Star Wars-Revenge of the Sith eBook #starwars #ebooks

This story happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. It is
already over. Nothing can be done to change it.
It is a story of love and loss, brotherhood and betrayal, courage and
sacrifice and the death of dreams. It is a story of the blurred line between
our best and our worst.
It is the story of the end of an age.
A strange thing about stories-
Though this all happened so long ago and so far away that words cannot
describe the time or the distance, it is also happening right now. Right
here.
It is happening as you read these words.
This is how twenty-five millennia come to a close. Corruption and
treachery have crushed a thousand years of peace. This is not just the end
of a republic; night is falling on civilization itself.
This is the twilight of the Jedi.
The end starts now.

                           =Introduction=

                         The Age of Heroes


 The skies of Coruscant blaze with war.
 The artificial daylight spread by  the  capital's  orbital  mirrors  is

sliced by intersecting flames of ion drives and punctuated by starburst
explosions; contrails of debris raining into the atmosphere become tangled
ribbons of cloud. The nightside sky is an infinite lattice of shining
hairlines that interlock planetoids and track erratic spirals of glowing
gnats. Beings watching from rooftops of Coruscant’s endless cityscape can
find it beautiful.
From the inside, it’s different.
The gnats are drive-glows of starfighters. The shining hairlines are
light-scatter from turbolaser bolts powerful enough to vaporize a small
town. The planetoids are capital ships.
The battle from the inside is a storm of confusion and panic, of
galvened particle beams flashing past your starfighter so close that your
cockpit rings like a broken annunciator, of the boot-sole shock of
concussion missiles that blast into your cruiser, killing beings you have
trained with and eaten with and played and laughed and bickered with. From
the inside, the battle is desperation and terror and the stomach-churning
certainty that the whole galaxy is trying to kill you.
Across the remnants of the Republic, stunned beings watch in horror as
the battle unfolds live on the HoloNet. Everyone knows the war has been
going badly. Everyone knows that more Jedi are killed or captured every day,
that the Grand Army of the Republic has been pushed out of system after
system, but this-
A strike at the very heart of the Republic?
An invasion of Coruscant itself?
How can this happen?
It’s a nightmare, and no one can wake up.
Live via HoloNet, beings watch the Separatist droid army flood the
government district. The coverage is filled with images of overmatched clone
troopers cut down by remorselessly powerful destroyer droids in the halls of
the Galactic Senate itself.
A gasp of relief: the troopers seem to beat back the attack. There are
hugs and even some quiet cheers in living rooms across the galaxy as the
Separatist forces retreat to their landers and streak for orbit-

 We won! beings tell each other. We held them off!
 But then new reports trickle in-only rumors at  first-that  the  attack

wasn’t an invasion at all. That the Separatists weren’t trying to take the
planet. That this was a lightning raid on the Senate itself.

 The nightmare gets worse: the Supreme Chancellor is missing.

 Palpatine of Naboo, the most admired man in the galaxy, whose unmatched

political skills have held the Republic together. Whose personal integrity
and courage prove that the Separatist propaganda of corruption in the Senate
is nothing but lies. Whose charismatic leadership gives the whole Republic
the will to fight on.

 Palpatine is more than respected. He is loved.
 Even the rumor of his disappearance strikes a dagger to  the  heart  of

every friend of the Republic. Every one of them knows it in her heart, in
his gut, in its very bones-

 Without Palpatine, the Republic will fall.
 And now confirmation comes through, and the news is worse  than  anyone

could have imagined. Supreme Chancellor Palpatine has been captured by the
Separatists-and not just the Separatists.
He’s in the hands of General Grievous.
Grievous is not like other leaders of the Separatists. Nute Gunray is
treacherous and venal, but he’s Neimoidian: venality and treachery are
expected, and in the Chancellor of the Trade Federation they’re even
virtues. Poggle the Lesser is Archduke of the weapon masters of Geonosis,
where the war began: he is analytical and pitiless, but also pragmatic.
Reasonable. The political heart of the Separatist Confederacy, Count Dooku,
is known for his integrity, his principled stand against what he sees as
corruption in the Senate. Though they believe he’s wrong, many respect him
for the courage of his mistaken convictions.
These are hard beings. Dangerous beings. Ruthless and aggressive.
General Grievous, though-

 Grievous is a monster.
 The Separatist Supreme Commander is an abomination of nature, a  fusion

of flesh and droid-and his droid parts have more compassion than what
remains of his alien flesh. This half-living creature is a slaughterer of
billions. Whole planets have burned at his command. He is the evil genius of
the Confederacy. The architect of their victories.
The author of their atrocities.
And his durasteel grip has closed upon Palpatine. He confirms the
capture personally in a wideband transmission from his command cruiser in
the midst of the orbital battle. Beings across the galaxy watch, and
shudder, and pray that they might wake up from this awful dream.
Because they know that what they’re watching, live on the HoloNet, is
the death of the Republic.
Many among these beings break into tears; many more reach out to
comfort their husbands or wives, their creche-mates or kin-triads, and their
younglings of all descriptions, from children to cubs to spawn-fry.

 But here is a strange thing: few of the younglings need comfort. It  is

instead the younglings who offer comfort to their elders. Across the
Republic-in words or pheromones, in magnetic pulses, tentacle-braids, or
mental telepathy-the message from the younglings is the same: Don’t worry.
It’ll be all right.
Anakin and Obi-Wan will be there any minute.
They say this as though these names can conjure miracles.
Anakin and Obi-Wan. Kenobi and Skywalker. From the beginning of the
Clone Wars, the phrase Kenobi and Skywalker has become a single word. They
are everywhere. HoloNet features of their operations against the Separatist
enemy have made them the most famous Jedi in the galaxy.

 Younglings across the galaxy know their names,  know  everything  about

them, follow their exploits as though they are sports heroes instead of
warriors in a desperate battle to save civilization. Even grown-ups are not
immune; it’s not uncommon for an exasperated parent to ask, when faced with
offspring who have just tried to pull off one of the spectacularly dangerous
bits of foolishness that are the stock-in-trade of high-spirited younglings
everywhere, So which were you supposed to be, Kenobi or Skywalker?

 Kenobi would rather talk than fight, but when there is fighting  to  be

done, few can match him. Skywalker is the master of audacity; his intensity,
boldness, and sheer jaw-dropping luck are the perfect complement to Kenobi’s
deliberate, balanced steadiness. Together, they are a Jedi hammer that has
crushed Separatist infestations on scores of worlds.

 All the younglings watching the battle in Coruscant's sky know it: when

Anakin and Obi-Wan get there, those dirty Seppers are going to wish they’d
stayed in bed today.

 The adults know better, of course. That's part of what being a grown-up

is: understanding that heroes are created by the HoloNet, and that the
real-life Kenobi and Skywalker are only human beings, after all.
Even if they really are everything the legends say they are, who’s to
say they’ll show up in time? Who knows where they are right now? They might
be trapped on some Separatist backwater. They might be captured, or wounded.
Even dead.
Some of the adults even whisper to themselves, They might have fallen.
Because the stories are out there. Not on the HoloNet, of course-the
HoloNet news is under the control of the Office of the Supreme Chancellor,
and not even Palpatine’s renowned candor would allow tales like these to be
told-but people hear whispers. Whispers of names that the Jedi would like to
pretend never existed.
Sora Bulq. Depa Billaba. Jedi who have fallen to the dark. Who have
joined the Separatists, or worse: who have massacred civilians, or even
murdered their comrades. The adults have a sickening suspicion that Jedi
cannot be trusted. Not anymore. That even the greatest of them can suddenly
just . . . snap.
The adults know that legendary heroes are merely legends, and not
heroes at all.
These adults can take no comfort from their younglings. Palpatine is
captured. Grievous will escape. The Republic will fall. No mere human beings
can turn this tide. No mere human beings would even try. Not even Kenobi and
Skywalker.
And so it is that these adults across the galaxy watch the HoloNet with
ashes where their hearts should be.
Ashes because they can’t see two prismatic bursts of realspace
reversion, far out beyond the planet’s gravity well; because they can’t see
a pair of starfighters crisply jettison hyperdrive rings and streak into the
storm of Separatist vulture fighters with all guns blazing.

 A pair of starfighters. Jedi starfighters. Only two.
 Two is enough.
 Two is enough because the adults are wrong, and  their  younglings  are

right.
Though this is the end of the age of heroes, it has saved its best for
last.

                              Part One


                              Victory


 The dark is generous.
 Its first gift is concealment: our true faces lie in the  dark  beneath

our skins, our true hearts remain shadowed deeper still. But the greatest
concealment lies not in protecting our secret truths, but in hiding from us
the truths of others.
The dark protects us from what we dare not know.
Its second gift is comforting illusion: the ease of gentle dreams in
night’s embrace, the beauty that imagination brings to what would repel in
day’s harsh light. But the greatest of its comforts is the illusion that the
dark is temporary: that every night brings a new day. Because it is day that
is temporary.
Day is the illusion.
Its third gift is the light itself: as days are defined by the nights
that divide them, as stars are defined by the infinite black through which
they wheel, the dark embraces the light, and brings it forth from the center
of its own self.
With each victory of the light, it is the dark that wins.

                                =1=


                         ANAKIN AND OBI-WAN


 Antifighter flak flashed on all sides. Even louder than the clatter  of

shrapnel and the snarl of his sublight drives, his cockpit hummed and rang
with near hits from the turbolaser fire of the capital ships crowding space
around him. Sometimes his whirling spinning dive through the cloud of battle
skimmed bursts so closely that the energy-scatter would slam his starfighter
hard enough to bounce his head off the supports of his pilot’s chair.
Right now Obi-Wan Kenobi envied the clones: at least they had helmets.
“Arfour,” he said on internal comm, “can’t you do something with the
inertials?”
The droid ganged into the socket on his starflghter’s left wing
whistled something that sounded suspiciously like a human apology. Obi-Wan’s
frown deepened. R4-P17 had been spending too much time with Anakin’s
eccentric astromech; it was picking up R2-D2’s bad habits.
New bursts of flak bracketed his path. He reached into the Force,
feeling for a safe channel through the swarms of shrapnel and sizzling nets
of particle beams.
There wasn’t one.
He locked a snarl behind his teeth, twisting his starfighter around
another explosion that could have peeled its armor like an overripe Ithorian
starfruit. He hated this part. Hated it.
Flying’s for droids.
His cockpit speakers crackled. “There isn’t a droid made that can
outfly you, Master.”
He could still be surprised by the new depth of that voice. The calm
confidence. The maturity. It seemed that only last week Anakin had been a
ten-year-old who wouldn’t stop pestering him about Form I lightsaber combat.
“Sorry,” he muttered, kicking into a dive that slipped a turbo-laser
burst by no more than a meter. “Was that out loud?”
“Wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t. I know what you’re thinking.”
“Do you?” He looked up through the cockpit canopy to find his onetime
Padawan flying inverted, mirroring him so closely that but for the
transparisteel between them, they might have shaken hands. Obi-Wan smiled up
at him. “Some new gift of the Force?”

