Ellé Anakin could get used to. She was a nice girl, not that strong, either physically or in the Force, but surprisingly smart, and she was determined to be as good as the rest of them in as many ways as possible. She might have been the hardest working Initiate in the Temple.
Much as he was never ever going to admit it to anyone, Anakin also became happier when just after Ellé had arrived with the other two, Master Windu went away with several other members of the Council, and he shortly after heard he’d be gone for a month. He would have liked it even more if it had made Padmé relax, though. Of course it didn’t. She was probably going to be thoroughly interrogated by him about her activities and improvements the moment he got back, and he knew she was thinking about that every moment of every day. He wondered if he’d instructed her to focus on the history of the Sith, because she seemed to be reading about that a lot even before they were all instructed to by Master Gallia.
She was able to guide him through his readings about the old wars and all the information they had on the current state of the Sith, and first warned him before he started reading about the latter that the source of their information had been his mother. She held him silently as for the first time he read about just what had happened to her, and where he himself might have come from, which he’d only had vague knowledge about before then. “You don’t have to let it shape you,” she said when he had stopped shaking. “None of us have any say in how we come about into existence. We make our choices after that, and we can choose to be whatever we want then.”
“I know,” he said. “But what if this Darth Sidious comes after me? What if he goes after my mom on Dantooine? And oh stars, how he must have hurt her...” It was actually pain for her, more than fear, that had made him shake, though he had felt lots of fear too.
“Do you want to try to find out how she’s doing on Dantooine?” she asked, which surprised him. He had the feeling he wasn’t really supposed to know, and that Master Windu would not be happy with her if she helped him. If he found out, anyway, but he didn’t know if she’d be capable of keeping it from him. But at his fervent yes, she said, “Okay. I’ll see what I can do.”
But days passed, and she didn’t bring the subject up again. He didn’t know if she’d suddenly gotten afraid of helping, decided it was a bad idea anyway, or was just having trouble getting any information.
Meanwhile, it was getting on a month since Master Windu had left, which meant Anakin had to think about his coming back. But before then, some of the other Council members were starting to drive him and many of the other Initiates crazy. Master Yaddle it seemed was now completely recovered, and insisted they had to learn more about Ilum, including all the boring stuff about how all those crystals formed there, and about planets like Ossus and Kamparas and all the more boring parts of their history, involving civilizations that had existed on them for thousands of years but still weren’t there anymore now. Than there was Master Poof, who wanted them to do new exercises to increase their speed and hiding ability. Anakin was one of the best at the former but had trouble with the latter; the other Initiates always seemed able to find him. Octus told him once he was much easier to sense through the Force than everyone else. Padmé then told him that was because he was much stronger in the Force than they were, which he supposed was something he should be happy about, but it still was annoying.
There was one new set of lessons, however, that he really liked. It seemed that after years of keeping older Initiates cooped up in the Jedi Temple, the possibility of them being attacked and the Temple being half or even wholly destroyed had led the Council to decide they should know something of Coruscant. So every other week, usually under the guidance of Master Gallia, they went out, sometimes together and sometimes in two or three groups at a time, got on buses or large crates, and went around the neighborhood. Once they went very far down, and saw where Padmé whispered very poor people lived; that wasn’t a very nice place. Another time they took a longer trip than usual, and went all the way to the Senate Hall, where they met Chancellor Valorum, who shook all their hands and thanked them for dedicating their lives to protecting the Republic and the galaxy, and that he knew that peace and order would be in safe hands with them.
Their third trip out, they were told as they all crowded into the crate, Ellé keeping near Anakin and Padmé as she often did when all the Initiates went out together, was their biggest yet. “We will be going around the planet,” Master Gallia explained to them, “and you will learn how the power is maintained, how the water system is run, how the light and weather is controlled, and basically how the resources of this planet are economized to support a population much bigger than its resources would be able to maintain under most circumstances. It is not an easy thing to do, and some people might even disapprove of some of the things you will see demonstrated today. However, since the events of the universe have led to Coruscant having all the people that is does, they must be able to eat and breathe and live, and this is how that is made possible.”
“Why would anyone disapprove of that?” Anakin asked Padmé in a whisper, but she shushed him.
“Our first destination,” Master Gallia had continued, “is down at the lowest levels still considered populated, where the power relay stations are located. The main source of power on Coruscant is now through atomic fusion, although for much of the planet’s very long history it was atomic fission, which might not sound that different, but can be a lot more dangerous. A handful of accidents prior to the Ruusan Reformation have done great radiation damage to these low levels. Even now the power is actually generated nearly a mile below the stations, and for reasons of safety we will not be going down to see that.”
