Star Wars: Darth Plagueis is a work of fiction. Names, places,
and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or
are used fictitiously.

Copyright © 2012 by Lucasfilm Ltd. & ® or ™ where indicated.
All Rights Reserved. Used Under Authorization.

Excerpt from Star Wars: Shadow Games by Michael Reaves and Maya Kaathryn
Bohnhoff copyright © 2011 by Lucasfilm Ltd. & ® or ™ where indicated.
All Rights Reserved. Used Under Authorization.

Published in the United States by Del Rey,
an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group,
a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

DEL REY is a registered trademark and the Del Rey
colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc.

eISBN: 978-0-345-53255-8

www.starwars.com
www.delreybooks.com

Cover art: Torstein Nordstrand

v3.1


 

For Howard Roffman, whose intelligence, critical acumen,
and stalwart direction helped shape this story


 

Contents

Cover

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Prologue

Part One: Enlistment - 67–65 Years Before the Battle of Yavin

1: The Underworld

2: The Inner Landscape

3: Woebegone

4: The Meaning of Death

5: Homecoming

6: The Hunters’ Moon

7: There Where They Used to Stand

8: Victims of Their Own Device

9: Untapped Reserves

10: The Cycle of Violence

11: Avatar of Mortality

12: Seduced by the Dark Side of the Force

Part Two: Apprenticed to Power - 54–52 BBY

13: Riders on the Storm

14: The Shape of His Shadow

15: Quantum Being

16: Bold as Love

17: Days of Wine and Impropriety

18: Artful Dodging

19: The Trials

20: The Canted Circle

21: Investiture

Part Three: Mastery - 34–32 BBY

22: Ordinary Beings

23: Under the Midnight Sun

24: Sith’ari

25: The Discreet Charm of the Meritocracy

26: Their Baser Nature

27: Calibrations

28: Chain of Command

29: The Force Strikes Back

30: Taking the Future from the Now

Epilogue

About the Author

Also by this Author

Introduction to the Star Wars Expanded Universe

Excerpt from Star Wars: Darth Bane: Path of Destruction

Introduction to the Old Republic Era

Excerpt from Star Wars: The Old Republic: Deceived

Introduction to the Rise of the Empire Era

Excerpt from Star Wars: Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader

Introduction to the Rebellion Era

Excerpt from Star Wars: Death Star

Introduction to the New Republic Era

Excerpt from Star Wars: Heir to the Empire

Introduction to the New Jedi Order Era

Excerpt from Star Wars: New Jedi Order: Vector Prime

Introduction to the Legacy Era

Excerpt from Star Wars: Legacy of the Force: Betrayal

Excerpt from Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi: Outcast

Star Wars Novels Timeline


 


 

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….


 

PROLOGUE

A tremor took hold of the planet.

Sprung from death, it unleashed itself in a powerful wave, at once burrowing deep into the world’s core and radiating through its saccharine atmosphere to shake the stars themselves. At the quake’s epicenter stood Sidious, one elegant hand vised on the burnished sill of an expansive translucency, a vessel filled suddenly to bursting, the Force so strong within him that he feared he might disappear into it, never to return. But the moment didn’t constitute an ending so much as a true beginning, long overdue; it was less a transformation than an intensification—a gravitic shift.

A welter of voices, near and far, present and from eons past, drowned his thoughts. Raised in praise, the voices proclaimed his reign and cheered the inauguration of a new order. Yellow eyes lifted to the night sky, he saw the trembling stars flare, and in the depth of his being he felt the power of the dark side anoint him.

Slowly, almost reluctantly, he came back to himself, his gaze settling on his manicured hands. Returned to the present, he took note of his rapid breathing, while behind him the room labored to restore order. Air scrubbers hummed—costly wall tapestries undulating in the summoned breeze. Prized carpets sealed their fibers against the spread of spilled fluids. The droid shuffled in obvious confliction. Sidious pivoted to take in the disarray: antique furniture overturned; framed artwork askew. As if a whirlwind had swept through. And facedown on the floor lay a statue of Yanjon, one of four law-giving sages of Dwartii.

A piece Sidious had secretly coveted.

Also sprawled there, Plagueis: his slender limbs splayed and elongated head turned to one side. Dressed in finery, as for a night on the town.

And now dead.

Or was he?

Uncertainty rippled through Sidious, rage returning to his eyes. A tremor of his own making, or one of forewarning?

Was it possible that the wily Muun had deceived him? Had Plagueis unlocked the key to immortality, and survived after all? Never mind that it would constitute a petty move for one so wise—for one who had professed to place the Grand Plan above all else. Had Plagueis become ensnared in a self-spun web of jealousy and possessiveness, victim of his own engineering, his own foibles?

If he hadn’t been concerned for his own safety, Sidious might have pitied him.

Wary of approaching the corpse of his former Master, he called on the Force to roll the aged Muun over onto his back. From that angle Plagueis looked almost as he had when Sidious first met him, decades earlier: smooth, hairless cranium; humped nose, with its bridge flattened as if from a shock-ball blow and its sharp tip pressed almost to his upper lip; jutting lower jaw; sunken eyes still brimming with menace—a physical characteristic rarely encountered in a Muun. But then Plagueis had never been an ordinary Muun, nor an ordinary being of any sort.

Sidious took care, still reaching out with the Force. On closer inspection, he saw that Plagueis’s already cyanotic flesh was smoothing out, his features relaxing.

Faintly aware of the whir of air scrubbers and sounds of the outside world infiltrating the luxurious suite, he continued the vigil; then, in relief, he pulled himself up to his full height and let out his breath. This was no Sith trick. Not an instance of feigning death, but one of succumbing to its cold embrace. The being who had guided him to power was gone.

Wry amusement narrowed his eyes.

The Muun might have lived another hundred years unchanged. He might have lived forever had he succeeded fully in his quest. But in the end—though he could save others from death—he had failed to save himself.

A sense of supreme accomplishment puffed Sidious’s chest, and his thoughts unreeled.

Well, then, that wasn’t nearly as bad as we thought it might be …

Rarely did events play out as imagined, in any case. The order of future events was transient. In the same way that the past was reconfigured by selective memory, future events, too, were moving targets. One could only act on instinct, grab hold of an intuited perfect moment, and spring into action. One heartbeat late and the universe would have recomposed itself, no imposition of will sufficient to forestall the currents. One could only observe and react. Surprise was the element absent from any periodic table. A keystone element; a missing ingredient. The means by which the Force amused itself. A reminder to all sentient beings that some secrets could never be unlocked.

Confident that the will of the dark side had been done, he returned to the suite’s window wall.

Two beings in a galaxy of countless trillions, but what had transpired in the suite would affect the lives of all of them. Already the galaxy had been shaped by the birth of one, and henceforth would be reshaped by the death of the other. But had the change been felt and recognized elsewhere? Were his sworn enemies aware that the Force had shifted irrevocably? Would it be enough to rouse them from self-righteousness? He hoped not. For now the work of vengeance could begin in earnest.

His eyes sought and found an ascending constellation of stars, one of power and consequence new to the sky, though soon to be overwhelmed by dawn’s first light. Low in the sky over the flatlands, visible only to those who knew where and how to look, it ushered in a bold future. To some the stars and planets might seem to be moving as ever, destined to align in configurations calculated long before their fiery births. But in fact the heavens had been perturbed, tugged by dark matter into novel alignments. In his mouth, Sidious tasted the tang of blood; in his chest, he felt the monster rising, emerging from shadowy depths and contorting his aspect into something fearsome just short of revealing itself to the world.

The dark side had made him its property, and now he made the dark side his.

Breathless, not from exertion but from the sudden inspiration of power, he let go of the sill and allowed the monster to writhe through his body like an unbroken beast of range or prairie.

Had the Force ever been so strong in anyone?

Sidious had never learned how Plagueis’s own Master had met his end. Had he died at Plagueis’s hand? Had Plagueis, too, experienced a similar exultation on becoming a sole Sith Lord? Had the beast of the end time risen then to peek at the world it was to inhabit, knowing its release was imminent?

He raised his gaze to the ecliptic. The answers were out there, coded in light, speeding through space and time. Liquid fire coursing through him, visions of past and future riffling through his mind, he opened himself to the reconfigured galaxy, as if in an effort to peel away the decades …


 


 

1: THE UNDERWORLD

Forty-seven standard years before the harrowing reign of Emperor Palpatine, Bal’demnic was nothing more than an embryonic world in the Outer Rim’s Auril sector, populated by reptilian sentients who expressed as little tolerance for outsiders as they did for one another. Decades later the planet would have a part to play in galactic events, its own wink of historical notoriety, but in those formative years that presaged the Republic’s ineluctable slide into decadence and turmoil, Bal’demnic was of interest only to xenobiologists and cartographers. It might even have escaped the notice of Darth Plagueis, for whom remote worlds held a special allure, had his Master, Tenebrous, not discovered something special about the planet.

“Darth Bane would appreciate our efforts,” the Sith Master was telling his apprentice as they stood side by side in the crystalline cave that had drawn them across the stars.

A Bith, Tenebrous was as tall as Plagueis and nearly as cadaverously thin. To human eyes, his bilious complexion might have made him appear as haggard as the pallid Muun, but in fact both beings were in robust health. Though they conversed in Basic, each was fluent in the other’s native language.

“Darth Bane’s early years,” Plagueis said through his transpirator mask. “Carrying on the ancestral business, as it were.”

Behind the faceplate of his own mask, Tenebrous’s puckered lips twitched in disapproval. The breathing device looked absurdly small on his outsized cleft head, and the convexity of the mask made the flat disks of his lidless eyes look like close-set holes in his pinched face.

“Bane’s seminal years,” he corrected.

Plagueis weathered the gentle rebuke. He had been apprenticed to Tenebrous for as many years as the average human might live, and still Tenebrous never failed to find fault when he could.

“What more appropriate way for us to close the circle than by mimicking the Sith’ari’s seminal efforts,” Tenebrous continued. “We weave ourselves into the warp and weft of the tapestry he created.”

Plagueis kept his thoughts to himself. The aptly named Darth Bane, who had redefined the Sith by limiting their number and operating from concealment, had mined cortosis as a youth on Apatros long before embracing the tenets of the dark side. In the thousand years since his death, Bane had become deified; the powers attributed to him, legendary. And indeed what more appropriate place for his disciples to complete the circle, Plagueis told himself, than in profound obscurity, deep within an escarpment that walled an azure expanse of Bal’demnic’s Northern Sea.

The two Sith were outfitted in environment suits that protected them from scorching heat and noxious atmosphere. The cave was cross-hatched by scores of enormous crystals that resembled glowing lances thrust every which way into a trick chest by a stage magician. A recent seismic event had tipped the landmass, emptying the labyrinthine cave system of mineral-rich waters, but the magma chamber that had kept the waters simmering for millions of years still heated the humid air to temperatures in excess of what even Tenebrous and Plagueis could endure unaided. Close at hand sat a stubby treddroid tasked with monitoring the progress of a mining probe that was sampling a rich vein of cortosis ore at the bottom of a deep shaft. A fabled ore, some called it—owing to its scarcity, but even more for its intrinsic ability to diminish the effectiveness of the Jedi lightsaber. For that reason, the Jedi Order had gone to great lengths to restrict mining and refinement of the ore. If not the bane of the Order’s existence, cortosis was a kind of irritant, a challenge to their weapon’s reputation for fearsome invincibility.

It was to Tenebrous’s credit that the Sith had learned of Bal’demnic’s rich lodes before the Jedi, who by means of an agreement with the Republic Senate had first claim to all discoveries, as they had with Adegan crystals and Force-sensitive younglings of all species. But Tenebrous and the generations of Sith Masters who had preceded him were privy to covert data gleaned by vast networks of informants the Senate and the Jedi knew nothing about, including mining survey teams and weapons manufacturers.

“Based on the data I am receiving,” the treddroid intoned, “eighty-two percent of the ore is capable of being purified into weapons-grade cortosis shield.”

Plagueis looked at Tenebrous, who returned a nod of satisfaction. “The percentage is consistent with what I was told to expect.”

“By whom, Master?”

“Of no consequence,” Tenebrous said.

Strewn about the superheated tunnel were broken borer bits, expended gasifiers, and clogged filtration masks, all abandoned by the exploratory team that had sunk the shaft several standard months earlier. From the shaft’s broad mouth issued the repeated reports of the probe droid’s hydraulic jacks. Music to Tenebrous’s auditory organs, Plagueis was certain.

“Can you not share your plans for this discovery?”

“In due time, Darth Plagueis.” Tenebrous turned away from him to address the treddroid. “Instruct the probe to evaluate the properties of the secondary lode.”

Plagueis studied the screen affixed to the droid’s flat head. It displayed a map of the probe’s movements and a graphic analysis of its penetrating scans, which reached clear to the upper limits of the magma chamber.

“The probe is running an analysis,” the treddroid updated.

With the reciprocating sounds of the probe’s hydraulic jacks echoing in the crystal cave, Tenebrous began to circle the shaft, only to come to a sudden halt when the drilling ceased.

“Why has it stopped?” he asked before Plagueis could.

The droid’s reply was immediate. “The Em-Two unit informs me that it has discovered a pocket of gas directly beneath the new borehole.” The droid paused, then added: “I’m sorry to report, sirs, that the gas is a highly combustible variant of lethane. The Em-Two unit predicts that the heat generated by its hydraulic jacks will ignite an explosion of significant magnitude.”

Suspicion crept into Tenebrous’s voice. “The original report made no mention of lethane.”

The droid pivoted to face him. “I know nothing of that, sir. But the Em-Two unit is quite insistent. What’s more, my own programming corroborates the fact that it is not unusual to find pockets of lethane in close proximity to cortosis ore.”

“Query the probe about excavating around the lethane pocket,” Plagueis said.

“The Em-Two unit recommends employing that very strategy, sir. Shall I order it to proceed?”

Plagueis looked at Tenebrous, who nodded.

“Task the probe to proceed,” Plagueis said. When the hammering recommenced, he fixed his gaze on the display screen to monitor the probe’s progress. “Tell the probe to stop,” he said after only a moment had elapsed.

“Why are you interfering?” Tenebrous said, storming forward.

Plagueis gestured to the display. “The map indicates a more massive concentration of lethane in the area where it’s drilling.”

“You’re correct, sir,” the droid said in what amounted to dismay. “I will order the unit to halt all activity.”

And yet the hammering continued.

“Droid,” Plagueis snapped, “did the probe acknowledge your order?”

“No, sir. The Em-Two is not responding.”

Tenebrous stiffened, narrowly avoiding slamming his head into one of the cave’s massive crystals. “Is it still within range?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then run a communications diagnostic.”

“I have, sir, and all systems are nominal. The unit’s inability to respond—” It fell briefly silent and began again. “The unit’s refusal to respond appears to be deliberate.”

“Deactivate it,” Tenebrous said. “At once.”

The hammering slowed and eventually ceased, but not for long.

“The Em-Two unit has overridden my command.”

“Impossible,” Tenebrous said.

“Clearly not, sir. In fact, it is highly probable that the unit is executing a deep-seated subroutine that escaped earlier notice.”

Plagueis glanced at Tenebrous. “Who procured the probe?”

“This isn’t the time for questions. The probe is about to breach the pocket.”

Hastening to the rim of the circular shaft, the two Sith removed their gloves and aimed their long-fingered unprotected hands into the inky darkness. Instantly tangles of blue electrical energy discharged from their fingertips, raining into the borehole. Strobing and clawing for the bottom, the vigorous bolts coruscated into the lateral corridor the probe had excavated. Crackling sounds spewed from the opening long after the Sith had harnessed their powers.

Then the repetitive strikes of the jackhammer began once more.

“It’s the ore,” Tenebrous said. “There’s too much resistance here.”

Plagueis knew what needed to be done. “I’ll go down,” he said, and was on the verge of leaping into the shaft when Tenebrous restrained him.

“This can wait. We’re returning to the grotto.”

Plagueis hesitated, then nodded. “As you say, Master.”

Tenebrous swung to the droid. “Continue your attempts to deactivate the unit.”

“I will, sir. To do that, however, I will need to remain here.”

“What of it?” Tenebrous said, cocking his head to one side.

“Should I fail in my efforts, the ensuing explosion will surely result in my destruction.”

Plagueis understood. “You’ve been useful, droid.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Tenebrous scowled. “You waste your breath.”

Nearly knocked over by the swiftness of Tenebrous’s departure, Plagueis had to call deeply on the Force merely to keep up. Retracing the inclined path they had taken from the grotto in which their starship waited, they fairly flew up the crystal-studded tunnel they had picked their way through earlier. Plagueis grasped that a powerful explosion was perhaps imminent, but was mystified by his Master’s almost mad dash for the surface. In the past Tenebrous had rarely evinced signs of discomfort, let alone fear; so what danger had he sensed that propelled him with such abandon? And when, in the past, had they fled danger of any sort? Safeguarded by the powers of the dark side, the Sith could hardly fear death when they were allied to it. Plagueis stretched out with his feelings in an attempt to identify the source of Tenebrous’s dread, but the Force was silent.

Ten meters ahead of him, the Bith had ducked under a scabrous outcropping. Haste, however, brought him upright too quickly and his left shoulder glanced off the rough rock, leaving a portion of his suit shredded.

“Master, allow me to lead,” Plagueis said when he reached Tenebrous. He was only slightly more agile than the Bith, but he had better night vision and a keener sense of direction, over and above what the Force imparted.

His pride wounded more than his shoulder, Tenebrous waved off the offer. “Be mindful of your place.” Regaining his balance and composure, he streaked off. But at a fork in the tunnel, he took the wrong turn.

“This way, Master,” Plagueis called from the other corridor, but he stopped to surrender the lead.

Closer to the surface the tunnels opened into caverns the size of cathedrals, smoothed and hollowed by rainwater that still surged in certain seasons of Bal’demnic’s long year. In pools of standing water darted various species of blind fish. Overhead, hawk-bats took panicked flight from their roosting places in the stippled ceiling. Natural light in the far distance prompted the two Sith to race for the grotto; but, even so, they were a moment late.

The gas explosion caught up with them just as they were entering the light-filled cavity at the top of the escarpment. From deep in the tunnel resounded a squealing electronic wail, and at the same time, almost as if the cave system were gasping for breath, a searing wind tore down from a perforation in the grotto’s arched ceiling through which the ship had entered. A muffled but ground-heaving detonation followed; then a roiling fireball that was the labyrinth’s scorching exhalation. Whirling to the tunnel they had just exited and managing somehow to remain on his feet, Tenebrous conjured a Force shield with his waving arms that met the fireball and contained it, thousands of flaming hawk-bats spiraling within the tumult like windblown embers.

A few meters away Plagueis, hurled face-first to the ground by the intensity of the vaporizing blast, lifted his head in time to see the underside of the domed ceiling begin to shed enormous slabs of rock. Directly below the plummeting slabs sat their starship.

“Master!” he said, scrambling to his feet with arms lifted in an attempt to hold the rocks in midair.

His own arms still raised in a Force-summoning posture, Tenebrous swung around to bolster Plagueis’s intent. Behind him, the fireball’s final flames surged from the mouth of the tunnel to lick his back and drive him deeper into the grotto.

The cave continued to spasm underfoot, sending shock waves through the crazed ceiling. Cracks spread like a web from the oculus, triggering collapses throughout the grotto. Plagueis heard a rending sound overhead and watched a fissure zigzag its way across the ceiling, sloughing layer after layer of stone as it followed the grotto’s curved wall.

Now, though, it was Tenebrous who was positioned beneath the fall.

And in that instant Plagueis perceived the danger Tenebrous had foreseen earlier: his death.

His death at Plagueis’s hands.

While Tenebrous was preoccupied holding aloft the slabs that threatened to crush the ship, Plagueis quickly reoriented himself, aiming his raised hands at the plummeting slabs above his Master and, with a downward motion of both arms, brought them down so quickly and with so much momentum that Tenebrous was buried almost before he understood what had hit him.

Stone dust eddying around him, Plagueis stood rooted in place as slabs interred the starship, as well. But he gave it no thought. His success in bringing the ceiling down on Tenebrous was proof enough that the Bith had grown sluggish and expendable. Otherwise, he would have divined the true source of the danger he had sensed, and Plagueis would be the one pressed to the floor of the grotto, head cracked open like an egg and chest cavity pierced by the pointed end of a fallen stalactite.

His race to Tenebrous’s side was informed as much by excitement as charade. “Master,” he said, genuflecting and removing his and Tenebrous’s respirators. His hands pawed at the stones, removing some of the crushing weight. But Tenebrous’s single lung was pierced, and blood gurgled in his throat. Ragged tears in the sleeves of the envirosuit revealed esoteric body markings and tattoos.

“Stop, apprentice,” Tenebrous strained to say. “You’re going to need all your strength.”

“I can bring help. There’s time—”

“I’m dying, Darth Plagueis. There’s time only for that.”

Plagueis held the Bith’s pained gaze. “I did all that I could, Master.”

Tenebrous interrupted him once more. “To be strong in the Force is one thing. But to believe oneself to be all-powerful is to invite catastrophe. Remember, that even in the ethereal realm we inhabit, the unforeseen can occur.” A stuttering cough silenced him for a moment. “Better this way, perhaps, than to perish at your hand.”

As Darth Bane would have wished, Plagueis thought. “Who supplied the mining probe, Master?”

“Subtext,” Tenebrous said in a weak voice. “Subtext Mining.”

Plagueis nodded. “I will avenge you.”

Tenebrous canted his huge head ever so slightly. “Will you?”

“Of course.”

If the Bith was convinced, he kept it to himself, and said instead: “You are fated to bring the Sith imperative to fruition, Plagueis. It falls to you to bring the Jedi Order to its knees and to save the rest of the galaxy’s sentients from themselves.”

At long last, Plagueis told himself, the mantle is conferred.

“But I need to warn you …,” Tenebrous started to say and fell abruptly silent.

Plagueis could sense the Bith’s highly evolved mind replaying recent events, calculating odds, reaching conclusions.

“Warn me about what, Master?”

Tenebrous’s black eyes shone with yellow light and his free hand clutched at the ring collar of Plagueis’s enviro-suit. “You!”

Plagueis pried the Bith’s thin hand from the fabric and grinned faintly. “Yes, Master, your death comes at my bidding. You said yourself that perpetuation with purpose is the way to victory, and so it is. Go to your grave knowing that you are last of the old order, the vaunted Rule of Two, and that the new order begins now and will for a thousand years remain in my control.”

Tenebrous coughed spittle and blood. “Then for the last time, I call you apprentice. And I applaud your skillful use of surprise and misdirection. Perhaps I was wrong to think you had no stomach for it.”

“The dark side guided me, Tenebrous. You sensed it, but your lack of faith in me clouded your thoughts.”

The Bith’s head bobbed in agreement. “Even before we came to Bal’demnic.”

“And yet we came.”

“Because we were fated to.” Tenebrous paused, then spoke with renewed urgency: “But wait! The ship—”

“Crushed, as you are.”

Tenebrous’s anger stabbed at Plagueis. “You’ve risked everything to undo me! The entire future of the Sith! My instincts about you prove correct, after all!”

Plagueis leaned away from him, nonchalant, but in fact filled with an icy fury. “I’ll find a way home, Tenebrous, as will you.” And with a chopping motion of his left hand, he broke the Bith’s neck.

Tenebrous was paralyzed and unconscious but not yet dead. Plagueis had no interest in saving him—even if it were possible—but he was interested in observing the behavior of the Bith’s midi-chlorians as life ebbed. The Jedi thought of the cellular organelles as symbionts, but to Plagueis midi-chlorians were interlopers, running interference for the Force and standing in the way of a being’s ability to contact the Force directly. Through years of experimentation and directed meditation, Plagueis had honed an ability to perceive the actions of midi-chlorians, though not yet the ability to manipulate them.

Manipulate them, say, to prolong Tenebrous’s life.

Looking at the Bith through the Force, he perceived that the midichlorians were already beginning to die out, as were the neurons that made up Tenebrous’s lofty brain and the muscle cells that powered his once-able heart. A common misconception held that midi-chlorians were Force-carrying particles, when in fact they functioned more as translators, interlocutors of the will of the Force. Plagueis considered his long-standing fascination with the organelles to be as natural as had been Tenebrous’s fixation on shaping the future. Where Bith intelligence was grounded in mathematics and computation, Muun intelligence was driven by a will to profit. As a Muun, Plagueis viewed his allegiance to the Force as an investment that could, with proper effort, be maximized to yield great returns. True, too, to Muun psychology and tradition, he had through the decades hoarded his successes, and never once taken Tenebrous into his confidence.

The Bith’s moribund midi-chlorians were winking out, like lights slowly deprived of a power source, and yet Plagueis could still perceive Tenebrous in the Force. One day he would succeed in imposing his will on the midi-chlorians to keep them aggregate. But such speculations were for another time. Just now Tenebrous and all he had been in life were beyond Plagueis’s reach.

He wondered if the Jedi were subsumed in similar fashion. Even in life, did midi-chlorians behave in a Jedi as they did in a devotee of the dark side? Were the organelles invigorated by different impulses, prompted into action by different desires? He had encountered many Jedi during his long life, but he had never made an attempt to study one in the same way he appraised Tenebrous now, out of concern for revealing the power of his alliance with the dark side. That, too, might have to change.

Tenebrous died while Plagueis observed.

In Bane’s age a Sith might have had to guard against an attempt at essence transfer by the deceased—a leap into the consciousness of the Sith who survived—but those times were long past and of no relevance; not since the teachings had been sabotaged, the technique lost. The last Sith possessed of the knowledge had been inexplicably drawn to the light side and killed, taking the secret process with him …


 

2: THE INNER LANDSCAPE

Plagueis wasn’t certain how long he remained at Tenebrous’s side. Long enough, though, that when he rose his legs were quivering and some of the dust from the explosion had settled. Only when he took a few backward steps did he realize that the event had not left him unscathed. At some point, probably when he was focused on murder, a rock or some other projectile had pulped a large area of his lower back, and now the thin tunic he wore beneath the enviro-suit was saturated with blood.

Despite the swirling dust, he inhaled deeply, eliciting a stab of pain from his rib cage and a cough that spewed blood into the hot air. Drawing on the Force, he numbed himself to the pain and tasked his body to limit the damage as best it could. When the injury ceased to preoccupy him, he surveyed the grotto, remaining anchored in place but turning a full circle. Littering the hard ground, injured hawk-bats were chirping in distress and clawing through circles of their own. Far above him, a beam of oblique and dust-moted daylight streamed through the dome’s large oculus—itself the result of an earlier collapse. Close to the jumble of stones the collapse had piled on the grotto floor sat Tenebrous’s small but priceless starship—a Rugess Nome design—alloy wings and snubbed nose poking from the artless mausoleum the explosion had fashioned. And finally, not meters away, lay Tenebrous, similarly interred.

Approaching the ship, Plagueis scanned the damage that had been inflicted on the deflector shield and navigation arrays, coolant ducts, sensors, and antennas. Tenebrous would surely have been able to effect repairs to some of the components, but Plagueis was out of his depth, lacking not only the Bith’s fine motor skills but his knowledge of the ship’s systems. Though unique, a marvel of engineering, the ship couldn’t be traced to Tenebrous, since both the registry and title were counterfeit. It was possible that the rescue beacon was still functional, but Plagueis was reluctant to activate it. They had arrived on Bal’demnic in stealth, and he intended to depart in like manner.

But how?

Again he squinted into the light pouring in through the oculus. Not even his power in the Force was enough to carry him from the floor and up through the grotto’s unblinking eye. Nothing short of a jetpack would do, and the ship didn’t carry one. His gaze drifted from the oculus to the grotto’s curving walls. He supposed he could spider his way along the arched underside of the dome and reach the eye, but now he saw a better way.

More, a way to accomplish two tasks at the same time.

From a spot mid-distance between the ship and rubble pile beneath the oculus, he immersed himself in the Force and, with gestures not unlike those he and Tenebrous had used in arresting the ceiling collapse, began to levitate slabs from the ship and add them to the rubble heap, stopping only when he had both exposed the hatch of the ship and was confident he could Force-leap through the oculus from atop the augmented pile.

When he tried springing the hatch, however, he found that it wouldn’t budge. He was ultimately able to gain entry to the cockpit by assailing the transparisteel canopy with a series of Force blows. Worming his way inside, he retrieved his travel bag, which contained a comlink, his lightsaber, and a change of clothes, among other items. He also took Tenebrous’s comlink and lightsaber, and made certain to erase the memory of the navicomputer. Once outside the ship, he peeled out of the enviro-suit and blood-soaked tunic, trading them for dark trousers, an overshirt, lightweight boots, and a hooded robe. Affixing both lightsabers to his belt, he activated the comlink and called up a map of Bal’demnic. With scant satellites in orbit, the planet had nothing in the way of a global positioning system, but the map told Plagueis all he needed to know about the immediate area.

He took a final look around. It wasn’t likely that an indigene would have reason to investigate the grotto, and it was even less likely that another interstellar visitor would find this place; even so, he spent a moment regarding the scene objectively.

A partially crushed but costly and salvage-worthy starship. The decomposed body of a Bith spacefarer. The aftermath of an explosive event …

The scene of an unfortunate accident in a galaxy brimming with them.

Satisfied, Plagueis leapt to the top of the pile, then through the roof into the remains of the day.

The radiant heat of Bal’demnic’s primary beat down on his exposed skin, and a persistent offshore wind tugged at the robe. West and south as far as his eyes could see was an expanse of azure ocean, curling white where it pounded the coastline. Rugged, denuded hills vanished into sea mist. Plagueis imagined a time when forest had blanketed the landscape, before the indigenous Kon’me had felled the trees for building materials and firewood. Now what vegetation survived was confined to the steep-sided gorges that separated the brown hills. A somber beauty. Perhaps, he thought, there was more to recommend the planet than deposits of cortosis ore.

A resident of Muunilinst for most of his adult life, Plagueis was no stranger to ocean worlds. But unlike most Muuns, he was also accustomed to remote, low-tech ones, having spent his childhood and adolescence on a host of similar planets and moons.

With that hemisphere of Bal’demnic rotating quickly into night, the wind was increasing in strength and the temperature was dropping. The map he had called up on the comlink showed that the planet’s primary spaceport was only a few hundred kilometers to the south. Tenebrous had intentionally skirted the port when they had made planetfall, coming in over the northern ice cap rather than over the sea. Plagueis calculated that he could cover the distance to the spaceport by evening of the following day, which would still give him a standard week in which to return to Muunilinst in time to host the Gathering on Sojourn. But he knew, too, that the route would take him through areas inhabited by both elite and plebeian Kon’me; so he resolved to travel at night to avoid contact with the noisome and xenophobic reptilian sapients. There was little point to leaving dead bodies in his wake.

Cinching the robe around his waist, he began to move, slowly at first, then gathering speed, until to any being watching he would have appeared a dazzling blur; an errant dust devil racing across the treeless terrain. He hadn’t run far before he chanced upon a rudimentary trail, impressed in places with the footprints of indigenes, and he paused to study them. Barefoot, lower-class Kon’me had left the prints, probably fisherfolk whose thatched-roof dwellings dotted the shoreline. Plagueis reckoned the size and weight of the reptilians responsible for the tracks, and estimated the time elapsed since they had passed. Drawing himself up, he scanned the dun hills, then sniffed the wind, wishing he were imbued with even a touch of Tenebrous’s olfactory acuity. Up ahead he was bound to encounter elite Kon’me as well, or at the very least their cliff-side dome dwellings.

Night fell as he resumed his pace. The ocean shone silver under starlight, and night-blooming flora scented the humid air with heady aromas. Predators of any size had been hunted to extinction on the northern island continents, but the deep gorges were home to countless varieties of voracious insects that set upon him in clouds as he picked his way through the dense underbrush. Lowering his body temperature and slowing his breathing to alter the mixture of gases in his exhalations did little to dissuade the insects, so after a while he ceased all attempts at warding them off and surrendered to their thirst for blood, which they drew freely from his face, neck, and hands.

Let them devour the old Plagueis, he thought.

In the dark wood of that remote world, with a salted wind whistling through the trees and a distant sound of waves like drumming, he would take flight from the underworld in which the Sith had dwelled. Awakened from a millennium of purposeful sleep, the power of the dark side would be reborn, and he, Plagueis, would carry the long-forged plan to completion.

Through the night he ran, sheltering inside a shallow cave while the morning mist was evanescing from the hollows. Even that early the blue-scaled indigenes were about, appearing from their huts to cast nets into the crashing surf or paddle boats to stretches of reef or nearby islets. The best of their catch would be carried into the hills to stuff the bellies of the wealthy, with whom rested responsibility for Bal’demnic’s political and economic future. Their guttural voices stole into the cave that fit Plagueis like a tomb, and he could understand some of the words they exchanged.

He chased sleep, but it eluded him, and he deplored the fact that he still had need for it. Tenebrous had never slept, but then few Bith did.

Awake in the oppressive heat, he replayed the events of the previous day, still somewhat astounded by what he had done. The Force had whispered to him: Your moment has come. Claim your stake to the dark side. Act now and be done with this. But the Force had only advised; it had neither dictated his actions nor guided his hands. That had been his doing alone. He knew from his travels with and without Tenebrous that he wasn’t the galaxy’s sole practitioner of the dark side—nor Sith for that matter, since the galaxy was rife with pretenders—but he was now the only Sith Lord descended from the Bane line. A true Sith, and that realization roused the raw power coiled inside him.

And yet …

When he reached out with the Force he could detect the presence of something or some being of near-equal power. Was it the dark side itself, or merely a vestige of his uncertainty? He had read the legends of Bane; how he had been hounded by the lingering presences of those he had defeated in order to rid the Sith Order of infighting, and return the Order to a genuine hegemony by instating the Rule of Two: a Master to embody power; an apprentice to crave it. To hear it told, Bane had even been hounded by the spirits of generations-dead Sith Lords whose tombs and manses he had desecrated in his fervent search for holocrons and other ancient devices offering wisdom and guidance.

Was Tenebrous’s spirit the source of the power he sensed? Was there a brief period of survival after death during which a true Sith could continue to influence the world of the living?

It was as if the mass of the galaxy had descended on him. A lesser being might have heaved his shoulders, but Plagueis, wedged into his clandestine tomb, felt as weightless as he would have in deep space.

He would outlive any who challenged him.

*   *   *

Hours later, when the voices had faded and the insects’ feeding frenzy had started anew, pain roused Plagueis from tortured slumber. The tunic was adhered to his swollen flesh like a pressure bandage, but blood had seeped from the wound and soaked through to the robe.

Slipping silently into the night, he limped until he had suppressed the pain, then began to run, beads of perspiration evaporating from his hairless head and the dark robe unfurling behind him like a banner. Famished, he considered raiding one of the local homes and feasting on the eggs of some low-caste Kon’me, or perhaps on the blood of her and her mate. But he reined in his impulses to strike terror, his appetite for destruction, sating himself instead on bats and the rotting remains of fish the waves had washed ashore. Hurrying along the black sand beach, he passed within meters of dwellings built from blocks of fossilized reefstone, but he glimpsed only one indigene, who, on leaving his hut naked to relieve himself, reacted as if he had seen an apparition. Or else in hilarity at the figure Plagueis must have cut in robe and boots. On the cliffs high above the beach, artificial lights glimmered, announcing the homes of the elite and the proximity of the spaceport, whose ambient glow illuminated a broad area of the southern littoral.

His destination close at hand, each incoming ocean wave reverberated inside him, summoning an unprecedented tide of dark energy. The knotted tendrils of time loosened and he had a glimpse into Bal’demnic’s future. Embroiled in a multifronted war, a galactic war, in part because of its rich deposits of cortosis, but more as a pawn in a convoluted game, the subservient Kon’me turned against those who had mastered them for eons …

Lost in reverie, Plagueis almost failed to notice that a massive breakwater now followed the curve of the beach. Stone jetties jutted into a broad, calm bay, and behind the wall a city climbed into a surround of deforested foothills. Kon’me of both classes were about, but interspersed among them were offworlders of many species, most from neighboring star systems but some from as distant as the Core. The spaceport formed the city’s southernmost outskirts, made up of clusters of modular buildings, prefabricated warehouses and hangars, illuminated landing areas for cargo and passenger ships. To a being unfamiliar with isolated worlds, a tour through the spaceport would have seemed closer to time travel, but Plagueis felt at home among the cubicle hotels, dimly lighted tapcafs, and squalid cantinas, where entertainment was costly and life was cheap. Raising the cowl of the robe over his head, he kept to the shadows, his height alone enough to draw attention. With security lax he was able to circulate among the grounded vessels without difficulty. He ignored the smaller, intersystem ships in favor of long-haul freighters, and even then only those that appeared to be in good condition. Muunilinst was several hyperspace jumps distant, and only a ship with adequate jump capability could deliver him there without too much delay.

After an hour of searching he found one to his liking. A product of Core engineering, the freighter had to be half a century old, but it had been well maintained and retrofitted with modern sensor suites and subspace drives. That it bore no legend suggested that the ship’s captain wasn’t interested in having the ship make a name for itself. Longer than it was wide, LS-447-3 had a narrow fantail, an undermount cockpit, and broad cargo bay doors, which permitted it to take on large freight. With the registry number stored in his comlink, Plagueis angled his way to the spaceport authority building. At that time of night the dilapidated structure was all but deserted, save for two thick-necked Kon’me guards who were sleeping on duty. Loosening the robe’s sash to provide ready access to his lightsabers, Plagueis eased past them and disappeared through the main doors. Faint light from unoccupied offices spilled into the dark hallways. On the second floor he found the registrar’s office, which overlooked the largest of the landing zones and the silent bay beyond.

A comp that had been an antique twenty years earlier sat atop a desk in a smaller private office. Plagueis placed his comlink alongside the machine and an instant later had sliced into the spaceport control network. A search for the freighter revealed that it did indeed go by a name—the Woebegone—out of Ord Mantell. Scheduled to launch the following morning, the ship with her crew of eight, including one droid, was bound for several worlds in the Auril sector, carrying cargos of fresh sea life. According to the manifest, the cargo had already cleared customs and was housed in a refrigerated hangar awaiting transfer to the ship. The good news was that the Woebegone’s ultimate destination was Ithor, on the far side of the Hydian Way. A side trip to Muunilinst, therefore, might not strike the crew as too great a detour.

Plagueis called up an image of the freighter’s captain, whose name was given as Ellin Lah. Opening himself fully to the Force, he studied the image for a long moment; then, exhaling slowly, he stood, erased all evidence of his technological intrusions, and returned the comlink to his robe’s inner pocket.

The Woebegone had been waiting for him.


 

3: WOEBEGONE

Plagueis’s instincts about Bal’demnic were correct. The planet’s rugged beauty was of a sort that appealed to the hedonistic side of human nature and would one day draw the wealthiest of that species to bask in the warm light of its primary, toe its pristine sands, swim in its animated waters, and dine on the toothsome fish that filled its vast oceans. But in those days, humans were still relatively scarce in that part of the Outer Rim, and most visitors to Bal’demnic hailed from Hutt space or the far reaches of the Perlemian Trade Route. And so Captain Ellin Lah was Togruta, and her first mate, a Zabrak named Maa Kaap. The Woebegone’s pilot was a Balosar; her navigator, a Dresselian; and her three crew members Klatooinian, Kaleesh, and an Aqualish, of the Quara race. “Near-humans” all, to use the term favored at that time in the Core, where chauvinism had been raised to an art form. The only nonsentient was a bipedal, multi-appendaged droid called “OneOne-FourDee”, after its model number.

Bal’demnic was but one of their planetary haunts. As often as not they could be spotted on Vestral, Sikkem IV, or Carlix’s Folly. But all were similar in that Captain Lah and her shipmates rarely saw anything more of the planets than what lay within a radius of five kilometers from the principal spaceports, and their contact with indigenes was limited to spaceport functionaries, merchants, information brokers, and those in the pleasure professions.

Theirs was a precarious business, at a time when pirates plied the intersystem trade routes, hyperspace beacons were few and far between, and a lapse in judgment could result in disaster. The cost of fuel was exorbitant, corrupt customs officials had to be bribed, and import–export taxes were subject to change without notice. Delays meant that cargoes of foodstuffs could lose the freshness that made them desirable, or worse yet spoil altogether. Dangers were manifold and the earnings were meager. You had to love the work, or perhaps be on the run—from the law, yourself, or whoever else.

As a consequence of having imbibed too much local grog and gambled away too many hard-earned credits—and perhaps as atonement for so much carousing—concerns about the coming trip had bobbed to the surface of Captain Lah’s mind like an inflated balloon held under water, then released.

“No oversights this run,” she was warning the crew in a gentle way, as they made their way across the landing zone to their waiting ship.

The fact that she had used the same euphemism Blir’ had to minimize the impact of the near catastrophe he had caused made all of them laugh—except the Balosar, who lowered his head in mock shame, his twin antenepalps deepening in color.

“We take your meaning, Captain,” Maa Kaap said. “No inopportune omissions—”

“Ineradicable errors,” the Kaleesh, PePe Rossh, interjected.

“Dumbass mistakes,” Doo Zuto completed, his close-set, inward-curving tusks in need of a thorough scaling.

The captain allowed them a moment of merriment.

“I’m serious,” she said as they approached the Woebegone’s lowered boarding ramp. “I’ll say it again: this ship operates as a democracy. I’m your captain because knowing who’s good at what is just something I have a talent for.” She looked at Blir’. “Do I ever tell you how to pilot?” Then at Semasalli. “Do I ever question your decision about jump points?”

“No, Captain,” the two said, as if by rote.

“So I’m simply speaking as a member of what should be a competent team, and not as a commander.” She blew out her breath in a way that shook her trio of striped head-tails. “Either we turn a profit on this run, or we think about going to the Hutts for another loan.”

Even Wandau, who had had more dealings with various Hutts than anyone else, bemoaned the mere prospect.

“That’s right,” Lah told the tall Klatooinian. “And don’t any of you fool yourself into thinking that we can float an honest loan. Because no bank worth its assets is going to accept the Woebegone as collateral.”

Maa Kaap and Blir’ traded quick glances before the Zabrak said, “Excuse me for saying so, Captain, but you didn’t seem particularly concerned about credits last night—”

“Watch what you say,” Lah told her first mate, barely restraining a smile.

“I thought you were ready to give that young thing the ship,” PePe said, joining the tease.

Lah waved a hand in dismissal. “I was just toying with him.”

Toy being the operative word,” Maa Kaap said. “Since he was young enough to still play with them.”

The captain planted her hands on her hips. “I can be convincing when I want to be.”

“Oh, that you were,” Zuto said, reigniting a chorus of laughter that accompanied them into the Woebegone’s main cabin space, where 11-4D was waiting.

“Everything in order?” Lah asked the droid.

The droid raised three of its appendages in an approximation of a salute. “Shipshape, Captain.”

“All the cargo is aboard and accounted for?”

“Aboard and accounted for, Captain.”

“You checked the thermo readouts?”

“In each bay, Captain.”

She returned a satisfied nod. “Well, all right then.”

The shipmates split up, each with duties to perform. Blir’ and Semasalli to the cockpit; Zuto, Wandau, and PePe to check that the cargo had been properly stowed; Maa Kaap and 11-4D to seal the ship; and Captain Lah to get clearance from Bal’demnic spaceport control.

Without fanfare the ship left the warm world behind and jumped from cold ether into the netherworld of hyperspace. Lah was still seated at the communications console when Blir’ radioed her from the cockpit.

“We need your input on something.”

“Since when?” she said.

“Seriously.”

She headed forward, and had no sooner ducked into the cockpit than Semasalli indicated a flashing telltale on the ship’s status display suite. A small metal plate below the telltale read: CARGO BAY 4 AMBIENT.

“Too hot or too cold?” Lah asked the Dresselian.

“Too cold.”

Lah flicked her forefinger against the telltale, but it continued to flash. “Funny, that usually works.” She studied Semasalli’s frown. “What do you think?”

He sniffed and ran a hand over a hairless, deeply fissured head that mirrored the appearance of the convoluted brain it contained. “Well, it could be the bay thermostat.”

“Or?”

“Or one of the shipping containers could have opened?”

“By itself?”

“Maybe during the jump,” Blir’ said from the pilot’s chair.

“Okay, so we go check it out.” She glanced from Blir’ to Semasalli and shook her head in ignorance. “What aren’t you telling me?”

Blir’ answered for the two of them. “Remember the Zabrak that Maa was talking to in the cantina?”

“Which cantina?” Lah said; then added: “No, I remember him. He was looking for a lift.”

Semasalli nodded. “He’d been booted from his last freighter. He didn’t say why, but Maa thought he smelled trouble, and said we couldn’t take him aboard.”

Lah followed the clues they were giving her and nodded. “You’re thinking we have a stowaway.”

“Just a thought,” the Dresselian said.

“Which is why you wanted to check with me before going aft.”

“Exactly.”

Lah’s face grew almost as wrinkled as Semasalli’s. “The ship would have told us if anyone had tampered with the anti-intrusion sys.”

“Unless he came in with the cargo?” Blir’ said.

“You mean inside one of the containers?”

Blir’ nodded.

“Then he’d be stiff as an icicle by now.” Lah turned to Semasalli. “Does bay four have a vid feed?”

“On screen,” Semasalli said, swiveling his chair to face the status displays.

Lah put her palms flat on the console and leaned toward the screen while the Dresselian brought up grainy views of the cargo bay. Finally the remote cam found what they were looking for: an opened shipping container, wreathed by clouds of coolant, with its cargo of costly meat-fins already defrosting.

“Spawn of a—” Lah started when the next view of the cargo bay stunned her into slack-jawed silence.

Blir’ blinked repeatedly before asking, “Is that what I think it is?”

Lah swallowed hard and found her voice. “Well, it sure isn’t the Zabrak.”

Plagueis was seated atop one of the smaller shipping containers when the hatch began to cycle. Fully awake since the Woebegone’s jump to hyperspace, he had sat still for the various scans the crew had run, and now lowered the hood of the lightweight and bloodied robe. When the hatch slid to, he found himself confronted by the ship’s Togruta female captain, along with a muscular male Zabrak; a mottled Klatooinian as tall as a normal Muun; an Aqualish of the two-eyed variety; and a scarlet-hued, scaly-skinned Kaleesh, whose face resembled those of the bats Plagueis had consumed on Bal’demnic, and who was emitting an olio of potent pheromones. All five carried blasters, but only the Klatooinian’s was primed for fire and leveled at Plagueis.

“You’re not listed on the shipping manifest, stranger,” Captain Lah said as she stepped into the bay, breath clouds emerging with the words.

Plagueis spread his hands in an innocent gesture. “I confess to being a stowaway, Captain.”

Lah approached guardedly, motioning to the open container a few meters away. “How did you survive in there?”

Plagueis mimicked the wave of her hand. “Those sea creatures make a comfortable bed.”

The Zabrak surged forward, his stippled cranium furrowed in anger. “Those creatures are how we make our living, Muun. And right now they’re not worth a karking credit.”

