to believe that the clones may inhabit as many as four worlds including Alderaan. I beseech you…” But Korro stopped her with a wave of his hand.
“Is she serious?” Korro asked Khian. “Listen little girl, I am not an ‘esteemed sir’ nor can you ‘beseech’ me for much of anything, at least not in public. I am not running for re-election and my love for Coruscant stops at my bar and making sure the place doesn’t get busted up more than once a night. Now, what else have you got?”
Padme’s face fell in desperation. Here was someone she couldn’t communicate with. He was crude, boorish, and didn’t care about her struggle at all. How do you get through to such a person? With a final shrug of his shoulders, Korro started to get up.
With quick movements, Khian jumped from his seat, twisted one of Korro’s arms behind his back, and slammed him face first into the table. Korro tried to struggle, but Khian’s grip was too strong.
“You were always clumsy, my old friend. Now you’ve gone and slipped on the floor and landed very awkwardly,” Khian half yelled to the patrons of the bar who turned to look at the disturbance.
Then his voice lowered, “Now listen to me. We go way back, but you know I will not hesitate to crack your neck and take my chances with your pathetic excuse for a lookout sitting three tables over. You know, I know, and I bet he knows that she and I will walk out of here while the two of you will be med-evaced to the nearest medical quadrant,” Khian growled.
“You have your finger on the pulse of Coruscant? Why don’t you practice a little customer service and tell us what we want to know before I become even more agitated?” Khian relaxed his grip and they both sat back down at the table.
“I’m sure diplomacy is fabulous, but not everyone understands bureaucrat-speak,” Khian winked at Padme.
Korro rubbed his eye where it had hit the table. “Well, the pulse hasn’t said very much lately. But what it has been talking about has been pretty interesting. I would say the information that comes my way has been downright shocking. One could say that what comes my way has…” Korro droned on until Padme had heard enough. She recognized stall tactics when she heard them.
Khian began to slide a few credit chips across the table. Before he got more than halfway, Padme placed her hand on his to stop him.
“I’m an elected official, I don’t sink so low as to bribe the owner of a bar,” Padme said without removing her hand.
“Ah, a lover’s quarrel. If you don’t feel like paying me for my services then we aren’t speaking the same language,” Korro said and crossed his arms.
“Then let me speak in a language you can clearly understand. If this cloning abomination is as widespread as I think it is, then the Republic could fall into chaos. Let me be very clear, I may not have a lot of clout as a Planetary Senator, but I do have friends and if I think for a split second that you’re holding out on me, I will have the Republic Ministry for Health and Sanitation down here every single day and put such a stranglehold on your business that you won’t be able to serve Jawa Juice to school children,” Padme’s steely gaze was fixed on Korro.
They locked eyes for a moment, then Korro’s expression softened. “Fine, but are you two going to plan the wedding while I talk?” Korro glanced down and Padme realized that her hand was still on Khian’s. They exchanged glances and quickly separated, but Padme couldn’t help but blush.
“Why don’t we head somewhere more private? I have an office in the back that’s a little more secure than a booth,” he suggested.
With Korro leading the way, the three pushed their way through the crowd and through the double doors back into the kitchen. Padme had to watch her step as they worked their way through the narrow area with small droids scurrying around her knees. They stopped at a steel door that led to a small room with meager furniture.
“Okay, can we talk now?” Padme asked.
“Not until we get to my office,” Korro replied.
“But this…” Padme began.
“This is the office I show your precious RMHS,” Korro smiled. He reached over to a panel on the wall that controlled the lighting, sound, and other environmental factors in the bar. He turned the knob labeled “Smoke Screen” to eleven and then sat down in his chair. After a few seconds, there was an audible click and the back wall of his office slid open to reveal Korro’s true occupation.
They stepped into a room that would have easily held two of The Hutt Hut, and Padme gasped in shock. She looked around and saw jars and containers of all shapes and sizes on shelves running the entire length of the room. The contents of the jars were hidden behind opaque paper.
“You’re a glitterstim dealer?” she asked in horror.
“What? This?” Korro asked looking around the room as if for the first time. “Yeah, glitterstim is one of my various enterprises. I’m just waiting for the price to go back up before selling it. I also traffick in cybernetic limbs, slicer tools, anything to make me a few credits,” Korro explained as the door closed and sealed behind them.
Padme hesistated. Dealing with someone who was the owner of a seedy bar filled with the scum of the galaxy was one thing. Dealing with someone who sold illegal spice, cyborg spare parts, and who knows what else was crossing a line.