The crate was dropping while she spoke. Anakin felt it happen, a suddenly rush of movement combined with the pitch of his stomach. Also the air around him seemed to turn colder, which felt kind of weird, since there was plenty of heat flowing through the crate thanks to its heavy engines.
“Master Gallia,” asked Octus, “is it true the power relays are all run by mutants? Are we going to meet some of them?”
“No, Initiate,” she said, and she spoke harshly now. “The people who run the power relays are just like everybody else. It is true that early in Coruscant’s history the power workers were sometimes exposed to levels of radiation that did have certain effects on them, especially during accidents, but nowadays stringent measures are in place to keep them safe.”
“Is there something she’s not telling us?” they heard someone whisper behind them. Mirk Oggslayer, Anakin thought; only he had a voice soft enough to get away with it with the sharp-eared Master Gallia. But she was already going on, talking about how the power was conducted up to the relay stations and from there directed all around Coruscant. “On our way back,” she said, “we may even take a trip below the Temple, and you will see how it receives its share of the power."
“That must be very far down,” commented Xiaan Amersu, since they all know the Temple itself stretched down more levels than they’d descended before.
“It is,” agreed Master Gallia. In fact, the bottom of the Temple is closer to the relay stations than to the main floors.”
Just then the crate stopped, and she nodded. “We’re here. Just a moment.” Then she stepped outside.
As they heard her voice and the voice of someone else conversing outside, Anakin first felt something prickle at the back of his spine. A moment later Padmé must have felt it too, because she said, “Something’s not right.”
Another moment later they heard the second voice yell, and Master’s Gallia’s yell, “Get back!” The sound of her lightsaber humming was quickly followed by the sound of blaster bolts, then both sounds ceased, and there was a momentary pause before they heard Master Gallia’s voice again, sounding like she was further from their crate, demanding something of someone; one of the attackers which she had subdued, Anakin assumed.
“I think,” Padmé started, but a moment later something hit the crate that sent it rolling hard nearly onto its side. Shouts and frightened squeals filled the air as everyone was thrown against each other, though weirdly enough, Anakin didn’t feel too frightened.
“Initiate Naberrie!” Master Gallia could be heard calling from somewhere near the crate’s door. “Get everyone out of here!”
Padmé was trying to obey, of course, but the crate was still rocking so hard it was hard for her to get to the controls. And then it was hit again, and this time they felt heat coming through the walls from it, and Anakin heard someone yell, “Blaster fire!”
“We don’t know that,” Padmé yelled back, but with it said, Anakin was sure it had been that; there had been a faint high-pitched sound that had sounded kind of like a huge blaster, the kind one might find attached to a small fighter, and the way it had impacted was like getting hit by a bolt too. Also she didn’t completely keep out of her voice the kind of terror that left Anakin completely convinced something or other was definitely attacking them.
The crate rocked again before Padmé finally reached the controls, but when she typed in some commands she shook her head. “The navigation abilities have been damaged.”
“Doesn’t that mean someone has to pilot us by hand?” asked Tru Veld.
“It does,” said Padmé and she looked across the length of the crate. There were control panels on both sides of it, and Anakin suspected she had fought her way to the wrong side for manual piloting.
The crate was hit again, and this time there was no mistaking it, not with the way it shook and they felt the heat even through the shields. Anakin thought that might mean those shields were failing too; they probably had never been that strong anyway. He would later believe it was that thought, more than anything else, that drove him to do what he did next.
All the jostling and movement in the crate had left him fairly near the side with what he thought was the right control panel, and now he pushed his way past the few Initiates still in his way. It wasn’t that hard to; he wasn’t sure what prompted them to do it but they all moved out of his way. “Padmé, where’s the manual piloting?” he called.
“Knob at the bottom, I think!” she called back, and then hastily started pushing her way through; of course it would probably be better for her to manage this. But she couldn’t get through that quickly, and meanwhile Anakin found the knob almost as soon as he looked, and took hold of it.
It was nothing like it had been trying to pilot the ship he and Padmé had fled Coruscant in during the battle. Back then he had been all too aware he didn’t really know what he was doing, and that had made everything scary, especially with that situation, where it had felt so sure there were people trying to kill them. Now he had done it before, and the knob in his hands felt a lot more natural, and so did the way the crate responded to his moving it about. Also, as he managed to maneuver, and a shot that would’ve otherwise hit them directly grazed them instead, he became aware the Force was speaking to him, making him know what was about to happen in a split second’s time, and that was a really good thing, because he could use it maybe to help save them all.