Plagueis locked eyes with him. “I apologize for spoiling some of your cargo.”

“The coolant,” Lah said more harshly. “How did you survive that?”

“We Muuns have three hearts,” Plagueis said, crossing one leg over the other. “Two of them are under voluntary control, so I was able to keep my blood circulating and my body temperature close to normal.”

Standing by the open container, the Quara said, “Speaking of blood, you’re leaking some.”

Plagueis saw that some of the sea creatures were coated with congealed blood. “The result of an unfortunate accident. But thank you for noticing.”

Lah shifted her gaze from the container to Plagueis. “We have a medical droid. I’ll have it take a look at your injury.”

“That’s very kind of you, Captain.”

“You’re a long way from the Braxant Run,” the Kaleesh said. “And probably the last species we’d expect to find stowing away in a cargo container.”

Plagueis nodded in agreement. “I can well imagine.”

“Kon’meas Spaceport has passenger flights to Bimmisaari,” the Zabrak added. “You couldn’t wait, or you’re out of credits?”

“To be honest, I wished to avoid the common spaceways.”

Lah and the Zabrak traded dubious looks. “Are you a fugitive?” she asked. “Wanted?”

Plagueis shook his head. “I do, however, value my privacy.”

“Well you might,” the Quara said. “But you have to admit—” He motioned to the bloody sea creatures. “—this undermines your credibility some.”

“What brought you to Bal’demnic, Muun?” the Klatooinian asked before Plagueis could speak.

“I’m not at liberty to divulge the nature of my activities.”

“Banking Clan investments,” the Klatooinian said with a sneer. “Or lawyering. That’s all the Muuns do, Captain.”

Lah appraised Plagueis. “Is he right?”

Plagueis shrugged. “Not all of us are bankers or lawyers. No more than all Togrutas are pacifists.”

“Be better for you if you were a financial wizard,” the Zabrak said, “to avoid being jettisoned from our ship.”

Plagueis kept his eyes on Lah. “Captain, I appreciate that you and your crew have many questions about me. But perhaps for the sake of simplicity, the two of us could speak privately for a moment.” When she hesitated, he added: “Strictly in the interest of facilitating an agreement.”

Lah glanced at everyone, then set her jaw and nodded. “I won’t be long,” she told the Zabrak as he was exiting the bay. “But keep us on vid anyway.”

The Zabrak shot Plagueis a gimlet stare as he spoke. “If you are long, we’ll be returning soon enough.”

Plagueis waited until he and Lah were alone. “Thank you, Captain.”

She scowled. “Enough of the polite jabber. Who are you, and why didn’t you leave Bal’demnic aboard whatever craft brought you there?”

Plagueis loosed an elaborate sigh. “Before we go into any of that, suppose we assess the present situation squarely. I’ve stowed away aboard your vessel in the hope of arranging quick passage to Muunilinst.” Speaking in Basic, Plagueis pronounced the word with the second n silent. “Fortunately for both of us, I’m in a position to reward you handsomely for transport—and of course I’ll cover the cost of whatever precious cargo I’ve ruined. You need only quote a reasonable price and the deal can be concluded. I assure you, Captain, that I am a Muun of my word.”

Her eyes narrowed in misgiving. “Leaving aside your identity for the moment—you know, the important things—your onward passage is a matter I’ll have to take up with the crew.”

Plagueis blinked in genuine confusion. “I’m not sure I understand. You are the Woebegone’s captain, are you not?”

“We’re equals aboard this ship,” Lah said. “I don’t make any major decisions without at least hearing everyone out—whether those decisions involve the cargo we transport or where we deliver it. And while you’re trying to make up your mind whether I’m noble or simply foolish, let me add that I don’t care what you think of the arrangement. As you said: it’s the situation.”

Plagueis smiled without showing his teeth. “In that case, Captain, I await the results of the summit.”

Lah relaxed somewhat. “You’re going to have to sit tight in the meantime.”

Plagueis took the conditions in stride. “Take as much time as needed. The closer we get to Ithor, the closer I am to home.”

The words stopped her cold. “How do you know we’re bound for Ithor?”

“The same way I know that your name is Ellin Lah.” Delighting in her confusion, Plagueis said: “I’m not a telepath, Captain Lah. After I selected your ship from among those on the field, I sliced into Bal’demnic’s spaceport network.”

She tilted her head in a mix of interest and unease. “Why the Woebegone, then?”

Plagueis sniffed. “I don’t gamble, Captain, unless I know that the odds of winning are on my side.”

She snorted. “That’s not gambling.”

In the main cabin space, 11-4D had been monitoring the conversation of the crew members since their return from cargo bay 4. The closest thing the Woebegone had to an actual medical specialist, the droid was responsible for the care and health of the crew, and so it had grown accustomed to eavesdropping on conversations whenever and wherever possible. Having created individual profiles based on heartbeat and breathing rates, body temperature and language, facial expression and vocalization, the droid understood that the discovery of a Muun intruder aboard the ship had significantly elevated Maa Kaap’s stress level.

“When have you ever known a Muun to do that?” the Zabrak was saying.

“When have you ever known a Muun, period?” Wandau asked in kind.

“All right, then, when have you ever heard about a Muun doing that?”

Before Maa Kaap or anyone else could respond, the captain entered the cabin space, clearly confounded though doing her best to disguise it. 11-4D noted increased blood flow in her head-tails, which were themselves sensory organs, and a change in her pigmentation—a Togruta response to nervous tension that sometimes prompted involuntary mimetic camouflage.

“So,” Maa Kaap said, coming to his feet.

The crew members listened intently as Captain Lah summarized the short exchange she’d had with the Muun stowaway, who had refused to provide any personal details, not even his name. Nor had he offered explanation for his presence on Bal’demnic, or divulged the reason behind his wanting to depart in haste. Most important, he had revealed nothing about the cause or nature of his injury. Instead he had fixed on arranging a deal for passage to Muunilinst, a world on the distant Braxant Run and corporate headquarters of the InterGalactic Banking Clan.

“What’s your gut telling you about him, Captain?” PePe asked, his pointed ears twitching in curiosity.

Captain Lah glanced back at the corridor that led to cargo bay 4. “He’s as slick as they come and used to getting his way. But either we take him back to Bal’demnic—and put our cargo at risk—or we drop him at our first stop and make him someone else’s problem.”

“Or we just jettison him now,” Wandau said.

Lah shook her head. “We don’t know he didn’t tell someone on Bal’demnic that he was stowing away. And if he did, his disappearance could put us in serious muck.”

“What’s it going be, then?” Maa Kaap pressed.

Lah made her lips a thin line. “I think we should get him off our hands as soon as possible.”

Wandau and Zuto exchanged glances. “You don’t want to even discuss coming up with a price for passage?”

“I’ve never been on the Braxant Run,” Lah said. “Have any of you?”

Heads shook.

“Is he willing to cover the cost of the spoiled cargo?” PePe asked.

“He said he would.”

“Then maybe we take him to Ithor,” the Kaleesh went on. “If he proves to be a cooperative passenger, we could consider taking him all the way to Muunilinst. Certainly wouldn’t hurt to get familiar with that corner of space.”

“I don’t know …” Lah took her lower lip between her teeth.

“I’ll go one step further,” Zuto said, leading with his whiskered snout. “I mean, this Muun could be a jackpot that’s fallen right into our laps. Weren’t you just saying that no bank would ever grant us a loan against the Woebegone? Well, Muunilinst is the bank, and this Muun can provide all the collateral we’ll ever need.”

“Our reward for years of leading clean lives,” PePe added.

Lah regarded the two of them. “Meaning what? We hold him for ransom?”

Zuto drew in his tusks and shrugged. “We don’t have to call it that.”

“Forget it,” Lah said. “We’ve never done that—well, once, maybe—but we’re not about to do it again.”

“I agree,” Maa Kaap said.

Wandau’s head bobbed. “Same.”

PePe withdrew somewhat. “Okay, so I was just thinking out loud.”

“There’s something else,” Maa Kaap said. Raising his big hand, he beckoned to 11-4D. “Tell the captain what you were telling us.”

The droid moved to where the crew members were gathered and swiveled its round head toward Lah. “Captain, I merely pointed out that Muuns are not known to travel unaccompanied without ample reasons for doing so. In fact, most Muuns are reluctant to leave Muunilinst for any purpose other than to transact business negotiations.”

“That’s exactly what I was saying about collateral,” PePe interrupted. “There has to be some financial reason for his being on Bal’demnic—some major deal in the works we might be able to get in on. A construction project, maybe.”

“Let FourDee finish,” Maa Kaap said.

Lah looked at the droid. “Go ahead.”

“It has yet to be determined just what the Muun was involved in. Suppose, however, that the nature of his business is going to impact Bal’demnic in a negative way. Should word spread that the crew of the Woebegone lent their support to the Muun’s illegal departure, then what might become of the ship’s reputation in the Auril sector? You may wish to include the worth of that in your calculations regarding an arrangement for onward passage.”

Maa Kaap folded his arms across his barrel chest. “Is our stowaway going to offer to set each of us up for life, in case our services are no longer wanted in this sector?”

“What about what the Muuns can do to us if we don’t take him,” Zuto said. “They’ve got a reach as long as a galactic arm.”

Wandau laughed without mirth. “What are they going to do—downgrade our portfolios? Freeze our assets? Ruin our credit rating? Our only assets are this ship and our reputation for doing what we say we’re going to do.”

“Mostly,” Maa Kaap said quietly.

PePe slapped his hands on his thighs. “Goes back to what I said about asking for a lot more than what he might see as a fair price. These Banking Clan types hold on to every credit. But we’ve got ourselves a live Muun, and no matter who he is or what he’s pretending to be, I guarantee you he’s worth more than ten years of dealing in meattails and octopods.”

Maa Kaap broke the short silence. “Captain?”

“I’m not swayed by any of this,” she said after a moment. “I want him off our hands.”

A look of puzzlement tugged at Zuto’s features. “You think he’s dangerous?”

PePe ridiculed the idea. “Muuns are cowards, the lot of them. They use credits as weapons.”

Lah took a long breath. “You asked for my gut reaction. That’s what I’m giving you.”

“I’ve an idea,” Maa Kaap said. “A kind of compromise. We drop out of hyperspace and comm the authorities on Bal’demnic. If this Muun’s wanted, for whatever reason, we return him, cargo or no. If not, we decide on a figure for taking him to Ithor, and no farther.” He looked at Lah. “Are you willing to take that deal to him? Captain?”

Lah responded as if her words had just caught up with her thoughts. “All right. That sounds reasonable.” But she remained seated.

“Do you, uh, want backup?” Wandau asked after another long moment had passed.

“No, no,” she said, finally getting to her feet.

I’m the captain, 11-4D could almost hear her remind herself. Focusing its photoreceptors, it observed her right hand move discreetly to the blaster holstered on her hip. And with a flick of her thumb, she primed the weapon for fire.

*   *   *

“We’re going to have to keep you on ice for a bit longer,” Lah said when she entered the cargo bay. Plagueis hadn’t moved from the container that served as his seat, but his robe was parted and his hands rested on the tops of his knees.

“Does that mean you failed to reach a consensus?”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Lah said. “We’ve decided we need to know who you are before we agree to provide you with passage. And since you seem reluctant to tell us, we’re going to check with Bal’demnic.”

Plagueis made his eyes dull with disappointment. “Captain, I’ve told you all you really need to know.”

The Woebegone lurched slightly. “We’re dropping out of hyperspace,” Lah said.

In his mind Plagueis heard Darth Tenebrous say: To we who dwell in the Force, normal life is little more than pretense. Our only actions of significance are those we undertake in service to the dark side.

“I can’t permit this, Captain,” he told her.

Her expression hardened. “I’m afraid you’ll have to.”

He had been aware from the start of the conversation that her blaster was primed, and now her hand reached for it. Sharp canines glinted in her slightly open mouth. Had he truly believed that a deal could be arranged with the Woebegone’s hot-tempered and immature crew members? Their fates had been sealed from the instant Plagueis had glimpsed the ship on the landing field. The possibility of reaching any other conclusion was fictional. From that first moment, all of them had been locked into an inevitable series of events. The Force had brought them together, into conflict. Even Lah must have sensed as much.

Plagueis said: “Don’t, Captain.”

But by then the warning was nothing more than words.


 

4: THE MEANING OF DEATH

The Woebegone had just reverted to realspace when 11-4D’s audio sensors registered unusual sounds from aft: an activation click, a prolonged hiss of energy, a dopplering slash, a stuttering exhalation of breath. The sounds were followed by a sudden outpouring of heat from the corridor that accessed the cargo bays and what might have been interpreted as a gust of wind. Only by adjusting the input rate of its photoreceptors was the droid able to identify the blur that raced into the cabin space as a male Muun dressed in a hooded robe, trousers, and softboots that reached his shins.

Maa Kaap, PePe, Wandau, and Zuto turned in unison as the Muun came to a momentum-defying stop a few meters from where the four of them were seated. Clenched in his right hand was a crimson-bladed energy device the droid’s data bank recognized as a lightsaber—a weapon used almost exclusively by members of the Jedi Order. And yet the recognition prompted a moment of bewilderment. The Jedi were known to be guardians of peace and enforcers of justice, but the Muun’s comportment—the set of his long limbs, the feral working of his jutting jaw, the yellow blaze in his eyes—suggested anything but peace. As for justice, 11-4D couldn’t retrieve a single instance of the four crew members having performed an offense that warranted capital punishment.

The humming lightsaber dangling from his left hand, the Muun remained silent, letting his posture speak for his nefarious intent. In turn the crew members, realizing that they were being wrongly accused, clambered to their feet, reaching at the same time for the weapons strapped to their hips and thighs. That the Muun permitted them to do so furnished 11-4D with yet another mystery—at least until it realized that the Muun was merely courting combat.

The droid wondered what Captain Lah could possibly have said or done to arouse so much wrath in the Muun. It replayed the memory of her priming the blaster. Had she decided that the problems the Muun presented for the Woebegone could best be solved by killing him, only to have misjudged him entirely? Regardless, it was apparent that the Muun believed the entire ship complicit in Captain Lah’s actions, and had decided to take it upon himself to mete out retribution of the cruelest sort. 11-4D assumed that this would include him, and instantly initiated a series of redundant routines that would back up and store data, in order to provide a record of what was about to occur.

The face-off tableau in the cabinspace had endured for only a moment when Wandau, who had served as a bodyguard for a celebrated Hutt, leapt into action, drawing and firing his blaster even as he raced for cover behind one of the bulkheads. A split second behind, Maa Kaap raised his weapon and fired a continuous hail of blaster bolts at the Muun. In the same instant Zuto and PePe, crouched low to the deck, sprang forward in an attempt to outflank their opponent and place him at the center of a deadly crossfire.

From the passageway that led to the cockpit came the rapid footfalls of the pilot, Blir’, and the ship’s Dresselian navigator, Semasalli. 11-4D knew that they had been monitoring cam feeds of the cargo bay, and thought it likely that they had witnessed whatever sentence the Muun had levied on Captain Lah.

The Muun’s reaction to the barrage of bolts that converged on him required almost more processing power than the droid had at its disposal. By employing a combination of body movements, lightsaber, and naked right hand, the agile sentient evaded, deflected, or returned every shot that targeted him. Slowly surrendering energy, the bolts caromed from the deck and bulkheads, touching off alarms, prompting a switch to emergency illumination, and unleashing cascades of fire-suppressant foam from the ceiling aerosols. No sooner had the Balosar and the Dresselian entered the cabinspace than hatches sealed the corridors, preventing any escape from the melee. Only 11-4D’s ability to calculate trajectories and react instantaneously to danger kept it from being on the receiving end of any of the numerous ricochets.

Spying Blir’ and Semasalli, the Muun hurled the lightsaber in a spinning arc that took off the Balosar’s antenepalps and scalp and most of the wrinkled Dresselian’s left shoulder, misting the already agitated air with teal-colored blood. As alarms continued to wail and foam continued to gush, Blir’ folded and fell face-first to the slickened deck, while Semasalli, screeching in pain, collapsed to one side, reaching futilely for his severed arm with the other.

The lightsaber had scarcely left the Muun’s grip when Wandau flew from cover to bring the attack to the Muun, triggering his blaster as ceaselessly as Maa Kaap was still doing. This time, though, the Muun merely stretched out his right hand and absorbed the bolts. Traveling up the length of his arm and across his narrow chest, the energy seemed to fountain from the hand awaiting the return of the spinning weapon as a tangle of blue electricity that hissed from his tapered fingers, catching Wandau full-on and lifting him to the ceiling of the hold before dropping him to the puddled deck in a heap, as if his bones had turned to dust.

In strobing red light, Maa Kaap’s eyes tracked the rise and fall of his broken comrade. His blaster depleted, the Zabrak drew a vibroblade from a belt sheath and launched himself at the Muun, his large right hand intent on fastening itself onto the Muun’s spindly neck.

The Muun caught the lightsaber, but instead of bringing it to bear against Maa Kaap, he danced and twirled out of reach of the vibroblade and commenced parrying the Zabrak’s martial kicks and punches, until a side-kick to the thorax drove Maa Kaap clear across the cabin and slamming into the bulkhead. OneOne-FourDee’s audio pickups registered the snap of the Zabrak’s spine and the bursting of pulmonary arteries.

Now Zuto and PePe dived at the Muun from both sides and actually managed to get a hold on him. But it was as if the Muun had turned to stone. The Kaleesh and the Quara attacked with teeth and claws, but to no perceptible effect. And when the Muun had had enough of it, he positioned the lightsaber directly in front of him and gyred in their grasp, taking off PePe’s tusked face and Zuto’s blunt, whiskered snout. OneOne-FourDee’s olfactory sensors detected an outpouring of pheromones that signaled the death of the Kaleesh. Zuto, on the other hand—though gurgling blood and moaning in pain—could perhaps be saved if treated in time.

Straightening out of a wide-legged stance, the Muun deactivated the lightsaber and scanned the beings he had killed and those he had maimed with chilling exactitude. His yellow eyes fell on 11-4D, but only for an instant; then he fixed the lightsaber to his belt and went quickly to his nearest victim, who happened to be Doo Zuto. Dropping to one knee alongside him, the Muun gazed intently at the Quara’s twitching body, but precisely at what the droid couldn’t surmise. Zuto’s bulging marine eyes seemed to implore his assailant for help, but the Muun did nothing to stanch the flow of blood or offer palliative aid.

He remained by the Quara’s side for a few moments, then moved quickly to Maa Kaap, from whose crushed chest cavity blood bubbled with each shallow breath. Again, the Muun ran his eyes over his victim, from Maa Kaap’s tattooed face to his large feet. Eyes closed, the Muun adopted a posture that suggested intense concentration or meditation, and Maa Kaap snapped back to panic-stricken consciousness. OneOne-FourDee tuned in to the Zabrak’s pulse and found it regular—but only for a moment. Then the rhythm of Maa Kaap’s heartbeat grew ragged and breaths began to stutter from his lungs.

Soon he was dead.

The Muun appeared to be frustrated, and his disappointment increased on finding that Blir’ was deceased, as well. He spent only moments appraising Semasalli before going to Wandau, who was conscious though obviously paralyzed from the waist down.

“You dishonor your heritage and your weapon, Jedi,” Wandau managed to say. “You could have used … the Force to compel us to do as you wished. I’ve not only seen that, but experienced it.”

The Muun’s face contorted in distaste. “If you’ve so little will,” he said in the tongue of Wandau’s species, “then you’re of no use to me, Klatooinian.” And ended Wandau’s misery with a click of his thumb and middle finger.

Gradually the spray from the ceiling abated and the klaxons fell silent. His examinations completed, the Muun stood and turned slowly to the droid.

“What name do you respond to?”

“OneOne-FourDee, sir.”

“Can you pilot this ship, OneOne-FourDee?”

“I can, sir.” The droid paused, then asked: “Do you wish me to relocate the survivors to medbay or jettison any of the corpses?”

The Muun surveyed his handiwork. “Leave them.” He shrugged out of his sodden robe and hung it over a chair, revealing a second lightsaber affixed to his belt. “Captain Lah remarked that you have medical capabilities.”

“I do, sir.”

Turning his back to 11-4D, the Muun stripped his bloodstained tunic from his distended lower back. “Are you capable of repairing this?”

The droid sharpened the focus of its photoreceptors and olfactory sensors. “The wound shows signs of infection and putrefaction, sir, but, yes, I can repair it.”

The Muun lowered the tunic and retrieved a comlink from a pocket in the robe. Activating the device, he spent a moment inputting data, then turned the display so that 11-4D could read it. “Set a course for these coordinates, then attend to me in the captain’s quarters.”

“Anything else, sir?”

“Prepare food and drink. I’m famished.”

With the Woebegone traveling through hyperspace, Plagueis lay prone on the captain’s bunk, a bacta patch covering the wound on his back, contemplating the results of his attempts to prolong the lives of those crew members who had survived the altercation. Even where he had been successful in effecting repairs to damaged blood vessels and organs, the results had been temporary, as he had not been able to influence or appeal to the midi-chlorians to assist. Calling on the Force to mend ruptured arteries, torn muscle, or broken bone was no more difficult than levitating slabs of stone. But such refurbishments had little effect on a being’s etheric shell, which was essentially the domain of the midi-chlorians, despite their physical presence in living cells.

Among the ship’s crew, the Togruta, Captain Lah, had been the strongest in the Force, but she was beyond his help by the time he reached her. Had it not been for sloppiness on his part, owing to fatigue and blood loss, and lightning-fast reflexes on hers, the lightsaber might simply have pierced her neck and cervical spinal cord. But she had spun at the moment of impact, and the crimson blade had all but decapitated her. The Zabrak, too, had a slightly higher-than-normal midi-chlorian count, but not high enough to make him Force-sensitive. How different it had been to observe the behavior of the Zabrak’s midi-chlorians compared with those of Darth Tenebrous, only two days earlier!

The Jedi routinely performed blood tests to verify the midi-chlorian counts of prospective trainees, but Plagueis had passed beyond the need for such crude measurements. He could not only sense the strength of the Force in another but also perceive the midi-chlorians that individualized Forceful beings. It was that dark side ability that had allowed generations of Sith to locate and initiate recruits. The dispersal of midi-chlorians at the moment of physical death was, for lack of a better term, inexorable. Analogous to his fated confrontation with the Woebegone crew, the moment of death appeared to be somehow fixed in space and time. According to his Sith education, since Captain Lah and the others had been in some sense dead from the moment Plagueis’s gaze had alighted on the freighter, it followed that the midi-chlorians that resided in alleged symbiosis with them must have been preparing to be subsumed into the reservoir of life energy that was the Force long before Plagueis had stowed away. His attempts to save them—to prolong that state of symbiosis—were comparable to using a sponge to dam a raging river. And yet the Sith Lords of old were said to have been able to draw on the energies released during death to extend their own lives, as well as the lives of others. Unfortunately, much like the technique of essence transfer, that ancient knowledge had been lost.

Feeling the ship revert to realspace, Plagueis rose from the bunk, dressed, and walked forward, stepping over the corpses sprawled in the main cabin, the deck plates awash in fire-suppressant fluid and blackening pools of blood, and through passageways reeking of death. One of the crew members, the now one-armed Dresselian, was still alive but comatose.

In the ship’s undermount cockpit the droid stood motionless at the control console. Beyond the transparisteel viewport myriad stars hung in space.

“Sir, we are approaching the coordinates supplied by your comlink,” the droid said without turning from the view.

Plagueis settled into the pilot’s chair, which barely accommodated his long body. “How do you come to be aboard the Woebegone, droid?”

“Formerly I served the needs of a medical facility on Obroa-skai.”

“In what capacity?”

“Research, in addition to performing a wide range of surgeries on beings of diverse species.”

Plagueis regarded the droid. “Thus, your many appendages.”

“Yes, sir. But the ones I wear currently were retrofitted when I became the property of Captain Lah, so that I might better serve the needs of the Woebegone.

“And how did you become the captain’s property?”

“I believe, sir, that I was awarded to Captain Lah in place of payments due for the receipt of certain merchandise. It is also my belief that the exchange was meant to be temporary—”

“But Captain Lah decided to keep you.”

“Yes, sir. She decided to keep me. I’m sorry to say that I am at a loss to explain her reasons, and I never presumed to ask.”

Plagueis nodded. “That’s a good quality in a droid.”

“I understand how it could be, sir.”

“Tell me, droid, what is the possible consequence of low theloxin levels in a Pau’an?”

OneOne-FourDee didn’t hesitate. “One possible consequence would be an elevation of the oxidation rate, leading to the growth of an exophthalmic goiter, which in turn would affect the production of roaamin from the anterior lobes of the lutiaary gland.”

“And?”

“One result might be giantism, well beyond the Pau’an norm.”

“If so?”

“The connecting ganglia making up the autonomic nervous system and controlling glandular secretion might induce an acceleration of the circular sphincter muscles of the digestive tract, resulting in xerophthalmia.”

“So you are a diagnostician, as well.”

“In a minor capacity, sir.”

Beyond the viewport, growing larger against the backdrop of a behemoth ringed planet, a space station turned in fixed orbit near a heavily cratered moon. A hodgepodge of interconnected domed modules, the station featured two long, boxy arms to which ships of varying size were tethered. Plagueis called data to the display screen of his comlink and placed it in view of 11-4D.

“Transmit this code over the comm.”

The droid performed the task and waited at the comm while the cockpit enunciators crackled to life.

“Unidentified freighter, Deep Space Demo and Removal is in reception of your request. Give us a moment to authenticate your transmission.”

“Holding fast while you authenticate,” Plagueis said.

“Freighter, you are cleared for docking,” the voice returned a moment later.

“My ship,” Plagueis said, leaning forward to take hold of the yoke.

As a precaution, the station directed them to a berth at the distal end of the larger of the two arms.

“You will accompany me into the landing bay,” Plagueis told the droid when he had shut the ship down. “Raise the boarding ramp behind us and activate the anti-intrusion system. No one is to board the Woebegone unless I say otherwise.”

“I understand, sir.”

Waiting in the gloomy landing bay were a female Nikto and a russet-colored young male Dug, backed by a motley contingent of armed beings. Lowering the cowl of his robe as he approached, Plagueis saw the Nikto stiffen and signal those behind her to leave the area immediately.

“Magister Damask,” she began in Basic, “I had no foreknowledge—”

Plagueis cut her off. “This isn’t a social call.”

“Of course, Magister. Regardless, do you wish me to apprise Boss Cabra of your visit?”

“Is he on station?”

“No, sir. But he can be reached by comm.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Plagueis said. “I’ll contact him myself.”

“As you wish, Magister. What services can the station provide?”

Plagueis gestured in an offhanded way to the berthed freighter. “This ship is to be sealed and slagged.”

“Without salvaging anything?” the Dug said.

Plagueis looked at him. “I said sealed and slagged. Do you need to hear it a third time?”

The Dug bared his teeth. “Do you know who you’re talking to, Muun?”

Plagueis cut his eyes to the Nikto. “Who is this callow pup?”

“Pup?” the Dug repeated before the Nikto could intervene.

“Boss Cabra’s youngest progeny, Magister,” she said quickly, restraining the Dug with her extended left arm. “He means no disrespect.”

Plagueis regarded the Dug again. “What are you called, pup?”

The Dug’s rear legs were tensed for a leap, but the Nikto whirled rapidly, slapping him across his flewed and broad-nostriled snout and clamping a hand on his windpipe.

“Answer him!” she bellowed into his snarling face. “And with due respect!”

The Dug relented and whimpered, though certainly more out of humiliation than pain. “Darnada,” he squeaked at last.

“Darnada,” Plagueis repeated before addressing the Nikto. “Perhaps young Darnada should be muzzled to prevent him from endangering his father’s business relationships.”

“His brashness reflects his inexperience, Magister,” the Nikto said in abject apology. She gave Darnada a menacing glance before continuing. “Trust that your orders regarding the ship will be honored in full, Magister.”

“I will also need a change of wardrobe and a fueled, piloted ship.”

“Can we provide the pilot with a destination beforehand?”

“Muunilinst.”

“Of course, Magister. And what are your instructions regarding the droid?”

“Instructions?”

“Is the droid to be slagged along with the ship?”

Plagueis looked over his shoulder at 11-4D. “How much of your memory can be wiped without tampering with your medical protocols?”

“I’m modular in design,” the droid said. “My memory storage can be erased in its entirety or according to whatever parameters you establish.”

Plagueis considered that. “Remain with the ship until it has been liquefied. I will expect a complete audio-vid recording.”

OneOne-FourDee raised its right-side appendages in a gesture of acknowledgment. “At your service, Magister Damask.”


 

5: HOMECOMING

Those fortunate enough to have visited Muunilinst in the decades preceding the Clone Wars often remarked that the planet had been blessed with the most beautiful skies in the galaxy. To maintain that pristine blue realm—to prevent it from being sullied by drop ships, shuttles, or landing craft—the Muuns had erected the most costly skyhook of its kind anywhere outside the Core. As efficient as it was luxurious, the skyhook, known affectionately as the Financial Funnel, linked the orbital city of High Port with the planetary capital, Harnaidan, which functioned as the nerve center of the InterGalactic Banking Clan. While the stately tower seemed to speak to the Muuns’ high regard for aesthetics and ecology, its true purpose was to keep visitors from setting foot on Muunilinst, thereby safeguarding the planet’s wealth of resources and keeping secret the lavish lifestyles of those who had ascended to the top of the food chain.

From its remote corner of the Outer Rim, Muunilinst exerted its influence across all of known space and halfway to the galaxy’s nearest satellite star cluster. Dating back to the founding of the Republic, the Banking Clan had funded governments, supported settlements, and bankrolled countless commerce guilds, trade corporations, and shipping cartels. In a very real sense, the IBC dictated the ebb and flow of wealth from the Core to the Outer Rim. Scarcely a building was raised on Coruscant without the Banking Clan’s approval; scarcely a starship left the yards at Kuat or Bilbringi or Fondor without the IBC having brokered the deal; and scarcely an election occurred on Corellia or Commenor without the Muuns having been consulted.

The Muuns accomplished all these things with a meticulous serenity that belied the frenzied workings of their mathematical minds. Save for when it came to collecting on overdue debts, the Muuns, on first acquaintance, appeared to be a stolid and lenient species, if somewhat arrogant, with an ascetic nature that was in full keeping with their willowy bodies and was reflected in the simple but harmonious architecture of their cities.

As pale as the Muuns themselves, High Port Space Center incorporated the design elements they favored most: domed interiors, arch-topped windows, fluted columns, and unadorned friezes and entablatures. Among these faux-stone building blocks large groups of Muuns maneuvered and mingled with unhurried if single-minded purpose, maintaining a conversational clamor that struck some visitors as reminiscent of the spoken language of thinking machines. Attending them were droids of all variety, and guest workers from the nearby worlds of Bescane, Jaemus, Entralla, and others. On any given day a visitor might spy envoys from Yagai, Gravlex Med, or Kalee, along with Hutts of the Drixo or Progga kin. But what one saw most, in overwhelming numbers, were members of the Banking Clan—financiers, accountants, lawyers—dressed in their signatory Palo fiduciary garb: formfitting green trousers and boots, round-collared green tunics, and flare-shouldered green cloaks. Some were accompanied by retinues of squat, dark-skinned, flat-nosed soldiers from the planet Iotra, sporting garish body armor and carrying ceremonial weapons.

That day, cutting through the verdant sea like some predatory sea creature came a wedge-shaped cluster of Muuns dressed in black cloaks and skullcaps, guarded by a contingent of towheaded Echani warriors whose silver eyes darted vigilantly, and whose metallic bodysuits masked the translucency of their skin. At the leading edge of the wedge marched an elder Muun with a whiskered chin and stooped shoulders, who was making directly for High Port’s customs control station, where Hego Damask—as Plagueis was known to everyone but the late Darth Tenebrous—and 11-4D were waiting, amid a contingent of security personnel.

“We came as soon as High Port Immigration notified us,” Larsh Hill said. “If you had contacted us from Deep Space Demolition, we could have sent a ship, rather than have you rely on Boss Cabra’s specious hospitality.”

“No one seems to believe that I’m capable of finding my own way home,” Damask said.

Hill’s long face wrinkled. “I don’t understand.”

“It’s not important that you do. Suffice it to say that your dispatching a ship would only have resulted in further delay.” Like Hill and his coterie of half a dozen, Damask’s hairless head was encased in a tight-fitting bonnet, and the hem of his black cloak swept the polished floor.

“You were expected days ago,” Hill said, with a note of exasperation.

“Events of an unforeseen nature prevented me from returning earlier.”

“A successful journey, nevertheless, I assume.”

“You assume correctly.”

Hill relaxed somewhat. “We shouldn’t tarry here any longer than necessary. Transport is waiting.”

At Hill’s gesture, the black-cloaked Muuns began to angle toward the skyhook turbolifts, four of the silver-suited warriors falling in to flank Damask and the droid, which walked behind him.

“You’re limping,” Hill said in hushed urgency. “Are you injured?”

“Healing,” Damask said. “Make no further mention of it.”

“We could postpone the Gathering—”

“No. It will take place as scheduled.”

“I’m relieved to hear that,” Hill said, “since several of your guests are already in transit to Sojourn.”

The group was halfway to the turbolifts when a faction of Banking Clan officials deliberately cut across their path, forcing them to halt. The faction’s obvious leader, a Muun of middle age, separated himself from the rest and moved to the front.

“Magister Damask,” he said. “What a surprise to encounter you here, among the rabble.”

Damask adopted a faint grin. “Excluding yourself, of course, Chairman Tonith.”

Tonith stiffened. “We’re simply passing through.”

“As are we,” Damask said, motioning to Hill and the rest.

“You’ve been traveling, Magister?”

“A business trip, Chairman.”

“Of course.” It was Tonith’s turn to show a weak smile. “But in that case perhaps you haven’t heard that the Senate is on the verge of creating additional free-trade zones in the Outer Rim Territories. Despite what I understand were considerable efforts on your part to the contrary, the shipping cartels face the danger of being broken, and even if not, will certainly have to deal with fierce competition from start-up companies. Both Core and Outer Rim worlds should benefit greatly from the arrangement, wouldn’t you agree?”

Damask inclined his head in a bow of acknowledgment. “I hadn’t heard, Magister. Whom can we thank for swaying the liberals to adopt the amendment?”

“Among others, the Jedi Order lobbied successfully.”

“Then it must be for the best.”

“One would think,” Tonith said slowly. “Save for the fact that, in exchange, the Trade Federation will now enjoy full voting privileges in the Senate.”

“Ah, well. Appeasements of one sort or another always figure into Senate affairs.”

Tonith leaned slightly toward Damask. “Thank you, however, for suggesting that we invest in Outer Rim and trans-Perlemian shipping. The results provided a windfall.”

“Where and when I can be of service, Chairman.”

Tonith straightened. “Your clan father would be proud.”

Damask looked Tonith in the eye. “I take that as a compliment.”

“How else would I mean it, Magister?”

When the Banking Clan members had moved off and Damask’s group was back in motion, Damask glanced at Hill. “Someday we will topple the Toniths from their lofty perch.”

Hill smiled with his eyes. “I hope I’m alive to see that day. And just so you know, Hego, your father would be proud. Chairman Tonith’s sarcasm notwithstanding.”

“You would know better than most.”

Having arrived at the skyhook turbolifts, Hill was motioning everyone but himself and Damask into a separate lift when Damask said, “The droid will ride with us.”

Hill appraised 11-4D as the three of them entered the turbolift. “A new acquisition?”

“A door prize of sorts,” Damask said.

Hill didn’t pursue it. “You’ll be going to your residence or to Aborah?”

“Directly to the island. The droid will accompany me.”

“I’ll make the necessary arrangements.”

Damask lowered his voice to ask, “Are we secure in here?”

“Completely.”

Damask turned to face the taller, elder Muun. “Rugess Nome is dead.”

“The Bith?” Hill said in astonishment. “How? Where?”

“Of no relevance,” Damask said, remembering. “Eventually Nome’s estate will pass to us, but that won’t be for some time to come, since it’s unlikely that his body will ever be found.”

Hill didn’t bother asking for details. “We’ll allow a standard year to pass. Then we’ll petition the probate courts to render a decision—at the very least for whatever assets are contractually ours. You are the executor, in any case, are you not?”

Damask nodded. “Ultimately we’ll be liquidating most of the estate. But there are several … antiques of a curious sort I plan to retain. I’ll prepare an inventory. In the meantime I want you to familiarize yourself with a world called Bal’demnic. Once you have, you’re to acquire mining rights for the entire northeast peninsula of the principal landmass. Purchase as much property as you can, from the shoreline to the central highlands. I’ll provide you with specific coordinates.”

Uncertainty tugged at Hill’s strong features. “Are we venturing into the mining business now?”

“When the time is right. Use intermediaries who can’t be traced to us. I suspect that you will have to go all the way to the top to secure what we need. The indigenes will be troublesome to negotiate with, but I’m confident they can be persuaded. Bargain like you mean it, but in the end spare no expense.”

“Bal’demnic is that important?”

“A hunch,” Damask said.

Descending rapidly, the skyhook turbolift pierced layers of pure white clouds, revealing a curved panorama of aquamarine ocean, pale brown plains, and evergreen forest. And directly below, the view that was said to take one’s breath away: the city of Harnaidan, studded with Neo-Classical structures as towering as the volcanic spires that ringed it, and home to fifty million Muuns, living in an urbanscape that was an orderly masterpiece of art and design. To some, it was the antithesis of most planetary capitals: the anti-Coruscant; the anti-Denon.

“What can we expect at the Gathering?” Damask asked, turning away from the view.

“Gardulla has requested an audience.”

“I’m not in the habit of sitting down with Hutts.”

“She asks your help in mediating a dispute.”

“With whom?”

“The Desilijic clan.”

Damask nodded knowingly. “This has been brewing for some time. What else?”

“Representatives from Yinchorr will be there.”

“Good. Holotransmissions have their limitations.”

“Members of the Trade Federation and the Gran Protectorate will also be attending.”

Damask snorted. “There’s no pleasing any of them.” He grew pensive, then said: “There’s another small matter we need to settle. Extend a personal invitation to the owners of Subtext Mining.”

Hill rubbed his whiskered chin. “I can’t recall having engaged in dealings with them. Does this have anything to do with Bal’demnic?”

Damask ignored the question. “For a time they advised Nome. Make certain they understand that we operate in complete confidentiality.”

“If the Bith partnered with them, they must come highly recommended.”

“One would think.” Damask turned his back to Hill to take in the view once more. “But, in fact, I don’t see much future for them.”

Unlike so many worlds that had been surveyed and settled by species from the Core, Muunilinst had given rise to its own brand of sentients. Farmers and fisherfolk, the ancient Muuns hadn’t known how favored their planet was until interstellar travel had become commonplace, and precious metals the backbone of the galactic economy. Had those early millennia of expansion not been a time of peace, the Muuns might have lost what they had to military might; but as it happened they had resisted all attempts at exploitation and become masters of their fate. Still, what was an economic blessing eventually became a burden. Once the Muuns understood the value of what they had previously taken for granted, they held on to their riches with a ferocious tenacity, and developed an almost agoraphobic attachment to their homeworld.

In the midst of Muunilinst’s shallow oceans, the same volcanic activity that had fertilized the vast plains belched new seabed and precious metals enough to fuel the growth of empires. Mountains heaped up through vents in the planetary crust were found to be repositories of extraordinary wealth. Lapped by warm waters teeming with shellfish, tubeworms, and bioluminescent flora, such “smokers,” as they were known, became both the source and the financial vaults of Muunilinst’s most powerful and prosperous clans.

More remote than some, Aborah, which had been the province of the Damask clan for several generations, was otherwise typical of the dormant smokers whose thickly forested conical peaks poked from the calm waters of the Western Sea. A maze of interconnected lava tubes ran deep into the mountain island; waterfalls plunged from the sheer heights; and incense trees scented the salty air of the lowland valleys. Conveyed by speeder to Aborah’s north tower complex, Plagueis escorted 11-4D on a tour of the corridors and caverns that constituted his place of sacrosanct solitude.

Motioning to the many droids that were on hand to welcome the pair to Aborah, Plagueis said: “You will come to find yourself at home here, as I have.”

“I’m certain I will, Magister Damask,” 11-4D said, its photoreceptors registering a dozen different types of droids in a single glance. Memo droids, GNK power droids, even a prototype Ubrikkian surgical droid.

“In time we’ll see to having your original appendages restored so that you can earn your keep.”

“I look forward to it, Magister.”

The tour began in the outermost rooms, which were appointed with furnishings and objects of art of the highest quality, gathered from all sectors of the galaxy. But Plagueis was neither as acquisitive as a Neimoidian nor as ostentatious as a Hutt; and so the ornamented chambers quickly gave way to data-gathering rooms crowded with audio-vid receivers and HoloNet projectors; and then to galleries filled to overflowing with ancient documents and tomes, recorded on media ranging from tree trunk parchment through flimsiplast to storage crystal and holocron. The Muuns were said to abhor literature and to loathe keeping records of anything other than loan notices, actuarial tables, and legal writs, and yet Plagueis was guardian of the one of the finest libraries to be found anywhere outside Obroa-skai or the Jedi Temple on Coruscant. Here, neatly arranged and cataloged and stored in climate-controlled cases, was a collection of treatises and commentaries accumulated over centuries by the Sith and their often unwitting agents. Ancient histories of the Rakata and the Vjun; texts devoted to the Followers of Palawa, the Chatos Academy, and the Order of Dai Bendu; archives that had once belonged to House Malreaux; annals of the Sorcerers of Tund and of Queen Amanoa of Onderon; biological studies of the ysalimiri and vornskrs of Myrkr, and of the taozin of Va’art. Certain long-lived species, like the Wookiees, Hutts, Falleen, and Toydarians, were afforded galleries of their own.

Deeper in the mountain were laboratories where Plagueis’s real work took place. Confined to cages, stasis fields, bioreactors, and bacta tanks were life-forms brought to Muunilinst from across the galaxy—many from the galaxy’s most remote worlds. Some were creatures of instinct, and others were semisentient. Some were immediately recognizable to 11-4D; others resembled creatures concocted from borrowed parts. Some were newly birthed or hatched, and some looked as if they were being kept at death’s door. More than a few were the subjects of ongoing experiments in what seemed to be vivisection or interbreeding, and others were clearly in suspended animation. OneOne-FourDee noted that many of the animals wore remotes that linked them to biometric monitoring machines, while others were in the direct care of specialist droids. Elsewhere in the hollow of the mountain were sealed enclosures warmed by artificial light, aswirl with mixtures of rarefied gases and luxuriant with flora. And deeper still were test centers crammed with complex machines and glass-fronted cooling units devoted to the storage of chemical compounds, alkaloids derived from both plants and animals, blood and tissue samples, and bodily organs from a host of species.

Plagueis instructed 11-4D to wander about the galleries and laboratories on his own, and then report back to him.

Hours later the droid returned to say: “I recognize that you are involved in research related to species durability and hybridization. But I must confess to being unfamiliar with many of the examples of fauna and flora you have amassed, and few of the arcane documents in your library. Is the data available for upload?”

“Some portion of it,” Plagueis said. “The remainder will have to be scanned.”

“Then the task will require standard years, Magister.”

“I’m aware of that. While there is some urgency, we are in no rush.”

“I understand, sir. Is there specific data you wish me to assimilate first?”

From the breast pocket of his cloak, Plagueis withdrew a storage crystal. “Start with this. It is a history of the Sith.”

OneOne-FourDee took a moment to search its memory. “I have multiple listings under that heading. One defines the Sith as an ancient sect devoted to the study of the Force. Similar to the Jedi, but guided by different principles.”

“That’s close enough for now,” Plagueis said.

“Magister Damask, if I may be so bold as to inquire: what is our eventual goal?”

“The goal is to extend my life indefinitely. To conquer death.”

The droid fixed Plagueis in its photoreceptors. “I have access to data on alleged ‘elixirs of life’ and ‘fountains of youth,’ Magister. But all living things ultimately die, do they not?”

“At present, OneOne-FourDee.”

The droid thought harder about it. “I have experience in organ replacement surgery, telomere genotherapy, and carbonite suspension. But nothing beyond that.”

Plagueis’s smooth upper lip curled. “Then you’ve merely scratched the surface.”

*   *   *

With 11-4D deep in processing mode, Plagueis withdrew a vial of his own blood and subjected it to analysis. Despite the recent amplification of his powers he sensed that his midi-chlorian count had not increased since the events on Bal’demnic, and the analysis of the blood sample confirmed his suspicions. Research had long ago established that blood transfusions from Force-sensitive individuals did not confer Force powers to recipients, though blood with a high midi-chlorian count could grant temporary strength and resiliency. Experiments in absolute transfusion had gone horribly awry for recipients, suggesting to some that the Force exacted a toll on those who attempted to tamper with it. An individual’s midi-chlorians seemed to know to whom they belonged and become unresponsive outside their dedicated vessel.

While midi-chlorians appeared to resist manipulation of a sort that might imperil the balance of the Force, they remained passive, even compliant, in the case of a weak-willed being manipulated by one who was strong in the Force. Perhaps that explained why it was often easier to call on the Force to heal someone other than oneself. Extending life, then, could hinge on something as simple as being able to induce midi-chlorians to create new cells; to subdivide at will, increasing their numbers into the tens of thousands to heal or replace damaged, aging, or metastatic cells. Midi-chlorians had to be compelled to serve the needs of the body; to bestow strength when needed; to overcome physical insult, or prevent cells from reaching senescence.

If one accepted the tales handed down in accounts and holocrons, the ancient Sith had known how to accomplish this. But had Sith like Naga Sadow and Exar Kun genuinely been more powerful, or had they benefited from the fact that the dark side had been more prominent in those bygone eras? Some commentators claimed that the ability to survive death had been limited to those with a talent for sorcery and alchemy, and that the use of such practices actually predated the arrival of the Dark Jedi exiles on Korriban. But sorcery had been employed less to extend life than to create illusions, fashion beasts, and resurrect the dead. Powerful adepts were said to have been able to saturate the atmosphere of planets with dark side energy, compel stars to explode, or induce paralysis in crowds, as Exar Kun apparently did to select members of the Republic Senate. Other adepts used sorcery merely as a means to better understand ancient Sith spells and sigils.

Darth Bane had referred to sorcery as one of the purest expressions of the dark side of the Force, and yet he hadn’t been able to harness those energies with near the skill as had his onetime apprentice Zannah. Bane’s disciples, however, believed that he had experimented with a technique of even greater significance: that of essence transfer, which he had learned after acquiring and plundering the holocron of Darth Andeddu, and which involved the relocation of an individual’s consciousness into another body or, in some cases, a talisman, temple, or sarcophagus. Thus had the most powerful of the ancient Sith Lords survived death to haunt and harass those who would infiltrate their tombs.

But none of this amounted to corporeal survival.