 "Not  the  Force,  Master.  Experience.  That's  what   you're   always

thinking.”
Obi-Wan kept hoping to hear some of Anakin’s old cocky grin in his
tone, but he never did. Not since Jabiim. Perhaps not since Geonosis.
The war had burned it out of him.
Obi-Wan still tried, now and again, to spark a real smile in his former
Padawan. And Anakin still tried to answer.
They both still tried to pretend the war hadn’t changed them.
“Ah.” Obi-Wan took a hand from the starfighter’s control yoke to direct
his upside-down friend’s attention forward. Dead ahead, a blue-white point
of light splintered into four laser-straight trails of ion drives. “And what
does experience tell you we should do about those incoming tri-fighters?”

 "That we should break-right!"
 Obi-Wan was already making that exact move as Anakin  spoke.  But  they

were inverted to each other: breaking right shot him one way while Anakin
whipped the other. The tri-fighters’ cannons ripped space between them,
tracking faster than their starfighters could slip.
His onboard threat display chimed a warning: two of the droids had
remote sensor locks on him. The others must have lit up his partner.
“Anakin! Slip-jaws!”
“My thought exactly.”
They blew past the tri-fighters, looping in evasive spirals. The droid
ships wrenched themselves into pursuit maneuvers that would have killed any
living pilot.
The slip-jaws maneuver was named for the scissorlike mandibles of the
Kashyyyk slash-spider. Droids closing rapidly on their tails, cannonfire
stitching space on all sides, the two Jedi pulled their ships through
perfectly mirrored rolls that sent them streaking head-on for each other
from opposite ends of a vast Republic cruiser.
For merely human pilots, this would be suicide. By the time you can see
your partner’s starfighter streaking toward you at a respectable fraction of
lightspeed, it’s already too late for your merely human reflexes to react.
But these particular pilots were far from merely human.
The Force nudged hands on control yokes and the Jedi starfighters
twisted and flashed past each other belly-to-belly, close enough to scorch
each other’s paint. Tri-fighters were the Trade Federation’s latest
space-superiority droid. But even the electronic reflexes of the
tri-fighters’ droid brains were too slow for this: one of his pursuers met
one of Anakin’s head-on. Both vanished in a blossom of flame.
The shock wave of debris and expanding gas rocked Obi-Wan; he fought
the control yoke, barely keeping his starfighter

 out of a tumble that  would  have  smeared  him  across  the  cruiser's

ventral hull. Before he could straighten out, his threat display chimed
again.
“Oh, marvelous,” he muttered under his breath. Anakin’s surviving
pursuer had switched targets. “Why is it always me?”
“Perfect.” Through the cockpit speakers, Anakin’s voice carried grim
satisfaction. “Both of them are on your tail.”
“Perfect is not the word I’d use.” Obi-Wan twisted his yoke, juking
madly as space around him flared scarlet. “We have to split them up!”
“Break left.” Anakin sounded calm as a stone. “The turbolaser tower off
your port bow: thread its guns. I’ll take things from there.”
“Easy for you to say.” Obi-Wan whipped sideways along the cruiser’s
superstructure. Fire from the pursuing tri-fighters blasted burning chunks
from the cruiser’s armor. “Why am I always the bait?”
“I’m right behind you. Artoo, lock on.”
Obi-Wan spun his starfighter between the recoiling turbo-cannons close
enough that energy-scatter made his cockpit clang like a gong, but still
cannonfire flashed past him from the tri-fighters behind. “Anakin, they’re
all over me!”
“Dead ahead. Move right to clear my shot. Now!”
Obi-Wan flared his port jets and the starfighter kicked to the right.
One of the tri-fighters behind him decided it couldn’t follow and went for a
ventral slip that took it directly into the blasts from Anakin’s cannons.
It vanished in a boil of superheated gas.
“Good shooting, Artoo.” Anakin’s dry chuckle in the cockpit’s speakers
vanished behind the clang of lasers blasting ablative shielding off
Obi-Wan’s left wing.
“I’m running out of tricks here-“
Clearing the vast Republic cruiser put him on course for the curving
hull of one of the Trade Federation’s battleships; space between the two
capital ships blazed with turbolaser exchanges.
Some of those flashing energy blasts were as big around as his entire
ship; the merest graze would blow him to atoms.
Obi-Wan dived right in.
He had the Force to guide him through, and the tri-fighter had only its
electronic reflexes-but those electronic reflexes operated at roughly the
speed of light. It stayed on his tail as if he were dragging it by a tow
cable.
When Obi-Wan went left and Anakin right, the tri-fighter would swing
halfway through the difference. The same with up and down. It was averaging
his movements with Anakin’s; somehow its droid brain had realized that as
long as it stayed between the two Jedi, Anakin couldn’t fire on it without
hitting his partner. The tri-fighter was under no similiar restraint:
Obi-Wan flew through a storm of scarlet needles.
“No wonder we’re losing the war,” he muttered. “They’re getting
smarter.”
“What was that, Master? I didn’t copy.”
Obi-Wan kicked his starfighter into a tight spiral toward the
Federation cruiser. “I’m taking the deck!”
“Good idea. I need some room to maneuver.”
Cannonfire tracked closer. Obi-Wan’s cockpit speakers buzzed. “Cut
right, Obi-Wan! Hard right! Don’t let him get a handle on you! Artoo, lock
on!”
Obi-Wan’s starfighter streaked along the curve of the Separatist
cruiser’s dorsal hull. Antifighter flak burst on all sides as the cruiser’s
guns tried to pick him up. He rolled a right wingover into the service
trench that stretched the length of the cruiser’s hull. This low and close
to the deck, the cruiser’s antifighter guns couldn’t depress their angle of
fire enough to get a shot, but the tri-fighter stayed right on his tail.
At the far end of the service trench, the massive support buttresses of
the cruiser’s towering bridge left no room for even Obi-Wan’s small craft.
He kicked his starfighter into a half roll that whipped him out of the
trench and shot him straight up the
tower’s angled leading edge. One burst of his underjets jerked him past
the forward viewports of the bridge with only meters to spare-and the
tri-fighter followed his path exactly.
“Of course,” he muttered. “That would have been too easy. Anakin, where
are you?”

 One of the control surfaces on his left wing shattered in  a  burst  of

plasma. It felt like being shot in the arm. He toggled switches, fighting
the yoke. R4-P17 shrilled at him. Obi-Wan keyed internal comm. “Don’t try to
fix it, Arfour. I’ve shut it down.”

 "I have the lock!" Anakin said. "Go! Firing-now!"
 Obi-Wan hit maximum drag on his intact wing, and his  starfighter  shot

into a barely controlled arc high and right as Anakin’s cannons vaporized
the last tri-fighter.
Obi-Wan fired retros to stall his starfighter in the blind spot behind
the Separatist cruiser’s bridge. He hung there for a few seconds to get his
breathing and heart under control. “Thanks, Anakin. That was-thanks. That’s
all.”
“Don’t thank me. It was Artoo’s shooting.”
“Yes. I suppose, if you like, you can thank your droid for me as well.
And, Anakin-?”
“Yes, Master?”
“Next time, you’re the bait.”

 This is Obi-Wan Kenobi:
 A phenomenal pilot who doesn't like to fly. A devastating warrior who'd

rather not fight. A negotiator without peer who frankly prefers to sit alone
in a quiet cave and meditate.
Jedi Master. General in the Grand Army of the Republic. Member of the
Jedi Council. And yet, inside, he feels like he’s none of these things.

 Inside, he still feels like a Padawan.
 It is a truism of the Jedi Order that a Jedi Knight's  education  truly

begins only when he becomes a Master: that everything important about being
a Master is learned from one’s student. Obi-Wan feels the truth of this
every day.
He sometimes dreams of when he was a Padawan in fact as well as
feeling; he dreams that his own Master, Qui-Gon Jinn, did not die at the
plasma-fueled generator core in Theed. He dreams that his Master’s wise
guiding hand is still with him. But Qui-Gon’s death is an old pain, one with
which he long ago came to terms.
A Jedi does not cling to the past.
And Obi-Wan Kenobi knows, too, that to have lived his life without
being Master to Anakin Skywalker would have left him a different man. A
lesser man.
Anakin has taught him so much.
Obi-Wan sees so much of Qui-Gon in Anakin that sometimes it hurts his
heart; at the very least, Anakin mirrors Qui-Gon’s flair for the dramatic,
and his casual disregard for rules. Training Anakin-and fighting beside him,
all these years-has unlocked something inside Obi-Wan. It’s as though Anakin
has rubbed off on him a bit, and has loosened that clenched-jaw insistence
on absolute correctness that Qui-Gon always said was his greatest flaw.

 Obi-Wan Kenobi has learned to relax.
 He smiles now, and sometimes even jokes, and has become known  for  the

wisdom gentle humor can provide. Though he does not know it, his
relationship with Anakin has molded him into the great Jedi Qui-Gon always
said he might someday be.

 It is characteristic of Obi-Wan that he is entirely unaware of this.

 Being named to the Council came as a complete surprise; even now, he is

sometimes astonished by the faith the Jedi Coun-
cil has in his abilities, and the credit they give to his wisdom.
Greatness was never his ambition. He wants only to perform whatever task he
is given to the best of his ability.

 He is respected throughout the Jedi Order for his insight  as  well  as

his warrior skill. He has become the hero of the next generation of
Padawans; he is the Jedi their Masters hold up as a model. He is the being
that the Council assigns to their most important missions. He is modest,
centered, and always kind.
He is the ultimate Jedi.

 And he is proud to be Anakin Skywalker's best friend.


 "Artoo, where's that signal?"

 From its socket beside  the  cockpit,  R2-D2  whistled  and  beeped.  A

translation spidered across Anakin’s console readout: SCANNING. LOTS OF ECM
SIGNAL JAMMING.
“Keep on it.” He glanced at Obi-Wan’s starfighter limping through the
battle, a hundred meters off his left wing. “I can feel his jitters from all
the way over here.”
A tootle: A jedi is always calm.
“He won’t think it’s funny. Neither do I. Less joking, more scanning.”

 For Anakin Skywalker, starfighter battles were usually as close to  fun

as he ever came.

 This one wasn't.
 Not because of the overwhelming odds, or  the  danger  he  was  in;  he

didn’t care about odds, and he didn’t think of himself as being in any
particular danger. A few wings of droid fighters didn’t much scare a man
who’d been a Podracer since he was six, and had won the Boonta Cup at nine.
Who was, in fact, the only human to ever finish a Podrace, let alone win
one.
In those days he had used the Force without knowing it; he’d thought
the Force was something inside him, just a feeling, an
instinct, a string of lucky guesses that led him through maneuvers
other pilots wouldn’t dare attempt. Now, though . . .