He heard some sort of screen load up on the other side of the crate; Padmé’s doing, no doubt; she’d stopped trying to get to him in favor of helping from across the crate. He heard he call over to him, “Ani, take us down. Our best chance of escaping is to hide in the uninhabited levels. I’ll tell you when to move left and right. Drop us.”
He did; he felt them plummet. “Move forward,” she called to him with him already ready to do so; the Force was still helping him. She called out commands in quick succession: left, left again, right, back, down, backward, up. He was ready for all of them.
By the time he heard Padmé say, “Okay, I think we can keep going straight now,” and the feeling of danger had dropped so much Anakin was pretty sure they were at least safe for the moment, he was even enjoying it. He liked the feeling of power and control he had with the ship held under his hands, the speed with which they were flying through the deserted downlevels. He would’ve liked it even more had he been able to see outside, but even in his mind he could see structures and jagged pieces of metal sail past the crate.
He was even disappointed when Padmé said, “The radiation here is minimal and there’s a platform coming up. Slow down, Ani.” But he obeyed, and again when she said, “We’re right next to it. Move to the right, Ani.” After a couple of seconds of his doing so, she said, “And stop and settle down. Try to make it gentle.”
That was the only moment during the later part of the flight that Anakin hesitated, unsure how to pull at the controls to make it gentle. “Cut the antigrav,” Padmé advised him. “It’s up on the top of the panel, I think. That should do it.”
It did. Sort of; they hit the surface below very hard, hard enough that they all had trouble keeping their footing. But everyone was okay and they were safely down, and Anakin was pretty sure that was all that was important. And when Padmé said to him, “Well done, Ani. We could barely have asked for more from you,” he felt very light and bright.
They filtered out of the crate, Padmé taking the lead. Anakin’s first thought on stepping outside was it was really dark out, not much brighter than it was when they went lights-out in the dormitory. Not only had the sunlight stopped at least a mile above them, but the only illumination came from a mere three lights, two on the corners of the platform(there were two more that weren’t working), and one from a floating droid the likes of which Anakin had never seen before that was drifting around, occasionally making very soft and strange mechanical sounds. They were surrounded by air on three sides; on the fourth a walkway led off, then split into two directions. One, the wider one, went into a building with so big an entrance Anakin thought it had probably been used as a parking garage. The other went off into structures too far away to make out in the limited light.
“According to the crate computer,” said Padmé, “we’re in the lowest thousand levels before they stop keeping track; it can’t give me anything more accurate.”
“Are we near the planet surface then?” asked a fascinated Octus. “Will we see mutants?”
“No, Octus,” said Padmé; “there’s a lot of space below us they don’t divide into levels. Remember almost everybody lives above us. But these platforms are probably thousands or even tens of thousands of years old, older even than the Sith Wars. We’re standing on Republic history.” There was an excited murmur at the thought of this. “There’s probably a lot of decay around, though. Thankfully these platforms are usually made from the most durable and long-lasting compounds that existed back then, but we still have to be careful.”
“I heard one of the Masters say it’s dangerous to be down here,” said Donnie Briggs. “He said there are some people who are really poor, even poorer than we saw during our first trip out, but there are so many thugs and criminals down here that even those people who don’t want to make trouble will go around with cheap blasters and often shoot any strangers on sight, just in case. He said the CSF never come down here, and if they did they’d probably be killed.”
“There are dangers down here, yes,” Padmé agreed. “It might possibly become less dangerous to fly back upwards, so we will if that happens. But for now it's probably still safer not too.”
“Isn’t it something, though,” said Xiaan Amersu. “We never would have seen any of this. This looks like a really old-style docking platform. And horizontally speaking, we still aren’t far from the Temple, are we? So maybe this platform saw Master Odan-Urr land on it with Master Nadill and the Empress of Koros when he came to Coruscant to tell the Council of his horrific vision. Or maybe Krynda Draay depart Coruscant and the Jedi Order before the Mandalorian Wars.”
“Would that this platform could talk!” exclaimed someone else.
“Much history happens everywhere,” said Padmé. “Though you know, it might less likely famous people used this platform than ordinary people did. Think about it. Millions of people thousands of years ago likely stood where you are all standing now. Each of those people was a unique individual, remember, with lives not exactly like anyone else’s, which now, in a way, now intersect with yours, because you have this place in common. Maybe there were famous people too, maybe not. But I don’t think that’s as incredible as considering all the people together who beyond a doubt were here at some time or another, even if we can’t be entirely sure when.”