Plagueis had no interest in being a lingering, disembodied presence, trapped between worlds and powerless to affect the material realm except through the actions of weak-minded beings he could goad, coax, or will into action. Nor did he seek to shunt his mind into the body of another, whether an apprentice, as Bane was thought to have attempted, or some vat-grown clone. Nothing less than the immortality of his body and mind would suffice.

Everlasting life.

Sadly he could glean only so much from the texts, crystals, and holocrons stored in the library. Crucial knowledge had been lost during the brief mastery of Darth Gravid, and many of the most important elements of Sith training since had been passed from Masters to apprentices in sessions that had been left unrecorded. More to the point, Darth Tenebrous had had very little to say regarding death.

Alone in one of the test centers, surrounded by his experiments—these things Plagueis could say he loved—the enormity of what had occurred on Bal’demnic suddenly rose up before him like a monolith of immeasurable proportions. For the first time he could feel the Force of the dark side not as a mere supporting wind, fluffing the sails of a pleasure boat, but as a hurricane eager to loose a storm of destruction on the crumbling Republic and the indolent Jedi Order. A scouring storm that would lay waste to everything antiquated and corrupt, and pave the way for a new order in which the Sith would be returned to their rightful place as the stewards of the galaxy, and before whom all the diverse species would bow, not only in obeisance and fear, but in gratitude for having been drawn back from the brink.

The task before him was at once invigorating and daunting, and in the eye of that cycloning storm he could hear the faraway voices of all those who had laid the goundwork of the Sith imperative—the Grand Plan; those who had enlivened the hurricane with their breath and lives: Darths Bane and Zannah, and on down through the generations that had included Cognus, Vectivus, Ramage, and Tenebrous. One hundred years earlier, Tenebrous’s Twi’lek Master had opened a small rend in the fabric of the Force, allowing the dark side to be felt by the Jedi Order for the first time in more than eight hundred years. That had been the inauguration, the commencement of the revenge of the Sith. And now the time had come to enlarge that rend into a gaping hole, a gaping wound, into which the Republic and the Jedi Order would to their own hazard be drawn.


 

6: THE HUNTERS’ MOON

An afternoon breeze carried the scent of fresh blood. Shrieks of agony and death pierced tendrils of mist snagged by the gnarled branches of greel trees. The reports of weapons—old and new, projectile and energy—reverberated from the escarpment that walled the ancient fortress to the west, behind which the system’s primary was just now disappearing. As if some fantastic statuary perched atop a place of worship, Magister Hego Damask stood on the uppermost rampart, his black cloak fluttering, attuned to the sounds of slaughter. And to the clamor of parties of beings returning from their separate hunts, blood of whatever color and consistency stirred by primal violence, voices lifted in ancient song or throaty chant, the gutted carcasses of their prey strapped to antigrav litters, ready for roasting over bonfires that blazed in the fort’s central courtyard, or for preservation by skilled taxidermists. Veermok, nexu, mongworst; krayt dragon, acklay, reek. Whatever their preference.

A nod to the planet that had birthed it, the moon was known as Sojourn, a name whispered by those who knew it slightly, and even by those who had visited repeatedly over the centuries. The system could be found in the registries, but only if one knew where to look, and how to decipher the data that revealed its location.

Here, once every standard year, Damask and the dozen Muuns who made up Damask Holdings hosted a gathering of influential beings from across the galaxy. Their names might be known to a few, but they were largely invisible to the masses and could move among them unrecognized, though they were responsible—in no small measure—for events that shaped galactic history. They were conveyed to Sojourn in secret, aboard ships designed by Rugess Nome and owned by Hego Damask. None came without an invitation, for to do so was to risk immediate destruction. What they shared, to a being, was Damask’s belief that financial profit mattered more than notoriety, politics, or vulgar morality.

Founded generations earlier by members of the InterGalactic Banking Clan, Sojourn had begun as a place of relaxation for the clan’s wealthiest clientele. A perquisite for those of exalted privilege. Later, under the management of the elder Damask—Hego’s biological father—on his retirement from chairmanship of the IBC, the moon had become something else: a place where only the most important players were brought together to exchange ideas. It was on Sojourn that the galactic credit standard had been established; the chancellorship of Eixes Valorum first proposed; the makeup of the Trade Federation Directorate reorganized. Then, under Hego Damask, Sojourn became something else again. No longer a resort or think tank, but an experiment in bolder thinking, in social alchemy. A place to plot and strategize and wrench the course of galactic history from the hands of happenstance. Where once Iotran Brandsmen had provided security, Damask’s contingent of silver-suited Echani Sun Guards now held sway. At great expense, scarlet-wood greel tree saplings had been smuggled from Pii III and planted in Sojourn’s modified soil. The forests had been stocked with cloned game and exotic creatures; the ancient fort transformed into a kind of lodge, with Damask’s very important guests residing in purposefully crude shelters, with names like Nest, Cave, Hideaway, and Escarpment. All to encourage a like-mindedness that would end in partnerships of an unusual sort.

Damask remained on the rampart while the light waned and darkness crept over the forested landscape. In the grand courtyard below, the bonfire flames leapt higher and the odors of charred meat hung thickly in the air. Wines and other intoxicants flowed freely; Twi’lek and Theelin females entertained; and the crowd grew rowdy. Each hunting party was required to display and butcher its prizes; to get limbs and other appendages wet with blood. Not all beings were meat eaters, but even those who subsisted on grains and other crops were drawn into the debauchery. At midnight the guiding principles of the Republic would be mocked in skits, and prominent Senators—save for those present—would be subjected to ridicule. That Sith ceremonies and symbols had been incorporated into the ceremonies and the architecture of the fortress was Damask’s secret alone.

Sensing the arrival of Larsh Hill and two other Muuns, he swung from the parapet view.

“The Hutt has been waiting since starfall,” Hill said.

“The price of meeting with me,” Damask said.

Hill gave him a long-suffering look. “If she didn’t know as much, she would be long gone.”

The Magister tailed the trio down a long flight of stone steps and into a yawning reception area warmed by colorful rugs, tapestries, and a grand fire. Gardulla Besadii the Elder, crime lord and notorious gambler, floated in on a palanquin appropriate to her great size, attended by an entourage that included her Rodian majordomo, bodyguards, and others. Damask’s own guards were quick to usher everyone but the Hutt back into the waiting room. Larsh Hill and the two other dark-cloaked Muuns remained at Damask’s side.

Curled upright on her powerful tail, Gardulla extended her bare, stubby arms toward the fire. “I’ve been admiring your entertainers, Magister,” she said. “Particularly the Theelin singers. Perhaps you could help me procure some.”

“We’ve a Twi’lek who supplies the females,” Damask said from his armchair. “You’ll have to speak with her.”

Gardulla noted the sharp tone in his voice. “On to business then.”

Damask offered a gesture of apology. “A busy schedule affords me scant time for pleasantries.”

Unaccustomed to straight talk, the Hutt frowned, then said, “I plan to make a grab for Tatooine, Magister, and I’ve come to solicit your support.”

“An arid world in the Arkanis sector of the Outer Rim,” Hill supplied quietly from behind the armchair.

“By support, I presume we are talking about credits,” Damask said.

Gardulla repositioned herself on the litter. “I’m aware that you disapprove of spice and slavery, but there are profits to be made on Tatooine by other means.”

“Not moisture farming, then.”

Gardulla glowered. “You mock me.”

Damask motioned negligently. “I tease you, Gardulla. I know little about Tatooine, other than that the planet was heir to an ecological catastrophe in the dim past, and that its vast deserts now support a population of ne’er-do-wells, scoundrels, and hapless spacers of all species. I’ve heard it said that nothing pans out on Tatooine, and that beings who reside there age prematurely.”

Damask knew, too, that the ancient Sith had once had an outpost on Tatooine, but he kept that to himself.

“Fortunately, longevity comes naturally to my species,” Gardulla said. “But I don’t want for enemies of a different sort, Magister. Enemies who would like nothing more than to see me in an early grave.”

“The Desilijic clan.”

“They are precisely the reason I wish to remove myself from Nal Hutta—and from the likes of Jabba Desilijic Tiure and the rest. With your financial assistance I can accomplish that. I know that you have befriended Hutts in your own planetary neighborhood.”

“It’s true that Drixo and Progga have done well for themselves on Comra,” Damask said, “but their successes came at a high cost. What are you offering in return for our investment?”

A light came into the Hutt’s dark, oblique eyes. “A Podrace course that will make those on Malastare and on your own Muunilinst seem like amateur runs. In addition, the renaissance of an annual Podrace event that will bring tens of thousands of gamblers to Tatooine and fill my coffers to overflowing.” She paused, then added: “And I’m willing to take you on as a partner.”

“A silent partner,” Damask amended.

She nodded. “As you wish.”

Damask steepled his long fingers and raised his hands to his jutting chin. “In addition to a percentage of the profits, I want you to arrange for Boss Cabra to operate freely on Nar Shaddaa.”

Gardulla adopted an incredulous look. “The Dug crime boss?”

“You know the one,” Hill said sharply.

The Hutt fretted. “I can’t make promises, Magister. Black Sun is deeply entrenched on Nar Shaddaa, and the Vigos are grooming Alexi Garyn to assume control of the organization. They may not appreciate or permit—”

“Those are our terms, Gardulla,” Damask cut in. “Find some way to allow Cabra to reach an accommodation with Black Sun and we will support your takeover of Tatooine.” He gestured toward the fortress courtyard. “This very night I can arrange for you to meet with officials representing the Bank of Aargau, who will advance whatever amount of credits you need.”

After a long moment of silence, Gardulla nodded. “I accept your terms, Magister Damask. You will not be disappointed.”

When the Hutt had steered her antigrav litter from the room, members of the Sun Guard showed in a group of tall reptilian sentients who stood on two thick legs and whose broad snouts curved downward at the tip. Damask’s previous contact with the Yinchorri had been limited to holoprojector; now he leaned forward in keen interest as the spokes-member introduced himself in gruff Basic as Qayhuk—secretary of the Council of Elders—and launched immediately into a diatribe denouncing the Senate for refusing to admit Yinchorr to the Republic. With bellicose encouragement from his comrades, Qayhuk went on to say with fist-pounding emphasis that although their homeworld had been charted hundred of years earlier by the Republic, Yinchorr remained an underprivileged, backrocket planet deserving of far better treatment.

“Or someone will pay in blood for the ongoing injustice,” the secretary warned.

Larsh Hill waited until he was certain that Qayhuk was finished to remark under his breath, “I’m not sure even the Senate is ready for them.”

Holding Qayhuk’s baleful gaze and motioning with his hand, Damask said, “You have no interest in seeing Yinchorr seated in the Senate.”

Qayhuk took umbrage. “Why else would we have journeyed all this way?”

“You have no interest in seeing Yinchorr seated in the Senate,” Plagueis repeated.

Qayhuk glanced at his green-skinned brethren, then looked at Hill. “Is Magister Damask deaf or in ill health?”

Hill turned to Damask in concern but said nothing.

Damask concealed his astonishment. As rumored, the Yinchorri were apparently resistant to Force suggestion! But how was it possible that midi-chlorians in a being of relatively low intelligence could erect an impenetrable wall against the influence of a Sith? Was this some sort of survival mechanism—the midi-chlorians’ way of protecting the consciousness of their vessels by refusing to be manipulated? He would need to possess one of these beings to learn the secret.

“We might be willing to help you lobby for representation in the Senate,” he said at last, “but the process could require standard years or even decades, and I’m not convinced you have the patience for it.”

Qayhuk’s wide nostrils flared. “What’s a decade when we have been patient for a century? Are we not sentients? Or are we required to embrace the conditions along with accepting them?”

Damask shook his head. “No one is asking you to applaud the arrangement.”

Qayhuk’s expression softened somewhat. “Then we have an accord?”

“We will draw up a contract,” Damask said. “In the meantime, I want some assurance that I can call on you for a personal favor should the need arise.”

Qayhuk stared at him. “A personal favor? Of what sort?”

Damask showed the palms of his hands. “Of whatever sort I require, Secretary.”

The Yinchorri and his brethren traded uncertain glances, but Qayhuk ultimately nodded in agreement. “Done, Magister.”

“A favor?” Hill asked as the Yinchorri were being seen out.

“Nothing more than a test,” Damask told him.

Next to be admitted for audience were two Gran; the larger of the pair, a Republic Senator named Pax Teem, represented the Gran Protectorate. Teem had scarcely taken a seat when he said, “Promise me, Magister Damask, that you haven’t entered into a deal with Gardulla.”

“Our dealings with the Hutts,” Hill said, “are no less confidential than our dealings with you, Senator Teem.”

The Gran’s trio of stalked eyes twitched in anger. “Rumors abound of Gardulla’s plans to refurbish the Podrace course on Tatooine and enter into direct competition with Malastare.”

Damask regarded him blankly. “Surely you haven’t come all this way to hear me address rumors.”

Teem worked his big jaw. “Promises were made, Magister.”

“And fulfilled,” Damask said; then, in a calmer voice, he added, “As a means of offsetting losses in revenue derived from Podracing, the cost of Malastare’s fuel exports could be raised.”

The Gran ruminated. “That sounds more like a possibility than a guarantee.”

Damask shrugged. “We will take it up with the steerage committee. But for now, consider it a starting point for discussion.” Reclining in the chair, he appraised Teem before saying, “What else is troubling you, Senator?”

“The favoritism you show to the Trade Federation.”

“We merely helped them secure full representation in the Senate,” Hill answered.

Teem grew strident. “The directorate was doing perfectly well for itself without full representation. And in exchange for what—surrendering some of the shipping monopoly they enjoyed in the Outer Rim?”

“What’s fair is fair,” Hill said evenly.

Teem gave him a scathing glance. “Fairness has no part in it. You’re interested only in having the directorate do your bidding on Coruscant.” Abruptly, he got to his big feet and ground his square teeth. “Even a rate hike for Malastare’s fuel will profit Damask Holdings and the Trade Federation more than it will me!”

The Gran showed the Muuns his back and began to stamp toward the door, leaving his aide to stir in confusion for a moment, before he, too, rose and hurried out.

Hill’s mouth was open in surprise. “He can’t—”

“Let him go,” Damask said.

The elder Muun compressed already thin lips. “If we’re to benefit from the power they wield in the Senate, we’ll need to find some way to placate them, Hego.”

“I disagree,” Damask said. “We need to find a way to show Teem that he is expendable.”

By the time the guards had ushered in the quartet of Gossams who managed Subtext Mining, his ire had risen so high in his throat he could taste it. Typical of their diminutive species, the three saurians had reverse-articulated legs, fish-shaped heads, and long necks Damask knew he could snap with two fingers—and perhaps would, for how they had double-crossed Tenebrous.

“We were stunned to receive your invitation, Magister,” Subtext’s chief operating officer said. “We had no idea we were even on your scanners.”

Damask smiled thinly. “We keep a close watch on galactic events. I trust you’ve been enjoying our food and entertainment?”

“More than you know, Magister,” the chief Gossam said with a meaningful laugh. “Or perhaps more than we care to admit.”

Damask forced a kindred laugh. “More than I know … That’s very funny indeed.” He broke off laughing to add, “Allow us to show you how we execute some of the inner workings of the Gathering.”

The Gossams looked at one another in surprise before their leader said, “We’d be honored.”

Damask stood and nodded to four of the Sun Guards, who fell in alongside the Gossams as he, Hill, and two other Muuns led them to a bank of ancient turbolift cars.

“All the real action takes place below,” Damask said, setting the car in motion with a wave of his hand.

In silence they descended two levels, and when the car’s doors parted, they filed into a cavernous underground hall. Central to the dimly lighted space were several large square platforms that could be raised by means of hydraulic poles, operated by separate teams of sweating, snuffling snub-nosed Ugnaughts. One platform, burdened with a slag heap of metal, was just descending, to sounds of raucous cheering and wild applause entering through an opening in the towering ceiling. Secured by manacles and chains on an adjacent platform writhed a hissing, snarling, fanged beast the size of a bantha.

“We’re directly beneath the central courtyard,” Damask explained as the beast-laden platform was elevating. “Each cargo symbolizes an abhorrent aspect of the Republic—practices we all wish to see overturned.”

By then the platform had been raised to the level of the courtyard. The crowd quieted for a moment, then, simultaneous with massive discharges of energy, erupted into ovation once more.

“Those discharges were the laser cannons doing their work,” Damask said loudly enough to be heard as the platform dropped back into view, revealing that what had been the beast was now a smoking, foul-smelling husk of sinew and bone. He aimed a sinister smile at the Gossams. “It’s all theater, you understand. Merriment for the masses.”

“Obviously a real crowd-pleaser, Magister,” one of the Gossams said, swallowing some of his words.

Damask spread his thin arms wide. “Then you must join in.” Approaching, he nodded his chin toward one of the empty platforms, beside which the Sun Guards had positioned themselves. “Climb aboard.”

The saurians stared at him.

“Go ahead,” Damask said, without humor now. “Climb aboard.”

Two of the guards brandished blasters.

The chief Gossam looked from one Muun to the next, terror widening his eyes. “Have we done something to displease you, Magister?”

“A good question,” Damask said. “Have you?”

The chief Gossam didn’t speak until all four had clambered up onto the platform. “Precisely how did we come to your notice?”

“A mutual friend brought you to our attention,” Damask said. “A Bith named Rugess Nome. You recently supplied him with a survey report and a mining probe.”

The platform began to rise and the Gossams extended their long necks in fear. “We can make this right!” one of them said in a pleading voice.

Damask eyed the ceiling. “Then be quick about it. The laser cannons fire automatically.”

“Plasma!” the same one fairly shrieked. “An untapped reservoir of plasma! Enough to provide energy to a thousand worlds!”

Damask signaled one of the Ugnaughts to halt the platform’s rise. “Where? On what world?”

“Naboo,” the Gossam said; then louder: “Naboo!”

Hill elaborated, though unnecessarily. “Something of a hermit planet in the Mid Rim, and capital of the Chommell sector. Relatively close to Tatooine, in fact. Once a source for the veermoks we had cloned for use as game in the greel forests.”

Damask allowed him to finish and looked up at the Gossams. “Who hired you to conduct a mining survey?”

“A faction in opposition to the monarchy, Magister.”

“We swear it to be true,” another said.

“This Naboo is ruled by a royal?” Damask asked.

“A King,” the chief Gossam said. “His detractors wish to see the planet opened to galactic trade.”

Damask paced away from the platform. He considered torturing the Gossams, to learn who had hired them to sabotage Tenebrous on Bal’demnic, but decided to leave that for another day, since the Bith was known to have had many adversaries. Turning finally, he ordered the Ugnaught to return the platform to the floor.

“This plasma reservoir is as enormous as you claim?” he demanded.

“Unique among known worlds,” the leader said in relief as he and his comrades stood shivering in Damask’s withering gaze.

Damask regarded them in silence, then swung to the commander of the Sun Guards. “Transport them to the most remote world you can find in the Tingel Arm, and make certain they remain there in the event I have further need of them.”

Leaving his fellow Muuns to rest, Damask climbed the fort’s eastern rampart for starrise. He was as weary as any of them but too dissatisfied with the outcome of the Gathering to find much comfort in sleep. On the chance that an untapped reservoir of plasma might be of interest to the disgruntled leadership of the Trade Federation—and ignoring for the moment the effect it could have on Malastare’s energy exports—he had ordered Hill and the others to learn everything they could about the planet Naboo and its isolationist monarch.

Once the Gossams of Subtext Mining had been dealt with, Damask and the Muuns had devoted the rest of the evening to meeting with members of what they termed their steering committee, which was made up of select politicians, lobbyists, and industrialists; financiers representing Sestina, Aargau, and the Bank of the Core; elite members of the Order of the Canted Circle and the Trade Federation Directorate; and gifted ship designers, like Narro Sienar, whom Plagueis planned to support in his bid to become chief operating officer of Santhe/Sienar Technologies. The committee met periodically, though seldom on Sojourn, to assure the swift passage of corporate-friendly legislation; fix the price of such commodities as Tibanna gas, transparisteel, and starship fuel; and keep Senators in place on Coruscant as career diplomats, as a means of distancing them from what was really taking place outside the Core.

Not everyone agreed that the Muuns’ strategy of “tactical astriction” was the best method for keeping the Republic off-balance and thus ripe for manipulation. But Damask had insisted that their common goal of oligarchy—government by a select few—would eventually be realized, even if attained as a result of actions and events few would observe, and about which some of the membership might never learn.

Starlight glinted from the hulls of the last of the departing ships. Damask took comfort in knowing that his guests believed they had taken part in something secretive and grand, and had been encouraged to execute campaigns that on the surface may have seemed informed by self-interest but were in fact bits of Sith business.

Movements in the symphony that was the Grand Plan—

Keening klaxons fractured the morning silence.

Damask’s eyes narrowed and swept the surrounding forests for signs of disturbance. He had moved to the southernmost parapet when two Sun Guards hurried up the stairs in search of him.

“Magister, the eastern perimeter has been breached,” one of them reported.

Outside the fort’s walls, illumination was coming up and drone ships were beginning to meander through the treetops. Occasionally one of the imported beasts would lumber into the safe zone, touching off the alarms, but none of the remote cams were showing evidence of intrusion.

“It’s possible that one of our guests may have overstayed his or her welcome,” the second Sun Guard said. He stopped to listen to a message being relayed to his helmet earphones. “We think we have something.” He looked at Damask. “Will you be all right, Magister, or should we wait with you?”

“Go,” Damask told them. “But keep me informed.”

Stretching out with his feelings, he began to scan the forest again. Someone was out there, but not in the area the guards were searching. He attended through the Force to the sound of movement in the trees. Had the Gran infiltrated an assassin? If so, had they found one clever enough to divert the Sun Guards into chasing an illusion? Damask and the other Muuns should have been the targets, but instead of moving toward the fort, the intruder was actually moving away from it.

He spent another long moment listening; then, like a wraith, he dashed down three flights of stone steps and out through the old gate into the waking forest, parting his cloak as he ran, his left hand on the hilt of the lightsaber. Lifting off in great numbers from their evening roosts and screeching in displeasure, the morning’s earliest risers warned the rest that a hunter was on the loose. Of the most dangerous sort, Damask might have added: a hunter of sentients. In moments he was deep in a stand of old-growth greel trees well outside the security perimeter, when he sensed something that stopped him in mid-stride. Motionless, he drew inward in an effort to verify what he’d felt.

A Force-user!

A Jedi spy? he wondered.

They had tried repeatedly to penetrate Sojourn’s defenses during previous Gatherings. But unless one had arrived in a ship designed and built by Darth Tenebrous, there would have been no way to reach the surface undetected. And yet someone had obviously succeeded in making it downside. Lifting his hand from the hilt of the lightsaber, Damask minimized his presence in the Force, surrendering his eminence and disappearing into the material world. Then he began to move deeper into the forest, winding his way through the trees, allowing the Jedi to stalk him even as he berated himself for having acted rashly. If it came to ambush, he would not be able to fight back and risk exposing himself as a Sith. He should have allowed the Sun Guards to deal with the intruder.

But why would a Jedi bother to trip the perimeter sensors only to retreat beyond their reach? They didn’t make mistakes of that sort. And surely whoever was out there wouldn’t have expected a Muun to respond, if for no other reason than Muuns didn’t make mistakes of that sort. So what was this one after?

Ahead Damask heard the characteristic hiss and hum of a lightsaber, and saw the weapon’s blade glowing in the mist. Emerging from behind a thick-boled tree, the wielder had the lightsaber in his right hand, angled toward the spongy ground.

A crimson blade in a crimson wood.

Instantly he called his own lightsaber to his left hand, igniting the blade as the figure in the mist revealed itself fully: a tall, thin, pink-skinned craniopod with large lidless eyes—

A Bith!

Tenebrous?

He faltered momentarily. No, that wasn’t possible. But who, then? Tenebrous’s offspring, perhaps—some spawn grown from his genetic material in a laboratory, since the species reproduced only in accordance with the dictates of a computer mating service. Was that why Tenebrous had declined to discuss midi-chlorians or ways of extending life? Because he had already found a way to create a Force-sensitive successor?

“I knew I could draw you out, Darth Plagueis,” the Bith said.

Plagueis dropped all pretence and faced him squarely. “You’re well trained. I sensed the Force in you, but not the dark side.”

“I’ve Darth Tenebrous to thank for it.”

“He made you in his image. You’re a product of Bith science.”

The Bith laughed harshly. “You’re an old fool. He found and trained me.”

Plagueis recalled the warning Tenebrous had nearly given voice to before he died. “He took you as an apprentice?”

“I am Darth Venamis.”

“Darth?” Plagueis said with disgust. “We’ll see about that.”

“Your death will legitimize the title, Plagueis.”

Plagueis cocked his head to the side. “Your Master left orders for you to kill me?”

The Bith nodded. “Even now he awaits my return.”

“Awaits …,” Plagueis said. As astonishing as it was to learn that Tenebrous had trained a second apprentice, he had a surprise in store for Venamis. Inhaling, he said, “Tenebrous is dead.”

Confusion showed in Venamis’s eyes. “You wish it were so.”

Plagueis held his lightsaber off to one side, parallel to the ground. “What’s more, he died by my hand.”

“Impossible.”

Plagueis laughed with purpose. “How powerful can you be if you failed to sense the death of your Master? Even now, your thoughts fly in all directions.”

Venamis raised his lightsaber over one shoulder. “In killing you I will avenge his death and become the Sith Lord he knew you could never be.”

“The Sith he wanted me to be,” Plagueis corrected. “But enough of this. You’ve come a long way to challenge me. Now make a worthy effort.”

Venamis charged.

To Plagueis, lightsaber duels were tedious affairs, full of wasted emotion and needless acrobatics. Tenebrous, however, who had pronounced Plagueis a master of the art, had always enjoyed a good fight, and had clearly bequeathed that enthusiasm to his other trainee. For no sooner had the blades of their weapons clashed than Venamis began to bring the fight to him in unexpected ways, twirling his surprisingly limber body, tossing the lightsaber from hand to hand, mixing forms. At one point he leapt onto an overhanging greel branch and, when Plagueis severed it with a Force blow, hung suspended in the air—no mean feat in itself—and continued the fight, as if from high ground. Worse for Plagueis, Tenebrous had made Venamis an expert in Plagueis’s style, and so the Bith could not only anticipate but counter Plagueis’s every move.

In short order, Venamis penetrated his defenses, searing the side of Plagueis’s neck.

The contest took them backward and forward through the trees, across narrow streams, and up onto piles of rocks that were the ruins of an ancient sentry post. Plagueis took a moment to wonder if anyone at the fort was observing the results of the contest, which, from afar, must have looked like lightning flashing through the forest’s understory.

Realizing that the fight could go on indefinitely, he took himself out of his body and began working his material self like a marionette, no longer on the offensive, instigating attacks, but merely responding to Venamis’s lunges and strikes. Gradually the Bith understood that something had changed—that what up until then had been a fight to the death seemed suddenly like a training exercise. Exasperated, he doubled his efforts, fighting harder, more desperately, putting more power into each maneuver and blow, and in the end surrendering his precision and accuracy.

At the height of Venamis’s attack, Plagueis came back into himself with such fury that his lightsaber became a blinding rod. A two-handed upward swing launched from between his legs caught Venamis off guard. The blade didn’t go deep enough to puncture the Bith’s lung but scorched him from chest to chin. As his large, cleft head snapped backward in retreat, Plagueis brought his lightsaber straight down, tearing Venamis’s weapon from his gloved hand and nearly taking off his long fingers, as well.

With a gesture of his other hand, Venamis called for his lightsaber, but Plagueis was a split second quicker, and the hilt shot into his own right hand. Sensing a storm of Force lightning building in the Bith, he crossed the two crimson blades in front of him and said: “Yield!”

Venamis froze, allowing the nascent storm to die away, and dropped to his knees in surrender as Sojourn’s risen primary blazed at his back through the trees.

“I submit, Darth Plagueis. I accept that I must apprentice myself to you.”

Plagueis deactivated Venamis’s blade and hooked it to his belt. “You presume too much, Venamis. Around you I would always have to watch my back.”

Venamis lifted his face. “Is it true, Master? Is Darth Tenebrous dead?”

“Dead, and deservedly so.” He took a step toward Venamis. “The future of the Sith no longer hinges on physical prowess but on political cunning. The new Sith will rule less by brute force than by means of instilling fear.

“And what is to become of me, Master?” Venamis asked.

Plagueis studied him stonily. After a quick glance around, he snapped a yellow, horn-shaped blossom from a dangling vine and tossed it to the ground in front of Venamis. “Consume it.”

Venamis’s gaze went from the flower to Plagueis, and he let misgiving show on his face. “I know this plant. It will poison me.”

“It will,” Plagueis told him in a manner that held no sympathy. “But I will make certain you don’t die.”


 

7: THERE WHERE THEY USED TO STAND

In the depths of Aborah, Venamis hung suspended in a bacta tank, wireless sensors affixed to his narrow chest, neck, and fissured, hairless cranium.

“You may be Tenebrous’s most important gift to me,” Plagueis said as he watched the Bith’s body bob in the thick therapeutic liquid.

“His brain continues to recuperate from the effects of the coma-bloom alkaloids,” 11-4D remarked from the far side of the laboratory. “His physical condition, however, remains stable.”

Plagueis kept his gaze on Venamis. The wound Venamis’s lightsaber had inflicted to Plagueis’s neck had healed, but the faint scar was a fresh reminder of his mortality. “That’s good, because I’m not interested in his mind.”

In salute, the droid’s new appendages made a surgical slashing motion.

Blood analysis had revealed a high midi-chlorian count, which to Plagueis was further indication that a being could have great potential in the Force and yet still be inept. He wondered: was it Venamis he had felt through the Force after the murder of Tenebrous? A Jedi would have made for a more interesting experimental subject, but a Dark Side Adept was perhaps better suited to his purposes. And soon enough the adjacent bacta tank would contain a Force-resistant Yinchorri, as well.

Immediately following the contest on Sojourn, Plagueis had commanded members of the Sun Guard to locate the starship that had allowed Venamis to infiltrate the Hunters’ Moon, then move it and the poisoned Bith to Aborah. Larsh Hill and the other Muuns had been apprised that an intruder had been captured and disposed of, but no more than that. An investigation of the ship had yielded data that might have surprised even Darth Tenebrous, who had provided the ship. It seemed that well before he had confronted Plagueis or learned of his Master’s fate, Venamis himself had been scouting for potential apprentices. Plagueis could not help being impressed, though begrudgingly. The young Bith would have done well in Bane’s era. Now, however, he was an anachronism, and by extension, Tenebrous also.

That Tenebrous had targeted him came as no shock to Plagueis. He and the Bith had reached an impasse decades earlier regarding execution of the Sith imperative. The product of one of the galaxy’s most ancient civilizations, Tenebrous believed that victory could be achieved through a mating of the powers of the dark side and expert Bith science. With the aid of sophisticated computers and future-casting formulas, the varied beings of the galaxy could be provided for, and the Jedi Order would gradually dwindle and disappear. Tenebrous had tried to persuade Plagueis that the Force did not play games of chance with the galaxy; and that while the fated ascendancy of the dark side could be predicted, its rise could not be influenced or hurried by the Sith.

The Muuns believed in formulas and calculations as strongly as the Bith did, but Plagueis was not a fatalist. Convinced that Tenebrous’s brilliant equations were missing an important factor, he had argued that future events—whether predicted by machines or glimpsed in visions—were often clouded and unreliable. More important, he had been raised to believe in the elimination of competitors, and viewed the Jedi as just that. The Order wasn’t simply some rival corporation that could be secretly acquired; it had to be undermined, toppled, and dismantled. Deracinated. He had assumed that, given time, he would have been able to win Tenebrous over, but his former Master had obviously pronounced him unfit to don the mantle of Sith successor, and had looked elsewhere. The unbridled desires of sentients were a blessing to the Sith, for those desires birthed an abundance of zealous and audacious beings who could be used to further the cause. Plagueis had been instructed to be on the lookout for suitable beings, just as Tenebrous had been when he had discovered Venamis. Perhaps Tenebrous had regarded the sneak attack as beneficial, no matter the results. Had Venamis been victorious, he was deserving of the mantle; and if not, then Plagueis might come to accept the true nature of the Master–apprentice relationship.

An old story that had never made much sense to him.

But it did explain Tenebrous’s curious behavior in the months and weeks preceding the events on Bal’demnic. It was impossible to know how long Venamis’s attack had been in the planning, but Tenebrous, for all his cool detachment, had plainly worried over the decision. On Bal’demnic he had been distracted, and that inattention had cost him his life. But in those final moments, before he had fully grasped the role Plagueis had played, he had been on the verge of revealing the existence of Venamis. It made little difference now, and, in fact, Plagueis found the Bith’s vacillation contemptible.

Like Plagueis, Tenebrous had obviously embraced the fact that Darth Bane’s Rule of Two had expired. Precious few Sith Lords had honored it, in any case, and with good reason, as Plagueis saw it. The goals of the Grand Plan were revenge and the reacquisition of galactic power. But while most Sith Lords since Bane had in their own fashion helped to weaken the Republic, their efforts had owed less to selflessness and allegiance to the Rule than to weakness and incompetence. Driven to discharge Bane’s imperative they might have been, and yet each had fallen prey to individual foibles and eccentricities, and so had failed to exact revenge on the the Jedi Order. Plagueis understood. He would never have been one to lay in wait or devote his reign merely to positioning a subsequent Sith Lord for success. Nor would he have been content to remain in Tenebrous’s shadow as an apprentice had the Bith actually triumphed where others had failed.

How, in all his wisdom, had Tenebrous failed to grasp that Plagueis was the culmination of the millennium-long hunger for revenge? How had the Bith failed to grasp that destiny had called him?

In a rare moment of compliment, the Bith had even said as much.

In the same way that tectonic forces cause a boulder to plunge into a river, forever diverting its course, events give rise to individuals who, stepping into the current of the Force, alter the tide of history. You are such a one.

Was Plagueis now to believe that Tenebrous had also considered Venamis such a one?

If so, it demeaned him.

The data discovered aboard Venamis’s starship failed to shed light on how old he’d been when Tenebrous found him, or reveal anything about his training. Set ways of training an apprentice were a thing of the past, regardless. Doctrine was for the Jedi. Where the Jedi courted power, the Sith lusted after it; where the Jedi believed they knew the truth, the Sith possessed it. Owned by the dark side, they ultimately became their knowledge.

For the past five hundred years, the Sith of the Bane line had eschewed selecting children as apprentices, finding it more advantageous to discover beings who had already been hardened or scarred by life.

Plagueis, though, had been an exception.

Muunilinst had not followed suit when, in the madness that was the Third Great Expansion, worlds of the Core and the Inner Rim had stretched out to settle and claim many of the planets surveyed and made available by the Colonization Act and the Planet Grant Amendment. The reason was simple: though the Muuns had wealth beyond the wildest dreams of many species and access to starships of the highest quality, they were unwilling to leave their holdings on Muunilinst unattended. Nor were they interested in colonization for its own sake—in spreading their seed—because the more Muuns the galaxy contained, the less wealth there would be to go around.

Eventually, though, autarky and isolationism ceded to a desire to make themselves essential to the galaxy, and the Muuns began to fund settlements established by other worlds, or by independent groups, self-exiled as often as not. And so colonies at the distal end of the Braxant Run became dependent on Muunilinst for support, borrowing against the promise of discovering rich veins of ore or precious metals. When, however, the purported treasures failed to materialize, or markets became saturated, resulting in lower prices, the careworn populations of those settlements found themselves hopelessly indebted to Muunilinst and were forced to accept direct oversight by the Muuns.

So it happened that Plagueis’s clan father, Caar Damask, came to be administrator of the treasure world of Mygeeto.

Located in Muunilinst’s own stellar neighborhood, and a fertile breeding ground for nova, artesian, and low-level Adegan crystals, Mygeeto—Gem, as it was known in the ancient Muun tongue—was also one of the least hospitable worlds the Muuns had acquired. Captive to snow and ice, the planet boasted few indigenous life-forms and was continually assailed by storms that mounded its surface into crystal spurs the size of mountains. Regardless, and at great expense, the Muuns had succeeded in constructing a few self-contained cities and storage vaults, powering them with energy derived from the crystals themselves. Even in the best of instances Mygeeto was a challenge to approach because of its asteroid ring, but the asteroids became secondary impediments once the InterGalactic Banking Clan assumed control of mining operations in the ice shelves and glaciers. Then even the Jedi were prohibited from visiting without prior authorization.

Already a member of long standing in the IBC, the elder Damask had accepted the assignment as a personal favor to Muunilinst’s High Officer, Mals Tonith, but more in the hope of advancing a career that had stalled and kept him confined to middle management. Unrecognized for his genius and angry about it, Damask had left his primary wife and clanmates behind and had attempted to build if not a life then at least a career for himself on the remote ice world. Success in supervising the mining operations came in short order, but contentment, of any sort, proved elusive until the arrival—ten years after his own—of a lower-caste Muun female who would first become his assistant, then his codicil wife, in due course giving birth to a son they named Hego, after Caar’s clan father.

His upbringing in a domed city in a perpetually frozen environment was in many ways the antithesis of the typical Muun childhood, and yet young Hego managed not only to endure but to prosper. His mother took what some considered to be an unhealthy interest in his development, recording every detail and encouraging him to share even his most furtive thoughts with her. She was especially interested in observing his interactions with playmates—of diverse species—which she was never at a loss to provide, interrogating him after every session about his feelings about this or that youngling. Even Caar found time enough from a demanding schedule to be a doting parent.

Hego was not yet five years old when he began to sense that he was somehow different. Not only was he more astute than his playmates, but he could often manipulate them, arousing laughter when he wished to, or just as often tears; comfort just as often as anxiety. He learned to read intentions and body language. When he sensed that someone didn’t like him he would go out of his way to be generous, and when he sensed that someone liked him too much he would occasionally go out of his way to be difficult, as a means of testing the limits of the relationship. He divined tricks and deceits, and sometimes allowed himself to play the victim, the dupe, out of concern for arousing unwanted suspicion or being forced to reveal too much about his hidden talents.

As his abilities increased, other children became playthings rather than playmates, but with no loss of enjoyment on Hego’s part. One afternoon a Muun youngster he had grown to dislike pushed his way past Hego in an effort to be first to reach a staircase that led down to the Damask home’s lower-level courtyard. Grabbing his peer by the upper arm, Hego said, “If you’re in such a rush to get downstairs, then jump out the window.” Locking glances, Hego repeated the suggestion, and his victim took it to heart. Many questions were asked after the youngling’s broken body was discovered in the courtyard, but Hego kept the truth from everyone but his mother. She made him go over his explanation in increasing detail, until finally saying, “I’ve long suspected that you have the gift your father and I share, and now I know it to be true. It’s a strange, wondrous power, Hego, and you have it in abundance. Your father and I have spent our lives keeping our gifts a closely guarded secret, and I want your word that for the time being you will speak of it only to me or to him. Later in life this power will serve you well, but right now it must remain undisclosed.”

Having lived a surreptitious life for so many years, Hego found the notion of sharing the secret only with his parents completely natural.

No one held him responsible for his playmate’s plunge from the window, but, soon after, the steady stream of playmates began to dry up. Worse, his father began to grow distant—even while Hego found himself becoming more and more a part of Caar’s world. He considered that his father might be lying about having the power, or had come to think of Hego as some kind of monster. And yet he observed his father employing his eldritch powers of persuasion and manipulation in business dealings.

Like Muunilinst, Mygeeto received many important visitors, and at times it struck Hego that, in lieu of his being able to explore the galaxy, the galaxy was coming to him. On several occasions, his father met with Jedi Knights and Padawans who came in search of Adegan crystals, which the Jedi Order used in the construction of training lightsabers. Hego had long since perfected his ability to mask his powers from others. Even without revealing his true nature to the Jedi he was able to sense in them a kind of like-minded power, though one that was clearly at cross purposes with his own. From early on he knew that he could never be one of them, and he began to abhor their visits, for reasons he couldn’t grasp. Even more puzzling, he came to sense a power closer to his own in a Bith visitor named Rugess Nome. Nome wasn’t a Jedi but a starship engineer, who arrived in a luminous vessel of his own design. Before long, however, Hego began to suspect that his mother was the reason for Nome’s frequent visits. And the suspicion that there was something between them incited feelings of anger and jealousy in young Hego, and a kind of conflicted despondency in his father.

Hego had made up his mind to bring his power to bear on the intolerable situation when, during one of Nome’s visits, he was summoned to his father’s office, where Caar, his mother, and the Bith were waiting. Without looking at his wife, Caar had said, “You are of our blood, Hego, but we can no longer raise you as our progeny.”

Hego had looked from his father to his mother in mounting distress, fearing the very words Caar added a moment later. With a nod toward Nome, he said, “In truth, and in ways that you will eventually come to understand, you belong to him.”

A decade later, Hego would learn that while Caar had, in fact, done his best to keep his Force abilities to himself, he had come to the attention of Nome when the two had chanced to meet on High Port Space Center. Years would pass before Nome found Hego’s mother, whom he had conscripted not as an apprentice—for she wasn’t strong enough in the Force—but as a disciple, whose task it had been to romance Caar and bear the fruit of that seduction: a child whom Nome and Bith science predicted would be born strong in the Force. Hego’s parents had safeguarded the secret until his power had begun to reveal itself. And then a deal had been brokered: Hego, in exchange for the realization of Caar Damask’s lifelong dream of being accepted into the upper echelon of the InterGalactic Banking Clan.

Five years after the revelation in the office, Caar was recalled to Muunilinst to become director of the treasury branch of the IBC. Hego’s mother vanished, never to be seen again by either husband or son. And Hego’s apprenticeship to Sith Lord Darth Tenebrous commenced.

In addition to being widely respected as a savant engineer and starship designer, Rugess Nome headed a shadowy organization that over the decades had gathered intelligence on the dealings of nearly every criminal, smuggler, pirate, and potential terrorist who had left a mark on the galaxy. With young Hego masquerading as Nome’s accountant, the two secret Sith had traveled widely, often conspiring with the galaxy’s most notorious beings, and facilitating anarchy whenever possible.

We Sith are an unseen opposition, Tenebrous had told his young apprentice. A phantom menace. Where the Sith once wore armor, we now wear cloaks. But the Force works through us all the more powerfully in our invisibility. For the present, the more covert we remain, the more influence we can have. Our revenge will be achieved not through subjugation but by contagion.

As Tenebrous explained it, the Jedi had emerged strong from the war of a millennium earlier, and while Darth Bane and subsequent Sith Lords had done their best to disrupt the reborn Republic, they labored at a disadvantage. So eventually it was decided that the Sith should hide in plain sight, amassing wealth and knowledge, and securing contacts and alliances with groups that would one day form the basis of a galaxywide opposition to both the Republic and the revered Order that served it. By all accounts those early centuries had been challenging, watching the Jedi return to their eminent position. But the Sith had had the luxury of studying the Order from afar without the Jedi ever being aware that they had adversaries.

The rend that Tenebrous’s Twi’lek Master had opened in the fabric of the Force had been felt by the Jedi, and already the Order was beginning to show signs of circumspection and languor. The Republic, too, had been similarly undermined, by encouraging corruption in the Senate and lawlessness in the Outer Rim systems, which had become the dumping grounds for the Core.

With the wretched of the galaxy being converted to the cause, the powerful would now need to be brought together, with Darth Plagueis as their leader, manipulating the actions of an important few to control the behavior of countless trillions.


 

8: VICTIMS OF THEIR OWN DEVICE

In training Venamis, Tenebrous had obviously believed that he was protecting the Grand Plan; Venamis, too, by keeping an eye on a handful of Forceful candidates he, or perhaps Tenebrous, had discovered. But now it fell to Plagueis to do something about those potential competitors, if for no other reason than to eliminate the possibility of another surprise attack.

Venamis’s ship data banks contained information on six beings, but subsequent investigation by 11-4D revealed that one had died of natural causes, another was executed, and a third was killed in a cantina brawl. Two of the remaining three were unnamed, but Plagueis and 11-4D had succeeded in learning as much about them as Venamis knew, after cracking the complex code the Bith had used to safeguard the entries. How Venamis’s candidates had escaped notice by the Jedi was something of a mystery, but one scarcely worth solving. Plagueis simply had to determine whether they posed a threat—to him or to the Grand Plan.

Muuns were seldom glimpsed quaffing Rywen’s Reserve in exclusive tapcafs, sampling refined spice in members-only clubs, or challenging the house in marathon sabacc tournaments. HoloNet celebrity programs never showed them with Twi’lek dancers on their slender arms, or venturing into forests, seas or mountain ranges purely for sport or adventure.

But Plagueis was about to break with tradition, now that the first of Venamis’s potential candidates had been traced to a casino in Lianna City, in the heart of the remote Tion Cluster.

Jowls quivering, limpid eyes reflecting concern, and flanked by Nikto security personnel, the pudgy Sullustan manager of Colliders Casino hurried across the carpeted lobby toward the concierge desk where Plagueis and 11-4D were waiting. A pair of broad-purpose utility arms—one of which concealed a laser weapon—substituted for the droid’s normal surgical appendages, and Plagueis was attired in what most beings would assume was Banking Clan garb, though differently cut and paler green in color.

“Welcome, sir, welcome,” the manager began in a flustered voice. “Colliders is honored to have you as a guest, though may I say that you are the first being from Muunilinst to have used the casino’s public entrance. The private entrance—”

Plagueis raised a hand to cut him off. “I’m not here on bank business.”

The Sullustan stared. “Then this isn’t an impromptu audit?”

“I’m here regarding a private matter.”

The manager cleared his throat and stood up straighter. “Then perhaps we could begin with your name.”

“I am Hego Damask.”

The Sullustan’s jowls began to quiver again. “Magister Damask? Of Damask Holdings?”

Plagueis nodded.

“Forgive me for not recognizing you, sir. Were it not for your munificence, Colliders would be in bankruptcy. More to the point, Lianna City wouldn’t be the hub it is today, and the pride of the Tion Cluster.”

Plagueis smiled pleasantly. “Then if we might adjourn to your office …”

“Of course, of course.” The Sullustan signaled the guards to form a phalanx, then waved courteously for Plagueis and 11-4D to follow. “After you, sir. Please.”

A turbolift carried them directly into a large office that overlooked the casino’s main gaming room, which was crowded with Mid and Outer Rim species patrons seated at tables and individual machines, or huddled around ovide and jubilee wheels and other gambling devices. The manager gestured Plagueis into an overstuffed chair and settled himself at a reflective desk. OneOne-FourDee stood quietly at Plagueis’s side.

“You said something about a private matter, Magister Damask?”

Plagueis interlocked his hands. “It’s my understanding that Colliders played host to a big winner a week ago.”

The Sullustan gave his head a mournful shake. “Bad news travels fast, I see. But, yes, he nearly wiped us out. An uncanny run of luck.”

“Are you certain it was luck?”

