Maul slashed his lightsaber diagonally down through the chest of the last of Sidious’s assassins. The Sith Lord had been clever and methodical in his approach, expertly isolating Anakin and maneuvering his own forces into place to take out key targets. Still, he hadn’t anticipated the completely independent transceiver unit hidden within the base of Anakin’s overly-ostentatious throne. The one which, detecting Anakin’s pronouncement of the words “Darth Sidious” without any other context, had sent out alerts to key personnel.
He pulled out his commlink and keyed it to contact Padmé. She answered less than a second later. “You are clear,” Maul told her.
The door to her apartments hissed open, revealing that she was armed with two Naboo blaster pistols and dressed in the beskar’gam given to her by her late adoptive father. “What about Shmi, Dormé, and Thrawn?” she asked.
“Inquisitor Windu has already taken Shmi to a secure location,” Maul replied. “The forces arrayed against her were relatively light; Sidious must not have thought it necessary to use many resources against an unarmed noncombatant. The Queen Mother and Grand Admiral are both in the process of being rescued by other Jedi teams.”
Padmé nodded briskly. “Good. Thanks for the save. We’re heading to help Anakin now, right?”
Letting one of his hairless brows rise the barest fraction of an inch, Maul replied, “My orders are to take you to a safehouse and keep you under guard there.”
She smiled at him, the expression saccharine. “Do you think you’re going to be able to?”
He let his shoulders sag a little. “No. Not without rendering you unconscious first.”
“Then let’s go. Anakin may think he can take Sidious alone, but we didn’t get this far by taking unnecessary risks.” She started down the corridor toward the vehicle bay, and Maul hurried to keep up.
“In point of fact,” Maul told her, “we took many unnecessary risks to get here. If Master Qui-Gon were still alive, he and Anakin would both have to list ‘taking unnecessary risks’ under the ‘other interests’ section of their resumes.”
She snorted. “You’ve gotten verbose in your old age, Maul.”
“Where is she?”
“I do not think she is temperamentally suited to be an Inquisitor. She is serving as an adjutant commander in the 501st Legion, under Captain Rex. I will continue to train her when there is time, but my duties so far have necessitated our temporary separation.”
They made it to the vehicle bay without incident. Padmé leapt into the pilot’s seat of a glossy, chromium-plated Naboo airspeeder, gunned its repulsorlift engine, and rocketed them out of the building. If Sidious had deployed any air forces, Maul thought, now would be when they would spring their ambush. He had been living in Padmé’s apartment building for three months in anticipation of Sidious’s attack, so he had not been able to check their airspace.
No swoops or other airspeeders fell on them as they flew swiftly toward the government district. Maul let himself relax, just a hair, and began to mentally prepare himself for the battle to come.
Padmé was silent for several minutes. Then she asked, “Speaking of the 501st, have you heard anything from Venge recently?”
Maul shook his head. “I would expect you would be the first person he would contact when he returned from his errand.”
“Yes,” Padmé acknowledged, “I would expect it too. But I’m just worried.”
For his own part, Maul could not claim to be worried, precisely, but he still inclined his head in a gesture of agreement. Privately, he thought it was sweet that she could worry about Venge even when they were on their way to face the last Sith Lord in the galaxy.
But he didn’t say anything out loud.
Anakin had not been boasting when he had threatened to kill Sidious before the Sith Lord could react. If he had let Sidious send the transmission ordering his men to act, he could have done it. One blindingly fast Force leap across the room, a stroke of his lightsaber, and it would have been done.
But he hadn’t been sure that Maul, Windu, and his other emergency response teams had been finished. So he had taken the safe option, and now they were going to have a proper fight.
Sidious with a lightsaber in his hand was not faster or stronger than Anakin, and Anakin had the edge in Force potential as well. The issue was that Sidious had the strongest Force precognition Anakin had ever seen, stronger even than Yoda’s. With the battle no longer resting on the outcome of a single, decisive stroke that his opponent physically could not avoid, Anakin was left fighting an armed opponent who was always three steps ahead of him.
Dueling Plagueis had been like trying to fight an opponent with six arms, all of which moved faster than the eye could track. Dueling Sidious, on the other hand, was like fighting mist. The Sith Lord was already fading away, shifting into a blazing counteroffensive, every time Anakin tried to make a move. It was both infuriating and exhausting.
“Qui-Gon taught you well,” Sidious gloated, leaping into a handless lateral somersault over a broad horizontal swing of Anakin’s lightsaber. Like Yoda, he was preternaturally agile despite his age, using the Force enhancement of the Ataru form to great effect. “Your fear is controlled, your mind focused. But your anger – how tight a leash can you afford in a battle such as this?”
Anakin didn’t respond, concentrating on transitioning into a Djem So attack sequence which would keep Sidious beyond arm’s length. If he let the Sith Lord inside his guard, even for an instant, he knew with absolute certainty that Sidious could sever a tendon with a quick flick of his lightsaber and still dance away unharmed.