“It’s either you talk to him or we may never know the truth. This is the ultimate shortcut to your diplomatic ways that could take years to learn what he has to say in a few minutes. Bend just a little on this one, Padme. This could break things wide open,” Khian whispered.
“I don’t enjoy a comfortable lifestyle running that dive. I traffick in anything that will make me a tidy profit, including information you require. Now, it just so happens that I stumbled upon a few Spaarti Cylinders not too long after Khian and I left Bilbringi. I was approached by a buyer about three years ago who wanted to take these relics off of my hands and so I sold all him all 120,000,” Korro looked quite proud of himself.
“120,000?” Padme and Khian said together. “Where in the stars did you get such a collection?” Khian asked.
“I’ve never been the one to kiss and tell,” Korro replied. “I didn’t even have to offer my usual ten percent discount after my twenty percent mark-up. The man paid with Republic credits and offered a handsome bonus if I could deliver them to their destinations on time,” the grin on Korro’s face widened.
“And who was this generous benefactor who paid you?” Khian asked.
“I’m so proud that I’ll give you that for free,” Korro said. “Tethys Aran contacted me personally to close the deal. Can you imagine? THE Tethys Aran!”
“Korro, please tell me you kept records of where those cylinders were going,” Khian said.
“Do you really think that if I sell technology that has been banned for over sixty years, I would keep a database of their destinations? Next you’ll want serial numbers, the combination to my safe, and my shoe size!” Korro said in a sarcastic tone.
Padme slammed her fist against a wall and several of the jars wobbled. “I know that this atrocity has spread beyond my star system and infected several others. Now I want the names of the systems Tethys Aran sent those cylinders to!” Padme said.
“All one hundred and twelve of them?” Korro asked.
Padme Amidala waited patiently outside Senator Palpatine’s office. The digital tablet she was clutching in her hand shook slightly as she began to pace back and forth in the richly anointed hallway. Khian sat on a couch, his hands folded behind his head.
Felic sat at his desk a few feet away, eyeing his briefcase.
“Padme, enough already. We arrived early for a reason, remember? Expecting a Galactic Senator to be on time is like expecting a Jedi to crack a joke,” he closed his eyes and leaned back.
Felic’s hands molded into fists at the insult.
“My whole life has been building to this moment. Senator Palpatine will read this report and know the full devastation that has been brought upon every citizen in the Republic,” Padme said.
“Why is it that every time a politician opens her mouth, they have to make a grand speech?” Khian chided.
Padme glared at him, but before she could come up with a response or find something to throw at him, the door opened. Senator Palpatine emerged from his office laughing with four other men.
“Ah good, Senator Amidala, I must apologize; it’s never good to keep a lady waiting. Senator, I believe you already met Supreme Chancellor Valorum, but this is Grand Judge Vixt of the Supreme Court, Vice Marshal Namoth of the Republic Navy, and Tarvis Incom, CEO of the INCOM Corporation,” Palpatine gestured to the four men he had been laughing with.
“Senator, I’ve heard wonderful things about you from my friend,” Chancellor Valorum looked down at her with kind eyes, like a doting grandfather. Behind them, Felic shook his head in disgust.
“We must spend some time together. There is a Galactic Election coming up and I think we will see more of you in the future,” the Chancellor continued.
Felic nearly dropped his briefcase at the notion.
Padme blushed as she shook his hand. “Actually sir, if you have just a few extra moments, I believe that you too should hear what I have discovered. What I’ve learned could have incredible repercussions.”
“Oh?” He asked and thought for a moment before walking back into Palpatine’s office. “I believe I can spare a little time to hear something that may alter the fundamentals of the Republic,” he smiled at her as he winked at Palpatine.
The other dignitaries said their goodbyes and headed to the turbolift as Palpatine walked back into his office and motioned for them to follow. Supreme Chancellor Valorum sat down across from the Galactic Senator as Padme and Khian followed.
Senator Palpatine motioned to the chairs in front of his large obsidian desk. Felic helped everyone to their seats and put Padme as far from Senator Palpatine as possible.
“Your message said it was quite urgent that you meet with me. I trust you have some good news?” Palpatine sat down while Felic opened up his briefcase. His eyes lingered on the blaster pistol before he pulled out a pad of paper and began taking notes.