The Sullustan considered the question. “I think I understand what you’re getting at, so allow me to explain. Species known to have telepathic abilities are barred from gambling at Colliders, as is the case at most casinos. In addition, we have always operated under the assumption that ninety-nine percent of beings strong in the Force belong to the Jedi Order, and that Jedi don’t gamble. As regards the remaining one percent—those who may have fallen between the cracks, as it were—well, most of them are probably off somewhere doing good deeds or locked away in monasteries contemplating the mysteries of the universe.”

“And the remainder?”

The Sullustan planted his elbows on the desk and leaned forward. “On those rare occasions—and I emphasize rare—when we have suspected beings might be using the Force, we have demanded that they subject themselves to a blood test.”

“Have you ever unmasked a Force-user?”

“Not in the twenty years I’ve been the administrator of this facility. Of course, in this business you hear stories. For example, there’s one about a casino on Denon that employed a Forceful Iktotchi as a cooler—someone capable of breaking a gambler’s winning streak. But I suspect the story is apocryphal. Here at Colliders we rely on the standard methods of making certain that the odds are always in our favor. Regardless, from time to time, someone proves an exception to the rule.” He paused for a moment. “But I’ll admit that I haven’t seen a winning streak like this last one in years. It could take us months to recuperate.”

“Did you demand a blood test?”

“As a matter of fact we did, Magister Damask. But our resident analyst said that the winner’s blood didn’t contain … well, whatever it would have contained if the player was a Force-user. I confess to having a poor understanding of the chemistry involved.”

“I myself wish I understood more,” Plagueis said. “Would you happen to have an image of the winner?”

The manager frowned. “I don’t want to pry, but may I ask why this is of personal interest?”

Plagueis sniffed. “It’s a tax matter.”

The Sullustan cheered up. “Then by all means.” His small fingers flew across the desk input pad, and in seconds the image of a Weequay appeared on a wall screen.

Plagueis was both disappointed and mystified. Data aboard Venamis’s ship had identified the potential candidate as a Quarren. The being from Mon Calamari had been using the Force to break the banks of casinos on a dozen worlds, from Coruscant to Taris, from Nar Shaddaa to Carratos. Apparently the Weequay who had won big at Colliders had simply been lucky. Plagueis was about to say as much to 11-4D when an intercom chimed and the manager inserted a transceiver into his large ear.

“Not again!” he said. “All right, send a security team to watch him.”

Plagueis waited for an explanation.

“Another winning streak,” the Sullustan said. “A Kubaz this time!”

Plagueis stood up. “I wish to accompany the security team to the floor. I won’t interfere. I’m simply curious about your methods for detecting cheaters.”

“Of course,” the manager said, distracted. “Maybe you’ll spot something we’ve missed.”

Plagueis reached the turbolift simultaneously with the arrival of two Bothans dressed in business suits and remained with them as they weaved their way through the ground-floor gaming area to one of the casino’s Collider tables. Players drawn to the action were clustered three-deep around the table, making it impossible to catch so much as a glimpse of the lucky Kubaz until Plagueis and the Bothans reached the croupier’s pit. Pressed in among females of various species who were attempting without success to get his attention, the dark-skinned, long-snouted male insectivore was seated across from the croupier, behind several tall stacks of credit chits. The game was called Collider because players placed bets on the types and spiraling paths of high-energy subatomic particles created as a result of collisions occurring within the accelerator table and the random firings of deviating electromagnets surrounding it. Due to the unpredictable nature of the collisions, the house enjoyed only a small advantage—where the accelerators weren’t rigged—but the Kubaz was overcoming the odds by betting solely on the particle paths rather than the particle categories.

With the table accelerator humming to life and the Kubaz sliding some of his chits across the gambling grid, Plagueis stretched out cautiously with the Force, sensing intense concentration on the part of the Kubaz, and then an extraordinary surge of psychic energy. The Kubaz was using the Force—not to steer particles along certain paths but to dazzle the electromagnets and significantly reduce the number of paths the created particles were likely to take.

The gathered crowd applauded and roared another win, and the croupier pushed yet another stake of credit chits across the table, adding to the millions of credits the Kubaz had already won. In an effort to see deeper into the Kubaz, Plagueis opened himself to the Force again, and realized at once that the Kubaz had perceived the intrusion. Rising from the chair so suddenly that the females to either side of him were nearly knocked over, he ordered the croupier to cash him out. Without looking around him, he accepted the redeemable winnings chit and hurried off in the direction of the nearest bar. The Bothan security team fell in behind, after promising to alert Plagueis if the Kubaz attempted to leave the casino.

Returned to the upper-tier office where 11-4D was still waiting by the chair and the Sullustan manager was recovering from a flop sweat, Plagueis asked if Colliders maintained a database of players who had earned a reputation by breaking the banks of casinos, not only on Lianna but on other worlds where gambling was a popular pastime. On the wall screen moments later ran images of male and female Ongree, Askajians, Zabrak, Togrutas, Kel Dors, Gotals, and Niktos. Even a Clawdite shape-shifter.

“These are the most notorious of the lot,” the manager was explaining when the image of a Neimoidian came on screen. “The ones the Gaming Authority suspects of having developed surefire methods of cheating. Any who show up at Colliders will be denied entrance.”

Plagueis studied the final images and turned to the Sullustan. “You have been most helpful. We won’t trouble you any further.”

The turbolift had just lowered him and 11-4D to the casino level when he asked the droid whether it had noticed anything telling about the winners’ lineup.

“I find it curious that they are all, shall I say, Muunoid bipeds of roughly the same physical construction, and almost identical in height. One-point-eight meters, to be precise.” OneOne-FourDee looked at Plagueis. “Is it possible they are the same being?”

Plagueis smiled in satisfaction. “Perhaps a Clawdite?”

“I was about to suggest as much. However, it is my understanding that the Zolan reptomammalian shape-shifters are only rarely successful at perpetuating species camouflage for more than a brief time without experiencing intense discomfort. What’s more, the lineup featured a Clawdite.”

“What if it was a being taking the form of a Clawdite.”

OneOne-FourDee gave a kind of start. “A Shi’ido, Magister. The candidate Venamis was monitoring is a skinshifter!”

Little was known about the reclusive, telepathic species from Laomon, save that they were capable of imitating a wide variety of sentient species. The most gifted were said to be able to mimic trees or even rocks. A powerful female Shi’ido named Belia Darzu had been a Sith Lord in the pre-Bane era, creating armies of technobeasts she controlled using dark side energy.

“That would explain the negative blood test results,” 11-4D was saying.

Plagueis nodded. “I suspect that this Forceful Shi’ido has learned how to alter his blood. Or perhaps he merely clouded the mind of the analyst, compelling him to ignore the midi-chlorian count findings.”

They had just stepped down into the gaming area when one of the Bothans hurried forward. “Magister Damask, I’ve just received word that the Kubaz is leaving.”

“Did the Kubaz ask to have his winnings transferred to an account?”

The Bothan shook his head. “He preferred a credit chit. Many winners do, hoping to protect their privacy.”

Plagueis thanked him and swung to the droid. “Hurry, FourDee. Before he gets too much of a lead on us.”

They headed out into the glittering ecumenopolis, where cloud-scrapers and monads towered above them, pedestrian walkways were jammed with beings from up and down the Perlemian Trade Route, and the sky was crowded with traffic. And almost everywhere they looked, they saw the name Santhe—above the doorways to buildings, in advertisements that ran on giant wall screens, emblazoned on the sides of airspeeders and ships. The prominent family all but owned Lianna and had, for the past thirty years, wrested a controlling interest in one of Lianna’s principal enterprises: Sienar Technologies—representatives from which had been guests at the recent Gathering on Sojourn.

Maintaining a reasonable distance, Plagueis and 11-4D trailed the Kubaz from walkway to busy walkway, then across one of the ornate bridges that spanned the Lona Cranith River into Lianna’s sister city, Lola Curich. Past the headquarters of the Allied Tion Historical Society, Fronde’s Airspeeders, a cantina called Thorip Norr … All the while the Kubaz had been glancing over his shoulder and was now increasing his pace as he neared the entrance to a pedestrian tunnel.

“The Shi’ido behaves as if he is aware of being followed,” 11-4D said, photoreceptors fixed on their quarry.

“He’ll attempt to lose us in the tunnel. We’d do better to wait for him to exit.” Plagueis stopped to take a look around. “This way, FourDee.”

Hurrying through buildings undercut by the tunnel, they emerged just where the pedestrian bypass debouched into a public square fronted by restaurants and boutique shops. OneOne-FourDee sharpened his optical receptors and trained them on the mouth of the tunnel. “Based on the rate of speed at which the Shi’ido was walking when he entered the tunnel, he should have exited by now.”

“And indeed he has,” Plagueis said. “Direct your attention to the hefty Askajian who is passing by the Aurodium Spoon.”

The droid’s photoreceptors rotated slightly. “The Shi’ido skinshifted inside the tunnel.”

“I suspected he might.”

“Would that I had a tool comparable to the Force, Magister.”

They resumed their clandestine surveillance, shadowing the Askajian now, who led them on a convoluted tour of Lola Curich that ended at an automated InterGalactic Banking Clan kiosk alongside a PetVac franchise. Plagueis relied on 11-4D to furnish an update on the skinshifter’s activities.

“He has deposited the credit chit,” the droid said. “But I’m unable to provide the account number. Even my macrovision pickups have their limitations.”

Plagueis gestured in dismissal. “That won’t be a problem.”

They waited until the Shi’ido had exited the kiosk to dart inside. With the help of IBC codes Plagueis supplied, 11-4D soon acquired not only the account number but also the identity of the holder.

“Kerred Santhe the Second,” the droid said.

Plagueis was speechless for a moment. Santhe had inherited principal ownership of Santhe/Sienar Technologies from the elder Kerred—who had the distinction of being Plagueis’s first murder under the tutelage of Darth Tenebrous. But that a wealthy industrialist like Santhe should have need of a gambler’s winnings made little sense. Unless the Shi’ido was somehow in debt to Santhe. Did the circuitous connection to Tenebrous explain how the skinshifter had first come to Venamis’s attention?

“How well versed are you in Shi’ido physiology?” Plagueis asked 11-4D.

“Shi’ido subjects participated in longevity studies conducted on Obroa-skai. They possess a very flexible physiology and anatomy, with reconfigurable tendons and ligaments, and thin but dense skeletal features that allow them to support their fleshy mass and extensive reserves of bodily fluids.”

“Are your sensors capable of determining when a Shi’ido is about to skinshift?”

“If the Shi’ido is in close proximity, yes.”

“Then we haven’t a moment to lose.”

Catching up with their quarry as he was entering the public square, they overtook him and hurried into the pedestrian tunnel ahead of him. A hundred meters along, they found themselves in an unoccupied, dimly lighted stretch that Plagueis surmised the Shi’ido would make use of to transform, and they waited.

The Shi’ido did not disappoint him. And the moment he began to shift—from Askajian to what might have been either an Ongree or a Gotal—11-4D activated the laser weapon hidden in its right arm and fired a tightbeam into the base of the Shi’ido’s brain.

The momentarily monstrous medley of species loosed a tormented scream and collapsed to the floor of the tunnel, squirming in pain. Moving quickly, 11-4D dragged him deeper into the dimness, where Plagueis positioned himself behind the skinshifter’s grotesquely bulging cranium, uneven shoulders, and hunched back.

“Why did you transfer your winnings to Kerred Santhe?” Plagueis asked.

The Shi’ido’s twisted mouth struggled to form a response. “Are you with the Gaming Authority?”

“You only wish. Again: Why Kerred Santhe?”

“Gambling debts,” the Shi’ido slurred, as slaver dripped to the ground. “He’s in debt to a couple of Black Sun Vigos and other lenders.”

“Santhe is one of the galaxy’s wealthiest beings,” Plagueis pressed. “Why would he need what you’ve been stealing from casinos from here to Coruscant?”

“He’s millions in debt. He hasn’t stopped drinking and gambling since his father was assassinated.”

Brilliantly assassinated, Plagueis thought. “Even so, Black Sun would never target him.”

The Forceful Shi’ido craned his lumpy neck in an effort to get a look at his inquisitor. “He knows that. But the Vigos are threatening to go public with the information. A scandal could persuade Santhe/Sienar’s board of directors to oust him as chief operating officer and appoint Narro Sienar as his replacement.”

Plagueis laughed shortly in a surprised but satisfied way. “As well they should, skinshifter.” He stood and began to move off. “You’ve been most helpful. You’re free to go.”

“You can’t leave me like this,” the Shi’ido begged.

Plagueis came to a halt and returned to his victim. “If you were funding terrorism or purchasing weapons, I might have allowed you to continue fleecing the casinos. But by fattening Black Sun’s coffers and protecting the reputation of an enemy of one of my friends, you become my enemy, as well.” He lowered his voice to a menacing growl. “Consider this: you have one last chance to use your Force talents to win big before your horrid image becomes the centerpiece of the cheaters database on every gambling world. I suggest you use your winnings wisely to make a new life for yourself where the Gaming Authority won’t be able to find you, and I won’t come looking for you.”

To say that the planet Saleucami was the bright spot of its system meant merely that it alone, among half a dozen airless and desolate worlds, was capable of supporting life. Its own bright spots were not, as one might suspect, those areas that hadn’t yet been victimized by meteor bombardments, but rather some of the impact craters the ceaseless celestial storm had left behind. For there the meteor strikes had conjured mineral-rich underground waters to the arid surface, turning the craters into caldera lakes, and the environs into oases of orbiculate flora.

Blue-skinned, yellow-eyed bipeds from the far side of the Core had been the first to colonize Saleucami, which meant “oasis” in their tongue, for the world was just that among those they had visited during the long journey from Wroona. Since then had come hearty groups of Weequay, Gran, and Twi’leks, in flight from conflicts or in search of hardscrabble isolation, and up to the tasks of farming the colorless ground for moisture and subsisting on tasteless root crops that withered in the midday heat and froze solid at night. Eventually the planet had given rise to a city and a spaceport, constructed in the shadow of one of the calderas nourished by geothermal energy.

Saleucami’s more recent immigrants were of a different sort: young beings from worlds as distant as Glee Anselm and Arkania, dressed in tattered clothing and carrying their possessions on their backs. Drifters and searchers arriving in the battered transports and tramp freighters that served the Outer Rim systems. Male and female, though three times the latter to the former, distinguished by what some saw as a restless gaze and others the look of the lost. At first the native colonists didn’t know what to make of these feckless wanderers, but gradually an entire industry had grown up to cater to their simple if peculiar needs for shelter, food, and surface transport into the wastelands, where enlightenment awaited, delivered at the outsized hands of a being who was rumored to possess prophetic powers.

Among them that day was a Muun wearing a simple hooded robe and well-worn boots. Where normally the mere sight of a Muun might have generated rumors that Saleucami was about to be acquired by the InterGalactic Banking Clan, the youthful horde the Munn had fallen in with barely gave him a second glance. Not when the crowd already included Ryn and Fosh and other exotic species; and not when Saleucami itself was viewed as little more than a stepping-stone to a greater world.

Plagueis had left 11-4D on Sy Myrth and completed the journey by freighter in the hope of maintaining as low a profile as possible. Background data on the prophet was scant, though Venamis had noted that she had been born in the Inner Rim and had arrived on Saleucami only three years earlier. Saleucami’s colonists were willing to tolerate her presence, as well as the camp followers she attracted, provided they confined their assemblies to the wastelands.

Wedged in among forty others in an overpacked speeder bus, Plagueis let his gaze sweep across a forlorn landscape of volcanic mountains and the sheer walls of impact craters. In a cloudless sky of pale purple, blinding light flashed intermittently, and the monotony of the five-hour trip was relieved only by the occasional settlement or lone moisture farm. Journey’s end was a relatively small caldera lake, from the shores of which rose a communal sprawl of tents and crude shelters, populated by the dreamy veterans of previous assemblies.

The Selected, as they were called.

Climbing from the speeder bus, Plagueis joined the crowd of newcomers in a short trek to a natural amphitheater, where pieces of meteorite provided seats for some. Others sat on their backpacks or spread out on the uneven ground. Shortly, the sound of whining engines announced the arrival of a caravan of hybridized landspeeders, many in pristine condition, though covered with dust and bleached of color by the harsh light. Nearly everyone in the amphitheater stood up and a wave of anticipation moved through the crowd, building to a fervor as an Iktotchi female stepped from one of the vehicles, encircled by disciples dressed as plainly as she was.

Plagueis couldn’t think of a being more suited to Saleucami or cult status: a hairless biped with downward-curving horns and a prominent brow, skin hardened to withstand the violent winds of her homeworld, and a contentious countenance that belied an emotional nature. But, most important, possessed of proven precognitive ability.

Alone, she mounted a slab of stone that was the amphitheater’s stage and, once the crowd had quieted, began to speak in a solemn voice.

“I have seen the coming darkness and the beings that will visit it upon the galaxy.” She paused briefly to allow her words to be felt. “I have witnessed the collapse of the Republic, and I have beheld the Jedi Order spun into turmoil.” She aimed a finger toward distant mountains. “On the horizon looms a galaxy-spanning war—a conflict between machines of alloy and machines of flesh, and the subsequent death of tens of millions of innocents.”

She paced on the slab, almost as if speaking to herself. “I see worlds subjugated and worlds destroyed, and from the chaos a new order born, buttressed by ferocious weapons the likes of which haven’t been seen in more than one thousand years. A galaxy brought under the yoke of a ruthless despot who serves the forces of entropy. And finally I have seen that only those hardened by this ineluctable truth can survive.” She scanned the audience. “Only those of you who are willing to turn upon one another and profit by the misfortunes of others.”

The crowd sat in stunned silence. Iktotchi were said to surrender some of their precognitive abilities the farther they traveled from their homeworld, but that wasn’t always the case. And certainly not, Plagueis told himself, in the case of an Iktotchi who was strong in the Force. It was no wonder that Venamis had been keeping tabs on her.

“I have been sent to overturn your most cherished beliefs in a bright future, and to help you wage war on good intentions and the deception of pure ideas; to teach you how to accept the fact that even in the midst of this seemingly blessed era, this wink of the eye in sentient history, our baser instincts hold sway over us. I have been sent to counsel you that the Force itself will become as if it had been but a passing fancy among the self-deceived—an antiquated illusion that will turn to smoke on the cleansing fires of the new age.”

She paused once more, and when she next spoke some of the edge had left her voice.

“What this reordered galaxy will need is beings who are fearless to be arrogant, self-serving, and driven to survive at all costs. Here, under my guidance, you will learn to let go of your old selves and find the strength to recast yourselves as beings of durasteel, through actions you might never have believed yourselves possible of performing.

“I am the pilot of your future.”

She opened her arms to the crowd. “Look, each of you, to the ones to your left and right, and to those in front and behind …”

Plagueis did as instructed, meeting innocent gazes and angry ones, frightened looks and expressions of loss.

“… and think of them as stepping-stones to your eventual escalation,” the Iktotchi said. She showed her hands. “The touch from my hands will set the current flowing through you; it will trip the switch that will start your journey to transformation. Come to me if you wish to be selected.”

Many in the crowd stood and began to press toward the stage, pushing others out of the way, fighting to be first to reach her. Plagueis took his time, finding a place at the end of a meandering line. While the notion of having a ready-made army of dark siders available to him was not without a certain appeal, the Iktotchi was spreading a message that had doomed the Sith of old, the Sith who preceded Bane’s reformation, and had allowed internecine fighting to propel the Order into oblivion. The appropriate message should have been that they relinquish their need to feel in control of their own destinies and accept the enlightened leadership of a select few.

Saleucami’s primary was low in the sky by the time Plagueis reached the stone slab and stood facing the Iktotchi. Her broad hands took hold of his, and she tightened her thick fingers around his narrow palms.

“A Muun of wealth and taste—the first who has come in search of me,” she said.

“You were selected,” Plagueis told her.

She held his gaze, and a sudden look of uncertainty came into her eyes, as if Plagueis had locked horns with her. “What?”

“You were selected—though without your knowledge. And so I needed to meet you in person.”

She continued to stare at him. “That’s not why you are here.”

“Oh, but it is,” Plagueis said.

She tried to withdraw her hands, but Plagueis now had firm hold of them. “That’s not why you are here,” she said, altering the emphasis. “You wear the darkness of the future. It is I who have sought you; I who should be your handmaiden.”

“Unfortunately not,” Plagueis whispered. “Your message is premature and dangerous to my cause.”

“Then let me undo it! Let me do your bidding.”

“You are about to.”

A fire ignited in her eyes and her body went rigid as Plagueis began to trickle lightning into her. Her limbs trembled and her blood began to boil. Her hands grew hot and were close to being set aflame when he finally felt the light go out of her and she crumpled in his grasp. Askance, he saw one of the Iktotchi’s Twi’lek disciples racing toward him, and he abruptly let go of her hands and stepped away from her spasming body.

“What happened?” the Twi’lek demanded as other disciples were rushing to the Iktotchi’s aid. “What did you do to her?”

Plagueis made a calming gesture. “I did nothing,” he said in a deep monotone. “She fainted.”

The Twi’lek blinked and turned to his comrades. “He did nothing. She fainted.”

“She’s not breathing!” one of them said.

“Help her,” Plagueis said in the same monotone.

“Help her,” the Twi’lek said. “Help her!”

Plagueis stepped from the slab and began to walk against a sudden tide of frenzied beings toward one of the waiting speeder buses. Night was falling quickly. Behind him, shouts of disbelief rang out, echoing in the amphitheater. Panic was building. Beings were wringing their hands, jiggling their antennae and other appendages, walking in circles, mumbling to themselves.

He was the only one to board the speeder bus. Those he had arrived with and the Selected who had built shelters above the lakes were running into the dark, as if determined to lose themselves in the wastes.

In a starship similar in design to the one that had delivered Tenebrous and Plagueis to Bal’demnic—a Rugess Nome craft—Plagueis and 11-4D traveled to the Mid Rim world of Bedlam, near the argent pulsar of the same name. A leak point in realspace and a playground for purported transdimensional beings, the luminous cosmic phenomenon struck Plagueis as the perfect setting for the sanatorium to which the last of Venamis’s potential apprentices—a Nautolan—had been confined for the past five years.

Uniformed Gamorrean guards met them at the towering front doors of the Bedlam Institution for the Criminally Demented and showed them to the office of the superintendent, where they were welcomed by an Ithorian, who listened closely but in obvious dismay to the purpose of Plagueis’s surprise visit.

“Naat Lare has been named as a beneficiary in a will?”

Plagueis nodded. “A small inheritance. As chief executor I have been searching for him for some time.”

The Ithorian’s twin-lobed head swung back and forth and his long, bulbous-tipped fingers tapped a tattoo on the desktop. “I’m sorry for having to report that he is no longer with us.”

“Dead?”

“Quite possibly. But what I meant to say is that he has disappeared.”

“When?”

“Two months ago.”

“Why was he originally confined to Bedlam?” Plagueis asked.

“He was remanded by authorities on Glee Anselm, but ultimately sentenced to serve out his time here, where he could be looked after.”

“What was his crime?”

“Crimes, is more apt. He has a long history of sadomasochistic practices—most often performed on small animals—pyromania, petty crime, and intoxicant use. Typically we see this in beings who have been abused or had an unstable upbringing, but Naat Lare had a loving family and is very intelligent, despite having been expelled from countless schools.”

Plagueis considered his next question carefully. “Is he dangerous?”

The Ithorian drummed his spatulate fingers again before responding. “At the risk of violating patient confidentiality, I would say potentially dangerous, as he has certain … let us say, talents, that transcend the ordinary.”

“Did those talents figure into his escape?”

“Perhaps. Though we think he may have had help.”

“From whom?”

“A Bith physician who took an interest in his case.”

Plagueis leaned back in his chair. Venamis? “Have you contacted this physician?”

“We tried, but the information he furnished regarding his practice and place of residence was fraudulent.”

“So he may not have been a physician.”

The Ithorian’s head bobbed on his curving neck. “Sadly. The Bith may have been an accomplice, of sorts.”

“Do you have any idea where Naat Lare may have disappeared to?”

“Assuming he left Bedlam on his own, the possibilities are limited, given the dearth of starships that serve us. His first stop would have to have been either Felucia, Caluula, or Abraxin. We notified the authorities on those worlds. Unfortunately, we lack the budget to undertake an extensive search.”

Plagueis cast 11-4D a meaningful glance and rose from the chair. “Your cooperation is greatly appreciated, Superintendent.”

“We’re confident that the Jedi will locate him, in any case,” the Ithorian added as Plagueis and the droid were about to exit the office.

Plagueis swung back around. “The Jedi?”

“Because of Naat Lare’s peculiar gifts, we felt obliged to contact the Order as soon as he was discovered to be missing. They graciously consented to assist us in the search.” The Ithorian paused. “I could contact you if I learn something …”

Plagueis smiled. “I’ll leave my contact information with your assistant.”

He and 11-4D returned to the ship in silence. While the boarding ramp was lowering, Plagueis said, “Beings like Naat Lare don’t remain hidden for long. Search the HoloNet and other sources for news of recent events on the three worlds the superintendent named, and apprise me of any accounts that capture your interest.”

The ship had scarcely left Bedlam’s atmosphere when 11-4D reported to the cockpit.

“A morsel from Abraxin, Magister,” the droid began. “Buried among stories of intriguing or bizarre occurrences. Reports of the recent killings of dozens of marsh haunts in the swamps surrounding a Barabel settlement on the southern continent.”

Large, nonsentient bipedal creatures, marsh haunts hunted in packs and were known to use the Force to flush their prey into the open.

“The superstitious among the Barabels believe that the Blight of Barabel is responsible for the rash of killings.”

Plagueis slapped the palms of his hands on his thighs. “Our Nautolan has moved on from torturing household pets to murdering Forceful creatures. And I’m certain that the Jedi will reach the same conclusion.”

“If they haven’t already, sir.”

Plagueis caressed his chin in thought. “This one has more than a hint of the dark side. It’s no wonder Venamis was visiting him. Have the navicomputer plot a course for Abraxin, FourDee. We’re returning to the Tion Cluster.”

A standard day later they had made planetfall close to the area where the marsh haunt killings had been occurring. By design, the Barabel settlement was remote from any of the planet’s spaceports, at the dubious edge of an extensive swamp, the twisting shorelines of which were palisaded by dense stands of water-rooted trees. On a finger of high ground a few pre-form buildings rose among clusters of stilted, thatched-roof homes linked to one another by paths that weaved through the dry-season grasses. The scaled, reptilian natives wore just enough clothing to be modest, and a sickly sweet smell of rotting vegetation hung in the motionless air. Abraxin had been strong in the dark side during Bane’s lifetime, when it had been aligned with Lord Kaan’s Brotherhood of Darkness, but Plagueis could sense that the power had waned significantly in the intervening centuries.

He and 11-4D hadn’t walked a kilometer from the ship when they came upon a group of Barabels hauling a quartet of slaughtered marsh haunts from the legume-soup-colored water. The foul-smelling, bipedal carcasses had been slashed and stabbed, and had lost their red eyes to the delicate work of a vibroblade. On first glance one might have thought that the creatures had been decapitated, as well, what with their small heads set low between hunched shoulders. Plagueis found the Barabels to be no more pleasant smelling than the butchered haunts, but they knew enough Basic to answer his questions about the recent spate of killings.

“Memberz of the same hunt pack, these four,” one of the reptilians explained, “and done in only last night.”

Another, whose shedded tail was just beginning to regrow, added: “It’z the Blight.” His clawed paw indicated the black eye sockets of one of the limp haunts. “This one believes that only the Blight would take the eyes.”

Continuing on the shaded path that led into the settlement, Plagueis shrugged out of his cloak and folded it over his right forearm. A turn in the path revealed that he wasn’t the only visitor improperly dressed for the climate. Up ahead two Jedi layered in the Order’s traditional brown robes were haggling with a Barabel over the rental price for a water skimmer. Plagueis anchored himself in the material realm as the younger of the two Jedi—a Zabrak—swung slowly around to watch him and 11-4D as they passed.

Responding to the Jedi’s look with a nod of his head, Plagueis kept walking, deviating from the path only when they had reached a small market building, from which the pair of Jedi and the Barabel skimmer pilot could still be observed. Familiar with Barabel, Plagueis eavesdropped on conversations among the merchants, who sat behind trays of dead fish, birds, and insects the swamp had provided. The marsh haunt killings were on everyone’s mind, as were superstitions about the Blight. But the arrival of the Jedi was viewed as a good omen, in that the Order was venerated for having helped settle a clan dispute on Barab I almost a millennium earlier.

Plagueis drew 11-4D to the market entrance and instructed him to sharpen his photoreceptors on the Jedi, who were in the midst of concluding their business with the skimmer pilot. He then allowed himself to call deeply on the Force.

“Both of them reacted,” the droid said. “The Cerean directed a gaze at the market, but didn’t focus on you.”

“Only because he has his feelers out for a Nautolan rather than a Muun.”

A short time later, while Plagueis and 11-4D were wandering through the settlement, someone called out in Core-accented Basic: “We appear to be the only strangers in town.”

The voice belonged to the rangy Cerean, who had emerged from an eatery bearing a flagon of liquid. Following him outside, the Zabrak set two mugs on a table that enjoyed a pool of shade.

“Join us, please,” the Cerean said, nodding his tall conical head toward the table’s spare chair.

Plagueis stepped toward the table but declined the chair.

“A locally produced beer,” the Zabrak said, pouring from the flagon. “But I saw a bottle of Abraxin Brandy inside, if that’s more to your liking.”

“Thank you, but neither at the moment,” Plagueis said. “Perhaps after working hours.”

The Cerean motioned to himself. “I am Master Ni-Cada. And this is Padawan Lo Bukk. What brings you to Abraxin, citizen—”

“Micro-loans,” Plagueis cut in before having to provide a name. “The Banking Clan is considering opening a branch of the Bank of Aargau here as a means of shoring up the local economy.”

The Jedi traded enigmatic looks over the rims of the mugs.

“And what brings the Jedi to Abraxin, Master Ni-Cada? Not the shellfish, I take it.”

“We’re investigating the recent killings of marsh haunts,” the Zabrak said, perhaps before his Master could prevent him.

“Ah, of course. My droid and I saw the bodies of four of the pitiful creatures when we entered the settlement.”

The Cerean nodded gravely. “This so-called Blight will be over by tomorrow.”

Plagueis adopted a look of pleasant surprise. “Wonderful news. There’s nothing worse than superstition to cripple an economy. Enjoy your drinks, citizens.”

OneOne-FourDee waited until he and Plagueis were well out of earshot of the Jedi to say: “Are we departing Abraxin, Magister?”

Plagueis shook his head. “Not before I find the Nautolan. I’ve no choice but to attempt to draw him out of hiding.”

“But should you call on the Force, you’re likely to attract the Jedi, as well.”

“The risk may prove worthwhile.”

They spent the afternoon eavesdropping on conversations about the locations of the killings, and determined that Naat Lare, whether he realized it or not, had been following a pattern. In the darkness at the edge of the settlement, at a spot along the bloodsucker-plagued shore of the dark swamp, some six kilometers from the market, Plagueis peeled out of his leggings, tunic, and bonnet, and slipped naked into the murky water. With an aquata breather clamped between his teeth, he propelled himself to the bottom. There, squatting in the muck, he opened himself fully to the Force and summoned the Nautolan, whose Force and olfactory senses might suggest that the mother of all marsh haunts was at hand for killing. A tattooed female Nautolan named Dossa had once been deemed suitable to serve Sith Lord Exar Kun; who knew what gifts Naat Lare might possess?

Surfacing to the riotous stridulations of insects, Plagueis leapt to the muddy shore, dressed, and perched himself in starlight on the slippery roots of a leafy tree. Shortly, he sensed an echo in the Force and saw ripples in the water some distance away. In the dim light, a blue-green nest of head-tresses broke the surface, followed by a pair of lidless maroon eyes. Then the amphibious sentient from Glee Anselm appeared, pulling himself ashore like some devolved beast and fixing his attention on Plagueis.

At the same time, Plagueis heard the sound of a water skimmer approaching rapidly from deeper in the swamp, and sensed the presence of the two Jedi.

“You’re not Venamis,” Naat Lare said in Basic, one hand on the hilt of a vibroblade strapped to his muscular thigh.

“He helped you escape Bedlam and sent you here as part of your training.”

Naat Lare’s hand closed on the hilt. “Who are you?”

Plagueis stood to his full height. “I am Venamis’s Master.”

The Nautolan looked confused, but only momentarily. Then he genuflected in the mud. “Lord,” he said, lowering his head.

The sound of the skimmer was closer now, just around a bend in the swamp. “Two Jedi have tracked you.”

Naat Lare’s tresseled head swung to the sound of the skimmer.

Plagueis began to retreat into the shadows, and into mundane nature. “Prove yourself worthy to me and Venamis by killing them.”

“Yes, my lord.” The Nautolan sprang to his feet and dived into the slime-covered water.

Deep in the leafy trees Plagueis waited. The skimmer’s motor went silent; then water surged and shouts of alarm and sudden flashes of light erupted in the night.

“Master!”

A harsh guttural sound rang out, followed by a scream of pain.

“Stand aside, Padawan.”

“Master, it’s—”

Another scream, higher in pitch.

“Don’t! Don’t!”

The thrum of an angered lightsaber, a howl of pain, and something heavy struck the water.

“Is he alive? Is he alive?”

Someone moaned.

“Wait …”

Waves broke on the rooted shore close to where Plagueis had concealed himself.

“Master?”

“It’s done. He’s dead.”


 

9: UNTAPPED RESERVES

For more than fifty years Damask Holdings had occupied one of Harnaidan’s most magnificent superspires. If not as soaring or massive as those belonging to the InterGalactic Banking Clan and its numerous subsidiaries, the building had the advantage of being constructed close to the largest of the city’s naturally heated lakes, which had been incorporated into the property as an exclusive spa. The company’s boardroom overlooked the lake and surrounding hot springs from an architectural setback on the two-hundredth floor, where Hego Damask, Larsh Hill, and the chief officers and executives of Damask Holdings convened for twice-weekly meetings. That day a one-quarter-life-sized holopresence stood at the center of the room’s enormous circular holotable, addressing the gathered Muuns in Basic from the far-removed world of Naboo.

A human of medium height, the speaker had dark brown hair combed straight back from a sloping forehead, a thick and lengthy beard and mustache, and bright blue eyes set in a symmetrical if unremarkable face. He was attired in layers of richly colored clothing, which included a vest embroidered with Futhork calligraphy and a brocade overcloak that fell to his knees, revealing tall, shiny, low-heeled leather boots. His name was Ars Veruna, and although he didn’t hold a position in Naboo’s monarchical government, he was speaking for the current pretender to the throne, Bon Tapalo, and was likely to be appointed governor of the city of Theed in the event of Tapalo’s election.

“Our campaign has been stalled by recent allegations from the leaders of some of the royal houses,” Veruna was telling the gathered Muuns. “Something has to be done to recapture momentum—and quickly. Counterallegations made public by an unknown benefactor went a long way toward undoing the initial damage of the nobles’ media releases, but a new wariness has gripped the electorate, strengthening the position of our provincial opponents.”

“Audio cancellation,” one of the Muuns said toward the holosystem’s pickups. Secure in the knowledge that conversation around the table had been muted, he went on. “Are all the Naboo as hirsute and elaborately costumed as this Veruna?”

Larsh Hill replied. “They are traditionalists—tonsorially as well as politically. The style of dress and facial adornments pay homage to the regalia of Queen Elsinore den Tasia of Grizmallt, who dispatched an expeditionary fleet of humans to the planet some four thousand years ago, and to whom some Naboo claim to be able to trace an unbroken ancestry.”

“They are not, after all, as furry as Wookiees,” said another.

Hill grunted affirmatively. “In addition to humans, Naboo supports a hairless amphibious species known as the Gungans. Perhaps indigenous, perhaps not, but in no position to represent the planet in galactic dealings, in either case.”

Seated with his back to the scenic view beyond the window wall, Plagueis studied the holoimage of Veruna. Generally he loathed politicians for their pretentions and ill-informed belief that wealth and influence conferred true power. But politicians were a necessary evil, and, if nothing else, Veruna burned with greed and ambition, which meant that he could be manipulated if necessary.

The missions to Lianna, Saleucami, and Abraxin were still fresh in his thoughts. On a philosophical level he understood why the generations of Sith Lords that had preceded him had trained apprentices, to whom they had bequeathed their knowledge of the dark side of the Force in anticipation of an eventual challenge for superiority. But with the Grand Plan culminating, it made no sense to challenge or kill beings of equal power unless they posed a threat to Plagueis’s personal destiny. The Sith line would continue through him or not at all. Thus the need for a partner rather than an underling; a cohort to help put into play the final stages of the imperative. It had long been his belief that the dark side would provide that one when the time was right.

Plagueis hadn’t anticipated having to turn his attention quite so suddenly to Naboo, but with the Trade Federation still grumbling about his support for the Outer Rim free-trade zones, and the Gran worried about losing Podrace revenues to Gardulla the Hutt, there were ample reasons for getting down to business. More important, Plagueis had long sought a planet that Damask Holdings and the steerage committee members could use as a base of operations. The possibility of having a future King at their beck and call was an added bonus, and even such unlikely players as Boss Cabra stood to profit from the Muuns’ securing of Naboo.

It was during his absence from Muunilinst that Larsh Hill and some of the others had made overtures to the group vying for the throne of Naboo. In exchange for financial and logistical support in the upcoming election, Damask Holdings had asked for exclusive rights to transport plasma from the as-yet-untapped reservoir the Subtext Mining Group had recently discovered deep beneath the plateau that supported the capital city of Theed. Not every Naboo, however, was in favor of involving the planet in trade of the sort that would result from making plasma energy available, and a cadre of nobles had thrown their support behind Tapalo’s chief rival for the monarchy.

Reactivating the audio feed, Plagueis asked: “What was the nature of the allegations made by the royal houses?”

“First, they leaked word of the mining survey we had performed,” Veruna said, “but the revelation failed to have the intended effect, because several members of the electorate favor opening Naboo to galactic trade. Then, when they learned of our initial talks with Damask Holdings, the nobles accused us of selling Naboo to the highest bidder—to, and I’ll quote—‘a shady, extra-system cartel of ruthless criminals.’ ” The human paused for a moment. “You should understand, Magister, that our world has yet to overcome a long history of forbidding outside influence. The royal houses realize that trade is a sensitive issue and are now advocating for Naboo to oversee the transport of plasma to other worlds. But frankly we lack both the funds and the expertise to make that a reality.”

“How were the nobles able to learn of our overtures to you?” Plagueis asked.

“We haven’t been able to determine the source,” Veruna said.

Plagueis muted the audio feed and turned to Hill. “We need to consider that someone close to our organization may be responsible for this ‘leak.’ ”

Hill and some of the others nodded in agreement.

“The royal houses need to be informed that a leap into the business of transgalactic shipping is ill advised,” Plagueis said when he had reactivated the audio feed. “Naboo will need funding, logistical support, and perhaps even Republic legislation, and it is precisely in those areas where Damask Holdings can serve as an intermediary. Actual funding would come from the InterGalactic Banking Clan, and other conglomerates would be involved in assisting Naboo in tapping the plasma and in the construction of a spaceport of sufficient size to handle the ships needed to transport it.”

Veruna stroked his tapered beard. “Bon Tapalo will certainly want to address these points with the electorate.”

Plagueis liked what he was hearing. “You mentioned certain counterallegations released by an unknown party.”

“Yes, and I confess that we were as surprised by the information as anyone. It seems that our group is not the first to seek the advice and support of offworld interests. Roughly sixty standard years ago, at the height of a war between the Naboo and the Gungans, our monarch was killed, and it has now emerged that some members of the very same royal houses that oppose Tapalo struck a secret deal with a mercenary group to intervene in the war should the Naboo suffer further setbacks. Fortunately, the conflict was resolved without the need for outside help. In fact, as a result of that conflict, the monarchy has since been an elected rather than hereditary post.”

“You say that the information came as a surprise,” Plagueis continued.

Veruna nodded. “The information had to have been provided by a source within the opposition.”

It now fell to Larsh Hill to mute the feed.

“Veruna is correct. We were able to trace the release of the information to the young son of one of the nobles. In the hope of avoiding a scandal that could divide the electorate, the head of the royal house has perpetuated a lie that the Tapalo group chanced on the information and made it public, when actually only someone with access to the family archives could have discovered it.”

His interest piqued, Plagueis said, “What is the name of the royal family?”

“Palpatine.”

“And the son?”

“Just that. He goes by the cognomen alone.”

Plagueis leaned back in the chair to consider this, then said, “We may have found a potential ally—someone willing to keep us informed of the royals’ plans for the election.”

“An agent,” Hill said. “An inside man, as it were.”

Plagueis canceled the mute function. “We wish to visit Naboo in order to discuss these matters face-to-face.”

Veruna was clearly surprised. “A public appearance by you would allow us to refute any allegations of secret collusion.”

“Then all of us have something to gain.”

Veruna bowed at the waist. “It will be our great honor to welcome you, Magister Damask.”

Later it would be said by Naboo and Gungan alike that they couldn’t recall a colder winter than the one that followed Hego Damask’s autumnal visit to their world. The rivers and even the falls below Theed froze; the rolling plains and tall forests were blanketed three meters deep with snow; plasmic quakes rocked the Gallo Mountains and the Lake Country, the Holy Places and the undersea city of Otoh Gunga; and many of the egresses of the underwaterways that hollowed the planet were blocked by ice floes.

Tapalo and Veruna had insisted on sending one of Naboo’s signature starships to transport the Muuns from Muunilinst, and the sleek Nubian had set down at Theed spaceport, a small facility that would have to be enlarged twentyfold if Naboo hoped to one day become a player in galactic commerce. The city itself struck Plagueis as the very antithesis of Harnaidan; where the capital of Muunilinst was vertical, angular, and austere, Theed was low, convex, and condensed, dominated by rotundas crowned with verdigris domes or flat roofs and tiered towers supported by round-topped archways. A river and several tributaries ran through the place, spanned by filigreed bridges and plunging in a series of high falls from an escarpment to verdant flatlands below.

A cortège of air skimmers carried the black-robed Muuns through streets better suited to pedestrian traffic to the interior courtyard of an ancient palace, where pretender to the throne Bon Tapalo, Veruna, and several other human advisers and would-be ministers of both sexes were on hand to welcome them. Draped in shimmersilk robes and propped by boots with high heels, the bearded and blond-haired Tapalo already carried himself like a regent—albeit of a second-rate world—remaining seated while Hego Damask and the rest of the Muuns were introduced, and flanked by guards dressed in flare-skirted uniforms and armed with vintage blasters. Veruna, on the other hand, immediately fell into step alongside Damask as the Muuns were being escorted into the central building of the complex.

“As I said when we spoke weeks back, Magister Damask, we are honored by your visit.”

“And as I told you then, we all have something to gain.” Damask turned slightly to look down at him. “Especially you, I suspect.”

Veruna gestured to himself in question. “I—”

“Not now,” Damask said softly. “When the time is right, you and I will confer privately.”

Under a broad arch and through a lobby of polished stone they moved as a group, ultimately arriving at a second small courtyard where several tables had been set up, some overflowing with food and drink, and the largest reserved for the Muuns. No sooner were they seated than servants appeared and began serving food, including various meats that the Muuns politely declined. The practice of consuming food while conducting business was one that Damask had grown to tolerate in his dealings with humans, but in secret he detested it.

For many years he had detested the company of humans, as well. Barbaric meat eaters that they were, humans were a highly evolved species. Given their native intelligence and shrewd faculties, they deserved to be treated with the same deference Muuns were afforded. And yet many of the galaxy’s sapient species considered themselves to be equal to humans, who had only themselves to blame. Unlike Muuns, humans had no compunctions about lowering themselves to the level of less advanced beings—the slow-witted, disadvantaged, needy, and pitiful—making a pretense of equality and demonstrating a willingness to work and sweat cheek-by-dewlaps alongside them. Instead of celebrating their superiority, they frequently allowed themselves to be dragged down into mediocrity. A Muun would no sooner accept a position as a starship pilot or a smuggler than he would a career diplomat or politician unless required to do so for the greater good of Muuns everywhere. Humans, though, could be found in every occupation. But what made them especially intriguing was their seeming intent to spread themselves to the far reaches of the galaxy, without any sense of control or planning, at whatever cost, and using up world after world in their insatiable quest, as if their diaspora from the Core reflected some sort of species imperative. More important, the Force seemed not only to allow their unchecked dissemination but to support it. In human hands, Damask suspected, rested the profane future of the galaxy.

Naboo blossom wine was still being poured when the Muuns made their pitch to the Tapalo group, employing the courtyard’s holoprojector to provide a virtual portrait of what Theed and other nearby cities might look like ten years on. Funding by the IBC would be allocated to tapping the plasma reservoir beneath the plateau. At the same time, Outer Rim Construction and Assembly—one of Cabra’s companies—would build an enormous refinery on the site of what was currently parkland, overlooking the Verdugo Plunge, housing the technology inside a triple-domed structure of Neo-Classical design. The Muuns detailed how the cliff walls could be stabilized and the tributaries of the Solleu River rerouted without disturbing the existing architecture or Theed’s network of underground tunnels. Below the cliffs, the Trade Federation would enlarge Theed’s spaceport, constructing a massive landing platform that would follow the natural curve of the escarpment, and open a second commercial port at Spinnaker.

By the time the pitch concluded, Tapalo looked stricken.

“Clearly you’ve put a good deal of thought into this,” he said to Larsh Hill, “but is there no room in your plans for Naboo firms?”

“The last thing we want is to have these construction projects be seen as signs of foreign occupation,” Hill said. “Our partners wish to work closely with Naboo’s own Plasma Energy Engineering and the Theed Space Vessel Engineering Corporation to make certain that the improvements are viewed as a cooperative effort. When the construction phases are completed, the refinery and the spaceports will be under your full control.”

Some of the color returned to Tapalo’s face. “The opposition contends that Naboo will be forever indebted to the Banking Clan and the Trade Federation.”

“Only until the plasma begins to flow,” Damask said. “I understand your trepidation. But the question you need to ask yourselves is whether you can win the crown without our help.”

Separate conversations erupted at every table.

“I suppose so, Magister,” Tapalo said, signaling for quiet. “But perhaps it’s better to run the risk of defeat rather than ascend to the throne in dishonor.”

“Dishonor?” Hill repeated in aggrieved disbelief. “Have we crossed the galaxy to be insulted?”

“Wait,” Veruna said, coming to his feet and gesturing for calm. “We meant no insult to Damask Holdings.” He turned to face Tapalo and his handpicked team of ministers and advisers. “Yes, we must be mindful of the concerns of the present electorate, but we shouldn’t allow the fearful voices of a few to cripple our chance of joining the galactic community and raising the profile of the entire Chommell sector. I suggest we act boldly. To avoid being perceived as having bowed to pressure, I say we use this unprecedented visit by Damask Holdings to announce publicly that we and we alone are capable of entering into an arrangement with the Banking Clan and others that will allow Naboo to restructure its debt, achieve favored-world status with the Core, and provide for tax cuts, lower interest rates, and endless opportunities for employment, both on- and offworld.” He clenched his fist for emphasis. “We must seize this moment before it disappears.”