 Now-
 Now he could reach into the Force and feel  the  engagement  throughout

Coruscant space as though the whole battle were happening inside his head.
His vehicle became his body. The pulses of its engines were the beat of
his own heart. Flying, he could forget about his slavery, about his mother,
about Geonosis and Jabiim, Aargonar and Muunilinst and all the catastrophes
of this brutal war. About everything that had been done to him.
And everything he had done.
He could even put aside, for as long as the battle roared around him,
the starfire of his love for the woman who waited for him on the world
below. The woman whose breath was his only air, whose heartbeat was his only
music, whose face was the only beauty his eyes would ever see.
He could put all this aside because he was a Jedi. Because it was time
to do a Jedi’s work.
But today was different.
Today wasn’t about dodging lasers and blasting droids. Today was about
the life of the man who might as well have been his father: a man who could
die if the Jedi didn’t reach him in time.

 Anakin had been late once before.
 Obi-Wan's voice came over the cockpit speakers, flat and  tight.  "Does

your droid have anything? Arfour’s hopeless. I think that last cannon hit
cooked his motivator.”
Anakin could see exactly the look on his former Master’s face: a mask
of calm belied by a jaw so tight that when he spoke his mouth barely moved.
“Don’t worry, Master. If his beacon’s working, Artoo’ll find it. Have you
thought about how we’ll find the Chancellor if-“
“No.” Obi-Wan sounded absolutely certain. “There’s no need
to consider it. Until the possible becomes actual, it is only a
distraction. Be mindful of what is, not what might be.”
Anakin had to stop himself from reminding Obi-Wan that he wasn’t a
Padawan anymore. “I should have been here,” he said through his teeth. “I
told you. I should have been here.”
“Anakin, he was defended by Stass Allie and Shaak Ti. If two Masters
could not prevent this, do you think you could? Stass Allie is clever and
valiant, and Shaak Ti is the most cunning Jedi I’ve ever met. She’s even
taught me a few tricks.”
Anakin assumed he was supposed to be impressed. “But General Grievous-“
“Master Ti had faced him before, Anakin. After Muunilinst. She is not
only subtle and experienced, but very capable indeed. Seats on the Jedi
Council aren’t handed out as party favors.”
“I’ve noticed.” He let it drop. The middle of a space battle was no
place to get into this particular sore subject.
If only he’d been here, instead of Shaak Ti and Stass Allie, Council
members or not. If he had been here, Chancellor Palpatine would be home and
safe already. Instead, Anakin had been stuck running around the Outer Rim
for months like some useless Padawan, and all Palpatine had for protectors
were Jedi who were clever and subtle.
Clever and subtle. He could whip any ten clever and subtle Jedi with
his lightsaber tied behind his back.
But he knew better than to say so.
“Put yourself in the moment, Anakin. Focus.”
“Copy that, Master,” Anakin said dryly. “Focusing now.”
R2-D2 twittered, and Anakin checked his console readout. “We’ve got
him, Master. The cruiser dead ahead. That’s Grievous’s flagship-Invisible
Hand.”
“Anakin, there are dozens of cruisers dead ahead!”
“It’s the one crawling with vulture fighters.”
The vulture fighters clinging to the long curves of the Trade
Federation cruiser indicated by Palpatine’s beacon gave it eerily

 life-like ripples, like some metallic marine  predator  bristling  with

Alderaanian walking barnacles.
“Oh. That one.” He could practically hear Obi-Wan’s stomach dropping.
“Oh, this should be easy . . .”
Now some of them stripped themselves from the cruiser, ignited their
drives, and came looping toward the two Jedi.
“Easy? No. But it might be fun.” Sometimes a little teasing was the
only way to get Obi-Wan to loosen up. “Lunch at Dex’s says I’ll blast two
for each of yours. Artoo can keep score.”
“Anakin-“
“All right, dinner. And I promise this time I won’t let Artoo cheat.”
“No games, Anakin. There’s too much at stake.” There, that was the tone
Anakin had been looking for: a slightly scolding, schoolmasterish edge.
Obi-Wan was back on form. “Have your droid tight-beam a report to the
Temple. And send out a call for any Jedi in starfighters. We’ll come at it
from all sides.”
“Way ahead of you.” But when he checked his comm readout, he shook his
head. “There’s still too much ECM. Artoo can’t raise the Temple. I think the
only reason we can even talk to each other is that we’re practically side by
side.”
“And Jedi beacons?”
“No joy, Master.” Anakin’s stomach clenched, but he fought the tension
out of his voice. “We may be the only two Jedi out here.”

 "Then we will have to be enough. Switching to clone fighter channel."

 Anakin spun his comm dial to the new frequency in time to hear  Obi-Wan

say, “Oddball, do you copy? We need help.”
The clone captain’s helmet speaker flattened the humanity out of his
voice. “Copy, Red Leader.”

 "Mark my position and form your squad behind me. We're going in."

 On our way."

 The droid fighters had lost themselves against the  background  of  the

battle, but R2-D2 was tracking them on scan. Anakin shifted his grip on his
starfighter’s control yoke. “Ten vultures inbound, high and left to my
orientation. More on the way.”
“I have them. Anakin, wait-the cruiser’s bay shields have dropped! I’m
reading four, no, six ships incoming.” Obi-Wan’s voice rose. “Tri-fighters!
Coming in fast!”
Anakin’s smile tightened. This was about to get interesting.
“Tri-fighters first, Master. The vultures can wait.”
“Agreed. Slip back and right, swing behind me. We’ll take them on the
slant.”
Let Obi-Wan go first? With a blown left control surface and a
half-crippled R-unit? With Palpatine’s life at stake?
Not likely.
“Negative,” Anakin said. “I’m going head-to-head. See you on the far
side.”
“Take it easy. Wait for Oddball and Squad Seven. Anakin-“
He could hear the frustration in Obi-Wan’s voice as he kicked his
starfighter’s sublights and surged past; his former Master still hadn’t
gotten used to not being able to order Anakin around.
Not that Anakin had ever been much for following orders. Obi-Wan’s, or
anyone else’s.
“Sorry we’re late.” The digitized voice of the clone whose call sign
was Oddball sounded as calm as if he were ordering dinner. “We’re on your
right, Red Leader. Where’s Red Five?”
“Anakin, form up!”
But Anakin was already streaking to meet the Trade Federation fighters.
“Incoming!”
Obi-Wan’s familiar sigh came clearly over the comm; Anakin knew exactly
what the Jedi Master was thinking. The same thing he was always thinking.
He still has much to learn.
Anakin’s smile thinned to a grim straight line as enemy starfighters
swarmed around him. And he thought the same thing he always thought.

 We'll see about that.
 He gave himself to the battle, and  his  starfighter  whirled  and  his

cannons hammered, and droids on all sides began to burst into clouds of
debris and superheated gas.
This was how he relaxed.

 This is Anakin Skywalker:
 The most powerful Jedi of his generation. Perhaps  of  any  generation.

The fastest. The strongest. An unbeatable pilot. An unstoppable warrior. On
the ground, in the air or sea or space, there is no one even close. He has
not just power, not just skill, but dash: that rare, invaluable combination
of boldness and grace.
He is the best there is at what he does. The best there has ever been.
And he knows it.
HoloNet features call him the Hero With No Fear. And why not? What
should he be afraid of?
Except-
Fear lives inside him anyway, chewing away the firewalls around his
heart.
Anakin sometimes thinks of the dread that eats at his heart as a
dragon. Children on Tatooine tell each other of the dragons that live inside
the suns; smaller cousins of the sun-dragons are supposed to live inside the
fusion furnaces that power everything from starships to Podracers.
But Anakin’s fear is another kind of dragon. A cold kind. A dead kind.

 Not nearly dead enough.
 Not long after he became Obi-Wan's Padawan,  all  those  years  ago,  a

minor mission had brought them to a dead system: one so immeasurably old
that its star had long ago turned to a
frigid dwarf of hypercompacted trace metals, hovering a quantum
fraction of a degree above absolute zero. Anakin couldn’t even remember what
the mission might have been, but he’d never forgotten that dead star.
It had scared him.
“Stars can die-?”

 "It is the way of the universe, which is another manner of saying  that

it is the will of the Force,” Obi-Wan had told him. “Everything dies. In
time, even stars burn out. This is why Jedi form no attachments: all things
pass. To hold on to something- or someone-beyond its time is to set your
selfish desires against the Force. That is a path of misery, Anakin; the
Jedi do not walk it.”

 That is the kind of fear that lives inside Anakin Skywalker: the dragon

of that dead star. It is an ancient, cold dead voice within his heart that
whispers all things die . . .
In bright day he can’t hear it; battle, a mission, even a report before
the Jedi Council, can make him forget it’s even there. But at night-

 At night, the walls  he  has  built  sometimes  start  to  frost  over.

Sometimes they start to crack.
At night, the dead-star dragon sometimes sneaks through the cracks and
crawls up into his brain and chews at the inside of his skull. The dragon
whispers of what Anakin has lost. And what he will lose.

 The dragon reminds him, every night, of how he held his dying mother in

his arms, of how she had spent her last strength to say I knew you would
come for me, Anakin . . .
The dragon reminds him, every night, that someday he will lose Obi-Wan.
He will lose Padme. Or they will lose him.
All things die, Anakin Skywalker. Even stars burn out. . .
And the only answers he ever has for these dead cold whispers are his
memories of Obi-Wan’s voice, or Yoda’s.
But sometimes he can’t quite remember them.

 all things die . . .

 He can barely even think about it.
 But right now he doesn't have a choice: the man he flies to rescue is a

closer friend than he’d ever hoped to have. That’s what puts the edge in his
voice when he tries to make a joke; that’s what flattens his mouth and
tightens the burn-scar high on his right cheek.
The Supreme Chancellor has been family to Anakin: always there, always
caring, always free with advice and unstinting aid. A sympathetic ear and a
kindly, loving, unconditional acceptance of Anakin exactly as he is-the sort
of acceptance Anakin could never get from another Jedi. Not even from
Obi-Wan. He can tell Palpatine things he could never share with his Master.
He can tell Palpatine things he can’t even tell Padme.
Now the Supreme Chancellor is in the worst kind of danger. And Anakin
is on his way despite the dread boiling through his blood. That’s what makes
him a real hero. Not the way the HoloNet labels him; not without fear, but
stronger than fear.
He looks the dragon in the eye and doesn’t even slow down.
If anyone can save Palpatine, Anakin will. Because he’s already the
best, and he’s still getting better. But locked away behind the walls of his
heart, the dragon that is his fear coils and squirms and hisses.
Because his real fear, in a universe where even stars can die, is that
being the best will never be quite good enough.