Khian instinctively looked around the room, making sure it was secure while Padme told them everything Korro had revealed. She relayed every shocking detail, every stunning revelation while her audience remained silent and attentive. She made sure to leave out a few of the more colorful details regarding Korro’s various occupations. It was the Chancellor who spoke first when she had finished.
“So you’re quite sure about the validity of your source? For such outlandish accusations, he has to be an ironclad source,” he said.
“The information couldn’t have been from a better source if it had come from your own mother,” Khian said, slightly offended.
The Chancellor and Padme shot Khian a warning look. “Be that as it may. You are saying you want to go before the assembled Senate and accuse one hundred and twelve star systems of cloning on the word of a bar owner. Did he also tell you who arranged this? Where the funding is coming from? Are Outer Rim systems planning a war against us? Which systems? When? Is this a splinter group or are actual Heads of State planning a civil war? Senator Palpatine, you understand that the people of the Republic will not accept this at face value,” he looked at the Galactic Senator who had remained silent.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Padme interrupted. “But I am only one person. I was lucky enough to get this far.”
“And yet you have come quite far on your own,” Palpatine said. “You have brought us the beginnings of a possible insurrection.”
“Senator Palpatine, are you saying this investigation could lead to rebellion? I knew there would be further protests like the ones we’ve already seen, but outright violence? A civil war?” Padme asked.
“Senator, if over one hundred star systems are cloning soldiers, I think a rebellion is already beyond the planning stages. I promise you, we will do everything we can to avoid violence and keep peace in the Republic. If we let diplomacy run its course, I think the Republic will survive,” Palpatine said.
Why not go to the Galactic Senate now and expose what we already know?” Padme asked.
“I believe Senator Palpatine would agree with me in saying that we are not prepared for that,” Chancellor Valorum said.
“You are correct, Chancellor. The word of this nefarious character is not enough to go to the Senate,” Palpatine pressed his fingertips together in thought.
Padme rose and began to pace up and down the room. “Chancellor, Senator, it has been made very clear that this is more than just one world’s squabbles. There is no doubt in my mind that we are looking at something will threaten to tear the Republic apart unless we move to stop it here and now. We must act!”
“Very well, because you insist on not listening to the Supreme Chancellor, I will arrange an audience with the Senate immediately. Of course, you brought documentation to back up Korro’s claims? I’m sure the Senate will ask to see the information he gave you that includes timetables, record books, logistical logs, strategic and tactical plans along with financial transactions for all one hundred and twelve star systems detailing the number of cloned troops, starships, attack tanks, and battle-cruisers we will be dealing with?” Palpatine asked.
“Well no, not exactly,” Padme conceded.
“Then you want to accuse one hundred and twelve members of the Galactic Republic of high treason with nothing to back it up! This is the height of absurdity,” Valorum was on his feet now, placing his hands on his desk and leaning forward.
Felic was beaming at the Chancellor.
“Then we must find the answers. We must search out the truth, no matter what!” Padme placed her hands on the desk and stared at the Chancellor.
Supreme Chancellor Valorum smiled, but did not blink or move. In a heartbeat, she knew that she had been maneuvered exactly where the Chancellor wanted her to go.
“So you’re saying we need an emissary to go to the Outer Rim and seek out the truth, ‘no matter what’,” the Chancellor backed away from the table and turned to stare out his window.
“Senator Amidala, you are hereby charged with this critical task. You will go to the Outer Rim and further your investigation and see just how damaging the truth might be to the peace and security of the Galactic Republic,” he said.
“Who, me?” Padme sputtered as Khian put his face in his hands.
Felic’s eyes lit up at this opportunity. He began writing out her itinerary.
“Who better to go to the Outer Rim to determine the nature of the threat you are telling us exists?” Senator Palpatine said.
“Please be very careful when you go, Senator. I fear these attacks against you may increase when you leave the safety of the City of Spires. You will become a very important voice against any world producing a clone army,” he warned.
“I’ve got her covered, Senator. She couldn’t be in better hands if she had a battalion of wookies watching her day and night,” Khian said.
“Excellent. I’m glad to see she’s in such capable hands,” Palpatine said.
“I have all the faith in the world in Khian, but if I’m going to be part of this task force, perhaps some added security should be in order? I think I should send a request to the Jedi Order and ask that Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker join my security detail,” Padme said and Palpatine’s face fell.
“Senator, you hired this man at your own request. You admitted that he is doing an outstanding job, why ask for more? The Jedi will only get in your way,” Palpatine protested.