A similar thought occurred to Anakin then, and he said, “What about the pilots that landed their ships here? I wonder who they were. How many planets did you think they came from?”
“We’d probably have to know just when the platform was in use to know that, I think,” said Padmé. “Though most of them were probably flying vessels smaller than our crate, since the platform’s not very big.” It wasn’t; by now they had already spread out its entire length. “Since there’s only one way off it, in the direction of the Temple, I think, it was probably used by people coming there. Maybe not more important visitors, though; they probably arrived at the platforms attached to the Temple itself, but maybe a lot of the workers in the morning, especially if they lived in this area. There’s even a possibility it finds occasional use today, though the lights would probably be in better repair if it was used regularly, even this far down.”
“Do you think the people that came in here helped build the Temple?” asked Ellé. “I mean, I know the foundations might have been laid even before this platform was built, but there have been a lot of expansions, haven’t there?”
“There have,” said Padmé. “Especially after the Sith Wars. I wouldn’t be surprised if the garage over there might have even stored building material as was convenient.”
Anakin pictured it, sure the others were doing so too. He could see it all, the workers, all of the oldest species in the Republic, filing in for the day, lugging stones and bricks out of the garage, perhaps saying goodbye the family members who might have drove them. It was incredible to think about, all those generations over all those thousands of years and more, working to produce the proud structure that stood now.
But he was broken out of the vision by a sudden sense that something was amiss, a split second before Padmé said, “Wait, someone’s coming. From the longer walkway. Everyone get behind me.” They all scrambled to obey as Padmé took her lightsaber from her belt and held the humming, glimmering blue blade out before them all. Anakin found himself wishing the light was the sort that would fall on the surrounding spaces, but no such luck; they faced only the darkness.
Until finally out of it there emerged a woman clutching a very weak lantern, human or near-human it looked like, definitely not young, though he wasn’t sure how old she was, her hair dark grey and walking with a little bit of a stumble in her steps. She didn’t look or feel that threatening, though Padmé kept the lightsaber in place as she exclaimed, “Jedi! Why are you down here? I done nothing wrong, nor has anyone else down here!”
“We don’t think you have,” Padmé told her. “We were traveling to the power stations when someone attacked us, and we fled from them down here.”
“People still attacking you then?” The woman chuckled, and Anakin wanted to yell at her; how was the Jedi Order continually being attacked and so many people killed funny? Padmé put a firm but soothing hand on his shoulder. “Well, you probably shouldn’t be standing out here then. I don’t know if I can fit you all into my place, but I can at least try. I might even have enough for you all to eat, though don’t rely on that.”
Anakin wondered for a moment if it was a trap, but it really didn’t feel like that at all, and Padmé must have thought so too, because she deactivated her lightsaber and said, “Anything you can give us will be greatly appreciated, and I’ll see if you can get compensated later.”
They followed her back the way she had come, across a walkway that maybe was a little thin considering that for ten minutes they saw nothing around it but air. The group huddled close together, and Anakin kept himself as close to Padmé as possible, and noticed that while her lightsaber had returned to her belt, she kept her hand on it. They saw the first buildings, clearly abandoned and often falling apart, to the sides as their path started to ascend, surprisingly steeply, and their guide had to walk very slowly, until Anakin started to feel very impatient. But then it leveled out again, and lights began appearing in the distance.
“I’m one of exactly ten people who live here, a number which is probably about to drop, by the way,” said the woman. “We saw your crate go past us, and they thought I’d better go take a look. Weak old me, but they’re cowards, the lot of them. Don’t worry if they threaten you; they don’t got the guts to do anything.”
The lights were all coming from one building, apparently the only one inhabited. The woman rang the bell, and called out, “It’s me, boys; and I brought a bunch of stranded Jedi children.”
“Jedi?” A suspicious voice was followed by what sounded like the honk of a horn, and the door started to slide open, though it had to struggle to do so; it was very rusty, especially on the bottom. “I thought you’d know better, Tayer, than to bring those people in here. They’ll probably order us out because they think it’s for our own good. Never mind we don’t got anywhere else to live.”
“I promise you we won’t,” said Padmé.
“Why,” a very dirty face peered out. “You do look young, all of you.”
“I said they were children,” sighed Tayer. “Come on in.”
They were still coming in when suddenly the hallway was filled the sound a child’s screams of pain, and Padmé wasn’t the only one who stopped dead and turned in their direction. “Don’t mind that,” said Tayer. “That’s Mippi. Five years old and she’s dying of who knows what. Nothing any of us can do about it; we don’t got money for medicine.”