 Obi-Wan's starfighter jolted sideways. Anakin whipped by him  and  used

his forward attitude jets to kick himself into a skew-flip: facing backward
to blast the last of the tri-fighters on his tail. Now there were only
vulture droids left.
A lot of vulture droids.
“Did you like that one, Master?”
“Very pretty.” Obi-Wan’s cannons stitched plasma across the hull of a
swooping vulture fighter until the droid exploded. “But we’re not through
yet.”
“Watch this.” Anakin flipped his starfighter again and dived, spinning,
directly through the flock of vulture droids. Their drives blazed as they
came around. He led them streaking for the upper deck of a laser-scarred
Separatist cruiser. “I’m going to lead them through the needle.”

 "Don't lead  them  anywhere."  Obi-Wan's  threat  display  tallied  the

vultures on Anakin’s tail. Twelve of them. Twelve. “First Jedi principle of
combat: survive.”
“No choice.” Anakin slipped his starfighter through the storm of
cannonfire. “Come down and thin them out a little.”
Obi-Wan slammed his control yoke forward as though jamming it against
its impact-rest would push his battered fighter faster in pursuit. “Nothing
fancy, Arfour.” As though the damaged droid were even capable of anything
fancy. “Just hold me steady.”
He reached into the Force and felt for his shot. “On my mark, break
left-now!” The shutdown control surface of his left wing turned the left
break into a tight overhead spiral that traversed Obi-Wan’s guns across the
paths of four vultures-
flash flash flash flash
-and all four were gone.
He flew on through the clouds of glowing plasma. He couldn’t waste time
going around; Anakin still had eight of them on his tail.
And what was this? Obi-Wan frowned.
The cruiser looked familiar.
The needle? he thought. Oh, please say you’re kidding.

 Anakin's starfighter skimmed only meters  above  the  cruiser's  dorsal

hull. Cannon misses from the vulture fighters swooping toward him blasted
chunks out of the cruiser’s armor.

 "Okay, Artoo. Where's that trench?"
 His forward screen lit with a topograph of  the  cruiser's  hull.  Just

ahead lay the trench that Obi-Wan had led the tri-fighter into. Anakin
flipped his starfighter through a razor-sharp wingover “down past the rim.
The walls of the service trench flashed past him as he streaked for the
bridge tower at the far end. From here, he couldn’t even see the minuscule
slit between its support struts.
With eight vulture droids in pursuit, he’d never pull off a slant up
the tower’s leading edge as Obi-Wan had. But that was

 all right.

 He wasn't planning to.

 His cockpit comm buzzed. "Don't try it, Anakin. It's too tight."
 Too tight for you, maybe. "I'll get through."
 R2-D2 whistled nervous agreement with Obi-Wan.
 "Easy, Artoo," Anakin said. "We've done this before."
 Cannonfire blazed past him, impacting on the support struts ahead.  Too

late to change his mind now: he was committed. He would bring his ship
through, or he would die.
Right now, strangely, he didn’t actually care which.
“Use the Force.” Obi-Wan sounded worried. Think yourself through, and
the ship will follow.””
“What do you expect me to do? Close my eyes and whistle?” Anakin
muttered under his breath, then said aloud, “Copy that. Thinking now.”

 R2-D2's squeal was as close to terrified as a droid can sound.  Glowing

letters spidered across Anakin’s readout: ABORT! ABORT ABORT!

 Anakin smiled. "Wrong thought."

 Obi-Wan could only stare openmouthed as  Anakin's  starfighter  snapped

onto its side and scraped through the slit with centimeters to spare. He
fully expected one of the struts to knock R2’s dome off.
The vulture droids tried to follow . . . but they were just a hair too
big.

 When the first  two  impacted,  Obi-Wan  triggered  his  cannons  in  a

downward sweep. The evasion maneuvers preprogrammed into the vulture
fighters’ droid brains sent them diving away from Obi-Wan’s lasers-straight
into the fireball expanding from the front of the struts.

 Obi-Wan looked up to find Anakin soaring straight out from the  cruiser

with a quick snap-roll of victory. Obi-Wan matched his course-without the
flourish.

 "I'll give you the first four," Anakin said over  the  comm,  "but  the

other eight are mine.”
“Anakin-“
“All right, we’ll split them.”

 As they left the cruiser behind, their sensors showed Squad Seven  dead

ahead. The clone pilots were fully engaged, looping through a dogfight so
tight that their ion trails looked like a glowing ball of string.

 "Oddball's in trouble. I'm going to help him out."
 "Don't. He's doing his job. We need to do ours."
 "Master, they're getting eaten alive over-"
 "Every one of them would gladly trade his life  for  Palpatine's.  Will

you trade Palpatine’s life for theirs?”
“No-no, of course not, but-“

 "Anakin, I understand: you want to save everyone. You  always  do.  But

you can’t.””

 Anakin's voice went tight. "Don't remind me."

 "Head for the command ship."  Without  waiting  for  a  reply,  Obi-Wan

targeted the command cruiser and shot away at maximum thrust.

 The cross of burn-scar beside Anakin's eye went pale as he  turned  his

starfighter in pursuit. Obi-Wan was right. He almost always was.

 You can't save everyone
 His mother's body, broken and bloody in his arms-
 Her battered eyes struggling to open-
 The touch of her smashed lips-

 I knew you would come to me ... I missed you so much . . .

 That's what it was to be not quite good enough.
 It could happen anytime. Anyplace. If he was a few minutes late. If  he

let his attention drift for a single second. If he was a whisker too weak.

 Anyplace. Anytime.

 But not here, and not now.
 He forced his  mother's  face  back  down  below  the  surface  of  his

consciousness.
Time to get to work.
They flashed through the battle, dodging flak and turbolaser bolts,
slipping around cruisers to eclipse themselves from the sensors of droid
fighters. They were only a few dozen kilometers from the command cruiser
when a pair of tri-fighters whipped across their path, firing on the
deflection.
Anakin’s sensor board lit up and R2-D2 shrilled a warning. “Missiles!”
He wasn’t worried for himself: the two on his tail were coming at him
in perfect tandem. Missiles lack the sophisticated brains of droid fighters;
to keep them from colliding on their inbound vectors, one of them would lock
onto his fighter’s left drive, the other onto his right. A quick snap-roll
would make those vectors intersect.

 Which they did in a silent blossom of flame.

 Obi-Wan wasn't so lucky. The pair of missiles locked onto his sublights

weren’t precisely side by side; a snap-roll would be worse than useless.
Instead he fired retros and kicked his dorsal jets to halve his velocity and
knock him a few meters planet-ward. The lead missile overshot and spiraled
off into the orbital battle.
The trailing missile came close enough to trigger its proximity
sensors, and detonated in a spray of glowing shrapnel. Obi-Wan’s starfighter
flew through the debris-and the shrapnel tracked him.
Little silver spheres flipped themselves into his path and latched onto
the starfighter’s skin, then split and sprouted spidery arrays of jointed
arms that pried up hull plates, exposing the starfighter’s internal works to
multiple circular whirls of blade like ancient mechanical bone saws.
This was a problem.

 "I'm hit." Obi-Wan sounded more irritated than concerned. "I'm hit."
 "I have visual." Anakin swung  his  starfighter  into  closer  pursuit.

“Buzz droids. I count five.”
“Get out of here, Anakin. There’s nothing you can do.”
“I’m not leaving you, Master.”
Cascades of sparks fountained into space from the buzz droids’ saws.
“Anakin, the mission! Get to the command ship! Get the Chancellor!.”
“Not without you,” Anakin said through his teeth.
One of the buzz droids crouched beside the cockpit, silvery arms
grappling with R4; another worked on the starfighter’s nose, while a third
skittered toward the ventral hydraulics. The last two of the aggressive
little mechs had spidered to Obi-Wan’s left wing, working on that damaged
control surface.
“You can’t help me.” Obi-Wan still maintained his Jedi calm. “They’re
shutting down the controls.”
“I can fix that …” Anakin brought his starfighter into line only a
couple of meters off Obi-Wan’s wing. “Steady . . . ,” he muttered, “steady .
. . ,” and triggered a single burst of his right-side cannon that blasted
the two buzz droids into gouts of molten metal.

 Along with most of Obi-Wan's left wing.
 Anakin said, "Whoops."


 The starfighter bucked hard enough to knock Obi-Wan's skull against the

transparisteel canopy. A gust of stinging smoke filled the cockpit. Obi-Wan
fought the yoke to keep his starfighter out of an uncontrolled tumble.
“Anakin, that’s not helping.”
“You’re right, bad idea. Here, let’s try this-move left and swing
under-easy . . .”
“Anakin, you’re too close! Wait-” Obi-Wan stared in disbelief as
Anakin’s starfighter edged closer and with a dip of its wing physically
slammed a buzz droid into a smear of metal. The impact jolted Obi-Wan again,
pounded a deep streak of dent into his starfighter’s hull, and shattered the
forward control surface of Anakin’s wing.
Anakin had forgotten the first principle of combat. Again. As usual.
“You’re going to get us both killed!”
His atmospheric scrubbers drained smoke from the cockpit, but now the
droid on the forward control surface of Obi-Wan’s starfighter’s right wing
had peeled away enough of the hull plates that its jointed saw arms could
get deep inside. Sparks flared into space, along with an expanding fountain
of gas that instantly crystallized in the hard vacuum. Velocity identical to
Obi-Wan’s, the shimmering gas hung on his starfighter’s nose like a cloud of
fog. “Blast,” Obi-Wan muttered. “I can’t see. My controls are going.”

 "You're doing fine. Stay on my wing."
 Easier said than done. "I have to accelerate out of this."

 "I'm with you. Go."
 Obi-Wan eased power to his thrusters, and his  starfighter  parted  the

cloud, but new vapor boiled out to replace it as he went. “Is that last one
still on my nose? Arfour, can you do anything?”

 The only response he got  came  from  Anakin.  "That's  a  negative  on

Arfour. Buzz droid got him.”

 "It," Obi-Wan corrected automatically. "Wait-they attacked Arfour?"

 "Not just Arfour. One of them jumped over when we hit."
 Blast, Obi-Wan thought. They are getting smarter.
 Through a gap torn in the cloud by the curve of  his  cockpit,  Obi-Wan

could see R2-D2 grappling with a buzz droid hand-to-hand. Well:
saw-arm-to-saw-arm. Even flying blind and nearly out of control through the
middle of a space battle, Obi-Wan could not avoid a second of disbelief at
the bewildering variety of auxiliary tools and aftermarket behaviors Anakin
had tinkered onto his starfighter’s astromech, even beyond the sophisticated
upgrades performed by the Royal Engineers of Naboo. The little device was
virtually a partner in its own right.
R2’s saw cut through one of the buzz droid’s grapplers, sending the
jointed arm flipping lazily off into space. Then it did the same to another.
Then a panel opened in R2-D2’s side and its datajack arm stabbed out and
smacked the crippled buzz droid right off Anakin’s hull. The buzz droid spun
aft until it was caught in the blast wash of Anakin’s sublights then blew
away faster than even Obi-Wan’s eye could follow.
Obi-Wan reflected that the Separatist droids weren’t the only ones that
were getting smarter.
The datajack retracted and a different panel opened, this time in
R2-D2’s dome. A claw-cable shot from it into the cloud of gas that still
billowed from Obi-Wan’s right forward wing, and pulled back out dragging a
struggling buzz droid. The silver droid twisted and squirmed and its
grapplers took hold of the cable, climbing back along it, saw arms waving,
until Anakin popped the starfighter’s underjets and R2 cut the cable and the
buzz droid dropped away, tumbling helplessly through the battle.
“You know,” Obi-Wan said, “I begin to understand why you speak of Artoo
as though he’s a living creature.”
“Do you?” He could hear Anakin’s smile. “Don’t you mean, it?”
“Ah, yes.” He frowned. “Yes, of course. It. Erm, thank it for

 me, will you?"
 "Thank him yourself."