“I don’t believe that’s true, sir. Khian has convinced me that the threats against me are credible enough to warrant the added protection. Also, Obi-Wan and Anakin know more about this than any other bodyguard I could bring on. Many hands make for light work,” Padme seemed determined.
“Very well, senator. I endorse any steps you will take to ensure your safety,” Palpatine surrendered.
“Senator Palpatine, Chancellor Valorum, where am I supposed to begin? There are one hundred and twenty seven Galactic Sectors in the Outer Rim. That comes to nearly sixteen hundred star systems!” Padme said.
“Isn’t that what you’re supposed to investigate?” Palpatine asked.
“They must be moved.”
“I don’t understand. My team is making tremendous progress now that we have this material I acquired. The reports I’ve been sending should show you how the embryos are progressing since you dispatched our latest batch of clones,” Major Issic responded.
“Your team has provided seventy-two trillion DNA strands of a more superior quality. Yet the number of successful clones stands in the single digits. I have received reports showing a disgraceful success/failure ratio,” Darth Maul replied.
Major Issic shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “My Lord, we’ve made strides over the past few weeks that have led us in amazing new directions. I really do believe we’re close to a breakthrough that will lead to mass production.”
“They must be moved.”
“My Lord, this identity, this installation, it all cost me a fortune. Some of my inheritance went toward this. I was hoping to get more out of my investment,” Major Issic protested.
Darth Maul’s eyes turned cold. His stare penetrated from the viewscreen across the room into Major Issic.
“Money? You are concerned about money? You have strayed too far if material needs are your motivation. Perhaps you are not as worthy as I first believed,” Darth Maul said.
“I apologize, my Lord. We are just so close to achieving our goals. Once my team completes this project, then I’ll finally…”
“If they complete the project. My patience is wearing thin, Ethan. Move the team to Cerea. The end is near and I need the team there to complete the implication to the Outer Rim. They must be moved,” Darth Maul repeated before ending the transmission.
“They will be moved,” Major Issic affirmed.
A total of eight shuttles and two larger transports descended from the large freighter were now cast in a red glow from the nearby dwarf star. Like seeds being blown from a flower, they soared away from the craft and breached the planet’s atmosphere.
“Ground control to Shuttle One. We have you on our scanners now, continue your approach on the designated flight path. Welcome back to Cerea, Lord Aelion,” the loudspeaker crackled.
“Lord Aelion?” Doctor Billicks raised an raised eyebrow.
“Not now, Billicks. I got you a facility that completely surpasses anything this team has ever had, just as you requested,” Major Issic said.
“Well that would be a pleasant change from the junk you’ve been giving us,” Doctor Billicks needled.
Major Issic ignored the comment. He decided that a better use of his time and effort would be on landing the craft on a planet that had no landing beacons, no guidance assistance, or nothing to help their heads-up display as they decelerated to a crawl of only nine hundred kph.
From behind him, Major Issic heard “oohs” and “aahs” as the shuttles lined up to land in their new facility. He banked slightly to give them a better view of their new home.
The shuttle practically hummed with excitement when they saw the metallic lined opening built into the mountain. The gaping maw was perfectly round and had a landing ramp that extended out to welcome the shuttles and transports. To see this shiny beacon of technology surrounded by the lush forest and sheer cliffs of the mountain made for an incredible contradiction.
“Hold on to something. This landing can be rather difficult,” the Major double checked his safety harness.
“If the landing is anything like your…” Doctor Billicks was jolted out of his seat.
Major Issic brought the shuttle to with only a few feet of the ground. His hand shoved the accelerator back and the shuttle slowed from nine hundred kph to only fifty kph in a handful of seconds.
The shuttle picked its nose up slightly as it breached the entrance and the shuttle came to a complete stop. Every light, every instrument, even the engines shut off instantly. The shuttle dropped to the floor with a thud.
“What the hell was that?” Doctor Billicks asked, looking up from the floor.
“We had to install a powerful dampening field that lines the mountain’s shape. It blocks ninety-eight percent of all power emanations so this facility stays hidden from all but the most determined of scans. It also has the side effect of temporarily neutralizing all electronics that enter it,” Major Issic unstrapped himself from the shuttle.
“That’s grand,” Doctor Billicks mumbled, rubbing his neck.
A group of crewmen began unloading the shuttles. The sixty-four scientists stepped out and stretched. Major Issic put a hand on Doctor Billick’s shoulder.
“Doctor, before you get settled in, I want to discuss a special project with you.”