Slowly, Tapalo and the others began to nod in agreement.

“Do you have anything to add, Magister Damask?” Tapalo said at last.

Damask spread his hands. “Only that we couldn’t have stated our case any better than Theed’s future governor already has.”

“Hear, hear,” one of Tapalo’s advisers said, lifting his goblet of wine in a toast to Veruna.

The rest followed suit, and drank.

And Damask thought: One day soon, Veruna will be the King of Naboo.

The plan called for the Muuns to spend the night in Theed and resume talks in the morning. With Hill and the others being shown to accommodations, Plagueis excused himself and struck out on foot for the university building on the opposite side of the city. His route took him through leafy parks, over two bridges, past towers and obelisks, and through the heart of Palace Plaza, with its pair of triumphal arches. Crowned by a statue of a human figure, the university’s central rotunda was set back from one of the Solleu tributaries, dominating a precinct of stately buildings and public places. Plagueis located the student center and went to the registration desk, which was staffed by a young fair-haired female who stared openly at him as he approached.

“I’m looking for a student named Palpatine,” he said in Basic.

“I know him,” she said, nodding.

“Do you know where I might find him just now? Is he perhaps attending a class?”

She blew out her breath. “He comes and goes. Maybe I saw him at the Youth Program Building.”

“Maybe.”

“I think it was him.”

Humans, Plagueis thought. “Can you direct me there?”

Her answer was a flimsi map, which Plagueis used to weave his way across campus to the headquarters of the Legislative Youth Program—an organization that oversaw Naboo’s mandatory public service curricula. Young people of both sexes buzzed about him, some scarcely noticing him, others going out of their way to get a closer look. At various times he asked after Palpatine, and was able to narrow his search to a square that fronted the columned library, where he eventually recognized Palpatine from holos Hill had provided, walking briskly through the square in the company of a human male nearly twice his age, black-haired and wearing more formal attire. Palpatine himself was dressed in slacks, short boots, and a loose-fitting shirt that was closed at the collar. Of average height, he had wavy red hair, a prominent nose, and a narrow face that humans would probably have found friendly. His back was straight, his arms were long relative to the length of his torso, and he moved with an easy grace.

For some time Plagueis observed him from a distance, approaching only after Palpatine had parted company with the older man. Palpatine didn’t spy him until Plagueis was only steps away, and when he did he turned sharply and began to walk in the opposite direction.

“Young human,” Plagueis said, hastening his own pace. “A moment of your time.” When Palpatine failed to acknowledge him, he lengthened his stride and called: “Palpatine.”

Slowing to a reluctant halt, Palpatine looked over his shoulder. “How do you know my name?”

“I know more about you than just your name,” Plagueis said, coming abreast of him.

Interest and caution mingled in Palpatine’s blue eyes. “Normally I take exception to people claiming to know something about me, but since I know something about you, as well, I’ll restrain myself.”

From doing what? Plagueis wondered. “What is it you know about me?”

Palpatine exhaled in mild impatience. “You’re Hego Damask. The president—no, the ‘Magister’—of Damask Holdings. My father said that you were coming to Naboo to meet with Bon Tapalo. Your group is shoring up his bid for the throne.”

“Did your father say that I might be coming to meet with you also?”

“Why would he? And what exactly is it you want with me?”

“I believe we have something in common.”

“I very much doubt that.”

“Perhaps all the more reason to become acquainted, then.”

Palpatine glanced around him, as if searching for an escape.

“Who was the man you were speaking with earlier?” Plagueis asked.

Palpatine started to say something, then cut himself off and began again. “My mentor in the youth program. His name is Vidar Kim. He’s an aide to Naboo’s Republic Senator, and will likely succeed her.” He looked hard at Plagueis. “And not a supporter of Tapalo.”

Plagueis weighed the response. “Are you interested in politics beyond your participation in the Legislative Youth Program?”

“I’m not sure what I want to do after university.”

“But you’ve some interest in politics.”

“I didn’t say that. I said I wasn’t sure.”

Plagueis nodded and looked up at the library building. “I’m a stranger to Theed. Would you consider showing me around?”

Palpatine’s jaw dropped a bit. “Listen, I’m—”

“Just a short tour.”

Engaging in small talk, they walked along the river in the direction of the concert hall and Queen Yram’s Needle, then crossed a footbridge and began to angle toward the palace complex. Aside from providing Plagueis with holos of Palpatine, Larsh Hill hadn’t been able offer much information regarding the youth’s background. Though he lacked an appellation, Palpatine’s father was a wealthy, influential royal, with a reputation for advocating for Naboo’s continued independence and isolation. The family name was thought to be an ancient name of state among hereditary noble families, or perhaps a name borrowed from an ancient region of Naboo.

“Theed is a beautiful city,” Plagueis remarked as they emerged from a narrow lane into the Palace Plaza.

“If you like museums,” Palpatine said offhandedly.

“You’ve no interest in art?”

Palpatine looked at him sideways. “I enjoy art. But I’m more of a minimalist.”

“In all things?”

“I wish Theed weren’t so crowded. I wish the winters were milder. I wish our King had fewer advisers and ministers.”

“That sounds like a political statement.”

“It’s simply my personal opinion.”

“They’re not mutually exclusive.”

Palpatine stopped short. “What are you attempting to draw out of me?”

Plagueis indicated a nearby bench. When Palpatine finally relented and sat down, Plagueis said, “It has come to my attention that you were responsible for the release of some information that has aided Tapalo’s campaign.”

Genuine surprise blossomed on Palpatine’s face. “How—”

Plagueis held up a hand. “That isn’t important right now. What is is that you did so against what would have been the wishes of your father, your mentor, and some of the other royals.”

“Are you planning to divulge this?”

Plagueis searched Palpatine’s face. “What might happen if I did?”

“To begin with, my father would murder me.”

“Literally?”

Palpatine exhaled forcefully. “He would disown me.”

“It’s true, then. You and your father find yourselves on opposite sides of the issues that animate the coming election.”

Palpatine lowered his gaze to the ground. “It would be far stranger to find ourselves on the same side of any issue.” He looked up again at Plagueis. “I want to see Naboo break with the past. I want us to belong to the greater galaxy. Is it wrong to want to play an important role in the history of the Republic?”

Plagueis rocked his head. “Governments rise and fall.”

“You have a better idea of how to govern the galaxy?”

Plagueis allowed a laugh. “I’m just an old Muun who wouldn’t know about that.”

Seeing through him, Palpatine snorted. “Just how old are you?”

“In human years I would be well over one hundred.”

Palpatine whistled. “I envy you that.”

“Why?”

“All the things you’ve done and can still do.”

“What would you do?”

“Everything,” Palpatine said.

They got up from the bench and began to amble back toward the university complex. Plagueis submerged himself deeply in the Force to study Palpatine, but he was unable to glean very much. Humans were difficult to read in the easiest of cases, and Palpatine’s mind was awash in conflict. So much going on in that small brain, Plagueis told himself. So much emotional current and self-interest. So unlike the predictable, focused intellects of the Outer Rim sentients, especially the hive-minded among them.

Palpatine stopped alongside a brightly colored, triple-finned landspeeder with a pointed nose and a repulsorlift engine that looked powerful enough to raise a loadlifter droid.

“This vehicle is yours?” Plagueis asked.

Pride shone in Palpatine’s eyes. “A prototype patrol-grade Flash. I race competitively.”

“Do you win?”

“Why else would I bother racing?” Climbing into the speeder, Palpatine centered himself at the controls.

“I have just the thing to adorn your rearview mirror,” Plagueis said. From his breast pocket he fished a coin of pure aurodium dangling from a length of chain, and dropped it into the palm of Palpatine’s hand. “It’s an antique.”

The young human appraised the gift. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“It’s yours.”

Palpatine showed him a questioning look.

“Who knows, perhaps you’ll go into banking one day,” Plagueis said.

Palpatine laughed in a relaxed way. “Unlikely, Magister Damask.”

“I suppose there are better ways to earn credits.”

Palpatine shook his head. “Credits don’t interest me.”

“I’m beginning to wonder just what does.”

Palpatine bit back whatever he was about to say.

“Palpatine, I wonder how you would feel about working with us—Damask Holdings, I mean.”

Palpatine’s thick eyebrows beetled. “In what capacity?”

“To be perfectly blunt, as a kind of spy.” He went on before Palpatine could speak. “I won’t say that you and I want the same things for Naboo, because clearly—and notwithstanding your feelings about the architecture—you hold your world dear. My group, however, is less interested in Naboo’s government than it is in Naboo’s plasma and what it will fetch on the open market.”

Palpatine looked as if the plain truth was something new to him. “If you had phrased that any differently, I would have rejected your offer out of hand.”

“Then you accept? You’re willing to update us regarding whatever political machinations your father’s group may have in the works?”

“Only if I can report directly to you.”

Plagueis tried once more to see him in the Force. “Is that your wish?”

Palpatine returned a sober nod. “It is.”

“Then by all means, you’ll report exclusively to me,” Plagueis said. “I’ll see to it that the necessary arrangements are made.” He stepped away from the speeder as Palpatine powered it up.

Palpatine fell silent for a moment. “I could take you for a ride tomorrow,” he said at last, above the whine of the engine. “If you have time, I mean. Show you some more of Theed and the outskirts.”

“If I have your word you won’t go too fast.”

Palpatine smiled wickedly. “Only fast enough to keep it interesting.”


 

10: THE CYCLE OF VIOLENCE

Flying a meter above the ground, Palpatine’s agile speeder skimmed over the plains below Theed plateau, leaving long curving trails in the tall grasses. The day was bright and clear, the warm air abuzz with insects and strewn with pollen.

“Exhilarating,” Plagueis said from the passenger-side bucket seat when Palpatine’s foot had eased off the accelerator.

“Maybe I’ll become a professional racer.”

“The Naboo might expect more of the eldest son of House Palpatine.”

“I ignore the expectations of others,” Palpatine said without looking at him.

“Was the speeder a gift from your father?”

Palpatine glanced at him. “A bribe—but one I accepted.”

“Does he approve of your racing?”

Palpatine made a harsh sound. “My father hasn’t ridden with me for years.”

“He doesn’t know what he’s missing.”

“It has nothing to do with my talents.” Palpatine turned slightly in the driver’s seat. “When I was younger I was responsible for the deaths of two pedestrians. At the time, my father threatened never to allow me to fly, but he eventually relented.”

“What made him change his mind?”

Palpatine swung forward. “I wore him down.”

“I’m sorry,” Plagueis said. “I didn’t know.”

Although, in fact, he did know. With help from 11-4D he had learned that Palpatine’s troubled past had seen him bounced from one private school to the next, following incidents of petty crime and offenses that would have landed a commoner in a correctional facility. Time and again his father, who shared with his son a penchant for violence, had used his influence to rescue Palpatine and avoid the specter of family scandals. To Plagueis, however, the youth’s transgressions were only further indication of his exceptionality. Here was a youth who had already risen above common morality and had judged himself unique enough to create an individual code of ethics.

Palpatine pointed to the distant tree line. “There are some ancient ruins in there, but that’s Gungan territory.”

“Have you had any dealings with them?”

“Personally, no. But I’ve seen the ones that come into Moenia to trade for goods.”

“What are your thoughts about them?”

“Aside from the fact that they are long-eared, slimy-tongued primitives?”

“Aside from that, yes.”

Palpatine shrugged. “I don’t mind them, so long as they keep to their submerged cities and waterways.”

“Not get in the way.”

“Exactly. Humans deserve to have the upper hand here.”

Plagueis could not restrain a smile. “There are many worlds in the galaxy where the matter of who has the upper hand, as it were, is in dispute.”

“That’s because most beings are afraid to take charge. Think what the Republic Senate might accomplish under the leadership of a strong being.”

“I have given thought to that, Palpatine.”

“What does the Senate do in response to each and every crisis? It dispatches the Jedi to restore order, and moves on without addressing the roots of the problem.”

Plagueis found the boy’s youthful ignorance entertaining. “The Jedi could rule the Republic if they wished,” he said after a moment. “I suppose we should be grateful that the Order is dedicated to peace.”

Palpatine shook his head. “I don’t view it like that. I think that the Jedi have dedicated themselves to limiting change. They wait for the Senate to tell them when and where to intervene, and what to fix, when in fact they could use the Force to impose their will on the entire galaxy, if they wanted. I’d have more respect for them if they did.”

“Do you grant your father respect when he attempts to impose his will on you?”

Palpatine’s grip on the steering yoke tightened. “That’s different. The reason I don’t respect him is because he’s not half as intelligent as he thinks he is. If he could admit to his weaknesses, I could at least pity him.”

Bringing the speeder to a sudden halt, he turned toward Plagueis once more, his face flushed with anger. Between them, dangling from the rearview mirror, was the coin Plagueis had given him.

Before long, I will own this human, Plagueis told himself.

“House Palpatine is wealthy,” the youth went on, “but not nearly as wealthy as some of the other houses, and not nearly as influential with the King and the electorate, despite my father’s attempts to take a leadership position with the royals. He lacks the political acumen needed to elevate our House to a position of true entitlement, and along with it the awareness to recognize that the time has come for Naboo to exploit its matchless resources and join the modern galaxy. Instead, he and his cronies, in complete and utter political ineptitude, want to keep us caged in the past.”

“Does your mother share his views?”

Palpatine forced a laugh. “Only because she espouses no views of her own; only because he has made her subservient to him—as he has my well-behaved brothers and sisters, who treat me like an interloper and yet, to my father, represent all I can never be.”

Plagueis considered the remarks in silence. “And yet you honor your House by going by its name.”

Palpatine’s expression softened. “For a time I thought about adopting the name of our distaff line. I haven’t rejected the dynasty I was born into. I’ve rejected the name I was given. But not for the grandiose reasons some think. Just the opposite, actually. I’m certain that you, of all beings, understand as much.”

There it was again, Plagueis thought: the deceptive cadence; the use of flattery, charm, and self-effacement as if rapier feints in a duel. The need to be seen as guileless, unassuming, empathetic. A youth with no desire to enter politics, and yet born for it.

Tenebrous had told him from the start that the Republic, with help from the Sith, would continue to descend into corruption and disorder, and that a time would come when it would have to rely on the strengths of an enlightened leader, capable of saving the lesser masses from being ruled by their unruly passions, jealousies, and desires. In the face of a common enemy, real or manufactured, they would set aside all their differences and embrace the leadership of anyone who promised a brighter future. Could this Palpatine, with Plagueis’s help, be the one to bring about such a transformation?

Again he tried to see deeper into Palpatine, but without success. The psychic walls the youth had raised were impenetrable, which made the young human something rare indeed. Had Palpatine somehow learned to corral the Force within himself, as Plagueis had concealed his own powers as a youth?

“Of course I understand,” he said finally.

“But … when you were young, did you question your motivations, especially when they ran counter to everyone else’s?”

Plagueis held his challenging gaze. “I never asked why this or why that, what if this or what if that. I simply responded to my own determination.”

Palpatine sat back in the speeder seat as if a great weight had been lifted from him.

“Some of us are required to do what others cannot,” Plagueis added in a conspiratorial way.

Without a word, Palpatine nodded.

Plagueis had no need to delve any further into whatever traumas had given rise to Palpatine’s cunning, secretive nature. He simply needed to know: Does this young human have the Force?

Two standard days later, on Malastare—a world of varied terrain that occupied a prime position on the Hydian Way—even the deafening clatter and nauseating odor of speeding Podracers wasn’t enough to distract Plagueis from thinking about Palpatine. Damask Holdings had requested a meeting with Senator Pax Teem, and the leader of the Gran Protectorate had provided the Muuns with box seats for the Phoebos Memorial Run. They had arrived directly from Naboo in the expectation of discussing business matters, but the Gran, Dugs, Xi Charrians, and nearly everyone else in the city of Pixelito were more interested in sport and betting.

“Have you picked a winner, Magister?” Pax Teem asked after two Podracers ripped past the viewing stands.

Lost in his thoughts about Naboo, Plagueis said, “I believe I have.”

His conversations with Palpatine seemed to have opened some sort of emotional floodgates in the human. The Muuns had scarcely left Naboo behind when the first of several holocommuniqués was received from Palpatine, regarding the royals’ latest plans for undermining Bon Tapalo’s bid for the monarchy. Plagueis had listened attentively, but, in fact, Palpatine had precious little to offer. Since the release of the information about the royals’ actions during the Gungan conflict, Palpatine’s father had been conducting his meetings behind closed doors at the family estate, and had forbidden his son from so much as discussing the coming election. Tapalo’s campaign, by contrast, was on the upswing, as a result of having announced a pending deal with the InterGalactic Banking Clan. The urgency of Palpatine’s transmissions suggested that he had formed an attachment to Plagueis and was reaching out to him not only as a secret employer but also as a potential adviser. In Hego Damask, Palpatine saw the wealth and power he had long sought for House Palpatine. Confident that the young human would continue to be useful long after Damask Holdings’ plans for Naboo had been realized, Plagueis did nothing to discourage the attachment.

“Why is it that we never see humans competing in the races?” he asked Teem after a moment.

The Gran waved his six-fingered hand in dismissal. “They haven’t the talent for it. The favorite to win today is the Dug at the controls of the blue racer.”

Plagueis tracked the Podracer for a moment. In the stands below him, thousands of Dugs—standing on all four appendages, on hind legs, or supported on arms only—were barking encouragement.

Plagueis found Malastare’s high gravity oppressive, and the Gran more so. They had arrived on the planet a thousand years earlier as colonists, and had proceeded to beat the native Dugs into submission. The protectorate had since grown to overshadow the Gran homeworld, Kinyen, and was a powerful force within the Republic Senate, with wide-ranging influence in the Mid and Outer Rims.

Seated alongside Plagueis, Larsh Hill leaned forward to address Pax Teem. “Perhaps Gardulla will be able to entice humans to pilot Podracers in the course she is refurbishing on Tatooine.”

Teem honked in irritation. “So it’s true: you support the Hutt.”

“It’s simply business,” Hill said.

But Teem was not appeased. “Is this the purpose of your visit—to reopen wounds that have not yet healed?”

“Yes,” Plagueis said flatly.

Teem’s trio of eyestalks swung to him. “I don’t—”

“Don’t compound the offense,” Hill interrupted.

Teem feigned incomprehension.

“From whom did you learn of our interests on Naboo?” Plagueis asked.

The Gran looked to his comrades, but found no support in their abrupt silence.

“From whom?” Plagueis repeated.

A low of resignation escaped Teem. “We were approached by Subtext Mining, following the unexplained disappearance of some of its members—the ones I encountered on Sojourn, I suspect.”

“They were in fine health when they left the Gathering,” Hill said.

Teem nodded. “I’m certain they were.”

“Why did Subtext approach you?” Plagueis said.

Teem hesitated, then said, “To inform us that you are involved in a deal for the plasma.”

“Trusting that you would try to subvert our efforts by making them public,” Hill said.

The Gran snorted. “First you strike a deal with Gardulla that favors Tatooine over Malastare, and now Naboo’s plasma captures your attention, despite your offer to increase the cost of Malastare’s energy exports. So why shouldn’t we have alerted your opponents on Naboo, when you would have done the same?”

Plagueis waited for him to finish, and for a group of Podracers to pass; then he fixed his gaze on the assembled Gran. “You harm yourselves by attempting to sabotage us. The Protectorate could have profited from Naboo, as the Trade Federation will, but no longer.”

Pax Teem’s huge feet slapped the floor of the private box. “We refuse to be demeaned! Again I remind you, Magister, that promises were made.”

Plagueis smiled inwardly. It was true that Tenebrous had had plans for the Gran. At one time Pax Teem had been put forth as someone the Sith could move into the chancellorship and manipulate from a distance into making mistakes that would bring the Republic to its knees. But Plagueis had now begun to explore other options.

“We are not without allies and cronies in the Senate,” Teem was saying in a huff. “We can crush any legislation you wish to see passed, or arrange for your bills and no-bid contracts to languish in procedure for years. We’ll put one of our own into the chancellorship. We’ll deny the Trade Federation shipping rights on Kinyen and along the Trade Spine. We’ll turn the Dugs loose on the Muuns.” He glared at Plagueis. “You’ll never get what you want, Magister.

“On the contrary,” Plagueis said, as he and the other Muuns were rising. “I already have what I want.”

A rousing cheer went up from the stands as a Toong pilot overtook the favored Dug.

Plagueis turned to Hill as they were exiting the private box. “Order the Sun Guard to retrieve the miners we marooned in the Tingel Arm. Execute them and have their bodies dumped at the gates of Subtext Mining’s corporate headquarters on Corellia.”

A freshly minted Capital-class starship returned Plagueis and Hill to Naboo. Manufactured by Hoersch-Kessel and Gwori, the vessel was shaped like an elongated pod with a flat underbelly. A lateral wing transected the convex hull aft, in which were housed arrays of powerful hyperwave transceivers. On board along with the chief executives of Damask Holdings were several high-ranking members of the Banking Clan, including the nephew of Chairman Tonith, all of them dressed in full IBC regalia.

A month had passed since Plagueis’s initial visit, and in the interim he and Palpatine had spoken by holo on many occasions. The intelligence the human provided, though scant, had allowed Plagueis and Hill to keep one step ahead of Bon Tapalo’s detractors, and as a result he continued to enjoy a slight margin with the electorate.

The Muun groups were approaching Naboo’s spaceport immigration stations when they were intercepted by a contingent of armed security personal wearing leather jerkins, tall boots, and brimmed hats. Ushered into a glass-walled holding area equipped with not much more than benches and refresher units, the Muuns waited for over an hour until two Palace Guards entered, demanding to know which of them was Hego Damask.

After identifying himself and assuring Larsh Hill that he needn’t worry, Plagueis followed the guards outside the terminal to a waiting round-nosed Gian speeder. A uniformed guard seated at the controls ordered Plagueis into the open-topped speeder’s rear bench seat, where one of the escort personnel joined him. He didn’t have a clue as to where he was being taken, but refused to give the guards the satisfaction of telling him that he would soon find out, or words to that effect. Instead he sat silently in the cushioned seat, careful not to register even the slightest surprise when the pilot began to steer the speeder away from Theed and out across the rolling verdant terrain Palpatine had taken him through.

“You may as well make yourself comfortable,” his seatmate said at last. “We’ll be traveling for about two hours.”

Plagueis nodded in response and allowed himself to drift into a light trance, in preparation for whatever lay in wait for him at their destination. Gradually the undulating plains began to rise and a ridge of mountains came into view, limned against Naboo’s brilliant blue sky. The speeder followed a broad river valley into hills lush with foliage, where herds of short-limbed shaaks grazed and frolicked. As the speeder gained altitude, the river narrowed and quickened, fed by waterfalls and crystalline lakes. Pure white clouds were beginning to form at the summits of the higher peaks when the speeder slewed across a vast stretch of meadow and came to a halt in front of a majestic home built in the style of Theed’s fat domes and graceful towers. Two of the guards led him up a wide flight of stone stairs into a cool and dimly lighted foyer. Abandoned there, Plagueis wandered past wall hangings and plinthed statuary to the opposite end of the foyer, where round-topped, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooked a veranda and a large lake beyond. Seated at a table were an aristocratic-looking female human of middle age and a sulking male youth of Palpatine’s age or younger, engaged in what appeared to be serious conversation. Touched by a breeze coming down off the slopes of the mountains, the surface of the water sparkled like Mygeeto gemstones. As Plagueis turned his back to the lake, his attention was drawn to a tapestry depicting the same family crest he had observed on the pocket of Palpatine’s jacket, and featuring a trio of creatures: veermok, aiwha, and zalaaca.

He became aware of someone approaching him from behind, but didn’t budge.

“Beautiful work, isn’t it?” a basso-voiced human said in Basic.

Plagueis turned to find a tall man of patrician bearing standing at the threshold to a larger room.

“As is the view,” Plagueis said, gesturing broadly toward the lake.

Dressed casually, though in fine taste, the silver-haired man advanced into the foyer. “I’m so glad you decided to accept my invitation to visit, Magister Damask.”

“The presence of armed guards suggested an absence of choice, Cosinga Palpatine.”

“They were for your protection, Magister.”

“I never thought of Naboo as a dangerous world.”

“For some it is,” the elder Palpatine said. “But now that you are here, allow me to show you around.”

The tour took them through a dozen rooms adorned with plush carpets and works of art. Stonework predominated, but the furniture was constructed of the galaxy’s most prized hardwoods. By the time they stepped down onto the veranda the woman and the youth were nowhere to be seen, but the breeze had picked up and a storm was threatening. Cosinga Palpatine indicated an island in the distance, and the stately house that rose from the shore.

“That is Varykino,” he explained. “A prize of the Lake Country. Once owned by the poet Omar Berenko, and presently occupied by the Naberrie family.” He glanced at Plagueis. “Are you perhaps familiar with Berenko’s masterwork, The Defense of Naboo?”

“Sadly, no.”

“I’ll arrange for you to be provided with a translation.”

“A copy in the original text would be fine. I’m fluent in your language.”

Testing him, Cosinga Palpatine switched to Naboo to say, “Yes, I understand you’ve become quite the expert on Naboo politics.” Before Plagueis could respond, he waved his hand in front of a sensor that summoned three servants onto the veranda, each bearing trays of food and drink.

Plagueis exhaled in a fatigued way. More food, he thought; more olfactory stimulation for human noses.

They sat opposite each other at the same table the woman and youth had occupied earlier, and remained silent while the servants laid out the repast.

“Fresh fruits, vegetables, and farinaceous dishes,” Palpatine said, indicating the spread. “No shaak or other meats.”

Plagueis forced a smile. “Perhaps you’ll take up a study of the Muun language next.”

His host frowned, then sat back in his chair to allow the servants to heap food on his plates. He didn’t begin eating until the servants had exited, and stopped after only a few mouthfuls and set his utensils down with finality.

“Let me tell you a short story about Bon Tapalo and Ars Veruna,” he began, glowering at Plagueis. “Seventy years ago, some two decades after our own conflict with them, the Gungans found themselves embroiled in a war for survival with a mercenary army. Fortunately the Gungans prevailed, though not without many deaths and the loss of some of their swamp cities. Very little was ever made public regarding the cause of the war or the source of the mercenaries, but I’m willing to let you in on one of Naboo’s darker secrets, in the hope that you’ll learn something from it. The reason for the war was plasma, and the Houses that contributed most to funding the mercenary army were House Tapalo and House Veruna. When my grandfather learned of this he challenged Tapalo’s father to a duel of honor, and eventually succumbed to the injuries Tapalo’s blade inflicted.” He gestured to a lawn that bordered the veranda. “The duel took place just there.”

Plagueis glanced at the spot. “How utterly romantic and human.”

Cosinga Palpatine’s handsome face took on color. “Perhaps you fail to grasp the point of the story, Magister. Tapalo, Veruna, and the rest of that group of thugs are interested only in power and wealth, at whatever cost to Naboo. The discovery of a plasma reservoir below Theed was the worst thing that could have happened. And now they mean to exploit it for all it’s worth, with the aid of influential beings like yourself. This is why Tapalo must never be king.”

Plagueis pretended to consider it, then said, “It would appear that the electorate disagrees with you.”

Palpatine nodded. “For now, yes. But we have plans for bringing the electorate back into line. Beginning with an announcement that the deal Tapalo struck with the Banking Clan has fallen through.”

“I wasn’t aware that it had,” Plagueis said evenly.

Palpatine became angrier as he spoke. “Why do you think we stopped your party from entering Theed? We still wield enough power to keep you from setting foot on Naboo. And you may as well hear the rest of it, Magister. The Republic Senate has been apprised of Muunilinst’s attempt to meddle with and destabilize the sovereignty of our world.” When Plagueis didn’t respond, he added, “The Naboo have a legend about six impenetrable gates that hold back chaos. House Palpatine is one of those gates, Damask.”

“And we Muuns represent chaos,” Plagueis said, without making it sound like a question.

Palpatine leaned forward and spoke in a calmer voice. “We are not opposed to having Naboo join the galactic community when the time is right. But not now, and not like this. Tapalo’s promise of tax cuts and trade with the Core … Those are the very tactics the Republic deploys to seduce primitive worlds into surrendering their resources.” He shook his head as anger took hold of him once more. “The Naboo admire philosophers, not bankers and deal brokers. Tapalo’s election to the throne would lead to catastrophe.”

“The Defense of Naboo,” Plagueis said. “The poem you mentioned.”

“What about it?”

“What ever became of the author—Berenko?”

Cosinga Palpatine’s eyes narrowed to slits. “He was abducted by assailants and never found.” He rose halfway out of his chair to add, “Are you threatening me—here, in my own home?”

Plagueis made a placating gesture. “I thought we were discussing history. I only meant to ask what might happen if you are unsuccessful in … restraining chaos, and Tapalo wins despite your best efforts?”

“I’ve already told you that that will not happen. And here is why: because you’re going to tell your friends in the Banking Clan and the Trade Federation that you’ve lost interest in Naboo. That you’ve found better company among the Hutts, slavers, and spicerunners of the Outer Rim.” He paused momentarily. “You’re a very long way from Muunilinst, Magister Damask. I strongly suggest that you reboard your ship and leave the Chommell sector as quickly and as quietly as possible, lest anyone fall victim to an untoward event.”

Plagueis stared at the lake. “I take your meaning, Cosinga Palpatine,” he said, without looking at him.

“And one more thing,” Palpatine said, emboldened. “I don’t know precisely why you’ve taken such a keen interest in my son, or he in you, but you’re to have no further dealings with him.”

Plagueis turned to him. “Your son has great potential.”

“Potential I don’t wish to see despoiled by your kind. We’re moving him out of your reach, in any case.”

“I’d been given to believe that the Naboo were an open people. But then, the Gungans probably wouldn’t agree, either.”

Palpatine stood up sharply. “Enough of this. Guard!” he said. And when three of them hurried in: “Get him out of my sight.”


 

11: AVATAR OF MORTALITY

The planet Chandrila sponsored a monthlong retreat for members of the Legislative Youth Program. Once a year young beings from a host of worlds arrived to participate in mock Senate trials in and around Hanna City and to tour Chandrila’s vast agricultural projects, wilderness areas, coral reefs, and garden parks. It was in Gladean Park—a game reserve outside coastal Hanna—that Plagueis paid young Palpatine an unannounced visit. But it was Plagueis who was surprised.

“I knew you would come, Magister,” Palpatine said when Plagueis and 11-4D turned up at one of the game reserve’s viewing blinds.

“How did you know?”

“I knew, that’s all.”

“And just how often are your premonitions correct?”

“Almost always.”

“Curious,” 11-4D remarked while Palpatine was hurrying away to excuse himself from the company of two friends.

Plagueis recognized the older male as Palpatine’s mentor in the youth program, Vidar Kim, and sensed that the comely black-haired female was Kim’s paramour. At the conclusion of Palpatine’s animated explanation, Kim turned his head to show Plagueis a look of disapproval before moving off with his companion.

“Your mentor doesn’t care much for me,” he said when Palpatine returned.

Palpatine dismissed it. “He doesn’t know you.”

Standard weeks had passed without any communication between the two of them. Judging by Palpatine’s mood, he knew nothing about the forced meeting in the Lake Country, and yet he was agitated just the same, possibly in reaction to something Cosinga had done to monitor or foil his son’s offworld holotransmissions. With Damask Holdings’ secret agent silenced, the royals had gained ground. Despite Tapalo’s denials that the deal with the Banking Clan had dissolved, the travel ban imposed on the Muuns had planted seeds of doubt among the electors, and the contest for the throne was becoming more heated with each passing day. Worse, the Banking Clan’s interest in Naboo was beginning to wane.

“We’ll have to keep this meeting brief,” Plagueis told Palpatine while they were following an elevated pathway that connected the viewing blind to one of the park’s rustic lodges. “Your father may have dispatched surveillance personnel.”

Palpatine ridiculed the idea. “He is monitoring my offworld communiqués—that’s why you haven’t heard from me—but even he knows better than to have me watched.”

“You underestimate him, Palpatine,” Plagueis said, stopping in the middle of the pathway. “I spoke with him at Convergence.”

Palpatine’s mouth fell open. “The lake house? When? How—”

Plagueis made a soothing gesture and explained in great detail what had taken place. Concluding, he said, “He threatened, too, to place you out of reach.”

All the while Plagueis spoke, Palpatine was storming through circles on the narrow path, shaking his head in anger and balling his fists. “He can’t do this!” he snarled. “He hasn’t the right! I won’t allow it!”

Palpatine’s fury buffeted Plagueis. Blossoms growing along the sides of the pathway folded in on themselves, and their pollinators began to buzz in agitation. FourDee reacted, as well, wobbling on its feet, as if in the grip of a powerful electromagnet. Had this human truly been born of flesh-and-blood parents? Plagueis asked himself. When, in fact, he seemed sprung from nature itself. Was the Force so strong in him that it had concealed itself?

Palpatine came to a sudden halt and whirled on Plagueis. “You have to help me!”

“How can I help you?” Plagueis asked. “He’s your father.”

“Tell me what to do! Tell me what you would do!”

Plagueis placed a hand on Palpatine’s shoulder and began to walk slowly. “You could use this incident as a means of emancipating yourself.”

Palpatine frowned. “Naboo doesn’t honor that practice. I’m in his sway until I’m twenty-one years old.”

“The legalities of emancipation don’t interest me, and they shouldn’t interest you. I speak of freeing yourself—of completing the act of recreation you began when you rejected your given name.”

“You mean disobey him?”

“If that’s as far as you’re willing to go. And without thought to consequences.”

“I’ve wanted to …”

“Uncertainty is the first step toward self-determination,” Plagueis said. “Courage comes next.”

Palpatine shook his head, as if to clear it. “What would I do?”

“What do you want to do, Palpatine? If the choice was yours and yours alone.”

The youth hesitated. “I don’t want to live as ordinary beings live.”

Plagueis regarded him. “Do you fancy yourself extraordinary?”

Palpatine seemed embarrassed by the question. “I only meant that I want to live an extraordinary life.”

“Make no apologies for your desires. Extraordinary in what way?”

Palpatine averted his eyes.

“Why are you holding back? If you’re going to dream, then dream large.” Plagueis paused, then added, “You hinted that you had no interest in politics. Is that true?”

Palpatine firmed his lips. “Not entirely.”

Plagueis came to a stop in the middle of the walkway. “How deep does your interest go? To what position do you aspire? Republic Senator? Monarch of Naboo? Supreme Chancellor of the Republic?”

Palpatine glanced at him. “You’ll think less of me if I tell you.”

“Now you underestimate me, as you do your father.”

Palpatine took a breath and continued. “I want to be a force for change.” His look hardened. “I want to rule.”

There! Plagueis thought. He admits it! And who better than a human to wear the mask of power while an immortal Sith Lord rules in secret!

“If that can’t happen, if you can’t rule, then what?”

Palpatine ground his teeth. “If not power, then nothing.

Plagueis smiled. “Suppose I said that I would be willing to be your ally in the quest.”

At a sudden loss for words, Palpatine stared at him; then he managed to say, “What would you expect of me in return?”

“Nothing more than that you commit to your intent to free yourself. That you grant yourself the license to do whatever is necessary to realize your ambitions, at whatever risk to your alleged well-being and in full expectation of the solitude that will ensue.”

They had not yet reached the lodge when Plagueis steered them into a gazebo that occupied the center of a luxuriant garden.

“I want to tell you something about my past,” he began. “I was born and raised not on Muunilinst but on a world called Mygeeto, and not to my father’s primary wife but to a second wife—what Muuns call a codicil partner. So I was a young adult before my father was finally returned to Muunilinst and I had my first taste of the planet that gave rise to my species. Owing to Muunilinst’s regulations governing population growth, no Muun of less influence than my father would have been allowed to import a nonindigenous offspring, let alone a half-clan. And yet the members of my father’s family regarded me as a trespasser, lacking proper legality and the social aplomb that comes to those born and raised on Muunilinst. For if there is anything the Muun detest more than wasteful spending it is nonconformity, and I had it in abundance.

“They were model citizens, my fair brothers and sisters: insular, self-important, identical in their thinking, thrifty to a fault, given to gossip, and it angered me deeply to have been accepted by the galaxy’s downtrodden only to be rejected by this hive of self-serving parochial beings. Much to their further displeasure, they were forced to accept that I was a fully bonded clan member, entitled to the same share of my father’s vast wealth as the rest of them. But as is the case with all members of the elite clans, I had to prove myself worthy of the status by preparing successful financial forecasts and allowing myself to be judged by the ruling elect.

“I passed my tests and trials, but soon after, my father took ill. On his deathbed I sought his advice concerning my predicament, and he told me that I should do whatever I needed to do, as my very survival was in jeopardy. He said that lesser minds needed guidance, and punishment on occasion, and that I shouldn’t hesitate to use whatever means necessary to protect my interests; that I owed as much to myself, my species, to life itself.”

Plagueis paused.

“The cause of his premature death was determined to be a rare genetic abnormality that affected the tertiary heart, and one that all of my siblings had inherited, but I—having been born to a different mother—had not. Panicked by the thought of early death, my siblings launched a galactic search for the finest geneticists credits could procure, and ultimately one surfaced, claiming knowledge of a curative procedure. And so they underwent treatment, each and every one of them—my clan mother included—in full confidence that they had dodged the family curse and could soon return to their primary passion, which was to have me legally ostracized from the family.”

He looked hard at Palpatine.

“Little did they realize that I had hired the geneticist, and that the treatments he provided were as phony as his credentials. And so, in due course, they began to grow ill and die, each of them, as I watched from afar, gloating, even entertaining myself by feigning sadness at their funerals and indifference at the allocation rituals that transferred portions of their accumulated riches to me. Eventually I outlived all of them and inherited everything.”

His amalgam of fact and fiction concluded, Plagueis stood tall and folded his thin arms across his chest. In turn, Palpatine trained his gaze on the gazebo’s wooden floor. Plagueis detected the quiet whir of 11-4D’s photoreceptors focusing on the youth.

“You think me a monster,” he said when a long moment of silence had elapsed.

Palpatine raised his head and said, “You underestimate me, Magister.”

Hanna City Spaceport was chaotic with the launch of starships returning youth program trainees to their near and distant homeworlds. In the central passenger cabin of the Naboo vessel Jafan III, Palpatine and a young trainee from Keren were comparing notes on their experiences during the previous week. On a track to becoming close friends despite their political differences, the pair had segued into discussing Naboo’s upcoming election when a flight attendant interrupted them to say that Palpatine needed to return immediately to the spaceport terminal. The attendant didn’t know who had requested his presence or why, but no sooner had he entered the connector than he recognized the stern countenance of one of the security guards his father had recently hired.

“Palpatine won’t be reboarding,” the guard told the attendant.

Confused, Palpatine demanded to know why he had been removed from the ship.

“Your father is here,” the guard said after the attendant had reentered the starship. He pointed through the connector’s transparisteel viewport to the far side of the field where sat a sleek starship bearing the crest of House Palpatine.

Palpatine blinked in surprise. “When did he arrive?”

“An hour ago. Your mother and siblings are also aboard.”

“They didn’t say anything to me about coming here.”

“I wouldn’t know about that,” the guard said. “You’ve already cleared Chandrila customs, so we can proceed directly to the ship.”

Palpatine glared at him. “Just discharging your orders, is that it?”

Unruffled, the guard shrugged his broad shoulders. “It’s a job, kid. That’s the long and short of it.”

Surrendering to the inevitable but angered by the sudden change in plans, Palpatine trailed the guard through a maze of similar connectors to one that accessed the family starship. The elder Palpatine was waiting in the entry air lock.

“Why wasn’t I informed of this beforehand?” Palpatine demanded.

His father nodded for the guard to seal the hatch. “Your mother and siblings are aft. I’ll join you there once we’ve completed the jump.” Maneuvering around Palpatine, he slipped into the cockpit. Palpatine turned to the air lock hatch and considered leaving while he had the chance, but ultimately thought better of it and went aft, though into not the main compartment but a smaller one that housed the communications suite. Strapped into an acceleration chair, he stewed through the launch and the jump to hyperspace. Unfastening himself when the ship was between worlds, he stood up and began to pace back and forth in the cabin, and was still in motion when his father entered a few minutes later.

“Our course is set for Chommell Minor.”

Palpatine stopped to stare at him.

“For the foreseeable future, you’re going to be residing with the Greejatus family. Clothes and other items we thought you’d like to have with you are already aboard.” When Palpatine said nothing, he continued. “You and Janus got along well the last time we visited. A change of scene will do you good.”

“You decided this without conferring with me?” Palpatine managed to ask at last. “What about my university courses? What about my obligations to the youth program?”

“That has all been arranged. You can partner with Janus in Chommell Minor’s program.”

“The Greejatus’s hatred of nonhumans meets with your approval, then.”

“Their chauvinism notwithstanding, I approve of them a lot more than I do your current friends.”

Palpatine began shaking his head. “No. No.”

His father’s tone turned harsh. “This is for your own good.”

Palpatine’s nostrils flared. “Father of lies,” he muttered. “How would you know what’s good for me? Have you ever even cared? This is about my friendship with Hego Damask, isn’t it?”

The elder Palpatine snorted in derision. “Is that what you think it is? Damask is merely using you as a means of securing information about our strategies for the election.”

“Of course he is.”

Taken aback momentarily, Cosinga said, “And yet you continue to … befriend him.”

“What you consider the rape of Naboo, I consider to be an essential step forward, and Hego Damask a blessing. He’s powerful, influential, and brilliant—more so than any of my professors. Head and shoulders above you or any of your royal confederates.”

Cosinga’s lip curled. “It begins to sound to me that this confrontation goes beyond mere political differences.”

“You know it does. You’re using the situation as an excuse to put me under your thumb again.”

“Which wouldn’t be necessary if you showed even the slightest ability to conduct yourself appropriately.”

Palpatine sniffed. “My social infractions and trespasses. I refuse to go over old ground.”

“You’re easy on yourself, considering the shame you’ve nearly brought on us.”

“I’ve brought no more shame on the family than you have.”

“We’re not discussing me,” Cosinga said.

Palpatine threw up his hands. “All right. Leave me on Chommell Minor—but I won’t remain there.”

“I can see to it that you do.”

“By assigning some of your musclemen to keep me in line? I’m a lot smarter than them, Father.”

Cosinga made his lips a thin line. “After what you already did to counter our plans for Tapalo, there can be no hint of scandal. Have you no idea what’s at stake for Naboo?”

“And for you,” Palpatine said, with a sly smile. “The brother of your mistress becomes king, and you attain the lofty position you’ve always desired but don’t deserve.”

Cosinga flung his words with cruel abandon. “It will be so good to have you gone.”

“Finally you admit as much.”

Cosinga was suddenly crestfallen. “You’re as much a mystery to me now as you were when you were young.”

Palpatine’s smile bloomed. “Only because you lack the ability to understand me fully.”

“Grandiose, as ever.”

“Grandiose, in fact, Father. You have no idea what I’m capable of. No one does.”

Cosinga exhaled deeply. “I know that you are of my blood, because I had you tested, just to be certain. But in truth, I don’t know where you came from—who or what you’re actually descended from.” He glared at Palpatine. “Yes, there it is: that glower I have been on the receiving end of for seventeen long years. As if you want to murder me. Murder has always been in your thoughts, hasn’t it? You’ve merely been waiting for someone to grant you permission to act.”

A darkness came over Palpatine’s face. “I don’t need anyone’s permission.”

“Precisely. You’re an animal at heart.”

“King of the beasts, Father,” Palpatine said.

“I knew this day would come. I’ve known it since the first moment I tried to swaddle you, and you fought me with a strength that was too powerful for your size or age.”

Palpatine looked out from beneath his quirked brows. “I was born mature, Father, fully grown, and you hated me for it, because you grasped that I was everything you can never be.”

“Hated you more than you know,” Cosinga said, allowing his ire to rise once more. “Enough to want to kill you from the start.”

Palpatine stood his ground. “Then you had better do it now.”

Cosinga took a step in Palpatine’s direction, only to be hurled back against the bulkhead separating the communications room from the main cabin. A female voice from behind the closed hatch asked in distress, “What was that?”

Nursing an injured shoulder, Cosinga looked suddenly like a trapped animal, his eyes wide with surprise and fear. He made a move to strike the handplate that opened the hatch, but Palpatine thwarted his effort without raising a finger. Twisting violently around, Cosinga fell over one of the acceleration chairs, bloodying his face as it struck the armrest.

A pounding began on the hatch.

“Guards!” Cosinga shouted, but the word had barely left his lips when the bulkhead against which he was slouched buckled inward, heaving him face-first to the floor and driving the breath from him.

Palpatine stood rooted in place, his hands trembling in front of him and his face stricken. Something stirred behind his incandescent eyes. He heard the pounding on the hatch and whirled.

“Don’t come in! Stay away from me!”

“What have you done?” It was his mother’s voice, panicked. “What have you done?”

Cosinga pushed himself to his knees and began a terrified retreat, leaving smears of blood on the deck. But Palpatine was advancing on him now.

“If the Force birthed you, then I curse it!” Cosinga rasped. “I curse it!”

“As I do,” Palpatine growled.

The hatch began to slide to, and he heard the voice of the guard who had escorted him from the Jafan III. “Stop!”

“Cosinga!” his mother screamed.

Palpatine pressed the palms of his hands to his head, then in eerie calm streaked to the hatch, pulled the surprised guard through the threshold, and tossed him clear across the cabin.

Raising his face to the ceiling, he shouted, “We’re all in this now!”

They could have been torturers: Plagueis and 11-4D, leaning over an operating table on Aborah that supported Venamis, still in an induced coma and now anesthetized, as well; the droid’s appendages holding bloodied scalpels, retractors, hemostats, and Plagueis, gowned and masked and with eyes closed, his shadow puddled on the floor by the theater lights, but in truth nowhere to be found in the mundane world. Folded deeply within the Force, instead, indifferent to the meticulous damage 11-4D had done to the Bith’s internal organs, but focused on communicating his will directly to the Force’s intermediaries, the droid monitoring cellular activity for signs that Plagueis’s life-extending manipulations, his thought experiments, were having their intended effect.

A sudden current of intense dark side energy snaked through Plagueis. Stronger than any feeling he had experienced since the death of Darth Tenebrous, replete with flashes of past, present, and perhaps future events, the disturbance was powerful enough to snap him completely out of his trance. A rite performed; a confirmation conferred. Half expecting to find Venamis sitting upright on the table, he opened his eyes to the sight of 11-4D shuffling toward him from the operating theater’s communication console.

Plagueis’s mouth formed a question: “Hill?”

“No. The young human—Palpatine. A deep-space transmission.”

Plagueis hurried to the device. They hadn’t spoken since the reunion on Chandrila, but Plagueis had been waiting, wondering if his manipulations had borne fruit. If not, then he might have to take personal action to solidify the Naboo gambit. Placing himself in view of the holocams, he took a moment to appraise the noisy image onscreen, Palpatine’s face bathed in the flashing lights of an instrument panel, something new in his eyes—color that hadn’t been there previously. A glance at the comm board’s coordinate readout; then:

“Where are you?”