 "Ah-yes. Thanks, Artoo."
 The whistle that came back over the comm had a clear flavor

 of you're welcome.
 Then the last of the fog finally dispersed, and the sky ahead was  full

of ship.
More than one kilometer from end to end, the vast command cruiser
filled his visual field. At this range, all he could see were savannas of
sand-colored hull studded with turbolaser mountains that lit up space with
thunderbolts of disintegrating

 energy.

 And that immense ship was getting bigger.

 Fast.
 "Anakin! We're going to collide!"
 "That's the plan. Head for the hangar."

 "That's not-"
 "I know: first Jedi principle of-"
 "No. It's not going to work. Not for me."

 "What?"
 "My controls are gone. I can't head for anything.''
 "Oh. Well. All right, no problem."
 "No problem?"
 Then his starfighter clanged as if he'd crashed into a ship-sized gong.
 Obi-Wan  jerked  and  twisted  his  head  around  to  find  the   other

starfighter just above his tail. Literally just above: Anakin’s left lead
control surface was barely a hand span from Obi-Wan’s sublight thrusters.
Anakin had hit him. On purpose.
Then he did it again.

 CLANG

 "What are you doing?"

 "Just  giving  you  .  .  ."  Anakin's  voice  came  slow,  tight  with

concentration. “. . . a little help with your steering . . .”

 Obi-Wan shook his head. This was completely impossible. No other  pilot

would even attempt it. But for Anakin Skywalker the completely impossible
had an eerie way of being merely difficult.

 He reflected that he should be used to it by now.

 While these thoughts chased each other aimlessly through his  mind,  he

had been staring bleakly at a blue shimmer of energy filling the yawning
hangar bay ahead. Belatedly, he registered what he was looking at.
He thought, Oh, this is bad.

 "Anakin-" Obi-Wan began. He tried rerouting control paths  through  his

yoke. No luck.

 Anakin drew up and tipped his forward surfaces down behind the sparking

scrap that used to be Arfour.
“Anakin-!”

 "Give me . . . just a second, Master." Anakin's  voice  had  gone  even

tighter. A muffled thump, then another. Louder. And a scrape and a squeal of
ripping metal. “This isn’t quite . . . as easy as it looks. . .”
“Anakin!”
“What?”

 "The hangar bay-"
 "What about it?"

 "Have you noticed that the shield's still up?"
 "Really?"

 "Really." Not to mention so close that Obi-Wan could practically  taste

it-

 "Oh. Sorry. I've been busy."
 Obi-Wan closed his eyes.
 Reaching into the Force, his mind followed  the  starfighter's  mangled

circuitry to locate and activate the sublight engines’
manual test board. With a slight push, he triggered a command normally
used only in bench tests: full reverse.
The cometary tail of glowing debris shed by his disintegrating
starfighter shot past him and evaporated in a cascade of miniature
starbursts on contact with the hangar shield. Which was exactly what was
about to happen to him.
The only effect of full reverse from his failing engines was to give
him more time to see it coming.
Then Anakin’s starfighter swooped in front of him, crossing left to
right at a steep deflection. Energy flared from his cannons, and the shield
emitters at the right side of the hangar door exploded into scrap. The blue
shimmer of the bay shield flickered, faded, and vanished just as Obi-Wan
came spinning across the threshold and slammed along the deck, trailing
sparks and a scream of tortured metal.
His entire starfighter-what was left of it-vibrated with the roar of
atmosphere howling out from the unshielded bay. Massive blast doors ground
together like jaws. Another Force-touch on the manual test board cut power
to his engines, but he couldn’t trigger the explosive bolts on his cockpit
canopy, and he had a bad feeling that those canopy bolts were the only thing
on his craft that weren’t about to explode.
His lightsaber found his hand and blue energy flared. One swipe and the
canopy burst away, ripped into space by the hurricane of escaping air.
Obi-Wan flipped himself up into the stunningly cold gale and let it blow him
tumbling away as the remnants of his battered craft finally exploded.
He rode the shock wave while he let the Force right him in the air. He
landed catfooted on the blackened streak-still hot enough to scorch his
boots-that his landing had gouged into the deck.

 The hangar was full of battle droids.
 His shoulders dropped and his knees bent and his lightsaber came up  to

angle in front of his face. There were far too many for him to fight alone,
but he didn’t mind.

 At least he was out of that blasted starfighter.

 Anakin slipped his craft toward the hangar through a fountain  of  junk

and flash-frozen gas. One last touch of the yoke twisted his starfighter
through the closing teeth of the blast doors just as Obi-Wan’s canopy went
the other way.

 Obi-Wan's ship was a hunk of glowing scrap punctuating a  long  smoking

skid mark. Obi-Wan himself, beard rimed with frost, lightsaber out and
flaming, stood in a tightening ring of battle droids.

 Anakin slewed his starfighter into a landing that scattered droids with

the particle blast from his sublight thrusters and for one second he was
nine years old again, behind the controls of a starfighter in the Theed
royal hangar, his first touch of a real ship’s real cannons blasting battle
droids-

 He'd have done the same right here, except that Palpatine was somewhere

on this ship. They just might need one of the light shuttles in this hangar
to get the Chancellor safely to the surface; a few dozen cannon blasts
bouncing around in here could wreck them all.
This he’d have to do by hand.

 One touch blew his canopy and he  sprang  from  the  cockpit,  flipping

upward to stand on the wing. Battle droids opened fire instantly, and
Anakin’s lightsaber flashed. “Artoo, locate a computer link.”

 The little droid whistled at him, and Anakin allowed  himself  a  tight

smile. Sometimes he thought he could almost understand the droid’s
electrosonic code. “Don’t worry about us. Find Palpatine. Go on, I’ll cover
you.”

 R2 popped out of its socket and bounced  to  the  deck.  Anakin  jumped

ahead of it into a cascade of blasterfire and let the Force direct his
blade. Battle droids began to spark and collapse.
“Get to that link!” Anakin had to shout above the whine of blasters and
the roar of exploding droids. “I’m going for Obi-Wan!”
“No need.”
Anakin whirled to find Obi-Wan right behind him in the act of slicing
neatly through the braincase of a battle droid.
“I appreciate the thought, Anakin,” the Jedi Master said with a gentle
smile. “But I’ve already come for you.”

 This, then, is Obi-Wan and Anakin:
 They are closer than friends. Closer than brothers. Though  Obi-Wan  is

sixteen standard years Anakin’s elder, they have become men together.
Neither can imagine life without the other. The war has forged their two
lives into one.
The war that has done this is not the Clone Wars; Obi-Wan and Anakin’s
war began on Naboo, when Qui-Gon Jinn died at the hand of a Sith Lord.
Master and Padawan and Jedi Knights together, they have fought this war for
thirteen years. Their war is their life.
And their life is a weapon.
Say what you will about the wisdom of ancient Master Yoda, or the
deadly skill of grim Mace Windu, the courage of Ki-Adi-Mundi, or the subtle
wiles of Shaak Ti; the greatness of all these Jedi is unquestioned, but it
pales next to the legend that has grown around Kenobi and Skywalker.
They stand alone.
Together, they are unstoppable. Unbeatable. They are the ultimate go-to
guys of the Jedi Order. When the Good Guys absolutely, positively have to
win, the call goes out.
Obi-Wan and Anakin always answer.
Whether Obi-Wan’s legendary cleverness might beat Anakin’s raw power,
straight up, no rules, is the subject of schoolyard fist-
fights, creche-pool wriggle-matches, and pod-chamber stinkwars across
the Republic. These struggles always end, somehow, with the combatants on
both sides admitting that it doesn’t matter.
Anakin and Obi-Wan would never fight each other.
They couldn’t.

 They're a team. They're the team.

 And both of them are sure they always will be.

                                =2=


                               DOOKU

 The storm of blasterfire ricocheting through the  hangar  bay  suddenly

ceased. Clusters of battle droids withdrew behind ships and slipped out
hatchways.
Obi-Wan’s familiar grimace showed past his blade as he let it shrink
away. “I hate it when they do that.”
Anakin’s lightsaber was already back on his belt. “When they do what?”
“Disengage and fall back for no reason.”
“There’s always a reason, Master.”
Obi-Wan nodded. “That’s why I hate it.”
Anakin looked at the litter of smoking droid parts scattered throughout
the hangar bay, shrugged, and snugged his black glove. “Artoo, where’s the
Chancellor?”
The little droid’s datajack rotated in the wall socket. Its
holoprojector eye swiveled and the blue scanning laser built a ghostly image
near Anakin’s boot: Palpatine shackled into a large swivel chair. Even in
the tiny translucent blur, he looked exhausted and in pain-but alive.

 Anakin's heart thumped once, painfully, against his ribs. He wasn't too

late. Not this time.

 He dropped to one knee and squinted at the image. Palpatine  looked  as

if he’d aged ten years since Anakin had last seen him. Muscle bulged along
the young Jedi’s jaw. If Grievous had hurt the Chancellor-had so much as
touched him-
The hand of jointed durasteel inside his black glove clenched so hard
that electronic feedback made his shoulder ache.
Obi-Wan spoke from over that shoulder. “Do you have a location?”
The image rippled and twisted into a schematic map of the cruiser. Far
up at the top of the conning spire R2 showed a pulsar of brighter blue.
“In the General’s Quarters.” Obi-Wan scowled. “Any sign of Grievous
himself?”

 The pulsar shifted to the cruiser's bridge.

 "Hmm. And guards?"
 The holoimage rippled again, and  transformed  into  an  image  of  the

cruiser’s General’s Quarters once more. Palpatine appeared to be alone: the
chair sat in the center of an arc of empty floor, facing a huge curved
viewing wall.
Anakin muttered, “That doesn’t make sense.””

 "Of course it does. It's a trap."
 Anakin barely heard him. He stared down at his  black-gloved  fist.  He

opened his fist, closed it, opened it again. The ache from his shoulder
flowed down to the middle of his bicep-

 And didn't stop.
 His elbow sizzled, and his forearm; his  wrist  had  been  packed  with

red-hot gravel, and his hand-

 His hand was on fire.
 But it wasn't his hand. Or his wrist, or his forearm, or his elbow.  It

was a creation of jointed durasteel and electrodrivers. “Anakin?”
Anakin’s lips drew back from his teeth. “It hurts.” “What, your
replacement arm? When did you have it equipped with pain sensors?”
“I didn’t. That’s the point.” “The pain is in your mind, Anakin-“
“No.” Anakin’s heart froze over. His voice went cold as space. “I can
feel him.” “Him?”
“Dooku. He’s here. Here on this ship.” “Ah.” Obi-Wan nodded. “I’m sure
he is.”