“But something should be done!” protested a horrified Padmé, and she was already headed in the direction of the screams, as if daring anyone to try to respond or stop her. Noone did, but Anakin followed her, and he wasn’t the only one.
Even after everything he had seen during and after the attack on the Temple and their flight through Ilum to Polsing, Anakin had never seen a scene that it hurt to look at so much. Mippi was lying on the floor on her back, a skinny thing with a face swollen up beyond what even crying could do, eyes and cheeks bulging in such a way to show something was wrong. There was a woman bent over her, possibly her mother, but she was so withered and gaunt it was hard to tell her age. She was making feeble attempts to sooth her, her face so empty and despaired it seemed she was beyond tears. She looked up at them, visibly cringed, and tried to move Mippi out of their eyesight.
“Don’t do that, madam,” said Padmé. “Maybe I’ll be able to help.”
“Or Healers from the Temple,” suggested someone else. “Maybe they’ll help.”
“I don’t know if she’ll even live until they find us,” replied Padmé without even turning around to look at them. Frantically she moved her hands over the tiny body; the woman now not protesting, even watching as if she was torn between wanting to hope and being terrified. After a moment or so she stopped trying to explore with her hands, but just closed her eyes and went very still, and Anakin thought she was trying to learn more or quicker through the Force.
When she was done, she opened her eyes, looked up at the woman, and said, “I may or may not be able to save her right now. But even then she’ll have to be carefully nursed or she’ll probably be an invalid her entire life.”
And then Anakin had to ask, heedless of everyone around them, hoping Padmé would be willing to take just a moment to answer him. “Padmé, you aren’t going to do what you did on Polsing, are you?”
“Yes, I am, Ani,” she said calmly, and she was already drawing Mippi against her, preparing for it. “I’m not sure how far an extreme I’ll have to go to, but...”
“But no, you can’t!” he protested, running forward, stumbling, falling onto his knees by her. “You’ll die this time for sure!”
“It’s a worthy sacrifice, Ani, if it goes that far,” she said. “A good Jedi is always willing to give their life for someone else. You know that.”
He’d heard that, he thought, but he’d never really paid attention to it before, thought about what it might mean. “But she might still not live!” he pointed out. “And then you’d both be dead!”
“That’s a risk I’m willing to take,” she said, and briefly clasped his hand, but pulled away, even as the thought he might never feel that hand warm again made Anakin want to scream. “Oh, Ani, I hope someday you understand.”
But for now Anakin couldn’t understand at all. He gripped at her cloak, just sobbing, “No no no no no...”
Then behind him, Ellé said softly, “Anakin, didn’t you get her to stay alive last time?”
“I had Master Jinn there with me, he helped,” Anakin whimpered through his sobs. “I don’t think I can do it without him.”
“But someone will come find us,” said Ellé, “and maybe they’ll bring a Healer with them. Maybe you can still do it again.”
It was a little bit of hope, and Anakin tried to grasp onto it in his mind. But it was hard to think anything besides the fact that Padmé was giving her life right next to him, and he might have to spend the entire rest of his life without her, and he wasn’t sure he even could bear that, and he knew he really didn’t want to.
So he continued to lay there and cry; he could even bring himself to care that everybody could see and hear him doing so. It was even worse when at some point he found himself able to sense...well, he didn’t really know, just a lot of power, and he knew it had to be Padmé doing what she was doing.
He wasn’t sure if he emptied all his tears out first or he felt the Force recede around him first as Padmé finished. He was aware at some point of her slumping on top of him, and of another voice, probably the woman, gasping out something and then sobbing herself, though she sounded happy. It all seemed to happen together, flowing into the feeling of his being picked up and a voice he thought was Tayer saying, “She’ll have my bunk, though it’s not too soft, not like she should have, and if you think it’s good to keep the boy with her that’s no problem.”
He was so tired, in a way he felt even more tired than he ever had in his life before, even during the whole ordeal after the battle. Maybe even too tired to sleep, though that was weird. He hung so limp as he was carried somewhere he might as well have been dead himself. Then he was placed on top of Padmé, head against her bumpy chest, and there was that weird contrast again, because her body was still warm, but she felt cold, though not as cold as she’d felt on Polsing, maybe. He forced himself to move his hand, bumping it all around, before it found hers and he wound his fingers around it.
He wondered if maybe he could figure out how to do what she did, and he could die for her. He’d be very happy to do that. For now, though, all he could manage was to grip that hand, and at least somehow he had gained the ability to think at Padmé the way Master Jinn had directed him too that day on Polsing without the Master’s guidance. Hold on, he thought at her. Please hold on. Please live.