“I’m not sure,” Palpatine said in clear distraction, his gaze shifting to something off cam.

“You’re in a starship.”

Palpatine nodded, swallowed, and found his voice. “The family ship.”

“Read aloud the navicomputer coordinates.”

When he had, Plagueis looked to 11-4D for elaboration.

“Rimward of Exodeen along the Hydian Way,” the droid said.

Plagueis absorbed it. “Contact the Sun Guard. Have them ready a ship and prepare yourself to accompany them.”

“Yes, Magister.”

Plagueis swung back to the monitor screen. “Are you capable of maintaining your present course?”

Palpatine leaned to one side. “The autopilot is engaged.”

“Tell me what happened.”

The human took a deep breath. “My father arrived unexpectedly on Chandrila. He had me taken from the youth program vessel and brought to our ship. My mother and siblings were already aboard. After the launch I learned that I was being taken to Chommell Minor. Just as you warned. We fell into an argument … then, I’m not sure what happened—”

“Tell me what happened,” Plagueis demanded.

“I killed them,” Palpatine snarled back. “I killed them—even the guards.”

Plagueis restrained a smile, knowing now that Naboo would be his. Over and done with. Now to reel him in further, and ensure his continued usefulness.

“Did anyone on Chandrila observe you board the family ship?” he asked quickly.

“Only the guard—and he’s dead. Everyone’s dead.”

“We need to return you quietly and covertly to Chandrila. I’m sending help, my droid among them. Offer no explanations of what occurred—even if asked—but follow every command without question.”

“You’re not coming with them?” Palpatine asked, wide-eyed.

“I will see you soon enough, Palpatine.”

“But the ship. The …evidence.”

“I’ll make arrangements for the ship’s disposal. No one will ever learn of this event, do you understand?”

Palpatine nodded. “I trust you.”

Plagueis returned the nod. “And Palpatine: congratulations on becoming an emancipated being.”

Sleek as the deep-sea creature on which it was modeled, the passenger ship Quantum Collosus plied the rarefied currents of hyperspace. One of the finest vessels of its type, the QC made weekly runs between Coruscant and Eriadu, reverting at several worlds along the Hydian Way to take on or discharge passengers. Draped in muted-green shimmersilk, Plagueis had boarded at Corellia, but had waited until the ship made the jump to lightspeed before riding a turbolift to the upper tier and announcing himself at the entryway to the private cabin he had secured for Palpatine.

“You said soon,” Palpatine barked the moment the hatch had pocketed itself in the bulkhead. “A standard week is not soon.”

Plagueis entered, removed his robe, and folded it over the back of a chair. “I had business to attend to.” He glanced over his shoulder at Palpatine. “Was I simply supposed to drop everything in service to the predicament you’ve gotten yourself into?”

Speechless for a moment, Palpatine said, “Forgive me for having allowed myself to believe that we were in this together.”

“Together? How so?”

“Am I not your agent on Naboo?”

Plagueis rocked his head from side to side. “You did provide us with some useful information.”

Palpatine studied him uncertainly. “I did more than that, Magister, and you’re well aware of it. You share as much responsibility for what happened as I do.”

Plagueis seated himself and crossed one leg over the other knee. “Has it really been only a week? For you seem greatly changed. Were the Chandrilan and Naboo authorities so rough on you?”

Palpatine continued to stare at him. “As you promised, where there is no evidence, there is no crime. They went so far as to enlist the aid of salvagers and pirates in the search, but came up empty-handed.” His look hardened. “But it’s you who have changed. Despite the fact that you saw this event in the making.”

Plagueis motioned to himself. “Did I suspect that you and your father might reach an impasse? Of course. It would have been obvious to anyone. But you seem to be implying that I somehow divined that the confrontation would end in violence.”

Palpatine considered it, then snorted in derision. “You’re lying. You may as well have forced my hand.”

“What an odd way to put it,” Plagueis said. “But since you’ve grasped the truth of it, I offer a confession. Yes, I deliberately goaded you.”

“You came to Chandrila to make certain that my father’s spies would see us together.”

“Once more, correct. You make me proud of you.”

Palpatine ignored the flattery. “You used me.”

“There was no other way.”

Palpatine shook his head in angry disbelief. “Was any of the story about your siblings true?”

“Some of it. But that scarcely matters now. You asked for my help and I provided it. Your father attempted to thwart you, and you acted of your own free will.”

“And by killing him I’ve rid you of an opponent.” Palpatine paused. “My father was right about you. You are a gangster.”

“And you are free and wealthy,” Plagueis said. “So what now, young human? I continue to have great hopes for you, but before I could tell you everything I needed you to be free.”

“Free from what?”

“From fear of expressing your true nature.”

Palpatine’s expression darkened. “You know nothing of my true nature.” He paced away from Plagueis, then stopped and turned to him. “You never asked about the killings.”

“I’ve never been one for grim details,” Plagueis said. “But if you need to unburden yourself, do so.”

Palpatine raised his clawed hands. “I executed them with these! And with the power of my mind. I became a storm, Magister—a weapon strong enough to warp bulkheads and hurl bodies across cabinspaces. I was death itself!”

Plagueis sat tall in the chair, in genuine astonishment.

He could see Palpatine now in all his dark glory. Anger and murder had pulled down the walls he had raised perhaps since infancy to safeguard his secret. But there was no concealing it now: the Force was powerful in him! Bottled up for seventeen standard years, his innate power had finally burst forth and could never again be stoppered. All the years of repression, guiltless crimes, raw emotion bubbling forth, toxic to any who dared touch or taste it. But beneath his anger lurked a subtle enemy: apprehension. Newly reborn, he was at great risk. But only because he didn’t realize just how powerful he was or how extraordinarily powerful he could become. He would need help to complete his self-destruction. He would need help rebuilding those walls, to keep from being discovered.

Oh, what a cautious taming he would require! Plagueis thought. But what an ally he might make. What an ally!

“I’m not sure I know what to think of this, Palpatine,” he said at last. “Have you always had such powers?”

Color had drained from Palpatine’s face, and his legs were shaking. “I’ve always known I was capable of summoning them.”

Plagueis rose from the chair and approached him warily. “Here is where the path bifurcates, young human. Here and now you need to decide whether to disavow your power or to venture courageously and scrupulously into the depths of truth—no matter the consequences.”

He resisted an urge to grasp Palpatine by the shoulder, and instead paced away from him. “You could devote the rest of your life to trying to make sense of this power, this gift,” he said, without looking back. “Or you could consider a different option.” He swung to face Palpatine. “It’s a dark path into a trackless wilderness from which few return. Not without a guide, at any rate. But it is also the shortest, quickest route between today and tomorrow.”

Plagueis realized that he was taking a great gamble, but there was no turning back from it. The dark side had brought them together, and it would be the will of the dark side that decided whether Palpatine became his apprentice.

“In your studies,” he said carefully, “have you ever learned of the Sith?”

Palpatine blinked, as if preoccupied. “A Jedi sect, weren’t they? The result of a kind of family feud.”

“Yes, yes, in some ways just that. But more: the Sith are the prodigal offspring, destined to return and overthrow the Jedi.”

Palpatine cut his eyes to Plagueis. “The Sith are considered to be evil.”

“Evil?” Plagueis repeated. “What is that? Moments ago you defined yourself as a storm. You said you were death itself. Are you evil, then, or are you simply stronger and more awake than others? Who gives more shape to sentient history: the good, who adhere to the tried and true, or those who seek to rouse beings from their stupor and lead them to glory? A storm you are, but a much-needed one, to wash away the old and complacent and prune the galaxy of deadweight.”

Palpatine’s lip curled in anger and menace. “Is this the wisdom you offer—the tenets of some arcane cult?”

“The test of its value is whether you can live by it, Palpatine.”

“If I had wanted that I would have forced my parents years ago to surrender me to the Jedi Order instead of transferring me from school to private school.”

Plagueis planted his hands on his hips and laughed without mirth. “And of what possible use do you think a person of your nature would be to the Jedi Order? You’re heartless, ambitious, arrogant, insidious, and without shame or empathy. More, you’re a murderer.” He held Palpatine’s hooded gaze and watched the youth’s hands clench in fists of rage. “Careful, boy,” he said after a moment. “You are not the only being in this plush stateroom with the power to kill.”

Palpatine’s eyes opened wide and he took a step back. “I can sense it …”

Plagueis grew deliberately haughty. “What you sense is a fraction of what I can bring to bear.”

Palpatine appeared suitably chastened. “Might I be of some use to the Sith?”

“Possibly,” Plagueis said. “Perhaps even likely. But we would have to wait and see.”

“Where are the Sith?”

Plagueis allowed a smile. “Just now there is only one. Unless, of course, it is your will to join me.”

Palpatine nodded. “I do wish to join you.”

“Then kneel before me and pledge that it is your will to join your destiny forever with the Order of the Sith Lords.”

Palpatine stared at the floor, then genuflected, uttering, “It is my will to join my destiny forever with the Order of the Sith Lords.”

Plagueis extended his left hand to touch him on the crown of the head. “Then it is done. From this day forward, the truth of you, now and forever more, will be Sidious.”

When Palpatine stood, Plagueis took him by the shoulders.

“In time you will come to understand that you are one with the dark side of the Force, and that your power is beyond contradiction. But just now, and until I tell you differently, abiding submission is your only road to salvation.”


 

12: SEDUCED BY THE DARK SIDE OF THE FORCE

The obedient orphan stood shivering in swirling snow. Around him rose ice pinnacles shaped like jagged teeth; a glacial wind howled through them. Plagueis stood nearby, flakes of snow and ice gyrating around him but never lighting on him, melting before they reached him. Unlike Sidious, who was outfitted in a thin enviro-suit, the Sith Lord was wearing only a cloak, narrow trousers, and a skullcap.

“It was on this world that I first became aware of my Force powers and dark impulses,” he said, loudly enough to be heard over the wind. “Compared with temperate Muunilinst, Mygeeto is ruthless and uncompromising, but I learned to adapt to its harsh conditions, and before the age of eight I could venture out into the most violent storm dressed in less than you wear now. But I haven’t brought you here to acquaint you with my past, Sidious. If you were of a species acclimatized to these conditions, I would have brought you instead to a desert world. If you were an aquatic being, I would have stranded you on dry land. The divide between the ways of the Force as practiced by the Sith and the Jedi has less to do with the distinction between darkness or the presence of light than between—in your case—naked cold and the presence of warmth. Between distress and comfort, entropy and predictability.”

Plagueis paused to regard Sidious. “Your blood is close to frozen. Too much time here and you will die. That is what you will think at the beginning, when the dark side has sniffed you out and sidled up to you. You will think: I will die; the dark side will kill me. And it’s true, you will die, but only to be reborn. You must take deeply into yourself the knowledge of what it means to be removed; you must feel it in the marrow of your bones, because it will ever be thus.”

Plagueis laughed shortly. “Perhaps I sound like some professor of philosophy in that fine college of yours in Theed. But this isn’t a lecture, nor should you think of it as physical conditioning. We need instead to prepare you for what awaits you should the dark side opt to take an interest in you. The comingling of fear and joy; of being humbled and empowered; of being escalated while at the same time used, as if an instrument. To be singled out and yet subsumed by an overarching grandness.”

A predatory look came to his wan face as he advanced on Sidious.

“Now tell me again, apprentice. And in greater detail.”

Once more Sidious allowed his memories to unfold, and he relived the crime—the event, as he had at last come to think of it. His father’s limp and bloodied body. The smashed skulls of the bodyguards. His hands clenched around his mother’s slender throat—but not really, only in his mind, strangling her with his thoughts. The lifeless forms of his siblings, slumped here and there … In telling and retelling it, in reliving it, he had finally gained a kind of authority over it, the ability to see the event merely for what it was, without emotion, without judgment. It was as if the event had occurred years rather than months earlier, and as if someone else had authored the crime. When that defining moment had come, a transforming power had curled up inside him, as dark as space without stars, born of hated and fear but one he could now draw upon.

“Very good,” Plagueis said, after the recounted tale had forced itself between Sidious’s blue and trembling lips. “I can feel your remove, and sense your increasing power.” He continued to appraise Sidious while the snow whirled between them. “I can’t have your will tempered by feelings of regret or compassion. You were brought into being to lead. Therefore you must see every living thing as nothing more than a tool to elevate you, to move you to your destined place. This is our galaxy, Sidious, our reality.

“In this pitiless place, your power is forged.

“Propelled by fear or hatred, even a Jedi can pass beyond the constraints of the Order’s teachings and discover power of a more profound sort. But no Jedi who arrives at that place, who has risen above his or her allegiance to peace and justice, who kills in anger or out of desire, can lay real claim to the dark side of the Force. Their attempts to convince themselves that they fell to the dark side, or that the dark side compelled their actions, are nothing more than pitiful rationalizations. That is why the Sith embrace the dark from the start, focusing on the acquistion of power. We make no excuses. The actions of a Sith begin from the self and flow outward. We stalk the Force like hunters, rather than surrender like prey to its enigmatic whims.”

“I understand, Master,” Sidious managed in a stuttering voice.

Plagueis showed him a malevolent smile. “I once said as much to my Master, when in fact I understood nothing. I merely wanted to put an end to the pain.” In a blur of motion, he tore open the front of Sidious’s enviro-suit. “I am your torturer, Sidious. Soon you will make every effort to appease me, and with each lie you tell, with each attempt you make to reverse our roles, you will make yourself as shiny as an aurodium coin to the dark side.

“So appease me, Sidious. Tell me again how you killed them.”

Sidious steadied himself on the scree slope, the jagged stones beneath his bloody palms, elbows and knees quivering, as if yearning to immerse themselves in the frigid waters of the crystalline blue lake at the base of the near sheer incline. A few meters above sat Plagueis, cross-legged atop a flat-topped outcropping, his back turned to Sidious and his gaze seemingly fixed on the blinding snowfields that blanketed the mountain’s summit.

“If you don’t already want to murder me, you will before I’m through with you,” he was saying. “The urge to kill one’s superior is intrinsic to the nature of our enterprise. My unassailable strength gives rise to your envy; my wisdom fuels your desire; my achievements incite your craving. Thus has it been for one thousand years, and so it must endure until I’ve guided you to parity. Then, Sidious, we must do our best to sabotage the dynamic Darth Bane set in motion, because we will need each other if we’re to realize our ultimate goals. In the end there can be no secrets between us; no jealousy or mistrust. From us the future of the Sith will fountain, and the diverse beings of the galaxy will be better for it. Until then, however, you must strive; you must demonstrate your worthiness, not merely to me but to the dark side. You must take the hatred you feel for me and transform it into power—the power to overcome, to forbid anything from standing in your path, to surmount whatever obstacle the dark side designs to test you.”

Scarcely listening, Sidious moved with utmost care, his hands and knees seeking firm purchase on the stones. For weeks Darth Plagueis had deprived him of sleep, food, and water. Now if only he could reach the Muun, his thirst would be slaked, his hunger sated, his contusions healed. Countless times the broad expanse of rock debris had slipped and he’d had to ride the slide almost to the shore of the lake, tumbling, surfing on his front and back, abrading his ruddy skin, bruising nearly every part of himself. Only to have to pick his way back to the top.

Seething in silence, he managed to scale a meter more of the slope, calling on the Force to ensure his balance, to render him weightless.

“Fool,” Plagueis derided him. “Success doesn’t come from summoning help from the Force, but from taking control of it and generating the power from within yourself.” He sighed theatrically. “Still, I’m somewhat encouraged by the progress you’ve made. Mere centimeters from me now, almost within arm’s reach. Soon I’ll be able to feel your breath on my neck and perceive the heat of your rage—your desire to kill me, as if by doing so, you could lay claim to the authority I embody.” He paused but didn’t move, much less glance over his shoulder. “You want to strangle me, like you did your poor, misunderstood mother; tear me limb from limb as you did the bodyguards. Fair enough. But to do so you will have to make a greater effort, Apprentice.”

Like a feline, Sidious leapt from the scree, his curled fingers aimed for Plagueis. But instead of vising themselves around the Muun’s slender neck, his hands went through thin air and met each other, leaving him to collapse face-first atop the outcropping. Off to one side he heard his Master laugh in scorn. Either Plagueis had moved faster than Sidious could discern or, worse yet, he had never been there to begin with.

“So easily tricked,” Plagueis said, confirming the latter. “You waste my time. More of this and the dark side will never take an interest in you.”

Sidious whirled, flinging himself at Plagueis, only to meet an irresistible force and be hurled backward to the frozen ground.

The Muun’s shadow fell over him. Arms folded across his chest, Plagueis loomed.

“If you’re to succeed in inhabiting both realms, Sidious—the profane world and that of the Force—you need to learn how to use guile to your advantage, and to recognize when others are employing it.” Without extending a hand, Plagueis tugged him to his feet. “If you can survive a few more days without sustenance or rest, I may be inclined to teach you.”

Clawing his way across the tundra, his body rashed with lightsaber burns, Sidious looked up at Plagueis, imploringly.

“How much longer, Master?”

Plagueis deactivated his weapon’s crimson blade and scowled. “Perhaps a moment, perhaps an eternity. Stop thinking of the future, and anchor yourself in the present. A Sith apprentice is the antithesis of a Jedi youngling nurtured in the Temple, battling a floating remote with a training lightsaber. A Sith acquaints himself with pain from the start, and inflicts it, as well. A Sith goes for the throat, just as you did on your family’s starship.”

Sidious continued to gaze at him. “I meant, how much longer will it take me to learn?”

The Muun sized him up with a look. “Hard to tell. Humans are their own worst enemies. Your body isn’t meant to withstand real punishment. It is easily injured and slow to heal. Your olfactory and tactile senses are relatively acute, but your auditory and visual senses are extremely limited.”

“Have I no strengths, Master?”

Plagueis dropped to one knee in front of him. “You have the Force, apprentice, and the talent to lead. More, you have the bloodlust of a serial killer, though we need to hold that in reserve unless violence serves some extraordinary purpose. We are not butchers, Sidious, like some past Sith Lords. We are architects of the future.”

Sidious swallowed and found his voice. “How long?”

Plagueis stood, reigniting the lightsaber as he did so. “Not a standard day sooner than a decade.”


 


 

13: RIDERS ON THE STORM

In mad pursuit of their prey and all but taking flight, the two Sith, Master and apprentice for eleven years now, bounded across the grassy terrain, their short capes snapping behind them, vibroblades clenched in their hands and bare forearms flecked with gore; blood caked in the human’s long hair and dried on the Muun’s hairless brow. Twisting and swirling around them was a herd of agile, long-necked quadrupeds with brown-and-black-striped fur; identical and moving as if possessed of a single mind, leaping at the same instant, reversing direction, cycloning gregariously over the short-napped savanna.

“This is not a chase,” Plagueis said as he ran, “this is a summoning. You need to get behind the eyes of your target and become the object of its desire. The same holds true when you summon the Force: you must make yourself desirable, fascinating, addictive, and whatever power you need will be at your command.”

Blended into the herd, the animal Sidious had fixed his sight on would have been indistinguishable to normal beings. But Sidious had the animal in his mind and was now looking through its eyes, one with it. Alongside him suddenly, the creature seemed to intuit its end and tipped its head to one side to expose its muscular neck. The moment the vibroblade stuck, the creature’s eyes rolled back and grew opaque; hot blood spurted but quickly ceased to flow—the Force departing, and Sidious drawing its power deep into himself.

“Now another one,” Plagueis said in a congratulatory tone. “And another one after that.”

Sidious felt himself shoved into motion, as if by a gale-force wind.

“Feel the power of the dark side flow through you,” Plagueis added from behind him. “We serve nature’s purpose by culling the herd, and our own by sharpening our skills. We are the predatory swarm!”

The low-gravity planet was known then as Buoyant, its bewildering jumble of flora and fauna the result of an experiment by a long-forgotten species that had tweaked the atmosphere, set the world spinning faster than nature had intended, and encouraged the growth of lush forests and expansive grasslands. The still-functioning machines of the ancients dotted the landscape, and millennia later the animals they had imported were thriving. Nothing moved slowly or ponderously on rapidly spinning Buoyant, even day and night, or the storms that scrubbed the atmosphere with violent regularity.

Elsewhere on the planet—in dense forests, in arid wastes, beneath the waves of inland seas—the two Sith had already taken the lives of countless creatures: culling, sharpening, marinating themselves in a miasma of dark side energy.

Kilometers from where the quadruped hunt had commenced, Plagueis and Sidious sat under the enormous canopy of a tree whose trunk was wide enough to engulf a landspeeder, and whose thick branches were burdened with flowering parasitic plants. Breathing hard and drenched in sweat, they rested in silence as clouds of eager insects gathered around them. The pulse-beats of the Muun’s trio of hearts were visible beneath his translucent skin, and his clear eyes tracked the slaloming movements of the escaping herd.

“Few of my people are aware of just how wealthy I am,” he said at last, “since most of my riches derive from activities that have nothing to do with the ordinary business of finance. For many years my peers wondered why I chose to remain unwed, and ultimately reached the conclusion that I was in essence married to my work, without realizing how right they were. Except that my real bride is the dark side of the Force. What the ancients called Bogan, as separate from Ashla.

“Even the Jedi understand that there is no profit in partnering with a being who lacks the ability to understand what it means to be in the grip of the Force, and so the Order restricts marriage by dogma, in service, so the Jedi say, to the purity of Ashla.

“But Ashla is a perversion,” he went on, “for the dark has always preceded the light. The original idea was to capture the power of the Force and make it subservient to the will of sentient life. The ancients—the Celestials, the Rakata—didn’t pronounce judgment on their works. They moved planets, organized star systems, conjured dark side devices like the Star Forge as they saw fit. If millions died in the process, so be it. The lives of most beings are of small consequence. The Jedi have failed to understand this. They are so busy saving lives and striving to keep the powers of the Force in balance that they have lost sight of the fact that sentient life is meant to evolve, not simply languish in contented stasis.”

He paused to glance at Sidious. “No doubt the texts I’ve provided contain references to the so-called Potentium theory—that light and dark depend on the intention of the user. This is yet another perversion of the truth perpetrated by those who would keep us shackled to the Force. The power of water and the power of fire are entirely different. Glaciers and volcanoes both have the potential to transform landscapes, but one does so by burying what lies beneath, where the other spews forth new terrain. The Sith are not placid stars but singularities. Rather than burn with muted purpose, we warp space and time to twist the galaxy to our own design.

“To become one of grandiloquent power requires more than mere compliance; what’s needed is obstinacy and tenacity. That’s why you must always be receptive to the currents of the dark side, because no matter how nimble you are, or think you are, the Force will show you no pity. As you’ve learned, your body sleeps but your mind is never at rest.”

Getting to his feet, Plagueis extended his long arms in front of him and loosed a storm of Force lightning that crackled over the landscape, igniting fires in the grass.

“A Jedi sufficiently strong in the Force can be trained to produce a facsimile, but not true Sith lightning, which, unabated, has the power not only to incapacitate or kill, but to physically transform the victim. Force lightning requires strength of a sort only a Sith can command because we accept consequence and reject compassion. To do so requires a thirst for power that is not easily satisfied. The Force tries to resist the callings of ravenous spirits; therefore it must be broken and made a beast of burden. It must be made to answer to one’s will.

“But the Force cannot be treated deferentially,” he added as a few final tendrils sparked from his fingertips. “In order to summon and use lightning properly, you will someday have to be on the receiving end of its power, as a means of taking the energy inside yourself.”

Sidious watched the last of the brush fires burn out, then said, “Will I eventually be physically transformed?”

“Into some aged, pale-skinned, raspy-voiced, yellow-eyed monster, you mean. Such as the one you see before you.” Plagueis gestured to himself, then lowered himself to the ground. “Surely you are acquainted with the lore: King Ommin of Onderon, Darths Sion and Nihilus. But whether it will happen to you, I can’t say. Know this, though, Sidious, that the power of the dark side does not debilitate the practitioner as much as it debilitates those who lack it.” He grinned with evil purpose. “The power of the dark side is an illness no true Sith would wish to be cured of.”

On Hypori they were the prey, standing back-to-back in their black zeyd-cloth hooded robes at the center of concentric rings of droids, retrofitted by Baktoid Armor to function as combat automata. Two hundred programmed assailants—bipedal, treaded, some levitated by antigrav generators—armed with a variety of weapons, ranging from hand blasters to short-barreled burst-rifles. Plagueis hadn’t allowed his young apprentice to wield a lightsaber until a few years earlier, but Sidious was brandishing one now, self-constructed of phrik alloy and aurodium, and powered by a synthetic crystal. Made for delicate, long-fingered hands—as much a work of art as a weapon—the lightsaber thrummed as he waved the blade from side to side in front of him.

“Every weapon, manufactured by whatever species, has its own properties and peculiarities,” Plagueis was saying, his own blade angled toward the ferrocrete floor of the battledome’s fabricated cityscape, as if to light a fuse. “Range, penetrating power, refresh rate … In some instances your life might depend on your ability to focus on the weapon rather than on the wielder. You must train yourself to identify a weapon instantly—whether it’s a product of BlasTech or Merr-Sonn, Tenloss or Prax—so that you will know where to position yourself, and the several ways to best deflect a well-aimed bolt.”

Plagueis put his words into action as the first ring of droids began to converge on them, staggering the attack and triggering bursts at random. Orbiting Sidious, the Muun’s blade warded off every volley, returning the bolts to their sources, or deflecting them into the façades of the faux buildings surrounding them or into other droids. At other times Plagueis made no attempt to redirect the attacks, but simply twisted and torqued his rangy body, allowing the bolts to miss him by centimeters. Around the two Sith, the automata collapsed one after the next, gushing lubricants from holed reservoirs or exploding in a hail of alloy parts, until all were heaped on the ferrocrete floor.

“The next ring is yours,” Plagueis said.

Rugged, uninhabited Hypori belonged to the Techno Union, whose Skakoan foreman, Wat Tambor, owed his seat in the Republic Senate to Damask Holdings. In exchange, the bionic humanoid had made Hypori available as a training ground for members of the Echani Sun Guard and provided the necessary battle droids. Calling in another favor, Hego Damask had requested a private session in the fabricated cityscape, so that Plagueis and his apprentice could be free to employ lightsabers—though only for the purpose of deflecting bolts rather than dismemberment or penetration.

When it came Sidious’s turn to demonstrate his skill, Plagueis spoke continuously from behind him, adding distraction to the distinct possibility of inadvertent disintegration.

“A being trained in the killing arts doesn’t wait for you to acquire him as a target, or establish him or herself as an opponent, as if in some martial arts contest. Your reactions must be instantaneous and nothing less than lethal, for you are a Sith Lord, and will be marked for death.”

The droids continued to converge, ring after ring of them, until the floor was piled high with smoking husks. Plagueis issued a voice command that brought the onslaught to an abrupt end and deactivated his lightsaber. The pinging of cooling weapons, the hiss of escaping gas, the unsteady whir of failing servomotors punctuated the sudden silence. Alloy limbs spasmed and photoreceptors winked out, surrendering their eerie glow. The recycled air was rotten with the smell of fried circuitry.

“Feast your eyes on our handiwork,” Plagueis said, gesturing broadly.

Sidious switched off his weapon. “I see nothing but ruined droids.”

Plagueis nodded. “Darth Bane advised: One day the Republic will fall and the Jedi will be wiped out. But that will not happen until we are ready to seize that power for ourselves.

“When?” Sidious said. “How will we know when the time is right?”

“We are close to knowing. For a thousand years the Sith have allowed themselves to be reduced to the stuff of folklore. Since it serves our purposes we’ve done nothing to counter the belief that we are perversions of the Jedi, evil mages, embodiments of hatred, rage, and bloodlust, capable even of leaving the residue of our malefactions and dastardly deeds in places of power.”

“Why have we not yet visited those places, Master—instead of worlds like Buoyant and Hypori?”

Darth Plagueis gazed at him. “You are impatient. You see no value in learning about weapons or explosives, Force suggestion or the healing arts. You hunger for power of the sort you imagine is to be found on Korriban, Dromund Kaas, Zigoola. Then let me tell you what you’ll encounter in those reliquaries: Jedi, treasure hunters, and legends. Of course there are tombs in the Valley of the Dark Lords, but they have been plundered and now draw only tourists. On Dxun, Yavin Four, Ziost, the same is true. If it’s history that has caught your fancy, I can show you a hundred worlds on which esoteric Sith symbols have been woven covertly into architecture and culture, and I can bore you for years with tales of the exploits of Freedon Nadd, Belia Darzu, Darth Zannah, who is alleged to have infiltrated the Jedi Temple, and of starships imbued with Sith consciousness. Is that your wish, Sidious, to become an academic?”

“I wish only to learn, Master.”

“And so you will. But not from spurious sources. We are not some cult like the Tetsu’s Sorcerers of Tund. Descended from Darth Bane, we are the select few who refuse to be carried by the Force and who carry it instead—thirty in a millennium rather than the tens of thousands fit to be Jedi. Any Sith can feign compassion and self-righteousness and master the Jedi arts, but only one in a thousand Jedi could ever become a Sith, for the dark side is only for those who value self-determinism over all else that existence offers. Only once in these past thousand years has a Sith Lord strayed into the light, and one day I will tell you that tale. But for now, take to heart the fact that Bane’s Rule of Two was at the start our saving grace, putting an end to the internecine strife that allowed the Jedi Order to gain the upper hand. Part of our ongoing task will be to hunt down and eliminate any Sith pretenders who pose a threat to our ultimate goals.”

Sidious remained silent for a long moment. “Am I to be equally distrustful of the lessons contained in Sith Holocrons?”

“Not distrustful,” Plagueis said gravely. “But holocrons contain knowledge specific and idiosyncratic to each Sith who constructed them. Real knowledge is passed by Master to apprentice in sessions such as this, where nothing is codified or recorded—diluted—and thus it cannot be forgotten. There will come a time when you may wish to consult the holocrons of past Masters, but until then you would do better not to be influenced by them. You must discover the dark side in your own way, and perfect your power in your own fashion. All I can do in the meantime is help to keep you from losing your way while we hide in plain sight from the prying eyes of our enemies.”

“ ‘What celestial body is more luminous than a singularity,’ ” Sidious recited, “ ‘hiding in plain sight but more powerful than all?’ ”

Plagueis grinned. “You are quoting Darth Guile.”

“He goes on to compare the Sith to a rogue or malignant cell, too small to be discovered by scans or other techniques, but capable of spreading silently and lethally through a system. Initially the victim simply doesn’t feel right, then falls ill, and ultimately succumbs.”

Plagueis locked eyes with him. “Consider the mind-set of an anarchist who plans to sacrifice himself for a cause. For the weeks, months, possibly years leading up to the day he straps a thermal detonator to his chest and executes his task, he has lived in and been strengthened by the secret he carries, knowing the toll his act will take. So it has been for the Sith, residing in a secret, sacred place of knowledge for one thousand years, and knowing the toll our acts will take. This is power, Sidious. Where the Jedi, by contrast, are like beings who, as they move among the healthy, keep secret the fact that they are dying of a terminal illness.

“But true power needn’t bear claws or fangs, or announce itself with snarls and throaty barks, Sidious. It can subdue with manacles of shimmersilk, purposeful charisma, and political astuteness.”

*   *   *

The location of the planet known to the Sith as Kursid had been expunged from Republic records in distant times, and for the past six hundred years had been reserved for use as a place of spectacle. Masters and apprentices of the Bane lineage had visited with enough regularity that a cult had come into being in that part of the world based on the periodic return of the sky visitors. The Sith hadn’t bothered to investigate what Kursid’s indigenous humanoids thought about the visits—whether in their belief systems the Sith were regarded as the equivalent of deities or demons—since it was unlikely that the primitives had yet so much as named their world. However, visiting as apprentice and—more often than not—as Master, each Sith Lord had remarked on the slow advancement of Kursid’s civilization. How, on the early visits, the primitives had defended themselves with wooden war clubs and smooth rocks hurled from slings. Two hundred years later, many of the small settlements had grown to become cities or ceremonial centers built of hewn stone, with social classes of rulers and priests, merchants and warriors. Gradually the cities had become ringed with ranged weapons of a crude sort, and magical guardian symbols had been emblazoned on the sloping sides of defensive walls. At some point previous to Darth Tenebrous’s visit as an apprentice, replicas of the Sith ships had been constructed in the center of the arid plateau that served as a battleground, and enormous totemic figures—visible only from above—had been outlined by removing tens of thousands of fist-sized volcanic stones that covered the ground. On Plagueis’s first visit, some fifty years earlier, the warriors he and Tenebrous faced had been armed with longbows and metal-tipped lances.

That the Sith had never demanded anything other than battle hadn’t kept the primitives from attempting to adopt a policy of appeasement, leaving at the ships’ perpetual landing site foodstuffs, sacrificial victims, and works of what they considered art, forged of materials they held precious or sacred. But the Sith had simply ignored the offerings, waiting instead on the stony plain for the primitives to deploy their warriors, as the primitives did now with Plagueis and Sidious waiting.

Announcing their arrival with low runs over the city, they had set the ship down and waited for six days, while the mournful calls of breath-driven horns had disturbed the dry silences, and groups of primitives had flocked in to gather on the hillsides that overlooked the battleground.

“Do you recall what Darth Bane said regarding the killing of innocents?” Plagueis had asked.

“Our mission,” Sidious paraphrased, “is not to bring death on all those unfit to live. All we do must serve our true purpose—the preservation of our Order and the survival of the Sith. We must work to grow our power, and to accomplish that we will need to interact with individuals of many species across many worlds. Eventually word of our existence will reach the ears of the Jedi.”

To refrain from senseless killing, they wielded force pikes rather than lightsabers. Meter-long melee weapons used by the Echani and carried by the Senate Guard, the pikes were equipped with stun-module tips capable of delivering a shock that could overwhelm the nervous systems of most sentients, without causing permanent damage.

“The next few hours will test the limits of your agility, speed, and accuracy,” Plagueis said, as several hundred of the biggest, bravest, and most skilled warriors—their bodies daubed in pigments derived from plants, clay, and soil—began to separate themselves from the crowds. “But this is more than some simple exercise in proficiency; it is a rite of passage for these beings, as they are assistants in our rise to ultimate power, and therefore servants of the dark side of the Force. Centuries from now, advanced by the Sith, they might confront us with projectile weapons or energy beams. But by then we will have evolved, as well, perhaps past the need for this rite, and we will come instead to honor rather than engage them in battle. Through power we gain victory, and through victory our chains are broken. But power is only a means to an end.”

To the clamorous beating of drums and the wailing of the onlookers, the warriors brandished their weapons, raised a deafening war cry, and attacked. A nod from Plagueis, and the two Sith sped across the plain to meet them, flying among them like wraiths, evading arrows, gleaming spear tips, and blows from battle-axes, going one against one, two, or three, but felling opponent after opponent with taps from the force pikes, until among the hundreds of jerking, twitching bodies sprawled on the rough ground, only one was left standing.

That was when Plagueis tossed aside the stun pike and ignited his crimson blade, and a collective lament rose from the crowds on the hillsides.

“Execute one, terrify one thousand,” he said.

Hurling the warrior to the ground with a Force push, he used the lightsaber to deftly open the primitive’s chest cavity; then he reached a hand inside and extracted his still-beating heart.

The keening of the crowd reached a fevered pitch as he raised the heart high overhead; then it ended abruptly. Following a protracted moment of silence, the fallen warriors were helped from the battleground and the crowds began to disperse, disconsolate but emboldened by the fact that they had discharged their duty. Horns blew and a communal chant that was at once somber and celebratory was carried on the wind. In the principal city, a stone stele would be carved and erected for the dead one, and the day-count would commence until the return of the Sith.

Plagueis placed the still heart on the primitive’s chest and used the hem of his robe to wipe the blood from his hand and forearm.

“At one time, though I recognized that Muuns are a higher class of beings, I puzzled over the fact that beings would relinquish their seats for me, or step into the muck to allow me to pass. But early on in my apprenticeship I came to realize that the lumpen species were making room for me not because I was a Muun, but because I was in fact superior to them in every way. More, that they should by all rights allow me to step not merely past them but on them to get where I needed to be, because the Sith are their salvation, their only real hope. In that we will ultimately improve the lives of their descendants, they owe us every courtesy, every sacrifice, nothing short of their very lives.

“But there are dark times ahead for many of them, Sidious. An era of warfare necessary to purge the galaxy of those who have allowed it to decay. For decay has no cure; it has to be eradicated by the flames of a cleansing fire. And the Jedi are mostly to blame. Crippled by empathy, shackled to obedience—to their Masters, their Council, their cherished Republic—they perpetuate a myth of equality, serving the Force as if it were a belief system that had been programmed into them. With the Republic they are like indulgent parents, allowing their offspring to experiment with choices without consequence, and supporting wrong-headedness merely for the sake of maintaining family unity. Tripping over their own robes in a rush to uphold a galactic government that has been deteriorating for centuries. When instead they should be proclaiming: We know what’s best for you.

“The galaxy can’t be set on the proper course until the Jedi Order and the corrupt Republic have been brought down. Only then can the Sith begin the process of rebuilding from the ground up. This is why we encourage star system rivalries and the goals of any group that aims to foment chaos and anarchy. Because destruction of any sort furthers our own goals.”

Plagueis paused to take the warrior’s heart back into his hands.

“Through us, the powers of chaos are harnessed and exploited. Dark times don’t simply emerge, Sidious. Enlightened beings, guiding intelligences manipulate events to bring about a storm that will deliver power into the hands of an elite group willing to make the hard choices the Republic fears to make. Beings may elect their leaders, but the Force has elected us.”

He glanced at his apprentice. “Remember, though, that a cunning politician is capable of wreaking more havoc than two Sith Lords armed with vibroblades, lightsabers, or force pikes. That is what you must become, with me advising you from the dark.”

“Are we grand enough?” Sidious said.

“You should ask, are we crude enough?” Plagueis quirked a smile. “We’re not living in an age of giants, Sidious. But to succeed we must become as beasts.”

Taking a bite from the warrior’s heart, he passed the blood-filled organ to his apprentice.


 

14: THE SHAPE OF HIS SHADOW

“You appear to be enjoying the steak, Ambassador Palpatine.”

“Exquisite,” he said, holding her gaze for a fraction longer than might have been called for.

Working on her third glass of wine since dinner began, she interpreted his ready smile as permission to turn fully toward him. “Not too gamy?”

“Scarcely a trace of the wild.”

A dark-haired human beauty with big blue eyes, she was attached in some way to the Eriaduan consulate on Malastare—host of the gala at which the Dug winners of the Vinta Harvest Classic were being feted.

“Are you on Malastare for business or pleasure?”

“As luck would have it, both,” Palpatine said, patting his lips with a napkin. “Kinman Doriana and I are members of Senator Kim’s party.”

He indicated the clean-shaven, slightly balding young man in the adjacent seat.

“Charmed,” the woman said.

Doriana smiled broadly. “You’re not kidding.”

Her gaze moved to the neighboring table, where Vidar Kim sat with members of the Gran Protectorate and politicians from nearby Sullust, Darknell, and Sluis Van.

“Senator Kim is the tall one with the quaint beard?”

“No, he’s the one with the three eyestalks,” Doriana said.

The woman blinked, then laughed with him. “A friend of mine was asking about Senator Kim earlier. Is he married?”

“For many years, and happily,” Palpatine told her.

“And you?” she said, turning to him again.

“Frequent travel forbids it.”

She watched him over the rim of the wineglass. “Married to politics, is that it?”

“To the work,” he said.

“To the work,” Doriana said, raising his glass in a toast.

Just twenty-eight, Palpatine wore his reddish hair long, in the tradition of Naboo statesmen, and dressed impeccably. Many who encountered the ambassador described him as an articulate, charismatic young man of refined taste and quiet strength. A good listener, even-tempered, politically astute, astonishingly well informed for someone who had only been in the game for seven years. A patrician at a time when few could claim the title, and destined to go far. Well traveled, too, courtesy of his position as Naboo’s ambassador-at-large but also as the sole surviving heir to the wealth of House Palpatine. Long recovered from the tragedy that had struck his family more than a decade earlier, but perhaps as a result of being orphaned at seventeen, something of a loner. A man whose love of periodic solitude hinted at a hidden side to his personality.

“Tell me, Ambassador,” she said, as she set her glass down, “are you one of those men with a friend in every spaceport?”

“I’m always eager to make friends,” Palpatine said in a low monotone that brought sudden color to her face. “We’re alike in that way.”

Taking her glossy lower lip between her teeth, she reached for her wineglass once more. “Are you perhaps a Jedi mind reader disguised in ambassadorial robes?”

“Anything but.”

“I’ve often wondered whether they have secret relationships,” she said in a conspiratorial voice. “Gallivanting around the galaxy, using the Force to seduce innocent beings.”

“I wouldn’t know, but I sincerely doubt it,” Palpatine said.

She looked at him in a calculating way, and raised her hand to caress his chin with a manicured forefinger. “On Eriadu some believe that a cleft chin identifies someone the Force has pushed away.”

“Just my luck,” he said in mock seriousness.

“Just your luck, indeed,” she said, sliding a flimsi-card across the table toward him. “I have hostess duties to attend to, Ambassador. But I’m free after midnight.”

Palpatine and Doriana watched her walk away from the table, teetering slightly on high heels.

“Nicely played,” Doriana said. “I’m taking notes.”

Palpatine slid the flimsi-card toward him. “A gift.”

“When you earned it?” Doriana shook his head. “I’m not that desperate. Yet, anyway.”

The two of them laughed. Doriana’s engaging smile and innocent good looks belied a sinister personality that had brought him to Palpatine’s notice several years earlier. A Naboo, he had a troubled past and, perhaps as a consequence, talents that made him useful. So Palpatine had befriended him and clandestinely drawn him into his web, in accordance with Plagueis’s instructions that he always keep an eye out for allies and would-be co-conspirators. That Doriana wasn’t strong in the Force made no difference. In eleven years of Sith apprenticeship and of traveling far and wide in the galaxy, Palpatine had yet to encounter a single being whose strength in the Force had gone unrecognized or unexploited.

At the neighboring table, Vidar Kim and the rest were enjoying themselves, their privacy ensured by the table’s transparent sound-muting umbrella. Envy gnawed at Palpatine while he watched Kim … the position he enjoyed in the Galactic Senate, the posting on Coruscant, easy access to the galaxy’s elite. But he knew that he needed to bide his time; that Plagueis would move him to the galactic capital only when there was some good reason to do so.

As often as Plagueis maintained that the Rule of Two had ended with their partnership, the Muun remained the powerful one, and Palpatine the covetous one. Bane’s dictum notwithstanding, denial was still a key factor in Sith training; a key factor in being “broken,” as Plagueis put it—of being shaped by the dark side of the Force. Cruelly, at times, and painfully. But Palpatine was grateful, for the Force had slowly groomed him into a being of dark power and granted him a secret identity, as well. The life he had been leading—as the noble head of House Palpatine, legislator, and most recently ambassador-at-large—was nothing more than the trappings of an alter ego; his wealth, a subterfuge; his handsome face, a mask. In the realm of the Force his thoughts ordered reality, and his dreams prepared the galaxy for monumental change. He was a manifestation of dark purpose, helping to advance the Sith Grand Plan and gradually gaining power over himself so that he might one day—in the words of his Master—be able to gain control over another, then a group of others, then an order, a world, a species, the Republic itself.

Doriana’s elbow nudged him out of his reverie.

“Kim’s coming.”

“Don’t think I didn’t see that,” the Senator said when he reached Palpatine.

Palpatine let his bafflement show.

“The flimsi-card that woman slipped you,” Vidar said. “I suppose you entertained her with the usual tall tales.”

Palpatine shrugged in a guileless manner. “I may have said something about getting to know the galaxy.”

“Getting to know the galaxy’s women, he means,” Doriana interjected.

Kim laughed heartily. “How is it that I come to have assistants who leave trails of conquests, and a son who meditates on the Force in the Jedi Temple?”

“That’s what makes you so well rounded,” Doriana said.

More than even Plagueis, Kim had been Palpatine’s mentor in the sphere of mundane politics. Their relationship went back fifteen years, to when Palpatine had been forcibly enrolled in a private school in Theed, and Kim had just completed his stint in the Apprentice Legislator program. In the time since, Palpatine had watched Kim’s family grow to include three sons, one of whom—Ronhar, six years Palpatine’s junior—had been turned over to the Jedi Order as an infant. When Plagueis had learned of this, he had encouraged Palpatine to allow his friendship with Kim to deepen, in the expectation that sooner or later his and Jedi Ronhar’s paths would cross.

Give order to the future by attending to it with your thoughts, his Master frequently told him.

“Come and join us at the table,” Kim was saying.

Palpatine stood and fell into step beside Kim as he headed back to the larger table.

“One day you’ll be replacing me at this job,” the Senator said quietly, “and the sooner you grow accustomed to what goes on, the better.” He sighed with purpose. “Who knows, a few hours of senatorial gossip might even be enough to deter you from going into galactic politics altogether.”

Some dozen beings were grouped in a circle, all of them male but not all of them human. The prominent chairs were occupied by Gran Protectorate Senator Pax Teem and his aide, Aks Moe. To both sides of them sat Sullustan and Sluissi Senators. Also present were Eriaduan Senator Ranulph Tarkin and his aide, Bor Gracus; the Darknell ambassador; and Dugs, Boss Cabra—a Black Sun Vigo—and his son, Darnada, guests of the Podrace winners and attendees of the most recent Gathering on Sojourn.

By then Palpatine had made three visits to the Hunters’ Moon, but only to observe and to familiarize himself with some of the galaxy’s key players. Plagueis, as Hego Damask, had gone to great lengths to avoid being identified as Palpatine’s benefactor. Only King Tapalo’s chief minister, Ars Veruna, knew that Damask was grooming him for a career in galactic politics, and, as a personal favor to the Muun, had appointed Palpatine Naboo’s ambassador.

“Ah, new blood,” Pax Teem remarked after Kim had introduced Palpatine to everyone.

“I quite enjoyed the Podraces,” Palpatine said as he sat down.

Teem’s leaf-like ears twitched. “You’re too young to have witnessed them in their glory days, Ambassador. Before Tatooine succeeded in capturing the fancy of race enthusiasts.” The Gran pronounced Tatooine as if an execration.

Palpatine knew that Plagueis had been responsible for Tatooine’s rise, as well for weakening Malastare’s once-lucrative trade in fuel, by helping to make Naboo’s plasma resources available to many worlds.

“Have your duties taken you to that horrible place?” Aks Moe asked.

Palpatine nodded as he sat. “Just two months ago.”

“And how did you find it?” Cabra said.

Palpatine turned to the Dug crime boss. “Contentious. What with the Desilijic and Besadii Hutts vying for control.”

The statement met with murmurs of concurrence.