 "You knew?"
 "I guessed. Do you  think  Grievous  couldn't  have  found  Palpatine's

beacon? It can hardly be accident that through all the ECM, the Chancellor’s
homing signal was in the clear. This is a trap. A Jedi trap.” Obi-Wan laid a
warm hand upon Anakin’s shoulder, and his face was as grim as Anakin had
ever seen it. “Possibly a trap set for us. Personally.”
Anakin’s jaw tightened. “You’re thinking of how he tried to recruit you
on Geonosis. Before he sent you down for execution.” “It’s not impossible
that we will again face that choice.” “It’s not a choice.” Anakin rose. His
durasteel hand clenched and stayed that way, a centimeter from his
lightsaber. “Let him ask. My answer is right here on my belt.”
“Be mindful, Anakin. The Chancellor’s safety is our only priority.”
“Yes-yes, of course.” The ice in Anakin’s chest thawed. “All

 right, it's a trap. Next move?"
 Obi-Wan allowed himself a bit of a smile of his own as  he  headed  for

the nearest exit from the hangar bay. “Same as always, my young friend: we
spring it.”
“I can work with this plan.” Anakin turned to his astromech.

 "You stay here, Artoo-"
 The little droid interrupted him with a wheedling whirr.

 "No arguments. Stay. I mean it."
 R2-D2's whistling reply had a distinctly sulky tone.
 "Listen, Artoo, someone has to maintain computer contact; do you see  a

datajack anywhere on me?”

 The droid seemed to acquiesce, but not  before  wheeping  what  sounded

like it might have been a suggestion where to look.

 Waiting by the open hatchway, Obi-Wan shook his  head.  "Honestly,  the

way you talk to that thing.”

 Anakin started toward him. "Careful, Master, you'll hurt his feelings-"

He stopped in his tracks, a curious look on his face as if he was trying to
frown and to smile at the same time.
“Anakin?”

 He didn't answer. He couldn't answer. He was looking at an image inside

his head. Not an image. A reality.
A memory of something that hadn’t happened yet.
He saw Count Dooku on his knees. He saw lightsabers crossed at the
Count’s throat.

 Clouds lifted from his heart: clouds of Jabiim, of Aargonar, of Kamino,

of even the Tusken camp. For the first time in too many years he felt young:
as young as he really was.
Young, and free, and full of light.
“Master …” His voice seemed to be coming from someone else. Someone
who hadn’t seen what he’d seen. Hadn’t done what he’d done. “Master, right
here-right now-you and I . . .”
“Yes?”

 He blinked. "I think we're about to win the war."

 The vast semisphere of the view wall bloomed with battle. Sophisticated

sensor algorithms compressed the combat that sprawled throughout the
galactic capital’s orbit to a view the naked eye could enjoy: cruisers
hundreds of kilometers apart, exchanging fire at near lightspeed, appeared
to be practically hull-to-hull, joined by pulsing cables of flame.
Turbolaser blasts became swift shafts of light that shattered into prismatic
splinters against shields, or bloomed into miniature supernovae that
swallowed ships whole. The invisible gnat-clouds of starfighter dogfights
became a gleaming dance of shadowmoths at the end of Coruscant’s brief
spring.
Within that immense curve of computer-filtered carnage, the only
furnishing was one lone chair, centered in an expanse of empty floor. This
was called the General’s Chair, just as this apartment atop the flagship’s
conning spire was called the General’s Quarters.
With his back to that chair and to the man shackled within it, hands
folded behind him beneath his cloak of silken armor-weave, stood Count
Dooku.
Stood Darth Tyranus, Lord of the Sith.
He looked upon his Master’s handiwork, and it was good.
More than good. It was magnificent.
Even the occasional tremor of the deck beneath his boots, as the entire
ship shuddered under enemy torpedo and turbolaser blasts, felt to him like
applause.
Behind him sounded the initiating hum of the intraship holocomm, which
crackled into a voice both electronic and oddly expressive: as though a man
spoke through a droid’s electrosonic vocabulator. “Lord Tyranus, Kenobi and
Skywalker have arrived.”
“Yes.” Dooku had felt them both in the Force. “Drive them toward me.”
“My lord, I must express once more my objections-“
Dooku turned. From his commanding height, he stared down at the
blue-scanned holoimage of Invisible Hand’s commander. “Your objections have
been noted already, General. Leave the Jedi to me.”
“But driving them to you also sends them directly toward the Chancellor
himself. Why does he remain on this ship at all? He should be hidden. He
should be guarded. We should have had him outsystem hours ago!”
“Matters are so,” Count Dooku said, “because Lord Sidious

 wishes them so; should you desire to press your objections, please feel

at liberty to take them up with him.”
“I, ah, don’t believe that will be necessary . . .”
“Very well, then. Confine your efforts to preventing support troops
from boarding. Without their pet clones to back them up, no Jedi is a danger
to me.”

 The deck shuddered again, more sharply, followed by a sudden  shift  in

the vector of the cruiser’s artificial gravity that would have sent a lesser
man stumbling; with the Force to maintain the dignified solidity of his
posture, the effect on Dooku was confined to the lift of one eyebrow. “And
may I suggest that you devote some attention to protecting this ship? Having
it destroyed with both you and me aboard might put something of a cramp in
the war effort, don’t you think?”

 "It is already being done, my lord. Does my lord wish  to  observe  the

progress of the Jedi? I can feed the security monitors onto this channel.”

 "Thank you, General. That will be welcome."
 "Gracious as ever, my lord. Grievous out."
 Count Dooku allowed himself  a  near-invisible  smile.  His  inviolable

courtesy-the hallmark of a true aristocrat-was effortless, yet somehow it
seemed always to impress the common rabble. As well as those with the
intellect of common rabble, regardless of accomplishment or station: like,
for example, that repulsive cyborg Grievous.

 He sighed. Grievous had his  uses;  not  only  was  he  an  able  field

commander, but he would soon make a marvelous scapegoat upon whom to hang
every atrocity of this sadly necessary war. Someone had to take that
particular fall, and Grievous was just the creature for the job. It
certainly would not be Dooku.

 This was, in fact, one purpose of the cataclysmic battle outside.

 But not the only one.

 The blue-scanned image before him now became miniatures of  Kenobi  and

Skywalker as he had seen them so many times

 before:   shoulder-to-shoulder,   lightsabers    whirling    as    they

enthusiastically dismantled droid after droid after droid. Feeling as if
they were winning, while in truth they were being chivvied exactly where the
Lords of the Sith wanted them to go.
Such children they were. Dooku shook his head.

 It was almost too easy.


 This is Dooku, Darth Tyranus, Count of Serenno:
 Once a great Jedi Master, now an even greater Lord of the  Sith,  Dooku

is a dark colossus bestriding the galaxy. Nemesis of the corrupt Republic,
oriflamme of the principled Confederacy of Independent Systems, he is the
very personification of shock and awe.
He was one of the most respected and powerful Jedi in the Order’s
twenty-five-thousand-year history, yet at the age of seventy Dooku’s
principles would no longer allow him to serve a Republic in which political
power was for sale to the highest bidder. He’d said farewell to his former
Padawan, Qui-Gon Jinn, now a legendary Master in his own right; he’d said
farewell to his close friends on the Jedi Council, Mace Windu and the
ancient Master Yoda; he’d said farewell to the Jedi Order itself.
He is numbered among the Lost: the Jedi who renounced their fealty to
the Order and resigned their commissions of Jedi Knighthood in service of
ideals higher than even the Order itself professed. The Lost Twenty, as they
have been known since Dooku joined their number, are remembered with both
honor and regret among the Jedi; their images, sculpted from bronzium, stand
enshrined in the Temple archives.
These bronzium images serve as melancholy reminders that some Jedi have
needs the Order cannot satisfy.
Dooku had retired to his family estate, the planetary system of
Serenno. Assuming his hereditary title as its Count made him one of the
wealthiest beings in the galaxy. Amid the unabashed corruption endemic to
the Republic, his immense wealth could have bought the allegiance of any
given number of Senators; he could, perhaps, have bought control of the
Republic itself.
But a man of such heritage, such principle, could never stoop to be
lord of a garbage heap, chief of a horde of scavengers squabbling over
scraps; the Republic, to him, was nothing more than this.
Instead, he used all the great power of his family fortune- and the
vastly greater power of his unquestioned integrity-to begin the cleansing of
the galaxy from the fester of this so-called democracy.
He is the icon of the Separatist movement, its public face. He is to
the Confederacy of Independent Systems what Palpatine is to the Republic:
the living symbol of the justice of its cause.
This is the public story.
This is the story that even Dooku, in his weaker moments, almost
believes.
The truth is more complicated.
Dooku is … different.
He doesn’t remember quite when he discovered this; it may have been
when he was a young Padawan, betrayed by another learner who had claimed to
be his friend. Lorian Nod had said it to his face: “You don’t know what
friendship is.”
And he didn’t.
He had been angry, certainly; furious that his reputation had been put
at risk. And he had been angry at himself, for his error in judgment:
trusting as an ally one who was in fact an enemy. The most astonishing part
of the whole affair had been that even after turning on him before the Jedi,
the other boy had expected him to participate in a lie, in the name of their
“friendship.”
It had been all so preposterous that he hadn’t known how to reply-In
fact, he has never been entirely sure what beings mean
when they speak of friendship. Love, hate, joy, anger-even when he can
feel the energy of these emotions in others, they translate in his
perception to other kinds of feelings. The kinds that make sense.
Jealousy he understands, and possessiveness: he is fierce when any
being encroaches on what is rightfully his.
Intolerance, at the intractability of the universe, and at the
undisciplined lives of its inhabitants: this is his normal state.
Spite is a recreation: he takes considerable pleasure from the
suffering of his enemies.
Pride is a virtue in an aristocrat, and indignation his inalienable
right: when any dare to impugn his integrity, his honor, or his rightful
place atop the natural hierarchy of authority.
And moral outrage makes perfect sense to him: when the incorrigibly
untidy affairs of ordinary beings refuse to conform to |the plainly obvious
structure of How Society Ought To Be.

 He is entirely incapable of caring what any given creature  might  feel

for him. He cares only what that creature might do for him. Or to him.
Very possibly, he is what he is because other beings just aren’t

 very . . . interesting.