Sensing that he was going to have to work harder to provoke his opponent, Sidious kept talking. “You’ve come so far, my boy,” he said as he continued to flawlessly step around, twist away from, and deflect Anakin’s strikes. “To rise from being a slave on a nothing planet all the way to the de facto leader of the galaxy – your potential is unlimited. Why shackle it? You don’t need to dole out power and decentralize authority in an attempt to promote harmony, because such measures are useless! The rise of a challenger to your rule is, and always has been, fated. Galactic history is a history of inevitable conflict.”
Something about the Sith Lord’s voice – the smugness, the patronizing derision – began to wear on Anakin’s nerves. “Autocratic rule breeds that inevitable conflict faster,” he snapped, lashing out with a Force wave to try to knock Sidious off his feet. “The tighter you squeeze, the more innocents you radicalize.”
Sidious lacked the raw power to simply block or dispel Anakin’s Force attacks, but he moved with a lethal grace, stepping with the wave, nudging it slightly with his own power, letting it carry him to land unharmed five meters away. “The Rule of One is the pursuit of Order,” he replied, his tone that of a bored professor giving a lecture so obvious that he was insulted at the obligation to deliver it. “Order is the optimization of society, my boy. The greatest production, the greatest achievements, the greatest security. The life of an individual without the Force is nothing. It is incumbent upon us to guide them to the only form of greatness they are capable of achieving: the greatness which comes from helping, in some small way, to build a unified, infinite empire.”
Anakin shook his head. “In your infinite empire there’s no room for innovation, happiness, fulfillment. Even as the One who rules, you can never be satisfied.” On an impulse, he lowered his lightsaber, took a neutral stance. If Sidious let down his guard, he could kill the older man, but Anakin instinctively sensed that the advantage afforded by Sidious’s immense precognitive abilities was too great. He wants to turn me, and he wants me to see things his way. If I can engage him on that level, maybe I can blunt his concentration. “If your empire stops growing, if its energies don’t have somewhere for you to direct them, then they inexorably turn inward. The result is unrest, stagnation, and corruption.”
“More corruption than that caused by the democracy of the Republic?” Sidious sneered.
“That, by and large, is the corruption of greed.” Anakin gestured at the cityscape behind him, visible through the throne room’s grand window. “Wealth accumulates in vast corporations, which have long ceased being interested in competition and are instead interested in profit. The surest way to profit is to shape society to enable your nastiest shortcuts to it, so you buy the elected officials. They take your money, because they can never get enough. When they use that money for their own vices, the people who are supposed to investigate them turn out to be just as fallible and greedy as they are – or they’re not, but their superiors are. The end result, after a thousand years of small slips, is an entrenched, plutocratic oligarchy wearing the skin of the democracy it ate from the inside.”
Sidious actually gave him a mocking salute, flourishing his saber. “My, my. You have been listening to the good Ambassador Amidala, haven’t you?”
“Damn right I have,” Anakin replied. “The corruption of your empire, Sidious, would be the corruption of pure power. People exercising their power over others, because they can. Money isn’t the motivating force in your empire; survival is. The easiest way to survive is to be strong, and when you’re not a Force user, the power of the state can fill in for strength. So the small-minded and petty step over one another to get a little bit closer to the top. Eventually, the most cunning and vicious float to the top of the stack, and you realize you’re surrounded by them.”
His teeth flashing white in the dimness, Sidious showed Anakin a serpent’s smile. “But none are more cunning or vicious than me.”
“My point, if you’d bother to follow it, is that both systems end up in the same place,” Anakin said. “All the worst people at the top, holding all the power. One just takes a nastier path to it, a path that’s greased with blood instead of money. That’s why I’m taking the third option. Decentralize the money and the power to such an extent that nobody can get too big to take on.”
“It won’t work, you realize,” Sidious sighed. “The money and the power are still there, Anakin. Waiting for someone like you, or me, to come along and gather it up. Avalanches begin with a single pebble, but by the time they are noticed, it is far too late to turn them aside.”
Anakin balled his free hand into a fist. “So your solution to the inevitable cycle of conflict is to grab as much power as you can, and hold it as long as you can, by any means necessary, in the hopes that when conflict does arise, you can just smash it flat. You’re not interested in addressing the reasons for that conflict, just in dealing with it so you can get back to the business of conquering more territory and building more monuments to yourself.”
“Succinctly put. Your issue is that your attachment to banal morality shackles you to the idea that you must preserve life and slow down the cycle as much as possible. Think of what you could accomplish if you truly listened to the Force!”
Anakin made a show of cocking his head. “Well, I’m listening to the Force right now, and it’s telling me something, actually. Would you like to know what?”
Sidious gave him a smirk. “By all means.”
“It’s telling me,” Anakin went on, “that on the off-chance you’re right, and the Rule of One is the right way to govern the galaxy – well. It’s the Rule of One, Sidious.” He raised his lightsaber.
“Why should that one be you instead of me?”
Sidious raised his own weapon, smirk widening. “My boy, I have never been prouder of you.”
They leapt at one another, their weapons clashing once again.