Count Dooku turns off the ship's engines as he enters Coruscant space, gliding down on solar sails so as to avoid detection. He makes his way into one of the few barren parts of the capital planet, the site of an ancient radioactive disaster that is now nothing more than a great plain of iron shielding. The spacescrapers that cover the rest of the planet loom on the horizon like distant mountains. He touches down and walks out into the radioactive land, making his way beneath the surface through a heavy ragged trap door.
Anakin's graduation is marked by no grand ceremony or token. Obi-Wan simply calls him aside one day and asks him to kneel, igniting his blue saber just long enough to snip the padawan's small braid from his head.
"That's it?" says Anakin.
"That's it," says Obi-Wan, offering his hand to help Anakin to his feet.
There is no certificate or diploma. Anakin will continue to wield the green lightsaber that he has carried throughout his training. But Obi-Wan gives him something he values even more--the respect of an equal. Anakin basks in it as they spend the afternoon reminiscing and sipping bloo milk on the terrace of Bail Organa's mansion.
"So, where do we go from here?" Anakin asks as they watch the sun set over the mountain lake.
"The Council has given me orders to return to Kamino and meet my clone commander," Obi-Wan says. "Every member of the Council is being given command of their own regiment. But of course, I could use some help."
"I think I'll stick with you, Master Kenobi," says Anakin, grinning. "I still don't trust those clone troopers; you'll need me around to watch your back. But first I want some time off. I might go home for awhile. I've never been back, and..."
"Anakin, I know this isn't my business anymore, but I do wish you'd spend less time with Padme," says Obi-Wan. "I know how you feel about her, and you're not bound by the Council's vows of celibacy. But..."
"You suspect her," says Anakin. "You think she is the other Sith, Darth Sidious."
"I didn't say that," says Obi-Wan, "but I do think she may have had more to do with the creation of the clone army than she's letting on. She is, after all, the only other line of clones that has ever existed. Your friend has dark secrets."
"Padme hates the clone troopers and she hates this war," says Anakin. "She thinks Sidious is Tyranus' apprentice, that Dooku set the whole thing up on purpose to start this war."
"That does sound like a sithy thing to do," says Obi-Wan. "And if that's the case, Sidious might already be dead. If the legends can be trusted, Sith apprentices have a high mortality rate. Dooku will keep training new ones until he finds one stronger than himself. We can expect to face many more in the future. What do you think?"
"I think that half the Council thinks I'm next in line," says Anakin. "I'd be happy enough to earn their trust. I'm not going to go around creating mistrust. That would be the way of the Dark Side."
"Right you are, my young ah--good buddy," smiles Obi-Wan. "Nevertheless, I think we should keep a closer eye on the Senate, and trust the Force to reveal things in due time."
"Yeah, well, may the Force be with us," Anakin says as the sun's rays disappear from their sight. "We're gonna need it. I've got a bad feeling about this."
Dooku does not know how long he has been wandering through poisonous dark tunnels--could have been hours, could have been days--but he finally finds himself staring at Chancellor Palpatine's white hair through the grate of an air vent. He watches in silence as the Chancellor's meeting ends and everyone leaves. Dooku prepares to make his move.
Palpatine moves first. He raises his hand and drags Dooku out of the ceiling of his office with the power of the Force, slamming Dooku to the floor as tiles fall around him, then picking him up again and pinning him to the wall.
"Welcome home, Lord Tyranus," says Palpatine.
"Master, I--" Dooku rushes to explain, but is cut off as Palpatine chokes him.
"It is of course the hope of every Sith Lord to be killed by his apprentice," says Palpatine, floating Dooku towards him to look him in the eye, "For no one should be greater than the master except for the padawan. But if I am to receive that final honor, it will not be today." He grinds Dooku's face back into the floor. With a look of disgust, Dooku reaches his head forward and kisses the hem of Palpatine's robe.
"You have done well," laughs Palpatine, releasing his grip. "Everything is going as planned. Now rise, Lord Tyranus. You still have much you must learn, if you intend to win this war."
"Yes, Master Sidious."
On a wind-swept platform floating atop the endless ocean of Kamino, Chancellor Palpatine presides over the official commissioning ceremony for the clone army. Filling the deck behind him, the Jedi Knights stand alongside the clone commanders they will use to communicate with their regiments.
Obi-Wan stands with Commander Cody, whom he requested after finding himself secretly unnerved at the thought that every clone is the same person he met that first day on Kamino. All of the other members of the Jedi Council are there, and most of the green sabers as well. Obi-Wan explains that Anakin's absence is no sign of disloyalty; he is escorting Padme Amidala back to Naboo, and when he returns they will command the 7th Sky Corps together.
Mace Windu stands at Palpatine's right side, speaking on behalf of the Council, but even Head Master Yoda is here, standing for all to see at Palpatine's left. With a great fanfare, each Jedi Knight formally commands their troopers to deploy. The sea around them roars and bubbles as hundreds of star destroyers rise from the water and launch into space.
Afterwards, as the assembly disperses and the Jedi Knights make their way to their personal transports, Windu calls Obi-Wan over to where he stands huddled with Yoda and the Chancellor.
"What's wrong?" asks Obi-Wan, seeing the distress on Palpatine's face.
"We just received word," says Windu, "Naboo is under attack."
"The troopers will never make it there in time!" cries Palpatine.
"Don't give up hope," says Obi-Wan. "Anakin and Padme are there. They'll buy us time. Commander Cody! Tell your men to change course, we're going to Naboo!"
"Sir! Yes sir!"
Yoda shuts his eyes, seeing the future--but not enough of it. "The shroud of the Dark Side has fallen," he says solemnly, "Begun the Clone War has."
The rebel assault on Naboo makes the Federation invasion of years past look like a cordial visit. Before troops even land, the capital city of Theed is bombarded from orbit, its elegant domes and spires leveled in fire and ash.
Viceroy Gunray strides through the smoldering palace halls, relaying orders to droids as he walks. "Begin loading the lucassssite onto our ships immediately. We need to be out of here before the Republic arrivessss. Kill everything living you find. Leave nothing for the Ssssenate to ssssave!"
Stepping over the dead body of Captain Panaka, he enters the throne room. Dorme is there, clutching two younger Amidala clones.
"Your Highnesssss," Newt laughs, "A pleassssure to kill you again!" Amidala screams as the droid blasters fire.
The screams carry across the stars and echo in Padme's heart, where she locks them away beneath the sight of Anakin Skywalker's eyes looking into her own and the touch of his flesh and metal hands holding hers.
"I do," she says.
She doesn't hear the words Bail Organa speaks as he performs the ceremony he has promised to keep secret. She doesn't feel the soft warmth of the Alderaan sun, in this place she will have to learn to call home. She has no thought at all of the two droids standing as their only witnesses, though Artoo beeps with what seems like contentment and Threepio emulates prudent emotions for a wedding. For Padme, the only thing that exists right now is her husband. And she knows, as her soul mingles with his, that she is the sum of his universe as well.
Padme and Anakin kiss.
And Naboo falls.
To be continued in...