 Or even, in a sense, entirely real.
 For Dooku, other  beings  are  mostly  abstractions,  simple  schematic

sketches who fall into two essential categories. The first category is
Assets: beings who can be used to serve his various interests. Such as-for
most of his life, and to some extent even now-the Jedi, particularly Mace
Windu and Yoda, both of whom had regarded him as their friend for so long
that it had effectively blinded them to the truth of his activities. And of
course-for now-the Trade Federation, and the InterGalactic
Banking Clan, the Techno Union, the Corporate Alliance, and the weapon
lords of Geonosis. And even the common rabble of the galaxy, who exist
largely to provide an audience of sufficient size to do justice to his
grandeur.

 The other category is Threats. In this second  set,  he  numbers  every

sentient being he cannot include in the first.
There is no third category.

 Someday there may be not even a second; being considered  a  Threat  by

Count Dooku is a death sentence. A death sentence he plans to pronounce, for
example, on his current allies: the heads of the aforementioned Trade
Federation, InterGalactic Banking Clan, Techno Union, and Corporate
Alliance, and Geonosian weaponeers.

 Treachery is the way of the Sith.


 Count Dooku watched with clinical distaste as the  blue-scanned  images

of Kenobi and Skywalker engaged in a preposterous farce-chase, pursued by
destroyer droids into and out of turbolift pods that shot upward and
downward and even sideways.
“It will be,” he said slowly, meditatively, as though he spoke only to
himself, “an embarrassment to be captured by him.”
The voice that answered him was so familiar that sometimes his very
thoughts spoke in it, instead of in his own. “An embarrassment you can
survive, Lord Tyranus. After all, he is the greatest Jedi alive, is he not?
And have we not ensured that all the galaxy shares this opinion?”

 "Quite so, my Master. Quite so." Again, Dooku  sighed.  Today  he  felt

every hour of his eighty-three years. “It is … fatiguing, to play the
villain for so long, Master. I find myself looking forward to an honorable
captivity.”

 A captivity that would allow him to sit out the  rest  of  the  war  in

comfort; a captivity that would allow him to forswear his

 former  allegiances-when  he  would  conveniently  appear  to   finally

discover the true extent of the Separatists’ crimes against civilization-and
bind himself to the new government with his reputation for integrity and
idealism fully intact.

 The new government . . .
 This had been their star of destiny for lo, these many years.
 A government clean, pure, direct: none of the messy  scramble  for  the

favor of ignorant rabble and subhuman creatures that made up the Republic he
so despised. The government he would serve would be Authority personified.
Human authority.
It was no accident that the primary powers of the Confederacy of
Independent Systems were Neimoidian, Skakoan, Quarren and Aqualish, Muun and
Gossam, Sy Myrthian and Koorivar and Geonosian. At war’s end the aliens
would be crushed, stripped of all they possessed, and their systems and
their wealth would be given into the hands of the only beings who could be
trusted with them.
Human beings.
Dooku would serve an Empire of Man.
And he would serve it as only he could. As he was born to. He would
smash the Jedi Order to create it anew: not shackled by the corrupt,
narcissistic, shabby little beings who called themselves politicians, but
free to bring true authority and true peace to a galaxy that so badly needed
both.
An Order that would not negotiate. Would not mediate.

 An Order that would enforce.
 The survivors of the Jedi Order would become the Sith Army.

 The Fist of the Empire.
 And that Fist would become a power beyond any  Jedi's  darkest  dreams.

The Jedi were not the only users of the Force in the galaxy; from Hapes to
Haruun Kal, from Kiffu to Dathomir, powerful Force-capable humans and
near-humans had long re-

 fused to surrender their children to lifelong bound  servitude  in  the

Jedi Order. They would not so refuse the Sith Army.
They would not have the choice.

 Dooku frowned down at the holoimage. Kenobi and  Skywalker  were  going

through more low-comedy business with another balky turbolift-possibly
Grievous having some fun with the shaft controls-while battle droids
haplessly pursued.
Really, it was all so . . .
Undignified.

 "May I suggest, Master, that  we  give  Kenobi  one  last  chance?  The

support of a Jedi of his integrity would be invaluable in establishing the
political legitimacy of our Empire.”

 "Ah, yes. Kenobi." His Master's voice went silken. "You have long  been

interested in Kenobi, haven’t you?”
“Of course. His Master was my Padawan; in a sense, he’s practically my
grandson-“

 "He is too old.  Too  indoctrinated.  Irretrievably  poisoned  by  Jedi

fables. We established that on Geonosis, did we not? In his mind, he serves
the Force itself; reality is nothing in the face of such conviction.”

 Dooku sighed. He should, he supposed, have  no  difficulty  with  this,

having ordered the Jedi Master’s death once already. “True enough, I
suppose; how fortunate we are that I never labored under any such
illusions.”
“Kenobi must die. Today. At your hand. His death may be the code key of
the final lock that will seal Skywalker to us forever.”

 Dooku  understood:  not  only  would  the  death  of  his  mentor   tip

Skywalker’s already unstable emotional balance down the darkest of slopes,
but it would also remove the greatest obstacle to Skywalker’s successful
conversion. As long as Kenobi was alive, Skywalker would never be securely
in the camp of the Sith; Kenobi’s unshakable faith in the values of the Jedi
would keep
the Jedi blindfold on Skywalker’s eyes and the Jedi shackles on the
young man’s true power.
Still, though, Dooku had some reservations. This had all come about
too quickly; had Sidious thought through all the implications of this
operation? “But I must ask, my Master: is Skywalker truly the man we want?”
“He is powerful. Potentially more powerful than even myself.”
“Which is precisely,” Dooku said meditatively, “why it might

 be best if I were to kill him, instead."

 "Are you so certain that you can?"
 "Please. Of what use is power unstructured by discipline? The boy is as

much a danger to himself as he is to his enemies. And that mechanical arm-“
Dooku’s lip curled with cultivated distaste. “Revolting.”
“Then perhaps you should have spared his real arm.” “Hmp. A gentleman
would have learned to fight one-handed.” Dooku flicked a dismissive wave.
“He’s no longer even entirely human. With Grievous, the use of these
bio-droid devices is almost forgivable; he was such a disgusting creature
already that his mechanical parts are clearly an improvement. But a blend of
droid and human? Appalling. The depths of bad taste. How are we to justify
associating with him?”
“How fortunate I am”-the silk in his Master’s voice softened
further-“to have an apprentice who feels it is appropriate

 to lecture me."
 Dooku lifted an eyebrow. "I have overstepped, my Master," he said  with

his customary grace. “I am only observing, not arguing. Not at all.”
“Skywalker’s arm makes him, for our purposes, even better. It is the
permanent symbol of the sacrifices he has made in the name of peace and
justice. It is a badge of heroism that he must publicly wear for the rest of
his life; no one can ever look at him and doubt his honor, his courage, his
integrity. He is perfect, just as he is. Perfect. The only question that
remains is whether he is capable of transcending the artificial limitations
of his Jedi indoctrination. And that, my lord Count, is precisely what
today’s operation is designed to discover.”

 Dooku could not argue. Not only had the Dark Lord introduced  Dooku  to

realms of power beyond his most spectacular fantasies, but Sidious was also
a political manipulator so subtle that his abilities might be considered to
dwarf even the power of the dark side itself. It was said that whenever the
Force closes a hatch, it opens a viewport . . . and every viewport that had
so much as cracked in this past thirteen standard years had found a Dark
Lord of the Sith already at the rim, peering in, calculating how best to
slip through.

 Improving upon his Master's plan was near to impossible; his own  idea,

of substituting Kenobi for Skywalker, he had to admit was only the product
of a certain misplaced sentimentality. Skywalker was almost certainly the
man for the job.
He should be; Darth Sidious had spent a considerable number of years
making him so.
Today’s test would remove the almost.
He had no doubt that Skywalker would fall. Dooku understood that this
was more than a test for Skywalker; though Sidious had never said so
directly, Dooku was certain that he himself was being tested as well.
Success today would show his Master that he was worthy of the mantle of
Mastery himself: by the end of the coming battle, he would have initiated
Skywalker into the manifold glories of the dark side, just as Sidious had
initiated him.
He gave no thought to failure. Why should he?
“But-forgive me, Master. But Kenobi having fallen to my blade, are you
certain Skywalker will ever accept my orders? You must admit that his
biography offers little confidence that he is capable of obedience at all.”
“Skywalker’s power brings with it more than mere obedience. It brings
creativity, and luck; we need never concern ourselves with the sort of
instruction that Grievous, for example, requires. Even the blind fools on
the Jedi Council see clearly enough to understand this; even they no longer
try to tell him how, they merely tell him what. And he finds a way. He
always has.”
Dooku nodded. For the first time since Sidious had revealed the true
subtlety of this masterpiece, Dooku allowed himself to relax enough to
imagine the outcome.
With his heroic capture of Count Dooku, Anakin Skywalker will become
the ultimate hero: the greatest hero in the history of he Republic, perhaps
of the Jedi Order itself. The loss of his (beloved partner will add just
exactly the correct spice of tragedy to give melancholy weight to his every
word, when he gives his HoloNet interviews denouncing the Senate’s
corruption as impeding the war effort, when he delicately-oh, so delicately,
not to mention reluctantly-insinuates that corruption in the Jedi Order
prolonged the war as well.
When he announces the creation of a new order of Force-using warriors.
He will be the perfect commanding general for the Sith Army.
Dooku could only shake his head in awe. And to think that only days
earlier, the Jedi had seemed so close to uncovering, even destroying, all he
and his Master had worked for. But he should never have feared. His Master
never lost. He would never lose. He was the definition of unbeatable.
How can one defeat an enemy one thinks is a friend?
And now, with a single brilliant stroke, his Master would turn the Jedi
Order back upon itself like an Ethrani ourobouros devouring its own tail.

 This was the day. The hour.

 The death of Obi-Wan Kenobi would be the death of the Republic.
 Today would see the birth of the Empire.
 "Tyranus? Are you well?"

 "Am I . . ." Dooku realized that his eyes had misted. "Yes, my  Master.

I am beyond well. Today, the climax-the grand finale the culmination of all
your decades of work … I find myself somewhat overcome.”

 "Compose yourself, Tyranus. Kenobi and  Skywalker  are  nearly  at  the

door. Play your part, my apprentice, and the galaxy is ours.”

 Dooku straightened and for the first time  looked  his  Master  in  the

eyes.

 Darth Sidious, Dark Lord of the  Sith,  sat  in  the  General's  Chair,

shackled to it at the wrist and ankle.

 Dooku bowed to him. "Thank you, Chancellor."

 Palpatine of  Naboo,  Supreme  Chancellor  of  the  Republic,  replied,

“Withdraw. They are here.”