Teem spoke to it. “Perhaps Gardulla’s rivalry with Jabba Tiure will one day result in Malastare’s resurgence.” His eyestalks twisted toward the Dugs. “Though I’m certain Boss Cabra favors Gardulla, out of respect for the help she provided on Nar Shaddaa.”

Young Darnada bristled at the remark. “Whatever mark we’ve made on Nar Shaddaa, we made on our own. Ask any Black Sun—”

Stopping him before he could go on, Cabra said, “We will always be indebted to Gardulla for her efforts on our behalf.”

Kim watched the Dugs, then gestured negligently. “Tatooine is too remote and lawless to have an impact on galactic events, in any case. It’s the activities of the Trade Federation that should concern the Republic. Look what the Federation has done to our own Naboo.”

Kim became the object of everyone’s gaze. An outspoken critic of King Tapalo and Ars Veruna, he continued to serve in the Senate only as an appeasement to those noble houses that were aligned against the regent.

“It is my understanding that Naboo embraced the arrangement,” Ranulph Tarkin said.

Some did.”

“No can one deny that your world has prospered as a result,” Teem interjected.

“Prospered, yes,” Kim said, “but not nearly to the extent it should have. If not for the deals Hego Damask brokered with the Banking Clan, the Trade Federation, and—” He glanced at Cabra. “—Outer Rim Construction, Naboo would be as wealthy as Kuat or Chandrila.”

The Dug remained silent while Kim continued. “Naboo’s plasma is being sold for ten, sometimes twenty times what the Federation pays for it.”

“A monster of our own creation,” Tarkin muttered. “The Trade Federation didn’t become powerful by exploiting the Outer Rim. It was supported by Eriadu’s own House Valorum, and supported by Tagge and others.”

“Then perhaps the time has come for us to make our dissatisfaction public,” Kim said, glancing around the table. “The Muuns are merely avaricious, but the Trade Federation has the potential to become dangerous.”

“I agree with the good Senator from Naboo,” the Sullustan delegate said. “Even now the Trade Federation seeks to seat its client worlds in the Senate, as a means of fortifying its voting block. Mechis, Murkhana, Felucia, Kol Horo, Ord Cestus, Yinchorr … the list goes on and on.”

The Sluissi Senator made a sound of disapproval, and a tremor seemed to snake through his humanoid upper torso. “Don’t dismiss too lightly the part the Muuns play in all this. Yinchorr’s Senate seat was Damask Holdings’ doing.” He looked at Cabra. “Is that not the case?”

The Dug’s powerful shoulders heaved. “I’m not in a position to know.”

Laughter from the others prompted Darnada to part his muzzle just enough to reveal the tips of his fangs.

The Sluissi looked at Kim and Palpatine. “Perhaps Black Sun is unaware that the son of Hego Damask’s operating officer—Larsh Hill—is in line to replace Tonith as chairman of the Banking Clan.”

Tarkin put his elbows on the table and leaned forward. “I’ve heard the rumors to the effect that Damask has been meeting with the heads of the guilds, the Corporate Alliance, and the Techno Union. What might become of trade—of any sort—if he brokered a deal between them and the Trade Federation?”

“Here’s the point,” Kim said. “If we’re going to prevent the Trade Federation—and the Muuns—from tightening their hold on the Senate, we need to band together and vote to defeat the proposed legislation.”

Before Kim could add anything, Tarkin said to Palpatine, “Do you agree that the Trade Federation needs to be taken down a notch, Ambassador?”

Palpatine glanced at Kim, who said, “Speak freely.”

“Senator Kim and I are in complete accord on the issue, and have been for some time. No single corporate entity can be allowed to grow too powerful—especially at the expense of developing worlds. Naboo must safeguard its interests, just as Eriadu and Sullust and Sluis Van have safeguarded theirs.”

Tarkin watched him closely. “Is Naboo prepared to assume control of transporting its plasma? Aren’t you in danger of biting the proverbial hand that feeds you?”

“Naboo has no intentions of planetizing the Trade Federation’s facilities. We’re simply pressing for a renegotiation of the original contracts.”

Tarkin thought about it. “So you feel that a defeat in the Senate might make the Trade Federation more … pliable, as it were.”

Palpatine vouchsafed a thin smile. “Only those bills that support well-reasoned regulation should win approval in the Senate.”

“Well put,” Tarkin said.

Palpatine waited for someone to point out that he had offered nothing of substance, but no one did. Even Kim failed to grasp that he was being undermined.

Pax Teem was about to speak when a Gran messenger intruded on the privacy canopy.

“Senator Kim, we are in receipt of an urgent communiqué from Naboo.”

While Kim was excusing himself, Palpatine dropped into the Force. Conversation at the table grew faint, and the physical forms of Pax Teem and the others became indistinct—more like blurs of lambent energy. He kept himself still as a disturbing echo reached him. By the time an ashen Kim was returning to the table, Palpatine was already out of his seat and hurrying to meet him.

“What is it? What’s happened?”

Kim stared at him as if from another world. “They’re dead. Everyone. My wife, my sons …”

And he collapsed sobbing against Palpatine’s shoulder.

The funeral for the Kim family was everything it hadn’t been for the Palpatines. In keeping with tradition, the bodies of Kim’s wife, two sons, and the ship’s pilot and copilot had been returned to Theed from the crash site in seaside Kaadara and cremated in the Funeral Temple. A procession hundreds-strong led by King Tapalo and his chief advisers proceeded on foot from the Temple to the nearby Livet Tower, where everyone spent a moment gathered around the Eternal Flame, contemplating transience and the importance of living a harmonious life; then moved in solemn precision to the banks of the Solleu River, where the grief-stricken Senator scattered the ashes and wept openly as the current carried them over the Verdugo Plunge to the flatlands beyond.

Following the ceremony, mourners gathered to express their condolences to Vidar Kim, who wore a robe of deep green over a black tunic. When Palpatine’s turn came, the two men embraced.

“I have only one hope for a family, Palpatine, one hope.” Kim’s eyes were red-rimmed and brimming with tears. “Ronhar.”

Palpatine compressed his lips in uncertainty. “He is a Jedi Knight, Vidar. His family is the Order.”

Kim was insistent. “I need him more than the Order needs him. Only he can carry the Kim line forward—just as you will someday carry on the Palpatine line.”

Palpatine said nothing.

With vehicular traffic banned from Theed’s narrow streets, the city seemed almost as it had a decade earlier, before antiquated laws had been repealed and wealth had worked its dubious magic; before Flash speeders and R2 astromech droids had become the rage, and fads and fashions—in dress, transport, and food—had poured in from the Core.

The murders of Cosinga and the others had left Palpatine emancipated and wealthy. Though interrogated by numerous officials, he had been absolved; his story, his alibi, accepted. Some of the influential nobles had their suspicions that Palpatine had furnished intelligence to Damask Holdings to secure the election of Bon Tapalo, but most Naboo had offered sympathy and support. On the heels of Tapalo’s ascension to the throne, Palpatine had sold the Lake Country estate and taken an apartment in Theed, stocking it with extra-system art that had found its way to Naboo from Core and Mid Rim worlds. In the early years of his apprenticeship to Darth Plagueis he had remained in mandatory public service; he then spent five years in the Apprentice Legislator program before being appointed ambassador, following Tapalo’s reelection.

Palpatine supposed he could have lobbied for a more prestigious position, but only at the risk of undermining Plagueis. Equally important, a high-status post might have interfered with his ability to rendezvous with his Sith Master on remote worlds, where they had been able to be observed together without consequence.

As he left Kim to the next mourner in line, he noticed Ars Veruna separating himself from a group that included Palpatine’s allies Kinman Doriana and Janus Greejatus.

“A word, Ambassador,” Veruna said when he drew near.

Palpatine allowed himself to be steered by the elbow into an unoccupied viewing area near the Solleu Bridge.

“My heart goes out to poor Vidar,” Veruna began. Roughly the same height as Palpatine, he wore a brocaded cloak and tall headpiece. “A starship crash, of all things. One would have thought that a tragedy of such nature might have compelled him to retire from politics, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.” He rested his elbows on the stone balustrade and gazed at the fast-moving river. “Well, you of all people would know better than most the effect of such unforeseen developments.”

“Vidar is planning to return to Coruscant before the month is out.”

“On Senate business?”

“Personal, I suspect.”

Veruna grew pensive, then said, “The last time you and I stood together was at the inaugural ceremony for the plasma generator.” He turned to regard Palpatine. “You look well. Changed, I think. From your travels.”

“Broadened,” Palpatine said.

“The very word I was searching for.” Veruna paused briefly. “It has reached my ear that you made quite an impression on Seswenna sector Senator Ranulph Tarkin when you were on Malastare recently.”

Palpatine shrugged. “I wasn’t aware.”

“He enjoyed hearing your views regarding the Trade Federation’s plan to seat some of its client worlds in the Senate. Would you care to elaborate on what you told him?”

Palpatine smiled lightly. “I offered nothing substantive. In fact, I was merely playing politics.”

Veruna nodded knowingly. “I am greatly relieved to hear that.” He glanced around before continuing. “As you well know, the King and I have our separate arrangements with the Trade Federation. Now, however, we’re forced to take into account the discontent of our constituents. Unfortunately, the person largely responsible for Tapalo’s election and our party’s continued popularity is not going to take kindly to hearing that Naboo plans to vote against the very legislation Damask Holdings has been lobbying to see enacted.”

“I can appreciate your predicament,” Palpatine said. “Why not order Senator Kim to vote in favor of the Trade Federation?”

Veruna laughed shortly. “Would that it were as simple as that. The problem is that Kim knows about our separate arrangements, and intends to use this opportunity to send a message to the Trade Federation—as well as to Tapalo’s detractors—that Naboo will no longer allow itself to be exploited.” He inhaled deeply. “Recalling him from Coruscant would be tantamount to admitting that Naboo remains at the mercy of the Trade Federation, and might jeopardize our standing with many of the trade worlds on whom we have come to depend.”

Palpatine pretended to consider it. “Perhaps it will be worth the risk to vote against the Trade Federation.”

Veruna studied him with sudden interest. “Go on.”

“Whether the legislation is enacted or becomes embroiled in procedure, Naboo’s contracts with the Trade Federation will remain binding and inalterable. The Federation will continue procuring our plasma for meager credits and marketing it for inflated prices. But Naboo will at least be on the public record as having stood up to the galactic conglomerates.”

“More playing politics, is that it?”

Palpatine rocked his head from side to side but said nothing.

“And what about Magister Damask?”

“Apprise him of the plan beforehand. He’s not unreasonable.”

Veruna stroked his beard in thought. “That just might work.” He smiled slyly. “It’s a pity Naboo already has a voice in the Senate.”

Palpatine sniffed. “Should the opportunity ever arise, I would, of course, accept. But until then, I’m content to serve in my own way.”

“Serve Naboo.”

“Who or what else?”

Veruna rubbed his hands together. “One day, if I have my way, our Space Corps will include a fleet of swift Nubian fighters capable of chasing the Trade Federation from our system.”

“I, too, foresee the day,” Palpatine said.

Veruna laughed again. “Ah, but when? How long will we have to wait, Palpatine?”

“Only until Hego Damask awards you the throne.”


 

15: QUANTUM BEING

A gift to Damask from the Council of Elders on the occasion of Yinchorr’s seating in the Senate, the towering reptilian condemned murderer shuffled to the center of the energy field that defined his cage on Aborah and, with confusion contorting the features of his beaked face, prostrated himself on the permacrete floor and mumbled in Basic: “I’m honored to be here and to perform whatever tasks you require of me.”

Standing at the field’s shimmering perimeter, 11-4D pivoted his head toward Plagueis. “Congratulations, Magister. At last he responds to your suggestion. You have undermined his resolve.”

That resolve, Plagueis had learned after more than two years of experimentation on the Yinchorri, was in fact a kind of Force bubble fashioned by the turtle-like alien’s limited number of unusually willful midi-chlorians. This suggested that the Yinchorri was actually strong in the Force, despite his pitifully low count. The discovery had come as a breakthrough, and Plagueis was still grappling with the implications.

The Force bubble itself was similar to those generated by creatures that drew on the Force to avoid predation by natural enemies. The relationship between the arboreal ysalamir and its adversary, the vornskr, provided a curious example, in that the latter was attracted to the former by the very mechanism the ysalamir employed as a defense. Where an extremely low midi-chlorian count might have bolstered the odds of survival, nature had instead made the ysalimir species strong in the Force. So strong, in fact, that several of the creatures acting in concert could create a Force bubble encompassing kilometers rather than meters. In a sense, the Jedi Order had done the same on a galactic scale, Plagueis believed, by bathing the galaxy in the energy of the light side of the Force; or more accurately by fashioning a Force bubble that had prevented infiltration by the dark side, until Tenebrous’s Master had succeeded in bursting the bubble, or at least shrinking it. How the Order’s actions could be thought of as balancing the Force had baffled generations of Sith, who harbored no delusions regarding the Force’s ability to self-regulate.

The Yinchorri former convict wasn’t the only new addition to Plagueis’s island facility. In the eleven years that had elapsed since the capture of Venamis and the recruitment of Sidious, Plagueis had collected more than a dozen beings of diverse species and had been subjecting them to a wide range of experiments involving volition, telepathy, healing, regeneration, and life extension, with some promising results. As for the Bith would-be Sith Lord, he was alive and well, though kept comatose more often than not, and always under the watchful photoreceptors of 11-4D or a host of custodial droids.

Plagueis hadn’t lost interest in Venamis by any means, but the Yinchorri’s immunity to Force suggestion—an immunity the species shared with Hutts, Toydarians, and others—had provided him with a new line of investigation. Unlike ysalamiri, which created a Force bubble in the presence of danger, the Yinchorri were in a perpetual state of involuntary immunity to Force suggestion. The fact that immunity was in a sense hardwired into them meant that the ability was an adaptation, prompted by a past threat to the survival of the species. To Plagueis, it meant that the Yinchorri’s midi-chlorians had evolved to provide protection to a species that was naturally strong in the Force. If that were indeed the case, then the Yinchorri were living proof that the Sith of the Bane line had been on the right path from the very start.

For while toppling the Jedi Order and the Republic was essential to the task of restoring order to the galaxy, that goal belonged to the realm of the ordinary—to the world that was nothing more than a byproduct of the eternal struggle between the light and dark forces, both of which were beyond any concepts of good or evil. The greater goal of the Sith involved toppling the Force itself, and becoming the embodiment of the galaxy’s animating principle.

It had been theorized by Jedi and Sith alike that balance between the light and dark sides was actually under the guidance of a group of discorporate entities—the ones called the Celestials, perhaps—who had merged themselves with the Force thousands of generations earlier, and had continued to guide the fate of the galaxy ever since. In effect, a higher order of intermediaries, whose powers were beyond the understanding of mortal beings. But many Sith viewed the notion with disdain, for the theoretical existence of such a group had little bearing on the goal of making the Force subservient to the will of an enlightened elite. Only the Sith understood that sentient life was on the verge of a transformative leap; that through the manipulation of midi-chlorians—or the overthrow of the Forceful group that supervised them—the divide between organic life and the Force could be bridged, and death could be erased from the continuum.

As evidenced by those few Lords who had managed to perpetuate their spirits after physical death—foremost among them Emperor Vitiate, who was said to have lived a thousand years—the ancient Sith had come halfway across that bridge. But those few had been so focused on worldly power that they had ended up trapping themselves between realms. That they had never provided the Order with guidance from beyond attested to the fact that their influence had been negligible, and had long since faded from the world.

In the same way that the pre-Bane Sith had been responsible for their own extinction, the great dark side Lords of the past had doomed themselves to the nether realm through their attempts to conquer death by feeding off the energies of others, rather than by tapping the deepest strata of the Force and learning to speak the language of the midi-chlorians. Plagueis was finally learning to do that, and was just beginning to learn how to persuade, prompt, cajole, and coax them into action. Already he could command them to promote healing, and now he had been successful in enticing them to lower their defenses. If he could compel a murderous Yinchorri to become peaceful, could he—with a mere suggestion—accomplish the opposite by turning a peaceful being into a murderer? Would he one day be able to influence the leaders of worlds and systems to act according to his designs, however iniquitous? Would he one day conquer not only death but life, as well, by manipulating midi-chlorians to produce Forceful beings, even in the absence of fertilization, as Darth Tenebrous might have attempted to do with gene-splicing techniques and computers?

Perhaps.

But not until the singular flame of the light side was extinguished from the galaxy. Not until the Jedi Order was stamped out.

From the start of his apprenticeship with Plagueis, his Master had demanded to know what Palpatine regarded as his greatest strength, so that he would know how best to undermine him; to know his greatest fear, so that Plagueis would know which to force Palpatine to face; to know what Palpatine cherished most, so that Plagueis could take that from him; and to know the things that Palpatine craved, so that Plagueis could deny him.

Some combination of the strictures—or perhaps recognition on Plagueis’s part for his apprentice’s unabated craving to visit Sith worlds—had landed Palpatine on scenic Dathomir. Sparsely populated and largely unexplored, Dathomir wasn’t Korriban or Ziost, but it was powerful in the Force, in part because of its fecundity, but mainly due to the presence of groups of female adepts who practiced dark side magicks.

He was meandering without clear purpose through one of Blue Desert City’s dustier quarters, far from the city center, when he became aware of a faint pulse of Force energy, the origin of which was indistinct but close at hand.

Calling more deeply on the Force, he allowed himself to be drawn toward the mysterious source, as if he were a starship surrendering to the embrace of a tractor beam. A tortuous series of turns delivered him into a market area brimming with knockoff goods, ersatz jewelry, and bits and pieces of junk that had found its way to Dathomir from who knew where, and ultimately to a small square amid the hustle and bustle, on one corner of which stood a human female, whose symmetrically blemished face was the color of burnished durasteel, and whose flamboyant clothing identified her as a visitor to the city, likely from some remote village on the planet’s far side. The hood of her crimson robe was raised, and from one shoulder hung a soft bag the size of a small suitcase.

Palpatine moved to the square’s diagonal corner to observe her. She was eyeing individuals in the passing crowd, not as if searching for someone in particular, but with a gaze more in keeping with target acquisition. She didn’t strike Palpatine as a thief or pickpocket, though she did exude a dark energy informed by equal measures of urgency and deceit. Abruptly he made himself discernible in the Force, and immediately she turned her head in his direction and began to hurry across the square in his direction.

“Good sir,” she said in Basic as she drew near.

Feigning interest in the cheap wares of an itinerant trader, he pretended to be taken by surprise when she approached him from his blind side.

“Are you addressing me?” he asked, turning to her.

“I am, sir, if you’ve a moment to indulge a being in need.”

Her oblique eyes were rimmed by dark blemishes that matched the tint of her thick lips; poking from the wide sleeves of her robe, the tapered fingers of her hands bore long, talon-like nails.

Palpatine pretended impatience. “Why single me out, among this crowd of more richly attired beings?”

“Because you’ve the look and bearing of a man of intelligence and influence.” She gestured broadly. “The rest are rabble, despite their fine cloaks and headwear.”

He made a decorous show of suppressing a yawn. “Save your adulation for the rubes, woman. But since you’ve correctly identified me as better than the rest, you’re obviously aware that I’ve no time to waste on confidence games or tricks. So if its mere credits you’re after, I suggest you widen your search for someone more charitable.”

“I don’t ask for credits,” she said, studying him openly.

“What then? Come to the point.”

“It’s a gift I offer.”

Palpatine laughed without merriment. “What could you possibly have to offer someone like me?”

“Just this.” She opened the soft shoulder bag to reveal a humanoid infant of less than a standard year in age. The infant’s hairless head was stippled with an array of short but still pliant horns, and its entire body had been garishly and ceremonially tattooed in red and black pigments.

A male Zabrak, Palpatine told himself. But not of the Iridonian sort; rather, a Dathomirian. “How do you come by this newborn? Have you stolen him?”

“You misunderstand, good sir. My own child, this one is.”

Palpatine glowered. “You say that he is a gift, and yet you dissemble. Have you had dealings that have led you into such deep debt that you would part with your own flesh and blood? Or perhaps you’re addicted to spice or some other intoxicant?”

She stiffened. “Neither. I seek only to save his life.”

Palpatine’s expression changed. “Then speak honestly. You’re a long way from your coven, Nightsister. And a practitioner of magicks more than sufficient to keep your child from harm.”

Her eyes opened wide and bored into him, in search of explanation. “How—”

“Never mind how I know, Witch,” Palpatine said sharply. “The child, whether yours or not, is a Nightbrother, conceived for the purpose of serving the sisterhood as a warrior and slave.”

She refused to avert her gaze. “You’re not a Jedi.”

“Clearly I am not, as I suspect you have already intuited. But you still haven’t answered my question. Why are trying to rid yourself of the infant?”

“To spare the one for the sake of the other,” she said after a moment. “Half a clan pair, this one is. And I want one to live freely, since the other can’t.”

“Who poses the threat?”

“Talzin is her name.”

“Who is Talzin?”

“The Nightsister Mother.”

Palpatine filed the information away. “Where is the infant’s father?”

“Dead—by tradition.”

He snorted. “Will the infant not be missed?”

“Talzin knows only of the one, not the other.”

“You delude yourself.”

Gently, she pushed the shoulder bag toward him. “Then take him. Please.”

“What would I do with him?”

“This one is strong in the Force. In the right hands, he can become a powerful asset.”

“Servitude of a different sort.”

She ignored the remark. “Take him. Save him.”

Palpatine regarded the newborn again. “Have you named him?”

“Maul, he is called.”

“Befitting the power you divine in him.”

She nodded. “Take him.”

Palpatine gazed at her and, motioning with his right hand, said, “You will forget this encounter.”

She locked eyes with him. “I will try.”

“For your own sake, I hope you do. Now, go. Before I change my mind.”

Placing the bag in his hands, she turned and hurried off, disappearing into the crowd.

Palpatine studied the bundle of life he held. That the Force was strong in the infant was reason enough not to allow him to wander about unprotected, and perhaps fall into the hands of the Jedi.

Now Palpatine simply had to figure out what to do with him.

From a high turret in the old fort on Sojourn, Plagueis and Sidious observed the revelry in the courtyard below. There, amid the blazing fires, the smell of fresh blood and roasting meat, the cacophony of guttural chants, strident music, and screams of abandon, a Gathering was in progress. Returned from the hunts, beings of many species told tall tales and shared in vulgar laughter, while exotic dancers writhed atop tables laden with food and intoxicating drinks. Away from the roasting pits, beings huddled in the sultry night air, forming alliances, revealing hidden agendas, hatching plots. Passion, envy, and conspiracy were on the loose. From the high turret, the two Sith could see Damask’s Sun Guards and Muuns circulating, Larsh Hill introducing his eldest son, San, to representatives of the Commerce Guild and the Techno Union. The Gotal Grand Mage of the Order of the Canted Circle was speaking with starship designer and Santhe/Seinar CEO Narro Sienar. Boss Cabra was making the rounds, as well, pressing the flesh, the scales, the rough hide of partners and potential allies. Members of the Trade Federation were in attendance, including a richly dressed Neimoidian. And for the first time in decades, representatives of various hive species were present—the Xi Charrian prelate, the Geonosian Archduke, even a couple of mistrustful and dangerous-looking insectoid Colicoids, from the Colicoid Creation Nest.

“We will not be denied,” Plagueis was saying with unusual annoyance. “We will have our way in the Senate, regardless of what the Gran Protectorate, Black Sun, and the rest wish to see happen. Let the beings of the Hydian Way and Rimma Trade Route worlds go on thinking that the Trade Federation is seeking to tighten its grip on intersystem commerce. The real danger in seating the Federation’s client worlds will emerge when the Senate ignores the needs of those worlds, and disenfranchisement begins to spread through the Mid and Outer Rims. Then the Republic will reap the whirlwind, and we will harvest the benefits.”

He exhaled in disgust. “Pax Teem and the rest aren’t acting out of concern for the Republic but out of fear that their entitlements might disappear if trade shifts to the outer systems. Half of them sit in the Rotunda only because I want them there. They’ve forgotten how effortlessly they can be replaced.” He swung away from the view of the courtyard to face Sidious. “As for Veruna, you should encourage his plans to amass a Space Corps to defend Naboo against the Trade Federation. When we make him King, we will lead him by the nose into a morass that will appear to be of his own making.”

Plagueis lowered his gaze to the courtyard. “The climate begins to shift, Darth Sidious. The body politic begins to show signs of contagion. The reemergence of anger, hatred, and fear signal a loss of faith in the Force. The light is waning, pushed into retreat by dark matter, and the universe begins to seem inimical rather than comforting. In such times, beings are wont to look for solutions in the enactment of harsh laws, the ostracism of strangers, and warfare. Once the Republic has fallen, the Jedi are but a memory, and beings have nowhere to turn but to us, we will provide them with a sense of stability and order: a list of enemies, weapons capable of decimating entire star systems, durasteel prisons in which they can feel secure.” He gestured to the courtyard. “Look how they hunger for the dark.”

A fierce light came into Plagueis’s eyes. “We must demand the attention of the dark side to aid us in dictating the future. Together and separately we will see to that, and once we’ve put these Senate issues behind us, we will set the stage for the next act. With the promise of unlimited funding, guilds and unions will ally, and the hive species will turn pincer and claw to the manufacture of weapons, even in the absence of conflict, let alone all-out war.”

Doubt tugged at the corners of Sidious’s mouth. “The Jedi won’t simply stand by and do nothing, Master. While I have no affection for them, I do respect their power. And weakening the Republic without weakening the Jedi could provide them with justification for attempting a coup. They have the numbers to succeed.”

Plagueis took it under advisement. “Their time is coming, Sidious. The signs are in the air. Their Order might have already been decimated had it not been for the setback Darth Gravid dealt the Sith. But his apprentice carried the imperative forward, and each successive Sith Lord improved on it, Tenebrous and his Master most of all, though they wasted years attempting to create a targeted virus that could be deployed against the Jedi, separating them from the Force. As if there were some organic difference between the practitioners of the light and darks sides; as if we communicate with the dark side through a different species of cellular intermediaries! When, in fact, we are animated by the same power that drives the passion of these beings gathered below. Target midi-chlorians and we target life itself.”

“An attack of that sort would fail, regardless,” Sidious said, as if thinking out loud. “The Jedi are widely scattered, and it’s unlikely that we would be able to act quickly enough to kill all of them in the same instant. We would need to assign an individual assassin to each, and there would be no way to still the tongues of that many assassins. Our plan would be revealed. We would be betrayed and become the targeted ones.”

Plagueis paced away from the turret’s window, his hands interlocked behind his back. “We don’t want them to die too quickly in any case. Not, that is, until the Republic has been so ravaged, so weakened, that beings will willingly embrace the stability we impose.”

“Are the weapons that will be produced by the Colicoids and the others meant ultimately to be used against the Jedi?”

“We shall see what comes to pass. Until such time we must accept the fact that no mere army can overwhelm the Jedi. The ancient Sith were tens of thousands strong and failed the test. Once the galaxy teemed with warriors and warships. Now we have only isolated bands of mercenaries and star system defense forces. That’s why we must strive to return the galaxy to a state where barbarism is the norm.”

“The Jedi will have to be felled from within,” Sidious said, his eyes tracking Plagueis as the Muun paced the floor. “Lured into a trap of their own devising, as you said we will do with Veruna.”

Plagueis stopped to regard him. “Follow that thought.”

Sidious took a moment. “We will have to exploit their vanity and blind obedience to the Republic,” he said with greater confidence, and as if the truth of it should be obvious. “They must be made to appear the enemies of peace and justice rather than the guardians.”

“The enemies of peace and justice rather than the guardians,” Plagueis repeated, in revelation. “Even the survivors of a purge would be forced into hiding …” Coming back to himself, he cut his gaze to Sidious. “Great care has to be taken not to turn them into martyrs, Darth Sidious—if in the end we want the beings of the galaxy to turn their backs to the light side of the Force.”

“Forceful beings will continue to be born.”

“In the absence of training and brainwashing, they will pose no harm to us. You will see to that, Supreme Chancellor Palpatine.”

Sidious looked at the floor and shook his head. “You should be the one, Master.”

“No,” Plagueis said firmly. “It must be you. You have the political skills, and more to the point, you are a human. In this era only a human is capable of rising to the top of Coruscant’s biased political heap.”

“Human or not, my knowledge of the dark side will never equal yours. The title, the crown, should be yours.”

“And it will be, once you openly appoint me co-chancellor. Feared and respected by the galaxy’s most powerful beings, Hego Damask will be seen as a windfall for the Republic. But even then I will advise only in secret from behind your throne.”

Sidious bowed his head in deference. “In the annals of Sith history, you will be known as Plagueis the Wise.”

Plagueis quirked a cunning smile. “You flatter me.”

“Whatever you ask of me, Master, I will do it.”

Plagueis fell silent for a long moment, then said, “You need now to hear about the first mission I performed for Darth Tenebrous. The events transpired some twenty-five years into my apprenticeship. At the time, Tenebrous had sought to expand his network of influential beings by reaching out to a human industrialist named Kerred Santhe—”

“The former owner of Santhe Corporation.”

“The same,” Plagueis said. “Santhe Corporation had been designing freight vessels for generations, but had only limited success with its line of personal starships. My Master believed that he might entice Kerred into an alliance by offering him exclusive rights to a Rugess Nome ship. Santhe leapt at the opportunity, but only to manipulate Tenebrous into a situation where agents of Santhe Security were able to steal the plans.”

Plagueis paused in narrow-eyed reflection. “It was one of the few times I saw my Master outmaneuvered. But he didn’t set his sights on revenge—not immediately, at any rate. Once in production, the starship met with such success that Kerred Santhe was able to acquire a controlling interest in Sienar Technologies and Republic Sienar Systems. Only by agreeing to an arranged marriage between his youngest daughter was Sienar’s president, Narro, able to retain his position as chief designer. By then, though, Narro had entered into a secret partnership with Tenebrous, and the time had come to settle scores.”

Plagueis moved as he spoke.

“Damask Holdings was in its infancy, but I had already earned a reputation among the galaxy’s elite, and so received an invitation to attend a design conference on Corulag, which was then headquarters not only for Sienar Technologies but for Aether Hypernautics, Danthe Artifice, and a dozen other corporations. The guest speaker was the Senator representing the Bormea sector, and many luminaries from Coruscant, Corellia, and Kuat attended. From distant Lianna came Kerred Santhe and his young and unhappy wife, supported by an entourage of retainers and Santhe Security guards. I was seated at a table directly across from him, and the menu specialty that night was bloateel. Have you ever tasted it, Sidious?”

“As a teenager. At a gala hosted by House Palpatine.”

“Then you know that the creature is one of the most poisonous to be found in the galaxy. The preparation is both dangerous and exacting, as the creature must be skinned while alive to guard against its toxins infiltrating the flesh. Needless to say, nothing enlivens a banquet like the prospect of near-instant death, and the hall could barely contain the anticipation as individual portions were served.

“I waited to act until I saw Santhe chewing his first bite.”

Plagueis brought the thumb and forefinger of his left hand close together, and Sidious, taken by surprise, felt his throat close. He gasped for breath.

“Yes. Just so you have an understanding of what Santhe must have felt.” Plagueis opened his fingers and Sidious inhaled deeply, his face flushed and his hands stroking his throat.

“Only then I kept the pressure on until his face began to turn red, his hands flew to his throat, his muted calls for help brought everyone around him out of their chairs. I think his bulging eyes might have found mine when I finally pinched his trachea closed completely. Of course, medtechs had been standing by in the event of just such an emergency—Ithorians, if I recall correctly, armed with doses of antitoxin and medicines to counter the effects of anaphylactic shock. But none did the trick that night, for the dark side of the Force had Santhe in its grip and no drug or resuscitation technique was equal to the task of keeping him alive.”

Plagueis touched his chin. “Many alleged that Rugess Nome and Narro Sienar had somehow engineered an assassination. Others, that Malkite Poisoners or a sect of the GenoHaradan had been contracted to carry out the kill. But in the end the chefs were held accountable, and given long prison sentences. Santhe Security squads made several attempts on my Master’s life afterward, but we dealt with them. Much later we learned that Santhe’s body had been placed in carbonite freeze, and that all his internal organs had been replaced by vat-grown ones. The surgical teams may even have been successful at restarting his body, but the Kerred Santhe they had known was irretrievable.”

Plagueis said nothing for a long moment, then continued: “The circumstances will be different for you. You won’t have the satisfaction of seeing our opponent die in person, because we want to ensure your deniability. A public assassination on Coruscant would be best for sending a message.”

“Senator Pax Teem,” Sidious said in a raspy voice, tinged with residual anger.

Plagueis shook his head. “Teem may yet prove useful. I’m referring to Senator Vidar Kim. His sentiments have made him a liability. More important, his death will allow us to position you where you’ve long yearned to be.”


 

16: BOLD AS LOVE

The hood of his stylish robe raised against a chill wind, Palpatine hurried through the streets of Theed. The sudden turn in the weather abetted his desire to avoid making eye contact with strangers or, worse, encountering anyone he knew. As he grew stronger in the dark side, the profane world became a stranger and stranger place, swept by currents he’d had no previous awareness of and populated by vaguely outlined life-forms he saw as magnitudes of the Force. As Plagueis ordered, he had been living in the future, consorting with the dark side to execute the plans he and his Master had designed.

Vidar Kim’s office was in the eastern portion of the city, a long walk from the apartment Palpatine had been renting for the past several years, and the quickest route required crossing and recrossing the Solleu tributaries that defined Theed’s districts and neighborhoods. He had never had much fondness for the city, with its ancient buildings, public squares, its tens of thousands of residents going about their lives, and now Theed began to seem like some stage set in an elaborate theater production, and Naboo itself a node in a vast web being woven by the dark side, into which so many planets and species would ultimately be drawn.

At no time during the visit to Sojourn had Darth Plagueis asked to hear his feelings about the death order he had issued for Vidar Kim. And no wonder, since Palpatine had given his word to do anything Plagueis asked of him. But it was obvious that the Muun had sensed Palpatine’s conflict. Fear and hatred had prompted him to murder his family in cold blood, but his relationship with Kim was as close as he had come to having a true friendship—even though, as Naboo’s Senator, Kim stood between Palpatine and his immediate goal. On Sojourn, Plagueis’s parting words to him were: Remember why the Sith are more powerful than the Jedi, Sidious: because we are not afraid to feel. We embrace the spectrum of emotions, from the heights of transcendent joy to the depths of hatred and despair. Fearless, we welcome whatever paths the dark side sets us on, and whatever destiny it lays out for us.

Clearly Plagueis knew that Palpatine had helped seal Kim’s fate by encouraging him to take a stand against the Trade Federation, and therefore against Plagueis. That his Master hadn’t said as much was perhaps his way of reminding Palpatine that he would have to be prepared to accept any and all consequences that sprang from his machinations. It was a subtle lesson, but one Palpatine took to heart. From then on, he would be careful to plan his moves meticulously; and more important, to allow the dark side to complete its lapidary work of transforming him into a powerful being. Recalling Plagueis’s surprise Force choke, he pledged also never again to lower his guard. But he viewed the lesson as part of the process of their learning to rely on each other and forge themselves into a team. United in the dark side, they could keep no secrets; there could be no chance of one being able to act without the other being aware. They had to learn to see through each other.

Palpatine hadn’t been attempting to flatter Plagueis when he had called him wise—not entirely, at any rate. The Muun was powerful beyond Palpatine’s present understanding. The only being capable of guiding the galaxy into the future. A crescendo. At times it was difficult to grasp that they would see in their lifetime the fall of the Republic and the annihilation of the Jedi Order, and yet Palpatine seemed to know it to be true. A grand design was unfolding, in which he wasn’t merely a player but an architect.

Resigning himself to Kim’s death was easier than it might have been because Kim, too, had become a broken man in the wake of the deaths of his wife and younger sons. His reaching out to the son he had voluntarily surrendered to the Jedi was an act of desperation—and based on nothing more than a desire to assure that the Kim family line continued. How like the self-important royals among whom Palpatine had been raised. So fervent to be remembered by those who followed!

Rather than demand or ensure that Palpatine get his hands dirty once more, Plagueis had insisted on providing him with an agent to facilitate the assassination. Plagueis had said that they needed to guarantee Palpatine’s deniability and make certain that no hint of scandal pursue him. But Palpatine had begun to wonder: Despite all the talks about partnership and disclosures, had Plagueis merely been making excuses for the fact that he harbored doubts about Palpatine’s abilities?

Palpatine thought back to the story Plagueis had recounted about the murder of Kerred Santhe. Blame had fallen on the chefs who had prepared the bloateel. Kim’s death, however, wouldn’t result from food poisoning but public assassination. So who might emerge as having the most to gain from his death? Certainly not the Naboo, or the Gran Protectorate. The fact that fingers would point instead to the Trade Federation made him wonder why Plagueis would want to place the cartel in a position that jeopardized its chances of seating new worlds in the Senate. So once more he found himself wondering: Did Plagueis have an ulterior motive for not wanting the Trade Federation to succeed?

He wanted Kim’s death to be viewed as a message. But by whom? Perhaps Palpatine was meant to be the recipient. When Plagueis said that many of the Senators were expendable, that they retained their seats only because of him, was he, in the same breath, saying that Palpatine, even as Sidious, was also expendable, easily replaced by another Forceful apprentice? While the Muun encouraged transparency in Palpatine, he sometimes made himself opaque. Would he at some point bequeath all his knowledge to his apprentice, or would he hold back, merely to keep the upper hand?

“Thank you for coming on such short notice, Palpatine,” Kim said in a rush, ushering him into an office cluttered with data disks and flimsi printouts, and smelling of sweat, stale air, spoiling food. Tall windows opposite the hardwood entry doors overlooked the palace, including the new tower that Tapalo—in accordance with tradition—had constructed on being elected monarch.

“What I have to say will place you at some risk, but there’s no one I trust more than you.” Kim was in constant motion while he spoke, moving from his desk to the windows and back again. “I’m not entirely sure that this office is secure, but we have to take the chance.”

Palpatine concealed a frown of misgiving and gestured to the couch. “Please, Vidar, sit and unburden yourself.”

Kim came to a halt, exhaled wearily, and did as Palpatine suggested. His face was drawn, his hair in disarray, his normally neat beard and mustache in need of grooming.

“Palpatine, I have good reason to suspect that Tapalo and Veruna arranged the crash that claimed the lives of my family.”

Palpatine’s surprise was sincere. “Vidar, the crash was investigated and ruled an accident. Some problem with the antigrav—”

“Accidents can be faked—planned! You’ve piloted speeders ever since I’ve known you. You know that systems can be sabotaged.”

Palpatine sat down opposite him. “What possible motive would they have for killing your family?”

Kim’s bloodshot eyes fixed on him. “I know their dirty secrets, Palpatine. I know about the payments they’ve been receiving from the Trade Federation since Tapalo took office. The laws they’ve enacted to open all of Naboo to survey and plasma exploitation. I know about the deals they struck with certain members of the electorate to engineer Tapalo’s unprecedented victory in the last election.”

“Even so,” Palpatine said after a moment, “why would they bring your family into this?”

Kim all but growled. “By relieving me of my plenary duties they risk angering many of the royals who support me. Instead they hope to persuade me to tender a resignation—out of grief, out of fear, out of I don’t know what.”

“Tapalo would know better than to attempt such a despicable act.”

“You give him too much credit. The crash was meant to be a message to me. But it had the opposite effect.”

“How so?” Palpatine said, leaning toward him.

“I’m leaving for Coruscant this afternoon. And my first act will be to notify the Jedi Order.”

Palpatine sat up straight. “Vidar, the Jedi listen only to the Senate and the Supreme Chancellor. You can’t simply walk into the Temple—”

“I’ll contact the members of the Council through my son. If I can convince Ronhar to leave the Order, the information will be my gift to the Jedi.”

“And suppose Ronhar doesn’t want any part of this.” Palpatine crossed his arms across his chest. “Have you even been able to speak with him? It’s my understanding that Jedi aren’t permitted contact with their parents.”

Kim scowled and studied the carpet. “Regardless, I was able to make contact.”

“And?”

Kim’s expression was cheerless when he looked up. “He told me that I’m a stranger to him, and that the Kim name has no significance for him.”

Palpatine sighed. “Then that’s the end of it.”

“No. He has agreed to speak with me in person on Coruscant. I’m determined to convince him, Palpatine. Family must come first.”

Palpatine bit back what he was about to say and began again. “Will you promise to keep me informed? Or at least let me know how to reach you?”

Kim went to the desk and sorted through the mess until he found the flimsi he was looking for. “This is my itinerary for the coming week,” he said, passing the flimsi to Palpatine. “Palpatine, if something untoward should happen to me on Coruscant …”

“Stop, Vidar. We’re getting way ahead of ourselves.”

Kim ran a hand over his head. “You’re right.” He returned to the couch and sat. “Palpatine, we’re too close in age for me to have thought of you as a son, but I do consider you the younger brother I never had.”

Palpatine nodded without a word.

“If I fail to get through to Ronhar or the Jedi, I can at least alert my colleagues on the Senate Investigatory Committee.”

Palpatine restrained an impulse to stand. “I think you’re wrong about Tapalo and Veruna, Vidar. But I can say without hesitation that you will be risking your life by making such accusations public.”

“I’m perfectly aware of that, Palpatine. But if Ronhar rejects my plea, what else will I have to live for?”

Palpatine placed his hand on Kim’s shoulder.

The small part you will play in the revenge of the Sith.

*   *   *

By the time he left Kim’s office the weather had turned sharply colder. Snow flurries were swirling around the palace towers, and the shallows to the Solleu tributaries were sheened with ice. The agent from Coruscant whom Plagueis had provided—Sate Pestage—was waiting in a small plaza behind the Parnelli Art Museum, warming his hands with his breath.

“The Naboo have never heard of climate control?” he commented as Palpatine approached.

Recalling his early conditioning sessions on glacial Mygeeto, Palpatine almost laughed at the man’s remarks. Instead he said, “Radical change has always come slowly to this world.”

Pestage cast a glance at the stately columns that enclosed the domed museum. “No doubt about that.”

Slightly taller and older than Palpatine, he was sinewy and capable looking. His brown eyes were close-set and glistening, and his pointed nose and angular cheekbones were emphasized by black hair that had receded from his forehead and temple. Plagueis had mentioned that Pestage had been born in Daplona on Ciutric IV—an industrialized ecumenopolis outside of which Darths Bane and Zannah had once lived secret lives. Plagueis hadn’t revealed how he had discovered Pestage—perhaps Damask Holdings had had dealings with Pestage’s influential and extensive family—but he had said that Pestage was someone Palpatine might want to consider adding to his growing entourage of aides and confidants.

From the pocket of his robe, Palpatine prized the flimsi Vidar Kim had given him and handed it over. “His itinerary for Coruscant.”

“Perfect.” Pestage slipped the flimsi into his pocket.

“I want you to wait until his business on Coruscant is concluded.”

“Whatever you say.”

“He’s threatening to alert the Jedi Order and the Senate Investigatory Committee about various deals that were made.”

Pestage snorted. “Then he deserves everything that’s coming to him.” He scanned their surroundings without moving his head. “Have you made a decision about who to use from the data I supplied?”

“The Maladians,” Palpatine said.

A group of highly trained humanoid assassins, they had struck him as the obvious choice.

Pestage nodded. “Can I ask why?”

Palpatine wasn’t accustomed to having to justify his decisions, but answered regardless. “The Mandalorian Death Watch has its own problems, and the Bando Gora its own galactic agenda.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Pestage said. “Besides, the Maladians are known to honor all their contracts.”

“How soon can you have them on Coruscant?”

Pestage looked at him askance. “Perhaps it’s best that that remains on a need-to-know basis.”

The man’s audacity both impressed and bridled Palpatine. “There can be no mistakes, Sate.”

A long-suffering look flared on Pestage’s face, but his tone was compliant when he responded. “If there are, then I’m certain this will be our final conversation. I know fully well what Magister Damask and you are capable of, and I hope to make myself worthy of continuing to serve you. One day, perhaps, you’ll begin to think of me as family, as I’m sure Senator Kim does you.”

Just how much does this man know? Palpatine wondered.

“You’ve no qualms about living a double life, Sate?”

“Some of us are simply born into it,” Pestage said, indifferent to Palpatine’s penetrating gaze.

“You’ll contact me here?”

“As soon as the work is completed. Just make sure to stay close to your comm.”

“You’ll also be contacting Magister Damask?”

Pestage rocked his head. “He gave me the impression that he would be unavailable for the next few weeks. But I suspect we’re safe in assuming that the results won’t escape his notice.”

On a planet at the edge of known space, above the holo-well of a gleaming metallic table, a quarter-sized three-dimensional image of a tall biped rotated between graphs and scrolling lines of anatomical and physiological data. In a spoon-like seat suspended from the white room’s towering ceiling sat Hego Damask, dwarfed by a trio of slender, tailed scientists—two crested males and a female whose complexion was more gray than white.

“This being is representative of the entire species?” the scientist called Ni Timor asked in a gentle, almost sussurant voice.

“This one murdered six members of his species,” Damask said, “but he is otherwise typical of the Yinchorri.”

Tenebrous had introduced him to the planet Kamino early on in his apprenticeship, but he hadn’t visited in more than three years. In stocking Sojourn’s greel forests with rare and in some cases extinct fauna, he had hired the Kaminoans to grow clones from biological samples he procured through brokers of genetic materials. The glassy eyes, long necks, and sleek bodies of the bipedal indigenes spoke to a marine past, though in fact they had been land dwellers for millions of years preceding a great flood that had inundated Kamino. With global catastrophe looming, most technologically advanced sentient species would have abandoned their homeworld and reached for the stars. But the Kaminoans had instead constructed massive stilt cities that were completed even while the oceans of their world were rising and submerging the continents. They had also turned their considerable intellect to the science of cloning as a means of ensuring the survival of their species, and along the way had taken genetic replication farther than any known species in the galaxy. Residing outside the galactic rim, the Kaminoans performed their work in secret and only for the very wealthy. It was unlikely, in any case, that they would have abided by the Republic’s restrictions on cloning. Moral principles regarding natural selection seemed to be something they had left on the floor of what was now Kamino’s planetwide ocean, which perhaps explained why they were no more reluctant about providing game animals for Sojourn than they were about supplying shovel-handed clones to work in the mines of inhospitable Subterrel.

Damask considered them to be one of the galaxy’s most progressive species: almost Sith-like in their emotional aloofness and scientific objectivity.

The female scientist, Ko Sai, had highlighted an area of the Yinchorri’s midbrain. “The lack of neural pathways to the forebrain indicates an innate proclivity for violence. Although the absence could be idiosyncratic.”

The third Kaminoan, Lac Nor, called for an enhancement of the highlighted area. “The Yinchorri’s violent nature could complicate matters, Magister. Without access to sociological studies, we have no means of determining to what degree the culture of violence shapes the beings born into it. A clone raised in a laboratory setting might exhibit feral behavior unless provided with some means to express aggression.”

“An outlet,” Ko Sai offered.