        =3=


                        THE WAY OF THE SITH


 The turbolift's door whished open. Anakin pressed himself  against  the

wall, a litter of saber-sliced droid parts around his feet. Beyond appeared
to be a perfectly ordinary lift lobby: pale and bare and empty.
Made it. At last.
Anakin’s whole body hummed to the tune of his blue-hot blade.
“Anakin.”
Obi-Wan stood against the opposite wall. He looked calm in a way Anakin
could barely understand. He gave a significant stare down at the lightsaber
in Anakin’s hand. “Anakin, rescue,” he said softly. “Not mayhem.”
Anakin kept his weapon right where it was. “And Dooku?”
“Once the Chancellor is safe,” Obi-Wan said with a ghost of a smile,
“we can blow up the ship.”
Anakin’s mechanical fingers tightened until the grip of his lightsaber
creaked. “I’d rather do it by hand.”
Obi-Wan slipped cautiously through the turbolift’s door. Nothing shot
at him. He beckoned. “I know this is difficult,
Anakin. I know it’s personal for you on many levels. You must take
extra care to be mindful of your training here-and not only your combat
training.”

 Heat rose in Anakin's cheeks. "I am not-" your Padawan anymore  snarled

inside his head, but that was adrenaline talking; he bit back the words and
said instead, “-going to let you down, Master. Or Chancellor Palpatine.”

 "I have no doubt of that. Just remember that Dooku is no mere Dark Jedi

like that Ventress woman; he is a Lord of the Sith. The jaws of this trap
are about to snap shut, and there may be danger here beyond the merely
physical.”
“Yes.” Anakin let his blade shrink away and moved past Obi-Wan into the
turbolift lobby. Distant concussions boomed throughout the ship, and the
floor rocked like a raft on a river in flood; he barely noticed. “I
just-there has been so much-what he’s done-not just to the Jedi, but to the
galaxy-“
“Anakin . . . ,” Obi-Wan began warningly.
“Don’t worry. I’m not angry, and I’m not looking for revenge. I’m
just-” He lifted his lightsaber. “I’m just looking forward to ending it.”
“Anticipation-“

 "Is distraction. I know. And I know that hope is as  hollow  as  fear."

Anakin let himself smile, just a bit. “And I know everything else you’re
dying to tell me right now.”

 Obi-Wan's slightly rueful bow of acknowledgment was as affectionate  as

a hug. “I suppose at some point I will eventually have to stop trying to
train you.”

 Anakin's smile broadened toward a soft chuckle.  "I  think  that's  the

first time you’ve ever admitted it.”

 They stopped at the the door to the General's Quarters: a huge oval  of

opalescent iridiite chased with gold. Anakin stared at his ghostly
almost-reflection while he reached into the room beyond with the Force, and
let the Force reach into him. “I’m ready, Master.”

 "I know you are."

 They stood a moment, side by side.
 Anakin didn't look at him; he stared into the door,  through  he  door,

searching in its shimmering depths for a hint of an unguessable future.
He couldn’t imagine not being at war.
“Anakin.” Obi-Wan’s voice had gone soft, and his hand was warm on
Anakin’s arm. “There is no other Jedi I would rather [lave at my side right
now. No other man.”
Anakin turned, and found within Obi-Wan’s eyes a depth of feeling he
had only rarely glimpsed in all their years together; and the pure
uncomplicated love that rose up within him then felt like a promise from the
Force itself.
“I … wouldn’t have it any other way, Master.”
“I believe,” his onetime Master said with a gently humorous look of
astonishment at the words coming out of his mouth, “that you should get used
to calling me Obi-Wan.”
“Obi-Wan,” Anakin said, “let’s go get the Chancellor.”

 "Yes," Obi-Wan said. "Let's."

 Inside a turbolift pod, Dooku watched hologrammic images of Kenobi  and

Skywalker cautiously pick their way down the curving stairs from the
entrance balcony to the main level of the General’s Quarters, moving slowly
to stay braced against the pitching of the cruiser. The ship shuddered and
bucked with multiple torpedo bursts, and the lights went out again; lighting
always the first to fail as power was diverted from life support to
damage control.
“My lord.” On the intraship comm, Grievous sounded actively concerned.
“Damage to this ship is becoming severe. Thirty percent of automated weapons
systems are down, and we may soon lose hyperspace capability.”
Dooku nodded judiciously to himself, frowning down at the translucent
blue ghosts slinking toward Palpatine. “Sound the

 retreat for the entire strike force, General, and prepare the ship  for

jump. Once the Jedi are dead, I will join you on the bridge.”
“As my lord commands. Grievous out.”
“Indeed you are, you vile creature,” Dooku muttered to the dead
comlink. “Out of luck, and out of time.”
He cast the comlink aside and ignored its clatter across the deck. He
had no further use for it. Let it be destroyed along with Grievous, those
repulsive bodyguards of his, and the rest of the cruiser, once he was safely
captured and away.

 He nodded to the two hulking super battle droids that flanked him.  One

opened the lift door and they marched through, pivoting to take positions on
either side.

 Dooku straightened  his  cloak  of  shimmering  armorweave  and  strode

grandly into the half-dark lift lobby. In the pale emergency lighting, the
door to the General’s Quarters still smoldered where those two idiotic
peasants had lightsabered it; to pick his way through the hole would risk
getting his trousers scorched. Dooku sighed and gestured, and the opalescent
wreckage of the door silently slid itself out of his way.
He certainly did not intend to fight two Jedi with his pants on fire.

 Anakin slid along the bank  of  chairs  on  one  side  of  the  immense

situation table that dominated the center of the General’s Quarters’ main
room; Obi-Wan mirrored him on the opposite side. Silent lightning flashed
and flared: the room’s sole illumination came from the huge curving view
wall at its far end, a storm of turbolaser blasts and flak bursts and the
miniature supernovae that were the deaths of entire ships.
A stark shadow against that backdrop of carnage: the silhouette of one
tall chair.

 Anakin caught Obi-Wan's eye across the table and nodded toward the dark

shape ahead. Obi-Wan replied with the Jedi
hand signal for approach with caution, and added the signal for be
ready for action.
Anakin’s mouth compressed. Like he needed to be told. After all the
trouble they’d had with the turbolifts, anything could be up here by now.
The place could be full of droidekas, for all they knew.

 The lights came back on.

 Anakin froze.
 The dark figure in the chair-it was Chancellor Palpatine, it  was,  and

there were no droids to be seen, and his heart should have leapt within his
chest, but-
Palpatine looked bad.
The Chancellor looked beyond old, looked ancient like Yoda was ancient:
possessed of incomprehensible age. And exhausted, and in pain. And worse-
Anakin saw in the Chancellor’s face something he’d never dreamed he’d
find there, and it squeezed breath from his lungs and wiped words from his
brain.
Palpatine looked frightened.
Anakin didn’t know what to say. He couldn’t imagine what to say. All he
could imagine was what Grievous and Dooku must have done to put fear on the
face of this brave good man-
And that imagining ignited a sizzle in his blood that drew his face
tight and clouded his heart and started again the low roll of thunder in his
ears: thunder from Aargonar. From Jabiim.

 Thunder from the Tusken camp.
 If Obi-Wan was struck by any similar distress, it was  invisible.  With

his customary grave courtesy, the Jedi Master inclined his head.
“Chancellor,” he said, a calmly respectful greeting as though they had met
by chance on the Grand Concourse of the Galactic Senate.
Palpatine’s only response was a tight murmur. “Anakin, behind you-!”

 Anakin didn't turn. He didn't have to. It wasn't just the clack of boot

heels and clank of magnapeds crossing the threshold of the entrance balcony;
the Force gathered within him and around him in a sudden clench like the
fists of a startled man.

 In the Force, he could feel the focus of Palpatine's eyes:  the  source

of the fear that rolled off him in billows like vapor down a block of frozen
air. And he could feel the even colder wave of power, colder than the frost
on a mynock’s mouth, that slid into the room behind him like an ice dagger
into his back.

 Funny, he thought. After Ventress, somehow I  always  expect  the  dark

side to be hot. . .

 Something unlocked in his chest. The thunder in his ears dissolved into

red smoke that coiled at the base of his spine. His lightsaber found his
hand, and his lips peeled off his teeth in a smile that a krayt dragon would
have recognized.

 That trouble he was having with talking went away.

 "This," he murmured to Palpatine, and to himself, "is not a problem."

 The voice that spoke from the entrance balcony  was  an  elegant  basso

with undernotes of oily resonance like a kriin-oak cavernhorn.

 Count Dooku's voice.

 "General Kenobi. Anakin  Skywalker.  Gentlemen-a  term  I  use  in  its

loosest possible sense-you are my prisoners.”
Now Anakin didn’t have any troubles at all.

 The entrance balcony provided an appropriate angle-far above the  Jedi,

looking down upon them-for Dooku to make final assessments before beginning
the farce.
Like all true farce, the coming denouement would proceed with
remorseless logic from its ridiculous premise: that Dooku could ever be
overcome by mere Jedi. Any Jedi. What a pity his old friend Mace couldn’t
have joined them today; he had no doubt the Korun Master would have enjoyed
the coming show.
Dooku had always preferred an educated audience.
At least Palpatine was here, shackled within the great chair at the far
end of the room, the space battle whirling upon the view wall behind him as
though his stark silhouette spread great wings of war. But Palpatine was
less audience than he was author.

 Not at all the same thing.
 Skywalker gave Dooku only his back, but his blade was already  out  and

his tall, lean frame stood frozen with anticipation: so motionless he almost
seemed to shiver. Pathetic. It was an insult to call this boy a Jedi at all.
Kenobi, now-he was something else entirely: a classic of his obsolete
kind. He simply stood gazing calmly up at Dooku and the super battle droids
that flanked him, hands open, utterly relaxed, on his face only an
expression of mild interest.
Dooku derived a certain melancholy satisfaction-a pleasurably lonely
contemplation of his own unrecognized greatness- from a brief reflection
that Skywalker would never understand how much thought and planning, how
much work, Lord Sidious had invested in so hastily orchestrating his sham
victory. Nor would he ever understand the artistry, the true mastery, that
Dooku would wield in his own defeat.
But thus was life. Sacrifices must be made, for the greater good.

 There was a war on, after all.
 He called upon the Force, gathering it to himself and wrapping  himself

within it. He breathed it in and held it whirling inside his heart,
clenching down upon it until he could feel the spin of the galaxy around
him.
Until he became the axis of the Universe. This was the real power of
the dark side, the power he had suspected even as a boy, had sought through
his long life until Darth Sidious had shown him that it had been his all
along. The dark side didn’t bring him to the center of the universe. It made
him the center.

 He drew power into his innermost being until the Force  itself  existed

only to serve his will.

 Now the scene below subtly altered, though to the  physical  eye  there

was no change. Powered by the dark side, Dooku’s perception took the measure
of those below him with exhilarating precision.

 Kenobi was luminous, a transparent being, a window onto a sunlit meadow

of the Force.

 Skywalker was a  storm  cloud,  flickering  with  dangerous  lightning,

building the rotation that threatens a tornado.

 And then there was Palpatine, of course: he was beyond power. He showed

nothing of what might be within. Though seen with the eyes of the dark side
itself, Palpatine was an event horizon. Beneath his entirely ordinary
surface was absolute, perfect nothingness. Darkness beyond darkness.
A black hole of the Force.

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