“Scientific studies are available,” Damask said. “The question is, can compliance be bred into them without affecting their violent tendencies?”

“Probably not without disturbing the basic personality matrix,” Ko Sai said. “We might produce a clone that is merely Yinchorri in aspect, but lacks the signature characteristics of the species.”

Damask frowned. “That won’t do.”

“Have you considered using a more acquiescent species?” Ni Timor asked

“Which would you recommend?

“One of the placid species. Ithorians, for example. Or Caamasi.”

Damask shook his head. “Neither species would suit my purposes. What about humans?”

“Our experience with humans is limited—though of course we have grown many replacement organs.”

“Human emotionalism is somewhat problematic,” Ko Sai added, “but not unsolvable.”

Damask considered the comment, and then agreed with the Kaminoan’s assessment.

Emotion in human beings was a fatal flaw. The same characteristic that fueled their need to form strong bonds and believe that all life was sacred made them compassionate to a fault. Only weeks earlier on Sojourn, he realized that even Sidious, for all his growing strength in the dark side, remained a prisoner of his emotions. That Sidious was feeling an urge to stretch out with his new powers was to be expected and encouraged, but he had to be taught the lesson every Sith needed to learn. With great subtlety Sidious had manipulated Vidar Kim into a position where he had become a liability, and therefore had to die. He hadn’t bothered to address the issue directly because the time had come for Sidious to embark on the political career that would carry him to the chancellorship. Still, Sidious’s reaction to the assassination orders—fleeting as it had been—had convinced Plagueis of the need for additional tests. Sidious didn’t need to have his mistakes explained to him; he needed to experience the consequences.

“Perhaps, Magister,” Lac Nor was saying, “if we understood your plans for the Yinchorri clones.”

“I would expect them to serve as soldiers.”

“Ah,” Ni Timor said. “Then obedience, not mere compliance, must be a prime consideration.”

“And yet the need for some measure of free will,” Ko Sai was quick to point out. “Or else why not simply use combat automata?”

Lac Nor’s large eyes fixed on Damask. “These Yinchorri appear to be ready-made for war, Magister. Are there so few of them in the galaxy that you need to clone an army?”

He had deliberately avoided mentioning Yinchorri immunity to Force suggestion because he should have no way of knowing about that, or indeed anything about the actions of midi-chlorians. But it was precisely the reptilians’ capability to fashion Force bubbles that he hoped to explore.

“As you’ve already pointed out,” he said after a moment, “their innate bellicosity interferes with their ability to follow orders.”

Mostly to himself, Ni Timor said, “We would need to assure that their violent tendencies remained intact, while their behavior was less willful.”

“Yes,” Damask said.

Ko Sai craned her long neck. “Very challenging. Though perhaps if we could be supplied with a template for experimentation …” She gestured toward the 3-D images. “Is this specimen available for thorough evaluation?”

“I could have him delivered to Kamino,” Damask said. “Assuming for the moment that you can discover some way to provide me with what I need, how much time would be required to grow a mature clone?”

The three scientists traded looks.

“In the case of the Yinchorri,” Ni Timor said at last, “certainly no fewer than twelve standard years, to allow for both physical and mental development. As you know we have had some success in accelerating the growth rate of certain cloned creatures, but not yet with full sentients, owing to the plasticity of the youthful brain.”

“More important,” Lac Nor said, “while we might be able to grow a few clones, our facilities are at present inadequate to produce an army of any size.”

“We would also need to consult with military specialists regarding programming,” Ko Sai added.

“That can all be arranged,” Damask said. “Would you have any objections to working with Rothana Heavy Engineering?”

“Of course not,” Ni Timor said.

“Then Damask Holdings can provide whatever funding you need.”

Ko Sai’s eyes appeared to widen. “The Prime Minister will be very pleased to learn of this,” she said with what passed for animation on Kamino.

In his apartment in snowbound Theed, Palpatine watched a HoloNet replay of Jedi Knight Ronhar Kim leaping from a Coruscant taxi in midflight onto a monospeeder piloted by the Maladian contracted to assassinate the elder Kim. At the same time Palpatine spoke by comlink with Sate Pestage.

“Is Naboo threading the story?” Pestage asked.

“On every network.”

“Breaking news, Coruscant,” a female correspondent was saying. “Chommell sector Senator Vidar Kim, of Naboo, was killed earlier today while en route to Mezzileen Spaceport, in what appears to have been an assassination. A hovercam stationed at Node SSJ in the Sah’c District captured the moment when a monospeeder approached Senator Kim’s taxi from behind, and its helmeted pilot unleashed a salvo of blaster bolts, killing Kim instantly and barely missing a second passenger—an as-yet-unidentified Jedi Knight. The hovercam recording shows the human male Jedi, armed with an activated lightsaber, hurling himself from the taxi and knocking the pilot assassin from the seat of the monospeeder. Eyewitnesses state that the Jedi managed to steer the assailant to a pedestrian walkway close to where the speeder crashed and burned, but Realtime News has yet to learn whether the assassin survived the fall. Wounded in the attack, the pilot of the taxi was taken to Sah’c Med-Center, where his condition is listed as grave.”

“Is the Maladian alive?” Palpatine demanded of Pestage.

“No. She spiked herself with a neurotoxin while Ronhar was trying to force information from her.”

“You’re certain?”

“Absolutely certain.”

“The fool,” Palpatine fumed. “Why didn’t she wait until Kim had exited the taxi at Mezzileen?”

“You instructed me to make it public, which is exactly what I told her. She made a point of firing in full view of the security cam, but I haven’t been able to determine whether or not she knew that Kim was riding with a Jedi. Based on the placement of the blaster bolts, I think she planned on taking out both of them.”

“And if she’d succeeded, the Jedi would be conducting their own investigation.”

“They are, regardless,” Pestage said. “Because Ronhar issued a statement to the media that he may have been the target.”

Palpatine directed a scowl at the comlink cam. “Why didn’t you warn her about Ronhar?”

“I did warn her. Maybe she wanted to add another Jedi kill to her résumé.”

“Another?”

“As I told you, the Maladians are very good at what they do.”

Palpatine considered it. “If Ronhar is under the impression that he might have been the target, then Kim may not have revealed his suspicions about Tapalo and Veruna.”

“He didn’t. I had him under surveillance from the moment he arrived on Coruscant, and he didn’t go anywhere near the Jedi Temple or meet with anyone on the Senate Investigatory Committee. I have recordings of the three meetings he had with Ronhar in his office in the Senate Annex, and at no time did he offer anything more than veiled references to intrigues on Naboo.”

“Was he able to persuade Ronhar to leave the Order?”

“No. Ronhar said that he respected Kim for being his—what was the word he used?—progenitor. But that he considers the Temple to be his home and the Jedi to be his family.”

Palpatine forced an exhale. “I warned him.”

“Kim tried to convince him that family blood comes first, but Ronhar might as well have been listening to an episode of Coruscant Confessions.”

“Magister Damask will not be pleased. What rumors are circulating in the Senate?”

“That Kim may have been involved in shady business; that he double-crossed a group of lobbyists. You’ve got the Senate worried—if that was the idea.”

Plagueis would be satisfied to learn as much, Palpatine thought. The message, he now realized, had been directed not to anyone in particular, but to the Senate itself. Beyond the goal of advancing Palpatine’s political career ahead of schedule, the murder of Kim had spread apprehension in the galactic capital.

“It’s done, in any case,” he said finally.

“And without any leads for the police or the Jedi to pursue. You’re completely in the clear.”

Palpatine relaxed somewhat. “You’ve done well, Sate—the close call notwithstanding. There’s a place for you among my support group if you’re interested.”

Pestage, too, sounded relieved. “Then I suppose I’ll be seeing you on Coruscant. Senator Palpatine.”


 

17: DAYS OF WINE AND IMPROPRIETY

Supreme Chancellor Thoris Darus was largely responsible for the heady atmosphere that prevailed on Coruscant. A human native of Corulag, Darus had brought a sense of style to the galactic capital that had been absent a decade earlier when Vaila Percivas held the position, and hadn’t really been seen since the era of Eixes Valorum. Darus was unmarried, an incorrigible womanizer, an enthusiast of sport, opera, legitimate gambling, and high cuisine; his first term of office was characterized by a marked upswing in intemperance and, in the end, rampant corruption. Following the example set by the Supreme Chancellor, many of the tens of thousands who served in the Senate or lobbied on behalf of autocratic corporations and cartels had transformed Coruscant into a den of self-indulgence unrivaled anywhere in the Core or Inner Rim. From all areas of the galaxy had come beings eager to attend to the needs of the new political elite—from chefs to artists to specialists in pleasure. Courtesy of the Trade Federation and its numerous affiliates and corporate partners, goods flooded in from thousands of worlds, giving rise to new fashions, new foods, and novel forms of extravagance. Privileged Coruscanti, determined to enjoy life at the center, turned a blind eye to the storms that were brewing on the edges of civilization—intersystem rivalries, piratism, organized crime—and spiraling their way toward the Core. In three years the planet saw more immigration than it had seen in the preceding hundred, primarily from the Outer Rim, whose nonhumanoid species arrived in complete ignorance of the hardships that awaited them.

For Palpatine, Coruscant exceeded his expectations. Five years of travel and adventuring in the Expansion Region and Colonies had given him a taste for the high life, and here was a place not simply where his darkest desires could be fulfilled, but also where he could put his unique talents to the test. Its topography of cloudcutting edifices was a microcosm of the galaxy: swarming with beings who were willing to do whatever was necessary to claw their way from the depths, overseen by a tiered elite that nursed on their misery. If Coruscant was a magnet for those without skills or promise, it was also a paradise for those with credits and connections. And with assistance from many of the scions of wealth Palpatine had met while serving as Naboo’s ambassador, along with Hego Damask’s coterie of cronies and minions, he felt that he was on his way to the summit of the Senate Podium from the moment his boots touched the unnatural ground.

He grasped immediately that the only way the Republic might have saved itself was by removing the Senate to a world where temptation wasn’t lurking at every traffic nexus; opportunity in every balconied café; vice in every canyon—although the racket that Supreme Chancellor Darus and the Senate had going was obvious only if one knew where to look, and that frequently required having unrestricted access to the private clubs and back rooms to which bribes gravitated. Even without the Force, Palpatine knew he would have succeeded. The task would prove no more challenging than gaining the full confidence of his peers. With everyone striving to outdo one another he need only ensure that he dress well, dine in the right places, associate with the proper company, and renew his season passes to the Galaxies Opera. At the same time, he understood that he could be almost as anonymous as he wished, simply by venturing up or down, dressing up or down, mingling with merchants rather than politicians, or consorting with the hucksters, shysters, con and scam artists that populated the lower levels.

His first apartment wasn’t luxurious, but it was located in the government district, with room enough for his growing art collection, which now included a costly neuranium-and-bronzium sculpture of the ancient sage Sistros—appropriate for the affluent head of House Palpatine—and containing his original hand-built lightsaber, concealed in a cylindrical cavity undetectable by security scans.

The fact that his first official duty as Naboo’s interim Senator was to attend a funeral—his second that year—seemed only appropriate, given the Sith’s eventual plans for Coruscant.

Orders to attend Vidar Kim’s funeral had come both from Naboo and from Plagueis, who said that he should use the opportunity to seek out Ronhar Kim and speak with him personally. Palpatine had yet to meet one-on-one with a Jedi, and a conversation with Ronhar would allow him to test his ability to conceal his true nature from another Force-user.

As wicked as Coruscant is, Plagueis had told him, the Force is strong there because of the presence of so many Jedi. If you are successful in hiding in plain sight, you will be able to conceal your nature even from the most powerful among them. Take Ronhar into your confidence, and once you have, spend some of your time on Coruscant acquainting yourself with the spired headquarters of our enemy, and ask yourself: Is this not a fortress designed to hold the dark at bay?

Otherwise, Plagueis’s silence on the matter of Kim’s assassination had been deafening. On learning that King Tapalo had appointed Palpatine interim Senator, Plagueis had offered his congratulations, but nothing more. After months of not seeing him, Palpatine had hoped to find Plagueis waiting for him on Coruscant, but Hego Damask and the Muuns who made up Damask Holdings were conducting unspecified business on distant Serenno.

The funeral service was held at Naboo’s embassy, which was located below and to the west of Monument Plaza and the Senate. Dressed in a high-collared cape and purple robes, Palpatine arrived at the ornate monad in the company of Kinman Doriana, Sate Pestage, and Janus Greejatus, who had been dispatched to Coruscant by Tapalo, and whom Palpatine suspected had some strength in the Force. Kinman and Sate had forged an instant bond. The youthful Doriana was made for a world like Coruscant, and he couldn’t have asked for a better guide to the galactic capital’s titillating underbelly than Pestage, who seemed to know every nook and cranny of the place.

Ronhar Kim was among several dozen guests who were attending the service. Palpatine waited until the Jedi was alone in the viewing room before approaching him.

In concealing yourself, you will not be able to rely on your dark gifts, Plagueis said. Instead you must be yourself, submerged in the unified pattern to which the Jedi are attuned; visible in the Force, but not as a Sith. Since you cannot allow yourself to be seen, you must make certain that you are taken for granted. Disguised in the profane; camouflaged in the routine—in those same realms from which you can attack without warning when necessary.

A tall, muscular young man attired in black robes, Ronhar had thick black hair pulled into a bun behind, and with long strands in front dangling from temples to chin. In him, Palpatine could see Vidar, whose body was lying in state, supine on a massive rectangular stone bier. A simple blanket covered the corpse from shoulders to knees, and on the chest sat a shallow metallic bowel containing purple flowers and a lighted candle meant to symbolize the Livet Tower’s Eternal Flame. Janus Greejatus would transport the cremation ashes to Naboo, where they would be scattered in the Solleu River.

“Jedi Ronhar Kim,” Palpatine said as he entered the room, “please forgive the intrusion, but I wanted to offer my condolences in person.”

Roused from his thoughts, Ronhar whirled on him, almost in defense, and scanned him head-to-toe. “Who are you?”

“Palpatine,” he said. “I’ve been appointed to succeed Vidar Kim as Senator of Naboo. I knew your father well.”

Ronhar’s vigilance eased. “Forgive me for not knowing more about Naboo, Senator … Palpatine. But in fact, until several weeks ago I wasn’t aware that Vidar Kim was my biological father, or even that Naboo was my homeworld.”

Palpatine feigned understanding. “No need to apologize. I imagine that the Force is, in some sense, its own domain.”

Ronhar nodded. “I scarcely knew the man. Were it not for the fact that he was a Republic Senator, the Jedi Council would not have granted dispensation for me to meet with him.”

Palpatine allowed himself to stretch out with the Force, but only for a moment, and chiefly to gauge the Jedi’s reaction, which proved to be indiscernible. “Excuse me for asking, but why then did you choose to attend the service?”

Ronhar grew pensive. “No doubt you know about the tragedy that claimed the lives of his wife and sons.”

“I do.”

“Vidar Kim contacted me to ask if I would consider renouncing my pledge to the Jedi, in order to become the bearer of the family name.”

Palpatine moved closer to him and added compassion to his voice. “He told me, Ronhar. Does your presence here reflect doubt as to your obligations?”

“No,” the Jedi said, perhaps more firmly than he intended. “I’m only here out of respect for the man. As you may also know, he died at the hands of an assassin while in my company.” Ronhar’s voice betrayed disappointment rather than anger. “If I had acted sooner, he would be alive, and at present I can’t be certain that the assassin’s blaster bolts weren’t meant for me, rather than Vidar Kim.”

“Who in their right mind would target a Jedi Knight?”

The Jedi sniffed and narrowed his dark eyes. “The Jedi do not lack for enemies, Senator. Doling out justice and ensuring the peace doesn’t sit well with some beings.”

“The world of politics is no safer, Ronhar. Not in this era, with so many in need. Thank the Force we have the Jedi.”

“I wonder,” Kim said.

Palpatine regarded him with interest. The Jedi was less interested in solving the murder of Vidar than he was in agonizing over his failure to prevent it. “You wonder about what, Ronhar?”

“What my life might have been had I not become a Jedi.”

Palpatine adopted a look of shock. “The choice was not yours to make. You have the Force. Your destiny was a foregone conclusion.”

Ronhar mulled it over. “And if Vidar Kim had elected not to surrender me to the Order?”

“A line of thought impossible to follow to any conclusion,” Palpatine said.

The Jedi looked at him and squared his shoulders. “There are many forks in the path, Senator. Had I remained on Naboo I might have followed in Vidar Kim’s footsteps and entered politics. Perhaps it’s not too late.”

Palpatine showed him a tolerant smile and came alongside him, confident now that his true nature was beyond detection. “I have to admit that the notion of a politician with Jedi values is not without its appeal. In fact, the Republic was once overseen by Jedi chancellors only. But I’m afraid you’re something of an anachronism, Ronhar. The galaxy appears to have rejected the idea of enlightened leadership. The best politician presently is merely exceptional, where every Jedi is extraordinary.”

Ronhar laughed shortly. “More and more, Senator Palpatine, you begin to sound like my former Master.”

“Would that I had such talents,” Palpatine said, making light of it. “But I do have a proposition, Ronhar. Not only am I new to the Senate, I’m new to Coruscant. And it would be good to have someone to count on as a friend. So what would you say to an alliance between a politician and a Jedi? Through me you could gain insight into the workings of the Republic, and through you I might better understand the Jedi, in their roles as peacekeepers.”

Ronhar inclined his head in a bow. “I respect Vidar Kim all the more for bringing us together. May the Force be with you, Senator Palpatine.”

On Serenno, remote from the Core along the Hydian Way, a female servant of Count Vemec, costumed in garb from an era long past, escorted the quartet of human Jedi into the castle’s expensively modernized conference room. First to be introduced to those assembled—including dignitaries and politicians representing Serenno and nearby Celanon, and the Muun core of Damask Holdings—was Jedi Master and Council member Jocasta Nu, a pleasant-looking woman with straight hair, pronounced cheekbones, and brilliant blue eyes. Accompanying her were distinguished Jedi Masters Dooku and Sifo-Dyas, and a tall, powerfully built Jedi Knight named Qui-Gon Jinn, who remained standing while the rest took their designated seats at the circular table. The three men carried themselves with palpable self-assurance, and affected beards of different styles—Dooku’s terminated in a stylish point; Sifo-Dyas’s followed his strong jawline; Qui-Gon’s was long and thick.

Plagueis, who rarely missed an opportunity to interact with Jedi, had planned to leave the business on Serenno to Larsh Hill and the others—until learning that Dooku would be present.

Fifty or so standard years old, Dooku was Serenno’s native son, hailing from a noble lineage analogous to the Naboo Palpatines. Had he not been born strong in the Force, he would have been a Count, in the same way that Palpatine would have been a royal. But on the few occasions Plagueis had encountered Dooku, he had sensed something in him that warranted further investigation. Dooku was said to be one of the Order’s finest lightsaber masters, and he had earned a reputation as a skilled diplomat, as well; but his passion and restlessness were what had captured Plagueis’s attention. For all his decades in the Order, he seemed to have kept one foot anchored in the mundane. In place of the homespun brown robes worn by most Jedi—like the hale Qui-Gon Jinn—Dooku favored cloaks and robes more appropriate to a night at the opera on Coruscant. In addition, he was a candid critic of Supreme Chancellor Darus and the corrupt practices of the Senate.

Most important, perhaps, Dooku was linked to the Sith’s Grand Plan in ways that went beyond circumstantial. Some twenty years earlier, in a scheme engineered by Tenebrous to replace human Senator Blix Annon with a young upstart named Eero Iridian, Dooku and his then-Padawan, Qui-Gon Jinn, were caught up in the events and had managed to send some of the principal players to prison. Dooku had also unwittingly sabotaged several of Tenebrous’s plans to foster intersystem dissent in the Expansion Region.

In the aftermath of the near-disastrous assassination of Vidar Kim, Plagueis’s interest in Dooku had assumed a new urgency. He felt certain that Sidious would evolve into a commanding Sith, but just now the young Naboo was drunk with power and prone to make mistakes. When the dark recognized one as a true ally, a novice could lose his or her way, as had almost happened to Plagueis following the murder of Kerred Santhe. Bane-adoring Sith Masters like Tenebrous might have used the meeting on Serenno as a means of threatening their apprentices with replacement. Plagueis, however, had no such intention, which was why he hadn’t mentioned to Sidious that Jedi would be attending the meeting. Even so, he found himself wondering whether a dissatisfied Jedi like Dooku could be insurance against a reversal of fortune—some unexpected event that would rob him of Sidious—or perhaps turned to the dark without formal enlistment, and manipulated into instigating a schism in the Order.

As he had told Sidious, even a trained Jedi could succumb to the lure of the dark side on his or her own. One hundred thirty years earlier, on a former Sith world in the Cularin system, a Padawan named Kibh Jeen had been so strongly affected by the lingering power in a fortress on Almas that he submitted himself to the dark side and initiated a systemwide conflict. Perhaps, under Plagueis’s influence, Master Dooku could be inspired to do something similar. The Jedi would bear closer observation.

One of Celanon’s legal advocates was the first to speak when everyone had been seated.

“Celanon protests the presence of Jedi Master Dooku at this meeting, since it has come to our attention that he is Serennian by birth.”

Serenno’s arrogant Count Vemec started to respond when Dooku cut him off, addressing himself to the litigator. “If you had investigated further, you would also know that I renounced all ties to my family and Serenno on being accepted into the Jedi Order.” He turned his penetrating gaze on Celanon’s ambassador. “I assure you that I will be as impartial as any one of you.”

Celanon’s ambassador—a large, bumptious human—cleared his throat in a meaningful way. “Jedi Master Dooku’s reputation for even-handedness precedes him. We trust that he will be as fair in this matter as he is known to have been elsewhere.”

“With that issue behind us,” Vemec said, “I call for an official start to these proceedings.”

The issue at hand involved the planned construction of an Aqualish-manufactured hyperwave repeater in Celanon space that would expand the reach of the HoloNet well into the Corporate Sector—a vast region of the Tingel Arm that had become an economic playground for the Banking Clan and the Corporate Alliance, through lucrative deals brokered by Damask Holdings. In compensation for the fact that placement of the repeater would necessitate changes in hyperspace trade routes, Celanon had announced that ships entering Celanon space from the systems of the upper Hydian would be required to pay substantial transit taxes. Plagueis had limited interest in the debate. Secretly he hoped that mediation would fail. Citing controversy, Damask Holdings could then withdraw, and the project would collapse, leaving systems in the Tingel Arm fuming over having been victimized by a foolish squabble between two wealthy Republic worlds.

After four hours of pointless back-and-forth, Plagueis began to feel like the victimized one. When Count Vemec finally called a break in the proceedings, and many of the participants headed to the food tables, Plagueis found himself alone with Dooku, Sifo-Dyas, and Qui-Gon Jinn, and drew the cloak of the profane over himself.

“Bickering is becoming all too common,” he remarked to no one in particular. “In the absence of resolution, it will be the outlying systems that will suffer most.”

Dooku nodded sagely. “The hyperwave repeater should have been a Republic undertaking. The Senate erred in allowing the HoloNet to be privatized.”

Qui-Gon Jinn’s ears pricked up, and he glanced at Plagueis. “Discontent in the outer systems is in keeping with the aims of Damask Holdings, is it not, Magister?”

“On the contrary,” Plagueis replied in a composed voice. “We advocate for the interests of neglected worlds when and wherever we can.”

The tall Jedi wasn’t persuaded to back off. “By supporting the likes of the Trade Federation and other cartels?”

“The Trade Federation has brought progress to many a backward world, Master Jinn.”

“Through exploitation that leads ultimately to ruin.”

Plagueis spread his hands. “Progress often comes at a cost. On occasion a world will go through growth pangs as a result, but to call the end result ruination is overstating the case.” He studied Qui-Gon. “Surely the Jedi have had to ignore consequences of the same magnitude in enforcing the laws of the Republic.”

Sifo-Dyas’s dark brows formed a V. A short, muscular man, he had a broad nose, prominent cheekbones, and lustrous black hair cinched in a high topknot. His hands were large and callused, as if from physical labor. Concern shone in his brown eyes. “It is a misconception that we serve only the Republic, Magister. Our Order serves the greater good.”

“As the Order defines it,” Plagueis said, only to wave the remark away. “But then you have the advantage of being able to act in concert with the Force, where the rest of us are left to grope in the dark for what is just and right. Damask Holdings tries, nonetheless, to take the long view.”

“As do the Jedi,” Qui-Gon said. “But in several instances where we have had to resolve conflicts, it is your name that has surfaced.”

Plagueis shrugged. “The wealthy are held to higher standards than the poor.”

Dooku thought about it. “I blame the Senate for encouraging the galaxy to turn on credit.”

Plagueis glanced from Dooku to Qui-Gon. “I’m willing to concede Master Jinn’s point that the Muuns have cornered the market on finance, if he is willing to concede that the Jedi have cornered the market on ethics.”

Qui-Gon granted Plagueis a dignified bow. “And so we find ourselves on different sides, Magister.”

“Not necessarily. Perhaps we are after the same thing.”

“Different paths to the same destination? It’s a clever rationalization, but I refuse to accept it.” Qui-Gon placed his hands in the opposite sleeves of his robe. “If you’ll excuse me …”

Dooku smiled lightly as the tall Jedi sauntered off. “My former apprentice does not mince words.”

“Frank talk is a rarity these days,” Plagueis said. “The Senate could learn from beings like Qui-Gon Jinn.”

Dooku made a glum face. “The Senate listens only to itself. Endlessly, and without purpose. If it and Supreme Chancellor Darus are going to perpetuate a climate where injustice can advance, then it will.”

Sifo-Dyas grew uneasy. “The Rotunda is an arena even we don’t enter,” he said in a level voice, “except as spectators.”

Plagueis could not restrain a smile. “But you have, from time to time, been known to lobby.” He continued before Sifo-Dyas or Dooku could answer. “It can be a circus. One thing is certain, however: the Core is not holding. New leadership is needed.”

“Darus will undoubtedly be elected to another term,” Dooku said.

Plagueis pretended concern. “Is there no one who can defeat him, Master Dooku?”

“Frix, possibly. Kalpana—eventually. At present he isn’t strong enough to overcome the special-interest lobbies.”

Sifo-Dyas’s unease increased. “We are sworn not to take an active role, in any case.”

“Kalpana would certainly set a different tone,” Plagueis said, “but perhaps an equally risky one. His stance against piratism, smuggling, even slavery is well known. Unfortunately, many of the outer systems survive only because of such practices.”

“Then those worlds will have to find alternative means,” Sifo-Dyas said.

Plagueis turned to him. “Without assistance from the Republic? It begins to sound to me as if the Jedi will have their work cut out for them.”

Sifo-Dyas compressed his lips. “The Judicials and the Jedi will maintain peace.”

“There’s certainty in your voice,” Plagueis said. “But let me pose a question: If discontent spreads and intersystem conflict breaks out—if member worlds threaten secession, as Serenno threatened in times past—would your loyalties not be divided?”

“The Republic will be preserved.”

Plagueis grinned. “Again, that comforting confidence. But suppose the Republic’s goals were not in keeping with the greater good? Suppose conflict grew to become actual schism?”

The two Jedi traded looks. “In the absence of armies there can be no war,” Dooku said.

“Are the Jedi not an army—or at least capable of becoming one should the need arise?”

“We were an army at one time, but our enemies were vanquished,” Sifo-Dyas said with deliberate vagueness. “No matter the extent of the conflict, we would attempt to forge a peace—and without becoming the ruling body you seem to fear.”

Plagueis didn’t reply immediately. Sifo-Dyas was proving to be even more interesting than Dooku, though in a different way. Only a misguided sense of loyalty to the Jedi Order kept him from giving voice to the real extent of his apprenhensions.

“And yet you say forge a peace. That has the ring of semantics to it, Master Sifo-Dyas. But for the sake of argument, what if the disaffected systems raised an army? Wouldn’t the Jedi be obligated to serve and protect the Republic?”

Sifo-Dyas forced an exhale. “From where would these hypothetical armies arise? The outlying systems lack the resources …” Realizing his error, he trailed off.

Plagueis waited a moment, his satisfaction concealed. “I didn’t mean to suggest that the Republic is purposely depriving the outlying systems of the right to self-determination. I’m merely speculating, because I do see a growing threat.”

Dooku regarded him. “You are not alone in seeing it, Magister.”

“Then one final question, if I may: If attacked, would you counterattack?”

“The Republic has pledged to remain demilitarized,” Dooku said. “It would militarize only in the instance of a perceived threat.”

“Once more, you’ve reframed your initial question, Magister Damask,” Sifo-Dyas interrupted, a new fire in his eyes. “You’re hypothesizing an attack on the Jedi Order itself.”

“I suppose I am,” Plagueis said self-deprecatingly. “I suppose I was thinking of the recent assassination of Senator Vidar Kim. A Jedi was involved, if I’m not mistaken.”

“That matter is being looked into,” Sifo-Dyas said in a controlled voice. “There’s no evidence to suggest that the Jedi in question was targeted.”

The silence that followed was broken by the voice of Jocasta Nu, who was summoning the Jedi to the far side of the conference room. Plagueis studied Sifo-Dyas peripherally. While Nu and the others conferred, he thought back to the conversation he’d had with Sidious on Sojourn.

We will have to exploit their self-righteousness and blind obedience to the Republic, Sidious had said at one point. The Jedi must be made to appear the enemies of peace and justice, rather than the guardians.

Mulling it over anew, Plagueis began to wonder whether he had taken the wrong approach on Kamino. Perhaps, he thought, it would be better to have the Kaminoans create an army capable of fighting alongside the Jedi rather than against them …

Sifo-Dyas was the first to return to Plagueis’s corner of the room, as if eager to continue the conversation.

“Lest you’re thinking of investing in military enterprises, Magister, I can assure you that the Republic will not reverse its stance on demilitarization.” His words were forceful, but lacked certainty. “The Ruusan Reformations will not be repealed.”

Plagueis showed the palms of his hands. “And I can assure you, Master Jedi, that my questions were in no means motivated by thoughts of profit. We—that is, I—don’t wish to see the Republic caught off guard. For now I’ll place my faith in the Jedi, and in the belief that an army could be raised if necessary.”

Sifo-Dyas’s gaze faltered. “Out of thin air? Unlikely, Magister.”

“Grown, then.”

“Manufactured, you mean.”

“No, I was being literal,” Plagueis said. “But I know of only one group that might be up to the task. The group who grew laborers to work the mines of Subterrel.”

Puzzlement wrinkled Sifo-Dyas’s face. “I’m not familiar with Subterrel.”

Plagueis was about to mention Kamino when he spied Jocasta Nu approaching, and a feeling from deep in the dark side rose up inside him, strangling his voice box, as if refusing to let the word escape.

“I apologize, Master Jedi,” he said when he could. “The name of the group was on the tip of my tongue, but I seem to have swallowed it.”


 

18: ARTFUL DODGING

Palpatine had been on Coruscant for just over two standard months when the Senate convened to vote on whether or not to seat Felucia, Murkhana, and half a dozen other planets considered by many to be client worlds of the Trade Federation. In the hope of generating public interest, Coruscant climate control had promised to provide perfect weather over the government district. Clouds had been swept aside and orbital mirrors had been positioned to provide maximum daylight. Maintenance droids had refreshed the paving stones of Senate Plaza and polished the thirty-meter-tall statues that lined the Avenue of the Core Founders. Police had cordoned off large areas of the district between levels 55 and 106, and deployed sniper units, squads of bomb detector automata, and three times the usual number of security hovercams. Reporters, documentarians, freelance journalists, and op-ed columnists were out in force, calling in favors in an effort to be as close to the action as possible. Limousine services were working overtime, and taxis were nearly impossible to find, which left aides and assistants to fend for themselves, arriving on foot or by mag-lev, ensembles freshly laundered, headpieces blocked, fur coiffed, boots buffed. Even the Jedi Knights and Padawans stationed throughout the plaza as a show of force appeared to be sporting their cleanest robes and tunics.

Analysts were touting the vote as landmark, though it had been an admittedly slow news week on Coruscant. More to the point, a vast majority of the capital’s residents couldn’t have cared less about the outcome, since most only knew of the Trade Federation through self-serving advertisements that streamed on the HoloNet. Local gossip was always more interesting than politics, in any case.

For weeks, however, opponents and supporters of the amendments that would revise the rules regarding member status in the Republic had been giving voice to their arguments in the great Rotunda, often vociferously enough to shake their repulsorlift platforms, jabbing fingers and other appendages in the air for emphasis or accusation, in defiance of calls by the vice chancellor for order and decorum.

Standing with Sate Pestage and Kinman Doriana beneath the abstract statue of Core Founder Tyler Sapius Praji, Palpatine felt one step closer to his destined place, even if the scene in the plaza struck him as more vanity fair than Senatorial assembly. Like many of the others, he had been out half the night, drinking and dining with lobbyists eager to win his favor. At tapcafs, cantinas, restaurants, and nightclubs throughout the entertainment districts, credits had flowed freely, whispered bribes had been proffered, promises made, deals struck. Now some of the players he had encountered during the long evening were shuffling bleary-eyed through the gaping entrances of the umbrella-shaped Senate Building: Senators and their top aides; commissioners of the investment sector and securities exchange; members of the Trade Federation delegation and the board of the InterGalactic Banking Clan.

Elsewhere on the broad avenue—at key intersections, taxi stops, and mag-lev exits—stood groups of Jedi, a few with the hilts of their lightsabers conspicuously visible. For Palpatine the sight of so many of them in one place was at once exhilarating and sobering. Though thoroughly cloaked in the everyday, he could feel their collective pride trickle into him through the Force. Only the baseness of Coruscant’s populace, the almost sheer absence of anything natural, kept the world from being as strong in the light as Korriban was in the dark. While he accepted that he and Plagueis were more than equal to the most powerful of the Jedi Order, he understood that they were no match for their combined strength—the Sith imperative notwithstanding. The Jedi would fall only with the full collaboration of the dark side; that was, only when the dark side of the Force was ready and willing to conspire in their downfall.

His musings were interrupted by a sudden gust of wind, whipped up by a luxurious landspeeder that was alighting in the center of the avenue. Preceded by a vanguard of ceremonial guards wearing floor-length blue robes, Supreme Chancellor Darus emerged, waving to the crowd and for the hovercams that rushed in to immortalize his every expression. Palpatine studied him as the guards began to maneuver him through the throng, a train of handpicked journalists following dutifully in his wake: the easy way he carried himself; the way he made a point to stop and greet some while ignoring others; the way he laughed on cue …

He recalled the two coronations he and his father had attended in Theed, and could remember as if yesterday the envy that had wafted from Cosinga like sour sweat. How cravenly his inept father had desired to wield such power! And would that Cosinga could see his son now, standing so close to the center, surveying the Senate as Cosinga might have the Palpatine lands in the Lake Country, thinking: Everything my gaze falls on will be mine: these buildings, these monads, these statues I will have slagged, this airspace whose use I will restrict to the powerful, that penthouse in 500 Republica, this Senate

Again his musings were interrupted, this time by the Gran Protectorate Senator Pax Teem, who was waddling briskly toward him, followed closely by the Senators from Lianna, Eriadu, and Sullust.

“Are you ready to make history, Senator?” Teem said, his eyestalks quivering in excitement.

“Rather than be a casualty of it,” Palpatine told him.

The Gran grunted in amusement. “Well said, young sir. Needless to say, many are counting on you.”

“Better many than all, because we cannot please everyone.”

Teem grew serious. “Perhaps not. But we can strike a blow for utilitarianism. The greatest good for the greatest number.”

Palpatine smiled in the way he had seen Darus smile. “And strike a blow we shall, Senator.”

“Good, good,” Teem chortled. “Then we’ll see you inside where the galaxy’s business is done.”

Pestage snorted a laugh as Teem was moving away. “The greatest good for the greatest Gran.”

It was true. Teem harbored no ill will toward the Trade Federation. He merely wanted to see Naboo blunder, Hego Damask cut down to size, and Malastare returned to its quondam grandeur.

The contingent of Senators had scarcely left when Palpatine heard his name called; turning, he saw Ronhar Kim in the company of two older human Jedi. Quietly he pulled his powers deeper into himself and adopted a mask of cordiality.

“Jedi Ronhar,” he said, inclining his head in greeting.

The black-haired Jedi returned the nod. “Senator Palpatine, may I introduce Masters Dooku and Sifo-Dyas.”

Palpatine was familiar with the former, but only by reputation. “A great honor, Masters.”

Dooku appraised him openly, then arched an eyebrow. “Excuse me for staring, Senator, but Ronhar’s descriptions of you led me to expect someone older.”

“I disguise myself well, Master Dooku. My age, that is.”

“Either way,” Sifo-Dyas remarked, “a talent required by your position.”

“An ignoble truth, Master Sifo-Dyas. But we strive to remain faithful to our conscience.”

Dooku smiled with purpose. “Hold tight to that, Senator Palpatine. Coruscant will surely test your resolve.”

Ronhar Kim had his mouth open to speak when another familiar voice rang out.

“I didn’t realize that you were acquainted.”

Over Dooku’s shoulder Palpatine saw in surprise that Hego Damask, Larsh Hill, and two other black-robed Muuns were threading their way toward him. That he hadn’t sensed his Master spoke to Plagueis’s power to completely conceal himself, even from a fellow Sith.

“Magister Damask,” Dooku and Sifo-Dyas said simultaneously, turning to greet him.

Damask looked at Palpatine. “Recently—on Serenno, in fact—Masters Dooku, Sifo-Dyas, and I engaged in a spirited discussion about the current state of the galaxy and our hopes for the future.”

“Serenno,” Palpatine said, more to himself and mildly confounded. Damask hadn’t said anything about Jedi attending the meeting there. So what message was he sending now? Glancing at the trio of Jedi, he thought back to his Master’s remark that even Jedi could be turned to the dark. Had the near-bungled assassination of Vidar Kim persuaded Plagueis to entice and recruit a Jedi to serve as his apprentice?

“Ronhar just introduced us to the Senator,” Sifo-Dyas was explaining.

Dooku’s eyes moved from Damask to Palpatine and back again. “May I inquire how it is that you and the Senator know each other?”

Damask motioned to Palpatine. “Senator Palpatine and Damask Holdings share a dream for Naboo …” He gestured inclusively to Hill and the other Muuns. “Palpatine was one of the few who early on saw the wisdom of ushering in a new era for his homeworld.”

Palpatine sensed scrutiny from someone outside the circle the ten of them had formed. Just short of the Senate Building’s Great Door, Pax Teem had stopped and was gazing at Palpatine, his eyestalks extended. And Palpatine could scarcely blame him, since even he had been caught off guard by Plagueis’s eagerness to acknowledge him in public.

“How does it feel to have realized your wish for your homeworld?” Dooku said.

Palpatine came back to himself. “One can’t very well stand in the way of destiny.”

Again, Dooku glanced from Palpatine to Damask. “The will of the Force begets uncommon fellowships.”

Chimes sounded, announcing that the session was beginning, and everyone began to file through the doors into the massive structure, going their separate ways from the atrium, some to spectators’ boxes or media areas, and others, like Palpatine, Sate, and Kinman, to turbolifts that accessed Naboo’s station in the Senate’s middle tier—one of a thousand identical docking stations in the Rotunda, outfitted with a detachable repulsorlift platform and a suite of private offices. Central to the artificially lighted space was an elegant tower emblazoned with the seal of the Republic, at the summit of which rested the Supreme Chancellor’s podium. Darus, the vice chancellor, and the administrative aide were already present, and after brief introductory remarks by the Supreme Chancellor, the vice chancellor called the matter to a vote.

A few Senators spoke, but most simply cast their votes, a tally of which was relayed to monitor screens at each station and projected overhead, along the inner curve of the dome. By the time the vice chancellor recognized the Chommell sector, the vote was tied. Though Palpatine’s vote would break the stalemate, several systems had yet to weigh in.

Detached from the docking station, the platform carried Palpatine out over the lower tiers and deep into the kilometers-wide Rotunda. A hush fell over a portion of the Senate, and he inhaled the moment deep into himself. Still the platform continued to move toward the podium, as if even the Supreme Chancellor wanted a closer look at him, and it pleased him to know that his reputation had spread that far.

Then Palpatine spoke to them.

“The Trade Federation came to Naboo some ten years ago. It didn’t arrive by force but by invitation, after a vast reservoir of plasma was discovered beneath Naboo’s lush mantle—vast enough to supply clean energy to hundreds of disadvantaged worlds along the Hydian Way and, at the same time, introduce Naboo to the galactic community.

“Following months of reasoned debate, our newly elected monarch decided that Naboo should share its resources with the galaxy. Agreements were struck between Naboo and the Trade Federation, along with several construction conglomerates. Mining was begun, processing plants were constructed, and spaceports were enlarged to accommodate the fleet of shuttles needed to ferry the plasma to cargo ships parked in orbit.

“Three years later, plasma was flowing out into the galaxy and wealth was flowing into Naboo and the worlds of the Chommell sector, and an era of unprecedented prosperity had begun.

“That prosperity came with hidden costs, but Naboo was willing to absorb them, primarily for the sake of those beings who were benefiting from what nature had bequeathed to our small world.”

He paused and turned slightly in the direction of the Trade Federation’s platform.

“The Trade Federation has been accused of price fixing, exploitation, and monopolistic practices, but those matters are not at issue today. Today the Republic is being asked to widen its embrace to include several planets in the outlying systems many consider to be client worlds of the cartel. Many of you are concerned that seating these worlds will tip the balance of power by giving the Trade Federation and its corporate allies too strong a voice in the Senate. But was this matter not already settled when the Courts of Justice ruled that the Trade Federation should be treated as if it were a world? That decision opened the door to entities like the Commerce Guild, the Techno Union, and the Corporate Alliance, all of which enjoy their separate platforms in this hall. So the issue of legality is not up for debate.

“Instead, we must set ourselves to the task of deciding if the Trade Federation has become too aggressive in its pursuit of a louder voice.”

Again he paused, this time to allow individual debates to come and go.

“Not three standard months ago,” he said at last, “the Chommell sector’s Senator of long standing was assassinated, here, on Coruscant. Senator Kim was known to many of you as an honest being, concerned about the growing influence of the cartels and the potential for a shift in power in the Senate. His tragic death provoked allegations and prompted investigations, and yet no progress has been made in determining the motive for his murder or identifying the agents behind it. This, despite inquires by Judicials, the Senate Investigatory Committee, even the Jedi Order.

“As a consequence of and, yes, in protest against the manner in which the investigation into Senator Kim’s death has been handled, I am instructed by my regent, King Bon Tapalo, to announce that Naboo and the Chommell sector worlds are abstaining from the vote.”

The hush that had fallen over a select section of the Senate spread to include the entire Rotunda. Then the outbursts that erupted—both damning and championing—were so clamorous and prolonged that the vice chancellor ultimately curtailed his attempts to restore order and let chaos reign.


 

19: THE TRIALS

In the aftermath of the Trade Federation victory in the Senate, Felucia, Murkhana, and other former client worlds became members of the Republic, unswerving in their allegiance to the needs of the Trade Federation. While Pax Teem and a handful of similarly disappointed Senators shunned Palpatine, accusing him—and Naboo—of having been bought by the cartel, most of the Senate dismissed the matter with a shrug. Palpatine was new to the game and, in fact, was merely expressing the wishes of King Tapalo. More important, the seating of new worlds meant new revenue and additional opportunities for graft. Ronhar Kim thanked Palpatine personally for not mentioning him in his address to the Senate. Moved by Palpatine’s appeal, Supreme Chancellor Darus sent a personal message stating that he was instructing the Judiciary Committee to use its wide-ranging powers to unravel the Kim assassination.

Plagueis was pleased by the results, since it was only a matter of time before the newly seated worlds would find themselves caught between the Republic on the one hand and the Trade Federation on the other; taxed by the former, exploited by the latter—the perfect recipe for resentment. The two Sith did not meet in person, but Plagueis notified his apprentice that he and the other Muuns would be remaining on Coruscant for the foreseeable future, primarily to attend the induction of Larsh Hill into the arcane Order of the Canted Circle, many of whose members were regulars at the Gatherings on Sojourn.

For Darth Sidious, the weeks following the vote were a return to business as usual. With the Senate still in session, he spent most of his days in the Rotunda and most of his nights continuing to explore Coruscant, often in the company of Pestage and Doriana. In secret he continued his Sith training, accepting the absence of actual guidance from his Master as a sign that he was meant to stretch out on his own. And so he did, delving into many of the ancient texts Plagueis dismissed as worthless, including treatises on Sith sorcery and holocron construction.

Toward the end of the third week he was contacted by a lobbyist for an energy consortium known as Silvestri Trace Power. In several comlink exchanges, the lobbyist, a Sullustan, made it clear that Senator Palpatine stood to profit greatly by advocating for STP in the Senate, and suggested a meeting to discuss terms. Sidious probably wasn’t supposed to dig too deeply into the origins of STP, or succeed in discovering ways around the roadblocks the consortium had constructed to thwart just such investigations, but he did, and was intrigued to learn that STP had once been a shell company created by Zillo Fuel Resources, which was based on Malastare.

Suspecting an attempt at entrapment, Sidious agreed to a daytime meeting, the location of which served only to further arouse his suspicions. Unlike the upper-tier restaurants patronized by the political crowd, the Shimmersilk was in a low-tier district known colloquially as POTU, which to most beings stood for “the periphery of the Uscru,” but to the better informed meant “the peril of the Uscru”—a slowly gentrifying area accessed by the Deep Core Mag-Lev Line that had once been the haunt of turf gangs, serial killers, molesters, thieves, and other bottom feeders, on a world whose bottom was uncommonly deep. With residents preying mainly on one another, the police saw little reason to patrol, and even security cams were scarce, as they were frequently stolen and disassembled for parts. Still, the risk of mayhem or murder appealed to the Rotunda crowd, and it wasn’t unusual to encounter a Senator or an aide slumming in the POTU, mingling with shady beings, indulging in proscribed substances, flirting with danger.

Sidious considered bringing Pestage and Doriana along, but ultimately rejected the idea. In the absence of undergoing any formal training with Plagueis, he was eager to see what he could do on his own.

Cramped and rattled by the frequent passage of nearby mag-lev trains, the Shimmersilk catered to what looked like a local crowd. Dressed down for the meeting, as was Sidious, the Sullustan lobbyist was waiting at a corner table, with his back to a wall adorned with cheap holoimages. Only six other tables were occupied—nonhuman couples in the main—and catered to by three clumsy human waiters and a Dug bartender. Instrumental jatz music, barely audible, wafted though air in sore need of recycling.

Sidious adopted a look of wide-eyed innocence as he sat down opposite the Sullustan. They began to talk in a general way about current events and Senate business, before the lobbyist steered the conversation toward STP’s need for Senate approval to expand its operations along the Rimma Trade Route. Drinks and appetizers were ordered and reordered, and before too long Palpatine’s interest began to wane.

“I think you may have overvalued my worth to STP,” he said at last. “I’m nothing more than the voice of Naboo’s regent.”